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Observations of the Elusive Smallbridge Commodore

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First Lieutenant Lord William Blakeney stood by the railing, waiting for Commander Vickery to come aboard. While he was presenting a calm front for the men, internally he was just as curious as they were. Moreso, perhaps; while many of the crew had sailed with The Lotus before, Blakeney had only recently been transferred to her. He was learning the men's names and the various quirks of the ship, but an actual set of orders would give him a real opportunity to see the sloop in her element, to learn how best to manage her and her crew, and to prove himself worthy of his recent advancement. He had a reasonable amount of faith in his own skills, but he needed to instill that faith in both Vickery and the crew. The larger the task, the better, but even a simple mission to gather information would do.

 

Vickery finally vaulted aboard, giving the expected nod and salute to his gathered crew, but Blakeney could see the traces of a smile pulling at his lips. He'd received good news, then. Tamping down on his own smile, Blakeney waited until Vickery had given him a second, smaller nod. “As you were, men!”

 

As the men dispersed, Vickery jerked his head towards his cabin. “If you please, Mr. Blakeney. We have something to discuss.”

 

Blakeney eagerly followed behind his commander. “Have we been given new orders, sir?” he asked, keeping his voice conversational.

 

“We have indeed,” Vickery replied, “Orders I'm sure will be cheered and cursed in equal measure.” Blakeney was puzzled, but knew all would be clear soon enough.

 

Once they were inside the small cabin, Vickery removed his hat and began to explain. “The Admiralty wants a presence in the Baltic, but since they're not sure if Boney's got designs on Russia or not, they're keeping it relatively small. So far, it sounds like we're part of a flotilla consisting of two sloops including us, two bomb ketches, a cutter, and a third-rate ship of the line. Not exactly glamourous.”

 

“Perhaps not, but it'll make any victories we have that much more noteworthy.” Blakeney pointed out.

 

Vickery grinned. “Spoken with the arrogance of youth. Lucky thing I share that arrogance.”

 

Blakeney laughed. Vickery was only Blakeney's senior by a year, a situation that sometimes could lead to friction between officers in their position but just as often led to firm friendships. It hadn't taken long to determine that Vickery and Blakeney were in the latter category, which they agreed would be good for their careers, the ship, and the service. With luck, this mission would solidify that.

 

Once his laughter subsided, Blakeney returned to the matter at hand. “You seem in good spirits despite the unglamorous nature of the assignment. Is there more?”

 

“Indeed,” Vickery answered, finally sitting at his desk, “We're to be under the flag of one Commodore Horatio Hornblower.”

 

Blakeney's eyes widened. “You're sure?”

 

“Positive. When a name like that comes up in the course of the discussion, it's almost impossible to mishear.”

 

“Well then...” Blakeney said, sitting down on the opposite chair, “It seems our odds of earning victories have gone up a bit.”

 

Hornblower's name was one that hadn't appeared in the naval gazettes all that often, but when it did, it was almost always in connection with something spectacular. Blakeney had first heard Hornblower's name after his ship, The Lydia , had sunk a much larger Spanish ship that had fallen into enemy hands. More recently, after being captured by the French and presumed dead, Hornblower had appeared before a British blockade, at the helm of a captured British ship, The Witch of Endor . Any man capable of feats like that was well worth being connected to, even in the smallest of capacities.

 

Vickery's eyes sparkled. “Not bad for your first outing as second-in-command, eh, Will?”

 

Blakeney leaned forward, eager to know more. “Did you actually see him, Eli?”

 

“Unfortunately not,” Vickery said, “He's probably too busy working on the grand details to be bothered with the likes of us at the moment. Which means we'll have to work extra hard to earn his favor.”

 

“Aye, sir,” Blakeney said, getting to his feet once more, “Shall I give the orders to prepare the ship?”

 

“Immediately, Blakeney. I want our decks spotless, our sails trim, and our sides smoothed. And I want the men as prepared as humanly possible. Start running drills, from clearing for action to climbing the rigging. We'll motivate 'em with extra spirit rations and fresh meat. Assuming you're willing to chip in for the bribes.”

 

“I'll write to my uncle,” Blakeney said, chuckling, “Mother tends to accompany any money I ask for with a lecture, but Uncle Percy seems positively delighted to help out with anything that could eventually lead to France being made to look foolish.”

