A Day (or So) in the Life
by Sue N.

**Chapter Twelve: Lambs to the Slaughter**

Early the next morning, the wardroom of Indefatigable
was in an uproar as frenzied last-minute efforts were
made to ensure Acting-Lieutenant Kennedy was gotten
properly ready for his examination. While Horatio and
young Hardy helped Archie put together a spotless
dress uniform, carefully inspecting shirts and
stockings and furiously brushing his jacket, hat and
shoes, Bracegirdle and Bowles took turns calling out
questions to the young man, though they succeeded
mainly in confusing him as they argued constantly over
what constituted a correct answer.

"Archie, where is your cravat?" Horatio asked
suddenly, looking around in a panic and seeing
everything but the black neckerchief. "I thought you
just had it--"

"I thought you had it!" Archie said sharply, trying to
stand still as Hardy attempted to restore the shine to
his shoe buckles. "I-- No, wait! It's in my cabin--
Look on my cot, where we had everything laid out!"

Horatio rose to his feet and dashed to his friend's
cabin, cursing under his breath. They should have done
this last night...

"Well, you'd fother a sail, naturally!" Bracegirdle
insisted to Bowles. "Look, if your ship is taking on
water, and the pumps can't keep up--"

"Got it!" Horatio cried, emerging victorious from the
cabin with the cravat held aloft. "And it doesn't even
require pressing!"

"Thank God!" Archie breathed. "How do they look, Mr.
Hardy?" he asked, bending down to inspect his shoes.

"I expect they'll do," the young man said with a
smile, admiring his handiwork. "That last bit of
blacking did the trick. And the buckles came out right
nice, too."

"Veer," said Bowles with conviction.

"Tack!" Bracegirdle contradicted with equal force.
"You--"

"Please!" Archie interrupted sharply, cutting into the
argument. "You'd wear ship! If she's failed in stays
once and the shore is looming, you'd be a fool to try
again. You're best off wearing ship, getting her
'round by the stern."

Both men fell silent and stared at him in surprise,
startled by the certainty in his tone. Then Bowles,
never content to let a victory over Bracegirdle pass
without remark, turned a smug smile upon the
lieutenant. "Makes perfect sense to me," he gloated.
"I suppose it's a good thing you don't have to be
tested to keep your commission."

Bracegirdle's answer was, thankfully, unintelligible.

"Here, stand still," Horatio instructed, skillfully
winding the cravat about his friend's throat. "Not too
tight, is it?"

"No. Horatio," a note of worry crept into his voice,
"what if-- what if I-- Oh, God, what if I get in there
and have a fit?"

"You won't," Hornblower reassured him. "Stand still,
Archie, or I'll hang you!"

"How can you be so certain?"

"What, that I'll hang you?"

"No, that I won't-- well, you know."

"Have a fit?" He knotted the cravat, then stepped back
and studied it, nodding in satisfaction. "Because you
rarely have them during the day. In fact, you rarely
have them at all anymore."

"Yes, but I might, you never know. And then--"

"Well, you will if you talk yourself into one!"
Horatio said firmly. "Listen to me, Archie," he
commanded, gripping his friend's shoulders and staring
into his eyes, "you are not going to have a fit. You
are not going to fail. You're going to walk into that
room, stand before those captains, and answer every
question they ask you. Do you understand me?"

Archie stared at his friend, trying to draw some of
Horatio's strength and assurance into himself. "But
what am I to do," he asked quietly and with utter
seriousness, "if they have me close-hauled on the port
tack, beating up-Channel with a nor'easterly wind
blowing hard, with Dover bearing north two miles, and
then the wind suddenly veers four points and takes me
flat aback?"

Horatio grinned broadly at the reminder of his own
failed examination. "Why, the only thing you can do --
pray for a fire ship attack upon the fleet!"
**********

Emerging onto the deck, Archie was startled to find
the men assembled to see him off. Swallowing hard and
clutching his books and certificates to him, he
started slowly toward the side, with Horatio beside
him.

"Three cheers for Mr. Kennedy!" Matthews called,
leading the men in a round of spirited support. "Hip
hip--"

"Hurrah!" answered the lusty chorus.

"Hip hip--"

"Hurrah!"

