The Price of Steel
by Lady Atropos
Out on the quarterdeck of HM Sloop 'Retribution,' first Lieutenant Bush was irritated.
It was atypical of Hornblower to leave them all hanging like this, or at least, it was from Bush's previous experiences with the man. Perhaps he had misjudged him in those peculiar circumstances. The simple fact came down to the realization that the captain was not going to appear. Not at all, not even for this momentous occasion, an occurrence that could affect both of their careers when they should return to England at long last.
In a few simple words, Hornblower had managed to disappoint him.
Lady Callowright looked expectantly at the first lieutenant. She knew Bush couldn't be the captain of 'Retribution;' she had a limited knowledge of such matters, but she was pretty sure that his uniform lacked a bauble that a commander was said to wear, something Frenchwhat was it? Ah, yes-epaulette. The officer before her didn't have an epaulette. Callowright recalled seeing, from a distance on the deck of the 'Cascade,' a thin rake of a man wearing one gleaming epaulette on his shoulder, striding about almost every morning. Up and down, up and down he strode, continually, so steadily that she wanted to scream out to him or create any distraction that would break his rhythm. The officer standing in front of her was a little more substantial-looking than the phantom captain she had seen.
Bush shuffled his feet uncomfortably. "Ma'am, may I lead you below decks? I am afraid our captain cannot greet you at the moment, but I will attempt to settle you into your cabins. If you will follow me" Bush lead the little procession down the companionway: Lady Callowright, the American doctor, and the miniscule remaining crew of the 'Cascade.' He paused at the door to the "great" stern cabin. In 'Retribution,' the great cabin was barely more than a wardrobe, but it was the largest and the best one that she had to offer. It was customary for a captain to proffer this cabin upon important passengers. It puzzled Bush that the cabin appeared to be occupied at the moment; he thought he had arranged with Hornblower for the vacating of the cabin. Well, it appeared to be the second disappointment this morning.
"I regret that your cabin is otherwiseoccupied at the moment. My apologies, ma'am."
"There is no need for apology, I assure you, Lieulieutenant Bush." She remembered him introducing himself by that title, but she was unsure of her pronunciation. While on board, Lady Callowright told herself, she must learn these ranks.
"I am positive that it shall be empty for you soon enough. Doctor, if you will accompany me, you may appropriate your cabin"
On the other side of the bulkhead, Captain Hornblower and Lady Wellesley jerked their heads up. Hornblower recognized the usually gratifyingly familiar voice of his first lieutenant and close friend, and he came sharply to reality. Lady Barbara knew Bush only in passing, and though she thought of him as a kind and capable officer, it was the secondary voice of her lost companion Lady Callowright that hardened her soft-blown gray eyes and brought anxiety back into her countenance. Barbara scrambled up and looked back at Horatio, inquiry shining in her glance.
"Whatwhat should we do? Well, how shouldwe tell them that I am, ahem, female?" Barbara started speaking with no idea what she was asking, but eventually it became clear that if Lady Callowright was to be on board, the future of her charade was one of the foremost issues that Barbara needed to address. Or at least, the one that was the most easily addressed compared to the other wild, unidentifiable questions assailing her brain.
"I think that for the present time, until I recover, you should retake your place among the crew. It's against my better judgement, but it would be too much for me to explain to the crew right now, with the 'Cascade's' situation"
"I understand, sir. Where would you like me to report, sir?"
"If I recall, your watch is over now, but I would like you to report above decks to help get our new guests' dunnage aboard. You needyou may enjoy the fresh air, I think" He added on the excuse as an afterthought, softly, thinking on how her mind agreed on his on the healing quality of fresh air. It not only would aid Horatio in getting better, he hoped it may clear both of their minds.
"Aye, aye, sir."
