The Far-Flung Agent

By Izzy

Part 1

French possessions in the Far East were not very extensive, and were mostly in the Coral Sea. Pulau-Pulau was a small island west of the larger ones of Vanuatu and New Caledonia, a useful port for French ships crossing the Coral Sea to and from them. It was also a place from which Australia could conceivably be threatened, if Bonaparte ever so decided, and so Mrs. Rothschild had been assigned there and eventually joined by her American attache.

In the captain’s cabin of the HMS Surprise, Jack had just come down off the deck, and his spirits had been high. Indeed, they had been so since he had officially received the command of his old ship, the one he had served in as a midshipman and commanded not at all long after being made post, an old friend to him especially welcome after the Leopard, which he had never been able to love unreservedly, not when she had been a difficult ship, old and awkwardly built, and with an unfortunate history with a hostile incident involving the Americans. It had also been sweet sailing since they had left Australia, and they would likely reach their destination within the next week.

In the cabin he had left two maps on display. The first was of Pulau-Pulau, a very small piece of land, which left Jack all the more confused as to why these Japanese soldiers would go there. There were plenty of destinations in the area that would’ve made more sense, especially with the Dutch also at war with the British. He had studied the map extensively just to try to make a guess of where on the island such an army might sleep.

However, he now went to the other map, the one that stretched for the Coral Sea up to Easternmost Russia, and showed the islands that consisted of Japan; one long one, two much smaller and one tiny south of it, and one about twice the size of the two smaller ones just north, as well as another tiny island to the west. He had never paid much attention to them, having been told the Japanese for well over a century and a half had had nothing to do with anyone from anywhere else in the world and therefore were of significance to noone besides themselves. He had more recently learned that this was not entirely true; the Dutch held a trading post just by a city in the southernmost part of the southernmost island called Nagasaki, and there were arrangements with some of the other countries in Asia as well.

But he had also learned something else that felt more important; that Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world stemmed from laws the country had not only forbidding any foreigners in, to the point that even the Dutch had to have their post on an island just off the coast where the Japanese were better able to bear them, but forbidding any inhabitants of the country to leave, and both prohibitions were on pain of death. That raised the possibility that the army was essentially an army of exiles, unable to return home, and therefore with much less to lose than they otherwise might have had.

He was still considering the islands of Japan, trying to guess at how many people might live on them, how much of an army they could possibly have produced while the world had not been looking, when Stephen joined him. “Do you know anything about Japan?” he asked him. “I do not.”

“No one does, joy,” said Stephen. “But I admit I am curious to learn about them if we can.”

“A pity they will probably not bring any strange beasts with them,” said Jack with a smile.

“Truly, it is,” Stephen was agreeing, when they heard the yell from above of “Sail ho!”

By the time Jack reach the deck, there was more news to make him happier: it was a small French merchantman, an easy prize. Indeed though they ran, the chase did not take too long; within an hour their colours were struck and the captured ship was coming alongside them.

Having taken a look at their crew from his telescope, they had not looked particularly extraordinary, but Jack nonetheless had thought there was something odd about them. He was not sure what, however. He had already identified the captain; a mustached man who was surprisingly wide for someone who had been at sea, but perhaps the ship mostly did short voyages between Pulau-Pulau and the larger two islands. He went looking at the other men, wondered if any of them were Japanese. None of them seemed to be, but despite his efforts to find out what a Japanese man might look like he still had only a vague idea. He had heard they were all slightly brown-skinned and very dark-haired, though, and these men were mostly fair and some of them were fair-haired; if anything, they looked liked the Frenchmen one would expect to find on board a French ship.

Still, looking at the group of men that accompanied the captain as he came over, he still thought there was something odd about them. Perhaps it was in their walk; the steps in their march into the boat were unnaturally big, like one sometimes saw in the army or the marines, but somehow a little bigger and a little stiffer. Was that a Japanese trait? He thought someone might have said something to him once about their being very ceremonial. It did not strike him as a very French one.

Despite his size the captain had no trouble coming up the side from most of his ascent, until he reached the very top. But then he somehow stumbled while climbing over, and bellyflopped(there was no other way to describe it) onto the deck. He let out a bellowing laugh as he scrambled to his feet, fairly quickly for a man of his size; the sound of it echoed through the deck as if it was bouncing off the sails. Two of his men were accompanying him, and their reaction, oddly, was amusement, with no sign of embarrassment over their captain having just compromised his dignity. Jack saw the Surprises close enough to see this look at each other in dismay.

