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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Alligators
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The lookouts perched on each of the crosstrees shaded their eyes against the brilliance of the sky and searched for a sail nicking the horizon; searched in vain. A dozen times they had been relieved since the Surprise entered these preternaturally dark blue waters which still stretched glassy and empty of all but weed, despite having been subjected to the keenest scrutiny of every eye on watch. HMS Sting, out of Bermuda, the swiftest schooner on the West Indian Station, had missed her rendezvous.

"It is the oddest thing," said Jack for the fourth time, "the wind blowing so obligingly for Wilson, even if very moderately, no other weather at all; and with his uncommon attention to the setting of his sails, I should have expected him at least two tides ago".

Lieutenant Mackay hesitated and, at last offered: "Is it at all likely that he could have met with a privateer? Could Du Toit have manned another sloop?"

"It is to the last degree unlikely." replied Jack, touching a convenient chair leg, "He could never have fitted out another vessel in time. No, we must set our course for the Bahamas and look to meet the Sting at the second rendezvous. See to it, Mr Mackay. Set all the sail she can bear."

"It's all along of that old weed," explained Faster Doudle to his mates. "It creeps all over a ship until she can't bear the weight and can't work her sails. It's a known fact. Look at what happened to the old Connemara."

"And the Rosalie," added Skinner, "Look what happened to her."

"What happened to her, mate?"

"I'll tell you mate. It

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"...was in the year '02, when Baker had her; my cousin Lem was wardroom steward. Which 'e told of that last voyage, with the barky stuck fast in the weed, rolling out her masts in a clock calm. Weeks of short commons and rationed grog: St. Famine's Day came and went, never a shaving of baccy nor a tot o' rum in the 'ole ship. Old Buns Baker was never one to..."

"All hands on deck." The bosun's call trilled, and the ship was filled with the sound of bare feet pounding the decks as the hands ran to their stations, staring about to find the reason their Sunday rest had been disturbed. They soon discerned two: a patch of disturbed water nearly straight astern heralded the arrival of the true breeze, and bringing it up was a ship, hull up and already within signal range.

"Stand by to wear ship. Look lively, there. Mr Mackay, when we are all a-trim and on course to close the Sting," for Sting she most clearly was, "I will see the lookouts in my cabin." Jack's face was a study in contradictory emotions: pleased to have made the rendezvous, never a certainty and so recently assumed a failure, he was severely out of countenance over the inexcusable lapse. "Mr. Reade, 'Captain repair aboard', if you please."

"There is nothing to touch a really sound Priorato, don't you find?" Jack addressed Wilson, who had crossed to the larger ship with the most welcome bags of mail, and newspapers—fresh news from St George and London papers only three months old were even now being read out by the more literate foremast hands to their greedy audiences—and the two captains had attained a fine state of satiety and lack of sobriety. "I quite agree, Jack, though your Prioratos don't always hold up to the rigors of a sea voyage as they should—this is the exception, and I thank you for my capital dinner and this most capital wine." He peered through his glass, rolling the ruby liquid around the bowl and admiring the color against the blaze of light reflecting from a surface so recently oily and dull, but now a fine deep blue, sparkling with new life given it by the breeze, a glorious topsail breeze that heeled both ships nearly chains under, knifing through the gathering swells.

"I'll tell you what it is, Jack." Wilson's look of sudden concern was not unexpected; Jack had been waiting for this turn in the conversation since Wilson had come aboard; come aboard without the usual bounce to his step, but with an air of false gaiety that deceived his old friend not at all. "You see,

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"…I would have been here a week ago, what with the wind being so fair and the ship so amazing fast since we shipped those new stern-braces, but…"

"I was meaning to ask you about those," Jack’s face lit up in anticipation of a detailed technical discussion "they might be all very well with a good wind, but how the devil do you work your guns with them triced up in that fashion? In any sort of a sea your chasers can’t possibly point anywhere useful."