 

“Excellent! I'll make the announcement of our destination after the Sunday service. Hopefully I can speak of it in a way that'll provide enough motivation to sustain them until the beef and alcohol arrives.”

 

“Put enough verve in your voice, and I think you can manage it. Am I dismissed, sir?”

 

“Yes, Lieutenant. I expect to see the crew hard at work when I next look out on deck.”

 

Blakeney nodded, saluted, and left the cabin. As he gave orders for the men to be assembled, it occurred to him that in addition to writing to his uncle, he'd need to write a letter to Dr. Maturin as well. He knew that Russia had large swathes of unoccupied territory, but while it was inhospitable to people, there were surely several species of animals that could survive there. While there was no guarantee that this assignment would take the flotilla anywhere near those areas, his old friend would almost certainly be excited that Blakeney had a chance to see such hardy creatures. Perhaps he could also include a few tips for spotting animals from a distance, especially if they had white fur that helped them blend in with the snow...

***

One month later, Blakeney stood on the deck of the Lotus, alternating between watching for ships and admiring the play of light upon the sea. He honestly wasn't sure if he was hoping for excitement or not; it was still too early to know if their assignment in Russia would provide action or boredom, and thus if moments like this were to be dreaded or treasured. For now, he chose to be content. After all, they'd had a brief thrill as they'd passed between Sweden and Denmark, with shore batteries firing on them, and a respite to allow nerves to settle was always to the good. Fortunately, Lotus had avoided any damage, though the Harvey and the Nonsuch had both been hit. He and Vickery had toasted their good fortune that evening, and had offered up a second toast to Commodore Hornblower for providing such a precise course for them to follow. Perhaps they had had the harder job of maintaining the course, but the ability to plot so accurately despite (so it was rumored) unfamiliarity with the region was a feat in itself.

 

Sadly, Blakeney still only knew of the man by rumor and reputation. The Commodore had yet to pay a visit to any of his flotilla other than his flagship, perhaps wanting to wait until he'd taken their measure before coming aboard to offer improvements. Vickery, on the other hand, had actually met him, having been sent for early in the voyage so all the captains could make introductions and learn of their ship formations. “He's imposing when you first see him,” he told Blakeney over dinner that night, “He carries himself ramrod straight, which makes him seem taller, and he's already considerably tall as it is. And there's a bite to his words when he's issuing orders that makes you afraid to fail them. But when Duncan made a joke about the Moth always steering for the light of the nearest city, I caught a twinkle in Hornblower's eye and a twitch of his lips. I suspect he's not quite as stern as he's letting on.”

 

“May we both have the opportunity to find out.” Blakeney said, lifting his glass.

 

“Don't you worry, Will,” Vickery said, noticing the note of wistfulness in Blakeney's tone, “I suspect you'll get your chance sooner than expected.”

 

Shaking himself out of his reverie, Blakeney turned his attention back to the far distance, then squinted. “Davies, please set up my spyglass; I think there may be something out there.”

 

Davies immediately opened the small chest Blakeney always brought on deck during his watch and began removing the glass and its stand. As he waited, Blakeney continued to peer at the object he'd spotted. Perhaps it was a trick of the horizon, but he thought he could see something fluttering off in the distance. They were close enough to shore that it might be a gull, but he had his doubts.

 

“Glass is ready, sir.”

 

“Thank you, Davies.” Blakeney said, kneeling down to peer through the glass. There had been a time when he had been level with the railing, making it easier (or at least more comfortable) to have the glass to hand. But he'd gained five inches around the time he turned fifteen, and while he had no objections to the added height, this was one of the few disadvantages it brought. Shrugging off the discomfort, he adjusted the glass until the image was clear, then swung it towards the fluttering object.

 

His eyes hadn't deceived him; those had been sails. The ship was still too far off to make out if it was friend or foe, but given the uncertain loyalties of these waters, it was best to be cautious.

 

“Send a signal to the Nonsuch ; ' Sail to leeward. ' And inform Captain Vickery as well.” Blakeney said, keeping his eye to the glass to track the ship until someone—be it Vickery or Hornblower—offered up orders.

