Hornblower and His Mysterious Encounter
by Wendy Snow-Lang
"The stars are magnificent tonight, sir," Midshipman
Horatio Hornblower said, his breath billowing out on the light
Captain Sir Edward Pellew, commander of HMS Indefatigable stood by the binnacle, his attention on the compass and charts before him. He looked up, exhaled. "'Enjoy it while you can, Mr. Hornblower. The monsoon season starts soon. To see the stars on a clear night is a true delight compared to what we face in the coming weeks."
"Monsoon, sir?" Hornblower's large eyes widened.
"The rainy season, Mr. Hornblower. The tropics have a rainy season, instead of winter." Pellew explained.
HMS Indefatigable sailed the Atlantic due west of the northern African coast, searching for pirates that threatened English shipping.
Hornblower regarded his toes. "Oh." He raised his gaze to the captain's dashing, gold-trimmed form. "Thank you, sir."
"Don't thank me, Mr. Hornblower." Pellew scowled at the younger man. "Thank the good Lord. 'Tis His plan to provide us with such a wonderful night before we must soon endure His wrath."
"Look!" Hornblower pointed to the heavens. "A shooting star!"
Pellew's gaze swept the night sky. "Oh, I missed it-oh! There's another!"
"That one looked like it came straight from Mars!" exclaimed Hornblower.
"What do you think the Martians are doing up there? Firing cannon?" One side of Pellew's mouth curled up. He eyed the young midshipman. It had been too long since Pellew had felt such innocent excitement.
"Oh, yes!" Hornblower nodded vigorously. "See you how the shooting stars travel from Mars' vicinity and are aimed directly at Venus? The two planets are at war!"
"Mars is the Bringer of War," agreed Pellew. "Who, think you, will win?"
"Why, Mars, of course! He is a ferocious warrior and Venus is a soft woman. Everyone knows women are the weaker sex-" Hornblower's voice trailed off and he looked at the captain, realizing how he was beginning to run off at the mouth.
Pellew raised his brows at the younger man. Go on, boy, he thought.
Hornblower grinned. "Unless of course, Mars is married to Venus, then Venus will win every time."
"Mars is the lover of Venus," Pellew said, his eyes twinkling. "But she is married to Vulcan."
"Then the shooting stars are love-darts, not cannonballs." Hornblower's grin widened and his eyes sparkled as they searched the indigo sky. "Look at all the darts! There is a shower of them! Mars must love Venus with all his heart!"
Pellew chuckled, regarding the young age of the man before him. "You know nothing of marriage, Mr. Hornblower, or the foibles thereof!"
Hornblower cleared his throat, red rising to his cheeks because of his impassioned treatise of Roman mythology.
The two stared up, transfixed by the heavenly spectacle spread above them.
More sparks, closer, attracted their attention and they looked up into the billowing topsails. Green flames danced and flickered along the rigging and masts, up and down the shrouds, out to the tips of the yards and back.
"St. Elmo's Fire!" Pellew exclaimed.
"God! 'Tis beautiful!" Hornblower's eyes glittered like the sparks in the yards. "I've never seen such a thing before!" He stiffened. "Is it safe? Will the sails catch afire?"
Pellew laughed. "Silly boy! No. I've been up among the rigging in St. Elmo's fire before. 'Tis not hot, but tingly. It won't harm the ship."
A hub-bub for'ard them took their attention from aloft.
"What goes there?" Pellew called.
Crewman Matthews dashed aft across the waist and breathlessly ascended the quarterdeck gangway, shadowed by Midshipman Kennedy. The two men saluted and Matthews gasped out his explanation before his hand had left his forehead. "An albatross, sir! 'Tis an albatross!"
Kennedy joined in. "I saw it, sir! Big as a house, sir! Never seen anything like it! An' in the middle o' th' night! Don't the beasts ever sleep?"
Hornblower frowned. "What is so strange about seeing an albatross? They're a common enough seabird, aren't they?"
Matthews sputtered. "Never this far north, sir! An' at night!"
Pellew scanned the heavens, saw nothing but the stars. What would Hornblower know about albatrosses? He'd never seen one, knew nothing about them and the superstitious dread with which most sailors regarded them. Pellew himself felt uncomfortable at the mere mention of the great bird. And at night!
He sucked in a breath.
A shadow had flicked across his vision, across the still dazzling phosphorescent fire in the topmasts.
Could it be an albatross, of all birds?
God, yes! There! The silhouette against the glittering Milky Way! No other bird had such a wingspan, such a command of the updrafts and currents of wind!
Hornblower's mouth dropped open as he looked from person to person. "What is it? What is wrong? 'Tis just a bird!"
