HORATIO: A LIFE OF DUTY --- Pellew II

By Alison


The carriage jolted its way over the Hog's Back and skirted the Devil's Punchbowl. Pellew would have preferred to sail from the Solent back up-Channel and up the Thames to London, but it was quicker this way; and besides, he had an appointment to keep.

His head ached. He tipped it back against the worn leather seat-cushion and let himself imagine Sophie's hands rubbing his temples. After twenty years with no physical contact with another human being, he was still far from used to the miracle of her exploding into his life. It was as if he had kept himself bound in steel hoops, like a barrel of salt beef, until she came along and freed him to be not just an officer in His Majesty's Navy, but a man also.

The thought of nine-year-old Mavis running slap bang into him and prying the lid off the barrel containing him curved his mouth into a wry smile in spite of all his cares and pain. Then he thought of her face when he had told her he was sorry for the loss of Hornblower, and his own face twisted and he turned to stare out of the window.

The three other passengers jostled and mumbled. Pellew watched the trees by the window, passing so close here that twigs swept against the carriage; then the road turned the other way and suddenly the view stretched out before them, yellow and gold and blue in the hazy sunlight.

He had an errand to complete before giving his report to their Lordships. Somewhere in this dappled watery landscape of sleeping villages and mild-faced cows lay a country doctor's house, and a grieving father within it. One who could surely not feel very much more pain than Pellew himself; but that was more than heartbreak enough. A father he must face and tell all to, knowing the extent of the man's loss as perhaps no-one else on earth could know it.

He had watched Kennedy go ashore with Hornblower's sea-chest, knowing his wretched destination. He had left the Indefatigable in the capable hands of Mr. Bracegirdle, and gone ashore himself to seek some comfort at last, at home in Portchester, as much comfort as he might find anywhere. He had lost officers before, more than he cared to think; often as a direct result of his orders. Why then should this one be so devastating? Captain Pellew had neither made love nor wept in twenty years -- in fact, it had been closer to forty since he had shed tears over anything or anyone. Now in the space of less than a year he had done both - last night at one and the same time. And when the tears had come, as scalding and unstoppable as his seed moments before, it had been so great a relief: greater even than the physical release his body had just demanded, and got. He had sobbed upon her breast like a lost child.

Part of his brain - the old, rigid, officer-like part - told him this was a shameful weakness he must never again permit. And yet in his heart he felt lighter for it, cleansed, able to go on now; and he knew that he could not have faced this errand so calmly, had he not let the tears spill already.

A Captain's life is a lonely one - the very essence of loneliness, for his command depends upon it. Maintaining that distance was imperative: had become habitual. A ship's captain could be permitted neither emotions nor friends aboard his ship; if he transgressed, either his judgement or his command - or, fatally, both - must surely suffer.

And yet he had allowed himself to become close to this extraordinary young man - to count on him, even: his companionship, his understanding, his immediate and incisive grasp of every tactical situation that arose in all its complexity - his tact, his subtlety, his kindness.

A mistake, then, to have opened his heart, to this young officer? No; it had come to him as naturally as his duty. He would be the poorer, now, had he resisted it. And it lay like a steady hand over his heart that he had done no more than his duty in ordering Hornblower to lead the raid, even though in doing so he had got him killed. Had Hornblower progressed to captain - a virtual certainty, if Fate had spared him - then Hornblower would have done the same thing, without hesitation: offered up his prime officer, as Abraham did Isaac, in the name of duty.

Pellew sighed, letting that knowledge fill him once more with calm. A strange comfort, but comfort nonetheless, that Hornblower would have sent Kennedy or Styles or any of his division into harm's way on the instant, were it necessary - although (here Pellew closed his eyes once more in pain) it was Hornblower's way to have led them if he could - as he did - not stayed behind and simply given orders, then to watch and wait impotent upon their commission.

Damn it again, thought Pellew: I am weary of this. Yes, weary of command. For the first time in my life I would set this burden aside for a while, if I could. But I cannot; I told Hornblower the same, after Brittany, and it must hold good for me: I can't say one thing and do another. It comes with this uniform, just as I said then: I may not take it off, not for a second, not ever; not even in bed. It is who I am.

