Hornblower and the Widow McCool, Cecil Forester
The Channel fleet was taking shelter at last. The roaring westerly gales had worked up to such a pitch that timber and canvas and cordage could withstand them no longer, and nineteen ships of the line and seven frigates, with Admiral Lord Bridport flying his flag in HMS Victory, had momentarily abandoned that watch over Brest which they had maintained for six years. Now they were rounding Berry Head and dropping anchor in the shelter of Tor Bay. A landsman, with that wind shrieking round him, might be pardoned for wondering how much shelter was to be found there, but to the weary and weatherbeaten crews who had spent so long tossing in the Biscay waves and clawing away from the rocky coast of Brittany, that foamwhitened anchorage was like paradise. Boats could even be sent in to Brixham and Torquay to return with letters and fresh water; in most of the ships, officers and men had gone for three months without either. Even on that winter day there was intense physical pleasure in opening the throat and pouring down it a draught of fresh clear water, so different from the stinking green liquid doled out under guard yesterday.
The junior lieutenant in HMS Renown was walking the deck muffled in his heavy pea jacket while his ship wallowed at her anchor. The piercing wind set his eyes watering, but he continually gazed through his telescope nevertheless; for, as signal lieutenant, he was responsible for the rapid reading and transmission of messages, and this was a likely moment for orders to be given regarding sick and stores, and for captains and admirals to start chattering together, for invitations to dinner to be passed back and forth, and even for news to be disseminated.
He watched a small boat claw its way towards the ship from the French prize the fleet had snapped up yesterday on its way upChannel. Hart, master’s mate, had been sent on board from the Renown, as prizemaster, miraculously
making the perilous journey. Now here was Hart, with the prize safely anchored amid the fleet, returning on board to make some sort of report. That hardly seemed likely to be of interest to a signal lieutenant, but Hart appeared excited as he came on board, and hurried below with his news after reporting himself in the briefest terms to the officer of the watch. But only a very few minutes passed before the signal lieutenant found himself called upon to be most active.
It was Captain Sawyer himself who came on deck, Hart following him, to supervise the transmission of the messages. “Mr. Hornblower!”
“Kindly send this signal.”
It was for the admiral himself, from the captain; that part was easy; only two hoists were necessary to say ‘Renown to Flag’. And there were other technical terms which could be quickly expressed – ‘prize’ and ‘French’ and ‘brig’ – but there were names which would have to be spelled out letter for letter. ‘Prize is French national brig Espérance having on board Barry McCool.’
“Mr. James!” bellowed Hornblower. The signal midshipman was waiting at his elbow, but midshipmen should always be bellowed at, especially by a lieutenant with a very new commission.
Hornblower reeled off the numbers, and the signal went soaring up to the yardarm; the signal halyards vibrated wildly as the gale tore at the flags. Captain Sawyer waited on deck for the reply; this business must be important. Hornblower read the message again, for until that moment he had only studied it as something to be transmitted.