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Commodore Hornblower

by C.S. Forester

 

Chapter One

Captain Sir Horatio Hornblower sat in his bath, regarding with distaste his legs dangling over the end. They were thin and hairy, and recalled to his mind the legs of the spiders he had seen in Central America. It was hard to think about anything except his legs, seeing how much they were forced upon his attention by their position under his nose as he sat in this ridiculous bath; they hung out at one end while his body protruded from the water at the other. It was only the middle portion of him, from his waist to above his knees, which was submerged, and that was bent almost double. Hornblower found it irritating to have to take a bath in this fashion, although he tried not to allow it to irritate him, and he strove desperately to dismiss from his mind recollections of thousands of more comfortable baths taken on the deck of a ship, under a wash-deck pump which threw over him unlimited quantities of stimulating sea-water. He seized his soap and flannel, and began viciously to wash those parts of himself above the surface, and as he did so water slopped in quantities over the side on to the polished oak floor of his dressing-room. That meant trouble for a housemaid, and in Hornblower's present mood he was glad to cause trouble.

He rose awkwardly to his feet in the bath, water flying in all directions, soaped and washed off the middle of himself, and yelled for Brown. Brown came in at once from the bedroom, although a good servant would have sensed his master's mood and delayed for a second or two so as to be sworn at. He hung a warm towel over Hornblower's shoulders, dexterously preventing the ends from dipping into the water as Hornblower stepped out of the soapy mess and walked across the floor leaving upon it a trail of drops and wet footprints. Hornblower towelled himself and stared gloomily through the door into the bedroom at the clothes which Brown had laid out for him there.

"It's a lovely morning, sir," said Brown.

"God damn your eyes," said Hornblower.

He would have to put on that damned suit of buff and blue, the varnished boots and the gold fob; he had never worn that suit before, and he had hated it when the tailor tried it on him, hated it when his wife admired it, and he supposed he would go on hating it for the rest of his days and still have to wear it. His hatred was a double one, firstly a simple, blind, unreasoning hatred, and secondly a hatred for a suit which he was quite sure did not properly set off his looks, making him appear absurd instead of merely plain. He pulled the two-guinea linen shirt over his head, and then with infinite trouble dragged the tight buff trousers up over his legs. They fitted him like a skin, and it was only when they were fully on, and Brown had slipped behind him and hauled the waistband taut, that he realized that he had not yet put on his stockings. To take the trousers off again would be to admit a mistake, and he refused to do so, ripping out another oath at Brown's suggestion. Philosophically Brown knelt and rolled up the tight trouser legs, but they would not roll even as far as the knee, making it hopeless to try to put on the long stockings.

"Cut the tops off the damned things!" spluttered Hornblower.

Brown, kneeling on the floor, rolled a protesting eye up at him, but what he saw in Hornblower's face cut short anything he had in mind to say. In disciplined silence Brown obeyed orders, bringing the scissors from the dressing-table. Snip, snip, snip! The tops of the stockings fell to the floor, and Hornblower put his feet into the mutilated ends and felt the first satisfaction of the day as Brown rolled down the trousers over them. The fates might be against him, by God, but he would show them that he still had a will of his own. He crammed his feet into the varnished boots and refrained from swearing at their tightness — he remembered guiltily that he had been weak with the fashionable bootmaker and had not insisted on comfort, not with his wife standing by to see that the dictates of fashion were obeyed.

He stumped across to the dressing-table and tied his neckcloth, and Brown buckled his stock. The ridiculous thing brushed his ears as he turned his head and his neck felt as if it were being stretched to double its length. He had never been more uncomfortable in his life; he would never draw an easy breath while wearing this damned choker which Brummell and the Prince Regent had made fashionable. He slipped on the flowered waistcoat — blue sprigged with pink — and then the broadcloth coat, buff, with big blue buttons; the inside of the pocket flaps and the reverse of the lapels and collar were of a matching blue. For twenty years Hornblower had worn nothing except uniform, and the image that the mirror reflected back to his jaundiced eyes was unnatural, grotesque, ridiculous. Uniform was comforting — no one could blame him if it did not suit him, because he had to wear it. But with civilian clothes he was presumed to display his own taste and choice — even though he was a married man — and people could laugh at him for what he wore. Brown attached the gold watch to the fob, and forced it into the pocket. It made an unsightly bulge there, over his belly, but Hornblower furiously put aside the idea of going without a watch so as to allow his clothes to fit better. He stuffed into his sleeve the linen handkerchief which Brown handed him after shaking scent on to it, and then he was ready.

