The Limit Of Our Sight
by Kimberly Heggen

Author's notes: This is a very sad story, so be warned. I know that we already have lots of post-"Retribution" epilogues out there, but this one has been rolling around in my head for some time and it has finally gained entrance to the outside world.

As I said, this is sad... in a deep-despairing, dark-night-of-the-soul, emotional catharsis sense. In literature, as in life, we all occasionally reach rock bottom. Horatio seems both especially at risk for this, as a character, and especially fascinating when he does so. He's not content merely to rail against the world, but must analyze his despair even while he is experiencing it.

This is for Wendy, who pleaded for reading material. She'd probably rather have something happier, but this here's what I done wrote...

 

 

Life is eternal, love is immortal
And death is only a horizon...
And a horizon is nothing
Save the limit of our sight...

(Rossiter Worthington Raymond)

 

Still seated on the edge of the hard narrow prison hospital bed, Horatio reached up with a shaking hand and touched the beloved face, now growing cold. He brushed his fingers softly across Archie's eyes, pulling the lids closed over the clouded blue eyes. He let his hand rest there for a moment and let his own eyes close as he tried to gather himself together.

Not here, not now. He could not let himself feel the pain and reality, not yet. First, he must finish the entire task, and leave the scene with all of the dignity that he could muster. Archie would have expected no less.

He opened his eyes again, and looked one last time at the still pale figure on the bed. In death, Archie looked even younger, the lines of pain and worry now smoothed out in peaceful repose. The agony of the past few days had miraculously left no marks on the smooth face... now forever youthful, never to grow old or weary, to live on now only in memory.

He rose, and looked around him for a moment. Dr. Clive had not returned, and neither had Bush. For a few more moments, no one else in the world knew that Archie had died. For a little longer, he could gaze at his friend's face and pretend that Archie but slept, that in a moment the blue eyes would open and Horatio would hear the familiar, sleep-husked voice asking him some concerned question.

A harsh clank from the direction of the barred doors brought him out of his reverie. He turned, to see Dr. Clive entering the sick-room quietly. Horatio cleared his throat self-consciously and walked over to meet the surgeon.

His face must have held the news, for Dr. Clive sighed. "He is gone, then?"

"He is." Horatio strove to speak naturally, around the great lump forming in his throat. "It... was very fast, in the end. I don't think that he felt very much." He took a deep breath. "Thank you, doctor, for your care of him."

"I am sorry, Mr. Hornblower... for this whole miserable affair." Dr. Clive held out his hand. "If it would make it any easier for you... I would be glad to see to any necessary arrangements with regard to Mr. Kennedy. He and I had some opportunity to speak together, in these last few days... and he asked me to see to the burial details, in order to spare you pain."

Horatio answered with difficulty, as he shook the doctor's hand. "Thank you, doctor... indeed, if that was Mr. Kennedy's wish, you must of course respect it. I shall, of course, be responsible for sending his belongings back to his family." He coughed slightly to cover the tremor in his voice. "If you would be so kind as to have my own things sent from my... cell, I will come back and collect the items later."

"Of course, Lieutenant."

Horatio nodded his thanks, not trusting his voice to say anything further, and slipped through the open door... only to discover that it was not the empty space he had supposed. Framed by the doorway stood the brawny frame of Mr. Bush, returned from wherever he had been. His craggy, pleasant face was creased with obvious concern.

"You're leaving. Then... Mr. Kennedy has also left us?" The words were soft.

"Yes." Emotion made Horatio cut the response short and curt. "It's over. I don't believe that he suffered much, at the end." His own words sounded harsh to him in the stillness of the prison hospital.

"I am sorry," came the response from Bush. "You have lost a very close friend." He cleared his throat. "The doctor has given me leave to walk about a bit, now, as you can see. Perhaps... perhaps we could go find a cool drink somewhere, and you can tell me more about him... we served together such a short time, really."

Horatio swallowed hard, looking at the honest open face in front of him. "I... thank you, Mr. Bush, but I need to walk by myself for a while. I will return, certainly before nightfall... perhaps then."

