Henry Clayton climbed down to the Midship berth after his watch. It had been the second afternoon watch, and he was feeling chilled and tired. Nothing eventful had happened, which if anything had added to his weariness. He had nodded to his relief Cleveland and thought longingly about a quiet sojourn in the midship berth punctuated by a leisurely evening meal. He needed rest and he would keep the youngsters in there quiet this evening, that was for sure.
But as he neared the berth, he began to hear sounds that caused his tired brain to swivel back into motion. Sobbing. Uh oh, what had happened now? No doubt that rascal Archie had been up to some misdeed or other and had been chastised. As senior midshipman and 21 years of age, Clayton often found himself in the position of father, and mother, in the berth. To the extent that he would read the youngsters stories, soothe them when they were hurt or upset, and even put them over his knee from time to time to restore good order.
The ship had only two midship children, Archie and Horatio, both just turned 12. Different as chalk and cheese. Even to look at. Archie blue eyes, straight blond hair, freckled, slightly plump, small for his age. Horatio brown eyes, curly dark hair, pale, excruciatingly thin and promising to be tall. Archie outgoing and mischievous. Horatio withdrawn, serious, precociously intelligent. Surprisingly these two were the best of friends. They seemed to complement each other perfectly. Archie was for ever getting into scrapes and Horatio was for ever trying to get him out of them sometimes even he, though, was caught in the cross-fire. That seemed to have happened this time. A quick glance of the situation made it clear to Clayton that both children had been beaten. At this time they would usually be on deck skylarking. But both were in their hammocks. Archie's little body was shaking with sobs. Horatio lay completely rigidly, his small pale face marred by a frown.
"Well?" said Clayton, approaching Archie. He knew that he would get nothing out of Horatio for the time being. The child seemed to be in shock. "What have you two got to say for yourselves?"
Archie was lying on his tummy, and his words were doubly muffled.
"O-old Ecclestone. G-gave us s-six!"
Clayton sighed. He would never use the rattan on such young children. It caused serious wounding and permanent scars just like the cat. Surely a period of mastheading would have been more appropriate for the two scalliwags. That Ecclestone was a cold fish.
"LIEUTENANT Ecclestone to you young-un!" said Clayton. "A bit more respect or you'll be answering to me!" But something warm in his tone took away the sting of his words. He had kissed the gunner's daughter care of various lieutenants a few times himself. And he'd been a lot older than twelve.
"Well," said Clayton. "I assume that Lt. Ecclestone was not just exercising his right arm. What had you two been up to?"
He noticed that Horatio had turned his head away and was gripping the edge of his hammock tightly with his right fist.
Archie struggled to turn round to Clayton. His face was smudged with tears and worse.
"I was h-hungry. I w-went into the w-wardroom and, and .... I s-stole some biscuits. P-PROPER b-biscuits, n-not w-weevily ones like w-we h-have!"
Clayton could barely restrain a smile. Poor Archie was always hungry. Horatio on the other hand ate so little that Clayton often found himself in the role of mother-hen, almost force feeding the boy from his own plate.
"Oh no!" he thought. "The cardinal sin." The wardroom officers guarded their sanctuary like lions and their (often meagre) food stores like pack wolves. No wonder the boys had to be ritually punished in front of them.
"And what did Horatio have to do with all this?" enquired Clayton wearily.
"N-nothing," sobbed Archie. "H-he l-lied for m-me. W-well h-he t-tried to. H-he's n-not a v-very g-good l-liar!"
Even in his distress, Archie's kind heart knew that was unfair. He turned towards Horatio:
"B-but th-thank y-you for t-trying H-horatio!"
A little more questioning and the facts of the case became clear. Archie had stolen Lt. Cole's biscuits. Thoughts had naturally turned to the youngsters in the midship berth. Archie had been caught with them still on his person and Horatio had declared that HE had stolen them and given them to Archie. Archie had protested that this was not true. The two culprits' had been hauled before Lt. Ecclestone. Characteristically he had not bothered to find out the facts of the case and he had beaten both children over the gun in the wardroom.
