“Mutine’s boat is alongside, Sir Horatio.”
“Thank you, Mr. Antrim. I shall be on deck directly.”
The midshipman made his obedience and left the cabin, and Nelson turned back to the window, staring out until the dazzle of the sunlight on the water hurt his good eye. Beyond, the Mediterranean stretched away, shining, blue, and empty - damnably empty. No sail broke the horizon: no sign of the French fleet, or of his own scattered squadron. Failure, miserable failure, in every respect. Was that to be his crowning achievement? His hand crept to the empty sleeve pinned across his breast. He had been so determined, when he rejoined the station, that things would be different. Instead, in his vanity he had allowed his own flagship to be dismasted and let the French Expedition escape Toulon, to wreak havoc he knew not where, without even an empty beef-cask to tell him where it might have gone.
And now here was Mutine, St. Vincent’s own messenger. Was it possible he knew already? Was that why the little brig had sought him out? He could only imagine what they had to say about him now. He had St. Vincent’s favour… but then there were Orde and Parker. They did not love him, he knew, and they were with the flag. They had ample opportunity to carp and decry him to St. Vincent, to tear his reputation into pieces at their leisure, whilst he was out here alone, with no hope of defending himself.
But it would never do for him to remain skulking alone in his cabin like a guilty thing. So, with every nerve taut, he made his way out on deck. It was early, and the deck was newly cleaned, every timber flogged dry and gleaming. Berry had already prepared to receive the captain of the Mutine in style: the sideboys ran down, the marines presented arms, and the boatswain’s pipe wailed as Tom Hardy came up the Vanguard’s side and saluted the quarterdeck.
It had been over a year since Nelson had last seen Hardy. Then he had been a lieutenant of outstanding merits but indifferent prospects. Now he was commander of his own brig, and with that coveted golden epaulette on his shoulder, he seemed to stand even taller with a great air of natural authority. For an instant upon seeing him, Nelson was acutely sensible of what a wretched little figure he must present in contrast: stunted, frail, diminished. The whole crushing weight of the last year’s misery pressed down upon him, the humiliation of defeat, the memory of every shocked, embarrassed, pitying look to which he had been subjected, every anguished letter he had written, every flaring of pain and fever he’d endured, so that before he could stop it, he felt the old black despair come welling up again within him.
But if Hardy pitied him, he gave no sign of it. There may have been a glance towards his empty sleeve, but no change at all came over his broad, stoical features. In that moment, Nelson was overcome by a sudden rush of affection and gratitude, and all his misery at once transmuted into pleasure.
“Hardy,” he said, making no attempt to disguise the feeling in his voice as he came forward to meet him, clasping his hand. “I am truly happy to see you again.”
A slow smile warmed Hardy’s face. “Thankee, Sir Horatio. It is good to see you back.”
He knew Hardy well enough to know that if he hadn’t meant it, he would never have said it, and his own smile widened. There was much he wanted to say to him after the momentous events of the past year, but they were on the quarterdeck, in full view and hearing of the ship’s company, and this was a time for duty, not personal concerns. They must be deferred for now.
“Permit me to name Captain Berry. Captain Berry, Captain Hardy, who was all too briefly my shipmate in the Minerve.”
The two captains greeted each other civilly, and only then did Nelson turn his attention to the ominous sailcloth package tucked under Hardy’s arm. His mind was already leaping from one anguished theory to the next. Despatches from St. Vincent, there could be no doubt. But what did they say? To return to the squadron? To keep station but expect the arrival of Orde or Parker to supersede him? To strike his flag and return home? A dull pain began to drone behind his eyes, but he forced himself to ignore it. “I see you have post for me, Hardy.”
“Yes, sir,” said Hardy, hefting the package. “Despatches from Lord St. Vincent.”
“His Lordship is well, I trust?”
“He is, sir. Or at least, he was when I left him. He asks particularly after you.”
Nelson smiled faintly.
“I’ve news of my own, sir,” said Hardy. “I spoke Alcmene three days ago, off Barcelona.”
