…Stephen made his way through the uproar to the master, asked the position, and hurried back to Martin. “Give you joy of the day, my dear,” he said. “We have just crossed the tropic line.”
“Have we indeed?” cried Martin, flushing with pleasure. “Ha, ha! So we are in the tropics at last; and one of my life’s ambitions has been fulfilled.” He looked eagerly about the sea and sky, as though everything were quite different now; and by one of those happy coincidences that reward naturalists perhaps more often than other men, a tropic-bird came clipping fast across the breeze and circled above the ship, a satiny-white bird with a pearly pink flush and two immensely long tail feathers trailing far behind.
It was still there – still watched by Martin, who had refused his dinner in order not to lose a moment of its presence – sometimes taking wide sweeps round the ship, sometimes hovering overhead, and sometimes even sitting on the mainmast trunk, when Stephen and Higgins began bleeding all hands. They only took eight ounces from each, but this, bowl after bowl, amounted to nine good buckets with foam of an extraordinary beauty: but they had rather more than their fair share of fools who would be fainting, because as the breeze declined and the heat increased a sickly slaughter-house reek spread about the deck; and one of them (a young Marine) actually pitched into a brimming bucket as he fell and caused three more to lurch, so angering Dr Maturin that the next half dozen patients were drained almost white, like veal, while guards were placed over the buckets that remained.
However, it was all over in an hour and fifteen minutes, both surgeons being brisk hands with the fleam; the corpses were dragged away by their friends to be recovered with sea-water or vinegar, according to taste, and finally, seeing that fair was fair, each surgeon bled the other. Then Stephen turned to tend to the captain, as unusually on such an occasion Jack had not presented himself, but much to his surprise he found there was no sign of him anywhere on deck. Somewhat perplexed, Stephen wiped his lancet, returned it to his pocket and made his way below. As he came to the door of the great cabin he made to walk past the sentry as per usual without a second glance , but the Marine stepped into his path.
“Sorry, sir, but the captain ordered he is not to be disturbed.”
“Not to be disturbed?” exclaimed Stephen. “Robert Williams, I am sure you are aware that I have use of this cabin as well as the captain?”
“Yes, sir,” said the sentry apologetically. “But he expressly said not even Dr. Maturin was to enter. Repeated it most earnestly.”
“And what is Captain Aubrey doing that is so important that even I, his particular friend and physician, may not have access to my own cabin?”
“I don’t know, sir, but I can’t stand aside.”
Stephen, now fairly certain of what ‘business’ had so urgently called Captain Aubrey below, narrowed his eyes. He was not one to suffer fools gladly, and by unhappy coincidence Williams was probably one of the greatest fools the Surprise possessed; not to mention the man’s look of sympathy was severely trying his patience. Scrutinising him closely, he observed the youth was not looking at all pale, nor clutching at his lower arm mournfully as every other man aboard seemed to think appropriate after a bleeding, nor was there any trace of a bandage beneath his sleeve and Stephen sensed before him a man who had somehow avoided his veins being tapped.
“You were not on deck for bleeding.”
“No, sir,” said Williams, trying to suppress a grin but failing miserably. “The captain excused me so that I could attend to my duties.”
Williams’ grin was met by a singularly reptilian glare that succeeded in removing any inclination to smile from the young man’s mind.
“Captain Aubrey, though admittedly next to God Himself aboard this floating dictatorship, does not possess the power to excuse any man aboard from medical treatment,” said Stephen, his voice containing an edge of steel. “Nor does he have the right to abuse such authority so that he can hide in his cabin. Report to Mr. Martin at once.”
After Williams had sloped off Stephen turned his attention back to the cabin door and rapped his fist smartly against the woodwork.
“Jack, open this door.”
“Damn you for a grass-combing lubber, I said I was not to be disturbed!” came the reply from within.
“Jack Aubrey,” Stephen snapped. “Stop behaving in this childish manner and let me in.”
“Oh, Stephen?” the voice of contempt had suddenly changed to absolute innocence. “Is that you?”
“You know it is, and you have no right to keep me out here just because you do not wish to face a bleeding!”
“Stephen, in God’s name keep your voice down! Someone will hear.”
“I will not. I do not care if they hear me in the tops; I will have you open this door!”
