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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Alligators
srz
"Might I trouble you to pass the salt, Madam." Jack leaned toward his neighbor, a lithe figure clad in blue tulle—Jack had noted her particularly when they were introduced and was pleased to find her seated at his side at table—who frowned in assent as he observed in a familiar, conspiratorial way, "Am I mistaken, or is this dish not quite the thing?"

"I quite agree with you, Sir," she whispered, nodding vigorously. "I can't recall a less agreeable dish, and certainly never at Lady du Toit's table. Kalbfleish und Languste mit Backpflaume Schlag, she called it; I have no notion of this modern cookery."

"You may not be aware that Lady du Toit's cook died suddenly, not two weeks past." The new speaker had been attending their words from across the table; a local man, an apothecary, morose, and not much given to the social niceties: he had adorned his neck cloth, never quite clean even beforehand, with a generous portion of gelid, purplish sauce. "It has been a matter of some little gossip in the village. Apparently he fell in with knavish fellows who did not share his love of a practical joke..."

A flurry of activity at the doorway distracted them from the apothecary's tale; Stephen hurried in with a footman close behind, burdened by the weight of

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a large and squirming anaconda.

"For all love," he exclaimed peevishly amidst the crash of dishes and the still louder crash of swooning guests, "how I tire of this foolish illiberal persecution of reptiles. Eunectes murinus is a most innocent serpent without you annoy him. Jack, descend from that chair, I beg, for indeed, brother, you cut a prodigious pitiful figure, and desire Bonden to fetch along the spirits of camphor he will find in my quarters."

"Could you not have shifted your linen?" Jack muttered to Stephen, as order was restored to the gracious room. "This squalor reflects most monstrously upon the barky, you know."

"Sure, I removed my coat before ever I lifted a lancet. A suprapubic cystotomy. With the blessing, the patient may recover." Stephen turned to Lady du Toit. "I must thank you, ma'am, for affording me the opportunity to dissect your cook. A most interesting cadaver – I have rarely seen so radical an ablation of the genitalia. Indeed, it leads me to suppose that at least one of his assailants has some little knowledge of anatomy."

Across the table, the apothecary's hand twitched and added yet another layer to the deposits upon his neckcloth.

Jack's neighbour whispered: "You must tell me all about your battles, Captain Aubrey. Oh, the Navy is the finest thing, is it not?"

Jack drained his glass. "I am to Nelson's way of thinking, ma'am. Never mind manoeuvres – " His voice died away; for she

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was staring in front her with an expression of ludicrous dismay. A portly, red-faced gentleman, wearing the white stock and black gaiters of a cleric, had settled into the empty place opposite. He called out his apologies to his hostess – his mare had shed a shoe; the roads were shocking bad; it was all part of the Ministry's design to ruin the country – and peered suspiciously at his neighbour. "You ain't a Methodist are you, young man?" The apothecary did not at first apprehend the question, but after it had been repeated – loudly, vehemently – shook his head weakly.

His interrogator snorted. "A damn good thing, sir." He turned to Stephen. "I always run 'em off my land, y'know. Methodists. And if it weren't for that wretched magistrate, I'd see 'em flogged first." After a pause in which he made very short work of the Kalbfleish und Languste, he began muttering to himself. "There's something rum about that fellow. If he ain't a Methody, he's a Whig... a Papist even, or my name's not Hieronymus Trinque."

Stephen was deciding whether to dignify these remarks with a reply when he heard Jack's companion gasp. The apothecary had slid under the table and lay crumpled at Miss Critchley's feet.

Stephen stooped down to examine him. "It is very strange indeed. I wonder he did not collapse sooner. He is

bat
almost entirely without blood, for all love. Note the pronounced pallor, the peculiar greyness of the lips, and here" – Stephen slid back one of the apothecary's eyelids – "an entire absence of those normally characteristic small red vessels."

"Poor eating!" the cleric proclaimed, one sturdy finger vigorously jabbing the air. "Good English beef is what he should have ate. Good English beef puts color in a man. And pudding, too. Probably indulged himself with those French sauces," he muttered.

Jack knelt beside his friend. "What could it be, doctor, that would drain a man's blood so? I remember you once telling me a tale about some horrid bat."

