Jack Aubrey's colour was high and his eyes sparked blue. The great cabin was filled with guests but it was not amusement that so worked upon the captain.
"Upon my word, Tom," he growled to his premier, "upon my word, this is
coming it high. This is coming it damned uncommon high, even for the Doctor!"
He pulled out his watch, a gesture he had not repeated above a dozen times
in as many seconds. "Well, we shall not wait for him."
A squeaker, invited to grace the board, almost staggered with relief,
for he had been assured of being, in some obscure fashion, the cause of
the captain's anger. A scant week or so aboard had taught young Shipman
that everything he did (or did not do), including breathing, might culpably
transgress some arcane rule or custom.
"No one can find him," said Pullings, frowning. "I hope he may not have
met with an accident. The Doctor is the primest hand with a saw; but without
he is physicking he is amazing likely to come to grief. 'Twas only yesterday
he was obliged to be caught by the coattails else it was head first down
the after hatch for him."
Jack snorted. "More like he is crouched somewhere gaping at some damned
bird " he glanced round the cabin "though to be sure he
has not took my best glass with him."
This observation had a pacifying effect, much to the guests' relief
a relief short-lived, for the glance swept on, showing Jack the Reverend
Critchley's black coat, a reminder that the Doctor's sins, beyond his
present shocking unpunctuality, included a strange insistence upon the
parson's being carried to Malta. Even Mr Critchley's unexpected passion
for swords had not appeased Jack whose wrath now burgeoned anew.
A sudden crescendo of voices hurled Bonden into the cabin, pallid-faced,
one hand grasping Killick's meagre shoulder, the other the neck of Babble
Baker, an intransigently insubordinate hand pressed in Botany Bay.
"Which it ain't my doing!" Killick's face screwed into a shrewish mask
of self-justification. "Which I only "
"The Doctor, sir! He's gone! Clean disappeared! These damned b-s lowered him in the diving bell though you said it was never to be let swim, and now bell all tore and twisted I never saw the like
The entire company had fallen silent, and young Shipman was finally beginning
to breathe easily, sure that in the face of the Doctor's transgression
anything he did would not be noticed. In fact, Jack noticed that there
was not a sound to be heard, either in the great cabin, outside the open
door where the marine guard had given up all semblance of wooden impassivity
and was openly gaping into the cabin, or from the deck just above his
head; it was suddenly like a ghost ship.
"You lowered him? After I expressly told you, Bonden, that he was not
to be allowed on deck, but was to be brushed, dressed, and presented for
dinner at 3 bells precisely, he was somehow allowed up on deck? And not
only on deck, but into his bell and over the side?" Bonden's face went
even paler than before as he swallowed, risked a glance at Jack's furious
visage, and muttered assent. "Baker, how did he scare you?"
"I don't like to say sir, it were that bad. But he said he'd make me
assist in surgery for the rest of my life, if I didn't help him. And so
Skinner and I, we did what he said."
"Well, let us go above and see this bell." A close inspection of the
diving bell showed that the riveted plates had been torn apart by something
that had left rows of circular marks on the surface of the metal. No one
had seen a thing...
Long hours later, after the sumptuous dinner had been set aside, re-warmed,
and finally distributed with the subdued midshipman's mess, after the
sails had been trimmed to keep their station as best they could, after
Jack had made many dives from his gig into the silent ocean surrounding
the sea, and after it had become clear that their dear Doctor Maturin
must have lost the number of his mess, Jack finally paced slowly into
his great cabin. The usual noises of the ship, that great almost-living
organism of so many men working together, had been silent ever since the
abandoned dinner. He had not had the heart to make the men go through
even the mummery of heaving the great guns in and out, let alone firing
them as he was wont to do, and the crew had gone through their normal
duties as though in a waking dream.
