An American Encounter, Part Three
Ch 20 Looking for Mr. Hornblower
In the anteroom of the Admiralty conference room, Hornblower stared at a painting of a sea battle, trying to decide which it was. Twisting his mouth, he wondered why the artist could not name the ships more legibly, make their sterns larger, or paint the picture so the stern was visible rather than the bow. He leaned towards it and squinted at the ships. Dropping his hat on the floor, he bent to retrieve it, and was reminded of the sad state of affairs of his clothing. His stockings were picked; there was a slight stain on the outside of his left knee the servant could not remove. Rising from his bent position, he examined his coat. It was the best of what he had left of a uniform. Some of his prize money must be spent on clothing. He sighed, thankful that Pamela had funds of her own, he felt a poor provider in several senses of the word.
On the stuffed leather couch at a right angle to Hornblower, Sebastian and Kennedy were sitting at opposite ends thumbing through copies of the Naval Gazette, faces of concentration. The two marines were left in the hallway, thank God, and Pellew was due back any moment. The captain had decided to accompany them, after all, though he had an errand to run that afternoon, and would leave them after lunch, should they get to have one. Edrington was no where to be seen and Hornblower wondered if his tardiness was the cause of the wait. Reaching into a small pocket, he removed his watch and clicked it open, not quite ten. He let go a nervous sigh. They were early; Edrington was not late, yet. A commotion of voices was heard in the hall and carried into the room as the door opened.
"You have found your way after all, my Lord. The missive did reach you, I see," said Pellew somewhat jovially.
"It did, indeed, Captain. I do not seem to be able to extricate myself from your company. I could not imagine who was rapping on my door at ten of the evening last night. You have made Mr. Bentley somewhat sour, except that the man has taken a shine to some of your men," smiled Edrington.
Edrington's face brightened seeing Hornblower, Kennedy and Sebastian. The major was dressed in his scarlet regimentals, the gold gorget gleaming like the sun. He removed his hat and tucked it under his left arm, still encased in the sling, and extended his right towards Hornblower.
Horatio faced him with an open grin, while Sebastian and Kennedy rose to their feet, dropping the gazettes onto the maroon leather seats.
"My Lord," said Hornblower, "I did not expect to see you again."
"Nor I, you, Mr. Hornblower," said Edrington, shaking Hornblower's hand. "Dr. Sebastian. Bentley was right. He would not let me out of the inn without this blasted sling. He said you might be here, and he would not be held responsible for me not following your orders!" Edrington laughed lightly, concluding a handshake with Kennedy. "Mr. Kennedy."
"Very good of Mr. Bentley, my Lord. There would have been a frown on my face to see you without it, Admiralty officers, or no," quipped Sebastian.
"Good Morning, my Lord," replied Kennedy.
"Are those marine guards outside for you, Mr. Hornblower?"
"Captain Pellew is not letting you out of sight, I think."
Hornblower blushed and bowed his head, opened his mouth to speak, but Pellew beat him to it.
"Indeed, my Lord. I do not intend to lose my second leftenant to folly. You may rest assured." Pellew raised a brow, giving Hornblower a warning look, and nodded his head once.
"I never..." started Hornblower, wagging his head.
"Do not make statements that might prove detrimental to your character, sir. Ooo! That painting would have to be here.," Pellew commented, changing the subject. "Ah well. It was a brilliant victory at Cape Passaro."
Horatio jerked his head to the painting, his face somewhat astonished. "Admiral Byng?"
"Indeed," answered Pellew.
Edrington bowed his head and sniggered.
"Do not tell me the army knows of Admiral Byng?" asked Pellew.
"A hanged officer in any service of his majesty would be notable, Captain," said Edrington.
"Yes," sighed Pellew, "may it never be our fate, pray God. Well, I am told their lordships are on their way. Perhaps this will not be too lengthy. Are you headed for home soon, my Lord?"
"This meeting did put a bit of a hitch in my plans. It appears I will remain a couple of days at least."
"Mr. Bentley must be out of sorts then," commented Sebastian.
"He is busy on an errand, at the moment, and how that plays out will determine how much longer we remain in Portsmouth," said Edrington mysteriously, looking Hornblower up and down and shaking his head. "Is that the best you can do?"
Hornblower's mouth dropped open and he looked down at his clothing, feeling his face warming.
The door of the meeting room was opened by a leftenant who stood at the threshold. "Their lordships will be here momentarily, gentlemen. Please come in and take a seat."
Inside the room was a rectangular dark wood table capable of seating a dozen men without crowding. The chairs were large and the seats and backs were padded with the same maroon colored leather of the anteroom seating, though the arms were exposed dark cherry. Along one side, closed files were resting on the table in front of three seats. A fourth seat had a pile of new paper, an ink well, and a quill.
"Does it matter where we sit?" asked Edrington.
"No, sir. Sit where you will," answered their host, who took a seat at the stacked paper.
Pellew migrated to an end seat where he could view all in attendance. Edrington, Hornblower and Kennedy, sat opposite the closed files, and Sebastian took a position next to Kennedy. Just as they were settling into the cushions, the door behind the table opened, and they rose to their feet.