"Yes, the Giant Amazonian Vampire, the scourge of the gentle night sloth. And were we in a tropical land and not Sussex, I might suspect the same, but this seems to me to be more likely a

bab
result of some damnable Whiggish ruse, some medical innovation that interferes with the natural course of digestion."

Miss Critchley raised her perfectly formed eyebrows and joined Dr Maturin under the table, taking particular care not to tear the fine tulle. "Hush", she said, "he is trying to tell us something. His poor grey lips are moving." Jack pushed back his chair, the better to observe, and Lady du Toit stilled the guests; the room waited.

In a shaky light tenor, the apothecary gave voice: "Rock of Ages, cleft for me..."

Mr Trinque looked triumphantly around the company, "A damned Methodistical hymn! He denied it, but it is always the way – I am never wrong. Sometimes I wish I were, but there is no help for it. The Apothecaries' Society must be informed at once for this is just the sort of fellow one cannot tolerate."

"We must move the patient", said Stephen, "I cannot perform a proper examination in this light. Thankyou, Lady du Toit, the butler's pantry would do admirably. There is some derangement of the senses perhaps, possibly extravasation of the blood..."

Carefully, two footmen carried the young man from the room. From his lips issued the strains of Nearer My God to Thee; from his breast dropped a clockwork

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.

"Orange. Orange sherbet, sir. May I help you to a little?" Lady DuToit was concerned to pass over the unpleasantness with dessert, but Jack's attention was wholly occupied with the little brass mechanism dropped by the apothecary: springs, wheels, screws, all of the smallest imaginable size.

"Why, thankee, ma'am. I should like it of all things", he cried, taking his seat. "I am afraid, though, that my wits are somewhat ahoo, on account of the serpent. I never could abide a serpent at the table, ma'am. Did I hear you say that the unfortunate young man's name was Harrison?"
 
 

The night coach to town, and, for once, being the middle of the week and a thick, dirty night, Jack and Stephen had the inside to themselves.

"What interests me, Stephen, is why an apothecary has a piece of chronometer in his coat. Having Longitude Harrison for an uncle is no excuse for it. And this mechanism is entirely new to me."

"Was he up or down, my dear?"

"Why, I don't know. You mean, was he taking this from London or bringing it to show his uncle. Should you like to show it to Sir Joseph, and consult?"

"I should not, for

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the world contradict you brother" Stephen said thoughtfully as he took the mechanism from Jack and turned it over in his hands. "I'll warrant he was on his way to London to do just that."

Jack looked in amazement as his friend pulled out his pocket watch, (scattering as he did so several rodent teeth and a screw from a trephine across the carriage), opened the case and with a grunt of satisfaction fitted the little mechanism into the back. The instrument immediately started to chime. Jack could not be sure but he thought he counted thirteen.

Stephen, with a look of triumph, smiled at Jack who was staring back with his mouth open in astonishment. "Not a man to his uncle, but a man from uncle my dear" he said. "Harrison was at a scientific lecture in Paris two weeks ago. He must have learned things to our advantage and sent his nephew as messenger. The device is, one could say, his calling card".

"But what did he learn" cried Jack in confusion. "Lord Stephen how are we to find out, now that the poor lad is dead?"

The look on Stephen's face said it all. "I am not on the whole a student of Wesley, Jack, but was it not Thomas Hastings who wrote "Rock of Ages? What pray is Hastings famous for – apart from its fish?"

"Oh Lord," said Jack in a low voice "invasion".

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"...of the body-snatchers, I mean: those infamous brutes who hang about cemeteries in Hastings; the practice is well known." Jack supressed a quite involuntary shudder; for a man of his parts he was surprisingly squeamish regarding well-aged cadavers.

"No, no, my dear: you are mistaken." Stephen paused to consider what he might say without violating the confidences Miss Critchley had entrusted with him, in the small space of time before going in to their dinner. "Remember your history. I refer not to the local cadaver trade, useful though it has proved to me on more than one occasion: I refer instead to the annual invasion of Morris dancers, known in those parts as Jack-in-the-Green."

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Sir Joseph Blaine sighed. "I could wish young Harrison had lived."

"And I that Miss Critchley had not heard his dying words," said Stephen, gloomily.

"She is false, then?"

