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***

HMS Surprise, at sea, 1st July

Dear Sophie,

Blue-water sailing, or will be as soon as ever we have a breath of wind to give us steerage-way, and the men are turned up on the fo’c’sle to sing and stamp. Today was make-and-mend, and you would have smiled to see how peaceably they sat tailor-wise and sewed – a good deal more peaceably than the twins ever did, to be sure. Do you remember when Fanny accused Charlotte of stealing her needle, how they flew at each other all guns blazing, a matter of honour, and neither would strike her colours until your mother threatened to stop their pudding for a week? Dundas writes a handsome account of them – I will enclose you a copy – tractable enough, he tells me. Of course he may stop their grog as well as their duff, and that is a hold over a fellow.

Stephen sends his best love to you, Diana and the children. He is a little distracted by a monstrous great haul of Brazilian beetles, the choicest of which (I wish I could say the prettiest of which, but you know he has his own odd notions of beauty) are to be laid out for Brigid’s collection, but you will not mention this to her, Sophie, for it is to be a surprise.

We stop at the Island for water and to set down a couple of civilians, but only touch and away. I will send these letters by the first packet we meet, and if we do not outrun them you may expect your own Surprises at Woolcombe by early September, God willing.

Your most affectionate
Jno. Aubrey

***


Journal of Dr S.E. Maturin, 1st July

Christopher Aykesfield, sergeant of marines, rendered anatomically female two years ago: inguinal hernia, with unrelated genital abnormalities – anomalous sequelae of the contagion? The cause impossible to ascertain – no atypical symptoms at the time of the original infection – possible extirpation of the feminine humours? An isolated case, isolated at least until I can consult with colleagues ashore. Aykesfield sanguine, “did not care for his new figure and would not mind having a prick to piss with again, ha ha.” The cheerful ready philosophical acceptance of bodily alteration amongst common seamen admirable as always, considering their resistance to any change whatsoever in naval custom or conditions. Nota bene: contact Lacépède regarding protandry and protogyny in Labridae and Gobiidae, causes of sex reversal in those genera, possible application to other Vertebrata.

***


“I sent her your love, Stephen, and said nothing of the child, not when it has not yet quickened.”

“A sensible precaution, my dear. She will not mind, sure, but it might be better to speak to her in person, though she did not scruple to tell us by letter that she was safely delivered of Diana’s son.”

“These things are never certain, in any case.”

“Indeed they are not, although if what Bonden tells me about the Variables – or possibly it was the Doldrums – this season is true, you may be delivered yourself before ever your letter is. I begin to think we should have shipped a wet-nurse, or a she-wolf perhaps.”

“I have never known such a devilish run of calms. Leave off that scratching and come to bed, will you, Stephen? There will be time enough for writing up your notes tomorrow, beetles or no beetles.”

***


Jack settled his arms a little more tightly around Stephen, who lay sprawled against his side with one leg crooked across Jack’s thighs and one arm across his chest.

“If it is a girl, I thought perhaps she might be brought up in the Catholic faith, if that would please you, Stephen. Sophie might not care for the notion, but even Martin would say it is the same God in heaven, after all, and it would not matter for a girl.”

“Girls have immortal souls too, so I hear.”

“You need not be satiric. I meant only that a girl would not need to make her way in the Navy.”

“There, honey, I know what you meant, and I thank you for your handsome offer.” He tucked his head more closely into the angle of Jack’s neck and collarbone, and kissed the damp skin there. “It is near another five months we have to wait, but if you do not change your mind I would take it most kindly.”

