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“London, sir,” he said.

And there it was. The rain had washed the smoke and dust out of the air so that even at that distance the gilt cross and bell over St Paul’s gleamed in the sunshine. The church spires, dwarfed by the dome, stood out with unnatural clarity. The very roof-tops were distinct. Brown clicked his tongue at the horses and they broke once more into a trot, rattling the chariot down the steep descent into Wandsworth, and Hornblower pulled out his watch. It was no more than two o’clock, ample time to do business. Even though his shirt was damp inside his coat this was a far better day than he had anticipated when he sat in his bath that morning.

Brown drew the horses to a halt outside the Admiralty, and a ragged urchin appeared who guarded the wheel so that it did not muddy Hornblower’s cloak and uniform as he climbed down from the chariot.

“At the Golden Cross, then, Brown,” said Hornblower, fumbling for a copper for the urchin.

“Aye aye, sir,” said Brown, wheeling the horses round.

Hornblower carefully put on his cocked hat, settled his coat more smoothly, and centred the buckle of his sword-belt. At Smallbridge House he was Sir Horatio, master of the house, lord of the manor, autocrat undisputed, but now he was just Captain Hornblower going in to see the Lords of the Admiralty. But Admiral Louis was all cordiality. He left Hornblower waiting no more than three minutes in the anteroom — no longer than would be necessary to get rid of his visitor of the moment — and he shook hands with obvious pleasure at the sight of him; he rang the bell for a clerk to take Hornblower’s wet cloak away, and with his own hands he pulled up a chair for him beside the vast fire which Louis maintained summer and winter since his return from the command of the East Indian Station.

“Lady Barbara is well, I trust?” he asked.

“Very well, thank you, sir,” said Hornblower.

“And Master Hornblower?”

“Very well too, sir.”

Hornblower was mastering his shyness rapidly. He sat farther back in his chair and welcomed the heat of the fire. That was a new portrait of Collingwood on the wall; it must have replaced the old one of Lord Barharn. It was pleasant to note the red ribbon and the star and to look down at his own breast and to see that he wore the same decoration.

“And yet you left domestic bliss at the first moment you received our letter?”

“Of course, sir.”

Hornblower realized that perhaps it might be more profitable not to be natural; it might be better to adopt a pose, to appear reluctant to take up his professional duties, or to make it look as if he were making a great personal sacrifice for his country, but for the life of him he could not do it. He was too pleased with his promotion, too full of curiosity regarding the mission the Admiralty had in mind for him. Louis’ keen eyes were studying him closely, and he met their gaze frankly.

“What is it you plan for me, sir?” he asked; he would not even wait for Louis to make the first move.

“The Baltic,” said Louis.

So that was it. The two words terminated a morning of wild speculation, tore up a wide cobweb of possibilities. It might have been anywhere in the world; Java or Jamaica, Cape Horne or the Cape of Good Hope, the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean, anywhere within the 25,000-mile circuit of the world where the British flag flew. And it was going to be the Baltic; Hornblower tried to sort out in his mind what he knew about the Baltic. He had not sailed in northern waters since he was a junior lieutenant.

“Admiral Keats is commanding there, isn’t he?”

“At the moment, yes. But Saumarez is replacing him. His orders will be to give you the widest latitude of discretion.”

That was a curious thing to say. It hinted at division of command, and that was inherently vicious. Better a bad commander-in-chief than a divided command. To tell a subordinate that his superior was under orders to grant him wide discretion was a dangerous thing to do, unless the subordinate was a man of superlative loyalty and common sense. Hornblower gulped at that moment — he had honestly forgotten temporarily that he was the subordinate under consideration; maybe the Admiralty credited him with ‘superlative loyalty and common sense’.

Louis was eyeing him curiously.

“Don’t you want to hear the size of your command?” he asked.

“Yes, of course,” answered Hornblower, but he did not mind very much. The fact that he was going to command something was much more important than what he was going to command.

“You’ll have the Nonsuch, seventy-four,” said Louis. “That will give you a ship of force should you need one. For the rest you’ll have all the small stuff we can scrape together for you — Lotus and Raven, sloops; two bomb-ketches, Moth and Harvey, and the cutter Clam. That’s all so far, but by the time you sail we might have some more ready for you. We want you to be ready for all the inshore work that may come your way. There’s likely to be plenty.”

“I expect so,” said Hornblower.

“Don’t know whether you’ll be fighting for the Russians or against them,” mused Louis. “Same with the Swedes. God knows what’s building up, up there. But His Nibs’ll tell you all about that.”

Hornblower looked a question.

“Your revered brother-in-law, the most noble the Marquis Wellesley, K.P., His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. We call him His Nibs for short. We’ll walk across and see him in a minute. But there’s something else important to settle. Who d’you want for captain in Nonsuch?”

Hornblower gasped at that. This was patronage on a grand scale. He had sometimes appointed midshipmen and surgeon’s mates; a parson of shady record had once hungrily solicited him for nomination as chaplain in his ship, but to have a say in the appointment of a captain of a ship of the line was something infinitely more important than any of these. There were 120 captains junior to Hornblower, men of most distinguished record, whose achievements were talked of with bated breath in the four quarters of the world, and who had won their way to that rank at the cost of their blood and by the performance of feats of skill and daring unparalleled in history. Certainly half of these, perhaps more, would jump at the suggestion of the command of a seventy-four. Hornblower remembered his own joy at his appointment to Sutherland two years ago. Captains on half-pay, captains with shore appointments eating out their hearts with wailing for a sea command, it was in his power to change the whole life and career of one of these. Yet there was no hesitation about his decision. There might be more brilliant captains available, captains with more brains, but there was only one man that he wanted.

“I’ll have Bush,” he said, “if he’s available.”

“You can have him,” said Louis, with a nod. “I was expecting you to ask for him. That wooden leg of his won’t be too serious a handicap, you think.”

“I don’t think so,” said Hornblower. It would have been irksome in the extreme to go to sea with any other captain than Bush.