From the snug off the kitchen at the Grapes, Mrs. Broad could see her custom come and go. Nobody got any younger, and it did a body good to rest her feet and take a sip while making sure Lucy and Deborah kept a mind to their duty behind the bar. As often as not Mrs. Broad took her sip with a crony; today it was with Mrs. Inch, who owned the hackle-yard. They had known one another since girlhood, five husbands buried between them, four children, and many more grown and married off, which meant they seldom ran out of things to talk about, if there was no local news to exclaim over.
Local news with a strict caveat: Mrs. Broad was fiercely protective of those she considered hers, which included her tenants. Mrs. Inch, for all her stinking piss-boxes, had her airs, and never moreso than this day when a handsome lady entered, a tall, beautiful young man in foreign regimentals behind her. Even in the fog-wreathed light of the lane the lady would not be mistaken for a girl, yet she was slim and elegant in her costly carriage dress and hat as she ran up the stairs.
"Oh, Jagiello," the lady exclaimed from the landing. "Maturin is not here. How vexing! Cannot he be on time for once in his life?"
"Would the gentleman care for a glass of wine?" Lucy asked, dishclout suspended in her hand.
From the snug came a scandalized hiss. Lucy, bewitched by the young man's beautiful blue eyes, long curling hair, his mauve coat, epaulettes and clashing spurs, did not hear.
"Thank you, no. Mrs. Maturin and I must depart," the young man said. His English was good but deliciously accented, thought Lucy, heaving her bosom in a sigh.
The young man did not notice the bosom. His gaze lifted to Mrs. Maturin, who ran down the stairs then, and her voice could be heard as she and the young gentleman departed. "No, there's no use chasing after him. He could be at the palace or a graveyard, haggling over corpses. We'll have to make his excuses to Princess Esterhazy, what a damned bore . . ."
The clatter of a high-perched carriage and four spirited horses—unlikely in this lane--smothered the voices, and diminished into the distance.
Mrs. Inch tapped her nose significantly. "It does not take much to guess what has happened there." She leaned forward confidentially, massive bosom resting on the table. "Not four months married, too. Well! They say he doesn't even sleep in Half Moon Street any more, but that foreign fellow is there at all hours."
"How late it is!" Mrs. Broad snatched the teapot away from Mrs. Inch's reaching fingers. "Some people have work, even if others don't have anything to do but listen to the fiddle-faddle 'they' spread about their betters."
She bustled out, shoulders twitching with indignation, and was next heard berating Lucy for mooning about when there were all the truffles to be washed, if dinner was to be served before Michaelmas.
Diana Villiers, now Maturin, fumed during the short drive across town. She had seen Mrs. Broad at a glance, of course, when she scanned the tavern for Stephen, who as often as not ate in the snug. She and Mrs. Broad understood one another, but the innkeeper liked things to be just so, and one of her 'just so's was to maintain her proper place, especially before others. Besides, she was with that horrible flax woman. Three short encounters was enough to convince Diana that the woman was just what she appeared to be, an officious pokenose.
She encountered the exact same hateful, self-righteous, knowing expression in the faces of her soi-disant hostess and her gaggle of well-bred geese as Diana and Jagiello were bowed into the receiving chamber by the Esterhazy butler. She had no idea how temper heightened her complexion, making her eyes blaze nearly as bright as the blue diamond she had been forced to leave in Paris in exchange for Stephen's life. Not that she wouldn't do it again.
But it was difficult to maintain her own glorious sense of righteousness, the recklessness of a high-handed gesture, when one is wearing an old gown one thinks hideous, and stuffed into an airless room with too much furniture and too many people, just to maudle one's insides with insipid tea and heavy cake. "I would kill for a sip of whiskey," she muttered to Jagiello in French.
He bowed, and smiled, and because he was a man, he could go away into the card room as soon as he'd deposited her on a sofa like an awkward parcel.
Diana endured a few poisonously sweet questions about Stephen's whereabouts. Longing for the arrival of someone with a vestige of civilization, she temporized, her tone as determinedly sweet. She would not, not, not jeopardize her social standing again, which would be a backhanded gesture in return for the kindness of Lady Jersey and several of her friends, who had reintroduced Diana into society, now that she was respectably married.
So she did her duty, aware of every sluggish tick of the clock on the mantelpiece, until there was a stir, and some instinct warned her—it had never been wrong—that Stephen was nigh. Praying that he would not appear in his blood-stained surgeon's coat, carrying a human liver in a basket, Diana braced inwardly.
Then the butler announced in a hieratic tone that doused every conversation in all three rooms, the appearance of no fewer than three royal dukes—and "Dr. Maturin."
Silk rustled, bone corsets and knees creaked as all rose to bow. In company with the three large, moon-faced, genial figures, Stephen was a post script to a hearty peroration--a slight, thin, pale man. He was not handsome, but neither was he ugly. He was just very much her Stephen, and faultlessly dressed (brushed by York's valet, who knew what was due to a royal personage), wearing a new round-bottomed physician's wig that Diana suspected he would lose by evening.
Having carried off his appearance with a tripled éclat that even Princess Esterhazy could not deny, he crossed the room immediately to Diana's side, and kissed her. "Ah, acushla, here you are. Jagiello brought you, as I asked him?"
"Yes indeed. He is in the card room."
"I will look in, so I will, once I have paid my respects."
The last of the dukes turned his way and boomed across the room, "C'mon, then, Doctor, and make your bow. I assure you, ma'am, Dr. Maturin here has saved Billy's life, stap me if it ain't so."
Stephen made his leg, his company manners as faultless as his dress.
After that Diana was not aware of the clock again, until she glanced at it, and discovered the advanced hour. Jagiello was still in the card room—that might go on until dawn—so she and Stephen climbed into the coach together. Once the door was shut upon them he loosened his neck cloth and pulled off the sweltering wig with two grateful movements. As the link boys rank ahead to light the way, the carriage rolled toward Half Moon Street.
Stephen leaned back, aware of that suspended state between tiredness and the tension of a prospective mission. He contemplated his wife, faintly outlined by the glow from windows they passed, and breathed an inward Prayer of Thanksgiving. Even after four months it seemed a miracle that they were married, and not just in form, though he had been sincere when he offered it to her as a means of escape.
But Diana never did anything craven. She would not marry him merely to gain a name. He had nearly lost her at the eleventh hour, as they stood in Babbington's cabin on either side of the table, so intent was Stephen on rational reasons, on protecting her by placing contingencies around himself, until he finally understood that she would have all of him or nothing. He had only to confess that she had always possessed his heart: both the simplest and the most difficult confession of all.
Th coach jerked to a stop, then jiggled as the footman leaped down to snap the step into place, and open the door. Stephen waited for Diana to be handed out first, but she rustled around, then came up with his wig.
She had his heart, so what was it inside his breast that contracted so painfully at the sight of her grin, that absurd wig dangling from her fingers? How many women, thus presented with the opportunity to gain moral ascendance over a man—place him in the wrong—Stephen had lost three wigs already, each ruinously expensive—could resist an air of smug triumph, of catching one out, as Jack Aubrey's midshipmen would put it?
In companionable silence they walked inside, for she seemed to be thinking, and he was too cautious by habit to discuss anything but merest commonplace before listening ears seen and unseen.
When they had shut their bedroom door on the servants, they turned to one another.
"Stephen, I must speak to you—"
"My dear, I find that I must go away for a time."