"Hip hip--"

"Hurrah!"

At the side, he turned and smiled and Matthews, who
grinned in return and knuckled his forehead. And, one
last time, his blue eyes sought out Horatio's brown
ones.

"You will pass, Archie, I know it," Horatio said with
unshakable conviction. "I have every confidence in
you."

"I know," he said softly. "And I thank you for that.
You will never know what it is worth." He smiled and
nodded, then went over the side and climbed down into
the boat below with an easy grace.

Settling himself in the sternsheets, he gave the order
to ship oars. The men pulled, and the boat was off.
And Archie never looked back.
**********

Pellew glanced about the room at the other captains
with whom he would be sitting all day. There were, as
he had expected, John Ramsay of Defiant and Ned Gerard
of the Swallow, both impeccable seamen and steady
captains. They, like himself, could be counted upon to
be firm, but fair. They would tolerate no nonsense,
but would give any young man an even chance.

Of the remaining two, Walter Kerr of Phoebe and Samuel
George of Albatross, Kerr alone was known to him, and
him by reputation only. He was said to be a true
Scot-- stubborn, hot-tempered and unyielding -- but
with the flamboyance and sheer nerve that seemed to
characterize that particular breed of captain.

"Captain Pellew," George was saying, establishing
himself as the diplomat of the lot, "we are most
grateful you agreed to fill Captain McDonald's seat on
such short notice. It would have been a shame to
dismiss the board and disappoint all these young men."

"Yes, well," Pellew said with a small, tight smile,
"fortunately I was able to be of assistance."

"Aye, they're gatherin' now," Kerr said in his soft
brogue, peeking through the barely-opened door to the
enormous room beyond. "The cream of the fleet, risin'
to the top. God help us all! I'd wager that nae more'n
a third o' that lot is fit tae walk the quarter-deck!"

"Perhaps," Pellew said quietly, "we should not judge
them until we have actually questioned them. We might
well find ourselves surprised."

Kerr closed the door and turned to fix a vivid blue
gaze upon his fellow captain. "Well, I suppose it
wouldna hurt tae gi' them a chance. I've always rather
enjoyed surprises!"
**********

Archie forced himself to walk with an even stride up
the steps of the imposing Admiralty House, breathing
slowly, deeply, willing himself to remain calm. Some
small, treacherous voice within him whispered that it
was not too late, that he could yet turn and run, but
he refused to listen. If he failed this time, it would
not be because he had not tried.

So intent on his purpose was he that he did not, at
first, hear the voice that called his name. Only when
the call was repeated, more loudly, did the voice --
and she who spoke with it -- register.

"Lucy!" he breathed, stopping short and whirling
about, staring at the swift-approaching girl in
stunned amazement. "What-- what in the world--"

"Oh, Mr. Kennedy-- Archie!" she gasped, running up to
him and taking his bandaged hand gently between her
two. "I was so afraid I would miss you! I've been
waiting-- Oh, I know 'tis shameless, but I could not
resist! I badgered Papa into telling me where these
examinations are held--" She smiled sweetly and lifted
a hand to touch his cheek, her brown eyes soft and
wide. "I could not let you go in without wishing you
Godspeed," she said softly. "Is that not what one
wishes a sailor?"

"Yes," he answered, delighting in her touch, her
presence. "Yes, it is. And I-- I am so glad you did
come! I never expected-- It never occurred to me you
would be here!" He glanced about, frowning suddenly.
"You did not come alone?" he asked sharply. "I asked
you to be careful--"

"I have been," she assured him, thrilled that he
should be so concerned. "And, no, I did not come
alone. Look, in the coach there," she turned and
pointed, "are my Aunt Catherine and our groom Joseph.
Father would not let me come without them."

"Good for him!" Archie breathed, relieved. "But I-- I
still cannot believe-- You came all this way-- for
me?"

She smiled up at him, again brushing his cheek with
her fingertips. "Of course! I could not have stayed
away." She stepped back and studied him admiringly.
"You look most dashing, sir, quite the splendid young
officer. Why, I cannot imagine why there are not more
young ladies out here waiting to wish you well!"

