Ship of the Damned, part five
by Sue N.

Pellew stood before the large stern windows, his hands
clasped tightly behind his back, and stared out over
the sparkling water, his face registering bitter
resignation. He wished desperately he had some
alternative, but knew he did not. He had thought of
nothing else since Thorneís departure, had racked his
brain for some other course of action, and had found
none. Even so, he regretted deeply what reason told
him he had to do.

God alone knew what ill would come of it...

A knock sounded on his door, and he sighed heavily,
knowing the dreaded moment was at hand. "Come," he
called, his voice lacking entirely its customary tone
of crisp command.

The door opened and Archie entered. "You wished to see
me, sir?"

Pellew closed his eyes briefly, then gathered himself
and turned about. "Yes, I did. Please, come in."

Archie closed the door and stepped further into the
cabin, fighting to maintain his self-assurance. Though
he was steadily regaining the confidence stripped from
him by the ordeals in his past, still he doubted he
would ever conquer the uncertainty that assailed him
in his captain's presence.

Though at least he could be fairly certain he had done
nothing wrong...

Pellew studied the young man intently, seeing both his
nervousness and his efforts to master it. Kennedy had
come far -- professionally and personally -- since his
return a year ago from imprisonment in Spain, and
Pellew felt a deep admiration for his accomplishments,
and for the courage behind them. He liked the lad,
which only made this all the more difficult. As
unworthy as the idea was, he suddenly wished they had
blown that damned ship out of the water when first she
had darkened their path.

"Mr. Kennedy," he began quietly, deeply reluctant to
inform the young man of events and thus set them into
motion, "as you know, we are returning to Gibraltar."
He paused briefly, then inclined his head slightly and
continued, watching Kennedy the whole time. "Resolute
will be sailing with us."

Archie frowned slightly, not at all certain why he was
being told this. "With us, sir?" he repeated.

Pellew sighed, wishing the lad would not look at him
so. Ah, God, the trust in those eyes! Between his wide
blue eyes and small stature, Kennedy appeared younger
than his twenty years. If he had not known better,
Pellew would have sworn he was no more than sixteen or
seventeen.

Kennedy, Hornblower, Hardy... boys in a man's war...

"Yes, with us," he answered quietly. Unable any longer
to contain his restlessness, he began to pace about
the cabin, his every muscle so tight it hurt. "You
have had time to study Resolute, Mr. Kennedy. What do
you think of her?"

Archie swallowed and blinked, startled by the
question. Think of her...? He swallowed again.
"Honestly, sir?" he asked softly.

"By all means," Pellew breathed. After his thoroughly
unpleasant encounter with Thorne, honesty would be a
blessed relief.

"Well," he frowned thoughtfully, summoning a mental
picture of the frigate, "she is a sad sight, sir.
Badly handled, poorly maintained-- She's got three of
her ports open, sir. I cannot say if it is owing to
some damage to them, but it seems to me that, with the
weather as clear as it, if they are damaged, a
carpenter's crew ought to be fixing them. Her rigging
is a travesty, and, on the main deck at least, none of
her cables are properly coiled. And no one seems to be
doing anything about any of it!"

Pellew lifted his brows in amused surprise, a small
smile tugging at his mouth. "Well, I see you have been
studying her, Lieutenant. Anything else?"

Kennedy hesitated, not certain what the captain wanted
to hear, not certain he should be criticizing a ship
he did not know. But the captain seemed to be waiting,
and he was not always a patient man. "Yes, sir," he
continued slowly. "Her crew-- They are watching us,
sir."

Pellew stiffened at that and frowned, his eyes
darkening a shade. "Watching us? What do you mean?"

Kennedy grimaced; he had feared the captain would ask
that. "I am not entirely certain myself, sir," he
admitted quietly. "But I can see them, in the rigging
and on deck-- watching us." He frowned and shook his
head slowly, staring past Pellew and trying to put
into words what he had observed. "It is a very quiet
ship, sir," he murmured thoughtfully, "almost too
quiet. Well, you know how our men are -- they laugh,
they talk, they sing. And I have heard those same
things on other ships. But there is none of it on
Resolute! Her men are-- well, sir, they are-- "

"Sullen," Pellew supplied softly as the young man
groped for the proper word, his stomach clenching hard
inside him. Oh, God, what had he done?