"Ritual humiliation at its worst," thought Clayton angrily.
He looked at Horatio uneasily. He knew only too well how the boy took everything to heart and blamed himself for the ills of the world. And he knew that whenever he was upset he withdrew further into himself. Archie was making all the noise, but he would soon get over it. Horatio would torture himself endlessly over the incident. He could well imagine the thoughts marching relentlessly through the child's mind: "I failed. I failed to protect Archie. The officers either see me as a liar or a thief. They will never trust me again."
Clayton sighed. He approached the unhappy child.
"Horatio," he said. "None of this is your fault. You didn't...."
Suddenly the pale face turned a greenish tinge. Oh no, another facet of Horatio's personality. When he was upset, he vomited. Clayton ran for the slop bucket. Just in time. He held the boy tightly as he retched up what little food he'd had that day. Afterwards he put a cold cloth to his head.
"I beg your pardon sir," whispered the child.
"Just lie quietly for a moment Horatio," said Clayton softly. "Until you feel more like yourself."
Captain Stewart believed in keeping the youngsters to as normal a life as possible on board a ship of war. Therefore they had very regular days. Each one saw them attending lessons with the Master, visiting each department to become familiar with the various aspects of sailing and gunnery, and taking part in a shortened third watch when they would invariably be learning signal duty. A few larks in the rigging during the dog watch and they were usually well ready for bed and story time. Larks in the rigging were clearly not an option this evening though. Anyway, Horatio found such antics trying as the child was still terrified of heights and was not particularly comfortable on the rigging. All in all, Clayton decided it was a time to skip to story telling.
"Right," he said briskly. "This is what we're going to do. You're both going to get out of your hammocks to wash and change into your nightshirts. Then you're going to eat something. Afterwards I'll continue the story from yesterday evening. Alright?"
Groans issued from the hammocks.
"Couldn't we just stay here for tonight Mr. Clayton? In our hammocks?" asked Archie hopefully.
"No," said Clayton. "You'll be even more sore in the morning. I'll start with you Archie!"
Archie tried hard to be brave, but he sobbed as Clayton helped him to undress and cleaned him up. Horatio on the other hand made not one sound. He stood rigidly and tears started in his eyes. But he refused to cry. Clayton gritted his teeth himself. Lord, Ecclestone had made a mess of the two of them!
At last both boys were ready.
"Now," said Clayton. "I'm going to get you some food. I won't be long."
The boys would have to sit down at the bench. They couldn't eat in their hammocks unless he fed them, and even HE drew the line at that. He doubled up a blanket to put on the bench to make it easier. But even Horatio yelped when he sat down. Archie jumped up like a scalded cat. Clayton doubled up another blanket and draped one each over their shoulders. At least this time Archie stayed sitting down, though tears streamed down his face. Didn't stop him from eating though, Clayton noticed. Horatio was another matter of course. Having heard of their plight, old Bondon, the cook, had warmed up some grog for he had a soft spot for the children.
" 'Twill help ease their pain, poor little 'uns," he had sighed, shaking his grey old head.
Clayton got some sugar from his own stores and liberally sprinkled it into each mug. At least he could get that down Horatio if nothing else.
At last Archie stopped eating and Horatio stopped moving food around his plate and pretending to.
"Now," said Clayton, lighting up his clay pipe and with one child either side of him. "Where were we last night?"
Archie nearly jumped up and down in excitement and just remembered in time to remain perfectly still. He grinned sheepishly.
"God, it's good to see that grin again," thought Clayton. He probably wouldn't have admitted it, but he loved these kids. They were the little brothers that his parents had not seen fit to endow him with. In fact he was the youngest in his family. Which was why he'd been sent to sea. Number three son always an embarrassment for well-connected families. Archie, third son of a Viscount, had suffered from the same syndrome. In return the children loved Clayton as a big brother. A big brother who had to be obeyed but more through love than fear.
"Oh yes!" he said. "Lieutenants Hornblower and Kennedy are boarding the Renown' for the first time. And who's the Captain of the Renown'?"
