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What a Fascinating Modern Age We Live In

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Stephen observed the passengers with some disquiet, certain there was something not quite to be trusted about them though, if pressed, he couldn't have placed his finger quite on what. The curate seemed a pleasant enough fellow, old-fashioned in his dress; and didn't that seem odd, a trifle, when considered against the ready sum they'd paid - in advance, no less - for their passage? Jack's mild curiosity in the matter had been more than distracted by the wines they'd brought as gifts for their host, but Stephen was less easily swayed; they got along with Jack easily enough, and that was a point in their favour, but there was something about the clerk...

He was fascinating. A natural charm accented neatly by the stylish cut of his clothes, but more than that; a strange hypnotic note to his voice that had you listening to his stories all through without being left with a single particular. He moved gracefully enough, though he claimed no ear for music, but some strange quality in his person or his manner had Stephen's fingers itching for his microscope, for the opportunity to study him freely.

Jack's laughter cut neatly into his thoughts, startling him and making him snatch for his glass as the larger man slapped the table far harder than was quite safe.

"Oh yes indeed, yes indeed - not run across the old boy in years but he was never one to leave his hammock without his Bible clutched tight to his side. It was big enough that you could trust to it to save you from shot if you weren't quite so sure of the Almighty."

Jack's blue eyes, set deep in a face flushed with laughter and fine wine, flickered across to the curate.

"Saving your presence of course."

It was strange, the deference shown; even in so rigid a heirarchy as was in place at sea there was still respect for the diuerse arts. Respect for himself, Stephen supposed, that he might be more inclined to save a man's life; respect for the curate in case he failed.

He looked up, quite unguarded, happening to catch the clerk's steady gaze, and the look in the man's eye quite unnerved him and forced him to look away. Stephen had the sudden unsettling feeling that the man had known precisely what he'd been thinking and been amused by it, and, worse still, that he had been pondering how best to turn it to his advantage.

It was an unworthy thought certainly, but one with strange tenacity, and he turned it over in his mind as he made an effort to listen to the curate and the captain converse.

"If you were to ask me the dimensions of the ship, the likelihood of foul weather tonight, even the favoured tactics of half the ships of the line I'd be yours to command, sir, but here you have me quite at a loss. I've no great head for such things, you know, and the workings of the human brain are far more in the doctor's line." The curate nodded silently to Jack, then turned curious eyes on Stephen as Jack continued. "He knows far more about brains than anyone I've come across, to be sure; once took off the top of our poor gunner's head and fished about in there, setting all to rights before screwing his cap back on square."

"It was a simple matter, merely a depressed fracture and not nearly worth the telling of the story for so long, Jack," and Stephen waved his hand dismissively, quite discomfited once again by the catching of someone's look, though it was in quite a different manner. While the clerk's regard had had him unsettled, edgy, wishing almost to issue a challenge that he might avoid his eyes, the curate - Mr Fell was his name - made him feel rather as though he ought to straighten his coat and do something about the terrible hole in his stocking. More than that, though. It seemed like you couldn't quite help but to wish your very soul was a little bit more presentable; Stephen had noticed that Jack had certainly been on better behaviour than usual, had refrained from many a story he would normally relish the telling of.

"Your modesty does you credit, my dear sir," the curate murmured. Then, leaning forward a little, his eyes intent, "perhaps you might add the weight of your opinion to a discussion my - " there was the slightest of pauses, as though he needed to ponder quite what term would fit - "companion and I have been turning over between ourselves. It concerns," and a little careless laugh, here, which didn't quite fit the serious look in his eyes, "the human soul, I suppose. Would you mind terribly offering a perspective on so weighty a matter?"

"No indeed," Stephen answered carelessly, picking up a glass that seemed to have been refilled although not a one of them had made a motion towards the bottle. "'Though I'm afraid you'll be disappointed if you want a pious man's perspective; I was brought up by a philosopher and have had much difficulty giving credence to things of a religious line since, if you'll forgive my saying."

The clerk, an Irishman if his name were any indication, seemed to find this most amusing.

"Sounds like yours would be a welcomed opinion, doctor. Evens the scales, a little."

"Yes," said the curate, although the slight twist to his mouth indicated at least a moment's displeasure. "I'm sure any insight you might give could be gratefully received."

"Then my opinions are yours for the having, sir," Stephen answered politely.

"Very well."

The curate sat back in his seat and laced his fingers across his stomach, taking a deep breath as though he were to begin, but it was Mr Crowley who began to speak.

"It's a simple enough matter, really. The - Mr Fell, here, is of the opinion that it's a far more important matter to work on an individual basis. That it's important to personally know the people you're trying - for argument's sake - to save. Give a recognisable countenance to the benevolence of the Divine, if you will."

"Really, my dear," came the murmured protest from the relaxed curate, although there was no real censure in his voice.

"Whereas I'm of the opinion that the size of the world today, the increased communication... picking away at just one soul at a time is archaic. It's society you're wanting to change, and you'll get far more done if you go for quantity over craftsmanship."

A chill settled over Stephen, and the smile quite faded from his face. He gave Mr Crowley a look of almost reptilian dislike before he managed to modify his expression into something less obviously disagreeable.

"I have no interest in the greater good, Mr Crowley," he informed the clerk with icy politeness. "You should have asked a far younger or more idealistic man; I suspect my time for such things is long past. No single man can change society, nor should he - it is the individual soul with whom my sympathies lie, and the individual soul with whom one can make the difference."

"Quite," agreed the curate, with a smile at Stephen and a look of quite unbearable smugness at his scowling friend.

"I feel the need for some night air." Mr Crowley stood abruptly, managing somehow to avoid dashing his brains out on one of the low beams. "My thanks for your hospitality." He bowed his head jerkily at Jack and left the cabin, and Stephen found himself feeling rather more relaxed merely for his removal.

"It really was a most delightful meal," added the curate, getting rather more carefully to his feet. "I suppose I ought to - " he gestured vaguely towards the door and made motions to leave.

Jack, stirring a little, held up a hand.

"You'll make no effort to save Stephen's soul, since you're here?"

Stephen winced slightly, but Mr Fell didn't appear to take offence.

"I'm afraid Crowley'd be terribly put out - you're not part of the Arrangement, you see." And he smiled slightly at Stephen. "And I can't say that I feel a pressing need to, you know. I rather think the both of you will be quite alright."