Subject to Recall
After the most auspicious start possible, with news of the transfer to the Renown, the new century was not unfolding as Hornblower had expected. Had anyone - even Kennedy, his closest friend aboard - asked him about his state of mind, he would have given a noncommittal response. The dreary monotony of blockade life in one His Britannic Majesty's ships was the same for everyone, however, with each man allotted to his station, and discussions in the wardroom rarely encompassed finer feelings. When he fell into his habitual introspection, he told himself there was no cause for his nagging unease, and that he was merely over-sensitive to the change in his environment. Adjusting to a new ship, so familiar in some respects but still an unknown quantity in others, required that insouciance that the Royal Navy, with its unpredictability, bred so well. If each ship was her own wooden world, then any capable officer could expect to adapt to several new worlds in his career, and he would have to learn to do so with the same ease he noted in the men who had transferred with him.
The Renown was aptly named, a fine-built Seventy-Four captained through the last eight years of war by James Sawyer. Of his generation, only Nelson, Cochrane and possibly 'Dreadnought' Foster rivalled his reputation for daring and ingenuity. Hornblower remembered the elation he and Kennedy had felt on hearing of their transfer, quickly followed, in his case, by guilt. The memory stirred his unease, and in a moment of realisation he knew he missed his old life in Pellew's frigate, Indefatigable. A strained voice barked out an order on the quarterdeck, startling him. Captain Sawyer was not often heard bellowing across the deck. He preferred to rasp, to drawl, to insinuate, as though he were a god who had observed and bitterly despaired of the full folly of mankind. Hornblower snapped shut the battered volume of Suetonius he had been trying to read. If even the Romans could not entail away his mind from useless speculation, he would have to find something physically demanding to do instead.
He was aware as he emerged on deck that they had changed course and were making sail for a tiny speck on the western horizon.
"If you please, Mr. McNeil, what do you see?" McNeil was the Second Lieutenant, the date of his commission preceding Hornblower's by a little under two years. He was, at this moment, officer of the watch, and standing some six feet above him on the poop deck.
"Square rigged, but no match for us, Mr. Hornblower. Could be Dutch. Unlike 'em to push out this far all alone though." At this, Hornblower put his own glass to his eye. The little ship was making all sail towards them, and with a fair wind, was bearing down fast. For a Dutch ship to be here in the foreign waters of the Mediterranean, and approaching them almost due west from Gibraltar, was highly unusual. Unless she were a prize.
"Mr. McNeil, hands to quarters and clear for action." The drum rolled. Captain Sawyer had returned to his laconic drawl, as though his decision affected an arrangement of flowers on a table, and not the six-hundred highly-trained crew who now scurried about at McNeil's shouts.
"Shall I call for Mr. Buckland, Sir?" The Captain seemed not to have heard, though by this time Hornblower was hurrying to reach his own station at the starboard guns. He reached the upper gun deck, colliding with Hobbs who was cursing and cajoling the boys as they ran with powder and sand. Kennedy was to larboard along the deck, calling encouragement to his men as they unlashed the guns and ran them out of the opened ports. Hornblower, doing much the same, met his friend's eye and grinned. Their competitiveness meant that the men of their divisions had honed their skills almost to perfection and when all was again calm before the expected storm of action, Hornblower still needed his glass to see the flags being hoisted on the mainmast of the approaching ship.
"What's happening, Horatio?" He was crouched down by the twenty-four pounder, his glass poking through the gun port. Kennedy was behind him.
"She's signalling to us, Archie." The black balls rose uniformly like beads on a string, unfurling into flags he strained to see. As he watched, the ship wore round just a little, enabling the flags to be seen in full view. Her single tier of gun ports was closed. The only sounds to be heard were the creaking of the ship's timbers and, far below, the muffled slapping of the waves against the side.
"Do you recognize her, Sir?" Young Wellard hovered just behind Kennedy. This was his first voyage, and therefore his first real chance of action. On blockade with the fleet for the last three months they had sighted enemy ships, but none came close, keeping either well to windward, or creeping along the fortified coastline of southern Spain. Whatever desperate battles were being fought on land, and however hungry the soldiers became, England's naval might was undisputed, and Bonaparte was unwilling to risk so humiliating a defeat.
"No, Mr. Wellard, but -" The Sergeant of the Marines drowned out his next words by ordering his men to stand down and an audible sigh of released tension sounded through the gun decks. " - I was going to say she has been recognized on deck." His keen, level gaze appreciated the wide-eyed fear in the boy, who could not be much older than he himself had been when he had first boarded the Justinian as a Midshipman.
"Yes, Sir. Thank-you, Sir."
"See to your men, Mr. Wellard." Kennedy's mouth was turned up at the corners in gentle amusement.
"Yes, Sir, I mean aye-aye, Sir. Sorry Sir." The twilight that persisted even with the ports open to the autumn sunshine hid his crimson cheeks as he ran back to dismiss the men.
"He might make an Admiral someday, Horatio, what do you think?" Hornblower was casting an eye over the men at the guns as they heaved them back and secured them. It was no less odd for a such a small ship in English hands to be in these waters unescorted than it was for an enemy. The pipes sounded for all hands on deck.
"I think we should report on deck." He offered a dry smile to his friend, who knew better than ask what he was thinking.
They assembled in line, preparing to receive the three men who could be seen climbing down the side of the ship into a jolly-boat. The men craned their necks to see all they could of so recent a potential enemy, but no-one within earshot of the Captain dared utter a sound. Hornblower, as Third Lieutenant, stood between McNeil and Kennedy, but he was aware of Buckland fidgeting nervously with his hat on McNeil's other side. The thin-faced Buckland was Sawyer's First Lieutenant, and as such the second most powerful being on board, but Sawyer's formidable air of authority did not extend to the ageing man. There was a yawing gap in sympathy between Buckland and the three more junior Lieutenants, as there was likely to be when his seniority in years was matched only by experience and not rank.
The little boat took some time to reach them, with two men at the oars and the third stood at the bows. As it drew closer, they could see that this third man wore a Lieutenant's uniform. Hornblower glanced briefly at the Captain, wondering if he would dismiss all the ceremonial, rendered unnecessary now that the visitor was an Englishman of inferior rank. Sawyer's face was impassive, his eyes narrowed and unblinking. Just as the boat, in the lee of the ship, disappeared from view of the deck, they saw clearly the startled expression on the young Lieutenant's face. Kennedy bit the inside of his lip, imagining all too well the view from the boat as the Renown loomed up before it, both jaunty yellow lines now hiding their lethal teeth. To face the officers and men of the Indefatigable on his return from El Ferrol had been bad enough, but to think of boarding the Renown -
"Lieutenant Albourne of His Britannic Majesty's ship Royal Sovereign reporting to Captain Sawyer, Sir!" He had mastered his shy reaction, but that was only to be expected of a Flag-Lieutenant. The braid on his uniform gleamed in the late afternoon sun. Renown had been beating about to the rear of the Mediterranean fleet for a day or so, under orders to rejoin with any news at Gibraltar in under a week. Were any activity sighted, preparing to brave the blockade, Renown alone could harry the smaller vessels back to port. In the case of a convoy or the appearance of a First-Rate brought out of ordinary, Renown had only to set a course for the fleet, just over the horizon, and send her signals.
Albourne held out sealed dispatches to Sawyer, which were taken below without a word, merely a nod in Buckland's direction.
"Ahem! Men, dismiss your divisions!" The First Lieutenant looked to the Second Lieutenant, who stared back at him. McNeil was handsome, but was known among seamen and officers alike for being poker-faced. "Mr. McNeil, perhaps you would like to undertake sail drill with your men while I make Mr. Albourne welcome?"
"Aye aye, Sir." This effectively ensured that McNeil would be the last to hear the news of the fleet, and, as the eight bells were rung, so would the new officer of the watch. It happened to be Hornblower.
Jones sat at the end of the mess table whittling a tiny piece of wood with a crude knife, oblivious to his surroundings. Styles sat opposite him, savouring his beer.
"Give us a look there, Jonesy!" The drink, and his recent promotion to Bo'sun's Mate made him even more raucous than usual, and he grinned lopsidedly when he failed to get an answer. Early in the war, the press had been obliged to find men wherever possible to fill the sudden need for crew and Jones had been a typical enough addition. He was powerfully built, and once shown his tasks would perform them with efficiency, but he was slow-witted in conversation, and his mouth hung open in an almost permanent expression of gaping idiocy. On land, as at sea, he would have been the butt of jokes, but here he found no respite from torment. Unfortunately for him, he was a member of the gun crew under Hobbs, who did nothing to discourage the pecking order of his men and boys, in the belief that it would smarten their resolve. Matthews, the Bo'sun, was continually having to keep the peace, and felt an avuncular pity for the poor man. Jones now put down his knife and held out the little figure to Styles. It was a tower, intricately carved, every edge filigreed into eaves.
"Eh, that's one of them things like they 'ave in gardens. They're from China." Matthews was sat next to Styles and peered closely at the carving.
"Not from bedlam like Jones then?" Randall's comment caused sniggering laughter among the men on his table.
"Now that's enough! You just ignore 'em, lad. None of us can do anythin' like this, eh Styles?"
"Not with that rusty thing I couldn't. How you ain't cut your fingers clean off is beyond me." Jones grinned and waggled his fat fingers.
"Let's have a look then." Randall baited him constantly, and had a vicious temper. In an instant, Jones had snatched up the carving and the knife and fled forward, the sound of derisive laughter following.
"He's gone to be with the pigs, look! They're more your level, eh Jones?" Matthews and Styles exchanged glances in silence. The men of the crew always took time to rub along together in a new ship's company, but both knew that the situation was far from settling. If anything, it was getting worse.
The Antwerpen, recent prize of the Mediterranean fleet, had parted company from the Renown and gone back to her station off Gilbraltar. Albourne had sipped half a glass of wine in the company of Buckland and Kennedy before being summoned by the Captain, closely followed by a summons for the First Lieutenant. Kennedy had taken a stroll on deck, ostensibly for the purpose of imparting Albourne's scant news to Hornblower on watch. Returning to the wardroom, he was surprised to find the dour McNeil, alone and intent on sketching with a piece of charcoal. He was so engrossed that when Kennedy hailed him he sprang up in guilty surprise, sending a sheaf of papers off the edge of the table to the floor. Hastily he stooped to pick them up, while Kennedy availed himself of the chance to look at the drawing. He had just the briefest of glances before McNeil snatched it up from the table. It seemed like a pose plastique of the kind favoured by the fashionable artists. In a glade, a girl, all large eyes and long hair, held to her a faun.
"Is that your intended? She's lovely."
"It's it's not a good likeness." He exited hurriedly, the papers crushed in an untidy bundle under his arm. Kennedy stared after him in amused surprise. After three months of close confinement at sea, it was forgiveable to be sick of the sight of your fellow officers, but McNeil had a virtually pathological liking for his own company. They had none of them had a chance to prove themselves in action as yet, and so relations between himself and Hornblower, who were old friends, and Buckland and McNeil, who had served together awhile aboard Renown, were still somewhat guarded. While Buckland was an amiable enough dining companion, however, McNeil had hardly a word to say for himself. Late one evening, Buckland had confided that he knew little more about his Second Lieutenant than they, except that he was an officer of undoubted ability of whom great things were expected. He was apparently planning to marry, but spoke as little about his future bride as anything else.
"Ah, good evening Mr Kennedy." Buckland arrived, flustered, as though McNeil's exit had been a missed cue.
"Sir! What news?"
"In brief, Mr Kennedy, the fleet are headed this way, but we are headed in the opposite direction. We could be tacking for days." The disgust was evident in his voice.
"We're not to join the fleet?" A small spark of something tensed Kennedy's shoulders, somewhere between fear and expectation. Alone, there would be more chance of action, and more of death. He realised he had forgotten the customary 'Sir', but Buckland was too gloomily preoccupied to notice.
"No, we're bound for Spithead, it would seem via Lisbon, with dispatches." Kennedy's shoulders slumped in relief and disappointment. They were homeward bound, with no great chance of any proper engagement with the enemy, nor any of prize money. He was on the point of asking why. "I'm afraid that's all I know."
"And where is Mr. McNeil this evening? Writing to his lady love again I shouldn't wonder." This from Clive, the ship's surgeon, who had joined them for supper and already consumed a fair amount of wine.
"Having seen a likeness of her I can see why he is preoccupied. What I cannot understand is quite why she would have consented to marry the stick in the first place." Kennedy, especially, felt rebuffed at his failed attempts to elicit conversation from his senior officer. Hornblower, having come off watch, was attacking his food with unusual relish.
"He is probably somewhat less stick-like in her company, Archie."
"Carrying a likeness is not something I'd have suspected him of." Clive had served with the ship's company for several years and had no doubt compared notes with Buckland over many new officers.
"He was not carrying it, but sketching it. He has drawn her beautifully, yet when I complimented her, he said his depiction was not true!"
"It is as well he did not say that in front of the lady, or she would perhaps no longer be his intended." They started to laugh at Clive's comment when the door opened to admit McNeil.
"Good evening, gentlemen. I hear we are bound for England."
"By way of Lisbon, Mr McNeil." Clive studied his colleague with a keener eye after this fresh revelation of his character.
"Lisbon? Why Lisbon? What the devil do we want in Portugal? Are you sure we are to call in there?" This was a long speech for McNeil and his agitation was marked by his use of blasphemy, condemned as unmannerly by Captain Sawyer. Hornblower broke the ensuing silence between forkfuls of pork and peas.
"I hear Portugal is particularly hospitable at this time of year."
They had passed the fleet two days ago, exchanging mutual salutes of dipped flags. Sawyer had opted to conserve powder and shot, as they were not within sight of hostile coasts or ships to which the firing would be a clear assertion of England's presence. It was nonetheless a bold decision, and would have been seen by some Commander-in-Chiefs as a deliberate insult, but Lord Keith had more pressing problems in the wake of the battle of Marengo, and merely answered his ship in similar fashion. A small Spanish warship had then been seen creeping along the coast which they could have engaged, but Sawyer had grudgingly kept course for Portugal. Just before noon on a sultry day in late September, the cables were run out through the hawsehole and the Renown came to anchor off Lisbon.
