Rear admiral Lord Hornblower, for all his proud appointment as Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's Ships and Vessels in the West Indies, paid his official visit to New Orleans in HM schooner Crab, only mounting two six-pounders and with a crew of no more than sixteen men, not counting supernumeraries.
His Britannic Majesty's Consul-General at New Orleans, Mr. Cloudesley Sharpe, remarked on the fact.
"I hardly expected to see Your Lordship in so diminutive a craft," he said, looking round him. He had driven down in his carriage to the pier against which Crab was lying, and had sent his liveried footman to the gangway to announce him, and it had been something of an anticlimax to be received by the trilling of the only two bosun's calls that Crab could muster, and to find on the quarterdeck to receive him, besides the Admiral and his flag-lieutenant, a mere lieutenant in command.
"The exigencies of the service, sir," explained Hornblower. "But if I may lead the way below I can offer you whatever hospitality this temporary flagship of mine affords."
Mr.. Sharpe — surely there never was a name that accorded so ill with its possessor's figure, for he was a fat man, a mountain of puffy flesh — squeezed himself into a chair at the table in the pleasant little cabin, and replied to Hornblower's suggestion of breakfast with the statement that he had already broken his fast. He obviously had the gravest doubts as to the quality of any breakfast that could be served in this little ship. Gerard, the flag-lieutenant, made himself inconspicuous in a corner of the cabin, notebook and pencil on his knee, while Hornblower reopened the conversation.
"Phoebe was struck by lightning off Morant Cape," said Hornblower. "She was the ship I had planned to come in. Clorinda was already in dock, refitting. And Roebuck's off Curacao, keeping an eye on the Dutchmen — there's a brisk trade in arms with Venezuela at present."
"Well I know that," said Sharpe.
"Those are my three frigates," said Hornblower. "With the arrangements all made I judged it better to come in this schooner rather than not to come at all."
"How are the mighty fallen!" was Mr. Sharpe's comment. "Your Lordship, a commander-in-chief, with no more than three frigates and half a dozen sloops and schooners."
"Fourteen sloops and schooners, sir," corrected Hornblower. "They are very desirable craft for the duties I have to perform."
"No doubt, My Lord," said Sharpe. "But I can remember the days when the commander-in-chief on the West India Station disposed of a squadron of ships of the line."
"That was in time of war, sir," explained Hornblower, recalling the verbal comments of the First Sea Lord in the interview when he had been offered this command. "The House of Commons would sooner allow the Royal Navy to rot at its moorings than reimpose the income tax."
"At any rate, Your Lordship has arrived," said Sharpe. "Your Lordship exchanged salutes with Fort St. Philip?"
"Gun for gun, as your despatch informed me had been arranged."
"Excellent!" said Sharpe.
It had been a strange little formality; all hands on board Crab had lined the rail, very properly, during the salute, and the officers had stood at attention on the quarterdeck, but 'all hands' amounted to very little with four men manning the saluting gun, and one at the signal halliards and one at the helm. It had poured with rain, too; Hornblower's glittering uniform had clung damply around him.
"Your Lordship made use of the services of a steam tug?"
"Yes, by George!" exclaimed Hornblower.
"A remarkable experience for Your Lordship, apparently?"
"Indeed, yes," said Hornblower. "I -- "
He held himself back from giving utterance to all his thoughts on that subject; they would lead to too many exciting irrelevancies. But a steam tug had brought Crab against the hundred miles of current from the sea to New Orleans between dawn and dusk, arriving at the very minute the tug captain had predicted. And here was New Orleans, crowded not merely with ocean-going sailing ships, but also with a fleet of long, narrow steamers, manoeuvring out into the stream and against piers with a facility (thanks to their two paddlewheels) that even Crab with her handy fore and aft rig could not attempt to emulate. And with a thresh of those paddlewheels they would go flying upstream with a rapidity almost unbelievable.
"Steam has laid open a continent, My Lord," said Sharpe, echoing Hornblower's thoughts. "A veritable empire. Thousands and thousands of miles of navigable waterways. The population of the Mississippi valley will be counted in millions within a few years."
Hornblower remembered discussions at home, when he was a half-pay officer awaiting his promotion to flag rank, when the 'steam kettles' had been mentioned. Even the possibility of ocean-going ships propelled by steam had been suggested, and had been properly laughed to scorn — it would mean the ruin of good seamanship. Hornblower had not been quite so sure on either point, but he had been careful to keep his opinions to himself, having no desire to be regarded as a dangerous crank. He did not want to be drawn into any similar discussions now, not even with a mere civilian.
