A Life of Duty: Kitty Cobham
by Bev F.
Kitty Cobham could still hear the applause ringing in her ears. How many times had she played
Lydia Languish? And every performance was different. Sometimes her fellow Thespians were
out of sorts. Sometimes the audience was out of sorts. And sometimes, she herself was out of
sorts. But tonight - ah, tonight was truly magical!
She had stepped out onto the stage, prepared to do her best as usual, praying that Sir Anthony
Absolute and Captain Jack had resolved their real-life differences after last night's performance,
brought on by Captain Jack missing a crucial cue, and continued as a veritable shouting match
after the last curtain fell. That the incident had not resulted in a duel was a miracle. Only the fact
that Captain Jack was so in his cups he passed out rather abruptly in the midst of the altercation
saved both men from a much more serious outcome.
She had taken up her spot, and given her usual quick look out into the audience, to gauge its
mood when - could it be - her own Mr. 'Aitch ? Yes, certainly, there he was, a quiet smile on his
face, about four rows back. Why, what an unlooked for pleasure! She had lost touch with her
acquaintances on the Indefatigable - the matter of her impersonation of the Duchess of
Wharfedale still an impediment to any further social intercourse. Of course, she had meant to
follow their further adventures on the high seas in the Naval Gazette but somehow never did. Her
past performance in The Rivals had been the means of unmasking her alias in front of
deVergesse, putting both herself and her young friend in considerable peril. Now she was glad of
the opportunity to show Horatio that even an actress had gifts to give.
And give she did, far beyond anything she could have believed. This truly was the performance
of her life. Her fellow actors were carried along on her brilliance and gave the performance of
their lives too. And the audience, discerning enough to know that they witnessed something very
special indeed, near exploded the walls with the vigor of their appreciation. Only flowers lay on
the stage after the last curtain call; nary a rotten cabbage to be seen. She had saved one only : a
small nosegay of red rosebuds. Its brightness had called to her from among that wealth of floral
beauty, and its fragrance reached to her now, laying in front of her as she sat at her dressing
Certainly, he would not slip away without coming to see her. They had parted as the best of
friends; and even though some time had passed, the fact that he had chosen this play to attend
could not be coincidence. But her tiny dressing room was unmarked; he might have difficulty
finding her. Perhaps he waited at the rear door, where on more than one occasion her admirers
had gathered to heap accolades and gifts on her; though, she ruefully had to admit, not so much
Yes, she would hasten out the back entrance. Surely he was waiting there ...
A knock sounded on her door. Kitty, she admonished herself, do not act the fool. He is a
friend only, and certainly attaches no more importance to the acquaintance than that. But her
breathing was shallow and rapid, and her cheeks glowed pinkly.
"Hello, Ho... ," She stopped herself in time. Horatio was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Archie
Kennedy stood stiffly in the doorway.
"Why, Archie, how good to see you!" Archie must have accompanied Horatio; perhaps had
come ahead to be sure of finding her.. She had not had time to get to know Archie well during
her stay with Don Masserado; he had been dreadfully ill then, and to see him now, she realized
that he had by no means recovered from that illness. "I had not noticed you amongst the
audience, though I did see Horatio - Archie, are you all right?" His face had blanched so quickly,
she feared he might faint right in the doorway. "Please, come in, sit down. " She hastened to take
his arm, and he indeed leaned on her for support, as she led him in, and over to the small settee
where she had laid her cloak .
"You look most unwell, Archie. I have a little port -"
"No, Kitty, nothing, thank you. You - you saw Horatio?" he croaked.
"Yes, several rows back. "
"I - I have seen him too." His voice was so low she could barely make out his words.
"I had supposed you came together. I did so hope he would find his way back here, as you
"Kitty - you do not know?"
"Know what, Archie. Come, you are frightening me. Please, you must tell me what is wrong.
Are you ill, very ill, perhaps - " she could not make herself say the word 'dying'.
"Kitty, you must sit down. " She could see the struggle on his pale face, and with horror, caught
a glimpse of a tear in his eye. Suddenly she felt very cold.
Shakily, she reached behind her for a chair, and lowered herself down. And waited. And
hoped that time would stand still, before the words reached from Archie's mouth to her ears.