They halted, Stephen paused courteously, and Diana laughed. She had been forming her arguments for a day at least--nothing to wear in this wretched city--what had been suitable for a widow, especially one enceinte, was now hideously wrong for a wife who was not with child. The clincher was Sir Thomas and Lady Wainright's offer of a cabin on their yacht. He was sent on a minor mission, she wished to buy clothes. Lady Wainright, convinced that foreign food, beds, and air would be poisonous to her children, had decided to leave her offspring behind with her sister. She would dress, if she could, like Diana Maturin.
Diana and Stephen had agreed that marriage did not require an asking of permission, as if she were an errant girl. Yet she desired so deeply to return to Paris she hesitated to admit to it. "Merely, my old wardrobe won't do, not if I'm to be visiting in exalted circles and not shame you, my dear." There, that was the truth.
"We were agreed you were to do what you think best about such matters, Villiers," Stephen said, kissing her.
"Very well." Diana smiled: there it was, carte blanche. Only a fool would maunder on and on. "And you?"
Stephen hated lying to her, even by indirection. "Merely, Dupuytren, and Cuvier, and Covisart have in mind a new venture, not unlike the Encyclopedie, and they have honored me with an invitation to submit the entry on the northern birds. I must be exact in my notations."
Diana clasped her hands. If Stephen was to go off on one of his protracted journeys to the wilds of the North Sea, then the subject of Paris was even more irrelevant. One had to exist somewhere, and as the Wainrights' offer was utterly respectable, why should she not exist in Paris as well as fatiguing herself in London's fogs? "I hope you are to travel with Jack Aubrey. I can trust him to look after you."
"Looks after me! Have I not sewn him back together again times out of mind?"
She embraced him affectionately. "With Jack, I may be certain you will eat at least twice daily, instead of once in the week, and you will not be forgotten and left on some hill in Sweden with your birds, to freeze when the snows come."
"As it happens I believe that Jack Aubrey is to be sent to sea. If he accepts of the command, you know I may always swing a hammock with him." Stephen got out the naval phrase with faint triumph.
Jack Aubrey seemed to swell before the frightened eyes of the naval clerk, who began to understand why those with seniority had discovered tasks at the Transport Board, the Sick and Hurt, even down at the Nore with its vile-smelling mud, this day. Lucky Jack Aubrey this captain was known as, but with word of his exploits—very like a pirate when it came to French frigates—came the warning that he had the devil's own temper.
"I may mistake—" the hapless clerk muttered, rattling his papers. "If you will pardon me, Captain Aubrey, I will just make certain." And he hurried out, pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow.
Jack sat back, trying to control his ire. He must not anger the Navy Office. It was of paramount importance to get away from Kimber—lawsuits—troubles of all kinds. If he blew his gaff, why—
"There you are, Aubrey." Admiral Dommet entered, chuckling under his breath in a manner Jack found entirely odious.
But he forced himself to respond with a semblance of civility.
Dommet chuckled again even more falsely, his pouchy gaze somewhere between Jack and the wall. "The First Lord and I were just talking about you. I said, Aubrey is here, he's the man for a delicate piece of work, hey—hey—and he agreed, he says, 'Aubrey don't stand on his dignity. Aubrey would rather sail on a three inch plank if it means shooting one Frenchman sooner, than wait for what might be years—'"
Jack remembered almost these very words before his last, disastrous mission. Cutting across the Admiral's bluff, he said—with his own false chuckle—"I've been riding down to see the Blackwater on the stocks. She's ready to launch, or near as makes no difference."
Admiral Dommet addressed the fly buzzing just this side of the window pane. "There's been some trouble higher up—someone spoke too early, or out of turn—but while that is in progress, see, there's this politico who must be landed in France. Only it's a delicate affair, you see?"
Jack paused, though he knew he was being herded past the Blackwater just as surely as the old dog on the commons herded the sheep up to the grass. "Politico?"
"Yes. They haven't told me much. You know how those political gents are. They expect us to lay down our lives, but nary a word why—but it has to do with the same fellow you took north, and won us that resounding success at Grimsholm." As he spoke, Admiral Dommet remembered that success, and the smiles all around the Navy Office. Jack Aubrey had done it again—Lucky Jack Aubrey—so why wasn't he to have the Blackwater? He shook the thought away. "You did so well with the Ariel--that is, before your unfortunate first lieutenant brought her onto a lee shore--that they want you to take her sister, the Caliban, only this time you're going down the coast of France. You land your politico, then you run up and down the coast, shooting out all the shore batteries. And if a fat merchantman happens along, hey, well, you snap it right up the way you showed us at Minorca in the last war."
Jack knew the likelihood of a fat merchant was extremely rare, especially if he was in a sloop, which would be a post ship only by official sleight-of-hand. But he knew the politico had to refer to Stephen, and at least he would get out of England, and away from infernal landsmen and their schemes.
"Very well, sir," Jack said, as both had known he would.
The Admiral brightened, mostly at having got successfully past the Blackwater, and so he finished briskly before Jack could start in with too many questions. "She lies at Portsmouth. You're to board immediately, and you may take as many of your followers as are on shore, as Lord Keith made a swipe and stripped her of all but a skeleton crew. And a mighty peculiar skeleton at that." Admiral Dommet chuckled at his own joke, and repeated it, "Mighty peculiar, hey," before he remembered that Aubrey as yet did not smoke the reference. But he would.
Mr. Akers stood with the rest of the small group of warrant officers on the deck of the Caliban, waiting for the new captain, who had already sent over an astonishing number of prime man-of-war's men. Mr. Akers was in a black fury, the sort of fury a man feels when most of the previous crew is stripped by rapacious admirals—yet is the one man you want to be rid of gone? No. Mr. Marshall stood nearby, smiling like the great gaby he was, a reprobate and a sinner.
The hail of the boat announced the arrival of the new captain and his own officers. Mr. Akers scowled at the deck. Mr. Akers was certain he knew what that meant, when a captain had his own young men. He hoped piously to be proved wrong, but he would know as soon as this captain stepped on deck.
The ship jerked as the boat hooked on. Jack repressed a groan as he braced himself to go up the side. Inwardly he cursed all admirals who insisted on infernal dinners before sending one off in a stuffy, shaking rattler-and-six, and he cursed Stephen, who had said, "I have no sympathy. How often have I warned you against gluttony? Are you forced to match your host dish for dish? You are not."
The weird whistle by the bosun recalled Jack, and he forced himself to run up the side in a brisk manner. At least he now had a deck under his feet again: it never failed to cure most ills, and if it didn't, he'd beg Stephen for one of his blue pills.
There was the stamp and crash of the marines presenting arms, the doffing of every hat.
Mr. Akers watched narrowly as Mr. Marshall smiled all over his broad face. And here came a tall, big-shouldered post-captain with long yellow hair and a battle-scarred face, who stepped up and saluted the quarterdeck.
"Mr.--Mr. Marshall?" Jack asked, smiling, to gain a beaming and gratified grin in return.
Revulsion suffused Mr. Akers. It is just as I feared, he thought.
"Mr. Marshall, name the officers for me, if you please."
Mr. Marshall, red with pleasure at being remembered, did as ordered, particularly careful and polite when he came to that gallows-faced Akers, who seemed to live to find fault and imagine slights.
Jack then presented his officers. Mr. Marshall scarcely recognized Mr. Pullings and Mr. Mowett, who had been a master's mate and a squeaker when he saw them last. He was expansive, pleased, until Captain Aubrey came to the last person, a small, scrawny man the master recognized with amazement.
"And you will remember Dr. Maturin," Jack said proudly. "He's since become my physician and my particular friend. He can bunk in the cabin with me."
