HORNBLOWER IN THE EAST INDIES
CHAPTER ONE: ARRIVAL
The frigate Caroline, 36, skimmed into Penang harbour, her sails burnished a rust colour by the setting sun. From the quarterdeck Captain Hornblower observed First Lieutenant Jameson's labored efforts to bring her in neatly alongside the ship of the line already anchored there. Jameson was scratching the back of his sunburnt neck, a nervous habit of his. Clearly the man was intimidated by the task of berthing her the requisite cable's length to starboard of the Culloden, 74, for by her pendent that vessel was the flagship of the new Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies station. No doubt the Lieutenant thought Admiral Pellew had nothing better to do than watch the frigate's arrival with a critical eye, along with the Masters of the 15 East Indiamen and any number of smaller vessels also anchored below Fort Cornwallis.
Hornblower bit back a smile, remembering when he himself had served under the crusty Pellew aboard the old Indefatigable. He had developed an enormous respect for the Cornishman's seamanship as well as for his quality of leadership, but not before he had dealt with his own share of nerves under his captain's eagle eye. Pellew was legendary in the Service for winkling out the smallest details overlooked by his officers. Many a time he had confronted young Horatio with his failings, his tongue scathing yet always so avuncular in understanding the weaknesses of a young officer that like many another young gentlemen who had served in the Indefatigable Hornblower had come to look upon the man almost as a rather stern uncle, yet with all due respect for Pellew's office and authority.
"Strike the heads'ls!"
As usual, in his painstaking way of making every molehill into a mountain, Jameson had left each command a minute or two later than Hornblower would have ordered. Devil take it, the man would have come to anchor by feeling his way like a blind man if Hornblower had not directly ordered him into anchorage under full sail. At the last moment Jameson should have run her up into the wind, ordered the salute, and doused the sails. Done properly, it made for a beautiful sight as when the smoke from the salute cleared the sails should have all been in. He clenched his hands together behind his back and frowned, sternly repressing the desire to wrest control from his First. The man would never learn if his captain did everything for him.
" -- and let go! Midships!"
The order was delivered in a slightly panicked tone. Because he was too slow on the earlier commands Jameson had not allowed time enough to ease headway but now had to drop anchor or risk shooting past the Culloden and running bow first into the cliff below the fort. His gaze flicked nervously to Hornblower who pretended to be studying the Culloden. The rigging protested the misuse, and very likely the men on the topsail halyards were doing much the same. The intense tropical heat made everyone sluggish and irritable, it seemed.
"Mr. Cavendish!" He called sharply to one of the young gentlemen, an earnest, pimply youth of no more than 13.
"Perhaps I am mistaken, Mr. Cavendish. Are you not assigned signal duty?"
The boy smiled, certain his captain wanted to send a signal, and eager to display his prowess with the flags.
"I believe the Culloden has a message. It might
even be intended for us." Hornblower nodded toward the other
ship. He disregarded Cavendish's chagrin and dealt a similar blow
to his lax bosun. "Mr. Wheaton, sir! Are we to wait until
morning for you to give the salute?"
Technically it was Mr. Jameson's duty to give the order to the bosun to fire the traditional salute but Hornblower had noticed that while his First was overly deliberate in issuing orders, Wheaton was too often wont to wait and act only upon a direct order from Jameson, regardless of knowing the evolution and his part in it. Either the man had no initiative or he disliked working as part of a team. Or perhaps he had no liking for Jameson and was not averse to seeing him embarrassed for forgetting to issue the order. Either way, Hornblower was determined to effect a correction in his behavior. He sighed. Pellew was bound to have noticed the slipshod fashion in which Caroline had arrived.
"Signal, sir!" Cavendish abashedly conveyed the belated news. "Our number. The captain will come aboard at once." He had just had to time to read the flags before the salute was fired. Now the deck was engulfed with grey smoke and the youngster was wiping his streaming eyes.
"Very well. Mr. Jameson, call away my boat at once. I shall be there directly. And get those yards squared properly, if you please."
He retreated to his cabin, nodding to the marine guarding his door, and ducked to enter. His quarters were cramped and oppressively humid, more so than ever in this tropical heat hotter here in January than was England in high summer! -- but he had had much worse billeting in his short career. If his duties as captain sometimes seemed overwhelming in scope at least he had this small measure of privacy in which he might struggle unobserved with the weighty decisions that burdened the soul of a conscientious captain.
From his desk he took the ship's log, the muster book, and various other reports deemed by the Admiralty as impossible to live without. He had spent nearly the whole of the previous two days making certain that every morsel of food, every cup of water, every rope, spar, block, tackle, spike, belaying pin, and yard of sailcloth was accounted for. Not that there was much food left to account for after sailing south from Gibraltar, 'round the African cape and northeast to Penang and only heaving to long enough at the island of St. Helena to do little more than take on water and wood and what provisions could be hauled aboard simultaneously. He loathed this part of a captain's job, acting as shopkeeper for His Majesty's Navy, but it was probably the most thoroughly examined aspect of his duties, and God help the man who failed in it, for the clerks at the Admiralty would show no mercy. He took out his strongbox, unlocked it, and took from within several sealed dispatches. One he separated out from the others and tucked it inside his coat. The remainder he bundled along with his books and reports.
Ferry, his steward, knocked and entered at his response.
"Just a quick going over your shoes, if ye don't mind, sir." The man was already at Horatio's feet, going over the leather with one cloth and giving a swift polish to the buckles with another. "Happen we'll find us a prize in these waters, sir, and we can change these pinchbecks to silver!"
Hornblower was irritated at having his poverty brought home to him by his steward, and knew he found it more irksome than usual due to the oppressive heat and humidity that had settled over the Caroline as soon as she had dropped anchor. His quarters had been well nigh unbearable for weeks now, as they had sailed within 10 degrees of the equator much of that time, and he could feel heavy perspiration soaking through his shirt already. At least when under sail the wind kept the sweat in check to some degree, except in his cabin. He had long thought that, for many reasons, the captain of a ship had the worst possible berth. He locked away the strongbox again with a vicious twist of the key, and turned to leave, only to nearly trip over Ferry still dawdling over the shoes.
"If you're quite through there, man?"
Ferry bounded up. "Just let me brush off your coat, sir. There's a smudge just there." His hands were already busy with a brush that had appeared as if by sorcery. "And perhaps we should just tidy your queue"
"Leave off!" Hornblower had to be firm with this
budding gentleman's gentleman. He appreciated a neat appearance
but he hated being fussed over. "That will be all, thank
His courtesy prevented wounded feelings but there was still a look of disappointment on the man's face that made Horatio add, "Perhaps we will not have missed all the festivities in connexion with the change of command, and then I shall require your utmost efforts to render my appearance socially acceptable."
A flare of instant hope in the steward's eyes rewarded him.
Grabbing his hat and tucking the reports under one arm, Hornblower went forward to where his boat was waiting. Wheaton signaled the bosun's mates to pipe away as Hornblower handed down his bureaucratic bundle to the midshipman waiting below, then clambered down the battens into the gig himself. By long tradition the captain was always last into a boat, and the first out.
The Culloden was an easy row to larboard Jameson had at least got the distance right. The waters were calm, and Horatio was thankful to arrive in a mostly dry condition, save for the sweat running unchecked down his sides and tickling the small of his back. The temperature at the noon reading had been a blistering 96E and was not much less than that now. True, the evening was bringing a breeze with it, but it was insufficient to do more than barely stir the hot, damp air. Horatio hoped he would not have to set sail at night. There would probably not be wind enough for steerageway.
"Welcome aboard, Captain!"
Hornblower was greeted by the Culloden's First Lieutenant, an emaciated red-haired spark who introduced himself as Morrow.
"Our list shows the Caroline commanded by Captain Mercer, but from the description I have of him, sir, I fancy you are not he?" Morrow inquired. "Would you follow me, please, sir? The Admirals await."
"Hornblower," Horatio said shortly. "Mercer has the Vagabond now." Vagabond was a 42-gun frigate, larger than Caroline, a nice promotion in command for Mercer although no change in rank.
He adjusted the reports under his arm once more, all the while hoping his coat did not display the evidence of profuse sweat, and followed as Morrow led the way to the Admiral's quarters. The Lieutenant, damn him, looked cool and comfortable. And coatless. Perhaps the equatorial heat had induced even the rigid admirals to relax the rules of dress here But -- Admirals? Pellew, certainly, was one. Was Rainier still here then?
Morrow looked over his shoulder, startled, and paused a step.
"Hornblower? That is, I mean, Captain Hornblower? I had thought you commanded Atropos, sir. I saw her once, she's a lovely vessel!" he enthused. "A real beauty! Who has her now?"
"An Italian prince."
Atropos had been a gift from the Admiralty to foreign royalty, who might or might not prove a valuable ally, but just on the offchance of that value Horatio had had the trim frigate taken from him. He was instead promised a new frigate, to be christened Lydia, currently under construction in England, but that had not altogether eased his frustration and sense of loss until he was given command, again only temporarily, of the Caroline. By the time he returned to Portsmouth, Lydia would be at a stage where he could begin recruiting men and outfitting the ship stem to stern. In the meantime Caroline was not Atropos: She did not sail so close to the wind and she dragged at bit at the bow, but she was nevertheless a fine ship, quick to the helm and soundly built.
Lieutenant Morrow knocked and waited as the sentry identified them.
"Too bad, sir. We heard how you took the Castilla in her. Dev'lish fine work, if you will pardon my saying so, sir."
Hornblower was annoyed with himself for feeling soothed by the junior officer's praise. Of what consequence was Morrow's opinion? Then the door opened to admit them, and he found himself facing three men seated together at the end of a long table. The cabin itself roused envy in Horatio's breast. Picked out in Wedgewood blue and cream, it was exquisitely appointed, as befitted the next Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies station. Admiral Pellew he recognized at once, of course. The man next to him was big and bluff and wore the epaulets of a captain's office. That would be Tazewell, captain of Pellew's flagship, Culloden. The other man, bespectacled and with the paunch of a man of advanced years who ate rather too well, must be Vice-Admiral Rainier, who was handing over his command to Pellew. Rainier must be at least sixty years of age, Horatio estimated. The old gentleman looked tired; it was a fact that the tropics took it out of a man, aging him before his time.
"Captain Hornblower, sir, His Majesty's Ship Caroline," Horatio reported.
Pellew rose in astonishment.
"Mr. Hornblower, sir! Or rather I should say Captain Hornblower! This is indeed a most unexpected pleasure! I had not heard you were given the Caroline."
"Thank you, sir. May I say it is always a pleasure to see you, sir?"
Pellew wrung his hand warmly as Horatio explained.
" I am assigned to the Caroline only temporarily. I have been promised a new frigate which is now under construction." As soon as he spoke the words he wished them back again, for it sounded as if he were boasting.
"A new frigate! Well, well, Captain Hornblower, so that is the reward for capturing a survivor of Trafalgar! Come and meet His Excellency, Admiral Rainier. And this is my flag officer, Captain Martin Tazewell. Gentlemen, allow me to present Captain Horatio Hornblower."
Hornblower bowed and Tazewell said, "So this is your protégé, Admiral Pellew. A pleasure, Captain Hornblower, I'm sure. I have heard much of you."
For a man who appeared bluff and jovial, Tazewell's tone was anything but. Jealous of his superior officer's attention perhaps, or conceivably he was by nature dismissive of a younger men's credentials. That was often the case within the Royal Navy, or at least Horatio had found it to be so. But the calm graciousness of Admiral Rainier's greeting gave the lie to that notion.
"Indeed, Captain Hornblower, we have heard of your exploits even this far from civilization. You are very welcome here, sir."
Hornblower fought down a blush as he expressed his gratitude.
"I have several dispatches for you, Your Excellency." Horatio placed them on the table before Rainier, who nodded and pushed them in Pellew's direction.
"Might as well have you deal with these right from the start, Sir Edward," he said amiably. "They shall be your responsibility in another two days anyway."
Rising from his seat, Admiral Rainier turned an affable smile on the new arrival.
"I must be getting back, gentlemen. I am promised to Mrs.
Courthope for an evening of cards. But I shall see you on the
morrow at the fort. Shall we say the afternoon watch? We are having
a ball tomorrow evening up at the fort, Captain Hornblower, to
celebrate the exchange of command. Your presence would be appreciated
by all the ladies I am sure. The local citizens can never hear
too much of the goings on at home, and you are even more recently
arrived than Sir Edward. I daresay you shall take all the wind
out of his sails, eh?"
"I trust not, sir," Horatio said earnestly.
Pellew grinned and said, "I see you still rise to the bait, Mr. Hornblower." He went on to trade courtesies with the departing Rainier, and nodded to Tazewell to go abovedecks and see the Admiral off.
When the two men had departed, Pellew turned to Hornblower, his expression becoming somber.
"Please be seated, Captain. I should like for there to be frank speech between us at this time. I know you for both a prudent officer and a man of honour so I do not hesitate to be candid with you on a rather delicate topic. May I offer you a glass of this very fine Madeira? No? Still abstemious! That's a very good habit, but don't overdo it, Captain Hornblower, particularly when you're amongst the higher ups at Whitehall. Make'em feel guilty or immoral in the slightest degree and they shall never forgive you. No Methodist will ever be named First Lord, of that you may be certain."
Horatio smiled agreement, not at all sure what he could contribute to this line of discourse. But then Pellew sat down across the table from him, and met his gaze directly.
"Well, what news, Mr. Hornblower? Am I to be recalled?"
This was plain-speaking indeed, but then Pellew had never been one for flowery discourse and animadversion. Though appointed to the East Indies command by Pitt himself, it had cost the Admiral much in interest, not to mention the surrender of his seat in the House of Commons to get this far. Even so, the shifting wind of politics blew as far away from London as the East Indies, and both men were aware that Pitt and Dundas would take any opportunity to render powerless one who had once opposed them so bitterly.
Hornblower looked down at the table, one hand resting lightly on his stack of reports and logbooks while he drew the withheld dispatch from inside his coat.
"I have not heard so much, no, sir. But I have here a dispatch intended for your eyes alone."
Hornblower kept one hand on the letter even as he slid it across the table. Pellew eyed it, his mouth pursed and chin stuck out in the way Horatio remembered seeing the older man do whenever he was braced for battle.
"Thank you, Captain. Will you pardon me for reading it now?"
He picked up the missive and broke the seal. Horatio sat tensely waiting to hear that he might possibly be required to carry the Admiral back to England, stripped of his post. The embarrassment for Sir Edward would be enormously painful, and the situation for Hornblower would be awkward indeed.
Amazing that Pellew would even consider trying to absorb such a blow before another officer, particularly one of lower rank, but the man had never been one to dodge bad news. Horatio remembered one night on the Indefatigable when Pellew had berated the ship's carpenter for failing to inform him about some rot that had set in below the water line. The carpenter had not tried to plead ignorance, for that would have been dereliction of duty and expressly against the Articles of War. Instead the man had protested that he was making the repairs as well as he could but had not wanted to trouble the captain to have to put in for repairs whilst assigned to the blockade of Brest. Pellew's wrath had been boundless and the carpenter was fortunate that his skills were so sorely needed that he escaped a much-deserved flogging. Later Sir Edward had cooled his temper in the night by pacing the quarterdeck during Horatio's watch. He had told Hornblower, "Never let the smallest details elude you. That way lies disaster, as every small repair left undone risks both ship and men. I advise you, Mr. Hornblower, to hold that philosophy in all matters, for it is certain that although by ignoring small problems they may at first appear to fade into nothing they always return. Tougher and bigger than before. And very likely to bring along several of their nastier friends as well!"
Pellew's face as he read the single page laid out before him was a study. Stern at first, then impassive, then his lined brow knitted up, emphasizing the irregular scar high up on the right side of his forehead. His voice was a growl as he uttered one word.
"Sir?" That was the most Hornblower could ask. At any moment he expected the Admiral to dismiss him.
Pellew took several deep breaths as he rose and paced the cabin. Pausing by the transom, he turned and said, "Well, Mr. Hornblower, I am not to be recalled. What do you think of that?"
A slow smile spread across Horatio's earnest countenance. "That is good news indeed, sir!"
"Yes," the Admiral drawled sarcastically, "for it seems genius is run amok in London. They and by they I mean Mr. Pitt and his cronies have found a way not only to punish me for my politics without recalling me, but also to punish another. My command, sir, is being divided! Sir Thomas Troubridge is even now sailing to assume command of the eastern portion of the Indies station as well as take over half my squadron. The eastern portion, sir! The profitable portion, you might well say!"
Hornblower was stunned. As well as anyone in the Royal Navy he understood how the politics and personal persuasions of government and military officials could wreak havoc with one's career, indeed with one's very means of sustenance. Had not Atropos been taken from him in just such a fashion? And yet in his case the justification had been for the good of England, the good of the service. But what good could come of dividing the East Indies into two commands? Surely anyone who knew anything at all about this portion of the world understood that if for no other reason, the two monsoon seasons reduced such a proposal to the level of sheer idiocy! What could they hope to accomplish by it?
"Troubridge must be in bad odour at Whitehall," Pellew put it succinctly.
Horatio thought over what he had heard about the man before the Caroline had sailed, and began to understand a little.
"Yes, sir, I believe he has made enemies on all sides. It is freely said that he quarreled with Lord Nelson after the Battle of the Nile. He came under much criticism for his part in the quarrel, and my understanding is that His Lordship never spoke to him again."
"So I had heard," Pellew murmured. "A reformer then. Unlike me, the late admiral was seldom quarrelsome, so one can only imagine what maggot must have got into Troubridge's brain to even mention, er, that particular topic to Lord Nelson. For what else could have raised Nelson's ire so much as to cause a rift with one of his staunchest friends?"
From the euphemism 'that particular topic' Hornblower was given to understand that Sir Thomas must have poked his critical nose into the business of Nelson's affair with the Hamilton woman. And now Mrs. Hamilton and Sir Thomas Troubridge must both deal with the consequences of their own actions. Mrs. Hamilton had to face a censorious society while Sir Thomas must live with the knowledge of having no chance to repair his lost friendship with the fallen hero of Trafalgar.
"I am surprised, though, that Jervie was not able to prevent this," Pellew mused, tapping the dispatch.
"Lord St. Vincent's efforts at reform have come to naught,
sir. It is because Lord Melville --." Horatio broke off abruptly,
aware that he had very nearly spoken aloud his condemnation of
the First Lord as no better than a common thief. But Pellew understood
what was unsaid, for he shared Hornblower's silent opinion of
Henry Dundas, Lord Melville, as the most corrupt man in England.
"Yes," Pellew was growling again. "Lord Melville! Look here, Hornblower. I mean to fight this. I shall begin writing letters tonight. We have the weaker Dutch forces just to the south and east of us here at Penang while to the west of us the French have been wreaking wanton havoc out of Ile de France. Split our forces in half! Insanity! But I must give this more thought. I wonder how much time I have before Sir Thomas arrives? I have a glimmer of a plan even now but I must give it more consideration. But what are your orders now, Mr. Hornblower? Directly back to England now that I have been blessed with these tidings of great joy?"
"No, sir. I am ordered to make for England no later than the end of April. Until then I am at your disposal." He frowned and said thoughtfully, "My orders actually say I am to place my ship at the disposal of the Commander-in-Chief on the East Indies Station."
Pellew grew more thoughtful still.
"That's very interesting, Captain Hornblower. Very interesting indeed. Who drew up your orders?"
"Lord Collingwood, sir."
The Admiral nodded and said casually, "See that I get a copy, right?" before changing the subject.
"This, um, celebration of sorts tomorrow evening. A sort of hail-and-farewell party for Vice-Admiral Rainier and myself. Please extend His Excellency's invitation to those officers that you can spare from duty. You've had a long voyage and I doubt you will be at anchorage for any length of time. There is a great deal to do and too few ships to accomplish all of it. You may as well have at least have one evening of enjoyment before I find employment for you."
Horatio stood, sensing his interview was nearly terminated.
"It will be both an honour and a pleasure, sir. Thank you."
"And are those for me?" Pellew gestured at the stack of reports.
"No, sir. These are for the port admiral."
"Ah! A thankless task, Mr. Hornblower, and one I do not envy you. You will find the petty authorities here much as the same as in England. This one is named Ashleigh and as long as you are there inform him that I have ordered your refit of the Caroline to begin without delay."
"Aye, aye, sir," was all he replied but the Admiral
waved a careless hand.
"Yes, I am certain you would press the point anyway, sir, but if you encounter any delays, should anyone present an obstacle to your proceedings, apply to me at once. I think it might be best if you were made ready to sail with all possible speed." He paused, falling deep into thought for several moments. "Yes. Yes, I do. That will be all then. Ah, no, there is one thing more, Mr. Hornblower."
He turned again toward Pellew, eyebrows raised in inquiry. "Yes, sir?"
Pellew rose and fixed his sternest glare on Horatio.
"I trust that was one of your young gentlemen and not yourself who brought Caroline to anchor?"
"My First Lieutenant, sir," Horatio admitted, almost holding his breath for the reprimand sure to follow.
"First Lieuten -- ! That won't do, sir! That won't do at all for what I have in mind! Very well, then, dismissed, Captain Hornblower!"
Horatio ducked his head under the lintel and went amidships,
not a little grateful to have escaped a tongue lashing for Jameson's
inadequacies. He had not even left the cabin and clearly Pellew
was already working through whatever plan had presented itself
to him. No need to ask questions, the Admiral would give him his
orders soon enough, and Horatio would happily leave the politics
to him. And if there were actual fighting to be done, Pellew would
always be in the thick of it. Horatio nearly allowed himself a
smile. For the first time since Collingwood had taken away the
Atropos, Hornblower was beginning to feel a renewed zest
for this life of adventure and adversity he had chosen.
CHAPTER TWO: THE FLOWER OF PENANG
The high squeal of scraping fiddles was painful to Horatio's ears, and it was only from a life-long practice of hiding his reaction to music that he managed not to wince at the cacophony. Around the ballroom people were tapping their feet, clapping along, nodding their heads. And dancing, for God's sake! It never ceased to amaze him that music could be so enjoyable to the rest of the world. A litter of yowling tomcats sounded much the same to him as a quartet of violins and no shrieking gale ever sounded so nightmarish as a flock of shrill flutes.
The receiving line had been endlessly tedious and the room sweltered with humidity, hundreds of candles, and the sweaty press of well-dressed people. Every English-speaking person on Prince of Wales Island must have turned out to say farewell to Admiral Rainier and greet his successor. He saw Lieutenant Jameson dancing with a petite brunette, the daughter of a trader with the East India Company. The man looked as tortured as Horatio felt. And no wonder. Jameson wasn't a bit more graceful in the dance than he was at anchoring. Well, it would do the man no harm. If a man meant to rise through the ranks, he must lose no opportunity to create interest for himself wherever he might. Like Hornblower himself, Jameson came from a family of no great distinction or affluence, so he needed to develop connexions with men -- and occasionally women -- who had the power to advance his career.
Wondering into the supper room he spied young Mr. Cavendish, initially overwhelmed at attending his first grand social affair, but now making great inroads at the buffet table. Too great an inroads perhaps. Horatio would just drop a word in his ear. Ah, no, there was the Culloden's angular Lieutenant Morrow, red hair blazing in the candlelight, murmuring something to the lad. An abashed Cavendish looked around the room, as if to see who might have observed his predations. His gaze caught Horatio's and the boy went as red as Morrow's head and nearly choked on whatever he had just stuffed into his cheeks. He promptly fled the table.
Horatio accepted a glass of wine, not because he wanted it but because carrying it about would prevent some servant or other asking him every two minutes if he wanted one. He strolled back into the ballroom, hoping he could count on Pellew to get up a game of whist. A good rubber of cards would make the time pass quickly and help him block out that infernal noise!
He turned his head to look for Pellew and suddenly his gaze was caught by a tall blonde woman engaged in conversation with Admiral Rainier. The old gentleman looked fairly smitten by the woman, and no wonder! She was a voluptuous creature, her smile vivacious, her carriage tall and erect. Even in this heat she appeared cool and self-possessed. A clear picture of Horatio's wife sprang to mind, dumpy little Maria, of indistinct coloring and personality. Chalk and cheese, these two, and for a moment Horatio found himself resenting the blonde beauty. Who was she, to make him think so poorly of kind Maria who had no pretty gowns or expensive baubles?
"I see you've spotted Mrs. Courthope," a voice growled in his ear. "Deuced fine-lookin' gel, eh?"
Horatio spared a glance to his left to confirm Captain Tazewell's presence. The man's red-veined nose fairly glowed, while a wine glass dangled loosely from one weathered hand.
"Who is she?"
"Why, that is Lily Courthope, the Flower of Penang. Or any other demmed place she happens to be, I've no doubt. Nathaniel Courthope's relic."
"Captain Courthope?" Horatio could not entirely suppress his surprise.
Tazewell nodded, then tossed off the dregs of his wineglass.
"You do mean that Captain Courthope, sir? Of the Swan? But it must be three years or more since his ship was lost with all hands!"
"Aye, the very one, and it's more like four years. Was there ever another like him, God rest his soul, saving Nelson of course? Did you ever meet him, Hornblower? Courthope, I mean. You'd never forget him if you had. Tall as a mast and strong as iron!"
It was the most sincere statement Horatio had heard Tazewell utter in their brief acquaintance.
"No, I never had the honour. But I knew of him certainly. His exploits are nothing short of legendary. I had two heroes when I first became a midshipman," he confessed, admiration lingering in his tone. "Dreadnought Foster and Captain Courthope. I remember reading about the loss of the Swan in the Gazette. A terrible blow for England. And his wife naturally. But why is Mrs. Courthope here in Penang? I know she often sailed with her husband, but I would have thought she had long since returned home."
Tazewell shrugged, and looking about for more wine he gestured at a Malay manservant who seemed determined not to see him.
"Not her! She's never left this island. Not from the day he put out into the Straits never to return. She puts it about that she thinks her husband's still alive. This is where they last parted and she says she won't go back to England without'im. All smoke, though, that story. God rot the bastard! Am I invisible or is he blind?"
Horatio understood this last to be directed at the purblind servant.
"She must be very devoted," Horatio observed with a twinge of something that surely could not be disappointment? Yet even from fifty feet away the lady's appearance acted on him with a physical tug. Steamy and airless as the room was, he could feel himself get hotter as he noted the way her muslin gown clung to perspiration-dampened skin, and how her gently waving fan stirred the tendrils of hair at her ears.
"For demmed near four years?" Tazewell snorted. "Doing it rather too brown, was you to ask me. She took a house up in the hills behind the fort. It's a bit cooler up there I'm told, not that I'd know. She's got family in England, y'know, while she's all alone here. So what's to keep a woman like that in a hellish place like this, eh, with no man of her own? Just look at her and then you tell me!"
It was a needless command for Horatio had not taken his eyes off the woman. She was still talking to Rainier, laughing at something the old man had said. They were joined just then by Pellew, who lingered noticeably over her hand.
"Lord, man, are you implying --?"
"That she's the governor's light o' love? It's all I've heard since we anchored a fortnight since. Rainier's always up in the hills for dinner or else she's always down here at the fort on some excuse or other. Ye can see how he fairly drools over her!"
Horatio swallowed down the moistness in his own mouth. That beauty! That peach, b'gad! With that old man! It should not surprise him. Horatio was no babe-in-the-woods, not to know the games adults played. But he'd always thought that how people led their lives left marks upon their persons. Yet Mrs. Courthope's person was near perfection. Yes, and maybe that's why he'd resented his own comparison to Maria. Mrs. Courthope's person was everything Horatio would have liked in a wife but had not got.
"Watch her roll those big brown eyes at Admiral Pellew," Tazewell went on. "He's next on her list, you mark my words."
Horatio was now thoroughly uncomfortable with the other captain's
talk, yet found himself still drawn in, wanting to know all he
could about Lily Courthope. His eyes followed as Pellew led her
into the dance.
"Does she not sail to England with Admiral Rainier then?"
"Keeping it all very mum if she is. It's my belief she likes having every man on the island eating out of her pretty soft hands. Why go home to England to be just one fair among many?"
He wondered if Tazewell was altogether mad or was the man simply blind? Lily Courthope could never just be one among many anywhere in the world! Names skittered through Horatio's mind and were discarded: Eve, Delilah, Cleopatra, Boadicea, Wu Chao, Joan of Arc. Mrs. Courthope was like none of them, yet was perhaps a little of each. And something more besides, he thought. Something altogether unique. The Flower of Penang -- an apt sobriquet, he mused, then caught himself and wondered at his foolishness in giving so much thought to a woman.
Horatio excused himself on the pretext of speaking to Cavendish about his manners. Tazewell finally managed to procure a full glass of wine from a passing servant and nodded.
"Keep the young'uns in line, aye, Capt'n Hornblower! Keep'em in line or they'll have your post in a twinkling! Even an officer is all the better for a thrashing now and again, sir."
Poor Morrow! Horatio thought as he wended his way aimlessly through the throng. Imagine reporting to a man with that kind of thinking. There were worse men in command, Horatio knew all too well. The late Captain Sawyer of the Renown he had been mad as any hatter and ten times more dangerous because he'd had the power of life and death over his ship's company. Or Sir Hugh Pigot of the Hermione, whose countless cruelties had finally driven his men to murder and mutiny. Maybe this was why Pellew had chosen Culloden for his flagship, to watch the situation with Tazewell more closely. Pellew would be merciless in the event of mutiny, but then Pellew was not the kind of leader to let matters ever go so far.
Horatio reached the far wall and peeped into an adjoining chamber where half a dozen white-shirted Malay servants spoke quietly among themselves, engaged in the arrangement of a group of beize-covered tables. So there was to be card play at last. He smiled to himself and looked around again for Pellew, and was startled to find that gentleman now standing directly before him, the luminous Mrs. Courthope on his arm.
"There you are, Captain Hornblower! Mrs. Courthope, may I present one of England's finest young captains, Horatio Hornblower of His Majesty's frigate Caroline? Captain Hornblower, Mrs. Courthope."
Horatio gently clasped the proffered hand and bowed, wishing for more grace than he knew he possessed.
"This is a great pleasure, madame."
"An understatement surely, Captain!" Pellew protested, a glimpse of impish humour twinkling in his brown eyes. "As I recall, it is Mrs. Courthope's husband whom we have to thank for your own presence in His Majesty's service."
Horatio could feel a blush rising and struggled for composure.
"There are many people to thank for that, Admiral, if indeed gratitude is called for. But it is true, Mrs. Courthope, that your husband was a particular hero to me, as I daresay he was to all of England."
Mrs. Courthope smiled but Pellew forestalled any reply she might have made.
"Yes, but that's very nearly ancient history, Captain. Mrs. Courthope is much more interested in your most recent voyage. And if you will both excuse me, I see Lieutenant Cole signaling me that our whist table is ready."
A nonplused Horatio was left without any hope of a profitable hand of whist, and a trifle tongue-tied by the presence of this glorious creature who now spoke to him for the first time.
"I perceive our new Commander-in-Chief has a fondness for whist." She was amused rather than offended by Pellew's abrupt departure, elevating her yet another degree in Horatio's favour.
"I should call it a passion," he confirmed.
"And one you share, I think. Your face gave you away, sir," she responded to Horatio's unspoken question. He was appalled by his inadvertent rudeness.
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Courthope, I --."
"But there is no need," she broke in. "Nathaniel is much the same, only it is billiards he adores. Impossible to play on a rolling ship, of course, so he can never get enough of the game when he is at home."
Horatio's felt uneasy.
"Forgive me, ma'am. You speak of him as if as if --."
"As if he is alive, Captain Hornblower?" Her serenity would have done credit to Raphael's Madonna. "But he is. In my heart I know that my husband still lives. I also know the entire island believes me mad or sick or or loose." She faltered only a moment and went on. "But you see, we have always been so close, he and I. More than merely joined by simple vows, he and I both believe. He often jokes that we share the same soul. So I know that if Nathaniel were not somewhere still alive a part of me would also be dead. Whatever has happened to him, he is still alive somewhere in this world, and I do not doubt that he would come home to me if it were at all possible."
While Horatio was touched by these earnest words, he could not fathom a confidence so unwavering it remained unaltered by the passage of so long a span. Courthope's ship had disappeared off the face of the earth some four years earlier. No trace of wreckage, no bodies, no report of battle from the enemy. Many events could have overtaken the Swan: Storm, tidal wave, disease, fire or explosion. No one would ever know the truth of her last days and no one but Lily Courthope held out even a spark of hope for the men who had sailed in her.
"You have great faith, Mrs. Courthope. I could wish ."
"Not faith, Captain. Knowledge. I don't simply believe my husband lives. I know it. There is a bond between us that can be broken only by Death. Every fiber of my being knows Nathaniel still lives."
Horatio could not bring himself to say the words that might undo her belief. To say that her husband's ship had been swallowed in the vastness of an unforgiving sea, taking all her men to an unmarked watery grave. If after four years she still believed that somewhere a giant of a hero named Nathaniel Courthope still strode the earth, who was he to even try to dissuade her?
"Tell me about him," he encouraged. At a dubious glance from her, he added, "I was not being merely polite when I said he was a hero to me."
"A little only," she then agreed smilingly, taking his arm and guiding him to a nearby settee. "And then I shall want to hear all about your voyage here. Tell me about your Caroline; how did she weather the Cape?"
It had gone five bells in the middle watch before Horatio clambered into his cot, pleasantly exhausted from an evening in which he'd expected little or no enjoyment. His head felt muzzy, though he'd not had much more than the single glass of wine to drink. He dreaded the need to rise again in only an hour or two, to begin preparations for laying in supplies and making repairs.
He yawned mightily, his jaw cracking. A vision of Lily Courthope swam in his head. She had liked him; she'd made no secret of it. For nearly two hours she had kept him by her side, plying him with questions. A highly intelligent woman, she understood the workings of both Navy and ship, and the demands they placed on a man. Horatio considered himself a reticent man, even taciturn, in the presence of women. But Lily had had him babbling like a schoolboy, recounting voyages and battles and other encounters at sea.
Ought he to be thinking of her as Lily? Well, he would regardless, he decided, repressing the uneasy notion that Maria might be hurt by his thinking of another woman with such familiarity. But Lily was the kind of woman a man could be at ease with, the kind of woman who might call him Horatio -- never Horry! -- and make it sound like a name a man was proud to own. She was the kind of woman he found he could talk to and find in turn that her opinions weighed with him. Another woman so intelligent might have put him off, but Lily was no bluestocking out to turn the world upside down. As the gentle sway of the Caroline to anchor lulled his fatigued senses, he drifted into sleep accompanied by the memory of Lily's interested questions.
Only two hours had passed when he was vaulted into sudden awareness
by the sound of the watch changing. And with a clarity of thought
that had eluded him while her scent yet clung to the air, he realized
that every question Lily had put to him was carefully aimed toward
the discovery of information about her dead husband.
CHAPTER THREE: ORDERS
Hornblower climbed the battens to the twitter of pipes, and found Lt. Jameson there to greet him as usual. The grim expression on his Captain's face spoke much even to the oft-impenetrable Jameson. Unfortunately for the Lieutenant, for all the months of familiarity with his captain's uncommunicative ways learned between Gibraltar and Penang, he still was unable to leave matters lie. Bad news traveled quickly enough without seeking it but the Lieutenant seemed determined to greet it headlong.
"Things not go well with the commissioners, sir?"
When the man had first been assigned to the Caroline, at the same time as himself, Horatio had wondered if the man were cheerfully intrepid or merely woefully stupid. Time had proved him to be cheerfully stupid. The answer to Jameson's inquiry would have been a resounding 'no' if put to the Victualler, who had appreciated neither Hornblower's curt demands for immediate provisioning nor the promise of Admiral Pellew's intervention and swift reprisal if it were not forthcoming. Nevertheless the wrangling and haggling a captain must engage in if he is to keep his own purser even remotely honest, as well as his ship properly provisioned, was a task Hornblower loathed. And no matter what the Admiral had promised, Hornblower did not care overmuch for the idea of going to Pellew for assistance like a small schoolboy with his hat in his hand. He very much hoped that merely invoking the power of Pellew's station would be sufficient to move the laggards into meeting the Caroline's needs.
He ignored his officer's question, directing the Lieutenant's attention to the deficiencies Horatio had noticed immediately on boarding.
"Mr. Jameson, I do not see by-the-wind marks on the braces yet! And get those tops'l halliards properly stretched. That's new rope and I don't want to lose a mast because it gets kinked. Get these men to work! Admiral Pellew has made it clear that the general order requiring work stoppage at six bells does not apply to this ship! And for God's sake, do not deny the men water at any time."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Horatio fumed and wished not for the first time that he had his companion of old aboard with him again. Lieutenant William Bush would have seen to those matters and a dozen others without being told. The general orders at Penang included the instruction that unless the work was of utmost urgency the men would rest between the hours of eleven and two due to the intense heat. After all they were only a little more than 5 degrees north of the equator, where dehydration and exposure to the sun could quickly cost a careless man his life. Twice they had crossed that invisible blistering line coming out from the Mediterranean, and he suspected they would cross it at least twice more before beginning the voyage back to England.
Pausing to enter his cabin, he asked the sentry to pass the word for the gunner and the carpenter. He would have to make sure the gunner was regularly checking the guns for corrosion. He wanted the pumpwells sounded this afternoon as well, if the carpenter had not already seen to it, and the splashboards 'round the gunports needed caulking. He wanted every man aboard to know Hornblower might be looking over his shoulder at any time so that it was best to tend to one's work without prompting.
In his sleeping quarters he laid his hat upon the cot and pulled off his half coat, another concession permitted him by the general orders as a result of the tropical climate. While on deck at Penang he was also allowed to wear a round hat rather than the formal cocked hat. He ran a long, thin finger down the bridge of his rather prominent nose, appreciating how the round hat prevented the sunburn there.
Moving on into the tiny day cabin, he saw that on his desk were the charts that he had requested from the Master. At least he could count on old Cumby for that. Hezekiah Cumby was even older than Admiral Rainier, having but one or two hairs and fewer teeth. A cantankerous old bird, too, untrusting of Horatio's youthful leadership. But what Cumby did have made him far more attractive as a warrant officer than his appearance or personality ever could. Being a dedicated mariner since boyhood Cumby had accumulated a great many charts and drawings and descriptions of waters and lands from all corners of the world. Nowadays the old man's gnarled hands shook so hard with palsy that Horatio always had one of the midshipmen take the noon reading alongside the Master. It was good practice for the young gentlemen and reassured Hornblower as to the accuracy of the ship's position. But Cumby's knowledge of tides, currents, and winds was invaluable. What the old fellow didn't know about the coast of France wasn't worth writing down. It came then as no surprise that although Cumby had never before been east of Madras, he had yet located within his collection a chart of the Malacca Strait. Cumby had spent the previous day, as per the duties of his position, busily copying charts and drawings supplied by the nearby Indiamen.
Hornblower now found himself in possession of a rough chart covering both the Java and Banda Seas and a pair of wonderfully detailed charts, one of the Makassar Strait and one of the Lingga Archipelago. The Makassar Strait he studied only for a few moments then rolled it up again. Whatever Pellew had in mind he doubted Borneo or Celebes would play a part.
Of course he could be wrong altogether in his thinking. Pellew might intend to send him against the French at Ile de France, just off the eastern coast of Africa, but only as part of massive force. A single ship could never take that island, nor even a handful of ships; a massive assault and a determined blockade was needed for that purpose. But to pursue the French Admiral Linois, to try to catch the slippery Frog before he could run for the protection of Ile de France, that was possible. But not likely. Hornblower's time in the East was limited. The Caroline could hunt Linois's Marengo for months and never find her in the vastness of the Indian Ocean. Not to mention how completely overmatched his frigate would be by the bigger ship. On her lower deck alone the Marengo boasted 28 36-pounders, and she mounted 84 guns on the whole. She could turn the Caroline into kindling in a quarter of an hour.
So it was probably going to be --.
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock. Expecting the men he had sent for, Horatio forestalled the sentry's announcement and called out permission to enter.
His eyebrows rose in surprise as the door opened and a bright red head ducked under the beam.
"Captain Hornblower, sir."
"Good day, Lieutenant Morrow."
The usually irrepressible Morrow was more formal than he had been two days earlier, standing to attention until Hornblower bade him do otherwise. He must be bringing official orders from Pellew.
"You have a message for me?" He was anxious to see if he had guessed right about where the Caroline would be sent, but busied himself with the dividers as if he had no interest in why the Culloden's First was visiting him. Besides, Morrow was studying the spartan surroundings of Captain Hornblower and no doubt contrasting them unfavourably with that of his mentor, Pellew.
"Yes, sir. That is, I have a message here for you from the Admiral and one also for a Lieutenant Jameson."
Horatio's hands stilled but he did not look up.
"Do you wait for an answer, Mr. Morrow?"
"Very well." Horatio put down the dividers and looked up. "Tell the officer on watch I said you could have a measure of grog while you wait and ask him to send Mr. Jameson to me."
Morrow's words were obedient but there was a twinkle in his eye as he glanced over his shoulder at Hornblower before ducking out of the cabin. Horatio suspected Morrow already knew what was in the wind. He picked up the sealed page addressed to himself and broke it open. Unfolding it, he quickly scanned the neatly penned missive. Familiar with Pellew's fist, he saw a clerk had written this. If he was disappointed to find the note did not contain his sailing orders, he was not entirely displeased to read that Pellew was taking swift action on the matter of Hornblower's First Lieutenant. Jameson was to report forthwith to the ship of the line Blenheim, 76, where his seniority (or lack of it) would make him Third among lieutenants. In his place Pellew was sending one Lieutenant Cole. Pellew described him only as bright and with qualities that Hornblower might find useful in the weeks to come. It was frustrating to know no more of Cole than that, though now that he thought on it Horatio remembered a Lieutenant Cole playing at whist with Pellew at Admiral Rainier's ball. Vaguely he recalled a blond giant, deeply tanned as if he had been some time in the tropics, and with oddly shaped eyes.
The note went on to invite Hornblower to dine with Pellew this evening aboard his flagship after which time Mr. Cole would be relieved of his duties aboard the Culloden and return to the Caroline with Hornblower.
Why such news seemed to have lit a spark of amusement in Morrow Horatio could not guess, but he would not stoop to questioning the Lieutenant in the matter. Instead he drew out paper, trimmed the nib of his quill, and quickly wrote his acceptance of the invitation. True, he had a clerk who would happily see to such matters on his behalf, but Hornblower liked both the quiet and privacy he was enjoying for these few minutes. Both were rare aboard a naval warship and if writing his own acceptance extended these precious moments then he would happily do so.
As if in defiance of the unnatural peace he was experiencing there came a clatter of feet, voices, and a knock from the sentry.
"Mr. Jameson, sir. And the carpenter and gunner, as you asked, sir."
"Thank you. Mr. Jameson first, please." Horatio quickly finished his note and blotted the paper.
Jameson was confounded at finding himself transferred to the Blenheim, and unhappy at being relegated there to Third. He had the impertinence to ask Hornblower if he had requested Jameson's transfer. In one aspect, Jameson's reluctance to transfer was understandable: Every lieutenant in the Navy preferred a frigate to a ship o' the line. A frigate provided more opportunities for prizes and advancement. Nevertheless, Jameson needed to understand exactly where his preferences stood in relationship to the Navy's mission.
Horatio's mouth had tightened and his speech was clipped and deadly.
"I do not feel the best means of breaking an officer of his bad habits and to effectively educate him are to let another captain deal with the matter. You have much to learn, Mr. Jameson, and I fear that aboard a vessel so large and heavily manned as Blenheim you will not get the proper instruction you need. Nevertheless, sir, we are at war, and if the station commander orders your removal to the furthest corner of the Antipodes to dwell with cannibals, then it is for the good of the Service and I expect you to say no more than 'Aye, aye, sir' and be done with it! Do I make myself clear?"
Jameson fled the cabin within a pair of minutes, the RSVP for Lieutenant Morrow in hand, and by that time he was no doubt quite happy with the notion that aboard his new ship such "instruction" would not be swiftly forthcoming. Hornblower had not been entirely truthful in that regard however. A ship of the line was likely to have at least six lieutenants, if not more, and every one of them would be on the lookout for a way to elevate his career even at the expense of the others. But let that be one lesson Jameson learnt without being told.
Horatio spent the remainder of the morning tackling the hundreds of details necessary to prepare his ship for immediate sailing after so long a preceding voyage. He was pleased with both carpenter and gunner. Caulking would be completed by the first dogwatch; the wells had been sounded with good results; the guns had all been inspected and blacked, and the new shot coming aboard would be checked for rust and then painted. The second suit of sails were even now being laid out and examined by Old Cumby but as the Captain was called to remember, a new mizzen t'gallant would be necessary, as well as arm and spars for the same, all of the spares being in use as the originals were lost rounding the Cape of Good Hope.
The surgeon, Mr. Knyveton, had sent along a list of the medicines needed to replenish his stores. Tropical diseases could wipe out two-thirds of a ship's company in under a month. For that reason alone Hornblower was not averse to putting back to sea before sickness gained a foothold among the ship's company. Limes were plentiful in the Indies so while intermittent fever or yellow jack could wreak havoc on a crew in port, at least the men were not like to die a slow and painful death from scurvy while under sail. He sent his Second, Mr. Warrick, ashore to deal with these added requirements.
Then came a hurried dinner of salt pork and peas. Horatio wondered as he ate his solitary meal whether he might spare the cost for a pound or two of coffee, a luxury he had not had for more than six weeks. Even in this infernal heat he longed for a cup of real coffee to round off his dinner, not just blackened crumbs of toast set to boil. He thought then of Maria, the children, and their constant needs. How terribly ill the children had been just as he had been commissioned into the Caroline, with Maria and her mother nursing them with tender and constant devotion. He could not bear to think of his son and daughter in want whilst he indulged in sipping coffee. He pushed aside his craving for the hot brew.
Ferry cleared away all trace of the scant meal while Hornblower briskly re-donned his hat, and ventured out upon the quarterdeck. Mr. Midshipman Cavendish had the watch, and the lad became tongue-tied as soon as his Captain appeared. The boy was still conscious of his lapse with the signals two days earlier. And so he should be, Hornblower considered. An error in the course of battle could cost lives, and Hornblower went to great lengths in the training of his men, that no life should be lost save to incurable disease or the vagaries of battle.
He tilted his head back and squinted up at the yards. With each evolution the footropes were inspected by the last topman off the yard. Training on the guns went on nearly every day the weather allowed when under sail, save for Sundays. If not gun training, then small arms training led by Montmorency, the Lieutenant of the Marines. Practicing clearing for action was as important as manning the guns. Swiftness counted and sometimes just getting the first shot away was enough to bring the enemy to heel. The men rarely thought of something so mundane as properly clearing for action as an act that saved lives, but so it had proved in many cases. Men who were practiced in their duties were men who were calm and clear-headed in action, knowing what to do and just when to do it. It was discipline and practice, Horatio thought, that made the British navy superior to any other, and it cost fewer lives in battle. He had a responsibility to these men not to waste their lives needlessly or recklessly. The best way to uphold his duty to them was to see to the good maintenance of the ship and their own constant drilling.
He noticed the decks had had their usual morning encounter with the holystones while the bright work gleamed. His Second, Mr. Warrick, was a more able officer than Jameson when it came to maintaining the ship, though there was little to choose between them in seamanship. Word of Jameson's departure must have spread rapidly and Warrick appeared to be taking advantage of this small window of time before the new lieutenant arrived to display to the captain his efficiency at accomplishing the many mundane tasks that went into keeping a frigate. The quartermaster was overseeing the storage of the water casks while a young midshipman was for'ard with three men inspecting the cable laid out on the deck. Other men had been set to work sharpening the junk-axes or rigging Jacob's ladders in the mizzen channels or thrumming the mats at the hawse holes. The Caroline was a hive of activity.
Mr. Warrick might or might not be the new First Lieutenant, depending on Mr. Cole's seniority when that officer reported tonight, nevertheless he was putting great effort into this subtle reminder to Hornblower of the many instances a Second had surpassed a First in getting his own command. Getting the captain's good eye, deserving a mention in a letter or dispatch, these simple things went a long way in making that vital leap from a lieutenant's bars to the much-coveted gold epaulet.
By the time evening approached Horatio was bone tired, and still with a long list of tasks to be accomplished before he could depart Penang. There had not been time, and of course the port was hardly the place, to have the deck shower he preferred; instead he had washed in the privacy of his quarters and was allowing Ferry to assist him into his dress coat. Tropics or not, no captain would dream of waiting upon his admiral in less than full dress. The fussy little steward took advantage of Hornblower's exhaustion to guide his captain to a seat, and kneeling beside him, administered so high a gloss to his shoes that Horatio mused absently as to whether they might be useful for sending signals. When Ferry finally withdrew, his expression sufficiently smug that Hornblower knew his appearance to be unexceptionable, he turned to the mirror and examined himself. His reflection told him little save that his uniform was clean, in good repair for once, and well fitted. For himself he could wish for a straighter, smaller nose, and a jaw not so long. He'd long since given up dreaming that his lanky frame might someday fill out into something resembling a prizefighter's impressive physique. Frowning at his unappealing reflection, he settled his hat more firmly on his head with one hand while the other kept his sword from flapping against his leg. Thus prepared he went to meet his gig.
****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ******
Sir Edward had had the good sense not to invite more guests than his quarters would comfortably hold. This was to be no state affair, with the prestige of the office of Commander-in-Chief to be maintained. Rather, Pellew had made up a guest list of a handful of Naval officers or masters from the Indiamen, their wives if such there were, and one or two local traders and their ladies. The quarterdeck was spotlessly clean and the aroma of Stockholm tar hung in the evening air. The land breeze did not begin until well after dark here and no one wanted to withdraw indoors before necessary. A small thrill went through Horatio as he observed Mrs. Courthope alighting from the bosun's chair. The sun was just edging below the horizon and the Culloden was bedecked with lanterns. Even in this dimming light she was blindingly beautiful, dressed in a simple jonquil-coloured gown of muslin and some sort of Paisley shawl cast lightly over one arm. Horatio knew so little about women's dress that if asked to describe the lady's garments he could not have done so, but he knew that Lily -- Mrs. Courthope that is, looked delightful.
And he was not the only one who thought so. She responded to a gracious welcome from Sir Edward, before turning to take the arm of a young giant who instantly possessed himself of her hand and bussed her cheek without so much as a by-your-leave. Horatio frowned. The giant must be his new Lieutenant, for his hair was blond, less by birth than by courtesy of the bleaching effect of a tropical sun, and Horatio suddenly realized Lieutenant Cole must be part Malay. Those oddly shaped eyes certainly betokened an Asian parent. Most likely he was the product of a British sailor or trader and an Asian woman. That would explain the excellent English with which he was addressing Mrs. Courthope in what Hornblower privately considered an overly familiar fashion. The two had exchanged what was rather more than simple greetings, and then her gaze turned away, searching the company and finally stopping to rest on Horatio. His heart beat just a little faster.
"Captain Hornblower!" Her smile was as warm as the weather. "I am so very pleased to meet you again, sir."
Horatio bowed over her hand and confessed his own pleasure, wishing Mr. Cole would detach himself from Mrs. Courthope's side and vanish into the ether. Instead, he found himself being introduced to the younger man with her added comment, "I am delighted that Christopher is to be under your command. Sir Edward has told me something of your career, and of your character. Save for my own husband, I think he could not be in better hands than yours, Captain Hornblower."
Lieutenant Cole cleared his throat in warning.
"Yes, Christopher, I know enough not to put Captain Hornblower's back up by boasting of your fine qualities. Do go and see if you cannot prevent the intrepid Mrs. Willoughby from attempting to climb the ratlines there. She will have Sir Edward tearing his hair out lest she should fall. And it could not do her any good either."
She turned to Horatio, plying her fan lightly.
"You must forgive me a mother's partiality," she begged. "I confess to you that I have not been altogether happy to see Christopher under Captain Tazewell. Were he directly reporting to Sir Edward, I could be comfortable, for I believe the Admiral to be, well, an admirable man. He appears to me to be both conscientious and moral, and of course the whole world knows him for his bravery and gallantry. He would be an excellent mentor for a young officer. Well, he must be, for you have told me yourself that you served under him at one time!"
Horatio was confused.
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Courthope. You said 'a mother's partiality'? I protest, you are too young for such a role!" He said no more, fearing he might stumble into tactlessness through ignorance.
"Christopher is my stepson," she explained cheerily. "Nathaniel and I married nine years ago and Christopher's mother died within that same year, when he was but ten years old. Naturally we took him to live with us."
"Naturally, ma'am." Hornblower's tone carried only the faintest suggestion of a question, but Mrs. Courthope was not insensitive to it.
"Yes, indeed. You see, Captain Hornblower, children of mixed blood are particularly despised here in the East. It is far worse than in England. I cannot endure imagining the horrors he might have suffered had we turned our backs upon him. It is what Christopher calls adat, just the way of life here. And then of course, he was already so much attached to his father, for Nathaniel has never been one to shirk his duty. Their mutual affection made everything so much easier. The boy was forever by his side, you know, until he went for a midshipman under Captain Gilmour."
