Retribution - Part Three
by JOAN CURTIN
The morning after the storm, Horatio woke and for a few
minutes was completely disoriented, certain that he had
dreamed the previous twenty-four hours. There had been no
storm, he thought, relieved and almost amused at the
vividness of the nightmare. And then he tried to move.
Every bone is his body groaned in protest. Damn, it had
been no dream! Ignoring his screaming muscles, he heaved
himself upright and dressed quickly. He was nearly out the
door, when a polite knock made him pause.
The steward, Graves, stood there with a tray of coffee
and a buttered ships' biscuit. It smelled heavenly. Caught
off-guard, Horatio blinked. "Yes?"
"Pardon me, sir, but Lieutenant Williams thought you
might be hungry after yesterday."
Horatio was torn between his hunger, and his need to go
up on deck. Duty took precedence over personal comfort.
"Thank you, Mr. Graves. Set it on my table." He gave a
wistful glance at the steaming coffee. By the time he
returned it would most likely be cold. Human weakness
won out. Horatio snatched up the mug and took it with him.
On deck, the crew under the direction of his Lieutenants
and Trelawney were effecting repairs. The Retribution had
weathered her encounter with the storm with remarkably
little damage. The wind was still fresh, snapping at the sails,
but the heaviness in the air had passed and the sun was
bright and hot. Horatio took a swallow of his coffee and
breathed deeply. It was like a miracle, like being reborn,
after the agonizing night.
He turned to Lieutenant Bates who was standing a few
paces away. "Thank you, Mr. Bates for your attention to
the damages. Things seem to be well on their way."
Bates, who harbored ambivalent feelings towards the
Captain, was nonetheless pleased by his praise. He had been
prepared to dislike this green commander that Admiral
Lambert had thrust upon him. He had not expected to feel
the warm satisfaction that Hornblower's words gave him.
He touched the brim of his hat. "Thank you, sir."
He had heard of Hornblower; how could he not? Jamaica
Station had been abuzz with the exploits of the crew of the
Renown who had effected the surrender of the Dons on
Santo Domingo, and the young Lieutenant who had saved
the ship of the line from capture. Bates had his own
cherished hopes for command; he had ten years more
service than Hornblower, and had thought that he had a fair
chance of being advanced when La Gaditana had been
taken into the service. Instead, Lambert had bestowed the
honor on the very junior Lieutenant Hornblower.
Bates' first reaction had been that of jealousy; and it
seemed perfectly natural that he should envy the Captain.
Still, he was ashamed that he could be so petty. He had
promised to give Hornblower a chance to prove himself.
After all, he must be worthy of command for Lambert to
promote him. Lambert was not a man to curry favors. Nor
did Hornblower seem the type to cultivate his superiors.
However, in his heart, Bates found it hard to believe that the
youthful, reserved Hornblower could be half the captain the
The heroic stand during the hurricane had changed
Bates' feelings; though he could not say he admired
Hornblower for his grim determination. It had seemed like
madness at the time. Madness, or overgrown pride; to
believe that his mere presence on the Quarter-deck could
keep Retribution afloat. But he could not be unmoved by
Hornblower's sheer physical courage, that somehow spoke
volumes to even a hardened sailor like Trelawney. And he
could not deny that his own stomach had given a sickening
lurch when Hornblower collapsed.
This was a new day, and a new challenge, Bates decided.
He turned his attention back to the work details on deck.
"Stow those cables!" he bellowed at the seamen below him.
And was perfectly satisfied when his orders were obeyed.
Blue skies, blue seas, and a white-gold sun overhead.
Horatio allowed himself a moment to savor the warmth on
his face. Soon they would be out of the tropical waters and
heading into the chilly seas of the Northern Atlantic.
Trelawney had the Retribution winging along with ease, and
at that moment on his quarter-deck, with the wind, and the
sea, and the sun, Horatio was happier than he had been in
"Sail ho, off the starboard bow!" The foretopman yelled
and Horatio swung his telescope about with a practiced,
reflexive motion. He could barely see the smudge of white
canvas, and he could certainly not determine the nationality
of the vessel without seeing the sail plan.
"What else, Wright?" Sailing Master Trelawney appeared
at Hornblower's side. "Can you identify her further?" His
great voice ascended with ease to the fighting top.
"She's flying our colors, sir. But I don't know her."
"Damn!" Hornblower relinquished the glass to
Trelawney. "What say you, Mr. Trelawney?"
Trelawney peered at the ship and shook his head. "No,
sir. But I would be wary, sir."
