Clayton's Tale
by Nereus


HMS Justinian

Spithead

23rd January 1793

Dear Horatio,

I am writing this letter, on what may well
be the last night of my life, in the hope it will convince you not
to feel any guilt for what I propose to do tomorrow. I would never
have found the courage to do it if you had not issued that
challenge, but I hope to persuade you that you have done me no
injury, but rather a great favour.

Have you ever wondered why I have not gained promotion? It
is not the drink. My drinking is a consequence, not a cause. Nor
is it, as with Jack, an inability to master navigation. You will
have grasped by now we all find it wiser not to be able to navigate
when Jack is in the class. (I am sorry I did not warn you of this.
I never thought that you would have mastered navigation after so
short a time on board). There could be a number of reasons, but the
true one is cowardice.

There. It is out. I have cowered away from letting it be
known for far too long.

It happened in the Americas, many years ago now. I was at
that time an acting lieutenant aboard Captain Keene's currant
command, the Tryphon. I was placed in charge of a party sent to
guard a crossroads, several miles inland. There were a dozen men
from the ship and about fifty allied local natives. We were
ambushed, hopelessly outnumbered. And I abandoned my men.

My excuse was that I went to summon help. I was the only
man there with a horse. But the truth is I knew there would be no
help, could be no help. Keene could not send enough men without
weakening the ship's crew far beyond what was safe. He had to think
of the preservation of all his men, not just a handful. I knew
that, although I denied it to myself. I left my men because I was
afraid.

Two of Tryphon's crew got back. I'm not sure about the
natives. I honestly do not believe my staying would have saved more
lives, but that is no excuse. I could have been shot for what I
did. I should at least have been expelled the service. However
Keene covered up because he had got his lieutenancy serving under my
father, a former naval commander who was invalided out because of
serious battle wounds. He was still alive at this time and Keene
did not want to cause him pain. I lost my acting lieutenant's rank
of course, but no charges were brought against me. However I always
knew there was no question of any further promotion.

That sounds as if I do not care about the men I left. I do.
I remember every day.

Jack knew of course. He and I have served together all our
careers. There was actually a kind of friendliness between us
before he was made envious by my promotion. Whether he was not then
as he is now, or whether, as a junior midshipman on a well-run ship,
he was not in a position to give vent to his true nature, I do not
know. He certainly took the opportunity of rubbing in my fall, but
I felt that I deserved that.

Of course on the Tryphon everyone knew what I had done, and
some of them shared it with their friends on other ships. But these
things are forgotten as time passes. There was a period when I
could hardly bear either to stay on ship, where all knew, or to go
ashore and risk encountering others who knew. However that has not
been so for some years now. I doubt there is anyone aboard
Justinian who knows what I did, save Keene and Jack. I am a nobody
again and have been deeply thankful for it.

That was Jack's hold on me of course. He knew I dreaded
that he should spread the story, dreaded it far beyond reason or
justification. Dreaded having to face such disgust and scorn again.
Did you never wonder why he seldom singled me out for persecution,
even though I was - I hope - not one of those who toadied to him?
It was because his hold was so complete. He had no fear I would
ever break free. I think it amused him to allow a little
independence knowing he could jerk the leash at any time. Even
after I pointed a gun at him he never saw me as a threat. He had no
doubt he could control me. Had it not been for your challenge he
would have been right.

I should have acted earlier. Until Jack left us temporarily
I never saw what evil he had created. I was self-absorbed perhaps,
but it is hard to see things that develop gradually. Harder for me
than for those who have known him only since the crew of Justinian
was put together, a few months back, let alone one like you, new
come to this place. But I saw it after he left. When I saw Hether
and Cleveland change from subservient brutes to essentially good-
natured fellows, when I saw those who had toadied and born tales to
Jack regain simple decency, when I saw Kennedy - well you must have
marked the effect Jack has on Archie, imagine seeing it suddenly
disappear - when I saw all that I knew that Jack was evil. And yet
when he returned I did nothing. I was still a coward.

You see, I hope, why it is right I should be the one to face
him. Whether he will, in fact, kill me I am not sure. He might
find it more amusing to inflict a flesh wound. I am sure he will
have no fear of my killing him, he will expect me to be too afraid
to hold a pistol straight. However I hope, I am not entirely sure,
but I do believe, that will not be the case.

If you are reading this then I will indeed have perished and
I assure you that I will not regret my choice. I have no hope, no
future, only a past I will never be free of. You have much to live
for. However I do this not for you alone, but for all the others
who will be set free if I can succeed in killing or crippling him.
I do not wish to offend you, Horatio, but having seen you at pistol
practice I do not think you have a chance of hitting him. Having
right on your side is no substitute for the skill which no boy who
has barely learned how to load a pistol could possess. I am a
reasonable shot, if not in Jack's class. If I am to die, then I
hope to achieve something worthwhile with my death. God knows I have
never done so in my life. At the least it will not be a coward's
end.

I thank you for what you have done. I thank you for giving
me some of the courage I thought I could never have. I thank you
for showing me how to find a death which has some honour. It is
more than I had hoped to have.

Do not carry guilt because of this. Remember me kindly if
you can find it in your heart to do so, but please do not mourn. I
regret only that it took me so long to take action against Jack.
You have done me nothing but good service.

Your friend, so I would like to think.

Simon Clayton