He closed his eyes against the image that came before them of Hornblower's eager face, that dancing light in his eyes and the little smile he wore when at his most unselfconscious. But closing them only made it more vivid; now he could hear the young man's voice too, for heaven's sake, the night before his examination for lieutenant, when Pellew had found him studying up on deck and his papers had flown in the wind Ö the way he said, "my examination, sir."

The woman beside him stifled a belch. The carriage, fetid before, was worse now; Pellew felt suddenly sick to his stomach. A lifetime at sea, and he was nauseous in a carriage, for god's sake!

He thought of clean salt air and of the day he had sent Hornblower and Kennedy up to the mast-head, to blow the misery of the failed landings at Quiberon and Musillac clean out of their young heads. It always worked; he had once delighted himself in standing on his head out upon the yard-arm. But those days were long gone; his dignity now required a more rigid demeanour. He pressed a handkerchief to his lips and prayed for the good Doctor's village to arrive soon.

Such promise. So much to admire, so much more to hope for, to look forward to. He had watched the boy take his first command, turn a bunch of mismanaged surly hands into a company that would have laid down their lives for him: a company to be proud of, hardworking, loyal - Pellew remembered their cheering him after the loss of the holed prize-ship; and later, their return to Spain under Hornblower's parole. How many officers could command that kind of loyalty? Precious few. Damn few. Damn it.

Damn it to hell. His head throbbed and he sighed, thought of Hornblower at the wheel of the fire ship: felt once more his own incredulity at first witnessing that extraordinary feat of naked courage. Wondered if he had that much courage himself. Decided he probably did not.

Pellew rubbed his brow, between his eyes, where a crease had taken up permanent residence. It reflected many years of squinting on deck and the unthinking carriage of responsibility. Now there was a concept he had not questioned since boyhood. Not in all those years at sea, starting at the age of eleven. Yes, it was his duty to order every man in the ship to do whatever - what ever - should be necessary. He had come to this responsibility as surely as he drew breath; knew he had been born to it. It was, quite simply, his life.

As it had been Hornblower's. The man had been a true officer: one of that rare breed born to lead men. There was no more solemn or noble thing that could be said of him than that: he had attended to his duty, served his King and country, cared for his men and led them; been an example to them; been an inspiration. Pellew had seen their faces, afterwards; speaking the words of the burial service, he had felt his guts grind and twist as their faces had done, yet with the iron will forged in a lifetime of agony and duty, allowed himself to show nothing of it beyond his customary frown, for fear he would break down altogether there beside the rail.

Responsibility.

His, all of it. He told himself it had to happen; argued with himself that it did not. Wished himself back in Sophie's arms and drowning in her, submerged and for those few moments beyond the reach of this pain. Except that he wasn't, not even there, the one place on earth he had thought to find solace. In the rawness of his need had come also the rawness of his loss. Even Captain Pellew could not deny his humanity indefinitely. Perhaps if he could have wept again, the bands around his skull might have loosened. But this was neither the time nor place - and so he did not, and suffered for it.

Instead, he turned his thoughts to the subject of acting Lieutenant Archie Kennedy. As much of a question-mark as Hornblower had been an exclamation-mark. Was the lad fit for command? Did he have that indefinable set of qualities that made an officer? Hornblower had thought a lot of him, Pellew knew that; a high opinion, he hoped, based on things Hornblower had seen in the young man that he, Pellew, had not yet witnessed. He remembered again watching as Hornblower's division had first saluted Hornblower; then cheered him in pride. A hard comparison; perhaps not a fair one. What did Mr. Kennedy have to be proud of? A ghastly stint in France and Spain, in prison - some men could be broken by that, so it was to his credit that he had emerged more or less whole - no more fits, by all accounts, either. Pellew knitted his brows here, and relived for a moment his suspicions of what had been allowed to take place aboard Justinian. He had seen that kind of thing before, and it was a canker of the worst sort: soon the men were affected too, and there was no order and no proper running of the ship till it was addressed in the harshest way - rooted out and destroyed. Nothing was more destructive than that: officers not to be trusted by their fellows nor their men. Pellew's bile rose at the thought of these betrayals of that most sacred trust.

