PELLEW'S PERSPECTIVES, DUCHESS AND THE DEVIL
by Meanjean


PART FOUR: THE END OF HEPPLEWHITE
August 12th, Gibraltar

My meeting with Hale was brief. He was disturbed that we had uncovered so little information, but jumped at my suggestion that the Duchess might have carried the documents. As a result, we are to return as soon as humanly possible to our patrols of the coast of Portugal, to see if we can find word of her. I pretended to be moderately disgruntled, figuring it would be better if he didn't know that was my exact desire! I made haste in my exit, not wanting the politics to rub off on me permanently.

My trip back to Indefatigable was interrupted with a touch on my sleeve.

A sweet, gentle voice spoke out. "Sir? I beg your pardon, but may I have a word with you?"

I looked down at a tiny young woman, just a shade over five feet tall, with pretty blue eyes and an appealing smile. She could not have been more than eighteen, but she carried herself with grace and sureness.

And instinctively I softened my address to her.

"Captain Sir Edward Pellew, at your service, Miss__?"

Her face brightened appreciatively at my name. "Oh, you ARE Captain Pellew! Someone had pointed you out to me, but I was afraid they might be wrong. Your ship is the Indefatigable, is it not?"

I smiled, enchanted despite my self. "It is indeed. You have been most thoroughly informed, it seems. Surely, though, you are not here in Gibraltar on your own?" I looked around, for no guardian who would be likely to lay claim to this young woman was nearby.

Her smile wavered for a bit, but she continued. "Indeed not, Sir; my father dines in the Tavern, and Lady Dalrymple, who is our hostess, is across in the mercantile. But when I spotted you, I stepped away from her for a moment."

I was no less bewildered. "I know Lady Dalrymple. Is it possible I know your father as well?"

She opened her mouth in a startled expression. "Forgive me, Sir; I forgot myself. I am Miss Alicia Brandon; I believe my younger brother Drew sails with you."

She curtseyed neatly, and I matched her with a bow. "Indeed he does, Miss Brandon. I was unaware you and your father were in town, else I might have arranged for him to come to shore."

She blushed. "That is not necessary, Sir; inadvisable, even; but if you would be so good as to take this package to him..." She handed me a small wrapped parcel, no doubt containing letters. "...I would be very much obliged."

I took the package and placed it inside my jacket, puzzled. "I am happy to assist you, of course. But you are always free to write your brother on board Indefatigable. It may take time, to reach him, but certainly he would be glad to hear from you."

She looked at me, and for the first time I saw the resemblance between brother and sister; for she sized me up with a glance. Deciding that I am trustworthy, she continued. "Actually, Sir, I am NOT free to do so, as long as I am living in my father's house. He has decreed that it might distract him from his duties."

Well, here was more proof, as if I needed it, that Brandon's father was an ass. Receiving mail from home was anything but a distraction to a young man at sea; if anything, letters are a lifeline.

"Well then, Miss Brandon, I am happy to carry these to your brother, and no doubt he will be quite glad to see them."

She bit her lower lip for a moment, and tentatively asked her next question. "Is he doing well, then, Captain?"

I remembered the reasons for Brandon's banishment to the Navy, and decided not to risk mentioning his actual duties in front of his sister. "I can honestly say he has been a most conscientious officer, who has excelled at any task I've requested of him."

She relaxed and gave me one of the sweetest smiles I have ever seen. "Oh, that is a relief to me, Sir! My brother George filled Drew with the most terrible stories of life in the Navy; I was certain he would be dead within the week!"

I raised an eyebrow. "May I ask if George is the brother who serves in the
Army, Miss Brandon?"

"Yes! And the stories he told, Sir, saying my brother would find himself starved and beaten and worked half to death! I've had nightmares ever since he left, Sir."

I felt a bit of anger in my belly at having the Navy so represented. "Miss Brandon, it would be my suggestion never to listen to an Army man's opinion of Navy life. We are at war, and therefore I cannot guarantee you his safety, but I can assure you I have never yet lost a man to cruelty."

She nodded. "I understand there is danger involved. But after meeting you today, Sir, I am glad to know my worst fears are unfounded."

We were interrupted with a gruff command from beyond. "Alicia? What the devil are you doing away from Lady Dalrymple?"

I felt as protective of her in this moment; she looked anxious as her father approached, and I quickly took charge. "Lord Exton, Sir, I must say it is a pleasure to finally meet you!" I extended a hand.

He was portly, large and insignificant at the same time. His belly protruded beneath his waistcoat; no girdle yet had been invented that would have held that in. His eyes were watery, deep set in his florid face. He sweated gin, and his hand, as I grasped it, was weak and flabby. He tried to focus on me.

"D'I know you, Sir?"

I keep my own voice moderated. "We have never been formally introduced, Sir. I am Captain Sir Edward Pellew."

If he recognized the name, it didn't show, and he teetered back and forth precariously.

"And for what reason do you address my daughter, Sir?"

"Why, I saw her standing getting some air while Lady Dalrymple shopped, and I immediately saw the resemblance to your son, and was just inquiring as to whether or not I might find you in Gibraltar as well."

He frowned for a moment, looking around shiftily, and then recognition dawned. "'Course. Pellew. Capt'n I sent Andrew to. S'prised you'd bother. Can't imagine he's much use."

I set my mouth in the same sort of smile I usually reserved for obtuse Admirals. "Actually, as I was just saying to Miss Brandon, your son has become an exemplary officer."

He banged his cane down on the cobbled streets with a clatter. "Ha! That's a first. Should've sent the sodden brat to the Navy years ago then. In MY house, Sir, he had no respect...no respect...for his father." He belched. "Or his position." He smirked. "It seems you found a way to cure that, eh? I heard that you rule with a firm hand."

I suddenly was very desirous of having this conversation at an end. Between Hale and this buffoon I had spoken to one fool too many for one minute too long.

"Well, I must return to my ship. It was a fine surprise meeting you. It is unfortunate that I cannot have you on the ship to see your son. Wouldn't want to compromise discipline now, would we?"

His body was wracked with a fit of coughing, and his daughter automatically took his arm.

He waved me off. "Course not. Wouldn't dream of it. You keep him in line, now, Sir. Yes, keep 'im in line. Good day, Sir!"

He turned away, using his daughter for support. She took one last, pleading look at me, so I winked at her broadly. I was rewarded with that fine smile again, and I returned to my ship, filled with wonder that such a man could produce such children!
*******
The so-called sodden brat was hard at his studies when I found him, an hour later. Like Hornblower had once before, he had removed himself from the midshipman's berth to the deck in search of quiet. He was well into one of his newer books, making notes on a pad as he read, occasionally furrowing his brow and biting his lip.