“Oh?” Nelson raised his eyebrows, his apprehension springing up. He had lost sight of Alcmene, along with his other frigates, during the storm, the night the Expedition got out. His hope, during the long crawl northwards back to Toulon, was that he would find them still on station. But after two days with no sign he was growing increasingly fretful.
“Perhaps we had better go into my cabin.” He sent an apologetic glance over to Berry. “Will you excuse us?”
“Certainly, sir.” He thought he detected a certain reserve in Berry’s manner, but he smiled. “No doubt the carpenter will go into hysterics if I’m not there directly to hear his complaint.”
“Quite. Attend to him, Berry, then please, join us in my cabin.”
Berry’s departure broke the spell of formality that had fallen over the Vanguard’s quarterdeck when Hardy had come aboard, and the onlookers gradually dispersed, the marines dismissed whilst the hoarse voices of the boatswain and his mates urged the hands back to their duties. Murmuring, “If you please to follow me, Hardy,” Nelson led him past the binnacle, past the blank-faced marine sentry, and straight through to his day cabin.
“I suppose Hope told you about our misfortune,” he said, as soon as they were alone.
“He did, sir,” said Hardy, looking grave.
“A nightmare, Hardy, an absolute nightmare! Our foremast gone by the board, the main and mizzen topmasts lost, the bowsprit sprung in three places! A midshipman and two prime hands lost. Working might and main through the night - compelled to cut our best bower anchor away. It took every spare bit of timber we could lay our hands on just to jury-rig a new foremast, and we had nothing but the meanest rag of a spritsail for wearing. And whilst all that was happening, the French got out.”
An unwelcome flood of memory returned: the howling darkness, the air solid with flying water, the sickening motion of the deck, the groan of the Vanguard’s timbers as she heeled, the scream of wind through her rigging, then above it all, the shocking crack of the foremast. All hands working double tides, not a moment of rest for a soul aboard. Then, long after the skies had cleared, the eternity of anxiety when it had seemed that the unrelenting northwesterly would drive them right onto the rocks of Corsica.
“You seem to have come through it, though, sir.”
It was such a straightforward, practical observation, so utterly characteristic of Hardy, that Nelson could not forebear smiling, despite everything.
“Yes,” he allowed, “yes, indeed. Alexander and Orion behaved like heroes. Between ourselves, Hardy,” he added, leaning in, “I used to think Ball the most infernal coxcomb, but after everything he did for us, I shall never utter a word against him so long as I live. Refused to cast off the tow rope, even when it looked like we should all be wrecked!” He broke off, feeling himself about to go on, then said, “But you said you spoke Alcmene? Just Alcmene alone? None of the others?”
Even the travails of the storm and the subsequent frustrations of Sardinia had been nothing compared with the anxieties he had suffered on account of his missing frigates. Hardy had found Alcmene, but what of the others? Had they foundered, been damaged, forced to run for a port where they could make repairs?
“No, Sir Horatio.” Was it his imagination, or was there a shade of hesitation in Hardy’s manner? “Captain Hope told me that he had taken the other frigates off the rendezvous.”
Nelson started, apprehension turning swiftly to horror. “He did what?”
“He desired me to tell you, sir, that in your absence, as senior captain present, he took it upon himself to assume overall command, and sent them to cruise individually.”
“Oh, God! What was the man thinking?”
After all this, to find that his frigates - his very eyes! - had been scattered, not by the weather, or the Almighty, but on some bloody-minded whim of Hope's! What sort of madness was this?
“He hoped you wouldn’t take it amiss, sir,” put in Hardy. “He saw the state Vanguard was in, and thought you must have returned to Gib to repair, and that the frigates would be better trying to gather intelligence ahead of your return.”
“Hope should have known me better than that!” Nelson cried. “You did - you’re here! Good God, to limp all the way back to Gibraltar when there are a dozen suitable ports just a few hundred miles to leeward! And where are the frigates to rendezvous when they have gathered this intelligence? Where will I find them again? How-?”
