by Your Cruise Director

It was shocking, yet at the same time quite unsurprising, when Stephen Maturin realized that he was going to die at sea.

That the little sloop had been badly damaged in the storm, he had known; Jack's concern was evident, though because they were passengers, he did not try to speak to the captain about the situation, telling Stephen that the crew would do better to carry out their duties without the interference of an ancient admiral. But he could tell from the sluggish movements how waterlogged the ship had become, and by the time they were fully aware of the gravity of the situation -- the shattered rudder, the hole gouged through the deck -- no suggestion that Jack could have made would have saved the ship. When Stephen went up, and learned that two of the boats had been damaged while a third had been lost, he could already guess at what Jack would reply when he informed him of their situation:

"Stephen, you are taking me into a warmer climate to die. I won't get into a lifeboat in place of a healthy young man."

He would not be swayed by argument, nor had Stephen expected that he might. Years of indulgent living ashore were taking their toll on Jack Aubrey. Even away from the chill of England, Stephen did not expect him to recover his health; his pallor was too pronounced, hands and feet always cold, even his constant good humour failing. At night he lay awake at Stephen's side wheezing instead of snoring, unable to lie still for the aches throughout his body.

They did not discuss his illness beyond what might be necesssary to get through the week, or through the winter. Jack had never asked Stephen whether his condition was terminal; thus Stephen had not had to admit to himself that there was nothing he could do beyond making Jack comfortable, perhaps prolonging what time remained to them. His own eyesight was beginning to fail, and the pain in his hands grew steadily worse each season, limiting both his research and his writing. But on bad nights Jack could not even hold his violin steady for the length of a full sonata, and Stephen would take it from his shaking hands, continuing to play alone as Jack dozed fitfully.

Now their ship was sinking fast. Stephen was appalled at his own relief, which surpassed the fear and regret that lent every moment the same acute clarity he had experienced all those years ago when he had thought he and Jack would meet in a duel. If Jack intended for their journey together to end in these icy waters, then the journeying would end for them both.

"You must go, Stephen," insisted Jack in a low voice. At first it was easy to stall, feigning preparations that had to be made, a final set of papers to be handed up on deck. Jack was quiet, pensive, scribbling a letter to George with his unsteady hand, dictating at the same time to Stephen for his lawyers. They could hear the great panic all around them, the creaking and splintering of wood and the shouts of the crew, yet it was remote: this was not Jack's ship, these were not his men.

Jack embraced Stephen hurriedly as he rushed from below with the letters, trying to choke out a farewell, until Stephen insisted, "Let us never say goodbye, love," and stopped his words with a kiss. By the time Stephen had come down from seeing the last boat set adrift, having put the papers into the hands of a young cartographer along with his watch and what coins could be hidden in his pockets, water was seeping along the deck. Jack, who was lying calmly with his hands folded across his chest, sat and cried out in alarm.

"Did you know," Stephen asked quietly as he lowered himself beside Jack on the cot, holding the bottle of laudanum, "that in these waters, a man afloat on a log will freeze before he drowns?" No need to measure the dose; the bottle was nearly full, and he swallowed his half with surprising ease, despite the lump that had risen in his throat. An arm around Jack's shoulders helped him to sit up, but his distress was such that Stephen had to stroke his hair and hush him like a child before he was sufficiently calm to listen to reason.

"We have traveled together for so long, joy," he began, raising the bottle to Jack's lips and tipping it carefully so that the laudanum would not spill over. "I have not much more time than you, and no wish to die alone on a shore that is not ours." Stephen had expected Jack to argue further, perhaps even to call him a coward, but Jack only clutched his hand and swallowed the laudanum as the sound of water and the splintering of wood grew ever louder. When the bottle was empty, he dropped it into the icy dampness, hearing it splash rather than clatter on the deck.

The candle burned down, there was no longer light to see one another's faces. Stephen reacquainted himself with Jack's features by touch, as he might have done weeks or months hence, with his vision fading and Jack's breath growing shallow.

It would not take long, this last voyage in the sea to a place he could not imagine. Whatever marvels or terrors might inhabit it, Stephen awaited them with curiosity rather than fear. Even if all his study of death had taught him nothing, and even if all the legends and stories of faith were wrong, Jack would be at his side; and in the end, it was the only prize he had sought for himself, the only part of the journey that mattered.


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