Gibraltar Interlude
by Inzevar

Warning: This is a deathfic

March 1806 Gibraltar

HMS Retribution tugged gently at her anchor cable in the harbor at
Gibraltar. The water sparkled in the noonday sun. The immense dark rock made
the town nestling at its base look like a collection of child's toys.
Captain Horatio Hornblower sighed and put down his quill pen. He had been
trapped in his stern cabin all morning working his way through a daunting
pile of paperwork. Now it was done. He was free a while and could afford to
devote a little time to personal matters. He had no qualms about leaving Mr.
Bush in charge of the re-victualling and refitting that was necessary after
three months of patrolling the Spanish coast. He stood up, stretched and
went to open the cabin door. The marine on duty outside came to attention.
"Good morning Evans. Pass the word for my clerk"
"Yes sir" The marine kept his face and person rigid but secretly he was very
pleased that the captain had bothered to address him by name before giving
him an order. Within two minutes Miller the clerk came in and took charge of
all the reports, lists and dockets that Horatio had been laboring over.
"I have some more bills from the chandler, sir" Miller said, and then,
having caught sight of his captain's dismayed expression, he hurried on "but
I am sure they can wait until tomorrow."
Horatio's servant came in quietly bringing his captain's second best uniform
and hat. "Thank you Spencer" he said "I am going ashore now. If you wish to
take a few hours liberty you may come along in my gig but you will have to
find your own way back"
"Thank you kindly sir." Like the rest of the ship's company Spencer would
have given his eyeteeth to know where Captain Hornblower went every time
they put in to Gibraltar. It was known that he did not frequent bordellos
and was not in the habit of going drinking. Being the captain he was obliged
to sleep on the ship but he always returned very late at night from his
sojourns ashore. For a while many of the ship's company had been convinced
that their young captain was gambling since he was known to be an expert
whist player and a fearless calculator of odds. However, this possibility
had been ruled out by some of the card-playing officers and now most of the
men favored the theory that Horatio had a mistress in the town. The subject
never came up openly at the wardroom dining table. Mr. Bush would not
tolerate any speculation about the captain's private life. The midshipmen
talked about it amongst themselves, but not within the hearing of the senior
officers.
Horatio paused at the entry port and took a look around the deck. It was
alive with men carrying out all kinds of repairs to the rigging and sails.
Mr. Bush was waiting at his elbow in case there were any last minute
instructions, even though they had already discussed in detail all that
needed to be done.
"I leave the ship in your hands Mr. Bush" said Horatio briskly.
"Aye aye sir. Everything will be in order when you return"
"I am sure of it William" said Horatio with a rare smile "send my gig for me
at midnight if you please." He touched his hat, stepped over the side and
down into the waiting boat.
"Well Mr. Bush must know where he goes," said young Mr. Powell to the even
younger Mr. Kirk.
"Why?" said Mr. Kirk his eyes wide with curiosity. They were both supposed
to be supervising the mending and sorting of the mizzenmast sails but
instead were leaning on the ship's rail watching their captain depart.
"Because if an admiral wanted to see the captain then Mr. Bush would have to
know where to find him. It stands to reason."
"Mr. Powell" roared Mr. Bush his eyes like hard blue stones "Get up the main
mast and stay there until I say you may come down. Mr. Kirk! Up the foremast
with you and if I see any more midshipmen idling about you will have
company!" He hid a smile as he made his way down into the hold to check on
the purser's count of the water casks. He knew very well that the entire
ship was in a fever of curiosity about where the captain was going. He also
knew that they would never find out from William Bush.
