"Come in, Captain Bush. Please, sit down."
Bush thumped across the deck and settled himself in the chair. A courier ship had recently arrived with despatches, so this summons to the commodore's cabin was not unexpected.
Hornblower cleared his throat. After a strangely talkative comment about the weather, he asked Bush about the progress on the Nonsuch's provisioning. "What about the barrels of rotten salt fish?" he asked. "And the shortage of sail cloth?"
The questions went on and on, but happily, Bush could tell him that all was in order and at last they were ready to sail. As he spoke, Bush stared at the packet of despatches on the commodore's desk, resisting the urge to tap his wooden foot on the floor.
Finally, Hornblower said, "Captain Bush, the admiralty has offered the services of this ship to Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Court of Vienna. This is a most delicate assignment. When we reach port, we will need to put ashore three guns and the crews to man them."
"Yes, sir." Bush didn't need to consult the ship's roster; he had been with this crew long enough that he knew which names he would want. For a shore engagement, he would need sailors who were level-headed and quick on their feet. Due to the diplomatic discretion required, he would take command of the party himself. "How many marines should we bring?" He had no idea what sort of resistance to expect.
"No, there's no reason to take them along."
"So Austrian troops will be supporting us." Bush nodded. It made perfect sense to avoid offending the local civilians. "Should the gun crews be issued pistols and cutlasses?"
"What? No, certainly not. Though they should wear their Sunday clothing."
"Yes, sir," Bush said evenly, trying not to look too surprised.
Hornblower stared at him appraisingly. "Captain Bush, do you know how to read musical notation?"
Bush stammered in surprise. "When I was a lad, I--I was given lessons on the pianoforte, sir. Though my playing was never good." His eldest sister's attempts to teach him music had failed miserably. His heavy fingers were far better suited to a sword hilt than a keyboard. He nervously wondered what connection there could be between a shore engagement and his doubtful musical ability. Hornblower was enjoying this far too much.
"If you can read music, that will do splendidly," the commodore replied. "The goodwill of our allies will depend on it."
Swearing and sweating, the men hauled the guns up the cobblestone streets of Trieste. They had no proper field carriages but had to use the small-wheeled naval carriages from the ship. It was hot work despite the sea wind at their backs. When they stopped to rest by a fountain, Bush looked down at the Nonsuch at anchor in the harbor. He thought she was uncommonly handsome. Though a third-rate ship of the line with seventy-four heavy guns, she had the graceful lines of a frigate, and her black and yellow hull gleamed in the fading sunlight. He did not like going ashore and leaving her in this foreign port, though he reminded himself that he had left her in the hands of an able and sensible first lieutenant.
They continued up the street, every step a struggle against gravity and the gun carriages. The neighborhood housewives, wary after years of warfare, shuttered the windows as they passed. Bush could hardly blame them. Napoleon's troops had occupied this city three times in the past fifteen years. The houses were painted in pastel hues, pale blue and rose and salmon, reflecting the hues of the sunset over the bay. Strangely, this place reminded him of the cities of the Baltic, Riga and Copenhagen. Except for the flowering vines that trailed over the walls.
Young Gerard pushed a sweaty curl back from his face. He bore a striking resemblance to his uncle, but Bush tried not to hold that against him. "Pardon me for asking, sir, but what does this Count Razumovsky want the Nonsuch's guns for?" It was not an unreasonable question; it was the sort of question that Hornblower had always asked when he was a junior officer. The war had moved on from this city several weeks ago.
"We will find out from the Count, Mr. Gerard. Get those men moving," Bush replied shortly.
Put your guns and crew at the disposal of Count Razumovsky, their orders had said. The Count requests that you send an artillerist with highly developed musical sensibility who can sight-read musical notation. Bush and Hornblower were equally puzzled by this statement. Bush's guess was that this nobleman was insane. This wouldn't be the first madman that the Admiralty had allied them with. He thought with disgust of the late Don Julian Alvarado. High-ranking diplomats and officials will be at the Count's palace, the orders continued. Avoid any unnecessary show of force, and exercise due caution. Bush could deal with cutthroats, with pirates or mutineers, but the thought of facing diplomats made his blood run cold. He was grateful that Hornblower would be waiting for them when they arrived. That morning, the Count had sent a coach with matching black horses to take Commodore Hornblower to the palace. Bush wished that this Count had sent some horses to help with the guns, but civilians rarely understood the problems involved in transporting artillery.
At the top of the hill, they stopped before a massive structure with a marble façade. Torches burned on each column, and sentries stood at attention by the towering doors. Several coaches waited in a line. Bush saw no sign of Hornblower and had just decided to hail one of the sentries when a balding man in a flowered waistcoat staggered up to them and gave a hasty bow.
"Captain Bush, I presume. I am honored to meet you, sir."
"Hoyle Bennett at your service. I am attached to the staff of the Embassy in Vienna. I trust that your journey was not unduly onerous?"
