Peace on Earth and Mercy Mild
by PJ

 

The single lantern swung lazily with the motion of the ship, casting
freakish shadows through the grating above their heads. The timbers
around them creaked, and the sound of water flowing was audible
through the Renown's oaken hide.

Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower stood immediately beneath the grating,
his hands clenched around the bars in frustration. His mind seethed;
of all the injustices he had endured under Captain James Sawyer, this
was the worst. Still, a voice in his head taunted him. You had been
considering mutiny. Hadn't you?

He shook his head to dislodge the persistent thought. It had been
for the good of the entire ship and crew that he and his fellow
lieutenants had even dared to discuss such a thing. No definite
action had been decided on. Everything had happened so fast; the
marines hunting them, the dread, the hiding, then Sawyer falling into
the hold.

His fingers closed tighter around the metal bars. His skin showed
white over hs knuckles.

"Staring at the bars is not going to make them disappear, `Ratio."
came a sleepy voice from a dark corner of the brig.

Hornblower sighed loudly and released the bars. Rust stained his
palms and he wiped his hands on his trousers, uncaring of the blood-
red streaks left behind.

"I know, Archie. I just wish" his voice died away. How could he
put into words the torrent of anger he was combating?

"Sit down, Mister Hornblower. We're stuck, and there's no use
dwelling on what can't be changed."

Hornblower turned toward the new voice. As the lantern swung he
caught quick glimpses of the cell's third occupant. Second
Lieutenant William Bush was as calm and stoic an individual as he had
ever met, and at that moment Hornblower longed to bury his fist in
his superior officer's face.

Bush seemed to sense that desire for his next words were meant to
defuse what he had seen in the younger man's intense brown eyes.

"God, its hot! Its supposed to be December, for heaven's sake!" He
wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "What I wouldn't give
for England's damp chill right now."

Hornblower grunted his agreement and leaned against the bulkhead; a
small concession to Bush's command that he sit. In seven years in
His Majesty's Navy he had never been to the West Indies before, and
he was finding the climate simply oppressive. Or perhaps it was
their current circumstances?

He took a deep breath and relaxed, sliding down the wall until he
sat, his long legs extended in front of him. He could just touch the
opposite wall with his toes.

"How does he do it?" Bush asked, with a nod towards the shadowed
corner where Lieutenant Archie Kennedy slept. "How can he sleep at a
time like this?"

Hornblower smiled slightly. "Archie can sleep anywhere, and through
almost anything. Its one of his more annoying attributes." He
reached out with one foot and gave Kennedy's ankle a kick. A grunt
and a snuffling snore were the only responses. "See?" he asked with
a grin.

Bush smiled in response, then looked from one to the other. They
were such a study in contrasts. The tall, lanky, dark haired
Hornblower - with his quick mind and an intensity that radiated off
him like heat from the sun - compared to the shorter, stockier,
flaxen haired Kennedy who always seemed on the verge of bursting
into laughter with a humour that was infectious. Yet these two
opposites had forged a friendship like none Bush had ever seen in his
years of service; a friendship forged through God only knew what
trials. In public they were always stiffly formal and correct with
each other; "Mister Hornblower" and "Mister Kennedy". However it
didn't take long to see that Horatio and Archie were lurking just
beneath the surface.

"I envy you two." Bush said, looking surprised that the words had
left his mouth.

Hornblower had been glaring at the bars above his head again, but he
brought his eyes down at Bush's words. "Envy? What do you mean?"

Bush was quiet for a moment. Whether it was the darkness around them
or the forced intimacy of the cell he found himself expressing
thoughts he would never have dared to utter under ordinary
circumstances.

"Your friendship." he said with a gesture that encompassed the two
younger men. "I've not seen many like it in this navy. Its rare to
have the time to forge that kind of bond. One gets transferred to
another ship, one gets promoted before the other, one gets kil" He
stopped speaking, not wanting to complete that thought. "Serving His
Majesty is tough on friends." he concluded, his voice gruff with the
embarrassment he was suddenly feeling.

Hornblower shrugged. "Perhaps. We've been lucky, I guess."

Despite his pretense of indifference Hornblower knew only too well
how blessed he was in his friend. He himself often struggled with
his emotions; fighting to keep everything under tight control.
Kennedy had no such problem, in fact quite the opposite. Hornblower
gave Kennedy the control he sometimes lacked, and Kennedy acted as
Hornblower's emotional mirror. They were opposites, it was true, but
in that was their strength.

He shook his head sharply. He hated those sorts of philosophical
thoughts, preferring to deal with the reality of things. And reality
at the moment was Bush staring at him incredulously while Kennedy
quietly snored in the corner.

"Lucky." Bush repeated the word, his voice bland. He shook his head,
chuckling. "Wish I had that sort of luck."

"Haven't you close friends?" Hornblower asked.

"Not really. I grew up with three sisters, so I was rarely around
boys my own age. And when I joined the navy I was just too scared
and shy to make friends. Well, mostly too scared and shy." He
laughed again and pushed a hand through his hair. "Why are we even
having this conversation?"

"Because you started it." Hornblower replied.

"Aye, I did. So I guess I'll finish it as well."

