The War of the Words
Commodore Sir Horatio Hornblower stood drowsily in the newly installed shower-bath at Smallbridge, feeling the rain of cool water gently reviving him. He stretched languidly and began to wash himself, unaware that Brown had even re-entered the room until a slight throat-clearing recalled him to Hornblower’s presence.
“Your pardon, Sir Horatio,” Brown said. “Letter from the Prime Minister.”
Hornblower felt his pulses flutter with interest. “Best read it to me, then, if you please.”
“Aye aye, sir.” Brown cleared his throat again and began.
“1 May 1813
“It would give great pleasure to His Lordship the Earl of Liverpool and the Countess of Liverpool if Commodore Sir Horatio and Lady Barbara Hornblower could be persuaded to dine with them to-morrow afternoon at five o’clock at their Whitehall residence.”
Brown paused. “There’s a messenger awaiting a reply, Sir Horatio.”
“Ha – h’m,” Hornblower said. He paused. Then, “My compliments to Lady Barbara, and please ask for her consideration of the invitation.” He was sufficiently experienced in marriage to know better than to accept an invitation of such magnitude without consultation.
“Aye aye, sir.”
Hornblower contemplated the invitation as he washed himself. Was it possible – was it even probable – that Lord Liverpool wished advice from a mere commodore, albeit one with experience in the Baltic and with a role in the seemingly decisive Battle of Riga? He shook his head, sending water flying, and finished his bath. Nonsense. It was simply a sop, albeit a flattering one, to a loyal officer recovered only recently from typhus. Possibly St. Vincent had put a word in Liverpool’s ear about looking Hornblower over to see if he was fit for duty again. Quite likely St. Vincent would be there as well.
That put the slightly awe-inspiring invitation in a more familiar realm and reassured Hornblower, so that by the time Brown was back, with a warm towel and Barbara’s reply, Hornblower had composed himself.
Lady Barbara, it seemed, was delighted with the invitation.
“Then,” Hornblower said as Brown dried him, “have a message to that effect returned to the messenger.” He blinked as another thought struck him. “Here,” he said abruptly, taking the towel, “I’ll see to that. My compliments to Lady Barbara, and ask her whether she would care to depart at once for London so as to have time to obtain a new gown for the occasion.” With a queer pang he recalled another invitation, years ago, when he had chafed at the knowledge that while his purse had supported a new uniform for himself it had not stretched to a new gown for Maria when they had been invited to dine with Lady Barbara – then the wife of the incompetent Admiral Percy Leighton, who had been killed at the Battle of Rosas Bay. How unpredictable were the twists of Providence that left Maria now several years in her grave and Barbara his own lovely wife, and himself with a purse that would easily support for Barbara all the gowns she could desire.
Thus he stood lost in thought for so long that he was taken by surprise by Brown’s reappearance.
Brown shuffled his feet and recalled Hornblower to the present.
“Her ladyship’s compliments, Sir Horatio, and that would suit her very well, and she thanks you kindly,” Brown recited.
“In that case,” said Hornblower, “lay out clothing for travel. Pack my things for the night and yours too. See that Hebe sees to her things and Lady Barbara’s. We’ll stay tonight and to-morrow night in Bond Street.” Again he smiled to himself. How useful to have a London residence. It again struck a chord in him that he was now comfortable enough to have two residences, when for a long time he had barely managed the worst sort of lodgings for Maria and the babies. If he had been able to afford better, the children might never have contracted smallpox. He shook his head angrily. There was no benefit to this line of thinking.
In seemingly no time at all, he and Barbara were side by side in the carriage, enjoying delightful spring weather, as Brown skillfully drove the horses.
“How lovely to dine with the Prime Minister,” Barbara said. She laid a gloved hand on Hornblower’s knee. “I wonder what prompted such an invitation.”
Hornblower did not wish to share his thoughts with Barbara in hearing of Brown, so he said merely, “Doubtless it is a routine event for his lordship to invite military officers to dinner on occasion.”
Barbara must have heard the unconscious edge in his voice for she did not pursue the topic. Instead she said, “I hope I shall be able to find a suitable gown.”
“You will enhance any gown that you encounter, my dear,” Hornblower said, but his reply was automatic. Barbara’s comment had prompted him to return to reflection on the motive for the invitation.
All that day, while Barbara shopped, Hornblower paced the sitting-room of their London town house, fretting himself nearly into a fever. If only he could guess what the prime minister wanted, he could be more informed on the subject. There had been rumors of late that Austria was at long last prepared to join in open opposition to Napoleon. Hornblower frowned. If diplomacy was sought, doubtless an officer who spoke German would be at an advantage; though Hornblower knew French and Spanish, he could not help considering German a particularly barbaric tongue, and spoke it not at all. Moreover, the thought of needing an interpreter invariably called to mind the unfortunate Mr. Braun, who had been hanged while Hornblower was in Konigsberg recovering from typhus.
