St. Elmo's Fire
The muted, wooden tap of his shoes on the planking was perhaps
the most soothing sounds Pellew knew aboard ship. Especially on a
cool, calm night such as this with light winds and fair weather ahead,
the innocent rhythm of his own feet lulled his over-worked brain into
perfect calm. He had spent the last uninterrupted hour luxuriating in
the silence of his cabin and in sifting through more of the large
packet of correspondence delivered with the latest supply ship early
yesterday. Most of it was routine, but some of it was news from home.
The warm comfort of those letters from his wife and children made the
bureaucratic paperwork of His Majesty's Navy seem almost bearable.
He'd indulged in a second small glass of port before taking to the
decks. He loved the sea and his habitual late-night strolls, and the
gentle rocking of the ship made for easy thoughts if not a bit of
wistfulness for things of home.
Something in the dark water off the starboard bow caught his
he walked forward to have a better view undiluted by the deck's
lanterns. Streaking toward them in the watery blackness were three
bright blue lines, lines that swerved at the last possible moment to
turn and run, seemingly effortlessly, ahead of the keel. He knew
these to be porpoises -- or dolphins, he never could tell the
difference -- the sailor's frequent companion on long voyages. But it
was rare to see the animals outlined in blue fire as they were now,
gliding just under the surface, their streamlined shapes clearly
visible in the blackness. Above the hiss of the hull slicing through
the water, he could hear the sharp "pffffffff-ffft" of their breath
cascading a billion blue diamonds into the dim light. He always
marveled at how the creatures never let the ship get close enough to
touch, yet they seemed ready enough to seek out its company, as if it
were some giant plaything there to distract them from the dreariness
of the night.
In the warmest latitudes, the dampness in the air subtly, eventually,
permeates even the finest English wool, and Pellew contentedly made
his way back toward the galley. Curious at the faint, flickering
yellow light coming through the panes of what he knew to be
Hornblower's cabin door, he stepped up to the door and glanced in.
And his heart skipped a beat.
Horatio was sitting on the edge of the bed, head buried in
openly weeping. There were pages of what looked like a letter
scattered on the floor at his feet.
Pellew opened the door without knocking and closed it quietly
him. When Horatio looked up, he shot to his feet, stricken at the
appearance of his captain in such a moment of weakness.
Pellew's heart quavered at the anguish in the huge eyes, now
and red with tears. "My dear boy..."
At the words, Horatio blanched, prompting Pellew to immediately
for him. His embrace, however, instead of being the comfort he'd
intended only released more weeping, and the sound of it nearly broke
his heart. And frightened him a little as well, for whatever could
bring this usually self-possessed young man to such straits must be
"Forgive me, sir..."
Pellew barely heard the words, muffled as they were in his
but their self-deprecating tone conjured up the Muzillac debacle. But
that was another time, another place, and he hadn't been able to offer
comfort to the distraught young officer reporting to him then, much as
he might have wanted to. The exigencies of command were more
important than personal consideration, 'no matter what befell them.'
But this, now, wasn't a command situation, and the one he held not an
officer but someone he looked upon as a son. He tightened his hold.
"What is it?" As soon as the words were out, he
knew with unbidden
insight what the answer must be.
"My father has died."
With an imperceptible nod, Pellew closed his eyes and gently
handful of soft curls in their own mini-embrace.
"I am so very sorry, Horatio..."
He felt Horatio react and then suddenly he had all of the boy's
in his arms when the other's knees buckled. It was but a step to
lower him back into his bunk. He hadn't noticed before this moment
the searing heat of the other's body through the thin, white shirt. A
noise at his feet drew his eye to the pages he inadvertently stepped
on, and he bent to retrieve them. He made no attempt to read the
beautiful script but carefully set the pages on the nightstand and
turned back to the bed. With a father's practiced touch -- although
it had been years since he'd had the opportunity with his own children
-- he felt the other's flushed face, and a hand to his chest revealed
a wildly thudding heart, even in stupor.
