The Serpent in Our Midst
by Kimberly Heggen
Horatio squinted up at the bright sunshine as the shore boat made its way through the waves. Although it had rained early that morning, the clouds had blown away and the afternoon promised to be spectacular. Ahead of him, the great bulk of the Indefatigable swarmed with activity: men were working on her rigging, repainting her trim, and carrying out other painstaking tasks. She was looking much better than when he had left for his leave, ten days ago; the crew had obviously been working hard.
Finally, the boat pulled alongside the Indefatigable, and Horatio was able to scramble up the side. As he pulled himself onto the deck he caught sight of a familiar figure, one who turned to greet him.
"Horatio! What are you doing back so soon? Didn't you get my letter?"
"Good morning, Archie. Yes, I got your letter." Archie Kennedy had sent him a quick note at his father's house, stating that the refitting was taken longer than anticipated and that Captain Pellew would be glad to extend Horatio's leave a few more days if he desired. "But I was ready to come back."
"What, back to bad food, hard work, and my snoring?"
Horatio gave him a sour look. "Back to peace and quiet, of a sort. Archie, in a quiet country town, there can lurk more dangerous things than enemy cannon fire."
Archie looked puzzled. "Such as what?"
"Spinsters, Mr. Kennedy, spinsters. My Aunt Agnes had every eligible young woman in the parish around for tea, and I was expected to attend." Horatio shuddered in mock horror. "A shy, gawky lot for the most part. To be fair, I'm sure I must have appeared to them to be the best of a bad bargain."
"You can't support a wife on a lieutenant's pay." Archie was obviously amused. "Doesn't you aunt know that?"
"When I tried explaining the matter to her, she insisted that only meant that I must marry an heiress, some girl worth several thousand pounds. Why she thought such a girl would want to marry me, she never managed to explain." Horatio shrugged. "So, I came back to escape further pursuit."
"How is your father, then?"
Horatio felt a genuine smile creep onto his face. "He's well. Hale and hearty, and still working as hard as ever. It was good to see him."
A bellow from the quarterdeck cut off Archie's response. "Mr. Hornblower! Report, if you please!"
Archie grinned, and spoke in a low tone. "D'you think the Captain wants to hear about the spinsters?"
Horatio snorted. "I'll see you later, Archie. Father does send his best to you."
"Well, Mr. Hornblower. I take it that your leave was restful?"
Horatio suppressed a smile. "Yes, sir. For the most part. How does the refitting go?"
"Too slowly. We are behind schedule, but I suppose it cannot be helped. I believe we will be able to sail in four or five more days." Captain Pellew turned and looked hard at him. "You could have stayed longer. Did Mr. Kennedy not send you my message?"
"He did, sir, and I was grateful for the offer, but ten days was enough. Under the circumstances, I felt it best to return to my ship."
Horatio felt the Captain's measuring gaze upon him for a moment, saw Pellew nod sagely. "It's difficult to go home again. Once you have been out there, boy, no castle on earth is big enough for you."
"Yes, sir." Horatio cleared his throat. "Does the Captain have any particular duties that he wishes me to take on? I shall, of course, return to the watch list. Tonight, if possible; I am tired of idleness."
Captain Pellew shook his head. "There's little you can do, unless you have suddenly acquired woodworking and sail-making skills in the last fortnight. Mr. Bowles is overseeing most of the repairs." He looked speculatively at Horatio. "This, of course, leaves him no time to instruct the midshipmen in navigation. Perhaps you would like to volunteer to help him with those duties?"
"Instruct the midshipmen, sir?"
"We have acquired three new faces while you were gone; two of them are so green that I expect them to have moss under their fingernails. The third is somewhat more experienced, but singularly lacking in both charm and education. I would be pleased if you could find the time to impart some basic knowledge to them in the days before we sail."
"I would be glad to, sir." Horatio felt a twinge of nervousness at the idea of teaching men not many years his junior, or perhaps even older... but a request from the Captain amounted to an order.
"Excellent. Arrange some class sessions as you see fit, then. And welcome back, Mr. Hornblower."
"Thank you, sir." Horatio allowed himself a grin.
In order to set up some group sessions with the midshipmen, both new and old, Horatio thought he had first better acquaint himself with the new arrivals in order to determine their level of knowledge. He found two of them at their mess that evening, and requested each of them to come to his cabin later with their books and slates.
"Mr. Norris," he said to the older one, a thickset dissipated-looking young man with a pocked face, "I will expect you in the first hour of the second dog-watch. Mr. James," this time, to a fresh-faced cheerful lad who reminded him of Archie as he must have looked as a green midshipman, " I will expect you in the second hour. Nothing to be worried about, gentlemen, just a chance for me to see how far your education has progressed up to this time so that I know best how to help you."
He did not linger in the midshipman's berth, as he had no desire to make them nervous by the continued presence of a superior officer. After he bade them a good evening, he went in search of the third new man, a Mr. Jennings. His fellow midshipmen thought he might be on deck, as he had finished eating quickly and had said something to them about wanting fresh air.
Coming up on deck, he did not immediately spot his target. Once his eyes adjusted to the twilight, however, he saw a hunched and skinny figure, wearing a cocked hat and wrapped in a cloak, leaning against the railing with his back to Horatio. Horatio smiled slightly to himself, and walked over to stand next to the young man.
The younger man started violently and whirled around. "S-sir?" Even in the dim light, a fringe of shockingly red hair showed from under the cocked hat, framed against pale skin and prominent freckles. Blue eyes regarded him nervously.
"At your ease, lad. I am Lieutenant Hornblower, and I have been looking for you."
Horatio momentarily cursed his choice of words as he saw the boy's face blanch even paler, the freckles standing out darkly. Of course, a new junior midshipman would assume the worst if a superior officer had been searching for him. He tried to smile encouragingly.
"Don't look so serious, boy, you can't have been aboard long enough to get into any trouble yet. I just need to ask you a few questions about your education."
Jennings appeared to relax slightly, though his bearing still spoke of wariness. "My education, sir?"
"The Captain wants me to make sure that you and your fellow new midshipmen make good use of your time while we are finishing up the refitting. I'm to run you through a few lessons on navigation and geography. How much do you know of those subjects, Mr. Jennings?"
"M-my geography is... well, it was a good subject for me, sir. But I don't know anything much about navigation yet. Sir."
"My tutor only gave me two years of it, sir... but I did go on and do some on my own."
A few more minutes of questioning gave Horatio the information he needed. Jennings was right; he was lacking in the formal training in trigonometry that Horatio himself had been lucky to have at the boy's age, but he seemed to have a quick mind and no fear of higher mathematics in itself. Some tutoring and reading, and he would come along famously.
"Languages, Mr. Jennings? Any French?"
"Some, sir. Enough to get by. I don't know that I have a very good accent, though." There... the boy had actually smiled ruefully.
"We will work to improve it, then, once your mathematical studies are progressing. My own French will be the better for having someone to speak with, and the Captain will be glad to have someone else aboard who can serve as a translator." Horatio was faintly surprised to find himself pleased at the prospect of having a protege or three -- to instruct. "We will start classes tomorrow. None of you have any real duties until we are under sail, and my own duties will be light until then as well. I have the morning watch tomorrow, so we will meet immediately after that. On deck, if the weather is kind to us again; in the midshipman's berth if not."
"Bring any books you have on the pertinent subject matter. And, Jennings?"
Horatio studied the freckled face. Jennings looked less strained now, almost eager; which made him look even younger. "How are old you?" he asked curiously.
Jennings straightened himself up almost imperceptibly. "Fifteen, sir."
"How are you settling in? Any problems?"
There was the briefest of hesitations before the boy answered. "No problems, sir."
"Sick at all? I thought when I found you up here, instead of at your supper, that you might be a bit ill." Horatio grimaced, remembering all too clearly the violent nausea that had struck him and continued to give him periodic trouble -- on that long-ago first night aboard ship, even in a sheltered harbor.
"No, sir. I'm just not hungry." The eagerness was gone from the boy's face, and his tone was expressionless.
Horatio frowned just slightly, then remembered what effect that would have on this impressionable lad. He replaced the frown with an easy smile. "You will get used to the food. Just in time for it to get worse." He reached up one hand and clapped the boy on the shoulder. "Be on time for class in the morning, Mr. Jennings. I will be expecting great things from you."
"So, how is your class shaping up?" Archie's voice was tinged with obvious amusement as he thrust his head into the tiny cabin, just a few seconds after the second new midshipman had left.
When Horatio had returned from his enforced sojourn in Spain, with his appointment as lieutenant confirmed, he had been allowed to move from his hammock in the midshipmen's berth to this cramped cabin. Though designed for two junior officers, the other cot in the cabin had remained empty at first.
A few weeks after the two young officers return from prison, Captain Pellew had promoted Kennedy to acting lieutenant, and Horatio had asked him to move into the cabin. "To keep you from corrupting the innocent midshipmen," he had joked at the time; but if the truth be told, Horatio had simply become unused to sleeping without the quiet sound of others breathing nearby. First aboard ship, then in prison, he had lived in extremely close quarters, and a little of his reserve and love of solitude had eroded away. He was astonished to discover that he actually preferred to share his cabin, that to be completely alone while sleeping reminded him uncomfortably of the horrifying week in solitary confinement in Spain.
Horatio finished gathering up the books and papers that had been spread out on the little fold-down desk, and tucked them safely into his sea-chest. He sighed, just a little. "They have much to learn. I'll start them on some very elementary concepts tomorrow."
"Mm," grunted Archie. "I'm glad you've been tapped for this, and not me." He pulled off his boots and climbed up into his cot. "The two younger boys seem keen enough no more pathetic a sight than you and I were but I don't like the looks of that fellow Norris."
"He's no scholar, I will grant you that. I think I will be lucky to teach that one anything except how not to gouge out his eye with his sextant. He reminds me somewhat of poor old plodding Hunter, before he came around."
Archie muttered something nearly inaudible, and lay back in his cot to stare up at the ceiling above him..
Horatio grinned. "What was that, Mr. Kennedy? An unprofessional comment?"
"Nothing. Never mind. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get a little rest. I've got the middle watch tonight, and if I'm to stay awake I'd best do some sleeping." He rolled over, away from Horatio, and promptly feigned sleep.
"You, sir, started this conversation," teased Horatio. "But I had best follow your sterling example, as my body is now accustomed to 10 hours of sleep each night, in a feather bed. Any less might tax me unduly."