Bush nodded slowly, then reached up with his right hand to squeeze Horatio's shoulder. "Go on, then. I will look for you later." He dropped his hand and let Horatio pass him.

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Blinking like a woebegone owl, Horatio stepped half-stumbling into the white Jamaica sunlight. He stopped for a few seconds to let his eyes adjust, then began to amble along one side of the street. A few passers-by glanced at him, perhaps recognizing him as the young officer so recently on trial, but he paid them no heed.

Where to go? He could not return to the Renown; she had been assigned a new captain during the court-martial, and he had no idea of what his own standing aboard the ship now was. For all that he knew, his former cabin was already occupied by some shiny new re-assigned officer. Besides, poor half-mad Buckland would be there, and Horatio could not bear the thought of encountering him now.

In all of Kingston, he now had only two friends amongst the officers: Bush, still tarrying in the prison hospital, and likewise adrift... and Commodore Pellew. The commodore might be ashore somewhere, in lodgings befitting his station, or he might be aboard one of several ships in the harbor; Horatio had no idea where to find him. And even if he knew where his former captain and mentor was staying... what Horatio wanted most was simply to be alone.

He stopped for a moment, and looked down the street, at the graceful white buildings and the gently swaying palms. Up ahead on the left stood the church, a simple wooden shape with a white steeple. It had a friendly aspect that contrasted markedly with the heavy stone structures that were more typical of damp foggy England. On impulse, Horatio headed towards it and walked slowly up the steps of the wooden porch. He reached the large double doors, and pushed the left-hand one open with a soft creak.

The interior of the church was dark and surprisingly cool. No one was inside. He walked up the aisle to the front part of the nave, and slipped into one of the right-hand pews.
With an almost palpable sense of relief, he felt the dim quiet of the church surround him. No one would look for him here, and if anyone else happened along, who would disturb an exhausted and grieving young officer?

Feeling a little foolish, he pulled the kneeling pad down and folded his gangling body onto his knees. He let his face rest on his folded hands, on the back of the pew, and tried awkwardly to compose a sort of a prayer for the repose of Archie's soul. He had always disliked the formal trappings of religion, and tended to avoid them when he could, but he could not help but feel that Archie would be pleased -- and possibly amused -- if he knew that Horatio was praying for him. He could almost hear the teasing voice in his head... "As God is my witness, it's Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, on his knees in the church! Will wonders never cease?"

Oh, Archie, thought Horatio... if only you really were here now, to tease me about my foolish ways. He felt a great lump rise in his throat again, and this time he made no real effort to stop the few tears that coursed sluggishly down his cheeks to drip on his hands. Memories of their service together... nearly ten years, except for Archie's lonely time in prisons, rose in his mind. Victories, defeats, shame, glory... warmth and laughter, sorrow and grief.

Sorrow and grief... That was how their friendship had began, really.

That horrible night, in many ways the worst night of his young life, would always live on in his nightmares. He was back aboard the Justinian after the duel. It was supposed to have been his duel, his risk to take, his own life won or lost... but gentle Clayton had been so jolted out of his own fears by Horatio's unexpected grim courage that the older man had felt compelled to substitute himself in the duel against Simpson. Horatio had not been present for the actual encounter, had not seen Clayton stand bravely against the pistol ball that would take his life. He had only arrived later, to find his wounded friend lying in a shabby inn, in agony.

He'd watched Clayton die. He had never seen violent death before, in friend or foe, but at seventeen he had held his friend's hand and felt the life slip from his body. He'd closed the staring eyes and gone outside, numb with shock and grief.

And that night, lying miserably in his hammock with his eyes closed, he could still see Clayton's face, still see the bloodstained bandages, still hear his friend's death rattle.

He'd tried not to weep, but even his rigid self-control eventually failed him. Then he had tried at least to weep as silently as possible, so as not to add shame to his already unendurable sense of guilt. He'd pulled his face under the rough wool blankets, and felt the hot tears soak into the stale canvas pillow. He'd known that he was breathing raggedly, not quite sobbing, but he'd hoped that the others were asleep and would not hear him.

