A Matter of Conscience
The sky over the coast of Brittany was a play of lights and shadows. Shreds of dark clouds were chasing each other, as if to mirror the drama that was unfolding on the surface of the sea beneath it. Close hauled on the larboard tack, the French frigate Volontaire was flying over the waves with all sail set in a desperate attempt to escape the guns of a squadron of British frigates. But clearly she was loosing the race; the British ship in the lead, HMS Indefatigable, was within two gunshots already and coming up fast.
The atmosphere on the Indefatigable's quarterdeck was charged with eager anticipation. Everybody's eyes were glued on the enemy ship ahead. It would be the squadron's first action in over two weeks, and officers as well as men were eager to fight.
Captain Sir Edward Pellew felt a surge of excitement as he watched the distance between the two ships diminish. In just a few minutes they would be within range and he would give the order to fire.
Yet despite his intense concentration on the enemy frigate, he had not failed to notice the recent subtle change in wind. What had started as a steady breeze blew now in strong but irregular gusts. Pellew frowned: he did not like the look of it. He turned to Bracegirdle, the first lieutenant and officer of the watch, and concluded from his worried expression that the latter shared his concerns.
Just then, the ominous sound of flapping canvas reached Pellew's ears.
"Hard a-weather!" Bracegirdle shouted.
The helmsman reacted at once, but it was too late. Looking up, Pellew watched in dismay as one sail after another lost the wind and hung limply from its yard. The sudden squall had taken them flat aback, and they were loosing way quickly.
A glance at the Frenchman showed that they had managed to bear away from the wind in time and were now on a course two points further south.
Pellew turned to check on the rest of the squadron. The Flora, flying Commodore Sir John Warren's broad pendant, had been following closely and had suffered the same fate as the Indefatigable. The remaining four frigates on the other hand, far off to leeward before, now suddenly found themselves in a much more favourable position, and the Diamond, still keeping her wind, was closing on the Volontaire fast.
The Indefatigable's captain kept his face unreadable, but clenched his hands into fists in frustration. It had been their superior handling of the ship, their quickness in making sail that had put them in the lead ahead of the squadron. And now, instead of reaping their reward by being the first to engage the enemy, they were in irons and reduced to watching in idleness as others got their chance.
He was about to give orders to get them moving again, when there came a hail from the masthead: "Deck there, sail on the larboard beam!"
Everybody's eyes turned in the direction indicated, glasses were extended, and the horizon searched.
It did not take Pellew long to make out the sail the lookout had spotted. She was standing out from the coast, just south of the Pointe du Raz. An enemy ship, no doubt.
"Mr. Bracegirdle, get us under way, if you please! Set a course for the Pointe du Raz."
"Aye, aye, sir!" came the immediate reply, and the lieutenant started to shout orders in rapid succession.
Pellew knew he could trust this business to his first lieutenant, so he did not stop to watch, but turned to the signal midshipman. "Mr. Sykes, signal to the Flora: 'Enemy ship to windward'."
"Enemy ship to windward. Aye, aye, sir."
Soon the brightly coloured flags rose up, and moments later Pellew saw the Flora's signal halliard getting busy in reply.
"Signal from the Flora, sir. Our number. Make chase."
"Thank you, Mr. Sykes. Acknowledge the signal, if you please."
While the young midshipman was still busy hauling up the respective flags, Pellew noticed that the commodore's ship was signalling again, giving orders to the rest of the squadron to keep up the chase.
Pellew turned his attention back to his own ship. Bracegirdle was handling her smoothly, and in just a few minutes they were on a course straight for the French ship. As the distance diminished, more details became visible. She was a medium sized frigate, 32 or 36 guns. She must have spotted them, because she had tacked and was now running back into Audierne Bay.
"Mr. Bracegirdle, two points to starboard, if you please."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Pellew cast a quick glance back towards the Flora, who had joined the Indefatigable in her chase. Commodore Warren, seeing himself out of all chance with the Volontaire, had apparently decided to concentrate on this new enemy as well.
Extending his glass, Pellew searched the coast. If his memory served him right, there was a little bay between the Pointe du Raz and Audierne, protected by shore batteries. True enough, it soon became clear that this was where the French frigate was headed.
