Hornblower and the Widow McCool

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"Hornblower and the Widow McCool"
Author C. S. Forester
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series Horatio Hornblower
Genre(s) Historical fiction
Published in Hornblower and the Crisis
Publisher Michael Joseph, London
Media type Hardcover and paperback
Publication date 1967

"Hornblower and the Widow McCool" is a short story by C. S. Forester, featuring his fictional naval hero, Horatio Hornblower. It was published together with the unfinished novel Hornblower and the Crisis and another short story, "The Last Encounter". It is titled "Hornblower's Temptation" in certain US editions.

The story is set very early in Hornblower's career, in 1799 or 1800, after Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, but before Lieutenant Hornblower.

Plot summary[edit]

Hornblower is junior lieutenant in the ship of the line HMS Renown. The ship has just captured a French vessel, and one of the prisoners is recognised as Irish revolutionary Barry McCool. Admiral William Cornwallis gives Hornblower the distasteful task of arranging McCool's execution for desertion from the Royal Navy.

Cornwallis insists that McCool is to make no final speech before his execution, so that he cannot try to incite mutiny among the Irish sailors in Renown's crew. Hornblower is unwilling to prevent McCool speaking by gagging him. However, in return for a promise by McCool not to speak before he is hanged, Hornblower agrees to send McCool's only possession, a sailor's sea chest with his name "B I McCOOL" in raised letters on the carved lid, to his widow, along with a covering letter. He is prevented from doing so when Renown has to hastily put to sea immediately after McCool is executed.

While at sea, Hornblower discerns a message hidden in an oddly clumsy poem in McCool's letter. By moving the letters of the carved name in a sequence and in a manner revealed by the poem, a secret compartment forming the lid of the chest is revealed. The compartment is stuffed with currency notes and secret correspondence to other Irish rebels, in fact "Everything one would need to start a rebellion", as Hornblower comments to himself. Hornblower first thinks of taking the money in the chest but, revolted at the spectacle of McCool's execution and believing the money to be French counterfeits, decides to spare other Irishmen from the gallows. He arranges to have the chest and letter thrown overboard.

Later he discovers that McCool actually left no widow, and the chest was intended to reach an Irish revolutionary society. As McCool's letter said, he remained "faithful unto death", though to the cause of Irish independence, not a woman.