An American Encounter, Part Three
AE3 Ch 16 From the Frying Pan...
Kennedy found the scene unfolding before him taking on nightmare proportions. Last May, when Hornblower and Bracegirdle had gone to Kaliakra to prepare for what might come, he was still trussed up with the shoulder injury from Dolphin and under Dr. Sebastian's care. It was he that caught the pirate kidnapping Pamela, a knife at her throat. Pressing enough to bring a thin line of blood, he did not doubt the man would kill her. He watched helplessly as the pirate jumped overboard from Indefatigable, clutching Pamela in his grasp. It was during Hornblower's rescue of his wife when the meeting with Effington occurred.
The mission to defeat the pirates that Captain Pellew suspected might come had been a brilliant exercise in tactical forethought. Pellew devised two plans of action, depending on what the nefarious adversaries might do. Plan B proved to be the necessary one, resulting in the destruction of Kaliakra, the pirate prize taken not many days before. The decision to destroy the beautiful sleek ship was easy, the Captain had told Kennedy afterwards, when it meant the survival of his crew and his ship.
Now the paths of Indefatigable crossed those of the pirate leader once again, and Hornblower was the first sacrificial lamb. Kennedy looked at the faces of the men nearby. Would watching the senior officer of Indy's crew being flogged, then hung, harden or weaken them? Styles' visage revealed anger cast in stone. Kennedy saw Oldroyd and Hardy gripping either forearm of the big man. Something was wrong with Matthews, but he did not know what. Dooley attached himself to the old sailor like a long lost friend. The rest of Hornblower's division crowded together behind and beside Matthews and Dooley.
Kennedy caught the eye of Bainbridge when he first came on deck. His own division, and what was left of Connors', held firm. The numbers against them were easily twenty to one, and they were unarmed. Where was Pellew? Was there anything he could say to the pirate leader, this Lord Effington, to dissuade him? Who the hell was Effington to do this to his best friend?
Kennedy felt a nudge against him. Bainbridge. The man was bowed and scuffing his foot against the deck.
"Say the word, sir, and you'll set us all in motion," said Bainbridge lowly.
Their eyes met. Kennedy's silent reply was negative. He knew Hornblower would never countenance such a fool hardy scheme. Men would die. It would only put off the inevitable.
Kennedy returned to view his friend. He would soon be naked from the waist up, lashed to a grating. A cat o'nine tails. A whip was bad, Kennedy could vouch from experience. His own back carried the scars laid down by French captors displeased with escape attempts. But not one person he knew, personally, watched the humiliation. At least the possibility of being hung might alleviate thoughts of embarrassment for Horatio. *Stop it, Archie,* he thought to himself, *this is no time for jesting.*
"Well, Mr. Hornblower. Welcome to Oceanus, officially. Is there anything you wish to say before I pronounce judgment?" asked Effington. He was wrapped in a fur trimmed woolen coat and his hands were covered with black leather gloves.
Hornblower's waistcoat was removed roughly by the men that brought him on deck. He said nothing. The servant continued to undress the officer and untied his neckcloth and unbuttoned the shirt. The cold was making him shiver. The men pulled the shirt up over his head. His nipples puckered and hardened. His teeth were already clinched and did not chatter. He was to be flogged. He looked up into the yards. A hangman's noose hung there, swaying in the morning breeze.
"What will become of my men?" he asked boldly.
Effington smiled crookedly leaning on the gold tipped cane. "He speaks! Your men?" Effington looked back at the assembly. "Some of them will die, some of them will choose to serve me. It is a pity I cannot kill you AND let you watch them make their choices. I decided the greater pleasure would be to watch you beaten then hung, and to watch them watch you. You see, Armant informed me of their love for you. Do you think they will try to halt your execution? I would enjoy watching that spectacle! The only thing that could give me greater pleasure would be to have your Captain Pellew here to witness it. Just as well, then it would be difficult to decide which of you to kill first. Would the most delight come in watching Pellew see you beaten and then executed, or the other way round?" He laughed in his chest. "That would be the cream on the pudding! Pity I do not know the man better really. Other than he's been a damn thorn in my side for too long. You, dear sir, are one thorn about to be clipped." The madman stopped and gazed towards the assembled British navy men. "Who of your men would you have me spare to deliver the news to Pellew, should I not have the opportunity to deliver it myself?" Effington's expression was made more macabre by the patch he wore.
Hornblower did not answer and did not look at the men from Indefatigable. If Effington was expecting him to pick the next victim for his sick revenge, he was mistaken.
"Up to me, is it, Mr. Hornblower? Well, truth be told, it always was."
Effington gave a toss of his hand and Hornblower was taken
to the grating, his arms lifted and the wrists tied in place.
*Pamela, Pamela!* he thought, *I thank God you are not here to see this. I love you, my lady. Take care of our child. Father, I will never get the chance to tell you, but I am proud to have been your son. Thank you, for all you taught me....I love you, sir.* Hornblower glanced at his men, then closed his eyes and forlornly leaned his forehead against the weather worn wood of the grating. The good-byes said to those closest to him, he now cursed himself for failing his men. He twisted his wrists ineffectually against the bindings, frustrated, angry, his eyes stinging. *Forgive me, men. I failed you. I failed you miserably. Captain Pellew will be most displeased. Archie, do what you can for them. I'm sorry I got you and Edrington into this. Perhaps I should have done as you wished and rejoined Indefatigable first. Too late for should have dones.* The cold wood pressed into his abdomen and chest. His stomach knotted around the food within it. *God, if you are truly there, please do not let me vomit in front of these men.*
Hornblower saw Effington's men pressing back the British sailors, who murmured in opposition. *Archie, do not let them. Do not let them! Stop them from doing anything foolish!* he thought as he ducked his head into his shoulder. Calming his features with several breaths, he looked up and found Archie's worried blue eyes and held them with his. He made no move and gave no sign that might be misconstrued by his friend. A peace descended between the two of them. *You've been a good friend, Archie,* thought Hornblower.
"Stand still, men!" called Kennedy, his voice faintly wavering but strong.
Hornblower closed his eyes once and gave the slightest nod of affirmation. He saw Styles giving Kennedy a look of incredulity, then angrily face Hornblower. The hurt and surprise revealed in the sailor's eyes, the frustration...he watched Styles mouth his discontent, and Hornblower had to smile as he read Styles' lips, the sailor realizing the order came from Hornblower. Three words just three words, it was plain as day and a good thing Hornblower was unable to reprimand the man, but the words seemed about to come true. He WAS about to be damned.
"Ah!" said Effington, "A new leader emerges. Friend of yours, Hornblower?"
"Do what you're going to do, Effington, and get it over with.".
Effington stepped closer to the restrained officer. "In a hurry, are you?" Effington turned his gaze to Hornblower's pristine back, except for the scar left by Sid Craven's henchman. He reached out his gloved hand, removed the garment, and stroked Hornblower's flesh. "It will not feel this smooth ever again. Of course, you will not live anyway." Effington nodded to his boatswain. "Let the cat out of the bag."