Sawyer called for his boat without delay to go ashore with Buckland and, presumably, the despatches with which he'd been entrusted. McNeil he sent ashore in the cutter with one of the midshipmen to see about negotiating for fresh provisions. Hornblower and Kennedy were on the quarterdeck, stood to attention. The Captain prepared to disembark last, as befitted his rank.
"Ah yes, Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Kennedy, there may be a guest requesting permission to come aboard. If that should be so," he spoke slowly, emphasising every word, "kindly make them welcome. I remind you that you are in charge, Mr. Hornblower." He climbed down further, out of view and into the boat as the pipes twittered. A curious thing for a Captain to say, but Sawyer was a man for intrigues, and told off his officers only when he felt utterly constrained to do so.
"Well, Sir, I take it we're to share the wardroom fare with any 'guests'." Kennedy emphasised the word as Sawyer had done. Hornblower smiled and gave a mock-shrug.
"It goes against the grain, Mr. Kennedy, but the Captain may be generous on our behalf." He nodded to the midshipman who would stand watch while they were safe in harbour and received a touch of the young man's hat brim in return.
"I do not think the word 'generous' applies to the Captain in any sense, Horatio." They were facing the open sea along the larboard side of the deck, the bustle of preparing to receive fresh water and supplies going on around them.
"We are just too used to Captain Pellew. Every Captain has different ways about him, Archie. When you are Captain, you may do just as you please, and hard luck to your poor Lieutenants!" Kennedy laughed, finding it hard to imagine himself as a Captain, much less a martinet. Hornblower smiled, but there was a grim countenance to it. With Sawyer as their commanding officer, he was beginning to wonder if they would ever gain promotion.
Kennedy was making a cursory inspection of the cable tiers when he was accosted by the ship's carpenter asking about planking. The atmosphere this far below deck was foul at the best of times, and on this muggy afternoon almost unbearable. There was no point in enquiring why he had not seen fit to state his material needs upon dropping anchor, Kennedy well knew, but he was too hot and tired to be rational about it and a heated altercation ensued. Hornblower could hear their raised voices from the deck and went below to see what was amiss. Arguing with a senior officer was not a wise course for any man aboard ship, but Sawyer had an odd, almost superstitious preference for his warrant officers and able seamen and they were apt to exploit it, especially, as now, when belligerently drunk. At the intervention of a second officer, the man's loud protests subsided, but he insisted on showing them both his dwindling supplies of scantling and several parts of the hull that he considered were in want of attention. They finally quieted him with an assurance that they would make his requests of the Captain, if he were sooner to return than the victuallers, and headed up towards the deck, and air. Kennedy voiced the thoughts of both of them.
"I wonder if we shall be granted leave in England?"
"I suppose it will depend entirely on the Captain's orders. Have you pressing business there, Mr. Kennedy?" An old pun, as no junior officer's business was as pressing as the business of pressing, if the Captain so willed.
"Yes indeed, I must beguile one and all with tales of my glorious naval career - the drills, the blockades, the arguments with cantankerous carpenters."
The sound of someone's laughter drifted down from the hatchway. An abandoned, infectious laugh, and unmistakeably a woman's. The Captain had not given permission for women to come aboard, and the two Lieutenants hastened on deck. She had vanished. Matthews was supervising minor repairs to the running rigging aft and Hornblower hailed him.
"Sir, we had a boat come alongside, Sir. Mr. Deverell wanted to defer to you, Sir, as you was in charge, but the lady said there were no need." Deverell was the midshipman on watch.
"What lady? Where is Mr. Deverell now?"
"Gone below, Sir, with the ladies. Mr. Wellard's taken the watch, Sir."
"Ladies? There's more than one?" He could imagine Sawyer's sneering sarcasm at two commissioned officers failing to stop a boarding party of women.
"Err, yes Sir, there's two: the one with the Admiralty letter and the other one." Perhaps these were, after all, the guests the Captain had mentioned.
"Well, I'm sure we can trust Mr. Deverell has the matter in hand. Thank you, Matthews."
"Sir, there were three, Sir, but the other one - the maid I think, Sir, wouldn't come aboard." He knuckled his forehead before returning to his task. By rights, Deverell should have requested his senior officer's presence on deck before even granting permission for the boat to come alongside, but the thing was done and Hornblower could see no possible gain in anything more than a private reprimand. Looking over the railing, he saw a boat pulling strongly for shore with one female passenger. It did not seem likely that the other ladies would be returning to Lisbon.
The first of the lighters arrived without McNeil and about half the men, who were presumably loading a second boat. Renown swarmed with activity, which to any but a seaman's eye appeared chaotic. Hornblower was on deck, overseeing the swaying up of casks and crates of fresh foods, manned by the hands at the tackles. Kennedy sweated below in the hold. His was the thankless task of maintaining the ship's balance as she increased her load and lowered in the water. They were not expecting to fill to capacity, with all its attendant problems, for a run that, even in the most adverse weather should be no more than a month, and possibly only a matter of ten days. Nonetheless, minute changes to how she lay in the water would alter her handling under sail, and Kennedy felt he could ill-afford the disdain of Captain, Master or his senior Lieutenants. The work was made no easier by the worsening weather, which gave rise to increasing swell, and toppled a cask at head height which Kennedy caught just in time. He replaced it with the help of a hand and groaned. Where the cask had rested against his shirt now bore witness to a stinking line of brown grease, visible even in the dim light of the hold. He and Hornblower had agreed how remarkable it was that there had been provisions so readily for the asking. The butter was undoubtedly rancid. Kennedy went to find Hobbs, who had been allotted the duty of checking the casks as they came aboard.
He glanced abaft of him as he reached the lower gun deck. A shaft of daylight lit the gloom close to the capstan, and in it stood a young woman running her hands slowly over its smooth wood, as though sensually enraptured. Kennedy could not help staring at her, as bizarre a sight as any he had seen on board ship. She looked up, seeing him and snatching back her hand as though ashamed. Even in the poor light, he could see that her eyes were a vivid green.
"I am sorry to have startled you. I am Lieutenant Kennedy." He was suddenly ashamed, in turn, of the picture he must present to her, sweating and begrimed, and smelling of rancid butter.
"Mr. Kennedy." She seemed to have overcome her surprise and came forward, holding out her hand to him. He recognised her.
"You must be -"
"I asked the clerk at the Board to write 'Mrs. McNeil', but it was merely in jest. I am Léonie." He took her hand and smiled at her. If she had noticed that he was in need of a wash, she was either too polite or too heedless to let it trouble her. Hobbs clattered down through the hatchway towards them.
"Ah, Mr. Hobbs, a word if you please. My respects, Madam. I hope you have been made comfortable." She nodded and smiled her thanks, already moving to leave them, and was studiously ignored by Hobbs.
"It seems we have polite company aboard, Mr. Hobbs."
"Sir." Hobbs had a way of acknowledging his officers in a tone bordering on the insubordinate. "I have little use for women aboard."
"They have little enough use for you, Mr. Hobbs, I am sure." Léonie did not trouble to address her remark to his face, but continued along the deck to the stairs. Kennedy stifled a smirk as Hobbs scowled after her. No doubt he believed the old seafarer's lore that women on board brought bad luck to the ship. His mind filled with questions. It was curious indeed that McNeil should have found himself such a bride. Hobbs' imagination stretched only to speculating what the stain on Kennedy's shirt would mean for him and the latter, noting the direction of his glance, broached the problem of the rotten stores without further delay.
McNeil returned within an hour, hot and irritable, but with a water carrier in his wake. Hornblower issued orders to make ready with the hoses, while McNeil took as many able seamen as could be spared to help the harbourmaster's men load more casks from shore. Jones was idling along the rail, staring at the red-tiled roofs and baroque towers of Lisbon's port. They stood out starkly against the darkening sky.
"Jones, we can use you, come aboard." McNeil had made a speaking-trumpet of his hands from the boat. Jones stared down at him open-mouthed as though he hadn't understood. "Well come on, man, it's quite safe." A couple of the men behind him groaned and somebody sniggered. "Belay that, or you clean the heads!" The men fell silent as Jones gingerly stepped down, down into the boat bobbing alongside, clearly terrified of losing his footing and falling into the water. McNeil sighed. A curious surge of pity had prompted him to summon Jones to his side, and he had the distinct impression that he would regret it long before they returned to the ship.
The pipes and side-boys heralded the return of Sawyer and Buckland with an even bigger bundle of dispatches than that which had accompanied them into Lisbon. The storm was threatening torrential rain at any moment and Renown strained continually at her anchor. Unhappily for Buckland, his passage up the ladder was a precarious one and he arrived on deck with neither his dignity nor his stomach entirely satisfied. Captain Sawyer cast a practised eye along the deck.
"All well, Mr. Hornblower?"
"Aye aye, Sir."
"And with you, Mr. McNeil?"
"Aye aye, Sir." The three words covered a multitude of frustrations, haggling, bartering and practical difficulties which he had had to face and overcome in the hours of the Captain's absence. He would trouble no Captain with them, and certainly not Sawyer. His task had been completed, with the stowing of the boat on the booms, only minutes before.
"My respects to you gentlemen. Kindly report to me at your convenience." This meant immediately. McNeil and Buckland resigned themselves to being tired and miserable a while longer.
They had been closeted only a few minutes in the spacious dining cabin, lavishly furnished by Sawyer at his expense or, as he liked to say, at the expense of French and Spanish negligence. It was impossible to estimate how much he had earned in prize money, but if his private quarters gave any indication, the sum was surpassingly large. The few minutes were enough for the exchange of information to have become one-sided, as Sawyer conducted a close interrogation of his Lieutenants one-by-one. Hornblower felt the creeping uneasiness returning. It was natural enough for a Captain to enquire as to the state of his ship, but Sawyer paid close and quibbling attention to every detail, as though he did not trust his officers to carry through the chain of his command. Was it their competence he doubted, wondered Hornblower, or their loyalty to their Captain and to the ship? He surely had no reason to doubt either in respect of any of them. Moreover, he did not trouble, as a pedantic Captain might, to conceal his lack of confidence under a guise of strict adherence to Admiralty rules. All four Lieutenants felt their abilities and standing undermined, and the cautious knock at the door was a welcome interruption. Sawyer looked up with a studied lack of interest. No-one moved, or spoke.
"Come." At his eventual command, the door opened to reveal a plump and splendidly-dressed woman of about Sawyer's age. Had she introduced herself as Lady Hamilton, they could not have been more surprised. "Ah, gentlemen, leave us, if you please. We shall continue later. In fact, you may perhaps join me for dinner this evening, assuming you can find a competent midshipman for the watch." They murmured their thanks as they rose to leave. The new arrival stepped to one side.
"Ooh, I 'ope I've not -"
"One moment please, Madam." His discourtesy raised eyebrows and an exchange of glances among the departing men. Her accent was noticeably out of keeping with her luxurious attire. Perhaps she was Sawyer's wife, or even Lady Hamilton herself, though what she was doing in Lisbon, they couldn't guess. The rain finally began as they emerged, sheeting down hard on the quarterdeck, and almost drowning the haunting sound of the bells ringing across the harbour, calling the faithful to church.
Renown was got underway before the hands were sent to supper. The worst of the storm was quickly past and the Captain and Master had decided to make the most of the favourable winds that still blew. Huddled against the damp, the men on watch looked longingly at the twinkling lights of Lisbon, receding in the distance to be swallowed in the dense black of night.
Dinner with the Captain was a rare occurrence for Hornblower. Sawyer preferred the solitary status to which he alone aboard his ship was entitled, and on feeling the occasional need for company almost invariably invited either Clive or Buckland to share his meals. In the wardroom, the servants assisted them in completing the full dress uniforms they would be expected to wear. McNeil struggled with a cuff button of his shirt, which pulled loose and fell to the floor.
"Surely not nervous, Sir?" Kennedy caught the button smartly as it rolled towards him.
"No. Whyever would I be nervous, Mr. Kennedy?" Buckland caught the frown which accompanied his question.
"The Captain's taste for live frogs is wholly unfounded, I assure you unless you count the ones who serve Boney, of-course." They laughed politely at Buckland's joke.
"I refer to an altogether more tender prospect than either the Captain or the likely fare." Kennedy grinned at McNeil and received an uncomprehending stare in response. "Do you not think that the future Mrs. McNeil will condescend to join us at dinner, Sir?" McNeil stared incredulously, and Kennedy realised his mistake. Since returning with the last of the provisions, he had not heard any news of the ship, and the women had remained in their allotted quarters while the work of loading and setting sail went on.
"You're something of a dark horse, Mr. McNeil. I hope you have not kept the lady similarly in ignorance of your ship-mates." Clive shared the Captain's dry sense of humour, and it failed to rouse a reply from McNeil, who muttered his excuses and, pausing only to collect his hat, quitted their company.
"That, ummm, wasn't the lady who" Buckland trailed off, raising an eyebrow in reference to the portly interloper in the Captain's cabin.
"No!" Kennedy laughed, still feeling a little caught out at his error. "I see no reason for his embarrassment at all."
"It must be true love then." Hornblower smiled ruefully. Love and duty were not necessarily compatible in the service, and he sensed that the next ten days would feel interminable to McNeil.
Introductions were made as Sawyer's steward poured the wine. The candlelight reflected the brilliant cut of the glassware and the smoother sheens of silver and mahogany. Hornblower was glad to be seated, acutely aware of the dull pinchbeck buckles on his shoes. He avoided Kennedy's eye, expecting him to have guessed at his discomfort, but all eyes were on the Captain and he realised that Sawyer had coolly introduced 'Mrs. McNeil'. Her gaze fell calmly on her future husband and Hornblower started at seeing McNeil's face still reflecting no emotion, as though carved in stone. Sawyer, he could see, registered this interplay with keen interest. He glanced back at the girl - the Captain asked if he might be accorded the honour of calling her Léonie - as the conversation flowed around him. Her dark hair borrowed the lustre of the candlelight, appearing almost the same shade as the rich wood of the cabin furnishings, and setting off a fair complexion and large eyes of a startling green. Something about her was familiar to Hornblower, but he could not quite place what it was.