***


Journal of Dr S.E. Maturin, 10th July

Saul Jones, carpenter’s mate: loss of strength in the forearms, deleterious to his profession should it continue; mastodynia; diminution in size and vigour of the membrum virile. In great alarm lest his messmates discover he was christened Sarah and had enrolled under a false name, came covertly to my cabin to beg me to stem his loss of masculinity. The second case to report to me, but the seventh, in my estimation, symptomatic. JA must be informed, for the safety of his crew, and for all his naivety he can hardly fail to grasp the consequences. He shows few symptoms himself, but no linea nigra, no augmentation of mammary tissue. Do I imagine an increase in hirsuteness? My duty is clear: I must speak to him. If he had not become so far reconciled to his alteration, and to this second pregnancy – – but perhaps the child need not be mentioned. My own emotions are dark to me, except for a wish above all that Sophie were here. It is foolishness to suppose that womankind hold a monopoly on sympathy, on tact, but the Dear knows I do not possess the words.

***


“Ain’t moved for two hours, sir.” Bonden tipped his head slightly towards Stephen, who was leaning over the taffrail on the leeward side of the quarterdeck, staring sightlessly at the wake.

Jack walked softly aft to stand beside him. “Stephen? Stephen, give me your opinion as a doctor, if nothing else.” The wind whipped the last few words from his mouth, burying them in the foaming water.

A long pause, and then a sigh. “Forgive me, Jack, I should have spoken weeks ago. Certain diagnosis is not possible however, nor an estimation of the extent of the reversion. No such syndrome was noted prior to our departure from Recife either by me or Dr Augustis at the infirmary there.”

Jack hesitated. “The reversion?”

Stephen turned to face him. “Has the child quickened?”

“Not yet.”

Nothing but the howling of the wind. Then, “She will not, will she, Stephen?”

“Changing sex is not unknown in the Vertebrata, nor role reversion – the Alytes obstetricans carries ova upon his back, the Hippocampinae upon their bellies – but there have been no reliable accounts of true gravidity in males of any species, let alone amongst Mammalia.” He bowed his head. “I do not think so, acushla, no.”

Jack was silent for several minutes. Finally he asked in a low, harsh tone, “How many of the crew?”

“To date, around one in three of those whose physical gender was changed by the contagion shows full or partial symptoms of reversion. I cannot say what might be happening in the wider world, but it seems improbable in the extreme that the phenomenon should be limited to this vessel.”

“It is not dangerous?”

“Not injurious to the long-term health of adults, no, but some explanation to the crew may be necessary to prevent recriminations. Jack, I…”

Jack had already turned to hail the first lieutenant. “Mr Mowett, call all hands, if you please.”

“All hands! All hands on deck!”

***


Journal of Dr S.E. Maturin, 2nd August

JA continues well, though unusually grim and silent. Corporeal progression as expected, abdomen flat and firm, no discharge. Possible foetal resorption, as commonly observed in Mus musculus. Subject will not brook further discussion of the matter, and I do not in any case know what to say beyond medical advice which is itself mere conjecture.

Amos Halleyson, topman: gynaecomastia; trichosis – thinning of hair on limbs, regrowth on frontal scalp; erythematous dermatitis; myalgia. Swears on the body of his mother that he has never been ill a day in his life, no, not with the contagion nor nothing so help him God – not reversion, then, but a fresh infection, if he speaks truth. We all assumed it swept through in a single wave and was gone. Did we choose to forget that no plague in history has done this? Provisional theory: either the reversal process has triggered a second wave of infection, spreading to new victims; or this second epidemic has, by re-infection, caused reversion in those previously exposed. Circumlocution by Halleyson another ten minutes, then, “was it possible that relations with another man might cause a cove to be unmanned?” My reassurances unconvincing. How can one say in these times that this thing or that thing is not possible? That it should not happen? That no one is to blame?

***


“Will I sleep in my little room below, so?”

“Pshaw, Stephen, we drank not above a bottle apiece, and in any case I do not snore. Never mind that, come here.”

“I mean, brother, that you might prefer that I did not – you might think it would be more prudent if I did not share your sleeping-cabin for the time being.”

Jack’s face darkened. “Has anyone said anything? Hell and damnation, we are legally married.”

“Who knows what the laws might say by now? Parliament and the courts have their own curious ways of reconciling desires and reality, of regimenting fluidity, and I would not endanger you for the sake of a month or two. We slept apart for ten years or more, did we not?”