 

It seemed that the ship had noticed the Lotus as well, because it was changing course to turn away from them. It was hard to say if that should be considered suspicious or not, but it was worth mentioning. “Inform Nonsuch that the ship is now on the port tack, bearing east by north, half east. ” he called to whoever was nearby.

 

Vickery was by Blakeney's side now, looking through his own glass. “Well-spotted, Blakeney. I guess all those spare hours you spend looking at the minute details of bugs are more useful than I thought.”

 

Blakeney grinned, then shifted the glass to examine the ship's shape and flags. “Looks like one of ours,” he said at last, “Merchant ship, I'd wager.”

 

“Signal the Nonsuch that she may be a British merchantman , ” Vickery called out, “And move to intercept. Even if she's friendly, it's good to have some news.”

 

As Blakeney started to calculate the proper heading, Davies called out “Signal from Nonsuch , sir! 'Ship in view. Moving to intercept.'”

 

“No doubt Hornblower wants to hear it all for himself,” Vickery said, mostly addressing himself to Blakeney, “Continue to make for the ship regardless; if Nonsuch needs assistance, we'll be on hand, and if it's a merchant ship on its way for home, we'll be one of the first who can drop off mail.”

 

“Aye, sir.” Blakeney said, approving of the logic. Then he resumed his calculations.

 

Thanks to the Lotus' small size, it was easy for her to come about and sail towards the ship, Blakeney keeping an eye on proceedings through the glass all the while. As they arrived, the ship, now clearly sporting British colors, was heaving to, and were raising a second flag. “Yellow flag, sir,” Blakeney said, “They've got some sort of illness aboard.”

 

Heave-to!” Vickery called to the men, “Best to keep our distance. But stay close in case they ask for assistance. Ask the quartermaster for an inventory; perhaps we can float her over some supplies.”

 

The crew set to work, while Blakeney picked up the stand and moved to a better position to view the ship. As he settled back into position, he swept the glass over the ship. There were stacks of timber all along the deck, making him wonder idly how the crew were able to move about with so much of it blocking their way. He could hear voices calling out to each other through speaking trumpets, and grimaced when he heard the word “smallpox”. Poor devils; no wonder there were only two men on the deck. Hopefully both Lotus and Nonsuch were far enough off to avoid falling prey to the disease as well.

 

He heard a voice coming from the direction of the Nonsuch , asking about the lack of convoy, and it occurred to him that the man who was speaking would most likely be Commodore Hornblower himself. He swung the glass towards the flagship, eager for the opportunity to get a glimpse of the man. He wondered if Hornblower would be dressed in all the finery appropriate for his rank, or if he would be in a less formal coat, since he had been expecting a typical day at sea.

 

His eye swept along the Nonsuch's railing, searching for the glint of medals or epaulettes as well as the outline of a speaking trumpet. Then he froze, hand tightening on the glass. He had found the speaking trumpet, all right, but the man wielding it wore no medals or epaulettes. In fact, he wasn't wearing anything at all. The railing preserved most of the man's modesty, but Blakeney could see enough bare leg to know that the speaker was, indeed, completely starkers.

 

Blakeney blinked and quickly looked around the rest of the Nonsuch's deck. He saw a man with epaulettes but no decorations standing next to the naked man, looking over at the merchant ship, and a man standing slightly off to the side with a dressing gown draped over his arm. Everyone else he could see was focused on the other ship, though he did spot two crewmen glance at the naked man, then each other, and press their hands firmly against their mouths. Good; he wasn't hallucinating.

 

Part of Blakeney wanted to call Vickery over and ask him to confirm what he suspected, but if he did that, it might lead to Lotus' entire crew gawking. And it wouldn't do much for their assignment if the crew saw their leader as a figure of ridicule. No, he would stay silent, and if Vickery or the crew realized what was happening on the Nonsuch , it wouldn't be on his conscience. He did, however, keep his eye to the glass—he might wish to spare the Commodore's reputation, but he couldn't resist indulging his own curiosity.

