An American Encounter, Part Three
AE3 Ch 13 Bloody Frogs!
Hornblower's countenance seemed blank except for a certain tenseness around the eyes, which darted to the left, briefly, then, back forward. To his left were his unwanted passengers, Edrington and his man-servant, Bentley. Just the thought brought half a frown, but he quelled it immediately. A slight shake of his head....as if it were not enough that he must needs keep an eye on the French seamen manning the ship, he had to worry about passengers.
Pamela. With the thought of her, he felt the tension leave his body. The muscles in his face relaxed. She calmed him like no other. And yet, he would not be in this situation if it had not been for her, well, the situation with his lordship, anyway. He let his eyes rest on Edrington once again. The major was watching Indefatigable in the distance gain on the escaping convoy ships. Edrington, wounded Edrington, his arm back in a sling, pistols shoved into his trousers, and a sword strapped to his waist.
Breathing in, Hornblower shook his head again. Why, oh why did Pamela have to ask his lordship to watch over him? Typical, it was typical of the lady. Hornblower realized his lips were upturned. *All right Pamela,* he thought, *I will let the major watch over me, but I fear I will be watching over him equally as much. If you knew the danger we are in, you never would have asked it of him.*
Hornblower stopped the thought and pondered it. Danger, he was feeling it. There is danger here. His eyes lifted to the yards and studied each man until he found Armant. Should he have kept him?
Looking starboard, he could see Vengeance, her deck minus half her boats. Each of the convoy ships, four of them, were now captained by men from the ship-of-the-line. At least they were supply vessels and not armed. Only he captained a fighting prize. When Pellew returned, they were going to make up quite an impressive group, a corvette, a frigate, a ship of the line, and six cargo ships, if Pellew were successful. Again, it was good there was only one fighting ship to deal with and it was his. He filled his lungs and felt his chest rise beneath his jacket. He, too, was heavily armed with pistols and sword. Odd to be so suited. The coming days would require vigilant circumspection.
The marines were stationed on the quarter-deck and the main deck. Sergeant Blaine attended. He had not served with Hornblower since they boarded that strange French vessel over a year ago. He shivered at the remembrance. If it had not been for Kennedy, he might be dead now...that thing, whatever it was,... he shivered away the recollection. Certainly, there was no such creature aboard this vessel. Her men were alive even if her officers were missing.
"Mr. Matthews, have the men brace her up. Barkley, starboard your helm. Bring us along side Vengeance."
"Aye, aye, Captain Hornblower," answered the rating.
Renard de Mer clumsily responded as Hornblower took a first feel of how she handled. She was bouncing on the wave tops with a wallow, her sail losing wind. The motion brought Midshipman Cutter from below decks, he whom Pellew insisted Hornblower take as another "naval" officer. The midshipman and Sergeant Blaine were sorting out sleeping arrangements and how the Frenchmen would be contained at night. Hornblower felt the heat in his cheeks. What was Captain Driscoll going to think? He pressed his lips together.
"Mr. Matthews," he said lowly.
"Sorry, sir. Come back on those halyards!" he shouted. "Its the bloody Frogs, sir."
"Damnation," he muttered. Finding the man he wanted, he called. "Armant! Armant!"
The Frenchman turned where he stood in the footropes and found Hornblower looking up at him. He pointed at his chest, questioning.
"Yes! Come here!" shouted Hornblower.
The man reached out and took hold of a backstay and slid to
the deck. He stood below the quarter-deck and stared up at Hornblower.
Armant passed Edrington and Bentley. His bare feet slapped upon the decking. Despite November days, it was going off warm with the ever rising sun. He saluted Hornblower.
"You will remain on deck when we are under sail to order your men."
"Yes, sir," replied the Frenchman.
"Tell them to brace her up. I want the sail full and by."
"Aye, aye, Capitaine!" The Frenchman called out the orders and the ship eased into tight sailing. Armant grinned at Hornblower. "Better? Oui?"
Hornblower glimpsed Matthews doubtful expression.
"Yes. Keep it so."
Armant swiveled his body and grinned the more.
Hornblower noted Armant's glimpse aft. Edrington was at the taffrail watching the Frenchman.
"Your friend does not trust me," commented Armant. "But that is logical, is it not? We are your enemies, sir." He veiled the shift behind his eyes, from playful banter to a menacing warning, then lidded his eyes to further conceal.
Hornblower's visage was serious and steady. "I will thank you not to speak on my quarter-deck without permission, Armant." This man bore watching. Hornblower regretted keeping him, but with a limited French naval jargon, he did what was expedient. God forbid should it prove to be a poor choice.
"Aye, aye, Capitaine." Armant bowed and nodded.
Hornblower observed the French sailors at work. Speaking to Armant, he said, "Monsieur Armant, repair to the waist, if you please."
The flash of surprise across the Frenchman's face was faster than a squall at sea. He knuckled his forehead. "Aye, aye, mon Capitaine."
Hornblower could order the man from that position as well as any, and perhaps, the oppressive feeling of foreboding would go with him.
Matthews quietly side stepped closer to his favorite officer and breathed a sigh of relief, inadvertently catching Hornblower's attention.
"Aye, Mr. Matthews, they are indeed our enemies."
Another presence quietly stepped next to Hornblower's side, but Edrington remained silent, lowering his eyes to observe the French sailor.
"I appreciate you watching my back, my Lord."
Edrington's lips twitched with a smile. "You are quite welcome, Mr. Hornblower."
An anxious sighing moan came from Edrington's left. Both he and Hornblower turned heads to stare at Bentley. The older gentleman glanced nervously at each officer.
"I told you to stay on Indefatigable, Bentley," said Edrington softly concerned.
Bentley filled his lungs. "I am where I should be, sir. Though I confess, Mr. Hornblower, that this is closer to the difficulties than I ever imagined I would be, or that I would ever... want... to be."
Hornblower repressed the smile before it had a chance to fully form. "I will do my utmost, sir, to see you safely in England."
"Thank you, Captain Hornblower."
Edrington cocked an eyebrow at the formal address of Bentley to Hornblower which settled into the barest of smiles that faded into alert observation of the French.
After a moment, Matthews spoke mildly. "She's about the size of Dolphin, sir."
"Ahem," Hornblower cleared his throat, but offered no other comment. He did not need anyone to remind him of Pamela and with Edrington here, the subject was best avoided. Besides, Pamela was seldom completely from his thought, sitting just behind his conscious duty. He watched Armant reading the fire-power of Vengeance. As if Hornblower's thought were spoken aloud, the Frenchman looked his way and their eyes connected. Defiance, craftiness. Hornblower saw it unveiled for an instant before the man blinked, smiled his crooked smile, and bowed his head.
Edrington watched the brief exchange and knew he had chosen rightly. He needed to be here. If ever there was a chance to repay Pamela in some small way, and possibly mend fences with Hornblower, it would happen here, thanks to Kennedy's groundwork. The question was, what kind of danger would be the stones and mortar?
Bringing Renard de Mer near Vengeance, Hornblower reported to Driscoll. The Post Captain planned for two of the convoy ships to lead, then Vengeance with the other two cargo vessels off her starboard beam, and finally, Renard de Mer bringing up the rear. The band set off without waiting for Indefatigable's return, Vengeance' slowness the reason and night stations would afford Pellew gain time. Slowly, each ship wore off nor' nor'west.
