To Hornblower in his present despairing mood it seemed as if the struggle must continue until every last man in Europe was dead, until the whole of England’s substance was irrevocably consumed; and for himself that until old age should set him free he would be condemned, on account of the mad determination of one single man, to the loss of his liberty, to spending his days and his nights in hideous surroundings like the present, torn from his wife and his son, sea-sick and cold, depressed and unhappy. For almost the first time in his life be began to wish for a miracle, or for some unsought turn of good fortune — that a stray bullet should kill Bonaparte, or that some prodigious mistake would permit the gaining of an indisputable and decisive victory; that the people of Paris should rise successfully against the tyrant, that the French harvest should fail utterly, that the Marshals, to preserve their fortunes, should declare against the Emperor and succeed in inducing their soldiers to follow them. And none of these things, as he knew, was in the least likely; the struggle must go on and on, and he must remain a sea-sick prisoner in the chains of discipline until his hair turned white.
He opened his tightly closed eyes to find Brown standing over him.
“I knocked, sir, but you didn’t hear me.”
“What is it?”
“Is there anything I can get for you, sir? They’re just goin’ to douse the galley fire. A cup o’ coffee, sir? Tea? A hot grog?”
A good stiff dose of liquor might put him to sleep, would drown his morbid and gloomy thoughts, give him some respite from the black depression which was engulfing him. Hornblower found himself actually dallying with the temptation, and was genuinely shocked at himself. That he, who had not drunk to make himself drunk for nearly twenty years, who detested intoxication in himself even more than in other people, should give even a moment’s favourable consideration to such a thought startled him in addition to appalling him. It was a new depravity that he had never known existed in him, made worse by the knowledge that he was on a secret mission of great importance, where a clear head and ready judgment would be vitally necessary. He spurned himself in bitter self-contempt.
“No,” he said. “I shall go back on deck.”
He swung his legs down from the cot; the Porta Coeli was now well clear of the land, and was rolling and plunging like a mad thing in the choppy waters of the Channel. The wind on her quarter was laying her over so that as Hornblower rose to his feet he would have slid down to the opposite bulkhead if Brown had not put out a brawny hand and saved him. Brown never lost his sea-legs; Brown was never sick; Brown had the vast physical strength that Hornblower had always coveted. He stood on his straddled legs like a rock, quite unmoved by the antics of the brig, while Hornblower swayed uncertainly. He would have hit his head against the swinging lamp if Brown’s firm hand on his shoulder had not deflected him.
“A dirty night, sir, an’ it’ll be a long sight worse afore it’s better.”
Job had the same sort of comforters. Hornblower snarled sidelong at Brown in pettish bad temper, and the bad temper was only made worse by seeing Brown being philosophical about it. It was infuriating to be treated like a child in a tantrum.
“Best wear that scarf Her Ladyship made you, sir,” went on Brown, unmoved. “‘Twill be mortal cold by morning.”
In a single movement he flipped open a drawer and produced the scarf. It was a square of priceless silk, light and warm, maybe the most costly thing Hornblower had ever owned, even taking into account his hundred-guinea sword. Barbara had embroidered upon it, with infinite pains — she detested fiddling with needle and thimble, and the fact that she had done so was the prettiest compliment she could pay him. Hornblower put it round his neck inside the collar of his pea-jacket, and was reassured by it, by its warmth and softness and by the memories of Barbara that it conjured up. He steadied himself, and then plunged for the door and up the five steps to the quarter-deck.
It was utterly dark up there, and Hornblower was blinded, emerging from even the miserable light of his cabin. All round him the wind roared hugely; he had to bend his head to meet it. The Porta Coeli was lying right over on her side, even though the wind was not abeam but over her quarter. She was both rolling and pitching. Spray and spindrift mixed with the rain that flew across her deck, stinging Hornblower’s face as he clawed his way up to the weather bulwarks. Even when his eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness he could hardly make out the dim narrow rectangle of the reefed maintopsail. The little vessel leaped under his feet madly, like a horse; the sea was violent — even through the din of the gale Hornblower could hear the groan of the tiller-ropes as the quartermaster at the wheel fought to keep her from falling away into the trough.
Hornblower sensed the presence of Freeman somewhere near him, and ignored him. There was nothing to say, and even if there had been anything to say the violence of the wind would have made it difficult. He hitched his elbow on the hammock-netting to steady himself and gazed into the darkness. Just overside the white top of each advancing wave was momentarily visible before the Porta Coeli lifted to it. Forward the hands were at work on the pumps; Hornblower’s ear could catch the flat clatter of them at intervals. There was nothing surprising at that, because with the violent working of the vessel in the waves the seams must be gaping and closing like mouths. Somewhere in this black night ships would be sailing, worn down by the gale; somewhere ships would be driving ashore, and seamen would be dying in the surf with this pitiless wind howling over them. Anchors would be dragging and lines parting. And this wind would be blowing over the miserable bivouacs of embattled Europe, too. The million anonymous peasant soldiers huddled round the camp-fires which they could hardly keep alight would curse the wind and the rain as they lay sleepless and hungry awaiting tomorrow’s battle. It was strange to think that upon them, upon these inconsiderable unknowns, depended, to a large part, his release from his present thraldom. He vomited excruciatingly into the scuppers as his sea-sickness reached a climax.
Freeman was speaking to him with unintelligible words. He could not understand them, and Freeman had to yell louder.