"The mad, bad Captain Sawyer!" shouted Archie in triumph. However as in life, triumph was soon allied to pain, because the child forgot his present condition and jumped up and down again.
"Ooooow!" he yelped.
"Perhaps Mr. Kennedy we'll have to tie you down there," observed Clayton dryly. "WILL YOU PLEASE STOP WRIGGLING ABOUT!"
"Yes sir," said Archie, rather crestfallen.
"Well yes anyway, you're right. The mad, bad Captain Sawyer. Though our two heroes don't know he's mad or bad yet."
"Mr. Clayton," interrupted Archie. "Who's the senior lieutenant, me or Horatio? I'm older than him you know."
"Well then," said Clayton. "You can be the senior. I doubt if Horatio will mind."
Horatio smiled his sweet, restrained smile.
"No Archie," he said easily. "Not a bit!"
"Highly unlikely though," thought Clayton. "The rate he's going, Horatio will be post-captain by the time he's eighteen! He'll certainly have overtaken me."
Clayton had no illusions about his own potential as officer material. He supposed the captain would put him in for a commission before too long, but he really had little ambition to rise to dizzy heights within his profession. He just didn't seem to possess that edge' or the impatience that some others had.
"Alright then," said Clayton smiling. "You're Third Lieutenant Kennedy and Horatio is Fourth Lieutenant Hornblower. Shall we give names to the First and Second Lieutenants? You can suggest one each."
Horatio prosaically decided on "Buckland", the name of an uncle. Characteristically, Archie showed a little more imagination.
"My father had a gillie once called Bush," he said. "We used to laugh, because he had to beat about the bush' when my father was shooting pheasants!"
"Alright then. The Second Lieutenant will be called Lieutenant Bush. You all have to report to the Captain's cabin. He tells you that you are going to the West Indies."
"Gosh!" said Archie. "That's TERRIFIC. I always wanted to go there. Blue seas and white sands. Have you ever been there Mr. Clayton?"
"Well, no Archie," said Clayton. "But Mr. Matthews has. The topman who has shown you how to set the rigging."
"What did he say it was like?" asked Archie.
Clayton's own eyes shone.
"He says there are flying fish. And at night phosphorescence glows on the water, like liquid fire."
The boys' eyes shone, even though they didn't have a clue what phosphorescence was.
"He says there are bad things too though. Yellow fever. Putrid fever. Ague. Hurricanes. Bad water. Tropical heat."
It was no good. The boys' imaginations were still working on the flying fish and liquid fire.
"Well anyway, the ship is soon thrashing south to pick up the north-east trade wind which will carry her to the West Indies. Pitch-roll-heave-roll, pitch-roll-heave-roll, the ship is magnificent."
A quick look at young Horatio's skin colour persuaded Clayton that he better move on.
"The wind is freshening and Mr. Bush decides to take in another reef. But he has to inform the Captain. So he sends the nearest midshipman, Mr. Wellard, to tell him."
"How old is Mr. Wellard?" asked Horatio.
"Well I don't know. Let's make him fifteen. So the Captain comes on deck. He agrees with Mr. Bush and the pipes shrill for all hands'. The halliards and reef tackles are manned and then a high voice calls out: " 'Vast hauling there! 'Vast hauling!" It's Mr. Wellard. It turns out that there's a reef point caught in the reef tackle block and the sail is beginning to tear."
"Well then," said Horatio. "He did well. He stopped a lot of damage." Archie nodded in agreement.
"Well yes he did. But the Captain doesn't see it like. He says that Mr. Wellard has disobeyed his orders. Lieutenant Hornblower tries to stick up for the midshipman, saying that he is on his station and is only doing his duty. This seems to make the Captain even angrier. He orders both of them to go below."
"Uh oh!" says Archie, his eyes growing wide.
"Yes indeed. Well the Captain gets in a really good mood and orders a tot of rum to every man and every boy. A tot of rum?' says Lt. Kennedy to Lt. Bush. On the forenoon watch? They'll be drunk as lords!' "
"If he's in a good mood now, he might forget about Mr. Wellard and Lt. Hornblower," said Archie hopefully.