“Bonjour, mon capitan,” he said, and he had the most French-sounding voice of anyone Jack had ever heard, except there was something off about it being so strong he could not quite put his finger on. It seemed even more off when he continued in English, “My name is Thomas le Feulipe. I am afraid I do not have any pretty swords to give you, but we surrender nonetheless.”

“We shall have to do without swords, then,” said Jack, keeping his normal commander’s tone, though despite le Feulipe’s lack of dignity, there was something about him that could not help but make Jack like him. “Come with me into my cabin.”

He did not expect the business with the captain to go on long, especially since taking a closer look at the ship made him more convinced it did not take long voyages, and probably was not carrying much. Indeed, looking at its brightly painted sides and abnormally large figurehead he thought it one of the showiest ships he had ever seen.

But when the door closed behind them le Feulipe let out another one of those bellowing laughs, which sounded oddly ridiculous in such a small space, and said, “So, mon capitan, you have been at sea a long time?”

“We sailed out of Australia not too long ago,” answered Jack readily.

“Ah, Australia,” sighed the man, and now he sounded too jolly, and it made Jack stiffen up; he did not care to hear Australia threatened, even in jest. But le Feulipe did not do so, instead saying only, “Such an unpleasant place, I have heard. Is it?”

It was, but Jack did not wish to agree with such sentiments from a Frenchman, so he did not respond, but instead said, “Let me see your papers, then.”

The papers were provided, wrapped in an unnecessarily fancy ribbon; it made Jack wonder if le Feulipe was a privately wealthy man. The information in them appeared to be in order, but as Jack read through them the French captain started talking again. “You would have broken my heart far less, sir, had you taken my ship a week ago. Ah, but then again a week ago we were in port in Pulau-Pulau, and you could not have taken us then, now could you have?” Another laugh, not as loud or ambient as the ones that had come before, but still abnormally merry. “But alas, when I consider our freight.” He made a very dramatic noise of mourning, one Jack thought very French.

“What is in this freight you speak of?” he asked, keeping his tone neutral, though great happiness rose in him at the mention of it. That, he knew, was good extra prize money to have, especially with his financial affairs at home as involved as he feared they might be.

“Ah, mon capitan!” The man sighed again. “A little locked box to which even I have not been given the keys, but I have been told is worth far more than its considerable weight in gold. Perhaps if your men can break it open, if nothing else I shall have my curiousity satisfied as to what is in it.”

“It shall have to be brought over here, then,” said Jack. He supposed it might not be the first time in history a box of freight had sailed without its key, though he did not think that was the normal way of doing things, and he hoped it reflected the contents of the box being extra valuable.

The rest of the interview contained nothing out of the ordinary. It was a bit of a disappointment to discover that apart from the freight the ship wasn’t carrying much, so unless the freight was extremely valuable indeed the prize money would not be much. It made Jack all the more determined to find out what the freight was, and le Fuelipe hadn’t even tottered out of the captain’s cabin before the order was being conveyed through the ship to bring the box over.

Over it came, and it was easily the toughest looking box Jack had seen in all of his long career. It appeared to be made completely of iron, with two big locks on it, and it was so heavy Bonden and another sailor had to work together to lug it into the great cabin. “Do you know,” he asked Bonden, “if any of the crew are particularly talented in the picking of locks?”

“Certain,” his coxswain told him, "I know two of them ended up in the gaol for doing so. Shall I send for them?”

“Do so,” Jack told him, but after Bonden left it occurred to him that between the orders being secret and having the common addition of his having to “advise and consult” with Stephen, and this striking him as no ordinary piece of freight, that perhaps he should be present as well. “Pass the word for Dr. Maturin,” he ordered when Bonden returned with the two landsmen Peter Simmons and Ashley Rushworth. “Gentlemen,” he said to the two of them, “can you pick these locks?”

Simmons peered over them closely, then whistled. “Ain’t this the trickiest lock I e’er seen. Give me a good hour, maybe. Unless Rush here can do it quicker.”

“Thems do look like some tricky locks,” Rush agreed.

“Take all the time you need,” said Jack, although he was not entirely happy; if this was indeed a matter of intelligence, it would be better for it to be done quickly.

On the other hand, it gave Stephen time to arrive, and to be given a quick summary of what they knew about the box so far. “In case there should be anything dangerous in it from a medical perspective,” was the explanation Jack gave the other two for his presence, which they shrugged at and continued working. Simmons looked especially absorbed, practically fascinated, it seemed, by a setup that proved a challenge to him. He seemed to be making more progress than Rush, though he may have been too distracted to care; he took far longer to judge scrutinize the locks than Jack believed to be necessary.

