[pgb-w] "Unfortunate, unfortunate----oh, oh--unfortunate----most unfortunate, Maturin, most, most unfortunate."
Stephen Maturin sighed. Sir Joseph Blaine's reading of the recent secret dispatch from St Petersburg agreed with his own--though Stephen would have perhaps chosen a stronger word: calamitous came to mind.
The taste, such as it had been, of plain boiled lobster, and the infinitely more memorable taste of an excellent St Emilion Sir Joseph had found in his cellar to go with supper, served to hold at bay some of Stephen's gloom at the news he had had to impart.
"It puts me in mind of the sad fate of Bugrovski at the hands of the Tsar's interrogators in '96. And here we are, five years later, and no more reliable knowledge of the Emperor's behaviour than this!" Sir Joseph continued, brandishing the offending transcript.
"The Emperor Paul is, shall we say, unpredictable."
"The Emperor Paul of all the Russias is as mad as a March hare. Has been ever since his mother murdered his father. Enough to unhinge the strongest---though it is, I understand, not an uncommon family trait among the Russian Royals, Eh? No, Maturin, Paul is a weak reed, and how in the devil we are to use his mad obsession against the French to an advantage has vexed me for many a night."
Stephen's informants at the Court of Paul I had borne to him tale after tale of capriciousness, of deep suspicions of the Tsarina (a former German Princess), of harsh and unwise treatment of the officer corps, of strictures on the great landlords, and barely credible schemes even to improve the lot of the peasants. Stephen also knew of the endless love affairs---the inamorata changing monthly.
Yet he had one cherished piece of knowledge, one demonstration of the Tsar's madness that might contain a possibility, a chance, for advantage. It was a morsel he had kept aside 'til now, as a child will save a plum from the pudding until the rest is gone.
"There is a long-standing Court favourite, an Ottoman soldier, a Mussulman, captured by the Russians in the '98 campaign. He was, through circumstances I need not go into here, taken up by the Tsar and has acquired much influence these past three years".
"A Turk, Maturin? And a favourite of a madman? You are of a devious turn, but what can possibly be made of this?"
Stephen smiled his small smile, the one connoting an insight, a vision into a possible future, a scheme perhaps complex, though often of startling simplicity, flickering in his mind.
"This favourite, Kutaisov, is a hairdresser. Like all his kind, has his vanities and weaknesses. Now Sir Joseph, pray consider the possibilities of a plan involving . . . .
[sdw] wigs and fireships."
Sir Joseph raised an eyebrow. Stephen continued: "These fashions come and go as quickly as Russian summers. The latest French fashion puts small frigates and sloops cresting the powdery waves of wigs. Such a ship could contain enough powder to thoroughly frighten the Tsar."
"And blame the French?"
"We stamp the box Paris and the deed is done."
"And how do we induce Kutaisov to perform this very valuable duty?"
"Why, the usual means: we offer
[js] a bribe designed to appeal to the particular tastes of the man concerned. In this instance, I think, a subscription to the St Petersburg "Interior Design" quarterly, a season ticket to the concerts of Miss Julia Garlandova and the Russian translation of "Lord Hervey's Secret Diaries".
Sir Joseph repressed some reflections--some very rash reflections-- on the price of Russian theatre tickets. After a pause in which he gazed thoughtfully at the serried ranks of butterflies adorning his study's walls, he merely commented: "I should like it of all things to see your plan succeed, Maturin--it would discomfort the French so... However, we must supply the hairdresser with appropriately designed model ships, with powder, with delaying fuses. We are therefore obliged to infiltrate Pavel Romanov's court quickly; the current ton in wigs will change soon enough, I make no doubt.
"I have just the man to accompany us immediately to Russia, my dear Sir Joseph, to help us achieve those very ends. In fact, I await his arrival at our meeting with the liveliest anticipation."
As Stephen spoke these words, the door crashed open. Sir Joseph watched anxiously as some of his most precious cabinets of coleoptera shook violently in response.
The figure at the door spoke: "Agent Wilshon. Agent Shcott Wilshon." He took out a small German flute from his breast pocket. "Licensed to trill."
