by Ruth W.
***It concerns Wellard from the books, NOT the one from the TV series... Different altogether...!! Hope it's still acceptable...***
Henry Wellard, Volunteer First Class, stood in the dim silence of the gunroom of His Majesty's ship Renown and looked about him for the last time at the oaken cave, which for three years had been his only home.
In this corner his hammock had swung to the roll of the ship on stormy nights, with Trevitt's parrot squawking obscenities in the dripping darkness beside him. Here he had shared, with shipmates who had become like a family to him, the terror of enemy broadsides tearing the ship like matchwood, and the awful loss of friends who had not been so lucky as he.
Between the guns he had cheerfully shared the dubious mess rations apportioned to his kind, and he had joined in with more pleasure the rounds of home-made entertainment, when bad weather made the decks above impossible for all but the duty watch, and the gunports had to be battened down against the wind and rain. He had enjoyed these days and nights in the company of his mates. Before his voice had broken, it had been high and he could sing like an angel. There had been nights when it had been his turn to take up a song, and the entire gundeck had gone silent. Fiddles had ceased to bow, hornpipes had died in their tracks and even Trevitt's parrot had stopped squawking to listen to him.
It was a small thing to be able to please people in this insignificant way, but to Wellard, who had never known self-esteem, it was delight.
In less trivial ways also he had been of use in Renown. Mr. Hornblower had sensed first his acute keenness to please, making good use of it, and the other officers in the ship had been quick to follow his lead, so that by the time they were halfway to Kingston Wellard was being given more responsibility than the average midshipman. Admittedly, much of his devotion to duty grew out of the determination to repay Hornblower for showing faith in him, at a time when the hapless and inconsequential little volunteer had desperately needed a friend.
But now it was more than that. The lad had tasted the heady joy of duty well-done, and the respect and trust of older and better men. He was proud of his record of service in Renown, and wanted the feeling to go on forever.
Which was why it was doubly sad for Wellard that it must all end. Peace had broken out in Europe, and the Renown was paying off. For the first time in his short life, he had freedom. He could go where he liked, and spend his money as he pleased, but at his age appropriate uses for his money were limited, and worst of all he had nowhere to go.
In some illogical way, he thought it must be safer on active service in a British man-of-war, than on land in peacetime.
Well, he would have to get used to it. With a sigh he took a last look about him at the empty gunroom, the hanging table, the open gunport, the reflected sunshine shimmering on the warm wood above his head. Then he pulled his jacket straight, adjusted his hat and swung onto his shoulder the canvas bag which contained all that he owned. He skipped up the companionway and out onto the main deck with quick, decisive steps. He was not by nature a philosopher.
Mr. Buckland was at the rail. He turned when he heard the clatter of young footsteps behind him, and smiled. Wellard had grown a full nine inches in the three years he had known him. He was broader now than the diminutive volunteer who had come on board to serve his country (cynics would have said he had run away to sea). When the boy's voice had broken, the ship's officers had found they missed the high-pitched "Please, sir . . . Please sir . . . !" as Wellard went about his duties, but there had been the satisfaction of hearing the squeaky piping replaced by tones of growing confidence and maturity. He would someday make a good officer - if the peacetime service could find a use for him.
"Almost the last away, Mr. Wellard " Buckland commented. "You must have enjoyed your service in Renown."
Wellard touched his hat. "Most of it, thank you, sir," he agreed cheerfully.
The qualification brought a shadow to Buckland's face, but it was gone in an instant. "Off you go, then, lad," he said. "The best of luck to you."
"Thank you, sir. The same to you, sir." And he meant it, for if anyone needed luck in the matter of finding another post in the peacetime Navy it was Buckland. His own service in the West Indies had not been a success. Wellard hefted his bag to his shoulder and strode off across the deck.
Mr. Bush met him at the entry port, looking the boy up and down indulgently. "Well, Mr. Wellard . . . " The officer gave him a broad smile. "I hope we meet again."
Surprised and flattered at the compliment from Second Lieutenant to a mere ship's boy, Wellard returned the smile with a touch to his hat. "Thank you, sir. I hope so too, sir," he responded, further surprised that he did not stammer over the words. "Goodbye, Mr. Bush, sir."
Even his growing confidence had not released him from the play-safe lower-deck habit of peppering his addresses to his seniors with multiple 'sir's.
He climbed down into the jolly-boat and settled himself in the sternsheets with master's mates Winson and Trevitt and the parrot, who, as usual had much to say. Since the wretched bird had not been above decks since Kingston, he had every right to be vocal.
As the jolly-boat crossed the the bay, Renown seemed to shrink until she looked like a little grey-brown model on the choppy, blue harbour-water.
"So what'll we do now " Winson scowled at the retreating ship as though it was her fault. His pink, chubby face should have been cherubic, but somehow he always managed to look grim. "No jobs, no nothink . . . "
"No nothink . . ." repeated the parrot cheerfully.
The older boy, Trevitt rattled its cage. "Shut up, Hornblower," he muttered crisply.
"No pay next month, neither," Winson continued, determined to extract every ounce of pessimism from his condition, "an' no free berth, bought an' paid for . . . "
"No ship's biscuit. No bosun's rattan." Trevitt added with considerably less anguish. He was a long, thin boy with a sharp face. His backside still bore the scars from his last encounter with Naval discipline. He would not be sorry to see his service with Renown come to an end. "Nobody to give us orders, no Frogs and Dagoes tossing hot shot at us. We'll manage." The Cornish lad and his father had both been caught up in the original press to man the fleet at the outbreak of war, and his father had died on the main gundeck in Samana Bay. Trevitt was glad to be going home.
Wellard sat in the sternsheets, silently contemplating the fleet at anchor in the bay. He had grown used to the ship's biscuit, and mostly had great regard for the men who had given him orders. He had not even been permanently dismayed by his undeserved and distressing, but thankfully brief, relationship with the rattan. He would not tell the others that he wanted to stay in the service. He would not invite their amazement and scorn.
"We'll manage . . . !" Hornblower the parrot repeated, flapping his wings with excitement.
They gave the Renown a last, lingering look before turning away to get on with their lives.
