The Cost of War
Horatio Hornblower stood with his hands clasped behind his back, staring with unfocussed eyes into the middle distance. He did not hear the steward enter. He did not see the man, with a glance at his master, silently withdraw, concluding that his master wanted no dinner at present. Hornblower saw nothing, heard nothing; even the familiar ship noises escaped his attention.
"Thanks to you, sir, the progress of the siege has been delayed four days." Essen’s thickly explosive accent pounded in his ears. Then Bush’s voice, light, hesitant.
"Yes, sir. ... Mound was killed, sir."
Hornblower was oblivious to the clogging of his nose and the tears coursing, sluggish and reluctant, down his face, which was dreadfully pale, scratched and filthy, his eyes circled with smudges of sleeplessness, his cheeks hollow, his hair greying seemingly by the day.
His legs were trembling unmercifully; he had been pacing for what seemed like hours. With no warning, a violent shudder seized him and he staggered back, sitting down hard on his cot. He kicked his shoes off roughly and bent his head, holding it in his hands with his elbows on his knees, little caring that the breeches had become stained and torn of late.
The measure of a man’s life. Suddenly, vividly, awfully, he heard Kennedy’s familiar voice in his ear: "Nothing in life became him like the leaving of it." Shakespeare, he supposed. Grief and rage buried years ago flooded back with the realisation that the eulogy applied equally to the fair-haired friend who also had died because of him, years ago, on the other side of the world.
And now, because of him, another officer was dead, young, full of promise, bright as a comet. Not even granted the final respite of a burial at sea.
"One of the last shots from the beach cut him in two, sir."
"Thanks to you, sir, the progress of the siege has been delayed four days."
The voices that echoed in his pounding head reached fever pitch. Hornblower fleetingly feared that he really might go mad. Was it any wonder? The world itself had gone round the twist, flailing in the grip of this brat of a tyrant. And while until now he had felt a fierce eagerness to crush Napoleon’s forces, fixing himself unwaveringly on the curiously exhilarating thought of the fate of the world balanced on a knife’s edge and himself custodian of the fragile balance, now it seemed no more than a heartbreakingly cruel jest in the hands of a callous Providence. Military forces surged back and forth across the scrap of land called Daugavgriva, gaining or losing a few yards at a time, but to what end? Ships were pounded to bits, enemy sailors roasting alive in the inferno caused by the bomb-ketch’s shells, and his unswerving duty was to pile up as many corpses as he could.
Over the years his duty had cost him a great deal and he had seldom grudged the cost. Relationships strained, any thought jettisoned of a lifetime of blissful ignorance and quiet years in the countryside, even his youth and naivete had been blown to pieces. He had endured imprisonment, teetered on the edge of madness, obeyed orders issued by insane or treacherous superiors, stabbed and shot men without a moment’s hesitation, seen impossibly young midshipmen smashed to jelly at his feet, all in the name of duty.
He might have become a schoolmaster, drifting through Latin and history and geography, seeing far-flung places only in his beloved books and hearing noises no louder than the buzzing of bees in clover on spring afternoons. He might have come to this, his thirty-seventh year, without ever knowing the pain and aching grief of death touching his heart, but thanks to duty he had buried so many men he had lost count, the sudden realisation of that cold truth making his stomach churn. If he tried, he could not possibly call by name every one of the men he had seen die, not even the Englishmen alone.
That had been the first. A seaman who had bled to death in one of the Indefatigable’s first engagements with the enemy. A clear-eyed lad with a piping Welsh accent and eyes as blue as the sky, and yet he remembered Williams less than he remembered Styles’ knuckled salute, the first he had received.
