It was undoubtedly the fish that caused the thing, an ill-looking, mumchance creature served to them at a roadside tavern on the way to Portsmouth. A sign with cracking paint hung over the place and it smelt of misery, but it was well past the naval dinner hour and Jack had not eaten since a hasty breakfast bolted at Mapes after receiving his orders from a courier. Stephen had met the post along the way, having travelled all night from London, and had eaten up all of Jack's sandwiches, lovingly packed for him by Sophie. When the coach stopped for an hour to change horses, Jack was too hungry to pay attention to the particulars, and he immediately dug in to the baked fish, whose sauce - watery, and the colour of the scum that covered Portsmouth harbour - could not disguise that it had been shockingly overdone. It was only when he turned the fish to pick at its ribs that it became evident that, although in every way resembling your average Melanogrammus aeglefinus, the creature had three eyes.
"Why, Jack, we are eating a prodigy!" cried Stephen. "If I may -" He produced a scalpel, wiped it on his filthy neckcloth, and began dissecting what remained of the fish's head to examine its ocular attachments.
"I wish you would not do that, Stephen," said Jack, looking disapprovingly as Stephen gathered Jack's bones off his plate into his handkerchief. He pushed aside his potatoes.
"Why the extra eye, I wonder? Is it a mutation of birth, or a post-nactial growth? How I wish I had seen it fresh. Can it have been a functional eye, a true oculus?"
"I wish I had noticed before," said Jack. "It is unnatural, to eat a creature with three eyes. I am sure it is unlucky."
"I have often noticed this tendency to weak superstition in you," said Stephen. "A third eye is a physical phenomenon, no more alarming than a vestigial toe or a cleft lip, which are in no way indicative of a man's inner life, nor of demonic possession, but are rather unlucky only because of human nature, which abhors the reminder of its frailty. Why, I remember several examples where -"
His discourse continued as they re-mounted the coach, ranging over a lamb with six legs born on his cousin's Finlay's estate - conjoined twins - Cleopatra's rumoured eleventh toe - omens of all kinds - Macbeth. Jack was asleep shortly after Cleopatra, however, his stomach full but uneasy. They came aboard the Lively late in the evening, at two bells in the first dog watch, but the sea was high, and they set out immediately rather than miss the tide. After seeing about the business of the ship, meeting the officers and seeing with satisfaction that the Lively's crew knew their work, flashing out topsails in a most seamanlike manner, Jack came below to find that Stephen, usually a confirmed insomniac, was already asleep. There had not yet been time to install a dividing bulkhead in the cabin they would share, but someone had slung a hammock for Stephen, and he was a small, dishevelled bundle swaying with the roll as they entered the choppy water of the Channel. Jack felt a curious weariness weighing upon his limbs, quite unlike the exhilaration he usually felt when putting to sea on a new commission. He had meant to discuss this commission with Stephen that evening - a council of war, so to speak, for he was conveying Stephen into enemy territory on a mission of intelligence - and seeing Stephen asleep, he was momentarily put out. However, Jack was too accustomed to life at sea not to take the opportunity for sleep when it was offered, and he, too, fell into his bunk and slept.
When Jack awoke, all his limbs were suffused with warmth. He did not at first know what ship he was in or where he was, but slowly this knowledge came back to him. He knew the Lively well, having brought her in from the Brest blockade; a weatherly, neat little brig, with a well-formed crew. She would do very well. Some inner sense, honed from his childhood, told him that they had left the channel and were now in open sea heading west by south, that they were making about six knots, and that the wind had increased and backed a point or two since he had slept. It was still dark, and the cleaning and flogging of the deck had not yet begun. He felt a strange lassitude, and no real need to get up; he was aware of Stephen's sleeping presence in the cabin, and it seemed to Jack, as if in a dream, that he could feel Stephen there, a soft, almost tangible warmth pressing against his mind, and that he could actually hear another heartbeat distantly overlaying his own. His mind wandered over recent events: the disappointment of his hopes of the Spanish treasure - Sophie's devotion - Diana. Diana. She was now in India, with Canning, the man for whom she had thrown over both Jack and Stephen, hurting Stephen so very badly.
He felt the sleeping presence stir. Diana?
Still in his dream-like state, he turned towards the name in his mind and reached for the seam of memories it uncovered. They were suffused with a deep, mute, almost animal pain that he associated with Stephen, not himself, even as it caused an answering ache to lodge below his heart. Going to visit Diana at night, at Mapes - her graceful, lithe turn, her flashing eyes, her rage, "Because I have let you kiss me once or twice, do you think that you own me, Maturin? Well, you do not!" He seemed to be abstracted from himself, watching from afar as he - but was this Jack, or Stephen? - shuffled through the information he had bought on Canning, on his establishment in India, on Diana, on the maidservants she had taken with her, on Canning's wife. Dimly he became aware that Stephen was waking. He felt a shifting, a stirring against him, almost as if they were sleeping in the same cot, then the full awareness, like an eye turned upon him. Jack?
He was beginning to come fully awake, to leave the dream behind him, but parts of it seemed to cling to him strangely, and he could not open his eyes. Where had he learned those things about Diana?
Jack, Stephen said again. His voice felt taut, and was somehow unfamiliar. Jack, where are you?
It was like being awake, but he had lost hold on the tether attaching him to his body, and for a terrifying moment he felt adrift in a wholly alien space; then he felt the space ripple and turn against him, push him back, and he opened his eyes and sat up, drenched in sweat.
Stephen! he said, then gulped a breath, and realised he had not spoken aloud.
I can hear his thoughts - Mary Mother of God, I can hear him think, he heard, and at the same time he thought, Dear God, I was in his mind, and I am not dreaming anymore, I am awake, and he has been spying on Diana, the poor soul.
The yellow, killing rage that lashed at him from within Stephen's mind was like a physical blow; he lost his breath for a moment, and coughed, doubled over. He was dimly aware that Stephen was struggling with his hammock, and felt, as well as heard, the impact against Stephen's thigh and rear as he fell out at last onto the cabin floorboards.
Do not touch my mind, Jack Aubrey, do not look, do not listen - get out, damn you!
Stephen, I cannot breathe, he managed, and for a moment he feared Stephen could not, or would not hear him, but then the onslaught lessened, and he fell back in his cot, gasping.
It was fortunate that Lieutenant Fielding of the Lively was an industrious officer, although he would hardly set the Thames on fire with his seamanship, for Captain Aubrey was distracted all that day, pacing the quarterdeck with a grim expression, while Dr Maturin was positively vicious in the gun room. He quite shocked the master and the bosun, who fell gradually into silence under his glare, and he even kicked the chaplain when he happened to stumble over his chair at the roll. He too was observed by his assistant to be morose, absent, and given to muttering to himself, and by the evening watch, all hands were aware that something was amiss with the captain, or the doctor, or both. Dr Maturin's mood was ignored, as his character had been established among the sailors by the manner in which he had come aboard the previous day - upside-down, tangled in a cable that he had contrived to fall into on his way up the side, and soaking wet from an unfortunate misstep on the way into the gig. His misery was observed, and by some who knew his intimate friendship with the captain it was rationalised and speculated upon, but it did not materially affect the ship.
In contrast, although the Lively was unused to Captain Aubrey, there were a number of his old shipmates aboard her who had magnified his service record, already impressive, to such a degree that the ship's boys quaked when he walked by, absolutely convinced that he had, as Harry Smith asserted, rolled one of their sorry number up in a barrel and cast him overboard to sharks for scratching the paintwork. The reaction to his gravity was appropriately severe in consequence, and the mood of the ship became quite black within hours, hands uneasy, officers snappish.
"What's amiss with Himself?" whispered Barrett Bonden to Preserved Killick, the captain's steward, when he visited the aftercabin shortly after the end of his watch to see if there was a spot of coffee going.
"Which as they 'ave been at 'ammer and tongs this past hour," muttered Killick. "'Ammer and bleedin' tongs. Bedlam ain't in it. 'Ands off that fucking cake, Barrett Bonden."
"Fuck off yourself," said Bonden, and ate the slice he had purloined. "What's afoot?"
Killick made no pretense that he had not been listening at the door, until Jack, red-faced, had opened it and demanded toasted cheese for himself and the doctor and a bottle of the Lafitte '84 with the red seal on the double, and none of your confounded capers with the bottle, Killick.
"The doctor 'as tellypathised 'im. Which as 'e 'as hentered into a mens communis" - Killick laboriously pronounced the phrases with absolute incomprehension, the sounds acquired only by dint of the number of times he had heard Stephen repeat them through the door - "in consequence of a wicked fish what they ate in Portsmouth."
