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(Note: this draws on book canon for background, but is set in an amorphous time somewhere towards the middle of the series.)
The Undiscovered Ocean
...to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
—Sir Isaac Newton
"Hush, quietly now, for all love." Stephen's voice, steady and calm, overruled the alarm he had felt at hearing the crash of the surf. Jack gave over trying to sit up. His head ached, and his throat; the early sunlight stabbed cruelly at his eyes when he opened them. Moisture at his lips, he drank thirstily before even realizing that it was coconut milk, still in the shell, that there was sand beneath him.
He let his head sink back into Stephen's lap, closed his eyes under the comforting, cool hand. "I have a very damnable head," he said. "What has happened? The Gloucester
Stephen hesitated, answer enough even before he spoke. "Lost, I am afraid." His hands kept Jack down. "My dear, no more at present, there is truly nothing to be done. Drink a little more, then rest."
It was the next morning before he was well enough to stagger to his feet and make some survey of their port, such as it was. Splinters and broken casks aplenty had been cast up on the shore, and out some distance he could make out a fragment of the Gloucester's mizzenmast lodged upright by some chance against the reef, one lone white tatter of sail trailing forlorn.
"No other survivors?" Jack asked, low.
Stephen gave him a glance. "You don't recall?" At Jack's quick negative, he said, "You ordered the boats launched, after it was clear she was heading for the reef. I believe the greater part of the crew escaped before she broke apart. The weather has been clear, sure they are halfway to port by now."
Jack could only trust him; he had not the slightest recollection of the storm, or anything much at all after the sinking of the Incroyable
. He did recall the rudder had gone in the fight. He let Stephen lead him back to the shade of the palm trees. They ate mangoes, not-quite-ripe, and pieces of raw coconut.
"I feel reasonably certain of gathering eggs tomorrow at the far end of the beach," Stephen said. "This is nesting season for the brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis
, and I have observed them settling there, beyond the rocks. There are also turtles in the cove. I think we need not starve before rescue arrives."
Jack murmured assent without giving great thought to the matter, his stomach still sufficiently unsettled that the scarce quantity of food was not yet a burden. Only some hours later that night, when his headache had faded with the sunset, did he consider Stephen's words more closely. "Stephen—"
A rustle beside him, and Stephen's hand touched his cheek in quick concern. "Are you feeling poorly?"
"No, no, I am well. But Stephen, did the boats see us make land?"
"I think not," Stephen said, after consideration. "A spar fell and took us over the side nearer the shore, and I believe we were blocked from sight by the hull. They were certainly out of sight by the time we reached shore."
"I see," Jack said, and looked out at the cove. There was a three-quarter moon, and the ocean stretched away level and smooth and empty under the shining white light. He considered dissembling, to spare Stephen worry for a while longer, but it would be to no point: the truth would out soon enough. He said, "My dear, they will send no rescue. Cast overboard against a reef such as this with the ship breaking apart, it is a very miracle we are alive. It will scarcely be thought of."
"Ah. We are marooned, then, I take it. Permanently?"
"No, no, hardly. A nice sheltered cove like this one, plenty of greenstuff, not too far from shipping lanes, some small privateer or fisherman will put in eventually, I should think," Jack said, meaning it. "But the stormy season is at hand, and we are too far from any port for small vessels. I wouldn't look for rescue until winter. We will have to salvage what we can from the wreck and lay in supplies against a long wait."
The reef had penned much of the wreckage into the cove, and the clear, calm waters offered no hazard to even an indifferent swimmer. Stephen alone managed to bring in several casks of fresh water that had remained afloat, and when finally he pronounced Jack well enough to dive, in short order Jack brought up not only several stores of provisions, including several bottles from Killick's stores, but a bundle of sailcloth and tools.
Food proved to be of no great concern: the island had a plentiful stock of birds, turtles, fruit and vegetables, and they did not need to turn to the salvaged stores unless they chose. Water was a different matter: they watched the sky anxiously for rain clouds until Stephen's wandering after some of the native fauna led him across a small sheltered pond near the heart of the island, whose water proved fresh.
