A LETTER FROM THE PAST
By Ruth W.
Acting Lt. A.F. Kennedy, RN,
May 23rd 1797
Lieutenant H. Hornblower, RN,
To be read in the event of my death.
My Dear Horatio,
I write this in the wardroom of the Indy, as you sit opposite writing your report to their Lordships regarding the debacle at Muzillac. I do wonder where, in that shambles, you will find anything good to say of any of us, but I know you will be truthful, and plain honesty has its own virtue.
Since you have just looked up to ask me to convey your kind regards to my family, I gather you have no idea of the purpose of this solemn missive, nor to whom I address it. The fact is, I knew, should it become necessary, that they would lay upon you the wretched task of dealing with my sea-chest. As his second, I was obliged to perform the same service for Clayton, and I know it is not easy.
I do not envy you, my friend. I could not, in my worst nightmares, contemplate being the one left behind. Why they cannot now simply ease your burden by heaving the damned thing overboard, is beyond me.
However, I have done my best to make it easier for you. I have taken the precaution of putting my affairs in order before I left England. My solicitors, Markham and Swift, of Bakers Lane, Plymouth, have the details of my hardly-existent finances, and a copy of my will - such as it is! They are named my executors, and notification of my death should be conveyed to them.
I wish you to have my sextant and compass. Of course you will make better use of them than I ever did. The sextant is a finer instrument than that tarnished old thing of yours you never allowed me to buy you a new one and it should be used, not left to rot in some musty attic.
My gold pocket-watch, given to me by my parents when I came of age, I also leave to you. It is not engraved. Perhaps you will see fit to engrave it suitably as a remembrance of our friendship.
Please take anything else you find pertinent to a distinguished naval career. Such items will be precious little use to my womenfolk at home, and if you are reading this letter, it seems clear I shall have no further need of them!
The miniature which you insisted I sit for in Gibraltar is in the hidden compartment in the chest lid. If the key has gone missing, or you have buried me with it still in my coat-pocket, then consider it a challenge! I'm sure you are equal to it, but do try not to do the box too much damage, or my mother will complain.
You might as well give the likeness to Emily. I had the honour, I think, of being the favourite among her brothers, and I imagine she will like to have it as much as anyone.
Also, in that compartment, is a bundle of letters tied with black ribbon, and a lock of hair. If you value me, please burn these. The lady is not in a position to require their return, and they would create more than a ripple if they ever fell into the hands of the family. Read them first, if you like. I trust your absolute discretion, and there is no-one now to fret if you are either shocked or amused by them.
Only think kindly on me, my dear friend, and forgive my silence. I was very young.
My shirts you may wish to put in the cockpit locker to serve as spares for the mids. I always kept them in good condition, and I seem to remember we never had enough clean linen when we were midshipmen.
It is my express wish, Horatio, that you resist the temptation to procure a new uniform for my burial. Should the occasion require some formality and in war, one never presumes simply take what I was wearing when the Reaper swung his scythe, rinse out the blood, have the sailmaker sew up the holes, and toss me over the side in it. It will not cause me an instant's unease. Nor I nor my kin will ever know the difference, and I have ruined too many dress coats and shore jackets to be complacent about the waste of good cloth.
There is a book of verse, penned by yours truly, underneath my writing-case. You had no idea the Bard had a rival, did you, Horatio?! You may read them, and then burn them unless you think K.C. may like to have them in my memory. I am merely hopeful of her charity rather than genuine approbation. The verses are not very good.
Please find good homes for my books amongst our shipmates. Over the years I have seen many a spirit in need, and there is enough variety to suit all tastes. I would like Matthews to have my pocket bible. I do not believe he is any more pious than I, but he admired the pictures. I imagine, like me, he finds in them fond memories of his childhood.
You used to tease me that I always spent my leisure hours with my nose in a book. Now my wisdom is manifest. You see, Horatio, there are so many books and so little time in one life. Had I lived to be a hundred, I would not have managed to read a tenth part of all I wanted to.
Keep the leather-bound Shakespeare and read it sometimes for my sake. It will improve your mind. Besides, my heart and soul dwell in those pages. If you ever need me, you will find me there.
What is left, please convey to my mother, though what she will do with it in the absence of Edward and William I can't imagine. It is my mortal dread she will turn my room into some morbid shrine, as seems to be the way with grieving mothers. I suppose she must take comfort where she can.
She will need you, Horatio. If you are able, take the chest and deliver it yourself. Tell my family what befell me honestly, and acquit me as you see fit. (Only if you can manage, in front of the women, please try to gild it with some gentle falsehood about my courage under fire, I know it will be a kindness to them. With my father, over the after-dinner port, you may stick with the brutal truth!) I hope the circumstances of my demise will not have caused either of us too much distress. I shall be happy to endure a few moments' noble suffering, but I have no desire to quit this mortal coil in an indecent state of dismay. I hope I have been brave for you.
Look on the bright side, Horatio. If I have been upright enough to lose my battle with mortality in action, and not drunk in some Portsmouth alley with a knife in my back, then at least my family must concede me that merit, and must afford me a degree of pride and approval, which might possibly be a novelty worth dying for!
Please tell them I love them all.
As for yourself, cheer up, my friend! The way you conduct yourself in war, you will not be far behind me though that small part of me that has intuition tells me you have luck still to use up!
Trust me in this at least life is far too short for protracted grieving. Besides, you have to do the living for both of us now, and no girl will marry a penniless fellow with a long face and bags under his eyes!
Please carry home my love to England. I have had some pleasures there, and will miss her. Tell her I did my best, but she is a hard mistress. I have known kinder.
There is some small change in a leather bag at the bottom of my chest. Have a tankard of ale with Sally in the King's Arms, for Auld Lang Syne, and to restore your spirits. Drink to me, Horatio.
There. I have said all. This will definitely be the last of me, I promise.
But we were too long together. You'll never be completely rid of your shadow, no more will you ever completely shed me. Look for me in the glow of the rising sun on a bright horizon, or the shimmer of the moon on a silver sea. I will be in the stars winking at you from the velvet sky on calm tropical nights, or in the dance of the Northern Lights, or in the emerald flicker of St. Elmo's fire beading the t'gallant yards. And when you see me there, perhaps you might smile for the memories, for what we meant to each other, and for all the things that might have been.
And someday, when your ship sails into the West, we shall meet again.
Your friend and shipmate,
PS The port wine stain here was not my fault well, not completely! The wind veered sou-westerly, and Hether was officer of the watch Need I say more?
I will re-write this last page if I get the chance. AK.