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William's Penance
by PJ


Author's Note: This is a sequel to a story I posted some time ago,
titled "Give The Devil His Due" (message #24765). The parts
bracketed by *** are quotes from that story.

 

***When you get back to England make sure my sister knows the truth.
I know you're an honest, and honourable, man. Treat her as such.***

Lieutenant William Bush sat his horse at the end of the sweeping
drive, working to muster up the courage for what he needed to do. He
shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. Although a capable rider he
always felt somehow insecure on horseback, preferring to keep his
feet on solid ground. Or on the pitching deck of a ship at sea.

Which is exactly where I wish I was now, he told himself. But I made
a promise that must be honoured.

***I've given the Devil his due to purchase that for you. Don't let
me down.***

The echo of his friend's voice sounded loud in his mind. Archie
Kennedy had been, to the last, an open and artless soul, greeting the
world with good humour and always rising above obstacles.

Until the final one.

His heart still ached, even four months later. He had watched from
his hospital window as Kennedy had been unceremoniously dumped in a
common, unmarked grave. Days later, when he had been released, he
visited the spot and fired one pistol shot over the grave. It was
the best he could do to honour a man he had called "friend", even for
so short a time.

And now he was confronted by the need to make good on his promise;
confronted in the form of tall trees shading a long drive that lead
up to an imposing house that glowed in the rays of the setting sun.
He took a tighter grip on the reins and nudged the horse into motion.

As he drew nearer the house loomed larger; three levels, rows and
rows of windows all seeming to stare at him like disapproving eyes.
He swallowed against the dryness in his throat. He had grown up in
much humbler surroundings; his father a cooper and his uncle a
blacksmith, and had joined the navy when he was thirteen. He was
unaccustomed to grandeur of any type.

He reached the circle at the foot of the steps. A young stable boy
came running around a corner of the house and took the reins,
stilling the horse so he could dismount. Almost as soon as his feet
hit the gravel the boy led the animal off, not even staying to hear
Bush's awkwardly mumbled "Thank you". He adjusted his uniform jacket
and took a deep breath before ascending the steps and letting the
heavy brass knocker fall.

The man who answered the door could have been cast from God's mold
labeled "butler". Tall, thin, and with a face that would never show
shock or surprise he was obviously born for his role in life. His
dark eyes were not in the least curious about this visitor. He held
a silver salver in his hand.

Bush felt a blush climb his cheeks as the butler, Jenkins, extended
the salver towards him. He had no calling cards, and in truth had
not expected to need such a thing. He cleared his throat and met the
man's eyes squarely.

"My name is Bush," he said, pleased that his voice did not betray his
nervousness. "Lieutenant William Bush. I wish to speak to Miss
Kennedy."

If it were possible Jenkins' features became even more inscrutable.
He moved to close the door. "Miss Kennedy is in mourning and not
receiving callers," he said coldly.

"Wait!" Bush exclaimed, throwing out an arm to keep the door from
shutting. "Give her this." And he handed Jenkins a small, leather-
bound book.

***Even if you never read it take good care of it, William. It's a
piece of myself.***

Something in the butler's expression told Bush that the man
recognized the volume of sonnets. His eyes traveled from the cover
to Bush's face and back again. His guard dropped and he swallowed
before meeting Bush's eyes again. "Wait here, sir. I'll speak to
Miss Kennedy." And he swung the door fully open and ushered Bush
into the foyer.

He waited for an interminable amount of time, staring at a portrait
of some Kennedy ancestor in full foxhunt glory, including holding the
bloody carcass in one hand. He shook his head and laughed quietly,
thinking perhaps the man depicted wouldn't be smiling quite so smugly
if the fox was holding *him*.

"Mister Bush?" a soft voice called behind him. He turned and froze.

She was beautiful. Not even the severe black of her gown could
detract from the peachy-gold of her complexion, and her red hair
flamed in the sun that came through the transom window above the
door. As she walked toward him he was struck by an overwhelming
sense of familiarity. She was so like her brother it was almost
physically painful. Only when she was close enough for Bush to see
that her eyes were green, not blue, did the feeling pass.

"M... Miss Kennedy," he stammered, bowing somewhat awkwardly to
her. When he raised his head he saw that she was holding the book in
one hand, her fingers gripping it so tightly her knuckles were white.

I can't tell her the truth, he told himself. I'm sorry, Archie, but
she's already been hurt enough.