Of the three men entering, two of them were draped with a Knight of the Bath red sash, one in the uniform of an admiral, the other a commodore. Both men had graying hair neatly held in black ribbon queues, though the admiral's hairline was receding somewhat. The third man was younger, smartly dressed in a matching suit of black clothes, obviously a civilian.
"Gentlemen," greeted the admiral who was tallest of the three. His cheek bones were angular, his face wrinkled from much exposure to the sun, and the nose thin, except for a small cleft bulb on the end. The eyes were grey and the lips thin, the face, in general, expressionless. He was slender, overall, except for a bit of paunch around the mid-section. "I am Admiral Whitsmith," with a hand he motioned, "Commodore Atkins,..." a bit stocky, though not fat, blue eyes, the face not quite so wrinkled as the admiral's, "... and Lord Barnley of the diplomatic service," whose darting black eyes dodged over the guests, his mouth forming dimpled creases framing small full lips.
Whitsmith continued, "Captain, I see you decided to return. Would you do the honors?"
"Indeed, Admiral Whitsmith. At the far end, Dr. Sebastian, my ship's physician and doctor, Leftenant Kennedy, Leftenant Hornblower, and Lord Edrington."
"Good morning, gentlemen, please be seated, and, welcome, Lord Edrington. Thank you for coming on such short notice. I believe I had the pleasure of meeting your mother many years ago," said the admiral settling in a seat. "She was a lovely woman, if memory serves."
"Thank you, Admiral," Edrington bowed his head in acknowledgment, "she still is, if I may say so."
That brought a slight smile from the senior officer. His eyes shifted to Hornblower. "Well, Mr. Hornblower, I understand from your captain that you sustained a serious head injury."
"Too injured to write a report, sir?"
Hornblower opened his mouth, but no explanation came forth.
"Leftenant Hornblower was in and out of consciousness for days, sir. Perhaps Dr. Sebastian could speak to his disabilities," suggested Pellew.
The admiral shifted his eyes to Sebastian, taking in the obvious Spanish heritage. "Doctor?"
"Mr. Hornblower sustained two blows to the head within less than three or four days. The second injury was so severe as to break the skin, and I believe, concussing him a second time. He required a dozen or more stitches. Would you show them, Leftenant?"
Horatio blushed, turned his head, and lifted the hair on the side.
"The blows to the head caused some confusion and disturbed his equilibrium to the point that I feared movement on his part would delay healing and possibly cause a third blow to be sustained. I decided to administer laudanum to the leftenant that he might rest and heal. This was done for a week, after which time he emerged from the dosing sufficiently to continue healing without the drug, though I continued to limit his movements. As indeed, he was in a weakened condition."
"How long has he been mobile, Doctor?" asked the commodore.
"Less than five days, sir."
"Could he not write a report once no longer drugged?" asked the admiral, coughing and clearing his throat.
"He could, but ..." slowed Sebastian.
"You may lay that at my door, sir," Pellew interjected. "I did not give him the order. I had the reports written by Mr. Kennedy, Lord Edrington, and interviews with several of the higher rated men, including Mr. Bentley."
"Mr. Bentley?" asked the Admiral.
"My man servant, sir," informed Edrington. "He accompanied me on the expedition."
"Ah, Lord Edrington. Just how did you come to be involved in a naval action away from Indefatigable. You were a passenger, were you not?"
"I ... insisted on going with Mr. Hornblower when he was given command of the French warship, Renard de Mer."
"And why did you insist, sir?" asked Whitsmith.
"I ...owed him a debt of my life, sir, but that story has little to do with why we are here today. I informed Captain Pellew that I desired to go with Mr. Hornblower, and the Captain graciously allowed me to do so. Bentley came along as well."
The diplomat, Lord Barnley, leaned back, left arm resting on the chair arm, supporting his head, fingers tapping his cheek, listening to the conversation, viewing each man.
"Very well, I accept that Mr. Hornblower was too injured to make a report and that after so many days, it might have been overlooked to ask him for one. Could you write one now, Leftenant?"
"Yes, sir." Horatio's brow creased as he nervously straightened his posture, then, began mentally lining up all the events since taking command of Renard de Mer, wondering how long such a written report would take.
"Hm. Good. Well, we shall save you the trouble, eh, Leftenant Arnold?"
The host leftenant, smiled and nodded and continued to write.
"Dr. Sebastian states you were hit on the head two times. Tell us about that, Mr. Hornblower. How did you come to be struck?"
Moistening his lips, and watching Leftenant Arnold's quill fly scratchily across the parchment, Hornblower began. "The first time was during the morning watch aboard Renard de Mer, the day after we took her, sir. We were hove to with Vengeance, and the other prizes, waiting for dawn. I recall it was quite dark and the deck was thick with fog. I had seen a man going forward, and I assumed he was going to the head. I heard the flap of sail and I left the quarter-deck to go forward and investigate. I recall looking up into the topmast. There were several men up there, the tops'l was unfurled, and then nothing. The next thing I recall is waking in the boat with Lord Edrington and Mr. Bentley."