Horatio sat in the stern of his gig as Rogers, his coxswain, steered it
through the busy harbor waters. As always his thoughts had gone ahead to the
house standing behind its white walls in the highest part of the town. When
the boat was brought expertly alongside the quay he stepped out, thanked
Rogers, bade Spencer good day, and walked purposefully away. Spencer watched
him go for a few moments. Information about his destination would be worth a
tidy amount of tobacco and spirit rations back on board. The impulse to
follow the tall figure with the dark queue falling over his collar died as
he imagined Captain Hornblower's reaction if he found out. It was not so
much that he feared his captain's anger, but he was very sure he did not
want to be a disappointment to him. Spencer sighed and made off in the
opposite direction in search of some good ale and a pretty girl.

January 1804 Gibraltar - Two years earlier

It had been a sustained climb up through the streets of the town and Horatio
was sweating a little in his wool coat by the time he found the house. He
took out the letter again to be sure he was at the correct address. Sir
Edward had been very mysterious and had simply given him directions to the
house and advised him to call there without fail the next time he was in
Gibraltar. "Above all, go alone and tell no one of your destination."
Horatio had been intrigued, since it was so unlike his former captain to be
anything less that direct. And so on this January day he arrived at a green
wooden door in a white wall with no idea of what lay beyond. There was a
bell pull so he announced himself and waited. A dark haired man in his
thirties opened the door and asked if he could he be of service.
"My name is Hornblower, I was told to call here," said Horatio hoping that
he did not look as foolish as he felt.
"Yes Capitan Hornblower, please come in, you are expected." The man
stood aside politely and, having bolted the door behind them, led him
through a densely planted garden to a wooden seat. "I am to ask you to wait
here sir. Another gentleman will be joining you in a short while. May I
bring you some wine?"
Horatio made himself comfortable and enjoyed the warmth of the day. With the
African coast a mere fifteen miles away Gibraltar was a pleasant change from
the Channel in winter. His curiosity was fully engaged but he if could find
out nothing more until the unknown gentleman arrived there was no sense in
fretting. When the wine arrived it was good; better than he could afford to
serve on the Retribution. It was also accompanied by some excellent cake,
which the servant, whose name was Sergio, said his wife had made.
He had just finished his third slice and was considering a fourth when a
well-dressed elderly gentleman with white hair and brown eyes arrived.
"Good day Captain Hornblower. My name is Ralph Osborne."
"How do you do sir. I assume that Sir Edward Pellew told you I would call?"
"That is so," agreed Osborne with a smile. He had a kindly manner and
Horatio found that he liked him at once. "May I ask Captain, if you have any
notion at all of who might be living here?"
"If it is not you, then none sir." Horatio was more mystified than ever.
"Very well" said Osborne "will you come inside with me?" Horatio followed
him through the garden to the front door of the house. It was not a large
building but was very pleasant looking with its white washed walls and green
shutters. They walked through a small entrance hall and into a sitting room
at the back. It was simply but comfortably furnished and spotlessly clean.
The window was open and overlooked a small paved courtyard bright with
flowers in terracotta pots.
"You are being very patient Captain Hornblower," said Osborne inviting him
to take a seat. "I can assure you that in a few minutes you will know a
great deal more. Let me begin by explaining that I am a physician, mostly
retired these days, and that I am retained by Sir Edward to look after the
patient who is lying in the next room." He paused, giving Horatio the chance
to speak.
"I am no wiser sir'" said Horatio shaking his head.
"The patient is a young man," said Osborn slowly "who was grievously wounded
while serving in the West Indies. I have been told that he is very dear to
you."
"No," said Horatio stupidly as his face drained of all color, "No"
"Come and see for yourself," Osborn said gently. He took Horatio's arm and
led him into the next room. There was a bed near a French window. Horatio
stumbled towards it, scarcely in control of his legs. The face on the pillow
was Archie's. Someone made a sobbing noise. Archie opened his eyes and
smiled, and then his expression changed to one of concern.
"Poor Horatio" he said.
Horatio came to his senses a quarter of an hour later. He was back in the
sitting room stretched out on the sofa. A cushion was under his head, his
jacket and neck cloth had been removed and his shirt collar unfastened.
