The deck of HMHV Surprise heaved and rolled as Jack Aubrey reviewed the press gang’s latest gleanings from the back alleys of Penzance. "I tell you what it is, Mr Critchley," he said, following some swift digital computation. "Our efforts in Portsmouth, Newport, Bournemouth, Torquay and Penzance have not produced enough landsmen – let alone handers, steerers and, er, reefers – to accomplish Dr Maturin’s latest expedition to the Kalahari Desert via the Cape of Good Hope. I am told we must depart today and we must find any other warm bodies we can." Critchley was about to shrug eloquently, when the figure of Stephen Maturin burst up from the companionway, his wig awry and his pockets bulging.
"Jack, Jack, have we, er, set sail yet? Surely we must now
have enough men, brother."
Jack grimaced. "Stephen, you are coming on a treat with your
nautical terminology, but I regret we are as yet unable to muster a
full complement, so –"
"Well enough!" cried the doctor. "I have just opened a
message from Sir Joseph, requiring me to put in at Cahersiveen,
just west of here, on the Irish coast. Apparently he has arranged
for some necessary cargo to be taken on board there. And I am told
that the local men make good sailors. There is not a minute to be
A course was plotted, sails were set. The bell was rung, the
glass turned. Surprise headed west, with the Ringle towed in her
wake. Below decks, Stephen retrieved a shrunken head, a pair of
flints and a squashed scone dripping clotted cream and strawberry
jam from his coat pockets. Muttering imprecations, Killick twitched
the coat from his fingers and disappeared. "Which God alone knows
what else he’ll have stuffed in here for decent, hard-working folk
to be terrified out of their heads by." The steward narrowly
avoided a fatal wound from the kris he found in a secret pocket.
"Jesus, what a knife."
Twenty-four hours later, Jack surveyed more murderous
looking recruits than he had bargained for. He addressed the
nearest. "Speak up, man and tell me your name."
"Kerry. I am a Kerryman." So it went, down the line, one
after another. "What? Make sport of me, will you?" growled Jack. "I
Jack, less than delighted when it was found that only the
quarterdeck could accommodate Sir Joseph's special cargo, requested
with his usual tact that it be unpacked and its contents stowed. It
was with some pleasure that Dr Maturin informed him of Sir Joseph's
stricture: the crate was to be intact and unopened until its
delivery dockside at Lisbon.
Heavy weather in the Bay, the antics of Kerrymen attempting
co-ordinated effort for the first time, and the need to pace in a
circumspect fashion on his own deck did little to improve Jack's
temper. But the raffle organised by the midshipmen's
messtoasted cheese for four to the closest guess as to the
crate's contantshad excited the lower decks, and, truth to
tell, most of the Officers, to a fine pitch. As Surprise crossed
the Lisbon Bar, and the prospect of a cleared deck loomed, even
Jack wagered a guess:
"I tell you Stephen, in that box is the greatest scourge of
mankind to be found anywhere."
"And what would that be, for all love?"
"Why, Mrs Williams, Mrs Williams!" Jack roared, slapping his
thighs and dancing a little jig at his own witticism.
When the crate finally rested on the English Quay in Lisbon
harbour, and obedient to Sir Joseph's strict instructions Stephen
prised open the mystery, Jack's sally took on an ominous
prescience. Nestled inside straw, polished surfaces glinting, the
smell of oil and camphor rising around it, lay...
"You may ask why Sir Joseph has sent a tortoise across
turbulent oceans" Stephen said as he bit into the capon, "but I
surely cannot tell you Jack."
Used to Stephen's somewhat secretive ways, he quickly
changed the subject. "What are we to do with it then? Is it to stay
here in Portugal?"
"Oh yes, most certainly" replied Stephen, "and as soon as we
have delivered it, we can 'cast away', as you nautical coves would
"And may I ask, to whom are we to deliver it?"
"You may sir, and if you did I would reply...
"What smaller creature?" Jack hastened to peer into the
crate once more, tipping the tortoise summarily upwards by the
front of his shell. From the shadowy straw, two great eyes gazed up
at him: he had an impression of huge ears. A chirrup came to his
ears. He slammed the lid closed.
