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The Surprise

A short story based on two sentences

Sentences on which the story was to be constructed:
"She tapped her watch violently, but the second hand would not move. She looked up and asked another passenger for the time, but he appeared to look right through her and turned back to his newspaper.

Elizabeth scrutinized her reflection in the looking glass of the dressing table in front of her. The late-winter sunlight, feebly trying to gain entrance through the square, second-storey window a few feet to her left, did not aid her critique. She shivered. She had not re-stoked the fire in the last half hour, as she would be leaving the inn presently. How long ago had it been since she had felt the all-encompassing warmth of central heating?

That thought made her wonder yet again about her clarity of mind. She recalled falling asleep in her bed at home in Massachusetts, a book in hand. A vibrant dream had ensued; the piquant aroma of frying sausages and roasted coffee had awakened her. At least, that's what she thought. But she had awakened in another bed, in other bed clothes, in this room, with a maid standing by to worry over her needs.

Logic told her she was still a sane, intelligent, 45-year-old 21st century woman. She was a classical cellist by profession; married, three grown children, five cats. Logic could not explain that her senses told her she was now in a modest but comfortable early 19th century London inn.

Elizabeth glanced at the exquisite Breguet repeater watch and its fine chain which lay near her hair brush. On a far brighter morning she had caught a flash of near-white sunlight reflected from that costly watch which, it turned out, had been lying on the floor under the dressing table. The watch had apparently fallen there unnoticed. Why had no servant or maid picked it up?

Finding the watch had shaken her; it had made suddenly tangible a world she knew to be fictional: she knew a man to whom the watch could belong; the trouble was, he was the product of pen and ink, not flesh and blood. His name was Stephen Maturin: physician, ship's surgeon, naturalist, spy for the Royal Navy. A scraggly little fellow, brilliant, generous, cantankerous; a cellist like she was. He, like his closest friend Jack Aubrey -- an illustrious Royal Navy captain, much-scarred hero in Britain's long war against Napoleon (and excellent violinist) -- had sprung from the splendid imagination of their creator, Patrick O'Brian; 20 novels-worth. Elizabeth had for four years been immersed in that fictional version of the very era and places she now inhabited. Stephen owned such a Breguet, a repeater which sweetly chimed the hours.

Elizabeth resolved to board a coach (with the ever-present maid) and set out for Portsmouth, on the English Channel. It was where Royal Navy ships went for refitting, its excellent harbor a busy center of both naval and merchant shipping for this island nation. She been to modern Portsmouth several times; she was eager to compare modern Portsmouth to the Portsmouth of her current world, Aubrey's Portsmouth.

She had taken "Stephen's Breguet" with her, as she had begun to call it. Despite it being the excellent little time machine that it was, its second hand would stick sometimes, requiring a quick jolt to urge it on its circular way. She liked to imagine that that was because it had been doused in sea water a few times too many when the klutzy Stephen would try to scramble onboard Jack's ship, The Surprise, and too often missed his target.

She looked again at the Breguet. Did it need winding? It seemed to be slowing. She asked the well-fed woman across from her if she knew the time of day. The woman nodded towards her equally well-fed husband, who, with great difficulty, dug his watch out of a pocket of his ample trousers and told her the hour. Suddenly Elizabeth wished for a little 21st century speed. She felt claustrophobic. The infrequent bathing habits of her fellow passengers made her yearn for fresh air and their destination, the Sally Port. And she craved coffee.

She took out Stephen's Breguet again just as the coach seemed to slow. She tapped her watch violently, but the second hand would not move. She looked up and asked another passenger for the time, but he appeared to look right through her and turned back to his newspaper. But this would not be a time for reading. He looked quickly up again as the coach creaked to a halt. Everyone was silent, looking at each other expectantly. The man with the paper laid it down, opened the door, and got out. Elizabeth saw what he had arrested his gaze, and their progress. Twenty yards ahead a sleek chaise leaned precariously towards a small gully. Its front axle was broken. The well-fed woman's husband exited then.

Elizabeth saw the head and shoulders of a hefty gentleman in dark blue cape emerge from the listing chaise. He had just reclaimed a smoothly polished rectangular wooden case a couple of feet long, which he handed to his driver. About the size for a violin, thought Elizabeth absently. She missed her cello; merely hearing some good classical music would help. The relative silence of the pre-electronic age had its charms, but Elizabeth sorely missed the ability to conjure up music with the flick of a switch whenever she wished it.

