Cecil S. Forester
The Last Encounter
Admiral of the Fleet Lord Hornblower sat with his glass of port before him alone at his diningtable at Smallbridge, it was a moment of supreme comfort. There was heavy rain beating against the windows; there had been unending rain for days now, as a climax to one of the wettest springs in local memory. Every now and again the noise of the rain would increase in volume as gusts of wind drove the heavy drops against the panes. The farmers and the tenants would be complaining worse than ever, now, in face of the imminent prospect of a harvest ruined before it had begun to ripen, and Hornblower felt distinct satisfaction in the thought that he was not dependent on his rents for his income. As Admiral of the Fleet he could never be on halfpay; rain or shine, peace or war, he would receive his very handsome three thousand a year, and with his further three thousand a year from his investments in the Funds he would never again know the pinch of poverty, nor even the need for care. He could be considerate towards his tenants; he might also contrive to allow Richard a further five hundred a year—as Colonel in the Guards with his frequent need for attendance on the young Queen at court Richard’s tailor’s bills must be heavy.
Hornblower took a sip of his port and stretched his legs under the table and enjoyed the warmth of the fire at his back. Two glasses of excellent claret were already playing their part inside him in the digestion of a really superb dinner—that was a further cause for selfcongratulation, in that at the age of seventytwo he had a digestion that never caused him a moment’s disquiet. He was a lucky man; at the head of his profession, at the ultimate, unsurpassable summit (his promotion to Admiral of the Fleet was recent enough to be still a source of unalloyed gratification) and in the enjoyment of his full health, a large income, a loving wife, a fine son, promising grandchildren, and a good cook. He could sip his port and enjoy every drop of it, and when the glass should be empty he would walk through into the drawingroom where Barbara would be sitting reading, and waiting for him, beside another roaring fire. He had a wife who loved him, a wife whom the advancing years had strangely made more beautiful than in youth, the sinking of her cheeks calling attention to the magnificent modelling of the bones of her face, just as her white hair was in strange and lovely contrast with her straight back and effortless carriage. She was so beautiful, so gracious, and so dignified. It was the perfect final touch that lately she had had to wear spectacles for reading, which modified her dignity profoundly so that she always whipped them off when there was a chance of a stranger seeing her. Hornblower could smile again at the thought of it and take another sip of his port; it was better to love a woman than a goddess.
It was strange that he should be so happy and so secure, he who had known so much unhappiness, so much harassing uncertainty, so much peril, and so much hardship. Cannon ball and musket shot, drowning and disease, professional disgrace, and military execution; he had escaped by a hair’s breadth from them all. He had known the deepest private unhappiness, and now he knew the deepest happiness. He had endured poverty, even hunger, and now he had wealth and security. All very gratifying, said Hornblower to himself; even in his old age he could not address himself without a sneer. ‘Call no man happy until he is dead,’ said someone or other, and it was probably true. He was seventytwo, and yet there was still time for this dream that surrounded him to reveal itself as a dream, to change to a nightmare. Characteristically he had no sooner congratulated himself on his happiness than he began to wonder what would imperil it. Of course: full of good food and before this warm fire he had forgotten the turmoil the world was in. Revolution—anarchy—social upheaval; all Europe, all the world, was in a convulsion of change. Mobs were on the march, and armies too; this year of 1848 would be remembered as a year of destruction—unless its memory should be later overlain by the memory of years to follow more destructive still. In Paris the barricades were up and a red republic proclaimed. Metternich was in flight from Vienna, the Italian tyrants in exile from their capitals. In Ireland famine and disease accompanied economic disaster and rebellion. Even here in England the agitators were rousing the mob, and voicing startling demands for parliamentary reform, for better working conditions, for changes which could not amount to less than a social revolution.
Perhaps, old man though he was, he would yet live to see his happiness and security torn from him by an ungrateful fate that made no allowance for his lifelong and kindly Liberalism. For six years of his life he had warred against bloody and victorycrazed revolution; for the next fourteen he had warred against the grinding and treacherous tyranny that had inevitably supplanted the revolution. For fourteen years he had staked his life in a struggle against Bonaparte—a struggle with an actual personal aspect, growing more and more personal as he gained promotion. He had fought for liberty, for freedom, but that did not make the fight a less personal one. In two hemispheres, on fifty coasts, Hornblower had fought for liberty and Bonaparte for tyranny, and the struggle had ended in Bonaparte’s fall. For nearly thirty years Bonaparte had been in his grave, and Hornblower was now sitting with a comfortable fire warming his back and a glass of excellent port warming his interior, but at the same time in typical fashion he was impairing his happiness by wondering whether it might be taken from him.
The wind shook the house again and the rain roared against the windowpanes. The diningroom door opened silently and Brown the butler came in to put more coal on the fire. Like the good servant he was he searched the room with his eyes to see that all was well; his unobtrusive glance took note of Hornblower’s bottle and glass—Hornblower knew that Brown had taken in the fact that he had not yet finished his first glass of port; the knowledge would be of help in the exact timing of the bringing in of the coffee into the drawingroom when Hornblower should decide to move.
Faintly through the house came the jangle of the front door bell; now who was there who could possibly be ringing at the door at eight o’clock at night, on a night like this? It could not be a tenant—tenants would go to the side door if by any chance they had business at the house—and no caller was expected. Hornblower felt the urgings of curiosity, especially as the bell jangled a second time almost before its first janglings had died away. The diningroom windows and doors shook a trifle, indicating that the footman had opened the front door. Hornblower pricked up his ears; he imagined that he could hear voices in the outer hall.
“Go and see who that is, Brown,” he ordered.
“Yes, my lord.”
There had been many years when ‘Aye, aye, sir’ had been Brown’s reply to an order, but Brown never forgot that he was now a butler, and butler to a peer at that. He walked silently across the room—even while wondering who the caller might be Hornblower found himself as usual admiring the cut of Brown’s evening clothes. The perfection of cut, and yet with just that something about it to make it plain to the discriminating observer that they were a butler’s clothes and not a gentleman’s. Brown silently shut the door behind him, and Hornblower wished he had not, for in the interval while the door was open and Brown was passing through there had been a tantalizing moment when conversation could be heard—a loud, rather harsh voice making some sort of demands and the footman responding with unyielding deference.
Even now the door was shut Hornblower believed he could hear that harsh voice, and curiosity completely overcame him. He rose and pulled at the bell cord beside the fire. Brown came in again, and with the opening of the door the harsh voice became distinctly audible.
“What the devil’s going on, Brown?” demanded Hornblower.