With a plentiful supply of wood from the wreck, they—or rather Jack, for Stephen was a sad hand at anything resembling carpentry—were able to construct a small shelter without difficulty. However, Jack had no great confidence in their little hut's withstanding a blow of any degree, and this he expected at almost any moment. The air had been heavy and moist for long days, and the wind sluggish; he anxiously scanned the horizon morning and night for weather-signs, and lamented the loss of his barometer. He was not easy in his mind until Stephen managed to uncover a small cave, barely more than a fissure in volcanic rock, while pursuing a large turtle in hopes of being led to its nest. This they turned into a small storm-refuge, clearing away sand, laying down palm fronds and dried grass.
With such ample supplies, and their skill and knowledge at managing them, boredom was already their greatest enemy when the first storm came, some three weeks into their sojourn, and it was almost a welcome interruption of the slow, creeping days.
It came up from the south at a cracking pace, and even from the shore Jack could see the swells reaching twenty feet out past the reef, on nothing more than its outlying edge. They had divided their cache of supplies, gathered with so much labor, into three separate packets; these secured against a cluster of rocks in different places upon the island, so that if one were lost the others might remain to them. All made fast, they took their sailcloth coverlet, a bottle of brandy, a roasted pelican, and crawled into the low, smooth-walled cave.
They made a comfortable evening of it, stretched out together with their heads to the entrance, propped on their elbows, eating with their fingers and passing the bottle between them. The storm howled, and a whirling rain turned all the world outside into a confused blur, but with the low overhang breaking the rain and the sailcloth wrapped about them, they were perfectly snug.
At length, Stephen began to muse idly on the methods the birds might be employing to ride out the storm. Listening to him with no great attention, Jack drifted to sleep in the pleasant contemplation of a brief absence of cares, lulled by the better part of the bottle. He was roused only a short while later, not to full awareness, by some unconscious perception of the storm's passage. The rain was still coming swiftly outside, but in straight downward sheets that did not try to come into their shelter. Stephen was a warm length cuddled against him, head pillowed upon his own arm, lips moving faintly.
Brandy and sleep both kept a light grip upon Jack's mind, and he had no coherent thoughts. He was half-aware of a state of mild arousal; of the night air on his face, wonderfully fresh and cool; of Stephen's leg, entangled with his own, thigh directly against his loins. With no deliberate intention, he leaned into that delicious pressure and pulled the coverlet higher upon their shoulders, closing his eyes once more.
Stephen shifted closer to him, murmuring something, and his warm alcoholic breath skated over Jack's throat, provoking a deep, erotic shudder. His peaceful half-stupor deserted him at great speed, and Jack woke fully even while he made an urgent and wholly unambiguous movement upon Stephen in its final moments.
He was unable to speak for horror. And to make matters worse, the damned arousal had not yet flagged in the least, so that he could not move for fear of offending further. Stephen had woken at once, and now regarded him blinking, his long pale face only showing curiosity for a moment. Realization altered his expression very plainly, and Jack dropped his eyes from Stephen's face, remaining mute. The sensation was very equal to standing a court-martial, and Jack felt that same certainty of ruin and disgrace take hold of him.
"There, joy, sure it is no great thing," Stephen said, and Jack scarcely understood any of the words in his great surge of relief at their loving gentleness. He struggled after a joke, something to break the silence and let him draw away, when Stephen leaned close in the dark and kissed him. His thigh slid forward as he did so, and Jack drew an unguarded breath and found himself closely engaged.
It was surprising to find so little difference, at least in kissing. Stephen had shaved that morning, so there was no beard to scrape against, and while his mouth was stronger, wider, his lips were still soft. And then Stephen's hands were so very clever; Jack had often had occasion to know it before, but never with so intimate an application. Almost at once, Jack betrayed himself with so enthusiastic a reception as to put him past any possible objection, if indeed he had still entertained any serious thought of it.
He had a moment of alarm when Stephen turned him onto his back and moved between his legs. Despite his long career at sea, he had no very well-conceived idea of how men went about buggery, and this seemed uneasily like a woman's position: he grew tense. But Stephen kissed him again and said, "Come now, Jack, could you imagine?" both fondly and with amusement, and Jack laughed and let Stephen press him back.
