Sailing with Jack always meant faith on his part, blind if well-founded faith, that the ship was not going to sink, and that it was going to go where they intended, but in the doldrums that was especially true. Sometimes the faith was easier to hold than other times. It had perhaps been easiest on the Leopard, with the plague occupying his mind. He had not even been surprised to see the wind recover several of his patients when it came.
No plague this time, though to certain parts of his mind it would not have been unwelcome. Nights found him sleepless, restless, moreso than usual. The shore was many months in the past, as were the deeds he had done there. Any shore that could hold the consequences of those deeds, if indeed there would be any, lay an equal amount of months in the future, if not longer. A month at sea and he had weaned himself off the laudanum, but in the doldrums he had reached for it. Yet his hand had never gotten further than ghosting the top of his medicine chest, before it had suddenly retracted, some odd will of his prevailing.
The nights were hot, this one the hottest yet. He squirmed in his nightshirt; the material was course. It scratched enough that he imagined it would rub his skin raw by morning. Though he knew that could not be the case; much of the discomfort was internal. It was his skin itself which itched, longing perhaps to slide off his body and air itself somewhere dry and cool and clean.
He lay there for what felt like many hours, though by listening to the bells he knew it was far less, before he suddenly sprang up and reached in the dark for the chest. But even before his hand retracted from the feel of the lid, he knew he would not open it.
Giving up on sleep, he lit a lantern and dressed. He opened his journal, wrote the date, then stared at the blank paper for some time. When he gave up on writing an entry, he browsed through the previous ones, but soon discovered he wasn't in much of a mood for reading.
Eight bells sounded; it was the beginning of the middle watch. He listened through the changing of the watch, the sound of the hands going up and down the ladders, voices and commotion.
When it died down, and he heard only a vague distant murmur, barely audible over the creaking of the ship, always louder in the dead of night, and when the ship was so still, he stood up, with the half-formed idea of going up on deck, and his foot came into hard contact with the case of his cello. He wasn't used to the cello being there; it was usually stored in Jack's cabin with his violin.
He brought the lantern down to the floor and removed his boot and stocking. A quick examination left him satisfied of there being no real injury.
With no idea at all of what he would do with it in his head, Stephen opened the case and drew the cello out. He placed the lantern back on the desk, sat down in front of it, and gingerly set the cello between his legs. The weight of it was a comfort. He ran his hands over the wood, many years old and holding a newly-found sense of delicacy, and considered simply sitting in his current manner for the rest of the night.
But it would not do; he would not be distracted from his memories for that long. He did not reach for his bow, but instead began plucking the strings, individually and very, very lightly. He knew he disturbed no one, because he could barely hear the sound himself.
The first notes teased his ears before striking them as if they were far louder. Notes slightly firmer, though no louder, followed, and they struck first his ear, then his heart, then his soul. Single bald notes, more sound than music, vibrating through the emptiness within him, and whether it hurt or healed more he could not tell.
There was a knock at the door, jarring him out of the reverie he had slipped into, and Jack's voice saying, "Stephen, may I come in?"
Anyone else and he would have snapped at them, but found himself calling out, "Yes, come in."
He was facing away from the door, and he did not move his head, though his fingers fell silent on the strings. He heard footsteps, then silence. Then footsteps again, very close to him, and he felt Jack press against him, and his soft rumble near Stephen's ear, "What are you doing?"
Stephen had no answer for him. "Are you playing at all? I couldn't hear you right outside the door."
Here Stephen could nod. It was odd, however, to think that even a thin bulkhead could block out the sound; he had known it, of course, but the notes had no longer seemed at all soft to him.
"Stephen..." Jack seemed at a loss for what to say to him. Then suddenly he drew away, and Stephen heard his footsteps lead off, and the door open and shut.
It was in the few minutes after Jack's departure Stephen noted that the candle, which had been in the lantern for many days, was burning very low. On a sudden impulse he blew it out. He did not need it to resume playing, indeed, without the distraction of sight, the sound became even more intense, and when the door again opened, he did not hear it, nor the footsteps, so when the hand landed on his shoulder, he very nearly shrieked.
He knew it was Jack, even before he observed the hand's great size, and heard his voice, "May I play with you?"
When Stephen did not answer, the hand lifted, and a note sounded, a single plucked string, very soft, yet it seemed to resound in the tiny cabin for nearly half a minute after.
A second note, a third, and on the fourth Stephen joined him. The same notes on different octaves, then parting. A third interval, a fifth, a sixth. Up to a fourth. Down to a sixth. Running parallel. Merging. Seperating again. It was a formless melody, the parts of it forgotten as soon as they were played, but Stephen felt as if they had merely stripped the fancy covering of it away. This was the music flowing through them, back and forth from and to each, massaging Stephen's soul, no longer painful in its application. When at last they stopped, he felt as if he had been washed clean.
Again Jack departed, and Stephen discovered he had left the cello case open, and it was surprisingly easy to put the cello away without bothering to light the lantern, though it did take a bit more time then usual, and he was just finishing when Jack returned again. It was persumably to do or say whatever he had had in mind when he had paid Stephen the visit in the first place, yet again the sound of the door and Jack's footsteps was followed by silence.
"How long until we are out of the doldrums?" Stephen asked at last.
"Very, very soon, I believe."
"I admit it will be nice to have the ship moving again. It is suprising how one misses the movement of the ship once one is used to it."
"Oh, the ship is moving, Stephen. Crouch down."
Stephen did so, then Jack took his arm and pulled him over to a corner where a bulkhead met the hull. "Concentrate," he whispered.
And now that Stephen was so pressed against the wood, so focused on it, he could perceive it was indeed shifting slightly, up and down, just a little.
Jack spoke again, still in a whisper. "There's no water in the world which will not rock a ship just a little."
Stephen believed him. Surely this slight movement which had not registered to Stephen would do so automatically to Jack, even if unconsciously. Were the ship truly still, he would notice that, and Stephen imagined it would distress him.
They did not speak again, but Stephen was slowly filled with a longing to beg Jack to stay. Pride held his tongue, indeed, pride bound it in unbreakable irons, but it did nothing to desire, unless perhaps it increased it, for what man could be proud of willpower if he did not desire anything he should deny himself?
But there was no need for him to speak, for as he sat there, curled up in the dark, he heard the sound of moving on wood, Jack sitting down.
It was not long at all after that there came the sound Jack's snores. Stephen edged over to the far side of the cabin, though he knew it would have no effect on the noise whatsoever. Indeed when he got there they were only louder, as Jack had managed to sprawl himself across the length of the floor, his arms laid out for Stephen to bump into.
Unable to reach his desk to light the lantern without waking Jack, which for some reason he was very strongly loath to do, or get back into his cot in the dark without likely waking Jack again, Stephen laid himself out with his nose brushing against Jack's fingers and reminded himself that he had sucessfully slept through Jack's snores on numerous occasions in the past, and while on other occasions they had rendered sleep impossible, there was a strong exhaustion coming over him now, as if his whole body was breathing out, and it ought to lead him to sleep. He could still feel the ship rocking him ever so slightly.
Sleep he did, a deep, dreamless sleep, deeper than that which laudanum could have given him. He woke to see Jack putting on his coat and neckcloth with the candle lit.
"Joy..." he started.
Jack looked down at him and laughed. A merry laugh, one which was not heard in the doldrums. So when Jack pulled Stephen to his feet, though Stephen had lost the sense of the ship Jack had given him the previous night, he was not at all surprised to hear him say, "My dear doctor, I believe we've picked up our wind."