Run Aground
by Idler

Chapter 1

April, 1812

She entered the inn's common room and was surprised to find him settled there, deep in his usual wing chair by the fire, a glass of brandy waiting untouched at his elbow. She hastened to his side, though he did not seem to notice as he stared fixedly into the leaping flames. She gently laid a hand on his shoulder, and only then did he slowly turn to look up at her. The expression on his face was one she had never seen there before: a curious and unsettling mixture of resolve, of hope-and of more than a trace of fear.

Concerned, she drew up a chair to join him. "Did your friend not arrive?" she asked softly.

He shook his head briefly, refusing to meet her eye, and returned instead to his study of the fire. "Oh, no...he was here. He had to return to his ship." His voice was distant, preoccupied.

"I am indeed sorry." She smiled reassuringly at him and placed a comforting hand on his arm...perhaps he was simply disappointed. "I know you would have liked to have spent more time in his company."

He regarded her bleakly. "No. No...that is not it. He brought me...this."

He looked down, and only then did she notice the objects resting in his lap. He handed her a heavy parchment envelope, inscribed

Capt. William Bush, Esq.
HMS Nonsuch

She held it in her hands, not daring to breathe.

"And....this."

She returned the envelope to him as he handed her a black japanned box. She opened it slowly, carefully. Inside, nestled amid cream colored silk, lay a single object glittering in the firelight. An epaulette.

She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "My God."

He smiled shakily at her. "Indeed. I am to be his flag captain. He said..." He shook his head in wonder; his eyes seemed unnaturally bright. "He said...he'd have none other."

 

June, 1811

 

The Witch of Endor rocked gently in the swells as if she were anxious to be gone, away from this enforced immobility. It would not be long, now...she awaited only the arrival of her captain. Then she would be released from her captivity, freed to fly home to England at last.

Her captain's boat was fully manned, and idling alongside the flagship. Her crew sat stolidly in the unseasonably warm sunshine, waiting patiently, doing their best not to appear to be watching the two officers above them at the entry port.

"Goodbye, Mr. Bush." Hornblower smiled, corrected himself. "Captain Bush. Godspeed."

Hornblower continued to smile, unwilling to allow the moment to end. Unwilling to release Bush's hard hands.

"Goodbye, sir." Bush grinned back at him, playing the game. "Horatio."

Bush managed to detach his hands from Hornblower's grasp and made his way to the entry port. Hornblower knew that he could hardly lean over the side to assure himself that Bush safely navigated the descent. The fire he had seen blazing in Bush's blue eyes at the flag captain's tactless offer of a bosun's chair had decided that for him. He did, however, allow himself a sigh of relief at the absence of either obvious confusion or resounding splash.

He watched as the boat pulled away, the oars rising and falling in perfect rhythm. Bush sat calmly in the sternsheets, as though he had done this a hundred times and was a captain of long standing. Hornblower knew, of course, what this moment must have meant to him.

Bush's impassive features were dignified, almost patrician in their stillness. Though one had only to look at his hands to know that it was merely a fleeting illusion, and scarcely reflective of his circumstance. Those hands Hornblower had clasped were craggy and battered. Scarred and misshapen knuckles, a legacy of God knew how many boarding actions; old, puckered burns forever tattooed with the blue-black stain of powder; calluses borne of his ungovernable tendency to throw himself into whatever task he had set his seamen to, a testament to his unswerving belief that one led men, and did not drive them.

And this was the first time he would lead a command of his own...and, no doubt, the last.

Hornblower watched with no small measure of guilt as Bush swung himself out of the boat and climbed the Witch's side with surprisingly little difficulty, his strong arms compensating easily for the added burden of the wooden leg. It was a curious thing, he mused. Bush was indeed physically powerful, but it was his inner steel and implacable temperament that gave him true stature. But that steel was to be tested, he knew...and soon.

Admiral Gambier had given Bush command of the Witch, charging him to return the lovely little cutter to England, carrying dispatches from the fleet. But, once there, he would find that there was precious little chance of a sea appointment for a one-legged and exceedingly junior captain. Gambier had made mention of a dockyard post available at Sheerness. Bush, typically, had attempted to muster an appropriate amount of enthusiasm so as not to distress his captain. Hornblower had seen easily through his forced cheer to find the veiled terror in his eyes. Putting Bush in a dockyard, behind a desk, would be akin to putting a lion in a cage.

But there was damn little he could do about it. Worse, he knew with brutal and inescapable clarity that it was he who had brought Bush to this. He could-far too easily, even still-recall Bush, fallen on the splintered deck of the Sutherland, blood pulsing from the remains of his shattered leg, vehemently insisting upon being left there. He had coldly countermanded those orders, and Bush had been carried below. For Bush's sake, he had told himself then. He had eventually come to the uncomfortable realization that it had been for his own.

Despite his best intentions and protestations to the contrary, he had allowed Bush to occupy a place in his heart that he thought had been carefully guarded. He had not fully understood it himself until the seemingly endless overland journey that was to take them to Paris and certain death. For him, it had been misery; for the wounded Bush, it could only have been hellish. Bush had borne it as best he could: sometimes lucid, sometimes not, but in silence except when a particularly jolting lurch wrenched an outcry from him. But through the worst of it, Bush had clung to his hand like a drowning man; at times, so tightly that he could feel his bones grate. It had left his hand stiff and sore for days. But that was a small thing, and he had said nothing of it.

He had allowed himself to find satisfaction in his friend's recovery. Bush, for his part, had seemed accepting of his loss-until he had begun the desperate attempt to learn to walk again. Hornblower had been aghast, then, to see the stark fear in Bush's eyes. This stolid man who had stood unmoved in the very teeth of a screaming gale, before violent broadside, or the mad crush of hand-to-hand combat was now terrified by his own unaccustomed weakness, and by the uncertain existence that now lay before him. Once as he had been helping Bush stand after yet another painful fall, he had looked into Bush's honest blue eyes-and found only reproach. It was at that moment the sure knowledge of his own guilt had stabbed him in the heart.

