GUILTY AS SIN
By Ruth W.

 

It was one of those tropical nights full of stars, when the sea looked like glass on velvet, and the bowl of the heavens seemed to shimmer with light.

Commander Hornblower had been standing for some time observing the celestial feast, as he often did on these quiet nights, when sleep came not easily to him; when his cabin was too confining, and he needed the wide freedom of the sky and open sea. Not that he was indulging any sentimental romance about the twinkling orbs shining down on him. Perhaps he might have done once, but not any more… He was simply applying himself now to the satisfying exercise of identification and classification…

Here was the Pole star — the mariner’s friend. Here the constellation of the Plough… and Mars, god of War…

And there was the faint point of light which, on the journey to the Indies — was it only weeks ago? - he had said was a star, and Archie had insisted was a planet, and Mr. Bush had caught them exchanging a wager on it, and had been gracious enough to cough to give warning of his presence…

It was the same star, shining down now on him alone… And it was constant, so it was a star, and Archie would never know that he had been wrong…

His contented observations suddenly shadowed by a sadness of which he was hardly aware, Hornblower simply continued to stare upwards, seeing nothing now, his thoughts wandering with the night, into the dark places where stars do not shine…

"You miss him…" observed a firm, gentle voice at his side.

Hornblower jumped. Damn the woman! She had done this to him before. Crept up behind him when he thought he was alone. She had probably done it to poor Whiting and his marines…that fateful dawn…

How he hated a stealthy woman…!

He cleared his throat awkwardly, holding nevertheless to his strict code of etiquette. "Ha-hmm! Senora Ortega… Forgive me, I did not see you there…"

"I did not mean to alarm you, Senor… I was merely observing how you miss him…"

Hornblower stared at her. "Pardon, ma’am?"

"Your light-haired lieutenant with the blue, blue eyes of a dreamer… You are wishing you had his company under these stars instead of mine…"

Every instinct told the Commander not to get into conversation with the enemy, but he felt a strange compulsion to stay and hear her. A prisoner on parole, returning to her own country via England, she had no power to hurt him. Yet he was afraid. Her part in his life was already written in blood. He would have preferred that she had taken another ship back to the old country.

Finding her suddenly beside him like this was like sharing his quarterdeck with a venomous snake…

"Ha-Hmm!" he said again, to buy time, "We had become accustomed to each others’ company," he admitted, astounded that he would choose to open the door of communication even thus far to her. "We had been shipmates for…many years…"

Senora Ortega nodded slowly, her beautiful face softened by the starlight. "Were you lovers?" she asked, in a tone which told him she would not have been surprised to hear any answer he might give.

Nevertheless, Hornblower was so stunned to be asked such a thing by a stranger, that he could not look at her.

He considered the question, and how he should respond.

No, they had not been — not in the biblical sense, though their physical relationship, thanks to Archie’s joyous candour, had never been inhibited. Archie had been as open and demonstrative about his affection for Horatio as it was comfortable and sensible to be in a man o’ war without inviting rumour, and although sometimes Hornblower would have preferred a little more decorum, (during that last sojourn in Portsmouth, for example!) he had rarely complained, being only glad of the treasured friendship after so many years’ enforced solitude.

Alone in the wardroom or on shore leave, they had been totally at ease, and, looking back, it seemed to Horatio that Archie would freely have given him any kind of closeness he wanted. Archie had loved where he could and had given where he loved, and had never counted the cost of the giving…

And he would have given Horatio anything…

Hornblower wondered with a flash of self-pity whether he would ever be fortunate enough to find that again in any other — man or woman…

"I would say, Senora," he answered her stiffly "that my relationship with a brother officer is a matter between him and me…"

She watched his face intently for a moment, reading him like a book. "You English…" she responded softly, not making clear whether she disdained or admired him for his ‘Englishness’.

She turned her elegant head to look to the dim and distant horizon, to the west, where the sun had hours ago settled like a ball of fire into the sea, sucking the light away into the netherworld. Only the dim stars now shone down to give comfort in the night.

"My husband was a wonderful man, Senor Hornblower…" she told him in a steady voice. "You did not know him. He was the finest man I have ever known…"

Hornblower felt a flash of sympathy for her before reminding himself that by bestowing too much pity, he might receive it back…

"I’m sure he was, ma’am…" he responded neutrally.

"We were children together at Rosas," she continued, remembering almost as though he were not there. "He was my world for most of my life. I do not know any way of living without him." She turned to observe him again. "Will you find ways of living now, Senor…of putting behind you this trial by your Navy, and this loss of your so selfless friend?"

Hornblower was angry now. How the hell did she know all this? He could see how she would know the details of the trial. She spoke good English and must have followed the accounts in the Kingston Chronicle. But how in the name of the devil did she know that Archie’s memory held more significance to him than that of a mere shipmate and fellow lieutenant?

