Jack was heartily sick of salted cod and wrinkled, puckering limes. He longed for ale that wasn’t hot as piss and twice as foul. But he had been at sea long enough and often enough to know that the sea was where he belonged, and return journeys made him itchy and edgy, excited and full of nerves in a most unpleasant way. He would be parted from his beloved vessel and his dearest friend and his loyal men for any length of time, per the whims of the Admiralty, and that uncertainty weighed on him like a stone.
They were still a good month from port, God and weather willing, and if scrubbing the deck was what was needed to keep these boys in line, well then they would sail into Newport with the cleanest deck Her Majesty had ever seen. He’d set the entire ship on a cleaning-spree; every sail, every line, every bit of laundry was flapping in the mild breeze. Buckets lined the deck and eager boys scrambled up the masts with brushes and rags in hand. “Ship-shape,” Jack muttered, with a twinge of regret that nobody was there to hear his pun.
The men were full of nothing but chatter about the wives and mothers they’d left at home, bragging about how they were going to spend their coin and kiss some girls and drink ale until they staggered home. Jack could put his whole heart behind kissing girls and drinking ale, but this was a Navy ship and must be run as such.
“Carry on,” Jack called out, nodding to his midships.
“Sir,” they said as one, saluting.
As pleasing as the sight of a freshly-scrubbed ship and properly obedient officers was, there was little peace in Jack’s heart. He went belowdecks and headed straight for Stephen’s cabin.
“Enter,” Stephen said, looking up from his work. He began to rise, but Jack motioned him back to his seat.
"These blasted journeys home will be the death of me," Jack said. He smoothed his coat and adjusted his cuffs. “You'd think this ship is a prison hulk, the way the men want to escape it."
"And yet you've started no less than ten letters to Sophie in the past two weeks," Stephen said, his voice free of reproach. "And don't think I haven't seen you staring at that miniature of the children."
"I cannot help but think of how much they've grown," Jack admitted. "Will they remember me at all, I wonder?"
“Most assuredly,” Stephen said wryly and, looking at Jack’s face, spoke of other things.“The men have been beyond restless as of late. Small injuries, petty fights. We can thank God that there is little rum left; I should hate to think what would come of the crew if we had full casks at the ready!”
Jack ignored his barbs; no good would come of resurrecting old arguments. “These things don’t happen fresh out of port,” Jack said, keeping his tone mild.
“No,” Stephen said. He put aside his notebook for another, leaning back in his chair to smile at Jack as he tapped his thumb on the worn black cover. “You sailors are discontented souls, aren’t you? You’re forever thinking about land when you’re at sea and yet when you’re home, you can think of nothing but being at sea.” He carefully found his place in the notebook and set it on his desk. “It seems that the only time you’re truly happy is when you’re setting out from port or blowing other ships to tinder.”
“Aye, Stephen, you have the whole of it,” Jack was, as always, pleased when Stephen grasped a crucial aspect of Naval culture. It made him feel understood, in a way.
Stephen laughed softly, though Jack could not tell why, and fumbled about on his desk for his pipe. “And we’re quite on schedule? There are no Frenchmen falling from the skies or another one of those storms with the queer green skies? I fear I have had enough of both Frenchmen and storms for the time being and am looking forward to pursuing other interests.”
“So even you are eager to get back to England.” Jack poured himself a finger of brandy from the flask he had in his pocket. It was getting low, but Killick knew his rationing to the very last drop. It was rare that he’d ever run out before they reached home.
“If we get back in early May, as you say we will,” Stephen replied, thumbing through his sketchbook, “there is a lecture I should like to attend. Sir Josiah Edgington is presenting his paper on the migration of spotted newts before the Royal Society.”
Jack knew better than to disparage newts and other such creatures in Stephen’s presence. Such comments invariably led to a lecture and Jack wasn’t in the mood. Tactics, Jack he told himself sternly. “And it should be an interesting paper?” he asked, out loud.
Stephen tutted and put down his pen, a sure sign of distress. “A disaster, rather,” he said, with some urgency. “That is, if the members of the Royal Society have a modicum of rationality and scientific integrity in their collective brains.” He picked up his pen again and began aggressively shading the mottled coloration of a large fish on the left-hand side of his book. “I have my doubts,” he muttered darkly.
“This Sir Edgington is no friend of yours, I take it,” Jack said, just to goad him. He decided that he could withstand the lecture to alleviate his boredom.
“He is an idiot of the first order,” Stephen said. “To think he might know something of newts-- !”
“Certainly not as much as you,” Jack said soothingly.
Stephen looked up at Jack and smiled. “You should come with me,” Stephen said, reaching out to clasp Jack’s hand.
For a confused moment, Jack didn’t understand what he meant. “To-- to your newt presentation?” he asked.
His eyes twinkling, Stephen squeezed Jack’s hand. “How else will I be sure my battle strategy is sound?” he said. “Unless you are busy, of course. I understand you have obligations.”
“Not at all, my dear, not at all!” Jack cried. “Why I shall be glad to accompany you, if you don’t think I will shame you in front of your colleagues.”
Stephen studied him over the tops of his glasses. Jack had never felt so much like a spotted newt in all his days. “Confine your comments to the weather,” he said, finally. “And not science.”
“I could speak for hours on the weather, dear Stephen, as you well know!” Jack found himself quite warmed by the idea. He was eager to see Sophie and the children, of course, but those homely comforts wore on the nerves after a fortnight or so. If he was home for more than a month it tended to go badly; drinking, gambling, horses. He was a man of action, accustomed to being Captain of his vessel and servant of no-one save Her Majesty the Queen. When he was home, Sophie was the Captain of their house and Jack was merely a passenger. He was, as always, her adoring servant, and the children held even greater sway over his heart, but their marriage worked best when he was at sea, longing for her, rather than holding her in his arms, as unsure as a lad.
Visiting his dearest Stephen in London would cost less than a day at the races, far less than a visit to the gaming-table, and provide him with the balm of companionship to ease his soul through the tedium of shore leave.
Even if he had to listen to some idiot go on at length about lizards and such for hours.
“Can we take in a concert while I’m in town?” Jack asked, already planning his lodgings, meals, and etcetera. “I’m not sure that London can offer anything greater than the sound of your cello, but it would be nice to hear a bit of harp for a change. Or flutes that aren’t being howled upon by drunken sailors.”
“And we can pick up some sheet music,” Stephen said, tapping his pipe against his chin. “I am getting blasted sick of this Beethoven.”
“Blasted sick,” Jack agreed. “Well, then!” He stood, feeling like Stephen should be the one to dismiss him, an alien feeling on his own ship, but not an unusual one when leaving Stephen’s tiny cabin. “Dinner at five bells,” he said.
“Mmm,” Stephen said, already sunk back into his books. A broken quill had rolled down the side of his desk and was leaking ink steadily onto Stephen’s wrist cuff.
Funny how that sight should cause such a burst of affection for his dear friend that it felt like the sun rising and rising and rising again in his chest.
He climbed to the deck and raised his face to the early-spring sun. No clouds obscured his view, the weather was mild, and the winds filled his sails. Jack was blessed, truly, in all things. He had Sophie on land, Stephen at the sea, and the love of both in equal measure, forever and for always.
Jack had never been accused of being an overly pious man, good Christian though he was, but he thought that, right at this moment, with the sun overhead and the wind in his hair and the salt on his tongue, he could feel some small spark of the Divine. In love, Jack thought, God hath wrought a truly wondrous thing.
Feeling lighter than he had in a fortnight, Jack turned his thoughts to more practical matters. It was nearly tea-time and he’d best start on the biscuits, else he’d be chewing them until dinner.