The sun was gleamingly faintly on the rain-dampened roofs of Whitehall, and swarms of sailors, taking advantage of the easing of the weather, shoved roughly past Sir Joseph Blaine as he made his way towards his club: not an unusual spectacle in London at any time, of course, but the sight of so many wind-roughened faces under sennit shore-going hats was a reminder that there was a letter he needed to write. “Thank you, Lanham,” he said absently to the porter who took his umbrella, unnecessary now but doubtless useful for his walk homewards. “And please ask James to bring me paper and ink.”
“Certainly, sir,” Lanham said, and Sir Joseph settled into a settee by the fireplace, accepting gratefully the glass of port James brought him, along with the requested materials. Sir Joseph thought for a moment, then dashed off a few quick lines. “To Stephen Maturin of the Royal Society, if you please, James; I believe he lodges at the Grapes,” he said.
“At once, sir,” James said, and Sir Joseph settled back into his seat to contemplate supper.
Sir Joseph was a capable, committed chief of intelligence and an excellent judge of character in those he employed, but like any man who labored in the halls of civil service on behalf of his country, he was constrained by the call of duty or perhaps politics to accept the help of those less able than himself. His assistant was one such; Sir Joseph was just finishing the last lines of a letter the next morning when Hamilton knocked on the door and said in an aggrieved tone, “Beg pardon, sir, but there’s a…person here to see you.”
“A slight gentleman, in shabby clothes?” Sir Joseph asked, looking up from his papers; Hamilton had only been working for naval intelligence for a month, and wouldn’t have yet encountered Doctor Maturin, as that worthy gentleman had until recently been abroad; Scotland, was it, or perhaps Greenland?
“Yes, sir,” Hamilton said, disapproval writ clear upon his pinched narrow face.
The gentleman that Hamilton showed in was indeed slight, and his clothes were indeed shabby, these being a pale shirt that once might have been blue linen but was now a faded grey, and trousers that looked rather like their wearer had been involved in fisticuffs or engaged in butchery, spotted as they were with dried blood. This latter was eminently possible, as Doctor Maturin was a well-respected physician who had attended the Duke of Clarence and was said to be able to bring a patient back from the brink of death. Since even before the year one he had sailed as ship’s surgeon with Captain Aubrey, who had caused such talk with the action aboard the Cacafuego, but in actual fact Maturin was a secret agent: one of the best, because he was not swayed by pecuniary considerations but rather by impassioned hatred of Buonaparte and all he stood for: an idealist who had sacrificed much already for the cause.
“Ah, Maturin!” said Sir Joseph. “You appear to be in very good—good spirits.” He had been about to say ‘health’ when he recalled the sharp words Maturin had given him in spite of their long-standing friendship the last time he had ventured to offer a suggestion for an acquaintance feeling poorly.
“Well, and I am, too,” Maturin said, expansively. “I have here the very wonder of the world—” this as he patted his pocket, which bulged visibly with a mysterious packet—“a carcass of the true northern lapwing, Vanellus vanellus. A northern lapwing, can you credit it? I shall present it at the next Society meeting, so soon as I have leisure to dissect it properly.”
“A lapwing, indeed,” said Sir Joseph, attempting to match Maturin’s enthusiasm: but he was an aficionado of the coeleoptera rather than the aves, and his attempt likely lacked something in its power to convince.
“I see you have little attention to spare for birds, however,” observed Maturin.
Thus recalled to his business, Sir Joseph sat, and Maturin did the same. “The dockyard corruption has reached shocking heights,” said Sir Joseph, without further ado. “Normally, such things are beneath our notice, being the way the navy has always done its business, but the First Lord has indicated his concern, and I am therefore obliged to take some notice of it. Might I beg you to undertake some investigation for me? There are several gentlemen whose connexions and business activities have caused some discussion.”
“I am grown tolerably naval, you know,” said Maturin. “I congratulate myself that I have learned the difference between larboard and starboard. But the peculiarities of the marine life, the sailor’s impenetrable jargon, his nautical cant, is still wont to trip me up from time to time.”