"In fact, you can inform Mr. Bush for me that I regret that I was recently indisposed, but that I shall vacate the cabin for our passengers as soon as I am able."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"When we are alone, ma'am, you need not call me 'sir.' We both know you don't" He wondered why he said that in such a way; he was aware that it would be no liberty to inform her of this, but he wasn't sure if that justified breaking down that barrier between them. He would not admit it consciously, but he felt deep in his mind, or his heart, possibly, that 'sir' could keep him safe from sliding down a mind-whirling slope into her arms again.
"Very well, Captain Hornblower."
"I'm glad we havean understanding, Miss Wells."
The atmosphere in the cabin was solid to Barbara's mind, even though the window was open. It struck her as funny in that unclear moment that she was the one who had opened it. Her head swam. Immediately she responded:
It felt comfortable, good to know that she had let him use her real name and part of her identity, not the sensational 'Miss Wells,' who in truth must not exist in quite the way he thought she did. In fact, she found herself looking forward to hearing him say it. It was quite peculiar indeed.
Hornblower evidently wanted to say something more, but he couldn't make up his mind what and whether to say it. He tried to raise himself up on his elbows once more, pushing down on his bad ankle and creasing his face with the pain he tried to hide. Barbara rushed up to him to help him back down again, hands splayed across his shoulders. When his head was on the pillow once more, and gazing up at her again, Horatio turned and kissed her exposed wrist.
Afterwards, he looked up at her with a glance that reminded her of a puppy that had done something wrong in his brown eyes. Barbara felt tenderness toward him for that, as she left the cabin, and something else, too, though she could not place it. The fresh air did help; she inhaled deeply, the saltiness stinging her nostrils pleasantly. Everything up on deck seemed clear in excruciating detail to her eyes; the sunlight heightened, the air fresher and the sea bluer over the side. There was a anxious feeling, right in the middle of her throat, and though she knew that none of the other crew members were aware that she was not a man, and had, in fact, just been cavorting with their captain, she felt uneasy around them possessing the knowledge herself.
Lady Barbara reported to Lt. Bush as ordered, and then took her place a the ropes, trailing along was the dunnage of the five passengers was swung aboard with the aid of block and tackle. Bush forgot instantly all of his bitterness when he heard that the captain was unwell-such a friend was he that he made his way instantly to the bedside of his commander.
"Sir, what happened?"
"Sir, have you seen the surgeon?"
"Yes, I have, not that he did any good. I will be well again soon. It's merely some sort of a passing fever, I supposehave the passengers been situated?"
"Yes sir, except for the Lady who was to have your cabin."
"Inform her that she will have it presently, if you please."
"Aye, aye, sir. Sir"
"What is it, Mr. Bush?"
Bush paused; he didn't know how to say what he wanted to, to his superior officer, so he abruptly changed his thought.
"Sirthe Lady, she said she had something that she wanted to give to you, a gift in thanks for your assistance."
"I shall receive our guests and their gifts as soon as I am well enough to do so."
"Aye, aye, sir." Finally, Bush simply stated his question." Will you be alright, sir? The men are worried about you since you didn't appear on deck, and the whole wardroom is concerned. Do you feeldisposed to command for the moment, sir?"
"Yes, thank you Mr. Bush, I will be perfectly alright in a few days." Hornblower said this a little more tritely than he would have preferred, and he bit off the 'I think' at the end.
"Sir, do you need a stretcher to transfer you to your new cabin?"
"No, Mr. Bush, I need nothing of the sort, just a good man to support me on one shoulder."
"Sir, if I may inquire, what is that on your foot?"
Neither of them could fully succeed in suppressing their smiles.
"It is a wooden spoon, Mr. Bush."
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Lawnes glared around at his gang. He was dissatisfied with their recent performances, and the ache in his head and places less protected reminded him constantly of their recent failure. If they could follow him to some simple little task like breaking in a new recruit, how would they handle his newer, more dangerous plans?
"I've seen the lady."
