Brown was stripping him of his wet clothes as if he were a baby. He produced a towel as if by magic, and chafed Hornblower’s ribs with it; Hornblower felt life returning through his veins at the touch of the coarse material. Brown slipped a flannel nightshirt over his head, and then knelt on the swaying deck to chafe his legs and feet. Through Hornblower’s dazed mind there passed a momentary amazement at Brown’s efficiency. Brown was good at everything to which he turned his hand; he could knot and splice, and he could drive a pair of horses; he could carve model ships for Richard, and be tutor and nursemaid to the boy as well; heave the lead, hand and reef, and wait at table; take a trick at the wheel or carve a goose; undress a weary man and — just as important — know when to cut off his flow of soothing remarks and lay him down in silence and pull the blankets over him, leaving him alone without any trite or irritating words about hoping he slept well. In Hornblower’s last tumultuous thoughts before exhaustion plunged him into sleep he decided that Brown was a far more useful member of society than he himself was; that if in his boyhood Brown had been taught his letters and his figures, and if chance had brought him to the quarter-deck as a king’s letter-boy instead of to the lower deck as a pressed man, he would probably be a captain by now. And, significantly, hardly a trace of envy tinged Hornblower’s thoughts of Brown; he was mellow enough by now to admire without resentment. Brown would make some woman a fine husband, as long as there was no other woman within reach. Hornblower smiled at that, and went on smiling in his sleep, sea-sickness and the plunging of the Porta Coeli over the short seas notwithstanding.
He woke later feeling refreshed and hungry, listened benevolently to the tumult of the noisy ship about him, and then poked his head out of the blankets and shouted for Brown. The sentry outside the cabin door took up the cry, and Brown came in almost immediately.
“What’s the time?”
“Two bells, sir.”
“In which watch?”
“Afternoon watch, sir.”
He might have known that without asking. He had been asleep for four hours, of course — nine years as a captain had not eradicated the habits acquired during a dozen years as a watchkeeping officer. The Porta Coeli stood up first on her tail and then on her nose as an unusually steep sea passed under her.
“The weather hasn’t moderated?”
“Still blowin’ a full gale, sir. West-sou’west. We’re hove-to under maintopmast stays’l and maintops’l with three reefs. Out o’ sight o’ land, an’ no sail visible neither, sir.”
This was an aspect of war to which he should have grown used; endless delay with peril just over the horizon. He felt marvellously fortified by his four hours’ sleep; his depression and his yearning for the end of the war had disappeared, not eradicated but overlain by the regained fatalism of the veteran. He stretched luxuriously in his heaving cot. His stomach was decidedly squeamish still, but, rested and recumbent as he was, it was not in active rebellion, whatever it might promise should he become active. And there was no need to be active! There was nothing for him to do if he should rise and dress. He had no watch to keep; by law he was merely a passenger; and until this gale blew itself out, or until some unforeseen danger should develop, there was nothing about which he need trouble his head. He had still plenty of sleep to make up; probably there were anxious and sleepless nights ahead of him when he should come to tackle the duty to which he had been assigned. He might just as well make the most of his present languor.
“Very good, Brown,” he said, imparting to his voice the flat indifference after which he always strove. “Call me when the weather moderates.”
“Breakfast, sir?” The surprise in Brown’s voice was apparent and most pleasurable to Hornblower; this was the one reaction on his restless captain’s part which Brown had not anticipated. “A bite o’ cold beef an’ a glass o’ wine, sir?”
“No,” said Hornblower. His stomach would not keep them down, he feared, in any case.
Hornblower did not even deign to answer him. He had shown himself unpredictable, and that was really something gained. Brown might at any time grow too proprietorial and too pleased with himself. This incident would put him in his place again, make him not quite so sure of his acquaintance with all his captain’s moods. Hornblower believed he could never be a hero to Brown; he could at least be quirky. He gazed placidly up at the deck-beams over his nose until the baffled Brown withdrew, and then he snuggled down again, controlling an expostulatory heave of his stomach. Contented with his lot, he was satisfied to lie and doze and daydream. At the back of the west wind a brig full of mutineers awaited him. Well, although he was drifting away from them at a rate of a mile or two in the hour, he yet was approaching them as fast as it was in his power to do so. And Barbara had been so sweet.
He was sleeping so lightly at the end of the watch that he was roused by the bos’un’s calls turning out the watch below, a sound to which he should have been thoroughly used by now. He shouted for Brown and got out of bed, dressing hurriedly to catch the last of the daylight. Plunging out on deck, his eyes surveyed the same desolate scene as he had expected — an unbroken grey sky, a grey sea flecked with white, furrowed into the short steep rollers of the Channel. The wind still blew with gale force, the officers of the watch bending into it with their sou’westers pulled low over their eyes, and the watch crouching for shelter under the weather bulwarks forward.
Hornblower was aware, as he looked about him, of the commotion aroused by his appearance on deck. It was the first opportunity the ship’s company of the Porta Coeli had had of seeing him in daylight. The midshipman of the watch, at a nudge from the master’s mate, dived below, presumably to report his appearance to Freeman; there were other nudges observable among the hands forward. The huddle of dark tarpaulins showed a speckling of white as faces turned towards him. They were discussing him; Hornblower, who sank the Natividad in the Pacific, and fought the French fleet in Rosas Bay, and last year held Riga against all Boney’s army.
Nowadays Hornblower could contemplate with a certain equanimity the possibility of being discussed by other people. There were undeniable achievements on his record, solid victories for which he had borne the responsibility and therefore deservedly wore the laurels. His weaknesses, his sea-sickness and his moodiness, could be smiled at now instead of being laughed at. The gilded laurels were only tarnished to his own knowledge, and not to that of others. They did not know of his doubts and his hesitations, not even of his actual mistakes — they did not know, as he did, that if he had only called off the bomb-vessels at Riga five minutes earlier — as he should have done — young Mound would be still alive and a distinguished naval officer. Hornblower’s handling of his squadron in the Baltic had been described in Parliament as ‘the most perfect example in recent years of the employment of a naval force against an army’; Hornblower knew of the imperfections, but apparently other people could be blind to them. He could face his brethren in the profession, just as he could face his social equals. Now he had a wife of beauty and lineage, a wife with taste and tact, a wife to be proud of and not a wife he could only gloweringly dare the world to criticise — poor Maria in her forgotten grave in Southsea.
Freeman came climbing out of the hatchway, still fastening his oilskins; the two of them touched their hats to each other.
“The glass has begun to rise, sir,” shouted Freeman, his hands making a trumpet before his mouth. “This’ll blow itself out soon.”
Hornblower nodded, even while at that moment a bigger gust flogged his oilskins against his legs — the gustiness itself was a sign that the gale was nearing its end. The light was fast fading out of the grey sky; with sunset perhaps the wind would begin to moderate.