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A Threefold Cord

Chapter Text

Horatio Hornblower looked around his drawing room from his place on the sofa beside his wife, and, in a rare moment, found that all he saw only added to his contentment. William was sitting beside the fire, leaning back into a deep armchair, the caution with which he moved his right hand the only visible concession to his still-healing injuries. Archie had his feet up on an ottoman and was savouring a glass of sherry. And, of course, here was Barbara close up against his side. He smiled fondly at her.

"Dearest," Barbara said, turning to him thoughtfully, "you know, there's quite a lot of your history that I don't know. You've told me a great deal about your time with Archie and William on the Renown and the Hotspur, and of course I was there on the Lydia, but there were a few years in between. Did you all go on serving together? Archie, I know you were on the Triumph, and William you were at Trafalgar. But where were you, Horatio?"

"We all went separate ways for a while actually. William and I had the Hotspur for a couple of years, of course, but then even we were split up. I had an errand on the Continent first...but perhaps we should begin with Archie on the Triumph. There's a funny order to the way all these things happened. You'll understand once you've heard him."

Archie had told the story of the Battle of Cape Finisterre before, but he was nothing loath to start his tale again.

 

First Lieutenant Archie Kennedy, of HMS Triumph, peered through his telescope at the shadowy shape of Hero and the still more shadowy Ajax, and cursed the existence of fog. Already it was difficult to distinguish Villenueve's line of battle through the rising patches of fog, and the sun was setting to boot. And they were off El Ferrol, a place where Archie did not trust his luck as far as he could throw it: on the one hand Horatio had found him here, and his slow journey back to soundness of mind and body had begun; on the other it had been the prison of Ferrol and the cruelty of its governor Don Massaredo that made that journey necessary in the first place.

But here and now he was not in El Ferrol, and now was no time to be thinking of it. The first broadsides from Villeneuve's fleet were just beginning to ring out, at a further range than Archie would have fired them, but then it was the standard French practise to edge to leeward, firing all the time, while the English tried to close and start ship-to-ship actions, and paid the price. The Spanish were rarely so ready, but of course these Dons were under French command, and he must have taught them some of his tricks. Now, once let an English ship of the line get in amongst the French line, and there would be hell to pay for the Frogs, but she would have to run a long gauntlet first. Or that was the Frogs' idea, anyway. This time it looked like working, too.

It was some minutes before Triumph's broadside spoke, but Captain Inman kept a disciplined crew, and only quiet commands were needed to prevent them from returning fire at once. When they finally did, Archie hoped fervently that their shots had struck home. But now the fog was around them in earnest, illuminated now and again by flashes of gunfire and thickened by smoke, and the darkness was falling more heavily over them with every passing minute. In this devil's murk, the French could have been up to nearly anything in the way of maneuvers, and so Archie set his gun crews to firing where the rigging of the dark, looming hulls ought to be, hoping to cripple their opponents. They could see only the three ships that were nearest them, whether English or French, and knew of the rest of the battle only by the thunder of guns that came to them through the evening air.

Had he not been dutifully watching the sand-glass by the binnacle, Archie would never have known that the action went on for hour after hour, as the sun sank into the sea and painted the fog and smoke in all sorts of fantastic, heraldic colours, and the guns banged away and the smoke thickened. The Triumph was certainly taking a pounding; Archie generally had a poor opinion of French gunnery, but Villeneuve had either found or trained some competent men, however he had done it. Shot crashed into Triumph's timbers and shrieked through her rigging at depressingly regular intervals, and though surprisingly few men had as yet been hurt, he had still had to call hands away from the gun crews more than once to repair the rigging, and despite the heroic efforts of the carpenter and his mates, the clamour of the pumps had been added to that of the battle. Despite the many disruptions, however, the roll of the Triumph's broadsides went on ringing out with clock-like regularity, and Archie, when he could spare a thought for it, was proud both of the men and of his training of them. It was gunnery of the sort Bush would have rejoiced in, though he would have been fervently damning the fog and the dark by now, as Archie was tempted to do in his stead, for he could not tell more than once in ten shots whether or no they had hit what they were aiming at.

He was up in the maintop, supervising the replacement of the main t'gallant backstay, completely severed by a lucky eighteen-pound shot in the literal dark, when a nervous midshipman with a telescope appeared out of the smoke. Hendricks, he remembered, a moment later, drawing his mind back from complicated calculations about the combined stress on the rigging. The signal midshipman. "Signal from the flagship, sir," the boy said.

It must have been a minor miracle that let Hendricks read a signal from the Prince of Wales in the devil's murk they were all mucking about in now, even if it had been passed along from the other ships. "What is it, Hendricks?" he asked, wondering if he would have to scold the boy for excessive imagination.

"Disengage the enemy, sir."

"You're sure?"

"Quite sure, sir. I saw it in the flash of the guns, when the fog came apart. 'Flag to all ships,' clear as day, 'disengage the enemy.' "

"That was well spotted then, Hendricks. My respects to Captain Inman and I shall be on deck directly."

Archie took a moment to reorient his world around these new orders. Until now, his chief priority had been to help Inman drive the Triumph like a spear into the enemy's line, as deeply as he could. Now they had to withdraw, without exposing themselves to more pounding than they needed. They had taken enough damage already and more than enough, though as of last count the number of dead and wounded together had still, miraculously, been less than ten.

At last, the new backstay was nearly in place and he was no longer needed here. He dropped down the shrouds hand-over-hand and looked to Inman for orders. The man was no Hornblower, but there was no questioning his courage, and though rumour had it that he was not lucky in his ships, he had a reputation for seeing his men through thick and thin. Archie had found him a quiet, tense sort of man, but strictly fair in his orders and his punishments. They were not friends, but they had built an effective working relationship. Just now Inman was ordering the ship about, but not without a final broadside as a present to the Spanish, one last fierce, fiery defiance that boomed out into the night. And then the fog closed over them, and they were alone, not a gun firing. The battle of Cape Finisterre was over (though nobody would know that until the morning), and not a man in either fleet knew if they had won or lost.