An American Encounter, Part Three
by Skihee

AE3 Ch 25 Fate Shows Her Hand

 

The knock at the door caused Pamela to look up from her reading where she sat covered with a lap blanket. The cream white shawl Horatio gave as a birthday present was draped over her shoulders.

"I go, Senora," said the tentative voice of the young girl who had suddenly appeared at the parlour door. The dark grey dress did not hide the bulge at her middle and accentuated the dark circles under her eyes.

Pamela came to her feet and the skirt of the long burgundy dress swirled around her ankles. She waited, allowing the new house-mate to test the waters as her companion. A male voice was heard and the maiden returned with the visitor.

"Senora, el tenente..." she curtsied nervously and lowered her eyes.

Pamela stepped closer and touched the back of he girl's hand. "Thank you, Consuela. You may go."

"Good morning, Mrs. Hornblower. A new servant?" asked Barnstable curiously.

"Good morning to you, Leftenant, and Happy New Year. Yes,... Consuela. She is a sweet child."

"She is a child. Isn't she?... forgive me," stammered Barnstable.

"Expecting? Yes. She and I are watching out for one another. Maria cannot be with me all the time and Consuela needs a place to stay until she delivers." Pamela looked curiously at Barnstable. "It is good to see you again, sir," she smiled. "What brings you here so early?"

"I've brought you a copy of the Gazette. I apologize for not bringing it sooner." He pulled it from inside his coat pocket and extended it. "I wanted you to see for yourself. It says he will recover."

She took it from his fingers and said softly, "Thank you, for going to the trouble of delivering it. I... thank you."

"You are more than welcome." His eyes rested upon hers and an awkward silence fell. "Forgive me for intruding at this early hour." He turned to go.

"Wait." she called. "Have you had breakfast?"

"I ... had coffee."

"Coffee is not breakfast. Will you stay and eat with us?" she invited.

Barnstable hesitated.

"Please stay," she prompted.

Drake clumped down the stairs wearing brown woolen trousers and a tan knit vest over a white shirt with long sleeves. "Leftenant Barnstable! Mr. Carden makes good pancakes, sir."

Pamela laughed lightly. "Yes, Maria is not expected today. Mr. Carden, will not mind one more for breakfast."

"Well... if you are sure ...I would be delighted," answered Barnstable. The words slipped past his lips against his better judgment. He knew he should have refused.

"Good. Let me help you with your hat and cloak."

She reached to his shoulder as he was removing the garment and he accidentally grabbed her warm soft hand.

"Forgive me," he blushed.

"Good heavens, Mr. Barnstable," she removed the heavy cape, feeling the warmth of his body in the fabric, "that is the third time you have asked me to forgive you." She spoke gaily and hung the heavy woolen cloak and bicorn hat on the hall tree, then, she let a hand clandestinely fall to stroke the familiar wool. The sight of Barnstable's working uniform brought back vivid memories of times with Horatio and she caught a breath nervously. "Now, I must ask you to forgive me. May Drake entertain you with his new ships while I read this?" She held up the Gazette.

"I would very much like to see Sir Drake's navy," he replied.

Drake bounded around the two of them, latching onto Barnstable's hand as he passed. "Come on! I've some really brilliant ships to show you!"

Barnstable followed the boy who tugged at his hand to join him on the floor. Barnstable sat on the oriental carpet with effort, keeping his leg straight as he lowered. Drake opened the top of a footstool and proceeded to unload two fleets worth of ship models. The leftenant saw Pamela return from speaking to Carden and watched her sit on the edge of the settee, her full attention on the paper to hand.

She opened the folded Gazette, and skimmed it swiftly, looking for the name HMS Indefatigable. On page three, she found what she sought. She read it rapidly, seeking his name. At last, she read:

 

 

Lieutenant Hornblower, in command of Le Petit Canard, she being an unarmed prize vessel full of gunpowder stores, gave the Army Major, Lord Alexander Edrington of Buckinghamshire, time to devise floating time bombs that eventually brought destruction to two of the three ships of the line. Setting a charge to destroy the prize rather than let her fall back into enemy hands, Hornblower disembarked his men and those of the prize vessel into two boats, while under press of sail, preserving their lives, yet exploding the cargo ship.

Though captured by privateers, Hornblower and his crew, including Lieutenant Archibald Kennedy of Devon, son of Lord Brideley, Midshipman Cutter of Kent, Lord Edrington and his man-servant, were taken aboard a ship of seventy-four guns and held prisoner until the Frigate HMS Indefatigable, Hornblower's home ship, under command of Captain Sir Edward Pellew, came upon the two ships of the line disguised as British man o'war vessels flying white ensigns.

The privateer Ulysses approached and fired upon Indefatigable. Ulysses' crew had retrieved a barrel from the sea not knowing it was an unexploded time bomb and, it is believed while engaged, said bomb exploded causing the igniting of gunpowder stores, sending the enemy vessel to the bottom of the sea. The remaining ship of the line exploded after Hornblower was able to effect the escape of his men from the seventy-four to a French frigate standing off, one Renard de Mer. Major Lord Edrington, escaping the watchful eye of the captors, lit a powder trail to the ship's gunpowder stores.

Renard de Mer caught fire being in close proximity to the exploding ship of the line, Oceanus. Indefatigable, though dire injury befell her bowsprit, arrived to take off survivors. The French frigate burned to the water line and Indefatigable sank her to clear the seas of a potential hazard to navigation. While several sailors suffered from burns and exposure to cold, all the men under the command of Lieutenant Hornblower, save three, returned to Indefatigable. Lieutenant Hornblower having received the most serious of injuries, a double concussion, is expected to recover under the auspices of his father, a physician residing in Haslemere. The three men lost in the action were all marines, Sergeant Ronald Blaine of Stoke-on-Trent, Private Harold Hanway of Grinstead, and Private Geoffrey Dawkins of Southsea.

