A Hornblower Excerpt - On the Rocks
As the glorious colours of sunrise disappeared past the horizon,
day dawned clear over Gibraltar. The crisp blue water sparkled, and
the reflected sunlight made the barren rock glitter like a jewel.
Yet, for all its beauty, the Mediterranean peninsula was not
comfortable place. It wore an air of transience like a cloak, hiding
its soul from the occupants who came and went with unchanging
regularity. The proud frigate at anchor in the morning was gone with
the evening tide; the callow youth sailed a midshipman and came back
a lieutenant - or not at all; the admiral strode in a hero and crept
out a failure; the sailor left a husband and returned a father; the
traveller arrived weary and departed with a glad heart for home; and
the heartsick stole away alone and did not heal. Many went through
Gibraltar, but few ever stayed.
Visitors to the Rock seldom stayed long. That beautiful morning,
several were briskly about their business, preparing themselves for
A captain waited impatiently for his orders. The man pacing
corridors of the Admiralty building in frustration looked fearsome in
full regalia. It had been said of the imperious captain that he was a
man under whose cold exterior beat a heart of ice. It was not at all
true; well hidden under a glacial intellect was abundant warmth and
compassion. He did expect only the best, but he never hesitated to
apply the same high standards to himself. He was also a man whose
trust, once gained, was a precious commodity few chose to abandon.
But little of the kinder side of his nature was to the fore as he
bemoaned the necessity of dealing with bureaucrats, who had little
sense of the true nature of life at sea. The captain looked wistfully
out the window at the sleek lines of his ship outlined against the
clear blue sky, and regretted the need for politics.
Down at the harbour, two young officers worked feverishly,
provisions into their ship, which happened to be the same vessel
commanded by our irritated captain. One of them, a lanky, dark-haired
lieutenant in a soaked and shabby uniform, was berating an
unfortunate seaman, whose careless handling of a cask of water had
caused it to spring a major leak. The other, a shorter blond man
whose uniform still bore the patches of a midshipman, was helping
with the boarding of several recalcitrant chickens, while attempting
not to react to his drenched companion's misfortune. The peals of
laughter that rang out across the water suggested he had not been
A closer inspection would have confirmed this impression. Indeed,
casual observer may well have been surprised by the obvious
camraderie displayed by the men of this ship, despite vast
differences in background and rank. This onlooker, if they were
within hearing distance, might not have entirely approved of the
sailors' high spirits, somewhat at odds with the fearsome reputation
of His Majesty's Navy. But it was the relationships between those
men, and the esteem in which they all held their captain, that made
the frigate Indefatigable the extraordinary ship she was.
Perhaps, though, it was lucky that Captain Sir Edward Pellew's
vantage point did not allow him to witness the scene taking place
near his ship. For it is doubtful whether it would have met his
"Mr Hornblower, do you realise that you are extremely damp?"
"Why Mr Kennedy, such observational skills will soon see
to Admiral of the Fleet!"
Completely unabashed, Archie Kennedy burst out laughing. His
companion glared at him sourly.
"I'm sorry, Horatio, but you have no idea of how ridiculous
look! Your appearance suggests you've just had a prolonged fight
with the Loch Ness Monster! And the monster won." he added helpfully.
Horatio Hornblower tried to scowl, but failed miserably. In
catching sight of his reflection in a puddle, he began to chuckle.
"I do look somewhat soggy, don't I?"
"Horatio, if Captain Pellew saw you now he'd mistake you
fish!" Mr Kennedy looked thoughtful. "Or perhaps a mermaid, although
I'd always hoped they'd be rather more attractive." He made a vague
gesture. "Or at least slightly fuller in figure!"
Nearby, Oldroyd put down the cask of ale he was loading and
vain to suppress a giggle. As his lieutenant glowered at him, he
hastily turned his laughter into a hacking cough.
Archie frowned at his friend's sternness. "Come now, Mr
Hornblower. There's no need to make such a splash about it!"
Even Styles choked at that.
"Really, Horatio, must you be such a drip?"
Matthews put his head in his hands.
"Yes, Most Noble and Revered Lieutenant Hornblower, Sir!"
"Your chickens are escaping."
"What?" Swivelling around, Archie saw that several
of the reluctant
fowl he had been attempting to get aboard Indefatigable had indeed
taken the opportunity to make their escape. "You wretched birds!"
While Archie was racing after the absconding chickens, a jovial
Bracegirdle returned to the ship with an armful of provisions.
Surveying the scene, when he caught sight of the hapless Acting-
Lieutenant his eyes twinkled. "My, doesn't Mr Kennedy look like
poultry in motion!"
Oldroyd looked blank, but Styles and Matthews were in hysterics.
Horatio sighed. "Perhaps we can finishing re-victualling
He looked ahead to where Kennedy was struggling to pick up
chicken without dropping the pair he already held. His groans
indicated the operation was not proceeding smoothly. Meanwhile,
Oldroyd had missed his footing by one of the puddles caused by the
damaged water cask, and had fallen damply onto the dock, with an
expression of total bewilderment on his face.
The lieutenant groaned. "Perhaps not."
Given the nature of the Captain's meeting with the Admiral,
well have preferred the company of his irrepressible subordinates.
Unfortunately, in life in general, and in the navy in particular, you
don't always get what you desire. Still, for the men creating chaos
out of order down at the habour, life as a seaman wasn't half bad.