The only action that finally lifted Hornblower from his self-imposed cloud of worry was the eventual return of Barbara in midafternoon from her shopping expedition, which appeared to have netted her, judging from her high spirits, a gown with which she was pleased. When Hornblower finally saw her in it, he was, for a moment, breathless. Barbara had put her hair up in the fashion of the times, and the pearls ornamenting her hair corresponded becomingly with the double strand round her neck which Hornblower had brought her back from Russia. The dress was of a soft pink with the skirt falling away in front to show a glossy underskirt of white satin. As she pivoted, Hornblower vaguely observed a gathered back and short train; round the bottom the dress was flounced in white satin and lace that looked like blossoms spilt from a cherry tree. As was the style, the bodice left Barbara’s lovely ivory shoulders and bosom bared almost to the level, Hornblower thought, of indecency; but he was insufficiently educated on the question of women’s fashion to raise a point of debate. Short puffs of sleeves showed the delicate curve of Barbara’s arms descending into her long white silk gloves obtained by devious smuggler’s routes from Paris.
Hornblower was temporarily deprived of speech, although he felt himself blush at the sight of his wife. Instead he bowed deeply and lifted her hand for a kiss.
“Astonishing,” he finally said, and Barbara smiled. As usual, the smile both jostled Hornblower senseless and restored his world to its normal order.
As Hornblower had expected, the reception hall fairly glittered with high-ranking men and their ladies. He noted Lord St. Vincent, huge and glowering, seated on a bench near a window, doubtless resting his painfully gouty feet. He was talking to a handsome woman in a gown of bronze silk, who appeared to be enchanted by his discourse. Beside him, he heard Barbara give a little gasp.
“Darling. There’s Arthur.” She gestured with her head, subtly, and Hornblower followed her gaze and saw Barbara’s brother, the Marquess Wellington, commander of His Majesty’s forces in Spain and Portugal, not in uniform but in formal dress. The sight of Wellington so attired gave some small relief to Hornblower, who had been in two minds whether to wear his full-dress uniform or the evening wear which Barbara said suited him so well. He trusted Wellington’s judgment better than his own.
Brother and sister approached each other, Hornblower rather in tow, and exchanged greetings.
His Lordship the Earl of Mornington was more familial to Hornblower than the eldest of the clan, the most noble the Marquis Wellesley, K.B., His Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Richard never failed to nettle Hornblower with his cool condescension.
“We’ve only just moved our supply base,” Wellington was saying. “With the Navy so frequently occupied elsewhere, Santander in the north of Spain will be handier for what we wish to accomplish.” That was, Hornblower thought, an example. Richard would have managed to phrase the same news in a way that was subtly critical of the Navy for inadequately defending Lisbon, never mind that most of the squadron was divided between the West Indies and the North Atlantic.
“How are Napoleon’s forces faring?” Hornblower asked. Feeling idiotic at such a simpleton’s question, he plucked a glass of champagne from a passing tray and drank of it thirstily.
Wellington made a gesture with his hand, his long elegant fingers similar to Barbara’s, though callused with years of war. “Only fair,” he said. “The milder weather is to their advantage, but we have on our side the familiarity the Portuguese have with the peninsula. I expect we’ll succeed in taking Burgos any day, and then ... well, Joseph Bonaparte’s no match for his brother.”
Hornblower managed to keep his expression neutral and drank another glass of champagne. He had been reduced until recently to keeping up with the news via the Naval Chronicle and knew nothing of Joseph Bonaparte’s military abilities. He felt hopelessly out of date and feared that Barbara would somehow sense that he did not measure up to her able brothers in their defense of King and country. It was a huge relief when dinner was announced.
Sheer bad luck, however, contrived to put Hornblower opposite Wellington at dinner, where Hornblower spoke only briefly and seldom as he heard his brother-in-law explain at length the wisdom of the reverse slope defense.
“That’s one reason I say Joseph has nothing on Napoleon,” Wellington drawled as the last dishes were cleared and the decanter put into circulation. “He doesn’t seem to catch on.”
“So long as he doesn’t,” Hornblower said slowly, “it cannot be criticized as a defense.” He was pleased with himself for producing such logic. His head was whirling; the room was too close and he had sat too long at table. He longed for some fresh air.
When finally he managed to step out to the back gardens, he saw St. Vincent’s silhouette bulked on a bench.
“Ah, Hornblower,” St. Vincent growled. “Sit down, man. Always too many people at these damned things.”
There being no suitable reply, Hornblower made none. He merely waited.
“There’s talk,” St. Vincent said abruptly, “of Austria finally being ready to step in. But no-one seems to know on which side.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“You did well with Alexander.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“So perhaps you’ll be willing to go to Austria and see if you can be ... subtly persuasive.”
“Of course, my lord.” Despite his swimming head, Hornblower felt his blood race and his pulses quicken. This was not broadside for broadside, but more complicated stuff. He recalled speaking nominally to the Imperial Minister of Marine while the Russian czar sat unobtrusively in a far corner, absorbing every word. Then there had been the unexpected advantage of the young Alexander viewing the ship and her crew; of seeing the cramped quarters and tasting the pea soup and ship’s biscuit and rum on which the Navy lived; and Hornblower felt some pleasure in realizing that quite likely he had succeeded in turning Alexander and Russia at a critical moment.