"That's a beautiful suit, sir," said Brown.

"Beautiful rubbish!" said Hornblower.

He stumped back across the dressing-room and knocked on the farther door.

"Come in," said his wife's voice.

Barbara was still sitting in her bath, her legs dangling over the edge just as his own had done.

"How handsome you look, dear," said Barbara. "It's a refreshing change to see you out of uniform."

Even Barbara, the nicest woman in the world, was not free of the besetting sin of womankind, approving of change merely because it was change; but Hornblower did not answer her as he answered Brown.

"Thank you," he said, trying desperately to sound gracious as he said it.

"My towel, Hebe," said Barbara. The little Negro maid came gliding forward, and wrapped her up as she stepped out of the hip-bath.

"Venus rises from the waves," said Hornblower gallantly. He was doing his best to fight down the feeling of awkwardness which possessed him when he saw his wife naked in the presence of another woman, even though Hebe was a mere servant, and coloured.

"I expect," said Barbara, standing while Hebe patted the towel to her skin to dry her, "the village has already heard of this strange habit of ours of taking baths every day. I can hardly imagine what they think of it."

Hornblower could imagine; he had been a village boy himself, once. Barbara threw off the towel and stood naked again for a moment as Hebe passed her silk shift over her head. Women, once the barriers were down, really had no sense of decency, and Barbara in that transparent shift was even more shocking than when she was naked. She sat at the dressing-table and set to work to cream her face while Hebe brushed her hair; there were a myriad pots and jars on the dressing-table and Barbara took ingredients from one after the other as though compounding a witches' brew.

"I'm glad to see," said Barbara, inspecting her reflection closely, "that the sun is shining. It is well to have a fine day for this morning's ceremony."

The thought of the ceremony had been in Hornblower's mind ever since he woke up; it could not be said that he disliked the prospect, but he was not comfortable about it. It would be the first landmark in a new way of life, and Hornblower felt a not unnatural distrust of his own reactions to the change. Barbara was studying the reflection of his face in her mirror.

"Welcome to the new Squire of Smallbridge," she said, and smiled, turning towards him.

The smile transformed not only her expression but Hornblower's whole mental outlook as well. Barbara ceased to be the great lady, the earl's daughter with the bluest blood of the aristocracy in her veins, whose perfect poise and aplomb always afflicted Hornblower with the diffidence he detested; instead she became the woman who had stood unfrightened beside him upon the shot-torn decks of the Lydia in the Pacific, the woman who throbbed with love in his arms, the beloved companion and the companionable lover. Hornblower's heart went out to her on the instant. He would have taken her in his arms and kissed her if it had not been that Hebe was in the room. But Barbara's eyes met his and read in them what was in his mind. She smiled another smile at him; they were in perfect accord, with secrets shared between them, and the world was a brighter place for both of them.

Barbara pulled on a pair of white silk stockings, and knotted above her knees the scarlet silk garters. Hebe stood ready with her gown, and Barbara dived into it. The gown flapped and billowed as Barbara made her way into it, and then at last she emerged, her arms waving as they pushed into the sleeves, and her hair tousled. No one could be a great lady in those conditions, and Hornblower loved her more dearly than ever. Hebe settled the gown about her mistress, and hung a lace cape over her shoulders ready for the final adjustment of her hair. When the last pin had been inserted, the last curl fixed in place, the shoes eased upon her feet by a grovelling Hebe with a shoehorn, Barbara devoted her attention to settling on her head the vast hat with the roses and ribbons.

"And what is the time, my dear?" she asked.

"Nine o'clock," said Hornblower, hauling his watch with an effort from out of the tense fob-pocket in the front of his trousers.

"Excellent," said Barbara, reaching for the long white silk gloves which had come to her by devious smugglers' routes from Paris. "Hebe, Master Richard will be ready now. Tell nurse to bring him to me. And I think, dear, that your ribbon and star would be in the spirit of this morning's occasion."

"At my own front door?" protested Hornblower.

"I fear so," said Barbara. She wagged her head with its pyramid of roses, and this time it was not so much a smile that she bestowed upon him as a grin, and all Hornblower's objections to wearing his star evaporated on the spot. It was a tacit admission that she attached no more importance, as far as he and she were concerned, to the ceremony of welcoming him as the new Squire of Smallbridge, than Hornblower himself. It was as if an augur winked.