Pellew scowled at him, then dashed down the gangway for'ard to the group of seamen standing by the waist rail, staring and pointing upwards.
"Here, you men!" Pellew stood straight before them, his face stern, his attitude imperious. "Get you below! There's nothing for you to see up here that you haven't seen a dozen times before." He knew he had to dampen their natural superstitious inclinations before they grew restless and panicky. Sailors were an imaginative lot, and, if left to their own devices, could wreak havoc with shipboard discipline over a mere notion.
"'Tis an albatross, Cap'in," came from the back of the group.
"And as distanced from its mates as we are from Trident because of last week's blow! Nothing more! 'Twas the storm that caused it to be this far north!" Pellew kept his voice passive, his tone reasonable and logical. "'Tis attracted to our lights. Here." He reached in his pocket, produced a bit of biscuit crumb lying there.
He tossed a couple of bits into the air. The morsels fell into the water, and the ghostly shape swooped closer. He flung a couple more. The bird hovered, dashed down, scooped up a piece of biscuit mid-air before the bit could plop into the water with its brothers.
The men, as one, inhaled.
Styles, gunner's mate and dangerous looking, loomed over Pellew. "Sorry, Cap'in." He plucked his greasy forelock, his head bowed. Then he lifted his chin and his eyes shone. "Sur, beg pardon, but ye can'ts go 'round feedin' th' albatross. 'E'll foller us, an' we'd be undone!"
Pellew scowled and pressed his lips into a smirk. "Don't be ridiculous, Styles. 'Tis just a bird!" As Hornblower had said moments ago. However, Pellew felt the same fear as Styles, as the crew, but his analytical mind, his educated mind said 'No.' Superstitions could carry no weight to one in command.
Yet he had grown up among men like these; in spite of his education, in spite of his logic, his dread was instinctual.
"Sails aft!" The cry interrupted his thoughts.
He rushed back to the quarterdeck, followed by the group of seamen.
They, of course, did not ascend the quarterdeck, as it was off
limits to them, but waited, fretting, at the foot of the gangway
for his report. Some of them climbed the shrouds and peered into
the night, but, unassisted by telescope, they had to be patient.
Pellew gazed up at little Isaac James, ten years old, high in the maintop, the boy's form outlined in green fire. He could see the boy gesturing aft.
A glow appeared on the southern horizon.
Pellew glassed toward it. Masts showed in his viewing field, masts that glowed as greenly as Indy's own. Sails lit the horizon line. The distant ship seemed to be consumed entirely by St. Elmo's fire.
"What is it, sir?" Hornblower whispered in his ear.
"I can't tell. Too far away yet. A ship, certainly. 'Tis too big to be Trident." He scowled and squinted through his glass.
A hush had descended over Indefatigable. Pellew concentrated, waited, worried.
Who could it be?
Was it indeed Trident?
The ship grew larger in his frame of view.
No. Not Trident.
"Bring us around, Mr. Hornblower." He spoke out of the side of his mouth. "Let us meet her."
Hornblower gave the order, but the man at the wheel, Maynard, hesitated.
Pellew strode up to him, stood next to red-faced Hornblower. Hornblower was working himself up into a nice rage at the man, but Pellew spoke up first.
"Answer the helm, Mr. Maynard!"
Maynard, his eyes wide, shook his head, but turned the wheel anyway.
The sails above their heads shivered, then billowed. Indefatigable now headed with the light wind at her best point, and phosphorescent foam kicked up in her wake.
The mysterious ship continued serenely on, not heading directly at Indefatigable, but almost as if it was oblivious to the British ship, as if it would pass Indefatigable unnoticing.
Pellew ran his gaze over the other ship's yards and tops and across the hull, now visible through the greenish, yellowish glow.
"She looks deserted," he said to Hornblower. The skin on his arms and the back of his neck prickled.
Hornblower's eyes widened. "Then who's sailing her, sir?"
Pellew shrugged, continued his scrutiny. "Maybe they're all below. I can't see the wheel yet, to see the person handling it, but 'tis strange that there are no look-outs on the mastheads."
"A merchant ship-"
"A merchant ship would have look-outs." Pellew shrugged again, lowered his scope and exhaled. "Maybe 'tis a plague ship. Maybe they're all dead."
Maynard spoke unbidden. "'At 'ould be a sure bet, sur."
Pellew glared at him and Maynard said no more, returned his gaze to the ship's progress.
The hush that had descended upon Indefatigale's decks at first sighting the strange ship, now subsided as the seamen gathered at the foot of the quarterdeck ladder made out the details of the approaching vessel, whose deserted state was now clearly visible to the naked eye.
First muttering, then whispering, then louder, angry tones rippled through the men.
