Cursing Admiral Hyde Parker, his ship, and, for good measure,
all the souls
that sailed with said Admiral, the signal lieutenant of the 'Elephant'
skidded his way over to the starboard side of the quarterdeck, where the intended
recipient of his news, the 'Elephant's' admiral, was laughing, and moving to
the gangway, while he called out to Colonel Stewart,
"It is warm work, and this day may be the last to any of us at any moment,"
before stopping, his worn face growing sober, and adding, "but mark you, I
would not be elsewhere for thousands."
Nelson. The flag-lieutenant stopped, frozen more by that show of emotion
from the little man who could inspire such love and devotion in those who
followed him than even the passing cannonball could achieve. To be the one who
forced this man's retreat! Unthinkable, yet it was to him that the task had
fallen, and he who had sworn to do his duty, no matter the consequences..
"Sir, the command vessel is signalling us, and I have it down as number
Nelson paused, then walked on, seeming not to hear him, and the lieutenant
swallowed, tasting gunpowder from the air, and the ashes of misery. "Sir?"
he tried again, "Sir, should I repeat the signal?"
"No. You will acknowledge it."
To run across decks wet with seawater and blood was no mean feat, yet the
flag-lieutenant managed it, sliding and slipping over to his post to send back
acknowledgement, before returning to the quarterdeck, ostensibly to report the
action made, but inwardly hoping that there was to be more, that the
glorious victor of the Nile had something in mind.
He was not to be disappointed, for as soon as he saw his officer returning
to the poop, the Admiral called over to him, "Is the No. 16 still hoisted?"
The signal-lieutenant could have wept in relief, not daring to believe that
even Nelson would so flagrantly disobey an order, yet rejoicing in the fact
that it seemed to be so. Keep the order for close action hoisted when the
commander-in-chief had dictated otherwise - surely not! Yet the admiral had
asked the question, and must be answered as calmly as though he had asked the
hour of the day.
"Aye, aye sir!" he managed, through a choked throat that he hoped the other
officers would put down to the thickened air, but Nelson only smiled, and
answered with what appeared to be real calmness,
"Mind you keep it so."
But the calmness did not last. He now walked the deck more quickly, his
pace considerably agitated, and moving the stump of his right arm as though he
wished he could be holding a sword. It was two more turns around the
quarterdeck before he spoke again, turning to Stewart and saying quickly,
"Do you know what's shown on board the Commander-in-Chief, No. 39?"
Stewart shook his head.
"Why, to leave off action. Leave off action!" he repeated bitterly, and
then added with a shrug, "Now, damn me if I do."
He turned to Captain Foley then, and said, with a small, sideways smile,
"You know, Foley, I have only one eye - I have a right to be blind sometimes"
and then, flickering a wink at the stunned flag-lieutenant, and putting the
glass to his blind eye, he exclaimed, "I really do not see the signal."