Once Burned
by Idler

 

THE THOUSANDTH MAN
---Rudyard Kipling

One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the thousandth man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.

'Tis neither promise nor prayer nor show
Will settle the matter for 'ee.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em go
By your looks, or your acts, or your glory.
But if he finds you and you find him,
The rest of the world don't matter;
For the Thousandth Man will sink or swim
With you in any water.

You can use his purse with no more talk
Than he uses yours for his spendings,
And laugh and meet in your daily walk
As though there had been no lendings.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em call
For silver and gold in their dealings;
But the thousandth man he's worth 'em all,
Because you can show him your feelings.

His wrong's your wrong, and his right's your right,
In season or out of season.
Stand up and back it in all men's sight-
With that for your only reason!
Nine hundred and ninety-nine can't bide
The shame or mocking or laughter,
But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side
To the gallows-foot-and after!

 

 

To find one such man in a lifetime is a blessing. To find two…a rare gift indeed.

…………..Idler

ONCE BURNED…

 

Hotspur ran before the wind as Hornblower stood on her quarterdeck, enjoying the sluice and gurgle of the water as it creamed about her lithe hull; the other, normal sounds of the men working ship around him fading into his subconscious, unheard. It never failed to astonish him that the graceful little sloop was his. Not a temporary command, not a prize, but his. He recalled the first time he had stood on his own quarterdeck…aboard Retribution. That day which ought to have been the proudest of his life had been a bitter one. On that day he could think only of putting Kingston and all it represented behind him. The memories of it, however, were not so easily left in Retribution’s wake; they followed him still. It was said that court-martial would make or break a man. He was not yet sure which it would be, for him.

He should have been proud this day, by rights, though he was not. Hotspur had accomplished much in the relatively short time they had been on station: the successful blockade of Brest, the gathering of critical intelligence, destruction of the semaphore and battery at Petit Minou. And now, at war, attached to the Inshore Squadron, under the command of Sir Edward Pellew, no less. Still…there was something–no, someone–missing. Archie Kennedy had never been a part of his shorebound life; during those endless, hungry days on half-pay, there had been enough to think on, to worry about. But now, at sea, he missed him acutely. He sighed. At sea. A good enough description of how he felt…without Archie.

At length, he became aware of a presence at his side. He turned and felt a momentary chill as a pair of level blue eyes met his. No, no…they were not the merry, expressive blue eyes that he still saw sometimes in his thoughts, in those moments upon awakening from a dream…those brief moments before grim reality returned to haunt him. Altogether different blue eyes, these. Serious, steady…yet they somehow conveyed sympathy, understanding, and a promise of friendship yet to come.

He drew himself erect, as he realized suddenly that he had been standing slumped, defeated: a posture hardly befitting a commander in the King’s navy. "Yes, Mr. Bush?" he said formally.

"Permission to take in another reef, Sir. The wind is freshening further."

"So it is. Permission granted, Mr. Bush."

Bush turned away, bellowing his orders to the bosun. Matthews, from the Indy…and Renown.

Pellew’s hand, no doubt. Matthews…even Styles. Hornblower had come aboard Hotspur to find them there. Matthews, as bos’n, had piped him aboard, while Bush and Styles stood on deck, carefully, though not entirely successfully, hiding their delight at his efforts to stifle an equally pleased reaction. Better than anyone, Pellew would have known how much he would need to have the support of others who cared for him. Even if he could no longer acknowledge that friendship, for as Captain he must hold himself apart. Relations with the warrant officers and crew were now Bush’s concern…a job he could manage ably enough. Still, to know that they were there, and to know that they understood and accepted their changed relationship, cheered him.

Hornblower studied Bush as he faultlessly orchestrated the reefing of the tops’ls: competent, confident in his seamanship.

He allowed his thoughts to drift back to his meeting with Admiral Troughton-Smith…and with Pellew. He had been summoned to the Admiralty not long after receiving his orders. He had presented himself, vainly hoping that his nervousness was not as apparent as he knew it must be; he seethed with questions and uncertainty. Had they changed their minds? Was giving him Hotspur all some foolish mistake? He was astonished to find himself standing before not only the Admiral, but Pellew himself, inscrutable as always.

"So…as to your officers." The admiral looked up, peering narrowly at him over the tops of his spectacles. "Junior lieutenants we have a’plenty. But senior…for your first. Ah, that is a more rare commodity. You need someone you can trust to carry out your orders, to lead your men, should you fall." Troughton-Smith paused and regarded him intently.

Hornblower wondered upon what tack the admiral had embarked, for it seemed as though he were awaiting some comment. He shifted awkwardly in the uncomfortable silence, then impulsively decided to seize the bull by the horns. "May I inquire, Sir…has Lieutenant William Bush been assigned?"

Pellew looked up sharply and spoke for the first time. "Mr. Hornblower," he snapped. "You know full well that William Bush once stood accused of mutiny. Are you certain that this mutinous behaviour would not be repeated?"

Hornblower hoped–in vain, no doubt–that the admiral did not notice the glaring fact that Pellew had not questioned whether Bush was indeed guilty. He chose to ignore it: to protest would only draw further attention.

"I have entrusted him with my life, Sir. I would not hesitate to do so again."

Surprisingly, both men nodded slightly. The admiral raised an eyebrow. "And do you believe that he will not find it difficult to serve under his former third lieutenant?"

Hornblower knew Bush well enough to know that, regardless of his personal feelings on the matter, he would serve a fair captain to the best of his ability. "I am confident that he will not, Sir."

"Well, then, Mr. Hornblower…Mr. Bush it is."

Hornblower essayed a tentative smile. "Thank you, Sir. I could hope for none better."

He was still smiling as he left the Admiralty, though since then he had been beset with worry. Despite his self-assured words to the admiral, he began to wonder how Bush felt about being under the command of his former junior officer. He would have been astonished had he known.

William Bush was a pragmatic, practical man, not overly given to flights of fancy. He was, however, sufficiently self-aware to recognize that Hornblower possessed qualities that he himself lacked entirely. Bush had always conducted himself and executed his duties by the book. That had proved more than adequate, if not inspired…until the horrific events unfolded aboard Renown. He had realized then that it was not necessarily enough. And then to watch Buckland. Poor, weak Buckland. He could almost pity the man, as much as he hated him. The horror he must have felt at finding himself so woefully unsuited for command.

Bush was altogether too familiar with the admiralty’s unfortunate practice of promoting men beyond their depth. It seemed, to him, faintly ridiculous–to take an officer who had proved to be a brilliant frigate captain out of frigates where he was most effective and post him into a ponderous ship of the line. Hardly more than a floating gun platform, with little opportunity for her captain to display the fire and dash that had made him a nemesis to the enemy. Or to take a good, solid, reliable captain–one who would carry out his superior’s orders or die in the attempt–out of his liner and give him flag rank; to thrust him, ready or not, into the role of visionary. All too often, a courageous captain and superb seaman was not an equally gifted strategist.

Bush saw himself with enough clarity to pray that he would die a captain.

Hornblower, though, was another sort of man entirely. Bush felt that serving under him was entirely right and proper. He was content with it…it was as it should be.

 

 

 

II

 

Hornblower sat on the padded bench below the stern windows, watching the dawn slowly break over the empty sea. He had not yet become fully accustomed to the luxury of a cabin of his own. It was small, nothing like the great stern cabin in Indefatigable, or Renown…Hotspur was but a sloop, after all…but it provided a place where Hornblower could find some precious solitude, time to think. And, to his utter surprise, a place where he and Bush might share a glass, or their thoughts.

This morning found Hornblower reviewing yet again the events aboard Renown. Nearly two years had passed since that unhappy experience, yet it was rarely far from his contemplation. He had always been troubled by the unfortunate tendency to hold himself accountable for circumstances over which he had no control. He felt responsible for Sawyer’s fall, as surely as if he had indeed pushed him. And would have publicly shouldered that blame, if not for the intervention of another. Some would have shrugged, and called the fall happenstance, an unavoidable misfortune to be blamed at least in part on Sawyer’s failing mental state. Others would have accused him of an excess of hubris, for his assumption that he could wield such control over the events of his life. But he could not honestly answer the question that had plagued him since that terrible day. Had it been Archie, or Bush, or Wellard…would he have reacted that much more quickly, and somehow been able to prevent the fall that sent such tragedy to its inexorable conclusion?

A scrape outside the cabin door interrupted his reverie and informed him that Bush had arrived; as usual, in time for coffee. Neither man was certain when or how this early morning discussion had begun, though it was now accepted as part of the ship’s daily routine. They talked of the ship’s operations, her crew, and their improvement at gun drill, the progress of her midshipmen. About nothing, often, if the truth be told.

"Come, Mr. Bush," Hornblower called.

Bush appeared in the doorway, hat tucked under his arm. "Good morning, Sir," he said crisply.

Hornblower nudged a steaming cup in his direction. "Come. Sit."

Bush nodded. "By your leave, Sir."

Hornblower smiled; he had initially considered Bush to be rigidly formal, meticulously attentive to protocol. All true, right enough, though time was teaching him also to appreciate Bush’s understated nature and subtle wit. It was nothing at all like Archie’s open and good-natured teasing, which had driven him to distraction on a daily basis. He sighed; he would have given his very soul to be so distracted again.

Bush detected the sigh; wondered at it, though he suspected its cause. He had begun to sense, during the long weeks of blockade, that Hornblower was at last losing some of his reserve, though revealing only a shadow of the kinship he had shared with Kennedy. Bush knew that he could never replace the young man, but knew also that he had to be there, to provide what solace he could. He would never know everything the two men had shared, though Kennedy had whispered some of it while they lay in the prison hospital in Jamaica. It was as though Kennedy had somehow known that Bush would be called upon to fill a void in Hornblower’s soul, and wished to prepare him for it. And then the promise…Bush would never forget Kennedy’s strained, pain-wracked face, belying his calm words:

"You owe me a life well lived." Kennedy had said. "I've given the Devil his due to purchase that for you. Don't let me down."*

Nor would he ever forget his own reply. "I won't. And I'll make sure that Hornblower pays that debt as well."*

Hornblower knew nothing of that promise. Nor would he.

