Many Years of Sunshine Days
by Sarah B.
Horatio stood at the top of the hill, and smiled.
It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, the sky the deep azure blue of summer. The green grass on the hill was fragrant, and as Horatio looked beneath him he could see all manner of boats coming and going from the harbour beneath him, the town below bustling about the business of the day. It really was the most perfect day anyone could ask for.
And Archie was late.
Horatio looked about himself, checked his watch, looked again. The hill sloped down into a wide park where children and their families played, and beyond that a collection of stately brick homes and manicured lawns. Horatio scanned all of it, hoping to catch a glimpse of his friend, but nothing, on today of all days.
Why was he late?
Oh well. Horatio sighed and turned his hat in his hands, cast his eyes once again on the pretty harbor below. The sunlight was sparkling off the water, and a refreshing breeze wafted from the sea that carried with it salt air, good memories and promise of the future. Horatio smiled and breathed in deeply, relishing the familiar tang in the air. How he would miss this, if he ever had to leave the sea! He was not a man to seek out any peaceful place, or think much about such things, but if pressed he would have to choose this spot as just about the most relaxing, welcoming place he’d ever been. The most -
Horatio turned, and felt a well of joy within him. “Archie! There you are. Where the devil have you been?”
It was indeed his good friend Archie Kennedy, striding up the hill as he lit up the scenery around him with a radiant smile of his own. The sun glinted off his golden-blond hair and seemed to create a halo around him that no misfortune could ever touch. Horatio knew that was not true, of course, but when Archie was in a good mood that was the aura he projected, and there was no denying it.
And Archie looked very happy now.
“Mr. Kennedy,” Horatio repeated in mock-serious tones as his friend drew closer. “I have asked you a question. Where have you been? I feel as if I’ve been waiting for you here forever.”
“My apologies, Mr. Hornblower,” Archie replied, his tone no more serious than the sparkle in his sky-blue eyes as he approached. “But I came as fast as I could, you see. I only just received notice you were here.”
“Ah,” Horatio replied, and cleared his throat to cover his embarrassment. “Well - where else would I be today? I’m in port and had to visit you, after all.”
“How very kind,” Archie stopped a few feet away and tilted his head in greeting. “It’s very good to see you, Mr. Hornblower.”
“And you, Mr. Kennedy,” Horatio replied, bowing slightly in mock salute. “Shore leave has served you quite well. You look even younger than you did last time I saw you.”
“And you!” Archie exclaimed, looking his friend up and down. “You look even more regal and dashing than old Pellew himself. I understand you have your own command.”
“I have indeed,” Horatio said proudly, gesturing toward the harbor. “She’s the smartest-looking ship in the fleet, about half a league out into the harbor if you’d care to take a look.”
“Would I!” Archie took a step forward and shaded his eyes with one hand, his smile never dimming. “Most impressive, Horatio! Who’s your first lieutenant?”
Archie laughed in admiration. “Is he! You must give him my congratulations.”
“I will,” Horatio nodded. “You know the post would have been yours, Archie, in a heartbeat if only - “
“If only I hadn’t been called ashore,” Archie finished, but there was no jealousy in his expression when he lowered his hand and extended it toward Horatio. “Well, congratulations to both of you indeed. She’s a fine ship.”
“She is, and most of the crew with her. Of course, you may know, we, um...we lost Oldroyd - “
Archie smiled. “You didn’t lose Oldroyd, you great fool, you just don’t know where to look for him. See? He’s down at the docks even now, you can see him from here. With that group of children.”
“Oh - “ Horatio squinted, and sure enough, Archie was right. “Oh! So he is. What’s he doing, teaching them rope-knotting?”
“No, I think they’re teaching him. But they’re all very happy.”
“Hm. Well, I’m glad to hear it,” Horatio turned back to his friend. “I have other news too - “
Archie was beaming at him now. “I know. I heard, not long after it happened actually.” He took Horatio’s shoulder. “Who would have thought, you married? I thought your wife would always be the sea!”
“As did I,” Horatio shrugged, smiling so Archie wouldn’t notice that he was not quite as overjoyed at the prospect. “And - expecting too, apparently. It’s quite - “
“Yes, I know,” Archie said, his smile turning from dazzling to quiet but still there, and eternal understanding in his eyes. “Try to be happy, Horatio. You do deserve it and it’s not such a thing to be afraid of, after all.”
