In their united anxiety over Diana and the twins, none of them, Jack least of all, noticed the first signs of the disease upon him. Stephen was distracted with patients both at home and in the village, the local doctor having died three weeks into the course of the epidemic, while Jack and Sophie scarcely left the sickroom. The dining hall had been converted for this purpose, being close to the kitchen and the well in the yard, and the large windows were thickly draped to keep any painful light from the eyes of the victims as they tossed and turned in the grip of the fever. In the dim light, the tell-tale rash upon Jack's neck could scarcely be made out, and his sea-bred fortitude made little of the muscle aches; to some extent he unconsciously assumed himself safe, and suspected nothing.
He was carrying in a load of water when the first of the true spasms struck, and he crumpled beneath the weight in the kitchen. Sophie came running at once and knelt beside him, her hand trembling near the scarlet patches so vivid on his fair skin, and he read his sentence in her stricken face. Yet even after being put to bed, he remained lucid for a week before the worst of the change and the associated delirium came upon him, so that when the fever finally cleared from his brain, he displayed none of the dreadful confusion that the earlier victims had suffered on waking: he had known what to expect, and with a great effort at courage he bore the effects with at least superficial calm.
For the most part Stephen was able to bring his patients through the difficult fever, and Jack proved the last to succumb. As the mails slowly began to run once more, it became evident that the epidemic had followed a similar progression throughout the country, and was finally passing. This proved no small blessing, for by the time Jack was recovered enough to be anxious for his career rather than his life, the King had called an emergency session of Parliament and the government had pushed through the Act of Female Emancipation, which confirmed women with full rights of inheritance and ownership, and declared at the same time that rank and position in the armed forces should not be affected by gender.
Despite the attendant radical alteration in all previous law, the passage of this act was never a conclusion greatly in doubt. The Continent had been ravaged first, and so England had an instructive example before her. The Russian and Austrian armies had instantly dismissed all those afflicted; Napoleon on the other hand had ordered his own subjects back to duty regardless of their new gender, even leaving Marshal Davout in command of his corps of 30,000, and the Emperor had been rewarded with a string of crushing victories.
England, already far more liberal with regard to women's rights than the eastern monarchies, could hardly help but recognize that the loss of a third of her officers, soldiers, and sailors would leave her terribly vulnerable at a time when Napoleon was free to seek new battlefields. And though the King and the Prince of Wales had not been afflicted, perhaps half the members of either house of Parliament were affected in themselves or in their heirs.
Yet despite these excellent motives, the act did not pass without opposition, and many concessions were obliged to be made to the traditionalist elements within the Tory party. The disease had not struck any beyond the age of childbearing, and there remained many older members very reluctant to acquiesce to the wholesale upheaval of all relations between the sexes. The most severe of these concessions fell in the article of matrimony, and as a result, the same stroke which preserved Jack's rank destroyed his marriage and Stephen's both, all marriages being dissolved where both parties were now of the same gender.
Diana had shown a decent regret for the change on her revival, but no one could long imagine she was anything but pleased by the freedom of her new sex. She had instantly possessed herself of some of Stephen's breeches and coats, and taken up riding astride as easily as if she had not spent twenty years in a sidesaddle. Stephen himself could hardly begrudge her the liberty; he had always been conscious that she hungered for a freedom that a woman could never before have possessed. They had always been better friends than lovers, and now they very naturally shifted into a relation of easy camaraderie and confidence.
"Do you listen, Stephen," Diana said, when they had gone some small distance from the house on one of their rides. "We cannot go on as we are, now that Jack is risen from his bed at last. I dare say that you have been too busy with your patients to hear, but there are very dreadful penalties being meted out to couples which continue to cohabitate despite the edict, and the four of us certainly present a very curious appearance to the world, living all together without benefit of clergy in any direction."
"I am not greatly surprised by what you say; it makes clear certain meaningful looks I noted from the village magistrate on my last visit to see his daughter," Stephen said. "I do not think we need fear being called to task immediately, but you are right to think on it."
"Well, I am sadly puzzled what to do, because we can scarcely take Brighid away: Sophie has always been more of a mother to her than I was, and George took such care of her while we were all so sick and worried."
"Sure such an upheaval, coming on the general one already suffered, could have a very dreadful effect upon her. I am sure you have as little desire as myself to see any recurrence of her earlier condition," Stephen said. "In any case, it would not serve for the two of us to remove. No, my dear, may I tell you what I have been thinking in any case, and beg you to consider it in a practical light?"
"Oh! Certainly, if you please, Stephen; to be perfectly frank I have been hoping you could find some way out of our difficulties, and I do not much care what means must be used, so long as the ends are tolerable."
"Well, then I will say that I should very much like you to permit me to make over some quantity of my fortune to you -- I beg you to have no delicacy regarding the matter. You are to consider that if we had not been forcibly divorced by this edict, you should have had every legal right to draw upon my funds. And my happiness should certainly be diminished if I imagined you in any sort of want."
"Oh, my very dear," Diana said, looking at him warmly. "I declare I see some sense in the edict after all: I am certainly inclined to kiss you soundly at this moment, shocking though that sounds, and if we were not divorced I dare say I would do it. It is a handsome offer, and even more handsome in its style: as though I should be doing you a favor! How absurd. But though perhaps it is not very proper in me, I have not the least hesitation in accepting. I was not terribly worried, as I always have the Blue Peter if need be, but though I can never wear it again, I should like Brighid to have it for her own some day."
"Of course, and though you may call it absurd, I do thank you, Diana: you have relieved my mind greatly. And this being agreed, I may tell you the rest of my mind: I propose that I should take Jack to town, while you and Sophie remain here with the children for the convalescence of the twins. You and Sophie being cousins, even the strictest propriety cannot do more than murmur, I should think."
"It would certainly answer, but do you think it wise to take Jack where he must go into company? Surely it must be very hard for him, and he will have to put off male dress, you know."
"In all honesty I think it cannot be worse than here. George can scarcely conceal that he is much distressed at the change, and Jack's own difficulties are compounded many times over by feeling himself diminished in the eyes of his son, however irrational and foolish that sentiment. Now that his rank is confirmed, I hope he will find himself still respected and treated with honor in the wider society where so many have been affected, which would go a great distance to repairing the damage."
"Yes, you are in the right, Stephen; I have been thinking something of the sort," Jack said, later. "Apart from the legal questions, it cannot be comfortable for Sophie or the children to have me about in this state."
Physically, Jack's health was quite restored: he possessed great reserves of strength, and his muscles had not been badly affected. He made a rather startlingly Junoesque figure, with his great height and broad shoulders, and the generous new curves of breast and hip which had formed in proportion to his frame. His hair had been shingled close during the fever and now waved around his ears softly, and there were no traces of beard left; still, his face was for the most part unaltered, and he did not look at all feminine. Stephen considered him with an analytical eye and felt the lack of a term more suitable than androgyny, which suited Diana's slim, almost-pretty looks far better than the odd contrast here between the masculine features and dress, and the voluptuous body held at parade rest.
Now Jack turned away from the window and added, "And though I should not say it to anyone but you, Stephen, it is damned hard to grow accustomed to, and harder here at home. Everything feels so ordinary that I forget it altogether for hours at a time, and then I stumble upon a mirror or look down at myself, and it gives me a fresh turn."
"My dear, you need not scruple to say such things at all; it is only the most natural thing of the world," Stephen said gently. "Let us away, for all love: you are badly in need of occupation and broader society, and Diana and Sophie will manage together very well, without our presence to put them at legal risk."
"Oh, this damned edict, Stephen, and these idiotic new sumptuary laws. I suppose I shall have to put on dresses." Jack sighed. "I will look a complete fool, if any mantua-maker don't take one look at me and run screaming out of her shop."
Madame DeBarry, whose sign discreetly welcomed "les invalides recouvrient," did not run screaming, and rather regarded Jack with a greedy eye towards the sheer quantities of fabric which should be required to cover him.
Jack not surprisingly eagerly accepted her first suggestion of a gown "designed to most closely resemble trousers and coat, very convenient, and most comfortable for a convalescent." Stephen, invited into the dressing room, watched with some concern. The gown looked very odd indeed, formed of an heavy broadcloth overdress with skirts cut awkwardly to resemble coattails, and a pale cream underdress pleated down the middle with buckles at knee height. It resembled male dress only in the parodic sense, but to an eye desperate to find familiarity in the mirror, it might have a great appeal.
But Jack looked at himself only briefly, then shook his head. "No; neither fish nor fowl; it won't do. Take it away and do what you can in the usual line."
Madame did not openly approve his rejection of her wares, but she looked on Jack with a rather warmer eye after this display of both sense and taste, and this perhaps led her to make the delicate suggestion that perhaps some form of restraint would not go amiss. Jack, whose waist was presently a good deal smaller than it had been since his days as a lieutenant but still more than ample, indignantly refused a corset; after a moment of clarification Madame produced a brassiere. Jack looked appalled at the sight of it but submitted, and when the hooks were engaged and his breasts supported for the first time, his expression rapidly transformed into one of astonished relief.
"My God, Stephen, Sophie never wore such a thing," Jack said with sudden enthusiasm, rolling his shoulders in total disregard of the attendants' efforts to fit him with a waist of patterned silk. "I cannot conceive how a woman stands it without one. No, damn your eyes--" this to one of the assistants, as he finally noticed what was being proffered, "--that is, no, thank you, I will not wear anything with flowers on it, so take it away."
"Joy, Sophie is built on a very different scale, if you will forgive so indelicate an observation," Stephen said.
The seamstress came bustling forward with a dark blue gown designed for a very tall lady. After three full panels had been added to the sides, the sleeves trebled in diameter, and more than a yard of gold ribbon pinned around the high waistline to hold all the temporary insets, Jack was got into it and presented with his reflection. He said merely, "Yes, very well," but looked again appalled, this time for a different reason: the overall effect was not unattractive.
He grew quiet and was clearly inclined to be dismal. Madame DeBerry, evidently not unperceptive, took the interruption as another gown was pinned together as opportunity to seize upon Jack's coat and breeches and whisk them into the sewing room. Jack looked anxious for them, but was unable to move under the hands of the attendants, and shortly, after another three gowns had been approved, they were returned. Jack hesitantly put them back on, and brightened almost at once: the breeches no longer bunched around his waist nor gripped too tightly about his hips and thighs, and the coat had been discreetly darted, so that it might once again be closed in front. They looked perfectly natural once more, even graceful, and no longer like an attempt to avoid an unpleasant reality.