It was one subject which, by mutual–though tacit–consent, was never discussed. But it was at times like these that Bush felt nearly certain that were he to turn quickly enough, to see out of the corner of his eye, he would glimpse Kennedy in the cabin with them. His presence there was almost palpable, though Bush could find no physical reminder, no object that had once been his. Bush had kept the book of sonnets that Kennedy had given him. Hornblower had nothing that he knew of–except his grief.

Bush realized suddenly that Hornblower was staring at him, as though anticipating some reply. He had allowed his thoughts to carry him off; he had not heard a word of it. He hastily scrambled to his feet. "Er…my apologies, Sir, but I am needed on deck. It is nearly time to call the forenoon watch."

Bush arrived on the quarterdeck just as the final notes sounded from Matthews’ pipe. Seamen boiled from the hatches, never hesitating as they took up their duty stations. To his surprise, Hornblower wordlessly joined him at the quarterdeck rail, handing him his untouched mug of coffee. The two men stood comfortably side by side, both privately evaluating the speed and efficiency of the process.

Bush turned to critically scrutinize Midshipman Charles Whitton as he approached for his assignment. "Mr. Whitton," he snapped, "you will stand masthead lookout this watch."

The boy flushed deeply under Bush’s blue glare, yet met it. "Aye aye, Sir," he responded earnestly.

Bush studied him as he headed for the shrouds. The boy was quite young, but he showed promise. Damned if he would let the boy know it yet. He was listed on the books as thirteen years of age, but Prowse, the sailing-master, had told him that one night on watch the boy confided that he had actually only recently turned eleven. He was already quite tall, and, in contrast to most boys his age, already had the broad shoulders and deep chest that foretold impressive stature. His hair had quickly bleached quite blonde by the sun, setting off his tanned skin. Pleasant features, a ready smile, clear light brown eyes. A fine figure of a man he would be, someday, if he managed to stay clear of the enemy’s iron long enough. Perhaps lady luck would be kind. Bush concealed a half smile. Lady Luck…the phrase invariably conjured the memory of a lieutenant he had once known, when he was but a mere child of a midshipman himself.

This midshipman hesitated interminably at the telescope rack, seemingly unable to decide which of the glasses to choose.

Bush turned to raise an amused eyebrow at Hornblower, then shrugged and assumed an entirely convincing expression of thunderous rage. "While we are yet young, Mr. Whitton!" he bellowed. "Or you shall renew your acquaintance with the gunner’s daughter!"

Despite Bush’s tone and harsh words, the boy looked up at him seriously, admiration shining plain in his brown eyes. He knuckled his forehead, then grinned broadly. "Aye aye, sir!" He snatched a glass and scampered for the shrouds, still grinning.

Hornblower watched the little tableau unfold before him. He had seen men look at him in the same manner, and felt at once pleased, perplexed, and annoyed by it. Pleased, that the men were not offended by his ordering them about–to their deaths, if it came to it; perplexed, that it should be so; and annoyed, that the men seemed to view him as having the answers to the riddles of the ages.

God help him, he had even seen a similar expression in Bush’s eyes. He wanted to take the man by his blue-clad shoulders and shake him, shrieking ‘I am not God; hell, I am not even Pellew!’ But, of course, he could do no such thing. Perhaps the man would yet come to his senses.

Bush, apparently oblivious to his captain’s inner turmoil, studied the young man as he headed for the maintop. He shook his head in exasperation. "Of course, he took the night glass. I expect he will cope with seeing the world upside down and backwards."

Hornblower nodded. "Perhaps the consequence of his haste will provide him with food for thought, Mr. Bush."

"Hmmph." muttered Bush darkly. "But has he a mind with teeth?"

Hornblower stared: Bush could still catch him unawares, it seemed. Bush’s stern expression had not altered a whit; he was still intently watching the young man as he scrambled nimbly to the maintop.

He turned to Hornblower, who at last detected a faint glimmer of humour playing in his blue eyes. Bush shook his head, and sobered abruptly. "Truly, Sir, the boy ought to loathe me. I find it curious that he quite obviously does not."

‘God, Bush,’ thought Hornblower bleakly. ‘You have no idea.’

 

 

III

 

 

Hotspur kept to her now-familiar patrol, doing her part in maintaining the blockade of Brest. Day after day, they peered up the Goulet to monitor the state of readiness of the French fleet, or observed the activity–or lack of it–in the gulf of Iroise. And, small as she was, Hotspur firmly established the presence of the British in the minds of any Frenchmen who caught sight of her.

This day dawned much like any other. Hornblower and Bush had arrived on the quarterdeck and were speaking quietly with the master’s mate who had stood watch throughout the night.

"Deck there! Sail fine on the larb’d bow! Hull down, but it’s a ship!" The lookout’s sharp cry penetrated the chill early-morning mists.

Hornblower opened his glass and trained it on the distant horizon, which was gaining just enough definition to be identifiable. From aloft, it would seem somewhat lighter; still, he marveled at the lookout’s alertness and keen eyesight that enabled him to pick out the lighter smudge that his experience identified as sails. Trust Bush, he thought, to have recognized the best and assigned him to this, the most difficult of watches.

The lookout’s voice rang out a second time. "She’s French, Sir–a corvette!"

He closed the glass with a snap. "Beat to quarters, then clear for action, Mr. Bush." He spoke with a calmness he did not feel; he wondered how he managed it. The prospect of action…at last.

The drums began to rattle; seamen tumbled out of their hammocks in answer to their urgent beat and flooded onto Hotspur’s already crowded deck.

Bush dragged out his watch. "Clear for action!" he roared.

Hornblower winced involuntarily. Repeating Bush’s orders through the lower decks was, in truth, merely a formality. He forced himself to stand stiffly at the quarterdeck rail, hands clasped behind his back. He was well aware that any outward sign of his own excitement might be misinterpreted as anxiety by this relatively untried crew, a situation which must be avoided at all costs. But he could stand this inactivity no longer: he retrieved his glass.

Hornblower watched the French corvette’s outline become clearer as the first morning light found her, first only her topsails, then the pyramids of sails, and her hull. He wished, not for the first time, that he had a stouter vessel under his feet. As Indefatigable had been…though a frigate, she was a razee–a cut-down two-decker. She had mounted heavier guns than most and retained the solid hull of a 64, while still enjoying every bit of a frigate’s superior maneuverability. He had little such confidence in Hotspur’s frailer timbers.

Maria…’ he thought, then reined his thoughts in sharply. From what corner of his mind had that sprung? Until this moment, he had had to consciously try to bring thoughts of her to the fore, as his mind was more than willing to allow her, and their precipitous and ill-conceived marriage, to assume a distinct air of unreality. He had always thought that marriage was a detriment to a Naval officer–it made him cautious, careful. Stripped him of the brashness that was often all that separated victory from defeat–and death. Was even he, now, falling victim to that same malady? And, worse…would it prove fatal?

Bush reappeared at his side, to Hornblower’s great relief, interrupting this dangerously morbid train of thought. "Ten minutes, Sir."

Hornblower smiled slightly. "The benefits of drill, Mr. Bush."

"Aye, Sir." Bush was, as usual, outwardly unmoved. Hornblower knew him well enough by now, though, to recognize the gleam in his eye. Had he been any other man, he would have been grinning from ear to ear with excitement.

The two ships remained on a converging tack; clearly, the French were equally eager to engage. Hornblower studied the corvette through the glass, his mind racing. They were relatively evenly matched: as such, they could stand off and pound each other to pieces, to neither one’s gain. Getting to grips as soon as possible and fighting it out seemed to be the wisest course of action.

"So, Mr. Bush…" Hornblower spoke casually, as though he were discussing the weather, and not life or death "…if her captain is a typical Frenchman, he expects to first fire chain or bar-shot on the uproll, in an attempt to disable our rigging, then take us at his leisure." Hornblower was well aware that Bush knew all this, and more, yet persisted. It would be hot work shortly, with little time for questions or misunderstanding. "He will be expecting us to sheer off to deliver our own broadside. However…if we keep to this tack, he will be able to bring only his bow chaser to bear until we are upon him. We will immediately close the range, and board her. Man your larb’d guns, but have the crews keep their weapons for boarding close at hand. Tell them to be ready."

"Aye, Sir." Bush nodded, and strode off. Hornblower had every confidence that all would be accomplished as ordered: Bush had proved to be a most able right hand.

In what seemed an instant, the decks were sanded, the guns loaded, every gun captain carefully gauging the perfection of each ball before the rammer seated it home. Slow-match smoldered sullenly in buckets, ready to touch off the charge in the event of misfire. Hotspur could not be more ready: there was nothing to do now but wait. Hornblower surveyed his men: the gun crews crouching near their hulking charges, boarding weapons ready to be snatched up, or already crammed into belts. He briefly considered saying something to them, attempting a rousing speech as Pellew would have done, but hesitated. The faces of his men, taut with intensity and concentration, told him that any faltering words he might offer would be entirely unnecessary.

Hornblower gritted his teeth, watching the corvette as she loomed ever closer. A fountain of spray erupted just short of Hotspur’s larboard bow; as predicted, from the corvette’s bow-chaser. It would not take them long to find the range. He raised his sword above his head, then dropped it sharply. "Hard starb’d! Fire as your guns bear!" He forced his legs to move, as musket balls were thudding into the planking around him. The French marksmen had obviously spotted him; there was no point in his offering them a stationary target.

Hotspur’s guns spoke raggedly as Bush ran from gun to gun, carefully sighting in each one before granting permission to fire. Not that it mattered: the two hulls were so close that a blind man could not have missed.

The corvette’s own broadside thundered in Hornblower’s ears; he felt Hotspur’s deck shudder, and a chorus of agonized screams erupted from somewhere for’rd, though the stinging smoke hid their source from his eyes.