"Lord Edrington, you state in your report that Mr. Hornblower remained unconscious for some time, and that you came to be with Mr. Hornblower when you jumped overboard. Why were you the one to do this?"
"I acted on impulse, sir. I knew Mr. Hornblower was unconscious, I knew I could swim. I did not feel there was time or place to discuss who should go after him."
"The water did not revive Mr. Hornblower?" stated Atkins.
"No, sir, it did not," confirmed Edrington.
"Why did the Frenchman..." Atkins flipped papers, "... Armant not take you back on board?"
"I have no idea, sir. Perhaps because of my injury he thought I would be of no use. He wanted Mr. Hornblower off, and he wanted his men. I believe, according to Mr. Matthews, the boat and our survival hinged on the cooperation of Mr. Hornblower's crew."
"Matthews is...?" asked Whitsmith.
"A senior rating," answered Atkins turning to Whitsmith. "He took over ordering the men when the only other officer was imprisoned by the French...a Midshipman Cutter."
"This is the rating, Matthews', report?" asked Whitsmith.
"Yes, sir," answered Atkins holding the papers. "He states that the Frenchman Armant agreed to give Mr. Hornblower and Lord Edrington a boat and supplies if he and the British crew helped to sail the ship. He also states Armant threatened to harm Midshipman Cutter or a Sergeant of Marines, Blaine, if they did not help."
"Hm. Nasty business helping the enemy, yet it seems to have preserved our officers." The admiral rested his grey eyes on Hornblower and was silent. "Did Mr. Cutter survive?"
"He did, Admiral. He is a fine young officer," answered Pellew.
"And you think the same of Hornblower here?" asked Whitsmith.
"I do, sir. Mr. Matthews actions, and Lord Edrington's, preserved my officers. I have nothing but praise for Mr. Matthews and I have promoted him to boatswain."
"Have you? Well, it is lucky the men were returned, then. That is my next question, Mr. Hornblower. Just how did you know where Renard de Mer was going?"
"It was an educated guess, sir."
"The convoy had no escort but Renard de Mer. She was but a corvette and held not many guns. I conjectured that the convoy was planning to meet with other ships since the heading they were on was away from France."
"And, how did you know their heading?" asked the admiral, his grey eyes boring a hole through Hornblower.
"Mr. Bentley gave the direction," replied Hornblower.
"Ah, this Mr. Bentley, man servant and sailor, is he?" asked Atkins.
Edrington smiled broadly, "No, sir, far from it. But he can point a direction, and that is the direction in which we followed," interrupted Edrington, "under Captain Hornblower's command."
A fluttering of cleared throats ensued from the senior officers present including Pellew. Edrington raised his eyebrows innocently and looked at each of them, eventually noting that Hornblower's cheeks were flushed.
"Did I misspeak myself?" asked the major.
"Did you have a compass, Mr. Hornblower?" asked Whitsmith.
"No, sir," answered the leftenant.
"No, sir," answered Hornblower lowering his chin.
"No, sir, no sextant."
"Yet you sailed off in pursuit of a French corvette in an unarmed boat without navigational aids?" asked Whitsmith.
Hornblower fluttered his eyelids. Put that way, it did indeed sound like folly and arrogance, but he had and there was no other answer to be offered. "I... yes, sir, I did."
"Well," huffed the admiral, "I suppose that first club on the head did have an affect."
Atkins leaned back in the chair and snorted, glimpsing Whitsmith, then rested his eyes on Pellew's retiring visage.
"What about Lord Edrington and Mr. Bentley... how did Mr. Bentley come to be in the boat? Did he jump overboard as well?" asked Whitsmith.
"Mr. Bentley was put into the boat by the ratings, Admiral, remember? It was in Matthews' statements.
"Oh yes, yes," Whitsmith dismissed. "Lord Edrington, did you not protest Hornblower's folly?"
"I chose to defer to Mr. Hornblower. He is the sailor, not I, sir."
"Were you not concerned for your life, my Lord?"
Edrington smiled, "Oddly enough, no, sir. At least, no more than I would have been in an army engagement. You see, I have known Mr. Hornblower for some time."
"Is that supposed to answer my question?"
"If you knew Mr. Hornblower, it would," answered Edrington, with a smile. "I am here, am I not? When I questioned him, his comment was that something would present itself. Something did."
"That would be Mr. Kennedy, correct my Lord?" asked Atkins.
The admiral inhaled audibly and sat back, staring at Hornblower and Kennedy.
"By luck, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Connors came upon you in their prize ships, correct, Mr. Hornblower?" asked Atkins.
"And these ships were not armed."
"No, sir, they were not," answered Hornblower.
"Mr. Kennedy, why did you not follow your captain's orders to catch up with him on the prescribed coordinates?"
Kennedy cleared his throat, blushing at the accusation, his stomach tensing. "Mr. Hornblower is senior to me, sir."