Jesting, which had never come easily to Horatio, was still something he indulged in rarely. Once in a while, however, some internal imp of mischief would prod him into needling Archie Kennedy. Horatio knew that Archie's own breezy sense of humor would keep him from taking offense, should Horatio's comments overstep the boundary from the gentle teasing that he intended to the sharp cynicism that could sometimes lie beneath his words.
This exchange was typical, for instead of retorting in kind, Archie rolled back into a supine position and sighed. "Feather beds. Teas. Ladies. I still can't believe you came back early."
Horatio finished dealing with his outer clothing, blew out the lamp, and climbed into his own swaying cot. He was quiet for a moment, looking into the darkness, before he answered. "I came back for myself, Archie. I was... adrift, at home, and I missed the ship. I missed the work, the feeling of being able to perform important tasks."
"I suppose I should not be too surprised, then, that you're back," came the soft reply.
Horatio saw no need to answer that comment, and tried instead to compose his mind for sleep. His body began to relax gratefully into the gentle sway of the Indefatigable at anchor, as his ears listened to the creaks and rustles and other tiny sounds of a healthy ship that he had so longed for during his leave.
He was just reaching a foggy state between wakefulness and sleep when he heard Archie's voice.
"Horatio? Are you asleep?"
He rolled over, and glared uselessly into the darkness. "Not yet."
"What I muttered earlier, when you were talking about Norris... maybe I shouldn't say this, but what I was saying..."
"Archie, stop prefacing and get to the point, man."
"There's just something about him, Horatio, that reminds me of Simpson. I... I can't put my finger on it."
Horatio sighed. "He's not that bad, Archie. He's ugly, and possibly a bit of a bully, and not very bright. He hasn't done anything wrong that I am aware of, other than having no clear idea of the difference between latitude and longitude."
"I just think you should watch him, Horatio. Since you'll be spending extra time around him and the two new boys... he just bears watching, that's all."
"I promise, Archie, that I will watch him. And he if starts taking food off my plate or asking me to dance a reel, then I will be the first to let you know. Now, may I be allowed to sleep?"
An abrupt exhalation from Archie, a surprised sort of half-choke, was the only response.
Several more minutes ticked by. Horatio now lay wide awake, and gradually began to curse himself for his tactlessness. During that bleak period back on Justinian, when Jack Simpson had contrived to make both their lives miserable, Horatio had only to deal with Simpson's persecutions for a short time. Long enough for public humiliation; long enough to sustain a severe beating and to be accused of cheating and dishonor; but still a short time compared to the several years Simpson had been able to torment Archie. Horatio suspected that despite the physical scar on his shoulder from his final duel with Simpson that his friend carried far more significant and more poorly healed wounds of the soul.
Finally, Horatio could not keep silent. "Archie?"
No response from the silent cot on the other side of the cabin. Horatio tried again.
"Archie, I must apologize. That was a thoughtless comment on my part. I should not have made light of the way he treated you... treated all of us. Forgive me."
A sigh from Archie. "It's all right, Horatio. I forget sometimes that you don't..." He trailed off.
"That I don't what?"
"Never mind. It's all right." Then, in a stronger voice, with what Horatio knew was a touch of forced humor, "I hope you made more appropriate conversation with the spinsters, Mr. Hornblower."
"No, I'm afraid I was a total failure in that endeavor, Mr. Kennedy."
Horatio put the three new midshipmen through almost four straight hours of work the next morning. He had decided that it would be best to work just with these three for a day or two, as the others who had been serving on the Indefatigable for some time had already had an excellent grounding in basic navigation and the physics of sailing from the redoubtable Mr. Bowles. By the time noon was approaching, both instructor and students were weary.
His initial impressions had been fairly accurate. Young Jennings was proving himself to be a quick and eager learner, scowling intensely at his slate and exuding a determination that seemed almost palpable to Horatio. Mr. James, the other boy, showed less cleverness but conducted himself well and took Horatio's criticism with an easy grace. That confidence and the boy's darkly handsome good looks marked him as probably coming from a family of some means.
As he had promised to Archie, Horatio did watch Mr. Norris closely. The older midshipman Horatio guessed him to be about his own age, and therefore several years older than the two boys showed no particular aptitude for the work, but did make a certain amount of grudging progress. He interacted little with the other two midshipmen, and Horatio did not see any of the nervous glances and obviously frightened deference that had always punctuated any class in those long-ago days with Simpson.
Finally, Horatio drew the session to a close. "That will be all, gentlemen. We will meet again here tomorrow, during the afternoon watch. Be up here immediately after your noon meal." He gave them some simple problems to work on in the meantime, and dismissed them.
The next few days followed a similar pattern. All around him, Horatio heard and saw the comfortable bustle of a fighting ship preparing to go back to the front lines of action. It was a genuine pleasure to walk the deck and see the visible progress, to smell the bright brave new paint, to hear the shouted comments from aloft as new rigging was strung. The crew was blessed with good weather almost the entire time, as the original estimate of four more days crept into a week. Captain Pellew was nearly dancing with impatience, and even the other officers were starting to show signs of restlessness as well, but Horatio found himself relaxing into the rhythm of his new schedule and becoming pleased with his students' progress, varying though it was.
He held his last class on the afternoon before the Indefatigable, at last back in perfect fighting trim, was to depart. No one except the Captain knew specifically where they were headed, though there were rumors of a return to the Mediterranean fleet. It was with both relief and regret that Horatio dismissed his students that final day. Regret, for he had come to enjoy the imparting of knowledge. Relief; because tomorrow would bring a return to his more usual duties, and the promise of future action.
Later that evening, with his own preparation's for the morrow's departure complete, Horatio came to the realization that he had a little time for some study of his own. Teaching the midshipmen had made him aware of how much he had forgotten since studying for his lieutenant's exam; it would not do to lose too much of the knowledge that he had once worked so conscientiously to acquire.
Arriving at his cabin, Horatio smiled momentarily at the memory of that exam, of how every bit of rational thought had fled his mind under the fierce gaze of those three formidable captains. Only the signal rockets of the General Alert had saved him from ignominious failure; just as his courage in the face of the crackling inferno that was the Spanish fire-ship had eventually earned him his commission.
He knelt down next to his sea chest and began rummaging through its contents. Thus occupied with creating rustling and thumping sounds, and placed with his skinny backside neatly blocking the narrow doorway, he was unaware of Archie's approach until he heard the other's peal of laughter.
Horatio withdrew his head and shoulders from the recesses of the sea chest, turned about, and glared. "I suppose you will tell me what is so amusing?"
Still grinning, Kennedy slipped past him and sat on his own sturdy teak sea chest, which, as Horatio knew quite well, contained a fine selection of such items as shirts and neck-cloths but very little in the way of solid reading material. "In that position, digging away for whatever-it-is you're looking for, you look exactly like one of my father's hounds trying to find the bone he buried in the garden. And with about as much luck, I should add."
Horatio sat back on his heels. "Contempt toward a superior officer, Mr. Kennedy," he intoned solemnly, with as straight a face as he could manage. "You could be hanged, you know."
"Ah, there's no witnesses. It's just your word against mine. And who would believe it?"
Horatio snorted and clambered awkwardly to his feet. "Anyone who knows you. Someday, Archie, your tongue is going to get you into trouble with someone who takes these issues seriously." He reached down and dusted off the knees of his trousers. "And then, of course, I can speak eloquently of how I warned you when you were just a callow Acting Lieutenant."
"So... what were you looking for?" Archie appeared nonplused.
"One of my books. I can't think of where it can be; I thought I placed them all back in there just a couple of hours ago." Horatio frowned. "Maybe I left it in the wardroom. I did stop there for a few minutes."
"Ah... well, perhaps I can shed some light on that, Horatio. Was it that old green geography text?"
"The very one. Don't tell me you've been reading it, Archie!" To Horatio's knowledge, his friend had not cracked a book since their return from Spain.
"Not at all. But I loaned it out. To your young friend with the red hair."
"Jennings? I suppose he must be wanting to review his Mediterranean geography before we depart." Horatio sighed. "Which is what I was hoping to do tonight, Archie. Why did you loan out my book without asking me?"
Archie grinned. "I assumed that all of those details were already in your head. You're a walking gazetteer already, Horatio. Besides... the boy said he would return it in an hour or two."
"All right. Perhaps I will let him do his research, then hunt him down and see just how much he remembers. That will refresh my memory just as well." As he started to leave, Horatio caught sight of a heavy oaken bucket standing near Archie's left foot. "What's that bucket doing in here?"
"I brought it here, just now. For you."
Horatio stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"We're heading out through the Channel in the morning. You'll be as sick as a dog, you know that... and I just thought I would be prepared this time."
"Oh, hell." Horatio leaned his head against the door-frame and closed his eyes momentarily. "I had forgotten about that." Even at the mention, his gut roiled slightly.
"Don't see how you could. You get sick every time. Heaven knows, you're a memorable enough sight."
"You don't understand, Archie. Seasickness is mental as well as physical, some people say. If I expect to get sick, I will. So I always try to forget about it, to drive the possibility from my mind, and sometimes that seems to work."
"If you say so, Horatio. But... I think I'll tuck the bucket over here by your cot, just in case." Archie smiled brightly, with all of the assurance of one whose stomach rarely rebelled even at the rolling and pitching commonly experienced in the Channel. "Don't worry. I'll take care of you when... umm, if you get sick."
"That's what I'm afraid of," growled Horatio.
About an hour later, Horatio made his way quietly to the midshipman's berth. Several of the young men were playing cards, and one was snoring in his hammock. There was no sign of Jennings, and he decided to look round for himself rather than ask his whereabouts. He walked through much of the ship without any luck; finally he headed for the cable tier.
This part of the ship had been the site of Styles' old rat-killing pit, where he and the other men of Horatio's division had been wont to gamble on the number of rats that the bound Styles could kill with his teeth in two minutes. Horatio smiled at the memory. It had been his first real confrontation with his men, his first chance to both earn their respect and test his own fitness for command. Looking back now, he remembered his words to the men as sounding rather childish and shrill. He had threatened them with charges, he had threatened to tell the first lieutenant... but whatever he had said, it had worked, and he now had a division that he could and often did trust with his life.
He stepped carefully now, mindful of both the coiled ropes underfoot and the low clearance. Both presented hazards to him in the dim light; he had long been grateful for his thick mop of hair that protected him somewhat from the inevitable knocks his head frequently received aboard ship. He stopped, frowning to himself, at the sound of voices ahead.
"-stole, it you must have, you little bugger. Else why'd you come all the way up here to read it by y'self?"
