"Jack! I really must protest."
The last screech of Jack's violin still hung in the air. Jack looked sheepish and set his bow aside, shaking his head.
"I'm dreadfully sorry," he said. "I'm not up to our capriccio tonight, I'm afraid."
Dr. Maturin looked at his particular friend speculatively. Aubrey was obviously much disturbed by some mental anguish, but Stephen was unaware of any direct cause. The Surprise was out of the cursed storms and had not yet reached the cursed doldrums, the men had been practising their firing with obvious relish; it was a time of relative peace and ease. But instead of being his usual, sanguine self, Captain Aubrey was distracted and in a depression of spirit.
Stephen set down his violin and began gathering the sheets of music. Jack stood up and clasped his hands behind his back, and would have paced had the cabin been big enough. He sat back down and rubbed his knees. "I'll tell you what it is, Stephen," Jack began, but hesitated. Stephen waited for him to continue.
"Yes?" he prompted.
"Well... This is most embarrassing... Haven't been like this in years..." Jack glanced away, blushing. Stephen arched an eyebrow. "Lately, I've been thinking... thoughts, you know," Jack said. "And it's dashed disturbing." He looked at Stephen expectantly.
"Disturbing thoughts, for all love? Anxieties? Fears of the unknown, perhaps? Troubling phantasms generated by an under-active mind?"
Jack gave him a sharp look. "I'm being perfectly serious. I thought you, as a medical man, might be able to recommend something. A draught or a potion."
Shaking his head, Stephen said, "I'm all too happy to advise you as your physician, but I am as yet uncertain of the nature of these disturbing thoughts you mention."
Jack's face again flushed with colour. He fixed his gaze on his hands, and said slowly, "Ah. Well, you see, they're thoughts of desire." He finally lifted his eyes to Stephen, who suppressed a smile.
"Perfectly natural for a man of your appetites, my dear," Stephen said lightly. "No cause for draughts or more drastic treatment."
"But I can't get rid of this damned restlessness. It's put me in a foul mood, and I can't concentrate. Surely, Stephen, for the good of the ship if not for her captain, there must be a solution." Jack's tone was almost pleading, Stephen was dismayed to note. He had truly never seen his friend in such a state. All for desire! It was ridiculous that men should be so ruled by the basest physical urges, but there it was. These same urges perpetuated the race of man and all the wondrous species of the earth, and it was always best, Stephen felt, to respect the path of nature rather than to block it.
"There are several solutions," said Stephen. "I'm surprised the most obvious one hasn't yet occurred to you."
"The most obvious one?" Jack gave him a blank look, then perceptibly, understanding dawned. "Oh. It has occurred to me. Repeatedly. Without a jot of success. Doesn't do the job, as you might say. Only makes it worse."
Stephen nodded and sat back, considering. "Yes. Not an uncommon situation. Rather like playing the violin alone after one is accustomed to the harmonious joy of duets."
Jack slapped his knee and smiled. "That's it exactly! I knew you'd have the answer."
Stephen observed the gleam of expectancy in his friend's eyes and inwardly sighed. Such a look of confidence, and reliance. Stephen looked at Jack affectionately, but again shook his head. "Sweet heart, the answer is difficult. Let's see... We're months away from Rio, I believe?" Jack nodded, and Stephen continued, systematically going through the ship in his mind. "The only woman on board is the gunner's wife, and aside from the ordinary dangers of cuckoldry, there is the fact that the gunner is a brute, and so is his wife. One of the least appealing females I've ever seen, but that may not matter, in a situation so desperate."
"I can assure you it does matter, very much so, to me," said Jack.
"And deservedly so. The next solution, however, I hesitate to suggest. It is, after all, expressly forbidden by your Articles of War, and I've witnessed the most inhumane punishments meted out against its practitioners."
"If you're referring to the ship's livestock, I do not find that in the least bit funny, Stephen," Jack said stiffly, and crossed his arms.
"My dear!" exclaimed Stephen, hiding his amusement. "I meant the prohibition against ordinary sodomy. I ever meant to suggest..."
"Oh. That. Yes, yes, you're correct, of course. Although... The article isn't always strictly followed to the letter, if you catch my meaning."
"Yes," murmured Stephen. "I believe I do. But if that's the solution, it brings with it its own problem: with whom? Unlike the gunner's wife, there is a wide and varied selection available. I know that at least two of the midshipmen would have their own hitherto unquenchable longings sated should you choose them. One of them is quite pretty, too."
Jack frowned. "You can't be serious."
"Why not? But very well, if you reject the midshipmen, I know there are others. You're an uncommonly handsome man, Jack, and prone to excite such lusts in men of a certain temperament."
