PTP:The Weather Eye
Working title: "Archie Down Under"
Disclaimer: This is the first installment of a Pass-the-Pen story centering on characters originally created by C.S.Forester and inspired by the performances of actors from the A&E/Meridian first series of Hornblower movies. This story is being written for entertainment purposes only, and not for financial gain.
Oldroyd always wanted to go to the Indies. Maybe, he should have been more specific.
I hope you readers and lurkers enjoy our first effort at a Pass-The-Pen.
Horatio groaned, shifting his cheek on the cool, damp, sandy cloth beneath his face, feeling his sleep-crusted eyelashes separate with an unpleasant tugging sensation. Inches from his face, a large, bright green and blue lizard flicked a tongue at him, as if taunting him for being in such a sorry predicament. The lizard rolled a rummy eye, then stuck out its tongue again and leapt back into the cover of a tangle of sun-bleached tree roots.
He brought stiff, lacerated fingers to his face, rubbing his eyes, feeling the sandy grit scour his bruised and tender, salt-swollen lids. Perhaps when he opened his eyes the next time, the lizard would have proven to be a figment of a fevered imagination, as would the strange, waxy-leaved plant that shaded his face from the sun; so, too, would the all too solid feel of lumpen sand beneath his long, thin frame be replaced by the unbroken smooth contours of his hammock. Perhaps he would be back in his small berth aboard the Petrel, trying to shake off the worst bout of grippe, and the worst timed bout at that, that he had ever experienced.
The image was so strong that he began to feel as if he were once again swaying with the motion of a small, fast packet sloop, slicing through the waves under a respectable spread of sail, his friend Lt. Archibald Kennedy in temporary command, pending the recovery of the Master and Commander belowdecks. He fancied he could hear the chattering voices of the crew-keeping up a constant stream of mutual good natured-abuse-all the while guiding the vessel sure-handedly towards Port Jackson.
Indeed, the voice of Able Seaman Styles did penetrate the fugue encasing his mind.
"Begging your pardon, Sir, but we scared up some breakfast fer you."
Horatio sat up with a start, looking at the round, brown, hairy object with alarm.
"WHAT is THAT?"
"I believe, Sir, that it is called a Coconut," said the redoubtable Mr. Matthews. "It is supposed to be quite good. May we borrow your boarding axe, Sir?"
(Three Weeks Earlier)
"We can't stay under him. We've gotten the shove from above."
"What do you mean we can't stay under him? We came to India in good faith, to continue on as Captain Pellew's lieutenants. We have our papers!"
Lt. Horatio Hornblower snorted, rolled his eyes, then glared angrily at the portrait of Rear-Admiral Frawley, Earl of Barmoll. A telling gesture. He meant it to sting. How he wished that the genuine article were standing in this very room so that his look of utter and complete disdain would not be wasted on his friend, Kennedy, who was not at fault.
"Politics," Horatio hissed. "As usual. It seems that the redoubtable Admiral Frawley has some young nibs to advance in the servicethe sons of his toff friends. I thought, I really thought, that His Majesty's Navy was the ONE place where it mattered more what you were able to accomplish in service than who your bloody parents are!"
Archie Kennedy, third son of a Lord, sat down heavily and buried his chin in his hands. "I've certainly found that to be the case."
"I'm sorry, Archie, I spoke in anger and haste," Horatio continued, more gently. The difference in their social class was something he often forgot, until reminded of it by some offhand remark or jest of the sort that men of more humble backgrounds often directed at their superiors in society.
"It would seem that our good Captain has somehow acquired the reputation of advancing the careers of his Lieutenants without actually getting them killed. A tour of duty on one of his ships has become something of a plum."
"So there is nothing he can do for us?"
"His hands are quite tied. He could refuse the posting, of course, but." The thought was left unspoken. Though Captain Sir Edward Pellew had shown both of his young Lieutenants many instances of kindness and consideration, neither of them ever doubted that Pellew's first loyalty would always be to the Admiralty. This was as it should be, as it must be, as it ever would be in the service.
