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The Rock (2)

Period: end of M&C before Stephen and Jack leave Gibraltar. Perceived gap: how did Stephen come to work for Sir Joseph Blaine's intelligence service? I assume Sir Joseph to have sailed for England before Jack and Stephen took passage themselves.

The first Sir Joseph Blaine knew of his attackers was a numbing blow to his right side. Instinctively he struck out with his stick, but there were two of them, and now pain was claiming his attention, pain and a sense of flowing wetness and heat. His head swam with sudden gauzy veils; moonlight winked off something - a knife blade, but the thought carried neither meaning nor urgency.

Everything was very slow: there was time to note the scratches on the cobblestones as he sank to his knees; time to think it ironic that one of these, the deepest, had the shape of an omega; time to feel oddly comforted that nothing seemed to concern him any longer.

Quick, ringing footsteps, a sudden shifting of light and shadow, incomprehensible volleys of words, a choking cry, thudding feet. A pinched and pallid face beneath a grizzled wig, ludicrously askew, swam into Sir Joseph's view.

"One is dead and the other run. My rooms are just here - we must make haste, there is considerable haemorrhage."

Blank time, succeeded by moments of awareness, many of them holding the same thin face: and he knew the face from another life; sometimes he strove for memory but always the gauzy veils, hot and cold and filled with anguish, returned to remove him again from everything but the flow of time, moving, halting, inexorable, filled with his own voice where no voice should be, and words that should never be said.

There was a window dazzling with harsh sunlight when memory returned. "Dr Maturin - Royal Society - coleoptera of Catalonia - "

"Just so," said the small man in the dusty black coat. His fingers were firm upon Sir Joseph's wrist. "Pulse somewhat elevated. The fever is not altogether gone. I shall exhibit a draught - tincture of laudanum - to induce sleep, restorative, roborative sleep."

"No! Wait! The sun - it must be past noon already! There is something I must - "

"Ta, ta, ta. Past noon, indeed: but passed also are four days, my dear sir. No - take care - there, I have you. Lie back. This faintness will yield to rest, a low diet and a pint of porter taken with your meals. A sequela of blood loss and fever, no more."

Sir Joseph grasped the side of the bed. "You don't understand - a duty - the first importance - "

"Your rendezvous with Bartolomeu. I kept it, sure - Sir Joseph, I beg that you will lie back - I have his written report for the Admiralty; never worry, nothing that cannot wait."

Out of the maelstrom of his thoughts, Sir Joseph uttered the least of them: "You speak Catalan?"

"I have family connections in those parts. Indeed, by happy chance, Bartolomeu is not unknown to me. Even so, it was only with the greatest difficulty that I persuaded him to trust me. I was obliged to bring him here to see you for himself."

"But how - wait! Those men - I - " Sir Joseph glanced wildly round the room. Upon a hook on the wall hung his coat: the papers - what folly to have brought them to Gibraltar -

"Your papers are safe - they had no chance to search you. I stabbed one with my lancet. His face was known to me - a low creature, for sale to anyone with even the lightest purse. He will never be found: I have dissected his body. A prodigious great teratoma in his belly: you may wish to see it when you are rested. Bartolomeu has dealt with the other - there was no contact with their master, Poignard, a scrub in the pay of Courtot: you know of him I make no doubt? Just so. Bartolomeu says he questioned the fellow most narrowly " - Maturin turned abruptly away to the window - "and is sure he seized him in time."

Silence thickened in the room, Sir Joseph gaping, wordless as a babe.

Maturin cocked his head, a shadow with a sun-bright aura. "There! Do you hear him? Monticola solitarius. They are, of course, tolerably common here. But perhaps you are an entomologist so dedicated as to have no interest in avifauna?" He walked slowly back to the bed. His left stocking - it was worsted - bore a buckthorn twig and a most shocking hole. "The fever came upon you that night, after I had stitched your wound. You spoke a great deal. Some of what you said was such that I judged it best to nurse you here myself - have no fear, we are alone, I prevailed upon my friend to lodge elsewhere these last days. I am the sole recipient of your confidences. They shall go no further: you have my word upon it."

Sir Joseph bowed, as best he could. He was a cynic - in his position he was obliged to be the most intransigent of cynics - but this small dishevelled man compelled absolute trust. In all the confusion this was the one single point of clarity. "Doctor, you - your Catalan - your clear acquaintance with - we must speak! We must speak now!"

© 2001 Lois Anne du Toit