The Past and the Future
Horatio Hornblower was drowning. Odd that of all the means of death he had seen too closely, he had never feared this one that now came to claim him.
He tried and failed to kick off his shoes, which were weighing him down horribly. Why had he been so foolish as to enter the water while still wearing his broadcloth coat – and his boat cloak? He fumbled for the clasp. His mind worked with insane rapidity. Some unseen force must have propelled him unprepared into the depths. He could not see; the water was too murky. He could not tell which way was up, which way lay air and freedom and life. And the clasp of his cloak pressed against his throat, choking him. Strange. Drowning felt like nothing so much as pressure, not from without, but from within. His lungs must be filling with seawater. He was drowning. He supposed he would be with Maria soon … and the children … the weight was unbearable.
Hornblower turned restlessly and a little moan escaped him. Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, grim with anxiety, laid a hand on the forehead of the sweat-soaked and feverish figure slumped pitifully in the corner of the carriage.
He had known something was wrong the moment the Regina had made her anchorage in Portsmouth. He had been pacing, awaiting with impatience the ship’s arrival. Granted that it was most unusual behaviour for an admiral who could easily have had a clerk meet the ship and command her commodore’s attendance in his offices. Having recently had to dispose of a clerk whose loyalties had proved to be with France, however, he was in no mood to trust anyone. Spying had become positively pestilential.
Then the Regina had come in – but the figure on the quarterdeck was not the one he expected. Instead of the familiar gangling silhouette of the commodore was … Pellew had squinted and whipped out his glass. He knew that captain … Bush, that was his name. Where the devil was Hornblower?
Pellew saw the Regina’s cutter jerk through the choppy inshore waters and tie up. A startlingly young midshipman trotted up and saluted, handing Pellew a note. Pellew read it, frowning, and subconsciously noted the approach of Captain Bush from the cutter.
Bush drew himself to attention and saluted sharply. “I had thought it best not to signal my news, sir,” and Pellew had been surprised at the knot that had formed in his throat. Instantly he had grasped the importance of getting Hornblower off and away quietly, to keep down dockside gossip.
Accordingly he had taken the cutter back to Regina and, with Hornblower’s servant, Brown, had seen to helping the stumbling figure into the cutter and then ashore and into a carriage with a minimum of fuss instead of having him swayed down like a bundle of rations. Hornblower, barely conscious, was horribly pallid, unshaven, sweat-soaked and trembling. He knew nothing of his surroundings and seemed unaware that he was being moved at all.
So it had come to this. Pellew’s thoughts had completed their grim circle and he was back to gazing with apprehension at this invalid sleeping fitfully, slumped damply against the carriage window.
“You say he’s been like this … how long?” he asked abruptly. Bush stirred uneasily.
“Better than a week, sir.”
“M’m. What’s changed in the last week aboard the Regina?”
“Nothing in the last week, sir – except for the commodore’s illness – a few months back we lost the cook’s mate to desertion, sir…” Bush’s voice trailed off at the inconsequence of it. He was unprepared for the interest that flickered across Pellew’s weathered face.
“Did you replace him?”
“Er, yes, sir,” Bush replied. “Found a boy off an Indiaman who seemed quite keen at signing up for the King’s shilling, sir.” Bush blushed at having unthinkingly used such common talk to his admiral. Pellew, however, ignored it.
“H’m,” was all Pellew said. “H’m.” Both men relapsed into silence, each wrapped in his own thoughts, each giving Hornblower frequent looks. Hornblower, for his part, was entirely insensible, shivering fitfully, pale and sweat-soaked, his teeth chattering as though he would never be warm again.
The carriage drew up at last at Smallbridge. “Brown,” Pellew snapped. “Go and find Lady Hornblower. Let her know what to expect.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Bush and Pellew waited in silence for some long minutes until Brown came trotting back. Lady Hornblower was with him. Pellew winced, then sighed. Nothing for it now. He could only hope that she did not faint.
He summoned his charm, though feeling like a hypocrite, and greeted her. Her greeting was remarkably cool and restrained and Pellew found himself admiring her in spite of himself. She paled and drew herself erect at the sight of her strong, confident husband reduced to such a state, but said nothing, and sensibly stood back while Brown with some little effort tugged Hornblower free from the sweat-drenched tangles of his cloak, which clung wetly to the leather seats. With the cloak at last removed, it was a simple matter for Brown to lift the unconscious figure into his powerful arms.