But at last they both cried out in triumph, and the locks were broken. “Thank you, gentlemen,” said Jack in a voice that made it clear they were dismissed. “You will have an extra ration of grog.” They both thanked him for that, and Rushworth did so enthusiastically, but Simmons actually looked a little disappointed, wanting to know, perhaps what was in a box that had been bound up with such precautionary locking.

But only Jack and Stephen could be in the cabin when Jack lifted the lid-not without some difficulty; even that was exceedingly heavy, and they looked at the box’s content together. Jack was glad for his friend was there, however, so he could ask him immediately, “My dear Stephen, do you know what to make of this?” To his disappointment Stephen’s response was that he did not.

It appeared to be some sort of lantern, an octagonal cylinder with a thin metal structure carved up into willow-liked curved branches and flowers, lined with a whitish paperlike substance, with a elegantly carved base and top of more solid metal. But it was, bizarrely, lit, except that they could not make out of the curve of any candle, and the powerful pale blue light was such that neither man had even seen or heard or read about. “Almost what one would think the stars might look like,” Jack said. “But Stephen, I know that stars are not here on Earth contained in fancy lanterns.”

“Indeed they are not,” agreed Stephen. “And also I might note that I do not recognize at all the tree these branches are supposed to be from, though of course it might be fanciful, or even in imitation of some Australian plant I was not fortunate enough to see during our stay there.”

“I don’t recognize it either,” said Jack. “But I admit, I have been in many places where I have not paid attention to what the trees there look like. Is it safe to touch, do you think?”

Stephen reached a hand out, but did not touch. “I do not know that either,” he admitted. “If a sketch can be drawn I could send it at least to Sir Joseph, who of course has his own knowledge of natural philosophy, though plants are not his forte.”

The mention of the head of Naval Intelligence brought Jack the memory of his mission, and he asked. “Do you think it might be Japanese? That would certainly explain the plant being an unfamiliar one.”

“Indeed,” Stephen agreed. “Perhaps when we reach Pulau-Pulau, there will be the opportunity to learn more.”

Until then, they agreed the freight box was to be kept in Jack’s cabin and details about its contents to be discussed only with each other. Though in the end, they would not even need to discuss it over the next few days.

Not that there was any real hope of keeping such a thing a secret for very long, especially when there were members of two curious crews crowded onto the Surprise when Jack sent a minimal crew back to Australia with the prize. Later he would wish he had thought to send Rushworth and Simmons away with them; they were both happy to tell all that they knew and then much that they didn’t. More word got out within a couple of days, with some contradictory exaggerations and half of it speculation rather than fact, but soon enough everyone agreed that the box had contained some sort of lantern and that Dr. Maturin was worried whether it might not be dangerous to touch.

This was not something that sat easy amoung a crew that had during their voyage from England to Australia already been ravaged by a nasty gaol-fever that had taken a large part of the initial complement. It was something Stephen was forced to notice, as he had more sailors in his sickbay than he would’ve expected, especially amoung the prisoners from the French ship, who seemed to worry that their longer exposure to being in close proximity to the box had left them in more danger.

Captain le Feulipe was not amoung those that did so; however, he was more determined than anyone to determine just what he had been carrying. He was quite put out that he had not been told as soon as the box had been opened, and he brought the matter up every time he and Jack talked. Jack even hesitated before inviting him to dine, as was polite and proper, and almost regretted doing it when during the entire meal he kept making stray glances towards the box, which had remained in the captain’s cabin.

Still, the box was not the biggest of his worries. A plan had to be devised for getting onto Pulau-Pulau, and Jack was left to study his maps to determine the best place near the island to drop anchor, and who should then go ashore, and where. The only certain member of the party would be Stephen; Jack was not sure whether even he should go with him. With the island a day’s sail away, he called Stephen in to discuss the matter.

“We have too little up-to-date information on the condition of things on the island,” Stephen said to him, as he studied the marks Jack had put on the map of suitable landing places. “I think it would be best if I went ashore first, perhaps accompanied by Bonden. I have a pair of contacts to meet with, and I can ask them what they further require.”

“If you think that is what is best, my dear,” said Jack, though he did not like this plan at all. It was not the first time he had set Stephen ashore to do intelligence work, but he could not help but think back to that time a few years ago when he had rescued him for a French torture chamber in Minorca, and he had known since then every time he would do it he would be filled with dread of what might happen to him, when Jack was potentially helpless to do anything about it.

