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The Lamp of Life


The Last Diagnosis of Stephen Maturin

The following fragment is designed as an epilogue to the career of one much-loved fictional character and a prologue to that of another still better known. The first of these two (for those who do not know him) is Stephen Maturin, the physician, natural historian and intelligence agent featured in the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian (whose manner I have tried to reproduce in some measure); the second may be left to reveal himself as the piece proceeds.

Summary: Paris, March 1864. Aged and nearly blind, Stephen Maturin receives a visit from his 12-year-old grandson. The boy shows the old man what he can do, and Stephen foresees his path in life.

"Hell and death!" cried Stephen, starting up in his chair. "Is a man to have no sleep, no sleep at all, in this devil-devoted craft?" The tall youth, dimly perceived in the half-light of the cabin, had no observation to offer. "Come, child, speak your errand. Has the captain sent you to hale me, to rouse me out, on deck?"

"Captain, sir?" said the boy. "I - I don't know any captain, sir. And there isn't any deck here."

"No deck, boy? No deck, and we in the very maw and gullet of a ship? Are you a prating insolent ill-conditioned nincompoop, you that mock your betters with your talk of a ship without a deck, sorrow and shame upon you?"

"A ship? Oh, sir - " The boy, bewildered, could utter no more, but it was enough; the very hesitation, the doubt, so unlike the peremptory language of the Navy in the mouths even of its babes and sucklings, struck through the fog of Stephen's perceptions. A ship? No, he was not in a ship; it was - dear heart alive, forty years? forty-five? since he had been in a ship. The cabin was his entresol in Paris, no. 63 passage de Géras, in the shadow of the Invalides; the darkness was that of his own failing vision. "The brain, the brain!" he said to himself. "A sudden awakening in the dark, a young man looming over me, speaking English, and behold half my life rolls back like a carpet; I am on my travels again, and Jack is calling me - Jack . . . "

"Sir, my cousin wrote a letter - there it is in your hand; it will tell you my business." The quiet voice recalled Stephen to the present. Surely there was some bottom to this boy, some foundation of goodwill and good breeding; he spoke patiently but without the ponderous emphasis so often directed at mental weakness, especially in an Englishman; he might have been addressing a gentleman under a passing misapprehension, rather than - know thyself, Maturin! - a crazy dotard far forward in his twentieth lustrum, wandering, half-blind.

"The letter, yes, yes; but tell me yourself; let me hear your account of the matter. Who are you, first of all?"

"I am your grandson, sir: your daughter Brigid's son. Sheridan, sir."

Brigid: that strange child of his. At first she had seemed an idiot, and her mother, brave as a tigress in all else, had fled before her face; then dear Padeen's untutored tenderness, and the sacred tongue of Erin, opened her mouth and her mind, and she came to life. Jack and Sophie had learned to love her, if Diana never did. But the years passed on, and another kind of love came upon her - came and departed again; and she sank back into her darkness. Long Stephen had kept her with him in his Catalan fastness; she would wander amid the ruins like a ghost, straying away at times, returning God knew how, having been God knew where. Then Stephen's own sight and health had begun to fail; he had deserted his hermitage for Paris, to be near help and such society as he could still appreciate; but whether in town or country he could no longer care for her. What had followed? His memory was like a telescope, useless when turned upon things near at hand. There was an Englishman at large, a musician - whatever was his name now? - who had taken her into his keeping; he had not dealt honestly by her, as such things are commonly understood, but there must have been some good in him, for she had smiled again in those days; and then, when she seemed fated to be barren, came the two sons, this one the younger by a year or so. He was her bequest; she was gone before the child could know her.

