Tell It To The Marines
Richard Stubbins, private in His Majesty's Royal Marines, was a man who knew his duty. He did not possess much in the way of imagination, but fortunately such was not required for him to perform his job. When he stood watch outside the captain's cabin, no one entered uninvited, saving Doughty, of course. Private Stubbins might consider Doughty an almighty snob, but his duty was to admit the captain's steward into the captain's cabin, and Private Stubbins knew his duty. The likes of Doughty, with his pursed lips and his expression as if he was smelling something foul, for all the world as though he were in a marble palace instead of a fighting ship, might sweep past the marine guard, imperiously ignoring him, but that made no difference to Stubbins. Doughty had come from the flagship, and maybe the Tonnant smelt like a rose garden. Private Stubbins was content to be on the Hotspur under Captain Hornblower's command. There was no better captain in the Royal Navy as far as Private Stubbins was concerned.
However, as much as Private Stubbins admired Captain Hornblower, he could not quite approve of the goings-on aboard the Hotspur. Those Frogs—for Frogs they were, no matter what the bosun might say about them being Swiss. Private Stubbins knew from Frogs. There were no flies on Fanny Stubbins' boy Dicky, no sir. There was something sinister about them, even the woman, with her odd, flat accent. No, Private Stubbins didn't trust those Frogs for one minute, but Captain Hornblower said that the Marines were to guard their cabin, so Private Stubbins would guard it with his life, even with Styles creeping around muttering about Jonahs.
When Doughty gave Styles a set-down, calling him a "gypsy soothsayer," Private Stubbins found himself, for the first time, in sympathy with the steward. Styles was none too fond of the Marines, even Marines turned out in spotless uniforms, cross-straps gleaming white, boots shining, queue neatly tied, unlike the stinking, shoeless, common sailors, like Styles. He liked to play tricks on the Marines, winning their confidence and then turning it cruelly back upon them, until Captain Hornblower got wind of it and put a stop to it. A great man, was Captain Hornblower, and a great captain.
But there was still the matter of those Frogs.
Captain Hornblower didn't like having them there; Private Stubbins would have bet his best musket on it. However, the captain was coolly polite to the Frogs, every inch the British gentleman. He was forced to carry the Frogs until they could put them off onto a neutral ship, and that didn't seem likely to happen anytime soon. Bad enough having Frogs on board, but one of them a woman; an attractive, well-dressed woman yet. Such always caused a problem on a ship full of men long separated from wives and doxies. When the men weren't muttering and casting black looks at the door of the cabin--and those who stood sentry there--they were trying to sneak looks in at the Frog woman, Betsy was her name. An American woman, Matthews corrected him, but she married a Frog and that made her a Frog in Private Stubbins' book.
American women were a bold, forward set, too, if Mrs. Betsy Frog was any indication. One night, when Private Stubbins had been standing sentry duty outside the captain's cabin, the Frog woman had tripped past him and knocked on the captain's door. Typical French doxy--the captain had barely been married a month, and there she went, a married woman herself, tempting the captain with her fancy jewelry and her Frenchified ways. The captain turned her out of his cabin right quick, too, like a proper British officer, making Private Stubbins even more proud to serve under him.
Naturally that stuck-up bastard Doughty just loved the Frogs. He'd carry in their vittles--and mighty fancy vittles too, better than a poor Marine could hope for--and start parlay-vooing with them instead of talking plain English like a Christian. Who knew what they were plotting in there? Private Stubbins didn't like it one bit.
The men didn't like it any better, that was for sure. Most were quiet about it, prompted by the bosun's warnings, but Matthews' big mate Styles was loud enough for all. He called them Jonahs plain. Private Stubbins didn't hold with such popish superstition, but there was no doubt that the presence of the strangers was unsettling. A constant undercurrent of disquiet, like the rumbling of a great engine, hummed belowdecks.
Then it came out they weren't ordinary Frogs. The man was a bloody Bonaparte! Not enough he had put every man on the Hotspur at risk, with the Irish traitor Wolfe and a bunch of Frog soldiers coming on board in the dead of night to fetch them and, if the tale put about by Styles was true, threatening to shoot Captain Hornblower in cold blood, but if Boney got wind of his brother being on board, the poor Hotspur would be in for it, certain sure.
