Moment of Truth - a sequel to "A Bit
by Kimberly Heggen
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Horatio poked his head around the cabin door, somewhat tentatively.
"Ah, Mr. Hornblower. Yes, come in." The captain set his pen down on the table. "You are completely recovered from your adventures of the other night, I trust?"
Puzzled, Horatio nodded. "The surgeon declared me fit for duty, two days past." Ten days of healing had done their work. He no longer wore the bandages that had draped his right arm and shoulder. The blisters, once extensive, had peeled off, leaving tender new pink skin in their place. The surgeon had been evasive about the prospect of scarring, and had given him a salve to rub into the raw areas on a nightly basis. The burns still gave him a twinge or two, but it had been an immense relief to return to his duties.
"I am aware that you have been standing watches, Mr. Hornblower." Pellew's voice was dry, hinting at sarcasm underneath. "I asked if you were completely recovered."
"Yes, sir." Horatio gulped.
"Excellent." Pellew picked up a piece of paper that had been lying in front of him. "I have here a note from Captain Foster. A request of sorts... a rather unusual one."
"Yes, sir?" Horatio tried to think rapidly. A letter from Captain Foster, Dreadnought Foster... that could be good news, in light of Horatio's recent heroism aboard the Spanish fire-ship, or it could be something horribly disastrous. He thought uncomfortably of his confrontation with Foster over the stolen beef, and of his own miserable performance during his lieutenant's exam. His stomach churned uneasily. "A request, sir?"
"It seems that the good Captain Foster is feeling somewhat short of officers these days." Pellew snorted. "He has one lieutenant down with a broken leg, and now his third lieutenant has disappeared."
"Disappeared, sir? How..." Horatio trailed off.
Pellew sighed. "Deserted, most likely... or dead in some back alley. Foster writes that he suspects... well, never mind that." He folded the letter, and dropped it back on his desk. "Foster has a replacement lieutenant coming out from England; he's already left and should be here in about two more weeks. The Dreadnought has been scraping by with just the first lieutenant and the sailing-master on watch-and-watch. Foster apparently doesn't have enough faith in his midshipmen to promote any of them to an acting lieutenancy." Pellew toyed with the letter, then looked up. "He wants me to loan you to him until the new man gets here."
"Me, sir?" Horatio knew that his face mirrored his surprise. "Sir... I was under the impression that Captain Foster did not think very highly of me."
Pellew snorted again. "Foster thinks highly only of himself. However, he seems more favorably disposed to you than you seem to think. You did, after all, save the man's life."
"Yes... but..." Horatio smile ruefully. "That was after he was witness to my rather poor and panicked showing on my exam."
"Nevertheless, he has requested you." Pellew narrowed his eyes, gazing keenly at Horatio. "Mind you, he has no particular authority over me to order your temporary transfer. I will not command you to go, Mr. Hornblower... but it is possible, that a couple of weeks' service on the Dreadnought could be beneficial to your career."
"It is... my decision, sir?"
"It is." Abruptly, Pellew stood up. "But if you would have my advice..."
Horatio swallowed. "Yes, please, sir." Once before, he had offended his captain by expressing a misplaced admiration for Captain Foster's dash and style. The memory still pained him. If he were to accept this assignment, he wished to assure himself that his captain would not be annoyed with him for doing so.
"I would advise you to go... but with a few words of warning. Foster is not the easiest man to serve under. He can be somewhat arbitrary, and you have seen what his temper can be like." Pellew paced to the porthole and gazed out. "Yet he certainly does not lack for courage, and he can be a generous man. If he should be a member of your next examining board, it might go better for you if he knew more of your mettle."
Horatio took a deep breath. "I would be foolish to ignore your advice, sir. I will go to the Dreadnought."
"Good. I will send a note back to Foster. Can you be ready to leave in the morning?"
"Of course, sir. But... you will manage without me? I do not wish to leave you short-handed, sir."
Pellew waved a hand. "We shall miss you, but I daresay we will manage." He looked intently at Horatio, and just for a moment the younger man saw the captain's expression soften slightly. "Be sure that you and Foster both understand that you are only on temporary loan. You've still much more to learn here before I am ready to turn you loose on the rest of His Majesty's Navy."
Horatio suppressed a grin. "Yes, sir. I understand, sir."
"And no one noticed he was missing until we were twelve hours out." Lieutenant Price took another long pull of his beer. "He was a quiet fellow, for the most part... none of us knew him too well. It never occurred to anyone that he hadn't returned when we upped anchor and headed out."
The Dreadnought's first lieutenant, after showing Horatio his cabin and the wardroom, had without prompting launched into the tale of Montgomery's disappearance. He told it with great relish; obviously the scandal of the third lieutenant's presumed desertion had filled the other officers with a mixture of delight and horror.
Horatio kept quiet, content for now to listen. It bothered him, though, to hear Price speak of the missing Montgomery in the past tense.
One of the others... ah, it was Hughes, the sailing master, sniggered appreciatively. "Tell him about the woman. And the letter."
"I'm getting there, man, I'm getting there. So... we went back of course, all the way to Algiers, with Hughes here complaining the whole time that we were wasting the best wind."