I snuck up on him. "I've seen gargoyles in Paris with pleasanter faces, Mr. Brandon."

He jumped, book flying one way, notes another. "Sir!"

"At ease, Mr. Brandon!" I chuckled, bending to scoop up his notes and hand them to him. "I am pleased to find you so hard at work."

"Yes, Sir. Diseases. I thought I might try to prepare for the illnesses we'll have when we leave Gibraltar." He rose to face me, taking the notes from my hand. "Thank you, Sir."

"Well, when you're done I've got some lighter reading for you." And I handed him the letters.

He was puzzled for a moment, then he recognized the hand. "Alicia?" He beamed in wonder. "How, Sir, did you get these?"

"She sought me out in Port this afternoon. Seems she and your father are guests of Lady Dalrymple." His smile faded as I mentioned his father. "I would have given you permission to visit them, but your sister deemed it inadvisable."

He nodded. "She's quite right, Sir. It would have been." He frowned looking down at the letters, and then up at me, a question in his eyes. "So you were able to speak with my sister privately?"

"Yes, for a bit. I'm happy to say that she's quite relieved to hear you are alive."

He frowned again, then rolled his eyes. "George! He must be filling her with the same stories he told me."

"It would seem your brother has little opinion of the Navy."

"None at all, Sir, which is why it was suggested I serve here." He said with slight bitterness. "He enjoyed tormenting me with horror stories. He'd be most disappointed if he knew..." He stopped abruptly. "Forgive me, Sir. I have no right to force my family's foibles on you."

I studied him carefully. "It is an old story, Mr. Brandon. And not at all uncommon. You are not the first young officer I've received because their family considered them expendable." I shrugged. "Their loss. My gain."

We walked together towards the quarterdeck, where Mr. Cousins had the watch. "You are not expendable here, Mr. Brandon. I hope you know that."

"Thank you, Sir." He looked around the ship, and sighed. "I want you to know, Sir, that when I first came here, I WAS terrified. George made me believe I was being sent into hell. Instead, I've been saved."

I felt a sudden lump in my throat, that I covered with a cough and a gruff, "Well, Carry on then." And I watched him head away, I felt a profound gratitude that the Almighty had seen fit to send the lad my way.

August 20th, 1796 Spain

Horatio walked along the cliff side, each step deliberate and thoughtful. He was no longer unsteady on his feet, but his memory of that first week after his release from the Oubliette was still with him. For despite his attempted optimism in greeting Kennedy and Hunter, he suffered greatly. His legs had been cramped, susceptible to muscle spasms, and he was feverish from dehydration.

Archie, bless him, had sat up with him for much of the first few days, massaging his cramped legs, coaxing him to drink more water, and by his side when the inevitable night terrors occurred. In short, they had gone through a complete role reversal; and had his nurse been anybody other than Archie, he'd have been mortified.

Hunter, too, had been surprisingly helpful, and respectful, although he talked even less than before. Horatio had encouraged him to exercise his own injured leg, towards the goal of escape. Hunter had gone beet red but mumbled "Aye, Aye, Sir" (no trace of his former sarcasm) and followed the suggestion, spending hours walking in the courtyard, even in the rain. Still, his overall demeanor challenged him. He was meek, quiet, almost cowed by his experiences!
And no matter how...well...charitable Horatio tried to be, Hunter just withdrew more.

It frustrated him. It reminded him too much of his problems with Bunting. He had not seen Bunting's desertion coming, and he felt he should have. But he was a bit older, a bit more experienced now, and could see that something was destroying Hunter, eating away at him, and he did not want to lose another man. Yes, Hunter was headstrong, and impetuous, but he was a good loyal soldier, one who knew much about ships. If he could only learn to control his worst impulses, he would be a good officer.

"I need advice," He thought. "And Archie cannot help me in this matter; for though he knows me, he does not know Hunter." But there was one man whose advice would be valuable, and in the circumstances he was not too proud to ask for it.

Matthews.

He found him back in the courtyard, a bit off to the side from Styles and
Oldroyd, watching the two of them racing their bugs up the side of the wall. He motioned him over, and Matthews gave him a nod, and then fell into step by his side, as far from the other men as possible.

"Matthews, I need your help." He paused, this was not like asking for help in deciding a tricky bit of navigation; instead it was requesting insight into the human soul. "What make you of Mr. Hunter's change in personality?"

"Well, Sir..." He scratched his stubbled chin. "I think he's feeling a bit guilty, Sir. Fer what he did to you."

"But I have not remonstrated with him over the escape attempt. If anything, I have gone out of my way to encourage his recovery."

"Yes, Sir." Matthews looked up at the sky. "Mr. Hunter, though, he's not much used to being in this way, Sir."

"In what way?"

"Wrong, Sir. He's not used to being wrong."

Horatio furrowed his brow. "We are all of us wrong at times, Matthews. Lord knows, I have been wrong too many times to count."

Matthews gave him a half smile. "Aye, Sir, and there you've just gone hitting the nail on the head, as it were. May I speak plainly?"

Horatio stopped in his tracks and looked imploringly at him. "Please do, Matthews."

"Well, Sir, ye question yerself all the time. I've known ye over three years, now, and I've watched the way ye thinks things through. Ye question yerself relentless-like until you make a decision; once ye do, you act on it without hesitation. And when it's all over, ye question yerself again: did ye do this right, could this a gone better, mebbe you could a done something else."

Horatio smiled, blushing at his loyal man's keen observation. 'You don't miss much, do you, Matthews? It's true, I always am asking what could have been done better."

"Aye, and we know that. Mebbe the other men don't understand it like enough to describe it, but we know if you're asking us to do something, it's fer a reason, and you've given thought to dangers and problems. Mr. Hunter, now..."

Matthews paused, struggling for words. "Sir, he don't ever question himself, not ever. He makes a decision right hasty, and believes with all his heart he's right. An even when the end turns out bad...like when we had that run-in with the Etoile...he doesn't see that he coulda done things different like. Just bad luck it was, not that he was wrong."

Horatio nodded, beginning to see what Matthews meant. "So he's been forced to admit to himself that he was wrong for trying to escape, and that's been a blow to his confidence?"

Matthews shook his head. "No, Sir, it's not being wrong about the escape that preys on him,...it's being wrong about you."