Hornblower heard the tremendous boom of Hotspur’s larb’d carronade, useless at any distance, but deadly at this range. A ball must have taken the gunner at the moment he pulled the lanyard, as the shot went high; the grape which should have cut a murderous swath through the waiting French boarding party impotently shredded French sails instead.

The hulls ground together with a sickening crash. The din was unimaginable–sharp reports from the marines’ muskets, deeper barks of the swivels from both vessels, groans and cries from the wounded, and above it all, the fierce clamor of near-crazed seamen from both sides, all consumed with the wild madness of battle, seeking only the destruction of the enemy.

"Boarders away!" Hornblower struggled to make himself heard over the confusion. He saw Bush turn: their eyes met.

Bush grinned ferally, his teeth white in his powder-stained face; Hornblower doubted that he was even aware of doing so. "Hotspurs! To me!" Bush bellowed, his powerful voice carrying easily over the tumult. He waved his sword above his head, and led the teeming, roaring mass of enraged seamen and marines as they spilled over the splintered bulwarks onto the deck of the corvette.

"Grapnels!" shouted Hornblower. "Repel boarders!" He made certain that a party of men scrambled to grapple the corvette, then ran down the quarterdeck ladder, sword in one hand, a pistol in the other. French seamen that had somehow penetrated Bush’s initial assault were already bravely clambering over the hammock nettings, but were promptly met by Hotspurs bristling with cutlasses, knives–and fury. Hornblower immediately found himself in the midst of the melee; a world of hacking, slashing men, their eyes red with rage. He soon lost all sense of time, and the number of men who had crumpled to the bloody deck under his feet.

Bush led his men into a similar hell, though the determined Hotspurs appeared to be slowly gaining the upper hand, even there. He spared a glance toward his own ship. The fighting there was furious, though his practiced eye immediately informed him that the French were scattered; small knots battling against a greater press of Hotspurs. A flash of blue and white caught his attention: a French lieutenant leapt the yard-wide gap between the hulls and landed on Hotspur’s foc’sl, waving his sword. Bush immediately grasped the danger–should the lieutenant succeed in rallying and organizing his men, they could prove a force with which to be reckoned. He could see none of Hotspur’s officers near the man; without a moment’s hesitation, he began to force his way through the crowd. He slashed violently at a seaman brandishing a pistol; the man went down screaming, hands to his bloodied face, the pistol forgotten. A French marine struggled vainly to raise his boarding-pike, but the seething tide of men pressing closely against him pinioned his arms to his sides: Bush’s sword caught him just above the sword-belt. He jerked the blade free of the marine’s body, turned, and in the same motion cut down another wild-eyed, shrieking seaman even as the man lunged, fighting for his life. Suddenly, he was free of the writhing mass, the roar of combat behind him. He gauged the distance between the hulls in an instant, and jumped.

He landed heavily, off balance. The lieutenant somehow sensed this new threat, and whirled to face him, blade upraised. It was red to the hilt…as was his own. Their eyes locked; each knew that for one of them, it would end here, on this scarred and bloody planking. Bush’s furious struggle to reach Hotspur had left him inflamed with battle-madness; as the wildness ebbed, and he steadied himself to coldly face the man, he discovered how desperately exhausted he was. His limbs were leaden; sweat, mixed with blood…from somewhere… stung his eyes.

The lieutenant lunged toward him, uncoiling like a serpent: Bush had barely enough time to raise his blade to parry the blow. He felt the shock of it transmitted to his shoulder; the man was incredibly strong. He gripped his sword with something like desperation, and went on the attack, trying to drive the man back against the nettings.

The lieutenant caught Bush’s hangar neatly with a circular parry, and deftly tore it from his weakening grip. It clattered into the scuppers, hopelessly out of reach. Bush leapt away, nearly treading on a fallen seaman still clutching a cutlass in his lifeless hand. He scooped it up and held it at the ready, much to the amusement of his opponent. Bush did indeed lack finesse, but was abundantly blessed with instinct, and courage, and tenacity. He knew, without conscious thought, that the lieutenant’s longer hanger would give the man a nearly insurmountable advantage. He had to get close; it was his only hope. Their blades met; Bush’s cutlass slid down the length of the hangar; the guards clashing together with tremendous force. As the lieutenant pivoted his shoulders to disengage and deliver the final strike, Bush stepped in closer. He saw the lieutenant’s look of triumph turn to horror as he realized his error…and as the cutlass blade hacked viciously into his side. The lieutenant toppled like a fallen tree, taking Bush with him.

 

IV

 

Aboard Hotspur, Hornblower slowly became aware that the furious din was beginning to subside. He allowed his weary arms to fall to his sides, and looked about him. The fight seemed to have gone out of the few French seamen he could see. A glance toward the corvette provided a ready explanation: he watched as their flag fluttered to the littered, bloody deck and lay crumpled amid the carnage.

A seaman caught his arm. "Sir…look!"

Hornblower followed his gaze, and felt icy fingers grip his heart. "Release grapnels! Fend her off…lively there!"

The French boarders dropped their weapons, looking back in dismay at their own ship. Though trapped aboard Hotspur, they were the lucky ones. Dense black smoke had begun to boil from the for’rd hatch: fire, a seaman’s mortal enemy. Sun-dried planking, caulked with tar and oakum; standing rigging, coated with tar; running rigging liberally smeared with the cook’s slush–and powder. Casks of it.

The thick smoke wafted across the widening gap between the two ships, making it seem as if Hotspur herself were afire.

"Helm! Work us free, Mr. Prowse!"

Hornblower glared fiercely at the corvette, as if he could force her to a safe distance by sheer effort of will. It would be a close thing, if her magazine took fire. "Get a boat in the water, Matthews! Pick up our men before they burn with her!"

Hornblower glanced for’rd; to his horror, saw Bush stagger out of the smoke toward him. His face was a mask of blood and powder stains; his hat was gone, as was his hanger–it its place he was dragging a cutlass, though it appeared to Hornblower that he would be utterly incapable of lifting it. And his uniform–his waistcoat and breeches were a hideous mass of blood and clotted gore.

"My God, Will!" he cried, leaping forward to catch him by an elbow and fling an arm round his waist. Just in time, it seemed, as Bush’s knees began to buckle under him. ‘No…not again…not him, too…’ thought Hornblower wildly. He lowered Bush to the deck, propping him against a gun carriage, and with nerveless, shaking fingers began to loosen the sodden waistcoat and shirt, remembering all too well the last time he had done so…for Archie. "Where…where are you hurt?"

"Ohhh…" Bush looked down dazedly at his befouled uniform and grinned weakly. The effect was ghastly. "…’s not mine, Sir….or…’least not much of it. I met with one of th’ Frog lieutenants" , he flapped a hand vaguely for’rd, "an’ did for him…but when he fell he sent us into both into…into…" he faltered, and grimaced. "Into what was left of the crew of the number two gun…took a full charge of canister, they did. God, wha’ a mess…" his words were beginning to slur; Hornblower realized that the man was simply exhausted, totally spent. But alive.

He felt first a warm glow of satisfaction, of relief and pleasure in the knowledge that Bush was, for the most part, uninjured. A glow which quickly turned to anger; fury at himself for nearly allowing such a thing to happen again. He fought to control his warring emotions, and awkwardly placed his hand on Bush’s shoulder. "Stay here…" he said, unnecessarily. Bush was obviously not going anywhere, for the moment.

Hornblower turned his attention back to the corvette–that particular peril, to his astonishment, had been all but forgotten. The master had indeed worked them free, though it appeared that the danger was past. The dark smoke had abated; only a few paler tendrils hung above the hatch. She rode solidly in the water, though her sails were in tatters and several of her yards hung drunkenly, all a’cockbill.

A prize, perhaps, after all?

He heard the voice of master’s mate Cargill floating across the water. "We have her well in hand, Sir."

Hornblower snapped his fingers and was handed a speaking trumpet by a grubby, yet grinning Whitton, who had been hovering at his elbow. "Very good, Mr. Cargill…I shall join you directly."

Hornblower emerged through the corvette’s entry port to a bustle of activity. Several marines were herding French seamen together, while others were collecting weapons from where they had fallen, or had been dropped at the moment of surrender.

Cargill caught up to him, panting with relief. "Sparks from a charge gone off prematurely had set some spare sails alight. We managed to get them put out; we were prepared to flood the magazine, but there was no need. Exceedingly fortunate, as her magazine is packed to the deckhead beams with powder." He took a deep breath, then smiled. "She seems quite sound, Sir."

"Very good," said Hornblower, meaning it. "Detail a party of seamen to put her yards to rights; have the sailmaker assist you in assessing the damage and begin repair or replacement. I want her ready to get underweigh as soon as possible."

He glanced about the deck; seamen were already hard at work sending French corpses splashing unceremoniously over the side, and laying out the few Hotspurs for transport back to the ship in preparation for services. One party was securing the guns; still others were busily holystoning the deck, scrubbing off the dark stains that gave mute testimony to the morning’s ferocity. A quick look at Hotspur showed him that similar activity was taking place aboard his ship as well.

A powder-stained marine corporal approached, saluted, and stated crisply "We have found the Captain, Sir…dead, in his cabin." The marine appeared to be fighting to retain his composure. It seemed, unbelievably, that the man was about to be convulsed with laughter. The marine turned abruptly, leading the way. Hornblower followed, puzzled by the man’s demeanor. A normal enough reaction in the aftermath of battle, he supposed; the simple relief at finding oneself yet among the living.

A broad smear of scarlet marked the French captain’s passage into his cabin. He lay sprawled partway across his desk, his eyes open and unblinking, though seeing nothing. A large puddle, equally vivid, had formed beneath him on the desktop, soaking the papers scattered there. One page alone remained unblemished, clutched firmly in the captain’s hand…it appeared, incredibly, to be half eaten.

"He had not the strength to get the weighted bag containing his orders over the side, so he apparently" the marine tried unsuccessfully to stifle a snicker, "attempted to consume them." He grinned at Hornblower, his amusement plain.