The article went on to describe the prize vessels taken by Indefatigable. Pamela clutched the paper to her chest. **Alexander was with you.** She closed her eyes and prayed. **Thank you, Lord, for preserving his life and the lives of his men. Keep him safe. Make him well.**

Barnstable had been stealing glances as she read while he carried on a conversation with Drake. He saw her eyes close and knew she was praying for her husband, as she had that Christmas Eve when her dinner guests had gone from this house to Godwin's church for midnight mass. She was radiant now as she had been that night, despite the worry he caused by telling her of Hornblower's escapades. Hornblower was a lucky man and Barnstable knew he envied him. It was an awful thing to be attracted to another man's wife. It had been a struggle to decide to bring her the Gazette, wanting to see her, but knowing he should not. He resolved this would be the last contact with her. She was so deeply in love with Hornblower. Her eyes opened suddenly and she looked straight at him, taking him by surprise. He felt the blood fill his cheeks and looked down at the array of ship models.

Drake grinned, seeing her looking their way. "Leftenant Barnstable was at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent! Can you believe it? He saw Admiral Nelson and Admiral Jervis!"

"That's marvelous, Drake. You astound me, Leftenant," she smiled.

"It is nothing. Reliving my time at sea, there is not much else these days."

"Is that where you injured your leg? The Battle of Cape St. Vincent?" she asked.

"Yes, it was."

"Pardoname, Senora. The breakfast is ready," informed Consuela. The girl was as quiet as a mouse and neither of them had noticed her arrival. She curtsied, then, departed.

The breakfast was kept light and amiable with Drake chattering away about fleet actions and the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. Barnstable managed to answer his questions, eliciting a certain amount of awe from the boy. Drake mentioned Hornblower and Kennedy on several occasions and Barnstable agreed with him that the leftenants would have been an asset had they been there. Barnstable was surprised to learn just how close Hornblower came to doing just that, Drake and Pamela informing of Hornblower's capture from Le Reve and consequent imprisonment in Spain, which led to a brief discourse on Hornblower finding Kennedy at El Ferrol.

 

The breakfast ended, and Drake excused himself to help Carden tend the cow, leaving the adults to converse privately.

"Leftenant, I have a question," stated Pamela.

"Yes?"

"I want to go to England."

"What?"

"Yes. Horatio is there. It is where I belong. I am his wife. I want to go to him. On what ship should I seek passage?"

"You are in no condition to make a sea voyage!" he stated adamantly. The thought of her leaving Gibraltar jarred him to his core.

"That is for me to decide."

"Mrs. Hornblower ... the sea this time of year is treacherous."

"The sea is treacherous any time of year."

"It is folly!" he laughed. "When did you come up with such a scheme?"

"I have thought it since receiving his letters and learning he was ashore. I must go."

"Thank God, it is not because of the Gazette I brought you. I would never forgive myself." He took a breath, but could not unfurrow his brow. "You will see him again, but at a proper time."

"I must go to him."

"Mrs. Hornblower, ..." he adjusted his voice to pleading rather than commanding, "please,... reconsider. You will put not only yourself, but your unborn child at risk, ... and what about Drake?"

"Maria and Mr. Carden would watch over him... or,..." she hesitated, considering taking him with her, but... no, if something happened to Drake, ... no, she could not. He could be sent for, when sailing was less dangerous. "I would send for him in the spring." She wrung her hands.

"Hornblower may no longer be there when you arrive. He could return to sea. He might even find a way to sail here, and if he did, and you were gone, what would he think? Please, Mrs. Hornblower. Do not do this. Stay here, at least until the child is delivered and wait for more equitable weather. Your husband should be the one to make this decision."

"You do not understand." She turned away from him, placing a cool hand on her heated cheeks.

He stepped behind her. The fragrance of her curls wafted upwards. The long nape of her neck was exposed, bent, and tempting. He leaned closer, quietly breathing in. "Don't go," he whispered.

She shook her head. "You do not understand."

"Then, tell me," he said softly.

 

 

********

The pipes trilled and Hornblower stood stiffly at attention in blowing sleet as Pellew stepped on board and saluted the ensign.

"Achoo!" Hornblower covered his mouth quickly. "Sorry, sir."

"God bless you, Mr. Hornblower. Are you suffering from catarrh?" asked Pellew, solicitously.

"No, sir," and he tried to make his voice as normal as possible.

"Hm. Well, you've got your wish. We sail for Gibraltar in two days time, weather permitting. "Have Mr. Bracegirdle sent to my cabin in twenty minutes."

"Aye, aye, sir," Hornblower saluted, sounding slightly nasal.

Wiggins stood beside him, dressed in a worn oilskin.

"Mr. Wiggins, if you please, inform Mr. Bracegirdle," ordered Hornblower.

"Aye, aye, sir," and he grinned.

The boy was still over the moon at the captain promoting him to midshipman. Every time one of the officers called him mister, his face cracked into broad pleasure.

Despite the used nature of the garments, Wiggins cut a fine figure, though Horatio was sure the boy had not yet stopped his upward growth. Wiggins would surpass the stature of Kennedy who had passed down what middy uniforms remained in his sea chest. The rest the boy required was purchased with his share of the prize money at Gieves. Gieves and Hawke had filled their purses whilst Indefatigable was in port.

"Ah....ah...." Horatio clamped a handkerchief over his nose and mouth and shifted his eyes to see if anyone noticed. Shrugging a shoulder, he raised it to block the freezing precipitation from striking his cheek and it pelted his coat instead, forming cold droplets on the dark navy woolens. He moved towards the canvas overhang slung from the quarter-deck to provide shelter in the waist. At anchorage no one was needed at the command post. Water seeped through the sodden sail, splatting onto the deck.

It had been more than two weeks since his return to the ship. The replacement bowsprit looked strong and fine. Fresh paint covered the hull, bright gold and black. The new standing rigging was tarred and smelled it, despite the cold, and the running rigging would have been stiff without the water freezing in its fibers.

The ship had been in port nearly six weeks. The men had returned from leave refreshed, some with stories to share. But for Hornblower, it was good to experience the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of a fighting frigate. His absence had seemed longer for the time spent in sick berth recovering from his wounds.

Out of nearly three hundred souls, only a few were forced back into service. When confronted by Leftenant Kennedy with the Articles of War, and the marines, none put up a fight. Kennedy consoled the men with a reminder of Pellew's prize winning capabilities, telling them he and Pellew were doing them a favor in not accepting replacements. Though grumbling, the men saw the truth in that proclamation.

Hornblower was still on watch when Bracegirdle arrived to meet with Pellew.

"Mr. Hornblower, you should see Dr. Sebastian about that catarrh," commented the first leftenant, seeing the second jerking the handkerchief out of sight.