Horatio gave him a wry look. "I am, Trelawney. Very wary. Let's
keep our distance, at least until we have positive
identification." He turned to the Midshipman lingering at a
respectfully at his back. "Have Mr. Williams report to me,
"Aye, aye, sir."
They tracked the unidentified ship for nearly three hours.
Hornblower could not help wondering as he peered through
his telescope if the Captain of the other vessel were doing
precisely the same thing, for neither of them seemed
predisposed to make a move. It was a very odd sort of
chess match played on the vast canvas of the Ocean. In
every chess match, someone had to open the gambit, or the
game would never commence. Horatio decided that his
would be the initiative.He gave the orders to allow gap
between them to close to signaling distance.
He glanced over at Lieutenant Bates who stood watch
with him. Bates' heavy chin was set like granite. He
obviously did not approve of Hornblower's decision. Had
he been in command the unidentified ship would have
remained nothing more than a sail on the horizon. Perhaps
he was right; but Horatio could not shake the unsettling
feeling that the Retribution was being stalked. Better to be
the hunter than the prey, he thought, as he watched the
identifying pennants hoisted overhead.
It was a nerve-wracking few minutes before the topman
translated the reply. "She is the sloop of war Nightingale,
"The Nightingale?" Horatio cast his mind over the list of
ships he knew and could not place her. "Bates?"
The Lieutenant's brows contracted in a scowl. "She's no
proper sloop-o-war, sir. She's a damned privateer."
Horatio's mouth quirked in a smile. "Careful, Mr. Bates.
There are those who would call us no better than that for
"Sir, with respect. She's been known to poach on others'
preserves, if you take my meaning."
Meaning that the Nightingale had claimed a prize that
Bates considered to be property of the King and Crown.
Hornblower despised the prize system. If it were up to him,
it would be abolished, for it led to selfish and reckless
actions. It was a corruption and an abomination in his mind
to waste men's lives to satisfy greed. He would gladly hand
his prize rights to ships like the Nightingale if it meant
saving Royal Navy vessels for war. "Signal her to approach.
Invite her captain to dinner, Mr.. Bates."
Bates' protest raised Hornblower's hackles, even though
he had anticipated it. "Those are my orders, Mr. Bates. You
and the other officers are of course welcome to join us. Mr.
Reeve, ask the Steward to prepare a decent meal. I would
say, two guests?"
He went below, and because he had no proper servant,
he had to brush the wrinkles from his own dress uniform.
The captain of the Nightingale was a surprise. He was a
slender man, not much older than Hornblower, with fair hair
and hazel eyes. When he introduced himself, it was with a
self-deprecating grin. "Captain Phillip Starling, of the
Hornblower, whose name had been the cause of much
comment, felt an instant surge of sympathy. He raised his
fingers to the brim of his hat. "Captain Horatio Hornblower,
commander of H.M.S. Retribution. Welcome aboard, sir."
"Thank you, sir. I was afraid for a while that we were
doomed to an endless voyage in sight of each other, and in
"Why didn't you raise the signal first?" Horatio asked
Captain Starling's grin flashed again. "An odd question,
Captain. You were known to me as La Gaditana, in a
previous incarnation. I had no desire to tangle with your
guns. I might ask the same question of you."
"And I might give you much the same answer. My First
Lieutenant indicated that you were not to be trusted."
"Ah, my reputation precedes me." He shrugged. "I carry
letters of Marque from the King himself. I have as much
right to be on these waters as you, Captain Hornblower."
There was a slight defensive tone to Nightingale's voice
and Horatio's instinct was to reply in kind. He stifled it with
an effort and replied, "It was not my intention to imply
otherwise, Captain Starling." He felt awkward; stiff and
uncomfortable on the deck of his own ship.
Starling nodded. "Of course not. Perhaps I am too used
to defending my rights." His hazel eyes were appraising the
Retribution even as he spoke. "You've sustained some
"Yes. From the storm a few days ago. But the repairs are
progressing." Horatio did not disguise his pride in his ship.
He knew how hard the men had been working to return the
Retribution to pristine condition. He turned to his officers
standing in rank behind him. "My officers. Lieutenants
Thomas Bates and Owen Williams. And Sailing Master Jack
Nightingale nodded and introduced his lieutenant
Crawley. Before they broke the line for a more informal
discussion, Starling turned to Bates. "We've met before,
"Yes, sir. I was on the Cortland, sir. When she sank."
"The Cortland, aye. I remember that day. A rich day,
"Not for the fifteen men who drowned, sir."