Jack instantly ordered two new coats and three pairs of breeches in the altered style. They took their leave on this auspicious conclusion, Madame DeBerry looking on them benevolently in anticipation of the enormous bill to be sent and more custom to come. Stephen was pleased to see a marked improvement in Jack's spirits as they walked back to their hotel.
"It was not so very bad after all," Jack said: he had been much dreading the visit. "If it were not for those damned gowns, I should not have minded it at all: she is a woman of sense, and I am a great deal more comfortable."
He was indeed walking much more easily, with a freer stride and his shoulders straight. "You look it, my dear," Stephen said. "And you are to keep in mind that the gowns, necessary evil though they may be, are only required for evening and not at all at sea; you will not be obliged to suffer them very often."
"Yes, but that will be more than enough. I have no idea how I will bear it, shaking hands with fellows I have known for years, in one of those wretched things. But it is almost worth it: I look almost respectable in these recut things, and when I present myself at the Admiralty tomorrow I need not feel wholly ashamed. Stephen, should you know me changed, looking at me in these?"
"Of course I should," Stephen said, dampeningly. "An endowment such as yours is scarcely to be disguised, and I beg you will not attempt it. Recall instead, my dear, that you have not changed in the essentials, and that no one seeing you could doubt that you are in excellent health of body and mind. Given the dreadful toll this disease has taken, the Admiralty must give ships even to the altered, and you have as good a claim as any."
"What I would not give to be at sea again," Jack said wistfully. "I would wear a dozen dresses for a ship. But I am mortally afraid it will be the other way 'round; some admiral will see me in one at Lady So-and-so's, and then I may whistle for a ship until I am dry, and some fellow who has not made a cake of himself in public will have one instead."
Jack did indeed go very pale at Lady Camblemyre's as Admiral Goring approached, a dreadful moment coming hard after a series of them: it was Jack's first evening in public, and Stephen could see that he was miserably conscious throughout every exchange of even the barest pleasantries.
But the event proved not so terrible after all. "Aubrey, I had heard you were in town: I am glad to see you up and about again," Goring said, shaking Jack's hand firmly. "And even more so to see you looking so well. Would you credit the number of simpering clowns about that have some power of making the Navy ridiculous?"
They looked in the direction of Goring's scornful gaze: there were indeed several sea-officers about wearing garments in the false-mannish style of the first which Madame DeBarry had offered him, with the addition of whichever decorations they could claim. They did look very ill. "Well, sir, I thank you for saying so, but I do not know that I blame them a great deal: it is hard to resign oneself, and I dare say I might have easily done the same," Jack said.
"You are generous; it is hard, but what of it? The service is a hard one too, and if a man -- if an officer cannot face unpleasant truths, he has no business mucking about with one of His Majesty's ships. I did not think you would be such a fool as to get yourself up in so absurd a manner, and I am glad to see I was right. We must see about getting you a ship; have you heard about Alexander? There will be the devil to pay in the Baltic. You must excuse me, I see Lady Lange." He shook hands again and took himself off, leaving Jack in precisely the opposite condition in which he had received Goring: nearly overcome with joy.
Stephen hastily led Jack into a more private corner to prevent his betraying himself in the intensity of his relief, and scarcely too soon. "Stephen, Stephen, he did say that about getting me a ship, did he not?" Jack said; he was swelling with almost ecstatic happiness. "I am not disordered in my mind?"
"No, but you are very like to be if you do not calm yourself," Stephen said. "You are not to depend upon it, soul, indeed you are not: a few words at a party are no guarantee, you know."
"Oh, I am not a simpleton; I know that very well. But that he should have said it is everything; it means they do consider it, and Goring is not a paltry fellow at the Admiralty. Stephen, I am so very happy. But what did he mean about Alexander?"
"Tsar Alexander has fallen victim," Stephen said. "There was a great deal of effort made to conceal the truth, and the Russian monarchy is as well situated for such concealment as any, but the word has gotten out."
"Good God, what will happen? Have they any notion of a woman as Tsar?" Jack said.
"Very little, aside from the late Catherine. But that is not precisely the import of the event from our perspective; perhaps that will become clearer when I also inform you that Napoleon has divorced his wife Josephine."
Jack was very taken aback. "He does not hope to -- Surely Alexander would never consent --"
"Alexander is in Vienna at present recovering, with a French army of 500,000 men in front of him and a pack of boyars behind him in Russia who will most likely try to have him killed or put aside if he returns in weakness. The marriage may already be accomplished; certainly it is under serious consideration."
"Lord," Jack said, contemplating this. "If the Russians bend their necks to him we will have the very devil of a time of it. And there is some very nasty sailing in the Baltic Sea. But the Russians have no notion of seamanship, and I dare say we will sink them like barrels if ever they come out, ha, ha!" He was already back to meditating on his private happiness, and Stephen noted with displeasure the rise of a pronounced flush on his skin.
"You are permitting yourself to become overexcited," Stephen said severely. "Pray remember that you are scarcely a few weeks removed from your sickbed. Do you stay here and calm yourself; I must go pay my respects to Sir Joseph and Mr. Allenby."
Jack was perfectly content to be abandoned; although he was rapidly growing more resigned to his lot, he was still not at all reluctant to stay out of sight in the relatively cool corner. But he was in very good humor nevertheless, benevolently inclined to his fellows, and he made no objection when he was joined in the corner by a thin, rather nervous-looking young man to whom he had been perfunctorily introduced earlier in the evening. "Battlee, is it not?" he said, nodding in perfect civility.
The young man stammered, flushed, and admitted it was so, scarcely meeting Jack's eyes. Jack realized he had interrupted some prepared speech of introduction; clearly the fellow had not remembered the earlier meeting before being acknowledged. But Battlee recovered and ventured, "I hope you are enjoying the evening."
Jack naturally did not confide, but said very cheerfully, "Well, it is da-- dashed hot in this room, but that is only to be expected with such a crowd."
"Oh, yes! It is indeed a sad crush. May I bring you something to drink?" Battlee said eagerly. "Perhaps a glass of ratafia?"
"Ratafia? What?" Jack stared a moment, astonished, then flushed a very dark crimson as the meaning sank in. "Damn your impudence, you cuttle-headed lobscouse," he said, furiously angry. "Bring me something to drink? The devil! If you could answer it decently while I was in this getup, by God I should knock you down."
Battlee gaped, looked at Jack's face, went very white, and fled with stammered excuses, very nearly running past Stephen, who, returning with two glasses, looked after him inquisitively.
Jack was still fit to burst with unsatisfied anger and mortification, and he stared aghast at the glasses. "Stephen, that is never ratafia," he said accusingly.
"Of course it is not," Stephen said. "It is a very handsome port; I thought it would be a pity if you did not have a glass. You look very overheated; let us take a turn in the garden, and then we may enjoy a cigar with it."
"Oh! Yes, with all my heart," Jack said, a little mollified, but he remained choleric even when they had gotten outside. "Stephen, do you know that Battlee fellow?" he said as they strolled down a narrow path. "His direction, I mean, or any way of getting it."
"Sure I have never met him before tonight, but he is a connection of Mr. Farworthy, I believe," Stephen said.
"I think I must ask you to act for me," Jack said. "He tried to come the gallant with me, if you can credit it. It was such an insult I could scarcely believe it had been given, and then to compound it he scuttled away before I had recovered enough to demand satisfaction."
Stephen looked at Jack thoughtfully, but he did not immediately respond, other than to say that he would be happy to oblige. They came to a small fountain and settled themselves upon a bench to indulge. Having allowed time for the port and the tobacco to do their mellowing work, Stephen said, "My dear, I am of course at your service, but even on so little acquaintance as a half-dozen words exchanged, I find it almost impossible to believe that the young man in question should have meant to offend. Is it not possible that he should have made a wretched but honest mistake?"
Jack took this suggestion reasonably well, and answered without rancor, "He did seem a bit of a milk-and-water fellow, but no one looking at me could possibly think I was really a woman -- a born woman, I mean -- and it ain't some sort of pride in me saying that, whatever you may think."
Stephen paused a moment, then finally said, "I beg you will forgive my frankness, Jack. It is perfectly true that no one looking at your face could possibly mistake you. However, you are to consider the difference in height between yourself and Mr. Battlee: his eyes were not on a level with your face."
Jack looked down at himself involuntarily. Taken objectively, the neckline of the gown was daring, and the dark blue made a fine contrast against his fair skin; if this were not enough, he had sweated copiously in the overheated room, and while the dark fabric did not show stains, the thin silk of the gown had plastered itself to his skin. It was an effect calculated to please a male eye; he could not help but appreciate it, even being the possessor, and after a moment's internal struggle, his natural sense of justice won out over indignation.
"Oh, damn you, Stephen. I suppose I must let him live after all," he said, with a good-natured if rueful humor. "I dare say when I was his age, I should never have looked up for an instant." He contemplated his bosom again, and added, half-despairing, "They are rather splendid, aren't they?"
"I am afraid so, my dear," Stephen said, and Jack sighed. By any measure they were handsome: neither small nor disproportionate, evenly matched, and, being newly-grown, firm as those of a much younger woman. To render them still more appealing, Jack was of a pink-and-white complexion by nature, where sea air and a hard life had not coarsened his skin, and he had always been amply fleshed. He would certainly have admired them on a woman, and abruptly he was conscious that Stephen was looking at them.
"Shall I speak of something more encouraging?" Stephen said.
"Please," Jack said, in a somewhat strangled voice: his breasts had tightened involuntarily against the silk, despite the warmth of the evening. The sensation was not an unpleasant one, but one to which he was not accustomed, and he was almost certain that Stephen could see the effects even in the moonlight.
"I have been privately told -- privately, mind you -- that my information was behind the times: they were married six days ago. There will certainly be an expedition sent into the Baltic Sea at once, and it has been hinted that it would be as well if you were at home tomorrow."
All else was forgotten at once: Jack bounded straight up from the bench. "Stephen! Why did you not say at once? The best news of the world, except of course it may be damned unpleasant for us if the Russians really do fall in line behind Boney. Should you mind if we were to go home straightaway? They may send early, and I must tell Killick to brush my best coat."
