Fandom:  Hornblower
Title:  Wellard and the Dolphins
Author: Stella
Pairing: 
Rating:
Email:  cerdo@netspace.net.au

Note:  This story is set in the infant colony of Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania, Australia, circa 1805.  A certain amount of historical licence is taken, but Governor Collins, his mistress and the Rev. Bobby Knopwood are all historical personages.  Characters from the Hornblower stories by CS Forester/Meridian remain the propery of their copyright owners.  Other characters are my own invention.


 

Wellard and the Dolphins

 

by Stella





HMS Retribution had laid anchor in the Derwent, within hail of Hunter Island's Government store. After three weeks limping helplessly across the Tasman Sea to the new colony of Van Diemen's Land, her Captain, Horatio Hornblower, and her weary crew, were glad to be once more on solid ground and within British domain. Hobart Town, less than a year old, a sorry-looking collection of tents and flimsily constructed huts and cottages inhabited by hungry convicts, drunken soldiers and homesick settlers, was also glad to see a British flag heave into sight. On board, Captain Hornblower was recovering from the deep gash to his head which had kept him to his bunk these ten days. Dimly aware, even through the pain and fever of his illness, that something on his ship was not quite right, Hornblower was now determined to find the cause of the uneasy atmosphere on board.

"Give the bosun my compliments and ask him to come down here, Mr Wellard." said Hornblower to the young Midshipman who kept a vigil by his bunk. Wellard, now fully recovered from his near fatal gunshot wound sustained in the West Indies two years earlier, was loathe to leave his Captain's side, but understood the authoritative tone of Hornblower's voice to be decisive.

"Aye-aye, sir."

Hornblower watched the retreating figure of Wellard and began to wonder what form his questioning of Mr Matthews ought to take, suddenly anxious, for what reason he couldn't say. Too soon, Matthews was at the door of his cabin.

"Sir?" Matthews' face was beaming with a cautious joy at the apparent recovery of his captain.

"Ah, Matthews...I have something to ask you..."

"Sir?"

"Have you noticed...Is there anything I ought to know? Has something happened on this ship since I was injured?"

"I'm sorry, Sir. I don't think I understand you rightly."

"Matthews!" said Hornblower, strangely angered and immediately ashamed of having raised his voice. "There is ... something ... going on. I'm not a fool, Matthews."

"Mr Hornblower...sir." Matthews too was hesistant to tackle the subject. "Do you think you're really up to this sort of thing - you've been very poorly. Perhaps it would be better to wait till you're feeling more yourself again, sir."

"No, Matthews. You are not my nursemaid, and my head is perfectly clear. Please do me the courtesy of answering my question!"

As the final words left his lips, Hornblower was overcome with light-headedness, and slumped back against his pillow. The glass of brandy-and-water in his hand would have dropped to the floor if not for the deftly Matthews. Gently moving Hornblower back into a steadier position on the bunk, he replaced the blanket over his Captain's wasted body.

"That's the way, sir." he whispered to himself. "No need for you to know, not just yet..."

*********

First Lt. Bush, acting-Captain of the Retribution since Hornblower's injury, was standing on the muddy foreshore, watching as a gang of convicts, chained together with heavy iron shackles which had long since rubbed their ankles raw, were making a poor pretence of working, some sitting on the remains of trees they had recently felled, some leaning against their flimsy spades smoking rank tobacco and spitting intermittently, some chatting in the low, conspiratorial voices of men used to ill treatment and imposed silences. Sitting quite apart, behind the rain-stained pile of pickets which the convicts were supposed to be erecting, was a lean young man, hugging his knees and sobbing quietly to himself. Although he must have been going on eighteen, the boy in his wretchedness looked no more than a child. Bush, saddened by this melancholy sight, stiffened and shouted impatiently to Mr Wellard who was walking through the mud towards him.

"Mr Wellard! I thought you must have met with an accident. I believe I asked you to join me on shore near an hour ago!"

"I'm very sorry, sir." said Wellard, confused at the change in Bush's manner - earlier that day he had had reason to think Mr Bush was beginning to drop the guarded approach which had marked their relationship so far. Now it seemed he was determined to be more distant than ever. "The Captain wanted me to read the ship's log to him, sir. He was very anxious to..."

