Up From the Ashes
by Sarah B.
This is a sequel of sorts to 'A Day(or So) In the Life' by SueN
It was around three o'clock on a sunny Tuesday, and Horatio
Hornblower was on a mission.
Not a dangerous one, although walking Portsmouth streets was not exactly like walking along a garden path; or a frightening one, although Horatio was afraid that his mission would be fruitless, and he did not want that to be the case, not for the world.
Because the day could only have good tidings in it. Archie Kennedy was finally a commissioned lieutenant.
Horatio smiled to himself as he made his way down the crowded city streets, his keen eyes searching for the shops he knew well. Archie's commission had been a day long in coming, and he had been so nervous about taking the examination that Horatio had to admit to himself that even he was not entirely sure his friend would come home with a promotion. After all, not only did he face the usual pressure that taking such a test created, but his own captain, the illustrious Sir Edward Pellew, was on the panel! Few men would have even dared to undertake the rigorous oral exam with their own captains watching, and fewer still would have passed it.
But Archie had dared. And come home smiling.
It was more than that, though, Horatio mused to himself as he paused in front of a bookstore and surveyed the novels that sat beckoning on tables along the walk. The normal terror of being tested in your abilities and found wanting was familiar to all would-be officers - Horatio remembered his own frantic nervousness when he had taken his examination, even now the memory made his stomach tie itself in knots. But Archie's fear had been double-edged, for his test had been for more than a mere new uniform, more than a promotion and an increase in pay. He had been hoping for a new life, a new identity where no shadows or ghosts from his past could recognize and reclaim him. Years of brutal abuse at the hands of midshipman Jack Simpson had left his courage fragile and his belief in his own abilities faltering. But the courage and abilities were still there, and Archie was just discovering that he could use them and not be punished. That was what Horatio knew Archie wanted, and was so afraid he could never have.
But now he had it. And Horatio had seldom been so happy for someone else in his entire life.
A nearby clock struck three, and Horatio squinted up at the afternoon sky. Time was wearing on - he had come ashore with Pellew and Archie at eleven, and promised to meet them back at Cutler and Gross' at four, where Archie was being fitted for his very first lieutenant's uniform. Horatio knew he did not have much time.
As soon as he had recovered from the celebration for Archie's promotion, Horatio decided that Archie's success deserved some token to remember it by, as one counted all significant occasions that way. More importantly, Horatio knew what might be lying ahead for Archie as a commissioned lieutenant: his own command, and the heavy responsibility and heartache that went with it. It would do good for Archie to have something substantial to look upon in those dark times, something that would remind him of how strong and capable he had become, and that the long nights did not last forever. So, as soon as he could Horatio had made some excuse and left Archie at the tailors', and gone out to buy his friend a present.
It had seemed a simple enough plan, but it was now three o'clock and Horatio found himself hopelessly flustered. His planning skills were beyond perfection, but his imagination was not great, and so far he had found nothing he thought Archie might like. Books were the obvious first choice, since Horatio knew that Archie was a voracious reader and had a passion for Shakespeare and other plays. But Archie already had enough Shakespeare to last a lifetime, and coveted first editions and handsomely bound volumes were beyond Horatio's meager means. He thought of another playwright or perhaps a book of poems, but they all looked the same to him and Horatio had to confess to himself that he could not understand just how reading plays or poetry was supposed to be appealing. Now if it had been a book of mathematics, or Euclidian theorems, then he could understand...
...but on the other hand, despite his mystification Horatio knew that it was something his friend might need in the hours of trial that came upon him, so he had kept looking. But he had found nothing.
After he had given up on the books, Horatio had a difficult time coming up with a second choice, and so had wandered Portsmouth for the better part of the afternoon, hoping something would catch his eye. Archie didn't smoke, so pipes or tobacco were not possible; he had no real fascination with gambling or games, so that was not an option either, although Horatio did linger on a beautifully carved chess set for a time before remembering that a game with small pieces was probably not the best diversion to have on a moving ship...
Horatio continued to wander down the street, fighting the nagging feeling that it was no use. It seemed he alone knew what Archie had gone through, what he had battled, and what he had attained, and there was simply no earthly representation for it. It was certainly possible; Horatio found himself stuck.
Three-thirty. Horatio admitted to himself that his cause was for the moment lost, and was trying to think of a time when he could get ashore again when he glanced across the street and saw a small curiosity shop.
Of course! Horatio's mind jumped in recognition, he had been in that store the week before. It was sort of a collection of odds and ends, like being in someone's attic, and Horatio remembered being intrigued by some of the musty books that had been left there. They were mathematics books, a six-volume set of obscure theories Horatio had never heard of but was eager to learn about; before he could even think of borrowing enough money to buy them, however, they had been sold. Still, there had been other interesting things in there, and Horatio felt desperate enough to make his way across the street and give the place a try.