"Oh, no, not at all!", cried Wilson, arranging the decanter and a couple of knives "If you attend, when the wind is abeam, coming from out of the bread-barge there, and the guns are run out here and here," The knives were carefully laid along imaginary sight-lines. "and your opponent is coming up from anywhere abaft the mizzen so – pass me the salt-shaker if you please. Now then…"

The next five, no ten minutes passed quickly enough and the sounds of a boat alongside, calls for a whip to the yard, cries of "easy there, handsomely now", and "careful with the lady’s chest, you clumsy old … brute" were just sighs in the rigging, as the Sting’s braces were charged and reversed, guns backed and seized and the enemy raked and taken, the cutlery recoiling in unison and the salt spilling as her masts came down.

"As I was saying," Wilson finally returned to his original course "we came up with the Nottingham – Farrington has her now…"

"Old Farts!"

"In the flesh. She had stove a plank or two, pumping night and day, and was creeping back home, a sorry sight. But she transferred a passenger and a most curious cargo to us, and I, well the truth of the matter is that, I thought that you…"

Jack gazed at his guest, whose face now rivalled the wine in hue, but just then Babbington burst in, his features pale. "Oh Sir, if you please!"

He collected himself and began again. "Mr Trinque’s duty, and asks you step up on deck when you are at leisure."

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Jack emerged on to Surprise's quarterdeck. By habit, his eyes looked quickly to the sails to gauge wind and trim. The foretopsail might be braced around by another quarter of a point, but all else above was fine. Not so with the officer of the watch. The lieutenant's face was moist with small beads of sweat and his skin had an odd sallow quality. Perhaps Stephen should draw a pint or two of blood to set the fellow up. "Yes, Mr Trinque, is all well?"

"Yes, it's not. I mean, no, it is. I mean ..." Trinque stopped and took a steadying breath. "I beg your pardon, sir. What I meant to say was that we have a guest aboard. A female guest, sir. I had desired to send Babbington to you at once, but she wouldn't be gainsaid, sir, and she was most insistent upon her chest and herself and her ... her companion being brought below at once – not a moment to be lost, so she said. I ... I had her things brought to my cabin until ..." The lieutenant's voice trailed off as he became aware of the mounting colour in his captain's face.

"Is this not still a king's ship?" Jack thundered. "No civilian, whether female or not, can come aboard this vessel and order my officers about! Have you lost your senses, Mr Trinque?"

Before the stricken lieutenant could reply, a strident voice sliced across the deck, a voice familiar, very familiar: "There you are, Jack! Why do you keep it so dark downstairs? Can not you afford candles?"

Jack Aubrey, his visage suddenly a twin to that of his crestfallen second officer, stammered a greeting. "Mother Williams! Whatever are you doing here?" His glance slid to his mother-in-law's left side where there stood a gigantic

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sea chest.

Mrs Williams caught the direction of her son-in-law's glance. Yes, she had come to stay. She had always thought that she was naturally suited to a life at sea; she had been on the Isle of Wight ferry twice and blue gowns had always suited her complexion. Though she was never one to complain, she must add that it was wicked, barbarous and unchristian to keep a homeless widow in one of those horrible booths and she was sure that Commodore – she should say Captain – Aubrey would find better rooms for her on his boat. Still, Captain Farrington – though he had unaccountably darted behind a pillar when she had first seen him at the Portsmouth Assembly – had been very obliging in the matter of transportation, once she had explained the dreadful situation with the ants at Mapes and Sophie and the children staying with dear Frances in Ireland.

"Lord," thought Jack, recalling a discreditable incident involving the Captain's store of Madeira when he was a mid aboard the Improbable, "Old Farts likes his revenge cold."

After a pause in which Mrs Williams looked searchingly round the deck, her powerful stare settled on Stephen. She gestured towards some tarpaulin. She had also bought a... creature... with her, courtesy of a gentleman she had met at the docks, who had insisted she take it if she was meeting the doctor. It had been a deal of trouble, hardly worth the paltry hundred guineas she had accepted for expenses, and she hoped that nobody was presuming to make game of her.

