A Meeting in the HO-HO-Hold
by Bev F.

Something untoward was certainly going on. William Bush could
hear sounds of merry making from the lower decks -- not
surprising, considering the way the Captain pampered the men.

No, it was not the drunken high spirits of the Renown's crew that
bothered him. Other than the fact that the mates and topmen,
seamen and landsmen, and even the youngest boy were
celebrating, whilst the officers had not been invited to share even
a meagre glass of bad brandy. Ah, the officers. That was the
botheration. Where the devil were they?

The night was clear, the wind steady, and the Renown rode the
waves easily. A good night for festivity, with no sudden calls to
reef topsails expected, and only a sudden appearance of an
enemy ship would disrupt the revels. The weather was warmer
now too, as the Renown approached the West Indies, but for
once Bush thought fondly of the cold and misery that England and
home were certainly enjoying just now. This warm weather just
didn't seem right, somehow.

He'd already visited the wardroom, but it sat empty, the table
bare of even a weevily ship's biscuit. Too many time he'd entered
this snug bastion of the ship's officers, only to find talk die away
as he appeared. He'd cast his lot with Captain Sawyer his first
moments on board, and addlepated Buckland, enigmatic
Hornblower and outspoken Kennedy had closed ranks against
him. Now, he couldn't say he blamed them.

Well, he'd certainly find Hornblower on the quarter-deck. Poor
bastard. Continuous watch. It was only a matter of time before
Sawyer, or Sawyer's minion, Hobbs, found him sleeping on duty.
The captain was only looking for an excuse to -- Bush had no
desire to even think of the possible consequences.

"Mr. Wellard!"

"Sir." Wellard stared resolutely ahead.

"I was looking for Mr. Hornblower. "

"Not here, sir."

"I can see that, Mr. Wellard. " Was the boy being deliberately
obtuse? Where the devil was Hornblower? Risking death, it
appeared. "Mr. Wellard!"

For a second, Wellard looked at him, and then stared straight
ahead once more. The little bastard was covering for the Third
Lieutenant. Something untoward was indeed going on. Bush took
a moment to consider his next words. Poor Wellard had been
another to suffer the brunt of the Captain's displeasure; covering
for Hornblower's absence on the quarter-deck would not
increase his chances of finishing this voyage in good health.

"I admire your loyalty, Mr. Wellard. However, should the Captain
find you standing Mr. Hornblower's watch, he will not go easy on
you."

The boy did not reply.

Taking a deep breath, William continued. "I wish no harm to
either you or Mr. Hornblower. But Mr. Hornblower has been
assigned continuous watch and he has deserted his post. While it
is most admirable of you to take his place, I fear for both of you."

"Sir....."

"Mr. Wellard, where is Mr. Hornblower?"

Wellard now looked decidedly unhappy. But he seemed to have
made his decision. Perhaps the sting of the bosun's rattan still
lingered in his memory. "He's -- he's with the others, sir."

"With the others? Mr. Buckland, and Mr. Kennedy, you mean."

"Y-yes, sir."

"But not in the wardroom." Bush was now speaking more to
himself than to the frightened boy standing in front of him.
"Somewhere else then. Somewhere...." Somewhere hidden. They
had all felt the force of the Captain's tongue for daring to converse
together on the quarter-deck. Somewhere..... "Somewhere in the
hold perhaps...."

Aha! He could tell by the startled look on Wellard's face and the
slump of his shoulders that he had hit upon the truth. The others
were down in the hold.

"In the hold, then. But where in the hold, Mr. Wellard?"

"I -- I'm not sure, sir." Wellard was telling the truth, this time at
least.

But why -- of course, he might have thought of it before. Damn!
He'd not been included! The first rush of anger quickly subsided.
Of course he'd not been included. Despite some softening of their
attitude towards him -- due perhaps to his defense of Hornblower
in the matter of the wadding, or perhaps because he too had been
included in Sawyer's impossible order to report every hour on the
hour -- he was still the outsider.

Perhaps he should just relieve Wellard, pretend he knew nothing
of the goings-on deep down belowdecks. Not a prudent course
to take, were Sawyer to find him on watch, instead of Hornblower.
But a safer one than to be found with the others .....

"Mr. Wellard!"

"Yes, sir!" Wellard straightened up again.

