Jack Aubrey, wrapped in his foul-weather boat cloak, braced
himself against a quarter-deck backstay as HMS Surprise drummed her
way across the short-breaking cross seas that could be felt through
the hull but hardly seen in the murk. His arm, looped around the
quivering stay, sensed every twitch of relaxation and strain
transferred from the sails as the two helmsmen nudged her up to the
wind and held her there for a juddering instant before easing her
off ever so slightly, and then felt their way back up again.
Hah, I feel quite like Archie Ney thought Jack, and chuckled
to himself. I must tell that to Stephen. Archie Ney was a spider,
or rather a group of spiders, which Stephen kept in the forepeak
where they spun the most remarkable webs which Stephen, in his
unworldly way, thought might be incorporated into a new type of
gun-sight. Jack had gladly lent his friend his battered third-best
telescope for use in his experiments. Though for the life of him
he could not understand why Stephen had decided to name his
industrious spiders after that confounded rogue of a French
Marshal. Still, it is better he use a Christian name for the
creatures, if the French indeed be Christians, than his damn'd
Latin or Greek which always sets me in stays...
Jack abrubtly stopped short. He had learnt, where animals
where concerned, that if Stephen gave instructions, they should be
heeded. The personal injury and embarassment sustained from his
encounter with the dear young spilogale persisted in an unhappy
corner of his mind, not to mention Killick's gleeful complaints as
he repaired the damage to his now second-best breeches.
Unfortunately the elderly topmast hand immediately following
Jack, although his ears had been the pride of the squadron in the
past age, was now stone deaf from years of exposure to the roar of
the great guns, and he entirely missed Stephen's low-voiced
"Steady, Wilson!", gasped Jack, lurching as an unexpected
encounter with a swab, combined with the ship's sudden pitch,
propelled him forwards with shocking force.
During the short weightless interval between the initial
uncomfortable stroke of the swab's handle and his graceless arrival
on the littered floor of the forepeak, Jack was reminded of the
delicious moments of falling between one shroud and another, high
above the deck, a glee first gained as a ship's boy skylarking in
the rigging, and despite his growing bulk and dignity, still
occasionally felt when he imagined nobody was looking.
There was something large and soft beneath his larboard
hand, Jack realised, but before he could scramble to his feet, he
heard Stephen's furious hiss.
"There is another one just between your knees, Jack. Do not provoke thenm further!"
"He said 'Red hell and bloody death' mate" roared back
Zimmermann, the Carpenter ."And then the doctor said, he said 'Do
not provoke the reptiles', he said, 'or they will eat you, lights,
liver, breeches buttons and all'".
"Oh. Then I think I'll just..."
"Zimmermann, run down to the sick bay as fast as you may and
fetch all the empty bottles you can find and paper, vast quantities
of paper, for we may save the Arachnidae yet though the ship is
behaving so untowardly. Captain Aubrey, I pray you, do not breathe
so heavily, you alarm them.".
[...] Jack woke briefly from soft dreams of Sophie and Hampshire,
and realised that Stephen was still talking. He once more heard
Stephen address him on the subject of arachnids - the ingenious
ways they constructed their webs - their varying size - how Dr
Moufet's admiration for spiders had never been surpassed -
reflections upon the probable fraction of their bodyweight that
they could lift - the necessity not to over-react if the biting
sort happened to climb in one's breeches - but he did not open his
eyes again until a distant part of his mind registered that
Stephen's tone had changed entirely.
Stephen’s anguished cry as Zimmermann, upon the very
threshold of the bulkhead, paused to scrape something small and
squashed off the sole of his right foot wrung Jack’s heart, even
though he had troubles of his own, having discovered that the large
soft thing on which his larboard hand rested was the pungent and
partially dissected carcase of Stephen’s anteater, Art Wellesley.
This beast’s sudden demise in the course of a constitutional on the
forecastle five days earlier, when Skinner, one of a party
repairing the reeftackle pendants of the foretopsail yard, allowed
a double block to fall to the deck, had caused general mourning,
Art having been unfailingly amiable to all comers a quality
which, unlike its nose, it did not share with its namesake. Even
Jack, despite deploring Art’s partiality to Ashgrove honey, or
perhaps the ants this ambrosia attracted, had felt a kindness for
the shambling beast although it was on Art’s account that Stephen
(what a fellow he was!) had brought a stupendous quantity of ants
aboard, which now infested the ship, and were found in the most
extraordinary places: in their frowardness they did not respect
even the Captain’s quartergallery. Jack shuddered at the memory of
the last time he had taken his seat there, and privately decided
not to purge himself until the barky should have been scoured of
"Really, Stephen, it is perfectly damnable to leave dead
beasts lying about where a fellow can put his hand into them," said
Jack, plying his handkerchief vigorously. "I shall ask you to hand
Killick this wipe for laundering – he expects all manner of
foulness from you after all." He sniffed his fingers. "Have you any
vinegar about you? There is a lingering – "
"Jack!" The Doctor’s pale face was almost aglow with
excitement. "Did I not suspect Count Kapenta’s poetry of hiding
something? Look, brother, here, where Wilson has folded the page
like a fan."
Jack rose to his feet and peered at the page Stephen held.
"God’s my life! Surely that can only be
"No, noam I not somewhat familiar with codes and
ciphers, Brother? It is a message, a key, a ray of light in this
"But Stephen: can you really believe that Wilson has
revealed, even by accident, some sense in these pages? Surely not."
"A message, I tell you," Stephen cried, his voice rising
above its rusty croak to something in the soprano register.
"Pray, brother, consider you may be wrong", Jack said. "The
cross sea, the loss of the crawlers, the hours you've spent trying
to make sense of those damnable papers".
"Why are you opposing me? Why this Imperial attitude, this
abuse of absolute power? Are you daring to question my sanity?"
"Stephen, Stephen: calm yourself, you go too far, sometimes,
strain the bonds of amity and friend"
"Go on deck, Doctor," Jack ordered, using his Captain Aubrey
voice. "Go on deck, collect yourself, Sir, and let the wind blow
these cobwebs of fantasy away". Jack stopped in amazement. A pun
so apt to the situation had sprung to his lips uncalled, even as he
had had to exert rank over his excitable friend.
"Do ye smoke that, Stephen, ‘blow the cobwebs away', Stephen
what do you think of that?" Sadly, but as usual, the Doctor was no
longer present to admire his Captain's sally. He was up the
companionway, out of the forepeak, and running full-tilt toward the
"Look at ‘im go, like something's biting his arse", a
foretop man remarked.
"An' I'll be a-biting yours if you ain't reefing that sheet
damn quick", the Captain of the foretop told him.
The Doctor's pell-mell hurtle ended at the tafrail. Hoisting
himself athwart it, he flung his arms up and wide, and screeched
Jack strode up the companionway, his eyes still bright with joy at his wit, his pun made just scant seconds before. Spying the Doctor at the taffrail, he strode towards him, calling out...
‘that Sea-beast Leviathan,
Stephen, despite his excitement at beholding the monster
rolling on the swells, darted a curious glance at Jack. How strange
that his most unliterary friend should quote John Milton as easy as
kiss your hand. But, there is no knowing what English Dame-schools
cram into the skulls of their snivelling charges—especially if it
be deemed religious verse.
disjaikit = dejected
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