A Life of Duty: Dr. Sebastian
by Sarah B.


It was a beautiful night to walk beneath the stars.

This was the thought Dr. Luis Sebastian entertained as he made his way around the seaside gardens of his small estate. It was a warm night, heavy with approaching summer, and the trees seemed to whisper their encouragement as he strode the slate walks, the heels of his boots echoing through the solitary night air. Stay here, the mild breeze suggested with the rustle of every leaf and branch; stay here and heal. It is what you are meant to do.

For the moment, Dr. Sebastian listened to that warm spring night, and was not in a hurry to do anything except walk beneath the glory of God's heaven and let his mind wander. He had leave from his duties as surgeon on the Indefatigable, with assurances from Captain Pellew that he would receive word when she was back in port and ready to sail again, and although he knew that word would come soon he knew he would not receive it in the middle of the night. So he tried to relax, and let his mind wander and heal. As he knew it must, if he was to be of help to anyone at all.

The doctor reached an open, grassy area where the trees parted and there was a spectacular view of the dark and restless sea. He paused for a moment, letting his dark eyes drink in the sight of the half-moon glistening on the surging tides, and losing himself in the roar of the sea as it crashed to the shore far below him, then rushed back out to heave itself in again, like a penitent man thrashing himself against the rocks, desperate for forgiveness. Forgiveness -

Stop it, Sebastian thought to himself, that is long past and over. Long past, and she is gone. And you have to let yourself heal.

He turned and looked at the estate behind him, ghostly white in the moonlight. It was not much, a small stone house, a garden, some slender trees that could survive in the thin soil. There were lights in the house, kept by Sister Beatrice of the local convent when Dr. Sebastian was in town. The doctor smiled to himself, knowing that even at that moment the good nun was standing at the window waiting for him to return, even though she knew it would not be for hours. Look how thin you've gotten, she had wailed when she saw him arrive three weeks ago. You look like you haven't eaten in ages! So he knew she would worry until he returned. It was not a bad feeling, to know that.

The doctor's eyes wandered over the land, to a spot nearer to him, and another pool of light. His heart twinged, for he was looking at a tiny chapel he had built with his own two hands twenty years ago. It was a lovely structure he was told, small but suffused with holiness and care, with two walls composed almost entirely of beautiful stained glass brought from Paris. Those windows shone now, for there were candles lit in the chapel, and the light spilled over the fledgling grass, turning it colors of red and blue and yellow.

And if the light reached a little further, Sebastian knew it would touch two tombstones, one larger than the other, with inscriptions he knew by heart. The graves of his wife and son.

Dr. Sebastian began to walk again, his mind turning back to a day long ago, some two years after he received his assignment to serve aboard the H.M.S. Valiant. He had done his best, but must have shown signs of exhaustion because his captain, Andrew Turner, had called him into his cabin with a worried look in his eyes. "Luis, what's the matter with you?"

Strange, Sebastian could recall the conversation as if it were yesterday. "Me? Nothing, I assure you."

"Poppycock! You've been in the surgery almost without stopping for a week, and the cook told me you haven't had a meal in days. And have you looked at yourself lately?"

"I am fine, sir, merely attempting to catch up on my work."

"This from the man who ordered me to stop driving myself so hard? I don't believe you."

"Nevertheless, it is - "

Then, a hand on his shoulder, and his captain's eyes as angry and frightened as he'd ever seen them. "Confound it, Luis, stop lying to me. Something's bothering you, I've had ten men ask me about it. You know you're far too valuable to this ship for me to allow you to disappear without an explanation, so out with it. We can sit here all day if you like, at least then you'd get some rest."

Sebastian had sighed, knowing how stubborn his captain was and that there was no escape. So he had told him the truth.

Sebastian was certain his captain was not expecting a love story, but that was how the explanation started. Two young people, a struggling young doctor with an English father and a Spanish mother, and the fairest rose to ever bloom on England's shores. He did not divulge much - he didn't have to - only that her family disapproved, called him a pagan and other disparaging names, and demanded that she marry Viscount Walter Lennox, a young man from a wealthy, connected family.

