There had been no choice.
The rigging shone like black glass in the weak morning light. It would not be long, as the harbour pilots had assured him, until the bay was solidly frozen, trapping any vessels tarrying within like flies in amber. And today the wind was fair, and there had been no choice at all.
William Bush, his face hard and expressionless, caught his first lieutenant's eye and nodded, almost imperceptibly. It must be done.
Montgomery turned, pitching his voice so it would carry the length of the deck. "All hands, lay aloft to loose topsails!"
At the command his men scrambled to obey, no doubt grateful for the activity in the frigid Baltic dawn. The ratlines and footropes cracked audibly as they took the men's weight, shards of ice pattering down onto the frosted deck planking. As Bush listened critically to Montgomery passing orders his fingers closed tightly on the draw of his telescope, though the instrument itself remained firmly tucked under his arm. He had found himself wholly unable to examine the coastline of Riga Bay, knowing that it would too soon be left astern and far out of reach.
Instead, he contemplated the rigging, studying a newly-repaired mizzen stay as it passed through its deadeye. Served and seized, it was: the lesser cordage wrapped securely around the stay, lending its strength and protecting the greater from harm, and both freshly tarred with the same brush. The sight profoundly disturbed him, though he could find no fault in it. All had been done neatly and well in order—he could not have done better himself. The motley sweepings of the press had rapidly become a proper crew, of which he was quietly and exceedingly proud. His men knew their duty, and their dedication to it was certain.
As was their loyalty, ever unspoken yet palpable, moving like a live thing amongst them. It moved amongst them all, sparing no one, and echoed bleakly in the emptiness of Nonsuch's great cabin. It was this loyalty that had driven him at a breakneck pace south to Koenigsburg, and loyalty that sent him pounding awkwardly up the stairs, rudely shouldering aside any who had dared bar his way. And this same loyalty decreed that he ought to sit at Hornblower's bedside, holding his hand as the man had once done for him, lending his resolute strength as if he could somehow anchor him here in the present, weathering the storm of fever.
But it was duty that had halted him at the sickroom door, and it was duty that left him peering helplessly at the still figure in the bed beyond. It was not the threat to his own life that held him there: he had long ago accepted that risk as a matter of course and gave it no thought at all.
But even as the greenest of midshipmen, he had heard tales of plague ships found drifting or dashed upon the rocks, crewed only by dead or dying men. The thought of carrying such a fate back to his Nonsuch was beyond contemplation. And he could not stay here, as he wished, and turn his command to a mere lieutenant. Had he only a single ship, perhaps he might have done and damned the consequences. But duty would not permit him to relinquish the squadron, sending the vessels off to an uncertain fate under inadequate command. Nor could he delay and dare risk that his ships lie frozen, held captive in this bay throughout the Baltic winter. It was unthinkable for William Bush to deprive Britain of a squadron, no matter what the personal cost.
Loyalty and duty had been always intertwined, inseparable, for nearly as long as he could recall. As long, certainly, as he had served under Hornblower’s command. But this time he had no choice, no choice at all, and it pained him deeply as he sensed the twin strands of loyalty and duty begin to fray and part. Even the stoutest of cordage could not stand forever, and he wondered why he had failed to be mindful of this, the simplest of lessons one learned at sea.
The ache had begun in earnest hours before as he sat in the dark of a sleepless night, in Hornblower’s great cabin, at Hornblower’s desk, grimly writing out the squadron’s orders in his careful copperplate. It had given him no pleasure at all to sign them as he did. Wm. Bush, Acting Commodore. Commodore, indeed: a thing almost beyond his wildest dreams, even as a young and ambitious lieutenant.
He shifted in the bitter wind, easing the stiffness of cold and age from his body, and rubbed a thumb absently along a leather strap encircling his thigh. Commodore. It had seemed even more unreachable of late, though at that moment he would willingly have given another limb to have Hornblower standing here instead, settled in his proper place, sound and whole.
This desolation was a feeling alien to him, and he grappled with its meaning. In the Service one learned to accept difficulty and disappointment, discomfort and pain, just as he gave little thought to the dull, grinding ache that now dogged his every step. And one most certainly became accustomed to loss. One had to be. He had left many a fellow officer and friend behind, and watched many a canvas wrapped body vanish into the depths or beneath stones and earth in a hastily scratched-out grave. But this, to leave a living man...it seemed a betrayal, a failure, and the pain of it was acute.
He stood motionless on the quarterdeck, his first lieutenant waiting expectantly at his elbow for the signal to bring Nonsuch underway. Bush struggled with his conscience, with what was right and proper, and came to a decision; he knew, somehow, if he were to leave this place he must speak the words himself. He could not bear to shift the responsibility to another. He half-turned, and caught Montgomery's eye. The man was studying him with an irritating look of sympathy.
"Mine, damn your eyes!" Bush hissed, and glowered at his lieutenant, who surprisingly did not quail at the rebuke. Instead, for one horrible moment, it seemed to Bush as if Montgomery might reach out; fortunately, the man checked the movement and simply nodded, stepping aside and melting into the shadows of the poop.
He would do what must be done. Duty demanded no less.
And it would be done properly. Bush took a deep breath of the bitter air, and turned to the gun crew standing ready at the loaded cannon, awaiting his signal. "Cast loose!" he bellowed.
The gun captain nodded briefly, rapping out his orders in quick succession. "Cast loose! Run out! Fire!"
As the single report echoed its salute of farewell from the misted hills, Bush glanced heavenward where his men balanced on the footropes, waiting. "Let go!"
As one, they loosed the sails, wreathing Nonsuch's masts in a white cloud of canvas. The sails filled quickly in the fair breeze and were sheeted home and set in scant minutes, to Bush's grim satisfaction.
"Up anchor! Heave away at the capstan! Heave away!"
There. It was done. As the anchor chain clanked its doleful refrain Bush's breath hung like smoke in the frigid Baltic air, ghostly wisps twisting and writhing until they vanished into oblivion.
Cast loose. Let go. Heave away.
No choice at all.