Doctor Osborn was bending over him with a glass in his hand.
"Drink some of this brandy" he said "and then stay where you are for a
while. If you like I will tell you more of what I know while you rest."
Horatio was too dumbfounded to do anything except nod his head and take a
mouthful from the glass that was held to his lips.
"I have lived here in Gibraltar for several years. Both my sons were in the
navy. They were killed within a year of each other. When my wife died ten
years ago there was nothing to keep me in England any longer, and so I moved
here. The climate suits me and I enjoy living in a naval port, in spite of
the past. Three months ago Sir Edward came knocking on my door. He asked if
I would accompany him and that it was a matter of some urgency. He would
tell me nothing more. Since you are familiar with the man it will come as no
surprise to you that I went with him, almost without hesitation."
"No indeed" said Horatio swallowing the rest of the brandy. The fiery warmth
in his stomach was real enough. Perhaps all this was actually happening.
"When we arrived here he asked me to examine Mr. Kennedy and give my
prognosis. I told him that in my opinion the young man could not survive
more than a few days. When Sir Edward told me that he had already been
brought all the way from Jamaica in such a deathly ill condition, I was
forced to revise my opinion. Then and there Sir Edward offered to pay me
handsomely for my exclusive services. There were two conditions attached. I
had to swear to keep Mr. Kennedy's presence here a secret and to treat him
with all possible kindness. I confess I grew angry at that point and
informed Sir Edward that I had never been in the habit of abusing my
patients, or betraying their confidence. However, once he had explained more
of the young man's circumstances I understood why he had felt it necessary
to speak in such a way. To cut my story short Captain Hornblower, I have
spent a large part of each day in this house ever since. I should also say
that I would gladly give my services for free. Mr. Kennedy is a remarkable
young man."
"He always has been" said Horatio sitting up slowly. It must be true then.
Somehow Sir Edward had snatched Archie from the jaws of death and brought
him here. These were the facts, but they hardly seemed relevant beside the
emotional turmoil of the moment.
"How is Archie? Did I alarm him? Can I see him now?"
"Yes, you may. But you must promise to try to remain calm when you are with
him. His condition is still precarious."
Horatio felt his heart fill with joy when he walked into the room. Archie
smiled at him. He looked pale and worn but did not appear to be in any
immediate distress.
"Horatio" he said fondly, his voice hardly rising above a whisper. "I was so
worried about you. Are you feeling better?" It was no use. Horatio could not
hold back the tears. He sat on a chair next to the bed and sobbed.
"I' m sorry Archie," he said as soon as he could speak. "I am supposed to
stay calm and instead I am blubbering like a baby"
"Yes, you are and it's quite pitiful," said Archie grinning. "I feel like
I'm in the worst kind of Drury Lane melodrama. All it needs is a villain
with a black moustache to come bursting through the door and say 'Hah! All
is discovered!'"
Horatio laughed. It was good to see the sparkle of mischief in Archie's eyes
again.
"I still can scarcely believe it," he said wiping his eyes with his hands.
"Can you tell me anything about what happened? I don't want to tire you
though!" he added hastily.
"Don't worry Horatio, my physician will guard me like a dragon." He shifted
in the bed and frowned as if in pain.
"Archie! Shall I call him?"
"No, I shall do very well. Prop me up a little more would you? I want to see
you better." Horatio did as he asked and then sat still as Archie looked
searchingly at him with his keen blue eyes. "You're thinner. You should look
after yourself."
"William Bush tells me the same thing" sighed Horatio "and I'm afraid I bite
his head off whenever he does."
"Ah yes, William. I am sorry I did not have the chance to get to know him
better." He fell silent for a while and closed his eyes. Horatio said
nothing, sensing that his friend was mustering his slender resources. As he
waited he noted the volumes of Shakespeare on the bedside table together
with some letters in a familiar hand. The French window opened on to the
same pretty courtyard that he had seen from the room next door. The bedding
smelled pleasantly of lavender and that Archie's nightshirt was beautifully
embroidered around the collar and cuffs. His hair was loose on the pillow
and was clean and recently brushed. It was all so different from the humid
squalor of the prison cell in Kingston. His eyes opened again. "I'm sorry
Horatio. I tend to end conversations rather abruptly these days. Mind you,
my manners are still better than yours!"
