A Life of Duty: Life Goes On
Feeling as though his back would break from the sheer weight of exhaustion, Lieutenant Archie Kennedy thankfully left behind the task of seeing that the ship's supplies were properly stored and balanced. Only another day would pass before weighing anchor, and at last this most hated of duties was put to bed. The math involved in arriving at the optimum balance was always a trial to Archie; in fact more trial and error was involved than mathematics, he feared, as he was well aware he possessed no great skill at manipulating numbers.
"Horatio would have been finished with this hours ago," he grumbled to himself, and was pleased to note he did not flinch at the memory of his late friend. Nearly a year had passed since Horatio Hornblower had stepped in front of a bullet that would otherwise have killed Mr. Cleveland, a year in which Archie had learned to cope with his grief if not altogether overcome it; a year that had brought Archie his lieutenancy, in addition to a certain degree of confidence and trust in him as an officer from Captain Pellew. Of all things a man might possess, Archie reckoned it was this slowly blossoming approval from Pellew he treasured most. That and his happier memories of Horatio, who had believed in Archie's ability to lead and command long before Archie himself had ever believed.
Arriving topside, he drew several deep breaths and felt some of the tension slowly ebbing. Near the starboard rail Mr. Bracegirdle was lambasting Oldroyd for heaven-knew-what. Since Horatio's death, Oldroyd could not seem to stay out of trouble. Truth to tell, that whole division of Horatio's had gone to rack and ruin. Mr. Hether had begged to be transferred to another division, so utterly incapable had he been of keeping discipline among those men who had previously served with Horatio on both the Justinian and the Indefatigable. Archie shuddered as he remembered that Styles had been flogged twice in as many months, and even Matthews, the steadiest of the lot, seemed malcontent and moody nowadays. Not that Matthews ever disobeyed an order, but the grizzled little man had a positive genius for conveying his disdain of every midshipman who'd had command of the division since Horatio had adroitly won both their love and respect. And where Matthews led, the others generally followed.
"I beg your pardon, sir. Are you Lieutenant Kennedy?"
Archie turned from observing Mr. Bracegirdle toward the voice, the shock of the impossibility of the face before him registering just as he felt the deck tilt and slide away beneath him. His body went rigid and he could not seem to catch his breath. He clenched his fists and with his entire being willed away the convulsions, barely holding them in abeyance. Brightly coloured lights seemed to flash and swirl before his eyes, partially obscuring the sight of the young midshipman who had suddenly appeared before him.
"Are you all right, sir?" the midshipman was asking, from what seemed to Archie to be a great distance. "Sir?"
As abruptly as the Indefatigable had fallen away from his feet, she just as suddenly righted herself, and the bright lights vanished, leaving a clear vision of the young man before him. A tall, lanky lad of no more than ten-and-seven years stood there, his features composed of an angular jaw, a prominent nose, worried brown eyes, and a crop of wavy dark brown hair pulled neatly back into a queue. And a ready smile, which he flashed sympathetically before saying, "I understand how it is, sir. Everyone gets a touch of the old mal du mer sooner or later. I reckon mine will come later, because I've never had a hint of it. No, not even in a hurricane! Runs in the family, it does. Uncles, cousins, none of us get seasick. M'father says don't boast, it probably means I was born to be hanged. Well, something like that anyway. It's from Shakespeare, what he says, I do know that: 'He hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows.' "
Archie was dumbstruck as this nearly perfect replica of the teenage Horatio Hornblower who had first entered his life one dismal day aboard the Justinian continued to ramble on.
"...not that I read a lot of Shakespeare m'self, though I like the comedies well enough, but the old man has always been a great one for reading old Billy Wagglestick and was forever having us lads memorise and recite endless passages." The younger man suddenly seemed to realize that his senior officer was staring at him in a most bemused fashion, and recovered his military bearing on the instant and stood to attention.
"But I beg your pardon, sir, for rattling on like a loose pebble. My name is Thaddeus Thistledown, Midshipman."
A laugh bubbled up through Archie's shock. "What an infernal piece of bad luck for you," he murmured, remembering when and to whom that remark had once been addressed.
Young Thistledown relaxed slightly, looking rueful. "You don't know the half of it, sir. I've considered changing it of course, but m'father would disown me. There were Thistledowns at Hastings and Agincourt. Not that any of them distinguished themselves. A right sorry lot of soldiers they were, forever in the wrong place at the wrong time." His hands seemed to take on a will of their own, gesturing emphatically as he chattered away in a scornful tone.
"Take Agincourt, for example. King Harry lost what? Less than a hundred men in that battle. Four of'em that died were Thistledowns, and three others had married Thistledown ladies! That's why I opted for the navy three years back. Figured I was bound to have better luck than in the army, and so I have. Though I've gotten some strange looks from the men since I came aboard this afternoon. You don't think they know about the Thistledown luck, do -- ?"
He broke off abruptly, coming to rigid attention again and gazing past Kennedy's shoulder. Archie looked around to find Mr. Bracegirdle staring like a man turned to stone at the boy who might have been Hornblower's twin. Archie sighed, foreseeing that the next day or so would bring a jolt of pain to many of the crew. His sigh turned to a sharp gasp. My God! Had the Captain seen this man yet? Someone ought to prepare him, they really ought not to allow Pellew to suffer such a shock. He'd done his best to hide his partiality, Pellew had, but in truth he could not have been more proud of Horatio had he been Pellew's own son or been more wounded by his death than if it had been Pellew's brother Israel who had fallen instead. Quickly, Archie made all the introductions then asked the first lieutenant if the Captain was in his quarters.
Anthony Bracegirdle was not a man gifted with an innovative mind when applying it to seamanship or battle tactics, but he was sufficiently well-endowed with a compassionate insight into human nature that he immediately discerned what motivated Kennedy's question. Now composed, Bracegirdle calmly welcomed the new midshipman and dismissed him shortly thereafter. As the lanky lad retreated, Archie and Bracegirdle stared after him, both reluctant to discuss the obvious.
At long last, Bracegirdle sighed. "That lad has rough seas ahead of him. Of all the ships in the Fleet, why this one?" He turned to Archie, took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "Well, Mr. Kennedy, shall we see if the Captain can make time for us?"
