The HMS Leopard had not been long in Sydney Cove when it became clear to her captain that it would be best not to stay in Australia very long. Captain Jack Aubrey had brought his ship in after a particularly arduous voyage with barely enough of a hull, of sails, or of a crew to be called seaworthy, but it did not take him much more than a day to realize that as the ship was still called seaworthy nonetheless, it was likely not worth the no doubt very long stay in a very unpleasant port to attempt to improve her situation much.
Still, certain formalities had to be observed; the governor had to be visited. It was after a less than pleasant dinner when Governor Macquarie invited Jack to a private interview the following day. There he handed him what were obviously secret orders, as well as a separate envelope. “This is a letter for Dr. Stephen Maturin, whom I understand to be your particular friend,” he said to him in an undertone.
Dr. Maturin was indeed a particular friend of Jack’s, as well as the surgeon of most of ships he had been the captain of, and it was perhaps the professional connection, rather than the personal one, that left Jack aware that he was also an intelligence agent, though at the moment this knowledge was sitting heavily on Jack. He was not happy with Dr. Maturin’s recent behavior, done in the line of his work.
He had apparently planted something on an American agent, one Mrs. Louisa Wogan, which it had been vital she carry back to the United States with her. Which was all very well, except that Mrs. Wogan had been a convict being transported on the Leopard to Australia, and he had arranged her escape. Which Jack might have even allowed without grudge, except that in the process he had also induced a young American, a man Jack had rated midshipman, a man Jack had thought fairly well of, to desert also, and that did not sit entirely well with Jack. Nor did it that he did not breath a word of his involvement in their flight until Jack had nearly recaptured them, and had only refrained when Stephen had explained to him why it was necessary for them to escape. He understood why he had not been told; he understood that the less said in these matters the better. But the fact remained that he disliked it considerably.
When Jack first returned to the Leopard after the meeting, furthermore, there was no sign of Stephen Maturin. This was no surprise. Aside for a surgeon and intelligence agent, he also had a passion for flora and fauna which Jack had not seen equaled in any other man. It was only to be expected that when they were in a place such as Australia, where there were known to be creatures seen nowhere else in the world, as soon as he was allowed he would escape the ship.
He considered the secret orders, but ultimately decided to read them after he had delivered the accompanying letter to Stephen. He suspected its accompanying the orders meant it had something to do with them, and it was best to get all details straightened out at the same time on matters such as these. Even so, he wanted the matter dealt with as soon as possible, and so called his coxswain. Barrett Bonden had been with him since his first command, and was aware of Stephen’s position in Naval Intelligence; indeed, he had once aided Jack in rescuing Stephen from French Intelligence officials whom had captured and tortured him.
“He went off with a friend of his, sir,” Bonden told him. “Shall I call him back, sir?”
“Yes, please.” But as Bonden left, Jack determinedly put both secret orders and letter aside to force his focus onto other matters, as he knew that if Stephen Maturin did not care to return immediately, and he likely would not, it might be some time before Bonden got him back.
To his considerable surprise, it was not an hour before the door to his cabin opened, and Stephen stepped in. His expression was extremely unpleasant, and he was holding a furry creature that Jack had never seen before, but Jack was pleased to see him.
“Do not look so angry, my dear,” he said. “I would not have called you back so soon had it not been necessary.”
“Necessary. I see.” Stephen was unconvinced. It was true that there were certain affairs that Jack, as a naval officer, saw as holy, which Stephen did not hold in the same reverence. Instead of starting a quarrel on that matter, Jack retrieved the letter and held it out to him.
“This came with secret orders,” he explained, “which I have not yet opened, as I thought it would be better if you got yours when I got mine.”
“You were right to call me back then,” said Stephen, all crossness gone. “We shall both open our missives now, at once.”
As they did so, Stephen Maturin was not surprised to find that his was from Sir Joseph Blaine, the head of Naval Intelligence. It read:
My Dear Maturin,
As I am arranging my missive to travel with special secret orders for your friend Captain Aubrey, you will be immediately aware, I hope, of the nature of this letter, however, you may still find its contents mildly surprising nonetheless, as well as the nature of the mission I am sending the two of you on. It is an unusual mission, to be sure, but one I would entrust to very few. It is not just a normal matter of trust within intelligence; you must prepare yourself for very unpredictable and I must say bizarre circumstances, and be able to take advantage of opportunities others might not see as possible.
The circumstances I speak of, in short, are this: in the year 1800, when relations were a little friendlier with the States, I accepted a proposal from a man who was then very high in America’s then nascent intelligence service. He and his agents wished to harry Bonaparte, but lacked the resources to do so on their own, so offered what resources they did have, instead, to us. We agreed that a British agent and an American agent would be sent to each other to work together against the French.
The British agent is one Emilia Rothschild, a woman of considerable knowledge and experience. She is a widow of an East Indies merchant who continues to run his business, thirty-eight years of age now, about five foot two, blonde hair and elegant features, generous figure. She has a talent for mechanics and for chemistry; she has invented quite a few useful devices, albeit ones mostly useful in intelligence rather than in the world in general. In fact, you may have read one of her two chemistry papers, though they were both published as being by a lady. She spoke French and Spanish already, and has educated herself in all the languages of the Indies.