He had been forced to extend to her the courtesy of a host, and had been the soul of diffident politesse, persuading himself that she was not a true enemy. She had brought about Archie’s death, but her action had not done the killing. Nor even had her husband’s pistol.... The responsibility for all the deaths in Renown during that fateful voyage from Santo Domingo to Kingston had rested squarely on the shoulders of Buckland. And he was too pathetic to blame…

Nevertheless, this woman could see into Hornblower’s soul, had trespassed upon his quarterdeck, and was loitering on the starboard side, which was his inviolate space for as long as he chose to be there. She was invading his privacy and getting in his way. It was like sharing the deck with a large, venomous snake. He determined to be just a little rude to her, to amuse himself, and to discourage any further attempts at fraternisation.

"I shall do my duty, ma’am…" he assured her grimly. "as no doubt will you…"

That should give her pause for thought. She would be angry or hurt, and would wander off across the deck to find someone more amenable to keep company under the stars. He smiled inside at his own gracelessness. It was good sometimes, in a lifetime of strict etiquette, to have an excuse for discourtesy…

But the Senora did not walk away. She still stood, motionless at his side, like a dark statue. Eventually she took a deep breath and said quietly in her beautiful Castilian accent, "He was asking for you, did you know that…during the voyage to Kingston …?"

Horatio’s hands gripped the rail as though to let go would see him tumbling into the silken sea. Not Archie again! Was she still ruminating on some half-baked fantasy about their non-existent love-affair, and their supposed juvenile dotage on one another…? Hah! Kennedy hadn’t doted on anyone since the catharsis that was El Ferrol, where he had had no choice. He was one of the most independent men Hornblower had ever had the privilege of knowing. It pleased him to have this knowledge, and he had no intention of sharing it with a delving Spaniard who should have been applying herself to her own affairs, and how she would survive in Spain without a husband…

"I understood Mr. Kennedy was unconscious or asleep for most of that voyage," he returned abruptly. "Which, if I might make a suggestion, would benefit you better than standing here exchanging gossip with me…"

**"Good show, Horatio! That’ll fix her…!"** said something deep in his subconscious.

He could almost feel her smiling beside him.

"Capitain Hornblower," she said frankly, "When my people were herded like cattle for a second time into the hold, I feared for my wounded companions…"

"You had no need…" he returned gruffly. For God’s sake, did the woman think the British Navy were animals? And where on earth was this aimless meandering leading…?

"I know, Commander. I do know that now. At the time, I was still reeling from my husband’s death, and from the infamy which had undone us at Samana Bay… I expected … well, I did not know what to expect… But I must keep faith with his memory. I had to try to help his men…"

Hornblower allowed himself an approving nod. It was fitting that she felt that way, and only a boor would have dismissed the sincerity in her voice. But he said nothing. There did not seem to be anything pertinent to say.

"Mr. Buckland permitted me to remain, on my honour, with the wounded in the — what do you say, the cock-spit? You have such odd words for things, you English…"

He did not correct her. "Buckland was … unwise to do so," he returned grimly. "I would not have done…"

"There were not many of our men there, Senor. You had done a good job. Those who were not already dead, died quickly. Only a few lingered more than a day and a night…" she was very still, staring up at the sky as though reliving the sights and sounds of death. "Your beautiful friend …(oh yes, Capitain, he WAS beautiful, even then)… he was tended in his own cot… After they searched his wound for the pistol ball, he was in great …how you say, distress? They returned him to his cabin and left there only a child to tend him. There was much to be done, you understand…many English wounded that day… My work with my own people was concluded, I went to him and sent the boy away. Sometimes the sight of a woman calms a man in pain… "

By now Hornblower was riveted. He still stood rigid beside her, his hands gripping the taffrail, wishing he had the strength to tell her to mind her own business…

"Why?" he asked simply.

"My husband shot him, Capitain. I wanted to watch him die…"

For a moment there was silence. Hornblower was utterly stunned, and the Senora seemed to have stunned herself. From a man the admission would have been shocking, but from a young and beautiful woman it was almost obscene.

**"For God’s sake, H’ratio, can’t you see the woman is trying to wind you like a watch-spring??"** said the voice quietly at the back of his mind…

"I’m sorry you were … denied the pleasure…" he said, holding his dignity and his temper precariously intact.

