The guns overhead crashed and roared, thundering back on their carriages, ropes snapping taught as harp strings as they bore the strain of recoiling cannon. The gun crews leapt upon each of their charges, sponging out, worming, re-loading the cartridge, wad, shot and more wadding, ramming all down tight before being primed; then at the given command another broadside spat several hundred-weight of metal into the bowels of the opposing ship.
The sounds of the battle, the crash of the guns, the rumble of their carriages and the cries of the men above all mingled together to make the orlop of the Surprise reverberate like the sound box of a bass viol. Powder smoke eddied down from the decks above, choking the humid atmosphere already thick with the stench of blood and men’s sweat. It was times like this when the orlop resembled the Pits of the Damned; men groaning in agony, fainting, vomiting, clutching at mangled limbs and bloodied cuts. However, if it were not for the expertise of Dr. Maturin the small space below decks could easily have been made a whole lot worse.
The patient currently being strapped to the makeshift operating table was a young man; a midshipman, an oldster by anybody’s standard, his reddish-blond hair tied back in a short pigtail now stiffening with blood, his blue eyes looking up with trepidation as the doctor examined a musket wound to his shoulder.
"How bad is it, sir?"
"Be easy, Mr. Kennedy, you shall live," Stephen said, his slender fingers probing the surrounding area. "You have been remarkably fortunate in that the ball seems to have struck your sword belt, cushioning the blow." Here he held up the leather strap of Archie’s belt, sticking his index finger through a neat round hole, gazing at it thoughtfully. Then he did the same with two corresponding holes in Archie’s shirt and coat. "Minimal damage for such a wound – very neat indeed – yet the bullet must be removed at once. There will be quite a considerable amount of pain, Mr. Kennedy, as the ball is lodged at an awkward angle against the scapula, only inches from the humerus, so I must have you secured. Padeen, the long-nosed forceps, if you please."
At this moment a cheerful face appeared in Archie’s field of vision, grinning madly at him. It was William Babbington; Captain Aubrey’s second lieutenant.
"Hot work, Archie!" said Babbington, gleefully wiping blood and sweat from his forehead. He had a shallow gash running along the right side of his scalp and his face was grey with powder stains. "Hot work, indeed! Captain’s compliments, sir," he said, addressing Stephen. "And he wishes to know how Mr. Kennedy fares."
"My compliments to the captain," said Stephen casually, testing the sharpness of his scalpel. "And you may inform him that Mr. Kennedy is in no immediate danger. And you may ask him if he could manage to put an end to that infernal din upstairs as soon as he finds it convenient."
"He will be happy to oblige, sir," laughed Babbington. "Hear that Archie? We shan’t have to put you over the side after all! The captain will be mightily pleased; I do believe he was afeared he would have to send you back to Captain Hornblower in your hammock."
Archie smiled faintly at the attempt to cheer him, rather out of place though it was in such grim surroundings, then winced in pain as on the roll of the ship the leather-covered chains accidentally scraped against the musket wound.
"Steady, Padeen, for all love!"
The Surprise was not alone in her current action. She had been shadowing a vastly heavier French 74, the Ariadne – which had somehow slipped past the blockade at Brest – when she had by chance encountered Captain Hornblower and the Hotspur. The two captains had met and decided that neither of their crews had good prospects of engaging the Frenchman alone and emerging victorious, and so had devised a plan of action which would, if successful, see both captains and their crew gazetted and possibly gain a couple of their lieutenants their step. Babbington was one of these lieutenants, as Mr. Malchett the first lieutenant had been knocked on the head in the opening five minutes of the engagement and it was more than likely that he would not wake again.
It also explained Archie’s presence on the Surprise, fighting under a strange captain instead of his own. He would have preferred to have stayed with Horatio, to have followed and fought beside him as he had always done; but no, Horatio had needed him here, and as ever he had obeyed, if not somewhat reluctantly.
"How goes it, William?" he managed to ask, his voice hoarse from the powder smoke caught in his throat.
"Well," said Babbington, his grin widening if it were possible for it to have been any wider than before. "Oh Archie, you should have seen the surprise on that Frenchie’s face when we came up on his quarter! We gave them a raking across her bows, and the Hotspur! You should have seen her Archie! Captain Hornblower brought her right up on the wind – sweet as a nut – and gave him a broadside through her stern."
Archie could not help but smile at Babbington’s eagerness.
"So like Horatio to go for heroics."
"I’ll say! We’re pounding ‘em now from both sides; last I saw we had taken out his mizzenmast. I bet anything that he’ll call for boarders before long."
"If you are not otherwise engaged, William," the doctor interrupted. "I would appreciate it if you would hold Mr. Kennedy down by the shoulders. Now, Mr. Kennedy, you must endeavour to lie as still as you can manage, for the task is a delicate one. Are you prepared?"
Glancing from the doctor to Babbington, then back to the doctor again Archie nodded, taking the offered pad of leather between his teeth and steeling himself for the forthcoming pain. As Babbington’s reassuring face swam out of focus and the white-hot agony consumed him, he thought of the battle, of the helpless Ariadne, the Hotspur, and of Horatio standing tall with a look of suppressed triumph on his face as the French colours were hauled down to a rising swell of cheers.