"Mr. Bracegirdle, we shall stand into that bay. Mr. Bowles," Pellew asked, turning to the sailing master, "do we know anything about the place?"
"The entry is safe enough, sir. There are, however, the Gamette rocks to the north-west, which are best given a wide birth in the present weather conditions."
"Very well, Mr. Bowles. Mr. Bracegirdle, take in the topgallants, if you please."
"Aye, aye, sir."
They rounded the headland and were greeted by an unexpected sight: the Frenchman had come to an anchor, obviously expecting that the two British ships would be frightened off by the shore batteries. They would soon learn otherwise, Pellew thought with grim determination.
The captain of the enemy frigate, which they identified as L'Espion, quickly realized his mistake and made sail again. There was not much room in the little bay, and she was getting dangerously close to the rocks Bowles had warned against.
Indefatigable was now almost within range. One of the shore batteries started to fire, but the shots fell short. The next moment, L'Espion jerked to a sudden halt, and then her foremast snapped in two and fell, trailing over the side. She had run aground and had become a sitting target.
This was almost too simple, Pellew thought with a twinge of unease. It would feel more like a gunnery exercise than a real battle.
"Mr. Bracegirdle, have the courses clewed up. We shall heave to in range of the enemy ship. And, Mr. Bracegirdle, have the guns run out."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Slowing down, the Indefatigable closed on L'Espion, but still Pellew waited with the order to fire. He knew that the first broadside, if timed just right, would have a devastating effect.
A few cannon balls, fired from the shore, splashed into the water around Indefatigable, but none did any damage. Gauging the distance and angle between the two ships, Pellew waited in tense anticipation.
His order was immediately repeated by the lieutenants on the main deck and then by the gun captains. The thunder of cannon was deafening, and the flying splinters, falling spars and screams of the wounded told Pellew that they had delivered a deadly blow.
Powder smoke, blown towards the French frigate by the gusty wind, soon obscured the scene. Still, through the black clouds Pellew could discern the havoc the Indefatigable's guns were wreaking. They were joined by those of the Flora after a short while, whereas the confusion reigning on L'Espion prevented any effective answer from that quarter.
The shore batteries now and then scored a hit in the hull, but did no damage to spars and rigging. Time flew by as the British ships fired broadside after broadside, and when a shot from the Flora finally brought down what had still been standing of the Espion's mizzenmast, Pellew was surprised to notice that the sun was already touching the horizon.
The French ship was a wreck. There was nothing left but her hull, and that was holed in more places than could be counted. Not to mention the damage she must have suffered when running aground on the rocks. The crew had abandoned the last few functioning guns and started preparations to lower the boats and gain the safety of the shore. There were no colours left for them to strike, so this was as good as a surrender.
There was no point in wasting any more powder on her.
"Cease fire!" Pellew's voice, slightly hoarse from the powder smoke, rang out and silenced the guns at once.
A moment later, the signal midshipman announced: "Signal from the Flora, sir."
"Yes, Mr. Sykes?"
The youth was busily consulting the signal book. "Burn the enemy ship, sir. And there another one goes up, sir: make normal rendezvous."
"Very well, Mr. Sykes. Acknowledge the signals, if you please."
Pellew noticed that the Flora was already preparing to get under way. So Warren had decided to leave the business of finishing her off to him. An easy enough task: they would simply board her, bring away any prisoners they might find, and then set her on fire.
But in his long career Pellew had learnt that at sea, he who took easy tasks lightly did so at his peril. He would go himself to assess the situation. And he would take Hornblower with him. The youth might learn something on this mission. He had only very recently been made an acting lieutenant, and this would be a new experience for him.
Pellew addressed his first lieutenant: "Mr. Bracegirdle, call away the boats."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The captain then turned to a tall and somewhat lanky officer, who had just joined them on the quarterdeck.
"Mr. Hornblower, you will accompany me."
"You will go yourself, sir?" Bracegirdle asked, mildly surprised.
"Indeed, Mr. Bracegirdle. The Indefatigable will be yours in the meantime."