He had pulled away then, unwilling to face the man whom he had condemned to life. But he had been incapable of maintaining that distance for long. Bush's equanimity had returned with his strength, and he never spoke of it. Even Hornblower's firmest resolve could not withstand the quiet onslaught of Bush's steadfast good will.

And now their roles were reversed. Bush wore a new uniform which had been hastily assembled from the sea-chests of several of the fleet's captains and fitted by the flagship's own tailor. And bearing a commander's epaulette on the left shoulder-a thing undreamed of during those dark days. Hornblower still wore the old and crumpled uniform coat that had survived French captivity. He would purchase a new one in Portsmouth, though not with the anticipation of some new posting; instead, it would be selected with dread. For all that awaited him in Portsmouth would be court-martial. He had not only allowed the Sutherland to be destroyed...he had struck her colours.

Admiral Gambier had been encouraging; the mere fact of Bush's promotion was clear evidence of that. Gambier himself had survived court-martial following the miserable affair at Basque Roads. There Gambier, a deeply religious man-one could almost label him a zealot-had proved more inclined to distribute religious tracts amongst his men than round-shot amongst the French. But his subsequent court-martial had been a whitewash, a farce. Hornblower knew that he had insufficient patronage to expect the same-nor would he want it.

Hornblower sighed and extracted a small telescope from his pocket. Even that was not his: everything he owned had been lost with the Sutherland or taken from him in captivity. He peered through it and located Bush, who was already deep in the throes of getting the little cutter underway. He smiled; he could almost hear Bush's familiar bellow. Men were scurrying, antlike, aloft. Almost as one, the great gaff-mainsail and jibs were hoisted and the topsail tumbled out of its lashings.

Once released they billowed and filled and the little cutter came to life, gliding smoothly out of the shadow of the fleet. It had been smartly done, particularly when one recalled that this was a newly assembled crew, under a new captain. He obviously need have no fears on Bush's account: whatever disabilities his injury may have caused, his seamanship was in no way affected. Hornblower found himself grinning hugely, deeply satisfied. Bush, at least, was back in his element: for now, that proved to be enough.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

Bush had been so focused on climbing the Witch's low side without evidence of effort that he was wholly unprepared for the reception that greeted him on deck. He had been piped aboard with as much ceremony as any captain of long tenure, and was astonished to find a proper ship's company awaiting him. He had expected a rag-tag assembly of the dregs of the fleet: certainly not these competent-looking seamen neatly attired in their duck trousers and identical checked shirts obviously fresh from the flagship's slop-chest.

The sight unnerved him. He had followed many a captain through innumerable entry ports, and supervised the assembly of countless side-parties, but never, not once, had those pipes been for him...and recent events had all but convinced him that any hope of it was lost. He swallowed hard, schooled his face to a mask of proper authoritative stillness, and began to read himself in. And discovered, with some distress, that the words that had been so sharp upon the page only moments before were now unaccountably blurred.

Something had tugged at the edge of his memory; after the proper introductions were completed and words had been spoken, he turned back toward the entry port. Standing beside it, bosn's pipe dangling on its lanyard round his neck, was a familiar stocky figure. He stared in disbelief. A little grey could be seen in the man's unruly curls-rather like his own, in fact-but there was no mistaking that cheeky grin. "My God. Styles."

"Aye, sir. 'S me, right enough." The man bobbed, and knuckled his forehead. "Bos'n now, sir, in Volcano."

Bush raised an eyebrow. "But...what are you doing here, then?"

Styles' grin widened. "The cap'n asked for volunteers to take the Witch t' Portsmouth, an' then come back on th' dispatch-packet. When I 'eard it was you who was t' take 'er...well..."

Bush inclined his head. "H'm. Even after all these years, you could not resist the opportunity to try my patience once more."

"Aye, sir." Styles regarded his captain with impressive gravity. "That's 'bout it."

Bush grunted, and turned away. Stopped, looked over his shoulder, smiled slightly...a smile, perhaps, that only Styles might see. "And Styles...thank you."

Styles nodded, his irrepressible grin returning in force. "I'd not 'ave missed it, sir."

As he stood for a moment watching Bush limp awkwardly aft to confer with the cutter's master, the Marine drummer beside him nudged him sharply in the ribs. "Thought fer a minute he weren't glad t' see yer."

Styles shrugged, unconcerned. "Nah. That's just 'is way."

The drummer grinned, displaying worn, tobacco-stained teeth. "Bet 'cher glad he ain't dead after all, eh?"

Styles shook his head, his face suddenly solemn. "I was. But y'know, Jonesey, now ...now, I ain't so sure."

For months he had thought both Bush and Hornblower were dead. Everyone had. He had been delighted to hear of their escape, and curiously proud of their audacious recapture of the Witch. But now as he watched Bush, he felt only regret. To him, Bush had always been immovable, a tower of strength upon which he could confidently rely. That tower had been battered, mercilessly shaken to its very foundation, and now, for the first time, he was unsure of its resilience.

His thoughts were abruptly interrupted by Bush's harsh blare. "Styles! If you intend to remain a bos'n, I suggest you stop mooning about like a love-sick girl and shift yourself aft!" Styles hurried to his side, grinning despite the rebuke. Perhaps all was right with the world after all, he thought contentedly.

Bush's hands were calmly clasped behind his back, his expression unruffled as ever; but as he caught Styles' eye, Styles could sense the excitement that was barely held in check. Bush nodded to the sailing-master. "Very well, Mr. Jameson, Mr. Styles...let us get her under way."

Styles, raising the silver call to his lips, studied his captain's profile. The same quiet confidence, the air of calm authority: all that had not changed. All was right with the world, indeed.

The Witch was soon well underway, and had set her course for Portsmouth. Bush had to admit to himself, grudgingly, that it had been nicely done. Appearances had not been deceiving; these seamen knew their business. As did Styles: Bush was gratified to observe that Styles had become an exceedingly competent bos'n, passing his orders quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of fuss. Matthews had been an excellent tutor, he concluded. It did not occur to him that perhaps he had taught Styles much as well.

But though his men were beyond reproach, the Witch most certainly was not. He looked about the little vessel's maindeck in dismay. Upon close inspection, it was obvious that she had been woefully neglected during her year in captivity, a condition which sufficed to further Bush's lack of regard for the quality of French seamanship.

