The Far-Flung Agent

By Izzy

Part 3

It took about a day and half to lay the devices about the back half of the island, and then return the ship to an easy point from where Stephen and Bonden could make landfall for a second time. During it Stephen listened as best he could to the words of the hands. The excitement over the affair of the lantern seemed to have died down a little, but despite his best efforts, the false story of the plague managed to get out, and, naturally, be believed as true, and not everyone was so confident that no one on board had it. Although the anxiety over this distracted the sailors enough that if anyone managed to hear of Jack’s dispute with the French captain over his possibly being paroled and put ashore, they did not see it worth talking about.

That he remained, of course, could not help but be noticed, especially when Jack made the decision to parole everyone else. “There are several neutral countries that have plenty of merchantmen in the area,” he told Stephen. “We shall approach one of those and let them take the men into the island’s harbour. It is not how I would like to do these things normally, of course, but the truth is I am uneasy about this whole matter, and about having both this captain and his crew on board.”

"I agree,” said Stephen. “Best to have him separated from them. Though I do tell you, brother, I have thought about it further, and whatever his reasons for wanting to be kept here, I am glad we are keeping him here, and under our eyes, for I still cannot guess as what secret plans he may have, or what it is he is not telling us.”

On the other hand, le Feulipe was there to watch the devices be dropped, with many exclamations and much marveling, and more than a few questions, which made Stephen glad there was literally no one on board who was even capable of answering them. Whether the captain was driven by more than mere enthusiastic curiousity he was uncertain; he genuinely did seem to be a very inquisitive man.

At least the excitement of the whole matter seemed to exhaust him, and like many of the Europeans who had lived for an extended amount of time in the hotter places of the world, he was prone to following the local custom of staying below cover and resting himself at midday when possible, and Stephen was quite certain he was asleep when Jack gave the order to put out the boat. Though he feared either this stay on the island, or a likely subsequent one, would be too long to keep much of its nature concealed from him.

It was hot indeed at midday, enough so that Stephen even felt a little concern for Bonden, whose breathing was far too heavy when at last he had the boat rowed ashore. “You ought to keep yourself covered again,” he said to him before leaving, “if only for concealment, and if you do not snore, which I do not believe you do, to spend the rest of this day asleep would not be a bad plan. If I am not back by nightfall, however, I would advise you to return to the Surprise. I will not come back here, except at midday.”

He thought it likely Bonden would have liked to protest this first part. Possibly the second part, as well. But as the only man on board ship besides Jack who was aware of the nature of Stephen’s usual activities ashore, although he very rarely came to know exactly what they entailed, he had, it seemed, resigned himself to the surgeon’s foolish behavior with relative cheer, and he agreed with only the admonishment, “If you disappear on us for more than a few days, I cannot answer for what the captain will do.”

Stephen wished such a warning was not necessary; in spite of his gratitude the one time Jack had come to rescue him, when the French had captured and tortured him in Port Mahon, he would never be happy at the notion of his risking his own life that way. “If I do not come back before then,” he therefore said to him, “I promise I will come back in five days.”

The heat was perhaps starting to fade when he reached the main town, and the inhabitants were starting to come back out to resume the day’s business. Nonetheless, Stephen reached the adobe of Mrs. Rothschild undisturbed, even if he noticed more than one curious native looking at him as he knocked on the door.

“Hey, about time you got here,” said Mr. Stiles as he answered the door. “We’re about to head off to endure the governor. Unexpected invite. She’ll probably want you to go with us now-maybe you should’ve dawdled a bit.”

“Is the governor really so unpleasant a man? I believe the office has recently changed hands.”

“Yeah, and not for the better, let me tell you. Especially since the guy who held it before we knew how to deal with. Jeremie Traque is a crazy man who likes to chase very young native women and harass us at every turn.”

“Jack!” Mrs. Rothschild had emerged; Stephen was impressed by how well she was dressed. “Why are you talking like that with Dr. Maturin with the door not even fully closed?”