Hornblower glared coldly at the marine. "A measure of respect would not go amiss," he snapped. "The man was, after all, a Captain…as am I."

Hornblower bent and gently worked what remained of the document out of the man’s lifeless fist. He smoothed the wrinkles out of the paper as best he could, and scanned it rapidly. When he looked up, his eyes were deeply troubled. "He must have been in agony…yet he tried to the last to fulfill his duty. But failed…this is his commission."**

He stood, and carefully closed the captain’s eyes: Capitaine Richard DeShayes, as the commission read…the man was much the same age as himself. The tables could so easily have turned, he realized: it could have been he, lying in Hotspur’s cabin. But would he have had such resolve, in his last moments? He glanced about him, his gaze coming to rest on a polished sea-chest, emblazoned with what surely must have been the man’s coat of arms: a spray of oak leaves and acorns, bearing the words Coeur de Chene. Heart of Oak. Indeed, he mused sadly. Little but a flag separates friend from foe, at times.

Disheartened, he returned to Hotspur to find a rejuvenated Bush, still in his stained breeches but hastily washed, and wearing a fresh shirt. Even somewhat out of uniform, he was a welcome sight–he now more resembled a King’s officer than a casualty. Bush was directing activity from every quarter: from the carpenter and his repairs to the work parties clearing away the carnage.

Hornblower strode to his side, and asked quietly "Mr. Bush, what is the bill for…" with a sweep of his hand, he encompassed the littered deck "…all this?"

"Six men killed, Sir, and a dozen more with the surgeon. He reports that eight ought to return to duty within days; four…well, only God knows, Sir."

Hornblower sighed. "We will bury our dead at sunset, Mr. Bush."

"Aye, Sir." Bush returned his focus to the orchestration of repairs, and was once again immediately awash in the sea of details awaiting his attention.

Hornblower sadly surveyed the damage. He should have been jubilant, he thought–a captured prize, at last. But he felt only a profound depression, a sense of bereavement. So much death, so many…too many…good men lost, on both sides. Bush had said ‘only God knows.’ Hornblower found it highly unlikely that there was a God who knew…or cared. If there were, how could He allow this? Or the unrelenting, senseless loss of how many other good men…one, in particular.

Sunset found Hornblower standing on the foc’sl, awkwardly clutching the ship’s prayerbook. It disturbed him greatly to see the Hotspur dead lined up along the rail: once men, now merely pathetic, faceless bundles with round shot at their feet to speed their final journey to oblivion. He had to perform the service: it was his duty, as Hotspur carried no chaplain. He hoped it would not matter that though he might speak the words, he held no confidence in their promise.

"Sir…", Bush’s voice startled him; he had been too bemused to even notice the man’s arrival. Bush continued, quietly, "…I will read over our men, if you wish." Hornblower studied him, barely concealing his surprise. Bush seemed to be aware of his discomfiture; perhaps the man was more intuitive than he seemed.

Hornblower found that to be a strangely disconcerting notion. "Er, yes…carry on, Mr. Bush."

Bush accepted the book, and joined the group of men silently gathered on the foc’sl awaiting him.

 

Hornblower listened to the familiar words as Bush read, although finding no comfort in it. Others did, he assumed, judging from the solemn expressions worn by the men assembled there. Little Whitton, at Bush’s side, was attempting to inconspicuously wipe his eyes with his sleeve. And Bush–Hornblower found it almost unimaginable that the quiet-faced man reading from the prayerbook was the same roaring, blood-stained lieutenant he had glimpsed leading his boarding party with such ferocity that very morning.

The service ended, the ripples from the last soul committed to the deep died away. Bush crossed to Hornblower’s side, and wordlessly handed him the prayerbook.

"I thank you, Mr. Bush." Hornblower said gratefully, feeling a sudden, unexpected affection for the man.

Bush nodded. "You are quite welcome, Sir. It is nothing more than I hope will be done for me," he smiled slightly, "when my time comes."

Bush’s words echoed in Hornblower’s soul: ‘when my time comes.’ When. Good God.

Bush, apparently unmoved by the prospect of his own mortality, replaced his hat. "By your leave, Sir, I will go aft and verify our position with the master. I fear Mr. Whitton’s calculations are still a bit…er, suspect."

Hornblower stared after him, unnerved. ‘When my time comes.’

 

 

*******

 

 

Hornblower sat on the edge of his cot. Hotspur was secured for the night, with the corvette following dutifully behind her, in the capable hands of Prowse. The French prisoners were securely battened into the for’rd hold, under ample guard, yet he could not sleep. He reached for a book, his hand closing on a slim, green-bound volume. One of Archie’s: it was Shakespeare, King Henry V. He recalled that Archie had lent it to him, after El Ferrol; though he had never read it, he could not bring himself to pack it into Archie’s sea chest to send to his father. He did not think Archie would have minded.

He opened it now, to the place marked by a black silk ribbon. He could barely bring himself to touch it–it was one of Archie’s, from his queue. He ran it slowly through his fingers, his eyes distant. Remembering the hundreds of times he had helped Archie tie his queue; never pausing a moment to think that one day, he would tie it for the last time.

Still holding the precious ribbon, he looked down at the marked page, and began to read. King Harry was addressing his fellows, before the battle of Agincourt. ‘For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…’ His eyes blurred. He fought the urge to hurl the book across the cabin; instead, he gently replaced the silk and returned the book to the shelf. One day, perhaps. But not today. Oh God, not today.

He thought back to those early days of freedom, after they had been returned at last to Indefatigable. Archie had initially seemed uncomfortable with the return to his former life. Angry at what had been done to him during those lost years, and worse, resentful of his friend’s success. Until his brief posting aboard Innominate#. He had said little about what had transpired there, yet returned profoundly changed…almost at peace. He spoke only of the value of friendship; that its rewards far exceeded the risk of loss. It was then that Archie had presented him with the book, the place marked as he had found it this night. Hornblower looked up from his clenched hands, his face a dreadful mix of sorrow and fury. Archie had been wrong. So terribly, terribly wrong.

And he would never make that mistake again.

 

 

 

 

V

Hornblower sat back in his chair and wearily rubbed his aching eyes. He heard the ship’s bell clang: two bells of the morning watch. For hours, he had been examining–and translating–the documents recovered from the corvette, Fidelite. Papers found aboard her revealed that she carried dispatches to a planned rendezvous with Thesee, a 74, which was at this very moment on its way to join a sizable French squadron. But where was this squadron? What was its aim? He could not say. The dispatches which would have clearly illuminated the squadron’s location and intent were those found beneath the French captain, so saturated with his blood as to be wholly unreadable. In death, he had indeed accomplished even that. Hornblower had been able to determine that Thesee was to be carrying new orders and a replacement admiral to the squadron. Even if they must act in ignorance, the interruption of this chain of events could prove vital. It would require Hotspur’s leaving her station, with no time to wait for approval. Hornblower cringed inwardly at the thought of Pellew’s wrath if he did so…but he knew that to live with the cost of his inaction would be unendurable. He shook his head to clear it, took a sip of now stone-cold coffee, and forced himself to return to his papers.

Bush arrived at his accustomed predawn hour; to his surprise, he found the cabin empty. Odd, he thought, frowning; he ought to have been informed of any problem serious enough to warrant the captain’s attention. He hurried on deck, anxiously anticipating disaster. Instead, all was peaceful: Hornblower stood alone on the quarterdeck, hands clasped behind his back, studying the open sea.

Hornblower did not seem to notice his arrival. Curious, Bush ventured a cautious "Good morning, Sir."

Hornblower turned to him, his expression unreadable. "Are our prisoners under adequate guard, Mr. Bush?"

Bush stared at him as if he were astounded to be asked such a question. "Yes, Sir."

To Hornblower’s aggrieved, exhausted mind, it sounded very much like ‘of course’. Bush’s apparent diffidence infuriated him, caused the simmering emotions of anger and loss to boil uncontrollably. "I cannot be certain of that, Mr. Bush," he snarled. "Have you forgotten Renown so soon? You obviously failed to maintain sufficient vigilance then," his face contorted with fury, "a fact with which I trust Archie Kennedy would agree… were he still amongst us." He abruptly swung away, and stalked stiffly back to his cabin.

Bush, shocked and dismayed, stared after Hornblower’s retreating form. He knew the importance of posting a sufficient guard, better than most. He was reminded daily of the disaster aboard Renown by the scars he would forever carry on his body–and on his soul. The responsibility for guarding the prisoners had not been his; he was offwatch when Renown was taken. He, in fact, had been the first to raise the alarm. But to have still somehow earned such distrust and contempt from the captain he had come to respect so deeply was appalling. He had always performed to the best of his ability, and had never before given a superior officer cause to deride him.

He scowled darkly; angry at Hornblower’s accusations. And hurt, as well, to have a man he considered as something of a friend turn on him so suddenly, almost viciously. Why in God’s name had he promised Kennedy that he would look after the man? If he had never done so, it would have been a simple thing to detach himself emotionally, and do his duty. That was all that was required of him, after all. Kennedy was gone, and Hornblower knew nothing of the promise. No one did. He need not honour it further. He had fulfilled his vow: he had offered friendship, and loyalty…and gotten none in return. So…it was finished. He paced the quarterdeck, trying to dismiss it from his mind.

But that damned promise haunted him.

 

* * *

 

Much to his own relief, Bush was able to escape further exposure to Hornblower’s sudden and inexplicable wrath; he had been ordered to the prize to ‘evaluate and direct necessary repairs’. He gratefully left Hotspur behind, and spent the balance of the day assuring himself that the corvette was indeed sound and ready for sea. She had actually suffered little damage, save for a few holes above the waterline and easily repairable disorder aloft. Attending to that, and the prospect of bringing in a prize was sufficient to distract him, albeit temporarily, from the contemplation of his captain’s perplexing behaviour.

It was full dark when all had been completed to his satisfaction. As he was being rowed back to Hotspur, he began to worry once more about what he would find when he delivered his report.