Stephen was quite rattled, as he often was, by how the boat and the ship had nearly managed to crush him between their hulls. Why must the ocean grow froward only when he was poised between vessels, and never anyone else? He scarcely noticed the formal words the master spoke, as he felt for his pocket watch and tried to still his wildly-beating heart.
Despite the griping of his inward parts, Jack regarded him in some concern. "Stephen, why don't you step into the cabin. Killick will get you stowed away, while I tour the ship."
What Jack did not notice was the extraordinary change from open pleasure to silent affront and jealousy in the master. Mowett and Pullings did, though.
"Mr. Tompkin," Jack said to the gunner as they paced down the ship. "Tell me the state of your stores." And when the tour was over--Jack longing for a quiet interlude in the quarter-gallery--"All hands to unmoor ship!"
As the deck reverberated with the sound of running feet, Jack overhead Mr. Marshall say to the gunner, "Didn't I tell ye? He'd be asking about the gunnarrry first thing." His tone was smug, almost familiar, as if he'd gone from ship to ship with Jack, which Jack found surprising, but he shrugged it away; he recalled there's been something odd about the navigator, but he couldn't recall what it was.
The bosun cut a look from Marshall to the captain, and then to sea, his affront nearly palpable. It had been bad enough when the master mooned over that pretty-faced master's mate Dubois, but this would be infinitely worse. Was the world filled with sodomizers?
Marshall smiled sourly at Akers' quivering indignation, and followed the gunner to their battle stations.
Pullings and Mowett resented Marshall's showing away, his disgusting familiarity. Pullings was a married man, long qualified and more to be promoted to post captain but for the necessary article of influence. Mowett had sobered greatly since his days as a midshipman aboard the brig Sophie, yet when their eyes met, they shared scarcely hidden mirth: the temptation was nigh irresistible. And when they witnessed the sour affront of the bosun, they knew that nothing would keep them from helping along the mistaken impressions. Nothing.
The remainder of the day was spent in gunnery, so that Jack could see how the old crew and his men did in competition with one another. While that was going on Stephen stayed below, speaking with the ship's doctor in order to establish his character as a natural philosopher traveling in search of knowledge.
Dr. MacReady, an earnest young man on his first ship, was highly intelligent. His Latin was excellent, and young as he was, Stephen discovered he had had plenty of practice among Glasgow's poor before he joined the service. One cannot live upon gratitude. He was so threadbare and hungry there was little difference to be found between him and those he worked among until he used his last coin to make his way to London to offer his services in the war.
"Sir Joseph Blaine!" Dr. MacReady exclaimed, holding up his hands. "Well known to the Royal Society—no, no, I make no claims to membership—I should never raise my sights so high—but my old schoolmaster introduced him to me after taking me as his guest to a lecture on the moths of the Isles of Man, and indeed, it was he who was kind enough to arrange my present position. He is well known to be a friend to scholars. Quod medicorum est promittunt medici," Dr. MacReady said wryly.
Stephen nodded, mentally finishing Horace's saw to himself, and suspected Dr. MacReady's secret: he was a hopeful poet—which was a calling guaranteed to earn him even less than he would as a physician to the poor. Well, he would not be the first young man to have succumbed to Klopstock at an impressionable age.
They chatted a while longer, until Stephen was satisfied that MacReady saw only a naturalist. Then it was time for the gunroom's dinner. Stephen already knew that Jack was not going to dine—his organs were still disordered—so Stephen would remain with the gunroom.
He and MacReady walked in together. Stephen looked into each face as Pullings introduced the rest of the officers. Mr. Marshall he recalled, bringing back a flood of memories. Sometimes his life before Diana seemed to belong to another man. When he first stepped aboard the Sophie he was still recovering from his previous disappointments, personal, political, ideal: the death of his beloved, the sacking of his country, and the murder of the ideals of the Revolution under the blade of Dr. Guillotine's infernal machine. As the food was dished out, his mind sank into half-buried emotion and image: James Dillon's corpse lying on the deck between the wavering candle flames; steering the brig as Aubrey led a howling crew, smeared with kitchen grease, to what seemed to be certain death aboard the Cacafuego; that little boy Ellis delighted in the excitement—the game—not even noticing the blow that took his life between one heartbeat and the next.
Memory, like autumn leaves gathering at the bottom of a stream. In a certain light, they glow with the color of precious gems, then the light fades, and they are sodden, dead. He looked up, fighting regret, straight into the affronted gaze of the bosun, who muttered something about the damned that sounded like a passage from the writings of Jean Calvin, and Stephen reflected on the many, many faces of Christianity, or what was claimed to be Christian, often without actually adhering to any tenet he recognized as Christian. "Could the man be aiming that at me?" he thought. "How would he know me for a Roman Catholic?"
"Quot capitum vivunt, totidem studiorum milia," MacReady said softly. And, holding his glass aloft, "A glass of wine with you, Dr. Maturin?"
As they drank, Akers remarked to Pullings, "A man prefers a Christian tongue to be spoke in a Christian ship."
Pullings and Mowett avoided one another's gazes. Pullings was not certain how the doctor might react to their prospective joke—they admired him for his shining parts in everything but the article of seamanship, but they also knew he could be devilish high, even a stickler, at times.
But Stephen did not stay long, as usual; as soon as he excused himself, Pullings introduced the subject of past cruises. Once everyone had told a long, boring story, Pullings touched on their days aboard the Surprise, when the Doctor had shot his man in a duel—a man high in government—and then operated on himself to take a bullet right out of his own heart.
"Tchah," Akers remarked. "You must have heard wrong."
"I was there," Pullings said. "Saw his heart beating, with my own eyes."
"So was I," Killick put in, though the strict rules of the service required him to serve silently. "Oh, there they go," he added unnecessarily, as the deep moo of a cello being tuned sounded from the cabin, followed by the higher whine of a violin.
"The gentlemen still play duets?" Mr. Marshall asked.
"Oh, they've been playing together for years," Mowett said, and here was his chance! "Known for it throughout the service, those two, how they play." He laid just the faintest emphasis on the word 'play.'
"All over the world. In every weather. Even under gunfire," Pullings added soulfully, enjoying the sour flush in Akers' face. "In fact, nothing excites 'em like a broadside from a French seventy-two."
Killick sighed. "Don't I know it," he crabbed, utterly unaware of the lieutenants' ruse. "Caterwauling all the night. Until suddenly it's Killick! Nothing kills those appetites."
He shoved his way out and tromped down the gangway, to be next heard bullying the cook mates as he began the process of making piles of toasted cheese, leaving Pullings studying the bulkheads with frowning intensity, and Mowett forcing himself to conjugate fames as he struggled to control the quiver of nascent laughter in his belly.
Appetites! A man might know what he was to understand by that. From the smirks on the faces of those two young sodomites, Pulling and Mowett, Akers was convinced he knew what the captain's appetites referred to, and jerked upright, stiff with affront. He excused himself hastily, and Mr. Marshall sighed, following more slowly. He left the two lieutenants rigid with suppressed mirth as MacReady, unheeding, pulled a book from his much-patched pocket and sank into Johann Hoelderin's poetry.
In the middle watch, the two lieutenants had sobered. One was about to go to sleep, and the other drank scalding coffee as he struggled for wakefulness.
"Here you have her," Mowett said, his voice husky as he named the sails, and the orders. Pullings only half listened. He did not have to look upward to feel the set of the sails. That he sensed through the deck, and in the scrape of the wind along his weather-side.
