The Measure of a Friend
by Moony Andrews

The boy was asleep. Katherine Cobham wanted to give a
quiet sigh of relief, but could not; she was too
experienced an actress to give in to the temptation to
let her feelings show, even a little. She had her role
to maintain, after all, and the Duchess of Wharfedale
was a challenge to play, especially since there was no
moment when she could relax and allow the mask to
slip. In her role as the pushy Duchess, she had just
insisted that Horatio take his customary two hours of
exercise that afternoon, assuring him that she would
look after his young friend who was so sick in the
prison infirmary. She did not relish the task, had no
great love for sickrooms, but it was obvious that
Horatio needed some time and solitude to contemplate
his own problems, and she could provide him with the
opportunity. That left her with the prospect of two
hours with a boy who was trying to kill himself - not
an entirely appealing prospect. Still, as she slipped
through the infirmary door, she could see that he was
sleeping soundly; perhaps he would remain in that
state. Quietly, she moved to the hard wooden chair
beside the bed and took a seat, studying the sleeping
face.

He looked far different now, in this untroubled
slumber; his skin had lost the frightening bluish
tones that it had held the one time she had observed
him closely before. Kitty realised that he must have
been in the same cell that Horatio had inhabited, but
she had not paid much attention to the other
inhabitants, intent on ignoring the smells and getting
Horatio out into the open air for a bit. The boy had
not been in the courtyard, either, the times she had
come to visit; as a result, she knew less of him than
any of the other men, all of whom she had also become
acquainted with during their brief sail on the La
Reve. Horatio had not been eager to provide
information on his friend, either; she could see,
plainly written in his eyes, the guilt that he felt
over the near loss of his friend. It had only been a
short time, really, since the previous evening when
they brought the boy in, half-starved and delirious;
she did not know what had passed between the young
men, did not know if the boy was still intent on
self-destruction. Horatio had said something, unclear
and befuddled, that sounded as though he though his
friend might now have given up his suicide bid; she
would really have to work with the boy on his
communication skills!

She really didn't know anything - except that
Horatio's friend had recognised her, or
she feared he had; he had quoted those lines at her,
lines from plays she had appeared in - but was that
proof? She suspected she was trying to avoid the
truth, and that he knew. Certainly his eyes had seemed
to show some sign of recognition, but would he
remember if he awoke now? Much better if the boy did
not wake while she sat with him, and then there would
be no awkward questions to answer. Her attention was
caught for a moment as he seemed to hold his breath in
his sleep, his breathing becoming harsh and rapid for
a moment, as if caught in a bad dream. Before Kitty
could stop herself, she saw her hands reaching out to
soothe him, stroking his hair, her voice murmuring
comforting words without a bit of conscious thought,
as she had done when first she saw him, looking so
fragile and near death. He calmed now under her touch,
but did not wake; she moved to adjust his blanket
slightly before removing her hands back to her lap. He
was a handsome young man, that much was clear; with a
bit of grooming, she thought he would be quite the
danger to the hearts of young ladies back in England.
Did he look familiar somehow? It was impossible to
tell. What had Horatio said his name was? He must have
told her, and yet Kitty could not remember.

The boy stirred again, his face displaying signs of
agitation - if he suffered so from disturbing dreams,
it was no wonder he appeared so very much in need of
rest, even while unconscious. A restless stirring, his
hands beginning to move on the blanket, and then he
was awake, swiftly but not violently, his eyes staring
at the ceiling above him as if in fascination. He
stayed frozen for a moment, while Kitty did not move,
unwilling to disturb his thoughts, until his gaze
dropped and he began to look around the room. When he
caught sight of her, seated in the chair where he had
obviously expected to see Horatio, he blinked as if in
confusion, as if he wondered if he was truly awake.
What should she say? But that was not important - what
would the Duchess say, that was the real question. She
should probably make a light joke of some kind,
enquire if he intended to sleep the day away, but she
found herself unwilling to break the silence; it was
peaceful, not to have to hear the Duchess speaking for
once. The boy - what was his name? - continued to
stare at her in puzzlement; with his eyes open, he
looked so young it took her breath away. No more than
a child, really; Horatio was much the same, and she
kept wondering how it was that they sent their
children off to fight their wars, to be captured and
sent to filthy prisons like this one. Such young boys,
still; she fought against the rise of maternal
emotions that made her want to reach out and comfort
the boy in front of her, so young and in such pain. He
should not look so serious - she could see the
laughter lines on his face, could tell that he ought
to be wearing a wide grin, his eyes sparkling - but he
lay there instead, quietly evaluating her and the
situation, his eyes grave and full of pain. Would
anyone but an actress see the emotions he kept hidden
there?