L'Espion's deck was deserted, shot down spars, cordage, canvas, dismounted cannon, and dead bodies lying everywhere in heaps. Pellew's first task led him into the captain's cabin to secure any documents the French might have left, but not surprisingly their search turned up nothing.
They then made their way to the gun deck and found there about seventy of the French crew, those who had not been so fortunate as to gain a place in one of the boats. They were taken prisoners and sent back to the Indefatigable under marine guard.
Pellew was just about to descend to the orlop, when he heard steps on the ladder leading up from the fore platform. It was the carpenter, whom he had sent to evaluate the damage to the hull.
"Your report, Mr. Anderson?"
"She is holed below the waterline in at least a dozen places, sir. She is taking water fast. Also, at two points the rocks actually penetrated right through the hull."
"So she is beyond repair?"
"Oh, most definitely, sir. She is not sinking, as she is already fast aground. But she will break apart all right, once the pressure increases."
Pellew had expected nothing less, judging from her outward appearance. Still, if there was the slightest chance that they could refloat L'Espion and bring her off as a price, it would be their duty to make the attempt.
"I shall inspect the damage myself, Mr. Anderson. If you will please show the way. Mr. Hornblower, you will accompany us."
Half an hour later, Pellew had satisfied himself that L'Espion was doomed. He had touched the rocks protruding through the thick oak panels with his own hands, had seen with his own eyes how the water was gushing in trough the shot holes. There was no way she could be saved.
He paused at the bottom of the hatchway that led up to the after platform of the orlop.
"What is your view, Mr. Hornblower?" he asked. "Do you see any possibility to salvage her?"
The lad hesitated only for a moment. "No, sir, I do not."
Pellew nodded, satisfied. The young officer was able to form his own judgement and was not reluctant to give his opinion when asked. That promised well for his career.
"Very well, Mr. Hornblower. We shall set her on fire, then. We shall start it on the gun deck. There is plenty of air there to vent it, and we shall still have time enough to abandon the ship. Do please gather some men to collect easily inflammable material, and make the necessary preparations."
"Aye, aye, sir."
With that, Pellew turned and led the way up the ladder.
Moments later, he stepped out into the cockpit and was greeted by a sight that caused him to stop dead in his tracks. He had been hardened by many years of service, but still he blanched, and it took him a few seconds to recover his composure.
The place was crammed with human bodies, many of them with missing limbs, all of them covered in bloody bandages and moaning pitifully. They were lying everywhere, every little space of deck seemed to be taken up. There had to be dozens.
Far in the back, Pellew saw a man seemingly unhurt, tending to one of the wounded. The French surgeon, no doubt. He looked up, probably having heard the steps, and made his way towards them, carefully stepping between his patients.
"You are le capitaine of the British ship?" he asked in heavily accented English.
"I am Captain Sir Edward Pellew of His Majesty's Frigate Indefatigable. Are you the surgeon? The doctor?" he added, when his question was met with a blank look.
"The doctor, yes. Le chirurgien. I am monsieur le docteur Meillet."
"We are here to destroy this ship, Dr. Meillet. These men will have to be moved. Will any of them be able to leave the ship on their own?"
"Leave the ship, monsieur le capitaine? Impossible! These men cannot walk. They will have to be... to be carried, yes."
Pellew nodded. He had not expected anything else. Those who were still upright had left in the boats earlier.
"How many of them are there, doctor?" he asked.
"How many? Quarante-sept forty-seven, monsieur."
Pellew turned to Hornblower. "Mr. Hornblower, see if you can find something to use as a litter to carry these men, or have something put together; there are spars and canvas enough lying around on deck. And then rig a tackle so we can get them over the side and into the boats."
"Aye, aye, sir. But, begging your pardon, sir, there is nothing left we could rig a tackle from."
Pellew, who had already directed his attention back to the French surgeon, slowly turned to face his acting lieutenant, frowning deeply as the realization sank in.
Hornblower was right, of course. L'Espion was completely dismasted. In order to rig a tackle, they would have to rig a jury mast first and square a yard. A time-consuming task, and moreover one that could not be accomplished in the dark. And they could not stay here forever, the French might at any moment decide to send boats from the shore to attack them.
But to leave these poor wretches behind and set the ship on fire impossible. Pellew shuddered at the thought. He knew that he would never be capable of acting in such a cold-blooded fashion.
