The Weather Eye
Part 23 - Author! Author!
(continued from Chapter 22---)
******Both Horatio and Archie were dragged into another
room and unceremoniously
thrown into a corner, two of their captors standing over them with pistols.
Pushing himself up into a sitting position, Archie whispered.
"Well," Horatio whispered back. "It would
seem that only one thing that can
save us now--"*****
"--is a miracle."
Archie Kennedy rubbed his bruised tailbone thoughtfully. He
wrinkled his nose, and peered curiously up at their captor, painted eyebrows
and mascar'ed lips forming a quirky sort of moue as he did so.
The man with the eye patch; blond, tall, broad-shouldered,
startlingly-blue in the one exposed eye, an eye which was glaring furiously
in the direction of Kennedy, fairly spat as he hissed, "You! You
plagiarizing little nobody! Who were you until you heard about me? Who? I
ask you?" he asked rhetorically.
The man wiped frothy spittle off his wide, generous yet firm lips, which quirked ironically as he continued, "Nobody. You were nobody. For certainly, nobody will ever write a book about YOU."
Kennedy's expression was suddenly wary. Horatio glanced back
between the two blond men as if he were watching a match of lawn tennis.
The big blond man turned to his companion, a slighter fellow whose grip on the pistol was far from being as resolute as might be wished for in a deputy, and said, "Twinkle, you cover this one.thisHornblower. Kennedy is mine."
"And who might YOU be?" Horatio nodded at the man with the patch, bravado returning at the sound of Twinkle's name, for how dire could their straits actually be if they were being held captive by a man named "Twinkle"? "I am Commander Horatio Hornblower and I demand you release us at once."
"I?," their captor roared.
Perhaps he, too, had a silly name.
"WHO am *I*?!!!," he thundered.
And perhaps it had given him a very bad disposition. Horatio swallowed, trying to moisten his lips. "That was the gist of my question, I believe."
"You ask me who *I* am?" the man continued, his face
turning so beet-red that
Horatio had a sudden rush of hope that the man might succumb to apoplexy, or choke on his own spittle, dying suddenly and serendipitously in the manner of their late shipmate, Mr. Sterling.
"YOU? Of all people! His best friend--his shipmate--his commanding officer! How dare you pretend not to know who I am! He STOLE my NAME, my very life--"
But Kennedy was speaking, an expression of understanding dawning
painted face, "Oh dear LORD!," he wheezed, "I thought you were just a dirty
joke--or perhaps a nickname for Dreadnaught Foster--but your name can't possibly be--I mean no one would name their--"
The man with the eye patch grabbed Kennedy by the shoulder, wrenching him furiously about to put his face inches from the young Lieutenant's. Kennedy, hysterical, began to spout what sounded to Horatio like the strangest gibberish since the tower of Babel took the dirt nap, and he feared his friend was on the verge of another of his unfortunate fits.
"The blond Captain seized the maiden by the shoulder in
his manly grip.
With a vicious smile, he put her up against the wall, enjoying the sensation
of her melting into his harsh embrace and--" Kennedy tittered.
"STOP IT!" the man screeched, "STOP IT RIGHT
NOW! I can't take this any
more--" He whirled furiously upon Horatio, "I am--WAS!--AM!--Captain P--"
" NO!" Horatio gasped, comprehension dawning like,
well, the dawn. "Is that
really your name?" A memory flooded back into Horatio's disordered thoughts.
*******From Chapter 15**********
"Captain Pants _ A Tale of Seamen and Romance." Horatio raised an
eyebrow at his friend. "*Not* Shakespeare then?"
"Uh, no, Horatio. Look would you mind returning it to me?"
But greatly amused, Horatio turned to a random page within.
"Even though he knew that he should not, Twinkle, the
cabin boy put his ear
to the door." Again he threw his friend a querying glance. "The cabin boy's
name is 'Twinkle'?"
"Yes, Mr Hornblower." Archie's voice was resigned,
knowing that he had no
hope of escaping ridicule this time.