The silence had lasted long enough, but she could not
make any suitably light comment in the face of that
serious gaze. What could she say? Anything to break
the silence. `Good afternoon, sir. Mr `Ornblower is
temporarily out, but he asked me to remain here until
he returns from his exercise. I am the Duchess of
Wharfedale, and -' Her sentence was cut short.

`No, you're not.' His voice held no hint of anger or
even accusation, just plainly stated fact. He still
looked unutterably weary, but his eyes showed no
hesitation; he knew. How to respond? Might he still be
delusional, or was she lost?

`Am I not?' A hint of challenge in her reply; how
much did he know? He almost smiled at that, his blue
eyes still fixed on her face.

`You're Katherine Cobham, the actress. I would have
to be truly mad not to recognise you.' He did know.
She fought to keep her composure in the face of this
challenge - she was an actress, after all, she could
put on the mask of calm composure that she so often
wore... but she couldn't this time. Not in front of
this boy who had just shattered her assumed identity
in one moment of contemplation. She closed her eyes to
try to hide the shock and dismay she felt, and was
startled to feel the gentle touch of a hand on hers,
now clutching hard at the arm of the chair as she
fought her emotions. Her eyes flew open to see that
the boy was now looking most concerned, his hand
resting gently on hers as if anchoring her to Earth.
He was obviously too exhausted to lift his head,
though he looked as if he wished to. `I apologise, Ms
Cobham - I did not mean to startle you.' He had a
pleasant voice, light and clear; she thought through
the haze of her confused thoughts that he himself
might have done well on the stage. With a slight shake
of her head, she brought herself forcefully back to
reality, schooling her face into an expression she
hoped would pass for calmness.

`Well, if you know who I am, I should like to know
the same of you, sir.' She abandoned the rough tones
and accent of the Duchess, revelling in the pleasure
of using her own voice and speaking her own words -
how long had it been since she was able to do that? `I
am afraid Mr. Hornblower was not as forthcoming with
information as I might have hoped.' The boy almost
smiled again, pulling his hand back to rest again on
his blanket.

`Yes, that's Horatio for you. I am Archie Kennedy,
prisoner of war in their most Catholic Majesties'
Prison El Ferrol; I am honoured to make your
acquaintance.' His eyes danced briefly with the
sarcastic humour, and she could not help but be
amused, and charmed, by the easy grace of the boy on
his sickbed. She had thought for certain when they
brought him in out of the rain that it would be his
deathbed; now she prayed it would not be. She ducked
her head in imitation of a curtsey, playing along with
the quasi-formal introduction.

`Well, Mr Kennedy, since it seems our mutual friend
has left us to our own devices for a time, I hope that
you are feeling up to entertaining.' She wondered as
she spoke whether he was still feverish, but felt it
would be impolite to reach out and feel; his cheeks
were somewhat flushed, but she could not tell if that
was from sleep or fever. `If I may ask, now that you
have recognised me, do you intend to inform Mr
Hornblower?' She tried to keep the anxiety from her
voice, but feared she had not succeeded. Kennedy's
face certainly grew graver, the spark of mischief that
had danced in his eyes replaced by a thoughtful look.