Stephen knew this, and he said to him gently, “Do not worry too much about it, joy. According to our most recent intelligence, the French presence on the island is relatively low.”

“Unless they have successfully obtained the services of these Japanese soldiers,” Jack felt the need to point out.

“We do not even have confirmation those men have reached Pulau-Pulau yet, and even when they get there, they may not fall immediately into the service of the French. I find it highly unlikely they have had very much contact before arrival; they must do most of whatever negotiations to be done and cement the alliance there. If we are lucky, we can see to it that they never do.” His face turned colder as he spoke his last part, his eyes taking on that reptilian look that Jack understood the necessity of, but still hated to see. He wondered even how many dead would result from Stephen’s machinations, and whether he would rather not know.

The next morning Jack awoke in the early hours, a couple of hours before he needed to, which was an immediate indication to him that something was not right, for it was very rare he woke early if everything was. He has the feeling he had just heard footsteps, or at least something on the wood of the cabin floor, but there was no one in the cabin. Nor was there any sound out of the ordinary now, merely the sound of the sea and the low murmur of voices from up on the deck, and Killick below grumbling about something, though far too softly for Jack to have a hope of making out what.

Nothing in the cabin looked out of place at first glance, but almost instinctively, Jack crept over to the box still there. He lifted the lid and looked at the lantern; it appeared undisturbed. Except...he took a glance at the picked locks. Was it just his head playing tricks on him, or had they been moved from the previous night?

His first thought was immediately Captain le Feulipe. For all the man had his sizable girth, Jack had noticed he was quiet in his step; had he somehow managed to sneak into the cabin unobserved, and finally see what he had been carrying? It was possible, Jack reminded himself, that there was no harm in this. It seemed especially so when none of them could even decipher either the nature or the function of the object; if he did not know what it did; what use could he make of it? But then, of course, there was the worry he did somehow know. Although his initially liking of him was not entirely gone, Jack had come to feel very strongly over the more recent few days that there was something behind this harmless-seeming fat French captain, more than might meet the eye.

He did not get the chance to discuss it with Stephen immediately; the morning and most of the day was spent finding a suitable place for the Surprise to drop anchor. From a distance they circumnavigated much of Pulau-Pulau, seeking a place in the sea no French ships were likely to come to while sailing to and from the island. At last the anchor dropped in water of a good depth for it, neither too shallow nor too deep, on the far side from the main seaport. It was shortly before dinner then, and he still had to brief Bonden then on what he was to do, so by the time Stephen came to his cabin it was after dinner, the sun was hanging low in the sky, and the plan was for him and Bonden to set out once it was down.

“We should hope it was only Captain leu Feulipe,” said Stephen, when he had been told, “and that his motives were innocent. Still, I don’t think he’s necessarily a threat.” That was all he was willing to say, as became clear when he then said, “Shall we have some music, my dear? I believe we have an hour at least.”

Have an hour they did, and when Jack’s focus was his violin and the music coming from Stephen’s cello, he was at least briefly able to be at ease. This was uncomplicated, this was a place where he knew just what to do, like first taking a ship out to sea when the waters were smooth. The voices of the violin and cello blended into each other, becoming one as they played on and on, keeping to pieces of music they had by heart, one of them occasionally changing to some other piece and the other effortlessly following, until finally they heard the ringing of the bell to indicate it was time, and reluctantly, Jack brought his playing into an ending flourish, which Stephen echoed a moment later.

Up to the deck, and quietly to the side of the ship. Bonden insisted on helping Stephen down the side, despite his protests that he was an old sea dog at this, that he had done it countless times, sometimes even without help. The darkness was falling fast enough that when the boat was lowered to the water with the two men in it Jack had to strain to see their silhouettes. Bonden had taken a lantern, however, and lit it. Though he would have to blow it out when they got closer to Pulau-Pulau’s shores for now it illuminated the boat as it started to make its way through the waters, which thankfully were very still; it would be an easy trip to shore, and Jack took comfort in that. Still he watched the boat shrink off into the distance, until at least even the light of the lantern could no longer be seen.

He might not have breakfasted the next morning, for indeed he had no appetite for food then, except that it occurred to him that if Captain leu Felipe, or indeed someone else, had indeed seen the lantern, it would do well to learn as much about that as possible. He was not a man well-suited for the task, unfortunately, being very bad at any kind of dissembling, but he was now the only man on board who was aware of the problem, and so he had to try. So he invited the French Captain to breakfast as well as the officer of the watch, which that morning happened to be Mr. Babbington. Jack was glad it was his lieutenant and longtime follower; even if he did not entirely know what was going on, he was likely to want to be of aid.

