The Far-Flung Agent

By Izzy

Part 2

Stephen and Bonden reached Pulau-Pulau in good time and without incident, and found a deserted part of the shore where Bonden was able to settle the boat and they were able to make landfall. The coxswain was not entirely happy when Stephen then asked him to stay with the boat while he went further ashore, but was persuaded when Stephen pointed out it would be harder to blend in with such an obviously British companion. “Unfortunately I shall have to pose as American again,” he said, “with Spain being at war with France as well, but at least they are more likely to be welcome here.” He was not entirely certain how well the disguise would hold up, given that Mr. Stiles had left the governing officials all too familiar with an actual American, but in the crowds he did not foresee any difficulties.

He did not attempt what uninhabited sections of the island there were just yet; it would be simpler to determine where rumour had placed any foreign encampments and approach those places first. Instead he headed for the main town and port, draped in his thick cloak and broad hat which would require effort of bystanders if they wished to remember any of his basic features.

The first person he ran into, when in the wee hours of the morning he entered the town, was a child, a native boy playing in the mud outside what Stephen assumed to be his family hut. He looked up at Stephen, and said something in the native tongue in which he recognized the word dragoon. The word was then repeated by a woman, presumably the boy’s mother, hurried out of the hut, and took a look at what her son had seen. Then she shook her head, and said something to the boy; apparently in her eyes Stephen did match the looks of the Daring Dragoon. Though the boy’s belief seemed to persist, he argued something back to her and followed Stephen as he tried to walk away; he had never been especially fond of children at the best of times, and he had no time to deal with the worst kind of inquisitive little boy now. He walked speedily; still the boy tried to stagger after him, and his mother called after him too.

It was a good disguise, he thought, despite this kind of inconvenience it might cause. Unfortunately he was not wearing a mask, which he understood was a normal part of the costume, but if he kept his head bowed enough passers by might not notice that, at least until the light grew stronger, and because the Dragoon had apparently been a common visitor to the town over the last decade, no one would think very much of him quietly walking past in the morning, presumably off to do some important deed elsewhere.

So he kept his head down, and his step quick, as if he really did have to hurry off to somewhere, and ignored any look he might have gotten from those who took a long second glance at him, or any murmur that might have passed through the air when more than one person was there to comment on his passing. He thought he heard the cry of a little girl at one point, but no one actually tried to approach him, perhaps out of the thought he had best be left to do his bit of good.

However, as the twilight began to give way to the dawn proper, and more people came out, Stephen did start to pay more attention, at least to the language everyone was speaking around him. So far there was nothing but the native tongue, and certainly no French, but he was sure word of the Dragoon being afoot had reached the French authorities, and he doubted they were happy about that.

But in the end, it was not a Frenchman who walked straight up to Dr. Maturin perhaps an hour after sunrise, positioned himself in front of him, and greeted him with only the thinnest veneer of politeness which did nothing to hide his anger. It was instead a man whose height and dark hair matched the description of Jack Stiles from Sir Joseph’s letter, and he spoke with what Stephen recognized as an American accent as he asked for Stephen’s name.

Fortunately he recognized it when it was given, having apparently already been notified of Stephen’s coming, and his face softened, though he still didn’t look too happy. “We should get you inside,” he said to Stephen, “before the Frenchies come swarming on you. They don’t like guys who dress like that.”

“I understand,” said Stephen, allowing himself a smile, “that such men have caused them trouble here over the past decade.”

“The rumour’s gotten around, huh?” That did get a smile out of Mr. Stiles. “Yeah, there’s been some problems for them there. Just take off the cloak, and we’ll go inside and talk about it.”

They set about doing just that, though Stephen would have liked it had they gone faster. Where most agents would have set a stride as fast as they both could manage and gone straight to the destination without stopping, Mr. Stiles perambulated much more slowly, and seemed to be deaf to hints that they could go faster, and even stopped when they passed a market to inhale. “You really need to try the local soup while you’re here,” he told Stephen. “Best stuff I’ve ever had. Ten years and I’m still not tired of it yet. Pity Ems didn’t ask me to get anything for her.” Stephen noted the nickname, and its possible significance, and tried to ignore how little propriety Mr. Stiles seemed to display when discussing her.