"The Captain - he's awake? His fever is past?"

"He is awake, sir. But I am not convinced that the fever is past - he seemed a little confused."

"I must speak to him. Mr Wellard, you will attend the Governor's pleasure this evening - we have been invited to a sumptuous dinner in his Excellency's tent. You must search out your cleanest shirt!"

"Aye-aye, sir." said Wellard, unable to suppress a smile at Bush's continuing unpredictability. What does he really think of me? he wondered. Sometimes he seems to despise me, and sometimes...Wellard could settle on nothing but the certainty that Bush was a conundrum.

Before turning to follow Bush to the ship's boat, Wellard's eye was caught by the huddled figure of the crying convict-boy. A flash of memory took him back to the time when he had cried himself to sleep after being flogged on the orders of the deranged Captain Sawyer. Then, Mr Hornblower, and the late Mr Kennedy, had done their best to comfort him. The grief he still felt for Kennedy stung his eyes with involuntary tears. And what of Mr Hobbs, the gruff Warrant Officer who had made his life so miserable, and then, inexplicably, nursed Wellard through his long and painful recovery, only to disappear in action before Wellard had had the chance to thank him? The mystery of Hobbs' fate was too sad to contemplate even now. What could be the cause of this young man's distress? Wellard was sickened to think how helpless and alone he must be - there were surely no Hornblowers or Kennedys to help him here.

*********

The sky above Table Mountain [now Mount Wellington] was only now beginning to darken a little as Bush and Wellard walked towards the Governor's tent in the best imitation of elegant officers of His Majesty's Navy they could manage after such a rough passage. Wellard was curious to see what manner of man this David Collins - who had sailed fifteen-thousand miles in a small brig to found a British colony in the wilderness - could possibly be. He had heard of the scandal surrounding Collins' insistence on having his teenage mistress to live with him in his tent : she, the daughter of a convict transported to Botany Bay, was a violet-eyed beauty whose dedication to her lover had brought her here to the trials of life in Van Diemen's Land.

Inside the large hempen tent a dining table of shining mahogany stood incongruous, laid as if it had been transported from a Mayfair apartment to sit here amid the mud and the rough-spoken convict servants, with finest Dresden china waiting to receive the roast kangaroo, pea soup and ships biscuit which would make up their repast. Ranged around it, talking among themselves were several persons: a tall, blond-haired army officer with the aristocratic bearing one would have expected of the young Major Edrington, sent from recent his action in India to command a detachment of the Sussex Rifles, and, by his side, a well-fed clergyman of past middle-age, laughing broadly at some joke of his own. On the other side of the tent, one whom Wellard recognised immediately as the Lt-Governor, with the unmistakable stance of a navy officer of the old school (Wellard was reminded of Captain Hornblower's mentor, Sir Edward Pellew, one of Collins' contemporaries and friends) and sheltered underneath his authorititave arm was the little woman, his mistress, about whom so many stories had been told.

"Ah, Gentlemen!" said Collins, stepping brightly across to Bush and Wellard. "A fine evening we have been blessed with, after a shocking horrid day! I hope you'll find our vittals more consistently agreeable, for humble though they be, I fear this may well be the last square meal any of us enjoys for some time to come."

"After our recent diet, I think I can make you a guarantee of that, sir..." said the sardonic Bush. "Allow me introduce our most promising midshipman - Mr Wellard."

********

Dinner proceeded uneventfully, to Wellard's relief. As the effects of Governor Collins' claret began to loosen the tightness which had oppressed for such a long time, he was able to enjoy the light conversation of the company, and in particular the warm-hearted jests of Rev. Knopwood, who seemed to have an amusing anecdote to tell on every subject raised. Over port however, the tone of conversation suddenly changed, as the Governor spoke in quick low tones to Mr Bush.

"Sir, I am afraid that after this pleasant interlude we must get down to business..."

"Yes, your Excellency - I have been expecting as much."

