Ship of the Line
by C.S. Forester
The sequel to Beat to Quarters
is one of the most gripping books in the series. At the end of Beat to Quarters
, after surviving a brutal duel of ships in which he and his frigate Lydia
vanquished the renegade Spanish ship Natividad
, Capt. Hornblower found himself propositioned by his beautiful female passenger, Lady Barbara of the all-important Wellesley family. Somehow or other they had managed to fall in love with each other. Not because of moral qualms (such as faithfulness to his dumpy wife Maria) but out of cowardice (fear of public humiliation mainly) he turned down the proposition and deeply hurt Lady Barbara.
Well, as Ship of the Line begins, Hornblower and his surviving crew and officers have been transferred to a big 74-gun ship of the line, the HMS Sutherland. This is obviously a promotion and Hornblower deserves it, but his feelings about it are complicated by various factors. Among them: the admiral in command of his squadron is Leighton, a rather unimaginative and arrogant bastard whose whirlwind marriage to the very same Lady Barbara Wellesley is a source of pain and confusion to the lovestruck Hornblower.
Another problem: by hook or by crook he has to find enough sailors (or landsmen pressed into service) to man his new ship, but he's 250 hands short and there are no more hands to be found. And his mission, to escort a convoy along with the admiral's flagship and another ship of the line as far as the Mediterranean, and then to blockade the French-occupied Catalan coast of Spain, gets off to a shaky start when the convoy is immediately separated thanks to Adm. Leighton's incompetence. After successfully defending six English merchant ships from two French privateers, Hornblower risks career suicide by forcibly taking 120 seamen off the merchant ships and pressing them into his crew.
Even so he arrives at the rendezvous point ahead of the other two ships in the squadron, and when the second ship arrives the higher-ranking captain allows the restless Hornblower three days to seek adventure along the Spanish and French coast before returning to the rendezvous. In those three days Hornblower proves that he has turned a ship full of landlubbers and merchant marines into an A-1 fighting ship, leading five (5) glorious raids against the enemy, including the capture of several prize ships, the burning of an inland coaster (an escapade that humorously results in Hornblower and his landing party returning to the ship naked), and shooting artillery at a column of Italian soldiers marching along a coastal road. After all this brilliant success Hornblower has the undivided loyalty and worship of his entire crew, but unfortunately Admiral Leighton is annoyed simply because he was kept waiting at the rendezvous point.
This signals the beginning of a tragic episode in Hornblower's career. First Leighton orders Hornblower to command a land expedition that relies heavily on very unreliable Spanish forces. When asked if he has any comments, Hornblower tries to point out the likelihood that their Spanish allies will let them down, but Leighton accuses him of being disloyal, so Hornblower shuts his mouth and resolves to make the best of it. Unfortunately everything happens exactly as he feared and he ends up having to beat an ignominious retreat, at a great loss of life and dignity, and being blamed for the whole mess.
By the time Leighton sends him off on detached service he is very relieved to get away, having made up his mind that Leighton is an incompetent windbag and serving under him is a misery. But then Hornblower finds himself facing a squadron of French ships of the line, four ships to his one, and Leighton (infuriatingly unable to get to him on time) sends orders for Hornblower to stop the French before they get away. This means, yes indeed, a suicide mission for the HMS Sutherland and its marvelous crew (basically, the orders mean "Get yourself wiped out and take as many of the enemy as you can with you"). This jeopardizes not only Hornblower himself and Lt. Bush (Hornblower's oldest friend) but also a number of officers who were with him on the Lydia and are very capable and dear to him... Crystal the sailing master, Gerard the dashing handsome second-lieutenant who is a genius with the guns, brave Lts. Hooker and Rayner, his special favorite Midshipman Gray, and the captain's man Polwheal -- as well as several other promising young pups who have worked their way into Hornblower's heart and yours just within this book, including Gerard's nephew Longley whose quick thinking saved Hornblower's tuckus in that botched land operation.
So you can only have the smallest idea how heartrending the Sutherland's last battle is. There is no chance at all of the majority of these fine people getting through it alive and whole, and indeed you see a number of them maimed or killed horribly. And you know, Hornblower knows, everyone knows (including Leighton when he gives his fatal order) that the Sutherland doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell, but that if Hornblower survives (heck, you know there are 4 more books after this, so why even ask?)--even if Hornblower lives through the battle, he will have to surrender, he will be taken prisoner, he will spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of war (unless the French decide to execute him), he will be blamed for this failure, his career will be over for all intents and purposes even if he isn't court-martialed outright. And the most infuriating thing about it is that you know the state's chief witness against him will be the arse Leighton whose blundering is the real cause of the whole disaster.
Hornblower's career has not been without its share of failures. Back in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, remember, his first prize command (the cargo of rice) sank out from under him and after being picked up by a French privateer he only just managed by the skin of his teeth not to go into captivity for the duration. Then in the last chapter he got captured by the Spanish and ended up spending two years as a prisoner of war, though in that case he ended up the better for it. Since then he has had one rousing success after another, close calls some of them, against the odds most of them, brilliant feats of leadership and seamanship and strategy all of them. And as dark as things have looked at odd moments, each volume of his exploits so far has ended with vindication and triumph. Until now.
Ship of the Line reveals itself to be, most definitely, the middle part of a trilogy when it ends with the inevitable surrender of the Sutherland and what must be the lowest point in Hornblower's career. It is a shattering, gut-wrenching conclusion to a gripping tale, and it leaves you with a tremendous sense of loss, but you feel another act coming on... will it be brighter or darker still? I guess the answer to that is a foregone conclusion, since the title of the next book is Flying Colours.
Recommended Age: 14+
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