Father and Son
by Simon

 

Note: This story takes place immediately after the events in Dockside.

 

Father and Son

 

 

Jacob hadn't seen his son in over two years and the lad had changed.
He had grown taller and thinner and he wore the mantle of command now
like a comfortable shirt. He'd also grown in confidence; all of these
were obvious on first sight.

It was also apparent that his eyes were shadowed with exhaustion and
strain, his mouth was a single grim line and he was tired beyond
measure. It was frightening for a father to see. They were standing
on the docks at Spithead, Jacob having come down from his small
village to see his son. It had been over two years since they had
last laid eyes on each other. Although they had written often, their
old habits of estrangement and reserve had interfered, preventing
either of them from exchanging any more than small talk and minor
gossip.

Horatio had greeted his father with an unexpected embrace"their first
since the lad had been small. It had felt awkward, but God! -- It had
been so very welcome.

"Father, Captain Pellew has allowed me a four hour leave. Perhaps if
you've not yet eaten, you might like to find an inn?"

"Why, yes, yes, that would be a good idea. I'm afraid that I don't
know the area as I used to, have you any suggestions?"

He smiled and nodded, but first, "Men, the Captain has granted all of
you a four hour leave." Cheers rose as he tried to continue. "Be back
here on time, sharp or you'll be grandfathers before the Captain
allows you another one. Try to stay out of trouble, will you?"

Amid the retorts of "Right you are, Mr. `Ornblower" and "Don't you
worry about that, sir" and more laughter than usual, they wandered
off.

"They respect you, Horatio."

"They're supposed to. I'm their officer." He was matter of fact about
it.

"Yes, but that doesn't mean that they do. These men both like and
admire you. That's earned, son, not ordered or mandated simply by
discipline."

Embarrassed, Horatio shrugged. "They're good men, father. I'm, lucky
to have them."

Jacob studied his son as they started off to some inn that Horatio
had heard about. Damn the lad! He still had the terrible low opinion
of himself that he'd had ever since he was a small boy. Jacob had
noticed it not long after his wife had died. Of course she had always
spent more time with the boy than he had, but still, you'd have
thought it would have been obvious before that. Ah, well. After all
he'd done and been through in the wartime navy, he'd have thought
that this might have improved somewhat. Apparently, it was still part
of the boy's personality. Well, he had a hundred questions he'd like
to ask the boy while he had him here. Perhaps he could get to the
bottom of a few things.

They came to a small Inn set back from the main street and tucked
around a corner.

"I think that you'll like this place, father. It's better than most
of them and not too expensive." At this Horatio gave a small self-
conscious smile. Lieutenants didn't make much money. Well, neither
did country doctors, truth be known.

They went inside and were shown to a small table beside the front
window.

"You look tired, Horatio. They must be working you hard on that ship
of yours."

"No harder than anyone else. I'm all right." Despite his earlier warm
welcome, his walls were all in place.

He tried again. "Your men were telling me about some of the
adventures that you've had. They think highly of you, son."

"I'm lucky, father, they're good men. They make my job easier than it
would otherwise be."

"They told me about a few things that you hadn't written about. Would
you mind very much telling me the truth about some of their stories."

Their pitcher of ale arrived with the barmaid pouring them each a
tankard. Her eyes were glued to Horatio. He didn't notice.

He took a swallow. "What have they been telling you?"

"Lies, mostly, I suspect." Horatio laughed, the first laugh that his
father had heard from him in years. It was a delicious sound. "They
told me that you saved the fleet in Gibraltar by boarding a fire ship
and steering it away from the anchored ships."

"Oh, that. It wasn't really all that much, Father. Anyone could have
done it. It sounds much more exciting than it actually was, believe
me."

"The men said that you got your promotion because of that, and that
you were failing the exam."

" I suppose that it looks like that to them. Heaven knows that I was
failing the exam."

The barmaid came back with two plates filled with a savory smelling
beef stew, her smile only for Horatio, he still didn't notice. Jacob
smiled to himself. They thanked her and began their meal.

"They also mentioned something about your captaining a ship feared to
be carrying bubonic plague."