He glanced around the tiny, neat cabin, found the water jar
out his own handkerchief, up-ending the jar over it as he turned back
to the bed. He ran the soaked cloth over Horatio's face, throat and
chest, pushed up the sleeves of the shirt and sponged the arms as
well, growing increasingly concerned. This was more than the heat of
intemperate grief. He removed Horatio's shoes and, although it was
warm enough inside the cabin, laid the rough woolen blanket loosely
over him. The boy's cheeks were more shadow than flesh and the eyes
framed in kohl. He clucked his tongue and sighed, laid the newly wet
cloth on Horatio's forehead, then rose and called softly out the door
to a marine who was never more than a few steps away.
"Bring Dr. Hepplewhite to Mr. Hornblower's cabin immediately."
"Aye aye, sir."
He turned back and perched himself on the edge of the bunk.
Horatio opened his eyes, the captain laid what he hoped was a
comforting hand on the other's arm.
"Lie easy, son..."
With dismay, he saw fresh tears slide across the other's eyes
eventually soak into the pillow, but it was the haunted, bruised look
in their depths that brought tears to his own. Horatio saw them and,
if it was possible, flushed even deeper.
"Sir... please don't burden yourself..." His voice
was but a rough
whisper, then his eyes closed again.
Suffering unbearably the loss of his own father, he had more
his captain's discomfort than he did for his own. Pellew thought then
that if he'd never loved the indomitable young spirit lying before
him, this characteristic selflessness just branded Horatio onto his
heart forever. But he'd been a marked man already. When he'd seen
Horatio standing whole and healthy on the deck of the "Caroline" after
the longest three weeks of his life, he'd thought then that God had
been merciful beyond all expectation. But when Horatio, dazed but
unhurt, cleared the gunwale in the aftermath of Muzillac, he owed a
debt to the Almighty he knew he could never repay.
Pellew began to glean an appreciation for what Horatio's father
must've felt when he saw his son go off to sea and an uncertain
future. But he was also granted a look at the father through the
child. The loss of a man great enough to raise so fine a son was
indeed a bitter loss to all. Horatio, of course, wouldn't see this,
refracted as that view would have to be through the prism of his own
noble soul. He simply adored, and had now lost, his father.
A soft knock brought Pellew back, and he gestured for Dr. Hepplewhite
to enter, standing to make room at the bedside. Without preamble, the
doctor examined his feverish patient. Horatio's eyes never opened and
his limbs seemed boneless. "He should be moved to the sick berth
where he can be watched for the next few hours."
"Is it that serious?"
"Perhaps not. But fevers of unknown origin can be debilitating
they've run their course. Mr. Bracegirdle mentioned at dinner that
Mr. Hornblower had been off his feed for the past couple of days."
Irrationally angry, Pellew's eyes flashed. "Good God,
man, one of our
finest officers ill -- and now weak for want of food?! Didn't you
think to inquire?"
Hepplewhite hadn't served with Pellew all as long as he had
learning when not to speak and when he'd better speak up. "I did,
sir. He was eating, just not very much. I didn't think it was a
cause for concern. Sometimes a change in weather will alter a man's
eating habits." He eyed Pellew closely. "There is something else
Pellew gestured apologetically for his outburst. "He
tragic news from home."
Hepplewhite nodded knowingly. "I'll arrange to have him
moved to the
"No... Leave him here where he's comfortable and... has
I'll stay with him for the remainder of the night. Please have Mr.
Bracegirdle report to me at the end of his next watch."
Hepplewhite's eyebrows raised at this wholly unprecedented
"Very well, sir. I'll prepare a potion that will help with the
Hepplewhite turned at the door.
The doctor looked very pleased with himself, so Pellew added:
Hornblower and I appreciate your discretion."
"Of course, sir."
Hepplewhite closed the door, and Pellew removed his uniform
hung it on a hook in one wall. He turned back toward the bed,
unbuttoning his sleeves and tucking up the frilled cuffs. He reached
for the cloth on Horatio's forehead, appalled at its heat. It was
still wet enough, so he gently waved it in the air to cool it down,
refolded it and laid it back again.
There was no chair in this closet, so Pellew sat on the edge
Horatio's cot near its foot and leaned against the wall, folding his
arms. When *had* this slip of a boy become so dear? He'd asked
himself that several times over the six years Horatio had been under
his command, but as given to introspection as Pellew was, he hadn't
really pinned it down. He remembered well their first meeting, in his
cabin shortly after Horatio's transfer to the "Indy," the lad full of
righteous indignation over Simpson and fiercely protective of his
former captain, Keane. Who'd had the privilege of knowing Horatio's
father, Pellew recalled with a little envy and a certain sense of
helplessness. But that was years ago and Keane had long since passed.
