Выбрать главу

He managed to say all that was necessary. The Corsican tyrant. The yeomen stock of England. The King and the Prince Regent. Lady Barbara. Richard. When he finished there was another awkward pause while people looked at each other, before one of the farmers stepped forward.

“Three cheers for ‘Er Ladyship!”

Everyone cheered, to Richard’s astonishment, expressed in a loud yell.

“Three cheers for Sir Horatio! One, two, three, an’ a tiger!”

There was nothing left to do now, except to withdraw gracefully into the house again and leave the tenantry to disperse. Thank God it was all over, anyway. John, the footman, stood at what obviously he thought was attention in the hall. Hornblower made a weary mental note to teach him to keep his elbows into his sides. If he were going to employ a footman he would make a good footman out of him. Here came the nurse, swooping down to find out how wet Richard had made himself. And here came the butler, hobbling along with a letter on a salver. Hornblower felt a rush of blood into his face as he saw the seal; that seal and that thick linen paper were only used by the Admiralty, as far as he knew. It was months, and it seemed like years, since he had last received any letter from the Admiralty. He snatched the letter from the salver, and only by the mercy of Providence remembered to glance at Barbara in apology, before breaking the seal.

The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty,


10th April, 1812


I am commanded by the Lords Commissioners to inform you that their Lordships desire to employ you immediately as Commodore with a Captain under you on a service which their Lordships consider worthy of an officer of your seniority and standing. You are hereby directed and required, therefore, to inform their Lordships through me as speedily as possible as to whether or not you will accept this appointment, and in the event of your accepting it you are further directed and required to present yourself in person at this office without delay in order to receive verbally their Lordships’ instructions and also those of any other Minister of State whom it may be judged necessary you should address.

Your obed’t servant,

E. NEPEAN, Secy to the Lords Commissioners

of the Admiralty

Hornblower had to read the letter twice — the first time it conveyed no meaning to him at all. But at the second reading the glorious import of the letter burst in upon him. The first thing he was conscious of was that this life here in Smallbridge or in Bond Street need not continue. He was free of all that; he could take a bath under a wash-deck pump instead of in a damned hip-bath with a kettleful of water in it; he could walk his own deck, breathe the sea air, take off these damned tight trousers and never put them on again, receive no deputations, speak to no damned tenants, never smell another pigsty or smack another horse’s back, And that was only the first thing; the second was that he was being offered appointment as Commodore — a Commodore of the first class, too, with a captain under him, so that he would be like an Admiral. He would have a broad pennant flying at the mainmast-head, compliments and honours — not that they mattered, but they would be outward signs of the trust reposed in him, of the promotion that was his. Louis at the Admiralty must have a good opinion of him, clearly, to appoint him Commodore when he was hardly more than half-way up the Captains’ list. Of course, that phrase about ‘worthy of his seniority and standing’ was merely formula, justifying the Admiralty in anticipation in putting him on half-pay should he decline; but — those last words, about consulting with Ministers of State, had enormous import. They meant that the mission to be entrusted to him would be one of responsibility, of international importance. Waves of excitement broke over him.

He hauled out his watch. Ten-fifteen — the day was still young by civilian standards.

“Where’s Brown?” he snapped at Wiggins.

Brown materialized miraculously in the background — not too miraculously, perhaps; the whole house must be aware, of course, that the master had received a letter from the Admiralty.

“Get out my best uniform and my sword. Have the horses put-to in the chariot. You had better come with me, Brown — I shall want you to drive. Have my things for the night ready and yours too.”

The servants scattered in all directions, for not merely must the weighty orders of the master be obeyed, but this was an affair of State and doubly important in consequence. So that as Hornblower came out of his preoccupation Barbara was standing there alone.

God, he had forgotten all about her in his excitement, and she was aware of it. She was drooping a little, and one corner of her mouth was down. Their eyes met then, and that corner of her mouth went up for a moment, but then it went down again.

“It’s the Admiralty,” explained Hornblower lamely. “They’ll appoint me Commodore with a captain under me.”

It was a pity that Hornblower could see her try to appear pleased.

“That’s a high compliment,” she said. “No more than you deserve, my dear, all the same. You must be pleased, and I am too.”

“It will take me away from you,” said Hornblower.

“Darling, I have had six months with you. Six months of the kind of happiness you have given me is more than any woman deserves. And you will come back to me.”

“Of course I will,” said Hornblower.

Chapter Two

This was typical April weather. It had been miraculously sunny during the ceremony at the foot of the steps of Smallbridge House, but it had rained torrentially once already during the twenty-mile drive to London. Then the sun had reappeared, had warmed and dried them; but now as they crossed Wimbledon Common the sky was black again, and the first drops began to drive into their faces. Hornblower pulled his cloak about him and rebuttoned the collar. His cocked hat with its gold lace and button lay on his knees under the sheltering tent of the cloak; cocked hats worn for long in the rain accumulated pools of water in both crown and brim and were pulled out of shape.

Now it came, wind and rain, shrieking down from the west in unbelievable contrast with the delightful weather of only half an hour before. The near-side horse had the full brunt of it and was inclined to shirk its work in consequence. Brown laid the whiplash on its glistening haunch and it threw itself into the collar in a fresh spasm of energy. Brown was a good whip — he was good at everything. He had been the best captain’s coxswain Hornblower had ever known, he had been a loyal subordinate during the escape from France, and he had made himself into the best manservant heart could desire. Now he sat here, tolerant of the driving rain, the slippery leather of the reins grasped in a big brown hand; hand and wrist and forearm acted like a spring to maintain that subtle pressure upon the horses’ mouths — not enough pressure to interfere in the least with their work, but enough to give them confidence on the slippery road, and to have them under control in any emergency. They were pulling the chariot over the muddy macadam up the steep ascent of Wimbledon Common with a wholeheartedness they never displayed for Hornblower.

“Would you like to go to sea again, Brown?” asked Hornblower. The mere fact that he allowed himself to make this unnecessary speech was proof of how much Hornblower was lifted out of himself with excitement.

“I’d like it main well, sir,” said Brown shortly.

Hornblower was left to guess what Brown really meant — whether his curtness was just the English way of concealing enthusiasm, or whether Brown was merely being in polite agreement with his master’s mood.

The rain from Hornblower’s wet hair was trickling down his neck now inside his collar. He ought to have brought a sou’wester with him. He hunched himself together on the padded leather seat, resting his two hands on the hilt of the sword belted round his waist — the hundred-guinea sword given him by the Patriotic Fund. With the sword vertical his hands held the heavy wet cloak away from the cocked hat on his knees. Another little rivulet coursed down inside his clothes and made him squirm. By the time the shower had passed he was thoroughly damp and uncomfortable, but here once more came the glorious sun. The raindrops in the gorse and the brambles shone like diamonds; the horses steamed; larks resumed their song far overhead, and Hornblower threw open his cloak and wiped his damp hair and neck with his handkerchief. Brown eased the horses to a walk at the crest of the hill to breathe them before the brisk descent.