Jack returned to their rooms the next day in late afternoon, his face so shining Stephen scarcely needed to ask the outcome of the summons.
"The Phaeton, a splendid new seventy-four, and a broad pennant to boot, Stephen: they mean to do the thing handsomely, and I have a captain under me, so I can even take care of Tom: he would never be made post otherwise," Jack said, casting his coat aside and loosening his neckcloth; the weather had remained unseasonably warm for so early in spring. "We leave for Portsmouth in three weeks. Would there be anything cool to drink? And perhaps you would not object to an early dinner? Killick! Killick there!"
"Which dinner will be on the table in an hour, and not sooner, cook not knowing when you would be," Killick said in surly triumph, bringing in a plate of sandwiches and a bottle of sillery cool from the cellars.
"Oh, that will do admirably," Jack said, seizing on the sandwiches at once. "Stephen, will you not have anything?"
"A glass with you, joy, nothing else; I breakfasted later."
They sat together, and Stephen listened while Jack laid out the details of the expedition; most of them slid unattended past his comprehension, and the bulk of his attention was directed to the more agreeable study of Jack's face. That bleak resignation which had been so plain to see in his features had begun to fade at last, and Stephen was greatly relieved to see him so improved.
Jack cleared the plate of sandwiches and ate heartily of dinner as well, making a better meal than he had made since first rising from his sickbed. He lay down afterwards, tired from having risen absurdly early in excitement, and for once, Stephen was wholly glad to hear his loud snoring: for long weeks he had listened for it in vain, knowing the silence meant Jack was sleepless and brooding miserably.
The next few days passed in a happy, contented rush for Jack: back and forth to the Admiralty twice a day; dropping in at Parliament to vote a handful of times; even the evenings seemed pleasant again. Although it never occurred to him that he might be in some part setting a fashion, he was aware that for the most part other men who had been affected by the disease had given up the mannish clothing, and he was no longer anything out of the usual.
"Stephen, shall we have a concert tonight?" he asked abruptly, lifting his head from the charts spread over the table before him; it was the first outing he had proposed, rather than merely acquiescing to, and the first with no likely benefit in forming connections.
Stephen looked up from his book. "Certainly, my dear, with all my heart," he said, gazing at Jack with affection before turning back to his reading.
The gowns had gradually ceased to be a source of either confusion or pain to him, and the timid dresser he had reluctantly hired had caught the improvement in his spirits and grown a little bolder. This evening she dared to tie his growing hair back out of his eyes with a ribbon, and spent several minutes adjusting the gown he had, as usual, simply thrown on over his head. He paid very little attention except to firmly refuse any scent, but when she hopefully went to stand by the mirror, he yielded enough to look at himself and say, "It looks very well; thank you, Wright," before dismissing her.
When she had gone, he looked in the glass again, a little uneasily: it did look well, and he was not entirely sure what she had done to make it so. The neckline was square and low; a ribbon was tied around the high waist below his breasts, further emphasizing the curves, and the gown fell in soft folds around him, concealing his less-than-slender waist. If he did not look at his face, the body in the mirror was certainly attractive. He touched his breast tentatively; it was no longer so strange to him to think of it as his. The touch moved the silk over the nipple; his breath wanted to come more quickly, and he felt an odd, pleasurable tightening between his thighs.
He almost dropped his hand away, his face in the glass going red, but for once he was more curious than appalled, and stroked himself again, then experimentally squeezed. To his surprise, he found that the greater pressure did not answer half as well as he had always imagined it did, and he returned to a lighter stroke. The tightening was increasing; it was not very like the sensation he had always associated with arousal, being a great deal less urgent, but it built steadily, until he was hot and shivering with it: abruptly he steeled himself and put his hand between his legs.
The sharp little jolt of sensation was wholly unexpected, so he nearly jumped with it, and conscious volition had nothing to do with the instinctive grinding of his hips against his fingers, maddeningly barred from his skin by the underskirt and petticoat. Panting, he flung himself on the bed, drew his skirts up, heedless of the wreck he was making of his clothes, and slid his hand into his smallclothes. They were nearly soaked through, he was so very wet, and his two fingers slipped inside with no difficulty. He made a small involuntary noise of protest as he felt himself penetrated, but though his breathing grew labored and panicked, he did not withdraw his fingers, thrusting against them almost blindly, water standing in his eyes.
After a time, the pleasure began to die down, though for some time he had been possessed of an unbearable sense of some climax just barely out of reach, and he drew his slick and almost dripping hand away. He was gasping as though he had run from his cabin to the tops, and even after he had awkwardly dried himself with a handkerchief and put on fresh drawers, an occasional shudder would pass through him, an echo of pleasure.
He looked at himself in the mirror. Thankfully the underskirt hid the damp stains upon his petticoats, and although he was rumpled, that was nothing unusual for him in a gown: he refused to spread his skirts before he sat, and so invariably rose again with a maze of creases. He badly wanted a drink, a cigar, and a cool bath. He cupped a little water out of the basin and patted down his sweating face as best he could without wetting the silk, then sank down into a chair and simply sat quietly until he should be quite cool again, his face no longer red, and he could be seen without embarrassment.
His emotions were in some turmoil, and he was somewhat inclined to feel ashamed, but after some few moments of quiet reflection, he grew more cheerful, recalling that Stephen had very firmly told him that sexual feeling would return, and that this should be a sign of a final restoration of health. Thus encouraged, he at last ventured out to join Stephen in their shared living room, and rather nervously said to him, "Stephen, you did say it should be natural that -- you said I should expect -- "
Stephen rose to take his arm at once. "Certainly, my dear; it is a very necessary sign of recovery. Do you find it very distressing? Are you in any pain?"
"What?" Jack said, blushing hotly. "Does it hurt women?"
"Occasionally, though I am glad to hear it is not the case with you, sure. Shall I call for your dresser?" Stephen said, and his anxious concern confused Jack mightily.
"Lord, no; I scarcely would want her to know of it," Jack said. "I am just glad to know that it is ordinary."
"My dear, surely you have been aware, from time to time, of Sophie's having undergone the experience?" Stephen said.
"What?" Jack stared at him, shocked equally by the suggestion and by Stephen's having made it. "Sophie would never," he said, unable to finish the sentence.
Stephen stared back, a puzzled frown beginning to crease his brow, then as abruptly clearing. "My dear, can we be speaking of the same thing? Have you begun your courses?"
Jack very hastily assured him of the contrary, privately shuddering for the notion; although Stephen had indeed warned him of the prospect, Jack devoutly hoped it might yet not occur: he would be perfectly happy to be slightly ill all his days if it meant he might avoid the experience.
"My dear, some attention to it will be required, however; I beg you will tell me instantly should they first begin. Forgive my frankness, but I am afraid that they indicate a certain vulnerability, and care must be taken in relations, afterwards, to avoid more extreme consequences," Stephen said.
"Stephen, how you do talk, as though I had any notion of ever really playing the woman in bed," Jack said, indignantly. "I am certainly never going to let some other fellow get upon me. It should be an intolerable liberty; I cannot conceive I could bear it from anyone, except perhaps you."
He went dumb with horror instantly. The words were out, they could not be unsaid: an open challenge, and Stephen could not possibly fail to answer it without unacceptable rudeness. Nor, having issued it, could Jack for his own part honorably stand down: it would be like making mock of Stephen, an unforgivable insult.
Stephen had gone pale, and his hands were gripping his book tightly; yet after a moment he visibly collected himself and said in a tolerably even voice, "My dear, I take that as a handsome compliment. But forgive me: I cannot help but see that you spoke in haste. Nothing could give me more sorrow than to feel that I had taken any sort of advantage from the freedom of speech which we have always shared. In any case, we must leave now: shall I not go and call us a chaise? If you are still of the same mind when we have returned, you need merely so indicate, and I would be very happy to hear it."
Jack breathed again, nearly trembling with relief. "Yes, Stephen, thank you," he said, trying to convey his deeper gratitude with a speaking glance; Stephen smiled back at him briefly and slipped out of the room, leaving him to wipe his brow and be grateful for his recovery. So near a thing, and if dear old Stephen had not found them a way out of it, he should have been brought completely by the lee; even now he might have been on his back in bed with Stephen -- with Stephen -- He was shivering again.
He mastered himself in time to go downstairs and behave for all the world as if it were any ordinary evening. But Stephen's leg would keep coming against his during the drive, with the rocking of the carriage; each time their thighs brushed, the moment of warm communication sent a shudder coursing up his leg, and by the time they reached the hall, he had to hold tightly to the side of the carriage to step down, for the uncertain tremor in his knees.
The concert hall was crowded and over-hot, though their seats were towards the front, and the chairs were narrow and close on one another; he was pressed against Stephen again from ankle to shoulder, heat added upon heat. The joyful dazzling speed of the first Boccherini quintet lifted him along in the final movement; Stephen caught and pinned his rising hand to the chair before he should start beating the measure: a wretched habit, acquired young and impossible to wholly break. This cure had long since become their custom, but now the pressure of Stephen's long fingers upon his wrist seemed scorching, and he lost the thread of the music in a thickening fog of arousal, aware of little beyond Stephen's presence beside him.
Every moment that passed made the idea less appalling. Stephen had taken everything so completely in his stride; there had not been the slightest change in his behavior or friendship, even though he intimately knew every detail of the alteration as Jack's physician; surely if their easy camaraderie could survive the change, it could survive a little more. Perhaps they might only try it as an experiment, at first: Stephen's hand, instead of his own; it could make no great difference -- he caught himself in the thought and blushed fiercely, hardly daring to glance over to see if Stephen had noticed any sign of it.
Stephen's eyes were fixed on the musicians, but with a peculiarly rigid aspect; his face was lightly sheened with sweat and his lips were parted: Jack could see his chest rising and falling with the depth of his breathing. Jack had never developed an eye for sexual excitement in a man, but he knew Stephen very well, and he could not miss the signs. To his mind, that at once settled the matter: he had roused poor Stephen, playing the wanton, and could scarcely leave him in such distress out of belated prudery.
Thus determined, Jack found the rest of the evening almost unbearable; the more he tried not to anticipate or to think on the matter, the less he succeeded; there was a slick dampness upon his thighs, not from sweat, and a deep insistent clenching seemed to take hold within him at regular intervals, almost painful in nature.
