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What Song the Siren Sang
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'I tell you what it is, Stephen', said Jack, walking into the cabin. But he was instantly brought up all standing, and backed his massive form out again with a speed unusual for a man of his size. 'Oh, I beg your pardon' was hardly formed in his gullet, he had been repelled so quickly.

Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey had been shipmates and friends over countless leagues of ocean, on islands and deserts, in courts and prisons, from Botany Bay to the Missouri River. In that time Jack had grown used to finding Stephen with an astonishing variety of objects: wens, vampires, dissected limbs, diving bells, and personable young women, some of them living. This, however, was coming it pretty high, pretty high indeed. Was it really possible that Stephen, even after so many years, had no concept of the function of a man of war? And how had he contrived to acquire such a thing? What did he expect to do with it? In any event, this needed to be dealt with at once, and with a firm hand.

He stepped onto the quarterdeck and said: 'Mr Callamy, please be so good as to

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ask Mr Lamb to come to the door of the great cabin immediately and to bring his mates with him. They are on no account to enter the cabin yet or to make their presence known."

"To the great cabin, bring mates, not enter the cabin nor make presence known it is sir".

"And then you are to report back here and recount to me, wretched boy, how you came to allow the doctor to return from his run ashore with such a, such a goddammed ... well, what are you waiting for? Off with you!"

As the carpenter and his crew were tip-toeing to the door of the captain's cabin like so many hairy sprites, a penitent Callamy was attempting to explain to his captain that the doctor had not only ignored his, Callamy's, entreaties (had obtained the, errr, object with prodigious great effort, valued it extremely etc.) but had

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also filled it with untold gallons of sea water. Here, Mr Calamy was understood to say that carpenter's mate Trinque was Awkward Davies' third cousin twice removed and had had the elm tree pump rigged with a hose to the Great Cabin before he himself had finished taking the Doctor below to shift his clothes, 'for I knew, sir,' said the child, his air of conscious virtue undiminished by the awful sight of his captain's purpled cheeks and bolting eyes, 'that you would not wish him to take ill, perhaps an inflammation of the lungs ...'

Further medical sequelae choked into an anguished squeak as a meaty hand grasped his neckcloth.

'Damn your eyes, you little, you Inflammation of the lungs! Inflamma-blasted-mation of the – Bigod, sir, you shall learn the meaning of frivolling with clothes clothes! – while the cabin, my cabin, your Captain's cabin – is turned into a goddamned goddamned ' He waved an impatient hand. 'And what of the ship? What of His Majesty's goddamned ship, Mr Calamy? God's my life! when I think how Heneage laughed as we stood on the quay ... So much by the stern I wonder the Doctor needed the pump, I wonder the goddamned water ain't pouring in through the windows, I wonder '

'Nor it can't, sir, begging your pardon, sir,' said Trinque, glad of a chance to allay his captain's wrath. 'Not with that there double glass panelling, see, an' all right and tight and snug a-tanto.'

'Which it ain't none of my doing!' Killick made one of his sudden appearances and darted Trinque a murderous glare. 'Here's my silver an' furniture all struck below quick as kiss my hand an' me with not so much as his Honour's shirt over his head. Which I told them, none o' them nasty tricks of the Doctor's I said '

'Sure the captain will not mind shifting into the little small rooms in the cause of Science,' said a familiar harsh voice and Stephen emerged from the cabin, somewhat damp, but smiling broadly. 'Good night, now, Jack! I thought I heard your voice. Give me joy, brother! Pedro has proved a most excellent glazier and we have constructed a tank oh, the tank of the world! The perfect tank for a really definitive study of

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this previously nodescript species of sirenian. Indeed, a nondescript genus. Although perhaps forward of me, I am considering naming it Mirabilis maturinus. Among the credulous this creature has undoubtedly given rise to those popular but erroneous tales of mermaids although, for all love, to the philosophical mind this is clearly but a near cousin to the manatee and dugong.'

'But, Stephen, this creature of yours has ... she has a prodigious bosom!'

'Certainly, Jack: it is a mammal and not a fish.'

