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Lord Hornblower



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1. /Lord.docLord Hornblower

Lord Hornblower



C. S. Forester

(1946)


CHAPTER I


The chapel stall of carved oak on which Sir Horatio Hornblower was sitting was most uncomfortable, and the sermon which the Dean of Westminster was preaching was deadly dull. Hornblower fidgeted like a child, and like a child he peered round the chapel and at the congregation to distract his mind from his physical troubles. Over his head soared the exquisite fan tracery of what Hornblower soberly decided was the most beautiful building in the world; there was something mathematically satisfactory in the way the spreading patterns met and re-met, a sort of inspired logic. The nameless workmen who had done that carving must have been far-sighted, creative men.

The sermon was still going on, and Hornblower feared that when it was finished there would be some more singing, more of those high-pitched noises from the surpliced choirboys which would distress him painfully again, more painfully than the sermon or the oaken stall. This was the price he had to pay for having a ribbon and star to wear, for being a Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath; as he was known to be on sick leave in England — and fully convalescent — he could not possibly evade attendance at this, the most important ceremonial of the Order. Certainly the chapel looked effective enough, the dull sunshine which made its way through the windows being reflected and multiplied into a soul-stirring glow by the knights' crimson mantles and flashing orders. There was at least this to be said for this pomp and vanity; it was certainly beautiful in a strange, effective way, even without regard to historical associations. Maybe the stall on which he sat had in earlier years caused the same discomfort to Hawke or Anson; maybe Marlborough, in crimson and white similar to his own, had fidgeted and fretted through a similar sermon.

The important-looking person over there with a silver gilt crown on his head and velvet tabard embroidered in the royal arms was merely Bath King-at-Arms, some well-connected fellow who had this well-paid sinecure and could doubtless comfort himself, while sitting through the sermon, with the thought that he was earning his living by doing so once a year. Beside him was the Prince Regent, the Sovereign of the Order, his scarlet face at odds with the crimson of his mantle. And there were soldiers, generals and colonels, with whose faces he was unfamiliar. But elsewhere in the chapel there were men with whom he was proud to share the brotherhood of the Order — Lord St.
Vincent, huge and grim, the man who took his fleet down into the heart of a Spanish squadron twice its strength; Duncan, who destroyed the Dutch Navy at Camperdown; and a dozen more of admirals and captains, some of them even junior to him in the Navy List — Lydiard, who captured the Pomona off Havannah; Samuel Hood, who commanded the Zealous at the Nile; and Yeo, who stormed the fort at El Muro. There was something pleasant and heartwarming at being a member of the same chivalrous Order as men like these — ridiculous, but true. And there were three times as many heroes as these, brother-knights also still at sea (for the ones present here were only those with shore appointments or on leave) making the final desperate effort to tear down the Napoleonic Empire. Hornblower felt a surge of patriotic emotion within him; his spirit soared, and then he incontinently began to analyse this wave of emotion and to wonder how much of it was due to the romantic beauty of his surroundings.

A uniformed naval lieutenant had made his way into the chapel, and stood hesitating for a moment before discovering Lord St. Vincent and hastening to him, offering him the large despatch (whose seals were already broken) which he held in his hand. No one was paying any attention to the sermon now — the cream of the Royal Navy were all craning round, peering at St. Vincent as he read the despatch, which had clearly arrived from the Admiralty at the other end of Whitehall. The Dean's voice wavered, and then he rallied gamely, droning on to deaf ears, and ears which remained deaf for a long time, for St. Vincent, having read the despatch through once without any change of expression in his craggy face, immediately turned back to the beginning and read it through again. St. Vincent who had so boldly risked the fate of England on a single prompt decision at the battle which gave him his title was nevertheless not a man to plunge hastily into action where there was time to think.