"No, it was not very onerous at all," Bush replied, wondering what "onerous" meant.
"Good. We will have to bring the guns in through that main entrance, but unfortunately, we must wait until all the guests have alighted." Bennett fanned himself with a handkerchief.
Gerard ordered the men to stand at ease. Bush longed to sit on a gun carriage—the long walk on the uneven cobblestones had left him weary—but he'd be damned before he showed such weakness before the men. He watched as the first coach pulled up to the broad steps. The footmen glittered with gold lace, and the mounted escort wore the dark green of the Russian Army. A tall man stepped out and looked up at the palace with mild interest. Though his ginger hair was thinning about the temples, he moved with a languid grace. He didn't seem to notice that the three eighteen pounders were pointed directly at him. In fact, he didn't seem to notice much of anything, sweeping past his aides and guards without a glance.
"Alexander, Tsar of All the Russias. God save him, God save the Russias." Bennett murmured. He made no attempt to hide the sarcasm in his voice.
The coach rattled away, and the next one took its place. Bush could not identify the colors or cut of the uniforms of the escort, but this part of world was rife with two-bit kingdoms. The coach door opened and two guards stepped out, followed by a broad-shouldered man in a garish uniform. He was strikingly handsome, and his dark hair fell in curls to his shoulders. He wore the high boots of a cavalryman, and his legs were heavily muscled under the buff breeches. He walked with a slight swagger, his cape swirling in his wake.
"And that, Captain, is the infamous Joachim Murat."
"Napoleon's marshal? What is he doing here?"
"He is still King of Naples. He betrayed his master Napoleon in order to keep his throne, though the Allies may yet regret their agreement—he is still a reformer and Jacobin at heart. A most dangerous man." Bennett shook his head.
As if he could hear them talking, the marshal glanced in their direction. His eyes widened at the sight of the guns on their squat wooden carriages. When he saw that Bush was watching him, he raised a hand in friendly salute to a fellow officer. Surprised, Bush returned the gesture from long habit then cursed himself for showing such courtesy to a murderer and tyrant. He had never felt any personal hatred toward the crews and officers of the French ships he fought. They were only Frenchmen, after all, and no doubt they had been misled by the lies of their own government. This marshal, however, was a different matter entirely. A man could be known by the company he kept, and this man was a friend and brother-in-law of the Corsican.
Murat went forward to where the horses stood in their traces, and he lifted their hooves one by one, carefully examining them, with no regard for his elegant uniform. He spoke with the carriage driver and then with his guards, and then the marshal hurried up the steps in a flourish of blue velvet.
The rest of coaches were slowly emptied of their cargo of noblemen. "Ah, that should be the last of them," Mr. Bennett said as the final coach rolled away.
They dragged the cannon up the steps and into the palace.
"Heave, you sons of a gun!" young Gerard shouted, working alongside the men. The sentries watched with bored interest.
"This way, this way." Mr. Bennet beckoned them onward.
The British diplomat led them through halls lit with crystal chandeliers. The foremast of a sloop would have barely brushed the ceilings, and mirrored walls reflected their sweaty, disheveled images. The only sounds were the creak of the gun carriages and the hushed voices of the sailors.
They eased the guns down a short flight of steps and into an open courtyard. Suddenly, they were hit by a gale of sound. Horns, flutes, and violins were blasting and scratching in several different keys, and a lone clarinet was squawking up and down the scale. The musicians, scores of them, sat in chairs or wandered about as they played. In the middle of the crowd, a wild-eyed man stood on a wooden box, waving a cane and shouting like a boatswain. His clothes were rumpled and his neckcloth tied haphazardly as if he had just rolled out of his hammock.
"That is Herr Beethoven," Mr. Bennett told them. "He wants the guns in the percussion section over there, between the muskets and the timpani. Count Razumovsky and the guests will be seated on the other side of the courtyard."
"Percussion section?" Bush could not believe it. Beside him, young Gerard was trying not to laugh. They had just hauled three tons of iron half a mile up a 45 degree incline--for a concert. "Mr. Bennett, why didn't you simply borrow three cannon from the city garrison?"
"Herr Beethoven was very specific about the size of the guns. Something to do with the pitch. He is most particular about such things."
Orders were orders, Bush reminded himself. No matter how strange. They wheeled the cannon to their assigned place, aimed them away from the crowd, and blocked the wheels. There was no need for precise elevation, but they would need to determine the proper charge of powder to use without shot. Some of the guests strolled by and eyed them with open curiosity as they loaded the guns. With great relief, Bush spotted a familiar cocked hat among the powdered wigs and top hats.
"The cannon are loaded and ready, sir." Bush touched his hat. "Powder and wadding only," he added quickly.
"Very good, Captain Bush." Hornblower cleared his throat and tapped his fingers on the gilded hilt of his dress sword. It was no secret to anyone who knew him that the commodore would rather lead a boarding action than have to attend a diplomatic reception. A boarding action at night in heavy seas.