It was the same shop as before, the same tangled collection of wispy gowns and hats, half-broken furniture, and tarnished silver that Horatio had left one week previous. He made his way carefully into the cluttered room and looked around, hoping to see something unusual that he hadn't seen before. In a moment his diligence was rewarded.
It was off in a corner, away from most of the other merchandise, but in the shadows of the shop Horatio saw a heaped collection of items that at first did not make sense. As he stepped closer he made out a roughly stitched cloth mannequin the size of a man, dressed in a gaudy costume. It was sitting on a brightly painted but obviously much-used chair, and cluttered around it were walking sticks, wooden bowls, a few small tables, and painted planks of wood, some very ornate, all jammed into this corner. There was another pile of clothes heaped next to the mannequin, brightly colored and beaded, but torn and in some cases stained and covered with dirt and mud. A faint smell of smoke clung to all of it.
Horatio was fascinated. He had never seen anything like this before.
A door opened noisily behind him, and Horatio looked up to see a jowly man coming toward him with a friendly smile.
"Ah, welcome, young sir!" The man enthused, rubbing his hands together. "I see you found our latest acquisitions."
Horatio nodded. "What are they?"
"Theater props," The man, who Horatio knew must be the proprietor, announced, coming forward and picking up the mannequin with a shake. Clouds of dust fell from it. "One of the houses in town had a fire, and most of the collection burned. What didn't is too damaged to use, so it was brought here. I had to throw some of it out, but thought perhaps someone might have a use for what made it through, so I put it up for sale."
Horatio began picking through the scorched and water-marked items, marveling at the artwork on the wooden planks. "These could hang in my father's house."
"Oh, those, yes," The proprietor dropped the mannequin and wiped his hands on his shirt, "Backdrops some of them, others were simply decorations. Some of those actors are mighty talented."
Horatio nodded, and kept looking.
After a moment he heard the proprietor ask, "Are you looking for something in particular?"
Horatio paused, leaned back and sighed. Then he shook his head. "I am, but I'm not finding it. I have a friend who recently underwent a great trial, and has passed through it. He should have some mark for it, but I'm afraid I'm at my wit's end."
"Hm," The proprietor glanced at the glittering debris at Horatio's feet. Then he looked back up slowly and said, "I do have some more of those planks over here."
Horatio looked up to see the proprietor walking over to another stack of small boards which were sitting on a scratched-up table. Horatio approached them and raised his eyebrows at the beauty of the paintings. "These are exquisite."
The proprietor nodded. "It's too bad they didn't all survive. But I like to think that the ones that did, will speak for the others."
Horatio absently looked at the top painting, which was of an ornate vase, and picked it up to look beneath it. "That's a very eloquent st - "
Horatio stopped, leaving the word hanging halfway in the air. There, under the painting of the vase, was a small wooden board which had painted on it the most beautifully rendered bird Horatio had ever seen. It was all greens and blues and vivid whites, both majestic wings outstretched as it seemed to burst from the fetters of its wooden home to streak toward the heavens. At the tips of its wings and tail was a detail Horatio did not understand: brilliant strokes of orange and red, as if flame was leaping from its body to the edges of the frame.
The imagery seemed vaguely familiar, and Horatio frowned at it. "What is this?"
"Oh - isn't that masterful? That's a phoenix."
Horatio blinked and stared ahead, trying to connect the word to a meaning. "A phoenix..."
The proprietor nodded. "It's from Greek mythology. The phoenix was a bird that lived for five hundred years, then when it felt death was near built a pyre and consumed itself in flame. A new bird then came up from the ashes, and the phoenix was reborn."
Horatio's eyes widened. "It's perfect."
"How much will you take for it?"
The proprietor looked a little surprised. "Well, truthfully I'm not even certain it's worth selling...it has scorch marks on it, and I don't really know what its value would be..."
Horatio made an impatient noise and dug in one pocket. Glancing at the coins he'd come up with he held them out and said, "Take whatever you think it is worth."
The proprietor's eyes wandered over the coins, and finally he took seven shillings. "I almost feel like I'm cheating you," he said apologetically, "But I do have to pay to house these things."
Horatio nodded and stuffed the money back into his pocket. Looking at the painting he smiled to himself and said, "No, thank you, sir. You don't understand I'm sure, but take my word for it, this is much more than simply a painting on a piece of wood."
"If you say so," The proprietor acquiesced, handing some cloth to Horatio with a smile. "Here, you can wrap it in this."
