Chapter 1: Prologue
The HMS Leopard had not been long in Sydney Cove when it became clear to her captain that it would be best not to stay in Australia very long. Captain Jack Aubrey had brought his ship in after a particularly arduous voyage with barely enough of a hull, of sails, or of a crew to be called seaworthy, but it did not take him much more than a day to realize that as the ship was still called seaworthy nonetheless, it was likely not worth the no doubt very long stay in a very unpleasant port to attempt to improve her situation much.
Still, certain formalities had to be observed; the governor had to be visited. It was after a less than pleasant dinner when Governor Macquarie invited Jack to a private interview the following day. There he handed him what were obviously secret orders, as well as a separate envelope. “This is a letter for Dr. Stephen Maturin, whom I understand to be your particular friend,” he said to him in an undertone.
Dr. Maturin was indeed a particular friend of Jack’s, as well as the surgeon of most of ships he had been the captain of, and it was perhaps the professional connection, rather than the personal one, that left Jack aware that he was also an intelligence agent, though at the moment this knowledge was sitting heavily on Jack. He was not happy with Dr. Maturin’s recent behavior, done in the line of his work.
He had apparently planted something on an American agent, one Mrs. Louisa Wogan, which it had been vital she carry back to the United States with her. Which was all very well, except that Mrs. Wogan had been a convict being transported on the Leopard to Australia, and he had arranged her escape. Which Jack might have even allowed without grudge, except that in the process he had also induced a young American, a man Jack had rated midshipman, a man Jack had thought fairly well of, to desert also, and that did not sit entirely well with Jack. Nor did it that he did not breath a word of his involvement in their flight until Jack had nearly recaptured them, and had only refrained when Stephen had explained to him why it was necessary for them to escape. He understood why he had not been told; he understood that the less said in these matters the better. But the fact remained that he disliked it considerably.
When Jack first returned to the Leopard after the meeting, furthermore, there was no sign of Stephen Maturin. This was no surprise. Aside for a surgeon and intelligence agent, he also had a passion for flora and fauna which Jack had not seen equaled in any other man. It was only to be expected that when they were in a place such as Australia, where there were known to be creatures seen nowhere else in the world, as soon as he was allowed he would escape the ship.
He considered the secret orders, but ultimately decided to read them after he had delivered the accompanying letter to Stephen. He suspected its accompanying the orders meant it had something to do with them, and it was best to get all details straightened out at the same time on matters such as these. Even so, he wanted the matter dealt with as soon as possible, and so called his coxswain. Barrett Bonden had been with him since his first command, and was aware of Stephen’s position in Naval Intelligence; indeed, he had once aided Jack in rescuing Stephen from French Intelligence officials whom had captured and tortured him.
“He went off with a friend of his, sir,” Bonden told him. “Shall I call him back, sir?”
“Yes, please.” But as Bonden left, Jack determinedly put both secret orders and letter aside to force his focus onto other matters, as he knew that if Stephen Maturin did not care to return immediately, and he likely would not, it might be some time before Bonden got him back.
To his considerable surprise, it was not an hour before the door to his cabin opened, and Stephen stepped in. His expression was extremely unpleasant, and he was holding a furry creature that Jack had never seen before, but Jack was pleased to see him.
“Do not look so angry, my dear,” he said. “I would not have called you back so soon had it not been necessary.”
“Necessary. I see.” Stephen was unconvinced. It was true that there were certain affairs that Jack, as a naval officer, saw as holy, which Stephen did not hold in the same reverence. Instead of starting a quarrel on that matter, Jack retrieved the letter and held it out to him.
“This came with secret orders,” he explained, “which I have not yet opened, as I thought it would be better if you got yours when I got mine.”
“You were right to call me back then,” said Stephen, all crossness gone. “We shall both open our missives now, at once.”
As they did so, Stephen Maturin was not surprised to find that his was from Sir Joseph Blaine, the head of Naval Intelligence. It read:
My Dear Maturin,
As I am arranging my missive to travel with special secret orders for your friend Captain Aubrey, you will be immediately aware, I hope, of the nature of this letter, however, you may still find its contents mildly surprising nonetheless, as well as the nature of the mission I am sending the two of you on. It is an unusual mission, to be sure, but one I would entrust to very few. It is not just a normal matter of trust within intelligence; you must prepare yourself for very unpredictable and I must say bizarre circumstances, and be able to take advantage of opportunities others might not see as possible.
The circumstances I speak of, in short, are this: in the year 1800, when relations were a little friendlier with the States, I accepted a proposal from a man who was then very high in America’s then nascent intelligence service. He and his agents wished to harry Bonaparte, but lacked the resources to do so on their own, so offered what resources they did have, instead, to us. We agreed that a British agent and an American agent would be sent to each other to work together against the French.
The British agent is one Emilia Rothschild, a woman of considerable knowledge and experience. She is a widow of an East Indies merchant who continues to run his business, thirty-eight years of age now, about five foot two, blonde hair and elegant features, generous figure. She has a talent for mechanics and for chemistry; she has invented quite a few useful devices, albeit ones mostly useful in intelligence rather than in the world in general. In fact, you may have read one of her two chemistry papers, though they were both published as being by a lady. She spoke French and Spanish already, and has educated herself in all the languages of the Indies.
The American agent is named Jack Stiles, about six foot one, dark haired, fit, and is a rogue by reputation, with an extraordinary talent for disguising his identity and a penchant for seducing the fairer sex that has proved his undoing at least once. Mrs. Rothschild has written to me about his unfortunate liking for showing away as well as his sometimes strange behavior; indeed, the way in which she has continually complained about it makes me believe I need not go into details here, that she will provide you with them with only a minimum of prompting, and her memory may prove more reliable. His identity is that of her attache.
The two of them were thus placed together on the French-occupied island of Pulau-Pulau, the geographic details of which I will leave to Captain Aubrey to give you; he will make a better figure of them than I would. It was assumed they were to stay there until Bonaparte was defeated, and so they have remained there for now over ten years. Very early into their assignment, according to Mrs. Rothschild, Mr. Stiles devised and enacted a scheme to take advantage of the local folk beliefs by assuming, at his convenience, the identity of their legendary figure, known as the Daring Dragoon, a disguise through which he can openly fight against Bonaparte’s agents, using as an excuse their tyranny over the locals. Improbable as Mrs. Rothschild admits it to be, he has never been caught as being the man behind the mask, though he has been aided by the occurrence of a few copycats over the years, including once Mrs. Rothschild herself, taking over the identity temporarily when Mr. Stiles was obliged towards another task.
She has described their mission as being more eventful in its early years than in recent ones; however, we have reason to believe that this is soon to change. Pulau-Pulau is now the most probable destination of a group of renegade warriors from the island of Japan who are looking to possibly come to the aid of Bonaparte. At the time that I write this we are uncertain of their numbers, but there may be enough and this may be vital enough a mission that I think it prudent to send a third agent in to be of aid to Mrs. Rothschild and Mr. Stiles. You must neutralize these men however possible; we know almost nothing of Japanese affairs as the country is closed off from the rest of the world, and it is not impossible they could bring the entire nation into the world and into the war on the side of France. How much strength they have is a complete unknown, but any troops completely fresh for battle would likely mean disaster.
This is what I have told Mrs. Rothschild, and what is to be your reason for making contact with her and Mr. Stiles. However, I am in fact also sending you there for a second purpose. As you know, relations between Britain and the United States continue to proceed towards a likely war; it has not happened as I write these words and I hope it will not have happened when you receive them, but I now feel it to be inevitable. And when that happens, I have grave doubts about the continuing loyalty of Mrs. Rothschild. She has begun in her reports to me to affect an attitude of indifference to him that would not fool a child; I think it likely they are lovers, possibly even secretly married, and of her love for him I have no doubt. Therefore I need for you to closely observe them both, and judge what action should be taken to prevent her from defecting. I enclose her most recent message to me as well as the code used; you will note also its brevity, more than is required for mere discretion; I suspect there is much in at least the past year she has not told me.
Finally, as I know enough about the Leopard’s state to assume-
But Stephen was interrupted in the reading of this sentence by the wombat he had brought on board the ship and into the great cabin with him, as while he had been reading it had been examining his boots, and just decided that their surface was possibly edible, and began an attempt to gnaw at them. Its teeth were most sharp, and cut clean through the worn leather and very nearly pierced Stephen’s epidermis as he was obliged to scuttle aside with an undignified yelp, and even then the creature was not dislodged from his boot. He hastily began pulling haphazardly at the footwear, attempted to get it off his foot, only to discover whenever his fingers got near the wombat, it would nip at them, making him wonder how it could have changed so quickly from the well-behaved animal he had got on board with so little trouble.
He was still struggling when finally Jack’s hands seized the unruly wombat and pulled it off, leaving Stephen with a disheveled boot and an immediate concern that Jack not hurt the poor animal. “Put it down gently,” he urged, and Jack did so, quite some distance from the two of them. “It is a wombat,” he told his friend, “a creature I have never seen the like of anywhere else in the world.”
“It doesn’t look unlike your old sloth to me,” replied Jack, and there was a moment of awkward silence, for the sloth had inadvertently caused one argument between the two of them. However, both had far graver concerns on their mind at that moment. “Looking at the secret orders,” he said, “it is quite odd. We are given as a destination a small island, there to harry an undefined group of soldiers from a country near Russia which is not supposed to have any ships, any forces, or anything to do with the outside world at all, and even that would not be too much, but it sounds as if we may get a new ship in which to do all this, and yet...”
“The orders were written a very long time ago,” said Stephen. “In fact, it is a piece of luck that the news of them reached Britain in time for this missive to be sent to us.” He returned to the letter, and as he did, two more documents fell out. The first he knew must be Mrs. Rothschild’s communique. It was very neatly done, unmistakably the work of a smart and experienced woman; his respect for her was immediately raised. The second was another note in Sir Joseph’s handwriting, short and to the point, an addendum written at the very last minute, and on reading it, Stephen could not help but smile; here was pleasing news.
“I am afraid it shall be pain to obtain any new ship for this mission,” Jack was saying, “as they have not given us any, and the Leopard is not at all suited for it at the best of times, and to use it now should be impossible. It will be trouble enough leaving it in the dockyards for months.”