Yet he had been commanded by Warren to burn L'Espion. Failure to do so would mean to disobey a direct order and could have dire consequences. 'Every person in the fleet who shall not duly observe the orders of the admiral, flag officer, commander of any squadron...' How many times had he read this article to his men? Never expecting that one day it would be himself to face the consequences of disobedience. '... every person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court martial, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as from the nature and degree of the offence a court martial shall deem him to deserve.'
Would Warren demand a court-martial? He had not known the circumstances when he had issued his order. Given the chance to explain, Pellew was confident that he could make him understand the situation. The commodore was neither unreasonable nor blood-thirsty.
And the fact was that L'Espion was completely destroyed. The French would never be able to put her to any use again. All they might do was bring away some stores and provisions before she broke apart. A small triumph, when weighed against the loss of a 36-gun frigate, seventy men as prisoners of war, almost fifty wounded, and God alone knew how many dead.
And yet, never in his long life in the service had Pellew knowingly defied an order, and the idea of doing so seemed almost unthinkable. It might mean the end of his career. He might be dismissed from the service or at the very least loose his command and spend the rest of his life on half pay.
During all his years at sea, Pellew had always endeavoured to do his duty, and there had never been any doubt as to what that consisted of. Until today.
His duty as an officer in His Majesty's Navy was to do his utmost to destroy any enemy ship. But now for the first time this stood in conflict with another duty. A duty to humanity to God.
He let his eyes fall on the pitiful human bodies that filled the cockpit.
Was there not a higher duty than the one to King and country? A higher authority than the naval service?
Suddenly Pellew saw the path he had to take with perfect clarity. His decision might jeopardize his career, but to act otherwise would endanger his soul. And there could be no doubt as to which was more important.
With newfound resolve, he turned to his acting lieutenant.
"Mr. Hornblower, get a team ready to carry these men up to sick-berth." The orlop was below the waterline, and at the rate at which L'Espion was taking water it would soon not be a very safe place. Besides, there was more space on the gun deck.
Addressing the French surgeon, he continued: "Dr. Meillet, my men will carry the wounded up to the gun deck, under your supervision. Let us hope that your countrymen will return tomorrow at daylight to remove them from the ship."
Surprise showed on the surgeon's face. "You will not destroy the ship, monsieur le capitaine?"
"No, doctor," Pellew replied curtly.
"Sir? What about the commodore's orders, sir?" Surprise in Hornblower's voice as well.
"Mr. Hornblower, as officers in His Majesty's Navy we obey our superiors' orders, and that is right so. But as men we also have to obey our conscience. If you ever find yourself in a situation where these two concepts are in conflict, you must weigh them against each other very carefully. And I trust that you will then make the right decision."
The French surgeon had followed Pellew's words with interest. "Monsieur," he said now, "I thank you. For myself and for all of these men. The English can be proud to have officers like you."
He held out his hand, and Pellew took it, hiding his embarrassment behind a stony face and a tightly set jaw.
"I whish you good luck, doctor."
And with one more look at the miserable creatures spread out on the platform, as if to convince himself that he had made the right decision, he turned and ascended the ladder.
Three days later, Captain Sir Edward Pellew stood on his quarterdeck, hands clasped tightly behind his back, watching as the Flora hove to. The Indefatigable had reached the rendezvous point two days ago, and the rest of the squadron had joined her shortly afterwards. The other captains had informed Pellew that they had met with the Flora on the day of the chase and had been sent here, while the commodore himself had gone off in pursuit of a strange sail.
Pellew instinctively touched the left side of his coat, where his report to Warren as well as the one to Lord Chatham at the Admiralty were safely stored. Much thought had gone into them, and now he could only hope that he had managed to state his case in such a way that the recipients would not only understand but also approve of his decision not to set L'Espion on fire his decision to purposely disobey his commanding officer's order.
The word still made him flinch. Though he was reasonably confident that Warren would not blame him for his actions, some lingering doubts remained. The past three days had seemed endless, filled as they were with troubled thoughts regarding the possible consequences of his actions. If he was never again to command a ship, what would he do with the rest of his life? He had never learnt any other trade. How would he support his family, how would he provide for his five children?