“Well,” said Sir Joseph, delicately, “were it anyone other than you, Maturin, I should hesitate to ask, but I had hoped you might perhaps prevail upon your friend Aubrey to be your guide in matters naval. Our acquaintance,” he added, somewhat apologetically, “is of long enough standing that I trust you will tell me if I overstep, but I well remember the remarkable results you were able to attain in the Baltic.”
“My dear Sir Joseph,” Maturin said. “I have sailed with Captain Aubrey for many years, and you must know I esteem him more than many men of my acquaintance. However, let me be candid and say that he is perhaps not the best judge of character, by land. By sea, you could desire no better guide, but by land, he, like so many sailors, is prey to every scoundrel with plans for a navigational canal or a stock that is said to yield twenty per cent per annum.”
Sir Joseph pondered this for a moment. He too had known such sailors: stolid and dependable by sea, utterly confounded on land—inclined to rash action in port—likely to believe the most unlikely of promises from loose women. “That may be, that may be,” he allowed. “This is a wrinkle I had not anticipated: what shall I do, Maturin? There is some haste to the question, you understand, and the First Lord grows impatient.”
“It is always hurry hurry hurry, with these sailors,” said Maturin, sourly, “and never a moment for calm reflection. However, I shall say no more,”—this catching Sir Joseph’s ill-at-ease look. “Whatever insufficiency Captain Aubrey may show in the matter of judgement by land, I believe that for naval matters, you could not want a more able advisor, and this is surely one such. In matters that touch upon the sea, you will find him without peer, and as long as wiser hands may reign in his wilder follies, I believe there should be little cause for concern.”
“Excellent,” said Sir Joseph, with satisfaction. “Now, my dear sir, shall we repair to my club and take a draught of beer and a mutton chop while we discuss further details, or have you already dined?”
* * *
“How I wish I were at sea,” said Jack Aubrey, thoughtlessly, then caught his wife’s wounded look. “Oh—that is—” he said, hastily, “it’s only that at sea the rain seems to have much less effect, you know,” he said, apologetically. “It seems the natural state of affairs, being wet at sea.”
This didn’t seem to answer, however; Sophie’s face, normally a flushed and rosy pink and bearing loving smiles, was pale and pinched, and Jack was contemplating making further apologies when there came a pounding at the door. “What? Who can that be?” cried Mrs. Williams, in her loud, displeased voice. “Out and about on a day like this? And they shall want to come in and drip all over the floor, too. Aubrey, you must send them around to the kitchen.”
Preserved Killick, who was Jack’s steward at sea and therefore seemed to think the butler’s role was rightly his by land (though a less likely butler could scarce be imagined), swung open the door. “Which it’s the Doctor,” Killick announced, over his shoulder, in the mumble he employed when there were women present.
“The Doctor!” cried Mrs. Williams, and, “Why, Stephen!” cried Sophie and Jack together, leaping to their feet. In the bustle occasioned by this announcement (Mrs. Williams rushing upstairs to change her frock, the children shrieking in surprise at the uproar, and Killick tutting in disapproval at the mud on the Doctor’s coat) it was some minutes before they could sit down again, but shortly they settled together in the sitting room, where Jack took advantage of Mrs. Williams’ absence to light more tapers than she would possibly have countenanced.
“Sophia, my dear, you are altogether too pale,” said Stephen, peering at her. “As your physician, let me recommend a glass of madeira.”
Sophie, who rarely drank more than elderflower wine or perhaps a small glass of porter, was not the type of woman to resort to the gin-bottle, but she had the obedient attitude towards her physician of a well-bred provincial girl with a dutiful nature. Thus, having called upon Killick to provide glasses of madeira all round, and having dispensed with the usual inquiries about their health and the whereabouts of Stephen’s wife, Sophie’s cousin Diana Maturin née Villiers (in Bath with her friend Mrs. Hershey) they moved on to the vastly more interesting topics of Stephen’s adventures in Scotland, Jack’s labors with writing a proof of some spherical trigonometry of especial interest to sailors (the details of which were as comprehensible as Greek to Stephen and Sophie, or less, for Stephen understood Greek), Sophie’s pleasure at the children’s cheerful nature and steady progress in the schoolroom.