 

Commodore Hornblower seemed completely oblivious to his nudity, instead completely focused on asking the captain of the other ship for news. As Vickery had said, Hornblower's back was perfectly straight, so much so that it was almost painful to observe, especially since the lack of clothes made it easier to see the tenseness of his muscles. It was difficult to make out Hornblower's face, thanks to distance and the speaking trumpet, but based on his tone of voice, he seemed impatient, possibly frustrated. Did he disapprove of what he was hearing (from what little Blakeney was catching, Russia and Sweden were still neutral-yet-inclined-towards-Bonaparte), or was it irritation at being interrupted in the midst of his morning preparations? That might well explain the lack of clothes...

 

Then Hornblower lowered the speaking trumpet and stood still for a moment. Blakeney caught the slightest shift of his posture, a squaring of his shoulders, and then he turned and spoke to the Captain beside him. Then he raised the trumpet again.

 

I'm sending a boat to you.

 

Blakeney blinked again. Why would Hornblower take such a risk? It didn't seem like him from all that Blakeney had heard. Unless...

 

Blakeney turned the glass to look at the men on the other boat. They seemed tense, in a way they hadn't been when he'd glanced at them before. As the man with the speaking trumpet lowered it, he and the other man started conversing rapidly, and Blakeney caught the other man wringing his hands. It could have been explained away by concern over their ill crewmates, but Blakeney was starting to see why Hornblower had called for a boat.

 

“Did I hear right?” Vickery said to Blakeney's left, causing him to start, “Is the Commodore sending over a boat?”

 

Blakeney glanced up at him, and saw that Vickery currently didn't have his own glass to his eye, though he held it in his hands; had he been been discussing matters with the quartermaster, or had he been watching events unfold just as much as Blakeney had been? Keeping his tone neutral, he brought his eye back to the glass and replied;

 

“He is. But I think he has a good reason to. I'm not sure what it is just yet, but the men on the merchant ship do seem to be worried about something other than illness.”

 

Looking back over at the Nonsuch , he saw that the boat was in the process of being lowered. Then, giving into temptation, he glanced back at Hornblower and saw that he hadn't moved, not even to take advantage of this half-lull by putting on his dressing gown. Was he so engaged at rooting out this mystery that he'd forgotten he was undressed? Or was this some eccentricity afforded by his rank that the Nonsuch crew had just grown accustomed to? Surely not, if the muffled laughs of those crewman had been any indication.

 

Turning his attention back to the other ship, Blakeney saw that one of the men had disappeared, leaving the one with the speaking trumpet alone on deck. The man stood still for a moment, presumably watching the boat. Then, abruptly, he threw down the trumpet and began to look around in a panic. He looked over towards the Lotus , apparently realizing she was there for the first time, and his distress appeared to increase. Then Hornblower's voice rang out, carrying exactly the tone Blakeney expected from officers of his station.

 

Stay heave-to, or I'll sink you!

 

Blakeney smiled, a memory floating back to him. It was starting to look like this ship was using the same phasmid gambit that the Surprise had used against the Acheron seven years ago. It was fortunate that the Acheron hadn't been commanded by someone like Hornblower; based on this, there was a good chance he'd have seen through the ruse before they were ready.

 

He continued watching, hoping he'd learn what, precisely, the enemy's plan had been. When the men from the Nonsuch boarded the ship, there was a brief commotion as the man Hornblower had been speaking to attempted to avoid capture by shooting himself, but it appeared he'd bungled the job. At last, the midshipman who'd been sent over gave his report; there was no smallpox aboard, and the ship had been captured by the French and was being sent off as a prize ship. So the ship was most likely trying to escape rather than snag a second prize. They'd have been foolish to try, given the comparative sizes of the ships and the fact that there were five other ships nearby, but Blakeney would have been impressed by the audacity.

 

“Signal the Nonsuch ,” Vickery called, “Ask if they require any assistance.”

 

The response came back promptly. “'No. Resume your position.'”

 

“You heard the commodore, lads!” Vickery said, “Lay in the course!”

 

Now that the excitement was over, Blakeney prepared to stand up. But before he did, he swung the glass back towards the Nonsuch , just to satisfy one other bit of curiosity. When he located the place where Hornblower had been standing, he saw the man tie the belt of his dressing gown tight across his waist, then stride away. Blakeney smiled and nodded before finally standing up. So it had been an interruption, after all.