"You may by this time be aware that we have been labouring under a dreadful want of vittals in the colony;   the ship we anticipated would bring us relief we have just learned has foundered some distance from Batavia, and now out situation is become desperate. All available means must be exploited if we are to survive. Add to this the intelligence I have lately received that another supply ship is expected daily, and that a French vessel has been sighted in our waters. In a time of war, I need not tell you, this represents an imposition on His Majesty's domains which can not be tolerated."

"Quite so."

"Therefore, aware as I am of your own difficulties, I must ask you to send an armed party up our eastern coast to act as guard to the ship we expect at any time, and to see these damnable Frogs off once and for all."

Wellard's stomach tightened again as he heard Collins' words. As the only midshipman of sufficient experience and of sound enough health to embark on such a mission, he knew that Bush would choose him to lead the party. Despite the depressing nature of the settlement on the Derwent, he would rather have stayed here in relative comfort and stillness for a while than embark on yet another dangerous mission. Wellard was no coward - as soon as the idea was absorbed he was ready to do his duty - but something inexplicably oppressed him with apprehension.

**********

Back on board the Retribution, Hornblower awakened from his long sleep to find Mr Bush beside him.

"Mr Hornblower - how is your head?" said Bush, in unusually gentle tones.

"Mr Bush... I thank you - not at all well, I fear."

"I have some news, Horatio - Governor Collins has requested a party to patrol the coast for enemy ships. Wellard will lead a crew of our men in the yacht Ganymede, departing tomorrow."

"Mr Wellard? But Mr Bush, I need Wellard... here..."

"I'm sorry, Horatio. Mr Wellard is the only man I can rely upon to carry out this mission. We have lost every officer to injury or death, and the remaining midshipmen are so many boys and ruffians, not one to trust among them."

"Yes. I understand." Hornblower was thoughtful for a moment, with the sense that something was still not right about the situation. He could feel his tiredness returning, and reluctantly laid down his head, unsatisfied. Tomorrow Wellard would be gone, he knew not when to return.

*********


As the Ganymede made good headway down the Derwent Estuary away from Hobart Town and into Storm Bay, Wellard occupied himself with the incomplete charts of Van Diemen's Land's rugged coastline Governor Collins had given him. With a sharp intellect and a keenness to please his superior officers, Wellard had learned the subtleties of navigation more quickly than most, a strength which would now come into its own. Matthews had been sent along to add his authoritative presence to a mission which few of the seamen were keen to embark upon - a crew of three beside Wellard and Matthews was sufficient for the yacht, but even that number had been difficult to muster from among the weary and dissastified crew of the Retribution.

The mission set for Wellard was clear: search out and see-off any enemy vessels appearing within the British domain, and provide armed escort to the British supply ship which Governor Collins was expecting. How a small yacht with light cannon and a crew of five was to manage that task unaided should the French offer resistance was a little less clear. Wellard tried not to think about the possibility of the loss of his yacht, or worse still, of capture.

"Mr Wellard, sir..."

Matthews, standing stalwart at the tiller, had been strangely silent until now, and Wellard sensed a reluctance on his part to bring forth the subject occupying all their minds. He was surprised therefore when Matthews began on a different tack altogether.

"I don't rightly know how to put this to you, sir..."

"Yes, Mr Matthews?"

"The Captain, sir - do you think we ought to tell him, about the goings-on while he was poorly like?"

"I don't know what you're talking about, Matthews," said Wellard, his eyes fixed on the sea ahead.

"If you'll excuse me, sir, I think you do..."

Wellard looked hard at Matthews and saw there was no point in denying it. The thing would have to be faced eventually.

**********

Lt. Bush was sitting down to luncheon once again in the Governor's tent, when Major Edrington strode wearily in, covered in dust from his journey. A gang of bushrangers - convicts who had been sent out into the bush to hunt kangaroo for the settlement's stew pots and not returned - had been sighted up river and the Major had led a party in a vain attempt to capture them. Now he was hot, and irritated with himself for not heeding the advice of Rev Knopwood.

"Did I not tell you, sir? That infernal wilderness is fit only for kangaroos," said the Reverend with a smile. "Now, have some madeira and entertain us with your tale of woe."