The drive home passed in a haze; he was not sure how he gained the carriage from his seat: he had some vague recollection of Stephen's hand unobtrusively on his elbow, guiding him. He left Stephen paying off the cabman and went back upstairs, still in that thick fog of sexual arousal, and stood waiting in their shared common room, his hands gripping the back of a chair to keep from shaking.
Killick looked in and asked if they would take toasted cheese; Jack ordered him away in a voice that he was surprised to hear was not strangely altered. Stephen, coming upstairs in time to hear him do so, closed and barred the door behind Killick, then swiftly crossed the distance between them.
It was very strange to lie down with Stephen; they had shared a bed often enough before that to have his body alongside was familiar and the sensation of arousal more unnatural by contrast. Then Stephen slid under the covers and put his mouth between Jack's legs, and almost at once Jack had no mind or breath for anything but crying out his pleasure. Stephen's tongue explored him with careful, inquisitive strokes, sliding over places that made him writhe and twist helplessly upon the sheets. The climax that had eluded him before now rushed upon him like an overpowering wave, far beyond the limits of the earlier sensation, and tears stood in his eyes for the sheer power of it.
And then it did not end, because Stephen spread Jack open with his fingers and entered him while Jack was still shuddering from the ecstatic moment. Jack said, "Stephen -- Stephen -- " in something between horror and wonder, while Stephen slid inexorably in, up to the hilt, and settled into the juncture of Jack's thighs. His length pulsed inside, foreign, as different from fingers as could be imagined.
Wholly joined, they stared at each other, and Stephen said, very low, "Joy, I beg you will tell me if I go too quickly," and began steadily to thrust.
Jack rose towards a second climax at astonishing speed, his legs spread wide, his hands on Stephen's hips urging him on. Stephen put his hand between Jack's legs and rubbed the tender lumpy flesh before the vulva, and Jack came at once, crying out again. Stephen made to withdraw, but Jack shamelessly wrapped his legs around Stephen's thighs and pressed him back, then still deeper, his great strength making nothing of Stephen's halfhearted resistance. Stephen shuddered, cried out once, and spent.
They lay still and gasping, Stephen sprawled over Jack's body with his head pillowed on Jack's shoulder, wholly limp. After a moment, Jack sighed and stretched luxuriously, his foremost emotion a feeling of delicious satiation. He had already given up any notion of feeling ashamed. It had been too splendid; in perfect honesty, a great deal more pleasant than his first congress with Sophie, all those years ago. He recalled her attitude of rigid endurance and wondered at it, and still more at its persistence through many years of marriage.
"Stephen, do you suppose a born woman would feel things differently?" he asked, absently petting Stephen's head; it was odd but pleasant to stroke the short hair.
"No," Stephen said, too sleepy to be tactful. "I have myself dissected several victims in both directions who died in the late stages, and there is no anatomical distinction to be observed from the original. But in any case there is no need to resort to such theories; a considerable range of sensation and inclination exists within each of the sexes. You have always been full-blooded; there is no reason to be surprised if you continue to be so now."
Jack did indeed continue to be so, and enthusiastically. Still preoccupied with his own preparations for their voyage and the financial arrangements he was making on Diana's behalf, Stephen participated without giving their relations a great deal of thought. However, shortly before their departure for Woolcombe to make their farewells, they returned very late from Black's one night and went to bed together out of habit, without actual congress, and Stephen awoke the next morning in sudden awareness.
"Jack, Jack," he said, low, and touched his face; Jack woke at once, gave him the singularly sweet smile with which he was so familiar, and drew closer under the coverlet.
"Yes, dear?" Jack said, hopefully.
"Forgive me, joy," Stephen said, putting a hand on his lips to forestall the waiting kiss. "We have been willfully blind; we have not considered what we are about here."
Jack started; he drew away from Stephen's hand, and spoke with some surprise: "Of course, if you should prefer to make an end --"
"No, not in the least. But my dear, you must concede that this has exceeded the bounds of friendship: we are living in sin. There is nothing worldly to excuse it, neither of us being obliged elsewhere, and if we like to go on as we are, it must be the height of folly and obduracy to refuse to legitimize it."
"Stephen, you are never suggesting we should marry, are you?" Jack said, sitting up; his dismay and distaste for the idea were very plain.
Stephen bowed his head and held himself still a moment; thankfully a numbness descended to cover the startlingly vivid pain which had been his first, wholly unexpected, reaction. "I most sincerely beg your pardon; I will not speak of it again," he said, and somehow got himself from the bed; he drew on his shirt at once and picked up his breeches.
"You must see it is absurd," Jack said: very like another blow, and Stephen felt an almost blind panic: in another moment he should be unmanned; he had to get out of the room.
"I must go; I am promised early this morning." He knew it was transparently false; he could not summon the invention to produce any better excuse.
"Stephen --" Jack said, a tone of sudden anxiety in his voice, but Stephen was at the door already -- he could pretend not to have heard -- and in a moment he was out and across the hall, into his own room, where he had not slept in a week. He pulled on his breeches and dressed as quickly as he ever had in his life, and fled by the hallway without looking into the common room. Hyde Park was all but empty, the hour being unfashionable, and if a man in a halfway respectable coat chose to sit on a bench with his face hidden in his hands, the groundskeepers paid him no mind.
He knew perfectly well that Jack had never meant to wound him; the refusal had been on general grounds. But it seemed to him plain that Jack did not view him in such a light at all, nor wanted to: he might be friend and even bed-companion, but not a sincere lover. The blow was a very great one, the more so because he had not perfectly realized how very far developed his own feelings were until they had met so harsh a reception; if only he had, he should have been far more cautious and careful in his approach, and perhaps avoided so pronounced a rejection.
The old, familiar despair clutched at him with unusual strength. There would never be an opportunity of repair; he could never address Jack on the subject again, and he could certainly not imagine going to Jack's bed again: he could now never see their lovemaking as anything but the worst sort of fornication, purely physical satisfaction on Jack's side, and joyless on his own. With such a bar standing between them, it seemed impossible they should even continue in friendship, so that at a stroke he had lost friend, lover, occupation, and home: for so he had come to think of the Navy, in a strange way, and the Navy and Jack were inseparable.
Vainly he tried to think of Diana: the old love had quietly rolled itself up into the past without his even noticing, and in any case Jack had held pride of place in his life almost from the moment in which he entered it; love seemed inevitable, on such a foundation, and fresh agony seized him as he looked again at events: had he misunderstood, all along, seen a true sharing of spirit and affection where both had been only on his own side, and returned merely by fondness?
"No," he said, aloud though low, to himself. "I will not allow it; this is disappointment speaking, not reason; I am growing distracted. He loves me very dearly as a friend, enjoys me as a partner; if he could return my feelings he would. I have sought what was never offered; it is hardly to be wondered at that he should have been so upset by the suggestion, and it so crudely made."
To have cause to blame himself was not much consolation for a dreadful loss, but it gave him the strength of mind to command himself, and eventually he rose from the bench and left the park.
Jack passed the day in great agitation, distracted from his work; he was angry and alarmed at the same time. He had never imagined that Stephen would serve him such a turn as to make him the object of a suit. It would have been bad enough -- it would have been intolerable -- to be pursued at all; it had been his own invitation that brought Stephen into his bed, and nothing else could have been borne. And equally intolerable if Stephen had altered or begun to treat him with any kind of gallantry, but Stephen had not behaved differently in the least. Yet now at the last he had done it, and to such an extreme degree -- to propose marriage, as if Jack had a reputation of that sort to care about.
And yet Stephen had sounded so very strange, and gone out in such a hurry. Jack had offended him, perhaps, by speaking so harshly of the idea, and indeed he was conscious that objectively considered, as a refusal it had been brutal, even though the offer had been so clearly absurd and unnecessary. They had not needed to be married to live in each other's pockets all these years; they had not needed to be married these last two weeks to share a bed; what possible reason could there be for Jack to make himself ridiculous by playing the wife? But he still felt uneasy, for no reason he could name, and as the day wore and his anger faded, he recollected that Stephen had always had queer notions: to Jack's knowledge he had never even taken a mistress, and perhaps it was some sort of religious start.
By evening he returned to their quarters determined to apologize and hear Stephen out; he went upstairs rehearsing words in his mind, and when he opened the door to find only a letter lying upon the table, his name written upon the wafer in Stephen's thin crabbed hand, he stood a long time looking at it. He called for Killick and was told, with many an anxious sideways glance, that the Doctor had come and taken away his things several hours before. Jack only nodded, took the letter and closed himself into his room.
The letter was brief and apologetic in a formal style: Stephen begged his pardon for having expressed feelings so unwelcome to him, offered recommendations for a suitable replacement as ship's surgeon, asked to be excused to Sophie and Diana and indicated he would come to Woolcombe in a month's time: that would be after Phaeton had sailed. This was all in the main part of the letter, but a separate sheet had been enclosed, written more hastily, in a less restrained style, and folded very unevenly.
- Forgive me -- I hardly know how I am to write; either intolerable stiffness or uninvited license. If you find this added page unwelcome, cast it aside and do not read it, or forget it afterwards if you prefer; I have addressed all practical matters in the first message, I believe. But on the possibility that this severing of all contact is not welcome to you, I feel some explanation must be offered.
Earlier, I spoke without much thought; I believe you did the same, and I beg to assure you that no offense was intended nor taken, and that no words said this morning are the cause of my withdrawal.
I must confess that I did not perfectly appreciate my own feelings before our conversation: I came to understand myself in essentially the same moment in which you made it clear that any such feelings could only be wholly unwelcome and disgusting to you. As you have some cause to know, my heart is not easily moved, and having been moved it resists all effort to alter its course. I cannot in honesty claim it is at all likely that my feelings should undergo a change. Under these circumstances it is impossible I should force myself upon you or that we should continue as intimates.
I have said too much again, I fear -- I beg you will forgive me and permit me to say God watch over and keep you, my dear -- Stephen.
The first letter lay on the floor, unheeded; this second Jack crumpled in his hands, then he smoothed it out upon his knee and read it through again, and once more; he rose and paced the room in distraction, then returned to it.