“Well as to that, Jack,” he replied, and the high amount of cheer in his voice attracted the captain’s attention immediately, “of course Sir Joseph was not able to make any promises in his writing to me, but it is just possible you will find yourself provided with a joyful surprise.”
Chapter 2: Part 1
Approaching Pulau-Pulau, the Surprise takes a French merchantman, and with it, some very unusual cargo.
French possessions in the Far East were not very extensive, and were mostly in the Coral Sea. Pulau-Pulau was a small island west of the larger ones of Vanuatu and New Caledonia, a useful port for French ships crossing the Coral Sea to and from them. It was also a place from which Australia could conceivably be threatened, if Bonaparte ever so decided, and so Mrs. Rothschild had been assigned there and eventually joined by her American attache.
In the captain’s cabin of the HMS Surprise, Jack had just come down off the deck, and his spirits had been high. Indeed, they had been so since he had officially received the command of his old ship, the one he had served in as a midshipman and commanded not at all long after being made post, an old friend to him especially welcome after the Leopard, which he had never been able to love unreservedly, not when she had been a difficult ship, old and awkwardly built, and with an unfortunate history with a hostile incident involving the Americans. It had also been sweet sailing since they had left Australia, and they would likely reach their destination within the next week.
In the cabin he had left two maps on display. The first was of Pulau-Pulau, a very small piece of land, which left Jack all the more confused as to why these Japanese soldiers would go there. There were plenty of destinations in the area that would’ve made more sense, especially with the Dutch also at war with the British. He had studied the map extensively just to try to make a guess of where on the island such an army might sleep.
However, he now went to the other map, the one that stretched for the Coral Sea up to Easternmost Russia, and showed the islands that consisted of Japan; one long one, two much smaller and one tiny south of it, and one about twice the size of the two smaller ones just north, as well as another tiny island to the west. He had never paid much attention to them, having been told the Japanese for well over a century and a half had had nothing to do with anyone from anywhere else in the world and therefore were of significance to noone besides themselves. He had more recently learned that this was not entirely true; the Dutch held a trading post just by a city in the southernmost part of the southernmost island called Nagasaki, and there were arrangements with some of the other countries in Asia as well.
But he had also learned something else that felt more important; that Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world stemmed from laws the country had not only forbidding any foreigners in, to the point that even the Dutch had to have their post on an island just off the coast where the Japanese were better able to bear them, but forbidding any inhabitants of the country to leave, and both prohibitions were on pain of death. That raised the possibility that the army was essentially an army of exiles, unable to return home, and therefore with much less to lose than they otherwise might have had.
He was still considering the islands of Japan, trying to guess at how many people might live on them, how much of an army they could possibly have produced while the world had not been looking, when Stephen joined him. “Do you know anything about Japan?” he asked him. “I do not.”
“No one does, joy,” said Stephen. “But I admit I am curious to learn about them if we can.”
“A pity they will probably not bring any strange beasts with them,” said Jack with a smile.
“Truly, it is,” Stephen was agreeing, when they heard the yell from above of “Sail ho!”
By the time Jack reach the deck, there was more news to make him happier: it was a small French merchantman, an easy prize. Indeed though they ran, the chase did not take too long; within an hour their colours were struck and the captured ship was coming alongside them.
Having taken a look at their crew from his telescope, they had not looked particularly extraordinary, but Jack nonetheless had thought there was something odd about them. He was not sure what, however. He had already identified the captain; a mustached man who was surprisingly wide for someone who had been at sea, but perhaps the ship mostly did short voyages between Pulau-Pulau and the larger two islands. He went looking at the other men, wondered if any of them were Japanese. None of them seemed to be, but despite his efforts to find out what a Japanese man might look like he still had only a vague idea. He had heard they were all slightly brown-skinned and very dark-haired, though, and these men were mostly fair and some of them were fair-haired; if anything, they looked liked the Frenchmen one would expect to find on board a French ship.
Still, looking at the group of men that accompanied the captain as he came over, he still thought there was something odd about them. Perhaps it was in their walk; the steps in their march into the boat were unnaturally big, like one sometimes saw in the army or the marines, but somehow a little bigger and a little stiffer. Was that a Japanese trait? He thought someone might have said something to him once about their being very ceremonial. It did not strike him as a very French one.
Despite his size the captain had no trouble coming up the side from most of his ascent, until he reached the very top. But then he somehow stumbled while climbing over, and bellyflopped(there was no other way to describe it) onto the deck. He let out a bellowing laugh as he scrambled to his feet, fairly quickly for a man of his size; the sound of it echoed through the deck as if it was bouncing off the sails. Two of his men were accompanying him, and their reaction, oddly, was amusement, with no sign of embarrassment over their captain having just compromised his dignity. Jack saw the Surprises close enough to see this look at each other in dismay.
“Bonjour, mon capitan,” he said, and he had the most French-sounding voice of anyone Jack had ever heard, except there was something off about it being so strong he could not quite put his finger on. It seemed even more off when he continued in English, “My name is Thomas le Feulipe. I am afraid I do not have any pretty swords to give you, but we surrender nonetheless.”
“We shall have to do without swords, then,” said Jack, keeping his normal commander’s tone, though despite le Feulipe’s lack of dignity, there was something about him that could not help but make Jack like him. “Come with me into my cabin.”
He did not expect the business with the captain to go on long, especially since taking a closer look at the ship made him more convinced it did not take long voyages, and probably was not carrying much. Indeed, looking at its brightly painted sides and abnormally large figurehead he thought it one of the showiest ships he had ever seen.
But when the door closed behind them le Feulipe let out another one of those bellowing laughs, which sounded oddly ridiculous in such a small space, and said, “So, mon capitan, you have been at sea a long time?”
“We sailed out of Australia not too long ago,” answered Jack readily.
“Ah, Australia,” sighed the man, and now he sounded too jolly, and it made Jack stiffen up; he did not care to hear Australia threatened, even in jest. But le Feulipe did not do so, instead saying only, “Such an unpleasant place, I have heard. Is it?”
It was, but Jack did not wish to agree with such sentiments from a Frenchman, so he did not respond, but instead said, “Let me see your papers, then.”
The papers were provided, wrapped in an unnecessarily fancy ribbon; it made Jack wonder if le Feulipe was a privately wealthy man. The information in them appeared to be in order, but as Jack read through them the French captain started talking again. “You would have broken my heart far less, sir, had you taken my ship a week ago. Ah, but then again a week ago we were in port in Pulau-Pulau, and you could not have taken us then, now could you have?” Another laugh, not as loud or ambient as the ones that had come before, but still abnormally merry. “But alas, when I consider our freight.” He made a very dramatic noise of mourning, one Jack thought very French.
“What is in this freight you speak of?” he asked, keeping his tone neutral, though great happiness rose in him at the mention of it. That, he knew, was good extra prize money to have, especially with his financial affairs at home as involved as he feared they might be.
“Ah, mon capitan!” The man sighed again. “A little locked box to which even I have not been given the keys, but I have been told is worth far more than its considerable weight in gold. Perhaps if your men can break it open, if nothing else I shall have my curiousity satisfied as to what is in it.”
“It shall have to be brought over here, then,” said Jack. He supposed it might not be the first time in history a box of freight had sailed without its key, though he did not think that was the normal way of doing things, and he hoped it reflected the contents of the box being extra valuable.
The rest of the interview contained nothing out of the ordinary. It was a bit of a disappointment to discover that apart from the freight the ship wasn’t carrying much, so unless the freight was extremely valuable indeed the prize money would not be much. It made Jack all the more determined to find out what the freight was, and le Fuelipe hadn’t even tottered out of the captain’s cabin before the order was being conveyed through the ship to bring the box over.
Over it came, and it was easily the toughest looking box Jack had seen in all of his long career. It appeared to be made completely of iron, with two big locks on it, and it was so heavy Bonden and another sailor had to work together to lug it into the great cabin. “Do you know,” he asked Bonden, “if any of the crew are particularly talented in the picking of locks?”
“Certain,” his coxswain told him, "I know two of them ended up in the gaol for doing so. Shall I send for them?”
“Do so,” Jack told him, but after Bonden left it occurred to him that between the orders being secret and having the common addition of his having to “advise and consult” with Stephen, and this striking him as no ordinary piece of freight, that perhaps he should be present as well. “Pass the word for Dr. Maturin,” he ordered when Bonden returned with the two landsmen Peter Simmons and Ashley Rushworth. “Gentlemen,” he said to the two of them, “can you pick these locks?”
Simmons peered over them closely, then whistled. “Ain’t this the trickiest lock I e’er seen. Give me a good hour, maybe. Unless Rush here can do it quicker.”
“Thems do look like some tricky locks,” Rush agreed.
“Take all the time you need,” said Jack, although he was not entirely happy; if this was indeed a matter of intelligence, it would be better for it to be done quickly.
On the other hand, it gave Stephen time to arrive, and to be given a quick summary of what they knew about the box so far. “In case there should be anything dangerous in it from a medical perspective,” was the explanation Jack gave the other two for his presence, which they shrugged at and continued working. Simmons looked especially absorbed, practically fascinated, it seemed, by a setup that proved a challenge to him. He seemed to be making more progress than Rush, though he may have been too distracted to care; he took far longer to judge scrutinize the locks than Jack believed to be necessary.
But at last they both cried out in triumph, and the locks were broken. “Thank you, gentlemen,” said Jack in a voice that made it clear they were dismissed. “You will have an extra ration of grog.” They both thanked him for that, and Rushworth did so enthusiastically, but Simmons actually looked a little disappointed, wanting to know, perhaps what was in a box that had been bound up with such precautionary locking.
But only Jack and Stephen could be in the cabin when Jack lifted the lid-not without some difficulty; even that was exceedingly heavy, and they looked at the box’s content together. Jack was glad for his friend was there, however, so he could ask him immediately, “My dear Stephen, do you know what to make of this?” To his disappointment Stephen’s response was that he did not.
