Freeman bent over the tallow that armed the bottom of the lead; a seaman held a lantern at his shoulder so as to let the light fall upon it. The master’s mate and midshipman of the watch completed the group, a vignette of blackness and light in the massive darkness all around. Freeman was not hasty in reaching his decision; he peered at the sample brought up from the bottom of the sea first from one angle and then from another. He sniffed at it; he applied a forefinger to it and then carried the finger to his tongue.
“Sand and black shell,” he mused to himself.
Hornblower held back from the group; this was something Freeman could do better than he, although it would be nearly blasphemy to say so in public, seeing that he was a captain and Freeman a mere lieutenant.
“Maybe we’re off Antifer,” said Freeman at length. He looked out of the light into the darkness towards where Hornblower was standing.
“Lay her on the other tack, if you please, Mr. Freeman. And keep the lead going.”
Creeping about in the night off the treacherous Normandy coast was a nervous business, even though in the past twenty-four hours the wind had moderated to nothing more than a strong breeze. But Freeman knew what he was about; a dozen years spent in handling vessels in the soundings round the fringes of Europe had given him knowledge and insight obtainable in no other way. Hornblower had to trust Freeman’s judgment; he himself with compass and lead and chart might do a good workmanlike job, but to rate himself above Freeman as a Channel pilot would be ridiculous. ‘Maybe’, Freeman had said; but Hornblower could value that ‘maybe’ at its true worth. Freeman was confident about it. The Porta Coeli was off Cape Antifer, then, a trifle farther to leeward than he wished to be when dawn should come. He still had no plan in his head about how to deal with the Flame when he met her; there was no way round, as far as he could see, the simple geometrical difficulty that the mutineers, with Le Havre open to them on one side and Caen on the other, could not be cut off from taking refuge with the French if they wished to; for that matter, there were a dozen other inlets on the coast, all heavily protected by batteries, where the Flame could find a refuge. And any forcing of the matter might result easily enough in Chadwick being hoisted up to his yardarm, to dangle there as a dead man — the most horrible and dangerous incident in the history of the Navy since the murder of Pigott. But contact had to be made with the mutineers — that was clearly the first thing to do — and there was at least no harm in trying to make that contact at a point as advantageous as possible. Some miracle might happen; he must try and put himself across the course of wandering miracles. What was that Barbara had said to him once? ‘The lucky man is he who knows how much to leave to chance.’ Barbara had too good an opinion of him, even after all this time, but there was truth in what she said.
The Porta Coeli went smartly about, and reached to the north westward, close-hauled to the southwesterly wind.
“The tide starts to make about now, Sir Horatio,” said Freeman, beside him.
That was an additional bit of data in the problem of the morrow which was not yet fully revealed to him. War was as unlike spherical trigonometry as anything could be, thought Horablower, grinning at the inconsequence of his thoughts. Often one approached a problem in war without knowing what it was one wanted to achieve, to prove, or construct, and without even knowing fully what means were available for doing it. War was generally a matter of slipshod, makeshift, hit-or-miss extemporisation. Even if it were not murderous and wasteful it would still be no trade for a man who enjoyed logic. Yet maybe he was taking too flattering a view of himself; maybe some other officer — Cochrane, say, or Lidyard — would, if in his position, already have a plan worked out for dealing with the mutineers, a plan that could not fail to bring satisfactory results.
Four bells rang out sharply; they had been over half an hour on this tack.
“Kindly go about on the other tack, Mr. Freeman. I don’t want to get too far from land.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
If it was not for the war, no captain in his senses would dream for a moment of plunging about in the darkness on this shoal coast, especially when he was extremely doubtful of his exact position — their present estimate was the sum of a series of guesses, guesses about the leeway made while hove-to, guesses at the effects of the tides, guesses at the correspondence between soundings taken overside and soundings marked on the chart.
“What do you think the mutineers will do, sir, when they sight us?” asked Freeman.
The fact that Hornblower had unbent enough to give an explanation of why he wanted to go about must have encouraged Freeman to this familiarity; Hornblower was irritated, but most of all because he had no thoughts on the matter.
“There’s no profit in asking questions which time will surely answer, Mr. Freeman,” he said, tartly.
“Yet speculation is a fascinating thing, Sir Horatio,” replied Freeman, so unabashed that Hornblower stared at him in the darkness. Bush, if Hornblower had spoken to him in that fashion, would have retired wounded into his shell.
“You may indulge yourself in it if you so desire, Mr. Freeman. I have no intention of doing so.”
“Thank you, Sir Horatio.”
Now was there, or was there not, a hint of mockery behind the hint of subservience in that reply? Was it possible that Freeman could actually be smiling inwardly at his superior officer? If so, he was running a fearful risk; a suggestion of dissatisfaction in Hornblower’s future report to the Admiralty would put Freeman on the beach for life. But Hornblower knew, the moment the thought came into his head, that he would do no such thing. He could never blast an able man’s career just because that man had not treated him with slavish respect.
“Water’s shoaling fast, sir,” said Freeman, suddenly — both he and Hornblower had subconsciously been listening to the cry of the leadsman in the chains. “I should like to go about again.”
“Certainly, Mr. Freeman,” said Hornblower, formally.
They were creeping round Cape de la Hève, the northerly point of the Seine estuary, just within which lies Le Havre. There was a chance, a tiny one, that they might find themselves at dawn both to leeward of the Flame and between her and France so that she would have no means of escape at all. And the night was wearing on; it would not be long now before daylight.
“You have a good man at the masthead, Mr. Freeman?”
“Yes, Sir Horatio.”
He would have to tell the hands about the mission on which they had been sent, even though that meant violating the secrecy surrounding the mutiny. Normally there would be little enough need to confide in the hands; British seamen, fatalistic after twenty years of war, would fire into Frenchmen or Americans or Dutchmen without much thought about the rights or wrongs; but to ask them to fight against a sister-ship, to fire into a British vessel, which might, for all he knew, still be wearing her commissioning pendant and her White Ensign, might cause hesitation if he called upon them to do so without some preliminary warning. A careful officer would in ordinary circumstances never breathe the word ‘mutiny’ to his men; no lion-tamer would ever remind the lion that the lion was stronger than he. It was almost daylight.
“Would you be so good as to turn up the hands, Mr. Freeman? I wish to address them.”
“Aye aye, sir.”