HORNBLOWER AND THE PRISONER - PART ONE
From the Horatio: Unbound Series
Bitter November wind lashed the Admiralty house. It always seemed colder ashore. Lieutenant Hornblower's teeth were chattering. His uniform cloak, made of the cheap bright wool that so appealed to young officers because it was cheap, was useless in this wind.
"You sound like a set of Spanish castanets, Hornblower."
"I'm sorry, sir." Horatio desperately tried to stop. He bit down hard . Pellew had not spoken to him since they had left the Indy for the Admiralty house, and there was nothing to be read on Pellew's carved-rock face. Why do they want me? He was only a lieutenant. But... Perhaps they were going to take his commission away. His heart sank miserably.
Pellew glanced at Hornblower as they made their way up the snow-slick steps .of the Admiralty. Admiralty summons always made him irritable, damn it. It was never good news. Good news came six months late on a slow-moving packet, the documents water-stained and rat-chewed. Bad news, now, that required all speed to the Government House.
They were kept waiting in the hall for an interminable time. Pellew had spent a good part of his life waiting in this hall to find out where the Navy planned to risk him and his crew next. Horatio shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot.
"It's not a summons to a hanging, Mr. Hornblower," Pellew said. "Compose yourself."
"Aye, sir. Sorry, sir."
That's the second time you've made an ass of yourself, now. Perhaps you could start stammering like an idiot. That would look well. He's already in a foul mood and you are behaving like a perfect fool.
Pellew said, "Just stand easy, lad. You'll spend a great deal of time in these halls in the years to come."
And it will seldom be good news......
Lord Admiral Cornthwait did not waste time on pleasantries.
"You are aware that the Duke of LLewelyn's ship Cormorant is wrecked on the Brittany coast, Sir Edward? The Admiralty had high hopes of it. A military genius, brilliant man with ship design, Sir Edward, but for all that, his flagship's gutted on the rocks off the coast and he finds it most inconvenient to his work. His Grace feels that he requires the assistance of His Majesty's Navy to get his ship out of French waters. And he has been granted that assistance. You understand me, Sir Edward?"
"I believe so, my Lord. His Grace's private ship..."
"Has become a naval matter. Yes. We are ordered to assist."
Cornthwait looked very tired. There was a war on. He needed Pellew in the open sea, guarding sea lanes - not towing in ships for the peerage.
"The HMS Voyager will be brought to salvage the hulk. You will also have the Falcon under your command; you'll want something small and handy to harry the French if trouble brews while you're salvaging the Cormorant. Put a good man in her."
Horatio felt excitement in him like summer lightning. The Falcon was one of the new fourteens, a deadly, sleek ship meant to fight and run.
"But the Voyager is still in ordinary - it must refitted and ready to go quickly. And Captain Foster made a personal recommendation to his Grace about your young lieutenant here."
Cornthwait wheeled on Hornblower."Can you fit out a ship for sea, Mr. Hornblower? From ordinary?"
Horatio nodded. "I- I have never done so, sir, but I can."
With a great bloody lot of luck, he thought. He felt Pellew's gaze on him. His face was hot. My knees are shaking - oh God...
"Lt. Hornblower has yet to fail to meet my expectations," Pellew said. It was as if he had just reached out and steadied Horatio.
"If I could have spared you this commission, I would have, " Cornthwait said. "I've done what I could in giving you the Falcon. I need her in the sea lanes, but you may need her more. I don't like sending a ship of force like the Indefatigable on a mission like this, but I too am under orders."
Cornthwait rubbed his eyes wearily. "Lt. Hornblower, you have made a friend out of Captain Foster by your bravery, but I am afraid he does you no kindness in this matter. The Voyager is the least sea-worthy vessel I have ever had in fleet, and the November gales will not be kind to her."
"Nor to any of us, my Lord," Pellew said quietly.