Styles, beside him, followed his gaze and eyed the Witch's weather-beaten deck in disgust. "God, sir...she's a mess. Th' dockyard'll 'ave their 'ands full wi' 'er."

"No, Mr. Styles..." Bush turned to him, a wicked gleam in his eye. "You will."

"Sir?" Styles asked, his voice full of trepidation, as though hoping against hope that he did not already know what was in his captain's mind.

"You are my bos'n, are you not?" Bush raised a questioning eyebrow at the burly seaman. "With honour comes responsibility."

Styles groaned inwardly, but nodded respectfully nonetheless. "Aye, aye, sir." He hurried off, bellowing the names of those seamen unlucky enough to not be occupied elsewhere.

Bush calmly surveyed the maindeck from his position aft near the tiller. Styles obviously had matters well in hand. He was already busily setting parties to the work of replacing the tattered rigging, holystoning the shabby decks to their former pristine whiteness, restoring a bright sheen to tarnished brass. Bush smiled to himself. Damned if he would bring this ship-his ship-into Portsmouth in a disgraceful state.

He looked up into the rigging; the sails were drawing well, and the Witch was holding her course without effort. It would be some time before he would find it necessary to change tack, and thus could take full advantage of this opportunity to study his charts. Bush nodded to the master. "I shall be below in my cabin, should I be needed," he said, and headed for the companion hatch.

The companion ladder was short but steeper than that on the flagship: he stumbled on it and nearly fell, barely catching himself in time. He hoped that his misstep had gone unnoticed, as it would hardly do for the captain to be seen nearly landing in an undignified heap. Odd, that he had not been troubled by it when they were bringing the Witch in to rejoin the fleet. No, he thought, smiling a bit at the memory of it...it was not odd at all. He had only once left the maindeck; in fact he had scarcely left the tiller during those few long days.

Bush was not overly tall; still, as he entered the tiny, airless cabin, he had to stoop and bend his head to avoid knocking himself senseless on the deck beams. Fortunately, some prior captain had wisely situated the chart-table directly under the skylight; he could avail himself of both the light and the additional headroom it afforded. He leaned on the table, spreading out the charts before him, and was soon preoccupied with pen and brass dividers.

An hour, then two, passed unnoticed. His concentration was broken at last by some unfamiliar sound; he raised his head and was surprised to find that the late-afternoon sun had faded, and the cabin had grown surprisingly dim. The noise repeated itself, more urgently. Someone was tapping at the cabin door...and had been for some time, it seemed.

"Come," he called.

The cabin door opened to reveal the stocky figure of Styles, carrying a tray in one massive-and none too clean-paw.

Bush shook his head helplessly at the sight. "God spare me, Styles...please tell me that you are not the cook as well."

Styles grinned. "No, sir, just 'elpin' out, like."

Styles bustled about the minute cabin, laying out the meagre silver, and filling a wine goblet with what appeared to be a decent claret. "Th' flag cap'n sent 'couple bottles over for ye'." He pulled out a chair, and gestured to it. "'ere, sir, 'afore it gets cold."

Bush sighed, returned his pen to its stand, and stumped over to the table.

Styles watched him expressionlessly. "I'll 'elp ye, sir, wi' yer chair. An' beggin' yer pardon sir...I set some of th' men 't riggin' a handrope fr' th' ladder."

Bush stopped in the act of lowering himself into the chair, and lurched upright. "Damn your eyes, Styles!" he flared. "I am not some helpless goddamned cripple!"

Styles stood stock-still, staring openmouthed at Bush and the sudden fury blazing violently in his blue eyes. Bush glared back at him until Styles dropped his gaze to the floor, and mumbled "No, sir. Sorry, sir."

"Leave me, damn you," Bush growled savagely.

Styles obediently fled, the door slamming shut behind him. He was not so completely taken aback that he failed to notice the sound of a wine goblet smashing against the bulkhead, as though it had been hurled there with considerable force.

Bush flung himself into the chair, still furious...but, more than that, deeply ashamed. He watched the rivulets of claret drip down the bulkhead like blood to join the puddle already staining the floorcloth. Styles had been right, of course.

He had been blinded by the joy of it, by the fulfillment of every sea-officer's life-long dream. He had allowed himself to believe that this was the beginning, and not the end. But this was not a command. This was a brief pleasure cruise, a sham. It was suddenly painfully and brutally clear that to have been given command of the Witch was no honour. Someone had to bring her in to Portsmouth for refit and to deliver the fleet's dispatches; a senior midshipman could do so. But he was the officer least-needed by the fleet, the one who would not be missed. To think otherwise was folly. Bush could think of several one-armed captains still on active service. There had been Nelson, too, though Bush could scarcely utter his own name in the same breath with that of the fierce little admiral. But a sea appointment, for a one-legged captain with no interest or influence? Impossible, unheard of...he knew it. And his promotion? It was a gift, a recompense for damages. Unearned.

He thrust the untouched plate aside. Sham or no, he was not going to waste what little was left to him by sulking belowdecks. He left the cabin, brushing roughly past a small knot of seamen without so much as a glance of acknowledgement. Fortunate, perhaps, as he might have noticed their faces, some furrowed with concern, others openly staring with frank curiosity. The Witch was a small vessel, and his voice had lost none of its power during his time ashore.

Bush carefully climbed the companion-ladder-disdaining the damned hand-rope-and walked to the rail. He leaned on it, staring out into the gathering darkness, listening to the wind thrumming in the shrouds and stays, that strange sort of music that only one born to it could hear. He took a deep lungful of the crisp air, enjoying the salt tang of it untainted by the more mundane odours of civilization, touched only by the muted scents of tar and hemp.

He felt a constriction in his throat, a heaviness in his chest-matched only by the emptiness of his heart. He would have been hard-pressed to fully articulate the thoughts causing this profound yet indefinable sadness. Had he been able, he might have realized that despite his inability to put it into words, he knew that this was the last time he would feel truly alive. Men went to sea for a number of reasons, and many loved the life, but for him it was at the very core of his being. Time spent ashore was meaningless; it was only at sea that life had purpose. And strangely, he had felt most alive when his life was most in peril: from wind and waves, or enemy shot. That was life itself, and it was over.

