First Kiss
by Deirdre

"One!" A spasm of voices erupted in the wardroom; the tone
void of compassion though not completely colorless for a tinge of
humor lightened the air.

But for Midshipman Horatio Hornblower, the startling bite of a cane
into his bare backside was far from humorous; yet that bite paled in
comparison to the gnawing humiliation that devoured his dwindling
self-respect as he lay exposed over a ship's gun.

The first familiar snap from Mr. Bolton's cane delivered a
nauseating sting that left him without breath. Memories of school,
when capricious notions inspired teachers to viciously wield the
cane, suffocated Horatio with regrets that he had been no stranger to
this practice that expedited his early education. Dishonor had been
inflicted upon him more than once, since he possessed a feverish
determination that exasperated those who tried to control him.
Though this punishment could not smelt his iron will, it certainly
had an extraordinary effect on his dismal consciousness of self.

So, long before he matured to young adulthood, this astute boy
cleverly mastered the art of avoiding those abominable beatings in
front of his schoolmates, much to his own self-congratulating
satisfaction.

"Two." The cutting slice nearly jolted Horatio out of his
skin; he had not been prepared for that shocking second blow and now
felt the embarrassment from it flame into his ears as he gulped for
air.

All gratifying memories of evaded thrashings that he had shamelessly
indulged in were now gone forever; as were those carefree days of
boyhood which he once thought unbearable. He had come to discover
that life aboard ship was even more oppressive than life in school,
and the things he could be disciplined for multiplied tenfold the
moment his head popped through the entry port. By this time, Horatio
had suffered his fair share of punishments since setting foot on
deck; but never one so thoroughly devastating as being bent over the
cold gun with his dignity residing somewhere below his knees along
with his breeches. This certainly was not the glorious picture of
Navy life that he had painted for himself.

"Three." For once the voices were in unison, which Horatio
morosely imagined resulted from this, the most excruciating strike
yet to be delivered by the lieutenant of the midshipman's berth.
This time he did not flinch; mulishly he refused to disgrace himself
any further by revealing the pain in his lacerated flesh.

Nothing, Horatio woefully admitted, could ever be easy for him;
therefore, compounding this ungodly ritual was the fact that he had
his own private audience of amused witnesses to his ignominy. He
could no longer recall who was present, and he certainly could not
tell just by listening to their gibing numerical chorus. With
regretted curiosity he made yet another restless mistake this day and
took his focus off the gun port to glance over to where Mr. Kennedy
stood, who in Horatio's vivid imagination, was beaming down at
his pitiful carcass embracing the bronze mistress. This indiscretion
on his part only served to trigger another torturous thought, and so
he punished his agonized mind by contemplating who might be standing
right behind him.

"Four." Horatio no longer noticed the choir; he only mused
on the miserable thoughts in his own head as he pressed his lips
against the barrel to stifle an instinctive yelp.

In the hold of his being he chastised himself for allowing his
agitated spirit to bind him in this awkward predicament. It was the
bitter disappointment of exclusion from a cutting out mission that
had festered in his breast. Once in the bowels of the ship, he
allowed the frustration of his captivity - while others were off
enjoying the excitement of unknown adventures - to get the better of
himand his tongue. With fire in his cheeks he could not contain
his dissatisfaction of being left behind on what would certainly have
proven to be the greatest experience in all of his young years, even
after being warned of his impertinence. But it was too late, his
mouth had fired an impatient broadside, and the shots fell well short
of Mr. Bolton's sympathy.

"Five." His hands, bound under the barrel, were now moist
with sweat and prickly rope scratched at his wrists. At least he
could find it amusing that they thought him such a threat to restrain
him in such a way. With this buoyant thought in his head, he
wondered whether a blessing of more meat on his posterior would have
made this punishment slightly less painful. But then he decided that
such a notion meant that he was now surely delirious, so he
speculated how long before he would die, and would that death be the
result of this torture or from his own mortifying shame.

Nevertheless, there was one pacifying thought with which he could
comfort himself. He had been lucky. Boys accused of anything,
whether theft or skulking to drunkenness or insolence, could be tied
to a gun up on deck; ceremonially flogged with a boy's cat. Not
as vicious as the cat applied to a man, but certainly not as timid as
the cane. Surely he had been spared the anguish of making his own
scourge while awaiting discipline, just as he had been spared
inconceivable suffering, for the lashes from a cat could mount well
into the dozens. So, with scant contentment Horatio could at least
be pleased that he was ushered into the wardroom and beaten on the
spot, instead of waiting for the bo'sun to remove his hide in
front of all the mustered boys, and probably not a few men who would
naturally ignore the rule for adults to clear the deck. Yes, in
this, Horatio counted himself fortunate indeed.

"Six." One ordeal was over; another was yet to begin.

 

Cut loose from the gun Horatio rose stiffly and with raw discomfort
he brought up his breeches; refusing to make eye contact with anyone
as if doing so rendered him invisible. Adopting a confident stride
like a commander of a ship recently successful battle, he navigated
his way toward a splintered bench; only fiery shame heated his face
to burn through the façade. Stubborn as he was, he would not sit
gingerly as was expected of him; instead he casually plopped down so
no man would ever know the extent of his soreness. Instantly that
decision was regretted; for once down he discovered to his horror
that his oozing wounds seeped through his breeches and started to
burn like an iron from a blacksmith's furnace. Ludicrous surprise
flashed onto his face for a frantic instant before he gained control;
he knew he could not display his physical weaknesses to the men and
boys that always impressed him as being so much stronger than
himself. He was confident that they would marvel at his own strength
and leave him alone so he could invisibly wallow in the mire of his
own miserable mood.