She shrugged. "No…" she agreed, "he did not die… I sat beside him for a day and a night, holding his head as he retched…wiping sweat and blood from his face… feeding him water from a spoon…allowing my hand to be gripped until I thought my small bones would break…when he would accept no relief for the pain, and it seemed that every breath he took would be his last … I sent for my own priest, to give him …how you say… extremis…"

"The last rites…" Horatio fulfilled, with all the animation and expression of a paving-stone. He had no idea until now just how bad things had been for Archie in the hours and days after the disaster on the quarterdeck. He had pictured his friend deeply-unconscious, neatly-bandaged and rocking gently in his cot, all the way to Kingston. An icy hand gripped his heart when the truth began to dawn…

**"She’s exaggerating, H’ratio…Don’t listen to her… I only retched once … well… maybe twice… and it wasn’t all blood.."**

"But why…?" he asked again. "Why did you do all that if you were simply waiting for him to die…?"

She considered, gazing up at the black, diamond-scattered heavens. "Because…" she said softly, "I soon found, Capitain, that we had a bond… he and I… I look at him, and I see myself…"

**"A bond??! Hah! The kind of ‘bond’ a peregrine falcon has with a starling…??!!"**

Now she wasn’t making any sense at all. Hornblower was completely thrown off-balance. How in the name of all that was holy could this tall, dark, fiery Spanish woman have a single thing in common with Archie Kennedy, let alone see him as some sort of mirror image? He listened now with bewildered fascination.

"My husband was a good man…" she reiterated, seeming to veer off again at a weird tangent. "He was good to me, and he loved me with great passion… But he was a man of action, also, Capitain. He was a man of duty, and of ambition. He loved those things more…"

Hornblower’s eyes narrowed. Where in the world was all this leading? And why didn’t he just call a marine to bundle the woman away, below decks, where he wouldn’t have to look at her or listen to her mad rambling?!

"So…" she continued, as if telling him a story, "this spoiled, pampered little girl from a high-born family followed her hero. She changed her life for him. She changed her SELF…She was dragged with him half-way across the world. The young girl who loved drawing and painting and beautiful things became an amazon…She fought beside him, and loaded his weapons and nursed him when he was wounded. She lost her innocence and her gentleness in the fires of battle, and became the hard piece of ice he required. She bore his children — too many children, some of which God took back, because they had been given to us in hostile lands or seas where we had no right to be…"

**"She’s raving, H’ratio…"**

"What are you saying, Madam?" Hornblower prompted her gruffly, suddenly anxious that she was touching nerves, and wanting her explanation to be over.

But once again, she changed tack. "Do you know he was calling for you?" she demanded mercilessly.

**"No, I wasn’t…well, maybe I was a little…You know, it was hard… The shock unmanned me a little…Such things rob a man of his dignity…"**

The mind-voice faltered and stilled.

He stiffened. Yes, he had known it. Someone had sent the word to tell him this, and to request his presence below decks. But it had been easy for his unhappy soul to find urgent work to keep him on deck, so that he would not have to face what lay below…

He had assumed Archie had woken and called his name, as he often did after nightmares. A momentary need, soon forgotten as light and life fill the consciousness once more. Light and life…

"He did not die," she continued evenly, "because you did not come. He would not take the opiates which your doctor offered, because he was afraid if he took them, he would slip away in his sleep, without saying goodbye to you… For two days, he cried out for you in his fever. Begged me to send for you, so that he could die in peace. I sent boys to fetch you, over and over, Capitain. But you did not come. So he did not die…"

He was suddenly enraged by his own guilt, and he turned it on her. "I apologise, madam, that you were disappointed…" he told her coldly. "but, thanks to your noble efforts, we were very few to sail the ship. I had…duties…" his words tailed off, as the significance of the statement hit him like a backwash.

"Capitain, do not agitate yourself. You have no need to fear me," she said in a quiet, dignified tone.

"I assure you, Senora, I have no intention of fearing you…"

She gave a cultured, ironic little laugh. The kind with which Archie had once decorated their conversations. "No…" she responded evenly. "El Capitain Horatio Hornblower, he has no fear…Not even of a woman…"

Oh, how Archie would have enjoyed THAT remark! Horatio could almost see him grinning…

Hornblower was silent. Now, at last, he was beginning to see where she was leading him. He should stop her right now. He should not force himself to listen to this imaginative drivel from an embittered, grief-stricken Spanish widow whose thoughts must surely be deranged… Yet her poise and dignity were so compelling, he simply had no power to do otherwise.

"One learns much, when a fevered man rambles." She went on. "He spoke of his childhood, and his home…and of his wife…"

Against his will, Hornblower found himself saying with grim triumph "He did not have a wife, madam. He had the sense to keep his life free of romantic entanglements."

Didn’t he…??

He could feel her watching his shadowed face in the so-faint light, and he realised with some embarrassment that she was amused. "You evidently did not know of her then," she observed mildly, "this woman who claimed his heart…?"