It appeared to be some sort of lantern, an octagonal cylinder with a thin metal structure carved up into willow-liked curved branches and flowers, lined with a whitish paperlike substance, with a elegantly carved base and top of more solid metal. But it was, bizarrely, lit, except that they could not make out of the curve of any candle, and the powerful pale blue light was such that neither man had even seen or heard or read about. “Almost what one would think the stars might look like,” Jack said. “But Stephen, I know that stars are not here on Earth contained in fancy lanterns.”
“Indeed they are not,” agreed Stephen. “And also I might note that I do not recognize at all the tree these branches are supposed to be from, though of course it might be fanciful, or even in imitation of some Australian plant I was not fortunate enough to see during our stay there.”
“I don’t recognize it either,” said Jack. “But I admit, I have been in many places where I have not paid attention to what the trees there look like. Is it safe to touch, do you think?”
Stephen reached a hand out, but did not touch. “I do not know that either,” he admitted. “If a sketch can be drawn I could send it at least to Sir Joseph, who of course has his own knowledge of natural philosophy, though plants are not his forte.”
The mention of the head of Naval Intelligence brought Jack the memory of his mission, and he asked. “Do you think it might be Japanese? That would certainly explain the plant being an unfamiliar one.”
“Indeed,” Stephen agreed. “Perhaps when we reach Pulau-Pulau, there will be the opportunity to learn more.”
Until then, they agreed the freight box was to be kept in Jack’s cabin and details about its contents to be discussed only with each other. Though in the end, they would not even need to discuss it over the next few days.
Not that there was any real hope of keeping such a thing a secret for very long, especially when there were members of two curious crews crowded onto the Surprise when Jack sent a minimal crew back to Australia with the prize. Later he would wish he had thought to send Rushworth and Simmons away with them; they were both happy to tell all that they knew and then much that they didn’t. More word got out within a couple of days, with some contradictory exaggerations and half of it speculation rather than fact, but soon enough everyone agreed that the box had contained some sort of lantern and that Dr. Maturin was worried whether it might not be dangerous to touch.
This was not something that sat easy amoung a crew that had during their voyage from England to Australia already been ravaged by a nasty gaol-fever that had taken a large part of the initial complement. It was something Stephen was forced to notice, as he had more sailors in his sickbay than he would’ve expected, especially amoung the prisoners from the French ship, who seemed to worry that their longer exposure to being in close proximity to the box had left them in more danger.
Captain le Feulipe was not amoung those that did so; however, he was more determined than anyone to determine just what he had been carrying. He was quite put out that he had not been told as soon as the box had been opened, and he brought the matter up every time he and Jack talked. Jack even hesitated before inviting him to dine, as was polite and proper, and almost regretted doing it when during the entire meal he kept making stray glances towards the box, which had remained in the captain’s cabin.
Still, the box was not the biggest of his worries. A plan had to be devised for getting onto Pulau-Pulau, and Jack was left to study his maps to determine the best place near the island to drop anchor, and who should then go ashore, and where. The only certain member of the party would be Stephen; Jack was not sure whether even he should go with him. With the island a day’s sail away, he called Stephen in to discuss the matter.
“We have too little up-to-date information on the condition of things on the island,” Stephen said to him, as he studied the marks Jack had put on the map of suitable landing places. “I think it would be best if I went ashore first, perhaps accompanied by Bonden. I have a pair of contacts to meet with, and I can ask them what they further require.”
“If you think that is what is best, my dear,” said Jack, though he did not like this plan at all. It was not the first time he had set Stephen ashore to do intelligence work, but he could not help but think back to that time a few years ago when he had rescued him for a French torture chamber in Minorca, and he had known since then every time he would do it he would be filled with dread of what might happen to him, when Jack was potentially helpless to do anything about it.
Stephen knew this, and he said to him gently, “Do not worry too much about it, joy. According to our most recent intelligence, the French presence on the island is relatively low.”
“Unless they have successfully obtained the services of these Japanese soldiers,” Jack felt the need to point out.
“We do not even have confirmation those men have reached Pulau-Pulau yet, and even when they get there, they may not fall immediately into the service of the French. I find it highly unlikely they have had very much contact before arrival; they must do most of whatever negotiations to be done and cement the alliance there. If we are lucky, we can see to it that they never do.” His face turned colder as he spoke his last part, his eyes taking on that reptilian look that Jack understood the necessity of, but still hated to see. He wondered even how many dead would result from Stephen’s machinations, and whether he would rather not know.
The next morning Jack awoke in the early hours, a couple of hours before he needed to, which was an immediate indication to him that something was not right, for it was very rare he woke early if everything was. He has the feeling he had just heard footsteps, or at least something on the wood of the cabin floor, but there was no one in the cabin. Nor was there any sound out of the ordinary now, merely the sound of the sea and the low murmur of voices from up on the deck, and Killick below grumbling about something, though far too softly for Jack to have a hope of making out what.
Nothing in the cabin looked out of place at first glance, but almost instinctively, Jack crept over to the box still there. He lifted the lid and looked at the lantern; it appeared undisturbed. Except...he took a glance at the picked locks. Was it just his head playing tricks on him, or had they been moved from the previous night?
His first thought was immediately Captain le Feulipe. For all the man had his sizable girth, Jack had noticed he was quiet in his step; had he somehow managed to sneak into the cabin unobserved, and finally see what he had been carrying? It was possible, Jack reminded himself, that there was no harm in this. It seemed especially so when none of them could even decipher either the nature or the function of the object; if he did not know what it did; what use could he make of it? But then, of course, there was the worry he did somehow know. Although his initially liking of him was not entirely gone, Jack had come to feel very strongly over the more recent few days that there was something behind this harmless-seeming fat French captain, more than might meet the eye.
He did not get the chance to discuss it with Stephen immediately; the morning and most of the day was spent finding a suitable place for the Surprise to drop anchor. From a distance they circumnavigated much of Pulau-Pulau, seeking a place in the sea no French ships were likely to come to while sailing to and from the island. At last the anchor dropped in water of a good depth for it, neither too shallow nor too deep, on the far side from the main seaport. It was shortly before dinner then, and he still had to brief Bonden then on what he was to do, so by the time Stephen came to his cabin it was after dinner, the sun was hanging low in the sky, and the plan was for him and Bonden to set out once it was down.
“We should hope it was only Captain leu Feulipe,” said Stephen, when he had been told, “and that his motives were innocent. Still, I don’t think he’s necessarily a threat.” That was all he was willing to say, as became clear when he then said, “Shall we have some music, my dear? I believe we have an hour at least.”
Have an hour they did, and when Jack’s focus was his violin and the music coming from Stephen’s cello, he was at least briefly able to be at ease. This was uncomplicated, this was a place where he knew just what to do, like first taking a ship out to sea when the waters were smooth. The voices of the violin and cello blended into each other, becoming one as they played on and on, keeping to pieces of music they had by heart, one of them occasionally changing to some other piece and the other effortlessly following, until finally they heard the ringing of the bell to indicate it was time, and reluctantly, Jack brought his playing into an ending flourish, which Stephen echoed a moment later.
Up to the deck, and quietly to the side of the ship. Bonden insisted on helping Stephen down the side, despite his protests that he was an old sea dog at this, that he had done it countless times, sometimes even without help. The darkness was falling fast enough that when the boat was lowered to the water with the two men in it Jack had to strain to see their silhouettes. Bonden had taken a lantern, however, and lit it. Though he would have to blow it out when they got closer to Pulau-Pulau’s shores for now it illuminated the boat as it started to make its way through the waters, which thankfully were very still; it would be an easy trip to shore, and Jack took comfort in that. Still he watched the boat shrink off into the distance, until at least even the light of the lantern could no longer be seen.
He might not have breakfasted the next morning, for indeed he had no appetite for food then, except that it occurred to him that if Captain leu Felipe, or indeed someone else, had indeed seen the lantern, it would do well to learn as much about that as possible. He was not a man well-suited for the task, unfortunately, being very bad at any kind of dissembling, but he was now the only man on board who was aware of the problem, and so he had to try. So he invited the French Captain to breakfast as well as the officer of the watch, which that morning happened to be Mr. Babbington. Jack was glad it was his lieutenant and longtime follower; even if he did not entirely know what was going on, he was likely to want to be of aid.
They had just sat down and began eating when Jack started, “So, Captain, did you sleep well last night?”
“Oh, perfectly, Monsieur,” the captain sighed in reply. “The sea was so very quiet and rocking so little it was like a lullaby, and when I closed my eyes I slept like the dead until the morning watch was almost over.”
“I give you joy of that, then,” said Jack. “Although I must admit, I did not have your luck. Indeed, I woke far too early this morning, when the morning watch was barely begun, I believe, and I was quite certain someone had been in my cabin. I saw no one, so I suppose it must have been in my head.”
He had not fooled the Captain, although the way le Feulipe’s eyes flew wide at least told him what he’d wanted to know. Though he did not admit to the deed, saying only, “Ah, our heads, mon capitan, what tricks they play on us.”
Perhaps sensing the tension in the room, Babbington ventured, “We are lucky is it not so hot out. If the temperatures were to raise even a little, I think none of us would sleep well. Every time I have been in the doldrums I have had this problem...” and Jack was happy to chime in his own experience on the subject, and the conversation moved on.
With le Feulipe presumably on his guard, Jack made no more attempts to gain knowledge of what he had done the previous night, but if he had harbored any remaining doubts, they were done away with as the two men took their leave, and the French captain gave a long, lingering look at the box, and especially on its locks. Perhaps he had realized he had not replaced them quite right.
Still it left him not sure whether to worry or not. He wished he could have written about it in his ongoing letter to Sophie, but of course that was not possible. It made him wonder how Stephen coped, having to keep so many things so close to him and talk about so little of it even to Jack.
He had, however, written to her about laying anchor the previous day, and now he added Now it is the normal dullness not unlike what one experiences when one is involved in a blockade, except without the other ships for company. He supposed it was not entirely unlike a blockade, what they were doing, especially since they were trying to prevent an enemy force from coming out to cause trouble.
