Cecil Forester: A Ship of the Line

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Cecil Forester A Ship of the Line
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    A Ship of the Line
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    Исторические приключения / Путешествия и география / Морские приключения / на английском языке
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May 1810, seventeen years deep into the Napoleonic Wars. Captain Horatio Hornblower is newly in command of his first ship of the line, the seventy-four-gun HMS Sutherland, which he deems “the ugliest and least desirable two-decker in the Navy List.” Moreover, she is 250 men short of a full crew, so Hornblower must enlist and train “poachers, bigamists, sheepstealers,” and other landlubbers. By the time the Sutherland reaches the blockaded Catalonian coast of Spain, the crew is capable of staging five astonishing solo raids against the French. But the grisly prospect of defeat and capture looms for both captain and crew as the Sutherland single-handedly takes on four French ships.

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Cecil S. Forester

A Ship of the Line

Chapter I

Captain Horatio Hornblower was reading a smudgy proof which the printers had just sent round to his lodgings.

“To all Young Men of Spirit,” he said. “Seamen, Landsmen, and Boys, who wish to strike a Blow for Freedom and to cause the Corsican Tyrant to wish that he had never dared the Wrath of these British Isles. His Majesty’s Ship Sutherland of two decks and seventy-four guns is at present commissioning at Plymouth, and a few Vacancies still exist to complete her Crew. Captain Horatio Hornblower in command has lately returned from a Cruise in the South Sea during which in command of the Frigate Lydia of thirty-six guns, he engaged and sank the Spanish vessel Natividad of two decks and more than twice the force. The Officers, Petty Officers, and men of the Lydia have all joined him in the Sutherland. What Heart of Oak can resist this Appeal to Join this Band of Heroes and Share with them the new Glories which await them? Who will teach Monsieur Jean Crapaud that the Seas are Britannia’s where no Frog-eating Frenchman can show his Face? Who wishes for a Hatful of Golden Louis d’or for Prize Money? There will be Fiddlers and Dancing every evening, and Provisions at sixteen ounces to the Pound, the Best of Beef, and Best of Bread, and Grog at midday every Day of the Week and Sundays, all in addition to the Pay under the Warrant of His Most Gracious Majesty King George! In the Place where this notice is read can be found an Officer of His Majesty’s Ship Sutherland who will enlist any Willing Hearts who Thirst for Glory.”

Captain Hornblower struggled against hopelessness as he read the proof. Appeals of this sort were to be read in dozens in every market town. It hardly seemed likely that he could attract recruits to a humdrum ship of the line when dashing frigate captains of twice his reputation were scouring the country and able to produce figures of prize money actually won in previous voyages. To send four lieutenants, each with half a dozen men, round the southern counties to gather recruits in accordance with this poster was going to cost him practically all the pay he had accumulated last commission, and he feared lest it should be money thrown away.

Yet something had to done. The Lydia had supplied him with two hundred able bodied seamen (his placard said nothing of the fact that they had been compulsorily transferred without a chance of setting foot on English soil after a commission of two years’ duration) but to complete his crew he needed another fifty seamen and two hundred landsmen and boys. The guardship had found him none at all. Failure to complete his crew might mean the loss of his command, and from that would result unemployment and half pay—eight shillings a day-for the rest of his life. He could form no estimate at all of with how much favour he was regarded at the Admiralty, and in the absence of data it was natural to him to believe that his employment hung precariously in the balance.

Anxiety and strain brought oaths to his lips as he tapped on the proof with his pencil—silly blasphemies of whose senselessness he was quite well aware even as he mouthed them. But he was careful to speak softly; Maria was resting in the bedroom through the double doors behind him, and he did not want to rouse her. Maria (although it was too early to be certain) believed herself to be pregnant, and Hornblower was sated with her cloy tenderness. His irritation increased at the thought of it; he hated the land, the necessity of recruiting, the stuffy sitting-room, the loss of the independence he had enjoyed during the months of his last commission. Irritably he took his hat and stole quietly out. The printer’s messenger was waiting, hat in hand, in the hall. To him Hornblower abruptly handed back the proof with a curt order for one gross of placards to be struck off, and then he made his way into the noisy streets.

The tollkeeper at the Halfpenny Gate Bridge at sight of his uniform let him through without payment; a dozen watermen at the ferry knew him as the captain of the Sutherland and competed to catch his eye—they could expect an ample fee for rowing a Captain to his ship up the long length of the Hamoaze. Hornblower took his seat in a pair-oared wherry; it gave him some satisfaction to say no word at all as they shoved off and began the long pull through the tangle of shipping. Stroke oar shifted his quid and was about to utter some commonplace or other to his passenger, but at sight of his black brow and ill-tempered frown he thought better of it and changed his opening word to a self-conscious cough—Hornblower, acutely aware of the bye-play although he had spared the man no open glance, lost some of his ill-temper as a result. He noticed the play of muscles in the brown forearms as the man strained at his oar; there was tattooing on the wrist, and a thin gold ring gleamed in the man’s left ear. He must have been a seaman before he became a waterman—Hornblower longed inexpressibly to have him haled on board when they should reach the Sutherland; if he could only lay his hands on a few dozen prime seamen his anxiety would be at an end. But the fellow of course would have a certificate of exemption, else he would never be able to ply his trade here in a part where a quarter of the British Navy came seeking for men.

The victualling yard and the dock yard as they rowed past were swarming with men, too, all of them able bodied, and half of them seamen—shipwrights and riggers—at whom Hornblower stared at longingly and as helplessly as a cat at goldfish in a bowl. The rope walk and the mast house, the sheer hulk and the smoking chimneys of the biscuit bakery went slowly by. There was the Sutherland, riding to her moorings off Bull Point; Hornblower, as he gazed at her across the choppy water, was conscious of a queer admixture of conservative dislike in the natural pride which he felt in his new command. Her round bow looked odd at a time when every British built ship of the line had the beakhead to which his eye had long grown accustomed; her lines were ungainly and told their tale (as Hornblower noticed every time he looked at her) of more desirable qualities sacrificed for shallow draught. Everything about her—save for the lower masts which were of English origin—proved that she was Dutch built, planned to negotiate the mudbanks and shallow estuaries of the Dutch coast. The Sutherland, in fact, had once been the Dutch 74 Eendracht, captured off the Texel and, now rearmed, the ugliest and least desirable two-decker in the Navy List.

God help him, thought Hornblower, eyeing her with a distaste accentuated by his lack of men to man her, if ever he should find himself trying to claw off a lee shore in her. She would drift off to leeward like a cocked-hat paper boat. And at the subsequent court-martial nobody would believe a word of the evidence regarding her unweatherly qualities.

“Easy!” he snapped at the wherrymen, and the oars ceased to grind in the rowlocks as the men rested; the sound of the waves slapping the side of the boat became suddenly more apparent.

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