Deeply angered now, Hornblower said nothing. How dare she lie to him like this. Archie was the least dissembling soul on earth. He had never hidden a thing about his life, his opinions or his affections. Had he been engaged in a relationship of any magnitude, he would have spilled out the whole thing, probably quoting most of the courtship lines from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in the process. Nothing would have induced him to keep silent in the thrall of such joy.

"Well in the end, as he stood on the threshold of death, it was you he wanted…" the Senora continued, calmly relentless. "Most dying men call out for their mother, or their wife, Senor. He called only for you…"

And now the voice within was quite silent.

Hornblower felt suddenly horribly naked before her, as if she had the power to view his whole being, inside and out.

"I watched…" she added grimly, every word ground out with Spanish passion "as your beautiful friend faded…as the light faded from his eyes when he realised you would not come. And the pain I saw there had nothing to do with the bullet my husband had put into his gut…!"

He suddenly wanted to strike her, or to strangle her lovely neck and throw her into the sea. He had never felt such sheer physical violence towards a woman before, and it shook him to the core. "What is your point, Madam?" he demanded harshly.

"Just this, Senor." She lifted her dark eyes to meet his in the starlight. "I want you to know! I want you to feel the pain of it, and to know the truth, which I knew and your dead friend must have known, but my husband did not…! You do your duty, you make your plans, you build your empires…my husband did these things also…But we, your beautiful friend and I, we who follow, and serve and love …WE bear all the scars… and in the end it is we who pay the price…"

He stared down at her, utterly dumbfounded. And though her words hit no chord in his mind, his heart was dreadfully wounded, as if she had taken the probe Dr. Clive had used to find Archie’s pistol-ball, and lanced it straight through his breast.

She straightened before him, a tall, erect shadow under the starlight. "You should have let us sail away, Capitain Hornblower…" she concluded with shattering finality. "You should have let us go…"

Horatio had heard enough. In fact, he had heard far too much. He spun on his heel and marched off across the deck. "MARINE!!" he shouted, making all those on watch jump to their posts.

The rapid patter of boots brought one of the marines running.

"Escort Senora Ortega to her quarters!" Hornblower ordered briskly. "Put a guard on her door. Don’t let her back on my deck under any circumstances until we reach port!!"

"Aye, sir!" The marine hefted his musket meaningfully, peering into the darkness for his charge…

But there was no sign of her. The Senora had slipped away, and, being well-able to find her way in her own ship even at night, was already half-way to the makeshift cabin in the hold where her children lay sleeping…

 

 

 

 

Portsmouth, April 1802

Captain Hornblower sat at his desk, pondering an uncertain future. Peace had recently broken out across Europe, and within the week he must surrender his ship — his first true command - to be decommissioned. Whether he would be assigned another was extremely doubtful, since the Navy was paying off and breaking up or putting in ordinary every second ship which sailed into home port. Unemployment and half-pay would be his lot, together with a return to the rank of lieutenant. He could not expect his promotion to be confirmed now…

Poverty, then, and seedy Southsea lodgings… and loneliness…

He thrust the thought aside, fearing to become maudlin again. He had thought his bitterness was buried in Kingston, along with his youth and his ideals…

And having his new command — a ship and a crew to nurse and fret over — has eased his wounded spirit wonderfully…

But that damned woman — Archie’s nemesis - had managed to stir up all the old guilt and self-doubt, making him reassess all the way home, the full impact of Kennedy’s death. She had painted a picture which he did not like, and he wanted more than anything in the world to talk to someone…to state in plain English what he and Kennedy had been to one another, and why it was so damned hard, given that their relationship had been platonic, to carry on without him... And to check with another human being that he was not losing his wits, and, most of all, that he had not behaved abominably to his only friend...

How could he have done that — carried on the business of sailing the ship as if nothing had happened? Why had he not realised how things were with Archie, shut away below, his guts burning, and fever sapping his strength and will, pleading for a comrade to come and ease his passing…?

"You didn’t show it, my friend," he said silently, reproachfully "When I left you with Dr. Clive in that first hour, you were smiling…"

**"Of course I was, you clot! What did you expect…the last act of ‘King Lear’??"**

Horatio had not heard him then, but he could hear him now. As clearly as if he were sitting in the chair opposite, laughing as he always did at the evolutions of guilt. Archie had been the first person Horatio had ever known refuse to take him at all seriously. At first the aristocratic facetiousness had been unnerving, since Hornblower came from a family of serious, studious middle-class professionals, and he had thought the humour a little unkind. Eventually, though, Archie’s amusement at everything he did had been infectious, and he had even begun to see the funny side of himself. Perhaps that was now his greatest loss…

"Horatio Hornblower saves the known world from the forces of bloody revolution…!" Archie had teased him once, when they had led a particularly effective cutting-out operation on the coast of France, the year before. Horatio had been in command, but Kennedy had been only two steps behind him — He always had been, sharing the danger, the privations of shore-duty, the challenge of motivating the men… taking on all the problems with none of the glory… And it had never occurred to Horatio that he might need more…

Or less…?