He ran his eyes slowly over the deck, taking in the graceful beauty of the little cutter. With all plain sail set, the Witch was scudding along like a wraith about to take flight. He sighed thoughtfully. The Witch of Endor...Saul's witch. The Biblical Saul had lost everything; even God had turned his hand against him. Saul, in his desperation, had gone to her. She conjured the shade of the dead Samuel for him, foretelling his destiny; and then...when he was faint from weakness, she offered him sustenance, strengthening him to meet that fate.

This Witch had shown him his own fate all too clearly. Sustenance, though, was another matter entirely. He ran his hand gently along the polished oak of the rail, much as a man might caress a lover. 'So, Witch...' he mused '...do you have that for me?'

He shook his head at his own absurd foolishness, and began to slowly pace the deck. No comfort there, he found; the rhythmic thud of the wooden leg as it struck the deck planking echoed hollowly in his ears. It was inescapable: he would never be free of it, and he hated the very thought. He turned away in disgust, and headed for the companion way.

Someone was there before him; in the dimness, he could barely make out a shadowy figure kneeling at the base of the ladder. The man unshuttered his lantern and reached up to begin the task of disassembling the hand-rope; the lamplight illuminated them both.

Styles looked up at him; Bush was ashamed to see a trace of fear in the big man's eyes. Humiliation, rage, loss...all overwhelmed him, defeating any chance of apology or kind word. In its place he snapped, coldly, "Leave it."

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

The passage to Portsmouth was fast and uneventful, much to Bush's deep regret; there were no gales or adverse winds to delay them. He slept as little as was humanly possible; the crew became accustomed to the sight of his vague outline haunting the darkened deck like some lost soul, and to the irregular sound of his step above their heads throughout the night.

All too soon, the Witch's anchor splashed into the light chop of Portsmouth harbour. Bush stared past the tossing whitehorses, past the other vessels anchored there, to gaze at the city beyond the cobbled quay. Every other time his ship had dropped anchor here, he had felt brim-full with anticipation. His arrival had meant new orders, a new posting, or perhaps simply a run ashore, with all the pleasures Portsmouth might offer. No run ashore, this, he thought grimly. Run aground, more like: stuck, hard and fast.

He heard footfalls tentatively approach, then stop; he turned to find Styles a few paces distant, waiting patiently to be noticed. It was time: Styles had assembled the side-party at the entry port. The man had performed his duties well, but had kept his distance these last few days, treading warily about him as one might around an unpredictable cur.

Styles had deserved better, he thought with regret. And it was too late now to make amends. "Mr. Styles..." he tried to keep the harshness from his voice "...have my dunnage-there is not much-transferred to The George."

Styles eyed him curiously. "Yer not goin' 'ome, sir?"

Bush's detached expression did not falter. "No...not yet. I will take a room there, as I am called to testify on Captain Hornblower's behalf at his court-martial. After that...after that, I suppose I shall."

Styles shook his head. " 'Tain't fair, sir."

"No, Mr. Styles...it rarely is."

They walked together to the entry port; no words were necessary. Bush looked over the assembled crew, nodded to them, and touched his hat. "Thank you, men...you have done well."

Styles' pipe sang out, and Bush was gone, a waterman's boat carrying him the short distance to the quay. Styles watched him as he stepped awkwardly onto the jetty and carefully climbed the stone steps, the fleet's dispatches tucked under one arm. He sighed heavily. "So 'ave you, Cap'n. So 'ave you."

It was not lost on him that Bush had not looked back.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

For a few brief moments, Captain Horatio Hornblower stood dazed and alone, blinking in the bright sunlight. The court-martial was over, finally behind him. The Court's deliberations had ended, and he had reentered the cabin to find the hilt of his sword toward him, waiting for him to take it up again. 'Most honorably acquitted.' The words still rang in his ears, though he did not yet fully permit himself to believe them. The doubts and recriminations that had so occupied his mind were apparently not shared by the Court; their decision had been swift and unanimous. They had pored over numerous reports and depositions, including his own, and heard his first lieutenant's direct testimony; a testimony that had been delivered in a strangely flat and dispassionate tone. Strange, perhaps, to one who had known Bush so well....but it had proved entirely effective.

The doors to the great cabin opened abruptly, disgorging an ebullient group of uniformed officers, each intent upon wringing his hand, or clapping him heartily upon the back. And there at last was Bush, his hand outstretched. Hornblower accepted it and clasped it warmly; Bush's familiar firm grip was an anchor in the storms that raged within and threatened to take him flat aback.

Bush smiled, and added his own congratulations to the multitude. But the smile seemed somehow forced and did not reach his eyes. Odd, Hornblower thought, so different from the exhilarated captain he had bidden farewell on this very deck only short weeks past. Perhaps Bush was merely tired, or, conceivably, in pain. He had come to know the man well enough during their years of service together to know with complete certainty that Bush would never admit to either, even if pressed. Thus he returned the smile as if nothing were amiss and moved on to the other well-wishers who crowded around him.

Bush stood apart and watched the noisy and jubilant assemblage for a moment, then turned his back on them and stumped away; he knew Hornblower would not notice. Simply being aboard the Victory-even at anchor-was torture, and he wanted rid of it. All of it-the creak of her timbers, the measured slap of the waves against her hull, the mingled odors of tar, salt air, and massed humanity. The past few weeks had been an endless stream of farewells, and he had had enough.

A hastily-mustered side party piped him off; the flag-captain's own cox'n rowed him ashore in the captain's gig, though Bush paid it little attention. He was instead lost in thought, and remained so throughout the short carriage ride to The George. He entered the small room that served as his temporary lodging, stripped off his uniform jacket, and clawed violently at the neckcloth that seemed suddenly to strangle him. He sagged miserably into the room's single chair. For the first time in his life-or at least, in his Naval life-he had no idea of what it was that lay before him.

Immediately after his arrival in Portsmouth he had been summoned to Whitehall to deliver his sworn testimony and reports to the Admiralty; however, to his consternation, he had been given no orders. He had attempted to convince himself that perhaps they had been awaiting the outcome of Hornblower's trial before he could be safely given an appropriate appointment ashore: an attempt which, thus far, had proved less than wholly successful.