The bells outside rung the quarter-hour, and as he finished winding the cloth Horatio started. "Damn! I'll be late to Cutler and Gross'." He made for the door, and turned around long enough to say, "Thank you, sir, I am in your debt."
"Certainly, young man," The proprietor rejoined, and saw Horatio into the street with a wave. "If I see you again, I'll be certain to wave you over if we get another collection of mathematics books."
Horatio arrived at the tailor's shortly before four o'clock, and was very glad he had not been late. He had run the whole way, but managed to bring himself to a leisurely walk shortly before the tailor's so Pellew would not be treated to the sight of his lieutenant running hellbent for leather up the cobblestone streets.
And a good thing too, because as Horatio neared the shop he saw Pellew standing on the walk talking to Mr. Cutler, and he instinctively straightened so his captain would see him on his best behavior. Pellew did not glance his way, however, and Horatio took the opportunity to bundle the painting under his arm and slip in the side door to find Archie.
Cutler and Gross' was much like any other tailor shop, all varnished wood and bolts of cloth scattered all over. Horatio found himself in the tiny side hall that led outside, which was only partly scattered with heaps of cloth bits and wire tailors' dummies. He remembered his way, however, and decided that Archie must still be trying on his uniform. Carefully he made his way up the hall, and putting his hand on the door-latch took a deep breath to announce his arrival.
Then he noticed that he could see partway into the main fitting room, and stopped.
The room was as he'd remembered it a few years before - the same gleaming woodwork, the same benches strewn with samples of fabric and tailors' tools - and standing in the midst of it, admiring his new uniform in the mirror, stood Archie Kennedy.
The difference was so striking Horatio was astounded. The short jacket was replaced with a swallowtailed coat, its wide white lapels and gleaming gold buttons seeming to sing the pride of the young man wearing them. New breeches too, and stockings, and shoes - Horatio wondered if Archie had gone for the silver buckles, or saved a few shillings and taken pinch-back instead. And there was the sword, the gold-and-blue tasseled sword that was carefully clipped to its belt, and bore the unmistakable mark of progress. Horatio remembered when he had first lived that honor, and smiled to himself.
But to see the change in Archie! There was no hint of hesitation in those thrown-back shoulders and crystal-blue eyes, no trace of fear or cowering in that proud posture. Those days were over and past, and the Archie Kennedy who stood straight and tall and gazed evenly at the smartly dressed young man staring back would only look to his future. Horatio saw the determined set of Archie's jaw as he traced one hand disbelievingly along the crisply ironed lapel, and there was no mistaking the joyous, half-afraid gleam in Archie's eyes, a boisterous joy almost leaping from those blue depths as his mouth suddenly widened into an exuberant grin. Horatio knew Archie would have whooped for joy if he could. Instead he merely took one step back, put his hand smartly on the hilt of his sword and drew it out with a flourish. Sunlight glinted off the blade, and Horatio shivered with a sudden portent that frightened him.
There would suffering and sadness with that new identity, and who knew what noble blood might be spilled upon the cloth that now gleamed spotless and new? As Archie plied the blade through the air, Horatio was sobered by the realization that their time as shipmates would not be forever. Someday a new assignment, another ship, and for a horrifying moment Horatio saw Archie running across a burning deck covered in blood, smoke and fire blinding him as he used that sword to strike down the foe or valiantly defend his ship and his men. Horatio would not be there to help; he could only hope his words and guidance, like those of their captain, would be enough.
But he is ready, Horatio thought, noting with satisfaction how happy Archie looked, how the last shadows of Simpson and that dark legacy were gone from Archie's face, which glowed with ruddy newness. Archie has been through the fire and been reborn, Horatio realized. And there is nothing left of Justinian but ashes. Thank God.
There was the sound of footsteps in the hallway, and Horatio saw Archie hurriedly sheathe the sword and tug his uniform into its proper lines. Just in time, too: no sooner had he shifted the scabbard into place than the door opened, and Captain Pellew entered, followed by Mr. Cutler.
"Is everything satisfactory, Mr. Kennedy?" Pellew asked with a small smile.
Kennedy's blue eyes betrayed him, like a child caught at a prank. "Very much so, yes, captain."
"Excellent, now as soon as Mr. Hornblower joins us we will return to the ship."
Good heavens! Horatio suddenly realized an entrance from the side hallway would look very awkward to say the least. Thinking quickly, he darted once more out the side door and stood on the walk for a few moments. Then he straightened his uniform, bundled the painting once more under his arm and made a studied, casual entrance.
All three men looked up at him as he opened the door.