He finished his second reading, folded the despatch, and then swept his gaze round the chapel. Two score Knights of the Bath stiffened with excitement and hoped to catch his eye. St. Vincent rose to his feet and clasped his crimson cloak about him; he threw a word to the waiting lieutenant, and then, seizing his plumed hat, proceeded to hobble stiffly out of the chapel. Attention immediately transferred itself to the lieutenant, who was watched by every eye as he walked across the transept, and Hornblower stirred uncomfortably, his heart beating fast, as he realised that the lieutenant was beading straight for him.

"His Lordship's compliments, sir," said the lieutenant, "and he would like a word with you immediately."

Now it was Hornblower's turn to fasten his mantle and to remember to pick up his plumed hat. He must at all costs appear nonchalant, and give to the assembled Knights no chance to smile at him for appearing flustered at this summons from the First Lord. He must look as if he was accustomed to this sort of thing every day. He stepped negligently out of his stall; his sword made its way between his legs and only by the mercy of Providence was he saved from tumbling headlong. He recovered himself with a clatter of spurs and scabbard, and set himself to stalk with slow dignity down the aisle. Every eye was on him; the Army officers present must be feeling merely a disinterested curiosity, but the Navy — Lydiard and the others — must be wondering what new fantastic turn the naval war had taken, and envying him the adventures and distinction which must await him. At the back of the chapel, in the seats reserved for the privileged public, Hornblower caught sight of Barbara making her way out of her pew to meet him. He smiled nervously at her — he could not trust himself to speak with all those eyes on him — and gave her his arm. He felt the firm touch of her hand upon it, and heard her clear, incisive voice; of course Barbara would not be awed by the fact that everyone was watching them.

"Further trouble, I suppose, dear?" said Barbara.

"I suppose so," mumbled Hornblower.

Beyond the door St. Vincent was awaiting them, the little wind tossing the ostrich feathers of his hat and ruffling the crimson cloak of silk. His massive legs bulged the white silk trunk hose; and he was pacing up and down on huge, gouty, deformed feet that distorted the white silk shoes. But the fantastic costume in no way detracted from the grim dignity of the man. Barbara slipped her arm out of Hornblower's and discreetly dropped back to allow the two men to converse in private.

"Sir?" said Hornblower, and then, remembering — he was not used yet to dealings with the peerage — "My lord?"

"You're ready for active service now, Hornblower?"

"Yes, my lord."

"You'll have to start tonight."

"Aye aye, sir — my lord."

"When they bring my damned coach up I'll take you to the Admiralty and give you your orders." St. Vincent lifted his voice in a bellow that had hailed the maintop in West Indian hurricanes. "Haven't they got those damned horses in yet, Johnson?"

St. Vincent caught sight of Barbara over Hornblower's shoulder,

"Your servant, ma'am" he said; he took off the plumed hat and held it across his breast as he bowed; age and gout and a lifetime at sea had not deprived him of the courtly graces, but the business of the country still had first call upon his attention, and he turned back immediately to Hornblower.

"What is the service, my lord?" asked the latter.

"Suppression of mutiny," said St. Vincent grimly. "Damned bloody mutiny. It might be '94 over again. Did you ever know Chadwick — Lieutenant Augustine Chadwick?"

"Midshipman with me under Pellew, my lord."

"Well, he's — ah, here's my damned coach at last. What about Lady Barbara?"

"I'll take my own carriage back to Bond Street," said Barbara, "and I'll send it back for Horatio at the Admiralty. Here it comes now."

The carriage, with Brown and the coachman on the box, drew up behind St. Vincent's coach, and Brown sprang down.

"Very good, then. Come on, Hornblower. Your servant, ma'am, again."

St. Vincent climbed in heavily, with Hornblower beside him, and the horses' hoofs clashed on the cobbles as the heavy vehicle crawled forward. The pale sunlight flickered through the windows on St. Vincent's craggy face as he sat stoop-shouldered on the leather seat; some urchins in the street caught sight of the gaily attired individuals in the coach and yelled 'Hooray', waving their tattered caps.