He considered the notion of taking a short leave at home prior to receiving an assignment-if one was indeed forthcoming-but rejected it immediately. His mother and sisters had come to Portsmouth from Chichester promptly upon hearing the news of his Lazarus-like resurrection; to his relief, they had not stayed long. They had clucked and fluttered about him much like a brood of overwrought hens; the prospect of enduring their ministrations for days on end loomed before him like an eternity spent in hell.

He was still seated uncomfortably on the room's hard chair, staring blankly at the wall, when he was abruptly summoned back to the present by a brisk knock at the door. He rose, opening it to find a uniformed midshipman saluting him crisply with one white-gloved hand while proffering a letter with the other. "Commander Bush, sir? The Admiralty's compliments."

The midshipman stood waiting patiently as Bush accepted the letter, broke the heavy Admiralty seal, and rapidly scanned its contents. As Bush looked up, the young man added, "A carriage will call for you within the quarter hour, sir". The midshipman saluted him once more, and left him standing there in the doorway, his thoughts in a turmoil of questions and uncertainty.

A summons to Whitehall, again, with no further explanation. He sighed and began to pack. If nothing else, a lifetime at sea had left him fully resigned to patiently endure whatever vagaries the Admiralty might display.

 

*~*~*~*

 

Bush examined himself critically in the long mirror the Admiralty had thoughtfully provided on the parlour wall, knowing that legions of nervous captains before him had doubtless done the same. He straightened his neck-stock and twitched down his waistcoat for what seemed the thousandth time. Fair enough, he decided. He even smiled slightly despite himself at the sight of the still-unfamiliar commander's epaulet, though the smile faded as his gaze traveled downward. One polished silver-buckled shoe, not two. He squared his shoulders and glared back at his reflection in defiance. That had been gained honourably, and could not be helped.

He knew full well that he had been summoned here to be awarded command of nothing more than a desk in some godforsaken dockyard. It was simply the way of things, and had to be accepted as such. Though he would be damned before he would forsake his pride and humbly grovel for it.

He began to pace the thickly carpeted floor, and felt some small satisfaction in the observation that it had gotten considerably easier to do so. After leaving the Witch in Portsmouth, he had immediately had located a tradesman all too familiar with the flood of men missing limbs and had been fitted with a proper leg to replace the jury-rigged one Hornblower and Brown had built. Now fully healed, he was no longer forced to bear his weight on his bent knee: the leg could be fastened directly to what remained of his own. Though it was still somewhat painful, he felt far better about it. He retained a marked hitch in his gait-always would, no doubt; even with practice there could be no concealing it-but recovering the use of his knee had made a world of difference.

He looked up sharply as he heard the polished door creak open. The bored-looking young man framed in the doorway studied him disdainfully and snapped "Commander Bush?"

Bush returned the contemptuous stare as though the elegantly uniformed man were nothing more than an uncommonly slack midshipman. Clearly he was some admiral's pampered aide who had never seen the sea but from some drawing-room window. "Yes," he responded coldly.

Surprisingly, the young man smiled slightly at that and ducked his head. "Please, sir, come with me." It seemed to Bush that the man was somehow oddly gratified that he had been immediately recognized for precisely what he was. He led Bush down a seemingly endless corridor, finally halting before a gleaming mahogany door. He raised his hand to knock; hesitated, and turned back. "Good luck, sir. I have heard of your escape, and the recapture of the cutter. I wish..." he hesitated, shamefaced. "I wish you the best." He swung back and knocked at the door, then opened it to announce "Commander Bush, sir," and motioned for Bush to enter. "Admiral Chadwick, sir," he whispered as Bush passed.

Bush entered the richly appointed room and snapped to attention in front of a huge and ornately carved desk that dwarfed the grey and wizened man seated behind it. He recalled that in his prime Chadwick had been something of a fire-eater, bold and innovative. It was startling to realize that this must be the same man; yet as Chadwick looked up, Bush could see that the fire had not yet left his eyes.

"Ah, Commander Bush." Chadwick motioned to a chair. "Please, sit. There is no point in aggravating your injury further."

Bush lifted his chin. "There is no need for that, sir; I am quite recovered."

The admiral studied him with a calculating eye. Bush looked fit enough and there had been a hint of challenge in his response, however respectfully it had been delivered.

"Nonetheless, Commander...sit. I dislike peering up at you."

Bush obeyed, and lowered himself smoothly into the indicated chair, hoping that his face did not betray him.

Chadwick folded his arms and settled back into his chair, fixing him with a steely and uncomfortably penetrating stare. "As you must be aware, Commander Bush, due to your unfortunate injury your prospects for reassignment are now most limited. Admiral Gambier did, I believe, inform you of the availability of a post as commissioner of the dockyard at Sheerness?"

Bush nodded. "Yes, sir, he did."

The little admiral grunted. "Aye, a nice safe posting, with no further threat of losing life or limb to enemy shot. I have no doubt that an efficient officer such as you were would brook no nonsense from those dockyard thieves or tolerate incompetence and slackness from the labourers."

"No, sir, I most certainly would not." Bush's words were emphatic, yet a hint of resignation-one might almost call it hopelessness-was visible in his eyes. Try as he might, he could not entirely conceal his lack of enthusiasm for the prospect of spending the remainder of his career badgering unwilling and often corrupt minor dockyard officials. Yet...he could hardly afford to do otherwise. The salary was generous, he knew, and would be much appreciated by the sisters who depended on him. And the notion of idly living out his life on half-pay did not even bear thinking about.

"So." The grey head nodded firmly. "It is settled, then. If Bonaparte continues his quest for power-as I am certain he shall-I predict that you will be an exceedingly busy man before long."

Bush attempted to muster an eager response and failed miserably. "Yes, sir."

Chadwick frowned and eyed him speculatively. "Did you know," he began, "that some of Britain's enemies can be found within her very shores? No, I do not speak of foreign spies, Commander: I speak of our own countrymen. Our country is desperate for revenue, especially now as we prepare for an escalation of this war which we know to be inevitable. Yet the smugglers-British smugglers-continue to bleed us dry. Smuggling is rife along our coasts, and accepted by much of the citizenry as an honourable profession. The Revenue Service is incapable of controlling it; and, at times, seems most unwilling to do so as well."