In his bedroom Hornblower took the red ribbon of the Bath and the Star from the drawer in his wardrobe, and Brown found for him the dogskin gloves which he tugged on as he walked down the stairs. A scared housemaid dropped him a curtsey; in the hall stood Wiggins the butler with Hornblower's tall beaver hat, and beside him John the footman in the new livery which Barbara had chosen. And here came Barbara with Richard in his nurse's arms, Richard's curls were pomaded into stiff decorum. The nurse set him down and twitched his petticoats and his lace collar into position, and Hornblower hastened to take one of his hands while Barbara took the other; Richard was not yet sufficiently accustomed to standing on his feet and was liable to go down on all fours in a way which might not suit the dignity of this morning's ceremony. Wiggins and John threw open the door, and the three of them, Barbara and Hornblower with Richard between them, walked out to the head of the steps above the driveway, Hornblower remembering just in time to clap the tall hat on his head before crossing the threshold.

It seemed as if every inhabitant of Smallbridge were formed up below them. On one side was the parson with a herd of children; in front the four tenant farmers in ill-fitting broadcloth with their labourers in their smocks, and on the other side a cluster of women in aprons and bonnets. Behind the children the ostler at the Coach and Horses stuck a fiddle under his chin and played a note; the parson waved a hand and the children burst into shrill piping —

"See-ee the conk–ring he-ee-ee-ee-ero comes,
Sow-ow-ow-ow-ound the trum–pets, be-ee-ee-eat the drums!"

Obviously this was meant for Hornblower, and he took off his hat and stood awkwardly; the tune meant nothing to his tone-deaf ear, but he could distinguish some of the words. The chorus came to a ragged end, and the parson took a step forward.

"Your Ladyship," he began, "Sir Horatio. Welcome in the name of the village. Welcome, Sir Horatio, with all the glory you have won in the war against the Corsican tyrant. Welcome, Your Ladyship, wife of the hero before us, sister of the hero commanding our valiant army now in Spain, daughter of the highest nobility in the land! Welcome — "

"Man!" yelled Richard unexpectedly. "Da-da!"

The parson took the interruption without flinching; already well in his stride, he continued to mouth out his fulsome sentences, telling of the joy the village of Smallbridge felt at finding itself in the ownership of a famous sailor. Hornblower was distracted from the discourse by the necessity of holding on tight to Richard's hand — if Richard once got loose he evidently would go down on all fours and throw himself down the steps to make a closer acquaintance with the village children. Hornblower looked out over the lush green of the park; beyond it rose the massive curves of the Downs, and to one side the tower of Smallbridge church rose above the trees. On that side, too, an orchard was in full bloom, exquisitely lovely. Park and orchard and church were all his; he was the Squire, a landed gentleman, owner of many acres, being welcomed by his tenantry. Behind him was his house, full of his servants; on his breast the ribbon and star of an order of chivalry; and in London Coutts & Company had in their vaults a store of golden guineas which were his as well. This was the climax of a man's ambition. Fame, wealth, security, love, a child — he had all that heart could desire. Hornblower, standing at the head of the steps while the parson droned on, was puzzled to find that he was still not happy. He was irritated with himself in consequence. He ought to be running over with pride and joy and happiness, and yet here he was contemplating the future with faint dismay; dismay at thought of living on here, and positive distaste at the thought of spending the fashionable season in London, even though Barbara would be beside him all the time.

These disorderly thoughts of Hornblower's were suddenly broken into. Something had been said which should not have been said, and as the parson was the only person speaking, he must have said it, although he was still droning along in obvious ignorance of any blunder. Hornblower stole a glance at Barbara; her white teeth showed for a moment against her lower lip, clear proof of her vexation to anyone who knew her well. Otherwise she was exhibiting the stoical calm of the British upper classes. What was it that had been said to upset her? Hornblower raked through his subconscious memory to recall the words the parson had been using, and which he had heard without attending. Yes, that was it. The stupid fool had spoken about Richard as though he were the child of both of them. It irritated Barbara unbearably to have her stepson taken to be her own child, and the more fond she grew of him the more it irritated her, curiously enough. But it was hard to blame the parson for his mistake; when a married pair arrives with a sixteen-months-old baby it is only natural to assume it to be their child.

The parson had finished now, and an awkward pause had already begun. Clearly something must be said in reply, and it was Hornblower's business to say it.