'And long blond hair!'

'Hair is characteristic of mammalian species.'

'You know how I feel about sailing with women ... with females aboard.' And how I should ever explain this to Sophie is more that I can tell, Jack added to himself, his eyes drifting back to that most unfishlike bosom. 'Wherever did you find her? It?.

'Ah, young Babbington

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"! I might have known! God's my life, Stephen, next you will be telling me that his – Babbington's – interest is purely scientific! As though it were not the—, the—, the— creature's, er, proportions that damned well attracted him the first place. Pretty low, for an officer in His Majesty's Navy, damned low! I venture to say, well...I mean, worse than goats!" Jack shook with rage, but never took his eyes from the (admittedly elegant) glass construction that twinkled in the sunlight filling the great cabin. Was the thing within....smiling at him?

Some while later, he paced furiously about the quarterdeck. Close perusal of the Articles of War had failed to supply him with the comfort he sought. A thought struck him and he hurried below to find the doctor gently instructing a dumbfounded Preserved Killick in the ways and means of feeding his latest specimen. Relieved that the, er, guest's diet excluded toasted cheese, sponge cake or grog of any strength, Jack called for Du Toit and made it plain that madder-fed millers in spirits of wine was one thing, yes, but "I'll have the first man I see in here without a tape measure and notebook flogged 'round the fleet and so you may tell the other young gentlemen with my compliments."

As the squeaker pelted off to the midshipmen's berth, Jack called for Major Critchley to

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double the usual number of Marines.

"Stephen, I find myself in need of an explanation" said Jack later, as they sat in his mostly restored cabin, trying to ignore both the general damp and the splashing coming from the large lead-lined box in the corner.

Stephen, without a word, handed him a canvas parcel with Admiralty seals on it. Jack grunted, read the contents, finished his claret, read it again and then said: "It would seem our worlds collide in places other than the orlop, Stephen. These French natural philosophers sound a nefarious bunch, and this claim that mermaid hair has healing qualities - is it true?"

"As to the second, I have not the slightest idea, Jack, but I intend to find out" replied Stephen. "But those named in the dispatch are indeed a nefarious pair, experts on human aliments and dedicated to finding a way to manipulate them... though they are not French, my friend. Schniffell and Nastikoff are Prussian and Russian respectively, whilst Don Alonso Fevar is the worst kind of Castillian."

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"This disease with which my orders say that they mean to infect the blockading fleet...

"The Scourge of Rostock – the victim fits at every turn of the glass after which he loses, or rather, reverses his sense of left and right, of starboard and...um...

"Larboard?"

"I am perfectly acquainted with 'larboard' thankyou Jack; until the next glass and the next fit, after which his sense of starboard and larboard is reversed again. Schniffell has experimentally released rats bearing this disease at Rostock and its shipping has been shockingly deranged as a result. Nastikoff and Fevar, alerted by semaphore, wait only for the dark of the moon to introduce their highly-trained rats into our ships off Toulon. So we have just over a week to frustrate their plans and, I must add, to

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"discover a cure; for simply eliminating the rats may not altogether answer. As to rats, my godfather's nephew – "

"The fellow with the Greek father? Now in Qatar?"

"Mukos, just so – has the solution. But I need not tell you he is the ailurophile of the world."

"Is he, bigod? Well, well, I never should have thought it a stout, well setup fellow like him should be able to get all the petticoat he wants without being a luring file. I tell you, old Stephen, I am used to think myself a tolerable judge of my fellow man; but damme if I didn't think the fellow blind to everything but his cats."

"Indeed, brother? I cannot say you are mistaken. Now, mark this: the Scourge of Rostock imparts a very particular odour to the infected rats one familiar to you from Botany Bay. You recall, of course, that noble plant, Eucalyptus globulus?"

"You- er- you- ah- yes, indeed. Of course."