He blushed deeply and bowed his head, terribly
confused by the effect she had upon him. His senses
scattered and fled, his heart pounded like cannon, and
both his tongue and stomach tied themselves into the
damnedest knots. Yet there was not one part of it that
was unpleasant.

"Were there a thousand ladies here, yours is the only
face I would see," he declared fervently, amazed at
his own boldness. "I cannot tell you how glad I am to
see you again! And if I knew I would not be long, I--
I would ask you to wait for me. But I have no idea--
Perhaps, though," his hand strayed to her hair, his
fingers lightly stroking one silken chestnut curl, "if
it is not too late when I am finished, I might-- call
upon you? Would that be-- too presumptuous of me?"

A delightful, mischievous smile curved about her full
rose mouth, and her brown eyes danced. "More
presumptuous, you mean, than my coming here? Only if
you intend coming through my window."

"Miss Lucy!" he gasped, horrified by the thought. "I
would never--"

"Ssh, hush," she whispered, laying a hand over his
mouth to silence him. "I was only teasing! Of course,
you may call. And we shall celebrate your success."

"I look forward to it," he breathed, admiring the
particular way her eyes shone in the light and the
soft curve of her delicate jawline. "And if I am kept
too late, I shall send word, I promise."

"If you cannot come this evening, come tomorrow," she
invited. "Or the day after. Whenever you find a
moment, call upon me, please. Having met you, I do so
want to get to know you better!"

He nodded, unable to find the words to answer. She was
so lovely...

Before he knew it, he was bowing his head and kissing
her sweet lips tenderly. He tasted her response, warm
and willing, and marvelled at the sheer, exquisite
perfection of the moment. All about him, midshipmen
streamed into the building, but nothing existed save
the lovely girl who clung so tightly to his jacket and
kissed him so deliciously.

"You should go," she whispered against his mouth. "I
should hate to be the cause of your missing this
chance for your commission!"

He slowly raised his head, flushed and smiling, his
blue eyes bright. "I will call or send a message, I
promise!"

"I shall be waiting. Now, go. I will wish you good
luck, though I know you will do fine!" She
straightened his jacket and his cravat, then rested
small hands against his chest. "You are too handsome
not to be made an officer!" With that, she rose on her
tip-toes and kissed him again, then turned and ran
back to the coach.

He stood staring after her for long moments, his mind
and heart in glorious turmoil. Then, with a small,
half-smothered cry of pleasure, he turned and made his
way into the building with a jaunty stride, never once
feeling the ground beneath his feet.
**********

Pellew cupped his chin in one hand, his elbow on the
arm of his chair, and slowly tapped the fingers of his
other hand against the polished oak table, his dark
gaze fixed unforgivingly upon the nervous midshipman
before him. "Once again, Mr. Phillips," he intoned
grimly and with a barely-concealed impatience, "you
are standing on a wind with all your sails set. Your
enemy is in sight, standing towards you. How do you
clear your ship for action?"

The midshipman swallowed hard and stared through
saucer-wide eyes at the row of captains before him,
his face white and beaded with sweat, his mind gone
horribly blank. He KNEW this; he had cleared for
action countless times. Oh, God, why could he not
remember?

"Mr. Phillips," Kerr said slowly, his brogue thickened
by irritation, "the enemy ship is, by now, bearing
down upon you, and she is already cleared, her guns
run out. I suggest you either clear, or strike."

Phillips uttered a small, choking sound and shuddered
visibly. "I-- I would-- I would call-- all hands to
quarters-- ham- hammocks to the netting, on the
gangway and-- and the topmen's up top--" Oh, God, what
came next? What did one do after the hammocks were
stowed? "All-- all chests-- to the hold, to be stowed
by-- by--"

"By whom?" Pellew prompted in a quiet, deadly voice.

Phillips blinked rapidly, his mind as useless as sails
in a flat calm.

"WHO STOWS THE GODDAMNED CHESTS?" Kerr roared,
slapping both hands furiously against the table. "By
now, sir, the enemy has fired, and God knows how many
of yer men are dead! What d'ye do wi' yer sails, yer
yards? Wha' about yer damned guns?"

"I-- I would-- I would fire them--"

"And blow your own ship to hell?" Ramsay asked
sharply. "Or have you forgotten that you've not yet
run out your guns, sir? Unless I misheard, you've not
even manned them! Good God, sir, THINK!"