From there, all went as sweetly as could be imagined, any remaining hesitancy dispersed by that moment of lightness. When Stephen leaned upon him, at once Jack saw the benefits of their new position. He caught at Stephen's hips and forwarded the cause of friction, not much hampered by Stephen's weight, gasping only for the startling exploratory caresses of his hands, nothing like what Jack had ever received or practiced in lovemaking.
He could not have called it delightful: it was too carnal, too base, but it was wholly satisfying, especially to a full-blooded man who had gone eighteen months without a hope of pleasure beyond self-abuse. So great was his sympathy with Stephen that not a touch or movement went amiss: they ran on together, matched their paces, and came up to the mark at the same moment or good as. And even afterwards, the climax past, they both went off directly into a heavy and peaceful sleep without more than a half-dozen words exchanged and a corner of the sailcloth soaked with brandy dregs put to use.
Morning found them in somewhat less harmony of feeling. At first, Jack was surprised and even put out to find Stephen unrepentant and unoutraged, ready to treat the indiscretion as a matter of course. It seemed to Jack as much as to say that Stephen had expected something of the sort, a commentary perhaps upon the navy or his own private character, and this united with a private sense of shame and infuriated him. He made a muttered excuse and set off almost directly after their rising to check upon their cached supplies.
As he made the rounds and found the caches all intact, however, his resentment gradually faded. He noted to himself that under the circumstances, taking any real offense could render their situation quite impossible. Seen in this light, Stephen's reaction was not insensitive, simply well-governed. This resolved his irritation with Stephen, but the reasoning extended unhappily: on further reflection it became clear to Jack that even should Stephen have found the idea distasteful, he must necessarily have either yielded or risked an unpleasant scene.
In vain did he protest to himself that he had never meant to make any sort of a demand. He was painfully conscious of having breached the bounds of decency, not to say the law, and of having placed his friend in an impossible position. He returned to their small and now disordered camp very downcast, feeling the necessity of a profound apology and not sure how he was to bring it about.
But Stephen gave him no opportunity at first, hailing him from a distance and involving him at once in the task of restoring their flattened hut. When later in the day Jack once more made an attempt, he cut it off in a trice. "No, my dear, no such thing, I will not hear you. We certainly share equal responsibility, but in any case you make far too much of it: nowhere near the bounds of criminal conduct, and scarcely to be wondered at, in two men of ordinary parts, healthy diet and atmosphere, and not enough work to tire the mind or body."
Jack was perfectly willing to be convinced, not least because to him Stephen was an authority second only to God on matters medical and anatomical. To learn that their behavior did not qualify as sodomy comforted him amazingly, and after Stephen had discoursed at some length on the value of release for reducing pent-up humours, he was ready to consider the act virtually medicinal.
Shortly thereafter, after hauling in the several sea-chests that the storm had uncovered from the ocean floor, they recovered his fiddle and Stephen's cello. Both distressingly waterlogged to be sure, and the cello with a sad hole in her side where a rock had pierced the side of the chest, but likely to be serviceable once they had dried out under the tropical sun. It seemed to Jack an excellent omen, indicating that they had not offended heaven, and it quite restored his spirits. By evening he was able to lie down with Stephen without a qualm, although he had originally entertained ideas of sleeping outside the hut, so as not to offend again. The night passed off without any repetition, and the next day Jack was completely easy in his mind, the whole thing not exactly forgotten, but put aside.
The first difficulty arose only after a few days had gone by; the weather kept mostly clear and not too hot, the damage done by the storm had all been repaired, they had laid in substantial stores, their shelter was as comfortable as it could be made under the circumstances, and there was nothing at all that demanded their attention. Even Stephen had exhausted his taste for wandering the island inspecting the flora and fauna, which was plentiful but largely commonplace.
Such a lull had occurred before, and they had passed it with conversation and a makeshift chess set carved from scraps of wood. But now there was a sudden constraint, not deliberate on either part but immediately perceptible to both. They essayed the instruments, but it proved too soon; the wood was still too damp.