“In separate cots, yes, but we was…”

“The law can hardly have anything to say against two men in separate cots, but gossip can undo a man’s career. There was always talk – do not look surprised, Jack, I beg of you, we lived in each other’s pockets for upwards of a decade and of course there was talk, by the Surprises and others, of course there was – but two men known to be lovers cannot, should not openly share a cabin until the legal position is made clear. You must know this to be true.”

“Then what in God’s name – I beg your pardon, I will not blaspheme, but what is to become of us, of you and me and all of us, if wedlock don’t signify?”

“I cannot tell. Forgive me, Jack, I did not intend to cause anyone pain.”

“No, no, and I have not even asked – damn me, Stephen, I ought not to have supposed you would wish to stay, Article XXIX or no. I am hardly… I am hardly suitable marriage material, and you have never…”

“Do not be such a fool, soul. Do you suppose my affection for you sprang new-formed from the contagion? The Surprises’ gossip was never so ill-founded as all that. Ah, you smoke it, finally. I waited ten, twelve years, and you may wait quite well until landfall. I will be downstairs, I will be below.”

***


Journal of Dr S.E. Maturin, 25th August

Mastalgia, tumor, rubor; improved density of the hair on my scalp; erythema reptans; marked myasthenia; increasing pyrexia; the first muscular spasms. The diagnosis cannot be longer in doubt. JA’s reaction I cannot predict – relief, perhaps, for his precious Articles. My own, I do not have the energy to examine. Ten in the sick berth: one pox, one sprain, eight fever, of which six reported in the last three days. Macmillan informed of the likely progression. JA on deck – I must stay lucid, to speak with him whilst I can.

***


Stephen, asleep with his rosary tangled in his fingers.

Jack shook his cot gently. “We are arrived, brother. A bright morning, and Funchal. Will you go ashore, or send to the apothecary’s for supplies? We are not to stay beyond tomorrow morning’s tide.”

“…nunc et in hora mortis nostrae…”

“What? Stephen, did you speak? Stephen?”

A harder shake.

“Bonden, Killick, bear a hand here, the Doctor to be carried into the red cutter. Handsomely there, handsomely! Mr Reade, do you run to the infirmary as soon as we touch. My compliments, and it is Dr Maturin who is taken ill, Dr Maturin whom they know well. Run, mark you.”

“Aye aye, sir, run it is, sir.”

***


“Surprises? Hoy, Surprises!” A gangly youth skidded to a halt on the quayside.

“Who wants to know?”

“Message from Captain Aubrey at the Infirmary. This paper to Mr Reade, and ’e’s to give these orders to Lieutenant Mowett.”

“Theakes, jump up to the apothecary’s and fetch Mr Reade. Now then, youngster, you can bugger off an’ all. We don’t need no more bleeding landsmen.”

The youth peered idly down into the barge. The Surprise had been in harbour for a fortnight, her crew becoming increasingly squalid and dissolute with portside entertainment, but the Captain’s bargemen at least were upright, clean-shaven and halfway presentable.

“You lot’s ’eading for Plymouth, I ’eard. ’E’s staying ’ere with ’is ’ussy.”

Bonden sprang onto the quayside, clouting the lad’s ear before he could take to his heels and roaring after him, “You stow your gob, you poxed son of a whore!”

He clambered back into the barge, six foot of thundercloud, and there was silence for a minute until a new Surprise who had joined in Rio piped up, “’E’s got a point, ain’t ’e, though? Lucky Jack ain’t in it.”

“You can clap a stopper on it too, mate. You ain’t too big to go arse-over-tits over the gunwales, and there’s none of us would fish you out neither.”

“I ain’t afraid of you, Barret Bonden. Them two was mollies, then the skipper was turned, and soon as ’e’s fixed, t’other one’s caught it. Could be as ’e got ’imself infected a-purpose.”

“Watch your fucking mouth, cully. You find yourself missing your own tackle one of these mornings, won’t be the contagion as took it.”