“Of course you don’t want to turn the Austrians the wrong way,” St. Vincent was saying, echoing Hornblower’s thoughts. “Have a care. But that’s why you’re the right man for the job, Hornblower. You know your stuff. A good many men would have made a hash of Riga, and then where would we be?”
Hornblower cleared his throat nervously. “I speak no German, my lord.”
“I know that,” St. Vincent said testily. “We’ve lined up an interpreter.” He coughed. “One rather more ... suitable than that Braun fellow.”
Hornblower felt his heart thudding with excitement. He had been on sick-leave for months, and it had felt like years. With the promise of activity ahead, he could scarcely wait to depart. Much of the timing, however, would depend on how things unfolded in Spain. He rather wished to pick Wellington’s brain about the specifics of the action on the peninsula, but as St. Vincent rose and Hornblower rose with him, he felt his legs unsteady and knew that he was in no condition to match wits with a Wellesley brother-in-law. It would be enough to match wits with Barbara. He silently cursed his nerves, which had prompted him to take far too much to drink. He would doubtless have a headache in the morning.
“Hornblower,” St. Vincent prompted. “Let’s rejoin the ladies, shall we?”
Fortunately the conversation had spared Hornblower the necessity of hearing the music which was just concluding. Even more fortunately for Hornblower, he did not after all have to converse any more with Wellington, for St. Vincent was now gesturing over an elegantly dressed fair-haired man, probably the interpreter, Hornblower guessed. He blinked as the man drew nearer, his expression doubtless one of astonishment.
“Oh, of course, you know each other, no doubt,” St. Vincent said. “Served together, did you?”
“Yes, my lord,” Hornblower gulped. The fair-haired man winked at him.
“It’s been some time, my lord,” Archie Kennedy said cheerfully. “I am most honored at the opportunity to work with Sir Horatio again.”
St. Vincent withdrew, nodding stiffly. In a daze, Hornblower felt Kennedy’s hand on his elbow, a gentle pressure as Kennedy led them out of the crowded room and down the hall to a small library. A word to a servant produced brandy, and then they were left alone.
“I ... I didn’t know you spoke German, Archie,” Hornblower finally stammered.
Kennedy smiled broadly, enjoying himself far too much. “I had a tutor who insisted that some works were best read in the original.”
Hornblower opened his mouth, then shut it again. He paused, his mind now swiftly calculating. His efficient brain, even dulled with drink, had put aside his pleasure at seeing Kennedy again and was now focused on the mission ahead, as it should be.
“Diplomacy is ticklish stuff, Archie. It’s seldom a time for humor. I need to know that you will translate what is said word for word, with no additions or ... impertinence.” That was too baldly said, but Hornblower had had too much wine and too many shocks in one evening.
Kennedy’s blue eyes danced. “I can assure you that I am entirely capable of doing my duty for King and Country most diligently, no matter how ridiculous I might become off duty.” He leaned forward and put a hand on Hornblower’s arm. “Old times, H’ratio, old times. Have we not always backed each other to the hilt?”
“To the hilt, Archie,” Hornblower agreed solemnly. How foolish he had been. Who better than Archie, whom he knew and trusted implicitly? It was almost as good as knowing the language himself. And Archie was right, there might be time for enjoyment as well. Somehow with his friend around, the thought of such enjoyment was more ... pleasurable.
By the time he laid his whirling head on his pillow in the house on Bond Street, Hornblower doubted he would find any sleep. His mind was far too aroused with the possibility of being sent into action again, with the necessity of having to speak with both true passion and ticklish sensitivity, of being persuasive without appearing desperate. And in the meanwhile, the situation on the Peninsula, though improving, was by no means completely in hand…. On that point, sleep took him by surprise and he lay unconscious until dawn.
He had at least been correct on one point. He awoke with a pounding headache of the sort he had not endured since … well, since that night at the Peterhof. He turned over carefully, that slight movement nevertheless bringing the pain back into his temples and forcing a groan he could not suppress. At the sound, Barbara, already dressed for the day, turned from the windows.
“Good morning, darling,” she said brightly. Her eyes grew soft at the look of pain on his pallid face. “Have you a headache?”
There was no evasion possible. She had already seen too much. Hornblower decided that surrender was the better option; moreover, he was not yet capable of displaying much dignity. Certainly not while his stomach threatened so.
“I fear I overindulged myself last night,” he admitted, hauling himself into a sitting position and unthinkingly putting a trembling hand to his head.
Barbara was all concern. “Of course a gentleman can hardly do otherwise at Lord Liverpool’s parties,” she was saying. “His lordship pours with a heavy hand and expects his guests to keep up.” She had summoned Hebe, who now appeared and curtseyed to her mistress.
“Hebe, have Brown bring us coffee at once.”
This time Hornblower succeeded in controlling, to some extent, the expostulatory heave of his stomach. Coffee would help. If only he were able to have a shower-bath under a wash-deck pump or the cool fresh water that he could have enjoyed at Smallbridge! The Bond Street town house afforded no such luxuries and he would have to make shift. With a grimace he stood, regained his shaky balance, and made his way over to Barbara, who seemed not to mind his nightshirt and unshaven face.