"Oh, now I do love a glass of good wine -" It was not Lady Hamilton but Lady Carew, no less, who was acting as chaperone to the young girl on a visit to her brother in Portugal. She, too, jogged a memory in Hornblower, but he needed no casting about: her accent precisely recalled that of Kitty Cobham in her pretence at being the 'Duchess of Wharfedale'. Perhaps the nobility really did speak like products of the Seven Dials. Lady Carew beamed at them sweetly, claiming to feel giddy in the presence of so many handsome young men, but looking nothing of the sort. Her dress, in contrast to the stark simplicity of Léonie's plain cream cotton, was a mass of pale blue frills and white bows and eye-catching décolletage. Encircling her throat was a dazzling diamond necklace of intricate design.
"Léonie is such a lovely name - French, is it not?"
"Indeed it is, Mr. Buckland. My mother was French." Buckland was unprepared for her answer, which excluded any careless mentions of the enemy in her presence from now on. He opened his mouth to comment further without anything coming to mind. "Perhaps," she leaned forward confidentially and spoke in a stage whisper, "I am a spy." That same laugh they had heard when she came aboard. Hornblower felt again that she was familiar, somehow, although he had never known a woman daring enough to declare herself partisan to an enemy, even in jest.
"The French haven't the sense to keep their treasures to themselves. You are so like your mother, my dear." Captain Sawyer, at the head of the table to her left, patted her hand in a familiarity which her rising colour suggested she didn't welcome.
"I didn't know you had met my mother, Captain Sawyer."
"It was an honour to have known her. I consider it England's duty to restore the rightful rulers of La Belle France." He was gallantly assuring his men of her Royalist leanings, though his hand still rested on hers.
"I hope your maternal family have not suffered unduly in the current strife, Madam." Hornblower rolled his eyes at Clive's comment. Trust a doctor to pursue that particular train of thought!
"Oh I think we are used to losing our heads." In one pert move, she freed her left land from Sawyer's and reached for a piece of flat bread almost under McNeil's nose.
"Hush child! Oh -!" The ship's bow plunged into a large breaker, holding the stern in sickening suspension before she lurched down and immediately rose again with hideous speed. Lady Carew was visibly pale. From somewhere forward came the sound of immoderate laughter. No doubt someone, probably a boy, had been spectacularly sick.
"My apologies, one and all. Neptune was uninvited and, it would seem, a little cross." Though Hornblower had regained his sea-legs some weeks before, he was none too sure of his dining abilities if the motion continued, and his laughter at his Captain's comment was strained. It seemed as though Neptune may have heard Sawyer's comment and thought better of it, however, as the table was undisturbed through the remainder of the meal. The officers all ate heartily, as theirs was a wardroom without rich patronage and they would probably not dine on such fresh delicacies until they reached England. Conversation, fuelled by the wine, was warm and civil and not without wit. The girl's education matched Hornblower's own, and she was able to converse with ease on the classics, though her tastes tended more towards Shakespeare and the Restoration so beloved of Archie Kennedy. Lady Carew clearly did not possess either her ward's education or erudition, but spoke with humorous self-deprecation of her fond indulgence in romances.
A toast was required after a fine dessert of peach syllabub and Hornblower found himself sated and content, though not entirely without the self-consciousness which always plagued him. It occurred to him that McNeil might share this affliction, as the man had ventured no opinions all evening and those parties eliciting his had been met with the briefest of replies. He twirled the stem of the glass in his long fingers, half-expecting the Captain to jab a finger in schoolmasterly fashion at a random diner and force them to propose the dedication. Instead, Sawyer himself stood up, and as he did so Hornblower noticed that he had not troubled to wear his smartest uniform. The epaulettes were tarnished, one aslant the seams of his coat as though stitched in haste, and the blue showed signs of mildew. He had not contributed to the talk around the table for some while, but had merely observed.
"Ladies, Gentlemen, I give you the Baltic." The convivial atmosphere evaporated in an instant, with everyone looking at one another in disbelief. There was a Britannic squadron in the cold waters there, navigating the shoals and coastlines of Scandinavia and Russia, far from the glories of the Mediterranean. "We shall be a little longer at sea than anticipated. I trust this causes no undue distress?" His question was entirely rhetorical. In theory, Admiralty orders were the preserve of the Captain until such time as he chose to enlighten his crew, and as such they were to be ready for all circumstances. In practice, however, it was highly unlikely that anyone in the room had sufficient cold-weather clothes. They followed the Captain's lead in drinking the toast. "I shall discuss this further with you, gentlemen, in the morning. Meanwhile, I should like to propose another: to the ladies - your health." He did not follow this with the expected tribute to his Second Lieutenant's forthcoming marriage. Instead he resumed his seat, and his expectant watching of his subordinate officers. Léonie was soon engaged in ardent conversation with Archie Kennedy, whose glances towards Hornblower invited his participation, but he demurred. McNeil, he noticed, similarly declined Léonie's attempts to include him and, dismissing her altogether, began a discussion with Buckland.
After a few minutes, Captain Sawyer requested some entertainment. He was known to be fond of music, and frequently allowed the men their pipes and reels in the afternoon watch. It was rumoured that he played the spinette, though with more enthusiasm than skill, and that he had once had one aboard. Hornblower was thankful that this was no longer the case, and his heart now sank at the prospect of music. His tone-deafness left him little appreciation of anything but the bare rhythm, and he would far rather pass the remainder of the evening in a rubber of whist. Kennedy and Buckland were said to have fair baritone voices, but neither ventured to volunteer them in the presence of the ladies and their discerning Captain. Sawyer's gaze came to rest on Lady Carew, who blanched at his attention.
"I think we both know someone whom it would please us to hear." She blushed furiously, unable to reply. If this were false modesty, she was worthy of the stage. "Come now, little Léonie, don't be shy." There was something almost sinister in Sawyer's coaxing. Clive smiled at what he took to be assumed, as Lady Carew let out an audible sigh of relief. Odd that she had not taken the reference to her ward.
"I sing but little and that very ill, and doubtless the one owes much to the other." Hornblower was about to ask if she cared for whist, but Sawyer persisted, in verbal pursuit of his prey until she had no option but to surrender with a wan smile. To Hornblower, the delights of song, and of music in general, remained a mystery, but he noted as always the mesmerised look of the audience. It would be impossible in that small gathering, of-course, to appear disinterested, or to carry on a discourse as an undercurrent to the singer, but there appeared to be genuine appreciation in the faces of her listeners, even the hitherto immoveable McNeil. He began to take note of the words, which were Latin, and it became apparent that she was singing Eurydice's enticement to her lover, pleading for him to save her. Was it a trick of the flickering light, or were there tears in Sawyer's eyes? The hairs on Hornblower's neck stood on end. For the first time in his life he was glad that melodies held no sway over him whatever.
"When d'you think this pig last walked?" Styles held a large piece of salt-pork at the end of a knife and peered dubiously.
"Set it down and it might walk right off yer plate!" In accordance with regulations, the older casks were issued first. The pork had been in soak for up to a day, but salt crystals were still visible in the crevices of the meat, which bore little resemblance to anything edible. Jones reached out and pulled it off the knife.
"Eh! That's me vittals yer thievin' -" Uproarious laughter ensued as Styles eyed the remainder of his meal, pitifully depleted by the loss of the pork. From out of his pocket, Jones produced the rusty little knife and began to carve the meat. Shavings of it fell away as from a block of wood. Had he attempted to eat it, Styles would have boxed his ears, but he sat transfixed at the deftness of Jones' fat fingers. He stared at the craftsman while the others ate and yarned around him, until his neighbour's hands began inching towards his cooling food and a playful jostling began, quieted at length by a weary Matthews. Jones held out to them a tiny pig, complete with trotters, ears, snout and a curly tail. His mess-mates gathered round, remarking how clever he was, while eyeing the knife warily. Styles was not so visibly impressed, pointing to the mess of shavings and tiny chunks lying on the table.
"Now look what you've done. 'Ow do I eat that?" Jones looked suddenly crestfallen.
"Sorry." A small boy might be so pathetically contrite, knowing he was in for a beating. In a man of Jones' size, the effect was ridiculous and the table erupted into laughter again.
"A'right, look yer daft get." Styles picked up the pig. "You show me 'ow and yer can eat the pig, an' all that lot." Styles gestured to the mess again. Jones hesitated. "Word of honour. I never lie about food, do I?" Still Jones hesitated, as though digesting the information, until Styles felt he would have a struggle to make himself understood. Then at last Jones nodded enthusiastically and swept the meat towards him. "Err," Styles halted his hands halfway, "that's this lot o'meat, not every lot Jonesy." Jones just smiled as he chewed a shaving of pork. From across the deck, Randall eyed them as he gulped down beer.
The wind had dropped to a light breeze overnight and at the beginning of the forenoon watch, Renown was still clawing out to sea under full sail. Hornblower relieved a bleary-eyed McNeil on watch at the eight bells and they exchanged a few words. Following the toasts, there had been more wine, and then brandy, and they had left the Captain to greet the earliest glimmers of dawn on the eastern horizon. The two women had consumed a not inconsiderable amount of the spirits, but had seemed, unusually, none the worse for it. Hornblower checked the log, wishing they had a stiff south-easterly to speed their course and to clear his head. When had he last felt so mazy? It was something of a jolt to realise that it was the morning that he and Kennedy had first come aboard the Renown. How they had managed to present themselves, washed, shaved, and complete with dunnage after that particular night's debauchery he would never know.
"Good morning, Sir." Matthews, as Bo'sun, kept daylight hours for the most part.
"Good morning, Matthews." He was fond of the grizzled older man, with whom he had served since his days on the Justinian, but he would be glad of being left to himself this morning, all the same.
"All well, Sir?" A cheerful enough enquiry, but Hornblower sensed some oblique reference to his red-rimmed eyes, or the slightly exaggerated swaying he was forced to employ to keep upright. He snapped irritably.
"Yes, of-course it is." As always, he regretted his peevishness, and his quick mind came to his rescue. "Mr. Matthews," he addressed him with an air of confidentiality, "we are to sail for the Baltic."
"Sir?" If the officers balked at the conditions of a Scandinavian Autumn, the men would do likewise, far away though it seemed on this warm day. They had not been allowed shore leave, or privileges in Lisbon, and it had sat easy with them because of their imminent return home. This sudden snatching away of that surety would not make life any more tolerable.
"I am sorry - for us all. The Captain told us only last night."
"But what'll we do there, Sir?" He asked in forlorn hope of an answer. They both knew it made no sense for them to join the squadron as a sudden and unprepared addition, and that a lone Third-Rate would make no difference to the balance of power in those waters.
"I assume it is business of some importance, but I know no more than that. I am sure they will not keep us too long at sea." Hornblower was not at all sure of it, but he did his best to relieve the man's disappointment.
"You know what they'll say below, Sir." He bit his tongue before saying 'a string of oaths and curses' and merely raised his eyebrows in enquiry. "The singing, Sir." Now he was genuinely puzzled. "We could hear it clear enough. A bit of a tune is one thing, Sir, but those sorts o' songs make fer restless nights." Hornblower could only suppose he referred to Léonie's siren songs, about which mariners were notoriously superstitious. He had a sudden insane image of a shipload of Hornblowers, tone-deaf and oblivious to the charms of the sirens one and all, and started to laugh. A glance at Matthews silenced him. Those restless nights of his might be theirs in plenty off the icy shores of northern Europe.
Léonie was pretty, but not the sort to give men restless nights, in Hornblower's opinion. She had washed her hair, presumably in rainwater collected from the previous night, and plaited it in two thick braids down her back, like a girl from America he had seen in an illustration. It made her look childlike. She had emerged on deck before McNeil had departed for the cabin he shared with Buckland and they had strolled slowly back towards the quarterdeck while he had spoken with Matthews. He was forced, in consequence, to listen to their conversation as he looked out over the men beginning the business of sanding and holystoning the waist. McNeil appeared more uncomfortable than ever.
"It seems to me that there is nothing so - so natural as a ship. It is the only thing where beauty of form matches so completely its superiority. The clumsier the look, the more cumbersome in movement; the more graceful and sleek, and see how fleet, how light, how elegantly performed is every action." Hornblower silently agreed with her. She ran her hands along the rail as she spoke, and then brushed something unseen from McNeil's waistcoat.
"Léonie, why did you not wait for your father at Lisbon?"
"He wrote to say he is delayed in the Indies. It was some time ago, but I had been at Lisbon a month already and when I knew you were to arrive -"
"I will not ask how you know." She drew away from him a little, and just into the line of Hornblower's sight below.
"- well, when I knew, I went to the quay and Lady Carew was there, seeking passage also. It seemed a good omen."
"Your guardian indeed." He spoke as to a child, with evident disapproval.
"I am sorry to have teased you. I shall tell Captain Sawyer -"
"You will tell him nothing, and you will not you will not speak to me unnecessarily until we reach England." She began to interject, but he reached out and took her arms as though he would shake her. "Listen to me. The Captain he, he does not approve of - that is to say, he will not -" She interrupted his halting explanation.
"If he is as odd as they say he is, then surely he will not notice what we do."
"Who says this? What have you heard?" He did shake her, then.
"Asham!" He let her go. It was the first time Hornblower had heard McNeil's Christian name. "It was one of the men. I overheard him." McNeil made some reply which Hornblower could not hear above the noisy skylarking. This was dangerous talk, here on the open deck, though none of the men seemed to be paying them undue attention.
"- it is for the best that you do not do not draw attention to yourself, or to me." There was a long pause and he guessed she had answered him with a nod or a gesture of resignation. "Soon we shall be together every night until dawn. You will be my salvation." Hornblower wondered if he were still drunk, so unfathomable were their words to each other.
"Hardly that." Her tone was gentle, but she had pulled away and strode briskly along the deck, neatly side-stepping the men with their prayer-books by the scuppers.