Lieutenant Kennedy located Mr. Thistledown in the wardroom, sitting in frozen stillness over the composing of a letter to one of his numerous friends or relations. Mr. Thistledown seemed not to notice the approach of a senior officer, but rather gave every appearance of being lost in contemplation of an event or object so complex, so baffling as to lend to his usually cheerful countenance the air of unrelieved confusion often found in the faces of the simple-minded.
"Is it so bad, then?" Kennedy asked quietly, well aware of the problem besetting the young man.
Thistledown started, and standing to face Kennedy, he produced a fleeting imitation of his normally cheery grin. There seemed no point in evading the lieutenant's question. The compassion in Kennedy's face made it clear he thought he understood the younger man's dilemma.
"No doubt it could be worse, sir. To have the men in one's command falling over themselves to obey every order, to have them run smiling to perform tasks they only anticipate I might assign -- this must be every officer's dream! And while I hope I am not so absurd as to resent their behaviour or even wish to change it, I do wish I could believe some of their effort was expended from some sense of loyalty to me, rather than to a man I closely resemble. But they're good men, all of them. Capable, reliable. I should not ask for more. I hope -- I do not think I am sunk so low as to be jealous of a dead man. And yet..."
He cocked his head to one side and looked imploringly at Archie.
" I am willing to listen to any advice you may give, Mr. Kennedy. I've talked m'self blue in the face, and talking is what I do best -- or at least, what I do most -- but I cannot begin to shake them out of their conviction that I am somehow Mr. Hornblower returned to them. I've pointed out the differences between us, as many as you've related to me, but they have wonderfully selective hearing. My mother has that gift, too, hears only what she wants to hear. It's how she's managed my father and brothers and me all these years. I charged her with it once, and she had that expression mothers get when most exasperated with their offspring --- well, that is to say, my mother looks at me that way a good deal! And she said that given my penchant for talking until a dead man would get up and walk away, selective hearing was absolutely necessary to her sanity. Nowadays all I can think is that these men could give m'mother lessons on it."
Kennedy shook his head in sympathy. It could not be easy to be the man expected to fill Hornblower's shoes, no matter who that man was. To ask it of a lad of ten-and-seven who had the great misfortune to be a mirror's reflection of Horatio must be a crushing burden. Yet in these past days, Thistledown had seemed to carry the weighty problem with grace and an almost irrepressible optimism. Kennedy himself still struggled with keeping separate the memory of his friend and the reality of Thistledown, for not only did young Thaddeus bear the face and physique of the late lieutenant, but in voice and gesture he might have been Horatio reincarnated -- as well as multiplied many times over, for Horatio in his entire life probably had not talked so much or used his hands so eloquently as Thistledown managed in the course of a single day. That first week at sea Kennedy had swallowed his renewed grief along with his resentment of the boy's appearance and had set out to discover all the things that made this young man Thaddeus and not Horatio.
And as close as the two men were in appearance, Kennedy had soon learned they could not have been more different in a hundred other ways. Where Horatio had been reticent, shy, even backwards occasionally, Thistledown was garrulous and seldom at a loss for an anecdote, quip, or quotation. Where Horatio had been ever conscious and respectful when in the presence of senior officers, Thistledown had to work desperately not to joke with or even at the expense of captains and admirals in their presence, as if he and they were long-time companions. Horatio had been at a complete loss musically, but Thistledown, when not chattering, would sing almost constantly, and more than once he had been reprimanded for humming while attending Pellew on the quarter-deck. Horatio had a persistent fear of heights, while Thistledown relished any order which sent him aloft, and the higher the better. And where Horatio had not been a great reader of anything that did not have to do with the navy or the war, Thistledown produced new books on a wide variety of topics from his sea chest in mystifying numbers.
Like Kennedy, Thistledown had no head for math, yet Horatio had excelled in swiftly and accurately resolving numeric complexities. Strangely though, and unlike Kennedy, Thistledown could always solve the navigational dilemmas set for him by Mr. Bowles, but he thoroughly baffled the sailing master who insisted that the boy's bizarre calculations could not possibly ever result in the correct answers. Thistledown had been very sympathetic to Bowles on one occasion, saying that he knew that calculations were wrong but that he was just as sure the answers were right, only he just had no notion how he had come by them. On that particular occasion, Bowles' face had got quite red and his mouth had worked furiously for several seconds as if trying to frame words to fit his frustration. He had eventually retired from the scene, entirely out of countenance, while Mr. Bracegirdle spoke a stern word in Thistledown's ear about tending to his studies.
Possibly the chief difference between the two men was best limned by their daily encounters with the men. Whereas Horatio had insisted that his time on deck between actions be as undisturbed as possible and seemed almost determined to isolate himself from companionship, Thaddeus welcomed the men to his side. Indeed the men both sought and found excuses to attend the midshipman, partly because of his natural charm and unfailing good nature, in some small degree because of his readiness to both educate and learn, and partly because many of them, including some of the officers, seemed to view him as some sort of talisman.
Even the powder monkeys, who ordinarily kept well out of reach of any of the officers, had given their trust and confidences into Thaddeus' keeping, and went scampering to him for stories and riddles and the occasional odd sweet he produced as if by magic to soothe small hurts encountered in their daily tasks. Any time Thistledown embarked on a boisterous game of backgammon with Mr. Bracegirdle or Mr. Bowles, little Teddy, the stammerer, could be found to have unobtrusively made his way into an area he had no business being, in order to sit quietly at the feet of the young midshipman who seemed never to notice Teddy was there, save to occasionally ruffle or lightly pull the boy's rough curls with one hand while shaking the dice cup with the other. At the end of every merry war, Teddy would be found fast asleep, curled around Thaddeus' feet, and Thaddeus would gently swing the boy to one angular shoulder and return him to his place among the other boys. Thinking of this, Kennedy was reminded why he had sought out Thistledown.
"I regret that not only do I not have any advice for your singular situation, Mr. Thistledown, other than to suggest you might as well relax and enjoy it, as the saying goes. I sought you out to let you know your little powder monkey is taken ill. I know he is a favorite of yours and I thought you would want to know."