"They are sending him back to the Channel Fleet," Horatio continued. "The Admiralty has changed its mind. And now, it seems it is more important that the persons of Frawley's pet lieutenants be conveyed more swiftly back to England than our own. So, we can just bloody sit here in Bengal on half-pay and wait."
But perhaps, as he had so many times in the past, Pellew would find a way to obey his orders and protect the interests of his men. This hopeful thought had scarcely begun to lift his spirits when his friend's acid voice sliced into his reverie like a French cannonade.
"Wait for what? Maybe someone will die. That's what it usually takes to get ahead."
Kennedy, Hornblower knew, had been looking forward to service in the Indian Ocean under Pellew and a chance to start afresh in a new and different part of the world.
Horatio frowned. "We wait for orders. Surely two lieutenants who have served under the great Pellew won't go without postings forever."
"Why not? Were we at Cape St. Vincent? I don't know about you, Horatio, but I was in prison in Spain, so I missed that one. And how about the Battle of the Nile? No, I was on shore leave taking my examination for lieutenant, and you were dancing attendance on Pellew in Southhampton. Somehow we've managed to avoid every really glorious fleet action since we joined up!"
"Archie-what about Le Droits de l'Homme?" But Lt. Kennedy was on a roll.
"I mean, sure, my father and mother always swore by keeping one's name OUT of the papers, but I think this is hardly what they had in mind. Oh, this is just typical of my sodding luck! I'm a Jonah, Horatio. You should never have encouraged me to come to India. Hell, even the great Captain Pellew couldn't take the merest prize with me on board."
"It was NOT like that."
"It was JUST like that."
"Archie, if you don't know by now that you are good officeryou are the best at the gunnery exercises--you know that you are. Even Captain Pellew says says so."
Kennedy, still mired in gloom, just shook his head stubbornly. "Exercises aren't the same as real battle, Horatio."
"And the men? Archie, I feel responsible for them, too. I promised them a chance at quite a lot of prize money, but I didn't want to be aboard a strange ship without at least a few men I trusted." Horatio's expressive, full lips curled in distaste. The desire for prize money was the bane of the service. At the beginning of the war, when he and Kennedy were but lowly Midshipmen, there had been many good prizes taken, but after 7 years of continuous fighting and a very effective blockade of French ports, the profitability of patrolling the coastlines of France and Spain had declined to near nothing.
Kennedy and the old gun division who had stuck by both of them through imprisonment, return, imprisonment again, and their eventual rise to become Pellew's second and fourth Lieutenants aboard Indefatigable had all jumped at the chance to ply the relatively unplundered waters around the rich trade routes from the Indies. All in the name of interrupting French concerns to the confusion of the Directors in Paris, of course, but stillbloody piracy!
"I don't know, Horatio. I am sure you will think of something. Besides, there is always room for a first rate seaman aboard any fighting ship."
"But what about Oldroyd?"
"What about him?" Kennedy closed his eyes and leaned
back against the wall, nose crinkling in concentration. "Right.
I am a commissioned officer in His Majesty's Navy. That, at least,
is something. Tomorrow, I shall go down to the harbor and see
if anyone needs a spare Lieutenant or two. I shudder to think
what sort of posting we shall receive if we just kip around Bengal
(The next day)
"I have good news, Mr. Hornblower. At least, I hope you will think it is good news."
"It seems one of our packet sloops bound for Port Jackson has lost its Captain."
Pellew leaned back in a chair at the desk of his temporary quarters aboard the Caledonia, the ship he had hoped to command.
"It seems the fellow went ashore with his first officer a week ago. Both have failed to return and report for duty, and several of the crew have since deserted for other ships as this ship" Pellew glanced down at a paper, "the Petrel, sits idle at anchor out there in the bay."
"That's terrible, Sir. I am sorry to hear that these men have been lost to the service. We must hope for the best."