Hornblower had been pacing his cabin, reviewing what little knowledge he had gleaned, turning it over and over in his mind, desperately seeking a workable plan. A glimmer of an idea had begun to take shape, though he knew it would be a miracle if it actually succeeded.

A knock at the screen door interrupted his concentration. He stifled an exasperated groan. "Yes, yes…what is it?"

"Bush, Sir. Reporting on Fidelite, as ordered, Sir."

He sighed heavily, and sat down at his cluttered desk. "Enter."

Bush stepped warily into the cabin, as though uncertain of what awaited him there. The guarded, wooden expression on the man’s face was uncharacteristic, yet Hornblower found it somehow eerily familiar.

Bush stood stiffly before him, his blue eyes fixed on a point somewhere over Hornblower’s left shoulder. "Fidelite has been adequately repaired, Sir. I have detailed a prize crew aboard her; I have also assigned a carpenter’s mate, in the event that additional repairs become necessary. She is in all respects ready to proceed, Sir." His voice was flat, formal, devoid of any emotion.

"Excellent, Mr. Bush," Hornblower said brusquely. "Signal her to remain in close formation with us, for the moment. That will be all, Mr. Bush." He returned his attention to the papers scattered before him, relieved to sever their contact.

To Hornblower’s great annoyance, Bush remained standing at the desk; clearly there was something on his mind.

He dragged his eyes from the papers. "Is there something more, Mr. Bush?"

"May I speak, Sir?" Bush turned his hat over in his hands, studying it as though he had never seen it before.

Hornblower sighed again. Dear God; what was it now, he thought crossly. He desperately wanted only to be left alone…to think. "Get on with it, Mr. Bush."

Bush looked up, caught and steadfastly held Hornblower’s gaze. "Did my conduct during the taking of Fidelite displease you in some fashion?"

"No, it did not." Hornblower glared at him coldly. "Now, for God’s sake, Mr. Bush, leave me. There is much to do, and I suggest you waste no more of my time–or of your own. You are dismissed."

"Aye, Sir" Bush said formally, and wasted no one’s time in leaving the cabin.

Hornblower felt a moment’s regret at his callous treatment of Bush. He deserved none of it; certainly had no cause to doubt his conduct. Damn, he thought angrily; another outburst of womanish sentiment. I am his superior officer, and there’s an end to it. Nothing more. He shall become accustomed to it in short order–he must.

He bent over his papers once more, but abruptly sagged back into his chair, sickened. He had at last recalled why Bush’s guarded, wary expression seemed familiar. He had indeed seen it before: Bush had looked much the same in another stern cabin, reporting to another captain… aboard Renown.

Bush left the cabin still smarting from Hornblower’s unwarranted anger, and chafing against the inability to respond in kind. He stood silently on the maindeck, allowing the night breeze to cool his flaring temper. He had needed to make an appearance on deck, in any case. Whitton officially had the watch, though Bush always made his presence known, to imply that he was available if the need arose. He knew the young man was still apprehensive about standing watch alone, but it was high time he learned to accept the responsibility. Just not quite all of it…not yet.

Even as a midshipman himself, Bush always particularly enjoyed the night watch: sailing the ship by feel, and sound, and intuition. And, on quiet nights like these, it provided rare moments for solitude and reflection. He paced up and down the weather side, his steps keeping time with his thoughts.

He had never before experienced the sort of camaraderie that had formed among the three lieutenants aboard Renown. He had always gotten on well enough with his fellow officers, but this had been different. He fully comprehended that the bond had been strongest between Hornblower and Kennedy, that he had been included more or less by default–he smiled wryly at the thought–but he had, indeed, been included. He could manage full well without it; yet he found to his astonishment that he regretted its loss.

He had come aboard Hotspur not knowing what to expect, and had been secretly delighted to find that at least some vestige of that comradeship remained. Hornblower was his captain, no doubt, but they had that shared history and, he had thought, mutual respect.

But, he considered, this Hornblower of today is a changed man, cold and angry. Ever since the taking of Fidelite, though the captain denied finding fault with his conduct. So what was it, then? That morning was admittedly something of a blur, though he could clearly recall Hornblower’s stricken face…what had he said? "My God, Will…where are you hurt?" Will? That was something new. His sisters called him Will, though Hornblower had never done so. Bush, or Mr. Bush…but Will? Never. Though Archie had called him William, once or twice. Archie…

A sudden thought struck him, halting him in his tracks. "Matthews?" he called softly.

A voice came from somewhere near the dim binnacle lantern. "Aye, Sir?"

Bush wandered over to join him. "Were you there, when Mr. Kennedy was wounded?"

Matthews eyed him curiously. "Aye, Sir, I was. Not when ‘e was wounded, exactly, but when Mr. ‘ornblower discovered it."

"Mr. Hornblower? I did not know, as I was somewhat," he smiled ruefully, "distracted at the time." Distracted indeed–the searing pain, blood soaking his uniform–and afraid to look.

"Oh, aye, ‘twas, Sir. Mr. Kennedy, bless ‘im, was just sittin’ there, tryin’ to act like nothin’ was wrong. It was Mr. ‘ornblower who opened ‘is uniform, and found all ‘at blood…" his voice trailed off, as though he were reliving the moment.

"Thank you, Matthews. Carry on."

Bush resumed his pacing, hands locked behind him. The resentment he had felt at bearing the brunt of Hornblower’s anger had evaporated entirely. So that explains it, he mused. Kennedy’s loss was still too painful…and the prospect of a repetition of it–however diminished–was simply too much. Having once been thus burned, Hornblower was understandably twice shy. Given that, any further friendship with this man would be unlikely; Hornblower would doubtless never again allow it. Still, the promise to Archie remained; and he was, like it or not, a man of his word. He looked up into the starlit sky. So be it, then, he decided. He took a final turn round the deck, assuring himself that Whitton had things well in hand, and went below.

 

 

 

VI

 

Bush mounted the quarterdeck ladder with far less trepidation than he had anticipated. Perhaps knowing the cause of Hornblower’s icy rejection–and he was correct, he was certain of it–made it easier to bear. He strode confidently to his captain’s side, and nodded briefly. "Good morning, Sir."

Hornblower did not turn to look at him, though he returned the nod. "Mr. Bush."

His eyes remained firmly locked on the prize. "You go to the orlop, Mr. Bush. Report on the state of our wounded."

Bush studied Hornblower’s rigid profile. He ought to have gone himself, by rights. The men suffering there more than deserved the comfort of their captain’s concern. He thought of his own experience in Renown’s sick berth; what he could recall through the red haze of pain and sickness that had enveloped him throughout the mad dash to Kingston. Hornblower had for the most part avoided the surgeon’s cockpit even though Kennedy was lying there, mortally wounded. No… Bush reconsidered, recalling the previous night’s insight, … because Kennedy was lying there. Then, he must have found it difficult to face. Now, after Kennedy’s death, merely stepping into the sick berth would be well-nigh impossible. It was painfully obvious to Bush that Hornblower still felt Kennedy’s loss like a fresh wound; the thought profoundly saddened him.

Hornblower looked up, impatient with Bush’s delay. God. Bush was doing it again. The look on his face and in his eyes would have been entirely fitting…on a spaniel. Utterly infuriating on a first officer. Hornblower felt his irritation rise uncontrollably. "See to it, Mr. Bush!" he snapped roughly, and turned away.

 

* * * *

 

Hotspur and her prize sailed on, following a course which, according to Hornblower’s careful calculations, would place them at the rendezvous with Thesee at nearly the expected date, if their luck–and the wind–held steady. Hornblower paced his cabin, consumed with dread: knowing that he would soon present his plan–if it could indeed be dignified by such a word–to his officers. He was certain that they would easily expose its many flaws, any one of which could prove deadly.

As his officers filed in, Hornblower searched their faces for some indication of skepticism, or doubt in his ability. To his relief, the master and senior master’s mate merely appeared curious, expectant. The midshipmen wore their usual expressions of ebullient exuberance; though that was based, Hornblower thought sardonically, primarily on inexperience rather than ability. And Bush revealed nothing at all.

Hornblower’s cabin-servant provided each officer with a filled glass as they took their seats at his small table. They looked up at him, inquiringly, as if wondering why the taking of a prize required this hasty assembly.

Hornblower could justify no further delays; he took a deep breath, and began. "Gentlemen. We have taken a valuable prize."

His warrant officers grinned; the midshipmen elbowed each other. All thinking, no doubt, of the prize money in store, not to mention the notice in the Gazette.

Hornblower, watching them, hated to puncture their high spirits; knew that he must. "Fidelite does indeed carry rich stores of powder, and shot…but she carries an even more valuable cargo."

Expectant faces peered up at him. It was as though he could hear their thoughts…hidden French gold? What else could it be?

"Information, gentlemen. Information."

The faces were puzzled, now.

"Documents found in Fidelite’s cabin have informed me that she was intended to rendezvous with a third-rate, Thesee, some four days from now. Thesee herself is en route to join a French squadron. This squadron’s admiral has fallen; Thesee has a replacement aboard, as well as fresh orders. Fidelite was carrying additional orders to be relayed to this squadron. We know neither the location of the squadron, nor do we know its purpose. Nonetheless, we do know that Thesee cannot be permitted to deliver those orders, nor can we allow the admiral to join his squadron." Hornblower eyed them intently, willing them to understand.

Hotspur’s officers were silent momentarily, as they digested the implications of Hornblower’s words. They gaped at him, stunned, as they began to comprehend the enormity of the task set before them. Cargill momentarily forgot himself, and lost all decorum. "Us? Attack a 74? But Sir, with all due respect…it would be lunacy!"

Hornblower chose to ignore the lapse. "It must be done." He waved a hand toward the empty sea, visible through the stern windows. "And we must do it…there is no one else."

"Now, men…this is what I intend. Mr. Bush will command Fidelite, while we follow as his prize." He placed the palms of his hands flat on the table and leaned toward his officers, his face lit with excitement. "Thesee will, after all, be expecting her, though not with a prize in company. We shall have the element of surprise in our favour–I can think of no reason why they would doubt our…" he smiled slightly "…fidelity."

