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Birds of a Feather

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Jack looked up from his charts at the tap on the door.

"Yes?"

Barrett Bonden entered, looking decidedly downhearted.

"Bonden, where is Dr. Maturin?" Jack said coldly, but with a certain amount of exasperated resignation. Stephen had never been impressed by the full weight of a captain's invitation to dinner, no matter how often Jack tried to emphasize that in the immemorial custom of the service -

Bonden cleared his throat. He looked quite pale, Jack noticed suddenly, with a chill. He rose slowly.

"Bonden? Spit it out, man!"

"If you please, your honour," Bonden said in a ghastly voice. "He ain't there."

"Ain't there?" Jack roared. "What the bloody hell do you mean, he ain't there?"

"Sir, begging your pardon, but he's disappeared clean off the rock. We went around in the boat twice, sir," he added quickly, knowing Stephen's propensity for falling into any body of water that presented itself to him. This was a fact never referred to in earshot of the Captain or the doctor, but generally acknowledged throughout the ship, and in the present anxious circumstances, Bonden felt the necessity of breaching the usual protocol of amnesty surrounding Dr. Maturin's seamanship.

"Oh my God," Jack muttered, and barged out of the cabin, forcing Bonden to press himself bodily against the beams to let Jack's bulk past.

*

Jack surveyed the rock. It was a flat, squat, black thing a bare thirty feet across, but had been visible from the ship from the wheeling mass of seabirds that hung above it long before the chopping sea had revealed the jutting volcanic stone that was their mating ground. The penguins, Stephen's joy, milled around on it, shrieking. A single glance told him that Stephen was not, as his secret heart had hoped, concealed in a hollow and so absorbed in his birds as to be forgetful of his duty, or simply hiding in some vain hope of spending longer with his birds. His second, sweeping look at the surface of the rock, however, gave him pause. Then he strode across it, ignoring the jabbering protests of the nesters and the birdshit that slurped unpleasantly under his boots, and, in front of the astonished eyes of Bonden and the rowers of the jollyboat, came to a halt in front of a penguin. It looked up at him with beady eyes and a certain air of defiance.

"This is going beyond the pale, Stephen," Jack said to the bird. Then he picked up the penguin with both hands, tucked it under his arm, and strode back to the jollyboat.

"Back to the ship, if you please, Bonden," Jack said, and stared stonily out to sea as the rowers pulled doubtfully.

"The skipper's lost 'is bloody marbles," Joe Allan muttered to Old Cobb Roach as they pulled hard across the south Atlantic sea. Cobb, ducking to avoid Jack's eye, did not dare answer.

*

"Sir -" Pullings said hesitantly as Jack strode across the quarterdeck, then caught his captain's eye, and fell silent.

"Reefed topsail and forestaysail jib, Mr. Pullings, and handsomely, if you please. Pass the word for the carpenter."

The carpenter appeared, casting fearful looks at both Tom Pullings and Jack, and so rigorously avoiding paying notice of the penguin that he appeared to be seized with a palsy. Jack made several sharp inquiries about the progress of the repairs to the foremast, damaged in the blow that had brought them so close to the accursed rock, then said, in an offhand fashion, "And have a cage for Dr. Maturin sent to my cabin."

The penguin squawked, the first sound it had uttered since entering the ship.

"Beg - beg pardon, Sir?" said Phil Brokes, the carpenter.

"A cage," Jack said irritably. "Dr. Maturin is indisposed. I think you will agree that he cannot sleep in his own cabin in such a state!"

"No - no indeed, sir," agreed Mr. Brokes, looking grave. He scurried away.

"If I may, Sir," Tom Pullings began.

"You may not, Mr. Pullings," said Jack. He tucked the penguin more carefully beneath his arm, then went below.

*

The penguin paced the length of Jack's cabin a few times, then turned to look at him.

