The little island known as Old Scratch that guarded the mouth of Polcombe cove lay dozing in the late spring sunshine, exuding the comfortingly familiar scents of wild thyme and drying sea-wrack. Higher up on the dunes the sea-holly was in full bloom, as were the rounded hummocks of thrift, though the globes of tiny papery flowers on the latter were already bleached to greyness by sun and spray.
Stephen Maturin lay on his belly on the sharply sloping ground at the top of the beach, where the sand met the chalky soil. He was watching some tiny black speck moving there, with his chin almost touching the ground. He had discarded all but his drawers and shirt, both articles too grubby and salt-stained to be worth preserving from further ruin, even at the risk of Killick’s wrath, and as Jack contemplated him idly he pushed his spectacles up his nose in an unconscious gesture and peered even more closely at his discovery.
“What is it you are watching so intently there, brother?” asked Jack, leaning back against the beached skiff and pulling a corner of sailcloth over his head and shoulders as a protection from the sun’s glare, his unclothed body having still the pallor of an English winter.
“A worker ant, belonging to the genus Temnothorax, I believe, and common enough in all truth, but it is his tenacity I am admiring,” replied Stephen without turning his head. “See how he carries his burden, the rearmost leg of a grasshopper, toward that clump of marram grass. It must be at least ten times his own bulk, more than comparable to my hauling the boat down to the waterline by myself, which you assure me I cannot, the tide in its wickedness having run away from me like a gun-shy landsman from the cannon’s roar; and yet the creature lifts his prize over his head and bears it away most diligently. Shall our joint force be sufficient to pull the boat to the waves now, my dear, or are we marooned forever, our sun-bleached bones to be collected and articulated by future anatomists?”
“Why, I believe we may manage in time to drag it those few yards, with the both of us and a grim determination to do our duty. We should perhaps leave your collections behind, though, or they might be the straws that break the captain’s back.” Jack nodded with a smile towards the little dry bundle of dwarfish foliage lying on the skiff’s thwart.
“You are the soul of wit today, Jack Aubrey, I find; although a soul with insufficient wit to notice the soldier-ants marching up your thigh.”
“Oh, oh, oh,” cried Jack, leaping up and slapping at his bare flesh. “Why did you not say... Are they all gone? Do you see any more?”
“Stand still now, joy, while I check. Anyone would think they were venomous, the way you shriek, for shame. It is naught but a little formic acid, quite harmless, and the swellings will subside within the day if you do not scratch them so,” said Stephen. “Shall I examine you for the lice, now? I have found several seamen with Pthirus pubis in the last fortnight, the glory of it, quite distinct from the usual shipboard Pediculus and most curious examined under the new lens you so kindly fashioned for me.”
“You shall not,” said Jack, brushing Stephen’s hands away impatiently. “I do not keep lice of any breed, glorious or otherwise, and it is rank mutiny to suggest I might.” He examined a six-foot stretch of beach carefully for any signs of creeping life before lying down and resting his head on one upflung hand, scratching surreptitiously at his loins with the other.
He had left the Surprise at anchor only a few cables’ lengths away, between the little rabbit-nibbled isle – Dr Maturin’s private paradise – and the chalk cliffs of the mainland, but she was no longer visible from where he lay. Tom Pullings had been leading the Surprises through yet another drill, this time involving the turning of their vessel by springs to her cable, and now the island, low as it was, blocked both the sight and sound of her. As far as Jack could perceive, he and Stephen might just as well have been the only people left on earth.
“Will our shipmates not be missing us at all?” asked Stephen, throwing his discarded shirt into the skiff and sitting back down on the warm sand. “The boats manned and warlike search-parties sent out with muskets to reclaim us from the inimical waves?”
“Oh, perhaps, perhaps, but it will be a good half-hour yet before they think of us, and another half to hoist out the cutter. Most likely they will assume their unfortunate captain has been roped into some philosophical errand; a fascinating beetle, perhaps, every specimen of which must be gathered up before their surgeon consents to rejoin his ship.”
“If they do not assume anything more scurrilous I shall be content,” Stephen said, stretching out prone, luxuriating in the unaccustomed warmth, the only sure balm for the ache in his limbs that had never quite deserted him since his capture in Mahón. “But we need not hurry our return, need we, Jack? It is so very seldom we have the world to ourselves for any amount of time. I have tried more than once in the past to explain this to Diana, when she supposed that you and I were more intimate friends than in the common usage of the term, but there was no making her understand how little privacy can ever be had on a man-of-war, even one far larger than the Surprise; nor could she readily grasp the strength of the naval prejudice against such relations, and the danger thereof.”
“Might she not simply assume there was no inclination in the case?” said Jack rather sharply. He was disposed to resent the implication, particularly from a woman who had no cause to suspect the nature of his proclivities, having had firsthand experience of them long ago during the Peace; but he and Stephen had never broached the subject of his liaison with Diana at the time and it hardly bore mention now.
Stephen rolled onto his back, blinking at the sunlight. “She might assume, but she did not; she has little enough opinion of chastity in either sex, provided naturally that a reasonable discretion is maintained,” he said mildly. “Discretion, of course, being the one thing not easily to be had aboard ship.”
Jack knew as much to his cost, having that very week overheard from behind the bulkheads a highly embroidered account of the dealings he had had with the Red Lion’s comely barmaid the night before the Surprise had sailed from Shelmerston, an account repeated with more enthusiasm than caution. Stephen, who had slept in the room adjoining Jack’s at the inn, no doubt knew quite as well as Killick what it was that had left the captain so very jovial the next morning. He had spent his own evening closeted with a learned companion, one Dr Pardsham, introduced to Jack as a botanist of some note, who had come bearing herbaria that made Stephen’s eyes gleam with much the same fire that Jack’s had held for the barmaid.
