COMPASSION
by DasNDanger

 

Pitted stone walls confined them like bullocks in a hold, and Horatio
lamented that it smelled just like such a hold each time he struggled
to find a breath of sweet, refreshing air. He had yet to grow
accustomed to the putrid atmosphere in this squalid hole, and for the
moment it was Mr. Hunter who was privileged to find relief at the
window, leaving Horatio perched on the edge of his bunk, attempting to
distance himself from the sourness of his bed. However successful this
attempt was it mattered little, for he could find no deliverance from
the feculent bucket that festered in the corner, its stench mingling
with sweat in a malodorous cloud that seemed to forever hang just under
Horatio's nose.

His only escape was to contemplate the pathetic bundle that lay
opposite him.

Had he killed Mr. Kennedy with the tiller on that unfortunate night,
Archie would have been spared this pitiable existence; but more
importantly, Horatio would have saved himself the agony of remembering
just how Archie had come to be in this wretched state. Certainly he had
done the right thing on that excited evening; better to sacrifice one
man than endanger the entire mission; and no other choice did he have
save to strangle him with his own hands. Yes, he had done the right
thing.

Nevertheless, here lay the crumpled remains of that decision, in filth
and in despair, a constant reminder of that heartless action taken so
long ago. He could have spent this time explaining those past events to
this man he once considered a friend, but he reasoned that in his
attempt to assuage his conscience, his excuses would limp on insincere
legs and only injure his victim more. Horatio decided that no purpose
would be served by justifying actions that never could be undone, so he
offered nothing; too dumb was he to comprehend that a simple word of
regret would have been enough.

Horatio stroked his prickly chin and glanced upwards to where he
desired to be - to that open window where Mr. Hunter sat - and
immediately he felt annoyed that this man not only occupied that prized
seat, but that he was incapable of any reason and critical of any
thought not his own. Horatio considered it clever to give him
constructive duties, but soon realized that his cleverness had been in
vain for Hunter saw none of these duties as necessary. It irritated him
that Hunter was bitter and impatient and lacked foresight; that he
failed to see the importance of details in planning their escape and
that he could not grasp the satisfaction that would be had if, when
they did escape, Mr. Kennedy was in tow.

Of course, Mr. Hunter was even less interested in saving Kennedy now
that he witnessed first hand Archie's legendary propensity to fits.
Just that past night, the two new prisoners had been wrested from sleep
by Kennedy's attack; Mr. Hunter watching in judgmental silence as
Horatio attempted to quiet the convulsing man as he so often had done
in Justinian. It was frustrating to feel the uncontrolled spasms wreak
havoc in Archie's body as he held him; so awkward to watch as he lost
control of his functions, helplessly flailing and thrashing about like
a fish pulled from the sea.

But then the struggle abated, and Hunter could look on in disgust while
Horatio tenderly arranged Archie's fetid clothes; his consoling hand
gently stroking away the rancid locks that clung to Kennedy's face, his
compassionate fingers wiping away Archie's slaver. Horatio sat for a
moment by this tormented man who now cowered in shame, caressing his
trembling shoulder and searching for some word of comfort, but there
was nothing he was able to say.

Hunter, though, could find plenty to say.

"Sir, it is beyond reason to think we can drag that stinking animal out
of here with us!" Hunter growled, suppressing neither his contempt nor
his volume. "You heard him before - he doesn't want to go back Look, he
begs to be left alone! So why concern yourself with him and ruin all of
our chances of escape?"

In one frantic move Horatio was on his feet, clutching Hunter's collar
and fighting back his rage lest he would strangle the man.

"Hush, Mr. Hunter!" Horatio's aggravated whisper barked into a
senseless ear. "We will NOT leave him behind - Mr. Kennedy comes WITH
us!" Horatio knew that Hunter could not understand that more than duty
was involved in this decision. How could he explain that it had to be
to right his ugly deed done so long ago and to silence the nagging
doubts that had picked like crows at his conscience. He had to do it
for himself. Yet he knew he neither deserved nor needed a second chance
to correct his justified actions; still, a second chance had presented
itself, and almost immediately Horatio knew that his plan of escape
must include Mr. Kennedy.

"Look at him," mocked Hunter, "he lies in his own stinking filth and
pities himself; and look at YOU - pretending he doesn't smell while you
preen him like your lover." These last words mortified Horatio.

"That is enough, Mr. Hunter!" Horatio's fierce eyes pierce the darkness
like polished blades, silently challenging his opponent to speak.
Finally, Hunter relented.

"Very well.. ..sir." He grumbled as he sank into his bed.

Horatio gathered up the musty woolen blanket from his bunk, and for a
lingering moment contemplated the wet one which now swaddled Archie. He
considered an exchange - but the embarrassment that his earlier
instinctive actions had been mistaken for compassion erased his empathy
- and he tossed the blanket aside. Now he was aching for sleep, but his
eyes could not close on the quivering mass opposite him - he knew that
Archie wept in silence. He felt an obligation to return to Archie's
side and comfort him, but already he had exposed too much of himself to
Hunter this night; Archie would be left to cry himself to sleep, alone.

But sleep did not come for Horatio. On that troublesome night, dark
memories of the lonely tears he himself had once shed so long ago as he
lay uncomforted in Justinian came flooding in like an overwhelming tide
swamps the shore. Now here was Archie, flesh and blood like himself,
feeling the same miserable pain that Horatio once prayed death would
relieve. Had they not both endured torment at the hands of Simpson, had
they not fought side by side in battle...and did they not laugh
together even more than they had suffered together?

For the first time he understood that Archie's escape meant more to him
than his responsibility to duty or as a salve for his conscience; he
realized he felt a compassion for this man he never knew himself
capable of feeling. It was uncomfortable for him to realize that he did
not act on instinct after all, but that he responded to Archie with
kindness and that kindness had been obvious to someone else, but not to
himself.

That night he determined that he must extend himself to Archie as a
friend, and not just as an officer. Unnatural this would be for a man
so solitary in his thoughts, one so uncomfortable with intimacy and who
guarded his heart so dearly. Yet he knew it had to be done.

So this morning he put aside his thoughts of foul odors and mustered up
the courage to make a spectacle of his humanity before Hunter's
critical eye. He would surely be judged the weakest of men.

But it did not matter, he had made a decision and that decision had to
be acted upon. The basin of tepid water had been brought at his
request; nothing more held him back but his own pride. He would
tenderly cradle Archie's head as he wiped away the encrusted spittle
from his mouth and neck. Awkwardly he would remove the dampened blanket
and acrid clothes; with an uncomfortable and strange intimacy he would
bathe his flesh and leave his naked body bound warmly in his own dry
woolen blanket. Through it all, Archie offered no assistance, for he
had neither the will nor the strength to help himself.

For a moment Horatio found the courage to look into Archie's pitiful
eyes, and for a moment he thought he saw gratitude looking back at him.

"Why are you doing this, Horatio...?" Archie said in an exhalation.

Horatio parted his lips to speak, but the words seemed too foolish to
say, so he swallowed them back down and raised a corner of his mouth in
a feeble smile instead.

For a second Archie hesitated, and Horatio fancied he saw a spark in
those lusterless eyes, but then the hint of gratitude and the spark
were gone, and shame veiled his face once more. Little did either
realize that they had reached out to each other with an understanding
of unspoken words, the beginning of a bond that would solidify into an
enduring friendship.

But it was not to happen today, for today Horatio was to begin his
promenades; and pleasant company and gratifying conversations would
release him from this rank confinement and divert him from his glorious
plans of escape and he would soon forget all about his resolve to be
Archie's friend.