Cenotaph
by Idler

His head drooped, eyelids closing as sleep edged ever closer,
dragging his thoughts down and away from this duty, this burden…

Rear Admiral Lord Hornblower irritably shook himself awake, furious
at the weakness which allowed fatigue to overtake him and doubly
vexed by the tolerant expression currently displayed on the round
countenance of his clerk. Obviously—and to his utter disgust—he had
sat nodding like an old man in his dotage as the clerk waited
patiently, pen poised above paper, for him to wake and continue this
interminable correspondence.

`Damned heat' he cursed inwardly. Despite the bright swath of open
windows the great cabin was a veritable oven, as stifling and
oppressively airless as any of the lower decks. The squadron sat
sweltering at anchor in the shadow of Gibralter, impatiently enduring
the drudgery of the final stages of provisioning. Provisioning
which, seemingly, was being conducted under his very nose if one were
to judge from the racket and coarse shouts drifting through the open
windows, rendering any attempt at sustained concentration an
exasperating challenge.

Hornblower fought down the urge to pluck at his sodden and wilted
neckcloth; it was quite inexcusable for an admiral to display such a
human and ordinary frailty. However, he thought crossly, capricious
and perplexing behaviour was entirely expected of an admiral, and as
such he might well indulge in it.

"That will be sufficient, Rogers, I shall call you when I want you."
He rose abruptly and stalked out of the cabin, leaving the astonished
clerk staring at the all-but-completed missive left to languish on
the desktop.

On deck, the relentless sun's glare was blinding after the relative
shadow of the cabin, and the heat assaulted him like the hot breath
of a blacksmith's forge. Hornblower squinted aloft to where his
broad pendant hung limply from the mizzen; his hope for even the
faintest of breezes had been in vain. He did note, however, that an
awning had been rigged on the quarterdeck and gratefully accepted its
shade, though it provided little relief from the insidious heat.

The raucous commotion of provisioning was even more insistent out
here in the open. He strode to the rail and readily located the
cause of the clamor which had so recently disturbed his
concentration: a small brig rode at anchor nearly in the flagship's
shadow, so close that he found himself glowering directly down upon
her bustling deck.

To the untutored observer, it would have seemed a scene of utter
chaos. The small vessel was surrounded by a swarm of heavily-laden
bumboats, each jockeying for position as they awaited the opportunity
to come alongside and discharge their burdens. From those already
fortunate enough to have claimed an unoccupied bit of hull, casks
were being hoisted inboard to be received and stowed by small knots
of sweating sailors, all bare to the waist and looking for all the
world as if they had been recently hauled dripping from the sea.

In their midst stood the source of the incessant shouting: not a
bos'n, as Hornblower had supposed from both tone and vocabulary, but
a young officer clad in worn breeches and working jacket so battered
that his rank was quite indistinguishable. An officer, clearly,
nonetheless: he stood like a rock amid the currents of activity that
swirled and eddied about him, barking curses and orders,
orchestrating the human tide with a gruff efficiency.

As Hornblower stood and watched his irritation subsided, and instead
he found himself oddly moved, entirely unable to look away.
Something about the officer was familiar, though he was quite certain
he had never seen the man before. Nor could he recall a resemblance
to any particular officer with whom he had served: fair-haired and
dark-eyed, this man was tall and slim, and was possessed of an
undeniable elegance despite his rough speech. Even the weathered
uniform was worn with a precision entirely consistent with the
meticulous and mathematical regularity of the old-fashioned, tightly
wrapped queue that emerged stiffly from beneath his faded bicorne.

Intrigued, Hornblower struggled with memory almost recalled; a
ghostly memory, as transparent and insubstantial as the shadow the
young man cast, impossible to grasp yet strangely heartening. The odd
sense of recognition was not to be explained but fascinated him
nonetheless, and thus he continued to bask in its strange sense of
comfort, allowing his thoughts to wander.

Too soon, Hornblower was awakened from this pleasant reverie by the
sound of a step beside him; he looked up—with a profound feeling of
regret—to find his flag captain settling beside him at the rail.
They both watched the tableau in silence for a space.

"Seems a bit of a tartar, eh?"

"Ha---h'mm," Hornblower grunted noncommittally. His flag captain
was substantially more garrulous than he preferred, a fact he wished
he had discovered sooner rather than later; he knew better than to
venture even the slightest of idle comments. It would only encourage
the man.