"We were. You remember what a hellish time we had leaving the harbor for the second time."
"Quiet." Price waved an irritated hand. "We searched the waterfront as best we could... nothing. And we couldn't stay long; the captain had been ordered to come straight back to Gibraltar in time to be one of the examiners for the latest hopefuls for the lieutenant's exams. So we looked, and then we gave up and left again. Next morning, the captain's getting dressed when his servant finds an envelope tucked in amongst the clean shirts."
Horatio nodded expectantly. "And?" he said, feeling as if some sort of response was called for.
"It was a letter from Montgomery, of course. Very polite and correct, from what I heard. Said that he'd met a girl there, and that he was very sorry but he was going to stay and marry her. He actually apologized for deserting, can you believe it?" Price tipped back his tankard to catch the last drops of beer. "Threw away his career, all his potential... over a girl he'd only known a few days. What an ass." He snickered. "At least we finally had proof that he was interested in women. Truth be told, some of us were starting to wonder." He elbowed Horatio in the ribs.
Horatio smiled thinly at the crude innuendo. "And he's not been heard from since?"
"Nothing. Foster was furious, of course... we thought he was going to die of apoplexy on the spot. We were already short-handed after that fool Roach fell down the companionway and broke his leg. Now the captain won't even mention Montgomery. If you want to get on his bad side, just be sure and say something innocent about our missing lieutenant."
"Hmm. I think not." Horatio rose from the table. "Thank you, gentlemen, for the tale, and for admitting me to your hospitality for the duration of my service here. Now... I believe I must take my leave, as I am on watch soon."
Horatio spent much of the next few days familiarizing himself with his division and his duties. In many ways, of course, life aboard one frigate was much the same as life aboard another; Horatio had no difficulty with the tasks assigned to him. But after a day or two, his mind began to make the inevitable comparisons between his old ship and his new one.
He tried to suppress such thoughts as counter-productive. He had been assigned to the Dreadnought by the request of a capricious and demanding captain; no doubt Foster would be filled with scorn if he knew that his temporary officer was feeling stirrings of homesickness for his old ship. He had a duty to perform, and afterwards, he would be able to go back to the Indy.
These musings troubled him only rarely while he was on duty, but struck with renewed vigor when he was off-watch. He had the second lieutenant's cabin aboard the Dreadnought, more comfortable and larger than his tiny cubicle aboard the Indefatigable, and he spent much of his off-duty time closeted there by himself. He read or studied or simply lay on his cot thinking, and the time alone only increased his gloom.
Aboard the Indefatigable, he had always spent much of his time on deck, even after his watches. The other watch-keeping officers of the Indy had been relaxed about this practice; Mr. Bracegirdle especially was as likely to ask his subordinate's advice as to casually breathe down his neck with good-natured guidance. Here, a different spirit prevailed, and an officer hanging about after his assigned watch was likely to be met not with conversation but with suspicion and scorn. Indeed, Lieutenant Price made a point of informing Horatio that each officer was to stand his watch alone and that idle conversation on the quarterdeck was not allowed.
Lieutenant Price's sour personality also permeated the wardroom, and Horatio found his meals there to be an unpleasant prospect. The first lieutenant was a sly, sneering fellow whose manner towards Horatio stopped just short of being blatantly insulting; the others took their cues from him. Innuendo and character assassination formed the typical subjects of conversation in the wardroom; anyone not present became fair game. Horatio wondered, not without a glimmer of bitter humor, just what the others said about him when he was not present. The fear of being the subject of malicious gossip was not in itself enough motivation for him to spend any time there than that necessary to eat his meals, and so he remained aloof and separate from the officers of the Dreadnought.
With a gradual sense of embarrassed self-enlightenment, Horatio realized that he also missed the men of his own division back aboard the Indy. He had grown fond of them, of their jokes and grins and mischief. He thought wistfully of Styles' cheekiness and Oldroyd's feckless good humor; most of all, he missed Matthews' gentle steadiness. He supposed that there must be men of equal quality here aboard the Dreadnought, but a couple of weeks would be too short a period in which to truly know who they were.
Captain Foster did not treat him badly. Horatio had no complaints on that score. The captain gave him his fair share of the duties, no more, nor did he appear to differentiate between his permanent officers and this very junior acting lieutenant that he had borrowed from another ship. Horatio was grateful for that, at least; he had half-anticipated that he would end up being the scapegoat for Foster's ill humor in lieu of the officer who had gone missing.
All the same, Horatio found Foster to be a difficult commander: brilliant, but vain and erratic. His decisions were often arbitrary, and he made snap judgments regarding situations and personnel. Once, Horatio had revered Foster as a great naval hero. That image had first become tarnished after the captain had blatantly stolen the sides of beef from the Caroline during the quarantine. Now, Horatio knew that he saw his former hero with a clearer vision.
He was honest enough to realize that he was not seeing Captain Foster at his best. This slow duty in the Mediterranean, with weeks between any kind of action, did not showcase a man of Foster's style to any advantage. He knew that Foster had no lack of physical courage, or of sheer audacity... but he was beginning to understand that being a captain required more than just bravery. The skills of planning, of training men, of making sure that all hands had just the right amount of work to do, of sensing the mood of a ship... these were perhaps more necessary in this kind of setting.