`I'm afraid I must, Ms Cobham; he is my superior
officer.' Did his sound a trifle petulant at that, and
did she detect a hint of jealousy on those fine
features? She could not tell. `Not that I wish to
expose your identity, but I think I have no choice;
Horatio likely needs to know. May I ask why you have
been playing the Duchess of Wharfedale?' His voice was
still pleasant and friendly, and she was somehow
overjoyed that he said playing rather than posing as
or imitating. To have someone realise that she was
simply filling a role was a greater relief than she
would have admitted to herself before.

`I found myself stranded, Mr. Kennedy, and in need of
passage back to England. I knew that no one would wish
to transport an actress, so I simply assumed the role
of the Duchess; it was necessary to get myself home.'
She laughed softly at the thought. `Not that it has
been an entirely successful plan, as you can see. But
I never wanted to deceive Mr Hornblower, you
understand; I have often wished to tell him the truth,
but I did not want to hurt him.'

Kennedy understood, nodded slowly. Kitty knew, though,
that he was right, that he would have to inform
Horatio, and then the damage would be done. She could
not blame the boy, though; it was his duty to his
superior officer. `Speaking of Mr Hornblower, he left
me with instructions to see that you ate and drank
when you woke; I expect you have experienced being
given an order by Mr Hornblower, and so you will
understand if I don't want to disobey him.' But
Kennedy's eyes had shadowed at the mention of eating
and drinking, and he closed his eyes wearily as if to
avoid her. When he spoke, his voice was quieter, less
sure of itself.

`If you please, I am not hungry at the moment - or
thirsty.'

`Mr. Kennedy!" Kitty exclaimed, but not unkindly. `I
have made acting my profession, so you will understand
if I say I can tell when a performance is less than
sincere. While you might fool Mr Hornblower with that
act, you will not fool me; I can see very well that
you are both hungry and thirsty.' Obviously Horatio's
thought that he had broken Kennedy's will to die had
been based more on hope than reality. Kennedy was
still not looking at her, his eyes shut tight as he
appeared to ponder his options. Kitty moved forward in
her chair, leaned closer to the bed, and gently took
his hand; at that, his eyes flew open, and he looked
shocked by the contact. She had to get through to him.
`Mr Kennedy - Archie, if I may - I saw Horatio when he
brought you here. I do not know if you recall it, but
he was near panic, convinced that you were dying and
placing the entire blame on his own head. I was
surprised - Horatio, who had not flinched when we were
surrounded by the Spanish Fleet, was completely out of
control with worry over you.' Archie was still looking
shocked, but now by her words; she could see the
confusion in the depths of his eyes.

`I - I do not want him to be upset - I didn't want
him to regret -' He was struggling for words,
obviously lost in ideas and emotions that he found
difficult to handle. She squeezed his hand gently, and
he looked grateful, but would not meet her eyes as he
spoke. `You have seen him at sea, Ms Cobham. Surely
you have seen that the deck of a ship is where he
belongs, where he must be - he must return to the Indy
as soon as possible. I - I cannot. I cannot return,
and yet he refuses to accept that; as long as I am
here, he will not leave. I am keeping him and the rest
of the men here as long as I am alive. So, to free
them, I simply determined that I would cease to be a
burden, and would quietly slip away.' He swallowed
convulsively, and she could see the unshed tears
gleaming in his eyes, giving the lie to his cold and
factual recitation of his determination to die. He
turned suddenly to face her, his eyes startlingly
bright blue.

`It didn't hurt, you see, and I thought that this was
one thing I could do for him, that I could help him
for once...and then he brought me here, and last night
he made me drink, and now I do not know what to do. He
said - he said that I was one of them, and that I had
to help him - but I was trying! And now I must either
get well and return with them, or continue to fight
him until I die - and I am so tired.' His face had
fallen as he spoke, the words coming now in bursts,
sounding likely to choke him; she saw him fighting
back tears, and realised that he was now looking at
her, asking silently for her help. He swallowed again,
and continued softly, `I didn't want him to regret my
death. There is no one else who would, and if he had
not, I would have had no opposition, no reason not to
let myself die. But he asks the impossible of me now.'

