A Simple Question
by Dunnage41



In the spring of 2009, I had the honor of having my short story "A Simple Question" named the winner of the 2009 Hornblower Appreciation Week story contest held by Scaryfangirl.com. I have allowed, I think, sufficient time for that site to have had first rights to it and now post it here.

It was just at breakfast-time that the dispatch came from the Admiralty. Hornblower tore it open and read it through once, then twice. He looked up as a slight sound attracted his attention: Barbara had entered the room. By the mercy of Providence he remembered to look apologetic.

“I’ve received orders, dear,” he said. Barbara turned a bright glance upon him.


“When do you leave?” was all that she said, with a great deal unsaid. Hornblower knew the smile she gave him to be artificial, and a great wave of tenderness welled up in his breast at her steady cheer. She knew her duty as well as he knew his.

Hornblower glanced again at the dispatch. “As soon as possible, I’m afraid.”

“You’ve time for breakfast,” Barbara said firmly. “Brown will need to pack and to make ready the carriage."

Hornblower distractedly ate and drank, his mind already whirling with thoughts of the assignment. Since the abolition of the slave trade, smuggling had gotten acute in West Indian waters, and the Admiralty were dispatching a squadron of a half dozen ships with orders to Hornblower to patrol them. He was to capture as many ships as possible, freeing the slaves and arresting the captains, if they were British. And first there was the matter of getting his ship to the West Indies, a long voyage even if the weather cooperated. Brown slipped into the room, not quite unobtrusively. Hornblower looked up.

“Brown,” he snapped, “Get word to the dockyard at Sheerness. I’ll want Bush as captain in the Regina if he’s available.” He knew full well that Bush was available. He also knew that Bush was as valuable in battle as any man, wooden leg aside. He had a sudden, vivid memory of Bush cutting loose the foretopmast sail during his engagement in Lydia with the Natividad. It would be trying in the extreme to have anyone else as his captain.

It was astonishing how quickly time passed when he was in a ship. The journey had been unremarkable, with only one engagement, which would make Hornblower, he suspected, some thousand pounds to the better in prize money. Bush had kept the men busy; he was punctilious about exercising them at the guns and at their stations for sail drill so that they need not become idle.

Here in West Indian waters, the weather was heavenly, the seas gentle, and they had already succeeded in swooping down on two big slavers. One they had captured as a prize – that would fatten Hornblower’s purse still further – and one they had sunk. Hornblower was far gloomier about the latter, not for the loss of prize money but for the loss of life. They had recovered only a dozen men, and no women or children. But the fool captain had set his own ship afire. Hornblower hoped, as unreligious as he was, that there was a place in Hell reserved for such a man.

A shout attracted his attention. “Sail ho!” Hornblower snapped open his glass. It looked like a slaver, and a few hours’ sailing, with the wind steady, would bring them up to it.

This particular captain, whoever he might be, was both stubborn and fiendishly clever. He seemed to anticipate the Regina’s every move and meet her. His gun crews were well disciplined, and Hornblower came to fear that the engagement might last until both ships were reduced to their constituent parts. There seemed to be no end in sight. Already he had lost a dozen men that he could see. There was no telling how many wounded would die. Who the devil was the captain in the Rose Marie? Luckily he had at least as clever and equally stubborn a captain in Bush, who anticipated the Rose Marie’severy move in turn, all but danced away from her across the water just in time, and narrowly avoided shots that would have taken out her mainmast several times.

At last, in the fading light of the second day, the Rose Marie hauled down her colors. This captain seemingly had enough dignity not to put his pistol to his own head, as had happened with the first slaver the squadron had encountered. When the captain swung himself wearily aboard the Regina, however, Hornblower received the shock of his life.

For all his desire to maintain a façade of imperturbability about himself for the sake of the men, Hornblower felt his mouth drop open and the color drain from his face. He gaped like an imbecile for some long seconds before he was able to speak, fatigue and shock combining to momentarily deprive him of speech.

“Mister Cleveland,” he managed at last, hoarsely. The stout red-faced captain who stood squarely before him had shared the midshipmen’s berth with him in the old Justinian and in Indefatigable.

Cleveland lifted his plump chin and gave Hornblower a steady look. “Commodore Hornblower, sir,” he said shortly but with faultless correctness. He nodded curtly and allowed himself to be led below.

In a daze, Hornblower gave orders for the berthing of the slaver’s crew and the appointing of a prize crew for the Rose Marie, to be steered to any English port and for her pitiful cargo to be set at liberty. In a daze, he stumbled below, snapped at Brown, slammed his cabin door shut and sank onto his cot, his head swimming. Before he had a chance to sort out the strangeness of the episode, however, fatigue overtook him. He had neither eaten nor slept for some thirty hours, and within five seconds he was snoring.

