A Midnight Clear
by Sue N.

Horatio paced up and down the quarter-deck, trying to keep warm. It
was a cold, clear night with a light, sharp wind that seemed to bite
right through him, and he had still half an hour of the first watch
to stand before he could retire below and seek warmth beneath his
blankets.

But at least all was quiet...

Christmas Eve. He made another turn, then raised his cupped hands
before his mouth to blow warm breath over his chilled fingers.
Christmas Eve. He knew the night had a deep significance for others,
knew there were those even in this very ship who would see the
stillness and quiet of the night as a sign the world was holding its
breath, waiting to welcome, yet again, the birth of hope and
redemption, waiting for some sign that the labours, toils and
torments of the soul might have some reward.

Waiting for the birth of the Child whose innocence would wash away
man's iniquity...

He blew over his fingers again and shook his head. His skeptical
nature simply would not -- could not -- accept on faith what was not
supported by reason. Christmas Eve. For him, it was just one more
night on watch, one more night of blockade, one more night spent
keeping the Dons shut up in their bolt-hole in Cadiz.

That was the only sure way to peace on earth, keeping the Dons out of
the fray, not celebrating an eighteen-hundred-year-old birth! And
what had that birth meant, anyway? Where was the peace, the good will
that birth had supposedly brought? All of Europe in arms, France a
bloody ruin, men fighting and dying in places where they had no
business being, children orphaned and impoverished because their
elders had failed at politics and so must resort to war--

Good God, what place for hope was there in a world gone mad?

He sighed sharply and looked up at the sky, and was forced to admire
the beauty of it. Countless silver stars glittered like jewel dust
strewn across black satin, and the full moon shone with the lustre of
a perfect pearl. He supposed if men must celebrate a night, this one
was as good as any.

"Well, Horatio," came a light, clear voice from just before him,
jolting him out of his reverie. "It's Christmas Eve. Searching for
the star, are you?"

"Archie!" he said sharply, scowling at his friend. "You startled me!"

Kennedy laughed quietly. "You're on watch, aren't you?" he teased.
"Does that not imply that you are supposed to be aware of things --
and people -- about you?" He suddenly scowled deeply, mimicking
Hornblower, and stared out over the sea. "God, I hope you've not
missed seeing any Dons sneaking up on us! I dare say the captain
would do a good deal more than startle you, eh?"

Horatio exhaled sharply and frowned vexedly at Kennedy, who gazed at
him with wide-eyed, smiling innocence. "What are you doing here?" he
demanded, fighting his own urge to smile. "You aren't due to relieve
me for another half-hour--"

"I couldn't sleep," Archie answered, shrugging lightly. "So I thought
I would come up and keep you company. Call it an early Christmas
gift."

Horatio gazed at his friend for some moments, familiar with both his
frequent inability to sleep and the reasons for it. Yet now, however,
he saw none of the uneasiness, none of the fear and horror, that
normally darkened Archie's spirit when the demons of his past
possessed him. Instead, there was a lightness about him, a peace,
that both intrigued and bewildered Hornblower. He frowned in the
moonlight and shook his head slowly.

Archie laughed lightly at the other's expression. "Oh, Horatio,
really! It is Christmas Eve! Can you not, this once, forget puzzles
and reason and mathematical certainties and merely enjoy what this
night means?"

"Not you, too!" Horatio groaned, rolling his eyes and grimacing. "It
is a night like any other! Oh, perhaps a bit clearer than we have
known of late, I grant you, but-- It is only a night!" he insisted
forcefully.

Archie smiled slightly, and a bit sadly, at his friend's dogged
refusal to relax reason and exercise faith. "You are wrong, Horatio,"
he said softly. "It is much more than a night. Oh, come now, surely
you can feel it?" He turned away from Hornblower and walked to the
side railing, then raised his face to the sky and closed his eyes,
going very still and breathing slowly, deeply, as if breathing the
night itself into him. "There," he murmured softly.

Horatio sighed, then joined his friend rather grudgingly at the side,
standing stiffly erect and clasping his hands tightly behind his
back. "'There'?" he asked suspiciously. "There, what?"

"There," Archie said again, as softly as before, as relaxed as
Hornblower was rigid. "It is there, if only you will accept it. The
anticipation, the expectation--"

"Of what?" He sensed nothing of either, and felt strangely left out,
as he did when others enjoyed music that to him was nothing more than
a tinny, meaningless annoyance. "Archie--"

"Oh, Horatio!" Archie sighed in mild exasperation, opening his eyes
and turning to stare at his friend. Shaking his fair head slowly, he
set his hands on his hips and asked in bewilderment, "How can someone
as brilliant, as intuitive and as insightful as you be so bloody
damned blind? I know you prize reason, logic, and rationality above
all else, but I assure you, there are some things in this world that
cannot be explained by cold mathematics alone."