Horatio was speechless at so much information and hardly knew where to look. He could not think of another woman of his acquaintance who would accept her husband's half-breed byblow into her house, and apparently into her heart as well. He scrambled for words.
"Your generosity of spirit does you much credit, Mrs. Courthope."
"Not at all," she denied. "Christopher was an easy child to love. Perhaps all children are, I know not." Her expression was wistful, almost melancholy.
Horatio thought of his own two small ones at home, the enormous pleasure he secretly derived at playing with them, and felt an odd comfort at the memory of their childish laughter. He tried to tease her into smiling again.
"And so you are here to ask me a favour on his behalf? Keep him from gunshot? Be certain he eats properly? Mind he doesn't take the chill?"
"Lud, no!" He was rewarded by her laughing countenance turned up to him. "He would be so shamed if I said anything like! No, I merely wanted to that is to say, now that I know Christopher will be under your command, I wanted to meet you again toto" Her hand went out searchingly and Horatio could not resist taking it in his, pressing them together for the briefest of moments, and then releasing. He hoped he hid his reluctance.
"I think you want to know if I shall be even-handed in my treatment of Mr. Cole." He hushed her words, wishing he dared place his fingers on her lips to quiet her, wishing the rest of the people on this ship would quietly fall over the side and leave the two of them alone together. "I hope you know you may trust me, Mrs. Courthope."
Such a look she gave him! Horatio could have drowned in her eyes.
She seemed to search for words as she spoke slowly.
"It is not that I would have you give him any special consideration. It is only that because of his parentage he does not ordinarily receive" Her words dwindled.
"I fully understand, Mrs. Courthope. Lieutenant Cole is not to receive unduly favourable treatment, nor unfavourable neither. May I tell you something Admiral Pellew once said to me? It was after he had received a letter about me, one in which certain actions of mine had been detailed in a way that misrepresented my intentions altogether. I had just come under his command, you see, and all he knew of me was what was written in that letter. Had he taken that information as the basis for his opinion of me I do not know whether I should be standing here as a captain today. Instead he said to me, 'I judge a man by what I see him do, not by what others say he has done.' I do both the Admiral and myself an injustice if I do not follow his example."
"Thank you, Captain Hornblower. I will say no more about it then. But -- Hornblower and Courthope!" She laughed. "We sound a pair of barristers! But I think we have the understanding of true friends, sir. May we not call each other as friends do? My name is Lily, I wish you will use it."
He could not have been more delighted at the intimacy.
"My name is Horatio. Only a slight improvement on Hornblower, I fear."
"Never say so, it suits you perfectly! For I see something in you. Yes, I do, so pray do not give me that dubious glare, sir! There is that in your eyes that make me think --."
Lord, was his desire so evident? But she was continuing.
"There is no John Smith lurking inside you. You strike me as a man destined for greatness, Horatio. You do not want to arrive there with a name like Jem Brown, do you? Horatio Hornblower! I rather like it. It goes well together, more so than Horatio Nelson, do not you agree? He had such a classical first name and so plebeian a surname. Yes, I think your name shall someday exceed his, indeed I do! Oh, dear! Sir Edward is giving us that look."
Horatio looked at her quizzically.
"You know -- that look!" she declared, going on to explain. "That's the look a host gives his guests when they are not mingling as they ought. So if you will but hand me over to Lieutenant Morrow, then you may be introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Nethercott. He is a Company man and she is a Company man's wife. There, you now know all you need to know about them. I feel for you, truly I do, for I find Lieutenant Morrow to be far more amiable a companion!"
Horatio told himself he had no right to the tiny flare of jealousy. Ruthlessly he suppressed it, and it vanished altogether when they joined Morrow and the Nethercotts, and Horatio discovered, to his great delight, that only he, and not Morrow, had the privilege of addressing this remarkable woman as Lily.
****** ****** ****** ****** ****** ******
Horatio stood between Captain Tazewell and Lieutenant Cole as the boat carrying Lily Courthope and the other guests dipped its way toward the docks. He felt an odd pang at the notion he might never see her again, for the Admiral had already indicated his orders were prepared and the Caroline would sail the next day. Or rather, this day as it was after midnight. He had stayed behind the other guests to receive his written orders, and he wondered if Nathaniel Courthope, whose physical stature his son had inherited, had ever felt so small as Horatio did now at the thought of parting from Lily. A remarkable woman, she dazzled him with her warmth and beauty. But this time he was quick to notice how she gleaned stories of encounters at sea and foreign ports for any information that might give some clue as to what had happened to her husband's ship. There was also the implicit request in her farewell to Horatio to seek word of Courthope on her behalf. How long, he wondered, before she would ever be so absorbed by another man? And what manner of man might he prove to be?
He tore himself away from these thoughts, and moved from the railing.
"I shall want my gig in half an hour, Mr. Cole," he said to the giant beside him. The young man's exotic features were impassive now that the civilian guests had all departed. He was all business, and ready for orders from his new captain.
"Aye, aye, Captain Hornblower."
Retreating with Pellew to the Admiral's quarters, the older man wasted no time in unlocking his desk and taking out the packet that contained the written version of what would now be told to Hornblower.
"As I understand the situation handed to me by Admiral Rainier," he began, "I have two problems."
That would be the French and the Dutch, Horatio joked to himself. But Pellew would not appreciate the humour.
"I need more ships and I need information. You, Captain Hornblower, will provide me with at least one of the former and enough Dutch prisoners that I might also acquire the latter."
So he had been right. Pellew was sending him after the Dutch. But where? Batavia? Sourabaya? Amboyna? No, Amboyna and the Bandas were too far to go for a handful of prisoners, but perhaps later, once Pellew had the necessary information there might be time
"The Dutch have been very quiet in the past year," the Admiral went on, pouring Madeira into two glasses and handing one to Horatio. "They run from our ships instead of fighting. They hold Java, Amboyna, the Banda Islands, all of which I understand to be well-fortified. To what degree, I do not know. Yet I am of a mind, sir, to stir the hornet's nest where the Hollanders are concerned. To do that, I need to know their strengths at each location. Please be seated, Mr. Hornblower, while we attend to this." Pellew belatedly observed Hornblower was still standing to attention.
Horatio sat down across the desk from Pellew.
"And the French, sir?" he queried. "They come and go from Ile de France uncontested."
"Yes, Captain, I am aware of the havoc Linois has been wreaking. Before I can make a run at him, I have to turn this collection of sheer hulks I am inheriting into something resembling a fleet! Some of these ships are hardly fit to be called such. I dare not risk the Blenheim even so far as Madras, and that is where most of the transports are laid up. The Powerful and the Russel are more or less trapped at Bengal until the monsoon changes. Here I have only the Chiffone, the Doris, Piemontaise and Barracouta. I must make the most of my time before my command is severed in two. So get yourself down to Batavia, sir, have a good look in the road and find out what their sail power is. Cut out one of their ships and return here. I would like as many prisoners as you can take, or at least the officers if that will be all that circumstances permit."
Pellew twirled the now empty glass in his hand and met Hornblower's eyes.
"Yes, Mr. Hornblower, they are very simple orders. This being the Royal Navy you are no doubt wondering where the catch may lie."
Horatio smiled faintly. There was always a catch in orders from an Admiral, sometimes it was obvious, sometimes the snag was not evident until there was nothing to be done about it.
"The catch, Captain, is that I want you back here, with prize and prisoners, in three weeks. The Army will be providing us with some of the Madras European regiment and a few pieces of artillery from the Fort here. The Ceylon and Psyche have been ordered to Penang. If everyone, and that especially includes you, Mr. Hornblower, if everyone keeps to schedule I think we may begin our major assaults against the Dutch as soon as mid-February."
Pellew was in a mad race against time. Troubridge could arrive at any instant with orders to take command of Penang and half of the squadron. But if the ships were all engaged against the enemy, there would be little for Sir Thomas to command. No doubt Sir Edward had already sent off several pounds of letters to the Admiralty trying to fend off this division of the Indies station.
"May I hear your thoughts on the matter, Mr. Hornblower?"
Horatio considered his answer, and why.
"I think you do right, sir, to make certain that when our ships do pursue Linois that the Dutch will not be afforded an opportunity of attacking our flanks. They may not be so ready to fight just now, but if we give them more time it will be a different matter. It makes sense to attack the Dutch now, while the winds favour it. Then when the summer monsoon arrives you may sail out to Bengal without searching over your shoulder for the flag of the Batavian Republic. You are not then like to be caught between two foes."
There, Horatio thought. There was an answer based entirely on military logic. This was what Pellew needed to hear, to confirm to him that these actions he was about to embark upon were not entirely based on a selfish desire to preserve his office as sole Commander of the East Indies. That such actions also served to temporarily prevent the cleaving of that office in two was a boon to Pellew personally but he must not be seen to make that his primary consideration.
"May I be so impertinent, sir, as to ask?"
"Yes, Mr. Hornblower?"
"When Sir Thomas arrives, if he insists That is to say, if the situation should be such that" His voice trailed off. He could not find just the right words to respectfully inquire as to how far the Admiral would carry the battle for leadership.
Pellew did not misunderstand his lack of articulation but only said, somewhat amused, "Do you think Sir Thomas and I shall end by dueling for this post, Mr. Hornblower? He and I are both, I thank God, past the age where we cannot find other channels of confrontation. Not like your duel, I think, or even Mr. Cole's."
"Mr. Cole fought a duel?" Horatio tried to decide why that surprised him. Duels were fought everyday. The Admiralty may frown on them but when Admirals themselves met over pistols at dawn, they could hardly be prevented.
"Indeed he did, sir, and like yourself, much against my wishes. Also like yourself, the fight was pressed on him. And again, as in your own duel, Mr. Cole fought against someone who displayed, shall we say, less than honourable behaviour in the quarrel." Horatio well knew Pellew's dislike of dueling; why then was the man looking so amused at Mr. Cole having fought one?
The Admiral was referring to that long-ago duel when as a midshipman, Horatio had been compelled to match pistols against Jack Simpson. Simpson had been a loathsome bully, older, bigger and meaner than all the other midshipmen at the time. He had brutalized his peers, and made life a hell for Horatio in particular. When the much younger and inexperienced Horatio had finally faced off against him, Simpson had deliberately fired early, only wounding Horatio in the shoulder where he had hoped to murder the boy. Given the opportunity to fire back at the helpless Simpson, Horatio had deloped, remarking contemptuously that his opponent wasn't worth the powder. But Horatio had then made the near-fatal mistake of turning his back on the other man. The enraged Simpson had wrested a sword from one of the seconds and charged Horatio, meaning to stab him in the back. Only a well-placed musket shot from then-Captain Pellew had prevented Horatio's murder.
"And did you intervene in Mr. Cole's case also, sir?" Horatio was curious.
"Oh, no! Mr. Cole made it unnecessary. I do not think I have ever seen his temper so hot as it was that day. Indeed, before that day I was of the opinion Mr. Cole had no temper a'tall."
"Then it was not an insult to his blood that began the quarrel?" He was becoming more and more curious about Lily's stepson.
"No, I believe the insult was to a certain lady whose conduct I believe to be above reproach."
Lily Courthope. Horatio was certain of it.
"Even then, as I said, the matter was forced upon Mr. Cole. He finally received a formal challenge in writing, if you please! that in all honour he could not ignore. Fierce as he is in battle, he is otherwise the very soul of amiability. He did not want to kill this Mr. Plummer who had challenged him, so he opted for swords. Would you care for another Madeira, sir?"
He did not really want it, for there had been far too much wine at dinner, but he wanted to hear the story continue so he merely nodded his head. Pellew rose and went to the sideboard.
"Well, and so these two brave young gallants went out one morning to fight. Mr. Cole has had some little training with the sword -- Nathaniel Courthope was counted a fine hand with the foil, you know -- and so was quite composed. Mr. Plummer was pale as death and his teeth chattered so hard you would have thought him coatless in the Arctic! I would have subscribed him a coward but that he persisted in pressing forward with the duel, even though Mr. Cole gave him every opportunity to apologize. So then eventually swords crossed, a few clacks and clangs and have-at-yous, and Mr. Cole pinks him very neatly in the shoulder. But in doing so, he slips on the dewy grass and goes down, a trifle embarrassed but no less victorious. Blood is drawn, honour is satisfied, everyone should have gone home at that point. But the angry and wounded Mr. Plummer still had his sword in hand and raised it to strike at Mr. Cole. It was the heedless rage of embarrassed youth, I believe, and nothing worse. Forgetting his honour, you know, not lacking it! Nothing like that villain Simpson! But save for one of Plummer's own seconds intervening at that instant, that steel would undoubtedly have done considerable damage to your new Lieutenant. Again, I hasten to assure you, Mr. Hornblower, it was not I who saved him. Anyway," Pellew started to chuckle, a rare sound, "Mr. Cole's fury knew no bounds at this infraction of the rules of engagement. Up he jumps and wrests away the foolish young man's sword in one motion. Takes him in a headlock and proceeds to administer a sound thrashing to Plummer's backside with the flat of the sword! Squeals of dismay -- or anguish, I am not sure which, from Mr. Plummer; parental admonishment by Mr. Cole you may imagine the scene! I promise you, the whole of it was such that I could hardly believe my eyes! At some point the ludicrous nature of it all caught up with Mr. Cole, who started to laugh. He has an infectious laughter, Mr. Hornblower. You will note it yourself someday. It contaminated the entire affair, until it ended with Mr. Cole and Mr. Plummer laughing together and going off arm in arm to find breakfast. And there ended the duel and began a comfortable friendship, Captain Hornblower."
Horatio could not prevent a smile at the picture conjured in his mind by the story. So Mr. Cole was a man of good humour, honour, and courage. A good man to help lead the Carolines. He rose to take his leave, and then remembered to ask, "How long has Mr. Cole held his commission, if I may ask?"
"Just over a year, sir. He will be your Second, I believe. Good luck to you, Captain Hornblower. Remember, three weeks!"
Pellew stretched out his hand and Horatio grasped it. So well they understood each other; so much each respected the other. All of the Admiral's plans hinged on this first step Horatio was to take, this gathering of information. He found himself smiling as his gig was rowed back to the Caroline. He could almost feel sorry for the Dutch!
CHAPTER FOUR: THE GIFT
Almost against his will Hornblower was beginning to be pleased with his new Second, who seemed as lucky as he was affable. Mr. Cole had brought the word that morning that the sea breeze was beginning a good half hour before the usual time. Hornblower had come on deck to confirm it.
"Very good, Mr. Cole. Take us out of here if you please."
Not even two bells in the forenoon watch and already the sun was making life unbearable, heating the caulk between planks to a degree that if a man were to stretch out on the deck he would rise with stripes of pitch on his back. The deep blue water of Penang harbour looked more inviting than most ports, being generally free of the detritus from the ships anchoring there. That was due to the changing monsoons, which for half of the year swept the harbour clean as the current moved with winds from the northeast monsoon, then from the southwest for the other half.
For now, Horatio was happy to have the northeast wind. It gave him the choice of sailing directly down the Malacca Strait or, with only a little effort, rounding the northern tip of Sumatra and sailing down that island's western side. The Strait was a more direct route to Batavia, the Dutch stronghold on Java, but more time-consuming as well, for the many islands and shoals that littered it. Sailing down the west side of Sumatra would be a longer journey in distance but faster to travel, as not only the wind but the current would favour him, at least so far as Sunda Strait. Every hour he could save on the voyage south to Java would be used up again when Caroline would have to claw her way back to Penang against both wind and current.
To a landsman all would appear confusion aboard ship as she prepared to weigh. Braces and halliards were off the pins and led along deck. The fo'c'sle hands were walking back the falls of cat and fish, nimbly avoiding those hands assigned to man the tops'l halliards. The nippers were laid out, ready to secure the cable to the messenger a rope temporarily attached to the heavy cable to convey it neatly into the cable tiers without tangling or unnecessary handling-- as the capstan, operated by the pressed men and ordinary seamen, laboriously began its slow pull on the anchor. Lieutenant Cole managed it all neatly, as if he had done this dozens of times in a frigate. And the man had a booming voice, heard clearly fore to aft, and possibly even down to the capstan, Horatio thought.
"Heave and pawl!" Cole's bellow rang out again and again as the men surged and groaned against the capstan bars, slowly raising the anchor. And some time later, "Avast heaving! Rig the cat!"
Hornblower observed closely. The next set of orders would be to cat and fish the anchor, fastening it safely to the frigate's bow, then to loosen sail.
A hail came from one of the maintopmen already on the yards. "Deck there! There's a boat to starboard, coming alongside, sir! She's trying to signal us!"
Both Hornblower and Cole snapped their attention to starboard.
"What the devil?" exclaimed Horatio, going quickly to the side.
A boat was indeed pulling in their direction. A small Indian man, clad in bright orange garb and a turquoise-coloured turban, waved both his hands and called out to them in his own language.
"I beg your pardon, Captain." Cole was deeply embarrassed. "That is my stepmother's manservant in the bow. The one waving to us. I cannot think why she would send him just as we are weighing. It is most unlike her. She knows how a ship is run, I assure you!"
"Indeed, Mr. Cole." Hornblower's voice was chilly. He was irritated by this disruption of getting underway. "See to the matter then, and be quick about it!" He strode back toward the ship's wheel and called, "Hook the cat!" He was further vexed as his orders had to be relayed by the bosun to the fo'c'sle, as his own lungs were not so strong as Mr. Cole's.
From the corner of his eye, he watched as Cole put a leg over the side and leaned down over the battens. In a matter of seconds, he was up and back over again, a weighty-looking parcel in his hands, as he returned to the quarterdeck.
"Extra stockings, Mr. Cole?" Hornblower's tone, rather than his words, conveyed his displeasure. "Cheese? A book of sermons, perhaps? Carry on, Mr. Cavendish!" Warrick was paying too much attention to Cole and not enough to his own duties. Some extra work, perhaps? "Make sail!"
A faint blush appeared beneath Cole's tan and he appeared confused, even though an odd smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He held out the parcel to Hornblower even as Cavendish, happy to have the responsibility, squeaked out a series of orders that would loosen the courses and tops'ls.
"I do not know, sir. I -- it is for you!"
Hornblower was stunned, and Cole was obviously laboring under some amazement as well. The two stared at the parcel as though it might contain one of those infernal machines. Lily had sent a package to him? Was it possible? He could not begin to imagine why, or what the parcel might contain. He wanted to open it on the spot but forced himself to remain coolly indifferent and ignore the offering. He avoided Cole's eyes in case he betrayed the boyish excitement he felt.
"Very well, Mr. Cole. Give it to the sentry, and then see if you cannot spare the time to assist in getting underway. No, Mr. Cavendish, I want her cast for the port tack. Today, if you please, sir!"
Saving only this disruption, which in all fairness Mr. Cole could not have expected, his behaviour thus far was all that Hornblower could have wished for. He might yet prove to have some annoying habit that would make him intolerable company on a journey of any length, but he thus far appeared to possess an understanding of the ordering of a ship that Jameson and Warrick both lacked. Perhaps now Horatio might get more sleep than had been his habit when either of those two officers had stood watch during the night. Cole seemed to be dropping into the slot of Second with what would have been complete transparency were he not already beginning to outstrip his predecessor. It was with no thought of doing so, it was merely that Cole appeared to be that rare creature, a fine seaman endowed with the qualities of a natural leader. His orders were clear and issued in that strong voice which did not allow for questioning. His physical stature would demand respect from even the biggest and strongest of the crew. His confidence was just that and no more; there was nothing cocksure about him nor even handsome, yet he was possessed of an amiable charisma he had no doubt inherited from his legendary father. Courthope must have been proud of him, had he lived to see the man Cole had become. Certainly Lily could not hide her affection for her adopted son.
Horatio saved announcing the course until Cole returned.
"Make your heading west by north, Mr. Cole. Take us to Sebang and through the Bengal Strait, if you please."
"Aye, aye, Captain! West by north it is!"
He could hear the excitement in Cole's response, and almost read the younger man's thoughts. If they were bound for India, the Captain would have set course north of Sebang. By going through the Bengal Strait, he must mean to turn either east to Africa, or south. A single frigate off to fight the French? It was too unlikely. But south
South meant Java, to either Batavia or Sourabaya, and that meant the Dutch. The Lieutenant was still young enough to be eager for battle. That would wear off under Pellew's command, Hornblower thought. Cole would get his fill of battle and more, for Pellew never stepped aside from meeting the enemy, but sought him out wherever he might go.
Horatio forced himself to remain on the quarterdeck longer than was necessary, striding the weather side as was the captain's perquisite. He did not want to appear anxious to his officers to retire to his cabin and discover the contents of the parcel Lily had sent. He knew that from the docks to her house in the hills above Fort Cornwallis was a difficult trip for a coach in the dark. It would have taken her the better part of two hours to arrive at her home last night. Then for her to put together whatever it was she had done, and arrange for her servant to deliver the package to the Caroline before the hour of sailing this morning! Horatio must have been dreaming of her as he lay in his cot even before she had arrived home. It was wrong, he told himself, to be pleased that she had seen fit to delay her rest on his behalf. But so she had done, and so he was.
At length he gave himself permission to retreat but not before giving orders to call him in the event of a change in wind or weather, or upon sighting a sail.
In his cabin he stripped off hat and coat, tugged off his cravat, and rolled up his shirtsleeves. On the desk was the bulky parcel; he could hardly look away from it. Now that he had given himself permission to open it, he found himself strangely loath to do so. Regardless of her words, suppose she was attempting to place him under an obligation to extend some favouritism to Cole? Devil take it, he would never know until he opened it!
Almost angry -- with Lily or himself, he was not sure which -- he tore at the paper, revealing a basket holding a bag of rough sacking, its contents rendering the appearance lumpy. A drawstring was tied and wrapped tightly about the neck of the bag. After a minute he got the string loosened and opened the neck of the bag. The unmistakable aroma of roasted coffee beans filled his nostrils. It was a heavenly scent, and the surprise of it made him suddenly sit. Good Lord, there must be five or six pounds here!
A gift of coffee beans -- even a pound! -- would have been as manna from heaven to Horatio. But five pounds or more of the beans, and already roasted, ready for grinding and boiling! His mouth watered and he called for Ferry, but even as he lifted the bag to retie it, he caught a glimpse of paper tucked under it, held safely in the basket by the weight of the coffee. Tugging it out, he saw 'Captain H. Hornblower, HMS Caroline' inscribed there in a flowing, elegant hand. Breaking open the note, he read:
On my journey home this night I could not help recalling how over supper you spoke of your passion for coffee and the shifts you had been forced to, in order to obtain anything resembling the brew during the long voyage from Gibraltar. I find it quite unacceptable that you, or rather your steward, should be burning toast and scraping the black crumbs into hot water. Truly, Horatio, it sounds a revolting concoction and not even many months at sea could render a man so insensible as to mistake it for coffee. And it all seems so very ridiculous that you should do so when here you are, in a part of the world where coffee beans are grown and exported by the ton!
It is possible, even probable, that your ship may not be returning to Penang, for Admirals do not choose that everyone should know the movements of ships and men, and of course they are right to do so. But as I sat in my carriage, remembering our conversations and listening to the night sounds of the hills and the rush of the sea below, I found myself sorry that it should be so. So please accept this offering as no more, and no less, than a token of the friendship I feel we have forged. I do not have so many friends that I can afford to offend them, so I can only hope that I have not done so by this rather forward action of mine.
Wishing you a safe voyage in life,
He read it through twice, and then again. And decided that
no Dutch broadside, no French fleet, no pirates, no reef, no hurricane,
nothing would prevent his return to Penang!
CHAPTER 5: A TRANSLATOR IN THE SUNDA STRAIT
They were five days sailing down the western coast of Sumatra, skirting the Mentawai Islands to starboard, almost always within sight of the volcanic peaks that stretched the length of the big island. Under full sail for most of the time, the frigate made a faster speed than during any leg of the outbound journey from Gibraltar. The men, unhappy at first over so little time in port after so long and arduous a voyage, had been somewhat pacified when Hornblower allowed them to forego their weekly meal of sauerkraut. To a man, they detested the malodorous cabbage. The stuff smelled of the privy and most of the men were of the opinion there would not be much difference in the taste, that is, if anyone were ever so bold as to experiment! But the Admiralty had ordered every man a weekly dose of sauerkraut in order to prevent scurvy. After consulting Mr. Knyveton, the ship's surgeon. on the matter, Horatio had allowed the men one occasion free of the stuff so long as every ration of grog served that day had also a portion of lime juice mixed in. Hornblower had been surprised to discover over the course of the previous weeks that his surgeon was a rational, practical man, and one of great self-discipline. So learned and reasonable was he regarding the men's health and how best to treat both illness and injury, that Horatio thought it a great pity that Knyveton had never retired to a life on land and been schooled as a physician. Aside from his father, a physician of some little note in Wessex, at least as far as Ilfracombe to Bideford, Mr. Knyveton was the only man of medicine in whom he placed any confidence at all.
With the current astern and the wind on the larboard beam, the Caroline stood out but a little from the islands, with at least two men always on watch in the bow, as much for danger from any uncharted reefs as from the enemy. They sailed handily past local fisherman in their perahus with the oddly-set rectangular sails that Cole called layar tanjaq. Sometimes the boats were little more than canoes with a sail rigged on a bamboo mast, the hull made of a hollowed-out sago palm. Sometimes they saw the larger proas, that were sometimes used by pirates, though none appeared to be doing more than fishing or occasionally racing against one another. Once the bronzed men in one of the racing proas had cheerfully hailed the English vessel. Cole had laughed and called out something that had made the islanders laugh and wave before turning leeward in a maneuver so deft Horatio could only envy it. No European vessel, not even a French-built corvette, could match the speed of the sleek proa.
"They wanted to know if we were brave enough to race against them!" Cole had translated readily enough.
"They must be joking!" scoffed Warrick. "We were making almost nine knots at the last casting of the log!"
Hornblower only smiled to himself, but Cole quickly disillusioned the other lieutenant.
"Don't think that would save us! They had only the one fore-and-aft set. They'd set a course that turned us back into the wind, drop the sail and then slide away as if we were standing still. It's those steering oars at the stern, y'see. The paddles are wide and those men are masters of'em. Without even trimming sail, they know just how to dip those oars at an angle and hold them in the water so that the current gives them more speed. I never was much good at it. Takes some muscle, but a lot of finesse, too. That's why it's so dashed hard to come up with some of the pirate proas. They can reduce sail, tack like she's on a spring, and make off straight into the eye of the wind! Sounds impossible, I know," he sympathized with Warrick's look of disbelief, "but wait until you see it done."
"What did you say to them, Mr. Cole?" Hornblower asked, hands lightly clasped behind his back.
"With all due respect, sir, I told them Englishmen were mad, not stupid."
Hornblower turned away to hide his smile, while Warrick sputtered a protest.
The mercury soared to over a hundred degrees every day now, and the pounding rains that sometimes came did little or nothing to cool the air. If anything, Horatio thought, the rain only served to make the heat wet and sticky. Shoes, seldom worn by the men in more temperate climes, were an absolute necessity here, for the wood of the deck and the pitched oakum used for caulking quickly became unbearably hot early in the forenoon watch, even to the most calloused foot. As long as the seas were calm Hornblower allowed the gunports and skylights all to be opened, so that the men off watch could get some air below decks. His own quarters were seldom anything but stifling. Sleeping, always a troublesome achievement for Horatio, was well-nigh impossible, and so he spent as much time as possible abovedecks.
As a consequence he was the more able to witness the unusually swift manner in which Lieutenant Cole gained the command and loyalty of the starboard watch, which was his responsibility to train and discipline. In sail handling competitions against Warrick's larboard watch, Cole exhorted his men cheerfully, giving his commands in good time and order; he dispensed merry jests to hearten the clumsy and slow by nature, and was immovably firm with those who slackened out of laziness. With an effortlessness Horatio found himself envying, Cole seemed to know just which man needed a kind word of encouragement, which one needed his rum ration suspended for malingering, and which needed to spend more time drilling on a given task. Whether racing to clear the deck, load the guns, man the yards, or in a fire drill, Cole gave no more weight to one aspect of his duties than to another. Most officers were better at one thing than another, Horatio had found, and they tended to work the men hardest on what they themselves did best. Some loved the guns, some the sails, some just loved bullying men under their authority. His young Second treated every job with equal respect, and did the same with the men. No man in his watch could boast of being favoured by Mr. Cole, yet neither could any complain of being singled out for punishment or extra duties. In fact, the Lieutenant was the epitome of what his step-mother had begged for on his behalf: Even-handedness.
On the morning of the sixth day, a day that had dawned with strong winds and light scud clouds to the west in an otherwise clear sky, the frigate rounded the southern tip of Sumatra, heading almost due east with the main course furled to allow the driver to do its best work. From the wide, calm water of the Mentawai Strait they sailed into the Sunda Strait, a passage between Sumatra and Java that was as much as 85 miles at its widest, funneling down to a mere 16 miles across at its narrowest point. The high green mountains of the islands now rose up far off on either bow. Heavy mists hung over the mountain peaks most days, indistinguishable from the steam emitted by the volcanic rises. Here the very smell of the air changed and seemed to grow heavier as they sailed further into the channel. Sunda was known as a hazardous, coral-studded passage, somewhat shallow as her depths never surpassed 80 fathoms and in most open water was closer to 40. The strait was pockmarked with islands, some of a goodly size, many no more than sandbanks. Straying too close to any of the reefs had been the wreck of many vessels, some of them still visible in the clear waters, no longer a home to seamen but a sanctuary instead for a colourful variety of sea life. So good was the visibility that sharks, rays, dolphins and occasionally enormous turtles could be seen as deep as five fathoms.
Hornblower ordered the lead line dropped every quarter hour as a precaution against some uncharted shoal, and had gone forward himself to remind the bow watch to be mindful of any change in the colour of the water. Returning to the quarterdeck, he wiped a lean hand across his sweaty brow and tugged his round hat back down on his head. He squinted up at the clouds, then searched the horizon. The glass had held steady the past two days but the clear sky and strong wind seemed at odds with this strange heaviness of air.
"Mr. Cumby, how much has the glass fallen?" he asked.
The Master looked surprised that Horatio could tell the direction of the mercury, so little had the sky and sea changed from yesterday.
"Very little, Captain. Little more than a quarter of an inch since yestermorn."
Hornblower merely grunted an acknowledgment and resumed his usual pacing.
He watched anxiously as during the hours of the forenoon watch dark clouds began forming astern, clouds with well-defined edges and small, scudding clouds breaking free from the edges and racing ahead, like children dashing away from their nurse to frolic and gambol. The wind had increased only a trifle but was veering south. The glass was now falling, not rapidly, but steadily.
"What do you make of that, Mr. Warrick?" Warrick had just mounted the steps to the quarterdeck. "Storm, squall, or typhoon?
"We're in for a bit of a blow, sir, no doubt about that!" Warrick's words were cheerful but his face betrayed his concern. "But the glass is pretty steady still. Shan't be much to it, I shouldn't think. We can run before it."
Hornblower snorted but otherwise kept his thoughts to himself. He had no doubt that Warrick was allowing his desire not to get a reputation for timidity, something no officer could overcome once gained, to overwhelm his common sense. For a second Horatio thought the sudden gust of wind, veering slightly from the more steady winds, might blow some better judgment into the man's head, then saw that it would not.
"Mr. Cole has more experience of these waters than we. Shall we see if he concurs?" What he really wanted to know was, in the event their captain should be crushed under a falling mast or thrown overboard and swept away in a gale, would the lives of the men be safe with either officer?
Cole was sent for, and upon viewing the darkening mass astern could barely turn his stare back to Hornblower. Being asked for his recommendation, he instantly replied, "I would becalm her, sir."
"A drastic measure, Mr. Cole!" Hornblower frowned, wondering if pressure from his captain might make the younger man sway from what his instincts told him was right. Fortuitously, Warrick chimed in to add derision to pressure.
"You are not afraid of a little wind and rain, I hope!" protested Warrick. "Surely double-reefing the tops'ls will be more than sufficient?" It was more of a suggestion than a question, and Hornblower saw it for what it was, Warrick's real wish dressed up to appear as an indulgence to a less-courageous junior officer.
Cole shook his head with some emphasis. "You might think so, Mr. Warrick, while the wind is still sternmost." His eyes roved the skies and the island peaks anxiously. "But only a little further into the Strait and you'll find another wind that comes down from the mountains. She'll be caught between contrary winds and no matter if you've taken in every reef you can, she's still liable to be taken aback. And if the wind shifts a couple of points to either quarter she'll heel badly, even under tops'ls."
"And so you think we should?"
Hornblower's decision had been made before talking to either man but he wanted these men thinking and reasoning for themselves. Even with a squall at their heels, he had a responsibility to train them to think and act responsibly. Taking in sail now, though it would cost the Caroline some time he could ill afford to lose, would save the men having to haul in and man the yards while being lashed by rain and lightning. Even a brief squall, lasting no more than a few minutes, had swept away masts and rigging when a captain thought he could outrun the storm. Such an event would be disastrous for carrying out his orders; he had no time to waste on stepping masts and repairing rigging. He had to be back in Penang in a fortnight plus one day.
"All in, sir, as quick as we can. One or two trysails for some control, no more than that. The wind's before the rain, so it should be over fairly quickly."
Hornblower nodded, but had no faith in the old sailor's weather adage that 'If the wind's before the rain, soon you may make sail again'.
"Very well, Mr. Cole. Let us err on the side of caution then. You may see to it. Mr. Warrick, I want two men on the wheel now, and they are to be relieved every 15 minutes until I say otherwise. I am not so certain as Mr. Cole that this will be a brief squall. Mr. Cavendish, you will please see to it that the galley fire is extinguished at once."
The windward side of the quarterdeck was usually reserved for the captain's personal use. With the wind behind her, the entire quarterdeck had the breeze, so Hornblower chose the starboard side of the quarterdeck for his perambulations. Watching the men take in first the mizzen, topsails and t'gallants, then the foresail, he appeared deep in thought to the others.
Warrick muttered to the Master, "There is a small promontory just ahead, why do we not simply round it and heave to in the lee?"
Cumby laughed soundlessly, disporting his toothless gums. "If you'd pay more attention to the charts at night when the Captain confirms our position, Mr. Warrick, you might remember there's coral there, aye, and all along these shores is reefs. Beautiful things they are, but I've not got a fancy to see any of'em framed by the hull, sir!"
Warrick nodded reluctantly.
The storm proved to be a compromise between Hornblower's and Cole's estimations, being neither a typhoon as Horatio had feared nor merely a brief squall. Rather it was a black squall, chopping the waves into troughs half as high as the mainmast. The winds made a high shrieking sound in the upper rigging. If Horatio closed his eyes he did not dare he might imagine a woman in the top, screaming her fear, so nearly human was the sound.
A third man was added to the wheel, and then the winds became so severe the wheelmen had to be loosely lashed to the helm so as to prevent them being blown overboard. They would be safe unless a mast or block or the like fell on them, yet there could be no relief for them either, secured as they were.
In the second hour the wind veered southerly right sharp, and every man aboard was happy, or as happy as he could be in such a gale, to have got the sails in before the blow. Horatio tried to keep the sturdy little frigate before the wind as much as possible, but worried they might be broken on some reef hidden by the lashing rain, coming down so heavily that he could not see for'ard beyond the mainmast. The trysails were proving a godsend, but he pitied the men handling them. The wind whipped the rain into such a fury that later they would discover their unprotected faces had been bruised from the force of the water.
Noon came and went with no abating of the wind as it howled through the standing rigging. For practice only, a smiling Cole, energized by the elemental fury, took the noon reading as best he could while Old Cumby clung to the bulwark alongside him, nattering about what the point might be with no sun to read from. Cole only laughed and said it was good practice to try anyway. From nowhere, a dimly discernible mass loomed fine off the port bow, and instantly the Master bellowed an order for the trysail braces to be hauled around. The old man tottered slowly toward the Captain, head bent against the wind's ferocity.
"Legundi Island!" He spat the salt taste from his mouth. "Umang's just nor'east of her," he yelled over the furious sound of Nature at work.
Hornblower nodded his understanding. They could dodge Umang, but if the storm kept up they would be blown ashore on the eastern side of Lampung Bay.
"Get us to the lee side of Umang, if you can, Mr. Cumby. We'll try for an anchorage there."
Cumby overlooked the usual 'aye-aye' and saved his breath for the task ahead. One trysail was dropped, the other brought round and the order for 'helm up!' given. Laboriously the Caroline made her way around the southeast edge of the small island, the ship's company that was below deck all standing and clinging to the starboard bulwarks as she wrestled her way easterly. No sooner had they come into the lee of the island than the winds began dropping and the rain eased into a comfortable downpour. Within half an hour the squall had gone altogether, not even to be seen on the horizon ahead.
Hornblower ordered an assessment of damage, and the lieutenants were quick with their reports.
"We've taken an extra foot of water in the well," Warrick said, "but the carpenter says she held together beautifully, no springs anywhere that he's found yet. The pumps are already manned. The main front-fish split and was peeled off by the wind; that's easily replaced."
"Some of the deadeyes on the mizzenchains have pulled loose. We can't put canvas to the mizzen until that's taken care of," Cole added his findings. "Wheaton's got a dozen men dealing with that. Two hours at the most, I should think, before we can sheet home there."
The chains were the hardware securing the shrouds to the ship's side. Adding sail before the shrouds were secured would be asking for the mizzenmast to go by the boards.
"Also the gig came loose and was blown top over against the foremast. The mast is all right, but the gig's transom was bashed to pieces. Mr. Brodie has one his mates on it while he's working on the main front-fish."
"Very good," Hornblower nodded. Everything could be repaired and all in good time; there was no significant damage to the ship. Everyone, including himself, seemed to be breathing deeply now, aware of how lightly they had got off. Perhaps Warrick had learned a valuable lesson or two, about weather and pride, but whether he would heed them if ever he made captain's rank, Horatio doubted. The First was a man too easily dissuaded from his course of action by the intangible pressure of the opinions of others.
"Mr. Cumby, sir, get yourself below and into some dry clothes. I intend to do the same," he forestalled a protest from the old man. "Mr. Warrick, you will please do likewise, then relieve Mr. Cole so that he, too, can be made more comfortable. We can none of us be really dry in this humid clime, but stalking about in twenty pounds of sodden uniform is a burden we do not need. Mr. Cole, you will please have the cook light the galley fire and get the men whatever meal he can put together, so soon as possible. Also, Mr. Cole, you may wear ship and resume an easterly course. Mind your soundings, though."
By this time the blazing tropical sun was making them all miserable in their damp clothing. Back in his cabin, Horatio raised the skylight so that once the mizzen course was set he might catch some downdraft of air to alleviate the stifling heat within. Ferry brought him a biscuit and a cup of coffee while he struggled out of his damp coat and breeches. He eyed the coffee suspiciously.
"Did I not order the galley fire put out before the storm?" he asked quietly.
Ferry hurried to reassure him that the coffee was cold, or as cold as it ever would be in this part of the world. "For I'd made it for your dinner, sir, but o'course we had to put that off. I've got the pot set to boil again now, for I know you like your brew hot, sir. I just thought you'd want something right away."
"I see." It was hard not to be pleased by this kind of thoughtfulness. If only the man did not fuss over his clothes so much! "Thank you, Ferry."
"My pleasure, sir. I'll just take these things out of your way now, and get them rinsed out. Mr. Cole had a couple of barrels tied up on the forecastle for me, so a bit of that rainwater they collected will take out the salt."
Horatio was tired, but his ship was in good condition; he had a cup of coffee, albeit cold, to hand; and a dry shirt that felt like heaven to his salt-chafed skin. He was suddenly in a good humour.
"You have missed your calling, Ferry. You ought to have gone into haberdashery."
"Thankee all the same, sir, but me old dad was the fifth footman for Lord Phillips-Harterling. He always wanted me to rise above his station and be a gentleman's gentleman."
Horatio merely smiled and forbore to point out the unlikelihood of that ever happening. Ferry rattled on.
"Well, I don't talk so good as a gentleman's gentleman is supposed to, but I know's what's what with a gentleman's gear and all about keeping it in good order. So's I figgered I stood the best chance of workin' at my career in service to a military officer. Thought about the army for a while I did, but to be honest wi' you, Cap'n Hornblower, them officers almost all have their men hired before they gets a commission even. But in the navy, they's lots of captings come up without no servants o' their own. So's I seed my chances to best advance meself aboard ship, and here I am, sir!"
Horatio was saved making any response as a faint shout from the top trickled down through the skylight and he heard Cole's clear response.
"Deck here! What flag?"
He grabbed his hat, still wet, and headed out, ducking the beam without thinking. Climbing the steps to the quarterdeck, he said simply, "Where, Mr. Cole?"
Cole pointed. Two points off the starboard bow lay a brig, or what the storm had left of her. Her mainmast and staysail had been lost to the storm's fury.
"Well, Mr. Cole?"
"Dutch, sir, the Zeerop. 14 guns."
"Take us up within range and put a shot across her bow. If she tries to run put a shot fore and aft. Try to do no further damage to her. Admiral Pellew wants all the ships he can get. That one may be small, but she'll do for a start."
The commander of the Zeerop was neither stupid nor insane; he knew his chances against a frigate pierced for 36, probably armed with 12 or 18 pounders, were nil. He struck after firing a single salutary shot, his six-pounders being no danger to the Caroline at this distance. Still, he could someday report quite honestly to his superiors that he had not surrendered without firing a shot, even though the British ship had not even been fully cleared for action when the Dutchman had hauled down his flag.
"Mr. Warrick, accept their surrender and take command of the her, if you please."
The brig was small enough that he could have given her to Lieutenant Cole without Warrick having grounds for protest, but he'd rather Warrick took the brig up to Penang. Even though with the capture of the Zeerop he had fulfilled the orders to get the Admiral a ship and some prisoners for interrogation, he had not yet looked into Batavia Road. Cole thought and acted faster than Warrick, and Horatio was coming to place more faith in the younger man's judgment. He made his decision based solely on belief that his Second would be of more support in the event of any action there. Warrick was obviously delighted, while Cole's face was impassive. Inscrutable, Hornblower thought; isn't that what they say about people of the Orient? Although Cole was but half Malay.
"Send over her officers under guard, please, and let me know what you need to make her seaworthy again. Oh, and include Mr. Cavendish in your prize crew, if you will. Give him a taste of a lieutenant's responsibilities." It was the young signal officer who had first spied the Zeerop, nearly out of sight at the northernmost tip of the island.
He addressed Cole again. "I don't suppose, Mr. Cole, we happen to have a man who speaks Dutch? I may need a translator."
The boat returning from the brig carried under guard her captain, a lieutenant and a master's mate. Hornblower was waiting for them in his cabin, carefully casual with his shirtsleeves rolled back. He did not want the Dutch to think too much of the coming interview. His coxswain, Styles, brought the men in after he had made certain they carried no weapons. Styles was a big man, though not a giant like Cole, and his pockmarked features betrayed a youthful bout with smallpox. And he was unashamedly loyal to Horatio.
One of the primary duties of a coxswain was the safety of his captain. Styles had served with Hornblower since the latter's days as a midshipman in the Justinian, and over the years Horatio had more than once witnessed that unswerving loyalty. That quality, combined with a generally level head and an absolute fearlessness in battle, had boosted Styles to the office most trusted by Hornblower. But in his opinion, any captain who could not trust his coxswain had long since lost his grip on the ship's company and needed replacing at the Admiralty's first opportunity.
Styles knuckled his forehead in salute.
"Captain Hornblower, sir, here's the prisoners." Then his voice dropped as if what he had to say next was private between him and the captain. "They don't speak much English that I could tell, sir. I figger this one here," he jerked a thumb at a red-faced man of perhaps some fifty years, "is the captain. The others came ahead of him in the boat, that's why. I reckon one of the others is the lieutenant and t'other must be a warrant officer of some sort."
"Thank you, Styles. What have you there?"
The coxswain had a colourful bundle clutched under one arm.
"Dutch flag, sir. Mr. Cavendish sent it over for his collection."
"Oh!" He gaze seemed to lose focus, his face blank, and then he said simply, "That will be all."
Hornblower then mimed to the prisoners to find seats where they could. Two, the captain and lieutenant he presumed, moved to the small settle fastened to the bulkhead. The other man, brown and lean, stood nearby.
"Sir! Don't you want someone to stay here, just in case?" Styles trusted no enemy but he never, ever contradicted an order from Hornblower. He had been asked by Horatio to do so on this occasion, for what reason he could not guess. Horatio wanted these prisoners at ease before him, and talkative. If they disrespected him or was contemptuous of the way he apparently allowed his men to talk back, he did not care, just so long as it made them careless of what they might say.
"Oh, I don't think that will be necessary. These are men of honour, after all." He strove to replicate the cheerfully vacant expression so often worn by Lieutenant Buckland from the old Renown. He waved a careless hand in the air. "Just leave them to me. I have a lot of questions for these chaps!"
"But, sir, I must insist!" Styles took a step closer, looming over his now-seated captain.
Horatio sighed. "Oh, very well, if you insist. Uh, just stand over there, out of the way, if you will."
Styles subsided to an unoccupied corner of the crowded little cabin, wondering what his captain was up to this time. He had seen Hornblower pull any number of surprises out of his bag of tricks, from a ruse de guerre to dropping a compass overboard and inviting his captors to "fish for it," but he could not guess what was afoot just now.
The surreptitious looks exchanged amongst the prisoners told Hornblower that these men did indeed understand some English and had noted his apparent lack of resolve. Very good then! He hoped they might quickly come to see him as a weak-minded man, possessing no guile at all, one who could be ordered about by his own men..
"Very well, gentlemen, shall we begin?" He smiled expectantly at the prisoners, who stared back at him, blank-faced. Styles had done his play-acting perfectly; Horatio hoped he could do so well himself. He gestured at himself and at his epaulets.
"Me, Captain. Capitaine Hornblower. Comprenez-vous? No? Parlez-vous francais?"
The men did not respond, but only shrugged and stared.
"How about Spanish then? Habla espanol? No? Well, what bloody language do you speak?" Horatio appeared to be losing patience and now spoke in some irritation as much to himself as to them. "Styles, are you certain we do not have a man to translate for me? It is most urgent! I need to know what ships are at Batavia just now, and how the devil am I --?"
A spate of Dutch erupted from the prisoner at the word Batavia, and Horatio had to interrupt him.
"Mas despacio, por favor. Er ah lentement, s'il vous plait! Ah, the devil! Slowly, dammit, slowly! Does anyone know Italian, Styles? Maybe they understand Italian?"
The Dutch captain went on speaking in his native guttural tongue, while the look he gave Hornblower was nothing short of contemptuous. When he ceased talking, Horatio began to act out charades.
"How many ships?" he pointed to each finger in turn, then wiggled them all, speaking loudly and slowly as if to someone very deaf. "How many ships?" He gestured at the ship around him. "Guns? BOOM! BOOM! How many? Are there batteries? Styles, how can I make them understand 'batteries?' Styles shrugged, a little embarrassed at how foolish his captain appeared to the Hollanders as he gestured and cavorted and got no intelligible answers.
The Dutch captain said something to his officers, who barely made any effort to disguise their laughter. The three men exchanged some conversation among themselves then went silent, looking to Hornblower for more entertainment.
Horatio scratched his head in puzzlement, then his eyes widened suddenly.
"I know! Here's what we'll do."
He withdrew pen and paper from his desk and uncapped the inkstand.
"Here, you, Captainer, whatever your name is. Draw for me the harbour at Batavia." He pushed the quill into the other captain's hands. "Yes, yes! Just draw all the boats you saw there. Oh, dear!" The Dutch captain turned and spoke briefly to his officers, who smiled but said nothing. A comical look of dismay came over Hornblower's features.
"Good God, Styles, do you suppose they have not come from Batavia after all? That would certainly explain how they came to be caught in the squall, for surely a wise captain would never have set out from that safe anchorage with an obvious storm brewing." Horatio even felt like an idiot as he said this, for any captain with half a brain would know that Batavia was much too far off to have been troubled by the squall or even seen its approach.
Another eruption in Dutch, from the now-agitated lieutenant, his tone clipped and his nostrils flaring, his smile quite gone.
"He looks angry," Horatio observed absently to the cabin at large. "What do you suppose may be his problem? Enter!" He responded to a call from the sentry and Ferry crept into the cabin. With six men, the little cabin was becoming claustrophobic. The two Dutch officers squirmed in their seats.
"What is it, Ferry? You know I do not like to be interrupted when --."
"Beggin' yer pardon, Captain, Mr. Cole said I was to bring you this right away. No matter what you was doing!"
This further example of the insubordination that was rife among the Englishmen caused another bout of comment between the Dutchmen who shrugged at Horatio and pretended not to understand him.
"Oh, very well!" A petulant Hornblower threw himself back into his chair and accepted the note. "Must you wait, Ferry? Getting so I can't even breathe without every man aboard putting in his say about it!"
He unfolded the piece of paper, his manner impatient as he read it through, frowning as if to make sense of the words before him. Long he sat, just staring at the note, gently tapping it with his long fingers until the prisoners became uncomfortable and began to speak quietly among themselves once more.
As if their talk had awakened him from some dream, Horatio looked up at them, the vacancy wiped from his expression. Swiftly he folded the paper and locked it away in his desk. Finally he stood and began unrolling his sleeves. His tone now was brisk and decisive.
"Ferry, I want a guard of marines to escort the prisoners to the hold at once. Styles, ask the sentry to step inside and attend the prisoners with you. He is to shoot them if they make any attempt to come near my desk. Stay with them until they are clear of my quarters."
There, he thought. Let the Dutch captain make of those orders whatever he might. He did not bother to note the confused looks the prisoners traded.
With that and no more, Horatio went topside. He was standing with Mr. Cole on the quarterdeck when the marines brought the prisoners out of his quarters. As they were led along, Horatio called out to them.
"Captain Groot, sir!"
The Dutchman looked around, puzzled because he had not given the English Hornblower his name. In fact he was very proud that although he had surrendered his ship, and his command of the English language was excellent, yet he had given away no information at all to the enemy.
"Captain Groot, sir, please allow me to introduce Lieutenant Cole of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Caroline."
Groot kept his face carefully blank.
"Welkom, kapitein!" Cole called down to him, waving a quill in one hand. "Ik hoop dat u een goed verblijf heeft aan boord!"
Groot went pale as for the first time he noted the open skylight on the quarterdeck. Cole was standing directly beside it.
"Grote godheid!" he croaked. "Wat heb ik gedaan?"
Cole promptly translated his words for Horatio: "Great God! What have I done?"
Hornblower's smile was wry and he said only for Cole's ears: "Why, he's only told me everything I wanted to know! Mr. Cole, I congratulate you on your superior grasp of the Dutch language. Would you please extend my gratitude to Captain Groot and his officers for their cooperation! And then please find yourself some dry clothing, sir!"
CHAPTER SIX: THE HORNET'S NEST
The Caroline and Zeerop parted ways as soon as the latter had made sufficient progress on stepping a new mainmast that Horatio could withdraw the extra men and leave the brig in the care of her prize crew. The Dutch officers were rowed across and locked in the brig's hold. If all went well, Warrick would arrive in Penang well before Hornblower, and no doubt Admiral Pellew would find it very gratifying to find his orders so promptly obeyed.
Sailing lightly towards Sebuku Island, they put up the helm and dipped east, a quarter south, aiming directly for the narrowest point of the strait. There would be plenty of sail handling in the next 36 hours as the ship would have to swing back northeast for a few leagues, back east again around Cape Pujut and after a good look at what the Dutch were up to in Bantam Bay, go on to Batavia. Tonight Horatio would get little rest. The narrow strait could bring down a Dutch warship on them at any time, what with the proximity of two enemy harbours. And the threat of pirates in these waters was constant. The colonial powers did all they could to eradicate piracy, but the murderous villains thrived almost in spite of it. Always there were more to take the place of those caught and hung out of hand by both the British and Dutch navies. And even if neither of those problems arose there was still the threat of running aground in the dark on one of the many small reefs that abounded in the Sunda. Even with a man constantly in the chains to heave the lead, there could be no guarantee of safety from such an event.
Mr. Midshipman Willis had drawn the middle watch in place of Cavendish. Willis was perhaps as old as 15, but he had come to the navy life less than a year before. Horatio felt some guidance was yet necessary; and no doubt both Willis and Hornblower would be more comfortable in these unknown waters with the captain on the quarterdeck for a little while. At two bells, Horatio climbed out of his cot, donned breeches, shirt and shoes, and left his airless abode behind.
In the light from the binnacle, Horatio was surprised to find the off-duty Mr. Cole alongside young Willis. In answer to Hornblower's question, Cole said casually, "Couldn't sleep, sir. Never seems like there's any air in this passage."
