The Carpenter's Walk
by Sarah B.
O Come O Come Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
It was the day of Christmas Eve, and Dr. Luis Sebastian was enjoying an early-evening cigar on the taffrail of the British frigate Indefatigable, watching the snowflakes swirl the through the cold air of Portsmouth harbor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lieutenant Hornblower coming up the poop-deck stairs, and turned a friendly face to him.
"Good evening, lieutenant," Sebastian said in his smooth manner as soon as the younger man was close enough, "How are you faring?"
"Well enough, sir," Hornblower replied, his brown eyes squinting at the restless waters around them. The tone of his voice was a direct lie to his words, however, and he rubbed his hands together anxiously.
Dr. Sebastian took a puff of his cigar and replied as if he had not noticed these things. "I am glad to hear it. Will you be going ashore soon, to spend time with your father and his household?"
Horatio nodded, reluctantly it seemed, "Yes, tomorrow, as soon as my duties are done here."
"Ah," Dr. Sebastian smiled and tapped his cigar on the railing, watching the ash fall into the sea, "You must give my regards to your father, when you see him. He is a remarkable man."
"Thank you, sir," Horatio replied, still with the same apprehensive air, "I will do so."
There was a pause then, and Dr. Sebastian waited for what he knew would come; if he asked Hornblower what was bothering him, the answer might never reveal itself. But if he waited...well, there was the dying of the day to watch, and the snow was pretty...
Then of course, the bubble burst. "Doctor, if I might beg a favor of you..."
Dr. Sebastian hid his smile by putting the cigar to his lips, then replied, "Of course, lieutenant. How may I help you?"
"It's one of my men," Horatio admitted, relief clear on his face that he could talk about this finally, "Styles, to be exact. I wonder if he might be falling ill."
Sebastian turned to lean against the railing, and crossed his arms. "What makes you think so?"
"His - " Hornblower cast uncertain eyes out to sea, " - attitude, his demeanor, have been most unlike him of late. He seems very withdrawn."
"Hm. That does seem unlike him. Any symptoms?"
Hornblower shrugged. "Lethargy. No obvious illness, but then I am not as practiced as you at discerning them. He - " Hornblower paused, as if trying to think of how the words, or perhaps he thought they would sound foolish. "He's developed a fear of tight places."
"Indeed?" Sebastian frowned.
Hornblower nodded, worry evident on his face. "I asked him to take some tools through the carpenter's walk this afternoon, and he very nearly refused to do it. It was the quickest route, I did not think it an unreasonable request; yet he seemed daunted by it."
Sebastian cocked his head, and tried to imagine the fearless former convict afraid to walk down a narrow corridor. "Did you ask him why he was reluctant?"
"Aye, sir, but he would give no answer. He did apologize for his slowness, and did as I bid him, but something is wrong. I fear I will not be able to go to my father's easily until I know what the trouble is."
Sebastian smiled, and this time did not try to hide it. Hornblower wore his concern for his men the way others wore overcoats; comfortable and confining at once. "I will be sent to the devil before I ruin your journey, lieutenant. I will see if I cannot discover what is troubling your crewman."
"Thank you," Hornblower replied breathlessly, "He's a good man, and usually as reliable as the Northern star. That he should be so suddenly moody ..." he sighed and shook his head, "And I'm afraid he won't make it easy for you. He's more likely to be defensive and morose than helpful and open."
"Then I have my work cut out for me," Sebastian answered with a reassuring smile, and patted Hornblower on the shoulder, "And now, even though I know of your skepticism of such things, I hope that you will accept an invitation to attend the service I am planning for tonight. Consider it a farewell, to wish you a safe and happy journey home."
Hornblower winced. "Will there be singing?"
Dr. Sebastian's smile grew sympathetic, and remembering the cigar he brought it once more up to his mouth and said, "Come at quarter-past the hour, Mr. Hornblower. The singing will be over by then, and with God's help whatever is troubling Styles will be over also."
It never failed to impress Horatio how active the Indefatigable was, even at anchor. After leaving Dr. Sebastian at the taffrail, he made his way down to his cabin and decided he must have passed a thousand people on his way there. Down three decks and back the length of the mighty ship, and every square inch of it was packed with people - officers going about their duties, sailors hurrying to and fro to get their chores done, some lucky souls with their traveling bags slung over their shoulders, and scores of half-clad and very happy women all bustled by Horatio, and he marveled at it as he had the very first day he came aboard a ship of the line. That all these people could co-exist in a patch of timber no longer than a town-block in London - and a good deal narrower! - and exist for months at a time. And more - that he, Horatio Hornblower, should wonder whether he would miss all this turmoil and noise when he was home, at his father's, where there was nothing but peace and solitude.
Horatio smiled as he came to the cabin door; he knew he would miss it, as he would miss the blood flowing in his veins. That was a thing to marvel at, too.
"Ah, Mr. Kennedy!" Horatio greeted his cabin-mate, who was sitting on the floor next to his open sea-chest, "How goes it with you this evening?"
Archie Kennedy turned his blue eyes to Horatio for a moment and smiled in his usual good humor, then cast his attention back to his trunk. "Good evening, Mr. Hornblower. Well enough, since we aren't likely to be set upon in the harbor. How goes it with you?"
"The same," Horatio answered casually, taking off his heavy winter cloak and hanging it on the nearest peg, "Better once I'm through here, and can go see my father." He rubbed his hands together to warm them, and peered at his friend with curious eyes. "What are you doing?"
"Oh - I'm helping the doctor collect articles to take to the almshouse tomorrow, and thought while I was doing so I might as well go through this old thing and see what can be got rid of. It's no good being a pack-rat aboard a frigate!"
Horatio smiled at that, and sat down on his bunk, glancing down at Archie's side. Already there was a small collection of articles that Horatio knew had to have come from Archie's sea-chest: an old pack of cards, a few old but clean handkerchiefs, an assortment of small games. Horatio nodded approvingly, "You do seem to be cleaning house, Mr. Kennedy."
"Hm," Archie pulled out a frail-looking shirt and held it up to the light, "This has been patched more times then I care to remember..." He peered at it closely, then carefully folded it and set it in the pile. "Did you get a chance to talk to him?"
Horatio had been wondering if the orphans at the almshouse would want any of that vile pipe-tobacco he had stored in his own sea-chest, and missed the question. "Hm?"
"Dr. Sebastian. You said earlier you needed to speak with him."
"Oh. Yes, I did see him, actually."
Archie nodded, his eyes still on the assortment sitting next to him; after gazing at it for a moment he sat back on his heels and scratched his head. "Well, I think that is as much of a largess as I can spare at the moment."
Horatio crossed his arms and was about to ask Archie about the pipe tobacco when his eyes fell on something else sitting in the trunk. "What about that?"
Archie glanced at Horatio quizzically, then twisted around to look back into the trunk. "What?"
"That blanket there."
"Oh - " Archie paused for the briefest moment, then said, "Oh," again and shrugged, reaching in to slowly pull the blanket out with both hands. It was fairly new, Horatio could see that, a woven blanket of green and dark blue; it looked dusty, but not worn.
"Now why stow a good blanket like that away, Archie?" Horatio asked, folding his arms, "It gets damp enough down here, God knows. And the blankets we have are as thin as paper."
Archie didn't answer right away. Horatio couldn't see his face, since Archie's back was to him, but he could see Archie turning the blanket over in his hands; and he could hear the uncertain quality in his friend's voice when he answered, "I'm sorry, Horatio. I forgot I had this."
"Don't apologize to *me*," Horatio rejoined jovially, wondering at Archie's sudden change of mood, "Apologize to your shivering extremities. Well, you've remembered it now, at any rate; unless father graces me with a like gift, you'll be the warmest man in this cabin!"
Archie paused again, held the blanket in both hands; then he said in a firm, decisive voice, "No. No, you're right, Horatio, I should give this to the almshouse. Someone must need it, someone..." he put the blanket beside himself, and kept one hand on it, his face outlined in the lanternlight; Horatio could see an unsettling wistfulness there. "Anyway - anyway, it's time. Someone else must need this now."
Horatio frowned at his friend's expression. It reminded him in a vague way of a long time ago, when he and Archie had just met each other aboard Horatio's first ship, the Justinian. Archie had been a different person then, the bullied and terrified victim of midshipman Jack Simpson, but those days were so long over that Horatio didn't even think on them anymore. Certainly Archie didn't think on them either, not since Dr. Sebastian had come aboard Indefatigable and helped Archie heal the hurts that Simpson had caused; not since Archie had made lieutenant and accomplished things that made even Horatio shake his head in wonder sometimes. God! The days on Justinian were long-banished shadows, over and forgotten for both of them. Both of them -
- so why was there the thinnest veil of those days on Archie's face now, and why would it be called up by an old, unused woolen blanket?
Before Horatio could think of a good way to ask that particular question, Archie's mood abruptly changed and he gave the blanket a final, hard pat and said brightly, "Well, that's that. Are you coming to services tonight, Horatio?"