"As traitorous as all who dine regularly at that table. Her pretty, pre-prandial confidences were designed to try me." He drew a small, stoppered bottle from his pocket. "This, I make no doubt, she contrived to administer to Harrison before the meal. It is corrosive, and caused internal haemorrhage."

"You pick a pretty pocket, Doctor."

"Ta, ta, ta. I beg you may have this sample of Kalbfleisch und Languste analysed; I suspect digitalis, a harmless quantity yet enough to stimulate Harrison's heart to fatally heightened effort."

"The new cook, then?"

"Assuredly. The Comte du Toit pretends Bourbon allegiance but is merciless in Napoleon's cause. I had word of his hiring Esteban Zimmermann."

Sir Joseph gasped. "The master poisoner! The Scourge of Spain and Prussia!"

"Du Toit made away with the first cook, indulging his taste for torture." Stephen's hands twitched. "As for the rest – a dark business. Poor Jack, I filled his head with Morris dancers, for he fixed upon cadavers and Miss Critchley will extract all he knows. But this shortage of corpses – boats slipping across the Channel – 'water and blood' in the hymn – Skinner's message about 'Volta groatmen' ..."

"Opaque, at best."

"Consider: publicly, Volta scoffs at Galvani. But, like others at Pavia, he truckles to Napoleon. Boney needs men: he will do anything –

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will stop at nothing – to get them. You will recall the work of that young German scientist... The one who is so friendly with the Godwins?"

Sir Joseph shuddered with a sudden, appalled understanding. "But why Hastings? Surely there is no dearth of corpses in Italy?"

"To be sure, that puts a different complexion on the matter. We must consider the symbolism of the location, of course, but there is more to it. Some vestige of memory and knowledge remains after..." Stephen cleared his throat discreetly. "It must be of the first importance for Volta's plans to have a body of men – so to speak – with some command of the English language."


Near a small village on the East Sussex coast, George Skinner stood in a field, stamping his feet with the cold, wishing that he had become a pastry cook like his dear mother had always wanted. At least it was an indoor trade and warm too, what with all the ovens... Despite his resemblance to a sack of potatoes with arms and legs, the agent was acute in mind and vision. He caught sight of a large figure, some way off, stumbling towards him through the mist. Skinner called out in a low, urgent voice: "The geese fly low over Godalming!"

"Are you presuming to make game of me, sir?" came the reply. A break in the mist revealed the substantial form of Hieronymus Trinque. The cleric was holding a surprisingly large blue

bat
gem. "Remarkable stone, ain't it?" the portly cleric responded to Skinner's gaze. "A blue carbuncle. And the most remarkable facet is how I got it. In a goose, if you would believe it. I was in the local village pub – The Harold's Eye Fine Dining Establishment and Livery Service – overseeing the preparation of a goose I had ordered for a trifling meal. Simple village sluts do not really understand the correct cooking of a bird, I have found, and I did wish my goose cooked properly," Trinque added in a confiding manner. "The crop had been set aside for a Spotted Duck pudding when I noted it was bulging strangely. I cut it open to discover this inside." He held the blue stone up again to gleam dazzlingly in the light.

Trinque might call his treasure a carbuncle, but Skinner recognized the gem as a blue diamond of unmatched quality. He felt a chill settle about his heart. Surely this was the fabled Blue Peter, the diamond loved by Diana Villiers, the wife of his mentor in the secret world. And the Blue Peter had been buried with her. Not for a minute did Skinner believe Trinque's preposterous goose tale. The implications were staggering. What if Stephen Maturin's wife were to walk the earth again in some hellish mockery of resurrection? Thinking quickly, he asked the ecclesiastic, "Have you ever ate goose stuffed with

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chestnuts – a specialty of the White Horse at Dorking?" Trinque salivated visibly but there was nothing more. Skinner persisted in a recital of geese he had devoured in several of Surrey's finest inns – at Goldalming, Guildford and Aldershot – till it was clear to him that Trinque was innocent of intelligence about the Ministry's plans. The unseasonable afternoon mist lifted for a moment to show a carriage to his left some hundred yards away – the heavy atmosphere and the grass must have deadened the sound of its approach.

"Bonjour, my little cabbage. That is a duelling pistol you feel at your back Mr Skinner. Pray do not move."

"Amelie! I mean, Miss Critchley. Here you are at last. Be swift my love, our dinner will be ready in half an hour."