“Good morning,” he murmured, his lips on her neck. He kissed the cool ivory column and she turned in his loose embrace and met him lip to lip, her gaze soft and sympathetic meeting his bleared eyes.
He drew a deep breath and tried to marshal his thoughts. A knock at the door heralded the arrival of coffee, and by the time he had dispatched half of the first cup he was more himself again.
“It’s likely,” he said gently, “that I shall soon receive orders.”
Barbara’s expression was blank. “I thought as much,” she said only. “Lord St. Vincent seemed desirous of your company.”
Another knock at the door. This time it was the butler with a letter on a salver, and Hornblower could see that it was of the thick linen used only, so far as he knew, by the Admiralty. His headache vanished on the instant with the rush of blood and the thudding of his heart.
“I thought as much,” he said, almost to himself, reading through the dispatch. He shook off his distraction and turned again to Barbara, his gaze softening. “My dear,” he said, “I fear I’ll need to leave at once. Will you come as far as Smallbridge with me?”
Now she smiled, broadly. “I was hoping you would ask.”
As always, events seemed to move very swiftly after that. Before he knew it, he and Barbara had returned to Smallbridge and got his kit in order, and he was in earnest conversation with his other brother-in-law. The evening at Lord Liverpool’s had buoyed his spirits so that Richard’s occasional sneers did him no harm.
“Austria’s wavering,” Wellesley had said. “Don’t know exactly what it will take to make them see reason, but St. Vincent says you’re the man for the job.”
And now he was aboard Nonsuch, with his good friend Bush the captain of it, and he could not restrain the broad smile that spread across his face at the sight of the familiar features at the end of the lane of sideboys and boatswain’s mates, and the familiar horny grasp of Bush’s handshake, and the unconcealed surprise that followed when Bush spied Kennedy.
“Mr. Kennedy will be serving as my interpreter on this voyage, Captain Bush,” Hornblower said formally as Kennedy came to attention and saluted.
“Glad to have you aboard, Mr. Kennedy,” Bush said, the crinkling around his eyes softening the stiffness of his words.
“Very well, Captain Bush,” Hornblower said, still formally, “Set a course for the Adriatic. Call me should the situation warrant it.” And with that he went off below, sublimely confident in Bush’s abilities.
He stood in his cabin, re-reading his notes from his meeting with Wellesley, and subconsciously noted the change in the breeze. Bush must have made for the channel on the ebb. The deck lurched abruptly under his feet and he braced himself against the bulkhead and closed his eyes in dismay. Of course he had lost his sea legs; what else could he have expected after months ashore and convalescent at that? He bore stoically the horrible churning of his stomach and the sweat that broke out on his brow until, ironically, the calming of the waters and the steadying of the ship allowed him to sink groaning onto his cot, where he fell into a restless doze.
The journey was a long one, and once they were down-channel they had to exercise great care along the French coast. They rounded the peninsula safely and made their way past Cadiz and Oran, which Hornblower could never sight without a shudder of horrible memory of the plague, and the stench of transporting the cattle aboard the Caroline, and the simultaneous thrill and sick despair of command. Through the Mediterranean and up the narrow Adriatic. Then Hornblower gave orders for Bush to remain on station while in port, and Hornblower and Kennedy began the wearisome overland route along the Swiss border and deep into Austria to Pleichwitz, near Ratisbon on the Danube.
Upon their landing in Venezia, Hornblower and Kennedy were greeted by an aide to the British ambassador and taken off for a meeting. The ambassador, a ruddy-faced and portly baron, won Hornblower’s respect by giving only scanty attention to the necessary etiquette and plunging at once into news from the peninsula.
“Suppose you’ve heard about the failure at Burgos,” he said, and Hornblower’s heart sank. Not only had Wellington apparently met with a defeat, but Barbara would be dispirited as well.
“We have heard nothing, my lord,” he said briefly. “There had been no news when we stopped at Cadiz to rewater.”
“Wellington’s troops attempted to take the fortress,” the ambassador said, “but lacked siege equipment. Luckily that was about the time the French abandoned Andalusia.” Unlike Hornblower, who had learned his Spanish at El Ferrol, the ambassador had apparently received instruction from someone of a different region and did not use the Castilian lisp to which Hornblower was accustomed, so that it took him a moment to work out which site the French had abandoned.
“Course, he’s your brother-in-law, isn’t he?” the ambassador was saying, a note of approval now in his voice. He chuckled. “Don’t blame Soult for hesitating on account of Wellington’s reputation. Now they’ve moved their supply line to Santander, he was able to put that reverse slope defense of his to use against poor Joseph.” A fragment of Hornblower’s conversation at Lord Liverpool’s came back to him just in time and he was able to nod with some assurance.
“Joseph’s got nothing on his brother,” Hornblower put in, pleased with himself for at least appearing to be up to date on this front.