Horatio could not be positive, because Norris had not spoken much during their class sessions, but it sounded like the older midshipman's voice. He stopped against the wall, and instinctively crouched further into the shadows, straining his ears to hear the words above the endless creaks and groans of the ship.
"I have it with permission, sir." Jennings' voice, unmistakably. "Mr. Kennedy told me that I might borrow it for a few hours."
"You think I'm going to believe that? That's Mr. Hornblower's book, and I know he doesn't know you have it. Hand it over, now, and... and follow orders," Norris' voice dropped, "and I'll keep quiet about this."
Silence, then another outburst. "You little lying, sneaking, thieving, wretch. I could go to the Captain with this right now. He's too soft to have you hanged... but he'll have you flogged for sure."
Horatio felt his temper rise, felt blood pounding in his temples at both the threatening words as well as the implied slur with regards to Captain Pellew. This was more than mere bullying, it was malicious torment... but it was nothing he could go to the Captain about. Norris was technically within his rights to question a junior midshipmen skulking around the cable tier with an expensive book that did not belong to him. He was torn between the desire to wait until Norris could say or do something worse, something that Horatio could use against him, and the desire to rescue young Jennings by stepping in.
He heard a gasp, then sounds of muffled protest. That decided his course.
Stepping out from the shadows, Horatio cleared his throat. "Mr. Norris, would you care to explain what is happening here?" He strode closer, knocking his head a glancing blow against one of the beams overhead. Ignoring the stinging pain in his scalp, he stopped a few paces aware from the pair, with his arms folded and his most impassive expression on his face.
He had the satisfaction of seeing Norris jump away from the boy as if he'd been stung, and of seeing Jennings' face grow slack with relief. "Mr. Hornblower, sir," said the red-haired boy faintly. "Mr. Kennedy gave me permission to borrow your book. I... I thought that it would be all right, if he said so."
Norris leaned back, folding his arms as well. "He's got the book, sir, and when I asked him, he couldn't say why he had it. I assume he's stolen it."
"You should be more careful with your assumptions, Mr. Norris. Mr. Kennedy has already confirmed to me that he loaned my book to Mr. Jennings. It is true that the event occurred without my express permission, but that is a matter between Mr. Kennedy and myself, and none of your affair whatsoever." Horatio managed a forced laugh. "I am sure that you have many things to do before our departure tomorrow morning, Mr. Norris. You will now go and devote yourself to those tasks while I question Mr. Jennings about the geography he has been studying."
"Aye aye, sir." The response was grudging and sullen, but the form at least was correct. Norris turned on his heel and stalked out of the cable tier.
Horatio watched him go, then turned back to Jennings. The boy's face was still pale and his demeanor nervous.
"It's all right, Mr. Jennings. I am fond of my books... but it is not your fault that Acting Lieutenant Kennedy takes occasional liberties with my belongings. You may certainly borrow the book; I would ask only that you return it before we sail tomorrow morning as you will be quite busy for some time after that." He made his voice gentle, but matter-of-fact.
"Yes, sir. I think that I am finished with it for now, sir." He handed the book back to Horatio, who tucked it under one arm. "I... didn't get very far, sir. I am not sure that I will be able to answer any questions about geography to your satisfaction."
Horatio looked hard at the young midshipman for a few moments. "Mr. Jennings... I am well aware that a certain amount of... high-handedness toward one's juniors is customary in the navy. You should now, however, that I do not approve of brutality or persecution. Men who feel the need to be cruel toward those of lesser rank and experience rarely make good officers."
"Mr. Jennings, did he strike you?" Striking or beating a junior midshipman broke no official rules and was generally overlooked, as Horatio had learned once long ago. He knew, however, that he would not countenance such behavior as much as he had any means to prevent it.
"No, sir." Jennings looked down.
Horatio sighed. The answer might be truthful, or it might not. Jennings may simply have already learned that it was safer to stay silent about the cuffs and blows that were seen by many as his inevitable lot. "All right, Mr. Jennings. Go back to the midshipman's berth, and do not speak of this to anyone. Try to stay out of his way, lad."
Jennings gulped. "Yes, sir."
"And stay near the other boys. Safety in numbers. And, Mr. Jennings?"
"If you are being mistreated, I want to know about it." Horatio searched for the right words. "It serves no purpose," he said at last, "if we work hard to train you, only to have you injured by some clod who thinks it his right to beat you for something trivial. Or to have you so frightened that you cannot carry out your duties."
"Yes, sir. I will remember that, sir."
Excitement and nervous anticipation drove Horatio from sleep early the next morning, long before it was strictly necessary for him to be awake. He would not be on watch for several hours, but like almost everyone else aboard he wanted to be on deck for their departure: to watch the sails unfurl and to see the harbor slowly recede. No matter how many times he experienced those moments, he suspected that the feelings would never grow stale.
After rising, washing sketchily, and dressing, he eyed the slumbering form of Kennedy, still snoring in his own cot. Horatio leaned over and gave him a sharp poke in the ribs; Archie's eyelids fluttered open and he sat up abruptly.
"What? What is it?"
Horatio suppressed a grin. "Time to be up and around, Mr. Kennedy. You don't wish to be the only officer asleep this morning, do you? The captain might think we left you ashore."
"All right... I'll be on deck in a few minutes." He rolled back over.
Horatio reached over and grabbed the blankets off of his friend, pulling them off in one swift motion. "Come on, out of there." Now the grin found its way onto his face. "It's your career advancement I'm thinking of, Archie. It's for your own good."
Archie replied with a colorful expression and a probably anatomically impossible suggestion, then sighed and sat up. "What has gotten into you this morning?"
Horatio ignored the question. "If you're not on deck in ten minutes, I shall send someone down to fetch you." With that, he slipped out the door and began to make his way up to the quarterdeck.
By mid-morning, his spirits were no longer so buoyant. Horatio's stomach, coddled by ten days on land and a week at anchor, began to rebel only about an hour into the rough voyage through the Channel. He had eaten no breakfast save some water and a bite or two of dry bread, but it was not long before he was deeply regretting even that small indulgence. By the beginning of his watch at noon, he was hanging grimly onto the rail and vomiting periodically over the side. The surreptitious glances he was receiving from the men were sympathetic and concerned rather than amused, but that was small comfort to him.
He lasted about two more hours, during which time he began to wonder foggily just what his stomach contents would do to the freshly painted trim of the railing. Finally, he straightened back up after one particularly violent episode to find someone standing next to him.
"How are you doing, lad?" It was Mr. Bracegirdle, obvious concern showing in his usually merry eyes.
For once, shaken out of his usual composure by sheer misery, Horatio could only lean against the railing and groan. "Oh, God." He took several deep breaths, trying to drive the nausea away for long enough to speak with his superior officer. "I... am all right, Mr. Bracegirdle. This... this should pass soon. It usually does."
"Get below, Mr. Hornblower. You are as white as your shirt. I will finish your watch."
"Sir," croaked Horatio, "I can't let you do that."
"That is an order. If you wish, you can do an extra few hours later, when you are feeling better." He clapped the younger officer on the shoulder. "Come, now, Mr. Hornblower, there is no shame in being seasick. We have all been in your predicament on occasion."
"I am... aware of that, sir. I would still prefer to finish my watch."
"You cannot." Mr. Bracegirdle looked at him seriously. "You would only be a hazard to the ship. I called to you at least three times before I came over here to speak privately with you. Lad, you were so sick you didn't even hear me."
Horatio's face burned with shame, and he had to look away. "I am sorry, sir."
"None of that, none of that." Mr. Bracegirdle spoke with mock fierceness. "Now, go below and lie down. You are thin enough already; we cannot have you blowing overboard." He patted his own ample girth. "I, on the other hand, have reserves to spare if I should become ill."
Seeing the wisdom of the first lieutenant's argument, and not wanting to draw further attention to himself, Horatio nodded. "Thank you, sir. You are most kind," he said miserably.
He saluted and turned to go, but was stopped by Mr. Bracegirdle's hand on his shoulder once again. "Mr. Hornblower... the Almighty gives us weaknesses in order to keep us humble. You are an excellent officer, and a skilled sailor, but you cannot be perfect at everything. This affliction but makes you human."
Now Horatio managed a sickly grin. "Thank you, sir. I will try to remember that, sir."
Somehow, Horatio managed to stumble down to his own cabin. His already poor temper was not improved by tripping as soon as he entered: the oaken bucket, shaken loose from his place in the corner, had rolled until it was just in front of the doorway. His foot came down on it, and both Horatio and the bucket went flying. He landed hard on his backside, cracking his right elbow painfully on the door frame.
Too weary to swear, too ill even to give vent to the tears of anger forming in his eyes, he merely sat there for several minutes, breathing hard. Then he dragged himself heavily back up to his feet, righted the bucket, and removed his shoes and coat. He collapsed into his cot and lay there in an untidy heap.
The next hours were a blur. He stayed in his cot, occasionally leaning over the edge to vomit when his abused stomach sent him more unmistakable messages. He hoped he was hitting the damned bucket rather than his belongings or Archie's, but could honestly not bring himself to care. Eventually, fatigue overcame the nausea, and he drifted into an uneasy sleep.
He awoke, some undetermined time later, groggy and thirsty. He was toying with the idea of sitting up and perhaps looking for some water, when the door opened. Archie entered, carrying a lantern.
"Whew. Horatio, it smells terrible in here." He scowled, but Horatio saw his friend's facial expression soften as he entered further and shone the lantern at him. "You look positively awful."
"Archie... can you find me some water?" whispered Horatio.
"Of course." Archie set down the lantern, and picked up the slimy bucket, holding it gingerly and wrinkling his nose. "I'll just go and deal with this, and I will return with some water."
Kennedy was as good as his word; he return a few minutes later with the bucket scrubbed out and with a tankard of water. The former he dropped unceremoniously on the floor, making a loud clatter which rang right through Horatio's aching head.
"Not so loud, Archie, please."
Archie handed him the tankard. "Poor Horatio. If I had known it would be this bad, I would not have made sport of you yesterday."
Horatio tried to sit up and drink, but the room spun around him and the water sloshed across his chest. In an instant, he could feel Archie slip an arm around his shoulders and lift him to a semi-sitting position, then he was able to grip the tankard with both hands and raise it to his mouth. The water was cool and fresh, clean-tasting after only a day or two in the barrels, and he drained it greedily.
"More?" he croaked, as Archie lowered the tankard.
His friend shook his head. "Let's see if that stays inside you, first." Archie laid him back down on the pillows and removed his arm. "I'll come back and give you some more in an hour or so. And I'll send one of the men down with a mop to clean up in here. Quietly."