So Hornblower had thought much of Kennedy; respected him. Pellew allowed that fact to fill his mind for a moment, add some warmth to his own rather guarded impression of the young man. He might do. In the days immediately following the raid on the signal tower, Kennedy had gone about his duty white-faced and tight-lipped but unswerving in his zeal. Pellew had noted this, as he noted everything, even from the depths of his own agony. He had watched the men of Hornblower's division take their orders from this new source, exchange glances but get on with it; even give Kennedy a little extra support here and there, Matthews and Styles especially.

Styles. Now there was a rough customer. One of the roughest. A pressed man and a gambler, hard and bitter and not worth much, from the looks of him, when he first set foot on the decks of the Indefatigable. There had been a certain glare in his eye, like a horse that cannot be trusted and is merely biding his time to throw you: Pellew had seen it at once, as the men came aboard from Justinian. And yet Hornblower had won the man's loyalty and with it his very duty - to such an extent that when the captain's new acquaintance Mrs. McKenzie had needed repairs made to the rainwater tank up on her roof, Pellew had not hesitated in requesting that Styles be in charge of a small gang of men to repair it. Oh, nominally they had been under Cooper, but the boy was a dishrag and would never make an officer: Pellew had been counting on Styles to behave himself, do a good job and keep the other men in line, and he had done just that; and won himself a corner of Miss Mavis's heart into the bargain.

That had been Hornblower's influence. The man could have gone either way; he was three-fourths gone when Pellew first saw him, close to lost, as near spoiled for duty as dammit. And Hornblower had turned him around, made him the man and valuable hand he could be. Pellew's years of command had taught him never to give up hope; but not to cling to it naively, either. Hornblower's faith had had that shining quality, not na ve - no, not that at all - but as if there could be no reason the men would not perform their absolute best for him, day and night, storm or danger or adversity. Of course they would! - and so they did: because he performed his -- harder, longer, more thoughtfully, with that awkward grace and sudden fire that had been his uniquely.

Somehow these thoughts brought Pellew more pride than pain: a first in this month of endless thoughts as hopeless and without end as a broken-down pony in a wheel.

So Hornblower had worn his dusty, stained uniform to the end with the flair and grace he would now own for ever, undimmed by time, his back unstooped, his eyes always those of a twenty-year-old.

Uniforms. Shirts. Sophie had packed him three new shirts, that morning, stitched lovingly by her own hands. Pellew had frowned, shaken his head: "Sophie, have we not discussed this? Must you insist upon straining your eyes and your fingers?"

"I only sew what I want to, nowadays," she had answered him: "you are so far from me, Edward, so much of the time - it gives me comfort to think my stitches are always next to your skinÖ I am going to make you a shirt each month until you have two dozen, and then the first will be worn out and so I shall keep sewing - and so I will touch you all the time. Will you deny me that?"

"No," he said, his voice betraying him with a husky note, and he had pulled her to him then, half-dressed as he was, with his neck-cloth not yet tied, and bruised her mouth with his.

They had sent Hornblower to his watery grave dressed in Sophie's shirt - the first one she had made, upon his commission, back in Gibraltar, in the days when the promise of her embrace was no more than a dream to Pellew, a possibility glimpsed on the horizon luminous and magical as the flash of a sail at first light. And yet he had known then he would pursue it if necessary to the ends of the earth, had known with the same certainty with which he now sat bent upon this other errand: for Pellew recognized necessity when he saw it.

And so the fishes made sport with the fine white lawn and the white HH over his shattered breast. "Those are pearls that were his eyesÖ" wasn't that how that scrap from the Tempest went, that Mavis had shared with him on his last visit home? She had discovered it, read it to him with shining eyes: "Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change, Into something rich and strangeÖ" But then it had been merely magical; for it had not had her own darling sweetheart for its subject.

Let her take comfort in it now, he thought: can she? Please God, let her. She would not have let him go, had he lived: Hornblower might not have known it, but his future was all planned out for him, courtesy of Mavis, and it included herself in capacities that would have surprised him - but not Pellew, who besides necessity also recognized passion when he saw it: no less forceful for being a child's. For she would not stay a child very long; he had seen that the last time Hornblower came to their house, and took Mavis out to walk the harbour and tell tales of the voyage.

And now she will have to find someone else to love, he thought, and the idea cost him another pang: could he replace Sophie so easily? Never! He thought: I would have been so proudÖ to have given her to him, one day, entrusting her to his keeping into a future that now would never be.