"What on earth is it?"
"Sure, I do not know. The species, indeed the genus, is
wholly nondescript. It may be Oriental, for this much I can tell
you: the two creatures were shipped by one of Bonaparte’s Pearl
River agents, undoubtedly to serve some fell purpose. Saints be
thanked we intercepted them – the courier was hopelessly inept."
"And Mr Jeremy Fisher?"
"The name is unknown to me. The crate was addressed to him.
By completing the delivery we may learn more."
"Some damned Frog, perhaps," said Jack, "though the name
sounds Christian enough. Well, I shall have the blue cutter hoisted
out; the crate will be ashore before you know it."
But Stephen laid a detaining hand on his arm. "Stay,
brother. Who knows if I shall ever lay eyes on that creature again?
It would be the pity of the world was it to pass from my hands
"What a fellow you are, Stephen! Far better deliver the
thing immed– " Jack's voice died away before the familiar gleam in
the Doctor’s eyes.
"Brother, is the sun not setting? Only grant me the night;
at dawn you may weigh all the cutters you please." He was feeling
in his pockets, pulling a catling from one, a stoppered bottle
containing an empurpled eyeball from another. Jack averted his eyes
hastily. "Now where, for all love – ah!"
"What is that?"
"A document the courier had in his shoe. Instructions, no
doubt, for the creature’s care. 'Much light. Make wet. Food only
when midnight strikes. Thus thrives the – ' I cannot make this word
Jack peered at the page. "Mogwai?"
But Stephen was already shouting, "Killick! Killick there!
Fetch all the lamps you can find to my cabin. A bucket of water
too. And the rest of the roast chicken, and spinach and whatever
fruit you have; I cannot tell what the creature’s natural aliment
Jack yawned, stretched and said, "I think I shall turn in;
it's past eight bells". He glanced at the Mogwai. It was now
eagerly devouring the slice of meat that Stephen held towards it on
the point of a lancet. "Uncommon appealing creature, ain't it?"
Meanwhile, in a low, cramped and crowded tavern in Lisbon's
most insalubrious quarter, a voice cried out that it was staringly
obvious to even the very weakest understanding that there was no
"He was a mere device to add verisimilitude to the tale.
Maturin will be quite unable to resist a nondescript species. He
found the paper in your false heel, n'est-ce pas?".
They were settled in a bow window of Sir Joseph's London
club, taking in the passing parade of Englishmen and women, all
soaked from a continuing downpour, their cloaks blown hither and
yon by a cruel north-easter.
Sir Jospeh reflected on his good fortune, how it came about,
the tenuous nature of his grip on the rungs of the ladder of power,
the savagery attendent on his possible fall, how wit alone kept him
from tramping the sodden pavements of the capital. Le Comte mused
to himself of the excellent cellars kept by London gentlemen, and
of the loss of his considerable stock of vintages to the jumped-up
Buonapartist now occupying his ancestral chateau.
"And as, Sir Joseph, as to the presentshall I
say, 'oneyed snare?we 'ave laid for the Emperor's agents in
Portugal, 'ow goes it with your Maturin?"
Sir Joseph swirled port in his glass, watching the ruby
glints from the crackling fire dance and tremble. How much to tell
Le Comte of the real purpose of the Lisbon crate, the true strategy
behind this intricate piece of misdirection? He decided to wager an
ounce or so of intelligence against Trinque's curiosity. Trinque
was a double agent, he knew. Time to feed the greater beast an
"My dear Trinque, the creatures in the crate are but
diversions, amuse guele, so to speak. The crate itself is the
mainspring of a plot so simple, yet so audacious, that I hesitate
to reveal the mechanism for fear of your ridicule"
"I am intrigued, my dear sir. Sir Joseph, you play the
intricate game, no? Pray, go on, go on."