“But, Stephen, what brings you to Hampshire?” Jack asked, at length, his ruddy cheerful face glowing with a contained sort of eagerness: on similar visits before Stephen had come bearing orders from the Admiralty.
“No news about dear Surprise, I am afraid,” Stephen said. “However, I do come with news, of a sort. I happened to meet with Sir Joseph Blaine and we discussed some of the more interesting specimens we had each seen,” —this with a close and secretive look, for Sophie knew nothing of Stephen’s role as an agent of the naval intelligence department. “He asked me to help him with a task, and were you willing I should welcome your help, as it’s to do with shipyard expenditures, and you, thorough sea-going creature that you are, would be an invaluable aid.”
“Oh?” said Jack, with an inner smile; on their last voyage Stephen had been heard to confuse the mainsail and the mizzensail, to the palpable horror of several wooden-faced midshipmen nearby. “Well, Stephen, if it should be a help to you I’m glad to do it, I’m sure. And to Sir Joseph as well.”
At this point, Sophie, flushed and sleepy-eyed with madeira, made her murmured good-nights. Port refreshed, Jack and Stephen settled closer to the fire, and Stephen, speaking more freely, described to Jack the intelligence Sir Joseph had provided: shockingly great depredations from the shipyards at Chatham, particularly Beale’s; losses that went far beyond the usual capabarre to which a blind eye could be turned; the suspicion that the principal actors had been incited by someone in the opposition, so as to discredit the First Lord and the Admiralty. “Sir Joseph believes that if we can find proof that some agent has encouraged this thievery, this wicked embezzlement, then we can unravel the scheme without undue damage to the shipyards, but if it goes on Sir Joseph believes the First Lord may well have to answer for the consequences with Parliament.”
“You know politics ain’t my line, Stephen, but from a navy standpoint, what you say is very grave,” Jack said. “You know we lost ships faster than we could rebuild them in the last war, and if Spain comes in again we shall need every ship we can lay our hands on. The loss of a shipyard such as Beale’s would set us back a great deal, and you know the men would take it amiss if it were shuttered through any action of government. Fire or war they could stand, as it’s by way of the nature of things, you know, but if government were to close it down—why, I should—that is, they should take it very hard indeed.” Jack pondered for a while on the shipyards he had known—capabarre on board and off—the sweet-sailing ships like the Surprise and the ill-omened floating sea-coffins like the horrible old Leopard and the yards that built them—and then asked: “But, Stephen, how we shall ever find proof of what you describe I cannot tell; surely no one would be so foolish as to leave such things out where they could be found.”
“In general, you would be right, I believe,” Stephen said. “However, in this case, Sir Joseph suspects either an altogether too-confident villain or a foolish one, for it was through a letter that happened to, shall we say, fall into the right set of hands—through a letter that he had word of the crime in the first place. The letter was unsigned, but he believes more such might be found, and if we were to find written proof, well, then—”
“Then we shall have them between a rock and the deep blue sea?” Jack offered, then paused. “No, that ain’t quite right. But—Stephen, I do not like this,” he said. “What you say sounds like a shocking breach of privacy, if we are to be reading another man’s letters.”
“Nonsense, my dear,” Stephen said. “It is perfectly acceptable. And you said yourself, it is for the good of the service, after all. You have told me often enough that a man must sometimes do distasteful things for the sake of duty.”
“Well, that is true enough, certainly,” Jack said, face clearing. “One generally doesn’t speak of it, but I have done a number of disagreeable things for the good of the service, you know, Stephen, so what’s one more?”
