THE BEST MEDICINE
By Ruth W

 

A black boat upon a black sea in utter blackness of night; no stars shone down to comfort or show the way. The boat drifted, oarless, with the restless currents of the ocean and there seemed no end but death.

With the utter loneliness he had become used to, he became slowly aware of the room about him, white and bare and unbearably bright after the darkness of sleep. He was not in his cell, but in the little clean infirmary, with its stout, solid furniture and sunlight streaming in across his bed through the open window. The smell of verbena and lemons drifted in from Don Masseredo's garden, and nesting birds fluttered in and out of the vines on the wall outside, the sound of their wings mingling with the tinkle of a fountain in the courtyard beyond.

All was peaceful , yet the strangeness of the room confused him, making him seek with slit eyes an anchor for his wandering soul. Then a sound like a sigh made him turn his head, to find a figure silhouetted against the window.

"Horatio ?" he tried hopefully, wincing at the harshness of the light. His voice sounded hoarse and powerless. There was a pause while the shadow moved from its contemplation of the courtyard to stand beside his bed and a voice he had known for years said quietly "Rest easy, Mr. Kennedy. Captain's havin' dinner wi' the Guv'nor. He asked me to sit wi' you, Sir, case you should want something before he gets back . . ."

Archie stared up at the speaker for a moment, while the words sank in. Then he drew his scant credibility around him like a cloak and responded with a stiff little smile "Thank you, Matthews. Good of you to give up your time for me."

Matthews knew it was the kind of remark any King's officer might make in the circumstances. Nevertheless he was amused. It was not as if his time in this Dago rat-hole was especially precious.

"It's no trouble, Sir." Without being asked, Matthews poured water and helped him to drink it, wiping the spillage from his chest with a clean towel. Obviously the young midshipman would have preferred only Lieutenant Hornblower to see him like this, but Matthews was no stranger to crisis and was eminently the right person to have in his stead.

"How are you today, Mr. Kennedy?" he asked conversationally.

"Much better, thank you." Again it was the only reply he could give in front of a seaman, even one as 'able' as Matthews, but he managed a smile and a bright look which gave the words the veneer of conviction. Matthews put the cup down and straightened.

"Can I get you anything, Sir?" he asked.

"No. Thank you." The words were a little more deliberate now. In fact there was something, but Archie had decided some things could definitely wait for Hornblower's return.

"There's a pot of soup by the fire for you, Sir," Matthews told him. "I'll put it on to warm."

Kennedy turned his head with a sigh. It seemed only half an hour since he had forced the last bowl of the disgusting liquid down. The thought of starting all over again made him want to cry.

"I'm not very hungry just now, I'm afraid," he confessed, thinking that his authority would save him from the effort. He was not to be so lucky. Matthews calmly placed the little kettle on the flames and came back to the bedside.

"Beggin' your pardon, Mr. Kennedy," he answered reluctantly, "but Mr. Hornblower said you was to 'ave soup, and I wasn't to take 'no' for an answer, Sir."

Archie's eyes closed. Nevertheless he took the news manfully. He could hardly refuse and leave Matthews to carry the blame. If the soup made him sick, he hoped it would be Horatio who would have to clean up.

He drank it gallantly and made a supreme effort to eat a piece of stale bread , which Matthews dipped in water to make it more palatable. In the end the bread defeated him, but the determination of a very sick man impressed the seaman and reassured him that in the matter of escape Kennedy meant business.

"Now, Sir," Matthews said briskly, "anything else you need?"

Archie hesitated. He was getting uncomfortable.

"When will Mr. Hornblower be back?" he asked hopefully.

Matthews shook his head. "Hours yet, Sir. He'd not been gone long when you woke up, Sir."

Kennedy decided he had waited long enough. He glanced about the room for the usual receptacle but of course it was missing.

"There's an earthen jar somewhere," he said quietly. "Can you see it? It may have rolled under the bed."

"A jar, Sir?"

Midshipman Kennedy realised the older man was mystified. He took a deep breath, wondering how to articulate his need without being vulgar, but with enough clarity to be understood by the lower deck.

"I need it for personal reasons, Matthews," he stated flatly, irritated that their worlds were at once so near and yet so far apart. He was not particularly embarrassed. He had been a sailor for a long time, and here was no chance for delicacy in the close quarters of a warship. But he could not bring himself to use the same language with Matthews which he might have used in the company of, perhaps, Hether or Cleveland. The venerable and kindly Matthews reminded him a bit too much of his father.

