David and Jonathan
A lifetime in the King’s service had shaped William Bush’s outlook, though he seldom if ever reflected on that simple truth, for one of the ways he had been so shaped was to be philosophical rather than introspective. Introspection never did any good to a man; and in fact there was no point to it when any moment might change things utterly. Gales and lightning; fearful captains and mad ones; broadside and musket shot: in an eyeblink one might be cut down, might be sent wildly aloft with the ship stabbing and falling in a horribly churning sea thence to drop into the dark swirling water and drown.
Bush in fact had experienced many such mutabilities and had learned to take them each in stride. There was no point speculating about “what d’you think the captain’ll do,” because only time would tell. There was no point fearing mutilation – since Hornblower had engaged him despite the loss of a limb, and that engagement was something Bush valued more than he could express. There was no real benefit in allowing deeply moving friendships, since at any moment either cannon fire or the exigencies of service could part men. There was no good dreaming about a windfall of prize money, as Bush had his sisters to support and could never get enough ahead.
Yet as Bush sat, waiting – philosophically, in fact – he was struck by the new and unfamiliar direction his thoughts were taking. He was deeply cautious, distrustful in fact, of what passed for friendship in the service: but he could not deny how moved he was at the sight before him. Horatio Hornblower was in a pose most unfamiliar to Bush, and that unsettled him.
Bush’s heart had skipped a beat when he had read that, whilst seriously ill with typhus, the commodore had returned to England aboard Clam, and never would he be able to explain satisfactorily to himself (or to his sisters) why he had felt compelled to pack a bag and set off immediately for Smallbridge. His sisters were not inclined to give him any difficulties about the journey; on the contrary, they had seemed so pleased to see him taking time for himself that they had radiated excitement in his behalf as they saw him off. They had sent him with good-wishes, with modest home-made gifts befitting to an invalid, with parcels of food that would do for the journey of a day and a half.
Lady Barbara, who remembered Bush warmly from the Lydia, welcomed him most graciously and was gently insistent that he stay for at least a fortnight. Bush was no conversationalist, but Lady Barbara, as Bush remembered about her, was most practiced in the art of hospitality.
“Sir Horatio is still very ill,” she explained, her voice soft with concern. “He is awake and out of bed a few hours only each day; and despite his weakness,” a burble of understanding laughter now in her tone, “he is already restless. Your kindness in visiting him will do him more good than anything the doctors can do.”
Bush misdoubted the truth of her statement, but he had uncharacteristically upset his own ordered life between commissions to rush to Hornblower’s side, even as he sneeringly dismissed himself as being swayed by sentimental nonsense. Yet here he sat, amid the quiet elegance of Smallbridge, staring at Hornblower and finding himself overcome by a flood of memories.
Hornblower, typically, appeared to have given no quarter to recovery even from such a serious illness. He was not in bed, as Bush fully expected him to have been, but instead was in a deep chair in the bedroom; more, he was not in nightshirt and dressing-gown but in shirt and breeches. The only concession Bush could see was in Hornblower’s feet, encased in soft slippers. A shawl covered his lap; even so, Bush could tell the ravages that typhus had wrought. The commodore’s face was drawn and pallid, with sharply hollowed cheekbones and with shadows smudging the closed eyes. The hands on the coverlet, still almost as beautiful as Bush remembered, were too thin and tightly clenched. A lock of tumbled hair fell across Hornblower’s brow as he turned his head in his sleep and sighed deeply.
The more Bush gazed upon Hornblower, however, the more he was unseated by what he recalled of the man. He closed his eyes and felt his mouth draw into a grimace. Here was Hornblower, drawn and too thin, without his greatcoat on a freezing day in Portsmouth, standing with chattering teeth to warm himself at the charity of a Frog gambling-master, speaking lightly of “sacrifices” which translated as near starvation … and then being shocked and dismayed to learn that the serving-wench, Maria, had slipped half a crown into his pocket. Here was Hornblower, too softhearted to brush off his landlady’s simpering daughter, that selfsame wench, smiling down at her at the altar, joining himself to a mistake that could hamper his career because “I’ve given her my word.” Here was Hornblower, stiffly distant: “All? What do you mean, ‘all’?” deflecting the difficult question of how the captain came to fall down the hold.
But here again was Hornblower visiting the wounded Bush in hospital, bringing exotic local fruits, smiling down at him after saving his life. Here was Hornblower, cheerily helping a far too tipsy Bush along to his cot after being named commander in the Retribution – the command that would not be confirmed because of the uneasy and fragile peace. And here was Hornblower, the moment he gained command, making as his first act the request that Bush serve as Hotspur’s first lieutenant. And here was Hornblower swinging from the Gaditana onto the deck of the Renown, a brace of officers and seamen at his back. Here was Hornblower, restless and daring, proposing to undo Buckland’s dithering incompetence with a predawn raid; riding the cannon up the cliff; overseeing the use of hot shot. Here was Hornblower, battered and filthy and weary, putting out his hand to Buckland before going off to blow up the magazine – and quite likely to his death. And here – now Bush could not help grinning – was Hornblower linking his arm in Bush’s, with Kennedy on the other side, running and bellowing as they leapt from the cliff into the blindingly blue water below.
