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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Forester Cecil Scott

«The Happy Return», Cecil Forester

(Published in the US as: “Beat To Quarters”)

Chapter I

It was not long after dawn that Captain Hornblower came up on the quarterdeck of the Lydia. Bush, the first lieutenant, was officer of the watch, and touched his hat but did not speak to him; in a voyage which had by now lasted seven months without touching land he had learned something of his captain’s likes and dislikes. During this first hour of the day the captain was not to be spoken to, nor his train of thought interrupted.

In accordance with standing orders—hallowed by now with the tradition which is likely to accumulate during a voyage of such incredible length—Brown, the captain’s coxswain, had seen to it that the weather side of the quarterdeck had been holystoned and sanded at the first peep of daylight. Bush and the midshipman with him withdrew to the lee side at Hornblower’s first appearance, and Hornblower immediately began his daily hour’s walk up and down, up and down the twentyone feet of deck which had been sanded for him. On one hand his walk was limited by the slides of the quarterdeck carronades; on the other by the row of ringbolts in the deck for the attachment of the carronade train tackles; the space of deck on which Captain Hornblower was accustomed to exercise himself for an hour each morning was thus five feet wide and twentyone feet long.

Up and down, up and down, paced Captain Hornblower. Although he was entirely lost in thought, his subordinates knew by experience that his sailor’s instinct was quite alert; subconsciously his mind took note of the shadow of the main rigging across the deck, and of the feel of the breeze on his cheek, so that the slightest inattention on the part of the quartermaster at the wheel called forth a bitter rebuke from the captain—the more bitter in that he had been disturbed in this, the most important hour of his day. In the same way he was aware, without having taken special note, of all the salient facts of the prevailing conditions. On his awakening in his cot he had seen (without willing it) from the tell tale compass in the deck over his head that the course was north east, as it had been for the last three days. At the moment of his arrival on deck he had subconsciously noted that the wind was from the west, and just strong enough to give the ship steerage way, with all sail set to the royals, that the sky was of its perennial blue, and that the sea was almost flat calm, with a long peaceful swell over which the Lydia seared and swooped with profound regularity.

The first thing Captain Hornblower was aware of thinking was that the Pacific in the morning, deep blue overside and changing to silver towards the horizon, was like some heraldic blazon of argent and azure—and then he almost smiled to himself because that simile had come up in his mind every morning for the last fortnight. With the thought and the smile his mind was instantly working smoothly and rapidly. He looked down the gangways at the men at work holystoning; down on the maindeck, as he came forward, he could see another party engaged on the same task. They were talking in ordinary tones. Twice he heard a laugh. That was well. Men who could talk and laugh in that fashion were not likely to be plotting mutiny—and Captain Hornblower had that possibility much in mind lately. Seven months at sea had almost consumed the ship’s stores. A week ago he had cut the daily ration of water to three pints a day, and three pints a day was hardly sufficient for men living on salt meat and biscuit in ten degrees north latitude, especially as water seven months in cask was half solid with green living things.

A week ago, too, the very last of the lemon juice had been served out, and there would be scurvy to reckon with within a month and no surgeon on board. Hankey the surgeon had died of all the complications of drink and syphilis off the Horn. For a month now tobacco had been doled out in half ounces weekly—Hornblower congratulated himself now on having taken the tobacco under his sole charge. If he had not done so the thoughtless fools would have used up their whole store, and men deprived of tobacco were men who could not be relied upon. He knew that the men were more concerned about the shortage of tobacco than about the shortage of fuel for the galley which caused them each day to be given their salt pork only just brought to the boil in seawater.

The shortage of tobacco, of water and of wood was nothing nearly as important, however, as the imminent shortage of grog. He had not dared to cut that daily issue, and there was only rum for ten more days in the ship. Not the finest crew in the world could be relied on if deprived of their ration of rum. Here they were in the South Sea, with no other King’s ship within two thousand miles of them. Somewhere to the westward were islands of romance, with beautiful women, and food to be got without labour. A life of happy idleness was within their reach. Some knave among the crew, better informed than the rest, would give the hint. It would not be attended to at present, but in the future, with no blessed interval of grog at noon, the men would be ready to listen. Ever since the crew of the Bounty had mutinied, seduced by the charms of the Pacific, the captain of every ship of His Britannic Majesty whose duty took him there was haunted by this fear.