He supposed Stephen’s going ashore might too become a normal part of blockading, since it was always done near enemy territory, where he could go and wreck havoc. He hoped not, however. Aside from his normal distress related to putting his friend ashore, it was a trouble to manage such a thing so discreetly, although he supposed it might be easier on larger shores with larger stretches of uninhabited land, especially if they were more likely to know which places were uninhabited; on Palau-Palau they had been obliged to make their best guess, which did not ease Jack’s anxiety any that day.
Up on deck things were running smoothly, as he would have expected. This was, after all, the crew that had chosen to stay with him when a good number of the Leopards had chosen to follow Jack’s first lieutenant on theLeopard, a certain Lieutenant Grant, when Jack had given him permission to abandon the ship. That felt like much less a loss here on a smaller ship, one he and much of the crew had already been long familiar with, especially since it had largely been the loss of men he had held no special love for, the way he did most of these men; indeed, even if they had been nothing to him when he had first taken command of the Leopard, their decision to stay and these last few months had changed that entirely.
Thinking of that eased the knot inside him somewhat, the knowledge that even if Stephen, and Bonden with him, got into dire circumstances, and might have to be rescued, he had with him a group of men whom he could fully trust to do it, even more than with most of his crews, especially when most of them also fully understood the doctor’s value and would not hesitate to do whatever it took.
Indeed, all would have been harmony, expect that Captain le Feulipe was on deck as well. He was behaving properly enough, staying far away from the sacred quarterdeck on which Jack stood, but whenever he looked in the direction of Pulau-Pulau(and Jack had know doubt he knew where they were, since he was familiar with these waters), something in Jack’s instincts whispered to him. He was uncomfortably aware that in terms of number le Feulipe and his men had the advantage over the Surprises, though he didn’t think any of them were that experienced at fighting; he especially doubted the captain would be any good at it. He wished there had been some neutral location he could have stopped and paroled them all at.
That night, when he finally managed to sleep, he dreamed of Pulau-Pulau, and the French captain. He dreamed of him walking through rough lanes and exotic crowds, wearing a smile completely unlike the merry one that Jack had seen on him already, one dark, and cunning, and contemptuous. He woke wishing there was something he could do about him, but he had absolutely no reason for suspicion of him; he had been a model prisoner so far and so had all the rest of his men. His doctor even stood in the sickbay right now as the crew’s doctor until their regular one returned; Stephen had spoken well of his assistance, even though so far they’d had relatively little to do, and Jack liked what he had seen so far of him well enough. He supposed it was one comfort, to know there was someone to try to tend to Stephen, should they have another incident like had happened in Port Mahon.
Chapter 3: Part 2
Stephen pays a visit to Mr. Stiles and Mrs. Rothschild.
Stephen and Bonden reached Pulau-Pulau in good time and without incident, and found a deserted part of the shore where Bonden was able to settle the boat and they were able to make landfall. The coxswain was not entirely happy when Stephen then asked him to stay with the boat while he went further ashore, but was persuaded when Stephen pointed out it would be harder to blend in with such an obviously British companion. “Unfortunately I shall have to pose as American again,” he said, “with Spain being at war with France as well, but at least they are more likely to be welcome here.” He was not entirely certain how well the disguise would hold up, given that Mr. Stiles had left the governing officials all too familiar with an actual American, but in the crowds he did not foresee any difficulties.
He did not attempt what uninhabited sections of the island there were just yet; it would be simpler to determine where rumour had placed any foreign encampments and approach those places first. Instead he headed for the main town and port, draped in his thick cloak and broad hat which would require effort of bystanders if they wished to remember any of his basic features.
The first person he ran into, when in the wee hours of the morning he entered the town, was a child, a native boy playing in the mud outside what Stephen assumed to be his family hut. He looked up at Stephen, and said something in the native tongue in which he recognized the word dragoon. The word was then repeated by a woman, presumably the boy’s mother, hurried out of the hut, and took a look at what her son had seen. Then she shook her head, and said something to the boy; apparently in her eyes Stephen did match the looks of the Daring Dragoon. Though the boy’s belief seemed to persist, he argued something back to her and followed Stephen as he tried to walk away; he had never been especially fond of children at the best of times, and he had no time to deal with the worst kind of inquisitive little boy now. He walked speedily; still the boy tried to stagger after him, and his mother called after him too.
It was a good disguise, he thought, despite this kind of inconvenience it might cause. Unfortunately he was not wearing a mask, which he understood was a normal part of the costume, but if he kept his head bowed enough passers by might not notice that, at least until the light grew stronger, and because the Dragoon had apparently been a common visitor to the town over the last decade, no one would think very much of him quietly walking past in the morning, presumably off to do some important deed elsewhere.
So he kept his head down, and his step quick, as if he really did have to hurry off to somewhere, and ignored any look he might have gotten from those who took a long second glance at him, or any murmur that might have passed through the air when more than one person was there to comment on his passing. He thought he heard the cry of a little girl at one point, but no one actually tried to approach him, perhaps out of the thought he had best be left to do his bit of good.
However, as the twilight began to give way to the dawn proper, and more people came out, Stephen did start to pay more attention, at least to the language everyone was speaking around him. So far there was nothing but the native tongue, and certainly no French, but he was sure word of the Dragoon being afoot had reached the French authorities, and he doubted they were happy about that.
But in the end, it was not a Frenchman who walked straight up to Dr. Maturin perhaps an hour after sunrise, positioned himself in front of him, and greeted him with only the thinnest veneer of politeness which did nothing to hide his anger. It was instead a man whose height and dark hair matched the description of Jack Stiles from Sir Joseph’s letter, and he spoke with what Stephen recognized as an American accent as he asked for Stephen’s name.
Fortunately he recognized it when it was given, having apparently already been notified of Stephen’s coming, and his face softened, though he still didn’t look too happy. “We should get you inside,” he said to Stephen, “before the Frenchies come swarming on you. They don’t like guys who dress like that.”
“I understand,” said Stephen, allowing himself a smile, “that such men have caused them trouble here over the past decade.”
“The rumour’s gotten around, huh?” That did get a smile out of Mr. Stiles. “Yeah, there’s been some problems for them there. Just take off the cloak, and we’ll go inside and talk about it.”
They set about doing just that, though Stephen would have liked it had they gone faster. Where most agents would have set a stride as fast as they both could manage and gone straight to the destination without stopping, Mr. Stiles perambulated much more slowly, and seemed to be deaf to hints that they could go faster, and even stopped when they passed a market to inhale. “You really need to try the local soup while you’re here,” he told Stephen. “Best stuff I’ve ever had. Ten years and I’m still not tired of it yet. Pity Ems didn’t ask me to get anything for her.” Stephen noted the nickname, and its possible significance, and tried to ignore how little propriety Mr. Stiles seemed to display when discussing her.
However, they finally got to what apparently been the abode Mrs. Rothschild had lived in since she and the late Mr. Rothschild had first arrived on Pulau-Pulau, and where Mr. Stiles now also lived. “She puts me up in the basement, with all her bubbling things and experiments,” he laughed, and Stephen made a mental note to examine his bed down there to at least try to determine how often it was actually slept in. Although that would have to wait until perhaps much later. In the foyer Mr. Stiles called out, “Ems, I brought that friend you talked about,” even before the door was fully closed behind them, and he heard a female voice call, “Just a minute,” before Mrs. Rothschild emerged.
She was as Sir Joseph had described her, although the qualities that struck Stephen the most were the ones that could not easily be described in a letter. For one thing, there was her gait and carriage; if she did not have quite the grace of, say, Diana Villiers, the woman who had broken Stephen’s heart more than once and still held it, even though he did not expect to even ever see her again, she was still far more graceful and poised than most ladies that he had met. Indeed in more than one way he reminded him of her, although her hair was blonde while Diana’s was dark, and her figure was much fuller. Also there was a hardness to her face, though he could not quite pinpoint where it came from, whether from the intensity in her eyes, the set of her cheekbones, or simply her frown.
It turned into a smile quickly enough, and she was not without warmth as she exclaimed, “Dr. Maturin, I presume?” and offered her hand. Hers was not a typical lady’s hand, he noted as he shook it; if it was not as rough as those of the sailors Stephen spent most of his time around, it was still rougher than his; she did work with them indeed in her laboratory. “Have you had anything to eat this morning?”
“Not since last evening,” said Stephen. “Though if you please, I can do well with just some coffee, if you have some.”
“Oh, of course,” she said. “We have the local kind here, which we have found we rather like, and certainly it does wonders, especially when we have late nights, and we have had a remarkable number of them over the years. Local milk and sugar as well, though I would actually advise you avoid the former; we typically just have the latter, which we are never in short supply of.”
“Do they grow sugar on this island then?” asked Stephen, whose research of the island had mostly focused on its geography and where on it people lived.
“They grow many things on Pulau-Pulau,” said Mrs. Rothschild, and she spoke with some clear fondness for the island on which she had lived so many years, and could conceivably live many more, regardless of how long her actual mission there continued. That in itself was hardly suspicious, Stephen reminded himself, especially since she and her husband had been here long before the mission had begun.
Coffee, with sugar, very sweet, and he accepted some tropical fruit as well. Both Mrs. Rothschild and Mr. Stiles were fond of bigger breakfasts, he noted; together they devoured eggs, bacon, sausages, and toasts with some jam also made locally, they told him.
It was after they had both eaten at least partway to their satisfaction that they began to talk about the situation their meeting was on account of, although everyone’s feelings quickly turned to disappointment at how little the other party had to tell them. Mr. Stiles and Mrs. Rothschild were quick to say that they both in their own ways kept close track of all the traffic that came in and out of the island, and they both swore there was as yet no arrivals out of the ordinary. Nor had they seen any signs that the island’s French governor or his men were in any way preparing to welcome them, though Mr. Stiles claimed to have snuck into the governor’s mansion multiple times. They had instead been hoping Stephen could bring them news on the matter.
He considered telling them about the mysterious freight. Part of him did think it would have been an extraordinary coincidence for such a thing to be in this part of the world at the same time as this Japanese military force was supposed to be. But he could not be certain the two things were connected, and until he had some real evidence of it, it was best to keep to the rule of keeping all such matters between as few people as possible. He did end up talking about the taking of the ship, though, and the other oddities displayed by the French commander, and was not all together surprised when his hosts turned out to be acquainted with him. “Tommy Phillip!” laughed Mr. Stiles. “He’s actually worked on and off for you, hasn’t he Ems?”
