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Hands Aft To Witness Punishment (3)

"Davies, do you see those great flightless birds?"

Davies looked auk-ward, nearly capsizing the boat. Stephen had begged the use of it to investigate a little group of non-descript auks. Jack had assigned Davies to row and offered his services as auk-ward if Stephen took any of them alive. As if aware of this threat the auks splashed away faster than Davies could row. Stephen sighed and ordered Davies back to the ship.

Stephen had been glad of his excursion as recently there had been an unpleasant atmosphere on board. A young bosun's mate, now reduced to able seaman, had been caught stealing from the purser, an act that made him popular with his shipmates, but one of supreme idiocy in someone Jack Aubrey had selected for promotion. His punishment was due that day.

Stephen joined Jack in the cabin. "What else could I do?" Jack asked Stephen. "He stole tallow dips from the purser's pocket. I know the purser is damnably near with them but that is no excuse."

"I understand he volunteered for the Navy after being caught picking pockets. Perhaps he was exercising his former skills?"

"That is not funny Stephen. You yourself have told me that he who would make a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket."

"The punster is tolerated but the pickpocket is flogged."

"He'll get two dozen at the grating. He's popular with the other bosun's mates, so I doubt they'll lay on as they should. What worries me is that the rest of the crew may make some demonstration. Pursers are rarely popular. Time to start."

The prisoner was stripped to the waist and seized up to the grating. Two bosun's mates stepped forward to carry out the sentence. "Watson first," said Jack.

"Who's on first?" asked Stephen, who had not listened.

"No, Watson first. Hewson next."

The cat was out of the bag but Mrs Oakes took it below, looking for somewhere to swing it. Watson raised the cat for the first stroke.

Stephen Maturin had witnessed few floggings but even he could see that something about the cat was wrong. Jack also noticed. "Belay that! God knows I am no friend of the cat but I'll be damned if I let any bosun's mate in my ship use false lashes."

© 2005 Martinus Scriblerus