The Devil in the Night
by Joan C.
"How was your walk?" Hunter had asked, and the reply, spoken in a quiet, resigned voice, cut like a knife into Archie Kennedy's heart.
That one word. *Interminable.* How could Horatio know the meaning of it? Interminable was being chained to a wall with iron manacles that galled one's flesh. It was a month in the darkness of the oubliette with no room to stand up or lie down. It was being grabbed by brutal hands and forced into acts that would damn one's soul. That was interminable -- not a walk in the sun with a beautiful woman. Kennedy turned towards the cot where Hornblower sat, his hands loosely laced together, his head bowed.
"Don't say it," Archie whispered, so quietly that not even Mr. Hunter, sulking in the corner could have heard it.
But Horatio did. He raised his head, and what he saw in Kennedy's eyes, made his guts roil. Bitterness, envy, even hatred Horatio could have borne, but not despair, not that well of pain that he saw in those blue depths. God, what had he done? He had not meant to trivialize Kennedy's imprisonment; he had meant only to refrain from gloating. What could he have said? *It was lovely to be free for an hour, to forget that I am nothing more than a prisoner, to take away the taste of failure and defeat? That I wish it could have lasted much longer?* Should he have told them that the Duchess had made him laugh, had teased him, had trailed her finger down his cheek and made him think of darker and more thrilling passions? God!
So he had used the word interminable, never thinking of its consequences. Now he was paralyzed by it. The emotions he had seen in Archie's eyes had died, replaced by the dull stare of exhaustion and illness. Horatio sighed and lay back on his cot. When the guard came to let them out for a few minutes of fresh air before night fell, he did not move, but waited until Mr. Hunter had left with a disgusted grunt at his cellmate's lethargy.
He turned his head towards Archie. His eyes were open, but Horatio could not have said what he was seeing. "Archie," he whispered. "Will you talk to me?"
"I-I'm sorry. What I said was ... thoughtless."
It was now so dim in the cell, that he could scarcely see movement, but it seemed Archie did move, huddling further into the darkness. "Archie?" When there was no reply, he searched desperately for something to say, anything to mend the rift his words had torn between them. His thoughts came at random, and weary of examining every syllable, he let them, hoping some small trickle of hope would find its way into Archie's damaged heart.
"It was a beautiful day, Archie. And I was glad to be out in the sun and fresh air. Is that what you want me to say? Then I've said it. But it wasn't freedom. There was a ship on the horizon -- a merchantman, probably, but all I could think about was the Indy, and why I wasn't on her. How I failed in my duty to England and to Captain Pellew. Can you understand that? I could be in Versailles, surrounded by luxury, with every desire fulfilled, and it would still be a prison. I'm not much for poetry, Archie. But I remember one -- 'Stone wall do not a prison make, nor Iron bars a cage ...'"
"Damn you, Horatio. And believe me, they do." With harsh sob, Archie turned his face to the wall.
Horatio lay in the gathering darkness, his arm thrown across his burning eyes. For a very long time, he felt nothing; as if a blanket of black despair were smothering him. He heard Hunter shuffle back in, he heard the door clang shut, he heard the guards speaking to each other. And he knew that along the walls, in cells very much like the one where he lay, there were men whose lives depended on him, whose respect he had to earn. The Duchess might have powerful friends despite her eccentricities. Powerful friends with money and influence who could effect their release. He would have strolled with the Devil himself, if he could be set free. Hunter might scorn him, Archie might hate him, but by God, when he did walk out, they would be at his side. He would not let them down.
"We will get out of here, I swear it," Horatio might have been speaking to himself, it was uttered so softly.
The conviction in those words nearly brought Archie to tears. Horatio would do it, he thought. He *would* get them out, and that indomitable will of his would drag Archie right along with him back to the Indefatigable. Archie's anger and resentment stifled the brief flame of hope that had surged with Horatio's vow. Escape. The vision shimmered on the horizon like a mirage, and like a mirage, it vanished into nothingness without warning. Five times he had clawed his way towards that vision, and five times he had been denied. There must not be a sixth.
Cautiously, he looked at Horatio. He was laying on his back, gazing up at the ceiling as if a plan were written on the stones. There was something in the jut of that sharp jaw and the fiercely drawn brows that frightened Archie. He shuddered, seeing the glorious return to the Indy; the cheers of success and tales of Horatio's bravery, Pellew's unwavering scrutiny ... and to Jack Simpson.
*I would rather die.*
For a moment, the thought startled him. Then it eased its way into his mind, curling like smoke and settling uneasily. What use was he alive? To exist as a mirror to Horatio's brilliance? No, thank you. He had no need to stand in the shadows and hear accolades to Horatio's bravery, to his honour, to his strength. That's how it would be. They would say Horatio saved his life, and then they would wonder why he had bothered at all. In comparison, death was easy.
It was that simple. Let Horatio take his walks with the Duchess, let him believe that he could escape, let him have his heroic illusions. They would not last. They never did. And when Horatio was stripped of them, and stood naked in the pitiless light of reality; he would understand. Exhausted, Archie closed his eyes and turned to the wall.
Horatio heard the small rustle of movement and knew that Archie had once again retreated. "Archie?" He just wanted some acknowledgement from Kennedy, but was met with silence.
"He wants to die." Hunter spoke from his cot. "Give it up. We'll be better off without him."
"Mr. Hunter!" Horatio slid off the bunk and leaned close to Hunter's hard face. "He is not dead! He hears every word you say. And by God, one more comment like that, and --"
Hunter laughed. "And what? You can't do a thing to me. You can't have me flogged, you can't have me put on report. You're just another prisoner. Like me. Like him." He jerked his head towards Archie. "And if we don't get out of here, we will all end up like him."
"We will get out, and he will come with us."
"He'll come with us sewn in a canvas shroud."
Horatio could not answer that. For a long moment his dark eyes held Hunter's. God, how he wanted to wipe the smirk off that man's face! But in his mind, he heard the echo of Hunter's words, and the seed of fear they had planted. *He wants to die.* Surely he was wrong. Archie was ill, and weary, but time would heal him. He would get stronger, and when he was restored to health, he would walk out of this prison with Horatio at his side. That was the way it had to be. He could not envision anything else.
"You're wrong, Mr. Hunter."
Hunter's pale eyes gleamed, mocking Horatio. "Tell me that again, sir. After a few more days."
Horatio's shoulders slumped. He returned to his cot and stared into the darkness surrounding him. It seemed impenetrable. He listened for Achie's light, shallow breaths, taking each one as a promise of continued existence. And then because he was young, and because the night was a cold and lonely place, his thoughts turned towards tomorrow, the Duchess, and sunlight.