“Fine, fine, fine!” The two men retreated from the door, and it was safely shut, although Stephen had not been worried anyway; no one else had been very near it, and the two of them had been talking quietly. “As I was telling the doctor here, we weren’t expecting to have to go see His Royal Not-So-Excellency today, and I suppose if you want people to believe you’ve got one of your crazy family members come to town, he should probably tag along. Pity we don’t have time to think up a really good identity for him.”

“A Catalan cousin, obviously,” mused Mrs. Rothschild. “One who perhaps does not speak the best French, English, or any language other than his own. I am sure you must know, Dr. Maturin, how much of an advantage it is when others do not think you can understand them, and are irritated when people mangle your own tongue. Within an hour they will all give up on any attempts to speak to you, and then because of that their attention on you will be lax.”

“Wait a minute,” said Jack. “You’re not telling me he’s going to be the one to go looking into the other rooms of the mansion? That’s my job!”

“That is normally your job only because as my attache, you are the person our hosts tend to pay less attention to of the two of us, and we usually do not have any third parties on hand to do it for us. Even so, you are hardly the most discreet man at reconnaissance that I have seen, and I am certain Dr. Maturin will be better at it.”

“You don’t even…” Mr. Stiles started, but something in Mrs. Rothschild face seemed to illustrate to him that any further argument would be fruitless. “Fine then, have it your way. You better be good at this, doctor.”

He gave Stephen a detailed description of the governor’s mansion, including a couple of secret rooms he’d discovered over the years, while Mrs. Rothschild went off, and came back with a coat and boots far fancier than the ones Stephen had been wearing. They were also a touch large on him, which he thought would be a hindrance if he was required to run or walk very fast while wearing them. “I do wish I had a good wig,” she said, “but we have had none in the house ever since Jack threw them out.”

“I told you, that wasn’t me!”

“I shall bring my own next time, if you wish it,” Stephen offered. He suspected it would not quite fit the image Mrs. Rothschild wanted their foes to have of him, but it would at least be something.

“That will do,” she said. “For today, we will say you dropped it into the sea-I imagine it has the scent of the sea, like the rest of you does, more or less.”

As they went out, Mr. Stiles and Mrs. Rothschild kept up with each other the kind of crossness that Stephen soon came to realize they both were, in fact, enjoying, especially when he made a comment about her and her disguises that Stephen did not think many men he knew would ever make to a lady of Mrs. Rothschild’s standing, and though she countered his words with her own, she clearly felt no offense at them. The natives they passed did not even raised their heads at their audible squabbling; Stephen suspected those who lived near them had often seen this sight before.

The new governor, however, did look a little perturbed, when they came to his mansion to find him unexpectedly waiting for them outside in the heat, and the two of them were so absorbed in their dispute over what he had said to the previous governor during their final interview with him that they were nearly upon him when she saw saw him there, hastily broke off the lengthy sentence she had been in the middle of, and cried out, “You Excellency! I hope we have not keep you waiting out in the heat for very long!” She and Mr. Stiles turned to face him, while Stephen kept his position behind them both and tried to make it look like he did not comprehend their words.

Governor Traque took the three of them in, and continued to look confused. “Ah, excuse me,” she continued. “I believe you have already met my man, Mr. Stiles, and this,” she stepped aside and Stephen stepped forward and offered his hand, “is my cousin, Senor Esteban el Agujetas. I am afraid he does not speak English or French; in fact, he speaks only Catalan Spanish.”

“Salutations.” The governor took Stephen’s hand while showing no sign of suspicion, though his face was still that of a man who was more likely than not to mean trouble for anyone in the world who might want something contrary to what he himself wanted. There was something wolfish about it, especially when he smiled. Stephen continued to feign lack of understanding, until Mrs. Rothschild said in Catalan, “This is the governor, Esteban,” and Stephen rapidly nodded and mumbled, “Ah, si, si,” while deliberately shaking the man’s hand much more aggressively than was called for. Pity it was a bad idea to try to cause an arm injury.

“Tell him I am most pleased to meet him,” the governor grinned, “and I am looking forward to hearing all the details. There is a story going around about a much-feared British man-of-war lurking around our island, and that one ship has already been taken; I’m sure he’d heard of such a thing.”