“I’m afraid I can’t; that is I have not the time – piles of paperwork, chart observations, terribly behind on the purser’s accounts – come back later. I’m sure it is no great a matter if I miss out.”
“And from where do you cite your medical authority, Jack? Stop this nonsense immediately or I shall have you bled by force; you know I shall!”
There was a resounding silence from within the cabin, but more than a decade of being acquainted with Jack Aubrey convinced Stephen it was the silence of indecision; the only thing to do was to wait, and Stephen waited patiently. About a minute later there was the sound of the lock clicking and the door opened. Immediately Stephen marched straight into the cabin, past the mournful-looking Jack dressed in waistcoat and shirt sleeves, to the stern windows, turning on his heel, folding his arms across his chest and fixing his friend with an indignant glare.
“Come now, what is the meaning of this? Why this half-hearted attempt to escape my operating on you?”
Jack looked down at the desk, then back up again whilst the doctor seethed, his expression somewhat embarrassed and uncertain.
“Forgive me, Stephen, I don’t know what came over me. I am quite brought by the lee trying to explain it to myself.”
At the look of sincere confusion in those brilliant blue eyes Stephen’s expression softened somewhat. For such a large and powerful man Jack could at times seem surprisingly awkward. With a sigh he cleared himself a space amongst the papers spread across the stern locker and sat down.
“Never let it trouble you, my dear. But tell me, Jack, are you ill? In all the times we have crossed the line I have not known you this upset by a simple bleeding. Why did you come below? I understand the conditions of the day – a lack of breeze to carry the smell, men falling about left, right and centre – would prove distasteful, but why set Williams at the door? You know I would come to find you and proceed no matter how many sentries you placed in my path.”
Jack looked away, distracted, and began pacing the width of the cabin.
“To be honest Stephen…? The heat of battle is one thing, but cutting up things in cold-blood, being passive whilst another man drains you dry; it is so unnatural, so –”
“I admit I have always found your intolerance of any surgical procedure strange when your profession requires you to spill blood most readily. But now I come to think of it, you have been unusually disturbed during this voyage; I remember how you paled when Mr. Allen and I discussed Mr. Leadbetter’s dissection of a whale at dinner a few months back.”
“Stephen, please!” Jack cried, wiping his brow with an agitated hand, the recollection of whale intestines doing nothing to soothe his already harried nerves. “All this talk of bleeding, guts and knives; worse than a pack of goddamned vampires!”
A resounding silence descended upon the cabin as Stephen gazed at Jack over the top of his tinted spectacles.
“Ah,” he said quietly.
Jack, realising his terrible blunder, immediately launched into an apology.
“Oh, Stephen, I did not mean to say –”
“No,” said Stephen, calmly raising one pale, skinny hand to cut off Jack’s speech. “No, you have made things quite clear to me now.”
“No no, Stephen, you have it all wrong! It was just the sight of you draining the men, the smell, the buckets… for God’s sake, Stephen, nine buckets full of the stuff! It fair turned my stomach. You understand it would never have done for the captain to be seen fainting at the sight of blood on his own deck; no, would never have done at all. I had to remove myself before I ended up disgraced.”
Stephen thought Jack might care a little too much for potential disgrace, but instead said; “Maybe, but you let your fears overpower your reason, which I know you have empathically declared in the past as something that an officer should never allow to occur. Usually you are the first to sacrifice personal comfort or peace of mind to set an example to the crew; I have seen you do so countless times.”
Jack turned to the stern windows, gazing out at the Surprise’s wake and muttered something unintelligible. Stephen sighed, shaking his head wearily.
“Nevertheless, for the good of your already unstable health you must be bled; though how to do so without provoking your already agitated state? I take it a blindfold would be out of the question? I thought as much,” he said at Jack’s open look of contempt. He got up from the locker bench to pace as Jack had paced, brow furrowed deep in thought, occasionally glancing at the captain as if a vague but not quite desirable idea were forming in his head and he was deciding how best to broach it. Jack had seen such a look many times before when Stephen was contemplating trying an experimental method of physic on a patient, and this did not comfort him one bit. Finally Stephen stopped pacing, turning to his friend and said, rather hesitantly; “Perhaps, then, you would prefer it if the blood were to be extracted in a less surgical manner?”