Private Stubbins had been part of the shore party that accompanied Captain Hornblower and Captain Bracegirdle to spy on Wolfe and his Frog friends. They had barely made it back on the Hotspur again when the bloody Frogs started firing shells at the Hotspur. They blew apart poor Captain Bracegirdle's boat, killing some Marines that Private Stubbins had considered friends. Private Stubbins was still staring at the floating wreckage when the Frogs fired a shell at the Hotspur. The shell landed on the deck, just in front of the captain and the other officers. If it had exploded, they all would have been killed. Private Stubbins later assured himself that, had he been closer to the shell, he would have thrown himself upon it, would have sacrificed himself for Captain Hornblower, but it was a safe assurance in being completely unnecessary. The captain himself had fallen upon the shell and snuffed it out, ruining his good woolen gloves in the process. Private Stubbins had suffered a few pangs of envy over those gloves, splendid thick gloves with a separate thumb and forefinger. Such gloves would be handy for a Marine on duty in the cold and snow, for he would not have to remove the gloves should he be called upon to fire his musket. It almost made a man want to be married, to have a loving wife to make him such a pair of gloves.
After Captain Hornblower had snuffed out the shell, Private Stubbins had stared at the captain, as they all had, never having seen such an act before, and certainly not by a senior officer. Captain Hornblower looked around at them, infuriated. "Throw the damned thing overboard," he snapped, and Private Stubbins moved forward, carefully keeping the expressionless demeanour he had cultivated during hours of sentry duty, and obeyed his captain's order.
Within hours, every man on the Hotspur knew about the incident. Nothing Captain Hornblower could do or say could stop the gossip of determined sailors. Private Stubbins had often condemned such talk as womanish tittle-tattle, but he was not displeased to find himself, as a witness to the incident, the center of a group of interested shipmates and pressed to tell the story over and over. Matthews hissed at them to "keep your damned voices down. The captain won't like you talking of it, Stubbins, you mark my words." Those who had already heard the story broke off into smaller groups to whisper amongst themselves. This was a story they would all repeat to the rest of the fleet, to their wives and children and their children's children. Private Stubbins regarded the fuss with a mixture of pride and awe; he, Richard Stubbins of His Majesty's Royal Marines, would be part of a legend. He did not fool himself that anyone would remember his name; they would remember only Captain Hornblower's name, and that, Private Stubbins told himself, was all that mattered.
Yes, Private Stubbins was very proud of Captain Hornblower, and would have no truck with anyone talking against him. It wasn't Captain Hornblower's fault that the Admiralty kept him on shore while they sat at anchor, and besides, that way he got to spend some time with Mrs. Hornblower. (Private Stubbins was a romantic at heart.) Mr. Bush and the other officers tried to keep order, but Styles was just short of crying mutiny to Private Stubbins' mind.
When the captain came back aboard, the tension broke like a thunderstorm on a humid summer afternoon. Doughty was taking the Frogs their vittles, a fancy Frenchified rag-oo, as Doughty referred to it, but looked like stew to Private Stubbins. Styles made some passing comment, and Doughty's horrified face as he pulled a dead rat from the stew made Private Stubbins draw in his breath.
"We're for it now," the other Marine standing sentry duty said to Private Stubbins, with relish.
Doughty launched himself at Styles and punched him in the face, eliciting a "whoo!" from the other Marine sentry, and impressing Private Stubbins as well. Styles was big and strong and it was a brave man who started the rough and ready with him.
Styles punched back--well, that was to be expected--and the two men wrestled. Doughty was not a big man, but he was enraged, and he held his own. Mr. Orrock came in and attempted to pull them apart, and the little steward turned around and struck out blindly, knocking down Mr. Orrock.
The men standing around the altercation, who had been shouting encouragement, fell silent. Doughty had struck a superior officer. Though it had been an accident, he would hang for it. Even Private Stubbins, much as he disliked Doughty, could not but feel sympathy for him.
Mr. Orrock was a fair man, and he spoke out for Doughty, explaining that the blow had been accidental, but Captain Hornblower said it was not for them to decide, it was up to the court martial. The Hotspur went on to France with Doughty in the hold in irons. Late one night, they put the Frog off; Private Stubbins had been sleeping, being on the day watch, but when he awakened, the Frog was gone and the woman alone and sulking. The sergeant of Marines informed them that they no longer needed to stand sentry on her door, which was well enough. They had a battle to prepare for, in the middle of a snowstorm yet.