The message from the officer of the watch that the Flora had been sighted had thus come as a relief. Finally the waiting and uncertainty would have an end.
The Flora's signal halliard came to life as soon as she was stationary, and Pellew did not need the midshipman's report to recognize the order for all captains to join the commodore.
The captains' conference on board the Flora seemed interminable. In its course it was decided to send the Diana, whose stores of water were running short, ahead to Falmouth with dispatches. The rest of the squadron would resume their cruise for another week.
Finally, Warren concluded the meeting and dismissed the other four captains, keeping only Pellew behind.
"Now, Captain Pellew, I trust you have a report for me," the commodore began once they had been left alone. He wore a stern expression that caused Pellew a twinge of unease.
"Yes, sir." He reached into his breast pocket and handed the envelope over to Warren. "I regret to report that I saw myself unable to destroy L'Espion by fire."
"Indeed, captain? And how is that, sir? I would have thought it no particularly difficult task to burn a ship already aground and abandoned by most of her crew." The sharpness of Warren's tone took Pellew by surprise.
Not letting his voice betray any of his anxiety, he replied: "Sir, my written report should make the reasons for my actions clear."
The commodore shot him a penetrating look out of his steel-blue eyes and then, without another word, broke the seal and started to read. While the minutes ticked by, Pellew watched his commanding officer's face, at first set in a rigid mask, eventually display some intrigue and then soften. When he finally looked up, he gave a tight smile.
"I should have known that Captain Sir Edward Pellew would not disobey an order without a very good reason. I hardly need to say that I fully approve of your course of action."
Pellew felt relief wash over him, and days of built-up tension finally eased.
"Then you will not bring charges against me for disobeying your order, sir?" he asked.
"Of course not, Pellew", Warren replied, shaking his head. "You should know me better than that. You are safe from me."
With those words he rose, and Pellew did likewise, assuming he was dismissed. But Warren turned away and stared out of the stern windows.
"However," he finally continued, facing Pellew with an expression so grim that the latter felt his throat tighten, "I cannot speak for the Admiralty. I am afraid that the situation is more serious than you are aware, captain." He paused, and Pellew gripped the back of the chair in front of him until his knuckles grew white.
"This morning, on our way here to the rendezvous point, we met the sloop Echo, which is on reconnaissance duty along this coast. I briefly conferred with her commander, in the hope of gaining some new intelligence. Among other bits of news, he reported to have seen L'Espion in the port of Audierne yesterday, with jury rigged masts and apparently undergoing repairs."
Pellew paled. This could not be, there must be some mistake, some misunderstanding.
"Impossible, sir. It must have been a different ship."
"That was my first reaction as well, from what I had seen of her condition. But I am afraid Commander Dobbs insisted that there could be no doubt as to the identity of the ship. Although I can hardly imagine how, the French must have managed to refloat her, perhaps on a rising tide."
Warren paused and let his gaze fall on the paper still lying open on the table. He did not meet Pellew's eyes when he added: "I have no choice but to include this fact in my own report to Lord Chatham."
The pipes twittered as Pellew went up the Indefatigable's side. He acknowledged his officers' salutes, but did not stop, making his way to his cabin directly, only ordering to be called when the signal to make sail came. Once in his quarters, he handed his hat and uniform coat to his steward without a word. The latter knew his master's ways well enough to refrain from any remarks and left quietly.
Finally alone, Pellew stationed himself at the stern windows, folding his arms and gazing unseeingly out at the grey expanse of water stretching to the horizon. The view, which had often had a calming effect on him, held no comfort today.
L'Espion had been refloated. The full implications of the fact only now began to sink in.
That Warren approved of his actions was of little consolation now, since disobeying the latter's order was not the problem any more. The charges that could be brought against him now were not disobedience, but failure to destroy an enemy ship. And the Articles of War provided no alternative punishment in such cases. 'Every person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court martial, shall suffer death.'
Pellew had no difficulty recalling the exact wording of the relevant passage. Every officer who had served in the navy for any length of time knew the Articles of War from memory. 'Every person in the fleet who through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, .... shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage.'