"Teddy is sick? Thank you for your courtesy, Mr. Kennedy. Is it serious, do you know? Has the surgeon seen him?" Thaddeus was too used to the illness and loss of life that always accompanied a ship in its first few weeks at sea to be much surprised at the news. The young boys seemed especially vulnerable to sickness and from their first meeting Teddy had seemed to him to be more frail than most.
It had shocked Thaddeus upon first learning that little Ted, who appeared to be no more than seven years of age, should be almost eleven. His small size, his stammer and the resultant abuse he withstood from the more ignorant of the ship's company, and a natural reticence had all combined to render the little fellow the most solitary creature Thaddeus had ever encountered. Slowly under the midshipman's gentle persistence and infinite patience, Teddy was beginning to open his soul a bit, and occasionally his mouth, too. He seemed to love saying Thistledown's name, as the soft consonants were not so trying to his tongue. The day Thaddeus had taught him a song about a monkey eating soap Teddy had also learned he could sing without stammering. The realization had sent tears streaming down his thin, grimy cheeks, his frail shoulders shaking with sobs, his arms flung tightly 'round one of Thaddeus' lanky legs. It had taken long minutes for Thaddeus to comfort and cajole the lad back to a watery smile, as well as to reassure a passing Mr. Bracegirdle that nothing had been done or said to harm the boy.
"It looked serious enough to me," Kennedy replied. "He collapsed while training with Mr. Cleveland's division. Mortenson carried him down to let Dr. Hepplewhite have a look at him. You'll probably find him still there."
"Thank you, sir. I shall go at once, if I may?"
"An inflammation of the lungs, Mr. Thistledown. The boy's in bad shape. Not much we can do for him. He'll make it or he won't. Odds are, he won't. Not much fight in that little scrap of rags." Dr. Hepplewhite cast a disparaging glance at the child, then headed up the companionway. He gave no sign that he intended to expend any further thought, let alone care, on his small patient who barely even made a bulge in the hammock.
"Your compassion for humanity is remarkable, Dr. Hepplewhite." The facetious tone in no way masked Thaddeus' rage as he followed close upon Hepplewhite's heels. "You do intend to try to alleviate his fever, do you not? And liquids? He must be made to drink."
Hepplewhite turned at the top of the steps and eyed the younger man, his surprise and displeasure evident at learning Thistledown was apparently not so unaware as most men of basic nursing procedures. He drew himself up and sneered. "And just what do you know about treating an inflammation of the lungs? There is nothing to be done, I tell you."
"Nothing you want to do, you mean!" Hepplewhite's unwillingness to exert himself in any way for an expendable powder monkey as well as fear for Teddy spurred Thaddeus to a reckless fury. Only the briefest touch had been necessary to tell him the boy had a raging fever, and he had not even had to put his head to Teddy's chest to hear the rattle as the child strove for breath. "I've got eleven brothers and three of'em are doctors. We only all survived childhood because my mother is a fine nurse in her own right. I think I've learned enough along the way to know that nothing will kill a patient faster than neglect. Now by God, will you see to that boy properly or shall I have a word with Mr. Bracegirdle?!" Talking rapidly and gesturing wildly, Thaddeus had backed the doctor up against the bulkhead, towering over him, his face mere inches from Hepplewhite's.
After a few seconds of tense silence, during which the surgeon was put forcibly in mind of late Mr. Hornblower when he was in one of his takings. Hepplewhite decided that it might be wiser to pacify this young upstart than to risk having the first lieutenant investigate his activities. And besides, this young man seemed almost as if he could become violent! Over a powder monkey! "Very well," the surgeon huffed, his exasperation plain, "very well! And you shall see, sir, you shall see! That boy shan't live another week, slave over him however I might. My time could be far better spent on other matters."
Thistledown met his eyes directly, and now spoke softly, but very clearly, making no effort to disguise his contempt for the older man. "It's one thing to lose a battle, Dr. Hepplewhite. It's another thing entirely to desert in the face of the enemy." The doctor felt a tiny shiver go through his bulk, and was very happy when the midshipman at last allowed him to pass.
When Thaddeus was relieved from his watch, he straightway made his way back to the infirmary, determined to ensure that Hepplewhite was doing what needed to be done for Teddy. He found the boy awake but in so great a discomfort that his awareness was limited. The doctor was playing least-in-sight.
"Hallo, my lad! Having a lie-in today, are we?" Thaddeus spoke cheerfully but in gentle tones, remembering all too well how much during a bout of sickness in his own childhood he had hated the doctor speaking to him in hearty, bracing tones as if he'd lost his hearing instead of his health. Thaddeus brushed the curls back from Teddy's forehead, noting that the heat was still present, though perhaps not so alarming as earlier in the day.
The youngster smiled weakly and stammered out that he was hot and his head hurt something awful.
"That's the fever," Thaddeus told him, taking the boy by the hand. "Have you had anything to drink? Teddy, answer me, there's a good chap. What have you had to drink?"
"I d-dunno. Something n-n-nasty. M-m-medicine." Speaking was always an effort for him and now it seemed to exhaust him. Purple shadows blanketed eyes sunk deep into their sockets, looking like enormous bruises in the paleness of his small face.
"I'm going to bring you some water. I know you don't want it, but you have to have it. And then I'm going to bathe you a bit, try to bring down that fever and make you feel better, all right?"
Teddy nodded tiredly. Thaddeus let go of his hand and started to go.
"Yes, Teddy? What is it?"
"Am I going to die?" Big eyes looked to Thaddeus for reassurance, but the young midshipman who had seen grown men fight and die had never felt so suddenly and entirely at a loss for the right words. He took the boy's hand again and squeezed it very gently. Before he could reply, Teddy said simply and without faltering, "Because it's all right if I am, I won't mind it much I don't think. But if I am going to die, will you stay with me till I'm gone, just so I won't be alone?" These barely whispered but clearly enunciated words, with no hint of impediment, took the last of his strength and he seemed to lapse immediately into a fitful slumber.
