This piece was inspired in part by a certain song and an old, old"Saturday Night Live" sketch.
"Damn!" Captain Sir Edward Pellew paced his quarterdeck,,gazing
out at an empty blue ocean. " Damn and blast! Bracegirdle!"
"Aye, Captain,sir?", answered the florid Mr. Bracegirdle, who happened to be standing not twelve inches away, as was his custom, and who did not quite comprehend the need for quite so much amplification in the way of communication. He took a step backward, lest his captain's next utterance come at a similar volume.
" It has been days, no,weeks- since we've seen any action, Mr. Bracegirdle! I tell you it has never been like this-at least not for me, sir!"
"Well, sir", Bracegirdle began, soothingly, " I'm sure it happens to all of us, from time to timeat least that's what I'm told ,sir.'
Pellew continued to pace and mutter, "I don't like it,sir, not one bit. And I don't mind telling you, it's gettingI'm getting damned frustrated!" He leaned upon the railing and looked down on the deck below. "Where the devil is Hornblower? Perhaps he's got one of his bright ideas to share with us."
" Last I saw him he was impressing the other lieutenants with feats of mathematical ingenuity ,sir.". Bracegirdle stated, "But frankly,sir, when Mr. Hornblower gets one of his ideas he usually speaks right up about it."
" True," Pellew sighed, " But get him anyway. We've got to do something."
"Aye,aye, sir." Mr. Bracegirdle took his leave and returned with Mr. Hornblower, who bounded up to the quarterdeck in a swashbuckling manner, all cheekbones and melting dark eyes and cascading curls. "You asked to see me ,sir?"He said brightly, looking, as ever, ready for anything.
"Yes, Mr. Hornblower," drawled the captain. "Mr. Bracegirdle and I have just been discussing our recent ,oh, shall we call it a "dry spell"? It has been rather an extraordinarily long time since we have engaged the enemy, Mr. Hornblower, would you not concur?"
Hornblower looked thoughtful. "Well, sir, not having the benefit of your level of experience, I feel I have not the basis for comparison."
"Quite so, Mr. Hornblower, I sometimes forget your relative lack of experience in certain matters. Nonetheless, come now, man, what ideas have you as to how we can break out of thisthis interminable slump?"
The young man looked thoughtful. " Well, we could run out our guns, sir, do some drills. That often helps to give the men somerelease, sir."
Pellew pursed his lips and frowned."Really, Mr. Hornblower, I've come to expect a little more imagination from you. I'm disappointed. Besides, don't you think we've been drilling rather a lot lately as it is? I don't believe in excessive drilling, sir. Itsits not healthy. Bad for the skin."
Hornblower said something the captain didn't quite catch. "What did you say?" Pellew snapped.
"Uh,sir I said I believe that's just an old wives tale. About too much drilling, sir."
"Eh? What are you talking about.?"
"It's a myth, sir. Actually, according to the latest research, it would seem there's really nothing wrong with a lot of drilling. Its quite normal, sir. We alleveryone feels the need to drill from time to time, sir."
"According to research? Hhrmph. Still, its just not the same as getting off a good broadside into a real enemy ship, eh, Bracegirdle?" Pellew winked, elbowing his fellow officer in the ribs.
" Oh, aye, sir, I quite agree!" Bracegirdle enthused, "In truth, I"
"A SAIL!!" A shout went up, suddenly. "ENEMY SHIP TO LARBOARD!!"
"Thank God!" breathed Captain Pellew, "Where? How does she bear?" He shouted down to Matthews who had raised the cry.
"There, sir! Right off the larboard bow! Frenchman! Comin' fast she is, too , sir!" Matthews had a spy glass in his hands , and now was observing the approaching ship.
"I there's somethin' peculiar about her sir! Her sails-are they pink ?'
Suddenly Pellew' s face broke into an unaccustomed grin. "Well, I'll be ait can't be"
"Sir?" Hornblower queried, "Do you know the ship?"