Over the next days, running into one another as only the interminable days of routine at sea could do, Hornblower debated with himself, wanting to confide in Kennedy, but not knowing, at bottom, what it was he wished to say. These formless, baseless fears of his, for so he called them, kept him awake whenever he lay on his cot. Once or twice he took note of a quizzical look from his friend, but he stopped himself from voicing his thoughts, and was soon glad he had done so. Léonie had taken to sitting in a corner of the fo'c'sle by herself in the afternoon watch, reading, or writing with a pencil. She had brought on board a miniature orange blossom tree which she placed beside her as though creating her own garden. It was out of the way of the men, and after a day or two she ceased to raise comment among them and was largely ignored. Hornblower thought she cut a lonely figure, and evidently Kennedy thought so too. One such afternoon, during Hornblower's watch, he was stood at the foot of the foremast, where Deverell was sat across the boom learning to splice a halyard. Kennedy's was the first dog-watch, and he would usually have been resting in their shared cabin. He bowed and doffed his hat and she smiled up at him.
"You are eating! I hope you have not been at the stores?"
"Only those of my orange tree, Mr Kennedy. Might I offer one to you? Surely Sir would like to try?" They were play-acting as she proffered the tiny orange.
"I shall be honoured to accept, Madam."
"Are they not sweet, Sir, and delicious refreshing? Shouldn't you like a round dozen Sir, for your table?" Kennedy chewed thoughtfully. They were not in the least sweet, but had an appetising sharpness of taste. "I think a dozen is perhaps a few too many. Nor would I part you with even half that, Madam, but perhaps a further one?"
"With all pleasure, kind Sir." Jones had been lurking by the bowsprit and came across to them, gawping at their pleasantries. He cast a shadow over the seated girl, who looked up and offered him an orange also. "What is your name?" Her words seemed to startle him, and although he had been reaching out a timid hand he now snatched away the fruit and ran aft as though in panic. Randall had been helping Hobbs in his inspection of the carronades mounted on the quarterdeck. Hornblower heard a yell and soon after the thud of something hitting the deck. He rushed to where Jones lay sprawled among cabling, his shirt tarred here and there from the deck seams and his nose bloodied. Randall was helping him to his feet and his presence was as effective as a stopper of tow in Jones' mouth. He put forward a theory of clumsy haste on the part of Jones which Hornblower inwardly dismissed as nonsense, but he could not openly accuse Randall of malice and instead upbraided him for his careless arrangement of the cables on the deck. The man was vile-tempered, but behind his sullen deference, and that of Hobbs, Hornblower knew he was being mocked. It was not so much his pride, as his disgust at their behaviour, singling out Jones for no other reason than that he was helpless at their cruelty.
"Since you have shown such care of your ship-mate, gentlemen, I suggest you look even more closely to his welfare in future. Should any further harm befall him, I know you will bear the responsibility full well." That ought to keep them in line, by God! Jones stood mutely by, rolling the little orange between finger and thumb while his blood dripped to the deck.
The following day, Hornblower returned from taking noon sights with the midshipmen to find his cabin empty. He had expected to find Kennedy on his cot, having just come off watch. Unable to sleep himself in the sultry afternoon heat, he ventured into the wardroom. McNeil sat reading, but it was otherwise deserted. Since the time when he had observed their strange intimacy on the deck, he had never seen the lovers alone together, which only served to increase Léonie's visible isolation. He spent his time precisely as he had before she came aboard at Lisbon, and she seemed to spend hers, when she was not in the fo'c'sle, in the Captain's company, or reading blowsy romances aloud to Lady Carew in her quarters. If she were inclined to be proprietorial, or clinging, she had mastered it well, and seemed content to be so alone, but just once he had caught a sad and imploring look as she gazed after McNeil. Several times, when Hornblower had been on the point of suggesting some contrivance or other for their meeting, he had become aware of Captain Sawyer strolling with the girl on his arm, as though at an assembly, or placing himself for several minutes at a time where McNeil, or the men of his division, were under his eye. He had the absurd notion that should McNeil wish to spend some justifiable time with his fiancée, he would be blocked at every turn. It was absurd, of-course, as there were no reason for the Captain to object, provided it did not interfere with the working of the ship. Nonetheless, young Hornblower tried to put himself in McNeil's shoes, and he could not swear he would do differently. It did not hold with his self-regard, as a man of logic and some common sense, to find his actions inexplicable, and he felt relief that his troubles began and ended with the weather, his men, and the duties of the watch. McNeil stared stubbornly at his book and was even, Hornblower was prepared to concede, reading; yet it felt like a challenge. He returned to his cabin, restless with the heat, knowing it an unwise one to accept.
In the fo'c'sle, Kennedy and Léonie were playing a game.
"I am at sea, the oceans are unbounded." She looked expectantly at him. This was the opening salvo, and he had to find a rejoinder and then another for her to return until they formed a verse.
"The sky above, by sea I am surrounded. Darkness falls, enveloping the light -" She started to laugh. "I would be obliged, Madam, if you would concentrate on the matter at hand." They were familiar with one-another now, and each day his duties did not intervene would see Kennedy at her side in the fo'c'sle, from two bells in the afternoon watch.
"Clouds are summoned o'er, celestial might Fleeting sunbeams fade, are chased away" At that moment clouds had indeed obscured the sun, a foretaste of the unpredictable Autumn weather to be expected as they continued north. Soon enough there would be no pleasant afternoons in the warm sun, with the sweet notes of the wind in the rigging.
"And low'ring weather vanishes the day." He looked around for inspiration and found it in the sudden lurching of the deck. "Wind whips to taller heights the swelling waves."
"And drives ships proud and sorry to enclaves. Though harbours, seeming safe, have rocks beneath" They were laughing again, having parted company with their surroundings in the mention of a harbour, and Kennedy declaimed his next lines with mock bombast.
"To tossing wooden hulls they bare their teeth," he went straight on, "And insignificant I can only wonder" A pause - the final line would conclude, and must end the verse as a final cadence ended a melody.
"This night, will men or rocks yet reap their plunder?" They had together composed this dirge. She screwed up her nose in distaste. "To call it turgid doggerel would be -"
"- to insult me - ?"
"- to insult turgid doggerel, rather!" Kennedy tried hard to hide his amusement and keep his pretence at arrogance. The sun reappeared, cooler, but a rich gold as it neared the horizon.
"I think I have proved my worth as a bard -"
"- you do? - "
"- my worth as a bard does not lie with Mr Wordsworth's landscapes. Perhaps more Mr Mr -"
"If you insist." He had not intended to share this
with her. Even Horatio, so fond of meaningful glances of late,
had not been accorded a privileged glimpse as he scribbled at
the wardroom table.
"Forward into the sun,
Her eyes nor yet outshone.
Her hair more brilliant still,
Its fire, the sun's fire, won.
Slender her hands, her waist -
No foamy white so pure.
Bitter as caulk the taste:
Her absence I endure"
"Well Mr. Kennedy, I hope you have sent your verse home?" After some considerable silence, she had affected to keep her light tone, but she would not meet his eye.
"No, I have not."
"You should. To be so long parted. Are you sure of her affections?"
"I am sure of mine, you may depend upon it." It took a great effort not to reach for her hand.
"Then you should tell her, Mr. Kennedy." This was confusion. On one level they were still at play, a flirtation which brought them to the edge of danger, but no further. On another, here was a young woman, still a girl, betrothed and forbidden, and probably assuming him possessed of his own neglected sweetheart.
"Do you know you are loved?" Close to the wind indeed. Something in him hated himself for causing her distress - if he were. Like the moment of the gybe, she changed tack abruptly, adopting a brittle attitude. One said these things daily in Society, and they were not to be taken seriously, but the proper form must be observed. Had she a fan, she would have tapped him lightly on the wrist, but she did not seem disposed towards any finery of this sort.
"Mr Kennedy, you must not say such things to me - you know I am affianced." This was all that was needed. He clutched at the correct phrase, the elegant phrase, as a drowning man clutches at the air.
"I am indeed sensible of it. Forgive me, but I hope that the objective admiration of another may help Mr. McNeil to appreciate his supreme good fortune."
"Are you saying that you are happy to be made use of, merely in order to inspire jealousy?" In his game, the game she had convened, she should have murmured her thanks and there would have been an end to it. He could think of no reply but an honest and a direct one.
"You put it so boldly, Madam."
"There is no other way, it seems to me, of putting it, Sir." Kennedy was wretched. Even the rags of clouds, shot through with brilliant hues from the rays of the setting sun, intensified his anguish. Only a fool, an idiot would have allowed himself to come to this. He deserved the utter contempt of every man - and woman - aboard, and no doubt he would have it. Perhaps, he thought miserably, he already had it. "You must know that I admire you far too much to do as you ask." From some women this would be the height of artifice, a coy snare for a man held in low regard. Léonie looked directly into his blue eyes, flatly intoning the words as though mouthing a banality. It threw him into turmoil once more.
He affected an air of indifference as Kennedy entered their cabin, no easy feat in such a cramped space, but Suetonius was proving very useful. His young friend was humming quietly to himself, which exasperated Hornblower, who could not fail to hear his efforts, but could not distinguish between 'Hearts of Oak' and 'Trim-Rigged Doxy'. He felt he must speak, at last.
"Mr. McNeil is in the wardroom, Archie."
"Do I owe him money?" He might have given the same joking reply a month ago, but he would not have coloured, and Hornblower knew it.
"I was merely remarking how strange it is that he ignores his intended."
"It is strange. I wonder how he could." There it was. In that quiet expression, in his lowered eyes which he knew would otherwise give him away. Hornblower's heart sank. "She is quite mad, of-course." Kennedy seemed to think his best refuge lay in unceasing conversation. "Herr Bach, and Herr Mozart, as she calls them, are always about so as to prevent her being alone. I must ask each day who is present before I dare to converse with her."
"You need not worry, Horatio." Hornblower bent his lean frame to sit up on his cot. Further discussion would encompass his worries on his own behalf, as well as those for his friend, and he was unwilling to voice them. He wanted to cheer Kennedy up, but as at El Ferrol, was at a loss as to how. It had often been the other way around, the young man's natural ebullience cajoling him out of his gloomy self-doubt as few other things could. Now that their roles were reversed, he wondered if he would be able to return that service.
They journeyed on, the days becoming more chill as the season turned. An endless succession of unfavourable winds impeded their progress north, and this misfortune added to the general unease. None of the wardroom officers had failed to note the effects on the men, who were slacker in their duties than was safe in open sea, even a sea dominated by British ships. Nor could they ignore the sudden congeniality of the Captain. Entering his quarters, it was easy to believe that one was entering another ship altogether, one with a contented crew and a paternal Captain, and it made the transition to the darkness of the 'tweendecks all the more disturbing.
McNeil was in the tops in his pea-jacket, a round section of the horizon in the glass at his eye. It was folly to do this, like worrying at a loose tooth, but according to his estimation of the charts, England lay somewhere over there. Someone hailed from the waist and looking down he saw Hornblower, using a speaking-trumpet to overcome the howling wind. He spread his hands in a visible gesture: nothing. The approaching dusk would soon render any coastline invisible anyway, and he swung himself down past the reefed top'sls and along the ratlines with relative ease.
Hornblower watched his approach admiringly from the waist, feeling the tinge of envy that always crept in when he saw those more lithe and nimble than himself. To an extent, he had conquered his fear of heights, but he would never scale the yards, or hang in the shrouds, or even sit a yardarm without the very real possibility of being paralysed by sheer terror. Today, however, he had longed to climb aloft himself. He felt sick with revulsion that he had disciplined himself not to show, and something, anything to take his mind to other matters would be welcome. Captain Sawyer had subjected Jones to the lash. He had been found drunk, apparently, and had resisted all attempts to sober him for duty. Jones was sturdily-built and had a great deal of brute strength, especially when terrified as he undoubtedly had been at being dragged before the Captain. Three men had to be deployed to overwhelm him, and two of those were now at Clive's tender mercy. It was this, more than the intoxication, that had earned him his punishment. Hornblower knew that there had been foul play. A man of Jones' size would not be insensible on his rations of grog and beer, and he suspected that Randall and others of a vicious disposition had colluded in his disgrace. Jones sat before them now, carving something with a rusty knife while Styles paid close attention. McNeil spared them a glance. The man was in his division, and as such he had been present during the punishment at the gratings, had seen the cat flay his back into strips of torn and bleeding flesh. He met Hornblower's eye as they leaned against the weather bulwarks forward.
"Cursed weather, keeping us afloat so long."
"I would rather it kept us afloat than sank us." The humour sounded sour, even to his own ears. "It is some comfort to know that we will not be long in the Baltic."
"You believe him then?"
"I believe that the harbours will freeze before too long, and we must return to the Channel, at least." McNeil nodded. No ship of the line could risk being frozen hard in hostile waters. "And rations will run low soon enough." A good proportion of the stores they had taken on board at Lisbon were perished. Even hard salt meat and weevilly ship's biscuit were sustenance of a sort, but supplies were finite, and they had to feed six hundred cold and hardworking men.
"That won't get us home, Mr. Hornblower. Dr. Clive is used to scurvy." Hornblower's blood ran cold. He wanted to probe further, but Wellard approached them.
"The Captain's respects, Sirs, and would it please you to join him in his quarters?" They could not be seen from the quarterdeck, but both men had the feeling that they were under the eye of the Captain all the same.
They continued to be so. Renown fought her way north interminably against unremitting weather, and Sawyer's oddly cheerful disposition gave way to bouts of peevishness, during which he was best avoided. He had cut food rations to two-thirds, but the beer he had kept to full quotas. The Saturday following Jones' punishment gave them their first glimpse of land since they had sailed from Lisbon, but some devilment drove the weather to a fury, and they were whipped by hail and sleet blown nearly horizontal across the decks. Below gave no respite, there being just enough warmth to melt the spray and sleet to drip steadily from the deck seams on to their heads, but not enough to dry the damp clothes or impart any warmth to their chilled bodies. They were forced to heave to overnight, lest they were run aground in these unfamiliar waters. Even though she had ceased fighting the waves, she pitched and tossed through the night as though the sea wanted rid of her, and to a man they suffered the acute discomfort of continual noise and motion that leant a nightmare quality to their efforts to sleep.
Hornblower and Buckland were early to the deck. The long night had faded from the sky to a glowering grey that blended with that of the sea, leaving the ship alone in a great grey orb. The decks glistened with a thick coating of sheer ice. Léonie glided over the waist towards them, shrieking in delight.