"India is a dangerous place, Mr. Hornblower. One must never abandon one's sense of caution. The natives don't like us overmuch." He picked up a white packet from the desktop in front of him and began to turn it over and over in hands. "No, I am sorry to report that these men are considered unlikely to return, therefore, Mr. Hornblower."
Hornblower waited silently, chin raised and shoulders thrown back in the best tradition of the Navy, but his hands nervously clasped and unclasped behind his back. When would Pellew come to the point? He said he had GOOD news. But a missing captain could hardly be considered that, unless. Hornblower's heart suddenly leapt.
"be that as it may, the Admiralty has accepted my recommendation that you be allowed to take command of the Petrel. Perhaps they feltahof course, the post is only temporary, but the pay is good. Very handsome." The newly-commissioned Commodore tossed a sealed packet into Horatio's outstretched hand. "Here are your orders. You are expected to make up your crew for the lost compliment, and depart in no more than two days." He raised thick, dark eyebrows quizzically. "I would expect that should be no problem."
Horatio's mind whirled. Two days to familiarize himself with a new ship, a strange crew, and select some men of his own from amongst the dockside dwellers and hangers-on here in the teeming port city of Bengal.
"Um, Sir? How many were lost? From the original crew, I mean, along with the captain."
"Four, Mr. Hornblower. Four men. The first officer, and three of the crew."
Horatio swallowed hard. It was almost as if it were by design. A first officer, he felt he had very much to hand. But as for the crew, he did not know if he had any right to ask his former commander to give up three prime seamen.
Pellew stood up abruptly, his impatient posture a gesture of dismissal. "Get on with it, Mr. Hornblower!" He bellowed. "You have your papers and your orders. You are a Commander now, so quit your infernal dawdling and assume your command!"
Horatio saluted sharply and turned to leave, emotion tightening his throat. Would he see Pellew again? And in what circumstances?
The long-familiar voice of his mentor called him back, this time in a gentler, more halting tone.
"Do attend to your seamanship with more than usual care. This is prime season for typhoons in the waters around Australia."
"Sir, I've been through storms before."
"Mr. Hornblower, the storms you have seen in the North Atlantic compare to a Typhoon as the Thames does to the Nile. Keep your Weather Eye about you, Sir."
A Weather Eye. The ability to tell fair winds from foul.
"Yes, Sir. I will."
(Ten Days Later)
A garrulous Archie Kennedy, his darker moods of the week before banished by the unexpected chance to make a quick and lucrative voyage through the tropical seas around the mysterious continent of Australia, stood on the quarterdeck of the Petrel with his hands clasped behind him. He must have figured that sooner or later, if he continued to pepper and ply his friend, Captain Hornblower, with a barrage of questions and insensible remarks that Horatio would have to divulge a little more about their orders. But Horatio was enjoying everything about being a Captain, including the secret knowledge that came in that sealed packet.
"I still cannot believe we are being paid so handsomely to deliver the mail."
Horatio shrugged noncommittally. All that he had divulged to his crew and to his First Officer was that if they delivered their cargo and letters in a timely fashion, they would be paid handsomely indeed. Half of the pay at Port Jackson, and half upon their return to Bengal.
It would have indeed been ill-considered to allow the nature of their mission to become general knowledge among the men, and at times, watching two men huddle in conversation here, and small groups of men off watch sitting on deck with their heads close together there, as they mended their clothing, whittled, and performed other tasks of a personal nature, he wondered if the men were truly as ignorant of matters as he supposed. The disappearance of the former captain and his men had become a matter of the darkest suspicion to Horatio.
Port Jackson was a rapidly growing harbor town that offered the best anchorage, it was said, in Australia. His Majesty had determined that the vast and mostly empty continent would do very well as a penal colony, and had begun to send crews and settlers eager to make their fortunes. But there was discontent fomenting, for the military garrison, which protected the entrepreneurs of this new venture from the swelling numbers of convicts, had not been paid wages in over a year. The French warships in the south Indian Ocean had proved remarkably efficacious. And now the Petrel, a smallish but extremely fast and seaworthy sloop, was conveying a box of bank notes and certificates to keep the garrison happy and attentive to their duty, and to finance the continued improvements in Port Jackson. Port Jackson was, by all accounts, a remarkably wild and lawless place.