The Captain turned , undisguised delight lit his countenance. "Indeed I do, Mr. Hornblower . Indeed I do. I know the ship, and I know her Captain."
"Mr. Hornblower,sir!"It was Matthews climbing breathlessly up to the quarterdeck.He held the glass out to Hornblower. "You'd better have a look at this , sir, there's somethin' right strange, sir."
"You say you know the ship, Captain?" he asked, raising the glass to look.
"Yes, Mr. Hornblower. That is "La Belle" out of Calais." The Captain responded. The smile now seemingly permanently affixed.
"Sir," Matthews grew insistant. "Look at her, sir, I can't believe it! They're all-the crew-they're LADIES, sir!!!"
By now Hornblower had the confirmation of the glass. He turned to his captain, mouth agape. "You KNOW this ship, "La Belle", a-and her captain??"
Pellew chuckled , "Aye. Did I not say so already? Yesss I met M'Armalade down in old New Orleans. Now look at her, strutting her stuff"
"Captain M'Armalade, sir?" Hornblower was very confused.
"Lady M'Armalade, she was, Mr. Hornblower, A countess, I believe. Although I daresay its Citizen M'Armalade now though, if she's kept her ship...and her head."
"THEY"RE SIGNALING, SIR!" someone shouted.
Hornblower ran a hand through his fetching windblown curls in order to clear his vision, and raised the glass once more.
"Well, man? What does she say?" Captain Pellew was impatient.
The young man hesitated. "Its difficult to say, sir. The best I can make out It looks like"HelloHey, JoeYou wanna give it a go" I-I don't understand. Wait, there's moreit makes no sense, sir"Gitchee, gitchee ya-ya, na-nagitchee, gitchee ya-ya something, somethingMocha chocolata ya-ya"
"Give me that!" snarled the captain, snatching the glass from Hornblower's hands, "Ridiculous! You can't say all that with signal flags!! What the? " Voulez-vous couchez avec" oh, that does it!!"
"What do we do, sirs? What do we do?" Matthews implored.
"What do we do?WHAT DO WE DO??" Pellew roared, striding purposefully to the railing . "MEN! We will do what we always do!! A frenchman is still a frenchman, EVEN IF he's a Frenchwoman! And we shall beat him OR HER the way we always have! For there is no power on earth--!'
"-THAT CAN WITHSTAND THE MIGHT OF THE BRITISH NAVY!" chimed the entire ship's company in singsong unison.
"Quite right." Said the captain.
"SHE'S GETTING AWAY!" Another shout.
Sure enough, the pink-sailed corvette had started to turn and run before the wind.
" She's shaking her tail at us, Captain," remarked Mr. Bracegirdle.
"So, she is, Mr. Bracegirdle. God help me I will not be teased! Have her we will! Mr. Bowles!"
"Aye, Sir?" The ships master appeared from behind Mr. Bracegirdle, where he had actually been the entire time.
"After her, man!! What did you bloody think I was going to say? Mr. Hornblower! See to your men! All hands to quarters! Square away those tackles! I want those guns ready!" he yelled, along with a lot of other naval-type, nautical things.
The decks boiled with activity as the "Indefatigable" flew after her quarry. The distance between the two ships was closing fast.
"Do you think she'll turn and fight, Horatio?" It was Hornblower's best friend, acting lieutenant Archie Kennedy. His blue eyes sparkled , his cheeks pinking sweetly with excitement, and Horatio found himself having the incongruous and completely inappropriate thought: " My goodness, he's really rather pretty,isn't he?" as he rushed past on his way to his for'ard station.
" I don't know, Archie! The captain means to take her, though, no matter what!"
Hornblower had scarcely reached his position at the for'ard chasers when Pellew started screaming at him to fire.
" WON'T WE BE FIRING PREMATURELY,SIR?" Hornblower shouted back. "I THINK IF WE CAN HOLD BACK A LITTLE LONGER, WE STAND TO HAVE A BETTER OUTCOME!