The hours crept away; they ate a light dinner, all that their appetites required, and drank very freely. Jack had taken the bottle of rum from their store, and Stephen had not said a word, although in the ordinary way either one of them was likely to argue for saving the bottles for a special occasion, when the other proposed to open one. Initially, this served; they both fell asleep nearly in their cups, staggering back inside the hut only to collapse on the bedding.
But it was very early, and the wind changed in the night and brought the surf hammering noisily onto the reef. They lay wakeful in the dark, wholly aware of each other, until Jack broke and said, "Stephen—" He faltered at once, but the silence made question enough.
"Yes, my dear," came the answer, low.
The storm season continued on its way without many more hard blows, and their days settled into a steady, unvarying pattern. Violin and cello both spoke again, even if with somewhat hoarser voices, and their players improved wonderfully with the large quantity of practice which they used to fill the hours of leisure in the day. Stephen made daily observations on several species of the birds, which Jack suffered to have explained to him, and on fine nights they would often lie out upon the beach, protected from the sand-mites by sailcloth, and study the movements of the heavens.
At first they only infrequently indulged in sexual congress. Stephen had never yet made the opening gesture, and Jack did not know whether to take this as an obscure reproach or only a condescension to his sensibilities. Stephen never refused when asked and gave clear proofs of his enjoyment in the event, else all might have come to an end; but in his uncertainty, Jack refrained more often than not.
And then the sea-turtle eggs (those which had been spared from the boiling-pot at Stephen's insistence) began to hatch, and Stephen spent three nights in succession on the beach to watch the hatchlings dig their way out and creep into the ocean. When the last one had made its escape, he crept back into the hut, suffused with delight, woke the half-drowsing Jack and set upon him without a word of please-may-I, to their mutual satisfaction.
Thereafter they were both less shy of beginning. Jack's natural appetites were hearty, in no wise reduced by having had limited indulgence in the past, and as Stephen continued to provide evidence of his reciprocal enthusiasm, in short order it became a very nearly daily occurrence. They continued to avoid sodomy, a distinction which Jack maintained as a sort of bulwark against considering himself a criminal, but Stephen's inquisitiveness and lack of great scruple led him to experiment in virtually every other direction that could be imagined. Jack somewhat anxiously accomodated him, unsure whether he really ought to enjoy these variations.
Very often they retired early, to lie together in the dim, close warmth of the hut. Stephen showed an odd propensity to carry on conversation during the act, and he could and would postpone the climax, holding Jack close to maintain arousal and pressing slow, lush kisses on him, until Jack reached the limits of his patience and drove them on to the final climax.
"Perhaps it is a species of revenge," Stephen said, drowsily, stroking Jack's cheek as they lay in a limp, panting heap, all shining with sweat, after Jack had made a rather plaintive inquiry. "Since the very beginning of our acquaintance you have been forever dragging me from place to place with wholly unnecessary haste—wholly unnecessary in the vast majority," he repeated, when Jack would have protested. "It can scarcely be wondered at if I like to linger while I may."
He rolled over and slept, but Jack lay awake, that 'while I may' working upon his mind. He had given very little thought to the outside world since their marooning, but the storm season was very nearly over, and soon they would need to begin keeping closer watch for a vessel. When it came, as he had a reasonable expectation, and they were restored to civilization, this would end; of course this would end. There could be no question of anything else, and he had no thought of regretting it, when that moment came.
The thought of Sophie weighed on him suddenly. He had no natural inclination towards constancy, and he never felt much guilt when he strayed, being far from home and wife, although he took a most lively care to keep these instances from coming to Sophie's attention. These things were different for men, he excused himself when he bothered to consider it at all, and if his heart was not engaged—as indeed it never had been—he felt comfortable enough in his vows.