Mrs. Rothschild confirmed this, but was quick to note the majority of his work for her had been ten years prior, during the Peace of Amiens. “He was a young man at the time, not quite as fat as he is now, though very jolly even then. I think he came from money; I know he lost a number of relations during the Terror, and spoke of bribing his way out of arrest twice in his life, though the way he speaks of the aristocracy makes me think it wasn’t that kind of money. He gave me the impression of not even caring about politics or nationalism. He was a competent commander; I’ve no complaint against him there.”
“Last time he ran a job for you was a couple of years ago, wasn’t it?” said Mr. Stiles. “When Captain Elliot got sick and the you-know-what had to be shipped out of here immediately.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Rothschild, “and you know, from the way he spoke when I returned, I think he looked and saw what he was carrying. Though if he did, I am dead certain he never told a soul.”
That last part was at least something of a comfort for Stephen to hear. Breakfast ended with him giving his account of landing on the island and the child who had mistaken him for the Dragoon. Mr. Stiles had apparently gotten over his initial perturbation, because he laughed so much he nearly fell off his chair, and Stephen noticed Mrs. Rothschild lips draw thin. Though when he observed the particular way she looked at him then, he thought he saw affection in her still. Women throughout history had put up with behavior from their men they disliked, he reminded himself, and while he had seen nothing this morning that insisted that he was indeed her man in that way, their easy interaction and comfort with each other certainly did not deny it either.
After breakfast Mrs. Rothschild offered to show him her laboratory downstairs, with Mr. Stiles adding, “You’ll also see where I sleep. Or rather, where I usually sleep; she’s insisting you get to sleep whenever you want there and I’m stuck on the couch for any night you’re here. Even insisted I straighten it up for you first. Never mind that she’s not even sure you should stay here just yet.” Stephen agreed to see it, while privately wondering if Mr. Stiles would in fact be on the couch, or even if they might try to make it look like he had been.
Her laboratory was hidden behind the most clever illusion Stephen had ever seen; when he stood in front of it, all his senses told him he was not only seeing but hearing a fire burn in the fireplace, and it was not until he walked through it to the anteroom hidden on the other side that he saw the setup of candles, mirrors, and a rotating metal cylinder that cast the image. A short flight of stairs led down the laboratory. Stephen, for all his learning, had not been in very many actual laboratories, and none of them looked quite like the haphazard collection of tables, instruments, bubbling substances, and devices contained in this one. He kept his hands away even before Mrs. Rothschild warned him to, and Mr. Stiles added, “Do what the lady says, doctor. Trust me on that one.” He was not surprised to be told the room had been soundproofed.
The bed had been set up very nicely in one corner. It was narrow, though long, and the sheets and blankets were very plain, and very clean, likely only just put on. Although that of course said nothing; it would be normal enough a thing to change a bed’s linens in anticipation of a new visitor.
Still he asked, “Does anyone else on this island know of this laboratory? Anyone who happened to be brought down here?” and looked pointedly at Mr. Stiles.
But the other man only laughed. “Are you kidding me? Ems here made clear the first day I was here I wasn’t bringing anyone down here ever. Made for an occasionally awkward conversation, but that’s another story.”
One they certainly did not care to tell any more of to him either, as Mrs. Rothschild hastily said, “So now that we’re down here, I believe we should talk strategy. Since we still have no knowledge of what is in this mysterious Japanese military force or when they are likely to arrive, I believe the three of us should set up a monitoring system for the harbour. Your ship can be of very great help there, of course, and even more so if they would be so good as to do us a favour.” As she spoke, she walked to one of the walls, and Stephen saw for the first time the drawers that had apparently been carved into it, as she opened one of them and pulled out a box. “In here are a recent invention of mine. Scattered them around the back half of the island, and if the Surprise can avoid hitting them herself, then when they wash ashore we will know that another ship has been through those waters. Not much use for the front half of the island, of course, with all the ships coming and going into the port, but ships that go behind the island are uncommon.”
“Thank you,” said Stephen taking hold of the box. “I came to the island with my ship’s coxswain; when do you think it would be wisest to go back to him so he can deliver them to the ship?”
Mrs. Rothschild opened her mouth to give an answer, but Mr. Stiles suddenly said, “Wait a minute. Ems, can we talk without the doc in the room for a minute?”
Mrs. Rothschild did not look happy, but she nodded. “Dr. Maturin, if you could wait in the sitting room?”
“Certainly,” Stephen agreed, and still holding the box, he went up the stairs and back towards the fireplace.
However, when he got there, he hastily unbuckled his boots, and then, silently as possible, crept back past the rotating cylinder and to the top of the stairs. Mr. Stiles and Mrs. Rothschild were not attempting to keep their voices down, apparently willing to rely completely on the soundproofing, and he could easily hear them as she said, “...my invention, Jack, and it is not your place to deny me providing it to my countryman, just because you think you might have helped.” From the way she finished that sentence, Stephen suspected Mr. Stiles had not been nearly as much help in the invention of the device as he fancied he had.
When Mr. Stiles responded, it was in a very serious voice, the likes of which Stephen would not have expected from him after spending the previous hours observing his jocular personality. “Look,” he said. “That missive I got five months ago, well, it was from James Madison himself.”
“He finally wrote you?” She tried to make it sound teasing, but could not hide new tension in her voice. Stephen didn’t blame her, not least because from what he had observed of their partnership, he thought that the fact that he had not told her this previously significant.
“He did. He laid out very firm rules on our collaboration, in effect until further notice. Thankfully none of them ended up being any trouble during that last adventure with the…the…” he drifted off; he had sounded vaguely embarrassed. “But one of them was that the British government was not to get their hands on any new American research. And I was the one up with the books that night, remember.”
“I went back and looked up everything again over, just to make sure you’d gotten it right,” she said scornfully. “And they remain my invention. And you can’t muzzle me. But anyway, nobody else besides the two of us has to know how they work, do they? It is too late for them to not know they exist, since we told Dr. Maturin, and we need tell them no more.”
A long pause, and when Stephen heard Mr. Stiles’ hesitant, “All right, then,” he hastily moved from his place and back into the sitting room. He had just enough time to place his boots back on, sit down, and turn his head towards the window while affecting an air of boredom, before the two of them came out. “Forgive us for that, Dr. Maturin,” said Mrs. Rothschild. “Mr. Stiles felt the need to alert me to a concern he was authorized by the American government to disclose to me, but not to anyone else. Thankfully I do not believe it is one which will interfere with what were talking about, and if we are lucky, it will not interfere with your mission here at all.”
Her choice to lie to him was dismaying; it spoke too much of her not wanting him, or likely anyone involved with British Intelligence, to know too many details about her and her partner’s relationship. But he could not call her on it then, so he merely said, “I see. So I am delivering the items to the Surprise?”
They confirmed that he was, and after some further talk, determined that the task would likely require a second box of the devices, which Mrs. Rothschild went back into her lab to get. Left alone with Mr. Stiles, Stephen took a moment to gather himself, and face up to behaving in a way he disliked, but he suspected the American would like. Then he said, “Mrs. Rothschild seems to me to be a remarkable woman.”
“Oh yeah,” he agreed readily. “You don’t know the half of it. Of course, she’ll drive a man absolutely up the wall half the time, but crazily enough, I think I’ve gotten used to that. I suppose maybe I have spent too much time around her. You’ll have to watch out. She can scold like nobody’s business. Believe me, I know.” He chuckled, and Stephen listened for malice, or anything that would add any bite to his words, but heard nothing but the kind of exasperated fondness one would expect to find in a close friend, or a lover.
“I hope I should not provoke her so easily,” he commented, trying to keep it light.
“Well,” Mr. Stiles sighed, without losing any of his joviality, “maybe I do do a lot to deserve it. But then again, plenty of the acts she’s scolded me for have resulted in my saving the day, so you’d think maybe that might get her to not assume the worst every time I do something less than by the book, but no, it’s always the same thing. I tell you, there was this one time last year-”
“Oh, Jack, you’re not going off about that business with the stone partridge again?” Mrs. Rothschild had returned. “You do realize you certainly should not be telling another agent of the Crown about it.”
Mr. Stiles grumbled about it under his breath, but said no more about it, as Mrs. Rothschild handed him a second box, saying, “I believe the two boxes combined have nearly fifty devices in them, more than enough. Meanwhile, as Mr. Stiles said earlier, I would advise you stay on your ship for a few more days. We’ll devise some strategy for allowing you to stay here longer without exciting suspicion and without hiding in my lab all day, though of course the bed will be ready for whenever you should need it. If your attempts to pose as an American fail you may have to pose as a relation of mine; I have some oddballs in my family, and you could engage in some bizarre behavior and get away with any amazing amount of things if the French merely thought you one of them.”
It was a reasonable enough suggestion, Stephen knew, but he also had to consider the possibility that the two of them also wanted here as little as possible. If so, unfortunately for them, he had his secondary mission from Sir Joseph to complete, but it was best not to excite their suspicions of it. “The quicker such a scheme can be devised, the better,” he said to them. “I will spend tonight on the ship, but I shall come back tomorrow or the day after; I shall see if I can travel in the rain, for more concealment. Perhaps you can find a suitable identity for me by then?” He in fact no longer held much faith in his original idea as posing as an American; he was fairly certain Mr. Stiles, by his loud and showy nature, had made himself well known to all the local French as Mrs. Rothschild’s attaché, and that they would be very adept at spotting a true American from a false one.
“I shall see,” said Mrs. Rothschild, and she doubted she wished to excite any suspicions from him either. “But another good time to travel is in fact midday. It gets almost intolerably hot outside then, and it is the local custom to take refuge within one’s roof. You could travel around more freely then. In fact, that is probably when you should travel today.”
“If you don’t mind getting baked,” Mr. Stiles added.
“Fear not that I shall have any trouble with heat,” Stephen was quick to assure him. He in fact thrived in heat, and was deeply glad for the suggestion.