"You had best have some kind of explanation ready, if someone
other than myself should ask about Mr. Hornblower.

"Yes, sir." The boy sounded vague.

"Perhaps you might mention a call of nature, or some such thing."

"Yes, sir."

"Very good, then. Carry on."

Bush turned to leave.

"Sir?" Wellard's voice sounded plaintive.

"Yes, Mr. Wellard?"

"May I inquire, sir -- why are you swaying?"

Swaying? What in Heaven's name did he mean? "You are
mistaken, Mr. Wellard. A trick of the light perhaps. Now stand
fast to your post."

"Yes, sir."

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

The men barely noticed his passage through their quarters, so far
gone with rum and revelry they were. Poor devils. Sawyer had no
need to search for excuses to issue that extra tot of rum so when
a valid reason existed, the grog flowed freely indeed. For the
most part, they were too stupid to realize that their very
drunkenness might do for them in the end, if the enemy attacked.
Hornblower had been right, as the two of them had endured the
agonizingly slow response of the gun crews against those two
French frigates. The point at issue was indeed the crew's sobriety,
or rather, lack of it.

"Sir!"

"Styles. Step aside if you please."

The big bosun's mate at least seemed sober. He loomed in the
flickering lamplight directly in Bush's path.

"This 'ere's not the wardroom ---- sir."

Damn the man's insolence. "

"Stand aside, Styles. "

"Do it, Styles, " a gruff voice came out of the gloom. Matthews.
The two of them -- Matthews and Styles -- had come to Renown
with Hornblower and Kennedy. And the loyalty remained. God --
he desperately wanted to share in that loyalty.

For a moment, Styles remained steadfast, and then he heeded the
words of his mate and stepped aside, but only partially, leaving
Bush to squirm past the other man. Then William was down the
ladder, and then down another, until he found himself in the
blackness and stinks of the hold. Now where?

Carefully he lifted his lantern and started to walk aft, stopping
every few feet attempting to catch any sounds not due to the
working of the ship or the skittering of rats. But it was smell, not
sound, that finally led him to the rest of the Renown's complement
of Lieutenants.

"I thought I might find you here, " he said, setting his lantern on a
cask, as three frightened faces stared out at him.

"Did you indeed!" Buckland said.

"The wardroom was deserted. I thought you might be up to
something." What was that smell! " I thought you might feel that
something had to be done."

"I'm not sure I follow you, Mr. Bush." Was he wrong then? But
what were they all doing here, cowering in the glow of his lamp?
And what the devil was that tantalizing smell?

"About the captain."

"What?"

"I thought you might feel that the Captain had been most unfair to
his officers."

"Mr. Bush...."

Well, no hope for it now. He had to continue, and if he were
wrong, then he'd look like a fool. "Just as I do. Imagine, having
his officers reporting every hour, and you, Mr. Hornblower, on
continuous watch. For Heaven's sake, it's Christmas!" That aroma
was driving him crazy.

"I think we are all of one mind here, Mr. Bush." Hornblower
finally spoke, and Bush said a silent little prayer of thanks that his
instincts had been right all along.

"I'd be very glad if you'd allow me to join you. But what the devil
do I smell!"

"Aha!" Hornblower said, and the three of them stood aside. A
plank had been laid across two casks, and a most generous
repast had been set out on it. The centrepiece, and the source of
that tantalizing aroma, was.... Good God, could it be....

"A chicken! Where did you manage to find a chicken? I
thought...."

"You can thank Styles for that, " Hornblower answered "I told
him to put it back but somehow he'd wrung its neck...."

"And it's the Captain's chicken, " Buckland added morosely.
"He'll break me. Twenty-two years I've held my commission...."

"So we're eating the evidence!" Kennedy said. "By the way, Mr.
Bush, would you please stop swaying."

Swaying? He wasn't swaying. But he couldn't take the time to
puzzle on Kennedy's words -- there was much more to explore
on this makeshift banqueting table.

"By God, millers! Why, I haven't et a miller since I was a
Midshipman!"

"You can thank Styles for those too, " Hornblower said. "He
always had a knack for catching rats. Not to my taste, though."

"And what's this! A Yule log ! "

"Styles carved it out of a piece of cheddar -- the damned thing
had been in the hold from the day Renown was commissioned,
hard as wood it was."

