A Life of Duty: Bracegirdle
By Sue N.


Bracegirdle woodenly made his rounds about
Indefatigable, as tired in spirit as he was in body,
yet strangely grateful he had the watch and so would
be spared the fruitless agony of trying to seek sleep
just now.

What was the line? "To sleep, perchance to dream... "

No. God, no. Anything but that...

Sir, I regret to inform you that Lieutenant Hornblower
is dead.

He exhaled unsteadily and lifted his eyes to the
countless stars piercing the black breast of the sky,
yet saw instead another breast, pierced not by stars,
but by lead, and wondered how these stars could shine
so brightly when eyes that once had held much the same
brilliance were now dulled and empty, drained forever
of their light...

To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there's the rub...

Lieutenant Hornblower is dead.

He clenched his jaws tightly and tore his gaze from
the sky, wishing he could still the tortured
wanderings of his mind. He was officer of the watch;
he should be noting the details of the ship, the
activities of the men on watch, should be searching
the sky for storms, the sea for ships...

Merciful God, had the Indy ever been so silent?

A light, steady wind blew from the south, and her
sails and rigging should have humming their customary,
familiar song. Yet now even that was strangely
subdued, as was the creaking of the timbers, as if the
ship herself had gone silent in grief. Some part, some
spark, had gone from her, he could feel it. He was not
a fanciful man, but he knew ships took on the
character, the spirit, of the men in them, and knew
the ships, like the men, felt it deeply when some part
of that spirit was lost.

The Indy knew, and she was holding her breath, holding
herself still and silent, waiting for the terrible
ache to pass...

I regret to inform you that Lieutenant Hornblower is
dead.

He returned with leaden steps the to quarter-deck,
acutely conscious of the pain and despair that rose
like a bitter sea about him. Through the skylight, he
could see that lamps yet burned in the captain's
cabin, and knew sleep was as impossible -- and as
unwelcome -- there as it was anywhere else aboard, and
perhaps even more so.

God, what hell must hold that stout, fierce heart
captive just now? What agony must be grinding away in
the depths of that dauntless soul?

From high in the maintop, he suddenly heard a hideous
cry, a howl of sheer animal grief, and shuddered at
the primitive sound of it. He had seen Styles go up
earlier, and knew he had not come down. He stared
aloft to where he knew the man to be and wondered if
he should go to him, but knew he had no answers, not
the smallest bit of comfort to offer, and decided he
would not compound the man's agony with the shame of
having it witnessed.

Kennedy, perhaps...?

Again, no. He had seen the young man earlier, going
into Hornblowerís cabin, his face white and strained,
his blue eyes haunted by a torment that could not be
named. And he had heard the sobs, the deep, wrenching
sobs that had been torn from that battered soul by the
one blow the boy had never imagined he would face.
Kennedy, already so wounded, so scarred, but having so
many times before found shelter, solace and healing in
refuge that would now be denied him forevermore; he
should probably go see to Kennedy...

Sir, I regret to inform you that Lieutenant Hornblower
is dead.

God, would the cursed refrain never cease?

He clapped his hands to his ears and closed his eyes
tightly, but could not block out the words. Such
promise, such talent, such spirit and life, gone now
forever...

He dropped his hands with a soft, tired groan and cast
his gaze again to the star-pierced sky, desperately
seeking some answer, some comfort, but finding only
the cold and infinite silence of night.

Oh, God, how could he possibly help those about him to
understand, to accept, and to heal, when he could
manage none of it himself?

"You will find a way."

The words came to him upon the breath of the wind in a
voice as familiar as his own. Startled, he turned
toward the taffrail aft and stared into the darkness
there, seeing a vague and formless shimmer of light
against the black backdrop of sea and sky.

"You will find a way," the voice said again. "You
always do. It is your particular gift."

He was not a fanciful man, but he saw, and knew it was
true. With a soft, wordless cry he hurried forward,
and watched the form take shape.

Tall and gangly, Horatio stood at the rail in death as
he had so many times before in life, clad only in
white shirt and breeches, his tousled hair untouched
by the wind. Eyes as dark and as fathomless as
eternity gazed steadily, kindly, back at him, and the
wide mouth curved slowly into the characteristic
boyish grin. Only the red stain at his breast showed
what distance he had travelled in order to return to
the ship that so painfully felt his absence.

Bracegirdle drew up before him and smiled, though his
blue eyes swam with tears. "Well, Mr. Hornblower," he
said roughly, his voice terribly unsteady, "I suppose
by now I should be accustomed to your dramatic
appearances, but I fear this time you have quite
outdone yourself." He glanced up and down that still,
slim figure, and noted he could just see through it.
"I take it, then, you are not here for good?"

"I have a final duty to discharge," Horatio said
quietly, his once-youthful tone now touched by
timelessness. He raised a pale, translucent hand and
swept it about Indefatigable in a broad gesture. "I
have come to entrust her -- and those in her -- into
your keeping."