Horatio looked in surprise at the man. "Me?"

"Aye, Sir. Hunter, he figgered he had ye pegged, another soft boy, a lucky
bastard who got promotion instead a him. He didn't give ye no respect, Sir, I saw that! No matter what ye did, in his heart he thought he was the better man.

"And then ye went and saved him. Twice, ye did. Put yerself in front of a gun fer him, and then when that there Don wanted to know who's fault it was, ye put yerself in the hole cause ye knew he wouldn't survive."

Horatio shook his head. "No, I accepted blame for the raid because I am the commanding officer. I was responsible for all of my men's actions, therefore the fault WAS mine."

Matthews gave Horatio a glance filled with both amusement and affection. "Well, Sir, we ain't talkin bout what ye think, it be what Hunter thinks. So now, see, he's forced to admit yer a better man than he thought. Ain't no way around it, like when he used to say ye were just lucky. And it's shifted all his ideas, Sir. He don't know what to make of himself, now. And when ye try to encourage him, it makes it worse, Sir. Cause then he's reminded how much he owes ye, that ye did so much for him when he only made yer life hard. I think he'd rather be dead right now."

Horatio sighed. This was far more complex than he thought. He saw the truth in Matthew's assessment of Hunter, but could find no option. "He needs..." Horatio muttered. "To redeem himself."

"Aye, Sir. That might do it. Make him feel a man again, to do something right. But ain't much chance of something happening like that till we get out of here."

Horatio brushed his hair off his face, lost in thought. "No, not till we escape...perhaps then..." He turned around. The guards were headed to shoo them all into their hovels. "I thank you again for your insight. Hunter is right about one thing. I am a lucky officer...to have such loyal men behind me as you and Styles."

Matthews knuckled his head before going towards his own cell. "Ye makes yer own luck, sometimes, Sir."

October 1st
Another six weeks on patrol along the coast of Spain and Portugal. We headed as far north as Oporto, only to discover that very few Spanish ships have made an appearance in the neutral Port. For, to my surprise. Hale had ordered Orion and Calypso at different periods to beat up and down the coast. Somehow, thanks to my summer exploits, the Spaniards have done nothing but run from an English ship. Why they do not stay together to fight amazes me.

But the result is, it seems the Duchess has not made an appearance in Portugal. Likewise, according to my last conversation with Harvey, she has not reappeared in Gibraltar. It is as if she has vanished into thin air. But with no word of the dispatches being recovered, I am reasonably certain that she is not a spy. Of course, how certain can one ever be with that woman?

There was a sudden knock at my door. Cousins entered at my command.

"Beg your pardon, Sir, but Mr. Bowles request your presence above decks. He is uncertain about the weather."

I nodded and followed him out the door. Sure enough, I had expected such a development shortly. We are heading into the fall/winter season, and now is when we could be expecting the storms to develop.

It was not raining, yet. But the sky was overcast and heavy, the light took almost a greenish tone, and I noticed that the pitch of the ship was heavier than usual.

"Sir, I think we're in for storms, and soon." Bowles said, succinctly.

"Yes, it does appear so." I looked at him. "You are prepared?"

"Yes, Sir. The men are well drilled and we have extra hands on alert."

I frowned. This weather FELT bad; could be one bad gale, or, more likely, days of continuous bad weather. And we were far from any friendly port. Still, I am confident in the Indefatigable's weather capabilities.

"Mr. Cousins!"

"Sir!" He looked quickly up at me.

"Speak to cook. Have him make preparations for extended bad weather. There is a good possibility once it hits we will be without the fires for as much as a week."

I thought about the prospect of days of cold boiled beef, followed by biscuit. Worse than the damn embargo of last year! At least, more frustrating, when we will have ample supplies but no way to prepare them.

"Aye, Aye, Sir." He started to walk away.

I held up one hand, and he paused. "Also see Mr. Brandon and Sargent Johnson. Let them know to be prepared for possible nutrition related ailments, and also for any injuries that might result from the rough seas."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." And this time he made it past me.

Bracegirdle arrived now, drawing his cloak around him in defense of a sudden whipping breeze. "Getting bad, eh!"

I scowled at the sky. "It will be worse before it gets better, I fear."

Bracegirdle nodded. "At least the Spaniards will have sense enough to keep away."

"Let us hope so, then we can concentrate on our own Ship."

Bowles turned to me, in protest. "Sir, I am confident this ship can not only endure during a storm, she can perform rings around any Spaniard who would dare cross our path. If anything, the weather is to our advantage."

I raised an eyebrow, surprised at his vehemence. "I am pleased by your confidence, Mr. Bowles. Perhaps you shall have the opportunity of proving your point in the next week."
***
It was over my dinner that evening the noise of a thousand pebbles striking the skylight. The rain had come.

I waited until I finished, then as Powers came to clear, I had him help me into my oilskins and prepared to head above.

The Ship rocked mightily now, noticeable even to my experienced sea legs. Still, it was far from the worst storm I have ever been in.

Mr. McGill had the watch. He was an older midshipman, like Mr. Hunter only more sensible. "Sir!" He yelled in greeting, barely swaying in the heavy wind.

"Mr. McGill!" I shouted back. "This has just started?"

"Aye, Sir; I could see it coming across the sea!"

I nodded, trying to conserve my voice as much as possible. I looked up, pleased to see that Bowles had already given order to take in enough Sail to keep us able to maneuver in the violent winds. Violent, and unpredictable, as they shifted suddenly, blowing me in to McGill, who caught me neatly and steadied me without even shifting.

"Where is Mr. Bowles?"

"He was just up here, Sir. Said he'd be checking every half hour to make sure we were okay."

"Good." I looked at the sky, dark with night, but also with clouds; no star dared show through. "Have the fires been extinguished?"

"Yes, Sir, Mr. Bowles was notifying cook when he left."

"Very well. Carry on, and have me notified if anything changes."

I teetered on down to my cabin, with Powers there to help remove my soaked outerwear, before heading out again to the sick berth, to see what preparations Brandon had made.

I found him there with one patient-Johnson!

"Mr. Brandon!" I said, in surprise. "Why was I not notified that Mr. Johnson was ill?"

He looked up at me. "He just went down, Sir. Fever."

A rarity to occur so many weeks out of port. "Contageous?" I asked.

"I don't think so, Sir. I know he has had fevers before, periodically. But he cannot answer my questions now. Do you know, by chance, where he has served before?"

"In the Army?"

"No, before he came to Indefatigable."

