Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower shifted painfully, his legs trailing in the water, his arms and hands cramped and cold from holding onto the single board for so many hours, adrift apon the sea. Hours? Or was it days? He glanced over to the other end of the board, where Lieutenant Archie Kennedy was also draped. He looked like a sodden rat, his hair dry and caked with salt, his face pale and eyelids red, and Hornblower assumed that he looked the same way—like hell. Goodness, he was cold. And hungry. And oh, so tired… And to think, a few days ago he had been so warm and comfortable in bed. What he would give to be back aboard the Indefatigable again…
Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower awoke to a brief roar of wind and the sound of rain, then the slamming of his berth’s door which muffled the noise again. He pulled a pillow over his head, but his ears could not escape the sounds of boots clomping around the room and the smell of wet wool. “Good morning, Mr. Hornblower,” came the far-too-cheery-for-this-time-in-the-morning voice of Lieutenant Archie Kennedy. “Better get up now, it’s seven bells and almost time for morning watch.”
Hornblower made a non-committal groan and shifted slightly. He would sound cheery, as he’s getting into bed and not out of it, he thought darkly. He heard Kennedy take off his dripping slicker and hang it up, then remove his outerwear and dive into bed. Unwillingly, Hornblower waited until he thought he could just dress and make it up to the deck on time, then got out of bed, only to be hit with a cold draft.
It was raining and a strong wind was blowing, that much was apparent. He shivered out of his nightshirt and into his uniform, neatly queuing his hair, then grabbing his own slicker and hat. It was time to report for duty.
His stomach grumbled as he made his way up the hatch and onto a deck awash with rain. The ship was pitching, but not dangerously. He approached Pellew and Bracegirdle up on the quarterdeck, his nose already dripping with the water that lashed against his face.
“Ah, Mr. Hornblower, you are just in time,” Pellew greeted him as Bracegirdle oversaw the hourglass and bells.
“Has there been any sign of vessels, Sir?” Hornblower asked, but was immediately answered by his superior officers’ gloomy faces. No, no vessels—especially not the one they wanted.
“Perhaps, Sir,” Hornblower hazarded, voicing his concern, “it has fared poorly in last week’s storm.”
Pellew pursed his lips and frowned into the rain. “That is a very real possibility, Mr. Hornblower,” he conceded, “but not one that needs to be mentioned to the men as of yet.”
Hornblower nodded, and his growling stomach emphasized his agreement. Embarrassed, he looked in a different direction. If only the supply vessel would suddenly appear on the horizon…
The Indefatigable had been on channel duty for much longer than originally planned. No other ships could currently be spared to relieve her, and although it was only a few day’s sailing to England, they could not afford to leave their post. Their supplies were low—very low—and the supply vessel that would have restocked their stores was already a week overdue. Everyone on board the Indy, officers included, had been on half rations for the past two weeks, and they were all beginning to suffer the consequences of this. Tension could crackle about the ship as the lightning had done across the sky for the past week, and previously rational and calm men now acted with an alarming impulsiveness and short-range tolerance. Hornblower could feel himself suffering from lack of food, as well: although young and hardy, he still needed a large amount of food to satiate his appetite, and he also found himself feeling increasingly irritable and tired.
Suddenly, over the rain, he heard it: a faint but unmistakable boom.
“Sir!” he cried, turning to Pellew, “A gun!”
“A gun, Mr. Hornblower?” Pellew questioned, having obviously not heard the noise.
“Yes, Sir—it was not thunder, I am sure of it. Somewhere to the south.”
Pellew raised his glass and peered through the rain in the direction indicated. “I see nothing…” he muttered. “Did you hear it only once, Mr. Hornblower?”
“Yes, Sir, but—There it is again!” he cried.
“Very well, Mr. Hornblower, I shall trust your judgement,” Pellew said. “Order a turn six points to starboard.”
“Six points to starboard, aye Sir,” Hornblower echoed, then gave the command. He watched the ship begin to turn as Bowles yanked on the wheel, turning the Indy almost 180 degrees around.