"Aye, she's got money, I think, she's dressed up real nice, though kinda ragged"
"No doubt she's got money, back in England, you big clod! I'm talkin' about her jewels"
"She's a little old, Lawnes, I don't think"
"Yer right, you *don't* think. I'm talkin' about the ones she wears, or keeps hidden, anyway. I saw her take out a sort of pin, real silver is my guess, she had it in her dress and I hear her sayin' to that American that she was gonna give it to the captain as a courtesy for helpin' the 'Cascade.'"
"Well? What that got to do wi' us?"
"Hoven, you great fool, it has everything to do with us! You shouldn't even be here right now-yer the one what let our little fish go. Anyway, I'm lettin' you do this out of the goodness o' my heart. If the captain gets this pin for helpin' the 'Cascade,' he should split it up like it was prize money."
"How can you split up a pin?"
"I said, shurrup, Hoven! I say, we take what's ours and should be comin' to us, and then we hop on board the 'Cascade' and steal all the treasure we could want! To hell with the war!"
"I still don't understandif it's a gift, it belongs to the captainI never got those rules about prize money"
Lawnes grabbed the unfortunately bewildered thug and slammed him up against the bulkhead. Giving him a shake, he said:
"Hoven, listen, it's ours, so it doesn't really matter if it belongs to us or not, it's just ours. We're gonna take it, and we're gonna get the hell out o' this ship, and if the captain's got a problem wi' that, he'll just have to catch us."
"One more thing, sir"
"It had better be good."
"II can't swim."
"Then yer no good to us!" Lawnes gave Hoven's head a hearty smack on the bulkhead, and let him slump to the deck. "Now, me gentlemen, this is how we do it"
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
Late at night, Horatio awoke. He was in a different cabin, so at first he was not quite sure of where he was, until he remembered his transfer to Bush's quarters, and the rest of the dismal day before it and following itnothing to do, simply laying in a cot, supposedly 'getting better,' though he had never before felt like standing up and pacing so much as he did now, breathing fresh air and trying to catch his wayward mind again. There was not so much as a window to open in Bush's cabin, and the desperate need for fresh air made him feel as though his chest would explode. Close quarters and an idle intellect bred a strange state of mind for Hornblower that night. He could not get images out of his headimages that were as strange as steaming dreams, as strange as the memory of what had happened earlier that morning that seemed so like a dream.
What had woken him? He slept light normally, and with his lack of activity and mental uneasiness, he slept even lighter tonight. A dream? No, well, perhapsthough his dreams were as very much like reality and his reality seeming so much closer to his dreams that it was not probable. It was a noise, and here he heard another
A dull thump on the bulkhead of one of the other cabinsfrom the direction of the stern cabin, not a good noise at all
In the stern cabin, Lady Callowright sat up with her already bloodshot eyes full of panic. What was going on? She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. What were these men doing in her cabinwhat were they going to do to her?
"Check 'er dress, mates, there don't seem to be anywhere else to hide it. No other baggage around." Lady Callowright shivered in the chemise that she wore to bed, watching as they picked through her remaining, now ragged and bloodstained clothes.
"Hey, Lawnes, she's awakewhat should we do, club her?" Lady Callowright began to whimper.
"Naw, just let her tell her where she keeps the silver pin and I know she'll be more than obliging."
"It's in the bosom of my dressthere." Thompson, a large swarthy fellow with one brown eye and one blue eye, held up the trophy.
"It should fetch a right good price in the market, Lawnes"
"Aye, and we're just gettin' started. There'll be plenty more after that, boys, once we've got the 'Cascade' in our handswhy settle for a pin when you can get shiploads? And we may have use for a little entertainment, too" Lawnes stroked Callowright's chin.
"Oy, Lawnes, I thought you said she was too old fer any o' that."
"Yeah, I'm just playin' around" Lawnes backed away from Callowright, though there wasn't far to go in that tiny cabin.
"Help" she whispered, and then a little louder, "help"
"Shurrup, lady, hear?"