Horatio returned to reading the text. "The captain
drew Lady Tiffiny
towards him. He could feel her bosom heaving in time with the passionate
throbbing of his own heart. 'Oh, Captain,' she moaned, as she reached up to
stroke his strong manly--"
The man hissed, his eyes rolling around wildly in his handsome, lightly-bronzed face. "It is. MY name--one which was STOLEN from me and now I am the laughingstock of the entire British Navy!" He grabbed a handful of Kennedy's ripped bodice and shook him harshly, then put the pistol to his neck. "Archibald Kennedy--you have ruined my life--prepare to die!"
"But--I didn't really think--" Kennedy stammered, all traces of amusement in his light baritone now replaced by high, cracking hysteria, " I mean to say, I didn't deliberately set out to--HEY! How did you hurt your eye?"
"Opera singer," Captain Pants muttered. "Should've made her ditch the costume afore we--"
"You don't say." Archie's look grew faraway and speculative. "My. My, my, my."
"NO!" Captain Pants burst out, "I won't have it! Captain Pants' ain't gonna have any more romantic 'adventures'". He cocked his pistol, putting the butt of it right between Kennedy's eyes. "Consider this a termination of your publishing contract."
Suddenly, the door burst open and several drunken sailors appeared, clutching scraps of parchment and Marmite-stained serviettes. "It's him, mates! Crikey! It's Captain Pants!"
The sailors rushed upon the tall, blond, one-eyed sailor and began thrusting forth their papers and quills.
"Give us your autograph? Be a sport, mate."
"C'mon--for the missus--"
"--for the kiddies--"
"For my dear old mum, what's dyin'--"
"Tell us a story! A story about you and Lady Olga De Falzies! Hey! Look, he were in 'ere romancin' Annabelle!"
A bawdy cheer rose from the men, who all leered at Archie's disordered garments and general air of having had one's debauchery interrupted while still in progress. This was followed by several crude suggestions from Captain Pants.
Oldroyd was among the throng. "Get 'is autograph, blokes, then we'll make Miss Annabelle sing us another song!" There was a swell of lusty approbation for this suggestion. "On top of a table!" A louder cheer erupted. The men closed back in on their tall, blond, reluctant hero.
"Oldroyd!" Horatio called. "What the devil..?"
"I allus wanted to be like Captain Pants, sir." Oldroyd
said loudly. "Please Captain Hornblower, Sir, I just want
Already the throng of rough-looking seamen was crowding about the protesting Captain Pants, who was fighting to get back through them so he could once again level his pistol at Kennedy. "GAaaaah!" he shouted. "Get. Away. From. ME!"
"I mean," Horatio whispered to Oldroyd, "You
got free! How? Where are Styles and
He noticed their captor's henchman sneaking up behind the tall,
patchy-scalped blond seaman.
"Oldroyd! Behind you!"
Oldroyd whirled, deftly grabbed Twinkle's pistol by the barrel, wrenched it from his grasp, and bashed the slighter man over the head with it. He then sidled over, still holding a bit of lead and a stained scrap of paper that appeared to have been torn from the frontispiece of a penny novel.
"Never you mind about that, sir, except that it turns out some of yon one-eyed bloke's hired bullyboys didn't know they was working fer Captain Pants--I come to tell you this, Sirs," he whispered, including the dazed-looking Mr. Kennedy with a significant nod of the head, "Mr. Matthews compliments, and he asks if you would please both hold your noses, and jump out of the window, yonder, right away."
"Oldroyd?" Horatio said, as he began to drag Archie towards the window, "Aren't we on the third floor? The last time I tried this, it ended rather badly."
"Just jump," Oldroyd said, "You'll be all right."
Suddenly, Miriam burst into the room, she too, was waving a pistol. Horatio peered down into the darkness below the window. He could hear the faint stomping of horse's hooves, and see the faint gleam off the metal rings in their bridals and harnesses. He could smell--
"Sterling!" The young woman screeched, her face mottled with rage beneath the paint. "He were my da', he were, and you two killed him! Prepare to die!"
"Now would be a good time to jump," Oldroyd suggested.
The two young Britons grinned encouragement at each other and prepared to leap.
"Hold your noses, sirs."
For a split second, on the way down through the two stories worth balmy Australian night air, Horatio wondered about that latter suggestion, but upon landing in the back of what was surely a large, flat-bedded wagon, he experienced one of those satisfying flashes of perfect understanding. An accompanying soft whoomp/splitch told him that Kennedy had also succeeded in cushioning his fall with the soft, damp thickly-layered contents of the cart, and moments later, a shadow loomed overhead for the breadth of a second before a shower of clodlike objects hit Horatio in the side of the head, and he heard Oldroyd's peculiar high-pitched cackle.
