Eight bells, and under the gibbous moon the coast of Brittany rose with the moderate swell. The steady light that had shone from the fields above the cove had vanished. No signal, no signal at all and Jack lowered his glass and turned to the new officer of the watch.
"We have a fine and calm night of it, Mr Shipp. Our passengers have failed to keep to their appointed time but there is still a chance of receiving them. We shall continue to stand off and on until six bells. Please to direct the new lookouts to be alert, and inspect the party who are to go in the launch it must be ready to be lowered on the word."
As the second lieutenant descended to the main deck, Jack considered the forms proper to receiving the frigate's guests in such a necessarily unceremonious case. "Soyez le bienvenu, messieurs"? "Bienvenue a bord"? "Enchante de faire votre connaissance"? Probably not something else was called for, something that nearly approached reverence and yet had nothing of obsequiousness about it; something appropriate to the consequence of both the Navy and the.... How he wished that Stephen were there, such a fine hand with the language.
"Boats away", came the word in barely a whisper, and the
blue cutter made the crossing in complete silence, oars muffled.
The glim moved quickly down the hill and disappeared as it reached
Venus was high now, casting a light that plainly showed the
wake of the boat as it pulled back. Every hand on deck stopped,
turning to the land as long unearthly shrieks tore across the sea.
By the time the watch below tumbled up, aghast, the screaming had
been replaced by the roar of heavy horses galloping along the coast
Jack met his guests as they were handed up. Four, close
wrapped in cloaks, encumbered with baggage.
"Welcome aboard, gentlemen. I hope you will join me for
breakfast." Two of the company brightened perceptibly. "But Dr
Maturin is not with you. He missed the rendezvous in Brie I
"Yes, sir, but we are main glad to be aboard you. The Frenchies are growing uncommon fractious."
Unearthly shrieks continued to rend the night until they had
sunk the land, but three of the cheery, apple-cheeked fellows
seemed happy enough, listening to the comfortable creaking of the
timbers and the harping of the wind in the rigging as they downed
claret with a readiness surprising in guests whose first choice had
been ale. The fourth – some outlandish name, Boggle? Biggins?
Baggitt? – seemed somewhat careworn and took little part in the
conversation beyond a remark that he wished Doctor Maturin had been
able to keep the rendezvous at Le Poney Caracolant in Brie.
"Never fear, Mr – ah, my dear sir. I have known the Doctor
since '01 and a deeper old file you could not hope to meet. We
shall simply stand on towards Ferrol, to a small hidden beach just
beyond the cape, and he’ll be aboard within a sennight."
"Good news indeed, Captain. For until we speak to Doctor
Maturin we cannot tell how to reach – our goal." And he lapsed into
pensive silence while the others saw off the first half-dozen of
claret. Ready with song, they yet proved swift and hearty
trenchermen; Jack, his questing fingers encountering a bare dish,
was obliged to roar: "Killick! Killick, there! Claret and more
toasted cheese and see you do not stay your hand. Now, Sam, young
feller-me-lad, what was you saying about keeping caterpillars from
"Which," said Killick, slamming down a laden tray and fixing Jack with a stern eye, "there ain't no more cheese now, not if it was ever so. And about that there whitesome, gurgling gobbler, a-lurking in the pantry; I ain't seeing to it, not if the Doctor was to beg me on his bended knees. Which he never brought a horribler –
The Surprise was laid right over, with t'gallant spars just
clearing the frenzied foam of the now boiling sea. Mr Shipp was
flailing in the starboard scuppers; the helmsman hung unconscious
by his lashings; and the watch on deck clung to whatever rope or
stanchion that had been to hand when the wind had swatted the
frigate as a boy swats a fly.
All were stunned by the blasts, most were barely aware of
the blood-red light blooming in the sky. Brighter it grew, though,
and ever hotter, until the shrouds steamed, wet canvas turned
A pallid head, made ruddy now by the great light, popped
from a 'tween deck port, froze a moment, then howled at the sky:
"Doctor, Doctor, he sees me! He sees me! Doctor, Doctor,
Hollom was all too visible. He dangled from the
near-horizontal mizzen shrouds, his feet dancing for a vanished
purchase, one arm holding tight, the other pointing over the port
side to where...