The man dropped the bag and the strands of the cat dangled from the grip. He splayed out the strands and looked back to Effington and waited for the signal.
"Mr. Hornblower, I don't suppose you would choose to serve me, would you?" asked Effington.
Hornblower made the man wait for the slow, calm answer. "Never in this world, sir."
"I hoped you would say that. I have dreamt of this moment." He nodded to the boatswain.
Hornblower took a deep breath and gripped the grating. He heard the uptake of air by the boatswain as he hauled back with the whip.
The man came down on the deck to the side of Hornblower, who jerked at the report. The cat bit into the deck leaving nine trails in the yet unwashed planking.
Effington laughed as he walked over to Hornblower.
"Ha ha ha ha ha! That will be your back on the next cast of the cat!" He grinned into his stooped shoulders, then, looked around. No one else seemed to find it funny. His countenance darkened. He glimpsed the quarter-deck and saw Captain Sinclair watching from the lofty perch. He smirked a snarl, knowing the man did not care for his sport.
"We have a sour audience today," said Effington, stepping next to the boatswain. "Do it, Jonadoe."
Hornblower felt his shoulders shaking and his stomach churning. He gripped the wooden slats and tried to stop the quaking. Licking his lips, he closed his eyes. Fear. It gripped his vitals. He was caught between wanting it done and over with and wishing the lash would never come. Why couldn't Effington just kill him outright? Why this...sadism? He had a completely new respect for what the men went through when under this punishment. It was far worse than being caned, and getting a caning was bad, he knew from experience. The topper was that he had done nothing to deserve this. Effington was vengeful, angry, ...and insane.
Hornblower shifted his weight and inhaled a full breath. The tickling cold on his chest startled him. He jerked his head down and hit his forehead on the slats but saw that which touched him. Pamela's cross. His breath ceased, then caught. He was on the verge of tears, not for fright of being beaten, but the rapid reminder that he might never see her again. He let his thoughts sink into her touch that last night they were together, her fingertips caressing his temples. Both of them had a foreboding neither wanted to confront. Hanging his head, he watched the bright golden symbol swing and dangle from his neck. *Do not do this to her. God, do not do this to her. She is not a jinx. She is going to blame herself for my death. Do not let her. God, I beg you.* Hornblower turned his eyes to the blue sky. It was a beautiful, crisp, clear, azure blue. The cold cross flattened against his chest. With the contact of the charm, he heard her words echo in his memory, 'You only need ask.' Horatio swallowed and squeezed his eyes closed, moisture seeping between the lids. "Help us," he whispered faintly. "God, help us."
The English sailors exchanged glances amongst themselves and shuffled their feet in the brief moments of Effington's gloat. Seeing an officer displayed thus did not sit well. Officers were given watch on watch, or sometimes confined to quarters, but they were never flogged. Even the ones that were hung, and that was rare, were not flogged.
Edrington was frowning, not happy, and said so. "This is damned uncomfortable, Bentley. I do not like any of this, and I especially do not like this Effington chap." Edrington was cold. He stuffed his right arm into the sling on his left to warm it and quirked a frown at what he found there.
"Your father did not like the family either," commented Bentley.
Edrington looked sharply at his servant. "My father knew these people?"
Bentley sighed. "Yes, sir. Years ago, many years ago, I should say. I do not know all that transpired, but your father spoke of them disdainfully." Bentley waggled his head negatively and gazed at Effington. "You do not remember, do you? Your da hoped you would not. You were not quite four years of age."
"I believe that man you see before you is the same boy that... If you do not remember, sir,... Your father instructed me never to speak of it."
"Speak of what?" Edrington pulled Bentley around.
"Sail ho!" shouted the lookout man.
Jonadoe, Effington, and every man on board and on deck peered upwards.
Sinclair called to the mast head man, shouting, "Where away?"
"Two points off the starboard bow!"
All eyes on the deck of Oceanus were triangulating from the mast head out to sea. Sure enough, a ship was on the horizon and nearing.
Hornblower twisted as far as his bindings would let him. He could not see the ship. Could it be Indefatigable? Perhaps there was hope for his men yet.
Sinclair did not need a glass to see the sail tacking toward them. Damn the lookout for not informing them sooner! Damn Effington for his sick games.
"My Lord, we must clear for action," stated Sinclair, "Now."
"Stay where you are!" Effington demanded. The cane tapped against the deck while he walked crisply towards Kennedy, eyeing the officer, then the ship. "Is that Indefatigable?"
Kennedy squinted. "Difficult to tell at this distance." With a raised eyebrow, he silenced Styles. It was Indefatigable and Styles recognized her, too. Kennedy knew those foresails like the back of his hand. He would not give Effington the satisfaction. Besides, the longer the enemy was delayed the more chance there was for something, anything, to occur. Was Hornblower's luck reasserting itself? He turned his cheek away so Effington would not see the half smile forming. *Hang on, Horatio,* he thought.
Sinclair strode up beside Effington. "My Lord, we must prepare."
Effington jerked his view to Sinclair. "Calm yourself, man." The lord limped quickly across to the other side, near Ulysses. He cupped a hand to his mouth and called, "Captain Donahue, make sail, clear for action, and intercept that ship. If it is Indefatigable, then sink her. If not, then take her."
"Aye, aye, my Lord!" came the shouted reply.
Hornblower watched the men scurry to their places on Ulysses. As her stern came into view, he dropped his head against his right shoulder daunted by what he saw. A white British naval ensign blew forward over the quarter-deck. The men that Hornblower could see were preparing for battle, though the gun ports remained tightly shut. She was approaching the coming vessel disguised as a British ship of the line.
Pellew was a cautious captain. He would be ready, Hornblower knew. But how close would Ulysses get before Pellew took defensive action? Timing would be everything. Timing and the wind, and the wind was with the pirates.
Hornblower's chest sank and his head fell low despairingly.
There was no doubt the same flag flew on Oceanus. Damn Effington
and the ruse of war. Hornblower shifted his view to his left.
Edrington seemed to be pressing Bentley against the railing.
Shifting his eyes again, there were Archie's bright blue ones,
staring straight at him. His friend's lips revealed the slightest
upturn, and glancing at Effington, Archie gave him a quick nod
confirming the ship was Indy. For a brief moment, Hornblower
wondered what Pellew was going to do to him for his folly. Whatever
it was, it could not rival what Effington planned. The second
thought was that Indefatigable was a fifth rate frigate of forty-four
guns and Ulysses was a seventy-four, out-matching Indefatigable
by a far sight. He closed his eyes and exhaled. This was not
over yet. He yanked his arms and felt the bindings bite into
his wrists. His hands were cold and losing feeling. He grabbed
onto the grating and flexed his fingers, trying to keep the blood
Hornblower heard the tapping step of Effington approaching. The man came so near, he could hear his breath. The soft brush of fur from the coat came against his skin. He could not help but appreciate the warmth afforded his body, but what evil was about to be spouted into his ear?