If only he had not listened so hard to his damnable pride. If only he had waited, bided his time, held his tongue somehow and not let himself be driven to challenging Simpson. Or if only he had been a little more alert and had seen what Clayton intended with that belaying pin. At least if he had fought the duel himself, he would probably had paid with his own life. Better that, than to carry this burden of knowing that he had caused his friend's death. Better to be dead than to feel this horrible guilt.

He'd thought of the silent sleeping bodies around him, and gulped even more. What kind of monster must they think him, who would come amongst them and get one of their number killed for such reasons? Clayton had been the best of them: kind, patient, intelligent... and the only one resourceful enough to save Horatio the night that Simpson seemed intent on beating him to death. What a poor trade it seemed: Clayton's life for his own.

And then he had frozen suddenly, as he heard the unmistakable sounds of someone sliding out of a hammock and padding across the deck in bare feet. He had tried to breathe quietly and regularly again; hopefully one of his fellows was just heading off to deal with a full bladder. But no, the soft footsteps came closer, near to his hammock.

Then, a whisper so quiet that he wasn't really sure if he had heard it.

"Horatio? Are you all right?"

Archie's voice. Followed a few seconds later by Archie's hand, coming to rest sympathetically on his shoulder.

He'd been unable to answer, with his voice so tear-choked. But the warmth and concern, so totally unexpected, undid his resolve to pretend away the weeping and to feign sleep. He had reached up and grasped Archie's hand in his own, holding onto it as if it were a life-line.

Just like Clayton had held onto his hand.

He'd broken down completely then. Now, even though the memory was still so painful, he could smile slightly through his tears at the thought of that younger Horatio... so full of pride and prickles, so afraid to reveal his human weaknesses even to his fellow midshipmen. No one else even stirred during those long minutes that Horatio wept out his grief and guilt on Archie's shoulder, while Archie stood next to his hammock and held him awkwardly. The sounds of loud snoring coming from the other corners of the berth drowned out most of the sound, and if any of the rest of them did hear, they never said anything to Horatio about it. Archie never really said anything about it either, not that night, nor later. He'd simply stayed with Horatio until he stopped crying, then whispered to him that he would feel better in the morning... that everything would seem better.

Their friendship had really begun that night, amidst sorrow and loss and one brief window of vulnerability. Archie hadn't really even known him all that well, then, but had been kind enough to give him the comfort that he needed. And indeed, he had felt a little better in the morning, and by that evening they had been transferred to the Indefatigable where a new life awaited them all.

He raised his head, looking into the darkness of the church, and wiped at his eyes. Remembering that night, he wished now that he had done more to give comfort to Archie in his last moments on earth. He should have spoken more of friendship, and less of honor... more of love, and less of duty. And he should have given his friend the touch of a human hand as his soul left its damaged body.

Archie, I'm sorry, he thought. Sorry that I could not save you, that I was such a poor friend to you in life.

He buried his face again in his hands and wept silently. Now it was beginning to hit him hard, the aching sense of loss. Never, never again would he have a friend like Archie... the Horatio Hornblower who walked the streets of Kingston today was not even capable of forming that kind of friendship ever again. And why have friends, why come to love people, if they were only to die young? He was cursed... he'd been the cause of Clayton's death, and he could not shake himself of the conviction that Archie might have lived, if he'd only been lucky enough to be someone else's friend.

Plunged deep into his misery, he did not hear the quiet footfalls of the man walking up the church's center aisle, and so he jumped violently when he felt a touch on his shoulder. He wiped his hands hastily across his face and tried to compose himself before turning to see who had disturbed him.

Even in the dim light of the nave, he could see the impeccably tailored uniform, the shining gold braid, and the familiar features of Commodore Pellew. The commodore met his gaze for a moment, then slid into the pew next to him.

"You are a difficult man to find," he said quietly. "I must apologize for the inexcusable interruption. You would much rather be alone, I am sure... but I was concerned for you." He sighed. "I arrived too late to speak with Mr. Kennedy, and when no one could tell me where you had gone... I felt I must make certain that you were... not in need of anything."