In the day, Horatio's doubts confined themselves to the condition of the ship and crew and to thoughts about Foster's command style; at night, other worries assailed him. Would his assignment aboard the Dreadnought end when the new officer arrived, or would Foster find a way to keep Horatio aboard permanently? Pellew's words back aboard the Indy were scant comfort. Foster had tremendous influence in the fleet; if he decided that Acting Lieutenant Hornblower fit the bill for his ship, he might very well put pressure on Pellew to let him stay longer and to eventually have him re-assigned. After all... there was one new officer on the way to replace the missing Lieutenant Montgomery, but the injured second lieutenant would be months in recovering from the leg injury.
Pellew, of course, was not without influence of his own... but would he object? Or would he consider this a further opportunity for his protege, an chance for Horatio to prove his worth under another captain?
Horatio had no answers to these and many other questions... and each day, his sense of quiet unease grew within him.
On the eighth day after his arrival on the Dreadnought, Horatio found himself summoned to Foster's cabin. When he arrived, Lieutenant Price and the captain of the marines were present as well.
Foster's manner was subtly different this morning; he seemed almost jubilant. "Good day, gentleman. Please take a seat. We've just received some rather interesting new."
Horatio felt a little shiver of apprehension. Something unusual must be happening, for Foster to have that hungry gleam in his eyes.
"As you know, we were privileged this morning to meet up with the Dolphin, and we received several weeks' worth of correspondence. Among that correspondence was a document for me, sent directly from His Majesty's consul in Algiers." Foster cleared his throat and looked briefly self-conscious. "He is, ah... my wife's second-cousin. He tells me, gentlemen, that he believes he has located our missing Lieutenant Montgomery."
Horatio's eyebrows shot up. So, the poor deserter if indeed he had deserted, which sounded increasingly likely if he had been seen alive had turned up at last. Despite the undoubted shamefulness of the crime of desertion, Horatio felt a little bit sorry for the mysterious Lieutenant Montgomery... especially in light of what would happen if Foster actually caught up with him.
"The consul has agents throughout the region. One of them, reporting back from Oran, brought back a tale of an Englishman appearing there rather suddenly with a native bride on his arm. The physical description, given in great detail, fits as well. It must be Montgomery."
Horatio swallowed. "Oran, sir? When... how old is this information?" Montgomery's desertion could not have occurred more than a week or so after Horatio's own narrow brush with the Black Plague in that very city. If the hapless deserter had now fled there, in full knowledge of the disease that could still be stalking its streets... he must indeed be a desperate man.
Foster waved a hand. "Only a week or so old. He's undoubtedly still there."
Lieutenant Price spoke up. "Sir... he's probably dead of the plague by now." The first lieutenant's face had gone pale, almost grey, at the mention of Oran.
"No... the consul said that the plague ran its course fairly quickly... at least in the better parts of town. Montgomery was alive and well two weeks ago, according to this. There's still disease in the slums and the waterfront, but that's probably business as usual for these heathen." Foster tapped the table with the empty envelope. "A small landing party should be able to find and arrest him without too much trouble."
Horatio looked at the captain in unconcealed amazement. His mouth worked for a few seconds before he spoke. "Sir... you want to order men to go ashore in a plague area?"
"Yes, Mr. Hornblower. I wish to do exactly that... if that is what it takes to catch a deserter." Foster's eyes glittered. "After they apprehend him, the party can march out of town and wait out their quarantine in some safe area before they come back."
The first lieutenant shot a nervous glance at Horatio. "Sir... they could all die," he ventured.
"There is always that risk," agreed Foster smoothly. "But that is a risk we take every day in this service. Choose the members of the landing party, Mr. Price. No topmen, though... no one particularly valuable. I want about fifteen to twenty of our lay-abouts and ne'er-do-wells. Best to have a safety margin, in case some of them do fall ill. And we'll have to send a squad of marines as well, or they'll all desert and we shall be looking for all of them in the filthy streets of Oran. See to that, Captain Brooks."
Foster looked from one strained and incredulous face to another. "That will be all, gentlemen. Dismissed."
Once outside the captain's cabin, Price blew out his breath in a series of soft curses. "And am I ever glad that I'm not going ashore," he finished finally.
Horatio shook his head glumly. "But, for those poor devils who are... what a fate could await them."
"You heard the captain." Price's voice held an arrogance which seemed strangely incongruent given his still-shaken facial expression. "We all risk death in this service every day."
"Aye... the quick death in battle, or drowning. But disease... to die of the plague, for no better cause than to apprehend a man for trial who may already be dead... it seems monstrous to ask this of the men."
"Those are our orders, Mr. Hornblower. I intend to follow them."
"But, surely the captain "
"The captain will not wish for us to argue over his orders. Go about your duties, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio's misery deepened during the short voyage to Oran. Foster made no announcement of their destination of mission to the crew. Presumably, Price had selected the unfortunate members of the landing party, but Horatio saw no evidence that any amongst the sailors were particularly worried. He suspected that none of those chosen had been given any information, not even the fact that they were to participate in the ship's mission ashore.
