Castle Out Of Check
by Jan Lindner

 

He didn't know how long he sat there, beside the cot that held Archie's
lifeless body. A moment. Forever. Time ceased to have meaning. He was
numb with the overload of grief and pain and exhaustion. He was cleared
of the charge of mutiny. Free.

He felt no joy, no relief. How could he accept his freedom at the cost
of his best friend's life?

But how could he refuse? It had been Archie's parting gift. Every
breath he took, for the rest of his life, would be a gift from the
dearest friend he had ever had... would ever have.

The pain closed his throat, and he clutched Archie's limp hand, unwilling
to let go. He was still warm, perhaps there was hope... No, what was he
thinking, mutiny, no hope at all, better that he go this way --

Someone touched his shoulder. "Your pardon, Lieutenant."

The voice was vaguely familiar, but he only shook his head.

"I am a Naval surgeon. If you don't mind--?"

//Why, so you can hang him?// He did mind. But it didn't matter.
Nothing mattered; nothing would matter very much, ever again. He kissed
Archie's forehead, smoothed the disordered hair, touched his face once in
a final farewell. Still warm...

Half-blind with tears, he rose on unsteady legs as the surgeon shook his
head, draped Archie's face in a handkerchief, and motioned to Styles, who
for some reason was standing at the door. The big sailor, his face a
somber mask, bent to scoop Archie into his arms. Archie's head lolled
back, lifeless; the handkerchief drifted to the floor. The doctor
followed Styles as he carried out --

//The body. Go ahead. Face it. Accept it. He's gone.

Oh, my God...//

He swayed, and suddenly Captain Pellew was there, too, had an arm around
him, leading him away from the empty cot.

The last hour replayed itself in his fevered mind: standing in a daze as
the captains assembled in Court Martial exonerated him from the charge of
mutiny. Pellew, gravely pleased as he handed back his sword. He stared
down at it now, wondering how exactly the Romans managed to fall on
theirs, when it seemed appropriate. Had some servant hold the weapon,
most likely. Or a trusted friend. But he had no friend, now.

If he ordered Matthews to -- no. Not fair to Matthews. And such an
order would see him declared unfit. Unfit. What exquisite irony.

He bit his lip to hold back an irrational cackle. He could not dishonor
Archie's memory by his behavior... His memory. Dishonored. He felt a
vague, muffled fury at the droning verdict that Lieutenant Archibald
Kennedy, deceased, was to be stricken from the ranks posthumously for the
crime of mutiny.

His hands tightened on the sword-hilt until they ached. //You weren't
there, you self-righteous sons of bitches, you have no idea what that
vicious bastard put us through. And you don't care, either, do you? You
don't care that Archie was worth a hundred Sawyers, a thousand. You have
to have a scapegoat for your own stupidity in giving command to a
madman.// Hatred swelled in him so that his hands shook; his teeth began
to chatter, and he suddenly realized he was cold and shaking, even in the
muggy, close corridor.

"Let's get you out of here, Mr. Hornblower," Pellew said at his elbow.

"Yes, sir." His voice still worked, after a fashion. He glanced at the
desk near the door, and blinked. //What?// Archie was standing there,
in elegant civilian garb, speaking seriously to the attendant.
Hallucination. //I am most certainly mad.// He clutched Pellew's arm,
unable to speak.

"It's Lord Dewhurst. Mr. Kennedy's cousin, if you remember. I expect he
wants to see to -- to the burial. Come along, Mr. Hornblower."

He surrendered command to his Captain, grateful for the small mercy that
had put the one flag officer he could trust here, and now. Matthews was
there, too, and some of the others, forming a sort of guard around them
as they left the building. The glare of the tropical sun blinded him,
the smothering blanket of heat sapping what little strength he had left.
A headache began to throb behind his eyes.