Bonden whistled. "A bad fish can set you down something cruel. My cousin Bob Sullivan - you remember him, out of the Minerva - ate a nasty old plaice in Gibralter that had him laid up for a week. Running back and forth to the head on the hour, he was, until the first lieutenant, a right hard horse, had him stay there until he didn't have nothing more left in him to shit out. But you mark my words, the doctor will set the captain up with a purge and a draft, and he'll be better before you know it."
At that moment, Jack and Stephen were no longer going at it hammer and tongs, but were sitting together in silence in Jack's cabin. They were still conversing, however, but had switched to their inner talk. The initial recriminations were long over, and their confusion and alarm had settled into a wrangling over how to proceed in the immediate present, since it was clear, at least to Stephen, that their condition was beyond his capacity to cure.
Are you quite sure a purge would not answer? A pill of some kind? One of your boluses? Jack asked, for at least the tenth time.
Jack, listen to yourself, will you now? This is not your whipping off of a leg, as you so often put it; this is a deeply complicated phenomenon of the mind, two minds, not to mention wholly unknown to science. If it would not guarantee our being taken up as lunatics, I would be delighted to have the opportunity to observe the progress of this disease and record it. As it is, I think I must wait until I can consult my books, and perhaps a trusted colleague in Dublin, a specialist. As for the immediate future, I see no alternative but to go on with the mission.
I do not like this, Stephen. I do not like this at all.
Stephen knew that he was referring not to their sudden mental communion, but to what Stephen had heretofore kept from Jack - now impossible to hide from him - that Stephen had been compromised at home. Indiscreet words at an open meeting at the Admiralty had brought Dr Maturin's name out into the open, and he did not know how quickly it would travel to the French agents in Port Mahon. He was gambling on there being no direct contact, no intelligence agent or his contact in the meeting, only the spread of casual talk, which, although it often travelled very fast indeed, might not travel as fast into an enemy port as a man-of-war in a tearing hurry. As Stephen had told Sir Joseph on their parting, his contact was in a unique position to bring the Catalan resistance on Minorca into alliance with the British against the occupying Castilian-Spanish forces and their French allies, but he would meet with no-one but Stephen, and the blow must be struck now, if it was to be struck at all.
Ignoring this direction of Stephen's thoughts, Jack went on, Quite apart from anything else, I cannot attend to the running of the ship with you bawling Catalan into my ear.
This had been the first course Stephen had taken when, in the horror of those first hours, he found that the privacy of his own mind, on which he had relied increasingly for so many years, was gone. This was worse than the profligacy of living on top of a hundred and fifty other men in a wooden prison two hundred feet long, worse even than having his diary read by a stranger; it seemed a total violation. As soon as he realised Jack could hear every thought that surfaced fully into his mind, and could sense a great many that did not, he switched into Catalan. Furthermore, so as not to reveal any more than he already had - the mingled intercourse of pity and shame he had felt when Jack had discovered his spying on Diana still made him feel sick to his stomach - and to prevent himself from perversely thinking of things that he did not want Jack to know, he spent the day when he was not tending to his patients reciting the Catalan poems of his childhood to himself. When he had run out of them, he conjugated verbs. He had found the effort exhausting, and he now looked grey, hunched and miserable.
Jack looked at him. He was aware that Stephen was finding the change in their circumstances harder than himself. Although it was a deuced queer feeling, sometimes downright uncomfortable to have his every thought known, his native cheerfulness was already coming back to the fore, buoying him up. If it was a disease, no more, then no doubt it would pass soon enough. If it was not - well. They would come to that when they came to it, but privately (not so privately, brother, Stephen thought, but Jack shrugged him off) he knew that if they went ahead with Stephen's plan, there was a good chance that one or both of them could be knocked on the head within the next week, which, if not an ideal solution, was certainly fool-proof.
What an optimist you are, Jack, to be sure.
Well, thought Jack crossly, it is better than your damned mensa, mensae, mensam. If I have to hear any more Latin, Stephen, I shall knock you on the head myself for some peace and quiet. It is like being in the schoolroom all over again.
Killick entered with their toasted cheese and wine, clearing his throat by way of a knock. Unnerved by their glaring silence, he swallowed whatever comment he was about to make about the way Jack's number two coat was slung across a locker, folded it punctiliously, and withdrew.
"Perhaps it will be better tomorrow," Jack said, after they had eaten most of the cheese. The effort of speaking mind-to-mind was giving him a headache that was not unlike the exhaustion of long-immobilised muscles after unaccustomed activity. "We could sleep it off. Do not be so downcast, Stephen."
Stephen sat up a little straighter. It would take him some time, he reflected, to get used to having his moods be so easily seen through. His inscrutability, on which he prided himself, was useless now, when Jack did not even need to look at his face. Does one have an inner face that one can compose like the outer, to fool the casual, or even knowing onlooker? he wondered. Jack's face took on a glassy expression, and he looked hard into his wine, obviously making an effort to give Stephen an illusion of privacy. Even at the best of times, nobody could call Jack Aubrey inscrutable.
"Oh, give over, Jack," he said crossly.
Captain Aubrey was called on deck shortly after, and Stephen, after checking on his patients, turned in for the night. After some consideration, he dosed himself with laudanum.
Amo, he thought to himself. Amas, amat, amamus -
Do stop that, Stephen. Several decks above, he felt Jack's irritation, a distinct strand of thought that Stephen could separate from the mental threads which monitored the wind, the significance of the pitch and roll of the ship, and the changing horizon with a constancy so steady that they were already fading into the background like the creaking of the sails, there only if Stephen listened for them.
Stephen wriggled further under his blanket, and pulled his scarf up around his ears. It will do him good, the creature, his Latin is sadly lacking, he thought. Amatis, amant. Amabam, amabas -
His draught of laudanum began to take effect, and he sank into a dreamless state; Jack experienced this as a cessation of noise and a diminishing of inner colour, as if one part of his own mind had suddenly lost the will to move. It was easier to concentrate, to be sure, which he was glad of through the long, dirty night in the Bay of Biscay, but when he crept into his cot at last, shortly before dawn, he was relieved when Stephen stirred and began to dream. He himself fell down, down deep into unconsciousness, and did not wake until Stephen began to think longingly of coffee.
They had slept on it, and it was not better, but on the other hand it did not seem any worse. Stephen was in a more generous mood after his sleep and morning coffee, however, and he noted that the effects of bad food usually took several days, sometimes as much as a week to pass off, and that there was a chance that a purge might answer, after all.
"Is it not a trifle late? What's horse for the goose is - what I mean to say, Stephen, is that you cannot shut the stable door -"
"When the gander is out?" Stephen suggested, his mouth full of toast.
"Just so," said Jack. Stephen became aware that there was an unfamiliar expression on his friend's face; affectionate, sure, but filled with something else that might perhaps have been chagrin, or perhaps wonder.
"How your thoughts do light up when you are laughing at me, Stephen. They become a completely different colour."
"My thoughts are colours, now?"
"Why, yes," Jack said, surprised. "Do you not see it? They are all different colours. It took me a little while to make them out, but they are rather like the northern lights, except where they are black."
Stephen considered Jack's bluff, weathered face, red from his night on deck, his bright blue eyes, his yellow hair. But when he made that strange inner effort to see into Jack's mind, his eyes ceased to become the primary organ of exploration, and it was as if he were probing into some unknown recess wholly by touch, organised by some system he could not fathom. No colours there.
"I see nothing of the kind in you."
"Hm," Jack said, and downed the last of his coffee. "They are so bright that it seems queer that I did not see 'em before. But there seems to be no pattern to it. It is like trying to follow the signal staff of the Channel fleet flagship without the book."
"I thought I was like the aurora borealis."
"Do not confuse me, Stephen," Jack said, with some asperity. "It is like both. Where is that bacon? Killick!"
"Your mind is much possessed by bacon, I find," Stephen said. "It fairly drowns out all other thought. I had no idea you had such powers of concentration."
"Your mind would be much possessed by bacon if you had been on deck all night with a damned uncomfortable lee shore and a griping foremast," said Jack, but Killick had slunk in with the bacon, and he was cheerful again.
"I tell you what it is, Stephen," he said later, pausing between sallies upon the bacon dish, "We were driven so far west last night with that blow that we cannot reach Minorca before Tuesday. I am sorry for it, but it may be for the best. If this mens communis of yours is to pass off, perhaps it may do so before then."
"I hope so, joy, indeed I do," said Stephen. They needed no telepathy to know what was in the other's mind - that this delay also increased the chances that the French on the island would be aware of Stephen's identity - but they did not speak of it.
"And I tell you what else occurred to me while you was asleep," said Jack. He paused to take the last forkful of kidneys, but the thought was clear in his mind, and Stephen cocked his head.