With the disappearance of the late afternoon sun behind low slung far distant thunderheads, the six vessels took their assigned overnight positions in the dwindling twilight. The corvette and man o'war acted the bread of a convoy sandwich.
On board Renard de Mer, Sergeant Blaine and the marines herded the thirty-odd French prisoners into the low beamed third deck. The men were bent near in two, but there was room to sling two tight levels of hammocks, and so they were. The hatch was placed over the entry and four marines set to guard it.
Shadows shielding his visage, Armant stared menacingly at the red-coated men above him.
"Armant!" a Frenchman whispered.
Throwing up a splayed hand, Armant signaled silence, his piercing gaze pricking the marines unknowingly. With eyes fixed, Armant pushed the men near him away from the grated opening and into the darkness.
"Quiet, you fools!" he whispered. "Move from the hatchway!"
"They do not speak French!" exclaimed a bald, heavy-set man.
"How do you know? That angleis does not know you speak English!" answered Armant fiercely whispering.
The man growled a low reply and moved away from the hatch, pushing at a slung hammock. "What are we going to do, Armant?"
"Wait. We wait...for our opportunity."
"Shall I get the weapons?"
"No. Not yet, Hercule. Let us wait until the ship is quiet, peaceful, resting, ...secure." He grinned evilly and laughed through clenched white teeth, his whiskers standing out on the creased leathery tan skin. "Foolish English!"
"Why are they foolish, Armant?" asked the heavy-set Hercule. He was short, round and a mass of muscle. "They do not look foolish."
"Because they kept us!" grinned Armant slyly. "Because they do not know who and what we are. Because a ruse for one navy may work for another. Because Effington is expecting us and will come looking for us."
"But we have lost over half our men and we are not on the expected course," offered a scraggly long-haired scarecrow of a man.
"All the more reason he will come looking for us. Something is not right with these British. I do not know what, but this warship, something is not right. I feel it."
"You and your damned intuition.," mocked Hercule. Where was it when they came upon us this morning?"
Armant grabbed the shirt around the large man's thick neck and pulled. "It's saved your ass before, Hercule. Or have you forgotten?" Armant released him and pushed him away, disdainfully.
"I do not trust that man, that one they call Hornblower. Every time I look his way, his eyes are on me." Hercule shivered. "I do not like it. Not at all, do I like it."
"I will take care of the capitaine. Do not worry," stated Armant. "I will take care of him." He paused, then added, "That old one, the one he calls Matthews. Yes,... I can see he will help us."
"Help us? He is tight with the Capitaine! How will he help us?" asked another wiry Frenchman.
"That is why he will! He and his fellows!"
Hercule guffawed in disbelief.
"I can see it!" insisted Armant. "The capitaine is like a son to him. Yes. I see it all. When I can see it, it will come to pass. Now, I will sleep. It will be a long night. You do the same. It will be a while before they bring us vittles."
Armant climbed into one of the low hammocks and closed his eyes.
Grumbling lowly, all but two assigned look-outs did the same. They were accustomed to following Armant's lead. Had he not brought them this far? Had he not been instrumental in seeing their pockets were lined with gold? Was he not the one to connect up with the English lord?
Sou' sou'west, another ship, a three master, sat hove to, rocking on the Atlantic rollers. A man, with a cane to assist his steps, impatiently paced the broad quarter-deck. Huffing a breath, he lifted his countenance to the dipping sun. A black patch covered his left eye and a fresh scar trailed down the same cheek.
"Where are they?" he asked impatiently, his tone tinged with anger, his cane accenting his words with an impatient rap upon the deck. "They should have been here by now!"
"My Lord, they are French scum that barely know how to sail. What can you expect," spat the neatly dressed captain of Oceanus.
"Armant will not let me down." Effington stared into the eyes of the captain. "He knows better."
"He may fear missing us in the darkness. I submit we wait until the morning." Sinclair decided a softer tack might be the better course with his lordship. Distemper aboard ship was never a good thing, especially from the man calling the shots.
"Too much planning has gone into this mission. The reports of the British squadron operating in these waters could not have been wrong, could they, Captain Sinclair? We timed the embarkation based on their movements."
"My sources are as accurate as any, my Lord." Sinclair bit back the phrase that one can never know where his majesty's ships may roam. Had he not been a member of that illustrious cause not many years ago? Forced to resign due to the false accusations of one of St. Vincent's own? The entire affair swept under the carpet? The remembrance brought steel to his heart. "And even if there are British forces nearby, unless they outnumber us, we can take them. Three ships-of-the-line, my Lord!" He gestured to the two vessels hove to beside them.
"Hm. As I thought six months ago when I let Donnelly talk me into sneaking up on that British frigate,... alone, to recapture Kaliakra and Dolphin. Not only did we lose Kaliakra, but Magie Noir, too! And Dolphin! Not to mention my left eye and most of the crew. We should have waited for Ullysses and Falcon. Well, Donnelly did not live to pay for his poor advice." The final syllable hissed through clinched teeth, the bitter regret of so much loss, commercial and personal, like bile in Lord Effington's throat. "If ever that British ship comes under my guns again...." Effington's eyes were like fire as he raised a balled fist, and said fiercely, "Her captain will wish he had never been born!"
"Indefatigable, that was the name of the ship, was it not, Lord Effington?"
"Yes. What of it?"
"Her captain is widely known."
Effington stepped so close to Sinclair their noses nearly touched. "Are you telling me you fear him, Sinclair?"
"No, sir. I am telling you he is a seasoned sea officer, with a reputation for winning."
"I have a reputation for winning, too, Captain Sinclair. I suggest you remember that!"
In the Captain's cabin on board Renard de Mer, Hornblower sat tapping his bottom lip and reading over the Captain's log. Candles and lamps were lit, giving the after cabin a warm glow. The night was going off cool and the enclosed space, though unheated, was warmer than the open quarter-deck where the second dog watch did their duties.
Edrington attended him in the cabin they were sharing. It was large enough for two, and Hornblower did not begrudge the man the space. They would not be together much longer. England was, at most, a week away and then the major would be out of his life all together. Once they were settled in and a routine established, he could escape to the quarter-deck if his lordship became an irritant.
Edrington arranged the table for a meal, glancing Hornblower's way, watching for an opening in his perusal to question what he found.
"Anything, Mr. Hornblower?"
"No, my Lord. Whatever happened to Captain Le Moyne we may never know. There is no mention of disharmony. The ship has not been at sea more than a week." Hornblower ceased talking and analyzed what these clues to the disappearance of the officers might mean. "If I knew what those ships are carrying..." he said thinking out loud.
"You think that may hold the answer?"
Hornblower brought his view to the major and immediate shock covered his visage. "What are you doing, sir!" He came to his feet immediately. Edrington doing servants work? The idea was absurd! What had come over the man? They were short handed, but... setting the table?
Edrington smiled. "Sir?" The man was unperturbed by Hornblower's amazement and agitation and continued the chosen task.
Hornblower felt the color in his cheeks. "You do outrank me, my Lord."
