Ship of the Damned, part twenty-five
by Sue N.

Stewart felt rather at loose ends. He had been to the surgery to have
his injuries tended to -- nothing major, a few deep cuts, and a graze
from a pistol ball he had never even felt -- and had been rather
curtly dismissed by the ship's doctor -- what was his name? Surly
fellow, whose breath had smelled of brandy...

Yet now, with no duties, with no one even seeming to take notice of
his presence, he had no idea what to do, where to go, where he
belonged. He had briefly considered going back to Resolute, but the
thought struck a cold, dark chill in him that amounted almost to
sickness. And then had come word from Captain Pellew that no one was
to go into her without his permission.

The poor old girl had become a plague ship...

He had thought of going above, if only to feel the sun upon him once
more, but could not bring himself to face the men of Indefatigable.
He still felt deeply ashamed, and somehow responsible, for what had
happened, and could not bring himself to face the accusation, the
anger, the blame, he doubtless would see in their faces.

Not knowing what else to do, he went back down to the surgery, drawn
almost by instinct to the one person who had seemed to understand
him, who had bothered to show any interest at all in him. If nothing
else, he could at least sit with him now, and show that kindness,
that concern, had not been wasted.

But as he neared Kennedy's hammock, he stopped short, seeing that the
lieutenant was not alone. That other lieutenant -- Hornblower, was
it? -- still sat at his side, speaking softly in his deep, soothing
voice. There was someone else, a dark-haired midshipman who seemed at
ease around the officers -- God, how wonderful it must be to feel so!
-- and the seaman Matthews, who had fought with him in Resolute.

The tableau struck a hard pang through him with its intimacy, its
camaraderie. He had never known such in Resolute, had never known
officers to care for him, midshipmen who were friendly, ratings who
trusted him. An intense longing, and a knowledge of all he had
missed, surged through him with a painful intensity, wringing hard at
his young soul and bringing tears to his eyes.

They would not want him here...

"Mr. Stewart."

Just as he turned to leave, Matthews' kindly voice reached out to
him, caught him, brought him back around with a start. His green eyes
huge in his face, his heart heavy in his breast, he straightened and
stood there, hesitating, torn between his urge to flee and his need
to stay.

Matthews, seeing the anguish in those eyes, smiled gently. "Won't ye
come over, sir?" he invited. "I been tellin' Mr. 'Ornblower an' Mr.
'Ardy 'ere 'ow ye stood with us an' all ye done to 'elp Mr. Kennedy.
An' we've a bit o' grub over 'ere, as well. I don't suppose ye've
eaten?"

Stewart blinked. Eaten? Had he-- No, not since dinner yesterday--
God, had it been only yesterday? Strange, he would have thought it
much longer...

"Please, Mr. Stewart," Matthews went on, limping to the lad's side
and smiling gently into those eyes. "We'd count it a favour if ye'd
join us."

"You-- you would?" Stewart murmured in surprise. "But I-- I don't
belong here--"

"Well, now," Matthews's face darkened with sorrow as he glanced about
the surgery, "I don't know that anyone rightly belongs 'ere... Come
on, sir," he urged. "Ye've got to eat." He smiled amiably. "A full
belly can do wonders for a man's spirit, I've always said."

A slight, tremulous smile touched Stewart's mouth, and gratitude
warmed his green eyes. "Thank ye, Matthews," he rasped hoarsely. "I'd
be honoured to join ye."

Much to his surprise, Hornblower rose to his feet as he approached,
and the deep, dark eyes greeted him with warmth. "Good day, Mr.
Stewart," he greeted. "Matthews here has been telling us of your
courage in Resolute. And of how you stood by Arch-- Mr. Kennedy. I
want you to know how deeply we all appreciate your efforts."

"Och, sair," Stewart breathed, "I had to! I couldnae let him fight
alone." His gaze slipped down to Kennedy, still unconscious in the
hammock, so pale, so still, and a fierce wave of bitterness rose up
within him, twisting his mouth into a scowl and bringing tears once
more to his eyes. "He was too good a man for 'em o'er there!" he
rasped harshly, his young frame beginning to tremble. "He tried, God
knows he tried, but it was a lost cause! A ship o' lost souls, that's
what we were! Wi' the Devil himself at our helm--" He lifted tortured
eyes to Hornblower. "Yere captain should've sunk us when he had the
chance! We would've been free, then--"

"Ssh, hush, sir, hush, lad," Matthews soothed, instinctively slipping
an arm about the boy's shoulders. At that touch, Stewart began to sob
helplessly, and Matthews held him, and let him. "Aye, sir, that's
it," he said softly, gently, "ye've 'eld it in too long. Ye've been a
brave lad, but there's no need for it now. Just let it out, sir. Let
it all come out."

Hardy, his sympathy aroused, went for a stool and brought it, then
gently detached Stewart from Matthews' arms and led him to it, easing
it down upon it. And all the time Stewart wept, Hardy kept a hand
upon his shoulder and stood close, as if offering his strength to the
stricken boy.

"Mr. Hardy," Horatio said softly, "when we have done here, see if you
can't find a place for him in the midshipmen's berth. I have no doubt
he's exhausted. He will need a place to sleep and someone to watch
over him."