So, the crew remained oblivious; only Horatio suffered... feeling somehow like a Judas for his knowledge of what lay ahead. Price said nothing more to him about the upcoming expedition, and neither did Foster. The captain, in fact, became extraordinarily reclusive; Horatio saw almost nothing of him. He wondered, sourly, if the captain was avoiding him in order to reduce the chance that Horatio might talk him out of this ill-advised venture.
Horatio had just finished his watch, and, contrary to usual protocol, was lingering on the quarterdeck, when the Dreadnought dropped anchor in the calm waters off of Oran. He felt his gut knot with apprehension and sympathy as the crew, idly curious as ever, pointed and waved at the Moorish architecture visible even from this distance. He could see Lieutenant Price moving about on deck, a squad of Marines at his back, stopping every few minutes to speak with a sailor. Horatio's heart sank as he watched the first lieutenant round up the members of the landing party.
The men still had no real idea of their whereabouts, Horatio knew. The murmurs that ran around the deck were merely interested and excited, not afraid. Those who were being notified that they would be going ashore looked especially alert and curious, no doubt having visions of camels and date palms and exotic, sloe-eyed women to be glimpsed.
From his vantage point on the windward side of the quarterdeck, he saw the captain climb up and lean over the rail to face the men milling about below.
"Men of the Dreadnought!" he shouted. "A chosen few of you will be getting into the boats in but a few minutes, to undertake a mission of the utmost importance!"
Horatio snorted silently to himself. Important to Foster, perhaps... but it was doubtful that anyone else on board cared greatly whether Montgomery was ever found.
"You go ashore to capture one who has betrayed his ship, his King and his country, by the foul act of desertion. Your former third lieutenant, Montgomery, hides somewhere in this city. Bring him back to stand trial as he so richly deserves."
A few hoots and catcalls from the men, coupled with many leering grins. Horatio frowned. To speak so poorly of an officer, even a disgraced deserter, in front of the men he had commanded... it was badly done. Too much of this, and the men would take Foster's attitude as tacit permission to mistreat their prisoner if they should live long enough to capture him.
"Search thoroughly, but cause no incidents with the heathen. We are not at war with the people of Oran; they will likely give you all cooperation."
Watching the sailors carefully as he was, Horatio saw a few faces blanch and flinch when the captain finally said the name of the city that gleamed at them over the waves. A low murmur arose from the men, imperceptible at first, then gradually growing strength as their faces began to mirror their horror.
Finally someone Horatio couldn't see who shouted out the words.
"There's plague in that city! The bloody Black Death!"
Foster seemed unsurprised by the change in mood. "Plague or no," he roared, "you are going! Mr. Price, Captain Brooks, you will supervise the lowering and loading of the boats! Now!"
Pandemonium ensued. Some of the men panicked and ran, although the crowded deck afforded them only a few steps in any direction. Others sank to their knees, their eyes wide with fear and revulsion. Several ran to the rail as if to jump overboard, but stopped short of actually doing so. The marines looked about them uncertainly, half-heartedly trying to restore order, but most of them looked almost as frightened as the men.
Once again, Foster's bellow cut across the confusion. "Silence!! You men... into the boats! Now!"
Horatio swallowed nervously, and dared to sidle up next to the captain. "Sir," he began in a low voice, "the men are terrified. Look at them."
Foster turned on him. "When I want your opinion, Mr. Hornblower, I will ask for it."
"Yes, sir. But..."
"But what, Mr. Hornblower?"
Horatio watched the scene below for a few more seconds. The captain's shout had not produced any results. Some of the men were now even fleeing below, despite the pursuing marines. Surely that was an utterly vain effort, as no one could hide for long aboard ship.
"I think that if you continue to try to force these men to go ashore right now, now that all they are thinking about is the Black Plague... you will have to shoot them. They will not get into those boats."
Foster glowered at him for a moment. "Then I will just have to convince them that are worse fates than plague... indeed, there are worse fates than to be shot for disobeying orders."
Horatio watched his commanding officer somewhat uneasily as the boats made the short trip to the sun-baked beach. Foster's visage was unreadable and grim; his hands were clenched into fists with so much force that the knuckles gleamed whitely.
After the disastrous trip to Oran, Foster had rescinded his orders to send a landing party ashore. It had taken the marines some time to restore order on deck, even after that announcement. The men had been relieved when the Dreadnought headed eastward down the coast, away from the plague-ridden city... but Horatio's worry had only grown. They had stopped at the first likely-looking deserted bay and dropped anchor. This time, when Foster had ordered the same men and marines into the boats, they had been puzzled but had complied. They were too far to be attempting any sort of overland trip to Oran, in this desert heat with no supplies; what was the captain planning?
The boat ran aground with a solid crunch, and Captain Foster rose. He addressed the captain of the marines. "Get them all out, and up to that small rise over there." The marine officer saluted and moved away.