"Uh - well, I promised Dr. Sebastian I would. But...not until after the singing."
Archie laughed, but in a companionly way that Horatio did not take offense to. "Well, at least you'll be there. You should see the mountain of goods the doctor has been collecting, the captain even surrendered one of his dressing-gowns. It will make my poor shirts pale in comparison!"
Horatio smiled at the thought, "Next to the captain's attire I'm afraid we must all bow our heads in shame. But then, that is the advantage of a long and distinguished service."
"True!" Archie admitted, and rose onto all fours.
As he did so, Horatio's mind turned back to Justinian and he had a thought. "Say, Archie?"
Archie was fishing underneath his bunk for something. "Yes?"
"You've served with Styles for a very long time, haven't you?"
"Styles?" Archie grunted as he reached far under his bunk, and winced as he apparently grabbed something. "Yes, I suppose. Why?"
"He's been acting very peculiar lately. I'm concerned about him."
"Peculiar how?" Archie pulled his arm back, and grimaced when he found a wadded-up pair of stockings in his hands. "Dammit, that's not what I was looking for. Wondered where they'd gone to, though."
"I'm listening," Archie put his hand back under the bunk. "I asked, peculiar how?"
"He's...well, he's been reluctant to follow my orders, especially where it concerns going through the carpenter's walk. Can you recall if he's ever been wary of such places before?"
Archie pulled his hand back again, and grinned in triumph when he saw that he was holding a canvas bag. He opened it and began placing his gathered articles within. "Are you asking me if Styles has ever disobeyed orders?"
"Not really, I suppose. I'm more asking if - well, if you can think of any reason he wouldn't want to go down the carpenter's walk."
"Oh," the last article Archie picked up was the blanket, and as Horatio watched Archie paused for a long moment to look at it. His lips were pursed together in a tight, thoughtful way; Horatio raised his eyebrows to see it.
Then Archie quickly placed the blanket in the bag and tied the string very tightly, as if that was the end of it. "No, Horatio, I'm sorry. I can't."
O, come, strong branch of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save
And give them vic'try o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
Dr. Sebastian sat alone in his cabin and thought.
He was waiting, really, that was all; but in the meantime he had decided to do some contemplation, and so had relaxed, removed his coat, and was gazing at the statue of the Virgin Mary that occupied a place of honor in that little room. She was set into a special base so she could never fall or break, and in that base were holes for the votive candles that were now glowing warmly, like tiny stars, filling the room with golden light. The sight of the Virgin with stars at her feet, shimmering as through a curtain of reflected glory, never failed to move the doctor. Tonight it moved him to pray.
Dearest lady, he thought solemnly as he glanced over to the small wooden creche that he would shortly be taking up to the Christmas service, this is a season of miracles. The coming of your Son, the purity of His conception, the humility in which He chose to come into the world - all this we celebrate, and you must give my thanks to Him for allowing me another year to share this time with my brothers on earth. But there are so many other miracles, some perhaps unseen by anyone, that are occurring every day around me. That I have been blessed with an honorable captain and crew; that so many entrusted to my care have been restored; that through your Son my gifts have brought healing to those who need it, not only in their bodies but in their minds and souls. For that I am forever grateful.
But I confess I am a selfish man, Lady, for in all these bountiful blessings I cannot be satisfied. I must ask for another miracle, that I may be able to reach the soul of a man whose soul closed over a long time ago. A good man, but roughened by the world and cynical of any hand that would move to cure him. Yet he hurts too, Lady, and I have been asked by another good man to discover why. And this is why I have come to ask for your help, and your Son's, and God's. Because I might need all of your help. Even in a season of miracles.
"Excuse me - sir?"
Dr. Sebastian looked toward the door. The loblolly boy, Toby, was standing there, looking uncertain and perhaps a little frightened. To his fear Sebastian smiled calmly, hoping to soothe him. "Yes, Toby?"
Toby glanced back over his shoulder, then took another step into the room and whispered, "Seaman Styles is here."
Sebastian put a hand on the boy's shoulder and looked at him steadily. "Thank you, Toby. Don't worry, he won't hurt you."
"He would if he fell on me," Toby muttered, but the doctor knew he was not meant to hear that and let it pass. Toby hurried out of the room and Dr. Sebastian stood, gathering up his coat. He put it on, and as he straightened the collar gave the Virgin one last, supplicating look. **half a miracle would be more than enough...**
"Y'asked t'see me, sir?"
Dr. Sebastian looked up. Seaman Styles was not a small man, and standing in the low, narrow door to the cabin, dressed in his heavy winter coat and woolen hat, he seemed much, much bigger. The candlelight softened his features some, but he was broad-shouldered and muscular, the legacy of a lifetime of hard unrewarded work, and his face still bore the ravages of early disease and later hard living. Some would call Styles menacing, and he could be; Dr. Sebastian was certain he had no love for the Spanish, at any rate. But he had always treated Sebastian with respect, and at the moment the doctor saw only curiosity in those round eyes.
Half a miracle. Sebastian smiled. "Yes, Styles. Come in, please."
Styles walked in, slowly, staring openly at the Virgin Mary as he passed her. Halfway past, he twitched a little, as if remembering something, and took off his hat.
Once inside the room, Styles turned to Dr. Sebastian, his expression a little more nervous.
Dr. Sebastian tried to think of a way to ease the man's discomfiture; he did not talk to Styles much, and the man gave few clues how to reach inside him. He gestured to a nearby chair. "Please, sit down."
Styles sat, but not comfortably. "Am I in trouble, sir?"
"Trouble? No," Dr. Sebastian leaned against his desk and crossed his arms. "Not at all - "
"'as somethin' 'appened then?" Styles guessed, his eyes widening. "To one o' me mates? Somebody up and died on me?"
"Oh, no," Dr. Sebastian replied, putting up his hands in reassurance while kicking himself for being unable to put the sailor at ease, "No, Styles, I have no bad news to relate to you at all! I'm..." Sebastian sighed in frustration, and finally moved next to Styles and sat on the bunk next to his chair. Leaning forward and looking at the floor so he would concentrate and phrase his words carefully he said, "I apologize, this is rather awkward for me. You see - "
"Is this about that Christmas service?"
Dr. Sebastian stopped, took a breath. Well, why not? "Have you heard of it?"
Styles nodded. "Do you need somethin' from us? From the ratings, I mean. Is that it?"
Go along, something told Sebastian, and he straightened his back. "Do you have anything to give?"
Styles cast his gaze to the deck and shrugged. "Ooh, sir, not *too* much. Not unless someone's got a use for ratty old cards and some cracked dice. But - but I think it's real nice, what you and them officers're doin'. Not enough o' those types doin' such, if you ask me."
Those last words were said softly, and once they were said Styles kept his gaze to the floor, as if something was still down there. The melancholy look on his face made Sebastian ask, "Would you like to help?"
Styles' eyes snapped up, suspicious. "What'ye mean? Me?"
Sebastian nodded, an idea forming. "As it happens, I need someone to help me move the tables in the mess aside for the service. I have considered enlisting Mr. Kennedy's aid, but alas, he does not have your physical strength."
Styles looked down again quickly. "No sir."
There was something unexpected in that gesture, as if a door was being opened into Styles' soul then shut again, very fast. Dr. Sebastian was not sure he had even seen it, but something was lingering in the seaman's eyes that made him reconsider. And what was there had not been there before he mentioned Kennedy...Glancing at the Lady for help, Dr. Sebastian stood and picked up his candle-snuffer. "Come with me, Styles. We should get started moving things right away."
Dr. Sebastian walked down the long passage, knowing that Styles was right behind him. He was not certain if his idea would work, but he knew that if he came out and asked Styles about his claustrophobia he might never get an answer; the man was much too guarded and proud to reveal anything that might be seen as a shortcoming. Therefore, clearly another route was called for. He prayed that this one would end in success.
They reached the mess, which was near the front of the ship, and Sebastian heard Styles come to a stop behind him. He looked around, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his watch. "Let us see, where to begin...I asked Captain Pellew to allow some evergreen to be delivered to the ship for decoration. It should be waiting for us on deck."
Styles nodded and scratched one ear. "Right, sir."
"Given the hour, we will save some time if we take the carpenter's walk, and then up to the quarterdeck. Come."
Ah! There it was, the hesitation Hornblower had mentioned. Dr. Sebastian saw Styles' expression change, very subtly but it was there, like a fading scar. One had to be very perceptive to see it.
But Styles probably did not know that the doctor had noticed; he ducked his head very quickly and mumbled, "As you please, sir," but there was no cooperation in that voice; Styles was trying hard to hide it, but Dr. Sebastian knew that he did not want to go into the carpenter's walk - indeed, he would not go unless forced. And every nerve in the doctor's being primed itself to discover why.
"Let us hurry then," the doctor said, and with his reluctant helper in tow, they made for the carpenter's walk.
