Ill Met by Moonlight
bab bat dac srz
[dac] The figure walking down Whitehall in the direction of the Admiralty cut a strange figure in the eyes of passers-by. A gaunt, sallow-faced fellow wearing an old greasy scratch wig and threadbare coat. It may have been the large catling sticking out of one pocket that made them move aside for him, but more likely it was the muttering as he strode along, reading a note and oblivious to his surroundings. Stephen Maturin, for it was he, was in a state of some confusion; the letter he had received that morning had surprised him and, it had to be said, vaguely disturbed him...
Captain Jack Aubrey was quite surprised when after another fruitless
morning enquiring after a ship ("Any ship Milord, I'll not stand
on my rank to the detriment of the service,") he emerged from the
building and saw his worried friend standing by the gates. Jack, shrugging
off his own difficulties, took him by the arm, led him across the road
to the Red Lion, ordered porter and waited for his friend to speak.
[bat] "This fog has me infernally hipped," Jack
Aubrey said, peering forward past the bowsprit into the thick grey cloud
which cloaked the waters of the Black Sea. For three days, ever since
the schooner Demeter had passed out of the Bosphorus, eternal deep mist
had shrouded their journey. "How this Kapitan Krichkoff means to
find his port is more than I can understand."
Jack shivered uneasily, he supposed from the clammy, chill, ancient forest
air which had penetrated the thin walls of the coach. "Should you
like some of this tea, Stephen, that the coachman has so thoughtfully
provided us? And in a most charmingly decorated teapot, too -- just have
a look at these ..."
"By George Patrick this is it!" The Pimpernel cried, "That ruffian Bonaparte is ensnaring Maturin, "Fetch me a buttonhole and summon the League at once!"Top Secret Imperial Memo (3rd copy)
"Oh tally ho sir! "cried Lord Wesley. "I'll contact them all! Lord Zimmermann, the Duchess of Tasmania, The Earl of Ontario, La Contessa di Cambridge and Baroness Wenger ".
"Indeed, them all dear boy, there's not a moment to loose - this letter is dated two months ago! Why, they might be there by now! We must rescue these noble lads at once! To horse Patrick, to horse I say...
All over England a scene is played out:
At her London residence, Baroness Wenger looks at the little red flower being held by her butler "And you say it was shoved through the letterbox, Jenkins? Well don't just stand there man, order my carriage and fetch my travelling pistols!"
At the gathering of the Quorn Hunt, the Duchess of Tasmania and Lord Zimmermann are seen in close discussion with milord Wesley. All three suddenly depart still in their hunting coats
La Contessa raises an eyebrow at the small gilt edged cream card handed to her by a manservant, She reads the message thereon and looks regretfully at the dashing young Captain of Hussars who has accompanied her to the theatre. She makes her excuses and leaves.
The Earl of Ontario looks first at the £80,000 pounds on the card table, a pot that includes his 60% share of the Hudson Bay Company, and then at the Royal Flush in his hand. With a shrug he folds, finishes his brandy and calls for his coat.
Deep in the corridors of Whitehall a clerk put his head around the door of Sir Joseph Blaine's office, "Someone let the amateurs out again, Sir. We've just got a message from Blakeney. It reads:
Gone to save Maturin and the noble Aubrey from vile bloodsucking Bonapartists.
Hoorah ! Don't worry, Sir J".
Sir Joseph put his head in his hands. "All is lost" he said.
[bat] The coach rumbled to a halt in the center of a large courtyard, its distant recesses left a hollow black under the faint flickering torches high above on the battlements. Great round arches yawned about them like gaping mouths out of a half-remembered nightmare. The driver, a broad, bewhiskered man, jumped swiftly down from his seat, and opened the coach door. As he did so, he glanced backwards nervously over his shoulder and his free hand drew a quick cross upon his breast. Silently, the coachman lifted down their bags and set them on the courtyard cobbles. Jack pawed at his pocket to fetch out a shilling, but the driver shook his head with a surprising vehemence and regained his seat. He looked down at Jack and Stephen with what seemed unspoken sorrow and shook the reins. The horses started forward and the coach disappeared through one of the dark openings.
Jack peered at the darkened windows high above them. "This is even larger than your Spanish castle, Stephen, if in no better repair. But are you quite sure your uncle is expecting us? It would be a long trudge back to the last town."
"Look, look," Stephen croaked, pointing upwards towards a starless sky. "A bat, a gigantic bat! Oh, what a happy, blessed land to boast such a magnificent creature. Chiroptera sanctus vacca, perhaps, or maybe a nondescript species. I hope that Uncle Vlad knows something of their habits."
Jack Aubrey preferred his bats upon a cricket pitch, and food waiting on the table at the end of a long journey, for that matter. It was well past his dinnertime and he felt himself accordingly peevish. He glared at the silent great door before them, its massive planks studded with large iron nails. "I shall see if I can awaken the crew. I must say your uncle's lookout deserves a sharp dozen at the grating." Jack raised his hand to strike upon the dark and ancient wood timbers, but he lowered it without delivering his intended blow when he heard heavy steps within and saw through the chinks the gleam of a coming light. There was the sound of rattling chains and the clanking of massive bolts drawn back. A key was turned with the long grating sound of long disuse, and the great door swing back.
