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The Bird Woman of Barham Down...
[srz] A stiff gale sweeping in from the west sou'west had set up a steep cross-sea in the Bay as the Surprise raced northward with the wind abaft the beam, making a full fathom better than twelve knots: six days out of Funchal and homeward bound, at last. Stephen looked up from the letter he was holding, and paused. "Shall I read to you now of Diana's new-found enthusiasm, Jack?"

Jack peered at him companionably from a writing desk on which rested a stack of his just-opened letters, some ship's accounts, the latest gazette and a London paper no more than ten days old. "By all means; by all means. Sophie sends her dear love, and remarks on the triplets' progress at their letters; can say their alphabet both fore and aft, it seems. Ain't it prime, Stephen?"

Not an hour before, Surprise had met the Calliope: flying southward with all possible canvas abroad, in despatches for the Cape, but carrying against all odds a bulging mailbag for Surprise. Jack and Stephen were catching up most contentedly on the domestic affairs of their respective households, but now Stephen leaned forward with some urgency.

"You recall that in Sweden Diana supported herself for a time by making ascents in an air-balloon before the curious crowds, they hoping no doubt to see her dashed to pieces on the ground beneath a blazing gas-bag? I could wish she had stayed with such a level-headed, reasonable pass-time. Hear her now:

'Stephen, you must make it a point to come out to the country as soon as ever you can. I have been taking instruction at piloting with Captain Zimmermann of the 10th Mountain Division, in Herr Schweitzer's most interesting and revolutionary gliding machine. Stephen, how exhilarating it is to leave the earth behind and soar among the birds you love so well; so much more of a sense of purpose and control than I ever knew with air-balloons.

'The vessel has linen-covered wings stretching some fifteen yards across, a place for two to sit in comfort, if a bit wind-blown, suspended below the wing by a kind of cocoon made of woven wicker. The ingenious method by which it is made to vault into the air involves a tangle of ropes and pulleys and great levers, and very heavy weights, so arranged as to impart a thrilling forward momentum to the gliding machine at a given signal -- such speed, Stephen, as you cannot imagine. Jack would delight in this apparatus I am sure, and come to understand its workings and the principles involved; but I cannot.

'No matter: Archie -- Captain Zimmerman, that is -- tells me that with a few more ascents, and more to the point, controlled descents, I shall have mastered the principles, and may take to the air as sole occupant and manipulator of the controls. I do so want you to be on hand as my first...' "

Stephen interrupted his reading to attend as Wenger appeared, gasping and somewhat damp, at the door of the cabin; his one good hand holding a curious, infernally complex device the size of a large cabbage, the stump of his right arm braced on a deck beam overhead against the ship's skittish lunges. "Lieutenant Trinque's compliments, and says to pass the word for the Doctor: a thumping great pale-skinned clerihew fine on the larboard bow. Which he believes it's making for to intercept us, Captain."

[shw] "Good Lord, man!" bellowed Jack, looking around cautiously to be sure Reverend Downey didn't hear him mention the L ___ on a Thursday. "A clerihew, you say? The pale-skinned variety? What do you make of that, Doctor?"

Stephen stared anxiously into Jack's face, and into Wenger's acned visage as well, fearful that he was being practised on. A hint of a jest entered his mind fleetingly, escaped, and re-entered through the back door. He cackled. He cackled again, his peanut-butter-stained saturnine face creasing, becoming yellow with the effort of holding back his mirth. Had he a stomach, it would surely have quivered. "Oh, hee! hee! hee," he stated quietly, regaining control.

Jack Aubrey looked dismayed. He had no intention of having Surprise boarded by clerihews, neither pale-skinned nor transposed to swarthier hues. Wenger furtively extended his pre-titanium hook and snatched a haunch of beef from Captain Aubrey's board and made his escape, chewing as fast as ever he could. If he bolted it down quickly, he'd be just in time for his dinner.

"I'll give you a hint," murmured Stephen. "It will be like a treasure hunt - solve this puzzle, and you'll have your answer:

An admirable seaman was Barrett Bonden
He was boxing champion of all of London;
While his Captain's thoughts strayed from Sophie to the charms of Molly Harte
Even as he juggled thoughts of trigonometric resolutions and the coordinates of Descartes."