[shw] Stephen stared, aghast, at the cabinet on the farthest wall. One of the butterfly wings fluttered in the gust of the opened door. The sky darkened in South America; the Nile River overflowed its banks, drowning a septuagenarian woman who moments before had been washing her grandson's dhoti and humming Bach's Himmelfahrt Ascension chorale.
"Curse you, Mandelbrot," screamed the woman's father, shaking his fist at the sky, causing a slight, very slight rippling breeze that set off an avalanche in the Himilayas.
"Mr Wilson!" exclaimed Stephen, a hint of a smile betraying his true emotions at seeing Jack Aubrey's illigitimate son, transposed to a Caledonian key. "How kind of you to join us. We were just discussing the possibility of a trek, a journey, an expedition, to the land of Tolstoi, of Milislavsky . . ." he stopped.
The butterfly's wings were still fluttering. World disaster loomed. With a dexterity few seamen had seen him to possess, he crossed the room in a bound, and gently stilled the diurnal beast's wings and clubbed antennae. He glanced at Wilson. True to his unknown heritage, that worthy was whispering a litany: "butterfly shrimp, butterfish, butterscotch, butterfingers candybars, butterball turkeys."
"Mr. Wilson - recall yourself!" Stephen exclaimed. Please tell us what you know about wigs, and French wigs in particular, and their adaptation to explosive devices. You may speak freely in Sir Joseph's presence."
[pgb-w] "Ease her as she pitches!" cried Rummy Baker to his helmsmen as they strained at the wheel of the Whitby Abbey. The barque was close-hauled, fighting a Nor' Easter off Flamborough Head, a storm that had, after two days, yet to show a sign of blowing itself out.
Many sea miles back the barque's owner and Captain, Joshua Skinner, had stopped cursing himself for a fool. In his own certain, firm and infallible Yorkshire opinion, however, he remained one. To take an Admiralty charter in October for the Baltic was folly three hundred guineas and all costs changed that not a whit.
It was a week since the hurried departure from Tilbury. Captain Skinner remembered the strange man in nondescript clothes who had supervised the loading of boxes and barrels and supplies. His air of natural command and soft but carrying Scots voice soon had a gang of wharf rats smoothly ferrying his cargo aboard the vessel. An older and obviously senior gentleman had arrived at the dock in the midst of this activity. He'd seemed intent on explaining some matters to the Scot, to be cautioning him on some points, to be urging care with the cargo, to be demanding the safe return of some device or other. The Scot had merely grunted "Aye, Mr. Kew, aye", (Skinner was sure that was the name he heard) and gone on with his tasks.
The rest of the Admiralty party had come aboard just before the night tide. A thin cove with a saturnine complexion, accompanied by a large and apparently mute sailor known only as Bruce; a pair of army types ---Captain Martin and Lieutenant Aston; and a translator or some such, Zimmermann, clearly very much the worse for strong drink.
Captain Skinner and the Whitby Abbey were used to simpler cargoes, and plainer passengers. "Queer folks", the First Mate had opined. "Lunn'oners I expect!"
A breaking wave surged across the deck, soaking the Captain's breeches for what seemed like the hundredth time that night, and abruptly ending his reverie.
"Shorten sail, shorten sail lads. We'll lie to until daybreak. Eight days we have to the Skaggerak and a meeting-up with the Navy---if'n them spit-'n-polish boys can find their way!"
Wet, cold, and tired, the barque's crew turned out once more, and soon she was settled for the night under fore and main storm staysails, her main course goosewinged.
Below Stephen Maturin noted the change in the ship's steadier motion: the plunging of the last few hours had been tedious.
"Now, as I was saying, Mr. Wilson, we are to rendezvous with Captain Aubrey and transfer your special supplies to his keeping by the sixteenth".
"Aye, the Tsar's customs Johnnies will'na search one of His Majesty's Ships, though they'll turn this'n arsy-versy if they've a mind. But as long as yon Russian heathens dinna discover . . . . "
[sdw] my uisghe we'll have no worries."
"Uisghe, my dear Sir?" cried Stephen.
