A Life of Duty: Dr. Hornblower
by JOAN CURTIN
"Home is the sailor, home from the Sea ..."
Disclaimer: I have no financial or creative claim the these
characters. They belong to C.S. Forester, and in some cases to
A&E. All I know of Dr. Hornblower, I have learned from his son.
The wind had risen steadily through the night; soughing eerily in
the nearly naked tree branches, and rattling the windows in their
frames. Doctor Julius Hornblower sat in his study. He had laid no
fire on the grate, and had lit only one candle to penetrate the utter
darkness of the room. It could not warm the recesses of his heart;
that hollow chamber that was the seat of life. He wished his own
heart had been blasted from his chest at the moment his son's had
been pierced by the bullet that had killed him.
He heard the door open, and without turning spoke. "I won't be
needing anything else, Margaret. You can go now."
Mrs. Dabney spoke in an apologetic voice. "Beggin' your
pardon, Doctor Hornblower. But there are two gentlemen to see
"Tell them the surgery is closed."
"Oh, sir. They haven't come for that. They have ..." Margaret's
voice choked oddly, and Dr. Hornblower turned to her at last.
"Well, what is it?"
"Sir, they have Master Horatio's sea chest."
Dear God! Not this, not now. Not when he hurt so deeply. For a
brief moment he considered telling Margaret to have them leave the
chest in the hall, and dismiss them, but the rising wind, and the first
dash of rain on the sill, made him reconsider. It was a foul night,
and they deserved some consideration for their journey.
"Very good, Margaret. I will be right with them." He rose stiffly,
his arthritic joints aching in protest at the weather and the motion.
His hands were shaking as he reached for the doorknob. He pulled
back with a curse. Such weakness! Over wood and a few pieces of
fabric. He had told himself time and again that Horatio was gone; if
he could say those words, then what terrors could a sea chest hold?
He seized the doorknob and went into the hall.
Two men stood there, a wooden chest between them. They were
not common seamen, as Dr. Hornblower had expected. They both
looked immeasurably weary. The taller man stepped forward. His
blond hair was tied back in a queue of military precision, and his
bearing attested to his occupation. "Dr. Hornblower?"
"I am Major Alexander Edrington. And this is Acting Lieutenant
Archie Kennedy. We have brought Lieutenant Hornblower's sea
chest home." There was such gravity in those words, as if the
Major wished he had brought Horatio home safely as well. Dr.
Hornblower could have sworn he saw a film of moisture in those
steady blue eyes. He could not bear the pity he saw in them. He
looked to Kennedy. This was the boy Horatio had called his best
friend. So young; Dr. Hornblower thought. Younger even than
Horatio. And so pale that he might have been a shade himself.
A memory tugged at Dr. Hornblower's mind. "Edrington? Yes, I
have it now. You were with Horatio at Muzillac. And Mr.
Kennedy, of course. Horatio always spoke most fondly of you.
Please, come in. You may set the chest down, and I will see to it
later." Dr. Hornblower nodded to Margaret. "Surely we have
something to offer these gentlemen, Margaret?"
"Yes, sir. I'm sure we do."
They went into the study, and Dr. Hornblower suddenly realized
how dark and chilly the room was. "Sit you down, gentlemen. My
apologies. I have neglected to light the fire --"
As he reached for the flint, his hands started shaking and a wave
of weakness washed over him. He tried to hide it, but the Major
was at his side in an instant, his strong hand closing gently over his.
"Allow me, Dr. Hornblower."
"Major, I --"
Edrington smiled. "Your son would argue with me, too, sir. I
must insist that you let me do this for you. Mr. Kennedy?"
"Y-yes, my lord?" Archie stammered. He had been staring at a
portrait on the mantel. A woman, dark- haired, and dark-eyed. Her
lips curved in an exact reflection of Horatio's smile. He had reached
up involuntarily to touch the glass, as if he could feel the warmth of
flesh and blood.
Dr. Hornblower laid a hand on Archie's shoulder. "Yes. It is his
mother. There are times when I would look at Horatio and could
see her so clearly. It would comfort me ... and now he is gone, as
Archie, standing next to the Doctor saw him age before his eyes.
His shoulders bowed with grief, his thin face ravaged with
unfathomable pain. "Sir, please. He would not wish you to be so
"I killed him, Mr. Kennedy. It was my fault, my utterly fatal fault
that he joined the Navy. If I had not been blinded by pride and fear,
I would never have insisted that he take up Captain Keene's offer.
And he would be alive today." An anguished sob broke from the
Dr. Hornblower's knees seemed to buckle, and Archie cried out
to Edrington for help. Together they sat the grieving man down in a
chair. Edrington poured a glass of brandy and held it to the older
man's lips, while Archie, feeling completely inadequate in the face
of a father's pain, could do little but stroke the Doctor's hand. He
and Edrington exchanged glances. They had each grieved in their
own way. They had lost a friend, a companion of their hearts, but
this man had lost everything.