“Ain’t you seen the corpses, mooncalf?” Theakes was climbing back into the cutter, followed by Reade. “It ain’t just turning ’em this time, it’s killing most of ’em.”

“Aye, the porters at the infirmary say…”

 “An’ ’e was only ever a slip of a thing…”

“…not one in ten with the new strain sees out the fortnight.”

“Aye, seven stone soaking wet, if that. I could lift ’im with one ’and.”

“…white as a cuttlefish, ’e were. ’E ’adn’t slept a wink for a week or more, day and night in the sickbay, the loblolly-boy said…”

“Silence, fore and aft!” cried Reade. “Bonden, cast off.”

“Aye aye, sir. Sir, we…”

“Cast off, Bonden. There’s nothing we can do here.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

***


Stephen lay hollow-eyed, his crabbed fingers twisted into the sheets. “You will baptise her, Jack? Jack?”

Fever has loosened his natural taciturnity, though he spoke not of his own sufferings but of phantoms, hidden desires, lost hopes. As an intelligence-agent he could not of course be entrusted to anyone else’s care, nor would Jack have left him in any case, but this latest wild pleading Jack could hardly bear to hear.

“Jack? The child – she was baptised? You baptised her?”

“Hush, hush now, you are delirious.”

“Jack? You promised. She…”

“Yes. Yes, she was baptised. Now sleep, please, please sleep.” Jack wept openly, tears sliding down to his neck-cloth, and Stephen fell back into fever-dreams.

***

Funchal, Madeira, 14th October

My dear Sophie,

The briefest note from my pen to tell you that Stephen is pronounced out of danger. I write in haste to catch the Hermes, but let me thank you all for your prayers. When I have time I will look over the legal notices you forwarded, but your intimations seem correct – we would be safe from the interference of attorneys and Admiralty both, if things were to hold as they are. He has not spoken since the fever broke, and looks as if the slightest air might yet carry him away, but Dr Fernandes assures me he is safe, and you may tell Diana and the children, God be praised, he is safe.

JA.

***


Stephen was sitting on the hospital bed, sunk in abstraction. He was still painfully thin, although not quite as cadaverous as on that first dreadful day when he had awoken from the fever and met Jack’s hesitant explanations with silence and apparent incomprehension, and when, the bed-linen being drawn back to show him the physical results of the contagion, he had stared for a moment, arched his back and vomited across the infirmary floor. Since then he seemed to have rallied, becoming outwardly calm, but he had always been deeply private, and even after so many years of intimate friendship Jack would rather have faced a court-martial than presume to question him on his emotional state.

The lost child, the child who could never have been, had not been mentioned. Stephen in his delirium had named her repeatedly, in Irish, Catalan, French and English, but she would not be named again.

Like most medicos he was usually a wretched patient, but he had been strangely docile with the infirmary’s doctors, taking foul emetic doses without comment. Jack wondered uneasily whether the contagion could have affected his mind as well as his body; some of the old cantankerousness would have relieved him greatly. In the article of dress, at least, Stephen had been stubborn, rejecting the suggested gowns summarily. Duck trousers and a loose shift hid any possible curves of his slight frame, concealing too the linen wrapper he insisted on using to bind his chest.

Jack had been turning over in his thoughts the various careful tactful phrases with which he might open an impossible conversation, and he was just starting to clear his throat when the sound roused Stephen from his reverie and he caught Jack’s gaze.

“Will you tell me again about the legal position, now? My mind is all confusion, I find.”

Jack exhaled deeply. “There is little changed. Marriages contracted between those now of like gender to be dissolved, as before…”

“The fools, the fools, I expected nothing better from that set of ninnies in Westminster. Go on.”

“Children born during such unions to remain legitimate, however.”

“Ah, Little Boy Blue is safe, then.”

“Stephen, you must promise me you will stop calling him that before he is old enough to go to sea, or he will never live it down. I wish I had never let you name him Peter.”