Jack did not immediately comprehend what Stephen was suggesting, nor why he should be so hesitant in proposing such a procedure; but a moment’s consideration and his eyes widened as he immediately clapped his hands defensively around his throat. Stephen raised his eyes to the heavens and calmly removed his blue-tinted spectacles, cleaning the lenses on his shirt sleeve.
“You do not trust me.”
“Are you at all surprised, Stephen?”
No, he was not surprised. He remembered all too well the time Jack alluded to; their first voyage in the Surprise returning from India, a week or so after recovering from his illness. Jack had been swimming that morning and Stephen had watched, envying his mastery of the sea when it hated his kind with a vengeance. He had gone below to work on a score he was transposing; but not half a glass had elapsed when Jack walked into the cabin dripping wet, mother naked, blue eyes sparkling with a piratical gleam. Stephen barely had time to ask what was amiss before he found himself pinned to the bulkhead and on the receiving end of a deep, rough, passionate kiss.
“I have told you repeatedly,” he said levelly, returning to his seat on the locker. “My guard was down, my illness at that time meant I had not been taking my course of physic those last few weeks and you quite overwhelmed me. If I had any notion you were to put me in such a position I would have been prepared.”
Jack’s urgency, the feeling of pounding heart and pumping blood after so long an absence of laudanum had awakened something he long thought dead and buried, lighting a fire in his veins. Quickly gaining the upper hand, he had shed what were left of his clothes and took Jack soundly on the deck, the feel of their intimacy so glorious that his fangs had appeared of their own volition; and he had bit hard, bit deep. He did not hear Jack’s hoarse cry of pain; the intoxicating mix of blood and pleasure drowned out all else and he drank without restraint. It was only Killick’s timely entrance that had stopped him draining the captain to the point of death, or going further and committing an irreversible act. Three days filled with guilt and anxiety followed whilst he waited to see if infection had been avoided. It was a lapse in control he rebuked himself for day and night, and the increasing doses of laudanum set about suppressing any fleeting desire to repeat the episode.
“As surgeon I spend my days amongst blood and open wounds, and yet I have not transgressed. I promised you from the start that I would not in any way harm you or the crew, and besides that one unfortunate incident I have kept my word. Your fears are out of all proportion to the evidence, Jack.”
“Stephen, I know what you say is true and that you have kept your word as far as the men are concerned, but dammit, you don’t forget something like that! In all truth I have tried.” Once more he brought a hand to his throat, feeling beneath his cravat where the scar was hidden and wincing involuntarily as he recalled the pain. “You cannot blame me for seeming reluctant.”
Silence fell over the cabin once more as each man retreated into his own thoughts. On his part Stephen sat with his eyes firmly fixed to the deck, carefully considering his next course of action. After a few moments spent like this he raised his head to meet Jack’s expectant gaze.
“Jack, I have thought this through carefully weighing the possibilities of error and I promise you that in no way shall there be a repeat of last time. For one, the bleeding shall take place from the forearm; the prospect of infection in such a vital area as the jugular is too great a risk and takes a comparatively long time to heal. It is also almost impossible to accurately control the loss of blood. It will not be all that painful and I shall endeavour to be gentle; it is only a matter of a very small amount of blood for a man of your size – but still you do not seem convinced.”
“You are certain this is most necessary? If it is only a very small amount of blood, then…”
“For sure it is, joy; I would not persist if it were otherwise.”
Rising from the locker he took a hold of Jack’s hand, lifting the other to stroke his cheek, then gently running his fingers through a few stray locks of yellow hair.
“If the spectacle distresses you then by all means look the other way.”
His pale eyes met those of Jack and he gazed long and hard, letting his breathing fall in time with that of the patient. After a few moments Jack’s eyelids fluttered and with a stab of panic he sought to draw away; but Stephen tightened the grip on his hand, continuing to stroke his hair, his cheek, his lips, murmuring comforting sounds.
“Be at ease, my dear; all shall be well.”