“Good, then,” Stephen said, satisfied. “Here is what we shall do, Jack. It is Admiral Bowen, the scoundrel, who Sir Joseph believes to chief among those enriching themselves to such a shocking degree, and as fortune would have it, his wife is hosting a grand party in Bath, the week after next. I have proposed to Sir Joseph that if you are willing, we should go down. I believe Diana should be able to acquire an invitation.”
“Oh, as to that, Stephen,” Jack said, “as long as it is not a gathering of intimates, Admiral Bowen can scarcely refuse to invite me; it wouldn’t look right, you know, given his place on the list and mine, even if his family are Tories. Never fear about that. I tell you what, though, Stephen, I wonder what Sophie will say about uprooting the household and going to Bath.”
* * *
The trip was, to their delight, uneventful; the coach, with Jack’s coxswain Barrett Bonden driving, threw a wheel outside of Salisbury, but they were close enough to the town that they were able to break their journey there, and they spent a pleasant evening in an inn where they ate as excellent a leg of lamb as Stephen could remember. By mid-day the next day they had arrived in Bath. Stephen had not seen his wife for several weeks, since before his journey to Scotland, and Diana, who was always most affectionate after a long separation, greeted him with evident fondness and tenderness.
“Why, Sophie, and Cousin Jack!” she said, “how lovely to see you! You must come in; perhaps you should like a cup of punch? And Jacobs has found me some truly delectable little quails at market, and since you are here in time for dinner, we shall dine as soon as Cook can prepare them.”
Sophie was sometimes reserved towards her cousin, feeling obscurely that Diana’s unreliable fiery nature was perhaps not quite the thing, but this warm greeting did away with any inclination she might have had towards distance; so too did Diana’s sweeping her away after they had eaten to examine every particular of her frock, her slippers, her jewels (Jack had bought her a truly respectable set of rubies with some of the prize money from his successes in the Baltic). This emphasis on clothing, however, reminded Jack of his own deficiencies in that regard. “I shall need a new coat, if I am to be a credit to Sophie,” he said, and then peered at Stephen and added, “so too shall you, I make no doubt,” because he had known Stephen for many years now and his habit of wearing whatever clothing that came to hand was familiar, if much deplored. “Shall we go into town?”
* * *
“Why, Captain Aubrey!” cried Mrs. Bowen, “and Mrs. Aubrey! How lovely that you were able to join us.” She was an elegant dark-haired lady swathed in silks, and a fair bit younger than her husband, with whom Jack had sailed many years previous. “And Mr. and Mrs. Maturin,” —this with an affectionate buss for Diana; they had spent time together at Mrs. Hershey’s while Diana was there. “My husband is about, somewhere, and do you know my brother, Captain Pomfret?”
“Your servant, sir,” Jack said, bowing. Jack did indeed know Pomfret, and liked him little; he was a florid, pugnacious man, a hard-horse captain who believed the cat to be the best way to enforce discipline. “I had not realized you was relations. Captain Pomfret has the Cassiopeia,” he added to Sophie, “a lovely ship of 96 guns.”
“Oh, indeed?” Sophie said, politely; she had been married to Jack for many years now, but the intricacies of ships and sailing were still beyond her ken, or certainly beyond her interest, except those ships that Jack himself commanded.
“Though I am ashore, just now,” Pomfret said. “I sit in Parliament, and tomorrow shall go to town for a committee meeting.” The way he raised his voice when he said ‘Parliament’ to draw attention to it, his fashionable French-cut coat, and the slightly too-interested way he looked at her made Sophie inclined to dislike him; Jack apparently agreed, because he made only the barest of courtesies, and those cooly, before drawing her away into the crowd.
They had only been there ten minutes, however, before Mrs. Bowen reappeared. “Aubrey, Maturin,” she said, addressing them both. “I am confronted with a dilemma. The musicians I hired have not yet appeared, and one cannot have a ball without music, can one? My brother tells me you are both musicians; might I prevail upon you to play during the dancing?”