"Indeed, distance might answer," he mused aloud. They had avoided speaking to each other in their minds since they awoke. On Jack's part, this was both out of a certain delicacy for Stephen's feelings, and out of his natural dislike of secrecy. Stephen's impulses, however, were at war with themselves - on the one hand, this was a small ship, even if there had been such a thing as a soundproofed cabin, and any notion of what had happened to them reaching the officers or men would be a catastrophe. On the other, it was so unbelievable - the stuff of myth - that he scarcely feared any discovery at present, and his own dislike of the whole notion of his thoughts being heard aloud made him follow Jack's lead for now. But in many ways, he could see that this was an efficient mode of conversation, convenient in so many situations in the naval life: not only for covert talk, but for vital communication in the din of battle, or with a patient unable to speak. If it were not for the fact that they seemed to have no control over what was shared and what was not, it could be a most valuable gift.
He felt Jack's cautious, thoughtful agreement with this last thought, and realised that he had lapsed into a reverie. He returned to the issue at hand. "Yes, distance might answer," he said again. "Shall we try it after breakfast? If you will give me Bonden and a few hands, we shall pull out for a mile or so from the ship and study the effects."
"What a fellow you are, Stephen," said Jack. "Do you not feel the swell? We cannot possibly send out a boat, not today nor, I think, tomorrow. But we shall try it, all the same, as soon as it is practicable."
They continued their journey, tack upon tack as they rounded the Bay, and they began to catch the mistral that would waft them towards the Mediterranean, and Minorca. With some reluctance, Jack had declined to chase a sail that they sighted during the afternoon watch, disappointing the midshipmen, but their mission was too urgent for distraction. A drunken foretopmast hand fell from the rigging, and twisted his arm most hideously around himself in the fall, so that the bone jutted right through the skin, although in all other ways he was remarkably unscathed. Stephen was occupied for some hours with it, and Jack's afternoon was spent with Stephen muttering in the back of his mind, The wound is fairly clean. Smooth edges, good, we may save it yet. Now, the splinter - carefully now, carefully. Ah, it comes away whole. No, it splits, the vile dog. Where are my forceps? Be still, you twitching ninny, or I will cut off your arm and be done. "Tighter on his legs, Jones, if you please." Ha! I have it. There. And the needle and thread. Yes.
After some initial discomfort, Jack found that he was able to let it recede into the background, until there was something comforting about it; it was like their long evenings cruising in the Sophie, sitting in Jack's cabin in the evening on their own private pursuits, Stephen murmuring over his pictures of plants while Jack scraped at his violin, or read the Navy List. He had never known a man like Stephen for a shared, easy silence. Stephen joined him at the rail later, his sleeve cuffs bloody.
"Did the operation disturb you, joy?" He knew, of course, Jack's peculiar squeamishness about surgery, although the dear knew he had waded ankle-deep in blood across the deck when in action.
"Oh, no. I could not see anything, you know. It was like listening to you talk to yourself in the other room. How is Wilson?"
"He will do very well. But listen now, Jack," Stephen said, changing tack. "You said you could not see anything. But if you try, can you see out of my eyes, at all?"
Jack frowned. "I think - yes, I think I can."
For a second, Stephen's vision blurred oddly, as he saw Jack's face doubled over itself, his own sight reflected in Jack's mind and transmitted back to him. He rubbed his eyes instinctively, and the double-ness faded.
"Why, it ain't so very hard," Jack said. "Can you see out of mine? Try closing your eyes, it comes easier that way - clap onto the rail first with both hands, now, Stephen, there's a good fellow, the sea is a little rough - there. Try it now."
It was a strange sensation. Stephen reached, groped for something that felt like sight, and caught, for the briefest second, the image of himself gripping the rail, eyes closed, face drawn and sallow in the grey dawn. He grasped the image and it returned, sharper. His wig was crooked, and there was a spot of blood on it, above his left ear. Then Jack, responding to some sound Stephen had not noticed, looked up at the sails above them. "Mr Corben! Belay that halyard!" It was curious, sharing a pair of eyes with no control over their direction. Stephen shook himself, and withdrew.
"Queer, ain't it?"
"It gives a certain sensation of helplessness that I do not care for."
"Yes, I know what you mean. Do you think it will be useful?"
"It was merely a passing interest," said Stephen. His mind was racing forward, over the sea to the coming mission. They shared thoughts for a while in a peaceable silence; Jack's plan for putting Stephen down in the little cove where they had once seen a white falcon together, less than twenty miles from Port Mahon; other birds Stephen had seen there, his petrels, his ringed pigeon. This peace did not last, however; soon they threatened to run into Jack's warmer memories of time spent with Admiral Harte's wife, and Stephen began on Tirant lo Blanc again while Jack went into the tops, where the wind cooled his blushing face.
The storm blew itself out overnight, and the plan to take out the gig became practicable at last. However, it did not answer. Jack, Bonden and six prime hands pulled away from the ship in the cutter on the pretense of inspecting the ship's trim from afar, and giving the cutter's crew some exercise who were to take Stephen in to Port Mahon; but barely a hundred yards from the ship, a dull ache started in the quiet area of Jack's mind, and at two hundred, he was grey and leaning on the gunwale. Stephen, secured to the rail with a line in an inconspicuous corner of the forepeak, managed to conceal his distress from the officers, but when the cutter neared three hundred yards and the pain was becoming intolerable, they saw the cutter turn about. It returned to the ship, the men stretching out at the double. Stephen did not see them come, but he recovered as they got closer.
"Captain's taken ill," Bonden bawled up the side.
"A bosun's chair for the captain! Handsomely, now!" cried Fielding, and for the first time in his life, Jack was lifted up over the side like a lubber, totally insensible and barely breathing. He had pushed himself to the very limits of his endurance, and had suffered for it far more than Stephen.
"Take Captain Aubrey to his cabin at once." Stephen's usually harsh voice was even more so now, an ugly, croaking sound that alarmed the cutter's crew quite as much as the captain's colour and his gritted teeth. "I shall attend to him there."
It took three strong hands to manhandle Jack to his cabin and into his cot; Killick hovered in the doorway, but Stephen shut the door in his face before doubling over to vomit into the basin.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," he gasped, before Jack's hand snaked out and grabbed him by the wrist. He half crawled, half stumbled to the edge of the cot, where at a sudden lurch of the ship as Fielding swayed up topgallants he fell across Jack's body and found that he could not get up again. He was dimly aware of Jack tugging at him, not pushing him away but fumbling at his shirt, tugging it up until his freezing hand splayed across Stephen's bare back. There was an immediate diminishing in the pain in Stephen's head; soon he could breathe unimpeded, and, getting the sense of the thing, he wriggled up and pressed his forehead against Jack's. Slowly, feeling returned to his limbs, and he could feel Jack's body against him losing its painful rigidity.
"Well," Jack said eventually, "So much for that. What do you have to say now, Stephen? Get off me now, will you, your breath could raise the dead."
"You are no bed of roses yourself," Stephen said, and rolled off him.
Lord, however shall I explain this to Fielding? Jack thought later, as they shared a pot of coffee that Killick brought unasked, hovering with sullen anxiety in the doorway.
Nothing simpler, joy. A momentary indisposition brought on by a something you ate. But listen, Jack, can the officers confine you, at all, if they are concerned for your health or your mental faculties? I seem to remember hearing of cases of the kind.
Not without the say-so of the ship's surgeon. He has some odd notions, but I dare say he is discreet.
What a rattle you are, Jack, to be sure. This is a serious business.
Jack looked at Stephen, and his smile faded. Stephen was thinking of the case in Skibbereen while he had been at Trinity, where a woman had been burned as a witch - a witch, forsooth, in the modern year of 1787. Such things still happened. They had said that she spoke with her pigs, he recalled.
"Stephen," Jack said low. "Nobody has been hung for a witch in the Navy since - why, this hundred year and more at least."
"You fill me with confidence, brother," said Stephen. "Well, and so, we must consider our mission. Will you come with me into Mahon?"
"I do not see how I can do otherwise," Jack said slowly. "If you really feel that you must go."
Stephen considered. "I must think on this, Jack. Finish your coffee, now, and I will bring you a draught later. You must drink it down, never a complaint. We must continue the charade for the look of the thing."
It was clear to them both that, unless their condition changed in the next few days, Jack would have to go with Stephen into Port Mahon. Stephen weighed the situation carefully, but on balance, he thought that he still should go, that it was absolutely essential to the future of the Catalan resistance he so loved, and would allow them to strike a deep blow against Buonaparte; Jack, who was more concerned with the demands of the service and with the preservation of Stephen's life, would have turned about and headed for Gibralter, but Stephen was determined. Besides, Jack's orders were to take Stephen into Port Mahon, and it would be a damned awkward thing to explain in London.