"Come with me, Mr. Hornblower." Foster pointed to a small clump of scraggly palms. "We will stand over there. I hope that this... demonstration will proved educational to you."
Horatio worked hard to keep his face neutral and impassive as he followed Captain Foster to the patchy shade provided by the trees. His mind, belying the blankness of his facial expression, worked furiously.
Was the captain somehow going to have the men flogged out here, away from the ship? But no, there had been no cat o' nine tails or other whips stowed in the boats. There had only been the eighteen seamen and the squad of marines, and the Captain and himself. The marines were armed, of course...
Horatio's stomach turned over as he watched the marines prod the sailors into a loose group on the little rise of ground. The captain wasn't... he wasn't simply going to have the men shot, was he? Eighteen more-or-less trained sailors, shot in secret on a beach, for what had been... not exactly disobedience, but an inability to follow an order due to utter terror? What was Foster planning to tell the rest of the crew when he returned with eighteen corpses?
It made no sense. Foster could of course have all of the men punished severely, up to and including death... but flogging would be far more typical in an instance like this. And if this was some kind of secret execution, why had Horatio been brought along? Horatio had been nothing but outwardly obedient since coming aboard, yet Foster had to know that his substitute officer's true loyalty was to his own ship, his own captain. Had he been brought here to give his implicit consent to some hellish act? To ensure his silence later?
Horatio felt a shiver of apprehension snake down his spine as Captain Foster stepped forward to address his men.
"So: you are afraid to go to Oran, where your captain commands you to go?" His voice had that same icy sarcasm that Horatio remembered so well from his abortive lieutenant's examination. The captain did not shout, but his words carried nonetheless.
The men shifted uneasily and looked at each other; no one spoke. Horatio stole a glance at Captain Brooks of the marines; the man's face looked pale and ill. Clearly, Horatio wasn't the only one who was feeling uncomfortable with the proceedings.
"As you well know, I could order all of you to be flogged. But that would perhaps disable all of you for days, without getting me any closer to recovering Lieutenant Montgomery from whatever bolt hole he has gone to."
This sounded much more hopeful to Horatio. If Foster didn't want to flog the men, he was also unlikely to simply order them shot out of hand either.
"No, I prefer that you follow my orders willingly. And of course, once you realize the alternatives, I am sure that you will have no difficulty whatsoever." He paused for a few moments. "You will all strip. Immediately. Captain Brooks, you and your men will see that my order is carried out."
Brooks swallowed. "Aye aye, sir."
Horatio watched, stunned, as the marines took up positions around the sailors, muskets in hand. The seamen glanced at each others, then slowly they began to remove their clothing. Soon, the tableau had changed to a clump of sweating, pink, naked sailors, surrounded by a circle of six nervous marines. Looking at them, Horatio felt sick. The temperature even under the palm trees was sweltering, and he at least had a hat to protect his head and clothing to block the sun's punishing rays. These men had neither.
He squinted out at the burning sands. Ninety, one hundred degrees out there? They would become ill from the heat in short order. Their skin, even after months of service in the sunny Mediterranean, would burn horribly. If nothing happened to block this impasse, they could all very well die within hours.
He turned to the captain and swallowed whatever dignity still remained to him. "Sir... Captain Foster... I beg you. Do not do this to your own men."
Foster eyed him with obvious disgust. "I see that you've been too long under Pellew. You're as soft as he is."
"Sir... surely there is some alternative to this."
Foster folded his arms. "There is. They can choose to obey their lawfully given orders. I won't even note their insubordination in their records if that happens." He raised his voice with this last comment.
Horatio felt himself flush, only partly from the heat. He kept his voice low. The pitch did not entirely disguise the tremble in his next words. "Sir, please. This... this is inhumane." He swallowed. "They are so afraid of catching the plague, sir, that I believe that they will die out here rather than risk it."
Foster dismissed this argument with a curt flip of his hand. "Then they are cowards, and the service is better off without them."
Horatio could only stare at this answer, his shock at his commanding officer's cool callousness showing plainly on his face. He tore his gaze back to the seamen, still broiling in the sun. Sweat ran off them in rivulets. Some of them were beginning to redden already, their backs and torsos rarely if ever completely exposed to sunlight.
Which action took more raw courage? To face possible death, in a town known to have the plague as of several weeks ago? Or to accept a certain demise by allowing oneself to be baked to death? Horatio could see open fear on the men's faces, yet none moved to run or even to beg for mercy.
In a sudden burst of clarity, he knew where his duty lay. Had the man standing at his side been Captain Pellew, he could have been sure of the results his next actions would produce. But the comparison was useless; Pellew would never discipline his men in this manner. Pellew would never have order this ill-conceived mission in the first place. Horatio looked again at Foster.
"Sir... you will not relent?" The question was almost a whisper.
"Not until those men decide to follow orders. I will not."
Horatio's heart pounded. "Then... sir, I have no choice." He took a deep breath. "Forgive my insubordination, sir, but..."
With that, he walked out from under the shade of the palm trees, under the cruel white sun. The marines shot puzzled looks at him, and he imagined that he could feel Foster's eyes boring into his back. He ignored them, and took up a position in the very front of the sunburned men. He took another deep breath, to steady himself, and began to undress.