A hand. A large, strong hand pressed down on his shoulder, twisting, wrenching. By God! The unseen force was not rescuing him but hastening the end. Hornblower choked back a sob. The French, the French … the pressure on his throat from the clasp suddenly eased. Something was lifting him from the tangles of cloak and seaweed and unbearable weight of water that was churning him down, down, down … now up, up, up.
He was a child, having fallen asleep in the nursery, and his father was lifting him gently to convey him to bed. The movement wakened him, but it was so pleasant to be in Father’s arms that he pretended. Father’s arms were never so big and strong.
No, not Father. Someone with a different voice speaking over his head, the chest vibrating with the sound.
“Not at all, milady,” said Brown’s voice. Milady! Brown! He must have been wounded in action. But a commodore should not leave his quarterdeck in such circumstances. Especially should he not allow himself to be carried off. And what the devil was Barbara doing on the deck? He had ordered her below.
“No,” he moaned, and the grip tightened.
“Easy, sir. Take it easy, sir,” Brown chided, and somehow it seemed better to sink back into the sturdy cradle of those powerful arms. Hornblower felt his head sag back and loll against the strong shoulder. Then the darkness closed in again.
The boy had been loitering on the docks when he had overheard a bit of idle gossip about the ship that had just come in. Regina, seventy-four, flagship of Commodore Sir Horatio Hornblower.
“As if the cook weren’t grouchy enough,” the seaman had grumbled. “Now with ’is mate gone, ’e’ll be a sight worse.”
“And fool enough to desert in Jamaica,” the second had added. “Tropical disease’ll get ’im soon enough.”
That had been the boy’s opening; finer than he had hoped, and it had fallen into his lap, a reward for a year of patient waiting, a year of diplomatic persuasion in staving off his superior’s increasing itch to put the plan in motion. And now – and now! The boy caught his breath at the thought of how handsomely he would be rewarded. With Hornblower out of the picture, the British would be without a damnably foresighted officer, one who had been a thorn in the side of the French for far too long. That critical absence so high up the ladder, combined with the really valuable information the spy had purchased with his life, should do the trick at last. If the plan succeeded, the French would finally have the upper hand at sea. And there was no limit to the reward that Bonaparte himself would shower on someone both brave enough to be in the thick of it and courageous enough to come from the British side to the French in the teeth of the war.
His heart thudding, he had casually lengthened his stride so he was along the seamen.
“Your pardon,” he had said, a bit loudly.
“Begone, wharf rat,” the larger one had said, raising a huge fist to clout him. But the boy had stood his ground.
“You’re off the Regina,” he’d said.
“What if we are?”
“You need a cook’s mate, I heard you say so.” He had no need to fear his accent. It was mostly English, with only faint traces of his long-gone Irish father, and no hint of French.
“A cook’s mate,” the larger one said, “not a wharf rat.”
“I been cook’s mate on a Indiaman for a year,” he said stoutly.
The smaller one narrowed his gaze. “Cushy digs,” he said sceptically. “No need to leave, eh?”
The boy looked round as if to ensure privacy. “Captain’s a … you know.” He mimicked raising a bottle to his lips and was rewarded with a short laugh from the larger one.
“Oh, come along,” the larger one said finally.
That quickly, he had got on board. It was another stroke of fantastic luck that the steward had had the great misfortune to be swept overboard and drowned a month later. By then, it had seemed only natural that the cook’s mate, who had proved himself quick and biddable, should be promoted to the position.
The quality of the food had scarcely changed with the appointment of a new steward. So long as the boy could make coffee, Hornblower had hardly taken note of him. He was quick, polite, and efficient, though Hornblower had early on had to rebuke what seemed to be an undue curiosity about the Regina’s orders.
“What’s this?” Hornblower had asked one evening, pleasantly enough. He glanced from the plate up to the steward, who after three weeks in his position had learned the commodore’s tastes.
“Ackee and saltfish, sir,” the boy said. “Very popular in Jamaica, sir.”
Hornblower glanced back at the plate, at the boiled fish stirred in with onions, peppers, bacon, and tomato. Also on the plate was apparently the ackee, a fruit of which he had heard but never tasted.
