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Of Ague & Observations (Master & Commander)

frolicking periwinkle

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A/N:  I do love a suffering Stephen 

Of Ague and Observations 


The first two weeks out from port were always the most stressful for Doctor Stephen Maturin.  Not one to shy away from the more hands on experiences of his trade, he all but welcomed a reason to use any one of his particular skills.  Just shy of a civilian and naïve of many things nautical, he had a time keeping up with the officers and those shipmates that would be deemed on his level.  Certainly, a man of his peculiar skills and talents was not a pressed in jack.  No, he was once a spy, and now a surgeon and physician, practiced in the arts of physic.   His naturalistic hobbies were one of his own. Unlike music, which was pressed upon  him as a skill to learn when he was a young boy, his interest in the natural world was one born within him from the time he was buy a young boy exploring the Irish countryside. 

As much as a man of his intellect could be, he was humored by the crew’s peculiar fascination with his interest in bugs and beetles.  He knew that his interests lay further into the animal species, particularly to those things which the great naturalists before him had studied.  He wanted to find the same wondrous creatures, or – as though by some predetermined miracle – a variation therein that he would then present to their majesties.  He wanted to write that paper or – better yet – treatise or book, and be remembered for the sights that he had seen.  It was the one part of his life that he could talk about freely – even though so very few respected him for it.  He often swallowed down the thick lump of sallow cold that the lack of respect placed in his heart.  For a man of great experience and intellect to be thought of by naught but a naturalist or philosopher, or – worse – not thought of at all – at times it was too much for his pride to bear.

The first two weeks from port were fractious for most. Those who had families seemed to miss them the most during this time.  The senior officers were getting to know how the refitting of the ship changed her particular quirks, and walked about listening and muttering to themselves. Were they not on board a ship, and were the practice not uncommonly common, Stephen would have easily written to the Royal College and requested a remedy for the seemingly mad mutterings of the most sound officers that he had ever had the pleasure of working alongside.

For Stephen, however, the first two weeks were the time in which he wondered if the ship were to be a healthy sailing vessel or a floating tomb.  One was never certain where the men may have wandered during their time onshore, and faith knew that disease spared none.  His fears had less to do with if the men had visited the most seedy of taverns or Ashgrove. 

There were, of course, several symptomatic sounds that Stephen had come to expect during his long years at sea.  The unpleasantness of a topsy turvy stomach, raised temperatures, burns, and blisters from the unrelenting sun, coughs from exhaustion, the sea air, or dryness, aches from the hard labor practiced by each man jack on board.   A symptom or two was nothing for him to pay heed to.  But, a coupling of three or more, and he would need to fast assess whether the culprit was a cold, plague, smallpox, influenza, or something else entirely.   He was all too aware that if he could not identify and treat the ailment within days of the first symptoms appearing, it was likely they would all succumb to it. 

That is why when Bonden first sneezed, he thought nothing of it.  The warm sea air carried odd scents from time to time, and it was only once.  But, when young midshipman Blakeney had to take a knee while the junior officers were receiving a lesson from the captain, he knew that something was about to go awry. 

He and the captain had shared a look of concern at the young man’s behavior.  Ever vigilant, they had never seen him act in such a way.  Quietly and without adieu, Stephen had walked the young man off of the deck and into the infirmary, sitting him down on one of the work benches.

“Now I need you to be forthright with me, Will,” he said, his familiarity breaking the typical professionalism that had come to be expected between the doctor and crew. “How do you feel?”

A pause.  Another.  “Dreadful, sir,” the young man answered, his pale cheeks flushing as he did so.  “I woke up sore… tired.  But, on deck just now I felt dizzy as though an invisible weight had been placed on me and mixed my thoughts.”

“Mm,” the doctor said with a nod, as he cataloged the symptoms.  “You’ll sleep here tonight.”

“But, sir!” he protested, alarmed.  “I am on duty tonight,” he protested loudly.

“You are most certainly not, sir. I am the ship’s doctor and until we can identify what it is that has you in its grip, you are released from duty.”

Were the conversation not so serious, the size to which the young man’s eyes widened would have been comical. 

“Oh, it’s not so grim as all that.  Once I can ascertain what has befallen you, and we treat it before it spreads to the rest of the ship, you will be permitted to work again.”

At this, the young man relaxed a little.  He didn’t feel like he was letting people down. He had a job to do – a duty to ship, crew, and His Majesty’s Navy.  While he didn’t like the current situation, he also knew that he was out ranked.  “Yes, sir,” he stated, in sad compliance.