I shall think of something to tell Fielding, he mused, half to Stephen, half to himself, as he stood on the quarterdeck watching the foretopgallant. It is not unheard of, for captains to go ashore in short, single-man operations. But I do not like it, Stephen.
However, part of him was relieved. He disliked letting Stephen go into unknown danger, the standing off-and-on for days, waiting for the rendezvous; he disliked Stephen's tendency to be late. Above all, he preferred to be on the spot, there to protect Stephen if he possibly could, although he disliked the practice of intelligence in general - a sneaking way to make war, although he had seen its effects.
You shall have to be in disguise, of course, Stephen reflected. He was in his surgery, watching with half an eye as his assistant dealt with a simple fracture, and he slipped easily between Catalan and English when he wished to communicate his thoughts to Jack. A disguise would certainly be necessary. Jack Aubrey, standing over six foot and with long, blond hair tied back like a sailor, would stand out on Minorca like a booby in a colony of puffins. Stephen had American papers for himself, of course, but nothing of the kind for Jack, since he had planned to go ashore alone. He himself could pass for a native, a paperless native, and Jack for an American, if it came to that, but it would not do as their main recourse - they must have another plan.
If you think it is necessary, but this time I will be disguised as a human! A human, Stephen! I will have none of your damned dancing bears.
There are a great many mountain lions on Minorca. Should you care for a mountain lion? It is more noble. And we would not have to dye your locks.
Stephen was treated to Jack's thought processes as Jack considered how he could bring together 'lion' or 'mane' with 'lying-in' or 'mainsail' to brilliant effect.
Perhaps 'hare' and 'hair-shirt'? Stephen suggested.
Why, that is not bad, Stephen. We shall set you up for a wit yet. Next you will tell me you are a man of intelligence! Ha ha!
Jack turned to the rail to hide his mirth, but he was unable to hide his sudden "Ha ha!" and the hands around him smirked.
In the surgery, Stephen sighed.
However, until they were a day from Minorca with no change - indeed, their sense of each other's thoughts was stronger than ever, and Stephen had switched into Irish after Jack had begun to understand his Catalan - neither of them truly believed that Jack would have to leave the ship. Now, when their plan began to solidify into reality, Jack became grave and withdrawn, and Stephen fractious. It was by no means an ideal plan. Jack was not suited for espionage, nor Stephen to sharing his work. Stephen had no way of informing his contact that he would be accompanied. The risk to them both, together, was higher; was he deceiving himself that they had any chance at all?
There will be no exchange, if we are caught, Jack thought, as they shared a late, silent meal that evening. If they identify me as an officer without my commission and uniform, I shall be shot.
If we are caught, we shall both be shot regardless, Stephen returned. And probably not as soon as we should like, he thought to himself, then immediately regretted it. Jack shot him a look.
"You do not mean that they use torture? The French army?" he said, with grave disquiet. "I will not believe it, Stephen. No officer would ever so degrade himself. Not even a French one."
"It happens," Stephen said. "I have known it done. Does this change your mind, brother?"
"No," Jack said slowly. He pushed his plate away. Stephen had never seen him lose his appetite before an engagement, and it worried him. "No, I do not think so. But I should write a letter to Sophie, Stephen."
Although, Stephen heard him think inwardly, it may be better to release her, after all, I cannot very well marry her in this state.
He knew that the thought had not been directed at him, and he hesitated, but then at last said, "I beg you will not take our present state as an impediment to your future hopes, Jack." Jack looked up at him sharply. "There is still a good chance that this may fade, and even if it does not -" his inventiveness failed him for a moment, but he rallied, "Even if it does not, some arrangement might be made."
"Lord, Stephen, of course I could not marry a woman when another man can hear my every thought - can even see out of my eyes! God's my life, can you imagine anything so low? And you scarcely able to go as far as the drawing room when I was - when we were - how could you suggest such a thing," Jack cried, a flush mounting on his face. "Why, it would be like asking a woman to -" he switched to thought, with belated caution, to lie with two men at once!
All at once Jack's mind was roiling with images - a glimpse through a door closed carelessly of bodies intertwined - soft, hard breathing in the midshipman's berth - moans heard through a cabin bulkhead -
The thought does not wholly displease you, I find, Stephen thought, before he could catch himself, and Jack's face darkened. Stephen felt Jack's anxiety and apprehension flare into anger, and he felt his own emotions rise in response. Was it a transference, a simple feeding on Jack's stronger moods? He had felt strangely buoyed these last few days, while Jack remained optimistic; now, he was suddenly irritated with Jack and with this situation, with himself, Sir Joseph, the admiralty, and even Sophie.
"Stop that at once!"
"You know I cannot," Stephen snapped. "You should not think so loudly."
It don't displease you overmuch, neither, Jack flung back, and in an instant, it was all there, one of the many things that Stephen had tried to assiduously to keep buried under his Latin verbs and his poetry and his birds. His sexual interest in men, even his occasional experiences were laid bare, visible at the surface of Stephen's mind for an irreparable instant - a dalliance two years long with a chemist at Trinity, his friendship with Adhemar de la Mothe that had provided an outlet of mutual pleasure and convenience, before the war. For all his very real love of Diana, for all his long celibacy since he had been in intelligence - too cautious for men, and with eyes for only one woman - Stephen was, by the letter of the law, a sodomite. Jack sat down abruptly, his anger blown out.
Close your mouth, Jack, do not sit there gaping like a baboon, Stephen said at last. His face had gone a curious colour, Jack noticed. They could not look each other in the eye. The inevitable question arose in Jack's mind, slower than Stephen had suspected. Surely he cannot want -
I most certainly do not, Stephen snapped. Even were I inclined towards illiterate sailors of a gross complexion and a tendency towards bulk, I am no pining, puling adolescent midshipman with an excess of humours, imagining myself in love with my dearest friend! Do you think I would have stayed in your company - committed to long ship voyages - if I were wasting away for you, for all love? The idea is absurd.
But the face of Diana flashed between them, giving the lie at least regarding Stephen's tendency to pine, and Stephen leaped to his feet and paced across the room. His fists were clenched white at his sides. "Audio, "he whispered to himself, "Audis, audit, audimus, auditis - for the love of God, this cannot be supported. Audiunt."
"You are right," Jack said, in a low voice. "It is absurd. I am sorry, Stephen. I did not mean to think such a thing."
You have known any number of men in the service who have admired Ganymede over Juno. I have committed no sin against your Naval code, I have left the boys unharassed and not bothered the men. I have been temperance itself at sea, and on land too, this past year and more.
Yes, that's true, Jack thought, hesitantly. The spectre of Diana again hung between them. Yes. But that was not - it is different with you, Stephen.
Will I leap into your cot and ravish you, for all love? Stephen thought, heatedly. Come, Jack, this is cowardice. This is base hypocrisy.
There was a knock at the door. They looked at each other, breathing hard.
"Enter!" Jack roared.
A pale midshipman appeared in the doorway. Their conversation had been largely silent, but the tenor of Jack's voice, and the look on his face, clearly had an instantaneous effect. "Mr Simmons's compliments to the captain and would he come on deck please? That is, there is a sail, sir, and would Mr Simmons - I mean, would the captain -"
"All right, all right, Mr Jennings, I shall be there directly."
The midshipman fled. Jack seemed to grow in size as he gathered his dignity about him. "I must go on deck," he said. He paced about the room once or twice, then passed a hand over his forehead, and left.
We cannot continue like this, Stephen thought in Irish, staring at the bulkhead. Insupportable, to know another with such intimacy. He had not realised the extent to which human relations relied on the boundary between thought and speech - the faculty of tact - the privacy of one's own mind.
He felt Jack's anger, mortification and confusion recede as he moved further from the cabin, so far that he must have climbed into the tops. The quiet he left behind him in Stephen's mind ached like an old wound. He let his mind drift away from him in the now-unaccustomed silence. The value of silence - St Augustine on solitude - the desert fathers on the 'noonday devil', or acadia, now erroneously translated as 'sloth', but undoubtably a depression of the spirits brought on by the poor diet, boredom and heat.
At last he went to check on his patients, and then above to the taffrail where he could lean over the boiling water of the ship's wake, and watch the long white tail that stretched behind them. He stayed there a long time. In the distance, he felt Jack composing a letter to Sophie, word by laborious word. He watched the sea, and tried to empty his mind, to find a silence beyond thought.
He crept into their cabin at four bells in the middle watch, when the ship was dark and silent except for the creaking of the yards and the hoarse, "All's well!" on the hour. He thought Jack was asleep, at first, so quiet was his mind, but as he settled into his cot, he heard a rustle on Jack's side of the cabin.
I may be no phoenix, but 'illiterate' is coming it a little high.