I tried hard to remember. "It was on the Edinburgh, I believe. In the Indies."

He nodded. "As I feared. I believe it is Malaria, Sir."

"Malaria?"

"Yes, sometimes called jungle fever, or fever and ague. Fever marked by violent shaking. Recurring, Sir; sometimes takes years to get it fully out of your system."

Jungle fever I had heard of, though I had not often sailed in warm climates myself. "And this will come upon him often?"

He shrugged. "Once a month or once a year, Sir; depends on the man. I have not seen him ailing previously."

"Is there no treatment?"

"Yes, an extract of Quinine. Which I have, thank heavens, although at the time Hepplewhite nearly tore me to shreds for ordering it. Said he didn't see how a ship going to battle with Spain and France would ever need it."

"Tcha!" I muttered in disgust, thankful the boy had had the perseverance to override the man. Then a memory came creeping in. "He mentioned having been felled by fever when serving in America, but that would be before he was in the Navy. Is it possible for him to have had that ailment all this time."

Brandon drew his brow together, hand on Johnson's forehead. "Perhaps, if he had been in the tropics earlier in life. Although it's not unheard of to have the disease contracted in other areas. Just rarer."

I heard a racking cough come from behind Hepplewhite's door. "How does he?"

Brandon gave me a slight smile and a shrug. "As always, Sir. He came out for just a few minutes when the storm started, took one look at Johnson and said if I knew what I was doing I'd bleed him."

"Did you?"

He shook his head. "I wanted to see if the Quinine worked first. And he does seem to be resting more comfortably."

"Good. Shall I station another Marine down here, to keep an eye on Hepplewhite?"

He hesitated, then looked away, almost ashamed. "I'd like to say that I can handle him, Sir, but after the last time..."

"You do not need to explain yourself, Mr. Brandon. I am the one who found you after his assault. I shall send Forbes back down." I cleared my throat. "You have made the necessary preparations for the storm."

He turned back to me. "Yes, Sir. We will be able to cope...although with Johnson laid up, it is really only myself to do the coping, I guess."

"And Hepplewhite." I added dryly. "He should at least be able to bandage and swab blood, if nothing else."

He smiled broadly. "Once, that's all he thought I was fit for, Sir!"

I looked down at the sleeping Marine. "We are all thankful that's not true."


October 15th

Fifteen days of intermittent gale force storms have left all the men on board my ship weary, sick and tired.

We have had a total of four days in the past fifteen where it has been safe to light a fire. In the meantime, we subsist on stale food, never seeming to be able to get our clothes dry. This is one of the only times in my career I have wished myself safely inland, in a dry, unmoving bed, with a warm fire and a nice pot of hot tea.

With the weather, Johnson has not been able to fully recover from his fever, although the quinine helps. As a result, Hepplewhite and Brandon are thrown together often, and I know the boy is weary of the man's constant verbal assaults on him. Still, Sargent Forbes, a strong man with a stern countenance, has made it clear that he takes his job of protecting Brandon VERY seriously.

The men, meanwhile, so many of them suffering from the cold and damp, have also made it clear who they prefer tends to their ailments. Which has left Brandon quite tired, just as worn out as Cousins and McGill are from their non-stop activities above decks.

Five times we have had to heave-to to ride out the storm. Only an occasional glimpse of a Spanish ship...the Almeria...has enlivened our days. Indeed, she has become a bit like the Flying Dutchman to us, always just out of reach in the stormy seas, slipping away in the fogs. But we have certainly kept her from her goal, which seams to be Oporto.

We caught sight of Hammond during our brief respite yesterday. He was able to transfer dispatches to me. We have orders to make for England at the beginning of November. It is perhaps the one comforting thought that keeps my men, and me, going over these hard days.

Will these storms never stop?

November 1st, Spain

Don Massaredo sat, lonely and tired, before the fire in his study, his mind a mass of worries for men not his own, adrift somewhere out there in the fiercest sea he had ever seen.

The storms of October had been brutal, and almost unrelenting this year. Though he had lived many years along this coast, he had never witnessed such brutality from Mother Nature. And the worst had been the storm begun just yesterday.

He knew these beaches, knew the "devil's teeth"; the fierce reef that had captured the lives of so many during the fall storms. Still, it was a time of war, and when he had heard today that there was a battle going on between a Spanish and English ship, he had rushed to the shoreline on his horse, not minding the spray and the starting onslaught of rain.

He found young Hornblower, on his daily walk, which he now took rain or shine. Hornblower also gazed out at the two distant ships, both of equal size. A man of the sea, he wished desperately to know the identity of the ships. Massaredo had smilingly indulged him, handing over the glass.

It was fate, perhaps, that the ship the boy announced with such pride and longing would have been his own. The? How did one pronounce it? In-de-fa-tigable! Bah, brutal English name for such a graceful ship! No, he would always think of her in terms of the affectionate nick name Hornblower had used...the Indie.

Fate also, perhaps, that the Indie would be chasing the Almeria, the ship he had sent the Duchess away on. He had not lied when he told the boy she had had plenty of time to get to Oporto and back. What he had not worried the boy with was the stories he had heard: that NOTHING Spanish or French was getting through to Oporto at all!

And then he had watched, with the lad, as Almeria lost her top sail, rendering her nearly unable to steer, certainly with no way to clear the reef. And Massaredo felt a knife in his heart. They would die, then.

But Hornblower could not stand by. He professed himself willing to risk his life, and the lives of his men, in an attempt to save any of Almeria's men. He did this thinking the Duchess safe in Portugal. Massaredo had at first believed this to be a clever escape attempt, but when he looked in the boy's eyes, he saw the honor there. Heard it too, as he gave his parole, and Massaredo knew that he was sincere. He would risk his life, not to gain freedom, but to free men who were enemies. What was it he had said? "The Sea does not take sides."

And so Massaredo had given him permission, and all the help he could, including food and a sail so they might ride the storm out. He prayed they did not freeze to death in that storm.

He thought of those men, again, as he saw them last before the storm had descended full force and blinded his view. In the small boat, struggling to row out to the reef, Hornblower at the tiller guiding them. So small they had looked, against the raging waves.

Massaredo lifted his brandy in a silent gesture that was at once a toast and a prayer, for a young man he considered to be most valiant, on a mission most honorable. Surely the almighty could not destroy such a man, only wishing to save the lives of those he cannot know?

"Godspeed, Mr. Hornblower." He said again.

And stared helplessly into the fire.