"Ah, there you are now, sir," Pellew said just as the clock down the street chimed four. "And just on time too, now we can be on our way."
"Aye aye sir," Horatio said, and only met Archie's eyes after their captain had passed.
Archie was still standing at the mirror, gazing at his reflection thoughtfully as if it weren't quite real. He looked up at Horatio with a crooked grin. "Yes, *Lieutenant* Hornblower?"
Horatio returned the smile and said, "It seems another stranger has come into our midst. A thousand pardons, *Lieutenant*, but have you seen my shipmate, Midshipman Kennedy?"
It was intended as a joke, but Horatio did not feel slighted when Archie's smile eased a bit, and he returned his blue gaze to the mirror, and idly fingered the hilt of his dress sword. "My regrets, sir, but I have not seen Midshipman Kennedy for some time. I doubt - he will ever return."
The trip back to the Indefatigable was swift and comfortable, and Horatio was gratified that Archie did not mind the good-natured teasing he received when the other officers got their first look at him in his new uniform. Horatio joined in, of course, and for a few minutes even engaged in a brief mock sword-fight with Archie in the wardroom before Mr. Bracegirdle politely informed them that they were gentlemen now, not schoolboys, and any cuts in the new uniform would have to be explained to the captain.
It wasn't until later, after a celebratory tot of rum in the captain's cabin and a round of ale belowdecks, that Horatio found the opportunity he had been looking for to present Archie with his gift. Carrying the painting still carefully bundled in its wrapping cloth, Horatio approached Archie's cabin and knocked on the door.
Horatio poked his head in and saw Archie sitting on his bunk, brushing his jacket.
"At ease, lieutenant," Horatio joked as he came in, "If you keep after that thing you'll find yourself with no uniform and a horrendous ball of lint."
Archie made a face and reluctantly set the jacket aside.
"Quite a couple of days for you, isn't it?" Horatio said sympathetically as he took a seat at the small table.
Archie took a deep breath and nodded. "It's - overwhelming."
Horatio nodded, and waited.
"It's - " Archie paused, and turned his head towards where the jacket lay. Then he turned back to Horatio and said, "I never thought I would make lieutenant, Horatio. I wasn't certain that I wanted to. It's so much..." He sighed, and gave up.
Horatio gave him a nudge. "Courage, Mr. Kennedy. You'll make as fine a lieutenant as any in the service."
"I will," Archie said firmly, then winced and said, "No, I mean I want to, I want to be a good lieutenant, one who looks after his men, like you or Mr. Bracegirdle, not like - not like some..."
Horatio recognized that faraway look and said quietly, "You mean like Eccleston?"
"He was a good man," Archie responded just as quietly, "But he was blind, he saw nothing when it wasn't concerned with a battle or a strategy. You know."
"Yes," Horatio recalled how oblivious Eccleston had been to Simpson's cruelties, even when they were mapped out on Horatio's face. "But you mustn't blame him, Archie. He had no authority without Keane's consent. He was as trapped as any of us."
"But I won't be like him," Archie said through clenched teeth, "He never..." he took a deep breath and looked at Horatio with eyes that burned with an almost desperate determination. "I know what to look for, and even if my captain has me shot I will *never* permit it, Horatio, I swear it now. Never."
"Certainly not," Horatio said, and put a hand on Archie's arm to calm him down. "I daresay the young men on board your ships will be the safest in the fleet."
Archie nodded, took another deep breath, and looked down at his hands. Then he laughed. "Got a little full of myself, didn't I? Uniform's gone to my head already."
"Luckily for you, you can have the hat readjusted to fit," Horatio joked, and brought out the wrapped parcel. "Every occasion deserves a remembrance, and this is yours, Lieutenant Kennedy."
Archie frowned as he took the parcel. "It can't be orders. They don't usually wrap those."
Horatio expected that Archie might like the painting; it was well-done, after all, and had come from a theater. But he didn't expect Archie to turn pale when he saw it, or stare at it for almost thirty seconds before whispering, "Where did you get this?"
"From a curiosity shop in Portsmouth," Horatio explained, a little rattled by Archie's reaction. "It came from a theater - "
"That burned down." Archie was gazing at the painting almost in shock. "My God."
Horatio shifted on the chair for a moment before saying, "Archie?"
Archie blinked, then shook his head rapidly before saying, "Horatio, I'm sorry, but - you don't understand. I knew that theater, I - " He took another deep breath, a little shakier this time, "There were times, when I was younger, J-Justinian would come into port. I would escape on leave, and I would go to this theater, and if nothing was playing I'd sit in the seats and stare at the walls. They had paintings on them - "
Horatio nodded, "Vases and dancing nymphs."