"But, your orders were from your captain." Atkins nodded towards Pellew.
"Commodore, I was under the impression this inquiry was about Lord Effington, not a court marshal of my leftenants, " commented Pellew defensively.
"Thank you, Captain Pellew, I was wondering the same thing," said the heretofore silent Lord Barnley. "Admiral, Commodore, I understand the leftenants may not have performed to your prescribed view, but Captain Pellew finds no fault in their actions. The crewmen lost were regained. A threat to England's interests on the seas was foiled. It is that for which this meeting is ordained. I submit that we return to the main road, sirs, away from these rabbit trails. As Captain Pellew says, his leftenants are not on trial. It is information about Lord Effington for which this meeting is called."
Atkins raised a judgmental eyebrow upon the leftenants, the doctor, and Pellew, and inclined his head to the admiral.
"You are correct, Lord Barnley. Every Captain runs his ship as he sees fit, and if Pellew has no qualms about leftenants taking the reins in their teeth, and no harm comes to his majesty's ships, who are we to judge, eh, Atkins?" smiled Whitsmith. "Even his lordship has no complaints. Let us return to the more pressing subject, Lord Effington. Hear me, all five of you," the admiral tapped the table with a bony index finger, "this man is not to be spoken of outside this inquiry. Am I understood?"
"Yes, Admiral," nodded Pellew, answering for his men.
"I understand completely, Admiral Whitsmith," stated Edrington solemnly. "He is the vilest rogue and has always been, but fear not. He will not trouble England again."
"You say that with some conviction, my Lord. Since the man escaped explosion last May," Atkins nodded towards Pellew, "by the sum of accounts, how do we know he did not somehow escape this one as well?"
Edrington stared into the impassive blue eyes of the Commodore. "Because... I killed him."
Astonished and curious faces from every quarter turned towards the major.
"You killed him?" asked Atkins, surprise etching his voice. "You did not say so in your report, sir." Atkins flipped through papers, seeking Edrington's report, positive he had read no such information.
"No, I did not."
"May I ask why not, my Lord," asked Barnley, leaning forward and resting forearms on the table, his hands clasped.
Edrington inhaled slowly, then exhaled. "The ship exploded. I saw no reason to state it, believing he would be assumed dead. I see that from his last escape from death, you fear a repeat performance. You need not. He is dead." Pausing, Edrington took a deep breath. "There are times when one must put down a dog that has gone mad." His view lowered to the table, his gaze lost on some distant event. "It is not something to brag about. It is one of your own,... but it has betrayed you. Indeed, ... sometimes one finds it has been humping your best bitch, and it must be put down, for spoiling the litter." Edrington licked his lips and bowed his head. "I killed Lord Effington. He will not rise again."
"Would you be so good as to explain how, when, and where, sir?" asked the Admiral, his face etched with a curious concern
"After Bentley and I laid the powder trail to destroy Oceanus, we made our way back up from the hold. Men were stirring due to an explosion. Bentley and I hid in one of the quarter galleries when we heard voices. I made Mr. Bentley jump into the sea, and I stayed behind to confront Effington, his voice being one of those I heard. I made my way to the after cabin. Effington was there. I told him I was going to kill him. There were some other words spoken before he pulled a sword from his cane. We fought. I won. He was a traitor to England, and he was threatening men to whom I owed a debt. I could not take the chance he would survive. I made sure he would not."
The room was silent.
At long last, Whitsmith, Atkins, and Barnley exchanged glances.
"Lord Edrington, did he say anything about his activities in the Americas?" asked Barnley.
"No, he did not. I only knew he needed to be stopped. Every evidence of that was plain."
"Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Kennedy states in his report you were taken from their company the day of the incident. Did you speak to Effington?" asked the diplomat.
"Yes, sir. I was given breakfast with his lordship and Captain Sinclair."
"Yes, we know of Sinclair," frowned Atkins. "Did Effington reveal any information about his plans?"
Hornblower wrinkled his brow, feeling a mild ache behind his eyes as he forced his memory to that morning. "The man was mad," said Hornblower, thinking about his treatment on deck. "He was on the verge of a fit of temper and Captain Sinclair changed the subject leading Effington to discuss the merits of our breakfast and his cook. That is all."
"What was he about to lose his temper over? Do you know?" asked Whitsmith.
"He was angry with my involvement of last spring, sir, the explosion of Kaliakra and Magie Noir. Captain Sinclair stopped him from discussing those events," answered Hornblower. Unexpectedly, Hornblower sank back in the chair and raised a hand to his brow.
Sebastian pushed his chair back.
"Forgive me, sir," he said to the admiral, then addressed Sebastian. "I am all right, Doctor." Hornblower straightened and lifted his head upright and steady.
"Leftenant Arnold, call for a drink for Mr. Hornblower. Relax, gentlemen. We will take a breather. Are you sure you are all right, Leftenant?" asked Whitsmith.
"Yes, sir," Hornblower blushed at being the cause for concern and halting the session.
Kennedy rose and walked to Pellew's end of the table. "May I speak to you, sir?"