Stephen smiled in the darkness. The expression felt unfamiliar on his face. The deep ache in his heart had eased as he'd approached the cabin, and it had now settled into the familiar weight of sorrow, chagrin, regret.
Forgive me, brother. It was unjust.
Stephen felt a cautious touch against his mind, like a pat on the shoulder. Sophie says that my letters are positively Shakespearean sometimes. Shakespearean, Stephen! She said that, upon my life.
I am sure she did.
A more gentle silence fell between them now, but Stephen still felt that searching touch upon him, looking for a reassurance of some kind. He mused upon it for a while, then said, You are too huge and beaten-about to be called pretty, but you are not an ill-looking specimen, on the whole, Jack.
You are too kind, Stephen, too generous by far. I am overwhelmed.
Do not be facetious, it does not suit you. I mean to say - the meaning I wished to convey, is that it is not the physical aspect which - you are a handsome man, Jack. You are my dear friend, that is all. I would not give that for the world.
Jack only turned in his cot, but a profusion of feelings burst from him - discomfiture, embarrassment, relief, and a kind of surprised, shy pleasure that Stephen found almost painfully endearing. Then again, silence. Stephen's eyes drifted closed.
You know I love you, Stephen, Jack thought. It had the tone of a question.
Of course, joy.
And as to my bulk, as you so unkindly call it - Jack yawned. As to that -
But Stephen did not discover what Jack thought of his bulk, for he dropped into sleep like a stone plummeting off a cliff, and a snore that could be heard at the forepeak rattled through the cabin.
"Oh, your soul to the devil, Jack Aubrey," he said aloud. His laudanum was in the surgery, and he was too tired and warm to get up, so he stuffed his wax balls into his ears, although with little hope that they would block the noise.
Jack's sleeping mind was quiet and deep, a tangible presence in the room. Half from curiosity, half from contrariness, like a man pretending not to kick a friend awake, he touched its surface. It was strangely unlike its waking self; it yielded to him like a warm, living sea. There were no surface thoughts, only a deep, swelling consciousness that Stephen did not choose to disturb. It was quite peaceful, and the noise of Jack's snores was dimmed from within. Stephen fell into a deep sleep, deeper and longer than he had had in years without laudanum, and woke only when Jack did, to the changing of the wind, and the cry of land, land on the starboard beam. They had raised the island at last.
They spent the day in last preparations, standing off and on out of sight of the French ships in Port Mahon, and they pulled into the little inlet under cover of darkness. Bonden set them neatly on the beach, the crunch of the sand beneath their feet covered by the sound of the breakers.
"Pull handsomely now," Jack whispered, "We shall see you at the rendezvous in three days time. Absolutely no noise returning to the ship. My compliments to Mr Fielding, and you may tell him we have landed safely."
"Yes sir," Bonden whispered back. This was very like going into action, and the same sense of equality, of rank suspended, hung over them, so he added, "Good luck sir, doctor. Take care now."
"Thank you, Bonden."
They walked up the beach, and began to make their way up the hillside, carefully finding old familiar paths by the light of the waning moon. They made no sound, nor was there room in their thoughts for communication. It came to Jack, after several hours of walking, that the tenor of Stephen's thoughts was entirely changed; there was a sort of solidity there that came partly from the land beneath their feet, and partly from the land itself. The breezes, the smells and night sounds that disoriented Jack were familiar to Stephen, even home-like. There seemed even to be a change in his walk; he was faster, surer, until, despite their respective heights, Jack was puffing to keep up; it reminded him of being in Spain with Stephen, at his old ruined castle, when Jack was weak with fever.
Stephen was thinking in Catalan again, the strange Catalan they spoke in these isles, but this seemed to be less through a conscious intent to mask his thought - indeed, it would not have answered, since the language had seeped almost fully into Jack's mind, and he could now understand it tolerably - and more a natural response to their surroundings, a spontaneous reaction. At this moment, his mind was half on the path they were taking, and half on whether there was any chance of seeing a Minorcan night-jar at this time of the year. They walked on, and stopped at dawn to eat a meal of bread and cheese. Jack lay down to sleep with his coat over his face.
He woke, several hours later, to find that Stephen was not there. The pain in his head told him that he was not close, neither.
There was no response, at first, and Jack sat up, alarmed. His head was reeling. Stephen!
I am here, I am here, Stephen muttered into his head, and then his head and shoulders appeared over the top of the hill. He was carrying an egg in each hand.
"I wish you would not go off like that, Stephen," Jack said, when Stephen was close enough that he did not have to raise his voice. His head ached, and the sun blazed overhead with a powerful heat. He thought longingly of coffee. "Are those eggs for breakfast?"
"Certainly not. They are from a shearwater that I saw caught by a hawk, the creature. I shall wrap them in my neckcloth, so, and keep them warm in my inner pocket, and they shall be safe until we return to the ship, where they will hatch, with the blessing, if your brutish appetite will leave them be."
"Oh, leave off about my appetite," said Jack, whose usual cheerfulness was suffering under this onslaught. In addition, he felt naked without his uniform, and exposed in the daylight. "Dammit, Stephen, my head hurts, and you could have been seen. There are several xebecs out in the harbour, did you not observe them?"
They continued back and forth in this way for some time, until Stephen snapped, "Such mawkish puling! Such henpecking! We are not married, for all love."
Not yet, Jack thought.
They stared at each other, appalled, before Stephen winced against the wave of bluster and denial that stormed from Jack's thoughts into his own.
"More quietly, brother, I beg you."
The storm withdrew, tinged with apology, as Jack visibly took control of himself.
"I did not mean -"
But it was perfectly clear what he had meant, and he fell silent, defeated. It was only too obvious to them both what could happen - what would happen, inevitably, between a man of Jack's appetites and Stephen, so long denied carnal conversation with either sex, as long as their bond prevented them from seeking other company. Folly to pretend they did not both know the other's needs; unnatural to deny them. Unless they could find some solution. They would have to find a solution, or Jack's engagement to Sophie would become a sham, a foul deception; more, to turn to each other in such a way would be to risk their careers, even their lives. That was, if they lived beyond the next few days.
"Pay it no mind, Jack. It is of no consequence just yet." Weariness overtook Stephen suddenly, and the fact that he did not know whether it was his own or his friend's made it worse. Jack looked grey in the harsh noonday sun, despite his sleep. Stephen's expedition had strained their bond more than he had intended; he had meant to test it, and had reached four hundred yards before his head had hurt too much to go on. Undoubtedly the bond was weakening, although there seemed no material difference in their communion as yet. Stephen reached out his hand wordlessly across the rock, and, after a moment's hesitation, Jack interlaced their fingers. The connection flowed between them, a live, joyful current, and Stephen felt again that heightened sensation of the world around him transforming, the crash of the surf and creaking of the trees in the wind turning into a language he almost knew.
"What a mind you have, to be sure, Stephen," Jack said blurrily. "It is like poetry."
Hush, said Stephen. This time, he did not try to shut up his inner mind against Jack or deafen him with Irish. Despite the coming danger - or perhaps because of it - there was an otherworldly sensation between them, like being out of time, and it did not seem to matter what they shared. He drifted, and thought of birds. Could it be that Rogiers was correct about the crest of Phalacrocorax carbo? The differences in the proximal indentations at the sternum would seem to suggest - Could the little cutter stand a strong cross sea, were they somehow to miss the Lively and stand out for Gibraltar? Perhaps if he stiffened the sides with two-inch cable, and passed another around the mast as a travelling backstay -
You are a tolerably tedious creature to share thoughts with, Jack.
Oh, be hanged with you. The thought was like a fond nudge, and Stephen felt his own lips twitch, despite himself. How I wish I had my violin. Do you remember that piece we played in the Sophie, the Bach?
For an instant, Stephen's head was full of music, clearer and more real than anything he had ever heard in his own mind, even in dreams. A few snatches of phrases, then gone. He blinked, quite ravished. The morning sounds of the hillside seemed louder, in the sudden silence. He could smell thyme. He let go of Jack's hand and lay back against the gorse, careful of his eggs.
I am amazed, brother. I had no idea that your musical recollection was so exact. You are a veritable Mozart, upon my honour. Try another.
He felt the amelioration of Jack's spirits, partly from the open flattery, and partly from the spirit of apology behind it.
Well, I am glad to be less tedious. The Corelli in C?
It burst into life between them, and Stephen rested his head upon his arm and listened to the familiar piece, made strange both by the vividness of Jack's inner music, and by the increased volume of the violin part, as if it were being played directly into his ear, which of course was the way Jack heard it. Occasionally he caught the image of himself bent over his cello on the other side of the cabin - was he really such an ugly, hunch-backed gargoyle when he played, for all love? - but on the whole Jack's music was a sightless experience, an immersion in the music itself. He became aware of Jack's hand on the back of his neck, stroking the small hairs on the base of his neck as one would pet a cat. It was absurdly pleasurable. Despite the cool breeze coming off the sea, he was warm everywhere they touched.