"A long sea," Kennedy commented.
"Very long," Horatio responded, gauging the distance between wave crests.
"A long, trailing sea," Kennedy grinned happily, a sheen of sweat on his sunburned cheekbones. "Port Jackson, here we come."
But Horatio was not quite so sanguine. Something about the appearance of this waveset bothered him.
Keep your Weather Eye about you.
"Have Matthews take another sounding."
"Aye, Captain," Kennedy replied, and gave the order. The words still sent a secret stab of joy through Horatio's breast. He marveled at this a moment, the realized that, in fact, he almost felt a frisson of chill. Hell, it wasn't that exciting to be addressed thus, and certainly not by a longtime companion.
"Archie, I believe the wind is freshening. There is a chill in the air."
Archie Kennedy looked back at his friend, a quizzical quirk to his sandy blond eyebrows. Wiping a fresh trickle of sweat from the back of his neck, he tugged at his loosened collar and said, "Maybe I need to stand where you are standing. It still seems hot as Pondicherry pepper to me." He gestured at the men working below. Most of them were barefoot, wearing only canvas culottes and the thinnest of shirts gaping open at the neck. The sheen of moisture on their forearms and sweat-dampened hair was obvious. "Them, too. Are you feeling all right, Horatio?"
"Of course," Horatio replied testily.
Matthews approached. "No bottom, sir. I paid out the lead as far as she would go and-nothing."
"Very good, Matthews."
"Sir?" Mr. Styles had joined his friend below. "Go ahead, Matty."
"Well, sir, it's just that I don't much care for the feel of the boat, sir," Matthews offered.
"The feel of the boat?"
"The way she goes, sir. It reminds me of summat."
The wiry Yorkshireman scratched his head diffidently.
"Matty, he 'as got whut we call the 'Weather Eye', Captain Hornblower. He always knows when there is going to be a blow," Styles volunteered.
Pellew's parting words came back to Hornblower.
"It's not just that, sir. It's the birds," Matthews added.
"The birds?" Archie interjected, scanning the skies. "I don't see any birds."
"Look over there, Sirs." Matthews pointed and sure enough, there were several flotillas of seabirds all rafting eerily silent on the cresting waves behind them. "They ain't following the boat any more. They're all hunkered down like it's nighttime and it t'aint but mid-morning. A big storm's a brewin', you mark my words."
Archie shot a questioning look at his commander. Horatio rubbed his sharp jaw line absent-mindedly as he looked up at the clear blue skies. A storm? There was no sign of a stormno cloudbanks on the horizon, and the wind was, if anything, dropping in intensity.
Suddenly, he felt as though his head was being squeezed in a vise and odd chills shot up and down his legs and spine. Oh damn! This was no time to become ill. Perhaps it was only a megrim. He would be right as rain after a few hours in his cabin.
He spoke sternly to his men.
"Matthews, I want you to keep myself or Mr. Kennedy informed about any change in the weather." He swallowed hard, his throat had begun to feel dry and scratchy, which was an odd sensation considering how humid the air was in these tropical seas. "And Kennedy, I am going to take our position again and then retire to my cabin for awhile. I feel a headache coming on. The ship is yours."
Kennedy's smile was as pure and joyous as that of a boy atop his very first very own horse. Horatio, for the first time, realized that Kennedy, too, hungered for a ship of his own to command nearly as greedily as he did.
Half an hour later, having verified to his satisfaction that the Petrel had rounded Cape York, Horatio threw himself into his hammock and embraced oblivion.
(Two Days Later)
Horatio's fever broke along with the full fury of the storm. He dragged himself out of nauseated, semi-consciousness to find his ship foundering from a wave which had cracked her hull. His crew was in a state of near panic--Kennedy screaming orders right and left to work the bilge pumps and man the tiller, frantically attempting to keep the small vessel turned bow first into the towering seas.