Jack stared in astonishment at the great sheet of flame. In
all his days at sea, and the count of those days had now mounted to
a vast number, he had never seen the like. Volcanoes and tidal
waves in distant waters certainly, but off the Medoc on a clear
night? Unheard of!
A question rose half-formed in his mind.
"Mister Hollom, would you drop down to the cabin and ask my
passengers to step up to the errr, quarterdeck, if you please."
As the midshipman slid below, Jack noted with some
satisfaction that the Surprise was slowly returning to an even
keel. The great wave, or whatever it had been, had passed on,
leaving behind that curious flaming apparition towering over the
horizon, lighting up the ruddy faces of his guests as they
scrambled beside him and stood silent, gaping at the sight.
"Beg pardon Sir, but there was only the three of them."
Hollom indicated the small group. Sure enough, the quiet
chap, what was his name... Buggles? Babbit? Bogger? was not there.
"I didn’t oughter have taken my eyes off him!" exclaimed
Sam, glaring at Jack.
Jack was on the verge of responding, when he was cut short
by an unearthly, high-pitched wailing from below. The three figures
beside him immediately clapped their hands over their ears and
crouched, trembling and staring wildly about.
Jack sighed. "Bonden, would you cut down to the cabin and
see what is upsetting Killick?"
"The wind had veered around and remained steady from its
direction. We lay in the neighborhood for several days, then
sailed to rendezvous with you. I hoped, Stephen, that you might
advise me on a course of action. What infernal plot of Buonaparte
"I am not sure that the Corsican's hand is behind this. But
if it is, he may find that he has grasped more than he intended.
Are you familiar with Peter Weir-Jackson's theory of parallel
"Has it anything to do with spherical geometry?"
"Not that I could tell you, brother, but I think not. No,
but you might think of two pages of a book lying in intimate
contact, touching but separate. Although Weir-Jackson speculated
that under some circumstances he mentioned surpassing an
energy threshold through the agency of a process quite beyond my
understanding, although it involved the manipulation of visual
images by mathematical computations those separate pages
might merge, become one, at least at discrete points. Perhaps that
fiery tower's natural home is on another page, mayhap even in a
"Begging pardon, your honours," said Sam, setting his can of
grog down on the table, "but what has these ideas of this
Weird-Jackson fellow have to do with getting my master back? We
got to do something. Now!"
Stephen nodded thoughtfully at the short, intense figure.
"As to that, I have the germ of an idea. And, I might say, I agree
that there is not a minute to lose. Jack, how long would it take
for you to
"Why a trice, no more. There lies Ringle, and beyond her the
Isle of Wight. Then the telegraph up over the Downs and hey for the
Admiralty. Why do you ask?" The last sentence was unspoken as he
had learned long ago Stephen's thoughts on question and answer as a
form of conversation. Stephen drew from his coat pockets a small
black cigar, a catling, a wen, a blue draft, a phial of decomposing
herring, a packet of pink pills, and a paper and pencil, and
scrawled a note.
"Be so good as to cause this message to be conveyed to Sir
Joseph, and I believe we may help our friends, so small in stature
but so great in want."
"There it is", said Bonden.
"Set yer clock," said Skinner.
"You ain't got no clock," said Baker.
"Stow that," said Bonden vanishing down the mainstay as the
cry for fire buckets came up and the Congreve Rocket crashed onto
Stephen stepped through the ring of steam and swabbers, cut
the marlin that seized the package to the rocket, tore off the
Amazon cover and handed Jack "Master and Commander" and Sam "The
Lord of the Rings".
"Come gentlemen, we must make haste," came a strong voice
from over the side.
There in the darkness bobbed three tiny canoes. "Polynesian,
I think," said Nathaniel Martin, causing all hands to rush to the
side to look down into them. But all they saw were the three small
visitors swarming down the side and the boats paddling strongly
away. The deck fell silent save for the satisfied sound of
polishing rising from the cabin where Killick moiled and toiled
happily with his new mate.
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