Captain Hornblower and Lieutenant Bush came back from a reconnaissance trip to the shore full of plans. The Frogs ships, full of Frog troops, were going to try to sneak across the Channel to invade Ireland, and the Hotspur was going to stop them before they could start. Captain Hornblower laid his plans with a determination that sent a spark of excitement through the men.
"No point going up in the rigging," the sergeant had told them. "You'll not be able to see the Frogs on the deck in this muck. Stay on deck and pick 'em off."
Thus, Private Stubbins was right there on deck to witness another example of Captain Hornblower's greatness. He stood on the quarterdeck, cool and calm, and led them through dangerous shoals right into the very teeth of the Frogs, disguising themselves with lanterns in the same configuration as the Frog ships. They were on top of the Frogs before they realized it, and opened fire.
The first Frog ship was raked with two broadsides. The traitor Wolfe was aboard her; Private Stubbins attempted to pick him off, but the cowardly bastard climbed aloft, and Private Stubbins could not see him through the swirling snow.
The other Frog ships turned tail like the cowards they were, and ended up colliding and grounding themselves on the shoals. Then the first ship hit the shoals, and the mainmast broke away. To Private Stubbins' astonishment, there was Wolfe, standing on the Hotspur's quarterdeck. Private Stubbins immediately trained his musket upon the traitor. Captain Hornblower and Lieutenant Bush already had pistols drawn on him, but it would do to be sure. Wolfe foolishly reached for a pistol hidden in his belt, and Private Stubbins fired. He was surprised by the report; he looked around, and realized that several of his fellow Marines had fired at the traitor as well, along with the captain and the first lieutenant. None of them were going to allow Wolfe the opportunity to have the drop on the captain again. It warmed Private Stubbins' heart to know that he was not alone in his devotion to his captain. The look on Lieutenant Bush's face, pure grim determination, was proof of that.
The Hotspur returned to England, the crew calmer in the knowledge that they had done their duty. There wasn't even any grumbling among the men when they made rendezvous with an American ship called Liberty. Typical damned Republican kind of name, in Private Stubbins' opinion; typical of the Jonathans to go in for that Frog nonsense, libertee, egalitee, fraternitee. Private Stubbins knew his place and his duty. At least they would be getting rid of Mrs. Frog; she was to be put on board the Jonathan ship, and good riddance to bad rubbish.
There she was, the baggage, standing on the quarterdeck berating Captain Hornblower! Who did she think she was? As they were hove-to, her voice carried back to the stern where Private Stubbins stood sentry with the sergeant, both of them casting suspicious eyes at the Jonathan ship. "You are damned heartless, Mr. Hornblower," the brazen hussy said to the Captain. Mister, she called him, for all the world like he were some ordinary midshipman, instead of the captain of a Royal Navy sloop of war!
The Marines' attention was distracted at that moment by a splash below the stern gallery windows. Doughty had jumped out and was swimming toward the Jonathan ship. The sergeant summoned Mr. Bush, who said resignedly, "Put a bullet close to him."
The report of the gun caught the captain's attention, and he ran over to the taffrail.
"It's Doughty," said Mr. Bush.
"Damn it," muttered the captain. "He must have gone through the window. Hold your fire, man, hold your fire," he added to the sergeant. "That's a neutral ship."
The Marines turned away, disappointed; the prisoner had got away on their watch, though Captain Hornblower was a fair man and they knew he would not blame them.
As the captain turned away from the taffrail, Private Stubbins glanced up at him and was surprised to see the ghost of an affectionate smile there that quickly disappeared. "I am a fool, Mr. Bush," he said, and them seemed to struggle to keep from smiling again. He went back to the Frog woman, who made Private Stubbins indignant for the last time by kissing the captain. The cheek of the brazen article! Whining about her husband and how much he loved her, and then flirting with the captain—a married man—on his own quarterdeck! She left the Hotspur immediately afterward, and not a moment too soon as far as Private Stubbins was concerned.