Once the watch had been officially handed over, they stood companionably, leaning on the rail and passing back and forth the pot of hot coffee which Pullings had stuffed in his bosom.
This far north, the night's gloom began to lift early. Presently the afterguard was on the stir. Pullings and Mowett listened to the occasional talk in the waist. In a small ship such as Caliban maybe twenty short paces separated the officers from the sailors, but the moral separation was a Stygian divide.
"How I hear it is, we're running ahead of a convoy. We shoot out the batteries, so they don't have to."
"Why can't them first rates shoot their own batteries, I ask ye?" was the scornful retort. "No, if ye ask me, we're here on account of the Doctor. Our doctor, which is a certificated physician, drives a coach and six to the palace, on account of he's Prince Billy's personal physician. Whips off a leg in two seconds flat."
"Blow it outa yer arsehole, mate."
"It's true! Ask Plaice, been sailing with him, same as me, these ten years. Joe?"
"True as I'm standing here."
"What's a doctor got to do with a cruise?"
"On account of, whenever he wants to go botanizing, ye know, looking for double-headed eagles and the like, Prince Billy thinks nothing of ordering up a cruise to take and drop him off. Then we go lookin' for prizes."
"Now there you're talking. I heard about them prizes. And don't we wish we might get within a sniff of one, 'lucky' captain or no."
"Yer gonna stand there jawing all day, until he comes on deck, and it covered in filth?"
The rhythmic scrape of the holystones soothed Pullings' pounding head. As the ache from the previous evening's drink began to dissipate, Pullings' regret intensified. As warrant officers went, Mr. Marshall had been exemplary, even if his passion for the captain back in the days of the Sophie had kept the midshipmen's berth convulsed. But then anything having to do with sex—even sex at the most extreme remove—had convulsed them.
Another thing. Their frenzied, hurried, half-laughing experimentations with one another, as the officers walked the deck above, had broken the Articles of War with a regularity that poor Mr. Marshall's distant longing never came near. "Remember the skirt?" Pullings muttered, and Mowett choked on coffee.
An unwilling grin tweaked his face as he thought back to their elaborate rules, how whoever had broken one had to wear "the skirt" which somehow made what happened after not buggery. Whoever was last off the yard—whoever missed his lunar by the farthest measure—whoever was last in cleaning his plate—how some of the fellows had seemed to break rules on purpose, but the skirt worked so well they still referred to it even after the actual rag of fustian had long since ripped into desuetude, and they abandoned the practice of putting it on he who was to receive punishment.
"Babbington," both said at the same time--and they broke into smothered laughter.
Mowett wiped his eyes on his cuff, remembering those desperate wrestlings and writhings in the squalid bunks or bent over a chest, the furtiveness somehow magnifying the pleasure, yet how they never exchanged a word. Never met one another's eyes, especially when the Articles of War were read on Sundays, lest they expire of concealed hilarity.
Mr. Dubois appeared for his watch, tall, curly-haired, with angelic blue eyes. As he walked forward to take a sighting on the sea, Pullings said, "How many skirts has that fellow worn?"
Mowett grunted. "He's a scrapper, Tolliver said. Used to be on Elephant, under Damon and Pythias."
Pullings grimaced at the mention of a notorious captain and his premier, who never bothered with skirts, it was rumored. Young lieutenants and middies exerted every pressure they could bring to bear to avoid serving aboard the Elephant. "What's his story? He's long in the tooth to still be a master's mate."
Mowett shrugged. "Guernseyman. Even less interest than we've got." He felt the tease of a poem somewhere in the back of his brain. Every term would have two meanings. Until then? A word game. "Wager. Which of us can use the word 'skirt' in the way of service the most."
"Dinner for both, at the Anchor when we're next in Portsmouth. And none of your penny-plates. A thumping dinner, sides and removes, six bottles each."
The first gunnery practice had gone as poorly as Jack expected.
"Well, at all events, we shall have plenty of time to shape up," he said to Stephen as they rowed around the ship the next morning, as fog drifted across the choppy Channel waters. He chuckled. "How many crews have I taught to aim their guns at the battery off Cap de la Hague? They ought to petition the Admiralty for hardship pay, seeing how often they have served me. And don't they wish they might get it."
Jack heaved in quiet laughter as Stephen looked from the gray sea to the gray sky, a rapid series of thoughts passing through his head like a half-perceived flight of birds: the variations in shade, the activity aboard the ship-when would it ever make sense--the way sound carried in fog, vapor a conductor instead of a muffler?
He shook his head. "Jack. I find I must open my mind to you. We were ordered away so rapidly that I was not able to consult with Sir Joseph, therefore I do not know how much Mr. Wray knows of my position—"
"Wray? That scrub, Andrew Wray?"
Stephen said impatiently, "I believe it is he, but we are not talking about gambling, at all. He is much caressed at the Admiralty just now. It was he who passed on the orders for me. His directives were detailed, far more than I like. You know how easy it is for such things to go awry."
Jack's smile vanished as he thought back to Port Mahon not so long ago.
"Do you think he has betrayed you?" Jack frowned, then said, "Betrayed us? It don't make sense, how there has been no explanation of why I might not be aboard the Blackwater this very minute—"
"Ta ta." Stephen waved a finger. "A scrub need not be a treacher. There was no mention of you at all, merely that orders were in being for a fast ship. Your name did not enter discussion at any time. But neither do I trust unnecessarily. Now, the orders I was given would do very well for a natural philosopher whose occasions include the infrequent visit to France. But that does not require that I heed what I consider unnecessary interference along the route. What matters is the acquisition I must make at the destination."
Jack studied Stephen keenly. "What would you have me do, then?"
"You will not land me off St. Malo, as I was directed. At least, you will land me anywhere you like, say, near Roteneuf. I shall do very well there."
"Well, my orders say to take advice from you, so that's decided." Jack grunted. "Were we in the dear Surprise I should like nothing better than a touch at Boney's pirates in St. Malo, but as it is, just as well, perhaps."
Two weeks later
It had been a very long time since Stephen Maturin had ever cared about his appearance. There had once been a young lady, but that had been a lifetime ago, in a different world, before all three of his best beloved nations fell to the sword. However, he had been raised to proper decorum, and he knew what was due to his host and the company he would find at the prodigiously lit mansion on the right bank, at the Rue d'Anjou.
He could not imagine why his destination was set at so public a place, but he already knew how very labyrinthine—torturous metaphorically as well as in fact—were the ways of governments when not negotiating by brute force on the field of battle. In truth, he had little more to do than to speak to a certain gentleman, and receive papers which were purported to be crucial to Napoleon's latest plans in Portugal. Then he must make his way in as public a manner as possible to his philosophical friends such as Larrey, and Dupuytren, before returning home with his prize.
He had chosen to walk, to preserve his meager funds, so he paused on the bridge well out of the light to resettle his wig and to make certain that his stock was not askew, or his coat unbuttoned. A rat scuttled out from a bridge support, chased by a howling feline.
Stephen stepped out of the way, but not fast enough. The rat, desperate to escape its fate, scuttled behind his shoe—the cat swarmed up his leg and leaped, shrieking, in pursuit—leaving Stephen cursing under his breath as he gazed in dismay at his laddered stocking.
He bent down, tugging at his stocking in a futile effort to drag the hole up above his knee, where he could conceal it behind the buckle. As he began to straighten, he caught movement on the periphery of his vision. He paused, his nose even with the rail of the bridge, in time to see a vaguely familiar figure pass from the light of a link toward Talleyrand's mansion. The figure skirted the circle of light cast by another link, but that single glance was enough. In Stephen's secret world, synecdoche was a necessary skill. One must be able to identify a man by the shape of a hand, an eye, even a coat left on a hook.