"Well, Mr. Hornblower," said Effington softly. "It seems you have a bit of a reprieve. Do you think it is your ship? I have the distinct and pleasurable feeling that it is." Effington did not mind putting off the beating. He knew the anticipation would remain in Hornblower's mind, and that thought made him happy. Besides, he found a certain joy in seeing the man trussed and vulnerable to his whim. The little frigate was no match for Ulysses and Oceanus. He was not concerned. There was no stealth to this as there had been with Magie Noir, just a little....deception.
Hornblower heard maniacal mirth in the man's soft spoken tones.
"Shall I save your whipping and execution in case your captain should join us? Hm?" Effington grinned evilly and stroked Hornblower's back with a gloved hand. "Or..." his features brightened with the thought, "ahhhhh," he sighed pleasantly, "Yessss...." he hissed gleefully, "It would be marvelous to beat you and let you watch your precious Indefatigable blown to bits. Ha! Yes. Yes. We must make it so." He reeled around on his heel and tapped away.
The cold temperature reasserted itself on Hornblower's exposed skin.
"Captain Sinclair!" called Effington, "Turn the ship. Turn her, I say. I want Mr. Hornblower to have a front row seat for this battle."
Sinclair's face took on an expression of disbelief. "My Lord..." Sinclair was cut off.
"Do it! Damn you! Let him watch his ship be destroyed as mine were. Magie Noir, Kaliakra! They shall have their revenge. My precious beauties. Turn her, damn it, and let Oceanus appease her sisters!"
Sinclair swallowed hard. *The man has gone over the edge into madness completely,* he thought.
He hesitated too long for Effington. The lord pulled a pistol from the belt of a nearby guard and cocked it. Aiming it at Sinclair, he demanded, "Do as I say, or so help me God, I will shoot you where you stand!"
Sinclair exhaled heavily. "As you wish, my Lord." He saluted, then he addressed the helmsman. "Turn her hard a-starboard, Mr. Fine."
"Aye, aye, Captain."
As the ship turned, the breeze out of the southwest hit Hornblower full on, plus, he was now in the shade of the quarter-deck. Goose flesh appeared on his exposed skin and he began shivering uncontrollably.
All the company on deck focused on the seventy-four as she approached the nearing frigate. Her gun ports were still closed. Effington climbed to the quarter-deck and peered through a spyglass.
Indefatigable was raising a recognition signal flag and waiting for a response.
Ulysses gave it.
Effington was chuckling. He lowered the telescope. "Good work, Captain Sinclair, good work. I knew those ex-British navy connections would be useful."
Archie took small backing steps and eased out of the group. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, he supposed. Picking Hornblower's jacket up off the deck, he stood still and checked his surroundings. The Indefatigables had been so well behaved the guards were more intent on the coming fight than the prisoners. Turning, Archie bumped into a man.
"What chee think yer doin'. Get back over there," ordered the man gruffly.
"He is cold. Your master is done with him for now. Let me cover him," pleaded Archie.
"No. Get back before I clomp ye one."
"Let de man cover his friend, Mastah. What do it hurt?" Dooley stood closely behind Kennedy.
"I said, no!" the man snarled.
Dooley's hand shot out and grabbed him by the throat. Latching onto the thick black wrist, the pirate tried to pry his hand away. The big black lifted the man. Kicking his feet, he gurgled, then went limp. Dooley eased him down onto the deck.
Rising, he spoke to Kennedy. "There now, you go, sir. You bes be quick."
"Is he dead?" asked Kennedy.
Gleaming white teeth glinted through dark lips. "No, sah. He jus restin'." Dooley canted his head towards Hornblower, and Kennedy stepped quickly and quietly to the shivering man.
"Horatio, are you all right?" Kennedy spread the coat over Hornblower's shoulders and pulled it around his chest. He held it there and hugged Hornblower, lending warmth to his body.
"Thank you, Archie," he chattered. "They know our signals."
"So, I see," said Kennedy. "I cannot believe he is doing this to you."
"He is mad, and I do not mean angry,... but that, too," quavered Hornblower.
Kennedy chuckled. "Adversity heightens your humor, Horatio. Pity there is nothing we can do to warn the captain."
"This is all my fault, Archie."
Kennedy glanced about them and saw no opposition. He pulled on the ties around Hornblower's wrists.
"No. Don't untie me."
"It will only make things worse."
"Have you lost your senses, as well?"
"He wants me to hang here and watch the battle." Hornblower closed his eyes and let his cheek lean into the grating. "He will return. Take my coat and go."
"No!" Kennedy could not believe what he was hearing.
"Let me be, Archie...."
"If I could get to that face of yours, I'd slap it!"
"Don't you see? I've killed us all. That's a seventy-four out there. If that one fails, this one will not. Indy hasn't got a chance. I wish he had hung me already."
Archie grabbed the ties around Hornblower's wrists and yanked on the loose ends.
"Archie!" protested Hornblower. "No!"
One arm fell to Hornblower's side and then the other. He did not feel he could move them and did not try. Archie spun him around, grabbed his shoulders, and shook him.
"Snap out of it!"
Hornblower leaned against the grating and stared at Indefatigable and Ulysses, forlornly. "Forgive me, Captain Pellew," he said. "Forgive me, Archie. My bull headedness got us into this situation. I thought I could do it all. I...I... I cannot."
Archie slapped him. "Those words aren't in your vocabulary!" A worried expression crossed his face as he studied Hornblower's visage and reddening cheek. "What did they feed you for breakfast? This isn't the Hornblower I know. What have you done with Horatio?" Archie slipped the sleeve of Hornblower's jacket onto one arm and then the other. He briskly rubbed them and then grabbed onto the lapels and shook him and knocked him against the grating. "Snap out of it, damn you. Think, Horatio. How are we going to get out of this?"
"We're out-manned and out-gunned," said Horatio hollowly. Hornblower's eyes were riveted to the far ships.
"If Pamela were on this ship or that one, you would not give up so easily." Archie rubbed Horatio's shoulders trying to get the circulation going. He grabbed his chin and made him stop watching the ships and look at him. "Horatio. Horatio. Don't you want to see her again?"
Hornblower's face grew more pitiful, and he struggled unsuccessfully to lift his forearm to cover it. "I've failed her, Archie. I've failed everyone."
"Damn you!" Archie glanced swiftly around the deck. What could he do? Hornblower was clearly in despair and his thoughts muddled. What could he have been thinking through this humiliating experience? Does he not know we are all with him? Does he not understand what heart he gives to his men to come for them? But what could they do? Hornblower was right about Indefatigable. She was no match for a seventy-four. Ulysses was growing closer by the minute compounded by Indefatigables' own forward motion. Pellew must be thinking the ship friendly, a member of the fleet. What could he do? Letting his friend be flogged and then hung was not the answer. They had to get off this ship. "Oh Christ! Be with me!" He pulled Hornblower over his shoulder, carried him over to the side, and threw him overboard, then jumped after him.