It was Archie who spoke first. "He loved it, you know. He loved
the sea. It was his life. He loved it so much, that he was willing to
die for his duty, for his men. For me. He knew that at some point he
might be asked for that sacrifice, but he never regretted it. That last
night ... he knew what had to be done. And he did it. He put his
heart into us all, he gave us his courage, his strength. And even
after he fell, I believe that he was still guiding us ..."
Archie suddenly stopped speaking. He was certain that he had
been rambling like a madman, for it was not his usual way with
words. Edrington had tears slipping down his face. And Dr.
Hornblower was staring at him. "Horatio ..."
Archie could not have known that for a brief instant, Dr.
Hornblower had seen his son's face overlaid on Archie's features
like a thin veil of mist. That Kennedy's blue eyes had worn an
expression so like Horatio's, and that his voice had even taken on
the cadence of Horatio's voice when he was caught up in an
emotion. He only knew that what he had said had caused Dr.
Hornblower fresh grief. "I'm sorry, sir. To have gone on like that
Horatio was the best friend I shall ever have. I would have died for
Doctor Hornblower nodded, and touched Archie's hand where it
lay on his. "You were a good friend to him, Mr. Kennedy. And
Major Edrington, he spoke of you as well."
Edrington smiled. "Kindly, I hope. The Army and the Navy have
never been easy with each other."
"He regarded you as a friend."
"It was an honor to know him, sir. He was exceptional."
Doctor Hornblower drained his brandy glass. "Gentlemen,
would you mind bringing in the sea chest? I would like to go
through it now. Mrs. Dabney will have set out some supper for you
in the dining room."
"Will you be all right, sir?" Archie asked.
"Yes, Mr. Kennedy. I will."
He sat for a long while after they had left him before he found
the courage to open the trunk. It was surprisingly light, for Horatio
had never been one to husband possessions. His sword lay on top
of the layers, the gilt tassel on the scabbard crusted with salt, but
quite untarnished. Dr. Hornblower drew the blade free. The edge
was notched, and it had obviously been used for its intended
purpose. Dr. Hornblower laid it aside, wondering how his gangly,
studious child had become so fierce a warrior. There were two
pistols as well, not as well cared for as the sword. They too were
Beneath the weapons were his clothes. Blue wool jackets, faded
and patched; his dress coat, finely tailored but as badly worn as his
other things. He had been so proud of it. Eleven pounds, he had
paid. Eleven pounds for a coat that could not protect him. A
pitifully small layer of wrinkled shirts, mended stockings, crumbled
neckcloths. Dr. Hornblower touched the silk lightly. Then in an
agony of grief, picked one up and laid it against his cheek. It
smelled faintly damp, and very faintly of sweat. Just a frail reminder
of Horatio's mortality.
Horatio's officers' cloak, lined with scarlet that had hung so
gracefully from his shoulders, and yet conspired to tangle and trip
him as he walked. Or so he had said, laughing when he had first
tried it on for his father.
And finally, his personal possessions. It was as if delving through
the layers of the sea chest, he were slowly undressing Horatio's
soul, until it lay naked before him. His books, the essence of his fine
mind. A small bundle of Dr. Hornblower's letters, well-handled and
read more than once. A black velvet bag ... Dr. Hornblower opened
it curiously, and then clutched it to his heart. The locket left him by
his mother. Her portrait painted on ivory. It did not do her justice;
could not capture her life, but he had treasured it just the same. He
had given it to Horatio the night before he left with the admonition
that he should not forget her. The chain had been broken at some
point, but Horatio had kept it close. Doctor Hornblower rocked
back on his heels, keening beneath his breath. "My son, my son ...
He was so alone, so cold, despite the fire Major Edrington had
kindled. He closed the lid of the sea chest and lay prostrate across
it, as if it held Horatio's body waiting to be buried. How many
words had he left unsaid? How many times had he hidden his love
for his son, never dreaming that they would never meet again? He
looked up, and saw reflected in the window, the face of an old, old
man that he did not recognize as his own.
And then, something else. A glimmer of white that blurred with
his tears, and then briefly focused. "It doesn't matter, father. I
There was no answer, just the wind in the boughs, and the rain
on the windows. But there was something else ... the light, fresh
scent of the sea lingering in the winter room.
Dr. Hornblower inhaled deeply, imagining the clean air filling his
lungs and giving him strength. He repacked the sea chest, save for
the locket which he slipped with a sigh into his pocket. He would
place it on the mantel in Horatio's room, as if he were expected to
return and claim it.
It was late, and there were two grieving men waiting in his
dining room. Perhaps later, they would speak of Horatio. They
might even smile, or laugh at some fragment of memory -- or weep,
for the ache in their hearts would never go away. But they would
none of them be as alone as they had been before.