The infirmary was dark, even in the light of day.  The fever had caused fatigue in most of the men, so the doctor instructed Higgins to keep their fevers down as necessary.  He had stopped the fool from blood letting, as the medical texts of the last quarter of a century had proven that the practice was more harmful than helpful.  But, he knew he should not have been surprised that the man did not know such things.  After all, the practice had been utilized for literally hundreds of years, and it was nearly sacrosanct.  Just a wet piece of cloth, cool against their brow or back of their necks would be enough to break the ague in it's early stages.  Knowing that he was not to come by ice, at least not where they sailed, he feared having to submerse the men in the water to break their fever.  Not only was it a shock to their system, but his own poor swimming skills would keep him rather useless were one to have trouble of his own. 
Unsurprisingly, staying up with the crew day and night was starting to wear on the doctor.  He was becoming withdrawn, speaking only when he had to.  His limbs started to ache with the deep bone chill that only came from sleep deprivation.  He yearned to spend time with the captain, but at the same time was desperate to keep the man safe.  A ship could not be run by a captain alone, but by God Jack would have the audacity to try.  Abandoning the HMS Surprise would be a last resort only. 
"You need to eat, sir," Preserved Killick stated, following the doctor with a tray.  Short tempered by nature, the doctor was becoming weary. 
"I do," he stated, sitting at his desk.  "Thank you," he stated quietly, for anything louder than that seemed to disrupt the delicate balance that his sensibilities were keeping with each other. 
"The captain is worried for you, sir," Killick continued, his voice barely above a hushed whisper. 
"Assure him that the crew will be fine," Stephen said taking a bite of his food. 
"Not the crew, sir.  You personally."
The two of them made eye contact and shared a glance of warm seriousness.  "Tell the captain that I appreciate his concerns, and that I worry for his safety as well.  And as such, I ask that he refrain from visiting the infirmary until his men are on the mend."
"I'm on the mend, sir," a young, but strong voice said, breaking into the conversation.
Both older men startled and looked back to see young Mr. Blakeney standing at the doorway.
"What are you doing up?" the doctor asked, turning to face him, and pressing his long, lean fingers to the lad's forehead.  A smile crossed his features.  "Your fever seems to have broken.  Do you feel quiet rested?"
The boy nodded.  "Yes, sir.  Not ill enough to keep in my hammock, if that's what you mean."
The smile deepened.  "Freshen up and report to the captain as you are now fit for duty."
It was the boy's turn to smile.  "Thank you, sir," he said, leaving quite quickly. 
Blowing out a breath he did not realize he had been holding, he turned back to Killick.  "Tell the captain the ague is short lived and that his crew will be in tip top shape before the week is out.
Tip top shape indeed, Stephen thought, forcing himself out of bed.  The fever had been an annoyance, the crew recovering nearly as quickly as they had fallen.  Stephen had been lucky that Jack trusted him to care of the fever in its early stages, and not seen what it might progress into.  However, judging from the leaden feeling in his bones and the restrictive feeling in his chest, he had ignored his own health long enough for the disease to blossom into its full glory. 
"Stephen, old man, thank you for..."  Jack's initial jovial tone died away as he regarded the man in his hammock.  "Sir, I don't believe you're well," he stated calmly.  the calm exterior masked a nearly quivering in concern heart.  The man had very nearly single handedly taken care of the entire crew and saved them from becoming another story of a ghost ship.  But, at what cost?
Stephen shook his head.  "No, I am not well.  And I'll ask you to take your leave before you too fall with the -"  His eyes squeezed shut and nose wrinkled.  Bringing a hand up to his nose and mouth he sneezed, "Tcha! Tcha! Heh-eh Tccha!" Sniffing thickly he looked at the captain with watery eyes. "It's merely a bad cold. I'll be up shortly."  His lungs constricted powerfully and he curled onto his side facing away from the captain.  "Heh-Ke-Tcchh-AH!"   The force of the sneeze caused him to cough and he startled when he felt the captain's hand on his back.
"Bless you. You don't really expect me to leave you in such a state, do you, soul?  Were I to fall with it, you know I would handle it the way I always have - the way we always have."  To act as though either or both had never become ill in all the time they had served together was foolish.  Why Stephen was taking such a martyristic and naïve stance on it was an oddity that Jack chalked up to the fever.
Gentle brown eyes regarded him.  If Jack didn't know better, he would say that there was a touch of fear laced within the concerned thoughts his friend held.  But, Jack and Stephen had been friends for many a year, and Jack knew that Stephen's pride was wrapped up in his illness.  To his mind, falling ill was a weakness as a doctor.  It was a personal failure on his part. 