Thaddeus felt shaken to the core. He had watched men duel with death and lose far too often in his brief naval career, but he had never before been asked to stand as a second in one of those duels. Teddy's readiness to greet death spoke volumes to Thaddeus about the isolation of his brief life. More than once in the course of that night, as the young midshipman beat back the shadowy enemy that edged ever nearer the hammock, his hands trembled as he held a cup and forced Teddy to sip from it, or as he sponged the heat from the thin body. Hepplewhite put in a brief appearance but Thaddeus paid him no attention, his energies reserved for Teddy's needs.
With the dawn Thaddeus found and woke Hepplewhite, and gave him both instructions and threats before taking himself off to find some breakfast, as well as to wash his face and make himself presentable for duty.
By the end of his watch, Thaddeus was almost shaking from exhaustion, having had no sleep at all in the previous 24 hours and having also fully participated in the physical rigor that had been necessary from all hands to bring the Indefatigable through a line of squalls at midday. Tired to the bone and soaking wet, he still managed a wide grin at Midshipman Jeffreys, his relief.
"You watch and see," he told Jeffreys. "It's going to be a beautifully calm evening. The men are too tired for larking about. You'll be bored to flinders unless we come up on a Frenchman."
"I'd rather be bored up here than in your shoes later on," the burly midshipman said dryly. "Don't tell me you forgot the officers are taking mess with the captain tonight?" Jeffreys peered at him from under bushy blond brows. "Ever dined with Cap'n Pellew? If you don't like Madeira, whist, and fine manners you'll find it tough slogging." Jeffreys was a Methodist who did not approve of spirits or cards and had not the tact to hold his tongue about such matters. From his perspective dining with Pellew was therefore something akin to entering the first circle of hell.
In fact, Thaddeus had nearly forgotten the Captain's dinner invitation, issued the previous morning. His mind had been so consumed with worries about Teddy, concerns about how to help the men of his command differentiate between him and the late Mr. Hornblower, and the immediate need to get the Inde through a spate of bad weather, that the potential pleasure of a decent meal consumed in convivial company had escaped him.
Diving below, he ransacked his sea chest for dry clothing, then made his way hurriedly to the infirmary where a single glance was enough to tell him Teddy's condition was worse, much worse. For once, Hepplewhite was present and doing his job, sponging the boy down, the remains of a medicinal draught nearby. He looked tiredly up at Thaddeus and asked politely, "Would you mind taking over here while I get something to eat? These next hours will bring the crisis. He's suffering delusions now, talking out of his head when he talks at all."
And indeed the next hours were grim as the two men alternated between attempts to get Teddy to swallow some tea and endlessly sponging down the boy with cool water, as his fever continued to mount. He cried out whenever they lifted his head and whimpered often, as the sponge seemed unbearably rough to his beleaguered little body. At some point in the evening Hepplewhite had gone topside for a respite, and in his weariness Thaddeus had lost all sense of time, when unexpectedly a rough hand took the sponge from him and Styles' voice spoke in his ear.
"Time for you to report to the Captain's quarters, Mr. Thistledown. I'll take over here now."
Thaddeus turned to Styles a face white with strain and shock, his eyes wet from tears hastily wiped away. Styles groaned his dismay. "Oh, no! He's not -- ?"
"No, no, Styles! Teddy is going to be all right I think. He's had a really rough go of it, but the worst is over. The fever is broken, thank God." Mr. Thistledown's voice did not match his words. He sounded confused and disoriented, distant even. "Styles? Do I have a fever?"
Styles anxiously tested the forehead of his midshipman. "No, sir," he said, quite relieved. "You're just tired, sir. Worn out is what you are. Best get some rest now, Mr. Thistledown. I can see to the lad for you."
Thaddeus flashed his irrepressible grin. "If only I could! But -- dinner with the good captain and I shall be late if I don't go on the instant." Thaddeus paused on his way out. "Styles, did Mr. Kennedy send you down here?"
"No, sir. Why?" Styles was the picture of innocence.
Thaddeus met his level gaze for a long moment then said, "No reason. What made you think to come?"
Styles flashed his own wicked smile. "I don't really know, sir. Must've been your guardian angel."
Thaddeus looked at him sharply. He inhaled deeply. "I see," he said softly.
Styles was already settling in next to Teddy's hammock and
just said, a bit smugly, "I rather thought you had, sir."
Captain Pellew's dinner party broke up unusually early, the captain having decided, for whatever reason, to forego his usual round of whist. Thaddeus stifled another yawn, and stood with the other men to thank the captain for the dinner and say his good nights. He'd very nearly made it to the door, when Pellew's command froze the marrow in his spine.
"Stay a moment, if you please, Mr. Thistledown."
Midshipman Hether, the nearest man to him, gave him a pitying look then made his own quick exit.
"I am told you have some concerns regarding your division, sir?" Pellew went directly to the point. "As such, do you not think your time would be better spent working with them than assisting Dr. Hepplewhite?"
Thistledown did not know how to be less than open. Aside from lacking guile, it was his nature to be entirely candid.
"My concern regarding the men, Captain, is not one which can be resolved by additional duties for them or with further gunnery practice. May I take it that Dr. Hepplewhite has complained of me?"
Pellew ignored the question. "And what is this issue with your men, Mr. Thistledown? I very much prefer to have any conflicts settled before a critical situation arises in which your life depends entirely on their confidence in your leadership."
Thaddeus shook his head and said, "With all due respect, Captain, I fear it is only a critical situation that will, for better or worse, resolve my problem. And it is my problem, sir. The men are blameless, they cannot help it that I --" Here he broke off, remembering Kennedy had early warned him not to bring Mr. Hornblower into any interview with Pellew.
Pellew, however, was neither an idiot nor a maudlin fool.
"That you are the physical twin of the late Lieutenant Hornblower?"
Since Pellew had unlocked that particular door, Thaddeus was willing to throw it wide open.
"Yes, sir. From the very beginning, I have not had to discipline them save for the very smallest of infractions, because I look like Mr. Hornblower, and they don't want to let him down. They follow every order to the very letter. Because I look like Mr. Hornblower. Moreover, they anticipate my orders and fulfill them before I so much as say the words. It would be very gratifying if I thought they did any of this out of loyalty to me, sir, or to the Crown or the Royal Navy. But they do not. They do it for Mr. Hornblower. All of it."