He looked through the curving windows of the stern at the sky streaked
with russet, yellow, and flames of orange, and subconsciously realized
that the sea had died down almost completely; that the ship was nearly
becalmed. Perhaps some music would help to settle his soul, and rid his
throat of this strange tightness it felt, he reflected as he reached for
his violin. He had been unable to focus his thoughts on anything since
the news had come of Stephen's disappearance, but did not yet want to
admit to grief, fearing that if he did so he would also be admitting to
his friend's death. As soon as he drew the bow across the strings, though,
the resulting squeak told him he had neglected the bow for long enough,
and it now needed ros- would everything remind of Stephen??
Almost flinging his violin aside, he settled himself down with the serial
letter he had begun to Sophie nearly two months previous.
"30 July 1809E
My dear Sophie,
My heart quails at sharing this most dreadful news with you, and I pray
that you will be kind enough to break this news to Bridget so carefully
as you may. The men lowered Stephen over the side in his diving bell
I sent you a sketch of it last year, you remember and "
He was interrupted in his slow, painful tale by a stealthy rapping on
The figure removed its hat, bowed perfunctorily and said, "Pardon me for calling your attention to the window in this way; I did not like to have your crew discover my...vessel. Trouble and delay would be the only issue, and I am pressed for time. Captain Aubrey, I presume? My name is Nemo."
The rungs of the ladder faintly clanged beneath Jack's shoes. The sound
called an unbidden thought to his mind: with such a lavish use of iron,
no wonder that the outlandish craft set so low in the sea. Nemo pulled
the hatch closed behind him and spun a wheel, evidently to secure it.
They were in a dimly lit passageway, a yellow radiance emitted by neither
candle nor oil lamp but from a glowing wire encased in a glass ball.
Nemo led the way into a darkened room. Around them, Jack heard a soft
murmur of alien sounds, so different from the comforting creaks and groans
of good oak and honest rope. His host paused and pressed one hand upon
a small raised stub mounted on the hull. Instantly, a curved section of
metal plate noiselessly rolled downwards, revealing a window, and beyond
the window, the green sea. Jack peered up and there, sliding, sliding
away, was Surprise's keel. Nemo's strange vessel was sinking into the
depths of the ocean!
"I apologize, Captain Aubrey, but I have you here under somewhat false
pretenses. Oh, your friend Maturin shall indeed, yes, wish to see you,
but I hope you will agree that is of inferior importance to what I now
tell you." Nemo's words were oddly accented, an unlikely amalgam of something
from the Czar's empire and of Bombay. "Have you heard of the dreadful
"Good day to you, brother!" he cried "I have been swimming with mermaids!"
"The hairy manatees of Africa?" said Jack, puzzled, for he had never
known these beasts in the Mediterranean.
Nemo, decanter in hand, gestured out of the sea-window.
"Why there she is now, the darling!" Stephen laughed – an odd sound in
that confined space – and waved at a figure swimming in the glow cast
into the surrounding ocean. "Jack, you must meet her, a most amazing creature."
Jack turned and saw, framed neatly in the wide circle, a girl with flowing,
floating auburn hair, reaching down past her shapely waist, a waist that
glistened with scales. She waved a hand at the men inside, and with a
flick of her fish’s tail shot upwards out of sight.
"Stephen, d’ye think that device would suit me?" Jack’s eyes gleamed.
"Sure, and it’s the grand pleasure of the world! Such freedom, such splendour
beneath the billows..."
"No time for that now." growled Nemo, handing glasses to his guests.
"Her name is Octopussy Galore, and she is my best agent. She has brought
information; the news you were seeking, Doctor. Professor Zimmerman plans
to trial his devilish invention against the British squadron lying in
Jack thumped the table "Ha! Good luck to him. He will need it to penetrate
the Grand Harbour! There’s not a ship in the world can pass those batteries
Stephen looked coolly at Jack. "The world has changed, brother. Zimmerman’s
device will slip as easily beneath the sea as a fish, quite unobserved,
and so will our ships if we do not make haste to save them. He has engaged
"The one-legged circus diver?"