"I tell you what it is, Stephen, this is a damned awkward state of affairs," said Jack, feeling faintly ridiculous. Publically stating his belief that the ship's surgeon had acquired a beak, feathers and wings (however useless) was one thing, but he found now that looking a mute bird in the eye and addressing it was quite another, and Jack had never, like Stephen, felt a sympathy with them. Damned mean-looking creatures, most of 'em. "I never heard of such a thing in all my life. However did you manage it?"

The penguin looked baleful.

"You needn't look at me like that," Jack muttered. "I can't have you wandering around the ship. You know what the hands are like. It would be a pretty state of affairs if you ended up in a pot."

The penguin glared at him again, then shat contemptuously on the floor of the cabin.

*

Dr. Maturin had often, in his private observations, noted the remarkable paradox between the total intransigence of sailors in response to the most minute change in routine or the slightest novelty in custom - his attempts to end the monstrous practice of making up a man's grog allowance to him in full after a stay in the sick bay had met with open indifference and concealed hostility throughout the fleet - and their remarkable tolerance for the extraordinary. This, in combination with the particular readiness of the Surprises to tolerate the extraordinary where Dr. Maturin was concerned (since his ban on albatross-baiting had been in effect since Brazil, and all aboard knew that he had confused the mainmast and mizzen while they were watering off Gibraltar), meant that the hands soon accepted the doctor's new physical situation, and the principle change was that the gun room issued invitations to dinner to Jack's cabin rather than the sickbay. These were declined on his behalf as a matter of course by Killick ("Which as he's a penguin, ain't he?") but it was felt that the form was important. It took a great deal to upset the running of a happy ship, and a surgeon's metamorphosis into a penguin, however unexpected, did not qualify. Happily, Stephen had taken to fouling the deck, which was good luck.

This complacency was a great relief to Jack, who had been sorely tried for the first few days. He had thought it best to feign total confidence and a certain secret knowledge before his crew, which seemed to have answered, but his own private anxieties which increased day by day, and he badly missed Stephen's advice and willing ear. Well, at least the former. Less so the latter, as the penguin did seem willing to hear him out, although he was not exactly sure if penguins had ears. But the old ease of conversation was gone. Under the penguin's disapproving stare from between the bars of its little enclosure, Jack struggled to make polite conversation. What was worse, Stephen refused to eat the fish that Joe Boyles, a pressed man off a fishing vessel two ships ago and now rated Able and Navy through-and-through, caught for him with a line out of a lower window from the orlop with special permission from the Captain.

"What can I do, for God's sake?" Jack pleaded finally, on the third day, giving up his dignity and sitting on the floor beside the cage. "Stephen, do not give up. Eat something, man, or we will never get you better!"

The penguin's eyes rolled around to look at him, then it eyed the lock on the door of his cage.

"Oh, very well," Jack said, and opened it. He reached in and brought out the bird gently, and took it, guided by nudges and nips of its beak, to the table. Stephen immediately seized a crust of toast, swallowed it whole, and almost completely immersed his head in Jack's coffee. Then he sneezed, sat down on the empty plate, and looked at Jack expectantly.

"Good Lord," said Jack. "Killick! Killick, there! Toasted cheese for the doctor."

*

The strong south trades carried them further and further down the coast of South America, and for most hands, the doctor's transformation marked only a ripple in the calm, continuing routine that had carried them two thousand miles across the Atlantic. His presence was missed in the sickbay, but this was a happy voyage, with twelve knots at the nip day after day, and two hundred miles traversed from one noon to the next. The high, variable winds kept the hands active, with the inevitable strains and knocks that sailing produced, but the ship was healthy, and Dr. Maturin had an able assistant in Mr. Soanes, a Liverpudlian pederast with a passion for mosses that deterred the more hypochondriac hands from seeking his assistance. Jack gave orders that Dr. Maturin was to be aired on deck twice a day, secured in a harness made from a number three cable after he bit through the thin rope of the first, and on calm days a washtub was installed on the poop for Dr. Maturin to splash in, where the hands would covertly throw fish for him to catch with a joyful turn and snap of his beak.