Bush was entirely perplexed at this new tack their discussion had taken, yet he could not fully contain his curiosity. "Unwilling, sir?"

"Aye, Commander: unwilling." The admiral watched Bush narrowly, gauging the man's reactions. "Not long ago the captain of the revenue-cutter Swallow confronted the schooner Kent-well-known as a smuggling vessel-and, in the words of his own report, "was warned their guns were in readiness to fire" and "by reason of their superior force, was obliged to sheer off". The same stalwart captain was patrolling Saltburn Bay when the Kent boldly sailed in and ordered Swallow away. That brave man promptly left with his tail between his legs, allowing the Kent to deliver her contraband cargo unmolested."

"He hauled off, sir? Twice?" Bush's tone was a mixture of incredulity and indignation, the authenticity of which was undeniable.

"He did indeed, Commander, without a shot fired. Anathema to a man of action such as yourself, eh?"

Bush was uncertain of how best to answer; the admiral had made it abundantly clear to him that he was a man of action no longer. He had the uncomfortable sensation that he was being made sport of, and did not like it; and was thus provoked into growling an imprudent response which the admiral's ears could not quite catch, though it sounded suspiciously like "...goddamned coward..."

Chadwick concealed a smile. No, he had not misjudged the man. Not at all.

"The Navy has dispatched one vessel to...aid...the Revenue Service in the control of this foul traffic; although one is insufficient, it is all we had to spare. It seems you have provided us with another badly-needed cutter, Commander. Would you care to stay with her?" He now smiled freely, enjoying the faint play of expression on Bush's face despite the man's obvious efforts to remain outwardly unmoved. "Or is the lure of the dockyard too great?"

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

Bush leaned back against the cracked and dusty leather of the coach seat, grimaced, and rubbed the back of his neck in a futile attempt to relieve the knot of tension that had stubbornly settled there. He had set out for Cornwall immediately upon receiving his orders: the same orders that were now spread open across his knees. He had been studying them, vague as they were, desperately trying to glean some further knowledge or insight from their pages. He closed his eyes as the coach jolted along the rutted track, allowing his thoughts to drift back to the events of the past few days.

He had been stunned by Chadwick's words; so much so that-to his shame, now-he had gasped audibly and had been merely able to stammer "Thank you...thank you, sir."

Chadwick had grinned indulgently; he knew full well the enormity of his offer, and the effect it must have had on the officer before him. "My aide will deliver the full orders to your lodging as soon as my clerk completes them, but I can tell you the bones of it." He leaned forward across the desk; his smile vanished and was immediately replaced by a grim intensity. "The Trade has been particularly brisk in Cornwall, and much of it appears to be centered around Mount's Bay. The transfer of goods and the subsequent loss of their revenue are harming us deeply. But of greater concern to me is the transfer of information. Napoleon himself claims that most of the information he receives from England has come via the smugglers' hands.

"The revenue service has been incapable of controlling this traffic; it is my belief that their efforts have been less than, shall we say...wholehearted? The whole miserable affair smacks of collusion, though as yet I have no evidence to prove it. Given my suspicions, you will have full authority, and will report to no one but me. You are to have as little contact with the local Revenue Service as possible..." Chadwick's eyes narrowed "...which ought not to be a difficult thing to achieve. Relations between the Service and the Navy have never been cordial; and I suspect that they will not be at all pleased to have your 'assistance'. Particularly as they are only noticeable by their absence."

" 'Th' devil's awa wi' th' Exciseman'" Bush muttered, under his breath.

Chadwick's eyebrows rose. "Burns? You surprise me, Commander." He smiled suddenly. "May you continue to do so."

"You are to leave immediately for St. Michael's Mount to direct the actions of the two cutters we can spare. Your lodgings in Cornwall have been prearranged for you, and you will be taken to them. The cutter Greyhound has recently arrived on station, under the command of a Lieutenant James Dawes. He is young, but comes highly recommended; he has shown both intelligence and initiative. Your Witch of Endor will be refitted for revenue work: she and her officers and crew will join you as soon as that refit is complete."

Bush had smiled then at Chadwick's words-'your Witch of Endor'; they made him smile even now. She was still his, after all. Bush knew that he was no doubt expected to direct the cutters' movements from shore, but try as he might, he could find nothing in his orders that specifically commanded him to do so. He would obediently maintain his official lodgings, but he could not begin to imagine himself anywhere but on the deck of the Witch.

His excitement, though, was becoming tinged with more than a bit of trepidation which was increasing steadily as the miles fell away. This was the first time in his many years of service that he would truly hold a full command, one in which the planning and the responsibility for success or failure rested squarely on his own shoulders, and he could not help but wonder whether he was equal to the task. He had served many captains throughout his career and knew full well that rank was not necessarily reflective of ability. He had always been confident of his own proficiency for successfully implementing another's plans; he knew that Hornblower had implicitly trusted him to do so. And he had been content with that, as he had been more than aware of Hornblower's superior ability from the start.

But Bush was also more than aware of Hornblower's lack of faith in his capacity to act on his own initiative. He smiled ruefully to himself...he had been far more aware than Hornblower ever knew. Hornblower had been quite wrong about that; he had never truly comprehended that his faithful first lieutenant had understood him thoroughly.

So Hornblower had indeed been wrong. Could it be that he was equally mistaken here? Bush was unable to call to mind a single instance in which he had failed Hornblower; any actions under his command had always been successfully carried to completion. So was that mistrust truly based in fact or was it simply a reflection of the man's constitutional unwillingness to share the consequences of failure? That was an attitude rarely found amongst those in authority-most were more than eager to cast blame on inferiors, whether deserving or not-but he knew from bitter experience that Hornblower possessed it in abundance.

Time would tell, he supposed.

He looked up from his reverie and began to gather up the scattered papers. His instincts had told him some time ago that they were nearing the coast. The air was crisp and clear and sharply tinged with salt, awakening that primal fire that resided in every true sailor's heart-that fire which still burned brightly in his own.