Keane's personal letter to Pellew commending Midshipman Hornblower to
his new captain was somewhat at odds with the boy's service record up
to that point -- brawling, time in the rigging, challenging a
"superior" officer to a duel... But Pellew's personal code of ethics
in withholding judgement of a man until his actions bore him out was
well ingrained, and in that first meeting, he could already sense
there was a solid quality to the boy, impudent if he had been at the
outset. Pellew was also a shrewd, instinctual judge of character, and
he knew the impudence stemmed from an innate sense of fair play, not
Recalling with perhaps the tiniest twinge of conscience, Pellew
been the most impressed with the boy's unflinching courage in the face
of his new captain's wrath. Pellew was fully aware of the awe in
which he was held by those who served under him, and he took advantage
of that fact whenever necessary. But there wasn't one man out of a
hundred who would've stood as uncowed and clear-eyed in Pellew's
presence during that initial dressing down, so disciplined was Horatio
already and so respectful of rank. That alone was worth its weight in
gold in a service that depended upon forced labor to fill its decks
and man its sails.
Even that wasn't the moment. No, it was the moment in which
turned over the "undisciplined rabble" of Simpson's division to him.
The look in those unguarded, innocent eyes, registering surprise,
confusion, a lingering pain at Pellew's blaming him for Clayton's
death, and even a little fear at the prospect of being responsible for
his own men for the first time, and Pellew knew something rare and
precious had been given to him for safekeeping. The "solitary boy"
Dr. Hornblower's letter had described to Keane was already well on his
way to hoisting the loneliness of command onto his young shoulders.
And so far he had worn it well. Very well indeed.
A soft knock at the door and Hepplewhite re-entered, carrying two tiny
bottles and his medical bag. He set the bag and bottles on the
nightstand, opened the bag and brought forth towels, a small bowl,
and, to Pellew's disgust, a jar of leeches. He hated the slimy things
and could not understand how reducing the amount of blood in a
person's already tormented body could possibly be of benefit.
"Sir, if I could impose upon you to administer half a
bottle of this
potion while I prepare to bleed Mr. Hornblower...?"
"Of course." Indicating the jar of leeches: "Is
Hepplewhite looked at him, unsure whether he should proceed.
order me not to, I will not. It is common practice, though, and I
know not what else to do."
"No, no, of course you're right."
Pellew stood up and, lifting one of Horatio's arms out of the
he could again sit on the edge of the cot, kept his hand on the arm,
shaking it gently.
The dark eyes opened only a little, but Pellew knew he was
Almost immediately, tears formed in the boy's eyes, and Horatio
closed them again, shutting out a world that for the moment was a
reminder of more than he could bear.
"Come, lad, let me help you take this..."
Pellew slipped a hand under Horatio's neck and held the small
to his mouth. Without opening his eyes, Horatio swallowed the
draught, grimacing at its unpleasant taste.
"Sir, if you'll sit him up a little more, we need to remove
It was amazing how damnably difficult an otherwise simple task
such a confined space, but they managed. Before lowering Horatio back
to the bed, Pellew dexterously flipped the hot pillow and laid his
head back into its welcoming coolness, replacing the cloth on his
forehead that had fallen when they pulled the shirt over his head.
"Mr. Hornblower, I'm going to bleed you now, so try not
Pellew looked skeptically at Hepplewhite. "It's important that he not
try to pull them off."
After tucking towels underneath to catch the inevitable thin
of blood, it took several minutes to attach the shiny black monsters
to Horatio's chest and upper arms. Pellew had seen this done many
times, of course, but it looked particularly barbaric on such
unblemished skin. Or nearly unblemished. He'd never seen the scar
the ball from Simpson's pistol had left in Horatio's left shoulder,
and the size of it surprised him. It hadn't bled that much on the
beach, but it had torn tendon and muscle and had taken weeks to
properly heal. He knew he'd been right to stand Horatio down from
watch that day he tried to return to duty too early (see "Bitter
Brew"), but seeing this white and twisted reminder in the flesh gave
him no vindication. Suddenly, one of Horatio's hands moved toward the
irritants on his chest. Pellew caught it and, placing it on top of
Horatio's other hand resting at his waist, Pellew held both within his
"It's all right, Mr. Hornblower, let them do their job
and soon you'll
be well out of this..."