" MR. HORNBLOWER,IF YOU PLEASE! I CAN'T WAIT ANY LONGER! FIRE FOR'ARD CHASERS!!!"
"VERY WELL,SIR! FYAAAAAAAAH!!!"
The cannon belched, roared, and an instant later a cheer went up as the shot neatly toppled "La Belle"'s fore topmast.
"SWEET MOTHER, YES!! YES!!" Pellew slumped against the mainmast, a beatific smile transforming his formerly tense visage.
"She's still running, sir," Mr. Bowles observed. "But we've slowed her down. Shall I bring her alongside, sir ?"
"Yes, yes, Mr. Bowles. Do it! MR. KENNEDY! YOUR SIDE! FIRE AS SHE BEARS!!"
Moments later the guns roared again, and this time " La Belle" could not run. The men cheered wildly as her colours were hauled down at last.
" Did you see me, Horatio?" Archie asked breathlessly
as Horatio joined him on the deck. "Nailed her a right good
broadside!" Then his expression changed and he added dejectedly,
" You'll get the command of her though , surely."
He looked downcast, as he scuffed at the deck with his shoe.
"Aw, c'mon, Arch!" Horatio punched his friend's shoulder good-naturedly. "You know Captain Pellew doesn't play favorites."
"Mr. Hornblower!" It was Pellew. " Be so good as to board "La Belle" and Oh, I don't caredo whatever you want with her. Now that w e've taken her I just seem to have lost all interest. I think I'll go below and take a nap. Mr. Bowles, have you any more of that fine Turkish tobacco? I could perish for a smoke oh, and Hornblower"
"Why don't you take Kennedy with you, this time, hm? I always seem to forget about him." Archie and Horatio watched as their captain disappeared below. They turned to eachother and shrugged.
"Right then ," Horatio began, "I suppose we should organize a boarding party. Matthews! Styles! Oldroyd! YouBlonde Kid! To the boats! We shall need about a half dozen volunteers. Anyone want to come help sail a shipful of Frenchwomen back to England? Come now, seriously, you can't ALL come! Who's going to look after the Indy? Archie, sort this out, will you, and meet me in the boat."
" Aye, aye, sir!" Archie clicked his heels and saluted as Horatio strode off. " Yippee. Second-in- command . I am beside myself with joy."
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," Styles looked puzzled, "Are you bein' sarcastic?"
"Oh, nooo, Styles. Why would you think that?"
By and by the crew was sorted, boats were lowered and the party began its short journey to claim the captured prize. As they rowed toward her "La Belle" presented quite a different aspect, her high, proud pink sails, now luffed forlornly in the breeze. As they got closer they could begin to make out members of the ship's crew leaning over the bulkhead, trying to get a better look at the Englishmen. The intoxicating sounds of whispering and giggling wafted towards them.
" Oooh, Matty, this is gonna be fun!" whispered Oldroyd
"Shh," Hornblower warned. "I'm telling you men right now, there's to be no hanky-panky on this mission. Is that understood?" Much muttering and grumbling. "Now men, we shall comport ourselves likelike true English sailors." Heads began to nod enthusiastically and the men high-fived eachother. "No,no,no" Hornblower realized his error, "Belay that! We shall behave like gentlemen. No, like monks! Allright, like eunuchs, then! Damn it, men, you know what I'm trying to say! Oh, do stop snickering!"
"Cor!" Oldroyd excalaimed under his breath. The men
were assembled on the deck of "La Belle". Everywhere
they looked there were women- glorious females of all shapes,
sizes and color combinations. Those they took to be officers were
dressed in the familiar uniform of the French navy, yet tailored
in the inimitable French manner to accentuate the positive in
a most emphatic way. Many of the hands were dressed in extraordinary
costumes of their own contrivance, which did much the same and
led one to marvel at the creative possibilities of ordinary sailcloth.
"Don't it smell nice, though?" Matthews sighed appreciatively.