* * *
The tavern was quieter than usual. Good weather was keeping folk outdoors, and only the need of a glass of ale to quench his thirst had driven the young midshipman inside to find his dinner. Cooking smells drifted in from the kitchen - bacon or ham, and fresh bread. His mouth watered. He was settling himself in a seat in a pool of warm sunshine by the window when a voice, once so familiar but now almost a ghost from his past, said from the shadows:-
"Bless my soul, if it isn't Mr. Wellard !"
Wellard turned, trying to place the memory.
"Mr. Midshipman Wellard, I should say, looking at your uniform." the voice continued with friendly amusement. "Would you care to join me, sir ?"
The boy frowned into the dim corner, his eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom. A young officer sat in the shadows, observing him indulgently with dark, intense eyes.
"Mr. Hornblower !" Wellard greeted with genuine pleasure. "Fancy seeing you again, sir !"
"Are you set upon drinking alone, or will you brighten my day by sharing my table ?"
"Thank you, sir. It's hot by the window." Wellard stood up readily and brought his cup into the shadows, while his one-time superior observed him with interest.
The lad had always possessed sensitive, agile features, and was now, at fourteen, well on the way to becoming handsome, so far as Hornblower was any judge of such things. He was taller than the lieutenant remembered him, but that might be the cocked hat. He was broader too, but that might be the coat. He was still small for his age. Nevertheless, he certainly looked a likely midshipman. He seated himself on the bench opposite, removing his hat to a place of safety beside him.
"So you decided to stay in the service ?" Hornblower commented, showing a flattering interest in his career.
"Yes, sir. I was lucky to be preferred, sir," the boy answered modestly. Articulate as he had obviously become, his opinion of himself was still not inflated.
"Luck probably had little to do with it," Hornblower observed, "after what Mr. Buckland wrote about you in his report."
Wellard's pleasant smile became a glow of pleasure. "I'm sure you had a hand in that, sir," he ventured shyly, remembering he was addressing a superior officer.
"Not me," Hornblower assured him. "You have Mr. Bush to thank for it. He was as impressed as I by your conduct at Samana Bay."
Wellard hesitated, and his smile faded a little as a shadow from the past - an unpaid debt - lifted its spectral head between them.
"I've never had the chance to thank you, sir," Wellard began, glancing just once behind him for fear of being overheard. He had scared himself now, and dared not say any more.
Hornblower observed him shrewdly. "Well now, Mr. Wellard," he parried expertly (He was used to dealing with vice-admirals and ship's boys alike) "I know of no reason whatever why you should thank me . . . beyond the fact that I chose you to have the honour of risking your neck beside me in Santo Domingo. If that was instrumental in your eventual preferment, then I'm glad, but I feel you would have been successful regardless. You owe me no gratitude . . . for anything I may or may not have done."
So he was deliberately misunderstanding, maintaining the iron discretion to the last. Wellard found it immensely comforting. "I wouldn't have missed any of it, sir," he assured, relaxing. "It was an honour to serve with you."
From some toadying junior, trying to gain his favour and attention, this little speech would have sounded offensive and ludicrous. But from Wellard, who knew he had Hornblower's favour and attention already, the simple candour was merely charming.
Ironic it was that he and Hornblower, two of the Navy's most honest servants, should be the sole keepers of one of her darkest secrets.
"Tell me," Hornblower changed the subject tactfully, "how is Mr. Bush?"
"Very well indeed, sir, when I left Renown."
"And Mr. Buckland ?"
"He seemed in good spirits, Sir, considering."
Considering that Buckland would be lucky if he ever got another post now that peace had been declared.
"And you," Hornblower continued, keen to have all the news, and aware that the interest of older officers did more good to a midshipman's morale than most of them would care to admit, "what ship are you appointed to ?"
"The Cutter Rapid, sir. I received my orders only yesterday. She's a Revenue ship, sir." Wellard's voice held an uncertainty which Hornblower was quick to identify and make haste to dispel.
"I suppose your shipmates told you the Revenue Service were just pretend sailors set up in inferior ships to spoil everyone's enjoyment of life ?" he hazarded.
Wellard smiled shyly. "Something like that, sir," he agreed.
Hornblower grinned, sipping his beer. "They're wrong, Mr. Wellard," he stated unequivocally. "The Revenue officers deal with the King's enemies just as we used to do in the old Renown. There's no difference."
"Except that my enemies will be Englishmen, sir," Wellard insisted. It was a considered and intelligent remark to which Hornblower had no ready answer.
In every way, it seemed, the boy was matching up to the promise he had shown in those heady days in Santo Domingo.
But in this difficult matter, the older man knew he could not advise the younger, nor would he presume to try. He knew he would have experienced the same dilemma had he been fortunate enough to find himself serving his country in the Excise Service. They both knew from bitter experience that there were grey areas in life which were given no quarter by the black-or-white regulations of the Navy. A man might sometimes have to use his wits - often in solitude and secrecy - to exert justice.
"I'm sure you will do your duty with discretion," Hornblower comforted with almost a twinkle in his eye. "At least you have been appointed. There are many who have not."
For the first time it occurred to Wellard that Hornblower had said nothing of his own career.
"I . . . looked for your name when I was applying for posts, sir," the boy said carefully, and with some embarrassment. "I was disappointed not to find your command, sir."
Hornblower was reconciled with his lot by now, and did not share his unease. "These days the Royal Navy only has room for the very best," he responded, still smiling. Then, as Wellard opened his mouth to say something loyal and utterly gauche, he went on quickly "I've no doubt my time will come, and it's a shaky peace at best. Who knows whether next year will find us both back on board Renown with Mr. Bush and Mr. Buckland !"
Wellard relaxed again, but before he had the chance to comment, the older man changed the subject once more. "How is my namesake, Trevitt's parrot ?" he asked with a grin. "Did he survive the voyage home ?"
"Most certainly, sir. He's thriving !" Wellard assured him. "He'll be shocking Mrs. Trevitt's neighbours in her cottage window by now."