 

“Well done all around, Blakeney,” Vickery said, as Blakeney rubbed feeling back into his legs, “If you hadn't noticed the sail, she might have hidden somewhere to avoid us, and the French would have gained a prize. I'll be sure to mention as much in my report. Perhaps Hornblower will see fit to send you his compliments.”

 

“Thank you, sir.” Blakeney said, smiling. He took a quick glance at Vickery's face, but while his eyes were gleaming in satisfaction, there didn't seem to be that playful twinkle in his eye that signaled amusement. While Vickery could be trusted not to speak of secret matters, it was a lot harder for him to keep his true emotions from showing on his face. If he had borne witness to the Commodore's...performance, he almost certainly would have been unable to hide some sign of mirth. Either he had chosen to rely on Blakeney to report on anything noteworthy, or he had focused his glass entirely on the prize ship, assuming there was nothing worth seeing on the Nonsuch . Blakeney felt a touch of relief at that realization. Some of it was for Hornblower's benefit—it seemed highly unlikely he'd want a display like that to be common knowledge—but part of it was a personal, selfish relief. He cherished Vickery's friendship and the ability to reminisce, commiserate, and speculate on all manner of things, but occasionally, there was pleasure in having a secret all to yourself. And the knowledge that he was one of a select few who had seen Commodore Hornblower simultaneously at his best and his most vulnerable was a very pleasing secret indeed.

 

Vickery smiled back, gave a nod, and then moved down the deck. Blakeney removed the glass from the railing and returned it to its case, then looked around the deck. As everything seemed to be operating smoothly for the time being, now seemed like an excellent time to do an examination of things below decks to make sure everything could easily be cleared for action. The next ship they met might well be more blatant in its intentions, after all.

***

It took another week (and a detour to destroy a French privateer that the Lotus , sadly, was unable to actively participate in) before Commodore Hornblower paid a visit to the Lotus . As the crew gathered on deck to receive him, Blakeney watched their reactions with interest. The crewmen, while respectful, also seemed blasé, as if this was routine (and in many ways, it was; they would have to stand at attention to receive many a Captain, Commodore, or Admiral over the course of their careers). The midshipmen and lieutenants, however, were much more excited, though doing their best to keep their bodies still and their faces neutral. Much like Blakeney and Vickery, they had heard of Hornblower's victories, and were eager to get a glimpse of him. Blakeney probably would have been in much the same position if he hadn't been lucky enough to witness the event with the merchantman. As it was, he was still excited and curious, but his nerves had diminished significantly.

 

Vickery, meanwhile, had a certain nervous energy, though it was only noticeable by the way his hands fiddled with each other behind his back. While he had familiarity with Hornblower, the Commodore was now in Vickery's territory, and it was currently unclear if it would be found wanting. Blakeney had overseen the men the day before in squaring away the decks to make them presentable, but it remained to be seen if they were up to Hornblower's standards.

 

The bosun's pipe twittered shrilly, and after a moment's pause, Hornblower finally climbed onto the deck. He smoothed his coat almost automatically as he straightened up, eyes glancing rapidly around the deck and up to the masts. The gaze was critical, but also calculating; Blakeney could tell Hornblower was determining how quickly Lotus could beat to quarters should the need arise. Hornblower nodded almost imperceptibly, and Blakeney gave a small smile. The ship, at least, had passed muster.

 

Vickery stepped forward and saluted. “Commodore Hornblower, sir.”

 

Hornblower nodded and gave a brief salute in return. “Commander Vickery,” he said, his voice deep, smooth, and perfectly proper, “Your ship appears to be in fine condition. I hope to find your crew in the same state.”

 

“I believe you will, sir. May I begin by introducing my first lieutenant, Lord William Blakeney?”

 

Blakeney touched his hat as Hornblower turned his gaze on him. At first glance, the Commodore's countenance was a bit frightening, with a hard mouth and dark, intense eyes that seemed to scrutinize you instantly. But Vickery was right; there was a glint to the eyes that, on second glance, made the gaze seem just a touch softer. It was that, in addition to his memory of the merchantman, that allowed Blakeney to meet the gaze steadily. “It's an honor, sir.”