Hornblower managed to break the surface and gasped for breath. Kennedy came up beside him. The freezing water stung his skin like a million tiny pins.
"Have you lost your mind?" sputtered Hornblower.
"Have you found yours?" asked Kennedy, treading the freezing water. "I'm not going to watch them flay the skin off your back and then hang you, damn you. Now either you swim or you can drown." Archie watched Hornblower considering the choices.
Swim or drown? Those are not our only options...now. Hornblower turned in the water and swam aft of Oceanus.
"Where are you going, Horatio?" Archie's voice trembled with cold.
"Renard de Mer," answered Hornblower barely keeping his head above water.
Archie caught up to his side. He felt the motion of water carrying away the warmth of his body.
"Do you know how cold this damn water is?" asked Hornblower. His jawline shivered with clenched teeth.
Archie grinned, his teeth chattering, hearing a more familiar sound in Hornblower's tone.
Dooley had one eye on the ships and one eye on the British officers. When he saw Kennedy go, he walked over to the side and followed the two navy lieutenants. He knew, once the man he knocked out came to, he would have the devil to pay. He preferred the sea to the cat and the noose, if that was to be their fate. He caught sight of the officers dog paddling towards the stern of Oceanus.
Matthews turned in time to see Dooley jump, saw Hornblower was gone, and guessed the rest. He tugged on Styles arm and canted his head seaward as Hardy and Oldroyd looked at him. "Come on, mates." Matthews stepped onto the gun port, hesitated, then said lowly to his fellows. "Whoever can't swim, get with someone who can. Pass the word." Matthews took Cutter's arm. "Can ye swim, sir?"
"Come on, then, Mr. Cutter." He looked for Edrington and Bentley, but they were gone. Had they gone with Hornblower? Matthews could only assume. With a shrug of his shoulders, and a tug on Cutter's arm, the two went into the sea. Styles came up beside them, gasping against the cold water.
"Matty, are you daft, man?" Styles grabbed the old sailor. He knew the wounds would burn like fire. "Hold onto me shoulder. Mr. Cutter, take me other shoulder, sir. Now, where the hell are we goin', Matty?"
"Renard de Mer. She's our prize."
On the enclosed gun deck of Oceanus, Edrington stood very still and waited. Nothing. No one. Putting a finger to his lips, he let Bentley know silence and stealth were to be maintained. Edrington slowly descended the ladder to the next deck, stopping to listen and observe.
Peering around supporting beams, he motioned for Bentley to stay. He sprinted lightly forward to the galley near the bow end of the ship. Finding what he needed in plain view on the work surface, he tucked them inside the sling and returned to the companionway.
"Effington, you prick," spat Edrington quietly under his breath, then thought, *you've made this so easy for me. Pity Hornblower and Kennedy aren't along, but sometimes the army has to do what it has to do.* He was going lower down into the hold of the ship. No one was down here. Not a single soul. Effington had everyone on deck, gloating and boasting in his treatment of Hornblower like a school yard bully. Edrington had grown angry at such base disregard for Hornblower's rank and was ready to explode. That was when he found it inside his sling.
Why not? What did they have left to lose? Only their lives,
and those seemed to be forfeit already. Should he live, he could
never face Pamela if Hornblower died. Though if Hornblower did
not survive this, he had no idea how he himself would. Kennedy
was at Hornblower's side when Edrington departed the open deck,
as he had been since his first encounter with the two young naval
officers. *This scheme has to work,* he thought desperately.
"I wish you had stayed topside as I ordered!" Edrington whispered.
"I am not leaving you, sir, your mamah..." whispered Bentley in return.
"Yes, I know! Silence!"
Edrington instructed Bentley to remain with the British navy crew but he refused. The man was getting damned uppity, to Edrington's way of thinking, and was treading heavily on their relationship that went beyond servant and master.
He just finished wringing out of the man an event that his mind had locked away, though not completely. He recalled it as a nightmare, but apparently, it was no nightmare but a true event. The recollection was fuzzy after so many years, but the old dread of what he thought was a dream, turned into anger, and the anger was real and palpable. The fact that it really happened lessened the horror. Dreams could end abruptly without resolution, but closure was possible in the tangible world. Seeing the monster of his nightmare was no more than a madman intent on his own vile purposes set the perimeters for shutting the door on the episode. He would become his own champion, wreak revenge on his tormentor, and, hopefully, destroy, not only Pellew and Hornblower's enemy, but his nation's, as well. Effington was a boil on Britain's backside and it needed lancing. He would take action... alone...except for this man-servant who insisted on accompanying him.
At last, the hold. Feeling inside the sling on his left arm, he pulled the three articles and held them tightly in his hand. He did not remember putting the one there, but things were hurried yesterday, so he must have because there it was. Inside his sling, he had tucked a piece of regular fuse. At least, he thought it was regular fuse. It was what gave him the idea. The fuse was around fifteen inches long.
Edrington lay it on a ladder rung and cut off a two inch piece. "I've got to make sure this is regular fuse, Bentley," he said softly. Striking the flint beside it, it ignited, sparked, and fluttered, burning itself up. "Well.....it is." Edrington frowned. "It burns even faster than I thought." He looked at the remaining piece of fuse. There was not enough there to give them time to escape. "Go topside, Bentley," he ordered calmly.
Edrington huffed. "You're fired. Do you understand me?"
"Very well, sir." Bentley sat down on the step and cupped his chin.
"Oh, damnation, man! If you stay down here, you may be killed!"
Bentley raised his eyes to Edrington but said nothing.
"Have it your own way!" Edrington stepped forward muttering as he went. "If you were a man under me, I'd have you..." he paused, remembering the situation with Hornblower decks above them, "Oh hell. Damned Effington has taken away all pleasure of a good rant. Disobedient servants, women that go off doing things they should not. If it weren't for you, Pamela Hornblower, I would not be in this situation. Now, I am about to explode not only myself but my man-servant. Mamah will have a fit if she learns I've blown up Bentley. Now, I am talking to myself. Where is the damn gun powder?"
Edrington sighed. "I know there must be a powder magazine around here. Indy has one. Kennedy showed it to us. These ships must be similar." Edrington stopped and stared at the lamproom. "Ah."
The gray curtains hung silently, forbidding entrance. He felt Bentley behind him. "Is that you, Bentley?"
"Yes, my Lord."
Edrington turned and sighed, looking into the eyes of the older man. "Here. Hold this. I do not imagine a flint would be welcome inside a gunpowder room. Whatever you do, don't drop it."
Edrington took the older man's arm. "I'm glad you're with me, Bentley."
