Hornblower and the Crucible
by Mistress Mairen Oldroyd

Kennedy's prediction for the weather seemed to come to pass.

The morning dawned grey and drizzly. Drifts of fine thick mist shrouded
the close-hauled Antigone, enhancing the aura of isolation, of being further
cut off from the world, which was normal of any Ship of the Line, but doubly
so on his own command.

Gazing off to port, Horatio drew in the atmosphere as he paced along the
quarterdeck, the deep sense of peace it brought. It had been an incredible
year, he thought to himself with some satisfaction. He had received his
commission to command just one month after returning from Muzillac, and
Archie had passed his examination for Lieutenant.

Now they found themselves aboard a frigate as fine as the old Inde.
Styles, Finch and Oldroyd- all the crew, it seemed, were here too. His only
regret was that Captain Pellew had been called to the Offices of the
Admiralty, and with strangeness about it, he found himself missing his former
captain. In those twelve months at sea, the boy had grown into a man, and had
come to have a fondness and a respect for Pellew as a second father, just as
the Indefatigable's crew had become like brothers and uncles. His family.

Family. That one word brought the spectre of gloom to hover about his
shoulders like t'psails unstrung in a gale. It still bothered him, at night,
when he was in his cot, and alone. His eyes would close and he could feel
her in his arms, and he knew if he had only tried harder-. He had promised to
protect her. And he had failed her. Could she ever forgive him? Could he
forgive himself? She would still be alive if he had not-

"If your thought grows any heavier Horatio, we might have to use them as
an anchor when we reach Portsmouth."

Hurriedly Horatio blinked and tried to lock away his feelings in the
deepest part of himself, and forced a smile. "Ahem. A little loose with
formalities aren't we, Mr. Kennedy?"

"Ah well- if it's formalities, my dear Captain Hornblower, that you want,
then formalities you shall have, sir." Archie grinned as he reached up and
removed his hat with great flourish and ceremony, and bowed deeply at his
waist as his dancing master had once instructed.

"Most gracious Captain of this intrepid vessel, I give to you my
compliments and respects, sir."

Horatio's smile changed, to the point where it actually reached the dark
depths of his eyes, his troubles momentarily set aside.

"You win. I suppose as long as the crew doesn't hear us, we can leave off
the traditions."

"I was hoping you would say that. After a while solemnity wears on one's
back. " Archie replied as he straightened, and his spine creaked in protest,
after he spent the last two nights on consecutive watch.

"The reason I came to disturb you is to say we should be two points off
the Les Filles shore, so the supply ship and that silly merchanter will be
coming up within the hour. I was thinking, perhaps a freshly butchered
bullock would lift spirits around here. I know they must be tiring of salt
pork and biscuit."

Of course, he was right, Horatio thought, and said as much. It was good
to see Kennedy thinking ahead to both the needs of the crew and of their
duty. He wouldn't be surprised if Archie received his commission any time
now.

"Get a few of the hands together and prepare the low'r holds for the
supplies. Then I should think to have you, Mr. Worthrope and Brents in my
cabin. I want to discuss our course."

"Aye, sir." Kennedy touched his hat. "Oh, one last thing Horatio. We will
be taking on a new runner boy, to take Henry's place."

Another mistake. They had lost one of the boys whose sole duty was to run
with fresh shot and powder for the gunscrew, to a storm when he volunteered
to work on the rigging. Against his better judgement, Horatio had allowed it,
and thus the boy's blood was on his hands just as Mariette's was.

"Thank you. You may go about your business then."

"Aye sir."

****************



The supplies from the Glasgow had been transferred. The merchantman
waited to the starboard for escort back to Portsmouth, and Horatio now found
himself in his cabin with a monsterous headache, a queasy stomach and the new
boy.
As if this was not enough, he had a Frog prisoner, secured at the moment in
the midshipman's birth. Under Style's eye, the man waited.

With his knife, Horatio carefully pried the thick waxen seal on the first
dispatch, regarding the prisoner. It proved a thoughtful read, reminding him
of his own capture at the hands of a privateer and his stay with the Don. The
Frog's name was Captain Michel-Patrice L'ecuer, late of the corvette
"Simone". It was not so much that the man was a criminal but his capture
meant one less able commandre for the French to use against them. War was a
game of check-and-balance, whence one faction did their best to ensure the
most lucrative odds for their side.

