A Life of Duty: Edrington
by Sarah B.
The weather in Portsmouth was sunny but cool, and Lord Edrington pulled
his cloak around him as he stepped out of his carriage by the row of clubs
off the main street. He was on furlough, and preparing to have the time
of his life.
Two weeks. He had two weeks until he had to report back to his regiment. He had already been back to the estate to check on his affairs; that had taken three days. Everything was fine there, just as Edrington knew it would be. So he still had eleven days to himself until it was back to duty and uniform. He planned to waste not a second.
Adjusting his cloak so it lay more comfortably over his shoulders, Edrington walked the narrow street that lined the dock of the harbor town, casting his eyes about to see what was new. There was the usual crowds about, merchants and businessmen and sailors. There were flower girls too, and beggars and others of that ilk, but none of them approached him. One look at his face, and they knew better.
Not that Edrington was frightening; on the contrary, he was a handsome young man, with sharp eyes and an aristocratic air, and blond hair that very nearly refused to remained in the tight queue he always wore. Still, for all his good looks there was a stiff formality, an aloofness that was partly inherited and partly conscious effort. Edrington was a military officer, and an officer needed to put people at a distance. On the field it encouraged discipline and respect; and Edrington was too accustomed to the practice to behave any differently in town.
Rounding the corner, Edrington came to the harbor itself, and scanned the ships that dotted the grand stretch of water that had borne so many ships to sea. He spied one he knew, and under his breath whispered, "By Jove, it's the Indefatigable."
It was the Indefatigable, the majestic ship of the line that had transported Edrington's men on that ill-fated journey to Muzillac, now riding at anchor some distance out in the harbor. Muzillac - what a disaster that had been! A desperate plan deployed out of pride, it had cost Edrington too many of his men to be thought of as even a moral victory; if it had not been for the Indefatigable and her captain, Sir Edward Pellew, they would have all been lost.
And now, by Jove, there it was in the harbor! Edrington smiled a little, thought of how he must see if the captain was still on board, and would take a visitor. Edrington admired Pellew, admired especially his sense of duty, even in a forlorn cause. He was every inch an English officer and gentlemen, and Edrington knew how truly rare that was. He very much wanted to see Pellew again.
I must see if Hornblower is aboard as well, Edrington thought as he turned toward the row of shops to find a messenger service. Now here was the opportunity for a fine week in the city! Horatio Hornblower was Pellew's best lieutenant, and although somewhat impulsive and rash he had all of the obvious makings of a first-rate British officer. Edrington's smile returned as he recalled their first meeting - himself, putting on the facade of the upright soldier, and Hornblower, so eager to portray himself as the dignified, exemplary emissary for his captain. They had both been too aware of their roles to show anything but masks to each other, and Edrington was certain the first impression had been a bad one.
Of course, as time went on the facade gave way, a little. Edrington noticed Hornblower's indignation at the disgusting behavior of their superior, the French aristocrat Mountcoutant. Noticed and respected it, for not all men would so nakedly display their outrage at the abuse of other human beings. But Hornblower was outraged, to the point where Edrington had to restrain him. Even though he felt the same anger himself, it was not the time.
So the facade gave way, a bit. Edrington thought back on his relationship with Hornblower, regretted that the facade did not give way further. Hornblower was not so much younger than himself, and if they had not both been officers and if there had not been a mission to complete Edrington couldn't help feeling that they might have shared a tavern fire, a few brandies, some stories of adventure.
But perhaps not. Edrington was not a man who was comfortable making close friends.
Hornblower was; Edrington mused on this as he walked down the street, still looking for a courier to carry a message to the Indefatigable. Hornblower was open and emotional, and it was apparent from the way his men listened to him that there was a great deal of affection and respect there. Edrington had to admit he envied it, but it was the kind of envy one would give a great opera singer, or a master player of the violin. You admired it, but you had no idea how the feat was accomplished.
Well, that was some months ago. The mission was long over, the sun was shining, it was a beautiful day and Edrington felt himself becoming frustrated because there were no couriers on the street. A pipe and a tankard somewhere sounded fine, and for some reason the thought of sharing those amenities with Hornblower - with anyone he could have a conversation with - sounded very fine indeed. Muzillac had been terrible, and Edrington realized that only Hornblower would truly understand him if he talked about it. And maybe he should, maybe he should talk about how it felt to be forced to stand by and lose your men to a foolish cause...