"That is always likely to be true," conceded Horatio with a smile.
"Give me your hand Horatio." Archie looked serious. Horatio obeyed him. "I
want to thank you"
"For what?"
"When we said farewell, in Jamaica. I was terribly afraid then and if you
had broken down I could not have endured it. You were so strong Horatio, a
rock I could lean on, as always."
"I did not dare begin to weep. I could never have stopped."
They stayed with their hands clasped for a while. No further words were
needed to express their feelings.
"I remember nothing clearly after that." Archie turned his head towards the
window. Horatio thought he looked like some frail bloom seeking strength
from the sun. "I suppose I was carried out of that cell. I was convinced I
had died. I spoke to some people in a place where the light was very bright.
Then I woke up in a cold dark place. I was afraid and in terrible pain. I
heard Sir Edward's voice. He said he would not let anyone harm me, ever
again. After that I woke up a few times on a ship. Someone was always
spooning broth or water into me. One day I woke up and I was looking out
this window. Sir Edward was sitting where you are now. He told me I was
safe, and always would be." He turned his head to look at Horatio again.
"You may find this hard to believe, but I have never been as content as I am
now. Ah, here is my dragon." He smiled at Osborn who had quietly entered the
room.
The doctor took hold of Archie's wrist and measured his pulse. Then he
gently slipped a hand inside his nightshirt to feel his heartbeat.
"He's going to chase you away Horatio"
"You must rest for a while my boy" said Osborne, smiling fondly at his
patient "Captain Hornblower may come and see you again later."
Horatio and Osborne went to sit together in the next room while Archie
slept.
"How long can he live Doctor Osborne?" The question had to be asked so he
did it at once.
"I cannot tell you exactly but I think not more than a year or two. Repeated
infections have weakened his lungs and it appears to me that the internal
tissues damaged by his wound have knitted together badly. He is in some
discomfort, if not outright pain each time he draws breath. He is as
comfortable as I can make him and I promise you he will not die in pain."
Before he left the house that night Horatio could understand why Archie had
spoken of being content. He had seen Doctor Osborne care for him with
infinite kindness. Sergio and his wife Caterina looked after all his other
needs and had quite clearly become very attached to him. He was not as cut
off from the world as it had first appeared. Sir Edward wrote to him
regularly. The letters were long, informative and, to anyone acquainted with
the commodore, very amusing. Phrases such as "I gave the fellow my opinion
on the matter" and others like it, conjured up a vivid picture of Sir Edward
dismissing fools and quelling all comers. As far as Archie was concerned,
the most amusing aspect of the letters was that they were addressed to a
fictitious young lady called Arabella Compton.
"It is in case they are ever intercepted" he explained "because of course he
cannot write openly to me. Oh Horatio, you should have been here when he was
explaining that he would be obliged to pretend to be carrying on an affair
with 'Miss Compton' and that his letters would begin and end with some
suitably passionate phrases! I could not stop grinning and in the end he
threatened to toss me out of the window."
Horatio laughed at Sir Edward's discomfort and did not believe for a moment
that he had been truly angry. No, the game was up. The fearsome and exacting
man who had guided him along the path from midshipman to commander stood
revealed as person of breathtaking compassion and generosity. Horatio hoped
that he would be able to express his admiration and thanks adequately the
next time they met.

April 1804 - Off the coast of Brittany

A thunderous clattering of shoes signaled the arrival of a breathless
midshipman at the Captain's door. There was a short pause and Horatio
envisioned the youngster tucking his hat under his arm and summoning up the
courage to disturb his almighty commander's dinner.
