The True Colors: Chapter One

Here’s the first chapter of the Hornblower story I’m writing. The name of the story is The True Colors. The first Hornblower book was called Flying Colours so the title is a callback to that. Here it is!

-Mister Ed

Chapter One: The Return of Bush

The carriage rocked along the dirt road to Gillingham as Hornblower considered the letter he’d received a week before. The contents of the letter had been hard for him to believe, even if he had hoped for such a message over the last ten years. Bush was alive! Hornblower hadn’t considered it possible. He’d ordered many searches of the Seine River after the powder explosion presumably killed his best friend. He had even searched it himself after Allied Powers exiled the dictator to Elba and France was safe for decent Englishmen to travel in once more. He’d found no trace of Captain Bush, not even a splinter from his wooden leg.

But now a letter had arrived claiming to be from his old friend. The letter read:

Dear Admiral Horatio Hornblower,

It has been ten years since our last meeting. I am sorry that I could not see you or correspond with you in the meantime, but other matters of the utmost importance held my attention. I feared that the slightest contact with those I cared about might endanger them or their loved ones. I apologize and beg your forgiveness for my long abstinence from our friendship. Hopefully you will see in time that my choice was the right one.

I fear I have need of your help Hornblower, now more than ever. On the evening of the 21st of September I will be at the Pickled Keg on the eastern end of the Gillingham Docks just three doors down from the Tower and Keep where you once played whist to supplement your lieutenant’s half-pay. I hope that you can meet me there. There is much we must discuss of personal matters and those more grave that have occupied me this last decade. I hope that you will come, my old friend. It shall not be the same without you.

Sincerely,

Captain William Bush

*

The end of the letter bore a seal unfamiliar to Hornblower. A red shield with a chevron bore a cross pattée in the upper left, a crown in the upper right, and three upward pointing swords upon the bottom. Atop the shield rested a helm with a griffon rising out of the helm itself. Surrounding the shield and helm were the typical vines of nobility that Hornblower never truly understood the appeal of.

At first, Hornblower had been unsure of the authenticity of the letter. He’d been so certain of Bush’s death. He’d attended the funeral. He’d sought out Bush’s family in the hopes of honoring one of his sons or brothers with knighthood in the Order of Bath. Hornblower had previously avoided meeting Bush’s family for fear that entanglement with them might interfere with his duties as a naval officer. Hornblower had offered Bush’s mother and sisters his condolences along with ensuring that half of Bush’s pay would continue to be collected by them for their support. He was, however, unsuccessful in finding any male relatives of his friend. Regardless, for the last ten years Hornblower had been utterly convinced of Bush’s death.

And now a letter arrived claiming that Captain William Bush was still alive. Hornblower could scarcely believe it. He had lied to his wife Barbara, saying that he was going to meet the German Prince Paul from his voyages aboard the HMS Atropos, visiting from Paris. When she asked why Prince Paul was not calling at the estate, Hornblower had stuttered and said it was a business matter not a social call. Barbara had graciously left it at that, but he knew he’d have to tell her the truth upon his return. He only hoped there would be more to tell then.

The wobbling of the carriage wheels made him sick as it bounced over the cobblestone road into Gillingham. They slowly pulled through the town as dusk fell. Flames flickered in the streetlights and Hornblower could smell the ocean breeze. If he cocked his ear just right he could hear the waves washing against the wood of the ships at port. He hadn’t realized how much he missed that sound.

The driver pulled up to the middle of the port as instructed. Hornblower felt the carriage creak as the driver got down from his seat and moved to open the door. Hornblower stiffly pulled on his gloves. The driver opened the door and as he did so, Hornblower had a thought to leave Bush’s letter behind in case this meeting was not with Bush. It was more likely a ruse and Lady Barbara should know where he had gone if he did not return due to any foul play. He cursed and pulled off his right glove to retrieve the letter from his inside coat pocket. While looking at the step down from the carriage Hornblower spoke to the driver, “Wait for me until tomorrow at this spot. If I should not return, give this letter to Lady Barbara.” He indicated the letter as he set it down on the cabin seat.

“As ye’ say, milord.”

As Hornblower got out of the carriage and pulled his coat tight around him he added, “And make sure the horses are well groomed and fed.”

“O’ course, milord.”

Hornblower donned his right glove once more and shivered in the cold. He hadn’t missed this part of the sea. He shoved his hands into his outer coat pockets as he walked away from the sun to the eastern side of the docks.

What would Hornblower find at the Pickled Keg? Was it really Bush who had sent the letter? If it wasn’t, why would someone concoct such a ridiculous lie? Why had he believed it? Were they trying to kidnap him to blackmail Lady Barbara? If that was true, then Hornblower was quite glad he had brought his pistol on a holster inside his coat.

But what if it was Bush who had sent the letter? How had he survived the explosion? If he had survived, why hadn’t he been found afterwards? Why had he waited ten years before contacting Hornblower or anyone else? Had he spoken to his bereaved family? What were the grave matters that had occupied him in the mean time?

Hornblower sighed and resigned himself to finding out within the next few minutes. He walked on past the docks, past the Tower and Keep, and up to the front of the Pickled Keg. He pushed in the door and walked inside.

The room inside was decently sized for a tavern. Several long tables lined the middle of the room with a bar at the far end from the door. Booths were on the right side of the room and a roaring fire on the left side. A good crop of people were eating the daily soup, playing cards, and drinking a sour smelling liquid with a smell that permeated the air. Peanut shells crunched under his feet as Hornblower entered the room looking for his old friend.

There! At the last booth furthest from the door he saw a wooden leg poking out from the seat. That must be Bush. Hornblower slowly walked over, still cautious. He felt inside his coat and was reassured by the feel of his pistol. He turned the corner around the tables and felt beads of sweat appear on his forehead and under his armpits. He hadn’t realized how hot it was in here, even opposite the fireplace. He approached the booth at the end and looked down.

“Good God, it really is you.”

It was Bush. The same squat body and the same face like a slightly rotten tomato. The same moustache and haircut. Bush smiled and Hornblower even recognized the slight angles of each and every tooth in his old friend’s mouth. Bush hefted himself up out of the booth onto his one good leg. Offering his hand he said, “It’s good to see you old friend.”

Hornblower looked at his face and the offered hand. Should he hug him instead? Should he just take his hand or refuse it? After all, Bush had refused to contact him for over ten years! He decided the middle road was best and took Bush’s hand. He gave it a firm grip while Bush moved his hand up and down. Hornblower felt Bush letting go and quickly placed his left hand to lengthen the long forgotten contact with his old friend. If he let go, would this ghost disappear?

Bush extricated himself, but did not disappear. He made a solid thunk as he half sat half fell back into the booth. “Why don’t you take a seat and join me? We have a lot to talk about.”

Hornblower spoke as he took a seat, “You’re damn right we do. You’ve been gone for over ten years and you appear out of the blue looking the-”

Bush interrupted what he felt was a growing tidal wave of abuse, “Stop!” Bush held up his hand and repeated more calmly, “Stop. I have something very important to tell you.”

“Fine. What is it you have to say Captain Bush?”

“Napoleon Bonaparte is back, Hornblower.”

“Back from Elba? Yes I know. He’s come and gone. Died on St. Helena a few years back I believe. I’ve just come back from an expedition where I-”

Bush interrupted again, “No Hornblower, not back from Elba or St. Helena. Napoleon Bonaparte, Grand Emperor of Frogs, is back from the dead.”

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