***Don't be afraid of hurting her with it; she may look delicate but
she's tough as nails.***

"I know this book, Mister Bush. My brother would only have parted
with it under extraordinary circumstances, or to someone he could
trust." Her expression grew quizzical and she cocked her head
slightly to one side. "Do you have something to tell me about
Archie?"

Bush could only nod; he didn't trust himself to speak.

"Let's walk in the garden while we talk," she said. "I've been
inside too much lately. The fresh air will do me good."

**********

"All these rose bushes were planted by my mother shortly after her
marriage," Annie said. "Hence the name of the estate, Rosefield."

"Its beautiful," Bush said, his eyes taking in the myriad colours of
the blooming flowers. Their scent swam in the warm air. "What a
place to play as a child," he continued, smiling.

Annie sat on a bench in one corner of the garden, her face
serious. "I would like to know what you came here to tell me, Mister
Bush." She was still holding the sonnets. "It can't possibly be
worse than what I've already been told."

"What have you been told, exactly?" he asked.

She swallowed and turned her face away from him. "That Archie died a
condemned mutineer. That he pushed his captain into the hold in an
attempt to kill the man. That he would have died a traitor's death
at the end of a rope if his wounds hadn't killed him first." She
faced him again, her eyes blazing with anger. "Its not true, I know
it isn't! My father says Archie disgraced our entire family, but I
knew him. He couldn't have done the things they said of him! Could
he?" The last was spoken as a plea.

Bush shook his head. "No, he couldn't. And didn't. Your brother
died a hero, sacrificing himself to save a friend. Two friends," he
corrected himself softly.

She looked puzzled. "Two friends?"

Bush sat beside her on the bench and let the whole story spill out of
him. The captain's fall, the fort, the Spanish prisoners, and the
trial. When he spoke of his last conversation with Kennedy his
throat tightened and his voice thickened. He blinked hard against
the threat of tears.

Silence descended when he finally ran out of words. Annie's head was
bowed, the book of sonnets open on her lap. Even as Bush watched a
tear fell, blotting one of the pages. He reached out a hand and
covered hers where it clenched the book, maintaining the contact
until she brought her emotions once again under control.

"What about the captain's fall?" she asked, her voice husky from her
recent spate of tears. "Was he pushed?"

Bush looked up at the bright blue sky. "We'll never know," he
said. "Three of the people who were present are dead, and the fourth
will never tell."

"And Horatio? How is he?"

Bush was surprised and didn't bother to hide it. "You know
Hornblower?"

Annie laughed for the first time. "Yes, I do. I suppose he's being
his usual self and not even speaking of any of this. Not for Mister
Hornblower, the excessive display of emotion!"

Bush grinned. "Honestly, I don't know. I haven't seen him since he
left Kingston as commander of the Retribution. But I imagine you're
right. He's not very emotional. Odd that the two of them should
ever have become friends."

Annie considered his words. "Not really. They each needed the other
to provide some missing part of themselves. Archie as Horatio's
emotional mirror, and Horatio as Archie's self-control." She looked
directly at him then, her eyes narrowed shrewdly. "You said `two
friends' before. It was you, wasn't it? That's why Archie gave you
this." She held up the book.

Bush nodded. "Yes, it was me. The second friend, saved by
default." A note of bitterness crept into his voice. Bitterness at
himself for being alive, and bitterness at Kennedy for extending that
gift to him.

Annie smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. "If you think it was
by default then you couldn't have known Archie very well. He may not
have seemed that way, but he never did anything without carefully
considering all the possibilities. You're alive because he wanted
you to be."

Bush shook his head in negation and started to speak. Annie
interrupted him. "If you don't believe me read this." She handed
him the book, open to the front flyleaf. He read the handwritten
inscription.

Archie,
Take this piece of home with you everywhere. It'll remind you of me.
Your loving twin,
Annie

Bush felt his eyes widen in shock. "Twins?" he asked. When Annie
nodded he returned his gaze to the inscription. "You gave this to
him; you should have it back." He tried to return the book to her
but she pressed it back into his hands.

"Its yours, Mister Bush. Like I said, Archie wanted this to be.
Don't disparage his gifts."

And finally Bush felt that he understood everything that Archie
Kennedy had bestowed on him. Not only the gift of life, but of
friendship - honest, unquestioning and unswerving. His heart felt
lighter than it had for months.

"I won't," he replied, taking the book and holding in tight in one
hand. "I honour them, and him."