By now, it was useless. Phillips' knees were water,
his legs jelly, his mind a pudding. Trembling
uncontrollably, he was horrified to feel tears coming
to his eyes, and even more horrified to realize that
he could not stop them.

"You are dismissed, Mr. Phillips," Pellew said gently,
his anger fading. "Perhaps six more months in the
midshipmen's berth will better prepare you. Please be
so good as to send in the next man."

Without a word, the young man turned on his heel and
walked slowly, dejectedly from the room, appalled by
his failure. He would never earn his commission...

Pellew sighed and sat back. "How many have we examined
so far?"

"Thirteen," Gerard answered dourly, his grey eyes
grim.

"And we've passed how many?" Pellew asked.

George winced and stared down at the table. "Three,"
he muttered.

"Good God!" Pellew breathed. "Well, gentlemen, I truly
hope the Navy is not in dire need of officers!"

"Weel," Kerr purred as the door opened, "the next lamb
approaches the altar!"
**********

Archie looked up as the door opened again and still
another ashen-faced victim emerged, every bit as
shaken as the last three had been. Good God, what were
they asking in there?

"Well?" prompted the midshipman to his left.

The young man stopped in mid-stride and stared at his
interrogator through dazed eyes. "They sent me down
into the hold for a mainsail, wanted to know how I'd
tell it from a foretopsail in the dark. Well, how
WOULD you know?" he asked sharply, almost
hysterically.

Archie started to answer, then thought better of it.
Pellew HAD sent him on such an errand once, and it had
taken him two trips into the light to get it right.
But he had never forgotten since.

"They just sit there, staring at you," the young man
went on, his voice shaking as badly as his hands.
"Merciless bastards! Not an ounce of pity in them!" He
grimaced in agony. "And now it's six more months as a
midshipman for me." He turned and directed his wild
gaze to the young man at the door. "Well, don't just
stand there, go in! They're waiting for their next
victim!" With that, he whirled about and all but ran
from the room.

Archie rose instinctively to his feet to go after him,
but was stopped by a firm grip on his arm. "Let him
go," his neighbour advised quietly. "I know him; we're
shipmates. When he's like this, he's best left to
himself."

Archie frowned. "But--"

"Trust me." He smiled slightly. "Good of you to want
to help, though. Not many would, just now."

Archie's frown deepened. "Why not now?"

The young man laughed incredulously. "Well, look at
us!" He gestured about the room, at the innumerable
heads bent over books, the faces screwed into
expressions of anguished thought. "We're a bit--
preoccupied, wouldn't you say?"

Archie sank slowly into his seat. "Well, I suppose so,
but--" His gaze went once more to the door through
which the distraught midshipman had vanished. "It
hardly seems right, to just let him go--"

"I will see about him later, I promise." He smiled and
stuck out a hand, then let it fall when he saw the
bandage on the other's. "David Jenkins, midshipman in
Sophia."

Archie noted the gesture and returned the smile.
"Archie Kennedy, acting-lieutenant, Indefatigable."

Jenkins arched two brows. "The Indy, eh? So you were
at Quiberon, too? Bad bit of business, that. I
understand some of your fellows went ashore with the
Frogs."

"Yes," Archie said softly, his smile fading. "I was at
Muzillac."

Jenkins gave a low whistle and eyed his companion with
a new interest. "Heard about that, too. Say!" he said
sharply, suddenly. "Your captain's in there! Pellew's
on the board!"

Archie winced and nodded. "I know," he sighed.

Jenkins sat back and shook his head slowly, his eyes
filling with respect. "Well, you've certainly more
nerve than I, Kennedy!" he marvelled. "If my captain
were on that board, I'd be as far from here as I
could!" He laughed quietly. "First Muzillac and now
this. The Almighty -- and the Admiralty -- must have
it in for you men of Indefatigable!"
**********

"How many?" Pellew asked, letting his head fall back
against his chair and rubbing his eyes.

"Twenty-two," George intoned dully.

"And a grand total of nine passed," Gerard put in.
"Good God, this is disheartening! Makes me determined
to pay closer attention to my own midshipmen!"

"Any idea how many more are waiting?" George asked.