"The very same. Even now she is preparing to swim from Malta to Gozo
and back again, clad only in a silk scarf in the Neapolitan national colours."
As he spoke, a low rumble echoed and grew through the metal hull, and
there was a curious sensation, a rattling that set the crockery a-clatter.
"We are under way, gentlemen." Nemo smiled. "There is not a moment to
Stephen suddenly looked around. "We need Reverend Critchley for our task.
He is the key."
Quintillian Critchley lived in the utmost degree of squalor; various broadswords,
dirks, cutlasses and rapiers lay among piles of dirty linen. He had scribbled
drafts of sermons on the back of designs for improved cannons the
Reverend's addresses to the crew had tended to concentrate on the bloodier
parts of the Old Testament. An amazing array of inventions lay scattered
about the cabin: a quill containing a tiny, hidden dagger; a telescope
disguised as a walking stick; a carriage clock that could fire an eighth
of an ounce of shot.
The cleric, known to his colleagues as "Q", was currently entangled in
his latest device: a spring-loaded pistol that fired a net. At present
it worked correctly only underwater; what possible use was that?
As Critchley was about to cut himself free with a fourteenth century katana, he heard a low, almost furtive voice call his name. Amazingly, the sound seemed to come from
"My dear sir, board, as we say, this commodious boat. There is not a
minute to lose! And pray do not neglect to bring the ballistula araneosa
you have perfected it? Our need of it is great, greater even than
our London friend surmised; that scrub Zimmermann has so far forgot himself
as to recruit the services of du Toit."
Under his stubble, Critchley's face paled perceptibly; and Stephen's
gaze grew cold, reptilian.
"You have not been so lost to decency as to neglect that important, nay,
vital, invention in favour of your swords and sermons? No, no, I shall
not believe it! Pray, forgive me, I have been somewhat " a gleam
lit Stephen's eyes " busy; any evenness of spirit, any equanimity,
is all to seek. I daresay, too, this machine, though no doubt excellent
of its kind, has somewhat disordered the humours; a black draught will
answer admirably. Come! it is but a step! sure a child might manage it.
You need not worry that you are yet somewhat lubberly, not so agile as
those of us long accustomed to boats and billows."
With a shrug and a sigh, Critchley ducked back into his cabin, then climbed
through the port, the new pistol and some spare cartridges bundled into
a dirty shirt, along with what tools he could snatch up.
So worried was he that he could scarce spare time or thought for the
strange craft; and Stephen's admonitions and animadversions passed him
"You have only to grasp the stairway oh! but all is well, I have regained my footing; we have set Captain Aubrey back upon dear Surprise that he may intercept Zimmermann's vessel; have a care, the walls are not quite smooth; but wind and tide may not serve, so we shall hasten to Malta lest oh! there is little, I find, to be said in favour of iron boats, but my sleeve shall suffice to mop the blood, it is but a small contusion lest Zimmermann reach Gozo and du Toit after all with that infernal device."
For the past half glass, he would have seen two vessels approaching,
the one chasing the other, occasionally emitting a puff of smoke, followed
a long, long time later by a distant thunder. He would have seen the topmast
of the chase fall, confusion giving way to resignation as the pursuing
vessel ranged up alongside.
Aboard the Surprise, for Surprise it was, there was a gleam of satisfaction
in the eye of her commander.
"You may lower the launch, Tom. I mean to take a look into her myself;
there’s rum business afoot or I’m a Dutchman."
Pullings, his premier, snapped the telescope shut. "Never saw the like
of it, Sir. Bartholomew Fair ain’t in it."
A few minutes later, Jack Aubrey stood on the deck of the Neapolitan
packet, coolly brushing aside the voluble protests of her master, as Bonden
pushed and cuffed the passengers and crew into line.
"I only wish we had the Doctor here." Jack muttered to himself, surveying
the circus before him.
A Moroccan prince, a Belgian detective, six dancing girls and two-thirds
of a string quartet formed the front rank, and other stranger figures
shambled into position behind.