"We will signal Thesee to heave to, to receive our dispatches. And then…" Hornblower watched his officers’ faces as he outlined his plan. Disbelief gave way to understanding …and perhaps even a glimmer of hope.

It made him feel faintly ill. He had taken their doubts, and turned them to confidence. What right had he to do such a thing? Their misgivings were sensible, logical–and might even have saved their lives, kept them from pursuing what he knew was to be an almost certain, and no doubt pointless, death.

His officers mistook his abrupt quiet for a signal that the meeting was ended. Whitton, as the youngest present, leapt to his feet, quavering "Gentlemen…the King!" The reply was as enthusiastic as it was predictable. "And death to the French!" They drained their glasses and filed out of the cabin, suddenly buoyed by hope…and more than a bit of Hotspur’s rough red wine.

Bush hung back; he clearly wanted to speak privately, despite the grave risk of once again arousing Hornblower’s ire. He waited until the cabin door swung shut, then said, bluntly, "We have little chance, in a fair fight." His gaze was frank and steady. He was not speaking out of fear…merely from experience.

Hornblower smiled grimly. "Yes, Mr. Bush, I am well aware of that. But we have something the French do not–British audacity, and guile. That may prove to be the more potent weapon, after all."

 

 

 

 

 

VII

The days passed, with the master anxiously plotting their course to the expected point of rendezvous, the lookouts scanning the horizon for any hint of a ship. Much to the hands’ perplexity, Hornblower had ordered the swivel guns from both ships to be dismounted, and hoisted up to the fighting tops to be remounted there.

Hornblower paced restlessly about the deck, anxiously reviewing his plans. He watched as Bush emerged from the lower decks, and approached the quarterdeck ladder. He felt somehow reassured, watching him. Steady, dependable…a man whom he could indeed entrust with his life. And would, soon enough.

He would have to put the prize in Bush’s hands, though he would have preferred him by his side during the coming battle. No, he chided himself harshly. No more sentiment. He had most certainly learned the perils of sentiment far too well. Bush was a capable first officer, nothing more. Prowse could handle the prize well enough, under normal circumstances, but his capacity for independent action was unknown. Bush did indeed lack imagination, at times, but his courage was never in doubt.

Bush joined him; touched his hat, and said, formally "All prepared, Sir." His blue eyes were calm, and the color of the sea beyond.

Hornblower found he could not meet them. Instead, he nodded curtly, and looked away. "Very well. Pick your hands, Mr. Bush. You’ll need a reliable man as mate."

Bush sensed the distance in Hornblower’s tone; this time, he understood it, and matched it. "I shall need half the gun crews, and one of the master’s mates…and Styles, Captain. I can trust him to pick the balance of the hands. I would take Mr. Whitton as well, Sir, if I may."

"Agreed, Mr. Bush. Carry on."

"Aye, Sir." Bush touched his hat again, and left him.

From the quarterdeck, Hornblower surveyed the orderly bustle of last minute preparations. The men moved purposefully, confidently, as though undaunted by the impossibility of the task that awaited them. Though God only knew what they were thinking.

Bush re-emerged on the maindeck; Hornblower descended the quarterdeck ladder to meet him at the entry port. A boat was being lowered; any final instructions must be relayed now…or never.

Styles approached, followed by a knot of seamen. He knuckled his forehead. "Beggin’ yer pardon, Cap’n…" he turned to the first lieutenant. "Got ‘em, Mr. Bush. They ‘re all…" he looked them over, a wicked gleam in his eye, "…um, volunteers, Sir. Like me."

Bush regarded him with narrowed eyes, trying to conceal his amusement. He asked, archly, "So… you? A volunteer, eh? I would wager ‘twas the Navy or the noose for you: was it not, Styles?"

Styles eyed him with mock anger, fighting back a grin of his own. "Oh aye, Sir, ‘twas; but there was too many orficers in line fer th’ noose."

"Watch yourself, Styles…" Bush growled, though Styles could readily see the smile in his eyes.

Styles had initially disliked Bush, seeing him as just another of His Majesty’s puffed-up, self-important toadies. One more cruel and unfeeling uniform, caring little for the likes of him. That opinion had softened to a grudging respect and, God help him, affection. He had been shocked at the intense, visceral reaction deep within him when he had found Bush drenched in his own blood, seemingly near death on the deck of Renown.

That, of course, was before anyone had known about Mr. Kennedy…

He studied Bush now, as he and the Captain spoke quietly, making final confirmation of their plans. He was suddenly pleased…no, proud, to have been Bush’s choice. Bush turned back to him and smiled, almost imperceptibly. "Well then, Mr. Styles, take your volunteers…it is time we were away."

Hornblower extended his hand to Bush, who shook it formally. "Good luck, Mr. Bush."

Bush, equally expressionless, replied "Thank you, Sir. And to you as well." He replaced his hat, and was gone.

 

* * * * *

 

Bush stepped aboard the prize, surveying it critically. Guns to be prepared, watches to be set…there was much to do, and damn little time in which to do it. The wind was freshening and it had begun to rain lightly; as he looked up at the sky, his professional eye gauging the run of the clouds, the whipping tricolour caught his attention. He grimaced, and looked beyond it to Hotspur, following humbly behind, flying the tricolour over her own lowered ensign. The very sight produced a shudder. God forbid, he thought grimly.

Whitton hurried across the quarterdeck, a paper flapping damply in his hand. "Their signals list. Captain Hornblower helped me translate it, Sir…" He smiled shyly. "Er,…Captain."

Bush stood with hands on hips, eyes slitted against the blowing rain and spray, studying the set of the sails. "Aye, Mr. Whitton…my first full command." He looked down at the young midshipman with a half-smile. "Though I little thought I would be required to become a Frenchman."

The expected day of rendezvous arrived, and with it, a new challenge. The threatened storm had hit in force the night before. They were running with the wind, Hotspur and Fidelite battling gamely through the heavy sea, though both ships and their men were feeling its punishment. During the night, Hornblower had located Prowse, barely identifiable through the driving rain and spray. As he approached, Prowse turned to him, drenched despite his tarpaulin coat, water streaming from his hat. He dashed the water from his face, though the gesture was entirely futile. "Damn this weather!" He had to shout to be heard above the screaming wind.

Hornblower could only stare; at times, others’ lack of imagination was astounding. "On the contrary, Mr. Prowse! If it holds, it may make all the difference!" He touched his arm. "We shall see."

The gale had blown itself out during the night, though the sky remained dark and threatening: it lowered ominously over still-heavy seas. Hotspur’s sodden lookout, clinging wretchedly to his perch, was abruptly roused from his misery by a flash of white barely glimpsed through a far distant bank of rolling mist. He fumbled for the telescope, and began to search the horizon. At first he could see only sea-mist and sullen grey clouds; though as he studied it carefully, a stray gust of wind briefly parted the haze allowing him to catch another glimmer of white. He grinned to himself. Bloody Frogs, he thought. Spend their time bottled up snug in harbour, an’ their sails stay nice an’ white. An’ easier for us t’ find.

He lowered his telescope, and bellowed. "Deck there! ‘ere she is, Sir! Two points t’starb’d!"

Hornblower had been pacing the quarterdeck, all the while torturing himself with doubts and second thoughts. Perhaps this was all a fool’s errand. They would be seen for what they were within moments, and promptly sent to the bottom. The effect of the 74’s great broadside on his two ships’ frail hulls did not even bear thinking about.

The lookout’s call jerked his thoughts back to more immediate and practical matters. He focused his telescope on the cloudy horizon, and eventually located the French vessel. She was beating laboriously upwind…but something nagged at the edge of his thoughts. As he studied her, he realized that her outline was all wrong. It appeared that she had lost her fore and main topmasts in the previous night’s gale, and had not yet replaced them. A proper British captain would have sent his men aloft to make repairs in any weather–and proper British seamen would have done so, without question or complaint. Her lack of topmasts–and their attendant sails–caused her to roll steeply in the heavy sea. The very sight caused Hornblower’s stomach to lurch uncomfortably, though the French captain must have preferred seasickness to carrying out repairs in dirty weather.

Hornblower gratefully allowed the image of the pitching ship to fall away, and turned his glass on Fidelite. He easily found Bush at the rail, studying the drunkenly rolling Thesee through his own glass. We shall see just how intuitive this man really is, he thought grimly. He took a soggy scrap of paper from his pocket, and scribbled a few letters on it.

He passed the paper to the signals midshipman. "Hoist them now, but lower as soon as they are read." Thesee was still too far off for any lookout to recognize the flags as British, but there was no reason to take unnecessary chances. The midshipman scurried off, rapidly pawed thorough the signals locker, and bent on several flags. As they soared upward, Hornblower studied Bush through his glass. He watched as Bush turned to speak to Whitton, who promptly raised one of his own.

‘Acknowledged’. Oh God, let us hope so.

 

 

VIII

 

"Mr. Whitton, keep the French signals list with you…be prepared to hoist on my command."

Bush strode slowly along the deck, speaking to the men at the guns, knowing that for some, this day would surely be their last. He knew it, and they knew it. He had explained the plan of attack to them…he was convinced they understood, though he was far less certain of their confidence in its potential for success. To their credit, they gave no sign of misgivings. He forced a smile. "Remember that French frigate, men, when we were on blockade? How it galled me to give them passing honours, rather than a broadside."

Several of the men chuckled softly. One of the gun captains grinned up at him. "Don’ ye worry on’t, Sir…we’ll show ‘em a proper British salute this mornin’!"

Bush marveled at their quiet courage and acceptance, and felt humbled, unworthy of it. He smiled again, ignoring the lump in his throat, and nodded. "You will indeed, men. Now, however, you must attempt to resemble Frenchmen."