"Enter" he called, before the lad had time to knock on the door. Mr. Kirke
stepped inside wide-eyed at his captain's ability to see through timber.
"Mr. Bush's compliments sir, and the squadron has been sighted."
"Very well Mr. Kirke. You may tell Mr. Bush that I shall be on deck
directly." Horatio looked up from his plate and saw that the midshipman was
casting longing glances at the dish of potatoes. "In fact'" he said standing
up and reaching for his coat, "I will go on deck right away Mr. Kirke."
"Aye aye sir." Mr. Kirke was also taking note of the immense amount of space
that the captain had all to himself.
"You may follow in five minutes. I will not object if the rest of the
potatoes are gone when I return."
"Oh may I really? I mean thank you, aye aye sir!" Mr. Kirke's blue eyes lit
up under his blond fringe. Horatio grinned to himself as he walked out. He
well remembered being in a state of permanent hunger at the same age. When
he arrived on the quarterdeck the assembled officers moved to one side to
give him the space due to his exalted rank.
"The Tonnant has signaled us sir," said William Bush coming to stand at his
elbow, "captain to repair on board."
"Very well, call my coxswain and have him ready my boat." It was a
twenty-minute pull across to the flagship and the sea was lively for a small
gig. Horatio was beginning to feel queasy when they came alongside and was
grateful to step on to the much steadier deck of the seventy-four gunner. He
had a horror of one day being sea sick in front of his crew.
A very smart looking flag lieutenant escorted him to the commodore's
quarters and his wonderful turn out made Horatio painfully aware of the
rather shabby state of his best uniform.
"Captain Hornblower is here Sir," said the young man with a flourish as he
opened the door of the day cabin.
"My dear Horatio!" Sir Edward came around his desk with a welcoming smile
and put his hands on the young commander's shoulders. He scowled at the flag
lieutenant who was looking somewhat amazed at the warmth of the greeting
being given to the most junior captain in the squadron. "Damn it Congreve!
Don't you have work to do?" He did, and went away in a hurry.
"Come and sit down, I am anxious to hear what you have been doing."
"Thank you Sir Edward." Horatio took a seat. He was already enjoying his
former captain's bracing company. "Perhaps I should tell you first that I
was in Gibraltar four months ago."
"Yes, I was aware," said the commodore, his tone becoming much quieter.
"I've had a letter from 'Miss Compton'. I am sorry that it was all such a
shock for you but I hope you understand that I could not let you discover
the truth in any other way."
Horatio nodded as he took the glass of fine brandy that Sir Edward had
poured for him. "Of course sir. I recognize the need for secrecy. Archie
could tell me very little of what happened in Jamaica. I wonder if you could
make matters clearer for me?" He had dropped his own voice so that it would
not travel beyond the confines of the cabin.
"Yes, but in so doing I will be making you party to deceiving the
admiralty."
"It's in a good cause Sir Edward. I am willing to take the responsibility."
"Very well then Horatio." Sir Edward sat down behind his desk. "You remember
accompanying me to my ship on the day that Mr. Kennedy was thought to have
died?" Horatio would never forget it. He had been discharged by the court
martial and had nowhere to go. Sir Edward had found him still sitting in
Archie's cell and had taken charge of him. It was just as well. As soon as
they were on board Horatio had begun to shake like a leaf. By the time they
reached Sir Edward's cabin he had been sobbing helplessly.
"I remember it very clearly sir. You were very kind to me." There had been a
comforting arm around his shoulder and some heartfelt words. Later,
exhausted with grief, Horatio had been guided into the sleeping cabin and
allowed to rest in the commodore's own bed.
"I confess I was much moved by the depth of your feelings Horatio. I went
back to the prison while you slept. I wanted to be sure that Mr. Kennedy's
remains were being decently treated. I arrived to find that fool Dr. Clive
and Hammond standing over him. He was still breathing, albeit almost
imperceptibly. They were both at a loss. We were very soon agreed that we
could not stomach seeing that poor suffering boy strung up from a yardarm.