A short while later, Hepplewhite removed the grisly beasts,
his patient, and exhorted Pellew to get Horatio to drink as much water
as possible and to finish dosing him with the medicine he'd prepared.
He then withdrew to get what sleep there was left in the night.
Much later, Pellew finished giving Horatio another drink, bathed
with cool water for the hundredth time, and was reaching to pinch out
the candle on the nightstand when he saw the letter. He'd quite
forgotten about it, and its top page now had a few tiny spots of blood
and warped stains where water had carelessly dripped. He touched a
cloth in water and tried to sponge away the bloodstains, not wishing
Horatio any more reminders of this night than he would already carry.
He couldn't help but read the words on the page upon which he worked.
He had assumed, from the perfect penmanship, the letter had been
written by Horatio's aunt or other relative or family friend, but it
was with a wrench he realized this was a father's last communiqué to
his son. "My dear boy, By the time you receive this..." No wonder
Horatio had reacted the way he had to Pellew's first words the night
Pellew nearly jumped at the whisper from the bed. "My
apologies, Mr. Hornblower. I did not intend to pry." He laid the
page down and bent over Horatio, touching his face. Was it his
imagination or was the skin cooler? "How are you feeling?"
"That is to be expected. You've been very ill. Here,
sip of water."
Pellew again got him to drink and was very pleased that the
taken was higher and the swallow stronger than before. The delight
one could take in the smallest of details... He cleared his throat.
"Mr. Hornblower, please believe me when I say I did not
mean to pry.
I'm afraid Dr. Hepplewhite and I were rather careless of your letter,
and one of the pages was slightly damaged. I was endeavoring to make
"It's all right, sir..." His eyes never left Pellew
as if wrestling
Pellew tilted his head and lifted an eyebrow encouragingly. "Yes?"
"Read it to me, sir?"
Pellew was taken aback at the unexpected request. "I
had..." Pellew knew he had to have read at least some of it.
"Only my aunt's letter. I tried to read... his... but I..."
"I understand, but -- I do wonder if that is such a good
now. Perhaps you should get a little more rest, and later, when
you're feeling a bit stronger, I would be honored, sir."
Horatio, his great eyes still riveted on Pellew, gave perhaps
saddest little smile the older man had ever seen in his life. Then
the eyes closed, releasing Pellew from the breath he'd been
unconsciously holding, and the boy turned over to sleep.
God, he suddenly felt old and tired... and so very, very sad...
* * *
After leaving Horatio in the care of Mr. Bracegirdle, who reported
ordered and with Dr. Hepplewhite in tow, Pellew had retired to his own
cabin for some much-needed rest. But it was short-lived. After dawn
broke, a dispatch ship pulled alongside with new orders from the
Admiralty, and Pellew was obliged to send an immediate acknowledgement
and then had to start the necessary paperwork for fulfillment of those
new orders and transfers. However, there was one set of transfer
papers he couldn't bring himself to write just yet.
He had looked in on Horatio throughout the day, and each time
was sleeping soundly, which Hepplewhite hastened to assure Pellew was
normal. At least he no longer needed constant nursing, and
Hepplewhite later reported that Horatio had sat up and start taking
Pellew was grateful now for the cool dark of the night as he
quarterdeck. His preference was to wander throughout the decks and
even occasionally climb the ratlines to better hear the music of the
wind in the rigging. But unlike the previous night when his tour had
started out peacefully enough, tonight was fraught with change.
For there was nothing more changeable than the weather unless
the minds in Whitehall. Although Pellew knew such change was
inevitable in the service and in fact usually most welcome, the timing
couldn't have been worse for at least one young officer aboard his
ship. How to put the best face on it was his sole concern now. That
and then looking to his own future which suddenly had innumerable
variations, none of which were particularly desirable.