"Mmm," Styles sniffed delicately,"Jasminetuberosecitrus topnote o'course, and,hmm. Just a wee hinta vanilla, I think." He realized the others were looking at him as if he'd just sprouted a vestigial twin. "Wot?"
"Quiet, now,you men!" Hornblower turned to speak to them.Then, turning back-THWACK! Out of nowhere a gauntlet of white kid impressed itself upon his jaw. He looked about in confusion for a moment, for he could not ascertain from whence the blow had come.
"I take it you are zee commanding officair, Monsieur??" Hornblower looked down, finally to see his attacker, a tiny, furious, exquisite, black-haired woman,whose green-gold cat eyes blazed with indignation.
"Madame," he began shakily, " I-I am Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower of his Britannic Majesty's frigate "Indefatigable". I.."
" Idefatigable? Bah!" she spat. "Nevair has a sheep been so badly named! It was ovair so queekly, we 'ad not zee chance to even-! I say to my lieutenant, "Eez zat all zair eez?"
You Eenglish frigates are all alike! Eet eez just zee wham, zee bam, and zee merci Madame! Zair eez no subtlety! No finesse! No time taken for le danse de le guerre!
Eet eez not fair!" She stamped her tiny foot in its thigh high boot of shiny black leather, and glancing down, Hornblower thought it remarkable that even in four-inch stiletto heels she still only came up to about his sternum. "We are most unsatisfied!" she hissed finally.
Regaining his composure, Hornblower said calmly, "Satisfied or no, Madame, I am afraid I must now ask for your sword."
"Who are you ?"
"I am Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower," he repeated, " Of His Bri-"
"Oui,oui, I know." She somehow managed to look down her nose at him. " I am Captain Le Comtesse Ovarie de la M'Armalade. At your service, sir."From the scabbard at her side she drew the daintiest, shiniest, prettiest little implement of death Horatio had ever seen. He accepted it with a short bow.
"Zees eez my first lieutenant, Mademoiselle Falloppienne de Bustier." She gestured over her shoulder to a flaxen-haired Valkyrie ,at least as tall as Horatio and poured into her red, white and blue uniform like a cool, smooth glass of milk.
" Is that thing painted on 'er?" Oldroyd spoke out of the corner of his mouth.
"I'll say," groaned Styles,"She's built like a brick" A sidelong warning glance from Hornblower stopped him.
"And Lieutenant Kennedy." He introduced Archie.
" Enchante , Monsieur Kennedy." The Captain tilted her head and looked at him. " Tell me, sir, are you a natural blonde.?"
Archie straightened and smiled. " Why, yes I am. Blonde all over, I'm pleased to report."
" You have zee most marvelous highlights. We are most envious, aren't we Fallopienne? Will you tell us your secret?"
"Archie!" Horatio was incredulous.
" Well, its nothing much really," Archie replied happily, ignoring him. " I just squeeze on a bit of my lemon ration, run a comb through it and well, the sun does the rest!"
"Eet is most attractive. You will have to try zis sometime, Falloppienne. She eez always concerned zat her hair eez getting darker, you know. She eez quite vain."
Horatio was losing patience. "Madame, we really must get on with our preparations. We must make sail for England."
M'Armalade flipped her head at him. " Really Meester Orrinblowair, zere is no need to be peevish. Your hair is very pretty also. Besides, zees sheep eez not going anywhere."
"Oh, yes it is." He was annoyed.
" Oh, no eet eezn't"
"Oh,YES IT IS!"
"Oh, no eet eezn't."
"OH, YES-well, why not?"
"Because you 'ave blown a great bloody hole in hair, zat eez why!"
"Oh , no we haven't."
"Oh, yes you have!"
" Nonsense. We can easily make repairs and be on our way. All of the damage is well above the water line."
"Oh, no eet eezn't."
"Oh, yes it is."
"Oh, no eet eezn't"
"EEZ NOT!" They glared at eachother.
