A Life of Duty - Cleveland
by Sue N.
At the same time, back aboard Indefatigable...
Cleveland stood at the leeward railing and stared fixedly down into the dark, quiet water of Spithead, wanting to see no one, wanting to be seen by no one, submerging himself in the isolation that had been both his prison and his refuge since that horrible night in France. He knew he was considered very much a leper by his shipmates, a pariah, something foul, unclean, unwelcome. But as much as they resented, even hated, him, it was as nothing compared to the loathing he felt for himself.
How could any of them possibly begin to understand how deeply, how desperately, he wished it had been him to take that bullet instead of Horatio? How could any of them know what it was to be haunted by that single, hideous moment night after night, day after day, sleeping or waking, until he longed for death if only to silence the shrieking of his conscience?
How could any of them know what it was to spend every moment of one's life in hell?
He closed his eyes and bowed his head, too racked by grief and torment to hear the steady footsteps behind him. He was learning to live with isolation; he had almost forgotten how it felt to be welcomed, included, by others.
Bracegirdle stopped an arm's length from Cleveland and gazed sadly at him, aching for him. He knew the other midshipmen, the officers, had cast him out, knew in their grief they blamed him for Horatio's death. And he could easily imagine how the shunning must hurt Cleveland, by nature an affable, gregarious sort who not only enjoyed but actually needed the company of others.
God, just how many ways were there in this world to kill a man?
"Mr. Cleveland," he called quietly, wincing when the stout young man very nearly cringed before him. But as Cleveland slowly, reluctantly, turned to face him, Bracegirdle was careful to employ a slight, gentle smile, to appear as amiable, as non-threatening, as he could. And the childlike gratitude in Cleveland's eyes near broke his heart.
Sweet Jesus, when had they been reduced to devouring one of their own?
"Yes, sir?" Cleveland asked softly, trying to stand tall before the first lieutenant. But he had grown so accustomed to shrinking away...
"I was not aware it was customary for midshipmen to stand watch while we are at anchor."
Cleveland swallowed and bowed his head, averting his eyes by habit. "No, sir, I-- I'm not on watch, sir," he murmured, staring fixedly at the deck. "I-- I just needed-- a bit o' fresh air, is all, sir."
Bracegirdle nodded slightly, still smiling. "Yes, of course. Much too fine a night to remain below. Yet I had not expected to find you still aboard. Captain Pellew has given midshipmen and officers leave to go ashore..."
Cleveland stiffened at that, his haggard face growing tight, his eyes clouding. "Yes, sir," he breathed, his voice barely audible, "I know. But..." He looked up, and the eyes that met Bracegirdle's were bottomless pools of pain. "I didn't see no point, sir," he murmured. "There ain't-- nothin' for me in Portsmouth. And no one waitin' for me there."
Bracegirdle sighed, his heart turning over at the aching loneliness in that voice, in those eyes. "I see," he said softly. "And I am sorry. I had hoped... Well," he sighed again, "I do not suppose what I had hoped matters now."
"No, sir," Cleveland said flatly, his gaze again sliding downward, "I don't suppose it does. I don't know that anything matters now, sir."
Bracegirdle winced at that and stepped closer to the young man. "Mr. Cleveland-- John--"
Cleveland looked up sharply at his given name, so kindly spoken, and swallowed hard against a sudden rush of pain, remembering the camaraderie now lost to him.
Bracegirdle stepped closer still, wishing he could lift the burden carried upon those slumping shoulders. "John, I will not say I know how you are suffering. We both know that would be a lie." His voice was quiet, gentle, soothing. "But I will say this -- you need not bear your suffering, your grief, alone. I know," he said quickly, holding up a hand to forestall the young man's words, "you have been-- cut off by others who are also suffering, others who, themselves wounded, now seek to wound you. And while I can understand their behavior, still I am deeply sorry for the harm it does you. But I want you to know you are not completely cut off. I pray you will look upon me as one who wishes you no harm, and who has no desire to see you bear your suffering alone."
Cleveland stared at him in confusion and disbelief. "But, sir, surely you must blame me--"
"I blame only the man who fired the shot that killed Horatio," Bracegirdle said firmly, an undercurrent of ice in his voice. "I blame the war that continues to take the lives of good men for no good purpose that I can see. But I do not, and I will not, blame one young man for living simply because another has died. I rather think we should give thanks that only one man died, and be grateful that all others were returned safely to us."
