Angry words had been traded with the American crew, but Sir Edward had expected as much. The two frigates were anchored scarcely fifty feet apart, and the heat of early July was enough to try the coolest temper. And although the United States of America had declared itself a neutral power, the war of revolution was a recent and painful memory for both sides.
To make matters worse, the USS Constellation had sailed into Trieste just as the Indy arrived. Cutting off the larger ship, the Americans had smartly maneuvered their frigate into the most convenient berth. The British had been greatly offended when her captain refused to yield his place. Even in this neutral port, the King's 44-gun frigate took precedence over the 36-gun frigate of an upstart, rebel nation. The Americans had, in their turn, been incensed to learn that the HMS Indefatigable had confined its Amercan-born sailors below deck because the US frigate was only a short swim away.
On shore, the crew of the Indy had to endure a constant stream of insults as they worked on the wharf, loading and unloading cargo, alongside their American counterparts. The crew of the Constellation whistled an endless refrain of "Yankee Doodle," and they called the Royal Navy a band of slavers that kidnapped sailors.
"The Royal Navy is above trading insults with a rabble of whalers and merchantmen," Pellew told his officers after the first fistfight broke out. "I will hear of no more brawling with the Americans, is that understood? We are in a neutral port. The Italians will not appreciate an international incident in their waters."
Two days passed uneventfully, and the ship's water casks were nearly full. Sir Edward was very proud of his crew, both officers and men. There had been not a word of trouble, despite the constant and extreme provocation. To add to his contentment, the weather was blessedly cool for the 4th of July in the Adriatic.
He was enjoying the morning breeze on the quarterdeck when Eccles strode up to him, waving a spyglass.
"Those Americans are up to something, sir. Look at the frigate. They're stringing colored pennants from every line of rigging."
"What the devil do you think they're doing, Eccles?" he asked the first lieutenant.
"I don't know, sir. Could it be a signal? And they're building something on the shore to the north."
"Building something?" Pellew grabbed the spyglass and turned toward the north side of the harbor. He squinted at the spindly wooden framework then gave a wry smile. "Fireworks. They are setting up a fireworks display."
Midshipman Hornblower spoke up from his place at the wheel. "Isn't the Fourth of July their national holiday, sir? I've heard that they celebrate with bonfires and rockets, much like Guy Fawkes Day."
"Hmm," Pellew muttered, still squinting through the spyglass. They were building the frame for a huge set piece, one of the largest that Pellew had ever seen. Giant letters spelled out the words Happy Independence Day and E Pluribus Unum. Pellew snapped the telescope shut. "Well, at least that will keep them occupied."
However, the occasion of their national holiday only made the Americans more obnoxious. "There is to be no trouble with the crew of the Constellation," Pellew repeated, though both he and his men were reaching the limit of their patience. Not only did they have to endure catcalls and insults, but the harbor rang with singing and fiddling as the crew of the American frigate skylarked and drank.
The celebration showed no sign of abating when Eccles came to relieve Hornblower at the end of the dog watch. "A broadside would silence them quick enough," Eccles remarked sourly. "I might as well be on watch. It isn't as if I'll be sleeping with all that infernal racket. Good evening, Hornblower."
"Good evening, sir," Hornblower said as he left. Eccles noticed that the midshipman went forward, instead of going below to eat his supper. Then not more than a minute later, Mr. Kennedy came up the companion and sauntered toward the bow of the frigate. And a few minutes after that, Mr. Bracegirdle appeared and hurried forward. Eccles was wise in the ways of midshipmen and should have been suspicious, but he was dead tired so he thought nothing of it.
The long shadows of the surrounding hills fell across the harbor as the sun set. The Americans sang and shouted like a band of red Indians. The revelry was so loud that Eccles did not hear the stealthy splash of the oars of the Indy's smallest boat.
Slowly, the light faded, until the sea glimmered blackly under the night sky. Eccles felt his heart stop at the sudden flare of a rocket, but then he remembered what Hornblower had said. The Americans were celebrating the Fourth of July. As he watched, a shadowy figure darted along the shore, putting a glowing match to the fireworks that had been thrust into the wet sand. Soon, most of the Indy's crew was on deck, watching colored rockets arc over the sea, At the end of its journey, each rocket exploded in a burst of white light and they heard a cheer from the American sailors.
"I hope that the Fleet doesn't mistake those for a distress call." Sir Edward appeared on the quarterdeck.
"I doubt it, sir. They're firing them too low to see at a distance," Eccles replied.
The rockets were followed by Roman candles and pinwheels. Then the shadowy figure touched the bright match to the base of the huge set piece. With a flash, the giant letters began to burn, glaring in the darkness.
Happy Indee deuce Day, Pellew read, not believing his eyes.
The crew of the Indy cheered, and Eccles was laughing out loud as the words E Pluribus Anum lit up the harbor. In the distant past, Pellew had studied Latin, so he needed no one to translate.
"I'll bet that Latin is Hornblower's handiwork, sir," the first lieutenant said.
"Dammit, stop laughing, Eccles, and go find those miscreant midshipmen. I wish to have a word with them below." In the interests of fairness, Sir Edward would question them all, but he'd already guessed who was guilty.
"Mr. Kennedy," Pellew said coldly, "This endeavor shows the mark of your rapier-sharp wit. Am I correct in this assumption, sir?"
Though he was blushing like a maid, Kennedy had the courage to look him in the eye. "Yes, sir," he said.
"But you did not act alone. This feat of linguistics required the assistance of a classical scholar. Someone well versed in Latin like Mr. Hornblower."
"Yes, sir," Hornblower admitted, looking utterly wretched.
Pellew glared at the assembled midshipmen. "Was anyone else involved in this Gunpowder Plot?"
Bracegirdle and Mallory gave him a strangled, "Aye, sir."
"So you all had a hand in the wanton destruction of property belonging to a neutral power?" Pellew used his sternest voice. Mallory looked ready to fall over dead from fright, and Hornblower's face was as white as a sheet. The four condemned stared at their captain, waiting to hear their doom. "Well, then that is all. Carry on, gentlemen." And with an offhand wave, Pellew dismissed them.
Kennedy and Hornblower slammed into each other as they ran for the door, and the other two were close behind them. Sir Edward laughed quietly. Happy Indee Deuce Day, indeed.