"Such as?" Horatio prompted stubbornly.

Archie lifted two slim brows and smiled. "Faith," he answered simply.

"Oh, God!" he groaned.

"Exactly!" Archie laughed, his blue eyes shining in the moonlight.
"'And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you
good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you
is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the
Lord.' On this night, Horatio, the world stops and waits -- in
anticipation, in expectation, in longing -- for that birth, for the
renewal of hope, and the reward of faith." He gazed evenly at his
friend. "Seaman that you are, Horatio, you must surely feel the
wondrous stillness of this night, the calm perfection of it. Can you
not also sense the reason?"

"We are at war, Archie!" Horatio said sharply, his lean face severe.
"Or have you not noticed? Our nation is fighting for her life, has
been fighting one nation or another almost constantly since before
you and I were born! How can you stand upon the deck of a ship of war
and speak of hope and faith?"

Sorrow clouded Kennedy's face. "What better time to speak of them?"
he asked softly. "Do we not need them now more than ever? It is when
we are engulfed in darkness, Horatio, that we most need light."

"Light, hope, faith!" Horatio breathed impatiently. "Really,
Archie--"

"Yes, Horatio, really. It is an imperfect hope, an imperfect faith, I
grant you," he said. "But surely even they, imperfect as they are,
must be better than no hope or faith at all? What good are we without
them? Oh, I know," he sighed, frowning slightly and staring out over
the dark sea, "we have pretty well made a mess of things here,
haven't we? But at least we do try. We strive, Horatio. It is all we
can do; it is what we must do. There is something in us that compels
us to keep working for the good. And when we fall short, as we
invariably do, it is the hope and faith to which we cling that cause
us to rise up and, lamenting our failures, strive again." He turned
his gaze back to his friend and smiled slightly. "So often, Horatio,
we have no idea what we are striving for, or why, after so many
failures, we even try. But that is the magic of this night. It is why
we were given this night."

Horatio scowled and shook his dark head stubbornly, his rational mind
unable to comprehend such abstractions. "This night is no different
than any other--"

"You are wrong," Archie said quietly, firmly, smiling gently. "On
this night at least we may see what we are striving for. On this
night above all, we see not only what we are, but what we might be,
what we must be. On this night we wait for the coming of one who has
seen our struggles, our failures, our pain, who will take them all
upon Himself and say, 'It is all right. I am here to help you and
make you new again that you may strive with refreshed hearts.' We
await the coming of the One who will shine His light into our
darkness and show us the way we must go. We are shown the reason and
the fulfillment of our hope and faith. Merciful God, Horatio," he
breathed with conviction, "what is so difficult to understand about
that? Why do you resist it so?"

"And why do you believe it so?" Horatio countered, thoroughly
bewildered by the certainty he heard and saw in his friend. "You of
all men, Archie? How can you? What cause have you above all men been
given to believe in a merciful God, or in any God at all?" He reached
out and grabbed Kennedy's arm in a hard grip, staring fiercely into
his eyes. "How can you espouse faith in a God who would thrust you
into the hell you have known?"

Archie bowed his head at that, staring through wide, unblinking eyes
at the deck beneath his feet and seeing again the horrors of his
past, all embodied in one sinister, leering face. "It was not God who
did-- what was done," he whispered, "it was a man. Only men are
capable of such evil."

"There," Horatio said with a satisfaction he did not understand
himself. "You see--"

"But," Archie cut him off, raising his head and gazing evenly into
his eyes, "it was also a man who came to my rescue, or do you not
remember? It was a man who pulled me back from madness and despair
and death, who showed me also the good that men do. So if you would
have me hold God responsible for the evil that men do, then must I
not also hold Him responsible for the good? If Jack Simpson and all
the Jack Simpsons of the world are to be used as arguments against
God, then must not Horatio Hornblower and all his like be used as
arguments for Him? Or does your logic only work one way?"

Horatio exhaled sharply and turned away abruptly, frustrated by
Kennedy's intransigence. It was ridiculous even to be arguing the
question...

"Do you believe in coincidence, Horatio?"

The question startled Hornblower, threw his mind off balance, and he
turned slowly back to his friend, frowning. "What?"

"You heard me," Archie said quietly, his gaze never wavering from
Hornblower's face. "Do you believe in coincidence? In your rational,
orderly, logical world of mathematical certainties and precision, is
there room for coincidence? Is there room for random chance?"

