A Life of Duty
Acting Lieutenant Archie Kennedy drew a shaky breath,
and keeping his head low,peered around in the darkness
in search of his men. A musket round whistled sharply
past his ear and he burrowed deeper into the ground.
"Styles?" he whispered. "Styles? Matthews?" His only
answer was the rustling of the bushes as a long shadow
snaked its way toward him.
"Archie! Are you all right? How does it look?"
"God, Horatio! It looks damned awful, nothing like we
Lt. Horatio Hornblower flashed a grin at his shipmate.
"Looks like more Frog legs for dinner, eh?"
"Sometime we must talk about what passes for a sense of
humour with you. What brought you up here? I thought you
and Cleveland were going to cover our retreat to the
"Cleveland's all right, I just thought I'd see if I
couldn't lend a hand up here. It could be tough slogging
to take out that signal tower now."
Kennedy was able to make out his friend's face in the
tiny sliver of moonlight. To him, Hornblower looked as
cool and relaxed as if he were playing a rubber of his
beloved whist in the relative comfort of Captain
Pellew's cabin. Another musket ball plowed its way into
the ground, blasting up dirt near Kennedy's knee. He
tucked himself into an even tighter ball, noticing with
more resignation than resentment that Horatio didn't
even blink at the fine marksmanship display being put on
by the soldiers of the French revolution.
"Impossible, I think," Archie whispered. "Our estimate
of their numbers was completely off, and we no longer
have the advantage of surprise. I can't even see how to
manage pulling the men back to the boats without getting
us all killed."
"Sometimes what a well-equipped force of men cannot
achieve is best left to a single man to do, provided
that man keeps a cool head and does not lose sight of
his mission." Horatio clapped a reassuring arm around
Archie's tense shoulders. Kennedy eyed him with
something akin to horror mingled with admiration.
"Surely you don't mean to attempt that tower alone?!
Horatio, it's madness."
"Not me, Archie, " Hornblower laughed. "Not this time.
My Duty lies elsewhere. You think about it though."
Hornblower flashed another smile at the junior officer
and eased away in the darkness, leaving Kennedy to
ponder the possibilities.
"Don't shoot, Styles! It's only me." Hornblower crawled
on his elbows and knees through the low brush until he
was side by side with his shipmate.
"Cor, Mr. Hornblower, we're in a fix now, no mistake.
What next, try to make it back to the boats?" The scars
and sweat on Styles' face gleamed dully, and he shifted
his pistol nervously.
"No, we wait for Mr. Kennedy's signal."
"What signal, sir? He's as trapped as the rest of us."
"Mr. Kennedy is going to take out the tower, and he'll
have to pass through the enemy line to get there and
back again. He'll need covering fire -- but be damned
sure you don't shoot him!"
"He's what?! He'll never make it! It's suicide, sir."
Styles shook his head fiercely.
"He can. What he needs, what we all need right now, is
for you and every other man out here to stand fast.
Don't attempt an advance, that would be suicide. But
you've got to cover Kennedy, and if he falls" -- his
voice faltered -- "if he falls, you'll have to take his
place." Hornblower pointed a finger at the man he had
sailed with, commanded, rowed beside. "You're the
steadiest man I ever saw, Styles. It's your greatest
strength. And now's when we need it most, so dig down
under that mat of fleas and lice and bring it out. Here
comes Kennedy. Just follow his orders, he knows what to
Hornblower pulled Oldroyd bodily down into the dirt just
as a shot passed through that area of space only just
vacated by Oldroyd's forehead.
"Do you want to get yourself killed, man?!" hissed
Hornblower. "Keep your head down. What were you
The young man was almost twitching with nerves. "I was
thinking -- I dunno what I was thinking, sir. Maybe...I
was thinking maybe I should get back to the boats."
"That's always been a problem for you, hasn't it,
Oldroyd? You're so used to letting others do your
thinking for you that when you're forced to think for
yourself, you're like a ship in the stays. Listen to me,
Mr. Kennedy is going to take out the tower, and Styles
will be covering for him. What are you going to do?"
Hornblower stared at the abashed sailor a long while.
"What are you going to do?" he persisted.
There was a long silence before Oldroyd said softly,
doubtfully, "My orders are to take that tower with Mr.
Kennedy." He swallowed hard.
Hornblower pressed him harder. "And if you cannot go
with Mr. Kennedy? What do your orders say to that?"
"I have no other orders, sir."
"Then what should you do?"
Another long silence ensued.
"Stand my ground, sir?" he questioned.
"There, Oldroyd, you see? If you will only get into the
practice of thinking for yourself you will almost always
know what your next move is to be."
"But sir, how do I know what is the right thing to do?"
Hornblower cocked his chin and stared directly at the
young man.. "That's very easy, Oldroyd. The right thing
to do is almost always the thing you least want to do."