Pellew looked curiously at his fourth and stood. "Mr. Kennedy?"
Kennedy stepped to a corner of the room and Pellew followed.
"What, sir?" asked Pellew, his brow furrowed.
Kennedy inhaled. "Forgive me, Captain," exhaling, he continued. "I have some information...I meant to mention it days ago,... from Mr. Cutter, sir. He left it out of his report. It is my fault, sir, I meant to tell you. I take complete responsibility. It did not seem important since the man was dead. Perhaps it is not."
"What?" whispered Pellew gruffly.
"Mr. Cutter told me this Effington spoke of taking the arms somewhere in the Saints, sir, or at least thereabouts. He said Effington boasted of creating his own country and someday fighting England, sir. It seemed like madness to me, but...in hindsight, as we have discussed this today, perhaps there is more to it."
"Is that all?"
"It is second hand from me, sir. Mr. Cutter is the one to ask."
Pellew sighed. "Thank you for telling me, Mr. Kennedy. I suppose I will count it against his... youthful inexperience, damn it."
While Kennedy and Pellew were conversing, Sebastian went to
Hornblower and insisted he push his chair back for a consultation.
"Horatio?" Sebastian squatted next to the chair and looked up into the leftenant's ashen features.
"Just a bit of headache, sir," he answered shyly, then added with a tinge of anger at himself, "I don't know why I faltered. Do not be concerned."
"I will be concerned," whispered the doctor.
The door to the room was opened as Leftenant Arnold returned with two orderlies bearing trays of drink offerings.
Whitsmith pushed his file out of the way. "What have you there, Jones?"
"Coffee, tea, and brandy, sir, as Leftenant Arnold suggested."
The officers of the table gave their drink requests and eventually the servant reached Hornblower.
"Sir?" asked the orderly.
"Give him tea, please, two sugars," ordered Sebastian.
Hornblower nodded to confirm the beverage. "I do not usually drink my tea that sweet, sir," he said quietly to Sebastian.
Sebastian smiled, "Humor me, leftenant. Take it easy. Do not be distraught by their questions."
"I am not, sir," he lied. The fact that they would question his actions was worrisome. Pellew had never confronted him about taking Canard from Connors.
Sebastian patted Hornblower's forearm and rose to return to his seat next to Kennedy, then saw a bit of shake to Hornblower's hand as he raised the cup. Sebastian's eyes flashed to Pellew, who watched them both.
The orderlies departed leaving the tray of tea and coffee pots at Barnley's end of the table. Leftenant Arnold sat and was poised with quill to hand.
"Admiral, before you continue, after speaking with Mr. Kennedy during our break, I believe another of my officers should be present," stated Pellew.
"Who might that be, Captain?"
"Mr. Cutter, my midshipman."
"Indeed?" The admiral turned his view to Kennedy.
Pellew continued. "It seems, according to Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Cutter may have failed to report some conversation with Lord Effington. I agree with Mr. Kennedy, that the information should come from him first hand."
"What did Mr. Cutter tell you, Mr. Kennedy," asked Barnely, not waiting for the navy men to broach the subject.
Kennedy looked to Pellew to see if he would protest, but received a grudging nod from his superior.
"He said Lord Effington ... boasted of attacking England."
The admiralty officers sat back abruptly with the shock of such a pronouncement.
Kennedy continued. "When Mr. Cutter laughed that three ships of the line would not be suitable for such an attempt, Lord Effington stated that maybe not now, but perhaps in future. My information is second hand, my Lord. I submit Mr. Cutter should be the one questioned."
Silence. The three Admiralty men sat without comment.
At last, Barnley turned and raised an eyebrow to his partners. "This bears out our reports, sir. Now, will you listen?"
"Ahem." Whitsmith cleared his throat, wrinkled his brow, and frowned at the table before him. Raising his eyes and meeting the gaze of each man at the table he spoke firmly and solemnly. "Not a word of this is to go beyond this room."
"Aye, aye, sir," answered the naval officers, echoed by Edrington's "Yes, sir."
"Captain Pellew, see my secretary about another meeting with Mr. Cutter. You will attend sir?" the last sounding more like a command than a question.
"I will, Admiral," answered Pellew.
"Then, Mr. Hornblower, Lord Edrington, Mr. Kennedy, if
you have nothing further to add, our meeting is adjourned."
The seven men collected outer wear from the cloak room and donned it. As Horatio pulled his queue from underneath the cape, he eyed the two marines doubtfully, also clothing themselves warmly. Shyly, he glimpsed Pellew. Even now, with solid earth beneath his feet, he desired to look into the harbour and spy out the destinations of the merchant shipping, or the mail packets. The despatch vessels would always venture out into questionable seas, doing their duty in fair weather and foul. Pellew was right to have him observed. If given half a chance, he would be at the harbour master's office checking the postings for passages. His chest fell realizing where his thoughts were traversing, and he closed his eyes and bowed his head briefly, ashamed of his thoughts, but thinking them all the same. Looking up, he found Pellew's gaze upon him and his cheeks reddened. He saw the side of Pellew's mouth drawn into a frown, and guiltily, Hornblower altered his view to Edrington being helped by Sebastian with his cloak.