The ambassador chuckled. “Mind you,” he said fruitily, “Wellington was right to be damned outraged at the looting of abandoned French wagons. Though I hear it caused some heads to roll when he wrote that dispatch to Bathurst. It’s a bit much to call your own troops ‘the scum of the earth,’ what?”
By the time they had achieved their rooms to be allowed to rest before the obligatory reception, Hornblower was utterly weary with the effort of keeping up, and even Kennedy, he thought, was showing some strain.
“Good God, H’ratio,” Kennedy said, breezy as usual but clearly tired out. He flung himself into a chair and eased off his shoes. “Wish that wretched baron would just tell us what’s happened. He knows full well we’ve been at sea. How on earth are we supposed to have divined the news?”
“I know, Archie,” Hornblower said, allowing himself a groan of relief as Brown removed his coat. There went ten pounds of broadcloth and lace. “I suppose you’d better stay at my elbow tonight. God knows who’ll be speaking what language.”
“You know French, though, don’t you?”
“Yes. But German is utterly beyond me,” Hornblower replied. As he said it, he felt oddly pleased at being in company with one of the few men around whom no pretense was needed. Kennedy had seen Hornblower at his most despairing, and Hornblower had seen Kennedy in similar straits, and Hornblower could confess his ignorance at small cost to his pride.
The vast reception room, once crowded with people, proved unbearably stuffy, and Hornblower suppressed a grimace as he felt sweat prickle his neck almost at once. Northern Austria was not expected to be warm and the rooms had not been built to pick up cooling evening breezes; but the crowds and the multitude of candles made the room far too close. And Kennedy, true to his word, was hard against Hornblower’s elbow at every moment. He even, Hornblower noted with approval, refrained from drink so as to be perfectly sober whilst at work.
And Hornblower had been correct in guessing for the need of an interpreter. Most of the guests spoke French, but several only German and one or two Italian, for which Kennedy, to Hornblower’s pleased surprise, came to his rescue as well. Kennedy behaved as a clockwork figure, standing motionless and disengaged until required, then translating, so far as Hornblower knew, flawlessly.
The moment they were in their shared sitting-room, however, Kennedy rang for spirits and dispatched a rather large measure of brandy at a gulp.
“These damned Austrians,” he said with a grimace. “Trying to have it both ways all at once.”
Hornblower cocked an eyebrow. “I don’t believe I got a simple reply to anything I said all evening.”
“You didn’t,” Kennedy confirmed with a nod. He poured himself more brandy. “‘We wish only to live in tranquility with our neighbors,’” he mimicked. “Bit difficult to do when all one’s neighbors are hard at it.”
Hornblower laughed gently. “I must commend you, Archie,” he said, smothering a yawn. “Your services as an interpreter were impeccable… I think.”
That made Kennedy grin, as he had hoped. “Word for word, H’ratio,” Kennedy said. He tossed off the rest of his brandy with a shudder. “Tomorrow awaits.” With an absentminded nod, he betook himself to his chambers. Hornblower summoned Brown and finished getting ready for bed, then slid between the cool linen sheets and was asleep the moment his head touched the pillow.
In the morning, with Kennedy at his elbow, Hornblower met with Archduke Johann and several other members of the Royal Court.
“I do not see,” Johann said, almost idly, “what advantage is to be gained by surrendering our neutrality.”
Hornblower forced his face to remain impassive. “Napoleon has little tolerance for prolonged neutrality,” he said, and listened as Kennedy said, “Napoleon habe klein Toleranz als … er, verlangerte Neutralitat.” Odd seeing that familiar face spouting forth such dark and spiky-sounding language.
“He tolerates neutrality on the part of …” here Hornblower hesitated, weighing the likely reaction, if any, of the archduke to hearing Austria referred to as a weaker power. Nevertheless, bounded as it was on its northeastern borders by the Empire of all the Russias and the Kingdom of Prussia, Austria was, at the moment, considerably weakened – as well as disadvantaged by the alignment of both regions with England. He was conscious as well that Kennedy had translated his partial sentence and now sat waiting. He fancied he could feel Kennedy’s gaze, a silent prompting at his elbow.
“Ha – h’m,” he said, which Kennedy forbore to translate. “Napoleon translates neutrality on the part of … h’m … weaker powers so long as he can profit by it. Given the recent strength of British forces on the Iberian peninsula, that cannot be likely for much longer. In typical fashion, Austria’s neutrality is likely to prove highly inconvenient for Napoleon very soon. He will then show his treacherous side and send forth his army. On the heels of such an invasion, of course, will come all the plagues that cling to his coat-tails – famine, disease, death, wanton misery on all sides.” He paused, half listening to Kennedy’s translation while sorting out in his mind what he wanted to say next.
“Already, should Austria in her wisdom ally herself with the King,” Hornblower continued, hoping his voice did not sound as uncertain as he felt, “she would find able assistance on every side. Prussia and Spain, Russia too have all seen the wisdom of such alliances, and Austria would be supported by their able assistance. Were she, er, unwise enough to yoke herself to the tyrant—” and here Hornblower had no hesitation in using the servile word “yoke” – “she would be utterly surrounded.”