"I think... I think I am feeling better. Just very empty. And sore. And very tired." Horatio closed his eyes, preparing to succumb once again to sleep, then let them flutter open again. "Archie, I'm sorry. You were right."
"About you getting sick? I've noticed," teased Archie.
"No... that too, of course. Something... something else." He trailed off weakly. "Now I can't quite... remember." Sleep was pulling hard at him, and he had no idea what it was he had meant to say.
"You can tell me later." He felt a cool touch on his forehead: Archie's hand brushing back the damp and sticky strands of hair. "Just sleep. I will be back with more water."
"Thank you," whispered Horatio.
Some hours later, he surfaced again from a deep sleep with the realization that someone was in the room. Through half-slitted eyelids, he recognized Styles, mopping busily at the floor. He closed his eyes again and let himself drift off.
When he next awoke, he felt immeasurably better. He could tell that the ship's motion had stabilized to something more regular. Not only had the raging nausea departed, but he was actually ravenously hungry. He sat up and looked around him.
Archie was across the room, pouring a small splash of water into the small washbasin that the two of them shared for their frugal washing and shaving needs. He set down the pitcher and turned around at the slight noise that Horatio had made in the process of sitting up.
"Horatio! Are you better?" Archie's face broke into a pleased smile.
Horatio nodded cautiously. "Much better. I believe I am actually hungry."
"Your timing is excellent, Mr. Hornblower. The captain would like all of the officers to dine with him in his cabin tonight. We weren't sure you would be well enough to attend."
"I can be there. I need to be there. How much time do I have?"
"About half an hour. Go ahead and have a wash and shave; you certainly look as if you need it more than I."
Washed and shaved, and dressed properly again, Horatio felt much more an officer and much less the invalid. He found that he still needed to move carefully to avoid the occasionally burst of dizziness and disorientation, but the dreaded nausea made no reappearance.
"Thank you for your care of me, Archie," he said somewhat self-consciously while putting the final adjustments on his least threadbare uniform coat. "I am sorry to have caused so much trouble. And I must make a point of thanking Mr. Bracegirdle again for finishing my watch for me."
"Best thank him for taking your watch this morning as well, then." Archie's eyes danced. "You've slept the clock 'round, man."
"Oh, no," groaned Horatio, closing his eyes momentarily. To sleep through one's assigned watch... he shuddered, unable to complete the sentence, even to himself. To be sure, Captain Pellew was not the sort to punish an officer for a transgression beyond a man's control, but it could not have looked good when Horatio failed to appear upon the quarterdeck promptly at the beginning of his watch. "Archie, why didn't you wake me? I could have gotten up and at least made my best attempt."
"Couldn't. Mr. Bracegirdle left orders that you were not to be disturbed until you woke up and could eat something." Archie finished taking his turn with the washbasin and tiny mirror. "I turned away three of your men who were concerned about you. And young Mr. Jennings came by twice to talk with you, but I told him he need to wait until you were awake... or else face the wrath of the first lieutenant."
Horatio grimaced. Mr. Bracegirdle had a notoriously long fuse, and the younger officers were wont to take advantage of his usual mildness... but woe betide the junior lieutenant or midshipmen who failed to read the early signals of Mr. Bracegirdle's growing fury. Horatio had made him angry once, soon after being promoted to acting lieutenant, and still cringed at the memory of that disdainful and disapproving gaze. "Did Jennings say why he was looking for me?"
"No. He looked worried, but as far as I can tell that's his normal demeanor."
Horatio finished buttoning his cuffs and tying his neck-cloth. "I should go and find him. Archie... I was so ill I forgot to tell you. I caught Norris roughing Jennings up a bit the other night, up in the cable tier with no one else in earshot. I didn't like the looks of what I saw... and heard."
Archie shook his head. "The poxy bastard! Norris, I mean. But you won't have time to look for the boy now, Horatio. We mustn't be late for dinner with the captain."
Dinner proved to be surprisingly enjoyable. This close to home, the food was still fresh and the selection varied; the captain's steward was an excellent cook as always. An upbeat, almost cheerful atmosphere pervaded the dinner table. Many of those present were men released from several weeks of relative inactivity, happy to be at sea once again.
Horatio endured both some concerned questions and some gentle teasing with regard to his recent indisposition. He tried to respond to the comments in the companionable spirit in which they were offered, but it was still somewhat embarrassing.
He found himself seated across from Mr. Bracegirdle, and as soon as Horatio had an opportunity he leaned closer to address the first lieutenant. "I must thank you again, sir, for being so kind as to allow me to shirk my watches."
"Glad to see you back on your feet again, young man." Mr. Bracegirdle's eyes twinkled. "You can prove your fitness for duty by taking the morning watch tomorrow."
"Thank you, sir." Horatio nodded and turned his attention to the food. Despite his hollow hunger, he ate slowly and carefully, unsure at first of his body's readiness for food. There was real bread, stewed chicken, mutton chops, boiled potatoes, and a suet pudding: plain solid fare, but well-prepared and soothing to an irritated stomach.
After the table was cleared of all but the port and the cheese, Captain Pellew addressed the officers. "As some of you have guessed, gentlemen, we are headed back to rejoin the Mediterranean Fleet at Gibraltar. Despite several decisive engagements last year, there remains enough of the Spanish fleet to be a continuous thorn in our sides. We can expect to be patrolling the Mediterranean as well as making forays along the western coast of Spain.
"While we might wish for a more dashing assignment, we should not lack for action. And we can look forward to a gentler and balmier winter than we might have had, further north." Pellew lifted his glass of port for a sip. "Questions, gentlemen?"
There were a few, none of particular import, and then the company moved on to toasts. By the time the officers were dismissed, Horatio's head was swimming with the scanty sips of wine he had allowed himself. He had almost made good his escape from the captain's cabin, the last to slip through the door, when he heard Pellew calling him back.
"Yes, sir?" He turned round again, his hand on the door-latch.
"Come back in, Mr. Hornblower, and shut the door. I have not had the opportunity to speak with you very much in the last few days." After Horatio had closed the door, he continued. "How did your classes with the new midshipmen proceed?"
Relieved to be discussing a topic other than his seasickness, Horatio brightened. "Rather well, sir, for the most part. We made good use of our time. And, I must admit, I rather enjoyed the experience."
"Excellent. Well, once we arrive at Gibraltar, we may have some rather dull stretches. I would like to see you do some more instructing when the opportunity presents. But I will leave that to you and Mr. Bowles to decide the details."
"Thank you, sir. I should enjoy that."
Pellew nodded, then stepped a bit closer to Horatio. "Mr. Hornblower, I understand from Lieutenant Bracegirdle that you raised opposition to him, to his direct order, when he ordered you to go below due to your indisposition. Is that true?"
"Yes, sir, it is." To be less than utterly honest with Captain Pellew was to court disaster. "I did argue with him, sir."
"I see. Would you care to explain?"
Horatio thought for a moment. "Sir, I have no excuses or explanation. He ordered me below, and I questioned the order." He glanced down. "I did apologize to him, sir."
He was startled to feel a hand on his shoulder, and looked up again by reflex. "This is not a dressing-down, Mr. Hornblower. I am not angry with you, and neither is Mr. Bracegirdle; he and I had already come to the conclusion that the degree of your illness excused a certain amount of your behavior. I merely wish to give you a piece of advice."
Captain Pellew did not appear angry. In fact, Horatio would almost go so far as to say that his captain looked faintly amused. "There are times of great danger, that call for decisive action, when a man must ignore the insistent demands of his weary body and perform his duties in spite of illness or injury. However: the first two days of sailing out from one's own home port, with good weather, a freshly refitted ship, and an experienced and loyal crew, would probably not qualify as one of those times." Pellew removed his hand. "In other words, Mr. Hornblower, you must learn to have a certain amount of perspective in these matters. Save your efforts, young man, for when they are needed."
In spite of himself, Horatio found his mouth quirking into a smile. "Understood, sir."
The next days passed by in a bright haze of activity. Horatio stood an easy watch-in-four, but found no shortage of other tasks to occupy himself. Still somewhat uncomfortably conscious of spending the first two days of the voyage in an incapacitated state, he strove to throw himself wholeheartedly into the working life of the ship.
While the majority of the crew had been on the Indefatigable for long enough to know their jobs well, some twenty of the hands were new replacements for men lost to injury or disease. In addition, much of the sails and rigging had been replaced in the refitting, and this had resulted in slight differences in the handling qualities of the ship. The lieutenants and Mr. Bowles ran the crew through repeated drills and exercises, in order to sharpen adequate skills into flawless performances. The better the crew was able to handle the sails and the guns under these ideal conditions, the better they would perform in a raging gale or in the smoke and confusion of battle.
Horatio participated in as much of the drill as possible, honing his own skills in sailing and gunnery as well as observing the strengths and weakness of the men. During his watches, he found time to verbally test the younger midshipmen on their general knowledge, setting them theoretical but highly realistic-- sailing problems to solve while on their feet... the better to spare them that terrible blankness of thought that he had experienced during his formal exam for lieutenant. He challenged his body, too, forcing aside his usual distaste for high places and climbing in the rigging to increase his agility aloft. He knew that he would never have the monkey-like swiftness that so many of the seamen demonstrated, but he felt that to remain awkward and clumsy on the ropes would only put himself and others at risk for injury.
Evenings, when he was not on watch, found him often with the others gathered in the wardroom while he played cards or backgammon or merely enjoyed the company. For Horatio, companionship was still something of a novelty and a wonder; he was beginning to suspect that much of his childhood solitary nature was due more to a lack of 'kindred spirits' than to a true desire to be alone. Now, to his surprise, he found that he had friends: the men of his division, separated from him by rank but joined by shared victories, shared losses; his fellow officers, men of various ages and experiences that nonetheless welcomed him into their midst; and most prominently, Archie Kennedy.
Often outrageous, sometimes irritating, but nevertheless unspeakably dear to Horatio... Archie had become closer than a brother during their long imprisonment in Spain. Now, back home on the Indefatigable, their friendship had transcended rank and background to flourish. They spent many hours together, talking or laughing, simply being friends.
On other evenings, Horatio continued with his studies. When he could glean no more information from his own books, he borrowed volumes from Mr. Bowles and even from the captain, who had a surprisingly varied collection. He spent a few useful hours with the ship's surgeon, learning what he could about the care of injuries in the field. Depending on the circumstances, a naval officer in temporary command of a small vessel (such as Horatio had already experienced several times) could be called upon to fill many roles: navigator, chaplain, and even surgeon.
