Home
by Simon

 

The bell ringing over the shop's front door was merely another sound
added to the noise already filling the small room. Mrs. Connors was
here today with four of her youngsters, all under the age of seven,
along with Mrs. Donovan with three of hers. Seeming not to have seen
each other in years, the sound resembled the inner recesses of Bedlam.

The newest addition stood quietly in the back, waiting his turn.
Finally, after the ladies had taken their broods elsewhere, the
proprietor could address the newcomer's needs.

"Yes, sir, what can I do for you today?"

"I'm here to pick up a leg of lamb for Mrs. Carey, if you have it
ready, sir."

Looking up from his accounts paper, Mr. Winthrop was surprised to see
the tall young man standing before him.

"Horatio! As I live and breathe! What brings you to these backwaters?
The last I heard you were sailing the Mediterranean and protecting us
from the Frogs. Betty, Betty---come out here. Look who's come to
visit." His wife duly appeared from the back room, wiping her hands
on a bloody towel.

"Oh, my goodness! Lord you look well, lad! And you in that uniforma
lieutenant already. We knew that you'd make a success of things, you
would!"

"Are you to be about for long, there lad? I know that everyone will
want to have a look at the local hero."

Blushing, embarrassed, Horatio nodded his head. "Thank you, Mr.
Winthrop. I'm just here on a short leave to see my father. I'm away
again at the end of the week."

"That's no proper visit! I've a thought to write that Admiralty and
give them a piece of my mind---young man comes home for the first
time in what? Three years? And he hasn't the time to even change his
clothes."

"Now, Betty, you know that he's busylikely has some pretty thing
waiting for him back in Portsmouth, I'd wager."

Self-conscious as always, he replied "No, not reallyis that lamb
ready yet, Mr. Winthrop?"

"You tell Rose that I'll sent it round in about half an hour. She'll
have time to cook it for dinner."

"Thank you, I'll tell her that. It's a pleasure seeing you both
again."

"Now you come pay us a proper visit if you have a spare minute, you
hear me there, young man?"

"Yes, thank you, Mrs. Winthrop, I shall try. Good Day."

Gratefully, he made his escape out the door. Standing on the stoop,
he debated about his next stop when another voice hailed him.

"Horatio? Is that really you in that getup? My God, I believe it
actually suits you." A large, burly young man approached him from
across the narrow street. John Best, Johnny-his only real childhood
friend, since before he was sent away to school. They used to cause
all kinds of mischief together, forever getting into scrapes. The
larger man's arms were around him in a trice, practically squeezing
the air from his lungs.

"Johnny! How good to see you. What are you up to these days?"

"I'm right where you'd expect me to be. I'm working the farm for Mum.
Ever since my father passed away, she can't manage without me there.
I tend the sheep and the cows for her, grow some things. You know how
it is around here, nothing changes." Horatio nodded. Yes, he knew how
it was."

"Have you time for a pint, Johnny?"

"Have you ever known a time when I didn't?" They walked across the
small village square to the local inn. There was a tavern on the
lower floor, nearly empty this time of day.

"You're on leave, I take it then?"

"Aye, home for just this week. I arrived the day before yesterday,
but my father and Rose have kept me in bondage. I fear they've both
needed to prove for themselves that I'm alive and well and still
eating food. I think I've talked myself blue about the last three
years."

Johnny was smiling in sympathy. "You seem fine to me. If you're on
leave, why are you still in your uniform?"

"Oh, God. I seem to have grown since I left. Nothing else fits. I
feel a proper fool walking around in this, but otherwise I'd be
practically naked."

"I can think of one or two who wouldn't mind."

"Oh, please."

"Horatio, are you telling me that you've fallen in love or is it that
you're still a virgin? The truth, now, you know I could always tell
when you were lying."

"Johnny, come on"

"Wait, I know that blushyou're hiding something. Confess. You're in
love, that's it, isn't it?"

"Johnny"

"What? You're a virgin? After three years in the navy? You think I
believe that?"

"All right, I have to go now. I think I hear Rose calling"

"Sit back down there. I'll ease up on you, though I don't know why I
should."

Laughing, drinking their ale, the two friends picked up the
friendship they'd had since they were three years old. Johnny was
engaged to a local girl he'd been courting for the last two years.
Nancy Belamour. Horatio remembered her. A pretty one, she was, small
and petite. Smart, too as he recalled, tended to be serious. They'd
probably compliment each other well. The wedding was to be in a few
months.

"So, what about you? We hear about some of what you've been doing
from your father, but I'll wager there's a lot that you keep from
him, unless you've changed. Talking yourself blue since you got home
and still not telling him anything, I'll wager."

Horatio shrugged slightly, signaling for another round. "There's
really not that much to tell. It's a lot of tedium and boredom, bad
food and cramped spaces and then moments of" His face grew almost
soft as he thought of what he was trying to say. "Moments ofmagic."