How alike they were, Hornblower and Mavis. They would have been well-suited. The same zeal; the same single-minded pursuit of whatever they grasped. Emotions written all over their faces, but unstoppable in their devotion to the cause, whether great and fateful or childishly inconsequential. And yet passion and devotion are never inconsequential, he thought, and neither is determination. He had possessed it himself in unusual measure, even as a child: it was what he had recognized in each of them, that had commanded his immediate respect and then his heart.

He recalled Hornblower, straight-backed, standing stiffly to attention in his cabin that first day, silent while Pellew tore him off a strip, called him impudent and ordered him as one would a child to issue no more challenges . Those hazel eyes staring straight ahead, still blazing in defence of the wretched Keene, and devastation and guilt over the death of his hapless proxy and second, what was the man's name? Clayton, that was it - and finally Hornblower had been wise enough to shut up and let his captain rant uninterrupted till he was done, calming at the end of his recriminations as he got what he wanted from the boy and mastered his own temper.

And he remembered then with another sudden pain Hornblower's apology on the quarterdeck, off Algeciras, after the damnable dinner where Foster had as good as called Pellew a coward to his face, and succeeded in dazzling Hornblower into agreeing with him. Even then he was worth ten of Foster, thought Pellew: even as a callow midshipman he understood the requirements of loyalty, duty and command that Foster would go to his grave still ignorant of. The time for humility; the time when discretion truly was the better part of valour. His apology could not have been easy to make, knowing how deeply he had wounded his captain - for I let him see it, I know, Pellew reflected wryly - but that merely made it all the more imperative that he tender it. As he did.

As I am doing now, said Pellew to himself, in taking on this errand. Doing as I must; as honour and duty dictate; as love requires.

What? Love? The word had infiltrated itself unbidden into his head. Yes, love. Call it what it is, and feel no shame in doing so. Very well then, he told himself firmly: practice it, then, so you may say it aloud in a few hours' time - it is no more than the truth - yes, I loved him.

The carriage jolted and swayed. Nights of weary vigil demanded their price: Pellew slept.


"Out you get, sir," came the hoarse voice of the driver. "Mr. naval orficer, yes, you, sir, you was askin' to be let off 'ere. Right?"

Pellew came awake instantly, another habit of long standing. He blinked, looked out of the carriage window; reached to open the door; got out into a little square with rosy brick houses and a horse-trough in the center, beside a small and undistinguished fountain. The place looked sleepy and charming enough. He watched impatiently while the driver's mate unloaded his dunnage from the top rack; it was not much, a small case with a change of uniform for their Lordships, a nightshirt and his favourite dressing-gown. Sophie had also packed him some ham and bread, a piece of cheese and a flask of wine; he had tried to fob her off, but she had slipped it into his shoulder-case anyway. He thought he would probably be glad of it later, and blessed her for not being intimidated by his sharp expression when refusing it. He then thought for a moment of the softness of her breast, and wished heartily to lay his head upon it and sleep until this nightmare should go away.

Instead he straightened his shoulders, looked about him, and picked up his cases. The carriage pulled away without him - good riddance! he thought gratefully - and he turned toward the inn a few steps away.

"Yes, sir? Can I 'elp you, sir?" - the ostler appeared dirty but sober, as far as Pellew could tell (which was accurate to within a drop or two) -- so he set down his bags again. "Yes. I am looking for a Dr. Hornblower. I understand he is a resident of this place?"

"Oh, yes, sir. Yes, indeed. Good old Doctor." The man looked up sideways at Pellew's unmoving and august face. "'E's 'ad some very bad news, 'as the Doctor, sir - you being a naval man yourself - "

"I am perfectly aware of it," said Pellew testily; "I am Lieutenant Hornblower's commanding officer." Damnation, he thought, that is none of his business. But the man had seemed to wear a look like Matthews and Oldroyd had: could Hornblower have made himself so beloved, even in this little village he could hardly have been back to in the last five years?

"Oh, very good, sir," said the ostler. "Let me take your bags, sir, and I'll show you the houseÖ"

"Thank you," said Pellew.

