“How well she runs” Stephen remarked, as Pullings, having made his report to the Captain (‘All well, Sir, and another 200 miles closer’) gulped half a mug of coffee and spread marmalade on his tack like a man facing short rations on the morrow.
“200 miles? That would be your nautical miles, would it not?”
“Indeed Doctor” Jack shared a small smile with his subordinate, “Further than your land miles, you know.”
“I have heard that said.” Stephen returned complacently, “But I fear my knowledge is not quite up to the same standard as your own, nor, indeed, to yours, Mr Pullings.”
Mr Pullings thus addressed treated them to a super-human feat of ingestion more suited to the larger types of python, gulping down in one bite the same amount of food Stephen had consumed in the entire meal. “Don’t you credit it, Doctor. Why, you’re the smartest man on the ship, and can make your way around her like a jolly Jack Tar.”
Mollified, Stephen retired behind his cup, and was soon wholly lost in contemplation of the sun not so much rising as leaping above the water, leaping entirely clear as a startled fowl may leap clear of the poacher. As he turned over this observation, sure he had seen the sun behave so before but not able to remember exactly where, his co-diners talked.
They talked fully and fluently on the weather – how likely it would last – the emptiness of the sea – what possibility letters – the surety of their navigation – when fresh stores would be found. Given the steadiness of the glass, their placement in a regular shipping lane, and the highly-trained and really navigationally gifted officers on board, theirs was a pleasant conversation. Jack was just turning over a joke about men knowing what they wanted and how to get it when he realised Pullings was falling asleep where he sat. “Go below, Pullings. Dr Maturin will go along with you, no doubt he has rounds to attend to.”
“Oh, ah?” Dr Maturin looked less than enticed by the suggestion, but the steady rhythm of days bleeding into weeks had made him relaxed and biddable, and he stood as his Captain did. “Mr Pullings do not yawn so, you shall upset your jaw again. Come along for all love. This shall not do.” Tom allowed himself to be hustled down to his hammock, and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
That night there was singing and dancing on deck, fiddling and capering that brought a smile to the dourest of face. To be sure, in this weather, with these rations, most faces were smiling and happy. All joined in the singing with a will, the good thumping words reaching down even to where Stephen sat by the light of a lantern pondering a dolphin that had been swept up on the cook’s line. A fine dolphin, too, a healthy specimen and one which he was hastily slicing and measuring and scribbling down about for there was an eager boy at the door racing along steaks and organs as soon as Stephen released them. He waited in a sort of anxious silence, silent that is aside from his breathing which shifted in time to the music. Stephen was too engrossed to notice this at first but as the work became less desperately quick – enough meat sent on for the Officer’s breakfast and men’s lunches – the panting rose to prominence until he was nearly incapable of noting anything else. “Pray do not wait” He murmured, waving one blood-smeared hand at the boy, “Pray join the men upstairs. I shall be some little time.”
“If it please-“
“It pleases me to have you upstairs” Stephen turned cold, reptilian, eyes on the boy until he turned and ran, returning to the rest of the crew. Left alone, Stephen worked on.
Up on deck, the singing continued. Green Grow the Rushes Oh gave way to Spanish Ladies and thence (pausing for a recitation of one of Mowett’s poems) to Heart of Oak as Jack slid down the lines back to the deck. How he hated to interrupt them; but he would be wise to head to his cot sooner rather than later. The glass was holding steady for now, but for how long?
Nodding genially he was soon rocking in his cot, slipping down into a pleasant deep sleep. It was not much later – there were still feet dancing overhead – when he woke again this time aware of a loud discussion near at hand and coming nearer. Leaping out of bed, he pulled the door open, glowering down the corridor. Stumbling up the companion-way was Killick, Stephen, and the Cook. In Stephen’s hands was a heaving mess of entrails that Jack shuddered away from considering too closely.
“Which the Cook needs ‘em now Dr and if he doesn’t then it shall be hungry angry men you marks my words.” Killick was muttering, in a steady undertone that carried throughout the cramped space.
“Please Doctor” The Cook was pleading, “I know it’s a wrench but if I waits any longer the sausages shan’t be edible at all.”
Stephen wrenched free, going to Jack and holding the sliming mass up to his disgusted eyes. “They want to take these away from me Jack!” He gabbled, shocked as a child losing a favoured toy, “My lagenorhynchus, though they have taken her flesh and organs, now they would take her womb as well.” A further thrust and some of the viscous liquid splashed to the floor, revealing a large white object smeared in blood.
“I am sure it is in a good cause, Stephen” Jack returned, speaking over Killick’s repeated complaints and trying not to look too closely at anything, “You must give the Cook what he needs for the meal or we shall be back to salt-beef and you know that is not the thing. Not the thing at all.” Had he been more awake, he felt, there would have been a pun in there. As it was, he could only feel vaguely cheated of same.
“This is a lagenorhynchus with a womb that no mammal should have.” Stephen’s eager fingers caressed a possible cyst, again moving the mass of flesh. Behind him, Killick swore in a steady undertone. “I shall dissect it before it goes to the Cook.”
Jack, swallowing hard, glanced at the man in the background. “Perhaps another bell?” He enquired helplessly. There was a large gout of blood slinking down the wall in front of them; Jack averted his eyes.
“That’s all I can spare and still get these done in time.” The Cook muttered, but he disappeared to the galley looking vaguely mollified.
Killick, meanwhile, clasped Stephen in one claw-like hand and marched him back down to his office, muttering imprecations as they went. Jack called after him that he should have to return to clean up the walls and floor, and was answered by a shouted, “Which of course I shall. Nobody else here will raise a finger will they? Prate prate and all for what? Blood dragged all over the floors and not even a fight.”
Giving the bloody slime one more look, Jack decided it wasn’t worth replying.