He looked over at Johnny. Ashamed to have his feelings so revealed.
His friend didn't seem amused, he seemed intrigued. "No, go on. What
is it that you find magical?"

"Different things. Sailing before a good wind with the sails
straining and the wake trailing us. Porpoises riding the bow wave,
the Ensign snapping behind us. It's awe-inspiring. I've found nothing
that compares."

He looked down into his mug. "Then another day there may be a
sighting of an enemy ship. If we engage, then there's the roaring,
the thunder of the cannons. Sometimes you hear the screaming of the
wounded and the dying, but mostly you don't notice because you're too
focused on what you're doing. If it comes to hand to hand fighting,
if there's a boarding I always hear the clanging of the swords
hitting each other. I don't know why, but I always pick that out."

Johnny looked closely at him as he spoke. "Have you ever killed
anyone, Horatio?"

He nodded. "Yes. It's odd. I've ordered cannons to rake an enemies
deck with grapeshot and seen the men I've effectively ordered killed
go down, but that's not real. No, that's not right. It-they are real,
but somehow they're not my concern, other than to stop them from
doing the same to us." He took another swallow from his drink. "It's
hard to explain. It's not personal. I don't hate them as individuals.
In some cases I even respect them, but it's my business to try to
stop them."

Thoughtfully, he went on. "I shot one of my own men once. He was
deserting and I had to prevent him. I warned him to stop and then we
were struggling with each other. He was stronger than I am and would
likely have gotten away, but the gun I was holding went off. He died."

He paused. "I was doing my job and I felt like a murderer."

"What did you do then?"

"I had him taken back to the ship I was commanding and read the
funeral service over him. Then we put him over the side."

There was a pause in the conversation as the two men each digested
what had just been said. John looked at his childhood friend in a new
light. He had killed, faced battle and death and accepted it as part
of his daily existence. Horatio, who forever had his nose buried in a
book, his head in the clouds, dreaming his days through.

"Horatiodo you like the life you've chosen? I heard that you were
taken prisoner and that they tortured you. How can you go back to
your ship knowing that could happen to you again?"

Looking out the window to the people walking by on the street, he
finally continued quietly. "A lot of it is difficult. I sometimes
must do things that either turn my stomach or frighten me beyond
words, but I see the purpose of it. I understand why it is that we're
there." He looked at his friend. "And it's not all bad, you know.
There are those moments when it truly is magic. There are some men
I've met who are inspiring more than you can imagine-true heroes in
every sense of the word. There are things that make it worthwhile.
For the only time in my life, I feel like I actually belong to
something greater than myself. Something that matters and will
continue after me." He smiled ruefully. "I've been going on, haven't
I?"

John returned the look. "It's all right." He took a long drink. "What
does you father say about all of this? He's not one to mince words."

Horatio just shrugged, not wanting to answer. His friend let it go.

"What's this I hear about you being wounded? Shot, were you?"

"Oh, that. That was years ago. It was just in my shoulder. It's
completely healed now."

"And?"

"It was a duel. The other man fired early and shot me. That was all
there was to it."

"A duel. You fought a duel. You. Come on, Horatio, this is me you're
talking to now, not some fair maiden you're out to impress. You
fought a duel, some man shot you and that was all? I doubt it."

"He fired early, I was allowed to fire at will and declined. It would
have been murder, for God's sake"

"Not like firing early would have been?"

"He saw me walking away, he grabbed a dirk from a bystander, rushed
me and someone else shot him to stop him. He was killed. That was the
end of it."

The barkeep filled their glasses again.

"That was one of your tedious days, was it, Horatio?"

"Well, I can't say I'd put it in the magic category." John smiled at
that. He hesitated a few breaths before asking what he had on his
mind.

"What was it like to be in prison? I can't imagine something like
that. I mean-if you'll tell me. If you'd rather not, I understand."

"No, it's fine." He pulled a small piece of one of the scones that
they had asked for and put it in his mouth. "I was put into a Spanish
prison along with my men, about twenty of them. It was hot and dusty,
the food was bad. The worst part, though, was losing the sense of
self. You quickly came to realize that you had no control over
anything-over life or death, sleep or wakefulness. You don't matter
as an individual. If you're anything at all, it's just as a pawn, a
bargaining chip in a larger picture. I knew that I no longer had any
say over my fate or that of my men. That was the worst part. Knowing
that someone else had absolute power over you. Rather like being a
slave, I would think. And there was no appeal. We were nothing. It's
frightening to know that you don't matter at all."

"So what did you do? I mean, I heard what you did to get yourself
released, but how did you keep your mind before that happened?"

"I managed to be given a book, in Spanish, and a lexicon. I taught
myself Spanish. It gave me something to focus on. It occupied my
mind. That and trying to escape." He smiled at this last.

"Horatio-does your father know any of this? I mean beyond the bare
bones? Does he know how you feel about any of what's happened to you?"