"Do I? I thought I was no better than a civilian? Besides, the captain of the ship outranks any officer, does he not?" Edrington continued placing the utensils. "Does not your order take precedence over any other? We have no admirals on board." Edrington chuckled. "Except yourself, according to someone we... both ... know." He had not meant to mention her. It slipped out. Edrington and Hornblower locked eyes. "Yes. When she would not tell me who you were, she most definitely informed me that you would be an admiral someday." The delivery was dry and unaffected.
Edrington lay a knife next to a spoon. Hornblower took the major's wrist and Edrington raised his eyes to Hornblower's once more. For a moment, neither spoke. Was Hornblower angered? Reaching with his other hand, Hornblower held the sling around Edrington's neck and slipped the left arm back into it. Edrington stared at the contained arm, then looked back at Hornblower with a half smile.
"Who do you think you are now? Bentley?"
"Right now, sir, I am the son of a doctor, and... the husband to a woman that considers you worth saving."
"And what of Horatio Hornblower? What does he think of me?"
Hornblower swallowed. A knock at the door rescued him from an answer.
Bentley entered with Hardy following. The major's servant was assigned to assist the cook, which was Hardy. The delightful aroma that entered with the men was unmistakable.
"Here we are, sirs! I do believe I have outdone myself, my Lord!" grinned Bentley. "If I were not your valet, sir, surely I would have been a cook in one of the finest kitchens in the realm." He placed a platter gently upon the table, then motioned for Hardy to do the same. "Get the rest, Hardy," commanded the servant softly.
Bentley had Hornblower's attention and Edrington's.
*Bad timing, Bentley,* thought Alexander. Seldom was his servant so damned chatty. Adversity was revealing a side of Bentley he did not know.
"I have amazed even myself with these culinary delights!" He lay china plates between the utensils. "Or, perhaps it is due to the fine cupboard of our French hosts!" continued Bentley, "I have not had such an opportunity since your dear father found me in Paris and insisted I return to England,....and, the supplies are fresh, sir. Vegetables, glorious vegetables!" He clasped his hands and looked heavenward. "A filet de boeuf roti, a la provencale." Edrington listened amazed at the French accent Bentley lent his description. "The tomatoes are so beautifully scarlet! And, the broccoli! So green!...sautéed in fresh butter, not as good as from the estate, but new from the farm, with just a smattering of garlic, and rosette potatoes sautéed with chives. C'est magnifique!"
Hornblower smiled gently.
Bentley stopped chattering and looked at the two standing men.
"Have I ... interrupted something, my Lord?"
Edrington hesitated. He knew his father had brought Bentley
back from France before he was born, but he never thought to ask
him what he was doing there. "Sit down, Captain Hornblower.
Our dinner would seem to hold great promise." After sitting,
Edrington addressed the old servant. "Bentley, you've been
holding out on me all these years. I had no idea you had aspirations
to be a chef, let alone a French one." Edrington caught
Hornblower hiding a chuckle, and he hid his own amusement by bowing
Bentley hovered over the two men throughout the meal. Anticipating their every desire, gaining immense satisfaction as forkfuls of his masterpiece were complimented with mmm's and smiles, and comments on the tenderness of the beef and tastiness of the spices. He filled wine glasses, offered additional servings, and then placed a board of cheeses with sliced apples and pears before them.
"Pears, by God!" exclaimed Hornblower. "Mr. Bentley, no matter what Lord Edrington may say, I confess, I am most pleased you chose to come with us. I shall be spoiled with such offerings. If I captained my own ship, I might have to press you into king's service!"
Bentley's countenance dropped its happy expression.
Edrington slapped his knee and guffawed!
"He is paying you a compliment, Bentley! Don't look so
distressed. I will not let him keep you!" grinned Edrington.
Hornblower chuckled and knew, suddenly, he had let Bentley refill his wine glass far too often. His face felt flushed and he realized he had been enjoying the major's company immensely. Had he just teased Bentley about keeping him? He had, by God! *Definitely too much wine!* he thought. He tried to recall how many glasses. "No!" He held his hand over the mouth of his glass. "I have had more than enough wine." Pushing back his chair, Hornblower stood, wavered, and grabbed hold of the deck beam to steady himself.
Edrington chortled. "Mr. Hornblower, sit down. You've forgotten our dessert." Edrington watched the leftenant sway from more than the ship's movement on the swells. "Bentley, I believe coffee might be in order."
With a glance at the unsteady captain, he replied, "Yes, my Lord," and departed the cabin.
Hornblower chuckled into the sleeve of the arm holding the deck beam. "I.... think..... my Lord, ...I have had ... too much to drink."
Edrington's eyes softened. "It happens to the best of us. Sit down before you fall." Edrington pushed the chair back out from under the table with his foot.
Hornblower sat down heavily and stared at the blur before him, his eyes were not focusing. What had he done to himself? Drunk? On a ship with enemy on board? Dear God! He rested his elbows on the table and held his head, covering his face.
"Are you all right, Mr. Hornblower?" asked Edrington.
Straightening, he looked through bleary eyes at his lordship. "Forgive me, my Lord. I fear I have been...over indulgent."
"You aren't going to be sick, are you?"
"I pray not." He stood up. "I..." His first idea was to go on deck, but the suggestion that he might be sick seemed to call up the notion, and he turned to the cabin that held the captain's bed. "I think I best lie down for a few minutes. Excuse me, sir."
Entering the small space and closing the door, he threw himself face down on the bunk and moaned. "Dear God, let me sober quickly," was the last mutter before light snores revealed sleep overtook him.
Bentley returned, coffee pot to hand. "Where is the captain, sir? On the quarter-deck? Shall I take his coffee to him?"
"No, Bentley. He is not on the quarter-deck." Edrington stepped to Hornblower's door and tapped. "Mr. Hornblower? Mr. Hornblower, our coffee is here." Waiting a moment for an answer, and getting none, Edrington opened the door. Seeing the prone and sleeping figure, he lifted the leg that remained on the deck into the bunk, and covered Hornblower with a blanket. "I never intended to get you drunk, my captain...only a little relaxed to soften that shell you live behind." Edrington sighed. "Sleep well, my friend."
Bentley was standing holding the coffee.
"He is asleep." Edrington saw the curious expression of his servant. Even though they had been separated for many months, their weeks together brought back all the familiarities the two shared from a long acquaintance. "What is it, Bentley?"
"I like him, sir. I like Mr. Hornblower." There
was amazement to his tone.
Edrington smiled. "Yes, so do I."
"Mr. Hornblower has no breeding. He is a commoner. He does not even hold the rank of captain, except when he is one," stated Bentley, surprise etching his tone.
"Bentley,... you are one of the biggest snobs I know," said Edrington.
"Yes, sir," said Bentley, matter-of-factly. "What else would you expect, my Lord?"
Edrington chuckled. "I would expect nothing else, Bentley. Nothing whatsoever."
Edrington sat down and Bentley poured coffee into a cup, then cleared the dishes into a bucket Hardy suggested he use.
"Have I done wrong, sir?"
"In giving Mr. Hornblower all that wine, sir."
"No, no. The meal was delicious. He was enjoying himself as I have never seen him do. I am the one that encouraged you to refill his wine glass. Only our situation might give pause. But Vengeance lies a mere three cable lengths away." Edrington smiled at his use of the new measurement he learned from Kennedy. "The four convoy ships are all captained by men from Vengeance. We have a marine guard and the ratings of Hornblower's division. What could possibly happen to us that one man could prevent?" His face revealed a serious pondering of the idea. "No. He needs the rest. We will leave him be. Have all the men been fed, Bentley?" He felt Hornblower would ask.