"Horatio?" Archie said seriously. "I think we
have finally gotten ourselves into some seriously deep shit."
"That," Horatio replied, "is because we are sitting in the back of a fully-loaded dung cart."
"Oh no," Archie said, "Not again."
This statement puzzled Horatio a bit, but the cart lurched, then the wheels began to creak. "Archie, you have considerable explaining to do."
It was much too dark to see Archie wince, then blush. "I guess you now know my dirty little secret."
As they rounded a corner, Horatio saw Styles and Matthews at the reins. Styles grinned back, and the street lamps glinted off his big, stained teeth. "Sorry, sirs, couldn't find no hay."
Horatio struggled to stand on the back of the swaying cart, brushing clods of bullock dung off his uniform and attempting to rake bits of dung and undigested grass out of his chestnut curls with his long fingers.
"Well, the main thing is that you got us out of that awful brothel alive, I suppose." He cleared his throat. "Well done, men. Mr. Matthews," he said, adopting a sterner tone. "I request and require you to tell me where we are going."
"Why," Mr. Matthews replied evenly. "We are going straight to the Admiralty offices. I took the liberty," he nodded to indicate a wadded-up mass on the wagon seat beside him, "of bringing your cloak, sir."
"We can NOT go into an Admiralty Office looking like this!" Horatio exploded. He was torn between joy that the cloak with the bank notes in it had miraculously been saved, and a certain awkwardness at having to face the governor once more and explain why he hadn't ponied up the funds for the garrison when he handed over the sensitive documents earlier that day. Perhaps he could explain that his cloak had been being cleaned by his valet?
"Or smelling like this," added Archie. "It will take more than just a cloak and a damp rag, Matthews. I mean to say, even in Australia, there have to be SOME standards of--"
"Not to worry, sir," Matthews replied. Even now, the dung cart was pulling down a muddy side street. "Here we are. Nip in, Sirs. This here's a public bath that some of the sailors off the good old *Carmen* happened to tell me about."
And that, at least, was something. Nothing grand, but the place offered a basin of hot water, clean towels, and a sauna room where a coal-brazier took all the remaining chill out of the two young men's bones as they stood naked in the glow, energetically brushing and wringing as much of the residue from the dung cart out of Horatio's woolen uniform as they could. As for Archie, Matthews had miraculously succeeded in rounding up a decent Midshipman's uniform in approximately his size.
Horatio did not meet his companion's eyes. He sat with legs akimbo, frilly white linen draped over one long thigh, resentfully scrubbing a greenish-brown blotch from the cuff of his shirt.
"Why did you never tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
"About your--literary, um, er--"
"It was embarrassing, Horatio," Archie Kennedy swallowed, then licked his lips cautiously. The air in the sauna was very dry, but sweat trickled down his nose and upper lip, and he tasted the salt of it. "I knew I was writing rubbish--I knew I was doing it, but I couldn't stop myself. I am a slave to my muse."
"But when, Archie? Why?"
"It started when I was in prison, Horatio. Before you showed up, I was entirely alone--not another English-speaking person to talk to. I spent all day making up stories in my head to keep from going completely mad. I remembered hearing jokes, songs, and bawdy tales told about this fellow, Captain Pants, so I started to make up more amorous adventures. I mean, it wasn't as if I were in a position to have any of my own."
"I shouldn't think you'd know enough about that sort of thing to write convincingly about it," Horatio sniffed. "Or perhaps, that, too, is another of your secrets." He was genuinely hurt, and meant his words to sting.
"Perhaps I have a vivid imagination," Archie defended. "And I am not ENTIRELY without experience, although to be sure no man has ever had quite so MUCH in the petticoat line as Captain Pants. But seriously, didn't you ever wonder WHY I got promoted to Acting Lieutenant? I mean, it wasn't as if I had actually done anything to earn it in battle."
Horatio considered this. "I supposed it was because Pellew felt so badly that you had been left to molder in prison in France all those years."
