Days went by until another week had passed and the captain’s condition did not worsen, yet neither did it improve. Stephen was once more sat beside Jack’s cot in silence, listening to his friend’s uneven, shallow breathing and watching those fever-bright eyes staring unfocussed at the deck beams above. He had had the captain moved a week earlier to the starboard side of the great cabin where Jack usually hung his cot in the hope that fresher air and quieter surroundings would have their healing effect; but even these vastly healthier conditions made practically no difference to the state of Jack’s health.
Outside in the private galley just off the coach Killick stood hunched over the small stove, muttering sourly as he ladled steaming broth into a china bowl, putting it onto a tray with a plate of ship’s biscuit and handed it to the waiting Padeen, who then proceeded to carry it carefully through the great cabin to the sleeping cabin where the doctor sat keeping his vigil. He paused before the door and coughed tentatively.
“Come in,” Stephen said absently.
Padeen took a step forward, ducking his head under the deck beams as he crossed over the threshold.
“Here is broth, your honour. To keep up your strength.”
“Bless you, Padeen,” Stephen replied, taking the bowl and biscuit, only to carefully put them to one side on Jack’s sea chest and return to staring at Jack’s vacant expression. Padeen eyed the discarded food with dismay, fidgeting nervously.
“Will there be anything else at all you will be needing, your honour?”
“No thank you, Padeen. You may turn in now if you wish.”
“God and Mary be with you, sir.”
“And with you, Padeen. Goodnight.”
Padeen made a sketchy bow, which went unobserved by the doctor, and hastily retreated back to the galley, immediately voicing his concerns to Killick.
“He cannot stay. He is… is making himself weak!”
Killick sighed, putting down the pan he was scraping. Padeen was lost without the doctor. Everyone aboard was taking the captain’s demise badly; how could they do otherwise with such a cloud cast over their recent victory? Not purely because they felt for their commander – indeed Jack could not be held in higher affection – but for the fact that as Captain Aubrey was slowly dying, Dr. Maturin was quietly going mad. If the one died, the other would almost certainly be committed.
“That he is, mate,” said Killick flatly. “But what can be done about it? Save Mister Jacob declare him unfit and confine him to his cabin, which we both know he won’t do. No, nothin’ to be done but wait.”
“Wait for what?”
“For Goldilocks to get up or die!” Killick hissed. “That’s the only way you’ll get him to move. And he didn’t touch that soup or his biscuit last night. Which I made it special for him, I did; nicked the bones from the wardroom roast I did so’s he could have it, and what does he do? He lets it go cold!”
The steward suddenly fell silent and cocked his head to listen as a faint voice murmured from the sleeping cabin. Killick let out an exasperated sigh and threw his arms up in disgust.
“Listen! Now he’s talking to Himself again! I tell you, at this rate I don’t think either of ‘em are going to last much longer.”
Padeen put his face in his hands and shook his head silently, his grief all too evident.
“There, mate, there,” Killick said, patting the big Irishman’s back gingerly. “It ain’t your fault; ain’t anybody’s fault save them bleedin’ frogs.”
“What is he saying?”
“Dunno, can’t hear from here. Hang on,”
Killick slipped out of the galley, slunk across the cabin and pressed one ear to the door. A couple of seconds later Padeen was at his shoulder, hovering anxiously.
“What can y… you hear?”
“Give us a minute,” Killick whispered, frowning. “He’s stopped to listen to Goldilocks.”
“And that minute you shall not have, Killick.”
The two of them whirled round guiltily to see Dr. Jacob standing in the centre of the cabin, his arms folded and a scowl on his face.
“We was only trying to see if he was alright, sir,” Killick murmured sullenly.
“Which is what I am here for,” Jacob said sternly. “Enough of your talk; about your business, Killick. And you, Padeen, what would Dr. Maturin think of you listening at his door like a bare-faced thief? Away with you, now.”
Once the two servants had shuffled out of the room, closing the door behind them with a snap, Jacob edged into the sleeping cabin. Stephen was still sitting beside the captain’s cot, and he gently placed a hand on his colleague’s shoulder.
“Esteven,” he said softly, giving the thin shoulder a squeeze. “You have not moved from here for days on end. You must rest, else you shall wear yourself into the ground – then where will we all be? Go, I will watch over him for you.”
“I thank you, Amos, but I am not in the least fatigued.”
“Now that is a lie.”
Stephen hung his head and let go a ragged sigh, but did not take his eyes from his patient.
“Perhaps; it almost certainly is. But I wish to be present when he wakes from the delirium, and by my calculation that could be anytime soon.”
Jacob gave Stephen a worried glance, lapsing into a moment of silence before speaking hesitantly.