"Will you lunch with us, my Lord?" questioned Pellew.
"I would be delighted, Captain Pellew, thank you. Going back to the Rose and Thorn to eat alone was looming large. I would enjoy your company a last time, if you are up for mine."
"Delighted, sir!" said Pellew.
"Have you a spot in mind?" asked Edrington. "I do not venture to Portsmouth often."
"The Navy Tavern has a fine and reasonable buffet for luncheon, just outside the gates," said Pellew, "unless that would be too common for your tastes, sir?"
"Captain, I have served in wartime situations. I do not need a seven course meal every time I dine. As long as the food is palatable, I will not complain."
"They do offer a tasty selection, and the buffet does not keep one waiting. Shore food is welcome, is it not, Mr. Hornblower?" asked Kennedy of his friend whose mind seemed elsewhere.
"The Navy Tavern?" The name of the establishment always brought a picture to mind from his first visit there with his father, the first time he got a close look at the gleaming anchor buttons of a naval officer's uniform so many years ago. The grinning face of that officer came next, commenting on the buttons upon which young Horatio's eyes were fixed. The memory tugged out an emotion on a foundation level that gave a sense of stability, something he had not felt for some weeks.
"You have been there before haven't you, Mr. Hornblower?" asked Kennedy, keeping the situation formal with Pellew and Edrington along.
"Yes, I have. The food is good solid fare," answered Hornblower, whose mind was rapidly calling to mind where the privy was located and if the place had a side or back door.
The temperatures outside were dropping from the overcast sky. The tavern was not more than fifty yards outside the gates where the gold ball capped posts stood as silent sentinels to mark off the navy grounds.
From a cast iron filigree hanger, the sign for the tavern swung against the single chain loops, slightly squeaking in the on shore cool breezes. It sported a fouled anchor in gold over a deep navy blue paint, the name in light blue upper case letters. The outer walls of the building were brick like the naval offices from which they had just come. Crossing the dirt and rutted street that sloped into the harbor, the Hard, the military men rounded a parked supply wagon, vacant of horse or driver, to enter the public house.
Hornblower halted at the threshold, his cape swirling and slapping his legs and the men closest, to watch a flushdeck frigate sail past, headed towards the anchorage away from the mouth of the Solent. The cold wind pinked his cheeks and stung his eyes, but he kept them on the slim ship easing up harbor. Her forecourse, foretopgallant, maintopgallant, and mizzentopgallant, the spanker and the two heads'l jibs were out, only the maincourse was furled. None of the royals were loose. Her beauty captivated Hornblower. She was a magnificent sight, those billowing sails, and he could not help but stop and stare. Those with him did the same since he was blocking their entrance.
Edrington leaned forward and looked askance to see Hornblower's steady gaze, then turned to view Pellew to see if all navy men could be so mesmerized. Pellew's expression was pleased, but Edrington decided the pleasure came in Hornblower's focus more than the ship itself.
"Do you wish she were yours, Mr. Hornblower?" asked Edrington, at last, since they were not progressing into the inn.
"That ship. Is she to your liking?" asked Edrington.
"She is a beauty, my Lord. She's been in battle. See the fresh nicks on her hull?" said Hornblower enthusiastically.
"G'ntlemen, if yore comin' in, please do so, or I shall have to ask you to step aside," said a youngish man with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, the off white shirt covered with a buttoned up spring green waistcoat. His light brown hair lifted and beat softly about his pale short forehead from the cooling wind. "It's a might breezy today and the airs yore permittin' into the premises are wreaking havoc on our patrons."
"Sorry, sorry," said Hornblower swiftly and stepped into the establishment.
"How many are you, sir?"
"Seven," answered Hornblower.
"Oy. I've got a space for five. Are ye willing to split up? Or I could do ye one for four and three."
"Five and two, will do," interjected Pellew. The captain turned to the two marines bringing up the rear, and pointed and nodded indicating they would take a spot for two near the doorway, avoided by most customers because of the chill day.
The senior of the men nodded and moved off to set their guns behind the bar.
Inside the tavern, the front windows were of bubbled glass making objects outside appear distorted. The lanterns normally lit over the side benches and tables were doused because of the windows, their light cold and blue. Further in, the lanterns illuminated the recesses in a golden friendly glow. Off to the side, a few coals glowed in the grate of a smoke stained brick fireplace, and a scullery boy worked to encourage the dying embers, a full coal scuttle at his elbow.
"Follow me, g'ntlemen." The host led them to a back room, small, it was, with three booths, the first two filled already with four customers each, the back one empty fitted with a chair on the end. "It's the best I can do for five this time o' day, sirs." The waiter placed remaining pint glasses on a round tray, pulled a cloth from his apron, and leaned to wipe the dark wooden table.
"This is fine, man," said Pellew, removing his cloak and hanging it on the high hooks on the side wall, topping it with his hat. The others did the same, though Horatio and Edrington placed their hats on top of the partitioning wall.
