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Hearts of Oak
by Rhiannon

"God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his milde yoke, they serve him best, his State
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

Milton: `On His Blindness.'

 

 

Portsmouth, 1803

"It's never going to be possible for me to go back, is it?" he asks,
carefully not looking at me, eyes following the ship as it makes its
way towards the horizon. I want to lie, more than anything in this
world I want to lie to him as I know I could do so well, let my years
of training stand me in good stead for once and say yes, yes it will
be possible, one day I'll stand here alone to watch the ensigns and
the sails vanish across the sea, yes, I promise, one day all will be
as we once hoped and planned for, all will be as we believed it would.

But oh, we were wrong about so many things, and now the peace is
ended, war has come as we knew it would, but with no summons or
papers or letters for him, no acknowledgement of his existence, not
even a rejection, and we are left with the bitter knowledge that all
we fought and worked for was not enough, would never give him back
the life he wanted. Our best was quite simply not good enough. No
ship, then, for a man who should have been moving towards his first
command by now, no chance to go back to the salt air and the sea and
the wind, back to the opportunity for prizes and glory and honour
(to add something more to this wonderful year)
but only this instead. London and a half-world of politics and
corruption, of spying and theft and insidious words that can tear a
man's reputation to shreds. I never wanted him to be a part of
this. Never.

And for one moment, as we stare out across the sea in silence, I want
to turn to him and say aloud all that lies within my mind, to tell
him that this was never my plan, that I had thought it would be
different, that in my arrogance I had truly believed that all would
be well
(and all manner of things shall be well)
and that I had never imagined, not once, that he would be left alone
to stand with me in this grey dawn, as I keep the vigil I have kept
for so many years when the ships sail, the moment that until now has
been mine to withstand in solitude, and now I must share because I
cannot deny him this, this last taste of what he has lost. So we
stand and watch amid the sounds of the sea and the wind and the
screaming gulls, knowing that our fight awaits us in the corridors of
Whitehall and the dark alleys that bring us our information, our
dirty, bitter fight in the shadows, where no-one will see or note us
if we fall in battle. I want with all my heart, now, to be able to
turn to him and offer the only comfort I have, bitter though it would
be to him to hear, that we, too, are a band of brothers, however
unwilling we may be to share this enforced kinship.

(They also serve) whispers Milton in the back of my mind, and yes, we
do. Though we gain no honour by it, we do. We stand here, and wait,
and though we seem in the eyes of the world to do nothing more than
waste our days in degenerate outcast idleness, yet we serve as well
as those who sail away from us now, serve or King and our country and
hold as true to honour as does any man of his Majesty's Navy. But I
say none of this. I answer the question that was asked, and pray
that my voice may hold as little expression as did his.

"No," I say, and the sound is calm and even, my own glassy sea-
surface of level unfeeling to bely the depths of my thoughts. "No, I
do not think it will."

I do not look at him as I speak, as he stands carefully not-shivering
in the harsh morning wind, ever the proud officer in the dark-blue
cloak he insists on wearing, nor do I look at the diminishing sails
as they pass to the right of our vantage-point. Instead, I look down
at the flag as it flies out over the harbour, proclaiming our
country's brilliant defiance with its gaudy splashes of red and blue,
and I wonder if the red, for me, will always seem as it does now, a
fluttering symbol of the quartered divisions of my spies' hearts.