"Exactly, sir!" Archie said brightly, oblivious to his
captain's distress. "It is as if the entire ship is
holding her breath... "

Pellew groaned softly and turned away, wishing Kennedy
would stop. Each word the young man spoke twisted at
his guts, caused him to curse all the more bitterly
his offer of assistance ñ of men, HIS men ñ to Thorne.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," he said abruptly, stopping
Kennedy in mid-sentence. Damn! Why hadn't the Dons,
the storms, the hand of God, destroyed that cursed
ship?

"Sir?" Archie called softly, worriedly, now seeing
plainly the anguish in those dark eyes, on that taut
face. "Are you all right, sir? Is something wrong?"

Pellew lifted his head and stared at the young man in
deepening torment, torn cruelly between desire and
duty. He wanted nothing more than to leave Resolve
where she lay, to flee as fast and as far from her as
his sails would allow, to keep his men, his ship, safe
from the rot he knew festered in her. But a captain
did not desert a ship in need. And no man of
conscience could abandon a crew -- even a sullen,
seething crew -- to the like of Hugh Thorne.

<I stand before you a man accused...> Ah, God, it was
Quiberon Bay all over again!

"Sir, please!" Archie said softly, his fear mounting.
The captain was so pale, his eyes glittering with
pain... "Will you not say what troubles you? Shall I
send for someone? Mr. Hornblower, perhaps?" Horatio
would know what to do...

Pellew stared at him and felt his soul go cold.
Kennedy was worried about him, frightened for him. The
blue eyes were wider than ever, the young face a mask
of anxiety. It was like a knife in his heart...

"No, lad," he murmured at last, allowing, for a
moment, the barriers of rigid formality to drop, "you
need call no one. I am fine, really. I am-- merely
troubled."

"By what, sir?"

Pellew sighed and turned away, struggling to regain
his composure. "I have made-- an offer to Mr. Thorne--
" He resumed his pacing, painfully aware of that blue
gaze upon him. "Resolute is badly under-manned,
perhaps even dangerously so. For officers, she has
only her captain, who is ill, and Mr. Thorne, along
with a few midshipmen." He sighed, hating the words,
but knowing they must be spoken. "I have offered to
send a compliment of men and an officer to Resolute,
to sail in her until we reach Gibraltar." He steeled
himself, then turned to meet those eyes. "Mr. Kennedy,
I must ask if you would agree to serve temporarily in
Resolute."

The shock that ran through Archie shook him violently,
visibly, and tore a sharp, audible gasp from him. He
stared at Pellew in stunned, numb disbelief, his eyes
huge, his mouth open, his mind refusing to function.

Serve... in Resolute...

"I will not order you to go," Pellew said quietly,
gently, praying the boy would refuse. "Your place is
here, in Indefatigable, you know that. Yet if you do
not go, there is no one else. While Mr. Bracegirdle is
incapacitated, I need Mr. Hornblower to act in his
stead. I do not mean to imply that I can spare you,
for I cannot. But I will not send men over into that
ship without an officer of their own to lead and look
after them."

Slowly, slowly, Archie was coming to his senses, the
shock gradually receding. "Resolute-- needs men-- "

"Aye, she does," Pellew agreed, watching the young man
struggling with himself and wishing he could help, but
knowing he could not. This was how the boys became
men... "But there are some factors you must consider
before deciding." If nothing else, he would at least
make certain Kennedy was prepared for what he would
undoubtedly find. "You have seen Resolute's condition
for yourself, you know this is not a ship as tightly
run as Indefatigable. Even if she had a full
compliment of officers, I doubt that would be any
different. And you have glimpsed the morale of her
crew. It is my hope they are merely over-worked, and
that our men might offer some relief. An infusion of
fresh blood, you might say. But you know as well as I
it is no guarantee. There might well be-- other causes
of the sullenness you noted. Causes that not all the
men in the world can alleviate."

Archie began to pace, his eyes wide, his face pale. He
did not want to leave Indefatigable; terrible things
happened when he did. All the harm he had ever known
had come to him away from this ship. And he knew about
sullen crews, about ships that bred corruption and
rot, about officers whose cruelty or indifference
allowed the souls of those in their care to wither and
die. Even now, he still dreamed of Justinian. Of
Simpson...