November 3rd, Indefatigable

The storm shows no sign of another remission, as if it will pound us to hell. And I...remain unable to come out of the stupor induced by our encounter with the ill-fated Almeria.

For two nights I have sat in my cabin, morose at the thought of her loss. Those poor, poor bastards on her. Why, oh why did the captain not tack? Yes, we'd have had her capture, but would that not have been better than to lose your entire ship and crew on a reef? And such a way to die. No hope for us to launch boats in such seas, no chance at getting closer; any survivors of the initial wreck would cling to the battered hull in desperation only to die eventually of exposure. I heard the cries in my sleep. And though I know I am not at fault for pursuing her (this is a war after all) I cannot but feel that things might have gone differently.

Instead, it is another failure against my name. Oh, not to admiralty, who no doubt will be full of fulsome praise at the destruction of another enemy vessel. But I cannot accept this. I am no closer to finding my missing men, I have caused the unnecessary deaths of an entire ship's crew, and on Indefatigable the men have suffered through a month of bad weather and worse food in my foolish pursuit.

I had overheard Brandon having a conversation earlier with Cousins. Cousins, on watch, had said almost hopefully, "The cloud cover seems to be lighter." And Brandon had responded, in a serious tone. "Aye, everywhere but over the Captain." An apt description, and a good indication of how my mood has affected others. Another failure.

For the men, my fine crew, have avoided me steadfastly, sensing my mood. Even Powers speaks little to me. With a heavy sigh I rose from my nearly untouched breakfast. Well, we are hove-to again; hopefully Cousins was right and the weather is clearing; then we can at least light the fires today. And I head above decks, wondering what, if anything, could lift my spirits?

It was only as I arrived that I heard the cry go up, from BRACEGIRDLE of all people. "Hornblower's Escaped! He's ESCAPED."

Lord have mercy! Please, let him not be fooled.

But sure enough, as I arrived next to my first Lieutenant, and he handed me the glass, there he was. Hornblower.

"And at least five of our men, Sir, plus a few I don't know, one of whom is in an English uniform. And there appears to be a Lady, Sir."

I was barely processing his verbal barrage. I was still reeling from the stunned surprise. Then, as I began to focus I saw two things that sent me into full shock. One was the "Duchess of Wharfedale", crouched beside Hornblower in the boat. And the second was a familiar blond head. "Kennedy?" I muttered, lowering the glass. I turned rapidly to Bowles, and handed him the glass. "Surely my eyes do not deceive me, Mr. Bowles?"

Bowles took a long look at the boat, and then smiled at me. "Indeed, Sir, it seems we are about to re-add another midshipman to our crew."

Kennedy! He must have been in the same prison with Hornblower. Of all the amazing luck!

'Mr. Brandon, prepare for visitors. They will be suffering from exposure, I would guess; we know not how long they've been in that boat. Is Johnson recovered?"

"Not fully, Sir."

I sighed. "Then press Hepplewhite into service if you must. Find them blankets. And rum, if you please, Double rations!"

"Aye, Aye, Sir!"

The greetings happened fast, as I noted just how cold and worn-down the men were. And the others...men saved from the Almeria? Including her Captain, though he was badly hurt. The Duchess, too, was indeed there, and she promptly fainted. Finally I made announcement to get everyone of these poor souls below deck, to warmth and dryness. I managed to keep professional, and rational. All the while my heart was beating in my throat.

As my fragile men and their guests were brought to sick berth, I turned to Bracegirdle. "See to them, Mr. Bracegirdle, I want to have them well cared for. Do not let Mr. Hornblower even think of reporting until he has been dried off and warmed up. I have waited six months to hear from him; I can wait a few hours more." I hesitated, then. "In fact, I would like to see Mr. Kennedy first. His must be an amazing tale indeed. But again, not for at least an hour. Make it two. Do I make myself clear?"

And Bracegirdle, with a smile as wide as the sea itself, gave me the most heartfelt Aye, Aye I've ever heard, and I returned to my cabin.

But the reason for my waiting was not entirely due to my concern for the men. With a shaking hand I poured myself a glass of claret, trying to drown out the lump in my throat. I leaned against the window, my hand shaking as I placed the glass down. Seven of my men had returned. Kennedy was one of them. And it was all too much. I sat weakly down in my chair. Placing my hand over my mouth, the shaking spread through my body, and I could not hold the relief in any more. The tears flowed, as I thanked God for my good fortune. However much I do not deserve it.
***
I had regained my composure with time to spare for Mr. Kennedy's report, two hours later on the nose. I heard his footsteps down the hallway, and rose to greet him even as he arrived. His face was pale but composed, his eyes spoke of great suffering. But what strength he must have had, to have survived for so long in such adverse circumstance.

"Mr. Kennedy, Sir. This is a very welcome surprise, I must say!" And I shook his hand warmly.

The greeting seemed to calm him, and he stood less rigid. "Thank you, Sir. It is good to be back."

I motioned for him to sit. "The last we had heard of you, you had been incapacitated during our raid on Etoile and cast adrift in the jolly boat. Not many men could have survived in those circumstances. I should very much like to know what happened to you in the interim." I said, pouring him a glass of claret.

He cast his eyes downward, and I wondered what I had said to bring such a reaction? Finally he met my gaze, his blue eyes pained, but his voice composed. "Sir, I feel I must be fully honest with you, even if it jeopardizes my future. I was incapacitated, Sir, because I had a seizure. Mr. Hornblower was forced to strike me down to save the mission. I know not how I came to be adrift, but I do know that I jeopardized the lives of the men. I must question my fitness for service, Sir."

I was impressed by the courage it took for him to admit this to me. "I see, Mr. Kennedy. Have you suffered from these seizures your entire life?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Yet in your time on board Indefatigable, I saw no indication of any such ailment from you?"

He looked puzzled himself. "No, Sir, until the night I was on Papillion, I was not stricken."

More to the point, until Simpson joined us, I thought wryly, but would not interject that poisonous name before this wounded man. "So you can say that they happen less frequently than they used to?"

"I...suppose...but Dr. Hepplewhite says they may recur at any time."

"Mr. Kennedy, I beg of you to put no stock in what Hepplewhite says. It has been a long time since I have done so."

He looked at me in mild surprise. "What Doctor would say differently?"

I smiled at him. "I shall have you speak with Mr. Brandon about this. He is young, but intelligent, and perhaps he will be able to find answers for you. In the meantime, as I have seen nothing from you but exemplary service, I shall consider myself more qualified to judge your capabilities than yourself. One thing I ask of you..."