"Do ye know what y'll be drinkin', sirs?"
"A pint of your best stout for me," ordered Pellew.
"A pint of bitter, please," said Edrington.
"I will have the same," agreed Sebastian.
Questioning Hornblower with a look, Kennedy answered for both of them, "Make that four pints of bitter."
"Will do. Are ye having the buffet or orderin' off the menu?"
"Buffet, all around?" asked Pellew. Receiving nods from the men, "Buffet for all, sir, and put the order of those two marines on my tab, as well."
"Aye, Captain, will do. Help yerselves, then. The plates and soup bowls are at the bar."
"Soup! That sounds good on such a day," said Sebastian rubbing wind chilled hands together.
"I would like to wash my hands, sir," said Hornblower, giving a questioning look to the captain.
With a nod from Pellew, Hornblower snaked around the wall in search of the necessary rooms.
The four men procured soup bowls and bread plates and headed to the buffet set up opposite the long fireplace. The soups were potato and leek with cheese, and barley mushroom with beef gravy. The aroma rising with the lifted lids filled the immediate area, along with warming steam. At the end of the huge soup tureens, a loaf of fresh baked brown bread, draped with a cloth napkin, lay on a cutting board. Edrington reached the bread first, loosed his left arm, and carved off four two inch thick slices, leaving each man to gather his own dollop of creamery whipped butter from the delftware bowl.
"This is a feast in itself!" smiled Kennedy, his mouth watering. "A good choice for lunch, sir."
"This tavern has never disappointed me yet," stated Pellew.
Returning to the table, Hornblower was no where to be seen. Pellew immediately looked to see if the leftenant's hat and cape remained. They did.
Edrington followed Pellew's nervous gaze. The captain placed his soup and bread plate down and readied to go looking for the missing leftenant.
Edrington latched onto his arm. "I'll go, Captain. Let me go," he said softly, glancing at Kennedy and Sebastian.
The three men exchanged looks and watched Edrington disappear around the partition before sitting.
"He is not gone, Captain. He may be thinking, or he may have become distracted," offered Sebastian, slipping into the inner seat on one side. "You saw how he behaved at the door, sir," added the doctor, attempting to allay fears and hoping he was right.
Kennedy sat beside the doctor, looked over his shoulder out into the tavern, then back at Pellew, but said nothing.
Edrington inquired at the bar for the necessary rooms and weaved his way through the tables. Finding the closet labeled gentlemen, he entered and found the stall area empty. "Damn," he muttered. Stepping back into the corridor, he headed deeper into it. An exit ended a short hallway to the right, its door caught on the latch and not fully closed. Stepping in two long strides, he exited into an alleyway lined with barrels used as rubbish bins; the smell was slight due to the cold day, but it was evident. He looked toward the open end of the alley and found what he sought. Hornblower stood motionless, his queue lifting in the breeze, the tails of his coat flapping against his thighs, and him staring at the harbour.
Edrington came up beside him and stared as well, feeling the cold air assaulting his face, ears, and chest, despite the closed uniform. At length, he commented, "It must be hard for you."
Hornblower turned his head, surprised to find the major there, then, gazed back at the harbour.
"If I were you, on half pay and detached from my ship, I would go hell bent for leather back to her. I would." Edrington paused. "Are you?"
"I do not know, my Lord. Captain Pellew and Dr. Sebastian advise against it, but... my ...my heart tells me otherwise. I ache for her, ...my heart aches. I ... I fear I will never see her again."
This was the first time for Edrington to hear Hornblower's assumptions.
"Why would you not?"
Hornblower bowed his head. "I ... don't know. Her death... mine." He raised to view the sea, and shook his head. "I do not know, .... but yet, I feel a strange hope ... that ... that puzzled her, and in thinking on her words,... I am left in further doubt and wondering." Hornblower canted his head and wagged it briefly, then licked his lips, feeling the wind cool them. "Can a man have two futures?" Hornblower's eyes met Edrington's hoping for an answer, that neither Sebastian, nor Archie could give him.
"I do not know, Horatio."
Hornblower looked out to sea.
Hearing a creak of hinges, Edrington swiveled. Pellew stood at the back exit. Edrington saw the frown and sigh, and gave the captain a single nod. Pellew withdrew, and Edrington studied Hornblower's profile. What thoughts plagued him now?
"Aren't you cold? The others will be wondering where we are."
Hornblower clapped a fist against his chest. *Stop,* he thought, *please, if only the ache would stop.* The cold air had not frozen it, not numbed it even. It lived and pained him, and the only remedy was holding her, and she was over a thousand miles away. He wanted to scream, but what good would it do? Holding a hand across his eyes, he bowed his head, "Oh Christ in heaven!"
Edrington clasped Hornblower's shoulder. "Come on, man. This does no earthly good."
