“Will you come round the ship with me?” yelled Hornblower, and this time it was Freeman’s turn to nod. They walked forward, making their way with difficulty over the plunging, dripping decks, with Hornblower looking keenly about him. Two long guns forward — six pounders; the rest of the armament twelve-pounder carronades. The breachings and preventer tackles were in good shape. Aloft, the rigging, both standing and running, was properly set up and cared for; but the best proof that the vessel was in good order lay in the fact that nothing had carried away during the weather of the last twenty-four hours. Freeman was a good captain; Hornblower knew that already. But it was not the guns, not even the vessel’s weatherly qualities, which were of first importance in the present expedition. It was the human weapons that most mattered; Hornblower darted quick glances from side to side under his brows as he inspected the material of the brig — taking pains to observe the appearance and demeanour of the men. They seemed patient, not sullen, thank God. They were alert, seemingly ready for any duty. Hornblower dived down the fore hatchway into the unspeakable din and stink of the battened-down ‘tween-decks. There were sailors asleep in the fantastic fashion of the British tarpaulin — snoring heavily as they lay on the bare deck, despite the din about them. There were men huddled in gaming groups. He saw sleeves tugged and thumbs pointed as men caught sight of him — their first sight of the almost legendary Hornblower. An exchange of a nod and a wink. Hornblower, shrewdly estimating the feeling about him, guessed with pleasure that there was expectancy rather than resignation or reluctance.
It was an odd fact, but one whose existence could not be doubted, that men were pleased at the prospect of serving under him, Hornblower; the Hornblower, that is (qualified Hornblower), whom they thought existed, not the real actual Hornblower who wore the coat and trousers he was wearing. They hoped for victory, excitement, distinction, success; the poor fools. They did not stop to think that men died where Hornblower took command. The clear-headedness resulting from sea-sickness and an empty stomach (Hornblower could not remember when last he had eaten) allowed free play to a whole conflict of emotions within him; pleasure at being so gladly followed, pity for the thoughtless victims; a thrill of excitement at the thought of future action, and a wave of doubt regarding his ability to pluck success this time from the jaws of chance; pleasure, reluctantly admitted, at finding himself at sea and in command again, and regret, bitter and soul-searching, for the life he had just left, for Barbara’s love and little Richard’s trusting affection. Hornblower, noting his inward turmoil, cursed himself for a sentimental fool at the very moment when his sharp eye picked out a seaman who was knuckling his forehead and bobbing and grinning with embarrassed pleasure.
“I know you,” said Hornblower, searching feverishly through his memory. “Let me see now. It must have been in the old Indefatigable.”
“That’s right, sir. We was shipmates then, sir. And you worn’t more’n a nipper, then, sir, beggin’ your pardon, sir. Midshipman of the foretop, you was, sir.”
The seaman wiped his hand on the leg of his trousers before gingerly accepting the hand which Hornblower held out to him.
“Harding’s your name,” said Hornblower, his memory coming to his rescue, with a tremendous effort. “You taught me long splicing while we were off Ushant.”
“That’s right, sir. ‘Deed you’re right, sir. That were ‘92, or wore it ‘93?”
“Ninety-three. I’m glad to know you’re on board, Harding.”
“Thank you kindly, sir, I’m sure. Thank you kindly.”
Why should the whole vessel buzz with pleasure because he had recognised an old shipmate of twenty years back? Why should it make a ha’porth of difference? But it did; Hornblower knew it and felt it. It was hard to say whether pity or affection for his weak fellow-men held first place in the new complex of emotions which the incident aroused. Bonaparte might be doing the same thing at that same moment, recognising in some German bivouac some old comrade in arms in the ranks of the Guard.
They had reached the after part of the brig now, and Hornblower turned to Freeman.
“I am going to dine, now, Mr. Freeman,” he said. “Perhaps after that we may be able to make some sail on the brig. I shall come on deck to see, in any case.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
Dinner; eaten seated on the small locker against the bulkhead. Cold salt beef — quite a good cut, tasty to a palate long accustomed to it and yet deprived of it for the last eleven months. ‘Rexam’s Superfine Ships’ Biscuits’ from a lead-lined box discovered and provided by Barbara — the best ships’ bread which Hornblower had ever tasted, costing maybe twenty times as much as the weevily stuff he had eaten often enough before. A bite of red cheese, tangy and seasoned, admirably suited to accompany the second glass of claret. It was quite absurd that he should feel any satisfaction at having to lead this sort of life again, and yet he did. Undeniably, he did.
He wiped his mouth on his napkin, climbed into his oilskins, and went up on deck.
“The wind’s dropped a little, Mr. Freeman, I fancy.”
“I fancy it has, sir.”
In the darkness the Porta Coeli was riding to the wind almost easily, with a graceful rise and swoop. The seas overside could not be nearly as steep as they had been, and this was rain, not spray, in his face, and the feel of the rain told him that the worst of the storm was over.
“With the jib and the boom-mains’l both reefed, we can put her on the wind, sir,” said Freeman, tentatively.
“Very well, Mr. Freeman. Carry on.”
There was a special skill about sailing a brig, especially, of course, on a wind. Under jib and staysails and the boom-mainsail she could be handled like a fore-and-aft rigged vessel; Hornblower knew it all theoretically, but he also knew that his practice would be decidedly rusty, especially in the dark and with a gale blowing. He was well content to remain in the background and let Freeman do what he would. Freeman bellowed his orders; with a mighty creaking of blocks the reefed boom-mainsail rose up the mast while men on the dizzy yard got in the maintopsail. The brig was hove-to on the starboard tack, and as the effect of the jib made itself felt she began to pay off a little.
“Mains’l sheets!” bellowed Freeman, and to the man at the wheel, “Steady as you go!”
The rudder met and counteracted the tendency of the Porta Coeli to fall off, and the boom-mainsail caught the wind and forced her forward. In a moment the Porta Coeli changed from something quiescent and acquiescent into something fierce and desperate. She ceased to yield to wind and sea, ceased to let them hurtle past her; now she met them, she fought against them, battled with them. She was like some tigress previously content to evade the hunters by slinking from cover to cover, but now hurling herself on her tormentors mad with fighting fury. The wind laid her over, the spray burst in sheets across her bows. Her gentle rise and swoop were transformed into an illogical jerky motion as she met the steep waves with immovable resolution; she lurched and she shuddered as she battered her way through the waves. The forces of the world, the old primitive powers that had ruled earth and water since the creation, were being set at defiance by man, weak, mortal man, who by virtue of the brain inside his fragile skull was able not merely to face the forces of the world but to bend them to his will, compel them to serve him. Nature sent this brisk westerly gale up the Channel; subtly and insidiously the Porta Coeli was making use of it to claw her way westward — a slow, painful, difficult way, but westward all the same. Hornblower, standing by the wheel, felt a surge of exultation as the Porta Coeli thrashed forward. He was like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods; he was the successful rebel against the blind laws of nature; he could take pride in being a mere mortal man.