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Les Enfants Terribles

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Miss Clarissa's School for Young Ladies was a notable establishment on the outskirts of Portsmouth. And whilst the happy vessels of the knowledge so liberally imparted left with neither the poise nor education provided by such luminary establishments as Roedean or Dorking Primary, they did tend to be able to hold their drink, win suspiciously regularly at poker and punch above their weight in a brawl at the Frog and Bucket.

All this, with the fees (which were remarkably reasonable), meant that a disproportionate number of naval officers found it convenient to send their daughters there. Following Jack's example, Stephen had finally done so with Brigit.

"It was curious," Brigit mused, as she sat on the Gym roof, wiring up the detonator, "how...

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the forwardnet runs so slowly sometimes, as if the signals were being sent by semaphoring sloths, and debauched ones at that. Weevipedia provided nothing after 1866."

"Frowardnet, more like it," grumbled Charlotte. "Phizbook don't load at all. Which means

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Dad won't be sending us that twenty-four pounder any time soon.

She looked down at Fanny slowly walking backwards from the tuck shop door carrying the small keg, keeping close to the wall in an effort to make the trail of gunpowder less obvious to the casual observer. The staff room should be well into their plum duff and twelfth bottle of wine by now. She could hear Skinner singing, they should be OK.

"Where did we get all that gunpowder?" asked Charlotte

"Father got it last time he was in the Amazon," Brigit muttered, as she finished with the second terminal. "He bought a lot, seeing the shipping was free."

The same question was being asked five miles away in the clock tower of the laughably named St Viles School for Young Gentlemen.

"Exactly how much gunpowder did your uncle bring back, Aubrey?" asked Bramwell-Wesley Babbington Minor, peering through the telescope.

"Quite a lot, I think," came the reply. "Why?"

"Cos I think Brigit's about to use all of it." – "Hey, Zimmmm," he called down the stairs, "If we set off a barrel of gunpowder, how far back should we stand?"

"Red or Black grain?"

Babbington looked at Aubrey.

"Red."

"Red, Zimmmm"

"Why?"

"Cos Brigit has three barrels of it up against the tuck shop door."

There was the sound of feet on the stairs and Zimmermann came through the hatch, holding a collection of helmets snatched from the suits of armour from the hall below.

"Put these on quick!" he shouted.

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Back at the School for Young Ladies, Miss Skinner, newly engaged to instruct the Lower Fourth in Latin, geology, forensic pathology and online gambling, hesitated in the act of tossing a butt out the staff room window, her attention caught by she knew not what...was it the breathless hush in the close tonight? As if all nature and also the Lower Fourth were waiting ...could those be vultures she saw circling?

"Who's got the slow match?" asked Charlotte.

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The girls she taught couldn't ask for a quicker witted, more percipient schoolmistress than Lavinia Skinner, though they often tried. But even Miss Skinner was capable of decisive action when the situation called for it and when she wasn't too much into the wine – it had merely been a three-bottle meal for her so far. Her capacious nostrils twitched at a familiar scent. Double strength red grain powder, if she wasn't mistaken. Her hand stilled in the act of throwing and instead she stubbed out what was left of her cigarillo on the nearest leaf of the staff room aspidistra.

Gertie Baker (Applied Phlebotomy, French and Hard Sums) was walking past the tuck shop, about to light her Meerschaum, when she saw her new colleague waving and calling from the staff room window. What was the woman about? Gertie grunted as the flame of the match reached her hand and

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the sound of a distant explosion washed over a post-chaise as it neared Portsmouth, stiriing its inhabitants from an uneasy slumber. Jack Aubrey absent-mindedly murmurred, "Red grain."

His Admiralty orders were to proceed expeditiously to Portsmouth and to take temporary command of the newly commissioned HMS Cuttlefish, the Royal Navy's first fully submersible (by design) warship. Rumors throughout the service had been that certain unanticipated difficulties had been encountered regarding the Cuttlefish's sail plan, and that the expert eye of a right seaman was required.

Stephen Maturin accompanied his friend, eager to see sea life from the flip side.

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Jack drummed his fingers on his knee in its bran new uniform breeches, "Red grain...red grain....I'll tell you what it is Stephen - that last Parents' Day (you was there, remember?)...I just can't get the Regatta on the lake out of my mind. The Sixth Form have some notion of gunnery – three broadsides in two minutes!"

"You remarked that distant explosion too, brother? Sure, I was relieved when Brigit's shell evaded the fire ship during the Novice Fours. But about this Unterseeboot, Jack. Surely to God it doesn't need a sail plan?"

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Jack nodded thoughtfully. "Well you would not have thought it, Stephen, but Banks' idea to connect eels to the propeller seems to have been disastrous, and no amount of rubbing them with rods of amber seems to answer. The lads can't pedal all the way home, so we need to map out the Gulf Stream properly. With luck they will be able to get here to Portsmouth in a day or two.


