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Homer'd bound
[shw] Aspasia did not read the Naval Chronicles, or she would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for herself, but for every milkgoat, strong of muscle and with yellow, cross-slitted eyes, from Scilly to Ushant. Because men, far across the Channel, had founded a new Republic; and because wooden ships were boomping the gumbrils, dozens of men were leaving hearth and home for the comforts of the Royal Navy. These men wanted women, and women being in short supply, what they wanted was goats.

Aspasia lived at Port Mahon, in a tall, handsome, pillared octagonal dump. The trashbin where she foraged stood back from the road, half-hidden among the trees, through which glimpses could be caught of the boatyard of the forty thieves.

Over this great demesne Aspasia ruled. Here she was born, and here she had lived the four years of her life. It was true, there was another goat; but he was male, and couldn't give milk nor comfort to the muscular seaman of His Majesty's Navy.

But Aspasia did not read the Naval Chronicles, and she did not know that Babbington, one of the gardener's helpers when between cruises, was an undesirable acquaintance. Babbinton had one besetting sin. He loved to

[sdw] put milk in his tea. It was a common vice, one which afflicted the hundreds of officers even now swarming seaward, each bent on advancement, promotion, escape from hearth and home, glory, perhaps a little, or even a moderate amount of, prizemoney, and, above all else, a quiet cup of tea off-watch in the Gunroom, with milk.

Thus spake Babbington to Tragophilus, the ancient, one-eyed keeper of goats: "How much for the nanny, mate?" and laid down a small Croatian piece and walked away, while the goat-keeper puzzled and Davies stuffed the animal into a burlap sack and so carried it away down to the sea where Babbington was mercilessly ragged by the second lieutenant for his Croat groat goat.

Released from her sack, Aspasia blinked and

[pgb-w] glanced sharply about her, seeking, as is the instinct of her breed and native kind, the high ground. On the "Attaturk" this was, of course, the poop deck, standing a few feet above the Elysian Fields, affectionately known as the quarterdeck, the ground on which trod the Gods of Command Captain Jos. Aubrey, First Lieutenant Critchley, Second Lieutenant Wilson, Third Lieutenant Zimmermann, Fourth Lieutenant Trinque, Sailing Master Baker, Helmsman Skinner, Ensign Wenger, Dr Stephen Maturin (Ship's Surgeon) and "Fizzer" Bramwell, Agent for His Serene Majesty the Sultan of Aegragus, whose ship it was upon which Aspasia found herself. Ignorant of the company through whose legs she darted, this nimble representative of the genus Capra made for the taffrail, leapt upon it, teetered above the briny chasm, turned, and defecated, copiously and lengthily, upon the holy-stoned deck.

"Babbington!"

From any other voice this single word would have presaged interrogation to shame the Inquisition itself, have made death seemed but a welcome release. For young Babbington, coming as it did from his beloved and benevolent Captain, it had the sweet air of a lover's soft request.

"Oh, Captain, it is indeed my goat, my Aspasia, my Cycladean helot. I have brought her to bestow upon us all the nectar of her fruitful couplings, milk---milk---milk for our tea!"

Dr Maturin stepped to the rail and fixed Aspasia with his Jesuitical gaze.

"She is indeed Capra Hircus, Brother. A fine specimen of some four or so years. But Babbington was cheated of his Croat Groat, for she is not gravid, and is thus dry, withered, barren, and, in short, a milkless goat."

Jack, conscious of the presence of "Fizzer", the amiable but watchful Agent of his temporary Patron, who had promised ripe pickings for Aubrey and his now ship-less crew, felt a display of firmness and decision in order.

"Blast it, Babbington, ain't you up to telling the difference between a maiden goat and one that's been been Ah, Stephen, what's the word?" Stephen smiled, and silkily replied: "Knocked Up, Jack, Knocked Up."

"Exactly" Jack continued. "By the Gods, Babbington, 'tis not that you are unfamiliar with that condition, though I suppose your experience, vast as it is, don't run far with goats, Eh?'