"It's Horatio, Kitty. He is - . " Archie stopped. The tears streamed down his face, though he
kept his crying silent.
No. No, it couldn't be. "Archie - Archie, he cannot be - " She could not say it - if she did not
say it it would not be true - but she had only to look at Archie's poor broken face to have her
answer. "Dead?" she whispered. "Dead?" A whisper could not contain the anguish, no, not
anguish - the rage that now filled her soul . "No, no, no! " her voice rose higher and louder with
each resounding 'no'. "No, Archie, no, not dead, not - " All feeling seemed to leave her body,
and she felt herself sliding from the chair, boneless, and would have landed in a heap had not
Archie came to his knees in front of her and held her to him.
"No, Archie, no! " And now the tears came, and her whole body shuddered with her sobs, as
Archie stayed with her, his arms tight around her. How long they remained there, she had no
recollection , but deep down in her being a small thought struggled to surface. She had seen him;
out there among the play-goers, she had seen him! How could Archie play such a dreadful cruel
trick on her - she had not thought him to be like that - or perhaps the situation was even worse,
and he thought to use this trick to end thus, with her helpless in his arms.
She pulled back. "But, Archie, I saw him! You are wrong! You are lying to me! "
"I am not lying, Kitty." He did not sport the look of a blackguard caught out in a dastardly
trick. Only sadness resided on his earnest young face. Only sadness. "We - we have all seen
him, I think. His spirit has not left us. Only his - " He stopped.
"Oh, Archie - how? In battle? " Her fevered mind could understand that much. He would
prefer to be cut down in battle, and not waste away from some disgusting disease - but not so
young, so young!
"Yes, Kitty, in battle, and quickly, he did not suffer, but oh dear God, the prize was not worth
the price! Here, " and reaching inside his jacket, he brought forth a folded piece of paper. She
took it from him, held it gently between her fingers. If I do not read this, she thought, than it will
not be true. Sitting back on her heels, she used the chair behind her to pull herself up.
The paper felt well worn. Carefully she opened it. "The Naval Gazette, " she said, looking up at
Archie, who had also come to his feet and stood close.
"There. I have marked it."
Her eyes followed down the page until she found the small ink mark.
"LATE IN ACTION - word has reached us this morning of a DARING and SUCCESSFUL
raid on a signal tower on the French coast. The tower was completely destroyed, sadly however
not without loss of life. Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, distinguished in service aboard His
Majesty's Ship the Indefatigable, was struck down by a sniper's bullet as he deployed his men on
the coast, and was later recovered by his men and buried at sea. Lt. Hornblower has often been
noted in this Gazette for his dauntless and courageous service to the crown, and it need not be
said that he was an officer of highly promising potential..."
True then. Damnably true. Wordlessly she handed the paper back to Archie. A signal tower. A
bloody signal tower. He had given his life for a bloody signal tower. The prize not worth the price
"May I escort you home, Kitty? I can hire a coach -"
"No, Archie, I have need of the night air and 'tis not far." She turned mechanically and retrieved
her cloak from the back of the settee. Mechanically she handed it to Archie and he helped her on
with it. Mechanically she picked up the nosegay of roses from where she had left it on her
dressing table. And the two of them walked silently out into the street.
How could the world go on as before? The night streets outside the theater were as raucous
and busy as any evening. Did they not know that the world had changed? That a light had gone
out? How dare they laugh, how dare they live their lives here around her, with no notice taken!
She knew that Archie tried to fill the silence between them. She knew his need to talk of his
friend. But she could not bear it. Perhaps in a month, in a year, but not tonight. Time had perhaps
tempered his grief enough that Horatio's name could pass his lips but her grief was yet too raw to
bear hearing it. And when her refusal to answer did not stop his steady monologue, she was
forced to be more precipitate. " No more, Archie, please."
So in silence, they walked the last few yards to her lodgings. Archie offered to stay.
"You should not be alone, Kitty." he said.
"I will be all right, Archie. " She could not tell him he would only remind her of the dreadful
news he had given her.
"I'll attend the theater again tomorrow. And visit after. Perhaps then, Kitty, we can speak
more. " He pressed her hand tightly and walked away from her down the street.