Two eyes glittered from beneath the tarpaulin and something between a grunt and a squawk boomed out over the deck. As Stephen bent down towards it, he was distracted by a shout.

"On deck there! A sail, fine on the starboard bow!"

A similar cry drifted across the water from Wilson's lookout.

Jack raised his telescope. "My God. It's Du Toit."

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"Permission to return...."

"Yes Captain Wilson of course" Jack interrupted, motioning to the crew to prepare the launch, "Chase her Sir, and hold her until Surprise can come up and finish her, for I fear with this weed with which we are cursed we are much your inferior close hauled"

The conclusion of the chase was of course never in doubt, Jack it was true was irritated by his need for Sting to play the hound to his huntsman, but at least it meant that he could perfectly respectably order his mother in law below deck with all the gravitas that a Royal Navy captain on his own quarterdeck could bring to bear in time of war.

Three hours later, Surprise suffering greatly from weed, crawled, or so it seemed, towards Sting and du Toit's Sloop "Indecorous". du Toit who from his perspective was frantically trying to disengage from Sting before that damned frigate racing up behind engaged and mauled him finally gave up the fight and struck.

Jack therefore found himself in full dress (at Killick's insistence) waiting to receive du Toit and his sword. He watched the renowned pirate come aboard escorted by Wilson's marines and wondered at the traditions of the pirate fraternity – For du Toit was – you could tell from his dress – a traditionalist, his long ringletted hair and curled moustachios , his long full frock coat and floppy boot, this was a man who viewed a wooden leg as a fashion statement. Jack's heart sank as a green and red parrot alighted on du Toit's shoulder. There was no clearer indication you could have of this man's allegiances.

du Toit was not just a pirate, du Toit was, Jack realised, a damned shop steward of the Union of Reavers, Accountants and Piracy Professionals. This battle was by no means over, He didn't know, didn't want to know how many of his and Wilson's crew were tattoo carrying members of URAPP but it was a significant number, he'd bet his commission on it. Behind him Killick shuffled his feet uncomfortably.

"Comrade Captain" du Toit addressed Jack with a smirk and a flourish

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"what service do you require of me? I am ever most 'appy to 'elp the poor vessels of Albion perfide and the slaves of 'Is Britannic Majesty 'oo must sail them."

"What I require of you, sir," said a Jack so purple-faced that Stephen made a mental note to bleed him that evening before Killick served the toasted cheese, "is no service – damn your impudence! – but your sword!"

Du Toit swept a low bow. "My sword, Comrade Captain? 'Ow do you mean, my sword?"

"Damme, sir, you have struck to me, sir, and therefore, sir, according to the immemorial custom of the Sea, sir, as you damned well know, sir, it is your duty as an officer and a gentleman – a gentleman, I say, sir – to render me your sword."

"Non, non, non!" The pirate laughed merrily, so lost to decency as to be quite unperturbed by the awful rage of one of His Majesty's captains. "You make a mistake of the most formidable, Comrade Captain." He tapped his unsavoury-looking cutlass. "Premierement,I 'ave no sword – what would you? such toys are for the effete aristos. Deuxiemement, I 'ave not surrender – ha, nevair would Louis du Toit so dishonour himself! I 'ave 'aul down my colours to protect *you*."

Stephen hurried to Jack's side – so mild was the ship's motion as she rode hove to that he did not lose his balance more than twice. "Jack, I beg that you will breathe slowly and steadily, else an apoplexy must be the inevitable sequela. You are to consider your bodily habit, my dear."