"Jack" interjected Stephen, "I fear that on our voyage, our secret" (said with great emphasis, and no small amount of bile, for Jack had not confided in Stephen the nature of the Sultan's commission, nor the terms upon which the "Attaturk" had been entrusted to him) "voyage, we will have plain tea, black and brackish tea, acid tea, not the smooth and angelic beige of the cup that cheers, unless . . "

All within earshot paused, breath held, hanging on their scientific paragon's awesome judgement, visions of a tea-less, cheerless, endless voyage before them:

". . . unless we can find a way to get the goat pregnant!"

Jack surveyed the officers and assembled crew. He digested Stephen's sage advice. He drew himself up. He felt a command coming on.

"Send for Baker. I have a job that needs doing. Hurry, there's not a moment to be lost!"

A stir, a calling: 'Baker!' 'Baker!' 'Turn to and look lively, Baker!''Drat that Baker, where's Baker at?'

By one of those curious co-incidence (so beloved of the clumsier writers of fictions of adventure), Midshipman Baker, immured deep in the orlop, was yet again turning the pages of "Memoirs of Aspasia, Courtesan of Pericles"---bought for one precious shilling from the bookseller Norton, a denizen of one of the seamier back streets of Portsmouth, who had assured the young innocent that it had been printed, quite privately, in Paris, in a very, very limited edition, and that it contained the secrets of erotic congress known only to the ancients and was unaware of his Captain's summons. He was unaware of the task that would be thrust upon him when he came face to face with Jack Aubrey. For Aubrey had a special mission for Baker. One the young midshipman would be able, if he succeeded, to tell his grandchildren about Baker was Aubrey's chosen instrument to. . .

[bab] chart a course for the windy, goat-infested Cyclades - for Paros, Naxos, Melos - and, secretly, for the Hidden Isle, Lost Aegragus itself!

But Baker didn't know this yet. Only Jack knew and only Fizzer and his mate, wwnorton.com, knew that Jack knew and what Jack knew was only what had been whispered in his secret ear by Fizzer himself in the snug of The Charlie's Downfall some hundred leagues ago and revealed very incompletely to Babbington to gain his compliance in a ruse so Baroque, so Jesuitical that it had deceived even previous narrators of this yarn.

By one of those curious co-incidences (so beloved of Aeschylus, Euripedes and Sophocles) Baker had just been reading Aspasia the hetaira's relation of the fate of the Aegragusians, who had displeased wrathful Hera by voting the Goat Nymph, Tragaphila, the Animal Most Likely to attract the attentions of Zeus during the next mating season. It had been the only stirring passage in what had turned out to be an otherwise disappointing guide to land title and real estate law in ancient Boetia, unless... he would ask Lieutenant Zimmermann, whose Gunroom jokes were always so profoundly unedifying, whether there might yet be something perverse to be salvaged from it. He sipped reflectively at his tea. It was tasting worse.

[srz] And to think that Zeus...

Baker shuddered: the unbidden, unflattering, unwanted mental image of a god sporting with goats -- even a heretical, grass-combing candy-ass Greek god, not at all like your solid, dependable, hellfire-and-brimstone Church of England God -- was almost more than he could bear. To his relief, this imagery was dispelled by his sudden realization that he was being hailed; hailed by several voices and in an increasingly intemperate manner.

"All right, all right; which I'm a-comin', ain't I?" Baker muttered under his breath as he hastened up on deck, blinking and squinting, shading his one good eye from the fierce Mediterranean sun.

"Baker: there you are, at last. God's blood, man: I was about to send the Marines off with orders to scour the dockside charnel houses for you. But never mind: warp off the quay, clear the Cape and shape a course for...for...where in God's name are those secret instructions--I put them right here in my breeches not five minutes past, as Jehovah's my Witness."

Jack's genteel bellow dropped to little more than a moderate roar as he addressed his surgeon. "Have you any idea where they may have got to, Stephen? I'm all at sea when it comes to the lesser Greek isles, you know." Stephen smiled a secret smile in his inner being, and shook his outward head in the negative.

Jack was suddenly transported back to a less complicated time; in a near-whisper, he mused, "Yes. I should like to have paid more attention to my geography tutor, but that was back in '92 when I was a youngker in Unconvincing, '33-1/3, with old Shagbristle in temporary command. I was mortally afraid -- as never since; even in battle, can you believe it, Stephen? Every minute of the day, such terror that I could never concentrate on my lessons, nor I couldn't stop thinking of how the old goat would have my head if he caught me out, if he found my...