Oldroyd blinked slowly as he digested this.
Matthews edged over beside his lieutenant.
"I'm right glad you've come up to gi'e us a hand, sir,"
came his gravelly voice. "This one's a mess, a fine
mess, I don' mind saying ta ya."
"Easy, Matthews, easy. Mr. Kennedy has things in hand.
I've got to get back to Mr. Cleveland now."
"But, sir!" Matthews eyes widened. "Aren't you takin' us
"By no means. Our orders were to take out that tower.
Mr. Kennedy is just about to see to that. I'm supposed
to be back at the boats."
"I don't think the men are going stay put here for much
longer, sir, meaning no disrespect." The grizzled little
sailor was more than a little alarmed at what in an
officer less admired than his beloved Lieutenant
Hornblower he would call a complete lack of
understanding of the situation.
Hornblower paused, and faced Matthews. In the thin light
cast by slimmest of moons, Matthews looked directly into
those clear, calm eyes. "You've always been a natural
leader of men, Matthews. And they've never needed you to
be more so than these men here tonight do. If they try
to go back to the boats before Mr. Kennedy has blown
that tower, you must see to it that they do not, because
I swear I'll shoot the first man that comes down that
cliff if I don't see Mr. Kennedy right beside him."
Matthews grinned. "Aye, aye, sir."
Acting Lieutenant Kennedy was laughing when he reboarded
the Indefatigable just as the sun was edging above the
horizon. His eyebrows were singed, and his uniform was
almost indistinguishable for the dirt and blood that
covered it. Yet his spirits soared. He'd done it, he
exulted! Slipped right past the damned Frogs, not once
but twice -- though he'd not have made it the second
time without Styles there to blast that Frenchie bearing
down on him with a saber -- and blown that tower in
betwixt. He grinned at Styles, and happily pounded each
man's back as they filed past him.
"Mr. Kennedy! Mr. Cleveland! Report if you please!" The
strident tones of Captain Sir Edward Pellew rang down
from the quarterdeck. Pellew's sharp eyes swept over the
bevy of men returning from the raid. Before Kennedy
could move, Pellew's voice sounded clearly once again.
"Where is Lieutenant Hornblower?"
Kennedy glanced around, not seeing Horatio, but noticing
the ashen look on Cleveland's face. Cleveland stepped
forward, swallowing with some difficulty.
"Sir. I regret to inform you that Lieutenant Hornblower
is dead. He was -- cut down almost as soon as we landed.
He -- I -- he stepped right in front of me, sir. We were
under such heavy fire..." His voice trailed off.
Kennedy seemed to hear the words at a distance. He shook
his head in disbelief. "That can't be right," he
objected. "I saw Horatio, he spoke to me, up on the
Cleveland insisted, "It's true, Captain. The men in my
boat all saw him fall. Jacobs, Mortenson, all of them,
Pellew's expression was one first of disbelief, then of
carefully controlled agony.
"Mr. Kennedy, report to my cabin in one hour, if you
please." His voice had never sounded harsher to the men
who watched as he swept from the deck without waiting
for Kennedy's response, who was incapable of one anyway.
Pellew paced his quarterdeck that night, unable to
reconcile the men's odd accounts of the raid with his
pragmatic mind. And yet, beyond his mind, beyond even
his heart, far down into his very soul he wanted to
believe them, wanted to believe that that most gifted of
young officers had not entirely abandoned his captain to
continue this exhausting war without his invaluable
assistance. Gripping the rail, he closed his eyes and
turned his face to the wind, bearing down on the grief,
refusing to let it swamp him. This must be, he thought,
what a ship felt like when she was dismasted. Grimly, he
forced himself away from
the analogy and the pain. Young Kennedy had certainly
proved himself in the raid, he thought. Perhaps he
should put him forward for the lieutenant's examination
in the next dispatches?
"I quite agree, sir. I think Mr. Kennedy has proved
himself ready for command."
Pellew swung sharply around, seeing but not believing;
wanting to believe, but -- a rare occasion in his Life
-- afraid to do so. The transparent figure of a tall,
slim lieutenant stood by the rail, his long queue
unruffled by the steady breeze, a dark stain spoiling
the pristine white of his shirt. With a tremendous
effort, Pellew pulled himself together enough to inquire
in his usual acerbic style, "Do you indeed, Mr.
Hornblower? It is thanks to you, sir, that I am now
forced to find a new lieutenant!" He paused, blinking
the dampness gathering in his eyes.. "And just look at
your new u-nee-form, sir. You're a disgrace!"
"Yes, sir," agreed a smiling Hornblower.
Pellew turned back to the railing, and said very softly,
"I'm very glad to have you back on board, Mr.
Hornblower smiled. "And I to be back, sir."