Had their paths not crossed, who could say where Archie would be now. A lost soul, perhaps, driven to suicide by Jack Simpson’s excess, or a contented, shorebound member of Parliament, with a thickening waistline and a wife and four children…

**"Me…in Parliament…?! God help Democracy, H’ratio!"**

A knock at the door made him look up with a start. It was Matthews.

"Beggin’ your pardon, Captain," he said, trying to keep the dislike out of his voice, "but it’s Mrs. Ortega, Sir. Jolly-boat’s bein’ lowered. She’s goin’ ashore…"

He was in no mood this morning to go up and see her off. "Please wish the Senora a safe journey, Matthews," he said dismissively, "and tell her I’m too busy to come now…"

Without explanation, Matthews placed a piece of white paper on the polished desk in front of him. "She gave me this for you, sir…" he said soberly.

Alerted by his tone, Hornblower took the sheet and looked at it closely. It was a charcoal sketch of Archie…

Matthews turned his eyes away and gave his attention to the stern windows opposite him, so that he would not have to witness Mr. Hornblower’s expression of surprise. "Right lifelike, that is, Sir," he murmured gruffly. "The Senora did it last night, straight out of her head, sir. She’s…really caught him, in my view, Captain…"

With the strangest of feelings, Horatio looked down into the eyes of his friend for the first time since his death. Yes, it certainly was a good likeness. The lines were rough and broadly-drawn, but the essence of Archie was right there on the page, grinning out at him, as if sharing the joke that he had cheated the Reaper even with this… It was almost alive…

Seeing again the laughing eyes, Hornblower was suddenly overcome with the absurd need to … to what? …weep?? He bit his lip — hard. Silly fool! He had not shed tears when Archie lay bleeding and dying before his eyes, or when they had buried his fine, strong young body in the West Indian dust…

Hornblower was suddenly quite unable to keep his own counsel, and he had to make some sort of connection. Faithful Matthews would do as well as anyone…

"Tell me about Mr. Kennedy," the Captain invited almost harshly, as though the casual question had no particular relevance but to answer cold curiosity. "on the last voyage to Kingston. I had assumed Dr. Clive had made him comfortable. Now I am told it was not so. What are your recollections?"

Matthews’ brows lifted in surprise, but he kept his face neutral as he responded mildly "Well,, Mr. Hornblower, I’d say it’s water under ‘t bridge now... There’s not much call to remember it, Sir…"

Horatio fixed him with a stare only Kennedy had ever been able to withstand, and said grimly "I want to know, Matthews."

The seaman rubbed his chin reluctantly, very obviously choosing his words as he said " Well… I think Dr. Clive gave him a bad time, sir, which nobody could help. Gettin’ all that junk out of him… "

"Junk, Matthews?"

"Aye, sir. Bits of button and bone, linen, the ball… Messy business, sir. Can’t be helped with a wound like that… But Mr. K. was right brave about it, Sir. Hardly made a sound…"

Yes, it was all too easy to imagine… The courage and concentration — the patient inner panic, as he was held flat to the Midshipmen’s table while the wound was incised, so that Clive could probe about inside his body for foreign fragments — the long nightmare of holding his breath, waiting for the agony to stop, then the unimaginable suffering of having it packed with salt to fight infection…

Yes, he would certainly have had to be brave…

Hornblower found himself unaccountably moved. "I’m… surprised Clive put him through it," he said, half to himself, "Surely, if the case was hopeless…"

Matthews gave a faint smile. "The Doctor gave Mr. K. the choice, Sir, which was his due. He opted for the knife, Captain…mebbe give himself a chance. He was always one for looking on ‘t bright side…"

**" Well, I couldn’t just lie down and die, could I Horatio? Where would be the sense in that?? Besides, as for torment, Clive is a mere beginner…"**

"I…didn’t know about any of this…" the captain admitted with reluctant honesty. "Thank you, Mr. Matthews. I expect he was glad when it was over…"

He wanted to be told that Archie had passed out, or had a fit, or was rendered senseless by drugs — anything to still the guilty notion that he should have been there…

Matthews rubbed his stubbly chin, thinking back reluctantly to that time of trauma. "I think he was a bit shocked, Mr. Hornblower, and in a bit o’ gyp, Sir… He was findin’ it hard to catch his breath…but me an’ Stylesy stayed with him awhile, until we was ordered up on deck…"

"Didn’t Clive give him anything to ease the pain?"