Kerr smiled crookedly and shook his head. "A vast
sea," he replied, having peeked through the door two
candidates ago. "There can't be another midshipman
afloat this day. They're all out there, waiting."

"Well," Pellew sighed, straightening and frowning,
"let's get on with it, then. And pray God we get one
with a working brain!"
**********

One by one they went in, and one by one they came out,
an occasional jubilant expression breaking the
monotony of despair. Archie tried not to look at his
watch, tried to concentrate on his books. At his side,
though, Jenkins was keeping score, and the results
were disheartening.

"Think we're really this stupid?" Jenkins whispered,
marking the latest victim. "Or are they asking
impossible questions?"

"I can't imagine Captain Pellew would do that," Archie
breathed, his stomach tightly clenched nonetheless. He
thought suddenly of Horatio. "And not every man who
fails is stupid. Perhaps-- perhaps it is just--
nerves."

"Well, if that's the case," Jenkins sighed, "then I am
sunk already. I tell you -- pass or fail, I simply
want this done!"

"Me, too," Archie breathed, closing his eyes. And now
his hand was hurting again...

"Well," Jenkins said with forced brightness as the
door expelled yet another lamb from the slaughter, "at
this rate, we shan't have to wait very much longer.
Less than an hour, I should say. And, besides," he
forced a weak smile, "who really wants to be a
lieutenant anyway? It's just another uniform to buy!"
**********

Archie's hand was hurting miserably; in getting up to
pace, the midshipman at his right had jarred it
violently. And now he was realizing just how long it
had been since last he had eaten...

"He's going in," Jenkins announced grimly. "Kennedy,
you're up next."

"What?" Archie sat up abruptly, all thoughts of pain
and hunger vanishing beneath a sudden surge of panic.
His blue eyes flew to the stout young man going
stoically through the door, and a sudden shudder ran
through him. "Oh, God!" he groaned sickly.

"Now, now, bear up," Jenkins urged. "Look, five more
have passed, and three of those in a row."

"Yes, but how many have failed since?"

Jenkins winced; he would prefer not to answer. "Well,
more than five," he hedged.

Archie straightened, squared his shoulders, and drew a
deep, steadying breath, releasing it slowly. "It's no
good panicking," he said, either to himself or to
Jenkins, he was not certain. "I know what I know, and
what I do not know, I shall not learn in the next five
minutes. I simply have to remain calm, and think.
After all, it's not as if they are shooting at us!"

"I almost wish they were," Jenkins muttered. "Cannon
has to be easier to face than five captains.
Particularly five captains that include Pellew and
Kerr! Lord, it's almost like facing Nelson!"

"No," Archie breathed without thinking, "it's not.
Believe me, dining with Nelson is much easier than
facing Captain Pellew!"

Jenkins stared at him with unabashed awe. "You-- you
have dined-- with Nelson?" he breathed. "With Admiral
Nelson himself? You sat at table with him and-- and
ATE?"

"Well, yes," Archie answered slowly, only now
realizing what he had said. "Oh, it was nothing
formal, believe me! It was simply-- well-- dinner,
with a family here, one of my shipmates, and-- and
Admiral Nelson."

"Oh-- my-- God!" Jenkins whispered, his eyes huge.
"Oh, Kennedy, I have GOT to get to know you better!
You have the most extraordinary luck!"

Archie started to answer, but was distracted by the
sound of the heavy door opening. Turning to see his
predecessor taking his familiar, forlorn leave, he
felt his stomach turn over. "Well," he murmured,
rising slowly to his feet, "I suppose we shall soon
see."

Jenkins rose with him, and reached for his good hand,
shaking it firmly. "Good luck, Ken-- Archie," he
wished with all sincerity. "Show the captains we're
not all idiots!"

Archie smiled and nodded. "I shall do my best. And
good luck to you, as well. In case-- well, in case I
am not-- at my best-- when I come out."

Holding his hat as best he could with his injured
right hand and clutching his books and certificates in
his left, he drew himself up to his full height and
made his way with a steady, determined stride to the
beckoning door. All eyes in that room were upon him,
yet, as he went through, only one pair of eyes truly
mattered.

And, God, he did not want to fail before them!
**********