Somehow they passed through the bustling streets; Pellew took him to an
inn a short distance from the Admiralty building, installed him in a
room, then left. Hornblower sat in the chair where he'd been placed,
staring out the window, looking at the cloudless blue sky but seeing only
a cold, rain-soaked January day, and a towering ship, and a sun-bright
smile beneath a dripping midshipman's bicorne. //"Welcome to
Purgatory!"//

The first sob racked his body like a consumptive's final cough and the
dam broke wide open. Weeping uncontrollably, he caught the edge of the
table, tumbled onto the bed, and curled into a knot of misery. //It
isn't fair, I don't deserve it! Why did they do it?// Clayton, Archie,
Finch, poor little Wellard, all the others who died while he kept on
living. //It isn't fair, why am I still alive?//

Thought stopped. Time stopped. He took in breath only to pump out more
grief, his soul so raw he felt torn in two. Gradually his nose stuffed
up, and his eyes ached, and his throat, and still there were more tears.
He had not wept like this for his mother, or his father. He had not wept
at all, and they had praised him for being such a strong little man. But
now that he had started he did not think he would ever stop. He knew
that this wound would never heal.

It would have been different, in battle. If they had been on the Indy,
and a French volley had taken Archie, he would have wept, and mourned,
and gone on. But this... Sawyer's madness had killed him, Sawyer's
madness and Buckland's stupid jealousy and Archie staggering into that
courtroom when his only hope of survival was to keep absolutely still,
Archie white-faced and shaking, staying on his feet through nothing but
heart and will and breathtaking courage --

He didn't know where the tears were still coming from. Wasn't there a
limit to the water in a human body? He was making a mess of the
pillow-case.

At last sheer exhaustion pulled him under, and he started awake to find
Matthews standing beside him. "Sir?"

//You have a duty to your men, Mr. Hornblower.// "Yes--" He levered
himself up, coughed; Matthews handed him a glass of water. //Bless you,
Matthews.// The water helped, a little. "Yes, Matthews, what is it?"

"It's Lord Dewhurst, sir." Matthews' eyes were red-rimmed, and today his
seemingly ageless face looked old. "Mr -- Mr Kennedy's cousin, he's
askin' to see you, sir -- "

"No." He had met Lord Dewhurst, during the time Archie was held prisoner
by the French. His Lordship was a fine man; Hornblower had acted as best
man when Captain Pellew married him to the French girl who had helped
smuggle him out of Paris. But Lord Dewhurst was a mirror image of Archie
Kennedy, and if he had to look at that familiar face --

//I cannot do it. I cannot.// "Matthews... please..." He took a deep
breath, forced himself to speak calmly. "Please convey my regrets to his
lordship, but I am ... indisposed."

"He says it's urgent, sir."

"Nothing is urgent anymore, Matthews." He said it very softly, almost to
himself. //I don't care if the inn is on fire, damn you, leave me in
peace!// "Unless I am ordered to leave, I will remain here. Please
convey my regrets to -- I said that, didn't I?"

"Aye, you did, sir." Matthews shifted from one foot to another. "Mr.
Hornblower -- Styles an' me, we just wanted to say how sorry we are about
--"

"Yes." He held up a hand, not even wanting to hear the name. "Yes.
Thank you, Matthews. Now -- can you please just let me alone?" He was
mortified to hear the quaver in his voice, but Matthews showed no sign
he'd heard it; he nodded and took his leave. Hornblower felt a surge of
gratitude, and immediately suppressed it. No. Matthews was a good man,
that was all. Best not to feel any affection. Too dangerous. For him,
and for Matthews.

//Everyone I care about dies.// And the solution to that problem was
obvious. Do one's duty; treat the men fairly, and decently, and act in
such a way that they would want to follow one into battle. But for their
own safety, best not to feel too much. For one's own safety -- and
sanity -- best not to feel at all. It hurt too much, losing what one
loved. If one did not love, one would not hurt. The pain could be kept
at arm's length. Logical.

//"They mean to kill us, Horatio!"// He had teased Archie about that,
when they'd gone back to the ship, wondering how long it had taken for
Mr. Kennedy to come to this remarkable realization. And Archie had
retorted that it seemed clear that when Mr. Hornblower had been promoted
to Lieutenant, someone had forgotten to explain a few salient facts about
the French.

//He's gone.//

Not just taken prisoner, this time; gone forever. No more old jokes,
that only they shared. No more reading Shakespeare aloud on the
off-watches, no more Archie there at his back when he needed someone he
could trust, no irrepressible good humor dragging him from the pit of his
own morose moods. Archie was gone. Dead. Forever. Hornblower had no
great faith in a hereafter, no hope of a resurrection, whatever the Book
of Common Prayer said. There might be a God, and there might be a
Heaven, and if there were, Archie would be there. //But I won't.//

//I will never see him again.//

The tears started in afresh. It felt as though someone had cut his heart
out with a handspike, and he had inexplicably failed to die. He couldn't
even finish the job himself; he had a duty to his men, a duty to honor
Archie's gift. What a bitter gift...