"I am not sick, sir," stated Hornblower.

"Let Dr. Sebastian be the judge of that, Mr. Hornblower," admonished Bracegirdle.

Hornblower looked at his senior warily and gave a nod before Bracegirdle made it an order. Once he was sure he was alone, Hornblower wiped at a runny nose. He liked the cold weather. It cleared his mind, although, since his recovery, the chill temperatures were less necessary. He paced beneath the dripping, yet freezing canvas and watched a thin sheet of ice forming on the exposed deck.

An hour later, Rampling arrived to relieve Hornblower and he stepped gingerly on the iced planking and went below. Once inside the cabin, he removed the wet woolen coat, rubbed his hands together, then stuck them under his armpits and paced.

Horatio glimpsed the open frame that held Pamela's portrait and a wan smile appeared. He sat on the bunk and slipped off the worn wet footwear, then, opened the sea chest and pulled out a new pair of wool socks. Thick and warm, they were, and he tugged on the fresh foot coverings, reveling in the comfort hugging his cold, bloodless feet. He unbuttoned and removed the jacket, then, pulled the burgundy sweater from beneath his pillow. He yanked it down over his head passed his bottom. The sleeves extended almost to his finger tips and the long neck stood up beneath his nose. He stuffed the neck down under his chin, leaving the sides pressing his hair up oddly. Hugging his arms about him, he shivered, feeling the wool sweater catch the warmth of his body and reflect it back. Leaning a cheek onto his shoulder, he closed his eyes and remembered.

//////////"Horatio, this is for you," said his father, holding up the garment.//////////

It looked like it had been made for an orangutan, the body and sleeves extremely long. He smiled with the memory of his first reaction.

//////////"I know, it is a bit ... large,... but it is special and I want you to have it. Your mother made it for me. It has been sitting in a chest for most of its life, but... with you at sea in these cold temperatures, you might find it of use. If nothing else, you might sleep in it. It will keep you warm, I guarantee." His father held it out to him.

"Mother made it?" he asked. Was his father cleaning house, willing to give up that which held precious memories?

"Indeed, she did. Knitting was not her forte, I fear. She offered to remake it, but... Try it on. See how it fits. It would please us both if you could use it," suggested his father.//////////

Hornblower held out a hand and looked at his fingertips barely showing at the end of the sleeve and shook his head, but smiled. It was warm and comfortable, adding a layer of padding in its thickness.

"Achoo!" The sneeze took him by surprise, causing him to jerk his head down and pull the queue out the back of the sweater. It resembled a rooster tail in its curling upward sweep, but he did not see it. A wipe at his nose and he pulled his legs up onto the bunk, spread the wool blanket over him, and lay down. **I am not sick,** he told himself.

Dr. Sebastian received the letter from Doctor Hornblower from Horatio's own hand. He knew what it held... mostly, anyway. His father had given him a clean bill of health. It had been three weeks since that day on the way out to the Coulson's farm when he last suffered a flashback. He could recall that time on Oceanus without fear or fainting. He did not dwell on the why. All he knew was that he was better. Further delving into his convalescence he deemed unnecessary, and he refused to give it thought. He was not sick. He was not going to Dr. Sebastian, or sick berth, and he was going to do his assigned duty. That was that.

Gibraltar. Pellew said it. Hornblower wiped at his nose. **We are coming to Gibraltar, my love.** His tired and dull eyes connected with the bright shining painted ones of his wife. Gibraltar. The balancing toy ship wagged back and forth, the painted black and gold prow of the square rigger dipping down and up, all sail set, a Christmas gift from Julia Arminter. He smiled wryly recalling her words that every boy needed a toy for Christmas. **I swear, she must shop with Edrington. I cannot imagine where she ever found such an unusual gift. I told her I would give it to you to keep for me for our son. She seemed pleased at the notion.** Hornblower paused in his thoughts. **I think father may ask her to marry him. I hope he does. I do not want him to be alone. And,... I like Julia. I think you will like her, too. I miss you, Pamela, but I am coming to you. Wait for me. You have promised to wait, and I have promised that neither time nor tide will keep me from you. I mean it, Pamela. I love you.** Giving Pamela's picture a final look, he rolled over to face the wall and went to sleep.

Days later, the quarter-deck was filled with anxious officers as Indefatigable warped out of Spithead. Time no longer allowed them to wait upon the wind altering. Using kedge anchors and the ship's boats, she crabbed her way out.

"If anyone is watching this, they must think we are mad," commented Kennedy lowly to Hornblower.

Hornblower shifted his eyes to Pellew, then, replied quietly. "She will catch the wind. You'll see. Once we are out of the lee of the Isle of Wight, the wind will take her." Hornblower's view went immediately to the crew in the top yards, then, to those in the waist holding the halyards, waiting for the call, then to Bowles, intently taking in the feel of the wind and the ship, and finally to the boats shifting first one, then the other, kedge anchors.

Hornblower concentrated his attention on the canvas, looking for that lining up of natural forces that would see them into the channel. He inhaled, shaking his head, feeling that this effort was due to his desire to see Pamela, but it was not the reason Indefatigable was putting to sea, but it was his reason. The nearer Pamela's time of delivery came the more anxious was he to get there, not that he needed further encouragement. The old fear thoughts had not abandoned him. He held them at arms length to keep from going entirely mad. He had to get to her. He had to. Both of them must be proved wrong, the misgivings must be merely anxiety and wanting, nothing more, nothing more. Turning away from Kennedy suddenly, he took long strides to the taffrail, his heels sounding, causing not only Kennedy to look back at him, but Pellew and Bowles and every other officer on the quarter-deck. Pivoting on his heel, Hornblower saw his fellow officers glancing his direction, and he nervously looked away.

"The expectant father," whispered Bracegirdle to Rampling with a shake of his head. "I don't know if I can take two months of this. He will have every one of us in a panic just like Kennedy last April."

"I had you in a panic?" asked Kennedy, overhearing the comment.

Pellew shifted his eyes to the young leftenant. He, too, recalled Kennedy's anxious and curious behaviors. Staring forward, he silently sighed, wondering if Bracegirdle was correct in his assessment of Hornblower.

"How quickly you forget," said Bracegirdle sheepishly, seeing Bowles' look of agreement.

"Gentlemen," said Pellew dryly, "let us keep our minds on the task at hand."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Bracegirdle and Bowles.