“Very well, thank you,” Hornblower had replied. He cast an amused glance at Bush across the table, whose expression was dubious. Bush was highly suspicious of what he termed “foreign kickshaws.”
“Fish and fruit, Captain Bush,” Hornblower had said, grinning. “Not even turnips.”
Bush had scowled as he picked up his fork, and Hornblower carefully hid his amusement as he watched Bush meticulously avoid the fruit on his plate.
But it had been Hornblower who had been taken sick. At first he thought it was his old nemesis, seasickness; the wind had freshened considerably with the approaching gale. He reeled to his water closet and vomited, groaning, furious with himself for his weakness. He heard Bush’s bellow to shorten sail and groaned again at the resulting jerk and pitch of the ship.
He bellowed for his steward – or meant to; all that came out was a hoarse croak. The boy promptly stuck his head in and displayed remarkable imperturbability at the sight of the commodore curled in his cot like a baby.
“Bring me something to drink,” Hornblower rasped. His head was pounding and his heart racing. His lips felt cracked and parched. His tongue cleaved to his palate; his mouth bore a foul taste. With clinical surprise he noticed his hands trembling uncontrollably.
“Drink, damn you,” Hornblower croaked. “Water – cider – anything. Quickly.” He thought he might die of thirst. In all his years at sea, years of shortened water rations, years of service in blistering tropical heat, years of labour and sweat, he had never felt so thirsty in all his life. It was as though his body were a sponge not just wrung dry but made sere and cracked by prolonged drought.
With gratifying quickness the boy vanished and reappeared with a jug of water. By now heedless of the need to appear aloof in front of his servant, Hornblower gulped it down, then with a groan felt it spew down his shirt front and onto the floor.
The surgeon frowned at the sight of the commodore made most undignified by illness.
“What did he eat?” the doctor demanded. The boy appeared bewildered.
“Saltfish and ackee fruit, sir. Captain Bush dined with’m,” he added in a burst of inspiration.
“Is the captain ill?”
“No, sir.” The boy did not say that when he had taken up the plates, he had observed that Bush had not partaken of the fruit.
The surgeon had hesitated to try bleeding. In truth, he had never seen anything like it. It might well be some tropical disease, perhaps Jamaican vomiting sickness; at the thought the unfortunate man had actually wrung his hands: the patient either recovered or died. Through the next twenty-four hours, the surgeon had administered willow bark and laudanum, both of which Hornblower had vomited back up, and had managed to get some water into the commodore. The surgeon was utterly bewildered by the uncontrollable tremors that had seized the commodore throughout the night and was reconsidering his decision on bleeding; but by morning the tremors had abated.
Even after the worst had passed, Hornblower had lain on his cot, feebly disgusted with himself for his weakness. Though he was no longer vomiting, and able to keep down a little water and bread, his legs were too weak to keep him upright, and his head swam whenever he lifted it from his pillow. His head continued to throb unmercifully. No amount of water could quench his thirst, and in any event, his stomach could not bear to take much.
Then the chills began. Sweating, restlessness, a miasma of nightmares that tormented his waking as well as his sleeping hours. The fever gripped him and rose inexorably. His teeth clattered. He rubbed his arms in a vain effort to warm himself; he tossed in his cot; icy sweat beaded his brow and neck. Every breath was a torment. He felt as though he were dragging air through sodden sackcloth, fighting to fill his lungs. His chest heaved and trembled under the strain of his efforts and in brief moments of lucidity he wondered why he continued to exert himself.
William Bush had seen Hornblower pacing more times than he could count without ever being tempted into the habit himself until now. A lifetime in the King’s service had made Bush stoically philosophical and disinclined to fret about unknown fates. This, however, was different. Hornblower, not only his commodore but the closest thing Bush could count to a friend, was deathly ill, and the surgeon was at his wit’s end. He had finally bled the man, to no avail.
“Might be influenza,” he had said finally. “The fever and chills speak to it.”
“But what of the vomiting – the tremors, man?” Bush had snapped.
The surgeon had shaken his head in bafflement. “No telling. It might be influenza – and it might not.” At that, the surgeon had withdrawn. Bush had abandoned his fruitless pacing and sat by the commodore’s bed as Hornblower had once sat by his in Kingston. He did not know what to say, but it mattered little. He held Hornblower’s hand, and when Hornblower moaned in his delirium, Bush uttered soothing nonsense, its tone seeming to quiet the restless patient.