That might have been the end of it, but Sebastian knew that young man, had treated young women he had beaten and abused, and warned her parents of the man's evil nature. They had scoffed and ordered him away, but he would not go and abandon his love to the caprices of a wicked, violent temper. And she would not stay and be wed to a man she did not love. So they did the only thing they could - they ran away and married in secret.

Sebastian tilted his head up to the stars, watched them through a haze of tears. Did God object? Had they done the wrong thing, to defy her parents and all of society? Certainly not, for they had been so happy, and he had felt so blessed. He had come here, to a small fishing village, and established himself as a skilled physician so quickly that no one minded that his skin was not fair like hers. When she told him they were to have a child, Sebastian thought his happiness would be complete.

But it was not to be. She began to have pains and bleed, and one tearful night confessed to Sebastian that Lennox had beaten her once, but she had hidden it, afraid that Sebastian would challenge the aristocrat and be killed. The pain grew worse, the bleeding increased. Sebastian tried everything he knew, but as she became weaker he realized that there was nothing he could do but hold his wife and comfort her until the need for earthly comfort was over.

Then he dug two graves, one small and one smaller, and that week sold everything he owned except that land and went to Spain to study medicine.

Captain Turner listened to Sebastian's story in silence, then quietly asked, "It was this time of year?"

Sebastian had cleared his throat, and was suddenly aware that he had been standing quite stiffly, with his hands clasped behind his back as he told the story. "Yes, sir. Nearly."

"You haven't told me her name."

"Nor shall I, sir. That is now only between me, and God."

And so Dr. Sebastian obtained his first leave.

He never told the story to anyone else, and Captain Turner never brought it up again. As soon as the Valiant made port, Dr. Sebastian gathered up his belongings and went to his home, where the weight of others' well-being was off his shoulders and he could weep in peace. The first leave was when he had started building the chapel, seeking in God what he knew he would never find in man: a promise of everlasting reunion, and peace.

There would have been every reason to think that once Captain Turner set sail again, that their conversation would be forgotten and life would go on as it always had. But strangely enough, Dr. Sebastian noticed that about that same time every year, Turner would find some reason to go back to England, and he would be given leave. He never asked about this astonishing coincidence, but he was always grateful.

But his time with Captain Turner was over, the days of the Valiant gone. Dr. Sebastian was sailing with new men, a new ship and a new captain, and he had debated whether to tell Pellew of his troubles, or see if perhaps time had done its work, and he did not need to come back here again.

Then the answer had come, as he had prayed it would, and oddly enough it had come in the person of Archie Kennedy.

Dr. Sebastian turned and began walking again, listening to the steady sound of his shoes on the stone walk. He had not known Kennedy long, only a matter of months really, but there had been in the boy such a sharp and urgent need to heal from his hurts that Sebastian had responded to it before even knowing how deep those hurts were. He was only just now finding out, and the anger it awakened in him was appalling.

Anger that such an obviously gentle soul had been so viciously abused. Anger that nothing had been done about it. Anger that even now, in young adulthood and among friends who would die to protect him, Kennedy could only speak of those haunted days aboard Justinian in halting whispers and incomplete memories. Listening to his trials, Sebastian felt an old and buried anguish flaring in his own soul, felt the irresistible need for peace that was pulling him back to this chapel, this hill, this shore. The anguish threatened to blot out all else, and make him useless to Kennedy and the men of the Indefatigable.

So Dr. Sebastian relented, and went to Captain Pellew's cabin to tell him the story.

Pellew was sympathetic, as Sebastian knew that worthy man would be. A leave was arranged, and as soon as the Indie docked Dr. Sebastian left the ship in the expert care of another surgeon he knew well, and set out for home.

He had been home nearly a month, and could feel in his heart that he was nearing the end of his stay. The hurt and anger had ebbed out, replaced with strength and confidence. He was rested and renewed, and as soon as he was given word Dr. Sebastian knew he would be ready to face whatever lay ahead for the Indefatigable and her crew. He was ready to do his duty.