As Hornblower knew the officers' quarters were considerably more airy than his own, he wondered if perhaps Cole had had the same idea as Horatio, that is, to lend a hand in Willis's education. For a few minutes the two men talked of the difficulties ahead, and then let fall small morsels of advice disguised as stories of their own days as midshipmen. Horatio hated indulging in idle chat with or in front of his officers; he felt it diminished his authority. But a nervous young midshipman would remember more of this casual conversation than any string of orders flung at his head. And Willis did absorb it all, too hungry for learning about ships and command to realize how extraordinary it was for a captain and lieutenant to spend time in seemingly idle talk with one another. Thus Willis was reminded not to stare into the binnacle at night, as it blinded him to his surroundings. They declared the absolute necessity of making sure the men on night watch did exactly that, remaining alert and attentive to duty rather than sleeping. Some circumstances during which soundings ought to be taken, and how often, were discussed. Cole finally sent the midshipman for'ard to make sure the watch was awake, and then turned to smile at Hornblower in the dark. Horatio now dreaded some remark from the Lieutenant that would overstep the bounds of their official relationship, but Cole still had young Willis on his mind.
"He'll be all right," he assured his captain. "It's a whole new world for him, Captain, but he's eager to get the most from it."
"He's past his homesickness?" Hornblower asked, remembering how often out of Gibraltar Willis's eyes would well up whenever the word 'home' was mentioned, even in a mild reference to sheeting home rather than in regard to the land of his birth.
Cole affirmed this, and went on to say, "I pity some of these youngsters, sir. It must be very hard to be torn so completely from the life one has always known."
Hornblower was curious in spite of himself. "Was that not the case with you then?"
Cole shrugged, the motion barely visible in the dim glow of the stern lanterns as they paced aft.
"I've been on the water most of my life. My mother's people are sea-going traders, so I'd been from New Guinea to Malacca and almost everywhere in between by the time I was six. My grandfather, that is my mother's father, traded spice and cloth and baskets, anything that he could sell at the next island along. Among the Malay he was what the English might call a nabob. A wealthy and influential man by his standards. My appearance was a great embarrassment to him. Children of mixed blood are even less tolerated in some South Seas peoples than in Europe. Too often they are often left to starve to death or the girl babies are drowned at birth. Malays are a more tolerant people than most, luckily for me! Still, the circumstance of my birth was a social humiliation to him. He used to tell the other merchants I was his servant boy, and he treated me as such. 'Sabtu, fetch more water! Sabtu, you lazy dog, bring my dinner!' Yet he was very good to my mother. A Chinese family might have killed her before they let her bear an Englishman's baby."
"Sabtu, is that your given name?" Horatio asked, relieved that Cole's tone was so matter-of-fact about the whole sordid business.
"No," Cole chuckled deeply, "it was his nickname for me. All the Malays have nicknames. Sabtu means Saturday; that is the day I was born. He refused to call me by my real name, Kurniawan, in part because it's not really a Malay name at all, it's an island people's name, but mostly because it translates as 'a gift from God.' That's the last thing he would ever call me! I'm sure I was a devil to him. I ran wild just after my mother died, I'm afraid, not that I was any saint even before that. But then my father returned from a voyage and took me away from my mother's people, to my grandfather's great relief and my immense excitement. I was so curious about the English and determined to be like them. Well, I did learn it isn't as easy as all that! Papa took me to live with him and Lily, although they were not then long wed days only! -- and she must have been terribly dismayed at the prospect of having me under her feet. But it was she who taught me to read in English. I could always speak it, I have always been good at languages, but reading and writing! That I could not do until she took me in hand. And I confess the process was an agonizing one for both of us!"
Hornblower found he had a dozen questions but the first one was, "Was it Mrs. Courthope who gave you an English name?"
Cole shook his sun-bleached head.
"No, sir, but she insisted to my father that as I was bound I would follow him into the Navy, if I were ever to rise above midshipman a new name was indispensable. The Admiralty would be unlikely to promote anyone so foreign-sounding as Kurniawan! So my father said then it ought to be my choice as to the name I should have. Lily, um, shall we say she debated the matter at some length, sir? She was all for naming me after my father, but he wasn't having any of it. Said that since I'd been burdened with a name like 'gift from God' the first time around, I ought to be able to choose something I liked for myself this time. And as for myself, I did want a hero's name, a great captain's name, but not my father's. So I chose Christopher Columbus."
"Good God!" Horatio exclaimed.
"Just so, sir!" Cole agreed, chuckling deeply. "Even Papa was concerned about the heckling that name would bring down upon my young head, and the fighting which would surely result. And while I saw the sense of what he told me yet I would not entirely give it up for I truly liked the name, as well as admired the namesake. But I compromised at last and so Columbus became simply Cole."
"I should have liked to have had the naming of myself," Horatio surprised himself by giving away this information, and immediately wished he had not admitted to such in front of a junior officer. He rarely made any personal references before his men. But the next question was already on his lips.
"Forgive me but -- you speak of your father in the past tense?"
"Yes." Cole paused and then said, "Are you thinking of Lily, sir? How she will not let him go, even after four years?" The young giant's voice was tinged with sorrow.
"Her devotion is remarkable," was all Horatio would say.
"I thought no one could miss him more than I. He came and went in my life over and over, almost like the changing monsoons. He was full of joy, you know, and not not braggadocio as some would have it. He was a brave and merry giant to me and I wanted more than anything to be like him. His very name was anathema to the Dutch, you know, which made him a great hero to my mother's people, for he beat the Hollanders at every turn. The enemy have had a very cruel history here and you probably know they still hold many islanders as slaves, those whom they have not completely wiped from the earth. I suppose every man's father is a hero to him at some time, but not many sons have a father who is a hero to all. Yet so it was with mine.
"That first year, when he did not return and no word was sent, I was convinced he was merely delayed. Then I thought he might have been captured by the enemy. Or perhaps he had been wounded by pirates. I have heard tales of men who have suffered the loss of all memories for a time, and that was probably the last straw I clung to. In the third year, I made myself face the facts: No sign of his ship being broken up; nothing belonging to him nor any piece of the Swan was ever found amongst captured pirates; the Dutch never reported engaging him in battle any time during that last voyage. Not one man of his has ever again been heard of.
"That third year was my time of mourning. I still miss him greatly but -- I gave him up at last. But not Lily no! She'll never give up, I swear! If only you could have seen them together, sir! What a pair they made! I never saw such joy; they always seemed to be smiling, laughing except for those times when he, and then I in my turn, prepared to sail. She never complained, never cried, never tried to make us stay, but it took a toll on her all the same. If she lives to be a hundred, I think Lily will go to her death believing Papa must still be alive somewhere. And she will awaken in the Hereafter with his name on her lips!"
Horatio could not think why he suddenly felt guilty, unless it was remembering the forlorn figure of Maria weeping softly and waving goodbye to him from the docks while he pushed all thought of her aside as he reveled in the freedom of being at sea again, in command of his own ship. Or, the thought sneaked in beneath his defenses, because he would a thousand times rather it had been the beauteous and vibrant Lily instead of plain, dowdy Maria! Lily to fold and pack his clothing, to fuss over his needs, to kiss and cling as she whispered farewells he wondered how Courthope had ever found the will to leave port, but then the ghost of Maria seemed to rise up and smother Horatio with reproach.
Abruptly he dismissed Cole, wishing he had not encouraged the confidences of the young officer. He was glad he could not see the other man's face as he did so. If the other man presumed too much after this it would be Horatio's own fault. When Willis returned to the quarterdeck, he gave the youth an unnecessarily sharp reminder to keep the traverse board up to date. To Willis's request to add sail, the wind now being so favourable again and the seas so smooth, he said, "No, Mr. Willis. And tomorrow, after you've had time to think about it, you may tell me why not."
With that, he descended the ladder and passed the sentry without a word. Stripping down and pulling on his nightshirt again, he lay down in his cot and hoped for the swift release of sleep. But as so often occurred, the rhythmic pitch and steady creaking of the ship around him brought no respite from his busy thoughts.
In his mind's eye he watched as Lily smiled up at him, took his arm as escort; watched as her eyes rounded in surprise and amusement at some tale of shipboard folly. Suddenly he longed for a cup of the coffee she had sent to him, as if the heat from it was somehow an extension of her own. He remembered the odd look Cole had worn when he had presented the parcel to his captain. Had the Lieutenant recognized how flattered Horatio had been by a gift from the woman rightly called 'The Flower of Penang'? God, he had tried to hide it, but had he been successful? The humiliation of thinking otherwise was too much to bear! And he should not be thinking of any woman but Maria. Yet the very existence of his faraway wife seemed suddenly a burden almost too heavy to bear.
He rose from his cot, determined to wipe Lily from his mind. He owed his wife a letter, it was the least he could do for her the only thing he could do for her at this distance! He wrapped his nightshirt around his knees as he sat down at the desk and prepared to write. He fumbled through the drawers. Yes, here was Maria's most recent letter to him, written before he had last seen her but not delivered into his hands until his departure from Gibraltar. Impatient with himself, he wondered if other men were so lacking in articulation and the speech of affection that they must needs copy the words from their own wives.
Dear Maria, he began, dreading how he must cobble together some affectionate phrases for a woman who seldom entered his thoughts.
But for once the words flowed from his pen with an ease he had never known. How dear her memory was to him, how precious the children she had laboured to bring forth. More and more intimate his words became as he described his desire for her, his loneliness without her companionship. How he yearned for the comfort and sweet release of her embrace, and the tender heaven of her kiss.
Pausing to carefully blot the sheet, he read his own words back to himself, then pushed away from the desk in guilty horror. Once again, he knew it had been Lily in his mind's eye as he had written the poignant words of love; it had been Lily in his thoughts even as he had scribed Maria's name! Shame washed over him and he started to tear up the letter. Then he stopped, frozen, as he realized how much these words words he would never be able to force himself to speak how very much they would mean to his wife. Maria saved all his letters, she had told him so repeatedly. Had told him how she read and re-read each one, lingering over the meager expressions of endearment he had awkwardly fumbled to frame. Yet here now was a letter that would engrave itself on Maria's heart. How could he deny her right to these words, even if he had meant them for another? The knowledge of it would be an eternal penance for his spiritual infidelity, yet another hairshirt among the several he possessed and wore regularly.
Deliberately he added a few pragmatic sentences dealing with how she might best manage the household on his pay, a few words more hoping that the children had recovered from the terrible illness that had gripped them when last he was home, and finally he signed himself 'Yr Adoring Husband.'
The awareness of his guilt acted as a stinging distraction from visions of Mrs. Courthope. At last he could concentrate on the King's business. Putting aside the letter, he found and unfurled the chart for the Java Sea. Pinning the paper in place with compass and a bit of broken block, he studied the northern coastline of Java, his brown eyes studious as they dwelt on Batavia.
The harbor there was enormous, perhaps as wide as 20 miles at the mouth, though it was the portion directly below the town than concerned him. He had been told the anchorage could hold as many as 1000 ships. That might make for cramped berths and difficulties in weighing, but stillwith only a few islets and the depth never less than four fathoms, the Dutch could lay in as many as seven or eight hundred ships -- if they had had so many, which thank God was not the case! There was no chance of the number of ships at anchor there being so high, but Horatio was no less anxious for all that. Captain Groot had said, in the clear Dutch which Cole had had no trouble translating, that there were two frigates lying at Batavia Road when the Zeerop had sailed. In addition, there were two corvettes, a sloop, and a brig, all ranging from 14 to 18 guns. There were several Dutch India Company ships which would be armed to some small extent, and not to be discounted were the gunboats Groot's snide lieutenant had bragged about. The gunboats patrolled the harbour and the waters just beyond, and numbered at least 100 if the Dutch were to be believed. Shore batteries were the least of his worries; the Caroline would never be allowed within their reach, surrounded as she would be by enemy ships.
It was impossible to plan a cutting-out expedition without first observing for himself the number of ships and the conditions in the Road. Yet how to observe so open a harbour without also being sighted and attacked? Even if he opted merely to look in while passing, he could expect one or both frigates to pursue. While he would never turn from an evenly balanced fight, it was the height of recklessness to put his ship in the position of being little more than a red flag to the Dutch bulls. A slow approach, he supposed, getting as much information as possible then tacking away until they were hull down on the horizon again? Perhaps. Or if he sailed far enough east, staying below the horizon, he could wear ship, timing his arrival with the sunrise. Then as long as there were no clouds to shade their eyes, he could take the ship closer in without fear of recognition, as the Dutch were looking into the morning sun. Yet the Dutch would be more alert as dawn broke, as every ship of war had to be, since it was all too easy to emerge from the blanket of night to find oneself within easy hailing distance of the enemy. Every British ship o' war met the dawn with her men at quarters, and Horatio had no reason to suppose the Dutch did otherwise. So then if the Caroline had to run for it, he would then be too far east to make a run back to the Sunda Strait where the reefs and atolls and volcanoes would allow him to evade pursuit. In that unhappy event he would have to run almost due north, beating back up through either Bangka or Gelasa Strait. Bankga was by all accounts a pestilent hell-hole; it was no place for any ship that wasn't entirely desperate. Horatio had read once of a ship that had put into Bangka for repairs and in less than two weeks, half her crew had died of the fever that permeated the stagnant, swampy air.
So deeply was Horatio immersed in thought that the sentry had to knock twice. It was Davis of the afterguard, a little breathless.
"Beggin' yer pardon, Cap'n Hornblower, sir. Respects of Mr. Willis, sir, and there are lights on the water! Will you come, sir?"
Horatio forced himself to rise as slowly and naturally as if the request were of no more urgency than to go and inspect the hold. He tugged his frayed and faded dressing gown from its hook, and pulled it on.
"Pirates?" he asked calmly.
"I couldn't make out, sir. But there's just the lights, no sounds apart from our own that I could tell."
On the quarterdeck, Willis looked only a little relieved to see his captain.
"Over there, Captain," he pointed. "Fine on the larb'd bow and we're closing on them. The bow watch spotted them first. It's most peculiar, sir. They appear and then are gone again, only to reappear. Sometimes closer, sometimes further off. If it's pirates I don't understand why they keep -- There! Did you see them, sir?"
Horatio had, and asked for the nightglass kept by the binnacle. He found it was of no help. The lights flicked in and out of view but even allowing for the upside picture of the nightglass, did not appear to be in regular enough formation to be a convoy. And surely no pirates would allow so much light to be seen from a distance at night? These were merely small, bright pinpoints of light that made no sense to him. He could make out no shadow or silhouette that might be a sail or hull.
"Shall I order hands to quarters, sir?"
He handed Willis the nightglass and said, "Not yet. My respects to Mr. Cole, tell him he is wanted here."
Whatever the lights were, perhaps someone more familiar with the South Seas could tell him, and Cole was the only man aboard ever to have sailed east of Bombay. But Horatio would be kicking himself if he had to order the men to quarters after wasting time passing the word for his Second Lieutenant.
The lights continued to flash on and off, their movements random, with no sign of any boat or ship nearby. Horatio was beginning to wonder if the lights were some kind of phosphorescence or perhaps an equatorial version of foxfire, when Cole arrived.
"Sir?" Cole was only in his breeches, his shoulders and chest seemingly more broad than was possible. His wrists were thick as cable.
"Can you identify those lights for us, Mr. Cole? You'll see them in a moment, off to looward there."
Flashes and flickers and then Cole said confidently, "Laweri, sir. They're running close to the surface tonight. They make quite a sight when they run right below the ship."
"You're saying those lights are fish?" Hornblower was amazed, as well as relieved by this information. "Bless my soul! But they're so bright!"
"Lantern fish, you might call them, sir. They're not often right around these waters, they don't care for the traffic you might say. More often you'll see them around the smaller islands, Amboyna and the Bandas-like, anyplace where the coral drops off sharp-like and deep. Laweri have some sort of light organ right between their eyes. Given a small boat and a few laweri, you could see more than a fathom deep even at midnight. Better still, their lights shine for a few hours even after they're dead. A good fisherman will keep a jar handy, and use the laweri for a makeshift lantern. You don't want to eat them though, sir. Good enough for bait, but that's about all."
"Thank you, Mr. Cole. I apologize for disturbing your rest."
"Not a'tall, Captain. I wasn't asleep. Too busy thinking on tomorrow and tomorrow. Will we have any opportunity for gun practice before Batavia, sir?"
Horatio thought the expression 'tomorrow and tomorrow' was a curious one. It made him think of an old friend, dead these five years now, but Horatio could never hear a line of Shakespeare without the words conjuring up an image of Archie Kennedy.
"Possibly, Mr. Cole. If we find nothing of interest at Bantam, then I think we can stand off for an hour's practice under sail. But your watch has done well in the last competitions; do you look to mend any faults there?"
"No, sir, but I understand the men have not seen action for almost two months. A good exercise will see them relaxed and settled for whatever we find at Batavia."
Hornblower nodded. It was not a bad idea. It would keep everyone busy and idle minds from the rising panic that precedes the knowledge of certain battle. Half of these men could be dead in the next day or two. He might die himself, a hideous death, sliced in half by a 24 pound iron ball traveling faster than any ship could, or he could be pierced by an enormous splinter from his own quarterdeck, his last minutes spent in agonizing awareness of his life's end. The thought of his own blood being spilt brought a cold anxiety to gnaw at him. And for what? For information? For a ship? For a King whose mental faculties were severely dimmed? It was easy now in the darkness of the middle watch to hide these early pangs of fear, but he knew from past experience that once the enemy was in sight, once he had set himself on the irreversible course of battle, fear would force a lump into his throat, would dampen his palms and weaken his knees, and do its damnedest to show him up for the coward he knew himself to be.
But he feared shame more than he feared death , and he would batter down the Gates of Hell with his bare hands before he would ever let any man know of his weakness.
Horatio had decided the Gates of Hell might very well bear a strong resemblance to Batavia Road. The Zeerop's officers had naturally exaggerated their own strength in the Dutch stronghold but even so, what remained was a formidable force. This was quite a large hornet's nest Admiral Pellew wanted Hornblower to stir, and with a very little stick.
On the second morning after parting from the Zeerop, the dawn skies had lightened with the Caroline hull down on the horizon north of Java, for the benefit of any sharp-eyed Dutchmen who might be alert to danger. Only the topmasts would be visible from the harbour as the ship slowly swung southeast, wind on the larboard beam, and began easing closer to Batavia. Hornblower had made his way to this point carefully, timing his appearance on the horizon to be shortly after the break of dawn. The Dutch would get a clear, albeit distant, view of him, and he would quickly know whether to break off and run for Sunda or hold to his course.
Gritting his teeth and hoping his coffee stayed down, Horatio tucked his glass in the waist of his breeches and went forward to begin the hand-over-hand climb up the ratlines to the foretop. He hated doing this, but in this instance he would trust his own eyes before another's. But he had no head for heights, and up here the ship's gentle motion swung the mast like a dizzy pendulum, making larger and larger irregular circles the higher he climbed. The swooping motion as well as the suffocating heat even at this early hour, exacerbated his tendency to seasickness, but he fought back his rising gorge and continued on. The other reason he usually avoided ascending to the top was because he detested for the agile and fearless topmen to see their captain's less-than-adept maneuvering along the sheets and shrouds. He forced himself to ignore the lure of the lubber's hole, grasping the futtock shrouds instead so that for several nauseating moments he hung out and away from the mast. Gravity pulled at the entire length of his body; one slip and his carcass would end as a messy lump on the fo'csle below for the men to clean up. Breathing heavily, his face reddened from the unaccustomed exertion, he managed at last to pull himself over onto the platform, where a pair of foretopmen waited in silence, knuckling their foreheads in salute. If they were surprised to see their captain so high above deck, they made no sign. Steadying himself as well as he might, Hornblower fumbled with one hand for his glass.
"Good morning," he acknowledged the men.
Two frigates, Groot had said, and damn the man! for he had not lied. A single corvette as well, and a brig, yes. Horatio took his time, scanning the road in long slow sweeps of the glass, swallowing back his coffee yet again and finding the taste was not nearly so delightful the third and fourth time about. No sign of the sloop Groot had mentioned, but the Dutch would hardly miss it as in its place was a Jan Company vessel fairly bristling with guns, as much as he could tell at this distance. And as for the Dutch lieutenant's hundred gunboats, Horatio counted 33, most of them tucked in close to shore. All in all, there was enough powder and shot at Batavia to sink Caroline a dozen times or more.
Lowering the telescope, he daubed sweat from his eyes with one shirt-sleeved forearm. The foretop rolled deeply as a swell surged under the frigate, and an acid mix of bile and coffee burned his throat. Swallowing hard, he again peered through the glass, noting the Dutch positions carefully, their yards, the gunports; all the while a strong, steady wind from the northeast whisked along his cheek. Yes, he thought. Yes! It might be possible. It was just possible!
"Deck there! This is the Captain!"
"Deck here, Captain!" Cole's deep boom rang back clearly without the aid of a speaking trumpet. Horatio drew a deep breath and bellowed.
"Maintain your course! And Mr. Cole: Raise the flag of the Batavian Republic!"
Very obliging it had been of young Cavendish to provide Hornblower with the means of a ruse de guerre. It would hardly be enough to hold off an attack indefinitely but it ought to buy enough time for him to get a better look at those two frigates.
As they continued on the sou'sou'east bearing that would eventually bring them deep into the harbour, Horatio awkwardly descended the rigging, sliding down the backstay like a gangly spider and landing heavily on his feet, staggering a little. He had been terrified he would miss his footing, ludicrously ending on his backside and drawing laughs of ridicule from the men. It was in his mind that if even once the ship's company found their captain a figure of fun, he would lose his authority over them forever. As easily as that, he reckoned, his career would begin the long slide down into ignominy and disrating, a fate he feared, if not as much as a painfully bloody death in battle, certainly more often.
Stalking aft to the quarterdeck, he saw and disregarded the silent questions in the faces of the officers waiting there, wanting to know what troubles lay ahead and what their captain planned to do about them. Lieutenant Cole slid a quick sideways glance at him and realized Hornblower's mind was too busy for questions. He turned his attention back to the immediate task of holding to course.
"Helmsman, mind your luff! If I have to remind you again you'll lose your rum ration for a week!" Cole growled. Tension was creeping onto the quarterdeck, distracting the man at the wheel. The lieutenant grimaced as the Dutch colours now snapped boldly at the stern. That flag would be little enough protection against the Dutch, he reckoned.
Captain Hornblower had gone back to studying the harbour through his glass. Finally he called to the bosun and addressed him.
"Mr. Wheaton, I'll thank you to put a spring on both cables. Anchors cockbilled, sir . At once, if you please!" The last sentence was fairly roared at the man, who seemed inclined to stand and goggle at the captain.
"Mr. Willis," Hornblower turned his attention to the midshipman, "from this time until we raise our own ensign again no man is to show any sign of a British uniform. Collect all of the officers' hats here, take mine now -- and get them out of sight. And tell the lieutenant of marines to get those red coats off his men and stowed. There is to be no sign this ship could be anything but Dutch. They might guess, but they won't fire on us until they're certain. I don't suppose there's anything we can do about our name at such short notice, Mr. Cole?"
"No need, sir." Cole's excitement grew as he understood Hornblower meant to proceed well beyond the harbour's wide entrance, directly into the midst of the enemy. "The Dutch have a Caroline of their own. She's a third-rater, not a frigate, but they might not remember it straight off."
Yet the order for the springs was worrisome to the young man, for it was difficult to think of a use for a spring unless the ship were moored. At the same time it was not at all hard to imagine what terrible circumstances could induce a British ship to anchor in such an unwelcoming port: Defeat! Cole puzzled over it. He could have easily understood heaving to in a fight, but mooring in the midst of the enemy? He forced himself to attend to what the Captain was saying.
Horatio was addressing the midshipmen, of which he felt had been blessed with too many, while being cursed with too few qualified lieutenants.
"Very well. Release the men to breakfast. It is early but they ought to have something now, even if it will be cold. But don't allow them to linger. I want them at quarters directly after. Do not sound quarters; every man is to proceed quietly to his position and clear for action so soon as he has eaten. I want the guns run out as if for a salute, is that understood? Mr. Thripps, you have the larboard divisions; I want your guns loaded with shot, but all crews will man the starboard guns. Mr. Bartleby, I want those guns manned and loaded with canister for the first broadside only. We will sweep their deck with the first broadside, and then round shot afterwards. Mr. Cole, sir, you will oblige me by leading a boarding party at my command. Have the boats made ready."
"Aye, aye, Captain. Marines in the tops as well, sir?" Cole asked quickly.
Hornblower rubbed one hand across his face, hoping he appeared to be wiping away sweat instead of trying to hide his sudden dismay. Of course he would need marines in the tops; why hadn't he thought of that for himself? This carelessness of his was going to get these men killed!
"Certainly I want marines in the tops, Mr. Cole!" he snapped edgily. "But make certain none of them is wearing a red coat!"
Embarrassed even though Cole had had no notion of the effect of his words, Hornblower retreated to his cabin only to pick anxiously at his morning biscuit and another cup of coffee. Ferry would have fussed but Horatio barked a dismissal that sent the steward scampering away with singed ears.
He stared at the chart of Batavia, marking in the Dutch positions, measuring angles, and memorizing depths until his eyes burned. Almost absently he murmured to himself, "Very obliging of her to be facing us."
Horatio guessed that Lieutenant Cole would be pondering the
madness of calling 'boarders away' in the midst of so great an
enemy presence. Cole was no fool, even though he was barely of
an age to have received his commission, so like Horatio he would
have discounted a portion of Groot's claims. Even so, if there
had been no other ships than the two frigates Groot had named,
still they faced enormous odds. And it would not be long before
the entire ship's company was aware of it, for all the officers
save Lieutenant Cole possessed a glass. They would see for themselves
the vast array of arms that stood against them. But he wondered
if any of them would see what he had seen. And even if one of
them had, would they, like Hornblower, consider the odds were
leveled by it? Or was it only his own addiction to danger that
led him to believe he could successfully attack the enemy within
its own stronghold? Anxiety gnawed at him, and he considered rescinding
his orders. What effect might that have on the men? Now that he
had ordered them to quarters, if he backed off he would look a
coward. Yet he could not let that weigh with him when there were
lives at stake. Lives, his orders, his career, the war. In effect,
he was already committed to battle.
He rolled up the chart and stowed it, arguing with himself that he was making the right decision.
On the quarterdeck Cole had dispensed his orders as an apothecary dispensed remedies. Satisfied that for the moment he had done all he might to prepare for the fighting to come, he called to one of the afterguard trooping off to breakfast. "Travers, have the cook's mate bring my biscuit to me here."
Damn it all! Cole clenched empty fists as he stalked the planks, wishing for the thousandth time he knew who aboard Culloden had stolen his telescope. He checked the drawer in the binnacle again, knowing there was only a night glass to be found there. Cole knew the captain had marked the fact that his Second had no glass, even on that very first day out of Penang. Although Hornblower had never remarked on it, yet the younger man was aware of his heavy disapproval. Not once had the captain offered his own bring'em near, almost as if he did not trust its safety to an officer so backward as not to possess one of his own. Cole swore that the next time he got one of the damned devices he would lash it to his side and never, never allow it beyond his immediate grasp.
It was a small, irritating lesson the captain was teaching him. Not to worry, for he knew a much larger lesson was about to be conveyed in these next few hours. Springs. Canister and round shot. Hornblower was anticipating battle on all sides, as well he should given the information extracted from the Zeerop's officers. Certainly those men would have exaggerated their own strength, but could they have been totally out of hand with their numbers? Or perhaps the ships they spoke of had already sailed, leaving the harbour mostly unguarded? He fretted at his own ignorance, thanks to the lack of a glass.
"Ah, Mr. Cumby, sir!" He spied the Master making his way aft at long last, and greeted him with the eagerness of youth. "I wonder if I might trouble you for the use of your telescope, sir?"
Cumby handed him a hard biscuit which he absently accepted and tucked inside his shirt. He bore patiently with the old man's grumbles about the heedless manner in which young men nowadays prepared to go to sea, and waited until gnarled fists, hard as weathered oak, reluctantly passed over the glass. He grinned with excitement and fairly threw himself up into the rigging, one hand gripping the mizzen shrouds and his feet braced against the crossties. In this position he leaned as far out as possible over the water chuckling away to stern. His free hand held the glass to one eye.
What he saw made him deaf to Old Cumby's anxious cacklings about dropping the glass in the water, as well as to the sound of the men returning from their makeshift meal and going efficiently to quarters. He drew a deep breath and scanned the road again, wondering how the sight of so many enemy sail aligned against one lone frigate had struck Captain Hornblower.
God! They would have their hands full only against that nearest frigate, the Maria Riggersbergen. She was pierced for 36, same as Caroline, and she was only hove to, so she could ---. His thoughts careened wildly as he swung the glass back to the other frigate, more than halfway across the neatly maintained harbor to larb'd of Maria. And well for'ard of her, too. That one, the Phoenix, another 36-gun ship, with yards crossed but sporting no canvas, was swinging to both bower anchors, he noted. Probably had been doing so since the storm two days earlier. Perhaps it was just laziness on the part of the ship's officers to have left both anchors down or perhaps they had anchored where there was little purchase, but for whatever reason, it would take the Phoenix a goodly while to do more than spit a few starboard-side shots at the British ship. He measured off the angles in his mind. Yes, they could use their bow and stern chasers, but the Phoenix would not be able to bring as many as a dozen of her main guns to bear, and those would be the farthest removed, so acute would be the angle of fire. He smiled to himself before his attention was again captured by the other ships: The corvette, William, and the brig Zee-Ploeg, both 14 guns; and there was a colonial vessel as well, the Patriot, she mounted another 18, the vessels scattered between the two frigates.
He took a deep breath as he counted the little gunboats hovering close to one another just below the fortress, at the innermost part of the harbour. Cole did not for one moment doubt Hornblower's sanity, but had the man really been able to calculate a victory from these odds, merely from a few minutes time in the foretop? He could see a glimmer of opportunity himself, certainly. Yes, a spring on both cables might answer, and the boarders would have to be ready to take to the boats. But they were already short-handed some fifty men, between men assigned to prize crew and those in the sick berth. If they boarded and were taken, Caroline would then be forced to take to her heels, desperately undermanned. Any further encounters could finish her; she would not be able to defend herself.
He swung back in board and dropped nimbly to the deck. He was still digesting what he had seen as he handed the glass back to Cumby.
"Enough to put a man right off his food, ain't it?" the Master commiserated, for he had already scanned the situation and did not like the odds one whit. "Better get y'self outside of thet biscuit whilst ye've the chance. If we don't turn soon, looks like the Captain's gonna do for us all this time. Which do ye have a mind for, Lieutenant, bleeding to death from Dutch shot or starvin' t' death in one of they prisons?"
"Belay that talk, Mr. Cumby!" Cole spoke sharply. "The Captain knows what he's about!"
"I thank you for your confidence, Mr. Cole."
The Captain's quiet voice came from behind him, and Cole turned to find an almost embarrassed smile playing on Hornblower's lips.
"Mr. Cumby, steer us toward that frigate fine off the starboard bow. A bit more sou'westerly will do it. Take us in close please. I want to be able to shake hands with her captain! But mind we don't get tangled in her rigging. We'll pass her to starboard, then clubhaul and heave to even with her larboard side."
Horatio paused for a few seconds to allow his astonished officers to digest this startling announcement. Clubhauling an abbreviated manner of tacking using anchor and spring as well as the ship's own momentum to bring her around without losing significant ground to leeward was almost unheard of, being performed only in the most extreme of circumstances and even then, with only rare success. The maneuver required skill, timing, and luck, and only a desperate man -- or one superbly confident in his own seamanship -- would attempt it. Cumby was still trying to grasp what his captain was envisioning when Hornblower continued.
"Gentleman, no gun is to be fired before I give the order. Lieutenant Montmorency may be trusted, I know, to keep his marines in check. Pass the word to the gun crews: Any shot fired before I give the command will earn every man in that crew three dozen lashes!"
Under Naval regulations Hornblower was not authorized to order more than a dozen lashes to any man, and had rarely done as much, but other captains dealt out much harsher punishment on a regular basis, boldly noting it in their log books, and in almost every instance the Admiralty turned a blind eye. Knowing how rarely the lash had been used thus far under his command yet how Hornblower always delivered punishment exactly as promised, the men would perfectly understand the importance of this order, and the consequences of their failure to obey. The threat of punishment was never an absolute guarantee against an anxious gun captain, but now was the time when all the training and discipline Horatio insisted on would prove their worth.
At a mile from the Maria, Hornblower could see movement aboard her. Her lookouts must have noted the bearing of this new frigate and alerted the deck, for if the Caroline did not ease off the wind soon, she looked to put her bowsprit directly through their starboard beam.
Minutes trickled away by the grain in the hourglass, and Cumby was looking more and more worried, biting his lip and flicking anxious glances toward Hornblower, as if he would like to argue his orders. Flags ran up the Maria-Riggersbergen's halliards, probably a challenge for Caroline to identify herself, and possibly an order to veer off. A Dutch signal book would have been a fine thing to have got out of the Zeerop's capture, Horatio thought, but Groot had wisely prevented that. The other enemy vessels would be taking notice of events as well. Any sign of a coordinated counterattack, and Caroline would have to take to her heels.
He thanked the Fates for the steadiness of the northeast monsoon. If this wind died or veered, he would be lucky to lose no more than his ship. He sent one swift glance to the yards; the men were at stations for stays, awaiting his orders. No, if the winds were not so true in this place and at this time of year, he would never beard so many dragons in their own den!
Tension swelled as they drew nearer, the men growing silent and taut of mouth as the overwhelming odds became plain to them. The creak of rigging and planks, the gurgle of water below the bow, it almost seemed no other sounds were permitted aboard Caroline now. Some of Maria's officers, thoroughly alarmed by this unidentified newcomer, this seemingly out-of-control vessel with her blind captain, were now gathered at her starboard beam and could be heard shouting at the rapidly approaching vessel and waving wildly like pendants in a gale.
"Mr. Cole?" Hornblower inquired.
"They're warning us off, sir. Calling you all kinds of impolite names I'd not care to repeat, Captain. But I don't think they know we're British yet."
Horatio nodded at the figures now scattering from amidships to stern, a hive of activity forming around her bowchaser. "That's as may be, Mr. Cole, for I believe they intend to fire on us regardless."
And indeed a puff of smoke belched from Maria's bowchaser.
"Sir?" Warrick was becoming anxious.
"No, hold your fire!"
Two minutes, he thought, two minutes and no more.
The shot from Maria went directly across the bow, putting a hole through the foretopmast staysail. Wheaton cursed heartily at the accuracy, as the shot was nearer to his person than he cared for.
"Their gunner has a pretty good eye," Mr. Willis noted, his voice higher than normal and far too casual to be casual. Unspoken but understood by all was that the next round would likely be a direct hit, as they continued to ignore what Horatio was certain, without Cole translating for him, were Dutch curses. Cole was busy anyway, ordering the sails loosed, dumping the wind, and gathering in the courses and t'gallants. Caroline's speed rapidly dropped off though her headway would still carry her into the Dutchman's side if not soon checked.
Horatio watched anxiously, counting off the seconds in his mind, then called sharply, "Helmsman, hard up now! Steer alongside her!"
Even as the bow swung away from the enemy the taffrail exploded into splinters next to Horatio, and the frigate rocked as the Maria fired again, a belch of flame and smoke erupting from her side. But little damage had been done, or even intended, as no more than two or three guns had been fired. The Dutch still appeared to be uncertain who they were firing on. Suddenly there was doubt whether they should be firing at all now that the danger appeared be passing as Caroline had slowed and was now merely easing her way alongside. Horatio smiled as his bowsprit passed within inches of Maria's chains. It had been a pretty maneuver, Hornblower thought, for they were now within half a pistol shot of the Dutch frigate while Caroline had taken no significant damage. That in itself old Cumby must be counting a miracle!
He could see his Dutch equivalent fairly dancing with rage or fear or some other ungoverned emotion as the two quarterdecks were coming almost even. The man tossed his hat to the deck and stomped on it, shaking a fist in Horatio's direction. Horatio started to bring his hand to his hat in cold salute then remembered he was not wearing one. Instead he turned his back to the volatile Hollander, his bearing that of a man in complete control of himself as he gave his orders coolly.
"Mr. Willis, you will strike the Dutch colours this instant and raise our own! Mr. Cole, direct the starboard guns to fire as they bear! Sweep their deck! Lieutenant Montmorency, you may signal your men in the tops to fire at will!"
Horatio paced back and forth, with quick jerky steps. They were sweeping alongside her now but too fast it seemed to him. The quarterdeck was eerily quiet in those moments, not even the padding of bare feet on the wood, and an eternity had surely passed before the flag of the Batavian Republic came fluttering down the halyard. A chill went down his spine. God, had he timed it all wrong? Were they going to pass the Dutchman before he could even get a shot off? Willis had already had the ensign bent on and ready to raise, but even so His Majesty's colours were barely halfway aloft when the shouts of "Fire! Fire as you bear!" rose up and the sudden blast from the starboard gun ports put Horatio's fear of mis-timing to rest, even as the corresponding recoil of guns and the shudder of the deck staggered him for a moment. Smoke rolled up in thick waves from the gundeck, obscuring his view of the Dutchman. At least half of the guns had engaged in that first searing broadside; now, one by one the other guns discharged, showering the Maria's deck with dozens of iron musket balls traveling at a deadly velocity. These small shot would pass cleanly through four inches of oak planking. They were far less kind to the human body.
But timing would be everything now, and the Maria was still far from helpless. He turned and ---.
Without any warning, an enormous explosion rent the air and rained splinters and water over the quarterdeck and even well forward! The concussion of air dropped him unwilling to the deck, face down. For a few seconds he lay with his arms over his head, ears ringing and vision blurred, before realizing he was unharmed. Fearing the worst for his men, he scrambled to his knees, shaking off jagged shards of wood from his back..
"What the devil?" he exclaimed.
"It's not us, sir! We're not hit! At least not --!." It was Willis, his voice soaring high as any girl's, shrieking with excitement. "It's the brig, sir, she's blown up! I think that other frigate meant to fire on us and hit the brig instead. The very devil of a shot, sir! They must have taken it directly in the magazine!"
And indeed where once the Zeeploeg had swung to anchor there was naught but churning water littered with the remnants of ship and men. Of the 70 or 80 men who had sailed in her, there remained of them only the memories of their loved ones, for their friends were likely all dead in the same terrible blast. But two minutes past there had sailed and fought living, breathing men how could it be that so suddenly it was as if they had never been? It was a ghastly tableau, and his own shock was reflected in the eyes of his officers, but a small detached voice in Horatio's head pointed out in some relief that there was now one less enemy ship to face, and he could save those larboard guns of his for later.
Aboard the Phoenix small figures ran to and fro. Her Captain must have been alerted to danger when Caroline had failed to answer the challenge, for he had barely hesitated to fire upon her. And regardless of their poor marksmanship which had instantly slain so many of their own, they were still trying madly to win their anchors. Horatio shook his head. Weighing, making sail, and manning the guns all at the same time was not something many ships could claim the manpower to handle. A ship of the line perhaps would have so many men aboard, but never a frigate. No surprise then that in all the excitement of the attack someone aboard her had fired without proper bearing. No, he need not fear a chase from Phoenix, but if she got off another shot as lucky as the last had been unlucky, neither would he need to worry about whether to post that affectionate letter to his own Maria.
Lost in the sight of the disintegrated brig, he suddenly realized Old Cumby had not missed so much as a stroke, the gnarled figure clinging to the binnacle as he gave the orders that would bring Caroline about 180 degrees and up along the larboard side of Maria.
"Ease down the helm!" he cried. "Helm a-lee!"
The fore and headsheets were let go on the instant.
"Wait for it, Mr. Cumby! Wait for it!"
Horatio had to slow him down. Was he cutting the angle too sharply? Not sharp enough? What if his timing was all wrong? Too sharp and Caroline's starboard side would ram against the Maria's stern, her mizzen rigging fouling Caroline's main yards. Not sharp enough and they would come alongside the other ship at too great a distance for boarding; he would only be able to exchange a few broadsides before the other ships came to Maria's aid and he would have to run for it.
He watched, riveted to the scene of Caroline's stern coming adjacent to Maria's transom, the two ships parallel but lying almost stern to stern.
"Rise tacks and sheets!"
Now the lee tack and weather sheet were shortened in preparation for coming about, and the shout arose to "Haul taut! Mains'l haul! Haul, you blackguards!" The yards were swung around and braced, and Horatio gloried to see no kinks in the blocks, but every rope smoothly rove. With the wind dumped from her sails, instead of waiting to see if the ship hung in stays or paid off, Hornblower made certain.
"Let go the lee anchor!"
The bower was let go, easily done from its cockbilled position. The iron hit the water like a club, and the cable ran out. The pull from the released anchor acted as a drag to the ship's bow as she moved forward, swinging her head through 16 points of the compass, back to windward. The spring, shorter than the lee cable to which it was attached, acted to bring the stern about in a wider circle.
"Brace the headyards!"
So smoothly it all went! Horatio almost could not believe it himself, that in such a short time and over so little distance, the Caroline had reversed her course. On the larboard side of Maria, once they had come up to her again, there would be little the other ships could do to intervene in the action. He saw Cole, almost at the end of a long tunnel it seemed, and the young giant was laughing, even as he goaded the men to finish the task. The sails billowed and filled on the opposite tack; a beautiful sight, he thought. Almost miraculous!
"Haul of all!" Horatio's cry was hoarse with excitement, but was repeated for'ard. The carpenter had been nervously waiting for this order, for it meant he could slip the cable and anchor, then the spring, and once again the frigate was free from her brief mooring. One, two, three bites of the axe, and it was done!
Hornblower now had a plain view of Maria Riggersbergen's larboard side. Only minor damage to sails and rigging from the canister, but he counted more than a dozen motionless bodies there. The Dutch captain still stood on the quarterdeck, two of those bodies at his feet. He was gesturing wildly. Would he already have ordered his larb'rd guns loaded and run out, Horatio wondered, as he had seen Caroline coming about to his unprotected side? Or had he even realized what Hornblower was up to? He might have expected the British to tack, but had Hornblower done so, the Hollander would have had more time to prepare his ship for battle. Clubhauling had saved precious minutes for Horatio, but he had tried his men severely in the doing.
"Mr. Cole, remind the gun crews it's round shot now, all guns, if you please, saving the carronades." No more trying to confuse the Dutch. They knew they were in a battle now; they knew their enemy was quick and close and coming in for the kill. He must finish this quickly, or --.
Suddenly he remembered the danger lay all about him, not just with the Maria. Wild with anger at himself, he hurriedly scanned the harbour. He was shocked, and more than a trifle relieved to find that instead of a great many of the gunboats converging on him, they were most of them trying to run themselves on shore! A more fearless pair of them were now beating up to larboard. He realized Caroline was going to pass between them and the Maria. He could see that the Patriot, armed with 18 guns, had slipped her anchor but she would be no threat for several minutes as the Dutch frigate acted as a shield from her guns. The less courageous corvette, William, 14, was running for safe cover to windward of Phoenix.
"Mr. Cole, move alternate crews to the larboard guns and have them dispose of those gunboats! Starboard guns to keep firing!"
By now Cole's thoughts were keeping pace with Hornblower's: Put the two gunboats out of action in one fell swoop if possible, then return the full force of Caroline's 18-pounders against Maria. Hornblower seemed to see everything at once; he would have noted the Dutchman was firing 12-pounders. The number of guns between the two ships might be equal, but the combined weight of the British broadside was more than a hundred pounds greater than Maria's. In an even exchange of fire, the Captain could still expect to dominate. Cole shook his head. There was no way the man could have foreseen that advantage when he made the decision to attack. Hornblower must be prescient!
As if the superior firepower were not sufficient, Hornblower had succeeded in creating a good deal of confusion on board the Dutch vessel. Several of her officers were dead or wounded from the bloody canister shot. Though it went against every rule of war among civilized nations to deliberately attempt the eradication of enemy officers, it was so effective at disrupting and demoralizing the opponents that all sides in a war were guilty of the infraction. Sometimes the felling of one officer was enough to bring victory, if the men were disorganized and lacking morale and discipline. In Hornblower's mind, that made dispensing with enemy officers a logical action, and was one reason why he expected every minute to feel his own flesh torn by hot iron.
At Wheaton's command, the larboard carronades boomed, smashing with brutal accuracy into the nearest gunboat. Less than half a minute afterward, nine of the great guns loosed a single deadly volley just as Caroline took a direct hit fine on the starboard bow. Too low for the shot to crease a gory path across the deck, Horatio judged, too far forward to likely have killed any of the men below decks. He breathed a little deeper as the wind blew the smoke back in the direction of the gunboats. He could hear shouts of encouragement from his men at the guns, then just as the smoke was revealing the smaller vessels, but before the damage to them could be ascertained, a second, ragged burst of fire exploded from the Caroline! Her gun captains had taken full advantage of having an already loaded gun alongside each of them. He was almost glad the smoke from the second round still obscured the two enemy craft, but he hadn't the time to stop and ponder the reason for his feeling.
Finally, after what seemed years but was no more than a pair of minutes, they were nearly alongside Maria again. With her tops'ls filled once more, Horatio felt her surging forward while the rumble of the starboard gun carriages being run in and out vibrated through the planking. All of his gun crews would be returning back their starboard stations and jubilation filled him as he saw now that Maria was too slow! Too slow by half, he exulted! Her guns should have been firing already, she should have been ready to blast the British to kingdom come so soon as they cleared her stern. This! This was why the Royal Navy emphasized speed and training on the guns, to the enemy's great consternation! Only just now were Maria's gun ports opening, even as an orchestra of bellows to "Fiyah!" sped a full chorus of 324 pounds of roaring cast iron slamming into her side from only a cable's length away.
And now the screams. He had not heard them before though there must have many, but this time the Dutchman's gun crews would have taken the brunt of the crashing blows. And if a gun had burst or come loose from its carriage, either alone could do more damage than a broadside as more than a ton of iron freewheeled about the ship. His vision was once more obscured by the rolling smoke rising from the ship's side, but he had been carefully counting the seconds, and he snatched up the speaking trumpet so as to be heard for'ard above the din. He coughed deeply, then gave his orders in stentorian tones.
"Let go the bower!" he cried. "Mr. Cole, to the boats! Boarders away!"
The cry for the men designated as first boarders went up, and before the black fog of smoke had cleared, the Lieutenant had them armed with an assortment of fierce pikes, freshly sharpened cutlasses and boarding axes, and Navy pistols, each man according to his choice, while Cole and the petty officers had taken up pistol and sword. He heard a cry and a scream somewhere forward, and the heavy shriek of splintering wood.
Not a second was lost as the davits were swung out and the boats lowered. Though they had less than 100 yards to row to the Dutchman, the Carolines would face small arms fire and the possibility of round shot the entire way. This was where Horatio feared the men's courage might fail them, where he was most deliberately risking their lives against terrible odds. He caught himself gnawing on his lower lip and forced himself to stop in case Cumby or Willis might see. He could make out the dim silhouette of one of the boats moving through the smoke as musket fire rang from both ships. Perhaps it was his imagination but had the man in the stern sheets flinched and slumped forward? Pray God he would not lose them all, nor be forced to abandon them here! But there was yet no returning fire from Maria's big guns. The stench of blood and death, the chaos of torn limbs amidst her guns; her losses must be heavy indeed to prevent her from returning fire. Yet her colours still flew, he noted.
"Captain, sir, Mr. Wheaton's respects and there's another bleedin' Dutchman coming 'round the frigate's bow. He says she'll be aiming to rake us, sir!"
Wheaton had wisely sent the warning aft, knowing that with the thick smoke and the Maria blocking any clear line of sight to starboard, those on the quarterdeck would never have seen the danger in time. Again he held the speaking trumpet to his lips. He didn't even try to get a glimpse of this new foe but simply gave the orders that would counter the move.
"Man the larboard spring! Larboard, I say! Haul away! Haul, damn you!" But there went Styles running for'ard, making the order clear by grabbing onto the cable-laid rope, his powerful muscles flexing and writhing under the effort. More men joined in hauling, grunting and groaning with exertion. Slowly, as if in agony, her stern reluctantly came about to larboard, the strain on the men all the more laborious for it being the second time in the space of a few minutes that they had been powering the ship with only their muscles. Horatio glanced up at the sails; with the wind coming more abeam now they would not be taken aback, and once they slipped the weather anchor she would be easy enough to trim. It was not yet three bells in the forenoon watch and already the Carolines had done a full day's work and more. Still the battle was not over, and he feared for what awaited the boarders on the Maria-Riggersbergen.
God! He had forgotten! The larboard guns had been left unloaded and run out. They would never be in time to fire first on the ship coming round the Maria! Damn him for a careless fool!
"Half the gun crews back to larboard!" The word was passed quickly but he doubted glumly it would be quick enough.
The long seconds ticked by and Caroline's starboard quarter fell away from the boats as the spring slowly worked to bring her around until her bow lay at almost a 90 degree angle to Maria's. Fine off the port bow, the Patriot was just beginning her passage, crossing before Maria's bow and where Caroline's would also have been vulnerable to raking but for the spring bringing them to a broadside position. And still the seconds seemed to stretch into eternity, the din of battle fading altogether as he waited that first blast from the Company ship. Would he hear this one? Would this be the one that stopped his pulse forever? Good God, her bow was almost abeam and still she had not fired! Perhaps, just perhaps, his gun crews would have time!
"Sir! She's seen our guns! She's running, Captain! She's running!"
Whose voice it was trickling down the long tunnel to his brain he would never know, but it was music of a sort to his tone deaf ears. And indeed, without firing a single shot, Patriot was passing them by! And adding sail, too! Her captain must be all bluff; no bite nor no bark neither! But it had been such a bold move on their part, why not go ahead and fire the broadside they must have had ready, even if they meant to run afterward? Hornblower was so stunned by this behaviour that he flinched in startlement when several of his own guns blazed away at her.
And then he understood why Patriot fled. Willis was pointing at the Maria, jumping up and down with childish enthusiasm, his voice so high now that Horatio could not make out a single syllable of what he was saying.
Cumby cackled in his ear. "She's struck, sir! Mr. Cole has taken her, and right smartly, too!"
He realized he had not even seen his men board her. It must have been a rattled and demoralized officer who had handed her over to Cole with little resistance. He could not see the dancing Dutch captain anywhere now. Most likely he had been wounded and taken below.
And that quickly it was over. Or nearly over.
Horatio felt his knees suddenly weaken and start to buckle, and he reached out quickly for support. It was Willis's shoulder, and if the youngster wondered why the Captain gripped him so hard, the question was not in his face. Stand up! he cursed himself. There was still work to be done! Getting out of this swarm of Dutchies for one thing!
"My compliments to Mr. Brodie, and he may slip the anchor, Mr. Cumby. Hands to make sail!" and the bosun's mates' pipes twittered the last order. Graves was the carpenter and Horatio had no doubt the man had been standing by anxiously awaiting this particular order. Two anchors spent Admiral Pellew would rake him mercilessly for such extravagance! Two anchors, a cable and a hawser. And the damage to Caroline yet to be fully assessed. It would probably be taken out of his pay, he thought bitterly. Never mind what his prize would prove to worth.
"Aye, aye, Cap'n," Cumby responded more heartily than at any time during the battle. "And right glad I'll be to do it! It's tickled I'll be to depart this nest o' vipers!"
Round-eyed with victory, Willis retorted, "But Captain Hornblower's defanged the lot of'em!"
Horatio sternly called Willis back to his duty. "Watch for the signal from Mr. Cole, if you please. Let Maria lead the way, then take up a position on her starboard quarter."
The coxswain was back at his station, and Hornblower called to him. "Mr. Styles, my compliments to the gun crews! They have been magnificent and there will be an extra ration of rum all 'round today! But remind them we are still surrounded by the enemy and tell them not to stand down. We will get underway so soon as Mr. Cole signals his readiness."
A sudden boom sounded, unmistakably a gun, then another, bringing a sudden stillness to the Caroline. No hit was felt, no shot seen, though everyone looked around wildly for the source of firing. A topman went racing up the ratlines for a better view.
"Deck there! 'Twas Mr. Cole that fired! They've chased off a gunboat moving to round her stern!"
"Hurrah for Mr. Cole!" exclaimed young Willis. "That was quick work to get his guns ready!"
Quick indeed, Horatio thought. Almost impossible to have done so in fact, what with the Carolines being outnumbered and the gundeck probably still in bedlam. Cole's report would make for an interesting hour! Scanning all that he could see of the harbour, he found Patriot was on a course to run aground; she looked out of control. The gunboats that had never made a move to engage all appeared happy with that decision, crowding in closer to each other. Maria still blocked his view to starboard; he could not see Phoenix or William at all now.
"Let us hope he is as expedient in getting her under way, Mr. Willis," Hornblower said grimly. "The longer we sit here, the shorter our chances grow of ever getting out again."
Everyone looked at him in shock, even the helmsman. Short chances! Short chances were sailing into an enemy harbour full of guns and reeling out with a prize frigate! Even Cumby, at first so leery of Hornblower's intent, now looked persuaded that their Captain was capable of capturing every ship in the harbour if he'd a mind to do so.