You look surprised Horatio."
"Not at you sir, but..,"
"Ah! You cannot imagine Black Charlie Hammond being so charitable?"
"Frankly sir, no, I can't."
"But you see the court martial was over and Captain Sawyer's good name was
saved. As far as the world knew the guilty party was already dead. That
satisfied both him and Dr. Clive. I persuaded them to let me handle the
matter. It was not hard to maintain the illusion. The coffin we saw lowered
into the ground the next day held the corpse of a drunken sailor who had
fallen into the harbor the previous week. When I sailed later that day Mr.
Kennedy was on board. I passed him off as the son of a close friend.
Supposedly he had been accidentally shot while hunting and was being taken
home to die. I never expected him to survive a voyage. My only thought had
been to allow him to end his life in peace and bury him at sea. His hold on
life astonished us. They say that the longer a ship is a sea the healthier
it gets. That was certainly true for Mr. Kennedy. He was never really
conscious and certainly not coherent but he would swallow the water and
broth that my servants gave him. When we reached Gibraltar I knew that I
could not risk taking him any further. He could never have been returned to
his family. It was essential to keep his survival as secret as possible. I
took the house and engaged a reliable couple. They thought at first that I
would be living there but when I explained that I needed them to look after
a sick young relative they agreed to a month's trial. I think Sergio had
serious doubts at first but Caterina became devoted to Mr. Kennedy within an
hour laying eyes on him, so that ended any arguments."
"And you engaged Dr. Osborne to care for him as well," said Horatio. He had
always held Sir Edward in the highest regard but now he was newly impressed
at the sheer humanity of the man.
"I'm not a saint" said Sir Edward gruffly "and if any of this gets out I
shall no longer be an officer in His Majesty's Navy, and quite right too!
However, I'm not sure I would not do the same again."
"Speaking as Archie's friend Sir Edward I am immensely grateful. You did
everything that I would have wished to do for him."
"Thank you Horatio" Sir Edward nodded and walked away to look out of the
stern windows. Horatio had the impression that he did not trust himself to
speak just at the moment. After a minute or two he came and sat down again.
"There is one aspect of this whole business that I regret extremely," he
said. "I beg you to believe that when I stood next to you at his burial it
caused me a great deal of anguish to witness your distress."
"You could not have told me then" Horatio said quietly "I could never had
concealed my joy."
Sir Edward sighed with relief, "your understanding is as complete as always.
There is just one more thing that must be said, now that you have seen him
for yourself. You do realise that Mr. Kennedy cannot live for very much
longer?"
"Yes, I asked Dr. Osborne and he was honest with me."
They parted an hour later and during the rest of the time Horatio spent with
the squadron they always met in the company of other captains. There was no
opportunity to speak of Archie again.

March 1806 Gibraltar

Horatio had been aware of Spencer watching him intensely as he walked away
from the quay. He had also noted the curious stares of his boat crew as they
rowed him across from the Retribution. He did not think that any of them
would ever dare to follow him but he took an indirect route to the house,
just in case. Sergio greeted him warmly as he opened the gate.
"Capitan Hornblower, it is good to see you again. He will be very happy
that you have come."
"How has he been?" asked Horatio as they walked through the garden.
"Some days good, some days bad, but he never complains. Caterina!" he called
for his wife as they stepped inside the house. "Caterina! Capitan Hornblower
is here." She came out of the kitchen smelling of herbs.
"You are hungry," she said, "Go in and see the senor. I will bring you
something in a little while."
"I have been dreaming of your cooking for weeks Caterina," he said. She
beamed with pleasure and disappeared into her domain of warm ovens and
bubbling pots.