It had not occurred to him that Stephen might have made the offer out of feeling, rather than from some worldly concern, and still less that his rejection should have been taken as a sign of any lack of feeling on his own part. He had before this already been growing ashamed of the mode of his refusal; now understanding that his savage response had been made in answer to a declaration of love, he felt nearly sick with grief: that he should have in any way given Stephen cause to write such words -- "'On the possibility,' dear God," he said, and flung himself from the room.
Stephen's things had been carried to his old bachelor establishment in the Grapes, and Jack thrust himself into the apartment without permitting the landlady to so much as announce him. But Stephen was asleep and would not wake: if his slow, shallow breathing had not been coming loudly through his nose, Jack would almost have thought him dead, so pallid was his skin. There was an empty glass by the bedside, smelling of laudanum, and he could not be stirred.
Jack looked about the room; there was no other place to sleep, and he had no intention of leaving again until he had spoken to Stephen. He stood uncertainly by the bed, not sure if it would be offensive to get into it. Stephen's hand was lying limp upon the coverlet; he had lately begun to wear a thin gold signet on his thumb, for ease of closing the many legal papers he had been working upon, and this now caught Jack's eye.
The idea was still appalling to him as a practical matter, but the situation was materially altered now that he understood the grounds on which Stephen had declared himself. A man who suggested a marriage of convenience for the sake of the world's opinion might be roundly told this was stuff and nonsense; a man who had offered heart and hand together out of real feeling could not be told that the first was welcome but not the second.
He was irresolute for a moment longer, then at last he bent and drew the signet off Stephen's hand and slid it onto his own, though it would not go much beyond the first knuckle on his ring finger; then he went into Stephen's bed and lay down beside him.
"Hen, have you a moment?" Jack said, finding his old friend at Black's the next afternoon.
Heneage Dundas looked up from his table and smiled. "Jack! Of course, sit down; you are setting off tomorrow, no?"
"Yes, and because of the rush I am forced to do this in such a ramshackle manner. The fact is I have a favor to ask; will you oblige me?"
"Of course, with all the will in the world," Dundas said attentively.
The waiter came by and spared Jack for a few minutes; when tea and scones had come, he steeled himself and said at last, "I know this will sound rather odd, but you see, I am getting married tomorrow morning, and I should be grateful if you would stand witness."
"Not odd in the least, my dear fellow; it is splendid news," Dundas said. "I wish you and Stephen very happy with all my heart, and I am entirely at your service. Where shall I meet you?"
Jack stared, taken aback by both his easy acceptance and his very evident lack of surprise. "Hen, why should you think it is Stephen?"
And now it was Dundas's turn to be taken aback. "Lord, Jack, I am brought by the lee," he cried, turning very red. "I am so very sorry --"
"No, no, that is not what I meant; you are perfectly correct that I am marrying Stephen," Jack said hastily, breaking in upon him. "But it has been settled only this morning, and I had no notion of his having mentioned it to anyone, so --"
"Well, I still owe you an apology, for it was a thumping great assumption; I never heard it anywhere," Dundas said, looking very relieved nevertheless. "But I will keep it, for you gave me such a turn just now; I was sure I had mortally offended."
"Oh, no, not in the least," Jack said, still disconcerted. "I am just at a loss how you should have supposed it, just like that."
"Well, one could hardly imagine you marrying any other fellow. After all, he has been more a wife to you than Sophie these last ten years, following you all about the earth and putting you back together from scraps. I dare say you are already married in common-law, ha ha!"
Jack, whose knowledge of the law was no more extensive than Dundas's, nevertheless did not quite believe this supposition had any truth to it, but the discussion left its effect, and he was somewhat irritated as he returned to the Admiralty.
There were very few matters left to be tied up; these having been concluded, he shook hands all around, and made ready to go. However, the bulk of the company having left the room, Goring spoke to him briefly and drew him away into a private office.
"Aubrey, you will forgive me for making mention of one small matter, I hope," the admiral said, evidently ill-at-ease. "May I offer you a glass of wine?"
"No, thank you; I am perfectly well," Jack said, who did not want to be holding a glass that he should have to finish in civility before leaving the room; Goring had the air of a man about to say something he expected might give offense.
"I am afraid it is about your surgeon, this Maturin," Goring said. "I do not mean to suggest anything untoward has ever gone on, Aubrey, so pray take no offense, but it is perfectly well known that the two of you have always been in each other's pockets, and the truth is, it will not quite do anymore; I must ask you to give some thought to the appearance it makes, and to perhaps consider taking on another man in his place."
"Sir, I cannot consider anything of the sort," Jack said, pale with anger but perfectly steady, despite the end of everything: ship vanishing off the horizon, no hope of ever getting another. "And I am obliged to tell you that I am to be married to the gentleman tomorrow. If that causes you to in any way regret those offices with which you have entrusted me, I must leave it to you to decide how you shall answer."
"Oh, marriage, that wholly alters the situation," Goring said, looking immensely relieved. "No, no, that is excellent; the best solution imaginable; nothing better." While Jack was still gaping at this, Goring added, "I have often thought, you know, Aubrey, that if women could be expected to manage life at sea, that nothing could make for a better-run ship than the steady example of a settled married life at the helm; I am glad to find you are of a mind to provide one. My own wife traveled to the West Indies and back with me on one voyage, and the improvement in the sobriety and language of the crew could not be overstated."
Jack, who very much hoped that his crew should go on just as they always had in his presence, could not find much to appeal in these remarks, but he was glad enough to escape the office with his command intact. But he was very ruffled still when he returned to his quarters, and his temper was so short that after supper had been cleared away, Stephen quietly said, "My dear, if you have any regrets, let us not go forward; I assure you I am perfectly content as we are."
"No, Stephen," Jack said at once, "Pray forgive me. Goring was a little forward today and it has left me out of sorts. And I hardly know what I shall say to Sophie," he added privately to himself; he was greatly oppressed by the thought of the reaction he should meet from her and the children, returning to Woolcombe married to Stephen. This consideration had been overruled by the much greater benefit of having the thing over and done with, but it yet remained.
It was an unhappy way to come to the marriage, nothing like the high spirits which had attended his first wedding. To make matters worse, Dundas, who had not thought ahead, stumbled over the toast to be offered to the couple and had to be rescued by Stephen's witness, Sir Joseph, who very sensibly raised a glass, "to Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, with all hopes for future happiness." Jack had never for an instant considered that anyone might name him Mrs. Maturin; the idea alone was so hideous as to make him downcast.
Stephen caught his mood and was very quiet in the chaise on the way back to Woolcombe, and after their arrival as well. Sophie did not successfully conceal her great surprise and confusion at the news, broken to her abruptly on the steps, but Diana, catching Stephen's eye, instantly declared, "Of course, how very sensible of you! Gossip would certainly make a great deal of nonsense of it, were the two of you to go on as you always had, and this way you may be perfectly comfortable again. Jack, pray forgive me when you have so little time at home before you go again, but before you go into the house, may I ask you to come look at my new bay? I confess I may have overmatched myself, and that I am not strong enough to hold him; if you should not like him for yourself when you are home, I believe I will return him."
So drawing him off gracefully, she left Stephen to walk with Sophie into the house. "Do you very much mind it, my dear?" Stephen asked. "We would neither of us cause you pain for the world, but the considerations in its favor were very great; or so they seemed to me at the time, although perhaps I was mistaken."
He felt weary and sad. It had not been an auspicious beginning to the marriage, and Sophie's distress reproached him further; now she said, "Oh, no, of course not, I perfectly understand it, and I am very happy for you both," but it was clear she was disturbed, and she shortly made an excuse to leave his company.
Alone, he went slowly upstairs to his usual room and sat heavily upon the bed. It had been many years since he had succumbed to the lure of laudanum, once his regular solace, and when he had woken in bed to find his ring on Jack's hand, he had been still too deeply in the grip of the drug to be very perceptive. Certainly Jack had made explanations for his change of decision, but Stephen knew that if he had not been so dazed, he would have understood better that Jack's objections to marriage were much greater than he had admitted, and that his love, though real, remained more friendly affection than real tenderness.
The agreement being made, they had both remained bound by the same unwritten law that no man could cry off, and Jack had been insistent on accomplishing the marriage as quickly as possible. Now he could only bitterly regret that he had not found a graceful way to return them to their previous footing, rather than binding Jack to an unwelcome obligation. He hoped sincerely that matters would improve once they were at sea, Jack being always a simpler and happier creature upon the deck of a ship, but in the meantime it was deeply unpleasant to feel himself the cause of Jack's unhappiness, and now Sophie's as well. The visit could not be comfortable, thus begun, and he found himself counting the days until they should once again be at sea.
Indeed, once aboard and out to sea, the resumption of all their old habits brought them back into harmony very quickly; there was very little difference in their evenings, but for the manner in which they now often ended: music followed by lovemaking, and drowsing off together in Jack's cot. They had been at sea a little more than a week when the first mild swell came up during the late hours of the night, and in the midst of it Jack woke and was hastily and noisily sick into the chamberpot.
"This is not enough of a blow to make me ill, nothing like; has the milk gone sour? We are not down to pork yet, so it is not that," Jack said, drinking a glass of beer to take the taste from his mouth while Stephen counted his pulse, looked in his eyes, examined his scalp and nails. Catching sight of Stephen's expression, he grew at once alarmed. "Good Lord, Stephen, what is it? You look as though I were to have the plague."
"Jack," Stephen said, very wretched; the diagnosis was hardly in question, although he asked nevertheless, in vanishing hope, "Jack, you have not had your courses at all, have you?"
"No, thank heavens," Jack said, and then, "Oh, Stephen; I am a very great fool. Am I brought by the lee?"
"I am so very sorry, my dear," Stephen said, his voice scarcely audible; he could not raise his head. "I blame myself; I ought to have realized --" He could say nothing more. He had very little experience with such matters, the vast majority of his practice having been transacted at sea and upon men, but nevertheless Jack could reproach him in perfect justice.
"Oh; damn it," Jack said, standing up and pacing the room distractedly. "I had forgotten to pay it mind; I never thought --" He checked himself; it was too much like complaining. "Well, it must be borne; shall we rouse Killick and have some breakfast?"
Stephen was struck afresh by his fortitude; Jack made no complaint to him at all, even though the occasional bouts of illness continued for the next two weeks, and he altered his behavior not in the slightest, still rising early to pump and take his morning exercise.