Horatio swallowed. "No. It was kind of you, sir, to look for me... but I am as well as I can be, under the circumstances." Though he tried to speak normally, he knew that his voice shook.

"I see." Pellew was quiet again for a minute or two, gazing off toward the front of the church. "As you may know, I am currently lodging at Government House... at least until the squadron goes out on maneuvers next month. There is ample room there, and I took the liberty of having your belongings sent over as well. I am not certain what the admiral plans for your immediate future, and you must of course stay somewhere."

"Thank you, sir," responded Horatio hoarsely. "That is most generous of you."

Again, the commodore was silent, and Horatio could almost feel that measuring gaze upon him. "Mr. Hornblower... I have not the words, I think, to ease your sorrow. But at least let me offer my condolences. Mr. Kennedy was a good officer, and an excellent young man... and it is obvious that you were dear friends."

Horatio nodded slowly. "We served together almost ten years... we grew from boyhood to manhood together," he whispered. "It is difficult to believe that he is gone... and that he has died in such disgrace." He rubbed his hands across his face again, suddenly afraid that he was going to start crying again. "I cannot keep from thinking that if I had somehow been faster, more alert, I could have save him from being shot, and..." He had to stop for a moment. "...and if I had only had the courage to tell the tribunal..."

He was startled to find a hand swiftly clamped across his mouth. "Stop it," hissed Pellew. "Whatever you are going to say... you cannot. Do not let his sacrifice be in vain." The hand was removed.

"If it were not for my pride, my arrogance... and whatever it is about me that dooms all those that I love, there would not have been any sacrifice necessary." Horatio could feel his fragile control sliding away.

"Mr. Hornblower... do you remember La Reve?" asked Pellew swiftly.

"La Reve? That little ship? Of course." He'd captured her while serving under Pellew in the Mediterranean fleet, one of the prouder moments of his career. And then he had lost her almost immediately afterward to the Spanish.

"It was the admiral," continued Pellew, "who made the decision to send you back to England on La Reve... but upon my personal recommendation. And then when you disappeared, and we heard nothing... we feared that you were lost, and all hands with you.

"Eventually, we received word that you had been captured, and that was a little better. But before that word came... I mourned you as dead. And I knew that I bore the responsibility for your loss on my shoulders." Pellew paused for a moment. "That was a very black time for me. In the end, all I could do was to remind myself that it is my duty to place promising young men into positions of danger, and to risk them for the good of the service.

"Mr. Kennedy knew that as well, and it is my belief that he understood the risks he undertook. You must not cheapen what he has given you, by taking on more than your fair share of guilt."

Horatio bowed his head back onto his hands, and stayed that way for several long minutes. He knew that he ought to answer, that Pellew meant his words to be comforting, but he could summon up no response past the empty bleakness in his heart. Finally, he heard the commodore stand up and slide back out of the pew.

"I will see you later on, at Government House," said Pellew quietly. "For now, I will leave you alone."

Alone.

Of course. Archie was gone, and so he was alone.

Or was he?

He raised his head, and listened to the slow footfalls as the commodore walked away, toward the back of the church. It was astonishing, really, that Pellew had come looking for him. Horatio wasn't under his direct command, and since the end of the court-martial, they had no official business together. But the older man had clearly been concerned for him, and had gone to great lengths to seek him out and offer him both shelter and sympathy.

And Bush... Horatio remembered, with a little bit of guilt, the expression on Bush's face when he had pushed past him to leave the prison hospital. Bush had been worried and grieving, and his offer to sit and talk with Horatio had been an honest one.

In his head, Horatio could almost hear Archie's gentle laughter, could hear the words that his friend would say if he were here listening. "Horatio, you silly fool. Did you think I was your only friend?"

No, Horatio answered silently, tears gathering again briefly in his eyes. The dearest friend I shall ever have... but not the only one. I shall never forget you, but I owe it to you to go on, and to make my way in this world as best I can.

He took a deep breath, climbed to his feet and turned around. The figure of Commodore Pellew was still just visible, silhouetted in the doorway.

"Sir," he called out. "Sir, if it is all right... I will walk back with you now."

 

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