Hm, perhaps not. Keep the reserve, stiff upper lip you know. But still...
Edrington relinquished the hope of finding anyone useful to him, and was about to turn about and head down another street when he happened to look into the uneven glass of a store window and saw Hornblower standing with someone a short distance behind him, across the street.
What luck! Edrington turned, thankful that the courier was no longer needed, and searched the milling crowd that walked around him for the familiar face of the man he wanted to call friend.
But Hornblower wasn't there.
Frowning, Edrington looked again, certain he could not be mistaken. Then he blinked, and understood his confusion. There was someone standing across the street, and a familiar face it was, but it wasn't Hornblower. It was his shipmate, Acting Leftenant Archie Kennedy.
Of course, Edrington nodded to himself, it was easy to confuse the two; for while physically they looked nothing alike, he remembered that during the mission, the two young men were together whenever they could be, especially at the end when all was lost. So naturally, they would come ashore together, once the Indefatigable was docked. It only made sense.
Edrington cast his eye about the crowds on the opposite sidewalk, certain that Hornblower had simply escaped his view for a moment. Being a tall man, he would be difficult to miss, and it irritated Edrington when a long minute passed and Hornblower didn't appear. Thinking that perhaps Hornblower had gone on an errand, Edrington decided to wait for his return to make his presence known, and to pass the time he brought his eyes back to Kennedy, and studied him instead.
Kennedy was wearing his grey overcloak in the cool weather, and was walking around in a small circle, his hands pulling his cloak tighter around himself. Edrington noticed that he looked pale and sad for some reason, squinting every so often at something sitting on the ground beside him, then looking down the street. Curious, Edrington followed Kennedy's gaze and noticed that there was a stand of carriages to rent, not very far from where Kennedy was standing. And at his feet, sitting on the ground very close, was a dark red sea chest.
Good heavens, Edrington thought, surely Kennedy isn't leaving the navy? Well, perhaps that was true. For if his memory served correctly, while Hornblower was the consummate soldier, Edrington had to admit that Kennedy was... well, perhaps not quite.
Edrington knew Kennedy only a little, not nearly as well as Hornblower, and what he knew seemed to be conflicted. His first impression had been that Kennedy was something of a smart-aleck, sliding off comments about Edrington's men being too good for battle and giving him mocking looks as he told Hornblower to address him as 'my lord'. Well, it was only proper English courtesy; what did Kennedy expect?
And then there was the matter of Kennedy's panicking. He was an Acting Leftenant, after all, and Edrington knew, had known his entire life it seemed, that a good officer was in complete control at all times, no matter the emergency. It was so much a part of Edrington's nature that he recalled being stunned at Kennedy's lack of control, appalled that he could slip so easily. Kennedy was a leader of his men, and there he was, screaming like a madman, heedless of Hornblower's shouted questions, trembling almost. It had taken Hornblower's voice, loudly shouting Kennedy's name in the sternest of manners, to bring Kennedy back to himself and report was was happening. It was simply astonishing.
And yet - and yet - for all his lack of soldiering abilities, Edrington knew that Kennedy had courage. How else to explain his headlong dash to rescue Hornblower, against all reason and the hissing timepiece of a burning fuse? How else to justify his risk of certain death, or at the very least abandonment to hostile French forces, all to bring Hornblower across the bridge safely? It was the last act Edrington would have expected of Kennedy at that point - he seemed so hesitant to light that fuse, the despair in those blue eyes the very physical embodiment of all of the forlorn, abject feelings Edrington himself was feeling at that moment, and did not dare express. Kennedy did not seem much of a soldier, but he displayed the courage of the lion when it was needed. And he had saved Hornblower's life.