Horatio read the awe in their expressions and despised himself for allowing their wild notions to go unchecked. The way the Dutch ships had been positioned, the unfailing monsoon wind, the springs, the marked reluctance to engage that the enemy had shown heretofore in the East he would have counted himself a useless coward had he passed up an almost mathematical certainty of capturing or sinking the Maria. Even with everything in his favour, as he truly believed, he had still made potentially disastrous errors. Sending out those boats right under the guns of the Dutch! There must have been a better way! Somehow Horatio failed to remember the covering fire provided by the marines; had already forgotten how a perfect clubhaul maneuver had taken the enemy by surprise; lost to his consciousness was the perfectly timed broadside. No, he dwelled instead on his failure with the larboard guns and two lost anchors. And how many men? How many lives had he just spent?
He saw the signal from Maria just as Willis's newly lowered voice rang out. Horatio felt almost sick with sudden exhaustion.
"Take us out of here, Mr. Cumby, if you would be so kind," he said, full of quiet dread for his men. "And ask Dr. Knyveton to report our losses at his earliest convenience. And later," his voice cracked with exhaustion and emotion, "later I shall want to address the men. Their efforts today have been nothing less than -- heroic! I should very much like to tell them so."
CHAPTER SEVEN: A BIRD OF PARADISE
Much as the frugal Admiral Sir Edward Pellew wanted to chide Hornblower for the wanton loss of two anchors amongst other materials belonging to His Majesty, including the lives of three seaman and injuries to another four he could not hide his jubilance over the easy capture of an enemy frigate.
"Captain Hornblower! A triumph indeed, sir!"
Horatio demurred, politely indicating he had merely been following His Excellency's orders, but his thin, angular face was flushed with pleasure at this rare praise. The Admiral had risen from his chair to greet him in a display of extraordinary enthusiasm, as in Horatio's experience most admirals seemed bent on impressing their subordinates first by keeping them kicking their heels so long as possible, and second by ignoring them when at last they were permitted into the august presence of a flag officer.
"Would you care for some refreshments, Captain? I can promise you won't regret it. No? Coffee, then?"
"Yes, sir, coffee. Thank you," Hornblower accepted gratefully. Pellew sent the stewards scurrying.
"Now then, sir! Your report, if you please!"
Pellew was brisk and directly to business but could not entirely repress a smile. Horatio obediently handed across the table his written report of the fighting at Batavia, but the Admiral pushed it away impatiently.
"Not that!" he declared. "I know you of old, Hornblower, and I could lay good odds that I already know what it says: 'At x of the clock on the nth of January we did espy an enemy frigate and promptly engaged her. At y of the clock she struck and we took the prize into port on the nth, commensurate with orders.' Aye, I know you well, sir! Your reports detail but the merest facts, scant as they are, and leave all all! To the imagination. Come, sir, I would have the details!"
Horatio flushed and forced himself not to squirm in his chair. He did his best to oblige the Admiral but to the frustration of both men, the telling was no more revealing than the report.
"We looked into Batavia Road, sir, as ordered. The winds were steady on the quarter and the seas were calm. The frigate she is the Maria-Riggersbergen, a 36 -- she was lying to not far inside the harbor. She mounts 14 pounders, sir, while I have 18s, so she was overmatched in that regard. We ran straight for her, taking her by surprise. We exchanged fire, then boarded her. She struck within the hour."
Pellew's fingertips drummed lightly on his desk. This was not a good sign.
"I might have got all that from your report, man!" His mouth compressed in a tight line. "Details, Hornblower, details! I don't suppose for a minute that the Maria what's-her-name was sitting in the road all by herself, was she? And yet you remained in the harbour for nigh onto an hour? What the devil was going on? And how the devil did you manage to lose not one, but two anchors, as well as hawsers, eh? What were you thinking, sir, to be boarding another frigate with so many less than a full complement of men?"
Impossible to say which of the two men was more frustrated at the end of half an hour. Horatio felt he had described the action in sufficient detail as to make Pellew aware of the difficulties involved yet without puffing himself up. Still, Pellew felt he was no better informed that he had been at the beginning of the interview. Finally he surrendered, realizing he had another resource, a reliable one, upon which he might draw the description he sought.
"Very well, then, Captain. With the approval of the Commissioner I plan to purchase your prize into the service. She shall do nicely for an up and coming young officer, I think. Is there any reason to believe she might be unsuitable? Besides that tongue-twisting name, of course. She shall have to be renamed, just to save gallons of ink at the Admiralty when the clerks scrawl her name onto every piece of paper they can find."
"No, sir," said a greatly relieved Horatio. "Mr. Cole tells me she is in excellent fit, and well-victualled, as if for a long voyage."
"Hm," came the noncommittal reply. "And how is young Mr. Cole handling the Carolines? Any problems there?"
"None, sir. My own men are a mixed lot, from Portuguee to Nubian. And Mr. Cole has made himself very popular."
"Not too popular, I trust? A popular officer is generally a weak officer, in my experience." Pellew wore his sternest expression.
"No, Your Excellency, not popular in that way." Horatio again found himself trying to articulate what he knew instinctively. "Popular because he is fair and consistent. Never needlessly brutal. Never overlooking anything he ought not, but" He fumbled for the right words.
"Never mind, I think I know what you mean. That was my impression of him also, but it is not always easy to watch one man closer than another with a ship's company as large as Culloden."
Horatio nodded. "I am much obliged to you for his services, sir. They came in most handily when we captured the Zeerop. "
"So Lieutenant Warrick gave me to understand." Pellew's smile flashed briefly and was gone. "Yet I am afraid I must relieve you of Lieutenant Cole's presence. Only for the nonce, Captain," he held up a hand to belay the flicker of consternation in Horatio's eyes. "You have brought me a welcome number of prisoners, few of whom can speak even a tolerable amount of English. I shall require Mr. Cole to act as an interpreter. It is the information we obtain thusly that will determine where next you sail, Mr. Hornblower. In the meantime you would be wise to ready your ship for sailing with little notice."
The Admiral pushed aside a now tepid dish of coffee, and rose to pace by the open gallery, his mind now on other matters.
"You may as well know, Captain, if you have not already heard the dockside gossip, that Sir Thomas Troubridge arrived at Penang during your absence. And left again as well!" An uncharacteristic shrug from Pellew. "He sailed yesterday, taking Blenheim as his flagship. I strongly advised him against it but I could not prevent him. That vessel is simply not fit to be called such! For myself, I would not trust her to carry me safely across the Thames! But as we had already disagreed on other topics, I fear he was in no mood to take advice from me."
Hornblower could guess what the two men had disagreed on: Who commanded the East Indies? It was as simple a question as that. Pellew was in the highly advantageous position of being the incumbent. Therefore, any ships or territory he did not choose to cede to Sir Thomas, that gentleman would find difficult to take from him. Yet Horatio was puzzled as to why Troubridge had not stayed longer to argue his rights.
"If I may be so bold, Your Excellency, where has he gone? Does he not choose to make Penang his headquarters?"
"Oh, he chooses, Mr. Hornblower! Certainly he chooses! But he has not returned to England, of that you may be sure. No, Sir Thomas learned how, I know not that I ordered Barracouta and Piemontaise to Madras. He has taken it into his head that they are to be part of his command, so he set out to recall them." Pellew shook his head sadly. "As if catching a pair of ships were the first responsibility of a commander-in-chief! How shall he govern an entire territory if he cannot trust his officers to accomplish such tasks for him? Not that he'll catch them."
There was a quiet confidence in his last statement, and Horatio thought he caught a glimpse of the impish deviltry Pellew had been famous for in his youth.
"Madras, sir?" he questioned, his expression carefully schooled to innocence.
"Madras, Captain Hornblower," the Admiral affirmed gently, his brown eyes twinkling so, that Horatio was certain now that this voyage of Troubridge's must be some sort of wild goose chase that Pellew, if he had not actively encouraged it, had at least made possible. Or even likely.
"I should very much like to speed Caroline on her way before he returns," Pellew continued in that thoughtfully gentle tone. "Toward that end, sir, if you will pass the word for Mr. Cole, I shall inform him of his new duties."
Horatio emerged from the Admiral's quarters to find Cole on the quarterdeck, engaged in conversation with the ever-lively Lieutenant Morrow. Both juniors had left off their coats, while the bright white linen of their shirts had gone limp with humidity. Morrow sheltered his carroty locks and a face inclined to freckle under a round hat, while Cole's hat was in one hand as he used the other to push back a sweaty, sunbleached lock of hair from a broad brown forehead. The two men snapped to attention as he approached.
"Mr. Cole, the Admiral requires your presence, sir. He tells me his is appropriating your services as a translator."
Horatio's countenance was impassive; Cole's was crestfallen.
"I can only regret that, Captain Hornblower," he replied. "I had hoped I might serve longer with you. I have learned much even in the little time I had."
No doubt, Horatio thought cynically, bringing in a prize frigate had whetted Cole's appetite for command. Even so, he could not help feeling flattered for Cole was the son of a true hero of England and a promising young officer in his own right. Yet he did not permit his face to betray him.
"You should be careful what you wish for, Mr. Cole," Horatio said dryly. "I believe your duties as interpreter are temporary. When Caroline sails, you had best be aboard or I shall mark you down in the muster book with an R."
Both lieutenants laughed at this rare humour from Captain Hornblower, although Cole's chuckle stemmed as much from relief that he was not returning to Captain Tazewell's command as from Hornblower's slight jest about being marked down as having deserted ship. Then again, Cole thought, Old Horny might not be jesting; it was hard to tell with him. Hornblower had turned to leave but paused as Cole addressed him.
"Sir, is there --? Are you going to --? That is, might I impose upon you, Captain? That isthat is, if you happen to be going into Georgetown?"
How strange to hear Cole stumble over his words, Horatio thought. He was an uncommonly self-possessed young man, one who spoke directly and plainly, but not awkwardly.
"Well?" Horatio demanded impatiently. He had plans ashore that did not include running errands for his Second!
Cole gained confidence from the fact that the Captain had not simply brushed him aside and departed.
"It's Lily, sir. That is, my stepmother. Mrs. Courthope! She will be wanting to hear all the news, you know, about the passage and the fighting. It's only that, if His Excellency detains me too long there are so many prisoners to be interrogated. I know it's an impertinence, sir."
"Do I hear a question in all that, Mr. Cole?" Hornblower was listening carefully, had been since the mention of Lily had made his heart leap just a little in his breast. The letter to Maria was locked in his desk; no thought of it crossed his mind.
"Sir, if I might impose upon you to take her a message that I am well and that I hope to see her before we sail again, if it is at all possible."
Cole seemed to be almost holding his breath, awaiting Horatio's answer. Horatio made himself frown, not wanting to appear enthusiastic at this ready-made, perfectly valid excuse to call on Lily.
"Does not Mrs. Courthope live some distance beyond Fort Cornwallis?" he said, as if reluctant to go so far out of his way, even though he had been planning to do so these past three weeks. He also carefully refrained from the obvious response that the impudent Cole might pay some boy on the docks to play messenger instead of attempting to shamelessly impose on his captain.
The question rendered Cole downcast once again.
"Yes, sir," he admitted, then brightened. "But she always sends Tavi, her coachman, down to the docks whenever my ship arrives. She did the same for my father. He gave her a lookstick, so she could watch for his ship. Sometimes she drives down as well, but if not, Tavi can drive you up into the hills and bring you back again."
Hornblower still looked indecisive, so Cole added incentive, although both men knew perfectly well and hoped the other did not -- that Tavi's job would include carrying any message Mrs. Courthope's stepson chose to send.
"It is several degrees cooler up there, you know, sir. And Lily mentioned to me before we sailed that you might be interested in reading my father's journals?"
Horatio could not be troubled to hide his genuine interest in this inducement, although he made it seem as though it was only the journals and not Lily's person that piqued his desire to spend two hours driving up the side of a mountain in 95 degree heat.
"I should very much like to read Captain Courthope's journals. I have read some of his reports to the Admiralty, and if his journals are but half so interesting I shall be delighted by them, I know. And I believe I am obliged to pay my respects to Mrs. Courthope; I do owe her a small debt of gratitude."
Small! For six pounds of coffee, Horatio would have been willing to drive up hill and down for a week!
"What think you of your father's journals, Mr. Cole?" With this immediate question Horatio quashed any possible comments or inquiries regarding the gift Lily had sent him. Not that Cole was impudent enough to ask.
The Lieutenant spread his hands and shrugged disingenuously.
"Why, Captain Hornblower, I regret I cannot express an opinion. Lily has never before allowed anyone to read them."
Startled, his cheekbones betraying a flush, Horatio gave him a sharp stare. Could this boy be maneuvering him? Devil take it, thought Horatio, I believe he is! He was torn between laughter and anger at discovering Cole's intention to pair off his Captain and his stepmama, but only said with impassive countenance, "Very well, Lieutenant, I shall make time to call upon Mrs. Courthope and deliver the news that you have somehow managed to survive so long as this. Though I will make no guarantee for your future safety! And I recommend you take yourself off to see His Excellency. He has no patience with dawdlers, sir!"
Nevertheless, Cole and Morrow held to the deck even as Hornblower followed Styles over the side to his gig.
"Dear me, Mr. Cole," Morrow drawled, "I had best look to my bachelorhood, sir, for I perceive in you an inveterate, and altogether shameless, matchmaker!
Cole's infectious laughter rang out.
"I disliked being so obvious, but Captain Hornblower is so shy. Oh, not of the enemy, that I'll grant you! He certainly does not fight shy there! A regular bruiser! But where the tender emotions are concerned, he gives them a wide berth. I think he and Lily would make a grand pair!"
"Perhaps you would have been wiser to help him steer clear of the rocks of romance," advised Morrow, his mobile countenance almost doleful now.
Cole looked a question at him.
"Because," Morrow drawled in melancholy explanation, "Captain Hornblower is a married man."
Cole was stunned into speechlessness. Such a thought had never occurred to him! Hornblower was so shy of the ladies, so protective of his emotions how had the man ever managed a proposal?! Yet the tall angular captain had seemed to blossom under Lily's attentive gaze. And surely someone aboard ship would have mentioned Mrs. Hornblower? But no, he had only been aboard Caroline three weeks, and until this morning every minute had been crammed with the duties of his office. Mournfully aghast, he stared after the gig bearing Hornblower to the docks.
"Ah, hell!" he groaned, rubbing his forehead. "Wat heb ik gedaan?"
****************** ************************ ******************
Horatio had found Tavi at the docks, just as Cole had said. The small man was dressed in clothing such as Horatio had seen on Indians arriving in London from Bombay: A loose shirt above flowing breeches, while a smoothly wrapped turban in an eye-catching shade of lime topped his weathered features. Tavi's English was excellent, Hornblower happily noted, though accented and not as idiomatic as Cole's. Yes seemed to be Tavi's favourite word.
"Yes, yes, yes! Certainly, Captain, yes, I will take you to see Mem. Yes! Mem will be happy for news of Mr. Cole. It is a long ride, yes, Captain, but we have an awning, and Mem has provided us with water and fruit. Yes! There is durian! She sends durian for Mr. Cole always! He loves it. You have eaten durian, yes?"
Hornblower firmly shook his head. "I have not! Mr. Cole assures me he assures everyone! that it is the most delicious food in the world, but I am afraid the odour" He tugged off his coat and carried it over one arm.
Tavi nodded, trotting beside the long-legged Englishman. "Yes, yes! It takes courage to taste for the first time, the durian! Yes! With me, it was many years! And now, yes, I quite like it. The more one eats of it, the more difficult it becomes to stop eating it."
Hornblower remained politely dubious, for the smell of the highly praised fruit, the meat of which resembled something like a standing custard, was as offensive as any privy, worse even than the stench of sauerkraut. Horatio could not imagine who was the first man so desperately hungry as to try to eat durian!
The equipage Tavi drove was less a carriage than a narrow wagon, pulled by a donkey with as vicious a look in its rolling eyes as any drunken bosun Horatio had ever seen. He suspected that Tavi might have to pull the donkey uphill as often as not, but in Georgetown at least, the animal behaved unlike its recalcitrant ancestors and clicked docilely along Pitt Street before Tavi turned him westward and beyond the confines of town.
The wind disappeared here at the foot of the mountains, making the heat that much more unbearable. Higher up it would be cooler, and just as he thought it, Horatio caught a glimpse of scarlet flashing through the high trees.
"Was that a bird?" He had heard a multitude of tales about the varied fauna of the East Indies.
"Yes," Tavi declared. "What colour?"
It took a moment for Horatio to realize that when Tavi said yes, he was only acknowledging the question, not giving an affirmative answer.
"Scarlet, and very bright. About so big." He measured with his hands.
"Ah, yes! You must be a very lucky man, Captain! Yes, I think you have seen the red bird of paradise. I was here many years before I saw one. Fifteen years, yes, fifteen I am on this island, and I see this bird only three times! Some have lived all their lives in the town, yes, they have never seen one. It is a lucky omen, yes! The first time I met my wife, yes? It was right after I first saw the red bird of paradise!"
"What happened the other two times?" Hornblower asked, thinking of how many men would not consider such an event 'lucky.'
"Ah! Luck is a peculiar thing, Captain. Yes, most peculiar! The second time I saw this most beautiful bird, my wife, yes, she runs away with another man, back to Madras."
"How was that lucky?" Hornblower was becoming curious.
"Because she proved to be a mean woman, talking at me all the time, you see. Night and day, talk, talk, talk. For six years her tongue is never still! I can do nothing to please her. I was glad for her to go! Yes!"
Horatio grinned. "And the third time?"
Tavi nodded, a sly smile creasing his features. "Almost immediately, yes, not even a day after my wife and her lover had left on the ship, I see the bird again, yes? And then I met Li Chuen. She is beautiful! Yes, and she brings a good dowry."
"But does she talk a lot?" Horatio reminded him of this salient point.
Tavi's shrug was pure eloquence. "She is mute! Yes!"
His eyes met Horatio's, and both men burst out laughing.
************** *************** **********************
Horatio was surprised to find Lily's home was not the traditional brick and plaster colonial edifice, but instead had borrowed from native architecture resulting in a low, wide, wooden structure, the front and sides of which were on stilts to accommodate the mountain's steep slope. He saw no reflection of any glass at the windows, which stretched nearly corner to corner. Mosquito netting wafted gently at these broad openings, allowing the breeze to enter but detaining the irksome insects. A wide-planked veranda bordered the front and sides, while the entire house was shaded by tall palms, and giant ferns and plumeria blossoms circumscribed the veranda. The overall effect was one of cool and casual comfort.
At the top of the steps leading up from where Tavi had halted the wagon, a delicate creature of unmistakably Chinese ancestry stood quietly.
Horatio pointed with his chin.
Tavi nodded, waving up at his wife who still stood motionless.
"I congratulate you, Tavi! You are a fortunate man indeed." Horatio smiled.
"Yes! She is the proverbial pearl beyond price!" Tavi exclaimed, laughing as he now kissed his hand to his wife. Horatio thought her stern expression softened a little.
Privately Horatio thought that if Li Chuen was a pearl and Lily was a flower (he grinned at the literal truth of the latter), then he preferred the beauty and fragrance of the flower.
Tavi had been chattering to his wife in a language Horatio did not recognize, but remembering that Li Chuen was mute, he was relieved when Tavi turned to him and said, "Yes, Captain, you go with Li Chuen. She will take you to Mem now, yes."
He was delighted to part his backside from the hard wooden seat, and took a moment to stretch himself and don his coat before ascending the steps. He could feel Li Chuen studying him, yet whenever he looked at her, her eyes were lowered. He followed her inside, feeling his breath begin to quicken at the thought of seeing Lily at any second.
The light furniture and open design of the interior matched the cool promise of the exterior. This would never do in England, but for the tropics the house seemed perfect, if unconventional. The woman led him toward the back of the house. Here some of the rooms had doors, a concession to the English need for privacy. Sleeping quarters, he supposed, and tried not to follow that thought further.
Li Chuen paused and tapped gently at one of these doors, and upon a clearly spoken "Enter!", opened the door and gestured for Horatio to enter. Softly she closed the door behind him.
Later Horatio was never able to remember what the room looked like, its furnishings or its purpose. He could only remember Lily's sweet face looking up distractedly from whatever she was doing -- reading? sewing? writing? -- and her brown eyes filling first with surprise, and then her entire face was suddenly alight with undisguised pleasure.
"Horatio! How wonderful!"
She seemed to flow toward him, as if in one of his dreams, both hands extended in welcome. She was, he decided, even more voluptuously beautiful than he recalled. And he had not thought that possible.
He maintained sufficient composure to begin to bow formally over her hands, but she tugged them free and said, "Oh, none of that nonsense! Come and sit down, do. I am so surprised to see you again! But you must be perishing after that long drive! Isn't it terrible? But always worth it to me, of course, to be home again. What would you like? Coffee, I suppose?"
He could not help smiling foolishly at her, his spirits soaring at her candid happiness in seeing him.
"Thank you, Lily, but no. Your man, Tavi, lavished refreshments upon me the whole way."
"What am I thinking?" she chastised herself. "You must be suffering horribly in that coat. Do take it off and be comfortable again. They ought to be outlawed altogether in the tropics," she opined. "There, that's better." She draped the garment carefully over a chair, seeming not to notice the frayed cuffs and worn facings . "Could Christopher not accompany you? How long does your ship stay? Oh, heavens, listen to me go on! You will think I have lost my senses." She took a seat next to him on a long sofa and was calm again. "YOU know what I want to hear, Horatio: Everything!"
With smiling and expectant countenance she waited for him to begin. For himself, he was once again amazed at how instantly at ease he was in her company. He crossed one long, booted leg, and said, "Mr. Cole's services are required by His Excellency. I regret that I cannot say when or if he will be at liberty again before we sail, but he asked me to tell you that he is in good health and is hopeful of seeing you before we sail again."
"He charged you -- his captain -- with a message?" She was appalled. "That impudent boy! You will think I did not teach him better than to be such a rudesby. But I thank you for your kindness in delivering his message, for I am always glad to have word of him. But what of you, Horatio? You look tired, my friend," she said with her usual candor. "No, no, not that way. But as if -- as if your soul were tired."
God, yes, he was weary. Partly of himself and partly --. He felt those compassionate brown eyes looking right down into his heart and soul, and he was overwhelmed. Slowly at first, cautiously, and then bursting forth like floodwaters through a dam, the words came from him. The savagery of battle, the blood, the screams, the maimed -- the dead. He wanted to hold back the words that would shock her, words that would make her turn from him in disgust, but they came tumbling out almost against his will. And yet she never turned away, never displayed the smallest degree of revulsion. She heard him out with something greater than sympathy. There was, he felt, a greater depth of communication between them than he had ever known with anyone else. She smoothed the ragged edges of his emotions, lifted the depression of his spirits. And then he went on and told her about the night they had seen the laweri, and about the storm, and about Cole helping to trick Captain Groot.
They were laughing together over this last when he caught a flash of something in her eyes, some fleeting expression in her face -- was it disappointment? Was it longing? Whatever it had been, she had hidden it quickly, and abruptly he realized that she would have been still hoping for some word of Captain Courthope. Yet he had brought her no such word, no information, no least clue as to the destiny of her husband. And he had not even given her his regrets in the matter. He felt an absurd kind of anger rise up in his breast. It must be anger, for he was sure he could not be jealous of a dead man!
"So -- you found nothing?" she asked softly, as if Horatio had actually changed the subject to this sadder one; as if the name of Nathaniel Courthope had already been mentioned. His spectre was suddenly there, between them. Her gaze fell away and she rose in some agitation, walking blindly over to stand by the opening onto the veranda, her back to him.
He rose, too, not even trying to master his temper now, and strode after her. Clasping her shoulders, he turned her to face him, ready to vent his irritation, wanting to make her see what common sense had already told the rest of the world: Her husband was dead! She could not seriously have expected that somehow he would conjure up her long-dead husband from the sea, could she? Four years since she'd as much as seen the man, so why did she now look at Horatio with the sorrowful countenance and yearning eyes of one who had heard the bad news only just this minute? Of course he had heard nothing, seen nothing, learned nothing about Courthope! Did she think Horatio some kind of miracle worker, that he might somehow do what the rest of the Royal Navy had not managed to do?
"No, of course not," she whispered, as if in answer to his thought, her gaze determinedly fixed on him now, even as she gave him reprieve from her unnatural expectations. Her anguish, her yearning was almost palpable. "Of course you did not find him."
She stood motionless as any statue, one slim hand clenched to her bosom, the longing still writ plain on her face. And in the blink of an eye Horatio felt as if he had been struck by lightning. Had he been altogether wrong? Was't possible? Her longing, that barely hidden yearning could it be for him and not Courthope?!
The very thought splintered his self-control . Wordlessly, he caught her up in his arms, pulling her tightly to him. Lips demanded; lips surrendered; both with a hunger not to be denied. Again and again he feasted on her yielding mouth. He thought he would go mad at the insistent thrust of her soft breasts against him. Her hands, her elegant hands stroked his neck and tumbled his queue. Then they were pressing at his shoulders, pushing at him, shoving him forcefully away.
Fighting for control of each heavy breath, he stared at her. One dark-blonde tress had absconded from its pins and trailed across a white shoulder where he had pushed aside her gown. He thought she had never been more appealing than in this sweet dishevelment. Bending to kiss the curve of her shoulder, he caught a look of something akin to shock on her face, and he froze as she pulled back, away from him.
"Lily?" His voice was soft and soothing and, he hoped, seductive. "Lily, my dearest, you do want me!"
"Oh, yes!" she whispered. "God help me but I do, Horatio! Don't you see?"
"See what, darling girl?" With one finger he traced the shape of her mouth.
Her eyes were wild with despair, brimming with unshed tears.
"Don't you see that if I can want you so much -- so much that I could die of it! then Nathaniel must really be dead!"
With a shattering sob the grieving widow evaded his grasp and fled his presence.
He stood in a kind of shock of his own. For four interminable years she had believed in her husband's survival and now with one sweet embrace she had discovered he was dead.
Horatio felt like a murderer.
CHAPTER EIGHT: PERSEVERANCE
Hornblower paced the deck for hours at a stretch, his angular features sunburnt and chafed by a steady breeze that did nothing to cool him. Every morning as the sun began its daily attack, a blistering inferno ascending over the thickly forested peaks of the Malay peninsula, his officers found him there or sometimes for'ard, anywhere he could find a vacant patch of deck that gave him leeway to lengthen his stride while he thought. Often he was still there well past the dogwatches. He seldom went below, even in the heat of the noonday, for if anything his quarters were more intolerable than being directly in the sun. Warrick and Cole were amazed by him, by his endurance. Even Cole, well-acclimated to the heat, took refuge in the shadows below when possible, but then the officers' cabins were by far better ventilated than the captain's own sleeping place.
The smooth waters allowed for eased sails and made it appear that the shorelines of Sumatra to the west and Malaysia to the east were painted tableaux being slowly scrolled past either side of the ship. Though it held not much interest for him except as a place he might sometime be forced to anchor at, Horatio was able to observe the land at leisure. Through the bring-em-near, he could make out a variety of trees: Tall stands of palms, shaddock, acacia and bamboo, along with more familiar stands of birch and walnut, their height bearing testimony to their age. White sand beaches gave way to misty jungle and occasionally he would spot a brightly plumed bird. Whether or not it was the exotic bird of paradise, the vivid colors would remind him of Tavi's story and of that disastrous meeting with the no-less-exotic Mrs. Courthope. For he had determined she must once again be Mrs. Courthope in his mind, no longer Lily. And he would try not to think about his brash and thoughtless actions on that day, but could not help castigating himself for his faithlessness to Maria and the pain he had caused Mrs. Courthope. Yet he knew this guilt was more about believing that he ought to feel remorse than because he honestly did. And even that was overshadowed by his mortification, by the sting of rejection. He was embarrassed less by the thought of any moral failure than by having allowed a woman to gain so strong a grip on his emotions and actions that she could sway his actions. Never again, he swore, as his gaze roamed the horizon and he absently noted any shifts in wind and current. Never again would a woman no matter how beautiful -- have the power to make him forget his position as an officer in His Majesty's Navy, nor to open himself to rejection and humiliation. He harbored a kind of inexpressible anger at Mrs. Courthope, at the unreasonable way she clung to the memory of a dead man; clung so hard and so steadfastly that she would not even admit to his death. She had somehow bruised him by holding a stronger grief for the lost Courthope than a desire for himself.
He swore under his breath. And he swore also, repeatedly and in vain, to think about it and her no more. Then Mr. Cole would come within his line of sight and the cycle would begin all over again.
As for fidelity, he told himself he was not worthy of the patient, loyal creature he had married, yet could not fail to remember those occasions when Maria misunderstood him, what motivated him, what pleased him; how often the mundane triviality of her conversation tried his patience, how her public manner gave him embarrassment, how loathe he found himself to present her at any official function. Inevitably he would compare her to the Courthope woman and find each wanting in some crucial way. Lily he could and would weed out from his affections, but Maria had trustingly placed herself in his care, and was almost childishly loyal to him. She was his responsibility, one he had willingly accepted, yet halfway around the world from her the weight of that one small woman seemed a heavier cross than he could bear.
He had handed over his falsely passionate letter to Maria for the mail, feeling almost as if it were an act of penance but one that brought him no relief. Beneath the guilt that he felt more because he knew he ought to than out of any real sense of it, there lingered still something antagonistic towards his wife also, almost a resentment of her existence. As if but for Maria -- rather than Nathaniel Courthope, and even Lily herself -- he might somehow have made Lily (Mrs. Courthope!) his own. His thoughts chased themselves endlessly. He was hardly sleeping at all, and eating so little that the steward Ferry wore a constant frown of worry.
From Penang south through the Malacca Strait then to head north into the South China Sea, the heat took a dismal toll on morale. Any man who had not thought that conditions aboard could worsen was daily disillusioned. Not only did the fiery temperatures and smothering humidity wear on the men's nerves and stamina, there was now the issue of overcrowding to deal with. Dispatched by Admiral Pellew, fifty soldiers from the Madras Regiment had been taken aboard, while another fifty were quartered aboard Piemontaise, 38, shouldering her way now a quarter mile off the larboard quarter. Besides the infantry detachment, Hornblower had also acquired 20 artillerymen, two field-pieces, and 20 scaling ladders, not to mention the necessary extra provisions of food and water. He detested a ship so crowded that even when pacing the quarterdeck in the small, dark hours of the middle watch, his gaze could not help lighting on those unfortunate men forced to sleep on deck. Sleeping outside meant they also had to endure the heavy monsoon rains that usually fell in the night, near the end of the middle watch.
Too hot, too humid, too crowded, too many strangers amidst the closed company of Carolines, who had not had any degree of liberty in months and were aggravated by having to work around the lubbers in order to see to their duties. It was a breeding ground for disaster, and no one was more aware of it than Hornblower. Fights broke out too frequently, even among tie-mates, and the number of requests for mess changes increased daily, a certain sign of deteriorating morale. Windsails had been rigged at the fore and aft hatches, for all the good they did. These canvas funnels, the upper end of which was guyed to face the wind, carried some small amount of ventilation below decks. Dr. Knyveton had more than once pointed out needlessly, in Horatio's opinion how long it had been since the men had experienced anything resembling shore leave. For some of them it had been more than two years, and now this cramped and crowded oven of a voyage came right on the heels of the long journey out from Portsmouth.
Horatio's own mood was becoming one of constant harassment, yet there was nothing he could do about the weather or the overcrowding. No wonder, he thought with some bitterness, that years earlier the Bounty's men had mutinied in the tropics! They had had to live under similar conditions, trying to work around more than a thousand breadfruit trees rather than the soldiers that burdened the Carolines; and Horatio felt that their captain had been considerably more concerned with his personal supply of coconuts than he had been with the temperament of his ship's company. At least the soldiers could move out of the men's way; breadfruit had a tendency to stay where it was put.
Horatio's constant anxiety was by no means limited to bitter guilt and moral soul-searching. Admiral Pellew had heaped sufficient responsibility on his shoulders that he could, if he chose, occupy his thoughts solely with his orders. For these next brief weeks the flirty Piemontaise, mysteriously turned back from its journey to Madras without having encountered Sir Thomas Troubridge's flagship Blenheim, was ordered to support Hornblower's own mission. His written orders, as simple and direct as only Pellew could make them, required him to deploy the British soldiers at the recently captured island of Amboyna unless their presence was required by the local governor at another location. Simple and direct. Yet from Java until he reached Amboyna, there was not another British governor to be found, so what could Pellew mean by the order except -- ? If the two frigates were to capture some Dutch outpost, a governor would have to be named or else the outpost abandoned altogether. Pellew was far-sighted enough to allow for the possibility.
While the orders had been written broadly, the Admiral had been much more specific and demanding -- in person.
"You see where Amboyna lies, Captain Hornblower? And here! Here are the Spice Islands, sir! The Dutch have'em, and they are making fortunes upon fortunes from the nutmeg there. I want them taken, sir!"
Horatio immediately perceived the strategic importance of the tiny islands, for flung down as they were like pebbles in the middle of the ocean, they were an excellent location for wooding, watering, and refitting the Jan Company ships traveling the vast waters of southeast Asia. And the value of nutmeg, though not as costly as during the previous century, was still sufficient to tempt the controllers of England's coffers.
He wondered whether the Spice Island ports were deep water
or shallow? The islands were probably mountainous, most were in
this part of the world, but for all this paper showed they might
be little more than drying reefs. Hornblower stared at the map,
frustrated by the lack of detail. Was it five islands or seven
that made up the group? He badly needed a better chart.
"Seven islands," Pellew answered the unasked question. "And two forts hard by the largest port, Banda Neira. The forts are Belgica and Nassau. Here and here."
"How are they manned, sir? And where are the batteries placed?"
"Captain Hornblower, sir!" Pellew's voice descended into a gently chiding tone that warned Horatio what was coming. "If I knew as much as that I should know better how many ships and men to send against them! It is your job to find out, sir, however you might! Perhaps if you had provided more knowledgeable prisoners, sir"
Horatio flushed. He knew the Admiral had found interrogating the prisoners from Maria-Riggersbergen to be a frustrating and fruitless task. If any aboard that vessel knew aught of the Spice Islands, Sir Edward had not discovered it. Pellew's only pleasure during the questioning had stemmed from the receipt of a message that Captain Tucker, in the Dover, had captured the Dutch fort at Amboyna, taking that vital port under British control. Tucker had sent a plea for additional provisions and troops in order to retain control of the small island that lay on the northern perimeter of the Banda Sea. Caroline and Piemontaise had been chosen to accommodate Tucker, but Pellew was clear in his ambitions: Tucker could wait, if need be. The Admiral would by no means be satisfied merely with Amboyna. His Excellency wanted to wrest every port, every fort, every bit of control in these waters from the Dutch. He would have it all! Taking first Amboyna and then the Spice Islands would lay the keel for an eventual invasion of Java that is, Horatio mused, if Pellew could continue to withstand Admiral Troubridge's demands for his portion of the East Indies station!
It was irritating to both admiral and captain that so little information had been garnered about the Dutch presence in the Banda Islands. "The Hollanders have held those lands for more than 200 years," Sir Edward had fumed. "We ought to have learned something about them in all that time!"
But Horatio was more than irritated; he was disabled by the lack of information. He had no notion of how big a garrison was at Banda Neira, or even how often supplies arrived. Where placed and how many were the batteries? Was an attack even possible, and what kind of force would such an assault require? Were there outposts on any of the islands other than Neira?
Gathering this information was Horatio's primary unwritten objective, an order he could share with his commissioned officers only, for if the Admiral did not relish the thought that word of an impending British attack would be carried on the wind and water ahead of his plans, no more did Hornblower. Already there was news that his foray into Batavia had nettled Daendels, the Dutch Captain-General of Java and the Malaccas, into putting more of his warships into the triangle of sea formed by Java and Sumatra to the north and south, with Borneo to the east. If Daendels realized Pellew's first target was not Java or if he was alarmed by the defeat at Amboyna -- he would mostly likely succeed in throwing supplies and reinforcements onto Banda Neira ahead of any British assault.
It was this last that most occupied Horatio's thoughts. The most direct route to the Spice Islands, as well as to Amboyna, was south from Penang through the Malacca Strait, then swinging east into the Java and Banda Seas. But with the Dutch now openly hungering to retaliate for the deep embarrassment Hornblower had force-fed them at Batavia, the direct route was not necessarily the wisest course to sail.
Even before weighing at Penang, Hornblower and Master Cumby had spent a long evening hunched and sweating over various charts. The Master was all for taking Caroline down the same route they had taken to Batavia, only this time bypassing the Sunda Strait and sailing straight down to the Timor Sea. But Horatio had pointed out how easy it would be for the Dutch to place ships at either Sunda, which divided the two great islands of Java and Sumatra, or at the Lombok Strait, a narrow channel just west of Bali. A single signal tower stationed in the mountains at either point, Horatio said grimly, could pass word to a speedy Dutch frigate in minutes, which in turn could alert the enemy fleet and bring it down like a wolf on the smaller British prey.
And so Horatio had initially pinned his hopes on the port of Malacca. It was at that crossroads of trade where he sought a neutral merchantman, one that had recently visited the Bandas. From such a vessel's master Horatio and Cumby had both hoped to acquire a more useful chart of the Balabac Strait and its surrounds.
Balabac, the southern boundary of the Filipinos, was itself well charted for it was a commonly traveled route for merchant ships of all nations. But three small islands dotted the southern boundary of this strait. Between these islands and the northern tip of Borneo stretched a narrow, treacherous channel called Banggi, rumoured to be passable only by the light proas and smaller vessels. But Hornblower had heard that a merchant convoy had passed through two years before, losing four of nine ships, barely half of them emerging unscathed from the coral claws that had devoured their companions. With a chart, or better still, a reliable pilot, Horatio intended to take his ships through that channel. It would save little time, two or three days at most, as opposed to traveling through the Balabac. But there was less chance of being spied by some Dutch warship, and the favorable winds would then carry his frigates south and east across the Soolo and Malacca Seas, down to the tiny Spice Islands.
Horatio stared at his small, rough chart of those tiny dots of land, a chart so out of date that it had been drawn before his birth! He shook his head in awed disbelief. The Dutch and English alike, as well as the Portuguese and Spanish, had first ventured into the Banda Sea nearly 200 years earlier. With little understanding of the monsoon seasons, no chronometer to assist in determining longitude, and charts so hopelessly flawed as to be useless, it was nothing short of miraculous that any European navigator of that day had ever found the tiny Spice Islands in the hundreds of square miles of ocean that isolated the islands from the rest of the globe. So small, so seemingly insignificant, yet so rich with valuable nutmeg, the Bandas, as the Spice Islands were called here, were but the merest speck on even the most detailed maps. Hornblower and Cumby had been equally appalled by the discovery that the most reliable charts in the British Navy for those islands were barely more than drawings, some more than 50 years old.
On those occasions when Hornblower's exhaustion finally overcame his dread of the stifling heat of his quarters, his body so numb with fatigue that he could no longer stand, he retired to his narrow cot for surcease. Oftentimes he felt that sleep was more tiring than waking, for his dreams were tormented visions: Shot to flinders by a Dutch broadside, broaching in a typhoon, waves of yellow jack decimating the ships' companies. The concerns of his command were intermingled with personal distractions: He dreamed of Maria, weeping; his little Horatio and little Maria wracked with fever; Lily's turmoil as in his nightmares she and Maria joined to point accusing fingers at him, upbraiding him for his betrayal. Even the angry wraith of Nathaniel Courthope once appeared in a nightmare, a demon fresh from hell to threaten and curse him for his wayward desires.
Horatio wished he could say he wakened from these visions in a cold sweat, just for some relief from the incessant heat. Instead, once asleep he tumbled and writhed through one hallucination after another of guilt and death, ignominy and failure. The torments of sleep were scarcely less wearing than the anxieties of his waking hours, so that his lean frame grew almost gaunt as he monkishly eschewed rest and meals went half-eaten or ignored. Ferry fretted over him and suffered the lash of his captain's tongue for the trouble.
The men. The ships. The enemy. The weather. Maria. His children. Mrs. Courthope. Two forts. Garrison and battery strength unknown. And a course without a reliable chart.
Only the British Admiralty expected so much from their captains. Of course, Horatio mused wryly, the clerks at Whitehall always included that little phrase "fail at your peril" as a spur. Failure was rewarded with a bullet, as anyone who had witnessed the execution of Admiral Byng could tell you. No doubt Lord Melville would consider overcrowding, 100-degree temperatures, tropical fever, unreliable charts, and an almost complete lack of information about the enemy's strength to be trifling matters. Certainly not so serious a concern as Earl St. Vincent nearly getting some of his reforms through and cutting off some of Melville's corrupt income!
Horatio found the only surcease from his circle of worry in his surroundings, for he was much taken by the wilderness that lay to either side of the Strait, broken only by the occasional kampong, or village, built on stilts so that they appeared to be almost floating on the water. Of a day the skies were wildly, impossibly blue, the shades ranging from the inky blue of dawn to a celestial turquoise just before sunset. In the wee hours of the night came the rains, pounding and pummeling wood and canvas, the scuppers overflowing with each deluge. Sometimes he stood in the pouring rain, shoeless, shirtless and hatless, until the water streamed down his face with a force so strong that he could not keep his eyes open. If the officer of the deck thought it peculiar behaviour from his Captain, he wisely kept those thoughts to himself.
By day, the surrounding waters were invitingly clear, sometime to six fathoms or more. Often he wished he could forsake his daily deck shower in favour of a swim, but he would not have the ship stopped merely to indulge himself. The glare of sun on water was enough to burn a man's skin, even if he stayed sheltered under the canvas awning on the quarterdeck.
The distant mountains of Sumatra had the feel of forbidden territory, ringed as they were with ominous volcanic clouds. Nearer and to larboard, the Malay Peninsula seemed a little more tame, but no less wondrous. At the foot of the mountains alternated dense jungle and low-lying plains, giving way at times to small stretches of white sand beaches and deep, clear water in shades of blue Horatio had never before seen, but more often to mosquito-infested swamps and dank mud flats. Small settlements of Malay dwellings were built up on piles where rivers and streams conjoined with the salt water of the Strait the piles were only partly for dryness, he had heard Cole telling Cavendish, and partly to avoid the numerous reptiles. Cole's mother's people, he learned, were ocean-going traders, not truly nomads, for where trade was good the Malay stayed. 'Nimble merchants' was the Lieutenant's description for them. Trading profits were derived from almost any product that could be named: Oyster pearls, ivory, camphor, porcelain, gold dust, baskets, coffee, nankeen, batik, rare birds, and what Hornblower privately considered a loathsome trade, bird's nests. The nests were stolen from a species that made their homes in caves on the high volcanic cliffs and were formed by a glueish substance regurgitated by the birds. Empty or otherwise, the stolen nests went to China for making soup, a great delicacy in that heathen land. The thought of a broth made from avian vomit was altogether repulsive to Horatio. He'd gladly gnaw his way through a weevily biscuit, months-old salt pork barely recognizable as such and feast on moldy cheese that the rats had been at, before he would ever drink such an abomination as bird's nest soup. Possibly he would even eat durian first!
Part of the great lure of the East Indies for many Europeans was the constant lurking danger of the tropics, a danger more exotic than any brightly plumed bird; unexpected danger that lay in near every particle of this far-flung corner of the globe, from common creatures like snakes and wild pigs to the legendary tigers and komodo dragons. The subject of cannibals had come up one evening during the dogwatches, as a group of weathered seamen were taking their well-earned ease for'ard. A quarrel might have arisen as to whether there was any danger from man-eaters ashore, but Styles had made swift inquiry one evening of Mr. Cole, who he assumed by fortune of birth to have an intimate knowledge of every living creature in the South China Sea!
"No," the Lieutenant had answered absently, absorbed in study. He was perched on an open hatchway, an ephemeris in his hand, the pages open for study at a requisite table, unaware of the captain's presence nearby. "No cannibals here, Styles. In Papua and Fiji, most definitely. And Borneo, possibly, for they do have headhunters there, I know."
Styles, who had placed a small wager on Cole's answer, started to stroll away, a grin on his homely features, when the Lieutenant stayed him.
"It isn't cannibals you want to watch out for, Styles," he said offhandedly, carefully keeping any hint of a smile from his broad features. "Nor the tiger, nor the cobra, nor even the orang utan. Those are all obvious dangers. No, it's what looks perfectly safe that can kill a man here. It's the pohan upas!"
"The poor what, sir?" exclaimed the coxs'n, slightly alarmed by the evil-sounding foreign words.
"Pohan upas. Poison tree, Styles, poison tree! Some of the natives make a nasty little concoction from it and tip their arrows and darts with it. Kills a man," he snapped his fingers, "that quick! But never mind them, those are inland tribes with their blowguns that do that. So you're pretty safe from them along the coast here. No, it's the tree itself you have to watch out for, it grows everywhere in these parts! I've heard it said," his brown face was earnest, "that just to fall asleep in the shade of the pohan upas is certain death!" He nodded in emphasis. "The fumes, y'know."
"S'truth!" Styles swore in disbelief. "Are ye havin' me on then, sir?" The coxs'n had long since learned that Mr. Cole liked to kid the men along. Once he had dispatched Mr. Willis, still something naïve to the ways of the sea and her men, to search every corner of the ship for a replacement for the starboard springmast hinge latch before one of the kindlier seamen had at long last set the lad straight. Every time the lad had returned empty-handed to Mr. Cole, he had been the recipient of a tongue-lashing from the lieutenant before being sent off to some other place to search. Upon learning the truth, the boy bent such a reproachful look upon Cole that the latter had laughed and relented, saying that at least now Mr. Willis could name every section of the ship, what could be found there, and how to get there and back the fastest way.
And now he told Styles, "It's the dying truth, man! Even a tiny scratch from the bark will have you sick as a cat in no time a'tall, and it's a lucky man that lives to tell about it!"
Styles stared menacingly, his lower lip not a little thrust forward.
"Bleedin' tropics!," he swore. "I never liked'em!"
Cole bit back a grin as Styles stumped away to claim the spoils of his wager, knowing the story of pohan upas would quickly make the rounds. Hornblower could not help smiling himself at Cole's methods. That wild story would make the rounds soon enough! Now when he announced a brief liberty to the men, they would think twice about running, or at least about hiding out in the jungles.
******************* *************** ***************
On the second Sunday out of Penang, after the brief religious service had been conducted by Dr. Knyveton (with Hornblower's approval, for although he was not a religious man himself, he knew the value of observing the ritual for the sake of the men), and after the Articles of War had been duly read to the ship's company, Horatio mopped sweat from his reddened brow, and addressed the Carolines. Speeches, he felt, were hardly his forte, but there were occasions when direct communication between a captain and his crew best served everyone's interest. Horatio's little speeches were almost always just that: Brief, as well as direct. In his experience, the more he talked, the more trouble he got himself into.
The speaking trumpet lay to hand, but he ignored it. He hated making speeches, and he wasn't much fonder of allowing leave. Yet this time it was for the good of the men and the ships, and Horatio could put the time to good use as well. Granting leave was also going to make him popular with the men, and like Admiral Pellew he distrusted popularity. He had seen the effects of it on good officers, even on outstanding leaders such as Dreadnought Foster, who too often allowed his desire for other men's admiration to overcome his good judgment.
"Men! Tomorrow we arrive at the port of Malacca, where we will take on food, water and wood. Occasionally you have heard me read the King's Articles." A chuckle arose from the men, and it took Horatio a moment to realize why: The Articles of War were read aloud to the men the fourth Sunday of every month without fail, per Admiralty regulations. Some of these men must have heard them read a hundred times! He forced himself to smile as if he had been deliberately jesting.
"Since you are so familiar with the Articles I trust you will remember all of them, for we have some distance yet to sail. But as you have laboured diligently for many weeks now and fought valiantly at Batavia, your reward shall be a brief shore leave at Malacca."
A round of "Huzzah!" and "Three cheers for the Cap'n!" went up and was quickly staunched by the bosun's bellow for "Silence!"
Hornblower continued. "You will be divided into three watches. Each watch will have 24 hours ashore. Make the most of it, men, for we don't want to keep the Hollanders waiting for us!"
Another cheer went up and hats were tossed into the air. Under the noise an embarrassed Hornblower simply said, "Dismiss the men, Mr. Warrick."
Malacca might have been a holiday to the men but to Hornblower the dirty, crowded port had been a disappointment. The town stank of the dank mud flats it was built on, and mosquitoes feasted on any part of Horatio's body left uncovered, savoring in particular the taste of his head or so it seemed to him. No chart, no pilot, only a swollen, itchy face.
And two men had run. Styles and Wheaton had caught up with one. He had been summarily flogged and was yet in chains. The other man had simply vanished into the bush beyond the eastern fringes of the port, disregarding the warnings both subtle and direct that Mr. Cole had given the ship's company on the myriad dangers of the Malaysian jungle.
Caroline left behind the dubious pleasures of the port, the men still grinning as though their heads were still liquor-addled and all their shillings not lost to the ladies of the port. Back on the open water Horatio could detect no slightest relenting in the heat or in the harsh glare of the sun as it chipped off the swells like fragments of diamonds, dazzling the eyes so that it hurt even to squint. The two frigates had swung companionably up the South China Sea, beating back regularly as they countered the monsoon winds, and all the while the big island of Borneo with its legendary horrors and curiosities hovered off the starboard beam like an impending nightmare. On the hottest afternoons, when the heat took hold of a man's fancy, he could almost imagine Borneo as a looming, loathsome monster. The land was in fact a steaming mass of rotting vegetation, the stench of it inescapable though they were always to windward. Land had a smell to it that always surprised Horatio after months at sea, and bad as some of the European ports were, nothing matched the odour of decay wafting from a tropical shore. Even when far enough off not to smell the island, the stench seemed to linger in his nostrils.
Only days out of Malacca, though it was long enough that the men had already forgotten their brief freedom and begun grousing in their normal fashion, a brutally fierce sun had once again risen to clear skies and calm seas. Cavendish, whose joy of Malacca had been the eager consumption of as many tales of pirates as he could cajole out of the locals, had been practicing dead reckoning under Cumby's watchful eye. His calculations put them near Tanjong Sirik, a small cape of mudflats and mangrove swamps populated with thousands of birds. From terns and curlews to the less common Asian dowitchers, hornbills, and godwits, the noise was incredible as the creatures went about their fishing, screaming and shrieking and sounding for all the world, Horatio mused, like the women at Billingsgate fishmarket. Or his mother-in-law.
"Deck there! Sail fine off the larb'rd bow!"
Hornblower's first glance was not in the direction called, but rather toward Piemontaise no more than a mile off his larboard quarter to see whether she had spotted the sail first. She had. A signal flag was climbing, already more than halfway up one of the main halyards. He frowned as he withdrew his bring'em-near from the leather loop he'd had Ferry sew to his belt. With no coat or jacket in this heat, he still wanted his glass to hand at all times. As he studied the tiny dot of white that only an experienced lookout would know for certain was a sail, he wondered how Cole had managed to acquire a spyglass in Malacca, for the lieutenant had gone from having no glass to being inseparable from a rather nice specimen he had obtained in port. As for the sail, closer on it was likely to appear more yellow or even rust-coloured than white, but across the vastness of water sailcloth was more the hue that so many artists erroneously thought was the right colour. The vessel was still mostly hull down but clearly brig-rigged. Probably a merchantman, but he would take no chances.
"Beat to quarters, Mr. Warrick!" he gave the necessary order. "Helmsman, hard a-starboard! Mr. Cavendish, signal Piemontaise to give chase and then get the challenge bent on the halyard."
Caroline responded handily as the strain of bearing up eased and the men raced to brace the afteryards. Orders rang up and down the deck. The brig would have the wind gauge if she opted to run. But if she were in fact a merchant vessel, heavy in the water, she'd not have it long. With a pair of frigates on her heels, lying to would be her safest course of action.
He found himself scuffing a toe in the sand now liberally sprinkled over the deck, a necessary precaution for battle, and forced himself to stillness. Slippery decks that rendered men and guns out of control could cost both lives and victory. Water buckets were double-checked; powder monkeys scrambled toward their assigned guns, clutching their cartridge boxes loaded with the dangerous black powder; and belowdecks any item not necessary for battle was being stowed. Even in the captain's cabin, Horatio's cot, dining table and bulkheads would all be ruthlessly cleared and stowed to allow the gun crews easy access to the pair of 18-pounders mounted on either side of his quarters.. He crossed his arms to prevent himself from wiping damp palms along the sides of his breeches.
"Deck there, top here! She's a Yankee brig, sir! Holding her course!"