First the hat and topcoat, and a brief sense of coolness as he removed the heavy wool from his already overheated body. That part was easy. Next, he bent to remove his shoes and stockings. He winced as his bare feet encountered the hot sand.
Any moment, he expected to hear Foster bellow at him, to give him a direct order to desist. But no such order came. He avoided looking over at the clump of trees, and continued to undress quickly and matter-of-factly. All too soon, he was nude, standing next to the pitiful little heap of his clothing. He straightened up, and tried to stand calmly erect. Only then did he allow his eyes to seek out Foster's face.
The captain stared back at him, obviously stunned by his actions. Well, that was better than if he were red-faced and shouting with anger. Horatio saw Foster's gaze drift down the length of his bare right arm... and freeze. Reflexively, Horatio turned his head and glanced down at his arm as well.
The partially-healed burns shone redly back at him, rufous blotches on his otherwise white skin. One particularly large patch covered the back of his upper arm and extended across his shoulder. Others ran down the length of his arm, tracing the flames' scorching path. He shuddered slightly in memory of that pain.
As the burns no longer hurt him, he'd temporarily forgotten about them. He'd also forgotten to consider the circumstances under which he acquired them. The scene came flooding back to him: flames and splintering wood and the blessed cold of the black water. And Foster's voice, partly grudging and partly admiring: "It seems I owe you my life."
Would it make the difference? Could even Foster, apparently oblivious to the poor ratings behind Horatio, ignore this gesture? Would he allow the young man who'd saved his life to die of heatstroke and sunburn rather than back down? Perhaps more significantly, was Foster ready to reckon with Pellew's rage if such a travesty did occur?
Now, sweat had begun to trickle down his back, between his shoulder blades. More perspiration dripped from his forehead. As for his skin... an officer had even less opportunity to expose his body to the sun; while Horatio's face was tanned, his torso remained milky white. He imagined that he could already feel the skin reddening, beginning to blister.
Behind him, he heard an odd sound, a sort of thump. He turned his head. One of the men had fainted, collapsing headlong into the sand. If he were not removed from the heat and given shade and water, death would surely follow soon. The other sailors glanced at each other nervously, and Horatio knew that they were thinking the same thing.
When the shout came, Horatio jumped.
Horatio ran his tongue over his cracked dry lips before he answered. "Yes, sir?" His voice came out in a hoarse croak.
"Pick up your clothes and come back over here. I wish to speak with you."
He wavered for a moment, but there seemed no point in refusing the surprisingly polite order. He bent to retrieved his clothing and shoes, and with a dignity more pretense than reality walked slowly over to the palm trees.
Foster said nothing at first, but grabbed his bare right arm and stared hard at it. "Those are... burns," he said at last. "Burns that are about two, three weeks old... am I not right, Mr. Hornblower?"
"Yes, sir." He fought to keep his voice level, his face carefully blank.
"You were burned that night. Rather badly."
"I was burned, yes, sir. But it is nearly healed."
Foster's eyes met his, unreadable as ever. Then he let out an abrupt, exasperated sigh.
"Well, I suppose it's a fair trade. The life of one senior captain... for eighteen ratings."
Horatio's head swam. "Sir?"
"Mr. Hornblower. Get dressed. Then go back out and dismiss the men." Now Foster looked away. "They may get dressed, and drink from the canteens."
Horatio closed his eyes briefly in relief. "Thank you, sir."
"This is not yet finished, Mr. Hornblower." Foster's voice grew quiet and dangerous again. "Your behavior verges on insubordination. But... a debt is a debt. Go on, go tell them."
Foster said nothing at all on the trip back to the Dreadnought. Horatio cast uneasy glances at the captain from time to time. He wondered what sort of punishment would await him back aboard the ship. Consequences of some kind seemed inevitable; what captain would be able to ignore such behavior from a mere acting lieutenant? Horatio's ploy had perhaps saved the lives of many men, yet it would most probably mean the death of his career.
What other choice had he had? He had known, with a flash of prescience that he had not really understood at the time, that Foster's madness had its limits. The man might view mere sailors and even marines as expendable, but he had shied away from allowing an officer even one who had not yet earned his formal commission to sacrifice himself to certain death in such a manner. It had been the only solution to the impasse, and Horatio told himself that if he somehow had the chance to live that last hour again he would make the same choice. Even now that he was in disgrace, now that he would undoubtedly grow to be the oldest midshipman in the history of the Royal Naval, he knew he could not have done otherwise. Of what good were glory and promotions, if he bought them with the blood and pain of others?
He comforted himself with the thought that Foster would probably send him back to the Indefatigable as quickly as possible. At least he would be home again soon, surrounded by men whose honor he could trust, back under the command of a rational captain.
He shook himself from his reverie as it came time to board the Dreadnought. As protocol dictated, he was the second-to-last man out of the boat. As he pulled himself onto the deck, he was surprised to see the sailors from the beach encounter gathered together in a clump near the hand-ropes.
They were smiling at him. All of them.