"Thank you, sir. I know."
Edrington smirked. "Yes. If we are exploded together, neither one of us will have to face mamah."
"I knew you would find a bright side to our situation, sir."
"Wait here...you and that flint."
"Yes, my Lord."
Pulling off his boots, Edrington stepped behind the curtains. Inside, the barrels were stacked on shelves on their ends and restrained by cross beams midway the shelf. Slipping a cross bar from its hold, Edrington slid a keg of powder towards the edge. He winced as the pain in his left shoulder reminded him of why he wore a sling. "Umph!" He pressed the barrel against the wood supports to keep from dropping it.
Bentley pushed back the curtains and caught the barrel before it clattered to the decking. Sweat popped onto his brow as he eased it to the floor.
"Where's the flint?"
Bentley blushed. "In my pocket."
Edrington inhaled long. "Out, man, and go gently."
Edrington followed and the two men breathed a sigh of relief. "Now. Fusing. I've been thinking. These blackguards must have fusing."
The two men looked into the darkness of the hold and each knew the others thoughts. It could take them forever to find it.
"I, too, have been thinking. Might I suggest a trail, sir."
Edrington stopped and stared at the old servant, the smirk appearing. "Bentley. You do astound me. Brilliant, man, brilliant."
The two men strode back to the ladder, Bentley carrying Edrington's Hessians. Edrington assessed the distance, counting the strides. "Give me the flint." He placed it on the deck next to the companionway. "Now. The barrel is too big and too heavy, we need a sack of some sort to spread the powder in a tight line. We will meander around the decking here below to give the greatest amount of time possible for our escape and for the men above. They could not be in a better position. This would never work if we had to free them from locked cells and get them out on deck."
"Yes, sir. Why do we not use the prepared canisters. They are already packed with powder."
Edrington's brow furrowed, and he exhaled. "Why did you not suggest that before I nearly blew myself up in the powder magazine?"
"I have only just now thought it, sir. I am not accustomed to being assistant bomb maker. Forgive me for failing to understand my duties completely. Besides, sir, if you had blown yourself up in the powder magazine, you would have blown us all up and we would be done with this entire affair."
"Bentley, you are starting to sound like a combination of Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Kennedy."
The servant's face went blank and then his expression softened. "I do believe that is a compliment, my Lord, despite Mr. Hornblower's low birth."
Armant was beside Effington and Sinclair on the quarter-deck. Hearing the splashes and seeing the egress from the deck, he hurried over to the ladder and peered over the side. "Lord Effington! The prisoners are escaping!"
Effington smirked. "Don't be ridiculous, Armant. Where would they go?"
Effington laughed, unbelieving. Sauntering to the side, he watched the men swimming in the sea. "Rats abandoning the ship, eh?" he quipped. "Shoot them, then, or let them drown." He raised the spyglass to his eye and watched the two ships northeast grow closer together.
"They are swimming for Renard de Mer!"
"Then your men can shoot them!" Effington retorted, still gazing through the glass.
"Most of my men are here! To see the execution of Hornblower!"
Effington sighed. "And see him die, they shall. This
is a seventy-four, Captain Armant. Should they take Renard de
Mer we will take her back," he replied dismissively. "Why
don't you go find Jonadoe and tell him to get ready to flog Hornblower,
if you are so anxious?"
Armant watched the final combat on the deck between a few British marines and the crew of Oceanus. A couple of the company had gone overboard with the Indy men and were struggling up the side. The pirate underlings did not seem to give a damn where the British sailors went and if overboard was their choice, more power to them, seemed the attitude. In fact, he watched several marines resist being thrown over by the crew. Armant glimpsed Effington and Sinclair intently gazing through their glasses and twisted his mouth in disgust. To his way of thinking, Hornblower and his fellow officers should have been shot immediately. Why were they not going after the prizes? Was that not the goal? Effington has lost the focus. Sighing, he leaned against the rail and cupped his chin. It would serve Effington right if Hornblower's men took Renard and blew some holes in Effington's fancy after cabins.
Meanwhile, in the cold waters of the Atlantic ocean, two figures huddled next to Renard de Mer. Dooley came up behind Hornblower and Kennedy and pushed them to the side of Renard's battens. "Bes you let me go first, Big Mastah." Dooley climbed the side and stepped onto the deck. The two officers marveled that the man could function so easily after the freezing temperatures.
Renard's men were at the bow, watching the spectacle on the water. They had seen Effington's keen interest and waited to see what would happen. Dooley stepped silently forward, came upon two men and knocked their heads together, then another two. One he pounded on the top of his head with his fist. "I's sorry," he would whisper to each man as he carefully laid them on the deck. The last two men turned to stare at the big sopping wet African.
He grinned. "I fell off de boat."
The men shrugged and decided one unarmed man was of no consequence, and turned back to the sea view.
Softly Dooley added, "sort of." Grabbing them, he
knocked their heads together, too. Stepping over the stream of
bodies on the decking, he saw Hornblower struggling with frozen
limbs to climb onto the deck. Reaching the dripping officer,
he grabbed Hornblower under the arms and yanked him the rest of
the way in. Archie was just coming over the side, and Dooley
helped pull him over the rail.
"Thank you, Dooley," said Hornblower, who collapsed to the deck.
"You a ice berg, Captain?" grinned Dooley.
"I'm not the Captain," said Hornblower. He nodded at the gasping Kennedy on the deck beside him. "He's the captain."
"Don't listen to him, Dooley." Kennedy balled his fist and struck Hornblower on the jaw, weakly, but hard enough. "I am not putting up with this, Horatio."
"It was your idea to abandon Oceanus, Archie, not mine." Hornblower righted himself and rubbed his jaw.
"Abandon Oceanus? I just wanted to get your sorry self off her before you let that madman hang you!"
Hornblower crawled to the side and pulled himself up to his knees to look over the gunwale. He looked at Archie and canted his head. "Your crew is coming."
Archie pulled up beside Hornblower. "OUR crew is coming, Captain Hornblower. Pellew put you in charge of Renard de Mer, not me."
Hornblower rested his forehead on his arm. "Archie..."
Hornblower felt totally unworthy to command anything, much less a corvette crewed by the men of Indefatigable. If he had listened to his friend, they would not be in this situation. Kennedy wanted to rejoin Indefatigable. It was Hornblower's hard-headed insistence to go after Renard de Mer. Foolish. The prize ship was lightly armored and no match for Renard, let alone three seventy-fours. Now, Indefatigable was about to be sunk by Ulysses, as Effington ordered.
"You aren't going to let me out of this, are you?"
Archie stared at his friend seriously. "No, sir. I am not."
"I'm going to tell Pellew everything."
"What? That you chose to abandon Oceanus and retake Renard?"
"You were the first man in the water, Horatio. Isn't that right, Dooley?"
"I can truthfully say, sah, de captain was de first man over de side, yes sah."