Hornblower peered through his glass again. An American merchant wouldn't put up a fight against a pair of frigates bristling with guns, but he admitted to some surprise that her Master had apparently decided against running. By now the Yanks would certainly have recognized them as British warships, and with the increasing antagonism over the issue of pressing seamen off American merchant vessels, most Yanks tried to outrun their nautical nemesis or make trouble in other ways. Horatio studied her sides carefully as she maintained the bearing that would soon intersect the Caroline's. Now he could make out her name, the Perseverance. No wonder then that she held her course, if her master had also had the naming of her. No sign of guns beyond a pair of brass swivels mounted fore and aft, no peek of sharpshooters in the tops. It would be an insane action, firing on the frigates. Certain ruin for the brig. But captains had been known to occasionally lose touch with reality after long months at sea, as Horatio had good reason to know from his experiences as a junior officer aboard the old Renown.
"Bear up, quartermaster! Run up to her! Mr. Cavendish, the challenge, if you please."
A necessary precaution, for she might look like a Yank but in truth be a Dutch or even a British prize. And she might be better prepared to fight than the telescope revealed.
But by six bells a peaceful Perseverance was heaving to, riding low in the water under the weight of her goods. A still tensed-for-battle Horatio took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He doubted a trap, not with so small and so lightly armed a vessel. Still, she could be a plague ship. Or she might have been overtaken by a band of the many pirates that abounded in the South China Sea, stories of which the midshipmen fed on like so many strange and wonderful dishes. Or she could be riding low not as a result of a full cargo but because she was in distress. The latter he doubted because of how smoothly she had sailed, her course even and with no sign of problems as her sails had backed, bringing her to a gliding standstill even as Caroline came abreast of her bow. Her master knew his sail-handling. Warrick, Horatio mused, could learn a great deal just by watching, if he would.
It turned out the Yankee master knew a lot more than simple sail-handling. Master Amaso Delano proved to be a good-natured sea dog, easily Hornblower's senior by a pair of decades and shorter by a good 10 inches. And heavier by a couple of stone. He had a long grey fringe of hair running around the back of his head from ear to ear, while the top of his bald head was shaded by a broad-brimmed hat in the Quaker style, a faded and tattered chapeau that had long since seen its best days. Perseverance was indeed ship-shape; but her master must give all his attention to her and none to himself, for by his patched and threadbare clothes one would judge him indigent.
Hornblower had meant only to delay long enough to verify the brig was not an enemy vessel, but when Delano discovered that this overwhelming British force had no intention of impressing any of his hands the American became downright cordial. Hornblower kept to himself the overcrowded conditions of his vessels, even though two hands had deserted only days before. What Delano did not know would not hurt him in this instance. When the Master pressed him, along with his officers and those of Piemontaise, to take dinner aboard the brig, he accepted with an affable graciousness the Yanks were clearly not used to from their old adversaries, and Horatio was himself later impressed with the pragmatic candor displayed by Mr. Delano.
"For of a certainty we could 'a never outrun yez, not with all that sail you can hang! But right glad I am that ye're in no need of my men, for we've a long voyage ahead of us and every man needed at his post," Delano chattered as they broke bread. "I'm not one for skimping on my ship, sirs! Not on sail, cordage, or spar! But I lost half a dozen men to fever a month back, and no chance for replacements, not at Canton!"
So reasonable were the Americans, and cordial at least under their Master's watchful eye that by dinner's end, Cole conversed easily with Hatem, the first mate, while Delano and Old Cumby had taken to each other like long-lost brothers. To Hornblower's private delight the Yank had promised them a chart of the Banggi channel, for which Cumby was equitably exchanging information about the waters around Juister Reef in the North Sea.
"Not that t'chart's all it might be, d'ye see?" Delano apologized. "Borried from Dalrymple's chart, it was, with some alterations. Still, there's many a capt'n would like to have charts as good as those old ones he drew, eh?"
Cumby chimed in with a vociferous agreement, and again the two men were off, comparing opinions on Dalrymple's work and disparaging the inadequacies of his imitators, and exchanging warnings about landmarks, unexpected currents, and the latest developments in navigation instruments.
Watching him closely, Delano belied the impression Horatio had heretofore held of American masters, that they were sharp and conniving and calculating, down to the last fraction of a penny. That the man was shrewder than most Hornblower had no doubt of, for unlike many merchantmen, the brig's sails and rigging were well maintained and not so ancient as to make sail in more than a light breeze any kind of danger. A well-maintained ship was cheaper in the long run, but some merchants were never convinced of that, endangering all who sailed in their ships by under manning the vessel in exchange for a quick penny. Or they used and re-used frayed cordage and cable, over-patched sails, and turned a blind eye to wood rot, never mind replacing any of the copper sheathing that protected a vessel from ship worm. But this man had an open countenance, had so far been candid in his dealings with the wary British officers, and so long as his men and his ship were not to be constrained he had no hesitation in parting with as much information as he had to hand. Indeed, the American master regaled them with tales of cannibalism, ancient tea ceremonies, and Dutch social doings at Amboyna, as Perseverance had called there some months before the capture of that island by the British. Indeed the capture was news to Delano. By the time Amboyna was mentioned, at which Hornblower and his men carefully did not look at each other, Old Cumby was ready to worship at the master's feet, so awed was he by Delano's extensive collection of detailed charts that included some of the most remote spots in the world. Why, the American even had charts for Tasmania and large portions of the Filipino Islands! And once viewed, it was obvious what meticulous attention to accuracy and detail Delano gave to his charts. This meeting of like minds between Cumby and the American lifted Hornblower's spirits, for it gave him confidence in the chart he had been promised.
Horatio smiled affably and said little over his mostly untouched dinner (the lamb being simmered in too spicy a sauce and the puddings too rich for his taste). In turn his genial expression heartened his officers, so rarely did their Captain's countenance light with pleasure as it did just now while Delano rambled on about a ball that the Dutch had given in Amboyna a few years back, a gala event to which the American seamen had been invited.
"My lads were in dangerous high spirits but of a gallant nature, d'ye see?" The thick eyebrows waggled laughably. "Them not having seen but few women, and none of them white, in many months. The pretty Dutch ladies enthusiastically returned our compliments, if I may be so immodest as to declare it, and maintained there had ne'er been so delightful a gatherin' on that island. Came a point in the festivities when the pretty dears flirted so jocularly, shall we say? That they begged us to either stay longer or take them away with us. Naturally we placed ourselves at the ladies' command and expressed how charmed we should be to have them as sea-going companions. Well, then! 'Twas all said in frolic and naught but merriment intended. Naytheless, the little Dutch boys began to pull faces and finger their dress swords. Then some lunatic got up t'notion we Yanks were liable to kidnap and carry away their good ladies, us Americans being little better than the heathen Dyak, do ya see? Alack, those good ladies saw not the danger and did their sweetest utmost to fan the flames of antagony!"
Horatio noted the rapt attention paid Delano by his audience when he paused for a draft of wine. The man paid as much attention to spinning his yarns, he thought, as he did to his charts.
"Well! We became somewhat alarumed oursel'es and it was only with the greatest effort that the elders among us succeeded in restoring both harmony and confidence to the rooms! Let it stand as a lesson to you young'uns," he gestured warningly at his guests. "Ye must not forget that in these waters 'tis ye who are the foreigners, not they, and mind when it comes to the ladies how narrer is the boundary betwixt easy gallantry and offensive licence!"
Horatio gave allowance to the urge to look at Cole and see
how that "young'un" reacted to being called a foreigner,
he who had been born and bred to these waters. He kept his own
face impassive but his Lieutenant, although ignoring the reference
to 'foreigners,' could not hide a small start, and he glanced
at Hornblower with guilt in his face. Delano's words had reminded
the young officer how wrong he had been to play matchmaker between
his captain and his stepmother. Horatio read the look rightly
and glanced away on the instant, his own guilt not far from his
thoughts whenever Cole was present.
With some trepidation Cavendish interrupted Horatio's twilight reverie. Hornblower could pace the deck for hours, never speaking to a soul, and it was clear to all the officers that the Captain did not like to be disturbed at such times.
"Well, Mr. Cavendish?" Horatio snapped. His thoughts had been consumed by the task ahead. Tomorrow, with the full light of day the frigates would begin the dangerous task of passing through the Banggi Channel, that narrow, treacherous waterway so dotted with shoals and reefs terumbu and karang were the Malay words -- that most captains sensibly avoided it. Cumby had looked at Delano's chart and swore the passage might be possible but in no wise worth the risk. Warrick had said nothing, not daring to disagree with his Captain, but the catch in his breath revealed his fear. Cole had given a soft whistle, eyes widened, and his fingers had twitched as if they wanted to reach for the Captain's dividers. The Yankee master, who had once attempted Banggi and then backed off, opting for an easier route, had handed over the chart along with his advice to steer clear.
"For I've never seen such treacherous waters, even at a dead calm. Miss a rock and you're on a shoal. Dodge the shoal and you cannot miss the reef! Balabac can be fearsome enough, but Bangii -- ! And Divine Providence be wi' ye, Cap'n Hornblower, if a squall comes up of asudden!"
"Not to mention Dyaks," Cole had added softly, his gaze seemingly focused on some distant memory.
Hornblower had nodded slowly, but said nothing. He had begun picking up an occasional Malay word from Cole now and again, but he had learned 'Dyak' in Malacca, where it was in daily usage and often used as a casual insult to describe a thief of any kind. But in fact Dyaks were the notorious pirates of northern Borneo, made up of warring tribes who lived on the rivers in areas too shallow for most European vessels to pass, The Dyaks traveled by canoe or sometimes in great double-decked proas. And when parties of proas sailed together, the warriors could number a thousand or more, and were unafraid to raid anything smaller than a ship-of-the-line -- and went not much in fear of that vessel! It was no secret that these pirates never willingly spared male captives; a Dyak considered a corpseless head to be a fine reward, and often took that extremity as the spoils of victory.
Later aboard Caroline, when Cavendish and Willis had been pestering old Cumby as to whether there was any likelihood of encountering the infamous local pirates, on stories of whom the lads had gorged whilst in Malacca and on the Perseverance, the angry old man had sent them roundly about their business.
"Disheartening, sir, that's what it is," the old man told his captain, and spat his disgust over the side. The expectoration made Horatio suddenly nauseous and he furiously tamped down on this unexpected sign of seasickness. Cumby went on. "Them boys don't know what they're asking, to meet up with pirates. Think it's all gold and swagger and boldness! Pirates is villains! Swine, I say!"
"They will learn, Mr. Cumby," Hornblower replied calmly and walked away, returning to his cabin to complete the ship's log, look over the purser's records, and attend to the daily mountain of bureaucratic details that plagued the life out of a ship's commander. And perhaps quell this sudden bout of mal de mer.
That was three days past and last night a squall had overtaken the frigates just westward of the coral-spiked Banggi Channel. Hornblower had ordered the ships anchored within sight of Borneo's north shore while repairs were made to Piemontaise's maintopmast, damaged by lightning. Men from both ships spent the day wooding and watering, while Piemontaise's carpenter supervised the stepping of a new topmast.
Hornblower suddenly noticed that Cavendish was looking at him oddly, and that he had not heard a word the young man had said. Aside from shoals, reefs, pirates, orders, repairs, wood, water, supplies, and the enemy -- why, what could there possibly be to occupy the captain's mind, he thought bitterly. And suddenly there sprang to mind the image of Mrs. Courthope, her sweet face first glowing with delight then wracked with torment.
"I'm sorry, sir." The midshipman apologized for his captain's inattention. "It's Piemontaise, sir, she's signaled that repairs are complete."
"Very well, Mr. Cavendish. Acknowledge, and be quick about it this time!" He fairly snapped the words, and on the instant was sorry for it, for the fault lay with himself he knew. The cheerful Cavendish had only been doing his duty, and in fact was becoming quite a handy signal officer. But a captain should never apologize to a midshipman merely for being out of temper, so Hornblower turned his back, ignoring that Cavendish did in fact already have the acknowledgment ready for hauling. He glared so hard to the east that the quartermaster who had overheard the entire exchange later told his mates they were "all in for a spate o' hardship, as sumpin' awful must be worriting Capting Hornblower for him to speak so harsh-like to the lad for no cause."
CHAPTER NINE: THE SHOALS OF BANGGI
First light came just before four bells, with the men at quarters to greet the dawn. Clad in as little as the fierce rays of the sun would allow, and bearing a new straw hat Ferry had found for him in Malacca, Captain Hornblower watched from the weather side of the quarterdeck. Malacca might not have produced chart or guide, but straw hats were in abundance there. And Cole had even found himself a lookstick, a very nice one, too, of polished wood and brass fittings. Such items were never cheap, so Hornblower thought that Cole must be either a very frugal young man or perhaps Captain Courthope had left his bastard son well disposed. Or possibly Cole had put the trading skills learned at his Malay grandfather's knee to good use. Whichever, the young man was now rarely seen without his telescope, carefully cradled in the crook of an elbow.
The eastern skies showed dimly pink through a cloud layer that always seemed to hover ominously close to the horizon at this hour, only to vanish into nothingness before the sun was fully up. The glass was steady and Horatio could think of no reason, apart from good sense, to continue as planned through the Banggi. Well, Cumby and Warrick had both hinted at going further north through Balabac and bypassing the Banggi dangers, but the possibility of encountering Dutch warships was too great. His gaze fastened on the eastern horizon, as if he could peer down the Banggi and see what awaited him there. Around him the bustle of men going to quarters faded as the thought came to him that the soft pink line parting sea and sky was very nearly the color of the blush in Lily Courthope's cheeks. Not so deep a rose as her lips though; the first color invited a man to stroke her face, the second to sip from her mouth.
A soft oath broke from him, and with a kind of violence he turned again to watch the men running out the guns. Greeting the dawn at general quarters was standard practice in time of war, and save for the brief Peace of Amiens, Horatio could not remember a day on board that had started otherwise. In fact, he had sat out most of the peace as a half-pay officer, so there never was a day on board for him that did not begin with the beat to quarters. Every day without fail, before the first glimmer of morning light, the men went about their duties: Clearing for action, preparing the guns, ensuring the water buckets were full and ready in case of fire, sprinkling the deck with sand and many more small tasks that led up to being completely prepared for battle. All of this, every single morning, just on the offchance that the rising sun also brought an enemy ship to light. Hornblower checked the traverse board again, noted the dogvane, and realized that the moderate breeze would, once underway, be steady on the larboard quarter for the first time since emerging from the Strait of Malacca. Passing through Banggi would be harrowing, no doubt, but at least it would be a change from the tedium of constantly beating back against the monsoon wind.
Two cable lengths astern the Piemontaise rode gently to anchor. Horatio rubbed his eyes, so gritty they might have been taken out of his head and rolled on deck amongst the sand the way they felt. He could not but be conscious of how little sleep he'd had of late. Would that be enough distance, he wondered? Or, in the event Caroline was shoaled, would the other frigate run up on her and wreck them both? No, with a quick signal, that ought to be plenty of room if Foote kept his crew alert. He wanted the ships close enough for easy hailing, if it became necessary. Ready communication would be vital, when every minute could bring new danger. Caroline would lay the course at first, Piemontaise following. If the worst happened, the other frigate would be near enough begin immediate salvage or rescue attempts. If Caroline got herself boxed in by the shoals and reefs, Captain Foote would seek a way around her while Hornblower would have to give orders to make sternway and then follow after the other ship. Foote had been as doubtful of the plan as Horatio's own officers, but he was young enough to still have a bit of daring in his nature and was eager to have a go at the obstacle-ridden Banggi.
Horatio paced his ship as energetically as though he had had a full night of uninterrupted slumber. In fact, he had not dozed for even as much as two hours. Even so he could feel a nervous energy building with him, anxious to begin the crossing, and expecting at any moment to hear the lookouts at the sides cry, "Grey goose at a mile," the traditional way of saying "All clear!"
Mr. Midshipman Willis would have the initial watch as the ships entered Banggi. That was as well, Horatio thought, his stride eating up the quarterdeck so that he had to reverse his course often. Having the most inexperienced officer on watch right at the beginning was best, when the senior officers were at their freshest and ready to lend a hand if the lad encountered immediate difficulties.
Horatio jerked in surprise, and before Willis could respond he called out, "Where away?"
"Larb'rd bow lookout, sir! A sail dead east! No! Gone now, sir!"
Horatio's jaw clenched.
"Starboard lookouts! Do you see anything?"
There were no other hails. None of the other lookouts had spotted it; the man in the bow could have been mistaken in the grey light of dawn. Hornblower wanted very much to go up and have a look himself but knew he had to save his energy. And he knew who could get to the top faster than himself.
"Mr. Cavendish! Get up the maintop and have a look!"
The signal officer was like a monkey, scurrying first up the quarterdeck to accept a telescope from the prepared Willis, then down again to the deck, up the ratlines and over the futtock shrouds into the maintop, all in a minute's time. Long seconds went by before he hailed the deck.
"All clear, sir! I can see a grey goose at a mile!" And now the other lookouts echoed, "Grey goose at a mile!"
"Very well! Mr. Willis, you may dismiss the men to breakfast. Give orders to weigh immediately after. And send that lookout up here!"
The man who had hailed was a stocky fellow who might have been any age between 30 and 50. Weather and work aged a man quickly in the Navy, so Horatio guessed this man, Spaulding, was younger than he looked. Spaulding tugged his forelock in salute, and looked nervous at being called to speak with the captain.
"Tell me what you saw, Spaulding," Hornblower said quietly, drawing him aside from the others' hearing, not wanting to spook the man into saying he saw nothing nor into exaggerating what he had seen.
"Just a sail, sir, a quick bit of the top and no more." Spaulding anxiously wiped his hands down his sailcloth trousers. "She were hull down and more one minute, sir, and gorn the next!"
A leathery hand pointed upchannel. "East, sir. We're driftin' a bit to looward now, but she was fine on t'starb'd bow then."
"Could you make out the cut of her sails?"
Spaulding hung his head, hating to disappoint Captain Hornblower. "No, sir, she was gorn too quick-like. Reckon I would not ha' seen her at all but that I had just put my thumb up to block out where the sun was coming up over the land."
Staring straight into the glare of a rising sun would explain why the other lookouts had missed a strange sail. He had no doubt that Spaulding was sure of what he had seen. On the voyage from Gibraltar, every time a strange sail had been sighted, if Spaulding was on watch he had been the first to hail the deck. So he had definitely seen another ship eastbound through the Banggi. What Horatio could not figure out was what other ship could be in the channel. Merchantmen liked to save time, but they valued their hides -- and cargoes -- too much to risk these waters without an armed escort. And with an escort, what need of proceeding through an area so hazardous to the ships? No, Banggi was no place for an unarmed trading vessel, escorted or no. A ship of war then? Not likely to be a British ship -- Horatio had got a pretty good idea of where Pellew had dispatched most of his vessels, few as they were. Still, it was possible. Even more possible was that Spaulding had seen an enemy ship. Daendels may have sent a few of his sloops and smaller vessels to watch the less likely routes any British warships might be taking. And yet, would such a ship risk the Banggi without more substantial intelligence as to the whereabouts of the British? For Spaulding to have sighted her, she could be no more than twelve miles distant. The length of the Banggi was nearly 50 miles, so whatever her purpose, she had deliberately entered the passage with all its accompanying dangers. But an enemy vessel, if she were traveling eastward and she must have been, or Spaulding would not have lost sight of her and if she passed safely through the channel, might well choose to lie in wait for Hornblower's ships to appear, still fending off the reefs and restrained in their movements by the shallow water. Caroline and Piemontaise would be sitting ducks for A Dutch frigate. Even a sloop could do awful damage if the frigates could not get free of the strait. If they had been sighted, that is.
One other dangerous possibility remained: A pirate proa, sailing in or out of one of the bays or deltas that abounded on Borneo's north shore. It was not too late to change his mind and sail north for Balabac. Hornblower saw Old Cumby's face, noted the wistful look, and knew the old Master was thinking the same thing. He turned his back on the old man, and weighed the odds with a cold mathematical detachment, as if lives did not depend on his discretion, and when the watch returned from breakfast, he had made his decision.
"Give the order to weigh, Mr. Willis. Quartermaster, make your bearing east a quarter north. Mr. Cavendish, signal our intention to Piemontaise, if you will."
Banggi it was then.
The hours became one long, waking nightmare. Soundings were taken as fast as the lead could be heaved. Standing in the chains, wearing a leather apron to prevent being soaked as the streaming line was hauled in, was difficult work at any time. In this heat, the chore wore the men out quickly, and Hornblower ordered them relieved every 15 minutes. Men were stationed at the sides with spars, ready to push off if their beam came too close to the drying reefs. Cumby kept up a stream of mumbling between orders and Warrick was grim and white-faced under his sunburn. On his watch, Cole was his usual affable self, bracing up the worried and tired men with a well-timed jest, but his eyes were everywhere and when his watch was over, like his captain, he disdained to go below and rest, instead of which he ventured out to keep company with the man stationed on the bowsprit, his gaze sweeping side to side, forward and back. Like a restless shark, Hornblower mused, hungry for prey. Only Cole was not seeking food; he was watching intensely for the next rock, shoal, or reef that was waiting with its own patient hunger for the taste of stout British oak.
Caroline's draught was 15 feet; the Piemontaise's little less. Entering the channel, the depth had been a clean 60 feet, but that cushion had rapidly dwindled and Hornblower had ordered out the cutter and the jollyboat to take soundings ahead of the ships. Soon Styles in the cutter and Wheaton in the jolly boat had begun alternating between use of the lead lines and sounding poles, so abruptly shallow it became in places. Tension gripped both ships as the men understood all too well the threat to their lives, to these vessels that were their homes. So quietly did the men go about their business that soundings and orders from one vessel could clearly be heard on the other. The only other sounds were the creak of plank and rigging, and the light chuckle of water passing below. Once, far off, a silvery fish broke the surface of the water, sailing into the air as if to elude pursuit from some unseen predator below the water line before plunging back into its normal habitat.
The masthead lookouts were kept busy, sighting submerged shoals and alerting the deck. Old Cumby kept looking at Hornblower, expecting to see some sign of anxiety at the precarious nature of this enterprise. He saw nothing; Horatio kept his expression well schooled, and even forced himself twice to go below for meals just as if there was no need for concern. If all went well, if there were no squalls, no pirates, if the ship did not run up a reef and tear out her bottom, nor become impossibly wedged on a shoal, then perhaps, just perhaps, they would come out into the Soolo Sea and have erased three days of sailing time than if they had sailed further north through the Balabac. And they would have eluded Daendels into the bargain.
If all went well.
"I'll have a cast of the log, if you please, Mr. Cumby," he ordered briskly.
Cumby bellowed the order, then turned back to Hornblower.
"Less than a knot or I miss my guess, sir."
"It had better be less or I'll be asking you to back the tops'ls."
Past the depths of Marudu Bay, where the lookouts were alerted to watch for any sign of pirates, fending off Half Channel Patch, the men breathed a little easier, as there was a clean fathom between keel and bottom. But Hornblower felt oppressed by the narrowness of the channel here.
"Barely two miles wide," Cumby grumbled, lining up for another sighting. "North or south of Black Watch Rock, Captain?"
Horatio didn't bother to consult the chart. He'd already learned it by heart and was now matching up the bays and reefs and islets on it to what his eyes were seeing.
"North, Mr. Cumby. Keep to the middle, helmsman! Steer small, damn you!"
At dusk the ships set anchors to keep from drifting, and on the following morning the men again spent hours weighing and catting the anchors, before resuming the slow pace that was more like drifting than sailing. Horatio had watched Piemontaise carefully the following day, to see how her captain obeyed the order to keep directly astern. Captain Foote was no fool, Horatio was pleased to note. He had kept carefully in the small wake created by Caroline's slow passage, an easy two cable lengths back.
On this second day the twin perils of exhaustion and monotony set in. One patch of coral began to resemble another, unnamed islets grew difficult to distinguish from those on the chart, but slowly the landmarks went by: Brandon Reefs, Pirate Point, Cape Mafsi, Petrel Shoals, Rifleman Rock, Half Channel Patch and Carrington Reefs, on eastward to a wider channel and to the sunken dangers of Black Watch Rock, and at long last, Straggler Island. Straggler Island was little more than a wooded bump in the water; hardly distinguished enough to be called an island. The mass stood less than 20 feet high, and was surrounded by irregularly shaped reefs, extending anywhere from one to seven miles out in some points. Horatio wondered if it had been named for some lagging merchantman that had been allowed to drift in the night, straggling behind its escort, and ended by being snagged on the coral. Some of the reefs were easily seen during the day, even when submerged. But darkness often brought a false sense of comfort when men sometimes thought that what could not be seen simply could not exist; and a careless captain paid for his laxity too often with his ship or with his men's lives.
"Pulau Malawali ahead, a point on the larboard bow, Captain!"
Cole brought the news to the quarterdeck with a broad smile on his face and his now-omnipresent telescope clutched in a tanned fist large enough to encompass a second instrument. Pulau was the Malay word for island, a word that every man aboard knew by now and used as if they'd never known differently. The passage between tiny Malawali and Borneo would be the most dangerous stretch of water yet, and the energetic lieutenant had only just come on watch after spending the morning assisting the boats with the soundings. So now Cole smiled at the sight of Malawali and Hornblower bit back the temptation of an answering smile, because they both knew that if only they got through the dangers surrounding Malawali the ships would emerge into the open sea again, to a place where the leadsman would cry out, "No bottom!" and every man aboard would breathe a deep sigh of relief, and the ships' routines would return to normal.
But until it was an accomplished feat, Horatio would not allow himself the release of a smile.
"Deck there! Topmast here!"
"Deck here!" Cole's voice boomed the response. Hornblower had braced himself for the penetrating volume of it. His old friend William Bush had a strong, carrying voice, but he thought perhaps Cole had the advantage of Bush. But either man could probably stand on the Cliffs of Dover and be clearly heard on the noisy docks of Calais, he thought waspishly.
"Sail ahead, fine on the larb'rd bow! Two, no, three sail!"
An enraged Horatio was already on his way up the rigging before Cole finished calling a question to him.
Damnation! He cursed himself, for Malawali was the place where just one enemy ship could box him in, if she chose to, let alone three! He should have had the men to quarters as soon as the island hove into view, he chided himself -- forgetting that event had only just happened! And he realized he had failed even now to give the order. But wasn't that the question Cole had called?
"Yes!" he screamed down. "To quarters, Mr. Cole!"
Within seconds the bosun and his mates had their pipes atwitter, the boats were recalled, and men already exhausted from their previous watch yet poured up from below like rats before a flood. By now the soldiers of the Madras regiment had learned how best to keep out of their way. With a final heave, Horatio hauled himself into the top, aware of his gangly awkwardness on some lower level of consciousness, but more consumed by the need to see that ship out there for himself.
Glass to his right eye, he brought the instrument into focus and swept his gaze over the water south of the island.
There they were!
Not warships though. No. If those had been warships he'd be excited, wouldn't he? His heart would be thumping as he readied himself for the urgency of battle. If battle were imminent he'd not be feeling this sick knot in his stomach, would he? As if his noon biscuit had coalesced into a lump of greasy coal and was churning its way up into his throat. No, the battle was already before him. And all but over.
"God ha' mercy!" he whispered, forgetting his agnosticism for the moment. If there was a God, He should surely take pity on the souls out there. The one vessel resembled a brig but her rounded bow, her odd rigging -- with the spanker set on a trysail mast close abaft the mainmast -- proclaimed her a snow. And she bore Dutch colours. Horatio could just make out the name, Nootmuskaat. She had run up on a coral spit, bounded by a sand cay to one side and what from his vantage point appeared to be an islet on t'other. She could kedge her way off but for the fact that astern of her, keeping her cornered, two long proas floated, while the deck and sides of the Dutchman swarmed with half-naked, dark-skinned men. The sun glinted in tiny flashes over and over from the deck, and he realized the light was reflecting off polished metal, blades of hangers, cutlasses and perhaps bayonets. Even as he watched the glints of light dwindled to a few, then finally ceased altogether. Caroline took a slow roll and a wave of sudden nausea left him dizzy. He took the lookstick away and glanced back at Piemontaise where he saw men scrambling about, clearing for action. Bless Cavendish, he had already signaled to Foote. That boy had yet to mature, but he was learning fast to keep a cool head about him.
Horatio came down slowly and more gracefully than he had ascended. He must remember, he thought with some detachment, how to do that again in future.
"Sir?" Cole looked to him for information.
"What is our speed, Mr. Cole?"
"Still under a knot, Captain. Half that perhaps." He knew Hornblower was aware of it, had in fact ordered they should proceed thus slowly.
"And how far off do you make that ship? She is a snow, by the way. A Hollander."
Cole raised his own glass but at deck level could barely make out more than the topsails. But now he realized what Hornblower was leading up to. The ship was no danger to them. More than likely she was in some distress.
"Six miles at least, sir, if we were to run straight at her. How is she armed?"
Hornblower ignored the question.
"So how long will it be before we can reach her?"
"Eight bells at least, sir, and very likely longer as we'll be dodging these blasted reefs all afternoon."
Hornblower nodded. "Proceed as before then, Mr. Cole. You will have to rely entirely on the leadsman in the bow and the masthead lookouts to warn you of danger. No need to run out the guns yet." He saw that the boats were alongside and holding on to his hat as he leaned over the side, he called down to the coxs'n.
"Styles! Bring those boats astern!"
"I was doin' that, Captain Hornblower!" Styles said almost with reproach, not pausing in his work. In battle the boats belonged astern where they would be out of the way and any splinters from them, if hit by roundshot, would be harmless. Styles shook his head. Something must be eating at the cap'n all right, to make him forget Styles had been an able seaman long before a wet-behind-the-ears midshipman named Hornblower ever set foot on board a fighting vessel!
When Caroline was ready for action, steered now to allow her to come up to the proas for a starboard broadside, Horatio put the glass to his eye again. The snow was still more than a mile off, the proas still right up on her stern. There was no hope of hitting one of them yet with his 18-pounders, no hope of any accuracy beyond a mile. But perhaps the pirates could be frightened off; perhaps even now there was still someone besides the pirates left alive on that snow
The officers on the quarterdeck had spotted the proas now as well, and with the single word, "Dyaks!" Cole had alerted the others as to what might lie ahead. The Second took a deep breath, but said nothing more. He gave a sidelong glance at Hornblower, his expression tight, and he slammed his newly acquired telescope closed with little regard for its sensitive lenses.
"You may run out the guns now, Mr. Cole."
The order was given almost casually. The lieutenant looked again at Hornblower, and Horatio knew the impression he had on Cole was the one he had intended. He was calm, controlled, no hint of excitement or agitation in his voice or manner. How, he thought, was a man to control others if he could not control himself? But for a brief second, a memory flashed, a memory of an out-of-control, far-from-calm Hornblower, one who passionately kissed and caressed a woman not his wife, a Hornblower who had come within aims-ace of begging for dammitall, he would not think of this again!
"Fire alternate guns, sir!" he ordered.
Cole took another deep breath and again looked a question at Hornblower. He met the captain's steady brown gaze, seeing nothing of the struggle raging in his captain, and Horatio almost willed them both to a high degree of calm.
"Ranging shots, Mr. Cole," he said coolly. 'And that is as close as you're going to get to an explanation!' Hornblower thought.
"Aye, aye, Captain!" the Second replied with military snap, and then his voice rolled like a roundshot down the deck, "Alternate guns, fire!"
Almost immediately smoke and fire and 200 pounds of death-rattling iron belched from her side. Within two minutes, no more than three or someone would lose his rum ration for it, the guns would be ready to fire again. The wind pushed the smoke before the Caroline, and while Horatio was happy not to be breathing it in, it obscured his vision. Would that be enough to make the pirates take to their single-outriggers and retreat? Or were they so bold they would even attack a pair of armed frigates? In these treacherous waters, the Dyaks had the advantage of easy maneuverability. Dodging reefs and shoals would be child's play for those vessels!
"How many men would you say, Mr. Cole?"
"Less than fifty aboard the snow, Captain. The proas -," he put the bring-em-near to his eye and guessed, "they're about 60 feet each, and double-decked. There might be as many as 600 men, counting the rowers. Guns fore and aft, but no swivels."
Six hundred pirates. So the frigates would not be outmanned since they had the Madras regimentals aboard. But his chief advantage was his guns. He had to keep the proas to starboard and he glanced back yes, Foote had closed the gap, turning Piemontaise's bow southward so that the two frigates were nearly side by side, with bows in the opposite directions. Foote's starboard guns would cover their flank if necessary, but now the smoke was clearing and no flimsy proa was going to risk getting caught between the two powerful frigates. If they could not get close enough for boarding then the Dyaks would have to take to their heels.
As the smoke dissipated Hornblower could see the proas had not moved.
"Another round, sir?"
"No, Mr. Cole. If that wasn't enough to frighten them, another round won't do it either. Wait until we're within range and then," his eyes narrowed as he recalled the horrors he had heard about the Dyak warriors, "blast them to flinders!"
"Very good, sir. Cease firing!"
But it was not to be. Horatio had been right. The battle had been over even as he had first spied it from the masthead, and the British had no role to play in it. To Cole's intense disappointment, the wily Dyaks scrambled back to their proas just as Caroline came within range. To tamp his lieutenant's fury at being eluded, Hornblower allowed a full broadside but not a shot fell closer than half a cable length as the swift proas abandoned the desolate snow and fled east at a pace that awed Lieutenant Warrick.
"Keep the men at quarters," Hornblower ordered. "The pirates will probably hide further up in one of the rivers. They could come out behind us and attack with no warning."
Cole nodded. "Or circle Malawali and come up again. Shall I call up the boats, sir?"
"Aye. And Mr. Cole?"
"Pass the word for Mr. Cavendish and Mr. Willis. They will accompany me in the boats. Also the carpenter and his mates. If she's not holed she's the Nootmuskaat, Mr. Cole. How does that translate?"
Not even a glimmer of a smile touched the young officer's lips at Hornblower's halting Dutch accent. He realized the captain was about to let his inexperienced midshipmen witness the brutal realities of piracy for themselves. And he had no doubt about the nature of what those youngsters would find over there. He had his own memories to serve as a reminder. No one on board Caroline was more certain than Christopher Cole that not one soul aboard Nootmuskaat had survived the attack. And the Dyaks did not simply slay men: They were headhunters.
"Nutmeg, sir." Cole answered almost absently, his stare fixed on the hapless snow.
"And just about as helpless as one of those," Horatio remarked, echoing the lieutenant's own thought. "If she's not holed, we'll kedge her off. And if she has any supplies those misbegotten pirates have not looted, perhaps we can relieve some of our crowding."
In Hornblower's presence Cavendish and Willis had to suppress their natural ebullience at being selected to go in the boats. That effort became easier as they rowed closer and saw the first bodies in the water. Hornblower saw the gleaming excitement in their eyes shift to a vague horror. A man's hand slapped against the gig and Willis, thinking it belonged to a survivor, tried to assist the man into the boat. He had pulled the body up, grabbing at the shoulders until the ragged, bloody stub of severed neck appeared next to his hands. He gave a cry of horror, letting go of the corpse and stumbling back against the thwart so that he almost toppled from the gig. Styles pulled Willis down beside him on, took one look at the boy's white face and putting one hand to the back of the boy's head, leaned him out over the water where he wretched up his dinner. Cavendish had gone an interesting shade of green and his mouth worked as he struggled to maintain his composure. Just as well, Horatio reckoned. The scene was bound to be worse on board.
Already the first sharks were appearing, their grey and black-tipped dorsal fins slicing through the water much the same way their countless teeth would slice through their prey. God's mercy, Horatio mused, must surely be that the men of the Nootmuskaat were dead before entering the water. Anything else did not bear thinking on.
Styles was reluctant to allow his captain to board the snow first, although naval tradition insisted that a captain be always last into a boat and first out. But the loyal coxswain was worried that some of the pirates might have remained on board, hiding below deck for a surprise attack. Horatio merely pointed to his pistols and sword, and ordered Styles to stand aside. In a matter of minutes they had determined Mr. Cole's prediction had been accurate: There were no survivors aboard the little snow. Most of her company had been hacked to death and tossed overboard. Though horribly outnumbered, all had died fighting, and some still lay where they had fallen. The kris, the weapon of choice for South Seas pirates, was perhaps the most terrible blade ever fashioned by man's hands. How easily it cleaved a man in two! The wavy cutting edge and offset handle made it possible to sever a man with a single stroke, and clearly several kris had been put to bloody use here. Probably the campilan, a great two-handed sword, as well. Cole would have known for certain. Here and there was corpse or what was left of one with a simbilan protruding, a small bamboo spear tipped with iron. Cole had spoken once but briefly of seeing a Dyak launch five such spears at once, with great strength and dexterity, causing them to spread in flight.
Only an hour before the Nootmuskaat's planks had streamed with blood; now the liquid was drying quickly under the hot sun into sticky pools that smelled of rust and something not nameable. It was a repellent odour, Horatio thought, and peculiar to blood spilled with unnatural malevolence. Cavendish had managed to hold onto his last meal but his eyes were full of nightmares as he went forward and examined the bowchaser there, slipping in the blood until his shoes were covered in it. And though he thought himself steeled to anything he might see, Horatio was appalled to also recognize bits of human hair and skin, dampened with blood, that had become glued to the boy's stockings. He carefully refrained from examining his own footwear.
"Loaded, sir," Cavendish reported back to Hornblower, keeping his gaze carefully level. "But not fired. Looks like they never got a shot off."
"Too busy trying to keep from grounding," opined Styles. "She's got some damage to the stern, sir. Looks like the bleedin' pirates gave her a couple of rounds just to drive her up on the shoal. Herded like a sheep, she was. After that it was easy pickin's for'em."
Horatio nodded. "I think so, too, Styles. This is no ship of war; her guns were no match for them once they closed on her. And she'd no room to maneuver and make a run for it. What the devil is she doing in these waters anyway?"
Even as he asked the question Horatio was making for the captain's quarters. Her books, the Nootmuskaat's papers, if they had not been destroyed by her captain or carried away by the Dyaks, those could tell a story about why she had wondered from safer sea lanes.
The cabin was a disaster. The desk had been smashed open, books and papers spilling from it; likewise a small liquor chest had been broken but unlike the desk it had been emptied of its contents. An elegantly carved wooden box that had once held a pair of matched pistols lay flung open on the deck. The pistols were missing. An ominously large splatter of reddish-brown was drying on the bulkhead. More reddish-brown streaks were smeared across the deck and through the door, testimony that whoever had entered here alive probably had not left the same way. The cot had been shredded, the ropes severed from the beam so that it lay tumbled on its side. A small object, tinged with red and no bigger than a shilling, caught his attention as it rolled along the edge of the cot. He stared at it blankly until he realized what it was: A human fingertip.
He turned from the sight. "Styles! Bring me a blanket or a piece of canvas. Something to carry all these books in."
Never far from Hornblower's side whenever he left his own ship, Styles appeared with what looked like a hammock and began bundling up the books and papers.
"There's a strongbox here, too, sir!" He rattled it. "Still locked tight. Looks like the murderin' thieves missed it!"
"Excellent, Styles. Just bundle it in with the rest."
"Aye, aye, Captain. Reckon it'll all be in Dutchy, won't it, sir? Good thing we got Mr. Cole with us on this trip and not Oldroyd!" Styles cocked a sly eyebrow at Hornblower.
Despite the gruesome surroundings, Horatio felt a genuine smile crease his face, and was not ashamed that Styles should see it, surrounded as they were by the sight and stench of human slaughter. Oldroyd had been a young man in his division when he was a midshipman aboard Indefatigable. The man had displayed a singular lack of talent in learning any language not his own, almost the complete reverse of Cole's special gift in fact. Yet Oldroyd could never be convinced that a Frog or a Dago did not perfectly understand him when he bent his native tongue in a vain attempt to sound like theirs. By merely adding "-ee" to any word in English, the seaman was certain he was communicating clearly to his prisoners. "Thisee wayee, Frenchee! Gowee belowee!" he would say, wholly blind to the fact that the Frog obeyed the gesture of the bayonet rather than the mangled phrases uttered in his direction. Yes, Cole's talent for languages was a blessing but so, too, was Styles' ability to occasionally make his captain smile. And pleased with himself that he had done so, Styles went rather smugly about the business of securing the Nootmuskaat's papers and charts.
It was Cavendish again, first skidding then sliding in his bloody shoes, anxious to get to where Hornblower had emerged back into the bright sunlight, blinking and squinting.
"Signal, sir!" He caught his breath, and blurted, "Piemontaise! She's made the signal for shoals in every direction!"
Hornblower gritted his teeth. The sun would go down at this crucial juncture, he thought bitterly. Little point in bearing a grudge against nature: After all the sun went down every day around this time in the tropics. He'd a decision to make now: To anchor another night in Banggi Strait and risk the return of bloodthirsty Dyaks, or to press ahead and risk shoaling or even holing one of the ships in the dark. And now he had three ships to worry about. To ease the crowded conditions on both ships, twenty seamen from each frigate had been assigned to the Nootmuskaat, as well as a detachment of a dozen marines. Mr. Baddingley, First of Piemontaise, had been placed in charge of the Nootmuskaat. The efficient Baddingley had kedged her off in short order and after some careful sailhandling, took up a position between the two frigates.
And how much longer was Old Cumby going to take plotting their position, he wondered impatiently. Horatio had already done the math in his own head: The noon sighting, the speed and distance traveled, the effects of current and wind. He did not need the master's calculations to know how close they were to open water. A mere matter of two hours if only there was sufficient light for the boats to go ahead for soundings. As aggravating as Cumby, but in the opposite extreme, was Cole, whose skill with numbers was suspect at best but whose navigational techniques were embedded in his upbringing. They were no less accurate, however irritating, for his being unable to articulate them. With no sextant and no sighting save by that of his own lightly-slanted brown eyes, the younger man had casually announced just as Cumby had taken up pen and paper that they were a trifle southwest of Cagayan-Soolo. No reading, no chalk and slate, no scratching of that sun-bleached head as he worked out the numbers. Just the certainty of an experienced sailor in his home waters.
"I thought you had never sailed the Banggi before," Mr. Warrick inquired curiously of his junior. Warrick had relieved Cole as officer of the watch.
"No more I have. I just know. Something to do with the stars and the chart and the speed -- and most definitely the latitude," Cole responded with his customary affability. "I'd not be so certain if we were north of 10 degrees. And by the time we got to the 20th parallel I'd be lost as any lamb!"
"But it's longitude, not latitude, that's hardest to distinguish," argued Warrick. "If you don't know that how can you possibly be sure where we are?"
Cole shrugged carelessly. "If you're asking me do I know what our longitude is, I have to say no, I do not. From the charts I know we're somewhere around 117 degrees. But longitude is meaningless to the people in these parts. I know where we were when we entered the strait, I know how long we've been sailing and at what speed. And now I know we're at the southwest end of Cagayan-Soolo, that's all."
"And you calculated our position from those facts?" challenged Captain Hornblower. Even the talented Mr. Cole needed an occasional reminder to work on the weaker aspects of his seamanship.
Cole had the grace to look abashed. "No, sir. My arithmetic isn't up to it; it would take me all day to reckon it. I just know," he said simply, then with shrewd realization, "You've already done the reckoning, haven't you, Captain? Am I right, sir?"
"It escapes my imagination, Mr. Cole," Hornblower's tone was dry, "how you ever convinced an Examination Board to grant your commission. Did they not ask you any questions involving mathematics?"
Cole's grin flashed in the falling dusk, while the waters lapped gently at the hull below.
"None, sir! It was all rigging and knots and such. Oh, except for that one old question that everyone gets, the one about being close-hauled on the port tack, Cliffs of Dover, and so on. That old chestnut has been around forever. I guess the Admiralty thinks it gives a candidate confidence to have at least one question he can answer without hesitation!"
Horatio was glad that the dimming light hid his expression. He was fairly sure he had not managed to entirely suppress his stunned chagrin.
"And what," he managed slowly though he felt he must strangle on the words as he stared out at the darkening horizon, "did you answer to that particular question?"
Cole burst out laughing, and said in admiration, "Sir! You are the most complete hand! I never had a captain with so good a sense of humour!"
And Horatio, who would very much have liked to demand an answer, made himself be content with the undeserved compliment, lest he find himself spilling the story of his own failed examination for lieutenant. It niggled at his conscience that he had received his own commission for what the Admiralty called an act of bravery. In fact he had failed his examination. And not one of his juniors was ever going to hear that tale!
"Cagayan-Soolo!" announced a suddenly triumphant Cumby, who was startled when the three officers, Hornblower, Cole and Warrick, all glanced at each other in surprise, tried to smother their laughter, and failed miserably.
Horatio recovered himself in time to catch a flash of light off the larboard quarter, then another. And another. Dyaks?
"By Jove!" he whispered suddenly. "Yes, I do believe--!"
"Captain? Is something wrong?" Warrick asked.
"Nothing at all, Mr. Warrick! Bring up the boats, we will not anchor tonight!" Hornblower rubbed his hands together in near glee.
"Sir!" Warrick was aghast. Proceed amidst these treacherous shoals? In the dark? On his watch?
"Mr. Cole, here is what I want you to do!" Horatio gave his instructions in rapid-fire succession. "As quick as you can, man!"
And only Hornblower was not surprised when Cole's infectious laugh rang out once more.
CHAPTER TEN: A MYSTERIOUS LETTER
The captain's desk spilled over with books, charts, loose papers, and a strong box, all taken from the Nootmuskaat the previous day. Horatio's frustration with the Dutch was growing. One would have thought that the Batavian Republic, as Napoleon had renamed The Netherlands, might conduct more than a mere soupçon of their official correspondence in the official language of the Empire. Instead there was damned little of this mess he could decipher on his own. Styles had been right; nearly all of these papers were in the Hollanders' own language.
"Enter!" he snapped when the marine sentry announced his Second.
"Mr. Cole! Thank you for coming so promptly. Please be seated. Just clear that raffle off. You see before you, sir, the records of the Nootmuskaat, nearly all of them in Dutch. Quite a lot of it, too. I hope your skill is up to what appears to be a daunting task."
The lieutenant cleared the only chair in the tiny cabin and resting his giant frame there, said simply, "Where would you like to begin, sir? With the books or the correspondence?"
Hornblower pushed away from the desk and stretched out his long legs. Dark smudges beneath his eyes betrayed his fatigue.
"First, allow me to compliment you on a good night's fishing. And also to apologize for disturbing your rest, for I know you stayed with the boats until the morning watch."
"As did you, sir!" The broad, brown face was lit with his habitual merriment now. "It was a fine notion, sir, using laweri to light the boats for sounding. I don't think Styles has recovered from the miracle of it yet! And as for hearing the leadsman call out 'no bottom!' at last! Well, the cheering must have been enough to warn off the Dyaks, if there were any close by. And now poor Mr. Willis feels quite left out of things, having slept through it all."
"The more fortunate for Mr. Willis, then, if he was able to sleep without nightmares after what he witnessed yesterday," Horatio noted.
The light went out of Cole's face. "Aye, sir. None of us will be forgetting that any time soon." The quiet vehemence in his voice made Hornblower wonder whether Cole's experience with Dyaks might not be more extensive than he had mentioned.
"Well, to the matter then," Hornblower said briskly to dispel the sudden gloom. "Let us begin with the correspondence. This packet bears a broken seal; it would appear to me to be orders. Will you read it out, sir?"
The afternoon went by with the two men working in accord, Cole occasionally asking an impertinent question about what he had just read, and sometimes Hornblower pressing Cole for the most accurate translation of a certain word. By the time Ferry brought coffee early in the second dogwatch -- or what Ferry called coffee, for it was no more than burnt toast crumbs boiled into a watery black brew, since Horatio had consumed the last of Mrs. Courthope's gift a fortnight prior -- they had got through the bulk of the paperwork, Their clothing clung everywhere to their bodies from the ceaseless sweat and had they been viewed by one unfamiliar with the tropical latitudes, they would have every reason to think the two men had been at hard physical labour for some hours. Cole had had to tie cloths around his wrists and forehead to prevent his perspiration from dropping on to the papers and muddying the ink.
"Was the Nootmuskaat on an intelligence mission, Captain?" he ventured to ask, grimacing as he sipped the foul brew.
"Nothing so grand," Horatio refuted, yet the wording of that last letter Cole had read, addressed to the Governor of the Bandas from someone named van Houck, still gnawed at him, and he had set it aside along with two others, as well as a highly welcome chart of the Bandas. There was something of importance in that letter, something he knew he could not grasp by simply listening to Cole's reading,
"There is no knowing why they chose the dangers of the Bangii over a more direct route from Sourabaya. We can guess from the supplies meant for Banda Neira at the strength of the Dutch garrison there. I should think they have anywhere upwards of 1000 men. All of these," he gestured at the stack of letters, "are merely routine dispatches and some personal correspondence. But these three I wish to study, as they are addressed to the local governor of the islands. Would you mind very much copying them," he handed over the three letters, "into English? You have a fair hand? Or you can have my clerk to write it down as you dictate, if you prefer."
"That might be best, sir," Cole grinned. "M'father said my handwriting was akin to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Completely indecipherable!"
The mere mention of Nathaniel Courthope jolted Horatio unexpectedly. Ruthlessly he shoved the famous captain from his mind.
"Very well, then. You are dismissed, Mr. Cole. And see that Mr. Cumby gets this chart copied for Captain Foote. Today, if you please."
If Cole was at all taken aback by the abrupt coolness in his captain's demeanor after the preceding hours of easy camaraderie, he was too wise to let it show.
When Cole had gone and Horatio had finished his coffee, he rose and stretched. The immediate worries of this voyage could be set aside now for an hour or two, yet his brain would not rest. There was still much to be done. Tomorrow he would have the purser inventory the Nootmuskaat. According to regulations that chore should have been done before moving the vessel, but Horatio had decided that getting her safely out of shallow water and beyond reach of the pirates was more important. And the spare suit of sails needed to be brought up and inspected for mildew and rot. Then there were the sails already bent on; most had been furled for the past two days and no doubt some of them had been wet when taken in. It took very little time for salt, sun and mildew to turn good canvas into useless lace. He would send hands aloft tomorrow to have a look. And the ship's books needed to be brought up to date; the last 48 hours he had been too busy keeping his ships afloat to concern himself with how many pieces of salt pork the Navy had been shorted in the last cask opened, or whether the store of rum was running lower than it ought. He gritted his teeth. Gad, there was nothing worse than dealing with a purser!
Taking up his hat, he removed to the quarterdeck for a cooler breath of wind and the relief of being able to stand up straight after hours in the low confines of his quarters. The dogwatches were something of a gathering time for officers as well as for the men, and so it was no surprise to see Mr. Warrick and Mr. Wheaton in easy conversation by the binnacle. Cole was absent though, and after his efforts all through the night and much of the day, he had most likely surrendered to the call of his hammock. Mr. Cavendish had the watch and after a quick salute the midshipman vacated the weather side for his captain's use. Piemontaise was off the starboard quarter now, a half-mile distant. The little Nootmuskaat or Nutmeg as he was starting to think of her -- sped along behind, making all plain sail just to keep pace with the swifter frigates. Just as well Baddingley had been given the equivalent of a full crew. Perhaps it was because of the slow pace that they had been forced to endure the previous two days, but right now Hornblower had no least desire to reduce sail in order that the smaller vessel might keep up.
Caroline, too, seemed to have new snap in her spirit as if like her captain she was glad to be racing freely across the wide waters of the Soolo Sea. The wind was nearly on the beam, the yards braced accordingly, and the driver and tops'ls thrust out into tight, full curves. A vivid image of Mrs. Courthope came to him, her beautiful hair disheveled, one creamy curve of shoulder exposed to his caress. And just as suddenly she was gone, and the image of Nathaniel Courthope sprang to mind. Horatio had seen a portrait once at Whitehall of the late captain: A laughing, blond giant whose eyes seemed to dare the world and bedamned! Looking eternally youthful, the portrait must have been made some years before he had married Lil-Mrs. Courthope. Horatio wondered what the captain would have made of his widow's loyalty before realizing where his thoughts had again strayed. He forced his attention elsewhere.
For'ard the Carolines were expressing their joyous release from the tension and the hot, tedious work of the recent passage. Mr. Willis and Mr. Harrington and even one of the loblollies were skylarking in the rigging. The harsh scrape of a fiddle assaulted Horatio's ears, while half a dozen men sat in the shadow of the fo'c'sle and warbled a chantey in accompaniment. The light was going quickly now and those men carving scrimshaw or plying needles were bent closely over their work, as though hunching uncomfortably might ward off the darkness. The marines had kept to themselves as usual, ignoring even the Madras soldiers, and spent their time applying the omnipresent pipeclay to their belts or cleaning their muskets and chatting quietly. Styles had had the grinding stone brought abovedecks, and applied himself to sharpening the ship's cutlasses and putting a fine point on the pikes. Horatio would have thought it a very generous act on his coxs'n's part, only he knew that at least one marine would have traded his rum ration to Styles in return for getting a nice edge to his bayonet.
Horatio continued his silent pacing long after the change of watch, with the lively Mr. Willis settling down quickly to his duty since the captain was close by. Among the many things he must do tomorrow was study the chart of the Banda Islands found in the Dutch papers. Even a quick look at the chart had told him that Admiral Pellew's edition was as useless as both men had suspected, and this Dutch edition was far superior even to what Cumby had copied from the Perseverance's Master. To begin with there were ten islands, not seven, as Pellew's chart had been drawn. And Delano hadn't the depths charted all 'round the largest islands. Tomorrow, though, he would study it carefully.