At the time of the attempt to capture Santo Domingo, Bush recalled, he had shuddered under the weight of command thrust upon his shoulders under the blazing sun of Samana Bay. Buckland was unquestionably incompetent to command, yet had still to be deferred to: Bush could not decisively issue orders but only persuasively suggest. And Hornblower, far too ambitious to be a satisfactory subordinate: Bush vividly recalled standing in Buckland’s cabin and feeling, behind him, Hornblower fidgeting from foot to foot as the decision of his junior was made – and the quick grin when some unknown impulse made Bush name Hornblower. Bush recalled as well the flashes of annoyance he had felt during the raid on the fort when he found Hornblower had already taken some initiative or other. But then Bush, who was a fair man, recalled the several occasions on which it had undoubtedly been the presence of the tall, tousled officer that had saved his life.
Then Bush recalled the Sutherland. The futile inevitability – the hopeless duty – of Hornblower having to take on four ships of the line because of the fool Leighton’s signal. The tenacity and daring and skill with which he had nonetheless matched wits and gunfire with the Frogs. The sun glinting off the bowed dark blood-splotched head when Hornblower had said quietly, hoarsely: “Yes. I will surrender.” With a flash of new insight Bush matched the tone of that statement to the flat expressionlessness with which the starving, pay-stopped, unemployed Hornblower had said, “Then – sacrifices have to be made.”
During their brief confinement in Rosas Bay, Bush remembered, Hornblower had visited the sick and wounded every day, finding things to talk about, being unfailingly cheerful, so that the men drew strength from his visits. So, in fact, had Bush himself, and he smiled now as he remembered how when the door had opened to admit Hornblower the temporary square of sun that had spilled into the dark room seemed to give more light than was possible.
And how many men would have advocated tirelessly for care and gentle handling for a lieutenant who had had a leg taken off and was likely to die anyway? Bush squirmed in his chair as he recalled the soft, light touch of Hornblower’s fingers on his stump when no doctor could be found, how Hornblower had overcome his own squeamishness to pull out the remaining ligature.
Then Bush, ill and drawn and lying on the stretcher that bounced unbearably in the carriage, had resigned himself that he would die either by internal rot or by some mischief at Napoleon’s hand. He had figured out, despite Hornblower’s evasiveness, that that was why they were bound for Paris. Bush felt a chill go down his spine as he recalled now, in the warm comfort of this gracefully appointed room, the horrible lurchings of the carriage. The stretcher had constantly jolted, sending waves of nauseating pain through him. The sky low and angry: snow had begun to fall. The carriage had jerked horribly, then stopped, teetered, nauseatingly unstable. Brown and Hornblower had been ordered out. Loud, sharp, angry French voices. Then, abruptly, Hornblower had tugged the door open and stuck his head in. His voice very quiet and yet matter of fact, he had said, as if announcing the watch-bill, “Mr. Bush. We are going to escape down the river in the boat.”
Within moments, it seemed, Caillard was unconscious on the floor of the carriage and Bush was in the boat. The dark, the unfamiliar roar of the winter-swollen Loire, the fending off and scraping, and then the plunge that shattered the small boat. Bush had been tossed almost at once onto the bank and Brown’s powerful arms were pulling him up and settling the blanket round him. But where was Hornblower? Bush gulped now and clutched his arms to himself as he recalled the horrid absence, squinting into the dark, straining to see a dot of white in the dark tumult of the water, feeling sick with fear. Bush must have gone light-headed for a moment with reaction; then he heard, distantly, Brown’s voice. “The captain’s here, Mr. Bush.”
In an instant, Bush was being lifted, hauled out of the snow, and carried. He could tell by the unevenness of Hornblower’s gait that his captain was in no shape for this burden, but the heartiness in Hornblower’s tone had ridiculously buoyed him. “It’s only a little way.”
Then they were in a house, warm and dry before a kitchen fire; then Bush was being tucked into a bed, and somehow it all seemed so very mad as to be perfectly sensible. After endless days of jolting carriage rides, dreamless nights in anonymous inns, in a strangely contracted heartbeat of time had come the escape, the river, and in the next moment a warm bed and blissful sleep.
And by then it seemed not fanciful but eminently logical that there should be a British cutter just waiting for their arrival; and of course there should be galley slaves to hand; and of course Hornblower should lay the charges himself and blow to splinters two of the boats sent against them. And as philosophical and resigned as William Bush had always been, he now decided – in the warmth and comfort of this bedroom far removed from a court-martial as was imaginable – that had Hornblower been found guilty in that court-martial, Bush would have stripped off his uniform coat on the spot, tossed it to the floor, furiously resigned his commission. Hang his sisters; hang the King’s service.
He blinked, startled at the turns to which his reflections had brought him. How was it that he had let such affection take hold of him? How was it that a lifetime of matter-of-fact acceptance now jostled uncomfortably in his mind with the fiercely loyal closeness and affection he held for the man now drowsing before him? William Bush had never allowed or even entertained such emotions for anyone else: but he would do anything for Hornblower, and with a full and glad heart.