Kennedy. Dear God, Archie. His blue eyes had always been clouded with pain and regret, a pain that even Hornblower, his closest friend, could not wipe away. Davy Williams’ death was possibly not his fault, even though Williams had been in his division. But Kennedy’s unquestionably and eternally was his fault, his end as gently and lovingly sacrificial as the Christ’s whose story Hornblower remembered from childhood. Kennedy had smiled, a grimace fraught with pain but those blue eyes gleaming nonetheless. He had gasped out a eulogy:
"So quick to give. ... So slow to accept ... the simplest gift. ... And I ... to have ... known you." Then his eyes had glazed and the light – and the pain – had vanished into eternity.
God! Hornblower sprang to his feet and reeled to his water closet barely in time. Heaving, retching, trying to vomit up a lifetime’s worth of guilt.
The gagging and coughing overtook him so fiercely that for a moment Hornblower thought he might die, his lungs rupturing under the strain. He tore frantically at his neckcloth, flung it aside, and stumbled back to his cot, where he flung himself onto his back and closed his eyes.
"I’m going to kill you, Snotty." And he almost had. Hornblower should have died on that rocky beach, stabbed in the back after forcing poor Clayton to die for him. And then Kennedy would be alive today. How many deaths did his conscience bear? If after his own death Hornblower were to face a judgment, he had no doubt that he had earned for himself the fiery pit. He told himself he would be glad of flame and smoke, that it would be less than he deserved.
Clayton had saved him that first night. Kennedy had saved him more times than he could count. He remembered Kennedy and Bush mounting the stairs of the fort at Samana Bay, waving a white kerchief. "I suggest we make our move, gentlemen, it’s getting rather warm in here."
He was a merchant of death, bearing not the touch of Midas but the touch of Hades, of Charon, to all whose lives overlapped his. Maria’s death was certainly his fault; and if he had been a better provider his little children would not have contracted smallpox. Perhaps it would be better if he himself were to die. Then Napoleon could conquer and the rest of the world, while under the tyrant’s fist, would at least go on living.
"Come in!" he bellowed, in a voice that would have scared off any self-respecting chambermaid. It certainly scared the midshipman, who was visibly shaking when he opened the door.
"Muh-muh-muh-mister L-Lindley’s respects, s-s-s-sir, and, and, the Ad-admiral’s coming ab-b-board, sir," the lad gulped.
"The Admiral!" Hornblower, drawn abruptly out of his reverie, stared at the midshipman, a beardless youngster. "Not Louis?"
"No-no, s-s-sir." The midshipman swallowed hard. "Ad-ad-admiral Puh-puh-pellew, Chan, Channel Fleet, sir."
"I’ll come up." Hornblower strode for the door and trotted up the companion, nearly bowling over the luckless young messenger in the process.
"An ... unexpected pleasure, sir," Hornblower said, his eyes fixed on an indefinable spot past Pellew’s right shoulder.
Pellew’s mouth twisted in sympathy. Certainly he had seen Hornblower in dreadful condition, but seldom, if ever, under such strain. Understandable – of course. But those deep-set, blankly staring eyes, the grime staining the hollowed cheeks, the dishevelled uniform absent a neckcloth. On the quarterdeck, however, Pellew would reveal nothing.
"Commodore Hornblower," he said quietly.
"Ha–h’m. May I offer you the hospitality of my cabin, sir?" Hornblower managed to say.
"With pleasure, sir," said Pellew, and followed Hornblower below.
The brandy poured, the steward sent off, Hornblower sat limply on his cot, the glass lolling untasted in his fingers.
Pellew abruptly banged his fist on the table. "Drink it!" he barked.
Hornblower started badly, recovered himself, and obediently gulped the fiery liquid. He coughed, the tears pricking his eyes springing from the fierce bite of the liquor this time.
"It’s been years since I’ve seen you this undone, man," said Pellew, his tone softening only slightly. "What the devil is the matter?"
Hornblower opened his mouth, produced no sound, closed it again. He opened his mouth yet again, sighed, and finally said, "One of my lieutenants was killed. Mound, commanding one of the bomb-ketches."