In all, these were days of deep contentment, beginning with fresh air and hard work, and ending with drowsy camaraderie. October was drawing to a close, but the ship was sailing steadily south into the regions where daylight was prolonged and nightfall came suddenly. The waning of the year and the effects of drawing near to the equator combined to give a sense of timelessness, reinforced by the vast horizon and the lack of landmarks. With a position of modest authority on a well-run ship, serving under the command of a captain he could admire with every breath in his body, Horatio was as happy as he had ever been.
Only one minor consideration irritated and worried him. Since the evening he had come across Jennings and Norris in the cable tier, he had had no opportunity for private speech with Mr. Jennings. Several times, Horatio went down to the midshipman's berth in hopes of speaking with the boy. On each occasion, Jennings was either not present or was occupied in conversation with others, his eyes darting nervously away from Horatio's questioning glance. Horatio knew he could simply order the young man to report to him privately for a conversation, but he felt strangely reluctance to bother Jennings if nothing was indeed amiss.
He did discuss it one evening with Archie, in a quiet moment before sleep.
"I would like to simply talk with him for a few minutes, make sure that he hasn't been the victim of any more of Norris' persecution. But he's been damnably hard to find, for a boy on a crowded ship."
"Horatio... he's probably just trying to find a little time to himself. Remember how you were when you first came on board Justinian." A soft laugh. "We had to pry your mouth open to get you to talk."
"Yes... but when I do find him, I can't seem to make him meet my eyes. It's almost as if he's afraid of me now. Archie, I've never been cruel to him, or to any of the younger boys; I can't think of why he should react that way." Horatio turned restlessly in his cot. "What about you? What have you seen of him? For that matter, what have you seen of Norris? You once said that he bothered you... that he reminded you of Jack Simpson." He spoke the name with reluctance.
Archie was silent for a few minutes. "He does still bother me. There's something about him that I saw in Simpson, something malevolent. Something lacking in his soul. A man without a conscience."
"And Jennings? Have you seen him about?"
"He's been keeping busy, but I've seen him. More than you, I should say." Archie spoke slowly. "And he doesn't look as if he's been knocked about, exactly... but he does look nervous. Haunted, almost."
Horatio sighed. "If necessary, I will simply have to summon him here to discuss his navigation progress, and then see if I can get him to talk to me. If I don't get anywhere in a day or two more, I'll do that. Perhaps with you here as well."
The following evening Horatio made one more visit to the midshipmen's berth, carefully timed to catch them at their supper. He tapped Mr. Jennings on the shoulder, having come up from behind; the boy jumped, startled.
"Mr. Jennings." Horatio gave the boy his best easy smile. "I wish to discuss your progress with those navigation problems I gave to you yesterday. Be so good as to report to my cabin in one hour."
"Aye aye, sir. Sir, I haven't quite finished them yet, sir." Jennings was curiously pale.
"Then we will review what you have completed. I will see you in one hour."
Horatio was in his cabin, with the door open, when Mr. Jennings appeared with his book and slate. "Ah, good. Mr. Jennings, show me which of the problems you have solved."
Despite the boy's earlier disclaimer, he had actually finished all of the problems, and solved all but one correctly. Horatio took him through that one slowly, showing the younger boy his mistake and making sure that he seemed to understand the solution.
Finally, Horatio cleared his throat and decided that bluntness was going to be his best ally here. "Mr. Jennings. I need to speak to you."
There was that frightened-rabbit look again, follow by the same shifting-away of Jennings' eyes. "About what, sir?"
"About you. I am concerned about you, boy. Have you been having any more problems with Mr. Norris? Or anyone else?"
The young man looked straight ahead. "No problems, sir."
"Nothing? You are sure of it?"
"I am sure, sir."
Horatio studied the boy's face, noting the resolute set of the jaw but also the fear in his eyes. "Mr. Jennings. I am not sure why you seem now to be afraid of me... but be assured, I would never do anything to harm you." He sighed. "You may go now. But consider what I have asked you. If the answer changes, you know where to find me."
The next morning saw a change in weather; heavy fog surrounded the ship when Horatio came on deck. He was not due on watch for another hour but had awakened early, still slightly troubled by his inconclusive conversation with Jennings.
He spotted Archie on the quarterdeck, visibly trying not to yawn. "Good morning, Mr. Kennedy. This is some lovely fog you've got us sailing through. Did you have to look for long to find it?"
Archie grinned in return. "Good morning, Mr. Hornblower. Care to share this last hour of the watch with me?"
Horatio glanced around to see if anyone else was noticing their vaguely silly conversation. "It would be my honor, sir." He came to stand near his friend. "When did the fog start?"
"Probably around midnight, and it's gotten worse the last hour or so. But there's nothing to run into out here."
"Nothing but enemy ships or the occasional uncharted rocks, Archie." Horatio made a show of peering through the mist, then took out his glass and pretended to study the blank wall of fog that lay ahead of the ship. "If you run us aground, you'll be the laughingstock of the fleet, and I shall be laughing the loudest."
Archie drew himself up in mock anger. "Sir, that is an insulting remark. For that I shall have to..." He paused, and whistled. "Look, Horatio, it's your elusive young friend." He pointed discreetly toward the base of the mainmast, where Jennings' unruly red hair showed up as a bright spot of color against the surrounding greyness. "If you want to go and have a chat with him, now's your chance. I'll extend my watch if you need me to."
Horatio shook his head. "It's no use. I talked with him last night, but he was a closed-up as a clam. I could get nothing out of him, yet he definitely seemed afraid of something."
"Perhaps he is," suggested Archie quietly. "Horatio, remember Simpson. Why did you never tell Lieutenant Eccleston the truth about the beating that Simpson gave you?"
"Because I was an idiot," growled Horatio, "full of flash and fire and stubborn pride. I thought that I had to prove something by keeping quiet about the whole episode."
"Hm. Well, you were different even then, my friend. But for the rest of us... we were afraid, afraid of what else Jack would do, afraid of the secrets he knew about us. He played us like an orchestra." Archie looked away. "Your boy there is afraid that if he talks to you, his situation will only worsen."
"I suppose," Horatio replied uncertainly, toying with the idea of trying to confront the boy one more time. His gaze had strayed back to the mainmast. "Where'd he get to?"
Archie pointed. "There, in the rigging. I daresay he's going up to the fighting-top for a bit of peace; in this fog it will be quite isolated up there."
Horatio followed the line of Archie's finger. High up in the rigging, he could see Jennings, lit by the beacon of his fiery hair. The boy was climbing, but jerkily, awkwardly. Horatio frowned, and extended the glass that he still held in his hand. "What's he about? If he's not more careful, he's going to fall."
Through the round window of the lens he caught a much more detailed glimpse, even with the mist. Jennings would climb a step or two in a tearing hurry, then hesitate. And his face... the eyes were swollen with weeping, the expression a mask of terrible despair.
"Hell." Horatio crammed the glass back into his pocket, and set out for the rigging at a run.
"Horatio! What are you doing?" Archie hissed after him.
Horatio ignored his friend's question. He had no breath to answer as he swung himself into the rigging and began to climb as fast as he dared. The ropes were damp and chill from the fog, and his hands began to ache with the cold after only a few feet. He climbed steadily but carefully, mindful of the way his long and bony feet tended to catch in the ropes.
He looked up. Jennings was still visible, but was now more than halfway to the fighting-top and climbing much more swiftly. Horatio swore and clung grimly to the ropes, trying to increase his speed. As he rose higher above the deck, the fog actually helped by obscuring his view of the ship and the surrounding ocean and thus mitigating some of the disorientation he associated with high places.
Again, he tilted his head back and stared up. Now he could no longer see Jennings. Had the boy reached the fighting-top yet? "Mr. Jennings!" he shouted. "Mr. Jennings, you will do yourself an injury. You will come back down at once!"
Was that a glint of red hair, there, above the rail of the fighting-top? Horatio could not be sure. He looked across to starboard; he could see Archie and a couple of the men climbing up the rigging opposite to him. Archie was agile and swift; with any luck he would be up to the top in a few more minutes.
Then a thin voice drifted down to him from above. "Yes, sir. Goodbye, sir."
"No... oh, no. NOOOO!!" Now Horatio could see the boy as he swung first one leg over the rail, then the other... then leaped.
And though Horatio leaned out from the rigging as far as he dared, though he stretched his long right arm blindly out into the fog, his fingers only brushed against Jennings as the boy plummeted toward the unyielding surface of the deck.
When the knock came at his door, Horatio was sitting on his cot with his head on his hands, fighting for control of his again-rebellious stomach as the scene played over and over again in his head. He saw it all, with astonishing clarity: the bleak and devastated look on young Jennings' face as he had made his way up the rigging; the puzzled glances of the other men on deck, and the pitiful little heap of broken person lying so still on the deck. Again and again, he reviewed his own thoughts and actions: his dawning suspicion, his sprint for the rigging, his desperate and ineffectual climbing. He had gotten so close, so close... only a few feet more and he might have caught the boy.
Archie lay on his own cot, staring at the ceiling. He had said nothing since they had both come down here at the end of Horatio's watch, and Horatio could only guess at the emotions and thoughts behind his friend's tight-shuttered face. He was grateful to Archie was staying on deck for those four hours, during which Horatio had had to swallow his shock and grief and go about the business of being an impassive and contained officer.
The knock sounded again, more insistent. Horatio brushed the hair out of his eyes with his hands, and stood. "Come."
It was Mr. James. No longer the handsome and confident young midshipman, this boy; his face was tearstained and his voice gravelly with the effects of weeping. "Mr. Hornblower, sir... we have been going through Harry's personal items, to make them ready to send back to his parents."
Harry. Irrationally, Horatio berated himself with the fact that he had not even known the boy's first name. He cleared his throat, and spoke gently. "That is entirely appropriate. You were his friend, were you not?"
"Mr. James... can you give me any idea of what might have made... Harry so upset that he would be this careless?" No one had yet used the word suicide, and Horatio would be damned if he would be the first. Even with all of the witnesses, the lad's actions were ambiguous enough, what with the obscuring fog, to spare him from that taint.
"No, sir... at least, not with any real certainty." The boy took a deep breath. "But he left this for you, sir." He reached into his coat, and pulled out a sealed letter.
Horatio reached out a hand, slowly, and took the letter. The ounce or so of paper felt like lead in his hand. The wax-blob seal was uppermost; but when he turned the letter over, his own name was clearly inscribed.
"Thank you, Mr. James." He took a deep breath. "Has the Captain decided when the burial will be?"