Jack stared at Stephen in amazement. He reached out his massive arm and removed the thermometer from Stephen's pocket (wondering where Stephen had left his pen), and assayed to determine if the Doctor were febrile yet again.

"May I have another small clue?" he asked with so sweet a smile as to break Stephen's heart.

Stephen thought for a moment, and then recited:

[bat] "Beautiful Wagon Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1779,
Which will be remember'd for a very long time."

Jack frowned. "A very creditable poem I am sure it is, Stephen, and I think that Mowett might turn a poetical shade of green if he heard you, but are you entirely sure that it is, you might say, quite exactly the thing, you know? I mean it does have five lines, while the use and custom of the sea -- the way it always has been -- is that four lines serve for clerihews."

"Let us not be pedantical, brother," Maturin retorted. "Do not your three-deckers in fact have four or even five? The use and custom of the sea, indeed!"

Jack was shocked, profoundly shocked, to hear the sacred institution of the service challenged in this very nearly whiggish manner. True, as a foreigner Stephen sometimes exhibited terribly odd notions, but a five-lined clerihew was nearly as heretical as serving out salt pork seven days a week. If Stephen had made such a statement in the hearing of others, he might have been charged with contravening the Articles of War.

Jack was saved from further contemplation of such near-mutiny by the return of Wenger, who sported a suspiciously large bulge in his starboard cheek and what appeared to be a beef bone tucked into his waistband. "Lieutenant Trinque's compliments again, sir, and he wishes to report a great spotted limerick and a brace of sonnets on the larboard beam."

"Clerihews, limericks, and sonnets!" Jack thundered. "Shall it be doggerel next?"

"We had best cur-tail this line of thought," Stephen suggested, his sallow cheeks coloring to a dusky pink with suppressed, unaccustomed mirth. "I had started to tell you of Diana's new venture. Would it startle you if I were to say that she

[sdw] expects to see us directly? It startled me. What on earth can she mean?"

"Yes, Wenger?" said Jack, looking firmly into the youth's eyes while avoiding his spotted face.

"Sorry to interrupt yet again, sir, but Lt Trinque's compliments, and this time it's an albatross, off our stern."

"Albatross?" cried Stephen, "In these latitudes? Jack, dear, may I?" and he rushed out with Jack's second best telescope without waiting for answer. Balancing against the heaving deck and strong breeze, Stephen fixed the bird in his eye and then brought up the telescope. Many an albatross had he studied in the great South Seas, watching them for days, sitting with them through their incubations on Desolation, even lifting them off their nests the better to follow their pipping. This was clearly an entirely new animal, almost certainly a nondescript, so anomalous that it appeared to be an artifact of imagination.

No one else aboard shared his interest in birds, and the lookouts were busy staring forward, so none but Stephen saw the bird come closer and closer, growing enormously big, until the green riding habit within the wicker work was plain to see even without the telescope. Stephen started up the mainshrouds, his heart singing.

[srz] He barely had time to reach his place in the maintop via the ignominious expedient of the lubber's hole, and to note with displeasure the masculine form of the presumed Captain Zimmermann seated behind Diana in the cockpit -- and he wearing an outlandish, white-on-white uniform -- when she hailed as they hurtled past the ship at a dizzying pace. "Surprise, ahoy! Cousin Jack: prepare a net at the back of the boat for us, will you; there's a dear. No time to..." Her words faded as the craft passed far ahead and pulled up into a climbing, left-hand, banking turn. It was clear to all that Diana now had the weather gage; what was not at all clear was how she intended to profit from the advantage.

"Prepare to repel boarders!" roared Jack, who had not quite grasped the tactical situation in its entirety. It was a moment that reminded some on the quarterdeck, not a little awkwardly, of the time a few years past when another winged craft of unknown design and construction had settled in the water near the Surprise. This time, however, Stephen was aboard and in full command of his faculties.