They crossed the square, turned a corner, passed a churchyard and came to a grey brick house beside a row of smaller cottages, all overgrown with wisteria. Here the man stopped, set down Pellew's bags, and knocked loudly on the door. Pellew reached in his pocket for a coin.

"No, sir," said the man, "don't give me nothing. Not this time. Not being if you're his capting. I won't take your money, sir."

Pellew nodded. Then he waited for what seemed like a very long time, although he knew it was not. The door opened, and he wished it had been longer.

He stepped forward. "I am here to see Dr. Hornblower," he said firmly. "Is he at home?"

The elderly woman put his bags aside in the hallway, took his hat and cloak, showed him into a library. It had the appearance of use and comfort; shabby but pleasant. The wait was alleviated by the sense of being at home. Pellew took a book from the shelves: Horace. The pages were pencilled: he wondered if it was Hornblower junior or senior who had done it. He rather thought he recollected the boy had had a classical education, before going to sea; it had come in useful on several occasions, from dinner-table discussions to a background for the Romance languages. He started to read; became lost in the lines.

The door opened again. Pellew looked up.

"Sir -- ?" said the silver-haired man, holding himself stiffly upright, courteous but clearly at a loss.

"Edward Pellew, sir," said Pellew, holding out his hand. The older man took it, then pulled Pellew closer to him, looking up into his face with those bright brown eyes he knew so well: except that these were framed in lines of age and, now, anguish. They were red-rimmed and bloodshot, but unmistakably the same eyes. To see them again, when he had thought never to do so, brought a sudden pain to Pellew, as if he had been holed below the waterline: he blinked.

Dr. Hornblower blinked too. "Captain Pellew?" he murmured, half in disbelief: "His captain? Of the Indefatigable?"

"Yes, sir," replied Pellew. The doctor closed his eyes, then dropped his head; still he kept hold of Pellew's hand. Pellew felt his skin, dry, papery; his knuckles swollen with crippling arthritic lumps. Then the man looked up again, and their gazes met: Hornblower's two fathers. Pellew swallowed.

"You are very kind, to come all this way, sir," said Dr. Hornblower.

Pellew protested: "Indeed, that is not the case, sir. I could hardly do less!"

"He thought a great deal of you, sir," said the older man in a shaking voice. "He wanted to emulate you, I believe. Your career - your - erm - capabilities."

Pellew drew breath: say it. "I cannot tell you how deeply I feel his loss, sir."

"Can't you?"

"There are no words - "

"No," said the doctor, "but you could try. You wrote to me, I recall - such a terrible letter - you meant kindly by it, I know, but it brought me the news, you see, and nothing else you said could - could - "

"I understand," said Pellew, inwardly cursing the letter and his miserable attempts to write it. How could he have said anything worth saying?

The doctor gripped his hand fiercely now, stared into his eyes with an eagle's glare. "Do you? Do you, sir? How can you?"

"Because," said Pellew slowly, "had you not already been his father, sir, I should have counted it - the very greatest blessing to call myself that. There was - no man on earth I held in higher regard, sir. I - I may fairly say that I loved him. Yes."

There was vigour in the doctor's grip, despite the pain of those gnarled knuckles; and pride, and an aching loss that Pellew knew all too well. Pellew knew as he spoke that he would stay the night, tell Dr. Hornblower tales of Horatio into the small hours, till the candles guttered; express to him all his father's heart hungered to hear, and more. He would speak of Horatio the man, the officer, as Pellew had seen him, knew him intimately --- a Horatio the good doctor could only imagine and dream of, back here at home in this quiet village a thousand miles from smoke and cannon and bone and blood and destruction. And he in turn would hear of a Horatio he had not known, but had guessed at: the solitary boy, dreamy, brilliant in mathematics and eager to do what was right; the child bereft of his mother; the lad leaving all he had ever known for a life of unknown hardship and danger.

To do so, Pellew knew, would be more, much more than his duty; it would be his solace, also. And even if he wept again, for the second time in forty years, he knew it would be no more than was right: he would risk it, in the telling and the listening. For where there is love, as he was now learning, there was also safety: the room to be oneself, to feel what one must, and let it be.

