A Final Act of Kindness
Hands clasped behind his back, the young captain
stood on the
quarterdeck of Retribution. Dark eyes stared out at the Scottish
coastline before him.
"Sir," First Lieutenant Bush said, standing
at his elbow, "we've
arrived at Lochcarron. The boat stands ready to take you ashore."
"Thank you, Mr. Bush," Horatio said without
turning, his eyes never
leaving the shoreline. He did not trust himself to speak further or
to look directly at his First Lieutenant. He could not risk Bush
seeing the pain in his eyes. He was, after all, the captain, and
grief -- even for so dear a friend as Archie had been -- was a
luxury he could not afford to express openly.
Commodore Pellew's words echoed in his mind, ".
. . . .We must
always be a source of inspiration to our men."
And so his grief, his pain, the sense of loss he
felt would remain
locked, as it had been these last six months, within his soul.
"Sir," Bush began, his voice soft and
etched with concern, "if you'd
like, I could accompany you ashore. Perhaps it would make your task
easier if you had someone with you."
"That will not be necessary, Mr. Bush,"
Horatio replied, his voice
sharper than he'd intended, "this TASK, as you refer to it, is
something I must do alone."
"Aye, sir," stung by the sharpness in
Horatio's voice, Bush drew
himself up to his full height and saluted his commanding officer.
"As you wish, sir," he said.
"Mr. Bush," Horatio finally turned and
looked at his
second-in-command, "I apologize. I do appreciate your offer;
however, I. . ."
"I understand, sir."
"In my absence, please see to it that fresh
rations are brought
aboard for the men," Horatio said, "it has been a long voyage for
all of us and they deserve some small reward."
"I'll see to it personally, Captain," and Bush saluted once more.
"Please convey my condolences to Mrs. MacKenzie."
"Thank you, Mr. Bush," Horatio said as
he stepped over the side and
prepared to board the boat that would take him ashore, "I shall."
Abby sat at her writing table, the letter she'd
just finished before
her. Late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the open window; a
gentle summer breeze rustling the curtains. Brushing a lock of hair
back into place, she picked up the letter and began to reread what
(No endearment to soften the words) Words from
the letter -- edict
really -- she'd received from him that morning ran through her mind.
". . . . .traitor to his country. . . . .always knew he was a
spineless coward. . . . .no son of mine any longer. . . . .dead to
me. . . . .NEVER to mention his name in my presence again." Angrily,
she'd read the letter a second time and then torn it to pieces.
Since you have seen fit to declare that you
no longer have a son,
perhaps you will also consider that you now no longer have a
daughter as well. I CAN NOT, I SHALL NOT abandon Archie as you
so cavalierly have done. He is, and always will be, my brother;
in death as well as in life.
Be assured, there was a reason behind this confession
Archie could never have actually committed the horrid act of
which Captain Hammond spoke to you. It was not in him to
do this. If you had really known him, as I did, you would not
be so quick to accept and believe him capable of this crime.
Archie was a man of honor. I pray that someday you will
know this of your son.
A knock on the door caused Abby to put the letter
down. "Yes," she
looked up to see Andrew standing in the open doorway. "What is it
Andrew?" she asked.
"Forgive the intrusion, ma'am," he said, "but there is a gentleman
downstairs to see you. A Naval officer, ma'am. His name is Commander
Horatio Hornblower, and he says to apologize for arriving without
prior notice, but it's urgent he speak with you."
"Did he tell you the nature of this URGENT
matter?" she asked,
rising from her chair and coming to his side. Hornblower -- the name
was familiar, but she could not remember why it should be so. "Never
mind," she thought, "it will come to me." She turned her attention
to Andrew once more.
"No ma'am," he replied, "he said
it was of a private and personal
nature. For your ears only. He's waiting now in the study, ma'am."
"Then, let's not keep him waiting any longer,"
Abby smiled at Andrew
and they came downstairs together.
"Some lemonade, please Andrew. It's rather
warm outside and the
commander may be thirsty," she said, hand on the doorknob of the
study. "Also, would you please tell Mary we shall have guest for dinner?"