"Thankyou, sir. Yes - damn it! We hacked our way through half a mile of prickles and mud before we realised the bounders had slipped away... They seem to know the place like natives."

"Ah, not quite like natives. The natives of this island can make themselves invisible in a furrowed field; believe me, sir - I've seen it done."

"How many convicts have you lost to the bush, Your Excellency?" said Bush to Collins, who was busily occupied with his mistress sitting on his knee.

"I lose count, Mr Bush - the thing is too dispiriting to contemplate. Perhaps twenty. No doubt there will be more. Only this morning there was a boy was reported missing from the shore party. Well, he won't last long on his own - if the natives don't get him, the outlaws undoubtedly shall."

The Earl commenced his repast as Collins and Knopwood resumed a long conversation on the properest way to dress the meats of various local animals they had lately shot, while Bush sat back in his chair and reflected, somewhat grimly, on his situation. Having been promoted from before the mast, he was often painfully aware of the distance between himself and the officers of less humble background. In attempting to make himself their equal in both their eyes and his, Bush was often led to a mechanical thoroughness of executing his duty which alienated most of his fellows in social discourse. Serious, dependable, brave and capable, was the way Bush was seen - was that enough? Could he never have the sort of rapport Hornblower and Wellard had with the men? They were not merely respected or feared by their inferiors, but also perhaps even loved.

"Mr Bush?"

The Earl - cooler and more cheerful now - had finished his soup, and was regarding the serious Bush with concern.

"Do you feel this heat as much as I do?"  His coat was hanging from the back of his chair, and the buttons of his waistcoat were undone, revealing a sweat-stained shirt beneath.   "I had been hoping for a cooler climate after India, but it seems the summers here can be quite as fierce when they want to."

"I don't feel the heat." said the sullen Bush. Remembering himself, he added, "I was thinking about the difficulties facing us all here. If the supply ship does not arrive..."

"We shall starve!" said the Earl, suddenly greatly amused. Despite himself, Bush began to let out a small chuckle.

"Yes, indeed. We shall! And what a grim death it will be for us all."

"Oh, terrible!   I'm sorry, Mr Bush, but - yes, it is a grim prospect, isn't it?  I little thought when I bought my commission that I would end up starving to death in a land fit for nothing but kangaroos.  Perhaps if I were to grow a tail..." The Earl was laughing out loud now, and Collins called across the the table to find the source of this amusement. Seeing Bush and Edrington laughing together, he smiled and returned his attention to the violet-eyed girl on his knee.

*********

"I'm sorry, sir - I know this is a difficult business for you," Matthews was trying not to make eye contact with Wellard as he spoke, and hoping the men could not hear what he was saying. "But really, I think it would be best if we hammered it out between us now, before we get back to Hobart Town. The Captain wants to know what's been happening, sir - he knows there's something not quite right aboard, and knowing him, sir, it's just a matter of time before he finds out, one way or another."

"Yes Matthews.   You're right, of course."

"Well, then - can you tell me what happened exactly, that night we found you in the hold?"

"I'm not sure I understand it myself, Matthews," said Wellard, very quiet and suddenly nervous as he cast his mind back to that terrible night, when the ship had been battered by the fiercest storm he had ever experienced, and Hornblower had received the head injury which still prevented him from resuming command.

"I had gone to bed - the worst of the storm had passed, or so I thought - but I couldn't sleep, or atleast, when I did sleep it was only to wake a moment later. With all the noise of the storm I may have been confused - certainly, I was very tired - but I thought I heard a voice, calling. I got up from my hammock - no one else in the mess seemed to have noticed anything. Something told me to go to the Captain's cabin. It was as if I were being warned. I was at his door and about to enter - and then - nothing. I remember nothing after that - "

"Until we found you in the morning, sir. You were black and blue, as if you'd been beaten something horrible."

"Perhaps I fell..."

"I don't think so, sir - not with those bruises. No, that was no accident."

Just then, Rogers, one of the seamen, appeared in the hatchway, out of breath and with a look of triumphant sadism on his weather-beaten face.

"Sir - look what we've found!"

It was the convict boy Wellard had seen on the shore, startled, crying and falling to his knees in supplication before the midshipman.