There could be no doubt that it had been his duty to engage L'Espion, nor that he had failed to destroy her. But had he done his utmost? Without question it would have been physically possible, simple even, to burn her. Yet it had been morally impossible. Would a court martial consider this sufficient grounds to clear him?
And what about his motives? Nobody could accuse him of cowardice, nor of disaffection. But negligence had he not been convinced that L'Espion had been destroyed beyond saving? Had he not stated as much in his report? It was perfectly clear now that he had misjudged the situation. He had not examined her condition carefully enough, had come to a hasty conclusion because it was the conclusion that suited him best. Yes, he had indeed been negligent.
And now it was not merely his career that was at stake, but his very life. Not that he was afraid of dying; he had looked death in the eyes many times. But to meet his fate by the hand of a firing squad was a different matter. Was this how his career would end? Would he, Captain Sir Edward Pellew, a national hero only last year after the capture of the Cléopatre, die an ignominious death, find his last rest in an unmarked grave?
And his family God, what would become of them? His shoulders finally sagged and he buried his face in his hands. There would be no pension for the widow and children of an officer who had lost his honour, who had been executed. The word made him shudder.
What had he done?
A knock on the door caused Pellew to straighten with a deep breath. He turned round, clasping his hands behind his back as if to gain strength from this familiar stance. When he bade the caller enter, his face was once again inscrutable, the mask back in place.
At least the two marines allowed him to walk by himself, respectfully keeping one step behind him. The door to the courtroom was open. As soon as he stepped over the threshold, his eyes sought the judges' table. On it lay his sword, which he had been obliged to hand over to the court martial. The point was facing towards him.
Suddenly, each step became a major effort. Unaware of his surroundings, Pellew kept his eyes fixed on the sword, slowly making his way to the front of the room. Guilty. He had been found guilty.
Reaching the chair reserved for him, he finally looked up at his brother captains sitting in judgement over him. Their faces were expressionless.
The president took up the paper lying in front of him and began to read out the verdict in a flat voice: "It is the opinion of the court martial assembled here that on August 23, 1794, Edward Pellew, lately captain of HMS Indefatigable, through negligence did fail to destroy the enemy ship L'Espion as his duty would have required him to do. In accordance with article 12 of the Articles of War laid down by King George II, he is hereby condemned to death by firing squad. The sentence is to be carried out tomorrow at dawn. The convict will remain in custody until that time."
Dazed, Pellew hardly heard the order to the marines to take him away. When each of them grabbed one of his arms, he let it happen. They roughly turned him round, all respect gone now, to walk him out of the room.
For the first time, Pellew noticed the men lining the side. His officers. Bracegirdle. Hornblower. Bowles. Their faces, which had shown sympathy during the earlier stages of the trial, were hostile now. His disgrace would reflect unfavourably on them, would blight their careers. He had failed them. He had failed his men.
His eyes fell on a man in a captain's uniform. Captain Pownoll, his mentor. The man who had believed in him when he had been a midshipman and a lieutenant. The man who had helped him become the officer he was. There was no hostility in his expression. But disappointment. Sadness. Pownoll had had great hopes for him. And he, Pellew, had failed to live up to his expectations. He had failed his mentor.
And then finally, outside the door, a sight that pierced his heart like a knife. Susan. Waiting for him to come home. And instead being informed by some official that he would never again come home. The children. Trusting their father to protect them. And instead being abandoned. His wife, a disgraced husband's widow. Pownoll, Fleetwood, little George, the girls, a disgraced father's children. He had failed his family.
He had failed them all. Failed. Failed.
With a start, Pellew woke. He was drenched in sweat and could feel his heart thumping. The scene was still so vivid in his mind's eye that it took him a moment to get his bearings. He sat up in his cot. Faint daylight was streaming in from the great cabin through the gap under the door, illuminating the simple washstand and his sea chest, which constituted all the furniture of the tiny sleeping quarters. The surroundings were so familiar, and yet suddenly nothing was the same any more. How much longer would this cabin be his home? And would it be the last he ever knew in this world?
He rose and slipped into his dressing gown, certain that he would be unable to go back to sleep. He briefly toyed with the idea of ordering coffee, but then decided that this rare moment of uninterrupted solitude was too precious to be spoilt by having his steward fuss over him.