Even as he mused on these things, Stephen had been scanning the letter again. He had done his best with it when the stray glimmers of March sunlight had allowed him to make sense of the words; and now, putting together what he remembered with what he could guess from their mere shapes on the page, and with a dim echo of the satisfaction he had once felt when a French agent's report or an over-ingenious message from Sir Joseph yielded up its secrets, he produced a result. "We placed you at Stonyhurst, my cousins and I; I have some memory of debating, signing . . . Now they say they are displeased with you there, I think; some talk of playing with forbidden books, strange arts . . . "

"No. sir! Forgive me, but that I cannot allow. The books, yes; but it was only bits of Gibbon, and Poe - that's an American, sir, who writes about treasure-hunts and tortures and people buried alive, things like that - and Locke on Human Understanding: nothing wicked, sir, I swear."

"A strange concatenation, sure," said Stephen. "Locke on Human Under-standing, just so; and your masters would take away the key. I once knew a man who would have made a fine clench of that, fine in his own conceit, at least . . . But what is this about - " and he peered at the letter again - "about divination or fortune-telling, say?"

"But it's nothing like that at all, sir!" cried the boy. "I look at a man passing by, and I can tell what his trade is and where he's travelled and how many children he has; or you can show me something a person has, a watch or a stick, perhaps, or a book, and I can read from that what kind of man he is. But it isn't witchcraft or mesmerism or anything of that kind: just seeing things in people and knowing what they mean - like a doctor, sir, only casting the net a little wider. I can always say why I draw my conclusions; or I could if people would only listen. I could show you . . . "

Stephen considered. The habit of secrecy, forged in ever-imminent peril of death almost a lifetime before, had never left him; he was not about to offer himself as a subject, nor anything that was his. But there was one thing in this room, the bequest of a dear friend, that had come to him only when his work was done and his passion spent; surely this strange youth could do no harm if allowed to try his arts on -

"Oh, grandfather, there is a violin!"

Startled by this echo of his thought, Stephen took refuge in his old sarcasm: "Sure, I believe I have seen such a thing about the place." But, sensing the eagerness in the boy's tone, he relented. "You are a player, I infer?"

"Yes, sir, I have taught myself a little. I bought one once from a pedlar, but the Fathers took it away . . . May I look at it?"

"Do so, child; but stay," - Stephen spoke with guile - "will you not play it now?"

"Oh, no, sir!" said the boy, sounding appalled. "The strings are all dried out; they would break at a touch, and the sound-post could fall. It should go to a luthier first."

Stephen allowed himself a smile. "Well said, Master - " - he had lost the name, and only the last one he had uttered came back to him - "Master Locke; and here I must ask your pardon. That was a test, and you rang true. Well, now, you shall make this same fiddle speak in another way. It was left to me by an old friend, and it has scarcely been touched since. Now, can you pierce this dead thing with your inbreathed sense, and draw my friend out of it? Let me hear what it tells you."

The boy took the instrument from its case, tried it under his chin, peered at it endways, squinted closely at the back and the neck. Stephen, seeing his actions and gestures in dim outline, was reminded of Dupuytren studying a deformed limb or van

Buren with a bottled spleen; so many times in his life he had seen that stooping wry-necked attitude of the savant in an ecstasy of absorption; but never, never in all his endless years, had he beheld it in a child . . .

"He was a big man," said the boy at last, nodding. "Tall, well-built, well-fleshed; and I think he was a happy man most of the time, too; one who liked his food and wine - and laughter, too, I would say. A good musician; but I don't think that was his living. A little reckless in some ways; rather old-fashioned. Injury to his left hand; it didn't stop him playing, but he favoured it a little - "

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," said Stephen to himself, "what manner of prodigy is here? In five words all the boy is gone out of his very voice; he observes, he expounds; he no longer perceives me, unless it be as a student nodding on a bench; such a one might salute Cuvier, or Jack's Humboldt, as a colleague, and coeval at that."

The boy was now studying the case. "This tells me more, almost," he said. "He was an officer of some kind; a colonel? - No, of course! It was the Navy, the British Navy; he must have been a captain, or more: maybe an Admiral, even . . . He died perhaps twenty years ago."

Stephen had always schooled himself in keeping his countenance; his ancient skills rose to life and arrayed themselves against this last and strangest assault. "Your reasons?" was all he said.