"Ha–h'm," said Hornblower — he had still not been married long enough to Barbara to have completely mastered that old habit — while he groped wildly for something to say. He ought to have been ready for this, of course; he ought to have been preparing a speech instead of standing day-dreaming. "Ha–h'm. It is with pride that I look over this English countryside — "

He managed to say all that was necessary. The Corsican tyrant. The yeomen stock of England. The King and the Prince Regent. Lady Barbara. Richard. When he finished there was another awkward pause while people looked at each other, before one of the farmers stepped forward.

"Three cheers for 'Er Ladyship!"

Everyone cheered, to Richard's astonishment, expressed in a loud yell.

"Three cheers for Sir Horatio! One, two, three, an' a tiger!"

There was nothing left to do now, except to withdraw gracefully into the house again and leave the tenantry to disperse. Thank God it was all over, anyway. John, the footman, stood at what obviously he thought was attention in the hall. Hornblower made a weary mental note to teach him to keep his elbows into his sides. If he were going to employ a footman he would make a good footman out of him. Here came the nurse, swooping down to find out how wet Richard had made himself. And here came the butler, hobbling along with a letter on a salver. Hornblower felt a rush of blood into his face as he saw the seal; that seal and that thick linen paper were only used by the Admiralty, as far as he knew. It was months, and it seemed like years, since he had last received any letter from the Admiralty. He snatched the letter from the salver, and only by the mercy of Providence remembered to glance at Barbara in apology, before breaking the seal.

The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty,
Whitehall,
10th April, 1812
Sir,
I am commanded by the Lords Commissioners to inform you that their Lordships desire to employ you immediately as Commodore with a Captain under you on a service which their Lordships consider worthy of an officer of your seniority and standing. You are hereby directed and required, therefore, to inform their Lordships through me as speedily as possible as to whether or not you will accept this appointment, and in the event of your accepting it you are further directed and required to present yourself in person at this office without delay in order to receive verbally their Lordships' instructions and also those of any other Minister of State whom it may be judged necessary you should address.
Your obed't servant,

E. NEPEAN, Secy to the Lords Commissioners
of the Admiralty

Hornblower had to read the letter twice — the first time it conveyed no meaning to him at all. But at the second reading the glorious import of the letter burst in upon him. The first thing he was conscious of was that this life here in Smallbridge or in Bond Street need not continue. He was free of all that; he could take a bath under a wash-deck pump instead of in a damned hip-bath with a kettleful of water in it; he could walk his own deck, breathe the sea air, take off these damned tight trousers and never put them on again, receive no deputations, speak to no damned tenants, never smell another pigsty or smack another horse's back. And that was only the first thing; the second was that he was being offered appointment as Commodore — a Commodore of the first class, too, with a captain under him, so that he would be like an Admiral. He would have a broad pennant flying at the mainmasthead, compliments and honours — not that they mattered, but they would be outward signs of the trust reposed in him, of the promotion that was his. Louis at the Admiralty must have a good opinion of him, clearly, to appoint him Commodore when he was hardly more than half-way up the Captains' list. Of course, that phrase about 'worthy of his seniority and standing' was merely formula, justifying the Admiralty in anticipation in putting him on half-pay should he decline; but — those last words, about consulting with Ministers of State, had enormous import. They meant that the mission to be entrusted to him would be one of responsibility, of international importance. Waves of excitement broke over him.

He hauled out his watch. Ten-fifteen — the day was still young by civilian standards.

"Where's Brown?" he snapped at Wiggins.

Brown materialized miraculously in the background — not too miraculously, perhaps; the whole house must be aware, of course, that the master had received a letter from the Admiralty.

"Get out my best uniform and my sword. Have the horses put-to in the chariot. You had better come with me, Brown — I shall want you to drive. Have my things for the night ready and yours too."

The servants scattered in all directions, for not merely must the weighty orders of the master be obeyed, but this was an affair of State and doubly important in consequence. So that as Hornblower came out of his preoccupation Barbara was standing there alone.

God, he had forgotten all about her in his excitement, and she was aware of it. She was drooping a little, and one corner of her mouth was down. Their eyes met then, and that corner of her mouth went up for a moment, but then it went down again.

"It's the Admiralty," explained Hornblower lamely. "They'll appoint me Commodore with a captain under me."

It was a pity that Hornblower could see her try to appear pleased. "That's a high compliment," she said. "No more than you deserve, my dear, all the same. You must be pleased, and I am too."

"It will take me away from you," said Hornblower.

"Darling, I have had six months with you. Six months of the kind of happiness you have given me is more than any woman deserves. And you will come back to me."

"Of course I will," said Hornblower.

 

Commodore Hornblower by C.S. Forester
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