"I've heard nothing, sir." The midshipman shifted his weight nervously. "With your permission, sir, I should go back and help the others with Harry's things."
"Yes, of course. Thank you for bringing me the letter."
The boy saluted and left. Horatio continued to stare at the letter on his palm. He did not want to read its contents. That Jennings had left him a letter was in itself damning, a sure indication that the boy had run up the rigging with no intention of coming back down safely ever again. He remembered his own first few weeks aboard Justinian, when, plunged into his own youthful despair, he had flirted with self-destruction.
Archie's voice, strangely flat, startled him out of his reverie. "What does it say, Horatio?"
"I... have not yet read it." Swallowing hard, he broke the seal in a shower of brittle wax shards. The letter was three pages of small, crabbed writing, marked here and there by watery smudges. Tears, Horatio realized: the boy had been weeping when he wrote this.
He forced himself to read the letter, slowly. Then he forced himself to read it a second time, his hands shaking and his gut churning as badly as it had when he had been seasick. He closed his eyes for a moment, willing his stomach to calm down. He must not show his reaction to the words that he had just read.
"Horatio?" Archie's query now had a note of concern in it.
Horatio folded the letter as carefully as he could with his trembling fingers and blurring vision. "I must go speak with the Captain immediately."
Captain Pellew's reaction was less restrained.
"Damnation! I'll not have this aboard my ship!" he roared, flinging the letter to land precariously on the table. "The foulest deed a man can do! And to an innocent young boy, at that! A boy entrusted to my care!" He paused for a moment, and when he resumed speaking his voice was more controlled. "Mr. Hornblower... I take you have no reason to doubt the veracity of this letter?"
"No, sir," replied Horatio. "I very much fear that it is entirely truthful." He took a deep breath, knowing that the next few words would be the hardest. "I am afraid that it fits very well with... with something that I overheard the night before our departure."
"What?" Pellew strode closer, until he they were almost nose-to-nose. "Do you mean to tell me, sir, that you had knowledge of this reprehensible activity?" The captain's voice became intense rather than loud.
"No knowledge, sir." Horatio strove to keep his voice steady, though deep inside part of him was howling with his own fury. "And no suspicions whatsoever of... that which Jennings wrote. But I knew that Norris was not above mistreating the younger boys." He looked briefly down at his feet. "That I missed the implications of what I what seeing... sir, I have only my own blindness to offer in excuse."
Pellew sighed. "And now a boy is dead. By his own hand, and dying in despair and shame. God above, Mr. Hornblower, this is unspeakably tragic." The captain looked sharply at him. "I will not allow you to claim more than your fair share of the blame for this, man. You are not the only officer about this ship, despite your undeniable energy."
"No, sir." Horatio swallowed. "I was told, however, that Mr. Jennings came to see me at least twice while I was ill, and that he appeared disturbed. I did not manage to find the time to seek him out immediately, once I was able to perform my duties again. For that, sir, I must consider myself culpable." He saw no reason to mention his more recent attempts to re-establish a rapport with the boy; to his mind, his efforts had been half-hearted and ineffectual and therefore provided no excuse.
"Ah." The captain turned away. "Mr. Hornblower, we have a number of tasks ahead of us. We must lock away this serpent in our midst, before he can do further damage. We must lay the dead to rest. We must prepare to see justice done. We must continue to fulfill the mission of the ship." He paused.
"Yes, sir. I understand, sir."
"Self-recrimination must wait; to indulge in the discussion of failure is an indulgence we cannot afford." Pellew turned back. "Mr. Hornblower, you will be assisting me in the investigation of the crime. See that you take statements from the other midshipmen as a priority, as well as anyone else that may have heard or seen anything to corroborate the boy's claim."
"Yes, sir. Might I make a suggestion, sir?"
Horatio paused, in order to select his words carefully. "From Jennings' account, sir, there should be evidence upon his body... evidence that will soon not be available. I would suggest that the surgeon examine it closely prior to the burial service. If there are... injuries consistent with the boy's claims, they will not have come from the manner of his death."
Pellew nodded. "That is an excellent suggestion. Pass the word for the surgeon when you leave, and have him attend me at his earliest convenience." Again, the captain looked thoughtfully at the younger man.
"Yes, sir. Shall I go and begin speaking with the midshipmen?" Horatio could not summon any enthusiasm for the task, but wanted very much to retreat from Pellew's penetrating gaze.
"Not yet. First, we must pull the serpent's teeth."
"After you leave my cabin, you will take two of the marines and you will carry out the arrest of Mr. Norris. When we reach Gibraltar, he will have his court-martial."
"You wish me to be the one to arrest him, sir?" Horatio felt a certain amount of dismay at the idea. He had put men in irons before, but only when he had been the most senior officer present. To publicly arrest a senior midshipman, here on the Indefatigable, for such repellent charges...
"I believe that is what I just said, Mr. Hornblower. Your interest in this case is significant, and there is a certain amount of justice in sending you." The captain cleared his throat. "See that you read out the charges as you arrest him."
"Yes, sir. But... which charges am I to name?" To his disgust, Horatio felt himself blush hotly. "I am sorry, sir," he said miserably. "But I must know what you wish me to say." It was entirely possible that the captain's intention was for Mr. Norris to be arrested on the lesser charges of fighting and quarreling, or some other...
The captain's voice broke into his thought. "Mr. Norris is to be charged with committing, against a mere boy, the crime of sodomy." The words seemed to crackle in the air, so charged were they with the heat of Pellew's anger. "Go and perform your duty, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio wasted no time in collecting two well-armed marines and in going in search of Mr. Norris. As he walked, his mood changed from the numb shock he had been feeling to a seething fury; a degree of white-hot anger that he had seldom felt before. As the captain had said: a boy was dead, needlessly; and worse, that boy had been so humiliated by being shamefully preyed upon that he had apparently seen no other alternative than suicide. Such a one could not be allowed one more minute of freedom about the ship.
His rapid pace was such that he almost ran down Matthews 'tween-decks.
The grizzled seaman barely stepped out of the way in time to avoid
a collision. "What's happenin', sir?"
Horatio heard him ask.
"Trouble, Matthews," he said without pausing. "Come along if you wish. I might have need of another good man." He could not imagine what one short and unarmed seaman could contribute to the actual arrest proceedings, but a fey mood was now upon him. The captain had clearly wanted the arrest to be public and humiliating for Mr. Norris; Matthews could bloody well come along and bear witness if he wanted to do so. Out of the corner of his eye, Horatio saw Matthews fall in behind the marines.
He found Norris exactly where he had thought he would be: at dinner with the other remaining midshipmen. With the part of his brain that was still cool and rational, Horatio observed that most of them were eating very little and merely toying with their food. They looked appropriately downcast for young men who had only today lost one of their number, under rotten circumstances.
In contrast, Norris' plate was heaped high with food, and he was tucking into it with evident enjoyment until he looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps. Horatio was gratified to see unmistakable fear on the midshipman's face as he stood.
"Is there a problem, sir?" The ingratiating tone could not quite disguise the shake in Norris' voice.
"There certainly is, Norris. For you, anyway." He took a deep breath. "Mr. Ebenezer Norris, midshipman of His Britannic Majesty's frigate Indefatigable, you are under arrest for the violation of the Articles of War: most specifically, Article Twenty-Nine." He moved closer to Norris, close enough to smell the man's fear, and allowed his voice to become pure acid. "In case you are unaware, Mr. Norris, that is the Article dealing with sodomy."
Norris bowed his head, and for a few moments, Horatio was sure that he was going to surrender without any difficulty. Then he saw Norris' right hand snatch the heavy carving knife out of the piece of nameless meat resting on the table. Too late, Horatio cursed his own bravado that had made him stand within reach of a desperate and trapped man.
His next thought, even as the heavy knife was sliding along his ribs and he was desperately throwing himself back against the bulkhead, was that he was glad that he was not wearing his best uniform coat. Then again, the longer, heavier frock coat might have afforded him some protection from the assault. At first, he felt no pain; just an icy heat.
As he fell heavily onto his back, he was aware of a deafening sound: gunfire in the close quarters of the midshipman's berth. The two marines had both fired. Only a foot or so in front of him, Norris was slumping to the ground.
"Sir!" Matthews' shout split the air almost as sharply as the pistols had. In another second, he was at Horatio's side: solid, reassuring, blessedly familiar. He slipped a wiry arm under Horatio's right shoulder, supporting him. "Sir, are ye all right?"
Now he could feel the pain, sharp and searing. Despite it, he managed to pull himself back up to his feet, using Matthews' shoulder as a brace. By clamping his left arm firmly to his injured side, and leaning some of his weight unobtrusively on Matthews, he was able to stand more or less erect. "Thank you, gentlemen," he said, somewhat shakily. He started to ask if Norris was dead, but now that he was standing he could see the two large blossoms of red, red blood on the man's back. There was no motion, no sign of breathing. Horatio turned to the two marines, whose names he could suddenly not remember.
"One of you, please get word of this to the captain. And... find someone to take charge of the body."
"Yes, sir." The taller of the two... Andrews, Horatio remember suddenly. Andrews touched his hat and turned to run swiftly toward the companionway.
Horatio looked at the wooden table. The other midshipmen, those who had been gathered around it when they had arrived to arrest Norris, were pale and motionless, staring at the body. "Gentlemen, I think it would be prudent for you to go up on deck and get a breath of air." He took a deep breath himself, hissing with pain as the motion pulled at the wound and sent fresh blood seeping down his side. "Matthews... if you could help me along to sickbay, I would be most... obliged."
He managed quite a few steps with Matthews' steady help, but the companionway defeated him. He found his knees buckling, and allowed his body to sink down to sit on the deck. As if from far away, he heard Matthews shouting hoarsely for assistance from the midshipmen, shouting for someone to get the surgeon. He felt strong arms forcing him to lean back, and realized that his head was now resting on Matthews' knee. He closed his eyes and felt his body rock with waves of pain.
"Matthews?" he managed in a half-whisper.
"I'm here, sir."
"I think I will lie here for a moment."
"Very good, sir."
Horatio forced himself to stay conscious during the process of being half-carried, half-dragged to the sickbay. The surgeon had arrived to check him while he still lay on the decking, and had clapped a bandage on the oozing wound before going on ahead to sickbay. "It's ugly, but not very deep. Some sutures, and you'll be all right."
Matthews stayed with him the entire time, speaking in low reassuring tones. "All right now, sir, just a little further and we'll be there and you can lay down." The man's concern and dedication touched Horatio.