"I looked first at the stains on the table and round to the back, where a player's chin and shoulder would touch. They tell me he was thick-necked and broad-shouldered. On the back of the neck I can see where his left hand rested; he held it at an odd angle, which is why I infer an injury, but even so his thumb always stayed well under the neck, so he must have had big hands; I can project his height from that, thought I grant there could be exceptions . . . I said he was old-fashioned and not a professional musician because he's never had the neck lengthened, or the finger-board; this is an old English violin, on the Stainer model, and it's never been altered. Even so, I can say he was a skilled player because of the way the marks show on the finger-board; he liked to play in high positions - lots of people only shift on the chanterelle, because they have to in order to get the high notes; anybody who does it on all the strings, from choice, is well on the way to knowing his craft. And that also tells me he was a man who knew how to enjoy himself - a man who delights in ornaments and trills, in making the violin laugh, should be a man who likes to laugh himself. I take that in conjunction with this stain on the bridge; it may not be a splash of wine, but then again it may, and the pieces of evidence reinforce each other. Then I think I said he was rather reckless; well, he was very free with his rosin - "

"My rosin," muttered Stephen.

"- It's gone all over the belly; and then he seems never to have used a cloth under his chin, or one of those chin-rests that they make now."

"But his calling?"

"That was mainly from the case, sir. This is not a normal pattern; it's made of some kind of dark tropical wood; and it has these curious brass clamps around the base. My first thought was that they were designed to make it easier to strap to a wagon or on the back of a mule, but that didn't seem quite right; they have more the look of being intended to slot into something on a flat surface, a table or bench or locker of some kind. So that made me think of a ship, where the furniture has to be fixed down. And then, this ivory plaque let into the lid, with the arms engraved on it, looks like sailor's work; and the arms are a baronet's, so he must have been a man of some rank."

"And the date of his death; what of that?"

"This packet of strings in the case, with the engraved label on it. Look at the words here - 'Finest Materials': this style of lettering, quite narrow and without the little wedges at the end of the strokes - 'serifs' I think they call them - only came into use about 1840."

There was a pause. The boy watched his grandfather keenly: an old, old man, little more than a skeleton in a flowered robe, his nightcap laid aside in favour of a bob-wig of ancient pattern that might once have been white. Doctors used to wear such things; and had not Cousin Vernet, on the journey here, told him that Monsieur Maturin had once been a renowned physician? Now the lipless mouth was mumbling, the filmy eyes were closed; had his mind slipped away?

"Master Locke." The voice seemed firm enough, even authoritative. "You may step across the passage into the little room opposite. On the right-hand wall you will find a portrait: not the woman in the Indian dress - a gentleman. That is my answer to your exposition."

The steps receded - Stephen had never had carpets on the floors; years of garrets, cabins, even prison cells, had accustomed him to bare wood beneath his feet, and on his sightless days he could locate himself to within a square yard by the creaking of the boards - receded, paused a while, returned again. "Admiral Sir John Aubrey, Baronet, Knight of the Garter," said the voice: certainly a boy's voice now, its strange detachment undermined by commingled awe and pride.

"Jack Aubrey to me. That is your man."

"Then - was I right?"

"Grandson!" said Stephen, and his voice was the voice of fifty years before. "I call on you for a promise: never again are you to ask any man's confirmation for your conclusions, be he who he may. With a gift such as yours, you do not offer it up for acceptance like a servant who has made a Christmas toy for his master. You are one that sees and knows; I have met all the philosophers of my age, from Hunter and Lamarck to Arago and Darwin, and there is not one among them who could have done more, given such means as you have, than you have shown me this day. Give thanks to God, if it is in your nature to do so with sincerity - else it would be mere hypocrisy; but under Him, you have no betters; only brothers. Will you remember that, now?"

"I shall remember, sir."