Hornblower was planted in the spot. "Edrington... if anything happens to her, and it is her that...that goes instead of me... I do not ever want to love again. Not like this. I could not bear it. You know, she told me once, that if she should die that she wanted me to marry again?" Hornblower shook his head. "I couldn't. How could I? How could I ever love another as much as I do her?"
Edrington did not know what to say. From his stand point, Hornblower had the world with Pamela to wife. The thought that the two of them might somehow be parted, did not occur to him, and was a fantastic, impossible assumption.
"Horatio... do not torment yourself with such thoughts."
Pamela die? The idea was incredible. She was too young to die. There was no battle for her. She was strong of body and even stronger of mind. No. It was impossible.
"She will not die," Edrington stated. "She will not die. She will grow old, raise your children, and be waiting for you when you come home from the sea. She can not die. Do not even think it."
Edrington felt the wind sting his eyes. Hornblower's thought life exposed. This was what the blow to the head had done? Allow his personal thoughts to run free? How would he function if he did not regain control? What could he say, to help Hornblower find that place again?
"You are an officer in his majesty's navy."
Hornblower backed out of Edrington's grip, shaking his head until he hit against the brick wall of the tavern, and leaned against it. "I know. I know."
"You have a duty to king and country, man," urged Edrington
"I know. Don't you think I know that?" Hornblower said plaintively.
"It's damn cold out here, Horatio. Your captain is waiting for you inside. You have a duty to him, as well."
The hinges creaked and Sebastian appeared at the far door.
Hornblower felt his hopes of escape collapse at his feet. Edrington, the service, Pellew, Sebastian, his own sense of duty that stopped him at the opening onto the street, he could not fight anymore, not today.
Eyes on Hornblower, the doctor approached slowly, watching the leftenant straighten his stance. Reaching the two men, he spoke to Edrington.
"Your soup was getting cold, my Lord, so I ate it. Go, please. We will be right behind you."
With a last supportive gaze, Edrington asked, "Do you want barley mushroom or potato leek?"
"Barley mushroom," answered Hornblower.
Edrington smirked and nodded and left the two men.
Sebastian heaved a sigh. "Come on."
Sebastian spoke, eyes forward. "You had time to run."
Sebastian was silent, then, asked, "Why did you not?"
Head hung low, Hornblower frowned and shrugged.
Sebastian held Hornblower's arm and stopped him. "Look at me, Horatio. Say it. Why did you not run when you had the chance?"
"You know why," he answered tiredly.
"Let me hear you say it. Let me tell your captain when he asks me to report on your state of well being that you said it."
Hornblower felt an ache in his head as his eyes locked with Sebastian's. His lips felt swollen, glued together, and his tongue, thick. He did not want to say it. To say it would give the response weight and he would be in its clutches forever, and whatever became of the woman he loved, would be eternally colored by those words lodged in his throat. But these men, with whom he served, they were his family, as much as she was, only at a different level. He tried to separate his lips to say the words and it sounded as a moan. This was ridiculous. Many times those words passed his lips. Why not now? Anger flared against himself and he forced the words into the air.
"My duty." He sucked a breath. "My duty to my captain, my king, my country kept me here." The prick behind his eyes stung beyond measure. He felt sick and staggered beyond the rubbish bins, to a corner.
The door opened and Kennedy stepped into the alley way in time to see Hornblower vomiting with Sebastian at his side.
"Archie! Get a damp towel from the washroom," ordered Sebastian. "You are going to be all right, Horatio. Hang on," he comforted.
Bent over, Hornblower leaned against the building and moaned.
Archie flew out of the door landing on the hard packed ground at a run, delivering the wet towel. "Here, sir!"
Wiping Hornblower's chin, Horatio's back against the wall, Sebastian folded the towel and dabbed Horatio's forehead and cheeks. "Feeling better?"
Hornblower shivered and pressed his brow. "I'm cold. My head hurts."
Sebastian reached into his pocket and pulled out a pouch. "Archie, take this and ask the proprietors to put it in a pot with boiling water." Sebastian patted his breast pocket and pulled out another pouch. "Archie! Wait! I think I've given you my tobacco!"
Archie grinned, and Hornblower chuckled, holding his head, while the two men traded pouches.
"God, doctor, don't feed me boiled tobacco," chuckled Hornblower holding his head, "My damn head aches!" Squinting at Sebastian, Hornblower said, "You knew I was going to need a remedy for headache?"
Sebastian shrugged. "A good doctor is prepared for every eventuality."
Hornblower sighed. "Why do I feel like you are manipulating me, doctor?"
"Because I am, Horatio."
"What did we do today?"
"We took a big step in locating Horatio Hornblower."
"Did we find him?"
"I think we did, despite himself."
"Is that a good thing?"
"Yes. Yes, it is."
"Does he still love his wife though?"
"More than ever, I am sure."
Hornblower let the doctor encourage him back into the tavern. It was warm inside, and he felt the shivers of his body throwing off the cold. As Hornblower neared the buffet table, the aromas of the food smelled inviting, and surprisingly so. He looked over his shoulder at Sebastian. "I'm hungry!"
"Good! The soup is excellent. The major will have it waiting for you."