Mustering all of his meager resources, he located Mr. Matthews, who, it had been said, had the "Weather Eye".
"The launch, Matthews? Ready the launch."
"She'll never hold up in these seas, Sir. I thinka raft."
They had hacked out a large square of the deck, drained most of the water from the water barrels then resealed them, lashing the barrels to the makeshift raft to provide flotation. Every available barrel had been emptied of most of its contents, then lashed to the edges of the planked deck. Kennedy had performed each task Horatio had set for him in the screaming winds like a mythical automaton.
Horatio had barely enough time to rescue the precious banknotes. Wrapping them securely in oilcloth, he jammed them into the lining of his cape then thew it about his shoulders, belting its fullness about his waist.. The men tied themselves to the raft and each other, flung themselves prone onto the splinter-roughed planks, clasped hands, and prayed.
(Four days later)
"We've found a source of fresh water, Sir, but we don't much like the look of it." Seaman Styles rough-hewn face was heavy with concern. "The lads are spooked, and that's a fact, Sir."
"Talk sense, Mr. Styles. We need water. That is all I need to know."
"Happen there's weird goings on, there. Bones and such." He glanced at Lt. Kennedy with something akin to sympathy. "Some of them what are old Petrels, well, they are thinking maybe Lt. Kennedy there, is a Jon--."
"I could not possibly care less about a bunch of old bones. Is the water fresh and pure? Can we drink it, Styles?!"
"Aye. But, sir, those bones ain't"
"Then that is all we need to know."
Horatio gestured at Kennedy, who slept curled around his officer's cape in haggard, slack-jawed exhaustion.
"We are all in need of fresh water. We have to drink, we have to eat, we have to heal our wounded, we must build a vessel, and we WILL get to Port Jackson and complete our mission and then everyone will get paid. Is that clear, Mr. Styles?"
"Yessir." Styles knuckled a salute, which seemed entirely incongruous for a man with ragged clothing and a five-day's growth of beard.
Matthews pursed his lips thoughtfully, and sadly shook his head, staring down at the sleeping Kennedy.
"'E blames 'imself, sir."
**Matthews has the 'Weather Eye'**
"For what?" Horatio's mouth twisted in grim amusement. "Wind and rain and even fog can make a fool of any man. I should know."
Ever so gently, he shook Archie by the shoulder. The sleeping Lieutenant, shifted, muttered, then jerked awake with startled blue eyes snapping wide open in his sunburned, unshaven face.
"It's all right, Archie, lad," Horatio murmured. "The men have found a spring. Things are looking up."
"Are they, then?"
Archie allowed himself to be led deep into the tropical greenery, docilely, like an idiot child.
Bones! Horatio thought. Birds and lizards, that was all he had seen on this island so far. The coconut meat and the milky fluid it surrounded had only assuaged his hunger and thirst, not abated it. Briefly, Horatio wondered if the bright green and blue lizard was poisonous. Perhaps it would, if turned on a spit, taste like chicken. Or even frog.
A bubble of quasi-hysterical laughter rose in his throat, only to be stifled in front of his men.
At least Oldroyd was good for something. He had made a fire, tirelessly spinning a wooden stick in a depression in a dry slab of driftwood. Even now, smoke curled above the low treetops.
They were on some sort of animal track. That was well, Horatio thought, his mind already racing ahead to the next meal, the next crisis. There must be animals on this island large enough to trample down the aggressive vines and tubers to create this small, clear passage through the dense maritime thicket.
Christ almighty! He thought, panting with the exertion of walking so soon after his illness and the rigors of fighting to breath as wave after wave crashed over their raft and wave over wave of nausea from the heaving seas ripped his belly in two. An island, animal tracks, blue and green leaping lizards.where are we?