Jack sighed. She had been comely, too: welcoming and voluptuous in that cosy domestic way that betokened an easy, uncomplicated affair bounded by a handsome present and a grateful farewell kiss. It might be months now before he could enjoy such simple pleasures again, and for a moment he gave himself over to the memory; but he was not quite alone, even now, and it would never do in company to recall the more sinful details.
He became aware that Stephen had been talking for some time, cataloguing aloud the morning’s discoveries and dwelling at length on a possible new varietas of some xerophytic plant or other that would likely stun his botanical colleagues.
“I shall send Pardsham the sample as soon as ever you can permit the ship to re-establish contact with the mainland,” Stephen said. “He was most obliging and I should be glad to make him such a handsome present.”
Jack nodded amicably with the last of his waking mind and drifted gently into a doze as Stephen’s discourse ran on through xerophytes and birds’-egg colouration to the preservation of pickled barnacles. He woke an unknown time later at the thud and scuffle of a puffin rejoining its mate in a rabbit-burrow not a yard distant, and as he listened he remembered with sudden clarity waking early at the Red Lion, and the noise that had woken him then. It had seemed to come from the adjacent chamber, and it had been not unlike the rhythmic thumping and muffled gasps of his own encounter with Betsey the previous evening. A handsome present followed by a grateful farewell, perhaps? He scratched himself thoughtfully.
“Did I not advise you to forbear from scratching, for all love?” said Stephen waspishly. “You will accomplish nothing but to exacerbate the pruritus.”
“Oh, there are so few pleasures left to a grizzled fellow like me, Stephen. You must allow me a good old scratch now and then,” Jack said, and paused for a moment, slightly puzzled. Then he remembered why the phrase was familiar, and his face cracked in a huge grin. He glanced at Stephen and saw that he was enjoying the joke in his own way, lips pursed and expression disapproving. Jack laughed aloud, stretched out his limbs and sighed. “But really, Stephen, I think we must return to the ship and save poor Tom the trouble of sending a party after us. Besides, I begin to think fondly of my dinner.”
Stephen flung out a limp arm to still him. “Ten minutes, I beg of you, Jack. You cannot be hungrier than I, in my unbreakfasted state. Ten more minutes.”
“By all means.” Jack laid his head back down and closed his eyes. Even through his eyelids he was half-dazed by the sunshine’s orange glare; his skin must already be flushed with sunburn, and against his side the knuckles of Stephen’s outstretched hand felt like embers. For a while he lay still, keeping his gaze on a seagull far overhead, neither turning his head nor reacting, though the pressure of the fingers irritated him. One could not say to a friend ‘take your hand away’ without insulting him, an innocent gesture defiled, but as soon as he tried to forget it, that slight touch seemed to burn worse than the ant-bites had. Annoyance made his heart-rate climb; surely Stephen must feel the blood beating against his skin, or hear the quickening of his breath.
Despite himself, he thought again of the inn at Shelmerston and of the barmaid’s breath in his ear, how his own breathing had caught in his chest and his whole being had been flooded and tense with a joyful lust. And then the yielding of her lips, the solidity of a body pressed against his, its fierce urgency, hands grasping at him, pawing at his clothes, pulling him in and further in, and the soft gasps of pleasure. And then those other noises, later on: the moan through the wainscoting, the unearthly abandonment of it, mixed with his own half-waking arousal, how he had... he must have known it was Stephen, even if his conscious self had not admitted the knowledge, and he had listened, and through all his aversion at least part of his mind wished he had been the one provoking that moan, that whimpering, that he had been the one who had been wanted, and when he had touched himself it had not been the barmaid he had thought of, after all.
He opened his eyes with a start, and instantly curled away from Stephen into a half-crouch. He took a deep breath, got to his feet and stumbled across the little strand to the boat, trying to restrain his pace and give an outward show of calm just in case Stephen was awake. There, he rummaged hastily through the few scattered belongings for something that might offer sufficient cover. He reached for the sailcloth but dismissed it as too unwieldy and cast wildly around for anything else. There was a bundle of linen on the thwart that he realised was Stephen’s discarded shirt, too small to wear but large enough for his needs. He seized it and hunched over it, pressing the hem to his midriff, attempting to calm his breathing. Stephen had surely been dozing and could not have seen the state Jack was in, could not have seen anything. Jack could knot the shirt round his waist on the plea of sunburn and insist it was time to return immediately to the ship, and all would be well, if he could just—
There was a weight on his shoulder, Stephen’s hand, that touch again.
For a lurching moment Jack thought he might be sick. To be so brought by the lee—his eyes were hot with the shame of it. He ought to try for a convenient excuse, but could not bear to, not when Stephen might read the truth in his eyes. He sagged over the gunwale. If Stephen knew, if he understood, it would be the end of everything, the end of this precarious balance they had maintained for a dozen years by never acknowledging its fragility. To turn around now would be to watch it collapse.
He felt Stephen’s fingertips curl very softly into the hollow above his collarbone.
He stood another moment, waiting motionless as the world shifted and he found himself unchanged. It might, he realised with wary bewilderment, be possible to live with this. It might even—
“Jack?” said Stephen, and the question was so obvious that Jack could not believe it had never been spoken aloud before, nor that he had waited for it to be.
He turned and pulled Stephen roughly against him, with no time for anything but fierceness after so much time lost. One hand was in Stephen’s hair, forcing his head back to be kissed, the other tearing at Stephen’s waistband. He would have been shocked at the force of the longing, if there had been room in his mind for shock, but the one unthinkable thought was excluding all others.
They might only have a few minutes of privacy left to them, but those few minutes would be worth the living.