There was too much blood altogether indeed, Stephen thought as Bonden eased Jack down onto the pallet. Jack's face was a mask of crimson, blood pouring from a vicious gash at the top of his head, but that was minor enough. No, it was the fact that Jack's jacket was sopping with scarlet, the fact that under the gore, Jack's face was white as chalk, that sharpened Stephen's voice: "By God, why did you not come down sooner?"
Jack's smile was foolish and distracted as Stephen ripped his shirt open. "I needed to watch her sink," he explained as if he were speaking sense. He glanced down at his chest. "Am I hurt?" he asked as through the possibility had just occurred to him
Stephen ignored him, too aghast at the sight to speak. A deep sword-cut in his upper arm continued to ooze blood: ooze instead of spurt only because there was so little blood left. Grabbing for a tourniquet, Stephen quickly tightened it above the vicious cut. Then he turned and took the cauterizing iron from the stove. "Bonden," he said, looking at the hot metal rather than at Jack's face, "You shall have to hold him down."
"The hell he will," Jack said, his voice suddenly sharp. "Bonden, you're dismissed." Bonden hesitated, his eyes flicking back and forth between the physician and his commanding officer. "Did you hear me? Dismissed!"
After a moment, Stephen shrugged, and Bonden turned to go with evident relief.
"This will not be easy," said Stephen when he was gone. The room seemed too hot; he could feel sweat coming out on his brow, trickling down one temple.
"I'll not be held down like a puling baby," snapped Jack. "Do it and be done."
A hissing noise, a sudden nauseating stench of roasting meat; Jack set his teeth in his lower lip, but a small, animal sound escaped him before his eyes rolled up in his head and he lapsed into merciful unconsciousness.
Stephen set his iron aside and checked his work: the bleeding had stopped, it was a clean burn. He threaded his needle and set to work pulling the edges of the wound together. It was fortunate, he thought, that this was a sword-cut and not a gunshot wound. If it had been necessary to try and dig a musket-ball out of Jack's shoulder the job would have been notably trickier. The silver needle stabbed in and out of Jack's flesh, piercing the skin--
Stephen's hand faltered briefly as the irony struck him. Here he was, saving the life of a man he was sworn to attempt to kill as soon as possible, patching him up in order to have the best possible chance of putting a bullet in his heart at the first opportunity! He risked a glance at Jack's face as he tightened the stitches. It was pale and damp with sweat, creased with pain even now, and Stephen felt revulsion sweep over him at the idea of leveling a pistol at him, of doing his best to snuff out the life he was now struggling to save. It was contrary to all he held dear as a surgeon--it was, he realized, contrary to all he held dear as a friend.
"But I must have satisfaction," he thought as he set the last stitch in Jack's flesh. "He called me a liar, and worse, and honour requires that I spill the very blood I am trying to keep in this noble idiot's skin." He laid his fingers upon Jack's neck to check his pulse, looking at the broad features, the tooth-marks in his lower lip.
"Damn honour," he heard a voice say, and was surprised to realize it was his.
Jack's eyes fluttered open at the sound of his voice, and he gazed up at Stephen as if he hardly recognized him. "I'm not dead?" he whispered. Stephen felt his throat work as he swallowed, and he pulled his fingers back.
"You're alive," he said. "No thanks to your unconscionable tardiness coming to me. You could have bled to death on that deck." In his mind's eye he saw an image of Jack's body, broken and bleeding--this would not do, it would not do at all, he still had to stitch up that head wound. "You have cracked your head as well," he said, keeping his voice light. "And I must play tailor to you again. But apparently I must play barber first," he added, as he turned Jack's head to the light. The long yellow hair was clotted with blood, obscuring his ability to see the wound.
"--I shall shave just the crown, dear," Stephen assured him as he prepared his razor. "Your pigtail shall not die this day."
Jack was silent as Stephen quickly shaved and cleaned the area around the wound. "A nasty tear, but nothing threatening," Stephen murmured. "Just a handful of stitches, and then we can rest a bit."
Jack's fingers twitched a bit as the needle went in, but he made no sound. The room was quiet; Stephen could hear the sounds of the men moving around the Fanciulla, hear the constant low surge of the sea beyond.
"About this wretched duel, Stephen," said Jack at the second stitch.
Stephen stopped and waited until the needle was steady again before continuing. "Save your breath," he said shortly.
"No," said Jack. "I need to say it now. I need--well, I've been thinking about it, and I'm sorry for what I said. But you know that--you know I don't always think before I speak, Stephen. I'm not sure an apology will make a difference, now. But I just don't think I can do it. It's not because I'm afraid," he added quickly, as if Stephen had said something instead of continuing to pull the needle steadily, carefully through flesh, "It's not just because you're apparently quite a hand with a pistol."
"There is always an element of chance in such things," Stephen said. "Take heart: perhaps you might kill me instead of the opposite."
"Well, that's just the thing," said Jack miserably. "I could, couldn't I?" There was a long pause, and then Jack said, very low: "How could I ever listen to the cello again?"
Stephen stopped stitching for a moment, and took a deep breath. Then he rapidly finished the last few stitches and tied off the thread. "Finished," he said. "You shall live to terrorize the French another day." As if the words had made it true rather than simply reflecting reality, he felt a sudden wave of relief wash over him, sharp enough to almost take his breath away. He started to turn away so Jack couldn't see his face, but Jack reached up with his good hand and seized his wrist.
"The duel," Jack insisted, his voice feebler now, but filled with desperate energy. "There must be some way, some way I can convince you--"
Stephen turned back to him and clasped his hand. Honour demanded satisfaction, but he was a physician, and he must keep his patient from being agitated. He spoke soothingly, calmly, meeting Jack's eyes. "Speak no more of it, dear," he said. "It is behind us. We shall not speak of it again."
Jack held his grip for a long time, gazing at him, then he nodded. "I do believe that perhaps I can sleep a little," he said. His eyes were already sliding shut. "I haven't slept well since..." His voice trailed off and his breath slowly evened out.
Stephen watched his face until the gentle breaths turned into a rattling snore, then turned away with a rueful smile to tend to his tools. He had sacrificed honour for his Hippocratic Oath; he should probably feel chagrin, but instead there was a strange feeling of relief, on the verge of giddiness. "A day's work well done," he thought. "For which surely I deserve at least two hundred drops to help me sleep and still this damnable trembling in my hands." For indeed, now that Jack's life was out of danger Stephen found his hands shaking most distressingly. The laudanum would help with that, he thought, but first he sat down by the pallet to check Jack's pulse one more time, wrapping his fingers around his wrist. The tremor in his hands intensified for a moment, then stilled as he focused on counting and timing Jack's heartbeats. He felt the slow and steady pulse of life through Jack's veins, felt the tiny leap of vitality against his fingers throbbing endlessly, endlessly onward...
Stephen Maturin fell asleep on the chair next to Jack Aubrey, his long fingers still holding Jack's wrist like a precious thing: broken and mended and cherished.