No words were exchanged the bosun's pipes were now trilling as Captain Foster now climbed aboard but Horatio was astonished by the depth of emotion he read in those sunburned faces. Gratitude and amazement, and something else. Something that he had grown used to seeing on the faces of his men back aboard the Indy, but had missed since his arrival on the Dreadnought.
A couple of them clapped him silently on the arms as he walked by. He winced as they made contact with his now-smarting sunburn, and wondered how they were all managing to stay on their feet after their ordeal in the sun. He himself felt as weak as a kitten, wrung out both from the physical strain and from the nervous aftermath of his decision.
"Mr. Hornblower!" Foster's shout rang down from the quarterdeck. The captain had already scrambled past him and up to his usual position. "Mr. Hornblower... report to the surgeon, then to my cabin. Immediately."
"Aye aye, sir." Horatio swallowed nervously. The surgeon? Foster must be referring to his sunburn... but surely the men were in worst shape than he. They had been exposed longer to the sun. But they had been drinking water, guzzling great amounts on the trip back; Horatio had been too nervous to slake his terrific thirst in front of his brooding captain. His vision was starting to swim a little with fatigue and dizziness. Perhaps it would be a good idea to visit the surgeon... He clung to the rail as a sudden wave of lightheadedness hit him.
"Let me help you, sir." It was one of the marines, one of the six who'd been forced to stand guard down there on the beach. "Sir... you look as though you'd better sit down for a moment."
Horatio, his legs suddenly rubbery, allowed himself to be lowered to a sitting position on the deck. "Thank you," he said rather breathlessly. "Umm... would you happen to have any water with you?"
The marine started to hand a canteen toward him... but Horatio felt himself somehow unable to reach it. He was sliding back, slipping into darkness, as a roaring filled his ears.
"Ah... you're with us again, are you, sir?"
Horatio opened his eyes, saw only darkness at first. Gradually, he realized that something was on his face... a wet cloth, it felt like. Weakly, he reached up to try to remove it, and felt a firm hand pushing his away.
"Just leave that alone for a moment, sir. It's doing you some good. Now... try and swallow some of this."
A tankard was held to his lips, and he sucked greedily at the cool water. He tried to drink too fast, and ended up coughing and spluttering and spilling half of it.
"Slow down, slow down... or we'll have you drowning yourself." The cup moved away. Horatio tried to sit up, but felt the hand pushing him back down.
"Where do you think you're going?"
Horatio thought about this. "I am supposed to report to the captain."
"He's here. You can talk to him in a moment. Now... drink some more water. Carefully, this time."
He felt his face color as the surgeon it must be the surgeon held the tankard up again for him. Captain Foster was here in the sickbay? Then he must have seen Horatio fainting on the deck. Bad enough that he was an insubordinate officer, he had to go and compound his sins by passing out in front of the entire crew. A groan escaped him.
"You're in pretty bad shape, laddie... excuse me, Mr. Hornblower, I should say. That's a pretty fierce sunburn you've got. You're going to be mighty sore tomorrow."
Horatio made another attempt at removing the cloth on his eyes; this time, nobody stopped him. He gulped at the formidable sight of Captain Foster, seated silently across the room. "Captain Foster," he stammered, feeling foolish and saying the first thing that came into his head. "I am sorry to be the cause of so much trouble."
Foster snorted. "A fine thing... when an officer in His Majesty's Navy allows himself to be overcome by the heat. You've got my men worried about you, boy. Never seen the hands get so worked up about anyone." He looked over at the surgeon, and Horatio thought he saw an exchange of glances. The surgeon, a balding and rather frail man, set the tankard and the cloth down on a nearby table and left the sickbay silently. He closed the door behind him, leaving Horatio alone with the captain.
"Mr. Hornblower." Foster folded his arms and looked directly at him. "Your behavior was, technically, grossly insubordinate. You defied me in front of my men, and interfered publicly with a matter of ship's discipline."
"Yes, sir." Horatio's tongue suddenly felt large and clumsy. "I am sorry, sir."
"If you had not done what you did... if you had not defied me by offering yourself as a sacrificial lamb, what do you think would have happened?" Foster leaned forward.
"I... do not know, sir."
"Dammit, man, don't lie there and give me mealy-mouthed answers!! What would have happened?"
Horatio took a deep breath. "They would have died, sir. At least some of them, maybe all of them." He closed his eyes, unable to watch Foster's next angry outburst.
"Exactly." The captain paused, and his voice grew quieter. "They would have died, and I would have been responsible. So... in a sense, Mr. Hornblower, I should be glad that you intervened. And... perhaps I am."
Horatio's eyelids flew open. "You are, sir?"
Foster looked away, his expression unreadable. "I took a position, and a captain should not back down from his positions, his decisions. Too much of that, and he becomes weak. But what you did..." He stood up. "You changed the equation, added a new variable. Now... my men think I changed my mind because I did not want to see you injured... you, Pellew's favorite and the man who saved my life. They are still properly afraid of me, and are sure that you are the only barrier that stands between them and certain death." The corner of Foster's mouth actually quirked upward in a smile.