Kennedy twisted his mouth in thought, then raised his eyebrows remembering how worried he had been over Hornblower's lack of gun powder that spring. He had Bracie and Bowles in a panic? It was suddenly humourous and he smiled to himself, lowered his head and looked over his shoulder at Hornblower who was returning to stand next to him at the waist rail. Glimpsing behind his seemingly calm friend, Kennedy noted how Horatio was twisting his wrist and opening and closing the fingers of one hand repeatedly. Looking back at Horatio's blank profile, Kennedy inhaled a breath and focused his eyes forward, then quietly exhaled.

The first kedge anchor was hauled in and secured at the bow, its boat's crew back, and men busy in the waist securing the craft. Bowles gave the order for the second boat to return. The men at the capstan wound the cable round to bring up the last kedge, while the second boat was raised and stored with the others.

As Horatio foretold, once Indy was clear of the island, the wind filled her sails and the men were immediately thrown into action, hauling on the halyards to Bowles satisfaction, turning the topgallants, letting out another reef in the main course, and laying on a starboard tack to beat down channel and out into the Atlantic. The sea spray fanned over the deck, leaving not a man without its baptism.

"We are in the channel, gentlemen," stated Pellew. "I suggest those of you not officially on duty get below out of this inclement weather. Who has the afternoon watch, Mr. Bracegirdle?"

"Mr. Rampling, sir."

"Have him relieved by one of the midshipmen at two bells. All of you are to meet at my cabin," ordered Pellew.

"Aye, aye, Captain," came the replies.

The officers began to disperse.

"See you at noon, Mr. Hornblower," saluted Rampling.

Hornblower nodded and watched Pellew, Rampling, and Bracegirdle disappear to the relative warmth of Indefatigable's lower decks.

"Mr. Kennedy... You should get below, too," said Hornblower, turning a shoulder to the force of spray coming at him.

"Aye, aye, Mr. Hornblower, sir," he grinned. "It's good to be back at sea... with you."

Hornblower's serious visage softened. "Thank you, Archie."

At one o'clock, Indefatigable's officers stood waiting outside Pellew's cabin door. Hornblower hastily stuffed his handkerchief into his pocket, but it was not lost on the first leftenant.

"Mr. Hornblower, you continue to suffer catarrh?" Seeing everyone in attendance, Bracegirdle knocked.

"I am fine, Mr. Bracegirdle."

"Did you see Dr. Sebastian, as I told you?"

Hornblower opened his mouth to counter, when the captain's call came.

Entering at the beckon, the leftenants proceeded to sit at the dining table as Pellew indicated. The captain remained standing, dressed in full uniform, tracing his steps across the stern gallery, a paper clutched in one hand. Turning to see his men seated, Pellew tossed the paper onto the desk.

"Gentlemen,...," he paused, lips parted, then, he plowed on ahead. "We have been together for a good many years and I ... I have always considered the men under my command to ... to be... a family of sorts. We all know Mr. Hornblower's wife is expecting and ... I can 'not' go on without saying that ... that Mrs. Hornblower, too, is like a part of this ship... like a part of my... our... family, ... for many reasons." He tossed his hand with a flourish, "I need not enumerate them. They are known to each of you." Pellew paused, gathering his thoughts.

Bracegirdle and Bowles glimpsed Hornblower, then exchanged agreeing glances.

It was true. Pamela had saved Pellew from death, aided as a nurse with the men for Sebastian, ransomed Edrington (which held greater import considering the major's involvement when last they were at sea), aided in the rescue of Hornblower and his crew in France, kept the ship's boys and indeed all of them on their toes during the long blockade off Toulon, even carried powder to the guns on Dolphin. Despite the trouble she sometimes caused her husband (and Indy's complement) such as the night she fell overboard, she was closer to the crew than any other officer's wife... an American, no less.

Kennedy shifted in his seat, swallowed, and let his eyes roam over the crossed arms and hands within his field of vision, afraid to look at how his friend was taking this expostulation.

Hornblower was holding his breath and staring wide-eyed at the worn gloss of the mahogany table, thankful that Pellew chose not to bring up specifics about Pamela's involvement with Indefatigable. The last thing he needed to hear was a laundry list of her impetuous capers. Why was the captain saying this to his officers?

"Knowing of the impending arrival of her first born child, I requested of the admiralty that if a ship, as ours, was needed to go to Gibraltar that we might be chosen. Fear not, Mr. Hornblower, I did not state to their lordships that her pregnancy was why, only that I had personal reasons."

Titters of laughter sounded briefly round the table.

Hornblower breathed again, his face crimson. "Thank you for that, Captain," he said, obviously relieved. Sneaking off to take a ship back to his wife was one thing; the lords of the admiralty knowing of it was another.

Pellew's lips rimmed upwards slightly and his eyes glittered. "And, you may be pleased to know, their lordships refused, letting me know in no uncertain terms that my request was impertinent. That his Britannic Majesty's ships were not for personal use or personal concerns. That they would bloody well send Indefatigable where she was needed on their schedule, not mine."

Glances were shared around the table and the men sobered and waited.

"No, our voyage is not at the kind behest of the admiralty, but from a far more unexpected quarter," he paused, relishing in the mystery to which only he knew the solution. Pellew reflected on these histrionics he was playing out and could only account for it as the immense pleasure that came from tweaking his valued officers, and one most especially. "I can only speculate that the Almighty must be on your side, Mr. Hornblower, or in the mood of answering fervent prayers on your behalf, or mine in view of my decided disgust with the pompous powers of Portsmouth. At any rate, it is to Gibraltar we sail, as you know."

Silence reigned. Bracegirdle's blue eyes watched Pellew expectantly, waiting for the other shoe to drop. He knew from experience there was more to be said. When the captain remained watching them like the proverbial cat with a canary behind its lips, Bracegirdle summoned his courage and questioned. "Then, who, sir?"

Pellew smiled wryly, lips twitching for an open grin. "Our old friend... Captain... Brecon."

"Brecon? Emerald's captain? The spy?" blurted Kennedy.

"Captain Brecon, sir?" added Hornblower, astonished. He never thought to see him again.

Pellew let his lips part to reveal a brief grin. "Indeed. Captain Brecon. The spy. Though he no longer captains Emerald. Another ship is in his employ."