They had just sat down and began eating when Jack started, “So, Captain, did you sleep well last night?”

“Oh, perfectly, Monsieur,” the captain sighed in reply. “The sea was so very quiet and rocking so little it was like a lullaby, and when I closed my eyes I slept like the dead until the morning watch was almost over.”

“I give you joy of that, then,” said Jack. “Although I must admit, I did not have your luck. Indeed, I woke far too early this morning, when the morning watch was barely begun, I believe, and I was quite certain someone had been in my cabin. I saw no one, so I suppose it must have been in my head.”

He had not fooled the Captain, although the way le Feulipe’s eyes flew wide at least told him what he’d wanted to know. Though he did not admit to the deed, saying only, “Ah, our heads, mon capitan, what tricks they play on us.”

Perhaps sensing the tension in the room, Babbington ventured, “We are lucky is it not so hot out. If the temperatures were to raise even a little, I think none of us would sleep well. Every time I have been in the doldrums I have had this problem...” and Jack was happy to chime in his own experience on the subject, and the conversation moved on.

With le Feulipe presumably on his guard, Jack made no more attempts to gain knowledge of what he had done the previous night, but if he had harbored any remaining doubts, they were done away with as the two men took their leave, and the French captain gave a long, lingering look at the box, and especially on its locks. Perhaps he had realized he had not replaced them quite right.

Still it left him not sure whether to worry or not. He wished he could have written about it in his ongoing letter to Sophie, but of course that was not possible. It made him wonder how Stephen coped, having to keep so many things so close to him and talk about so little of it even to Jack.

He had, however, written to her about laying anchor the previous day, and now he added Now it is the normal dullness not unlike what one experiences when one is involved in a blockade, except without the other ships for company. He supposed it was not entirely unlike a blockade, what they were doing, especially since they were trying to prevent an enemy force from coming out to cause trouble.

He supposed Stephen’s going ashore might too become a normal part of blockading, since it was always done near enemy territory, where he could go and wreck havoc. He hoped not, however. Aside from his normal distress related to putting his friend ashore, it was a trouble to manage such a thing so discreetly, although he supposed it might be easier on larger shores with larger stretches of uninhabited land, especially if they were more likely to know which places were uninhabited; on Palau-Palau they had been obliged to make their best guess, which did not ease Jack’s anxiety any that day.

Up on deck things were running smoothly, as he would have expected. This was, after all, the crew that had chosen to stay with him when a good number of the Leopards had chosen to follow Jack’s first lieutenant on the Leopard, a certain Lieutenant Grant, when Jack had given him permission to abandon the ship. That felt like much less a loss here on a smaller ship, one he and much of the crew had already been long familiar with, especially since it had largely been the loss of men he had held no special love for, the way he did most of these men; indeed, even if they had been nothing to him when he had first taken command of the Leopard, their decision to stay and these last few months had changed that entirely.

Thinking of that eased the knot inside him somewhat, the knowledge that even if Stephen, and Bonden with him, got into dire circumstances, and might have to be rescued, he had with him a group of men whom he could fully trust to do it, even more than with most of his crews, especially when most of them also fully understood the doctor’s value and would not hesitate to do whatever it took.

Indeed, all would have been harmony, expect that Captain le Feulipe was on deck as well. He was behaving properly enough, staying far away from the sacred quarterdeck on which Jack stood, but whenever he looked in the direction of Pulau-Pulau(and Jack had know doubt he knew where they were, since he was familiar with these waters), something in Jack’s instincts whispered to him. He was uncomfortably aware that in terms of number le Feulipe and his men had the advantage over the Surprises, though he didn’t think any of them were that experienced at fighting; he especially doubted the captain would be any good at it. He wished there had been some neutral location he could have stopped and paroled them all at.

That night, when he finally managed to sleep, he dreamed of Pulau-Pulau, and the French captain. He dreamed of him walking through rough lanes and exotic crowds, wearing a smile completely unlike the merry one that Jack had seen on him already, one dark, and cunning, and contemptuous. He woke wishing there was something he could do about him, but he had absolutely no reason for suspicion of him; he had been a model prisoner so far and so had all the rest of his men. His doctor even stood in the sickbay right now as the crew’s doctor until their regular one returned; Stephen had spoken well of his assistance, even though so far they’d had relatively little to do, and Jack liked what he had seen so far of him well enough. He supposed it was one comfort, to know there was someone to try to tend to Stephen, should they have another incident like had happened in Port Mahon.

To Be Continued...