Hornblower, pacing the deck, looked sharply once more at the crew. Seven months at sea without once touching land had given an admirable opportunity for training the gang of gaolbirds and pressed men into seamen, but it was too long without distraction. The sooner now that he could reach the coast of Nicaragua, the better. A run ashore would distract the men, and there would be water and fresh food and tobacco and spirits to be got. Hornblower’s mind began to run back through his recent calculations of the ship’s position. He was certain about his latitude, and last night’s lunar observations had seemed to confirm the chronometer’s indication of the longitude—even though it seemed incredible that chronometers could be relied upon at all after a seven months’ voyage. Probably less than one hundred miles ahead, at most three hundred, lay the Pacific coast of Central America. Crystal the master had shaken his head in doubt at Hornblower’s positiveness, but Crystal was an old fool, and of no use as a navigator. Anyway, two or three more days would see who was right.

At once Hornblower’s mind shifted to the problem of how to spend the next two or three days. The men must be kept busy. There was nothing like long idle days to breed mutiny—Hornblower never feared mutiny during the wild ten weeks of beating round the Horn. In the forenoon watch he would clear for action and practice the men at the guns, five rounds from each. The concussion might kill the wind for a space, but that could not be helped. It would be the last opportunity, perhaps, before the guns would be in action in earnest.

Another calculation came up in Hornblower’s mind. Five rounds from the guns would consume over a ton weight of powder and shot. The Lydia was riding light already with her stores nearly all consumed. Hornblower called up before his mental eye a picture of the frigate’s hold and the positions of the store rooms. It was time that he paid attention to the trim of the ship again. After the men had had their dinner he would put off in the quarter boat and pull round the ship. She would be by the stern a little now, he expected. That could be put right tomorrow by shifting the two No. 1 carronades on the forecastle forward to their original positions. And as the ship would have to shorten sail while he was in the quarter boat he might as well do the job properly and give Bush a free hand in exercising the crew aloft. Bush had a passion for that kind of seamanship, as a first lieutenant quite rightly should. Today the crew might beat their previous record of eleven minutes fiftyone seconds for sending up topmasts, and of twentyfour minutes seven seconds for setting all sail starting with topmast housed. Neither of those times, Hornblower agreed with Bush, was nearly as good as they might be; plenty of ships had set up better figures—at least so their captains had said.

Hornblower became aware that the wind had increased a tiny amount, sufficiently to call forth a faint whispering from the rigging. From the feel of it upon his neck and cheek he deduced it must have shifted aft a point or perhaps two, as well, and even as his mind registered these observations, and began to wonder how soon Bush would take notice of it, he heard the call for the watch. Clay, the midshipman on the quarterdeck, was bellowing like a bull for the afterguard. That boy’s voice had broken since they left England; he was learning to use it properly now, instead of alternately squeaking and croaking. Still without taking visual notice of what was going on, Hornblower as he continued pacing the quarterdeck listened to the familiar sequence of sounds as the watch came tumbling aft to the braces. A crack and a yelp told him that Harrison the boatswain had landed with his cane on the stern of some laggardly or unlucky sailor. Harrison was a fine seaman, but with a weakness for using his cane on wellrounded sterns. Any man who filled his trousers out tight was likely to get a welt across the seat of them solely for that reason, especially if he was unluckily engaged as Harrison came by in some occupation which necessitated bending forward.

Hornblower’s meditations regarding Harrison’s weakness had occupied nearly all the time necessary for the trimming of the sails; as they came to an end Harrison roared “Belay!” and the watch trooped back to their previous duties. Tingting, tingting, tingting, ting went the bell. Seven bells in the morning watch. Homblower had been walking for well over his covenanted hour, and he was aware of a gratifying trickle of sweat under his shirt. He walked over to where Bush was standing by the wheel.

“Good morning, Mr. Bush,” said Captain Hornblower.

“Good morning, sir,” said Bush, exactly as if Captain Hornblower had not been walking up and down within four yards of him for the last hour and a quarter.

Hornblower looked at the slate which bore the rough log of the last twentyfour hours; there was nothing of special note—the hourly casting of the log had given speeds of three knots, four and a half knots, four knots, and so on, while the traverse board showed that the ship had contrived to hold to her north easterly course throughout the day. The captain was aware of a keen scrutiny from his first lieutenant, and he knew that internally the lieutenant seethed with questions. There was only one man on board who knew whither the Lydia was bound, and that was the captain. He had sailed with sealed orders, and when he had opened and read them, in accordance with his instructions, in 30° N. 20° W., he had not seen fit to tell even his second in command what they contained. For seven months Lieutenant Bush had contrived to refrain from asking questions, but the strain was visibly telling on him.

“Ha-h’m,” said Hornblower, clearing his throat noncommittally. Without a word he hung up the slate and went down the companion and entered his sleepingcabin.

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