Horatio and the Great Mouse-Hunting Expedition
by Wendy Snow-Lang
"Mr. Hornblower! Bear witness to me, if you please!"
Captain Sir Edward Pellew, KB, commander of HMS Frigate Indefatigable,
sat behind his darkly polished mahogany desk and brandished a
parchment rife with holes and chew marks. "Bloody vermin!
The ship is overrun with mice, Mr. Hornblower!" Pellew
stood and stepped from behind the desk.
Hornblower, taller than Pellew by several inches, looked down at his commanding officer. Pellew's face reddened. From anger, Hornblower knew instinctively.
"I have served on many vessels in my day, Mr. Hornblower," Pellew continued. "And I have never witnessed an infestation as bad as this! Ships always have their share of vermin. Of rats and cockroaches, mice and bedbugs, but this! One of the buggers ran across my breakfast table this morning as I was eating! The brashness of the creatures! The audacity!"
Hornblower, his brown eyes wide, cleared his throat. "Yes, sir. The audacity, sir."
Pellew waved the chewed parchment under Hornblower's nose. "I want them dealt with, Mr. Hornblower! Before we leave Portsmouth!"
Hornblower straightened. "Aye, aye, sir!"
"We have a problem in the hold, Mr. Matthews." Hornblower crossed his arms in front of him. He ran his gaze up and down Matthews' slim form. Gunner Matthews fidgeted. They stood outside the midshipman's noisy berth and Hornblower had to speak loudly to be heard over the noise emanating from within the lath walls of the berth. He continued. "This ship is sorely infested, Mr. Matthews. Mice are nesting in the sailcloth stores and ruining the canvas! They are eating us out of house and home!" He exhaled, letting his exasperation show. "I want your division to patrol in the hold. I want them armed with belaying pins. Clubs. Anything that will dispatch a mouse!" He pointed a long finger at Matthews. "Captain's orders! We must contain this mouse infestation!"
In fifteen minutes time, Matthews had assembled the men from Hornblower's division. Styles, tall, pock-faced, attitudinal; Finch, hatchet-nosed and dim-witted; Oldroyd, young, fresh-faced and puppy-dogged to Styles every move.
And Bunting. Bunting, bullish in form and attitude. He had volunteered.
Hornblower scowled. Bunting had always been a problem to Hornblower, surly and uncooperative. Why would he volunteer for such a duty as killing mice? Killing. Yes, that was it. Bunting would probably enjoy killing small, helpless things. Hornblower of a sudden felt bad for the mice. That grown men would soon be chasing them about and mercilessly squashing them!
The men brandished belaying pins and shovels.
Hornblower scowled at the shovels.
Matthews raised his spade. "Easier t' hit 'em, sur! Makes fer a right, nice mouse weapon1"
A corner of Hornblower's lips curled up. "Of course, Mr. Matthews. Good thinking." He nodded at the gathered men. "Let us below, gentlemen."
Once the group reached the orlop platforms, Hornblower called them into the circle of his lantern light. "Now then," he said. "We are here, silly as it may seem, to kill mice."
They gawked and grinned.
Yes, indeed! This was going to be fun, thought Hornblower. The poor mice! No, mustn't think that way. Mustn't sympathise with the prey. He had his duty to perform.
He moved the lantern across the barrel-crammed space. "Here there be mice!" he stated.
And received a wash of snickers from the men.
He lowered the light, exhaled. "Very well. We must spread out some bait-oh, I don't know-crumbled biscuit, I suppose. Then we wait." He raised the lantern so that he could look at each man in turn. "Ready?"
He covered the lantern.
Uncomfortable coughs and shufflings sounded in the dark. Hornblower shushed them. "Be very, very quiet! We are hunting mice! They have extremely keen hearing!" he admonished.
They waited again. But not long.
Scratching, scritching noises sounded near the bait.
Hornblower waited a bit more, then whisked the cover from the lantern. He gasped. Dozens of mice scrambled over one another to get at the biscuit!
"Have at them, men!" Hornblower bellowed.
The men surged forward. Clubs and shovels swung and struck. Hornblower's lantern threw a grim tableau of silhouettes on the bulkhead before them. Mice squealed and squeaked and died. The men pounded a dozen mice to flatness before the rest escaped between barrels or into holes in the bulkhead.
"Mr. Matthews, keep a count, if you please," Hornblower ordered.
"Aye, aye, sur." Matthews bent to the carnage. "Twelve o' 'em, sur! No' bad, sur!"
Hornblower scowled, then smiled. "Take their tails as a count and for trophies of our hunt." His heart was warmed by the responsive laughter that rose from the men.
"Let's find more, sur!" cried Oldroyd.
"We cin make necklaces wif dere tails! Display 'em right proud!" suggested Styles.
"De mices 'ould make a fine soup!" grinned Finch.
Styles laughed. "Mouse soup! Finch, yer nuts! They's too small, man! Jus' fur an' bones!"
Finch licked his thin lips. "Rats is good, too. I like to crunch dere skulls atween me teeth!"
Hornblower's face twisted into an expression of utter disgust. "Enough of that talk, Finch! Keep just the tails, Mr. Matthews. Gather the bodies up in a bag and throw them over the side when we're done!" He hefted his own belaying pin weapon. "Let us to the next storeroom. We'll chase them from one end of the ship to the other, where there'll be no place left for them to hide!"