They sat in silence for a time, each lost in thought. There were
voices filtering down to them from the upper gundeck now; the crew
was at dinner. Laughter, shouts, and an occasional snatch of song
reached their ears.

Finally Hornblower could bear the silence no more. "Who was he?" he
asked.

"What?"

"You said you were `mostly' too scared and shy to make friends. That
implies that there was at least one exception."

"Are you always like this?" Bush asked, a note of anger creeping into
his voice.

"Like what?"

"Damned impertinent! For your information, Mister Hornblower, its
none of your bloody business!"

Hornblower was taken aback at the flash of real anger in Bush's icy
blue eyes. "I I'm sorry." he managed to stammer. "I did not mean
any disrespect, sir."

Bush sighed and looked at his companion. For all his accomplishments
Hornblower was still a boy in many ways; a blundering boy who didn't
realize when to leave well enough alone.

"No, I'm sorry." he said. "You were right, I started the
conversation, I should at least have the courage to finish it." He
took a deep breath. "I had a friend once, very like Mister Kennedy,
in fact. He was killed in an accident while I was ashore for my
lieutenant's examination. I never even had a chance to say good bye
to him; he had already been buried at sea before I returned."

Hornblower digested the information. He glanced at Kennedy, still
sleeping peacefully. How would he feel if he went ashore for a
couple of days and returned to find Archie dead and buried? I'd feel
awful, the voice in his head responded. And probably guilty as hell.

He became aware of the fact that the crew was becoming louder.
Nearly every voice was singing, and the sound grated on his nerves.
As usual, his response to the music that he couldn't appreciate was
anger.

"What the devil are they singing like that for?" he asked, his voice
sounding peevish to his own ears.

"Because its Christmas Eve."

Hornblower and Bush both jumped; the last thing they had expected was
to hear Kennedy's voice coming from the gloom. They watched as he
straightened up and moved into the light. His fair hair was tousled
and coming free of its restraining ribbon. Hornblower laughed;
Archie with messy hair was such a normal occurrence that he could
almost forget that they had been jailed by an insane captain who was
sailing his ship into peril.

"Christmas Eve?" Bush exclaimed. "Good heavens! I'd completely
forgotten!"

"Not surprising. We've had other things to think about." Hornblower
said.

"Christmas Eve." Bush mused. "What would you be doing if you were
at home right now?"

Kennedy laughed. "Listening to my mother fuss that my cravat wasn't
straight enough for church!"

They all laughed at that, and Bush marveled again at Kennedy's
ability to inject humour into almost any situation.

"Seriously, though." Kennedy began again. "I'd be with my family; my
parents, my twin sister and my brother. What we'd be doing isn't
half as important as that."

"My father's housekeeper would be hanging mistletoe from every
doorway and trying to catch my father under it." Hornblower said,
grinning broadly. "But at least I'd be there to see it."

"My sisters would be making mincemeat, and every room of the house
would smell of it." Bush said, inhaling deeply as if the stench of
pitch, bilge, and unwashed men had suddenly transformed into
something delicious. "And I'd be getting in their way trying to
steal scraps." He sighed. "I'd be home." he finished quietly.

"What's the best gift you ever received?" Hornblower asked.

"My first horse." Kennedy responded promptly.

"Useless tof." Hornblower muttered, smiling.

"Stuff it, `Ratio." Kennedy replied and they both laughed.

"Just before my father died he carved me a beautiful model ship for
Christmas." Bush said, his eyes far away in the memory. "I was
twelve years old. I knew then that I would end up in the navy." He
looked at Hornblower. "What about you?"

Hornblower's face clouded for a moment. "My mother's locket."

Kennedy was quiet after those words. He knew what his friend
referred to; the locket he had worn with his mother's portrait on
it. Heaven only knew where it was now. Hornblower had always
insisted that the loss meant very little, but for that moment the
pain showed on his face.

Bush was sensitive enough to realize that things were unsaid, so he
didn't pursue the question. More song floated down to them, and Bush
could just make out the tune. He started singing in a soft baritone
voice.

Hark the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on Earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconcile

Hornblower listened to the words and for once did not feel
pained at the sound.

"What is that?" he asked.

"A Methodist hymn." Bush replied. "Its become very popular at
Christmas."

"Peace on earth and mercy mild" Hornblower repeated. "Not very much
of either this Christmas, is there?"

"No, there isn't." Kennedy said. "But there's always hope, isn't
there? That's what the hymn is about."

They sat and listened to the men above singing, their raucous voices
mixing oddly with the reverent words. Most of the seamen sounded
drunk, but it didn't diminish the beauty of the song, or its
message. As the hymn came to an end there was a moment of silence.
It ended abruptly when a crewman started to play a jig on his
fiddle. Hornblower winced.

"What would be your ideal gift this Christmas?" Kennedy asked

Each was quiet as they thought. Bush broke the silence first.

"Friendship" he stated firmly, reaching out one hand toward
Hornblower.

Surprised, but inwardly pleased, Hornblower clasped the hand in his
and extended his other to Kennedy. "Friendship" he repeated.

With a smile Kennedy took the outstretched hand. "Friendship" he
confirmed as he caught Bush's free hand in his and completed the
circle.