"'Fraid not," said Clayton. "Suddenly the Captain calls for the bosun and his mate. Lay aft here,' he says. And bring your cane.' He gives poor Mr. Wellard twelve strokes of the rattan. He's very brave, though, and hardly makes a sound. Lt. Hornblower is forced to watch."
"But that's unfair!" cried Horatio. "Mr. Wellard was only doing his duty. Can't I stop it if I'm a lieutenant?"
"No Horatio, I'm afraid not," said Clayton. "A Captain's master of his ship. He can discipline Lt. Hornblower too. Especially as he's only a junior lieutenant."
"Can he have him beaten?" asked Horatio. What was the point of becoming a Lieutenant if you could still be beaten?
"Well no," said Clayton. "But lieutenants can be punished. They can be put on watch and watch. That means fours hours on duty and four hours off day and night, so they can't get proper sleep. Or they can stop their liquor ration. Or they can even be put on continuous watch."
The two boys absorbed this information in amazement. To them, if the Captain was God, the Lieutenants were certainly demi-gods. And yet they could be punished, almost like midshipmen.
"Well what happens to Lt. Hornblower?" asked Horatio, holding his breath.
"He's put on 36 hours continuous watch," said Clayton.
Horatio looked horrified.
"It's impossible!" he said. "I can't stay awake that long."
The child looked so distressed, that Clayton laughed.
"Horatio," he said. "It's only a story. Do you want me to stop now?"
"No! No!" shouted both boys in chorus.
"Anyway," said Archie. "I'll keep coming to make sure you're awake. While I'm there, you can have little cat naps. I won't let him catch you asleep Horatio. You're my best friend remember!"
"Thank you Archie," said Horatio with a smile. "I know I can count on you!"
"Count on Archie to get Horatio out of scrapes," thought Clayton. "That's a novel idea!"
"Well," he went on. "Poor Mr. Wellard has to go back on duty, even though he's very sore. But soon the Captain is picking on him again. He says that Mr. Wellard and Lt. Hornblower have plotted together to make the Captain look silly. He orders Mr. Wellard to be beaten again."
"Oh no!" cries Archie. "How will he stand it?"
"Well perhaps luckily two French frigates are sighted. Lt. Hornblower runs to tell the Captain just as Wellard is bent over the gun. He says the ship must be cleared for action. Reluctantly the Captain agrees and Wellard has a reprieve."
The two boys breathed a sigh of relief.
"But the crew are drunk," continued Clayton. "And they don't clear the ship quickly enough. The guns aren't ready. Lts. Hornblower and Bush are frantically shouting orders down on the gun deck. But things aren't happening fast enough. What will you do Horatio?"
"Where away are the French ships Mr. Clayton?"
"Well Horatio. They're abaft the beam on the starboard quarter."
"I'll have to gain time," Horatio said, carefully weighing up the situation. Then unconsciously, he pointed a finger into the air and shook it. A curious expression of enthusiasm lit up his face.
"I'll fire the wadding out of the stern chaser," he cried triumphantly. "To make the French believe that our guns are ready."
"Of course I'll have to agree it with Mr. Bush first, as he's senior to me."
Archie was pouting.
"But what am I doing Mr. Clayton?" he asks. "Horatio ALWAYS has the best ideas."
"You're on the quarter deck Archie," said Clayton quickly. "Trying to hurry up the seamen and making sure they're all at their proper stations."
"That's boring," complained Archie. "I want to be firing the guns like Horatio!"
"This is my story," said Clayton. "If you don't want to hear it, climb into your hammock and go to sleep!"
Archie could never stay sulky for long.
"I'm sorry Mr. Clayton," he said. "I'm glad Horatio had such a good idea."
And with characteristic generosity he added:
"He's much cleverer than me anyway!"
Horatio was beginning to look uncomfortable. He threw a warning glance at Clayton.
Clayton chuckled to himself.
"Already giving me orders," he thought. "Twelve years old, and he's beginning to develop the commanding glare!"