It was not a long journey to the small opening that marked the beginning of the narrow corridor that ran the entire length of the Indefatigable's hull. The carpenter's walk was a practical design, constructed so that in battle or other emergency the ship's carpenter could quickly access the timbers that were all that stood between the men and the sea. Leaks could be plugged, holes mended, and in times of leisure the carpenter's walk was the quickest way to get from one end of the ship to the other, with few if any obstructions.
It was also a place of darkness and secrecy, where suspicious captains feared mutinies were plotted, and oftentimes they were right. The carpenter's walk was essentially one long, narrow, dark hallway, out of the way and secluded - it was an easy enough place to be frightened of.
But why would such a fear strike the stalwart and audacious Styles? Dr. Sebastian pondered this as they approached the entrance to the walk, and as he lifted a lantern from a nearby hook he prepared himself to find the answer. Then he turned to where he knew Styles was following him.
Styles was standing some feet back, looking at Sebastian warily but with a grimly knowing air.
"'e told you about this, didn't 'e?" Styles asked, "Mr. 'ornblower."
Dr. Sebastian lowered the lantern a little, and paused.
"'e told you - I mean - " Styles gestured toward the opening, "'ow I feel about goin' in there."
"You don't like it?"
Styles made a face, then looked at the floor and mumbled, "Just for a bit is all. Won't last."
"Mr. Hornblower is concerned for you, Styles," Dr. Sebastian explained, noting as he looked at Styles how the man's shoulders were hunched, as if something pained him; and the look in his eyes that spoke of some distant shame, "As he is with all his men. He knows this fear is unlike you. He doesn't want the captain to see it, and go hard on you."
Styles shrugged, keeping his eyes on the deck. "Wouldn't let that 'appen. I know better'n that."
"Yes," Dr. Sebastian took a step toward that opening, that small space, "and Mr. Hornblower has every confidence in you. But he knows I have had experience dealing with all manner of illness, and he feared that you were falling victim to something he had never seen before. That is why he asked me to watch over you."
"Oh - " Styles' head came up, and he shrugged again in a large way, "It's nothin' like that - naw, I ain't sick, I just - it's just the time an' all. Nothin' to worry anyone about."
"Of course not," Dr. Sebastian agreed, watching the way Styles moved, as if he was trying to remove some great burden without anyone seeing it, "But Mr. Hornblower chooses to worry, nonetheless."
Styles looked at him, pale eyes bewildered but silent; he would not ask for help.
Dr. Sebastian took a chance anyway. "I have known many men who have a reluctance to go to a place where unpleasant memories linger. It is common; it is even practical. I myself do not like to be at my home in England during the summer, because that is when my wife died."
Styles blinked; Sebastian saw curiosity in his eyes.
"And this time of year," Dr. Sebastian said softly, letting his gaze travel to the wedding ring he still wore, "to hear dancing music played, when my wife loved to dance...you see how it is."
When he looked up again, Sebastian saw that Styles had crossed his arms and was gazing at the narrow opening to the carpenter's walk. Encouraged, Sebastian continued, "It is difficult to live with such memories when one is confronted with them every day. But there are ways to make such co-existence easier."
Styles' eyes snapped to him then. How? They asked. But he said nothing.
Dr. Sebastian waited for a moment, then sighed and moving toward the opening said, "Well, we had best make haste if we are to set those greens before the service - "
Sebastian paused, then turned. Styles was nervously fingering his heavy pea jacket, and stared at the doctor with apprehensive eyes. "You won't tell Mr. 'ornblower?"
Perhaps a breakthrough at last? "Not if you do not wish me to."
Styles nodded to himself, and flicked another look at the dark doorway beyond them. "I ain't proud of it."
Dr. Sebastian shrugged a little, and set the lantern on a nearby hook. "I am no one's judge. I only want to help you."
"Well - " Styles glanced around, then came forward a step and met Sebastian in the halo of light that the lantern made. He pitched his voice low. "You won't tell? No one, I mean."
"I swear to God, Styles."
Styles affected a small grin. "Well, you take that serious enough, I reckon." He leaned against a barrel and sighed in a very tired way. "I s'pose you know - Mr. 'ornblower's probably told you about what I was like - before - "
"Before you went into his service?" Dr. Sebastian crossed his arms, "He mentioned to me once that you all served together on another ship."
"Aye," Styles said, and there was no mistaking the bitterness in his voice then, "Justinian. Rat hole of a ship if you ask me."
Sebastian nodded. "Mr. Kennedy has spoken of it as well."
Styles froze at that name, as Sebastian suspected he would. His gaze grew wary, almost afraid. "What'd he tell you?"
"Now, that is between Mr. Kennedy and myself," Dr. Sebastian answered, "But if you served with him you know it was not pleasant."
Styles snorted. "Naw, it weren't. Like being in a dogfight it was, every day. Eat or be eaten, till you became a dog yerself just so's you could get along."
"Yes, I have heard that. But it was not because of the captain?"
"Captain Keene? Naw, he were a mindless nothin'. It was because of Simpson."
Simpson. There were few men Sebastian knew of whose very name carried with it every dark and loathsome slur known to humankind; Jack Simpson was certainly one of them. How many times had Sebastian heard it spat out by Hornblower during one of their dinnertime discussions of his past, or whispered in halting tones by Kennedy in the doctor's cabin as he tried desperately to heal his soul of its harrowing wounds? Jack Simpson, bully, manipulator, sadistic thief of men's lives and the sneering defiler of innocent souls - Sebastian was not at all surprised to discover that man at the forefront of Style's torment. But he did not say so; it was not his story to tell. He only nodded in recognition and said, "Go on."
Styles took a deep breath and let his eyes wander into the darkness. "I know you been talkin' to Mr. Kennedy, and...well, what happened between him and Mr. Simpson, it weren't no secret on the ship..."
"Yes." Dr. Sebastian did not want to say any more on that subject than he had to.
Styles took this cue and took another short, hitching breath, "I don't like to talk on it either, sir, except...well, it's about that carpenter's walk, y'see. Why I don't like it."
Sebastian nodded encouragement. "Tell me."
Styles pursed his lips, and lifting his head looked at the entrance to the walk for a long moment. Then he said, slowly, "Mr. Kennedy was just twelve when he came to Justinian. Me, I'd been on 'er for years before that, was in with Simpson pretty good. Matty - er, that's Matthews, you know 'im, sir - 'e looked after me when he came on board, but I thought 'e didn't understand. 'e didn't like Simpson, stayed out of 'is way most times, an' he told me to do the same. I didn't listen though."
There was a long pause then, and Dr. Sebastian saw Styles shift his weight, and look at the floor. "Because, y'know, when you been down in the dirt like I have, findin' someone worse than you just makes y'feel like maybe you ain't so bad - like what y'do don't matter so much. Simpson, 'e saw me as some dumb ox, good for haulin' and carryin'. Beatin' when things didn't go his way. But when all was said an' done 'e'd look me in the eye an' 'e'd say, 'Good boy, Styles, good boy. You know who owns these dogs, eh?' It was almost like 'e was my friend."
Dr. Sebastian saw Styles hunch his shoulders, shaking off some bad memory. Then he resumed.
"So that was what it was like, bein' 'is man. You did your job, an' 'is besides, kept your mouth shut and maybe you wouldn't get the crap beat out of you. I knew my place, an' thought Matty was a fool for not knowin' 'is. And the officers, the ones Simpson beat...well, they just didn't know how to get along, an' the ones that did - well, what were they worth, eh? That's how I saw it, anyway."
"Well...like I said, Mr. Kennedy, 'e...'e got on Simpson's bad side right quick, and I knew bettern' to come between 'em...I mean, Clayton - Mr. Hornblower ever tell you about 'im?"
Dr. Sebastian smiled a little, despite the grimness of the story. "Yes, and Mr. Kennedy as well. He was a brave man, by their accounts."
"Yessir. Didn't know it at th' time, 'e - 'e nearly got killed tryin' to 'elp Mr. Kennedy. I saw... I mean I *saw*, Simpson was serious about that, you didn't bother 'im when he was about Mr. Kennedy. So I kept a distance, knew that weren't nothin' to be done about it - the dogfight, right? The way I lived me whole life. I think - I think I was dead inside. Can that happen?"
"Oh, yes," Sebastian answered.
"Then I was," Styles said firmly, "Dead, nothin' mattered. Turned a blind eye, when I saw a new bruise on one of the middies, or when Simpson'd hand me 'is clothes and there'd be blood on 'em, well, you never saw such a one as me. I thought I'd licked the world, bein' the toady to that bastard. Thought I'd showed 'em who won that dogfight."
Dr. Sebastian waited as Styles sighed again and briefly closed his eyes. Then he asked quietly, "What happened then, to change it?"