" Um, H'ratio?" Archie interjected softly.
"I think there might be just a bit of a hole in the hull."
"What are you talking about Archie? "
Archie looked sheepish. "Um, well, my gun started to lose its elevation a bit, you know, and we tried to get off the shot before it was too late, you know, and well, it may have gone in just a titch low."
" Just a titch."
"Mm. A smidge."
Horatio sighed and ran his hand through his lustrous dark curls, which he did in fact know to be quite pretty indeed. "Archie! Oh, I wish the Indy hadn't gone off already. Well, no matter, we shall fother a sail and-"
He was suddenly aware of a most unusual and yet sickeningly familiar feeling beneath his feet. Staring down he noticed that the deck seam was opening a little and the pitch was bulging out of it. Looking further he could see bulging ridges beginning to rise here and there along the deck.
"Oh, noooo!" He whined. "You're not carrying rice are you?"
The captain looked down. " Rice? Mais non, Monsier .What can it be? Oh, mon dieu!
I sink eet eez our feminine hygiene pwoducts! Zey are expanding in every direction to conform to the contours of zee hold!"
" Feminine-? Oh, I don't think I want to know!" Horatio threw up his hands in despair. "How much of this cargo are you carrying?"
Monsieur, we are several hundred healthy young women between zee ages of sixteen and forty. You do zee math!"
"H'ratio's good at math." Archie was enjoying his friend's distress.
"And, Monsieur," the Captain lowered her voice to a whisper, " Zey are zee supair plus absorbency, I fear!"
"Damn!" he swore and with his uncanny talent for not missing a trick even in the midst of a crisis, added, "Styles! Put the chocolates, down. Now!"
Captain M'Armalade crossed her arms across her chest and demanded, "Well. What do you propose to do now, Monsieur?"
"We have no choice," he replied, crisply. "We must prepare to abandon ship."
" But Monsieur," Lieutenant de Bustier spoke for the first time in a voice all smoke and honey that sent a collective shiver down the spines of the assembled men. " Would you not like to remove most of your clozing and dive ovairboard to eenspect zee damage, zen come back to us in no sing but your wet, clinging trousairs?
" Oh, oiu," the Captain nodded, "I sink we would all feel much reassured, Monsieur."
" No. I cannot be bothered. Its futile. We shall abandon ship. Matthews, will you organize the boats?"
"Madame, I suggest you prepare your crew. Bring along only the most essential supplies."
"Very well, Monsieur. Lieutenant de Bustier, we will load zee supplies. See that we 'ave as much chocolat as possible. And zee magazines, sil vous plait."
"H'ratio, I'm BORED!" Archie moaned. The little
cluster of boats drifted upon a calm sea beneath a clear blue
sky. For hours the men and women had amused themselves by eating
the excellent chocolate, reading magazines(well, looking at the
pictures) and trying on eachothers earrings.
"Well, what would you like me to do about it?" Horatio shot back. ""There is not enough wind to make sail and these women don't seem to want to help row."
" I 'ave already broken a nail, Monsieur." Lieutenant de Bustier held her hand out for him to see.
"I know!" Archie sat up suddenly, brightening. "Let's put on a show!"
"No, Archie." Horatio sighed.
" C'mon, it'll be fun!"
"NO , ARCHIE!" Hollered everyone else in the boat.
Archie slumped back down. " I don't see anyone else coming up with any ideas." He grumbled.
" I 'ave eet," Captain M'Armalade said, reaching under her seat and pulling out a rectangular case of cream colored leather. She snapped open the lid to reveal a mirrored interior and a dazzling array of tiny bottles, boxes and jars. "We will give zee men a makeover, no?"
" Ah, oiu Mon Capitaine!" de Bustier clapped her hands, and standing, momentarily, moved to kneel behind Styles. She gathered his long, messy hair into a pile atop his head. " I sink I can do something weeth zis. 'Ave you evair thought of cutting in some layers about zee face, Monsieur Styles?"
