August 1811, HMS Leopard, Greenwich
Although I've not been away from you and the children a week yet, I am writing this mostly to calm myself for Stephen has done it again. It was only yesterday I saw him, and once again, reminded him we were to cast off at 6 o'clock in the evening- it is now nearly midnight and he has yet to appear. We've long missed our tide, and if not for my orders to take him onboard, I hate to think what would come of the Admiralty itself waiting for me to cast off. After all these years, he still acts thus, sometimes I despair.
Captain Jack Aubrey flung his pen down in disgust, stood, moved to the stern gallery and stared angrily at the lit windows of the nearby houses and even worse, the nearby Naval buildings. By this time, they should have been far down river, preparing for a final short trip to Plymouth to complete and then south for the Cape. Though he wore a truly savage aspect, a close observer would have detected the beginnings of concern for his friend.
After a prefuntory knock, his steward, Preserved Killick intruded, and said in a disapproving whine, "Which the doctor is alongside in a gig and with his compliments begs the loan of the boat's fee." "WHAT by God?!", Jack roared, jumping up, "He wants a loan? Christ, how can such people be? I'll give him more than a loan!"
As he stormed on deck, equal parts enraged and relieved, implications began occuring to him; images of Stephen pickpocketed, robbed and beaten contesting with images of him spending his last farthing on a corpse to dissect or some nondescript lizard in spirits.
To port, out in the river, an ancient, filthy gig rowed by an even older and filthier pilot kept station. It also contained a barefoot, bedraggled and forlorn object resembling Stephen. Tossing the boatman his coins, Jack turned to Bonden, "Bring him up dry, then to my cabin.", and stormed off.
As he was accelerated up the side of the Leopard by Bonden's sure grip, Stephen braced himself for the cold glances and short welcomes. He remembered just in time to salute the quarterdeck. Out of the darkness, Lieutenant Pullings stalked forbiddingly towards him, looking for all the world as if he were prepared to heave Stephen back overboard. "Well Doctor." he said stiffly, "Well. Welcome aboard. Please follow me below."
In the Captain's cabin, as Pullings departed, closing the door behind, Jack said angrily, "Christ, Stephen, here you are. You've really pulled one this time. We've missed our tide- a goddamn laughingstock. I told you when we were to leave- not just yesterday either. And here you are, and in such a state- what happened? I tell you, we sent party after party out, over half the damn city, with you not to be found- this is really coming it a bit high, even for you."
Stephen was indeed a disreputable sight, still barefoot, stains and muck covered his pants to the knees- mud and worse, wig gone, sweat-stained shirt and coat both liberally coated with soot and dust. Luckily, Pullings had intercepted the shoes Stephen had bartered with the boatman for passage before he had opportunity to put them back on- they were bemired with worse than his clothes.
"Jack, " said he, apologetically, "Jack- I am so sorry to be the cause of such trouble. I did mind the time, but was waylaid by my own misfortune." Chagrined, he paused, not liking to account for himself to his friend.
"Jack, I am ashamed to say, I lost all my pocket money at Blacks..."
"WHAT!", countered Jack, astonished, "You? What were you at?"
"Whist." said Stephen, "I was taken by a sharper- a Knight of the Bath no less. Such a man to cheat his fellows, it staggers me even now. We came to talking over a bite, and took up the game to pass some time. We played well, and began with small bets. As these things do, the bets became larger. Finally, at the height of the game, it came down to all or nothing- and so I lost. In conscience I could not ask for a loan, and no-one I knew was at Blacks, so I was forced to walk here. In Wapping I convinced the boatman to take my shoes as security against the trip to Greenwich."
Jack barely restrained a smile. Early on in their acquaintance he learned the hard way of his friends diabolical luck in games of chance. Masking his rising laughter, Jack said "Stephen, do you mean to say you walked from Picadilly and swapped your shoes for the gig to the barque?" "So I did." he replied, "Without the smallest farthing to pay the sweepers."
Not able to restrain himself, a small laugh escaped Jack, "So what was this fellow's name? This sharper virtuoso.. oh lord.." he wheezed.
Nettled, Stephen replied "Now look Jack, this is not a laughing matter. He had one of your impossible English names, Blowhorner- no, Hornblower it was. Horatio Hornblower- what a name for all love! I though he was facetious at first- as I said, he had that pin on his coat- such a man to be playing such tricks..." Seeing Jack's much recovered benignity made him pause.
"Killick!" Jack roared, "Killick there. Bring in some coffee for the Doctor, and find that half bottle of Port left from dinner."
"Why Stephen," he continued, still laughing, "You surely caught a tartar there. Hornblower is legendary for his whist- why in the Peace as a Leftenant, they say he kept himself fed by entertaining gamblers- a hired mercenary. Such a sailor too, just last year in Rosas Bay, in the Sutherland, he battered four French Ships of the Line nearly into matchwood. Such a famous battle, though it cost a third of his ship's company and the ship as well." He paused contemplatively, "Its a funny thing however, how I've never met the fellow. Its almost as if we live in different universes..."
© 2000 Greg Menke