Bates was skirting insubordination. Horatio was torn
between sympathy for Bates and outrage at the implied
insult to Starling. He was preparing to intercept a challenge
when Starling spoke.
"I have regretted that, Mr. Bates. But we are engaged in
war and men die."
Men die, and ships are too valuable to mourn, Horatio
thought. He knew which he would value more; what Pellew
had taught him to value, but Starling was not bound by
those same moral strictures. However, he spoke in a
conciliatory fashion, and not without some feeling. Bates bit
back whatever hot reply had come to his lips when he saw
Hornblower's warning glance, and the moment passed.
Horatio saw Graves emerge from belowdecks. He gave
the steward a nod. "Gentlemen, I believe our dinner is
It was not a rich repast, for Horatio did not have the
means or time to lay in luxuries among his supplies. It was
early enough in the voyage, however, for the food to be
fresh. The Spanish captain of La Gaditana had been fond of
his wine, and one of the pleasant surprises of the refit had
been the discovery of his private cellar in a locked cupboard
below the captain's bunk. Hornblower, who rarely took
spirits had handed the keys to Graves, trusting the steward's
discretion. The wine chosen was a mellow burgundy tasting
Nightingale raised his glass in a toast. "To Captain
Hornblower, and the officers of the Retribution. May your
voyage home progress without further incident."
It was a toast that Horatio seconded wholeheartedly. The
rest of the meal was peaceful, even harmonious. True, Bates
was somewhat subdued, but then Horatio had never seen
him animated; and if Starling resented his grim presence, he
gave no indication.
Starling was an intriguing figure; educated, well-read,
amusing, with a dry wit that was clever and appealing. He
was equally well versed in the ways of the sea. Horatio
found himself captivated by Starling's tales of far-off lands:
India, Madagascar, the horn of Africa.
"I envy you," Horatio said finally. "I am headed for
nothing more exotic than the English Channel. Where are
"Wherever there are prizes to be had. The Spanish have
been active, and the French are prowling about. As long as
we are at war, I shall do very well."
"And if there is peace?" Horatio asked. He could not
ignore that possibility. It was a constant, nagging worry to
any commander whose commission had not been formally
Starling shrugged. "Then my letters of Marque shall be
revoked, and I will be reduced to ferrying goods around the
globe. You must admit, Captain Hornblower, that it is a far
superior fate to being put on half-pay."
To have his thoughts read so easily made Horatio flush.
"It is quite beyond my control." He tried to be nonchalant,
Starling smiled sympathetically. "If you should find
yourself in a desperate case, Captain Hornblower, I may be
able to find you a post on the Nightingale."
Horatio shifted in his chair. "Thank you for the offer, but
I hope that it will not be necessary." As much as he found
himself liking Starling, he had no desire to serve with him.
He cast a sidelong glance at Bates, who was idly turning his
wineglass to catch the light.
Starling laughed. "Aye, I must agree with you there. War
is twice as profitable as peace."
"And twice as costly," Horatio said quietly. Bate's head
jerked up at that, his eyes on Hornblower. Horatio rose and
lifted his glass. "Gentlemen, it is getting late. God Save the
King." It was as safe a toast as any other he could think of.
At least he and Starling were on the same side of the war.
Starling seconded the toast, his ironic glance not lost on
Horatio. The same side of the war, but perhaps not the same
side of the fight. Hornblower was the sort of man who
would offer his life for honor and duty, whereas Starling
had no such illusions. Glory was no comfort when you were
put on half-pay. Hornblower would return to England a
poor man, while he would grow fat on his prey. And if he
died in the pursuit, at least he would die rich.
The dinner disbanded, Hornblower's officers going to
their duty posts, while he escorted Starling and his
lieutenant to the deck. It was a gorgeous night; the stars so
bright that they bathed the sea in a milky luminescence. The
wind was nearly still, and the lights of the Nightingale
glimmered on the ocean surface. Hornblower and Starling
both turned their faces to the sky, instinctively reveling in
the beauty and the seduction of their shared mistress, the
"I wish you a safe journey home, Captain Hornblower,"
"Thank you. And I wish you a fortunate stay in these
"Do you?" Starling laughed softly. "You think I am a
"No." There was absolutely no inflection to the word,
just a flat statement. Starling tried to see into Hornblower's
dark eyes, and could not read his expression at all.
He laughed. "You must be a hell of a gambler,
Hornblower." This time he caught a glint of a smile.
As his crew rowed Starling back the Nightingale, he
wondered what sort of life Captain Hornblower would have
back in England, or if they would meet again on this wide
(To Be Continued)