"Don't be daft, Horatio," Archie admonished. "He didn't even remember me when I came back aboard the Indefatigable, not that I blame him. Recall how he legged it back to his cabin after they brought us aboard, then when we saw him half an hour later, his sleeve cuffs were covered with dust? What do you want to bet he dug through stacks of his old logs to try to recall my name?"
"I don't remember his uniform being dusty." Horatio was thinking instead of Miss Cobham in duck trousers and a thin linen shirt, belted tightly at the waist.
"Well, that is the sort of detail a real author notices," Archie said proudly. "Do you recall when you found me with that first novel?" Horatio nodded. "Well, I thought perhaps then, you might figure it out. It was a marked-up copy of my own. I was referring back to it to recall if Captain Pants had been with the wine-merchant's daughter in Oporto before or AFTER he met Lady de_____ in Seville. A vital plot point hinged upon---"
"Then why the promotion?" Horatio interrupted. Horatio's idea of a ripping bedtime read ran to mathematical textbooks, history, and books on astronomy and navigation. He really did NOT want to hear about the wine-merchant's daughter in Oporto, unless she were someone he were possibly going to meet, and who might be in need of his protection.
"Right. After we were released the second time, I wrote down my first story, just as I made it up in my head in prison in France. Those dogwatches are mighty long, Horatio, and just about nothing ever happens at that time of night. There is tons of time to sit and scribble and since I had already written the story in my mind, it only took a few weeks to commit it to paper."
Horatio nodded, and began to get dressed. "Continue."
"It was published by the first publisher to whom I submitted it, and became a terrific seller, making money by the potfull. Of course, I couldn't possibly keep the money, as I would have to account for how I got so much, so I told Captain Pellew I would rather it were channeled directly to the Admiralty coffers."
"Got terribly lucky at Whist?" Horatio ventured. Archie rolled his eyes. Everyone in the fleet knew he had no heads for the cards like his friend, Hornblower. "S'pose not."
"So you bought your commission after all?"
"Taking a page from My Lord Edrington's own book, Horatio. I didn't want to be the oldest Midshipman on the Navy record books. Sink me!--I was nearly getting to be Jack Simpson's age!"
"But you did pass your examination for Lieutenant."
"Yes, I did. That was fair and square, though I don't mind telling you, I wish I'd had old Foster on MY committee."
"Turns out he's rather a fan of Captain Pants--thinks the whole series is based on him."
"Four novels to date."
Horatio sighed. "You are a man of parts, Archie."
"You said it, not I." Archie grinned, and pulled on his breeches hastily. "But you can see why I do NOT want the money from the sales of my novels. It is not the sort of income I would care to explain to my family. They'd be less scandalized if they were to find out I sang in a brothel. You WILL keep my secret?"
"Does Pellew know about this?"
"Then I will be as close-mouthed as him." Horatio still felt vaguely resentful, but if the short snatches of "Captain Pants: A Tale of Seamen and Romance" that he had read were any true representation of the usual subject matter of his best friend's gripping narratives, he could see why neither Archie nor Pellew had cared to broadcast the fact that there was a purple proselytizer aboard the Indefatigable.
A short time later, they stood in the outer officers of the Governor of Port Jackson, in an unprepossessing wooden building, which appeared to have been hastily erected from old shipboards and chinked with stucco, then whitewashed. Port Jackson was such a new place. Ten years earlier, there had been little here but kangaroos; now there was a rough, bustling, ramshackle port town full of public houses, brothels, and a few government outposts such as this one. Visiting officials, such as representatives from the Admiralty, would make the Governor's "Palace" their temporary headquarters.
They were finally admitted, and gasped when they saw who awaited them inside. Both young men frantically outdid each other in their haste to straighten their spines and salute their old commanding officer.
"P-, Captain Pellew, sir?" Horatio was the first to stammer out his name.
Pellew's dark eyes flashed angrily beneath his thick, dark brows, and that all-too-familiar deep line between them signaled both unmistakable impatience and that another of their Captain's famous lectures was in the offing.
"Lt. Hornblower, you seem to have lost another ship!" was the first words out of his mouth.
"I am Lord Sydney, the Governor of Port Jackson," inserted the second man, a middle-aged chap with close-cropped gray-streaked hair said smoothly, extending his hand to Archie Kennedy, who he had not yet met. "And this is not a court-martial, not yet, Sir Edward." He nodded at Captain Pellew, who pursed his lips defiantly. "First of all, welcome to Australia. I trust your first evening in Port Jackson was convivial?"