Within, stood a tall man, clean shaven save for a long moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him. He held in his hand an antique silver lamp, in which the flame burned without chimney or globe of any kind, throwing long quivering shadows as it flickered in the draught of the open door. He pointed towards his visitors with his right hand, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation, "I already told you that I don't want to buy any encyclopedias!"
[bab] The production of the Count's letter, momentary disappointment over the absence of a seal, long shadows thrown in most but not all directions and Great Uncle Vlad at last embraced Stephen, "My dear grand nephew and most esteemed Doctor, how sallow you look by this light and you, Captain Aubrey, quite disappointingly washed out. Have you dined?"
"I tell you what it is, Count, we haven't had a bite to eat since the Rude Lion in Varna. Oh what I could do with a nourishing beef stake!" The Count shuddered and rang for his attendant, Ionesco, who crawled unconvincingly into the room wearing a wolf skin and gave a few dispirited howls. "Some of our home cured broccoli for the gentlemen and an appropriate wine".
Ionesco looked sourly at the startled Jack and muttered "The gentleman will eat up his nice broccoli and enjoy it or my name's not Eugene Ionesco. Oh, and this old letter just arrived by batpostu, it's from You Know Who. Sir Brucscsu of Batrinque and The League will be arriving soon. Moilsciu and toilsciu never a moment's peace in this here castle and me with a play to write". He exited on all fours.
The Count's face brightened perceptibly. "Sir Brucscsu and The League! I do so love having foreign guests for dinner", he confided and would almost have smiled if it had not been for some difficulty he seemed to be having with his teeth. "If you will excuse me, I will just dash off a note to my agents, Abramhoff & Krichoff, in Varna telling them to take our friends into their care for, though I can make do with leftovers, I must follow my regimen. There. That's done. "
"Before you call your servant, Uncle, may I enquire about Ionesco's writing? Can what he says be true?"
"Oh, certainly, he is an aspiring playwright rather in the line of your excellent Shakespeare - 'Where the bat sucks, there suck I' etc etc".
"And is he also provided with a supply of this preternaturally fine vellum?"
"Undead, err, indeed no, nephew", the Count beamed indulgently, "Ionesco has the hide of a rhinoceros. Shall we be seated? ".
"I think that would be for the best for, I must tell you candidly, as a physician that I am not at all pleased with your colour. Let us sit upon this sofa and speak of your regimen
[srz] ..or would you prefer the chairs, just there?"
Jack pulled Stephen aside and said in a low, troubled voice, "I ask you, Stephen: have you had a good look at that curious statue in the niche over by the exit? The king's my uncle if it isn't the very image of the bald soprano I heard at the Duchess of Tasmania's salon down in London last autumn; styled herself a Contessa if memory serves, though I much doubted it: the way she carried on! The lesson I took from the evening's revelries -- Stephen, you have no idea of the restraint I employed in keeping my vows against the strangely compelling charms of the smooth-pated chanteuse; but I digress. The lesson, I
say, was my sense that the killer instinct lived in that woman's sweet form to a degree I have rarely seen, even more so than that exhibited during our journeys among the deadly rhinoceros hunters of..."
"Come, Captain; Doctor, if you please." The Count inclined his head and gestured through the open archway, "Ionesco has dinner waiting, and I, for one, am famished." He followed them into the next chamber with the professional air of a tailor sizing a customer's collar with his eyes.
Silently, Janescu, La Contessa di Cambridge, stepped down from the pedestal and moved with feral grace to the far side of the entrance hall, where she paused to loosen the sheath of the throwing knife she wore hidden on her person: a handsomely forged, spear point blade of the finest Damascus steel set in a breathtakingly be-jewelled ivory handle. She fingered the comforting curve of its pommel and -- slipping open the window casement and unbolting the shutter to admit the others -- recalled the night so many years ago when
the knife's previous owner
[dac] "But no, time enough later for reminiscences" she thought as she helped the rest of the League through the window.
"Where's the Baroness?" she whispered
"Outside with the cannon" replied the Earl of Ontario, "hopefully the guards will be distracted".
In flagrant disregard of his orders and trusting to his influence in Parliament to keep him out of trouble, Captain Babbington had days previously transported the League across the Channel. They had charged across Europe leaving a flurry of travellers' cheques in their wake and trailing a 24-pounder Babbington has lent them "just for emergencies".
The meal Jack and Stephen sat down to with the Count consisted almost entirely of broccoli and a large amount of black pudding.
"I am surprised, Sir" said Stephen who was starting to have suspicions "I had heard that your diet was somewhat more corpuscular than the norm."
Vlad nodded sadly. "It is the case dear nephew that the undead have a craving for blood, but I find that black pudding is for the most part sufficient for my needs. I do however have to confess that I have brought you and the good Captain Aubrey here on false pretences, but I am, I'm afraid, without choice in the matter. I believe you are acquainted with a gentleman by the name of Sir Joseph Blaine".