"Yes, Sir?"

"Should you feel yourself to be...ill...at any time in the future, please let your superior officer know. I would not wish to have Mr. Hornblower be forced to strike you down again; it was a weight he bore heavily."

He leaned back, eyes glistening. "Aye, Aye, Sir."

"Well, then, Mr. Kennedy. Am I to hear the story of your life after Papillon, or not?"

And with a curious half smile at my attitude towards him, he began.

"I woke at sea, Sir, probably some time the next afternoon. I felt ill, dazed and frightened. Not long after, a French vessel picked me up. I do not speak much French, and in my condition was not able to really comprehend what went on. Their Captain... recognized me for an officer, Sir, and decided I must be questioned closely. But in my confused state I was incoherent. This made him very angry..." Kennedy closed his eyes. "In a rage he ordered me beaten, and then thrown down into the hold with their beasts." He sighed and finally met my gaze. "I do not know how long I was down there, Sir, but it was a relief to finally arrive in a prison, somewhere on the coast of France."

"I attempted my first escape only a month later. I had recovered from my wounds and felt I had a chance to get away. I nearly succeeded, but had the misfortune of selecting a small boat that was not sea-worthy! A fisherman saved me from drowning and I was returned to my prison. The commander ordered me flogged. I didn't care; and I vowed that I would try again as soon as my health permitted.

"Before I could though, I was moved, farther inland, into a mountainous region. There was no other English prisoner where I was held, and I felt escape would be much more difficult. But I felt bound to try, and so I spent months planning. Finally, I felt able to attempt it; joining with a royalist who was imprisoned with me. But the plan failed; the commander had had a special watch placed on the two of us, there had been guards hidden, listening in on our plans at every moment. The young man, Gerard, whom I had tried to escape with was guillotined. They made me watch. And then...they nearly did the same to me. Marched me to the machine, placed my head in the cradle, and let lose the blade." His face blanched. "It was a hoax. I do not know how they did it, but they enjoyed their laugh. Then I was thrown to the guards, and savagely beaten again, near to insensibility."

"Still incoherent, I was transferred over land, in a rough transport, being bounced all over the place. I did not know I was in Spain until I arrived at the prison. I speak some Spanish, so I felt that was an asset. And Don Massaredo, you could see, was not used to being a prison keeper; I think he regarded the whole set up as rather an inconvenience to him. I thought he would pay little attention to my escape. My mistake. With only one prisoner to watch, it was far too easy to grab a hold of me. And Massaredo decided I would best learn quickly. I was placed in a Oubliette for a month."

Good God! Without saying a word I poured him another glass of wine, and sat back and stared at him. "I do not know how you survived, Mr. Kennedy. Indeed, I do not!" I finally said, very softly.

His blue eyes met mine, their gaze clear and confident. "I do, Sir. I survived because of Mr. Hornblower. Without his persistence, I would not be here now."

And he detailed for me, then, his descent into insanity, his attempt at starvation, and Horatio's refusal to let him die.

He smiled then. "It was quite the sight, Sir, with Horatio...Mr. Hornblower standing over me like it was judgement day. He said anything to make me eat. Even tried to tell me he wouldn't survive without me...I nearly laughed at that. In the end, I think I took food just to shut him up. He even waited until I was well to work on escape..." He paused here, making a decision. "But that is Mr. Hornblower's story to tell, I think."

But I had caught one sentence that bothered me. "Why did you not believe Mr. Hornblower when he told you he would not survive without you?"

Kennedy looked at me incredulously. "Sir! Mr. Hornblower is...he is born to this life, Sir! He has instincts that I cannot even begin to fathom. And all I am...is the flawed son of a Lord with no other options, Sir."

I shook my head. "Mr. Kennedy, you are correct when you say Hornblower was born for the sea, I believe. But no man was born to sail alone."

I could see he did not understand, and I leaned forward, placing my hand on his arm. "Mr. Kennedy, I speak from experience on this. I spent too many years holding myself apart from humanity, believing I had no right to burden my men with my worries. It nearly drove me over the edge. You need to have somebody who knows you, who can read your moods and bring you out of them. I am fortunate, in that I have rekindled a friendship with Captain Harvey, a man who has known me for many years. A man who may take liberties with me that I would not permit from even the closest officer."

"Mr. Hornblower will, I believe, serve this Navy for the rest of his life, and obtain great distinction in doing so. You, Mr. Kennedy, are a hard worker, and a fast learner, and certainly not without courage. You will serve this Navy for as long as you choose, and serve it proudly. Yet you do not love the sea, and perhaps will leave the service for other endeavors. But no matter what, when Mr. Hornblower thinks of those closest to him, and those who know him best, it will be your name he remembers first. Do not underestimate that need. Friends, as you are well aware, are often the dividing line between madness and success."

The color rose up in his face. "I think...I understand you, Sir. It never occurred to me, that Horatio might really need me."

I sat back. "Who else, Mr. Kennedy, will ever have such perfect understanding of him, with his own family gone?"

He frowned. "But his father?"

I raised my eyebrows. "His father passed away-he learned it not long after your capture. I can see you have much work ahead of you, Mr. Kennedy, to keep him out of his shell."

Kennedy nodded. "Yes, Sir."

"And one more thing, Mr. Kennedy, and then I will let you return to rest. I will not have you again refer to yourself as a flawed son of a lord. First of all, I do not keep tally of social rank here. And secondly, I do not view you as flawed. You have a great deal of courage and tenacity to have survived what you have. Be proud of that."

I nodded, and he rose to leave. "Good to have you back with the living, Mr. Kennedy."

He smiled, and his entire countenance changed when he did so. "Good to be alive, Sir."

"Send Mr. Hornblower to me, if you would."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." He paused, and then added. "Sir...don't let him...take to much blame for the events that occurred. I know I should let him speak of them himself, but I also know he seldom views his own actions from a proper perspective."

I fought to suppress a smile, and remained stern looking. "I believe, Mr. Kennedy, that I know Mr. Hornblower's personality." Too well, I thought, remembering my own black thoughts of the morning.

And I watched him disappear before I permitted myself another smile.
***
It was not Hornblower who returned to me, however, but Brandon.

"Begging your pardon, Sir, but Mr. Hornblower is not fit for questioning." He said it nervously, but with great resolve.

I was surprised. "I cannot imagine Mr. Hornblower ever letting you say such a thing, Mr. Brandon."