The room held a chill that reached even through her cloak . The fire was ready-laid; a touch of
a match and bright cheery flames started to crackle. Laying the nosegay aside, she doffed her
cloak and cast it carelessly on the floor. She did not light the lamp; the fire gave enough flickering
light, and the light illuminated the rosebuds, just now unfurling.
She picked the nosegay up. No need to raise it to her nose to inhale the heady fragrance. Red
they were, blood-red. Like his blood would have been, spilling over his white shirt. 'Struck down
by a sniper's bullet' . She squeezed her eyes tight shut, but not tight enough to hide that blood-
red, not tight enough to keep her tears contained, as they slowly oozed down her cheeks '...later
recovered by his men and buried at sea...' No place even to leave these flowers, no dignified
stone to tower as tall as he had in his life.
She found the decanter of port and a glass. But the heavy red liquid - blood, again, would
every thing red remind her of blood? - and she could not bring herself to drink.
Why? .Why that dreadful cry in front of his friend? A scene like that from a play might well be
considered overwritten.Why this overwhelming sense of desolation? From a chance encounter
now well in the past And yet anyone might mourn the loss of young promise. Anyone might
mourn the prize not worth the price. But why this physical pain, this anguish to think that never in
this life again would Horatio walk beside her, hands clasped behind his back, that never would
she hear his soft, strong tone of voice, see his face light up by his all too rare smile. Was this
love? Had she fallen in love, somewhere out there on the cliffside, and never known it?
. Damn, she was old enough to be his mother. She'd teased and flirted with him as she teased
and flirted with all men. Of course he was gallant and brave and sweet . And then Captain
Pellew, on their voyage back to England. Singing his praises indeed. She'd not seen Horatio
again since he and his men had returned to prison - a true man of his word he had shown himself
to be. She could see his face even now, turned up to her, just before he climbed down into the
ship's boat, as she had assured him she would always count him as a friend. And she'd thought
of him in passing, in the months since, not expecting that he would ever look for her, were he to
visit London, or were she to visit Portsmouth or one of the other moorings. But - the possibility
was there, always there. After all, even wives and lovers of sailors saw their men seldom.
And now, now that possibility was dashed forever.
Horatio gone. Had she indeed fallen in love? Perhaps she's not allowed herself even the
thoughts of love. Their age difference, their social status - though she knew he came from a poor
family. He needed a young wife with wealth, a wife who would give him children. But oh how she
had enjoyed those walks. A great naval hero he might be, brave, daring, resourceful - the
officers on Indefatigable tripped up their tongues trying to describe their wonder boy. But she
knew him best as a young man who tried to do what was right; who thought of others first, and
himself last. He had been so worried about Archie, so worried that he might not find a way for
them to escape, when all his men looked to him. She knew she had truly gained his trust when he
had admitted that fear to her. More than once she had been on the verge of telling him her secret,
of trusting him also. But fear made her stay her tongue, fear that he would look at her in just the
way he had looked at her, when he learned the truth.
But he had the heart to look past the deception, and accept her for what she was. And trust
her to keep those damned dispatches. In the end, he had saved her life. She could feel the chill
Atlantic water now, as she and Horatio had huddled in the open boat. He kept her close simply
to share what little warmth remained in their bodies, but at that moment, she would not have
traded places with the most favored duchess in the world.
She remembered the way the sun had chosen its time to light up his face, as Captain Pellew,
teasing him to the end, had announced his confirmed promotion. Her heart had lit up with the sun,
on the sight of it. And she remembered the booming of the cannon as the small boat pulled away,
bearing Horatio and his men back to Don Masserado's prison. How proud he must have felt,
when his crew, even Archie, who'd had such a difficult experience there, stayed with him to a
She had no need for Captain Pellew to tell her what a very extraordinary young man he was.
She had no need to learn of fireships and frigates and a cargo of rice. She had known how
extraordinary, perhaps even from Le Reve, where he'd almost won a desperate game against
desperate odds, yet could still chafe uncomfortably as she'd buttoned up his Frog uniform.
And now, all gone. All that promise, all that greatness
All those walks, all those adventures - and they had never shared even a passing kiss. And
now all chance gone forever. So much lost, so much. And all because men chose to play at war,
and kill each other over a miserable piece of land. Horatio had been cursed with a talent for
war. The prize not worth the price. What prize could be worth that price - at least to Kitty
Cobham - and to all the others whose lives he had touched?