"My k-- my keeping?" Bracegirdle repeated, confused.
"What- "

"You told me once," Hornblower said, his voice little
louder than the sighing of the wind, but carrying
easily to the other man's ears, "that a good officer
knows his men, their ways, their needs. And you have
shown me that is true. I have always admired you for
your insights into us all, for the judgments that were
never wrong, for the corrections and commendations
that were never made in error." He turned slightly and
gazed about the ship, as if seeing through her timbers
to the men who lived in her. "They need you now," he
said softly, "more than ever. They fear they have lost
their way. I have come to ask you to show them."

Bracegirdle's eyes widened, and he shook his head
slowly. "How can I?" he asked softly. "What they feel
now-- "

"Will pass, in time," Hornblower assured him. He
lifted his head slightly, as if gauging the wind that
never touched him. "The Indy is lost," he murmured,
"adrift. She needs a firm hand at her rudder, to guide
her through these seas. These are waters she does not
know and is not certain she can survive. Her crew is
wounded, and needs a gentle hand to bind the wounds."
Those dark eyes again found the first lieutenant's
face. "What they need, sir, is you. I came to hand
them into your keeping."

Bracegirdle turned abruptly away and bowed his head,
staring down at the deck. "I cannot!" he whispered,
his own soul clenched tightly in pain. "This is beyond
me-- " He turned sharply back and stared at the young
man with a building anger. "You left them!" he accused
harshly. "You left them when they had come to depend
so much upon you, you left them with wounds every bit
as deep and mortal as the one that took you from them!
Captain Pellew saw himself in you, and in losing you,
has lost himself! And what of Mr. Kennedy? How can you
expect him to survive one more blow, one more loss,
when he has lost so much else already? You taught them
to trust you, to depend upon you, to love you, and
then you were gone! How could you have done that to
them?"

Horatio sighed, his eyes gentle, his unearthly face
sad. "You know I never wanted to leave them," he said
softly. "But you also know that no man may turn away
from his duty, however painful it might be." He
continued to hold Bracegirdleís eyes with his own.
"And you are wrong in one thing, sir. I did not leave
them alone. I left them you."

Slowly, dazedly, Bracegirdle shook his head. "I could
never replace you, Horatio," he whispered. "I could
never be the man you are-- "

"I would never ask that of you. What I do ask is that
you be the man YOU are, for that is the very man they
need." He glanced down at the skylight, seeing the
light through it, feeling the anguish rising through
it. "Now and in the days to come, Captain Pellew will
need your steadiness, your calm, your thoughtful
wisdom, more than he ever has before. We both know he
is near breaking just now. I would ask you to lend him
your strength when his own fails. He is the heart of
Indefatigable. So long as he endures, she will also.
But should he falter-- I am asking you to make certain
he does not."

"And what of young Kennedy?" Bracegirdle asked softly.

Horatio smiled slightly, sadly. "Archie," he murmured.
"He is stronger than anyone, even he, knows. I would
like you to help him find that strength." His gaze
flickered aloft to the maintop. "I have also entrusted
him to Styles."

Bracegirdle blinked in astonishment. "Styles?"

Horatio smiled ruefully. "That was Styles' reaction,
as well. But they need one another, and you, I think,
know why."

Bracegirdle thought a moment, then smiled slightly and
nodded as understanding dawned. "Yes, I do. One who
does not trust, and one who is not trusted. Perhaps,
together... " He sighed. "They are good men."

"They are all good men," Horatio said. "And I leave
them all in your good care. Or I will, if you will
have them."

Bracegirdle stared long and hard at the figure before
him, then stiffened into a military brace and inclined
his head. "I can think of no greater honour, or
privilege, sir," he said softly.

The ghostly figure smiled. "Then my final duty is
discharged." His eyes sought and held Bracegirdle's.
"Sir, I wish you to know, it has been a rare honour to
serve with you. I have learned much from your
instruction, and have treasured your friendship. I
know there are no better hands into which I could
commend my shipmates."

"Goodbye, Horatio," Bracegirdle said softly, knowing
that was, indeed, what this was. "You have been a
remarkable young man. I shall not forget you. I-- " In
that instant, the wind changed and he turned
instinctively to gauge it, lifting his gaze to the
rigging. Almost at once, however, it shifted back, and
he turned again to the taffrail.

Horatio was gone.

Lieutenant Hornblower is dead.

Bracegirdle smiled slightly, and bobbed his head
briefly. "Goodbye, Horatio," he whispered. "God speed
you to your rest."

Only the sighing of the wind answered, but it was
enough. Bracegirdle glanced down at the skylight,
below which one man suffered unspeakably, then aloft
to the maintop, where another had taken refuge with
his grief. Indeed, all about him, men huddled, or
paced, or drank, or wept, tough souls all, but rocked
to their foundations by a blow they had never
anticipated.

Very well, then. Tonight, he would allow them their
grieving, for to a man they needed that. Tomorrow,
however...

He glanced at the taffrail, then up at the brilliant
stars.

Well, tomorrow he would see about getting
Indefatigable, and the wounded souls in her, back on
course.

Tomorrow, he would begin carrying out his duty.

THE END
**********