Embarkation
by JOAN CURTIN


Rating: PG

The Embarkation
In Honor of C.S. Forester

It was a cold wind from the north that brought the
sleet to Spithead and sent the
ships at anchor in the harbor moving on the waves like
restless ghosts. The town itself was
nearly deserted except for a few seamen lingering at
the docks waiting for jolly boats to
transport them to their ships. The weather had driven
nearly everyone else indoors and for
the hardy folk of the English coast, that was foul
weather indeed.

The publican of the Lamb tavern gazed mournfully out
into the gale. It was a slow
day, for his rooms were usually crowded with bored
Naval officers seeking some sort of
relief from the dragging duties of a fleet laying
fallow in port. Today, only a small party of
whist players occupied his corner table, and their
game showed signs of winding down as
the weather deteriorated. When they left, his taproom
and his coffers would be empty. He
clung to one last hope ...

Jacob Pelican's round face brightened as he heard the
clatter of wheels approaching
his door. The Post Chaise from Portsmouth had arrived,
bringing with it weary travellers
in need of sustenance and ale. He peered out his
window, anticipating a windfall.

Pelican was doomed to disappointment. Only two
passengers alighted from the
coach. A tall, spare older gentleman wearing a dark
greatcoat, well-cut but not in the
latest stare of fashion, and a thin young man dressed
in the uniform of a Midshipman in his
Majesty's Navy. He looked like an awkward boy, lately
come from an adolescent growth
spurt, and he wore the uniform like an uncomfortable
skin. Pelican shook his head
mournfully. Poor lad. He seemed a bit old for a novice
Midshipman. Pelican wondered
what transgression he had committed to be sent to sea
in a time of peace. But he
represented business, and on a day like this Pelican
could not afford to ignore a few
shillings. He turned to the door with a wide smile of
welcome.

"Come in, gentlemen. Come in. T'is a poor day to be
travelling. Annie!" he
bellowed to his barmaid. "Take these gentlemen's coats
and hang them by the fire!"

When the gentlemen had removed their hats, Pelican
could see immediately that
they were father and son. They both had dark hair and
fine, regular features. The father's
face was a bit careworn, and the son's a bit pale.
There were shadows beneath lad's eyes;
telling signs of a sleepless night and a rough
journey, Pelican thought sympathetically. The
boy was no different than most of the "Young
Gentlemen" embarking for the first time;
innocent as lambs being led to the slaughter. For the
last twenty years, Pelican had
watched young men go out to sea, and he fancied
himself a bit of an oracle. By the end of
the meal he would know whether or not this boy would
survive or wash out.

Pelican waited until Annie had taken the coats, and
then led his guests to his best
table. He made a great show of flicking off imaginary
crumbs with a towel and setting the
flatware just so. "What can I get you, sir? We have
the finest ale in Spithead."

The older man smiled slightly. "Yes, I'm sure it is."

Pelican took it for an assent. "Ale it is, then, sir.
And some mutton stew to warm
your middles?"

"Horatio?"

The boy had been looking with interest at his
surroundings, and startled slightly
when addressed. "Y-yes, Father. Whatever you decide.
I'm not terribly hungry."

Pelican gave a rich chuckle. "Better my good mutton
than what you'll be getting on
board, lad. What ship are ye joining?"

"The Justinian." He said it with a hint of pride and
not a little trepidation.

"I know it, sir. A fine ship. Captain Keene, is it
not?"

"Yes."

"Well, sit ye down, gentlemen. And I'll have Annie
fetch a meal that you'll
remember when you're on the seas."

They sat at the table prepared by Pelican. Dr.
Hornblower sighed and massaged his
arthritic fingers. He envied his son his hands; long,
clever hands, agile with youth. It had
been a hard decision, sending Horatio to Captain Keene
as Midshipman, but now was not
the time for regrets. He could not afford them. He was
a good doctor, true. But the last
few years had seen the advance of his arthritis to the
degree that his practice had become
limited. He had very little money set aside. In
hindsight, he should have refused Horatio
the expensive and quite useless education the boy had
received. He had hoped to raise a
doctor, like himself. Instead he had produced a
scholar. The boy could read Latin and
Greek; he knew the classics by heart. He had a deep
love of knowledge. And none of it
would earn his way in this world. Thank the Lord he
also had an affinity for mathematics.
It was that last valuable talent that had persuaded
Captain Keene to sign on a green youth
as a Midshipman.

Keene's offer had taken a great load off Dr.
Hornblower's mind at a time when he
could not envision a future for his awkward son. There
was no money for university. The
Church was not an option, for Dr. Hornblower did not
hold with organized religion. The
last choices had been the Army or the Navy. The army,
with its expensive commissions
had been out of the question. Then Keene, suffering
from a tumor in his lungs, had shown
up in the doctor's surgery. The doctor had found his
kindness to a dying man repaid with
the ransom of his son's future.

Still, he would miss Horatio. He was a solitary boy
with few friends, preferring the
society of adults. Though he spoke little, he was good
company. And an excellent fourth
at whist. That selfish thought caused Dr.Hornblower a
sudden and severe pang of regret.

"What is it, Father?" Horatio had seen the quick
shadow in his father's eyes. "Are
you ill?"