For Jack, the gravitational pull of this routine and his own cheerful nature was almost impossible to avoid, and Stephen's fractious, ill-smelling presence in his cabin was hardly any different, once he had become accustomed to his new shape. It was hardly quieter, either, since from the moment the doctor had consumed several toasted cheese sandwiches and two cups of coffee, he had recovered his old loquacity and began to speak in sharp squawks and barks which jarred the ear but were perfectly comprehensible, at least to Jack.

"Aaark!" said Stephen, when Jack entered the cabin after a long spell on deck.

"We must practice with the guns, you know, Stephen, I do not care how sensitive your ears are. You must put your head in a bag."

"Eerk, earrrgh?" said Stephen, when Jack was writing a letter to Sophie.

"To tell the truth, Stephen, I could not work out how," said Jack, chewing his pen. "Do you think I ought? It seems deuced queer, though, don't it? I'm afraid she'd think I'd been knocked on the head again and lost my wits entirely."

"Waaaaaaaark!" said Stephen, on entering the cabin (he was now permitted to waddle to the stern gallery to relieve himself into a contraption devised by the carpenter with a walkway and a channel which dropped Stephen's waste into the sea without giving him any opportunity to drop in himself, intentionally or otherwise - penguin or no, the sailors' opinion of his seamanship was unchanged).

"You may say what you like, Stephen," said Jack, "But it is unnatural for birds to eat pork, and I have been up on deck all night watching the topmast. There are kippers for you - oh, well, one kipper, and some toast."

He felt some witticism hovering around them, and paused, while Stephen picked at the kipper in disgust.

"The early bird catches the bacon, ha ha!" he produced triumphantly, some minutes later. The chill in Stephen's glare was somewhat diminished by the smear of butter between his eyes.

*

In fact, in his quieter moments, Jack could admit that he enjoyed having Stephen's constant presence in his cabin. It reminded him of their first voyage together, where the cramped quarters of the Sophie had forced them practically on top of each other, Stephen's hammock slung on the other side of a narrow divider in Jack's cabin. Jack had often woken to a change of the wind to hear Stephen's gentle snoring, and they had breakfasted together every day as a matter of course, since Stephen was not yet entered on the books as an officer. The only thing he really missed was their music. Jack was a man who did not feel fully comfortable in English; he was far more eloquent on the violin, although he had never fully articulated this to himself, but playing with Stephen he had always had the comfortable feeling of expressing himself well and being perfectly understood. He had not liked to play alone while Stephen was there, feeling a certain delicacy, but on an evening in the third week of Stephen's birdhood, after they had shared some cheese on toast and Stephen had shat apologetically in the corner, he said, "Forgive me, Stephen, but would you mind if I played?"

The bird sat silently, and Jack thought, "Brought by the lee again, Jack," but then Stephen nodded his assent - not coldly, Jack thought - and encouraged, he brought out his violin.

He played a little of their Corelli in C, but it was no good for one, and he ended instead in a melancholy air that he thought perhaps he'd heard in Bach, drawing the notes out with a certain pleasurable ache in his heart.

"Stephen," he said, after he had laid down his bow, "If there's anything I can do to help -"

"Aark," Stephen said quietly.

*

It came on to blow some time after the second bell of the dog watch, and Jack was on deck until well into the afternoon, when he came below, streaming wet and chilled to the bone, and consumed two hot bowls of soup mopped up with biscuit and two hot cups of coffee before he noticed Stephen's absence.

"Killick! Killick, there, where is Dr. Maturin?"

Preserved Killick's long, angry face appeared in the doorway.

"Which as 'e 'as gone to sleep in your bunk, your honour," he snarled.

"I beg your pardon?" said Jack, a flush rising to his face.

"Feathers and all!" Killick left in a flourish, as if delivering a killing blow.

The small black-and-white bundle huddled in Jack's bed was a sorry sight, and he modulated the tone of his voice to something lower than the hoarse roar of the last twelve hours on the quarterdeck.