The wind caught the ship’s sails and within moments they were speeding steadily towards where Hornblower had heard the guns. As they neared that spot apon the horizon, he heard them again, and this time so did Pellew and the others on deck.
“French frigate straight ahead, sir!” cried a Midshipman from the mainmast.
“Damn,” Pellew swore, applying the telescope to his eye once more, then dropping it.
“Is it firing, sir?” Hornblower asked.
“Yes—I can’t see who at, but I have an idea…” Pellew stated grimly. “Mr. Bracegirdle, call all hands to action stations.”
Hornblower’s heart began to hammer as they neared the French vessel. All hands were scattering around the deck; he vaguely saw Kennedy appear, rousted out of bed and back in his sodden slicker, and take charge of the gun crews, then disappear to the gun deck. Hornblower’s own place was still up here, to assist Bracegirdle. Most of the men took their places in gun crews, with one marine to a gun as well, while others manned the sails and other focal points. Matthews, as the bosun, and Styles, as a bosun’s mate, were also fully occupied in their duties. It was although the blood of the ship was beginning to pump quicker, as everyone ran to their positions, just as Hornblower’s blood was pumping quicker at the thought of an impending battle. He knew that they were going to fight; a meeting with a French frigate while on Channel duty demanded it. But the question remained: who was the frigate firing apon?
He found out soon enough, as they finally came close enough to the French ship to see. “It’s a supply ship, sir—one of ours!” shouted the lookout, confirming Pellew’s suspicions.
“We’ll try to save our own ship,” Pellew said, “while capturing or destroying the frigate. Wait until we sweep across her bow before firing.”
His message was relayed, while the words “prize money” hung eagerly on everyone’s lips. Hornblower could see the scene before them well now, even in the rain: the French guns were pounding the almost-defenseless supply ship along her starboard side; the supply ship appears to be equipped with only four four-pounders and was using them, but without much success. She was trying to outrun the frigate but the wind was against her, otherwise she should have made it. But Hornblower frowned, water dripping off of his eyelashes. “Sir, where is her escort?” he asked.
Supply ships were almost always sent with an escort, especially through the channel where they were in danger. Pellew nodded. “Perhaps lost in the storm,” he said. “Or perhaps she was sent without an escort.”
They were coming around the frigate now, and Pellew had Hornblower and Bracegirdle occupied shouting out his orders to turn so many points to leeward, to ready the gun crews, to furl a certain sail, and numerous other necessary actions. The French ship was well aware of their looming presence and was attempting to catch the Indy with her leeward guns as she swung past, but they were too slow. The Indy came around the frigate’s stern and Pellew gave the order: “All leeward guns, fire.”
“All leeward guns, fire!” Hornblower relayed, and the order was passed both to the main deck and the gun deck below. Seconds later, a deafening boom resounded across the ship as the guns fired nearly in unison.
“She’s hit, sir—two shots on deck with minimal damage, one on her gun deck, and one at water line!” Hornblower reported triumphantly.
“Come between the frigate and our ship,” Pellew ordered, and Hornblower relayed this to the master at the helm.
“She’s readying her Starboard guns, sir!” Bracegirdle cried.
“All leeward guns, fire!” Pellew shouted.
“All leeward guns fire, aye, sir!”
Hornblower’s ears rang and he felt dizzy: their own guns had fired, but the frigate’s guns had as well, and a shot had smashed across the main deck, splintering the rail but missing the masts.
“Mr. Hornblower, prepare to lead a boarding party!” Pellew shouted, catching Hornblower unawares.
“Aye, sir!” A boarding party was already assembled, consisting of seamen and Marines. As the two ships creaked closer, Hornblower readied himself against the railing of the leeward deck, a group of fifty or so men behind him.
It was at times like these, when danger was obvious and death likely, that Pellew regretted having young officers Hornblower with him. Perhaps his youth made Hornblower less susceptible to qualms of the danger, but Pellew had seen many a young man’s brains painted on the deck, and had no wish to see it again.