The gentleman wore the sort of hat, wide brims folded back and pinched up, that Royal Navy officers wore. Instead of wearing it long side front-to-back, he wore it long side perpendicular to his head, a slightly old-fashioned custom even in that age. As Jack Aubrey did. Her chest tightened. Aubrey was a fiction, she sternly reminded herself.

The men conferred. The caped gentleman removed his hat to scratch his head, as one might while solving a problem. He glanced toward the coach. Elizabeth gasped. Startlingly blue eyes. A ruddy, open face. Long golden hair, now graying, tied back in a queue. A long scar running down one cheek around to the ear. The man fit Jack Aubrey's description perfectly. Her heart galloped.

The driver approached. "The Admiral's chaise here hit a bad rut, d'ya see? Them horses dint like it a bit. Took off like they was...." He caught himself. "Beggin' yer pardon, ladies. That is to say, um, the horses shied; 'is axle's broken. The Admiral's going to ride with us into Portsmouth. This gentleman (he nodded toward the well-fed woman's large husband) has agreed to ride up top with me." The Admiral's driver would stay with his horses until help arrived, they were told. An admiral? She almost laughed aloud. The Admiral approached them. He removed his hat again, bowed, said, "I'm Admiral Aubrey. It's most kind of you to accept me and my violin (he nodded toward the case still in the driver's right hand) for the remainder of the journey." She felt her face flush. Elizabeth shook her head as if dislodging water from her ears. "Yeah, right," she chided herself, reverting to modern colloquialism. "You know damn well Aubrey's not real," she reminded herself again. "You've lost it."

Admiral Aubrey sat directly across from Elizabeth, the precious violin case in his lap, his broad hat resting regally atop it. He smiled readily, she found. He didn't seem unduly put out, despite his misfortune. She mustered the courage to ask him about the violin. An Amati, he said, though he insisted he was only an amateur. She was a cellist herself; played in a symphony orchestra. Regretted not having the instrument with her, she told him.

They chatted amiably then, Elizabeth reveling in this engaging and very real Jack Aubrey, whoever he was. His ship's surgeon, a dear friend, was a cellist, whom he would be meeting in Portsmouth. They intended to find time to make music together, perhaps with a few others as well. He was sure Dr. Maturin would allow someone so accomplished a turn with his cello. And he would be happy to take the violin part on a few duettos, if she wished! She gave in to the fantasy.

The next evening Admiral Aubrey and Dr. Maturin invited Mrs. Elizabeth Cooper to join them in their inn's parlor for music. From yesterday afternoon Elizabeth had concluded that she was caught in some lengthy, spectacularly tactile dream. If Elizabeth was moved, and attracted, by this "Jack Aubrey" (he seemed everything she had hoped for in the fictional Jack) she was amused, but not surprised, by this Stephen Maturin's odd combination of kindness and curtness. She had given him the watch shortly after Admiral Aubrey had made introductions. It had astonished him heartily, and he had warmed to her after that. He now suggested that she and Admiral Aubrey begin the music with Joseph Haydn's Duet in D Major. He set the cello part on the ornately carved stand in front of her.

Jack treated his bow with a chunk of amber resin he drew from his resin bag, a small gray leather pouch. He handed her the resin bag, she chose a piece, ran it up and down Stephen's bow, returned it to the bag and, seeing Jack was ready, quickly wedged the bag between the cello and what little lap she had with the instrument balanced between her knees. Jack set the tempo then, and they commenced. They meshed well, feeling each other's phrasing, adjusting to each other's bowing quirks. What joy!

Elizabeth Cooper fought her way to consciousness. She hated the incessant buzz of alarm clocks. Her clock radio played music to awaken her, set to a classical FM station, Boston. She recognized Haydn's Duet for Violin and Cello in D Major. She smiled. What a dream! She grinned to herself and stretched happily. When she did, she felt a fist-sized lump underneath her. "What the heck...." She edged right and groped the spot with her left hand, bringing the object up to her nearsighted eyes.

A gray leather pouch.

© 2003 Marian Van Til