Hornblower was not inclined to hide his amusement. He grinned as he arose from the table. He had finished his beer, and it had occurred to him that young Wellard would probably be wanting a meal, which the employed midshipman could afford, while the unemployed lieutenant could not. A graceful exit was in order.
"Well, I must be off." He held out his hand. "I hope we shall meet from time to time, since the Rapid is a coastal ship," he said pleasantly.
"Thank you, sir. I hope so too." Wellard stood up quickly and touched his head where his hat would have been had he still been wearing it, before taking the officer's hand in a healthy grip. Hornblower had enormous disdain for a weak handshake, and his estimation of the boy was further reinforced.
"Well, good luck to you, Wellard," he said with pleasant formality, "until we meet again."
"Thank you, Mr. Hornblower, sir."
Hornblower left the tavern feeling curiously comforted. If success and self-esteem had gone to the lad's head - if he had the temperament to be unstable or inebriate - he would have been a danger to all who had sailed in the Renown. The lieutenant was relieved to note that he was as level and sensible as he had ever been, and could be relied upon to carry his secret to the grave.
To his sorrow, Hornblower never saw Henry Wellard again.
* * *
The night was not cold, but it was moonless and almost black. From His Majesty's cutter Rapid, anchored a mile offshore, the cliffs of West Pentire Head were just visible as dark, solid shapes against the lesser blackness of the eastern sky. On the deck of the ship, Captain Thorpe was overseeing the last preparations for shore action.
"Do you know what you have to do, Mr. Wellard ?" he asked, peering into the gloom of the unlit main deck.
"Yes, sir." Wellard touched his hat respectfully. "I'm to cover the lesser bay, sir, over to Porth Joke."
"Are you armed ?"
"Yes, sir. Pistol and cutlass, sir."
The captain grunted his satisfaction in the darkness. "And you, Mr. Lawson ? Are the men ready ?"
"In the boats, sir," the young lieutenant replied crisply.
Mr. Hornblower had been right about the Navy only having room for the best. Wellard liked Lieutenant Lawson, and was excited about the prospect of working with him. He could hear the smile in Lawson's voice as he added "Very well, Mr. Wellard. Let's get going !"
The lieutenant disappeared into the gloom, and Wellard followed him a little more sedately. The larger boat cast off, and Wellard dropped into the jolly-boat and took his station by the tiller.
"Shove off !" he ordered, trying to sound confident. It was one thing to follow a competent officer like Hornblower around Santo Domingo doing his bidding, but quite another to be in control oneself. Until his party met Lieutenant Lawson's on the headland, he was in sole command of four seamen and four marines, and he must not let his inexperience show itself in his voice.
"Haul away, there !" he said curtly, craning beyond the shadowy occupants of the boat to scan the cliffs beyond and the dark bay for lights and signs of life.
Lieutenant Lawson's launch, carried on the incoming tide, had long disappeared into the night, around the headland. The sea was like glass, black and still - a smuggler's dream.
With intelligence reports that the Alice Holt out of Liverpool, was at secret and unscheduled anchor off the headland, it was almost inevitable that by dawn Wellard would have encountered his first English enemies of the King. He swallowed down his nerves, straining his senses to catch any sound beyond the drip of the muffled oars, the lap of the sea against the boat and the distant wash of waves on the beach.
"Ship oars," he ordered, much more softly now, for they were approaching the shore, and their coming must be completely secret if their mission were to be a success.
"Sir !" One of the seamen was peering round at the dark sweep of the bay, his voice a mere whisper. "There's something moving on the surf there, sir. Over by the rocks !"
Wellard's heart jumped back into his throat, his nervousness compounded by the sailor's deference. The midshipman of three weeks' seniority was not used to being called 'sir' by his fellow men.
He snatched up the glass and swept the shoreline. Yes ! There was a boat there, rocking gently in the shallows, hardly visible in the blackness of the night. He licked his dry lips and laid the glass silently by.
Nobody had forseen this. As Captain Thorpe had laid his plans and deployed his forces, he had confidently expected the main landing to take place in Crantock Bay, where he had sent Lawson. Wellard was merely charged with the task of cutting off the retreat over the coastal path to the smaller bay, where there could be a means of escape into the calm sea.
But this dark shape in the bay between the rocks was no escape craft. It was manned and laden. Casks could be seen now, black against the paler sand on the beach, and there was clear activity centred around them.
"Stay low !" Wellard ordered in a strained whisper. He must not lose his nerve now, as the boat glided silently towards the shore, almost drifting on the tide.
Close enough now for a pistol shot, and still undetected in the darkness, so busy were the men on the beach with unloading the casks. Wellard was congratulating himself on his success when the awful thought struck him that the next move must be his and his alone. He was in command, and he must be the one to offer the challenge. He had no need to give orders. The marines had their instructions, and his move would be the signal to them to act.
He could not remember a time in his life - even in Renown under the murderous hail of hot shot - when he had been so frightened. But it had to be done. It was the law.
Taking the pistol from his belt, he stood up in the sternsheets, his light trousers and waistcoat presenting a clear target to any fair marksman on the beach. He levelled the weapon in not-quite-steady hands. "Stand, in the name of the King !" he demanded, as loudly and as harshly as he could, which was certainly loud, but not nearly sufficiently harsh.
The marines about him knelt in the bottom of the boat and aimed their muskets.
From the shore there was a stunned silence. Then a voice - one he surely knew ! - said "Holy Christ, it's the Revenue !"
There was just a moment's pause, while the whole cove seemed to stand still. Then everything happened at once. One of the smugglers began to run, ducking and diving, towards the cliff-path behind him. Wellard levelled his weapon. "Stand, I say !" he repeated, his voice embarrassingly high with tension.
A pistol shot from the shore cracked and echoed around the bay, and, knocked backwards by a force like the kick of a mule, Henry Wellard went over the side of the boat and into the sea.
Even underwater he could hear the crash of musket-fire above him, and he knew the marines were doing their duty. He surfaced, gasping with cold and fright, and then Lloyd, the eldest and most experienced of the four seamen, was thigh-deep in the waves, holding him up and dragging him into shallower water.
"Get after them !" he shouted, choking out the seawater. "Let me alone, man, and get up the beach !"