Pellew was not an ambitious man in the traditional sense, but
frigate captains, his livelihood depended on the capture of prize
ships which immediately translated into income and a certain notoriety
which could then be parlayed into better ships, choice of crews and
sometimes even choice of posts. Now he was given none of these
options, even though he had been promoted to the rank of Commodore.
But it was a post that might have a political future, in which he had
no interest, and which would also take him away from his beloved sea.
Pellew sighed. It was still some weeks off, but as inexorably
sands drained out of the hourglass, he knew the time would pass too
quickly. Hornblower's re-assignment to the "Renown" was the only real
choice Pellew had, and he wasn't happy about it. Oh, Sawyer had a
solid enough reputation, and it would mean the reunion of Horatio and
Kennedy would be a happy one for them, but Pellew had hoped to give
young Kennedy a little more time and opportunity to prove something to
himself and to gain some of the independence so necessary to command.
Pellew had had his reservations about the affable young man before
Muzillac, but Major Edrington's report to Pellew clinched his decision
to transfer Kennedy to the "Renown" and out from under Horatio's
protective influence to see what kind of officer material the young
man really possessed. Not that Pellew doubted Horatio's instincts,
but the boy had a kind heart and may not have been as objective when
evaluating a close friend's field abilities under fire. The fact that
Horatio had attempted to justify some of the decisions Kennedy made,
such as the precipitous firing of cannon against an unseen enemy using
only muskets, made Pellew sure he had done the right thing in sending
Kennedy ahead on his own. He had been careful to make the transfer a
promotion as well -- Kennedy was now a fourth, not just an acting,
lieutenant -- and the lad had deserved it. Whether he could rise to
higher rank would be solely up to him.
With Pellew being allowed no choice of crew to take with him
indeed he wouldn't have deprived Horatio of the opportunity to partake
in future prize money even if it were within Pellew's authority to
keep him on his own staff -- at least Horatio would have one officer's
acquaintance on his new ship. Pellew would send his division with him
as well. Horatio had done a good job of bringing them along over the
years, and they would no doubt appreciate being kept under his
Of all the cursed timing, though, to have to break such news
Horatio when he was barely strong enough to put food in his mouth,
much less contemplate the future, now empty of his father and,
shortly, his ship. Better he hear it sooner than later and from
Pellew instead of through the idle gossip of the crew. With a deep
sigh, Pellew descended the quarterdeck ladder and made his way to
As he neared the door, he felt a pang of déjà
vu at the sight of the
flickering yellow light coming through the door. When he looked
through the glass, he couldn't tell in the dim light if Horatio slept,
so he softly rapped on the door. Although nothing on the bed moved,
he could see the candlelight flash off of two eyes that turned in his
direction. Horatio hadn't been asleep. Pellew wasn't sure whether he
was relieved or dismayed, and pushed open the door.
"Mr. Hornblower, I trust I didn't wake you?"
"Are you feeling better?"
Horatio pushed himself to sit up. "Yes, sir, thank you."
He took a
deep breath. "And thank you for all you did for me last night."
"Not at all, sir, not at all."
"Mr. Bracegirdle said you were here all night."
"You were very ill. You don't remember?" Pellew
felt a slightly
hopeful relief that Horatio might also not have remembered a promise
made at the end of that long night.
"Most of it." The dark eyes became even darker,
but there were no
tears. "Mostly, sir, I remember your kindness. I am sorry to have
been such a burden."
Pellew's reluctance to engage in any more painful revelations
in the face of the other's awkwardness and private anguish.
"Do you feel up to some company?"
Horatio's eyes opened wide in disbelief and pleasure, as if
afraid the captain had had quite his fill of him in the last
twenty-four hours. "Of course, sir."
"I see someone had the good sense to bring in a chair."
at him as he turned to hang his overcoat, again, on its hook on the
wall. As he pulled the chair a little closer to the bed, he couldn't
help but see the letter lying on the nightstand, exactly where he had
left it hours ago. Horatio's eyes followed his to the letter, then
looked up at him in what Pellew could only describe as fear. But fear
of finding out what was in it, or fear of his captain remembering he'd
offered to read it?
"Have you read it?" Pellew gently prompted.