Styles opened his eyes again, and they were full of chagrin and remorse. "What 'appened?" he nodded toward the carpenter's walk. "That bloody thing, that's what 'appened. It were Christmas Eve, snowin' out. Me and Matty were in the mess, an' 'e'd given me this blanket...I never got nothin' like it before. It was right nice, all blue and green checks, and thick, like in fancy houses. I wanted to stow it quick before it got lost, so I went up the carpenter's walk. It was dark, an' I only had but a stub of a candle in the lantern...I almost fell flat on my face."
Sebastian frowned. "Fell? In the carpenter's walk?"
Styles met his eyes then, his expression one of ancient remembrance. "Aye, sir. Over Mr. Kennedy."
Dr. Sebastian started.
Styles must have seen that reaction; he immediately looked down at the deck and nodded reluctantly. After taking another deep breath he said, "Yeah. I didn' see 'im, 'e was hidin' behind one of the frames, you know, where they sticks out into the deck. 'e was sleepin' too. Least I think 'e was."
Styles' tone was bitter; Dr. Sebastian asked, "You think he was?"
Styles made an angry face, and the eyes that he raised to the doctor burned with age-old fury. " 'e'd been gone over, by Simpson. 'e was curled up in the framework, no jacket, an' 'is clothes had...well, 'e'd been bleedin'. I couldn't tell, maybe 'e was asleep. Maybe 'e just passed out."
There was a resigned heartache in those words; Dr. Sebastian could feel Styles' soul wrung with it.
Styles shrugged. "I dunno why I'm tellin' you this. Don't make no difference, my part in it stays the same, don't matter how I feel about it now. But...I looked at 'im lyin' there, no more than twelve 'e was, an' I just thought, Jesus. Beggin' yer pardon sir, but Jesus! That bastard couldn't even leave 'im alone at Christmas."
Sebastian made a sympathetic noise, but said nothing else.
"An' it was my fault, y'know. I coulda stopped it, stood up to 'im, somethin'. I don't know how long I stood there, lookin' at Mr. Kennedy lyin' there and just thinkin' Jesus. What a rotten world. And I weren't no better. I won the dogfight and I was just another worthless dog."
Dr. Sebastian leaned back and looked at Styles, could see the unburdening of confession lifting his shoulders, a little. "Then what happened?"
Styles shrugged and continued to gaze at the floor. "Well, I...I couldn't leave 'im lyin' there, 'e was an officer after all. I thought about fetchin' the doctor, but - pfft! He woulda been worse than useless." He cocked his head slightly, as if watching the scene unfold anew. After a long pause he said, "I still 'ad Matty's blanket, and it took a little doin' cause I didn't want 'im to wake up - he'd'a been scared then, he knew enough to be scared o' me - but he weren't very big, and I got Matty's blanket around 'im all right. I took 'im back to the midshipman's berth and put 'im in 'is 'ammock. Don't think 'e ever woke up."
"You took him from the carpenter's walk?"
"Yeah. Well - I thought, what if Simpson comes back for 'im? I...well, it don't make no sense comin' from me I guess but I didn't want to leave 'im lyin' in the dark. I figured, Mr. Clayton, Mr. Eccleston, they'd look after 'im if Simpson came back. I guess...I just didn't want to leave 'im alone, sir."
Styles paused again, and Dr. Sebastian saw the self-incrimination in his face. "And then?"
Styles winced and looked away. "I went about my business. Couldn't take the blanket 'cause Mr. Kennedy was still wrapped in it, an' I didn't wanna wake 'im up. Everyone else was asleep, or I thought they was; as I was goin' I looked back and saw Mr. Clayton up and lookin' at Mr. Kennedy. 'e didn't see me though. Then I - I left."
Styles turned resentful eyes to the dark space that marked the carpenter's walk. "It never used to bother me. What I told you before, about bein' dead? After that night, it was worse. I coulda saved 'im, and I didn't. I coulda stood up to that bastard, beat 'is head in, I woulda swung but it woulda been worth it. But I didn't. And it never bothered me till Mr. Hornblower come."
Styles glanced at Sebastian for a moment, then looked away into the darkness and nodded. "Simpson treated us like dogs, and after that night I thought that was all I deserved. But Mr. 'ornblower, 'e treated us different - treated me different, like I wasn't just dirt. And it made me think about what I was like before, and I hate myself then. This time of year, when I go in there - " Styles gestured toward the blackness of the walk, "When I think about what I could have been and wasn't...I hate it. I don't like thinkin' on that."
"So you avoid it at all costs."
"Well..." Styles slumped his shoulders and admitted defeat. "Yeah." After a moment, he slid an uncertain glance in Sebastian's direction. "Am I sick?"
Dr. Sebastian shook his head with a hint of a smile. "No, Styles, what you are feeling is remorse. It's very healthy, and if Mr. Hornblower heard your words he would be quite proud of your progress."
"Proud!" Styles snorted, "No he wouldn't. Not if he saw Mr. Kennedy bleedin' in there he wouldn't. 'e'd have me in irons."
"He knows that is not the man you are now," Sebastian consoled as he stood and faced Styles with confident eyes, "And Mr. Kennedy does too, I am certain. Does he know you took him from the walk that night?"
"No," Styles shook his head, "Mr. Kennedy went around askin' whose blanket it was, but only me an' Matty knew, and he never told. Matty - Matthews, I told him about what I did, an' he understood. An' 'e - 'e told me Simpson did go lookin' that night, an' was powerful mad when 'e couldn't find Kennedy again, except where 'e couldn't get at 'im. I was scared then. I thought if 'e saw the blanket, 'e'd think Matty 'elped 'im, an' take it out on 'im. But 'e didn't."
Dr. Sebastian gave Styles another smile, wider this time and gentle. "You were scared for Matthews? What about yourself?"
"Me?" Styles made a dismissive noise. "I been beat most my life. Better me than - than somebody who don't deserve it."
"And you never told Mr. Kennedy that you helped him?"
Styles shook his head. "No, sir. I was ashamed to, especially after Mr. 'ornblower came around. Mr. Kennedy'd 'ate me if he knew."
Dr. Sebastian cocked his head. "Why?"
Styles turned his face away again, and his voice trembled with quiet misery. "Cause I coulda helped 'im more. Coulda saved 'im, maybe. An' I didn't."
There was a thick silence then, heavy and full of self-recrimination. Dr. Sebastian regarded Styles in the low candlelight, and felt sympathy for him. Styles was facing the man he had been once, and loathing him. A man who could tear the enemy apart with his bare hands, and yet still feared the anger of a youth who had once been so small he could carry him in his arms.
Styles was still staring at his feet, and shuffled them a little back and forth. "So...so are you going to tell Mr. 'ornblower? About me and the carpenter's walk?"
"No," Sebastian said, putting one hand on Styles' shoulder, "No, that is between you and me, and I give you my word that I will not impart a syllable of it without these walls. Mr. Hornblower only wished to know if what ailed you was physical, and be certain that you would be all right. He will not ask for anything else."
"Oh," Styles replied, but he did not look relieved. His eyes wandered once more to the entrance to the walk. "Well, I still don't...don't think I fancy goin' through there, if ye don't mind. I still don't like thinkin' on it."
Dr. Sebastian withdrew his hand and studied the other man earnestly. "What would make you feel better, Styles? How can I help you walk through there again?"
"Oh!" Styles' eyes opened wide, and he shook his head as if to ward the question off, "Oh, don't trouble yerself, sir. Just answerin' your questions is all, there ain't nothin' to do about it. Just part of me life. Can't go back and change it, can I? Not now."
Dr. Sebastian thought a moment, and wished he could; but for the moment it was simply enough that Styles had released what was bothering him, and seemed to be more at ease about it, even if he was not yet totally healed. "I cannot rework the past, Styles, but I can assist your present. Will helping me tonight take your mind from your troubles? Because I can certainly use those arms that once lifted Mr. Kennedy to safety."
Styles smiled in a small, self-effacing way and shrugged. "They didn't do that nearly enough, sir, but if ye don't mind takin' the long way you can have 'em tonight. They ain't got nothin' else to do."
By the time Styles and Dr. Sebastian finished decorating the mess, it was officially Christmas Eve. The wooden tables were lifted out of the way, the long benches set in orderly rows, and fresh evergreen was laced about the timbers until even Styles smiled over the change.
"If it looked like this all th' time, maybe we wouldn't gripe about that lousy food," he said as he looked around and rolled down his shirt sleeves.
"Well, one cannot hope for miracles *all* the time," Dr. Sebastian replied with a smile, and checked his pocket watch. "I must go and fetch the candles, then I think we will be ready. Thank you for your assistance, Styles, and I hope I see you here tonight."
Styles didn't answer yes or no, simply knuckled his forehead and shrugged. backing away as he did so. "D'ye need me to set this all back again?"
"That would be splendid, come around six bells after the first watch. I am taking wine in the captain's cabin just after the service."