The men moved away from their guns, and rapidly busied themselves with maintaining the appearance of normal ship’s routine. Bush allowed himself a flicker of cautious optimism. He had immediately noted that Thesee’s gunports were completely awash as she wallowed in the heavy sea; he had thought, with considerable satisfaction, that at least the lower battery would be forced to remain silent, halving the danger. It had taken Hornblower’s hasty signal to awaken the realization that the closed gunport lids represented Thesee’s achilles’ heel. Fidelite and Hotspur sat far too low in the water to bring their guns to bear on the 74’s maindeck; and their nine-pound popguns had no hope of penetrating Thesee’s stout timbers, even at close range–but the far less substantial port lids would be exceedingly vulnerable.

He had explained this to his men…and they believed him. Trusted him. Good God, he thought.

But would any of them see another day? Would he set foot aboard Hotspur once more? He was unafraid, yet could not readily dismiss his stiffly formal departure from his thoughts. Hornblower was so aloof, so rigid; they might have been strangers. Kennedy would have grinned, and quoted Shakespeare, no doubt. He surprised himself by recalling something he had read to Kennedy, there in the prison hospital…anything to keep the boy’s mind from dwelling on his pain…or on Horatio’s. Yes, the Kennedy he remembered might well have smiled through his fears, and quoted "Sound all the lofty instruments of war, And by that music let us all embrace; For, heaven to earth, some of us never shall A second time do such a courtesy." He smiled slightly, and shook his head in wonder. Archie would have never believed it…William Bush quoting from Henry IV. The smile froze on his lips; he shuddered slightly as the hair rose on the back of his neck. The man who had spoken those lines had been…Hotspur. And there had been no second time, for him. ##

Bush forced those unwelcome…and most uncharacteristic…thoughts from his mind. More immediate and urgent matters would require his attention, and soon. There would be time enough for contemplation later…with luck.

"Mr. Whitton, run up their signal for "Heave to, have urgent…repeat urgent… dispatches for admiral." Whitton consulted the list of private signals recovered from Fidelite’s cabin, and hoisted what he hoped were the appropriate flags. Bush saw the 74 shorten sail…to his astonishment, their ruse appeared to be working. Bush stood at the rail, speaking trumpet in hand, as though preparing to hail. He was hatless, his tarpaulin coat concealing his uniform…indistinguishable from any French officer.

Thesee lay hove to, awaiting them. As Fidelite slowly worked alongside her, Bush studied her carefully. Even with sails flat aback, she still rolled dramatically in the heavy sea, her lower gunports frequently awash. He was relieved to see that they had not gone to quarters; all activity on deck was seemingly focused on welcoming the arrival of one of their own.

He bellowed something unintelligible through the trumpet, then gestured to his men, who busily began to rig a line from Fidelite to Thesee. The seas were far too heavy to risk lowering a boat; swaying the dispatches over on a line would be the expected course of action. Still, it was a tricky operation…and the preparations were sufficiently intricate to keep Thesee’s officers preoccupied. Perhaps so much so that Hotspur’s maneuvering would not arouse undue suspicion. His men were clearly enjoying themselves, despite the imminent danger–they worked clumsily, at a snail’s pace, as though having thumbs instead of fingers.

Bush could see Hotspur working her way into position on the larb’d side of Thesee, though the 74’s officers were far too distracted to take notice of her. God willing, he could keep them so. He stared up at the faces peering down at him from the quarterdeck rail. One shouted at him angrily, impatient at the delay and at the incompetence of the corvette’s crew. Bush grinned foolishly up at them, spread his hands, and shrugged theatrically.

A new face joined the furious officers…a sour-looking man in an admiral’s uniform looked down at him with distaste. At last, thought Bush, more than ready to end their fragile charade. Still feigning the inane grin, he turned to Whitton. "Run up our proper flag…I’ll be a Frenchman no longer! And Whitton…nail it up." With that simple gesture, he assured his men that they would never surrender–if their flag fell, it would not be a British hand that struck it. As Fidelite’s true ensign soared aloft, Bush watched stunned realization begin to dawn on the faces of the French officers–but for only a brief moment.

For at that signal, the men in the maintops of both ships threw back the canvas that concealed them and opened fire, sweeping the French quarterdeck not far below them. The murderous hail of grape from the swivels turned the once dignified, orderly quarterdeck into a horror–a charnel-house of tangled, writhing men, gasping and dying in a sea of their own blood. The gunners jeered wildly, hurling epithets along with their shot, half-drunk with the success of their onslaught. They fired, and fired, and fired again…long after all the torn bodies were still.

Later their minds would shrink from the contemplation of what they had done. Officers, men like themselves, cut down unmercifully without warning, with no chance at all for their own defense. At the time, though, the pitiless butchery of those officers was the price of their only chance at life, and thus paid without second thought.

The gun crews dropped all pretense and scrambled to take up their positions. "Fire as your guns bear!" Bush shouted, and stared in awe as Thesee’s gun port lids splintered under the strength of the double-shorted nine-ponders.

Hornblower, aboard Hotspur, could barely hear the reports of Fidelite’s guns above his own. He watched with satisfaction as each of the lower gunports erupted, sending clouds of murderous splinters inboard. His gunners continued to pour shot after shot through the now-open ports, joined now by carronade fire. The ‘smasher’ was surely living up to its nickname–some of the lower ports were now great yawning holes, through which the sea was relentlessly surging. He could only imagine the chaos aboard: officers lying dead on the shattered quarterdeck, unable to direct their men, no-one at quarters, nothing struck below…thus every shot that penetrated Thesee’s foundering hull was doubtless shattering moveable bulkheads, furniture, and the like, transforming them into deadly flying daggers. And, as near as he could tell, this madness was descending from both sides at once.

As Hotspur slid slowly past Thesee’s side, Hornblower was gratified to note that none of Thesee’s upper gunports had yet been opened, no guns were run out. His marines in the maintops were maintaining a steady rate of fire on the upper gundeck, and no doubt cutting down any hastily-mustered crews that attempted to do so. He smiled grimly. Regardless of the outcome, they had struck once with authority. Against all odds, his two insignificant vessels had accomplished their seemingly preposterous mission. The French squadron had been deprived of its admiral, orders, and a third-rate. It would take time to recover from those losses. Time enough, perhaps, for the squadron itself to be located, and destroyed.

They had pulled ahead of the stricken Thesee when Hornblower heard a report from astern; Hotspur’s deck shuddered under his feet. Some brave soul had managed to get Thesee’s bow-chaser into action, and had struck Hotspur’s stern. Too little, too late, he thought. A sudden shout from the helmsman quickly turned his satisfaction to alarm. "Sir…she don’t answer!" The wheel spun uselessly, as if to confirm his words. Silently, Hornblower cursed himself for his premature confidence. "Mr. Cargill! Get the carpenter; I want helm restored! Now!" he barked.

As Fidelite also overreached Thesee, Bush saw with alarm that Hotspur was drifting, clearly no longer under control: her topsails flapped and banged in confusion. Bush could see a party of men hurrying to repair the rudder yoke lines. But that would take time, precious time which Hotspur did not have. Already the 74 had begun to ponderously maneuver round. Thesee was low in the water, clearly doomed; the sea rushing in through her splintered lower gunports had seen to that. But she was still deadly as a wounded, cornered beast: one well-placed broadside from those great guns would be more than enough.

He heard his own voice, as if from far away… "God keep all vows unbroke are made to thee…" * Damned if he would allow Hornblower’s ‘life well lived’ to end here, or to be spent mouldering in some filthy French prison. He had promised…but, he realized, it was far more than that. His loyalty was not to the promise; it was to the man.

But there was little else he could do but watch, helplessly. Unless… An idea occurred to him. Wild, yes…but it just might work. "Pass the word to the helmsman: prepare to put the helm hard over to larb’d, on my command".

Whitton stared at him, wide-eyed. "But Mr. Bush, Sir. We will surely ram her!"

Bush smiled tightly. "I should hope so…it is what I intend." He glanced around the lithe vessel’s deck. Such a pity to lose her. "Run out the starb’d guns, as though we plan to come round and rake her stern. Then, Mr. Whitton…you will lower the boats to larb’d and make ready to get your people off. You will have little time: we will have a soldier’s wind behind us, so we should strike her with considerable force. Have the swimmers among you jump if they must. Hotspur will pick you up", he hesitated slightly, "…after."

"And you, Sir?"

"I will fire the magazine when we collide. With luck, we will take her…and her bloody admiral… with us to the bottom."

"But Sir… you will not…" he faltered, then drew himself to attention. Lifted his chin, and looked Bush steadily in the eye. "Aye, aye, Sir."

Bush watched the boy as he moved quickly amongst the gun crews, explaining what was to be expected of them. He spoke to the men–some two or three times his age–with respect, yet there was no uncertainty in his tone. He would be obeyed. The proper mix of respect and authority, it was: Bush had discovered long ago that it was a thing that could not be taught. Either one knew it instinctively or would never learn. This boy understood. Boy? Bush shook his head. If the lad survived this day, he would be a boy no longer.

Styles appeared, as if by magic, at his side. "By yer leave, Sir…I’ll stay wi’ ye. Th’ lad’s right…ye’ll need ‘nother hand. "Besides…" Styles looked at him, his battered face all innocence…or as close to it as he could muster, "I …kin swim."

Bush calmly watched as they closed the distance to the 74; she was mortally wounded, yet lethal, and must not be allowed to deliver her dying blow. This was the moment; there would be no turning back. "Helm! Hard t’ larb’d…NOW!"

Bush felt the corvette swing nimbly round, answering the helm like a highly trained steed, and for the first time in his life, silently blessed the French shipwrights who had built her. English ships, it was said, were ‘built by the mile and cut off as needed’. He smiled wryly. And they frequently handled as such.

With the wind at her back, the corvette’s sails filled to capacity; Bush could hear the groans of the rigging, straining in response. She quickly picked up speed: the distance between the vessels narrowed alarmingly. There was a sudden lurch as the corvette’s bowsprit buried itself in Thesee’s side. The wind continued to force them ever deeper: Bush could hear the sickening sound of snapping timbers. Some of the cracking was coming from aloft; the corvette’s masts would come crashing down in a wild confusion of spars and rigging at any moment. He spun round. "Get ‘em off, Mr. Whitton! Now!" he bellowed. Without waiting for a reply, he disappeared through the hatch.