"And the French prisoners, have they as well?"
"Yes, sir. Sergeant Blaine saw to the delivery." The query was curious, but Bentley supposed it was part of being in the military, to have concern for the commoner and the enemy.
"Then, other than checking with the men on duty, I see nothing else to be done tonight. Thank you for a marvelous repast, Bentley. Perhaps you can tell me about your time in France on the voyage home."
"As you wish, my lord." Bentley's eyes darted to the closed door of Hornblower's cabin.
"He is all right. I assure you."
"Yes, sir. Will you require anything more, sir?"
"No, Bentley. Thank you. Take your ease, my man, and get some rest."
"Yes, sir. Goodnight, sir."
With a sigh, Edrington leaned back in the chair, absently stirred the coffee in the cup, and brought it to his lips. Could there be a danger of which he was not aware that Hornblower would? The enemy was locked and guarded below decks. Why was he feeling disquieted? Standing, he exited the cabins and headed for the quarter-deck. Matthews was close to Hornblower. Perhaps he would be topside and could assuage any misgivings.
Matthews was wrapped in a great woolen coat, blowing warm breath on his hands, and staring at the heavens, when Edrington came upon him. The major shrugged the cloak upon his shoulders, dispelling a chill.
The old rating jumped, not expecting to hear that voice behind him. Matthews knuckled his head. "S-sir?" He was not quite sure how to address the major, having never been spoken to by him before.
"I have come to inquire if all is well."
"Aye, sir. Quiet watch, it is."
Edrington was at a loss to know what else for which the captain of a ship might have a care. Could it be that different from soldiering? "Are...er...the watch duty is sorted, I take it."
"Yes, sir," answered Matthews quizzically. He pondered the major for a moment. "Mr. Cutter has the middle watch, sir. All's well, sir. Is Mr. Hornblower ..."
"He is resting, and I was loathe to wake him."
"I see, sir."
Cutter, yes, thought Edrington, he was sleeping in preparation for the late watch, though to Edrington's mind, he was but a boy. These men had to know what they were about. Why was he questioning?
"Should I wake him ... in your opinion, Mr. Matthews?" he asked carefully.
Matthews thought before he answered. "I think we've got her, sir. We don't usually have French navy prisoners, but they seem to be behavin' themselves... as long as that Marine guard is there, anyways. You can't trust a Frog, sir. If I know Mr. Hornblower he won't sleep long, sir. He'll be up here to check on things. Don't ye worry, Major, sir."
Edrington kept quiet about the amount of alcohol he assisted Hornblower to drink.
"No. No, indeed," agreed Edrington. "Very well, Mr. Matthews. Carry on."
Edrington made his way down to the lower deck where the marines stood guard. There he found Sergeant Blaine bent over a duty roster with a lamp at his elbow. Blaine stood when the major approached.
"At ease," smiled Edrington. "I am not in uniform, Sergeant," though the action pleased him.
"All the same, sir, you are an officer."
"How are our prisoners, Sergeant Blaine?"
"Quiet, sir. They seem to be a quiet bunch. Haven't had a peep out of 'em, sir."
Edrington paused and surveyed the guards on duty. "Do you think four men to be enough?"
"There will be six on duty, sir, when I turn in. We shall do our best, sir."
Edrington had to agree that there was nothing else that could be done. It would not do to have them all exhausted for lack of sleep. But.... something ...he felt uneasy. Was it guilt over getting Hornblower tipsy enough to pass out? Or something more sinister? Wondering accomplished nothing. All the same, he decided to sleep in his clothes and keep his weapons close to hand.
"Goodnight, Sergeant. Do not hesitate to call me if needs be," said Edrington.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
The night filled up all the places on Renard de Mer with dark and with silence. Fog formed sometime after four bells and was thickening. Ding ding....ding ding....ding ding... ding ding. Cutter rang out the time, breaking the silence briefly, then the fog seemed to muffle any other noise, like a padding. Four in the morning and Cutter was cold and damp and wishing for dawn. He rubbed his hands together and shoved them up into his armpits, hunching his shoulders to warm his ears. A form stepped out of the fog towards him.
"Thank you, Mr. Cutter. Get below and warm yourself,"
"Gladly, sir, most gladly."
Hornblower spied Oldroyd and Lasky as his watch-mates. He nodded to the two men, then commented, "Cold morning, Oldroyd."
"Aye, it is, sir," he answered with chattering teeth.
"The sun will be up before too much longer." He left off 'I hope,' knowing the day could be cloudy or clear this time of year. A soft clumping in the waist brought him to the rail. The marine guard was changing, below and above. Blaine was a little late, but Hornblower was in no mood to chastise. He had a dull headache and an incredible thirst. Too much wine. Hardy had brought him coffee while he was shaving, but what he really wanted was a glass of cool, pure water.
"Be so good as to fetch me a tankard of water, if you please."
"Yes!" His voice revealed impatience.
"Aye, aye, sir." Oldroyd hurried below.
Hornblower watched the fleeting image of a man going towards the bow, someone on the way to the head, he assumed. He turned to pace back aft. A mist hung on the water and seemed to be thickening. It flowed over the decks of Renard de Mer and hovered like a massive sprawling ghost. He frowned and peered through it to see the faint golden lights of the convoy vessels and the far blue ones atop the main mast of Vengeance. Walking to the rail, he peered at the lights on the French ship's masts. What was keeping Oldroyd?
"What the devil?" he said softly. "Mr. Lasky, the foremast topgallant is unfurled. Are there men on the yards?" Hornblower descended to the main deck, walked towards the foremast, and peered upward. The blow from behind knocked him unconscious before he could utter a word. Two stealthy figures dragged him down the forward hatch.
"Mr. Hornblower?" Lasky called softly. "Mr. Hornblower, sir?" Lasky looked down at the Marine on duty blanketed in the mists. "You there, Marine, step forward and see if Mr. Hornblower is all right." The man stood rigid and unmoving. "You there! Marine! I am speaking to you." Lasky glanced around the quarter-deck. He was indeed the only man there.
"Oldroyd. Is that you, man? Mr. Hornblower has gone forward. See if he needs any help."
"He... he's down 'ere, sir, and he wants you."
"I'm the only one left on the quarter-deck, Oldroyd! Are you sure?"
"Yes, sir. He ... he says it's awright, sir, us bein' hove to. He says... he says there's somethin' wrong with Mr. Cutter, sir."
"Cutter?" This was beyond all reason. Leave the quarter-deck unattended? With a heaved sigh, he went below.
The sight that met his eyes in the yellow-gold lamp light knotted his stomach. The long lean figure of Hornblower was laid out on the deck with a knife to his throat, Cutter the same, though standing and conscious.
"What the devil, Oldroyd?" Lasky managed to say as his arms were pinned behind his back and a knife pointed in his ribs.
"They threatened to kill Mr. Hornblower if I didn't call ye, sir," moaned Oldroyd.
