Disclaimer: not mine! Borrowing from Patrick O'Brian and the Mouse.Author's notes: Set in 1815 or 1816, after all the Aubrey-Maturin novels and an unspecified time after AWE.
The surgeon and the pirate
Whenever he was in London, Stephen Maturin stayed at the Grapes, in the Liberty of the Savoy. After many years he and the Grapes' affable landlady, Mrs Broad, understood one another to the extent that he was able to store certain specimens in his room at the inn without comment from that good lady. Mrs Broad was also undertaking to care for and educate Stephen's wards, Sarah and Emily, rescued from a pox-ridden island in the Pacific.
It was about these two young ladies that Mrs Broad was currently haranguing Stephen, even though he had just returned to London from Madeira and had not even taken off his coat.
"Shirking their duties, making excuses - 'tis unacceptable, Doctor!" Mrs Broad exclaimed. "And all the time gossiping with Lucy. The three of them are unmanageable!"
"I am very sorry to hear it, sure," said Stephen, rubbing his brow, "but what do you expect me to do, Mrs Broad?"
She folded her hands. "You could try talking to the gentleman. Ask him to leave 'em alone."
"What is he, this man?" Stephen asked, thinking he must be a creature of fascination indeed to attract the attention of Sarah and Emily, who after all had seen more of the world than most their age.
"Don't rightly know, sir," Mrs Broad admitted. "Talks like he's a Londoner, but don't look like it. He ain't in the service, that much I know. Won't you try talking to him?"
Stephen sighed. "Very well, then. I will dine below and bespeak him after dinner."
Mrs Broad smiled her thanks, and informed Stephen there would be veal cutlets for his dinner, at four.
He spent the interim period unpacking and starting to catalogue specimens gathered during the last voyage - some highly unusual beetles, and leaves which needed identifying and would certainly occasion a visit to his friend Sir Joseph Blaine. In the process Stephen's pocket-watch became buried under papers, and it was only the arrival of the Grapes' maid Lucy at the door that reminded him he was supposed to be downstairs gorging himself on veal.
The common-room was busy at this hour of dinner, but Mrs Broad had kindly set aside a table for him, and Emily, with a clean apron on, shortly brought him the promised cutlets and a bottle of wine.
"Sarah and I would've come up earlier to greet you," she said, taking the lid off the meat, "but Mrs Broad said we weren't to."
Stephen picked up his knife and fork, but was forestalled from beginning his dissection by Emily's fingers busily tucking a napkin into his collar.
"You will spoil your shirt if not," she explained, with some truth.
Stephen thanked her, and she hurried away after making a good courtesy.
He started on his dinner, looking round the room as he did so. Although there were several tables with outlandish-looking men, this being the Grapes and London, it was soon clear which gentleman had caught the roaming eyes of the young ladies.
The man was by himself, in a booth, booted legs resting on a stool as he drank red wine. While Stephen cared little about his own appearance, it was his trade to take note of others' - and the man would have stood out in any nation or company for his old-fashioned garb and long, tangled hair. He was of indeterminate age and indeed indeterminate race, and he was gathering admiring glances from all the women and serving wenches in the room. Stephen's clinical mind noted an old syphilis scar on the man's jaw; the observation came as no surprise.
He finished his cutlets and wiped his mouth. Picking up the wine bottle and his glass, Stephen crossed to the stranger, who was thoughtfully watching Lucy at work.
"I beg your pardon," Stephen said.
"Pardoned, but what for?" the man returned, looking up at Stephen with curiously direct dark eyes.
"For interrupting your meal," said Stephen, putting the bottle down. "Will you join me in a drink, sir?"
"Glad to," said the stranger. "But why?"
Stephen pulled up a chair and settled himself at the table. "I believe you've befriended my wards."
"Have I?" The other man swung his legs off the stool. "Mebbe. Who would they be?"
Across the room, Sarah and Emily were busy wiping tables. Stephen gestured to them.
"Aha!" said the man. "Quite a lively pair. Pretty, too."