He bit down on a groan, dragging his hand over his eyes. The droning in his head had now deepened to a full-fledged ache, beating against his skull, drowning out all thought - just when he needed all his intellects in order to deal with this appalling situation.
“Did he tell you where he had sent them, at all?”
“South and east, sir. He told me he’d had word of a French fleet - about two hundred and thirty strong, he said - off Nice, apparently headed for Elba.”
Nelson groped for a pen, lying vacant on his desk, and made a hasty note of this on a spare corner of one of the papers strewn across it.
“Well,” he said grudgingly, “there is some method in his madness, at least.”
Ever since word of the Toulon armament had reached England, speculation had been rife as to its intended destination. Some posited another attempt on Ireland, or perhaps Cádiz, to free the ships bottled up there and scatter St. Vincent’s squadron. But for his own part he was certain, in his very bones, that it was meant for the East: perhaps for Turkey, more likely for Egypt, and so to clear a path towards India. If this intelligence of Hope’s was to be relied upon, it seemed to indicate that his feelings were sound.
“But to be without frigates!” he exclaimed aloud. “By God, Hardy, they could be playing merry hell across the Mediterranean as we speak, and now I must rely on mere guesswork to work out where they are! They could be anywhere: Elba, Sicily, Malta… You did not see the damned bloody trial we had of it at San Pietro, Hardy. Outright refused us help, and told us to be on our way. They are quaking in their boots at the thought of incurring the wrath of the French. We haven’t an ally in this whole sea willing to stand up to them.”
Seeing that there was something discomfited in Hardy’s manner, he checked himself and swallowed back the rest of his tirade with a sigh. “I’m sorry, Hardy. I’ve no business talking to you in this way. I am not angry at you.”
“No, sir,” said Hardy softly.
“It’s just this whole damned situation. The whole thing is intolerable, and it is my fault! The French fleet must be found, it is up to me - me - to find them, and I haven’t a damned idea where to start.”
He was shaking with emotion, and he turned sharply away, fighting to collect himself. His head hurt, his chest hurt, his arm hurt, and he was conscious of having shown himself in a less than inspirational light. Any commanding officer in His Majesty’s service, whether he be an admiral of the fleet, a senior post-captain, or even a midshipman in command of a cutter, must be infallible, invincible, something more than a mere human. To confess himself so utterly at a loss was unbecoming to him, and an unfair imposition upon Hardy.
Just then, Hardy’s hand rested lightly on his shoulder, and in his low voice, very close, he said, “It’s all right, sir.”
The touch, so unexpected, caused Nelson to start, and he glanced up. Hardy’s face was as still as ever, but his eyes were deep with kindness. Such a small thing, but it filled him with an inexpressible relief. That he was a rear-admiral and Hardy a commander suddenly seemed to matter very little. Indeed, he had always been obscurely aware that the affinity between Hardy and himself transcended the conventional boundaries of rank. Hardy withdrew his hand, but Nelson could still feel a lingering trace of it, warm through the broadcloth of his coat. He breathed out.
“Forgive me, Hardy. It has been very hard, and I know Berry would lose his head if I told him a fraction of what I have just confided in you.”
It felt such a disloyal thing to say, but it was the truth. The trials of the last two weeks had left him liable to burst at any moment, like a flawed gun, and he knew it would never do to let Berry see. He was an excellent fellow, with undoubted courage, but he was excitable enough without Nelson infecting him with his own anxieties. Added to that, it was clear that his inexperience was showing to disadvantage. Nelson was determined not to blame him for what had happened to the Vanguard - he should have intervened - but he was beginning to fear that though Berry was the very stuff of a fighting-captain, he was not what he needed in a flag-captain. But he had no wish to denigrate him, and he should never have said so much, had he not known that Hardy would not hold the confidence against either him or Berry, but rather absorb it in his usual matter-of-fact way, before putting it safely aside.