"Well anyway Archie," he continued quickly. "Captain Sawyer doesn't think Horatio's been clever at all. Well, maybe he does, but he's not going to admit it. He accuses Horatio of covering up his incompetence with fairy stories!"
"That's insulting. I'd have to demand satisfaction for that!"
"No Horatio, you can't challenge a senior officer, and certainly not a captain! You just have to swallow your pride. In any case you're beginning to guess that he's just jealous of you. But always remember, a captain has all the power on his ship. He has the power of life or death over you ."
Clayton stopped. He looked at the two pale-faced little boys and suddenly realised he was frightening them, which had not at all been his intention.
"But most captains are very fair, like Captain Stewart," he said quickly. "This is a bad captain remember."
He felt the two little forms either side of him relax.
"Does he remember about Mr. Wellard?" asked Archie anxiously.
"Yes Archie. Unfortunately he does. The Captain becomes worse and worse. He has Mr. Wellard beaten unconscious. He doesn't listen to the lieutenants when they report bad behaviour amongst the men. Worse, he punishes all the lieutenants so that they have to report to Lt. Hornblower when every watch is called, and at two bells, at four bells, and at six bells in every watch. In effect, they have to be woken up every hour, day and night. What can you two do about that?"
There was a stunned silence.
"But who's going to organise the working of the ship if all the lieutenants are half asleep?" asked Horatio, horrified.
"This Captain must be mad," declared Archie. "I will speak to the ship's doctor. The Captain must be declared unfit to command."
Clayton smiled. Archie's aristocratic background bearing fruit. Blithe leapfrogging of the chain of command.
"Archie, you're only the Third Lieutenant. You haven't got that much power."
"Well, who has then?"
"Lt. Buckland might try it. But it's very dangerous. He could be charged with mutiny and be hanged."
There was an uneasy silence. Eventually Horatio murmured quietly:
"He is endangering the ship. He must be got rid of somehow. Perhaps there could be an accident."
Clayton and Archie looked at Horatio in surprise. There was a look of quiet determination on the child's face that Clayton found almost worrying.
"There are lots of places on a ship where accidents could happen," Horatio continued.
"Well," said Archie prosaically. "I suppose we COULD all get a decent night's sleep at last!"
"Mmm. Well I think we'll keep him alive for the moment," said Clayton hurriedly. "The ship is approaching Santo Domingo, Samana Bay, where the Spaniards hold a fort and two batteries. They are endangering British shipping through the Mona straits. The fortifications have to be taken. The Captain decides to sail straight in and make the Spanish surrender. But the ship runs aground. She is at the mercy of the murderous crossfire from the two sets of Spanish batteries, who are firing heated shot into her. Another ten minutes and she will be smashed to pieces. What will you do now boys?"
"Pray!" said Archie.
Horatio's forehead was furrowed. He was deep in thought.
"Will the guns bear on the fort Mr. Clayton, or is it too high up?"
"Much too high up Horatio I'm afraid."
"Are Mr. Bush and I still in charge of the guns?"
"Yes Lt. Hornblower, you are!"
"Well then," said Horatio triumphantly, finger waving once again in the air. "I will set up a kedging operation with the anchor and double shot the guns. The vibration of a double-shotted broadside might set us free!"
"Have you read about that Horatio?" asked Clayton in amazement.
"No," said Horatio. "But I have been in the hold when our guns have fired in practice, and the keel almost jumps!"
"And what are you doing Archie?" asked Clayton. "Still praying?"
"No," said Archie proudly. "I'm at the capstan making the men push for all their worth!"
"Does it work Mr. Clayton?" whispered Horatio, almost shyly.
"Yes Horatio," said Clayton happily. "Of course it does! You and Archie have saved the day!"
"Oh Good!" said Archie. "Does Captain Sawyer like us now? Will he let us get some SLEEP?"
"No Archie. He's furious. He really wants to die you see. He threatens Horatio with a gun and fires it."
"I'll kill the bastard!" shouted Archie, thumping his podgy little fist on the table, but then wincing with the sudden movement.