Kennedy ordered them to silence and they fell quiet for a few moments, but it was not long until the muttering started again.
Pellew snapped his telescope shut with an exasperated exhale. He strode to the rail and glared down at the men.
"You are acting like a gaggle of old women, afraid of the dark!" He gestured aft. "'Tis but a ship, just like the one under your feet! No one is on deck over there and that tells me they may need our help!"
"Plague!" called out a voice from the rear of the group.
"Ghosts, more like!" replied another.
A general rush of agreement and trepidation swirled around the men.
"'Tis a ghost ship, Cap'in!"
"'Oo ever sees 'er is doomed!"
"We're dead men!"
"You will be silent!" bellowed Pellew.
The crew fell quiet again.
"Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Kennedy! Take down the name of any man who utters any sound other than that necessary to run this ship! I will schedule punishment in the morning!" He turned back to Maynard. "Bring us about, Mr. Maynard, that we may run parallel to her when she catches up to us."
Maynard's face was bone-white. "Aye, aye, Cap'in," he replied.
Pellew detected the tremble in his voice. "Harden yourself, Mr. Maynard. We are dealing with a fellow seafarer, not a fairy tale."
"Aye, aye, sur," Maynard said in a small voice.
Indefatigable swung around in a long arc, until her course ran parallel to the other ship's. But the wind was against her and her sails no longer held the breezes.
The mysterious ship's approach quickened.
"Put more sail on her, if you please, Mr. Hornblower. We don't want the other ship to pass us by so quickly we cannot ascertain her condition."
"S-sir," Hornblower stuttered and Pellew snapped his attention to the young midshipman. Hornblower's eyes were pale and wide. "Th-the other ship sails full and by, yet we can hardly catch a breeze."
Pellew tisked. "She's on a trade wind merely, Mr. Hornblower. We shall find that breeze ourselves if we keep on our current course."
"But, sir," Hornblower argued. "We were sailing full and by in the opposite direction! How can they sail with the wind, while we are becalmed, when we are sailing on the same course?"
Pellew kept his voice firm and even, though his skin continued to prickle and his stomach churned. "It happens, Mr. Hornblower. The trade winds are capricious at times." His statement was truth, but he was uncertain that was the case in this instance.
A fellow ship in distress, he repeated to himself. They may need our help, he thought over and again.
He picked up his telescope, studied the approaching ship once more.
It flew no ensign, no indication of nationality. It appeared of an older design, gold-painted crenellations glittering along its stern gallery and poopdeck rails.
Not Spanish, nor French. And it certainly wasn't of British build.
Dear God. No. No, he wouldn't believe it.
The glowing ship swept down upon them.
Not a sound could be heard from it, nor from Indefatigable's deck.
The glittering vessel slid past Indefatigable closer than a cable length to starboard, nearly brushing yardarms. No noise came from her billowing sails either, no creaking or groaning of rigging or yards.
Pellew opened his mouth, but his throat was too dry for sound to issue forth. He cleared his throat, the noise seeming a thunderclap.
"Ahoy, the ship!" he shouted, and his hail seemed at once as loud as a cannon roar, but, all the same, too inadequate and too weak to carry over the short yardage to the other ship.
"Ahoy!" he tried again.
If anyone was able to respond to him from the other deck, his second call would have caught their attention.
No answering hail. No movement, no sound at all.
"I cin touch 'er, Cap'in!" The call came not from the other ship, but from the main yards. Isaac James perched there at the end of the yardarm, his legs and left arm wrapped around the yard itself, his right arm reaching as far as it could. "She's so close! I cin touch 'er yard!"
"Get you done from there, Isaac!" Pellew roared.
Kennedy jumped to the shrouds, scrambled up the ratlines, followed by a handful of seamen.
"Jest a little closer!" James gasped out. "Almost there!"
"Isaac! That's an order!" Panic set in. Pellew could plainly see James teetering at the end of the yard.
Kennedy grabbed the yard, his booted foot questing for the footropes, but his movements telegraphed vibrations the length of the yard. He stopped. James gripped the reefed sail under him tighter until the motion subsided.
The mysterious ship edged closer.
"Cin touch it!" The boy's hand swept out again. Pellew saw his fingers brush the green fire, then a quick scrambling of little arms and legs and Isaac James tumbled from the yard, pin wheeled, and plunged into the dark waters far below.
The midnight bell struck.
"Break out the boats! Get some lanterns over here!"
Two seamen dove in near the diminishing splash rings.
Hornblower tossed a lifebuoy into the water.
The ghostly ship slipped along, then wafted ahead, oblivious. The ship itself was dark, not a lantern or candle flickered from its black ports or stern lanterns.