He was surprised at how easy Jack was with him; like most Englishmen, he did not touch other men overmuch. It seemed to Stephen that something indefinable had changed between them, that, contrary to his expectations, this intimacy between them and the revelation of Stephen's sexual nature had given rise to - not desire, but the possibility of it, a kind of gentleness and freedom that Stephen had not felt with another man since his childhood in Catalonia.
He felt Jack's mind stir against him, an unvoiced question.
Rather you than anyone else in the world, brother, he thought, and he felt that same wordless touch in return, tinged with concern, affection, uncomplicated sweetness.
I will take a watch, Jack thought. Get some rest, Stephen. I will wake you in a few hours.
Stephen put his jacket over his face and slept, the eggs tucked under his arm to be out of the direct heat of the sun.
They met Stephen's contact at the ruined chapel in the early hours of the following morning, after a long walk over perilous terrain, in a dark more profound than the previous night. Jack saw him first, a squat shape detaching itself from the stone wall.
"Are you Esteban Maturin y Domanova?" the man said in a hoarse whisper.
"No," Jack said. "He is here."
"Maragall," said Stephen. They embraced in the Catalan manner, touching both cheeks.
"I was told you would come alone."
"The situation has changed," Stephen said. "This man is my dear friend. He is here as a kind of bodyguard; he has no stake in the business, but what you would say to me, you may say to him. Come, we have much to discuss."
Maragall did not look happy, and he glanced over his shoulder at Jack as Stephen ushered him into the shadow of the ruined wall.
"Does he speak the Catalan?"
"Sure, he speaks a little and understands more. He will not attend us, however."
Jack realised, with a start, that he had spoken to the man in Catalan. This disturbed him, and he withdrew to the far side of the chapel, so as to be nearly out of earshot. The two men had a long, whispered conference. Jack thought about the Lively. Fielding was a capable enough officer, but would he remember her tendency to gripe on a bowline? The man's confusion of right and left had nearly led to some sticky situations in the Bay. I have become like a mother hen, Jack thought ruefully. And she is not even really my ship.
"Jack," said Stephen, coming back. Jack could hear, if he concentrated, that Stephen was speaking English now. Did that mean that Maragall could not be trusted?
He can, Stephen thought briefly, but it is best that he know as little as possible.
"Maragall was sent by the man I am to meet. He will arrange a disguise for you that will cover your hair. His boy will run up the road with it and meet us on the way. We must go down into the town. The men that I need to meet are there. You and I will walk down to the town together now. Maragall will come in another way and will meet us at the church of Santa Maria. With the blessing, we shall be away by nightfall. Follow my lead at all times, Jack, do you understand?"
Jack nodded. They were in earnest now, and Stephen was deadly still, a quite different man from the one Jack knew. He felt his blood quicken, and his vision become sharper as they descended the hillside, and soon Port Mahon itself was visible below them, a few lights winking in the darkness.
Listen now, Jack, Stephen said, as they picked their way towards the sleeping town below them, their ears straining for every sound. I have in my front pocket some American papers that will serve for you if we are captured, but I will keep them on me for now. You shall be dressed as a friar, a Franciscan.
Jack frowned. Ain't that irreligious?
It is a noble order, to be sure, but I have known friars who whored, drank and talked bawdy more than most sea captains. The hood will cover your hair, at least, and make you tolerably less conspicuous. Your being attached to me is an inconvenience, but at least we may communicate silently - if anyone approaches us, I will tell you what to say. I think it is best if you simply follow close by me and keep out of the way.
The musty, rather smelly robes that the boy brought them before melting back into the darkness were a little too small for Jack, and they gave him the curious sense of remove from the world around him, heightened by Stephen's strangeness in this new environment. As they walked through the town, the eyes of the people slid over him, except for one elderly woman who bowed and crossed herself, and whispered something that he did not quite catch. Stephen spoke the Latin words to him, and Jack repeated them, shaping a cross over her head as he had seen Stephen do above Catholic shipmates who had lost the number of their mess. It gave him a queer feeling, but from Stephen he felt no change in that concentration, the dangerous alertness, so he said nothing, but followed Stephen's feet through the cobbled streets.
Then there was the church, and kneeling in the pews beside Stephen; a long wait, broken only by a whispered conference with Maragall, who appeared and then left again, and a young woman, who appeared with water, bread, and oranges, and would not meet their eyes. Finally another man appeared, and he led them to a coffee house Jack recognised, a small place away from the main road that had never been frequented by the English officers, partly because of the owner's absolute refusal to comprehend English, French or Castilian, and partly because of the vicious nature of his goat, Cervantes, which lived in the back room but frequently wandered between the tables and chairs, tripping customers and chewing on their pockets.
Wait here, brother, Stephen said. I shall be upstairs. A look passed between them. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the small packet of identity papers. Keep these, will you now. Sit in the corner and do not speak. It is perhaps best if you look drunk.
Stephen! You know I've no notion of Popery, but the cloth is the cloth, and a friar roaring drunk in a coffee house at eight o'clock in the morning is coming it pretty high.
Don't be foolish, Jack. Do as I tell you, now.
Jack sat slumped in the corner, and watched the steady trickle of men through the front and back doors of the establishment. Some stood at the counter, drinking; some sat, some slunk upstairs, often after a quick glance around the room. He wondered if there was a local slut upstairs, or if these were going to Stephen's meeting. Surely not so many. He tried to remain abstract, to ignore the steady flow of thoughts from above, Stephen's white, needle-sharp tension. Jack heard the sound of boots on the cobbles and the clash of arms only shortly before the two officers in French livery appeared in the window. One, a short man with a round, sunburned face, sweating above his stock, looked through the window at the room. They withdrew, and appeared to be in conference.
Stephen, he said sharply. Two French officers. I think they are looking for someone. Stephen's attention turned to him, and suddenly his thoughts seemed louder, as if someone had opened a door between them.
Be sure now, Jack. Are they searching, or are they merely passing by?
Jack watched them from under the shadow of his hood. Discussion, hesitation. The second officer, wearing the uniform of an army lieutenant, entered the coffee shop and surveyed the room at leisure. He was a tall man with an intelligent face.
They are searching, Stephen. Get your man out.
The goat wandered out from behind the bar. An old hand at covertcy, he made as if he had not noticed the officer's red coat, and wandered casually across the room before slipping under one of the further tables and disappearing into the shadows beneath it. The French officer approached Jack.
"Padre," he said, in a thickly accented Spanish. "Hast thou seen little man avec les yeux - pale eyes?" He gestured at his chest, and neckcloth. "Dirty cloth? Clothes? Stefan, ah, Esteban Maturin? Doc-tor Esteban Maturin?"
Coin flashed in his hand.
Do not speak to them, Jack. You are drunk.
Jack shook his head a little, and allowed himself to slump to one side. He belched, for effect. His heart was beating fast, and he felt sweat beading on his forehead. He wished Stephen had allowed him to bring his pistols, or at the very least a sword. The French officer sighed in disgust, then shouted a question towards the bar. Jack could feel activity upstairs, but his inner and outer senses were confused; he was no longer sure what he heard through Stephen's ears.
Listen, Jack, it is imperative that my man gets out - if he is taken, all is lost. There is a back way out, but we shall need a distraction.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jack saw Cervantes edging towards the lieutenant. His mouth was open in preparation, and his brown, weathered molars were visible as he stretched out his neck.
Now, Stephen, he thought, and just as Cervantes seized the coat, Jack roared and overturned his table, sending coffee streaming across the room. The French lieutenant cursed as Cervantes got a better hold on his coat, and the captain shouted at Jack in French as Jack made to look about himself in confusion. The owner came out from the back room and added his voice to the fray. Across the road, a dog began to bark.
We are away, Stephen said. Leave discreetly, if you can.
"Greatest apologies, most sincere," Jack muttered in Catalan, and tried to push past the liuetenant, but the man seized his shoulder, and by an unlucky chance, his hood fell back.
"Il n'est pas un Menorc!" he hissed, and Jack blinked at him. "Thy papers, with your leave, padre," the Lieutenant said.
Stephen, I am nabbed. Leaving discreetly is out of the question. Shall I leave indiscreetly?
Sure, it is worth a try. Meet us back at Santa Maria.
Jack fetched the lieutenant a round punch in the jaw, and kicked the captain in the shins. Just at that moment, a knot of French soldiers burst through the door. Another seized him around the waist, but Cervantes, in whom there was an ancient lust for blood, bit down on the soldier's leg, eliciting a shriek and a string of curses in a strong Breton accent. Jack made a dash for the door, and it seemed that he might make it, until his leg caught on a chair flung by a soldier, and he came crashing down in the street, striking his arm and face painfully on the cobbles. He had three soldiers upon him in an instant, and all his strength could not shake them off. He felt Stephen's urgent voice in his head.