 

Merciful heavens, what could she say? He was asking
for her advice, asking her to help him make this
extraordinary decision between life and death, she
could see that plainly in his eyes. For once, not even
the Duchess had anything to say. This boy had suffered
greatly, was suffering still, and yet his concern was
not with his own welfare but with that of his friend.
His loyalty was overwhelming, and she could feel the
tears welling up in her own eyes, mirroring those of
the boy who still clung to her hand like a fragile
lifeline.

`Archie.' Kitty kept her voice low and soothing.
`Archie, you cannot believe that any man can survive
by himself. We all need someone we can rely on,
someone to share our hopes and dreams and fears with.
Mr Hornblower, as I have seen, is a solitary man; I
could hardly get him to engage in conversation with me
at all. I think that what he needs right now is a
friend - a living friend. His men are growing restless
here, and he himself - you are right, he does belong
on a ship, and he is desperate to return. But how do
you think he will live with himself if he returns,
knowing that he lost you here? Oh yes, he will
survive; he is a strong one. But what kind of life
will he have, with no-one he can trust his thoughts
to, and bearing the burden of your death? I have seen
him berate himself so often for losing La Reve to the
Spanish; he does not forgive himself, and he does not
speak of his own torments.'

Archie's eyes were wide; he was staring at her,
obviously desperate to believe that he was actually
needed, that his life could still fulfil some purpose.
Propriety could be hanged, Kitty thought fiercely, and
reached out to gently stroke his bright hair, hoping
to convey something of her message through a soft
touch. She was not surprised when he flinched away at
first, but it nearly broke her heart; she kept her
hand lightly on his head as she continued to speak.
`And can you truly think that if Mr Hornblower belongs
on the Indy that you do not as well? You cannot
believe that it is right that you should die here in a
Spanish prison. Horatio does need you, as the friend
that I can see you are; for only the very best and
bravest friend would dare to die for another. You are
indeed brave, Archie, to be prepared to die for your
friend, but now I think you must be braver still, and
live for him. Yes, he does ask a great deal of you in
this, but I do not doubt that you have the strength
and courage for this task.' Archie had squeezed his
eyes tightly shut -trying to hold back tears? Kitty
could not tell. She made one final plea. `Archie - I
also ask you this favour.' The bright eyes flew open
again. `Will you go on? I have come to care deeply for
Mr Hornblower, and I believe he needs you now. And I
also would greatly regret your death. You have
surprised me, Mr Kennedy, with your bravery and
fortitude, and I would not see you die here. Please?'
The last word was little more than a whisper, a
tightening of her hand about his in the hope that she
would get through to him.

`Well.' His voice shook with repressed emotions, as
he obviously tried to keep his composure. `If the
great Kitty Cobham has travelled all the way to Spain
to put on such a performance, it would be the basest
ingratitude to refuse her request.' He lifted his free
hand, shaking slightly, and drew it over his face,
seeming to draw a measure of calm from the gesture.
`Very well, Ms. Cobham. For you, and for Horatio, I
will do as you ask; though it seems certain to me that
you will both regret it in time.'

And to Kitty's great delight, that tiny spark of
mischief was alight again in the blue eyes - almost
imperceptible, but marking the vast distance between
life and death. She darted forward briefly and pressed
a kiss to Archie's forehead before moving away to
fetch the water she knew he would now accept. As she
turned back, she noted that his fair face was now
suffused with a bright pink blush, and she laughed in
delight to see such a sweet reaction. A most
remarkable boy! Kitty smiled to herself, and was
grateful that she had met him; the Duchess of
Wharfedale was certainly not, her secret having been
spoiled, and that was reason enough for Kitty to be
glad. Archie and Horatio together would make a most
impressive team, and she saw no reason to doubt that
they would soon both be standing on the deck of their
beloved Indefatigable - a most remarkable occurrence
`beneath the vis'ting moon'!

End