"I had better inform the Captain of our condition." Buckland was torn between staying out of the Captain's way and staying out of the bitter cold, but eventually resigned himself to reporting to Sawyer.
"Beggin' yer pardon, Sir, but ought I to get underway?" Matthews sailed around Renown in one of the boats each day, checking the waterline, and he would be eager to do so after the severe weather. He lowered his voice. "I think it's best if I do something, Sir, seein' as some of the men are talkin' about gettin' frozen in." In shallow waters in the winter this was a possibility, and they were having freakishly bad weather. They had had a leadsman in the chains all the previous day, and all on deck could hear his readings. It would not take a prolonged spell of weather like this to freeze them in, within sight of land, and who knew just how vulnerable they would be then?
"Hard to be sure Mr. Matthews, but there's still a swell under us I can feel. Ha-H'm. I need to get across." He was musing aloud, which was testament to his ease in the other man's company. Snow he was used to, but this was solid ice, and he couldn't wait for the men to clear it.
"I think I can get round on it, Sir."
"Oh no, Mr Matthews, you are depriving Mr. Hornblower of so much fun!" Matthews had told Hornblower of the girl's interest in the workings of the ship. He was not a man for flattery, but had been pleased to show her something of his duties. "I envy you Mr. Matthews," she had said. "If I were a man I would never marry. I would sail the oceans and chase the prizes and live exactly as I d__d well pleased!" Hearing of this had put Hornblower on his guard.
"It is just like battle, Mr. Hornblower. The trick is not to think." How would a girl know anything about battle? He echoed her words, staring warily at the sheer smooth surface at his feet.
"Act on instinct. If you think, 'Why here I am balancing!' you fall over, just as if you think, 'But I am fighting for my life!' you are killed." There was definite truth in what she said about fighting. He knew from his own experience that a sort of madness took over, leaving the real Hornblower, the conscious Hornblower, inconsequentially observing the man of duty as he hacked all obstacles from around him. He was nonetheless sceptical of its application to skating.
"Very well." He endeavoured to show neither confidence nor fear as he took a cautious first step. Slowly he adjusted to finding his balance on the slippery deck and he relaxed. It was actually an agreeable sensation, to be sliding along like this.
"Well done, Mr. Hornblower. Bravo!" He looked up and smiled at Léonie and immediately lost his balance, flailing for the rail, and holding on fast, breath pluming.
"My God!" Kennedy had joined them on the deck and stood exactly as Hornblower had, eyeing them across the frozen deck.
"To me, Mr. Kennedy!" She was gliding about in figures of eight.
"Is it as easy as it looks?"
"Yes!" Her exclamation was entirely simultaneous with a loud "No!" from Hornblower, who still clung to the rail with as much of the casual in his stance as he could muster.
"Ah. Mm." He ventured out, and went straight over, making hideously fast progress towards them on his backside. Hornblower and Léonie rushed to stop him and were pulled over in their turn. They came to rest by the railing, laughing in a heap.
"A cold, cold morning for us all." Captain Sawyer, still in his dressing gown, his hair undressed, appeared as if conjured. The three faces before him all registered dismay. "If it please you, report to my quarters." He teased out the words for emphasis and left them, disquieted, in the bleak morning air.
During the terrible night, while they had wrestled against motion and damp to find rest, three men of McNeil's division had attempted to desert. They had estimated the strength and direction of the wind, and reckoned on reaching the shore, so tantalisingly near to their starboard bow, where at worst they could exchange some of their clothes for food. McNeil, as officer of the watch, had discovered their intention, as they had been forced on deck, rather than through the gun ports, by the weather. He had challenged them, but had quickly been overpowered and was at this moment, Sawyer told them, lying gravely injured in Dr. Clive's care. His failure had likely enough proved tragic in their case. Léonie rose to leave, but Sawyer placed a hand over hers and suggested she stay. She expressed a desire to see McNeil, though she fooled no-one by referring to him as 'the patient' as though he were nothing to her.
"I'm afraid that will not be possible." Around the table, all heads swivelled to the Captain. "Mr. McNeil is not to be disturbed in his recovery." He paused, waiting to see who, if anyone, would ask why. They were all too shocked, momentarily, to speak. "It must be established whether these men were led. Forgive me for being harsh," he said this for Léonie's benefit, "but every precaution must be taken." It was true that desertion, like mutiny, was a contagion among crews and an ever-present threat in conditions such as these, but Sawyer was all but accusing McNeil, his Second Lieutenant, of attempting to desert his ship, and encouraging his men to do the same. "The sooner we reach the squadron, the better." He was suddenly brisk. "You shall all dine with me as my guests this evening."
"You don't think -?"
"I don't know what I would think in his place, Archie. Every Captain must be mindful of his position -" he paused as a hand ran past with a bucket of steaming water. The weather had moderated enough for the galley fires to be lit, and they were busy freeing the frozen tackles to make sail. "God knows, he would not be the first to have insubordinate officers."
"Yes, but McNeil?" Neither of them had ever suspected his taciturn behaviour to have concealed duplicity, but that did not prove much, and nothing at all to Captain Sawyer, who enjoyed so little trust in his Lieutenants.
"We cannot help him at least until we are underway. We must catch up to the squadron soon and maybe then -"
"-maybe then will be too late, Horatio."
"If he is injured unto death, no deeds of ours can save him now." He was pragmatic, as always, while Kennedy wanted to act on behalf of his stricken colleague without a thought to the consequences. Hornblower wondered momentarily whether he was so precipitate despite their unspoken rivalry, or perhaps because of it, and whether Kennedy had ever stopped to ask it of himself. They were all playing a waiting game until circumstances could come to their rescue, and their chief ally would be patience. Really, mused Hornblower, it was just like whist.
"I do not believe in God." This was met with silence. It had become apparent as the meal went on that Léonie was present at the table against her will. She seemed determined to challenge every flurry of conversation with a provocative comment. "I do not think this inevitably leads to moral" she searched for a word, "turpitude."
"Is that spelt with an 'e'?"
"No!" Léonie, Hornblower and Kennedy answered Buckland altogether.
"I say! I always get it wrong, then." There was uneasy laughter, cut short by a contemptuous Captain Sawyer.
"You should all be in a library, not a ship."
"Well, I know I should be." Kennedy recognised Léonie's bright, brittle tone from their final conversation in the fo'c'sle. It already seemed a long, long time ago; another voyage altogether.
"No. I take it back in your case, Léonie. You should be right here, at my table." Sawyer stared at her, smiling like a man who has just acquired some property or other that he has long aspired to own. She tried again to make light of it.
"Well it seems fortune favours the well-read for once."
"I favour you. Am I fortune?" Sawyer sat back in his chair, and Hornblower was reminded now of a lion who plays with mice. The analogy was apt. However brave they were, and able, all power aboard ship rested with the man at the head of the table, put there by the King of the realm, and by God. He seemed to have lost interest, for the moment, in all but this girl.
"Is that a rhetorical question, Sir?" There was defiance in her question-to-his-question, and in her direct meeting of his gaze.
"It is a question just for you, Léonie."
"Alas, I find I am quite unable to answer. Oh! I have promised I will call upon Lady Carew this evening." The redoubtable Lady had suffered repeated bouts of sickness, and had declined to join them at dinner. Léonie rose from her chair.
"Sit down!" The vehemence of his command seemed to echo from the panels of wood around them. "Please." She obeyed him. "Mr. Kennedy, kindly pay our respects to Lady Carew." Léonie tried to intervene.
"Oh, but I - "
"Now, Mr. Kennedy."
"Sir. Aye aye, Sir."
Captain Sawyer stood his quarterdeck, quite alone in the freezing fog. They were making way slowly, through thin sheets of ice on the surface of the shallows. Renown had a large enough draught to make it treacherous for her here. The landfall, out there in the darkness, was Sweden, whose allegiance was in doubt. Somewhere in the wake, turning over gently in the waves, perhaps, as they putrefied, were the three men who had set about McNeil. Strange to think on that most revolting of deaths so calmly. He had always thought he would far rather be ripped apart by a canon shot, or even a musket ball, than drown. Most sailors would concur. Tonight, though, he had asked her to sing for him again. Odd that she loved ships, and loved the ocean, when it had claimed her mother. Hearing her daughter, he longed to embrace the deep, where she lay.
She had sung, as commanded. A grotesque display even as Asham lay hurt and alone. It entranced the Captain, who spoke always of her mother. Léonie hardly remembered her. The woman she called to mind was beautiful, but aloof, with nothing of her father's impetuous warmth. It was a discipline, like any other, to have grown up as she did. If they wished to believe she was odd, she would let them. It would protect her. To this end, she had avoided the Captain's Sunday services. Had said she did not believe in God. Let the others go to their berths and their hammocks for what comforts they could. She would go to the fo'c'sle and be alone.
Except that Hobbs was there. The lantern he held cast a queer light, diffused in the fog, and his features were a blur of pale shadows.
"Mr. Hobbs! You startled me."
"The men would have it there's bad luck aboard ship, Madam."
"I thought the 'bad luck' had deserted us, Mr. Hobbs."
"Best be careful on nights like this all the same, I should say." There was clear menace in his voice, though his expression was shrouded in the dark and swirling fog.
"We are all lost in fog such as there is but look, Mr. Hobbs, it is not so thick yet." She looked down over the bow. Hobbs followed her lead.
"I see nothing." He spat overside.
"I see myself and there are you. Darkness visible, Mr Hobbs. We are in hell, now."
"Devils indeed! Superstitious claptrap. What next?! Seeing if she has cloven hooves?" Buckland didn't sound quite convinced.
"The devil may take any form it chooses, as I recall, Sir: a beast, a woman, a King's officer."
"What are you implying, Mr. Kennedy."
"Mr. McNeil is under armed guard, Sir!" Clive and the Captain alone were to be admitted by the marine sentry stationed outside the door to the little cabin next to the surgeon's own.
"Archie, it is perhaps for the best that he has protection." Hornblower interceded for caution, as always, but the words sounded hollow even to himself. Many things could decimate a ship's capacity to fight before an enemy fired a single shot: fire, disease, weather. Dissension, though, was perhaps the most feared thing in any navy, spreading with the random and yet inevitable nature of the plague. Just discipline was the counterweight, and would prove effective even in the strained conditions of the North Sea on two-thirds rations, but his thoughts nagged at him. It was entirely possible that there had been no desertion, that something else altogether had taken place. No trace of the three men unaccounted for had been found, so either they had reached the shore or they had drowned and yet his mind was not satisfied with either of these possibilities. He was sure that one of them, at least, could not swim, which would drastically reduce their chances of survival in that cold and stormy sea, even if the waves had carried them in the general direction of land. Matthews, at his behest, had checked Renown's every grating, a useful prop for a man stranded in the water, and none were missing. Had they drowned, it was likely that some stray item, either of clothing or something thieved from the stores, would have washed around the lee of the ship, indicating their fate, but nothing had surfaced. A couple of the men had been friendly with Randall, who had not deserted, but, he claimed, had stayed snoring in ignorance in his hammock until Matthews' cry of 'Out or down!' in the morning. McNeil was the only living witness - Clive had confirmed that he was, indeed, still alive - and he was unable to speak out. A horrible picture formed in his mind of three bodies, weighted down, sinking slowly to the deep.
"I'm sure he'll be well soon enough, and no doubt sorry to hear that the culprits have not been brought to justice." If Buckland had his doubts, he was no more able to give voice to them than was Hornblower. Even with tangible proof of a conspiracy, procedure was required: a hearing, testimonies, even a court martial. Not only was there no proof, there was no reason. The officers might note their Captain's eccentricities, his irascibility and suspicion, and might well chafe under it, but to the men he was the hero he had been since before St. Vincent. A Captain of Nelson's own, and the men would no more break faith with him than they would with the Admiral himself, knowing that the vengeful wrath of England would be as swift as it was terrible. Their martinet took no human form, but that of nebulous fears. Fate dictated if they would perish or thrive, and Fate could be appeased by pouring wine on the deck, or watching where the flags were mended, or by observation of a hundred other rituals, but you could not cast it off.
Kennedy clenched his jaw in an attempt to stop his rage at
his own helplessness. He knew that any move to speak to McNeil
against the Captain's orders would be the act of a fool, but he
felt as desperate as he had behind the barricades outside Muzillac.
A fine thing for an officer, his commission hard fought and hard
won, to wait for an unseen enemy to claim him, as it had McNeil,
as it might all of them. Léonie's orange tree rested on
the window seat where it had been placed at the start of the cold
weather. Even magnified through the windows, the weak sun had
failed to nurture the plant and it had withered. Kennedy picked
it up, went out on to the deck, and dropped it into the icy ocean.
The sudden snap of the bone in his right arm was audible to them all and cut through the blind struggle. He had a sudden, wild hope that they would spare him, would feel fear for their own lives in consequence of their actions, if not pity. He would not submit. This was not the Nore, where he had narrowly escaped death as an acting-Lieutenant during the mutiny. He would not submit.
A hand shook his shoulder and he woke. Clive stood over him, a picture of professional concern. He had to keep blinking to stop a film of cloudy red obscuring his vision.
"Try to stop struggling, Mr. McNeil or you will not heal." He opened his mouth to reply and indescribable pain shot through his jaw, up to his throbbing head and down to his shattered limbs. He managed nothing more articulate than a groan. "Lie calmly now." Something was being poured into his mouth. It felt like liquid fire, and he melted willingly into oblivion. It seemed to him that Léonie sang to him, soothing and soft. He was conscious, moments perhaps, or hours later, of someone at his side.
"Sir, you're awake." He knew the voice. It was it was - "It's Acting-Gunner Hobbs, Sir. Captain Sawyer sent me, to see how you are." McNeil realised he must look terrible, with one eye swollen half-closed, an arm and possibly a leg broken and his chest raw with lesions and bruises. His looks would have to speak for him. "We were all sorry for what happened, Sir. The Captain knows you're not to blame. He said it could happen to a good officer easy as a bad one, if the men get the devil in 'em." Hobbs spoke in a low voice, insinuating. "He'll speak for you, Sir, whatever the others say - he wants you to know that." The man on the bed moved his head, just a little. "They ought to watch their own men, now there's just three of 'em." He paused, as though conscious of saying too much, and then began again more brightly. "You're in no danger here, Sir, with the guard outside. Least he could do, the Captain said." McNeil was writhing now, trying desperately to speak.