However, they finally got to what apparently been the abode Mrs. Rothschild had lived in since she and the late Mr. Rothschild had first arrived on Pulau-Pulau, and where Mr. Stiles now also lived. “She puts me up in the basement, with all her bubbling things and experiments,” he laughed, and Stephen made a mental note to examine his bed down there to at least try to determine how often it was actually slept in. Although that would have to wait until perhaps much later. In the foyer Mr. Stiles called out, “Ems, I brought that friend you talked about,” even before the door was fully closed behind them, and he heard a female voice call, “Just a minute,” before Mrs. Rothschild emerged.

She was as Sir Joseph had described her, although the qualities that struck Stephen the most were the ones that could not easily be described in a letter. For one thing, there was her gait and carriage; if she did not have quite the grace of, say, Diana Villiers, the woman who had broken Stephen’s heart more than once and still held it, even though he did not expect to even ever see her again, she was still far more graceful and poised than most ladies that he had met. Indeed in more than one way he reminded him of her, although her hair was blonde while Diana’s was dark, and her figure was much fuller. Also there was a hardness to her face, though he could not quite pinpoint where it came from, whether from the intensity in her eyes, the set of her cheekbones, or simply her frown.

It turned into a smile quickly enough, and she was not without warmth as she exclaimed, “Dr. Maturin, I presume?” and offered her hand. Hers was not a typical lady’s hand, he noted as he shook it; if it was not as rough as those of the sailors Stephen spent most of his time around, it was still rougher than his; she did work with them indeed in her laboratory. “Have you had anything to eat this morning?”

“Not since last evening,” said Stephen. “Though if you please, I can do well with just some coffee, if you have some.”

“Oh, of course,” she said. “We have the local kind here, which we have found we rather like, and certainly it does wonders, especially when we have late nights, and we have had a remarkable number of them over the years. Local milk and sugar as well, though I would actually advise you avoid the former; we typically just have the latter, which we are never in short supply of.”

“Do they grow sugar on this island then?” asked Stephen, whose research of the island had mostly focused on its geography and where on it people lived.

“They grow many things on Pulau-Pulau,” said Mrs. Rothschild, and she spoke with some clear fondness for the island on which she had lived so many years, and could conceivably live many more, regardless of how long her actual mission there continued. That in itself was hardly suspicious, Stephen reminded himself, especially since she and her husband had been here long before the mission had begun.

Coffee, with sugar, very sweet, and he accepted some tropical fruit as well. Both Mrs. Rothschild and Mr. Stiles were fond of bigger breakfasts, he noted; together they devoured eggs, bacon, sausages, and toasts with some jam also made locally, they told him.

It was after they had both eaten at least partway to their satisfaction that they began to talk about the situation their meeting was on account of, although everyone’s feelings quickly turned to disappointment at how little the other party had to tell them. Mr. Stiles and Mrs. Rothschild were quick to say that they both in their own ways kept close track of all the traffic that came in and out of the island, and they both swore there was as yet no arrivals out of the ordinary. Nor had they seen any signs that the island’s French governor or his men were in any way preparing to welcome them, though Mr. Stiles claimed to have snuck into the governor’s mansion multiple times. They had instead been hoping Stephen could bring them news on the matter.

He considered telling them about the mysterious freight. Part of him did think it would have been an extraordinary coincidence for such a thing to be in this part of the world at the same time as this Japanese military force was supposed to be. But he could not be certain the two things were connected, and until he had some real evidence of it, it was best to keep to the rule of keeping all such matters between as few people as possible. He did end up talking about the taking of the ship, though, and the other oddities displayed by the French commander, and was not all together surprised when his hosts turned out to be acquainted with him. “Tommy Phillip!” laughed Mr. Stiles. “He’s actually worked on and off for you, hasn’t he Ems?”

Mrs. Rothschild confirmed this, but was quick to note the majority of his work for her had been ten years prior, during the Peace of Amiens. “He was a young man at the time, not quite as fat as he is now, though very jolly even then. I think he came from money; I know he lost a number of relations during the Terror, and spoke of bribing his way out of arrest twice in his life, though the way he speaks of the aristocracy makes me think it wasn’t that kind of money. He gave me the impression of not even caring about politics or nationalism. He was a competent commander; I’ve no complaint against him there.”