Certainly that duty would include continuing to help Kennedy, Sebastian thought as he turned his footsteps toward the little chapel where he would light the votives and say his evening prayers. The boy's trials had been long, and he had told no one - no one - of his torments. Even though Dr. Sebastian could sense that Kennedy trusted him implicitly, still a great unburdening had not come. Kennedy needed to weep, to scream, to exhaust himself railing against those who had done these terrible things; beneath that anguish lay healing, Sebastian knew. But he was not sure Kennedy would ever trust himself enough to let the anguish out.

But there was time for that, Sebastian told himself as he neared the welcoming light of the little stone church. They had only just begun to talk, and such a cataclysmic event could only happen in an atmosphere of total security. Or failing that, in a place where you were so distraught that you no longer cared who heard you crying out. But please God, Kennedy would never be in that position.

Several candles in the chapel were already lit, and Sebastian smiled to himself as he entered the room that was now aglow with warm light and soft holiness. Despite its sad beginning, the chapel always meant serenity and calm to him; it was the only place in the world where he knew he could come and not be disturbed. The walls were plain except for the windows, the altar a simple square stone with a velvet cloth spread on it, and a crucifix the nuns had given him. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood nearby, her quiet face radiating purity and sanctification, and Sebastian looked at the votive candles flickering at her feet and drank in the silent reassurance there: despite his trials, he had always believed that God listened to him when he lit those candles. Their tiny lights were closer to Him than the stars, and Sebastian knew he was being heard.

There were only four pews in the chapel, there was room for no more. Sebastian sat down in one of them and bent his head forward to pray, reflecting as he always did the men and women he had lit those candles for. This was his favorite moment of the time spent there, when he could be alone with God to discuss his needs, and the needs of the ones he loved. And he did not hesitate to do so.

The first candle had been lit for his wife, as it had always been. Sebastian felt the familiar tug at his heart, swallowed the tears as the well-known melancholy washed over him like a bitter tide. You know my anguish, Lord, he prayed. You know my sadness and my struggles. Keep her safe in Your loving care until we meet again, and although in Your bliss she may have forgotten me, I know that when I see her again it will be as if not a moment has gone by since our parting. Give me strength to endure until then.

The second candle was for his son, and Sebastian's eyes shone as he looked at that tiny flame in its glass holder. You never had an opportunity to play, to laugh, to feel the earth beneath your feet and see God's sky above you. And yet you know all these wonders and more, and will never know a moment's pain or loss. When next we meet, I look forward to seeing you run into my arms and hearing you call me father. Keep my boy well, Lord. I know I do not have to ask you to do so.

Other candles burned too. There was one lit for the men of the Valiant, who were lost when she sank some months before; another burned for Captain Turner, who after his acquittal at his court-martial had been offered a job as an advisor in the Gibraltar admiralty. His letters to Sebastian had been full of bluster at having to deal with politics, but he was clearly happy. And, Sebastian knew, would one day be eager to sail again.

Next to those candles burned the ones for the men of the Indefatigable. One for Captain Pellew, whose strength and steadfast sense of right and honor had filled Sebastian with pride, that he was serving on such a ship; surely it was a blessing that he should have such good fortune in captains twice! Next to him a flame burned for Kennedy, in the hopes that he would find the courage to open the doors that would lead him to health and healing, and by facing his demons vanquish them forever. And in the middle, a candle burned for Pellew's lieutenant, Horatio Hornblower.

Dr. Sebastian dropped his gaze to the stone floor and smiled as he closed his eyes. Certainly Horatio, a lifelong skeptic and questioner of all faith, would be appalled at anyone bothering to light a candle for him! Horatio the scoffer, the product of late-eighteenth-century thinking, who had always cleared his throat uncomfortably when religion was discussed, would say that he needed no heavenly guidance to do what was right and good, and that there was no conclusive proof that anything like an all-powerful God even existed. They had debated the idea, for Dr. Sebastian enjoyed spiritual discussion and Horatio enjoyed any kind of debate, and truthfully the doctor was very intrigued by this young man, who had the courage of a lion and the stalwart heart of England beating in his breast, but whose attitude toward religion approached fearful apprehension. A more perfect dichotomy could not possibly exist!