Obediently Lloyd dropped him in the shoals and chased off across the damp sand, his drawn cutlass in his hand.
Wellard tried to get up and follow, but only one leg would do his bidding. The other one hurt horribly, and refused to take his weight. He dragged himself out of reach of the wash of the waves, cursing himself for the moment's weakness - the minute hesitation - which had given the smugglers their advantage. And now here he was, ignominiously beached like a dead whale, while the men in his command chased the reprobates up the cliff-path and into the arms of Mr. Lawson.
He felt he would die of shame.
Yet a small tremor at the back of his mind told him he had had no choice. The voice he had heard was known to him, and he must identify it before taking the liberty of killing its owner.
He took off his neckcloth and folded it several times, pressing it to his groin where the pistol-ball had hit him. That would have to suffice until someone thought to come back and help him. Hopefully that would be before he bled to death. His lip trembled, and he fought the urgent need to cry. He did not know about shock, and thought, with shame, that he was just being an idiot.
And so Mr. Midshipman Wellard sat on the sand and lamented the disaster his mission had become.
It was only half an hour before he heard footsteps once more on the cliff path, but it felt like ten years. Then Lloyd was beside him, reporting the worst news he could hope to hear.
"They got clean away, sir," the big seaman apologised, as though it were a personal failure. In truth the sailors, at least, felt that it was. They had tried very hard for Wellard, because he was young and newly-appointed, and they felt the lad deserved a helping hand. They had run their legs off up the cliff path and in the gully behind the bay, but the smugglers had just melted away into the darkness. Not one of them had been found.
Wellard closed his eyes in despair.
Someone brought a lantern from the boat which they lit with a flint, and the alarming extent of the ruin of Wellard's uniform became starkly apparent. One leg of the wet, white trousers was three parts red.
Shepherd's (greasy) neckcloth joined his own sodden one, and Lloyd tied them in place with a third. One of the marines offered him water from a flask, and he drank dutifully, striving to gather his wits.
"Get the contraband into the boat," he ordered, hoping - in vain - that his voice would sound crisp and normal. "And make it fast! We don't want to get back here and find it in the middle of the bay ! Smith and Sugden, and you two marines, get on up to Mr. Lawson. He might be able to do something. You two, Lloyd and Shepherd, stay here with me and help me up the path."
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," Lloyd began hesitantly.
"What is it, Mr. Lloyd ?"
"Well, sir, there's a cold wind, for all it's not a bad night. You go scramblin' round them cliffs, sir, you're like to take your death in them wet clothes, an' I doubt you could climb the path, sir, not with a pistol-ball in you."
Wellard nodded bleakly, not too proud to take advice from more experienced men. "What do you suggest, Mr. Lloyd ?" he asked submissively.
"There's a croft away over the dunes, sir. Not too bad a climb with help. You could stay there while we fetch Mr. Lawson, sir."
Wellard hesitated. The thought of a Revenue officer asking succour of a Cornish fishing community was quite a novelty. He would be lucky if he had only one pistol-ball in him by morning.
As Lloyd and Shepherd helped him to his feet, the pain made his head swim, but he could not let them see that. He cleared his throat in a businesslike manner. "We're wasting time," he said grimly. "You men get off to Mr. Lawson, on the double. McGrath, you take command of the party."
"Aye, aye, sir."
As the group clattered off up the path, Lloyd put a sturdy arm about Wellard's waist and took his weight.
"Maybe we'd do better to carry you, sir," he suggested tentatively.
To Wellard it was unthinkable. "Nonsense !" he snapped, a little too impatiently, for it was hard to keep his temper amid mental irritation and physical weakness and discomfort.
Over his head, Lloyd and Shepherd exchanged a knowing and indulgent smile.
"Don't worry, sir," Lloyd said, risking a rebuke for unseemly familiarity, "it'll all come out right in the end."
* * *
Halfway up the dunes, Wellard began to wish he had accepted their offer, but a good officer could not back down to suit his own comfort. At least the effort kept him warm, and he was sweating by the time they got to the cartway above. An owl sat on an ancient stone wall watching their slow progress towards the distant building, blinking his apathy in the silver moonlight before gliding off across the dark fields in search of his dinner.
The croft was stone-built, but hardly more than a hut, thatched and humble. The midshipman felt very guilty troubling such poor folk at this hour of night. All was dark - the family must be in bed. Lloyd left his superior leaning on the stone doorpost and knocked.
In fact he did more than knock; the big seaman hammered soundly on the wooden door with his heavy fist, shouting "Open up, in the name of the Crown !"
"Quietly, please, Mr. Lloyd !" Wellard hissed, appalled. "I want their help, not a pitchfork in my ribs !"
"Sorry, sir. It is rather urgent, sir. You need attention, quick, in my opinion, sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Lloyd. I'm well aware of my needs," he said shortly. "Now proceed with courtesy, if you please."
Anxious not to cause more offence than necessary, Wellard straightened as the bolts were drawn on the other side of the wooden portal, and a crack of light appeared. Through the narrow gap, a woman's face peered out at him, and he put a respectful hand to his forehead.
"Pardon the intrusion, ma'am," he said politely. "We are Revenue officers. There's no cause for alarm. We've met with an accident on the beach, and I'm afraid we must ask you for shelter until help can be brought back."
The eyes at the door-crack looked him up and down in the shaft of light.
"Quite an 'accident', I'd say." The voice was that of a woman somewhere in middle-age, and her tone was dry but not quite offensive. "You better come in . . ."
There was only one living-room in the lower part of the cottage, with a door which presumably led to a kitchen beyond. The fire in the main room was still lit, giving the place an air of stuffy, smoky cosiness, and Wellard sank down on the cushioned settle beside it with enormous relief. He realised too late that his stained trousers were making messy contact with the patchwork cushion covers, and he went to get up again, but the woman pushed him back.
"Damage is done," she said without emotion. "I can wash them."
"You'll be compensated for any inconvenience, I can assure you," Wellard informed her with a lift of the chin more in keeping with a defensive schoolboy than an officer of the Crown. He raged inside with frustration to have sounded so young and inept.