Archie Kennedy squeezed past the eighteen pound gun that protruded into the officers' berth. It was dark as the night outside, and Bowles' melodious snoring mingled with the other noises of a ship at rest, noises they were all so accustomed to that the absence of them was cause for waking. He struggled out of his dripping jacket, sprinkling cold water everywhere "It must be raining," Horatio said out of the darkness of the bottom bunk
"Sleet," Archie said cheerfully. He directed a cold stream from his hat into the approximate location of Horatio's chest and was rewarded with a mumbled curse.
"God damn it to hell," Horatio said. He hated the cold passionately.
"It's not so bad after you've been in it for a few hours," Archie said. "The numbness sets in then. I'm going up."
They tossed for the upper bunk every Friday. Archie was currently on a losing streak. He wriggled into the narrow bunk on his belly. He only had a handsbreadth of space between his head and the deck joists and preferred to bump his head rather than his nose.
"When d'you see your ship?" he asked, keeping his voice low; waking Mr. Bowles was very nearly a hanging offense.
"Tomorrow," Horatio said. He had been lying here for hours, with his watch fast approaching, unable to sleep. He had an uneasy feeling of dread. Here was the place he could fail quite brilliantly. A simple refit, and he would of course forget something vital or do something incredibly stupid - perhaps let her drag her anchor and gut her out right there in the harbor.
"The Falcon came alongside tonight. She's a beauty, Horatio. I cannot believe she is mine, even for so short a time."
" I hear from the lower deck the Voyager is something of an ugly duckling," Horatio said wryly.
"Falcon should have been yours."
"Don't be foolish. You are well deserving of a good ship, Archie."
"When the Captain called me to his quarters I thought I was done for," Archie said. "All the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I could not imagine what I had done wrong. And of course I couldn't tell a thing from Bracie's face, I never can."
Horatio smiled. He knew. It was the same for him, if not worse, when Pellew called him to quarters, for he always had a thousand things he could imagine he had done wrong.
"What did he say, Archie?"
Archie lay quiet for so long Horatio thought he had fallen asleep. He was on his fifth time of mentally explaining to Captain Pellew how he came to sink the Voyager there in Portsmouth Harbor when Archie said, "He told me I had done well. Just that. It was enough. But all during my watch I thought, ah God, what if - if I - should..."
Archie's seizures were not something he discussed easily. They were a matter of intense humiliation to him. Horatio, who understood Archie and the nature of his affliction better than most, reached up from his bunk and gripped Archie's arm for a moment. "Belay that now. You must not think like that. It has been months and months. My father has told me these things often resolve themselves."
"You cannot think in terms of defeat, Archie," he said - who had been thinking in terms of nothing else.
"Well, you'll be out there with me, at any rate, " Archie said. "And of course when I make a perfect balls-up of the operation..."
"Kennedy, I am moments away from scragging you. I said belay that, and I meant it. I may very well be the one to make a perfect balls-up, you know."
"You cannot think in terms of defeat..."
"Go to sleep, Archie," Horatio said.
Horatio heard the ship's bells and slid out of his bunk. Archie was dead to the world, rolled into his blanket against the cold. Horatio tossed his blanket on top of him; he wasn't going to be needing it for a while, why not be generous? He put on his peajacket and made for the companionway, his eyes burning for lack of sleep.
"North by nor'east and sleeting, " Styles informed him as he stepped on deck.
"Thank you, Styles."
God damn it hell, he thought.
And a mess on deck, to boot. Lt. Abney was pacing back and forth under the mainmast like a caged tiger. Abney, with a temper that matched his red hair, was in a bad mood tonight. His nose was out of joint at Archie's assignment.
Horatio signed the log coming on watch. "What is the trouble, Lt. Abney?'
Abney jerked a finger straight up. Horatio looked up and saw little midshipman Villard hanging onto the ratlines with everything he had.
"He is stuck, " Abney said furiously. "Four times this week! Why do they join if they piss their breeches at the thought of climbing! And I cannot make him come down."
"I shall get him down," Horatio said.
Abney made an exaggerated bow. "Of course - I should have known that Lt. Hornblower could succeed where everyone else has failed!"
