“What do you want?” James asked. “Will you allow me to dress?”
Marshall stepped back and politely turned around as James put on breeches, stockings, and shoes. Then he turned back around and said very softly, so that anyone on the other side of the bulkhead might be able to tell he was speaking, but certainly not what he was saying, “I want to know why you followed me.”
“What are you talking about?” James kept his voice to a similar volume.
Of course, it was known by the majority of the people on board ship that there was something going on between the master and the lieutenant. It was Marshall’s notoriety, ironically enough, that kept most of those people from believing it was anything that might violate the Articles of War. Because everyone (except Captain Aubrey) knew that Mr. Marshall had certain desires, and everyone also knew that he did not indulge them, at least not while on board ship, and probably not very often off it either. This, combined with the knowledge that the two men did not like each other at all, convinceed most people it was some other matter. James knew that some of them had even guessed that there was some sort of blackmail of Mr. Marshall involved.
Oddly enough, one of the few who remained ignorant of these meetings was Stephen Maturin. James did not know why; he knew well that there wasn’t much that escaped his old comrade’s knowledge. But he was glad of it, for that would necessarily lead to the doctor guessing things James dreaded him knowing.
“You know well what I’m talking about.” Marshall replied impatiently, but still very softly. “You must know by now, Mr. Dillon, that you caught me doing something I very rarely do. You insisted it was by chance when we were chasing the John B. Christopher and you first felt the need to inform me of what you’d seen, but we both know better. You knew how I was, you were hoping I’d feel greater need than usual due to Captain Aubrey, and so you followed me. Now I want to know why you felt a need to catch me. You knew perfectly well I’m no threat to the ship.”
James was silent. There wasn’t much need for him to speak anyway; one look at Marshall’s face and there was no doubt in his mind that Marshall already had an answer, and James feared it was the correct one.
It was. “Unless you saw me as a threat to something else? Something you wanted? Or someone you wanted?”
He should deny it. He should even call Marshall out. At long last, he managed, “You should not be so self-righteous. You are hardly free from jealousy yourself.”
“No, I will admit I am not. But even so, you must admit you have claimed an advantage I have not. You have always known of my motivations; indeed everyone except the Captain has, while it took me some time to know what to make of you. Well, I am glad to have this confession out of you, sir. It allows me to beg you that we may both attempt to desist our hostilities against each other, which seem quite pathetic, when one considers that we have been competing for something that has been snatched from under both our noses.”
“What do you mean by that?” James asked incredulously. “You do not think either of us had a chance-"
“No, it was not that.” said Marshall impatiently. “We both knew from fairly early on that we could not have what we desired at base out of Captain Aubrey. But we both hoped for his special favour, did we not? Even after we landed the prisoners on Dragon Island, I do not think your desires truly changed any; you merely reacted against them. His admiration for my navigational skills made you jealous, and then your friendship with him after Almoraira made me even more jealous. But I really do think it is time that we faced that he has what I am beginning to believe is the finest surgeon in the fleet, whom he is far more attached to than he ever would be to either of us.”
“You do not speak ill of Dr. Maturin?” James demanded.
“No,” Marshall laughed. “My dear sir, I am only jealous of those I can compete with. There is no point in being angry over what is hopeless. You have never been jealous of him either, have you?”
James was silent again, and for quite some time he stared into Marshall’s surprised face. The last silence Marshall had expected, had prepared and timed his response to. But while he might have been able to guess from James' behavior in relation to the John B. Christopher that he might have something to do with the United Irishmen (but he was remaining thankfully silent about it), he had at least remained ignorant of his having much to do with Stephen in the past.
But again Marshall was able to guess at things. “Or were you in the past?” James shook his head. “Or were the two of you, in the past...?” And here James laughed.
Marshall looked confused, then said, “But I’m quite sure he isn’t...”
“He’s not. Not truly.” James told him. “And we certainly weren’t. But he can, occasionally...be curious...” He drifted off, recalling that particular night, Stephen’s confession, his claim of curiousity, and his own intense jealousy, wishing it had been him Stephen had turned to to satisfy that curiousity, or any other desires he might have had.
“You wanted him.” The last two had been questions; this was not.
“Yes, I did.” James laughed again. “Though when there are reasons that I do not anymore,” he waited for Marshall to say something but the master did not, “he is suddenly in the pockets of the man I do want. Though I don’t think he’ll get any further then the man’s pockets.”
“Are you sure of that? Granted, Captain Aubrey’s inclinations, from what I can tell, are about as far towards the fairer sex as one can get, but he seems an extraordinarily lusty man, he and the doctor are remarkably close, and you know well what can happen to men who are at sea, completely outside the company of women, for a long enough period of time. Certainly there is nothing going on now, but...”
“It would have to happen to both of them. As I said earlier, the doctor is no paederast; for a large part of the time that I knew him, he was passionately attached to a woman we both knew. There is enough of an explanation for how close he is to the Captain. He is capable of very strong attachment, very strong platonic attachment, and further, I have reason to believe his friendship with Captain Aubrey is the only attachment and the only loyalty he has to anyone or anything.”
“May I ask why you think that?”
James considered. He certainly wasn’t going to confess to anything involving the United Irishmen, but this discussion had already gone far enough into matters that perhaps should have been left between the captain and the doctor that repeating something that Stephen would probably eventually make obvious with his behavior could do no harm. “He has informed me that he has no loyalty to causes or men in groups, only to private persons. And there is now one person to whom it truly does appear he may have developed a complete and overriding loyalty, and while he is not completely without attachment otherwise, that one person is not me.”
“If that is true,” said Marshall, even softer then they had been speaking, “then I certainly could never begrudge him Captain Aubrey’s affection, for the captain is overwhelming lucky to have him.”
“Aye.” They both fell silent.
James closed his eyes. He felt a stab of envy run through him for Marshall, of quite a different nature then the petty jealousies that had defined their relationship before that day. While they were in complete agreement on the matter of Stephen Maturin, it stung him how when it came to Jack Aubrey, Marshall was blessed with a simplicity of feeling that James would forever be denied.
And then he suddenly felt a breath across his face, and before he could react or even open his eyes he felt the brush of a rough pair of lips against his own. They pulled away; James opened his eyes just in time to see Marshall depart, the door closing behind him.
A torrent of emotions flooded him: the painful combination of love and hate that he felt for Jack Aubrey, the old love and hurt and current affection for Stephen Maturin, and, for William Marshall, such a heady mixture, even more potent in its first emergence, or desire and anger, of a very surprising tenderness, that he fell back against the wall and leaned there until he was startled by the sound of eight bells, calling him to his watch.
How will I face the man again? he wondered before he went up on deck.