"The Captain's taking care of your lady, Sir." It seemed to fluster Hobbs to mention her. McNeil raised his hand and tugged at his sleeve to gain his full attention, but the effort of speaking was beyond him. "I don't think you should expect her here, Sir." His face was suddenly set hard and bitter. "I'd tell you she asked after you, if she did, but women are feckless, Sir, and that's the truth of it." The distressing effect on McNeil was apparent in his rapid, shallow breaths. "I'm sorry to speak out of turn, but you ought to know. We heard her singing - you may've yourself, as the glass was rising by then. You'll know her audience I think, Sir, in the wardroom." It was too plausible. The weather had calmed, as Hobbs said, and she had sung. He had thought it a part of his laudanum-dosed delirium. The wardroom! His thoughts churned rapidly. Every moment Kennedy had spent in her company had been torment, yet he had trusted him enough to keep her amused, especially after the younger man had one day offered to stand watch for him in order that he might spend his afternoon with his fiancée. He had declined - the memory mocked him now - declined with a cold condescension that clearly inferred his resentment at this interference on the part of a junior officer. That afternoon, as almost every other, he knew them to be together, innocent in their actions, but what of their intent? It appeared that a warrant officer of the gun deck knew better than he did himself.
Hornblower was approached by Lady Carew on the quarterdeck. The weather had taken yet another turn and the short Autumn days were pleasant. A chill mist was each morning burned away by the sun, leaving the pale blue sky to lend definition and clarity to each object. Daylight hours still held a little warmth, like the ghost of summer, and through the frosty nights the heavens were scattered with stars. They had picked their way carefully along, never straying far from the Swedish coast, or, in their thoughts, from hunger. Was it his imagination, or did the Lady Carew who came towards him now appear a little thinner than the one who had been hoisted aboard Renown off the Portuguese coast?
"Mister 'Ornblower." She spoke sotto voce, and he had an uncomfortable sensation that she was about to ask him to assist in some womanly concern. "I need yer 'elp." The inner Hornblower sighed, leaving the one who faced the world to clasp his hands behind his back and direct at her a look of polite enquiry. "It's Miss." He said nothing. "I can't find her. I know it sounds daft, on a little ship like this one, but, well, I've not seen 'er in two whole days."
"Have you called upon her?" He was not unduly alarmed. A 'little ship' had plenty of hiding places, and there were only so many sentimental romances even a girl could stand.
"Aye, and more than once, but she's not there. I went to see Captain Sawyer, but the guard wouldn't let me in. 'Is the Captain ill?' says I. 'E doesn't answer. Downright rude, I call it. Even if 'e is off 'is oats, it wouldn't 'urt to say so." He had rapidly tried to call to mind the last time he had himself seen her. Of-course, it had been in the wardroom two nights previously. The servants had been laying the table for dinner and Léonie had been sat in the window seat, in close conversation with Archie. He had not expected to see them closeted together. Since Archie had said miserably that he 'needn't worry', Hornblower had noted their avoidance of one another. The malevolence of the weather had forcibly ended their afternoon rendezvous in the fo'c'sle, but if they chanced to meet on deck or elsewhere there was a certain awkwardness to their greeting. On seeing Hornblower enter the wardroom, and behind him Buckland, she had immediately risen to leave, evading Archie's outstretched hand and refusing Buckland's invitation to dine with them. She had said - he felt an almost physical jolt at the memory - that her presence had been requested at Captain Sawyer's table. Two days ago.
Léonie was berthed in a tiny cupboarded-off space in the after-cockpit, near to the purser and Sawyer's steward. Hornblower knocked at the door, wondering what he would say if she were there. Even when she didn't answer, and they opened the door, he knew he would have felt compromised in the event of some perfectly harmless explanation. It was stuffy and airless in the dim little room, and it was empty. Aside from the cot, neatly made since last slept on, the two sea-chests filled almost the entirety. It would have necessarily been sparse if Queen Charlotte herself had slept here, but Hornblower could see no evident signs that a woman claimed these quarters. There were no frills or frippery in sight, no gew-gaws, not even a fichou or a shawl in readiness for wear. He swept the lantern around as he turned towards Lady Carew behind him. The moving arc of light illuminated the letters on the lid of the larger chest for no more than a second, but in that time he read the L.A.F. inlaid there.
"What'll we do next?" It was like having his thoughts spoken aloud without his volition, and profoundly disconcerting as a result. He wondered if marriage were like this.
"We must tell the Captain." He had made up his mind as he spoke. Any missing persons had to be reported, so nothing could be read into his actions beyond performance of his duty. An image of the ship's muster came to his mind, the three names with 'R' for 'Run' written beside them. Léonie was a passenger and would not be listed anywhere aboard. He shook off the thought with some difficulty and forced himself to walk with calm purpose, Lady Carew trotting along at his heels. She panted, and he recognised one of those ludicrous moments of his, when inappropriate laughter welled up within him. A tap on his shoulder pulled him up short.
"Please slow down, Mister 'Ornblower. I'm afraid I'm not a fast woman, even out o' corsets." Shame at his unkind thoughts, squeamishness at the mention of ladies' undergarments and a genuine liking for her mingled all at once and he coloured and slowed his pace. They were nearing the stern hatchway leading to the waist. Clive descended towards them.
"Good evening Dr. Clive. Lady Carew is a little concerned that her ward is not to be found. Have you perchance seen her of late?"
"I am just come from Captain Sawyer. He is most concerned for her himself. It seems she is unable to eat."
"Oh the poor poppet! Where is she, Dr. Clive?"
"In the Captain's quarters for the present, Your Ladyship. She will be more comfortable there than than elsewhere." He shifted his weight from foot to foot, uncomfortably. "I'll take her your best wishes for her recovery."
"Well, I'll do better than that, I'll go and see 'er myself." Hornblower stood silent during this interchange. The pervasive sense of foreboding he had tried so hard to dismiss gave way to another, even stronger, feeling that he was in the midst of something over which he had no control. It was worse than impending battle, where drill and training played their part, and glorious victory was the probable obverse of death.
"I'm afraid she is indisposed to visitors until such time as she has regained something of her complexion." Clive offered a weak smile and spread his hands at the indulged vanity of young women.
"You've applied some treatment then, Dr. Clive?" Hornblower hated the man's ability to sidle around direct questions which required direct answers. Clive hesitated.
"I - I believe we have established the underlying problem and are taking steps to remedy it, yes. Now, if you'll excuse me." He hurried away.
"Thank-you, Doctor." Lady Carew called politely after him, before turning to Hornblower. "That's why I came to you, Mister 'Ornblower. That Buckland, well, bless 'im, but 'e ain't up to much is 'e, and nobody'll tell me a thing."
"Lady Carew, I -"
"I may be a woman, and a silly one at that, but I'm no fool for the ways o'men, 'owever sharp they think 'emselves. I'm answerable for that girl, and like it or not, so 're you." Hornblower was about to reply to this astonishing outburst when he heard a shout from the mastheads.
"Sail ho!" There was instant activity at this, the first sight of another vessel in weeks. Deverell, as Acting Signal Lieutenant, was waiting anxiously for news, Buckland beside him. "She's French, Sir and clearing for action!" Hornblower felt momentarily sick. This was severe misfortune, to encounter the enemy in, at best, neutral waters, unfriended and with a half-starved crew. The French Captain, whoever he was, had wasted no time in readying his ship to engage them, which would soon tell on English morale if Renown did not reply in kind. He could see in his glass from the deck that she was hull-down on the horizon, heading regally towards them under mains'ls. "Eighty-Four, Sir!" They had to flee, then. To rely on her being alone was too much of a risk for a ship already outgunned. They could head reach on her, and the sooner the better. He turned towards the Captain's quarters, but Sawyer was already on the quarterdeck.
"All hands! Clear for action and beat to quarters!" He continued to bellow encouragement as the men scrambled to their stations. Hornblower was a part of this activity. If they were to stand and fight, every second counted in the approaching conflict.
Montmareil - Hornblower had seen her name through the gunport as they neared range - fired her first broadside so soon after Renown's that it felt like a second, devastating recoil. There was no chance from down here to see if the shots had told in the sides or the rigging of the enemy, as they plunged into the nightmare of below-decks battle. Relentlessly they reloaded and prepared to fire, scuppering the wounded and dead as best they could. Instinct counted for much, as vision brought only brief and disembodied snatches of grim faces from the thick, acrid smoke. The guns' roar was deafening, supplemented by yells and screams from all around them. Then they were past, and coming about to bring the larboard guns to bear. It seemed to Hornblower that there was an infernal noise nearby. Above the cacophony of moans and screeches, there rose an intermittent and blood-curdling wail of agony. He looked about him and saw Kennedy, still yelling orders to his men, doing the same. They seemed to come from the deck at his feet. From a boy's body, all flailing, bloodied arms and legs and - damn his eyes! - the horror had no head.
"It's Jones, Sir, he's hit!" Styles hailed him from his position at a gun. All had noticed this unearthly and obscene wailing. Peering more closely, unbearable as it was, he saw something underneath the decapitated boy and pulled the corpse to one side. Jones lay there, too weak to free himself, his stomach a morass of bloodied entrails.
"Help me Styles!" They would be in range of the Montmareil again within minutes. Together they picked up the injured man, his eyes bulging in unspeakable terror and agony, and carried him down and forward to the cockpit.
Two days without sustenance had left her light-headed, with a weary ache throughout her slim frame, as though too enfeebled to feel anything acutely. Clive had not force-fed her, using instead the kindlier method of persuasion, but she did not entirely trust him, and his assurances that Asham was daily improving had a curious vagueness that frightened her. She did not she trust herself. She had embarked upon an ultimately futile gesture on behalf of the man who was to be at her side for life; a man she had begun to feel she hardly knew. Nor would she allow herself to consider her feelings for Archie Kennedy, which only served to reinforce her self-doubt. Even so sweet-natured a man as he was not to be implicitly trusted, yet she suspected herself of exactly that.
The sound of the bulkheads being struck had first alerted her. A rat ran squeaking across the deck under her cot. Are we sinking? had been her first thought. "Not yet, you silly goose," her father would say. She had seen him last in Portsmouth, months before. With Asham. The sensation of standing up again after so long dizzied her and she groped her way forward like one steeped in gin. Captain Sawyer's shaving mirror hung from a beam near to the door, and in it she caught sight of a waif of a girl, hair and clothes dishevelled, and dark circles around her eyes, alarming in her pale face. No time for that now. Opening the door revealed no marines to cross their swords in front of her and her path was unbarred. The men were everywhere at work with an urgency that made itself felt through her disordered mind.
"Fi-re!" Before her the guns crashed in close succession, each with its flash of explosion, and she tottered unsteadily as the deck lurched to the recoil. There was something of hell, but an unmistakeable exhilaration in the chaos around her. She felt a pull at the hem of her skirts and looked down to a man struggling to regain his feet. He did not appear badly hurt, but the impact of the shot in his shoulder had sent him flying backwards. Unhesitatingly she pulled him up and guided his arm over her shoulder, and the two of them staggered towards the cockpit.
The injured lay in rows along the side of the deck as Clive worked at the critical cases on the slab of a table with his assistant. Below the waterline, they were as nearly in darkness as were the gun decks, and Clive's blood-spattered front made him appear diabolic. He was shouting at Hornblower as Léonie arrived with another patient. Traversing the short distance while supporting his weight had exhausted her and she leaned for a moment against the side. Jones' unearthly wailing had not abated and the quality of sheer uncomprehending terror in his cries unnerved all present. It seemed that Hornblower was arguing his priority to Clive, who continued stubbornly to treat the current incumbent of the table. Styles had laid him on the deck as gently as he could and waited for the order to return to his station at the guns. Léonie was moving towards Jones as Hornblower saw her. A shattering crash from somewhere above them signalled damage from the guns of the Montmareil and obliterated his shout to her, but she could see his mouth forming the words, "Get out! Stay with Lady Carew!" Jones wailed again, his remaining bodily strength seemingly all in his lungs, and she knelt over him.
"What's his name?"
"His first name." She looked exasperatedly at Styles, who stared back nonplussed.
"He's just Jones." She took his right hand in hers.
"Hush, hush now. Jones, Jones look at me, look at me." Gradually his eyes focused on her face and he thrashed about less violently. She spoke to him soothingly in a low but firm voice, as one would to comfort a child. "There now, I need you to squeeze my hand. Hold it very tightly - yes, yes like that. Shhhh, hush, I know, I know. Don't let go of my hand. Hold on." With her other hand she stroked his face while she murmured on and his anguished moans ceased. When she looked up, Hornblower and Styles had gone and Clive was bending over Jones on the other side. There was a sudden, eerie quiet after the noise of the canon which left her ears ringing. The air was thick with the gagging smell of fresh blood, the blood which seeped into the sand around her. She looked back at Jones, half-conscious on the deck, to keep the walls from spinning.
"Take some rest, Madam. You have done enough here." Jones still gripped her hand tightly.
"I shall stay awhile, Dr. Clive."
"I must insist that you go. You are also my patient and you are not yet well." He held out a needle and thread, causing Jones to whimper and withdraw his hand to shield himself. "There, there, Mr. Jones. Don't distress yourself." His hand reached for hers again and she felt something hard pressed into her palm. As she looked down at him, his expression of utter despair gave way to one of peace. "I wondered if it would be necessary." Clive spoke quietly as he put aside the needle and closed the eyes. Léonie opened her hand and saw there a tiny wooden pagoda.
The main mast was now a stump of no more than seven feet above the waist, the remainder lying over the starboard side, trailing with its rigging into the sea and causing them to list heavily. The wind, so often against them, came to their aid now that they were stricken and for the moment prevented the larger ship from rounding on them once more. Renown had fired the last shots from the bow-chasers only minutes before, and now the efficiency of the British navy bore fruit, as the tired men went to work hacking away at the boarding nets and the mess overside. Buckland had sent Wellard and Deverell below to report on the damage there, while more men under Matthews' orders swarmed aloft to check the fore and mizzen masts. Sawyer wielded an axe himself, alongside his men. Hornblower and Kennedy, having assessed the state of the guns, arrived on deck to help.