Stephen laughed, the old croaking laugh that Jack had not heard for months, with the lopsided grin that made his eyes dance and his plain pinched face light up with something close to beauty.

“This will please you, too, brother. Those enrolled in male professions before reversion may stay in them if they wish. Fanny is gone back to Woolcombe and doubtless already making sheep’s eyes at the parson, but Charlotte is to stay on Heneage Dundas’ quarterdeck and declares she will be the first female in the family to pass for lieutenant.”

“Bless her, the dear child, I believe she is the bravest of us all, and has your head for figures withal. And Diana?”

“Diana is well. Quite recovered. Thinks it a great injustice that she and the twins should all have reverted, when the best sources give no more than one-in-three as the general proportion, but she is well.”

“And? There is more to tell, Jack. I beg you not to forbear.”

“She writes to say that she thinks of remaining at Woolcombe, with the children.”

“And with Sophie. Well, there must have been more affection than we had supposed, since a child was born. And it is natural enough for her to stay with her cousin, though the world may whisper.”

“Even the Dorset gossips can hardly whisper about two women, lately married or not.”

“How innocent you can be, joy. Just because the law has nothing to say to a thing does not mean that it does not happen. Now you are blushing like a boy, for all love. What does Sophie say?”

“She wishes you joy of your recovery and hopes that you will be happy whatever you choose.”

“There is a choice, now, is there?”

“There is always a choice, and the new Matrimony Act allows for dissolution in cases with both parties affected.”

A pause, while Stephen stared out of the window and Jack watched ambiguous emotions play across his pallid face.

“Sophie has prior claim, to be sure, but she was always shy of pressing her rights, the dear creature. We must speak to her in person. And you, Jack?”

“The Surprise has been new-coppered and provisioned for the Baltic convoys. I expect Admiralty orders within the week. The Iphis sails for England on Thursday, and Captain Astley has offered me passage. You might come with me to Plymouth, if you are well enough.” Jack’s voice was almost steady, but his gaze had dropped to the floor.

“And to the Baltic?”

“If you choose. The Surprises are quite used to your ways, and there should be no trouble on that quarter.”

Stephen hesitated, head on one side. “Sophie always knew that I… she never took you from me.”

Jack glanced at him with deep affection. “She is happy, you know. She has a stable home, companionship, daughters to teach, not to mention Peter and little Henry. She hardly needs a couple of naval officers underfoot.”

“To the Baltic, then.”

“Stephen, I – I do not make any claim on you either, you are aware of that? I… my feelings… that is to say, if you choose to sail with me again I welcome it gladly, more than gladly, but things need not be as they were if you do not wish it. I know that you are not quite… oh, the deuce take it. Forgive me, I am abominably clumsy, but what I mean is that you should have your own cabin, of course.”

“I will share your voyages for as long as you want me to; you need not ask me that. Fate has thrown worse than this at us and we have survived. And I will share your cabin too, Jack – a semblance of union would keep the Admiralty happy, would it not? – but as for the rest you must give me time, and my own cot meanwhile.”

“Of course, of course, forever if need be. I do not, I would not press you for that. I am not such a scrub as all that.”

Stephen took his hand and pressed it gently. “Thank you, my dear. We would not be needing yet another marriage ceremony, God forbid?”

“No, no, no, nothing of that sort, no.”

“Your soul to the Devil, Jack Aubrey, you never could dissemble worth a farthing. What is it, then?”

“We must just go to the Governor’s clerk to have a new certificate of union notarised, and yes, you must be decently dressed. Never look so mutinous, Stephen. If you like, since you are such a botanist, you might choose the flowers for your bouquet, ha, ha!”

“I am not sure I should contract myself to such a rattle.”

“You will, though, will you not, old Stephen? Give me a kiss – how smooth your cheek is, I shall become used to it however – and I must be off to arrange matters. Killick! Killick, there! The Doctor to be scrubbed, brushed and dressed in whatever clean clothes can be found. There’s not a moment to lose.”

“Aye aye, sir. Not a moment it is.”