Jack understood all about personal failures, and self-perception versus reality.  It was why he tried to be there for the doctor, but not chastise him for these thoughts.  When the roles were reverse, the doctor always had some adage, some story to make him realize that they were the same soul in different bodies.  But, whenever the doctor was in a place of insecure irrationality, Jack found himself at a loss for the same sort of comforting words.  "Rest," Jack settled on.  "Close your gentle eyes and rest. The ship will stay in good stead and you will be safe here."  He hoped.  Promises such as that were dangerous to make.  While most days were uneventful, others were deadly.  He hoped that he could promise the doctor one day of uneventful slumber.  Faith the man deserved it.
Stephen's cravat felt far too tight for his liking as he sat stiffly at the officer's table for dinner.  He had not wanted to attend.  Nay, he felt it was dangerously folly to let his seeds of contagion release amongst the officers of the crew.  But, the captain had insisted.  So, dizzy with fever and barely able to stay his symptoms for more than a few minutes, Stephen sat at his corner seat, allowing the more decorated officers to sit closer to the captain. 
Killick, bless him, had made a seafood stew, with a thick warm broth that soothed Stephen's aching muscles and helped relieve some of the congestion as he held a moist, warm scallop to the roof of his mouth.  Withdrawing his handkerchief, he dabbed his nose lightly, trying to relieve the aching feeling without doing anything so crass as blowing his nose at the table. 
"I apologize that you are in poor health, doctor," Lieutenant Mowatt offered kindly.  "It is appreciated that you once again put the needs of the crew and our ship ahead of your own."
A forced smile at the odd compliment.  Did he really look so awful?  Clearing his throat he responded, "The honor was mind, Leftenant."  He swallowed a drink of wine and winced at the stabbing pains in his throat.  A sputtering cough and he was awash with feelings of symptomatic malaise.  Turning himself away from the table, but unable to stand for fear of losing his balance, he clasped his handkerchief over his countenance.  "Heh-Tcchh!  Tcha!  Tcha!"  With a few rough coughs and a quick blow of his nose, which turned out being a much longer release than expected, he turned back to the table. 
The officers looked at him with a mixture of concern and disgust.  Blushing slightly he cleared his throat and excused himself quietly.  Casting his expressive eyes downward, he took another spoonful of the broth.
"Bless you, Stephen."  The statement was said with the utmost seriousness and the lightest inkling of tenderness.  None of the captains typical jovial nature was apparent. 
Blinking rapidly, as though another sneeze was upon him, Stephen regarded the captain seriously and gave him a small nod of his head.  Embarrassed, he refrained from speaking to - or even looking at - any other part of the crew. 
"At least he's only the doctor.  He'll be right as rain in a few days, I dare say.  Best not one of the crew for whom a sneeze aloft could mean their doom."  Chandler - a newer officer who had joined the crew when they last made English port - stated.  The man had been a thorn in Stephen's side at many of these dinners, often making him feel rather out dated and unnecessary. 
The captain's protectiveness of the doctor flashed though his eyes like fingers of lightening.  Mowatt and Blakeney's eyes widened a bit, as they held their breath looking between their captain and the newest - rather outspoken - officer.
"Yes, of course, you're right," Stephen interjected.  "It's why I insisted that they be put on light duty when they were only weakened with fever."  He gave the table and awkward half smile and sniffed lightly. 
"And a fine decision it was," Jack credited the doctor.   The unspoken truth between them was how had Jack had fought Stephen on making that call.  Personal expectations and words 'unfit for duty' were thrown around like discarded rag dolls.  In the end, Jack had given Stephen the go-ahead on the assumption that the idea would be catastrophic and he could finally show Stephen - provide him scientific evidence from testing an hypothesis if you will.  But, in the end it was Jack who had been mistaken.  Lucky Jack, the men called him.  Lucky because of his expertise in tactical planning.  But, he was also Lucky to have such a qualified, experienced, and forgiving friend such as Stephen Maturin at his side.  A man who could stand up to the captain - loathe as Jack was to admit that it was a good thing, and still take the wordless apologies without complaint as their friendship grew stronger. 
Chandler eyed the captain suspiciously.  There was something in the captain's tone that wasn't believable.  Rarely did he publically credit the doctor for making fine decisions, often treating the man as a student rather than an equal.  To have given him this point so blunting, was out of character.  But, as he looked around the table, it seemed as though the others did not notice.  He already knew from experience and idle conversation that they would not say anything even if they did.  The relationship between the captain and the doctor was their own, and no one was foolish enough to step into the middle of it. 
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