The greatest evil this man had perpetrated thus far was that he had lost
his ship to the power of the British navy. He decided the prisoner was in
danger of nothing more than being entertained by Styles and his rats. He
turned his steady gaze the child, not quite mature enough to be a boy, all
but hovering in the corner of his cabin.

First things first. Horatio leaned back in his chair. "Your name?"

"M-morgan, s-sir," came the quiet reply, and inwardly Horatio winced. He
knew all to well how the boy must be feeling.

"Just Morgan?"

"Yes. Erhm... I mean... Aye, sir."

The boy had a small, angelic look about him, with short, straight
chestnut hair that seemed a little ragged. His clothes were a might too big
for his skinny frame, and he seemed all legs and elbows. And yet, he was
under height. He appeared to be about thirteen. Horatio immediately
sympathised with him.
"Morgan. Well, have you ever served aboard a Ship of the Line before?"

"No, sir. My father... my father kept me at home. Else I would have
applied to become a midshipman. I'm already 15. "

The boy kept his head down, his startling green eyes hardly daring to
leave the floor of the cabin.

"Why do you want to be a sailor? Glory? Greed?" Fear?

"For freedom sir...." Morgan hesitated a moment, then quickly added, "For
King and Country!"

"Indeed, Morgan. Report to Lieutenant Kennedy, and he will direct you
about your duties."

"A-aye, sir. Lieutenant Kennedy."

"Also, call for Styles to escort our- guest, to my quarters."

"Aye-aye, sir." Morgan sketched a nod at him and scurried quickly out the
door, letting it shut behind him with a crash. Horatio sighed. The boy
seemed quick enough but from experience, Horatio knew he would find his first
few years aboard ship a living hell. However, there were other pressing
matters, and he could not indulge in pity at the moment. The sea never knew
mercy, or if it did, it never allowed the knowledge to show. At the moment,
neither could he.

There was a knock and the door was brushed open casually by the imposing
shoulder that could belong only to Styles. His pocked-marked, scowling face
was a canvas of distaste and displeasure. One could all but feel the hatred
radiating from some darkly spawned pit deep within him. Had he not proven to
be a loyal friend as well as superb seaman, Horatio knew he would have been
frightened of Styles.

"'Ere 'e is, Cap'an. Jus' like ye asked. Respectful an all that. " All
warty and waterlogged like a good Frog ought'n be, he thought as he pushed
the prisoner in.

"Thank you Styles. That will be all. "

"Are you--?"

"I said thank you, Styles. Go about." Horatio intoned harshly. It would not
look good to the Fr-the French Captain that the crew spoke to him as if he
were one of them, and not with the respect, fear and awe that a good captain,
a Captain like Pellew, could command with but a gaze.

Styles mumbled under his breath and then tugged his forelock, pushing
past the prisoner. Inwarly Horatio sighed. I do despair, I really do, he
thought to himself.

*********


"For God's sake Horatio, if you hated me this much, you could have been
chosen to have some mercy, and simply let me die in that hellhole like I had
wanted to!" Kennedy said, his eyes clouded with rage so as to mirror the
unseen sky above.

He found himself in the captain's quarters a few days after they took on
th Frog. Horatio had been reviewing the charts and last watch's report. Now
his best friend was staring up at him and the usual reserved and sullen cast
to Horatio's face replaced with utter perplexion.

"Care to explain yourself, Archie?" Calm. Maddeningly calm, as always,
Horatio's voice reply was slow, measured.

"That... that-" Words defied him. In truth, he had no real basis for the
irritation gnawing at his innards and giving rise to the temper that not even
the most hellish tempest could compare to. He swallowed and began again.
"I've never understood what infernal torment awaits me but I do believe its
name will surely be Morgan."

"What are you gabbling about?" Horatio asked, confused.

"The new runner. My own shadow has never been so close to me. Always
underfoot. The blasted thing of it is, whatever duty I invent--Stop laughing.
This is not in the least funny!"

Horatio's dark eyes gleamed crystalline in the lamplight with tears of
mirth, the corners crinkled and giving a wizened appearance, and the edges of
his wide mouth turned upward.