That was Major Clapier, the brute who had interrogated Stephen when he, Jack, and Jagiello were imprisoned in the Temple. Stephen heard footsteps behind him, cast a glance back—but it was just a pair of raffish, oily-haired and aging Incroyables staggering along arm in arm. Stephen made a business of adjusting his shoe and watched over the rail as Clapier gestured two men into position at either side of Talleyrand's wall.
The major could be there for any reason. He might be on guard against a possible assassination attempt upon Talleyrand, or even one of his guests—it was well known that Prince Metternich frequented the Prince of Benevento's salon.
Stephen hesitated. He might be recognized—he was fairly certain that his character as a naturalist was intact. A naturalist might even attend the salon at Talleyrand's home, famed for the brilliance of its civilized discourse, the splendid banquets offered every single night the Prince was in residence. Yet there was that hesitance, that question, and so far in his life, it had proven disastrous to ignore it.
He had decided he must go away after all, that prudence required him to return to England empty-handed, when noise and clatter claimed his attention: a crush of carriages drew up, three in a row. There was instant confusion—link boys waving their lights and calling, beggars trying to press forward, pickpockets hovering, and guests talking and laughing—Stephen sensed . . . what was it? A sound, a quality of light, maybe even a scent on the balmy air? But he paused, still in shadow, gaze searching among the slim candle shapes of women laughing and chattering, until he found what he had never expected, at all: Diana.
He tried for the space of a heartbeat to convince himself he was wrong, but he could never mistake that air, that grace, the curling dark hair, the slim figure in her favorite blue. What was Diana doing here?
And then came the thought: could the trap possibly be for her? He remembered the breathtaking generosity of her gesture when he was imprisoned. She had set all Paris talking after selling her great diamond, the Blue Peter, in order to buy his freedom.
Now there was no question. He must get inside in order to protect her however he could, but he would attempt to do so without drawing notice. He waited until the grand company had mounted the steps. Then, as the servants and footman swarmed about in no order, everyone claiming precedence over everyone else in a residual effect of the chaos of the Revolution, Stephen slipped inside the gates, and made his way along the side of the house. There at the far end Clapier had stationed another of man. Stephen pressed against the wall, feeling his way until his groping fingers encountered a window cracked for air. He scrambled inside, cursing as his clothing caught. Satin knee breeches were the worst possible clothing for this kind of work.
He found himself in some sort of anteroom, scaffolding and paint cloths swathed over furniture. The smell of drying plaster made him want to sneeze.
Pinching his nose, he eased out, and made his way through the house, drawn like moth to flame by the sound of Diana's laughter among the voices. He paused in the open door to another room full of shrouded furnishings when he heard a familiar well-bred ancien regime drawl, and at no great distance. It was Talleyrand himself, murmuring an order Stephen could not catch. Sweat prickled in armpits and temple—distracted, Stephen noted the effect.
Then he stepped out.
Talleyrand glanced up sharply. Age had furrowed his renowned beauty, but his gaze was intelligent and his carriage elegant as he put out his hand to halt his footman. "The devil," he murmured. "You would turn up. You must hide."
Stephen made a motion toward the room he'd been in. "The plaster sheets—" No.
Talleyrand lifted a hand, languid even in emergency. "First place they will search. Come."
He was erect, though there was no hiding the effect of the club foot. Stephen had seldom been this close to the man, and never from behind; within the confines of the cruel shoe, the deformation was perceptible to the medical eye. In spite of the stories of a childhood fall, the man had been born thus. Born, disinherited because of it—and rose to become architect of France once, twice. Now architect of Europe.
They moved down a narrow side hall, then Talleyrand paused. "Ah." He turned. "Can you play?"
A motion—there was a quartet waiting in a closet, about to be summoned to the main salon to play to the guests, who were gathering for the supper.
"The cello, but—"
Talleyrand made a peremptory gesture toward the young man with the cello. He said sharply, "Take off your coat and breeches."
The fellow flushed, but obeyed: even after a childhood of Citoyen This and Citoyenne That, the habit of obedience was either strong, or else the lure was the prospect of extra pay. Stephen knew the French could argue with Death himself.
The cellist silently stripped. With the aid of the equally silent footman, Stephen divested himself of his torn breeches, his plaster-dusted coat, and put himself willy-nilly into the clothing of the young man. At least they were much of a size.
"My stockings," he said, extending a leg.
"Cannot be helped. Hide your leg behind your instrument."
Talleyrand motioned for Stephen to pick up the cello, then held out a hand. A prodigious emerald gleamed as Talleyrand plucked Stephen's wig from his head, and took the musician's plain tie-wig from him. Powder puffed into the air. The tie-wig was summarily plunked onto Stephen's head, and hands thrust him after the other musicians.
From behind, Stephen caught a brief exchange: "Excellency, what do I do with this fellow?"
"Strip him. Put him in Madame la Duchesse's bedchamber. Everyone knows she likes them young. As for you, Monsieur Cellist! For your discretion this evening there will be a hundred Napoleons . . ."
Then they were through the door. Stephen's fellow musicians walked along the back of the room to the little chairs set for them. Stephen hoped that the cello was tuned, realized the musicians must have been doing that in the closet. Then his worry shifted to music they were to perform. Could he play, or must he pretend? He was relieved to discover the familiar strains of Bocherini, following which was something by the young Rossini, and then a popular melody from Thomas Attwood that Stephen guessed Talleyrand must have heard when in England.
As time wound on, the only music for cellists were familiar pieces by Berthaud and Cupis, and he knew them well enough to saw chords in the proper tempo; the music was selected to form background noise, it was not to be listened to.
Course after course, talk and laughter, the ring of crystal punctuated the melodic efforts. Diana talked and laughed, just far enough away that Stephen could not make out her words, only her voice. So far she was in no danger—she was a guest. He would not trust she was not bait until she left unmolested.
Clapier walked through twice, attempting to be discreet as he scanned the rows of guests. He never looked once at the musicians. His eyes did not linger on Diana; Stephen's heart thundered, then slowed.
From the ceiling and beyond the walls came the occasional muffled thump, as in a search going on—but no armed men dared the rarified atmosphere of the main chamber, other than the major.
At the end of the meal, two things happened in rapid succession. Major Clapier entered to scrutinize the guests as they passed from the dining room to the salon, and Diana rose, shook out her gown, and glanced past a lady's shoulder straight into Stephen's eyes.
As the squall began to pass, the lookout called, "Sail ho!"
"Where away?" Pullings roared, as glasses came out.
"Three points on the beam. A frigate!"
Pullings hesitated. Captain Aubrey had invited the officers to dinner, a ticklish business at best; though Jack had tried hard through the days of the cruise, hosting sumptuous dinners and breakfasts, there was no forming his officers into a harmonious whole.
"We'll watch her," Pullings said, and motioned to the midshipman on duty. "Be ready to jump to the cabin on my word, Mr. Tolliver."
Diana's nerves flared, then chilled. Stephen had lied to her.
Men had always betrayed her. She'd accepted early on that they would, that was the nature of man. Except for Stephen. He was that rarity, l'honnete homme, the civilized man.
Or so she'd thought until now.
But that stare—the face as pale as those eerie eyes—the fact that he sat there playing a cello while France's beau monde cavorted unheeding, that was not the action of a man bent on mere indiscretion. She knew him—she knew he was afraid. He lied to me by indirection, but so did I to him. Sorrow swooped through her: even when both parties were civilized, characterized by good will, was true communication between man and woman unattainable?
