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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Forester Cecil Scott
 

«Lieutenant Hornblower», Cecil Forester

Chapter I

Lieutenant William Bush came on board HMS Renown as she lay at anchor in the Hamoaze and reported himself to the officer of the watch, who was a tall and rather gangling individual with hollow cheeks and a melancholy cast of countenance, whose uniform looked as if it had been put on in the dark and not readjusted since.

“Glad to have you aboard, sir,” said the officer of the watch. “My name’s Hornblower. The captain’s ashore. First lieutenant went for’ard with the bosun ten minutes ago.”

“Thank you,” said Bush.

He looked keenly round him at the infinity of activities which were making the ship ready for a long period of service in distant waters.

“Hey there! You at the stay tackles! Handsomely! Handsomely! Belay!” Hornblower was bellowing this over Bush’s shoulder. “Mr. Hobbs! Keep an eye on what your men are doing there!”

“Aye aye, sir,” came a sulky reply.

“Mr. Hobbs! Lay aft here!”

A paunchy individual with a thick grey pigtail came rolling aft to where Hornblower stood with Bush at the gangway. He blinked up at Hornblower with the sun in his eyes; the sunlight lit up the sprouting grey beard on his tiers of chins.

“Mr. Hobbs!” said Hornblower. He spoke quietly, but there was an intensity of spirit underlying his words that surprised Bush. “That powder’s got to come aboard before nightfall and you know it. So don’t use that tone of voice when replying to an order. Answer cheerfully another time. How are you going to get the men to work if you sulk? Get for’ard and see to it.”

Hornblower was leaning a little forward as he spoke; the hands which he clasped behind him served apparently to balance the jutting chin, but his attitude was negligent compared with the fierce intensity with which he spoke, even though he was speaking in an undertone inaudible to all except the three of them.

“Aye aye, sir,” said Hobbs, turning to go forward again.

Bush was making a mental note that this Hornblower was a firebrand when he met his glance and saw to his surprise a ghost of a twinkle in their melancholy depths. In a flash of insight he realised that this fierce young lieutenant was not fierce at all, and that the intensity with which he spoke was entirely assumed—it was almost as if Hornblower had been exercising himself in a foreign language.

“If they once start sulking you can’t do anything with’em,” explained Hornblower, “and Hobbs is the worst of ‘em—actinggunner, and no good. Lazy as they make ‘em.”

“I see,” said Bush.

The duplicity—play acting—of the young lieutenant aroused a momentary suspicion in Bush’s mind. A man who could assume an appearance of wrath and abandon it again with so much facility was not to be trusted. Then, with an inevitable reaction, the twinkle in the brown eyes called up a responsive twinkle in Bush’s frank blue eyes, and he felt a friendly impulse towards Hornblower, but Bush was innately cautious and checked the impulse at once, for there was a long voyage ahead of them and plenty of time for a more considered judgment. Meanwhile he was conscious of a keen scrutiny, and he could see that a question was imminent—and even Bush could guess what it would be. The next moment proved him right.

“What’s the date of your commission?” asked Hornblower.

“July ‘96,” said Bush.

“Thank you,” said Hornblower in a flat tone that conveyed so little information that Bush had to ask the question in his turn.

“What’s the date of yours?”

“August ‘97,” said Hornblower. “You’re senior to me. You’re senior to Smith, too—January ‘97.”

“Are you the junior lieutenant, then?”

“Yes,” said Hornblower.

His tone did not reveal any disappointment that the newcomer had proved to be senior to him, but Bush could guess at it. Bush knew by very recent experience what it was to be the junior lieutenant in a ship of the line.

“You’ll be third,” went on Hornblower. “Smith fourth, and I’m fifth.”

“I’ll be third?” mused Bush, more to himself than to anyone else.

Every lieutenant could at least dream, even lieutenants like Bush with no imagination at all. Promotion was at least theoretically possible; from the caterpillar stage of lieutenant one might progress to the butterfly stage of captain, sometimes even without a chrysalis period as commander. Lieutenants undoubtedly were promoted on occasions; most of them, as was to be expected, being men who had friends at Court, or in Parliament, or who had been fortunate enough to attract the attention of an admiral and then lucky enough to be under that admiral’s command at the moment when a vacancy occurred. Most of the captains on the list owed their promotion to one or other of such causes. But sometimes a lieutenant won his promotion through merit—through a combination of merit and good fortune, at least—and sometimes sheer blind chance brought it about. If a ship distinguished herself superlatively in some historic action the first lieutenant might be promoted (oddly enough, that promotion was considered a compliment to her captain), or if the captain should be killed in the action even a moderate success might result in a step for the senior surviving lieutenant who took his place. On the other hand some brilliant boataction, some dashing exploit on shore, might win promotion for the lieutenant in command—the senior, of course. The chances were few enough in all conscience, but there were at least chances.

But of those few chances the great majority went to the senior lieutenant, to the first lieutenant; the chances of the junior lieutenant were doubly few. So that whenever a lieutenant dreamed of attaining the rank of captain, with its dignity and security and prize money, he soon found himself harking back to the consideration of his seniority as lieutenant. If this next commission of the Renown’s took her away to some place where other lieutenants could not be sent on board by an admiral with favourites, there were only two lives between Bush and the position of first lieutenant with all its added chances of promotion. Naturally he thought about that; equally naturally he did not spare a thought for the fact that the man with whom he was conversing was divided by four lives from that same position.

“But still, it’s the West Indies for us, anyway,” said Hornblower philosophically. “Yellow fever. Ague. Hurricanes. Poisonous serpents. Bad water. Tropical heat. Putrid fever. And ten times more chances of action than with the Channel fleet.”

“That’s so,” agreed Bush, appreciatively.


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