The darkness abruptly vanished as the silent party rounded a sharp turn in the game-track and beheld a small, sunlit clearing. A pool of clear water lay nearly at their feet, behind it was a low, stone slab flanked by two conical structures which appeared to be made from mud and clay. These structures were hollow and from inside, several skulls leered out at them, empty eye sockets stared back mutely from atop a pile of long bones stacked like log forts.
Such was their thirst, however, that Horatio and his men fell upon the cool fresh water, plunging their faces and hands and arms into it, and drinking deeply of its sweetness. Time enough to think of what this might mean once one was less thirsty.
"Sir?" Matthews whispered a few minutes later. "We 'ave company."
"Er?" Horatio said, wiping his damp mouth with the back of his hand and smoothing water through his salted chestnut curls. "What the devil are you talking about, Matthews?"
Suddenly, his back arched in a spasm of pain as a sharp object ripped through the cloth of his shirt and punctured his flesh. He turned his head ever so slightly to see a dark-skinned man standing behind him. Rolling his eye down over his back, Horatio saw that the man was holding a stout spear, its shaft decorated with feathers and shells.
A dozen more men-nay-two dozen, materialized from the gloom around the spring. All were strong, muscular, dark-skinned fellows with stout spears and fierce expressions. Spiral designs were painted on their scarred cheeks and their teeth glowed white and feral in the gloom of the shaded glen.
What manner of men were these?
Horatio looked around frantically. All of his men, save Archie Kennedy, stood stock still with a spear point to the back of their necks.
"Gaaaaaahhhhh" Kennedy, seated upon the stone slab before the spring began to jerk around abruptly. "Gaaaauurrkk. Uhhh. Uhhh. Uhhh."
Oh CHRIST! Not NOW! Horatio's mind screamed the words. Oh GOD, Archie, not a FIT! The stress of the past few days must have brought it on.
Suddenly, an older man thrust his way through the spear-brandishing phalanx. In his hand, he held a long, stout staff with something dangling from the end on a sinewy-looking length of brown cord. Horatio stared at it.
"Maybe someone will die. That's what it usually takes to get a head!" Kennedy rasped.
No! It couldn't be
"Archie! This isn't funny!"
"Keep your head or you will lose it!" Kennedy's hysterical sing-song warble seemed to rivet the spear-bearers. He laughed hysterically, a high, drawn-out screech. "Siiimmmppsoooonn!" With that, he curled up on the stone slap, gasping and jerking uncontrollably. "Simpsooooonnnnn."
The older man with the staff drew back in surprise. "SEEMSUN?" he repeated. Then, he turned to the rest of the spearbearers. "SEEM sun! SEEM sun!" He raised his staff, the appalling appendage swung back and forth in a truly nauseating fashion. "SEEM sun!"
At once, Horatio became aware of a tugging on his sleeve. Matthews! "Pray, sir. Bow your head."
But Mr. Matthews had already thrown himself onto the ground like a penitent. "Simpson!" he cried.
**Matthews 'as the 'Weather Eye'. Them as 'as the Weather Eye knows how to read the wind.**
WHOP! The sound of Styles' palm slapping the back of Oldroyd's head reverberated. Both men fell face to the damp, sandy earth around the spring.
"Simpson," Styles grumbled.
"Hey!" Oldroyd barked. "Wha'? Simpson? Bleeding bugger be bleedin' demised"
"Simpson," the young man screeched, covering his strawberry-blond curls with his hands. "Right! Bloody Simpson, the bugger, three cheers!"
"SIM SUN! SIM SUN! SIM SUN!" The spear-bearers set up a chant. How many were there? Twenty at least. Hard to tell in the gloom that surrounded the brightly sunlit clearing.
"GAAAAAHH! Simpson!" Kennedy gasped, coiling and uncoiling on the stone slab, eyes rolled back so far that only the whites could be seen.
Slowly, Horatio sunk to his knees, feeling the pressure from the spear point in his back relax and ease. He prostrated himself towards the stone altar and intoned solemnly, "Simpson. Simpson. Simpson."
(to be continued)