“Last time he ran a job for you was a couple of years ago, wasn’t it?” said Mr. Stiles. “When Captain Elliot got sick and the you-know-what had to be shipped out of here immediately.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Rothschild, “and you know, from the way he spoke when I returned, I think he looked and saw what he was carrying. Though if he did, I am dead certain he never told a soul.”

That last part was at least something of a comfort for Stephen to hear. Breakfast ended with him giving his account of landing on the island and the child who had mistaken him for the Dragoon. Mr. Stiles had apparently gotten over his initial perturbation, because he laughed so much he nearly fell off his chair, and Stephen noticed Mrs. Rothschild lips draw thin. Though when he observed the particular way she looked at him then, he thought he saw affection in her still. Women throughout history had put up with behavior from their men they disliked, he reminded himself, and while he had seen nothing this morning that insisted that he was indeed her man in that way, their easy interaction and comfort with each other certainly did not deny it either.

After breakfast Mrs. Rothschild offered to show him her laboratory downstairs, with Mr. Stiles adding, “You’ll also see where I sleep. Or rather, where I usually sleep; she’s insisting you get to sleep whenever you want there and I’m stuck on the couch for any night you’re here. Even insisted I straighten it up for you first. Never mind that she’s not even sure you should stay here just yet.” Stephen agreed to see it, while privately wondering if Mr. Stiles would in fact be on the couch, or even if they might try to make it look like he had been.

Her laboratory was hidden behind the most clever illusion Stephen had ever seen; when he stood in front of it, all his senses told him he was not only seeing but hearing a fire burn in the fireplace, and it was not until he walked through it to the anteroom hidden on the other side that he saw the setup of candles, mirrors, and a rotating metal cylinder that cast the image. A short flight of stairs led down the laboratory. Stephen, for all his learning, had not been in very many actual laboratories, and none of them looked quite like the haphazard collection of tables, instruments, bubbling substances, and devices contained in this one. He kept his hands away even before Mrs. Rothschild warned him to, and Mr. Stiles added, “Do what the lady says, doctor. Trust me on that one.” He was not surprised to be told the room had been soundproofed.

The bed had been set up very nicely in one corner. It was narrow, though long, and the sheets and blankets were very plain, and very clean, likely only just put on. Although that of course said nothing; it would be normal enough a thing to change a bed’s linens in anticipation of a new visitor.

Still he asked, “Does anyone else on this island know of this laboratory? Anyone who happened to be brought down here?” and looked pointedly at Mr. Stiles.

But the other man only laughed. “Are you kidding me? Ems here made clear the first day I was here I wasn’t bringing anyone down here ever. Made for an occasionally awkward conversation, but that’s another story.”

One they certainly did not care to tell any more of to him either, as Mrs. Rothschild hastily said, “So now that we’re down here, I believe we should talk strategy. Since we still have no knowledge of what is in this mysterious Japanese military force or when they are likely to arrive, I believe the three of us should set up a monitoring system for the harbour. Your ship can be of very great help there, of course, and even more so if they would be so good as to do us a favour.” As she spoke, she walked to one of the walls, and Stephen saw for the first time the drawers that had apparently been carved into it, as she opened one of them and pulled out a box. “In here are a recent invention of mine. Scattered them around the back half of the island, and if the Surprise can avoid hitting them herself, then when they wash ashore we will know that another ship has been through those waters. Not much use for the front half of the island, of course, with all the ships coming and going into the port, but ships that go behind the island are uncommon.”

“Thank you,” said Stephen taking hold of the box. “I came to the island with my ship’s coxswain; when do you think it would be wisest to go back to him so he can deliver them to the ship?”

Mrs. Rothschild opened her mouth to give an answer, but Mr. Stiles suddenly said, “Wait a minute. Ems, can we talk without the doc in the room for a minute?”

Mrs. Rothschild did not look happy, but she nodded. “Dr. Maturin, if you could wait in the sitting room?”

