'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
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
'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
'But, Stephen, this creature of yours has ... she has a
'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
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
"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."
"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...
"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
"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
"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
"We need Schneess's wee sea sheep fleece?" Jack asked.
"Speedily," Stephen replied.
"Then there's not a moment to lose!"
"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
"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
"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
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
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..."
"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
"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...
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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