Dr. Sebastian left the mess then, and he and Styles went their separate ways. But not really; for the seaman was much on the doctor's mind as he walked down the companionway towards the stairs that would take him to his cabin. What unusual ways God works in, Sebastian thought. If Hornblower, who is the most agnostic of men and would not perhaps be so concerned for Styles except that he thought he was physically ailing, had not told me about it, then I would not have had a chance to heal his hurt, which is of the deepest spiritual kind. There is irony there, but sadness too, for Styles is not a man to accept his own fears; not a man to feel comfortable with the knowledge that he has done a wrong he cannot correct. But perhaps there are ways I can yet help him; I pray that there is.
Before Sebastian went to his cabin he visited the sick berth, which blessedly held few occupants this night. A few men down with various ailments; a gunner still recovering from a bad splinter wound received in their last engagement; a powder monkey who had caught a bad sore throat when he had gone all the way to the top of the mainmast on a dare, and became too frightened to come down. He was sleeping, thank God, and when Dr. Sebastian had seen to his patients' comfort he headed toward his cabin and upon reaching it, pushed open the door.
He looked inside, and stopped. The candles in his cabin were lit, including two in front of the Virgin, and there was a canvas bag sitting on his cot with some articles pulled out of it.
And one of them was a wadded-up blue and green checked blanket.
"Oh - "
Surprised, Dr. Sebastian looked around the door and saw Archie Kennedy sitting in a chair behind it, almost against his desk. Archie stood up quickly and said, "I'm sorry, doctor, I hope you don't mind - I was waiting for you, you see, and I needed to think."
Dr. Sebastian came inside and closed the door behind him, glancing at the blanket as he did so. He was not terribly surprised to see Archie there, and thinking. He had been counseling Archie for some months now, and many nights they had sat together in that candlelit cabin and discussed Archie's past and the demons that still haunted his present. There was good in his memories as well as bad, some gold mingled in with the ashes, and as Dr. Sebastian glanced at the blanket on the cot he wondered if it was in there too, along with the memories of that night in the carpenter's walk. But, patience. "There is no need for apologies, Archie, you know you are always welcome here. Is something bothering you?"
"Oh - no," Archie replied lightly, although Dr. Sebastian knew him well enough to spot a lie; he let it pass for the moment. Archie waved toward the cot, "I brought you some gifts for the almshouse, fairly shabby I'm afraid but there you are. I hope it isn't too late to accept them."
"No, of course not," Dr. Sebastian feigned nonchalance as he approached the cot, but his eyes did not leave the blanket. It was old, not obviously used very often; it had a flatness to it, as if it had been stored for a very long time. The description matched the blanket Styles had carried Archie in, the same colors, the same thickness... Lady, what are you leading me to, Sebastian wondered. With a studied casualness he picked up the other articles and set them aside. Then he picked up the blanket with both hands and turned his head to see Archie's reaction.
There. It was very quick, and Archie looked away as soon as he saw Sebastian's head turn, but there was no mistaking it. It was in Archie's eyes, the memories of that night, buried and thought dead but brought back to painful life. He is like Styles, Dr. Sebastian thought as he turned back to the cot and set the blanket down. This memories burns him, as an old wound that is not quite healed. But how to draw out the poison...
Patience, Luis. Patience.
"This is most generous of you, Archie," Dr. Sebastian said carefully, and smiled as he picked up the bag and began to put the articles into it, "You will help make some families very happy."
"Well - good," Archie's smile was tentative, but sincere, and he nodded so his blond hair shone golden in the lamplight, "I'm glad."
"Yes," Sebastian finished replacing the articles and tied the bag, leaving it on the cot. He turned and motioned to the chair, "Sit, please, we have a little time before we must go prepare for tonight's services. I see you have lit some candles for the Lady as well."
Archie smiled at the statue, the candlelight glinting in his eyes like stars. His faith was very young, Sebastian thought as he sat on the cot, and borne sometimes more of desperation than anything else; but it held an appreciation in it that was almost painful to behold. "I remember what you told me once about lighting candles for people, and praying for them. I thought tonight was as good as any other to try it out. You don't mind?"
"Mind? Mr. Kennedy, my Lady was crying in the loneliness of abandonment until you made her shine again. If I asked who the candles were for, would you tell me?"
Archie ducked his head for a moment, then brought it back up. "I don't know. I'm afraid you'd laugh at me."
"Well, it's - it was an impulse really, not something that makes any sense if you think about it. Not lighting the candles, I mean, but who they're for." Archie pointed to one flickering entity on the left-hand side of the tray, "I mean, it - it sounds absurd, but I lit this one for Horatio. I doubt that any God can get through that armor he wears, but there I am hoping that somehow he takes himself a little less seriously and stops blaming himself for everything. And that will definitely take divine intervention!"
Dr. Sebastian echoed Archie's gently sardonic smile.
"And then this one," Archie pointed to another candle, "That's for Captain Pellew. I thought about how relieved he must be that we've all made it home to England again in one piece, and how many times that might not have happened. I'm grateful that he's our captain, and I suppose...I wanted Someone to know that. But Pellew's so close to God that I doubt he needs any help!"
"Ah, you have never seen him with a toothache," Dr. Sebastian observed.
Archie cocked his head in admission, then pointed to the next candle and looked back at the doctor with a fond smile. "For you."
"Ah! Many thanks."
Archie looked back at the tiny dancing flame, and he bit his lip. After a moment of reflection he said quietly, "Horatio's a good friend, but sometimes...I can't talk to him about *everything*. There are things I never want him to have to understand. But to have someone who does..." Archie looked down and shrugged. "It's made me feel like I have a chance at my soul again."
Dr. Sebastian could see Archie struggling with his emotions, and laid a hand on his arm. "Thank you, Archie. I am glad to see that I have done you some good."
"Some good!" Archie looked down and shook his head as if to say, you have no idea. "Some good..."
Sebastian watched Archie struggle with his own gratitude and felt a twinge of sadness, that one so young should have a soul as ravaged as his. Was he thinking of a Christmas Eve that should not have happened, of pain and suffering and a starless night? Or was his memory a blissful blur, only a dim recollection of hazy dullness, and the blanket a mere unpleasant reminder to be discarded?
Patience, Luis. He will tell you when he can.
Dr. Sebastian gave Archie's arm a squeeze, and the young man took a deep breath and looked back up at the candles. He blinked a few times as if to clear his eyes, and whispered, "Sorry, I... well, you know me, I think about things too much. They get the better of me, you see."
Dr. Sebastian patted Archie's arm and looked at him closely. "You are all right?"
"Oh! Yes," Archie leaned back and took another breath, his face ruddy in the golden light. He fixed his eyes on the glittering statue before them. "I was just...thinking about that last candle. The one I lit there."
The doctor followed Archie's gaze. "Yes?"
"Well, it's..." Archie pursed his lips and stared at that final candle, stared at it very hard. He took another deep breath, a shaky one, and held it for a few moments. Then he let it out and said, "It's for tonight, actually."
"For Christmas Eve?" Dr. Sebastian asked, already feeling goosebumps on his skin.
Archie shook his head. "No. I mean - yes, for tonight, but not because it's Christmas Eve. I'm sorry, I'm not making any sense at all..."
"That's all right," Sebastian said, and as he studied Archie's eyes a strange sense of premonition came over him, as if he knew what Archie was going to say. "Take your time, Archie, do not be afraid to say what you are thinking."
He had said that before, of course, countless times. So often in their discussions Archie had been frustrated, angry with himself because what he felt, what he remembered, refused to have a name; very often he simply talked it out, said whatever he was feeling until something resolved itself.
And that was happening now.
Archie's eyes flicked to the doctor, quickly, then went to the floor, much as Styles had done. "All right. All right. I wasn't honest with you, doctor, I said nothing was bothering me. Well, it was. Is. Those things I've given you."
Patience...Dr. Sebastian glanced over his shoulder, then back again.
"Yes," Archie breathed, "The blanket you took in your hands, it's...well, I haven't laid eyes on it in years. Forgot I had it really, until Horatio asked me about it. But I've been thinking about it ever since."
Dr. Sebastian saw the recollection in Archie's eyes, sharp and piercing like a winter wind. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but held it. His young charge needed no questions.
But Archie must have sensed the question anyway, because he sighed and said, "If you look at that blanket, doctor, you'll see it's almost new. It's never been used, never seen daylight for almost ten years. There isn't even any dust on it, but it isn't clean. There's blood on it. My blood."
Dr. Sebastian saw Archie's eyes harden, felt the flint-edged bitterness in his next words. "I was twelve, my first Christmas on Justinian. My friend Danny was gone, and no one else would have me near. Clayton had the first watch, and I had nowhere to go. Nowhere...when he came for me."
Instinctively Sebastian leaned forward and once again put his left hand on Archie's arm; there was no need to ask for names, and he knew from experience that without a touch to keep him tethered to the present, Archie's memories had the power to wreak havoc on his body. Sebastian watched Archie very closely.
"It didn't matter," Archie said with a too-casual shrug, "By then I'd grown used to it, accepted it. Closed myself off and thought of when I could hide, when I could let the darkness take me. I don't even remember when it was over, only making my way as quietly as I could to find the darkest place on the ship, where I knew no one would find me. It was the closest thing to death I could manage."