"What intelligence do you have for me, sir?" he asked.
"A considerable amount, My Lord."
Mr.. Sharpe produced a fold of papers from his tail pocket. "Here are the latest advices from New Granada -- more recent I expect than anything you have had. The insurgents -- "
Mr.. Sharpe entered into a rapid exposition of the military and political situation in Central America. The Spanish colonies were entering into the final stage of their struggle for independence.
"It cannot be long before His Majesty's Government recognizes that independence," said Sharpe. "And our Minister in Washington informs me that the Government of the United States meditates a similar recognition. It remains to be seen what the Holy Alliance will have to say on that score, My Lord."
Europe under the rule of absolute monarchy would turn a jaundiced eye upon the establishment of a whole new series of republics, no doubt. But it hardly mattered what Europe had to say, as long as the Royal Navy — even the depleted peacetime navy — controlled the seas, and the two English-speaking governments continued in amity.
"Cuba shows small signs of restlessness," went on Sharpe, "and I have information of the issue of further letters of marque by the Spanish Government to vessels sailing from Havana -- "
Letters of marque were one of the principal sources of Hornblower's troubles. They were being issued by insurgent and nationalist governments alike, to prey upon ships flying the old flags and the new, and the bearers of letters of marque turned pirates in the twinkling of an eye in the absence of legitimate prizes and efficient prize courts. Thirteen of Hornblower's fourteen small craft were scattered over the Caribbean keeping an eye on the activities of the privateers.
"I have prepared duplicates of my reports for Your Lordship's information," concluded Sharpe. "I have them here to give to Your Lordship, along with copies of the complaints of the master-mariners concerned."
"Thank you, sir," said Hornblower, while Gerard took the papers into his charge.
"Now for the slave trade, with Your Lordship's permission," went on Sharpe, opening a fresh series of papers.
The slave trade was as acute a question as piracy, even more acute in some ways, because the Anti-Slavery Society in England commanded a great deal of powerful and vocal support in both Houses of Parliament, and would raise an even more violent to-do about a cargo of slaves run into Havana or Rio de Janeiro, than a shipping company pestered by privateers.
"At this moment, My Lord," said Sharpe, "a raw hand newly brought from the Slave Coast is selling for eighty pounds in the Havana baracoons -- and he cost no more than a pound in trade goods at Whydah. Those profits are tempting, My Lord."
"Naturally," said Hornblower.
"I have reason to believe that ships of both British and American registry are engaged in the traffic, My Lord."
"So have I."
The First Sea Lord had tapped ominously on the table in that interview when touching on this part of his instructions to Hornblower. Under the new law British subjects who engaged in the slave trade could be hanged, and the ships seized. But care would be necessary in dealing with ships flying American colors. If they refused to heave-to on the high seas for examination the utmost tact would have to be employed. To shoot away an American spar or to kill an American citizen would mean trouble. America had gone to war with England only nine years before over matters very similar.
"We want no trouble, My Lord," said Sharpe. He had a pair of hard, intelligent, grey eyes deep-set in his puffy face.
"I am aware of that, sir."
"And in this connection, My Lord, I must employ special emphasis in calling Your Lordship's attention to a vessel making ready for sea here in New Orleans."
"Which ship is this?"
"She is visible from the deck, My Lord. In fact" — Sharpe struggled out of his chair and walked to the cabin window — "Yes, there she is. What do you make of her, My Lord?"
Hornblower looked out from beside Sharpe. He saw a beautiful ship of eight hundred tons or more. Her fine lines, the lofty rake of her masts, the wide spread of her yards, were all clear indications of speed, for which some sacrifice of cargo-carrying capacity had been made. She was flush decked, with six painted gun-ports along each side. American shipbuilders had always evinced a tendency towards building fast ships, but this was an advanced example of the type.
"Are there guns behind those ports?" asked Hornblower.
"Twelve pounders, My Lord."
Even in these days of peace it was not unusual for merchant vessels to carry guns, whether for voyages in the West Indies or the East, but this was a heavier armament than usual.
"She was built as a privateer," said Hornblower.
"Quite right, My Lord. She's the Daring; she was built during the war and made one voyage and took six prizes from us before the Treaty of Ghent. And now, My Lord?"
"She could be a slaver."
"Your Lordship is right again, of course."
That heavy armament would be desirable in a slaver anchoring up a West African river liable to a treacherous attack; she could easily have a slave deck with that flush build; her speed would minimise deaths among the slaves during the Middle Passage; her lack of capacity for bulk cargo would be unimportant in a slaver.
