"Jack, may I beg a favour of you?" said Stephen Maturin one evening in the great cabin of the Surprise. Jack Aubrey nodded as he tuned his violin. "I met a young clergyman today—while I was watching the birds crossing from the African shore he was up viewing the apes, though to be sure they are macaque monkeys, the creatures. We fell to talking and I learned his story. He took advantage of the peace to visit Rome in pursuit of his musical studies and was cut off when Bonaparte escaped from Elba. Now he is without funds and in need of a passage home. I know your distaste for the idea of carrying a chaplain again after Nathaniel Martin but I don't know how he is to return home without we give him a passage."
Jack had indeed vowed never to carry a chaplain again but under the influence of the music he was inclined to be mellow. "Does he play?" he asked.
"Yes, the cello," said Stephen. "He plays well and is very knowledgeable on the subject of sacred music. His time in Rome was not wasted, merely his funds."
"Then let him come," said Jack. "I collect that his situation would benefit from being entered on the books as Chaplain, even if only for the short passage home?" Stephen nodded. "I doubt that we could give him any great expectation of prize money at this stage of the war, with the French out of it again and all our efforts devoted to the Yankees. Besides, though I am not a superstitious man—are you unwell Stephen?" Stephen managed to control the coughing fit that masked his desire to laugh at this blatant lie and Jack continued. "I am not a superstitious man but everyone knows it is unlucky to have a clergyman on board."
Mr Harding was a pleasant travelling companion. On the Sunday before they left Gibraltar he preached a sermon to the crew of the Surprise that was warmly received by the men and even by the harlots and trollopes who philosophically awaited their removal before the ship sailed. That evening in the cabin Jack and Stephen introduced him to their music by Old Bach. Mr Harding was enchanted by it and begged to join in. Soon Stephen stepped out of the cabin for a breath of air and listened to the other two as they played. Gradually Harding's nervousness played out and Jack's violin began to soar above and beyond the bass notes of the cello. Stephen leant on the stern rail listening. He flexed the fingers that had been maimed by the torturers ten years before and sighed for the limit the damage imposed on his playing.
The passage home was leisurely. Jack kept the crew up to scratch as always with nightly exercises at the guns followed by toasted cheese and music in the cabin. Mr Harding bore the noise of the gunfire manfully and Jack ventured a remark that he might one day become a canon himself. To crown a pleasant cruise they fell in with an American privateer sailing for Brest, unaware that Napoleon had fallen and that their welcome would not be as warm as in former days. The prize was soon snapped up and Jack had the pleasant task of explaining the concept of prize money to Mr Harding.
"That will be of great service to me Captain Aubrey. Once we arrive in England I shall be that most pitiful creature; a clergyman without a living and without interest. I suppose that with the end of the war there would be no call for new chaplains for the navy?" Jack's heart fell; he had noticed Stephen's increasingly frequent absences from their playing and, much as he appreciated the skill with which Mr Harding played the cello, he would not be willing to upset Stephen by shipping him as his chaplain. But the direct request remained unspoken and Jack was spared the necessity of a refusal.
The next day they spoke a ship in the Channel and were blessed with a sack of mail and some recent newspapers. Mr Harding had become downcast with the approaching end to his cruise and spent most of the day sitting in the gunroom playing an invisible cello. The few letters that had found him in the Surprise remained unopened at his side. Stephen read a newspaper until a name caught his eye. "Did you not once name a Dr Grantly as your particular friend in the church?"
"Assuredly so. I have known him since my days at the college where he was one of my tutors. I am sure he is destined for a mitre before too many years are passed."
"Let me give you joy, for the mitre is his already. I see from this newspaper that he has been named the new bishop of Barchester."
"God bless his soul for he will be an ornament to the cathedral. Let me take a look at these letters." Mr Harding shuffled through the small pile of packets. "Yes, here is one in his hand. How I wish I had seen it before. Why, this is marvellous." A smile of pure joy split Mr Harding's round face. "He wants me to join him in Barchester—has offered me the wardenship of Hiram's hospital and an income of—why bless my soul, that can't be right. I shall be able to marry on that income! With this and the prize money Captain Aubrey has told me of I shall be able to publish my work on sacred music."
The following day the Surprise anchored in Plymouth Sound and Mr Harding was paid off. The last Stephen saw of him he was being rowed ashore with his cello case in the middle of the launch, sitting in the stern with his eyes closed, a joyful grin still across his face and his hands playing an invisible cello.
[I don't think that the dates quite work out here but after reading the Barchester novels again I thought a short cruise at sea would be a marvellous treat for Septimus Harding.]
© 2004 Martin Watts