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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Forester Cecil Scott
 

«Hornblower and the Widow McCool», Cecil Forester

(Published in the US as: “Hornblower’s temptation”)

 

The Channel fleet was taking shelter at last. The roaring westerly gales had worked up to such a pitch that timber and canvas and cordage could withstand them no longer, and nineteen ships of the line and seven frigates, with Admiral Lord Bridport flying his flag in HMS Victory, had momentarily abandoned that watch over Brest which they had maintained for six years. Now they were rounding Berry Head and dropping anchor in the shelter of Tor Bay. A landsman, with that wind shrieking round him, might be pardoned for wondering how much shelter was to be found there, but to the weary and weatherbeaten crews who had spent so long tossing in the Biscay waves and clawing away from the rocky coast of Brittany, that foamwhitened anchorage was like paradise. Boats could even be sent in to Brixham and Torquay to return with letters and fresh water; in most of the ships, officers and men had gone for three months without either. Even on that winter day there was intense physical pleasure in opening the throat and pouring down it a draught of fresh clear water, so different from the stinking green liquid doled out under guard yesterday.

The junior lieutenant in HMS Renown was walking the deck muffled in his heavy pea jacket while his ship wallowed at her anchor. The piercing wind set his eyes watering, but he continually gazed through his telescope nevertheless; for, as signal lieutenant, he was responsible for the rapid reading and transmission of messages, and this was a likely moment for orders to be given regarding sick and stores, and for captains and admirals to start chattering together, for invitations to dinner to be passed back and forth, and even for news to be disseminated.

He watched a small boat claw its way towards the ship from the French prize the fleet had snapped up yesterday on its way upChannel. Hart, master’s mate, had been sent on board from the Renown, as prizemaster, miraculously making the perilous journey. Now here was Hart, with the prize safely anchored amid the fleet, returning on board to make some sort of report. That hardly seemed likely to be of interest to a signal lieutenant, but Hart appeared excited as he came on board, and hurried below with his news after reporting himself in the briefest terms to the officer of the watch. But only a very few minutes passed before the signal lieutenant found himself called upon to be most active.

It was Captain Sawyer himself who came on deck, Hart following him, to supervise the transmission of the messages. “Mr. Hornblower!”

“Sir!”

“Kindly send this signal.”

It was for the admiral himself, from the captain; that part was easy; only two hoists were necessary to say ‘Renown to Flag’. And there were other technical terms which could be quickly expressed—‘prize’ and ‘French’ and ‘brig’—but there were names which would have to be spelled out letter for letter. ‘Prize is French national brig Espérance having on board Barry McCool.’

“Mr. James!” bellowed Hornblower. The signal midshipman was waiting at his elbow, but midshipmen should always be bellowed at, especially by a lieutenant with a very new commission.

Hornblower reeled off the numbers, and the signal went soaring up to the yardarm; the signal halyards vibrated wildly as the gale tore at the flags. Captain Sawyer waited on deck for the reply; this business must be important. Hornblower read the message again, for until that moment he had only studied it as something to be transmitted. But even on reading it he did not know why the message should be important. Until three months before, he had been a prisoner in Spanish hands for two weary years, and there were gaps in his knowledge of recent history. The name of Barry McCool meant nothing to him.

On the other hand, it seemed to mean a great deal to the admiral, for hardly had sufficient time elapsed for the message to be carried below to him than a question soared up to the Victory’s yardarm.

“Flag to Renown.” Hornblower read those flags as they broke and was instantly ready for the rest of the message. “Is McCool alive?”

“Reply affirmative,” said Captain Sawyer.

And the affirmative had hardly been hoisted before the next signal was fluttering in the Victory.

“Have him on board at once. Court martial will assemble.”

A court martial! Who on earth was this man McCool? A deserter? The recapture of a mere deserter would not be a matter for the commanderinchief. A traitor? Strange that a traitor should be courtmartialled in the fleet. But there it was. A word from the captain sent Hart scurrying overside to bring this mysterious prisoner on board, while signal after signal went up from the Victory convening the court martial in the Renown.

Hornblower was kept busy enough reading the messages; he had only a glance to spare when Hart had his prisoner and his sea chest hoisted up over the port side. A youngish man, tall and slender, his hands were tied behind him—which was why he had to be hoisted in—and he was hatless, so that his long red hair streamed in the wind. He wore a blue uniform with red facings—a French infantry uniform, apparently. The name, the uniform, and the red hair combined to give Hornblower his first insight into the situation. McCool must be an Irishman. While Hornblower had been a prisoner in Ferrol, there had been, he knew, a bloody rebellion in Ireland. Irishmen who had escaped had taken service with France in large number. This must be one of them, but it hardly explained why the admiral should take it upon himself to try him instead of handing him over to the civil authorities.

Hornblower had to wait an hour for the explanation, until, at two bells in the next watch, dinner was served in the gun room.

“There’ll be a pretty little ceremony tomorrow morning,” said Clive, the surgeon. He put his hand to his neck in a gesture which Hornblower thought hideous.

“I hope the effect will be salutary,” said Roberts, they second lieutenant. The foot of the table, where he sat, was for the moment the head, because Buckland, the first lieutenant, was absent attending to the preparations for the court martial.

“But why should we hang him?” asked Hornblower.

Roberts rolled an eye on him.

“Deserter,” he said, and then went on. “Of course, you’re a newcomer. I entered him myself, into this very ship, in ‘98. Hart spotted him at once.”

“But I thought he was a rebel?”

“A rebel as well,” said Roberts. “The quickest way out of Ireland—the only way, in fact—in ‘98 was to join the armed forces.”

“I see,” said Hornblower.


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