Archie's room was as bright and sunlit as ever. Horatio went straight over
to the bed and was a little disappointed to find him asleep. He sat down and
studied his friend. His face was thinner and his skin had a translucent
sheen. He had been reading and the book had fallen from his hand onto the
counterpane. Horatio picked it up. It was Don Quixote, an English
translation this time. He read a page or two of the first chapter and then
looked up. Archie's blue eyes were fixed on him. Their expression was one of
pure, undiluted love. Horatio was unable to speak for a moment.
"I knew you would be here today," said Archie quietly, holding out a hand.
Horatio took it and was surprised at the strength of his grip.
"How did you know?"
"I had a dream last night," he said in a far away manner "I saw you come
into the harbor and drop anchor."
"Really?"
"No," said Archie starting to laugh quietly "Oh Horatio! You are still so
easy to tease. Sergio goes part way up the Rock each day with his telescope.
He saw the Retribution arrive yesterday afternoon."
"Did he now" said Horatio shaking his head "Archie I believe I know how Sir
Edward felt when he wanted to throw you out of the window!"
They were still laughing when Caterina came in with a meal. It was fish
cooked in a caper sauce accompanied by fresh baked bread. Between mouthfuls
Horatio noticed that Archie ate all that he was given although his portion
was much smaller and had been cut up so that he could manage it himself with
very little effort.
"Shall we go out in the garden?" said Archie after the lunch had been
cleared away. He smiled at Horatio's surprised expression. "I need some help
to get there but I often go outside in the afternoons."
Horatio was delighted. He gladly fetched a dressing gown and slippers and
helped Archie put them on. He stood by anxiously as Archie gradually got to
his feet and then he put an arm round his waist and supported him as they
walked out through the French window. There was an armchair, cushions and
rug waiting on the small terrace and Horatio helped him sit and made him
comfortable. He noticed that Archie's breathing was quite rapid and that he
had gone white around the mouth. A small black cat appeared from behind the
flowerpots and jumped up on his lap.
"Hello Laertes," said Archie scratching the animal behind its ears. The cat
purred and made itself even more comfortable.
"Is he yours?" said Horatio borrowing a cushion and sitting down at Archie's
feet.
"For a while. He wandered into my room one day. Caterina was going to chase
him away but I persuaded her not to." Horatio smiled as he imagined Archie
using his effortless and considerable charm. It had probably taken him all
of thirty seconds to get his way.
They sat talking for the best part of four hours. Horatio had not had the
luxury of confiding in anyone for several months. He could depend utterly on
William Bush to take the day to day running of the ship off his hands and to
be his good right arm in battle but his own position as captain was a
barrier to a close friendship between them.
"I am still not sure if I am fit for command" sighed Horatio after a long
account of his doubts and difficulties.
"I am glad to hear it," said Archie rapping him affectionately on the head
with his knuckles.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because it means that you are not a Captain Blockhead, who thinks he knows
everything and will send his men into all kinds of danger without a thought
for their safety. It is precisely your willingness to admit your doubts and
fears that make you such a good leader. Do you remember how we felt about
Sir Edward when we joined the Indefatigable?"
"Of course I do."
"Well I'm telling you Horatio that your crew hold you in the same kind of
esteem, and for the same reasons."
"Archie you're letting friendship sway your judgment," Horatio protested.
"You can't possibly compare me to Sir Edward."
"Yes I can, and so will history. You care if your people live or die, just
like he does. Besides Horatio," said Archie smiling "you're not allowed to
argue with me. I'm an invalid you know."
"Then I had better get you back to bed" said Horatio half seriously. Archie
was suddenly looking exhausted. Laertes walked back into the house with
them, keeping pace with Archie's halting steps. Horatio had to support most
of his weight this time and was glad to see Dr. Osborne come into the room
just as he was helping Archie into bed.
"Caterina tells me you have been out all the afternoon," said the doctor,
easing Archie's head down on the pillows.
"Yes," said Archie with a faint smile. "I'm thinking of climbing the Rock
tomorrow."
