The man gasped for air, his stomach held closed by the briefest of lashings.
“What of this one?” Stephen asked.
“Oh, that’s the Dutchman. No need to worry about him. He’ll be up and around in another day or two,” the American surgeon explained.
“How is that possible?”
“Don’t know, but it is. He took a good smashing his first day aboard. I dare say you’ve seen all the usual lubber’s wounds. Right as rain the next day, or nearly.”
“What do you know of him?”
“According to the muster, Charles van Poel, of New York. One of those old Dutch families, I reckon. Landsman all through - says he’s been on ships before but never a sailor. Not good in the tops. Was the tops that got him. Doubt he came from much good. Had a recently healed bullet wound in his shoulder when I first looked at him, but it’s an old scar by now.”
“Does he have any other signs of great tissue growth? A rapid growth of the hair or the nails might accompany such prodigious healing properties.”
“Wouldn’t know him from the rest if he weren’t wounded.”
“Fascinating. Might I speak with him when he is recovered?”
“Of course, anything you like.”
Evans was as good as his word. Two days later, after rounds, he brought van Poel, walking stiffly, into the surgeon’s cabin they shared.
“You are up and about quite early, van Poel. Are you certain that is wise?”
“I’m right as rain, sir. Doctor took the stitches out this morning.”
Stephen lifted van Poel’s shirt to examine the wound. Indeed, it looked as if the battle had been a month ago, yet mere hours had passed since the Java had been set afire, unable to be repaired. He probed van Poel’s stomach - some discomfort, there, but no distended abdomen, no sign of pus, nothing to cause concern.
“Have you always been so quick to heal?”
But now van Poel was evasive, looking away and pausing a great while to formulate his reply. “Not in Holland, sir. But America is wonderfully restorative to a man,” he answered flippantly.
“Dr Maturin may be a prisoner, but he is your better. Keep a civil tongue with the officers,” Evans warned him. Van Poel apologised but with no real feeling in his words.
“You were born in Holland, then. You speak English exceedingly well.”
“Ought to. Been here long enough.” His voice had a similar metallic twang to Evans, not the expected throatiness of the Dutch.
“You emigrated as a child, then?”
“You might say that, sir. A boy of fourteen in a company of men both is and is not a child.”
“That is especially true of naval life,” Stephen remarked, thinking on the midshipmen he had known. “But it is a life that volunteers come to young. You must be over thirty.”
“Sometimes a man needs a change.”
“What work did you do before?”
“Little of this, little of that.”
“This scar, how did you come by it?” Stephen asked, indicated an old stab wound below the point of the breastbone.
“Was this in the Guerriere engagement?” he asked Evans.
“He’s always had that one.”
“Where does a man of your age, without prior sea experience, get a wound like this?” he asked van Poel. Van Poel did not answer. “What of this?” Stephen asked, indicating the bullet wound in van Poel’s shoulder that Evans had previous described.
“Duel. I won.”
“Is dueling with pistols common among your people?”
“It is among his. You ever hear of Burr and Hamilton?”
“You dueled with a gentleman though you are not one.”
“He didn’t deserve to be called a gentleman.”
“Have you dueled often?”
“Not of late. But lord, it was common in the ’60s.”
“You could not have been born in the ’60s,” Evans objected.
“Hush,” Stephen snapped. “He should not have recovered so from the opening of his abdomen,” he continued in Latin, “so I wish to hear all he has to say, sense or not.” He turned to van Poel and began again in English. “Trinity in the ’90s was very like. I was out one week to the next it seemed.”
“Explains quite a bit. I was at King’s. In New York. They call it Columbia, now. Those of Irish descent were great ones for dueling.”
“So you are a gentleman.”
“Was. Might be again, if I feel like it.”
“Are you family considered well-bred in Holland?” Van Poel again did not answer. “A self-made gentleman, then?”
“That’s all there are in America. As it should be.”
“But now you sling your hammock abaft the mast.”
Stephen was terribly proud of remembering the naval term. Van Poel, for his part, was bemused by the doctor’s confusion of fore and aft.
“Have you ever killed a man, Doctor?”
“It is hard not to if one often steps out with pistols.”
“You are dismissed, van Poel.” He thanked the surgeons and went off to join his mates.
“He could do with some time in the Asclepia. Modern madhouse outside of Boston. My brother in law runs the place,” Evans explained to Stephen’s confusion.
“I should not have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes, for all love. Yet mayn’t there be truth in his claims of age?”
“If he heals quick, shouldn’t he age quick, too?”
“But perhaps the healing prevents the dissolution of the flesh with age. I should have asked what village his people come from. After this infernal war, it would merit a study of the inhabitants.”
“So you’ve never seen the like?”
“Never in man nor beast. Prodigiously curious. How I wish I could take samples. Would an amputation regenerate, do you think, like the tails of some lizards? But then he would never have been in need of amputation, he heals so quick. Are such healing abilities heritable? Could man indeed grow stronger as a species rather than weaker as it has always appeared?” How Stephen wished he had his diary, that he might record these questions for future study.
“Speaking of amputation, how fares Captain Aubrey?”
“A fever has set in. I am loathe to operate - with this fever, it may prove his death. But I do not like the look of his arm at all. We shall see how he fares in the morning.”
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