“Certainly,” Stephen agreed, and still holding the box, he went up the stairs and back towards the fireplace.

However, when he got there, he hastily unbuckled his boots, and then, silently as possible, crept back past the rotating cylinder and to the top of the stairs. Mr. Stiles and Mrs. Rothschild were not attempting to keep their voices down, apparently willing to rely completely on the soundproofing, and he could easily hear them as she said, “ invention, Jack, and it is not your place to deny me providing it to my countryman, just because you think you might have helped.” From the way she finished that sentence, Stephen suspected Mr. Stiles had not been nearly as much help in the invention of the device as he fancied he had.

When Mr. Stiles responded, it was in a very serious voice, the likes of which Stephen would not have expected from him after spending the previous hours observing his jocular personality. “Look,” he said. “That missive I got five months ago, well, it was from James Madison himself.”

“He finally wrote you?” She tried to make it sound teasing, but could not hide new tension in her voice. Stephen didn’t blame her, not least because from what he had observed of their partnership, he thought that the fact that he had not told her this previously significant.

“He did. He laid out very firm rules on our collaboration, in effect until further notice. Thankfully none of them ended up being any trouble during that last adventure with the…the…” he drifted off; he had sounded vaguely embarrassed. “But one of them was that the British government was not to get their hands on any new American research. And I was the one up with the books that night, remember.”

“I went back and looked up everything again over, just to make sure you’d gotten it right,” she said scornfully. “And they remain my invention. And you can’t muzzle me. But anyway, nobody else besides the two of us has to know how they work, do they? It is too late for them to not know they exist, since we told Dr. Maturin, and we need tell them no more.”

A long pause, and when Stephen heard Mr. Stiles’ hesitant, “All right, then,” he hastily moved from his place and back into the sitting room. He had just enough time to place his boots back on, sit down, and turn his head towards the window while affecting an air of boredom, before the two of them came out. “Forgive us for that, Dr. Maturin,” said Mrs. Rothschild. “Mr. Stiles felt the need to alert me to a concern he was authorized by the American government to disclose to me, but not to anyone else. Thankfully I do not believe it is one which will interfere with what were talking about, and if we are lucky, it will not interfere with your mission here at all.”

Her choice to lie to him was dismaying; it spoke too much of her not wanting him, or likely anyone involved with British Intelligence, to know too many details about her and her partner’s relationship. But he could not call her on it then, so he merely said, “I see. So I am delivering the items to the Surprise?”

They confirmed that he was, and after some further talk, determined that the task would likely require a second box of the devices, which Mrs. Rothschild went back into her lab to get. Left alone with Mr. Stiles, Stephen took a moment to gather himself, and face up to behaving in a way he disliked, but he suspected the American would like. Then he said, “Mrs. Rothschild seems to me to be a remarkable woman.”

“Oh yeah,” he agreed readily. “You don’t know the half of it. Of course, she’ll drive a man absolutely up the wall half the time, but crazily enough, I think I’ve gotten used to that. I suppose maybe I have spent too much time around her. You’ll have to watch out. She can scold like nobody’s business. Believe me, I know.” He chuckled, and Stephen listened for malice, or anything that would add any bite to his words, but heard nothing but the kind of exasperated fondness one would expect to find in a close friend, or a lover.

“I hope I should not provoke her so easily,” he commented, trying to keep it light.

“Well,” Mr. Stiles sighed, without losing any of his joviality, “maybe I do do a lot to deserve it. But then again, plenty of the acts she’s scolded me for have resulted in my saving the day, so you’d think maybe that might get her to not assume the worst every time I do something less than by the book, but no, it’s always the same thing. I tell you, there was this one time last year-”

“Oh, Jack, you’re not going off about that business with the stone partridge again?” Mrs. Rothschild had returned. “You do realize you certainly should not be telling another agent of the Crown about it.”