The coach slowed, and rocked to a halt in front of a small but tidy-looking inn. The Two Brothers: this was the lodging engaged for him by the admiralty. Bush stepped carefully down onto the worn cobbles and stretched to ease the stiffness of the journey from his body. He withdrew the admiralty's letter from his jacket, opened the door...and found himself face to face with a tall, aproned, and unsmiling woman whose very demeanour clearly indicated that it was she who presided there. A large, bulky man loomed over her shoulder, yet Bush found the woman to be the far more forbidding presence.

Bony and angular, she glowered fiercely at him, her eyes level with his, her hands planted firmly on her hips. Her jaw jutted and her lips compressed into a thin hard line as she studied him, her gaze traveling from head to foot and back again.

"You'd be Commander Bush, then," she demanded.

They were of an age, yet under that grim and relentless scrutiny he felt more like an errant schoolboy than a commander in the King's navy.

"Er...yes, ma'am."

She sniffed, and regarded him as one might consider a particularly poor specimen of horseflesh. "The admiralty graciously informs me that I am to provide you with room and board, and allow you to commandeer my parlour without so much as a 'by-your-leave' so you might confer with your officers whenever it suits you." Her caustic tone left no doubt of her lack of enthusiasm for the prospect.

"Indeed, madam." Bush held out the envelope bearing the Admiralty seal; she accepted it grudgingly, feeling the thick packet of notes it contained. He was beginning to recover his wits; he did not let go of it, and coolly raised an eyebrow. "Though perhaps you would prefer me to make other arrangements?"

She snatched the envelope from his grasp and hastily secreted it into a vast pocket of her smudged apron.

Bush smiled humourlessly. "I presume that means I am welcome."

She harrumphed, and glared coldly at his smile. "And you'll not be using my establishment for sailors' drunken revelry."

The gaze he returned was as frosty as her own. "Only that of their officers, madam."

His sarcasm fell on deaf ears. "Brendan will show you up. I have more pressing matters than yours to attend to." She spun on her heel and was gone, with a final disapproving twist of her sensible skirt.

Bush stared after her, bemused. She would make a better bos'n than most, he thought.

The big man grinned down at him, chuckling at Bush's nonplussed expression. "Mara." He shook his head. "My sister."

 

*~*~*~*~*

Bush restlessly paced back and forth across the scarred wooden floor of the small whitewashed sleeping-room. As he had expected, it was clean-almost painfully so-but spartan and cheerless. The establishment accurately reflected its owner, it seemed.

He dragged his watch from a pocket and glared at it angrily; to his disgust, the hands had scarcely moved from the last time he had done so. It was nearly time; but it would not do at all for him to be early. He had sent a messenger to Greyhound instructing her officers to join him here; the lieutenant who had been given command of the Witch was also due to arrive from London by coach, or so he had been informed. He wanted the full assembly to be present when he joined them, as it would not be seemly for him to be found drumming his fingers anxiously upon the tabletop, impatiently awaiting their arrival. He smiled self-consciously to himself; he had learned more theatrics from Hornblower than anyone would have guessed.

Theatrics or no, he felt faintly foolish standing in this barren and miniscule room of a backwater Cornish inn turned out in full-dress uniform, complete with glittering epaulet and sword, and immaculate white breeches. The breeches were particularly hateful...he had always preferred trousers, and now had more than good reason to do so. There was no point in being more obvious than was absolutely necessary. He would dispense with this ridiculous pretense as soon as was practicable. But not yet.

It was time enough at last, he decided, and cautiously made his way down the inn's back stairs. He stood unobtrusively in the shadows just outside the parlour entry, taking a moment to quietly study the uniformed men who were to serve under his command. He watched them as they smiled, sharing ale and conversation like old friends. But my God, he thought helplessly, what an unholy collection of the Navy's flotsam. All of them. Men, not so grievously wounded as to be forcibly retired from the service, but badly used all the same. Here, an eyepatch; there a pinned-up sleeve; another's face was horribly scarred with a jaw knit awry.

These were men whose very appearance might inspire misgivings, not confidence. It was difficult enough, he knew, to inspire men to follow fearlessly into the madness of battle; near-impossible, perhaps, when their leader was a constant reminder of the perils that awaited them there. Here, though...here, they could yet serve: as he could. He sighed; at least he would not be a curiosity amongst them.

Bush considered these men, trying to envision them as they once must have been: bold, eager, full of ambition and enthusiasm. Did some of that still linger? These men were battered, indeed, but perhaps not yet beaten. As he watched, steady grey eyes met his own. A young lieutenant had noted his presence; he ambled over and saluted casually. So casually, by God, that he had even kept his left hand jammed in his pocket. "Captain Bush? I am Lt. James Dawes, sir."

He caught Bush staring pointedly at the offending arm, and grinned without a trace of awkwardness. "Happened in an engagement with a Frog privateer...we took her, but not without a bitter fight. My arm became entangled in the rigging as our mizzen was coming down. Damn near wrenched it off before one of the men could cut me free. It is of little use now, but at least the surgeon was not forced to remove it." He looked down at Bush's legs and reddened. "Sorry, sir...I meant no...".

Bush waved off the stammered apology. "Never mind." He looked about him; the other officers were now obviously aware of his arrival, and were watching attentively. He gestured to the long table in the center of the room. "Very well, men...shall we begin?"

He stood quietly at the head of the table, waiting, as the others took their seats. Hornblower, he knew, would have offered a speech, one of but few words yet still inspiring these men to lofty heights of loyalty and service. He held no delusions whatever regarding his own ability to do so; thus he dispensed with formality, pulled out his chair, and joined them.

He laid the packet containing his orders on the table. "As you must already know, we are commanded to control the illicit activity..." he smiled grimly "...the 'Free Trade', as the good people of Cornwall call it-that runs rampant along this coast. I understand that during the past weeks Greyhound has been patrolling the area, making her presence known. That shall work to our advantage. The Witch of Endor, our second cutter, will be joining us shortly; in fact I had expected her commanding officer to have joined us by now. But until then...." He began to outline the plans that had begun to take shape in his mind and rapidly became immersed in discussion, completely forgetting his earlier anxieties.