[dac] half finished romantic novel hidden under my hammock" Stephen raised an eyebrow. Then with a thoughtful look said "I think brother that we may have overlooked the abilities of this goat, when considering only her milking potential. It seems clear to me that seeing the papers were of the most sensitive type Aspasia has, as a goat loyal to King George, eaten them in order to maintain plausible denial. This suggests a talent for subterfuge infrequently found in any creature. I find I must take her under my wing and train her to be an undercover goat, a double angora for King and Country"

Aspasia shaken, and not a little stirred by Stephen's announcement shyly walked over to hear more of this conversation. Jack looking at Aspasia with new respect and glancing a little apologetically at Babbington sighed and called "Break out the Earl Grey Bondon and fetch us a lemon"

[bat] "And, Doctor," he continued, "either one of your emetics must do or it shall be the knife, I am afraid. I must have those secret orders back." Aspasia looked about apprehensively and began to edge her way towards the hatchway.

"Tut, tut, brother," Stephen replied, "we have to but wait a few days and you shall have the orders in hand again. Have I not heard you on many occasions say how indigestible Admiralty orders are?"

"There's no time for nature to take its course. The glass has been falling and our fair wind for the Aegean may soon be lost. No, the goat must give them up at once."

Aspasia looked pleadingly at Babbington, but the requirements of the service are harsh. Fortunately, Stephen's emetic worked prodigiously, and soon the deck in the cockpit was covered with a most amazing collection of items which had appealed to the goat's appetite in the past few days: a 4-pound cannonball, Lieutenant Wilson's false teeth, an 8-foot length of cable-laid hawser, a 7-foot piece of hawser-laid cable, and a surprisingly generous pile of stained paper bits. If Admiralty orders were indigestible, nonetheless they were not fully proof against chewing. "Never fear, Jack," the physician averred, "I was Trinity jigsaw puzzle champion for three years running." And Stephen's word was good, for before the end of the first dog watch, he had meticulously reassembled the treasured document. True, there had been a disturbing number of extra pieces left -- something he had never encountered in his Trinity puzzling days -- but the product of his labours was wonderfully convincing in its completeness, albeit exceedingly odoriferous.

Jack, holding the orders at arm's length and downwind, scrutinized them carefully. "Ah, yes. This puts me quite right, doctor. Our orders are to sail to 'well raisd Troy' or as they phrase it also, 'fair Ilion'. I'm afraid not all the details are as clear as they might be, but it appears that someone is besieging the place -- it must be that Buonoparte villain again." Now, as might be suspected and as a result of yet another one of those remarkable coincidents, Lieutenant Critchley at that very moment was below decks contemplating the vexing question of who had torn out and absconded with several pages of his copy of Chapman's translation of Homer's "Illiad". He was so absorbed in this little mystery that he failed to hear his captain call out for the master: "Mister Baker, lay us a course for Troy. There's a war to be fought and not a moment to lose!"

[js] "On first looking into the Admiralty's orders," said Jack, unexpectedly.

"Yes, my dear?"

"I heard the Secret'ry speak loud and bold.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken."

Stephen gazed hard at his friend: "A blue pill, I think."
 

After the ship had travelled the width of the Mediterranean, Aspasia had taken to lurking in the cable-tier or behind one of the ship's boats. She was receiving far too many looks of not-so-respectful admiration from some of the foremast hands. The mix-up about the contents of her rumen had been sorted out to most people's satisfaction, though Critchley was left wondering whether Medon the herald had really told Penelope to be careful of her masts and spars and to respect the neutrality of Pappenburg.

The ship was heading for one of the smaller Cyclades, Noxios. Fizzer Bramwell had received intelligence that the fabulous Lost Isle of the Goats was to be found nearby... Aegragus, where truly wild goats ran free, the last of their magnificent kind. Aegragus, where the mountain air reverberated to the awe-inspiring sound of bleating. Aegragus, where generations of mighty caprine hooves had pounded a myriad of paths into the bare rock.