“You may have to accept that he might never wake, Esteven. It has been three weeks, nearly a month, since our engagement with the Triomphateur; if his body were going to heal itself it would have done so by now. Surely all your sense as a physician should tell you that the most likely outcome from such prolonged fever will be the demise of the patient?”
Stephen turned to frown at Jacob, his pale eyes now red-rimmed with exhaustion making his usual reptilian stare even more ghastly.
“This is the crucial moment, Amos; the moment of decision. His condition has reached a stage where it must deteriate or he must recover, and I shall wager all my fortune – nay, my life – that he shall live.”
“But what if he does not?”
Stephen turned to look at Jack’s pale face, to the vacant blue gaze and resisted the urge to swallow the painful lump in his throat.
“He will not.”
Jacob heard the rough edge to his colleague’s voice, heard the finality in the statement and knew that he wished to be left alone. Seeing there was nothing else he could do he gave his friend’s shoulder one last reassuring squeeze, then silently left the cabin. As soon as he had gone Stephen crumpled forward with his head in his hands and moaned.
“Oh, Jack! Oh God, can this possibly be the end? Surely it cannot be! Just a year, maybe two, and you would have been an Admiral; honoured, knighted – a true hero of the seas as you have always craved to be. How could you leave that now? How could you leave me?”
“But I have not left you, my love,” said Jack. “I am still here.”
Stephen raised his head to where Jack was sitting on the other side of the cot, his blue eyes sad as he saw his friend’s distress. He had not left the doctor’s side all this past week, and Stephen for one was glad of it. He had long given up reminding himself that the Jack sat opposite him was a figment of his imagination; whether due to lack of rest or that he was slowly going mad he did not know. It did not matter either way; for whatever the nature of the shade he was glad of its company, even though its presence so close to the body of his failing lover only made him regret his illness even more. He glanced back down to the cot.
“Yes, but barely, my dear.” Stephen shook his head morosely. Even now he cursed himself for the show of emotion; it was weak of him, whatever sorrows might weigh on his soul. “Barely. There have been times in the past few days that I have feared that I may lose you altogether.”
“Stephen –” Jack began, his voice full of concern, but the doctor held up a quelling hand, shaking his head violently.
“No, Jack. I know what you would say. You would seek to give me comfort, yet there is no more comfort to give.” His voice cracked as he spoke, the painful lump in his throat returning. “The truth is, Jack, that I have been deluding myself. Before I thought there was a chance, that you might… but now I can see that it is beyond hope, and that you shall not wake again. And… and I cannot… will never…”
But here the words died in his throat, lost as his breath hitched and the tears fell, as he bent double and curled his arms over his head, seeking to hide the grief, disappointment and sorrow that he could no longer hold in check. Jack moved from his seat to kneel beside the doctor, wrapping his huge, bear-like arms about him. He held him close, rocking his dear friend back and forth gently as he let the tears flow; each heart-wrenching sob shaking his meagre frame to its core. One hand stroked his close-cropped hair tenderly, and it pained Stephen even more that for a moment he imagined he could feel the warm pressure of that ghostly caress. Quietly Jack began to hum, his pleasant bass reverberating deep within his throat and Stephen recognised the tune as the one from the night of the duet – had it been two weeks ago? He seemed to have lost all sense of time, all sense of reasoning. He no longer cared whether he was mad or sane; there was nothing outside his despair and the fragile embrace of imagination that so lovingly surrounded him. Night closed in upon him, and in the dim light of the cabin, Stephen Maturin wept.
The doctor’s breath caught in his lungs as he wondered whether he dare believe his ears. The voice was frail, barely strong enough to be above a whisper; but as his gaze snapped back to the cot he found it met by two bright blue eyes, turned now from the deck beams above and focussed directly on him.
“Jack?” Stephen's voice was hoarse and he did not immediately recognise it as his own; nor was he conscious of the fact that he had spoken.
“Stephen…” The fingers of Jack’s right hand twitched as they lay across his chest, and Stephen leant forward to grasp that hand in his.
“Oh, Jack, can it be true? Are you indeed in your senses? How are you, my dear?”
He felt the patient’s forehead and found not a trace of the fever. He cupped Jack’s cheek, searching his face, seeing the consciousness in his gaze, and his heart thudded loudly in his chest as he confirmed that he was indeed not dreaming.
“Jack… Padeen! Padeen, come quickly now! Bring hot water, clean cloths and soup! Hurry, now; hurry! Oh Jack, I did not think for a minute that you would… but I was beginning to believe I might be hoping in vain.”
Jack looked up at Stephen’s beaming face somewhat dazed, confused by his dear friend’s so obvious relief and the fact that the last thing he remembered was leading a boarding party over the side of an enemy frigate. It was also apparent that the doctor had been crying - looked utterly destroyed - and it was this above all else which concerned him most.