"Why certainly, Sir. Could I interest you in a wee dram?"
Jack left them to it and went on deck. Walking aft, he nodded to Rummy standing by the wheel. His thoughts turned eastward to St Petersburg, through the cold impenetrable wet darkness. And in his mind's eye he saw a fine, bright wood fire in a fine, great room. A white room, dark except for the firelight, and empty except for Lt Aubrey, a creature much like Captain Aubrey and yet different, a young man considerably less knocked about, without the spectacular scar from chin to temple, a creature with animal appetites much heightened by abstinence and undiluted by age. A young creature alone in an empty room except for another young person, Anya Kutaisov, sister of the hairdresser, dressed in white, and entirely golden in the reflection of the fire. Anya was much attached to her brother, had followed him north to Russia, and Jack was much attached to Anya, and Stephen was doing his level best to put poor Kutaisov before a firing squad, whatever other effect his plan might have on the French.
The pitch of the wind in the rigging had fallen and presently the owner came up from his snug cabin and made sail, causing the little p to resume her course. Black water, more heard than seen, rushed shiby the rail. Jack had made up his mind. It grieved him to hold his heart closed to Stephen, but he had learned enough from Stephen to know what was to be done, and why it must be done. He composed his mind and went below.
[js] "Reflect upon Parsons' Remains of Japhet. Had this work been shorter, it might have been better remembered. He includes even Bengali in his scheme, though he is sadly in error when it comes to Hungarian, I find. And though you are an Irishman, I assume you will agree that he was quite deprived of his wits when he asserted the pristine nature of "Magogian" -- from which he derives all other Japhetic languages! ...I dwell too much upon Parsons, I collect. Reflect instead upon the works of Father Coeurdoux, which convincingly link Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and Slavonic. And I do not mention Sir William Jones' thoughts on..."
"I make no doubt he will mention Sir William's thoughts soon enough," said Jack to himself. "In great detail."
The translator, Zimmermann, had -- when deprived of Captain Skinner's uisghe -- proved amazingly well-read and knowledgeable, claiming acquaintance with over forty languages. Amazingly voluble too: he had quite out-talked Stephen, whose mind had turned to the nesting habits of peewits -- of the plover family as a whole -- as the translator prosed interminably on. Jack found it hard to place Stefan Zimmermann; though his name sounded German, his English had an old-fashioned, nasal twang which suggested he had spent some time in North America and he spoke of a childhood spent on his father's estate near Kiev. Whoever he was, his presence was necessary: Stephen's French would suit the nobility admirably -- they spoke little else -- but without Zimmermann, the party would have no way of communicating with ordinary people.
The rest of their group, the army fellows, Aston and Martin, together with Wilson and the huge, silent sailor known only as Bruce, travelled in a second carriage which followed behind. Occasional bursts of music from Wilson's flute reached Jack's ears. "How I wish he would play something other than that infernal three-note jingle: dum dah-dah-dah, dum-dum-dum-dum dee-dee-dee..."
The miserable state of the Russian roads, Russian inns and above all of the Russian peasantry had allowed Jack to dwell comfortably on the natural superiority of England and things English. As they reached the outskirts of St Petersburg, however, he realised that here was a city as fine as anything in England -- as anything in Europe.
"Stephen, I think we are growing close to our destination. Please tell more of our plans involving this Cuts-eyes-off ...or whatever he calls himself."
Jack was not very good at dissembling -- Stephen noticed the artificial lightness of his voice and replied...
"Well, listen now: we must first
[shw] get across the frozen steppes, and faith, there seems to be a problem looming.
Jack strained his one good eye in the direction Stephen was pointing.
"Not to put too fine a point on it . . ." Stephen began.
Jack strained his bad eye in the direction Stephen was pointing.
"How shall I describe it in the most appropriate nautical vernacular, befitting my 19 seafaring voyages . . . I'm not entirely attuned to the phraseology, as you may have noticed. . ."
"Why Stephen, I had no idea you had any lapse in your nautical terminology, surely no-one would have noticed if you didn't point it out," soothed Jack. "What, pray tell, do you see?"