Hornblower frowned. "No. Absolutely not."
"Oh, but Monsieur, look at his complexion. We can make like porcelain, no?" M'Armalade flipped open a large, tortoiseshell compact and made to begin powdering Styles' face.
"NO! You are not putting makeup on my men! I've said and I mean it!" With that he snatched the compact from her hand.
" I don't mind, sir," Styles pleaded, " I'm ready for a change."
M'Armalade clucked her tongue in digust. " Really, Monsieur, sometimes you can be , how do you say-? A real party poopaire!"
He merely looked at her, saying nothing.
" Give me the compact, Monsieur." She held out her hand.
"Fish for it." He said,raising his arm and letting it go over the side.
The Captain's eyes narrowed. " That was a very foolish, not to mention a very bratty, thing to do." She said, " Now, you will have only yourself to blame for our uneven skin tone."
Having reached a stalemate, the two stared at eachother, unblinking. Just then, Matthews stood up and started waving his arms , " A SHIP! I SEE A SHIP!"
" Sit down, Matthews!" Horatio was really feeling crabby now and didn't even bother to look up. " I suppose next your going to tell me it's the Indy. The Indy always seems to appear at just the right moment, doesn't she?"
"IT IS! IT IS THE BLOODY INDY!!" Matthews cried.
Captain Pellew was waiting, rocking back on his heels, hands
linked behind his back as the party came on board. " Lost
another one, eh, Hornblower?" he commented as his lieutenant
made his appearance.
" Sir, it could not be helped." He replied. At that moment he thought he overheard Styles grumbling "was gonna get a makeover, I was, Ain't never 'had layers, I 'aven't."
"Captain Sir Edward Pellew." It was M'Armalade. Her slanted green-gold eyes looked him up and down, and not without appreciation, Hornblower thought, looking on.
"We meet again, Madame." Pellew made a bow.
" Your battle tactics, sir, are, how shall I put eet? As perfunctory, as evair."
" I should prefer the word, "efficient", Madame." He said, " And yours, may I say, are just as bedeviling. Whatever did you mean by that business with the signal flags?"
" I thought zee meaning was clear, Monsieur. Perhaps you require something een zee manner of eenstruction?"
" Indeed, Madame, do you fancy yourself qualified to instruct me?" he demanded manfully.
"Oiu,Monsieur, I do. But perhaps it eez best not in front of zee crew?"
" What are they talking about?" Oldroyd whispered to Matthews.
" I don't know," said Matthews, " But look at the captain. 'E's turnin' all pink!"
The Captain was looking a little flushed. He cleared his throat loadly. "Mr. Hornblower!" he barked, " We shall have to contrive some way of fitting the prisoners in, so that we can promptly make sail for the NEAREST British port."
Hornblower stepped forward, " Aye, aye, sir. May I suggest we double the watches, sir? And some of the men could sling their hammocks up on deck."
"Yes, yes, see to it, Mr. Hornblower." He turned again to the French captain, " Shall we continue our conversation, Madame, as you suggest, in private?" He offered her his arm.
" Indeed, Monsiuer, I sink we 'ave much to discuss. I hope zis will be a long conversation, as opposed to an "efficient" one, mm?" She linked her arm in his and the men watched, winking and nudging, as he escorted her below.
Later that evening, during the first of the dogwatches, Archie
had Horatio were just hanging out casually on the main top yard
a hundred and fifty feet above the deck.
"That was fun ! Don't you think so Horatio?" Archie asked cheerily.
"Fun?" Horatio wrinkled his nose adorably, " Thank you all the same, Archie, but I think from now on I shall have my marmalade exclusively on toast."
"On toast? Oh, Horatio, that was a little joke, wasn't it? Oh, how cute!" He patted his friend's shoulder. "You just keep at it, old boy, you'll get there, one of these days!" His merry laugh floated off to the stars as they sailed off into the night, toward the next adventure.