Matthews' expression still wore a look of puzzlement. The word 'need' made some impression, as the Captain had said Mr. Kennedy should have every comfort, and as much food and water as could be coaxed into him. Matthews moved hesitantly to the jug. "Shall I pour you some more, Sir?" he asked helpfully.

Archie's eyes closed. Delicacy be damned. He was getting desperate . . .

"I need the jar," he insisted with deliberation.

"Sir?"

"I can't get up to use the privy . . . " Archie finally lost patience. "I need it to piss in, Matthews . . ."

There was no ambiguity in that.

"Oh . . ." A broad but kindly grin lit Matthews' face. "I'll . . . er . . . find it straight away, Mr. Kennedy," he promised, ducking under the bed to hide his amusement.

Once they had the matter straight between them, the seaman was sensible and efficient. As a matter of kindness and respect, he dealt with the request with naval formality, making no move to help beyond the handing over of the earthen receptacle. As a result the simple operation took some time and left Archie weak from the effort. Matthews knew better than to comment. He emptied the jar into a storm-drain outside and then came back to put things in order by pouring water from a pan on the stove into a basin at the washstand and washing Kennedy's face and hands, drying them gently with a clean towel. Then he straightened the bedcovers and tucked them in neatly.

Throughout the operation, Archie said little beyond the odd murmur of thanks, but it was obvious from the relaxation of his drawn face that he enjoyed the comfort afforded by the simple kindness.

"There," Matthews said with satisfaction. "Now you're shipshape, Sir, I should get some sleep if I were you, before Mr. Hornblower comes back."

"I've done enough sleeping in the last twenty-four hours to challenge the Pharaohs," Kennedy complained, shifting slightly so that his pillow could be straightened.

Matthews' brow furrowed. Instinctively he knew he should get the lad to do as he was told, but he knew of old that Kennedy could be as stubborn in his way as Hornblower, and he felt unauthorised to insist.

"Would you like something to read, Sir?" he asked in a moment of inspiration.

"No . . . It's all right thank you, Matthews . . ."

The only book in the room was a Spanish bible, and while Kennedy would normally have enjoyed the novelty of realising the familiar stories in a foreign tongue, Matthews could see he was simply too exhausted by the effort of eating and communicating, and the struggle with the jar and the bedclothes, to bother. And it was clear he had far too much tact to ask Matthews to attempt to read it to him.

Fortunately the seaman sensed his need for quiet entertainment. He seated himself beside the bed and took up the small stone he had been polishing with a pumice cloth.

"Mr. Hornblower found this on the beach, Sir." He held up the round, black pebble proudly. "It's jet. Come up lively, this will, once I've ground it smooth."

Archie took it from his hand and looked more closely. He had seen elegant cut stones of pure black in ladies' necklaces, but he had to admit this raw stone, beginning to shine under the coating of pumice, looked far better.

"What are you going to do with it?" he asked quietly, handing it back. "Is there a lucky lady to wear this, Matthews?"

The older man grinned broadly. "Sure I can find one somewhere, Sir," he said with a wink.

For a while he carried on polishing in silence, while Archie closed his eyes. But when the eyes opened again and it was clear Kennedy was restless, Matthews said casually "The shore of Western Africa, Sir. That's the place for jewels. You'll find a fortune lying about in those sands if you look long enough."

"Have you ever been there, Matthews?" Archie asked, interested.

"I 'ave, Sir. I could tell you a tale or two . . ."

Seeing that Kennedy's eyes were now riveted on him, the seaman told his tale or two, and then told a few more. And when he ran out of tales of Africa, Archie asked him about the West Indies, and America and the South Seas.

"Oh, Mr. Kennedy, the South Seas . . ." Matthews shook his head, lost in fond memories. "You never saw sea-fire like you see in the islands. And the women . . . stark naked as God made 'em, they go - swimming about your jolly-boat like porpoises. And brown all over from the sun, Sir, an' yet pure . . . innocent . . . lovely . . . just what a man needs after two years at sea . . ."

