“It doesn’t appear to be the kind of situation in which great force would be of much use, my lord. Ships of the line would seem to be superfluous.”
“I know that too, damn it.” The struggle in St. Vincent’s mind was evident in his massive face. “Those insolent rascals can slip into the Seine’s mouth in two shakes of a duck’s tail at the first sign of danger to themselves. It’s brains that are needed here, I know. That’s why I sent for you, Hornblower.”
A nice compliment. Hornblower preened himself a little; he was talking here on terms almost of equality to one of the greatest admirals who had ever hoisted his flag, and the sensation was extraordinarily pleasant. And the internal pressure which was mounting inside the First Lord suddenly forced out of him a yet more astonishing statement.
“And the men like you, Hornblower,” exploded St. Vincent. “Damn it, I don’t know a man who doesn’t. They’ll follow you and listen to you. You’re one of the officers the men talk about among themselves. They trust you and expect things of you — so do I, damn it, as you can see.”
“But if I talk to the men it will imply that I am negotiating with them, my lord.”
“No negotiations with mutineers!” blared St. Vincent, striking the desk with a fist like a leg of mutton. “We had enough of that in ‘94.”
“Then the carte blanche that you give me is no more than the usual naval officer’s orders, my lord,” said Hornblower.
This was a serious matter; he was being sent out on an extremely difficult task, and would have to bear all the odium of failure should he be unsuccessful. He had never imagined himself bandying arguments with a First Lord, yet here he was actually doing so, impelled by sheer necessity. He realised in a moment of clairvoyance that he was not arguing on behalf of himself, after all; he was not trying to safeguard his own interests. He was debating purely impersonally; the officer who was to be sent out to recapture Flame and whose future might depend upon the powers given him was not the Hornblower sitting in this carved chair, dressed in crimson and white silk, but some poor devil he was sorry for and whose interests he had at heart because they represented the national interests. Then the two beings merged together again, and it was he, Barbara’s husband, the man who had been at Lord Liverpool’s dinner-party last night and had a slight ache in the centre of his forehead today in consequence, who was to go out on this unpleasant task, where not a ha’porth of glory or distinction was to be won and the gravest risk was to be run of a fiasco which might make him the laughing-stock of the Navy and an object of derision through the country.
He studied St. Vincent’s expression again attentively; St. Vincent was no fool and there was a thinking brain behind that craggy brow — he was fighting against his prejudices, preparing to dispense with them in the course of his duty.
“Very well then, Hornblower,” said the First Lord at length. “I’ll give you full powers. I’ll have your orders drawn up to that effect. You will hold your appointment as Commodore, of course.”
“Thank you, my lord,” said Hornblower.
“Here’s a list of the ship’s company,” went on St. Vincent. “We have nothing here against any of them. Nathaniel Sweet, bos’un’s mate — here’s his signature — was first mate of a Newcastle collier brig once — dismissed for drinking. Maybe he’s the ringleader. But it may be any of ‘em.”
“Is the news of the mutiny public?”
“No. And please God it won’t be until the courtmartial flag is hoisted. Holden at Bembridge had the sense to keep his mouth shut. He put the master’s mate and the hands under lock and key the moment he heard their news. Dart‘s sailing for Calcutta next week — I’ll ship ‘em out in her. It’ll be months before the story leaks out.”
Mutiny was an infection, carried by words. The plague spot must be isolated until it could be cauterised.
St. Vincent drew a sheaf of papers to himself and took up his pen — a handsome turkey-feather with one of the newfangled gold nibs.
“What force do you require?”
“Something handy and small,” said Hornblower.
He had not the remotest idea how he was going to deal with this problem of recovering a vessel which had only to drop two miles to leeward to be irrecoverable, but his pride made him assume an appearance of self-confidence. He caught himself wondering if all men were like himself, putting on a brave show of moral courage when actually they felt weak and helpless — he remembered Suetonius’ remark about Nero, who believed all men to be privately as polluted as himself although they did not admit it publicly.
“There’s Porta Coeli,” said St. Vincent, raising his white eyebrows. “Eighteen-gun brig — sister to Flame, in fact. She’s at Spithead, ready to sail. Freeman’s in command — he had the cutter Clam under your command in the Baltic. He brought you home, didn’t he?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Would she serve?”
“I think so, my lord.”
“Pellew’s commanding the mid-Channel squadron. I’ll send him orders to let you have any help you may request.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
Here he was, committing himself to a difficult — maybe an impossible — enterprise without any attempt to leave himself an avenue of retreat, neglecting utterly to sow any seed of future excuses which might be reaped to advantage in case of failure. It was utterly reckless of him, but that ridiculous pride of his, he knew, was preventing him. He could not use ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ to men like St. Vincent or to any man at all, for that matter. He wondered if it was because the First Lord’s recent compliments had gone to his head, or maybe it was because of the casual remark that he could ‘request’ help of Pellew, a Commander-in-Chief, who had been his captain twenty years ago when he was a midshipman. He decided it was not either of these reasons. Just his nonsensical pride.
“Wind’s nor’westerly and steady,” said St. Vincent, glancing up at the dial which repeated the indications of the weather-vane on the Admiralty roof. “Glass is dropping, though. The sooner you’re off the better. I’ll send your orders after you to your lodgings — take this chance to say goodbye to your wife. Where’s your kit?”
“At Smallbridge, my lord. Almost on the road to Portsmouth.”
“Good. Noon now. If you leave at three; po’chaise to Portsmouth — you can’t ride post with your sea-chest. Eight hours — seven hours, the roads aren’t poached yet at this time o’ year — you can be under way at midnight. I’ll send Freeman his orders by post this minute. I wish you luck, Hornblower.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
Hornblower gathered his cloak round him, hitched up his sword, and took his leave. Before he had quitted the room a clerk had entered at the summons of St. Vincent’s jangling bell to take dictation of his order. Outside the northwesterly wind of which St. Vincent had spoken blew freshly, and he felt chilled and forlorn in his gay crimson and white silk. But the carriage was there waiting for him, as Barbara had promised.
She was waiting for him when he arrived at Bond Street, steady of eye and composed of feature, as was to be expected of one of a fighting race. But she could only trust herself to say a single world.
“Orders?” she asked.
“Yes,” answered Hornblower, and then gave vent to some of the powerful mixed emotions within him. “Yes, dear.”
“I sail tonight from Spithead. They’re writing my orders now — I must leave as soon as they reach me here.”