Horatio let his head fall back onto the bunk, relief flooding through him. Perhaps, just perhaps, his career was going to survive this episode after all. "Does this mean, sir, that you will not search for Montgomery?"
"I will not send the men to Oran at this time, if that is what you mean. However... if you run across him in your travels, I expect you to send me word." Foster moved to the door. "Oh... as soon as we return to Gibraltar, I will be sending you back to the Indefatigable. You are a good officer, Mr. Hornblower, but you are altogether too dangerous an influence upon my crew. The tale of your stand on the beach is already spreading around the ship; you will be a legend by the time we return."
"Sorry, sir." Horatio kept his face straight, unsure as to whether or not Foster was actually jesting.
"I shall promote young Dickinson to an acting-lieutenancy in your place. He's a stupid boy, but he has no initiative and no imagination and will do exactly what I tell him to do. You are not really fit for duty right now anyway." He shook his head.
"Mr. Hornblower... I do not know whether I should be envious of Sir Edward, having you as an officer... or whether I should feel sorry for him."
Now Horatio let himself smile, feeling somewhat giddy. "A little of both, I think, sir."
The Dreadnought signaled to the Indefatigable as soon as she dropped anchor in Gibraltar. Horatio, waiting on the quarterdeck, was gratified to see a boat coming over from his old ship his home! -- within twenty minutes. As the boat got closer, he could see familiar faces at the oars. The men of his own division had clearly claimed the privilege of ferrying him back.
He turned to shake hands with Captain Foster. "Thank you, sir, for the opportunity to serve with you, if only for a short period."
"Good luck, Mr. Hornblower." He handed him a sealed envelope. "Give this to your captain as soon as you can."
Horatio tucked the envelope into his coat. "I will, sir."
"And give him my thanks." He looked narrowly at Horatio. "I fancy I'll be hearing more about you before long, Mr. Hornblower. Make sure that it's good news."
"I will do my best, sir."
He climbed hastily down into the waiting boat. When he stumbled slightly, strong hands reached up to steady him. He turned, and saw a blessedly familiar pock-marked face.
"Thank you, Styles. I'm a bit wobbly today."
The large man was grinning. "Did you miss us, sir?"
Horatio sighed. "Styles... you have no idea."
"Ah, Mr. Hornblower. Have a seat, man, have a seat."
Horatio lowered himself carefully into the chair at Pellew's gesture. His sunburn still stung him, especially in some rather personal places, and the skin was just beginning to itch abominably. The surgeon had given him a jar of ointment to apply to the worst parts, but it didn't help much. His face had already peeled, and had returned to its normal shade.
The trip from the Dreadnought back to the Indefatigable, in the boat rowed by Matthews and Styles and the rest of them, had been oddly reminiscent of his first arrival on the Indy. He remembered how he had felt that day: numb with the chill wind of the Channel in winter, and depressed and heartsick in the wake of Clayton's death. He had been leaving one hellish existence, and unsure that he would not find a worse one aboard the Indy. Today... while he and Foster had parted courteously, the last couple of days had been a bit strained. The closer the boat got to the Indy, the more he had felt his tightly-wound tension unwind. Now, unlike that winter day, he knew what sort of ship and captain awaited him.
"So... you are back a few days earlier than we expected." Pellew poured him a glass of wine. "I suppose Foster's replacement officer has arrived early?"
Horatio cleared his throat. "Not... exactly, sir. To be honest, I supposed I have been sent back early as being... unsatisfactory." He reached into his coat, and pulled out the envelope. He handed it to Pellew. "This is from Captain Foster. It will probably explain everything."
"Hmm." Pellew took the envelope, opened it, and began to read the enclosed letter. Horatio reached up and surreptitiously tugged at his neckcloth, trying to lift it away from the worst part of his sunburn. He also took the opportunity to discreetly scratch his back against the chair. It seemed to be an awfully long letter, or else Pellew was reading it twice.
Finally, the captain laid the rustling parchment on the table. "Well, you certainly made an impression on Captain Foster."
"I was afraid of that, sir."
"He writes that he finds you defiant and dangerously insubordinate, and accuses you of attempting to steal the loyalty of his men."
"Oh." Horatio swallowed. "He... is correct, sir. By his standards."
"He also writes that you risked your own life and career to save eighteen of his men from a horrible death, and that he has never seen a young officer with so much personal integrity, or known one who behaved so honorably under such trying conditions." Pellew cleared his throat. "He also apologizes to me for returning you in a damaged state. What does he mean by that, Mr. Hornblower? Were you wounded?"
"He does not elaborate for you?"
"He does not. Am I going to be permitted to know the story?" The captain's voice was slightly sarcastic.
"Sir... I'm not sure it is my right to tell this particular tale." Surely Foster would not be anxious to have it spread around the gossiping fleet. If the story emerged, better it be from the Dreadnought.
"Hmm. You're as closemouthed as always, boy." He looked searchingly at Horatio. "You are well, though? Not injured?"
"I am well enough, sir. Now that I am home."
"Still, you look a bit drained." Pellew lifted the decanter, refilled Horatio's glass. "Didn't they let you out in the sun at all?"