"Chadwick had Flame, eighteen-gun brig," said St. Vincent. "The crew's mutinied in the Bay of the Seine and are holding him and the other officers hostage. They turned a master's mate and four loyal hands adrift in the gig with an ultimatum addressed to the Admiralty. The gig made Bembridge last night, and the papers have just reached me — here they are."

St. Vincent shook in his gnarled hand the despatch and the enclosures which he had clasped since he received them in Westminster Abbey.

"What's the ultimatum, my lord?"

"Amnesty — oblivion. And hang Chadwick. Otherwise they turn the brig over to the French."

"The crazy fools!" said Hornblower.

He could remember Chadwick in the Indefatigable; old for a midshipman then, twenty years ago. He must be in his fifties now, and only a lieutenant. He had been a vile-tempered midshipman; after being passed over continually for promotion he must be a worse-tempered lieutenant. He could make a little vessel like the Flame, in which probably he was the only commissioned officer, a perfect hell if he wanted to. That might be the basis of the mutiny. After the terrible lessons of Spithead and the Nore, after Pigott had been murdered in the Hermione, some of the worst characteristics of the naval service had been eliminated. It was still a hard, cruel life, but not one to drive men into the suicidal madness of mutiny unless there were some special circumstances involved. A captain both cruel and unjust, a determined and intelligent leader among the men — that combination might make a mutiny. But whatever the cause, mutiny must be suppressed instantly, visited with extreme punishment. Smallpox or the plague were no more infectious and no more fatal than mutiny in a fighting service. Allow one mutineer to escape punishment, and he would be remembered by every next man with a grievance, and his example followed.

And England was at the very climax of her struggle with the French despotism. Five hundred ships of war at sea — two hundred of them ships of the line — were striving to keep the seas clear of enemies. A hundred thousand men under Wellington were bursting over the Pyrenees into southern France. And all the motley armies of eastern Europe, Russians and Prussians, Austrians and Swedes, Croats and Hungarians and Dutch, were being clothed and fed and armed by England's exertions. It seemed as if England could not put forth one single further effort in the struggle; even as if she must falter and break down under the dreadful strain. Bonaparte was fighting for his life, with all the cunning and ferocity one might expect of him. A few more months of constancy, a few more months of fierce exertion, might bring him crashing down and restore peace to a mad world; a moment's wavering, a breath of doubt, and tyranny might be clamped upon mankind for another generation, for uncounted generations to come.

The coach was wheeling into the Admiralty yard, and two wooden-legged naval pensioners were stumping out to open the doors. St. Vincent climbed out, and he and Hornblower, in their brilliant crimson and white silk, walked through to the First Lord's room.

"There's their ultimatum," said St. Vincent, throwing a paper upon the desk.

Written in a poor hand, was Hornblower's first mental note — not the work of some bankrupt tradesman or lawyer's clerk caught by the pressgang.


On board H.M.S. Flame off Havre

7th October 1813

We are all loyal hearts and true here, but Lieutenant Augustine Chadwick has flogged us and starved us, and has turned up all hands twice a watch for a month. Yesterday he said that today he would flog every third man of us and the rest of us as soon as the others was healed. So we have him under lock and key in his cabin, and there's a whip rove at the fore yardarm waiting for him for he ought to be strung up after what he did to the boy James Jones, he killed him and we think he said in his report that he died of fever. We want their Lordships at the Admiralty to promise us to try him for his crimes and give us new officers and let bygones be bygones. We want to fight on for England's liberties for we are loyal hearts and true like we said but France is under our lee and we are all in this together and we are not going to be hanged as mutineers and if you try to take this vessel we shall run him up to the yardarm and go in to the French. We are all signing this.

Humbly and respectfully yours,


All round the margin of the letter were the signatures, seven of them, and several score of crosses, with a note against each cross — 'Henry Wilson, his mark'; 'William Owen, his mark', and so on; they indicated the usual proportion of literates and illiterates in an average ship's company. Hornblower looked up at St. Vincent when he finished examining the letter.