This would be a problem, Stephen thought, if this man was really determined to talk to him. But when Mrs. Rothschild had spoken a full translation, he said, in Catalan, “The ship I was on did not hear of such a thing, and indeed, as far as I can tell my voyage was a dull one, although I am afraid I suffered so from seasickness that I was constantly in my cabin, and found myself not even equal to asking anyone for news on most days.”

He was fairly confident his pale pallor would lead the governor to believe him easily vulnerable to any ailments he might claim, but the guffaws that came from the man in response were a less than pleasant surprise. His next few words were comprehensible to absolutely no one at all, and when he spoke coherent English again, it was to say, “Not used to the sea, are you? You must come from the inner lands of Catalunya, but even then, have you truly never been on it in your life?”

It was unlikely, Stephen supposed, that this man knew the first thing about Catalunya. That was likely further to their advantage. When the question was translated, he answered, “Once before, but I am afraid the seasickness is constant with me, and there is nothing to be done. As you can imagine, I did not have an easy journey out here.”

Mrs. Rothschild translated this, then added her own words, “I do not think you wish to hear that story, Your Excellency.”

“Oh no, definitely not,” Mr. Stiles chimed in. “We had to sit through it yesterday, and it put us off our dinner completely.”

“No, perhaps not. Shall we go in?”

The governor’s mansion was a bit grandiose and expensive for such a small island, although it was not necessarily maintained very well; Stephen’s sharp eyes picked out telltale signs on the walls and even a few indentations on the floor, although they were all covered discreetly by rugs. There was one place he even noticed Mrs. Rothschild very carefully pick her shoes over; she, clearly, had long taken note of this, and she and Mr. Stiles had probably also used it to their advantage many a time.

Unfortunately they were the only guests calling, and the Governor soon had the four of them seated, and said, “You have received a letter, Mrs. Rothschild, from the Empress. I am afraid it was most disgracefully handled by some people who wished to intrude upon her correspondence, and came into my possession, and opened already.”

“To me?” Mrs. Rothschild appeared to be genuinely astonished, though Stephen could detect the tiniest note of suspicion she failed to hide. “You speak of the Empress Marie Louise, I presume, but I cannot think of a reason she should write to me. I do not know how she even knows my name!”

“Well, beg pardon, of course, but the letter being opened my eyes did fall upon some of what was written in it. She said she was writing to you as someone whom her husband had told her might have been in her place.”

“Yeah, right,” said Mr. Stiles, “Like the Emperor would ever have treated her with that level of respect. It actually is true he tried to marry her a decade back, but-”

The Governor exclaimed his amazement in French; Stephen was equally shocked. He wished he could dare demand the story, but it was not a good idea to let the governor know he was ignorant of such a significant chapter in her family’s history.

“It was not so great an event as you think,” Mrs. Rothschild insisted. “He would never have taken me off this island, and while we did even begin a wedding ceremony, ultimately when the Dragoon showed up to call a halt to it, and succeeded, he let me go.”

“He treated her disgracefully,” said a much louder Mr. Stiles. “It was all about how he’d destroy England if she didn’t do everything he said. Imagine if you’d had to live the rest of your life that way, Ems.” His anger was obviously genuine and deep, that of a man who cared for a woman possibly more than he even cared for himself. Stephen was aware that this, also, was a bad sign from the viewpoint of British intelligence, but still he could not help but be comforted by it, purely for Mrs. Rothschild’s sake.

“In any event,” she said, “the Dragoon managed to rescue me with no harm done.” The warmth and amusement in her smile as she said this would’ve been understandable enough, of course, for two people referring to a secret they were keeping from someone they were talking with, although it was also an interesting contrast given how much they had been bickering during the past hour. “I believe I shall read this when I am back at home. Tell me, Governor, have you ever heard from the Empress yourself?”