At last they eased him onto the surgery table, lying on his uninjured right side. Capable hands swiftly divested him of his torn and bloody shirt. He closed his eyes, steeling himself against the pain he knew he would experience when the wound was cleaned and treated. Someone held a small cup to his lips and bade him drink; he tasted the bitter tang of laudanum and almost spat it out by reflex.
"I know it tastes bad, sir, but you should take it." This was Matthews again, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Doctor's like to make ye hurt afore he's finished." Horatio drank the rest of the dose with some reluctance; he feared the pain, but he feared the drug's disorientation almost as much.
He could feel the surgeon probing at the wound, and then he gritted his teeth as someone sluiced cold sea-water over his ribs. "You're lucky, Mr. Hornblower... the knife did not puncture your lung. You'll have a scar, but otherwise I think that you will mend. Now hold as still as you can and I will sew that up."
Horatio tensed, waiting for the bite of the needle; when it came, it was not quite as bad as he had feared. He kept his eyes tightly shut, letting the drowsiness and dizziness of the opiate wash over him. He held fairly still, but he gradually became aware that his body was trembling... whether from pain, or merely an after-reaction to the violent scene in the midshipman's berth, he could not be certain. He felt cold, terribly so, and wished that they could cover him more, but he kept his mouth shut for fear of what pitiful sounds he might make if he opened it.
He felt the supportive hand leave his shoulder, and he wished that it had stayed. Matthews had probably become self-conscious about comforting his officer, even if that officer was young and badly wounded. Then he felt a warm, callused palm grasp his right hand in a reassuring grip. He clung to that hand, relieved that he had not been abandoned.
As the opiate continued to take effect, his shaking gradually eased. Finally, after what seemed enough time for a hundred stitches, he felt the surgeon sponging the wound again. "That should do nicely. I'll put a bandage on that. If you can walk, Mr. Hornblower, you'll be more comfortable in your own cabin."
"I can walk, with some help," he said thickly. He opened his eyes, expecting to see Matthews' seamed and kindly face in front of him. Instead, he was mortified to see Captain Pellew seated on the edge of the hard wooden table, still clasping his hand reassuringly.
"Let me give you a hand up, Mr. Hornblower." Pellew released his hand, and together he and Matthews carefully leveled him into a sitting position. Horatio's head swam a little upon being upright, but he managed not to fall over.
"How... how long have you been here, sir?" Horatio mumbled. He was glad, now, that he had said nothing while his wound was being treated, that he had been able to bear the sutures without crying out.
"Long enough, Mr. Hornblower. When I heard of the incident, and that you had been wounded, I felt it best to come and see your condition for myself." He turned his steady, searching gaze on Horatio, the eyes unreadable. "I am glad to see that you were not badly injured."
"Yes, sir. I mean... no, sir, the wound does not hurt very much." Horatio mentally cursed himself for sounding so fumble-tongued. Undoubtedly the laudanum was responsible for some of it.
"I very much doubt that, Mr. Hornblower." Captain Pellew scrutinized him again for a moment, then turned aside. "Matthews. Mr. Hornblower will require a less damaged shirt from his cabin. Be so good as to fetch it."
"Aye aye, sir." Matthews scurried off.
"Doctor, I wish to speak with Mr. Hornblower alone for a minute, if you think that he is out of immediate danger."
The surgeon's eyebrows shot up, but he stopped putting away instruments and slipped out through the door as well.
Now Captain Pellew turned away, assuming his familiar stance with his hands clasped behind his back. He said nothing for a few moments, then cleared his throat. "Mr. Hornblower, I must ask for forgiveness for having given you this unpleasant assignment."
Astonished, Horatio took a second or two to find his voice. "Indeed, sir, there is nothing to forgive."
Pellew whirled about. "Nothing? I beg to differ, sir. Another scar upon your young body. Another man, a shipmate despite his heinous crime, dying violently before your very eyes. Perhaps you consider this routine?" His voice became deadly quiet. "I assure you, Mr. Hornblower, that I do not take this... this outcome, as lightly as you seem to."
"It was my duty, sir." He swallowed before saying the next words. "The wound is my own fault, sir. I was angry, and I let my anger overcome my caution. I let him get too close to me."
Pellew snorted. "That you certainly did. Next time you arrest someone, boy, I recommend that you place yourself a little more strategically."
Pellew said nothing for a moment, and Horatio began to wish fervently that Matthews or the surgeon would return.
"Mr. Hornblower," the captain said at last, "do you wonder why I sent you to arrest Mr. Norris? When I could have sent the captain of the marines, or even gone myself?"
Horatio shook his head slightly, more as a measure to clear the fog out of his brain than as a negation. "You said, sir, that it was fitting... because I had been something of a friend to Harry Jennings, I suppose."
"I used you, boy. I used you." Pellew sighed. "As a stalking-horse. I knew that you were close to Mr. Jennings, and thought it likely that you would be fairly angry over his death. I also knew that you, a junior lieutenant no older than Mr. Norris himself, might not seem quite enough of an authority figure to keep him from becoming desperate, and striking out at you. I admit, I had hoped that you would be more prudent about the circumstances of the arrest, and I did not foresee that you would let yourself be skewered by a damnable carving-knife!"
Horatio let his gaze drop. "I am sorry, sir."
"You see, Mr. Hornblower? If I had gone personally to arrest him, I think he would have come along without a struggle. But with you... well, suffice it to say that I hoped he would give the marines cause to shoot him."
"You did not wish him to go to trial, sir?" Horatio was having a difficult time following the captain's line of thought. His eyelids drooped, and he wanted nothing more than to lie back down on the hard wooden table and go to sleep.
"Not for his sake.. but for the boy's sake." Pellew came back over and sat down next to Horatio, on the table. "It would have all come out in the court-martial: Norris' foul deeds, and Jennings' suicide. None of this was Mr. Jennings' fault, Mr. Hornblower, but his family would have felt shamed by it. Now, he can be remembered as an innocent boy... who lost his footing in the fog."
"But it's all a lie, sir." Horatio managed. "He killed himself."
"And what would it accomplish, for his family to know that? Better they should be able to mourn him this way... better they should not ever have to learn what happened to him." Pellew looked away. "I should tell you... the surgeon was examining Mr. Jennings' body just before he was called away to attend you. His findings were consistent with the claims the boy made in his letter."
Horatio gulped, but said nothing. Pellew stood again.
"He will make one copy of that report, which I shall keep, along with the boy's letter. Should Norris' heirs attempt any kind of defense on his behalf, it may be necessary to revisit the matter. Unless that should come to pass, I expect you to use discretion with regards to the whole affair."
Unbidden tears burned Horatio's eyes, and he dropped his head to hide them. "Yes, sir. I understand, now." He understood the Captain's argument, even while part of him still cried out for justice, for a hanging. But Norris was dead, and so was poor Harry Jennings, and no amount of vengeance would bring that young freckled face back to life.
He heard footsteps: Matthews coming back with his shirt.. Horatio looked up and blinked his eyes to clear away the tears, finally scrubbing surreptitiously at his face with the back of his hand. "Thank you, Matthews," he said huskily, as the older man slipped the clean shirt carefully onto his arms and around his back. "You would make a good valet," he said with a strained smile, and was rewarded by a pleased look from Matthews.
Pellew cleared his throat. "One more thing, Mr. Hornblower."
"Sir?" He lifted his head wearily as Matthews began to fasten the shirt buttons for him.
"Under normal circumstances, I would let you rest for a few days after such an injury. But if you are able to stand and move tomorrow, I would prefer that you stand your watch as usual."
"Yes, sir," he replied automatically. "I understand." He didn't, really, but that seemed the safest answer. Matthews, facing away from the captain with his attention still on the buttons, frowned.
"I know something of young men, especially stubborn and hard-headed young men like yourself, Mr. Hornblower." Captain Pellew smiled, ever so slightly. "I am quite aware that you, especially, have a penchant for self-blame like that of few officers I have met. Given several days of inactivity, you will torment yourself with guilt over this entire incident. It is far better for you to stay busy, if you possibly can." He touched Horatio on the shoulder, briefly. "Of course, should you not physically be able to perform your duties on the morrow, that is another story altogether."
Horatio managed a faint rueful smile in return. "Yes, sir. You are right, of course."
"And now, off with you. Will you be able to reach your cabin safely with just one man to help you?"
Matthews answered for him. "We'll be all right, Captain. Come on, sir, give me your arm." He slung Horatio's right around his shoulders and pulled him to his feet, with surprising strength. "An' if we have any trouble, there's lot o' willin' hands along the way to help."
Epilogue: One week later...
Horatio sat in the main-mast fighting-top, his arms wrapped around his folded legs and his chin resting on his knees. He had finished his watch about half an hour ago, and a desire for solitude and free wind had overcome his dislike of dizzying heights. In calm weather such as the ship was experiencing today, he felt no real fear as long as he climbed carefully and deliberately; once inside the rail, he could actually enjoy the feeling of being high above the deck.
He had avoided coming up here, or anywhere aloft, since Harry Jennings had made his sickening plunge through the fog. The stiff wound along his ribs, still healing and starting to itch abominably near the sutures, had been partly responsible. He'd had no real reason to go clambering around on the ropes, not with midshipmen around to scurry up and down for him.
Two less midshipmen, now. One sincerely mourned by his friends, who would never know exactly to what depths of despair he had sunk. And another, whose memory would doubtless have haunted poor Jennings' nightmares for the rest of his life, if he had chosen to go on trying to live. Since Jennings' burial ceremony the day after his death, most of the officers and crew had slowly returned to behaving normally. Most knew little about the affair, and preferred to forget what little they knew.
Oh, there were rumors. There'd been enough witnesses to Norris' arrest that most of the ship knew that he was accused of violating Article Twenty-Nine. And there were undoubtedly those amongst the midshipmen who could hazard a guess as to who Norris had chosen as the unwilling victim of his appetites. But only Captain Pellew and the surgeon knew the rest of the story.
And Horatio, of course.
He'd had the devil's own time not telling Archie any of the details. When he'd returned to their cabin that night, Archie had been there waiting for him. Together, he and Matthews had tucked him into his cot and made him drink the second dose of laudanum that the surgeon had sent along for him. Horatio tried to protest that the medicine was intended for use later on, if he awoke in pain, but Matthews sided unexpectedly with Archie and Horatio had no choice but to drink it.
When they were alone, Archie had asked him point-blank what had happened. "Horatio, there are rumors running wild all over the ship. From what I heard, I half expected to find you cut in two."