It had never occurred to him previously that in his involvement with Stephen he had violated that precept, concerned as he had been with the broader improprieties; now that it had, he rejected the idea, but uneasily. Certainly he did not view Stephen in the same light as Sophie; the relation could not be compared. He tried to smile at the idea of Stephen as a wife and managed it by dint of envisioning him in the role of housekeeper, recalling his very slovenly habits. But it was a weak smile, and it slid off his face as he fell off, leaving him with a puzzled frown as he slept.
The little fishing boat came in cautiously, having sighted their bonfire. A West Indian vessel as it turned out, the Artemisia
. Her captain, who with his son formed her only crew, was glum about sacrificing room in his hold to turn rescuer, and they did not dare step out of his sight, for fear that he should turn about and leave without them. They had already shifted into the decent clothes they had preserved in order to make a more creditable appearance, and nothing else could be taken in the face of his sour temper but a handful of papers which Stephen had already concealed upon himself.
The reaction to their apparent resurrection was all that could have been hoped for: shock, amazement, delight. By great good fortune, HMS Whirlwind
, bound for England with dispatches, was just then in port at St. Kitts, and Captain Benton was very pleased to offer them passage; the bank-officers were obliging enough to provide an advance against their pay; two officers in the boarding-house near the dock moved in together to leave them a room.
There were two beds provided. Jack hesitated a moment, then ended by saying nothing, and lay himself down in the one nearer the window. Stephen also did not speak—indeed he had said nothing throughout the day beyond what was necessary—and stretched out upon the other. He had already acquired pen and foolscap and a fresh journal, and now here was the soft scratch of his writing, so familiar even after its long absence. The room was rather larger than any of the cabins they had shared in the past, and not moving with the waves, otherwise they might have been back aboard ship already, the island already receding into memory.
Jack had the seaman's gift of sleeping when and where he could, but for once sleep would not come; the pen on the paper was grating, the candle-light flickers shone through his eyelids. Undoubtedly Stephen was setting down his notes on the mating habits of the sea turtle and his damned Pelecanus occidentalis
. "For God's sake, will you not give over?" he said, and closed his mouth on still more hasty words, ashamed at his own bad temper.
The pen halted; the book was set down; Stephen blew out the candle. Outside now Jack could hear the soft lapping of the waves, the muffled noise remaining in the streets; the pungent smell of the docks came in at the window. In the dark, Stephen rose and crossed the room to him, bending over the bed. "Joy," he said, "we were swept off very fast; may I presume one last time?"
For answer, Jack groped after Stephen's hand and drew him down for a moment, a long moment. When finally Jack had freed his lips, Stephen crouched beside the bed a short while longer, his breath coming quick and uneven. Then his fingers slipped through Jack's, and he went back to his bed. "Goodnight, my dear," he said softly, from the far side of the room. Jack answered him he hardly knew how, in a thickened voice, somewhat bewildered by a sensation of sharp pain, and turned away to face the wall.
Six months ashore spent largely in lawyers' offices, running back and forth from London, and he could at last call himself alive in the legal as well as physical sense. Even so his affairs indeed cost him a great deal less trouble than might have been expected, being in good order for perhaps the first time in his life: Sophie had good fiscal sense, better than her husband's if truth be told, and despite her grief she had made excellent use of the sympathy attendant upon a young widow as well as the prize-money from the Incroyable
to straighten out the muddle he had left her.
Now she slept curled up beside him. She had been very touchingly grateful to have him returned and unusually affectionate since. He was very glad to be home, to be with her again, to see the children; she was as lovely as ever and their sympathy as deep; yet even so he would wake occasionally in the night, missing the crashing surf and Stephen's length warm at his side, the low murmur of conversation between them. He had never before experienced a strong memory of one lover while with another, and it made him feel a dishonest scrub, all the more with Sophie making so generous an effort to be accomodating.
He had looked in at the Admiralty as often as he dared, and by great good fortune a new command had come, the Halcyon
; in the morning he was leaving for Dover. He had struggled in a morass of conscience, duty and desire, and in the end the letter had been written, the reply had come even if perhaps a little slowly: Stephen would sail with them. They had scarcely seen each other these six months. Stephen had looked in for a few days early on, at Sophie's request, but it had not been quite comfortable. He had vanished shortly thereafter, engaged as Jack suspected upon some delicate mission abroad, and was only lately returned.
