Home Fires
by Beth

Part 3

"Well, II hope I have done my duty, Sir." He stammered.

Pellew chuckled slightly at the discomfited man seated in front of him. "I
have no doubt of thatbut, how did you find it?" he asked, again.

"Well," began Hornblower, shifting in his chair. "It was a privilege to be of
service, of course" Hornblower hesitated again. "I mean, I am hopeful that
my service was-"

Pellew interrupted him with a playful sigh. "Mr. Hornblower," he said.
"Horatio, if I may?"

"Of course, Sir," answered Hornblower, guessing at the gentle remonstrance he
was about to hear next.

"Thank you," said Pellew, as he leaned forward in his chair, his keen eyes
intent in their gaze upon his slightly discomfited guest. "I suppose it is
too much to ask that you forget for the moment that you are wearing your
uniform.but. if you could remember, Sir, you are not in my command at this
moment And this IS, thank God, a social call - and a much welcomed one at
that," said Pellew softly, with a genuine smile. "Please, then, Mr.
Hornblower," he said. "I should just like to know, in the most vernacular
sense, truly, how it went?"

Hornblower smiled and looked down. It felt wonderful, if still just a tad
daunting, to be so skillfully and sincerely disarmed by the Commodore. He
could do no less than respond in kind, now, could he not?

"Yes, Sir," he took a breath. "Well, to be honest," he began,"it was a mix of
everything - it ran the gamut, if you know what I mean. To be sure, we did
not get the most exciting of orders - back and forth across the Caribbean Sea
- an escort here, a patrol there," he said. "But they were still official
orders nonetheless, and it never ceased to thrill me that they were given to
me, as Commander. And to able to obey them and obey them well, if I may put
forth that we did, well I felt proud, Sir," Hornblower said, somewhat
surprised to discover that he was smiling as he spoke. "I I enjoyed the
sense of accomplishment -seeing the men come together as a team, knowing that
it was my direction, that aided in their performance of their duties Does
that make sense, Sir?"

Pellew smiled and nodded. "Of course it does. And it is no less than I would
expect to hear from you."

"I hope, Sir, that is, I .I trust I was not out of line in allowing a small
measure of pride-"

"Not at all, Mr. Hornblower," said Pellew quickly. "Why, I was going to say
that I hoped you allowed yourself some time to feel that sense of achievement
- the fulfillment of your duty.You are allowed to you, you know," he added,
with a grin.

"Thank you, Sir." Hornblower sighed, hesitant at saying what had really come
into his mind. It took so little to remind him that this treasured reunion
and respite was so very temporary, that a desperate and harsh reality awaited
him the moment it was over. He longed to confide in Pellew, he really did,
and tried to muster up the fortitude to do so. He took a careful sip of his
brandy, and found a subtle segue to the true state of his affairs. "Time,
SirThat was the thing for me.I mean, well, there was no shortage of that,
Sir - time for reflection - for solitude."

Pellew looked at him quizzically, and gestured for him to continue.

"The solitude, Sir. Thewell, the loneliness, I supposeThat.that was the
hardest thing," said Hornblower, and his expression took on an air of
reflection as he recalled those many solitary times. "Why is it, Sir, that
our officers, our crew, assume that we wish to be alone, Sir? Why? I know I
did so with you, indeed I saw it enough in watching how Mr. Bracegirdle
approached you, and so perhaps I learned it there. But on Retribution I was
on the receiving end of it.So different!" he said, struck by his
recollection. "Every time, every single time, it was 'Sorry to disturb you,
Sir.or 'I apologize for the interruption, Sir, but I thought you should
know'.as though any attempt to speak with me, to communicate, or just BE
with me, was something to apologize for. As though I should not be someone
who could possibly crave company, someone who would want."

"Someone to just talk to, as a friend?" answered Pellew, gently.

"Well, yes," smiled Hornblower as he felt his shoulders droop. Lord knew he
wasn't saying anything that Pellew had not felt himself, and for much, much
longer than Hornblower had.

"I wish I could tell you the secret of getting around that one, Horatio,"
said Pellew, and Hornblower was touched again by the man's use of his
Christian name. "But I do not think I have found the answer myself. What's
that expression - 'the price of command'yes, I know I've spoken of it
before, but now you have had a proper dose of it yourself and so YOU know it
now. Perhaps the price is solitude, as well as the responsibility." He
paused for a small sip of brandy. "Is there a need to maintain that distance,
that aloofness, I suppose it should be called?" he paused again. "Yes, I
think there is. I believe it must be done to maintain the authority that has
been vested in you. The responsibility placed upon you to exercise that
authority, in the performance of your duty," Pellew regarded him intently
with those bottomless eyes. "Everything you do, every word you say - each
move you make - it is all a part of your command and is watched closely,
keenly, you know it is!" he cried. "Tell me that you did not mark me in the
same manner and I'll say you are a liar," Pellew dared, still gently, and
Hornblower knew in an instant that he was correct.

"And so now you have found the fine line you must travel," he continued, "to
maintain that distance, and yet be the commander, and the inspiration that
you must be, and all the while hope to God you are worthy of it. A balancing
act, to be sure."

"The bitter brew that is a Captain's life" recalled Hornblower softly,
staring into the quiet emptiness of the fireplace. "That's what you called
it, Sir."

"Did I say that? When was this?"

Hornblower smiled, and took the remaining swallow of his drink. "The night of
my examination, Sir. The night of the fireships."

Pellew chuckled softly. "By God, what a memory you have. Wait!" he said, as
recognition dawned across his expressive features. "I recall it myself - your
predicament, heavens, it was a mouthful, wasn't it? Flat aback, weren't you,
about to lose your spars - the Dover Cliffs under your lee? Dear God. they
had it in for you, didn't they." Pellew shook his head lightly, and then he,
too, downed the last of his brandy. He stretched his legs out in front of him
a bit and regarded his former officer with no small amount of barely
concealed pride. "Well," he nodded now, exhaling, "That's all behind you
now, isn't it? That, and so much more, even"

But Hornblower had lost focus on Pellew's kind hearted words, having
descended into further gloom at those brooding thoughts of his future, and
his prospects, or lack thereof. Flat aback on that fateful night, was he?
What was he now, if not just so dismasted and desperate? All his ordeals, the
failures, the successes - where did they all leave him now?

"Seems half a lifetime away, sometimes, doesn't it?" he thought he heard
Pellew say softly.

He tried to master himself and conjure a response to his host. "Yes, Sir." It
was the easiest answer at hand. But it wasn't true. Flat aback, then. He
caught himself about to groan, swallowed it back down. Ah God, he thought. Am
I not flat aback now? What else dare I call it? Suspended in a temporary
cocoon here - here - but only for a precious while, and then, then - it
will all be let loose upon me - flat aback indeed. He shook his head.

"I beg your pardon, Horatio?"

"Sir?" Oh God, had he said it aloud? "It was nothing, Sir. Nothing"

He was about to try and change the subject, when a woman's warm and cheery
voice from the corridor did it for him.

 

...//to be continued//......