Hornblower's Charitable Offering

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Hornblower's Charitable Offering Page 2

by C. S. Forester

  When the gun was fired again, it looked for a second as if the shot would be successful, but it dropped into the surf 10 yards from the waiting crowd - and for all practical purposes 10 yards were as effective as 100. The third and fourth and fifth shots failed by even wider margins. It began to look to Hornblower as if the initial velocity were insufficient - perhaps the pull of the line as it ran out was stronger than he had allowed for. At the risk of straining the gun, he could increase the powder charge; there was an additional risk in that because the line might break and the projectile fly free, in which case it would go clean through somebody in the crowd on the beach. But when the sixth and seventh shots also failed, Hornblower decided to take the risk. He put in a charge and a half of powder and rammed it well down. Then he ordered the whole crew aft as far as possible into the stern sheets of the boat - if the gun should burst, he wanted only a minimum of casualties, and it seemed perfectly logical to him that he should take the risk of pulling the lanyard himself instead of ordering someone else to do so.

  He took a last glance down at the line and then jerked the lanyard. The gun went off with a crash which jerked the whole longboat sternwards, and the gun itself leapt in its carriage with a clatter. But the stout metal held firm, and the projectile, trailing its curved arc of line, cleared the water’s edge and dropped into the waiting crowd.

  Communication was established, but it was a frail enough bond, because those madmen on shore had no sooner grabbed the line than they began to haul it in. Hornblower cursed himself for not having seen this development; he snatched up his speaking trumpet and groped wildly in his mind for a French phrase which might be the equivalent of “Avast heaving!” or “Belay!”

  “Doucement! Doucement!” he roared.

  He waved his arms frantically and danced about in the bows of the boat. Perhaps the wind carried his words down to the beach, or perhaps his gestures were understood. Someone was taking charge of proceedings; there was a swirl in the crowd and the line ceased to run out. Hornblower swung the longboat cautiously round and pulled slowly towards the Sutherland, paying out the line behind him until he could signal for his gig and row back to his ship to supervise the rest of the operation.

  The Immense string of half-empty casks was dropped into the sea, and the launch took it in tow and began to drag it slowly up to the longboat. Half empty, the casks rode high in the water. That would get them through the worst of the surf, and if the Frenchmen pulled in fast enough, most of the casks could be expected to reach land still containing most of their contents and if the worst came to the worst, the contents would be thrown up on to the beach soon enough. Meat which had already been six months in a cask would not be much spoiled by an additional immersion in sea water.

  Hornblower dashed back into his gig to supervise the final operation. The heavier line was bent on to the light one which had been thrown on shore, and Homblower stood up again with his speaking trumpet.

  “Tirez! Tirez!” he yelled, and waved the instrument at the crowd.

  They understood him and began to pull in. The heavy rope crept in after the line, and then the long string of casks followed. Hornblower watched their course anxiously enough, as the big ungainly objects, black in the white foam under the dazzling sun, crept towards the shore. But even without watching them he could have guessed at their safe arrival, for as each one reached the beach, there was a wild swirl in the crowd as the starving men smashed the casks to pieces with rocks and fought over the contents.

  Hornblower did not wait to see the end. He wanted no further reminder of the beastliness and horror of it all, and he had himself rowed back to his ship and the boats hoisted in. He would not look back again at the island as the Sutherland braced her yards round and went on to her delayed rendezvous. The Spanish victualling-brig was coming down towards them under full sail. She passed the Sutherland close astern, and an irate officer hailed through a speaking trumpet:

  “What you mean, sir?” he shouted. “What you mean interfering? Cabrera our country - you not must go there!”

  “God damn you!” said Bush beside Hornblower as the words reached him. “Shall I give him a shot, sir?”

  After what they had seen, the crew of the Sutherland would have thoroughly approved of such an action, but Hornblower felt he had done enough towards provoking an international incident between England and her ally as it was. He put his hand to his ear and made a gesture to indicate that he could not hear. The Spaniard repeated himself, bawling and raving and dancing on his deck until Hornblower almost came to hope that he would burst a blood-vessel. It was only a schoolboy trick, but it raised a laugh among the officers and men of the Sutherland, and that was what Hornblower was after. In these dreary times of war and at moments of tension between allies, a laugh was worth a great deal.

  And then he turned back towards routine. But a new wave of depressed realization flooded over him. The relief of Cabrera had cost his ship hundreds of fathoms of line and hundreds of fathoms of cable, a score of beef casks and a whole day’s time. What oppressed Hornblower was the prospect or having to account for all this. There would be at least a dozen letters and reports to write upon the subject, and that would be only the beginning, because My Lords of the Admiralty, when the letters reached them, would certainly demand further explanations, and explanations beyond those, and further explanations still - Hornblower could see those letters stretching to the crack of doom.

  Then he caught sight of his two French prisoners down on the main-deck. They were clothed and shaved and looked new men, but Hornblower found no pleasure in the sight of them. To him they represented another whole series of letters and reports which he would have to write, and he groaned at the prospect. For a moment he almost wished that the Sutherland had never sighted them, that they had drifted on to meet their death in the desolate Mediterranean. He realized at once that this was not true, and groaned at his hard-heartedness while he paced the deck and breathed free air. But all the same, this work of charity was going to cost him a devil of a lot of trouble.

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  Document ID: fa61b0cb-4314-4234-a87f-b26b105c1087

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  Document creation date: 24.4.2012

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  Document authors :

  C. S. Forester


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