It was an uncommon request; they had both played at salons, or at small parties, but those had been parties hosted by particular friends. And—Jack hardly had to catch Stephen’s eye to have it confirmed—if they were occupied with their violin and cello, they could hardly engage in any search of the Admiral’s papers. However, one did not lightly refuse an Admiral, and therefore, one did not lightly refuse his wife.
“I should like to oblige you, ma’am,” Jack said, struck with sudden inspiration, “but of course we neither of us brought our instruments.”
“Nonsense,” said she. “That is easily fixed; I have taken the liberty of asking your man Killick to bring them. Say you will, do; you shall save me from such embarrassment.”
Deprived of excuses, the only thing to do was accede. “Let us confer upon music, then, madam,” Jack said, bowing, “and then we are yours to command.”
Mrs. Bowen swept off in a rustle of silks and glitter of jewels (her necklace of sapphires, while not quite as large as Diana’s Blue Peter, was nearly as grand, and she had arranged it so that it caught the light of all the candles) and Jack drew Stephen into a secluded niche, Sophie and Diana trailing behind. “Ah, Stephen,” Jack said, apologetically. “I beg your pardon; I could not think how to avoid it.”
“No, you were right, my dear,” Stephen said. “We could not refuse without causing a fuss. We shall have to see if we can slip away during a break in the dancing. I do not like our chances, however.”
“Why, Stephen,” Diana said, teasing. “Anyone would think you had some secret mission you were planning; I should be quite put out if I thought my husband had brought me to a party only to discover he was engaged upon business.”
“Well, and so I have, my dear, in a way,” Stephen said. “You shall have to forgive me, but we—that is, Jack was tasked by the Admiralty with a mission, and he had planned to undertake it tonight, hidden in the confusion caused by the ball.”
“A mission!” said Diana delightedly. She was flushed and smiling; for a woman she had a good head for wine, unlike her cousin, and it always lent a lovely color to her cheeks. “I do so love intrigue! I feel like I am back in India again. The sultans were always intriguing amongst themselves, or the chief officials with the sultans, or the sultan’s wives with the sultan’s mistresses,” —for Diana had been raised in India by her father, and had married a soldier there before he had died and she returned to England. “What a delightful prospect! Had I been serious, of course I should have forgiven you, my dear.”
Stephen had often reflected that in many ways Diana should have been born a man; the quiet reserved provincial married life that Sophie was so well-suited to was fairly stifling to her more fiery, impassioned cousin. “Well, thank you, my dear,” he said, squeezing her hand. “I am grateful we don’t have quite the same level of scheming in England, however.”
“Well, you have not seen the intrigues that go on amongst unmarried women, I suppose,” Diana said, laughing, and pressed his hand affectionately. “Come, though, Sophie, let us let them decide what to play.”
* * *
What with the bustle and the attention, they were not able to put down their instruments for quite a while, and even when they did beg off to take refreshment, Jack found it impossible to escape. Stephen, being less well known to the naval community, could have managed it, but immediately as he stepped into the crowd, Jack found Pomfret wanting to engage him in conversation, and after him, Miss Bowen, the daughter of their hosts. “It is no use,” he whispered to Stephen in an undertone, after some minutes of this. “We are too conspicuous now; we shall never slip away.”
“Never fear, joy,” Stephen murmured back. “We shall have to find another way, that’s all. Such setbacks are common in this line of work, you know.”
“What a relief, Stephen,” Jack said. “I never shirk from my duty, you know, but I confess I should be sadly confused as to how to carry out our task now.”
Thus freed from business at least for the rest of the evening, Jack resolved to enjoy the rest of the party; perhaps inspired by their example, another guest produced a flute and played some hornpipes, and then a lady took a seat at the pianoforte, so he took Sophie’s hand and led her to the floor; and, unconstrained by his earlier anxiety at the prospect of spying, he enjoyed rather more glasses of wine than would have been wise if he had been going to engage in the mission from Whitehall.