Jack had been able to recruit many of his old Surprises and fill the complement almost entirely with volunteers, thanks to his reputation and the rumor of Russian ships to be harassed. There was no question of open insolence, yet there had still been sideways glances, particularly when Jack had returned to his practice of daily swimming in the nude: he was grimly determined to make no alteration in his behavior, nor to even attempt to conceal the alteration in his body.
By the time Jack's morning sickness subsided, Stephen could observe that this was the best possible avenue he could have taken; the crew had quickly forgotten to view as an object of sexual interest the flesh they saw so prominently displayed on a daily basis, and his example gave heart to all those hands who also had undergone the transformation. Four weeks out of port there was no more hesitation or uneasiness; the ship had settled into her life, and it was clear to even the least seamanlike perception that she was happy; the sort of ship Jack loved.
The Phaeton herself helped; she was a shining, clean, lovely new vessel, eager to answer, and she had scarcely a bad point of sailing to her name. The hands kept her brass polished and shining without any necessity for the sort of harsh treatment that Jack abhorred, and he himself took a very real delight in learning her ways. By the time they met the other ships of the flotilla in the Baltic Sea a month from shore, he had her well in hand, and his own happiness had increased in corresponding measure.
Of the three captains under his command, one other, Thomas Gore, had been affected, and he was taking it with much less grace. He had been fortunate enough to be already in his ship when the disease had struck him, and recovered before he might be set down at hospital, so he had never been at risk for being put on shore. However, he had reacted violently to the change, and, already something of a hard-horse captain, had begun to approach a truly vicious tyranny by way of compensation.
Jack at once invited him and captains Roane and Carver to dinner. Gore remained scowling and sullen throughout the meal, and his unaltered clothes fit him very ill; a greater contrast with Jack, neat in his trimmed coat and breeches despite a slight thickening about the middle -- not yet perceptible to the uninformed eye -- and cheerfully carrying along the conversation, could scarcely be imagined.
Carver was a young captain, recently made and anxious to impress; he seemed both likely and likeable. But Roane was a florid lecher of a man, with a reputation for running a floating brothel, and he made increasingly bawdy jokes as the evening wore on. By the time the port had gone round twice, he had begun to look at Jack, when he thought himself unobserved, in such a leering, speculative way as to make Stephen anxious at first, lest Jack should see, and then, with repetition, savagely angry.
Stephen's hands were nearly shaking with the extremity of his rage and concern, but he collected himself and watched for the opportunity which came as Jack saw Gore, the senior captain, over the side; Carver had stepped forward to say a word or two to Jack again. Roane was lagging behind, and eyeing Jack in profile with the faint beginnings of a smirk: the coat revealed nothing of Jack's bosom from the front, but by the side its ample extent was noticeable.
Mowett, on duty, was standing on the other side of the ship ladder and could see Roane's look; his face was filled with an imperfectly restrained dismay, and the hands immediately about him wore wooden but disapproving expressions. Stephen took it as confirmation his response was not irrational and stepped forward. "Sir," he said softly, "Commodore Aubrey considers it inappropriate for a superior to ask his subordinates for satisfaction; I am neither, in relation to you. I beg you will keep it in mind."
His voice was murderous, and his glare cold and reptilian; Roane perceived it even through his drink, and was sobered enough by it to be got off the ship without any incident. Jack bade him farewell without the air of having noticed anything amiss.
"That went well enough," Jack said, shedding his neckcloth and coat immediately they returned to the cabin; Killick had somehow divined his condition, and now stubbornly insisted on keeping Jack's atmosphere at near-sweltering temperatures no matter how he was checked. "Carver is a fine seaman, I can tell already, and even Gore may do well if he only gets himself over this hard-horse business; thankfully his first lieutenant is not so severe, and that helps a great deal. You sat by Roane; what did you think of him?"
"We did not speak a great deal," Stephen said, pouring himself a glass of port and drinking it; his temper was still very much roused, and he did not trust himself yet. Jack had been doing so exceedingly well, his spirits rising with every week at sea, and their harmony very nearly restored to what it had always been; now Roane's behavior threatened to rouse all the earlier anxiety and unhappiness, and Stephen dreaded the prospect of again facing Jack's pain, so helpless as he was to cure it.
Jack watched him in evident surprise, this indulgence being an unusual behavior for him, and tentatively said, "Stephen, you know it does not bother me to hear that sort of thing; indeed, it would be a great deal worse was he to check himself, or feel he could not speak freely at my table."
Stephen forced his voice to be calm; he knew he was perilously close to making Jack suspicious. "No; I know it, my dear. This porto is unusually good; will you have a glass?"
"No, sadly I find I have not the head for it I used to, and I am a little aswim from dinner," Jack said, stretching comfortably out upon the bench beneath the stern windows for the little draft of cold air that came in through the chinks; Killick had nailed them shut yesterday and there had not yet been time to make the carpenter open them again. "Stephen, will you give me a cigar? In any case, though Roane may run a bawdy-house and have language to match, now it cannot be such an unusual thing to have women aboard, and he has a name for sharp action: he took two frigates in the year five. At any rate, they are all three of them fighting captains, and I hope we shall do reasonably well."
"I am glad to hear it," Stephen said, coming to sit on the floor with his back to the locker, and handing Jack a lit cigar. They smoked away in companionable silence, Jack running the knuckles of his free hand along the back of Stephen's neck in an idle caress; presently Stephen's angry tension ran out of him. They finished their cigars and the caress grew less idle; they ended by coming together on top of the bench as vigorously as they both liked, to mutual satisfaction, there no longer being a use for caution.
Jack sighed afterwards, stretched in his cot with Stephen curled beside and half over him. "Stephen, I should never say I was glad for the change, but if I must put up with it, I will confess it is a nice recompense to finish a night at sea like this. I should be as merry as a grig at this moment, if it were not for this damnable affair," meaning the pregnancy, "but so far at least even that has not been so very bad."
"It is to be hoped you will not find it so at all," Stephen said, silently wishing the words might make it so. "At your size you will scarcely even show until the last months unless you are like to give birth to a young elephant."
Jack began to watch the horizon eagerly as the weeks sped by and they sailed onward, all four ships managing quite handily despite a few bouts of severe weather. He did not quite believe Stephen's pronouncements, and he had a horror of finding himself in a condition that would prohibit his participation in battle before they had at least taken one prize. Pullings and his old Surprises had no doubts of his courage no matter the change, but he felt a demonstration of it critical to fix himself in the respect of the other captains; he had begun to sense something less than wholly deferential in Roane's behavior, and an unease in Carver's.
As the only other captain still male, Carver had become the unwilling recipient of Roane's increasingly uncouth private observations about the commodore; too young and inferior in rank to check the other man, Carver tried instead to hear little and say less, but he succeeded imperfectly and could not help but allow it to affect his behavior in Jack's company. Gore, for his part, had for a short space begun to improve with Jack's example before him, but perceiving the insolence that Roane did not bother to conceal from him, he grew sullen again, though at least he did not return to the extremes of punishment to which he had previously been resorting.
Jack was not precisely aware of the nature of the root cause of this lack of ease, but he felt its presence instinctively and was sure that a sharp action should do much to cure it; so he watched the horizon and drove the gunnery crews of all four vessels as hard as ever they would go.
Unfortunately, in the event it was Roane's Elegance that first sighted and took a prize, alone. There was a heavy enough rain that he could claim not to have seen Jack's signal to wear, and in any case Jack had no notion of the sort of discipline that would punish a man for going after a prize instead of staying in maneuvers outside a fleet action. The vessel was the Russian sealing vessel Serdtze: not a tremendous prize but still notable as the first victory for their little flotilla, and Roane naturally issued an invitation to dinner by way of celebration.
It was clear he had already been drinking by the time they arrived, and there were several women in the cabin; heavily made up and scantily clad despite the chill. Stephen looked at Jack to see how he would take this; Jack maintained a calm expression and treated them with perfect courtesy, taking the eldest to the table on his arm. At the head of his own table, Roane grew loud and raucous even more quickly, his speech growing slurred and incautious.
Stephen soon passed anger and only longed, desperately, for it to end. Jack's face had grown hard and closed. It was impossible to miss the sordid insinuation in Roane's remarks, though he had not yet said anything unforgivable, and the conversation had virtually come to a standstill around him: Gore was red and scowling, Carver staring unhappily and silently into his plate, Pullings manfully doing his best but clearly furious.
As it grew worse, Jack for the most part spoke quietly to his neighbor; she was very obviously a prostitute, older and raddled, wearing a threadbare lace dress that also had seen better days, but she carried on her half of the conversation bravely, and Jack showed not the least hesitation in ignoring Roane in her favor when the captain would have caught his attention, undoubtedly to make more sly remarks.
Thus bereft of his immediate prey, Roane's eye fell on Stephen, sitting some three chairs down the other side of the table. "Doctor! Doctor Maturin!" he called out, impossible to ignore when Carver and his other neighbor were both wholly silent. "A glass of wine with you, Doctor," Roane said, raising his own. "To your prowess! It is not every fellow who can --- up a commodore." He laughed at his own coarse mirth, and for a fraction of a second there was not another sound to be heard in the room.
Jack's head whipped around too slowly: Stephen had been waiting. He was on his feet at once, the contents of his glass went directly into Roane's face though half the table lay between them, and his voice was satisfaction itself as he said, "Sir, you will hear from me," and walked from the room.
The cold air upon the deck was wonderfully refreshing; Stephen took a turn gratefully. Even in the short stroll, he noticed that there were many fewer women hands in evidence than on the Phaeton, and those few looked thin and wretched. After a moment Jack came outside and joined him. "Will you entertain an apology?" Jack asked quietly.
"I will not; pray do not ask," Stephen said. "May we leave at once?"
Jack did not press him, but signaled for the cutter, and shortly they were back aboard the Phaeton. Jack went into the cabin at once; Stephen lingered a moment on deck with Pullings. "Tom, I hope you will be so good as to act for me," he said.
"Yes, gladly," Pullings said. "By God, sir, I should have liked to call him out half a dozen times myself. I dare say it is better, though: you will not miss."
"No," Stephen said, and went inside.
Jack was pacing, grim-faced, and he looked rather despairingly as Stephen came in. "Of all the wretched turns, Stephen," he said. "I should have realized sooner that the wind set in that quarter, but everyone has been nothing but respect and consideration up to now, and I had grown used to not think about it. I suppose it was only to be expected."