Wesley, a ship's boy grown stunted and meagre on biscuit and grog, interrupted his skylarking in the topgallant masthead. At the top of his adenoidal voice he called down: "Which there's a strange vessel approaching the barky." Emboldened by the tremendous vertical distance separating him from authority he added "And there's a strange party near the prow wearing a long white dress... She's butting a crewman with her head - it's as good as a play! Don't you wish she may push him overboard?"

"Take that boy's name!" bellowed Jack.

As the other ship approached, the Attaturks could see that her design was indeed strange. In fact, "primitive" might have been a better word. The person in the white dress paced the little deck, her feet making odd tapping sounds as she walked. The shape of her legs beneath all the drapery seemed unusual ...but peculiarly familiar.

She called up in a quavering voice, her words in a strange language. Aspasia rushed immediately to the side, her whole body alert and excited, her yellow eyes seemingly agleam with recognition.

"Brother," said Stephen in amazement. "She is speaking something remarkably similar to Homeric Greek, only more rudimentary. I think she is saying her name is Tragaphila and that

[shw] she can give us intelligence as to the whereabouts of the French fleet, but she is sore beset by a problem, and first wishes our assistance as a mark of good faith. She bleats that the dominant species of her island has been diminishing drastically in number, they fear total extinction. Alas, they need to enhance their gene pool, which had been seriously corrupted by the recent visit by the French."

"Gene pool?" Jack asked Stephen quizzically.

Stephen shrugged. "Perhaps a place where they launder their dungarees, for all love?" he hazarded.

Jack wondered aloud whether the other vessel might have spare canvas, as his own flimsy, worn-out Admiralty number nine would not take many more of Killick's scrubbings; but Stephen ignored him entirely.

Bleat-signals continued to fly between the goats. Stephen missed occasional coded phrases, but slowly deciphered the part when Aspasia cleverly drew out her opposite number: "Tell me, o muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy."

The foreign goat began blatherating, bleaterating, but it was a rather lengthy discourse, so Jack ordered his ship to follow the other to their island. Mr. Babbington (and a future draft-choice to be named at a later date) went aboard the other ship to assist in coordination, to the delight of Tragaphila and her cohorts. Jack Aubrey stared at the Mediterranean, and all his men looked at each other with a wild surmise - they occasionally heard Babbington's voice across the waves, asking Captain Aubrey "Say father, say, if yet my task be done?"

[sdw] Jack stared hard across the sea, the sound of Babbington's cry fresh in his ears.

'Jack', said Stephen, 'From a natural history standpoint, may I suggest we send Buck to retrieve poor William?'

'Buck?' cried Jack.'Who is this Buck?'

'Why Aspasia is the Hellenic for Buck, and I observe that she would best be suited for rescuing poor Babbington from that tragophillic horde.'

'Very well,' said Jack. 'We will pull her across in the dark. The moon will not rise for an hour after sunset.'

It was done. No sound carried from across the water for a long while, for most of the night.

A great while later, nearly dawn, Jack with his best nightglass at the royal crosstrees watched a fight he would remember for the rest of his life. He had seen bloody, desparate hand to hand fighting, the grunting and shoving, the combined mass of humanity, the viscious cut and parry, but that was nothing, nothing at all to the scene that unfolded in the slanting moonlight.

The goatwomen stood in a circle while in the middle Aspasia grappled with Tragophila. Aspasia was somewhat disadvantaged by her lack of arms, but this was more than compensated for by the dogged, extremely dogged and determined single-mindedness she had learned during her short tenure in the Royal Navy. The scene reminded Jack of the worst sort of dog-fight, the husky breathing, tails flying, growling, the flash of canines.

The decisive maneuver was too fast to follow, but, suddenly, there was Buck, her cloven front hoofs on the inert body of her vanquished foe. She tilted back her head, and let forth that which had been building up inside her for years and years and suddenly climaxed during the sleighing of her opponent: she bleated at the moon.

Jack was aware that Stephen had followed him up the shrouds.

'So it is finally done', said Stephen.' I thought it would never get started, or ended. A long-drawn out business indeed. How it reminds me of London.'

'London?'

'Why, yes, Jack London: The cull of the whiled.'

 
 

THE END
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