"And, it was your idea to retake Renard, as well," added Kennedy smugly.
"It won't work, Archie. I will tell him the truth..." Hornblower pulled himself to his feet with an effort and looked out towards the closing ships, "if he lives for me to tell him the truth."
The men reached Renard and were helped inboard, one by one. Dripping water, clicking teeth, shivering and shuddering, they stood, waiting for limbs to warm and function.
Dooley was working his way through the French and pirate crew and asking them if they could swim before he tossed them overboard. Apparently, all of them could. Dooley smiled happily, seeing Matthews. "Mr. Matthews, I's mighty glad you made it, sah. As soon as we..."
"All right, Dooley. Later," said Matthews quickly. Avoiding Hornblower's eyes, he glimpsed the officer nervously, assessing Hornblower's well being. "I'm pleased to see ye, Mr. Hornblower, sir."
Hornblower wondered if Matthews thought the less of him for
what Effington had done. "And,... I to see you," he
"I'll get to work straight away, sir." He knuckled his forehead and walked stiffly from Hornblower.
Archie observed the exchange. Hornblower and Matthews had always been close, like an uncle and a nephew, if not father and son. He knew something was wrong with the old sailor.
Horatio looked at Archie, then turned away, head bowed.
"I've lost them, Archie. If Matthews cannot look me in the eye, none of the others will either. I cannot lead these men."
"You're daft!" Archie tried to dismiss the idea but could not. Hornblower was right that something was wrong, but Kennedy doubted it was the reason Hornblower thought. "You do not know that," he retorted seriously.
Styles approached the two officers. "Excuse me, sirs."
"What is it, Styles?" asked Hornblower.
"Lord Edrington and Mr. Bentley don't seem ta be here, sir."
Hornblower had forgotten the major in the commotion. He looked back at Oceanus. "Damn." The cold fear of returning to that ship gripped his soul like a demon. He inhaled deeply, angry with the reaction he was experiencing. Steeling himself, he determined he would return and retrieve the two men. But his crew. The safety of his men. Why did Edrington not jump with the rest of them?
Boom. The report sounded across the water.
The men stepped to the side and saw the smoke of cannon fire from the seventy-four drifting forward.
Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. The smoke billowed out her side and towards Indefatigable.
Hornblower found a glass and extended it. Indefatigables' fore course revealed new shot holes through it. Another cannon spit fire towards the frigate. That demon had its talons in his heart now. Indy's foremast was quivering and he could see a faint spray of splinters that had to be large to be seen at this distance.
"Oh God," he whispered. "Raise sheets, men!" called Hornblower. Why did he not get under weigh sooner? Had the cold air and water frozen his brain? The fact that he had been under intense emotional strain for the past twenty-four hours never occurred to him, or that he had sustained another head injury which left him unconscious for nearly eight hours. Edrington aboard Oceanus, but Indefatigable under fire. He had to help Pellew first. He lifted the glass and saw the bright flash of cannon fire from Indy.
No one needed a telescope to witness that! Every man froze where he stood. Ulysses upper decks from amidships forward had been blown completely away. She listed at the starboard bow, scooped the ocean into what remained of the vessel, and sank.
Everyone remained silent. One shot from Indefatigable? Impossible.
Hornblower and Kennedy's eyes met and they spoke the phrase in unison.
"The slow match."
Kennedy slapped his thigh with laughter, and Hornblower grinned.
"I hope Edrington saw that!" said Kennedy merrily.
"Yes." Hornblower's happy expression lessened and he turned to view the stern of Oceanus. "I would not like to be on that ship just now."
Archie stood and placed his hand on Hornblower's shoulder. "Horatio, we should get the men and ship in order. Oceanus will no doubt roust out and come at us or Indefatigable next."
"Yes, Archie," he answered vacantly.
*Effington must be a raging volcano of wrath,* thought Hornblower as he mechanically moved among the men. If he wanted to flog and hang Hornblower before, what would he want to do to him now? Another seventy-four sent to the bottom and Indefatigable remained.
He stared at the deck. Something was eating at him, making him feel unsettled. He almost laughed. What had happened that would not make him feel uneasy! The humiliating experience of being lashed to a grating and him an officer? Was that it? He pulled his cold, wet coat closed over his naked chest. Matthews?
Where was Matthews, damn it? Even if he had lost the man's respect, he always did his duty. Hornblower observed the ship. The British crew regained their legs and were nearly operating at normal capacity. Bainbridge was standing next to Barkley at the helm. Hornblower looked behind him, then into the sail tops. Styles was larboard heaving on a line. Hornblower approached and waited until the men secured the sheet.
"Styles, where is Matthews?"
Styles looked away from Hornblower and bit his bottom lip, then looked down. "Don't know, sir."
Hornblower frowned. The man was lying to him. He waited. Styles snatched a look under lowered brows and bowed his head.
"Is that all, sir?"
"Yes," Hornblower sighed. He did not have the time or the energy to confront the sailor.
It was Archie being formal. The title jarred him. He did not want to be captain...though the thought was foreign. He rubbed his forehead curiously; he did not have the time to reflect.
"What is it, Leftenant Kennedy?" Hornblower failed to hide the aggravation in his tone.
"Come with me, sir."
Archie led Hornblower below to the level of the men's hammock area.
"What?" asked Hornblower. "I have a ship to run." He sounded agitated. Everything was making him feel edgy.
"Go see for yourself," said Kennedy somberly.
Hornblower did not feel like playing games. "See what?"
Archie motioned forward, "I'll take over until you return," then, he departed.
A definite feeling of relief. Archie would take over? *What if I chose never to return?* he thought. With a sigh, Hornblower stepped slowly into the darkness. A faint light was ahead and someone was talking in a soothing voice. He stepped silently forward.
"You gots to tell him. He gonna think you's mad at him."
Dooley was kneeling on the deck and dropping lines of white powder
over someone's back. Dooley heard a creak and looked up into
the shocked face of Hornblower shaking his head in disbelief.
Hornblower turned away, tightly closing his eyes. He covered his face with a trembling hand. This was what Archie wanted him to see? This that could be him if Effington had carried out his plan? Inhaling silently. He turned back to Dooley who looked up and spoke to him.
"Dis sugar don't hurt so bad. That sea water maybe helped, but dis is better."
"It is better, Dooley. It don't hurt near as bad as it did," said Matthews tiredly, and he turned from the wall to face the black man and saw Hornblower. He swallowed hard as he looked into the eyes of the young officer.
Hornblower felt the prick of tears in his eyes. He could not stop their filling and he swallowed. He managed to choke out the words. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"You had enough on yer mind, sir." Matthews paused, embarrassed to be found out.
Hornblower felt his chin quiver and a lone tear escape. It was the last straw of an emotional day. It was the final twist of wringing and he could not stop it. He wanted to go into the darkest corner he could find and roll up into a ball. Not Matthews. Not Matthews. His faithful seaman, always there, always steady, always supportive of his decisions, trusting him, and now this? Hornblower turned away, but he could not leave. This was Matthews. He grabbed onto the rough supporting timber and leaned against it.
