Retribution - Part Four


Lieutenant Bates' Story

Horatio remained on deck, watching as Starling
returned to his ship. The night was too fine to retire yet, and
he walked the length of the Retribution, noting that most of
the repairs had been made. They would set sail in the
morning, and continue their journey to England. Even with
fair winds, they would be at sea for at least another month.
He frowned, doing mathematical calculations in his mind as
he paced. He was so deep in thought that he nearly bumped
into Lieutenant Bates, as he made his own patrol of the

"Sorry, sir." Bates apologized as he sidestepped
Hornblower. "I wasn't watching where I was going."

Horatio nodded. "Nor was I. It seems we were both
engrossed in our own thoughts. Walk with me, Mr. Bates?"

"Aye, aye, sir." Bates fell into step beside him, and for
a length of time, very little was said between them. As they
returned to the quarter-deck, Horatio made a decision.

"Mr. Bates. As you know, I am new to these waters. At
dinner, you and Captain Starling were speaking of the
Cortland. "

"Yes, sir." Bates' mouth hardened. "I was second
lieutenant on her when she sank two years ago."

"And Starling had a part in that event?" Horatio
asked, puzzled.

"You might say that, sir." Bates was not inclined to say

Horatio had no real desire to force him to relate the
story, but he felt he needed to know. The Nightingale was in
the same waters, the French and Spanish were not far off,
and the Retribution was vulnerable in the same way that the
Cortland had been. He drew in a breath. "The first ship I
was given temporary command of, sank." A breeze came
up, ruffling Hornblower's dark hair. He looked very young,
but his voice was old and sad. "It is something I shall never
forget, watching her go down."

Bates nodded. "Yes." He knew what Hornblower
wanted. He suspected that if he did not tell him voluntarily,
that he might be ordered to render an account. He did not
want to do so under a cloud of suspicion.

Horatio could see the moment of decision in Bates'
eyes. He asked, his voice quiet and non-committal; "What
happened to the Cortland?"

"We were returning to Kingston when we were set
upon by two French Corvettes. We were holding our own,
but barely, when the Nightingale came over the horizon. We
thought we were saved. But in the same instant, the Captain
was killed, and we were holed. A powder keg exploded,
making things even worse. We took on water at a faster rate
than I dreamed possible. We scarcely had time to put out
the boats. I was in one, and Bently, the First Lieutenant was
in one of others with twenty-five men."

"And the Nightingale?"

"She never stopped. She went after the Corvettes. The
seas were very heavy, sir. Lieutenant Bently's boat was
swamped. It capsized. We picked up ten survivors; the
others drowned. We might all have been saved, if the
Nightingale had stopped."

"She came back?"

"Oh, aye. She came back, sir. She had taken one of the
corvettes as a prize, had sunk the other one."

For a moment, Horatio lost the thread of the narrative.
The Nightingale was smaller than the Retribution, and she
had taken two French corvettes single-handed! It was an
amazing feat of seamanship and cunning. He wanted to ask
Starling how he had done it --

Bates' bitter voice cut into his thoughts. "By then it
was too late. The bastard had put his damned prize money
over human lives. I'm sorry, sir. I know I was hardly civil to
him at dinner, but to my mind he is nothing less than a

Horatio tried to imagine both Starling's and Bates'
perspective. Bates, quite naturally saw it as a betrayal; but
was it? What were Starling's choices? As the captain of a
ship, he had different priorities, and they were not
necessarily mercenary ones. Horatio thought of duty, and
the inevitable conflict between head and heart.

"Mr. Bates, what would have happened if the
Nightingale had not pursued the French ships?"

"We would have all lived."

"Would you have?" Hornblower's brow lifted speculatively.

"Sir, I object --"

"Think, Bates. If he had stopped, the corvettes would
have swooped down on him as well. Could he have engaged
them and undertaken a rescue mission at the same time?
You cannot maneuver a ship for battle and pick up
survivors -- no one would have lived! Not you, or very
possibly Starling and his crew, either."

Bates gaped at his captain. Hornblower, for all of his
youth and supposed naivet had swept away all of Bates'
carefully nurtured arguments against Captain Starling. Bates
felt as foolish as a child railing against a parent's reason. He
felt himself flushing hotly beneath Hornblower's calm

"Of course, sir. I apologize for my inept assessment
of the situation. If you will excuse me." In a breech of
etiquette that would have resulted in a reprimand from any
other captain, he walked away.

Horatio was as astonished as Bates. He had literally
been thinking out loud; he had never intended to insult the
man. He uttered a silent curse. Captain Pellew would have
never reacted as he had -- he would have found some way
to reason with Bates without implying ignorance of basic
tactics. Now he had alienated his First Lieutenant, who
might very easily poison the point of view of his other
officers, as well. Lord, now I do sound like Sawyer, he

"Good evening, sir." Trelawney came beside him. "'Tis
a fine night."

"Yes, it is." Horatio glanced at Trelawney's granite
profile. "Mr. Trelawney, might I pose a question to you?"

"Of course, sir." Trelawney could not recall a captain
ever asking him that. "I will do my best to answer it."

"If you were given a choice of rescuing survivors of a
wreck, or pursuing the enemy that had caused the damage,
what would you do?"

Trelawney chewed his lip. "Well, sir. It would depend
on whether or not that enemy was waiting to descend upon

"Thank you, Mr. Trelawney." It was the answer he had
hoped for. He stood quietly beside his sailing master for a
few minutes, enjoying the sight of starlight on the shifting
waters, before he bid him good evening, and returned to his
cabin. He would have to find some way of reconciling with
Bates in the morning.

To be continued...