"No, nothing like that." Dr. Hornblower was not a
demonstrative man, and he had
raised his son in much the same way. It was hard to
read his son's mask-like face. It had
not always been so; dimly Dr. Hornblower could recall
a laughing child. Then he had sent
Horatio off to school, and the laughing child had
become this wary young man. But there
were times when he would study Horatio, and try to see
in his features something of the
woman who had given birth to this silent, studious
boy. Perhaps there was an echo in the
curve of his son's mouth, in the winging slash of dark
brows and the stubborn cant of his
chin. It was that ingrained determination he saw in
his son that saved Dr. Hornblower's
conscience. He knew that when challenged, Horatio
would fight, as his mother had fought
against the fever that had nearly killed them both
when Horatio was ten. She had died, but
her child had inherited her nature, and survived.

Dr. Hornblower was rescued from his sentimental musing
when Annie arrived with
their meal. She was a pleasant, buxom girl, and not
ashamed of her charms. She served Dr.
Hornblower's plate with a flourish, and Horatio's with
a flirtatious smile that brought a
blush to his pale cheeks. It was that brief
vulnerability that nearly undid the Doctor's stoic
self-control. He fought for a moment to master the
lump in his throat.

"What are you thinking of, Horatio?" he asked when he
was able.

"Just of this place. How different it is." His dark
eyes were grave, but Dr.
Hornblower's medical eye picked out the rapid pulse
beating at Horatio's jaw.

"You shall see many more strange and unusual places."

"Yes. If the Justinian ever leaves Spithead." His
smile was forced. He loved his
father; but he would never, ever let him see how
nervous he was. Just as he had not let
him see the utter desolation he had felt standing in
front of the doctor and Captain Keene
when between them they had chosen his future. I should
have run, he thought. Then as
now, the idea of cowardice was repellent. He would
rather die than be thought a coward.
How much worse could it be than anything else he had
endured in his young life?

Irritated by his self-pity, he picked up his fork and
stabbed at a piece of mutton. It
was tender, and the sauce was savory, but it turned to
sawdust in his mouth. His stomach
was still churning from the swaying motion of the
carriage, and now as he looked out at
the seething ocean, he was certain that eating that
mutton would be a mistake. He
managed a few mouthfuls, and then lay down his fork.
"I think the sleet is letting up a bit,
Father."

"You should see to it that your chest is ready to be
taken to the Justinian."

"Yes, sir." Horatio forced himself to rise. His knees
felt like water. He stood, and
stiffened his spine. He took his cocked hat from the
table and set it on his head. Like a
knight putting on armor. Maybe, just maybe he could
get to the Justinian without
disgracing himself or his father.

Dr. Hornblower watched Horatio's gangling figure out
the door. Pelican came over
to the table. "That's a fine boy you have there, sir.
How old is he?"

"Seventeen. It seems so young."

"Many a younger lad than that goes to sea." He gave
Dr. Hornblower a knowing
look. "I been watching him. Not much passes him by,
does it? Except for Annie's hopeful
glances." Pelican chuckled. "He seems steady, sir.
He'll be a fine officer."

Dr. Hornblower's smile was strained. "Yes, I rather
think he will. That was an
excellent meal, Mr. Pelican. Even if my son did not do
it justice."

"I expect the lad's a bit nervous, sir. It is a big
ocean out there."

"And a cold and lonely one, too. I fear." Dr.
Hornblower's words were scarcely
whispered.

"Pardon, sir?"

"Nothing, Mr. Pelican. How much do I owe you?" They
settled accounts and the
Doctor went out into the sleet, which really had not
lessened at all. He found Horatio
standing at the pier. A small boat was docked there,
waiting to take him to the Justinian.
Dr. Hornblower realized with a shock that it was
crewed by two rough-looking women.
They had already loaded Horatio's sea chest into the
boat, and now all that remained was
to say good-bye.

Horatio turned to Dr. Hornblower. Everything had
seemed unreal until now. He
could scarcely see the masts of the Justinian,
standing stark as bones against the heavy
skies, but they remained stubbornly fixed on the
horizon. For a moment he closed his eyes
and imagined his quiet home, the solitude of his room
beneath the eaves. He wondered if
he would ever see them again, and in his heart, he
knew that he would not. The instant he
stepped into that boat, he would cease to exist.
Midshipman Hornblower would take his
place. He would be a stranger to himself, he thought
grimly.

It was a gaunt, and suddenly mature face that he
turned to Dr. Hornblower. "I
shall write to you, father." His throat ached with the
effort of controlling the quiver in his
voice and his eyes burned with unshed tears. He had
too much pride to let them fall.

"I shall look forward to it."

That was all. They stood in the cold, on the pier.
Horatio held out his hand, and
Dr. Hornblower took it briefly. His son's fingers were
icy. Then before Dr. Hornblower
could speak any of the worried, affectionate words
that seemed to be racing through his
brain, one of the women in the boat called out.

"How long d'ye expect us to wait?"

"S-sorry." Horatio stammered and then cursed inwardly
at his weakness. He
gathered the folds of his sodden cloak about him and
clambered into the boat. He was
facing the Justinian, and could not turn back towards
the pier. He had no choice but to
look straight ahead at looming destiny.

Dr. Hornblower watched until the sleet obscured the
boat from his sight. There
was a salty wetness on his face. It might have been
sea spray. Or it might have been tears.

An Ending and A Beginning