"That's a bad man, sah, what done this to Mr. Matthews and wanted to do it to you. You's a good man, sah, a brave man, Captain. Ain't no shame in having love for your fellow man."
"It's... it's my fault," he whispered, "I chose to keep Armant, and he..." his voice cracked. "I... Matthews... " He lowered his head and covered his eyes with his hand. He held his breath, staving off the sobs that wanted to break from his chest like a little boy, and he was thankful for the darkness.
Matthews motioned for Dooley to help him up. He stepped nearer to Hornblower.
"There warn't nothin' you could do, sir. He remembered me from when we come for Miss Pamela."
Hornblower shook his head. "Matthews."
"Here now, sir," Matthews managed a smile, "I'll be all right in a few days. It ain't the first time I been flogged. Though it has been a while."
"The fact that it was done before does not make it right that it has been done now!" he argued, his voice full of emotion.
Matthews stretched out a hand, holding it in mid-air. Should he touch the young man?
"Don't ye be blamin' yerself now, sir."
There was command in the words, and the strong tone in the sound of them broke through the guilty feelings surrounding Hornblower.
"But I do, Matthews. I..." He turned and looked in the familiar wrinkled and whiskered face. His heart blossomed to see the man's eyes meeting his, and a restrained smile pulled his cheeks.
"No, sir. I'll hear none of it," he said crisply, authority etching his voice like he was talking to a junior rating. Matthews reached out and took Hornblower's chin. There was a dark area that showed promise of bruising. "Last time I saw that was in It'ly. Mr. Kennedy's had to get on to you, ain't he?"
Hornblower closed his eyes and smiled. "Yes, sir, he has."
Matthews blinked at the address. "Get on with ye now, sir. Ye've seen enough here. Sail this ship like I know ye know how to do and get us back to the Indy."
Hornblower nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Now you stop that," said Matthews pointing a crooked finger at him, "sir."
"Lay back down there and let Dooley finish tending you," ordered Hornblower softly, " and no work till I or Dr. Sebastian say."
Matthews looked at him doubtfully.
"That's an order, Mr. Matthews," said Hornblower, expecting an answer.
"Aye, aye, sir."
Both of them looked at Dooley whose grin was adding light to the room.
"You two does my heart good. I never knowed two men what warn't related, to love each other like you two does." The black man cackled, making his chest rise and fall rapidly.
Both Matthews and Hornblower blushed in the dim light.
"Mr. Matthews, ... get some rest."
Hornblower departed. A weight was off his shoulders. Matthews did not think him weak for what Effington had done to him. There were so many facets to what just occurred, Hornblower could not deal with it all. Whether it was his own breakdown or learning the old sailor did not hold him in disdain, or both, he felt a measure of relief and cleansing. His steps quickened. He had to find out what happened to Edrington and Bentley. He had to see to his ship.
Hornblower emerged into the light of the open deck. He located Archie and gave him a nod. Just how was he going to help Edrington without Renard de Mer falling under Effington's control? Was the life of one or two men worth the lives of the men now free of the madman? If it were just himself....could he bargain with a madman? Would Effington trade Edrington and Bentley for Hornblower?
Edrington and Bentley were on the way up from the hold when they heard the explosion. The resulting angry shrieks and shouts were like banshees from hell. It could not be Indefatigable that blew, or the reaction of the enemy would have been entirely opposite. What could have happened? Was it a lucky shot? The decks were alive with racing crewmen and the two bombers dodged into the after cabin corridor, seeking a place to hide. Light was coming through the stern windows. Edrington ran into the after cabin and saw Renard de Mer had hauled down the British Ensign and was now carrying a white flag. Surrender? What was this? Voices sounded overhead. Edrington pushed Bentley back down the small corridor, thinking to try to gain the upper deck. The door on the opposite side banged into the wall and he heard Effington's furious rant. Had Hornblower escaped? He shoved Bentley into a small room off to the side and closed the door. Looking round, they realized they were standing in a quarter gallery.
"Oh," smiled Bentley. "Would you mind, sir?"
"Be my guest."
Listening to the angry conversation outside the door and hearing Bentley's stream into the hole, Edrington frowned, realizing he too needed to relieve himself and joined Bentley.
"It's the coffee," said Edrington.
"Yes, sir," agreed Bentley.
Trousers closed, Edrington changed places with the servant. Using his elbow, he broke the glass out of the window. Bentley leaned passed him and pushed the frame open. The two men stared at each other.
"Right. Out you go," ordered Edrington, helping the man to stand on the seat of ease.
"Where am I going, sir?"
"Off this ship."
"But.... I will get wet."
"You will get dead if you don't go out that window! What did you expect? We have just come from lighting a trail of gunpowder to blow up this ship!"
"I know you can swim, man."
"But it's cold, sir."
Edrington set his mouth. "Don't you think I know that. Go!"
"Are you coming?"
"No, Bentley. I thought I would find another scone and have a cup of coffee first."
Bentley's expression flattened. "Sarcasm is never becoming, my Lord."
"I learnt it from you."
Bentley's eyebrows rose.
"Swim for Renard. Hornblower is there."
"How do you know that, sir?"
"Don't ask me questions now! I just heard Effington and
Armant arguing about it while you were.... ! Just go! This ship
may explode any moment!"
"Oh Lord, my Lord! What if they find the gun powder trail?" He handed Edrington his Hessian boots.
Looking into the sea with a frown, Bentley took a deep breath and let himself drop into the water. Coming to the surface, he looked for his master to follow.
Edrington stuck his head out the window. "Go, man," he whispered loudly. "Swim for Renard. I'll be there in a moment."
Edrington's face disappeared from view.
Bentley was swimming as fast as his arms and legs would go. He passed several men swimming towards Oceanus. He stopped to tread water for a moment and said to them, "I wouldn't bother if I were you." But they ignored him and swam for the battens on the big seventy-four. He turned his gaze back to Renard de Mer and hoped they would see him and help him on board. His body was very cold and he was getting tired.
Several men came to the side, including Hornblower and Kennedy.
"Mr. Bentley! Throw him a line, Styles!" ordered Kennedy.
The rope thrown, Bentley grabbed hold, and Styles hauled him close to the ship.
Hornblower climbed down the battens and grabbed onto the old gentleman's arm.
"Mr. Bentley!" Hornblower looked over his shoulder. He saw no one else in the water. "Where is Lord Edrington?"
"On Oceanus, sir."
Helping the man to the deck, Hornblower spoke. "You had better get out of those wet clothes, Mr. Bentley. Mr. Kennedy, take us along side Oceanus."
"I would not do that, sir," advised Bentley.
Both officers stared incredulously. Without being asked, Bentley continued.