Mr. Stiles grumbled about it under his breath, but said no more about it, as Mrs. Rothschild handed him a second box, saying, “I believe the two boxes combined have nearly fifty devices in them, more than enough. Meanwhile, as Mr. Stiles said earlier, I would advise you stay on your ship for a few more days. We’ll devise some strategy for allowing you to stay here longer without exciting suspicion and without hiding in my lab all day, though of course the bed will be ready for whenever you should need it. If your attempts to pose as an American fail you may have to pose as a relation of mine; I have some oddballs in my family, and you could engage in some bizarre behavior and get away with any amazing amount of things if the French merely thought you one of them.”

It was a reasonable enough suggestion, Stephen knew, but he also had to consider the possibility that the two of them also wanted here as little as possible. If so, unfortunately for them, he had his secondary mission from Sir Joseph to complete, but it was best not to excite their suspicions of it. “The quicker such a scheme can be devised, the better,” he said to them. “I will spend tonight on the ship, but I shall come back tomorrow or the day after; I shall see if I can travel in the rain, for more concealment. Perhaps you can find a suitable identity for me by then?” He in fact no longer held much faith in his original idea as posing as an American; he was fairly certain Mr. Stiles, by his loud and showy nature, had made himself well known to all the local French as Mrs. Rothschild’s attaché, and that they would be very adept at spotting a true American from a false one.

“I shall see,” said Mrs. Rothschild, and she doubted she wished to excite any suspicions from him either. “But another good time to travel is in fact midday. It gets almost intolerably hot outside then, and it is the local custom to take refuge within one’s roof. You could travel around more freely then. In fact, that is probably when you should travel today.”

“If you don’t mind getting baked,” Mr. Stiles added.

“Fear not that I shall have any trouble with heat,” Stephen was quick to assure him. He in fact thrived in heat, and was deeply glad for the suggestion.

They had a very early midday meal, with Stephen generously sampling the local juice. Then, boxes in his hands, he took his leave of the two of them, and began his journey back to where Bonden awaited.

Mrs. Rothschild had been right about the middle of the day; not a soul was on the streets, and he got out of the town easily. It was not entirely easy to move about in the heat, a wet, heavy heat that even he could not but find a little smothering, and his weighty load did not help. Still he could manage, if slowly at times once the last of the houses were a safe distance away, and with occasional stops for rest once they were out of sight all together. He did remain alert even then, however, for any signs of any human beings where none would be expected, but was unsurprised when there were none.

He found Bonden by the boat asleep, his head covered by his jacket to try to escape the glare of the sun, but when Stephen lifted the coat Bonden, is the usual ways sailors could fall asleep instantly at a time when they could manage sleep and then wake up equally instantly when they need to, opened his eyes and pulled himself up. He was momentarily confused as to the time of day, but once he had learned it, and that Stephen had goods to bring back to the ship, they loaded the boat up and cast off. All through the trip back, Stephen kept his gaze on the horizon, eyes peeled for signs of any ships, but there were none.

Jack greeted Stephen as he always did when he came back from one of these trips, with a great smile that hid none of his relief, probably even more so because he had returned so much sooner than expected, and no questions asked, at least not up on deck. It was only down in the captain’s cabin, when the two of them were alone, and knew Killick to be busy, that Stephen told Jack what he needed to know, that there had been no sign of their impending Japanese visitors, and then took the devices out of the box and explained what they did. Jack of course agreed readily to distribute them, but Stephen heard the wariness in his voice, perhaps born from his having no knowledge of how they really worked.

It was not the easiest thing to do; he thought Mrs. Rothschild, though no doubt a very brilliant woman if she had indeed invented such devices, had not given very much thought to how things in the sea were subject to the whim of the waves, and one could not just proceed to any specific spot in the waters, drop something lightweight into them, and expect it to stay, or even to sink, in its exact location. He already knew they would need the boats, to make sure the devices did not collide with the Surprise just after being placed, and it might require clever handling to keep any collisions from the boats from happening.