Nothing now but to go to bed, and hope that sleep would come swiftly.
"Kitty, Kitty," a voice called her name, quietly but insistently. Her eyelids fluttered open. There
seemed to be a little light in the room, but somehow it seemed neither daylight or candlelight.
"Kitty." The voice spoke again. She pulled herself up in the bed a little, her head heavy with
sleep, and looked in the direction of the voice.
"Why, hello, Mr. 'Aitch. Whatever are you doing in my bedchamber, you naughty boy?" The
strange light seemed to shimmer behind him. Something niggled at the edge of her consciousness,
something she knew she needed to remember.
"I have come to congratulate you, Kitty."
"Your performance this evening. I had thought your reading of the Duchess of Warfedale
masterful, but your Lydia Languish tonight was perfection itself. Did you not see me amongst the
"Yes, and Archie too - Archie came after - " and then all came back to her. All. Dead.
Horatio was dead. Then how ...
"Am I dreaming? "
Horatio smiled. "Perhaps." Strange, the light seemed almost to pass through him. But then this
was a dream. Or if not - no, Hamlet's castle might have a ghost but never Kitty Cobham's
The prize not worth the price. "You died in vain, Horatio, " she said with bitterness. She would
not be kind just because he was dead. " You died and left us all for nothing!"
"Nothing? I am an officer in the King's Navy, Kitty, I died doing my duty. "
"But you left us!" She knew she sounded like a sulky schoolgirl, deprived of her sweets, and
she felt disgusted with herself.Horatio was dead and she could only feel sorry for herself.
"Left you? I have left no one. For as long as you hold me here - " A sweet breath of air
seemed to fan the tendrils of hair on her head , "and here - " and another warmed her skin over
her heart, "Then I have not gone. "
"But, Horatio - " That is not enough, she silently screamed.
"And when next you play Lydia, or Lady MacBeth, though you may not see me out beyond
the footlights, you will know I am there watching. And I know that every time, your performance
will match - nay, exceed, the one you gave tonight. " The light seemed clearer, and Horatio
"No, Horatio, no! " there was so much she wanted, needed to say. But his form was growing
more and more indistinct, and in her anguish, she reached out to him. And though at the last
minute, she could almost imagine she had touched something corporeal, she could see him no
A heavy clip-clop intruded into Kitty's sleep-clouded brain. Horses' hooves, and the crack of a
whip, and voices calling. She felt stiff and uncomfortable; somehow she had fallen asleep partially
upright in her bed. The room was bright with morning light as she finally opened her eyes.
Oh, dear God, no. Now she remembered. Horatio dead. Archie. And the Naval Gazette. And
- such a strange dream. That Horatio had been beside her bed. Had spoken to her. She took a
deep breath, to steady her racing heart, and with the breath, smelled the lovely aroma of roses.
There, on the small table at her bedside, lay the nosegay she had retrieved from the stage last
night, looking as fresh as when she had first inhaled the scent. But she had no recollection of
bringing it into her bedchamber.
And her hand. Her hand was clenched into a fist, so tightly she could feel her fingernails digging
into her palm. Slowly she released each finger, stiffly and painfully and - there, lying aglitter on
the flat of her hand, a gold-colored button, a tiny wisp of thread attached. A button with an
anchor and rope, a button from a naval uniform.
She remembered now. Her frantic clutching at Horatio's apparition, as it faded from sight. It
had been the cuff of his jacket she had clutched , and the remembrance of feeling she had almost
touched him was strong, so strong. With no sense of understanding, she stared down at the
button, and then over to the nosegay.
'You will know I am there watching.' She would hold him in her mind and heart, as his friends
would hold him, and in that way he would live forever. She closed her fingers over the button
again. Some mysteries held no explanation. How this button might have come here, how the
flowers appear on her bedside table, she would never know. But the button would be her
talisman, as the curtain rose tonight and every night thereafter, and later, when Archie came once
again to her dressingroom, she knew that she would be able to share his need to talk about that
very special person who had changed their lives forever. And someday, on her stage, she just
might find another small nosegay of red rosebuds.