That night, alone in his hammock, Private Stubbins turned over the events he had witnessed that day in his mind. It almost seemed as though the captain had let Doughty go on purpose. The Marines who had been guarding Doughty said that the captain sent them away, and then left Doughty alone in his cabin, with the stern gallery windows open. The captain was too good an officer to be so forgetful of details such as making sure that a prisoner was in irons when he was alone; even the greenest Marine private knew that much. And then he didn't let the sergeant fire at Doughty, even when there was no chance that a bullet would get anywhere near the Jonathan ship, and then there was that strange little smile.
There was no doubt that the men were not unhappy with the outcome, even Styles. Styles had disliked Doughty and been jealous of him, certainly, but even he wouldn't want to see an innocent man hanged, or a man who was guilty only through an accident. Mr. Orrock seemed relieved that it was all over, and the other officers did not mention it. But Captain Hornblower had said it was not for the ordinary seaman or Marine or even an officer to determine guilt or innocence, it was for a court martial to decide.
Certainly it was a dereliction of duty for Captain Hornblower to allow a prisoner to escape, but Private Stubbins had to admit to himself that it was a pretty neat way to wrap up the episode. Captain Hornblower admitted fault, but no one would dare to tell a captain who had lately distinguished himself in battle that he had not done his duty. No fault could be found with the actions of any of the other officers or men on the Hotspur. Doughty's body wasn't hanging in chains from Execution Point, but he was aboard the Jonathan ship, alive and well, presumably cooking rag-oos for Mrs. Betsy Frog and consoling the doxy for the loss of her beloved Frog husband. When Private Stubbins was a boy and played the rough brand of football indigenous to his home village, the common cry was, "no blood, no foul." There was no one to be outraged at how the Doughty episode had turned out, so there was no one to question it. Like he managed everything else, Captain Hornblower had managed the affair with bold efficiency.
Though he didn't like Doughty much, Private Stubbins could not help but consider the whole episode pretty much a wash; but it tickled at him, like a loose thread inside his shirt. Private Stubbins had thought he knew his duty, but he learned a lesson in duty from Captain Hornblower.
The captain went aboard the flagship shortly after the Frog woman left; when he returned, word soon went around the Hotspur that he had been promoted to post-captain. Private Stubbins was happy for the captain, but thought it a shame he had to leave Hotspur behind. Captain Hornblower had been good for her, and she to him; too bad she wasn't a rated ship so he could stay aboard her, but that was the way of the Navy.
As Captain Hornblower prepared to leave the Hotspur, one of his final acts was to give leave to the Marines, who had not been off the ship for months. Private Stubbins went ashore happily enough and made his way to his favourite pub, where his favourite barmaid would bring him ale and, if he tipped her well enough, perhaps take him upstairs for a spell. Once word got around that he was off Hotspur, Private Stubbins was surrounded by a curious group that wanted to know all about her captain. Were the rumours true? Did Hornblower really snuff out a shell with his own two hands? Did he really sneak up on three Frog ships in a snowstorm within spitting distance of the French coast, with the Frogs all three ending up wrecks? Private Stubbins didn't have to pay for a single drink, and his favourite barmaid cuddled up to him in a way that let him know that tonight he wouldn't have to tip the wench to get access to the coveted upstairs room.
It was one thing to tell the story of the shell, and the snowstorm, and his part in those events. It was another thing entirely to tell the most recent story, of Doughty and the Liberty and Captain Hornblower's strange smile. Private Stubbins knew that he could tell that story in every pub in Portsmouth and he would be tossed out on his ear, despite his new popularity. "Tell it to the Marines," they would howl, "for the sailors will never believe it!" No one would ever believe that a man like Captain Hornblower, so brave and resourceful, would purposely act in defiance of his sworn duty as a British officer.
Even the Marines would be hard-pressed to believe it, Private Stubbins told himself ruefully, unless they had seen it with their own eyes.
This story was originally published in Fair Winds and Following Seas III, the fanfic zine of the Horatio Hornblower 2004 Convention in Toronto, Canada. Reprinted by permission.
The characters and events of this story are copyright of the estate of C.S. Forester and the producers of the film DUTY. No copyright or ownership of those characters is claimed or implied by the author of this story. I'm just being a fangirl. (Dicky's all mine, though.)
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