"Will you tell me the rules governing women aboard ships in the Royal Navy?" asked Stephen.
"The rule is simplicity itself," answered Jack. "No women aboard a man of war."
"Yet some of the warrant officers wives are here with us at sea."
"True, but it don't signify. As far as the Admiralty are concerned they ain't in the crew, they ain't aboard, and they ain't allowed extra water for washing their smalls."
"Yet you, and others, have carried women on board as passengers."
"Again it don't signify. One is happy to oblige an officer who might be able to do a favour in return. That is how interest works."
"Not for Lady Clonfert... I was thinking of women in the crew. What is their position?"
"None whatsoever. Should I find a woman signed in the crew I am officially obliged to put her ashore at the earliest opportunity, though we sometimes make an exception for a few steady mature women like Poll Skeepings."
"What about the others?"
"As surgeon I know we have more women than you have given your official countenance to."
Jack looked aghast. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"You never asked."
"This is a dreadful blow. The crew has been working so well. I shall have to send Rowan to the Admiralty for instructions. Stephen, why are you looking at me like that?"
"Lieutenant Rowan might not be the wisest choice in the circumstances."
"One of the steady warrant officers then. Stolzenbach or Angermuller?"
"Have you noticed how few warrant officers join us swimming over the side, even when you have a sail spread? To be sure, it is not just that they can not swim..."
"Colicott? Watson? Waterson? Who to trust? I shall go myself."
Jack posted overnight to London, spent the morning in the Admiralty antechambers, secured an interview with the First Lord and returned that night with special orders. "Unprecedented orders Stephen. 'Captain Aubrey you have performed wonders with the crew of the Surprise as presently constituted. It would harm the service to change it without good reason. You are hereby authorised to ship any man, woman or child you wish in your crew.'"
"That is good news. The new First Lord seems a man of sense."
"A splendid fellow. There have been many great men in that office and Admiral Wenger is not the least of them."
© 2004 Martin Watts