Captain Benchley, however, was not to be dissuaded by his admiral's
reticence. " S'pose not, though, sir…..crew's mostly volunteer, I'm
told. Rare enough, these days. Most of `em asked for transfer to go
with him when he was given Audacious." He grinned up at Hornblower,
his florid face open and cheerful. "Can't be said about too many
newly-minted commanders."

Hornblower sighed. The man's attempts at conversation were
relentless, and he longed for the old days of more taciturn captains:
men who kept their own counsel and felt no overriding compulsion to
fill the air with undue chatter.

The sigh was wholly lost on Benchley, as Hornblower had known it
would be, and the man continued undeterred. "Aye, he was First under
Dawes in Thunderer these past few years. Had a bit of a late start,
they say, but he's done well enough after all." Benchley nodded
sagely as if to confirm his own words. "Well enough that Admiral
Kenyon saw fit to promote him and send him to us."

Dawes? Hornblower considered, wracking his brain, ignoring Benchley,
for the most part. Dawes? Not familiar, precisely; there was
something, though…

Benchley fell uncharacteristically silent for a space, almost
reflective, though his jovial enthusiasm quickly returned in
force. "In fact, you may recall hearing of him, sir. He served
under an old friend of yours, I believe…Bush, God bless `im."

Hornblower stared, pale and speechless, Benchley wholly forgotten.
That was it: Bush. Watching this man was like watching Bush all
over again, despite the dissimilar appearance. The same confident
stance, the same authoritative quality—and impressive volume—of
voice, and the same shielded grins from the men as they turned,
unquestioning, to obey.

Small wonder he had found the man so familiar. And, he realized, it
was equally understandable that the sense of recognition had insisted
upon remaining formless and vague until conjured into substance by
Benchley's words. He had found it impossible to conceive of a world
without Bush in it and thus had learned, through long practice, that
it was simply easier not to think of him at all, as if he had never
been.

Benchley nattered on, oblivious to Hornblower's sudden
pallor. "Fanshawe, his name is, sir…Ev Fanshawe. Commander, now,
but he was a lieutenant with Bush a few years ago, rousting out
smugglers in Cornwall. You must have heard some tall tales about
that, sir—I've heard there was much to tell." Benchley's grin
widened as pleasant memories stirred, and warmed him. "Oh, lord……
old Bush could spin a yarn like none other….'specially when the hours
were small and the bottle was empty, if you catch my drift. Aye, I
recall it well—we served together on Goliath, you know, sir—many an
evening we spent yarnin' in the wardroom. God, the tales he'd
tell. Surely, after Cornwall, he must've told you some prize ones."

Benchley was grinning like a banshee, doubtless eagerly anticipating
an evening spent in the sharing of tales of an old and lost shipmate,
summoning his presence, if only for a moment; it pleased Hornblower,
perversely, to turn the man's pleasure to disappointment. "No," he
snapped sharply. "Bush never spoke of it."

The bitter frost in Hornblower's tone was not lost on Benchley, and
the man—wisely—took his leave, removing himself to a respectful
distance. Hornblower permitted it, never hearing a word. His
thoughts still echoed his own response: `Bush never spoke of it.'

Because…because I had never asked. Unthinkable, now, but then it
had seemed unimportant. The pain of loss returned in strength, and
he vividly recalled the images of that night, images kept long—and
forcibly—submerged. Those final words, that last handclasp…..he had
never considered it might be so. Bush had been so constant, so
dependable: it was utterly inconceivable that such a man could vanish
into nothingness without a trace.

But Bush was indeed long gone, and there had been nothing left.
Hornblower stared down at the cluttered deck of Audacious, seeing
none of it, until a familiar bellow penetrated the mists. He studied
the young man below him, and recalled Benchley's open face, lit with
obvious pleasure at the mere mention of Bush's name. Perhaps he had
been mistaken. There was something left, after all.

Hornblower turned to his flag captain and somehow, mustered a thin
smile. "Captain Benchley," he called.

"Sir?" The man eyed him warily, still stung by his admiral's abrupt
reproof.

"Dine with me this evening, Captain, and have Commander Fanshawe join
us. And tell my steward to set out the fine port I had been
saving." Hornblower smiled again, this time without effort. "I
believe you both have some tales to tell."