Hornblower had both his sword and his pistol at the ready, and as the ropes dragged the Indy and the frigate closer, he placed his hand on the rail, ready to vault over. Then, with an awful grinding noise, the gap between the two ships lessened to about four feet, and Hornblower stepped up onto the rail and leapt over, shouting at the top of his lungs.
He instantly collided with a gun crew; a Frenchman made a swipe at him with his sword but Hornblower avoided the blow and thrust his own sword into the man’s chest. Ignoring the awful sensation, he swirled around to defend himself against another Frenchman. He had to get to the quarterdeck, force the Captain to surrender…
He was surprised to feel a sword graze his arm, but turned in time to fire a ball into the offending Frenchman. Ignoring the injury, he fought his way towards the quarterdeck. Midshipman Perry, a young black-haired man who had accompanied Hornblower, engaged his own Frenchman, and the men of the Indefatigable were all over the deck, fighting and, Hornblower noticed helplessly, dying in equal numbers with the French.
He suddenly saw an elderly man in a French Captain’s uniform up on the quarterdeck, aiming a pistol directly towards him. In a moment that seemed to last for several minutes, he saw the pistol flash, dodged the bullet which nicked an Indy seaman behind him, and began ploughing his way up towards the captain, shouting as he went.
Behind him, as suddenly as it had begun, the battle was beginning to wind down. The English, motivated by the sight of the supply ship and the thought of prize money, had gotten the upper hand of the French and soon they well outnumbered their adversaries apon the deck. Hornblower dealt a seaman who stood in his way a hefty blow with the flat of his sword, then ascended onto the quarterdeck. He stood finally before the elderly captain.
“Capitan, en le nom de le Roi…” he began in his patchy French.
“I speak English, Monsieur,” interjected the Captain, who could tell that he had lost. His voice could barely be heard above the noise of the rain. He presented his sword to Hornblower. “I surrender my men and my sheep zu you.”
Unsure what else to do, Hornblower accepted the sword, then turned to the battered Perry and several Marines. “Escort the officers to the Indy,” he ordered. “I assume command here. Inquire of Captain Pellew, Mr. Perry, if he has any orders regarding this ship.”
“Aye, Sir,” Perry answered, saluting, and he, the Marines, and the French officers left the quarterdeck.
The sky had darkened to make it seem more like night than day, and the rain pounded down with a vengeance. Getting wetter by the minute, Hornblower ordered, “Replace the French colors, Mr. Jones,” to a nearby Midshipman.
Hornblower watched in the satisfaction that comes to all commanders as the French colors were lowered, and the English ensign flew finally on the frigate, which was apparently called the Democracie. Suddenly he heard a familiar voice at his elbow, saying over the rain,
“Horatio, your arm is bleeding.”
Hornblower looked at the speaker, Archie Kennedy, before he then looked down at his light injury. “Oh—yes. Some poor Frog of a swordsman,” he admitted. “What are you doing here, Archie?”
“Captain Pellew desires you to take command of the Democracie, and sail her to Portsmouth. I’m overseeing the moving of your baggage now.”
Hornblower grinned. “That was swift. However, we were hit below the water line—I won’t be making that mistake again. I suppose I should see how the repairs are faring.”
Hornblower left the quarterdeck and made his way to the main gun deck, where he met Matthews. “Is the damage repairable, Matthews?” he asked.
“Oh, certainly, sir,” the older man replied. “We haven’t searched the rest of the ship for any possible damage but we are patching up our own shots now. Would you like the rest of the ship looked over, sir?”
“Yes, Matthews. Inform me if we need anything before setting sail for Portsmouth.”
“Aye, aye, Sir,” Matthews replied, saluting Hornblower with a knuckle to his hat brim.
Hornblower ascended to the deck again, knowing that the repairs were in good hands. He watched Matthews, Styles and several more good Indy men cross over to the Indefatigable again to gather a crew and some supplies, while other Indy sailors were overseeing a knot of their French counterparts on the leeward deck. He suddenly heard an argument coming from them, and, suspecting that a fight would soon break out between the two factions who could barely understand each other, he walked briskly over.