"Mr. Kennedy, you are hurt." A splinter had grazed his cheek, and now that the battle fever was fading, he was conscious of its sting. He turned around to see Léonie, who had climbed the hatchway behind them. They stared at each other in disbelief, each caked in blood and powder grains, and both started to laugh. It was a moment of madness on the shot-torn deck.
"I thought you had perhaps been avoiding me, Madam."
"Not that." She touched his wounded cheek delicately with a long finger. A little blood ran down and she placed it to her mouth and smiled.
"Archie." Hornblower called to him in a low voice, hoping Sawyer had not witnessed them. It was in her smile that he sensed he knew her, but still he could not think from where.
"I think I may be of help to Dr. Clive." Nodding to Hornblower in acknowledgement, she returned below. Ahead of them lay the Herculean task of jury-rigging the mainmast as best they could, and with the imperative of renewed assault from Montmareil to drive them on.
Hornblower leaned against the rail for a moment's respite from his labours. About two miles to larboard lay the French ship, hove to, as they were and presumably effecting repairs. Her masts stood, but the tops'ls hung in tatters and he could see the shattered stern windows. Someone limped towards him.
"Mr. McNeil, Sir!" There was something oddly pleasing about seeing the Second Lieutenant in person, an affirmation of Clive's reports on his progress, and he offered him a friendly smile. It was not returned.
"Mr. Hornblower. I thought I might be of some use."
"No doubt. Perhaps you could -"
"Perhaps I should report to Captain Sawyer, in the first instance."
"Indeed." What the devil was the matter with him? He had been attacked by three of his men, not by his fellow officers. The misgivings surfaced again, even in his state of absolute fatigue. McNeil had never been the mainstay of any social occasion, but he had not been rude. Hornblower turned his disquieted mind to matters more pressing. As he looked, the Montmareil wore gently round and set sail. At first he was uncertain, but he was soon sure that it was undoubtedly the case: she was disengaging.
"Sir!" He called to Captain Sawyer, who was overseeing the hoisting of the rigged mainmast. She had the advantage of size, and had already gone some way to leaving her prey dismasted. It made no sense for her to depart when Renown could be taken or even sunk with further action. Sawyer had his eye to his glass for a minute or more.
"D'ye see that men?" All across the deck, the working parties of men looked to their Captain. "She's running away!" A great cheer rose from them at this news, the only balm to their hunger and exhaustion for a while yet. "Put your backs into it, men, and we'll take her!" Kennedy met Hornblower's eye in disbelief. They would not be in a state to challenge anything afloat for hours, or possibly days, and not the Montmareil with her ten additional guns. The pumps clanked from below, and would be going continuously, the carpenter assured them, until they could sheathe her. Pursuit of the enemy meant likely death, or a French prison, and both of them knew the miseries of imprisonment.
The men rallied at their Captain's daring and spirit, and renewed their shanties as they hauled up the mainmast. Hornblower wished he had a chance to study the charts. If Montmareil were creeping to the coastline, and they engaged to windward of her, they might just stand a chance.
There followed long hours of preparation and pursuit. Both ships had been crippled enough to slow them through the water, and they made sluggish progress. It felt to Wellard as though they were parodying a chase, like a quadrille stepped through rather than danced. He saw Léonie carrying a bucket of water from the scuttle-butt. She paused on her way back, looking over the side of the ship.
"Is you admiring my paintwork, Miss?" Styles was at the tackle, waiting for a signal from aloft, under Wellard's eye.
"Styles!" Their rank was not so disparate, though young Wellard was a 'gentleman', and as such was far more likely to be an Admiral one day.
"It is very fine paintwork, Mr. Styles." He gave her a mock salute and she smiled. "And how are you, Mr. Wellard?"
"Well, thank you Madam." He looked very young, despite their being few years' difference in their ages.
"Then you are doing better than the Renown, I think."
"She shows bright colours, Mr. Wellard, but what of her hull? Has the well been sounded today?"
"Aye, Madam." He was a little shocked at even her basic knowledge of the workings of a ship.
"And what was found?" He hesitated.
"Two feet, or thereabouts, Madam. The pumps are in use." It was almost a justification.
"I know, I can hear them. How many men have you at the work?"
"Twenty or so, I think.".
"And when was the last reading taken?"
"End of the last watch, Ma'am."
"And the reading then?"
"Something under two feet, Ma'am." Under two feet could easily mean more than the fifteen inches that formed the limit of safe bilge. She questioned him like this were her ship, and she held him personally responsible for its damage.
"This is something of a salutary voyage for you, I think."
"If I should survive it."
"You must not think otherwise, Mr. Wellard." She stared out at the empty sea for a moment longer before collecting her bucket and going below without a word. Wellard swallowed hard. Six months ago he had been at lessons, and his days were all numbers and letters. Before the sun rose again he could have killed a man, or be dead himself. At this moment, both the boy and the man seemed equally distant, and he was conscious only of how glorious it would be to sway gently in his hammock, being soothed to sleep by Léonie's songs.
Men had been spared at last for the unhappy duty of sewing the dead into their hammocks. McNeil was in the waist, helping with the final repairs to the standing rigging. They would soon have a coarse mainsail, able to withstand the rigours of all but a fierce storm. Montmareil was invisible in the darkness. Now the Captain's ingenuity would tell, for in daylight Renown had only to imitate to maintain pursuit. Under cover of night, the Frenchmen could slip away and leave them lonely in the ocean once more. Sawyer had given instruction for full rations to be issued at their eventual supper, and now again for an early breakfast. A good Captain would never send his men into action on empty stomachs, but McNeil had caught a glance that passed between Hornblower and Kennedy and made his own inspection as a result. It was a desperate gamble, to deplete their dwindling stores in the expectation of boarding the French ship, and one which they had no need of taking. It was unlikely that she had received the worst of the battle, so if she were now evading them it was probably for other reasons.
Hornblower was also thinking about their situation. His instincts told him they were wrong to give chase. If Montmareil wanted to flee, then let her. He ran through in his mind the possible reasons for her doing so. Perhaps she had specific and dated instruction for a rendezvous off the Danish coast, or was in pursuit of another, unseen prize - though it was unlikely she would expose herself to a double enemy. Perhaps it was necessary. It was perfectly possible that, unknown to them, she carried disease, or less provisions even than they. The only other thing he could think of was a trap. They could be following her straight to a hostile squadron, and their doom. Yet Captain Sawyer was not in need of the prize money, nor the glory. He told himself gloomily that Renown's Captain was a brave man and he himself was a coward. Pellew's faith in him was misplaced, for he had wanted to avoid carnage and now wished to avoid it again, possibly contradicting orders. He was destined never to wear the laurels of the hero, like those he so admired. There was the Captain now, walking forward while looking about him to see that the lanterns were guarded, and all was quiet with the men. No qualms such as his own were entertained for a moment in Sawyer's mind, he was sure.
McNeil, his arm in a sling, limped around to where Hobbs was re-checking that breachings were rove on the deck carronades. Hobbs gave him a respectful salute and a knowing glance and he was debating whether or not to confide in him when he saw Léonie asleep in the fo'c'sle, knees drawn up to her chin. A Lieutenant's coat lay around her shoulders, and Captain Sawyer was standing over her, looking at her almost reverently. It was odd to see these two, tattered and matted with the marks of blood and powder, picked out in the faint lights like a tableau. Sawyer reached down as though to stroke her hair, but instead he touched the uniform draped over her. She stirred and woke. On seeing the Captain, she scrambled to her feet. He appeared to say something, though he kept his voice so low as to be inaudible to all but her. McNeil could see her blink, once, twice, before lowering her eyes and shaking her head. He wasn't conscious of having moved towards them, but he must have entered the sphere of light from the lantern rigged to the boom.
"Asham!" She went to his side and stood facing the Captain. "Soon we shall be married, Captain Sawyer, and all this behind us." Thirty pairs of eyes turned towards them at these words, so curious for the decks of a fighting ship. Sawyer caught and held the other man's gaze, and Léonie looked from one to the other. "Asham?" He swallowed guiltily, but he looked again at the coat around her shoulders.
"Come, Mr. McNeil. Why do you wait?" Sawyer was the lion again, playing with the mice, knowing he could swipe at will. Hornblower was as puzzled as the rest of the men - or the rest barring one. Hobbs, he noticed, stood with undisguised and avid interest behind McNeil.
"I have decided it would be best if" he seemed unable to go on, with so large an audience. It was anyway unnecessary. Léonie stared up at him, her eyes opened wide. At that moment, Hornblower noticed that her eyes were still visibly green, magnificent even in the subdued light. He shivered involuntarily.
"You would give me up, Sir?" She sounded incredulous, but held herself proud and erect before him like a statue. "Answer me!"
"Yes." From under their feet came the sound of the working pumps, an ever-present reminder of their beleaguered state. She slapped his face, hard, with all the speed and power of anger. The Captain moved towards her, but she backed away from him, trying not to melt into tears, and with the briefest of sweeping glances at them all, she turned and ran. McNeil looked down morosely at the deck. In the east, there was the faintest fading of the darkness. Day would soon dawn, and with the dawn they would know their fate.
Lady Carew, having sat quietly in the cable tiers, as requested, all these hours, was now offering her expertise to the cook, whose arm had been injured while pulling men from the gun deck. He suggested that perhaps she would rather assist in the magazine, whose men in turn assured her that the cook's needs were the greater. She was about to give up, and devote her time to putting her hair in curl papers, when she heard the sound of the gun. A second later came the shouted orders, and the fury and din of the previous day prevailed once more. Instantly she was thrust aside as men ran to their stations. Dread assailed her at the thought of more hours here below, with the stench and the rats and unseen chaos all around her, and she climbed towards the waist.
A thick fog had descended again during the last hours of the night, obscuring even the fo'c'sle from the quarterdeck. They lay enveloped, the rigging above the booms disappearing as though ascended to the clouds. Now that the morning sun had appeared, it was rapidly thinning, and a ship loomed out from between the wisps. The Montmareil was beautiful, its trim lines betraying its French origin as clearly as the tricolor which flew from her stern, and she was already almost within range. She had fired a warning shot across Renown's bows in supreme confidence, having waited for her during the long night, and double-guessing the English at their cat-and-mouse tactics. This much Hornblower construed from her open gun ports and the mass of armed soldiers he could see on her decks. Renown was close-hauled now, straining for every extra second to bring her own guns to readiness.
"Sail ho, dead astern!" The mast-head lookout had proved his worth, though it would avail them nothing if she were an enemy. Hornblower could not constrain himself and ran back to the quarterdeck. There was nothing to be seen from there.
"Sir!" Hornblower approached his Captain. "Permission to signal, Sir." Sawyer was making mental calculations of time and distance as they closed with Montmareil. His subordinate's thoughts tumbled out regardless. "If she's ours, Sir, she'll make all sail for us, and if she's not, we've lost nothing and we can at least panic the frogs Sir."
"Very well, Mr. Hornblower. Proceed as you think fit."
"Thank-you, Sir." Hornblower gave the orders and dived below to his rightful place beside the guns. Montmareil would open fire at any second. Too soon! Renown's disciplined crews kept their heads and waited for the order to return fire in a broadside volley a full three seconds after the crash of the French guns. They continued to close, Montmareil drifting before the wind, Renown lying as near to it as she could. Why didn't they steer her clear? If they continued like this they would meet gun-to-gun and then it would depend on the abilities of the boarding parties. Still silence from the Captain. This was maddening. With a look directed to Kennedy, he ran to the deck.
"Horatio!" In the aftermath of battle, be it the warm glow of victory or the cold light of defeat, accusations could be levelled at any man who deserted their post. Captain Sawyer could put any construction he wished on this simple fact in his report to the Admiralty, and it would damn Hornblower in black and white, for the rest of his career. A life on a Lieutenant's half-pay was no life at all, and that was a kindness compared to a court martial.
Hornblower arrived in the waist, looking up to the quarterdeck a second or two only before it happened. One moment, Captain Sawyer stood his deck, a man possessed with lust for battle to the exclusion of all else, even the safety of his imperilled ship. The next, a crack from a musket, it had to be, and Sawyer fell, stunned, to the deck.
"Sir!" He rushed the companionway, as other men came and clustered around him. It was a head wound. There was blood, he could see, but whether serious or a graze was hard to tell. The guns fired constantly in straggling ones and twos and both ships hit and were hit. An ominous sound was heard from aft as a spar was lost from the mizzenmast. There was no time to lose. He grabbed the wheel and wrenched it hard over with all his strength. He was dimly aware of splinters flying from the deck as they were raked with grape, the screams and curses of the men, in English and in French, so close were they, and of the Captain being carried below. In those few moments, he could also see Lady Carew making heavy work of loading a musket. Exquisitely slowly did Renown come round, tilting under his feet, gaining way as, at his orders, the sails were trimmed and the rudder bought. Now they would flee, straight to the waiting embrace of - God, had she signalled back?
"Mr. Wellard!" He called to the first man aloft he could see, grateful it was the keen and conscientious Wellard. "Can you see her?" The question was essentially superfluous. He could see her himself, far ahead whenever the dense smoke thinned a little, but thankfully Wellard understood.
"She's English, I'm sure of it, Sir!" A few ragged cheers were raised in response, but they were curtailed by the whoosh of fresh shots aimed at their rigging. Hornblower realised he was shaking with relief and made a concerted effort to control himself. If she had been hostile, no matter that they had been all but lost to the Montmareil, he alone would be blamed for their capture and destruction. Now Renown might be crippled, might even be a defenceless hulk by the time they reached their ally, but reach her they would, and then it would be retreat or surrender for their enemy.
Euphoria drained from them as the day wore on. Dreadnought, for it was she, drew inexorably nearer, but infuriatingly slowly as the winds died to no more than a gentle breeze. Montmareil had abandoned the chase, once she was certain the third party was an English ship-of-the-line, but early nightfall saw the two allies still miles apart on a spread of calm ocean. Captain Sawyer lay concussed in his cabin, and Buckland was reluctant to assume responsibility for launching a boat, which would be vulnerable in any case. They waited.