"You're not there," said Clayton. "And mind your language please. You're still manning the capstan. Anyway, Horatio thinks that the Captain's gun is empty. Luckily, he's right. He insists that the doctor declares the Captain unfit for command."
"AT LAST!" roared the boys.
"So," said Clayton. "The Renown' can sail out of the bay and the lieutenants can think what to do now."
"You mean Horatio can think what to do now!" said Archie. But he was not sulking. There was a hint of pride in his voice. "I think he should be promoted First Lieutenant as he has all the best ideas!"
"Well that would mean jumping over the three of you. You're all senior to him. And sometimes Archie it's best not to appear too brilliant. It can make some officers jealous.."
Clayton smiled to himself. Perhaps after all he was lucky that he would in all likelihood never suffer such injustice!
Clayton felt a weight on his shoulder. Dark curls tumbling over his white shirt. The saviour of the day had suddenly fallen fast asleep.
Archie was devastated.
"Oh Mr. Clayton," he cried, stifling a yawn. "Don't stop the story just because he's gone to sleep! I'm not in the least bit sleepy! What happens when we get out of the bay?"
"I'll go on a little bit Archie. But I'll put Horatio in his hammock first, so he's more comfortable."
He picked up the child in his arms. Trustingly the little boy threw his arms around Clayton's neck. He weighed little enough he had an impossibly slight frame. Now that his conscious spirit was no longer there to fight it, a convulsive sob escaped him. Clayton worried for him in this tough world of hard men and hard knocks and hard choices. He was a sensitive little lad with his head full of notions of bravery and honour. Instinctively he held the child more closely, as if he could somehow protect him from the danger and heartache that was surely to come. At length he placed him carefully in the hammock.
"Sleep well Horatio," he whispered, sweeping stray dark curls away from the child's eyes. "Dream of battles well fought and foes well defeated."
When he turned, the sight of Archie asleep, his golden head resting in his plump little arms made Clayton smile. There was something about Archie that made everybody smile. How anybody could hurt such a sweet-natured child was beyond him. The blanket had slipped from his shoulders and in his white nightshirt he really did look like a little angel fallen from heaven. A little mischievous angel of course, but no less delightful for that. Those kind of looks could be a problem and Clayton was well aware of the danger. He had spoken of it to Archie in a round about way. Very round about actually, because he had been loathe to destroy the child's innocence. As he got older, he would have to be more explicit he supposed. Or if the time came for him to leave the ship himself...
Just as he had finished putting Archie in his hammock, there was a muffled knock on the bulkhead. Clayton looked up to see Matthews knuckling his forehead.
"Sorry to disturb you Sir," he whispered sheepishly. "I was jus' wond'ring 'bout the little-uns."
Clayton smiled. He had a lot of time for Matthews. A good seaman and a good man.
"Not at all Matthews. Come and have a look at the slumbering future admirals yourself!"
Matthews tip-toed into the berth.
"Ah," he breathed. "I were that worried 'bout the poor little mites. Didn't oughta be beaten with that evil rattan no' little'uns. 'Taint righ' Sir, beggin' yer pardon."
"But it's a hard life in the Navy Matthews, you know that. Everyone has to follow the rules."
"Yessir. But there's enough dangers with disease and hunger and fightin'. Don't see much point in beatin' children half to death as well."
Clayton agreed. But he couldn't really say so, not to a rating, even a greatly admired one.
He just shook his head.
"There'll be tears in the morning. That's when they'll be really sore."
"Little Mr. 'Ornblower won' cry Sir. But he'll fret somethin' terrible inside."
God, Matthews was a wise one.
"Don't worry Matthews," said Clayton. "I'll make sure they're kept busy all day. They'll have other things to think about!"
Matthews looked at Henry Clayton with regard and respect shining in his eyes.
"Send them to me Sir," he said, with a twinkle in his eye. "I'll teach 'em how to make a fisherman's bend!"
He knuckled his forehead and turned away.
"They're lucky little mites to have Mr. Clayton looking after 'em," he thought. "It could've all been very different ........"