"Enough!" whispered Armant hotly. "The ship is ours. If you want your capitaine to live you will keep your mouth shut. If not, he will be the first to die!" He motioned with a quick upward nod and the man with the knife yanked the unconscious officer's head by its curly brown hair and positioned his knife over the jugular vein. "Get over there, you!" Armant motioned Lasky to join the other Indy men and Lord Edrington. One of the Frenchmen grabbed his arm to pull him into the tightly guarded circle, then, pushed him into the other men.
"What's happened, my Lord?" Lasky managed to say before a fist slammed into his head.
"Silence!" whispered Armant loudly. Speaking in French, Armant ordered men topside. He spoke to the guards as well, then went up on deck. The main mast topsail was unfurled. The Frenchmen moved quietly to brace her up and the ship began slowly to wear around in the infinitessimal breeze.
Armant noted the location of the company ships, then in two bounds ascended to the quarter-deck and took the helm. The ship's lines creaked against the wood. The mist was growing thicker and Armant smiled. The luck was with him. The morning breeze was faint but enough to set Renard de Mer on a southern tack. He had a rendezvous to make. As for the other, the convoy, he knew where help lie. Three to one. Those would be the odds to the ship of the line. And, if perchance that frigate should return, there would be plenty of fire power to go around. They might be off on the time schedule, but with regrouping, the convoy was still theirs for the taking.
He saw the silent questioning faces of his men. He smiled, nodded, and gestured to the mizzen mast. The six men were climbing the shrouds rapidly. Slipping along in the footropes, the topgallant was unfurled and flapped softly. The men slid down the backstay. Reaching the deck, they hauled on the braces, and watched the sail go taut with filling. Two of the men began to argue over how much sail was unfurled. A belaying pin hit one soundly on the back and he turned angrily. Armant motioned with a slice across his neck and the two quieted immediately. Four of the men climbed back up to the yard, while two remained below to let go the braces and allow for taking in a reef. The men started at the far end reefs and worked towards the middle until the task was accomplished. Renard responded as the men on deck were joined by the topmen to haul on the lines, trimming the sail to the wind.
Armant looked over his shoulder. The mist completely obliterated the vessels in British hands and he knew, he too, could no longer be seen. "I'll be back," he said.
Below, the Frenchmen were putting the last of the leg irons on the Indy men. Hornblower was still unconscious, a knife at his throat to assure compliance of the Englishmen. Matthews was eyeing him worriedly, but he dare not speak. Finally, Hornblower, unconscious as he was, was also put in irons and left to lay on the deck. The Frenchmen went topside leaving their enemies bound together.
Matthews knelt beside his officer and turned Hornblower's head. He touched the back of it carefully, finding the lump without difficulty. Matthews sighed and shook his head. "Damn Frogs," he said softly.
Edrington squatted beside him. "Is he all right, Mr. Matthews?"
"It's his year for getting knocked on the head, it seems. This makes two not counting the clout on the chin ye give him last summer." Matthews looked at Edrington, realizing what he had said. "Sorry, sir, I didn't..."
"It's all right, Mr. Matthews."
"He did deserve it, sir, losin' his temper, that way." Matthews took a blanket from a near hammock and folded it for a pillow for Hornblower's head. Tugging on Hornblower's cloak, he covered him from the chill. He spoke quietly again, more thinking out loud than to anyone, or... if to anyone,... to Hornblower himself. "Women does strange things ta men. Though, ye and Miss Pamela, well, ... Ye shoulda known ye had no worries with her. Ye warn't thinkin' straight, is all." Matthews looked at Edrington's silent watching eyes. "Miss Pamela loves him. She does. I know it." Matthews rubbed the back of his hand on Hornblower's cheek. "Come on, sir." But his urging did not bring Hornblower around. "Damn Frogs must of hit ye hard." Matthews wiped a hand down his face and sniffed.
"He will be all right, Mr. Matthews. He has a hard head," offered Edrington.
Matthews chuckled then. "He does that, sir, he does."
Edrington smiled and looked over at Bentley. He raised his eyebrows to the silent comment on his servant's visage.
Bentley raised his arms to reveal the irons around his wrists. "Oh, sir!" he moaned. "I thank God in heaven your mamah is not here to see this."
Indefatigable's men twittered, then giggled, then laughed out
loud, and Edrington and Bentley with them.
A Frenchman put his head down through the hatchway and looked at them. "Silence!"
The men let the laughter die and the Frenchman departed.
"That may be the least of our troubles, Bentley," said Edrington.
"What d'ye reckon they'll do wi'us, Matty?" asked Oldroyd.
Matthews looked down at Hornblower, then back at his mates, and rubbed his stubbled chin. They could hear the rapid footsteps on the planking overhead and the Frenchmen calling to one another.
"Guess we're out o'earshot of Vengeance," frowned Matthews. He listened again to the noises above them. "They can't sail her proper. What is it, barely thirty o' them? One at the helm, them guarding us. They'll be wore out from climbing up and down. They won't last." Matthews eyed each of the officers. Edrington, Cutter, Hornblower. "Where's Sergeant Blaine?"
Styles was sitting on the deck leaning against the bulkhead. He, too, had been on the receiving end of belaying pins, though he was not caught off guard, just outnumbered. "They hit him, I saw. Don't know if he's dead or alive. Some of the marines is dead, dying, or wounded. Was one o'them what warned me something was up before they came at me. I can't figure out how they got the knives, or how they got loose."
"The point is moot, Mr. Styles, they are out, and they are armed," stated Edrington.
The conversation had barely died into silent thought when Armant and two burly looking men descended into their midst. A majority of the Frenchmen stepped down the ladder and surrounded the Englishmen.
"Hercule," said Armant and nodded towards the prisoners. Two large men began removing the leg and wrist irons from the Indies. The chains clanked loudly against each other and dropped heavily to the deck as each man was unbound. Once released, Armant paused before speaking.
"Hercule, take him."
The heavy-set man took Hornblower by the wrist, pulled him over his shoulder, and carried him topside.
"On deck with you," Armant ordered the Englishmen.
The Indy-men followed Armant and his armed guards and found the day to be clear and brightening as the sun rose from the horizon. The fore mast and main mast top sail were slack and flapped in the wind, the ship virtually hove to. The men stood in a small band wondering at what the Frogs intended.
Armant pulled one of his men aside and whispered. "You hit him too hard!" His lips pinched in a frown and he blew a puff of air through his nose. "I will make this work," he muttered. He faced the Englishmen, feet apart, and hands on his hips.
"I will have you work for me, now," he said arrogantly but firmly.
Matthews chin dipped in towards his chest at the incredulity of the assumption. No way in hell would he assist a Frog. The French volunteered to help sail to keep from being put in irons on the Indy. Well, he, for one, was not volunteering.
"Well?" Armant waited for the Englishmen to answer. Armant's eyes narrowed, saw the men's glances at Matthews. He knew defiance when he saw it. "Give him to me." Hercule eased the body over as Armant shouldered Hornblower, walked over to the side, and threw him overboard.
Edrington's eyes flew open. Matthews, Styles, and a number of the other men made to advance to the side, several shouting "NO!" The Frenchmen pushed them back. Edrington shoved them aside in the press. Gaining the rail, his bad arm loose, he catapulted himself over the side.
"Major Edrington!" said Matthews surprised. The Englishmen went silent.