Then the buzz of talk resolved into individual voices, one loud and stinging: she did not have to look to recognize that vile officer who had dared to question her just after she sold the diamond. He and his contemptible insinuations—had he something to do with Stephen's surprising appearance?
Reason said it was impossible, just because it was improbable, but instinct was so sure she shifted her gaze and walked past, within a hand's reach of Stephen's knee, without so much as a glance.
Both ships made all sail as the moonlight slowly emerged. Pullings sent Tolliver to report on the situation, but he was to add that all was well in hand.
At first there was no perceivable difference in the distance between predator and prey; for half an hour they continued running down the wind, as the festivities continued in the cabin. Mowett came up on deck early, to see how they lay: he had felt the change in pitch when the ship made sail.
When the Frenchman came off half a point, but still held the weather-gage, Pullings watched carefully. Sure enough, the Frenchman began to gain.
Seeing Mowett there, he said, "He's skirting us. We'll keep away a point." And raised his voice to give the order. The wager was still even: Pullings had gotten in a dozen mentions, but two had repeated, which Mowett insisted cancelled one another out. He'd made ten, and each different.
Mowett smothered a chuckle. The situation was somewhat dangerous, though not unreasonably. The Caliban was well-made, as were all French-built ships, her copper was clean, she could run. They had sea room, though everyone was aware of the French fleet beyond Brest, and the privateers astern at St. Malo.
The Frenchman steered more off the wind, and so the Caliban altered course. In the cabin, men's voices rose, toasting the king, and Jack appeared soon after, looking intently at the Frenchman, at the sky, the sea, and then he gave the expected order—the crew was poised and ready—"Stuns'ls, below and aloft."
The Frenchman had slowly changed position. Her studding sails also filled with wind, and she chased now on the starboard quarter, instead of the larboard quarter, but the distance between was roughly the same. Both ships ran westward, straight toward a cloudbank blotting the stars.
"Let us amuse them," Jack said. "Run out the French colors."
The frigate returned the favor, American colors clear in the moonlight.
Jack considered the situation. The colors, the direction, all the signs and portents added up to being driven into a trap. When you set a trap, you usually put out bait. They had been carefully random in their battery shooting, Jack permitting his lieutenants to choose their site at whim. How could anyone have predicted their presence here? Either luck had turned against them, or the Frenchman was on the lookout for someone.
A swift band of rain swept overhead, blinding them for a short time. When it cleared, the lookout yelled—his voice cracking—"Sail ho!"
"Another one," Pullings said.
As the newcomer threw the helm over hard, sails flashing in and out, Mowett observed, "She's lifting her skirts to run after us."
"Damn. Eleven all," Pullings said—conceding the matter of the repeat.
The quartet kept playing, long past the appointed hour. They had been reduced to the Bach figures they had drilled as students when the Prince of Benevento's steward Courtiade came to dismiss them at last.
The steward gave a hefty wallet into the care of the chief of the group, saying, "You have helped His Excellency M. le Prince win his wager. In his gratitude, he bids you do him the honor of accepting this purse."
The musicians lost interest in Stephen then. A wager? Taking away Jean-Marie to the bed of a duchess and thrusting this other fellow here had been a wager? Another incomprehensible aristocratic whim. At least the fellow had done his part in the playing, though none too well.
One of the three gave a timid cough. "What of Jean-Marie?"
Courtiade said haughtily, "I am told he will be a guest of Madame la Duchesse for a time."
As Courtiade drew Stephen aside, the leader observed low-voiced to his companions, "We should have been so lucky." The Duchess of Kurland was popular—and beautiful.
The musicians then hefted their instruments, including Jean-Marie's cello, and trudged out into the cold blue of predawn.
Courtiade murmured to Stephen in Italian, "He is summoned to Fontainebleau. You will hear from us."
Then the door opened, and Stephen blinked tired eyes as none other than the Chevalier d'Anglars strolled in, resplendent in his regimentals, and point-de-vice as if he had just come from the hands of his valet. As Courtiade pulled the musician's coat and the tie-wig from Stephen, who stood unresisting, another footman appeared with garments over his arm. A military wig was settled over Stephen's ears, a coat belonging to one of the eleves-gendarmes--Stephen did not get a look at the facings, so he was not even certain which of Napoleon's many elite forces he was supposed to be a cadet of—pulled over his arms. Then, in coda, a tricorne was pressed on his head.
"You are shy," d'Anglars murmured, a corner of his mouth deepening without disturbing his careful maquillage. "Head lowered."
Then the door opened and Clapier himself entered, followed by several men, but when he saw d'Anglars he halted and stiffened in salute. Then, just as the Major turned his gaze in Stephen's direction, d'Anglars' gave private thanks that the English spy, unlike the generality of Englishmen, had not become beefy in age, but retained his boyish figure. His elegant white hand reached--the great ruby on his hand caught the light--and he stroked down and down, his palm resting over Stephen's buttock.
Clapier's gaze followed that hand, and stayed there long enough for the two to get out the door. Stephen kept his head down as they passed the outer perimeter of guards.
Clapier said after them, "Who's that? We are supposed to identify every soul leaving."
The footman said, "Hsst! That's d'Anglars' latest mignon. Do you really need his name?"
Someone else drawled, "It will be a different one by next week. By tomorrow, if you ask me; this one is uglier than the usual."
The two walked through the gates. A few paces into the morning air, d'Anglars sighed. "Ah, mine reputation! O formose puer, nimum ne crede colori!"
Stephen, who recognized the Vergil, murmured back, "Iudicium Paridis spretaeqie iniuria formae."
D'Anglars threw back his head and laughed.
The first pursuer began to try the range with her long guns.
The second cruiser made all sail, tacking every quarter of an hour or so, to keep the relative position. The moon appeared again, as hats, gregos, rigging and sails dripped; Jack smiled broadly. "I believe we may beat to quarters. But quietly. Let us continue to puzzle our friends."
"We are driven into a trap?" Pullings asked presently.
"Perhaps. But not by this one." Jack indicated the newcomer. "You perceive our first bear has not changed his spots."
Pullings and Mowett were accustomed to their captain's essays into wit but the master, there at his post beside the helm, looked so puzzled that Jack said, "Question, Mr. Marshall?"
"A bear, sir?" Marshall asked.
"Did you smoke the Shakespeare?" Jack smiled broadly, pleased to have a chance to display his wit without showing away. "I believe we need the doctor here to make certain, but is that not in Shakespeare, 'Exit, pursued by a bear'?"
There was only one answer to be made to that, of course. "Yes, sir."
"He's still wearing American colors, d'you see? He wants us for his own, is my guess."
Jack indicated another band of rain fast approaching. "Here's how I see it, gentlemen. If the wind don't veer, they'll close us by morning. One or t'other we might take on. I believe we ply our guns pretty well." He paused for Tompkin's corroborative cackle, and even Akers looked less sour than usual. "But two? Not even Nelson himself would recommend our taking on two thirty-sixes so far from replacement spars. So I think we need to run a little ruse. There's a risk, mind. But there's risk everywhere we look." He paused, considering another pun on spots—bears—changing spots—but it wouldn't come. "So here's what we do. We'll fire back, but not with the long-nines. With the broadside carronades, as those were what she was built to hold. Let the newcomer think we are French."
Mowett exchanged looks with Pullings.
