A Life of Duty
by Sarah B.
For a long time Edrington sat by the fire without moving, staring into
the flames and listening to the night wind blowing outside the stone walls.
He might have sat there all night, except that he felt a touch on his shoulder,
and looked up to see one of the inn's tavern girls looking at him quizzically.
In a timid voice she asked, "You done with the tea?"
"Oh," Edrington straightened up in the chair, amazed at how sore he was; how long had he been sitting there? Glancing at the stone-cold cup of tea beside him he nodded, and remembered to whisper a "Thank you," as the nervous girl cleared the set away.
Bed. He needed to get to bed, and sleep.
Standing, Edrington stretched his long limbs and made his way to his room, pausing only for a moment in front of the room he knew Mr. Kennedy was lodging in. He heard voices within, and frowned at the impropriety of two unmarried young people being alone in a room with a closed door; but it was too late in the evening to play chaperone, so he kept walking and resolved to mention something to Kennedy about it in the morning.
But that thought did not go away, it only joined the others thronging in Edrington's head as he entered his room and shut the door behind him. It was a good room, small but neat, and there was a fire set up in the small stone fireplace. It was a fine room - a good enough inn - the perfect place to stop for the night. But soon the night would be over, and in the morning they would all have to decide whether to stay, or go back to Plymouth. And that weighed on Edrington's mind the most.
With a sigh, he removed his jacket and hung it up carefully on the hook provided by the door, contemplating what he should do next. He really should sleep, but he was not tired. He had no books to read...Edrington's eyes fell on his trunk, and he realized that he probably should write a letter to his mother about what had happened. He had told her about Hornblower, and she had been impressed; surely she would want to know...
With the determination of one in desperate need of distraction, Edrington went to his trunk, pulled out his writing kit, and set it up on the small table by the fire. As soon as he had arranged his paper and bottle of ink, and etched a sharp nub in his writing quill, he took a deep breath and set out to write his mother a letter.
Do not fear, all is well. I am writing to convey some news that I know you would want to be privy to. I am aggrieved to tell you that Mr. Hornblower -
Edrington stopped there, surprised. He could not write that Hornblower was dead. He blinked at the paper, paused with his quill over the textured surface, but the words would not come out. After a few moments of indecision, he put the quill in the inkpot and gazed at the fire in frustration.
This was blasted unsettling, all of it. One minute he was walking down the streets of Plymouth, prepared to have a good time before returning to his regiment, and the next...
The next moment he has found that a young man he greatly respected was dead, and his closest shipmate in dire need of some kind of emotional assistance. And Edrington had put himself in the position of providing it. But at the moment he was questioning the wisdom of this action, partially because this was not his usual way of doing things, and partially because...
Edrington looked down at the blank paper and cursed himself. Partially because I am still dealing with it myself.
Hornblower was dead. Whatever good he had done in the world was over, and now there was simply the glaring reality of the grief he had left behind. His father - Edrington closed his eyes, saying a prayer that his own parents would be spared the raw agony he had seen in the old man's eyes as he looked at Horatio's sea chest. And Captain Pellew, and Kennedy, and all of the lives Hornblower touched - they who remained were faced with the stark, white coldness of a life in which a bright fire has been extinguished. And himself...
Himself. Edrington frowned at the unfinished letter. What about himself?
Edrington edged toward that question warily. Self-examination had never been a hobby of his, and he did not like doing it. A true soldier did not reflect, did not debate and dream about ideals and lofty philosophies. He simply did his duty for his country and was done with it. Sentiment only made a noble corpse.
But still...Edrington suddenly realized that the reason he hesitated to write his mother about Hornblower's death was that as soon as she heard, her first thought would be for his welfare. His mother had always been like that, practical and stern but almost embarrassingly concerned for her children. She had championed his commission into the army over his father's objections, knowing it was something he truly wanted, even more than an aristocratic title. She had borne the brunt, he knew, when his father feared him dead in battle and ranted over his choice of life. And her letters were always full of advice on how to keep warm and what to do if you found a tick on you, and always closed out by saying how proud she was of him and how much she prayed for his happiness. That was Edrington's mother.
And that was precisely why he did not want to write her about this sad news. She would immediately write back with questions he dreaded answering: How are you doing? What do you need? Tell me what you are feeling, so I can help you. It must be very hard...
It was hard, but Edrington did not like to think about that. Loss was part of soldiering, even exceptional loss. His mother may not understand that, and Edrington thought that being forced to really think about how horrible he felt at the moment might drive him mad. And if his mother wrote and asked him those questions, he would have to answer her letter quickly. Few mothers were as militant about manners as his.