Archie nodded, running one hand over the delicate brushstrokes. "I'd hide in those paintings, I know it sounds absurd to you. But there was life there, a life I thought I could never have except when I could escape into that world. I used to look at this painting - this one, Horatio! - It was set in the proscenium, just above where the actors would come onstage. I would look at it, all lit from the lamps and it was so beautiful. And I thought, here I can be a phoenix and rise above everything. It would hold me, for a little while. Even back on the ship..." Archie paused for a moment. "Sometimes, I would think of it, but not that I could ever rise above my life. Just what it might be like if I *could*."
Horatio listened, speechless.
"I knew there'd been a fire," Archie said, tilting the painting so he could see it better, "And I thought I'd never see any of those paintings again, and now - " He looked at Horatio and shook his head. "How did you know? I never told anyone. How did you *know*?"
Horatio wanted to shrug, wanted to admit it had all been an accident, but he wasn't sure at the moment that he believed it himself. He finally smiled and said. "Call it providence if you like. Congratulations, Lieutenant Kennedy."
Archie gazed at the painting for a few moments longer, shaking his head in disbelief. Finally he put it aside, carefully as if it was made of the thinnest glass. Standing he said, "Thank you, Horatio. I can't possibly repay you - "
Horatio stood with a casual shrug. "It's a gift, Archie, there's - "
"No, wait," Archie hurriedly reached under his bunk and pulled out a wooden box which he thrust into Horatio's hands.
Horatio was startled, and about to say something, when he noticed Archie's expression was suddenly very somber and serious.
For a moment neither moved. Then Archie said slowly, "Mr. Hornblower, if it were not for your friendship and belief in me I would be dead these five years. I will never don this uniform, or give a command, or think of my lot in life, that you will not be remembered in it."
Horatio looked at the floor, embarrassed at the tears that sprang to his eyes. "Damn you, Archie."
Archie smiled a little, and patted Horatio on the shoulder. "Enough with the sentimental talk. Open it, Horatio."
Blinking away the confounded mistiness in his eyes, Horatio opened the box. Tucked neatly inside were six small books.
"The set of mathematics theories!" Horatio exclaimed in happy surprise.
Archie laughed. "When we were in that shop last week, your greed for them could not have been more obvious."
Horatio was astonished. He set the box down and plucked out one of the books, opening it with all the avaricious appetite of a starving man.
"Oh no, you don't!" Archie said, and gave Horatio a good-natured shove towards the door. "If you begin reading that here we'll need a cannon blast to distract you. Back to your own quarters, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio smiled self-consciously and picked up the box. "Archie, this is miraculous! Thank you. But how on earth did you ever afford it?"
"Well - " Archie glanced at the volumes guiltily as Horatio paused in the doorway. "Truthfully, I thought they would break me for the year, but I honestly don't think the shop owner knew what they were worth. I hardly paid anything for them at all."
Dusk was falling on the little row of Portsmouth shops, and with a tired sigh the jowly man brought his table of books into the curiosity shop and made to close down for the night.
As he did so, another man walked in, spattered with mud from the road. "Evening, Richard."
The jowly man glanced up from his work. "Good evening, Oliver. Did you get home safely?"
"I certainly did," Richard shook his head. "Elizabeth had another boy."
"Ah, congratulations," Oliver replied. "He'll take over the shop someday."
"Who knows? At least then I'll stop bothering you to take over my shop three days a week. How was business?"
"Slow. But it gives me something to do."
"Oh, don't sound so morose. You'll have your theater rebuilt in no time. And you'll be able to rehang your paintings in it."
"Not all of them. I sold one."
"You did? To who?"
"A Navy lieutenant."
"A sailor? Phew! What would any of them want with art?"
"Don't say that. I have officers come to my theater all the time. Well, I used to."
"You will again. Like that one midshipman who used to come in and just sit, even when there wasn't a performance. Just sit and stare at the paintings. Remember him?"
"Yes, I do. I saw him last week, in fact, but I don't think he remembered me. Why would he?"
"He was in here?"
"Buying some books for a friend of his. I hope you don't mind, I cut the price for him."
"Soft heart got the better of you, eh? Well, that's all right."
"You're a very generous man, Richard."
"Your bad influence, I'm afraid. You know, thinking on it, that little midshipman was the saddest child I ever saw."
"I know, but you should have seen him last week. Biggest grin in Portsmouth, and told me he'd made lieutenant. Whatever he had to go through, he came out just fine. I could tell."
"Well, that's good to hear. Frankly, I'm surprised he's still alive."
"Oh, I'm not."
"You're not? Why's that?"
"Simple, Richard. I met his friend."