Inevitably, the moth found him without net and collecting jar, devoid of any means of preservation beyond the clasp of his own two hands. An Odezia atrata with its namesake sooty wings would have been a common sight in the city, while Epirrhoe alternata was as numerous as its nomenclature implied. This moth, perched on the trunk of a plane tree as darkly furnished with soot as the dusky shades of the moth itself, was neither. The shape of its wings, with no more than a hint of variation, resembled those of the speckled Biston betularia, yet it blended perfectly with the blackened tree bark. Fuscus, Stephen thought, rather than maculosus, stripped off his gloves, and crept through the undergrowth in pursuit. The clatter of horses and the rattle of carriage wheels faded. He abandoned the stilted murmuring of the unemployed aristocracy, parading to and from St James Park in ritualised formality. Such mundanity was irrelevant in the pursuit of knowledge. It was surely an impossibility of the highest magnitude that an undiscovered, uncatalogued, unnamed moth be discovered in the heart of London, yet such this moth appeared to be, and Stephen found his breath and his heart beat evincing the unmistakable symptoms of emotional excitement. He tugged at his cravat, cursed the buttoned strictures of his town waistcoat, and took two painfully cautious paces towards his specimen, hands outstretched.
He was within inches, a distance more than the span of his hand, when at his back a cry rang out of a emphasis more suited to a ship's quarterdeck than than Horseguards Parade. "Stephen!" Jack cried out, the careless, galumping idiot that he was, his boots crunching along the gravelled path and the strappings of his dress sword jangling in his haste. "Stephen! We have a ship!"
The moth, startled, took wing, a fluttering, eccentric flight-path which Stephen perforce followed.
Jack's voice was closer. As if aware of its fate, the moth twisted behind a stand of long grass, its course as erratic as that of a small boat under sail.
"My dear Jack," Stephen said, thinking no such thing, as he crept around the grasses in pursuit. "Pray hold fire for just one instant." In truth, his vocabulary had become excessively nautical.
"We are to rejoin to Plymouth directly. There is not a single moment to waste."
Indeed not, Stephen thought with grim concentration, advancing, bent double.
"For the love of God, come out from those bushes! This is no moment for your shilly shallying. The post will leave at three!"
"I shall say nothing," Stephen said, between his teeth, having finally discerned his quarry once again, "Of the fact that the Admiralty may have the power to send you post-haste, but not I. Indeed, so far as I am aware, Napoleon remains safely caged, the country at peace, and the majority of the fleet in consequence laid up." His cupped hands, steady as they should be, enclosed the stem of grass on which the moth was perched.
"Well," said Jack bracingly, "Duty calls."
He had, in the manner of a military man - although god forbid, Stephen thought, that Jack himself should hear that thought, and corrected himself to a naval man - enacted a pincer movement and was approaching from the other side of the tree, extravagantly uniformed, brass buttons agleam, and clutching a sealed missive which no doubt hailed from the day's meeting. His cheeks were flushed, and his queue once more appeared on the verge of disintegration, his face as a whole the very picture of a baffled enthusiasm fading into bemusement.
With care, Stephen severed the grass stem with his thumbnail, and straightened. Enclosed within the round of his fingers, the moth was beating its wings against his skin, as soft as a dandelion's seeds.
"Indeed so," said Stephen. "I fail to see - have you by any chance a pocket handkerchief you might loan for the duration? Or a pin, perchance? - what urgency there may be in peace. Surely the ship will not leave without you?"
"Stephen, you are failing to grasp the situation," Jack said, with that same earnestness he inevitably assumed when discussing the exigencies of naval service.
"In truth, I have a better grip than you," Stephen said, and held up his clasped hands. "Now, if you would be so kind as to dispose of the handkerchief in such a way that it encloses this moth..."
"The Admiralty have given us Surprise," Jack hissed, leaning forward.
"And why should they not? Take care, if you please, the wings are easily damaged."
"There are post-captains languishing on shore with years of seniority more than I," Jack said. "And to have our own Surprise back - that knot is not too tight? - to go to sea again - nothing, nothing could possibly be better."
With care, Stephen extracted his fingers from the enclosing handkerchief. He had little more than his travelling valise to hand: his hotel room held a package of newly purchased books, his greatcoat and boots. His surgeon's chest lay in Somerset, his naturalist's equipment was in storage at Kew. Should he set sail again, his notes from their last voyage must either languish or be left to someone else to transcribe, his specimens remain unrecorded, and his discoveries await a return that might be measured in years, not months. He must forgo, too, the intimacy of - well, that was not a thought for daylight.
Stephen sighed, and secured the last knot. He could feel the caged moth beat against the silk, as securely enclosed as any sailor in their wooden world. "It is a moth," Stephen said, "Of a variety on which I have not before set eyes. The colouration alone would suggest Odezia atrata, the Chimney Sweep moth, yet the shape of the wings suggest a different beast altogether."
Jack's face was far more easily read. In his dear countenance, writ large, stood once again his inexplicable joy in the prospect of the sea, a ship, a voyage, coupled with the certainty that Stephen should, indeed, must feel the same emotion, for how, in Jack's straightforward mind, should the reverse be true? Yet as Stephen looked up, Jack's familiar open countenance was darkening, the hand that held a sealed letter, no doubt his orders, falling, the curves of his cheek flattening. In another moment, he would be claiming Surprise's surgeon's cabin taken by some obscure naval officer of greater influence, and offering his subscription in absentia to the first volume of Stephen's papers.
It could not be borne. "Well, my dear," Stephen said, and smiled. "If we are to catch the post and reach Plymouth on the morrow, clearly, we must hasten."