"Major? That man is a major?" Armant laughed out loud. "I hope he can swim!"
The troop of men edged over to the side. Armant's men held the sailors back to prevent them doing the same but they could see Edrington had Hornblower by the chin. Their captain remained unconscious despite the cold water.
"Get them out o' there!" demanded Matthews.
Armant snarled a smile. "No. Why should I?"
"They'll freeze in these waters," said Cutter.
"Hm. Perhaps," said Armant nonchalantly. "He will only cause trouble, your capitaine. Would you prefer I slit his throat as I did the officers of this ship?"
Styles stepped next to Cutter, shielding him with his body, his eyes aflame with anger.
Matthews managed to get close enough to the rail and gripped it till his knuckles turned white. Those were the choices? A slit throat or eventual drowning? Armant wanted no man on board to challenge his authority or rally the Indefatigables. Hornblower needed a chance, a chance to survive, a chance to come for them. He did not know how, but he knew his commander would, ...given the chance.
"Give 'em a boat."
"What's that ...er.... Matthews, is it?"
Matthews tore his view away from the two figures in the water to stare angrily into the hard piercing eyes of their enemy. "Give 'em a boat."
Armant's snarling half smile returned but he remained silent.
"Give 'em a boat and I'll work for ye," said Matthews through grit teeth. Was that what the Frenchman wanted to hear?
Armant took his time to answer. "I might be willing to meet your request, but alas, my men are too busy for such heroics. I have not the time to put boats away."
Matthews turned to gaze at the yards, then, looked to his fellows. "Styles, Oldroyd, Harkins, Barkley." He nodded towards the boats on deck and the men set to go at it.
Armant grabbed Matthews by the collar. "If I let you do this, you and they will work for me. Say it."
Matthews did not hesitate. He knew the coldness of the water. "We will work for ye, but I want water, blankets, and food put in that boat." Matthews gave Armant but a moment and then added. "If he dies,... you'll have to kill us all... now."
Armant's features revealed a stifled amazement. "Such loyalty! It is good I have chose to throw him off my ship, I think." Without looking, Armant reached and grabbed Cutter by the collar. "What of this little one?"
"I'm not..." Cutter tried to say, but Armant gripped his collar tighter choking off his words.
"Silence, boy!" ordered Armant as he watched Matthews
face. "Yes. I think I keep him and that wounded marine
below for...how you say... insurance. Such loyalty!" he
mocked. "I had no idea it was such a strong trait in the
English sailor. I thought the cat brought such steadfast service.
Most inspiring, Matthews! Most inspiring." Armant pushed
Cutter into Hercule. "Put him in irons below and see that
marine commander is bound as well." Armant peered over the
side at Edrington treading water and grasping Hornblower around
the chest. The major's lips were blue and the twitch of muscles
along the jaw line revealed a shivering. "I guess the major
can swim. Lucky for your capitaine."
Matthews was tired of Armant's preening. "Hardy! Mr. Bentley! Go below. Get blankets, food, water, and put them in the boat. Quickly now, sir."
"Yes, Mr. Matthews," obeyed Bentley. Hardy grabbed the older man's elbow to hurry him along.
"I knew you were the kind of man I could depend on, Mr. Matthews. Remember, each luxury I allow your officer will cost you. Do not put that young man's life in jeopardy. What is his name?"
"Midshipman Cutter, sir," answered Matthews averting his eyes. Shifting to gaze at Edrington, he watched the major sink below the water, apparently lifting Hornblower from below, then, a spray of water sputtered from Edrington's lips as he surfaced and reached for a purchase on the ship's lowest batten. *Hold on, Major,* he thought.
"Hm." Armant looked over the side. "Cutter cut from the same cloth as your Capitaine Hornblower?" He saw Edrington's fingertips clinging to the hull.
Armant motioned to his men to help them get the boat over the side. He hoped Hornblower was alive and worried he might have played his hand too fast and loose. He needed him to live as much as he needed the Englishmen to help sail Renard de Mer, otherwise, he might be days in meeting with Effington. The man was not to be crossed, and the sooner he could comply with Effington's wishes the better, even if it did mean capturing the convoy a second time, the hard way.
The boat was swung over the side and near ready to lower. Matthews looked down at the major.
"Major Edrington, sir. Are ye all right?"
The most Edrington could manage was a nod. His whole body was trembling with cold.
"I've bargained a boat fer ye, sir. Ye'll be out o'that water soon. Hold on, sir." That was all Matthews could offer the freezing men. Help was on its way, meager as it was. Hardy and Bentley arrived with arms full. Styles and Lasky threw the items into the lowering launch. Styles lifted Bentley onto the rail.
"Get in," he said lowly and quickly, and pushed the older man into the boat. Styles saw the frown forming on Armant's face and spoke up. "He's an old man, sir. No good fer sailin'. We're better off wi'out 'im."
Armant sighed a breath and watched warily. He needed able bodied seamen not weak aging servants.
The boat came to rest on the water next to Edrington. Bentley reached for the major's clothing and pulled him closer.
"H-h-h-hornblower," managed the major.
Bentley grabbed hold of Hornblower and tried to pull him into the boat.
Armant felt Matthews teetering on the verge of going over the side. He lay a hand on Matthews arm and called to Hercule, motioning him over. Hercule climbed down the battens and into the boat beside Bentley. He latched onto Hornblower and lifted him halfway into the boat, then grabbed the seat of his trousers, and shoved the rest of him in. Water trickled out of Hornblower's mouth. Hercule looked up towards Armant.
"The other one, too."
Hercule reached over to take Edrington's left hand and yanked.
The major moaned, feeling the rip in his shoulder though numb with cold.
Hercule pushed him into the bottom of the boat alongside Hornblower, both were bent head down into the boat's bottom and neither moved.
"Is... Is Mr. Hornblower alive, Mr. Bentley?" called Styles.
Armant stared at the rating and Styles regarded him defiantly. They would know the truth before they gave their service. No bad bargains for ratings, and Armant knew it. No matter what his ilk, he had a keen sense for human nature, and especially the human nature of men of the sea. He allowed the conversation to continue.
Bentley moved closer to the cold, soggy officer and placed two fingers on his neck and waited. Bentley looked up at the ratings expectant faces.
"He is, Mr. Styles,... at the moment, he is."
"Get 'em out o'them wet clothes, Mr. Bentley. Mr. Hornblower'll
take care of ye. Ye tell him how it was, eh?" called Styles,
glimpsing the worried features of Matthews.
Bentley nodded and looked at the broad expanse of water around him.
"Hercule!" called Armant.
The bulky man stepped onto the battens and pushed the launch away with his foot, then climbed to the deck.
"There," Armant stated. "I have kept my part of the bargain. Now let us see if your word is true, Mr. Matthews. I want this ship under all sail."
Matthews looked at his French Captain and then, at his English one, still unconscious and hunched over in the bottom of the boat. Bentley was struggling with Hornblower's great soggy cape, part of it still draped into the water. It was a wonder Edrington had kept them both afloat. Blinking, Matthews nodded, then turned to the men near him. "Hands, lay aloft!"
The Indymen took to the shrouds and positioned on the yards and waited for orders. All English eyes were on the little boat and her passengers.