The ideas flowed easily around the table; Bush had sought thoughts and opinions from each of the men seated there with him. After an initial tentative silence, they had begun to cautiously speak their minds, and were now freely engaged in intense exchange, sharing the benefits of the past weeks' experience. But the conversation faltered as each became aware of the sound of rapid hoofbeats; a rider was approaching at what seemed a most reckless pace. Bush broke off in mid-sentence and glanced out the window in time to see a heavily lathered grey slither to a stop in front of the inn. He watched as the uniformed rider slid off, tossed the reins to the waiting post-boy, and sprinted for the door...and burst breathlessly into the room.

Bush studied the young man framed in the doorway. The lieutenant's uniform was travel-stained and dusty, his breeches darkly marred by sweat from the mount that still stood blowing gustily outside-but still, he was somehow familiar. Tall, but slight. Fair, and handsome, some might say, though unsettlingly feminine of feature. Pretty, more like.

The young man looked wildly about the parlour until his eyes met Bush's steady scrutiny. He snapped to attention. "Captain Bush, sir?"

Ah, thought Bush, the voice was also familiar, a fact which allowed him to properly place the young man at last. The Admiralty, of course: this was the aide, the useless puppy who had escorted him to Chadwick's office. Oh God, he wondered suddenly, his mind churning...had something happened to Chadwick? Was this entire operation to be called off before it began? Or had Chadwick himself had a change of heart and properly cast him back upon the beach? Bush schooled his face to a rigid mask, betraying none of his misgivings, and snapped curtly, "Yes. Report, Lieutenant."

"Lieutenant Fanshawe, sir." The young man fumbled in his jacket for a moment and withdrew a packet, proffering it to Bush. "My orders, sir."

Bush accepted them, breaking the seal. He read them, frowned, and read them again.

 

*~*~*~*~*

 

Whitehall

 

Admiral John Chadwick looked up from his papers as the sound of a tentative tapping reached his ears. He glared irritably at the door; this new aide would require some breaking in-at the moment, the young man seemed utterly terrified even to be in his presence.

He sighed heavily; he never imagined that he would actually come to miss Fanshawe. "Yes, yes, Andrews...come."

The young man cautiously poked his head into the room. "Sir...Admiral Summerscales to see you, sir."

"Damn it, Andrews...do not leave him waiting in the hallway like some damned peddler," Chadwick snapped crossly. "Show him in."

The aide flushed a deep crimson, and opened the heavy door with a self-conscious flourish.

Chadwick immediately forgot his irritation and smiled warmly as the admiral entered. "Hello, old friend."

Summerscales returned the smile, a twinkle glimmering in the depths of his brown eyes. "So, where is our young Fanshawe today? Off settling last night's gambling debts, or is he instead attending some society drum?"

Chadwick ignored the question. "Come, Douglas....a drink, perhaps?"

Summerscales moved to the sideboard and busied himself with the decanter and a glass. "So..." he asked over his shoulder "...you sent Bush to Cornwall, eh? And whom did you put into the Witch?"

A vague smile played across Chadwick's worn features. "That is where you will find Lt. Fanshawe, Douglas."

Summerscales nearly choked on the first sip of his brandy. "Fanshawe?" he croaked, when he could finally speak at all.

"Indeed....I do believe that is what I said."

"But..." Summerscales frowned, perplexed. "You and I both know that Fanshawe could not effectively command so much as a jolly boat in a mill-pond. Bush will be forced to take command aboard the Witch, else the operation will fail before it has even begun."

"Hmm." Chadwick slowly and deliberately filled his pipe, then looked up, his expression one of bland innocence. "I suppose he shall."

Summerscales stared incredulously at his friend for a long moment, then erupted in a great peal of laughter. "Damn you, John. You had this planned all along."

The laughter was infectious; despite himself, Chadwick found himself joining in it.

Summerscales at last caught his breath and returned to his brandy, though an occasional chuckle still escaped him. "Fanshawe...good lord." He shook his head in only partly-feigned dismay. "He might be my sister's boy...but God help Captain Bush."

Chadwick smiled, but the smile held a touch of sadness. "May God help me. I failed my own son. Perhaps I can still do something for your nephew."

"Failed him?" Summerscales eyed his friend curiously. "Your son is a captain now; you ought to be rightly proud of him."

"No, I failed him." Chadwick shook his head irritably. "He holds a rank which he did not truly earn, and I fear he will come to grief because of it. I knew he was being promoted too far, too fast...and that it was due to my influence. But I was too consumed by my own career-by my own success-to act, and now it is far too late; he is beyond my reach. He has come to believe that he has earned the rank which my own has bought him."

Summerscales looked confused. "But Fanshawe? How does this concern him?"

Chadwick heaved a rueful sigh. "Fanshawe is much like my son. He has not earned his rank of lieutenant; he knows little of the ways of the sea...or of leadership. Nor has he aspired to learn. Here..." he waved his hand, indicating the well-appointed office "...here, it makes little difference. But if this war continues much longer-as I fear it must-he may be called upon: England will need every one of her officers. Every one. But it would be a great disservice to the Navy and to the men whose misfortune it is to serve under him. I had despaired for Fanshawe, but did not know what to do.

Then I was presented with the problem of the disposition of Commander Bush. Fanshawe learned of his story, and was captivated by it: the famous Hornblower's trusted right hand, badly wounded, captured, and presumed dead. Yet mounting not one but two daring escapes, aiding in the recapture of the long-lost Witch of Endor and bringing her in triumph home to the fleet. And, despite his hardships, unwilling to accept a well-earned comfortable-and lucrative-post ashore.

After having finally met the man-who was singularly unimpressed by him, no doubt-Fanshawe came to me, requesting to be reassigned to wherever Bush was sent. I warned him that Bush was most common, without influence, and socially far beneath him." Chadwick eyed Summerscales sadly. "And do you know what he said? He told me 'Perhaps, but he is nonetheless the better man.' Given that unaccustomed degree of insight, I could not in good conscience refuse him."

Summerscales shook his head skeptically. "I hope your good conscience can withstand the result."