He was vaguely aware of a girl about his own age, peering fearfully at him from the staircase, scared immobile either by his uniform or by the blood-and-water mix which marred it. Wellard felt sorry and ashamed. He was not used to frightening young girls. Both she and her mother were fully dressed. This struck Wellard as odd, since it was the middle of the night and the cottage had shown no lights at any of the windows. He bore it in mind.
"You need a physician," the woman decided. "Melly, get your cloak on and fetch Dr. Liggett from over Cubert."
"He went to Holywell to deliver Mrs. Mull's baby." The girl found her voice at last. "He may not be back."
"Well, if he's not there, we shall have to manage without him," the woman said, as though she were contemplating plucking and stuffing a chicken. Wellard quailed inwardly.
If the doctor could not be found, he promised himself firmly, he would have to wait for treatment until Lieutenant Lawson could get him back aboard the Rapid. Lloyd's hands were filthy even when he scrubbed them, and Wellard had no intention of taking his trousers off in front of a woman, no matter whose mother she was. He was either too old or too young for that sort of thing.
"You'll want something to drink," she informed them in that same, almost insolent, tone, "and I'll get some clean towels." And she went into the kitchen, slamming the door open as she passed through. In the room beyond her voice could still be faintly heard grumbling:- "Calls himself a 'Revenue Officer' ! Little pipsqueak like that !"
The muttering went on but the rest of it was inaudible. Wellard wished the floor would open up and engulf him. He could not tell her about the three years' service and responsibility he had known aboard the Renown, about Santo Domingo or Lieutenant Buckland's report. To her he was just a teenager with a king's warrant, which would in itself have been important in most circles, but evidently counted for naught here in North Cornwall.
Lloyd cleared his throat "Let's get you out of your wet coat, at least, sir," he suggested, and Wellard, too tired now to snap at him, allowed the two seamen to ease the clinging woollen garment from his shoulders and hang it over a chair near the fire to dry. Then Lloyd lifted his injured leg carefully onto the cushions and settled him back, his pistol across his knees. It had been soaked in seawater, and would not be much use for a few days, but the locals did not know that, and this was enemy country. Best not to take chances.
As they moved him, a quiet and unwonted curse escaped his lips, born of impatience and discomfort and depression and a hundred other emotions, all of them negative.
Then a most astounding thing happened.
A croaky voice, right behind his left ear, coughed and sneezed and said quite clearly "Sawyer's a mad bastard!"
Wellard went stiff with horror. Was the wound making him delirious, or was he just losing his mind in the normal way? That name alone, repeated out of the blue after all this time, was enough to send his thoughts reeling off into nightmare. He realised he had stopped breathing, and he let the breath out with a painful sigh.
"Poor 'Enery . . . !" insisted the voice. "Poor, poor 'Enery! Sawyer's mad !"
Wellard turned his head slowly, as if there was a ghost on the window ledge behind him.
"It's a parrot, sir," Shepherd said with a grin, lifting the woollen cloth away from the cage in the window. "He knows your name, sir !"
Wellard met Hornblower's beady eye and tried to smile but failed.
"'Allo, 'Enery !" the parrot greeted him cheerfully.
"Henry is a common name," Wellard forced himself to say, though the words came out weak and strained. "What an amusing co-incidence !"
It was all coming together in his mind, slotting into place like a child's wooden puzzle. Hornblower was here, in this cottage - which meant that this must be Trevitt's cottage, and the woman Trevitt's mother. Both she and the girl fully-dressed in the middle of the night, and waiting in a darkened house - for what or for whom? He had known that this part of the coast was Trevitt's country, but in his excitement he had completely forgotten.
As though summoned by spirits, James Trevitt himself chose that moment to return home.
He stood in the doorway of his cottage, looking around at the intruders in his living-room, and when his eyes met Wellard's his face registered no surprise.
Wellard looked him up and down, troubled by the gulf that now lay between them. Trevitt looked rough - he had never been a tidy boy - and sand still clung to the damp on his shoes and trousers. Sand from the beach, where no decent citizen should be by night. Behind him stood a small boy about eight years old, his eyes round with fright. He was also sandy to the knees, and had undoubtedly been involved in the same dubious business.
Wellard could hardly imagine that Trevitt had failed to identify his voice down in the bay. He had known Trevitt's instantly, though he had not placed it in his memory until now, and the familiarity of it had caused him to stay his hand long enough to get himself shot. And Hornblower the parrot had recognised his voice immediately, even from the one, quiet expletive he had let out at the removal of his coat.
It was a dangerous situation. The ramifications unfolded rapidly in Wellard's agile mind. The sworn duty of a good Revenue officer would be to have his friend immediately arrested and escorted to the local magistrate, there to be charged with importing contraband and attempted murder. Trevitt was so obviously guilty that Wellard could not entertain the possibility that he would escape the rope.
There was absolutely no reason - beyond friendship - why Wellard should protect him. A midshipman shielding the King's enemies ran a fearful risk. He could be flogged around the fleet, or even hanged, if such a thing ever came into the daylight.
On the other hand, Trevitt's father was dead, killed in the Renown in the service of that very king. The mother, the frightened girl and the round-eyed boy were presumably Trevitt's dependants, but it would be no use telling that to the court.
'I'm sure you will do your duty with discretion,' Mr. Hornblower had told him confidently. 'With discretion'. That officer knew better than any other in the Navy how to employ that rare commodity, and Wellard knew better than any other how to be grateful for it.
Yet the decision must be instant, for any delay would cause suspicion or complication or just downright disaster.
"I'm Henry Wellard," he said woodenly, "of His Majesty's Customs and Excise. I'm afraid we've caused inconvenience to your family tonight."
"'Enery Wellard !" announced the parrot triumphantly, fluffing up his grey feathers. "Poor, poor Wellard ! Sawyer's mad !"
"Shut up, Hornblower !" Trevitt muttered with a scowl at the brazen bird.
Lloyd and Shepherd were impressed. "He learned that fast !" Lloyd commented. "He's sharp, is that one !"
