Hornblower During the Crisis
by C.S. Forester
Reading this last Horatio Hornblower novel
was short work. In one respect I almost wish it hadn't been published. As a bit of a writer myself, it makes me shudder to think that scraps and fragments, left unfinished either on purpose or by accident at my death, should see the light of day. As a reader, it's frustrating to read a torso--no, not even that, a tantalizing First Act--of what might have been a terrific novel, and then having to content myself with a one-page summary of how the story would have ended. It's really a pity the novel was never finished, though, because what there is of it is so good!
First, there's a glimpse into a melancholy moment in Hornblower's career. A retiring admiral has recommended him for promotion to full Captain, and he's been relieved of command of the Hotspur, somewhat ignored by his former crew (including his best friend, Lt. Bush) as they make preparations to receive their new captain. It's one of those wistful, lonely between-times, though not as harsh as his two years in a Spanish prison. He has time to reflect on how naval friendships are as quickly parted as they are fiercely intimate (i.e., he will probably never see Bush again). He feels instantly forgotten when he hands over command to the blustery Commander Meadows (who still has seniority over him, since Hornblower's promotion won't be confirmed at least until he gets to London). And he faces the prospect of a long, uncomfortable voyage back to England (from the continuing blockade of Brest) aboard a civilian-owned water hauler that is very clumsy & slow at sea.
Then events take an adventurous turn. Scarcely a day after taking command of the ship Hornblower had used so skillfully for 2 years, Meadows runs it aground and sinks it. No lives are lost, but the officers in charge of navigation--including Bush--are court martialed and Hornblower is brought back to testify against them. There isn't much time to dwell on the awkwardness of that, before Hornblower finds himself sharing the water hoy with Meadows, Bush, and some forty others (the officers of the late Hotspur, and other people being sent back to England for one reason or another), and tensions run high between Hornblower, Meadows, and the water hoy's captain Baddlestone.
The one thing that can bring them together turns out to be the water hoy's capture by a French brig... and though he is the lowest ranking of the three, the captains follow Hornblower's suggestion & turn the tables on the French. It's a risky and daring maneuver, with the indirect result that Hornblower finds himself before the secretary of the navy and volunteering to command an infinitely more risky and daring maneuver: an espionage caper in which he must pose as a Spaniard carrying a forged letter from Napoleon that, if it has its intended effect, will lead to the greatest naval battle in history.
Of course, just when this scheme has been outlined and Hornblower has volunteered to carry it out (just after also receiving his long-awaited posting as Captain), the unfinished novel trails off with four paragraphs of notes from the author's working outline. It's a tantalizing glimpse, basically, into a novel that will never be. Alas! But the chapters that do exist, are very good and indeed add valuably to the history of Hornblower.
There followed two separate stories. One was from the time between Mr. Midshipman Hornblower and Lieutenant Hornblower, i.e. between when the newly-commissioned lieutenant won his release from the Spanish prison and when Bush came aboard the Renown. Hornblower is already the Renown's junior lieutenant, and he finds himself put in charge of a captured deserter and Irish rebel named Barry McCool. (The name sounds a little ridiculous to the present-day ear, but there it is). This means that he has to attend to McCool until he is hanged, and then he must carry out the hanging itself and dispose of the dead man's body and his effects. It's the effects that turn out rather interesting--combining a shrewd bargain the Irishman makes with Hornblower, a tender letter to McCool's widow, and a wooden chest that has been thoroughly searched to make sure nothing is in it of interest to the enemy. With these things left in his care, Hornblower finds himself carrying a burden of conscience as well as a puzzle which may have his country's future at stake.
Finally, there is The Last Encounter, taking place in 1848 when the 72-year-old Hornblower is as comfortable as can be--considering his habit of unhappiness and self-reproach--soon after being made Admiral of the Fleet of England. It's a charming little "O. Henry" story (you know, with a macabre little twist at the end) in which, on a dark and stormy night, an apparent lunatic shows up at Hornblower's door claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte (who, mind you, was long dead by then) and demanding the use of a horse and carriage. In a way I wished I hadn't read this story in this place, though, because it jumped ahead past other parts of the Hornblower career that I hadn't read yet, and revealed facts about (for instance) his family life that hadn't come up in the sequence in which I read the books.
These two short stories, however appealing they may be from the standpoint of giving you an insight into points in Hornblower's career that aren't touched on elsewhere (e.g. the 2 years between the first two novels, and the fact that he is destined to become the Fleet Admiral and to end his affairs in relative quiet, prosperity, and comfort), nevertheless lack the complexity, ingenuity, seamanship, and swashbuckling action of even one chapter of a Hornblower novel, including the torso of Hornblower During the Crisis. Both stories felt kind of slack, drained of their accustomed energy. The first has mostly to do with the conniving of a condemned man and the combination of Hornblower's crisis of conscience and petty sleuthing that follows from it; it's a low-tension short story more in the genre of mystery than adventure. And the second takes place in the ponderous setting of a wealthy Lord's manor and is more like a witty anecdote than even a mystery story. Again, maybe the idea of knowing everything that ever happened to Hornblower isn't worth the disappointment one is bound to feel at these lightweight little stories. But oh, do I wish Hornblower During the Crisis had been finished! I would have enjoyed reading that!
Recommended Age: 14+
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