And so it had been until Bush saw the Regina safely into anchorage.
While the Regina had been at sea, of course, there had been no-one except the surgeon to attend Hornblower. Moreover, though no-one would have dared say it, a commodore ill was a confounded nuisance in the running of a ship. Now that Hornblower was at Smallbridge, he became the centre of activity and concern, and there was no shortage of medical care. Sir Walter Farquhar himself came from London to examine the great British officer, the hero of Riga. Though still feeble, Hornblower was by then able to give his own account of his troubles, though he thought it unenlightening.
Farquhar, it seemed, was equally unenlightened. The silence lengthened as Farquhar stood gazing out the windows onto the garden below. “Tremors, you say, but they stopped, though. And the vomiting stopped but you still have not been able to keep down much.”
“No.” Then, more firmly, “What is it?”
“I don’t know.” The words came out from Farquhar in a reluctant mumble, with the great man’s gaze fixed unseeing out the windows. It was very seldom that Farquhar, who attended His Majesty, had to admit a lack of knowledge.
“Will I die, then?”
Farquhar started at the blunt question. He whirled round at stared at the figure in the bed: the face drawn and pallid, hair tumbled, hands restless on the bed-covers. The great Hornblower, a feeble shade. And yet he still had his customary directness.
Farquhar pursed his lips. “Likely not,” he finally said. “If you haven’t died yet, likely not.” He paused. “I should like to consult a colleague, by your leave, Sir Horatio. I fear I cannot explain, sir, your present condition.” He cleared his throat. “I should advise Sir Henry Halford. He is an expert on pleurisy and lung fever and the like.”
“Very well,” Hornblower said. “I should be greatly obliged if you would be kind enough to request him to attend me here – I regret that I am unable to do so myself at the moment.”
When Halford arrived, he examined Hornblower thoroughly and asked many of the same questions as had Farquhar.
“This is not an ordinary condition,” he said finally. “If you would be so good as to allow me to consult with Sir Walter, we will return.”
“Very well,” Hornblower murmured thickly. It had been tiring to submit to so many questions. He wanted nothing more than to sleep; though he knew he would be tormented by strange and vivid dreams and awaken drenched in a cold sweat, heart pounding, chest painfully heaving and straining. Always when he awoke, whether he knew himself or not, there was Barbara by his bed. He was far too ill to wonder whether she ever left his side; he only knew the murmur of her familiar voice, the rise and fall of her soothing words, the blessedly cool touch of her slender fingers, the flash of color of her gown.
For three long days the eminent physicians conferred, argued, debated. None of the commodore’s symptoms quite aligned with a ready diagnosis. Overlapping illnesses were suggested, a latent hereditary condition, a range of tropical diseases. At last, and seemingly no clearer in their minds about their difficulties, the gentlemen returned to Smallbridge.
What Farquhar and Halford saw made them even more discouraged, if that were possible. Hornblower’s face was gray and drawn and the cheeks hectic with fever. The eyelids fluttered incessantly, revealing eyes glazed and too bright. A hand to the chest showed a stumbling heartbeat and the warmth of a rise in temperature. Halford felt beneath his expert palm the pull and struggle of the lungs, working too hard to draw in and expel air. Hornblower seemed to know that someone was in the room, but his lucidity was questionable. He mumbled an unintelligible sound of acknowledgement and tossed his head restlessly upon the pillows, a hand flapping feebly as if in greeting. The patient’s wife, the elegant and lovely Lady Barbara Hornblower, stood by the head of the bed and patiently dabbed at his forehead, though he seemed ignorant of her presence. She smiled gracefully, murmured a greeting, and slipped from the room.
The eminent physicians did not notice the suspicious brightness in her eyes, the reddened tip of her nose, the tension in her slim fingers. They did not know – no-one did – that she retired from the chambers to her own dressing-room and surrendered to another flood of tears, heedless of the loss of control. Horatio had returned, usually an occasion for great gladness and enormous relief, but this wasted, feeble figure was not the tender and gentle husband she knew. Instead she was faced, before her very eyes, with watching him gripped by a fever she could not ease and weakness she could not strengthen. Twisting her hands in her lap, she found herself praying that these famous men would have an answer.