Keeping eye contact he saw those blue orbs begin to soften, the worry giving way to tranquillity, and he sensed his heartbeat begin to slow to a calmer pace. In pacifying such a large creature Stephen was reminded of a particularly troublesome ox a worried tenant farmer on his estate had requested him to treat many years ago in Catalonia. The local cattle doctor had been unable to see to the beast and, hat clutched nervously in hand, as a last measure he was forced to apply to Señor Esteban. It was the same sensation, he recalled then as now, of power over a large, resilient creature; but with Jack he could not deny there was some accompanying degree of eroticism that could not possibly be gained in subduing any farm animal. It brought to mind the old days, when other young men belonging to old families such as his had abused their gifts throughout mainland Spain; abused to achieve this same feeling of power and eroticism. But he was not pure-blooded and of a good catholic upbringing; he had never taken pleasure in such perversions. ‘Until now that was’, the guilty thought presented itself. Perhaps it was merely a matter of attraction? Most likely he would never know. Gently he led Jack to the stern locker and helped him sit, rolling up his left sleeve to reveal the deep-tanned skin of the forearm.
“Stay a moment, I shall return.”
He hurried back up on deck to gather his medical supplies, then returned to the cabin satisfied to find Jack had not moved from the position he had left him in. Stephen made ready the swab and bandages, and with practised eyes located the vein. Taking a firm grip of the arm, long unused fangs lengthened as he opened his mouth, placing the points against the skin as he steadied himself and then bit.
He heard Jack’s gasp as the flesh was penetrated, then a low moan as the blood began to drain from his body. The tang of iron on his tongue, the smell and the feel of liquid life; oh, he had forgotten what it was to drink from a human being! It was, as always, a heady sensation but with a sharp mental rebuke he reminded himself of the purpose of his actions. Jack was a larger man and of a far more sanguine nature than most and therefore required a little more than the prescribed eight ounces for the rest of the crew; eleven ought to be sufficient. It did not take in excess of five minutes to drain the correct amount, and when all was done Stephen withdrew, fangs retracting and breathing heavily, licking what spillage there was from his lips. It had been more difficult than he had imagined to let go, and he thanked Heaven that he had had the presence of mind to take a heavier dose than usual that morning in preparation for crossing the tropic line.
He cleaned and swabbed the wound, applied the bandages then raised his head to see how the captain fared. He was surprised to see that despite his subdued state Jack had gone quite pale; a light sweat having broken out on his forehead. Even with his attention elsewhere he had known that Jack had not turned away, but watched the whole of the proceedings with a mute horror. Pushing his friend’s unresisting body back onto the stern locker, he covered him with a blanket and patted his hand reassuringly.
“There, my dear, all is done. Rest now, and when you wake I shall have Killick bring you supper to help regain your strength.”
But Jack was asleep before he finished speaking. With an affectionate glance Stephen placed a kiss to his forehead, gathered his equipment and exited the cabin as quietly as possible; though not such an unremarked exit as he could have wished, as in the doorway he was met by Killick, smelling very strongly of metal polish.
“Killick,” said Stephen. “The captain is unwell, although it is nothing that decent rest and a fortifying supper will not cure – perhaps some of those excellent mutton chops if there are any left? Please make sure that he is not disturbed, and as soon as he wakes I am to be informed.”
Killick shot a suspicious glance to the stern locker, where indeed the captain was sleeping, looking extremely peaky and all the worse for wear. Unknown to Stephen the cantankerous steward, on hearing raised voices in the cabin, had slunk below to witness the later stages of the operation and was more than aware of why the captain required rest – and it was with definite disapproval he noted some of Jack’s blood had got onto the doctor’s cravat. Satisfied that the captain’s ailment was indeed nothing more serious than Dr. Maturin stated, he gave a stiff nod of the head.
“No disturbin’ of himself and mutton chops it is. An’ there’s blood on your cravat, sir.”
Stephen looked down with dismay at the all-too-clear stain on the crisp white linen. He had only put it on new this morning, and he was terribly aware that he should have known better as to remove it on such an occasion; from birth his nurse had rebuked him for the mess he created whilst eating. Still, no one but Killick would know the origin or manner in which the stain came to be there, and with nine buckets waiting for him above he was bound to get a few more stains joining it soon. Just behind him he heard Killick muttering under his breath; “Should be more careful with the captain… spilling his blood all careless like… cravat brand new as well…” It was without a doubt Stephen knew he would bear the full extent of Killick’s wrath that evening when on removing said dirty linen he would be suitably chastised. With one last glance to the cabin door, where just this moment a meek and pale-looking Williams had returned clutching remorsefully at his lower arm, he replaced his spectacles on his nose and hurried back on deck.