Edrington winced a little, felt a sad flutter inside. He recalled that terrible afternoon, when Kennedy had brought the weeping, distraught Hornblower back over the bridge to safety. He had realized then that these two young men were more than simply allies in a cause; they were friends, of the sort that would commit themselves to die for each other if necessary. Edrington had been sufficiently moved to ask Kennedy to look after his stricken friend, and he was certain Kennedy had carried that order out, at the risk of all else. And Hornblower too, when needed, would certainly have aided Kennedy in whatever he needed. And Edrington stood by, still the admirer of the opera singer who knew he could never carry a tune.
Edrington saw Kennedy look at the sea chest again, then at the carriages. It was obvious now. Kennedy had left the navy, the strain of Muzillac convincing him to depart it forever. And Hornblower, ever the loyal friend, had come to see him off. Of course. It made perfect sense.
Edrington shook his head, looked again for Hornblower. He knew that in a few moments Kennedy would look over and see him, and while he could be cordial if Kennedy addressed him, it was Hornblower he really wanted to talk to. And, truth be told, he was beginning to feel awkward knowing that Kennedy and Hornblower would likely have farewells to say, and if he joined them he would be standing in the middle of it like some desperately unwanted wallflower. It was time for an escape.
The perfect opportunity for one came when Edrington's eye fell on a tavern he knew well, just two doors down. That was capital; he could duck in there and await Hornblower's return, and still save himself the trouble of finding a courier. Without hesitating, Edrington walked quickly to the tavern and stepped inside.
The tavern was dark even in the daytime, but the windows provided enough light for Edrington to see several faces that he knew, including the one that stood behind the bar.
"Ah, good afternoon, my lord!" The tavern keeper said brightly, plucking a glass from his shelf and setting it on the bar.
Edrington smiled politely as he positioned himself by the window. "Good afternoon, Mr. Darwich. No, I'm not having a drink just now, I'm waiting for a - " Edrington hesitated for a moment, then said, "I'm waiting on someone."
"Oh." Darwich seemed to take this in stride and set the glass back. "Well, the view is free. If it makes you thirsty, just let me know."
Darwich moved away, and Edrington continued to watch for Hornblower. Blast, where could he have gone? Kennedy didn't seem to be even looking for him, was still pacing, first walking another tight journey around the trunk, then adjusting his cloak, then looking at the carriages, all with the same reluctant, almost frightened look on his face. Edrington felt a little pity for him; he knew Hornblower would be all right without Kennedy, he made friends easily enough, but Kennedy seemed somewhat lost at the moment, and he hadn't even parted company with his shipmate yet. It was possible, Edrington decided, that the moment of bravery at Muzillac had been a fluke, and that Kennedy was at heart...well, not the bravest of men. It was even possible that he would crumble and be destroyed, as he had nearly been that afternoon when he panicked and opened fire at the bridge. Edrington shook his head; some men should never be soldiers.
And now, what was he to do? The more Edrington watched Kennedy, the more convinced he became that some kind of highly emotional spectacle would take place when he and Hornblower parted company, and Edrington knew he did not want to be present for that. But he did want to talk to Hornblower...
Darwich came back to that corner of the bar for a bottle, and Edrington had a thought and turned to him. "Say, Mr. Darwich."
Darwich looked up. "Yes, my lord?"
"If I give you a message, do you have a boy who could deliver it to the young man across the street?"
Darwich squinted to see out of the waving glass of the window. "Who, the blond fellow with the trunk?"
"No, his companion," Edrington corrected, looking about for a piece of paper. There was an abandoned Naval Gazette nearby, and he pulled it over to tear off a piece.
"Hm," Edrington heard Darwich reply as he scanned the edge of the newspaper for a clean spot to write on. "Well, Thaddy's emptying the spittoons, but he'll be back in a few moments if you can wait."
Edrington nodded absently, found a spot on the newspaper and opened his mouth to ask for a quill and ink.
Then his eye moved a little over on the newsprint in front of him, and he stopped. And read.
"LATE IN ACTION - word has reached us this morning of a DARING and SUCCESSFUL raid on a signal tower on the French coast. The tower was completely destroyed, sadly however not without loss of life. Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, distinguished in service aboard His Majesty's Ship the Indefatigable, was struck down by a sniper's bullet as he deployed his men on the coast, and was later recovered by his men and buried at sea. Lt. Hornblower has often been noted in this Gazette for his dauntless and courageous service to the crown, and it need not be said that he was an officer of highly promising potential..."