The day wore on. Other men, similarly arrayed in profusion of lace, medals, and high-flown titles, came and went, were joined in the discussion and contributed their hesitant opinions. It was almost a relief to Hornblower when the door opened yet again and admitted a familiar figure: the bulk of General Essen, who greeted Hornblower in the explosive Livonian-accented French that took Hornblower instantly back to the insanity of Daugavgriva.
Essen impulsively seized Hornblower’s shoulders and bussed him on both cheeks, Hornblower restraining a grin at the man’s emotions. He introduced Kennedy, but when the latter saw that his services were not required, he stood as if to leave the room.
“Stay, if you please, Mr. Kennedy,” Hornblower said mildly, and Kennedy subsided.
Essen turned to Johann and murmured to him in German. The conversation, though prolonged, was carried on in such low tones as to make it clear that privacy was desired. Hornblower sat impassively, devoutly hoping that Kennedy would be able to convey the bulk of the discussion to him later.
“I can make no decision at present,” Johann said at last, in German, and Hornblower stifled his impatience once Kennedy had translated.
“I thank you gentlemen for your information.”
Back in their sitting-room, Kennedy and Hornblower uttered twin groans of weariness and impatience as they sank into adjoining chairs.
“The man’s a bloody fool,” Kennedy said at last. He gave Hornblower a summary of what had transpired between Johann and Essen, which contained little of substance and much of hesitation and speculation.
“He’s afraid, Archie,” Hornblower said mildly. “That doesn’t make him a fool, exactly. But the time for neutrality is long past. He will have to decide, and I pity anyone who decides for Napoleon. We can only hope to make him see the insensibility of siding with the Corsican.” He stood and groaned as he gave vent to a long and languorous stretch. He wished for nothing more than to be taking action, not talking in circles. He might as well still be on sick-leave; at least then he would have the consolation of Barbara and Richard.
“Napoleon can’t go on much longer,” Kennedy said, imperfectly concealing a yawn behind his hand. “He fully expected to take Russia, especially after his victory outside Moscow. It was a fair shock to him when you turned him back.”
“Hardly an individual action, Archie,” Hornblower said, feeling his cheeks warm with the unlooked-for praise.
“At any rate,” Kennedy went on, “the world simply isn’t as much on the knife’s-edge as it was. He’s hardly got a year left, I should think.” He yawned again. “How is it that doing no more than sitting in a chair and talking can be more wearying than proper action?”
“A worthwhile question, Archie,” Hornblower returned. He closed his burning eyes and massaged his throbbing temples. He knew from long experience that in the aftermath of proper action he slept deeply and well. He felt during his protracted convalescence that he had stored up enough sleep for a lifetime, and he was equally at a loss to understand why conversation, even effortful conversation, should exhaust him so. He expected sleep to be elusive, which it was; it seemed only a moment from the time unconsciousness at last enveloped him to the moment when Brown awakened him at dawn.
That morning, however, Johann had thrown off his irritating languor. “An armistice has been declared,” he announced, gesturing to papers on the polished oak table. “More than two hundred thousand men have been lost since April. This may prove an end to the war.”
Hornblower digested the information. An armistice meant little, if anything. Still, it would be useful to play off Johann’s optimism – if played correctly. It could well fall the other way, he knew. Johann might decide that in light of an armistice, there was no need for Austria to make a decision. It might, in fact, strengthen the decision to stay neutral. That could well be fatal at such a moment.
“It is a concession on Napoleon’s part to agree to an armistice. Were he at an advantage, he would press it, as he always does. Never in the history of this war has be let up for a moment when he has the upper hand. The fact that he has allowed his enemy time and space to recover means that he requires the same. He lost a good many men and supplies by being trapped in Russia during the severity of the Baltic winter. The hour strikes,” he insisted, pausing to gather his thoughts as he heard Kennedy say, “Die Stunde schlage.”
Johann frowned. This English commodore was proving irritatingly intransigent. He had been advised that the man who would be sent from England was a recovering invalid. The name “Hornblower” had been familiar, of course, as the Englishman who had turned the tide in Russia, but Johann had expected someone feeble and distracted, not this tall, seemingly healthy man with an interpreter at his elbow and the gift of oratory. The English were pressing for a decision, when he wanted nothing more than to bide his time. With the news of the armistice, he might not have to delay much longer – if he could satisfy the English and make the man go away.
All during the unexpectedly stultifying summer, Hornblower sat at the same polished oak table, spoke his piece, listened to Kennedy’s translations. As he had predicted, the armistice made little difference. The time seemed to be to Napoleon’s advantage, and Hornblower, at least, was unsurprised that such a pause had been called for.
He grew accustomed to the feel of sweat prickling his neck and back, grew accustomed to the overly strong coffee, grew accustomed to the languor that seemed to affect all parties equally during the worst of the heat in the afternoons, grew accustomed to the parties and dinners and gatherings in which the Austrians took delight. He sat through concert after concert, his face assuming an expression of rapt interest; ballets and operas alike were torture to him, though he found himself captivated by the performance of Lippizzaner stallions, large white horses who reared and circled and stamped on command. In spite of the numerous diversions, his restless spirit grew frustrated with an endless vista of days spent sitting at tables, murmuring crucial words into listening ears at parties, bowing and hesitating and constructing his sentences with care. He longed to feel a deck under his feet; even, madly, longed for the haze and concussion of a battle again.