Except, of course, where Horatio and Kennedy were concerned. Their friendship was apparent to Dr. Sebastian from the start, and he thanked God that the two young men had found a friendship in a world where such a connection might not be made in a lifetime. Kennedy needed Horatio's strength; Horatio needed Kennedy's humor and youthful enthusiasm. Together they helped each other, although neither man would likely admit it, and Dr. Sebastian knew they would continue to do so until it was no longer possible.

The warmth inside the chapel was perfumed and inviting, and Sebastian kept his eyes closed and leaned back in the pew, releasing his mind to see where God would take it. It was on old and practiced habit, his favorite manner of prayer; sometimes he could find an answer to a problem, or become aware of something that needed to be dealt with, by simply going to a quiet place and freeing his thoughts until he was spoken to. And so he did it tonight.

It was like sleeping almost, this manner of prayer. Sebastian became aware, as he always did, of the sounds and scents around him. The night sounds on the estate - the wind rustling in the trees, the pounding of the surf against the rocks far below, the chirping and buzzing of nighttime insects. All this was suffused with the scent of the candles and the heavy peace that lay within those sacred walls, and the aura of the place wrapped itself around Sebastian's consciousness like a blanket of the softest down, and he smiled at the feeling. Like resting in God's arms, he thought drowsily. Like complete peace...

As it usually happened in these meditations, things shifted a little, and Sebastian let his mind wander from one concern to the next, bringing each one to the fore in the hopes of finding some new revelation or means of redress that he had not considered before. He had learned long ago that it was best not to do this consciously, but to let each image come and go as it willed. It was at this time that Sebastian felt most keenly the hand of God guiding him, and he never questioned it. There were times when he thought perhaps he could see a vision this way. But it had not happened yet.

So Dr. Sebastian let his mind float about, and settled into the pew comfortably to float with it. Images came, faces he knew, and feelings too, each one with their own cares that were now his as well. What to do with them? This one, a cabin boy scarce ten years old, he misses his mother and is so homesick he deliberately makes himself sick to get some attention; and this one, a rating who just found out his wife is expecting a child and wants to go home, but cannot; and another, a bosun's mate who has a cancer I cannot cure, and is afraid to die.

So many hands outstretched, Lord, so much need. And I am only one man.

The faces faded, and there was nothing for a time. Sebastian sank into the quiet, drank in the scent of the candles and the dampness of the air. So much need, but here there is rest and forgetfulness. Just for a time, to forget that there is anger and evil and want, and rest in the Lord's arms and so regain my strength. Then I will go back to fight. When I am ready...

The meditation deepened, and Sebastian knew that in a few moments he really would be asleep. Other faces drifted in his mind, other scenes, a bright sunny day in Gibraltar, the Indefatigable weighing anchor to come home. The images were blurred, but the happiness was there, bright as sunshine. Happiness and a feeling of belonging again, a chance to serve on a ship as fine as the Valiant. There was so much to do, but - and how was this possible? - Sebastian could see Pellew and feel the captain's relief and satisfaction at appointing him, as if somehow the two men had traded places, and Sebastian had temporary ownership of Pellew's memories. And there was Hornblower, all quiet smiles and carefully contained joy, and how strange that Sebastian could feel that joy as well! Perhaps this was a vision...

And here was Archie Kennedy, his face shadowed as it was that first night on Indefatigable when he had come to see Dr. Sebastian, his voice cracking with fear and an overwhelming need to unburden the terrible secrets he kept locked within. Sebastian began to tremble in his half-sleep, because he could feel Archie's sadness, feel the desperate apprehension that even now kept Archie half in shadow, his face turned away so Sebastian could not see it.

But this is not how it had been. Archie had come to him, come into the light and talked for nearly the entire night. This was not a memory - this was -

"Dr. Sebastian?"

Archie's voice, as if from far away and so full of tears that Sebastian's heart froze. He answered without speaking, it seemed. "Mr. Kennedy, what is it? Are you injured?"

Archie took a step backward then, a watercolor blending into the shadows, and let out a sob that surely was torn from the depths of his soul.