They had a very early midday meal, with Stephen generously sampling the local juice. Then, boxes in his hands, he took his leave of the two of them, and began his journey back to where Bonden awaited.
Mrs. Rothschild had been right about the middle of the day; not a soul was on the streets, and he got out of the town easily. It was not entirely easy to move about in the heat, a wet, heavy heat that even he could not but find a little smothering, and his weighty load did not help. Still he could manage, if slowly at times once the last of the houses were a safe distance away, and with occasional stops for rest once they were out of sight all together. He did remain alert even then, however, for any signs of any human beings where none would be expected, but was unsurprised when there were none.
He found Bonden by the boat asleep, his head covered by his jacket to try to escape the glare of the sun, but when Stephen lifted the coat Bonden, is the usual ways sailors could fall asleep instantly at a time when they could manage sleep and then wake up equally instantly when they need to, opened his eyes and pulled himself up. He was momentarily confused as to the time of day, but once he had learned it, and that Stephen had goods to bring back to the ship, they loaded the boat up and cast off. All through the trip back, Stephen kept his gaze on the horizon, eyes peeled for signs of any ships, but there were none.
Jack greeted Stephen as he always did when he came back from one of these trips, with a great smile that hid none of his relief, probably even more so because he had returned so much sooner than expected, and no questions asked, at least not up on deck. It was only down in the captain’s cabin, when the two of them were alone, and knew Killick to be busy, that Stephen told Jack what he needed to know, that there had been no sign of their impending Japanese visitors, and then took the devices out of the box and explained what they did. Jack of course agreed readily to distribute them, but Stephen heard the wariness in his voice, perhaps born from his having no knowledge of how they really worked.
It was not the easiest thing to do; he thought Mrs. Rothschild, though no doubt a very brilliant woman if she had indeed invented such devices, had not given very much thought to how things in the sea were subject to the whim of the waves, and one could not just proceed to any specific spot in the waters, drop something lightweight into them, and expect it to stay, or even to sink, in its exact location. He already knew they would need the boats, to make sure the devices did not collide with the Surprise just after being placed, and it might require clever handling to keep any collisions from the boats from happening.
Stephen had missed dinner, as he usually ate it with the gunroom and they had already dined, so he and Jack dined together instead, alone, which gave them the chance to talk further. By then Jack had mostly worked out his plan, which he was soon demonstrating to Stephen using pieces of bread, while Stephen did his best to understand all the details, and succeeded in understanding most of them. Jack also told him about the argument he had had with Captain le Feulipe earlier that day. “I have been uncertain whether or not to parole him," he explained. “But the damn queer thing is, he says he doesn’t want to be paroled, and in fact he does not want to be released on Pulau-Pulau. He will not give me any explanation as to why, though it seemed as if he was frightened by something. It does not extend to his crew; they will all be happy to get off this ship. But if we are not to rid ourselves of him here, what are we to do with him? We still cannot know when we are returning to Australia, we certainly are going nowhere else he could be paroled or released if an exchange could be managed.”
It could be something that had nothing to do with this Japanese affair, Stephen knew. It could be something as mundane as him having slept with someone’s wife or otherwise mortally offended someone. Nonetheless, he said, “Allow me to talk with him, my dear. Perhaps he will tell a doctor something he might not tell a captain.”
He saw the way Jack looked at him then; he was hardly so much of a fool as to not realize why Stephen might have a particular interest in his secrets, and Stephen knew it likely still hurt him, especially after the entirety of their business with Mrs. Wogan, that Stephen would be so close with such things. But he made no protest, instead saying, “If you believe so.”
He found Captain le Feulipe on deck, having a conversation with the sailing master which appeared to in fact be more the French captain trying to have a conversation and the sailing master walking around, not actually telling him to go away, but mostly ignoring him. It was not the first time they had seen him appear unaware of someone else’s obvious reaction to him. Still, it made it easy for Stephen to approach him and say, “Captain le Feulipe, if I may have a word with you in my cabin?”
“What? Oh, certainly, doctor!” He was his usual overly boisterous self, at least of the most part, but Stephen, looking closely at his eyes, did not find the projection of his mood entirely convincing.
He said no more to him as they made their way to the surgeon’s cabin. Le Feulipe was big enough the small space felt very filled when they both stood in it, and they could not put much distance between themselves, which was another advantage for Stephen.
“You know I went on shore today, of course,” he began.
“Yes, I heard.” He was still holding that smile somehow, but it didn’t stay in his voice.
“My visit to land was as a medical man,” he said, giving the explanation he had already prepared for anyone whom it was best to keep the truth from completely. “My stores had run low, and I was hoping to find things to replenish them with from the natural flora. Unfortunately I found nothing useful, but I did make contact with a couple of the natives who happened to be very far afield, and they spoke words that left me very concerned. I would prefer you speak of this to no one, not even to me, in the close quarters we are in on this ship, but they seemed concerned that two ships in this area have been infected by the plague.”
“The plague!” The captain’s reaction to this was what would have been expected by any man who knew him. His mouth gaping open, he backed up, nearly into the bulkhead, tilted on his heels until his ability to keep his balance almost came into question, his arms stuck out to either side, and his fingers flailed in a manner almost comic.
“I do not think it likely anyone on this ship has it,” Stephen continued, “or that anyone from your ship does. Still, I must know what ships you have had contact with.”
“Almost none since we left port,” said the captain. “We did briefly meet with a privateer, a French one, like us, name of Cornelle, and I went on board their ship, but I was not even on there very long, and met mostly with the captain-a Henri Dumond-who told me nothing important.”
He could not be absolutely certain, as le Feulipe’s loud mannerisms made him more difficult to read than most, but Stephen strongly suspected that he was telling the truth only about the single privateer and the name of its captain, and that someone on that ship had told him something very important. He would not at all be surprised if it had to do even with the freight, although he would not assume that, given how difficult it would have been for the two captains to try to arrange to meet in the middle of the unpredictable sea.
“Well, thank you, sir,” he said to him. “Although I hope this does not increase your anxiety about going ashore. I have just talked with Captain Aubrey, and he spoke as if you did not want to.”
“Oh, well, the capitan is the one who will decide on that,” said le Feulipe, far too hastily. “I did not tell him anything about one way or the other, no saying, ‘I want parole’ or ‘I do not want parole.’” Stephen would confirm it with Jack, but likely he had not said those words. “Perhaps, with some other things I say, I make him think I do not want to, that I am scared, but why should I be scared. It is our island, after all.”
“I will tell him that,” said Stephen, because of course he would. “I am sure he will be glad to hear of it.”
Chapter 4: Part 3
A meeting with the governor.
It took about a day and half to lay the devices about the back half of the island, and then return the ship to an easy point from where Stephen and Bonden could make landfall for a second time. During it Stephen listened as best he could to the words of the hands. The excitement over the affair of the lantern seemed to have died down a little, but despite his best efforts, the false story of the plague managed to get out, and, naturally, be believed as true, and not everyone was so confident that no one on board had it. Although the anxiety over this distracted the sailors enough that if anyone managed to hear of Jack’s dispute with the French captain over his possibly being paroled and put ashore, they did not see it worth talking about.
That he remained, of course, could not help but be noticed, especially when Jack made the decision to parole everyone else. “There are several neutral countries that have plenty of merchantmen in the area,” he told Stephen. “We shall approach one of those and let them take the men into the island’s harbour. It is not how I would like to do these things normally, of course, but the truth is I am uneasy about this whole matter, and about having both this captain and his crew on board.”
"I agree,” said Stephen. “Best to have him separated from them. Though I do tell you, brother, I have thought about it further, and whatever his reasons for wanting to be kept here, I am glad we are keeping him here, and under our eyes, for I still cannot guess as what secret plans he may have, or what it is he is not telling us.”
On the other hand, le Feulipe was there to watch the devices be dropped, with many exclamations and much marveling, and more than a few questions, which made Stephen glad there was literally no one on board who was even capable of answering them. Whether the captain was driven by more than mere enthusiastic curiousity he was uncertain; he genuinely did seem to be a very inquisitive man.
At least the excitement of the whole matter seemed to exhaust him, and like many of the Europeans who had lived for an extended amount of time in the hotter places of the world, he was prone to following the local custom of staying below cover and resting himself at midday when possible, and Stephen was quite certain he was asleep when Jack gave the order to put out the boat. Though he feared either this stay on the island, or a likely subsequent one, would be too long to keep much of its nature concealed from him.
It was hot indeed at midday, enough so that Stephen even felt a little concern for Bonden, whose breathing was far too heavy when at last he had the boat rowed ashore. “You ought to keep yourself covered again,” he said to him before leaving, “if only for concealment, and if you do not snore, which I do not believe you do, to spend the rest of this day asleep would not be a bad plan. If I am not back by nightfall, however, I would advise you to return to the Surprise. I will not come back here, except at midday.”
He thought it likely Bonden would have liked to protest this first part. Possibly the second part, as well. But as the only man on board ship besides Jack who was aware of the nature of Stephen’s usual activities ashore, although he very rarely came to know exactly what they entailed, he had, it seemed, resigned himself to the surgeon’s foolish behavior with relative cheer, and he agreed with only the admonishment, “If you disappear on us for more than a few days, I cannot answer for what the captain will do.”
Stephen wished such a warning was not necessary; in spite of his gratitude the one time Jack had come to rescue him, when the French had captured and tortured him in Port Mahon, he would never be happy at the notion of his risking his own life that way. “If I do not come back before then,” he therefore said to him, “I promise I will come back in five days.”
The heat was perhaps starting to fade when he reached the main town, and the inhabitants were starting to come back out to resume the day’s business. Nonetheless, Stephen reached the adobe of Mrs. Rothschild undisturbed, even if he noticed more than one curious native looking at him as he knocked on the door.
“Hey, about time you got here,” said Mr. Stiles as he answered the door. “We’re about to head off to endure the governor. Unexpected invite. She’ll probably want you to go with us now-maybe you should’ve dawdled a bit.”
“Is the governor really so unpleasant a man? I believe the office has recently changed hands.”
“Yeah, and not for the better, let me tell you. Especially since the guy who held it before we knew how to deal with. Jeremie Traque is a crazy man who likes to chase very young native women and harass us at every turn.”