A soft knock at the door. //Oh, please, can't you leave me alone?// He
mopped at his face with his bedraggled handkerchief. "Come in."

It was Captain Pellew.

"As you were, Mr. Hornblower." Without further ado, he took the
hand-towel from beside the basin on the chest of drawers beside the door,
poured a little water on it, and handed it to Hornblower as if he were
still a half-grown midshipman.

"Thank you, sir." He tidied himself as best he could, and tried to look
alert.

"Mr. Hornblower, I would like you to accompany me on a short visit."

//Oh, no.// He didn't want to leave this room; it was not fondness for
the room, but aversion to moving, to any movement or thought not
absolutely required. "May I -- may I ask where we are going, sir?"

"You may. But I am not able to tell you." He frowned at Hornblower,
apparently assessing his state of disrepair, and wordlessly handed
Hornblower his own clean handkerchief. //"Now,// Mr. Hornblower, if you
please."

"Aye, sir."

He followed like an obedient spaniel as Captain Pellew led the way
downstairs, out to the heartlessly sunny street, into a light carriage
with a dark-skinned driver who took them to a lovely manor house on the
outskirts of town. Mercifully, the Captain did not require conversation
of him, and took no notice of the steady stream of tears running down
Hornblower's face -- though he did finally hand him yet another
handkerchief.

At last they had climbed down from the carriage, at the head of a
circular drive, and the carriage drove away, and Pellew led him up the
steps of the mansion. A liveried servant granted them entrance, ushering
them into a small parlor. Hornblower settled uneasily on the edge of a
damask-covered chair, and waited.

Dull curiosity finally prompted him to ask. "Is this your home, sir?"

"No, Mr. Hornblower, it is not. It belongs to the Dewhurst family. Lord
Dewhurst invited us to stay here --"

"No!" He was on his feet, heading for the door, without conscious
thought.

Pellew caught him by the arm and halted his flight. "Mr. Hornblower!
Will you please //compose yourself,// sir!"

That note of command would have had his obedience even if he were
unconscious. "Yes, sir." He returned to the chair, and sat very, very
still. Why the Captain would torment him like this, he did not know.
Nor did he care. Not really. He deserved it. But Lord Dewhurst would
find him, at most, a dismal guest.

"Forgive me, gentlemen. We have been preoccupied." It was Lord Tony
Dewhurst, still in the suit of clothes he had worn in the hospital. At
close quarters, he was clearly not Archie; his collar-length hair was not
bleached pale by sun and salt air, and he moved like a landsman. But the
uncanny resemblance -- the eyes --

Hornblower took Tony's hand, his own eyes focused somewhere about the
middle button of Dewhurst's coat. He mumbled some polite response, and
once again followed when his lordship bade them come along without
explaining where.

//Not to see Archie's body. Oh, please, god, not that. I've said
goodbye, please don't make me look again, please --//

No, no, that was ridiculous. Some servant would be washing the body,
preparing it for burial. It was infinitely kind of Dewhurst to look
after Archie's disposition, since as a mutineer the Navy could have
thrown him in an unmarked grave in a potter's field, or dumped him at
sea, or even hanged his body as an example... it was good that Archie had
an influential relative who still cared enough about him to grant him
that last dignity.

He tried to pay attention to what his host was saying as he trotted up
the front stairs. "Horatio -- I wish we could have met again in better
circumstances. Zoe is in London, with the children, but she remembers
you fondly."

Was there a response required? Dewhurst didn't seem to need one. "I
thought you might enjoy meeting my cousin Arthur, who recently returned
from Canada," he went on. "He was in a fierce battle with privateers,
and has come here to recover his strength -- and perhaps to stay for a
time."

Hornblower nodded, looking at his shoes, at the floor -- anything to keep
from enduring the sight of a face he would never see again. What was
wrong with this chipper, chattering idiot? What was wrong with Captain
Pellew? Did they feel nothing? Archie was dead, for God's sake. Why
choose this time to haul out a pirate-fighting Canadian?

