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Crate Expectations
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 lost."

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."

Cahersiveen was not a tempting prospect. Small, mean peat buildings lined what passed for a quayside. The only lit establishments were undoubtedly taverns, full to bursting with local men drinking the local spirit. "Mr Critchley!" Jack bellowed. "Take Skinner and Zimmerman and do not return without at least twenty good specimens. You see, Stephen? Hor, hor, hor – I am by way of being a bit of a collector myself."

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 shall

not beat about the bush with you ruffians any longer. Skinner: take these blackguards below and get them into some slops." The pressed men shuffled after the boatswain's mate, many falling precipitously below at their first encounter with stairs. Meanwhile, a crate of considerable proportions was swung aboard, the task made more interesting for the deck gang by the helpful supervision of Dr. Maturin.

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 mess—toasted cheese for four to the closest guess as to the crate's contants—had 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...

a tortoise. Its carapace gleaming in the hot Lisbon sun, it moved its head slowly upwards and looked Jack in the eye. "Brother, why, what, who..." Jack never managed to finish, before Stephen bent down into the crate, gently put his hand on the brow of the great creature and whispered, more to himself than by any announcement, "Testudo aubreii, I presume?" The hands looked at one another, and there was an almost audible sigh, no toasted cheese tonight.

"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 say."

"And may I ask, to whom are we to deliver it?"

"You may sir, and if you did I would reply...

- to one Mr Jeremy Fisher who awaits not just the reptile but the smaller creature too."

"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 wholly unrecorded."

"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 out."

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 may be."

Jack frowned.

Later, he confined himself to a wry look as his steward brought in the remainder of the chicken. Killick peered intently at Stephen and the cabin was filled with a low but penetrating mutter that criticised philosophical boobies who fed tomorrow's dinner to hanimals and made more bleedin' work for them as supplied the meals.

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 Meestair Fisher.

"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?".

"Mais oui!"

"Mais oui!" Le Comte de Trinque replied as Sir Joseph offered to refill his port glass.

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 present——shall 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 appetiser.

"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 awkward—nay, disastrous—consequences 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."

"Why Stephen, there you are! I thought we'd lost you over the side!"

"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...

the brute understands English."

"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 bosom?"

"These were bees brother, apis melia," said Stephen, with the asperity of one who feels himself simultaneously traduced and under attack.

"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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