"Please, sir..." he said. "Please, don't let them take me back!"

**********

"I don't really see what choice I have, Dick." said Wellard quietly. "You have been sentenced under law and must serve out your term - however difficult it may be to bear..."

"But sir - "

Wellard felt himself beginning to reel, and spoke as if in a dream. In the insanitary atmosphere of the Ganymede's tiny cabin, where the shivering convict boy was now wrapped in a dirty sea blanket, it was quite natural to feel a little light headed, perhaps.

"We all have to accept certain things in life, but we simply must bear up and - "


"They'll be the death of me, sir! I can't carry on there, no matter what you say! That place is worse than a Hell on earth! The men, sir - they're not men, they're *beasts*..."

"Dick," Wellard placed his hand on the boy's bony shoulder. "We will be occupied with our task here for some days, perhaps a week or more. Until we have seen the supply ship safe there is no question of returning to Hobart Town. In the meantime, I think we might find a use for you on board."

"And when we get back, sir?"

"Your conduct aboard this boat may be taken into consideration, I think - do as you are bid, make yourself a source of satisfaction to Mr Matthews and myself, and I will speak for you."

"Thank you, sir!" The boy's gratitude was painfully sincere. Good God! thought Wellard. What horrors men dream up for one another! And this boy - he is... the same age I was... the same age...

Just then there was a shout from on deck and Matthews appeared in the hatchway.

"French brig sighted, five leagues distant, Mr Wellard, sir! She's bearing down fast in this breeze, sir!"

"Why did no one spot her before now, Matthews?! Are you all blind?"

"I'm sorry, Mr Wellard, sir! Rogers was on watch..."

"I'll deal with him later!"

Rushing up to see the seriousness of their predicament for himself, Wellard tried to remain calm, thinking of Mr Hornblower's reassuring words which always seemed to have their due effect : "You are perfectly capable, Mr Wellard. Do your duty." Despite the speeds he knew the Ganymede could make in ideal conditions, a cool evening breeze blew all in favour of the brig and Wellard saw there was no escaping the enemy ship, now almost within striking distance. To put up a fight would be suicide, and they were too far up the coast to have any hope of help from Hobart Town. He remembered the tales of capture he had heard from those who had survived - and shuddered. Damn Rogers! There was something about the man that had riled with Wellard from their first meeting when the burly seaman had joined the Retribution at Otaheite. The man gathered trouble around him.

"Well, Mr Matthews. It seems we must prepare ourselves for a spell in captivity. Men! Go below and gather your things! Don't forget your greatcoats: I'm sure the Frogs won't trouble themselves with our comfort!"

**********

"Thank God for this breeze!"

Major Edrington was sitting - half reclining - in a battered wicker chair outside the Governor's tent. He and Bush, having spent a pleasant afternoon together discussing every subject but those most in need of attention, were now watching as the sunset touched the great mountain which towered above them with rays of pomegranate red. Gentle summer waves were licking the shoreline, and somewhere drunken soldiers were singing of the girls they had left behind.

"A most peculiar climate - but I've yet to see a sight as fine as that. Have you, Mr Bush?" said the Earl, gesturing towards the mountain.

"No, indeed." said Bush, knowing the Earl knew, as he did, what a lie it was. He had seen a sight more beautiful - he had...

Edrington then spoke something in a voice so quiet Bush was obliged to lean close to catch the words. A moment later the two were walking down to the water's edge, walking along the beach, among the long boats and the fishing nets. This part of the beach was soon in deep shadow. A man could disappear in the half-light..

Inside his tent, Governor Collins looked up from the government papers he was reading. His mistress, feeling the combined effects of morning sickness and the summer heat had retired for the evening.

The sound of Bush and Edrington's conversation had ceased.

"Bobby?"

"Yes, your Excellency?"

"It would seem the Earl and Mr Bush have left us."

"So it would."

"Bobby - "

"Yes, your Excellency?"

Collins poured the last drops of the last bottle of his best port first into the Reverend gentleman's glass and then into his own, put the glass to his lips and savoured a small sip.

"How is that troublesome timepiece of yours now?"