Edrington sighed and picked up the pen again. As much as he suddenly dreading the writing, he had already started the letter, and he hated wasting paper. So he would have to tell his mother about Hornblower's death. And about Kennedy...
Edrington put his chin in his hand and glanced at the door that led to the hall, and the room across it. How had this happened? How did he succumb to the sudden, unbidden impulse to befriend Kennedy, a young man whom he barely knew, whose trials were not his and whose behaviour he did not understand? That the boy needed guidance was obvious, but Edrington was at that moment becoming more and more certain that perhaps he was not the one to provide it. His intentions were noble, but so far the relationship was not encouraging.
Kennedy was obviously devastated by Hornblower's death. He was in shock, he didn't even remember going back to pick up the body. And whatever bravery he possessed - and Edrington admitted to himself that Kennedy possessed a great deal - it was being rendered useless by the paralysis of his loss. Edrington was not sure he would ever fully recover.
The carriage ride here, for instance. What the bloody hell had happened there? They were both distraught over Kennedy's recollections, but for a few moments it seemed to Edrington that Kennedy was reliving the event, as if it were still happening, and would be happening forever. Edrington shook his head; there was none of the soldier's armor in Kennedy's eyes then, none of the tough emotional layer any man needed when he was in a business of slaughter and death. There was only the childlike bewilderment of a helpless, wounded soul, and while Edrington admitted to himself that they had both shed tears, he was also able to quell those tears and bring his military bearing back to the fore. He was not so sure Kennedy was able to do that.
And then there were other complications. This girl, for instance...she was very charming and obviously had a great deal of affection for Kennedy, but was this sort of distraction something he needed right now? No doubt they would be talking far into the night, perhaps even do something grossly impulsive and marry before he set sail again, one last frantic grasp at something sane before returning to the insanity of war. But was that not simply another loss, another parting after which there would be no reunion? Why would anyone put himself through that nightmare twice?
Edrington knew the answer to that; he had seen the love that sparkled between the two, seen it with the brilliant clarity of one who has never felt it himself and can only watch it through envious eyes. It was yet another element of Kennedy that Edrington didn't understand, that someone who seemed so distant and timid could love so fearlessly. Edrington had to admit that he was a bit jealous...
Edrington set the pen back in the ink bottle, crossed his arms and stared glumly at the fire. He did not like any of this. The emotions running through him were very high, and it made him distinctly uncomfortable, because he could not push them back. And he should. To preserve himself, he really should...but perhaps, in a few days, he would not have to.
Edrington mulled that over for a moment, the letter temporarily forgotten. He had gotten himself into this situation, but it was not a permanent one. They would soon return to port, and his association with Kennedy would be at an end. He had fulfilled his obligation - he had seen the lad safely to Dr. Hornblower's house and delivered the sea chest, and would see him safely back - and after that, Mr. Kennedy could be safely left on his own. And Edrington could say that his duty had been done.
Well...Edrington shifted in his chair, almost feeling Hornblower's dark, accusing eyes on him. He knew that if Hornblower were there he would argue that point. Archie is not safe yet, he would say. He is adrift, within sight of the lights of home but without navigation. I was his compass for as long as I was able; now I trust you to do the rest.
The rest! Edrington shook his head, Mr. Hornblower, there may be no 'rest'. Mr. Kennedy may have the makings of as fine an officer as any, but what good is that when he is so undone with fear? How can he convince the men to follow him, how will he react when the enemy is all around him and there is work to do? You did your job admirably well, but there is only so much that can be done. It may be more merciful to allow Mr. Kennedy to fail quickly, and realize his place in life, than goad him with false hopes of glory and achievement and then watch him fall short.
The accusing eyes grew sharper. I only provided support and counsel, Hornblower's voice answered. Mr. Kennedy has shown all the bravery, and he has done his job *exceedingly* well. It is you who are failing me at this point. And I do not wish to take you for a coward. Neither does your mother.
Edrington put one hand on the letter and tapped it anxiously. He was no coward, and his mother knew it. But he also knew what she would say if he spoke to her about Hornblower's death, rather than writing it down.
"Mama, I'm afraid I have some very sad news to report. Mr. Hornblower was killed in a recent raid on the French coast."
"Oh, that's terrible! He was the Naval officer you were so close to in the Muzillac campaign?"
"Er - yes, although I would hesitate to say we were close - "
"Alexander, I'm so sorry. How are you feeling?"
"I'm bearing up, mama, but I confess it's rather difficult."