Farquhar withdrew to where Halford stood by the windows. The latter courteously inclined his head to hear the former’s murmur. “Nothing we have discussed seems to quite fit the symptoms.”
“Nevertheless,” Halford murmured back. “It would be most injurious to our careers were it put about that we were the physicians attending Commodore Sir Horatio Hornblower at his untimely death.”
“I know that, man,” Farquhar hissed. “D’you think I don’t?” He scowled. “You’re the lung man; surely there is something that you can suggest.”
“It’s neither one thing nor the other,” Halford said gloomily. “Neither fish nor fowl nor…” his voice trailed off and his eyes suddenly brightened. “Good God, man.”
Farquhar’s face twisted as though he’d caught a rank odour. “Can’t be bad fish,” he snapped. “The man’s eaten nothing solid for…”
“Think, man. What did his servant say was the last meal he’d kept down?”
“Ackee fruit and saltfish,” Farquhar said without thinking. He’d studied the notes until he could see them in his sleep. “But saltfish … no-one gets sick from that.”
Halford’s thin lips twitched into a wintry smile. “And that leaves?”
Farquhar felt like a slow pupil. “Ackee.”
“Exactly,” Halford murmured. “A fruit which is known to be poisonous if improperly prepared.”
Farquhar stared. “D’you mean that fool of a steward…”
Halford’s face turned grave. “It might not have been an accident, Sir Walter.”
“Good God,” Farquhar replied. Then he said suddenly, “But surely the persistent symptoms don’t speak to poisoning. Even if he had been … well …”
“Influenza and pneumonia,” Halford replied. “His lungs are quite poor at the moment. If he’d been made weak by poisoning, of course he could take a lung disease. Surely you’ve heard the way he breathes.”
“Not one illness … but three,” Farquhar breathed. “Of course.” That explained the concatenation of symptoms, the inability to recover, the lapses and surges of surprising coherency.
The physicians repaired to the inn for a well-deserved luncheon and in the afternoon attended their famous patient, who by then was looking rather better. He was propped up on pillows, and he was still horribly pallid and haggard in appearance, but his eyes were open and he seemed to know who they were.
Halford explained the fascinating combination of circumstances that had laid the commodore low, dwelling with loving detail on the damage to the lungs; but he stopped as he saw that he had lost Hornblower’s attention.
“Poison,” Hornblower repeated in hoarse disbelief. “Poison.” He shook his head and instantly regretted it; it ached and swam with the motion. He stared unseeing at the doctor. His brow furrowed with thought. “Who ….” On the instant, he recalled himself. Halford’s eyebrows rose. He could almost see Hornblower set aside the curious question of the identity of the poisoner. “Very well. I’ve recovered from the poisoning, you say.” Typically, he had set aside the interesting, if temporarily irrelevant, question for the more immediate problem.
“Yes, sir,” the doctor said; but he did not make the mistake of delving further into the details of the disease and its after-effects. The look on his patient’s face made it clear that such details would be unwelcome. Instead, he said, “The poisoning might or might not have been accidental. In any event, the Admiralty will need to know.”
The Admiralty, through Hornblower’s career, had been as immovable as the sturdy buildings which housed it. Though he had come to know, and be more at ease among, its august members, it nevertheless held a great sway over his life as it held over all officers. Accordingly, he was sure he must be misreading the note which dampened in his shaking hand, the neat script seeming to blur before his eyes.
“Damn it, Brown,” he finally grumbled. “Read this thing.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Brown took the paper and read it out. “In the interest of the nation’s security in time of war, it appears most urgent for Admiral Louis to inquire of Commodore Sir Horatio Hornblower regarding recent unfortunate events aboard the Regina. To that end, the admiral proposes to call upon Sir Horatio on Wednesday the seventh at 10 o’clock in the morning, and hopes that owing to the commodore’s most unhappy health the commodore would be kind enough to receive the admiral in the commodore’s own chambers. Your obedient servant, E. Nepean, secretary.”