"In excellent health, I thank you!"

"I'm so glad." said Collins, and smiled.

**********

"Mr Midshipman Wellard of His Brittanick Majesty's Royal Navy, and commander of this vessel, sir!"

Wellard stood defiant in the face of the tall and powerfully built French captain who had boarded the Ganymede to take personal possession of his modest prize. Despite the impossibility of their situation he was not about to show the real fear and humiliation he felt now.

"Mr Wellard... I am pleased to meet you, sir. Captain Jean-Jacques de Monterlant, at your service. May I say that I hope your stay with us will be a pleasant one."

The French brig l'Improviste and her eccentric captain were well known throughout the Pacific for her explorative expeditions. Monterlant, the son of an executed nobleman who had turned Republican, was by no means a fighting captain, despite what his imposing physique and deep, commanding voice might have suggested. His cabin was decorated with the ephemera of many long voyages to exotic locations, his collection of poets ancient and modern, and his reproductions of the allegorical scenes of the great masters. The fine oak panelling on the walls was painted a deep, sensual peacock blue. It was to this remarkable room that Wellard was now lead by the Frenchman.

"Sir, I need not tell you, I am sure, that my duty is to extract from you by whatever means - in keeping with the honour of the French navy - such information concerning your British domains as you might be in possession of..."

"With respect, sir, I have nothing to say to you." Wellard’s tone was decisive in its coldness.

"Ah. I see you are determined that we should not get along, Mr Wellard. A pity. A great pity..."

"Be that as it may, Captain, you must know that I can not betray the confidence placed in me – my duty is also clear."

"Yes of course. Well, shall we drop the subject for now? Night is drawing in, and I believe my supper must soon be upon the table. You will join me."

"Sir, if it is convenient to you, I would like to be assured that my men are comfortably settled."

"Do you doubt it? We French are not barbarians, Mr Wellard." The captain smiled a slow, mysterious smile. "We are not barbarians..." The smile broadened further then suddenly, inexplicably, disappeared completely. The granite hardness of his face was frightening in its implacableness. ‘Naturally you must see your men. Please allow our excellent Midshipman Souplier to conduct you to the hold."

Wellard was surprised upon reaching the hold to find a barred compartment closely packed with men and boys huddled together, in various states of filthy subjugation, beside his own four men and Dick the convict boy. It was impossible to judge from their dress and mien what their nationality might have been. Some looked up at this vision of British authority with wild, excited eyes, and desperate inhuman sounds emanated from one particularly wretched-looking man who fell down as he attempted to stand.


"Mr Matthews – what is all this? Are they British men?"

"Aye, sir. Poor devils!"

"How did they come to be here, Matthews?"

"Well, sir, there’s only one can talk to say much – he told me, so far as I could understand, that they were seamen of the Aspiades, that went down near Batavia two months back."

"Yes, I heard of that. There were survivors then..."

"Yes, sir. It seems these men managed to get into a boat, and floated about for a week or more somewhere off the coast, in sight of land, but never able to get near it. Then a storm came up and they were blown right out, they don’t know where. Many died in that storm, or after from thirst and cold, sir, so he said. Then, two weeks ago, they were picked up by this brig."

"It’s quite a tale!"

"It is that, sir!"

Wellard reflected on the horrific situation of the men. What were the French thinking of, to let them fester in this way? Not even to provide them with clean clothing, or decent food... He was outraged. We are not barbarians, the captain had said. Wellard intended to bring the Frenchman to account for this.

"Is there nothing we can do for them, sir? They need good food, and warm clothes."

"Yes, Mr Matthews. Those damned Frogs! I’ll do whatever is in my power, you may be sure of that."

Wellard’s attention was caught by a movement among the men. The man in the corner made another attempt to stand, groaning loudly as he grasped his fellows to pull himself up. Wellard could see that he had once been a strong man, with broad shoulders now wasted away, and a rugged face now hollow and hagged. The man was trying to speak, but his dry mouth could not form the words. The eyes, however, startlingly blue against his dirty skin, shone out and spoke their own meaning.

"My God!" said Wellard. "It’s Mr Hobbs!!"

**********

To be continued...



 

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