“Jack!” Mrs. Rothschild had emerged; Stephen was impressed by how well she was dressed. “Why are you talking like that with Dr. Maturin with the door not even fully closed?”
“Fine, fine, fine!” The two men retreated from the door, and it was safely shut, although Stephen had not been worried anyway; no one else had been very near it, and the two of them had been talking quietly. “As I was telling the doctor here, we weren’t expecting to have to go see His Royal Not-So-Excellency today, and I suppose if you want people to believe you’ve got one of your crazy family members come to town, he should probably tag along. Pity we don’t have time to think up a really good identity for him.”
“A Catalan cousin, obviously,” mused Mrs. Rothschild. “One who perhaps does not speak the best French, English, or any language other than his own. I am sure you must know, Dr. Maturin, how much of an advantage it is when others do not think you can understand them, and are irritated when people mangle your own tongue. Within an hour they will all give up on any attempts to speak to you, and then because of that their attention on you will be lax.”
“Wait a minute,” said Jack. “You’re not telling me he’s going to be the one to go looking into the other rooms of the mansion? That’s my job!”
“That is normally your job only because as my attache, you are the person our hosts tend to pay less attention to of the two of us, and we usually do not have any third parties on hand to do it for us. Even so, you are hardly the most discreet man at reconnaissance that I have seen, and I am certain Dr. Maturin will be better at it.”
“You don’t even…” Mr. Stiles started, but something in Mrs. Rothschild face seemed to illustrate to him that any further argument would be fruitless. “Fine then, have it your way. You better be good at this, doctor.”
He gave Stephen a detailed description of the governor’s mansion, including a couple of secret rooms he’d discovered over the years, while Mrs. Rothschild went off, and came back with a coat and boots far fancier than the ones Stephen had been wearing. They were also a touch large on him, which he thought would be a hindrance if he was required to run or walk very fast while wearing them. “I do wish I had a good wig,” she said, “but we have had none in the house ever since Jack threw them out.”
“I told you, that wasn’t me!”
“I shall bring my own next time, if you wish it,” Stephen offered. He suspected it would not quite fit the image Mrs. Rothschild wanted their foes to have of him, but it would at least be something.
“That will do,” she said. “For today, we will say you dropped it into the sea-I imagine it has the scent of the sea, like the rest of you does, more or less.”
As they went out, Mr. Stiles and Mrs. Rothschild kept up with each other the kind of crossness that Stephen soon came to realize they both were, in fact, enjoying, especially when he made a comment about her and her disguises that Stephen did not think many men he knew would ever make to a lady of Mrs. Rothschild’s standing, and though she countered his words with her own, she clearly felt no offense at them. The natives they passed did not even raised their heads at their audible squabbling; Stephen suspected those who lived near them had often seen this sight before.
The new governor, however, did look a little perturbed, when they came to his mansion to find him unexpectedly waiting for them outside in the heat, and the two of them were so absorbed in their dispute over what he had said to the previous governor during their final interview with him that they were nearly upon him when she saw saw him there, hastily broke off the lengthy sentence she had been in the middle of, and cried out, “You Excellency! I hope we have not keep you waiting out in the heat for very long!” She and Mr. Stiles turned to face him, while Stephen kept his position behind them both and tried to make it look like he did not comprehend their words.
Governor Traque took the three of them in, and continued to look confused. “Ah, excuse me,” she continued. “I believe you have already met my man, Mr. Stiles, and this,” she stepped aside and Stephen stepped forward and offered his hand, “is my cousin, Senor Esteban el Agujetas. I am afraid he does not speak English or French; in fact, he speaks only Catalan Spanish.”
“Salutations.” The governor took Stephen’s hand while showing no sign of suspicion, though his face was still that of a man who was more likely than not to mean trouble for anyone in the world who might want something contrary to what he himself wanted. There was something wolfish about it, especially when he smiled. Stephen continued to feign lack of understanding, until Mrs. Rothschild said in Catalan, “This is the governor, Esteban,” and Stephen rapidly nodded and mumbled, “Ah, si, si,” while deliberately shaking the man’s hand much more aggressively than was called for. Pity it was a bad idea to try to cause an arm injury.
“Tell him I am most pleased to meet him,” the governor grinned, “and I am looking forward to hearing all the details. There is a story going around about a much-feared British man-of-war lurking around our island, and that one ship has already been taken; I’m sure he’d heard of such a thing.”
This would be a problem, Stephen thought, if this man was really determined to talk to him. But when Mrs. Rothschild had spoken a full translation, he said, in Catalan, “The ship I was on did not hear of such a thing, and indeed, as far as I can tell my voyage was a dull one, although I am afraid I suffered so from seasickness that I was constantly in my cabin, and found myself not even equal to asking anyone for news on most days.”
He was fairly confident his pale pallor would lead the governor to believe him easily vulnerable to any ailments he might claim, but the guffaws that came from the man in response were a less than pleasant surprise. His next few words were comprehensible to absolutely no one at all, and when he spoke coherent English again, it was to say, “Not used to the sea, are you? You must come from the inner lands of Catalunya, but even then, have you truly never been on it in your life?”
It was unlikely, Stephen supposed, that this man knew the first thing about Catalunya. That was likely further to their advantage. When the question was translated, he answered, “Once before, but I am afraid the seasickness is constant with me, and there is nothing to be done. As you can imagine, I did not have an easy journey out here.”
Mrs. Rothschild translated this, then added her own words, “I do not think you wish to hear that story, Your Excellency.”
“Oh no, definitely not,” Mr. Stiles chimed in. “We had to sit through it yesterday, and it put us off our dinner completely.”
“No, perhaps not. Shall we go in?”
The governor’s mansion was a bit grandiose and expensive for such a small island, although it was not necessarily maintained very well; Stephen’s sharp eyes picked out telltale signs on the walls and even a few indentations on the floor, although they were all covered discreetly by rugs. There was one place he even noticed Mrs. Rothschild very carefully pick her shoes over; she, clearly, had long taken note of this, and she and Mr. Stiles had probably also used it to their advantage many a time.
Unfortunately they were the only guests calling, and the Governor soon had the four of them seated, and said, “You have received a letter, Mrs. Rothschild, from the Empress. I am afraid it was most disgracefully handled by some people who wished to intrude upon her correspondence, and came into my possession, and opened already.”
“To me?” Mrs. Rothschild appeared to be genuinely astonished, though Stephen could detect the tiniest note of suspicion she failed to hide. “You speak of the Empress Marie Louise, I presume, but I cannot think of a reason she should write to me. I do not know how she even knows my name!”
“Well, beg pardon, of course, but the letter being opened my eyes did fall upon some of what was written in it. She said she was writing to you as someone whom her husband had told her might have been in her place.”
“Yeah, right,” said Mr. Stiles, “Like the Emperor would ever have treated her with that level of respect. It actually is true he tried to marry her a decade back, but-”
The Governor exclaimed his amazement in French; Stephen was equally shocked. He wished he could dare demand the story, but it was not a good idea to let the governor know he was ignorant of such a significant chapter in her family’s history.
“It was not so great an event as you think,” Mrs. Rothschild insisted. “He would never have taken me off this island, and while we did even begin a wedding ceremony, ultimately when the Dragoon showed up to call a halt to it, and succeeded, he let me go.”
“He treated her disgracefully,” said a much louder Mr. Stiles. “It was all about how he’d destroy England if she didn’t do everything he said. Imagine if you’d had to live the rest of your life that way, Ems.” His anger was obviously genuine and deep, that of a man who cared for a woman possibly more than he even cared for himself. Stephen was aware that this, also, was a bad sign from the viewpoint of British intelligence, but still he could not help but be comforted by it, purely for Mrs. Rothschild’s sake.
“In any event,” she said, “the Dragoon managed to rescue me with no harm done.” The warmth and amusement in her smile as she said this would’ve been understandable enough, of course, for two people referring to a secret they were keeping from someone they were talking with, although it was also an interesting contrast given how much they had been bickering during the past hour. “I believe I shall read this when I am back at home. Tell me, Governor, have you ever heard from the Empress yourself?”
“I saw her once,” he said eagerly, before beginning a lengthy account of the day he had seen the Empress from afar, shortly after her wedding to Bonaparte, including such details as which lady’s hat he’d accidentally jostled, and what she had said to him, and whose dog had startled him. Mrs. Rothschild encouraged him in such details, making such an impression of avid eagerness, and he was still telling the story an hour later, when Stephen gave a tiny groan and leaned forward. “Are you all right, sir?” the governor asked anxiously, as Mrs. Rothschild asked the same in Catalan.
“I…” Stephen stood and made a show of being tired and cramped up. “I think I could do with some fresh air.” When Mrs. Rothschild translated his words, the Governor nodded, and let him go.
He could give himself at least ten minutes, possibly twenty, although Stephen initially headed back towards the entrance of the mansion. He had spotted fairly near it signs of an entrance to one of the hidden stairways used by the servants, and when he slipped through it, thankfully none of the servants were actually using it at that moment. Mr. Stiles’ description of the mansion included details on all of its backstairs; he himself had used them plenty of times. Within five minutes of the most rapid walk he could manage, Stephen had exited into the corridor adjoining the Governor’s office, and when he reached the door he found it had not been locked.
The study was richly decorated, its desk quite large and covered with papers that did not look very well arranged. A glance over them initially did not reveal anything that looked unusual; most of them appeared to be what one would expect on a French governor’s desk. Stephen did spot one letter with the Emperor’s seal, but when he read it, he found it short and full of very general words, typical for a new governor. He supposed anything more unusual would probably be in the locked cabinet adjoining the desk, which was unfortunate, as he lacked the time to break into it, even had he been willing to leave evidence of an intruder having been in the study.
But when he was putting it down in the exact spot he had found it, he noticed underneath three pieces of paper was a fourth that appeared to have writing on the side of it facing downward. Still not thinking that necessarily meant anything, he carefully pulled it out and looked at it.
