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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Forester Cecil Scott
 

«Mr. Midshipman Hornblower», Cecil Forester

The Even Chance

A January gale was roaring up the Channel, blustering loudly, and bearing in its bosom rain squalls whose big drops rattled loudly on the tarpaulin clothing of those among the officers and men whose duties kept them on deck. So hard and so long had the gale blown that even in the sheltered waters of Spithead the battleship moved uneasily at her anchors, pitching a little in the choppy seas, and snubbing herself against the tautened cables with unexpected jerks. A shore boat was on its way out to her, propelled by oars in the hands of two sturdy women; it danced madly on the steep little waves, now and then putting its nose into one and sending a sheet of spray flying aft. The oarswoman in the bow knew her business, and with rapid glances over her shoulder not only kept the boat on its course but turned the bows into the worst of the waves to keep from capsizing. It slowly drew up along the starboard side of the Justinian, and as it approached the mainchains the midshipman of the watch hailed it.

“Aye aye” came back the answering hail from the lusty lungs of the woman at the stroke oar; by the curious and ages-old convention of the Navy the reply meant that the boat had an officer on board—presumably the huddled figure in the sternsheets looking more like a heap of trash with a boat-cloak thrown over it.

That was as much as Mr. Masters, the lieutenant of the watch, could see; he was sheltering as best he could in the lee of the mizzen-mast bitts, and in obedience to the order of the midshipman of the watch the boat drew up towards the mainchains and passed out of his sight. There was a long delay; apparently the officer had some difficulty in getting up the ship’s side. At last the boat reappeared in Masters’ held of vision; the women had shoved off and were setting a scrap of lugsail, under which the boat, now without its passenger, went swooping back towards Portsmouth, leaping on the waves like a steeplechaser. As it departed Mr. Masters became aware of the near approach of someone along the quarterdeck; it was the new arrival under the escort of the midshipman of the watch, who, after pointing Masters out, retired to the mainchains again. Mr. Masters had served in the Navy until his hair was white; he was lucky to have received his commission as lieutenant, and he had long known that he would never receive one as captain, but the knowledge had not greatly embittered him, and he diverted his mind by the study of his fellow men.

So he looked with attention at the approaching figure. It was that of a skinny young man only just leaving boyhood behind, something above middle height, with feet whose adolescent proportions to his size were accentuated by the thinness of his legs and his big half-boots. His gawkiness called attention to his hands and elbows. The newcomer was dressed in a badly fitting uniform which was soaked right through by the spray; a skinny neck stuck out of the high stock, and above the neck was a white bony face. A white face was a rarity on the deck of a ship of war, whose crew soon tanned to a deep mahogany, but this face was not merely white; in the hollow cheeks there was a faint shade of green—clearly the newcomer had experienced seasickness in his passage out in the shore boat. Set in the white face were a pair of dark eyes which by contrast looked like holes cut in a sheet of paper; Masters noted with a slight stirring of interest that the eyes, despite their owner’s seasickness, were looking about keenly, taking in what were obviously new sights; there was a curiosity and interest there which could not be repressed and which continued to function notwithstanding either seasickness or shyness, and Mr. Masters surmised in his far-fetched fashion that this boy had a vein of caution or foresight in his temperament and was already studying his new surroundings with a view to being prepared for his next experiences. So might Daniel have looked about him at the lions when he first entered their den.

The dark eyes met Masters’, and the gawky figure came to a halt, raising a hand selfconsciously to the brim of his dripping hat. His mouth opened and tried to say something, but closed again without achieving its object as shyness overcame him, but then the newcomer nerved himself afresh and forced himself to say the formal words he had been coached to utter.

“Come aboard, sir.”

“Your name?” asked Masters, after waiting for it for a moment.

“H-Horatio Hornblower, sir. Midshipman,” stuttered the boy.

“Very good, Mr. Hornblower,” said Masters, with the equally formal response. “Did you bring your dunnage aboard with you?”

Hornblower had never heard that word before, but he still had enough of his wits about him to deduce what it meant.

“My sea chest, sir. It’s—it’s forrard, at the entry port.”

Hornblower said these things with the barest hesitation; he knew that at sea they said them, that they pronounced the word ‘forward’ like that, and that he had come on board through the ‘entry port’, but it called for a slight effort to utter them himself.

“I’ll see that it’s sent below,” said Masters. “And that’s where you’d better go, too. The captain’s ashore, and the first lieutenant’s orders were that he’s not to be called on any account before eight bells, so I advise you, Mr. Hornblower, to get out of those wet clothes while you can.”

“Yes, sir,” said Hornblower; his senses told him, the moment he said it, that he had used an improper expression—the look on Masters’ face told him, and he corrected himself (hardly believing that men really said these things off the boards of the stage) before Masters had time to correct him.

“Aye aye, sir,” said Hornblower, and as a second afterthought he put his hand to the brim of his hat again.

Masters returned the compliment and turned to one of the shivering messengers cowering in the inadequate shelter of the bulwark. “Boy! Take Mr. Hornblower down to the midshipmen’s berth.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Hornblower accompanied the boy forward to the main hatchway. Seasickness alone would have made him unsteady on his feet, but twice on the short journey he stumbled like a man tripping over a rope as a sharp gust brought the Justinian up against her cables with a jerk. At the hatchway the boy slid down the ladder like an eel over a rock; Hornblower had to brace himself and descend far more gingerly and uncertainly into the dim light of the lower gundeck and then into the twilight of the ‘tweendecks. The smells that entered his nostrils were as strange and as assorted as the noises that assailed his ears. At the foot of each ladder the boy waited for him with a patience whose tolerance was just obvious. After the last descent, a few steps—Hornblower had already lost his sense of direction and did not know whether it was aft or forward—took them to a gloomy recess whose shadows were accentuated rather than lightened by a tallow dip spiked onto a bit of copper plate on a table round which were seated half a dozen shirt-sleeved men. The boy vanished and left Hornblower standing there, and it was a second or two before the whiskered man at the head of the table looked up at him.

“Speak, thou apparition,” said he.

Hornblower felt a wave of nausea overcoming him—the after effects of his trip in the shore boat were being accentuated by the incredible stuffiness and smelliness of the ‘tweendecks. It was very hard to speak, and the fact that he did not know how to phrase what he wanted to say made it harder still.

“My name is Hornblower,” he quavered at length.

“What an infernal piece of bad luck for you,” said a second man at the table, with a complete absence of sympathy.

At that moment in the roaring world outside the ship the wind veered sharply, heeling the Justinian a trifle and swinging her round to snub at her cables again. To Hornblower it seemed more as if the world had come loose from its fastenings. He reeled where he stood, and although he was shuddering with cold he felt sweat on his face.


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