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To Be, or Not To Be

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As was perhaps appropriate for the man, even Hollom’s funeral would end up being a diminished and minor affair in the face of the changing weather.  The wind was finally freshening and from the looks of the skies, they would soon be heading into a significant rain.  The clouds didn’t speak of a storm with rough seas and lightning, but nonetheless, preparations would have to be made.  Jack indicated the clouds with his chin.  “Mr. Pullings, prepare the ship.  Have the men bring up the rain barrels and drinking vessels.”  Once he had dismissed the men, Jack went below, knowing Stephen would follow him. 

“I’m not sure if I’m more angry at Hollom for leaving us a man short or the men for not giving him the respect due his rank,” Jack said as he poured them both a glass of wine.  He didn’t bring up the still lingering anger he felt at Stephen’s insistence that Nagle should be excused for his insolence. The ensuing argument that had kept them apart for more than three days already.

“It’s a sin, taking your own life,” Stephen opined from where he looked out the small glass window in Jack’s cabin, watching the swelling waves.  “Only God determines a man’s final day.”

For the first time Jack realized that Stephen was also feeling some guilt over the whole affair.  “The ones who die in battle are the easiest to bear,” Stephen had once told him.  They had both been well aware of the prejudice Hollom had faced at the hands of the ship’s crew.  Jack had attempted to deal with it by dealing with the crew.  Stephen had made an attempt to help Hollom himself.  But three days ago at eight bells of the last dog watch, when Blakeney had come pounding on the cabin door, they had learned that Hollom had, in fact, reached his own eight bells.  His final watch was over.  And that sat very uneasily with them both.

Jack handed Stephen his wine and sat next to him on the cushion.  “You and I both know that not everything in the Bible can be accepted as pure truth.”  Jack checked the door, to be sure Killick wasn’t about to come storming in.  “The Bible also says a man should not lay with another man as he would his wife.  Yet without your companionship these long months at sea, I fear I would not be the calm, rational man you see before you.”

Stephen smiled a little at Jack’s grandiosity.  “On that point, I cannot argue.”

Jack sobered, leaning his elbows on his knees, holding his glass loosely.  “I accepted Hollom onto the Surprise as a favor to his father.  When he first started struggling with the burdens of commanding such men as these I told myself he simply needed more time to mature, to grow into the roll of an officer.”

“He was still a Midshipman at nearly thirty years old, Jack, and it appears that there was good reason for it,” Stephen put in.

“I know.  I thought I was doing him a kindness when I had that hand flogged.  I wanted to instill in the men their need to respect him, lest they feel my wrath, until they could learn to fear his.”

The cabin was silent for a long moment as they both considered the matter. 

“You warned me that punishing Nagle was a mistake,” Jack said softly.

Stephen shifted so that he sat alongside Jack, pressed together from shoulder to hip and knee to knee.  “In nature, in animals that live in groups, there is a social order not unlike your military hierarchy.  There is one animal that is the undisputed leader.  They call that animal the alpha.  He or she is the first to eat and the first to mate.  Nature does this to ensure that the strong survive to produce strong offspring.  They are occasionally challenged by another strong member of the group.  If that animal wins the fight, he becomes the alpha.  If he loses, he’s usually killed in the attempt.  The other animals in the group know instinctively where they fit in the social order and they don’t challenge it.”  Stephen took a deep breath.  “And they certainly don’t insert a member of the group into a place it could not sustain.”

“You think I should have put Hollom ashore?” Jack pressed.  “Let him find his way as a merchant or a cobbler or a farmer?”

“I know this may be hard for someone as innately born to leadership as you were Jack, but not everyone has the will to command others.  Some of us are content with the station we find ourselves in.  I believe Hollom would have made a fine gunner or surgeon’s mate even.  He did not have in him the natural strength necessary to be a leader of men.  And I don’t think there was anything you could have done, either for him or to the men, to have changed that.”

Stephen tried to keep any sound of reproach out of his tone.  He and Jack had been on tenuous ground since their initial argument over Hollom’s situation, and as much as there were still things about Jack’s strictly military mind that Stephen didn’t understand, he wasn’t looking to rekindle the argument.

“Young Blakeney is taking it hard.  I think he blames himself as he was on watch when Hollom went over.”  Jack took a swig of his wine.

“I can speak to him, if you like,” Stephen offered. 

“Thank you,” Jack responded.

“Now there’s a lad who has the potential to be a great commander.  Like you, he is greatly respected, and yet not feared by those he is set over.”  Stephen finished his wine and set the glass on the sideboard before turning back to the window.  They had sailed into the rain, and the rhythmic tapping of it against the wood and glass gave the cabin an insulated and private feeling.  “Perhaps the men were right.  Perhaps Hollom simply had demons that no man could rid him of.”

“I pray, then, that God forgives him,” Jack said, letting his head rest on Stephen’s shoulder for just a moment.  A very, very small moment of relief between battles.

A cheer could be heard above decks as the rain began in earnest.  The men thundered up the stairs and past Jack’s cabin to greet it.

Jack debated whether or not the brief respite in the storm that had brewed between he and Stephen would be interrupted if he were to use this still, quiet moment to apologise for his determination to chase down the Acheron, at the expense of his promise to allow Stephen’s naturing trip on the islands.

Deciding that perhaps it was best to just leave certain matters lie for the moment, Jack sat back against the bulkhead, pulling Stephen with him as he went, until Stephen leaned against him instead. 

They could conclude that argument another time.