On top of it was a symbol he had never seen before, and below was a letter written in Dutch, with French words written clumsily below in what looked like the governor’s attempt to translate it. Dutch was not a language Stephen could read without effort, so instead he took a few minutes to read the French words and commit them to memory. There were enough he could get a general idea of what the message was about: it sent salutations to both the governor and Napoleon Bonaparte, and offered them the support of great warriors. The signature was in Japanese script.
He replaced it as close to the position he had found it in as he could, shifting the exact same papers over it. Then he hurried out and back the way he came.
They had confirmation of their main fear, except that Stephen could not help but feel the sending of such a letter to this governor was odd. From what he could tell of the language they had used, they’d seemed to have no clear idea of who the man was, even though they knew the title of his position, and that they might think him a much more important man than he actually happened to be. To some extent some false impressions and ignorance made sense for people living in a country cut off from the world, but there had also been a mention of Australia as a “small” place, and if they were attempting to sail anywhere, they ought to know it was not. At the very least, they likely hadn't yet made concrete plans for their voyage.
Once again he was fortunate enough to run into none of the servants on the backstairs, nor was anyone in the foyer when he emerged into it. Quick walking brought him back to the drawing room, though he was careful to slow down before his footsteps were likely to be identified. “You were quite some time,” Mrs. Rothschild observed to him in Catalan. “We were even thinking about taking our leave of here.”
“It was hotter outside than I anticipated,” he answered, and sat down as she translated their words for the governor’s benefit.
“If it is,” said the governor when he had heard them, “perhaps you don’t need to leave so soon.”
“I am sorry,” said Mrs. Rothschild, “but I have business this afternoon that truly must be seen to. It has been a pleasure.”
The walk back was quick and quiet, and Stephen used it to study his two companions as best he could manage without making himself obvious. There was not much to observe; theirs was mostly the easy silence of two people who had spent a decade in each other’s pockets and were at least momentarily in harmony with each other. But he did take not at one point when his eyes flicked towards her, and she tilted her head slightly, and slight twitches of his lips and eyebrows gave away further silent communication from her. Careless for a spy, on his part. Although he could not merely from this determine what they might be communicating about.
Down in her laboratory, Stephen recounted to his two companions what he had seen. Mrs. Rothschild insisted on writing it all down, although she was quick to reassure him the notes would never leave the laboratory, and the means of disposing of them within seconds if necessary were available. He watched her and Mr. Stiles survey her finished notes together, though they did not seem to attempt any more communication without him noticing; their eyes remained fixed on the papers, and when he managed to glimpse their hands he did not see them do more than handle the pages. She finished reading first, he very shortly after. “Don’t think it’s anyone we’ve run into here before,” he said.
“No,” she agreed. “Which means we still have too little information to do much with. Except…it might be a mistranslation, of course, but it sounds like they will arrive in more than one ship, and possibly not all at once. No small army, obviously.”
They also read through the letter from the Empress Marie Louise, but if there was to be anything of significance to be noted in it, they did not identify it on that day. She claimed to have heard Mrs. Rothschild’s name from one of the older servants, which was not implausible, and to simply be intrigued over the fact that her husband had been so determined to marry a proud Englishwoman, which was also plausible, but less likely. “I shall send her a response,” said Mrs. Rothschild. “Something short and harmless, not too encouraging.”
“You sure you don’t want to be friends with an Empress?” grinned Mr. Stiles. “It’d be useful, for one thing.”
“If she was married to another Emperor,” said Mrs. Rothschild, “but I would greatly rather that Bonaparte never received any unnecessarily reminder of my name for all the rest of his days.” That, of course, was understandable enough on her part.
The rest of the day passed without event. Stephen soon decided there was not an immediate reason not to return to the Surprise the following day Mrs. Rothschild happily ordered her cook to prepare dinner for three. While they ate, they entertained each other were the more harmless stories from their lives, and Stephen learned a great deal about the history of the East Indies, as well as America up to 1801. Mrs. Rothschild, as it happened, had not been entirely lying when she had told the governor she had business, though it involved meeting someone later in the evening. She and Mr. Stiles went out together, but as she was convinced the merchant she was meeting with was truly nothing other than what he claimed to be, Stephen elected to stay behind, saying he wished to go to bed early.
When they were gone, and he was certain none of the servants were watching, he carefully snuck up the stairs to the master bedroom.
He had not examined it for very long before he was satisfied that Mrs. Rothschild did not sleep in her bed alone. Between the bedclothes and the frame he found several stands of hair too dark to be hers. Most of the items in her closet were feminine, but in one corner they lay a stocking obviously made for the leg of a man. When he breathed in deep enough, he caught the lingering smell of sexual congress, recently conducted, likely only the previous night.
He lingered just a little longer, looking in the drawers and at Mrs. Rothschild’s papers. One was locked, with the key not in the room. He thought that must contain all her more sensitive documents, because he could not find any of them anywhere else. Instead she had records of her and her late husband’s shipping business, some scientific notes and sketches of devices, including the ones he had taken back to the Surprise, and a few miscellaneous materials, such as papers with Chinese lettering on them that were obviously her practice papers from learning how to read and write the script. Stephen regretted then he himself was not better versed in it.
The only real surprise was the lack of papers from Mr. Stiles anywhere in the drawers, when he had found none, sensitive or otherwise, downstairs either. It was a possibility he was one agent who burned everything he wrote upon, even if he wrote nothing that had to do with his spy work. But he did not seem to Stephen to be that type of man at all. More likely, he thought, he was instead a man who did not write very much. He had not struck Stephen as at all Mrs. Rothschild’s equal intellectually, though certainly he had to possess cunning, and all those particular gifts of mind.
When he had retreated downstairs to the drawing room, he briefly sat and contemplated whether it might not be impossible to get Mr. Stiles to defect. He clearly had a romantic image of himself, one that could very possibly override his loyalty to his country if pressed, and if he was genuinely attached to Mrs. Rothschild, the idea of defecting for love might be made to appeal to him. Or his image of himself could be of a man who would never let a woman persuade him to do such a thing, or, when brought to think of it, would expect her to do it rather than himself.
It was too risky, he decided, to even make the suggestion to Mrs. Rothschild. She might decide to bring it up to Mr. Stiles without being thoroughly sure he would not have the wrong reaction, too desperate to believe in the easiest way out. He needed to observe them further, preferably in a situation where they believed themselves to be alone.
He lingered a little longer in the drawing room after his decision was made. Mrs. Rothschild had an impressive library, and while more books in it than not were about mechanics, she also had some tomes on the native flora and fauna of both Australia and the East Indies. Stephen spent the better part of an hour reading about Caledonian birds, and was in the middle of a fascinating passage about kagus when he heard Mrs. Rothschild and Mr. Stiles return. He did not immediately move from where he sat, but he ceased reading, letting the book stay open with his eyes no longer focused on it, while he instead attempted to discern what they were saying.
Mr. Stiles was talking much more loudly than Mrs. Rothschild, so initially Stephen heard only his replies: “…don’t think he has the brains for that.” “Please, can you stand to be around him that much? He doesn’t even know anything about machines the way that other guy did.” “No, that’s the one where if we ever see him again I gotta punch him and run, because if I don’t, he’ll do it to me.” He thinks he hears Mrs. Rothschild actually chuckle at those words.
Then she says, loud enough for him to hear easily, “Under different circumstances, I think Dr. Maturin might have enjoyed his company. I know they both share a love for natural philosophy.”
“If that’s what you call a bug fetish.”
At that remark, Mrs. Rothschild outright laughed, a sound so unexpected it struck Stephen. Somehow it prompted him to put his book down, silently stalk to the drawing room entrance, and peer outside. He had a greeting ready in case they had their heads turned towards it and saw him, but some instinct told him that would not be the case.
The two of them were at the far end of the hall, arm in arm, faces so close together that kissing would not have increased the intimacy of it very much. They did not even look very drunk, though they had perhaps consumed a little bit of wine, not enough to make their walk at all unsteady, but enough to make her face much brighter than he had previously seen it.
Perhaps, too, it was part of the reason she was looking at her companion the way she was. The main feature on her face was open affection, only a little bit of her amusement remaining. It made her to Stephen’s eyes look both younger and older.
He withdrew back into the drawing room, only just enough so there would be no chance of their seeing him. He at least knew they had not done so already when Mr. Stiles said, “You think the good doctor is still up? Guy strikes me as the type to stay up at night and lurk in the corners.”
Tonight, he had assessed the situation better than Mrs. Rothschild, who said, “After all the exertion he has had to engage in today, surely he must be asleep, as he said he would be, remember.”
She was no fool, however. The next thing she said was, “We need to keep an eye out, however. I am almost certain he is here to spy on us as much as on the French.”
“So they couldn’t leave us alone, could they?” sighed Mr. Stiles. “Never mind that it’s been made clear to me I’m to still work against Napoleon, whatever anybody else involved is doing, and meanwhile they’d be damn idiots if they took you away from here. I tell you, if any of those assholes from wherever they’re running it out of now come here to inquire about my loyalties..what’s he gonna do? He better not try to hurt either of us. It’ll be two against one then, and it’ll be all his fault.”
He spoke as if he had no doubt that she would protect him from her own colleagues. But Stephen thought that at least somewhat presumptive on his part when he heard her cautious response, “I do not think he will engage us in such a manner if we give him no good reason to. He is a very smart man.”
Her lover understood her thoughts as well. “So you might not?” he demanded, and there was a new, harder anger there, unlike anything there had been in his cross words to her earlier that day. “If he came out here right now and tried to kill me, you’d just stand here?”
“I would not let him kill you.” She spoke it swiftly and certainly; no doubt there.
“Well,” he replied, unimpressed, “nice to know you wouldn’t let him go *that* far.” His footsteps increased in volume, both because he was now passing the drawing room, and because he was in fact storming by it.
“Jack!” Mrs. Rothschild called after him. “Jack!” He gave no response before Stephen heard their footsteps reach the stairs, descend upward, and then fade from his hearing.
Stephen remained another hour in the drawing room, engaging in a little further reading, and listening for if either of them came back downstairs. When they did not, he eventually descended back down to the laboratory to sleep, and found himself hoping that his two hosts had at resolved their quarrel, at least for the night, before they had slept.