"Well, sir, it was offered him a couple of times, but he wouldn’t take it. I think he was afeared if he went to sleep, that he wouldn’t wake up again. Bit frail he was that night, Sir. Lost a lot of blood, he had…You never know the moment when you’re that near the edge…"

"Ha-hm…!" Hornblower stood up and went to stare out of the stern window. He did not want to have to face Matthews when he asked the next question.

"Did he ask for me?" he demanded flatly.

Matthews did not answer at first, and his hesitation was uneasy, as if he was ashamed that he was not able to lie.

Finally, looking greyer than ever, he shrugged lamely. "I think he’d have liked to see you, Captain," he admitted kindly, "but he knew how things were above decks. He wouldn’t have wanted you pulled off your duties, sir."

Hornblower was silent, back still turned to him, and his very stillness gave away his dismay. As if compelled to ease his pain, Matthews added with quiet conviction "He’s at rest now, Mr. Hornblower. Let the lad sleep in peace, sir. He wouldn’t have wanted you to fret…"

"No…" Hornblower said immediately, with conviction. "No, he wouldn’t…"

Now Hornblower’s racing thoughts were turning darker by the minute. The knowledge that the wounded Bush had kept that long vigil with Archie, all the way back to Kingston, had been a continuing source of self-reproach to him. Now it seemed that not only had Senora Ortega had time to offer Archie her help, if not her sympathy, but also Matthews and Styles had hastened to the stricken man’s side in his hour of need. It really did seem as if he was the only one who had stayed away…

Matthews stood for a moment, unsure whether he was supposed to go or stay, and Hornblower gave him no indication. But it was no use leaving business unfinished, and the Bosun was not a man to shirk his duty to an officer.

"Mr. Hornblower, may I speak free, Sir?" he began soberly, straightening his back for fear of seeming too informal.

"You always have, Mr. Matthews," the captain returned dryly, "I see no reason why you should fail to do so now."

Matthews searched carefully for the right words, and to his surprise, found they came quite easily once he started to speak.

"Don’t listen to her, Sir," he said quietly. "Don’t let her rock your boat… What you and Mr. Kennedy had…that kinship…well it’s not for the likes of her to spoil that, Sir, in my view. She should behave herself, and look to her kiddies and her own life, and not try to tamper with that good man’s memory…That’s all, Sir…"

Hornblower stiffened like a man who finds himself in deep water and suddenly remembers he cannot swim, as the awfulness of having let a seaman into his heart dawned on him.

"Thank you, Matthews, " he returned stonily, "but I asked for facts, not opinions…"

If Matthews was troubled by this display of impatience, he hid it well. He indicated the sketch. "Ask him…" he added with a half smile. "Always smiling was Mr. Kennedy. Does he look like he’s upset wi’ you, Sir…?"

But Hornblower’s mood was too low to allow such a pleasant observation, and he was ashamed of his own lack of discretion. He did his best to be neutral as he responded "The expression in a mere line-drawing is hardly relevant, Matthews…"

The bosun’s face became sober again, but he gave no sign that the hard words had hurt him. "Aye, Sir," he replied formally. "Sorry, Mr. Hornblower…" and with a respectful pull of the forelock, he was gone.

Hornblower got to his feet and paced the cabin, seething with resentment. Hateful hateful, hateful… This was his first command, and he should be proud and happy bringing her into port, yet everything was sour and dark and wrong… And he laughed at himself, at the irony that it was Archie who lay mouldering in a foreign grave, his reputation savaged and his honour in tatters, yet here was Horatio Hornblower feeling sorry for himself! Oh the tragedy… oh the comedy…

It was not just the personal loss, he told himself stubbornly. To focus too much on that would be crass self-indulgence. Men were used to loss in war, and he would be a fool not to put it behind him, as he had done so many times before.

No. The real issue, he decided firmly, was the waste.

Archie Kennedy had given thirteen years’ faithful service to the Navy — almost a decade and a half training, growing, building emotional, physical and mental strength, slowly acquiring authority.

On land war required a knowledge of tactics and a cunning mind, but beyond that it was a mere matter of deployment. At sea the business of prosecuting hostilities was enormously complex, requiring the intimate knowledge and experience of ships and how to sail them, familiarity with tides, gunnery, navigation, small arms, the management of stores and men, expertise in the skills of cutting out and shore-based operations.

And confidence. Buckets of confidence…

And each ship being a self-contained unit, a community all enclosed, the very human skills of communication and professional judgement were absolutely essential. In short, it took time and sweat and talent to become a competent Lieutenant. And things had never been easy for Kennedy, but being the man he was, he had got there eventually.