Stephen drew himself up to his full five foot four inch stature (13 stones in nautical height terminology), and piped in his best imitation of a sailorman: "Kossacks three points off the starboard bow."
Jack looked to where he thought Stephen might consider starboard; looked to where Stephen might have considered larboard, and in a sudden intuitive leap, he looked where Stephen was pointing, pointing, pointing.
Stephen was fully prepared for the eventuality of Kossacks, of course. Rummaging in his huge lacquered cabinet, a gift from his temporarily departing wife in hopes that he'd thereafter forgive her for leaving him a few times, (the cabinet which unfolded into a stool and dressing table, a very small pianoforte, and a dissecting table), he pulled out a very complete giant white penguin outfit, complete with detachable tailfeathers, duck-billed beak, and multicoloured felt slippers. "Quick, Mr. Wilson, slip into this. We can all of us pass for Russians, except for you - you'd surely betray us all and get us hanged."
Wilson stared at Stephen, but couldn't muster enough reptilian to pull it off. "A white penguin costume?" he asked in amazement. "But there are surely no white penguins in Russia!"
"Tut," said Stephen. "Cossacks are not known to be well-steeped in natural history. Pray, do not speak while in costume."
They tugged and pulled and jerked, and all agreed that Mr. Wilson looked far, far better as a giant white penguin than otherwise. The Cossacks approached.
"What o, the penguin," cried a Cossack. "Can he dance?"
[pgb-w] Wilson gave a growl at this impertinence, and shuffled forward, flippers raised in the style of Mendoza.
"Mr Wilson!" Stephen snapped. "Aptenodytes forsteri neither growl nor come the hearty pugilist. Be still, Sir, look broody, Sir!"
The Kossacks closed upon the party. Jack murmured orders to the company and they quickly formed a square enclosing Stephen, Zimmermann, and the Penguin.
"What Ho! What Ho! make 'im dance then, Captain!" cried the headman, leaping from his pony.
From the depths of a beard of frightful proportions there came the reply: "No less and a good deal more, Sir".
Not without some difficulty Jack and Stephen soon identified some twenty good Surprises beneath the fur hats, moustaches, bandoleers and sabres. Much laughter ensued as cloaks were swirled, ancient muskets brandished, whips uncurled, and boots displayed. So intent on the fun were the officers and men of the Surprise, now reunited on this snowy heath before the great Peter's city, that the muffled oaths and invective of the Emperor Penguin went unnoticed until the swaddled Wilson crashed at Stephen's feet in a dead faint.
"That disguise has---has--has laid an egg, Stephen!" Jack gasped, tears of happiness at the felicity of the phrase running freely on his cheeks.
When the general merriment at the Captain's sally had dispelled, a council of war assembled in the lee of the lead coach. Stephen briefed the newcomers (who had brought the Surprise into a small outport on the estuary, thinking that extra hands were never amiss on an irregular mission such as this. Purchasing their ponies from an itinerant Irish horse seller, and their disguises from a convenient theatrical supplier holding a going-out-of-business sale, they had ridden hard to intercept the Admiralty party outside St Petersburg.
"We must effect an entrance not only to the city, but to the Imperial Winter Palace on the left bank of the Neva. In the stables there we will meet with our ally, Kutaisov, and his supporters, who will conduct us safely past the Imperial Guard---that is now only waiting only a signal from the Stroganov/Vorontsov faction to put a coup in train----conduct us, I say, to His Majesty. To him I shall convey certain facts and assurances, and with the help of Gospodin Kutaisov urge an immediate signature on a draft treaty of friendship and support against Buonaparte ("Curse his bones" cried the Surprises) with King George ("God Bless him!" cried the Surprises) that I have here."
"Now, we are well augmented for moving into the city to carry out the plans, but all will be as naught should we not get the treaty across the frozen Lake Lagoda to meet with a waiting sloop, one of the fastest in His Majesty's service, to convey the treaty to London and the King."
'And' Jack added privately to himself, 'to get poor old Kutaisov and my golden Anya out of the country before the fun begins'.