"Whence we derive an oil by aqueous distillation of the fresh leaves: a somewhat pungent but most beneficial physick let me see, I thought I had a little small vial no, will I try another pocket now "

"I beg you will not," said Jack, in whom vivid and disquieting memories of the Doctor's manufactory were arising, even as he strove to contemplate with equanimity the objects drawn forth in the search a withered finger, a corked bottle containing something brown and squirming, a handkerchief stiff with an ill-looking yellow stain "for I expect Killick at any moment with the toasted cheese, you know. And besides I remember it perfectly."

Stephen shot him a suspicious glance but began bestowing his possessions once more about his person. "Indeed, there is not a minute to lose. Mukos has shipped 500 felines from Qatar, trained to hunt eucalyptus-scented rodents; his felucca must be met and the cats smuggled into Toulon. I shall experiment upon the medicinal powers of Mirabilis Maturinus' hair; but, even should it prove effective, one creature is of little use to us. No, we must rely upon Count Schneess von Schnupfenschnott of Schloss Schleimnase-am-Rhein who has long averred that the hair of a related species is that Holy Grail of every physician – a remedium universale. Jack, we must shift to Ringle with my specimen and make all haste to

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... the Bosphorus and thence beyond to the the Black Sea and Colchis to secure an ample supply of wool shorn from the sea sheep to be found only in the waters off that fabled port. Not the wool of the common sable Ovis maritimus, brother, but that of the far more rare and diminutive Golden Sea Sheep, whose fleece has been so warmly embraced by Count Schneess."

"We need Schneess's wee sea sheep fleece?" Jack asked.

"Speedily," Stephen replied.

"Then there's not a moment to lose!"


The Ringle's sharp clipper bow threw outwards a dazzling spray of Aegean water beneath a sky of startling purity. The ill-temper of Killick's words from the aft cabin was evident, even if the words were muted by the closed door. "Oh, dear, Stephen," Jack said, "your accursed wombat must be at my gold-trimmed scraper again."

"Jack, that is a false description and a false description is anathema to the philosophic mind. I told you before that the creature — that gentle, unoffending creature — is a koala, unexcelled in its ability to seek out the scent of the eucalyptus. And I might add that the holes — the entirely minimal and barely noticeable holes — it made in your best uniform coat with its claws so crucial to its ability to climb can be easily mended. We should be concerned if the dear was not consuming your gold lace because that might signify it had caught a trace of eucalyptus on the breeze, warning us that Schniffell and Nastikoff had already

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caused the infected rats to be aboard the Ringle, which would mean..."

"That we have counted our chickens before the bats have come home to roost?"

"No, that's not it."

"That you can't beat your cake and have it too?"

"Jack, I had it perfectly and now you have driven it clean out of my head. What I meant was that if Schniffell knew of our scheme to secure sea sheep fleece as an antidote then he would attempt to do us in with a round turn and the most expedient manner would be to use a rat to infect us with the Scourge of Rostock thereby preventing us in our mission."

Jack was savoring his port when Wilkins knocked and after entering announced, "Mr. Reade's duty and reports that you may wish to see something on deck, sir." Stephen followed and found Jack and Mr. Reade holding a length of rope and engaged in a technical discussion.

"Is something amiss?" inquired Stephen.

"Mr. Reade has brought it to my attention, and correctly so, that the mainsheet is rotten and must be replaced."

Stephen looked up and said, "But surely it is the fine sheet of the world. Look how puffed out it is, fairly fecund with wind."

Jack was taken aback and could only stare but William Reade quickly interjected, "Oh no sir, the mainsail is fine, it is the main SHEET, this here rope that is rotten. It is a nasty piece of work all good and fair on the outside but rotten as an old piece of flotsam on the inside."

Jack, still stunned that Stephen should stumble over sheet and sail, was silent but Stephen went on to ask, "And surely the sun is on the wrong side of the boat?"

Reade replied, "No sir" and the helmsman and his mate nodded in agreement, but Jack, now stunned for the second time, bellowed, "Mr. Reade you are headed the wrong way!" and ran below to the chart table where the pin pricks told the tale, they had been beating back away from their destination.