He stopped short, suddenly aware that he might be overstepping the undrawn line between the upper and lower deck. But some things are the same whichever part of the ship is listening. Archie's eyes were shining, and it was obvious he had not felt the indiscretion. It was encouraging evidence that under the trauma and frailty of serious illness, there was still a young man eager for life. Matthews could not help smiling.

"You really should sleep now, Sir," he reminded gently. "Captain'll kill me, keepin' you awake all this time."

"I'm not tired . . ." Kennedy's voice was flattened almost to a monotone by exhaustion. He sounded like a small boy evading bedtime. "Have you ever sailed round the Horn, Mr. Matthews?"

"Oh, yes, Sir. Several times . . ." and he was off again, unable to hold back the thrill of the memories, and Kennedy lay back against his pillow, enchanted, for the first time in almost two years feeling his spirits lifted by simple entertainment. In the story the storm raged, and the ship shaved past needle-sharp rocks "This close, Mr. K.!" and the wind howled in the rigging "We fair thought she'd be torn apart, Sir!" and the captain's daughter hitched up her skirts and got hauling on the ropes with the men "An' a nice turn of ankle, she had, Sir, I can tell you! . . . Quite a treat, were that . . ."

In the vines outside there was a commotion, as a family of tiny birds pursued a domestic squabble, their darting in and out causing fluttering shadows in the sunshine. Kennedy turned to watch absently the dancing patterns reflected on the wall, while the story unfolded of the Amaryl's adventure amid the rocks of Tierra Del Fuego.

An observer of the pleasant scene in the little infirmary would not have known who was the more enthralled by the tale, the greying tar who was telling it, or the eager young midshipman who was listening.

Then a knock on the door interrupted them, and a Spanish servant entered unbidden. The sick-room may have been clean and comparatively comfortable, but it was still a prison and they were never allowed to forget it.

The servant carried a tray with a half-full brandy-glass, the presence of which he explained in rapid Spanish to Kennedy, placing it on the wooden bedside table.

Archie's puzzled frown turned to a wry smile. "Graci," he said quietly, and the Spaniard withdrew.

"It seems," Kennedy said to Matthews "that Mr. Hornblower has sent me his after-dinner brandy. I don't know how he thinks I'm going to drink all that." Then his expression cleared as he had a novel idea. "Will you help me drink it, Matthews?"

On board ship the seaman would have been embarrassed by the suggestion - indeed it would not have been made. But here, in these extraordinary circumstances, it seemed most natural, and Matthews made only a token resistance, which Archie quickly dismissed with all the conviction of the upper classes.

"We have known each other too long for reticence, Mr. Matthews!" he declared, forgetting how reticent he had been over the earthen jar. "We must thank Mr. Hornblower for his largesse."

Matthews had no idea what 'reticence' or 'largesse' might be, but he had been translating Kennedy's fabulous international vocabulary into plain English for years, and understood in principle most of what he said.

They halved the spirit between the brandy-glass and the little horn cup, and then watered it, shipboard-style. Then they drank it while Matthews finished the tale of the fortunate Amaryl.

Since he still needed help to drink, and he was tired of burdening people, Archie took his in just a few mouthfuls. He had not seen spirits for two years and had tasted wine only in medicinal amounts. The brandy went straight to his head, leaving a satisfied smile on his face, and within ten minutes his eyes were closing.

Matthews lowered the tone of his voice and let the story run on to its happy outcome, and then beyond into the calm seas of the return voyage, until he was sure Kennedy was asleep. Then he took the empty cup from his slack hands and drew up the covers to keep out the evening chill. No good Mr. Hornblower dragging the lad back from the brink of death just so he could die a week later of the pleurisy.

The spanish bible lay on Kennedy's bedside table, open at the story of Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea. There was a wonderful picture ­ full of rich images, dramatic faces, and the wild tumble of sea and sky. Just like Mr. Kennedy to choose a page with plenty of action and energy. Matthews shook his head sadly. How the boy must have suffered here alone, living in hopeless dreams, without his beloved books, denied the sea which was life to them all. Bad enough for an old salt who'd been around and seen a bit of the world, but crippling for a youngster just opening his wings to fly. And they had all seen the hole in the ground, and knew how long Kennedy had been left there, punished savagely for merely trying to regain his precious freedom. No wonder the poor lad had all-but lost his wits . . .