Horatio and Archie both swallowed, then pasted faint social smiles on their faces.
"Quite," said Hornblower.
"Ripping," said Archie.
"Speaking of which," Horatio added, "Though I did lose the ship, I have brought the cargo." He shrugged off his cape, then removed a letter opener from the Governor's desktop and ripped the big seam which ran up the back of the cloak. A litter of bank notes and certificates, wrapped in oilskins, damp and somewhat faded but still legible, cascaded upon the dusty floor. Both lieutenants stooped to pick them up.
"Capital!" the Governor cried. "Just what we needed. You will no doubt be surprised to hear this, but Port Jackson has become a rough, lawless town since we have been unable to keep our troops paid up." He scrutinized the wad of notes. "This will satisfy the moneychangers, no doubt, of His Majesty's solvency."
He bowed to them. "You have both done very well. Our little port city is in your debt. And now I leave you to the good offices of your former Captain." He left the room and Pellew faced Hornblower and Kennedy alone.
"Would this be the court-martial, then?" Horatio asked, feigning a confidence he did not feel.
"Lt. HORNBLOWER, one Captain could scarcely be called a court-martial, sir! Sit down."
They did. And feeling rather foolish, both of them, as they always did in the presence of their renowned former Captain.
"So you lost your ship. And we have had half the fleet looking all over the Gulf of Carpentaria for those banknotes."
"It was my fault, Sir, I had the command," Archie interrupted. "Horatio was ill and there was this terrific storm and--
"Lt. Kennedy, spare me the details. I am not in the mood for another one of your rambling, slapdash flummeries of a report. I know what happened."
"You do?" They answered in unison.
"Yes, gentlemen, I do. And I don't mind telling you both that I am extremely angry. The angriest I have been since Quiberon Bay." At the sound of that fateful name, Horatio winced. "Putting good men in harm's way without giving them the vital information that they neededshocking lapse of judgementoffends every notion of strategic intelligence.."
Pellew paced the room before their chairs, his voice a low and menacing rumble. Horatio and Archie looked at each other apprehensively. They both supposed that they were about to lose their precious commissions, or at the very least be put ashore on half-pay by the angry commanding figure in front of them.
"--But at least, you two men saved the mission."
"The mission, sir? We were just couriers, I thought."
"Lt. Hornblower, you may not be aware of this, but word had been put out throughout the fleet that your small, inadequately armed ship, the *Petrel*, was sailing to Port Jackson with GOLD to pay the Garrison. Gold bullion, sir!"
Comprehension dawned. "We were being used as bait, sir?"
"Yes. Bait. A very good way to put it. Of course, another vessel WAS to follow yours at a discreet distance, relying on your well-known proficiency with navigation, they felt certain they could choose your very path across the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Admiralty knew there was a double-agent, and Spanish and Dutch privateers who were using his information to take our ships."
"But then we were shipwrecked."
"Yes, thank heavens Captain Roberts found you. Though he had quite a job of it, as you were blown severely off-course. Why in the end, they called me down here to straighten the whole mess outvery grateful, of course. Named a couple of islands after me."
"Ah, no, Lt. Kennedy. I think their most distinctive feature is a quantity of bird guano." Pellew scowled again.
"We really did think Captain Roberts was a pirate." Horatio was determined to bring Pellew quickly back to the subject, before he began to brood too long about having become the unwitting namesake of several inaccessible piles of bird droppings.
"Captain Roberts is one of our foremost pirate-impersonators.
The Petrel was not a well-founded ship and was scheduled to be
scuttled as soon as your mission was completed. I am not surprised
she could not withstand the typhoon"
Scheduled to be scuttled, Archie thought. He thought he might use that somewhere. It was rather ironic.
"Di Cesare had the devil of the time tracking you two, but it so happened that in the process of casting his nets and snares to bring you two back to civilization, such as it is, he was able to round up every single double-agent and rogue privateer that had been causing His Majesty difficulties in this benighted *terra incognita*. Better still, the notes got safely to Port Jackson and into the Governor's hands, and you men even killed that traitor, Sterling. Very good work, saves us the bother and expense of trying him and hanging him."
"Actually, he choked.."
Archie kicked Horatio viciously in the ankle.