Stephen said "Jack this is very bad, it appears that the ship is infected. We don't seem to be afflicted and the only difference between us and the rest of the crew is that we have been drinking your noble '87 port while they have been drinking grog and small beer. The port must have provided immunity, pray how much is left?"

Jack thought a minute and replied, "We finished three bottles out of two cases, how many is twenty-four minus three?"

"Twenty-six. Here is what we must do: you will take over at the helm and navigate while we drink the '87 port continuously and pray that it will last until Colchis where we can find some fleece. Drink this here mug, full bumpers and no heel taps."

Dawn came fine and bright, Jack and Stephen at the helm swaying back and forth despite the calm sea, an arm over each others shoulder, each clutching a bottle of port in the unattended hand singing 'Pretty Maid Milking a Cow' very loudly and very off key.

Killick, down below in his little cabin with his mate, muttered, "Screechin' like cats in an alley" as they finished off the last of the cheddar. He cringed as the singing drunkards reached a painful note, which didn't diminish as Norton called down from the foretop, "On Deck, On Deck There..."

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"A light! A light in the sky," came down from the masthead.

"Never mind it", said Jack. "S'Wenus."

Stephen, inured to inebriation from long practice with laudanum, considered a moment and said: "Venus is known for her rapid progress, sure, but this object appears to be..."

A flash, a crash forward, the cry of "Fire buckets there!", the bleating of an outraged Aspasia, and a crumpled Congreve Rocket appeared on the deck as the smoke drifted downwind.

"Dam'fine gunnery," sighed Jack, concentrating on his steering while Stephen hurried forward. He returned with a note that described a particularly interesting new hermaphrodite that Sir Joseph had acquired from Greece. Seizing upon the slight emphasis on the word "new", Stephen instantly grasped its hidden meaning.

"Bonden, the Captain would like to be seized by his heels and suspended from that stick up there. As fast as you can, if you please. I'll mind his hat for him. Can someone steer the boat? Excellent. Killick, pray step below and bring me...

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a hank of siren's hair (you will find the creature conveniently boxed up.)"

Three bells in the forenoon watch and two hundred Surprises and thirty Ringles contorted and foamed briefly, then, their courses reversed, the vessels approached each other again.

Killick emerged, grizzling, from below clasping a mass of shimmering golden hair. "Which it bit", he explained as the doctor stored the hair in his bosom. Jack was released, and, still concentrating, though not quite as much, he guided Stephen down into the boat that was to take them across to the Ringle. In an astonishingly short time the Surprise was a speck to the South-South-East, on the way to her rendevouz with Mukos's felluca and its five hundred talented cats, while the Ringle sped through the deep blue water under a radiant sky, Black-Sea-bound. Right seamen all, the officers of both vessels had received advice from Stephen about taking compensatory precautions at each striking of the bell and to keep a sharp lookout for hermaphrodites. There was every hope that each ship would reach her destination.

.......

The dark of the moon and three vessels converged on the blockading fleet off Toulon. With all lights dowsed, a cutter emerged from the direction of the French coast – only a whiff of midsummer noon in the Australian forest could have betrayed her presence, and that but to one with an unusually acute sense of smell; from the South-East, the Surprise was coming up under all the sail she could bear, her lanterns blinking furiously as she signalled. Aboard her, five hundred and one noses had twitched and five hundred tails were swishing. The koala had begun to salivate. The Ringle awaited only a signal from the flag ship before distributing her precious juice of Golden Sea Sheep fleece augmented with siren's hair essence to all the ships in the line. In the great cabin his confidential secretary was whispering in Admiral Critchley's good ear that Dr Maturin was held in the highest regard by the Admiralty. "Damme!" the intoxicated old sailor immediately cried, "Unleash the koala! Sool your cats onto 'em Aubrey! Nothing to beat a good rat hunt!"

The carnage on the French cutter was terrific and complete.

As the Surprise, her work done and her people dosed with the healing juice, received permission to part company, a carpenter's mate was reminiscing to Faster Doudle about the siren, which had been released, quite quite bald, in her home waters: "She was as egelant a mermaid as I ever saw", sighed Trinque.

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