"We'll put it away -- save it for next year, " Kennedy said. "And
will you stop that damned swaying!"

"I'm not swaying!"

"You are, you know, " Hornblower agreed, "But never mind.
We've already started, Mr. Bush, so fill your plate. Why, we've
even managed to find some turnips!"

Styles, again, he supposed. That man had it in for him, and no
mistake. But be damned if he'd eat them.

"Have some punch, " Buckland said, filling his own glass."I'm not
usually a drinking man, but this punch is uncommonly good. "

"Wellard made the punch, " Hornblower explained, pressing a
mug into Bush's hand. He took a sip, and then a swallow, and
then a gulp. Buckland was right, it was uncommonly good.

"Poor Wellard, " he said. "Too bad he cannot share in our good
fortune."

"Yes, well, we thought it politic not to include him. Bad enough if
we are caught, but Wellard would have the life beaten out of him,
and no mistake, " Kennedy said, nibbling none too delicately on a
piece of evidence. "We'll make him up a plate for later."

"I am sure we are contravening at least one Article of War. "
Buckland sounded very gloomy indeed. "Perhaps several."

"Cheer up, Mr. Buckland, " Kennedy said. "Have some more
punch! You too, Mr. Bush! "

"A capital idea, Mr. Kennedy!" By God, the punch was
excellent. But suddenly a very sobering thought struck him. "By
the way -- are you -- are you exchanging gifts?" He'd brought
nothing.

"We drew names, " said Hornblower, "But I've been on
continuous watch and never found the time to shop."

"And I couldn't decide what to buy, " Buckland said.

"And I was too busy keeping Wellard's mind on his work, "
Kennedy added.

"So we all chipped in and bribed the cook into making us a nice
spotted dog, " Hornblower finished up. "Only mind the currants --
the gunner's been using them for shot."

"Mr. Hornblower, please stop swaying!" Damn! They all seemed
to be swaying!

"Oh dear!" Mr. Kennedy exclaimed. "I've forgotten the
mistletoe!"

"Archie!" Hornblower sent him a piercing look. "Think, man!
There are no ladies here."

"You're right, Horatio. Not even Spanish ladies!" Kennedy
giggled.

"Spanish ladies, " Buckland repeated glumly. "They'll be the death
of me, I just know it."

"Cheer up, Mr. Buckland. Our chance of meeting with Spanish
ladies is well-nigh impossible, so have another glass of punch."
Kennedy filled Buckland's glass, along with everyone else's. Bush
marveled that he could pour so precisely while he swayed so
damnably.

"Shush!" Hornblower gave a loud whisper. He doused the lantern,
and they all crouched down. Thump! There went poor Buckland.
In the shadowy passage outside their makeshift fortress of casks,
a light could be seen bobbing along. Well, swaying. It was
swaying too, but lanterns did that, didn't they?

"Sir!" Thank God it was Wellard. He swayed so much Bush felt
almost nauseous. The punch! It must be the punch!

"Mr. Wellard! "

"Yes, sir, I thought you should know...."

"Mr. Wellard, what did you put in our punch!"

"Really, Mr. Bush, you must know...."

"The punch, boy, the punch!"

"Hm. " Wellard stopped to think. "Water. Rum. A little lemon
juice. Oh, and laudanum. I've found it's done wonders for me and
I thought you might enjoy it too."

"Mr. Wellard!"

"Mr. Hornblower?"

"You had some news to impart to us?"

"Oh, yes! The captain, and Hobbs, and the men. They're
coming...."

The rest of the night was a bit of a blur. Bad enough finding your
way around down in the dark in the best of times, but with
everything swaying so.... But he was lucky and managed to reach
a more civilized part of the ship without falling down a ladder.
Which, as he later discovered, was exactly what Captain Sawyer
had done. Probably Wellard had made him some punch also.

But for now he was happy, whatever the present state of the
Captain's senses might be and whatever that might portend.
Nothing seemed to matter much for the moment. He'd Wellard's
punch to thank for that. Perhaps the boy could be induced to
whip up another batch for the wardroom. In the meantime he
settled back in his cot and nibbled alternately on a miller he'd
stuffed hastily in one pocket and a generous chunk of spotted dog
he'd stuffed in the other, and basked in the warm glow the
comradeship of his fellow officers had left him with.

Not a bad Christmas after all.