They were difficult to hear, those words. Dr. Sebastian kept his hand tight on Archie's arm, felt the youth's anguish coursing through him like a live thing. After drawing a shuddering breath, Archie went on.
"I went to the carpenter's walk, we were...in harbor and I knew no one would be there. If I was lucky, perhaps he wouldn't find me if he came looking. It was so dark and I could hear the water against the ship, it sounded - like a heartbeat almost. I was cold, I didn't have my jacket, so I just pushed myself into a niche between the bulkhead and the rib of the frame. It was so..." Archie gasped then, and suddenly took Dr. Sebastian's right hand in both of his. "God, I was so lonely! I cried for my mother, for Danny, for someone to have pity on me. I remembered Christmas before, the light and - and all of it, and if I could have died that night I would have been the happiest soul to ever leave this earth. I know it."
Dr. Sebastian felt the trembling strength in Archie's grasp, heard the childlike entreaty in the voice ten years removed from it. Without a word he placed his left hand gently on the side of Archie's face, to calm him.
Archie accepted that comforting, and taking a deep breath continued. "I fell asleep, I knew if the captain or one of the lieutenants found me I would be punished, but how could that be worse...I remember going to sleep thinking, perhaps no one will come. Perhaps I've been abandoned, and when I die at last no one will care and I'll drift with the ship forever, part of its bones. My family, the others, everyone will grow and age and die but no one will remember me. And no one cares that I hurt so much that I want to die."
Archie's word's were so quiet that Sebastian had to lean forward to hear them, but he didn't mind that; as he talked Archie seemed to be folding into himself, moving farther away into his memories, and Sebastian knew he should stay close. But he did not tell Archie to stop, or that he did not need to relate his tale; like Styles, he was clearly suffering, and the poison had to come out. Sebastian moved his left hand to Archie's shoulder, and continued listening.
"I slept," Archie whispered, "I don't even know how long, and I thought I was young again, at home. I was sleeping on my mother's lap, and I felt happy, I'm not even certain why. I did that a few times, I barely remember, spent Christmas Eve sitting with my mother and she read me stories until I fell asleep. I would only wake up just a little, when she carried me upstairs to bed, and I remember feeling so *safe*, being in her arms. My father never carried me, or my brothers, only her. And that was my favorite memory, feeling her arms holding me close as she looked after me, and hearing her heart..." Archie paused and blinked back tears, "...hearing it beat, and knowing I was safe and protected. I've never forgotten it, not ever, and I don't imagine I ever will."
Archie paused again, and releasing his hold on Dr. Sebastian put both hands to his face and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry - "
"There is no need for those words," Sebastian replied, "Do you want something to drink?"
"No," Archie took his hands away, and Sebastian noticed how flushed his face had become, "I'm all right, I just - whew! The memories are very close, just now, got the better of me I'm afraid."
Dr. Sebastian nodded understanding, and kept his gaze on the youth before him.
"But you can imagine how it felt, being in that dream," Archie resumed, his gaze traveling down to his clasped hands, "I didn't ever want to come out of it. I could almost feel the fire, smell the pine and the candles...but some part of me knew that I would awake to pain, to the cold and stench of loneliness. So I hoarded that feeling as best I could. And then..." Archie trailed off, and his expression grew confused.
After a moment Dr. Sebastian leaned forward a bit, scrutinizing Archie with concern. "And then?"
"Oh...it's difficult to explain, or I thought so at the time. In my dream I felt my mother put her arms around me, and it was as if she knew I was hurt, and was careful where to touch me. I felt her lifting me up, carrying me, but I was so much heavier than I should have been. And still she was mindful, as if she knew I had been...what had happened to me. And her heart, it was not beating softly but very loud, angry, *she* was angry, and my dream shifted and I was being carried not up the great staircase but through a dark corridor. And it seemed we were going not from the parlor but from some great darkness, toward a light that was not my room but was safe."
Dr. Sebastian felt the goosebumps again, knew what Archie was describing but did not give voice to it. "Did you awaken then?"
"No," Archie admitted, "Not completely, I mean. I remember coming to, and knowing somehow I would not be where I had been, and I wasn't. Clayton was standing over me, and after a moment I realized I was in my hammock in the midshipmens' berth. But at the time I had no idea how I'd gotten there."
Archie paused and took another deep breath before continuing, and Dr. Sebastian could see the black nightmare clouds lifting from his eyes. "Clayton looked after me, dabbed away the blood on my face and asked where I was hurt. We - had an understanding as you know, and I trusted him more than I did Hepplewhite. He got me a clean uniform so that when morning came no one would be the wiser, and remained close until I was asleep again. And that was how I passed that Christmas Eve."
Dr. Sebastian tilted his head, grateful that Archie had passed through his remembrance of that evening. "It sounds as if you had someone looking after you."
"Now, that 's the funny thing," Archie said, more brightly, his blue eyes shifting to the blanket on the doctor's cot, "Because when I awoke the next morning - really awoke, I was certain Clayton had rescued me. I say rescued because it turned out Simpson had gone looking for me, and if I'd stayed where I was he would have found me for certain. But Clayton had been on watch, and in any case he would not have been able to carry me all the way from the carpenter's walk to the midshipmen's berth. So it wasn't him."
"Hm," Dr. Sebastian said.
Archie's eyes went to the blanket again, and his expression softened. "Clayton didn't see who carried me in, but whoever it was had wrapped me in that blanket. That one, that I've just given you. It was new then, had never been used, but no one ever claimed it, and because of the memories I never wanted to use it again. So I closed it up in my sea chest until just yesterday. Then after Horatio mentioned it, I began thinking about that night, about what happened. And I've been thinking on it ever since."
Dr. Sebastian leaned back a little. "And what have you determined?"
"That it was almost a miracle," Archie said quickly, giving Sebastian an earnest look, "That I had crept away and hid myself, but someone found me and lifted me away from that place, and for a while I was...it was like I was home again. That someone risked Simpson's anger, his vengeance, to help me, because I was not reported, Captain Keene never knew. Whoever it was never said a word, but kept my secret, and for whatever reason made certain I returned to a safe place, and left me in the care of friends. That actually helped, to think that it was possible, when things became dark and painful, that I might get that help again, someday. And I did, when Horatio came. For giving me that hope I lit a candle for whoever saved me that night. Even if I never learn who he is, I think - God knows, and He can thank my rescuer for me. And perhaps someday I'll learn his identity. Until then I suppose this will be enough."
Dr. Sebastian pondered these words as Archie sat back and sighed deeply, his blue eyes going wide and settling on the candlelit Virgin gleaming beside him. It was indeed a miracle, Sebastian thought, but certainly not the only one; how else could one explain Archie's heart and Styles' opening on the same night, to him? Two souls lost in their own way, seeking each other for different reasons: Styles, for forgiveness, Archie, for expression of gratitude. Seeking, but not finding except through him, almost a stranger to them both. Dr. Sebastian looked at Archie, his eyes and hair sparked with the warmth of the candles' glow, and smiled at the restoration there. Help me to complete it, he prayed silently. Help me find a way for these two worthy souls to find what they are seeking. Help me -
- and then, all at once, he knew.
As if Archie had heard his thoughts, the young man stood and stretched, his ruddy face breaking into an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, doctor, I do rattle on, don't I? Do you need my help to ready the mess for the service?"
"Not right now," Dr. Sebastian replied, standing and picking up his candle-snuffer. He looked at it so the excitement he felt would not leap out of his eyes and make Archie curious. "Thank you, Archie, but if I may ask your indulgence, could you please bring your articles to the mess after the service? Take the blanket out and leave it on top of the bag, I will need to clean it before we take it ashore."
"Certainly," Archie said brightly, and with one elegant movement wiped the hair from his eyes. "Thank you for listening to me, doctor, I feel better now. What time would you like to meet me after the service?"
"You are most welcome, Archie. You know my door is always open to you, and I hope God hears your prayers and answers them. As for meeting after the service, why don't you come at...oh, shall we say, six bells?"
O, come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
The Christmas Eve service held that night in the mess of Indefatigable was perfect, as Dr. Sebastian prayed it would be. The candles were placed in safe places and lit, and special gold-and-white cloth was draped over the high table the doctor used as his lectern. The place was suffused with gentle light and perfumed with the redolent fragrance of evergreen and pine.
And it was Christmas.
It was heartening to the doctor to see that all of the hard work did not go for naught; when time for the service came the place was filled to capacity, and the singing was robust indeed, accompanied by a skilled officer with a violin. Captain Pellew was there, of course, along with Mr. Bracegirdle and Mr. Bowles. Many of the lieutenants came, and even some of the seamen, and fortunately they were mostly sober.
Dr. Sebastian tried not to be conspicuous about it, but as he conducted the service his eyes swept the crowd in the low-ceilinged room until he found the faces he was looking for. Then he smiled to himself in contentment.