For that to have come to an end when he was only twenty-six years old was an outrage, and a bitter tragedy for the Service…

And Hornblower was usually able to push the thought to the back of his mind…until some maudlin Spanish wench with the manners of a fishwife dared to invade his privacy with her casual, cruel musings…

But there was one thing the fair Senora did not know about Archie Kennedy. He was his own man. All the things in his life that he had done against his will, had been done at the point of a knife or a pistol. Nobody had coerced or fooled him into battle or anything else. If he felt his place in the universe was two steps behind Lieutenant Hornblower, then he took that place, and heaven help anyone who tried to shift him from it.

The whole point about Archie was that he had not been a wife, nor a lover. He asked nothing in return for his fealty. No reward. To have taken his place in the world was enough, and he understood everything that that place involved… honour, duty, ambition… everything…

And while his loyalty had been unflinching, he was no slave - no faithful follower tagging along despite himself out of blind devotion. On the contrary, he clearly felt himself an equal, despite the disparity in rank, and was in all things an active participant, at the end of his life fighting beside Hornblower shoulder-to-shoulder, taking the bullet…taking the blame…

He had accepted the ideal of duty in a way the Senora could not, because he had been schooled to it at an early age, and his busy, hardworking family, with father active in Parliament and all the sons in the armed forces fighting the war, was deeply rooted in obligation to king and country, comrades and family, and the lower orders who had no voice…

As for commitment to the cause, Archie would have laughed at the concept that he was a zealot. He was no blind idealist, and was not impressed by the jingoistic rhetoric of the age. Nevertheless, the ‘unpleasantness’ in France did cut deep with him. Like many Scottish noble families, his had multiple connections with the Royalists there, and several of his cousins were missing having fled the guillotine…

**"You DID come to me, H’ratio… eventually…" **

There it was again, the slight lift of the brows into a wry smile which lit up the cabin for a moment, even though it was not there at all...

No, Hornblower knew Archie didn’t blame him for his skewed priorities, even if the cost at the end had been enormous for both of them. He wished he could tell this woman so… to throw her accusation of fraternal neglect in her face. But there…why bother? It probably comforted her to speak thus to him, and he did not begrudge that satisfaction to another grieving soul…

Yet he would confound her. He would see past the obvious, and into the world which he had shared with only one other human being for almost a decade. A world where he was accepted for the man he was, warts and all — where his all-consuming devotion to duty was viewed with relish not disappointment, and even his sour faces were a source of amusement. He would not use the term ‘love’ even now, even to himself… He did not think he wanted to be loved by anyone foolish enough to hold him in affection…

Yet if anyone had — would ever — come close to him simply for his own true virtues, that hardy, silly soul had been Archie Kennedy. And now he was gone…

The dull ache settled into Hornblower’s gut once more, and comforted him.

Suddenly terrified that he might allow that damned woman to quit his ship thinking he was sulking, Hornblower grabbed the sketch from his desk and hurried from the cabin.

Up on deck all was bustle and colour, and sunlight so bright that he had to shade his eyes from the glare. Seagulls screamed overhead, women of questionable credentials chattered and laughed offensively in the waist, ship’s boys sped about carting tackle and dunnage, and enormous bundles swung precariously overhead as the remaining stores were cleared out of the hold. Ship’s boats and shore boats milled about, coming and going, and there was organised chaos — the normal business of a warship in port.

Two of the Senora’s children were already in the jolly-boat, and the other two, a girl of about seven and a boy of ten, were dodging about the quarter-deck, trying to avoid the grasping hands of Styles and First Lieutenant Mills. They evidently had the urge to run away to sea and fight for the British Navy… Hornblower could not disapprove.

Senora Ortega was shouting at them in rapid Spanish, gesticulating furiously towards the embarkation ladder. They were gleefully ignoring her. One of them ran smack into Seaman Styles, and he made a grab for her, but got only a handful of skirt, which he had to relinquish when she struggled, in case the pale blue cotton parted and caused a scandalous incident…

"Mr. Mills, those urchins are disrupting the running of my ship!" the Captain said loudly as he crossed the deck. "You have my permission to use a boarding-net!"

The sight of the much-feared Captain Hornblower, who had caused their father’s death, sobered the two reprobates, and they scuttled to hide behind their mother’s skirts. Young Mills’s relief that the boarding-net would not be necessary was very obvious in his face.

As the Senora handed her children down to Matthews in the boat, Hornblower held up the sketch awkwardly.

"I must thank you, ma’am…for your kindness in this gesture…" he said formally. "It’s a good likeness…"

**"No, it’s not, Horatio! I was better-looking than that!!"**

Senora Ortega turned to him, unsmiling. Her dark eyes seemed to bore into his skull…

"You have an excellent memory," Hornblower added, wishing he had stayed in his cabin.

She let the last child go off down the ladder into Matthews’ capable hands and turned back to the Captain. "Some faces are not easy to forget," she assured him softly. "and I had all night to study him. His eyes fascinated me, Capitain, as an artist… The eyes of a warrior and a dreamer, a sage and a fool…How can this be?"