He was immediately deep in sleep; he did not hear Brown tiptoe into the cabin. He slept while Brown’s powerful arms eased him upright and supported him while tugging off his coat. He slept as Brown undid the neckcloth and unbuckled the sword-belt. He slept while Brown carefully pulled the pistol from Hornblower’s waistband. He slept while Brown pulled his shoes from his hot and swollen feet. He slept as Brown unbuckled the knees of Hornblower’s breeches and peeled off the ruined stockings and wiped his master’s feet with a cool wet cloth; and when Brown at last gently laid a blanket over the sleeping form Hornblower merely sighed deeply and in his sleep tugged the blanket up to his chin.

His sleep was deep and dreamless and restorative; but when he woke before dawn, he was in no clearer mind about what to do than he had been the evening before. Automatically he shaved and dressed and went up to the quarterdeck. He paced, head bent in thought, hands behind his back, for his allotted hour, and while he paced, duty and compassion warred within.

He had not seen Cleveland in twenty years and knew nothing of the circumstances that had led him to abandon the King’s service and join a slaver. It had never even occurred to Hornblower before to think about how one took up that despicable line of work. His stomach churned at the mere thought of having to bestow a well-earned punishment on one of his own men; still less could he stomach the thought of hundreds of pitiful souls abruptly yanked from their native soil and packed into inhumanly tight berths, to be shipped off to some far distant land and worked nearly to death.

He deliberately turned his thoughts from the misery of the slaves and instead racked his memory for what he could recall of Cleveland, which was hardly anything. Cleveland had insulted him in his first moments aboard Justinian. Hornblower could still recall vividly Cleveland’s round, immobile face, framed with those side-whiskers, and the small eyes narrowing at the sight of the pale, soaked, gangling newcomer. “If you wanted to be a seaman, boy, you should ha’ started at twelve,” Cleveland had sneered. But once Hornblower had proved himself able to survive the depredations of Jack Simpson, Cleveland had let him alone.

He was not bright and could hardly ever get his arithmetic right, let alone more complicated navigational challenges. Most of what he knew, he seemed to know by instinct and experience, and Hornblower was not altogether sure, now he reflected on it, that Cleveland could read. It was reasonable to assume that Cleveland had not made much progress out of the midshipmen’s berth, else surely life aboard a slaver could not have tempted him. What in God’s name had made him take up such despicable work? Hornblower had known plenty of men hardened by war and immune to showing any humanity toward their fellows, but somehow Cleveland, with his native shrewdness, had not seemed likely to be one such man.

Hornblower sighed deeply as the bell tinged eight times. He cleared his throat and walked over to where Bush stood on the lee side.

“Good morning, Captain Bush,” he said formally.

“Good morning, sir,” Bush said, cheerful as ever. It was not his responsibility to decide what to do with the captain of a slaver; although if it had been, Bush would have hastened him to trial, and would have believed stoutly and sincerely that the man should be hanged, and quickly. If the abolition of the slave trade was the law of the land, Bush would be all in favor of a hanging serving as an example to anyone foolish enough to think it a tempting profession.

Hornblower opened his mouth, then shut it and went below. Glumly he washed himself and drank his coffee. “Have Cleveland brought in to me,” he snapped at Brown. When his erstwhile shipmate arrived, Hornblower took no pleasure from his haggard appearance. He was pacing in the few steps allotted him behind his desk and stopped abruptly to fix Cleveland with a hard and merciless gaze.

“Oh, sit down, man, for God’s sake,” he rasped. Cleveland looked as though he would fall over if he had to stand for much longer. Hornblower glowered at him and drew a deep breath.

“How is it, Mr. Cleveland,” he finally said, “that you find yourself not in the King’s service but in irons?”

“You arrested me, sir,” Cleveland retorted. Of all the damned cheek, Hornblower thought, even as he half admired the man’s spirit.

Under Hornblower’s unwavering stare, and revived with a ration of grog and ship’s biscuit, Cleveland finally parted with his pitiful tale. It was much as Hornblower had suspected: weary of his inability to be made lieutenant, Cleveland had deserted one rainy night in Kingston, hiding in the thick forests. It was there that he happened to be amid a knot of men captured by a slave captain who, upon discovering that he had an experienced British seaman among his day’s harvest, immediately put him to work. Cleveland, it seemed, had found nothing remarkable about the morality of such work and had quickly advanced in ability until, upon the captain’s death, he found himself the owner of the Rose Marie. It mattered little to him whether the slave trade was licit or not: he was good at it and it made him a tidy profit – at least, until he had the misfortune to cross paths with the Regina.

