RATS, CATS AND MUSTARD
This takes of at a tangent from that lovely little scene in
Happy Return" where Hornblower is entertaining his three midshipmen
to dinner before battle, and they let slip that until recently they
were eating rats in the midshipmen's quarters. In my version, Bush
is present at the dinner.
"Threepence apiece for rats seems a trifle dear"
he said. I don't
remember paying as much as that when I was a midshipman."
"Why, sir, did you ever eat them yourself?" asked Savage, amazed.
In answer to this direct question Hornblower could only lie.
"Of course" he said. Midshipmen's berths were much
the same twenty
years ago as now. I always maintained that a rat who had had the
run of the bread-locker all his life made a dish fit for a king, let
alone a midshipman."
... and I am sure that Mr Bush will tell you the same."
the eye of Bush at the other end of the table, and received an
infinitessimal nod and quirk of that expressive mouth in reply.
Bush evidently agreed with him that it was time for a little sport.
Bush leaned back in his chair, smiling reminiscently. "Oh,
indeed, gentlemen. Rats .... or cats."
Galbraith's mouth fell open. "Cats, sir?"
"Why yes, gentlemen. Excellent eating with a bit of mustard.
assure you by the end of that voyage no ship's cat was safe."
There was silence while the three youngsters digested this
Hornblower smiled inwardly in anticipation; he was perhaps the only
person on the ship who knew that his first lieutenant was possessed
of a truly wicked sense of humour. Bush went on.
" ... and then of course there was that young midshipman
on the old
Phoebe, do you remember, sir, when we were becalmed off Panama back
There was an horrified intake of breath round the table, and
eyes of all three youngsters widened. Bush's face remained
impassive, only giving the slightest twitch of one eyelid in
Hornblower's direction. Hornblower gave him his cue.
"Ah ... no, Mr Bush, I wasn't on the Phoebe then if you
But I've always wondered - were there ever any enquiries about that
"No, sir. The poor lad had no family - fortunately."
"So - ha-humph - nobody ever got to the .. bottom ... of it?"
"No, sir." Bush was managing to remain completely straight faced.
Hornblower stole a look at the midshipmen out of the corner
eye. All three were staring aghast at Bush as if he had turned into
the Devil incarnate. Hornblower bit down his giggle, tried not to
catch his lieutenant's eye and continued.
"You were very lucky there, Mr Bush, That's not the sort
skeleton you want to have in your cupboard."
"No indeed, sir - nor anywhere else. But that wasn't a
it happened." He made the gesture of someone throwing something over
the ship's side.
"I forget, Mr Bush. What was the boy's name?"
"Sweet, sir. Most appropriate as it turned out."
There was a terrified squeak from Hornblower's left. Midshipman
Clay, unluckily sitting next to Bush, looked as if he was about to
burst into tears. Bush sighed heavily.
"Yes, poor lad .... only a boy he was. No older than young
here. Bright, clever lad. Keen as .... mustard."
He leaned forward and picked up the mustard pot from the table,
narrowing his eyes as he looked wolfishly over it at Clay. "I never
see a pot of mustard but I think of young Sweet."
He dropped the mustard pot back on the table with a loud clatter,
and Clay shot out of his seat with fright and nearly hit his head on
the beams. "Aahhhh ..... excuse me, captain ... on duty in ten
Hornblower nodded, and the boy bolted out of the cabin as if
fiends of hell were behind him. Savage and Galbraith were also on
their feet, making their excuses. As the door shut behind the last
of them, Horblower shook his head reproachfully at his grinning
"Mr Bush, you are truly evil."
"Aye aye, sir."