"Is she a slaver?" asked Hornblower.
"Apparently not, My Lord, despite her appearance. She is being chartered to carry a great many men, all the same."
"I would like you to explain further, if you please, Mr. Sharpe."
"I can only tell Your Lordship the facts as disclosed to me. She is under charter to a French General, Count Cambronne."
"Cambronne? Cambronne? The man who commanded the Imperial Guard at Waterloo?" "That's the man, My Lord."
"The man who said, 'The Old Guard dies but does not surrender'?"
"Yes, My Lord, although report says he actually used a ruder expression. He was wounded and taken prisoner, but he did not die."
"So I have heard. But what does he want with this ship?"
"It is all open and above board, apparently. After the war, Boney's Old Guard formed an organization for mutual aid. In 1816 they decided to become colonists -- Your Lordship must have heard something about the project?"
"They came out and seized an area of land on the coast of Texas, the province of Mexico adjacent to this State of Louisiana."
"I have heard about it, but that is the extent of my knowledge."
"It was easy enough to start, with Mexico in the throes of her revolt against Spain. There was no opposition to them, as you understand, My Lord. But it was not so easy to continue. I cannot imagine that soldiers of the Old Guard would ever make good agriculturists. And on that pestilential coast -- It is a series of dreary lagoons, with hardly an inhabitant."
"The scheme failed?"
"As Your Lordship might expect. Half of them died of malaria and yellow fever, and half of the rest simply starved. Cambronne has come out from France to carry the survivors home, five hundred of them. The Government of the United States never liked the project, as Your Lordship can imagine, and now the insurgent government is strong enough to take exception to the presence on the shores of Mexico of a large body of trained soldiers, however peaceable their intentions. Your Lordship can see Cambronne's story could be perfectly true."
An eight-hundred-ton ship, equipped as a slaver, could pack five hundred soldiers on board and feed them during a long passage.
"Cambronne is stocking her largely with rice and water -- slave rations, My Lord, but the best adapted to the purpose for that very reason." The slave trade had had long experience of how to keep alive a closepacked body of men.
"If Cambronne is going to take them back to France I should do nothing to hinder him," said Hornblower. "Rather on the contrary."
"Exactly, My Lord."
Sharpe's grey eyes met Hornblower's in an expressionless stare. The presence of five hundred trained soldiers afloat in the Gulf of Mexico was very much the concern of the British Admiral commanding in chief, when the shores of the Gulf and of the Caribbean were in as much of a turmoil as at present. Bolivar and the other Spanish-American insurgents would pay a high price for their services in the present war. Or someone might be meditating the conquest of Haiti, or a piratical descent upon Havana. Any sort of filibustering expedition was possible. The actual Bourbon Government in France might be looking for a pie in which to put a finger, for that matter, a chance to snap up a colony and confront the English-speaking powers with a fait accompli.
"I'll keep my eye on them until they are safely out of the way," said Hornblower.
"I have called Your Lordship's attention officially to the matter," said Sharpe.
It would be one more drain upon Hornblower's limited resources for the policing of the Caribbean; he already was wondering which of his few craft he could detach to observe the Gulf Coast.
"And now, My Lord," said Sharpe, "it is my duty to discuss the details of Your Lordship's stay here in New Orleans. I have arranged a programme of official calls for Your Lordship. Does Your Lordship speak French?"
"Yes," said Hornblower, fighting down the urge to say, 'My Lordship does.'
"That is excellent, because French is commonly spoken among good society here. Your Lordship will, of course, be calling upon the naval authorities here, and upon the Governor. There is an evening reception planned for Your Lordship. My carriage is, of course, at Your Lordship's disposition."
"That is extremely kind of you, sir."
"No kindness at all, My Lord. It is a great pleasure to me to assist in making Your Lordship's visit to New Orleans as enjoyable as possible. I have here a list of the prominent people Your Lordship will meet, along with brief notes regarding them. Perhaps it might be as well if I explain it to Your Lordship's flag-lieutenant?"
"Certainly," said Hornblower; he was able now to relax his attention a little; Gerard was a good flag-lieutenant and had supported his commander- in-chief very satisfactorily during the ten months that Hornblower had held command. He supplied some of the social flair that Hornblower was too indifferent to acquire. The business was rapidly settled.
"Very well, then, My Lord," said Sharpe. "Now I can take my leave. I will have the pleasure of seeing Your Lordship again at the Governor's house."
"I am deeply obliged to you, sir."