Instead, he went over to the day cabin and sat down at his desk, leaning back and staring into space, unable to erase the images of the dream from his mind. Would it come true? Was that what would happen to him?
He was not a superstitious person, but it had felt so real. A strange thing, dreams, how they mixed reality and imagination, past and present. Captain Pownoll, looking as youthful as he had just before his untimely death over fifteen years ago. How often had he missed him, had he wished for the older man's sound advice when he had been given his own command as a youth of only three and twenty. But now he was almost grateful that this man, whom he had revered while he was still alive and whose memory he had always treasured, did not have to witness his protégé's disgrace.
And then his officers. Doubtless his fate would reflect unfavourably on them, but to what extent? He would have to make it very clear that they were absolutely blameless in the affair, that the responsibility for the decision was his alone. Still, instead of promoting their career, he had led them to a dead end. Hornblower in particular, still at a stage where guidance and support were vital. He would make his way eventually, no doubt, but he would not thank his captain for putting additional obstacles in his path.
Focusing on his surroundings, Pellew allowed his eyes to fall on the miniature portrait of a woman. He took it off its hook and lovingly cradled it in his hands. Susan. Again he experienced the almost physical pain he had felt when he had seen her outside the courtroom.
To contemplate the fate that awaited her was almost too distressing. He could picture her walking down the street alone, other people crossing to the opposite side in order to avoid her, darting furtive glances at her, whispering to each other behind her back. Perhaps she could move to a place where she was not known, perhaps she could revert to her maiden name to avoid recognition. The thought that his name, which she had been so proud to bear, would in future exclude her from all respectable society was almost unbearable.
And the children. He had hoped to provide them with a solid education, to give them a good start in life. Pownoll and Fleetwood had already expressed an interest in going to sea. And now, instead of being in a position to help them along, he had as good as precluded them from ever following such a career. Would they be reduced to leaving the country and seeking their fortune in foreign lands? And Emma and Julia would there ever be a decent man prepared to associate himself with the daughter of a disgraced officer?
He slowly let the painting slip from his hands and lowered his head. What had he done? Had he unknowingly ruined the happiness and prospects of all those dearest to him?
Unknowingly. What if he had foreseen the possibility that L'Espion would be refloated? Would he have acted differently?
The thought made him look up. An image of the Espion's cockpit floated before his inner eye, of the miserably wounded Frenchmen he had found there. And he realized in a flash that no matter what the consequences, he would never have been capable of letting them perish in a burning ship. They were enemies, but they were still human, and they had not posed an immediate threat.
With sudden resolve, he put the miniature back in its proper place, rose and started pacing. Everything was not lost yet. There was still the chance that the First Lord would share Warren's view and not bring on any charges, though that was not something he could rely on. But even if a court martial was ordered, he would still have an opportunity to defend himself. To prepare for that event must be his foremost concern now. If there was to be a trial, it would take place immediately upon his return to Falmouth. Therefore he must make good use of the days on sea still left to him.
The prospect of being able to actively do something to improve his situation filled him with new vigour.
But before he could set out to compose a defence for use before the members of a court martial, there was another person to whom he owed an explanation. If the worst came to the worst, he wanted her to learn if not from his own lips, then at least from his own pen what had led him to his fateful decision. Perhaps if he could make her understand, she would in time be able to forgive him.
He sat back down, got out a piece of paper, dipped a pen in the ink and started to write: 'My dearest Susan '.
The anchor dropped, the cable paid out and the Indefatigable slowly came to a halt.
Captain Pellew scanned the waters of Falmouth harbour: there was the Diana, now being rejoined by the rest of her squadron. A few smaller vessels were mooring further in. Beyond them, he could make out Falmouth itself, and at the opposite side of the bay the village of Flushing. Flushing, his home for the past ten years. So close, and yet he felt he had never been farther from it. Would he ever enter his house again?
A boat was being rowed out, steering for the Flora first. No doubt it would make its way to all the frigates of the squadron in turn. It would bring dispatches. Among them, a letter from the First Lord. The letter that would decide his fate.
