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Little is Done

The music room of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward’s Bath house was an odd shape. "A sexagon, perhaps," mused Stephen Maturin, taking in the intricate patterns and rhythms of glances, introductions, conversations and smiles as the men in their stiff uniforms and the women in their low-slung décolletages pursued each other in a game that was ancient when the Romans colonized this green and pleasant corner of a remote island on the very edge of the imperial world.

"Five and twenty millions, Madam." He responded absent-mindedly to Lady Penelope’s amiable quizzing, thinking of that brass-bound chest of French gold and certificate bonds lying snug in a London vault. "My bankers are Tartes. A solid firm, I believe, though copper-bottomed."

"Why, Mr Maturin! You are richer than I believed at first sight." Lady Penelope paused, wondering how best to phrase a delicate question the answer to which had suddenly become a matter of vital importance. She weighed subtle nuances of meaning, calculating their probable trajectory and likely effect on her target. "Are you married?"

"My wife, God bless her..."

Gloom and sadness. The air turned chill and Lady Penelope’s bright features dimmed perceptibly.

"...departed this wale of tears some years ago. I have not as yet found it in myself to become so attached to another."

The sun shone out of the evening sky and Lady Penelope’s face was lit up in the cheerly glow.

"Oh! I am so very sorry to hear it. I do hope that your great loss does not prevent you from enjoying our simple country pleasures. Here are the Tracy sisters, a quartet of nightingales."

Stephen looked for a moment at the girls, one seated at the piano, the others arranging themselves in attitudes that indicated that they might presently sing a merry rondelay.

"Tolerable, my lady, I make no doubt, but there is only one handsome woman in the room, and I am talking to her."

"You are too kind, sir."

Lady Penelope passed her fan in front of her face, as if to conceal a blush, but she was saved further embarrassment by the agitated arrival of her butler.

"Parker! What on earth is the matter?"

"A – " Parker tried and failed to utter the word 'gentleman' – "a hindividual, ma'am, desires Doctor Maturin."

"An individual, Parker?"

"Haccompanied, ma'am, by a hape, a great, 'uge, hugly, horange hape as put my fingers in its mouth. In its mouth. Which, ma'am – "

But Stephen, with a muttered apology, hurried away to the small parlour by the front door.

"Muong, my dear. 'Tis the joy of the world to meet you again!" Clasped firmly in the orangutan's embrace, he managed a stunted, ungainly bow to the emaciated Buddhist monk who sat crosslegged upon the carpet. Stephen recognised him as one of the community at Kumai, that blessed Eden atop the Thousand Steps at Pulo Prabang where he had spent the happiest days of his life.

Stephen's command of Malay was become somewhat rusty, but, summoning all his ingenuity and wit, he was able to comprehend at least the broad outlines of the monk's tale.

A strange man, a white-eye, had ascended the Thousand Steps many months after Stephen's visit. With him was a party of perhaps five or six, some very red of face, and all, including the leader, bearing the marks of prolonged exposure to the elements. More: they had a prisoner, a small, round man who bore a medical bag in his bound hands. The leader spent eight days studying the temple; then he and his party moved off into the crater. Gradually, it became known that they were building a temple of their own. Praiseworthy this might have been, except that the place had an evil aura, the decoration, though seemingly holy, was indefinably horrid, and its god was the leader himself.

The medical man, meantime, was taken among the creatures; he seemed able to communicate, indeed converse with them. And strange things began to happen.

Stephen pondered. "Nowhere has Evil freer rein than in the midst of Innocence. Muong, what is this physician's name? Act-small, you say? Dear me, can it be? Surely not! For if it is indeed he, then we may be faced with a situation so terrible, so unexampled, that


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