Surrender, Jack. I am with you. The others are seeking reinforcements. We shall extract you presently, but you must go along with them for now.
Wearily, blood streaming from his nose, Jack allowed himself to be pulled to his feet, and he held out his hands for the cuffs. The lieutenant, half his coat missing, stormed past them. One of the French soldiers muttered something to the other, which had the tone of "watch out for squalls, mate," even if Jack could not understand the exact words, and then he was hustled up the hill.
Staying in the shadows, Stephen followed the group of soldiers leading Jack onward down the hill. Until he knew where they were taking him, he could not determine his sphere of movement; if they were both to remain conscious, he must stay close to Jack for now. Soon enough, however, it was clear that they were taking Jack to the old English garrison. Once this was clear and he had stationed himself in an alley, he risked bespeaking Jack again.
Are you injured, joy? I saw that lieutenant kick you, the infamous villain.
I am quite all right, Stephen, don't fuss, Jack returned. Only tell me what I must do. I feel quite naked without my commission, you know. God's my life, you would not credit what they have done to the old garrison. A disgraceful shambles.
Sure, I will not go far, and I will guide you through the interrogation while my friends plan your escape. You will be an American sailor who has 'jumped ship', as you say - can you make such a story convincing? Supplying nautical terms, names of ships, and so on?
Oh, I think I can manage that, Jack replied, and Stephen felt his amusement.
The first interrogation, conducted in passable English once Jack's papers were produced, was no great thing, and with Stephen's occasional prompts as to tone and direction, Jack handled it easily. Able seaman George Fox, late of Constitution, late of Lady May, and late too of several French ships which Jack knew to be in the Mediterranean and whose captains he was able to name, was a convincing, if contemptible spectacle, the blow to his face causing a slurring of the speech that added to the overall effect. He had left the ship without leave to find a girl. He had woken to find his pockets empty and his ship gone. He had no memory of why he was dressed as a friar. He had no prior association with the goat that had so mauled their commanding officer. No indeed, he had never met the man after whom the soldiers had been inquiring - he had simply come awake and panicked at the shouting, thinking it was a press gang.
Why, Jack, anyone would think you were accustomed to brushes with the law, Stephen said, once Jack had been returned to his cell. Stephen was relieved. He had not trusted Jack's ability to dissemble by land, but in the character of a sailor, Jack was still in known territory.
I was in Hamlet once, you know, Jack said. I can play a part tolerably well when I am called on, I hope. I am thinking of some ways to amuse 'em if they come at me again. Perhaps I shall play a madman.
"Mother of God, preserve us," Stephen muttered under his breath, and nodded at Maragall, who had appeared from a nearby alleyway. They entered into a swift conference.
Listen now, will you, Jack. The city is crawling with French officers - they must have come in overnight. Yet Maragall believes he can get you out. There is a woman who works in the prison, a huge wench of about your size, who may be able to smuggle in some of her clothes -
What a fellow you are, Stephen. All I need is a grapnel, a length of cable and a block, and I can have the bars off this window. And I already have the cable in my pocket. If you can secure a line of escape, I can leave whenever you choose, so long as they don't move me from this cell.
Stephen cocked his head. Are you in earnest, brother? You can get out of the cell? Without noise?
He felt Jack's consideration, and pressing his palms to the brick wall, he looked, with effort, through Jack's eyes at the cell that contained him. It looked secure enough to Stephen, a low cell sunk into the ground, but, sensing his presence, Jack indicated the crumbling stone around the bars, the heavy bar on the door that would serve as an anchor, and the familiar street the cell window looked onto, barely two hundred yards from the sea. The window was low and did not admit much light, but was large enough to for Jack to squeeze through once the bars were gone. Without noise, no. But it can be done, and I think quite quickly.
My friends will create a distraction, since you have created one for them, Stephen assured him. And I will go about securing your grapnel and block. He felt a cool, precise certainty underlying his own will, shoring it up, and soon he realized that this was Jack's strength augmenting his own.
In the cell, Jack sat down against the wall. From the shadows, he could tell that it was moving towards early evening. He had been in the cell for several hours; no doubt they planned to let him cool his heels in here overnight before either having another attempt at him, or turning him loose. He had been given water, and had used the corner of his shirt to clean his face. He had been half listening to Stephen's activities, and half to the sounds of the garrison, making note of the comings and goings, the number of troops, the forces in the harbour. He fell into a light doze, after a while, and woke when Stephen called him.
Jack. Are you awake, now?
I'm awake, Stephen, what's amiss?
Our line of escape is proving something of a difficulty. Troops of French soldiers have been visiting every haunt in the town, asking for me by name. We must leave as soon as possible. My friends think leaving on foot is inadvisable. I asked for a boat, but they have none, and cannot get one tonight.
Then we must steal one. He hesitated. May I use your eyes?
He felt Stephen take a breath, and let it out. Stephen seemed close to the prison; he felt sharp in Jack's mind, a mass of clear lights and colours. By all means, joy.
Jack closed his eyes and reached. It was much easier this time than it had been the first time, although they had not practiced this. He saw the port, but Stephen was looking at entirely the wrong area. Stephen, look over towards the small craft. No, further to the left. Look at the square-rigged smack. The square-rigged smack. With the red sails, Stephen! Listen, Stephen, if I may - he reached further, until the cold wall against his back, the sweat on his palms, the itch of crusted blood on his nose and mouth all faded away, and the sound of Stephen's heartbeat filled his mind. He felt Stephen's startled inner exclamation close-up, as it were, and he paused until Stephen took another breath and assented. Easy, old Stephen, he muttered, and took control of his eyes. There was the square-rigged smack. A net over the side. No, it would be going out too early. A dory? It could not weather the open sea, but if they pulled out far enough to spot the Lively - or perhaps one of the many native, single-sailed craft without a name that lurked in every corner of the harbour? No. A dory would be best; it would not be visible from the shore by night, slung low to the sea with no sails. He spotted a likely candidate close by. Stephen felt his interest and moved towards it to get a better look, allowing Jack to guide his eyes. Stephen's discomfort was a dull, green feeling that made his head feel thick, and Jack released him as soon as he was sure of the boat, and opened his eyes to his cell.
Jack was awoken by a muffled sound as a bag was lowered into his cell through the bars. He was up in an instant and caught it before it touched the stone floor.
I have it, he thought, and whispered, "Gracias."
Do not make a sound until I tell you, now.
It was long, hard work in the dark, making the purchase fast against the door and the grapnel against the bars, weaving the cable into a rigging designed to concentrate the greatest possible force on the window when Jack heaved on it. Towards the second hour, Jack heard running in the distance, then shouts. Away to the other side of the building, there was a loud bang. In the street, someone cried in Spanish, "Provocaron un incendio! Fuego!"
Dogs barking. In the distance, a man screamed. Still he waited.
They are leaving the front. Now, Jack. I will meet you by the little boat.
He heaved with a will; on the third or fourth pull, there was a great crack and a crash, and the bars came away whole from the window. As the dust settled, he heard a shout from inside the garrison.
"Hurry," came a voice from the empty space in the wall, and two sets of powerful arms heaved Jack up into the street. "He is down by the harbour. I will take you to him. Come!"
A dizzying interval of running through alleys in near-total silence, as Jack became hopelessly lost, then, emerging into the harbour. The little dory they had seen before, empty, its oars inside. Jack made short work of the knots tying it to the jetty. A man running toward them, shouting, and Jack's guide now nowhere in sight. Jack hit him with an oar, and he dropped to the ground without a moan.
"Christ," said Jack, and then Stephen was there beside him.
"Let us away, Jack - now, for all love!"
Jack helped him into the boat. As they pulled away, an explosion shook the night, and the sky above Port Mahon lit up orange.
They were tense and silent as they pulled out of the port. The French men-of-war and the Spanish xebecs loomed out of the darkness, and once or twice Stephen answered hails from them - what was going on in the harbour, was the governor's house on fire, had they seen Manuel this evening, did they have any lobster. At last they were in open water, and a cross-sea began to toss them up and down as a fresh sea breeze swept away the smell of dead fish, rotting weed and smoke. Jack rested on his oars, panting.
"I am in your hands," Stephen said at last. "What do you wish to do? Can we pull out for the Lively from here?"
"Are they likely to be looking for us, do you think?" Jack asked.
"I think not. I believe my friends took the opportunity to break into the cells at the governor's residence, where the French were holding some of their people for interrogation. Extreme interrogation."