"Of course it is. Does he have any family?"
"Yes, in fact I paid my respects to his father to assist one of his shipmates in delivering his sea chest."
"Oh? Which shipmate was that, dear?"
"A Mr. Archie Kennedy, he was with us in Muzillac as well. He was Hornblower's very closest friend."
"How awful for him! But I am impressed that he saw to the delivery of the chest. Do you know him very well?"
"Not very, and I'm afraid we don't have that much in common, aside from aristocratic title and an acquaintance with Mr. Hornblower."
"Well, he's fortunate that you are around to help him through this terrible time. You can help each other through. Having someone to talk to would do you a world of good."
"Er - well, I suppose, mama, but I haven't had much experience at this sort of thing. I'm afraid I'm not very good at it."
"Nonsense! You're my son, you're brilliant at everything you put your hand to. And I didn't raise you to turn your back on someone simply because you're uncomfortable."
"No, mama, of course you didn't. But Mr. Kennedy's life is very different from mine, and I don't know if I can afford him much help. Besides, soon we shall have to part company and I can give him no help then."
"Excuses! His life can't be so different from yours that you can't find something to talk about. Talk about Mr. Hornblower - talk about him often, so he'll never be forgotten by either of you. That's what the boy needs, to share what made him and Mr. Hornblower such close friends."
"Well - yes, mama, but he becomes so easily undone - "
"Oh, now you sound like your father. Mr. Kennedy's in mourning, but it's nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to be afraid of, especially for my 6-foot-tall son who's a major in the English army and has his own share of medals! You've been placed in Mr. Kennedy's path for a reason, Alexander. God does not do anything by chance."
"I know, mama, but I must confess I cannot see any reason why the Almighty would think that I could do Mr. Kennedy any good. For him to come out of this episode the sort of man that Hornblower was would take nothing short of a miracle."
"Well, you're my son, darling. You do miracles every day."
Edrington smiled as the conversation faded out of his head. It was almost as if it had occurred, he knew so well what his mother would say. She would accept no argument, no excuse against the simple fact that Kennedy needed him, and he was there. God had already sealed both their fates.
But still...Edrington's brown eyes gazed at the closed door of his room anxiously. Still, there was this tremendous wall to get over. Still, there was this unaccountable fear that reaching out to a soul in distress would prove more dangerous and harrowing than facing a horde of Frenchmen bristling with bayonets. And still, there was the tempting comfort of simply refusing his fate, seeing Kennedy back to Plymouth, and letting him go his own way to float or founder. Then he could return to his regiment and go back to being the cool, aloof soldier. Yes, at the moment that was very tempting indeed.
*If you cut him adrift I will never forgive you.*
Edrington paused. He was certain it was his imagination, but - damned if that didn't sound like Hornblower's voice. Of course it wasn't, simply the wind and his fatigue playing tricks, but...again he felt the prickly sensation of being watched, of those great brown eyes gazing at him in earnest supplication. *I would not have entrusted him to you if I were not convinced that you could shore each other up in the great storm that is to come. You will save each other's lives. Archie's friendship is a sacred trust, to be cherished and encouraged, and if you abandon the wealth of his companionship out of fear than you are not only a coward, Alexander. You are a fool as well.*
Edrington shivered, and ran a hand over his face. It was becoming cold in that little room, and the night air was playing tricks. He took a deep breath, and gazed at the letter in front of him. Friendship a sacred trust...his mother would say the same thing. And she was bound to hear of Hornblower's passing eventually, and then he would receive the endearingly overconcerned letter anyway.
And he had made a promise, blast it, whether it was to an apparition or a departed friend. And he knew himself that he was no coward.
So, having resolved that he was in this for good or ill, Alexander Edrington picked up the quill and dipped it in the ink, and wrote:
Do not fear, all is well. I am writing to convey some news that I know you would want to be privy to. I am aggrieved to tell you that Mr. Hornblower has fallen in battle . What this means to my life I do not yet know. I only know that it seems the mere knowledge of his death is not the end of our association, for my mind misgives, as Mr. Shakespeare would say, some consequence yet hanging in the stars. I can only reply, to continue the allusion, 'Let he who hath steerage of my course, direct my sail'.
Your affectionate son,
The letter was done. Edrington picked up the sprinkler of powder to dry the ink, then thought of something and stopped, frowning at the words he had just written down. Two things suddenly bothered him, and he knew that he would spend a restless night thinking about them, and the new course his life was set upon.
Why had he unthinkingly quoted Shakespeare?
And what did the night wind know about a great storm, and Archie Kennedy saving his life?