"Stephen, now, what do you mean by this?" he said.

The penguin blinked sleepily up at him.

"That's my bed. Come, now, Stephen. Come, now," Jack said again, with a sense of helplessness. Stephen turned over.

Jack's eyes were drooping, by this time, and the lassitude which had previously been held off by hunger was now creeping over him so that he felt he would drop off on his feet in a moment or two.

"Stephen, I'm hellfire tired and cold," he said at last, and perhaps it was the evident truth of this and the appeal to Stephen's medical responsibility, felt if not said, which made Stephen roll in the sheets and flop onto the floor.

"Thankee," said Jack, and after checking that Stephen had not left any unwelcome surprises for him there, he fairly fell into bed. With the ease of long years of practice, he fell asleep immediately. However, although very little but a change in wind or an approaching enemy could wake Jack Aubrey once he was under, it turned out that a penguin climbing into his bed was something his subconscious mind could not weather unaided.

"What?" said Jack, waking, before he registered the fishy smell and the warm, silky bulk nudging under the crook of his elbow. "Oh. Well."

Weighted down by exhaustion, conscious of the ridiculousness of the situation, and - if he could be honest with himself - absurdly touched, and somehow glad of the company and the warmth, Jack gave no more objections but simply slung his arm over Stephen and adjusted his posture, wedging himself back so that he should not roll over and crush him. Stephen had all this time lain there with a grim, ruthless silence, but now he made the slightest move against Jack's chest, as if to nuzzle there, or at least to make himself comfortable.

"There now, dearest," Jack muttered, already falling back into the darkness. "Go to sleep."

*

Jack woke with the lessening of the wind to find a man's limbs tangled with his own, and Stephen's face pressed against his throat. Delight suffused him, more brilliant than sunlight, and he tightened his arms around Stephen almost involuntarily. "Stephen!" he said, then again, "Stephen! By God, you're back!"

Stephen's odd, mud-coloured eyes opened to slits and glared at him. "Aark," Stephen said, then, with a convulsive movement, "By God, Jack Aubrey, you are the jewel of the world," and kissed him on the mouth, which Jack returned heartily, despite the fishy taste. Caught up in the heat of it before fully awake, Jack reached for him, and they pressed together, breathing hard, Stephen's hands everywhere and his teeth and lips and tongue on Jack's throat, and when Stephen spent in an explosive gasp, Jack was scarcely a second behind him. After catching his breath, Jack, dazed, brushed Stephen's hair from his forehead and said, "Are you truly back, Stephen? No feathers?"

"No feathers at all, joy," said Stephen, "and none the worse for wear, I think, although I could drink an ocean of coffee."

"Killick!" roared Jack, before realizing their position and shoving Stephen clean out of his bunk onto the floor a split second before Killick entered, his eyes widening.

"The doctor is better," Jack said, drawing the sheets hastily up to his neck as Stephen sat, rumpled and naked on the floor.

"Pray fetch him his clothes. And put on some coffee, there!"

They ate breakfast in silence, Stephen wolfing down three kidneys, two kippers, five rashers of bacon and a slice of last night's figgy pudding, pausing only to wiggle his fingers and laugh, and Jack barely remembering to eat a slice of toast, so rapt was he with Stephen's human form, and so intent on the witticism which seemed to sit just outside his reach, so perfect that he felt that if he let it go, he would regret it for the rest of his days.

"Well!" Stephen said finally, surveying the remains of the breakfast table with satisfaction. "And what do you have to say for yourself, Jack?"

"I always said you was an odd bird, Stephen!" Jack burst out, then laughed until his blue eyes were mere slits shining from his red, weathered face. "Ha ha! I say I always said you was an odd bird! Did you smoke it, Stephen? I can come out with a good thing every now and again, can't I? Hey?"

"On second thought," Stephen said, "being a penguin had much to recommend it."

 

End