"Stow that," Horatio snapped.
"Stow your arse," Abney said. "I'm not a midshipman for you to talk down to, Hornblower. I've been at sea since I was a child - and I remember when you heaved your guts out over every swell."
Horatio flared then, and took a step forward. Mr. Bowles descended from nowhere with the large grace of an archangel. "I beg your pardon, gentlemen," he said sweetly. "I thought I heard a couple of midshipmen squabbling. I was about to take my cane to them. "
Horatio stepped back, flushing. Abney looked at his shoes studiously. "My error, gentlemen, " Bowles said. There is entirely too much hot young blood on this ship, he thought.
"I beg your pardon, Abney," Horatio said stiffly. Then he broke. "You're right. I did not intend offense by my manner."
Abney sighed. "I know you didn't," he said grudgingly. "But my patience has been sorely tried. I spoke hastily."
"Sirs," Styles said. "I'm afraid Mr. Villard's losin' his grip..."
Whimpers of terror were audible now. Abney said, "Oh, damn it.
"We shall both go up, " Hornblower offered. "It will probably take us both to get him down."
"Very well." Abney started up the mainmast with the agility of a big cat. Horatio followed him with considerably more caution. Abney knew how much Horatio hated climbing. "Hornblower,"
"Yes, Abney?" Horatio had his eyes fixed upward. Oh, God ,these ropes are slick.
"I really do beg your pardon."
"Thank you, Mr. Abney. "
"Let's throw him over the side when we get him down."
"I will be happy to assist you," Horatio said, gritting his teeth as the deck got farther away. Oh God, he thought again, please not to let the Voyager go as badly as this morning has begun...
But it did. He was exhausted by the time he got to the shipyard. She had her yards crossed, but that was all. Her sheets hung down like a sloven's washing. Her hull was wide and ungainly; she was topheavy; she smelled of rats worse than any ship he had ever set foot on (and they will all nest in my quarters, he thought unhappily) and from the way she sat in the moorings he was pretty sure she was taking on water somewhere. And dear sweet Jesus, there was Matthews on the quay in an argument with the quartermaster's mate.
Horatio bolted over the side, just making the wharf. "Mattthews, what is it?"
"The rations, sir - the beef - look at it."
Horatio lifted the lid of the cask Matthews had been disputing. The odor that wafted up cause his stomach to lurch. "This is most unacceptable."
"It's what they sent," the quartermaster's mate said sullenly.
"Then send it back, "Horatio snapped.
"I've got no order to send it back, sir, lessen it's condemned."
This is how apoplexy happens, Horatio thought. Quartermaster's mates bring it on.
"Matthews, take a bit of chalk and mark every one of those barrels, "Condemned," Horatio said.
Matthews cleared his throat. "They'll wipe it off, sir."
The quartermaster's mate glowered.
"They'll wipe it off and send it on to another ship, sir, " Matthews said stubbornly.
It wasn't enough that men died every day in dreadful ways: The Commissary had to add it to with rotten beef. "Then you take two men, "Horatio said slowly, " and you get a fire going and you burn CONDEMNED in those barrels with a handspike."
Matthews grinned. "I'll put 'em on it now, sir."
"Deep. Where it can't be sanded off. And I want fresh casks here immediately, or the Lord Admiral will have a report."
Just what he intended to report he didn't know, but the mate sulked off with a requisition in his hands.
Horatio turned back to the ship. "Now - Matthews, the sails..."
"Looks like Mother Brown's washday, sir."
"Cut everything loose and resheet the yards. I laid out a sail plan with Mr. Bracegirdle."
"It's a good thing to raise those mizzens a bit, sir."
"Yes," Horatio said. Matthews was wonderful; he had taught Horatio a great deal with his subtle directions. Someday Horatio was going to be brave enough to try it on Captain Pellew.
For his pains of the morning, he had been awarded Mr. Villard on his crew. "It's your turn, " Mr. Bracegirdle said. "We've all had him. Now you take a shift."