"Well, I certainly didn't volunteer for that. It just sort of
happened that I was there at the time."

"How so?" He took a bite of the stew. It really was quite good.

"We had put into Oran to get some supplies, while we were there
plague was discovered. Just bad timing, really. We were forced to
quarantine with the provisions on the supply ship for three weeks."
He looked out tea window for a moment before continuing. "It wasn't
such a large thing, father. Truly it wasn't. No one got sick, we were
all just fine and we delivered the food three weeks later without any
problems."

"Just all in a days work, eh?"

Horatio smiled a bit as he worked on his meal. "Yes, something like
that. But what of you father? What news?"

"Well, let me think here. I believe that the Cooper's cow gave birth
to twin calves last week and McGreevy's Inn has added roast chicken
to its menu. Really, Horatio. What could be news in that little
place? All is as it was. Nothing ever changes there."

Horatio laughed gently. "It's good to see you, again, father. I'm
glad that you made the effort to come all the way down here."

Jacob smiled at his son. It was so different this time, or at least
it seemed to be so far. They were actually managing to talk like two
normal adults without all of the anger and suspicion that had plagued
them for so long. It was such a joy to be able to do so.

After a pause as both men ate, Jacob spoke again. "What was that your
men mentioned about you're being involved in a duel? That doesn't
sound like you, Horatio."

He shrugged slightly. "It was years ago. It's over and long past."

"Would you tell me?"

By now they had finished eating. As Horatio, at his insistence, paid
the fare, he said, "Let's walk. I'd rather not be cooped up if that's
all right with you."

"Yes, of course, whichever you prefer."

They left the Inn and started to stroll along the quay, saying
nothing for several minutes.

Obviously uncomfortable, Horatio started to speak. "There was another
Mid on Justinian. He came aboard after I'd been there for about a
fortnight. He'd been there before I'd shipped on, but had left for a
while. He returned after he'd failed his Lieutenant's exam for
probably the seventh or eight time. He was more than just angry and
bitter. He was twisted and cruel and he delighted in tormenting and
torturing the others."

He stopped speaking for a few minutes as they walked, collecting his
thoughts. Jacob wondered if he would continue or not, but finally he
decided to go on.

"He was the most purely evil man I've ever met. The others were all
in fear, as was I. It was soawful. Finally I decided that the only
way to escape was suicide."

"Horatio!" His father's hand on his arm stopped him and turned him to
face the older man.

"So I challenged him to a duel, knowing that he would, in all
likelihood kill me."

His father looked at him in horror.

Horatio calmly continued, he might have been discussing the weather
for the tone of his voice. "The day of the duel another Mid knocked
me out and went insteadand was killed in my place. Simpson, the man
who I'd challenged, was injured, but recovered. By then I'd been
transferred to the Indy."

"And that was the end of it? I thought that they said you were
injured.'

"No, It didn't end there."

"Not too long after I was aboard the Indy we rescued the survivors of
a British ship of the line which had been sunk. Simpson was among the
survivors. We had words and the duel was restaged. He fired early; I
was shot in the shoulder. Then he was killed."

"How badly were you injured?" Horatio know that he couldn't lie to
his father about an injury. He was too good a doctor for that.

"It was superficial. It went through cleanly and healed without
infection or incident. I've a scar and nothing else to show for my
troubles. I'm fine."

They walked on in silence for several minutes, each lost in his own
thoughts.

"Why didn't you tell me? I wish that you"

"You wish that I what? There was nothing to be gained by telling you,
father. By then I was well on my way to healing on a ship patrolling
the Med. There was nothing that you could have done other than
worry." Horatio gave his father a small smile. "What would have been
the point of that?"

Jacob shook his head at the obstinacy of his son. He knew that the
boy wasn't stupid. "What if I had found out, what then? Indeed, I
have found out."

"And it's news which is two years old and no longer of any
importance."

His patience strained, he exploded "How in the name of God can you
calmly stand there and say that to me? You're my son"didn't it occur
to you that I might want to know that you'd been in danger, that
you'd been wounded? I don't understand you, Horatio, I never have."