Hornblower found himself with McNeil in the wardroom. He was at first irritated at knowing he would not be alone, but he felt he had unfinished business with McNeil, and now would be his chance to ask the questions at last. Matthews, who kept his eyes and ears open but his mouth sensibly shut when out of the right company, had had some very interesting observations from the lower decks that prompted Hornblower even more, but he had to think how to breach McNeil's stone-faced defensiveness.
"Are you a man of honour, Mr. Hornblower?" It took him aback that he had not had to make the first move. He could answer that directly.
"I would like to think so, Sir."
"I saw you take the helm when the Captain fell."
"It was somewhat after. I confess I did not think to ask permission." Hornblower verged on giving his reasons, but he knew they would sound like excuses and he said the thing that came into his head. "My only thought was to carry out Captain Sawyer's orders."
"Indeed?" Nothing in the man's expression or tone indicated disbelief, but Hornblower knew that he was bright, and not easily fooled. "Your modesty belies your ability. You have proved yourself under fire, Mr. Hornblower -" who started to protest, " - as the perfect Lieutenant." This was collusion.
"There is something I would ask." he had known the moment would arrive.
"Your word of honour, as a gentleman, Mr. Hornblower, that you have no knowledge of any underhanded or dishonourable conspiracy aboard this ship." He laid heavy emphasis on the words, and held the other man's eye throughout. The floor timbers creaked as Hornblower shifted his weight imperceptibly. He was bone-weary and his arms felt as heavy as dead-weight.
"I wish I could give you that assurance, Sir." A short pause; he took a deep breath and continued.
Dreadnought was a Third-Rate of sixty guns that, in her pristine condition, made Renown's lines all the more unlovely by comparison. She had launched a boat, and they could see the sweeps at work in the early morning light. Only a day since they had fought so savagely with the Montmareil, who was no doubt limping back to some Swedish or Danish port at this moment. Dreadnought's famous Captain, Foster, came towards them over a cold, grey sea. Captain Sawyer, his head bandaged around under his cocked hat, had made ready his reception, despite Clive's protests that he should remain in his cot. Behind him stood his Lieutenants. Hornblower was glad that his dress uniform had survived unscathed in his sea-chest. When he had last seen Captain Foster he had been a mere acting-Lieutenant under Pellew, and one who failed his examination at that. There had been an unspoken antagonism between Foster and Pellew, and he wondered whether his present Captain held his contemporary of the Dreadnought in any more regard. His mind wandered for a moment, remembering the moment of triumph as they had steered the fire-ship off its course for the Indy. He could see before him Foster's beaming smile - he mastered his involuntary exclamation before it issued from his throat. How could he have been so blind? Seven years at sea and already an officer, but, he told himself bitterly, not even in command of his own wits. Kennedy inclined his head towards him as though about to utter something and he wondered if, by some small movement, he had indicated his shock. Then came the pipes and the side-boys in welcome and Foster climbed to the deck.
"What the d - !"
"Papa, je suis désolé, désolé!" From behind Sawyer, a cloaked figure rushed into Foster's arms, flinging him precariously backwards. The crew of the Renown stared at this unbecoming lapse in ceremony. Captain Sawyer waited, unperturbed, but Hornblower saw that Kennedy was horrified. With good reason, he had to own. Kiss the Captain's daughter and you'll kiss the Gunner's, they said. McNeil, on his other side, stood stiffly to attention. At that moment, he wasn't sure for whom he had the most sympathy.
The officers had repaired to Sawyer's day cabin. It was soon obvious that there was no accord between the two Captains. Perhaps ambition had been a divisive factor, but some matter in the past kept them from amity in the present, and Foster stated his intentions without the embellishments of polite society. The Britannic squadron had been keeping to the Danish coast, far to the south. Dreadnought had been sent to find Renown, gather her reports and dispatches and return to duty with the rest, while Renown sailed on to Portsmouth. Both Captains were brisk and brief, although Foster cast approving glances towards Hornblower, whom he knew, and McNeil, whom he believed would be his future son-in-law. Once all had been discussed, the Lieutenants, beside McNeil, were dismissed, and Buckland was requested to summon Léonie. Sawyer retired to his cot at Clive's insistence. It felt to Hornblower like a modern comedy, where the entertainment hinged on veiled identities and tangled courtships. Except that this was no comedy, and the outcome was still in painful doubt to the players. It was contrary behaviour indeed for the girl to have kept from them her paternity. As a Captain's daughter, she would have been accorded deference and - blessed in the confines of a ship - distance, without rousing the men to their superstitions. Her puzzling behaviour was a part of something, involving McNeil, of-course, and Hobbs, as he had been told, but he was not sure who or what else. No-one could be justifiably accused of any offence, except the three men struck from the muster, and the whole business of what had happened was likely to be forever masked by those who knew. He disliked feeling this disloyal doubt about his Captain, in-particularly. Had Sawyer done anything directly to earn his disrespect? Certainly, he had done nothing to enlighten them.
Hornblower chased his thoughts around his head until it hurt. He tried again and again to see what were Sawyer's possible motives, and each time he felt he began to understand, some small thing eluded him, and he sheered off into a fog of uncertainty. Even if he had loved Léonie's mother, even if he had taken an opportunity for revenge on Foster's protegé who was by chance serving under him - it was all too fantastic and unlikely. It was like seeing a man's image in a shattered mirror, each facet untrue, yet reflecting myriad recreations 'till the eye welded all to confusion. Regretfully, he was forced to admit that he could grasp no measure of his Captain's character, or at least none that did him credit, and so he consigned his conundrum to a far corner of his mind.
"You have something you wish to say to me?" Foster looked much older than Hornblower remembered, though it had not been so very long since they had last seen one another. They were stood at the taffrail, or at the section of it that remained after Montmareil's bombardment. He had left his daughter in McNeil's company in the day cabin below.
"Sir?" His mind was a blank.
"Well, it would seem you have acquitted yourself more than equably, Lieutenant."
"By some happy accident." He could not forget that he had risked so many lives in the simple hope that Dreadnought had not been an enemy, and shrugged his shoulders in diffidence.
"Mr. Hornblower, according to your estimation, Admiral Nelson is a bumbling fool with the greatest good fortune."
"I do not think that Nelson -"
"- has happy accidents. Nor do I. You think, when you are complimented, that no-one knows your real weaknesses, because no-one knows you as well as you know yourself. Is that not vanity? Not pride? Come on, man!" Hornblower bowed to hide his surprise at the jocular tone, and thus awkwardly accepted his compliment. "You shall have silver shoe buckles soon enough, I'll wager." There was something playing about his mouth that could be mistaken for merriment. It was so unexpected that Hornblower's own reticence was overcome in a moment, and the two of them dissolved into laughter. He did not think of his friends, for those few minutes; not of Kennedy's misery, nor Pellew's approbation. He thought only of a fair wind for England, and returning home.
"Miss. Foster." She raised a weak smile as he bowed low to her.
"Mr. Kennedy." It had taken all his nerve to approach her, once more in her lonely vigil in the fo'c'sle. She had been only a short time with McNeil, but an hour or more with her father, while Renown limped and clanked and worked her way south, an unseaworthy tub alongside the dapper Dreadnought. "I am to join my father in his ship."
"And I am to be married by the chaplain there." Until then, he had not thought that any words could physically take away his breath. Five, ten seconds passed. His congratulations caught in his throat and hoarsened his voice.
"I - I wish you what you wish for yourself." He had intended that to be comment enough, but he could not refrain from asking. "Is it what you wish for? To be married?"
"Do not ask me that." Everything, it seemed to Kennedy, stood still. The ship ceased her motion, the wind its breath. Only he and she were alive, quickened, together alone.
"Stay with me." Irresistible insanity, like the pursuit of the Montmareil, like a fever of the blood.
"Where would we go? How would we live?"
"I have my pay -" She shook her head sadly.
"You would forfeit your career, Archie. My father would never forgive either of us, and we could not marry - I am but nineteen. You would grow to resent me."
"Never! Your father cannot withhold his forgiveness - or his love - from you so long."
"He can, Sir, and he will. He wishes me to marry Asham, whom he thinks fit for command, and it seems the Lords of the Admiralty agree with him." It was clear to Kennedy, then. Preference was the oldest, the most secure form of advancement in the navy, where commissions could not be bought outright. What better way to seek it than by ties of blood, or of marriage. "I was brought up to it," she went on. "I love the sea. I can navigate, if I have to -"
"- I know." It broke his heart to hear these things she had said to him in their quiet hours, now spoken so coldly.
"- and I can manage a household, be the hostess that that Society demands."
"Damn Society!" His vehemence kept her silent for a few moments.
"And duty?" There were tears in her eyes, reflections swimming in their green. "There, you see. Even after all you have told me. It is the same for both us."
"I love you. Only tell me that you love me else tell me that you do not, Madam, for my own sake. I will do as you please." Without hesitation, she opened her mouth to speak, but the words didn't come. She drew closer, though, and he reached out to her.
"We should be making ready to disembark, Léonie." McNeil stood to one side of them, exactly where Jones had stood to snatch his orange, only today there were no shadows cast, because there was no sunlight.
"As you wish." She turned and left them, her head hung in submission.
"Mr. McNeil Sir." McNeil moved to take his leave and paused before descending.
"I am sorry." He held out his hand, a gesture inexplicable to Kennedy. How could he be sorry? He was about to withdraw when Kennedy finally put out his own hand.
It was Hornblower who oversaw the readying of the cutter for Foster's departure. Léonie had been standing motionless for some time, holding her own despite the lurching of the ship in the choppy sea, and humming softly to herself.
"No Latin today, Miss. Foster?" He guessed, rather than heard, that the song was in a minor key.
"Corsican, Mr. Hornblower." Was she baiting him? Unthinkable that Dreadnought's daughter was a Bonapartist and yet, and yet he had been accused of Republican sympathies himself. He would tread safer ground.
"But where is home to be?" A single tear ran slowly down her left cheek. She had been sunburned, but now her pallor and her misery touched him. "Mr. McNeil wants very much to please you, I think." Scant reassurance, he was sure.
"My father, when he proposed, said that I should choose a husband whom I could always respect. I said that he had my respect, and so he did but I am not sure that he ever had my love, and now. You are trying to tell me that I won't be alone, but you cannot tell me that I won't be lonely." Sensitive as he was, he imagined their misery, spun out over the years they were locked into marriage. He had told McNeil, in the wardroom the previous night, that there was nothing between Archie and Léonie, as the honourable truth, and in order that they might make an unfettered decision for their future. It had become evident to Hornblower that McNeil, no less than Archie, was deeply in love with the girl. He had not anticipated this. Why had Foster prevailed upon his daughter to enter such an undesired union? Foster came towards them now, stiffly formal beside McNeil. "I saw a man cut his own child's throat once, during the Terror. She was hungry, and in pain. I'm sure my father would do as much for me." Hornblower stared into her wide-open eyes and all at once he thought of Pellew, a man who calculated risks against sacrifices, who did not throw all before him. There was, after all, an inestimable difference between Pellew and men like Foster and Sawyer.
That single tear, and the old expression in those young eyes stayed with him all night, long after the Dreadnought's twenty-four pounders had roared out their salute and they knew that she was married. Kennedy had been drunk as a lord, and carried to his cot by the joint efforts of Hornblower and Clive. He had sung and laughed all the way there, passing out insensible as soon as he was laid down. A noise in the night woke Hornblower, who had been in a restless half-doze, haunted by nameless horrors. Kennedy was groaning, and he rushed over in case his friend should fall into a fit. He laid his hand on the hot forehead and the young man opened his eyes. He could see in the faint moonlight that he had been crying.
"Go to sleep, Horatio. I told you, you needn't worry, remember?"
"It is done, Archie -"
"- and for the best for your career. You must think of yourself, and of your future." Kennedy snorted.
"Myself? I hate to think of myself, Horatio. I know myself too well already."
"That's the spirits talking. You'll feel better tomorrow."
"I'll feel better next month, for we shall be in England, then, and I may pursue my 'pressing business'." His smile was wry.
"Archie do not tell me you mean to make her your mistress?" Kennedy had closed his eyes and did not answer, and presently Hornblower returned to his own cot.
"With her," came a voice from the darkness, "I was a God, Horatio." Only the swaying of the cot in the gentle swell of the waves lulled Hornblower from sorrow into sleep.
Miss. L. Foster
Lt. A. Kennedy, Esq.
17th November, 1800
No words are fit to change who we are, or what we have done. Our futures are bound over to our separate duties. Before mine claim me quite, I am compelled to write to you, in poor substitute for what I could not say. I do love you, Archie. I love you. I told myself I did not, and allowed you to believe I had only selfish reasons for acting as I did. Not so.
In deciding my obeisance to my father's wishes, I reflected on many things: the nature of love; its origin; its consequences. None mattered to my decision. Like words, love is not fit to change things, though it aspires to. Likewise, I will not allow the fanciful 'if only' to invade my actions, stalk though it may my thoughts and feelings.
Please do not bear me ill will. Were you to do so, in the slightest, it would gain you nothing and prove an insupportable loss to me. I find myself fretting thus and, worse, jealous. Of your shirts that warm you round, of your cup, held to your lips, of anything that does you humble service. Forgive me my failings, and be happy, my love. May you attain all that your heart desires.
Ever your true and faithful
He had read the letter, over and over. She loved him, but
she had married someone else, someone who was even now Master
and Commander of his own ship. Kennedy directed his misery inwards,
and presented a stoical front to the world. Horatio understood.
His friend had never questioned his honour in respect of Léonie,
and that implicit trust was a thing to be valued above gold, or
glory, but she was right: words could be uttered lightly enough,
and he left his loyalty unspoken. She loved him. The equanimity
with which he faced his future owed much to this. It was possible,
more than possible, that they would meet again one day, and duty
and desire would again be in conflict. Until then, life continued
aboard Renown. A wintry sun shone through into the wardroom
and picked out the line of the Downs to starboard. Even refitted,
she would be a precarious keeper of their destiny.