"Aye aye, sir," Hardy answered quietly, his dark grey eyes fixed upon
Stewart and soft with sympathy. "He can sling his hammock next to
mine." He grinned suddenly, impishly. "Be good to sleep next to
someone besides Martin, sir. He snores somethin' fierce!"

Horatio chuckled quietly, remembering Cleveland's deep snores from
his days as a midshipman. "Just jab him in the ribs when he does it."

"I tried, sir," Hardy reported with a grimace. "He jabbed back!"

Stewart heard the banter through his sobs, and had the feeling it was
for his benefit. And it worked. Whether from release of pent-up
emotion or simply the warmth about him, his frayed nerves began to
knit, the terrible ache inside him began to ease, and his emotional
storm at last subsided. When his sobs had ceased, he sniffed and
raised his head, wiping at his eyes and nose with a shaking hand, and
lifted wet eyes to Hornblower.

"Thank you, sir," he breathed.

Horatio smiled gently. "For what? For showing kindness to you? You
looked as if you could use a bit of it."

Stewart's eyes remained steady upon the lieutenant. "Ye don't know
how much it means, sir," he whispered. "It's something-- that never
existed in R-- o'er there." He winced and shook his head. "Ye cannae
ken what it's like, livin' in such a dark place--"

"You would be surprised, Mr. Stewart," Horatio said softly.
"Indefatigable's not the only ship I've known. I've served my time in
the darkness, as well." He glanced down at his friend. "And so has
Mr. Kennedy."

Stewart's eyes fell to the unconscious lieutenant, remembering his
easy smile, his cheerfulness, the terrible pain and shame that had
tortured him after the fit, and his almost feverish determination to
hold Resolute. "He told me, when he first came aboard, he knew what
it was to struggle-- We were speaking of studies, but--" He sniffed
again and wiped at eyes that refused to stop tearing. "How could he
care so much about us?" he whispered in confusion. "We weren't his
men, Resolute wasn't his ship. But he cared more for us than our own
officers ever had! When they flogged Dudley, it seemed to hurt him so
much! And then when Mr. Thorne had the poor man thrown over--" He
lifted puzzled eyes to Hornblower. "Why did that make him so angry,
sir? How could he care so much for a man who was dead, a man who
wasn't his own, a man he didn't even know? Mr. Thorne would've had
him arrested, or shot, but he didn't care! He just wanted to see
Dudley given a decent burial, when no one else gave a damn. Our own
officers did not care in the least for us, sir!" he cried hoarsely.
"Why did we matter so much to him?"

Horatio stared down at Kennedy, and his brown eyes swam with tears. A
hard, painful knot formed in his throat, but he forced himself to
speak around it. The boy deserved an answer. "Because he knows what
it is not to matter," he said quietly, his voice shaking and breaking
repeatedly. "He knows what it is to be scorned and despised, to be
preyed upon because he could not fight back, and to have officers who
should have cared turn their heads and look away because they did
not. He knows what it is to be neglected, and abandoned, and
forgotten, to be given up on, and even to give up on himself. He's
been a lost soul," he whispered in anguish, "he's been beaten and
battered and used in ways no man ever should, and he's seen a
darkness and despair no man should ever know--" He closed his eyes
tightly and bowed his head, hurting unbearably for his friend, for
the friend he might very well lose. Unable to go on, his throat
aching, his voice refusing to come, he sank down upon his stool and
buried his face in his hands.

"Aye, 'e's known all that," Matthews took up for Hornblower, his
voice quiet but firm, "an' more. But 'e also knows what it is t' be
given a chance, for someone to 'old out a hand to 'im an' pull 'im
out of the pit." He glanced down at Stewart and nodded. "Likely 'e
figured it was 'is turn to 'old out 'is 'and, an' give that chance to
another. I don't know that 'e believes in lost souls anymore," he
mused, "merely ones that ain't been found yet." He fixed a steady
gaze upon Hornblower. "Ye should've seen 'im, sir, in Resolute.
Thorne tried t' break 'im, but couldn't. 'E wouldn't be broken! An'
when the poor bastards mutinied, they had t' turn a cannon upon 'im
t' stop 'im. Dragged us along be'ind 'im by sheer force of will, even
Styles." He smiled slightly. "They were a right pair, them two," he
mused. "Mr. Kennedy, battered an' bleedin', a hole in 'is shoulder
an' barely able t' stand on 'is own, an' Styles, glowerin' an'
cussin' fit t' raise the Devil-- But Mr. Kennedy wouldn't let Styles
quit, an' Styles wouldn't let Mr. Kennedy fall." He chuckled quietly
and shook his grizzled head slowly. "I never thought I'd see the day
when them two would work like that together, but, by God, sir, they
were a pair!"

Horatio raised his head slowly, his face pale but composed. "I should
like to have seen that," he said, permitting himself a slight,
strained smile. Then, noticing Stewart, who was near nodding off on
his stool, he glanced up at Hardy. "Mr. Hardy, take him to the
midshipmen's berth and see him tucked in. And make it clear to the
others that the first man who shows him the smallest unkindness will
answer to me."