Now Horatio's eyes did fill with tears, and Pellew knew the
aimed inward, not at him. Horatio shook his head and closed his eyes.
"Would you still like me to read it to you? I won't if
you don't wish
Horatio nodded mutely, not opening his eyes. Suddenly Pellew
utterly unprepared for the task now upon him, and the hand that
reached for the letter shook a little. He'd suffered the loss of many
a good man over the years, had even helped some of those dying to
write to their loved ones, but this, this was outside the realm of his
experience. Just handling the rich parchment again awakened fresh
sympathy for the boy sitting nearby and, in a wholly new thought,
anguish that someday Pellew himself might be writing a similar letter
to his own sons, perhaps for them to read in the loneliness of their
cabins in the middle of an indifferent ocean. Pellew shook off the
premonition. Donning his reading glasses, he held Dr. Hornblower's
one-page letter up to the candlelight.
"My dear boy,
"By the time you receive this letter, I will at last be
reach of disease. My only lingering pain is that you, dearest
Horatio, will read this without benefit of family to comfort you. I
can only plead with you not to grieve too hard or too long for me, for
I want for nothing except to have seen you once again.
"You have grown, Horatio, into the finest young man I
have ever known,
and I can only tell you in these inadequate words how so very proud I
am of you. The single regret of my life is that I will not see your
children, as I know you will someday make a wonderful husband and
father. If I may still offer any advice, it would be to look to your
Captain Pellew for inspiration and direction. I never had the
privilege of meeting him, but from all you write, he is a most worthy
gentleman and of exceptional character, and above all else, a father,
who will understand and can guide you if you will allow it. You
always took to your own path, my dearest son, even when you were but a
babe. And although your instincts are excellent, never be afraid to
consult with others of more experience or whom you love and trust.
You have chosen a difficult life, and I would have done anything in my
power to spare you such tidings and add to your burdens. But life and
death wait for no man.
"Do not concern yourself with details of my estate. My
have made all arrangements and the house will remain undisturbed until
your return. Do with it what you will for you are my only heir."
Horatio suddenly swung his feet to the floor and leaned forward,
elbows on knees.
"You have given me such joy, Horatio! I was perhaps not
the best of
fathers, but know that I always loved you more than life itself and
wish for you the fulfillment of your every dream. For we are nothing
without our dreams and passions and, above all else, our honor. Live
well, my son, and live full, my heart to yours, and we shall see each
other again, I promise you.
"Your loving father"
When Pellew's quiet voice ceased, Horatio rose and walked out
cabin. Drained, Pellew sat a moment, then laid the letter on the
table, removed his glasses and pushed himself out of the chair. He
put on his own coat, reached for Horatio's uniform cape on a
neighboring hook and followed.
The officer of the watch saluted as Pellew approached, nodding
direction of the bow to Pellew's questioning look.
Horatio was leaning on the railing, his white nightshirt billowing
the breeze, a silvery apparition in the moonlit darkness.
Pellew didn't notice until that moment Horatio was out there
shoes. He came up behind him and draped the cape over his shoulders,
his hands lingering in silent support. They stood like that for
several minutes, each lost in his own thoughts. Pellew suddenly heard
a familiar "pffffffff-ffft" and he stepped around Horatio to peer over
the side. Sure enough, their ghostly blue night riders were back.
Horatio bent over the railing and looked down, then quickly
a little, apparently afraid of what he was seeing. "What is it?" he
asked, half in wonder, half in uncertainty.
They were more numerous tonight than last, each jockeying for
in front of the keel. All of a sudden, two leapt clear of the water
in perfect unison, a spectacular display outlined in blue, their
splash back into the sea creating a watery light show the likes of
which Horatio had never seen and could never have imagined.
"Like St. Elmo's fire..."
They watched the underwater light show in rapt silence. When
glanced over at Horatio a few minutes later, unshed tears were shining
in the other's eyes. When Horatio met his gaze, his face crumpled,
and Pellew gathered him into a warm embrace, letting him cry his heart
out, knowing that while these were tears of loss they were also tears
of healing. Odd as it seemed, some small measure of peace seeped back
into Pellew's soul, and he knew this young warrior, already sorely
tested in battle and now by life itself, would be all right. As if to
concur, a little bow spray showered them both in baptism and in