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“Very well, then,” said Louis, looking round at the clock on the wall. “Let’s walk across and see His Nibs, if you’ve no objection.”


Hornblower sat in his private sitting-room in the Golden Cross inn. There was a fire burning, and on the table at which he sat there were no fewer than four wax candles lighted. All this luxury — the private sitting-room, the fire, the wax candles — gave Hornblower uneasy delight. He had been poor for so long, he had had to scrape and economize so carefully all his life, that recklessness with money gave him this queer dubious pleasure, this guilty joy. His bill to-morrow would contain an item of at least half a crown for light, and if he had been content with rush dips the charge would not have been more than twopence. The fire would be a shilling, too. And you could trust an innkeeper to make the maximum charges to a guest who obviously could afford them, a Knight of the Bath, with a servant, and a two-horse chariot. To-morrow’s bill would be nearer two guineas than one, Hornblower touched his breast pocket to reassure himself that his thick wad of one-pound notes was still there. He could afford to spend two guineas a day.

Reassured, he bent again to the notes which he had made during his interview with the Foreign Secretary. They were in irregular order, jotted down as first one thing and then another had come into Wellesley’s mind. It was quite clear that not even the Cabinet knew for certain whether the Russians were going to fight Bonaparte or not. No, that was the wrong way to put it. Nobody knew whether Bonaparte was going to fight the Russians or not. However much ill will the Tsar bore towards the French — and obviously it was great — he would not fight unless he had to, unless Bonaparte deliberately attacked him. Certainly the Tsar would make every possible concession rather than fight, at least at present while he was still trying to build up and reorganize his army.

“It’s hard to think Boney will be mad enough to pick a quarrel,” Wellesley had said, “when he can get practically all he wants without fighting.”

But if there was going to be war it was desirable that England should have a striking force in the Baltic.

“If Boney chases Alexander out of Russia, I want you to be on hand to pick him up,” said Wellesley. “We can always find a use for him.”

Kings in exile were at least useful figureheads for any resistance that might still be maintained by countries which Bonaparte had overrun. Under her protecting wing England had the rulers of Sicily and Sardinia, the Netherlands and Portugal and Hesse, all of them helping to keep alive hope in the bosoms of their former subjects now ground beneath the tyrant’s heel.

So much depends on Sweden,” was another remark of Wellesley’s. “No one can guess what Bernadotte will do. Russia’s conquest of Finland has irritated the Swedes, too. We try and point out to them that of the two Bonaparte’s the worse menace to ‘em. He’s at the mouth of the Baltic, while Russia’s only at the top. But it can’t be comfortable for Sweden, having to choose between Russia and Bonaparte.”

That was a pretty tangle, one way and the other — Sweden ruled by a Crown Prince who only three years before had been a French general, and some sort of connexion by marriage with Bonaparte at that; Denmark and Norway in the tyrant’s hands, Finland newly conquered by Russia, and the south shore of the Baltic swarming with Bonaparte’s troops.

“He has army camps at Danzig and Stettin,” Wellesley had said, “and South German troops echelonned all the way back to Berlin, to say nothing of the Prussians and the Austrians and the other allies.”

With Europe at his feet Bonaparte was able to drag in his train the armies of his late enemies; if he were to make war upon Russia it seemed as though a substantial part of his army would be foreigners — Italians and South Germans, Prussians and Austrians, Dutchmen and Danes.

“There are even Spaniards and Portuguese, they tell me,” said Wellesley. “I hope they have enjoyed the recent winter in Poland. You speak Spanish, I understand?”

Hornblower had said “Yes”.

“And French too?”






“Swedish? Polish? Lithuanian?”


“A pity. But most of the educated Russians speak French better than Russian, they tell me — although in that case, judging by the Russians I have met, they must be very ignorant of their own language. And we have a Swedish interpreter for you — you will have to arrange with the Admiralty how he will be rated in the ship’s books — I believe that is the correct nautical expression.”

It was typical of Wellesley to put in that little sneer. He was an ex-Governor-General of India, and the present Foreign Secretary, a man of blue blood and of the height of fashion. In those few words he had been able to convey all his sublime ignorance and his consequent sublime contempt for matters nautical, as well as the man of fashion’s feeling of lordly superiority over the uncouth seadog, even when the seadog in question happened to be his own brother-in-law. Hornblower had been a little nettled, and was still feeling sufficiently above himself to endeavour to irritate Wellesley in return.

“You are a master of all trades, Richard,” he said, evenly.

It was just as well to remind the man of fashion that the seadog was closely enough related to be entitled to use the Christian name, and, in addition to that, it might annoy the Marquis to suggest he had anything to do with a trade.

“Not of yours, Hornblower, I’m afraid. Never could learn all those ports and starboards and back-your-lees and things of that sort. One has to learn those as a schoolboy, like hic, haec, hoc.”

It was hard to prick the Marquis’s sublime complacency; Hornblower turned away from that memory back to serious business. The Russians had a fair navy, as many as fourteen ships of the line, perhaps, at Reval and Kronstadt; Sweden nearly as many. The German and Pomeranian ports swarmed with French privateers, and an important part of Hornblower’s duty would be to help protect British shipping from these wolves of the sea, for the Swedish trade was vital to England. From the Baltic came the naval stores that enabled England to rule the sea — the tar and the turpentine, the pine trees for masts, cordage and timber, rosin and oil. If Sweden were to ally herself with Bonaparte against Russia, the Swedish contribution to the trade — far more than half — would be lost, and England would have to struggle along with the little that could be gleaned from Finland and Estonia, convoyed through the Baltic in the teeth of the Swedish Navy, and somehow got out through the Sound even though Bonaparte was master of Denmark. Russia would want those stores for her own navy, and she must be persuaded, one way or another, to part with enough to maintain the British Navy at sea.

It was as well that England had not come to the rescue of Finland when Russia had attacked her; if she had, there would be far less chance of Russia going to war with Bonaparte. Diplomacy backed by force might perhaps protect Sweden from allying herself with Bonaparte, and might make the Baltic trade safe and might open the North German coastline to raids against Bonaparte’s communications — under that sort of pressure, if by any miracle Bonaparte should sustain a reverse, even Prussia might be persuaded to change sides. That would be another of Hornblower’s tasks, to help woo Sweden from her hereditary distrust of Russia, and to woo Prussia from her enforced alliance with France, while at the same time he must do nothing to imperil the Baltic trade. A false step could mean ruin.

Hornblower laid his notes down on the table and stared unseeing at the wall across the room. Fog and ice and shoals in the Baltic; the Russian Navy and the Swedish Navy and the French privateers; the Baltic trade and the Russian alliance and the attitude of Prussia; high politics and vital commerce; during the next few months the fate of Europe, the history of the world, would be balanced on a knife-edge, and the responsibility would be his. Hornblower felt the quickening of his pulses, the tensing of his muscles, which he had known of old at the prospect of danger. Nearly a year had gone by since the last time he had experienced those symptoms, when he had entered the great cabin of the Victory to hear the verdict of the court martial which might have condemned him to death. He felt he did not like this promise of peril, this prospect of enormous responsibility; he had visualized nothing like this when he drove up at noon that day so gaily to receive his orders. It would be for this that he would be leaving Barbara’s love and friendship, the life of a country squire, the tranquillity and peace of his newly-won home.