The American agent is named Jack Stiles, about six foot one, dark haired, fit, and is a rogue by reputation, with an extraordinary talent for disguising his identity and a penchant for seducing the fairer sex that has proved his undoing at least once. Mrs. Rothschild has written to me about his unfortunate liking for showing away as well as his sometimes strange behavior; indeed, the way in which she has continually complained about it makes me believe I need not go into details here, that she will provide you with them with only a minimum of prompting, and her memory may prove more reliable. His identity is that of her attache.
The two of them were thus placed together on the French-occupied island of Pulau-Pulau, the geographic details of which I will leave to Captain Aubrey to give you; he will make a better figure of them than I would. It was assumed they were to stay there until Bonaparte was defeated, and so they have remained there for now over ten years. Very early into their assignment, according to Mrs. Rothschild, Mr. Stiles devised and enacted a scheme to take advantage of the local folk beliefs by assuming, at his convenience, the identity of their legendary figure, known as the Daring Dragoon, a disguise through which he can openly fight against Bonaparte’s agents, using as an excuse their tyranny over the locals. Improbable as Mrs. Rothschild admits it to be, he has never been caught as being the man behind the mask, though he has been aided by the occurrence of a few copycats over the years, including once Mrs. Rothschild herself, taking over the identity temporarily when Mr. Stiles was obliged towards another task.
She has described their mission as being more eventful in its early years than in recent ones; however, we have reason to believe that this is soon to change. Pulau-Pulau is now the most probable destination of a group of renegade warriors from the island of Japan who are looking to possibly come to the aid of Bonaparte. At the time that I write this we are uncertain of their numbers, but there may be enough and this may be vital enough a mission that I think it prudent to send a third agent in to be of aid to Mrs. Rothschild and Mr. Stiles. You must neutralize these men however possible; we know almost nothing of Japanese affairs as the country is closed off from the rest of the world, and it is not impossible they could bring the entire nation into the world and into the war on the side of France. How much strength they have is a complete unknown, but any troops completely fresh for battle would likely mean disaster.
This is what I have told Mrs. Rothschild, and what is to be your reason for making contact with her and Mr. Stiles. However, I am in fact also sending you there for a second purpose. As you know, relations between Britain and the United States continue to proceed towards a likely war; it has not happened as I write these words and I hope it will not have happened when you receive them, but I now feel it to be inevitable. And when that happens, I have grave doubts about the continuing loyalty of Mrs. Rothschild. She has begun in her reports to me to affect an attitude of indifference to him that would not fool a child; I think it likely they are lovers, possibly even secretly married, and of her love for him I have no doubt. Therefore I need for you to closely observe them both, and judge what action should be taken to prevent her from defecting. I enclose her most recent message to me as well as the code used; you will note also its brevity, more than is required for mere discretion; I suspect there is much in at least the past year she has not told me.
Finally, as I know enough about the Leopard’s state to assume-
But Stephen was interrupted in the reading of this sentence by the wombat he had brought on board the ship and into the great cabin with him, as while he had been reading it had been examining his boots, and just decided that their surface was possibly edible, and began an attempt to gnaw at them. Its teeth were most sharp, and cut clean through the worn leather and very nearly pierced Stephen’s epidermis as he was obliged to scuttle aside with an undignified yelp, and even then the creature was not dislodged from his boot. He hastily began pulling haphazardly at the footwear, attempted to get it off his foot, only to discover whenever his fingers got near the wombat, it would nip at them, making him wonder how it could have changed so quickly from the well-behaved animal he had got on board with so little trouble.
He was still struggling when finally Jack’s hands seized the unruly wombat and pulled it off, leaving Stephen with a disheveled boot and an immediate concern that Jack not hurt the poor animal. “Put it down gently,” he urged, and Jack did so, quite some distance from the two of them. “It is a wombat,” he told his friend, “a creature I have never seen the like of anywhere else in the world.”
“It doesn’t look unlike your old sloth to me,” replied Jack, and there was a moment of awkward silence, for the sloth had inadvertently caused one argument between the two of them. However, both had far graver concerns on their mind at that moment. “Looking at the secret orders,” he said, “it is quite odd. We are given as a destination a small island, there to harry an undefined group of soldiers from a country near Russia which is not supposed to have any ships, any forces, or anything to do with the outside world at all, and even that would not be too much, but it sounds as if we may get a new ship in which to do all this, and yet...”
“The orders were written a very long time ago,” said Stephen. “In fact, it is a piece of luck that the news of them reached Britain in time for this missive to be sent to us.” He returned to the letter, and as he did, two more documents fell out. The first he knew must be Mrs. Rothschild’s communique. It was very neatly done, unmistakably the work of a smart and experienced woman; his respect for her was immediately raised. The second was another note in Sir Joseph’s handwriting, short and to the point, an addendum written at the very last minute, and on reading it, Stephen could not help but smile; here was pleasing news.
“I am afraid it shall be pain to obtain any new ship for this mission,” Jack was saying, “as they have not given us any, and the Leopard is not at all suited for it at the best of times, and to use it now should be impossible. It will be trouble enough leaving it in the dockyards for months.”
“Well as to that, Jack,” he replied, and the high amount of cheer in his voice attracted the captain’s attention immediately, “of course Sir Joseph was not able to make any promises in his writing to me, but it is just possible you will find yourself provided with a joyful surprise.”