There were more words, but Edrington could not read them. He went back, read the first collection over again. That could not be right. Hornblower...shot...buried at sea...no. That had to be a mistake.
Edrington felt a shadow at his elbow, looked up with suddenly aching muscles and saw Darwich. At once he had no voice, but managed to clear his throat, "Darwich?"
The man looked at him. "Yes, my lord?"
Words - words - "Did you hear...have you heard any word of an action off the French coast? A raid on a signal tower?"
"Oh, yes, my lord," Darwich said, and he was too bright, too loud about it, "It was all the talk here after the ships came in. There was a young officer killed in that action, terrible thing to hear people talk about it. Captain of his ship just stalked through the town, didn't even say a word. One of the tars said they were very close."
Oh, God - then it was true - oh God, Pellew! Edrington's blood ran cold as he remembered the fondness Captain Pellew had for Hornblower. A father and son could scarce have been closer, and there was such pride in Pellew's eyes when he looked at ... "Then the captain's not on board his ship?"
"Oh no, he stormed off to his home, I'd imagine. I wouldn't call on him just now if I were you."
No. No, of course not. Edrington's stomach twisted, he knew what Pellew was going through, how as the captain of his ship and the beacon of discipline to his men he would have been able to shed no tear - utter no cry - show no trace of sadness or mourning until he was alone. Edrington winced. Hornblower dead, committed to the sea, and Captain Pellew would have been forced to stand there like a mannequin and keep his grief inside. It must have nearly killed him.
As it was killing Edrington, at that very moment. And like Pellew, he could give it no vent. Ever the damn soldier.
Darwich leaned over the bar. "My lord? Are you well?"
Edrington hardly heard him, so absorbed was he in the numbing realization that Hornblower was dead. Highly promising potential, the Gazette said. How weak those words were, how pitifully small. They did not do justice to the man. They did not -
The tears that suddenly stung Edrington's eyes startled him, and he almost gasped. He moved away from the bar quickly, lest Darwich notice his weakness, and kept his eyes averted away as he said, "Thank you, Darwich, I'll take my leave of you - "
"Oh - no note to the blond officer's companion then?"
Kennedy! Edrington's eyes shot to the window, and in a blaze of heartbreak he understood. Kennedy was still standing there, the same uncertain expression on his fair face, the same sad eyes on the dark red trunk at his feet.
It was not Kennedy's trunk. It couldn't be. Just as it could not be Kennedy's own journey of leave taking that he was bound on, to have such a cloud upon him. He was delivering that trunk to another, and he was doing it alone.
For a long moment Edrington looked at Kennedy, his mind caught in a maelstrom of tumbling thoughts. Hornblower was dead. The bright, promising star of the British Navy was gone, little knowing the hollow that he had left behind. Captain Pellew would deal with the loss in his own way, at home in the arms of his wife most likely, if she was a compassionate soul. Edrington prayed she was.
And Hornblower's men - the men Edrington had seen so steadfastly working for him, whose eyes shone with esteem and respect when he called their names - they would carry on as well, grieve and carry on as was their duty. Edrington knew Hornblower had passed his virtues to them, no matter what they had ever been before. He knew it; it was in their eyes.
And Kennedy - what would become of him, now that there was no one to call a sharp name to bring him out of a panic? Would he seek out another friend, or succumb to the darkness of failure that Edrington had seen him teeter on? The navy was full of men much worse than Kennedy; and it was arguable that it would be little loss if he deserted navy life to wander his own way. But - Edrington felt a jab in his stomach, knew that that would not be as Hornblower would have wished. No, Hornblower must have seen something in Kennedy, a spark that made him someone worth saving, someone worth guiding until he could find his own way.
Someone worth calling friend.
A few moments later Edrington left the tavern and worked his way across the busy street. Kennedy was staring at the trunk in a dreaming sort of way, and did not see the aristocrat approach. Edrington tried to approach Kennedy in a way that would not startle the young man, but when he came close enough happened to look down and saw that the top of the dark red trunk had the words H. HORNBLOWER carved in them, and felt a jolt of pain go through him that was enough to bring him up short. And at that movement, Kennedy looked up from his reverie and saw him.