What difference did it make? Lord Tony would give Archie a decent
burial; his whims should be catered to. //Very well. Show me your
cousin. Show me your horses, your dog -- anything. Only, please, do not
ask me to look at your face, I cannot bear it.//

He followed Dewhurst and Captain Pellew down the elegant Turkey carpet
that lined the paneled hall. They entered a sitting room, and proceeded
through it to the bedroom that formed part of a guest suite. A small
figure in an untidy black coat and wiry grey wig blocked the view of
Dewhurst's cousin.

The figure turned, and Hornblower was astonished to recognize an old
friend. "Dr -- Dr. Maturin?"

"Entirely at your service, sir!" The doctor seemed quite pleased with
himself, Hornblower noted absently. Cousin Arthur had probably brought
some exotic North American curiosity with him for the naturalist-surgeon
to dissect. "Is your heart sound, Mr. Hornblower? Are you well?"

//My heart is broken, thank you. It doesn't matter.// "I suppose so,"
he said automatically.

"That's a relief," said the man behind Maturin. "I was afraid I might
have given you palpitations."

Hornblower heard the voice; he didn't believe it. Dr. Maturin stepped
aside, and he saw a cap of blond hair over a beloved face, drawn with
pain and much too pale, but undeniably alive.

//"Archie?"//

"That's 'Artie,' if you please. Arthur Kennedy Dewhurst, late of the
Canadian provinces. And I suppose you must be Mr. Hornblower." And then
Archie's face split wide in that familiar grin that dissolved in a haze
of tears and grey mist.

 

 

 

When Hornblower came to himself he found that he had been draped across
the foot of Archie's bed, and Dr. Maturin was apologizing. "Mr. Kennedy
assured me that you were up to the strain, sir. I am very --"

"It's my fault, Horatio; I'm sorry." Archie stretched out a hand to him,
wincing at the movement, and he struggled up to take it. "I really
thought you'd noticed I was still breathing."

Hornblower shook his head, half-convinced that he truly had gone mad.
"Archie. My god, please don't misunderstand me, but how -- why --?"

"'How' has mostly to do with Tony. He came to see me, in hospital, and I
told him what I meant to do. The next thing I knew he was back with a
mad scheme he'd concocted with a friend of his."

"'Mad' suits your scheme better than mine," Dewhurst interjected.

Archie raised an eyebrow at him. "I never realized Percy had been in the
narrow escape business all these years." He rested his head against the
pillow, closed his eyes.

Dr. Maturin frowned and checked his pulse. "For my part, I have never
seen such a family for narrow escapes. You gentlemen are extremely hard
to kill." He persuaded his patient to drink something from a small cup.

 

In a moment Archie's color improved, and he resumed his explanation.
"You know how I love the theatre, Horatio. I could not resist. As to
why... The corner of his mouth quirked up, and his words held a hint of
self-mockery. "They meant to kill you, Horatio." The blue eyes
darkened. "It really wasn't anyone's fault, but they were carving you to
pieces on the altar of Naval Discipline. I could not stand by and watch
that happen."

"You could have died," Hornblower said.

"You would have died, if I had not done something. I thought it worth
the risk." He swallowed; Maturin gave him more water. "Actually, I
thought I had nothing to lose. Dr. Maturin said it was a very slim
chance, Horatio. When I said goodbye, I meant it."

Hornblower scowled at Maturin. "You should have gone straight ahead with
the surgery! The risk --"

"--was mine to take," Archie finished. "D'you think I've forgotten what
happened in Spain, Horatio? You never would have laid the blame on me,
even if I were already dead."

"But you look like -- you look -- terrible." No. He did not look like
death. He looked like life, like resurrection. Like a miracle. But to
take such a horrible risk -- not to mention the pain of that slow journey
down the aisle ... that fall had been no act.

Hornblower turned to Dewhurst, still too appalled by what it had cost
Archie to care what it had meant to him, personally. "How could you
participate in -- how could you let him //do// such a thing?"