Stephen raised his eyebrows. "I believe, sir, you've made my point for me."
"You're old enough to be their father."
The other man's lips curled, and he raised his glass. "Aye, you have me there. You're asking me to cease'n'desist, I take it?"
"I am," Stephen agreed.
"Very well." The stranger put his glass down and extended a hand covered in rings. "I will, if they'll leave me alone in turn."
Stephen took the hand and shook it. "You have my thanks, sir."
"Jack Sparrow," said the man, releasing Stephen's hand and taking up his glass once more.
"Stephen Maturin," Stephen said, in return, as they appeared to have come to introductions. "Surgeon in the Royal Navy."
"A leech, eh?" said Sparrow.
"A surgeon, Mr Sparrow. A very different thing."
"Which ship?" asked Sparrow, casually.
Stephen's long-honed instincts made him respond equally casually, while watching Sparrow carefully.
"HMS Suffolk, at present, although lately of the Surprise."
"You're that Maturin, then," said Sparrow. "You sail with Lucky Jack Aubrey. I read he was lately given his flag."
Pouring wine, Stephen's mind turned over Sparrow's observation. "A service man, or an avid reader of the Gazette," he said.
"Do I look like a Navy man?" Sparrow said, a look of horror on his face. "Gazette all the way, mate." He drank. "I'm certain I ain't the only one to've been following the new admiral's career."
That was true, Stephen reflected, and yet there was something about this Sparrow that did not sit very well on land. Lucy came over with another bottle of wine, flushing as Sparrow thanked her with a grin that displayed gold teeth and some that Stephen would have had pulled in a trice.
"Ta," he said, as Lucy hurried away. Turning back to Stephen, he poured wine for both of them. "Truth be told, mate, you 'n Cap'n Aubrey came to me attention after you all got shipwrecked out of La Fleche, back in the year 12. That story went all over the Caribbean. Ain't many men that would've survived that."
Stephen's mind flicked back to the dreadful weeks afloat in a tiny, leaky boat. Even the optimism of his friend Jack Aubrey had faltered then, as their supplies dwindled and the weather turned against them.
But another corner of his brain was occupied with the enigma before him. If Sparrow had heard of the shipwreck, then he was doubtless a sailor.
"Year after that, the news was all about them slavers, over in Africa," Sparrow went on. "Approved of that. Can't abide slavery. Now your Cap'n Jack's an admiral. Deserves it, I reckon."
From outside the inn the bells of Fleet Street tolled five. Sparrow drained his wine.
"And that's me cue to run," he said. "Tide turns in half a bell and I've to be weighing anchor."
Stephen rose automatically. "I don't believe you told me your profession."
Sparrow clapped a battered tricorn hat on his head. "I don't believe you told me all yours, either, Don Maturin y Domanova." He pronounced the Catalan without a trace of accent. "So we'll be even, eh?"
He held out his hand and Stephen took it automatically, glancing down as he did so and noting - surely as he was intended to - the old, faded scar in the shape of a P on Sparrow's forearm.
"So we will, sure," he said.
Sparrow smiled, bowed, and vanished.
Stephen went slowly up to his rooms to recommence cataloguing his specimens by the flickering light of a candle. He was carefully noting the characteristics of a sort of caterpillar when Sarah and Emily came in, their hair neat and hands washed.
"Are you cross?" Sarah asked, once they had both executed neat courtesies fit for a quarterdeck.
Stephen took out his magnifying monocle and surveyed them. He shook his head. "I don't believe I am. But you must be sure about the men you speak to, sweetheart."
"He was very nice," Emily pointed out. "So is Mr Reade, or Captain Pullings, and we can talk to them."
"We know far more about Mr Reade and Captain Pullings," Stephen said gently. "Mr Sparrow is quite different." He picked up his pen again. "In any case, he is gone, so you can turn your attention back to your duties."
They bobbed courtesies again, bid him goodnight, and slipped out of the room. Stephen sighed, and turned his attention back to his caterpillar, dismissing all thoughts of pirates from his head.