"Unship the starboard ports, Mr. Tompkin," Jack said. "We'll kick up some dust—"
"Right up her skirt," Mowett whispered.
"—then as soon as that rain gives us cover, we'll haul hard over and run down to the newcomer."
"Damn," muttered Pullings, but not quietly enough.
"Mr. Pullings?" Jack asked.
"I was just observing to Mr. Mowett that the rain is already skirting us," Pullings invented desperately, and Mowett silently held up two fingers: under the ear of the captain won double points.
"Thank you for pointing out what we can all see," Jack said, sending an exasperated look at his usually sober lieutenant. "Where's Mr. Dubois?"
"Here, sir." The master's mate appeared on the holy quarterdeck.
"You are from Guernsey, are you not? So you speak French, am I not mistaken?"
"Yes, sir. Yes, sir."
"I want you to convince 'em we're being chased. If you can make 'em believe the other ship is a pirate, even better. So let us have the deck crew dress more like Frenchmen."
Mr. Dubois said, fascinated, "Where are we going, sir?"
"Why, we are a dispatch, carrying orders to Brest."
Just before dawn, they drew under the lee of the frigate, its guns run out. The men on deck stood about in the manner of French privateers, some with knotted kerchiefs at their necks, others muttering "Milles diables" and "Merde" to one another; luckily the roar of rain was loud enough to drown the distinct accent of Wapping.
Mr. Dubois exchanged a brief dialog with a half-drowned French lieutenant, before his captain ordered him back. The frigate hauled away, sailing straight for the other frigate who was still wearing American colors, double-shotted broadsides prepared for the British pirate they had all been warned to be on the watch for.
"And now, Caliban, who has the legs of them both, will take wing," Jack said in satisfaction.
"Straight up the Borean toga," Mowett whispered.
When the frigate had vanished astern, Jack said, "We'll hide in the storm, follow it north again." He started back to the cabin to shift his clothes, when the lookout called once again, "Sail ho!"
Jack pulled out his glass, wondering what had gotten into his lieutenants. Maybe it was his Shakespearean—he'd have to remember to tell it to Stephen.
Literature vanished from his mind when he spotted the brig laboring downwind as fast as it could waddle. So that's what the second frigate had been guarding!
"Clear for action," Jack called, rubbing his hands. And in an aside to Pullings and Mowett, "If it is not considered counting our chickens before they roost, I believe we may send this fat little prize under the command of Mr. Dubois." Jack had spent his entire adult life on the quarterdeck, and a crucial portion of his boyhood before the mast. His subliminal ear was unsurpassed. "This would not gain either of you anything, but if it doesn't win him his step, then call me a lightskirt."
Back in the days when Edward Fitzgerald was still speaking in the coffee houses, Stephen had learned how to exist undiscovered in Paris. There were still those to be found who held to the old ideals. Most of them knew one another—and they were also known.
Stephen sat in a tiny alcove over a courtyard behind la rue des Trois Poissons, as the housewife at the open air stove below basted a pullet with the dregs of last night's wine. She had already rubbed the plucked fowl with crushed garlic; the combined aromas caused him to swallow frequently as he tried to concentrate on Malus's recent Treatise on Analytical Optics.
A shadow on the narrow, rickety stairwell just beyond the archway leading to Stephen's nook caused Stephen to stiffen, and to slide his retractor from his pocket into his fingers.
But it was only Madame's son Paolo, who mounted the stairs with adolescent resentment, stuck his handsome, petulant face in the door, then said in Catalan, "A gentleman in a bag-wig. Invites the doctor to hear Mass at the Tuileries Chapel."
"Can you describe the gentleman in the bag-wig?" Stephen asked.
Paolo rolled his long-lashed dark eyes, then gave a reluctant, though fairly exact, description of Courtiade. Stephen proffered a coin, knowing that Paolo would have been tipped below as well. But it did not do to be miserly with the young, before their passions were aroused by causes instead of one another. Stephen had learned in the space of a day that 'liberte' was a subject of tedium, interminably lamented by graybeards, to Paolo and his compatriots.
On Sunday he watched from a rooftop through two Masses before he descended and slid into one of the back rows.
The great Archbishop, Grand Almoner to Napoleon's court, conducted Mass himself. At the end, Stephen took his place in the long line of those who wished to be blessed by the Archbishopric hand. As he knelt to kiss the Archbishop's ring, Stephen was aware of being watched. He raised his eyes to encounter a searching gaze that bore a faint resemblance to that of his nephew, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord.
"The pilgrim rests in the sacristy," the old man murmured in classical Latin, rather than that of the Church.
Stephen made his way to the sacristy, noting that the Swiss Guards looked past him as if he was not there. He stood alone in the chamber filled with carved chests containing holy artifacts and vestments, reminders that the Archbishop's nephew had once been a priest. You could not hate Talleyrand for breaking oaths and loyalties that bound lesser men, Stephen thought as he studied a reliquary at least a thousand years old. Who else in 1804 could have redesigned Europe to the enlightened ideals of European balance of power when Napoleon was at his peak of triumph? Alas, that Napoleon's quest for glory trampled those ideals he had sworn to uphold.
Presently Alexandre Angelique de Talleyrand-Perigord appeared, uncle to the Prince of Benevento. Stephen waited while sacristans removed his vestments. Then the elderly man, who had survived so many sudden changes in his beloved France, beckoned Stephen into a closet beyond the sacristy. "I am to inform you that you and my relation were both set up for downfall the other night. He desires me to thank you for your cooperative spirit."
Stephen bowed, enlightened. He had not been the target, then, except as an unwitting near-victim in one of the many internal conflicts in French affairs. He would have to give up his mission.
"He further desires me to observe that you and he are not known to one another, except perhaps by reputation," the Archbishop went on. "Men he has come to admire have spoken well of your parts. We all have read some of your scientific writings."
Stephen had told himself back when Edward Fitzgerald laid down his title and proclaimed the brotherhood of man that he would never exalt another human being. And yet in this man—and through him the more famous (some would say infamous) nephew he sensed the sort of power that changes nations.
He hesitated, searching for the right words.
The Archbishop, perhaps misconstruing Stephen's silence, posed a question to the air. "Have you pondered Seneca?"
Surprised, Stephen said, "Ars prima regni est posse invidiam pati?"
The Archbishop laughed soundlessly. "I was thinking of 'Violenta nemo imperia continuity diu, moderata Durant.' Has one ever visited in the region Gosfield?"
Stephen drew a painful breath. Gosfield—the palatial mansion where the last Bourbon king was at present living in what only royalty would call seclusion. "It might be."
"If one were to travel there, might one be persuaded to carry a letter?"
There were no words for awareness of the sudden baring of the sinews of history: Stephen reached, and the Archbishop gave him a packet with the air of conferring a benediction; when Stephen looked down, he saw Louis XVIII--the title Louis le Désiré, Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, Comte de Provence, had taken in 1795, on the death of his nephew in the prison where Stephen himself had been so recently incarcerated. It was written in Talleyrand's own hand, viewed just once before.
Diana had seen nothing of Stephen for several days. As the servants packed the wagons, she heard the Wainrights arguing, or rather not-quite-arguing, and withdrew from her bedchamber, which had been stripped. Her trunks and boxes of smart new clothes were stacked, waiting to be carried down.
She slipped out onto her balcony, aware of her mood changing yet again. Anger, self-mockery at her own assumption of moral superiority, regret, sadness, chased across her mind like the sun chasing cloud-shadows. She hated, she hated being beholden to anyone, and just so, she hated emotional scenes—emotional weakness.