Jack deeply felt the loss of their easy, free relations, and he yet hoped to restore them by means of this voyage. The passage from the West Indies had been too severely constrained, with hardly any opportunity for privacy, and since then they had both been too involved with their affairs. The Halcyon
was a very pretty frigate, with two cabins off the main stern-cabin, and Stephen was to have one.
Jack had no fear of temptation: that was all at an end. It seemed likely to him that all that was wanting to set them to rights was a comfortable cruise together, with hopefully a sharp action along the way. Such a thing served beautifully for bringing together a crew, and he saw no reason why it would not do on a smaller scale as well. Indeed, he recalled with satisfaction how their long-ago quarrel—absurd to look back upon now—had been so easily settled after the taking of the Fanciulla
: Stephen bending over him in the sickbay, the loving concern in his face, how easy it had been to catch his hand and whisper an apology. He smiled up at the darkness to remember it now, and fell asleep at once.
Stephen came aboard late on the day before they were to set sail, the tide to turn in the morning, and Jack had only time to greet him, his attention consumed with setting the ship to rights and taking stock of the crew and the stores. By the time he was satisfied, he returned to the stern and looked in on the leeward sleeping cabin to find Stephen dozing in his hammock, still half-dressed, arm thrown across the covers and book in his lap.
Jack braced himself against the upper beam of the doorway and looked on him. There was none of that animal attraction which drew him to a pretty woman; Stephen was not what anyone would call handsome, even if Jack had been likely to burn for any man. The taste had been wholly an acquired one, and given no encouragement it of course had faded. It was so very good to be with him as shipmates again.
Stephen stirred and smiled up at him, murmured his name. Jack was half bent to his lips before coming to himself, and then he fetched himself a lubberly knock on the head from the beam in recoiling, his very profane exclamations muffled too late.
Stephen spared him the suppressed mirth of the crew and extracted the shallow splinters at once by the light of the cabin's lantern. Jack held very still under his hand, red and stiff with embarrassment, and barely waited for him to finish mopping up the trickle of blood before bursting out, "Stephen, I assure you, I had no intention—would not have—"
"Oh, no, no, forbear, for all love," Stephen said to this, rather impatiently, and added with something like black humor, "Although I must tell you, joy, that while I had not looked with much hope for our resolve to hold out much past Gibraltar, I thought we might have cleared the harbour."
Cut off mid-apology, Jack was inclined to be indignant at this and said so, adding, "I do not think this a fit subject for levity, and I promise you that I would never—never offer any offense," speaking rather around the point with a glance at the door, mindful of Killick's wretched habits of eavesdropping.
"My dear, forgive me," Stephen said, his voice low. "I will be serious—I must speak plainly. I have not the slightest objection, save for the practical, which has never been sufficient to restrain feeling, not since Eden. We cannot go on this way, not if your sentiments follow my own."
Jack rose and sought refuge in the decanter. "What would you have us do?" he said without turning back around, angry and obscurely afraid. "What is there to be done?"
Stephen spoke very heavily, "I am sorry, Jack, but I think you must set me down. I ought not to have accepted the position, perhaps: I had some hope that if you had no inclination, I might manage tolerably—but that is neither here nor there."
Aware without even thinking of it that the evening's tide was still with them, Jack suffered an immediate impulse to order the Halcyon
to sea at once. He mastered it and spoke sharply. "For God's sake, Stephen, this is absurd. We have sailed a thousand leagues together without—and we can damn well sail them over again. A little effort—"
"I tell you it will not do," Stephen said, rising to come close, his voice scarcely over a whisper but heated for all that. "To repress desire, even ardent desire, may be accomplished, but confined in close quarters, each perfectly aware of the other's willingness, no other outlet, and this for months on end? An eruption would be inevitable, and surely would come at the worst possible moment, dangerous if not fatal, and then where should we be? Jack, my dear, I could not stand to see—to be the cause—" And his voice broke.