"I know."

The two men stared at each other, the father's anger fading to
sadness, the son merely seeming detached.

"Why does this always happen, Horatio?"

Horatio shrugged, seemingly accepting and uncaring, then turned,
continuing his walk.

"How dare you turn away from me!"? Jacob grabbed his arm and spun him
back to face him. He saw the flash of real anger in his son's face.

"What difference does it make now, father? Perhaps ten years ago it
would have mattered, but now it's long past caring."

His father pleaded, "What are you talking about? Ten years ago? Are
you still going on about being sent away to school? My God! I've
explained that to you. You know that I was too distraught after your
mother's death to raise you. I've told you this time and time again.
What else was I to do?"

"You had a son. You could have" He stared at his father in sudden
fury. "You could have loved me."

"I did. I do. Jesus, Horatio, why do you insist on dragging this on
and on?"

"And in the three years that I've been in the Navy you've written me,
what? Five letters? You've been very busy, no doubt."

Stung by his son's words and the force behind them, Jacob quietly
answered, "I didn't think that you wanted to hear from me after the
way we parted."

"You knew that I wanted to take one of the positions I was offered at
either Cambridge or Oxford or stay with you and help you in your
practice. I didn't want to join the Goddamned Navy."

Still stricken by Horatio's vehemence, his father said, "There was no
money for University, would God there was, and I never knew that you
had any interest in medicine. If I had knownand then Kean offered
you the position on his ship. What else was I to do for you? I
thought that you'd have a successful career. You do have a successful
career."

"When you signed my onto Kean's ship, did you know that the survival
rate for Mid's on a ship of war is fifty percent?"

"NoI ..no."

"You couldn't bear to have me about after Mother died, you couldn't
afford to send me to University, so instead you sold me off as cannon
fodder. Sorry that I've beaten the odds, are you?"

"Horatio, I did what I thought best for you. Why won't you see that?"

Practically snorting in derision, "I fear to see your worst then,
father."

"Horatio, don't walk off like this. Can not we at least try to talk
this over as adults?"

"What is there to discuss that we haven't at least fifty times?"

"Why it is that you refuse to forgive me. Why you won't accept that I
did what I thought right. I may have been wrong, but My God, Horatio!
I did my best for you. Why will you not see that? If you ever have
your own son you'll see that"

Horatio stopped in his tracks, turning to face his father. "If I ever
have a son, I will treat him as my son, as my flesh and blood, not
like the hired help to be dismissed when their presence becomes
awkward or inconvenient."

"You think that's what I did?"

"I know that's what you did. I lived it, damnit."

"So did I."

"And you seem to have done just fine. I've no doubt that you never
lost a night's sleep."

"How in the name of God would you know my concerns or worries?'

"That's all too trueChrist knows I wasn't there to see any of them."

"Horatio, that's enough. Enough. I'll hear no more of this from you."

"Didn't you just say that you wished to talk to me?"

The sting and sound of the slap across his face stunned Horatio.

"Oh God, Horatio, forgive me Please, I didn't mean to do that. I'm
sorry, please, let me see.."

Horatio's face could have been carved out of stone. "Well, at least
that was honest. That was the first real contact from you since
before Mother's death."

"Please, son, let me seeoh, God, you're bleeding." He put his hand
up to Horatio's nose which now had a trail of blood leaking from it.
Taking his handkerchief from his pocket, he led his son to a low wall
they had stopped close by, sat him down and applied gentle pressure.

"Horatio, I didn't mean to do that, I'd never do that to you. I don't
know what came over me. Please, let me make this up to you. Please,
Horatio."

As he worked on his son's face, Horatio watched him through narrowed
eyes. Finally, making a decision, he calmly spoke.

"I now what you've always told me about your reasons for sending me
away. I've never believed them. Tell me the real reason you didn't
want me around."

Handing his son the now bloody cloth, taking a deep breath and
sitting beside him on the wall he hesitated while he decided how to
answer the question. Finally he started speaking. "I blamed you for
her death."

"I was six bloody years old."