"Help!" Her cry was still barely above a frightened mumble, but another man, an unbalanced young tar known mostly as Hardy, wearing an anguished countenance, strode forward before anyone could stop him and swiftly plunged a knife into her ribs three times. She was thrown back against the bulkhead, and slumped down, her mouth still open. The other men gaped at the ghastly deed.
"What the hell did you do that for, Hardy, you oaf! You'll get us all out for murder!"
Hardy looked dismayed, grieved.
"I couldn't listen to her whimper anymore, Lawnes, sir, I justshe sounded right sad"
"Hardy, you bastardcome on, men, let's get the hell out!" Lawnes threw open the window. There wasn't much timepeople would hear soon. One by one, the newly-turned pirates jumped out and started swimming for the prone 'Cascade.' Hardy couldn't move, and Lawnes didn't try to get him to come.
All of the miscreants were gone around Hardy as Bush from the watch above, followed closely on his heals by Lady Barbara, hurried down to see what the source of the sounds in the great cabin was. Hardy stood dazed as his captain limped in, disturbed from sleep and needing assurance that all was not well, clutching feebly onto the bulkhead and swearing softly with every step on his injured ankle, falling silent at the gruesome sight within. Aye, Hardy was totally alone, for even though the sentry outside the door had been knocked out by his gang, there was no one to protect him from the fleet-footed marine that came with Bush. Hardy had been abandoned completely, and stood unblinking, as the marine, young and panicky, pulled the trigger too soon and shot him down before Bush could tell him off. All that had happened in a blurry red momentred like the marine, red like blood, and Hardy was dead.
Barbara rushed up to Lady Callowright, and cradled her head in her arms.
"BarbaraBarbara, I thought it was you" She still lingered, faintly.
"Call the surgeoncall the surgeon!" That was Horatio shouting hoarsely. Honer arrived presently, took one look at the scene, and dropped. There was not much that a fainting fool could do in that situation, but fortunately the American doctor strode in and took charge, coming after hearing the commotion. In the dim light, the whirling world was a melding its details into one giant quagmire.
"Sir, why did she call him Barbara?" It was Bush, his curiosity overcoming him. He inquired in a low whisper.
"Because that is her name."
Barbara looked up.
"Sir, may I spend the night by her?" Lady Callowright was being lifted out of the cabin that was quickly becoming so like a hell.
Dr. Carroll directed the process, remarkably calm and collected, leading a small procession to the sickbay-two men called down from topside carrying Lady Callowright, Lady Barbara, and Jenson, the loblolly boy, dragging his swooning master none to gently by the arms.
"Mr. Bush, I do not think it necessary to detain Mr. Franks," Horatio indicated the startled marine, still clutching his hot gun to his shoulder, "I will question him tomorrow. It seems we have some deserters on our hands. I will address the crew in the morning. You may return to the deck."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Now Horatio was alone again, with the body of Hardy. Horatio almost started realizing he had actually forgotten that detail, but then he realized that Bush could be trusted to take care of it. The surgeon was busy at the momentwell, at least one of themand so it may yet be a few hours before attention could be shifted from preserving the living to disposing of the dead. To his own surprise, Horatio slumped down to his knees, head in the crook of his arm, and wept bitter tears for an uncalculatable amount of time, before rising shakily and painfully making his way back to his cabin.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***
"Sir, sirthe master of the 'Cascade' wants to talk to yer. I tried to stop 'im, but he said it were important, sirhe wanted to tell you yesterday, sir but you was indisposed, so he said he'd wait 'til this mornin'. Sir, I told 'im you had a lot to take care of but he just kept on about it, sir"
"What is it?" Hornblower was weary-spirited, and had a tremendous headache. He already had enough responsibilitieshe wasn't about to take any nonsense.
The master stepped forward anxiously.
"Sir, there's one more thing you need to know about the attack on the 'Cascade.' It wasn't pirates, sir, and there's an execution to be had. And there's a child, sira child, who can tell you all about it."
to be cont'd