"Yes, Mrs. MacKenzie," he replied, bowing
and heading toward the
Abby opened the door. He was standing before the
window, his back to
her. Hearing the door open, he turned. Immediately, Abby sensed the
pain that ran through his body and her heart went out to him. "Dear
God," she thought, "he's so young. Why, he must be no older than
Archie." And then she realized -- Horatio Hornblower -- this was
Archie's friend standing before her. The one always at the center of
his letters to her.
"Commander Hornblower," she said, crossing
the room, her hand
outstretched in greeting, "I am Abigail MacKenzie."
"It is an honor to meet you, Mrs. MacKenzie,"
Horatio said, taking
the proffered hand and placing a light kiss on her fingers.
"The honor is mine, sir," she said, "Archie
always spoke so highly
of you in his letters that I feel as if I know you already. Now,
what is this private and personal matter you wish to discuss with
"As direct, as blunt as Archie," he thought and became aware of a
sudden, sharp pain in his heart. "Mrs. MacKenzie," he began, but was
interrupted by a knock on the door. Andrew came in with a tray and
set it on the table.
"Thank you, Andrew," Abby said. Bowing
to them both, Andrew left the
room, closing the door softly behind him. Abby moved to pour two
glasses of lemonade. Handing one to Horatio, she sat down and looked
up at him. "Please go on, Commander," she said.
"Mrs. MacKenzie," Horatio started once
more, "for the last nine
years I have had the honor of serving with your brother. But beyond
that, I had the honor of having his friendship. Not only was he my
friend; but I also considered him my brother."
"I came to offer you my condolences, and those
of my First
Lieutenant, in person," he continued, "but more than that, I wanted
to tell you what kind of officer and man your brother was."
Not trusting herself to speak, Abby nodded for Horatio to continue.
"Doubtless," he said, "you have
already heard the facts of his
death. You may also hear stories and rumors that will bring into
question his loyalty -- to king; to country and to the Naval service
-- as well as his character. Please, I beg you, do NOT give credence
to any of these. Trust me when I tell you they ARE NOT TRUE,"
Horatio paused for a moment and looked over at Abby.
"I am aware of the stories to which you allude,"
she said, "and
while I shall never believe my brother a traitor, or a murderer, I
would like to know the truth if you can tell me."
Setting his glass on the tray, Horatio told Abby
the whole story --
Captain Sawyer's fall into the hold; the attack and surrender of the
Spanish fort; how Archie had been wounded during the battle with the
Spanish prisoners to regain the Renown. "The bullet he took,"
Horatio said, "was meant for me." He then told her of the court
martial -- charges of mutiny levied against the officers of
"Archie," he swallowed and went on quietly,
"went into that
courtroom when he should not have and confessed to pushing our
captain down the hold. He did this because I had been accused of
pushing the captain. Archie knew that, upon my recall, I would have
testified that I had, in fact, pushed Captain Sawyer into the hold."
Horatio looked at Abby, the depth of his feeling
for her brother
obvious. "Instead of allowing me to take the blame," he said,
"Archie took it. He let everyone think he'd pushed the captain, but
Mrs. MacKenzie, Captain Sawyer was NOT pushed -- he lost his
footing, overbalanced and FELL into the hold. It was an accident --
one both Archie and I tried our best to prevent."
"To protect me -- to preserve my honor --
Archie took the blame and
died, not a hero as he should have been, but dishonored and
disgraced." Finished with his story, Horatio closed his eyes, trying
to quell the grief that threatened to swallow him.
"Commander," a soft hand fell on his
arm. He looked up to see Abby
kneeling by his chair. "My brother could never be dishonored -- he
did die a hero. You see, what he did, he did for the love of his
friend. I believe that is the greatest act of heroism there is."
"Please, sir," she continued, "you
must stop blaming yourself."
Before he could protest, she smiled, "Yes, I see it on your face.
You blame yourself for Archie's death; you blame yourself for what
you call his dishonor. But it is not your fault. Archie did what he
did because of who he was."
"Accept his gift," she said, "and
remember him as your friend. That
is what he would want you to do."
"Then, I shall do my best," Horatio said.
"Very well," she said, "and now,
will you do me the honor of joining
me for dinner?"
"Aye, ma'am," Horatio replied, offering
her his arm. And for the
first time since Archie's death, Horatio smiled.