"Take the bleedin' credit," he mouthed silently.
"Then I take it," Horatio resumed cautiously, "that we are not to be disciplined."
"Good GOD, no!" Pellew bellowed. "You are to be PROMOTED."
He handed them both a packet of papers. "Here are your orders to travel back to Gibraltar. There you have been accepted to join the officers on the *Renown*."
"The Renown, Sir?" Archie asked, eyes suddenly wide.
"That's what I just said, isn't it, Lt. Kennedy?" Pellew sighed. Archie was more of an echo sometimes than a source.
"Captain Sawyer!" Horatio exclaimed. "A Ship of the Line--Seventy-two guns, Archie!"
"Is that not what you have always wanted, Mr. Hornblower?" Unconsciously, Pellew had slipped back into the style of address he used when Horatio was but a Midshipman under his command.
Horatio stood and squared his shoulders. "If I cannot remain under your command, Sir, I can think of no greater honor than to serve under a hero of the Battle of the Nile--one of Nelson's Own."
Pellew smiled faintly, then dismissed them both. "Kennedy?" he called out, just as they were leaving the room.
"Lord Hood is eager for the next installment."
"It is a very long voyage back to Gibraltar, and your duties aboard the transport will be rather light."
"I take your meaning, Sir."
He saluted cheerfully, then whirled to rejoin his friend in the hallway.
"Are you really going to write another?"
"Actually, now that I have met the real Captain Pants, I fear I shall never again be able to summon up that particular muse, but I do have this other idea.."
"Suppose these two lieutenants, one terrifically blond and handsome and the other sort of--um--tall and--anyway, suppose they got shipwrecked on a island in the South Pacific, and some of the natives wanted to eat them, but others were beautiful girls and they wanted to---"
"Archie?" Horatio asked.
"--of course, the blond fellow, they would want to worship him as a god, and--"
"Of course. Archie?"
"--but the girls, who were generally naked, of course--"
"Don't be daft. Nobody wants to read a story about that. Not even depraved sailors who haven't seen a woman in six bloody months want to read a story about that. It's too farfetched. And much, MUCH too silly."
"I suppose you are right."
"That business about the Flying Dutchman, and pirate gold on the island, and a ghost ship where we ate wombats with Hal Trevelyan, and all those really strange things I told you about--that really was a nightmare hallucination brought on by a spider bite, right?"
Archie's blue eyes were wide with innocence. "Of course!"
And the two men journeyed companionably down the rustic streets of Port Jackson, papers in hand, scanning the harbor for their first sight of the ship that was, according to their new orders, to convey back to Gibraltar and, hopefully, their first chance for glory in major fleet actions aboard a real Ship-of-the-Line.
But that would be another adventure.
Far out to sea off the coast of the New Hebrides, Johannes, First Mate of the Flying Dutchman, entered his Captain's cabin without knocking. Hundreds of years of familiarity had resulted in a certain laxity where respect for privacy was concerned. Barefoot, he made no sound on the exquisitely-planked floors of the supernaturally-maintained ghost ship. He found his Captain engrossed in a small volume, clutching a rolled up hammock and for all the world appearing to make passionate love to it while periodically glancing back at the pages of the little book. His lips moved as he made out the English words.
"My darling, your lips are like the petals of the fairest rose that ever.." He tucked an arm under the rolled hammock and heaved it to a sitting position, grabbing it with the other hand and planting a sloppy kiss somewhere up near the tied end of the roll.
"Skip? What are you doing?"
"I'm practicing. Go away."
Johannes picked up the book, and scanned the title. "*Captain Pants In the West Undies*", he read aloud. "Where did you find THIS?"
"I think that Trevelyan fellow must have left it behind. Observe, Johannes, women just throw themselves at this fellow, this Captain Pants," Vanderdecker explained, "He romances them just a little, and they fall madly in love. Seems to take him no time at all." He cleared his throat gruffly. "Thought I might study his methods. Now, shove off and let me work on this awhile."
Johannes began to read a page at random, then rolled a rummy eye at his Captain, who was still trying to punch and fluff the rolled hammock into something resembling a swooning female shape.
"We're all doomed."
"Eternal Damnation and Ceaseless Wandering."
"Johannes, go away."
"Our story will never end," Johannes wailed.
But this one did.