PO'BMC Homepage
About UsCurrent GameArchive

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Alligators

Jack Aubrey sipped at his fifth cup of coffee of the morning. Now that the Surprise was in the Downs, fresh beans had come aboard, along with the mail and other provisions. Jack's temper was benign, even expansive.

He had sorted the mail packets, even begun to make sense of Sophie's chronologies, and had opened the more official seeming despatches. Working his way through miscellaneous notes from friends in the service, he suddenly snorted.

"Stephen, here's a thing! Francis Austen wants us to ship his two sisters round to Bristol next week. They are to go on to Bath for some reason".

"Bristol, Jack?---Oh, the experimental rigging trials in the Irish sea. And, pray, why should this Austen fellow be craving the favour of you?"

"Why, he's a fellow Captain, o'course. Flag of the Canopus 80. Has been since '04, and thought to be a real comer by all accounts. And anyway, we were together in Unicorn in the Spring of '96. I moved on, though he, lucky dog, was still aboard when they hammered La Tribune."

"Well Jack, then custom and----'privilege' is it?----must be observed, though the price may be steep if the sisters are mere empty-headed girls with time only for dresses and dances. Then again, is it not said that young women in possession of naval connections and travelling to Bath are inevitably in need of husbands. Perish the thought however, that we may have the dubious blessing of elderly spinsters consumed only with the gossip of village families".

Jack reflected that coffee worked less on his friend's temper than it did on his own. Though he was never comfortable with too many women aboard, and he knew nothing about Captain Austen's sisters, duty to old acquaintance, and having a coming Captain in his debt, however, would balance things out.

Giving the sisters of a fellow Captain a lift, however, involved considerable inconvenience to Captain Aubrey in the matter of his accommodation. The carpenter, Mr Weston, successor to the courtly von und zu Hohenstauffen-Zimmermann, lately restored to his rightful place as heir to a German principality, supervised the usual ingenious contrivances of cots and lockers while Mrs Norris, the Gunner's wife, displayed an officious concern about the over-abundance of linen, candlesticks and soap.

Stephen fled to his cramped cabin as soon as the boat bearing the Austen sisters was within hailing distance but, even there, could not avoid hearing of them from the purser, who was so preoccupied with draughts and damp and infections of various kinds that the wonder of it was that he had ever essayed a sea voyage at all, even for his health. He was wont to track Stephen like a prey. Mr Woodhouse, it seemed, was a near-acquaintance of the ladies' apothecary and could report that, though handsome and clever enough, the younger Miss Austen, Miss Jane Austen that was, would be susceptible to the vapourous exhalations of the hold and would, he felt sure, welcome an early consultation with the doctor. Stephen felt even more haunted than usual.

To Jack's relief, the sisters had gone straight below and hadn't been seen since, but Killick had attended to their needs and could report that the piece in blue, the younger one, had been obligingly grateful for the coffee but had shrieked with laughter the very indentical second he had closed the cabin door behind him. "Oh, very humourous, aren't we", he muttered.

This abuse did not alter Killick's place behind the Captain's chair at dinner, however, where he consoled himself by watching the ladies deal with the weevils.
"Was you ever in Bath, Captain Aubrey", the elder sister asked, quietly covering a weevil with her napkin and dropping it on the floor. Captain Aubrey's mind, however, was deep in the rigging experiments and he did not quite attend.
"Why no, ma'am. We usually make do with the pump, or the sea if it's warm."
For once Stephen was more attentive than Jack: Miss Jane Austen had proved herself an intelligent, informed conversationalist. In the course of the dinner he had learned much about country life, and had not been corrected once.
"Will you be visiting the Pump Room, Miss Austen?"
"Oh certainly, sir. But even staying at home in Bath is quite lively for us: the clatter of pattens, the cry of the muffin man, the rumble of carts in the streets. It can be difficult, sometimes, to concentrate on one's cryptograms," she said looking directly at him. The napkin moved again and a small folded paper fell into Stephen's lap.
"La!" cried her sister. "Jane and her mosses! Tell us, Mr Aubrey: when will you fire the guns? How I long for a really big bang."

Jack, with the help of dessert and a fine chablis, had embarked upon his tale of Lord Nelson, a self confessed favourite, "....And he said, as nobly as one could wish, "Sir, I beg you pass the salt...." Stephen, who had heard the story more times than he could countenance, mused to himself as he quietly inspected the note.

The penmanship was hurried, yet the code was reasonably clear... He could almost make sense of it without aid – Talleyrand, yes, that was Talleyrand. And these had to be coordinates of some kind, and that was... H...A...M...T... – No, an S, he was sure of it.

