Title For the Prize
Word Count 1428
For the Prize
“Oh Sir--” The boy's face was pale, his hands were clenched in supplication. “Mr Dillon says come as quick as you may. He is on the prize ship, and there is a woman there--.” Here the boy came to stop.
Stephen had heard, even below decks as he was, a female voice screaming. But there had been a battle, after all. The day had featured quite a lot of screaming. Stephen lifted an eyebrow.
“Sir. She is the French Captains wife. And she seems to be having a baby.” The last words were uttered in a shocked whisper.
Stephen looked up, reached for the blackened banana peel he had been using as a bookmark. He closed his book with care.
“Aye, so?” His voice was mild. “I thought it might be something of that sort. Do you precede me, and tell the Captain I will be leaving directly. Then go across and tell Mr Dillon after that.”
“Aye Sir.” The boy clattered away.
On the prize ship three midshipmen huddled in a group by the foremast. They looked glassy-eyed and miserable. Stephen could see James Dillon away forward, wreathed in fog. He was leaning over the rail, gazing down at something in the water. His thin shoulders were raised as if he had been trying to use them to cover his ears.
The light was paling with the approach of evening. The smell of powder had quite blown away. Stephen went indoors.
Here was dim and close. It smelled the same as the passageway of the Sophie, even now, empty of crowded humanity. Here was the chart room. And here, beyond, the small door Captain's cabin. Stephen did not open the door, not yet. Even knowing more or less what to expect, a doctor could learn by listening unseen. He placed a hand against the wood, stopped his own breath and listened. He heard the murmur of a second female voice, a maidservant perhaps, and the French captains wife voice replying her voice was hoarse, but full and sturdy. He looked at his watch; she had stopped screaming 4 minutes ago. Perhaps then, there was no need to rush. It could go on this way for hours. Many hours, days even. But now she stopped, abruptly, mid-word. He heard the breath she drew to fight the pain down. It took all her attention. If she could no longer speak through the pains then it would not be terribly long then, not if all was well. He heard her sob through clenched teeth.
He knocked briefly and went in.
The maidservant had proved to be helpful. She was some connexion of the husband, brought along for the event. She raked Stephen with a glance, but stepped aside as he came in. She was a sensible creature of late and vigorous middle age; iron gray hair and no nonsense. Birth, and blood of birth, bothered her not at all. She indicated water for washing, and a collection of worn clean sheets she had brought with her. After that she spoke to Stephen not at all. She stood at the bed's head, suffering her hand to be wrung. (She had enough sense, Stephen noted to hold out two fingers only so her hand would not be broken.) She offered comfort in the accents of Marseilles.
The baby came at twilight, in a final tearing heave. He was red and plump and perfect. His cries of outrage spread out over the darkening sea; the newest sound in all the world. Beyond the door Stephen heard a ragged cheer from the deck. The Captain's wife smiled, a wan smile but a real one. Someday, Stephen thought, she would tell her French son that he had come into the world to be greeted by the cheers of English sailors.
Now that he had time for it, Stephen could feel the ship move beneath him. The view from this deck was essentially the same, but the action underfoot was different than that of the Sophie; it seemed more brittle and abrupt. Jack, he was certain, would have a long impenetrable explanation as to why. Jack and Pullings delighted in such talk. When Mr Marshall joined in eagerly, the three of them could go on for hours, unless prevented. It was very dull to the observer, but there was something pleasing about the pink glow of their faces and the eager way they waved their hands about. Stephen's face creased into a tired smile, thinking of it.
They had left the Sophie behind, now of course. There was never a moment to waste. They would rejoin Jack in Mahon, two days hence. He was here until then. He was here with James Dillon.
The French ship had even less space than the Sophie. A glance around the deck revealed only the three men on watch. There was, however, a small building toward the front. Stephen went toward it.
Here was Dillon, in a chair at a small table. There was a sand shaker at his elbow, an ink pot, beside it. Dillon's logbook lay open. Stephen could see a series of regular entries in his strongly slanted hand. Beside it were the French captain's papers, weighted down with an empty sticky coffee cup. Stephen smiled a little. Coffee could only do so much. Dillon's face was averted, pillowed on his jacketed arm, but Stephen could see his bright hair, spilling over his sleeve. James Dillon must have washed his face and hands since the boarding. His face was clean of powder. He had the blue smudge of a bruise though, across his cheek and the top of his nose.
“Hello Jem,” Stephen said. His voice was quiet, but it was enough.
Dillon gave a reflexive snort, and lifted his head. “I wasn't asleep,” He said.
He had a long strand of hair stuck to his face, his cheeks were hot and pink.
“Certainly not,” Stephen said.
Stephen reached out to brush the hair back and saw James Dillon's breath catch and stop.
“Did the Frenchman's wife survive?”
“Of course. All very routine in the end. A boy.”
Dillon smiled then, and it was the same smile of stunning sweetness that Stephen remembered of old. The present sat, he thought, like a fall of dew, over them both, transparent and shining over the essential men within.
“I was shocked to see you, you know. I had wondered what I would say--” Stephen said. “But now--”
“No need to say anything. Eight years is a long time. ” Dillon was looking down as he said this. There were drops of coffee on the shining surface of the table, he pushed a finger through them, dividing, joining.
“We were twenty. Dillon went on. “Hardly older than mids. If you don't--”
“I think,” said Stephen, “on balance, that I do.”
Dillon's smile was answer enough to that. He got up to latch the door. When he sat again it was closer to Stephen. Slowly then. And slowly would be very fine.
“I would have thought to find you upstairs, doing nautical tasks,” Stephen said. Dillon's knee was very close to his own now, but not touching, not yet.
“These are nautical tasks.” Dillon gestured. He gave a short laugh. His face grew grave again quickly. “And it was just such that I-- I should have been there at the end Stephen,” he said. “I was away at the Cape Nao when I heard, and --”
Stephen spoke into the pause.
“It was sordid. Ugly. I could not convince Edward to take care. He would not listen, not to me, nor even to Pamela. And then it all went to pot.”
“Still, I should have been there.”
“I thank God that you were not.”
And it was easy then for Stephen to reach out, to bring his hand to the side of Dillon's face. To touch the curve of his lip, the strong jaw, the wing of his brow. Easy to watch those blue eyes close, and his breath catch.
Stephen pushed the chair away. It was easy to take Dillon into the circle of his arms, to hold the thin taut weight of him close, to stroke the bright hair. There was no need at all to speak, to speak, to force voice past a throat thick with tears.