And maybe Hardy understood his position, and the importance of such a confidence, better now than at any other time. To go from lieutenant to commander was a shift between worlds, from the communal life of the gunroom to the solitary state of the great cabin. It was a disconcerting leap he remembered very well, and the isolation could be a burden. Was that burden lighter or heavier for someone like Hardy, so naturally stoical? Lighter, because he was already in the habit of keeping his own counsel? Or heavier, now that he no longer had the company of his messmates to balance that stoicism out?
Contemplating Hardy’s situation, he broke into a sudden smile. “Do you know, Hardy, I have been so preoccupied with this whole wretched business that I have quite forgot myself. I’ve not yet congratulated you on your good fortune - your Mutine! I give you joy of her.”
Some of the gravity left Hardy’s face. “Thankee, Sir Horatio.”
“Command agrees with you, I think.”
“Aye, sir. Thank you, sir.” A pause, then, “I believe I have you to thank for my promotion.”
“Nonsense, you earned that promotion by your own efforts.”
“But you wrote to Lord St. Vincent…”
Nelson made a dismissive gesture. “Oh, I wrote, but St. Vincent had already signed and sealed the confirmation before I could put pen to paper, I do assure you. When he wrote to me, he had nothing but the highest praise for you. Your cutting-out of her was one of the most gallant actions of the war.”
“Thank you, sir.” Hardy looked down, but Nelson caught sight of the dark flush that rose in his face, and he smiled.
“She is a fine vessel, I see,” he remarked as he looked out the window to where the Mutine lay, barely a cable’s length to windward. A singularly well-found little brig, her lines neat, her paintwork fresh, her yards exactly squared and her rigging trim. Fine, but not showy: her whole appearance bespoke competence and seamanship. She was exactly what he would imagine a vessel commanded by Tom Hardy to be. “How do you find her?”
“Prime, sir,” replied Hardy, gazing out at her with real affection. “Most weatherly vessel I’ve ever sailed in, and she is fast. We even logged twelve knots once, when we had an uncommon fresh wind right on our quarter…”
He launched into an unreserved eulogy for the Mutine and her merits, and though Nelson was attentive - for he loved a good ship as well as any sea-officer - his real delight was Hardy’s manifest pride and pleasure in his command. He spoke enthusiastically, though without any obvious change in his usual steady, measured cadences. Rather it was the warmth of his voice that gave away his feelings, the same warmth that revealed the deep well of feeling beneath his stoic countenance. Nelson had heard that same tone a few times over the course of their acquaintance in the Minerve, and it was a pleasure to hear it again.
Suddenly, Hardy cut off, somewhat embarrassed. “Beg pardon, sir, I fear I’m talking too much…”
Nelson laughed, looking at him fondly. “Not at all, Hardy. Every captain falls in love with his first command, and not every captain is fortunate enough to have such a plum as your Mutine. My old Badger, I adored her, though she was never much to look at it, nor much of a sailer, and she never made me very rich. But she was mine, and as far as I was concerned, she was the finest vessel in the service.”
Hardy chuckled. “Well, Mutine is yet to make my fortune, sir. Speaking plain, I do hope for a real cruise in her. We’ve taken a few prizes over the last year, but nothing much to speak of.”
Nelson gave him a sympathetic look. What officer didn’t love a prize? “I would very much like to do something for you, Hardy, but I’m afraid that’s up to St. Vincent. But there ought to be plenty of fighting action should we ever discover the whereabouts of this damned Expedition, so I dare day you’ll get your wish eventually.”
Mention of the Expedition recalled him to the package still tucked under Hardy’s arm. Over the course of their conversation he had not forgotten it, exactly, but rather held it at arm’s length, and he knew he could not put it off any longer.
“I’ll take those despatches now, Hardy, if you please.”
“Oh - yes, sir, of course.”
Hardy untied the packet and handed over the letters. Nelson glanced at the seal on the first despatch, broke it, and shook the letter open. In a near-unbearable transport of apprehension, he read it over. Then - more slowly this time - he read it again.