At length, unable to get any more from Cleveland, Hornblower snapped, “Take him away,” to the Marine sentry and sank into his chair. Undoubtedly Cleveland had violated the law against the slave trade. Undoubtedly he deserved to be taken to Kingston and hanged. Hornblower’s stomach lurched horribly as he recalled the blinding sunlight, the boom of the court-martial’s cannon, and the view from his cell of the noose being tested. Though years had passed since he had been on trial for his own life, it was not something a man as imaginative as Hornblower was likely to forget. If only … if only what? If only he had failed to capture the Rose Marie? Hornblower could scarcely wish that he had not done his duty. Hornblower closed his eyes and wearily rubbed the bridge of his nose with a forefinger. Who was on the West Indian station now? Montagu, that was it. The Duke of Manchester. Hornblower knew nothing at all about him and could not possibly guess what he was likely to do with the pitiful figure now in irons.

Hornblower sat at his desk, fingers drumming impatiently on the surface, and pondered the situation. His all too vivid imagination had easily put him in Cleveland’s place. He could well picture how miserable he would have been in such a situation. He could easily conjure up the thought of life getting increasingly brutal as the war progressed and as Cleveland grew older with any hope of promotion steadily draining away – Cleveland was likely a few years older than Hornblower and probably had passed thirty still a midshipman. It was not in Hornblower to congratulate himself on his position; he was convinced rather that a dozen strokes of luck had brought him to the lofty rank of commodore and, with a shudder that ran right through him, realized that he could easily be an embittered and desperate midshipman or lieutenant today. Would he, could he, have deserted? He thought not; but he understood that Cleveland could.

He sympathized as well with the few options available to Cleveland in Kingston. No doubt work aboard a slaver had seemed as good a possibility as any; and Cleveland probably had not had any kind of upbringing that would have condemned slavery. Hornblower doubted that Cleveland had even heard of William Wilberforce. He even entertained for a moment that Cleveland did not know that the slave trade had been outlawed before putting the outlandish thought aside. News traveled. And Cleveland had been aboard a slaver for at least, Hornblower guessed, the last four or five years. He knew. And, knowing, he plied his trade nonetheless. And it was his trade; he had been made owner and captain of the Rose Marie, and he willingly practiced his profession in spite of its illegality.
But was it really a wrong thing? Hornblower believed both legally and philosophically that the slave trade was not only wrong but abominable. He counted in his favor, however, an upbringing in church, despite his present skepticism; and an education that had introduced him to philosophy and reason. He could think through complexly layered questions; could see complexity in questions that might appear blindingly simple to others.

The simple question was whether Cleveland had broken the law against the slave trade and should be hanged in punishment for it; the simple answer was that he had and he should. Bush would not for a moment have struggled with it. Nor, Hornblower reminded himself, might Pellew or Cornwallis. But he, with his confounded imagination, seemed unable to make a simple question a simple question. Certainly he ought to deliver Cleveland to Kingston and hand him over to Montagu. Why the devil was he even thinking it over? Duty was paramount, Hornblower reminded himself sharply. His duty was to round up rogue slavers in the West Indies. On countless occasions he had put duty before all else, including before Maria and Barbara. He had put duty before comfort and convenience, certainly; he counted those as worth not a farthing in the balance. He had put duty before chances at promotion and prize-money; with a wry grin he remembered that business of old about Droits of Admiralty. And at any rate, he certainly had no claim to friendship with Cleveland; only a handful of memories from twenty years ago when he had been but a child.

He pulled himself up with a jerk. He could hear as though it were yesterday Cleveland’s voice, sharp and desperate: “That’s enough, Jack, you’ll kill him!” The temper that Simpson had been in could easily have been turned on Cleveland for thwarting him; Simpson had disliked being thwarted. And Cleveland no doubt had suffered Simpson’s petty tyrannies. It had been dangerous to speak up. Cleveland had scarcely known Hornblower at the time – perhaps did not even remember his name. Sympathy for poor instinctive dumb Cleveland warred with a deep visceral sympathy for the slaves who were now on their way to Kingston, who perhaps even now had been set free. They had had an advocate – Hornblower, a King’s officer. Cleveland had never had an advocate – did not have an advocate now.

Hornblower sat and listened to the rain lashing the ship. He heard Bush’s bellowed orders to shorten sail. Then came the hail of an approaching boat. The expected knock at the door.

“Beg pardon, sir,” a half-drowned midshipman said. “His Lordship the Duke of Manchester will be coming aboard shortly.”

“Very well,” Hornblower said wearily. “I’ll come. Wait,” he added. “Bring the slaver’s captain in to me.” He got up and stood behind his desk and listened to the word being passed for Cleveland to come in to his cabin.

Cleveland entered. No longer did he look defiant, only sleepless, pale, and haggard. There was the look in his eyes of a haunted creature: his glance darted from side to side, and he took quick, anxious breaths.

Hornblower stared at him for a long moment as if forgetting why he had called him in. He started slightly at the expected knock at the door.

“Beg pardon, sir. Mr. Bush says please won’t you come at once.”

“Oh, very well,” Hornblower snapped. At the threshold of his cabin he paused and glanced back at Cleveland.

“Goodbye, Mr. Cleveland,” he said softly, then added, “I trust you know how to swim.”