Hornblower stretched, angling his long neck back. Overhead the stars made their twinkling appearance in the gap between mizzentop and sail, and from below came the rushing chuckle of water as Caroline plowed ahead, her pitch and roll a steady, comfortable rhythm. The creak of rigging was somehow soothing. He yawned, his jaw cracking, but he did not want to give in to weariness. What had he been thinking? Ah, yes, the chart. Perhaps he ought to have a look at it now after all, if Cumby had returned it. And if there was any air fit for breathing in his quarters.
"Sir?" There was a tension in the midshipman's voice. Did he think his captain was about to ask one of those unanswerable questions captains loved to pose regarding some esoteric bit of ship's lore that one could hardly be expected to have learned in only a few months at sea? Horatio smiled to himself.
"I'm going below, Mr. Willis. Send for me if the wind starts to back. We are probably going to have our usual nightly squall."
"Aye, aye, sir."
And with that Horatio went down the ladder and was opening his cabin door when he realized he had forgot to tell Willis to check the half-hour glass against the minute glass. He was beginning to suspect it was in error. Deciding it would be faster simply to go back and tell Willis himself rather than passing the word, he turned and went out again, nodding once to the sentry. He had not reached the ladder to the quarterdeck when he heard Mr. Cole's voice addressing the midshipman. Why he paused to listen, whether because he was surprised at Cole being abovedecks at this hour or whether for some other reason, he was not certain.
"No, sir." That was Willis speaking. "I was just about to go and make certain the lookouts are awake."
Cole said something in a low tone that made the midshipman laugh, then louder, "And you'll want to check that half-hour glass as well. I'm afraid I knocked it against the binnacle earlier and it may not be running perfectly."
Pleased that his officers were ahead of him on this small piece of maintenance, Horatio turned back toward his quarters only to freeze when he heard Willis ask, "May I ask you a question about the captain, sir?"
"You may ask, Mr. Willis." Cole's tone clearly warned the younger man to be cautious.
"Oh, no, sir! Nothing like that, sir!" Willis was appalled at the notion he might be thought to be speaking against a superior officer. "It's only that I think Captain Hornblower is a great captain!"
Cole's voice betrayed his amusement. "I very much doubt there is a man on board will quarrel with you, Mr. Willis, not after Batavia and not now that we have safely crossed the most treacherous stretch of water I have ever seen. What, then, is your question?"
"Forgive me for becoming personal, Mr. Cole. Your father was a great captain also, I'm told. I was just wondering, was he much like Captain Hornblower then?"
There was a long silence, and Horatio felt his breath coalesce into a frozen mass in his lungs as he awaited the answer.
"Great leaders are not often much alike," Cole finally said. "Aside from their ability to inspire loyalty and trust in those they lead, if you were to ask those who knew them best I think you would find Lord Nelson was a very different man from, oh, say the Little Corsican. And both of them vastly different from Queen Bess! Every leader of note has qualities that make them what they are, but they are not always the same qualities."
"But surely there are similarities, sir. Captain Hornblower is fearless! And I have heard the same of Captain Courthope."
"A good captain does not let his men see his fear. That is hardly the same thing as being fearless, Mr. Willis."
"Do you call the captain a coward, sir?" Willis's outrage spurred his voice up a good full octave, till the last word was a veritable mouse's squeak.
"Calm down, Mr. Willis! I do no such thing. Feeling fear is not the same thing as cowardice. Cowardice is giving in to fear. But bravery is overcoming fear, lad, so that a man can think clearly and act decisively. And in that regard Captain Hornblower is one of the bravest men I have met! Do you think that as you get older and experience a few more battles you will cease to be afraid? You will not, unless you have a penchant for playing fast and loose with your life. But you can learn from watching the captain, as I have myself. He's a grand leader, and knows his ship better than he knows the lines on the palm of his hand. But he's human, not divine. The captain never shows it, of course. He mustn't. But he must surely feel the same fear that any man feels when faced with the prospect of battle and dying. Perhaps even more so, for it is the captain alone who carries the burden of sending men to their deaths. Even a strong man can break under that kind of weight on his spirit; many have done. So if there was a similarity between the captain and my father I would say it is that they both shouldered the heaviest of responsibilities, and did it willingly. Both fine seamen, though our captain is surely the better navigator. But my father led his men in a different fashion. It was in his personality, his presence. He had a charisma, if you will, a flamboyance that drew men. Captain Hornblower has his own charisma, but it's quieter, more subtle."
"I would follow him into Hades, Mr. Cole!" declared an impassioned Willis.
In the darkness Cole nodded, though no one saw it.
"Then the Captain has done his job, hasn't he?" was all he replied.
But Horatio was thinking of the nearly 300 men who had indeed
followed Nathaniel Courthope to an unknown Hades. He was starting
to feel like one of them.
"You will grant passports for all Vessels which the inhabitants may wish to send to Isle de France, and endeavour to establish a signal by which they may be made known. And in case the English should, after my departure, wish to enter into any capitulation, you will pay strict attention to my declaration of this day, and not entangle yourself by undertaking to embark the troops for Batavia.
M. General Daendels"
Horatio laid this letter aside. Daendels must have written this prior to receiving word that the British had captured Amboyna. There was no reason now to think that there might be any form of capitulation by the British. Unless....? Perhaps the Dutch general had no great opinion of Admiral Troubridge's military prowess. That, combined with the sure knowledge of the lack of ships flying the Union Jack in these waters, might lead Daendels to betray the unusually high degree of arrogance reflected in this letter.
Taking up the next letter, a far more intriguing missive, Horatio noted that although formally addressed to the Governor of the Spice Islands, the overall tone was couched in a brief familiarity, as if written from one old friend to another. And it fairly smacked with intrigue.
"My dear Friedrich,
It was with no little consternation that I read the contents of your letter of the 8th last. You may gather the alarum with which I received the Information which you imparted to me by the fact that I have burned your letter until not the smallest portion remaining was more than ash. Nor can I caution you with sufficient strength against ever again putting so damaging - indeed, damning is not too strong a word! - a situation on to paper which, if so inflammatory a Despatch ever fell into Enemy hands, must lead to your certain ruin and to the ruin of Many Others. And setting aside that the Enemy scarcely challenges us in these waters for now, imagine what action against you might be taken if this case becomes known by the authorities at Isle de France. You are certain to be recalled, to what horrible end I dare not imagine, and our Beloved Country will inevitably become both the scorn and laughingstock of all Europe. It is possible that even such low creatures as the Americans will revile us.
You ask my counsel in this matter, and I daresay you may have received some form of the same from your predecessor. The notion, on either his part or yours, that the blame for this matter may be laid at de Caens' door is clearly erroneous. Blame will always fall on whoever is in command, and for the nonce, my dear Friedrich, that is you.
It serves no end but to ease my frustration in asking to what purpose you allowed the situation to continue and become compounded so awfully. A Remedy must be devised, but the only immediate Solution -- and it must be immediate! -- I have no doubt you have already concluded as much in your own mind. You must steel yourself to the matter, and quickly, my friend. Though they have not yet challenged our Fleet, with each day that passes the English arm themselves more strongly and seek more ships to add to their force. You have but a few months at most, perhaps only weeks even to resolve this problem. I urge you to proceed swiftly and with the utmost discretion. And as the matter has become more repugnant with time, it will not be enough now to merely vanquish those who present this problem. It must be made to appear to the world at large that this situation never existed. As I destroyed your letter until only unrecognizable ashes remained, so must you destroy this dilemma. Make it as if it had never been, so that even if Isle de France later does somehow learn of the matte, it would make no odds for then they would assist you in obliterating the facts, but only if you have destroyed as much evidence as still remains. But do now what must be done. Do it swiftly and do not Count the Cost! You take my meaning I trust.
I would to God you had not shared this secret with me, Friedrich. I am ashamed to be made a part of it even at this distance and with no more sin on my part but the knowing. Let me hear from you at your earliest opportunity. I shall not be able to rest until I know you have laid all to rest, for all time and for all of history.
Your faithful friend,
Pieter van Houck
Horatio noted that in this letter, like the previous one, news of the capture of Amboyna had not yet reached Dutch ears. How 'alarumed' might Mijnheer van Houck have been had he known the British had already taken control of the closest port of any significance to the Banda Islands? What clandestine difficulty at the isolated Bandas could so disturb the writer, who had posted his letter at Sourabaya, as well as the Governor of those tiny lands? Something scandalous, of a certainty, if not even the French authorities must know of it; and embarrassing in the extreme if the titular heads of the Batavian Republic had not been informed. Something that not one, but two governors of the islands had thus far kept hidden.
Yet, Horatio mused, someone besides 'Friedrich' and 'Pieter' must know this terrible secret. "It will not be enough to vanquish those who present this problem."
Obviously several people were in the know. Yet that seemed impossible so many people belied the ability of the governors to have kept such a secret. People were fallible; they loved to whisper their secrets. So one governor had told another, presumably because the matter was official in nature, or would affect the same. And now Friedrich had told Pieter. That was three who knew of the matter. And "those who present this problem." Why would not those people have talked, if there was a situation so scandalous it would rock the Dutch government of the islands? Unlessperhaps these people did not know they were part of this problem? Or knew, but somehow were prevented from speaking out?
For another hour Horatio allowed his mind to turn the matter this way and that, looking at the limited intelligence from so many aspects as occurred to him. At last he allowed himself to set the mental challenge aside. He could see no way in which it bore on the matter now before him, which was whether an assault on the Bandas was at all possible with the limited forces at his command. Carefully he folded his copy of the letter and locked it in his desk, then stood to take from the rack overhead the Nutmeg's excellent chart of the islands.
He unfurled the chart, pinning down the sides with his glass
and his drinking mug. The outlines of ten islands lay before him,
all scattered within a 20 mile radius. The main island, or rather
the only island with sufficiently spacious anchorage for European
trading and war vessels in the past two centuries, was Banda Neira.
Neira was bordered to the north by three smaller islands and closely
on the west by a volcano, Gunung Api. The volcano measured only
some 650 feet high according to the chart, and was easily the
highest point in the islands. But, Horatio wondered, would anyone
be crazed enough to keep batteries or lookouts atop a volcano?
To the east and south of Neira was Banda Besar, the largest of
these spice islands. Shaped like a quarter moon, Besar's concave
side hugged Neira, a deep water channel separating the two.
Some 15 miles east-southeast of Besar lay Rosengens. The remaining three islands, Run, Nailakka, and Ay, lay in a line running almost due west from the volcano. Not marked with any Dutch outposts, most likely they were either unapproachable by sea from a vessel of any size or sufficiently barren as to make dwelling there insupportable. Either way, the islands were probably generally left entirely to the locals for management of the expensive nutmeg that grew nowhere else in the world save for the Banda Islands.
Neira was small, being no more than two miles long and a half-mile wide, yet she could boast two forts, one overlooking the other, and by Hornblower's careful deductions, garrisoned by at least 1000 soldiers. How many regulars and how many militia would be helpful to know, he mused. And there were bound to be batteries on some of the outlying islands, probably on Karaka to the northwest and Pisang in the northeast. And certainly on Besar to the south. That would give sufficient oversight of all possible approaches to Neira and allow for warnings to be given, in case the sound of guns blasting proved for some reason inadequate. Of course that most westerly isle, Run, would also be a good location for a pair of batteries but it was of a sufficient distance from Neira as to make that unlikely.
An easterly approach then? Horatio wondered as he took up the dividers and measured the course. Undercover of darkness? Difficult not knowing where the guns were placed though. No, from further south perhaps. Yes, that was more likely to gain him the advantage of surprise. And not make the swing back northwards until he came within sight of Rosengens. He could delay there, should that be necessary, before bearing up for Neira
Plans formed swiftly and were as quickly discarded from his mind. He could think of a hundred reasons why one idea was too risky, another too difficult, and why all of them were useless! He needed to walk, to think the matter through. He took up his hat and ascended to the quarterdeck.
The sun had risen but a quarter of the way from the horizon, and even as he turned to check the hour glass five bells sounded. The deck for'ard had been holystoned just after quarters had ended, and was now crowded with spare canvas laid out for inspection. Master Cumby oversaw the proceedings with a demanding eye, grumbling loudly at the men in his way, the ones not assisting him but who were assigned to black the guns and scrape the rust from the roundshot. When that was done the roundshot then had to be passed through a circular gauge, to ensure its roundness. It seemed a useless task to landsmen but a ball deformed by rust could lodge in the gun and cause it to burst when fired. A burst gun was the second most feared accident aboard a man of war. Fire was the first.
Mr. Cole had the forenoon watch and with a polite salute the lieutenant vacated the weather side for Hornblower's use, and looked around to make certain he had left nothing undone thus far in his nearly completed watch, nothing for which the captain might reproach him.
Almost without conscious thought or will, Horatio fell into
his habitual pattern of silently pacing the abbreviated deck,
aft to the rail and back again to the ladder, skirting the sternchaser
slides on one hand and the ringbolts for the gun tackles on the
other. Occasionally, and still more from habit than from reason,
he looked across at the vanes, those small feathers bobbing on
their corks. The wind was backing slightly, but the glass was
steady and the skies clear almost to the horizon. The storms seemed
always to come at night, usually in the first hour or two of the
morning watch but occasionally they came earlier, in the middle
watch. Every officer of the deck from midnight until four o' the
clock longed to be relieved of duty before the choppy waters began
pitching the frigate in a nasty corkscrew motion and the thrumming
monsoon rains descended in sheets so heavy as to make visibility
impossible. At those times a man could stand directly over the
binnacle, shielding it from the deluge, and still not be able
to read the compass card.
And that reminded Horatio that he had not yet heard Midshipman Willis box the compass. Cavendish, though but a year older than Willis, had considerably more time at sea, and had long ago learnt the drill. Willis must surely have mastered the task by now, but Horatio realized he was not certain.
"Mr. Cole!" he snapped.
The response was so quick that for a moment he thought he had imagined it. Cole must have been on his toes!
"Can Mr. Willis box the compass, sir?"
"That he can, captain."
And silence blanketed the weather side once again as Hornblower
resumed pacing. It was like Cole, he thought, to know enough to
give a simple answer and then shut up. Every man aboard Caroline
knew not to disturb the captain when he was deep in thought, moving
up and back in measured steps like an automaton, but once Hornblower
had broken the silence not every officer was wise enough to allow
it to be restored. Far away Horatio heard seven bells sound and
realized he had been walking longer than he realized.
He strolled over to look at the traverse board. They had been making a swift eight knots in these deep waters. The Nutmeg had fallen behind this morning, and lagged her bigger sisters by some two miles astern. He hoped she could stay close during the nightly storms. He did not worry for Piemontaise: Captain Foote was a well-trained and disciplined officer. It would probably take a typhoon to blow him off station. And although the other ships had instructions for a rendezvous should something go amiss, he had no wish to lose the little snow and her crew to some errant enemy vessel just for lack of oversight. Moving so many men to her deck had eased the crowding on the frigates, but those men would all be necessary when they reached the Bandas. A thousand or more men at Banda Neira 'gainst his 700 or so. Fewer, for some men would have to stay with the ships. Say they would be outnumbered then, at least two to one. His brain churned.
Abruptly he turned to find Cole staring at him, his expression unusually somber, before the Second quickly turned his gaze for'ard.
"Something troubles you, Mr. Cole?" One slim eyebrow arched curiously.
"Yes, sir," Cole replied then, with a shrug of his massive shoulders, added awkwardly, "I've been wishing...that is... Might we speak privately, Captain?" He nodded meaningfully at the quartermaster and helmsman, who could hear all that was said.
"Very well, but be quick about it, sir! Mr. Harrington is coming now to relieve you. Let's not keep him hanging about."
The two men withdrew to the weather side.
"No, sir. This will not take long. I only wanted to say" The young giant took a deep breath and expelled the words. "Sir, I'd like to offer an apology for my actions while we were at Penang."
Hornblower was momentarily caught off guard. Something about the men, about the ship, some problem that the captain needed to be made aware of any of those he had anticipated. He had hardly expected his Second to apologize and for what imagined error was he apologizing? Horatio remembered Pellew's advice at whist, to always keep his cards close to his vest, and so he merely said icily, "Yes, Mr. Cole?"
"I You must have been aware, sir, that I, er, made some effort to throw you into company with my stepmother."
"Yes?" If anything Hornblower's tone was even colder than before, yet Cole would not be stymied.
"I beg your pardon, sir. I was not aware at that time that you are married. Not that my ignorance in any way excuses me. But I had not thought ." Cole caught himself suddenly and changed the course of his words. "That is to say, it was impertinent of me, and presumptuous. And I deeply regret any embarrassment I may have caused you, Captain."
He had not thought what? Hornblower wondered. But Lily Mrs. Courthope! must have disclosed nothing of that awkward meeting to her stepson, otherwise surely Cole would be demanding an apology rather than offering one. In a way, he was greatly relieved, and yet he felt a more urgent sense of shame that this earnest expression of regret came from the wrong man. Still, a captain must never show weakness or admit to fault, so he merely tightened his lips, his icy words chipped from an honour that was not without stain.
"Apology accepted, Mr. Cole. We will speak no more of it."
A grin flashed across Cole's broad, brown features.
"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!"
And with a quick salute he was gone to Harrington's side, briefing him quietly while Captain Hornblower resumed his stroll.
If Cole ever learned the truth Well, that was a problem best left for another day. What was it in the Bible that his father used to quote? 'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.' Yes, Horatio thought with self-derision, by all means he ought to delay owning up to his own sins. If it served any useful purpose to reveal the truth to Cole he liked to think he might have done so, but he could think of no good that could come from it. And he flinched from admitting to his own gaucheness and humiliation. He sighed wearily, angular shoulders drooping slightly under the weight of twin burdens named Guilt and Responsibility, and decided that for the moment he must put all of his personal concerns into a mental drawer and close it. Perhaps the Dutch governor with the mysterious problem quoted that verse to himself also? For like that man Horatio found himself burdened with a dilemma, a dilemma of desire and potentially scandalous, and one that he could not seem to resolve. He could not simply "vanquish those" who presented this problem, as Mijnheer van Houck had advised his friend. It was not so easy to control one's thoughts. Horatio turned from the rail in time to see Cole descend the ladder and vanish into dim netherworld below decks.
And from nowhere Hornblower was struck with the most fantastical notion. He paused, frozen in his steps. The idea was so preposterous -- so mad! -- it took his breath away!
It was insane!
Yet it explained so much. The letter, the need for secrecy!
But it was impossible! The Dutch could not have managed it. Could they? He took a deep breath and recovered his composure.
No. No, it was impossible. Or at least -- very improbable. Altogether unlikely. But like his personal dilemma, the thought had lodged itself in his mind and was not so easily displaced.
When the sun edged its descent in the western skies over the
Soolo Sea, Captain Horatio Hornblower still tirelessly strode
the deck of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Caroline. Beneath
the battered straw hat that shaded his lean features, his expression
was grim and his gaze fixed on a distant point beyond the pink
and gilt horizon. If anyone had dared interrupt the captain to
ask him what he was staring at, he would have said simply, "History."
CHAPTER ELEVEN: LONG ODDS
"Wear ship! Wear ship, damn you!"
Hornblower was furious. Nothing else made him so angry as being fired upon without warning except for being taken entirely by surprise! The first shot had gone directly through Caroline's spritsail, and had come from a Dutch battery! A battery he had not expected. A battery that by Horatio's reckoning should not have even been on Pulau Rosengens, let alone have fired upon his frigate! A second blast from 24-pounders fell short of Caroline but was close enough to viciously spray his quarterdeck with seawater. He berated himself mercilessly for an arrogant fool! He had underestimated the enemy, misgauged the position of the enemy's defenses, and entirely ruined any chance of a surprise attack on Neira.
Or had he?
Even as the men were madly hauling on the sheets and bracing the yards 'round to come about, he was forming a new plan, one that could almost have made him smile were he not so irritated with himself for his inexcusable blunder. And Warrick was going to hate it!
"Mr. Cavendish! Signal the others to come about as well. We'll heave to out of sight of the battery, Mr. Cumby. Then all officers are to report to me at once. Yes, Mr. Cavendish, those from the other ships as well!"
Piemontaise and Nutmeg had been nearly a mile astern when that first shot had raised hell on the foc'sle, and played havoc with Horatio's battle plan. By the time Caroline heaved to well to the northeast of Rosengens, out of reach and sight of the battery, the spritsail had been replaced under Cumby's watchful eye, and blessed with Wheaton's curses. The first dogwatch was well advanced when a heavily perspiring Captain Foote and his officers, as well as Baddingley from Nutmeg, and Caroline's own officers crowded Hornblower's dining coach beyond its cramped confines.
"A direct assault on Neira is no longer possible," Foote was not precisely arguing with Hornblower. After all, one did not argue with a superior officer even if seniority was only by a mere matter of months on the captains list. Rather, Foote was notably emphatic.
"The Hollanders have been warned by the guns on Rosengens, sir. Had we known about those --!"
The implication, as Horatio understood it, was that he had failed to anticipate the battery there. Well, it was true, and no doubt the fact would damn him in the Admiralty's eyes when they later received his report, but what was the point in dwelling now over what might have been?
"We know now, Captain Foote!" Hornblower freely showed his impatience with the man's failure to understand the opportunity now open to them. "And feeling as they must that they have driven us off, we yet have the advantage of surprise. We will attack tonight, under cover of darkness."
"Butsir!" Warrick exclaimed. "They will be waiting for us!"
"Yes, Mr. Warrick, they will be waiting. Waiting on the north point of Neira, with some urging in that direction from Mr. Baddingley. But we will attack from the south, just east of the port itself."
Only Cole was looking as excited as Horatio felt about his plan, and the only one to grasp some of its nicety as the lieutenant pointed out to the others, "Granted, we can only take the ships in so far now without the batteries eating us for dinner. But with Mr. Baddingley to lure their attention to the north, and by use of the boats, it is just possible that we might make a quiet landing at Neira and take the fort by surprise!"
"And which fort did you have in mind, sir?" Foote asked sarcastically. "You do recall there are two of them?"
"Belgica, of course," Hornblower was growing less snappish and more enthusiastic. "It overlooks Fort Nassau. To take Belgica is to take both forts and control of the harbor. And we will not have to fight their entire garrison at once by doing so!"
Warrick was still not convinced, and felt the need to state the obvious. "But if we do not succeed, we are cut off from the ships!"
"Then we must succeed, mustn't we?" Horatio's irritation returned; it was never far away where Warrick was concerned. "You have your orders, gentlemen. Dismissed!"
By midnight Horatio was having his own doubts. The glass had fallen steadily through the afternoon and evening and now the waves chopped viciously at the hull. Had they been made of metal, he thought, the frigate would be hacked to pieces. An irregular corkscrewing had replaced the rhythmic pitch and roll to which he was accustomed and caused his stomach to churn. With courses all in, and topsails double-reefed, it had taken longer to make the approach to Neira than he had allowed for. Rain was spitting fitfully, sometimes heavily, and he supposed he must be glad this was the case, and not so steady as the nightly deluge brought by the monsoon. At least the clouds would cover the moon's brightness and allow the boats some measure of secrecy. The frigates had eased in undercover of dark and rain, all lights dowsed as they cruised undetected past the Rosengens battery, and hove to at last within three cable lengths of Neira's southeast shore. Somewhere north of the island Baddingley was teasing the Dutch by playing peek-a-boo with them, easing Nutmeg in and out of their view, sometimes close enough to draw fire. Then Baddingley knew to sheer off before easing in again. He might do what he liked in fact, so long as he kept the enemy's attention fastened north.
Piemontaise had closed in to starboard of Caroline, so that communication by the speaking trumpet was possible, though it was not to be thought of now, so close to Neira as they were. Both Foote and Baddingley had expected Hornblower to cancel the assault as the weather deteriorated, but neither made any further demur when he had not. Baddingley was well out of it at any rate, and had no quarrel with his own orders. He had deposited his detachment of Madras soldiers with Caroline and sailed immediately afterward to patrol the northern reach of Neira. And perhaps Foote had been reassured by the lack of an enemy challenge as they approached the port. Or perhaps the man was simply resigned to following orders. However it was, there had been no more expostulating from Captain Foote. That was left to Hornblower's tiresome First.
"Captain," Warrick was almost begging, "it'll be impossible to get the boats through these waters!"
"The Dutch are thinking the same thing, Mr. Warrick! You will see to it that the ladders are loaded and the men are armed! And oilcloths - to keep the powder dry! Let them rest half an hour and then into the boats."
Through the rain-spattered lens of the night scope, that bizarre arrangement of lenses which rendered but the dimmest outline of objects in upside-down fashion, Hornblower could see no signs of stirring around either fort. But then, with no moon or starlight, the instrument was almost useless, and he placed little reliance on it. Far off to the north point of the island, were two bright points of light. Bonfires. Someone was having to work mighty hard to keep those fires ablaze in this weather. The Dutch were alert, he mused, but looking as he had hoped -- in the wrong direction altogether! The battery from Rosengens had made them vigilant, but they were waiting at the northern end of Neira, the most obviously accessible spot for an invasion. The occasional sight of the little snow ought to be enough to hold them there for a few hours more. No one, he hoped, would be dreaming that instead of attacking from the most likely vantage point the British would instead be rowing right up to the doorstep of the Dutch stronghold.
"Sir!" Cole looked anguished as he scrambled up the quarterdeck to where Horatio stood hunched and sweating in his boat cloak.
"Sir, there isn't enough room! In the boats, I mean. We still have too many men. It's all these soldiers, sir!"
Horatio nodded as if he had known that would be the case all along, and tried to look composed as rain dripped from the end of his nose. Why had he not thought about how to get all those extra soldiers on shore, where they could at last be of some use?
"We'll take as many of the marines and soldiers as we can, Mr. Cole. Our own men to row, of course, but Mr. Cumby will need our best topmen with him tonight. They stay behind." Cumby was being left in command of the Caroline, a task the Master much preferred to the one of rowing to shore and fighting against heavy odds in absolutely foul weather.
Cole sketched a salute, and said, "Aye, aye, Cap'n. Your gig is ready, sir."
"Very well, then."
Hornblower touched the paper he had wrapped in a bit of oil cloth and tucked away inside his shirt. Why he had this urge to keep it with him he was uncertain, for it was only Cole's translation of the van Houck letter. The original was safely locked in his desk. Perhaps the mystery in the letter would be solved if he brought off a victory here.
He made an uncharacteristically agile step into the boat as it swung from the davits and gave the order to lower away. As soon as the gig touched the waves, his doubts swept over him again with all the force of the water that dashed over the low bulwarks, rocking his belly unpleasantly. Perhaps. If. Maybe. He was disgusted with himself, weary of these vulturous thoughts. Just pushing off from Caroline's side was an effort for the rowers and though they were less than 500 yards from shore, by the time they plowed these rough waters they would feel like they had rowed five miles when they got there. If they got there. No, dammit, when!
He looked around, though there was virtually nothing to see now. Ahead of him he could just barely make out the stern of Caroline's jollyboat. Cole would be at the tiller, but between darkness, the pelter of rain and lash of wave, Horatio could not make him out at all. His stomach rolled mightily with the agitated motion of the small gig, and he forced himself to keep his head up and tried to create an imaginary horizon on which to focus. Styles was at the tiller behind him, and Hornblower felt an inchoate reassurance at the knowledge. A
good few years he and Styles had sailed together now; it was like having a steady wall at his back. But he'd no least intention of being sick in front of any of his men!
The launch, with Warrick in charge, was nowhere to be seen, nor did he spy any of the boats from the other ships. The jollyboat, too, had been swallowed into the darkness. Over the slap of wave and howl of wind he could hear the men grunting at their thankless labor. How long? How long had they been rowing? Surely
they should be near shore by now? Had they been tossed off course in this cursed weather? He looked behind him to find he could no longer make out the looming hull of the frigate. All around now was naught
but darkly gleaming waves as they crested and pounded at the wooden teacup in which he sat stonily, rigidly swallowing down an acid burst of nausea.
A rough grinding sound growled beneath the gig, barely audible over the storm, but a noise known and dreaded by sailors the world over.
"We're grounded! Over the side, men!"
Even before he had got the words out, men were in motion, some of the Madras soldiers being pushed out of the gig by those who understood what was happening. Horatio flipped his legs over the side and found his footing on the sandy shoal. Instantly he felt his boots suck and fill with water as the air was forced up and out of them. The waves sloshed and soaked him to his waist, the heavy current like a hand in the back, shoving him nearly to his knees while salt spray filled his mouth. Tanned and tarred hands gripped the gig's sides and stern, holding her steady, and with a single concerted effort, the men launched her over the small hump on which she had grounded. Even as they all clambered back into the boat, the storm gained in intensity so that rowing was now nearly impossible save in a kind of sideways crawl. He could not even tell if they were making in the right direction for the shore now. They'd never make it to the rendezvous, Hornblower despaired. And what about the other boats? Where would they end up? Rain streamed down his face as again he forced back down his gullet a wretched mix of bile and seawater. He would lose his post for this, he knew. He'd be lucky to end his days on half-pay. More likely he'd be broken altogether.
A huge wet hand sprung suddenly from the roiling water to catch and hold the side of the gig near Horatio's place. A human head, dimly discernible as such and streaming with seawater emerged beside it. A gurgle, a spit and then a salt-raspened voice. "Captain Hornblower? Captain Hornblower?"
"Mr. Cole!" Horatio was amazed, even as he and Styles helped haul the lieutenant into the gig. A rope was tied about the man's waist and hung limply back into the water. Even in the dark Hornblower thought the boat sank noticeably lower beneath the big man's weight. Styles barked sharply at the soldier passengers to bail faster.
"Sir! My boat's on shore, about 70 yards ahead." Cole was fumbling with the wet knot at his waist, undoing the rope. "Here, you in the bow, make this fast! Then give it a tug and the lads on shore will haul us in."
"How did you spot us, Mr. Cole?"
Cole's giant figure seemed somehow larger, almost inhuman in the wet blackness that yet disguised most of him.
"Yellow stripe on your gig, sir. Just a glimpse or two was all, but enough we could make out your position."
"And the other boats?"
He felt rather than saw the shake of the head. "The cutter made it and my men in the jollyboat, of course, but I haven't seen the launch or the pinnace yet. But Mr. Willis's boat arrived ahead of us, if you can believe it!"
The Nutmeg's gig, which Willis commanded for this mission, was so small and light that indeed it was difficult to believe she could have been easily maneuvered to shore in this storm. Suddenly there was a jerk at the bow of the gig and Horatio saw the boat turning beginning to pull in a straighter line than they had yet managed. Slowly the rowers began to feel the aid of the men on shore hauling to bring her safely in.
Cole was laughing, always happiest in the worst of trials it seemed to Hornblower. "Keep rowing, lads! Don't make them do all the work! I think he was lucky," he said to Horatio, harking back to Willis. "I'm thinking he caught one good wave that carried him over the shoal and simply rode it straight in to shore! Not that he'll say so, but how else ease up now!" And without so much as a by-your-leave he was out of the boat and into the surf, pushing at the stern as the gig rode easily up into the lee of a sandy cove.
"Here's luck!" he said cheerily, and directed Hornblower's gaze aft. Just yards from shore was another pair of boats struggling toward the beach. It was Lieutenant Carew, Piemontaise, in the launch and Midshipman Cavendish in the cutter.
While Cole was directing assistance to those boats, Hornblower trudged about the cove, his stomach roiling, trying to take stock of his surroundings as much as the elements would allow. This bit of shore seemed to be lined with jungle; it would not be easy to find a way up. He stepped behind the dripping wet curtain of tree and fern, took just long enough to be certain he was not followed, and promptly -- to his personal mortification -- cast up his accounts. Quickly he wiped his face on the wet tail of his cloak and casually emerged back onto the spit of sand, greatly relieved.
Almost immediately he was approached by young Carew.
"Captain Hornblower, sir."
"Sir, unless I'm mightily mistaken, we caught a glimpse of a f --- a fortification just above this cove, as we were coming in."
"You saw guns?"
"No, sir, we could never get a clear look at anything in this d-- this abysmal weather." The break between words made Hornblower think Carew was by nature a man who swore, and had to carefully mind his tongue before a senior officer. "A bit of stone wall is it. An odd place to put a house, though, if that's what it is," he noted.
"Very well. Where is Mr. Cole?"
"Here, Captain." The voice that could bellow from
the maintop and be heard in the cable tiers was softer now, clear
but loud enough only to make himself heard above the wind.
"How many men?"
"All told, sir, I reckon about 140 of our lads, that is, seamen and marines. Another 40 of the Madras boys."
"How so? There should be more, even without the other boats." Dammit, he had thought that if no one else, Foote would at least have made it!
"Our launch went adrift with only half the men she was supposed to carry, sir," Carew reluctantly informed him. "Captain Foote was left behind."
"I see." God bless us all! What more could go wrong? "Have any of the other boats been spotted?"
"No, sir." The answer was reluctant.
"How about powder, for the muskets and pistols? Did we manage to keep any dry at all?"
"Lieutenant Montmorency assures me the marines are entirely prepared. And the pistols issued to the men -- they are having to reload, sir, when this f this infernal wind isn't blowing the rain sideways!" Carew spat.
"Very well, then. Tell Mr. Cavendish to secure the boats, and we will leave a dozen men to guard them. You and Mr. Cole here may take a detachment and go up and have a look at this battery of yours. And quietly, gentlemen! The storm has afforded us some protection from discovery but let us not abuse the privilege!"
Carew gathered a party of pikemen, and within minutes the detachment had disappeared into the jungle. Hornblower listened intently for any sign of discovery from the battery, not that he was like to hear much over wind and wave and steady rain, even as he scanned the wind-whipped sea for any sign of the other boats. With a handful of marines on guard, the men were allowed to rest. Horatio counted the minutes to himself, as he tugged off his boots and emptied them of saltwater. Ferry would cry over them when next he saw them, and spend hours trying to restore what little gloss had been left to them. He doubted he could expect a report from Cole in less than an hour, assuming all went well. If things went wrongif things had already gone wrong, a Dutch patrol could be descending on them even now! He bit back a curse and opened his mouth to give the order for everyone to take cover just as a very English voice said, "Caroline!"
"Approach!" barked Styles, and from the brush emerged Spaulding, the keen-eyed lookout Horatio remembered from the Banggi passage.
"Batt'ry's taken, sir, and no' a shot fired!" he announced proudly when Hornblower approached him. "Mr. Cole killed the sentry werry quiet-like, and Mr. Carew caught'em all off-guard and most of'em asleep!"
Horatio's spirits soared.
"And there's more, sir. Mr. Cole and me clumbed a bit further up, and I'll be bejiggered if those wily Wooden-Shoes don't have another batt'ry just beyond that'un we took!"
"Ten on'em, sir. Etteen-punders, is the half and the other'n
twenny-four punders. And Mr. Carew wants to know, sir, shall we
take the next batt'ry as well?"
Hornblower thought for a moment. Ten guns. Carew and Cole had at least 50, probably 60 prisoners to keep quiet. And another battery, even if captured just as silently as the first no, keeping so many prisoners quiet and with only the small number of men at his command -- he needed his men for fighting, not for guard duty.
"Mr. Cavendish, bring up the ladders and then I want a word with the men." Hornblower paced the wet sand as if it were his quarterdeck, and when the men were gathered 'round he told them, "Our lads have captured the battery just above us, and they've done it without letting the Hollanders know we are here. There is another battery beyond that one I'm told, but frankly, men, I'm hungry for more than a handful of Dutch
guns! There is an entire fort up yonder called Belgica and if we can get there without rousing our enemies, we can take her. But if we are discovered, we are not like to see England again. So from here on, not a word. No more noise than your feet on the ground, is that clear? We'll move slowly, single file, and Spaulding here will show us the way up."
The men's faces were unreadable in the dark. There was only a slight stirring, a little uneasy as if aware of being greatly outnumbered; a little eager, as if anxious to prove the maxim that one English seaman was worth five of any other nationality.
The climb to the battery where Cole and Carew waited was without incident, though Hornblower and every man save the Madras soldiers, felt the pull and sting in their calf and thigh muscles of climbing the uneven hillside. Their legs were accustomed to deck and rigging, not to mountainous terrain. Even though the climb was brief, they were mostly glad of the respite afforded them while Hornblower conferred with his officers.
Carew was initially disappointed not to have a go at the next battery, but Hornblower's notion of a coup-de-main against the fort was sufficient inducement to restore his spirits.
"Leave half a dozen men to guard the prisoners," Hornblower directed. "Mr. Thripps, take charge here! Mr. Cole, can we skirt around the other battery without being heard?"
"Yes, sir!" He could see the quick flash of the Second's grin. "Nice little path they've made themselves. It runs around a ledge and a bit of a steep drop there, so it travels away from the battery a good quarter mile before swinging back over easier ground. When the path curves sharp-like to the right we need to keep moving straight ahead. That part'll be slow going, it's pretty rough climbing, but I'm guessing that 400 yards will put us back on the path above the other battery. So long as we're quiet and with the least bit of luck they'll never know what hit them, Captain!"
"Excellent, Mr. Cole. Take the lead, if you will," Horatio ordered. With another reminder to the officers to keep the men quiet, the force set out once again.
The next portion of their climb made his earlier discomfort recede from memory. 162 men, Hornblower thought, trying the old trick of using numbers to keep his mind off his physical distress, his calves burning and his lungs sucking air as they climbed a steep and sandy stretch barely wide enough for two men and with little in the way of rock or shrub to provide purchase. It was too risky to pause at any point for rest and the straggling procession eventually heaved past the right-handed curve Cole had mentioned, and onto an uncleared slope where sand gave way to trees and vine. Rocks, large and small, were hidden by slippery jungle growth to trap the unwary or impatient into turning an ankle.
Madness! 162 men against a fort of well, figure that
a small part of the enemy's garrison was assigned to the batteries;
part to the lower fort of Nassau; some extra forces detailed to
the north point of the island in case of invasion there. Optimistically
he might be pitting his small force against as few as 400 soldiers
at Belgica. But Hornblower was not an optimist and he reckoned
the Dutch strength at closer to 600. He ought
to have had something approaching 400 himself, and would have
done but for the storm and the darkness separating the boats.
No point gnashing his teeth over bumble broth. Still, he reckoned
that the elements were something of a mixed blessing that balanced
the odds a little more in his favour: Nature might have
prevented the gathering of so strong a force as he would have preferred, but it also left Dutch sentries inclined not to linger out of doors, and covered the sounds of his men's ascent as well.
A quiet word from Cole, and they halted.
"Permission to go ahead, sir?" Cole requested. "There's our citadel just yonder, maybe two hundred yards. now. If it's an old fort there might be a ditch and there's bound to be sentries posted. Just a quick look, sir?"
Horatio peered through the night, studying the hulking outline that was all he could make out of Belgica. Wiping a trickle of water from the back of his neck he agreed, but added dryly, "Take Styles with you. If you should be taken he's some experience of escaping from citadels!"
Beside him, Styles shook with silent laughter as they both silently recalled the cox'n's unusual escape some years earlier from a French fortress called Montfeuille. He had been pitched over the high stone walls by a trebuchet, a kind of catapult, and landed in the waters below the old castle where he had been plucked from the water by one Lieutenant Hornblower.
"C'mon then, Mr. Cole," Styles remembered to keep his voice low. "Sometime I'll tell ye how it come about."
The two men vanished into the night, but were back within mere minutes.
"There is a ditch ," Cole began.
"Moat!" Styles drew himself up indignantly.
"All right, Styles, moat! You are the expert. But the moat is no more than 15 feet across and looks to be grown up with weeds until it's no more than a ditch. It lies about halfway between here and the fort, a hundred yards ahead. No sentries either, Captain. The rain must melt the little darlings and they have to stay indoors."
"Very well," Hornblower's expression was unreadable in the dark but his words were decisive. "We'll move ahead past the moat to the foot of the wall. When I give the order, it's ladders up and men over quick as they can! Let's go. Quietly now!"
Word passed down the line and stealthily the men moved ahead, emerging from the rock-strewn slope of jungle into a flat clearing. Even so, burdened with ladders and treading unfamiliar and uneven ground, they found the going only slightly easier than on the incline.
No more than three minutes had passed when Horatio came to a low grassy depression in the earth. It seemed no more than a wide ditch but which he reckoned to be Styles' moat. He stepped down carefully, not wanting to break his foot on some unseen root or stone, when there was a sudden splashing and muffled cursing as those men who had strode ahead thoughtlessly discovered their mistake in doing so. He tugged his Service pistol from his belt and held it shoulder high, to keep it out of the water that was hidden by tall weeds and night.
"Quiet there!" he ordered in a harsh whisper. "Or you'll find yourself in the gratings with the sunrise! Keep those men moving, Mr. Cole!"
The storm had partially filled the ditch with rain and run-off, and those men who had heedlessly dropped down into what appeared a sea of grass were now spitting muddy water. Well, it could hardly make a difference, he supposed, treading carefully down the rain-slicked bank and wading across. They had all been thoroughly soaked already. What was a little mud in the mouth at this point? Only-had they been heard?
Had they managed to keep their powder dry, carrying their weapons half-cocked? Suddenly his step faltered, sliding a little in the mud, as out of the night rose the sudden shrill blast of a trumpet.
Dammitall! Someone had sounded the alarum! No surprises now, the Hollanders had learned of their presence. Perhaps they had been seen coming across that open field? Or the Hollanders had seen another of the British boats? No need for stealth now, he thought, these men had to get moving and quickly!
"Ladders away, lads!" he screamed, waving madly with his pistol while scrambling up and out of the ditch.
He heard Cole and Carew and was that Willis's reedy voice? urging the men forward. Past him rushed a press of humanity, knocking him a little sideways, men with ladders held aloft, ready to be set into place, and then the marines, the pikemen, and those with cutlass or axe and Service pistols. Even as he found solid ground again and raced toward the fort he was nearly stampeded by the charging Madras, their bayonets fixed, muskets at the ready. A fleeting hope that they, too, had managed to keep their powder dry while crossing the moat, and then everyone swarmed the walls. Already men were scrambling up balancing themselves on the top of the wall and aiming their pistols down into the fort while others scrambled up behind and disappeared over the wall. Yet oddly enough no shots rang out from within the fort, and the only clang of steel came not from fighting but from blades and axes banging against the stone walls as the men ascended.
It was Carew, standing foolishly atop the parapet and yelling down, trying to be heard over a second trumpet blasting the alarum, this time from inside the fort.
"Sir! Sir, this is just the outer wall! There's a higher wall inside!"
Hornblower gritted his teeth and shoved aside a sailor mounting the nearest ladder. Once his muddied boot slipped on a rung and he felt splinters drive into his hands as he slipped down, down, before his wildly scrabbling feet again found purchase. Moving no slower for his near fall, only tucking the humiliation of it away in his memory, up he clambered to the parapet and immediately saw the reason for Carew's dismay. Some of the ladders had been hauled up and over, and were now propped against the inner wall the lieutenant had warned of.
His heart fell. God! Wasn't there anything going to go right on this mission? The ladders were too damned short for the inner wall!
If he sent the men up those they'd all be slaughtered! Where the devil were the Hollanders? They should be up there now firing down on his men! Or had the alarum sounded for some other reason that an awareness of the British attack?
Over there, to the southwest corner, he dimly made out a wide
wooden gate, probably of stout oak, in the outer wall where the
Dutch must come and go. That outer gate had been carelessly left
open. He snarled a curse. He could have brought his men quietly
through the gate, found the ladders were too short for the inner
wall and retreated, saving most if not all his men's lives. Yes,
and that portal had a mate directly opposite
built into the inner wall, now closed and no doubt heavily barred against invaders. And just beyond it were hundreds of Dutch soldiers waiting with musket and bayonet at the ready. He could hear the guttural cries of Hollanders from within the inner wall now. Another minute and the enemy would be atop the wall, and his men would be sitting ducks for the Dutch garrison, who would be able to pick them while the English were trapped below. Like shooting fish in a barrel. The old expression teased at him, tormented his helplessness.
From under the shrieking of the trumpets he heard a low thudding and his heart sank still further. Horses! The Dutch must already be bringing reinforcements up by the road from Fort Nassau. His men would be trapped between overwhelming forces. Or perhaps perhaps he might finally catch Fate looking the other way for once? Perhaps the alarum had been no such thing, perhaps it was merely an announcement that some high-ranking officer or dignitary was on the road between the forts? Or perhaps these riders were merely a patrol, caught on the road when the alarum sounded and were now racing for the nearest haven.
But more likely he had led his men to their deaths.
Grateful that the darkness must cover some of his awkwardness he made his way downladder, followed by the others, and looked around to find Carew and Cole before him, the former looking, if not desperate, certainly much concerned, while the latter wore his habitual beam of idiocy when facing long odds. Such relentless cheer in the face of possible death or dismemberment acted on Hornblower as a cocklebur stuck in his breeches would. He felt a swift fury rising on a tide of what might have been panic.
"I'm here, sir!" Styles' voice came from behind him and the familiarity of it, the remembrance of past battles they'd survived, steadied him, and his brain began functioning once more. Still no firing from within the fort, though the shouting and ruckus indicated they were awake and readying themselves. They must know something was amiss the sound of ladders, steel on stone, and English shouts could hardly have escaped them yet there was still no firing from within. That meant he had indeed caught the Hollanders by surprise. How best to take advantage of that? No delays, now, man! Give orders. Sound certain, even if you're anything but!
"Split the men up! Cole, move your men to the far side of that gate. Keep'em out of sight! Carew, you bring your men this way. We'll take this side and if the Hollanders will only be so good as to open that inner gate for the horses" And if there were not too many of them. And if they didn't pause to slaughter a few Englishmen beforehand.
Thank God Cole was quick! Quicker than that bovine smile would lead one to believe, at any rate. His understanding was instant, and he was already herding his men around the far corner of the inner wall, beyond the gates. Carew may or may not have understood Hornblower's aim, but by God he followed orders without question! Horatio would have traded twenty Warricks for one Carew. The thunder of horses paused at the outer barrier then roared like an avalanche into the narrow gap between the walls. Hornblower silently flung up one imperious hand to hold his men back.
Even as he did so the first shot rang out from above. A soft grunt came from nearby and Styles whispered, "Carew, sir!" Another shot, then another, and now they came faster. Yet not a scream sounded from his men. He could not tell if they were dying instantly or if the enemy's aim was poor or
A sharp voice called out to the Dutch garrison inside the walls.
Hornblower peered around the corner, counted the horses and was
astonished that the thunderous force he had heard numbered no
more than a dozen. A gleam of gold off an epaulet and he began
to understand. This was probably Belgica's commander, caught outside
the fort when the trumpet sounded. Had he been lured away by Nutmeg's
flirtations up north, or had he simply discounted any attack at
all in this weather and gone down to the town for a more sociable
evening? A voice responded in guttural Dutch from inside the fort,
and not for the first time Horatio was frustrated by his inability
to speak the language. But suddenly the shooting from above stopped
and the mounted officer was bellowing furiously at whoever inside
had not yet given the order to open the gate. Another exchange,
the voice from inside growing conciliatory, defensive even, and
to Horatio's delight the wide wooden gate at last began to move,
to swing open. No doubt, Horatio thought wryly, Cole must be hard
pressed not to laugh out loud at this moment. Unless he had been killed by the musket fire from the top of the wall.
Just a few more seconds. He wanted the gates wide enough that his men could not be prevented from pouring through right behind the Dutch commander. Just another foot or two
"Carolines! Follow me!"
Cole timed it perfectly, his men meshing with Hornblower's group, and the combined English forces streaming through the gate behind the horses, screaming battle cries, pistols ablaze and cutlasses swinging. To the shocked horsemen they appeared to number in the thousands. A scream from nearby was cut off, and the horses plunged, screaming as their riders were forced to control them first, unable to readily bring their weapons to bear on these sudden invaders. Hornblower dived through the melee, seeking the nervous white horse that carried a rider with gold epaulets. A Dutch fusilier charged him and he raised his Service pistol and prayed the powder was dry even as the weapon exploded its charge full into the fusilier's face. He flung the otherwise-useless pistol at the head of the nearest enemy and attacked, feverishly slashing and thrusting, absorbing the clang and vibration of hanger against bayonet. He spun away from a savage steel thrust and came full circle, his own cutlass chopping at the back of the man's neck and landing with a wet thud.
At one point he spotted Cole being heavily pressed, his sword spinning away, disarmed by a Dutchman nearly as big as Cole himself. Teeth flashing, Cole launched himself at his foe and then Horatio saw no more as his vision was blocked by a very young, very blond soldier swinging a sword nearly as long as the soldier was tall. Instinctively Horatio stepped forward at the height of the swing, jabbing his own blade deep into soft belly and slicing sideways before pulling the bloody edge. The young soldier stood motionless, hands over his head, while his sword slid from limp fingers and clattered to the ground behind him. Slowly, slowly, the youngster crumpled to a lifeless heap, without making a sound. Briefly it occurred to Horatio how strange it was that the noisy riot of battle faded out of hearing when one was actually in the midst of action, the clamor and firing and shrieking no more than a low buzz in his ears. Until suddenly he heard his name quite clearly.
"Down, Captain Hornblower!"
Horatio went down indeed under the full force of a charging Styles. Overhead sharp steel whistled with wicked intent, then Styles rolled away and launched himself at the attacker. Catching his breath short his ribs would be bruised on the morrow Hornblower stumbled to his feet, and now before him was the white horse, eyes rolling and with hot blood streaming along its neck. The officer was unable to control his mount with what appeared to be only one good arm. If only, Horatio thought briefly, the horse would simply throw his rider. But the Dutchman was too good in the saddle, and he fought the animal for control, using one strong hand and his knees to try to regain command.
Horatio detested horses. They were nasty, unruly beasts that obnoxiously refused to obey. With a grimace of determination, he grasped the bridle in one strong hand and hauled down hard, praying he would not be kicked. But the animal surprised him, and recognized the relentless grip of one who would not be denied, It ceased rearing and screaming, though it still pranced nervously. The Dutch officer, one arm hanging limply at his side, released the reins from his good hand and reached for his saber. Hornblower's point was at this throat before the action was completed.
"Surrender!" he demanded hoarsely, wishing he knew the Dutch word for it.
The horse jerked suddenly, eyes rolling with fear as the noise of battle, the awful groans and cries of wounded and dying men and beasts, roiled around it. Horatio held fast to the bridle, unyielding, though the horse dragged at him as it tossed its head.
"Surrender or die!" A quick jab with his sword gave the rider to understand that this wild-eyed Englishman now had control of more than the horse. Around him, the combat was slowly abating and those Dutch soldiers who had not already done so were fleeing the fort.
"We geven ons over!"
The words sounded so bitter, as if wrenched from the Dutchman's throat, that Horatio did not need Cole to translate for him. But to be sure he made another sharp motion with the sword. The officer's eyes widened and he blurted with unmistakable urgency, "We geven ons aan u over met fort en al! Met fort en al!"
Horatio allowed the man to slowly drop his weapon. He stepped away from the horse, feeling the blood pumping madly through the veins in his neck. Around him the sounds of fighting diminished, stopped, but there was a rushing in his ears and he did not notice. Styles was grinning at him from a distance, his face covered in gore. Cole was on one knee, gasping for breath. A few Dutchmen were laying down their arms, but most were showing the English a clear view of their heels. Carew was nowhere to be seen. A nausea swept Horatio at the sight of the wounded and dead, as the exhilarating rush of battle ebbed from him. He was still alive, unharmed! And then the sickening sensation was swamped by the sudden joy of realization!
He had captured Fort Belgica!
CHAPTER 12: HORNBLOWER GAMBLES
"Mr. Carew is dead, sir, and also four seamen. Three Carolines and one Piemontaise. They were all found between the walls. Two more wounded there, and a dozen or more wounded inside the fort, none mortally. Twenty-three enemy wounded, four mortally, and twelve dead. The Hollanders have retreated down into the lower fort. I expect they are planning an attack at sunrise."
Cole's fierce battle grin had abated into a grimace, as he recited the butcher's bill. His face was lined with dirt, overlaid by the sheen of heavy perspiration. His uniform bore evidence of at least half a dozen cuts, two or three still seeping a sluggish red. Save for his expression, he was his usual energetic self.
"Any sign of our ships?" Hornblower was quickly searching the desk of the fort's commanding officer. Former commander. The office was his now, at least temporarily. Routine dispatches, maps of the larger islands, garrison muster book, supply records, some personal correspondence. The dispatches and letters he thrust at Cole. "Look those over quickly, see if there's anything out of the ordinary. Any fleets or squadrons due in, any reinforcements arriving. Yes, and anything odd that might pertain to that strange letter from Pieter van Houck to the Dutch Governor."
Cole was surprised that the captain was still troubled by that letter. No doubt the governor had engaged in some political transgression or personal peccadillo that had blown up into an affaire he would much prefer was not made public. Nevertheless he scanned the documents quickly, tossing aside those he thought Hornblower did not immediately need translated.