"He's a boy, Archie. How bad can it be?"

"I awaken to find my clothes laid out, my shoes and buckles polished and
breakfast prepared before yours is even contmplated. All I have to do is
glance at him and his duties are done. I'm- I'm almost running out of tasks
for him. And if anything, he's even quicker with figures than you!"

"Perhaps you could talk him into pressing your uniform and -"

"Damn you Horatio. With all due respect!"

"If his duties are attended to, and he gives no cause for dereliction,
what can we do?"

"Toss him in a jolly and-"

The two glanced at one another in silence.

"I did not mean that, and you know it. "

"I know. Other than this hero-worship, I take it there is nothing else to
report?"

"Actually- there is. Equally maddening if you ask me. It's the Frog. He
seems to be making himself quite friendly with the crew. Why you allowed him
to parade on the quarterdeck is beyond me. "

"It's because if nothing else- he's a human being, Archie. Like you. Like
me. And you should know very well what even the briefest amount of freedom
when imprisoned can mean. He gave me his parole as a gentleman that he would
try to escape every chance he got but would be on his best behaviour while
strolling the quarterdeck. I gave that same promise to the Don."

"I trust him to the same degree I held faith in Simpson."

"That's quite enough Archie. There are limits to anyone's patience."

Kennedy did not bother to reply. He knew his words would fall empty on
the stone-etched sentiments that Horatio clung to.

**************

Michel-Patrice paused in his pacing of the pitching quarterdeck to
stare at the deep ocean roiling around the belly of the Antigone. His faded
blue eyes ached; but whether from worry, lack of sleep or the sharp tang of
the briny air, he could not say. He gave silent thanks that the Captain-
barely more than a callow youth- had been generous with his personal liberty.


Like a gentleman, Hornblower had accepted his parole. Not as if there
were vast avenues of escape aboard a frigate, surrounded by one's enemies, he
thought with fatalistic humour. The Captain knew this and offered retreat
from the dark, pungent heat of the Midshipmen's berth. He offered
conversation, even if it had been in poor, mangled French. L'ecuer would not
have been as trusting as this Hornblower.

With a sigh, he rubbed a hand through his hair, which age had chosen to
colour with a venerable tarnish of silver over the gold of his prime. He was
well into middle age, a few months shy of his sixth decade, and over
three-quarters of his life had been spent at sea. If the spectre of death
were not kind enough to rise from the hidden depths of the waves, he would
not live to see his release from the thick granite walls of the English
prison. To rip him from the waters of the world was a fate he liked not, but
on land he could have accepted the fact at least, if he had been on his
native soil, the country of his forefathers. This thought was a festering
wound on his very soul.

The wind was blowing rough dead astern, moving quickly larboard, rattling
in grim tune the shrouds. It was heavier than usual, and the sun was setting
in a hue that resembled congealing blood. A storm was brewing; a tempest
which even Ariel would have shied from. His restriction would be limited by
half again when the call for battening down the hatches was piped, four sharp
whistles, two long. It would be necessary to keep all but the most minimal of
crews below decks. L'ecuer shuddered.

The seaman, Styles, was as uncouth as Hornblower was young and his
appetites were curious at best. The man called Oldroyd seemed preoccupied
with making chicken noises whenever Styles entered the berth. It was plain
queer to him.

"Bonsoir, Monsieur L'ecuer."

"Good evenings, Capitaine Hornbluer." He turned his eyes onto the younger
man. "Regarde comme si il orage."

"A Storm? Oui... I should think so. I am not yet sure if we should head
into its heart or if it would be better to tack 'til the morning."

Was he asking for advice or making conversation? It was difficult to
surmise, especially when Hornblower's sombre face was emotionless, and the
thoughts behind the dark eyes seemed a million miles away. He was about to
speak again when Finch came up and nodded to his captain.

"Beggin' yer pardon, Sir, but the coffee you asked for is ready."

"Thank you Finch. With my compliments, pass the word for Soams to meet us
in wardroom, and take helm for him."

"Aye-aye, Sir."

"Care to join us, Monsieur?"

****************

"Now ye want books?"

"Getting some airs, ain't you?"

" Well I'll not have it ye hear! Letting you go by without a comeuppance!"

"Morgan!"