"After our foray into the Palace, we will divide into two parties to confuse the enemy, and increase the chances of escape for all. Captain Aubrey will lead one, and I shall lead the other. You have all helped manhandle those heavy crates entrusted in London to Captain Martin and Lieutenant Aston. They will assemble shortly a remarkable device of their own devising---a sled with backward-facing miniature carronades, a special pouch slung beneath that can open to deposit five-pronged spikes, and a shield of best Black Country iron that may be raised to deflect all but the heaviest of the Imperial Guards' fire. Harnessed to six of the Tsar's best stallions that Kutaisov has stabled on the right bank of the Neva, one party will escape in style in the sled with the treaty, while the other----"
"Led by me," Jack chimed in, finally able to assume something approaching the illusion of command. Dearly as he loved Stephen, he had found playing second fiddle these last few days most irksome. "Led by me, we will make a fighting retreat back here and on to the Surprise. We'll lay across the mouth of the Neva to discourage any smart Russian Admiral who wants to try to go after the sloop".
More details followed, and general discussion, choosing of parties, checking of arms, and consulting of the "Guide to St Petersburg", by Norton of Kiev, 1792. And, not before time, the costume was stripped from a stirring Wilson, and he emerged unshaken, gravitas intact.
"To St Petersburg", Jack commanded, and the caravan moved off. From a clump of bushes near where the party had sojourned a figure emerged, pocketing a notebook in which the essentials of the attack plan had been recorded. The normally grim countenance of the silent spy creased in the semblance of a smile. He moved toward his horse, hidden and tethered some way away, vaulted into the saddle, and rode to take his news to. . .
[sdw] his virgin page, the top of a fine quire of double elephant, for the name of the spy was Tolstoy.
When Stephen finally turned to his journal, the celebratory dinner was still in full force. He pushed the wax more deeply into his ears, the better to block out the noise. His ears still rang from the success of the sled, a success so amazing as to border on defeat, when the hands, in an excess of zeal, had overcharged the little backwards-pointing carronades to the extent that, at their discharge, the sled quite outstripped the stallions, and only Babbington's quick work with a knife prevented a spectacular accident.
Now, at the close of the dinner, the little ships had all been put to service fighting again the Glorious First of June on the table, maneuvering among decanters and glasses, encouraged even by the servants behind the chairs, the whole company roaring and bawling like bulls: "We'll thump 'em again and again." All, that is, except for the Scot, whose gross weakness for execrable puns -- "Can you explain to me, Captain Aubrey" he had shouted impertinently down the table, "The extensiveness of the Tsar's collection of wigs and hairpieces? It is a peruquisite of the job! Oh ha ha ha!" -- Jack had dealt with by plying so much wine that Wilson eventually slid under the table, to the general satisfaction of the company, and called out only occasionally "Hoot", and, after some time, "Toot."
Stephen wrote in Catalan, in a double cipher, inside the wings of a diagram of a Bramwell-Wesley Beauty, using a very fine crow quill and a microscope:
So it is done, though in such a manner that I turn to this, my silent confidant, to try and order it in my strangely muddled mind. So much to puzzle through: Jack's strange inability to make the little fireships work: a man who I have seen overcome any nautical or maritime difficulty as easy as kiss my hand, apparently brought up all a tanto...
Here Stephen paused, crossed out _a tanto_, and wrote _sitting_.
...by a mere toy. Then his strange arguments with Wilson, Aston and Martin, declaring that he, alone, would oversee the fireships, since he was the King's direct representative on all ships, large or small. In the end there was no need, no need at all for such foolishness as wigs and fireships, though what means were employed to induce the Tsar to sign our treaty are quite out of my ken. Sure, there is the Tsar's new wig, with a pigtail he tucks into his swordbelt; almost certainly inspired by our Tars; but by what means was this innovation conveyed to the Tsar? And then every fool in the court begging at the gangway for just a little oakum, the marines turning away their long faces. And now this Kutaisov and his sister, suddenly to be conveyed to England and so to Istanbul. Nothing can I make of it, much less of Jack's repeated reference to Turkish delight. He always was much attached to his stomach; I find his dear nature so simple that in this case I can see into it not at all.
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