Brandon nodded. "Neither could I, Sir, if he were able to hear me. The truth is he has passed out cold. Sheer exhaustion, Sir. Even Mr. Hornblower must admit to being mortal sometimes."

I managed not to smile at that image. "Exhaustion?"

"Yes, Sir. According to Styles and Matthews, he has not slept since November the first, that any of them could see. He awoke from his prison, arranged the rescue of the men of Almeria, and refused to let another man take the watch for him. Mr. Kennedy tried once or twice, but Mr. Hornblower would at best pretend to sleep for an hour and then claim to feel refreshed. Matthews says if he shut his eyes for two minutes it would be more than he believed."

I felt alarm rising in my breast. "But he will survive, will he not, Mr. Brandon."

"Oh, yes, Sir; Lieutenant Bracegirdle pulled together a change of clothes from his sea chest. We have him well blanketed and managed to get a few tots of rum down his throat before he went out. But there's no sign of fever, Sir, just, well, as I said, exhaustion. When he first got down there, it was only Bracegirdle's direct order that kept him from reporting to you, and given how worried he was when you called up Mr. Kennedy, I thought he might force himself awake, but eventually one's body does give in."

I sighed. "Might I go down and see him?"

He smiled at me. "I was expecting you'd ask that, Sir. Truth is, Styles and Matthews managed to carry him to his berth, Sir. You may see him there."

"Brandon, wait...about Mr. Kennedy..."

"Oh, we've seen to him too, Sir. Cousins and I managed to round him up some fresh clothes as well, and he's resting in the sick berth at the moment; a bit more comfortable than with the midshipmen right now."

"Mr. Brandon, what I am about to tell you remains between you and I...Mr. Kennedy is prone to some kinds of fits, and I want him well taken care of."

Brandon nodded. "Aye, Sir, Hepplewhite mentioned something...don't think Mr. Kennedy was too happy to see him still on board, and don't think he ever got much sympathy from him, either. I'll look it up, shall I, and see what I can do?"

I sighed. "Thank you, Mr. Brandon. Do all you can to put his mind at ease. He's a good man, and he's been through much."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

Half an hour later, I found myself standing over Hornblower, alone in his quarters, warmly wrapped and sleeping soundly, his brow furrowed in troublesome dreams.

I laid my hand on his forehead and his brow became smooth, his face relaxed.

I sat beside him. "It's alright, Horatio." I whispered. "The burden is off your shoulders now, and on mine. You've carried it long enough. It's alright."

I swear I heard him sigh. His whole body seemed to relax, and he rolled over, like a child might, curled tightly into a ball. Tomorrow I would hear his stories, such as he would deign to tell me. Of course, now I had Kennedy to give me a balanced view of his performance. You cannot try to hide your talents from me any longer, Mr. Hornblower, I thought. Mr. Kennedy will not let you do so.

I pulled the blanked up to his chin, and he smiled then, no doubt in his mind far away from here, with the loved ones he'd lost. That smile, it was worth everything, then.

My men are home.

November 4th

The next morning, I was barely awake and still working on my coffee when a near-panicked Hornblower arrived at my door. I bade him enter.

"Sir, I must apologize...it is inexcusable for me not to have reported to you immediately upon my return."

I raised a hand. "At ease, Mr. Hornblower. You were physically exhausted and in no condition to do so." He was still quite pale in fact, although how much of that was due to his berating himself for another perceived failure I was not certain. "I would hope, Mr. Hornblower, that you would not consider me such a tyrant that I cannot spare a man just released from seven month's imprisonment a good night's sleep."

"Sir, I know you are very generous, but nevertheless I had a responsibility..."

"You have many responsibilities, Mr. Hornblower, one of which is making sure you live to see tomorrow. Now, Sit, if you please!" I ordered sternly, and helplessly he obeyed.

"This is not an inquisition, Mr. Hornblower. Presently I shall call in Mr. Bracegirdle and you can give me a formal report as to the exact situations regarding your capture. But at this moment, over coffee, I wish an off the record accounting of your life these past months. I have already heard of Mr. Kennedy's ordeals from him, now I wish to piece together yours."

He looked confused, but grasped the cup of reasonably fresh brewed coffee-thank god, the fires are lit-and drank deeply.

"Now, then, what I have surmised myself is that you had the bad luck of encountering the same fog we did on your approach to Cape St. Vincent, at the same time the entire Spanish fleet decided to run from Cadiz."

He cringed. "Yes, Sir. I still cannot believe I was so stupid. Anxious to clear St. Vincent I changed course due west and sailed right into the middle of them!"

I nodded. "Bad luck, that. Still, even on a regular heading it was not an unlikely encounter, and you were completely outgunned. Did you surrender immediately?"

"No, Sir, I tried to fool them, ran up the French colors, gathered up French clothes...I hoped that my French would be good enough to their Spanish ears to evade them."

I whistled. "A bold plan, Mr. Hornblower, and not a bad one at all."

For just a moment his eyes gleamed. "It ALMOST worked, Sir. If that fog had only held thicker for five minutes, maybe ten, they would have passed us by. As it was, it cleared enough for them to have a good view of me, and one of their men was aware of how we'd taken Le Reve to begin with." He sighed. "We lost three men when they opened fire on us, and I surrendered. Mr. Hunter would have liked to keep firing, I think, but I saw no need for all the men to die." Suddenly, he looked up at me in shock. "Sir, the dispatches..."

I stopped him. "We'll talk of that later, Hornblower."

"But, Sir..."

I glared at him, and he shrank in the chair. "Yes, Sir. What is it you wish to know next."

"You were brought to the prison of a Don Massaredo. Mr. Kennedy has highlighted his own experiences, and how you came to his assistance, DON'T EVEN THINK OF REFUSING CREDIT THERE, MR. HORNBLOWER," I said, forestalling his inevitable denial. Sighing, I continued. "Mr. Kennedy stopped at an interesting juncture...his return to health and your planning of an escape, and said that was your story to tell. That, Mr. Hornblower, is the story I want to hear, and I would appreciate no further digression."

He bit his lower lip, and ran a hand across his face. "Yes, Sir...only it's rather difficult to know where to begin." Seeing that he was still trying my patience, he continued. "Mr. Hunter, Sir, resented Mr. Kennedy's presence from day one; I think you are already aware that there was no closeness between Hunter and myself. But with Archie ailing so, I could not plan on an early escape attempt. I could not leave one of our own behind. Mr. Hunter made it plain that he disagreed with me."