"Get him Todd!"

"Gor! Look't 'im! Get 'im!"

"I fancy he'll cry!"

"Wager on it!"

There were hands tugging, pushing, and prodding. Voices. Loud. Shrill.

Panic seized Morgan, catching the breath in his throat. Pinpoints of
light danced before his eyes. "No! Please! No!" came his wretched, pitiful
cries. Around him, grotesque parodies of blurred faces pressed in on him. He
felt even sicker when he opened his mouth and nothing more than a squeak of
terror came. His eyes glittered brightly with tears of shame and fear.
Trapped. Like a fox run to ground.

"Gor, Todd...'e even screams like a gel!"

Large and menacing, Todd, the youngest of the Midshipmen, laughed and
continued to push the scrawny Morgan further into the corner. "What's the
matter, nancy boy? Big Mr. Kennedy not here to protect you? And your mummy
neither? Aww, well maybe cause you ain't kissing his feet well enough!"

Morgan tried to deny this but could not find the words. He fervently
wished for someone to help him but a sea of boys who took delight in
persecuting the weak, torturing those different from them, crowded in around
him. Todd's face was scrunched, as if his small mind was concentrating on a
kind of cerebral grunt. The steady pounding of one meaty fist into the palm
of his other hand ran counterpoint to the rain beginning to fall on the above
deck.

"We'll have to teach ye how to properly follow command and not to toadie
to your betters without permission!"

Morgan knew he could only blame himself. He knew he hadn't been too
careful and now the wrath of hell was upon him. Just as the fist began to
close in on his vision he closed his eyes tightly, and waited for the pain.

It never came. Instead there was the sound of many feet moving away
quickly and several hissed breaths and then precious silence. Cautiously he
opened one eye slowly, only to see an even larger shape than Todd's blocking
his view. Further inspection revealed Mr. Clayton standing like an avenging
angel before him, his hand wrapped about Todd's fist.

"What's this then? All of you! Go about your duties and avast standing
like a bunch o loblollies! You! Jenks! Find the officer of the deck and
report. NOW! And as for you, Mr. Toddleson, you are to find yourself at
watch and watch for the next three days beginning immediately. And rest
assured this will go before the Captain."

Morgan, cowering like a whipped dog behind the lieutenant, fancied that
his grip on Todd's hand tightened more than necessary and his gentle, husky
voice was now as soft as steel. He felt a shiver of satisfaction at the
quickly vanished look of pain in the bully's eye.

"Aye- sir."

When the berth was emptied, Clayton turned around. "Are you alright?"

Morgan could smell the faintest trace of rum on his breath. "Aye, sir.
I-I-"

And then his legs gave way and he cried.

Henry Clayton had been in the passage amid the foremast berth and the
Midshipman's waiting for Finch to come to cards when he had overheard the
commotion. Adult authority and understanding dictated his actions, but the
eye of memories past, rather more accurately, dreaded for the boy and he had
found himself remembering the days when Simpson struck the same terror in him
that surely the boy must have felt.

"It's fine now- ehrm-?"

"M-Morgan, Sir." The boy sniffled, his resolve slowly returning. Clayton
nodded. He had heard Kennedy speak of him both with annoyance and affection,
and the stories reminded him of his younger brother, James.

"What happened here?"

"Well-"

"Come on then, I'll do my best to keep confidence, and I do not wish to
remind you of rank." The gruff tone belied the sympathetic hand on his
shoulder.

"I came to get the book I have been keeping my lessons in. Captain
Hornblower said I could take lessons with the other midshipmen, as I've a
good head for figures- and-"

And because he was smaller, smarter, they had attacked like a school of
sharks scenting blood in the water.

"That's fine Morgan. I'll see to it this does not happen again. And
before you put up protest, I'll have you know I won't let you out of it. It's
rare to have a young man with your degree of intelligence. Are you old
enough to apply for Midshipmanship?"

"Yes-but I don't- I can't-"

"Speak up."

"I have no family to speak of, sir. My mother died when I was born. My
father wishes I had followed her or taken her place and I can't afford-"

Clayton covered the involuntary wince with a grin.

"Excellent. It's settled then. You shall report at Midwatch. Now tell me
Morgan, do you play cards?"

 

To be continued...