“I know,” Horatio shrugged. “I know, it’s just - “
“So is that why you wished to see me?” Archie said brightly, his words succeeding as they always did in brushing Horatio’s melancholy away. “To bring news of your well-deserved good fortune?”
“Of course not!” Horatio replied as looked down at the lush grass beneath their boots. “Oh - well - partially I suppose, but...well, blast it, Archie, you know why I’m here.”
“Do I?” his friend jested. “Hm, you’re going to make me guess. Have you run out of money? Or run afoul of the law? Or is it that you’ve tired of seafaring life and wish to go into the theater - “
“Archie, enough!” Horatio interrupted, but he was laughing. Archie was one of the few people he knew who could make him laugh, and he suddenly realized how much he’d missed it. “That is, no, Mr. Kennedy, damn it! I’m here to bring you felicitations on your birthday.”
“My birthday!” Archie let go of Horatio’s hand and looked at him in surprise. Then he turned his gaze to the harbour. “Good heavens. I’d stopped reckoning those. Is it soon?”
“It’s today,” Horatio answered, thinking for the first time since their meeting that there was something about Archie’s manner that should be telling him something, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. “With my ship this close to port, you know I could not let the occasion pass without seeing you. I do miss you, Archie.”
“And I you,” Archie sighed, crossing his arms and gazing out over the sparkling water. “You and Pellew, and the Indy. Standing on the quarterdeck with the sails unfurled on a clear blue day with a fair wind and a following sea! There was nothing like it, Horatio. Even when I was a higher rank on the Renown I was never as happy as I was on the Indy. Do you remember?”
“How could I forget?” Horatio answered with a smile as he followed Archie’s gaze to the ships in the shimmering harbor below, finest jewels set in a sea of sapphires. “Having my own command is the realization of a dream, yet even today I find myself yearning to be a lieutenant with only the barest of responsibilities and an entire evening devoted to nothing but drink and whist.”
“And Mr. Bracegirdle bringing his violin into the mess to accompany our games,” Archie shook his head. “He had his way with a tune but I could still never beat you at cards!”
“Don’t discount yourself, Mr. Kennedy,” Horatio jibed gently. “Even my father could not do it, and he was a master mathematician.”
Archie chuckled softly, his blue eyes growing misty with recollection. “Ah, yes, I do miss it, Horatio! I shouldn’t I suppose, I mean, my life here is more than I ever dreamed it could be - the happiness - but it’s funny, sometimes I do miss it. Even the smallest things! The rocking of the ship in harbour...”
Horatio nodded. “Captain Pellew and his inspiring speeches.”
“Yes! No one could turn a phrase like him. Is he well?”
“Yes, he’s an admiral now. And still making speeches.”
“Of course! Do you remember the drums summoning us to battle?”
“Yes, and the smell of gunpowder in the air - “
The smell of gunpowder -
Horatio stopped, frowned. “Archie?”
Blue eyes looked at him, open and brimming with contentment. “Yes, Horatio?”
Horatio paused. “Archie, please forgive me for mentioning this, but - but aren’t you - “
Archie put his hands behind his back and made an amused face. “Oh, you would bring that up. And on my birthday too! Yes, Horatio. For a few years now.”
Horatio looked around, at the blue sky, the brilliant green grass, the perfect harbour with its sparkling treasure of tall-masted ships. “I don’t understand. Am I dead too?”
Archie laughed, not unkindly. “No, Horatio, you’re not. You will wake up soon with your wife beside you.”
“I’ve just noticed, I’ve never seen that harbour before,” Horatio said, his confusion mounting. “This doesn’t even look like England...”
“Of course not,” Archie quipped. “Where in England can you see blue sky?”
“Then - “ Horatio looked at his friend in dismay. “Then this is a dream. You are not really here.”
Archie smiled warmly and placed his hand on Horatio’s arm. “I am, Horatio. As real as you are.”
Horatio raised wide eyes to Archie. “But - how - “
Archie’s eyebrows went up. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio - “
“- then are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Horatio finished, and made a face. “Yes, Archie, you’ve used that Shakespeare quote on me before. Many times.”
“And it’s funny every time.”
“But I still don’t understand,” Horatio shook his head and turned around, looking at the town, the gardens, the stately brick houses stretching into an azure horizon. “This is not my vision. I have never seen this town before in my life.”
“I know,” Archie replied, and put his hand on Horatio’s arm again. “Horatio, please be still and look at me.”
His heart hammering in confusion, Horatio met his friend’s eyes.