"'Ere! Watch wot yer doin' there, man! Y' nearly took me 'ead off wid 'at shovel!" Styles shouted.
"Iffin' y' wasn't in th' way, I'da no' missed!" Bunting shot back.
Styles stepped in front of Bunting, blocking his way. "Y' sayin' y' aimed at me 'ead?"
Bunting puffed out his barrel chest, pushed against Styles' bulk. "Y'da knowed it iffin' I did!"
Hornblower rushed to them, his lantern held high. "That will be enough of that, gentlemen!"
The two men continued to glare at each other.
Hornblower regarded them. Bunting moved stiffly because of the lash marks on his back, healing from the punishment he'd received a week ago for drunkenness, but still fresh. Did he wish more? Styles was an old navy dog and should know better than to start a fight, especially in front of an officer. Unless he didn't care. And Hornblower realized he probably didn't, given his record of surliness.
"Stand down, both of you!" Hornblower tried again. "I should not have to repeat an order! Mr. Bunting! You are the point man! Mr. Styles, you bring up the rear! To the next storeroom, if you please!"
Styles was the first to back down. He shot a look at Hornblower that told him he hadn't given in to Bunting, but was merely obeying an order.
Bunting smiled at Hornblower. Smiled!
"Mr. Finch! Pick yourself up, if you please!" Hornblower put one fist on his hip, his other hand holding the lantern high.
Finch rolled uncoordinatedly about on the deck, struggled his way to his feet. He brushed off his slop trousers. "Sorry, sur. Slipped on a dead un, sur."
Hornblower smirked. "Have you hurt yourself, man?"
"Just me pride, sur."
"That's a new way to dispatch mice, Mr. Finch. Falling on them!" Hornblower's smirk curled into a smile.
The others laughed and Finch reddened but smiled as well.
"Mr. Matthews. Retrieve that tail and make sure to give it to Mr. Finch as his own keepsake." Hornblower winked at Finch and he saw the subtle change in Finch's smile.
He had won Finch over. Now for the rest of them. The little expedition had not been mounted for that purpose, but it was working to soften the men to him. They were listening to his orders. They were responding to him as an officer, not as a seventeen-year-old boy. They did what he told them to do.
"Over 'ere, sur!" Hornblower recognized Bunting's voice.
He rushed to the next storeroom, the others in tow. Bunting stood in the centre of the small room crammed with little casks labelled "cheese."
Just what the doctor ordered as far as mice were concerned!
Bunting had lighted a lantern from the corridor outside the storeroom, held it high. He pointed to a barrel illuminated by the light. Hornblower crouched to inspect it. A hole had been chewed right through the oak slats. Cheese crumbs marked a trail leading from the cask to a similar hole in the bulkhead.
Hornblower straightened and sighed. "'Tis a wonder the ship doesn't sink from all the holes these mice have put into her."
Bunting nodded. "Dey's persistent, sur." He gestured to other casks. "Dere's more o' 'em bin damaged."
"No wonder they are overrunning the ship. They've had plenty of provisions." Hornblower scowled. "What shall we do, Mr. Bunting, to control them? Shall we poison the bait somehow?" He pulled at his lip.
"I say we jus' wait fer 'em, sur." A deadly smile came over Bunting's face. "Dey'll show up, sooner den later."
Hornblower smiled as well. "And we'll be here, waiting for them! Mr. Matthews! Get the men in here! This is the place to be, to take out the most mice, except for the sailcloth storeroom. Remove all the unbreached casks and line them up out in the companionway. Clear this room! Let's kill us some mice!"
"Get him! That one over there! Quick! Oh, damn, he went into that hole! Where'd that one come from? I thought you'd covered all the holes!" Hornblower pointed and shouted and swung his belaying pin.
The five men in the storeroom with him dashed about, swinging their weapons at tiny grey phantoms that whisked about, dashed, dodged and confounded the men chasing them.
"Dere's another un!"
Ack! 'Tis climbing up me drawers, fer God sakes!"
"Hit th' mouse, no' me!"
"Let me 'elp y' up, sur! Sorry fer knockin' y' down, sur! Dinnint mean it, sur!"
"Over there! In the corner! God, look at them all!"
"What is going on in here?"
Pellew strode into the storeroom, his fists on his hips, the first lieutenant, Eccleston, lurking over his shoulder.
Hornblower struggled in Bunting's grip, found his footing, straightened. "At attention, men!" he shouted.
The squad jumped to stiff posture, lined up properly without prior practice.
Hornblower touched his forehead in salute, realized he'd misplaced his hat somewhere, some storage room ago. He cleared his throat. "We, uh, I was carrying out your orders, Captain, sir."
Pellew's mouth dropped open. He inhaled then looked about him, at the men, at Hornblower, at Eccleston, at the bulging, blood-soaked bag by Matthews's feet, let his breath escape. "Oh, yes. Of course, Mr. Hornblower." He regarded the storeroom, the few barrels in strategic places about the room, the chew-holes obvious in the casks, the implications.
"Carry on," he said, as he turned to leave. He hesitated. "How many? Have you kept count?"
Matthews stepped forward, two fistfuls of tails offered. "Me count is over a 'undred, Captain, sur. Plus a couple o' dozen rats. So far."
Pellew inhaled again, nodded. "Very-very good, Mr. Matthews. Good hunting." He cleared his throat. "Mr. Hornblower. I had thought that you would have simply gone ashore and brought aboard a couple of cats!"