He looks like hell, Edrington thought automatically. He was terribly pale and did not look as if he had slept for days. But still, at the sight of Edrington Kennedy straightened a little and affected the air of a man in the presence of his betters. But his eyes went back to the trunk, and did not leave it.
"My lord." Kennedy said, politely and in a voice made somewhat husky by who knew what trials.
Edrington felt a wealth of sympathy, but did not know what to do with it. Feeling awkward he said, "Mr. Kennedy."
There was an uncomfortable pause, and Edrington saw that Kennedy's face was turning a little pink, as if he was embarrassed or ashamed. Not knowing what else to say, he stammered, "The sad news of your ship's mission was just now made known to me. I hope you will accept my condolences on the loss of Mr. Hornblower."
"Thank you, my lord."
It was a quick response, as if Kennedy wasn't even thinking about it. And still his eyes did not leave the sea chest.
Say something else, Edrington commanded himself. Considering his words, he said, "I understand your captain has taken his leave ashore..."
"Yes, my lord." Kennedy replied, as if he were reciting lines in a play. "He's gone home to his wife and daughter. I can relay your words, if that is your wish."
"No, that won't be necessary, I'll call on him at the proper time," Edrington said, suddenly desperate not to burden Kennedy with more than he had to bear. Needing to know, he asked quietly, "And where are you bound?"
Kennedy hesitated, swayed a little as if battling a great weight. Then he said, "I am traveling to Dr. Hornblower's, my lord. I am seeing to the transport of Horatio's..."
Kennedy stopped there, and quickly bit his lip and closed his eyes. Edrington glanced away, at once keenly aware of Kennedy's struggle not to collapse and so attuned to it that he felt tears start once again to his own eyes. He suddenly felt helpless, that he should be prey to such emotion; he felt accursed.
When he looked back, Kennedy had taken a deep breath and composed himself, although his color had heightened further. "I - I'm taking Horatio's sea chest to his father."
Edrington nodded, why he didn't know; Kennedy wasn't looking at him, had once again cast his blue eyes down to the trunk. "And when you've finished that journey?"
Archie blinked, looked ahead rather than at Edrington. "I'll return to the Indefatigable. I've been recommended for the lieutenant's examination, and I must commence my studies."
The lieutenant's examination! Edrington attempted to conceal his surprise. How on earth could Kennedy hope to concentrate on such a difficult task, with Hornblower so freshly taken from his heart? The journey to Hornblower's father would be torment enough; but to hasten back to the Indefatigable and undertake a rigorous course of study was...
Edrington looked at Kennedy's eyes, fastened on the trunk, full of determination in the midst of crushing sorrow. He had seen that look before, in Hornblower's eyes after they had destroyed the bridge at Muzillac. Sorrow, grief, and carrying on. The mark of a true soldier.
In spite of the agony he was feeling, Kennedy would face another's grief and deliver the last remnant of Hornblower's worldly goods. And then he would embark on a course - begun and aided by Hornblower, Edrington had no doubt about that - by which he would become lieutenant.
And he would become lieutenant. Edrington recognized that in Kennedy's eyes, as well.
Kennedy took a deep breath, brought one hand up to his eyes as if he were very tired. "I must ask your pardon, my lord, but I must be on my way."
Edrington thought swiftly and turned to the carriages behind them. "Surely you're not considering hiring one of those?"
Kennedy looked down and shrugged a little. "It's - too long to walk, my lord."
Edrington shook his head. "No matter what they charge you, it's highway robbery. I - I have a carriage not far from here. If you wish, you may use it to journey wherever you need."
Kennedy's eyes widened in surprise. "My lord, that's far too generous - I couldn't possibly - "
"Not at all," Edrington said, and winced a little. "It is the very least I can afford. Mr. Hornblower was...an exceptional young man."
"Yes, my lord." That was all Kennedy said; but the silence, and the stricken look in those downcast eyes, spoke worlds.
Edrington nodded and turned away. "My carriage is down the next street, if you would like assistance with - "
Kennedy's tone was sharp, almost frantic. Edrington turned back, and saw that once again tears stood in the young man's eyes. He waited.