"From such a vile, squalid, lecherous dog, you might say as much of any gross behavior," Stephen answered. "I beg you will not allow it to sour you upon company again; consider that your only example of rudeness comes from such a source."
"No, I will not, but Stephen, I am not quite sure how I am to manage, now. I cannot have him here again, except for orders, and the others can scarcely invite a fellow who has insulted me; it has a curious appearance of isolating him, and it cannot be comfortable for him."
"You should oblige me immensely were you able to put us ashore, however briefly," Stephen said. He was filled afresh with a weary despair: Jack looked so very pale and unhappy.
"I cannot very well neglect my duty and put into shore so you can kill one of my captains more conveniently," Jack said. "Besides, there are no real shores about here, only ports, and they are all damned nervous and would likely fire at a flotilla of warships trying to come in. No, you will have to wait." He brooded for some time longer, then said, "Do you know, Stephen, I think I will risk it, and take a dash at St. Petersburg. I had been giving some thought to it, as we have not had a great deal of luck meeting their shipping, and now I am decided. We will try and sink a few of their ships in harbor, and with any luck, Roane will get himself knocked on the head before you ever have a chance to blow his brains out."
Sadly, Jack's hopes were not answered in this last particular, but in all others they were amply repaid. The unsuspecting Russians had very little notion of fighting their ships, and when Jack saw the pitiful state of their replying gunnery, he abandoned the plan of sinking them and took the Phaeton and Gore's Towering closer in for a cutting-out expedition instead. Though the surviving Russians fought very brutally and savagely on being boarded, they had been too badly mauled by the British gunnery to hold out long, and shortly Jack sailed out two ships richer than he had come, leaving a good deal of the rest of the shipping in the harbor on fire or sinking.
Jack could scarcely avoid hosting his captains after this splendid victory. Though Roane was conspicuous by his absence, there was too much real good cheer for this to hamper the occasion for long. Gore was a different person: he had led his men over the rails and personally killed the Russian captain sword-to-sword; all his confidence was restored, and he was so nakedly joyful it made even those who had not liked him much before smile to look at him. Jack himself was almost as happy; no one could say he had not satisfied his mission, and with a splendid sixty-four gun ship of the line at his tail and a respectable cut in his thigh which Stephen had stitched up neatly, he was content for his belly to grow if it must. Carver too was enthusiastic over the victory, his conversation far more lively and cheerful now he was free of the burden of Roane's confidences, and the evening passed very pleasantly indeed.
"I am going to send Mowett home in our prize and Gore's lieutenant in his, with the dispatches," Jack told Stephen later, while they caught their breath, the almost violent swinging of the cot slowly coming to a halt. "Now I have gotten Tom made I am become greedy; William is very deserving, but he has not a jot of interest, yet surely they will want to reward a fellow bringing them such good news."
"I am glad to hear it; I thought you might send Roane."
"No, indeed; he has done nothing to deserve such a plum, and I need Elegance here, any road. I will tell you, Stephen, those Russian ships may be pretty enough to look at, and their guns are as well as ours, but they are wallowing scows in the open ocean. I would not like to try to handle one of them in as much as an April shower, much less a real North Sea gale, and if they do not get home now before the storms start, I doubt they will get home at all. We must keep our four ships here and see what other damage we can do to them."
As it turned out, he sent them scarcely soon enough; perhaps two weeks later, a heavy storm came upon them with no warning, a three-day-blow full of flying rain and snow and temperatures that varied just enough to coat all the spars thickly with ice. It demanded all the ingenuity and skill of the crews to keep the vessels afloat; spars cracked like kindling under the frozen weight, and they were in constant dread of being driven upon some unseen shore in the impenetrable darkness.
When the storm at last released them from its grip, they were a collection of four very sorry-looking vessels, with scarcely anything left but bare masts. Although the winds and swell had not been so very severe, there had been a remarkable loss of life and limb due to the tremendous weight of the ice-laden spars coming down so often as they had. There was some private consolation in that Roane had been struck on the head by one chunk of tumbling wood and ice; he slipped away two weeks later without ever waking. His first lieutenant was a man of much the same stamp, but had been warned by his predecessor's example and impressed by the victory, and he exerted enough self-control to avoid giving offense.
The flotilla continued in the Baltic after repairs at sea: there had been no deeper structural damage to the ships to require a stay in port, and Jack and all his subordinates were eager for more prizes. These were thin on the ground, the Russians too much afraid of the British ships to risk more than quick dashes between neighboring ports, but they had some success at snapping even these up, although over the course of slow, patient months.
Jack was inclined to be snappish; the weather was cold and unpleasant, making everyone sluggish, tired, and sore; his old wounds and his muscles pained him. Killick had spent the coal too freely early on; now the cabin was chilled, and he only got thoroughly warm at night, with Stephen huddled up to him and all their blankets tucked about their bodies. His back ached constantly, the specter of childbirth loomed, and there had been no sign of any Russian shipping, at all, in more than a month.
He paced the quarterdeck restlessly, occasionally looking out to the horizon to spy the other vessels of his flotilla and hope for another ship, and rubbing his back against the sharp pains that came more often these days. Stephen came on deck somewhat later; he felt the cold more strongly, being thinner, and he kept his hands tucked beneath his arms as he joined Jack at the rail.
"I have scarcely even seen any birds, of late," Stephen observed. "This is a benighted and inhospitable place; more so than our paradise in the Antarctic, dear old Desolation Island."
"Only you would ever call the place a paradise, Stephen," Jack said indulgently, then grimaced and rubbed his back again.
Stephen looked at him; looked again, and said, "Below, my dear, at once," so firmly that Jack went before he had thought to ask why.
"Killick, hot water and clean cloths, at once," Stephen said, following Jack into the cabin. "Jack, do you lie down here."
"Stephen, what is it?" Jack said, uneasily stretching himself out upon the cabin bench. He put his hand on his belly: it was settling lower than he thought he remembered.
"You are in labor, my dear," Stephen answered calmly, covering him with a blanket. "Pray hold still." He whisked Jack's breeches off easily; Jack had not been able to lace or button them for several weeks, and they had been being held up by pins fixed to his waistcoat.
"That is absurd, it is nothing," Jack said; abruptly a gush of warm liquid came spilling over his naked thighs. "That is not blood?" he said, horrified by the quantity, trying to sit up to see.
"No, your water has broken. Lie still and bear down when I tell you," Stephen said, still in that wretchedly abstract voice: he might have been attending at the dissection of a corpse, Jack thought in some annoyance. "Now, if you please."
Jack obeyed the pressure of Stephen's hand and tried to push; he had no very clear idea what he was supposed to be feeling, but although there was a marked cramping sensation, there was certainly no extraordinary pain such as he had been expecting; perhaps that would come later. He dearly hoped Stephen would remember to give him something to bite upon, when it came to that; he had a dread of making a great deal of noise for the crew to hear.
"Again," Stephen said. Jack repeated the effort; this happened a few times more, then abruptly there was a thin cry, and Stephen straightened up with a squalling baby in his hands, bloody and slick.
Jack stared at it. "Stephen, that is never all," he said, blankly; the whole affair had taken less than a glass.
"No, the afterbirth must come," Stephen said. He wiped the baby clean and handed it to Padeen's waiting arms, then turned back.
In little more than a quarter of an hour Jack was clean, dry, and reclining on a heap of cots before the fire, obscurely offended by the anticlimax of the thing, and inspecting the baby with a feeling of dissatisfaction. There was nothing to be complained of, however: he was a handsome boy of nine pounds, with a cap of matted hair rapidly drying to a bright yellow fuzz, and he seemed scarcely more discomposed by his entry into the world than the parent who had borne him. Jack had some experience of infants, having been at home when his daughters were born, and this child bore very little resemblance to the tiny red sausagelike forms of the twins on their birth.
He was in no pain, not even very tired, and beginning to be irritated; Killick would keep tiptoeing about him and talking in hoarse whispers, and Stephen was still off washing up. "Damn you, and damn your cosseting! Get out, and go bring me some grog and toasted cheese," he snapped finally, when Killick tried to offer him a small bowl of gruel, "which cook prepared special," in wheedling tones.
Killick looked wise and winked at Padeen in what Jack quite correctly took to be a comment on the irrationality of women after childbirth. He might easily identify it, having behaved in exactly the same manner around Sophie himself; he took it less well than she had and shouted both of them out of the room in a passion, then lay back against the pillows sullenly and wished Stephen would hurry up.
For the occasion, coal had been heaped up; it was pleasantly warm before the fire, and the baby lay quietly, a soft and inoffensive lump in his arms. He began to doze, until a sharp tug on his breast roused him, and he found the baby had enterprisingly nuzzled up against him and begun to nurse with no other guide than instinct. "Oh, dear God, no," he said; he had never considered the need to arrange for a wet-nurse, and the goat had been eaten up last week, having gone dry in the storms.
It was the final weight on nerves already strained to the breaking point by a year of bearing up under an intolerable burden; Jack felt a dreadful nauseating sensation clench his stomach, and he covered his face with one hand, gasping behind it as quietly as he could. He tried to turn himself from the door as he heard it open; there was a brief pause and he dimly heard Stephen speaking to someone outside.
A moment later the door closed again; Stephen's arm came about him. "We are quite alone; can you drink this?" Stephen said quietly, handing him a glass. Jack swallowed it down without the least curiosity, and gradually a comforting lassitude settled upon him. The baby finished nursing, belched a little in Stephen's hands, and went to sleep. Stephen brought Jack a cool cloth and covered his hot, scratchy eyes; saying nothing, he only lay beside him, a comforting presence, and Jack gradually drifted off.
He was much easier when he woke again some hours later; Stephen was sitting beside him reading, and the baby lay still asleep on his chest. "Stephen, I am covered with shame," he said miserably.
"Nonsense, my dear," Stephen said, setting aside the book and offering him a glass of water. "Melancholia is a common result of childbirth, and I assure you that your case is, in this respect as well, one of the easier which I have ever seen. Indeed you have commanded your nerves far better than the usual. Do not permit yourself to become overset at what is a natural reaction of the body, and nothing to do with strength of mind."