It was an interesting hour, but eventually all but one had been eliminated.
This last, strange figure must be his quarry. A clever disguise, but Jack
was certain of his man.
"Zimmerman!" he barked.
The tall figure raised a paw, then pulled it down again and shook its
"Mister Babbington, I’ll trouble you to unmask that villain. There’s
a man in that bearskin."
Babbington drew his dirk and advanced upon the bear. It shook its head
again, but a slash of the midshipman’s blade found the hidden seam, the
false skin fell away, and the naked, sweating, frightened human was revealed.
"Babbington! Cover that woman up this instant!"
Bonden was leaning over the rail, pointing down into the water, where Jack saw, with sinking heart, leading east away from the ship, a solid trail of bubbles.
Jack was certain that a whale was breaching but, instead, the tower of Nemo's ship emerged from the waves, bearing a thrashing red monster entangled in a stout net. Two figures sat on top of it, waving happily at the Surprise.
* * *
The Surprise beat to and fro, on the direct line from Gozo to Malta, the blue cutter a half-league to starboard, the red cutter on the other side.
Professor Zimmermann finished the last of Jack's claret and thanked him for his dinner. He bowed to the Reverend Critchley, seated opposite, "to watch for any of his guardo moves", as Killick told Bill Grimble, and attempted to stand up. This was prevented by the six marines and the sergeant who stood immediately behind him, bayonets fixed.
"Just before you go", said Jack, "I wonder if we could trouble you for a summary of Madame DuToit's plans."
"Nothing could give me greater pleasure, my dear sir," cried Zimmermann, "especially after such a noble dinner, and..."
Zimmermann discussed DuToit, and Zimmermann was a consummate academic. He had dazzled the examiners at his viva by talking for eleven hours without pause, and without conclusion, about the placement of page numbers in sixteenth-century Friesan statistical theses. A ship, however, was not a university, and Jack was recalled to himself by the ship's bell striking just above his head.
"Thank you, Professor", he cut him off. "Dr Maturin; Revered Critchley; you may take the professor and
* * *
Jack and Stephen sat across the table from each other in the great cabin,
sharing a comfortable pot of coffee to round out a most satisfying breakast
of fresh eggs, fresh tack, some fresh grilled anchovies and a great fresh
melon, its flesh a most surprising shade of pink; all but the anchovies
had been obtained from enterprising and obliging trading dhow not an hour
"I'll tell you what it is, old Stephen," said Jack. "I don't know that
Zimmermann was quite well after our dinner; he looked a bit clemmed by
the time we lowered him to Nemo's deck and bore away. Do you suppose it
was something he et? I would hate to think we were disobliging hosts."
"Never worry yourself about that, my dear." Stephen spoke mildly but looked hard to ascertain whether he was being made game of. "Zimmermann was the very picture of rude animal health when he and I were discussing certain...issues, after dinner, and I do not suppose he is the sort to be troubled by any fits of indigestion unless it were due to, as it were qualms of conscience. No, Jack; do not trouble yourself about Zimmermann, for all love. I make no doubt he will trouble us no more."
"That’s Babbington, isn’t it? What tomfoolery is he playing at now?"
* * *
The blue cutter lazily rocked in the swell, Gozo to one side, Malta to
the other. William Babbington reclined at his ease, flanked at closer
quarters by two young women, one wearing the tattered remnants of a bear
suit, the exceedingly tattered remnants, and the other clad only in a
wisp of tri-coloured silk, a wisp which could not even begin to disguise
the fact that she only had one leg, though an amazingly shapely leg, to
be sure. Grapes were being peeled by both, and in strict rotation lowered
delicately into the midshipman’s grinning mouth.
"My turn, Willy!"
Babbington turned his head and accepted a titbit from a third young lady, a lady whose flowing auburn hair was glistening wet, for she was swimming alongside, strokes of her powerful tail propelling her and the blue cutter towards that blissful blue horizon.
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