 

 

IX

 

Hornblower watched Thesee inexorably bearing down on them; they were unable to escape her wrath. He turned furiously to the helmsman, who shook his head sadly. "Nothin’ yet, Sir."

"God damn them…what are they doing? Do they think we have all day? Mr. Cargill!" he bellowed. "Can you shift a carronade to bring it to bear? Take what men you need–and get it done! Now!" He knew it would not be enough…but he would not simply stand here and wait.

Hornblower could no longer see Fidelite, concealed as she was by Thesee, whose side was beginning to loom over Hotspur like a great cliff. He could hear no more reports from Fidelite’s nine-pounders. What had happened to her? Would this be the end, for all of them? He pounded his fist into his palm with frustration. If he only knew… Suddenly a great wall of flame and smoke erupted from the far side of the 74, followed by a hot wind and a deafening roar that seemed to roll on and on over Hornblower and his stunned, stricken men. Thesee staggered heavily, as though she had struck a reef.

As the thunder subsided, Hornblower cautiously picked himself up from the deck where he had been tossed like a rag doll, and gazed with stunned awe at the scene before him. Of the corvette there was little sign, save for her boats, filled to capacity…and the fragments of still smoldering debris floating dispiritedly on the surface. But her loss had not been in vain. Thesee was listing perilously, a great gaping rent in her hull, only partly visible above the angry wavecrests. The sea was rushing madly through it, and through her splintered lower gunports. Her sails were alight and burning fiercely. Men ran frantically about her slanted deck as it settled ever lower, some leaping into the sea. Few could swim, though drowning was infinitely preferable to the death that awaited them in the flames.

For a long while, there was only silence aboard Hotspur. Slowly the men began to recover their senses, though few could tear their eyes away from the dreadful sight for long. There was a sudden flurry of activity at Hotspur’s entry port: Fidelite’s boats were hooking up to the chains and dripping, grateful seamen were being helped inboard to a chorus of cheers. Midshipman Whitton came aft, shivering, yet single-mindedly seeking his captain.

"Report, Mr. Whitton," Hornblower demanded briskly, while trying vainly to convince himself that the boy’s miserable countenance was due to cold, and shock, and not…something else.

"Captain, Sir…" Whitton blurted, then took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and began again. "Captain. We carried out the initial attack as planned; as predicted, the grape from the swivels took a heavy toll on the enemy quarterdeck. Our gun crews are to be commended; they kept their heads and maintained a steady rate of fire. Double shotted, the balls did indeed penetrate the gun port lids, preventing return fire, and Thesee to begin to founder. After pulling ahead of Thesee, Mr. Bush observed that Hotspur’s steering had gone. It was then that he decided to ram her, and ignite the powder after impact. He instructed me to supervise the evacuation of the crew, which I carried out."

Hornblower nodded: the lad had done well. "Very good. And what of Mr. Bush, Mr. Whitton?"

At Hornblower’s words, the boy’s composure evaporated as though it had never been. "Sir…oh, Sir…he went below…lit the powder… I looked and looked, in the water…but I think he’s…he’s…he’s gone, Sir." Tears streaked his face: for that moment, he was no longer a capable officer, only a terrified and grief-stricken boy. "He knew, Sir. Knew he would not…" the boy fell silent, unable to speak the words.

Hornblower gripped his hands tightly behind his back. "I expected nothing less from him. It is the duty of every King’s officer to give his life freely when necessary. I would have hoped you had learned that lesson before now, Mr. Whitton."

"But…but Sir…" The boy’s words ended in something very like a sob.

Hornblower rounded violently on him, his eyes dangerously cold. "Attend to your duties, Mr. Whitton. At once, or you shall…" he faltered. "NOW."

He turned away, looking out over the bleak sea. The unspoken words–Bush’s words of not so very long ago–still hung in the air. ‘…or you shall renew your acquaintance with the gunner’s daughter…’

Why would anyone choose this life? he wondered. Death, and loss; such constant companions, their spectres always at one’s elbow. One of the few things, in Navy life, that could be relied upon. He had not chosen it; rather, it had been thrust upon him. For Bush, though, there had never been anything else.

He had talked about it with Bush, once, when they were on blockade, marveling at Bush’s enviable coolness under fire, his apparent lack of fear. Bush had confided to him then that he was unafraid of death in battle; on the contrary, he fully expected it. Was always astonished to find himself alive, after the smoke had cleared. His sole concern was that it would be a quick death; to not spend his last moments on this earth unmanned, screaming under the teeth of the surgeon’s saw. He wished only to have served his country well, and to have died honourably, with purpose.

Hornblower sighed heavily. That he had. At least Bush would get the recognition he deserved; though that would be precious little comfort to his family. It had been a wise thing to distance himself from Bush when he had, he thought. Perhaps it would not hurt so much, this time. He winced: he had never been skilled in the art of self-deception.

A shout penetrated his dismal reverie. "Captain! Captain!"

Matthews was hastily reopening the entry port. He yelled over his shoulder, face tight with concern. "Get a bowline down ‘ere–now!"

Hornblower walked slowly to the side, not daring to hope, and looked down to find Styles balancing precariously on a section of wreckage while fitting the line around a dazed-looking Bush. Bush awkwardly wrapped an arm around the rope, and was hauled unceremoniously inboard. Styles followed close behind, and helped him regain his feet; though Bush still gratefully accepted the support of the burly seaman’s proffered arm.

Hornblower dispassionately examined his first lieutenant. Dripping, his uniform–what remained of it–hung in scorched tatters. Bush dabbed with his forearm at the blood and seawater that ran freely from somewhere near his hairline; as he did so, Hornblower noted that his hand was blackened and badly blistered. A quick glance told him that the other was much the same. "You are well, I trust, Mr. Bush?"

Bush straightened to an admirable semblance of attention. "Well enough, Sir."

"Go below to the surgeon; I do not require you at the moment."

"Aye, Sir" He nodded to Styles, turned, and walked unsteadily toward the hatchway.

Hornblower watched him go. "Tell me, Styles…what happened over there?"

" ‘E planned to blow ‘er sky-high, Sir, an’ take the Frenchie wi’ ‘im. ‘E ordered me off, Sir, wi’ the rest. But I…I couldn’t leave ‘im. Dyin’ alone, Sir…’tain’t right."

Styles’ eyes were full of emotion…could it be compassion? A far cry from the violent, hardened man he had found aboard Justinian, a lifetime ago.

"Anyways, Sir, I ‘elped ‘im set some fuses." He grinned wearily; it made the big scarred man look oddly vulnerable. "Guess we cut ‘em too short. Th’ trigger charge went off in Mr. Bush’s ‘ands, an’ th’ whole thing blew afore we got through th’ ‘atch. Blew us right overboard, it did. I dragged Mr. Bush onto a bit of planking…an’ th’ rest y’know, Sir."

 

"Very good, Styles; I thank you for your service. I shall see that you receive a mention in my report."

 

X

 

Lieutenant William Bush stood formally before his Captain’s desk, impassively delivering his report documenting the events aboard Fidelite prior to her destruction. Released by the surgeon, he had reported to the cabin as though for Sunday divisions: clean and shaved, in a fresh uniform, his hat tucked neatly under his arm…only the plaster covering a deep cut on his temple and the bandages on his seared hands betrayed the closeness of death only hours before.

"…and that is all, Sir, except for my intent to commend my entire crew, particularly Mr. Whitton and bosun’s mate Styles, for their courage today."

"Thank you, Mr. Bush…you are dismissed." Hornblower bent once again over his official report. Bush took a few steps toward the cabin door but hesitated, one bandaged hand on the latch, and turned back.

"I regret, Captain, that your prize was lost."

Hornblower did not raise his eyes from the papers. "Yes, yes, Mr. Bush…unfortunate, but it could not be helped." An audible note of exasperation crept into his voice. "You are DISMISSED, Mr. Bush."

He heard the cabin door close; only then did he look up. He studied the closed door, his face grave. Thought of Bush and his near-sacrifice, so willingly offered…so very like another’s. "No, Mr. Bush…you are wrong, this time," he said quietly. "My prize was not lost, and…I am glad of it."

He rose abruptly; covered the distance to the cabin door in two strides. Flung it open.

"Mr. Bush–William–come back."

 

 

Finis

 

 

‘Tis neither promise nor prayer nor show

Will settle the matter for ‘ee.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine of ‘em go

By your looks, or your acts, or your glory.

But if he finds you and you find him,

The rest of the world don’t matter;

For the Thousandth Man will sink or swim

With you in any water.

 

 

*Quoted directly from Give the Devil His Due by PJ: This lovely piece, and its companion, William’s Penance, are found in the hhfic archive. Used with PJ’s gracious permission. There are other indirect references used throughout as well, but not noted.

 

**Based, as most of you undoubtedly know, on an actual incident. The British frigate Nymphe, under Captain Edward Pellew, captured the French frigate Cleopatre, July 19, 1793. The boarding party found the Cleopatre’s captain (his name was Mullon, not DeShayes) near death but attempting to eat what he thought was his private list of coastal signals. It was, in fact, his commission. His bravery and devotion to duty, even in extremis, always touched me. Pellew must have been moved as well: he carried the captain’s body back to England and buried him with honour in a Portsmouth churchyard.

DeShayes was also real, and that was his coat of arms: French, reading Heart of Oak. Another man entirely; he came to America with Lafayette and served as a private during the Revolutionary War. But that’s a different story…

 

#Archie’s brief assignment aboard Innominate is described in Second Chances; found in the hhfic archive.

 

##Henry IV, Part I. Act V, Scene II.

 

The real Thesee (74) was lost at Quiberon Bay. Fighting in a heavy gale, she left her lower gunports open, foundered, and sank. Not so dramatic as being irrevocably damaged by Bush’s self-sacrificing explosion, but equally effective.

 

Idler