But before he could reach the men, a strong smell suddenly caught his attention, as difficult as it was to smell anything other than water-soaked wood and wool. It actually made his stop in his tracks and sniff. Identifying it beyond doubt, he whirled around and nearly collided with an approaching Kennedy.
“Do you smell smoke?” he asked before another word was spoken.
Hornblower already knew the answer but he waited long enough for Kennedy to sniff, frown and wrinkle his nose, and say, “I do believe you’re right, Horatio.”
Hornblower took off at a run, increasing his pace as he thundered below decks. He glanced rapidly around the gun deck where he had just been moments before, and, not seeing anything, ran again down to the next deck. Again seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he found, however, that the smell of smoke had increased; it was very strong, and he could see puffs of it coming out of the hatch into the hold.
“Oh, damn…” he cried in desperation, and flung open the hatch. There, barely feet away from the pile of powder kegs, was a roaring fire. It looked like a bonfire, and purposefully lit.
“Marines!” he shouted, knowing that he could not be heard; he thundered up the stairs again and encountered a Private. “There’s fire in the hold, form a party to put it out!” he gasped, and threw himself up the next flight of stairs. Perhaps they would be able to put it out… And yet, perhaps not…
“Captain!” he shouted across to Pellew after catching his attention. “We have a fire near the power stores!”
Pellew caught Hornblower’s intonation at once. “Cut the tethers!” he announced. “Take us away from the Democracie, as quickly as possible!”
It was with a sinking heart that Hornblower saw the Indy slowly pull away from the ship he now commanded, but he knew that it was vital. Men were now scampering down the hatch with buckets while other seamen pumped the water. Hornblower himself joined them and made his way down to the hold.
The smoke was more intense now, and, even worse, he could see flames leaping out of the hatch into the hold. It was very close to the powder now—dangerously close. He looked at the sweating, water-hauling men around him and made the executive decision.
“All hands abandon ship—spread the word around,” he called, not bothering with proper chain-of-command rules when all their lives were at stake. The only thing that mattered was getting off the Deomocracie—now, before they were all doomed.
“Lower the launch!” he shouted once on deck, but then realized that the launch was already lowered, with some French sailors in it. He frowned at this, but it was too late to think any more on the subject. “All hands abandon ship! Jump if you have to—the Indefatigable will pick you up!”
Salilors began flocking from below decks and jumping over the sides. Luckily there were not many men on the Democracie—possibly only twenty. Hornblower had seen Matthews and Styles, and the other Indy men, cross over to the Indy, so he had no worries for them. He prepared to jump over the side himself, but then saw Kennedy still on deck.
“Horatio, the French Captain—” Archie shouted over the rain and the cries around them.
He was trying to tell Hornblower something, but he wasn’t going to listen. He grabbed a hold of Kennedy’s arm and together they jumped towards the churning water.
It was a long way downwards, but then they collided with the freezing ocean. Hornblower went down, lost his hold on Archie’s arm, and his hat disappeared. He tried to keep his eyes open but the salt stung and it was too dark and murky to see a thing anyway. He began to fight his way to the surface; he could feel the pressure of the water lessening as he neared the air, but it seemed like he would never reach the top. Just when he thought he could survive no longer without oxygen, his head broke through the surface.
And the Democracie exploded.
Hornblower’s ears snapped as the noise reached them. For a moment he saw a blinding flash, then he had ducked his head under the water and felt the shock waves moving sluggishly through the water. Objects and pieces of wood were colliding with the water everywhere around him, but then suddenly it was quieter. He surfaced and heard the awful noise of air escaping as what was left of the Democracie was sucked below into the water.
He treaded water rapidly, his heart pounding, gasping for air. The bitter wind seemed to freeze his face as it ran through his sodden hair. He paused a moment in shock, then began looking around him for survivors.
The Indy was some ways off in the midday gloaming and rain, and pieces of wreckage, some burning, were floating around him. He saw ten or so men making their way towards the Indy, some hanging onto debris, from where they had obviously jumped off the other side of the Democracie, the side that was closer to the Indy. Hornblower appeared to be the only one on this side. The only one, that is, besides the launch, which seemed to be making a getaway from both the Indy and the wreckage. Archie was nowhere around.