Hardy nodded. "Aye, sir." He gently patted Stewart's shoulder,
rousing the youth. "Come with me," he said gently. "I'll show you a
more comfortable berth than this." When Stewart rose, taller than
himself by several inches, Hardy stuck out his hand and grinned.
"Jack Hardy, midshipman. And you'll be pleased to know I don't
snore."

Stewart hesitated, then clasped the hand and shook it warmly, smiling
tiredly. "James Stewart, midshipman. And right now, it wouldnae
matter if ye did!"
**********

Gradually, throughout the day, life on Indefatigable crept toward
something approaching normalcy, though an air of exhausted calm hung
over the ship. Nearby, tethered by heavy cables to the Indy, Resolute
rode under a dark, grim silence, manned almost entirely by ghosts.

Pellew, along with Bracegirdle and a compliment of Marines insisted
upon by Captain Clarke for safety, forced himself to make a tour of
the ship, inspecting her for damage. Here and there, more bodies were
found, and were sent topside for burial. Soon, he could recite the
words of the Office for the Dead by heart.

Yet the most grueling ordeal by far came when he made himself go to
the captain's cabin, where the wretched remains of Captain Sidney
still lay. The stench of blood and death hit him at once, near
sickening him, but it was a duty he knew he must perform.

"Good God, get some air in here!" he rasped hoarsely, covering his
nose and mouth with a hand.

Immediately, one of the Marines hastened to the stern windows, but
found they would not open. In frustration, he picked up a chair and
heaved it through the glass. Another opened the skylight, and soon a
cooler breeze was wafting through, though it did little to help.

Pellew was shaking and queasy. The pistol shot had torn off the top
of Sidney's head and left the cabin heavily splattered with gore.
What once had been the captain of Resolute lay sprawled on the deck,
the pistol at its side, in a sticky pool of drying blood.

And he had made Kennedy watch him do this...

He did not realize he had slumped until he felt the Marine grab him
hard and haul him to his feet. But his vision was swimming and his
head was reeling. The deck seemed to be dissolving beneath his feet.

"Get him a chair!" Bracegirdle barked in concern, rushing to the
captain's other side. "Sir, you've not slept, you've not eaten," he
rasped in concern. "Why not let me do this?"

Pellew raised a white face to his first. "And have you done either of
those?" he asked hoarsely. When Bracegirdle did not answer, Pellew
nodded. "I thought not. Find us some brandy and glasses, and let us
fortify ourselves."

While the Marine eased Pellew into a chair, Bracegirdle made his way
on unsteady legs to the small table where the brandy and glasses sat,
remarkably untouched by the gore. With shaking hands, he poured two
generous rations and went back, handing one glass to his captain.

Pellew took a much-needed drink, and was grateful for the fire
seeping into his blood. Another drink, and he found himself able to
think. "I shall require the captain's log, and any dispatches that
might be found."

Bracegirdle immediately dispatched the Marines, who launched a
thorough search of the captain's suite.

"We shall have to bury the poor bastard," Pellew muttered. "I shall
write the necessary letters to the Admiralty, and one to be forwarded
to his family. Merciful God, what a pitiful end!"

"The men say he was mad, sir," Bracegirdle said softly, his face
clouded by sorrow.

"Not so mad that he could not recognize what was happening to his
ship," Pellew said in a tight, angry voice. "Not so mad that he could
not choose to kill himself rather than face up to what he had let
happen!" He stared at Sidney's body. "That is not the result of
madness, Mr. Bracegirdle," he accused, "but of cowardice. He
abandoned his ship, as no captain should, gave her into the hands of
that devil Thorne, and then chose for himself the easy way out. God,
how I wish I could just burn this ship!" he whispered, dropping his
head into one hand.

Bracegirdle wished it, too, but knew the Admiralty would be furious.
That lot of bureaucrats would never understand why...

At last, the Marines returned, their hands laden with the results of
their search.

"Sir," reported Lieutenant O'Brien, holding a large book, "we've
found the log, as well as dispatches and letters."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Pellew breathed, raising his head with an
effort. "Take them to my cabin, and leave them for me. Then," his
face hardened, "dispatch a detail to see to Captain Sidney's body.
And have someone clean up this damned mess!"

"Aye aye, sir."

"What shall we do with Resolute, sir?" Bracegirdle asked softly when
O'Brien had left.

Pellew sighed and rose heavily to his feet, then took another needed
drink of brandy. "We shall have to make provision to sail her back to
Gibraltar," he answered harshly, his throat burning from the liquor.
And, with any luck, the Dons will attack and take or sink her."

Bracegirdle shook his head slowly, remembering what he had seen of
her in their inspection. "A pity. She looks to have a beautiful ship,
once. Sturdy, quick--"

"Mr. Kennedy wrote of that in his log," Pellew said softly. "He said
he had felt a whisper of her former spirit, said she seemed to know
what had been lost and to grieve for it--" He took another quick
drink, draining his glass almost desperately.

"Fanciful words," Bracegirdle murmured.

"No, Mr. Bracegirdle," Pellew rasped harshly, his eyes and throat
burning. "The words of a true sea officer!"
**********