"Jack, my dear; it is Diana. Come, do not tarry: will you essay to suspend some several yards of that open-meshed gill netting we took from the little small Portuguese banker just yesterday, when its captain refused -- ill-advisedly, as he no doubt would now agree -- to sell us some little of the dried codfish he carried in his hold? I am reminded of the prodigious fine nets of the Molowaukanilani Islanders, who snatch nesting swallows from the air as they attempt to bring food to their young, suspended all the while from the cliff-tops in which the insectivorous creatures make their homes..."

Light dawned on Jack's ruddy, scarred, confused face, as he apprehended what it was he must do. "Just so, Doctor; I believe it will serve admirably." He turned forward and bellowed, "Lay aloft there: rig that gill-netting to leeward -- stretch it well, between the mainyard stuns'l boom and the port mizzen chains, and be quick about it: lively, now, there's not a moment to be lost."

It was a joy to see the seamen leap to their task, their entirely anomalous, unpractised task; for there was not a man among them who had so much as once rigged gill-netting to snatch a gliding-machine from the air. Even so, they called on all their considerable expertise, and -- making liberal use of the material fruits of the recent, extra-legal, midnight raid on the naval stores of the Funchal dockyards -- in a flash had erected a most impressive jury-rigged edifice of spars, netting, lines, double-coaked spargels and Mr. Wilson's perfectly ludicrous small-clothes. The waisters hauled the last line taut over Wilson's strangled objections, just as the lithe, graceful machine crossed their wake slightly more than two cables off, wheeled sharply and overhauled the ship with appalling rapidity from directly downwind.

Zimmermann had gauged the wind precisely; he kicked his agile craft expertly into a side-slip to kill its excess speed, brought it alongside the Surprise and dropped into the waiting net at no more than a walking pace. The netting enveloped its frail-looking wings, the wicker canes of the cockpit caught on the mesh and the machine's tail settled toward the water. The spars overhead, which held the netting outstretched and well clear of the frigate's side, bowed and groaned alarmingly; but held, held, and a great shout went up from the assembled ship's company.

Eager hands helped the newcomers from their hammock-slung seats; others hoisted them over the railing and into the waist of the ship, where the press of enthusiastic, curious seamen herded them up the steps toward the quarterdeck. Cries of 'Wot ho, the bird-woman', 'Three cheers for Mrs. Maturin' and 'Who's the lucky bloke what's brung 'er?' were heard; Diana, radiant and poised in her best cloaked riding habit -- a gift from the late Algerine Pasha: an elegant garment cut from the finest emerald-green cloth, its tiny stitching performed by absurdly beautiful deaf-mute Musselman eunuchs -- retained possession of her tall, her very tall companion's elbow. Zimmermann, awkward and made somewhat self-conscious by having such a lady on his arm, but still splendid in his 10th Mountain regimentals and looking very well pleased, addressed Jack in a kind of melodious croak, his one good

[shw] ear was instantly sliced off right there on the quarterdeck by the midshipmen coming it the fools with their ozzie boomerangs (the other ear had been eaten by a penguin, but luckily, not a rabid one).

"Captain Aubrey," he croaked: an errnt boomerang whizzed by, nearly severing his favorite appendage. Dr. Maturin fingered the coins in his pocket, but had nothing smaller than a ha'penny.

"Avast that tomfoolery!" roared Captain Aubrey in his gravelly, growly basso profundo. "What do you mean, Mr. Zimmermann, coming aboard my ship with such jackanapes! Ye'll have a round dozen, or my name isn't Marlborough!"

It did Mr. Zimmermann precious little good to protest that it wasn't his boomerang nor his horseplay - that he was the innocent victim of the young mids' boyish fun. He wailed and mewled and sobbed pitiably as the lashes continued, stroke after stroke after stroke. Bosun's mate Bramwell had never mastered his numeration above one in the tens column and Mickey's big hand pointing to the one, and Jack did not think it wise to redress his officers in the presence of the men, so the jollity continued well into the night. Eventually, however, Bramwell fell asleep, sucking his whip-fingers contentedly.

The ship's joyous mood having been thus restored, Mr. McGonagall regaled them with a verse of his own creation:

"There once was a man named Trinque
Whose sailing ship sprang a leak and did sink.
So he jumped into the jollyboat, did Trinque
But that one ALSO sprang a leak, and sank."