The world was at war and he was trapped in an Austrian confection of a palace.
At last, a change broke. Hornblower had despaired of progress and had come to feel that he would have to go on sitting there spouting unpersuasive persuasions for all eternity, when, in the worst of the late afternoon stupor one day, Johann abruptly stood. Out of habit, Hornblower stood as well.
“We will join with you against Napoleon,” Johann said. Hornblower fought – with limited success, he thought – to keep his expression neutral. Whence had that decision come? Arriving as it did with so little fanfare, the announcement contrived to shut from Hornblower’s mind all the weary weeks of circuitous, careful conversation. He found himself quite unable to take any pleasure in it.
“His Majesty will be pleased at the news,” he said. Later, alone in the sitting-room with Kennedy, he gave vent to some of the emotion he had suppressed.
“His Majesty will take it as no more than his due – and we’ll receive no credit at all for something the Admiralty will believe to be merely an inevitability of nature,” he growled, at last succeeding in undoing the knot in a neckcloth soaked with sweat. It was the middle of August and the armistice had fallen apart. If Austria sent troops in any number, Napoleon would be outnumbered as well as surrounded, but it was not to England’s advantage to have allowed Napoleon to regroup. In irritation he flung the wet neckcloth onto the bed.
“No credit that you would notice, H’ratio,” Kennedy returned. He had already stripped off his own coat and neckcloth and poured himself a generous tot of Oporto. “But notice will be taken. You’ll be a lord before you know it.”
“And Wellington a duke,” Hornblower grumbled. He was in no mood to be placated.
“Her ladyship married you when you were a mere captain,” Kennedy said lightly. “I think she can endure marriage to a lowly lord.” He winked and raised his glass to Hornblower.
Even were he inclined to savor his diplomatic triumph, however, there was scarcely time for Hornblower to have done so. Seemingly on the heels of Johann’s decision came news of Napoleon’s victory in the Battle of Dresden. Hornblower, heartily sick of war, was nevertheless somewhat heartened by news of the narrowness of the victory and of the strategic error of Napoleon’s forces in choosing not to press their advantage. Indeed, French supporting troops were forced into surrender only a few days afterward and Hornblower found it difficult not to be pleased by the news that Napoleon himself had been suffering a severe cholic on account of the steady rains that had fallen on the battlefields. Even more was he cheered by news of Bernadotte’s decisive defeat of Oudinot and Blucher’s defeat of MacDonald, who had given him such trouble in Daugavgriva.
“What’s troubling you so, H’ratio?” Kennedy asked at length. The silence between them had turned from comfortable to awkward, though neither man could pinpoint the moment of its turning.
“Napoleon is falling,” Hornblower said darkly. “He cannot last another … oh, year or two more. And here I sit,” he spat, gesturing with his glass. “On my arse in cushioned chairs in the opulent hospitality of an Austrian palace, miles from any ships or guns or action.”
Kennedy’s impish expression grew sober as he studied his friend. “One would think you’d seen enough action.”
“It’s been nearly a year since Riga,” Hornblower replied, with some exaggeration. “A year of … of … nothing but blather. What have I done to offend the Admiralty?”
Kennedy’s lips quirked. “Enough of this,” he declared. “Gilded as this place may be, it still functions as a cage. Come with me.” He stood and tugged a reluctant Hornblower to his feet.
Liberty, it seemed, meant a night at the theater to Kennedy. Not the damask-draped lushness of the official performances to which they had been taken in Johann’s dull company, but a journey down increasingly narrow and dark streets to a crowded music-hall, where they sat in their plainest clothes on sagging wooden benches and watched ruddy-faced, cheery amateurs entertain peasants who roared with laughter until Hornblower found himself cheered by their unflagging pleasure, even if he understood not a word of it.
At last, his head swimming with smoke and fatigue, he reeled out of the crowded hall after Kennedy and gulped in the mild night air. Kennedy seemed as giddy as he … until the moment the coach rolled away and they were alone in the leather-scented confines.
“Now, my good friend,” Kennedy said softly. “Tell me what ails you.”
“What ails me,” Hornblower repeated blankly.
“H’ratio,” Kennedy scolded. “I’ve known you since you were a soaking wet seventeen-year-old blemishing the Justinian’s below-decks with your weak belly. I’ve seen you take command of a cargo full of rice,” biting his lip to suppress his laughter, “and I’ve seen you watch a woman die in your arms.” The eyes grew soft and the voice low with compassion. “I’ve followed you into a storeroom about to explode and off a cliff with no other way out, and you were by my side when I came within a stitch of dying in a damned prison in Kingston. And I have never,” he concluded forcefully, “seen you so miserable in your entire life. Yes, H’ratio, what ails you?”