"And, what is our part to be, Captain? If you are at liberty to say," added Hornblower swiftly, realizing it may not be for them to know.

Pellew inhaled, turned a moment to look out the gallery windows, then faced his officers. "It seems Brecon needs a courier, and one he trusts. I hate to say it, but there is villainy about ... in our ranks."

"In the navy, sir?" asked Rampling, leaning forward, his hands splaying on the table.

"Indeed, Mr. Rampling, in the navy," breathed out Pellew sadly. "A wolf in the fold, some one or more of our own, apparently, are 'not'." The final word sounded like cannon shot. "You recall the failed mission of Muzillac. Those who stole the plans, yes, "stole" the plans from that doomed courier. They had to have inside information. Inside the very offices of London," he whispered in disbelieving awe. "We must not have such a fate."

Hornblower's thoughts overflowed with questions, but he quelled every one, and waited. But nature abhors a vacuum, and so did the mind of Hornblower. Muzillac. Recollections of Pamela had replaced those of Mariette. Even thinking the French maid's name sounded remote... but ... she was dead... and he was responsible. His thoughts darkened as he descended into the memories.

Suddenly, Hornblower's leg was hit with another beneath the table. He looked at Archie beside him whose fingers were knit together and resting upon the wooden surface, then, he met the blue gaze and noted the barest shake of Kennedy's head. He could almost read Archie's admonishing thoughts, 'Don't go there, Horatio.' Breathing deeply, Hornblower could meet no ones eyes and he stared, seeing nothing.

"I expect each of you to keep this information to yourself. The men are not to know,... unless they need to know. One day, I expect you to be captains of your own vessels. The burden of command is great. Keeping this sad but true knowledge quiet is paramount. Do I make myself clear, gentlemen?"

"Aye, aye, sir," they replied, one straight-forwardly, one sadly, another with resignation.

"Our orders are to sail to Gibraltar... slowly, and wait to be approached by Brecon. We do not know what ship he may arrive in."

"How will we know whether the approaching ship is friend or foe, sir?" asked Kennedy swiftly and anxiously.

"I was getting to that, Mr. Kennedy. We have a sign, a signal, and a password. All must be given with a proper response from us. One or even two without the others is nullified. Do not forget it."

"Are we to know them, sir?" asked Hornblower, the conversation rescuing him from his demons.

"Yes. The ship will approach us by tacking first to larboard, then to starboard, then to larboard. Our response is to heave to and furl all our t'gallants."

"Our t'gallants, sir!" protested Bowles. "That will put us at a distinct disadvantage."

"I know, I know, Mr. Bowles. But I have faith in your abilities and the abilities of this crew to be prepared to counteract should it be necessary."

Bowles sighed heavily, consternation on his face, but submission in his soul.

"And the signal, sir?" asked Kennedy.

"Absinthe is," stated Pellew aggrieved.

"Absinthe is?" repeated Kennedy wondering at the cryptic term.

"Yes," frowned Pellew. "It is one way I know for certain this comes from Brecon." His name was like gravel on his tongue as he recalled that summer night and the unusual bottle of spirits Brecon brought with him. The result: over indulgence and a hangover to rival drinking Portsmouth dry.

"What is to be our reply?" asked Kennedy, the others pinning their eyes on Pellew.

"Green."

"Green?" repeated Kennedy. "Is it?"

Pellew's visage did not hide his perplexity. "Yes, it is." he hissed. "The man has a damned foul sense of humour. Do not ask." Pellew waved his hand in dismissal.

"And what is the password?" piped in Hornblower.

"From us,... a question: How is the cow?" stated Pellew.

"And his reply, sir?" asked Hornblower, astonishment in his tone.

Pellew hesitated, knowing the response he expected from his men, then said, "The cow lives."

The community silence was momentary.

Bowles guffawed in spite of his continued pondering about the t'gallants. "Long live the cow!"

Bracegirdle's chest bounced with laughter.

Kennedy snorted and grinned, unable to contain his amusement. "That's Brecon all right."

Rampling smirked and shook his head. "Your wife still colours our expeditions, Mr. Hornblower."

Hornblower smiled and nodded bashfully. "She does mine. She does, indeed," he said quietly, and the rest of the officers silenced, pondering the coming adventure.

"Once we meet with Brecon, what are we to do, Captain?" asked Bracegirdle.

"Presumably, he will have information for us to carry. Once it is in our possession, we sail to Gibraltar."

The officers reflected upon the implications.

"There you have it. Indefatigable has been requested and required by the diplomatic service once again, though that is supposedly known by a few. Besides myself and Captain Brecon, you five are the only others that know these signals. Since he could appear on our horizon at any time, it is best I inform you of these particulars. You must take note of the specified ship actions and be prepared to respond appropriately." Pellew ended the sentence looking straight at his sailing master.

"We will do our duty, Captain," answered Bracegirdle for all of them.

Pellew nodded. "Indeed. I know you will." He trusted these men with his life, with his reputation, with his ship.

Bracegirdle rose and the others followed his example.

"Have we any idea when to expect him, Captain?" asked Rampling.

"None, whatsoever, sir," answered Pellew.

"And if he has not appeared before we reach the Straits of Gibraltar...?" asked Kennedy.

"We will answer that question when it becomes necessary, Mr. Kennedy," stated Pellew.

As the others filed out, Hornblower stopped at the door. "Thank you, Captain," he nodded.

"It is Captain Brecon you should thank, Mr. Hornblower, ... or your own good fortune."

"Yes, sir."

Over a week of slow sailing beneath grey cloud laden skies was barely made palatable by expectation. Indefatigable dipped into the Bay of Biscay and contended with those uncertain waters and its stormy nature, as if the season were not enough of a challenge. When would Brecon appear? On what ship? Under what conditions? No sign in Biscay and the ship turned west towards the open Atlantic.

Indefatigable suffered through one test with a vessel that could have been a prize, playing a cagey waiting game. Looking for signs and signals was more difficult than it appeared on the surface. The ship was not Brecon, but due to hesitation, it escaped as a prize. Bowles and the leftenants discussed the fiasco at length for some days, suggesting how to proceed, so that prizes would not be lost, and yet, maintain the open stance needed to be available to Brecon. But then again, what if that ship had been a scout for Brecon? How was he going to find them? Bracegirdle and Hornblower further discussed the difficulties with Pellew who was no happier about the situation.