 

As was so often the case when Blakeney was introduced to someone, Hornblower's eyes flicked for just a moment to Blakeney's missing arm, but he quickly turned his attention back to Blakeney's face. “'Lord' Blakeney, eh?” he said, as he offered his hand.

 

“Indeed, sir,” Blakeney said, clasping the hand and shaking firmly, “I aspire to be as much like Lord Nelson, rest his soul, as I can. As I already have both the title and the missing arm to my name, I believe attaining the rank of admiral should be equally easy.”

 

Hornblower's eyes widened in surprise, and then he gave a very brief, but very genuine, smile. “With a spirit like that, I shouldn't doubt it.”

 

Releasing Blakeney's hand, he continued down the line, Vickery making the introductions. Blakeney remained at attention until all of the officers had had their turn, then called for the crew's dispersal as soon as Vickery gave him the signal. As most of the men moved to resume their positions or return to being off-duty, Blakeney approached Vickery and Hornblower, just in time to hear the expected statement from the Commodore;

 

“Well then, Vickery, let me get a closer look at this ship of yours. I'd like to know one of my best ships is prepared for the weeks ahead.”

 

“Aye, sir.” Vickery said with another salute, before turning and nodding to Blakeney. “The deck is yours, Lieutenant.”

 

“Aye, sir.” Blakeney echoed, feeling a brief sting of disappointment. He'd hoped to accompany Vickery and Hornblower on the tour, but he supposed it made more sense for him to oversee things and ensure that the crew continued to behave themselves. Not that he expected any bad behavior, but it was best to take precautions. Climbing up to the quarterdeck, he began to scan the decks for anything worth noting, while Vickery and Hornblower disappeared below.

 

It was half-an-hour later, at least according to Blakeney's watch, before the two of them emerged again. Then they took a turn of the deck, finally joining Blakeney at the quarterdeck. “You have a fine ship, Vickery,” Hornblower said, “And you have acquitted yourself admirably on this journey so far. I hope you can maintain this level of skill during the rest of our time in Russia.”

 

“Indeed, sir,” Vickery said with a salute, “We'll do our utmost.”

 

“Very good. Now then,” Hornblower looked between both Vickery and Blakeney, “I must return to Nonsuch . But can I have the honor of the company of both you and Lord Blakeney for dinner this evening?”

 

Blakeney felt his heart leap, though he kept his smile from appearing too eager. Vickery, on the other hand, had the luxury of giving a much broader smile. “Certainly, sir.”

 

“Excellent. Tell me, Lord Blakeney,” Hornblower abruptly turned his full attention to Blakeney, which caused Blakeney to start slightly, “Do you play whist?”

 

“I do, sir,” Blakeney said, quickly composing himself, “I enjoy the challenge.”

 

“Well then, perhaps the three of us and Captain Bush can enjoy a hand or two after dinner.”

 

“It would be a pleasure, Commodore.” Blakeney said, Vickery nodding in agreement.

 

“It's settled, then,” Hornblower said, as he turned to descend the steps, “Until this evening, gentlemen.”

 

The men were reassembled to see Hornblower off, Blakeney standing on the quarterdeck while Vickery followed the Commodore to the railing. When the formalities were over and the crew dispersed once more, Vickery joined Blakeney on the quarterdeck. “One meeting, and you're invited to dine with him,” he said quietly, “You must have made quite the impression, Will.”

 

Blakeney shrugged. “I suspect the Commodore was just being polite and doing what was expected.”

 

“Even so...” Vickery said, before adding with a playful grin, “Now then, should I order you to deliberately lose at whist for the sake of Hornblower's pride, or shall we make it a fair fight?”

 

“Oh, a fair fight,” Blakeney responded immediately, “After I said I preferred challenge, that's what he's going to be expecting. And I wouldn't want to disappoint him.”

 

Vickery laughed and gave Blakeney a brief pat on the shoulder. “I look forward to the battle of wills. I suspect myself and Captain Bush are going to find ourselves hopelessly outclassed.”

 

Blakeney smiled, already looking forward to the dinner. While he suspected he would never see quite as much of Hornblower as he had a week ago, he appeared to be well on his way to making it into Hornblower's good graces. And even if that ultimately didn't do much to advance his career, Blakeney would be happy to put that on his personal list of accomplishments.