Before the Embarkation: Dr. Hornblower/The Sea Chest
by Joan C.
The Sea Chest
The sea chest was setting in the hall when Dr. Julius
Hornblower returned from making his daily calls on his
bed-ridden patients. The sight of it brought him up short. It
was just a length of wood and brass, engraved with the
words "H. Hornblower," but it stood a mute, accusatory
witness to all the doubts he had been prey to since arranging
for Horatio to become a Midshipman on the H.M.S.
He had been avoiding the thought for weeks, but now it
was there in front of him in its wooden incarnation:
Horatio, his only son, was leaving in the morning, and there
was no telling when, or if, he would return. Dr. Hornblower
turned away from the chest and limped into his library. His
arthritis was much worse of late; and it was partly due to
those aching, swollen joints, that Horatio was being
banished to sea.
The thought caused Dr. Hornblower more distress than
he would ever admit. But what could one do with a dreamy
seventeen-year old whose head was full of Latin and Greek
and Quadratic equations, when there was no money to
continue that education? In desperation, he had turned to a
patient, Captain Keene of the Justinian. Keene was dying of
a lung tumor; he had not many months left. Dr. Hornblower
had been kind, and honest with the devastating truth, and
Keene had been grateful. Grateful enough to agree to take
on Horatio as a Midshipman.
They had told Horatio together, giving him little chance
to object. Now, Dr. Hornblower wondered if he had
objected, but out of duty and respect had kept silent. It was
too late, he lamented, to change what had been done. The
sea chest was proof of that.
Dr. Hornblower sat down at his desk and took out his
quill. He wished to write a letter to Keene, a formal thanks
for his generosity. And perhaps an expiation for his own
My Dear Captain Keene, (he wrote)
You have my deepest thanks for accepting my son,
Horatio as Midshipman. I realize that he comes to this
career late, but he is an intelligent boy and a willing student.
I believe his inexperience will not handicap him in any way.
He is however, a solitary boy; fond of Greek and Latin,
more bent on scholarship than on physical endeavor. His
mathematical skill is quite advanced, as I have mentioned to
you before. In this, he will prove an asset to the Justinian,
and to you.
My dear Keene, I give to you my heart, as well. For he
is dear to me, my only child, my only son ...
Dr. Hornblower's hand began to tremble, and he struck
off the last sentence angrily. As if Keene would give a damn
that Horatio was his life! To Keene, he would be nothing
more than another Midshipman, perhaps expendable, and
certainly not worth any special treatment. Keene would see
this as a business arrangement, nothing more.
He pulled out another sheet of parchment, and re-wrote
the letter, closing this time with the words. "I trust that
will instruct him to do his best, and to bring honor to the
service and to the ship.
Dr. Julius Hornblower."
He sanded the letter, sealed it and went to set it on the
mantel, where he would see it come morning. He paused in
mid-motion. His dear late wife, Louisa gazed at him from
her portrait. She had not been a beauty according to the
standards of the day, but she had been beautiful to him; a
dark-haired, merry-eyed girl when they had wed, and a
mature and beloved companion for fifteen years. Horatio
had a look of her at times, a curious blending of both his
parents: his mother's arched brows and sweetly curving
smile that were a striking contrast with the severe bone
structure and grave demeanor he had inherited from his
"You would argue with me, Louisa?" Dr. Hornblower
asked. "Aye, I am at odds with myself, but what else am I
do?" Louisa merely gazed at him with her loving eyes and
gentle smile. The doctor took the envelope from the mantel
and put it in his pocket.
"Did you say something, sir?" Horatio spoke from the
doorway, and Dr. Hornblower wheeled in surprise, the
quick motion causing his knees to throb painfully.
"No, no." His eyes narrowed. "Well, let me look
Horatio came forward into the light. He was a gangly
youth, awkward as a colt. And even more awkward in his
unaccustomed uniform. The material was stiff and the tailor
had allowed room for growth in the shoulders which made it
seem too large for Horatio's thin frame. The severity of the
black silk stock and white shirt made him look younger
than his years. And no matter what Keene said, he was
young. Young and achingly vulnerable.
Dr. Hornblower stifled his swelling emotions with an
effort. "You look proper, son. Very proper."
"Thank you, sir."
"I see that your chest is packed and ready to go."
"At daybreak, as you wished."
Horatio flushed painfully. "I will change out of these,
now. I just wanted to show you, sir."
"You will do very well."
"Will I?" He smiled slightly, and left the room.
He sounded wistful, bitter, and so lonely, Dr.
Hornblower thought. He reached for the letter he had
discarded earlier, and smoothed the page. "I give to you
heart ..." Damn! he swore and cast it into the fireplace.
Then he hobbled upstairs.
A few minutes later, he knocked at Horatio's door.
Horatio answered immediately. "Yes, sir?"
"I wanted to give you something." He handed Horatio
a black velvet bag. "Well, open it."
Horatio pulled at the drawstring and a length of gold
chain and a locket slid into the palm of his hand. He turned
the pendant over. "It's a portrait of mother!"
"Yes. She intended you to have it. I- I would not want
you to forget her."
"I won't. I will keep it close. Thank you, sir."
Dr. Hornblower nodded. "Mrs. Dabney will be serving
dinner in half an hour. I will see you then."
Horatio's dark eyes were still on the locket. "Yes, of
Dr. Hornblower descended the stairs with difficulty.
The sea chest still mocked him. He raised the lid and placed
the letter addressed to Captain Keene on top of Horatio's
blue kersey jacket. There was a sword and a scabbard on
the top layer; a slender length of steel that looked about as
lethal as a darning needle, but nonetheless a grim reminder of
Horatio would be facing. Would the boy have the mettle to
use it? It was a question only time would answer.
He closed the sea chest and snapped the hasp over the
catch. Like a blind man feeling his way, he traced the letters
H. Hornblower. The chest had loomed large, but now it
seemed scarcely big enough to contain his heart.