He stopped pacing and closed his eyes, bowing his head
and holding a hand to his face. He wanted to say no.
Everything in him pleaded, screamed for him to say no.
Here, in Indefatigable, he was safe; but out there...
Out there...

Pellew started toward him, then stopped himself with
an effort, clenching his hands into fists and clamping
his jaws tight, aching for the boy. God damn Thorne
and his wretched ship! he wanted to shout. We will
leave him--

"What of the men?"

The whispered question came so faintly that, at first,
Pellew thought he had asked it himself, in his own
mind. With some surprise, however, he realized it had
come from Kennedy, who had turned slowly to face him.

"What?" Pellew asked in confusion.

Archie lifted his head and drew himself slowly to his
full height, pale but outwardly composed. "What of the
men? The crew of Resolute?" he asked only a bit more
loudly. "If things are-- as you say-- they will be the
ones to suffer most, won't they?"

Pellew could not lie. "Yes."

Archie turned away again, but kept his head high. "I
know-- what can happen when-- when a ship-- when there
is no one-- " His voice shook uncontrollably, and he
had to curl his hands tightly into fists to keep them
from shaking as well. "If I do not go, you will not
send the men. And without the men, Resolute will be--
a danger to us as well as to herself. And we cannot--
refuse help-- to one of our own-- " He was speaking
rapidly, dazedly, his thoughts in an undisciplined,
senseless whirl. "Mr. Bracegirdle is not yet fit for
duty, and so you need Horatio. I am-- most junior, and
Mr. Hardy and the other midshipmen are more than
capable-- " He turned to Pellew, his blue eyes dark
and deep in his ashen face. "We have to help them,
don't we, sir?" he whispered.

Pellew wanted to say no, but could not. He would not
force Kennedy, but neither would he lie to him. "It is
where our duty lies," he answered gently, his throat
aching unbearably.

Archie nodded slightly. "I thought so." He drew a
deep, shuddering breath, and nodded again. "I will go,
sir," he said softly, simply.

Pellew felt an intense pride in -- and sadness for --
the young man, and wondered at what cost that decision
had been made. Even as he silently cursed the man who
had forced Kennedy to make it.

"Get with Mr. Hornblower," he said quietly, "and,
between you, choose the ten men you wish to take. I
leave that decision to you. Excepting Mr. Bowles, of
course, you may have any of the men you wish." It was,
he thought, the very least he could do.

"Thank you, sir," Archie breathed. "When-- when do
we-- transfer?" God, how that word hurt!

Pellew sighed and frowned. "I am not certain. Mr.
Thorne will be returning here for supper in two hours,
and you may discuss the particulars with him then. I
would hope you and Mr. Hornblower will join us."

"Of course, sir."

"Mr. Kennedy." Pellew went slowly toward the young
man, all sternness gone from him, his dark eyes
infinitely kind, his manner almost that of a father
with his son. "It cannot have been an easy decision. I
commend you for making it."

Archie blinked. "Thank you, sir," he breathed. "It
was-- the only one I could make."

"No, lad, it was not," Pellew contradicted quietly. "A
lesser man could have made a lesser decision. It is
not every officer who would consider the needs of a
crew he does not even know above his own wishes. It
says much for you that you did." He smiled slightly.
"I trust Captain Sidney and Lieutenant Thorne will
realize what a fine officer they are getting. And I
have every confidence you will serve Resolute as well
and as devotedly as you have served Indefatigable."

Archie shuddered visibly, stunned to receive such
praise from a man he knew did not give it lightly.
"I-- I shall certainly-- do my best, sir," he
murmured.

Pellew nodded, gazing compellingly into those wide
blue eyes. "No one can ever ask more of a man than
that, Lieutenant Kennedy." He lifted his chin and
regarded Kennedy steadily. "I am proud of you, sir.
And I count myself both privilege and honoured to have
you among my officers."

Archie felt a faint warmth stirring amid the black
chill that had descended so abruptly upon him. "Thank
you, sir," he breathed, managing a slight, wan smile.
"But the privilege and the honour, I believe, are
mine. I shall look forward to coming home."

"Believe me, Mr. Kennedy," Pellew assured him
fervently, "no one shall welcome that day than I!"
**********