"Oh, you do relieve me, Stephen," Jack said, drinking thirstily. He was conscious of a savage hunger. "Would there be anything to eat?" He ate ravenously of the waiting broth and ship's biscuit and looked for more; seeing his hopeful eye, Stephen handed over his own half-finished plate of toasted cheese and went out to send for more substantial food. Jack appropriated most of this as well and ended by making a dinner of more than usual size; thus fortified, he was able to face the next nursing with resignation and let the baby do as he liked.
"He is a handsome fellow, at least," Jack said, contemplating the sleepy golden head afterwards. "What shall we call him?"
"What do you say to Peter, in honor of your victory?" Stephen suggested.
The idea appealed at once, and thus associated with glory, the baby took on a more pleasant aspect in Jack's mind; yet a moment later a fresh gloom descended, and he hesitantly said, "Stephen, what of his surname?"
"If you agree, my dear, let us call him in the Spanish style: Aubrey y Maturin sounds very well, and for ordinary use your name will serve him better in the Navy, if he will take after you in inclination as well as looks, as I do not doubt."
"He does have a look of me, has he not?" Jack said, brightening directly at this suggestion. "Born on the deck of a seventy-four, or nearly; it is a good beginning for a sailor, ha ha! Lord, I am tired." He yawned hugely. "Shall we not go to bed?"
"With all my heart."
Peter ate and grew at a prodigious rate, to Jack's dismay: he loathed having the baby's demanding cries of hunger heard throughout the ship, and the only means of avoiding this was for him to spend a great deal of time in the cabin in both feeding and anticipation of doing so. Eventually, his patience ran out, and at Stephen's urging he gave up on the unreasonable goal and set Padeen the task of bringing Peter out to the deck to be fed whenever he began to complain. The crew took a proprietary interest in the baby and never batted an eye, except to give Jack reproachful looks when he referred to "the damned brat," or used some similar term of endearment.
With the days so empty he often liked to while away hours in lying abed with Stephen, the two of them reading and enjoying one another as the whim took them. He even became a little reconciled to the nursing after Stephen explained that he should not be at risk of getting with child again so long as he continued: he had not the slightest desire to repeat the experience, yet very little liking for chastity when there was so pleasant an alternative to hand.
It was only small consolation, however: Jack could not dislike the baby, but he would have been glad to forget about him more often than was possible under the circumstances. Stephen took on as much of the burden as he could, and Jack was guiltily aware that it wore upon him greatly, but his own patience with the child was easily exhausted: he could not forbear from handing Peter off at any opportunity and escaping to the deck.
Little news and less mail reached them in their unfriendly environment; for the most part they sent their prizes home and heard nothing in return, and the isolation wore on them all greatly despite the satisfaction of telling over the increasing amounts of prize-money they had earned. When the orders to return home at last arrived, however, there was cause for distress even in the relief: Napoleon and Alexander were struggling with a vicious internecine struggle in the Russian court; there had been no battles on the Continent to speak of for months; and a peace treaty had been signed.
"I cannot like it; the worst sort of short-sightedness," Stephen said, very grimly, as he read over his more detailed missive from Sir Joseph. "Buonaparte will take the men and money we have freed up for him and secure the Russian throne; then we will be back to war, only with our position greatly weakened and the whole vastness of Russia behind him. This is a very black mischief indeed."
"I will not argue with you," Jack said. "Aside from anything else, all our good work will be undone. Unless Boney is a fool, he will put a battery about St. Petersburg that will forestall any such action as our recent one, and get French shipwrights into the dockyard. I doubt but they may build him a hundred ships of the line with the splendid timber they have about there, and nothing like these wallowing barges of theirs we have been seeing. But it cannot be helped, and we may console ourselves that we have certainly cost them a great deal."
Despite these grave concerns, they were both very happy indeed to reach England again, more than a year since they had left, arriving to a beautiful late spring and a hero's welcome: the victory at St. Petersburg had proved the last significant naval action before the peace, and those not-insignificant elements of government who disliked the making of the treaty seized upon their return to keep patriotic fervor intact.
They were not able to escape being feted in London for some time, although they were both eager to return to Woolcombe. Jack was particularly anxious for Sophie's reaction to Peter: he had of course written of the birth, though very reluctantly, and although there was nothing in the letters that had met them at the port but congratulations and wishes for the baby's health, he thought he read a certain reserve between the lines. Certainly there was something not spoken of; the letters urged their return soonest, though full of reassuring details of everyone's health and happiness.
Peter had been gladly handed over to a wet-nurse the moment the Phaeton had come into port, and Jack was now sufficiently reconciled to the baby's existence to take a somewhat confused pride in him, but if Sophie did not like to have him about, he would create a thousand difficulties. She could not decently be expected to put up with a child in no way her own, but then in turn he and Stephen could hardly reside at Woolcombe. There were few houses in the neighborhood that might do, and those unappealingly distant: they should scarcely see one another for riding back and forth.
With all that they could do, summer was underway when they finally arrived home; an express had gone ahead and the whole family came tumbling out into the drive to greet their chaise, full of excitement and pride over their success. Sophie took Peter into her arms at once and kissed him: "He is lovely, Jack, and so like you: anyone would know him at once. Will you leave him with us when you must go to sea again?" -- George speaking at the same time, glowing, asking urgent questions about the battle and the prizes; Fanny and Charlotte both looking very well, elegant and slim in pantaloons and jackets; Diana and Stephen talking quietly together with Brighid in Stephen's arms.
It filled him with a tremendous relief, but he wondered all the more at the evasiveness of the letters, and at the anxiety in Sophie's eyes when she looked up from Peter. Stephen was quiet and thoughtful as they went upstairs; when the maids had finished unpacking and left them, he rang for tea and drew Jack to the small table by the window.
"Diana has said something to you, has she not?" Jack said. "Pray tell me, Stephen; even if I should not like it, I must know, and I would rather it be sooner."
"Yes, my dear," Stephen said. "You must forgive them: they did not like to break the news by a letter, and then our having arrived did not like to break it suddenly; Diana found it easier, and asked if I should tell you privately. They are to be married: they have only been waiting for us to return."
Jack opened his mouth to speak, found he had not a single word for the occasion and closed it once again. He sprang up and paced the room in some confusion; he hardly knew how to think. "It would be absurd -- intolerable -- to complain," he said, aloud, but he was frowning very deeply.
Stephen watched him, and quietly said, "My dear, you must be sensible of the great practical benefit to the children of having their home so secured. It is not to be expected that either of them should remain unwed, young as they are; they might easily have chosen other partners."
"Yes, of course," Jack said. He took another turn around the room. "Oh, Stephen, I am a sorry wretch; why on earth should they not do as they like and be happy if they may? What right could I have to say them nay? Only -- only -- " He did not know what he wanted to say; his objection was all feeling and no reason, and he could not even put a name to that.
"Forgive me; I cannot see how any objection could justly be made," Stephen said, very low, and after a moment he added, not looking up, "I am sorry, Jack; I know you are not happy."
Jack, startled, came about at this. Stephen was looking out of the window and did not turn to meet his gaze; the strong afternoon light was full on his face and Jack was abruptly aware -- how had he not come to see it before? -- that Stephen looked very pale and worn-down indeed, thinner and sadder both, a hint of shadow under his eyes and in the hollows of his face. It was more than could be blamed on a year at sea with uncertain rations: grief and regret were plainly at the root of it.
They had been married more than a year; he had not remarked the day, and it occurred to him now that Stephen had said nothing of it either. And then another thing more struck him: that Stephen had not spoken a word of love to him in that time, at all. That morning when Jack had gone into his bed, so many months ago, Stephen had woken dazed; he had seen the ring and kissed Jack awake in a confused and drunken joy, whispering love and gratitude together in barely-intelligible words; since then, nothing.
Jack had considered his divorce from Sophie meaningless, a sham forced upon them by party men in London; to his mind his marriage to Stephen had been equally so, and he had treated it as such. Yet the same was not true for Stephen -- Stephen who had followed him to the far side of the world and back a dozen times over for no benefit to himself, who had offered everything a man could give for no better reward than the brunt of Jack's regret and his animal lust.
Jack sat down again heavily. "Stephen, forgive me," he said, "I think I have used you very ill. Should you like a divorce?"
Stephen flinched; his shoulders bowed deeply as if a weight had come upon them. "If you desire one, of course," he said, barely audible.
"No, Stephen, that is not what I meant at all," Jack said at once; he felt abominably clumsy. "It is only, you see, that I should not be surprised if perhaps you did not still like to be married. I have not been much use to you, I find."
Stephen at last looked at him, surprise and a wary sort of hope in his face. "Never in life, joy," he said, and very visibly checked himself from saying more.
In a swell of relief, it came clear to Jack that Stephen had kept silent not because his feelings had altered, but because he thought the words unwanted: he thought Jack did not wish to hear them or hearing, would not wish to reply.
He looked down at his own hands; there was no ring upon them. He had given Stephen back the signet, the next morning, after it had served its purpose, and as they had only been married by a clerk there had been no replacement. There was nothing but a scrap of paper left carelessly somewhere in his desk to show that they were married at all, and even the child down the hall might as easily have been born out of wedlock; Stephen's name was barely even on him. Surely no wonder, then, that Stephen did not like to ask for anything more; he had no reason to expect it would not be refused.
It was still hard to conceive of speaking: somehow it felt like the last surrender, an acceptance of what ought to be forever intolerable. But already that was no longer true; indeed, Jack could not escape the realization that it had not been true for some time. His spirits lightening, he caught Stephen's hands and kissed them, knowing the last bitterness had slipped from him unnoticed.
"I suppose they will be married in church," he said. "Should you like it were we married with them? It will have to be Church of England, Stephen, I cannot be forsworn, but --"
Stephen was in his arms, kissing him breathless; the chair fell over under his rush and they tumbled to the floor together. Jack caught Stephen up and heaved them onto the bed, half-laughing between kisses as he struggled with their clothes; Stephen was wholly useless, murmuring in mingled Spanish and English, lips on Jack's throat, his collarbone, his breasts.
"Oh, Lord, Stephen," Jack said, falling back against the pillows as he thrust their garments out of the way and Stephen came into him; his breeches were tangled about his knees and Stephen was barely even unbuttoned; it mattered not at all. He laughed again, as much as breath would allow, and pulled Stephen down to kiss him. "Oh, Stephen, how absurdly wrong you are; I am the happiest fellow alive."