"I will tell you this," said Stephen in a gentler tone. "So far as the outward man is concerned, you have him; but there is that about a man like Jack Aubrey, if indeed there ever was another like him, which escapes definition. A great sentimental looby, indeed; a bull in a basin, as he more than once put it; sometimes the very fool of the world, sometimes armoured in the triple hide of authority, so that a man of reason could not stay in the same room with him; he loved a vile clench or an unctuous pudding, and with the same soul he loved Sebastian Bach; and he rode the ocean like Poseidon himself. I have seen him on his quarter-deck in the very eye of the tempest, or adrift in an open boat with the hand of death on his shoulder - I have seen him grow before my eyes into something greater than man: Verus et incessu patuit deus."

Another pause; and still the boy stood with the same quiet patience. Stephen remembered a Red Indian he had met long ago, a doorkeeper at an American sanatorium. "So, child," said the old man at last, "you have taken leave from your school, thinking yourself ill-used there - nay, do not interrupt - and you are come to appeal to me: for what, pray?"

"For advice, grandfather. I am twelve years old, and the time is coming when I ought to be thinking how I am to live. There are . . . reasons why I can never make a gentleman."

"Money, or rather the lack of it, being one of them, I take it?"

"Money being the other one, grandfather. But my 'friends' at school have had plenty to say about both." Stephen, himself a bastard, caught in the boy's tone an echo of his own old bitterness. Did the likeness, perhaps, extend further than this? "There is medicine, for one . . . " he began.

The dying sun, casting a level gleam across the room, picked out the violin where the boy had laid it down on a side-table, and something on the wall above it: a coloured print in a plain black frame. Stephen's dim eyes rode on the beam; he could not truly see the picture, but his mind's vision remade it: a caricature of Napoleon, one of those scurrilous old English squibs from fifty years back, showing a furious little man waving a great scimitar like a pantomime Turk. "Is that an omen?" said Stephen to himself. In the days when that print was new, he himself had fought Napoleon, striving body and soul against the great enemy. But times had changed; true, he had heard somehow of another Bonaparte who had aspired to power in France, but surely that foolish little man had fled in ignominy years ago? "No," he said aloud, and heaved himself upright in his chair. "Today the enemy has a thousand heads, a million hands. My boy, you shall be my heir; to you I deliver my lamp; and be very clear, Master Locke, that it is a burden I lay on you, and no light one. I have fought evil in my day, and so shall you, in another manner. It may be well for you to study my old profession, if only as a means to an end; I can support you in that, and I shall. As to that end, I do not see it plainly; but my heart speaks, as it has not spoken since your mother died, and it tells me that you may do great things. We shall talk of this again." His voice died away; the afflatus was spent. "I must sleep now."

The boy hesitated, not knowing whether there was a servant whom he could call to attend to the old man. At last he turned towards the stairs, thinking that he might find a maid or a concierge below.

"What is the name of my daughter's son?" The voice from behind him was faint but clear.

"My name is Sheridan, grandfather."

"Foolish, foolish: a drunken playwright. Find yourself a better. Now go."

"Goodbye then, grandfather."

"Good day to you now, Sher . . . Sher-lock."



'There was an Englishman . . . keeping': I am thinking of Edward Holmes (1791-1860), musical researcher and biographer of Mozart, who spent much time in Europe and seems to have been something of a ladies' man. I must acknowledge, though, that this suggestion for Sherlock Holmes's parentage is peculiar to myself and has no precedent among the Talmudists of Sherlockiana.

'Stonyhurst': the Jesuit-run school for English Catholics where Arthur Conan Doyle was educated.

'Now, can you . . . sense': Maturin is half-remembering a line from Milton's 'At A Solemn Musick'.

'Verus . . . deus': 'And by his manner of moving he was revealed as a true god.' A quotation, modified to change the gender while preserving the Latin metre, from the first book of Vergil's 'Aeneid'. In O'Brian's 'HMS Surprise', Maturin recites this work from start to finish during a fever; he might well, therefore, remember it when he had forgotten almost everything else

© 2006 Oliver Mundy