Following the boat's progress with his eyes, Pellew stood immobile on his quarterdeck, hiding his inner turmoil behind a mask of calm.
The minutes felt like hours as the boat was finally approaching the Indefatigable. The tension became unbearable, and Pellew was grateful to have a reason to move when he made his way down to the waist. Careful not to appear too eager, he waited until one of the midshipmen had received the parcel and handed it over to him in turn.
"Thank you, Mr. Cleveland. The deck is yours, Mr. Bracegirdle."
With that, he turned and covered the short distance to his cabin with a few purposeful strides. Once in the privacy of his quarters, he opened the parcel and poured the contents on his desk. Most of it were private letters, from wives and relatives, addressed to officers and crew alike. There was one from Susan, but it would have to wait.
Finally there it was, the envelope bearing the Admiralty seal, addressed to Captain Sir Edward Pellew, HMS Indefatigable. Unable to keep his hands from trembling, he broke the seal and unfolded the paper.
Cheveley Park Sept 2nd 1794
Having come down here to get a week or ten days country air I did not receive your letter till this morning. I am much obliged to you for your paper of intelligence, as well as for the sketches of your late business with the French frigate. Your not burning the latter under the circumstances you describe was certainly an act of humanity and characteristic of a British Officer. I have left directions for the employment of your little squadron during the absence of Sir John Warren, under your orders, and I am sure it can not be in better hands. I have only a moment to add that
Your very faithful
Pellew stared at the words, barely able to believe what he was reading. He had feared a court martial and death, and instead he was being promoted to the post of commodore of the squadron.
He let his gaze wander to the stern windows, through which Flushing was just visible. He would go home after all. Slowly but purposefully, he opened the drawer of his desk, took out the envelope addressed 'Lady Pellew', and began to tear it to pieces.
This story is based on an incident in Pellew's real life, which took place in August 1794. I did not try to be historically accurate, but changed details freely. Notably I exchanged the Arethusa, which Pellew commanded at the time, for our dear old Indefatigable.
Here is Pellew's own account of the incident, given in a letter to his best friend, Alex Broughton:
"Now I will give you our news - we arrived here to day from our Cruise or rather a ramble, for we have run over a great deal of ground with some good fortune and a portion of bad - on the 23rd the dawn of day presented to us a very fine Frigate La Felicite - after whom we all started. The Arethusa from quickness in making sail was ahead within 2 Gun shot and coming up very fast for the first taste of her, the Flora next and all the rest to Leeward out of all chance, when by a sudden squall of the wind changing right ahead the Flora and ourselves were quite thrown out and she fell off plump into the hause of the Diamond, who kept the leading wind up to within Gun shot to Leeward of the Enemy - who fired 2 Broadsides. The Commodore seeing the approach of a fog made the Diamonds signal to Engage but she had scarcely begun at Random shot before the Fog set in impenetrably thick and continued so for three hours. The Flora and myself kept our wind in case he should tack, the other 4 continued going large. When it cleared she had bore up and was Hull down. Of course we were out of Question, but seeing two Ships like Frigates coming out from the land to windward of us, the Flora and ourselves gave Chace and at half past four had drove them for shelter in a little bay - enclosed for your understanding (113) where we had a fine exercising day for 2 hours and compleatly dished the Alert and L'Espion both Sloops of War lately taken from us. I brought my Ship to Anchor to burn them, after silencing the Batteries, and went on bd in my boat under a good deal of fire from the shore. I found them both full of water with the Rocks through them besides our shot holes - we had dismasted them both and shockingly treated them, they lost in Kiled and Drown'd full roe Men. I found 47 Wounded between decks. It was now dark and no means of moving these Miserably wounded Wretches - and I could not for my Soul set her on fire under such Circumstances. Satisfied they were compleatly destroyed, I left them, after bringing away about 70 people - we were very fortunate in having no person hurt altho we have several shot in our hull, 36 prds."
It later turned out that the frigate in question was not the Felicite, but the Volontaire, the name I have used in the story.
L'Espion was in fact refloated and later taken by another British ship. However, this was probably not known to either Pellew or Chatham until much later. Chatham's letter is a word for word quote, except that I changed 'frigate and corvettes' into 'frigate'.