Heart pounding, he looked up. “Hardy, do you know what is in this letter?”
The shade of something rather conspiratorial showed in Hardy’s eyes. “I could make a guess, sir.”
His hand trembled as he cast his eye over the letter a third time, hardly daring to believe the words in front of him, in case it had been some mistake, some trick played by wishful thinking, or his faulty sight. Deliberately, he made himself absorb each and every word, checked St. Vincent’s signature to satisfy himself of its veracity, and at last, convinced himself that it was true.
“I am to be reinforced, Hardy. St. Vincent has sent Troubridge with eleven sail of the line to join me, and we are to seek the French fleet wherever it is to be found - not to watch it, but to destroy it. Destroy it.”
At last, decisive action! He was not to be recalled, superseded, disgraced, any of it. Instead, he had been offered a chance - a glorious chance! - to redeem his failure at Toulon. The troubled clutter that had gathered in his mind over the last few weeks - the doubts, the self-recriminations, the half-formed theories and speculations - were instantly cleared away, leaving him with a clean sweep fore and aft and his object plain before him. The French fleet was to be destroyed, and he would destroy it.
Almost without thinking, he was calling on the marine sentry, instructing him to pass the word for Captain Berry at once. Whilst they waited, he returned to the letter, attending to the finer details now that he was better able to take them in.
“Ah! You are to join me, too, Hardy.”
“Aye, Sir Horatio. His Lordship hinted as much.”
The knowledge that he had Hardy now filled him with delight, and he could hardly complain at having such a handy vessel as Mutine at his disposal. It did, however, remind him that while he was to be admirably supplied with seventy-fours, he was still desperately short on anything else.
“I’ll tell you this now, Hardy. I have no frigates-” this with an edge of irony - “and until I can regain them, Mutine is my only set of eyes, and I must work you hard if we are ever to discover the whereabouts of the French.”
“Mutine and I will do whatever you ask of us, sir.”
Just like that! Not a hint of reserve or doubt. Never mind they had only the vaguest idea where the enemy had gone, never mind that they were over two weeks behind, never mind that they must scour the whole wide expanse of the Mediterranean if they were to bring this Expedition to account. He might as well have warned him it was a long climb to the main truck. It was all one to Hardy. There was a job to do, and it would be done. Nelson couldn’t help a swelling of pride and affection. What had England to fear, when she had men like Tom Hardy crewing her ships?
Berry arrived smartly, his whole attitude one of curiosity and trepidation combined, and without a word Nelson handed him the despatch. As with him, it seemed to take a few readings before Berry dared believe what it contained, and Nelson saw the candid delight dawn in his face, lightening the haggard, worn-out expression that had been there since the night of the storm.
“Give you joy, Sir Horatio!” he cried, exulting. “Damn me, so I do! “Take, sink, burn, or destroy.” Very good! We’ll drub ’em yet!”
Nelson grinned, but forced his exultation down for now. “There is not a moment to be lost, Berry. Our first duty is to meet up with Troubridge, then we may attend to whatever sinking and burning there needs to be done. Signal Orion and Alexander; I wish Saumarez and Ball to report aboard at once.”
Berry was out on deck in a trice, and they heard him calling for the signal-midshipman. Left alone once more, Nelson looked up at Hardy.
“This news is just the thing to put some spirit back into us all. You could hardly have come at a better time.” Laying his hand on Hardy’s arm, he went on earnestly, “I have never been more happy to have anyone by my side as I am to have you, Hardy.”
“And I’m happy to be here with you, Sir Horatio.”
They exchanged a smile, a feeling of complete understanding settling between them. Strange, but even though he knew their situation was no less desperate than it had been before receiving this news, he now felt equal to it. Hardy’s solid, reliable presence seemed to counter every anxious misgiving that came into his head, steadying him and holding him on course. Some vital sense of balance was restored to him. Hardy was with him, and for the moment Nelson had no doubt that, together, they would bring the French fleet to account at last.