"Then you had best eat a good supper," chuckled the doctor.
"No," said Archie frowning "I don't feel hungry this evening."
"No matter," said Osborne calmly "Will you take a little wine?" When Archie
nodded in agreement the doctor turned to Horatio. "Can I send you on an
errand Captain Hornblower?"
"Of course."
"Would you go and ask Sergio to bring some red wine? I think you will find
that Caterina has some supper ready for you. Perhaps you would rejoin us
after you have eaten?"
Horatio went to do as he was asked. Once again he was much impressed with
Doctor Osborne's concern for his patient's feelings. It was obvious that
Archie had basic needs that had to be attended to and Osborne had obtained
privacy for him with great tact.
True to form, Caterina had prepared a splendid supper and Horatio did it
full justice. As he was washing the last mouthful down with an excellent
wine the doctor came into the dining room.
"I think I will take some wine with you Captain" he said, looking a little
weary as he sat down. Horatio poured him a glass.
"How is Archie?" he asked, sensing already that the answer would not comfort
him.
"He is at the end of his strength," said Osborne quietly. "Before you came
he had not been able to get out of his bed for ten days."
"Oh God! I did not know. If I had I would never have let him exert himself."
Horatio was stricken with guilt.
"It was his choice my boy," said the doctor laying a hand on Horatio's arm.
"You have nothing to reproach yourself with, nothing at all." He took a
mouthful of the wine. "Archie has told me that your father was a doctor."
"Yes, he was."
"Then perhaps you already have some knowledge of what I am about to tell
you. In my experience, those who are close to dying often display a surge of
strength or energy shortly before the end." Horatio nodded as his heart
plummeted. He had often heard his father mention the phenomenon. "This final
blaze of vitality often coincides with a visit from someone who is very dear
to the patient." Horatio's eyes filled with tears and he buried his face in
his hands. "I should also tell you something else," the doctor continued
gently, "four days ago Archie told me that he could see his mother sitting
by his bed. He told me she was waiting for him."
"It will be soon then," said Horatio wiping his tears away and getting to
his feet. "I must go to him."
The candles had been lit in the bedroom and their flames lent a little color
to Archie's face. When Horatio held his hand his eyes opened for a few
moments.
"Hold me," he whispered.
Horatio got onto the bed and took him in his arms, settling Archie's head
against his shoulder. He did not seem to be in much distress. His breathing
was shallow but not labored. Whenever the doctor took his pulse or felt his
heartbeat he would smile faintly as if to acknowledge what was being done
for him. Caterina and Sergio came in to take their leave and he managed to
open his eyes and squeeze their hands. They sat down next to the bed,
transfixed with sorrow. Horatio's cheek was pressed against Archie's hair.
He kept his own eyes closed, sensing that the most significant part of what
was happening to his friend was not visible.
"Horatio?" Archie's voice was very quiet, but clear and steady.
"Yes, Archie."
"I must be away soon."
"Yes, I know, its all right."
He rested quietly for another half an hour and then whispered, "You were my
salvation Horatio." A few minutes later he spoke again, but the only words
Horatio could make out were, "Horatio, my brother, always."
A short while after that Osborne touched Horatio on the arm and said, "you
must see this."
Archie had a radiant smile on his face and was gazing in the direction of
the window. He stirred as if he wanted to sit up. As Horatio raised him from
the pillow he said, "Yes Mamma, I'm coming," with an eager and happy voice.
Then his eyes closed. Horatio laid him down gently and watched as Osborne
put his fingers to the pulse in Archie's neck. A few moments later the
doctor stroked Archie's cheek and said "It was as easy as falling asleep,
God be praised."
They left Horatio alone with him. It seemed that there was no need for
grief. He still had no clear convictions about what might come after death
but he had seen Archie go towards it with joy. Now he would always think of
him here, in this house, in this sunny room. Cared for, loved, and safe at
last.

The end