So together they stood, grasping both of each others' hands, looking unflinchingly into one anothers' faces, and reading there the depth of regard Horatio had elicited from each of them. "Yes," said Dr. Hornblower after a long silence, "I see. I have been hasty. I beg your pardon, for questioning your understanding. I think - I think - perhaps you do, sir."

Pellew nodded.

"Sit, I pray you, Captain," said Dr. Hornblower after a few moments more. Pellew found a library chair, dusty now, and did as he was bidden. The doctor went to a sideboard, and with trembling hands poured out two glasses of madeira.

"A good son," he said, handing one to Pellew.

"Indeed," answered the captain. He waited till the doctor had sat down opposite him; raised his glass. "Would it seem - inappropriate - to toast him, sir?"

Dr. Hornblower sighed. His eyes really were startlingly like Hornblower's, Pellew thought, and that splendid nose too; though in the older man Time had pared the flesh from its noble lines, and it was thus more aggressively beak-like. Not a face one would pass over quickly. Yet Pellew would have known him instantly, even in a crowd. There were depths of regret in it, as well as pain; Pellew recognized them, knew how each line felt upon the inside, scored deep by cares and responsibilities. "Forgive me," he said, "if you would prefer not to-"

"Oh, no," said Dr. Hornblower slowly, "it would be an honour. To drink to him with you. It's just that - I can't help but think - if I had never sent him away to sea - we should never have been sitting here, the two of us, mourning his loss, d'you see?"

"True," said Pellew - what else could he say? " -- but, sir, you must bethink yourself - then he would never have become the man that he did, either. The extraordinary young man to whom we raise our glasses." He let the words sink in before continuing: "He was a hero, sir, in the truest sense of the word. This is no overstatement. I do not exaggerate, sir. He was of very great courage - and a greater heart."

"I thought so," said the doctor. "He never said, of course, but I thought - from his letters - little things he would let slip - "

"Yes," said Pellew eagerly, at once pained and delighted to recall that self-deprecating shrug, the conscience that always found fault with the job well done: "he was so damned modest! It was one of his most amiable qualities, I found - to have no idea, no idea at all, of his stature -- his worth!"

They both were silent for a moment, and then the most extraordinary thing happened; both of them started to speak, and into that silence of loss and regret, each of them began to say the same thing: "It was my faultÖ" said Pellew; and "I never should have --" said the doctor. Both stopped.

Their eyes met again. "I placed him with Captain Keene," said the doctor. "He had no notion of it. I sent him away because I couldn't afford to do anything else with him. I shall have to live with that. How long? I am sixty-two -- must I live another twenty years, like this, without him?" His eyes sank back into their sockets, hollow with grief.

"It was the making of him," said Pellew, sitting forward in his passion. "You must believe me, sir. I - I gave the order, sir - that got him killed." The words felt brutal, yet from the doctor's intent expression he knew he could not soften them; nor did he wish to. There was nothing left for them, either of them, but to tell the truth. "This is not news to you, I am sure - and if I could take it back, I would, sir, God knows - but he did his duty, sir. But you, sir, y'have nothing to reproach yourself with! It was the Navy made him into the man he was. Y' should be proud, sir, proud, to have brought that about-"

"As you did yours, Captain Pellew," said Dr. Hornblower. "And so I am. Proud. As you must be, too, sir." He raised an eyebrow, just like his son: "To Horatio, then --- " and raised his glass opposite Pellew's.

"I thought the world of him," said Pellew quietly -- "Believe me, sir. If I could have --" he sighed; let the words trail away, uncharacteristically, for he was a most precise and articulate man. "To - to Horatio, then."

"I know," said Dr. Hornblower. "I see it, sir. You need say no more." And they drank the toast, slowly, in silence, not the silence of anger and regret, but rather of awe and a sense of overwhelming gratitude for the occasion of it: to have been given this lad, to cherish; to be sitting here now, sharing him. They might still be unable to forgive themselves; that pain would be a long while fading. Yet each of them could see that the other had nothing for which to fault himself: grant that, at least. It was a beginning.

The rest of the stories would come later, over dinner and a late fire laid in the grate to keep the chill away while they talked the night away. There would be laughter too; revelations, moments of tenderness and excruciating sorrow and wrenching candour between them, all of it necessary. For now there was no further need for words. They drank the nut-sweet madeira, amber as those dancing eyes, and remembered.


The end