Sophie, too, drank some wine; and Diana’s flashing eyes and graceful carriage and husky laugh caught the attention of every man present, though Jack was glad to see she appeared to take no notice of this fact, and instead seemed as affectionate towards Stephen as she ever had been. “Diana seems happy tonight,” he observed to Sophie, gesturing towards where Stephen was leading his wife in a surprisingly elegant dance, and Sophie looked up at him with an unusually knowing look. “Cousin Diana is in fine form, indeed,” Sophie said, and there was a note of real warmth in her voice.
Jack did not discover the reason for that secretive look, however, until they had returned to the house on Landsdowne Road. “Quite a successful party, I thought,” Jack said, in satisfaction; he had always loved to dance. “Except for the confusion with the music, though I suppose that can’t be helped. You were in fine form, Cousin Diana,” he added, nodding to her. “Both Sophie and I said so.”
Diana and Sophie exchanged a look, a laughing look. “Finer form than even you know, Jack,” she said, complacently. “I have something here that you will find tolerably interesting, I do believe,” said she, and produced from somewhere a letter. “Here, Sophie, light a candle, will you, my dear?”
Jack peered at it. “Why, Diana!” he said, amazed. “This is a letter from Captain Pomfret to his sister!”
“As penetrating as always, Jack,” Diana said, though affectionately. “It is indeed.”
“Stephen, come look at this,” Jack said. “Is this letter enough to suggest guilt? See here, how he suggests to her that she might have her husband obtain nine hundredweight of copper at Beale’s?”
Stephen approached and read the section in question. “I should not like to promise, Jack,” he said. “I am cautious by nature, you know. However, the letter is signed, and I believe even those skeptics in Whitehall might have a hard time arguing with that.”
“Why, Cousin Diana!” Jack said, full of admiration. “However did you know? This is the exact question that we had intended to take up. And how on earth did you manage?”
“Well,” said Diana, laughing. “It was not a tactic that would have occurred to you men, I don’t believe. However, your mention of a mission make me think of some things Mrs. Bowen had said about her brother and his precipitous advancement, and I confess I had wondered where she had gotten the money for that rather gaudy array of jewels. They are quite shockingly in debt, you know; they don’t like to bruit it about, but he is an inveterate gambler.”
“A temptation for some men, heaven knows,” said Stephen. “I have often been glad I have the skill to match my slight taste for the game.”
“Yes,” Diana said. “So it was quite simple, truly: Mrs. Bowen and I often run into one another at Mrs. Hershey’s, you know, and I have seen her drink too much brandy on more than one occasion, so I drew her away and plied her with wine, and soon enough she told me quite a lot of details.” She laughed, and added, “I’m afraid it might have been rather deleterious to your reputation, my dear, but I trusted you would not mind my pretending you too were in debt and needed money fast; I thought it the best way to steer her onto the right subject. I was very elegantly vague, but I said just enough about your ‘recent voyage’ and ‘significant outlays’ that she imagined the worst, and soon was trying to draw me into her scheme. I believe she imagined,” Diana said, with a scornful toss of her head, “that she might gain favor with Mrs. Hershey through me. Foolish woman.”
“Little care I for my reputation,” said Stephen. “You are the wonder of the world, so you are, honey.”
“Thank you, Stephen. It was not all me, though, you know: Sophie did her part, too, guarding the door and telling the dowager ladies Mrs. Bowen was indisposed—which I suppose she was,” Diana added, laughing, “after all that wine!”
“Did you, now, Sophie?” Jack cried, admiringly. “What a treasure you are, to be sure! And here Stephen and I thought we should have to take great pains to find proof of this thievery, and you ladies make it appear as easy as kiss-my-hand.”
“Let us raise a glass, then,” Stephen said, going to the sideboard and pouring them each a tot of brandy. “To the ladies!”
“To the ladies!” Jack cried, while Sophie blushed charmingly and Diana smiled in triumph. “Three cheers for the ladies! Huzzah, huzzah, huzzah!”