"And you see this discipline, this obedience, as a detriment rather than a blessing? You do not count yourself a lucky man and pray to Divine Providence that the wheels of your entire naval career should be so well greased? Will you tell me why that is, Mr. Thistledown?"
The tone of Pellew's voice had not changed, but something had. Something in his manner -- what? The arch of an eyebrow? The flicker of an eyelid? -- told Thaddeus his captain knew exactly why he worried over what every other officer on board considered to be his great good fortune in commanding a happy, hard-working, respectful, and well-disciplined division.
Before he had ever met Pellew, Thaddeus had respected him for his reputation as a fighter, a leader, and a seaman extraordinaire. But it was at this very second that his respect for Pellew solidified into something like awe. Because this captain also understood the workings of the human spirit, or at least he seemed to understand Thaddeus which was perhaps an even more awesome task as Thaddeus knew he often failed to understand himself. He felt his throat swell and for seconds he could not speak. And still Pellew waited.
"I think you already know, sir. And it's difficult for me to articulate it," he finally managed to get out.
"Come, come, Mr. Thistledown, you are noted for your articulation, your expostulation, your gift for extemporaneous oratory! I think you can frame words to fit this picture."
Thaddeus managed one of his grins and seemed to recover some of his natural aplomb.
"I'll try, sir. The problem, as I see it," he spoke more slowly and carefully than was his wont, "is that the men give me every obedience because I am, in their eyes, Mr. Hornblower. Some time soon, I will lead these men into battle and when together we face circumstances where we are outnumbered or the odds are against us, or even if it should only be a situation whereby they are not comfortable with the possible outcome, at some critical juncture they will fully realise that I am not Lieutenant Hornblower, I am Midshipman Thistledown -- and that they really don't know me at all. And I am very much afraid that I will not be able to rely on them to carry out any orders I issue which they may not like. We could fail, we could die, if I have not got their trust in me secured at such a moment."
"A rather astute assessment for one so young," observed Pellew. "What would you recommend?"
"I wish I knew of an easy remedy, sir. Or indeed, any remedy at all. I can only wish for an action against the enemy so soon as may be, so that the matter may at least be settled in my mind once and for all."
Pellew clasped his hands together behind his back in a stance long familiar to the crew of the Indefatigable and stood eye to eye with the midshipman.
"You are like to get your wish, Mr. Thistledown,"
he said grimly. "But has no one ever taught you to be extremely
careful what you wish for?"
Two mornings later, Mr. Thistledown was sitting in the mizzen top with Seaman Styles. Below them the Indefatigable rolled and pitched with the ancient rhythm of the sea. Small puffy clouds seemed to skid along the bright blue surface of the sky. Styles was the picture of ease, appearing for all the world as if he had no worries other than what Mr. Thistledown was saying.
Thaddeus was his usual talkative self, and had been going on for some several minutes on the topic of cricket, at which he claimed no small degree of prowess as a batsman. This sermon had been preceded by discourses on ways of repairing bilge pumps, followed by the latest fashions in ladies' intimate apparel (a subject which had fascinated Styles), and some wonderment on Thistledown's part over why the first subject had seemed to lead so naturally to the second.
"...Just a direct chain of command from what the eyes see to what the bat hits," Thaddeus rattled away, his eyes scanning the seas around them. "If your brain can link the two, then it's only a matter of experience in learning to place the ball where you want it. Still, if you're facing a really good bowler, the duel can become quite interesting, can even become a duel of personality than of skill. There was a young curate at Upper Wychford with a blistering --"
Styles interrupted. "Beg pardon, sir, but did you ever fight a duel? A real duel?"
Thaddeus was nonplused for a moment, then laughed and said, "I'm ten-and-seven, Styles! Too old for such nonsense." When Styles did not react to the jest, Thaddeus added, "No, of course I've not fought a duel. I hope I've more sense than to -- Why do you ask?"
Styles looked away uneasily and Thaddeus guessed then that the omnipresent Mr. Hornblower had once fought a duel. For once, Thaddeus let slip the opportunity to remind the man that he was not Hornblower, could never be Hornblower, did not want to be Hornblower, would like to shake Hornblower for getting killed and leaving Thaddeus to scrape along in his glorious wake! No, instead this morning his mind was led to truly contemplate the late lieutenant, what kind of man he'd been, and the qualities that were the underpinnings of his heroic and by now almost legendary deeds. There was an uncharacteristically long silence from Thaddeus as he let his gaze drift far out to the starboard horizon, and then he said softly, with something akin to reverence, "I think Mr. Hornblower must have been a remarkable man indeed."
Styles let the silence stretch out again, then said casually with a sly smile creasing his scarred face, "Seen him, have you?"
Thaddeus turned sharply to face Styles. "What do you mean by that, Styles?" he demanded.
Styles shrugged. "We've all seen him, sir, at one time or another. Well, that is, me and Oldroyd and Matthews seen him. Mr. Kennedy seen him, too, though you'll never get him to talk about it again."
"You saw Hornblower? When?" Thaddeus had the rapt expression of a child hearing his first fairy tale, and his entire body was tense with disbelief.
"The night we lost him. He was already dead, never made it off the beach. But he came and talked to Mr. Kennedy and to me and the others. It wasn't no fancy, sir, nor there wasn't no drink involved. We needed him that night and he was there for us. He talked to us and encouraged us when he couldn't do nothing else to help us. And he's been seen now and again since then by one man or t'other. There's short odds below decks that the Cap'n has seen him as well, but I don't suppose we'll ever know certain-sure about that."
Thaddeus appeared to relax but there seemed to be almost an invisible tension emanating from him.
"And when was the last time you saw him, Styles? The other evening, when you came to lend a hand with Teddy?"
Styles grinned and shook his head. "Nah. No, sir, I mean. But I could tell by your face that something had shocked you to bits and since it wasn't the boy, I wondered if mebbe Mr. Hornblower hadn't paid you one of his social calls. He likes to lend a hand in a crisis, you see. And when you asked me if Mr. Kennedy had sent me, I was ready to bet a week's wages on it."
