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A Tempo (1)

When at last he set aside the quill, Stephen stretched his stiffened hand. He had worked without noticing the deepening shadows; the last of many pages, covered with miniscule script, was drying beside him. His eyes felt feeble, and he rubbed them beneath his spectacles. As lines of code floated and burned beneath his fingers, Stephen felt a kind of moral heaviness descend, and he bowed beneath its weight.

It was not, he reflected, that the code was particularly demanding, nor even the fact that he was cataloguing for Sir Joseph deeds of his own that were distasteful when examined too closely. He had grown used to such things long ago and knew a remote place within himself from which to report. No, he could find no immediate reason for his weariness of spirit, yet weary he was. He lowered his hands.

As his vision coalesced so too did his hearing, and Stephen became aware of the sound of Jack's violin just beyond the door, in the midst of a quiet and amiable improvisation. He sat for a time, working his neck and shoulders, listening.

It was an imperfect instrument, Jack's sea-going fiddle, but it had a certain warmth of tone and a pleasant, well-worn rasp to its voice, particularly when speaking softly. It was a voice Stephen knew intimately, and he tilted his head in an effort to hear it with a fresher, more critical ear.

An objective assessment confirmed the violin's deficiencies -- it was even mildly out of tune -- but Stephen decided it would be a critical listener indeed who could remain unmoved by the genial yet rather plaintive music it was playing now.

With a sudden sense of anticipation, Stephen pocketed his spectacles, secured his books, and quietly entered the great cabin. Jack was standing at the stern windows, looking out at the gleaming wake as he played. Stephen saw beyond his friend that the sun had nearly set -- it was a low and glowing sliver on the horizon -- and he was genuinely startled to realise for how long he had shut himself away.

"There you are, Stephen," cried Jack, turning to beam upon him. "You emerge from your hole at last. I hope my sawing away didn't bother you. Have you surfaced for good?" Jack peered at him. "I wonder if you've eaten at all. You have a 'lean and hungry look' as the Bible puts it."

"I gnawed a biscuit earlier, I believe."

"Gnawed a biscuit. Well, that don't count. Killick! Stephen, what do you say to some cold roast beef and toasted cheese? And let's open the burgundy we've been saving. Killick, there!" Jack pulled open the door as Killick pushed: a collision, some general confusion, and Killick bowed himself out, muttering, with his orders.

"Lord, Stephen, it's been an uncommon long day," said Jack, returning. He put the fiddle to his chin and drew the bow in a sad, dying fall, dispelling the mood instantly with the jaunty flourish that followed.

"Has it, now? For my part, I confess to being wholly ignorant of the passage of time. It is as though the day evaporated. I would ask if the usual bells had been struck at all, but the question would -- yes, there it is: the question would win me this gape-mouthed, astonished look you so frequently offer."

"Forgive me, brother, it's just that.... Yes, the bells were struck. We try to do it fairly routinely."

"Sure, I've noticed." Stephen went to the stern window, taking pleasure in the very last of the sun's brilliant colour. "And what has made this day so dreary for you, tell?"

"D’you know, I can't rightly say. We had glass after glass of the sweetest sailing you can imagine. Ideal weather. Every stitch flying, and we've run off any number of miles since dawn. There's another such day in store tomorrow, unless I miss my guess."

"How sorry I am to hear it. And yet it seems I recall you being pleased with similar conditions in the past." Stephen clasped his hands behind his back. "Our wake seems to stretch to infinity, does it not? ...See how the sun dips and disappears. How suddenly it occurs, at times. One moment blazing in glory, the next gone: extinguished."

"That's our sun for you," agreed Jack, politely matching Stephen's solemn tone. "And there's our wine! Thankee, Killick. Stephen, may I pour you a glass?"

"You may, my dear. Burgundy. How gratefully it goes down." Stephen held his wine to the candlelight. "You do seem in fine spirits, Jack, despite your long day of sweet sailing and flying stitches."

"My spirits are fine; much better now," Jack said, lifting his glass in salute. “I tell you what it is, Stephen: I’d not say it to another soul, but the ship had so little need of me today that I grew quite restless. Eleven knots we were making, yet the day crept along like... one of your creeping things. Maybe a sloth.”

“Slow indeed,” smiled Stephen.

“There I was, wandering about like a ghost, discontented, unable to settle…. It was the strangest mood. Shameful, really. Probably sinful. Have some more cheese.”

“Thank you, I shall.” Stephen looked at the very corporeal ghost across the table and chewed thoughtfully for a while, reflecting upon perception, upon the subjective appreciation of time. Time, which could fly or crawl like a living thing... which indeed could do both, simultaneously, its perceived pace dependent solely on each observer’s own humour. And too swift or too slow, either pace could drain a man.

“I’m so glad you appeared at long last,” said Jack as he refilled their glasses. “I would have played cards with you for money today, despite your infernal luck. Ha! You may judge what that says about my desire for diversion.”

“And are you in a card-playing frame of mind now?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“Nor am I. Though I might be persuaded to toy with our Bach double. My arrangement is amateurish, I confess, but might we not improve it as we go?”

"We might try," said Jack with pleasure, though as he ate the last of the beef he assured Stephen his transcription was the noblest piece of work, surely unnecessary of revision.

They emptied their bottle and discussed the concerto: its complexities of rhythm and balance, its particular demands for intricate accord. In time, the candles were lit, the sheets of music spread, and they paused, bows poised. Sharing a glance, they tapped out together a fitting tempo and began to play.

© 2006 Diane Coffin