"I ... see," Pellew said. His eyes bore the momentary softening that Hornblower had seen years before, reporting the deaths of Chadd and Ecclestone.
Another long silence ensued. Pellew poured more brandy into Hornblower’s glass and with his unflinching gaze commanded him to drink it. Hornblower did.
At length Pellew said:
"You’ve seen it before."
"Yes," said Hornblower simply. Then: "It was my fault, sir."
"Good God, man," said Pellew, honestly bewildered. "How was it your fault? If you wish to apportion blame, look to Napoleon. Look to the damned Swedes and Russians for dragging their feet." He gave Hornblower a stern gaze.
"I’ve spoke to you before, Commodore Hornblower," he said deliberately, "about the burdens of command. You know them yourself all too well. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,' sir." He raised his eyebrows. "How do you bear the fault for Commander Mound’s death?"
"The siege, sir," Hornblower said. "One of the last shots from the beach got him. I should have called it off five minutes earlier. We’d accomplished what we needed. Why did I allow it to go on so long?"
Unexpectedly, Pellew’s weathered features softened. "That kind of regret and second-guessing is the most difficult feature of the burden of command," he said quietly. "We’ve all borne such thoughts. All of us." He turned his gaze away before he continued. "Why does this officer’s death hit you so hard?"
There it was. The truth Hornblower would have given anything not to have faced. If he confessed it, Pellew would scorn him for a peacock and a fool. A tongue-lashing long forgotten popped into Hornblower’s mind. "I will not lose men to no better cause than the satisfaction of their own vanity," Pellew had roared, forbidding him to fight any more duels. Hornblower had not been very much younger then than Mound had been this day.
"I saw ... a great deal of promise in young Mound, sir," Hornblower temporised, stalling for time.
Pellew grunted and looked away again, his silence giving Hornblower no quarter.
"What sort of promise?" he finally asked.
"Intelligence. A good deal of common sense besides. He sets ... set ... an example to follow. Cool-headed in a crisis. Eminently thoughtful. Dutiful to the last." Hornblower drew a ragged breath. "Decisive, quick ... he could ..." Hornblower swallowed hard, damning the lump in his throat. "He ... knew ... the difference between folly and foolhardiness on the one side and ... and courage and calculation on the other." Hornblower kept his gaze pinned to the deck, disgusted at the tears that spattered there.
Pellew allowed the silence to thicken between them until it seemed something one could cut with a knife.
"In short," Pellew said softly, "the sort of young officer of which one might say, ‘I see a good deal of promise in you.’"
"‘If you continue in this service as you have begun,’" said Hornblower thickly, "‘a great ... future....’" he trailed off, unable to speak.
Pellew stood, compelling Hornblower automatically to his feet. He felt Pellew’s gaze on his, compassionate and relentless, and finally raised his head, his eyes brimming with tears as they had that afternoon in Pellew’s cabin after Muzillac, when Pellew had lectured him on the qualities of an exemplary officer.
As on that afternoon, Pellew waited, quietly, with only a hint of impatience, for Hornblower to compose himself. Pellew lowered his gaze, pursed his lips, and when he heard Hornblower take a deep breath without hitching, he acted most unexpectedly.
Without another word, he gathered Hornblower into his arms, embracing both muscle and sinew and the unceasing well of grief that leaders must feel when sending boys to die.
"Not every death will take you so," Pellew said, as, after a moment’s hesitation, Hornblower returned the embrace. "But sometimes the cost of war comes very dear indeed." He stepped back and laid his hands on Hornblower’s shoulders. The gaze that met the commodore’s was measureless in its compassion.
"Very dear," Pellew repeated. Without another word, he turned for the door, leaving Hornblower little alternative but to don another neckloth and hasten up the companion.
Hornblower joined Pellew on the weather side of the deck. Side by side, both men clasped their hands behind their backs and silently looked out over the eternal sea, the lowering grey sky, eternity in the face of futility.