“I serve the King,” Hornblower surprised himself with the vehemence of his answer. He half rose from his lurching seat. “I serve the King, sir, and I have done so for all my adult life, and now … now, when Napoleon at long last totters on the edge of his well-deserved abyss, I find myself exiled to playing cat-and-mouse with a pompous, overdressed, languid prig of an Austrian when I should be on the decks of a ship. Diplomacy is for the aged and unfit, Archie, and I am neither. I am long over that … typhus,” he rasped, then checked himself. Over it he might have been, but the explosion of emotion had made his head swim and his knees weaken.
“H’ratio,” he heard Kennedy dimly, from a great remove. “H’ratio.”
When he woke, he was in the familiar bedroom of the palace and Kennedy sat in a chair by the bed, half in a doze. The slight noise roused him.
“Thank God,” Kennedy said with some vehemence of feeling.
“How long …”
“Only the night,” Kennedy replied quickly. “My fault. I kept you out too late.”
“You had the right of it, Archie,” Hornblower said softly. “I was wrong and you were right. Perhaps I have seen enough action. I suppose my usefulness is at an end.”
“Horatio,” Kennedy said, his cheerful features darkening. “You yourself turned Russia and Alexander. It was you who persuaded him, you who made the decisive argument, and it was you who forced that tyrant to blunder backward across all Russia in the teeth of winter at great cost at the moment when he and the world thought his victory was inevitable. And did you not notice that thanks to you Austria finally came in on the King’s side just in time? If that Corsican idiot is finally defeated, it’s because of you as much as anyone.”
“Wellington,” Hornblower grunted half-heartedly as he weakly hauled himself upright.
“Hornblower,” Kennedy countered, supporting his friend’s back. “Easy. You’re still pale. No need for you to go jumping out of bed. You’ve lost too much weight this summer as it is on that indigestible Austrian swill. You’re man’s had to take in a seam, had you noticed?”
“You exaggerate,” Hornblower said, but as he shifted against the pillows he felt the sharpness of his ribs and felt his head swim. Perhaps Kennedy was right.
“Diplomacy is rather wearing at that,” he admitted. He sank back and was immediately irritated at how much better his whirling head felt for it. “It’s broadsides and bullets that win wars, Archie. My talk’s done nothing.”
Kennedy cocked a skeptical eyebrow. “Broadsides and bullets do little unless accompanied by blather, H’ratio,” he said as lightly as he could manage. “Think on that,” he urged, and stood and left the room, closing the door softly behind him.
Hornblower was alone with his thoughts. He idly watched his fingers pluck restlessly at the coverlet and reflected on what his friend had said. Bullets were unmistakably effective when well placed. So were shots from a nine-pounder, broadsides, swift tactical decisions in the heat of battle, devotion to one’s duty, placing charges and leading troops by example and drilling men at their guns and the smoke and haze of a hundred confrontations. Words were nothing, disruptions of the still and humid air. His eyes fell on Barbara’s latest letter, which Kennedy or someone else had laid on the covers. Absently he picked it up and he took in again the delicate script.
“As always, I pray for your swift and safe return once you have executed your duty, as you always do so very handsomely and well,” Barbara had written. “Ever your loving wife.” The paper fell from his hand and he gazed unseeing into some middle distance. Words. He was not only light-headed with fatigue but stirred up with homesickness. Barbara was no more present than she had been a moment ago, but Hornblower felt her there, palpable against the still air, his mind a muddle. Words, mere words, had wrought a decided shift in his outlook.
Could Kennedy be right after all? Could blather as well as broadsides shift the outcome of a war?
A knock at the door. “Come in,” he called automatically. It was Brown bearing a dispatch from the Admiralty. What in the world did Whitehall want of him now? He frowned. Nepean’s tidy handwriting was requesting him to report to St. Vincent at his earliest possible moment. St. Vincent, it seemed, was aboard Temeraire now anchored alongside Nonsuch. “The matter which requires your presence is a rather unusual one,” Nepean had written. Hornblower considered the dispatch as he drank his coffee. It sounded rather as though he was being sent on another round of diplomacy. Unwillingly he found his lips quirking into a smile. Perhaps, after all, there was something useful in it.
Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, took office as Prime Minister in June 1812. He disliked No. 10 Downing Street, as did many prime ministers of the period, as it was rambling and drafty before renovations in 1902. He lived instead at Fife House, Whitehall, London. He married Lady Louisa Harvey, over his father’s opposition and with personal intervention from William Pitt the Younger, in 1795.
Credit micheleannyoung.blogspot.com, a blog about England’s Regency era, for an illustration and clip of a detailed description of the gown.
In late May 1813, on a second attempt, Wellesley and the Anglo-Portuguese forces captured Burgos when the French abandoned the fort that provided a vital link between France and Madrid.
Although the Treaty of Pleichwitz was settled in the spring of 1813, even maps of the period do not show its location. I have taken the liberty of locating it near Ratisbon, another critical Napoleonic site; a difficult and costly victory there in 1809 enabled Napoleon to advance on Vienna.
The Armistice of Pleichwitz was in force from June 4, 1813, to August 13, 1813, primarily to allow both French and allied troops to take stock in the face of mounting casualties. It was followed by talks aimed at bringing an end to the war.