Hornblower felt a surge of irritation. He wished his mind to work with its usual orderly rapidity, but it felt filled with sludge. “Unfortunate events … unfortunate …” his words trailed off. Whatever it was to which the admiral referred, he would find out in good time. “Brown, send a reply immediately thanking the admiral for his graciousness in calling on me here and accepting his offer.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Since his return to Smallbridge, Sir Horatio had had days in which he appeared to be recovering rapidly, followed by days in which he could not even raise his head from his pillow. It appeared to take all his energy to simply breathe, those days, and he slipped in and out of lucidity. Brown fervently hoped that the day of Admiral Louis’ visit would be one of the good days.
He was hugely relieved, therefore, when he came in to wash and shave Hornblower and found him awake and in his right mind.
“Good morning, Brown.” The voice was thick and slow, and Hornblower had to breathe heavily afterward, but he knew himself and the gaze was steady.
“Good morning, Sir Horatio,” Brown said cheerfully. “I’ll just give you a wash an’ a shave, sir. You’re to have visitors today, sir.”
Hornblower swallowed his irritation. He knew perfectly well that on some days he would have been unaware not only of the expected company but of its importance. Brown was only doing his job.
“Right then,” he said. “A clean shirt as well.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Brown wisely forbore to mention the clean shirt he had carried in and set aside for just that purpose.
Hornblower bore stoically the indignity of being bathed. He was sensible enough to know that he could not yet sit up for long, much less bathe himself. Brown kept up a steady flow of chatter while bathing and changing him, and gently brushed his hair straight before permitting him a hand-mirror. Hornblower’s lips tightened, but he said nothing. The illness had made him a skeleton and drawn his lifelong tan from his face. The reflection was pale and gaunt, the eyes deep-set. But he was clean and freshly shaved, and for the moment free of sweat-soaked clothing, and the clean linen felt good against his aching chest.
He was puzzled all over again when Brown carried in a table and set chairs along one side of it.
“Admiral Louis’ request, sir.”
Hornblower sat, passively, well supported by pillows, until at the precisely appointed hour, Brown ushered in Admiral Louis … along with Pellew, Gambier, and Collingwood.
“Good morning, Hornblower,” Louis said cordially. He raised an inquiring eyebrow. “How’s your health?”
“Improving, sir, thank you,” Hornblower said, though his shortness of breath belied his words. “It’s good of you gentlemen to call on me here.”
Pellew and Collingwood looked anxious. Gambier said, “In your recovery I see the hand of the Almighty at work, Hornblower. I trust you have thanked him for his abiding goodness.”
“Yes, my lord,” Hornblower said automatically.
Louis cleared his throat. The men sat, but said nothing until Brown had served coffee and left the room.
“Tell us what you think, Hornblower,” Louis said, and at his nod Pellew rose and approached the bed. Hornblower flushed at receiving his admiral whilst in his nightshirt and in bed at that, but thankfully, and typically, Pellew showed no hint of embarrassment. He merely stood and held the paper so Hornblower could read the words. The usual phrasing, Callender’s familiar signature: the dispatch said that the Channel fleet wished to align itself at the mouth of the Channel between Calais and Hastings, as Callender had received word of a concentrated French naval effort in those waters. Hornblower frowned. No matter how concentrated the effort, it would nevertheless be foolish in the extreme to leave Brest so exposed. He said that last aloud without realizing it.
“Just so,” Louis said. He gave a sharp nod to the others. “Most unfortunately, we cannot question Callender ourselves. He seems to be seriously ill at the moment.”
Hornblower felt bile surge into his mouth at the words. A coughing fit overtook him before he could speak and he writhed, hot with embarrassment, as the spasms shook his frame. Wordlessly he took the glass of water Pellew offered. At last he said, “What sort of illness, sir?”
“Same sort of thing,” Collingwood said, nodding at Hornblower, whose eyes gazed unseeing into the middle distance. He had a thought … a spark of an idea … there.
“Claudius,” he said abruptly. The men at the table exchanged a slow, worried look.
“Doctor Claudius, the forger, sir,” he said, and coughed. “He could tell you, sir. If it’s genuine, sir.” He closed his eyes. The utterance of the name had brought back a swarm of memories: the promotion that had taken him from Hotspur; the mad battle between the French ship and the water-hoy; the irony of his Spanish imprisonment gaining him experience with conditions in Ferrol; and the strange – dramatic, even – appearance of Claudius, the disgraced minister, loftily bargaining for his life in exchange for sharing his ill-won expertise.
