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Spinning a Yarn

tkk
It was a dark and stormy night.

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.
Capital hands thought Jack. And he knew that the two oil-skinned figures at the wheel knew as well as he did, that without looking, he was reading every move of the spokes through the message of the thrumming brace.

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's reverie was interrupted by...

sdw
...Killick's reedy voice, sharper even than the wind in the ratlines. Now it was raised even higher to carry above the noise of the blow.
"Which the doctor has dropped the bottle. D. R. O. P. T."
"Not the yellow seal?" shouted Jack.
"No! The bottle with the reptiles. In the forepeak. Sir."
At least they weren't bees, thought Jack. Spiders didn't sting, he was almost certain.
"Mr Kid! Swabs and lanterns for the watch on deck! Follow me to the forepeak. And pass the word for the Carpenter, Kid!"
Taking a swab himself, he led the men down and foreward, pushing through the door into the forepeak where...

psm
"Not another step, I beg of you, Jack!" came Stephen's urgent whisper from the gloom.

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 warning.

"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!"

bab
"What did he say mate?" Wilson enquired of his neighbour.

"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.".


Down in the sick bay, Zimmermann and Wilson gathered up bottles, draining some of their alcoholic contents as was convenient. A ship's boy followed them as they lurched back up to the forepeak, arms stacked almost to his eyebrows with closely written sheets of hot-pressed paper. Inscribed on the top sheet, an observer with a lantern would have discerned

js
lines and lines of closely written text, in a strange and slanting hand.

[...] 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.


"The papers from Count Kapenta", Stephen was saying in a guilty, crushed sort of voice. "It was those that Zimmermann and Wilson used to funnel the spiders!"


"Jack, I am infinitely concerned that

ldt
valuable information may have been lost. You, Zimmermann! Wilson! Hand me the papers – handsomely for all love! – and then leave us. I shall deal with the reptiles. Mother of God! Were ever any feet so large? Have a care where you set them down."

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 all reptiles.

"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

pbw

. . . but a coincidence, Stephen"

"No, no——am I not somewhat familiar with codes and ciphers, Brother? It is a message, a key, a ray of light in this scribbled gloom"

"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—"

"I am not mad, I am right, I am, I am, I cannot be wrong!". Stephen, spitting furious words at Jack, veritably dancing in fury, was now beyond reason.

"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 stern.

"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 out: "

ajm
"A whale, a veritable leviathan! What joy to see such a magnificent creature" He turned back and called to the nearest man. "Ravenscroft, I pray, fetch my spyglass, I must discern the species before it plunges down into the depths once more." Pushing the forgotten poetry into his pocket, he turned again, grabbed the nearest shroud, and gazed in rapt admiration at the colossal form, silhouetted against the orange glow of the rising sun.

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...

tkk
in a voice strong enough to set the foretop buntlines a'shiver

‘that Sea-beast Leviathan,
Which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th' Ocean stream:'

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.
But his speculation was cut short by the arrival of Ravenscroft bearing the telescope. He clapped it to his eye, aimed it at the basking, blowing beast, and perceived a mat of tangled hairs. Could this be a nondescript hirsute species—analogies with seals—furred sea mammals—Balena maturinensis...? He eagerly slid the barrel to achieve the finest optickal adjustment. More clearly now the hairs resolved into a symmetry, a pattern, a web!!... D-mn...The Arachnidae, the gunsight experiment, the wretched reptiles had not succumbed to the pure alcohol that had been carefully decanted through the instrument to put an end to their labours when the perfect reticule had been formed, but had survived, multiplied, and spun an impenetrable blackberry thicket of threads within obscuring all vision.
Stephen dashed the telescope from his eye and viciously snapped it shut just in time to see the mighty flukes, a black epsilon against the sun's glowing disc, sliding into the deep and leaving scarce a ripple on the empty ocean to betray where the great creature had lain.
Disconsolate, he handed the telescope back to Ravenscroft who took it gravely, his impassive expression betraying no hint that thirsty mariners knew better than to waste good alcohol on spiders, even if they were Archie Neys, when they could as easily be drownded with seawater just like any Christian, and the alcohol put to better use.
As Stephen, visibly cast down with disappointment made his way forward, the old Orkneyman at the helm, Mansie Marwick, knuckled his forehead and said in a respectful but solicitous tone,
‘Dinna be sae disjaikit yer honour, ‘twas nocht but a muckle finner, nae guid tae mon nor beast. Mind ye, ah'll aye gie a cry gin ah spy a braw yin blaw, but wi' respeck, ah doot the barkie hisnae the boats nor the skeely harping hauns tae mak muckle o'it.'


Mini-glossary for those unfamiliar with Scots.

disjaikit = dejected
muckle = big, much
finner = a fin whale, an undesirable species, I think it is explained in the canon
guid = good
aye = always
gie = give
gin = if. The g is hard
braw = good
yin = one
skeely = skilled
harping = harpooning
hauns = hands

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