Now that was interesting; how had they found out about the experiments?

Dinner dispatched with, Cassandra accompanied Jack (with more enthusiasm than he expected) on an evening inspection of the long nines. Stephen sat staring over the rim of his port glass at the younger Miss Austen, who raised an eyebrow in return. The door closed on a muttering Killick.

"So, L'Hamster is ready to sail. Is she as fast as we presumed, my dear?"

"Where an opinion is general, it is usually correct", she replied softly. "But the coordinates ...the coordinates are strange, are they not?"

"The courier?" he asked, knowing the answer.

"Dead, Stephen. There was no time, just a need for quiet." Jane shrugged. "I deeply regret the silence of the middle C on my piano forte, but..." She let her sentence trail off.

"I sympathise", Maturin muttered, trying not to show his distaste. "No doubt your sister's accordion is of some comfort". The look he received in reply could have cut glass.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the most brilliant intellects of the capital had at last taken their leave of her glittering salon, the evening's entertainments being over; so with a sigh, Mme de Stael laid aside her ukulele.

Now to the tedious but urgent business of encoding the fresh instructions to her sister novelist ,a competent assassin but a disappointing read (no wit). The diagrams Talleyrand had just passed to her were clear enough but Mme de Stael wondered what "itage de drisse de hunier" was in English...hmmm. There, that was done. Now there was only to dispatch the new courier and get him to the Surprise before she left the Downs and before L'Hamster could make her murderous sortie from Le Havre.


L'Hamsters were getting fed up with Le Havre

, but M. le capitaine de frégate Creechley had just issued an entirely unexpected order for all hands. Du Toit and Boulanger exchanged meaningful nods and grins. "Coupeur" Creechley had changed his seventeenth-best sword for his very sharpest; the merest lubber could have told that something was afoot.

Creechley felt in his pocket and brought out some closely-written papers. A low, excited murmur ran round the crowded deck as he announced that one of the couriers had – at last – got through from la perfide Albion. Some young officers in the audience at one of Miss Burney's virtuosa tuba concerts had been most indiscreet – the experimental rigging trials were taking place in le canal de Bristol – L'Hamster had been "woofing against the wrong arbor".

Boulanger shook his head in admiration. He was bred to the sea from childhood and sadly lacking in book-learning. "It must be a splendid thing, to speak the English."

Surprise and L'Hamster, in the Bristol Channel, were fast converging on the port of Bristol itself and a sharp-eyed lookout could have discerned Mrs Elton, in a corner of the extensive grounds of her brother-in-law Mr Suckling's residence, organising one of her famous routs to entertain the Miss Austens on their overnight stay en route to Bath. "Let's see: rout-cakes, ice, orchestra..."

The concert was meant to be a surprise for the Miss Austens and already it was shaping that way. "Charlotte Bronte on keyboards, Maria Edgeworth on crumhorn, and Mrs Gaskell (a true musical proficient, I just doat on her) on vocals. With a bit of luck I might be able to procure the services of Virginia Woolf on bongos. Somebody to play the French horn and who better than a Frenchman? There must be one somewhere in the vicinity. "

Had Augusta Elton but known it, L'Hamsters were within biscuit toss at that very moment, unwittingly ensuring that the Emperor was that much the nearer to defeat...

This of course was not how Capitaine Creechley saw it. He was not one of these cautious captains hiding in port waiting for gaps in the blockade, but experience had taught him to be careful where Sir Joseph Blaine and intelligence were concerned (and there was no doubt that they were concerned). Indeed, through his telescope, from his concealed hiding place behind the Palladian style summer house, he could see at least three known agents.

Early in his career, the Capitaine had captured a British agent who had escaped by using expertly trained weevils hidden in a ship's biscuit to pick the lock to his prison, escaping on what could only be described as a stealth turtle.

Since then there had been many rumours of the ingenuity of Blaine's "Sea Department" and their gadgets. Spies who had infiltrated Boulton and Watt's Birmingham manufactory had brought back tales of clockwork chelengks that concentrated the most potent rays of light, rocket carrying suicide penguins, and bear suits so perfect that whole regiments could potentially infiltrate La France. There were even reports of a food so dense that whole frigates had been drawn irresistibly towards it, though the true zone of influence of a plum duff's event horizon was still untested.

There was nothing for it, this garden was the only viewing point that overlooked the full experiment site – the guests would need to be neutralised, or at least contained.