Du Toit was holding out a sheet of thick parchment which bore a heavy and elaborate seal. "Allow me, Comrade Captain, to present to you this Letter of Marque. It is, you will observe, signed by Prince Metternich. Ah yes, I am your gallant ally!" Before anyone could lift a finger to prevent him, he stepped forward and kissed Jack roundly, first on his left cheek and then on his right. After which, he pointed to 'Indecorous'. "Sacred blue and name of a name, be'old my ship! 'Ow ill you 'ave did to 'er! But such is life and at least you 'ave not sinked 'er; from that disgrace most profound I 'ave save you. You will wish to thank me – I accept! You will wish to 'elp to repair 'er – again, my generous 'eart accepts!"

As if in approval, the parrot voided its bowels munificently upon the white-gleaming planks of the quarterdeck.

All the rest of that steaming day, the Surprises (after holystoning the quarterdeck) and the Stings swung supplies aboard 'Indecorous' while Surprise's captain lay prostrate in his cabin, vinegar-soaked cloths pressed to his forehead and Stephen's anxious fingers upon his pulse.

The brief tropical twilight had long given way to a star-bejewelled night before 'Indecorous' made sail and vanished into the darkness like some malignant ghost. Mr Calamy brought news of this happy event to the cabin and Jack made his way unsteadily to the quarterdeck, leaning heavily upon Stephen's shoulder.

"One good thing has come of all this, old Stephen," he said heavily, pacing up and down beside the weather rail. "A full twenty hours have passed and not a word from Mother Williams! I was convinced she meant to have my cabin, you know, but after all she has been obliged to think better of it."

Stephen frowned thoughtfully and beckoned to Mr Nicholson, a mid just making his way hammockwards after skylarking in the rigging. Moments later, the youth hurled himself out of the after hatch shouting: "Doctor, oh Doctor! She ain't there! nor her trunk nor whatever was in it! There's nowt in the cabin but this scrap of parchment."

A querulous voice wafted from the skylight. "Which I knowed them pirates was a-taking of someone in that there bundle! And how I'm to replace them sheets I'd like to know!"

Jack stared over Stephen's shoulder at the crude skull and crossbones surrounded by the letters URAPP. "Can it be? but what

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Can have induced them to take her?

"Pieces of eight!"

Jack started. Du Toit had left behind his green and red parrot. Perhaps it knew something? Perhaps it had a tale to tell?

"Happy to oblige," croaked the abandoned bird, with a courtly bow, "make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen, for my story is a strange one and we parrots are long-lived". He continued: "My name is Absalom and I was born in the Bahamas of respectable parents. Orphaned at an early age, I had my own way to make in this world. I first began to follow the sea in the unhappy Rosalie, Buns Baker Captain, which met her mysterious fate in these very sargassum infested waters.... It was not long after that.... And then I shipped in the.... Taken by pirates.... It was in the year....Hanged at Execution Dock.... Walked the plank.... Drink and the devil.... The treasure of Peru....Thankyou, I like a little gunpowder in my rum, where was I? ....Several years later...."

Meanwhile, under a banner reading "URAPP – No Quarter Given", Mrs Williams was addressing the crew of the Indecorous:

"Brothers! Comrades in arms! Fellow ex-wage slaves! I am speaking to you today to

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first dispel the rumors, the ugly rumors, that I had betrayed you and our brethren of the URAPP; nothing could be further from the truth, I do assure you. Anybody that gainsays me will be dealt with harshly, as I will not scruple to break any man who spreads malicious gossip and so attempts to thwart the union's glorious and inevitable rise to true power and wealth.

"Secondly, I wish to congratulate you on today's brilliant caper: it was indeed a most prodigious and unlikely quantity of stores and supplies were you able to extort from my so-called son-in-law before we parted company. Such brilliantly conceived theatre! Such malingering! Treadwell, the bloody bandages round your groin were a brilliant touch, and I was nearly taken in by Hargraves' tearful and convincing performance concerning 'Surprise's errant shot what shattered sixteen hogsheads of finest dark Jamaican rum, your honor, as ever was.' The horror of a barren spirit room is thus avoided, and at no cost to the union; you are all to be commended.