“I saw her once,” he said eagerly, before beginning a lengthy account of the day he had seen the Empress from afar, shortly after her wedding to Bonaparte, including such details as which lady’s hat he’d accidentally jostled, and what she had said to him, and whose dog had startled him. Mrs. Rothschild encouraged him in such details, making such an impression of avid eagerness, and he was still telling the story an hour later, when Stephen gave a tiny groan and leaned forward. “Are you all right, sir?” the governor asked anxiously, as Mrs. Rothschild asked the same in Catalan.

“I…” Stephen stood and made a show of being tired and cramped up. “I think I could do with some fresh air.” When Mrs. Rothschild translated his words, the Governor nodded, and let him go.

He could give himself at least ten minutes, possibly twenty, although Stephen initially headed back towards the entrance of the mansion. He had spotted fairly near it signs of an entrance to one of the hidden stairways used by the servants, and when he slipped through it, thankfully none of the servants were actually using it at that moment. Mr. Stiles’ description of the mansion included details on all of its backstairs; he himself had used them plenty of times. Within five minutes of the most rapid walk he could manage, Stephen had exited into the corridor adjoining the Governor’s office, and when he reached the door he found it had not been locked.

The study was richly decorated, its desk quite large and covered with papers that did not look very well arranged. A glance over them initially did not reveal anything that looked unusual; most of them appeared to be what one would expect on a French governor’s desk. Stephen did spot one letter with the Emperor’s seal, but when he read it, he found it short and full of very general words, typical for a new governor. He supposed anything more unusual would probably be in the locked cabinet adjoining the desk, which was unfortunate, as he lacked the time to break into it, even had he been willing to leave evidence of an intruder having been in the study.

But when he was putting it down in the exact spot he had found it, he noticed underneath three pieces of paper was a fourth that appeared to have writing on the side of it facing downward. Still not thinking that necessarily meant anything, he carefully pulled it out and looked at it.

On top of it was a symbol he had never seen before, and below was a letter written in Dutch, with French words written clumsily below in what looked like the governor’s attempt to translate it. Dutch was not a language Stephen could read without effort, so instead he took a few minutes to read the French words and commit them to memory. There were enough he could get a general idea of what the message was about: it sent salutations to both the governor and Napoleon Bonaparte, and offered them the support of great warriors. The signature was in Japanese script.

He replaced it as close to the position he had found it in as he could, shifting the exact same papers over it. Then he hurried out and back the way he came.

They had confirmation of their main fear, except that Stephen could not help but feel the sending of such a letter to this governor was odd. From what he could tell of the language they had used, they’d seemed to have no clear idea of who the man was, even though they knew the title of his position, and that they might think him a much more important man than he actually happened to be. To some extent some false impressions and ignorance made sense for people living in a country cut off from the world, but there had also been a mention of Australia as a “small” place, and if they were attempting to sail anywhere, they ought to know it was not. At the very least, they likely hadn't yet made concrete plans for their voyage.

Once again he was fortunate enough to run into none of the servants on the backstairs, nor was anyone in the foyer when he emerged into it. Quick walking brought him back to the drawing room, though he was careful to slow down before his footsteps were likely to be identified. “You were quite some time,” Mrs. Rothschild observed to him in Catalan. “We were even thinking about taking our leave of here.”

“It was hotter outside than I anticipated,” he answered, and sat down as she translated their words for the governor’s benefit.

“If it is,” said the governor when he had heard them, “perhaps you don’t need to leave so soon.”

“I am sorry,” said Mrs. Rothschild, “but I have business this afternoon that truly must be seen to. It has been a pleasure.”

The walk back was quick and quiet, and Stephen used it to study his two companions as best he could manage without making himself obvious. There was not much to observe; theirs was mostly the easy silence of two people who had spent a decade in each other’s pockets and were at least momentarily in harmony with each other. But he did take not at one point when his eyes flicked towards her, and she tilted her head slightly, and slight twitches of his lips and eyebrows gave away further silent communication from her. Careless for a spy, on his part. Although he could not merely from this determine what they might be communicating about.