"In case you had not noticed, Horatio, he is extremely stubborn. If you
can tell me how I could have stopped him, I would be obliged, in the
event he repeats the behavior." Tony smiled ruefully at his cousin. "He
did not ask my permission, he told me he was going to admit to pushing
that murderous lunatic, and if I didn't help him get to the courtroom he
would begin confessing to anyone who'd listen. In a Naval infirmary,
that would have become ugly very quickly ... so I tried to persuade him
to wait until I could come up with something just a little less dangerous
to you both."

Archie shook his head slightly. "There was no time."

"I still think we could have spirited Mr. Hornblower out of the prison --
"

"He would never have let you do that. He would die, first. If you took
him out of the Service, he would cease to exist."

The similarities in face, in voice, made the exchange almost like a man
arguing with himself. Hornblower was startled to hear his own thoughts
issuing from Archie's mouth. Unsettling, to learn that his friend knew
him so well. And a frightening to think that Archie had been willing to
lay his life down like that. "It's as well you didn't tell me about your
plan. I'd have told them you were raving."

Archie grinned faintly. "It worked, didn't it?"

He was so pleased with himself Hornblower could not help but smile. But
so weak... "How do you feel, after all that?"

"Dr. Maturin tells me I must follow his every command," Archie said, not
quite answering the question. "As he was able to effect repairs our Navy
surgeons could not, I am inclined to obey. It will be some time before
I'm anything like well again."

Dr. Maturin clucked. "Which reminds me, it is time for your bolus." He
rummaged in his bag, produced an evil-looking object, and handed it to
Archie with a glass of water, ignoring his grimace. "A pity your ship 's
doctor had forgotten his responsibility to the ship and her crew. From
what I have heard, no competent physician could have failed to recognize
Captain Sawyer's mental state. He should have been relieved of duty --
and 'relieved' is the precise word, I am sure he was suffering as much as
any one of you. The burden of command..." He shook his head. "There is
still the possibility of infection," he said, his thoughts apparently
returning once again to his current patient, "but what we have here is a
very healthy young man with a strong constitution and a tremendous will
to live."

"Yes," Hornblower agreed, delighting in the simple sight of his friend.
"But -- " He turned to Captain Pellew. "What of the mutiny conviction?"
Surely they hadn't saved Archie just to let him hang.

"That charge..." Pellew looked uncomfortable, as well he might. He was
choosing justice over regulations, justice and mercy ... and it might be
the first time he had ever done so in regard to such a serious offense.
Hornblower was awed at the risk the Captain was taking on Archie's behalf
-- and on his own. "That crime was, by his own confession, affixed to
Lieutenant Archibald Kennedy, Deceased. As this gentleman is not
deceased, he is clearly not Mr. Kennedy."

"Oh." He met Archie's eyes again, saw the resignation there, and
realized that he was not going to have everything back, after all. They
still had reached a parting of the ways.

Archie smiled sadly. "Yes," he said. "I fear Archie Kennedy is dead,
Horatio. He's going to have a quiet funeral, nothing that would attract
the attention of the Admiralty -- perhaps even a burial at sea, to
preclude exhumation."

So Archie was dead to the Navy. Hornblower's heart sank. They would
never again sail together... not as shipmates, not in the Service. But
... that also meant he would never again have to see Archie cut down by
an enemy.

Not so great a loss as he had faced mere hours ago. He would have given
his very soul, then, for this reunion. He would miss Archie, terribly,
but he could live with the knowledge that 'Artie' was safe here in
Kingston, or England, or even Canada. "Your family, Archie -- what of
them?"

"Tony is going to carry a message to my mother, and one of my sisters, I
hope before official word reaches England. They will keep the secret,
and I may be able to see them again, someday. My father..." his mouth
tightened. "His Lordship never had that much use for me, and if I know
him at all he would see me hanged, himself, if he learned I'd escaped.
He cares more for the appearance of things than the reality, you see.
With the conviction, I would have been dead to him anyway. That..." He
tilted his head in wry acceptance. "...that is really nothing new."

Hornblower nodded. "I'm pleased your mother will know. Is there anyone
else?"

"Only we five, and two others," Tony Dewhurst said, behind him. "Since
the war began, Percy Blakeney has been using his yacht as a fast courier
for the Admiralty, and for covert operations; he located Dr. Maturin and
brought him here to play his part in the charade. I have one servant who
left the Navy under ... well, under circumstances similar to your own; he
will keep silent. The rest of this household know this gentleman only as
my Canadian cousin. The fewer who know otherwise, the safer it will be
for us all."