"Now, brothers, let me get to the heart of the matter. For what I have to tell you is great news not six weeks old, news worthy of marking with a white stone: the Admiralty has caved in to our demands for improved working conditions and will see to it that each and every URAPP member is afforded an extra six inches to sling his hammock, along with improved medical benefits including treatment for the...ah, the diseases of liberty, among many other important concessions. Most importantly, there is full resolution, in our favor, concerning our foremost demand, that of

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complete gender equality in all command positions."

du Toit shook his ringlets in surprise. If ever there was a pirate secure in his masculinity, it was he. But what on earth had the Central Committee been thinking of?

Behind him there was a squeal of approval as Flinty Fanny Bonney and Long Johns Sylvie stepped forward to stand arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder with "Old Mother" Williams, who had reached under her skirts to reveal her member credentials – a faded thigh tattoo, reading "URAPP Sistren of the Seas – Member since 17..."

du Toit leaned forward to peer at her date, before lifting his gaze with a sinking heart.

"Sweepers there!" The cry rang out yet again over the Surprise's deck. The parrot had been bad enough, but this was scarcely to be borne, and the steaming, sulphurous insult to the pristine wood of the sacred quarterdeck was swabbed away with mutters of "Not natural, it ain't, a flying lizard – I asks you!" and "Nasty-arsed creature, farting of fire and brimstone at the Doctor".

Jack looked up as Bonden made another lunge at the beast. It slyly jerked its leash out of reach, circled to the other side of the top, spread leathery wings and raised its tail. Bonden and his mates scattered high and low.

"Vermax minimus!" Stephen waved the letter. "I had thought they were creatures of legend – the specimen in the Tower quite exploded as a fake – but here is one in the flesh, raised from the egg by my old tutor. You remember Professor Zimmerman, Jack? He had a tame griffin when we visited."

Jack remembered, all too well. Though the wound had healed, it still throbbed in times of stress. He shifted his weight to his sound leg.

"The Professor provides full instructions – feeding, habits, stabling – and it seems to me that we have the solution to our troubles right here. We can carry out our mission, retrieve the situation, confound du Toit, and sail home, covered in..."

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"Sir, Sir," interrupted Lieutenant Mackay. "We have brib... persuaded the parrot to talk of Du Toit's secrets."

"The cuttlefish were my idea," added Nicholson, with conscious pride. "Mr Absalom sends his best compliments and adds that you might wish to know that the letter of marque was not quite authentic." The Midshipman was about to remark that it had always been unlikely that Metternich's Christian name was "Charlie", but after a moment's thought he supressed this reflection.


The cry rang out through the ship: "Dragon to report to Mr Trinque; dragon to the quarterdeck." Jack smiled to himself; with Absalom's knowledge of that scrub Du Toit's favoured cruising grounds, two fine ships... and a dragon to glide tirelessly across the seas and send smoke signals on locating its prey, he was quietly confident of victory. Jack grabbed quickly at a railing, lest this last thought should prove unlucky, but even so, his heart was filled with a deep, abiding happiness. Jack watched the dragon launch itself from the mainmast. Trinque had proved to be a splendid animal trainer and his burns were almost healed now.

. . .
"I do not choose to dwell on the subject," said Stephen, "but we have seen nothing of Du Toit's vessel or the Sting... or even our Vermax Minimus for these several months."

Jack sighed. He knew that the whole ship's company was waiting for him to call off this interminable, fruitless search. The whole thing was a confounded mystery; two ships and a dragon, lost in the triangle formed by Bermuda, Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys. No other ships had encountered them, they had called in at no likely ports. Still, there was one good thing to come out of it all.

"On deck there! Which there's a raft approaching – with some strange parties in gowns capering about. Why, one of them's that horr... your lady mother-in-law, Sir. I didn't recognise her at first, what with her losing so much weight and all."

Jack found out later that the pirates had cast their rebellious females adrift some time ago, saving them from whatever fate had befallen the ship.

As Mrs Williams climbed into the Bosun's chair, and readied herself to return to the Surprise, she did not look cheerful.

Finis

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