At Smallbridge this afternoon, while Brown and the postboy were carrying out his sea-chest to the chaise, he had said goodbye to Richard, taking hold of his hand to shake it as man to man.
“Are you going back to fight, Father?” Richard asked.
He said one more goodbye to Barbara; it was not easy. If he had good fortune, he might be home again in a week, but he could not tell her that, for it might reveal too much about the nature of his mission. That little bit of deception helped to shatter the mood of unity and union; it made him a little cold and formal again. Hornblower had had a strange feeling as he turned away from her of something lost for ever. Then he had climbed into the chaise with Brown beside him and rolled away, skirting the autumnal Downs to Guildford in the gathering evening, and then down the Portsmouth Road — the road along which he had driven on so many momentous occasions — through the night. The transition was brief from luxury to hardship. At midnight he set foot in the Porta Coeli, welcomed by Freeman, square, stocky, and swarthy as ever, with black hair hanging to his cheeks, gipsy-fashion; one noted almost with surprise that there were no rings in his ears. Not more than ten minutes was necessary to tell Freeman, under seal of secrecy, the mission upon which the Porta Coeli was to be despatched; in obedience to his orders received four hours earlier Freeman already had the brig ready for sea, and at the end of that ten minutes the hands were at the capstan getting in the anchor.
“It’s going to be a dirty night, sir,” said Freeman out of the darkness beside him. “Glass is still dropping.”
“I expect it will be, Mr. Freeman.”
Freeman suddenly raised his voice to one of the loudest bellows that Hornblower had ever heard — that barrel-shaped chest could produce a surprising volume of sound.
“Mr. Carlow! Have all hands shorten sail. Get that maintopmast stays’l in! Another reef in the tops’ls! S’uth-east by south, quartermaster.”
“Southeast by south, sir.”
The deck under Hornblower’s feet vibrated a little with the rush of the hands over the planking; otherwise there was nothing to show him in the darkness that Freeman’s orders were being obeyed; the squeal of the sheave-pulleys in the blocks was swept away in the wind or drowned in the howling of the cordage, and he could see nothing of the rush of the men up the rigging to reef the topsails. He was cold and tired after a day which had begun — unbelievably, it seemed now — with the arrival of the tailor to dress him in the ceremonial costume of a Knight of the Bath.
“I’m going below, Mr. Freeman,” he said. “Call me if necessary.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Freeman slid back the sliding hatch that covered the companion-way — Porta Coeli was flush-decked — and a faint light emerged, revealing the stair; a faint light, but dazzling after the intense blackness of the night. Hornblower descended, bowing almost double under the deck-beams. The door to his right opened into his cabin, six feet square and four feet ten high; Hornblower had to crouch down on his haunches to survey it by the wavering light of the lantern swinging from the deck above. The crampedness of these, the finest quarters in the brig, was nothing compared with the conditions in which the other officers lived, he knew, and twenty times nothing compared with the conditions in which the hands lived. Forward the height between decks was just the same as this — four feet ten — and there the men slept in two banks of hammocks, one suspended above the other, with the noses of the men of the upper tier scraping the deck above and the tails of the men in the lower tier bumping the deck below, and noses meeting tails in the middle. The Porta Coeli was the best fighting machine of her tonnage that could sail the seas; she carried guns that could smash any opponent of her own size; she had magazines that could supply those guns during hours or days of fighting; she carried provisions enough to enable her to keep the sea for months without touching land; she was staunch and stout enough to face any weather that blew; the only thing that was wrong with her was that to achieve these results in 190 tons the human beings who lived in her had to be content with living conditions to which no careful farmer would ever subject his livestock. It was at the cost of human flesh and blood that England maintained the countless small vessels which kept the seas safe for her under the protecting shield of the ponderous ships of the line.
The cabin, small though it was, housed a prodigious stink. The first thing the nostrils noticed was the sooty, stuffy smell of the lamp, but they immediately became aware of a whole gamut of supplementary odours. There was the flat bilge smell, tolerable, in fact almost unnoticed by Hornblower, who had smelt bilge for twenty years. There was a penetrating smell of cheese, and as if to set that off there was a perceptible smell of rats. There was a smell of wet clothing, and finally there was a mixture of human odours, the long-confined body-odour of unwashed men predominating.
And all this mixture of smells was balanced by a battery of noises. Every timber resonated the shrieking of the rigging; to be inside the cabin was to be like a mouse inside a violin while it was being played. Overhead the continual footfalls on the quarter-deck and the clatter of ropes being thrown down made it seem — to continue the analogy — as if someone else were tapping the body of the violin at the same time with small mallets. The wooden sheathing of the brig creaked and crackled with the vessel’s motion in the water like a giant’s knuckles rapping on the exterior; and the shot in the racks rolled just a trifle with each movement, too, thumping solemnly and unexpectedly just at the end of the roll as they fetched up.
Hornblower had hardly entered his cabin when the Porta Coeli suddenly heeled over unexpectedly far; apparently as she was just emerging into the open Channel the full force of the westerly breeze caught her and laid her. Hornblower was taken by surprise — it always was a slow process recovering his sea-legs after a long stay ashore — and was precipitated forward, fortunately towards the cot, on which he was thrown face downward, and as he lay spreadeagled upon the cot his ears caught the assorted noises as the various loose objects always not properly secured at the outset of a voyage cascaded to the decks at this, the first big roll. Hornblower squirmed round onto the cot, bumped his head on the deck-beams above as another roll took him by surprise again, and fell back onto the coarse pillow, sweating in the wet stuffiness of the cabin both as a result of his exertions and with the beginnings of sea-sickness. He was cursing feebly and yet with all his heart; an intense hatred for this war, the more bitter for being completely hopeless, surged up inside him. What peace might be like he could hardly imagine — he had been a mere child when last the world was at peace — but he longed with uncontrollable yearning for peace as a cessation from war. He was weary of war, overweary of it, and his weariness was accentuated and embittered by the experiences of the last year. The news of the complete destruction of Bonaparte’s army in Russia had early roused hopes of immediate peace; but France had shown no signs of wavering, had raised new armies, and had stemmed the torrent of the Russian counterattack far from any vital point of the Empire. The wiseacres had pointed to the severity and all-embracing nature of Bonaparte’s conscription, to the harshness of the taxation he exacted, and predicted an early upheaval in the interior of the Empire, backed maybe by a revolt of the generals. Ten months had elapsed since those predictions began generally to be made, and there was not a sign as yet of their coming true. When Austria and Sweden joined the ranks of Bonaparte’s enemies, men looked again for immediate victory. They hoped that when Bonaparte’s unwilling allies — Denmark, Holland, and the rest — fell away from their allegiance this presaged a prompt breaking-up of the Empire, and they were disappointed each time. For long it had been predicted by thoughtful men that when the tide of war washed back into the Empire itself, when Bonaparte should be compelled to make war support war on the soil of his subjects and not on that of his enemies or tributaries, the struggle would end almost automatically. Yet three months had elapsed since Wellington with a hundred thousand men had swept over the Pyrenees within the sacred frontiers, and still he was locked in a death grapple in the far south, still seven hundred miles from Paris. There seemed to be no end to Bonaparte’s resources or determination.