Horatio nodded. "So... 'Artie.'" The name felt strange, but it was
close enough. "Whatever will you do, now?"

"I don't know, Horatio." He closed his eyes again, took a deep breath,
clearly with difficulty. "Grow a beard, as quickly as I can. It will
make me look more like a wild North American, and no family could produce
three identical cousins. I may go back to Drury Lane and immerse myself
in the Bard. You will admit I am a convincing thespian?"

Horatio's eyes filled at the memory, but he grinned through his tears.
"You -- you certainly convinced me."

Archie's fingers tightened on his -- cool, but with some strength in
them. "I am sorry, Horatio."

"I'm not." They smiled at each other, quite foolishly.

"If not the stage, I might see what I can do to help Tony with the family
interests here," Archie said. "If sugar cane does not provide enough
challenge, Sir Percy is apparently doing his best to foment unrest in the
French colonies... and you know I speak excellent French. I'm sure
there's some way to make myself useful, even as a colonial upstart with
questionable origins."

"What?"

"Tony's idea," Archie said. "Cousin Artie isn't in the stud-book, but
you have only to look at him to realize he's obviously one of the
family..."

"There are some advantages to being Lord of the Manor." Tony Dewhurst
smiled. "If I decide to accept Arthur's proofs that he's the natural son
of my cousin Lancelot, who went to the colonies in the 1740's and
vanished somewhere in Virginia, why should anyone else question it? He
worked his way to London on American ships -- he is well acquainted with
the sea -- and served as a helmsman, for a time, on Sir Percy's yacht."

"What about the Indians?"

"Only a jest, Horatio. Poor Artie was injured when privateers tried to
seize the Daydream."

Hornblower nodded. A well-constructed identity. And having Sir Percy
Blakeney to vouch for Archie's new identity -- a man of substance, and no
relative at all -- would make Archie that much more secure. "I am
impressed."

"Gentlemen," Maturin said, "I regret interrupting you, but Mr.-- Dewhurst
-- needs his rest if he is to recover."

Archie was still smiling, but he did look worn. "Of course." Hornblower
took his hand once more, marveling at the touch and warmth and reality of
it. "I don't know how to thank you, Doctor. Archie -- Artie --"

"Stop stuttering, Horatio." Archie frowned at him. "And do remember to
look mournful, when you leave. I'm not joking. If you go out grinning
like that they'll think you've gone round the bend. Go back to the
hospital and mope for a while. I expect a black armband, at the very
least."

"You're right, of course." But it was not easy to take the smile from
his face. "May I visit again?" he asked Dewhurst.

"As long as you are in port, I would be honored to have you as a
houseguest," Lord Tony said hospitably. "Wherever the Navy sends you,
I'm sure it will take at least a week or two of preparation. My footman
can fetch your baggage from the inn."

He nodded, lightheaded with relief. "Thank you, my lord. For
everything."

"Out, gentlemen," Maturin repeated. "Mr. Hornblower, I strongly suggest
you have a moderate meal, no meat, and at least six hours sleep. Now,
Mr. Dewhurst --" He turned his attention to Archie, and the others filed
quietly out.

Giddy with joy and weariness, Hornblower followed Tony Dewhurst to the
guest room one door down, and remembered only to remove his shoes before
collapsing on the sumptuous feather bed. He was still not sure he was
awake; it felt so like a dream that he finally pinched himself, hard.
And welcomed the merely physical pain.

He wrapped the edge of the counterpane around him and nestled down into
the pillow. Despite all the madness, all the misery, against all odds,
Archie had survived. And soon he himself would be off to war again, to
live or die.

Well, death came eventually to everyone, and no one could say when it
would be. But for the first time in weeks he allowed himself to hope
that it would be later, rather than sooner. And he found himself smiling
as he drifted off to sleep, at the notion of Mr. Arthur Dewhurst
declaiming Shakespeare in a theatre on Drury Lane.

 

the end

 

to Geronimo-kitten, for teaching me that love is stronger than death
and Jamie Bamber, for a deathless portrayal of heart and courage

.