To this Jack had no argument to offer, and of course he could not keep Stephen aboard by force against all good sense, and for such a reason—it would be utterly shameful, beyond everything. And yet, to lose him so—and forever—"Oh God, I cannot bear it," he said in very despair, not entirely meaning to speak aloud, and turned.
Stephen met him with equal fervor. They made hasty work of what little of their clothing needed to be removed, only slightly less hasty work of everything else, and a disgraceful hash of Jack's cot. It was too narrow for much comfort afterwards, so they repaired to the table in the main cabin, very rumpled in nothing but their shirts and smallclothes, and sat looking at each other in misery, neither willing to begin.
They both went stock-still in their chairs as Killick poked into the cabin. Jack swallowed to order him out, his throat so dry his voice was gone, but in an instant he had snatched up Jack's discarded and now stained breeches, the glass of port having tipped over in their carelessness, glared at them both, and left of his own accord, muttering very audibly, "And not a word about supper, which it's six bells already, and a-making worse work of clothes as are already not fit to be seen."
They both remained in their fixed positions after he had gone, staring at the door. "Can he not have realized—?" Stephen said at last, faintly.
"We are not wont to stand on ceremony with each other. I dare say he has seen us looking more disreputable together," Jack said. "Besides Killick would hardly pay it mind, he has nothing to say against the cook," this speech cryptic unless one knew the cook to be notorious, and in a moment the impropriety of such a comparison struck Jack and put him to the blush.
Stephen was kind enough not to remark on it. "Sure I do not think any of our shipmates would be seen in the character of an informer," he said. "But talk would be enough, and you may call me a suspicious close-mouthed coxscomb if you like, but that far I would not trust a living soul."
"God love you, Stephen, why should we give them anything to talk of?" Jack said. "It is not as though we would ever," here he stopped, and hastily substituted for the profanity that had involuntarily first come to his tongue, "do something outrageous on the quarterdeck, or let ourselves be taken in fornication."
"We were very nearly taken just now," Stephen said, with some asperity.
"No such thing," Jack said, "Killick would hardly look into the sleeping cabins at this hour, and the door was almost all the way to." Stephen had nothing to say to this, and Jack took heart from the small victory.
"My dear, I would not be parted from you in this way for the world," he said, leaning forward to catch Stephen's hand. "Let us attempt it again. We have cleared the air—we will refrain in future—"
"Not in life. No, listen to me, soul," Stephen said, "I would not hazard twopence on our chastity. If we attempt anything at all, it can only be discretion, and I mean of the most rigorous kind. Never but behind a barred door, as silent as we can manage, at speed, and this at regular intervals, to prevent increase of temptation."
Jack was scarlet to the roots to hear it put so bluntly, and for a moment he could say nothing. To act in heat seemed to him a very different thing than this cold-blooded plan of action, and his conscience spoke against it loudly, where he had not felt more than a twinge at his previous infidelities.
His feelings were plain on his face, and Stephen looked at him sadly. "It is an appalling thing to be sure, but my dear, if ever the breath of the thing were to reach the ears of our enemies, I promise you they should spare no chance to have me at their mercy, if indeed they did not simply destroy us out of hand. But I ought never to have suggested it; pray forgive me."
With Stephen's brutal words laying it bare, Jack truly felt the horror of the choice and all that he risked: Sophie and the children, disgrace and ruin, even a capital charge; and against them all only this hand in his, Stephen there across the table, tired and disheveled. Every duty demanded that Jack yield him up, let him disembark, and take care never to see him again.
"No," Jack said, when Stephen would have drawn free, and kept hold of him. "By God, Stephen, it sounds a wretched creeping way of managing, but I daresay it will not be so black as you paint it, and I could cut off my arm sooner than lose you."
Stephen was silent for a moment, looking at their clasped hands on the table, and then he smiled a little and looked at Jack with deep love and affection. "Well, my dear, sure we have risked as much together before, even if we are running away from reason," he said.
Jack felt an absurd surge of—happiness was not the word for this giddy, effervescent emotion, this wild relief, and he laughed out loud. "No, my dear," he said. "We are merely choosing the lesser—"
= End =