Diana giggled. Stephen's face creased. Jack Aubrey was never one to enjoy tales of ships foundering, but in deference to his wife's cousin, he laughed aloud until his trousers split.

Mr. Zimmermann had by now been untied from the grate, his back dashed with soothing salt water, and he hastened to re-enter the Captain's good graces by entertaining them - he began to dance a hornpipe to the music that was heard from the foredeck. All hands clapped the rhythm for him, Captain Aubrey happily beating the meaure half a beat ahead. The marines massed to share in the gaiety, quickening Mr. Zimmermann's flashing feet with shots from their pistols, American-style (unfortunately holing the deck something fierce). Dr. Maturin unbended his frame to dance a very creditable "funky chicken," and

[bat] Diana contributed a spectacular rendition of the famed Catalan flamenco, using grapeshot for castanets.

When Dawn spread her rosy fingers over the port-wine sea, the morning light found Lieutenant Trinque pacing nervously around the quarterdeck, wondering how he would ever get the holes out of the planks before Captain Aubrey awoke. Trinque took some comfort from the prodigious rumble of deep snoring that emanated from below the poop. The thunderous roar had been nearly loud enough to drown out the cries of conjugation -- the lieutenant blushed to think of it -- which had come from the doctor's small cabin below after Stephen and Diana had finally retired. Just why the surgeon had chosen that occasion to review irregular Latin verbs was more than Lieutenant Trinque could understand. Actually, at the best of times the lieutenant could barely understand Maturin's Latin, it not being pronounced at all like Headmaster Critchley had done back at the little school at Sticky-Wicket-at-Underwoodcombe.

The lieutenant's gloomy reverie was interrupted by a shocking, horrifying, utterly un-naval sight. Captain Zimmerman was bleeding on the deck: red, round spots of blood, making a peculiarly scarlet Swiss cheese. A mere seven hundred and eighty-four strokes of the cat was no excuse. "You, sir, there! Belay that!" Trinque sternly ordered. The gaudily clad aeronaut, his sand- dollar-white-on-ivory hussar-jacket now a sodden red, continued to bleed. "Oh, blast!" the lieutenant muttered. "And d--n and h--l and f--dlesticks, too. I forgot the man has no good ears left." Taking a deep breath, Trinque shouted, "You ... Are ... Making ... A ... Mess!!!"

Captain Zimmermann whirled about. "Mess, you say? Is it time for breakfast? As we always say in the 10th, there's nothing like a little flogging to set one's appetite up, what ho?"

Chips had filled the last of the shot holes and only a faint rosy tint remained to discolor the deck when Jack Aubrey emerged, the colour of his eyes bearing a startling resemblance to Zimmermann's jacket. Nonetheless, he was vastly displeased that Lieutenant Trinque had not been more efficient in restoring Surprise to her normal pristine state. "To the masthead with you!" Jack croaked. The lieutenant hadn't been aloft since that wonderful day when he had been promoted from midshipman. Now, swallowing his pride, his fear of heights, and the last bite of his breakfast of lard-and-bacon-fat omelet, Trinque glumly ascended the foremast, wondering whether he could transfer to that nasty, smelly steam-tug he had read about.

"Ah, there you are, Zimmermann," Jack said with an unnaturally bright pleasantness. He did so hate being thought a bad host and perhaps the flogging last night might be construed as a trifle inhospitable. And he must really do something about the marines' marksmanship -- the loss of both big toes had done little to add grace to Zimmermann's stride. "I've been wanting to ask you something. That gliding machine of yours ... would it be possible for Killick to

[sdw] polish anything on it? Perhaps tidy it? I am so sorry to importune you like this, but poor Killick is near apoplectic: you see, he has never cleaned one of these birds before. And you must see that a clock in the hand is worth two in the ... no, no, that ain't what I mean, either"

"Why certainly, sir" cried Zimmermann, "I am only too happy to oblige, and clean wings do so help with lift, and the machine will soon be needing all the lift it can get. For, with your permission, sir, it is soon time for the machine to cast off, part company, and so bare away."

"But how will you accomplish this, sir? How will you put it up into the air?"