"Bon. But first I must ask Mr Skinner if he has any questions".

"Just a few. Is Trinque your confederate? Are they the false Bourbonistes du Toit in the carriage? Has Baron von Frankenstein reanimated Mrs Maturin and, if so, why? When will the invas..."

Enough! Hieronyme is merely my plaything. As to the rest – I will explain all. It...

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"...is a Bedlam, a Turk's Head, a God-damn dog's breakfast of short ends and Irish pennants. It is beyond the endurance of any Christian to deal with, disentangle and make right."

The frustration in the bosun's voice carried clearly into Stephen's little angular cabin. He thrust the wax more deeply into his ears, blessed the young gentlemen for their wanton imagination with the lines and strings, and went on, coding as he worked, his pen scratching steadily across the paper.

"The resolution of the problem," he wrote, "came when we learned that

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"Which the Captain's been waiting these last fifteen minutes for you Sir" cried Killick bad-temperedly. Stephen sighed and put down his pen. "Perhaps further reflection would be best" he thought as he made his way to dinner.

It was after all very fortunate that he had decided to follow Skinner. He had heard Miss Critchley say "…As to the rest I will explain" and it had been all the proof he'd needed. "Please do not assume
consideration for your sex will save you – I will cheerfully shoot you as a spy, Madam" he had cried,
emerging from the bushes pointing his pistol at her and relieving her of her own. It was lucky she had not called his bluff.

Stephen looked benevolently at the eager rosy faces staring at him over the glistening spotted dick. "Well damn it, Stephen, tell us what happened after you and Skinner took them back to Aldershot barracks" cried Jack. "I can't eat another thing with you looking so dashed secretive, my digestion won't stand it!"

"It appears my dears," said Stephen "that this affair started way back in '05. Trinque was, we knew, involved in the Louisiana Purchase. France thought his salesmanship was essential in selling an alligator-ridden swamp to the United States for $15 million. But we had also assumed that the haste with which the deal was completed was primarily due to the "Once in a lifetime genuine artificial gemstone and special luxury mystery gift – if completed within 14 days" offer made by the French as part of the deal. However, it now appears that far from being irresistibly attracted by this offer, Jefferson was in fact making an astute move into the alligator trade. The mystery gift, by the way, proved to be an oversized statue. At one time a location in Washington was suggested for it, but it was later discreetly moved out of the way to New York harbour. Trinque of course purloined the gem and then invented a fantastical tale as to how he came across it, in an attempt to pass it off as genuine.

"But I digress," continued Stephen to a rapt audience. "Jefferson during his time in Paris had noticed that alligator skin boots were de rigueur in French fashion and saw a loophole in the market. He essentially bought the alligators and intended to sell them back to the French".

"But Miss Critchley, the bodies – where do these fit in?" cried Pullings.

"Ah, now we come to the darker side of the affair" said Stephen. "I am not an expert on the specie saurian in North America, but I understand that for really good skins the creatures need to be transported live. I ask you, Tom, would you want to sail a ship with upward of 200 alligators as cargo?"

"Lord no!" cried Pullings.

"And so said American sailors Tom," continued Stephen. "The theory was sound but crewing the ships became impossible. In desperation Jefferson turned to the French Secret Service who, whilst irritated by the US's sharp practices, were under severe pressure from their boot makers and the fashion industry and thus agreed to provide crews for the transports. Despicable fiends that they are, they chose to test the practicalities of using reanimated cadavers for this work!"

"Indeed gentlemen" interrupted Jack. "Our squadron is ordered to intercept, take or sink these very ships! The Admiralty intends us to deal a crushing blow to French fashion and the US alligator trade all at one time as it were".

CODA

Stephen sat back in his chair with no small satisfaction and watched the excited faces. Over the
din of voices discussing prize money on US super frigates and the price of alligators at Billingsgate
fish market he heard Jack's voice, "Stephen, Stephen." He turned towards him.

"Stephen surely there's more in Louisiana than alligators, those are damn great swamps don't you know."

"Bayous, Jack bayous" replied Stephen, wincing as he said it. "What! Bay-ou, never been there in my life" came the reply. "Bayou… by you …Ha, Hahaha, by you – you see. Damn that's good… Stephen, Stephen don't look so pained. Lord you are a miserable cove sometimes Stephen."

Finis

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