Yes, Styles was there. He didn't look especially comfortable, but he was there, wearing what looked like a brand-new shirt, buttoned up to the collar and doubtless contributing to his misery. Matthews was standing right beside him, one grizzled eye cocked as if he was afraid Styles might bolt. Oldroyd was next to Matthews as always, puzzling through the worn hymnal, God bless him. But it seemed to Sebastian that once a note or two of the familiar hymns were played, a light shone in the young man's eyes and he sang right along with gusto. A little too much for Styles' liking, perhaps, as he gave Oldroyd more than one irritated look; only the cockeyed grin Oldroyd returned to him hinted to Sebastian that their rivalry would not result in blows. But thank goodness Matthews was standing between them!
Speaking of notes...as the service started Sebastian scanned the gathering again, and saw what he thought he might: Archie Kennedy standing at the end of a row near the back, the golden candlelight making his fair face almost glow; and beside him, an empty space. Just one.
Dr. Sebastian was not surprised when, a few minutes after the music was sung, he looked up again and saw that the space was filled, and Mr. Hornblower was now in attendance.
It was a very good night indeed.
He did not plan a long service, or an involved one; a few songs, scripture, a short message about the meaning of that night, about the miracle of the Son of God coming to earth in all humility, to live as a simple carpenter among men and raise them to the holiness of His father. Then it was farewell, and the service was over.
A short time later the doctor was enjoying a cigar and looking at the beautiful crystalline stars above him when he heard footsteps beside him. He glanced over, then returned his gaze to the heavens. "Good evening, lieutenant."
"Good evening, doctor," Horatio returned. "A happy Christmas to you."
"And to you," Dr. Sebastian turned to his young friend with a quiet smile on his face. "Thank you for attending my service. It was very gracious of you."
Horatio shrugged, "It was my honor to do so, for all the help you have given me and my men over the past year." he paused. "Did you have a chance to talk to Styles?"
"Hm," Dr. Sebastian removed the cigar from his mouth, "As a matter of fact, yes, lieutenant. He came to see me this afternoon."
Horatio's eyebrows raised. "Voluntarily?"
Sebastian tilted his head. "Not entirely, but once he saw that I meant him no harm he relaxed."
"And - did he tell you what was troubling him?"
The doctor smiled at Horatio's question and replied, "Your man Styles is remarkable, Mr. Hornblower, the strongest man on this ship I'll wager. You are very fortunate that he regards you so highly."
Horatio blinked; this was clearly not the answer he was looking for. "Thank you, doctor, he is a good man. But is he a *healed* one?"
Dr. Sebastian frowned in response and pulled out his pocket watch. With a snap it came open and he squinted at the face, turning it so it caught the moonlight. "That is up to God. I suspect we shall know before very long."
Horatio scowled and opened his mouth to protest, but at that moment the clang of the ship's bell rang, first once and then five more times.
"Six bells," Horatio muttered, and looked at the doctor curiously.
"Very good, lieutenant," Sebastian observed lightheartedly, setting his cigar around the smile on his lips. "Your hours with the books has paid off at last."
Horatio shook his head, "No, I thought that - well, Archie told me earlier he was going to meet you in the mess at six bells, to deliver the articles for the almshouse."
"Yes," Dr. Sebastian replied, but didn't move.
Horatio hesitated, then said, "I don't know if he's said anything to you, but if you have a chance - I've noticed Archie a bit down as well. If he should happen to mention it..."
Dr. Sebastian turned to Horatio with an appreciative look in his dark eyes. "Thank you, lieutenant. That is most kind of you."
The doctor turned away again, and Horatio stood there for a moment, perplexed. Finally he said, "Forgive my impudence, sir, but - shouldn't you be going to the mess? I'm certain Archie will be waiting for you."
"In a moment, lieutenant," Dr. Sebastian replied quietly, ignoring Horatio's surprised look. "Right now I think God wishes us to relax for a few moments, and look at the stars."
And with that Dr. Sebastian tilted his face to the heavens blew a perfect plume of blue smoke into the brilliant night sky.
Archie hurried down the companionway, his bag of articles under one arm. He knew it must be around six bells, and did not want to keep the doctor waiting. After everything the man had done for him, it would be a sorry reward indeed.
He had the blanket out and clutched in one hand, and glanced about almost fearfully as he neared the mess. What if someone saw it, and recognized it? There were enough men from Justinian still on the Indefatigable, and the last thing Archie wanted at that moment was to be stopped by some curious passers-by, and drawn into a conversation which he'd already had enough of. He just wanted to get to the mess, meet Dr. Sebastian, and help him take the donations ashore, including the blanket. Best to be rid of it, really.
If only he knew whose it was.
Well, most likely he would never know. Some marine perhaps, or maybe the carpenter himself, he had no reason to care about anything except clearing away what he might trip over later. With a sigh Archie resigned himself to speculation and quite without knowing it found himself standing at the entrance to the mess. He stopped in his tracks, and looked.
It was quiet, deserted, and still smelled like Christmas. The pine boughs were still draped over the timbers, the benches were still set in their rows, and the heavy perfumed scent of the recently burned candles hung in the air as if reluctant to leave. There were two lanterns lit, one at each end of the room, and to Archie the place had the contemplative air of a church. He walked in slowly, scarcely daring to breathe. It felt oddly like being home.
Home - but not the home he knew, not the cold and airless place his father and brothers lived in; a new home, one where he felt protected and confident. This room was part of it, the creaks and groans of the timbers as sweet to his ears as any bird's song, and even though Archie knew it was just the mess room, somehow in its current state it was transformed, as sanctified as St. Paul's Cathedral. His new home.
Archie approached the front of the room, where Dr. Sebastian had set up a bench for donations, and set his bag on the pile of books, clothes, and other trifles already there. He set the blanket at the top, letting his hand rest on it just for a moment, and after a little thought turned his head to see that the two low, fat candles Dr. Sebastian had secured to the table he used for his lectern were still affixed. With a scrap of loose straw Archie lit one, and watched as the lowly room once again took on the warm golden glow of a country church. After a little thought he took the blanket in both hands, and sat down on the front bench to wait for Dr. Sebastian.
The blanket was rough and stiff from unuse, and Archie gazed down at it, idly flicking at one small patch of dried blood with his fingernail. It was so long ago, he thought, you were quite a young boy then, weren't you? I wish I could talk to you; I wish I could tell you what I know now - that everything's going to be all right, that the small amount of comfort you felt that night would sustain you until someone came along to help you. I suppose if Dr. Sebastian were here he'd make one of his allusions to God and Jesus coming along and helping mankind out, and I suppose he wouldn't be far off; but you didn't know any better than to be afraid, because that was all you knew. But it didn't stay that way, and if you saw what was ahead for you - well, you probably wouldn't believe it. You became strong, you became free, and no matter what lies ahead you aren't afraid anymore. And who knows what would have happened that night except for the owner of this old, forgotten blanket? Probably it *was* the carpenter, and he forgot about it the next day, but I'll never forget it. Never -
"Oh - sir?"
Archie started a bit, and looked over his shoulder. For a moment he saw only a figure standing in the shadows, and thinking it was Dr. Sebastian he stood up.
Then the figure moved into the light, and Archie was surprised again. "Oh! Styles, I - Happy Christmas."
Styles smiled and knuckled his forehead. "And t'you, thank ye, sir."
Archie smiled politely and quickly set the blanket behind him, so Styles wouldn't see it. After a moment's awkward silence he picked it up again and walked over to the pile of goods.
Styles seemed to catch onto his discomfort and said, "Beggin' yer pardon, me bein' 'ere, sir, but doctor told me to come. I'm to help 'im put this all right, y'see."
"Oh," Archie said with false lightness as he set the blanket down and stuffed it as far behind the other articles as he could, "Well, he's a little late it seems. I am waiting on him as well."
Silence then, and Archie turned around to see Styles staring at him - no, past him rather, at his hand which still rested on the top of the blanket. His face wore a pained expression and Archie thought, damn. Damn. He saw it, and he remembers me asking about it. Damn.
Sure enough, Styles took a few steps forward then stopped and looked down at his feet, as if trying to decide whether to speak. Feeling a sudden rush of impatience Archie said, as gently as he could, "Yes, Styles?"
Styles looked at him again, with eyes that held...well, not pity really, but something else that Archie couldn't put his finger on. "Sorry, sir. Couldn't 'elp but notice what y'had. Sorry."
Oh, the hell with it. Archie slowly pulled the blanket out of the pile and looked at it. "Yes. You remember this as well."
"I'm giving it away," Archie found himself explaining, turning the blanket over in his hands as he spoke, "It was a long time ago, and I'm done with it. You see?"
"Yes, sir," Styles said gloomily, his eyes on the blanket. Then, after a pause he said, "Ye're right, sir - long time ago and all that. Ye've become quite the officer, not worth thinkin' on, them days."
"No, they're not," Archie said quickly, balling the blanket between his hands, "Except - except I wish I could find out whose this was."