“A sabre cut to your side just after boarding,” said Stephen, taking up Jack’s wrist and satisfied to feel his pulse strengthening. “You lost much blood, too much by far.”
“Boarding…” The events of the engagement flooded back to Jack in a rush of memory, and he tried to sit up. “But the ship, the battle…”
“All went well, my dear,” Stephen said softly, gently placing a restraining hand on his chest. “You were victorious. Tom carried the day. Do not agitate yourself, I beg of you. You must rest, rest and have something to eat.”
Just then Padeen entered the small cabin, followed closely by Killick, who gaped at Jack who was making another attempt to sit up.
“At last! Padeen, Pass me those cloths – handsomely now – and were is that soup?”
Padeen pointed wordlessly to the tray on the sea chest.
“Excellent! A more wholesome soup I have never set eyes on! Sit up now, Jack, I must get you to take some of this capital soup. That’s it – Padeen, another pillow behind the captain’s back. Steady now, my dear, steady! Killick! Killick, you villain, stop gawping and make us a pot of coffee; I fair expire with thirst!”
Killick, having been astonished to see the doctor so animated when only moments before he had seemed on the point of breaking down, shook himself awake and disappeared again out of the cabin. Barely half a minute later a series of hasty clattering footfalls down the companionway announced the arrival of Pullings, who hardly contained his excitement long enough to rap on the door out of courtesy before bursting into the cabin, eyes wide, face aglow with hope.
“Is it true? Doctor, it is true?”
“Calm yourself, Tom, my dear; I must ask you to keep your voice lowered. And yes, you may inform the crew that the captain has regained consciousness and what is more, with the Blessing, is expected to make a full recovery.”
“Oh, sir!” Pullings exclaimed in a hoarse whisper, shaking Jack’s limp hand warmly. “I am overjoyed, so glad! The men will be right pleased; we had all but lost hope.”
“Thank you, Tom,” Jack said, offering a weak smile. “I hear you carried it off fine after I’d been knocked on the head.”
“Hardly, sir, hardly.” Pullings’ grin stretched from ear to ear. “You did most of the work for us. Why, this completes our victory; completes it utterly! The Frenchies haven’t beaten us, not at all; not now you’re better, sir! I shall tell the men, tell the men directly, sir!”
“Do so, Tom, do so,” said Stephen, seeing that the lieutenant’s enthusiasm had nearly exhausted Jack. “Do so right away, but I beg that you will ask the hands not to cheer too loudly, and to keep all noise to the barest minimum for the patient’s sake.”
“I shall, sir, I shall. And if any one of the buggers even so much as farts too loud I shall hang him from the nearest yardarm!”
And with that he wished Jack a speedy recovery, departing to return to the quarterdeck, whispering to the marine sentry to pass the word for the bosun. A few minutes later there was the muffled sound of muted cheering from above decks, followed by the exaggerated footfalls of men making a concerted effort to be quiet, which resulted in them being noisier than ever; yet in that moment Stephen felt the cloud of gloom that had settled on the Surprise lift, and with it his spirits. He managed to spoon a few mouthfuls of the lukewarm broth into Jack, then laying the bowl aside picked up one of the cloths, soaking it in the basin Padeen had brought and set about bathing his friend’s face, wiping away the dried sweat which had accumulated on his skin. Jack leaned into the caress, sighing contentedly and closing his eyes to enjoy the sensation.
“I could hear you speaking,” he said after a while. “You were talking to me, but I could not make a sound.”
“Hush, joy; hush now,” Stephen chided gently, feeling somewhat guilty now he recalled the conversations with his imaginary Jack. “Do not exert yourself in any way; you are very weak, very frail.”
“To be sure. You have been lying in a state of delirium for three weeks.”
“Three weeks?” Even in his fragile state Jack sounded incredulous. “Dear God, should I not be dead?”
“So you nearly were, my dear. You shall never know how close I… how close I came to losing you.”
Jack smiled up at him.
“Bless you, dear Stephen! You have always taken care of me, always patched me back together again; I could not have left you even if I tried. I daresay you could raise the dead if you put your mind to it!”
A small smile quirked at Stephen’s lips. Even now it amazed him how Jack made light of such an incident; yet it was a sign that he was truly on the mend, and for this reason he smiled.
“Sleep now, my dear,” he said quietly, stroking his thumb across a cheekbone. “You are safe.”
“No fear,” Jack mumbled, his voice trailing off as he sank into a deep, restful slumber. “Always here… my love…”
Stroking his fingers through a few sweat-dampened locks of grizzled hair, Stephen hummed quietly, his voice cracking on the odd note, but the strains of the lullaby could still be recognised. He watched his friend’s chest rise and fall, breathing easily at last and though far, far down in his sleep, Jack smiled as the familiar melody rested softly on his ears.