"Isaac! Isaac!" Pellew called, his interest in the strange ship vanished. "Hove the sails!" he shouted.
Sailors rushed to accommodate. If they could halt Indy's forward momentum, hold her near where Isaac fell in, they had a chance of finding him.
Lantern beams wove across the waves, but how to pinpoint Isaac's position in the moving water, how to find him when the lanterns' rays barely reached beyond the ship's hull?
The boats went into the water; the boats came out again, their hour long search fruitless.
Isaac James had gone under and had never come back up. Fate had decided his demise, fate and the mysterious ship, now but a green flash on the horizon.
Pellew glassed toward it again. "Set topsails, Mr. Hornblower. Put us back on our original course, Mr. Maynard."
He felt the weight of Hornblower's stare on the back of his head. "What is it, Mr. Hornblower?"
Hornblower cleared his throat, shifted from foot to foot. "Sir. The crew." His gaze went to the decking and his nervous feet. "The crew all walked away. As if they no longer cared that Is-Mr. James was lost." He looked at the captain again, shrugged. "They tried hard to find him, but-but now they all just walked away back to their business, back to their sleep. How can they do it, sir?" He cleared his throat again. "I don't think I shall ever forget his little face, sir, and the horror I saw on it as he tumbled from the yard."
Pellew inhaled, gazed off at the distant horizon. "Nor shall I, Horatio. But you must understand." He looked Hornblower in the eye. "He was a sacrifice. That ship demanded it."
Hornblower's brown eyes widened. "What mean you, sir? You speak of that ship as if a thing alive. Well, as a thing with a consciousness."
"That could well be, Horatio. The legend would have it so."
"Just before Isaac called out and drew our attention, I saw an ensign unfurl-I don't know, appear might be a better way of phrasing it-from its spanker yard." He raised an eyebrow. "Hollander. Of an old design."
Hornblower scowled. "Hollander? Is there some significance, sir?"
He stepped to the midshipman, clasped his hands behind his back, thought of the albatross and Hornblower's ignorance of it. "Mr. Hornblower. Your performance aboard this ship has been exemplary. But sometimes you are, um, thickheaded."
Hornblower's frown deepened. "Sir!"
"The legend of the Flying Dutchman, Horatio."
Hornblower's eyes bulged.
"We've just seen it, I think. And it took Isaac James with it, as payment for his audacity of touching it."
Hornblower's expression returned to its scowl. "Captain, sir! I am surprised at you! You cannot seriously believe in such ghost stories?"
Pellew's clasped hands twisted behind his back.. "Maybe 'twas a plague ship. Maybe the crew was all below, taken down by some insidious disease and we happened to chance by the ship before it foundered and sank."
"And the Flying Dutchman, sir? What is the exact legend?"
Pellew sighed, brushed at a fleck on his Navy blue, gilt-edged coat front. "A hundred and fifty odd years ago, a Dutch merchant ship sailed for the Cape of Good Hope when a storm drove her onto rocks. But before she sank Captain van der Decken vowed that he would round the Cape if he had to keep sailing until Doomsday."
Hornblower's eyes started. "Then 'twasn't the Dutchman after all. We are far from the Cape of Good Hope."
"Yes. And the albatross was far from its usual hunting grounds, too!"
"Captain! It wasn't the Dutchman!"
Pellew exhaled. "Let us hope. Otherwise we'd all be doomed."
"Doomed?" Hornblower's eyes widened further.
"Yes. The other part of the legend. Whoever sights the Dutchman will die."
Hornblower scowled. "Everyone dies, Captain."
Pellew nodded. "In their due time. But the Dutchman takes you before your time, and in horrible ways. Always at sea."
Young Hornblower said nothing, and fear replaced the disbelief on his face.
Pellew gazed again to the horizon, to where the ghostly ship had now disappeared. "I think, Mr. Hornblower, I hope Isaac James' sacrifice satisfied it. He was the first to sight it." He looked into Hornblower's eyes again. "The crew believes it. 'Tis why they are able to go on about their business. And you don't get a more superstitious fellow than a sailor."
Hornblower stared at the several seamen lingering by the for'ard rail. His face was set and determined. "And so they'll make up ghost stories for their own perverted sense of humor, when there are no such things as ghosts."
Pellew followed his gaze, then looked back at him. "Don't be too sure, young man. Most of their stories are based somewhere in fact, and this one's been around for a long time."
Hornblower looked at the seamen again, and Pellew saw his Adam's apple bob.
"Watch is over, Mr. Hornblower. Time to sleep."
Hornblower gulped again, his eyes on the horizon. "Sleep? After that? I don't think so, sir."