The violin worried at the Haydn menuetto like an old dog with a bone until finally Stephen took pity on the music, ceased his bowing and set aside his 'cello. "I'm sorry, brother," he said, stretching out his leg and kneading his meagre calf. "I fear I have a cramp." It was a fiction, and a thin one; but it served. It required a man of far less acuity than Stephen Maturin to see that Jack Aubrey's mind was not on his music.
"That's what you get for skylarking in the top all afternoon," said Jack, putting away his violin with undisguised relief.
"I was never so high as the top, my dear. Only that lowest platform...or mast-head...or truck, as it may be called."
"Stephen, that lowest platform is called the top."
"Is it indeed? Yet there is so much more of masts and sails and rigging above it. Well, top or bottom, it is an admirable height for watching birds. I saw a black skimmer and pair of roseate terns." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. For the tenth time in as many minutes, he saw Aubrey's eyes go to the pile of papers on his small writing desk; much-creased, much-smoothed and closely-written in a round child-like hand. "Have you news from home?" he finally ventured. He would never have been so personal except he knew that a government cutter had delivered a mail sack from Buenos Aires that morning, and he knew that Jack had received a large oilskin-wrapped bundle.
With a sigh, Aubrey caught up a handful of pages and shuffled through them. "Only the usual domestic catastrophes: foot-rot, cabbage moth, and the twins contrived to push each other into carp pond. They both caught the catarrh, and Mrs Williams blistered them with mustard plasters so that they roared all night long and poor Sophie did not sleep for a week. How I wish I were there, instead of tacking up and down this God-forsaken coast looking for mythical Yankee privateers. How I wish you were there, Stephen, with your excellent jelly of yours."
Maturin's eyebrows went up. "Jelly?"
"That aromatic jelly for the catarrh; the one the men smear on so avidly. If we get within ten degrees of the Tropic, the foc'sle fairly reeks of the stuff."
"Oh, that. My dear, that is only a simple salve of camphor and eucalyptol. Any apothecary could make it up as easily as kiss my hand. Here, I'll write the receipt down for you. Perhaps for dear Sophie's sake I will leave out the asafoetida," Maturin mused, rummaging through his coat. "You know the prejudice of sailors—the more powerful the stink, the more effective the medicine. Now where has my pen-knife got to...?" Aubrey watched in fascination as, like some West End conjurer, Stephen produced from his pockets a handful of Spanish moss containing a bird's egg, a crushed brown wad that had once been some sort of orchid, a small eel pungently dead, three dried seed pods, a large lump of stone and an iridescent beetle the size of his thumb which shook out its wing covers and began to creep across the top of the desk. His knife exhumed, Stephen drew up the chair, uncapped the ink and dipped a quill.
Jack upended an empty coffee cup over the beetle. "This stone has teeth in it," he observed.
"Yes," said Stephen, scratching away. "It is a petrified horse's jaw, or a piece of one at any rate. I have it from a planter in Bahia Blanca, who had it from an Indian, who had it from a cliff stacked deep with petrified bones, or so he claims. I'm sending it to Cuvier at the Institut...although, as there is little for us to do here but sail up and down, as you say, I should dearly love to procure a whole specimen." He glanced up at Jack hopefully, but not too hopefully, for he had discovered that it was an immutable law of the Navy that the intensity of his expressed interest in some local natural phenomenon was inversely proportional to his chances of being allowed off the Surprise to go look at it.
"You know, Stephen, it's possible that Cuvier has seen horse's teeth before," Jack said, not unkindly.
"Petrified horse's teeth. From South America." When Aubrey's face remained blank, Maturin elaborated. "There are no native Equidae in South America."
Aubrey burst out laughing. "What a fellow you are, Stephen," he exclaimed. "Why, that stallion at the governor's house was one of the finest equidae I've ever laid eyes on, and there was a whole stable full of lovely brood mares besides."
"Native Equidae," Maturin reiterated patiently. "Before the conquistadors brought them, there were no horses here."
Jack waved a hand. "Of course not," he said. "For they all drowned in the Great Flood, and the ones Noah bred afterwards could not swim the Atlantic. It stands to reason." He tossed the fossil in his palm, squinting and frowning, trying to put together a witticism about gift horses' mouths and hen's teeth, but the phrase proved too elusive and he finally let it go. "As for your going ashore to hunt for petrified horses, since there are no privateers nearby I think we might be able to spare you the launch and a crew..."
He was interrupted by Killick's backside entering the cabin, followed by a tray laden with a covered supper dish and a large pot of fresh coffee, and finally by the long sour face of the steward himself. "Which the marine was gone to the head and I've been in the passage this last turn of the glass too loaded down with these here wittles to open the door," he grumbled, setting down the tray amidst the charts and papers on the desk "If the cheese is curdled and the coffee's cold it's not my fault."
Maturin hastily stuffed his specimens back into his pockets as Killick fussed with the tray, clattering the cheese server and plates and pouring out coffee before he left, muttering crossly to himself.
"...and you could take Bonden...ah, rapture!" Jack cried, settling back on the locker and taking a deep swallow of coffee, which was just the way he liked it: very strong, hot and hot.
There was a rap on the door and the marine leaned in, admitting the wardroom squeaker Midshipman Bowman, who piped, "Mr. Pullings compliments, sir, and the lookout's spotted a sail, sir, and if you please could you come up to the deck as soon as ever you can, sir."
"Sorry, Stephen," said Jack, seeming anything but; for his eyes lit up as if someone had struck a match inside him. He finished his coffee in one hasty gulp and reached for his best glass.
Stephen patted his pockets and frowned at the desk. "Now where has my Chrysophora gone to...?" He raised his eyes reproachfully to the empty cup in Jack's hand.
Jack swallowed hard. "It ain't a venomous creature, at all?"
"Not comparatively." Stephen shrugged. "Perhaps it would be safest to make up a good strong purgative draught; double-shotted for rapid effect. I'll have it ready when you come back down!" he called after the captain's retreating back, and then smiled privately to himself, lifted up the cheese dish and pocketed his beetle.
© 2003 Chari Wessel