The night-porter at the Admiralty had been sleeping in his chair. He was red-eyed and wore his livery coat buttoned at random. He grumbled to himself as he opened the great door.
He carried a glass-screened candle, and held it somewhat above the level of his forehead–which was protuberant and heavily pock-marked. Under the light he peered out at the visitor, who stood tall and stiff, with uniform overcoat buttoned to the chin, between the Ionic pillars of the portico.
“Lieutenant Lapenotiere, of the Pickle schooner–with dispatches.”
“Dispatches?” echoed the night-porter. Out beyond the screen of masonry that shut off the Board of Admiralty’s forecourt from Whitehall, one of the tired post-horses started blowing through its nostrils on this foggy night.
“From Admiral Collingwood–Mediterranean Fleet off Cadiz–sixteen days,” answered the visitor curtly. “Is everyone abed?”
“Admiral Collingwood? Why Admiral Collingwood?” The night-porter fell back a pace, opening the door a trifle wider. “Good God, sir! You don’t say as how–“
“You can fetch down a Secretary or someone, I hope?” said Lieutenant Lapenotiere, quickly stepping past him into the long dim hall. “My dispatches are of the first importance. I have posted up from Falmouth without halt but for relays.”
As the man closed the door, he heard his post-boy of the last relay slap one of the horses encouragingly before heading home to stable. The chaise wheels began to move on the cobbles.
“His Lordship himself will see you, sir. Of that I make no doubt,” twittered the night-porter, fumbling with the bolt. “There was a terrible disturbance, back in July, when Captain Bettesworth arrived–not so late as this, to be sure, but towards midnight–and they waited till morning, to carry up the dispatches with his Lordship’s chocolate. Thankful was I next day not to have been on duty at the time. . . . If you will follow me, sir–“
Lieutenant Lapenotiere had turned instinctively towards a door on the right. It admitted to the Waiting Room, and there were few officers in the service who did not know–and only too well–that Chamber of Hope Deferred.
“No, sir, . . . this way, if you please,” the night-porter corrected him, and opened a door on the left. “The Captains’ Room,” he announced, passing in and steering for the chimney-shelf, on which stood a pair of silver sconces each carrying three wax candles. These he took down, lit and replaced. “Ah, sir! Many’s the time I’ve showed Lord Nelson himself into this room, in the days before Sir Horatio, and even after. And you were sayin’–“
“I said nothing.”
The man moved to the door; but halted there and came back, as though in his own despite.
“I can’t help it, sir. . . . Half a guinea he used to give me, regular. But the last time–and hard to believe ’twas little more than a month ago–he halts on his way out, and says he, searchin’ awkward-like in his breeches’ pocket with his left hand, ‘Ned,’ says he, ‘my old friend’–aye, sir, his old friend he called me–‘Ned,’ says he, pullin’ out a fistful o’ gold, ‘my old friend,’ says he, ‘I’ll compound with you for two guineas, this bein’ the last time you may hold the door open for me, in or out. But you must pick ’em out,’ says he, spreadin’ his blessed fingers with the gold in ’em: ‘for a man can’t count money who’s lost his right flapper.’ Those were his words, sir. ‘Old friend,’ he called me, in that way of his.”
Lieutenant Lapenotiere pointed to his left arm. Around the sleeve a black scarf was knotted.
“Dead, sir,” the night-porter hushed his voice.
“Dead,” echoed Lieutenant Lapenotiere, staring at the Turkey carpet, of which the six candles, gaining strength, barely illumined the pattern. “Dead, at the top of victory; a great victory. Go: fetch somebody down.”