Styles gave Matthews a warm consoling glance. "Ye done what ye could, Matty. At least his throat ain't cut. The major and Bentley is with him. He'll do."
From the deck, "Courses, let go!"
Matthews stiffened with a new resolve as he and the others untied the reef knots. The sail dropped with the aid of gravity all in a moment. "Aye, he'll do. He'll come fer us. You mark my words. He will." Matthews took heart at what time and experience told him was truth. Hornblower and Pellew, mad as hatters, was a hope to hold, and there was yet the possibility to help themselves, save for the threat to Cutter and Blaine.
"Aye. When Pellew hears he'll be hell bent for Frog blood!" added Styles.
"I wish he'd put Mr. Cutter in that boat. That one's a crafty bastard," muttered Matthews acidly, tipping his head towards Armant.
"Aye, he is that. I'd still like ta know how they got loose."
"Come back on those halyards!" Armant had no difficulty ordering the men in French or English.
Styles looked down on him with a curse. "Bloody Frog!"
The launch was careening from side to side with Bentley's movements. He stopped a moment and held onto the gunwales. "Oh, sir, sir!" He tugged at the wet clothing of Edrington. Then, straightened and watched the ship sailing away. "Oh hell!" He looked down at his two incapacitated charges. "One at a time, Bentley," he told himself.
"H-h-h-hornblower, f-f-f-first," managed Edrington.
"No, my Lord. I cannot get at him with you here. I must have you out of the way first. If you can help, sir, I would be most grateful."
Edrington was in no condition to argue. Every joint protested movement. His inept fingers refused to obey and he managed to utter, "Dash it!" in frustration.
"Let me do it, sir." Bentley unbuttoned the dark gray coat, then, the gray tweed waistcoat. He smiled at Edrington. "It's been years since I've had to do your buttons, sir."
Edrington helped Bentley get him in an upright position to remove the soaked clothing. Shivering set in and the major could not stop the trembling no matter how much he tried. Pulling the shirt off, Bentley grabbed one of the blankets and rubbed over Edrington's chest with vigor. Despite his lordship's chill body, Bentley could see the reddened skin over his old wound. "That man hurt you when he pulled you into the boat." Bentley stared solemnly into the eyes of the young man whom he served, then wrapped the blanket tightly about him.
"Wait." Bentley reached inside another blanket and produced a bottle of cognac. Looking about, there was no cup. Edrington waved it towards him. Popping the cork, Bentley tipped the bottle into Edrington's mouth. The peer's shivers were becoming intermittent.
"T-t-trousers." Edrington was warming with the cold cloth off his body and the alcohol in it. The two of them managed to get the trousers pulled down and Edrington slipped up onto the plank seat.
"Oh, sir, your best Hessians. Pity you could not remove them before you leapt in to rescue Mr. Hornblower."
Bentley did not see Edrington's slight incredulous smile while he pulled at the leather on his master's foot causing the major to slip backwards off the plank and onto the boat's bottom on the other side.
"Oh, sir, I do beg your pardon!" Tipping the boot, a stream of seawater flowed onto the planking. "Oh...!"
"Bentley, just get the other d-damn boot off! Give me that Co-cognac!"
"Yes, sir," he replied meekly.
Taking a swig, Edrington regretted his short temper. "Sorry, Bentley. I know you are doing your best. It's just that being cast away at sea before breakfast puts me in a foul temper."
"Undoubtedly, sir." Bentley let the contents of this boot fall back into the sea from whence it came. He removed the trousers then, using the blanket the cognac was wrapped in, he dried the majors legs and feet. "Are you warmer, sir?"
"Yes, yes. The sun and the blanket are agreeable. Now, Mr. Hornblower."
"Yes, sir." But Bentley took the major by the shoulders and eased him into a cranny to support his back, then wrapped the second blanket around his legs and feet.
With Edrington settled, he stopped a moment to suss out where to begin with Hornblower. "Dear, dear, dear," he said shaking his head.
First, the sopping cloak. Undoing the frog, he pulled it away as reams of water dripped from it into the bottom of the boat. Making a mound of the wet cloak, he placed Hornblower's injured head upon it, a pillow and a cooling compress all in one. "This is going to be ever so difficult with him unconscious."
"Shall I help you?" asked Edrington stirring in the blankets.
"No! No, sir." Bentley held out a halting palm, then bent to the task of removing Hornblower's military topcoat. "It will come back to me. The limbs are just a little longer and larger than those of a little boy is all." His voice strained with each tug to remove Hornblower's long arms from the coat. "He is very cold and very unconscious, poor man. But he is also very alive. I imagine he will have a horrendous headache when he comes around."
"In more ways than one," said Edrington, "In more ways than one." Eyes closed and his head tilted back, he rested it on the gunwale. "God, what a life. How will he ever survive to be an admiral?" muttered the major quietly.
Bentley had Hornblower stripped from the waist up. He stopped to stare at the scar near his left armpit, puckered like a kiss. His eyes lowered finding the beginning of another on the left side at the base of Hornblower's rib cage, trailing around his back. Evidence of smaller scars were near that one.
The silence of the servant's movements caused Edrington to open his eyes. "What is it?"
Bentley looked up sadly at Edrington and hesitated before he spoke. Both men, so young, involved in such a desperate conflict. The evidence of war was carved on them both. The servant's eyes softened and glimmered.
Edrington saw an expression in the old man's eyes he had not witnessed for years, emotion was there. Bentley was like a second father. The two of them never admitted the feeling, the connection, but it existed. In those old gray-blue eyes was love, concern, sadness. Edrington felt a twitching of his lips as the twist of emotion and of dismissal fought for a comment. In the end, he could only part his lips and utter not a sound.
"Old ...wounds, sir." He nearly choked on the word and then sniffed and taking a blanket, dried the parts of Hornblower not in a puddle. The leftenant's shoes were much easier to remove as was his lower clothing.
The man-servant pulled the tiller loose and used it to knock up two planks of seating. Edrington watched his valet with a raised brow. This was manual labor. He did not know Bentley had it in him. He found himself gaining a new respect for the old man.
Bentley knelt in the bottom of the boat and lifted Hornblower gently to lean against his shoulder. Edrington caught sight of the long keloided scar on Hornblower's mid-section and his eyes went quickly to Bentley's features. The man was intent on placing the two planks in the bottom of the boat, spanning the slosh of water.
Tossing the sopping cloak towards the stern, Bentley took a dry blanket and wrapped it around Hornblower, briskly rubbed his back, then rising a little, he lifted him onto the planks, out of the water, and leaned Hornblower cozily against the boat side and seat plank.
Edrington half smiled. "Bentley...you're a treasure," he said tiredly. He leaned his head back against the gunwale and felt the warming rays of the sun beating into his skin, aided by the dark blanket. Secretly he raised his right arm beneath the blankets and rubbed the left side of his chest. Bentley did not need to know how much his shoulder hurt. The servant would have enough to contend with, caring for both of them and, besides, there was nothing he could do. Edrington lifted the cognac and sipped a swallow.
Bentley barely glimpsed his employer. Taking another blanket, he dried Hornblower's legs and wrapped them. He rested his hands atop Hornblower's feet. Feeling the ice cold skin, he took each one into his hands, rubbed and held them, hoping to impart warmth, then did the same with Hornblower's hands, patting the backs of them as he finished and looking intently into the officer's face for signs of consciousness.
