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A Naturalist At Sea

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Stephen Maturin ordinarily would have greeted with delight an opportunity for close and prolonged observation of phosphorescent marine life. In the present circumstances, however (he and Jack adrift, incalculably far from both their ship and the nearest land) he found his attention frequently straying to other concerns. It was, he thought, a most telling instance of the mind's enslavement to the body.

Some while later, when his weariness had again required him to let Jack support his weight, it occurred to him that this might in itself be a subject of exceedingly useful study. How much did scientific curiosity, that most detached work of the intellect, decline in the absence of warmth, food, water (or rather, drinkable water, for water they had in plenty), physical ease and the assurance of safety?

He opened his mouth to share this idea with Jack, listened for a moment to Jack's labored breathing, and kept his silence. Jack was surely occupied with thinking of Sophie and his children, and the little likelihood of ever seeing them again.

An image of Diana came into his mind, in appearance very unlike a grieving widow. Instead, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes bright with rage. If she still believed he had betrayed her with Laura Fielding, she would now, in the absence of his explanations, believe it for ever. Not being a sentimental creature, a mere romantic girl, she would probably mourn the less.

Water gushed suddenly into Stephen's mouth, and he became aware that, lost in this dispiriting reverie, his hold on Jack had loosened. Jack wriggled under him, somehow hauling Stephen upwards, and said, "You must hold on more tightly."

This was the first word of reproach Jack had offered him in all these hours, although it was Stephen's abysmal carelessness that had brought them into such straits. Stephen locked his arms about Jack's neck, gripping his shirt and endeavoring not to choke him. Holding on was difficult, he was shivering so, and his hands, broken years before by French interrogators, were starting to pain him.

The young of many creatures, he thought, cling incessantly to their parent until they are sufficiently grown to feed and protect themselves. Did they have some special development of the muscles to make it possible? Perhaps the apes' strong arms were for this, as well as for locomotion in their arboreal homes. And other animals, such as the opossum and the sloth with their muscular tails and curved claws . . .

"Jack, joy," Stephen said. "I am sorry about the sloth."

"The sloth?"

"I was most unkind. Quite brutal, in fact. And I know that you had no ill intention, that in fact you meant only to be companionable to the beast. Although whether grog -"

"Oh," Jack said, wheezily. "That sloth. I had entirely forgotten, so you must think no more of it, my dear."

As is the way of things at such moments, Stephen instantly remembered a number of occasions he ought perhaps to apologize for. Yet it seemed quite likely that Jack had already forgiven him. "I think I can float for a bit now," he said. "You must rest yourself."

Jack's hands steadied him until he lay face up on the calm, phosphorescent sea, and he floated there among all the mysterious animals.