"Mutinous dogs," said St. Vincent.

Maybe they were, thought Hornblower. But they had a right to be, he also thought. He could imagine perfectly well the sort of treatment to which they had been subjected, the unending wanton cruelty added to the normal hardship of life in a ship on blockading service; miseries which only death or mutiny could bring to an end — no other way out at all.

Faced with the certainty of a flogging in the immediate future, they had risen in mutiny, and he could not blame them. He had seen enough backs cut to ribbons; he knew that he himself would do anything, literally anything, to avoid such torture for himself if he were faced with the prospect of it. His flesh crept as he made himself seriously consider how he would feel if he knew he were to be flogged next week. The men had moral right on their side; it was not a matter of justice, but one of expediency, that they should be punished for their justifiable crime. The national existence of the country depended greatly on seizing the mutineers, hanging the ringleaders, flogging the rest; cauterising before the disease could spread farther this new plague spot which had appeared in England's right arm. They must be hanged, morally innocent or not — it was a part of war, like the killing of Frenchmen who were possibly admirable husbands and fathers. But it would be as well not to let St. Vincent guess at his sentiments — the First Lord obviously hated mutineers just as mutineers, without troubling to think more deeply about their case.

"What orders do you have for me, my lord?" asked Hornblower.

"I'll give you carte blanche," replied St. Vincent. "A free hand. Bring Flame back safe and sound, and the mutineers along with her, and you can set about it any way you choose."

"You will give me full powers — to negotiate, for instance, my lord?"

"I didn't mean that, damn it," replied St. Vincent. "I meant you could have any force you asked for. I could spare you three ships of the line, if you want them. A couple of frigates. Bomb-vessels. There's even a rocket-vessel if you think you could use it — this fellow Congreve wants to see his rockets in action again."

"It doesn't appear to be the kind of situation in which great force would be of much use, my lord. Ships of the line would seem to be superfluous."

"I know that too, damn it." The struggle in St. Vincent's mind was evident in his massive face. "Those insolent rascals can slip into the Seine's mouth in two shakes of a duck's tail at the first sign of danger to themselves. It's brains that are needed here, I know. That's why I sent for you, Hornblower."

A nice compliment. Hornblower preened himself a little; he was talking here on terms almost of equality to one of the greatest admirals who had ever hoisted his flag, and the sensation was extraordinarily pleasant. And the internal pressure which was mounting inside the First Lord suddenly forced out of him a yet more astonishing statement.

"And the men like you, Hornblower," exploded St. Vincent. "Damn it, I don't know a man who doesn't. They'll follow you and listen to you. You're one of the officers the men talk about among themselves. They trust you and expect things of you — so do I, damn it, as you can see."

"But if I talk to the men it will imply that I am negotiating with them, my lord."

"No negotiations with mutineers!" blared St. Vincent, striking the desk with a fist like a leg of mutton. "We had enough of that in '94."

"Then the carte blanche that you give me is no more than the usual naval officer's orders, my lord," said Hornblower.

This was a serious matter; he was being sent out on an extremely difficult task, and would have to bear all the odium of failure should he be unsuccessful. He had never imagined himself bandying arguments with a First Lord, yet here he was actually doing so, impelled by sheer necessity. He realised in a moment of clairvoyance that he was not arguing on behalf of himself, after all; he was not trying to safeguard his own interests. He was debating purely impersonally; the officer who was to be sent out to recapture Flame and whose future might depend upon the powers given him was not the Hornblower sitting in this carved chair, dressed in crimson and white silk, but some poor devil he was sorry for and whose interests he had at heart because they represented the national interests. Then the two beings merged together again, and it was he, Barbara's husband, the man who had been at Lord Liverpool's dinner-party last night and had a slight ache in the centre of his forehead today in consequence, who was to go out on this unpleasant task, where not a ha'porth of glory or distinction was to be won and the gravest risk was to be run of a fiasco which might make him the laughing-stock of the Navy and an object of derision through the country.