"Supply ship was just in a week ago, escorted by the frigate Guelderland. A few days earlier and we'd have us another frigate, I daresay!" Then Cole suddenly remembered. "I've seen that vessel, sir! When I served with Captain Gilmour in the Doris. She's a razée, 42. Not such easy pickings after all. Looks like she parted ways with the supply ship here, sir. That vessel was returning to Sourabaya in company with a cruiser. But the Guelderland no mention of her orders here."
"Very good, Mr. Cole. Come with me, please, we still have much to do before sunrise." Horatio's tone was brusque with concentration and his long legs ate up ground, but his Second easily kept pace as they strode past the two marines now posted at the door of the office. "I want the seaward guns all trained on Fort Nassau, the easterly guns on the town. Tell Styles I want to know the second Cavendish spies our ships."
The weather was against him though. Ever and always against him it sometimes seemed. The winds had shifted and the ships would have put back out to sea or else been blown past the forts all the way down channel. He reckoned Foote would have had the sense to withdraw, and Cumby would have followed suit. But how soon could they make their way back to Neira? In time to prevent Belgica from being overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the enemy?
"Where is Mr. Cavendish? Pass the word that I want our colours run up immediately. I want Foote to see our flag as soon as he enters the channel." And those damned Hollanders, too!
"The Dutch will still have their colours over Fort Nassau, sir," Cole pointed out needlessly.
"I am aware of it!" Horatio snapped sharply, his temper edgy with fatigue. "And if that is the only flag Foote sees, I fear we will not have the immediate support we will require."
"Aye, sir, I'll speak to Mr. Cavendish. Something more, sir?"
"Get someone to see to your cuts, Mr. Cole, and then I want-," Horatio broke off as he stepped outside into the dark and immediately staggered back under the force of a charging figure. "What the devil!"
One of Cole's giant paws swept up the miscreant by the back of his neck. "Mr. Willis! What do you mean by it, sir? Knocking the captain about that way? Hey?" A slight shake of his mighty fist and Willis squeaked a protest.
"No, no! Beggin' your pardon, Captain, I'm sure. I was just on my way to find you, I never meant I never would sir!"
Horatio had recovered his aplomb, irritated that he had lost it for even a second. That was no way to lead men.
"Well, you have found me, Mr. Willis! What is it that urges you to such impetuous locomotion?"
"A messenger, sir, from the Dutch, come up from the other fort. Four soldiers accompanying him. He speaks English and says he is acting on behalf of the Governor of the Banda Islands."
"These soldiers, what rank are they?"
Willis looked abashed. "I cannot say, sir. I did not notice any insignia of rank. But this messenger kind of ignores them, like he's too high and mighty to talk to them."
Horatio digested this information. A messenger he had expected with the dawn, but this was sooner than anticipated. The enemy was recovering from their surprise, damn them! A glance at the eastern horizon showed blackness, with only small scatterings of a dark grey. No hint yet of the pink and gold that heralded sunrise in these waters. At least another hour then before daylight.
"All right, Mr. Willis. Bring this messenger to me. I'm going back to the commander's offices. And Mr. Willis, no need to be in any hurry. But I would like you to display your best manners to this messenger. Put him in the anteroom to the office. Offer him refreshment, be all that is genial, but under no circumstances are you to speak of our ships. When he tires of waiting and insists on seeing me, come and inform me, but leave him in the anteroom. Understood?"
"Aye, aye, sir!" Willis sounded a little breathless, and his voice had pitched a little higher in the excitement of being of some use to Captain Hornblower.
"And Mr. Willis?"
"Calm down. Moderate your voice. Make our visitor think that capturing a fort is something you do every day of the week, and twice on Sunday!"
Willis nodded, took a deep breath, and spoke almost casually, in an imitation of Cole's easy style. "No, sir. He'll think he's come to tea at my grandmother's, sir!"
Horatio stifled a laugh. "Dismissed. Not you, Mr. Cole. Step back inside with me for a moment. Here's what I expect" He closed the door again and for the next quarter of an hour, during which he heard the arrival of Mr. Willis and the Dutch envoy in the anteroom, he gave instructions while Cole busied himself tidying the shambles they had made of the papers and books. At last a short knock sounded.
Willis came in and carefully closed the door.
"How is our guest, Mr. Willis?"
The middie's eyes were a-twinkle with boyish mischief, but he kept his voice low and even.
"All a-fidget, sir! I managed to force a cup of Dutch coffee on him, explained how busy the new Governor is made him mad as fire, that did! You were right, Captain, he did ask me about our ships."
"And you said?"
"Nothing, sir, like you said to do. Made a face like Mordy Ferlinger!" Willis rendered his countenance into a simple blankness, eyes vacant, mouth slack, before his mobile features resumed their natural liveliness.
"I take it Mr. Ferlinger is a er," Hornblower paused, seeking the right word.
"Oh, no, Cap'n, not at all. He's a poacher! Near Little Tamrington where my folks live. But he's not so good at it and now and again the Squire's gamekeeper catches up with him. Mordy just pretends to not know what he's doing."
"Hasn't the gamekeeper caught on yet?" Cole's eyes were brimming with humour as he caught Hornblower's gaze.
"Sure he has, Mr. Cole! But the Squire has not, and he won't have Mordy hurt."
But Hornblower was impatient, having heard more than he cared to learn about the thespian poacher and being anxious to know more about the messenger.
"Who is he?"
"Mordy, sir? I just explained oh1 Beggin' your pardon, Captain! He's the Count Carel von Sonsteldt. I think he is a diplomat of some sort, or used to be, but has no official position here. He has some shipping interests in the Indies and that's about all I could get out of him. The Dutch Governor selected him to be his emissary, he made much of that."
"Excellent, Mr. Willis. You may relieve the Count's impatience and bring him in. And you will stay as well. Now, sir."
Willis, delighted to be invited to witness what would occur between his captain and the enemy's messenger, stepped smartly to the door, wrenched it open, and in the most stentorian tone he could muster declared, "Count Carel von Sonsteldt, Governor Hornblower will see you now!"
The Count, a small man, robust of belly and thin of hair, and looking some score of years Horatio's senior, entered with as much personal pomp as he could muster. His entourage consisted of four fusiliers, one a sergeant. None, Horatio immediately noticed, held officer rank. The emissary glared a hole in young Willis, swept a contemptuous gaze over Hornblower, took a longer look at Cole and managed to look insulted when he realized he was in the presence of a Person of Mixed Blood. Cole, long familiar with the Hollanders' contempt of the native peoples of the Indies, and their deep distaste for commingled races, was too wise to show umbrage. Not by the flicker of an eyelid did he betray his own loathing of the nation that had wiped out the entire native population of the Bandas more than 150 years prior, and continued even in the enlightened 19th century to enslave and abuse Malays.
Horatio was all business.
"Please be seated, Count. Mr. Cole will translate for us if the need arises."
The Dutchman ignored the latter statement and took a chair, fastidiously dusting it first with his kerchief as if to imply to the room had somehow been dirtied by this sudden presence of foreigners. Hornblower observed but said nothing, when the Count was finally satisfied and was looking expectantly at him.
Finally the little man huffed, "Vell, haf you nothing to say to me, sir?"
Horatio spread his hands in deprecation.
"You have come to me." He deliberately left off any honour.
Von Sonsteldt glared at him, muttered something in Dutch too low for Cole to hear, and said, "I am here to negotiate your surrender, Kapitein!"
Horatio smiled, and following his lead so did Cole and Willis, though he knew they must be wondering how precarious was the British position.
"Are you certain you would not prefer to have Lieutenant Cole translate for you, Count?" Horatio said mildly. "I am sure you meant to say that you are here to negotiate the surrender of your troops."
The round face reddened in anger. "But it is you, you do not understand, Kapitein Hornblower --!"
Horatio raised a hand to halt this speech.
"Governor Hornblower, if you please," he insisted softly. From the corner of his eye he saw that his officers were enjoying this.
"No!" The Count exploded. "But no and no! I zink you do not realize! We haf ze men, many more. Your ships blown out to sea. Ze storms here, you do not know. Ships can be blown two hundred miles avay! You must surrender or die! You haf no choice!"
Horatio frowned and pretended to study these words.
"Do I understand that you have no authority to surrender this island to me?" he asked coldly.
Von Sonsteldt gulped his disbelief and demanded, "Are you ze mad Englishman? YOU surrender to ME!" He pounded the arm of his chair for emphasis, and the fusiliers, not comprehending, looked uneasy.
Horatio stood. "I think, Count, that you and I have nothing further to discuss."
The little man stood up also, his face red. "You must see reason, Kapitein! You are outnumbered! You haf no'vere to go! Surrender, and Governor Anton will be most " his English failed him momentarily, "most, ah, accommodating!"
Hornblower almost smiled but swiftly made it into a grimace.
"Now that you remind me of it, Count, might I impose upon you to deliver a second message to His Excellency?"
"A second message?"
"Yes, if you please. Tell Governor Anton that I hold a letter for him from Mijnheer van Houck. A very interesting letter, and one I am sure His Excellency will wish to see for himself."
"But of course, yes, I vill tell him. But vat is ze first message?"
Hornblower placed his hands palm down on the desk and leaned forward, looming over the smaller man. His entire aspect was implacable.
"Tell him he must surrender these islands to me immediately and unconditionally. Or I will have his head on a pike before nightfall. Tell him that, sir!"
"His diplomatic skills are a trifle rusty, I daresay," Cole remarked idly a minute or so into the silence left when von Sonsteldt had stomped out, followed by the soldiers and Mr. Willis.
"And what is your opinion on my own diplomacy?" Horatio inquired, pacing now and occasionally looking out the narrow window into the slowly dawning morning for some sign of Styles.
Cole took a breath, thought about the most diplomatic way to answer that question himself, and said, "I think you play a deep game, sir. There's no denying our position here, no knowing when our ships may return or even if they can. And I don't at all understand what there is about that letter to the Governor that intrigues you so. But you do run a great bluff, sir! You almost had me handing over my own pistol in surrender!"
"The letter? Perhaps it is just as well you do not follow me in this, Mr. Cole," Hornblower pondered. "Yes, that may turn out for the best by the time we quit this place." He shook off a near-melancholy. "Let us go and see the guns are properly trained. I think we have not much time before we have another visitor from the fort below. And under no circumstance can we allow the enemy access to their batteries over the harbour. Faster, Mr. Cole, I know those long legs can cover more ground than this!"
His grin back in place, the Lieutenant matched his Captain stride for stride as they rushed to prepare for the day ahead.
Neira's harbour remained free of any British taint although the storm had quieted with the dawn. Dark clouds still loomed with promise but the wind and rain had ceased for the moment. The dreary skies might yet erupt into thunder but for now things were calm enough. The sunlight, when it gleamed through, was not so overpowering as usual but the ever-present humidity was still enough to make a man miserable. Horatio took a deep breath and tugged at the sweaty waist of his breeches. He'd have to ask Ferry to take in a seam, he supposed. He had lost weight on this voyage, for he was always a fastidious diner and this sultry climate dampened an already weak appetite.
He looked around, taking note of the morning's work. The men had worked hard, better than he'd any reason to expect considering they'd had no rest all night. There was Styles, he knew what was expected of him. Young Cavendish impertinent pup! waved a hand and grinned from his distant place atop the inner wall. Cavendish had foolishly left his glass on Caroline, and been forced to borrow an unhappy Cole's instrument. The first sign of recalcitrance Hornblower had yet seen in Cole was when he had reluctantly handed his precious glass over to the younger officer, and it was with dire mutterings and the odd Malay curse that the Lieutenant had needlessly cautioned the astonished midshipman against losing or damaging it.
Cole had been right, Horatio mused, he was running a bluff on the Dutch. Even the junior officers realized as much. A bluff that could become reality if only well, if only! If only the ships arrived soon, if only Foote and Warrick could believe that the ensign flying over Belgica was no trap. But if the strongest weapon in his arsenal was a letter to the Dutch governor from his old friend, Pieter, Horatio might have outrun his luck this time. Absently he touched his pocket as if to reassure himself he had not lost that interesting document, then made his way back to the low-roofed building where earlier he had so enraged von Sonsteldt. His gaze took in the angle of the guns as he went past, and grunted an acknowledgement of Cavendish's call that he had just spied a haze of dust on the road above the other fort.
The Governor was coming then. Horatio's step quickened, although he knew there was plenty of time yet to get behind his desk and try to appear unruffled while he bluffed for his men's lives. Whist, he thought, was a damned sight easier to gauge than a Dutchman he had never met!
"There you are, Mr. Cole." Hornblower's mask was back in place as he sloughed off his wide-brimmed hat and seated himself at the desk. He opened the inkwell, scattered a few quills and papers across the wide expanse of mahogany to make himself appear as if his situation was so secure that he had had naught to do with his morning but busy himself with paperwork. "Are we ready?"
"Aye, sir, though I'd feel preparations were truly complete if our ships' guns were down there pointed at that fort. But no need to worry, I tell myself, the Captain has a paper bullet in his pocket that'll lay waste to the Hollanders!"
Hornblower grunted 'Ha-hm!' in reply and fumbled in his pocket for a moment, then withdrew the 'paper bullet.' He opened and read it yet again, his brow furrowed with worry. If, as seemed more likely the closer the moment of confrontation came, the Governor's dilemma turned out to be no more than an internal political gaffe or some sexual misdeed, Horatio was undone. As were his men. He would not be able to keep bluffing nor could his men hold off an all-out assault for many hours without support from his ships. But if this mad notion that had taken hold of his brain shortly at Malawali -- the Malawali Madness! -- should prove itself
Yes, what then?
Oddly, he thought of Lily for a moment but somehow her shining image had faded a trifle. No less beautiful was she, he supposed, but somehow her flower face was not as clear and sharp in his mind as those hundreds of time he had tried not to think about her. Only a trifle blurred about the edges now but -- later? Would the conscious memory of that voluptuous femininity fade from his mind so that at some time in the future he would not have any clear recollection of her features, as had happened with Maria only days after the wedding? He could not imagine it, could not foresee a day when the memory of Lily's eyes, her smile, her fragrance was not still imprinted on his senses.
"Captain Hornblower?" Cole's expression was one of concern and Horatio realized he had been asked a question. With some effort he dispersed the portrait in his mind.
"Yes, Mr. Cole?"
"Did you still want me to stay, sir? The guns ."
"You will stay, Mr. Cole. I need you here. The gun captains know their duties well enough, and besides, if negotiations go against us we shall still have sufficient time to join the actual fighting." Hornblower's tone was casual, almost absent as his thoughts now sought out the future, seeking the best way to checkmate his forthcoming opponent.
Cole nodded his acceptance of the order and went to sit by the door, but Horatio knew that given the allowance the younger man would beam that idiotish grin and charge off to partake of battle. No, Horatio wanted him here. He wanted no battle, at least not until his ships returned. What he wanted was to watch Governor Anton's face when -.
A sharp knock rattled the door and Mr. Willis held it open as the Dutch entourage entered. Von Sonsteldt had apparently opted or been ordered more like to stay behind. Four officers and one civilian, who by default must be Anton; a general, a colonel, and two captains, one of whom represented the Dutch navy, made up his retinue. Honoraries were stiltedly exchanged and Hornblower introduced himself this time not as governor but as Captain. Cole he deliberately did not introduce, nor did he look at the younger man to see how he took this slight in manners.
Anton was a greying man of middle height and weight. He was as much like wallpaper as 'twas possible for a man of importance to be, seeming almost self-effacing and a little unsure of himself. But perhaps that was merely the effect on him of Horatio's message? General de Smoot was typical of a lifelong army man, stiff and punctilious, while Colonel Haum was a young man for his office, with keen, intelligent eyes. The two captains Hornblower dismissed almost immediately he saw their hands, for both were soft and lacked any sign of a hard-earned callous, and their complexions were absent the deep mahogany inevitable to anyone who spent much time out of doors in the tropics. Sycophants, Horatio decided, and gave them no more thought. He noted that none of them gave thought to Lieutenant Cole, who had quietly resumed his place by the door. Possibly they all carried the taint of bigotry and had been warned by von Sonsteldt that the mad English captain kept a half-breed Malay for service. Better and better. That was a trump Hornblower hoped to use shortly.
"Kapitein Hornblower," de Smoot addressed him in excellent, if heavily accented, English, "let us come as you British say, 'straight to the point.' We require your immediate surrender of this fort and all of your men. You have trapped yourself here, your ships have been blown too far out by the storm to be of help to you. Our numbers are superior to yours, so much so that if you choose unwisely, sir! instead to fight, I think it would not be long before you will either surrender or die. Why not save yourself? Save your men!"
For a long time Hornblower returned de Smoot's stare, his face impassive. Then something flickered in his eyes, his lips tightened and he rose silently from behind the desk and turned to the window behind him. The clouds were darkly lowering now. A new storm was not long off. Far out on the wall he could see Cavendish with the glass to his eye but there was no signal from him. When Hornblower spoke at last it was so softly that the others leaned forward in their chairs to hear him.
"I daresay, General, you have not heard the maxim spoken almost daily by the British tars. It is so pervasive in His Britannic Majesty's Navy that in this part of the world it might be called a mantra."
There was a silence after these words, as if they all expected him to continue speaking. Finally the impatient de Smoot ground out, "What maxim is this, Kapitein?"
Horatio wheeled abruptly to face them.
"Why, sir! That one British seaman is the fighting equivalent of ten of your men!"
Cole drew a sharp breath and choked on it but the sound was lost amid the Dutch reaction. Here was impudence! And the maxim was but five, too! He smothered a laugh.
De Smoot was possessed of so little humour this did not even make his lips twitch. "Mere braggadocio, Kapitein! Let us speak seriously, please."
"On the contrary, let us speak of lighter matters," Hornblower insisted, then turned to Governor Anton. "Your Excellency received my message, I hope? That I possess a letter to you from your friend, Mijnheer van Houck?"
Anton looked disconcerted then recovered his tenuous aplomb. "Yes, thank you, Kapitein. I will have it now if you please." He held out an anxious hand.
"Oh, dear, no! Count von Sonsteldt must have misunderstood me. I have with me only the English translation. The original letter is on my ship. Locked safely away, I assure you."
Anton swallowed hard, his dismay apparent to all but screwed up an expression of anger. "But this is an outrage! This was a personal letter! You had no right, sir --!"
"Every right," Horatio interjected coldly. "It was found bundled with military dispatches. I regret to inform you, sir, that all on the Nootmuskaat were lost, killed by Dyaks in the Banggi Strait. My men recovered the vessel but we were too late to prevent the massacre. Mr. Cole here will provide you with a copy of the muster book so that I beg your pardon! My manners have deserted me! Your Excellency, gentlemen, allow me to present Lieutenant Cole."
Cole rose and bowed with military precision, himself now as curious as Hornblower had been at first about the letter's great secret. Anton's agitation made it clear the letter was no small matter. The Governor nodded absently while the officers managed only to bend their necks while barely glancing at him. Hornblower's eyes never left Anton's face as he continued smoothly.
"Mr. Cole is the son of a great British hero, you know. A man revered by both English and native alike in this part of the world. I'm sure you must have heard of Captain Nathaniel Courthope?"
At this Anton's jaw slackened and the colour drained from his cheeks as he stared in horror at Cole. Yes! Hornblower's jubilation was silent but he was certain now that he was on the right path.
"We know of him," de Smoot acknowledged grudgingly, not even turning his head in Cole's direction.
"Perhaps Your Excellency now would care to discuss Mijnheer van Houck's letter in more detail?" Hornblower strove to make his tone arch, with the smugness of one who knew.
"No, no!" Anton choked. "We have, er, more pressing matters, yes?"
"Indeed! You can discuss these irrelevancies when you have officially surrendered," was de Smoot's pronouncement. The General's vision, Horatio reckoned, was that of a man to whom the shortest distance between two points was always a straight line. Any seaman could have told him otherwise, but de Smoot was one whose perspective had so narrowed over time that he was nearly past being able to learn anything new. His teeth needed rattling, and Hornblower was just the man to do it.
"I wonder if His Excellency agrees with you," Hornblower mused.
"But of course he does!" The General glanced at Anton, took in that pale, almost frightened countenance, and pressed him for affirmation. "Your Excellency? It is but a letter after all! It cannot be so important as the fort? Surely? When we have taken the English here we have but to send the Guelderland after his ships"
His voice trailed off as a squirming Anton refused to meet his gaze. The man appeared to have shrunk into his chair, as if he might escape his surroundings. He had no bluster now. His face was pale and sweaty, a faint trace of blue about his upper lip.
"You would never catch them," he whispered.
"You are not you would not give in because of a letter, surely! We are enough to swarm this English and leave no man alive!"
For a moment Anton looked hopeful and sat a little straighter, then he met Horatio's knowing stare and collapsed within himself again.
"You!" he dismissed de Smoot. "You can have no notion how hard it is to kill the English!" He sighed. "I have always known this day would come." He voice a mere whisper now, he shook his head sadly then looked up at Hornblower. "You will show mercy, Kapitein Hornblower?"
Horatio's eyes blazed with jubilance. He could hardly believe it had been so simple! It was almost as if that wild notion he'd had earlier about well, almost as if it could be true! Yet his voice remained coldly impassive.
"In what way, Mijnheer?" He now addressed the man without his title. The smaller man was all but stripped of it now.
"That letter will never reach Englandor anywhere else. You will destroy it, Kapitein? Along with your copy?"
"And in exchange, sir?" Horatio would leave nothing to chance, he wanted it spelled out. And watch de Smoot have apoplexy!
"Our surrender, Kapitein." Anton's voice was humble, even a little doubtful that such a tremendous victory, one without any further bloodshed, would be sufficient to appease this Englishman. His words were followed by an immediate outburst from all of the officers, de Smoot's voice the loudest naturally.
"But Your Excellency--!"
"I beg you, sir--!"
"Ridiculous!" ruled de Smoot. "It is not to be thought of! The heat, sir, has driven you mad! I am forced to relieve you of command. There will be no surrender!"
Thunder rumbled distantly as the Governor stared at de Smoot wistfully. "Would that you could, General. Would that you could!"
Horatio turned back to the window to let them argue amongst themselves. Anton would willingly surrender but eventually de Smoot would overrule and replace him. He would be right back where he was five minutes ago. But still, this discord amongst the enemy might buy him several precious hours before any attack could be mounted against him. The rain was beginning in earnest now, and even as he watched the wildly dancing figure of Cavendish leaping atop the wall, the boy's figure faded to a dark smudge then vanished altogether as the monsoon deluge obscured his vision. He hoped Styles had got the lad's message and was now on his way. Thunder rumbled intermittently, and as he turned his head to look at Cole he saw that something outside had caught the Lieutenant's attention. He was staring with eager intensity at the window, then must have felt Hornblower's gaze. A silent communication passed between them, the only evidence of which was the glittering excitement in Cole's widened eyes.
De Smoot was now standing angrily over the Governor, the full force of harsh Dutch rhetoric having no visible effect on the defeated figure. Haum was whispering to the General, trying to tear his attention from Anton. The two useless captains quarrelled between themselves. Finally the General seemed to register what Colonel Haum was saying, and he bent a furious countenance on Hornblower.
"I see there is no coming to terms with the mad English!" he spat. "We will retire to discuss this matter out of your presence. Please to have the horses brought around!"
"I am afraid, General, that I need an answer before you leave." Might as well bluff it all the way down the line! "You may have this office to discuss the situation privately if you like. But if you leave without surrendering, I will give you precisely one hour before I begin firing on Fort Nassau. Only with the southernmost guns of course. The eastern guns have been brought to bear on Neira. I promise you I can lay waste to the town in less than two hours."
De Smoot stared at him, dumbfounded. How could it be that he was faced with two madmen in the same room? Horatio resumed staring beyond the window into the curtain of water falling from heaven. A dark figure ran past his window, unrecognisable even so close, but it could only be Styles. Thank God! Styles, who had no idea that he was just about to deliver the final crushing blow to de Smoot's dream of a British defeat. Styles, who was about to turn sham into certainty!
"A fine bluff you run, Kapitein," de Smoot sneered, "but I am old enough and wise enough yes, and calm enough," this to the Governor, "to see it for the pretence it is. A fine performance, sir! You can have no --."
He was interrupted by a rapid-fire knocking at the door.
"Enter!" called Hornblower, turning to face the newcomer.
The coxs'n, water pouring off his clothing as he wiped his dripping hair back from pock-marked features, stepped inside.
"Something important, I trust, Styles, to warrant this intrusion?" Hornblower stood arms akimbo, the picture of impatience.
Styles knuckled his forehead and said gruffly, "Thought yer might like to know, Cap'n, our ships is in the harbour and Cap'n Foote has signalled a request to begin firing on t'other fort. And he'll be landing the sojers right away, too."
The first sentence had been memorized by Styles on Hornblower's order; the second sprang from his own imagination. Horatio was hard pressed not to smile at his coxs'n's straight-faced sincerity. And as if to put counterpoint to his statement a sudden roll of thunder pealed and shook the building. It felt like a 32-pounder had struck.
A stunned silence fell over the Dutch entourage. De Smoot's
expression was twisted with rage but in his eyes was the only
expression that mattered to Horatio. They were the eyes of a defeated
CHAPTER 13: PULAU RUN
For the last two days every man in Belgica had gone around with the same inane grin as Cole wore in battle. As Horatio sweated and strained up the rocky slope of Gunang Api, he wondered why he had come along himself instead of letting the energetic Cavendish handle the matter? But if nothing else was gained from this laborious trek at least he had slowly wormed the reason for the men's cheerfulness out of the midshipman: The entire story of how he had bluffed the Dutch governor into near surrender then had crushed the enemy's hope with the spurious message from Captain Foote had made the rounds. With some major embellishments, Hornblower thought wryly. Oh, Cavendish had indeed spied the ships entering the channel but Styles' entire message, delivered at the most fortuitous of moments, had been entirely bogus, created to aid the giant bluff Horatio ran. The men had made much of the story and curiosity about the letter was rife, although Anton had become very close-mouthed once de Smoot had convinced him that the English had duped him thoroughly. If it all seemed a trifle embarrassing to Horatio taking this tiny outpost on the far side of civilization hardly compared to Nile or Trafalgar after all! at least it served to improve morale among the overworked Carolines.
Cole, it seemed, had told the late-arrived Warrick all he hardly knew why but would have thought the sailing master would be Cole's confidante rather than the inept First. Styles would have told his piece of it to the ratings. In confidence, of course. Oh, yes, of course! A ship's company, Hornblower mused, was like a small village for gossip and rumour. There was little, if not under Admiralty seal, that could long be hidden from the men. And the bold way their Captain had simply waltzed into Belgica and demanded and GOT his way, though heavily outmanned and outgunned? Well, it made some of the seamen raise a cocky eyebrow at the Madras boys and ask if they'd got an Army officer anywhere who could do as much with as little as the good Cap'n Hornblower, God save'im!
He suppressed a sigh and leveled a stern look at Cavendish's back as the boy led the way up the narrow trail. On the one hand, such stories served to raise the men's spirits and instill confidence in their captain. On t'other hand, a wise seaman would realize the captain had merely - had barely - squeezed them out of the tight spot he had got them into in the first place. Too tight for some it had been. Captain Foote had taken Carew's death hard. Horatio had not known the two were related, Carew having been the son of Foote's youngest sister. Yet no word of blame had Foote uttered. Nor any need to do so.
"We'll rest here, Mr. Cavendish."
Cavendish paused and shot a grateful look over his shoulder. There was nowhere to sit on this narrow trail so they simply stood, braced against the incline and fanning their faces with broad-brimmed hats, wishing away the fire in their calf muscles. Styles, appearing less troubled than the officers by the steep climb over rough volcanic rock, broke out an Army-issue canteen and a single mug. He caught Hornblower's look and said quickly, "Got it in trade," Styles assured him, but he wisely refrained from mentioning it was his rum ration he'd traded.
"How much farther, sir?" He poured water into the mug and handed it to Hornblower, hoping either it or his question would distract the Captain from the subject of trading. The Cap'n's stare could be downright unnerving sometimes, and Styles was relieved when Hornblower seemed inclined let the matter pass. But Horatio had drifted into reverie and barely heard the question, reliving as he was the long drive from the docks of Penang up into the hills above Fort Cornwallis where stood the Courthope house. He answered almost absently, "Another 200 feet, more or less, I should think."
Horatio downed the last of his water while Cavendish and Styles shared the canteen. Both men had been eager to leave behind their routine duties and accompany him on this impulsive trek to the summit of Gunang Api 'Fire Mountain' to the locals. At a mere 640 feet, the volcano was the highest peak in the Bandas. But no hint from either man had induced Hornblower to impart the reason for this sudden expedition. Even with Foote taking up the reins of island administration, Horatio still had enough on his plate without such an excursion. He had left Warrick in charge of revictualling but he worried that the stowing would be done improperly and have to be done all over again, costing him time he could ill afford. Figuring three days sailing to Amboyna and three weeks back to Penang, he would have mere days left before upping anchor for England if he was to abide by his Admiralty orders. And that was reckoning without pirates, enemy ships, and foul weather.
Horatio had gained a new respect for Admiral Pellew's perspicacity, as Pellew's orders for this mission had left the opening that allowed Hornblower to appoint Foote as governor. Since Horatio must return home soon, without Foote to take charge of matters here the Dutch would have resumed control of the Bandas as if the appearance of the British had been no more than a bad dream.
And he really ought to be back at Neira, pushing to get the ship under sail again. He'd no business jauntering off to view the volcano's crater. He was not even particularly interested in volcanoes! But what might he see from such a commanding height; how far might the horizon stretch? And too, Anton's reaction to his bluffing about the letter had made him curious beyond all bearing. Damn the man, he could have ended this nagging sensation for Horatio if only he was not so petrified by whatever foul misdeed he had performed. But surely it was worth one day of his own time just to be certain, certain that his imagination had been playing him tricks ever since Malawali? Especially if Guelderland was indeed sailing close by. Finding Guelderland would justify his action this day, would it not? The matter had nibbled at his brain this morning while he ate his biscuit, washed down with Dutch tea. Ferry had fussed about the cabin, whisking away invisible dust, tsk'ing over frayed cuffs, but Horatio hardly noticed him so deep in thought he had been. When he stood suddenly and barked at the sentry to pass the word for Cavendish, Ferry had jumped like a frightened flea. Hornblower had pretended not to see.
On his orders, Cavendish had signaled Nootmuskaat easier to get her under way than Caroline, and with her shallower draft could maneuver closer in to shore and Baddingley had taken them 'round the small cape at the southern end of Karaka to the foot of Gunang Api. "A pleasure cruise!" Baddingley had laughed, pleased not to be tied to shore duties.
And now more than halfway up the mountain, sweating and hurting, Horatio found himself anxious to get to the top. Not for him the flood of administrative minutiae that would be Foote's life from now until he was relieved. Better to be up here and doing and leave the paperwork in Foote's hands.
The pun escaped him.
Why Hornblower had taken this fantastic notion to go hiking up the side of a volcano only Cole had had a glimmer of the Captain's reasoning, saying to Warrick, "There's a Dutch frigate still out there."
The First had scoffed. "She's halfway to Ile de France by now! You said yourself it's a week since she sailed."
"Yes," Cole nodded, "but that General de Smoot was expecting her back soon." He paused and thought about what the exact words had been. "He said that when the Dutch had taken Belgica from us that they could send Guelderland after our ships. So she could come sailing upchannel any day." His eyes widened as he realized: "And if she's close enough to return so soon, she can't have gone far. Amboyna, perhaps, but they'd find that's in our hands now. But these islands sit right in the middle of nowhere."
"I have seen the chart," Warrick said dryly.
"And nothing on them but nutmeg and a few villages. So unless the Dutch have established fortifications on one of these other islands and that just does not make any sense at all. Neira has the only harbour suitable for war ships."
"So it would not make sense for Guelderland to just go cruising around the Bandas with no place to go to except back where they started, now would it?" Warrick reasoned, waiting for the light to dawn on his friend.
And somehow what had seemed very clear to Cole for a just a moment that Hornblower was looking for the Dutch frigate suddenly seemed impossible. The Guelderland was long gone.
"Captain! A ship! I think yes, a frigate, sir!"
Cavendish and Hornblower stood side by side, facing westward, each with an eye to his spyglass.
There she was, all right. Guelderland, he would bet his epaulets on it, though impossible to be certain at this distance. And moving so slowly that for a moment he thought she might be lying to. But no, she was under sail albeit at the pace of a rock lobster.
"Which island, Mr. Cavendish?" he tested the lad's memory of the chart as he stowed the glass in its leather loop.
"Pulau Run, sir." Cavendish was pleased to have the answer ready. "Nothing there but nutmeg trees, I hear, same as these other islands. The locals go across to harvest now and again, but no villages there."
No, something was there, Horatio was certain of it. Look how slowly she edged along the southern rim of Run. Not too close, there wasn't much bottom there judging by how the colour of the surrounding water changed from a deep aquamarine to a pale, translucent green. But from this vantage point it appeared the only part of Run that might be accessible by boat. All but the concave southern shore looked to be sheer cliffs rising straight up from the ocean. What could be important enough about that tiny island to warrant the presence of a frigate? Cavendish wondered aloud whether it might have anything to do with Mijnheer van Houck's mysterious letter? Horatio suspected it did. In fact, he suspected it had a great deal to do with that damned letter.
And it was wildly fantastic, highly improbable, even slightly sickening -- but he thought he knew what it was, although sometimes he was convinced he had fallen prey to some undiagnosed fever. The more he toyed with the idea of this Dutch secret, the more the pieces seemed to fit. But no one must know until he had proved it, otherwise he would be thought mad.
If he proved it!
He could so easily be wrong. After all what had he to go on but that lunatic notion that had overtaken him south of Banggi. That and Anton's falling prey to his bluff so easily. He found himself hoping he was wrong, then felt embarrassed for doing so. An odd mix of excitement and melancholy charged his spirit. He wanted to run back down the trail and get to the Caroline as fast as he could. Whether that was because he wanted to pursue the Guelderland and discover the secret of tiny Run or whether it was so he could simply sail away and suppress this wild imagination of his, he could not say. Perhaps after all some secrets were better left so?
The naval officer in him scoffed at his heart's ambivalence. Better for whom? Would the Admiralty agree with that? Andothers? His features tightened grimly.
He knew his duty.
Ferry fastened the sword belt around his captain's waist, handed him a pair of Service pistols, and pronounced him 'ready as ye'll ever be' considering Hornblower had brushed aside the steward's wish to see him also don his jacket and badge of office.
"It's too hot for it," Horatio had demurred, "and will get hotter still if that frigate yet sails in these waters." Maybe, he halfway hoped, maybe she had sailed on for another port by this time. Maybe she was a hundred miles away, bound for Ile de France. But then he would still have to see what was on Pulau Run, and that was the task his mind shied from.
Caroline was running brightly before the wind, sou'-sou'east around the western end of Run, under all plain sail. A glaring sun seared her deck from a quarter way up a cerulean sky. The only clouds were well off to the west and about to vanish altogether. The mercury was holding steady. He doubted if the temperature was much above 90 degrees this morning. A perfect day for a fight.
A knock sounded and the sentry announced the First as five bells sounded.
"Yes, Mr. Warrick?"
"The master says we'll be altering course soon, sir. I thought perhaps you might want an opportunity to address the men."
It had occurred to Warrick -- it had not occurred to Horatio. So full was his head of courses, winds, currents, mysterious Dutch letters, and the approach to battle, that he had overlooked the need to do more to prepare his men for the battle ahead than merely advise them in advance to prepare for quarters. Cumby had taken them neatly around the northern cliffs of Run so they could approach from the west. Assuming the Dutch vessel was still closely patrolling this stretch of island, this would not cost him the wind gauge the winds were steady out of the northwest with little variance all of last night. Another fortnight and the winds would shift with the changing monsoon. The wind would leave Guelderland's captain but three choices initially: Make a run south for the open water; flee eastward to Neira where the Piemontaise had a surprise waiting for her; or stay and fight. If she yet patrolled these waters.
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Warrick. Gather the men aft, if you please."
He hated speeches. What to say? The men wanted some reason to cheer, something to get the blood pumping and the eyes flashing. 'Stiffen the sinews!' He could almost hear Archie Kennedy's voice proclaiming the words of his beloved Bard. Yes, something to take their minds off visions of a horrible death. Something to wipe away fear, and to think proudly on until the guns were run out and the lanyards tugged and the deafening roar took away all thought and they could only act out the motions drilled into them by constant training: Sponge, powder, shot, ram, prime, aim, fiyah! Then again, and again. And again still, as long shot and powder held out or until given orders otherwise. Or until they were dead or wounded too badly to continue.
He mounted to the quarterdeck as the men were still gathering. Bulkheads that had been stowed with the call to quarters at dawn had been left so; the men needed only to cast off the breechings and open the gun ports to be ready for firing. All that could be kept in readiness for battle had been left so since the dawn. If Captain Hornblower expected to meet the Enemy this morning, Styles had extolled at morning mess, then meet them he would.
The sailing master's ancient face gapped in a nearly toothless grin at Hornblower.
"Another five minutes, Captain, if you want to reach out and touch Run when we're done southing. Ten if you like a wider berth."
"Say ten then, Mr. Cumby. If that frigate happens to be just t'other side of this headland I don't want to get pinned against these cliffs."
He turned and grasped the quarterdeck rail. His gaze first took in the fullness of the sails then the traverse board. His mouth tightened. Caroline wasn't a badly made ship, though she had her quirks, but she surely could use new coppering on her bottom. These tropics were getting her so fouled it was hampering her speed. And there would be no time at Penang
An odd silence, nothing to be heard but the chuckle of water and the rush of wind through the rigging creating the usual creaks and knocks, brought his gaze back to the expectant men standing below. Oh, yes. A speech, he recalled.
"Ha-h'm!" he cleared his throat, searching for words. Faces turned up to him; a few, like Styles, he'd known for years but most of them had been part of the Caroline's company when he had taken command. Nevertheless their months at sea together had made them all part of a single well-disciplined unit. If they found Guelderland today as he expected, some of these faces he would no doubt never see again. Perhaps most of them would survive though, and it was his own lifeless carcass that would later go over the standing part of the foresheet with the unfortunates. A chill clutched his heart. Let him be wrong about it all. About what the Dutch were hiding. Let them defeat this Dutch frigate, return to Penang for one more sight of Lily, and then let there be an end to it. But the men were still waiting, a little restless now. He grasped the rail tighter and smiled with a nonchalant cheer altogether feigned.
"Men! In the short time we have cruised these waters we have taken a crippled brig from the enemy. We have dared the strength of their force at Batavia by using false colours and we took a prize frigate by it!" He paused as a cheer went up. "Lately we have captured the island of Neira and her forts, with hardly a man lost!" Another cheer, and he let his smile fade. "But the enemy would scoff and tell you that we have never stood and fought; that we have done these feats with trickery, with smoke and mirrors! That's as may be, lads, but today! Today, by God, we'll show'em how His Majesty's Navy does it with smoke and iron! God save the King!"
He swept off his hat as the men tossed theirs but before the cheers had died away Cumby called out, "Rounding the headland, Captain!" And indeed, the bowsprit was reaching beyond the cliffs of Run to larboard, the helmsman poised to make the swing east.
"Beat to quarters!"
The pipes twittered and drums rolled. Every man had known the order was coming and the deck exploded into action as men found their stations, their bottled-up anticipation now loosed. The off-watch boiled up from below, and the cadence of pounding feet added to the martial air. Steps were quick, handoffs brisk, but even before the organized chaos had fully resolved into a ready fighting machine, even before Hornblower himself expected it, the foremasthead lookout called, "Deck ahoy! Ship to larb'd abaft the beam!"
The larboard side of the quarterdeck was suddenly crowded with officers. Horatio had his glass up, focused and found his mark. By God, there she was! He breathed deeply. Two miles, no more than two and a half, she lay at the eastern end of Pulau Run, her masts nearly aligned as her bow faced them.
"I do believe she's hove to," Warrick exclaimed, squinting through his glass. "Tops'ls only. What the devil does she do here?"
Small figures began scrambling over her deck and up the ratlines. "She's seen us," Warrick added. "Lord, she's big for a frigate!"
"A razee, Mr. Warrick, and 42 guns if Mr. Cole is to be believed. Bring us up to her," Horatio called the order. "Keep to windward, quartermaster. Let us see how she chooses."
"She's big all right but these Indies Dutch don't seem to have much fight in them," Warrick opined. "She'll cut and run, I'll wager."
And he appeared to have guessed correctly as the big frigate's courses unfurled, flapped and then filled. She was a thing of beauty, her hull painted the colour of forest, her strakes a bright yellow. Her captain must be a man of affluence to pay for that much paint, Horatio mused jealously. She quickly cast on the starboard tack and slowly gathering momentum, swung her bow directly south away from the island. Caroline was still reaching on her though that could not last long once her helmsman found her point of sailing.
"Mr. Cumby, stand for her with all speed!"
He could hear shouts of scorn from the gun crews as the larger vessel sheared off. Guelderland was bigger and could carry more sail. Any British captain who would not stand and fight with such odds in his favour would find himself court-martialed and hung for cowardice, if his crew did not mutiny first.
With this wind they could keep her in sight for a long time but inevitably she would outdistance them. They had simply not been quick enough to catch the frigate entirely by surprise. Hornblower could fairly see the thoughts running through his First's unimaginative brain. But Horatio had no plans for a long sea chase, such as Warrick dreamed of, though he had no doubt that kind of lengthy pursuit would suit Guelderland's captain right down to his toes. The island was what was important here. He smiled to himself. Pellew would dispute that of course! The Admiral would dance a jig if Hornblower brought home a second frigate! And lambaste him mercilessly for missing the opportunity.
He turned his glass back to look at Run. Unlike the northern side of the island, which had been all sheer cliffs, this side boasted a tiny spit of beach just big enough for a pair of ship's boats. Back of the narrow stretch of sand were rocky outcroppings and then the nutmeg trees began and swept upward to the ridgeline that formed the backbone of Run. And mighty poor posture she had, too, as the line swept down from a high peak at the eastern end to a sagging middle before climbing again to another peak at the westernmost tip. Those opposing peaks -- perfect for mounting a pair of batteries. From there lookouts would have an unimpeded view in three directions, while the northern side of the island was unassailable. With the natural defenses presented by the cliffs on the three sides of the island and the ideal positions for a pair of batteries, he reckoned that given enough food and water, powder and shot, a small force could hold Run against all comers for a very long time. If there was some reason to want to hold an island barren of everything save nutmeg.
He turned back to see they were still closing on the Dutchman. That would not last much longer.
"Showing no sign of easting, sir!"
"Thank you, Mr. Warrick. My respects to the larboard bowlines and see if they cannot get her attention!"
"Aye, aye, sir!"
Within seconds, the larboard bow guns boomed a threatening message. Guelderland withheld her fire but through his glass Horatio saw her helmsman spinning the wheel.
"She's easting! Prepare to come about!"
Warrick stared at him, slack-jawed, then met Cumby's startled gaze. This was not the Hornblower of the Naval Gazette! That Hornblower would never have broken off a chase so soon, and only one round fired! Horatio could feel the disdain and shrugged it off; they could disdain anything they dam' well pleased so long as they obeyed. But hesitation to obey an order was not to be tolerated!
"Is there a problem, Mr. Cumby?"
There was a violence to the question, emphasized by how soft the Captain's voice had become. The master felt pinioned under that cold stare. He knew Hornblower would discuss his hesitation with him at a more convenient time. Would probably call it dereliction rather than hesitation. And then the Articles of War would apply.
"No, sir!" He relayed the order and then, "Ready to come about!"
"Hard a'lee then!"
She came cleanly out of stays, Warrick a little envious with how neatly the Captain managed it, and now they were sailing free, wind on the larboard beam, running nor' nor'east. The canvas barely luffed then filled again as the helmsman quickly got his trim before he could be abused for it. As near as Warrick could tell they were now sailing almost precisely toward the area where the Dutchman had been hove to. He turned to say something to the Captain but now Hornblower was gazing south'ard and by God! There was that Dutchman coming about now as well!
"I don't understand, sir. Why did she not engage us beforehand? If she comes up under our lee, we can take the wind from her."
"Because, sir, she does not want to fight at least not here. But still less does she want us within reach of that island! Her captain would much prefer to take the fight out to sea, away from Run. Now that they know we won't chase her, they've no choice but to come up and engage us, if they want to keep us from landing a boat."
"What can be so important about that island?"
Horatio's rare grin appeared.
"All you have to do to find out, Mr. Warrick, is defeat that frigate!"
Warrick stared at him, his expression suddenly and markedly bovine, for Captain Hornblower had never once smiled at him before this. Not just at him, that is, him alone. But like the moon being covered by cloud, that smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
"She'll try next to pass under our lee and rake us astern. Chainshot in the sternchasers, if you please! Mr. Cole, starboard battery at the ready!"
"Ready, sir!" Cole bellowed up to him. Without turning to look Hornblower knew precisely what expression Cole would be wearing. "Ease up on those tops'ls, man!" This to Cumby. "Force him to stay to looward!"
"But, sir, they're closing awfully fast. They could ram us!"
"Back the sails if necessary, damn you!" Hornblower insisted. "Let them board us if they cannot handle their sails! But do not let them cross our stern!"
Or they will rake us with every one of their starboard guns, and Lily will have lost another loved one. He looked at the surrounding seas, blocked on one side by Run and by Guelderland on the opposite, with calm waters to either side. The sky was endlessly clear, and the heat he hardly noticed it now, though he felt the wind steady along his left cheek. The nervousness had eased in him, though they had not yet been fired upon, for the action was underway and what would happen next, would happen. It was strangely fatalistic of him, utterly at odds with his earlier nerves, and it was only at moments like these he felt it. If he survived this day he would forget all about it and not remember it again until the next engagement.
This Dutch Kapitein was a patient man, Horatio mused. He had held his fire thus far, saving that first crucial broadside for when it might do the most damage. He did not want to give the game away too soon, but give it away he must. He laughed silently. Cumby and the quartermaster would think him insane these next minutes; it would seem to them as though he could not make up his mind.
"Ease up a point," he ordered. "A point only." The frigate was indeed closing fast, her bow wave a thing of beauty while the dark maws of her open gunports belied the elegant lines of sail and rigging. And belied the notion of her running across their lee as well. If she tried to cross his stern now the Dutchman would have to sail right into the wind and risk being taken aback. No, her captain was bluffing. He would run up as close as he dared, feign the movement and when Hornblower tried to block him, he would wear ship and rake Caroline stem to stern with his larboard broadside! But let him get only a little closer and
"Mr. Cole, wait for my order!"
Only six hundred yards now. Just a trifle more
"Mr. Cumby, back to windward a trifle! Now, sir!" Cumby obeyed, but his eyes betrayed his fear of being taken all aback with the enemy so close on their heels. To lee, to wind could not the Captain make up his bloody mind! There was too much at stake here for these games! "Not too much luff, please, just enough to make them think --."
A flurry of activity on the enemy deck they were about to wear. Wait, wait for it. Their Kapitein must commit to the maneuver. Damme! Their guns were out! If that Hollander waited much longer he'd run up on them! Was that bowsprit yes! Edging back to starboard! Now!
"Belay that last order! Let her go off! Handsomely now! Handsomely!"
Cumby breathed relief then cackled delightedly as he realized what Hornblower was about. The bow slewed to starboard, faster than the Guelderland's own bow could wear. "Gotcha, ya bastards!" the old master cried.
"Starboard guns, fire as you bear!"
This first broadside must punish her, bow to stern, but with the Dutchman wearing also and lagging Caroline, only the starboard quarter guns and the sternchaser had a clean angle.
"Mr. Cavendish, give'em a taste of that chainshot if you please!"
Cavendish pleased, alternating his rounds between chain and canister. "Fiyah! Fire as you bear!" Cole roared the length of the deck, and the gun captains jerked the lanyards in response. A reverberating roll of thunder rocked the vessel and smoke blossomed up from her side, the recoil of the great guns rocking the men on the quarterdeck as the shot slammed into Guelderland's bow, then her side as she continued to pay off. No fool der Dutchman though. He let her fall off so far and then brought her back to the wind. Now the two frigates sailed in deadly tandem. No more games, the Dutchman challenged. Now we fight!
Below he hear Cole's deep boom guiding the reloading process even as one by one the rest of the starboard battery loosed their deadly shot. Even before the last of them fired, red demon eyes winked at him from a distance of two cables, then smoked roiled from Guelderland's side even as the smoke from his own guns billowed then wafted for'ard.
"Brace yourselves! Watch them, Mr. Warrick, I want to know the second they bear up. Stay with her, Cumby, she'll be --!" His words were cut off as the first of the Dutch broadside struck and was answered almost instantly again by the irregular roar of his own 18-pounders.
He had heard a sharp cracking sound near the sternchaser but Warrick was swift to lean over the side and reported back. "Holed, but well above the water line! Mr. Wheaton, get those halliards re-rove at once! Carpenter to the mizzen! They must have some Englishmen for gunners, sir. The mainmast has a bite out of her, too, as well as the mizzen."
The rest of the initial damage report was delayed as Caroline's guns began clashing individually as each crew found its own pace and rhythm, taking the Dutchman on the slight downward roll, such as there was with the seas running so smooth.
"That's a hit to her mizzenmast, Captain!"
And Warrick barely had the words out before the onslaught of another broadside tore all other sound away. Horatio could feel his ship being pummeled and he winced for her pain. Splinters flew along the sides and from for'ard he could hear continuous cries of 'Oh! Oh!' and shrieking as a man fell, writhing in shock, his hipbone dripping blood from the place where only seconds earlier had been a leg. A shot that must have been aimed at the sun had snapped the maintopgallant mast, and it dangled perilously, held abovedeck only by its preventer stay. Warrick screamed orders to get it secured, his voice fighting to be heard above the Second's.
"Get that man below!" Cole bellowed, his giant stride eating up the planks, a wicked determination on his features. 'You, Syfax! Take his place! Re-load!"
Nimble powder monkeys scrambled to and fro, lugging their precious cartridge cases. Wet swabs swiped out the muzzles of the great guns, the muzzles shotted, the powder loaded, and the onerous process went on. And on, as Guelderland held her course and the two ships settled down to bludgeon each other, broadside after broadside hammering away at hull and rigging. The Dutchman had the greater fire power, she had eighteen pounders and 21 of them to a side and in the strange way of navies, the Dutch eighteen pound shot actually weighed a pound and a half more than the British shot. Caroline had five fewer guns to a side but her people were better trained and disciplined, giving out a faster rate of fire and exploding shots into Guelderland's thick oak hull time and again, while case and chainshot from the short-barreled carronades screamed across both vessels, taking down wood, rigging, and men whatever was in their paths. Guelderland's captain was not intimidated and though his men could not fire at the same rate, yet the guns aimed always for Caroline's masts and rigging, to great effect.
"Sir, this can't go on," Warrick warned after an hour. He had to scream, for the constant thundering of the guns had left them all nearly deaf. "The mizzen and main are much damaged! I don't think the mizzen will hold much longer, and not at all do we increase sail. And this Dutchman can outlast us!"
"Indeed she can," Hornblower agreed. The razee undoubtedly carried as much as a quarter more in powder and shot. He cast a wary eye toward the mizzen, at the carpenter working there. The imperturbable Brodie looked up for a moment and caught his eye. The man shook his head sadly but carried on trying to shore up the mast anyway.
If only he dared urge a bit more speed out of her but without a doubt the mizzen and very likely the main would go by the boards if he did. He looked over his shoulder to see that the current was edging them closer to the Dutchman. She was not without damage, Caroline's gun crews had seen to that. Her aftersail, too, was nearly gone and with this current they would be within pistol shot soon. And an idea came to him how he might make these nearly useless masts work in his favour.
"One point to starboard, Mr. Cumby, and another in five minutes. It should appear that we are about converge on her and board!" His voice was hoarsened by shouting through the smoke and crash of battle, but was no less confident.
Both Cumby and Warrick nodded a weary approval, and their orders rang out though not with the snap and eagerness of an hour before. But Hornblower seemed to be everywhere, see everything.
"Mr. Cole! Cole! Here's what I want! Ropes, lashings. Yes, here on the quarterdeck. Run them down to the capstan and about. Mr. Thripps, the afterguard to stand by for my orders! Lieutenant Montmorency, please to concentrate your men aft along the sides and stern. No, sir, the tops are not to be trusted, save the foretop. Leave those men there, at least that will give us some protective fire from above. The mizzen and main are about to go by the boards. Thripps, see that the people are prepared for it, that they can get out from under in time."