Hornblower became gloomy. He knew the predicament in which they found themselves was not of his making, but his focus was on gaining Gibraltar. Brecon could not appear soon enough and the delay was wearing his fragile patience thinner by the day.

The crew was baffled and dismayed. They did not understand the slow progress south. The odd drills they had been put through of heaving to and furling the top gallants were perplexing. They could see plainly they were not blockading a port. Now, it appeared they had just let a prize slip through their fingers. It seemed to them they had let the mouse go free, when the cat's paw could easily have had it by the tail. The men were mumbling amongst themselves, and late that afternoon, Matthews was encouraged to approach Hornblower.

"But why, Mr. Hornblower, sir? We could've had that prize handily!" argued Matthews.

"Do not question, Matthews! Obey your orders! That is what you are here for!" Hornblower roared. It was then Hornblower realized how the slow going and edgy expectation was making him testy.

The hurt on Matthews' grizzled face stabbed Hornblower's conscience as the faithful sailor knuckled his forehead, bowed his head and turned away with an "Aye, aye, sir."

"Matthews,..." called Hornblower, sighing out the man's name. He clinched his teeth, inhaled, and saw the sorrowful and wary face of the man who had served him so well. Matthews slowly returned.

"Sir?" he asked submissively.

Hornblower blinked and filled his lungs. "Forgive me. I... I am anxious to see Pamela," he confessed lowly. "I did not mean... to come down on you so hard."

"I understand, sir," answered Matthews quietly.

"You may, indeed, understand, but there is no excuse. Be patient, as the rest of us must be on this mission."

"Then, ... we are on one?" asked Matthews, brightening. It was something he had suspected but knew better than to ask.

"Yes," smiled Hornblower, "We are on a mission."

"But it's somethin' ye can't tell us about. Is that it, sir?" asked Matthews.

"Yes. That's it," he allowed.

"Oh," smiled the old sailor, "then, that's all right then. Don't ye worry, Mr. Hornblower. We'll get ye to Gibraltar in time to see that babee." Matthews grinned and saluted. "Is that all, sir?"

"Yes, Matthews. Carry on." Hornblower held a handkerchief on his upper lip.

Matthews caught the action out the corner of his eye and turned to really look at the officer.

"Sir?" the last letter sounding long and questioning, "Are ye all right?" he asked with concern.

"Yes, yes. I am fine." Hornblower absently ran a cool hand over his forehead, jostling the damp brown curls.

Matthews continued to stare and take note of Hornblower's flushed face.

Seeing the continued gaze, Hornblower said, "I am fine. I appreciate your concern. I ... I am just a little tired, like ... like everyone else."

Only the long years of service with Matthews' and his connection with Pamela allowed Hornblower to speak to the older man so candidly. Would he some day regret such familiarity when Matthews was killed in an action he instigated? The thought had plagued him before and it plagued him now, but yet, he felt there was no other way he could respond. As Pellew had put it so plainly at the outset of this precarious voyage, they were a family of sorts.

"I'm all right, Matthews," he assured. "Back to your duty now."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Matthews doubtfully. He pretended to turn, but listened for Hornblower's footsteps, then, looked around to watch the young officer. The man was unsteady, more than usual for the rolling deck, and moving slow.

 

 

Matthews walked deliberately towards the guns. Styles and Oldroyd ventured from behind a deck pillar.

"Wha'd ye find out, Matty?" asked Oldroyd, shrugging his shoulders under the heavy peacoat.

Matthews' head was bowed in thought.

"Matty? Wha'd Mr. Hornblower say?" urged Styles, his scraggly curls hung over his coat collar.

"Hm?" They were pressing him for information. "It's a secret." he answered simply so he could return to his thoughts.

"Wha'd ye mean it's a secret? Ye can't tell us what he said?" demanded Styles.

"What?" asked Matthews confused.

"Yer not listenin', mate. What's bogglin' yer mind?" huffed Styles.

"Mr. Hornblower's sick," said Matthews.

"He's sick?" repeated Oldroyd. "Sick o' slow sailin' is what he is."

"No, no," said Matthews pondering. "He's sick. I'm tryin' to figger out what to do about it."

"Tell the doc!" said Styles exasperated. "Now, what's up with Indy?"

Matthews pushed against Styles thick chest. "You lughead! I tell ye Mr. Hornblower is sick and all ye can think about is what we're doin'. We're on a mission... a mission! Ye got that? Officers can't tell us and we ain't doin' what we normally do. Got it? Now keep it quiet. I don't wanna get Mr. Hornblower in trouble."

"A mission." said Styles sarcastically, taking a defensive stance. "Bloody damn mission," he muttered. He watched Matthews cogitate. "Ye've got to tell Sebastian."

"Mr. H. won't like that, is what I'm thinkin'," said Matthews warily, seeing Styles was getting it.

"What's wrong with 'im?" asked Styles.

"He looks to have a fever, I'd say," says Matthews.

"A fever? I hope it ain't bloody contagious," growled Styles.

"Maybe ye could drop a hint to the doc, Matty," suggested Oldroyd. "I know Mr. Hornblower don't want to see the inside o'sick berth fer a long time, but... it won't be good if he arrives in Gib and can't see his lady cause he's sick."

Matthews and Styles stared at the young one in their trio.

"What?" asked Oldroyd, fearing the stares.

"That's the most sense I ever heard come out of him, Matty. I don't know if my mind can wrap around that he said it," said Styles.

Matthews sighed. "Well, it's either Mr. Kennedy or Dr. Sebastian. Oh, but Mr. Hornblower won't like it, he won't." Matthews shook his head, deciding to think the situation over before acting precipitously. If he was mistaken and Hornblower was not ill, the officer would not like him meddling in his affairs, no matter how good his intentions. Giving his mates a final nod, he ambled off, tugging nervously at the scarf around his neck.

Matthews slept fitfully, worrying about Hornblower. Knowing the officer had the middle watch, and since he could not rest for worrying, he checked during the night to see Hornblower at his post. He did not look well. The next morning Matthews resolved to approach the ship's surgeon. As soon as his hammock was up, he slipped away to sick berth.

Sebastian was writing in his medical log when Matthews arrived. He glanced up to see the old sailor

Matthews yanked on his neck wrap overly hard and it slipped off. He clutched it in his scarred fist, tapping it against his leg.