"I thought I was losing my mind or taking the fever," Thaddeus murmured. "It's been nothing but Hornblower this and Hornblower that ever since I first stepped aboard. I'm still not sure I didn't inadvertently swallow one of Hepplewhite's poisonous concoctions."
"You'd be deader'n Mr. Haitch if you'd done that, sir!" Both men laughed at that, then Thaddeus' face grew solemn and distant as remembered the events of two nights past.
"Teddy saw him, too. I don't know if he remembers or not. But it was at the height of the fever and I really did think we could do nothing more to bind him to this world; and the poor little devil, he's had such an absolutely rotten time of it that I thought it might be better to let him go on into a new existence that must of a certainty hold more for him than this one ever had. Suddenly he opened his eyes and looked at me and said my name. And then he turned his head away and said, 'Mr. Hornblower.' I thought he was still hallucinating, of course. And then I saw him, clear as I can see you before me now, Styles. I thought -- I was so tired -- I really thought HE was ME at first. I thought, what am I doing over there? And then he told Teddy that he should stay with me for a while longer, it wasn't time to weigh anchor yet, and I knew who he really was. But he smiled and promised Teddy that someday, when it was time, he would be there to pipe him aboard. Then he looked at me and said --," Thaddeus voice broke. "He said, that a wise captain once told him that above all of our duties as officers in the Royal Navy, above our duty to the King, to our Country, and to ourselves, was the duty we owed our men. And that if we hold fast to that duty no matter what befalls us, our lives will count for more and last longer than the earth from which we spring. And I wondered why he was telling me that."
He had lost the other man's attention. Styles was leaning forward, peering across the water. Thaddeus shaded his eyes and looked in the same direction. The ship was hull down but he saw the sail almost immediately. His heart began racing. It had been a long stretch since the Inde had encountered the enemy. She was overdue for action.
"Sail off the port bow!" he cried, and began clambering
down the shrouds.
The Sans Peur was a speedy French corvette that with only a little luck could have eluded Pellew's clutches. Neither luck nor wind was in her favour though, and her crew, not so well-trained as the men of the Indefatigable, simply could not force her to claw back fast enough to escape the frigate who had both the wind gauge and a wily captain. Sans Peur's own captain had yet mounted a fight, hoping to make his way around the larger and slower ship, but Pellew knew this area too well and had slowly driven her close enough to the Penmarck Rocks to allow her only enough room to stay off the jagged peaks. She was forced to either close and fight, or surrender. She fought, and with a ferocity that did not belie her name, but the odds 'gainst her were too great and the Indefatigable claimed another prize.
"Clear that raffle away," shouted Pellew, indicating the mizzen shrouds that lay on the deck in a massive tangle. "Get the yard slung again, Mr. Bowles. Mr. Bracegirdle, report, if you please!" Pellew's expression was more pugnacious than usual, a remnant of the fierce determination that dominated him in the heat of battle.
"One dead, seven wounded, sir." Bracegirdle paused, then plunged in. "Mr. Thistledown is among the wounded. His leg is shattered, sir."
Pellew didn't turn a hair. "Mr. Kennedy!" he bellowed.
"Sir?" Kennedy's face and uniform were flecked with blood from the fighting. The energy that pervades a man in the midst of battle was seeping away, leaving a bone-deep weariness in its place, and aging his youthful countenance immeasurably and irrevocably.
"Mr. Thistledown is even now at the tender mercies of Dr. Hepplewhite. Report to the surgery at once and see to it that the good doctor understands that no part of Mr. Thistledown is expendable which might be saved."
Mr. Kennedy made his way below to the surgery, a nightmare scene bathed in blood and heightened in its horror by the stench of suffering. Thaddeus lay on a makeshift table, and a single sickening glance told Kennedy there could be no saving the boy's right leg. The splintered bone looked as though it had scattered scores of ivory toothpicks throughout the bloody mess that only brief minutes before had been a healthy human leg. Nor could Archie tell where bloody fabric left off and bloody hide began.
"I can't save that leg, do not ask me to try!" Hepplewhite snapped. Kennedy just swallowed and nodded his understanding.
"Please!" Thaddeus forced the words up through a haze of pain. "Don't try. I know it's got to be done, but be quick about it, man. Be quick!" And he fell back into a vortex of agony.
Kennedy was still pouring rum into Thistledown when Matthews and Styles arrived. Matthews summed up the situation, and seeing no loblolly boy nearby simply said in his pragmatic way, "Will you want us to hold him down then, Mr. Hepplewhite?" The doctor nodded.
Scant minutes later Thaddeus Thistledown no longer had a promising career in the Royal Navy.
Hepplewhite's short supply of laudanum was entirely depleted over the next two days. After that, and on the Captain's orders, he saw to it that Thistledown consumed as much grog as he could hold. In this way, the pain was at least muted to some extent while Thaddeus slowly began to come to terms with his condition in his own fashion. That is to say, he talked. Granted his speech was often slurred, but his mental acuity seemed unimpaired no matter how much rum he swilled. He had, in fact, what the men called "a good head for it." And when he was not talking or sleeping, he sang, much as he always had. During this time the songs grew a bit more risqué, the verses were disarranged, new choruses were created, but nothing could still him. There seemed to be a reckless energy permeating him, which he could not alleviate save through vocal gymnastics of one sort or another.
On the third morning after surgery, he quieted of his own volition. Initially he declined the doctor's offer of more rum, saying that he would have it later. Still a bit gray in the face, he coaxed Hepplewhite into fetching a looking glass and holding it near the stump of his leg so that he could see what he referred to as "the embroidery."
"Not bad," he gritted out, as he eased himself down off his elbows. His effervescent personality was beginning to show signs of stirring as he added, "I might have preferred a nice satin stitch to that herringbone, but your mother probably never taught you the trick of it. It can be the devil to get right if you're hamfisted. I should know, my Mama made me pick out poor stitching until I thought I would go blind from it. I'm not much of a hand with the embroidery silks, but I can tat a lace collar and cuffs as pretty as any old Belgian spinster, I promise you."