"For now I will be discreet: but, mark me, Maturin and
Aubrey must remain, alas, quite ignorant for some time yet. For, if
they discover the real secret of the crate, the most
awkwardnay, disastrousconsequences will result, not
only for His Majesty's interests, but for those too, like yourself,
who hope for an end to tyranny in your country."
"Never fear, brother. Although 'not a moment to lose' was mentioned,
you would never expect me to leave my rowheath, a flightless rowheath, for
all love, half dissected!"
"But Stephen, it is also the case that you cannot cast a stich in
time and grow a gooseberry, not with the wind two points free and this
curious crate to ponder."
"Curious, Jack? Why so? You have not moved it, pray?"
"Move it?" A smile began to form on his face. "Why Stephen, if I were
to move it, you would surely...certainly...CRATE a scene!" He stood waiting,
his face now bright red, his eyes mere glimmers and his cheeks puffed out as
he held his breath. Stephen looked a him, eyebrows raised. Jack exploded.
"Oh, ha ha ha! Did you not smoke it, Stephen? I said CRATE, CRATE a scene!
Ha ha ha!"
"Why, brother, I must button my waistcoat. My sides must surely split
from armpit to hip." He regarded the crate as Jack gave one last slap to his
thigh, said 'oh dear me, crate' one last time and finally came back to where
he was before. "I'm sorry Stephen, it is not often I can form a ...bon mot...
at the very occasion. But pon my soul, crate..."
"For sure, Jack, for sure. But why do you find our...box...curious?"
"Well, I've only ever seen its like once before, on a French prize, the 'Ammersmeeth, 24. Bounaparte had..." Before he could finish the Mogwai crashed through the top of the crate, landed on the deck, skittered on its claws and stopped in front of Jack. It crouched low, and stared at him with red eyes, tail trashing from left to right. Jack returned its gaze, astonished. Stephen considered. What had caused such a reaction? "The despot's name! The creature reacted to the despot's name! This may be a mistake, Jack, even...dangerous...but I must know. The King!" The Mogwai skittered around and faced him, tilted its head to one side and made a mewing sound,not unlike a comfortable cat. "Well clew my back stay!" said Jack. "I do believe...
"That," said Stephen, as with surpising dexterity for one so
unnautical he seized a belaying pin from the mizzen-mast rack and
felled the Mogwai with one blow, "that is the problem."
"In God's name Stephen,"cried Jack, "you have been at the
lau...the loblolly boy's rubbing alcohol I'd declare if I knew you
not better. What's this wanton mayhem on a brute beast that did you
no harm, you who I have seen clasping Cleopatra's wasp to your
"These were bees brother, apis melia," said Stephen, with
the asperity of one who feels himself simultaneously traduced and
"Yes, yes I know the philosophical difference between a bee
and a wasp, but when you are confined to your quarter privy while
the brutes make free with the great cabin you must needs be a
philosopher to care greatly."
"What I mean," Jack continued with some emollience, "is
that your character is to extend uncommon leeway to the vagaries
of bestial creation . For my part, if they are to be ate I shoot
'em, if they are to be chased, I hunt 'em, I herited little from
my father, though I am not deficient in filial feeling, but this
I did. He impressed upon me as a child that it is the grossest
misconduct and shameful to pursue a creature that through its
proximity and intercourse with men understands the language that
God was pleased to put into the lips of Adam and his spouse.
T'would be like hunting a talking popinjay or a cowering lapdog."
At this point Jack broke off.
Perhaps it was the mental picture of the cowering lapdog
that caused him to reflect that while he would not have ridden at
such with hounds, he would with the greatest relish have kicked
Mrs. Williams' specimen of the vile breed through the drawing room
windows of Ashgrove cottage if he durst, and paid, with
satisfaction James Patrick O'Brian, the drunken jobbing carpenter
and glassfitter known throughout the district as JPO, to put the
damage to rights.
He may also have considered that his charge of wanton mayhem
might be coming it a bit high being not unaquaint himself with the
pacifying powers of a belaying pin.
But he had little time to reflect...
We decided to abandon the game at this point, an insufficient number of cressuns being familiar with the Gremlins oeuvre.
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