"He certainly is," Wellard agreed stonily. "Can we quiet him, Mr. Trevitt?" The moment he had spoken, he realised with a sick wave of alarm that no-one had introduced his host or hostess by name. He glanced sideways to the two marines and at Shepherd and Lloyd, but they were all intent on the parrot, and were probably not alert enough to notice, even had they been listening.
Wellard swallowed his panic painfully, throwing a look of appeal at Trevitt, who made an effort and pulled himself together, leaning across to twitch the cover over the bird's cage.
"You've been hurt," he commented irrelevantly, moving to the big wooden dresser and taking an unmarked bottle from the cupboard.
"I was shot on the beach," Wellard answered. 'As you damn-well know !' he longed to add, but he restrained himself.
"Sam," Trevitt ordered "go and see what mother's doing. See if she needs help."
When the child had gone through to the kitchen, he poured a glass of amber liquid and presented it to his guest.
"Thank you," Wellard said quietly. His nerves were in tatters, and he was feeling decidedly faint. He hoped it was something strong.
One sip, and he looked up, startled. "This is brandy," he said, trying to sound normal.
"French brandy, sir," agreed Trevitt, his face full of challenge. Wellard was staggered that even the daredevil who had swum in shark-infested waters for a bet in Jamaica, and had run along the top of the yardarms instead of using the footropes could be so insolent - so reckless - as to offer French brandy to a Customs officer.
Wellard unfastened the high, tight stock at his neck, remembering too late that he was not supposed to drink on duty. Perhaps if Lawson were to describe it in his report as 'medicinal' . .
The pistol-ball in his groin nagged and ached. He downed the rest of the brandy without giving the rules too much thought.
Mrs. Trevitt came back into the room with a tray which she put down on the large oak table. "It's cocoa," she announced crisply, "though what I'm doing giving good cocoa to the Revenue, I'll never know !"
Wellard was silent. The brandy had hit the part of him which registered pain, and he was feeling slightly better. Mrs. Trevitt tossed a white towel at him, but let him press it to the injured leg himself and made no move to help him. She could hardly be expected to be full of sympathy for the officer (or was it 'pipsqueak'?) who by his very uniform must be her son's enemy.
"Let me do that," Trevitt muttered, lifting the injured leg slightly to tie the towel tightly around it. It was not, Wellard reflected thoughtfully, the first time Trevitt had looked to his well-being like an older brother, and the thought made him wistful for the old days.
"Holy Harry !" Hornblower piped up from underneath the woollen cover.
The words rang bells in Wellard's increasingly muzzy head. He closed his eyes and applied himself to the task of sifting through his memories - tried to think back to the things Trevitt had told his messmates about the goings-on around Pentire Head and the village of Crantock. 'Holy Harry' . . . it was a code. Not that the parrot would understand its significance, but the words themselves, taught to the parrot in jest, had a more sinister meaning when passed by night around these unholy parts.
The church ! He remembered it all in a flash, and in that instant he saw a way to redeem his mission. And why not ? Trevitt had put a pistol-ball in him, after all. With the ever-present danger of infection, Wellard's life was even now under threat. He felt he had a right to do his sworn duty, at least in part - the safer part - and did not care much what Trevitt thought about it.
"Shepherd," he said suddenly, "how fast can you run ?"
The young seaman put down his cocoa mug and shrugged. "I'm not bad, sir," he confessed, puzzled.
"Good ! Mr. Lawson and his party should still be in the village, or on the beach at Crantock. Find them and tell Mr. Lawson to go to Crantock church. If he should come across any freshly-dug graves in the churchyard, he should exhume them. I'll lay odds he won't find any bodies. Tell him I'm prepared to take responsibility for any sacrilege we may be accused of."
Shepherd was not very bright, and his look of mystification did not clear, but he arose obediently and put on his hat.
Trevitt's expression remained blank, but his eyes registered such a degree of anger and dislike that Wellard had to meet them with a cold stare of his own to establish who was in command.
Shepherd left, and they settled down to wait. It was a dangerous, uneasy time. Mrs. Trevitt seemed gradually to lose her icy insolence and, perhaps impressed despite her better judgement by Wellard's careful courtesy, she began to warm to him, and ask him about himself and his family, and was sympathetic to learn that he had none. Her son had treated him decently, after all. Even a Revenue officer could not be all bad . . .
For Wellard, already misty-minded from losing blood and drinking French brandy, it was a difficult, testing time. He must not mention Renown, yet he could not claim to have been to sea in any other ship, or his own seamen would know he was lying to her. Besides, he was not a garrulous soul, and disliked talking about himself under the most congenial circumstances. He had never found it easy to make friends, on land or at sea, and it would take more than Mrs. Trevitt's candid and sometimes tactless questions to draw him out tonight.
Trevitt's sister returned just before dawn with the news that Dr. Liggett was still in the throes of delivering Mrs. Mull's infant - news which, it must be admitted, Wellard greeted with some relief. At least he knew that the physician on board the Rapid was capable, and would not be too drunk or too aged to hold a scalpel.
As the first light of day began to touch the darkness outside the window with a hint of grey, Wellard found his eyes closing. The pistol slid from his hand onto the cushion beside him and he made no move to retrieve it. Someone - he thought at first it was Lloyd, then realised it was Trevitt - pulled a woven rug from the back of the settle over him, and he slept. The last thing he heard was Hornblower's voice as the cover was removed from the birdcage.
"Goodnight!" the parrot croaked gleefully. "God
Bless 'Enery Wellard!"
During the hour that Wellard slept, he dreamed the whole of Renown's voyage to the West Indies and back again, with some bizarre additions of his own which would have been more suited to the Old Testament view of Hell...
He woke reluctantly from deep sleep, to find his shoulder was being shaken and a familiar face was peering into his.
"Jim . . . " he murmured, "are we on watch already ?"
Trevitt's look of silent warning alerted him, and he was on instant guard.
"You'd better wake up, Mr. Wellard," the Cornishman told him stiffly. "Your superior is here."
Reality fell in upon Wellard like an aged, rotten roof.