"I have a set of plans here, sir: a bit of rigging is called for. But I will not be leaving: my role in this was merely to deliver Mrs Maturin. She is quite capable of handling the bird, now, though there is a little question of air-sickness, as it were, which is not quite resolved. My understanding is that she and the doctor will be leaving us, bound for

[srz] the coast of Coromondel...though I may have mistaken her intentions. Lord knows I've mistaken her intentions before this; angry cobras ain't in it, Captain, if you take my meaning." Zimmermann shook his head as if to clear it of some particularly unpleasant reminiscence; he winced at the pain shooting from that spot which had so recently sported an ear -- a perfectly serviceable ear, and one which he had been particularly fond of.

"Yes, I believe I do," Jack mused. "But, no matter: all's fair and love's twice shy, as they say...though that's not quite right, now I think on it." He backed away from the marshy ground of witticism gone bad, and turned his attention to the plans Zimmermann had given him. "Hmmm. Yes, but what's this bit here supposed to do...well, I suppose a double sister-block and some fresh haddock might serve...and my long brass nine here, for a counterweight..."

By six bells, the arresting net which had cushioned their arrival had been replaced by a catapult, quite equally marvelous in its way, though entirely more muscular in appearance. Zimmermann, feeling a bit of a change would be in order now he knew his suit to have been a mere phantasm on his part, had signed on voluntarily as a kind of ship's mascot -- the people had warmed to him in the wake of his stoic acceptance of both his altered phizz and the loss of Diana, and now regarded him with the same mute benevolence they might have bestowed on a particularly tall, awkward hat-stand.

"Well, Jack; we'll be off now," muttered Stephen darkly, his pale countenance belying the dread that welled up unbidden -- sweat dotting his forehead, a knot in the pit of his stomach -- as he contemplated with intense distrust the gleaming form of the gliding-machine. Killick had spent two and a half delightful hours with rags, wax, spit and spot remover; polishing the wooden struts and what little bright-work was to be seen, repairing the wicker with new canes he'd kept stashed away in his private mending-kit these many years, and removing stains from the stretched linen wing-covering. He stood proudly by as the Stephen and Diana took their places in the cockpit, beaming at his handiwork and fussing, "Now, Doctor, easy with them d__n boots: mind you don't mark the woodwork. Oh, oh..."

The raft on which the gliding-machine perched was towed astern, the line paid out until it was some thousand yards aft. At the pre-arranged signal, a foremast jack knocked away the pins and the great winch gave a muffled creak as it began winding in the spare backstay hooked to a most ingenious release mechanism in the machine's nose; slowly at first, then with incredible acceleration as all the counterweights and spring-lines performed their function flawlessly. The gliding-machine leapt off the raft just before it must surely have towed under, nosed up into a steep climb, released the backstay at a point nearly overhead, and diminished rapidly as it sped skyward, heading north by nor'east. Diana had been watching a group of brown pelicans spiraling effortlessly upward a few hundred yards off the ship's bows, and now she expertly wheeled the craft in amongst them, tightened her bank, and began the long, slow climb that would enable them to turn downwind and make for the coast of Portugal, some distance off beneath the horizon, but known to be not more than 30 leagues distant owing to a most satisfying sun sight Jack and the others had obtained during the noon observation.

As the Surprise passed beneath them, gathering way, Jack was startled to hear Stephen's voice as from a great distance, but clear and calm, saying, "Ahoy the boat: Jack, it appears we have Mr. Wilson aboard, stowed away under these ample great, not to say commodious, comforters that you were so kind as to pack for their warmth. Diana does not wish to return to the ship, and she refuses to put the unfortunate boy overboard at this dizzying height -- this entirely unnatural, giddy, and might I say exhilarating altitude -- and offers that we should be perfectly happy to use him as ballast until we alight in..."

But what he might have said further was lost as the two vessels diverged, Diana's air-craft still wafting upward on the invisible currents, the Surprise gliding north in her more familiar mode toward a welcome anchorage in home waters.

"Well, there's a fine thing," said Jack. "We've lost two of our company -- one a right seaman and the other an estimable friend and incomparable physician -- and gained a hat-stand. No justice for the wicked, not in this world, anyway; eh, Zimmermann?"

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