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«Hornblower and the Atropos», Cecil Forester

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It was hard to make Maria understand that to a captain his command was all in all, that he wished to lose not an hour, not a minute, in his journey to assume command of his sloop of war in London River; he was yearning to see what Atropos was like, with the mingled hope and apprehension that might be expected of an Oriental bridegroom affianced to a veiled bride—that was not a simile that it would be wise to mention to Maria, though.

Now they were gliding down the summit level of the canal; the cutting was growing deeper and deeper, so that the echo of the sound of the horses’ hoofs came ringing from the rocky banks. Round the shallow curve must surely be Sapperton Tunnel.

“Hold hard, Charlie!” suddenly yelled the steersman. A moment later he sprang to the after towline and tried to cast it off from the timber head, and there was wild confusion. Shouts and yells on the towpath horses whinnying, hoofs clattering. Hornblower caught a glimpse of the lead horse leaping frantically up the steep slope of the cutting—just ahead of them was the castellated but gloomy mouth of the tunnel and there was no other way for the horse to turn. The Queen Charlotte lurched hideously against the bank to the accompaniment of screams from the second-class cabin; for a moment Hornblower was sure she would capsize. She righted herself and came to a stop as the towlines slackened; the frantic struggles of the second horse, entangled in two towlines, ended as it kicked itself free. The steersman had scrambled on to the towpath and had dropped the after line over a bollard.

“A pretty kettle o’ fish,” he said.

Another man had shown up, running down the bank from the top whence spare horses looked down at them, whinnying. He held the heads of the Queen Charlotte’s horses, and near his feet lay Charlie, the boatmanpostillion, his face a mask of blood.

“Get ye back in there!” bellowed the steersman to the women who were all scrambling out of the secondclass cabin. “All’s well. Get ye back! Once let them loose on the country”—he added to Hornblower—“and they’d be harder to catch than their own chickens.”

“What is it, Horatio?” asked Maria, standing at the door of the first-class cabin with the baby in her arms.

“Nothing to alarm yourself about, my dear,” said Hornblower. “Compose yourself. This is no time for agitation.”

He turned and looked at the onehanded steersman, who bent down to examine Charlie; taking a hold of the breast of his coat with his steel hook he hauled up, but Charlie’s head only hung back helplessly, the blood running over his cheeks.

“Not much use out of Charlie,” said the steersman, letting him drop with a thump. As Hornblower stooped to look he could catch the reek of gin three feet from the bleeding mouth. Half stunned and half drunk—more than half of both for that matter.

“We’ve the tunnel to leg through,” said the steersman. “Who’s up at the Tunnel House?”

“Ne’er a soul,” replied the man with the horses. “The trade all went through in the early morning.”

The steersman whistled.

“You’ll have to come wi’ us,” he said.

“Not I,” said the householder. “I’ve sixteen horses—eighteen with these two. I can’t leave ‘em.”

The steersman swore a couple of astonishing oaths—astonishing even to Hornblower, who had heard many in his time.

“What d’you mean by ‘legging’ through the tunnel?” Hornblower allied.

The steersman pointed with his hook at the black, forbidding tunnel mouth in the castellated entrance.

“No towpath through the tunnel, o’ course, Captain,” he said. “So we leaves our horses here an’ we legs through. We puts a pair o’ ‘wings’ on the bows—sort o’ catheads, in a way. Charlie lies on one an’ I lies on the other, wi’ our heads inboard an’ our feet agin the tunnel wall. Then we sort o’ walks, and we gets the boat along that way, and we picks up another pair o’ horses at the south end.”

“I see,” said Hornblower.

“I’ll souse this sot wi’ a couple o’ buckets o’ water,” said the steersman. “Mebbe it’ll bring him round.”

“Maybe,” said Hornblower.

But buckets of water made no difference to the unconscious Charlie, who was clearly concussed. The slow blood flowed again after his battered face had been washed clean. The steersman produced another couple of oaths.

“The other trade’ll be coming up arter you,” said the householder.

“’Nother couple o’ hours, mebbe.”

All he received in reply was a further series of oaths.

“We have to have daylight to run the Thames stauncher,” said the steersman. “Two hours? We’ll only just get there by daylight if we go now.”

He looked round him, at the silent canal cut and tunnel mouths at the chattering women in the boat and the few doddering old gaffers along with them.

“Twelve hours late, we’ll be,” he concluded, morosely.

A day late in taking up his command, thought Hornblower.

“Damn it,” he said, “I’ll help you leg through.”

“Good on ye, sir,” said the steersman, significantly dropping the equalitarian “captain” for the “sir” he had carefully eschewed so far. “D’ye think you can?”

“Likely enough,” said Hornblower.

“Let’s fit those wings,” said the steersman, with sudden decision.

They were small platforms, projecting out from either bow.

“Horatio,” asked Maria, “whatever are you doing?”

That was just what Maria would ask. Hornblower was tempted to make use of the rejoinder he had heard used once in the Renown, to the effect that he was getting milk from a male ostrich, but he checked himself.


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