Down in her laboratory, Stephen recounted to his two companions what he had seen. Mrs. Rothschild insisted on writing it all down, although she was quick to reassure him the notes would never leave the laboratory, and the means of disposing of them within seconds if necessary were available. He watched her and Mr. Stiles survey her finished notes together, though they did not seem to attempt any more communication without him noticing; their eyes remained fixed on the papers, and when he managed to glimpse their hands he did not see them do more than handle the pages. She finished reading first, he very shortly after. “Don’t think it’s anyone we’ve run into here before,” he said.

“No,” she agreed. “Which means we still have too little information to do much with. Except…it might be a mistranslation, of course, but it sounds like they will arrive in more than one ship, and possibly not all at once. No small army, obviously.”

They also read through the letter from the Empress Marie Louise, but if there was to be anything of significance to be noted in it, they did not identify it on that day. She claimed to have heard Mrs. Rothschild’s name from one of the older servants, which was not implausible, and to simply be intrigued over the fact that her husband had been so determined to marry a proud Englishwoman, which was also plausible, but less likely. “I shall send her a response,” said Mrs. Rothschild. “Something short and harmless, not too encouraging.”

“You sure you don’t want to be friends with an Empress?” grinned Mr. Stiles. “It’d be useful, for one thing.”

“If she was married to another Emperor,” said Mrs. Rothschild, “but I would greatly rather that Bonaparte never received any unnecessarily reminder of my name for all the rest of his days.” That, of course, was understandable enough on her part.

The rest of the day passed without event. Stephen soon decided there was not an immediate reason not to return to the Surprise the following day Mrs. Rothschild happily ordered her cook to prepare dinner for three. While they ate, they entertained each other were the more harmless stories from their lives, and Stephen learned a great deal about the history of the East Indies, as well as America up to 1801. Mrs. Rothschild, as it happened, had not been entirely lying when she had told the governor she had business, though it involved meeting someone later in the evening. She and Mr. Stiles went out together, but as she was convinced the merchant she was meeting with was truly nothing other than what he claimed to be, Stephen elected to stay behind, saying he wished to go to bed early.

When they were gone, and he was certain none of the servants were watching, he carefully snuck up the stairs to the master bedroom.

He had not examined it for very long before he was satisfied that Mrs. Rothschild did not sleep in her bed alone. Between the bedclothes and the frame he found several stands of hair too dark to be hers. Most of the items in her closet were feminine, but in one corner they lay a stocking obviously made for the leg of a man. When he breathed in deep enough, he caught the lingering smell of sexual congress, recently conducted, likely only the previous night.

He lingered just a little longer, looking in the drawers and at Mrs. Rothschild’s papers. One was locked, with the key not in the room. He thought that must contain all her more sensitive documents, because he could not find any of them anywhere else. Instead she had records of her and her late husband’s shipping business, some scientific notes and sketches of devices, including the ones he had taken back to the Surprise, and a few miscellaneous materials, such as papers with Chinese lettering on them that were obviously her practice papers from learning how to read and write the script. Stephen regretted then he himself was not better versed in it.

The only real surprise was the lack of papers from Mr. Stiles anywhere in the drawers, when he had found none, sensitive or otherwise, downstairs either. It was a possibility he was one agent who burned everything he wrote upon, even if he wrote nothing that had to do with his spy work. But he did not seem to Stephen to be that type of man at all. More likely, he thought, he was instead a man who did not write very much. He had not struck Stephen as at all Mrs. Rothschild’s equal intellectually, though certainly he had to possess cunning, and all those particular gifts of mind.

When he had retreated downstairs to the drawing room, he briefly sat and contemplated whether it might not be impossible to get Mr. Stiles to defect. He clearly had a romantic image of himself, one that could very possibly override his loyalty to his country if pressed, and if he was genuinely attached to Mrs. Rothschild, the idea of defecting for love might be made to appeal to him. Or his image of himself could be of a man who would never let a woman persuade him to do such a thing, or, when brought to think of it, would expect her to do it rather than himself.

It was too risky, he decided, to even make the suggestion to Mrs. Rothschild. She might decide to bring it up to Mr. Stiles without being thoroughly sure he would not have the wrong reaction, too desperate to believe in the easiest way out. He needed to observe them further, preferably in a situation where they believed themselves to be alone.