Louis looked at the others. “Where is he now?”
“Keeps a school,” Pellew grunted.
“If the paper is forged,” Louis said, “has it got anything to do with …” he cleared his throat. “Sir Walter Farquhar has informed us that he believes you’ve been poisoned.”
“Yes, sir,” Hornblower said. “I don’t know who, sir,” he added, and then felt foolish.
With painstaking slowness, they went through every member of the ship’s crew, all of her officers, all of her men.
“He can’t have had a grudge, sir,” Hornblower said at last of the steward. “He’d been cook’s mate, and only became my steward a few weeks before I took ill, sir.”
“The last meal you were served before you took ill contained ackee fruit, Hornblower,” Collingwood pointed out. “The doctor says it can poison a man if poorly prepared.”
“But … why, sir?”
“Your steward’s name,” Pellew interjected, “was not Henry Blodgett, as he told you.” He scowled. “We traced the Indiaman on which he had served. There he gave his name as Henry Wolfe.”
Hornblower drew his breath in sharply, and coughed. When he recovered, he said, “Wolfe.”
“According to the papers he produced when he first signed up, he was born Henry Wolfe and named for his father, who was listed as deceased.”
The senior Wolfe was deceased. Hornblower had a vivid memory of a snowy day, a defiant face, the surge of irritation he’d felt at facing Wolfe yet again, and crack of musket fire as half a dozen Marines had filled Wolfe with bullets.
“A spy,” he breathed.
“Curiously,” Pellew added, “he deserted in the dead of night once you became ill. It was thought that he feared reprisal. He turned up aboard the Victory next. Seems Callender’s steward was nowhere to be found that morning, oddly enough. Callender took him on. Within a couple of days Callender was taken sick. With Hornblower out of the way, and his successor ill as well, a simple matter, wouldn’t you say, to forge orders?”
“If the French took the Channel,” Hornblower said slowly. He had set aside the horrible thought that both he and Callender had likely been meant to die, and by the hand of the son of the man who had tried so hard to eliminate him long ago. The only thing that mattered at the moment was the Channel fleet.
“Claudius, sir,” he said finally. He turned to Louis. “If anyone can tell a forgery, sir, it would be Claudius.” Claudius, he thought, might have been a bad minister, but a very good forger. The brief encounter had left Hornblower thoroughly impressed with Claudius’ swift and confident skills at judging the paper, the handwriting, and the phrasing of the intercepted note from Napoleon Bonaparte.
The meeting was concluded with merciful swiftness then, out of deference to the host’s poor health.
Even with time to think, Hornblower found himself disinclined to dwell on the attempted poisoning. He had not, after all, died, and his health was beginning to improve at last. He was allowed out of bed, and in time, even down the stairs; and so it was that a fortnight later, when Pellew called on Hornblower, he found him dressed and in the drawing-room.
Hornblower was still pale and thin, but there was a healthy colour in his cheeks and some of his old energy. He was able to stand to greet his guest, and the lingering cough was gone.
“Callender’s dead,” Pellew said shortly. His face darkened. “The steward’s deserted.”
Hornblower’s expression clouded as well. He was more angry at the escape of a known spy than he was hurt at the loss of Callender; though that would come, in time.
“The Admiralty has sent his description to every British ship and station,” Pellew said. “Matter of time.” He nodded. “The letter, as you suspected, was a forgery.” He shook his head. “The longer this war goes, the worse spying gets. I shouldn’t like to think what would have happened with the Channel unprotected and the bulk of the Army on the Peninsula.”
“At any rate, it didn’t happen, sir,” Hornblower said. He brightened. “I hope you will stay to breakfast, sir.”
Pellew’s lips twitched. “So long as you do not serve ackee fruit.”
Jamaican vomiting sickness is another name for ackee poisoning. Not all parts of the ackee fruit, a highly popular food in Jamaica, are edible, and the parts that are inedible cause sometimes fatal illness if ingested.
Farquhar and Sir Henry Halford, another doctor attending Hornblower, both served the royal family during the Regency. Halford’s area of expertise was pulmonary disorders.
See “Hornblower During the Crisis,” the novel unfinished at Forester’s death.It is packaged with two short stories and is Vol. 5 in the Back Bay publisher’s numbering of the series.