"I'll be with you in just a moment, Matthews," said the doctor as he finished his notations. He lay the quill down, pivoted on the bench, and looked Matthews up and down. "What seems to be the problem? Or is this a social call? I have not seen you here since before Christmas," smiled the doctor.

"I ain't sick, sir." His hand flew up and the scarf waved in the air.

"Then, this is a social call," stated Sebastian amiably.

"N...not exactly, sir." Matthews hesitated, doubting. He tried to stick his hands in his peacoat pockets but missed.

"Is one of the crew fallen?" asked Sebastian coming to his feet.

"No. No, sir." He stopped fidgeting, not wanting to alarm the doctor unnecessarily.

Sebastian studied the old sailor. Pulling out a stool, Sebastian sat down and motioned for Matthews to do the same. "Sit down, Matthews."

"Well..." he hesitated. "Yes, sir." Matthews sat obediently, bit his lower lip, and glimpsed the doctor. He unconsciously twisted and passed the scarf from one hand to the other.

"What has you troubled, Matthews?" asked Sebastian calmly, pulling out his tobacco pouch. It was a habit he had when people came for advice. It gave them both a break from pointed stares, put the attention of the visitor on something other than what was needed to share as the patient watched him deftly hold the rolling papers between his thumb and fingers, tapping in a measure of tobacco. He would not smoke it here, but he could prepare the cheroots. There were three in his pouch already and he had to lay them aside to tap out the shredded leaves. When Matthews was still silent when he reached the point of licking the paper to seal it, Sebastian ventured to look into the man's eyes, checking for readiness to share his concerns. Sometimes he would begin another rolling, if he felt more time was necessary.

"Do you smoke, Matthews?"

"I been known to take a pipe now and then. Nothin' regular."

"Hm."

"Ye prefer them though, sir."

"The cheroots? Yes, I do," smiled Sebastian. He paused and the silence was broken only by Matthews taping his rugged fingers on his knees.

The old sailor stood. "I best be goin', sir." The struggle with doubt impailed Matthews and kept him from speaking.

"Aren't you going to ..."

"If I suspicioned a man was sick, ye'd want to know, wouldn't ye, sir?" blurted Matthews nervously, flagging the scarf toward Sebastian's face, then attempting to tuck it in his pocket.

"Yes."

"But what if the man didn't want ye to know? Mebbee he don't want to admit he's sick,... or, or mebbee he don't even know it. Mebbee he thinks it's just overwork... tired mebbee. That could be it, just overwork."

"Matthews..."

"I shouldna come here, sir." Matthews clutched and twisted the scarf in his hands. Was he betraying Hornblower to speak? "He won't like it." The wrestle continued in Matthews' mind. "But... Sorry ta bother ye, Doc." Matthews turned to leave.

Sebastian rose to his feet.

Matthews turned suddenly, lips parted, his eyes meeting Sebastian's. "Could ye check him without lettin' him know I said anythin'?" he pleaded.

"Yes," answered Sebastian, wondering.

Matthews stood with his head bobbing up and down, looking at the deck, at the walls, and finally at Sebastian. He shook his head no, and Sebastian thought he might have changed his mind again.

"It's... it's ... Mr. Hornblower, sir. He looked real flushed like yesterday, and I think he was sweatin'. Ain't hot enough to be sweatin'. I know he's anxious to see Miss Pamela, but... I don't think it'd put him in a sweat...not this far out anyway. He din't look good on his duty last night neither. He's had me worried, sir. I couldn't sleep! Don't let him know I said anythin', sir. Will ye? I know he ain't over bein' here from before. He ... Well... He thinks he's got to do his duty, sir."

Sebastian had never seen Matthews so animated and loquacious.

"He's always been duty minded. Now, he's better, he feels he's got ta make it up...those times when he was too hurt to do his duty. I know him. He's like my own, if ye don't mind my sayin'. Don't tell him it was me told ye, sir. Don't tell him."

"Matthews." Sebastian smiled wryly and sighed. "Very well. I will look in on him and he will never know you were here."

"Thank ye, sir," he knuckled his forehead, "Thank ye." With a final nod, he departed.

Sebastian returned to his small dispensary and retrieved his great coat, then, made his way to the officer's mess. Hornblower might yet remain at breakfast.

"Mr. Bracegirdle. Doing reports I see," said Sebastian, seeing no one in attendance but the first leftenant.

"As always, Doctor. Care to join me for a cup of tea? Granby should return in a moment," offered the first leftenant, his ruddy pink and white face punctuated with laughing blue eyes.

"No, thank you. I was looking for Mr. Hornblower or Mr. Kennedy."

"Hornblower is resting. Kennedy is on watch, sir," said Bracegirdle apologetically. "He is not sick, too, is he?"

"Hm? What do you mean, ... too?" asked Sebastian.

Bracegirdle put down the quill and he gauged the physician. "Has not Mr. Hornblower been to see you?"

"I begin to feel derelict in my duty," frowned Sebastian. "He did not tell you he had seen me, did he?"

"Not in so many words," confessed Bracegirdle, rising from the chair. "Damn the man's stubbornness." Bracegirdle took broad steps to Hornblower's cabin, Sebastian behind him, and knocked. "Mr. Hornblower." He knocked a second time when there was no response.

"Perhaps he is not there," suggested Sebastian.

Bracegirdle opened the door and entered. The lantern's wick was low and the light faint. "Doctor."

Sebastian stepped into the small room, immediately approaching what appeared to be a small mountain of blankets. Pulling the covering back, Sebastian reached the shivering man beneath them. "Mr. Hornblower?" He lay a hand on the perspiring forehead. "He's burning with fever. Pass the word for Watkins, if you please."

"Granby!" said Bracegirdle, spying the boy on the way with the tea. "Get Watkins immediately."

"Aye, aye, sir!" said the young cabin boy, rushing away.

"Is there anything I can do, Doctor?"

"I take it you told Mr. Hornblower to see me and he did not comply?"

"That's the gist of it."

"How long ago?" asked Sebastian, checking a pitcher for water, finding it, then, dampening a cloth to bathe Hornblower's face.

"Portsmouth was when I first noticed. He did not see you then?"