Abney had been delighted enough to congratulate Archie effusively on his first command.
Horatio eyed the little midshipman. He was a fragile-looking boy with big grey eyes and a timid demeanor. He tried very hard to please but ineptitude followed him like a cloud. Some mother's pet, this one, that had no more business at sea than a girl. He was frightened out of his wits more than half the time.
After three hours in the bitter cold trying to pore over the several thousand lists and hearing Mr. Villlard go from one disgrace to another, he had enough. "Mr. Villard," he said, " were you given a pistol?"
"Aye, sir." The pistol was the only thing Villard liked about the Navy.
Then put it squarely to your temple...Horatio winced. "Can you load and unload it -quickly?"
"That is essential, Mr. Villard, absolutely essential. Oldroyd, you're handy with a flintlock. You teach Mr. Villard to load that weapon properly - fifteen seconds by the stopwatch, no less. " Fifteen minutes would be more like it for Villard, but it would keep him out of the way before somebody really did put him over the side.
He leaned against the foremast, trying to calculate. If she weighs so many tons, and we're bringing on...damn it, where was that list - the gross tonnage -no, that was the quarter-list-
'Try again, now, Mr. Villard, "Oldroyd coaxed. "You're doing fine - not so much wadding - Watch your fingers. sir, you mustn't touch that while..."
For moment Horatio thought one of the yards had broken and slammed him to the ground. Then he smelled gunpowder and realized he was shot.
He couldn't get up for a moment. Every man on deck was in a panic around him and he couldn't get up. "Sir - sir !"
"I'm all right, " he said.
"You're bloody well not," Styles exclaimed, "Sir."
Horatio struggled to get off his stomach. As nearly as he could tell his entire back was on fire. "I'm all right. Someone kindly help me to my feet."
He was set on his feet far more briskly than he had anticipated. He swallowed hard. "I'm obviously not dead, so please go on with your work."
They were staring at him. He had no idea he was the color of paste. He could feel blood trickling down his ribs. Damn it, my last whole shirt.
Oldroyd was paralyzed with horror.. "Sir - the lad - Mr. Villard -"
Villard was deathly white. "I didn't know. I didn't mean -"
The boy was trembling uncontrollably. He is going to have a fit right here out of sheer terror, Horatio thought desperately. He gritted his teeth. "Belay that, Mr. Villard. I've been shot before. You're not going to hang. Matthews, get me something to bind this with -"
"I'll send for the surgeon, sir."
Horatio swayed a little. You will not faint. That is an order.
" You, Styles, fetch a surgeon from the George - there's usually one laid up in there," Matthews put his arm around Horatio. "Let's get you below, sir."
The man would be filthy and probably drunk, too, Horatio thought. Pellew had commandeered the one sober, responsible surgeon in all of England, but Mr. Hamby was somewhere on shore.
He staggered down the companionway and sat down on his sea-chest. Matthews eased him out of his uniform coat. Matthews had handled many wounded men in his time and he was as gentle as he knew how to be. The hole in Horatio's was deep, but it wasn't too big; the lead ball rolled out at he pried Horatio's shirt out of the wound. "Not enough powder, thank God, sir," he said. Flintlocks lost power at long range, too; this too had saved Horatio's life.
Horatio tried to pull his shirt over his head and the world went away quite suddenly. It came back just as suddenly - and he was instantly sick. He pulled away from Matthews and vomited on the floor beside the chest. "I'm sorry, " he panted.
"It'll take you like that sometimes, sir, bein' hurt," Matthews comforted.
And of course it takes me like that, Horatio thought bitterly.
Poor lad, Matthews thought, all heart and liver and no stomach at all. But I'd rather sail with him, and him hanging over the rail through the whole voyage than many another man.
Styles stumbled into the companionway opening. "I've found a surgeon, sir."
"That was quick, Styles, thank you," Horatio said politely.
Damn you and your quickness, Styles. And I'm going to be sick again.