"Mr. Lawson . . . " he said stupidly. He dragged his thoughts to consciousness, tried to get up, realised that he could not and gave up miserably. He was painfully aware of the mess he must look, laid out on Mrs. Trevitt's settle with shirt open and trousers soiled with blood, his coat steaming - and probably shrinking - by Mrs. Trevitt's fire. And asleep ! He had been asleep ! Without formally appointing a deputy or giving any orders about being woken. He was beginning to wish he had never been born.
"Why, Mr. Wellard," the lieutenant said heartily, "you look almost as bad as I do !"
"I'm sorry, sir," Wellard said quietly, and he meant it.
Lawson's eyes twinkled as he looked him over. The beleaguered midshipman certainly looked younger than he usually did aboard the Rapid, and his credibility was suffering as a result. That could not be helped. At least he had not, according to what had been said by Lloyd and Mrs. Trevitt, made much fuss about the pistol-ball. Lawson was not surprised. Children who have experienced cannon fire tend to be phlegmatic about the lesser nightmares of life.
"No matter, Mr. Wellard !" Lawson assured the boy cheerfully. "This morning you may look like a scarecrow, if you wish. I have just removed forty casks of contraband spirit from Crantock churchyard. You were right. There were three new graves there, with wooden planks under the topsoil. We removed the planks, and there was a veritable hoard underneath ! We can trace the vessels they came from by the shipper's mark on the casks. We interviewed the vicar, and he was astounded to know of the devilish purpose to which his graveyard was being put."
For the first time, Wellard noticed how dirty the lieutenant was. His usually-meticulous uniform was snagged and stained, and the white stockings and breeches were muddied and torn. The man looked tired, but still seemed cheerful. He had obviously had a busy and profitable night.
Mrs. Trevitt also seemed far more kindly-disposed towards the charming and handsome Lawson than she had been to his subordinate.
"Thank God the sacrilege has been found out !" she said with amazing effrontery.
If only she knew ! thought Wellard smugly.
"How on earth did you know about all this ?" Lawson asked suddenly. It was an inevitable question.
Wellard was too pale to blush. "I was tipped off, sir," he confessed.
Lawson glanced at Trevitt, but was too well-bred to make the obvious assumption that his host would know anything about contraband spirits. Wellard noted that Trevitt did not offer Lawson any French brandy.
"And who was the source of this intelligence?" the lieutenant had to ask.
Wellard smiled weakly at Trevitt, and they shared a moment of secret amusement.
"If I told you, sir, you wouldn't believe me," Wellard replied honestly.
* * *
When Lieutenant Lawson heard that Wellard had received no treatment for his wound, he was concerned to the extent that he ordered his immediate removal to the jolly-boat on Porth Joke beach.
Trevitt produced a piece of planking from his woodshed to serve as a stretcher, and his mother was persuaded to part with a pillow and two blankets on Lawson's promise that they would be returned.
Wellard had been dreading the walk back over the dunes to the boat, but under Lawson's orders he was able to lie back and, if not actually enjoy the trip, at least endure it in some degree of comfort.
The seamen and marines left him on the sand with Trevitt while they went to clear space for him in the boat. It was chilly on the beach, and he was glad of the blankets to keep out the winter wind.
"Leave these casks above the water-line !" he heard Lawson's distant voice shouting. "We'll leave a guard and come back for them later."
Left alone, the two boys eyed one another warily.
"I ought to shoot that damned parrot !" Trevitt muttered under his breath.
Despite his condition, Wellard smirked. "You wrecked my expedition," he reminded in the same careful undertone. "I had to claw back something from it !" He propped himself up on one elbow so that the early morning sun was not in his eyes. It hurt his leg to move, but he was getting used to that now.
"Don't want to know me, eh, now that we're in the Godalmighty Revenue Service ?" Trevitt suggested unkindly. "Might be an embarrassment, us Trevitts, when you're an admiral, eh, Henry ?"
Wellard's smile faded. Trevitt had always been harder than he was, but he had always been able to deal with him in the past. And Trevitt could be decent too, if he felt like it. He was worth the friendship, even if he sometimes refused to demonstrate a grain of intelligence.
"I don't have to justify that to you, if you're too thick to work it out for yourself," he responded coldly. "Which reminds me, it's time you realised that you can't go on doing this. I know who was down on that beach, and I know why, and I also think you must have recognised my voice, which brings me to a very ugly conclusion . . ."
Trevitt was silent. Whether through shame or caution was not clear.
"Jim, smuggling's an ugly trade," Wellard went on, keeping an eye on Lawson, still busy with the contraband. "It's too dangerous in peacetime. All the good sailors used to be in ships like Renown. Now they're in the Revenue."
Trevitt grunted. "What else is there for the likes of me ?" he muttered grimly. "We didn't all make midshipman, did we, Mister Wellard ?"
"We didn't all try, did we, Trevitt ?" Wellard shot back angrily. He was really annoyed now, and his voice had risen on account of it. It was as well Mr. Lawson was taking his time settling the casks well up the dunes, and he was too occupied to notice. He dropped his tone again to add soberly "I met Lieutenant Hornblower a short while ago, and he's unemployed too . . . and I don't see him scuttling around the coves waving a pistol about like a madman !"
Trevitt's face was bright red. He felt a particular irritation with Wellard merely for being, as always, more articulate than he was himself. He would not admit, even inwardly, that the younger boy actually deserved his promotion and his luck in finding a job.
After staring angrily out to sea for half a minute, Trevitt let out a dissatisfied sigh. "I'm sorry you were shot," he admitted carefully. Wellard noted that he avoided confessing having held the pistol himself. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid.
Wellard sighed philosophically. He had no intention of apologising for the exhumed brandy.
"Remember Kingston ?" Trevitt said suddenly. Fortunately Wellard was not currently robust enough to display a healthy blush at the memory. He had grown up more in that fortnight, under Trevitt's care and guidance, than any time in his short life, before or since. He was not sure, looking back to those heady days, if he had loved it or hated it, but it had certainly been an experience.
It was strange how different their lives were now.
"Why didn't you give me away ?" Trevitt asked, glancing about to be sure he was not overheard.
"Would you have sold me to the Revenue, if it had been the other way round ?"
"Of course not !"