After that bizarre declaration he closed his eyes and spent the next half-hour calling on an inner strength his parents had worked hard to instill in each of their sons, quietly battling both pain and despair. In his mind he separated those twin demons, knowing intuitively that conjoined he could never defeat them, and having accomplished that much he at last agreed to swallow both some breakfast and rum, reasoning that if he could only hold the pain at bay, he would be in a more fit state to deal with the sharp emotional spikes that wracked his consciousness.
He succeeded better than he could have hoped for, or even realized since by early afternoon he was, as Oldroyd put it, jugbit. He sat on the lower deck propped up against the bulkhead, a cup of grog to hand and his tongue wagging like a gossipy fishwife to anyone who would listen, and to no one if they would not. Teddy had been allowed in to visit and to be reassured. His anxiety was evident when Hepplewhite ordered him to leave again and let the patient rest. Thaddeus had said, "Let'im stay. It cheers me no end to look upon him and know that at least one of your patients has survived your ministrations!"
This remark really had offended the doctor, and Thaddeus was immediately remorseful. "That was very bad of me, wasn't it?" He ran a weary hand over his face. "I am sorry. You did save my life, and I may not seem so, but truly I am grateful." He stretched out an open hand to Hepplewhite. "Cry peace, and I'll not be so thoughtless another time."
Not even Joshua Hepplewhite was immune to such sincere humility. He grasped Thaddeus' hand and said apologetically, "There was no choice but to take off that leg, Mr. Thistledown. You'd have died otherwise. If there had been any hope, I would have tried. I have not forgot what you said to me the day the boy was brought to me."
"I know, I know, it's all right," the patient reassured the doctor. "I had altogether too close a look at that leg myself, you know."
And so Teddy had quietly curled up next to Thaddeus, content to listen to his friend confer his rum-soaked opinions on Napoleon's tactics, Wellington's nose, Cruickshank's caricatures, Beau Brummel's attire, what the well-dressed cripple wears to soirees, the number of women willing to marry a one-legged man, and the immense gratification his three doctor-brothers would experience at always having to hand a living experiment to poke and prod and say "Ah!" or "Hmmm!" over. And briefly he did mention how very glad he would be to see his mother, before hastily wiping his eyes. Then taking a pull from his cup of grog, he expounded at some length on trout fishing and the art of tying lures. This naturally led him to the subject of knots, which occasioned him to show Teddy the way to tie a fisherman's bend. He was immersed in his demonstration when Captain Pellew entered.
The very sight of his captain rendered Thaddeus suddenly sober and surprisingly speechless. Pellew pulled Hepplewhite's chair up next to Thaddeus and sat down. Teddy shrank closer to Thaddeus who put a reassuring arm around his thin shoulders. Thaddeus wondered fleetingly who stood in most need of reassurance, Teddy or himself.
"How do you go on, Mr. Thistledown?" Pellew inquired in his grimly polite fashion.
"Very well, thank you, sir," Thaddeus responded politely. Then he could not help adding, "But my dance card is full, sir; I'm afraid you have asked me too late."
Pellew chose to ignore this sally. "When last we spoke, Mr. Thistledown, you were wishing for an action against the enemy so that you might learn whether you could trust your men to follow your orders at a critical moment. I have come to inquire what you learned?"
Thaddeus closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "A direct hit, Captain!" he exclaimed bitterly. "Your aim is true as ever. I have learned a hard lesson, sir, as you no doubt knew I would."
"Mind your bearing, Mr. Thistledown. You are still under my command." Pellew would brook no arrogance from a subordinate, no matter the circumstances.
Thaddeus put a hand to his forehead, concealing his eyes. "Yes, sir. To answer your question then, sir, I learned how very much at fault I was to question the loyalty of my men. I have - I had! - a duty to believe in them, once I had seen that they were trained and disciplined to the best of my ability. But I wanted them to trust in me, to trust in my judgment." His hand fell away and his eyes met Pellew's directly. "It was a pretty conceit on my part to have expected it from the men without having earned it, and yet still withhold my trust in them. Trust IS part of the duty I owe to the men I lead, is it not, sir?"
"It is, Mr. Thistledown," Pellew said simply.
"You could have told me, sir," Thaddeus rejoined.
"Some men I would have told," Pellew replied. "Some men would have had to be told repeatedly. Such men as that will never understand no matter how often they are reminded of their duty to their men. You, sir, you had already given so much thought to the matter that I knew you could be trusted to learn your duty in your own way. And so you see I know my duty to you as well. Though I deeply regret that the price of your knowledge has cost you so dear."
Thaddeus shook his head. "In this matter at least, Captain, my wound was incidental. For that much, I have nothing for which to reproach myself, or anyone else. Fortunes of war and all that. My condition has simply given me more time to consider my conduct and attitude prior to the battle. Had I heeded Mr. Hornblower -- "
"Mr. Hornblower!?" Pellew said sharply, his face a mask.
"Yes, sir." Thaddeus paused, waiting for the captain to respond again. When no reply was forthcoming, he added matter-of-factly, "The late Mr. Hornblower tried to give me some advice about my duty. I am afraid he was too oblique for my understanding at the time, though his words make perfect sense now. He said --"
"Thank you, Mr. Thistledown, I am quite sure I know what he said." Pellew's sharp impatience was never far from the surface.
"Yes, sir, I rather thought he might be quoting you." For the first time in what seemed years, Thaddeus felt a hint of smugness. Hornblower was one of those who had to be told. Just as quickly the feeling melted as despair rushed up into his throat. "Perhaps you can tell me, sir, of what use this lesson will be to me now that I no longer have men to lead? For that matter, of what use will I be?"
Pellew took a deep breath. "Give yourself some time to adjust, Mr. Thistledown, before you tackle so weighty a matter as your future. You have many new lessons facing you as a result of your injury. Take them one by one or you may find yourself overwhelmed by sheer numbers." He paused, then added, "You are a great reader, Mr. Thistledown. Do you know your Milton?"
Thaddeus eyed the captain askance. "You are not going to quote "Paradise Lost" at me, are you? I will be disillusioned and you do so, sir," he said with frigid politeness.