Capitaine Creechley looked over his shoulder at the French boarding party and quietly whispered to his ship's servant, who was carrying a long tubular case on one shoulder. "I think the no. 2 sabre today don't you, McSkinner?" he muttered to the old Jacobite. "Ock nay, Capt'n," McSkinner replied. "Y'll need th' no. 5 at least".

Le Capitaine looked at his prisoneurs, all trussed up with bunting, with some satisfaction. The mad dash across the lawn crying "A bas le Navy Royale" the clash of cake slice against no. 5 sabre – the Austens had not been captured without a fight – the awkward moment where his last opponent, Mr Suckling, had dodged behind a pillar and le Capitaine had with delight called for his yakhatan, which had performed splendidly (a new purchase received in the mail from Egypt only last month). A most satisfactory little battle, all told.

He broke off from his musings to reprimand several of his men from leering at prisoners of a more female persuasion and to supervise the setting up of the powerful telescope at the vantage point. HMS Emu had just come in sight butting up the channel towards the test site. Capitaine Creechley helped himself to a piece of gateau and a drop of barely reasonable Burgundy and peered at the ship with some expectation.

The Emu was a work of genius. The naval port of Darlington had at one time been thought of (in the Navy) in much the same way as Old Sarum was thought of in Parliament. A somewhat quiet sinecure in which an Admiral could yellow quietly. But when Admiral Wilson had been appointed to this post, things had changed. True, a Naval officer preferred his geography largely to be horizontal, but Wilson was not going to be put off by such a trifle as the Pennines. The tunnel to Morecambe Bay had not, it was true, been a total success, but eventually his much thumbed Ladybird Book of Inventors had paid off and this morning he proudly had it clamped under his arm with a ship's biscuit marking the relevant page for Da Vinci. HMS Emu promised to be a triumph.

From his viewing point, Le Capitaine peered closer into the telescope looking at the small figure on the poop deck and watched him give a command to his Lieutenant. The bustle on deck increased and then Creechley started in amazement. "Mon Dieu" he muttered as the strange sails the Emu had hoisted caught the breeze ...and her giros started to spin!

Lying on the roof of Mr Suckling's summer house, Mrs Shelley smiled with intense satisfaction as HMS Emu rose steadily upwards and then headed straight towards her. It had been a stroke of fortune that she had been obliged to wash her kazoo at the pump outside – Percy should really buy his own – when she had recognised the unmistakeable pattern of the Hunting McSkinner on the squat, kilted figure slipping in through the French windows. It was to be hoped that she hadn't blinded Admiral Wilson's lookout signalling so with her concentrating chelengk, the completest invention this age (always excepting the stunt sloths).

There was some question of what would happen to the Emu when the wind dropped, of its failing to glide as intended. As the Emu passed over the Sucklings' ornamental lake, the wind did indeed fall off and the great ship, its complex sails whirling no more, began a headlong, plummeting dive towards the water. Figures rushing to and fro on deck, "stand from under" bellowed out to some startled ducks, muffled screams from below decks and the whole ingenious contrivance, with all its hollowed, lightened masts, its helical sails, its light-but-strong silk ropes and its strengthened blocks came crashing down into the lake.

The wheeled underkeel took the force of the impact, cushioning the blow. The dephlogisticated air masks deployed and passengers and crew inflated their life jackets by pulling down on the red tabs and then looked for the nearest exit, clearly marked with a sign overhead. They kept in mind that the closest exit might be behind them.

"Sacre bleu!" cried Capitaine Creechley, as inflatable slides appeared at the gunports and figures started jumping on to them, their arms crossed. "Zis means zat

ze alligators will be next."

For some time, the Royal Navy had been experimenting with devices to help seamen overcome French crews when boarding. They had, at last, settled on a plan of firing (gently) alligators from specially altered carronades that Jack referred to as Enileators "... Nile... E-NILE-ators! Do you smoke it Stephen? What? Crocodiles, not alligators? – Oh you are a miserable cove this morning. Drink your coffee, Stephen, your second coffee. It may improve your temper."

As a result, as Emu settled in the lake, along with the crew came her anti-personnel sauropods. These reptiles had been trained to "hate a Frenchman like the very Devil" and to "never mind tactics but to go straight at 'em" and so, on seeing the scattering of French sailors, both seaman and sauropod came sliding down the sides and headed for them at alarming speed.

The warrant officer in charge of alligators, a Pole by the name of Babski, was especially impressive as he stood on the scampering back of Arbuthnot, the largest of those in his care, and yelled "Surprise" (out of habit), whilst waving his cutlass.

A comment that, to Capitaine Creechley, seemed eminently appropriate, given the circumstances.

The End

about us  |  current game  |  archive  |  home