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.
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.
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
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,
"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.
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
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
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."
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...
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
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
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!
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
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.
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