Stephen looked hard at the count and cautiously replied that he was indeed acquainted with the gentleman.
"Well" continued the Count, "several years ago he and I had a conversation concerning French royal prisoners that Napoleon occasionally sends me. I have sampled Frenchmen ...in the past you understand, but find the garlic in their blood upsets me so. Sir Joseph and I concocted a plan to ship any further prisoners back to England. This ruse has worked well for several years. Unfortunately Napoleon recently asked me to act as an agent in your demise and as a result so as to not blow my cover, Sir Joseph and I formed a plan to invite you to the castle and then smuggle you out with the next batch of prisoners".
Their conversation was interrupted by the boom of a 24 pound Royal Navy cannon, the sound of running feet and cries of "Yoiks!" and "Cry Harry England and St George" as the League thundered into the room,
"Unhand those noble gentlemen, you fiend" bellowed Sir Bruce, "We're up to your despicable Bonapartist tricks, Sir!"
"I think" said Stephen quietly with the air of one who is about to contract a migraine, "That there may be a misunderstanding here, you have I believe got the wrong end of the stake, Sir Bruce. The Count is one of ours".
"Indeed Sir", barked Count Vlad "why you should think a nobleman to have sunk so low as to support republicanism escapes me!"
[bat] Sir Bruce stammered and plucked at his neckcloth, an elegant neckcloth bespeaking of the finest London tailors. "Well, foreign ways, you know. Odd notions of what's proper. The wrong school when one was a lad. One's nanny not quite exactly what one might wish. Oh, dash it all, Count, I really do apologize. Dreadfully sorry for the misunderstanding and all that. But are you quite certain there's no one to rescue? Some secret son of a high nobleman wrongly imprisoned perhaps?" Vlad shook his head. "Or maybe a hostage held by political extremists? Somebody in the local clink for tax evasion? Driving a carriage while under the influence? Playing a zither too loudly after hours?" Sir Bruce's voice trailed off into the infinite void of the Count's silence. "Hang it all, it's a deuced hard thing to race halfway across the Continent only to find that one's not needed. Eating at fast food inns, snails and cabbage only half cooked. Sleeping in strange beds with travelling iron goods salesmen. And those regulations about all your carry-on luggage having to fit under your coach seat! I don't know what we would have done with that 24-pounder if La Contessa hadn't volunteered to sit astride it these past few hundred leagues."
"I am sorry for your inconvenience but, as you can see, the services of you and your friends are not needed," Vlad replied, his voice now softened with sympathy at Sir Bruce's pained distress.
"Hold on, Count!" Jack said, his blue eyes ignited with a lightning bolt of inspiration. "You said Sir Joseph's plan was to smuggle Stephen and me out with the next batch of prisoners. We need not wait for any genuine prisoners from old Boney. I'm sure Sir Bruce and his comrades would do a bang-up job of putting on Frenchie airs."
"By Jove, you're right, Captain," Sir Bruce cried. "Why, we do it all the time. I remember back in '94 when I did a spot undercover as a Parisian waiter, so arrogant, rude and filled with disdain for the customers that the chef of the restaurant -- a charming little place called the Guillotine d'Or on the Left Bank -- the chef absolutely credited me for earning him an extra star in Monsieur Michelin's guide. And the time that the Earl of Ontario disguised himself as a truffle-sniffing pig in the Foret du Luxembourg ..."
"Then the matter is settled," Jack proclaimed before Stephen could inject a word of caution. "There's not a moment to lose. Never mind maneuvers, just go straight at 'em and pass the salt!"
Fired with Jack Aubrey's ebullient enthusiasm, the members of the League scattered throughout the castle to secure accouterments for their chosen disguises. In mere minutes they began to return, bearing the fruits of their searches. Lord Wesley carried a particularly fine
[bab] antelope hide, la Contessa was radiant in ostrich feathers and everybody had a good laugh at Lord Zimmermann in his zebra skin. The hides of yet other creatures of the veldt concealed Sir Bruce, Baroness Wenger, The Earl of Ontario and the Duchess. Jack and Stephen were going as bats. While proposing a toast to his departing guests the Count, who had been feeling a lot more human since his after dinner trepanning, wept openly and declared that it would have made Vlad the First turn in his grave to see them getting err going away. "Only if he was dead" muttered Ionesco, ladling out generous helpings of boiled green stuff to sustain the travellers as far as Varna.
The full moon lit them, as in a dream, by wooded hills, lush valleys and still waters. It was only after leaving the carriage on a steep incline that they were set upon by pious peasants wielding beef steaks and uttering imprecations. Things might have come to a pretty pass had not Stephen remembered, in the nick of time, the French for "We are good demons".
A merry chorus of "Malbruck s'en va-t-en guerre" as the coach rattled up to the schooner Demeter then fair winds and following seas all the way to Thames River. Back in Transylvania, an aspiring writer was wondering if there mightn't be something to be made out of all this. He licked a stub of pencil and began:
BY EUGENE IONESCO
ACT I, SCENE I: A castle. It is night. There is a full moon.