Stephen paused. That would have been him, Jack thought. The thought of the danger Stephen had walked into - had nearly walked into alone - made anger burn low in his stomach. In addition, the fisherman on the jetty was weighing on his mind. Had Jack killed him? It was not quite in cold blood, to be sure, but it felt damned close to it. His hands were blistered and raw, and he was extremely hungry.
"You are sharp set, and your blue devil is coming upon you fast, I find. Eat some of this, now. I have enough food for an army."
Stephen passed Jack a wax-paper packet containing ham, bread, cheese. There was a wineskin, too, containing a harsh red that burned as it went down. Slowly, the food and the clean spray on his face worked their magic, and Jack began to consider their situation. They were now in the dark of the moon, and Jack would not let him strike a light in case they were seen from the batteries up on the cliffs, so he had to examine their supplies by feel.
"No," he said finally, "We pull along the coast slowly, and as soon as it is light we will find our inlet, and wait there for the cutter. They may send soldiers along the coast to look for us, but all things considered, I would rather be hidden on land than a sitting duck for all those batteries. Besides, we might miss the Lively if the sea gets up and she is hid from us."
There was a little cave, in the inlet; Jack fell into a deep sleep on its sandy floor, while Stephen waded in the rockpools, following the tiny crabs to their lairs. His shearwater's eggs had survived their adventure, he was happy to find; they still seemed to retain their own warmth, and he hoped they might yet hatch, although if they didn't, he would dissect the foetuses within. He returned late in the afternoon to dress Jack's hands and eye and to share a meal. Afterwards they climbed up onto the hill. The gorse made a comfortable seat, the afternoon was warm but not too hot, and the Mediterranean glowed beneath them like a great blue jewel.
Stephen was conscious of some restraint between them, some words unsaid, and he was unsurprised when Jack thought, after a long period of silence, I never knew you were a foreigner, Stephen. Don't that seem strange? I knew of your parents, of course, but I did not think - I did not understand that - oh, I am not clever enough with words to say what I mean. I did not know.
There was no judgement in his mind's voice, only a sort of bemusement at his own ignorance of Stephen's inner heart. Stephen sensed that the condition of being other than English was somehow further beyond Jack's range of experience than sodomy. Stephen's occasional dalliance with men had already sunk back into Jack's mind as one of Stephen's many eccentricities - peculiar, but tolerated, even loved - but this was a question of fundamental essence, a knowing on a different plane. Stephen had wondered if their friendship would survive this revelation of their inner hearts; he wondered it again now, as they sat together on the hillside.
I know you did not, brother, he thought. It was Jack's openness - his shining assumption that all the world was with him - that had so endeared him to Stephen when they had first met in Port Mahon these three years ago and more.
It don't signify, of course, Jack added, perhaps responding to Stephen's thought, perhaps not. Only, it seems a damned lonely life for you, dear Stephen. Stephen felt from him again that tide of affection, a wordless, unquestioning reassurance. Ludicrously, he felt his eyes sting, and he turned away to examine a small flower.
It is sometimes lonely, sure, he said, when he was in command of himself, for with Jack he found that he now hated hypocrisy more than exposure. He had found it an oppression, at first, to be unable to lie; now he was coming to find it more of a relief. He suspected that they were sharing less of their incidental thought - Jack seemed strangely silent to him now, and his living mind less present - but he found himself loath to test this, or to mention it.
They fell into silence again, looking out to sea, where the Lively's sails should appear before dusk as she prepared to send out the cutter for the rendezvous. What made a man a foreigner, Stephen wondered; it was possible that he had spent as many, or even more years in England than Jack, given that Jack had been at sea from childhood while Stephen had practiced in London and privately for a great part of the last decade, but clearly this was facetious quibbling. Was it a question of mere allegiance? Of familiarity? Or of some deep part, sometimes outwardly perceptible, sometimes not, that always knew oneself a stranger? His mind drifted to men that he had known - Irish, Catalan, English - in foreign lands, the curious relationship to the mother country, the poisoning influence of perceived inferiority or superiority to their new neighbours. The very great difference between willing and unwilling exile, and between love of one's own country and love of another's. The terrible force of war to scatter families, rend apart populations.
A fly landing on his hand awoke him, and he checked Jack's black eye. It had swollen shut, but it did not seem to be troubling him overmuch - what a diagnostic tool their shared thoughts could be, to be sure, if only it could be directed selectively. With his hands probing Jack's face, he could sense the level of pain his touch caused, as well as the fact that Jack was anxious about the wind. Jack shook him off to point out to sea.
"Stephen, do you make out a white flash about three points to windward? To windward, Stephen! No, to - follow my finger! God's my life, how you can still confuse windward and leeward after all this time -"
"Windward is the direction of the wind, is it not?"
"It is the direction the wind is coming from. Upwind of us; East, do you see? And so if we were at sea we might say that they have the weather gauge of us. Yes, I am sure that is a sail."
"But surely you do not think they mean to attack us?"
"How can you say such a thing, Stephen, as if their guns could reach us at this elevation. Why, it is the Lively! She is early! Down to the boat, Stephen - we shall pull out to them now and not wait for them to send the cutter. It may come on to blow later, and I would as soon be off this island now as later."
There was an awkward moment, coming alongside, before the officers recognized their captain under the black eye, bloody nose and fisherman's red cap, and another when Stephen cried at the sailor hauling him up the side, "Have a care of my shearwater's eggs, sir! The slightest pressure may be fatal!" and in the subsequent confusion was nearly dropped into the sea. They were welcomed aboard with real delight, however, and within a few hours they were again fully integrated into the life of the ship, Jack on deck, Stephen in his sickbay, both dealing with the problems that had arisen in their absence.
It was not for two days that they were at leisure to eat a late supper of toasted cheese and share a bottle of wine to celebrate their return. They looked out of the stern gallery into the deep blue of the evening sky. Beside, him, Stephen was a comfortable presence, but a silent one.
Stephen, thought Jack. The thought reverberated in his own head. Stephen turned to him with a quizzical look.
"Did you speak, my dear?"
"It is fading," Jack said. "Our mens concubinis."
"Communis. Yes, so I had observed."
"I dare say it is a relief to you," Jack said, with an attempt to sound light-hearted. Although he knew that it would have made things damned awkward, to be always hanging to each other's coat-tails, and although Sophie had been weighing on his mind, at that moment he felt a piercing sorrow.
"You are not wholly pleased, I find," said Stephen quietly.
"No," said Jack, turning to him. "No, I'm - I tell you what it is, Stephen, it was awkward for you, I know -"
"It was like being opened," Stephen said. "Like a cadaver. Do not take it amiss, Jack, when I say that I would not have it happen again for the world."
"Well," Jack said quietly. "Well. I dare say. But nevertheless. There was something comfortable about - about knowing where you were all the time."
All that had passed between them - Stephen's secrets, and that charmed time on the hillside above Port Mahon - was an almost tangible presence between them, but they would not speak of them, Stephen knew, if he did not choose to. They might never be referred to again; Jack would simply let them drift down into the depths of his mind and would never think of them, never speak of them. And yet, what had he learned about Jack Aubrey? Nothing, except that he was worthy of the trust Stephen had been forced to place in him. For all he had the deceitful nature of a newborn lamb, he had always kept secrets for Stephen. To his own surprise, he did not feel absolute relief at this prospect of a return to their former state; he also felt a certain weariness, even sorrow.
"You have never asked me questions, Jack," he said slowly. "Do not think that I do not - appreciate your consideration. I am, on occasion - that is, I have been told - that I can be somewhat secretive."
"What things you tell me, Stephen," Jack said. His eyes were laughing. "I had no notion at all."
"Yes, well. You may ask me, on occasion, in the future," he said. "I find I have not been entirely fair to you, Jack."
"Thank you," Jack said.
"And listen, Jack," Stephen said, and before he could lose the impulse, he reached out his hand to touch Jack's. Jack immediately turned his palm up and intertwined their fingers together. The touch sparked their communion into life again, only faint, but enough for Stephen to reach out to Jack through it. His skin was warm, and rough where the blisters from the oars had scabbed.
I love you dearly, Jack, Stephen said. You may be sure of that. He felt Jack's pleasure, his mingled feelings of wistfulness, relief, regret, and behind them all, his living presence; still there, for all Stephen could no longer hear it, and he wondered if he would be able to remember what it was like to slip inside it as he fell asleep.
And I you, Stephen.
Stephen released Jack's hand, stood up jerkily, crossed the space between them, and kissed Jack's forehead, once. He tasted salt on his lips. Jack blinked up at him.
"There, now," Stephen said. "Will we have some music, before Killick comes in and steals our lamp? Do not embrace me, Jack, the moment is passed, and I will lose my spectacles to your buttons."
"Oh, very well," Jack laughed, and he took up his violin.