"No. It just isn't his year, is it?" commented Sebastian, sighing and sitting on the edge of the bunk. "He hates being in my company, Mr. Bracegirdle." The jesting tone was overwhelmed with a greater concern. "Mr. Hornblower? Mr. Hornblower? Can you hear me?"

"This has nothing to do with his previous injuries, does it, Doctor?" asked Bracegirdle.

"I pray not, other than perhaps affecting his natural resistance... stress on the body," thought Sebastian aloud. "What did you observe?"

"Runny nose, sneezing,...symptoms of catarrh."

"Hm.," frowned the doctor. "Well, it is something more serious now." A small dark brown object caught Sebastian's attention and he picked up the clump and sniffed it. Shaking his head, he clicked his tongue. "Leftenant Hornblower, if you wanted to be a doctor, why did you not stay home with your father?" stated Sebastian, mildly disturbed.

"What is it?" asked Bracegirdle.

"Garlic." Sebastian lifted a mug tucked in the corner of Hornblower's bunk and sniffed it. "It appears I need to have a few words with Mr. Kennedy, as well. Mr. Hornblower?" said the doctor brusquely.

"Dr. Sebastian, you called for me?" asked Watkins from the doorway.

"Yes, Watkins. Boiling water, teapot, tincture of goldenseal, barberry, goldthread, skullcap. Bring them," ordered the physician.

"Pneumonia, sir?" asked Watkins.

"Possibly, Watkins. He is shivering like a sheet in a gale," observed the doctor, feeling the vibration of Hornblower's body beside him, "and sweating like the tropics." Sebastian turned and met Watkins stare with a raised brow.

"I'll get it straight away, sir," nodded Watkins.

"I should have..." started Bracegirdle, angrily.

"Do not blame yourself, Mr. Bracegirdle. Mr. Hornblower is a grown man. He knows better...or he should," sighed Sebastian. "Mr. Hornblower?" Sebastian wiped the heated brow and flushed cheeks.

A moan and Hornblower shakily clasped his arms over his chest and shivered. His eyes opened briefly and he turned onto his side away from Sebastian. "Doctor... c-c-cold."

Sebastian pulled the blanket over and tucked them around him, then, wiped the clinging hair from Hornblower's hot cheek.

"C-c-cold."

"Why did you not come to me, Horatio?"

The reply was a shivering shrug of the shoulders. "Thought I would get better."

"Besides the garlic and Archie's medicines, what have you taken?"

Hornblower did not respond.

"Nothing? I thought you had already made a choice between doctoring and fighting?" The doctor's aggravation was not lost on the second leftenant.

Hornblower shifted his eyes askance at Sebastian, then, closed them and shivered.

"When did the fever start?"

Hornblower shrugged. "Maybe yesterday."

"Maybe." Sebastian frowned.

"Mr. Bracegirdle. Granby said I would find you here." Cutter saw Sebastian sitting next to the reclining second leftenant. "What has happened?" Water dripped off his outer wear and puddled at his feet.

"Never mind, Mr. Cutter. Did you need me?" asked Bracegirdle, stepping into the doorway and causing the midshipman to back step.

"Mr. Kennedy sent me. A ship has been sighted."

Hornblower lifted his head and made to rise.

"Lay down," ordered Sebastian, in no uncertain terms, pressing against him.

Bracegirdle strode quickly to the mess to retrieve his hat and overcoat. "Has he seen her ensign?"

Hornblower saw Bracegirdle pass swiftly by the cabin doorway, dressing as he went. "I may be needed on deck, Doctor," said Hornblower shivering, attempting to rise.

"The devil you will." Sebastian took a calming breath. "Mr. Hornblower, I have decided you are the most difficult man on board Indefatigable."

Watkins entered with a medical box. "Here are the herbs, sir. I'll bring the water," and he was gone again.

In the coming hour, Sebastian was able to get a healing brew inside the ailing second leftenant. Once the warming liquid was in his stomach, Hornblower started throwing off blankets complaining of being hot. Sebastian took the opportunity to bathe Hornblower's perspiring body, bringing on the shivers again before the doctor was through. Dryer clean clothing was put on the thin white frame. Hornblower went in and out of consciousness, during the doctor's ministrations and lapsed into alternating chills and fever, and, thankfully or not, the second leftenant ceased to be aware of what was happening topside.

Sebastian heard the call to clear for action. Securing the blankets around his charge, the doctor went out into the hallway.

"What is it, Mr. Wiggins?" asked the doctor, anxiously.

"Dr. Sebastian. Two French ships approaching, sir! Captain says to repair to the orlop. The men in sick berth should be taken down, sir. How is Mr. Hornblower? The captain wants to know."

"He is in no condition to fight," said the doctor.

"I will deliver the message, sir," said Wiggins. The captain would not like this news, thought the new midshipman. His first action as an officer and his hero was down with a fever.

On the quarter-deck, Pellew peered southwest through the glass at the approaching ships. "Seventy-four," he said to himself as his view swept the two-decker. Shifting the glass, he assessed the smaller vessel, then, returned to the larger and studied it. "Mr. Bowles, look at her fore."

"I see it, Captain," said Bowles. "Not battle. Weather damage, I'd say." Bowles trained the telescope on the far horizon. "Dark west. Not good, Captain."

"No." Pellew clamped his mouth shut. "Is the corvette damaged as well?"

"I cannot tell, sir," answered the sailing master.

Two against one, but the larger was weakened by storm damage. Still, two against one, out-gunned, out-manned. As Pellew pondered the situation, a flash of light, a puff of smoke, and soon the boom of cannon reached Indefatigable as the accompanying whistle of cannon ball sounded in Pellew's ears. The ball passed through the fabric of the main course.

"Mr. Bowles, let's give them a smaller target. Lay us on a larboard tack and aim straight for her. Mr. Kennedy, have the forward gun crews ready on my order."

"Aye, aye, sir," replied Kennedy obediently. He collapsed his small scope and descended the ladder, headed for the fo'csle.

"Ready the larboard and starboard gun crews, Mr. Bracegirdle," commanded Pellew.

"Aye, aye, Captain," answered the first leftenant.

"Wait for my signal." Pellew peered through the glass and repeated words of wisdom passed through the fleet after the Battle of the Nile, "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy."

"Excellent advice from Admiral Nelson, sir," observed Bracegirdle.

"Indeed, sir," stated Pellew. "Indeed."