Still wearing his rainslicker, fingers and toes freezing, Horatio kicked off his shoes, wondering if he should wait for the Indy to pick him up, if she could see him, or if he should try to catch the launch. He made up his mind and began swimming rapidly towards the launch. If it was humanly possible to prevent the escape of these French prisoners, it was his duty to do it.
“Arête!” he shouted over the rain at the men in the boat. “Vous êtes les prisonniers du Roi d’Angleterre !”
He should have known that this would happen: the Frogs laughed at him, and one of them called, in fine English, “Yes, Lieutenant? And how will you enforce your authority? It seems that you are freezing in the water, and your ship is leaving you behind.”
Hornblower looked over his shoulder. The Frenchman was right: the Indy had picked up the stragglers and was now getting farther away, following a trail of debris doubtless looking for more survivors, not seeing himself nor the launch in this awful rain and gloom. God, he was a dead man. Oh, if only Archie had managed to swim to the others, had been picked up…
“Ha, ha!” laughed the Frenchman triumphantly. “Now look who is in command, eh, Lieutenant? You thought that Peilleurs was the Capitane—you were wrong. I dressed as a sailor to get away, and now I will make it back to France.”
“That is a filthy trick!” Hornblower cried, enraged. “How dare you impersonate a different rank! In the Articles of War—”
“Are you so naive as to think that anyone follows such rules?” the Frog scoffed. “Happy sailing, Lieutenant.”
His men brought about the launch’s oars, and swiftly dealt Horatio a blow with the paddle of one of them as they passed. It was all he could do to stay afloat as his head throbbed and ears rang, and the launch soon was well on its way away from him and the English ships.
Horatio seized a plank that floated past and hung onto it, trying to regain his strength. He was freezing and with a sharp pang he realized just how hungry he was. Damn it, he had to make it to the Indy!
Suddenly, and he almost yelled aloud, he felt a hand clap heavily to his shoulder. “Hor…Hor…Horatio…” he heard a familiar voice gasp. He turned just in time to catch a sodden Archie before his hand slipped off his shoulder and he sank. Archie clutched gratefully onto the plank. “Got…hit…by something,” he managed through chattering teeth.
“Archie, I h…h-hoped…you’d gotten p-picked up,” Horatio answered.
“No s-such luck. Didn’t m-make it in…in time,” Archie grinned. “Do…do you th-think they’ll c-come looking for us?”
“Maybe but…I doubt it,” Horatio replied.
“Th…that Captain…he was trying to lower the l-launch…”
“He got away,” he said bitterly. Dressing up another to impersonate him…blowing up his own ship…making off in the launch… Hornblower felt his defeat like a festering wound.
“D-don’t worry,” Archie said. “He w-won’t b-be…getting very f-far.”
Horatio looked up. “W-what do you mean?”
Archie grinned in his Cheshire-cat way. His arms were hooked around the plank but he lifted up one hand. Clenched within it was a knot from a wooden board. “Sh-shoddy French b-boats,” he said.
Horatio just stared for a moment. “Y-you s-sabotaged…?”
Archie just looked at him and smiled. “W-what did you think I was d-doing…underwater f-for s-so…long?”
Horatio’s look of stunned shock slowly turned into a laugh. “Unb-believable!” he cried.
For hours they tried to reach the Indy, by hanging onto the plank and swimming towards her, but it was a useless effort. Luckily the water was not cold enough to kill them, but their energy was sapped and the wind took away their warmth. After what seemed like days, they were still floating together, and Horatio had begun to dream of the morning not so long before when he had been curled in a warm bed, if not well-fed then at least not starved, grumping because he had to get up…
He wearily lifted his head. The sun had come out and the water was calm.
Squinting salt-incrusted eyes, he suddenly saw something. Was that a… a sail on the horizon?
But he was too weak to wave it the vessel, and his head sank down onto the plank once more.
This is not a deathfic—just an ambiguous ending! :) We Hornblower nuts know that this is not where the road ends for Archie and Horatio—far from it…