He shook his head. She had lost him. This was art, and he had fallen at the first fence…

"He was an …unusual man," he admitted stiffly.

She looked up into his face, searching, making him feel utterly exposed under the scrutiny of those dark, deep pools. "I angered you when we last met, Capitain…" she observed softly. "Perhaps I should not have spoken."

Hornblower straightened, glancing to left and right to ensure their conversation would not be overheard. "You were wrong to judge me, Senora ," he told her neutrally. "When you do not know the circumstances…"

She gave him a very slight smile, half-mocking. "My being wrong does not make you right, Mr. Hornblower, " she told him. "Ambitious men should always have the strength to stand judgement and accept the findings of the judge."

"With respect, Senora, I believe I already have a more fitting arbiter than you…"

She glanced down at the sketch in his hand, now crumpled by the wind. "Yes…I believe you do, Capitain. You are fortunate some things transcend even the grave. There can be no sin, can there, where there is absolution…?"

Hornblower gave her a stiff bow. "I wish you a fair wind to Cadiz, Senora Ortega," he said courteously, "and my good wishes for the future."

**"Oh come on, Horatio, she’s the enemy… Don’t overdo it…!"**

The Senora gave a sad, ironic smile. "The future…? What is it worth, this future, when each breath we draw is filled with pain…?"

Perhaps after all that was the difference between them. The Senora, passionate and unforgiving, would carry the weight for life in a deep and gnawing resentment. Hornblower’s burden was gentler. He was used to pain, and this one he carried almost as a privilege, welcoming it daily as he pursued his life of adversity and adventure. It was, in effect, his wholly inadequate part of the fee paid in Kingston….the least he could do…

And pain is better than a void…

"That is war, madam," he said without emotion.

"And now the war is over…"

Their shared sense of futility and regret was suddenly manifest like a communion between them, and for the first time the sea captain and the camp follower met one another eye to eye in complete understanding.

"Yes," he agreed more gently, "it is over…"

There was a long, still silence, as though they were reluctant to move on into a world where such things were of no account, but both knew there was no choice…

Life had to be lived — breath still had to be drawn — even in pain…

"Vaya con dios, Senor Hornblower," The Senora gave him her hand as she stepped over the coaming onto the ladder.

He could feel Archie grinning again.

**"With God?! Ha! You might walk with the Devil, H’ratio… He might have you!"**

They exchanged a tight smile, and he watched her go with a vague feeling of emptiness. She was the last piece of the jigsaw that had been the fateful voyage of the Renown, and now there was nowhere to go but forward.

He watched the little craft bobbing on the waves, full of the sounds of the Ortega children chattering with excitement and the exhortations of Lieutenant Mills to keep still and not capsize the boat… And the Senora like a stone figure in the sternsheets, smiling bravely in the bright sunshine. Smiling for her fatherless children…Because there was no alternative…

Duty…

**"You are a great fraud, H’ratio…"** Archie’s voice popped into the back of his mind, seemingly from nowhere. **"Duty my Aunt Fanny! You didn’t turn up when I called for you, because you couldn’t face me…"**

It was the truth at last. Hornblower struggled to dispel it, and lost.

It was the reduction, Archie, he admitted. I couldn’t bear to see you like that…

**"I know… it gave me pause for thought too…"** There was a long silence as if the voice were looking for something to say. Then it added cheerfully ** "The lemonade was nice, Horatio… that you sent instead… William enjoyed that too…"**

William??!!

**"Mr. Bush"**

I KNOW who you mean!!

Another long pause, while Hornblower came to terms with the fact that jealousy had got the better of him. Jealousy! Good lord…

And it made him even more penitent…

**"It was all right once we got to Kingston, though…You could face me once I had stopped retching blood…"**

Hornblower drew a deep breath as his throat tightened with emotion. I’m sorry, my friend… he thought wretchedly.

**"No you’re not! At least be honest with me now, H’ratio, if you couldn’t manage it while I was still breathing…! This is just like the tiller… given the same circumstances you would do the same again…"**

Hornblower could not believe it. He was being backed into a corner by a voice in his own mind.

I AM a coward, aren’t I, Archie…? He concluded sadly, silently.

**"’Fraid so, H’ratio…"**

…And a liar…

**"If you say so…"**

And a hypocrite…

**"Oh, indeed…that too…"**

Horatio glanced down at the paper in his hand.

I’m afraid I’m a guilty man, Archie…

**"Of course you are, H’ratio…Guilty as sin…"** The voice chuckled, and the smile in the crumpled sketch seemed to broaden into a smug and delighted grin. **There… I have said it! Are you happy now…?"**