Stephen had missed dinner, as he usually ate it with the gunroom and they had already dined, so he and Jack dined together instead, alone, which gave them the chance to talk further. By then Jack had mostly worked out his plan, which he was soon demonstrating to Stephen using pieces of bread, while Stephen did his best to understand all the details, and succeeded in understanding most of them. Jack also told him about the argument he had had with Captain le Feulipe earlier that day. “I have been uncertain whether or not to parole him," he explained. “But the damn queer thing is, he says he doesn’t want to be paroled, and in fact he does not want to be released on Pulau-Pulau. He will not give me any explanation as to why, though it seemed as if he was frightened by something. It does not extend to his crew; they will all be happy to get off this ship. But if we are not to rid ourselves of him here, what are we to do with him? We still cannot know when we are returning to Australia, we certainly are going nowhere else he could be paroled or released if an exchange could be managed.”

It could be something that had nothing to do with this Japanese affair, Stephen knew. It could be something as mundane as him having slept with someone’s wife or otherwise mortally offended someone. Nonetheless, he said, “Allow me to talk with him, my dear. Perhaps he will tell a doctor something he might not tell a captain.”

He saw the way Jack looked at him then; he was hardly so much of a fool as to not realize why Stephen might have a particular interest in his secrets, and Stephen knew it likely still hurt him, especially after the entirety of their business with Mrs. Wogan, that Stephen would be so close with such things. But he made no protest, instead saying, “If you believe so.”

He found Captain le Feulipe on deck, having a conversation with the sailing master which appeared to in fact be more the French captain trying to have a conversation and the sailing master walking around, not actually telling him to go away, but mostly ignoring him. It was not the first time they had seen him appear unaware of someone else’s obvious reaction to him. Still, it made it easy for Stephen to approach him and say, “Captain le Feulipe, if I may have a word with you in my cabin?”

“What? Oh, certainly, doctor!” He was his usual overly boisterous self, at least of the most part, but Stephen, looking closely at his eyes, did not find the projection of his mood entirely convincing.

He said no more to him as they made their way to the surgeon’s cabin. Le Feulipe was big enough the small space felt very filled when they both stood in it, and they could not put much distance between themselves, which was another advantage for Stephen.

“You know I went on shore today, of course,” he began.

“Yes, I heard.” He was still holding that smile somehow, but it didn’t stay in his voice.

“My visit to land was as a medical man,” he said, giving the explanation he had already prepared for anyone whom it was best to keep the truth from completely. “My stores had run low, and I was hoping to find things to replenish them with from the natural flora. Unfortunately I found nothing useful, but I did make contact with a couple of the natives who happened to be very far afield, and they spoke words that left me very concerned. I would prefer you speak of this to no one, not even to me, in the close quarters we are in on this ship, but they seemed concerned that two ships in this area have been infected by the plague.”

“The plague!” The captain’s reaction to this was what would have been expected by any man who knew him. His mouth gaping open, he backed up, nearly into the bulkhead, tilted on his heels until his ability to keep his balance almost came into question, his arms stuck out to either side, and his fingers flailed in a manner almost comic.

“I do not think it likely anyone on this ship has it,” Stephen continued, “or that anyone from your ship does. Still, I must know what ships you have had contact with.”

“Almost none since we left port,” said the captain. “We did briefly meet with a privateer, a French one, like us, name of Cornelle, and I went on board their ship, but I was not even on there very long, and met mostly with the captain-a Henri Dumond-who told me nothing important.”

He could not be absolutely certain, as le Feulipe’s loud mannerisms made him more difficult to read than most, but Stephen strongly suspected that he was telling the truth only about the single privateer and the name of its captain, and that someone on that ship had told him something very important. He would not at all be surprised if it had to do even with the freight, although he would not assume that, given how difficult it would have been for the two captains to try to arrange to meet in the middle of the unpredictable sea.

“Well, thank you, sir,” he said to him. “Although I hope this does not increase your anxiety about going ashore. I have just talked with Captain Aubrey, and he spoke as if you did not want to.”

“Oh, well, the capitan is the one who will decide on that,” said le Feulipe, far too hastily. “I did not tell him anything about one way or the other, no saying, ‘I want parole’ or ‘I do not want parole.’” Stephen would confirm it with Jack, but likely he had not said those words. “Perhaps, with some other things I say, I make him think I do not want to, that I am scared, but why should I be scared. It is our island, after all.”

“I will tell him that,” said Stephen, because of course he would. “I am sure he will be glad to hear of it.”

To Be Continued...