Kennedy took a deep breath. "I - am deeply regretful that I failed you, my lord."
Edrington frowned. "How's that, Mr. Kennedy?"
The eyelids dropped. "You charged me with looking after him. And I couldn't."
Good God! Edrington stared at Kennedy, unbelieving that this youth should carry the burden of those words along with the other weights he was being forced to take upon his shoulders. But of course, it would be like that; Edrington had seen at first the loyalty Hornblower inspired, should he be surprised that Kennedy would take those words to heart, and feel remorse and shame that he could not carry them to the last? And then feel the need to address them besides, to acknowledge his own perceived weakness before the superior he thought he failed? All this, and preparing to take his dearest friend's sea chest home, then undertake a monumental task for honor and friendship's sake.
Edrington marveled. He doubted he had ever possessed such strength.
Kennedy stood there, Hornblower's trunk still at his feet, his eyes cast to the ground in deepest remorse and self-condemnation. Before he had even thought of what to say Edrington said softly, "Mr. Kennedy, please do not place this burden on your shoulders. Mr. Hornblower knew his duty, and he did it. Just as you are doing your duty at this moment. That is what I charged you with, and you are fulfilling it excellently."
Kennedy's eyes went to him then, sharp and full of anguish. He wants so badly to hang together and overcome all this, Edrington thought. Then Kennedy looked down again and whispered, "It is my duty, my lord. It is all that remains of him."
"Hardly, Mr. Kennedy," Edrington found himself saying with a slight smile when the young man looked up again, "If Mr. Hornblower involved himself with your welfare I have little doubt that he saw more in you than the mere duty. He knew you will flourish and triumph, and what remains of him will grow as boundless as the stars in the sky."
Kennedy looked flustered for a moment, blinked rapidly and went back to staring at the trunk. "Thank you, my lord."
Edrington shook his head at his own verbosity. He had no idea why he had waxed so eloquent at that moment, except that Kennedy seemed to need to hear that Hornblower's death was not his fault, and that everything would be all right. It seemed to work; Kennedy's face relaxed a little bit, and his anxiety seemed to ease somewhat. Edrington was a little surprised; he had not been certain his words would have any effect at all. It was most...gratifying.
Kennedy glanced up at the sun, then bent down to grasp the sea chest by one of its rope handles. "I must begin my journey, if I'm to reach Dr. Hornblower's by nightfall. My thanks to your lordship for the use of your carriage - "
Without thinking, Edrington stepped forward and took the other handle.
To Kennedy's surprised look he said quietly, "Well, you didn't think I was just going to let you *take* my carriage. Who knows when I may see it again."
Kennedy gazed at him with a mixture of startlement and gratitude. I'm not alone? Those eyes said painfully. "Is your lordship at liberty?"
"For two weeks," Edrington said as they picked up the sea chest together. "And I would deem it an honor if you would allow me to accompany you to the doctor's. I should like - " he paused to clear his throat - "I should like to tell him about his son."
Kennedy nodded, a small smile of something like relief on his face, and without another word they began to walk the sea chest toward Edrington's carriage together.
Edrington was grateful for the silence as they walked, for he was in a perfect frenzy of uncertainty. This was unaccustomed, doing something that was outlined in no military manual, bound by no regulation or uniform, precedented nowhere in his knowledge except that it was something Hornblower would have done. Edrington was not very good at making friends, but he felt that Kennedy needed one, and he still desired that tankard of ale, a pipe and a tavern fire. And to talk. Above all, he needed to talk. And - quite possibly - to not be alone.
As they passed the street on the way to Edrington's carriage, he happened to glance at the window of one of the shops and thought he saw - someone - standing some distance behind them, a satisfied smile on his handsome face. Only for a moment; then the apparition was gone, and only the words remained.
*Look after him, will you.*
Edrington glanced at Kennedy, thought of Pellew, and somehow knew the words were meant for both of them. For all of them, perhaps. Well, Mr. Hornblower, you may rest assured that this soldier will do his part, Edrington promised as his hand tightened around the rope and he walked on with Kennedy toward the waiting carriage. I will consider it an honor and a privilege. And it is, after all, only my duty.