Pellew very nearly smiled. "You do think me tactless. No, no!" He stopped Thaddeus' denial in mid-speech. "No, the line I was thinking of is from 'On His Blindness': 'They also serve who only stand and wait.' You must allow yourself some time to find your new purpose in life. You may well find it sooner and closer to hand than you could have imagined. And you may find in future that once again your purpose and course will be changed by circumstances beyond your control, as has happened in these past days."
Thaddeus cast a disbelieving glance around the dim cabin, his eyes passing over and then returning to Teddy. His gaze softened and lingered there a long moment.
"In the meantime, Mr. Thistledown, you should know that we are now but two days out of Gibraltar. At that time we shall make arrangements for your return to England. I wish -- I wish you could be taking all that you boarded with." For once, Pellew's expression was open and unguarded. "His Majesty's Navy offers little in recompense to those who sacrifice so much in its service."
Thaddeus glanced at Teddy again, then decided to plunge ahead. "Captain Pellew, there is something the Navy could do for me..."
Captain Sir Edward Pellew
c/o Admiralty House
Dear Captain Pellew,
I beg you will forgive my tardiness responding to your letter of the ___th, and your kind inquiry as to how I am getting on. My return passage from Gibraltar to Portsmouth was a nightmare in learning to walk, to state the matter with no bark on it. I will forego regaling you with lurid tales of the countless times I fell down a companionway or lost my footing on deck. The miracle is that Providence saw to it that I never suffered more than bruises or wrenching coupled with a great degree of embarrassment.
I found the coach journey from Portsmouth to my family home near Upper Wychford less trying, though poor little Teddy was made wretchedly ill by the motion! I could hardly believe it at first but was much shocked to realize he had never been on shore before in his life. In truth, it seems a far greater span than three years since I myself lived in dry dock, as it were. I know I am not yet a venerable old man (thought I have hopes of someday achieving that status), but the boy who left home for a life in the Royal Navy seems a distant childhood memory. I do not know him at all today.
My reception on arriving at Thistledown Hall was all you might imagine, and more than I had hoped. My beloved Mama withheld her tears at the sight of her crippled bird though she clung to me like a limpet. My father -- he is a bear of a man, I do not resemble him overmuch -- nearly crushed me in his arms. My brothers, their wives, their children -- I was overwhelmed by their obvious delight in my return. Though I have never doubted their love for me, I cannot recall a time when I felt so cocooned by their affection. I cannot fathom how it is I have missed my home so much and never realized it until I was once again surrounded by my family.
My only worry was how they might greet Teddy, but the worry was all for naught. My mother said she had always felt incomplete with only twelve sons, now she had a baker's dozen and could not be happier. My father is in alt with a new student to hand. Though Teddy is only just learning to read, he already has more scathing Latin quotations from Ovid and Marcellus springing to his tongue than I ever will. A frightening thought, is it not? His stammer is not cured and may always be a part of him, but he speaks more willingly nowadays and has at last left off clinging to my coat. Too, he has proved to have the most remarkable singing voice. My brother Augustus, who teaches music, is already lamenting the day that Teddy's voice will change. Ted's hunger for musical training seems to be insatiable, and so soon as he has learned to read properly, we have decided -- with Teddy's starry-eyed agreement -- he will go to live with Augustus and his family at Bath so that he may have his fill of scales and arpeggios and such.
I spent my first days at home becoming familiar with old haunts again. I have traipsed about the land on my peg leg, leaving my odd track as a sign of my passing, until the entire village has become used to the sight and sound of me. For the longest time I felt like a belled cat, but I hope you will not think me immodest if I say that I am made welcome everywhere. Perhaps this may not surprise you, but I was somehow wont to think all the two-legged creatures of my acquaintance would shun me. No doubt, sir, you will say it is my conceit flaring up again.
I find I have not cured my lifelong habit of being late to Sunday service, with the result that I now annoy Vicar Davidson twice as much as I ever did as a boy, what with entering the church late and noisily stamping my way down the aisle to our pew. I have the makings of a curmudgeon in me I fear, as I always stamp louder the nearer I approach him. My lady mother has threatened to leave off attending services as she says I put her to the blush. My brothers are betting on whether my obstinate rudeness will induce the vicar to break the sixth commandment and strangle me. My father simply says I am an object lesson in patience to the vicar.
The greatest surprise since returning home has been to find my days so full. Your wise counsel to learn the lessons of my new life one at a time is never far from my conscious thought. I find many of the obstacles facing a one-legged man are solely in the mind and spirit. My spirit, I thank God, has always been of a resilient nature, and the mental obstacles of my own making I can usually get around without too much fuss and botheration. (Why, for example, should I labor loudly and long to descend the stairs when I can more safely and quickly and quietly reach the bottom by judicious use of the rail? Teddy posed that question to me in a much simpler form and when I found I had not a suitable reply, I began polishing the rail on a regular basis, as well as considering the design of a mechanical means to lift or lower a person from one level to another).
A harder lesson to learn -- though I have the example of my previous lesson with the ship's company to guide me -- has been that I cannot change the obstacles created in the minds of others. And so I learn not to heed them. I go where I will and attempt that which I choose, regardless of the risk and predictions of dire failure. And I do fail sometimes. I have on occasion mortified myself, but at least I know I have tried and discovered my own limitations rather than allowed them to be thrust upon me by others.
I see I have prattled on at great length and have not said that which is most important and formed my intent when I took up the quill this hour past. I cannot possibly convey to you how deep is my gratitude for not only the care you took of me when I was in your command, but for your thoughts of me and efforts on my behalf since that time. I have had, at your urging I make no doubt, the kindest letter from Lord Edgrington inviting me to fill a position working for him at Whitehall. I am filled with hope that I may yet serve my country in some capacity greater than that of interested spectator. I leave for London on the morrow in the expectation that you will have warned his lordship about my incessant chattering, or I daresay I shall be back at the Hall within a sennight.
Kindly convey my regards to the men, most especially those who served in my division. I trust they are giving my replacement seven kinds of hell. I also trust, Captain, that this letter finds you as I am, well and in good spirits.
Yr most obedient and devoted pupil,