Cleveland wanted to believe those words, ached to believe them, but could not. Not when the truth was imbedded so deeply in his soul. "I thank you for that, sir," he said softly. "But we all know the wrong man died, and the wrong man returned. Maybe I didn't kill Horatio, but I didn't save him, either. And no one on this ship will ever forgive me for that. Good night, sir."
The bitterness in those quiet words stripped Bracegirdle of his smile and his breath and drove every bit of warmth from him. Before he could even begin to form an answer, Cleveland was gone, leaving him alone to grapple with the hideous wound that had crippled this ship, this crew, as no enemy cannon had ever managed to do.
God in heaven, had they all gone mad?
Styles leaned indolently against the mainmast, his dark, resentful gaze riveted to the quarter-deck where Cleveland and Bracegirdle stood in conversation. As he watched the two, his scarred face twisted into a mask of bitter anger, almost of hatred, and his eyes burned with a searing, savage rage. As Cleveland turned away from Bracegirdle and made his down the ladder, Styles loosed a foul, black oath.
Matthews looked up in alarm from the cable he was coiling, and felt a hard jolt go through him at the sight of his mate's face. Dropping the cable, he scrambled at once to his feet and hastened to Styles' side, not liking the look of him at all. He was an over-heated cannon, waiting to blow...
"Belay that, lad," he warned quietly, gently, reaching out to still Styles' arm. "There ain't no sense in you--"
"Look at 'im!" Styles spat as Cleveland disappeared below. "Walkin' about, free as ye please, while Mr. 'Ornblower's dead--"
"Belay that, I said!" Matthews hissed, glancing about to make sure no one could hear. "'E's done no wrong--"
"'E's alive, ain't 'e?" Styles rasped, turning dark and deadly eyes upon Matthews, his powerful frame taut with a murderous fury. "It's because of 'im that Mr. 'Ornblower's dead--"
"We don't know that--"
"The hell we don't!" Styles barked. "You've 'eard the talk, Matty--"
"Aye, I've 'eard," Matthews agreed softly, soberly. "But talk is all it is. No one can say for certain--"
"They was there! They saw it all--"
"They saw what?" Matthews demanded, his gaze boring into Styles'. "They saw a Frog pick off Mr. 'Ornblower. It weren't Mr. Cleveland's fault--"
"Bloody 'ell!" Styles spat softly, venomously. "It shoulda been 'im got killed, everyone knows it! God knows, 'e ain't no use alive!"
"Stow them words, or they'll get you 'anged!" Matthews hissed through clenched teeth, tightening his hold on Styles' arm. "Cap'n ain't in no mood t' go easy--"
"Because 'e's lost 'is best officer, an' got only useless ones left," Styles said bitterly. "An' you know it as well as I!"
"I don't know any such thing," Matthews protested firmly. "Leftenant Bracegirdle--"
"Will likely be made post soon an' be gone from us," Styles countered harshly. "Leavin' who? Mr. Kennedy? Shit, 'e ain't even taken 'is examination yet, an' ain't likely t' pass if 'e does. An' what good is 'e? You seen 'im lately? 'E ain't 'ere, Matty, some part of 'im is gone, an' likely won't never be back! 'E's like 'e was in Justinian -- sunk so deep into 'imself 'e won't never come back, starin' inta space, afraid t' sleep, brittle as old glass, an' rove so tight 'e's like t' snap at any moment. Hell, it's like 'e's in that little boat again, adrift, with no compass an' no way t' steer."
"'E just needs time," Matthews murmured, seeing again the young man's pale, haggard face, the haunted eyes that were oceans of pain and loss.
"Time," Styles jeered. "'Ow much time? It's always been Mr. 'Ornblower who's pulled 'im back before, Matty, an' you know it. Who's gonna pull 'im back this time, now that Mr. 'Ornblower's dead?"
Matthews sighed, his weather-beaten face sorrowful. "'E'll 'ave t' pull 'imself back," he said softly.
Styles laughed shortly, bitterly. "Right! An' I'll crown meself king, too! 'E's lost, Matty, an' we all know it! An' 'im most of all!"
Matthews glared at his mate, infuriated by his stubbornness, by the anger he refused to let go. "You'll get yer neck in a noose wi' such talk," he warned grimly. "They're officers--"
"They are officers, damn it!" Matthews hissed, trying desperately to keep his voice low. "Mr. 'Ornblower weren't the only officer in this ship--"
"'E might's well 'ave been," Styles growled, his pain seeking the only outlet it knew -- anger. "There was never another like 'im, an' there'll never be another like 'im. All we got now," he spat on the deck, "are lost an' broken boys like Mr. Kennedy, an' fat cowards like Mr. Cleveland!"