Several miles outside Portsmouth, Brigid wiped her eyes in disbelief at the smoldering pile of masonry. There was a movement to her left as Fanny picked herself up, coughed, and dusted down her uniform. "Crikey, Brigid," she gasped. "You were only meant to blow the bloody doors off!"

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On the roof of the "Gentleman" Jackson Gymnasium, Gertie Baker sat stunned for a few minutes. She stood up, brushed down her clothes, rearranged her cravat and climbed slowly down the fire escape. She was miserably bruised and singed ...and most furiously irritated because she had been on her way to deliver some very important news.

"We'll cop it, Brig, cop it something cruel if she finds out it was us," said Charlotte as they joined the back of the crowd in the Applied Chemistry demonstration. Professor Wilson was calling Critchley and Hatwell Minima a pair of shatter-brained ninnies for failing to grasp the distinction between reflux and fractionating stills.

Miss Baker burst in suddenly through the lab doors and, in her haste, knocked over the display of finger paintings on horse doping techniques. Breathing fast with angry excitement, she cried out

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"My hovercraft is full of eels!"

Hard on her heels was Sigismund the Mad Maths Master who leapt to the blackboard and sketched a series of neat diagrams which showed a invasion fleet of experimental French submersibles which had made the mistake of employing freshwater eels (anguilles) on their propellors.


Sailors' daughters all, the Lower Fourth knew exactly what this meant – it meant that the eel-propellers had headed upriver, diverted into their breeding grounds, infested Gertie's air-cushion vehicle thus disabling its torpedos and that the French were on the lake!

There was a thunder of tiny feet in the close. Hatwell Minima took a quick squizz out the window and related what she saw – a contigent of Fourth Formers from the neighbouring academy – Zimm at its head bearing a banner with the strange device, "Floreat St Viles".

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And flourishing they were, as good as their motto. Zimm, Wesley and the hoard of Fourth Formers, all dressed in a variety of old bits of rusty armour, were flourishing like mad anything they could lay their hands on. Cricket bats, the odd Brown Bess from the cadet armoury, a sprinkling of hockey sticks and anything sharp that could be prised from the walls of the Great Hall.

At the rear, trundling along behind, being pulled by the First XV, was an ancient cannon that had stood outside the school since Naseby and a rather newer carronade, painted in school colours (green and yellow) that the Sixth Form had stolen from the Portsmouth Marine base as part of Rag Week. It was currently the subject of a somewhat strained correspondence between the Headmaster and the Marine Colonel.

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A hoopoe called discretely from somewhere in Stephen's coat. He patted this pocket and that, then another, fished out a sausage-end, a moderately clean handkerchief, a pair of green spectacles, a scalpel, a wen, an unspeakably soiled handkerchief, a baby asp in a phial of double-distilled spirits, a spectacle case, a handkerchief that he peered into for a long, thoughtful moment before sliding it out the window, and his Breguet, the hoopoe bleating monotonously all the while. A little grunt of satisfaction, and, round and steaming, his piephone was in his hand, the hoopoe silenced.
"A message from Brigid. I fear we must crack away, Jack. The French are nearly at Miss Clarissa's!"

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Professor Wilson was supervising the setting up of the school trebuchet on the gymnasium roof. During his boyhood on the Canadian prairies he had longed to be a man of action, but knock knees and flat feet had put an end to his youthful dreams. Lavinia Skinner was in charge of the arms chest and Gertie Baker was directing the Lower Fifth in rigging out boarding netting over the school walls. The smaller girls were chipping shot and readying themselves to carry powder.

Aboard Le Sous-marin Déraisonnable, Jeanne Le Cuirot straightened her gymslip, knocked three times at the door of the head girl's cabin and whispered "The pen of my aunt is in the garden".

"And the postillion was struck by lightning," came the reply.

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Le pauvre Jacques was bringing the news from Portsmouth to the lake when he was struck – there is to be an armistice, a complete cessation of armed hostilities".

The semaphore on the roof of the "Gentleman" Jackson Gymnasium told the same tale and drooping white flags broke out as both sides laid down their arms.

"Allons enfants! Now for the unarmed combat!" exhorted the head girls.

...


Professor Wilson, a pro-wrestling legend on the North American circuits, was to referee the match in a field behind the Frog and Bucket – best two out of three falls. "My money's on Fanny" said Bramwell-Wesley-Babbington Minor as the gallant little Fouth Former cannoned off the ropes – a technique she had developed after studying The Steel Kitten on YouTube – but wiser heads were investing their coin in the daughter of Edouard (Le Hulk) Le Cuirot whose backflips, somersaults and cartwheels were promising to drive her opponent to distraction.

The crowd had become raucous by the time Jack and Stephen rattled onto the field of battle behind the pub and alighted in time to cop some chance pats of stirred up earth.

"Come, brother," said Stephen as he steered Jack in his splendid new breeches back to the coach, "Come away. You must come away – here is too much mud altogether".