He lingered a little longer in the drawing room after his decision was made. Mrs. Rothschild had an impressive library, and while more books in it than not were about mechanics, she also had some tomes on the native flora and fauna of both Australia and the East Indies. Stephen spent the better part of an hour reading about Caledonian birds, and was in the middle of a fascinating passage about kagus when he heard Mrs. Rothschild and Mr. Stiles return. He did not immediately move from where he sat, but he ceased reading, letting the book stay open with his eyes no longer focused on it, while he instead attempted to discern what they were saying.

Mr. Stiles was talking much more loudly than Mrs. Rothschild, so initially Stephen heard only his replies: “…don’t think he has the brains for that.” “Please, can you stand to be around him that much? He doesn’t even know anything about machines the way that other guy did.” “No, that’s the one where if we ever see him again I gotta punch him and run, because if I don’t, he’ll do it to me.” He thinks he hears Mrs. Rothschild actually chuckle at those words.

Then she says, loud enough for him to hear easily, “Under different circumstances, I think Dr. Maturin might have enjoyed his company. I know they both share a love for natural philosophy.”

“If that’s what you call a bug fetish.”

At that remark, Mrs. Rothschild outright laughed, a sound so unexpected it struck Stephen. Somehow it prompted him to put his book down, silently stalk to the drawing room entrance, and peer outside. He had a greeting ready in case they had their heads turned towards it and saw him, but some instinct told him that would not be the case.

The two of them were at the far end of the hall, arm in arm, faces so close together that kissing would not have increased the intimacy of it very much. They did not even look very drunk, though they had perhaps consumed a little bit of wine, not enough to make their walk at all unsteady, but enough to make her face much brighter than he had previously seen it.

Perhaps, too, it was part of the reason she was looking at her companion the way she was. The main feature on her face was open affection, only a little bit of her amusement remaining. It made her to Stephen’s eyes look both younger and older.

He withdrew back into the drawing room, only just enough so there would be no chance of their seeing him. He at least knew they had not done so already when Mr. Stiles said, “You think the good doctor is still up? Guy strikes me as the type to stay up at night and lurk in the corners.”

Tonight, he had assessed the situation better than Mrs. Rothschild, who said, “After all the exertion he has had to engage in today, surely he must be asleep, as he said he would be, remember.”

She was no fool, however. The next thing she said was, “We need to keep an eye out, however. I am almost certain he is here to spy on us as much as on the French.”

“So they couldn’t leave us alone, could they?” sighed Mr. Stiles. “Never mind that it’s been made clear to me I’m to still work against Napoleon, whatever anybody else involved is doing, and meanwhile they’d be damn idiots if they took you away from here. I tell you, if any of those assholes from wherever they’re running it out of now come here to inquire about my loyalties..what’s he gonna do? He better not try to hurt either of us. It’ll be two against one then, and it’ll be all his fault.”

He spoke as if he had no doubt that she would protect him from her own colleagues. But Stephen thought that at least somewhat presumptive on his part when he heard her cautious response, “I do not think he will engage us in such a manner if we give him no good reason to. He is a very smart man.”

Her lover understood her thoughts as well. “So you might not?” he demanded, and there was a new, harder anger there, unlike anything there had been in his cross words to her earlier that day. “If he came out here right now and tried to kill me, you’d just stand here?”

“I would not let him kill you.” She spoke it swiftly and certainly; no doubt there.

“Well,” he replied, unimpressed, “nice to know you wouldn’t let him go *that* far.” His footsteps increased in volume, both because he was now passing the drawing room, and because he was in fact storming by it.

“Jack!” Mrs. Rothschild called after him. “Jack!” He gave no response before Stephen heard their footsteps reach the stairs, descend upward, and then fade from his hearing.

Stephen remained another hour in the drawing room, engaging in a little further reading, and listening for if either of them came back downstairs. When they did not, he eventually descended back down to the laboratory to sleep, and found himself hoping that his two hosts had at resolved their quarrel, at least for the night, before they had slept.

To Be Continued...