Horatio did not note the startled looks Warrick and Cumby exchanged. Instead he brushed aside one marine already in place at the rail and watched as the distance between the ships narrowed. A Dutch musket ball suddenly dislodged a nugget of wood from the rail and it flew into his chin, ripping away a chunk of flesh squarely below his lower lip, even as musket fire now peppered the entire quarterdeck. The Dutch marines had their range it seemed. He felt his stinging chin and his fingers came away with blood. Montmorency's men were returning fire steadily, their aim occasionally rattled by Caroline's guns or less often by the hail of Guelderland's own long guns. Still, Hornblower was reminded of a mill he had once seen, not a meeting of great champions, but of two brawny local louts with little skill or science. The pair of them had slugged bloodily away at each other for hours until neither could stand without help. Nothing had been decided, there had been no clear victor, and no one had gone home happy.
Not today, he determined. Not today. Someone tugged at his sleeve but he had no time for them.
"Enough of this! Mr. Cumby, take us ahead and 'cross her bow!"
The main and mizzen would never take the strain of it, Cumby muttered, but if the captain wanted to dismast his ship, well, they could all discuss the right and wrong of it afterward in the cozy confines of a stinking Dutch prison. Those who lived anyway.
"You were saying, Mr. Cumby?" Hornblower growled.
"Nothing, sir! Hands to courses!"
"I'll thank you not to try to ease us across, sir. Veer sharply when I give the word!"
Canvas thumped and flapped into place, the yards still braced for the port tack, all the while the mizzenmast shrieked under the increasing pressure as only wood can. Caroline was a lady in distress. Cumby shook his head while the embattled frigate surged ahead, her guns still barking out irregularly. Horatio rubbed his smoke-reddened eyes, peering through the black clouds and hearing the heartbroken wailing of his injured masts and he judged it time.
The bow swung to starboard as the helmsman obediently put her over to port. The sudden change in wind pressure was all that was needed, and the mizzen and mainmasts gave out the eerie groans preceding their destruction. With tremendous cracking and splintering the woods parted and even Horatio must now take his eyes from Guelderland and watch for his own safety. Shouts of warning accompanied the marines and seamen who scrambled forward as the great limbs both toppled to larboard in a terrible tangle of yards and rigging.
"Clear away!" Willis, his voice fuller, more masculine than it had ever sounded, was screaming the order as men who had leaped to safety now rushed forward to hack away at the downed rigging before it could down their home. Horatio looked back at the Dutchman. Her captain was trying to swing her bow to port but Hornblower had timed it nicely and there was no time, no room for the other frigate to escape.
"Brace for collision!" called Cavendish, and now it was the officers and marines who scattered, then tumbled as Guelderland ran foul of them, her bowsprit running up on them like a giant medieval lance, angrily ripping up the taffrail and scraping just over the shoulder of the wild-eyed but staunch helmsman. 'Good man!' Horatio thought. The tip of the bowsprit came to rest in the air almost directly above the mizzen stump.
The cry was taken up and tens of men armed with axes for clearing away the fallen masts and rigging rushed past Hornblower to meet those most intrepid of the enemy who were already clambering across the sprit. But the marines had opened fire and quickly sent the Hollanders back to their own deck to think the matter through again.
"Mr. Cole, get these lashings on to her 'sprit! Once she's secured we can run a hawser!"
The Second wore his most idiotic grin of delight as he exhorted his men to the task under a hail of musket shot from the Guelderland's tops. They were bending ropes on to any part of the bowsprit that might hold once they worked the capstan to tow her behind. Horatio saw Spalding, the keen-eyed lookout at Banggi, tugging at a knot when he suddenly stopped, a peculiar look on his face, then slowly pitched forward over the yard. An obscenely dark hole stared from the back of his skull. Cole and another man pulled away the corpse and finished the knots, whilst shots peppered the whole of the quarterdeck. The booming crash of the guns slowed as fewer of them could be brought to bear on Guelderland's bow, but at such close range that Horatio could only wonder at the Dutchman's resolution. The damage must be tremendous.
"Marines, stand fast! Aim for their men in the tops!" ordered Horatio, firing his pistol at a Dutchman nimbly trotting along the 'sprit toward him, and just as the work was nearly done to get her lashed down a new rush of enemy, pistols ablaze, came padding barefooted along the length of the bowsprit, others swinging and leaping from stays onto the deck. Someone tugged at his arm again but now Horatio's sword was in his hand though he could not recall drawing it. Around him a melee swirled, screams and grunts and groans punctuated with raised and swiftly lowered cutlasses and axes. The dull clang of metal on metal, the occasional blast of a pistol amid the marine musketry, the thump of feet and the thud of falling men, the cries of anguish; all was little more than a dull buzz in Horatio's ears as he hacked and sliced his way through human flesh, trying to get to the stern and see what was happening on Guelderland. It could not be by chance that the Kapitein had ordered his men to board again just as his ship was about to be lashed and towed. Horatio must see if his opponent had anything else in mind to save himself other than boarding the British frigate.
A warning sounded above the cacophony, Cole's great trumpet of a voice. "She's coming loose! 'Ware, she's breaking free!"
Sailors and marines alike dove aside as the bowsprit moving slowly at first then swiftly, tore free of her hempen shackles, all the while the Dutchmen strove mightily to cling to the only bridge back to their own vessel. Caroline's speed, edging her just feet beyond Guelderland's reach, prevented more damage as the great bowsprit lifted almost with a life of her own and swung to port, leaving behind three men who immediately surrendered.
"Get these prisoners below!" Warrick snapped at the nearest man. "We nearly had them, Captain!" he mourned.
Horatio swallowed hard his disappointment. There was no time for reminiscence. Guelderland was edging up on the larboard quarter now, taking the wind gauge at last. His own maneuvers would be limited to what he could manage with the foresails and spritsails. He eyed the tall ragged stump that had been the mizzen. And a fresh round of Dutch shot would be coming from larboard any minute now.
"Man the larboard guns! Mr. Brodie! Mr. Brodie?"
"Try if you cannot rig some kind of yard off the mizzen stump, that we can set a gaff."
Brodie shrugged. "Do me best, Captain, but not much left there to work wi'. Need to step a new mast."
Horatio bit back his impatience. "Yes, I know, but we must rid ourselves of this Dutchman first. Your best is all I ask, Mr. Brodie."
Brodie nodded and went calmly about his work, as if being pelted with Dutch lead were a routine occurrence and no more deadly than what the birds of the air dropped. The sailing master was not so phlegmatic.
"What is it, Cumby?"
"She's paying off, sir!"
Indeed, the lack of after-sail combined with the unwavering wind was bringing her head around. If he could not stop her or could not bring her around fast enough those blasted Dutch were going to rake his pretty frigate!
"Sir! Sir!" It was Cavendish, frantic now, turning from the smoking carronade. "Here it comes again!"
And certain enough, Guelderland was suffering similarly from her own lack of after-sail and perhaps the bloody pounding she'd taken had left her short of men to work what sails were left. She, too, was paying off, though not so quickly as Caroline, and looked to be listing a trifle even as that damnable bowsprit again lunged across his quarterdeck, this time nearer the larb'rd side. Once more came that impudent tug at his sleeve and he turned to snarl at Warrick only to find him well beyond his reach.
The First was staring at him with awe in his eyes, and pointing at Hornblower's arms he begged, "Captain, please! Won't you step off the quarterdeck, sir? They will kill you!"
Horatio stared at his sleeves. There were mere rags, so many musket balls had passed through them. Look, three, four, good heavens! Not one a hit, though no one could say the enemy was not trying! But there was too much to do now, no time for worrying about some sharp-sighted Dutch soldier! The men were reluctant this time to expose themselves to the shooting. They needed leading, not a captain who dived belowdeck or hid in his quarters while his people fought the battle.
"Ferry will go into mourning, I daresay! He insisted I wear my best shirt today." He smiled at Warrick who looked like he had been thunderstruck, then both turned back to work on the 'sprit. Horatio was beginning to be more impressed with Warrick's courage, the way he had stayed through his watch and acted quickly. The nervous qualms he had displayed in the past seemed not so much to result from a cowardly nature than from a political one. If Warrick ever overcame his fear of his senior officers he might turn into quite a fine officer!
"Lash it down, men! Quickly now!" His own hands grabbed up a rope and tossed it over the bowsprit. He was nimbly weaving a double half-hitch when a voice he knew well cried out, "Well, give Cap'n Hornblower a hand there, you dirty buggers!" And once more under the deadly rain pouring from Guelderland's foretop the Carolines strove to subdue the beast, this time more quickly as they now knew where and how best to quell her with the ropes. The man next to Horatio stumbled back as the bowsprit rose up against the swell just before the same water surged under the Caroline. He arched suddenly and collapsed at Hornblower's feet.
Styles! And he said the name aloud. The coxs'n groaned and rolled to his feet, blood dripping, running, quickly soaking the back of his shirt. He grinned fiercely at Hornblower.
"Beggin' yer pardon, Cap'n, I'm just off to see the surgeon. Save some o' the fun fer me!" And he stumbled alone as far as the steps before tumbling down them to lie in a motionless heap. Cole appeared, his face blackened from smoke, his shirt torn and begrimed, and swept up the limp Styles over one shoulder as easily as he would a child.
Turning back again, Horatio encountered Cavendish, who was shaking his head. "Running low on canister, sir! Six rounds left, that's for both guns together. And there's no more chainshot. We'll be hard pressed to keep the Dutch off us soon!"
The captain was looking directly at him so Cavendish knew he'd been heard. But what was Hornblower thinking?
"All secure, sir!" Warrick reported breathlessly. "We can run up a hawser from below now --." He was interrupted by a blast from Guelderland's starboard bowchaser that swept the deck. The helmsmen fell, his side blown away by the shot, spattering blood athwart the quarterdeck. He clung, dying, dragging at the wheel but only a step away old Cumby, miraculously unscathed, tugged the dead hands free and turned the wheel back again. The quartermaster seemed riveted in place, as Warrick screamed at him to help move this new corpse.
"Damn! We'll never manage a hawser under this fire!" Hornblower said. "Lieutenant, your marines must hold off boarders. Mr. Cavendish, do your best. Don't fire unless it appears they are massing for an attempt to board us. But don't hesitate either! Mr. Willis, can we rig some kind of awning? It won't stop a musket ball but at least we can confound their aim! Men, take cover where you can but we must prevent them from boarding! Mr. Cumby, if you please, sir, give over to the quartermaster. I cannot spare you to the Dutch."
Cumby never even looked at him, just lashed the wheel and went.
Hornblower called Cole to join him in the lee provided by the higher quarterdeck.
"My quarters!" He led the way briskly to where the day cabin and sleeping place were no longer separated by bulkheads, but cleared for action, and occupied by the gun crew there. "You, there! Parsons, is it? I want men enough for two full crews here. Quickly, man!"
"Mr. Cole, do you think you might manage to angle these guns so that we can fire into her bow?"
Cole's smile was gone. The berserker in him gave way to thoughtfulness as he examined the gallery, then stuck his head rather carelessly out the larboard gunport. He looked grim when he turned to face Horatio, both men leaning forward to avoid the low beams overhead.
"No, sir, not without we cut away the transom beam here and here," he pointed. "There's not enough room to turn the guns to the proper angle otherwise. If we saw away the beam, we can swing these guns around and rake'em. But we'll be destroying your quarters, sir."
Horatio nodded, then said to the ever-present sentry, "Pass the word for the carpenter. On the double! Mr. Cole, show Mr. Brodie what's to be done. Get him moving quickly, don't let him go moaning on about the right saw and such. As soon as you can, I want these guns firing right down that Dutchman's throat. And the longer it takes, the more men we are going to lose topside. Understood?"
"Aye, aye, sir!"
Cole's smile was back and when Brodie arrived he practically lifted the smaller man into the cabin, telling the gun crews to wait. Horatio was reloading his pistols in preparation for returning to the quarterdeck when Brodie gave him the bad news.
"Aye, sir, I can cut her through but 'twill take a goodly while. T'beam's more'n a foot all around."
Horatio had no time for this. Cavendish had fired another round. "Then blow it away! Mr. Cole, you know what I want, sir! Do it!"
Cole nodded. "Thank you for your trouble, Mr. Brodie! Be so good as to take some of these men and bring down the fire buckets. The rest of you, let's get these guns run and in and the carriages shifted!"
"Captain! Captain, no!" The normally unflappable Brodie was shocked into imprudence. "You'll not blow holes in her, sir! Why, she'll catch fire this close on! And your gallery--!"
"I'll sink the damned ship if that's what it takes!" Hornblower bit back his anger, jamming one pistol in his belt saving the other for a Dutch marine, and then was gone.
"Aye, back where the fighting's the thickest, that's our Captain!" Cole grinned. "Now, Brodie, I'll be needing those fire buckets in a mere minute so stir your hocks! And see Mr. Thripps knows he'll be needed at the capstan!"
On the quarterdeck, the fighting went on as the marines and those men who could be spared from the tasks of manning the guns, clearing away and readying the capstan kept up an endless rattle and bang of musketry, occasionally falling a Dutchman from the tops.
"Last round, Captain!" announced Cavendish prophetically. "Fire!" And with the last blast of his carronade a return shot from Guelderland's bowchaser removed his head from his shoulders, sending it out over the water while the remains of the young gentleman flew backwards as if on a line suddenly pulled taut. Horatio stared in horror, as if unable to grasp that so quickly, almost between breaths, his budding signal officer was gone. And just before dying, he had warned Hornblower. There was nothing now to defend the quarterdeck but small arms. Unless Cole blasted through the transom soon the Dutch would be over the bridge and boarding Caroline in deadly earnest. He lifted his arm, sighted carefully along the pistol barrel, fired and a man behind their bowchaser fell. He tossed the empty pistol down below the rail where Warrick had stationed half a dozen men to reload for the others, pulled his second pistol and sighted.
The deck heaved below him as Caroline's transom took a double blast, the noise so close under his feet causing the quartermaster to duck and curse. Hornblower smiled, steadied himself, and fired. From his quarters came shouts of 'Fire!" and a calmly determined "Over here! Put that fire out!" in Cole's distinct tones.
"Keep firing, marines!" Warrick urged, firing a musket taken from a dead marine. He jerked abruptly, half spun about, and then listed to one side, nearly falling on Hornblower.
"Where are you hit?" Horatio demanded, his arms out to catch him.
"Just m'leg, sir." He gritted his teeth in a grimace of half pain and half ferocity, and flung the musket down to the reloaders. "I'll do. Just help me lean on the rail if you would be so kind, Captain. Pistol, damn you!" This last was meant for the men reloading.
"Well done, Mr. Warrick!" Later Warrick might savor this rare praise from the Captain but for now, he, too, concentrated on winning this fight.
Another blast from below his feet shook Horatio so that he felt the vibrations in his teeth, and then before he could set himself, another blast! Cole had got his gun crews in rhythm now. Raking the Dutchman now every minute and a half. It would not be long now. Not even the resolute Kapitein could withstand this for long!
Two more rounds and slowly, slowly, the firing from Guelderland's tops diminished, then ceased. A horrible silence fell on both vessels. No, not silence. It was only that at first simply he could not hear. Faintly at first, then louder, cries of "Genade!" and something else he could not make out. The screams of anguish from the wounded and dying, the cries of sudden grief from those who had lost a close shipmate to the horrors of roundshot and splinter.
"Cease firing!" he shouted. "Mr. Cole! Come up here, sir!" Before Cole made it to the foot of the ladder, Hornblower demanded, "What are they saying?"
Cole paused to listen. The tension went out of his face and he smiled and said, "Genade. Mercy, sir. They are calling for quarter."
"Have they struck their colours yet? It could be a trap," Warrick warned, resting heavily on the rail against all Hornblower's edicts. He looked ready to fight on until both legs were shot from under him.
"What a mess! What an unholy mess!" Cole proclaimed, stricken by the sight of so many human bodies, torsos and limbs strewn about, scattered amidst the enormous splinters of wood and tangle of rigging that was now the once-proud Guelderland. His own ship looked not much better. He looked not much better, Horatio thought, with his torn and grimy shirt bearing great smears of blood - -Styles's? his own? his sun-bleached hair dimmed with dust and tiny splinters. A shallow cut high on one cheek oozed sluggishly. Surrounded by the morbid trappings of battle, the lieutenant was undaunted. "I doubt if they even have a yard left aft to hang colours on!"
"That's a white flag being raised on a spar I believe, gentlemen," Hornblower spied it first, trying to control the odd weakness gathering in his knees and the mortifying urge to laugh and cry at once. "Allow me to congratulate you on your victory! Here, you, assist Mr. Warrick below. My respects to Mr. Knyveton, he may send me his bill when ready. Mr. Cole. Timely, sir. Most timely with those guns! You will oblige me, sir, by accompanying me as I accept their surrender. I think 40 men also, to manage her. If we have so many to spare."
It was a slow sail, turning back to Run, both ships were badly wounded and the men more so. Thirteen Carolines dead, including Mr. Cavendish. Eight marines. Another 27 wounded. The cox'n Styles would be a long time mending, a musket ball having taken him just above one lung. He'd not like being put up in tropical-disease ridden hospital for the next few months either. Guelderland's loss left Horatio speechless: 42 seamen dead, the captain and two lieutenants dead, and all of her midshipmen. Thirty marines. And another 61 men wounded. No question they would have fought on had there been any way at all left to fight. The sheer determination of the Dutch ship's company was as staggering as her loss.
And her captain had had the wisdom to send all his papers to the bottom of the Banda Sea, so Horatio had not discovered what his orders had been regarding Pulau Run. Or even if the orders had been put in writing, so secret was the mystery of the little isle. If the ship's company knew, they were disinclined to say, but the matter had been secret enough even from them as far as Cole could determine.
Warrick's wound impeded him but little and as he had stood so gallantly in the thickest of the fighting, Horatio had brought Cole back once the prisoners were locked below, and put the First in command of the battered prize. The young giant had cocked a curious eyebrow at him but asked no questions. That was as well for Horatio was in no mood to be pushed by some junior officer.
Horatio had allowed the men time for their rum ration and then put them back to work on the masts and rigging, those who could work. They were tired, mournful for the loss of their mates, but their spirits would rebound, and they worked with a will though lamentably short-handed. The captain had told them they would anchor at Run, discover her secrets, and take the time for those much-needed repairs that could not be done in open water.
Their progress was so slow that the island seemed to drift toward them rather than otherwise. Horatio took time out to wash and allowed Ferry to assist him into a clean shirt. Ferry gasped over the much abused shirt Horatio discarded and the shock of so many near-misses left the little steward as speechless as even the dour Hornblower could desire.
Back on the quarterdeck, he was satisfied to see his ship slowly being brought to some kind of order. The masts, those were tomorrow's task. There would not be light enough left in the day by the time they dropped anchor. But there would be time enough to explore the island a little! A thousand and one tasks to see to and still Pulau Run consumed his thoughts. They eased into the small bay, towing the Dutch frigate. He had ordered Mr. Willis to see that both vessels sported His Majesty's colours, and looked now to find that the British jack had been nailed to Guelderland's maintopmast.
The shadows were stretching out longer than a man's height when the shore of Run was clearly focused in his glass. He examined the island carefully, first the peaks that might hide Dutch guns. That! That could be something but, no, perhaps it was only the deep shadows playing tricks on his eyes. He saw nothing he could be certain of, but continued his perusal. Down from the cliffs at either end to the tiny stretch of sand that was the only place a boat might land. He thought he saw a movement. His arm stilled and he stared through the glass at that spot until his eye watered. Then he shifted the view slightly. Yes, movement! And there, too! From the shelter of the boulders above the narrow strip of shore a dozen -- two dozen, perhaps more lean and ragged scarecrows hobbled, crawled or were carried to the shore as best could be managed. Faint cries of 'huzzah!,' no less ragged than the men themselves, arose from them. Horatio jerked the glass from his eye, wiped his sweaty brow on his sleeve and looked again. Through the tunnel of brass and lens he could see these human skeletons crowding together at the water's edge, bearing aloft a tattered ensign of faded, nearly indistinguishable colours.
One gaunt creature, much taller and broader in shoulder than the others, and with barbarously long gray-blond hair, stood a little apart and for'ard.
"God bless my soul!" Hornblower breathed. Quickly he counted the men on the beach. He swallowed hard, took the glass away and wiped a hand roughly across his eyes. This time the moisture welled up again, against his will. He forced his hand to lift the telescope to his eye once more.
Thirty men. Just thirty left. Out of how many? Two hundred, perhaps? Probably more like 250.
"Sir?" Not even Cole's keen vision could make out the colours at this distance without assistance.
"Launch my boat immediately, if you please, Mr. Cole. I still have a boat, I hope? I am going on shore."
He snapped the telescope closed and fastened it with the loop to his belt, wishing he could ignore the quizzing look from the other man.
"Pass the word for Mr. Knyveton. He will accompany me as soon as he can leave our men. And I shall want water, rum, and bread loaded in the boat. And whatever slops the purser has to hand."
"I beg your pardon, Captain. Do you think those are Englishmen?"
Horatio turned to find his usually discerning Second Lieutenant with a puzzled look on his face.
"Where is your glass, Mr. Cole?" he demanded.
He could see his lieutenant almost groan with the near-agony of admitting to Hornblower that he had lost another telescope.
"Destroyed in battle, sir."
"And the binnacle glass?"
"I had it --. That is to say, the same, sir."
Horatio cursed himself silently for it, even as he relented and pulled his own glass free and handed it to Cole.
"See that you return this in good order! And yes, certainly they are English, Mr. Cole. I know him only by his portrait myself and I think you will find him much changed, but see if you do not recognize your father standing there!"
As he spoke the words Horatio felt the far-reaching implications. Lily Courthope was suddenly a married woman to him. Very married. And the image of her face he could hardly recall. Horatio had never felt the barrier of her vows so keenly as he did just then, forgetting the similar, yet less troublesome to him, obstacle of his own marriage. And beyond all that he felt, or refused to allow himself to feel, were the political implications for the Dutch. And, too, what a nine-days wonder this event would be at Whitehall! How many trees might be killed to handle all the paperwork involved?
He allowed the stunned Cole a few seconds to absorb the impact of the news, even as he himself tried to soak it in, to understand just what it all meant. A wounded-looking, almost angry Cole put the glass to his eye, unable to believe what he had just heard and equally unable to believe Hornblower could tell such a cruel lie. When he finally lowered the telescope Hornblower cautiously took it from his limp grasp. The Second was clearly taken all aback.
That could not be Cole? It was but the merest whisper from a voice that ordinarily could be heard the length, breadth and depth of the frigate. Hornblower was not even sure he had actually heard the word spoken or whether it had merely formed on the younger man's lips, like a silent prayer.
"Well, sir?" Horatio demanded at last, and with some
asperity. He wanted to shake them both out of this half-trance.
"The Swans have been waiting four years for rescue! And I
don't intend that they should be kept waiting any longer because
of your infernal dawdling, sir!"
CHAPTER 14: BACK FROM THE DEAD
The scent of nutmeg blossom was heavy on the land breeze filtering through the badly-abused transom. Horatio sat in his shirtsleeves at his desk and took out quill and paper. It was nice to have the air in his quarters for once but the shattered beam and its rough patch spoiled the beauty of his gallery and forced him to weight down every bit of paper that would otherwise be blown willy-nilly about the cabin. He uncapped the inkstand and tried to settle his mind to the what he must now write. The importance of this document was a burden on the shoulders of one who in the ordinary course of events favored brevity and avoided sentimentality in his writing, when at all possible.
It was not now possible. Courthope back from the dead! The news would travel over England faster than even the optical telegraphs could transmit it! The Gazette would surely carry a dramatic telling of events and Horatio was well aware that as the captain responsible for the rescue at least some portion of his words would find their way into publication. As he must return so soon to England he might even carry the news there himself.
From the top drawer he took a gold watch and placed it alongside his writing implements. The front of the case was a beautifully worked, delicate filigree of a lily; the back of the case was engraved simply "To N. from L." He drew a deep breath and edged the watch just a little further away out of his direct line of sight, along with the emotion it inspired.
He ought to write Maria again but doubted any such letter would arrive in England before he would. He considered whether he should write to Mrs. Courthope and shied from the notion. With the reappearance of Captain Courthope, anything he might have written would be better left unsaid. By the time Caroline arrived at Penang he would have only just enough time to resupply her and sail for England by the beginning of April, as ordered. But a letter to the Admiral was necessary under the circumstances, if only as a warning of sorts. And what circumstances! Courthope's story would have a ripple effect almost beyond his ability to imagine. Best then that he get his actions and impressions captured quickly and accurately. He dipped his quill and began.
To the Commander-in-Chief
East Indies Station
Horatio lifted his hand. Would Pellew still be at Penang? Might not Troubridge now be in command of the eastern portion of the station? He decided not to include a name for fear of using the wrong one and needlessly insulting whoever held the command.
I have the honour to inform you that on the morning of 2 March, His Majesty's Frigate Caroline, having espied an enemy sail occupied in patrol of the southern shore of Pulau Run its purpose unknown as the island was presumed to be generally uninhabited we approached shortly after the hour of ten and engaged the enemy closely, finding her to be the Guelderland, 4, flying the colours of the Batavian Republic. After nearly two hours, during which both ships suffered heavy damage, the Enemy called for quarter as they had lost their colours in the exigency of battle.
Horatio smiled a little. So sparse a description of the action would surely aggravate Pellew, if Pellew were still at Penang. Yet that was not Horatio's intention. There was too much else the Commander-in-Chief needed to know aside from the details of yet another single-ship action.
The enemy under Captain Van der Vere fought a most valiant battle even after that officer was killed in the action. Guelderland reported a complement of 281 men, of which 47 were killed in battle, including her Captain and two Lieutenants as well as all midshipmen. Another 30 marines were killed and 39 total wounded. Our own losses are 13 seamen dead, including Mr. M'Man William Cavendish, my most promising young signal officer who by his bravery under intense fire from the enemy acquitted himself with great honour in his last hour. Also dead are 8 marines and the total number of our wounded is 27, with two of them being mortally wounded and not expected to survive the week.
The size of the butcher's bill ought to please all those meatgrinders at the Admiralty who too often counted a captain's worth by the number of his ship's company killed in battle.
I commend to your attention Lt. Christopher Cole, whose decisive actions yesterday lent much to the defeat of the enemy as well as to the saving of British lives, and also Lt. Reginald Warrick who stood firmly under fire and returned the same whilst yet wounded.
We then returned to Pulau Run to discover the Dutch interest in that island and found 29 British sailors marooned there. An interview with these men proved them to be the last survivors of His Majesty's Frigate Swan, thought to be lost at sea these four years.
The ink spluttered and Horatio paused to wipe and trim the nib as he considered his next words. Pellew had always admired Hornblower's diplomatic touch. Ah, if only he knew how damnably difficult these next words were to write! He'd a hundred times rather be asked to write a sonnet! He squared his shoulders, dipped the quill and again put pen to paper.
I cannot sufficiently express my delight, which can only be but a shadow of what will be our Nation's joy, at discovering Captain Nathaniel Courthope among the survivors. The ship's log and Captain Courthope's journal detail the battle wherein the Swan was lost, but by managing the salvage of four of his guns and the subsequent location of them in batteries at either end of the island, Capt. Courthope and his men gallantly held the island against irregular but rigorous enemy attacks these past four years, with little succor and with ever-diminishing hopes of rescue as the Dutch maintained so strong a base in these waters. Yet their resolution to resist the enemy was ever undiminished.
Wishing to understand why the Batavian Republic failed to publish an account of the battle in which the Swan was lost, I took the immediate liberty of subjecting the prisoners from Guelderland to an interrogation regarding the same, that is as to why their government had not seen fit to inform His Britannic Majesty of the defeat of the Swan. But these men could tell us nothing. With both ships in disarray from battle and the number of our men lost, I had little choice but to leave the prisoners as they had left the Swans. After spiking the Swan's guns, the prisoners were deposited on Pulau Run.
He did not add how strongly the Dutch had protested his decision nor did he think it wise to mention that he did not expect them to sojourn there for any great length of time. They had little hope of survival, he had been told by Cole, once the natives learned of their situation. Courthope had at least received some small support from the island peoples, who had lived but miserably under the rule of the hated Hollanders for two centuries. Courthope had said that two of the orang kayas, the tribal chiefs, had been executed for sending a few meager sacks of rice and some water to the men on Run. The little food and fresh water they sent was insufficient and too irregular to maintain the seamen in good health, but the Banda people did their best to aid the British at the risk of their own lives and that of their families. It was their willingness to risk death, Courthope had said, that helped his own men to keep up their spirits when all hope seemed lost and surrender seemed unavoidable. One night soon, once the tribes learned that the Dutch were now the helpless ones on Run, the Bandans would come and kill them all. Foote might manage to take them off the island beforehand, if he could spare the men for it. Or he might not, if he was a vengeful man.
We carried Capt. Courthope and his men with us back to Neira where I closely questioned those who had controlled the islands prior to the arrival of His Majesty's forces. We were given to understand that immediately upon the destruction of the Swan the Dutch governor at Banda Neira, that is the governor prior to Governor Anton, chose to suppress the information until such time as their Great Enemy (as they so term Capt. Courthope) was either killed or captured, this in order to prevent further British incursion into the Spice Islands and so that they might report a complete and resounding victory over Courthope. The hatred of the Dutch in these waters for Capt. Courthope is extraordinary, something more than the usual regard seen between armed nations: They take his very existence as an affront to their flag. His victories of a decade past are but yesterday to them, just as their own atrocities live in the memories of the natives. History goes very slow in these waters.
As time went on and Divine Providence saw fit to keep Capt. Courthope and his men alive and in a position to indefinitely defy the enemy (the small batteries being most fortuitously placed by the Captain), it becomes apparent that the entire situation was allowed to develop into one of enormous embarrassment to the Dutch who, failing to vanquish Captain Courthope, have kept their festering shame secret. I think you may guess how this information was received on our part.
Horatio paused, recalling the uncharacteristic violence against the prisoners that had erupted from Cole when the Dutch reasoning became known to him. Usually so affable, so even-tempered, the incensed Lieutenant had had to be restrained by no less than seven Carolines. Though several of the prisoners had felt the young giant's wrath, one Hollander had barely been saved from having his neck broke. However despicable these Dutch, Hornblower had been infuriated that an officer of his should exhibit such a loss of control, no matter how extreme and personal the circumstances. Cole was still confined to quarters, although permitted to visit his father under marine escort.
But this siege against Run, it smacked more of persecution than of war! It was difficult to fault Cole for his anger. Pellew, he knew, would be appalled at the lack of chivalry on the part of the Dutch, at the absence of honour, that had those virtues been present the Hollanders would at some point have given news of the situation to the British Foreign Minister, so that would-be widows and orphans might be mercifully relieved of their grief.
Horatio viewed the case more pragmatically than would Pellew: War was war, after all. Yet he could not but despise the Hollanders for the foul way they carried it out. They would never have allowed Courthope to become a prisoner, not after all this time. After four years even his surrender would be a loss of face for them. Instead he and all the Swans were to have been murdered, and any evidence of their presence on Run tossed into the sea. That was why Guelderland was at Run: To find a way to eradicate those pesky English. That was what Mijnheer van Houck had been suggesting in his letter: "it will not be enough now to merely vanquish those who present this problem. It must be made to appear to the world at large that this situation never existed Do it swiftly and do not Count the Cost."
He dipped his pen again and continued.
Of 168 men who were initially marooned on Pulau Run, but these 29 have survived the wretched conditions there. I must report Capt. Courthope to be in very ill health, as indeed are all the men so long stranded on this island. My surgeon informs me that it will be many weeks before the valiant Capt. is restored to himself. I fear at least half a dozen of his men have had their health irretrievably broken by the terrible privation they have so long and so bravely endured. The island has only a very small source of fresh water, scarcely enough for 10 men a day, and naught grows here but the nutmeg tree so that there was no reliable source of food for them at any time. The men survived on those small portions of fish they could catch and on rice smuggled to them by sympathetic natives, some of whom suffered greatly at the hands of the enemy for so doing. There is nothing in the way of natural shelter on Run, and little to be contrived, so that these men have long endured the most primitive circumstances in an extreme climate.
The situation as we found it -- the starvation, the disease, the unspeakable deprivation resulting from four years of internment on so desolate a place I find my hand cannot adequately describe the suffering we have only just relieved.
He stopped when he saw his writing begin to waver. His hand was shaking a little. And no wonder. What a hell those men had lived! Thirsty men quickly became murderous men. What a leader Courthope must be to have staved off mutiny and betrayal for so long! To command such loyalty! Was it any wonder Lily had refused to give up hope of him? He rubbed his eyes, trying to think of words that could frame what he had seen. But Pellew or Troubridge would instead want to know whether the rescue of the Swans represented any possible embarrassment to the Admiralty. His pen swept on again, dipping and flowing in an spate of eloquence most unusual for Hornblower.
Regulations will of course require that Capt. Courthope submit himself to court martial for the loss of his ship, but I can assure Yr Excellency that the Swan's books and records, maintained intact these long years, along with the concordant testimony of the ship's company, will allow for no other but a swift exoneration of the Captain. His leadership and the loyalty of his men, under great inducement by the enemy to betray him and surrender, must surely stand unmatched even within the glorious history of His Majesty's Navy.
He gripped the quill until it bent within his grasp, but the next words he wrote were neat enough and no one would guess the strong emotions gripping him now.
But that I would not have Mrs. Courthope suffer even a minute longer than necessary to discover the safety of her husband, in which she has for so long and justifiably believed, I should have been very pleased to personally deliver to her what will surely prove joyous tidings. Capt. Courthope cannot yet hold the quill steady but begs you will deliver into her hands his watch here enclosed, as proof to her of his safety and devotion, and as a promise of his imminent return. Be assured that so soon as my ship can be made seaworthy and the surgeon advises that the journey will not further endanger their health I will bring the Swans to Penang.
Yr most obdt svt,
Captain Horatio Hornblower
From the Banda Islands
The final words were a near-scrawl, so anxious was he to finish
with this interminable missive. Abruptly he pushed away from the
desk and went in to his sleeping place where he sank down into
his cot. His gaze went to a gap in the roughly repaired transom,
where the glow of the sternlights warded off the darkness beyond.
He lay there, awake and still, staring at the light for a very
CHAPTER 15: THE UNHAPPY RETURN
Nathaniel Courthope lifted his glass of Madeira in one huge skeletal claw.
"To Captain Hornblower! You may be on your way to England, sir, but I promise the Dutch will not soon forget you!"
"Captain Hornblower!" A chorus of enthusiastic agreement swept the table, where the remains of the midday repast were still in evidence. Horatio smiled, hoped he was not blushing like a youth, and raised his own glass as Ferry swooped in to clear the dishes.
"To Captain Courthope! No matter where you go, sir, there can be no doubt: The Dutch will never forget you!"
Cole laughed, his delight in the presence of the two men he most admired plainly revealed on his tanned features, but the sentry announced Mr. Thripps before he could speak.
"Mr. Warrick's respects, Captain, and Fort Cornwallis is in sight."
"Thank you, Mr. Thripps. I shall come up presently."
"Well, I for one cannot wait for a glimpse of the old walls," Courthope declared in what Horatio had discovered was his habitually genial fashion. Clearly his son had inherited the father's affable nature. "A pleasant meal, Hornblower, and my thanks for it. I am still astounded by the prospect of constant rations, you know."
"I wish I could offer you better, sir, but Mr. Knyveton ..."
"More than sufficient, man, more than sufficient! And no doubt your surgeon is in the right of it that we Swans should not be stuffing ourselves like Christmas geese. Ah, and there is a dish to make my mouth water. Green goose, sir! What do you say, Christopher? Give me a hand here, lad. Times are I feel like my old self again and then, damme! If I don't suddenly go weak as a lass!"
The small party made its way to the quarterdeck, father and son leaving the weather side to Hornblower, as tradition dictated.
"There appears to be quite a large welcoming party forming on the quay," Warrick smiled. "The news is out."
"Indeed? Where is your glass, lad? Have a peep and tell me what colour Lily is wearing." Courthope was eager for a sight of his wife. And so sure, Horatio thought, so certain that his Lily would be there for him. And she would, too. For himself, he had decided that he did not wish to see her again at all. And if he could find some excuse to take him to his quarters he would happily excuse himself from witnessing the grand reunion of husband and wife. For once he did not give a damn if that was a cowardly notion on his part.
Cole was looking something aggrieved, hesitant perhaps to admit that he was constitutionally incapable of possessing a working telescope. Horatio shook his head and tugged his own glass free of the loop at his waist and held it out to him.
"Thank you, sir!"
Courthope released his grip on the younger man's arm, his gaze alternating between the approaching quay and his son's features.
"I I don't see her, sir. She must be standing behind someone."
Horatio breathed deeply, dreading the moment to come and at the same time wishing it would hurry and be done with.
"Captain?" Warrick looked a question at Hornblower, who nodded. Jameson had had his chance; now Warrick must have his.
"Bring us in, Mr. Warrick."
And with a newfound confidence that had been growing slowly and steadily this last month, Warrick found the flagship and began the maneuvers that would bring Caroline to a nearby berth.
"Sir, it isn't the Culloden," the First made use of his own glass. "The Admiral's pendant is flying on the Blenheim."
Everyone was looking at Hornblower for what this might mean, and he saw no reason to withhold the information.
"Admiral Pellew has departed, probably for Bombay. Admiral Troubridge has now taken command of the eastern portion of the Indies station."
Courthope looked at him sharply.
"Are you saying the command has been divided?"
Not knowing where Courthope's sympathies would eventually lie in the administrative battle between the two Admirals, Horatio impassively acknowledged the fact.
"Good God!" Courthope looked stunned. "The Admiralty has lost its collective senses! Dividing the command! Have they never heard of the monsoon?"
"Strike the heads'ls!" Warrick bellowed, the whistles of the bosun's mates a-twitter as the order was repeated for'ard. Horatio observed closely, remembering too well Jameson's near-disastrous attempt at bringing the ship to anchor when they first arrived at Penang. The timing was not perfect, but when the salute had been fired the sails were nearly all in. Better. Warrick was definitely beginning to mature. Just as well, too, for if there among the things Troubridge was noted for it was the crispness of his ship's maneuvers. He would be watching this approach with an eagle eye.
"Mr. Willis!" Hornblower growled. He was educating yet another young gentleman in the intricacies of signals flags.
"Yes, sir! I have it, sir! Our number. Uh, the officer, that is..."
"Mr. Willis!" Hornblower fumed.
"Sir! The Admiral is coming aboard!" Willis blurted.
The quarterdeck went silent, absorbing this astounding break in Naval procedures. Then Courthope started to laugh, a chuckle that developed into a deep, infectious belly laugh.
"Politics, sir! Not back in polite society yet and we are already hip deep in politics!"
Cole grinned and even Warrick managed a smile. Horatio fought
it for a moment, then gave in and smiled also. At least it would
save him having to get in and out of his gig without embarrassing
himself by falling in the drink or soaking his shoes and stockings.
"There she is!" exclaimed Cole. "She's in His Excellency's boat. They'll be alongside shortly."
He held out the glass to his father who shook his head.
"No, I thank you. For too long I have seen her only in my mind's eye. My first sight of her will be of her, not some picture at the end of a glass tunnel!"
"She's in yellow."
Horatio did not need to look. He remembered that she had worn a yellow gown that evening on the Culloden. Though the image appeared readily enough her face was little more than a blur now. His smile was grimly determined. By the time he reached the Lizard he would have no memory of her at all! Impossible now to retire to his quarters though.
"Mr. Wheaton, pipe the side!" Warrick called. "One of your chairs for the lady, sir!"
The pipes whistled out the order. The bosun's chair, no more than a sling of rope and wood, was readied and the sideboys fell smartly into place. Every man aboard knew the importance of his appearance on this day. Everything would be noted and reported to the Admiralty and some of it would make its way into the Naval Gazette. Those men who had made up the shore party that first reached the Swans would be the center of attention, both in Penang and in Portsmouth.
Admiral Edward Troubridge came through aboard looking every bit the flag officer. He had made no concession to the heat, he was in full Naval regalia. Horatio hoped that was indicative of the occasion rather than of the man. Excess clothing in this sultry clime could drive a man to madness. Troubridge was a large man but not quite the giant the two Courthopes were. His expression was cordial but as he warmly accepted Hornblower's official greeting, Horatio felt his hackles rise, disturbed by something he saw in the man's eyes. They were a might narrow which could account for it, he supposed, although most people reckoned the Admiral as handsome gentleman. From the depths of his memory Horatio suddenly recalled something Troubridge had been quoted as saying years before, back around '95 when his ship's company had mutinied while in port. "Whenever I see a fellow look as if he was thinking, I say that is mutiny."
And he had seen eight men hung for it, too.
But now Troubridge had turned his attention to Courthope, who was looking anxiously past him to where Lily was being swung on board.
"Beggin' your pardon, Your Excellency," Courthope dismissed him readily enough, "but I must go and kiss my wife!"
Horatio allowed himself but the swiftest glance at her, then his eyes widened and he stared hard as Courthope swept her, him laughing and her weeping, into a tight embrace. Horatio could scarce hide his astonishment: Was this the woman over whom he had languished like the veriest moon-calf? Why, yes, he supposed she would be accounted an attractive woman by some but, well, her figure was a trifle blowsy, was it not? That blonde hair more brassy than gold? And when she at last pulled back from her husband's kiss, he noticed that her mouth was too wide for genuine beauty, and her skin too brown for fashion. He shook his head. He must have gone a little mad in this heat himself to think this woman was something out of the ordinary!
Around him the ship's business suddenly resumed, and Troubridge harumphed at him, as if to recall him to the present.
"Shall we adjourn to my quarters, sir, out of this heat?" Hornblower invited.
"Indeed!" Troubridge was sweating like a fiend in
his dress uniform. "Let us leave the happy couple for now.
Little enough time they'll have to themselves until the fanfare
dies down. And we have His Majesty's business to discuss, Captain
The last sentence was delivered in an ominous tone. Horatio felt his stomach tighten, trying to anticipate bad news but could not for the life of him think what it might be. Unless had something happened to Pellew? Had he been recalled?
Young Thripps called excitedly just before he followed the Admiral into his quarters.
"Beg pardon, Captain. Mail's come aboard. Here, sir, for you!" And a packet was unceremoniously thrust at him. Preoccupied with Troubridge's dour manner, he thrust it into his pocket and entered the day cabin.
Troubridge was studying the destroyed transom with a disapproving eye and remarked on it before Hornblower could offer refreshments.
"I read your report, Captain. Turned your guns on your own ship and won the day. Ingenious."
Odd, Horatio thought, how this Admiral could make 'ingenious' sound like a reprimand. Pellew would have said, "Wanton destruction, sir, wanton!" and made it seem like high praise.
"I fear I have little time to make all the necessary repairs before departing for England," he demurred.
"Plenty of time for repairs, Captain, though that need not trouble you." Troubridge was still staring at the rough repairs. His failure to turn and meet Hornblower's eyes was troubling.
"I don't understand, Your Excellency. My orders from Admiral Collingwood are clear. I must sail in three days. And there is a great deal to be done."
Now Troubridge finally turned and met his gaze directly.
"Yes, yes, I have a copy of your orders right here, Hornblower." The Admiral tapped his left breast. "And so you shall indeed sail in three days. Aboard the Emerald."
Horatio was stunned and though he tried not to let his shock and rising anger show, he could feel his face growing red.
"You are removing me from command, sir?" he asked stiffly. "And may I have the privilege of knowing how I have earned this...this..." Words failed him.
"Dammit, man, I cannot spare a single ship! My command is divided and that blasted Pel that is to say, I need every ship I can lay hands on. Your orders are for you to return to England. And so you shall. But Caroline remains here."
"With all due respect, sir, I doubt Lord Collingwood intended ."
"Hold your tongue, Captain!" Any pretence to affability was gone. Troubridge would not even have his decision questioned, let alone contravened. Horatio could feel the futility of further protest but his anger and mortification at this wresting away of his command his successful command for a second time nearly overwhelmed his self-control. It was only with the greatest effort that he held his tongue.
"It is for me to interpret Lord Collingwood's intentions. Had he meant for the you to return the Caroline to England, I believe he would have said so!"
Too well Horatio recalled the exact wording of his orders,
remembered Pellew asking him who had drawn them up. He wanted
to lash out and strike something instead of standing there gawping
"And who," he struggled for a calm breath, "if I may ask, will take command of her?"
"Your First will take over. Warrick, I believe it is? He will assume command as soon as you board the Emerald. One of my own lieutenants will have Guelderland, and I've someone else in mind for that little snow as well."
"If I may, sir," Horatio knew it was useless but felt he must try, "my Second is well-prepared for command. Mr. Cole ."
Troubridge must intend that he never finish a sentence.
"Cole remains where he is. Here, sir, are your orders from me. And the arrangements for your passage are already made."
Now that he had got the ugly part of the business out of the way, Troubridge's false congeniality resurfaced as he said heartily, "I believe you shall enjoy your time aboard the Emerald. She's a Yankee merchantman, by far better fitted than most. Her owner maintains close ties with England. Mr. Sydney Yorke. In fact, I believe he has a close friendship with an acquaintance of yours, Captain Lord Ramage?"
For a long moment Horatio simply could not speak. With a jerk of his neck the words finally came out.
"Yes, sir. I have heard Captain Ramage speak of him."
"And of course, your passage will be made more comfortable by the presence of your steward."
The disdainful glance he shot at Hornblower's frayed cuffs and the faded material of his coat said that the Admiral very much doubted it though. "Well, sir, I must just have a word with Courthope. Much to be done there, arrangements to make and what-have-you! And I shall carry Mr. Warrick along with me. Aside from his commission and orders, I want him to meet my other captains, and begin learning how things are done in my command."
Horatio never later remembered precisely how that conversation had ended, only that Troubridge had finally taken himself off. At first he simply stood there and tried to think past the emotions: The anger, the outrage, the humiliation that threatened to swamp him. Absorb it, accept it. Try to remember the Lydia, the sweet new frigate being built specially for him. But the inner Horatio scoffed at this. Two ships taken from him! Why in blazes would they give him another? He was destined for half-pay, that much seemed clear.
His throat burned with gall, and his stomach roiled like a snake. Returning to England as a passenger. Warrick taking command of his Caroline, his home. Blindly he felt for his chair and sank down in it, staring at his desk. No, the desk, soon to be Warrick's desk. Two more days, only for two more days would he have his own vessel to command. He thought about the events, the work he had done here. From chastising his former First to maneuvering information from Captain de Groot; hearing Cole reading the words from Pieter van Houck's letter; sweating the fierce shoals and reefs of Banggi; all the months of labouring over the muster book, the purser's accounts, Cumby's charts, reports from the gunner, the carpenter, the sailmaker and more. Caroline had been a kind of hell at times. But she had been home.
And now, like Atropos, no longer his. The thought of the frigate being built for him back in England, no longer had the power to console him for he no longer believed in it. That had been a fairy tale, and he was no child to go on believing in it.
What had he done wrong?
Not even the frugal Pellew had counted the two lost anchors against him. Perhaps it was his long and close relationship with Pellew that irritated Troubridge so?
He wanted to rage and rail against such petty maneuvering but no, that was not the reason. Horatio's cool, logical brain told him the truth, no matter that his heart did not want to hear it: British war ships were just too scarce in these waters for Troubridge to allow a frigate in good repair to return to England. And Caroline could be made ready easily enough. No wonder Pellew had asked when Horatio first berthed at Penang who had drawn up his orders He had probably had the same thing in mind as Troubridge. At least Sir Edward had taken his ships and himself off to India and spared Horatio this blow from a man who was as a father to him.
Yes, it had been inevitable. He should have seen it, realized it weeks ago when Pellew had made no secret of how desperately he needed ships. And with the East Indies command now divided, the need was even more pronounced. His pride in his own accomplishments, his preoccupation with Mrs. Courthope, and the surety that after the Admiralty had taken Atropos that he would never again suffer such humiliation unless he had earned it -- these things had blinded him to the reality of a station command in time of war. Yet it eased the bitterness not one whit to know that in Troubridge's shoes, Hornblower would have done the same thing.
So he must pack and go to the Emerald. And Ferry to go with him. He tried to imagine how short his temper would burn when he and Ferry both had nothing more to do than fret each other's nerves. No! Now that, he swore, he could do something about!
"Sentry! Pass the word for my steward!"
Ferry arrived in his usual dither, assisting Hornblower out of the stifling dress coat and talking all the while. If the Captain seemed preoccupied that was his usual demeanor and Ferry thought nothing of it until he was addressed directly.
"Do you happen to know Mr. Warrick's family, Ferry?"
"Know of them, aye, sir. Father's a baron, his mother a daughter of a baron. Well-to-do but not so wealthy as some. A good family though, sir, with a good history."
"Yes, I thought I remembered him saying as much. And you are an ambitious man, are you not, Ferry?"
"Sir?" The little man stood still, puzzled by Hornblower's sudden interest.
"I mean to say, ha-h'rmph, ah, it would be a step up for you to be steward to someone like Mr. Warrick?"
"Oh, aye, but he'd have to get his epaulettes first, sir!"
"But of course. And if you were offered such an opportunity, Ferry? If you could return with me to England or stay here at Penang and improve your position?"
The steward was clearly torn between his ambition and courtesy. Ambivalence was writ large on his round face, so Horatio urged him just a little.
"For your own sake, you would have to accept the opportunity to, er, move up in the world, eh?"
Ferry breathed a sigh of relief.
"Aye, sir, I suppose I would."
"Thank you, Ferry. That will be all."
Ferry nodded, took one last brush at Horatio's coat before
stowing it, and left. Horatio followed hot on his heels but instead
of going above he made his way down and for'ard to where Knyveton
had put the wounded. Bending low under the beams he cast about
the shadows until he found the figure he wanted. Styles was lying
very still but his eyes were open and they seemed to sparkle a
trifle when he saw the Captain.
"Well, Styles!" Horatio found himself always being heartily brusque around the wounded. He hated it but could not seem to change his manner. "How long do you intend to lie there malingering?"
Styles' slow grin consumed his face. "Mr. Knyveton says I'll not be fit for duty for more'n a month, sir."
"And you intend to lie here, a feast for mosquitoes and yellow jack and black vomit and God knows what other tropical diseases, all that time?"
"I'll be going to England with you, sir! Mr. Knyveton said I could sail, that I needn't go to a hospital!" he protested with a wheeze. Hospitals were the death knell for a seaman, or so they thought. In fact they'd almost rather die than to be put in one. "I'll be fit before we're halfway home again!"
"No, Styles. Admiral Troubridge has just told me the Caroline stays here. But I am going back to England."
Horatio watched the play of emotion on the homely features. He knew Styles had always hated the tropics.
"What? Without me, sir? Oh, sir!" The look of reproach reminded Horatio of the sad, old mongrel that had wandered the village where he had lived as a child.
"Well, Styles, there is one way I could take you with me. You might not like it," he warned.
"I'll do anything, sir! Anything!" The wheeze was growing more pronounced.
"Well, it seems I am permitted to take my steward with me. It also seems that Ferry prefers to remain here."
The slow grin went crawling across Styles' face again.
"I can do it, sir!" he drawled impudently. "I've had experience as a steward!"
"Yes," Hornblower sighed. "I remember. I trust you also learned from the experience!"
He nodded, leaving behind a contented new steward, and returned to his quarters. At least one person was going to be made happy by his misfortune. And then he remembered Warrick, too, would be made happy.
Angry again, he yanked open the top drawer in the desk and saw an unfinished letter to Maria there. It reminded him of the packet Thripps had handed him earlier, and he fumbled for it in his pocket. Yes, a letter from Maria, from someone who cared, the first to arrive from England since weighing anchor at Portsmouth. Eager to think of something other than what he now felt -- a shame that ate at him like acid -- he tore away the cover and unfolded the single sheet. The brevity of it surprised him. That was not like Maria. Ordinarily she would fill pages with her meanderings and devotions, the lines crossed and re-crossed until he nearly went blind trying to decipher it.
My Beloved Horatio,
How torn my heart is to write these lines to you. Yet I am weak with fever and have no strength, no, nor the heart, to find gentle words for what I must tell you. Our adored children, Sweet Maria and Brave Horatio, are dead of the Smallpox.
Dearest, I cannot write more now. When I am well again I shall write long, long letters to you. I know how much they comfort you. I wish I could be with you at this most grievous of times.
Horatio sat immobile, a frozen corpse in a blistering Hades . The lines before him blurred, faded, then came again into sudden, sharp focus. Something in him, something once warm and alive, was shriveling. He could actually feel something in his breast altering, disintegrating, and being replaced with something dark and angry and hurtful. Joy, he thought. It was joy dying. No. No, it had already died. Had been dead these many months though he had not known it. Yet no tear moistened his cheek, no cry of grief broke from him.
From the quarterdeck sounded the change of watch. He could hear Willis bawling out some laggard in his croaking, changing voice. From far away he could feel the pull and sway as Caroline swung gently to anchor. He knew not how long he sat there but then like a wooden marionette he rose jerkily, and blindly reached for his hat. For two more days he was the captain of this ship. Very well. A captain should be about his duty. He struggled for one shallow breath, then another, then a deeper draught. For a long time he stared without recognition at the man in the mirror. Finally he opened the door and went out.