Horatio swallowed, feeling himself suddenly on frightfully unsteady
ground. "I-- I do not--"

"I would like you to explain to me," Archie said evenly, ruthlessly,
his eyes boring into Hornblower's, "how we ended up in prison
together. I want you to tell me how it was that, of all the prisons
in the whole of Spain, you and I should have been placed in the same
one, and in the same cell, no less? If you will not credit Divine
Providence, then what mathematical formula have you for that? Let's
see you trot out Euclid or one of your other idols to answer that
one! How is it," he stepped closer and continued to stare up at the
taller man, his serenity a marked contrast to the other's nervous
agitation, "that after having survived such long and lonely
imprisonment in French hands, with spirit enough to continue trying
to escape, it was only when I was finally broken, without strength or
hope, when I was sick and near mad with despair that you suddenly
appeared in my cell in the corner of a prison in the corner of Spain?
'You are one of us,' you said. 'We do not leave unless you do.'" He
smiled slightly. "'Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of
great joy.' Believe me, to a man cowering in darkness, the words of
one angel are very like the words of another."

Horatio winced at that and bowed his head. "I am no angel," he
protested softly.

"Are you not? Well, that was how you appeared to me then." He
grinned, his eyes reflecting the light of the stars. "Some angels
appear in shining raiment and bathed in a heavenly light, while
others appear in stained uniforms amid the murky gloom of a prison.
But whatever the guise, the one to whom the angel is sent recognizes
him, and gives thanks to the God who sent him." He sighed deeply and
shook his head, his expression rueful. "I know I cannot prove God to
you, my mathematical friend. But if the fact that I am here, that I
am alive and sane, does not at least argue for His existence, then
nothing I can ever say will. There is no reason you should have been
put in my cell. Indeed, all reason dictates that it should never have
happened. And yet there are those things, those events, those
circumstances, that defy reason. It is then that we enter the realm
of faith. And it is this night, this very night, when the world waits
and hopes and yearns and holds its breath, that gives us the courage
to enter that realm at all. Sometimes, Horatio, we have no choice but
to trust the evidence of things unseen. Sometimes we have to close
our minds to reason and open our hearts to the good tidings brought
by angels, in whatever guise they appear."

Horatio wanted to answer, but could not. Words -- reason -- failed
him. And in the silence that stretched between them, he heard the
quartermaster strike eight bells. Midnight, the end of his watch.
Midnight, the end of Christmas Eve and the start of Christmas Day.

Archie smiled broadly in the moonlight. "Happy Christmas, Horatio.
And, sir," he saluted, "you are relieved."

Horatio absently returned the salute. "Yes, Archie," he muttered, his
thoughts still scattered. "Oh, and happy Christmas to you, as well."

Distracted, uneasy, he left the quarter-deck and made his way below,
going quietly through the silent, sleeping ship, blind to his
surroundings. With his friend's irrational, illogical and thoroughly
unreasonable arguments still echoing maddeningly in his brain, he
made his way to his cabin and went within, muttering under his breath
about ridiculous conversations with Christmas-happy friends. Too
irritated and distracted to sleep, he moved to the small table and
lit the lamp, turned toward his cot...

...and saw it.

On his cot was a box, an intricately carved teak casket, of the sort
one might keep letters in, and very like -- no, exactly like -- the
one he had so admired in Gibraltar when last he and Archie had
wandered the streets together on a day of liberty. Going to the cot,
he bent and slowly picked up the box, running his long fingers
lovingly over the exquisitely detailed etchings in the lid, as taken
by its beauty now as he had been when first he had seen it. But the
price had caused him to turn his back upon it.

How...?

He smiled, then, and shook his head, suddenly remembering how, not
ten minutes after leaving the shop, Archie had abruptly remembered
his "forgotten" hat and had sent him ahead to the tavern to get a
table while he went back for...

...the box. While he, Horatio, had silently castigated such
scatter-brained forgetfulness.

Archie...

Still smiling, he opened the box, expecting to find it empty.
Instead, there was inside a small slip of paper, neatly folded. His
smile turned to a frown, and he took out the paper, then laid the box
on his cot. Unfolding the paper, he saw two lines, written in
Kennedy's lamentably inelegant hand.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt
of in your philosophy. Happy Christmas -- A.K."

He laughed softly and shook his head, then, with the greatest care,
folded the paper again and returned it to the box, gently closing the
lid. Picking up the box, he ran fingers and eyes once more over the
lid, admiring the craftsmanship. All at once, though, he frowned and
held the box closer, peering intently at it.

And, for the first time, he saw that at each corner was carved an
angel. And the one in the top right corner appeared to be opening a
prison door.

THE END
**********

Merry Christmas, y'all!