Alarmed, Sebastian tried to move forward, but found he could not. He felt strange, disconnected from himself, and knew this was not a dream, but something else. He knew - "Archie, what has happened?"

Archie shook his head, one hand clutched to his chest. Sebastian tried to see, but could only discern dim brown streaks of old blood on Archie's uniform. Dear God help me, he prayed, and asked, "Archie, please, you're wounded, let me help you. Where are you hurt?"

"My heart," Archie whispered as he turned away.

Dr. Sebastian shivered, felt a crushing burden of sorrow he had not experienced since his wife's death, but this was - it was a thousandfold of sorrows, and Sebastian looked into the darkness around him and knew that Captain Pellew was there as well, and others, some of them people he did not even know. Oh, God -

Archie was drifting away, almost gone into the shadows, and Sebastian found freedom to move just in time to keep him from disappearing entirely. Gently taking his arm, Sebastian turned him toward the light, looking at the bloodstain as he said, "Tell me what has happened - "

Suddenly the brown blood on Archie's uniform was gone, replaced by a clean, elaborately made white shirt. Surprised, Sebastian looked at Archie's face.

And saw Horatio's instead.

For a moment Sebastian stared. Horatio looked back at him, his face not hidden in shadows like Archie's but bathed in a white and radiant light. Some unseen wind lightly ruffled his hair, and there shone from his great brown eyes something Sebastian had never seen in Horatio before, and could not place.

Without speaking, Horatio held out his right hand, still closed as Archie's had been. He calmly took Sebastian's right hand in his left, and pressed something into it. His touch was warm, as if they were standing together somewhere on the Indefatigable, but that was impossible.

Impossible, because Sebastian knew without being told that Horatio was dead.

Horatio kept their hands together, his eyes locking into Sebastian's with pleading earnestness.

"You must hurry," he said, quietly, in a voice that was at once urgent and full of peace. "I can trust this to no one else."

Sebastian opened his hand, and saw within it the St. Adelaide medallion.

He shuddered, looked up to see that they were standing together in the little chapel, and Horatio was growing insubstantial, and surrounded by thousands of tiny lights, like stars. Horatio said nothing else, only looked at Sebastian in quiet confidence as the vision faded, and Sebastian came back to himself. He blinked, and realized that he was indeed standing in the chapel, the candles still burning, and his hand clenched shut. He opened it; there was nothing there.

But when Sebastian looked at the altar, he saw that the candle he had lit for Horatio was no longer burning.

For a long moment Sebastian stood motionless, listening to his own breathing and fighting an overwhelming sense of loss and grief. It could not be true, yet he knew that it was; There was a certainty that came with this dream - no, it was not a dream, not an unconnected fantasy but a real thing, the vision he had prayed for had finally come and like Moses he fought against it, because he did not want to acknowledge the terrible truth he now knew, and the burden that lay beyond it.

But he had to. Dear lord, there was no one else. And there were sorrows in the air tonight.

Footsteps coming, across the lawn toward the chapel. Sebastian took a deep breath, fought to compose himself. He had time for one last look at the beautiful madonna that stood over the altar, time for one last thought: So much to do, and I am only one man. But You trust me with this burden, and I will not fail you. Only give me strength...

And now Sister Beatrice was at the door to the chapel, her face ruddy with exertion, and when Sebastian looked at her he saw curious apprehension in her eyes. "Doctor, a letter has arrived from your ship."

Sebastian's gaze fell to the tiny candle, its flame burned out and a small curl of smoke making its way skyward. But there were still many candles around it, still flickering uncertainly in the darkness... Very quietly he said, "Sister, please prepare my belongings for a return journey to Plymouth. I will be leaving tonight, for the Indefatigable."

"Oh, so soon!" Sister Beatrice said, then paused and asked, "But how do you know you will have to leave?"

Sebastian almost smiled at that. How grand it would be if it were nothing, if there were no hurts that needed healing, and all he was called upon to do was rest! But he had been given a mission, and only he and the giver knew how truly urgent that mission was; and it could be trusted to no one else. "I have been given a sign by God. And a message..." his eyes fell on the darkened candle, and he sighed sadly, "From a very dear friend."