She stepped out onto her balcony to cool her face.
A movement across the garden caught her eye: Stephen. He lifted a hand in a curious gesture, half beckon, half plea.
She whisked herself inside and across the room in three strides, then down the stairs past the lord and his lady, as he tried to placate in a tone of injury, and she wept in reproach, each struggling for righteous ascendance.
Diana crossed the garden, and when she saw the painful question in Stephen's face, she threw herself in his arms.
"Hsst, now," he murmured in her ear. "It would not do to draw attention. They will not want visitors any more than I wish to fumble through a polite conversation."
"Stephen—" Diana bit back the reasonable question, Why are you here? What were you doing? If he would not answer, she would not want a prevarication, and she sensed that he would not answer, or why had he said all that about northern birds before their departure? But then she had deflected him herself. So she said only, "Are you leaving as well? The Wainrights wish to quit Paris, and I have bought myself an entire new wardrobe, so I am quite ready."
"My matters are also complete," Stephen said slowly. "Diana, I honor you for this summary lack of reproaches and recriminations."
Lady Wainright's voice rose, " . . . when I am yet again in a delicate condition, the least you could do . . ." then broke into shattered sobs.
"Damn," Diana said, head back, fists clenched. "Even if you do get me with child, I promise you will never hear that. Do you want me to speak to them about room aboard the yacht, is that it?"
"I have my way home, I believe," he responded, his eyes tracking a flitting winged shape just beyond the neighboring chimney.
She gazed witlessly at him. Suddenly all the oddities fit into place, like one of those Chinese puzzle boxes. Stephen's strange visitors, his books of indecipherable writing locked in the escritoire, his sudden journeys—he had something to do with Government.
Her Stephen. Of course it must be. Why couldn't he tell her? Perhaps it was the same reason he had never given her a comprehensible answer about why his hands, which she used to admire for their fineness, had between one meeting and another become scarred and misshapen. There were two things she knew, as he stood before her, his wide, pale gaze now intent on her face: that he was somehow bound with the secret side of government, and that he wanted to protect her from whatever it was that resulted in scarred and misshapen fingers.
He was also as proud as Lucifer, so it would not do to notice. "My dear," she said, bending to kiss him. "Marriage with you gets better by the day. How refreshing to live with a man who does not bore me with tedious questions and explanations. I will meet you in London when you return. We will give a capital party, and I will be the best dressed woman there."
"You always are, Diana. I look forward to standing at your side." His face showed rare, heightened color, and when Sir Thomas slammed open the door to the garden Stephen slipped behind a trellis of climbing roses, and vanished.
Jack's annoyance with his lieutenants was forgotten by the time they had taken their prize. It was as neat a little action as anyone could wish, good practice for the hands. Pullings had taken charge of the boarding, Mowett the restoration to order after several exchanges of gunfire. No one was killed, there were just splinter wounds, except for the powder monkey who dropped a cannon ball on his own foot.
Dubois was sent off in charge of the prize, after which they sailed well northward, before tacking east again, toward Roteneuf.
The closer they got, the grimmer and more distant their captain. Mowett and Pullings had declared their wager a tie (they were agreed no one would presume to top the captain's effort, its being unknowing bearing the palm) and had thrown themselves into their work, until the men began to hate the sight of them. Caliban was a ship in perfect order, cordage flemished, guns burnished, wood gleaming like a royal yacht that moved smoothly through the choppy waters off the jagged coast of France, but she might as well have been a floating brothel for all the notice her captain took. Jack had ceased giving his dinners, which meant the out-of-pocket gunroom was reduced to plainer fare as well as the company of the bosun, whose quotations of fire and brimstone had daily grown more pointed, and the wistful master, whose gaze followed Jack as the captain paced the quarterdeck, turn after turn.
One entire day they polished the headland off Roteneuf, making certain they were hull down from the shore. Jack had the sharpest eyes posted in the tops, but they were to watch for enemies at sea. Jack kept his glass focused on the shore, where no human figure appeared on the desolate, marshy beach to disturb the endless whirls and dives of the wheeling seabirds.
One day, two, and Jack's mood grew blacker. Pullings and Mowett had begun to feel like midshipmen again when the lookout sighted a mast nicking the sky. It was a relief to find an enemy in sight. Anything was better than present conditions.
One nick became two, then four, then six—a fleet of fishing vessels, apparently unafraid of the lone sloop, despite her run-out guns.
"Captain, they are signaling. Wish to speak us."
Jack granted permission in a flat, unsmiling voice, and presently one of the fishers rounded to under their lee, sails old and patched, deck all ahoo, the stench rising off it causing Pullings to motion silently to the deck crew to stand ready to boom the ship off, lest its squalor attach to Caliban.
A decrepit excuse for a jollyboat dropped down unhandily, and was rowed over by a thin, unkempt fisher's boy, a hunched, tattered, unshaven object perched in the sternsheets, looking to the astonished crew more like a sick vulture than a man.
Stephen, arms clasped protectively over his bosom lest his triple-wrapped letter somehow leap out and sink below the billows, looked up, and found Jack near the rail, looking stern and unslept. Stephen might act as an agent of history, but he was a physician in all his being.
Mr. Akers waited for the captain to order these lice-infested indigents away, but to his surprise, the captain said in a lighter tone than anyone had heard for a week, "Light along a bosun's chair."
Pullings turned to relay the order, adding to the crew, who couldn't believe their ears, "Bear a hand, there, bear a hand!"
"Stephen," Jack exclaimed.
"It's the doctor," the old hand on the mainmast yard muttered without moving his lips.
"What did I tell yer? Out chasing his birds. He'd never know a war's on."
As soon as his feet reached the deck Stephen smiled, and taking no notice of anyone else—for he had not slept in days—he walked up to Jack. "Here you are, I find, my dear," he said, laying his hand on Jack's sleeve. "And how is your excrement?"
Before the Caliban docked, Jack paid off from his own pocket.
The prize would bring no great sum, but for the hands it was a year's pay. Dr. MacReady was nearly in tears as he carried his share down the side, Mowett walking with him arm in arm, talking in a low earnest voice about his own experiences in the fraught world of literature.
Jack hoped that Mowett's advice about publishing books of poetry was good; Akers, sending a scathing glance after the two, put a very different meaning on the disgusting spectacle of the two young men hurrying away in such close converse.
His mood stayed sour until he reached his home, and there was Mrs. Akers, the cheerless house spotless, her voice scolding as he set down his dunnage. "Don't mar my nice floor, Mr. Akers, if I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times. Wash your hands at the sideboard there, and if you've nothing to do, you can hear Prudence at her Bible verses, as some of us actually work every day."
There followed immediately Prudence's sanctimonious pipe, already gaining her mother's injured edge, "I know all of Numbers, and the proper Psalms, Papa. You never listen to me tell them off."
Later on—much later—Mrs. Akers, perhaps aware that her spouse was more morose than usual, asked what was amiss. "Naught that I would sully your ears with," he growled. "But I will just say this, the world is full of sin and corruption. Corruption every way you turn. Lightskirts and molly men—"
"Mis-ter Akers! Before me, and with the Sabbath not six hours off?"
Mr. Akers apologized, then made his decision about his prize money. Since the world was in such a sorry state, he may as well keep those few coins. He could drink himself into such an oblivion his mind would not sully him with images of his wife's scowl and accusatory voice, or Mr. Marshall's sweaty hands when the midshipmen were bent over a gun for a thrashing, or the sorry spectacle of Mr. Dubois's tight kerseymere breeches wet through in the rain.