“You did not summon me,” Archie said, his voice low and serious. “This is not your dream. This is my vision, my - Horatio, I know it’s my birthday but I owe you so much that I am the one who wants to bestow a gift to you. Will you allow it?”
“Will I - “ Horatio’s eyes darted about in unsettlement. “Archie - “
“No, listen,” Archie interrupted, tightening his hold on Horatio’s arm and looking him straight in the eye. “Horatio, this is where I’m dwelling now. I wanted to show you, this is just the smallest part of the perfection I know. The joy of my soul, now that it is past all pain and corruption. Just look at it, Horatio!”
Horatio looked. Looked, and saw for the first time the light that played on every surface, the silvery sheen that rested on the houses below and the ships in the harbour, and the children - how it radiated like a thousand suns from the children as they ran and laughed and played in the warm midday sun.
“I wanted to share this with you, Horatio,” Archie explained quietly, as Horatio watched the children and felt tears start in his eyes. “What I feel, what I know...cannot be found on earth and I wanted you to have this memory, as a gift, for the life you gave back to me. Horatio, close your eyes for a moment. No, it’s all right, I’m not going anywhere. Just - do it. Please.”
Horatio was reluctant, because he did not want this remarkable vision to fade, but he trusted Archie as he had trusted no one else on the earth, so he did as his friend bade and closed his eyes.
At first he felt nothing - only darkness,and the drowsiness of sleep. But after a moment it seemed as if light was coming through his closed eyelids, and along with it came a feeling he could not describe, for he had never experienced it before. A restfulness, a calm that was like a glassy sea kissed by the lightest breeze, comforting and soothing. As if every care he ever had - every shred of guilt and doubt he ever carried within himself, like sharp ingrained splinters in his soul - was gone. Gone and unmourned. It was remarkable.
Amazed, Horatio opened his eyes and looked at Archie, who was beaming at him. “What do you call that, Archie?”
“It’s peace,” his friend explained, unashamed tears standing in his eyes. “I didn’t know what it truly was until I came here. I don’t think anyone does, not really, but - Horatio, promise me you won’t let go of that memory, that feeling you experienced. Whatever happens, just - keep a little bit of that with you when you awaken, carry it with you. All right?”
Horatio frowned. He had no idea what he would need such a thing as peace for, but Archie seemed so determined that he accept it. “All right. Of course, Archie. Thank you.”
Archie smiled, visibly relieved. He took his hand from Horatio’s arm and bowed a little. “My thanks to you, Horatio. And - thank you for coming to see me on my birthday.”
Horatio smiled back, suddenly aware - and very painfully - how young Archie looked, how youthful and free from care. Horatio had forgotten they were ever that young, it seemed ages ago. Very likely when he awoke he would remember where he had seen that harbour, and that town, and Maria would remind him that he had mentioned Archie’s birthday just the other day and he would think, oh, that’s why I had that strange dream. Yes, then it would all make sense.
But now - now Archie was standing before him, young and whole and glowing with happiness and - yes, peace, and Horatio had to admit that he was impressed his own imagination could conjure up something so convincing. It really was, quite -
Horatio blinked, and noticed that the air around Archie was shimmering, quietly and gently but gradually growing brighter. “Archie - “
“I know,” Archie said, and for the first time since their meeting a shadow of sadness crossed his face. “The dawn is coming, Horatio. I must go back ashore.”
Horatio looked at the grass below his boots, now sparkling like tiny green emeralds. He looked back up at Archie, unsure what to say. “Well - until we meet again, Mr. Kennedy. It is very good to see you again.”
Archie took two swift steps forward, and took Horatio by the shoulder.
“Farewell, Horatio!” he said. “I will always be here. Please believe that. I will always be here to look after the ones you love.”
Horatio looked at Archie, a little confused because promising to look after a person’s dead loved ones was an odd way to say goodbye.
Then he thought, he means Admiral Pellew, and my father, and the words made sense. He smiled in gratitude. “Thank you, Archie. I can entrust them to no better hands than yours.”
Archie smiled back, and it seemed to Horatio that his very being was made of diamonds and brilliance, and unbounded joy and friendship.
The light grew, embraced Horatio’s being, and he had just a moment longer to call out -
- Happy birthday, Archie! -
and thought he heard, in the rolling surf between dreams and waking, one beloved voice answer:
- A happy life to you, my friend. Until we meet again! -
and in his dreaming smiled.