He studied St. Vincent's expression again attentively; St. Vincent was no fool and there was a thinking brain behind that craggy brow — he was fighting against his prejudices, preparing to dispense with them in the course of his duty.

"Very well then, Hornblower," said the First Lord at length. "I'll give you full powers. I'll have your orders drawn up to that effect. You will hold your appointment as Commodore, of course."

"Thank you, my lord," said Hornblower.

"Here's a list of the ship's company," went on St. Vincent. "We have nothing here against any of them. Nathaniel Sweet, bos'un's mate — here's his signature — was first mate of a Newcastle collier brig once — dismissed for drinking. Maybe he's the ringleader. But it may be any of 'em."

"Is the news of the mutiny public?"

"No. And please God it won't be until the courtmartial flag is hoisted. Holden at Bembridge had the sense to keep his mouth shut. He put the master's mate and the hands under lock and key the moment he heard their news. Dart's sailing for Calcutta next week — I'll ship 'em out in her. It'll be months before the story leaks out."

Mutiny was an infection, carried by words. The plague spot must be isolated until it could be cauterised.

St. Vincent drew a sheaf of papers to himself and took up his pen — a handsome turkey-feather with one of the newfangled gold nibs.

"What force do you require?"

"Something handy and small," said Hornblower.

He had not the remotest idea how he was going to deal with this problem of recovering a vessel which had only to drop two miles to leeward to be irrecoverable, but his pride made him assume an appearance of self-confidence. He caught himself wondering if all men were like himself, putting on a brave show of moral courage when actually they felt weak and helpless — he remembered Suetonius' remark about Nero, who believed all men to be privately as polluted as himself although they did not admit it publicly.

"There's Porta Coeli," said St. Vincent, raising his white eyebrows. "Eighteen-gun brig — sister to Flame, in fact. She's at Spithead, ready to sail. Freeman's in command — he had the cutter Clam under your command in the Baltic. He brought you home, didn't he?"

"Yes, my lord."

"Would she serve?"

"I think so, my lord."

"Pellew's commanding the mid-Channel squadron. I'll send him orders to let you have any help you may request."

"Thank you, my lord."

Here he was, committing himself to a difficult — maybe an impossible — enterprise without any attempt to leave himself an avenue of retreat, neglecting utterly to sow any seed of future excuses which might be reaped to advantage in case of failure. It was utterly reckless of him, but that ridiculous pride of his, he knew, was preventing him. He could not use 'ifs' or 'buts' to men like St. Vincent or to any man at all, for that matter. He wondered if it was because the First Lord's recent compliments had gone to his head, or maybe it was because of the casual remark that he could 'request' help of Pellew, a Commander-in-Chief, who had been his captain twenty years ago when he was a midshipman. He decided it was not either of these reasons. Just his nonsensical pride.

"Wind's nor'westerly and steady," said St. Vincent, glancing up at the dial which repeated the indications of the weather-vane on the Admiralty roof. "Glass is dropping, though. The sooner you're off the better. I'll send your orders after you to your lodgings — take this chance to say goodbye to your wife. Where's your kit?"

"At Smallbridge, my lord. Almost on the road to Portsmouth."

"Good. Noon now. If you leave at three; po'chaise to Portsmouth — you can't ride post with your sea-chest. Eight hours — seven hours, the roads aren't poached yet at this time o' year — you can be under way at midnight. I'll send Freeman his orders by post this minute. I wish you luck, Hornblower."

"Thank you, my lord."

Hornblower gathered his cloak round him, hitched up his sword, and took his leave. Before he had quitted the room a clerk had entered at the summons of St. Vincent's jangling bell to take dictation of his order. Outside the northwesterly wind of which St. Vincent had spoken blew freshly, and he felt chilled and forlorn in his gay crimson and white silk. But the carriage was there waiting for him, as Barbara had promised.


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