Horatio shrugged. "He's busy, John, you know that."

"He's always busy where you're concerned. Why did you come back to
see him? I thought that you hate him."

He paused for a moment, wistful. "I keep hoping that he'll notice me.
I know that sounds foolish."

"You know, I think that he wants the same from you."

Horatio looked up at John from under his brows. "What in the name of
God are you talking about? He's never given me the time of day."

"He writes you, doesn't he?"

"Well, yes. What has that to do with anything?"

"Do you ever answer?"

"Yes, of course. When I have time."

Johnny nodded, saying nothing.

"Come on, now. I'm at sea, half a world away most of the time"

"Sitting there lost in boredom and tedium by your own admission."

"Well, it's not the same, you can't say that it is."

"I think that it's a two way street where the both of you are
concerned."

Annoyed, Horatio made to leave. "You know nothing about it."

"Like Hell, I don't. I know you as well as you know yourself, or I
did at any rate. You and your father are the two most stubborn men
I've ever encountered. You were both hurt when your mother died and
you blamed each other for killing her, or for allowing her to die,
and now neither of you can stand the sight of the other. And, I might
add, you both desperately want to talk about it but neither one of
you will make the first gesture, so you wallow in strained polite
small talk, waiting for the other to make the first move so that it
can be rejected."

Furious, Horatio answered through clenched teeth. "He's the one who
sent me away as cannon fodder."

Surprised by the retort, John's voice dropped to a quieter tone. "Are
you saying that you didn't want to join the Navy? I thought that you
were happy there, at least mostly so. You certainly seemed willing
enough to go when the time came."

He sat back in his chair, composing his demeanor and his thoughts. "
I wanted to" He looked over at John. "I wanted to come home. I'd
been away at school for ten years. I just wanted to come home."

The two old friends sat in silence for a few moments. Finally John
spoke his voice still quiet. "There was nothing here for you. You
knew that. We all knew that. You were too bright and too ambitious to
be buried in this village all your life. You had to move on or you'd
have suffocated here."

"Johnny, I didn't mean that"

"No, I know that you didn't. But you would have died here, chafing to
leave, to see more than you can see here. You had to get out." He saw
the look on his friend's face. "No, I'm fine. This is enough for me.
I'm happy growing the crops and seeing the herds prosper. I really
am. And Nancy and I will have a good life here; we'll have children
and raise them. That's all I've ever wanted"my own place and a
family. I'm not like you, Horatio. You need more than that."

"I'm no different than you are"

"Oh, for God's sake, Horatio. Of course you are. You've twice the
brain and three times the ambition of anyone in this place. We all
knew that about you. You were a Lieutenant at, what? Nineteen?
Twenty? That was inevitable for you. You're one of those who'll
succeed. You've always had that mark about you."

Horatio slumped back in his chair, depressed by what he'd just been
told. "I hear that sometimes, or words to that effect. It's
absurd. I'm the same as anyone else. I feel fear and hot and cold and
hunger and fatigue. I'm no different. I'm just another person."

"You may feel these things like anyone, but you handle them
differently."

He looked at John in confusion.

He continued. "Do you remember when we were about eight? You were
home for summer holiday. We were swimming at the pond. You fell from
the rope swing and broke your arm. Remember that?"

"Yes, of course. What of it? Many young children break a bone or two."

"And when they do, most cry. You just kept swimming. Later, after
your father had set it, I asked you about it. Do you remember what
you said? No? You said, `its just pain'. At eight, that was your
answer. That's not usual, Horatio. You were never average."

"John"that was just childish bravado. Nothing more. Surely you
realize that now."

"Yes, I know, but you've always had an"attitude about you---as though
you knew where you were going while the rest of us were just
floundering in your wake."

Horatio smiled to himself. "No"

The conversation stalled for a bit then, both men eating the scones
and draining their drinks once again.

"So, you didn't answer before. Are you still a virgin?"

Laughing, Horatio retorted, "You know, on the ship I could have you
flogged for being over familiar with that question."

"So you won't answer me?"

"I'll not dignify that with an answer."

"That's a yes, then."

"It is not. Not necessarily."

"Oh?"

"Do you still `catch trout' up in the hayloft by yourself?"

"I'll not dignify that with an answer."

"See? That's a yes."

Horatio stood, stretching a bit after the hour or so on the hard
chair. "Come on, Rosie will have dinner about ready by now. Eat with
us. Father always enjoys your company."

"For one of Rosie's meals I'll even put up with the Hornblower twins."
"John."

"Oh, really, Horatio. There's nothing quite so entertaining about
these parts as popping your dignity. I'm famished for some good food.
I've been eating my own cooking for too long."

"Serves you right. It's all you deserve."

The two friends left the tavern, walking down the street the quarter
mile of so to the small house. As the turned into the front path,
John asked, ingenuously, "So, Horatio, you never did answer that
question I asked you"

An innocent look was his only reply.