Well, there was a look of contentment on his face tonight ­ thanks to Mr. Hornblower, and Spanish brandy . . . and perhaps the ladies of the South Seas may have helped a little . . .

With a chuckle, Matthews picked up the book and sat down to pass the time with it.

Long after the sun had gone from the window and the heat of afternoon had given way to the velvet Spanish night, a very sober and preoccupied Lieutenant Hornblower returned to resume his vigil. He found his midshipman asleep with a faint smile on his face and something like the old colour in his cheeks.

"I'm sorry I was gone so long," Hornblower said. "Thank you for your patience, Matthews."

"My pleasure," came the quiet reply. "He's really no trouble, Sir. He ate 'is soup an' chatted a bit. Then went off to sleep, sweet as a nut." Matthews stood up, closing the book. " He bade me thank you for the brandy, Mr. Hornblower. Made me share it, he did."

Hornblower bent over the bed to lay a hand on Kennedy's brow and on his breast, to be sure the flushed cheeks were not a sign of fever. Archie turned towards his touch and murmured something in his sleep. The smile on his face deepened. This was a very different Archie from the tormented young man who had lain here only a few days ago trying to die.

"Good heavens," Hornblower said cheerfully, "What have you done to him, Matthews?"

"Nothing at all, Sir," Matthews grinned. "Mebbe he's just found himself something good to dream about . . ."

 

* * *

 

When Matthews rejoined the men in the exercise yard, it was nearly dark. They had their jackets on and were savouring the cooler air of evening, talking quietly in three or four little groups under the stone arches. Lamps had been lit, warming the courtyard and banishing the shadows, and the air was loud with cicadas eager for romance in the secret places of the night.

Midshipman Hunter sat in a corner, muttering with a couple of others, and Styles hovered in a nearby alcove, trying to eavesdrop, looking uneasy. He unfolded his arms when Matthews appeared, and came to join him with obvious relief.

"Is he all right?" he asked covertly.

"Aye, 'e will be." Matthews responded for his ears alone. "I think 'e came nearer to Old Nick than either of 'em will say, but he's ower the worst now, and mending . . . Tough little nut to crack, is Kennedy."

"So . . ." Hunter greeted nastily, looking up from his skulduggery, "Hornblower leaves you minding the baby while he's off dining with his friends? Is Kennedy dead yet?"

Matthews looked him up and down without emotion. "Mister Kennedy is doing nicely, thank you, Sir," he responded evenly. "The way the Captain's looking after him, he'll be dancing a hornpipe by the end of the week."

Hunter gave a grunt of derision, rising to his feet, stretching like a mean old cat. "About all he's good for," he growled over his shoulder as he made to go indoors for the night.

"Cuts a good hornpipe, does young Kennedy," Matthews said in an undertone, stroking his stubble thoughtfully. "Better'n that nasty, fat bastard, or I'm the Queen o' Sheba . . ."

Oldroyd, sitting on the bench, sewing a patch over a hole in his trousers, looked up with a grin.

"When did you ever see Kennedy dance a hornpipe?" he smirked.

"Seen a lot o' things, we 'ave," Styles reminded him meaningfully.

"Some of us" added Matthews "remember Mr. Kennedy when he were a little lad wi' a voice like a girl's . . ."

"Aye . . . Like the Captain says ­ he's one of us, is Kennedy." Styles sat in the dust, sifting it through his fingers. "An' some of us think he's worth the wait..."

Oldroyd snorted. "Sentimental," he accused, "that's what you two are."

Matthews' eyes narrowed, and he became suddenly sober. "Call me sentimental, or call me a catfish," he returned grimly, "but given the choice between that good lad , new from his sickbed , an' Mr. Bull-at-a-Gate Hunter . . . well, I know who I'd rather follow on a shore-party . . . I tell you, he's mendin' fast, and when . . . eventually . . . Mr. Hornblower gives the order to make the break, he'll be with us every step. He'll keep up if it kills 'im." He gave a loud sniff, as if to bring the debate to a conclusion. "Stupid talking about it, anyway," he added briskly. "There's no two ways about it. Like the captain said, we can't leave one of our own here to rot . . .!"

Styles treated Oldroyd to a fierce and warning glare. "Aye!" he agreed vehemently, "and there's an end to it!"

Oldroyd - who knew better - pretended to concentrate on his darning . . .

The end