He spoke slowly and softly, painfully. "I know that. When the fever
started I had told you to stay at home, to not go to the village, to
stay away from the others. You kept asking me what the sickness
looked like and wouldn't believe that it could hurt you. One day we
found that you had gone over to your friend Danny's cottage to play
without our knowing. The boy was sick. Two days after that you became
ill. I was too busy with my patients to tend you. Louise took care of
you. You were so sick, Horatio. I didn't think that you would live,
you were such a thin little thing, the wind would blow you away. She
stayed with you day and night. She slept sitting in a chair next to
your bed. Finally, of course, she became ill, too. She refused to
leave your side. I had to carry her to bed the day she collapsed by
your side.

"You know what happened. You survived, she didn't. She was worn out
from watching you, you see. After that I couldn't bear to even look
at you. I was wrong to feel that way, I know that. As you quite
rightly point out, you were just a child."

Horatio looked at the ground at his feet. "So why did you blame me?"

"Because everything I did to save her failed and I had to blame
someone."

"You once told me when I had come home on a school holiday that you
wished that I'd never been born, then you wondered why I couldn't
have died instead of Mother. The day she died I heard you talking in
the next room. I was still sick and in bed, but I heard you. I still
remember exactly what you said. `It's the fault of that damn child.
If it weren't for him, she'd still be alive. Goddamn him to Hell.'"

"Yes, well I'm sorry for that."

Horatio stood up, "It's getting dark, and this is a bad area. We
should leave." They started to move back to the docks, back to where
the Indy was anchored.

"How long did you hate me after that, father? Do you still?"

"One day, several years later, you came home from school, I guess
that you must have been about ten or so. For the first time I noticed
that you didn't speak and you didn't smile. You spent all your time
either up in your room reading or going for walks. You refused to see
your friends. I knew that I was the cause of your moodiness, but I
thought that you would grow out of it. By the time that you were
ready to speak again, I didn't know what to say to you."

"Why wouldn't you have me in your surgery. You knew that I'd have
done that gladly."

"I was afraid to have you around, Horatio. Don't you see? Every time
that I look at your face I see her. You're so very much like her and
I know that it would cause her such pain to see us like this. She
loved you so very much."

"I know. I still dream about her sometimes."

Jacob smiled at the memory. "Yes, so do I."

" I remember when I was small, I would run into your room early in
the morning and jump on the bed then crawl in between the two of you.
It was so warm and safe there."

"We used to love when you did that. You were such a joy to us both."

They continued to walk silently for a while, each involved in his own
thoughts.

Finally Jacob spoke, quietly and thoughtfully. "One of you men said
something while I was waiting for you to come off the ship. He said
that it's never too late if two people both want something."

"That sounds like Matthews." Horatio said, equally quietly.

They had reached the quay where Horatio would take the jolly boat
back aboard.

"Do we want the same thing, son?"

He was silent for so long, lost in thought, that Jacob wondered if he
was going to answer him or not. Finally, "I haven't had a father
since the day Mother died. I'm not all that sure that I need one at
this late date."

Jacob started to turn away in disappointment. "But I think that I
would like to know you as a man, father, if you would be willing to
accede to that."

Matthews approached them from where he had been standing with the
other man of his division. "Mr. Hornblower, sir. Begging your pardon.
The boat is ready to take us back to the Indy."

"Thank you, Matthews. I'll be ready directly." Matthews returned to
his mates, all sitting about, waiting to leave.

"When does your ship leave, Horatio?"

"With the land breeze, dawn tomorrow."

"How long will you be away this time?"

"A while. Six months, at least, I'd think. Perhaps longer."

"Would you mind if I wrote to you?" He asked tentatively.

Horatio gave his father a small smile. "I would very much like if you
did."

"Then I'll write."

"And I'll answer. Perhaps when we get back again, I could go visit
you at home. Would you mind if I did?"

"I'd like that very much."

"Good, then I shall."

He started to move off to join his men for the short trip back to the
Indefatigable and the war. Before he had gotten to them he turned
back to his father, retracing his steps and putting his arms around
the older man once again. "Be well, Father."

"I will. Be safe, son."

 

The End