With that final thought, his most dreaded nightmare materialized.
The cheerful chatterer slid into the bench across from him and
plunged into endless blathering with such enthusiasm that
Horatio's temper boiled like an overheated kettle.

"Horatio, you did wellonly six! I remember my first beating
I was not so fortunate twelve and I could not sit
for a week, I assure you! Certainly your arse must be made of
oak!" Archie was grinning with the excitement of a boy recalling
his first kiss. Horatio's hackles were up; it grated his nerves
that this man could be such a fool to actually take pleasure in
something that he had immediately regarded as an unnecessary abuse
that served no purpose but to crush the spirit of a good man or
aggravate that of a bad one.

And he was absolutely furious that Kennedy simply would not shut up.

It was beyond his ability to accept that Archie was only attempting
to ease his initiation into this new reality of ship's
discipline, when Horatio was doggedly determined never to feel the
cane on his backside again or to take delight in seeing any man or
boy beaten.

Influenced by Archie's prattle and much to Horatio's dismay,
the recitals began as Indefatigable's midshipman's berth
buzzed with vivid accounts of each boy's and each man's
experience with the cane or the cat; every new story growing in
intensity just as an escaped fish grows in size. Horatio could only
sit in his gloomy silence, devising a painless escape that he knew
impossible to carry out and realizing that his present situation was
now far worse than when he was sprawled over the gun. But eventually
the din faded away as one by one the men took their leave to return
to neglected duties. Only Archie remained, now in silence,
contemplating the sullen brown eyes opposite him.

"We have all endured it, Horatio it's part of our life
in this service." He was attempting to make his words soft, but
to Horatio they were as jagged as knives.

He wished for Archie to disappear, but like a barnacle Kennedy
remained fastened to the bench. His own blistering soreness left him
breathless, and he could not comprehend how Archie had ever endured
twelve strokes. Pondering whether he would have such endurance, he
inadvertently found himself looking into a cool azure sea and it
amazed him that those serene eyes had earlier gloated over his
discomfiture. Now he could never explain the depth of his contempt
for physical punishment to Kennedy, nor his abhorrence for those who
delighted in it. Had he tried, he would only be revealing himself as
a weakling and a coward to a man that someday may need to trust him
implicitly, so he decided it served no purpose to undermine his
confidence now.

"I know Archie, it was discipline. I was out of line and I paid
the price for my loose tongue and my impatience." Trying to sound
like a man, he could only hear the resentful boy who's shame
taught him how to avoid such punishment and who's successes he
had just destroyed by allowing his indiscretion to bring the cane
down upon him once more.

With that declaration, Horatio returned to brood over his loathing
for physical chastisement while he masterfully convinced himself of
his own lack of fortitude. So wrapped up in his inner turmoil that
he did not notice the silence nor see the phantom float past
Archie's gaze.

"I I have always believed it takes a clever maneven a
brave man to to find an alternative to a beating for
othersor even for himself." Archie's words were
painfully hesitant. He no longer looked forward; his eyes were fixed
on his own nervous fingers picking at the battered table; wearing the
mask that Horatio had not seen since their days in Justinian.
"Yes, I would consider him a brave man, more than you can ever
know." These last words were spoken faintly; an audible
thought had accidentally escaped.

Horatio detected an uneasiness creeping into his stomach that chased
his own shame away. He could not determine if Archie had understood
his disturbed thoughts or if he was only reflecting on his own; so
for a halting moment a question lingered on his tongue. But shyness
and good sense rendered him mute; better not to become familiar with
another man's thoughts when his own were troubling enough. He
concluded Archie's words were intended to bolster him up, and he
suddenly found that he was tired of self-pity and heavy thoughts and
wanted desperately to return to his duties; so just this once he
would accept Archie's attempt to lighted his mental load.

With a mischievous grin Horatio jested, "I would bewell,
parts of me would beeternally gratefulif such a man
existed. More importantly, if I would have the good fortune to find
him on this ship." It was Horatio's poor attempt at humor
which brought a light back into Archie's face.

Laughter, even at a bad joke, was a funny thing. Through it Horatio
found comfort in the presence of this young man who had for a mere
instant plummeted into an abyss before ascending on a smile. A warm
robe of contentment enveloped Horatio as he realized his pain had
ebbed, both in his flesh and in his mind. He wanted to thank Archie,
but he felt foolish for his sentimental thoughts and reminded himself
that he really did not know exactly what Archie had done. All he
knew was that for the first time since embarking on this turbulent
career, and maybe for the first time in his life, he did not feel the
torturous pain of loneliness. He wondered if Archie may be what some
people called a friend, but having lead a solitary existence he
doubted he could ever identify what a real friend was. So for now,
he was content not to label Archie as anything but a shipmate; a
shipmate who had an uncanny ability to remind Horatio that he was no
longer alone.

The End