"It feels like I have been," he had whispered.
"What happened, man? Mr. James brought you that letter. You took it off to the captain before you told me anything that it said. The next thing I hear, there's a commotion, and gunfire, and someone shouting for the surgeon."
"That's a fairly accurate summary," Horatio had answered guardedly. "The captain sent me to arrest Norris. He resisted, and went for me with a carving knife. The marines shot him and killed him."
Archie had nodded. "That matches with what I was hearing, but..."
"Archie, if you had already heard it, why ask me?"
That had apparently been the wrong thing to say. Horatio was a little foggy on the details, but he seemed to remember that Archie started to get angry at that point.
"Because you were there! Because rumors fly like sails in this ship, and few of them are ever accurate! And because I don't think you are telling me everything you know! Horatio, what did that damnable letter say?"
"I can't tell you, Archie. I can't."
"You looked like a ghost when you left here with that letter... or like a man who had just seen something horrible, unspeakable."
The concern in that voice had been genuine. Horatio had known that his friend was not asking these questions out of prurient curiosity, but out of sincere worry. He had known that he could trust Archie's discretion reasonably well. And though his usual inclination was to keep his pain and misery to himself, he had known that he would gain a measure of peace by relating the story to Archie.
Instead, he had turned away. With great effort, effort occasioned not only by the pain in his side but by the ache in his soul, he had managed to flip himself over so that he was staring at the wall. "I am unable to give you any more information, Mr. Kennedy. Please be so good as to let me rest." Stiff, unyielding words: poorly chosen, but all he could come up with at the time.
Silence... then footsteps and an almost-slammed cabin door. Horatio had lain there for a long time, despite the sedative effect of the laudanum. He waited rigidly for Archie to return and ply him again with questions, to shout at him angrily... to notice the hot tears seeping slowly into the worn canvas pillow. Eventually, he had drifted off to a troubled sleep.
Since that evening, he and Archie had been cool and formal with one another. No more harsh words had been exchanged, but neither had alluded to the incident at all. They occupied the same cabin, they ate together with the other officers in the wardroom when neither of them was on duty, but they spoke of nothing except official matters. Once or twice, Horatio had caught Archie looking at him speculatively, as if he might say something significant, but no words ever emerged.
He supposed he had better get used to it. If he were ever to have his own command for more than a few weeks, there would be no close friends, no one to share any problems with. Until now, his friendship with Archie had survived the recent difference in their nominal rank, perhaps because the relationship had begun when they were both still boys. Children, really, thought Horatio, remembering that day he had arrived on Justinian and the enthusiastic young face that had greeted him. But now they were both men, with men's responsibilities, and Horatio told himself he would just have to become accustomed to being alone.
Deep in his reverie, he did not notice the figure clambering over the fighting-top rail until Archie swung down to stand in front of him. He started momentarily.
"Is something wrong? Am I needed on deck?" He wondered if he had been so distracted as to not notice shouts from below.
"No. Nothing is wrong, Horatio. Not down there, anyway." Archie took a deep breath; his face was still and serious. "May I sit down?"
Horatio's heart thudded painfully. "Of course." He realized that Archie would only be up here looking for him, on a calm day with no emergencies in sight, for one reason... to finally talk about what had happened that night, to bring their disagreement out into the open. The end of this discussion would see either a renewal of their friendship, or, far more likely, sound its final death knell.
Archie settled himself on the decking, not quite next to Horatio but not quite facing him either. He kept his gaze dropped as he spoke.
"Horatio... Captain Pellew called me to his cabin to talk to him this morning. He wanted, specifically, to know if you were recovering from your injuries, and whether... whether you were blaming yourself unduly for what had happened." Archie lifted his eyes, finally looked at him. "To my shame, I could not tell him more than the fact that you had resumed your duties and seemed not to be in any serious amount of pain."
"Archie, I'm sorry." The words burst forth from Horatio. "It was not my intention to... wound you the way that I have. I simply "
Archie held up a hand. "Please... let me finish." He swallowed. "Captain Pellew was of course not satisfied by that answer. He tried to get me to clarify what I had said, then came straight out and asked me if you and I had quarreled."
Horatio closed his eyes for a moment. This was very, very bad. To have the captain taking an interest in his personal affairs! They might as well be a pair of squabbling schoolboys, arguing over some imagined slight. "And what did you tell him?" he managed, finally.
"That we hadn't quarreled, not exactly... but that something was wrong with you, and that you would not tell me what it was, and that had led to a difference of opinion. He seemed content enough with that." Archie looked away again. "He then told me... oh, I can't get the words exactly right. He said that I was right, that you did have much on your mind... but that your silence was largely due to his own instructions." He shook his head. "Horatio, why didn't you just tell me that the captain had ordered you not to talk about any of it? Why do you always have to bottle everything up?"
Horatio grinned foolishly, almost giddy with relief in spite of himself. "Because, sometimes I am a stubborn fool."
"I've been a poor friend, these past days. Can you ever forgive me?" Archie held out his hand.
Horatio reached out and clasped the proffered hand. "I am still bound by my instructions from the captain, Archie, so I still cannot tell you what happened. But can you forgive me for being such a prig about it?"
"Of course." Archie squeezed his hand for a few seconds, then released it with evident reluctance. "Horatio... I will respect your promise to the captain. But... there is no harm done, I think, if I tell you what I am beginning to suspect? You don't have to answer."
"That would be safe, I suppose," Horatio answered cautiously.
"It's no secret," Archie said slowly, dropping his gaze again, "that you arrested Norris for a violation of Article Twenty-Nine. It's a pretty short jump in logic, for me, to a young midshipmen throwing himself off the rigging to his death. Especially when that young man left you a letter, a letter that obviously set some wheels in motion."
Horatio nodded, even though Archie was not looking at his face. "Those are all things that happened. I can't dispute that."
"Well, then..." Horatio was startled to see a flush spread across his friend's face, "since you were only sent to arrest ONE man for violating Article Twenty-Nine, I think that implies that... well, it takes two, doesn't it? So the other... party, was either brutalized, or beyond the reach of any of us... or both." Archie trailed off, clearly embarrassed by the topic.
Horatio was not sure, later, exactly what it was that Archie said, or showed in his face, that finally granted him insight. He knew only that somehow, it was as if a last loose puzzle piece had finally fallen into place. He found himself blurting out the question before he stopped to consider whether or not he had any right at all to hear the answer.
"Archie..." he asked, almost in a whisper, and reaching across to take the other's hand in his once more, "What did Jack Simpson do to you? Why were you so very afraid of him, so afraid that he gave you fits?"
Archie's voice shook. "What did the letter say?"
Horatio closed his eyes again, rocked by an almost physical pain. "My God, what did he do to you?"
"I think..." There was a gulping sound from Archie. "I think that there was a good reason that Norris reminded me of Simpson. Such depravity cannot help but leave its mark."
Forcing himself to open his eyes, to look at his friend, Horatio was not really surprised to see tears coursing down Archie's flushed cheeks. "I never knew, Archie. I am so sorry. I never knew." He felt his own eyes burning..
Archie sniffed noisily, and choked on a bitter laugh. "Before God, you must have been the only one amongst the old Justinian midshipmen's berth who didn't know." He wiped ineffectually at his face with his free hand. "Clayton... he tried to help, tried to protect me. He threatened to go to Captain Keane. Simpson beat him within a inch of his life, and told Mr. Eccleston that he'd caught Clayton drunk while on duty. After that, I begged Clayton not to interfere... that I would rather be... tormented, and have a live friend, than be free and have him die. That was when he started to drink so much."
"And then I came," Horatio's voice now shook in its turn. "And I had no idea just how bad it was, and I had to go and make it worse. And Clayton died anyway, saving me."
"Horatio, don't. Don't do that to yourself." Archie moved so that they were sitting side-by-side, and slipped an arm around Horatio's shoulders. "By the time you came aboard, Clayton was broken. He was fast on the road to drinking himself to death. You gave him a chance to make his death count for something, at least in his eyes. I think his only regret was that he didn't kill Simpson."
Horatio shook his head miserably, but made no answer. They sat there for a few minutes in silence, both watching the wheeling gulls, and both doing their best not to notice the other's tears. After a moment of hesitation, Horatio lifted his own arm and wrapped it around Archie's back, pulling him a little closer. His own shy and reserved nature made it awkward for him to touch other people except when absolutely necessary, but even he could tell that perhaps this situation was a little different. Up here, in the blowing winds, there was a little island, isolated from the world of the ship below; for a few minutes, there was no such thing as rank or responsibility or duty, only compassion and friendship.
Archie finally spoke again. "You know, Horatio, you did save me... if only indirectly. If you hadn't issued the challenge, Simpson would not have been wounded, and he might have gone immediately to the Indy with us. Transferring here, without him... it meant so much to me, to suddenly be a young man of promise again, instead of Jack's pretty catamite."
"Archie... before that, how on earth did you survive?"
"Optimism. Sheer boyish optimism, I suppose. I knew that I wouldn't stay on Justinian forever. I hoped that someday I could get up the courage to plead my case with one of the officers. And we all hoped continuously that Jack would pass his exams and be promoted out of there." He shook his head. "Ironic, isn't it? We were all praying for his success, so that we could be free of him."
Horatio did not like the sound of the bitterness he heard in his friend's voice. "Do you think.. well, do you think you will be all right? I mean... in prison, when I showed up, and reminded you of unpleasant events, you started having fits again."
"I haven't had one since. And finally telling you this... I know it will help. I will be all right, Horatio. Will you?" Archie turned to look at him. "Sometimes it is as painful to be the one to hear the burdens, as to be the one to bear them."
This time, Horatio managed a real smile. "I will be all right." He laughed shakily and rubbed at his face. "Do I look.. well, do I look as if I've been..."
"Crying? No, damn you. You look fine. I'm the one who will look foolish when we come down." He grinned. "When I was a little boy, my mother always told me that I should never cry, because with my skin it would show for days. I think she was right. You, on the other hand, can pull it off." He rose and stretched.
"Archie, thank you for coming up here to find me." Horatio held out his hand, and Archie pulled him to his feet. "And for being my friend, in spite of how difficult it must be at times."
"It goes both ways, Horatio, you know that." Archie leaned over the rail. "Race you down?"
Horatio looked at him with mock horror. "Thank you, no, Mr. Kennedy. I will proceed at a dignified pace befitting my rank."
"Which, at the rate you climb, should have you down in a week or so. I'll be sure and send up food for you."
Laughter, sweet and healthy, drifted through the air, to be swallowed up in the breeze.