"We expect her to explode any moment, sir!"
In the after cabins of the lone remaining seventy-four, Edrington listened. Hearing nothing, he stepped stealthily to the bright after room. His left arm was free of the sling.
"Who are you?" Effington was behind him and on his feet.
"Don't you remember me, Rex?"
"Rex? No, one calls me, Rex. How do you know my...? Oh! It's you!" Effington laughed. "Remembered me, have you? I wondered if that was you. Little Lexy come to play? You were such a brat of a boy."
"I still am. Ask anyone. Ask Mr. Hornblower's wife. She can tell you."
"Hornblower's wife? I don't know the lady," he chuckled, "if she is one." Effington picked up his gold tipped dragon headed cane and leaned on it. "But, perhaps you could persuade him to return, and we could discuss the possibility of meeting her."
"You're no good, Rex. You never have been." Edrington ignored the suggestion. The snide allusion about Pamela only served to make the major more angry. "You're like a mad dog that needs to be put down."
Effington smiled crookedly at the threat. "And you've come to do that, have you?"
"The task has fallen to me, yes. You see, I have a debt that can never be repaid. I cannot let you continue to threaten Mr. Hornblower. Not if it is in my power to stop you."
Effington saw the glint off the blade in Edrington's hand. In a single motion, he lifted the cane and the black sheath fell away. He lunged at Edrington, but the man was quick. Effington overbalanced and leaned too far forward. With a thrust, Edrington stepped into his embrace and embedded the blade under Effington's ribs. With a grunt, Effington's body seized, then dropped to the deck. The knife stuck out of his lower chest, spurting blood onto the black and gold carpet with the green twisting jungle vines.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," stated Edrington. He stepped onto the stern window seat and pushed open one of the gallery windows, staring into the water. "Damn, I hate being cold. I hate being cold and wet even worse." With that, he jumped.
Hornblower saw the window open on the stern and a figure drop into the water.
"I see him, Horatio!"
Styles gathered a length of rope and threw it towards the major. He had to swim several more yards before reaching it.
Hornblower stepped down the side. He reached out his hand. "My Lord! You aren't wearing your sling."
"Stuff it, Hornblower," said Edrington with chattering teeth. He reached with his right hand and Hornblower grabbed it.
The water flowed off Edrington onto the deck. Oldroyd appeared with a blanket to drape over his shoulders.
"Congratulations, sir. We believe your time bomb in a barrel was responsible for the destruction of Ulysses. Captain Pellew will receive a full report," he nodded towards the frigate in the distance, slowly, but steadily approaching, "I assure you, Lord Edrington." Hornblower bowed and did not refrain the slight smile of pleasure.
"Thank you, Mr. Hornblower." His eyes found Bentley and he nodded to his servant. "I pray we will see similar results with Oceanus. It might be prudent to remove this vessel a little farther from that one," Edrington moved his view to Hornblower, "if I might be so bold to suggest."
"Indeed, my Lord," agreed Hornblower.
"Let's get these sail set!"
"Aye, aye, Mr. Hornblower, sir!" said Bainbridge, the tone of his voice affirmed the officer.
"No hesitation there," said Kennedy.
Hornblower dismissed Archie's observation.
PING! Hornblower ducked at the sound. Someone was firing a musket.
Armant stood on the quarter-deck of Oceanus with a number of other men with guns. A crew was manipulating the stern chasers and they watched a muzzle aim in their direction.
"Take cover!" shouted Hornblower. "Damn. They're loading cannon."
Archie and Edrington crawled near to Hornblower. The three watched.
"It's too high, Horatio," advised Kennedy. "They cannot lower the gun enough to hit us."
"And, if we move off, they may be able to bring the gun to bear." Hornblower bit his bottom lip.
More musket fire peppered the deck.
"How long do you think until the explosion, Alexander?"
"How long a fuse this time?"
"Gunpowder trail, Horatio. We did not know everyone had left the ship already or we could have made it shorter. I hope they did not find it and stop it."
The three men looked at each other.
"If we stay this close and she blows, debris may set us afire," said Hornblower thinking out loud. "But if we sail with the wind, ... " he sighed, wearily. The one sail set on the foremast was flapping aimlessly. He was tired; he was cold. None of his decisions seemed right of late. Some of the men had found dry clothes to put on, but he and Archie and many others were still wet, and he was without a shirt. He touched his bare chest. What was he thinking?
Hornblower rose as far as he could without exposing his body to gunfire. "Styles, Oldroyd, Hardy!" Who else? "Come on, men! Pull back on those braces and let's get her into the wind." He stood up and strode forward.
Armant saw him and snatched a musket from the man next to him. He took careful aim, drawing a bead on Hornblower. This man was a lot of trouble. He drew Effington off the mark and now two seventy-fours and a prize vessel were destroyed. The convoy ships were in British hands and once again, he captained the vessel that was to be Armant's. The Frenchman sucked in a breath and held it. The line of sight down the musket barrel was straight onto the side of Hornblower's skull. His finger tightened on the trigger...
Hornblower was knocked to the deck. He put his hand to his head. Blood. He felt the liquid trickling down the side of his face. Looking up, he saw the sail afire. Men were around him, jumping over him. His ears ached or was it just one ear? Or was it his hearing? Dazed, he rolled onto his side. Inside his head was a roaring sound. He tried to sit up and fell back onto the deck. Where was Archie? Edrington? Styles? The mizzen mast was cracked in two, jagged splinters stuck from the nub six feet off the deck. The furled sail on the main mast were burning. His body welcomed the warmth of the flames. "We're...we're ... we're on fire." He blinked and coughed as the smoke came into his lungs.
Splashing. He felt spray falling on him. Reaching a hand onto the railing, he came to his feet. He felt faint. Someone grabbed onto the front of his coat. He felt himself being yanked up into the air and thrown. The cold water covered him and he was sinking. Something struck his shoulder and he went deeper. Then, he felt a hand grab the fabric of his coat. He was being pulled upwards. He broke the surface and his lungs gasped for air. Cold! The air, the water. Cold! He was coughing and each wrack of his lungs brought pain to his head. The hand that held him shifted across his chest. Opening his eyes, he saw Renard de Mer was engulfed in flame. Looking beyond her, he could not see Oceanus. His wavering eyelids, permitted a glimpse of blue sky, then a looming bow of black and gold. He wanted to vomit and his stomach convulsed. The person hauling him through the water stopped and hit him on the back. He felt a finger in his mouth. He coughed again and gasped a breath of air, realizing he had not been breathing. They were moving through the water again. He did not care how cold he was. It was all too much trouble. He closed his eyes and went limp.
"Take him, Mr. Bracegirdle!" The voice was frightened, ragged, tired, much like Hornblower felt.
He roused. Whose voice? He knew it. Blackness clouded his mind. No, not yet. Whose voice? He played it through his memory again and realized two things. He had not lost his hearing, and... it was Edrington.