The deeper flush of pink in Jack's cheeks was charming to see. "Am I, really? Or is this another of your jokes at my expense? See, I do catch them, from time to time."
"Oh, Jack," Stephen said quietly, warmly. Before he could say anything more, Jack protested, "But I'm most horribly scarred. Even Sophie recoils if there's too much moonlight in the room. I'm not a vain man, Stephen, but you know yourself how many holes and cuts this body has."
Stephen recovered his senses from the lapse he'd been too near to making. He steepled his fingers and said, somewhat coldly, "Very few of the men on board are without their own holes and scars, sure. I doubt that whomever you choose would find your scars a detraction. And as to your choice, I've heard rumours that the master is much given to sodomy."
"Oh, Stephen. Be serious."
Jack gave him a hard stare, but Stephen had the advantage of years of perfecting his technique of returning such stares without betraying any emotion. Finally, Jack said with an exasperated sigh, "I can't believe, after all the years you've spent at sea, and all the voyages you've accompanied me on, you wouldn't understand my meaning."
Stephen's heart skipped a beat, but he remained placid on the surface.
"It's rank, don't you see?" Jack went on, and Stephen's hopes sank. "I'm the captain. It just wouldn't do. I've seen what happens when an officer starts inviting the men to his cabin. Discipline crumbles. Mutiny just a stone's throw away. I would have thought you'd understand that."
"Then whom would you choose?" Stephen asked angrily, letting his emotions slip free for a crucial moment, and cursing himself for the loss of control.
Jack sat back, folded his hands over his waistcoat, looked into Stephen's eyes, and slowly smiled. There was complete silence -- as complete a silence as a ship with over six-hundred men going eleven knots can possess. Stephen read the look of affection, of love, that glittered in the astonishing blue of Jack's eyes, and he relaxed, all anger vanishing.
"My dear," he breathed.
Jack swallowed hard and blushed again. "Do I take it--? Does that mean--?"
"Yes, yes," Stephen chuckled. "Forego your protestations of innocent surprise, brother."
"But I am surprised," said Jack matter-of-factly. "You've never led me to suspect that, well, the idea would not be distasteful to you."
"Why? Because I don't fawn over beautiful foretopmen or paw at the more willing of the marines? Neither do you."
Jack ran his hands along his legs and clutched his knees. "Yes, but..."
"But what?" Stephen asked, curious.
Jack said, "But I have been in the Royal Navy for most of my life." He paused to see if this had sufficiently answered Stephen's question. "I'm not saying that such occurrences are inevitable, mind. The Navy has very strict punishments for that sort of thing. However..."
Stephen was genuinely surprised, if only because in all their acquaintanceship Jack had been a most inveterate debaucher of the fairer sex. "You amaze me, brother."
"I was considered quite pretty when I was a mid, or so the lieutenant told me at the time."
"Ah," said Stephen. "An adolescent curiosity, no doubt increased by the close surroundings of the berth."
The sheepish look returned to Jack's face, and Stephen knew Jack was keeping something back. "More than a curiosity?" Stephen asked.
Jack drew his chair closer and leaned forward, and keeping his voice low, he replied, "The fact is, I enjoyed it. Oh, I love women. Nothing I like better than a good fuck, pardon me. But having sampled what I should call the other side of the stick, I'm bound to say it was quite the thing, quite the thing indeed." Jack's face, normally ruddy, was blazing scarlet, and Stephen felt almost feverish himself.
"Then, were we to engage in a coitus virilis, you should like me to..." Stephen left the question unfinished, finding that the coarse words for the act were too harsh for the feeling rapidly building in him; and a more ornate terminology might only confuse Jack, who was now looking at him so tenderly, and with such love.
"Oh yes, Stephen," said Jack softly, and he lightly touched Stephen's fingers. "If you would oblige. If it ain't asking too much."
"Never in life, my dear. Never in life."
Some time later, Stephen was awakened by Jack's persistent snoring pouring into his ear, and the scraping of the holystones on deck. He cursed and shaded his eyes, but his initial irritation at being roused from sleep faded at the comforting feel of Jack's arm around him. Jack's considerable mass rested against Stephen's body, keeping him warm. Stephen sank back against the welcoming, eighteen stone pillow. A lock of yellow hair fell over Stephen's shoulder; Stephen lifted it to his lips and kissed it affectionately, smiling. He closed his eyes and drifted back into sleep, full of drowsy anticipations of being awakened later by a hungry, amorous Jack Aubrey, and a pot of Killick's wonderful coffee.