"It worries me that he has not come to," said the servant quietly. He slipped his fingers into Hornblower's damp hair and felt the lump at the base of his skull. "He's too thin. Doesn't surprise me, the food they serve on those ships." The disgust in Bentley's tone was unmistakable.
"Are you thinking of letting Hornblower press you?"
Bentley ignored Edrington's attempt at humour which made Edrington
lift his head and see what he was up to. "You've done all
you can, Bentley. God willing, he will be all right."
With a sigh, Bentley surveyed their situation, what to do next. Picking up an article of clothing, he held it over the side and wrung it out. At least they would have a day of sun to dry their clothes.
Edrington watched him work, then stood and walked over to sit on the plank next to Hornblower. He studied the naval leftenant, watching his chest rise and fall.
"I cannot believe they would have struck him that hard. Pamela told me he was hit on the head back in May. Matthews mentioned it too. Maybe that is why he has not regained consciousness. I wish Dr. Sebastian could check him."
"Here, sir. Some bread and cheese."
The two munched on the food in silence.
"Should we raise the sail, my Lord?"
Edrington gazed around the empty open sea. What would Hornblower do? Go to England? The nearest coast? Sail after Renard de Mer? What? The lessons on navigation given by Kennedy last August were not something Edrington ever thought he would put to use. He looked back at Hornblower, took his chin, and lifted it.
"Mr. Hornblower, it would be ever so appreciated if you would wake up." He let Hornblower's chin down, then, ran his hand over his head of damp soft curls. "Mr. Hornblower?" He paused. "Horatio?" Often, he heard Kennedy use his first name but he had never said it. The name felt good on his tongue and he said it again. "Horatio? My friend. Wake up." He let his hand trace over the smooth cheek, then took the damp topcoat, made a pillow on the gunwale, and leaned his head back carefully. Reaching over into the cool seawater, he brought his dampened hand back to Hornblower's face and rubbed over his forehead and cheeks. "Horatio...Horatio? We need you. We need you to waken. Stop dreaming about your lovely wife and come back to our present dire situation."
"What makes you think he is dreaming about his wife, sir?"
"If I were him, and asleep, that is what I would wish to do. It would be a far better scenario than the one we are living."
"Why..." Bentley stopped the question, " forgive me, sir. It is none of my business."
Edrington swiveled to look at Bentley. "What? What do you want to know? Why she fascinates me? Why I am still in love with her despite ... everything? Why did I not let him drown and perhaps gain his prize?" Edrington shook his head and hung it low. "God forgive me for even thinking it."
"You couldn't have thought about it for long, sir. You acted very quickly."
"He is a good man, a fine man. I have a great respect for him. I considered him my friend, and so he was, I believe, until she came between us. I don't know, Bentley. With time the feelings will fade from my memory." In thought he added, *I hope,* then continued, "I wish the two of them the best. I could not "not" help him. I owe her my life. And... "
"You like Mr. Hornblower," finished Bentley.
"Yes. It isn't easy to understand. A muddle for sure, but there it is."
The leftenant stirred under the blankets causing the one around his torso to fall off his left shoulder. Another groan and he raised his right hand to his head causing the other side to drop. Opening his eyes, he spoke.
"Major Edrington... my Lord...ooowww..." His left hand rested on his bare chest and he looked at his surroundings. "What's happened?" He looked seaward three hundred and sixty degrees. "Renard de Mer! The men! Where is my ship?" His wondering eyes assayed Bentley and then rested on Edrington. "What has occurred?"
"It's a bit of a long story, but I will make it short. The French took back their ship," informed Edrington.
"And your men bargained their service for your life," added Bentley.
Hornblower rubbed his neck. "What direction were they sailing?"
Bentley stood and extended his arm pointing southwest.
Southwest? Not east, back towards France? Hornblower pushed up from the low position with a grunt and saw the stern seat plank was missing. Bentley followed his gaze.
"Oh. I shall return it, sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Bentley." After a cursory attempt to keep the blanket wrapped around him, Hornblower let it go and worked to rig the mast sans clothing.
Edrington could not help but smile. "Are we in that big a hurry, ... Horatio?"
Hornblower glimpsed him. "Yes. We are. How long have they been gone?"
Bentley pulled out his pocket watch. "I would say at least two hours, sir."
"Damn. How much sail?"
"I did not see a bare post on her, Mr. Hornblower," answered Bentley, using the tiller handle to knock the seat plank back into position.
"How is your head feeling?" inquired Edrington as he assisted the raising of the mast.
"Like someone is pounding it with a hammer." Hornblower saw Edrington's blanket fall, was shocked momentarily to see the peer as unclothed as himself, and then smiled. "You seem to be undressed, my Lord."
"And you are out of uniform, Mr. Hornblower."
Hornblower attended to preparing the sail for raising. "I can see our clothes are wet. Why are they?"
"That fellow Armant threw you overboard." Edrington copied whatever he saw Hornblower doing and untied the ropes binding the sailcloth.
"Not very hospitable of him. You, too?"
Hornblower stopped working and pondered. "You... you came in after me..." Hornblower looked back at Bentley sitting in the stern sheets. "I ...I ... the last thing I recall was seeing the t'gallant on the foremast unfurled. It was dark." He squinted at the sun. "That must be near six hours ago. Were the men all right?"
"Some of the marines were killed, some wounded, some alive. Your men were ruffed up but basically unharmed. I think Armant needed them to help sail Renard," said Edrington.
Bentley chimed in. "I heard Matthews tell him, sir, if you died that he may as well kill them all."
Hornblower's face etched with concern.
"And, that...Frog..." spat Bentley, "threatened that mannerly Mr. Cutter. I think that fellow intends to hold him hostage over your men."
Hornblower grabbed his forehead. Could he take anymore bad news? "Hell." Well, at least Cutter was alive. "What about Sergeant Blaine?"
"Wounded, but they intended to keep him prisoner."
"Thank you, Mr. Bentley for all you have done," he nodded weakly, then let his gaze fall on Edrington. Edrington, whom he tried to prevent coming with him. He and Bentley, his rescuers. And, then, the vision of his wife that morning on the dock, speaking to Edrington and then to Bentley, and them doing as she bid. "I ... I sense I owe you my life, my Lord." Pausing, he added, "Thank you," and extended his hand.
Edrington smiled and grasped it tightly. "My pleasure, sir."
Hornblower peered into the face of this man whom he did not understand. Why would he want to befriend him? *If he is in love with my wife,... I do not understand,* he thought.
"Mr. Bentley, sit down," Hornblower ordered. He tugged on the line, turned to look at the sail, then gave the rope to the servant, and positioned the tiller. "There. Hold her steady, if you please, Mr. Bentley."
"We are going after those pirates, sir?" asked Bentley.
With a furrowed brow, Hornblower froze. "Pirates?" The idea rang true through Hornblower's entire being. Pirates had been as much trouble as the enemy this strange year of 1799. "Yes. Yes we are."
"Oh, good. I always wanted to confront a band of pirates unarmed and naked," said Edrington sarcastically as he wrapped himself back into a blanket.
Hornblower smiled. "It is a life of adventure and adversity, my Lord. Don't get too comfortable. Come help me set the jib."