"Well then . . . " Wellard narrowed his eyes to the horizon where the cutter Rapid rode at anchor on a calm sea, and his thoughts drifted back to the worst night of his life, on board the old Renown bound for the West Indies.
Sometimes there was no choice. Sometimes there had to be secrets, and they had to be guarded like life itself.
And now Mr. Lawson had finished organising the illicit cargo, and was walking across the sand to join them.
"How are you, Mr. Wellard ?" he asked, obviously expecting a positive response, so the boy felt obliged to return one. In the Royal Navy there was no alternative.
"Not too uncomfortable, thank you, sir,"
"Let's get you into the boat, then." He touched his hat to Trevitt, according him every courtesy as head of a family, even though the Cornish lad was only a little over half his age. "My respects to Mrs. Trevitt, sir," he said politely, "and I must thank you for your solicitude towards Mr. Wellard."
The two boys exchanged knowing smiles. "It was the least I could do," Trevitt said, and Wellard was inclined to agree.
Trevitt took his friend's hand and gripped it. It was good to know that their friendship had survived all that life had thrown at it in the last twelve hours."I hope we meet again," he said quietly and sincerely, "in calmer weather."
"I hope so too, Mr. Trevitt," Wellard agreed, comforted.
In fact they did not. At least, not on this side of the grave.
* * *
In the jolly-boat, as Shepherd and Lloyd rowed back across the bay to the Rapid, Lawson eyed his young subordinate oddly. "I overheard the men comment that fellow offered you French brandy," he began in a conversational tone. "I hope you didn't accept it ?"
Wellard shifted in the sternsheets so that he would not have to meet Lawson's eyes. "Yes, sir," he responded evenly. "I'm afraid I did."
"Did it not occur to you that was probably contraband too ?"
The boy had himself in hand now, and he turned an innocent gaze on the lieutenant, as though the thought had never crossed his mind. "No, sir . . . I suppose it could have been. I'm sorry, sir."
Lawson shook his head. "I thought you were bright !" he complained, not-too-sternly.
"It wasn't very good French brandy, sir," Wellard added, as though this were some mitigating circumstance. In truth, he had not been sure of the difference between good brandy and bad, though lately, in the wardroom of the Rapid, he had been learning. But he had made the response which he knew would amuse the well-bred and high-born lieutenant, and the trick worked.
Lawson laughed cheerfully. "Well, I'm sure you needed it," he commented. "You'll come out of this all flags flying, anyway. Gleaning the intelligence which turned up forty casks of spirit, to say nothing of being honourably wounded in the King's service. I'd say you're on your way to vice-admiral, Mr. Wellard. Well, the 'vice' bit, at least, if we consider the brandy ! For my part, I expect to be drummed out of the Service. I let the blackguards go !"
For a moment, Wellard was upset by the thought that his senior would be in trouble, but a glance at his amused face was reassuring. The lieutenant obviously expected no more than an unofficial ticking-off from the captain.
"I'm sorry, sir," The boy said quietly.
"The luck of the Service, Mr. Wellard," came the stolid reply. "Life in the Navy is not always fair . . ."
"No, sir," Wellard agreed wholeheartedly.
* * *
"Mr. Wellard !" Captain Thorpe looked up from his desk as his newly-recovered midshipman reported for duty some four weeks later, "It's good to see you again! The rest has obviously been beneficial."
"Yes, thank you, sir," Wellard was happy to be back, though, and it showed in the correctness with which he stood to attention on the other side of the desk. Thorpe did not encourage him to relax.
"Are you fully recovered now ?" the captain asked, merely out of courtesy, for he had the reports from the shore hospital on his polished oak desk in front of him.
"Completely, thank you, sir," Wellard assured him.
Thorpe consulted his papers thoughtfully. "I'm told you were offered a month's home-leave, but you didn't want it." He looked up with a look of enquiry. Although the statement did not especially merit a reply, Wellard felt obliged to offer one.
"No, sir. I mean . . . yes, sir. That's so, sir."
Thorpe nodded, surprised but satisfied. It was not his place to question a midshipman's domestic arrangements. "Very well, Mr. Wellard. You may return to light duties for the time being." he smiled pleasantly. "We won't have you scrambling up the ratlines for awhile yet, until you find your feet again." He glanced up with a twinkle in his eye. "I imagine you will not be grief-stricken if you are exempted from action for a few weeks more . . . ?"
Wellard allowed himself a slight smile as he met the captain's eye. "Not particularly, sir," he agreed honestly.
"Good. Then you may carry a message for me straight away." He picked up a package from the side of his desk and handed it over. "Take Lloyd and Shepherd in the jolly-boat, and carry this over to number three bonded warehouse," he ordered more formally, "and leave it with Mr. Palmer, whom you will find therein. Wait for a reply, and then return immediately. Understand ?"
"Aye, aye, sir."
"It's very important I have a reply tonight, Mr. Wellard. Don't fail me."
"I won't sir."
"Very well, lad, off you go."
Only later, when Wellard had been gone for some minutes, did the captain look out of his window to see the sea-mist rolling in like a wall of white menace from the Channel, and he was immediately troubled. It was a long haul by rowing-boat to the quay where the bonded warehouses were situated. By the time the boat got to its destination, the tide would be almost on the turn, and in these waters the ebb-tide could set up vicious currents which, coupled with the fog, had been the death of many a good seaman.
Captain Thorpe hurried up onto the deck to warn the young midshipman to take extreme care, and not to return if he felt the conditions were too dangerous.
But Wellard was far too keen for him.
By the time the captain reached the entry-port, the jolly-boat was long gone.
* * *
Excerpt from the Naval Chronicle, 1802.
"Last night the jolly boat of His Majesty's cutter 'Rapid', in the Revenue Service, while returning in the fog from delivering a message on shore, was swept by the ebb tide athwart the hawse of a merchantman anchored off Fisher's Nose, and capsized. Two seamen, and Mr. Henry Wellard, Midshipman, were drowned. Mr. Wellard was a most promising young man recently appointed to the 'Rapid', having served as a volunteer in His Majesty's ship 'Renown'."
(Extract courtesy of CSForester's 'Lieutenant Hornblower')