Archie wasn't looking at Styles' face, but he heard the other man make a queer sort of coughing noise. Then Styles asked, "Y'do, sir?"
"Yes," Archie replied, opening his hands to gaze at the cloth within them, "You remember how it was, Styles, what it was like. What any of us would have given to escape from it." His voice broke a little, and he cleared his throat.
Styles shifted on his feet and shrugged. "No need bringin' it up to me, sir. Not if it makes y'feel bad."
Remarkable; Archie could not remember when he had seen Styles look so cowed. With a small smile he replied, "Styles, if you recall you were present when I was sick and in despair in Spain. And - you know about this - " Archie put his hand on the blanket once again and shook his head. "I hardly think it necessary to feign dignity with you when there are no other officers present."
Styles seemed to think about this; then accept it. "As you like, sir."
"Anyway," Archie sighed, setting the blanket down again, "There is no sense pretending that I'm not aware of who I used to be, and what this old blanket represents to me. And if I knew who its owner was I could repay him in kind for what he's done. But that's not very likely, is it?" And he turned to look at Styles once more.
But what was this? Styles' expression had changed to one Archie knew very well - he looked ashamed. He was staring at Archie with fear and shame written all over him, and it startled Archie so much that he could only think to say, "Styles?"
"It was me, sir."
Archie could only feel the wool beneath his hand, and stared at Styles in confusion. "What?"
Styles paused; then his shoulders sagged, and he sighed in resignation, "Sorry, sir, I lied to ye back then, I didn't want ye to know. That's my blanket, the one Matthews gave me the night...well, that night."
Archie blinked, very slowly. "You?"
Styles nodded, almost hanging his head. "Yes sir. I carried you out of the carpenter's walk in it, left it with ye so's not to wake ye. I didn't want to ever tell ya, but...well, I guess it's out now."
Archie turned to face Styles, his eyes widening. "Yes, it's...it was you?"
Styles nodded again, even more despairingly than before. "You got a right to hate me, sir, I won't hold it against ye. But I'm sorry, sir, I know it don't mean nothin' now, but if I could do it again I'd - I'd - well, I'm not sure what, sir, but *he* wouldn't like it, that's for sure."
For a few moments Archie couldn't breathe; his astonishment was so overwhelming that he couldn't even think. My God, his brain finally stammered, the candles I lit - the prayers I said - then Styles' words sank in and Archie shook his head and blinked at them. "Styles - you said I have a right to hate you - what for?"
Styles straightened up and blinked. "What for! Sir, you remember? I was with 'im, I didn't do nothin' to help y'when ye needed it. Nothin'!"
"Nothing!" Archie held up the blanket. "What about this?"
Styles stared at it for a moment, then tried to shrug it off, "Oh, sir, I could have stopped ye from bein' in the carpenter's walk at all. I could've stopped him, or tried."
"Yes, you could have," Archie looked down at the blanket solemnly, "And your blood would have been on here as well as my own."
Styles paused. "Sir?"
Archie kept his eyes down, and his voice was ancient with knowledge. "Styles, I had my share of champions - Clayton and Danny, and others who defied Simpson once and regretted it. And we were officers, what would have happened to you?"
"Well - I dunno - but it would have beat bein' the dog I was."
Archie's eyes came up to Styles then, and they glittered in the candlelight. "But you have become better than that, Styles, as I have. I didn't need a champion that night, to suffer with me; I needed a savior. And one came."
Styles stared at him disbelievingly for a moment. Then he laughed self-consciously and looked away, "Me? Beggin' yer pardon, sir, but - you serious?"
"Serious? Styles, you saved me. Do you think I don't know the risk you took - the wrath that would have come down on your head if he had found out what you'd done for me? My God, as it was he - he - " Archie stopped and abruptly shook his head. "No - no, I won't speak another word about that. Styles!"
Styles snapped to, a little alarmed at the sudden authority in Archie's voice.
Archie took a deep breath and grasped the other man's arm. "Thank you, for what you did for me. I am not exaggerating when I say that you may have saved my life."
Styles looked dumbfounded; after a moment he stammered, "Ye're not angry, then?"
Archie glanced down at the blanket and after a little thought shook his head. "Only that either of us had to suffer; but we've come through that walk, haven't we? And now I can return this to you."
He held the blanket out, and put it into Styles' hands. Surprised, Styles said, "Oh - no, sir, thank ye kindly but...well, once it's been cleaned I'd rather see it go to some shiverin' child at the almshouse than gettin' all rat-bit 'ere."
Archie smiled, "But won't Matthews be disappointed that you never got to enjoy his present?"
"Aw, no, sir. He give me a blanket twice this good the next year!"
Both men laughed at that, and as their laughter faded they regarded each other for a moment in the glow of the candlelight, and the fragrant and welcoming air of Christmas. Archie put out his hand. "A happy Christmas to you, Styles. You're a good man."
Styles hesitated, then took it with an acquiescent nod. "Happy Christmas, sir. And thank ye."
The next morning dawned, sunny and bright with the coming promise of Christmas. Horatio rose early, and soon found himself astonished - first by Archie, then by Styles.
Unlike previous mornings, Archie seemed to be back to his cheerful old self, trying to make Horatio laugh while he shaved and making disparaging comments about Horatio's likelihood of finding romance while he was ashore.
"One look at that dour face, and only the matrons will have you. Trust me, Horatio, as soon as possible we MUST get you to Drury Lane! There are girls there who will have you smiling in no time, if that's at all humanly possible."
Horatio only gave his friend a glare, but without saying so was happy that the mantle of depression had lifted from Archie's shoulders, even if he was unsure just how that had come about. Dr. Sebastian must have talked to him, Horatio reasoned; that was it.
Horatio's second shock came when he was on his way to make his final report to Pellew. He was attempting to walk up the passageway and fasten his cloak at the same time, no mean feat considering that when he wasn't bumping into the bulkheads, he was risking slamming his elbow into his passing shipmates. Finally he succeeded, however, and just as he was approaching the companionway that led up to the poop deck he glanced ahead and saw seaman Styles coming from the other direction.
"There y'are, sir," Styles said, putting his hands on his hips as Horatio stopped in front of him, "Coxswain says y'best get a move on if y'want a boat to shore. Water's gettin' rough and 'e won't be transportin' passengers again till it clears."
"Oh - when is the final boat going?"
"I asked - 'alf an 'our, 'e says."
"Half an hour!" Horatio turned around and stared back the way he came. "Blast. I have to make my final report to the captain, and my trunk is still in my cabin."
"Hm - d'ye want me to fetch it fer y', sir?"
Horatio turned back. "Yes, Styles, thank you. You'd best start now, it will take you half an hour just to get to my cabin!"
"Oh, no, sir," Styles said as he backed away and put a hand on the rough-hewn railing of the stairs, "I'll just cut up the walk."
Horatio stopped and blinked. "The walk? The carpenter's walk?"
"Aye, sir," Styles said, with a smile just a hint of triumph in his eyes. Then he was gone.
Gone, and Horatio did not have time to find Dr. Sebastian and thank him for helping Styles with whatever problem he had had. And - it was strange - Horatio knew he was not a man anyone would accuse of having an imagination, and yet he could swear the light in Styles' eyes matched Archie's - the same mixture of relief, happiness, and at the same time an admiration for...well, Horatio didn't know what it was. Very likely Dr. Sebastian did, but Horatio did not feel like getting into a religious discussion, and so made his way to the captain's cabin and gave his report. Then he made his farewells and went home, wishing as he did so that Archie would join him, and feeling sorry for his friend that he had nowhere to go to celebrate Christmas.
But Horatio was wrong; later that morning Dr. Sebastian, Archie, along with Horatio's division, gathered up the articles that had been donated and delivered them to the almshouse and the unfortunate people living there. No one could have told Archie that day that he was missing a Christmas celebration, for he would have said that the gratitude and happiness that shone on the faces of mothers and fathers, when they were given food and clothes and a means of warmth in the large old house with its drafty windows, was more Christmas than he had been given in a long time.
And although in a few weeks Horatio would return with gifts and stories, and although that evening Archie would enjoy a few presents and fine food in the captain's cabin, still he not say that any of them was the finest gift he had received. He would only tell one person, Dr. Sebastian, what that had been, over a glass of Christmas wine in the doctor's cabin late on Christmas Eve. But Dr. Sebastian already knew.
Already knew, because he had seen it that morning at the almshouse, when the blue-and-green blanket which had been lovingly cleaned was placed in the hands of a slender mother with a sickly child who was shivering on her cot in the cold. He had also seen the woman try to lift the girl to wrap her in the blanket; and he had seen Styles come forward to help, finally taking the girl in his arms while the mother gently laid the blanket around her shoulders. The little girl looked up at him in awe and gratitude; after just a heartbeat, Styles glanced up and lock eyes with Archie, and he knew - they all knew - that gift was being given again. The painful past was over, the darkness done; what lay ahead was only peace, and the giving grace of the Carpenter's walk.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!