"As I was trying to work with Mr. Kennedy, though, I was not without observation as to our situation. Don Massaredo is, I have come to believe, a gentleman, but no weakling, and as Archie I am sure attested to, did not look on escape lightly. And though the atmosphere at the prison was as relaxed as could be, and our conditions were not cruel, I could see the garrison was well run, the guards loyal to Massaredo, and their arms well supplied. I knew an escape would have to be well planned and cunning."

"But Mr. Hunter was very impatient, Sir. And I know he despised me for not moving sooner. And as I attempted to return Archie back to health, he tried to rally the men around his own escape plan."

I blinked. "Are you telling me he did this despite your telling him not to?"

He reluctantly nodded. "Yes, Sir. I tried on more than one occasion to keep him from this folly, because I could see that it WOULD BE folly, Sir. Planning was not Mr. Hunter's strong point, and he was using only the information in front of his eyes: how many guards were there, and what would it take to overpower them? Nothing else was considered. So I made my plea to the men, not to take action that would risk their lives in a futile attempt at freedom."

"Did they listen?"

"For a while; it stalled them, anyway. And I have to say, Sir, that Matthews and Styles never wavered by my side. And for a while, Oldroyd also remained loyal. But Mr. Hunter was persuasive, and when Archie's illness reached its climax, I was away so often, it was not hard for Hunter to lure him over. We had been in captivity for some time at this point, and patience was wearing thin, especially with those men who did not look upon Kennedy as one of their own."

"So as Kennedy recovered, I continued pleading with Hunter to share his plans with us, to let me help with what information I could. To deaf ears, I am afraid. Instead, Kennedy and I decided to come up with an alternate plan. We crafted it for a night time escape, using a boat I had found on walks that Massaredo permitted daily. We were very close to being able to present a plan I felt was nearly foolproof to the men, when Matthews and Styles alerted me that Mr. Hunter was executing his plan even as we sat there."

I closed my eyes. "Poor, stupid Hunter. Am I correct in assuming that he was killed in his own folly?"

Horatio shook his head. "Not quite, Sir." And with a sigh, he continued on:

"After all, Sir, they were our shipmates, and even though I had tried to dissuade them from this attempt, I could not let them die trying. So at my command, Styles, Matthews and Kennedy joined with me in their attempt. And, as I had predicted, we made it past the prison walls but not past the courtyard when the full garrison closed in on us. And despite my begging, Hunter persisted in his attempt. As a result, he suffered a bad shot in the leg, and poor Jeffreys was killed instantly. Finally, with him down on the ground, I stood before him, pleading with Massaredo not to shoot, and surrendering."

"I cannot tell you how angry Don Massaredo was. Several of his men killed, more wounded, and these were men he was close to. He demanded to know who was responsible for this clumsy attempt, as he called it."

"So that is how Hunter died..." I mused, and then immediately knew better. "No, I don't suppose it was like that, was it Mr. Hornblower?" I looked him directly in the eye, and with a tired expression he met my gaze. "You took the blame for Hunter's folly, didn't you."

"Yes, Sir. I did. The men were my responsibility. And Mr. Hunter would have died if I had turned him over."

"He did not speak out himself?"

"He was not there when we were questioned, Sir; he had already been moved to our quarters, recovering from his wound."

"And you did this, knowing from Mr. Kennedy what Don Massaredo was capable of?"

Again he met my eyes. "Would you, Sir, if you were in my position, have done differently?"

I wanted to say hell, yes, I would not have been fool enough to subject myself to torture for a worthless man. But I could not look him in the eye and give him that answer. We both knew it was not true. Like Hornblower, I took responsibility for the failure of my men; I would have taken the blame, especially with a life in danger.

"No, Mr. Hornblower. I would have done the same thing." I leaned backwards. "You are still with us, so I assume you were spared a death sentence."

He grimaced and stared down into his coffee cup. "I was not so sure at the time. Don Massaredo, although I do not believe he was fooled by my claim, felt he must make an example of me, and I was sent into the same Oubliette that nearly drove Kennedy mad. For an 'indefinite period of time' as Massaredo instructed. Mr. Kennedy tells me I was in there two weeks. It felt like a lifetime. And at moments I wished he had just shot me dead."

"There were times in that hole, Sir...when I was near insanity myself. Unable to think straight, I kept dreaming of returning here, feeling the wind on my face. I could not wish myself anywhere else than where I am right now." He sighed.

I smiled. "Not many men would wish themselves where you are RIGHT NOW Mr. Hornblower."

He half smiled at the empty cup, taking my meaning. "Sir, do not think I underestimate your leadership in saying that even your summons is not worse than spending two weeks in that hole."

Then he looked up abruptly. "Sir, earlier you praised me for my attentions to Mr. Kennedy in his illness. Let me say, Sir, that it is nothing he did not return in kind in those weeks after I was released. He is a fine man, Sir, a fine officer, and a good friend."

I nodded, having expected nothing less at this point.

He continued. "Even Hunter, Sir, was much affected by the events. He was ashamed, devastated, I believe, by what he put me through, and his whole behavior changed."

"He should have been ashamed." I said acerbically. "When WAS he lost, by the way?"

Hornblower paused. "In this recent storm, he died most valiantly. We were attempting to rescue the men from the Almeria after they ran onto the reef. The Captain, Sir, had a broken leg, and could not swim for us. So Mr. Hunter dove in after him. He brought the Captain on board, and then..." Hornblower paused here. "He was lost." He looked puzzled. "I could not get him into the boat; it was as if he didn't want to be saved." He whispered, his brow furrowed in confusion.

But I was not surprised. Hunter was always of strong will, and in the end he was his own judge and jury. It was only as I sat there thinking on it that the full meaning of Hornblower's last bit of story dawned on me.

"Am I to understand, Sir, that this was a rescue attempt, and not an escape attempt?" I asked, confused myself now.

His face cleared, and he stood upright, at attention.

"Yes, Sir, and I think it's best now that I give you my full, formal report; there are some things of which you must be made aware."

Not liking the sound of that one bit, I stood also, and sent for Mr. Bracegirdle.

What on earth could he hit me with now?
****
I stood on my deck in the cool evening air, enjoying the return to fair weather and the calmer seas. It would seem the worst of the storms was behind us now, which would make for an easy run to the Spanish coast tomorrow, to return Hornblower and his men to prison!

And just what sort of a fool am I for doing this?

When Bracegirdle arrived, Hornblower gave his technical report, with all the precision he would have used had he been court-marshaled. Exact longitude at time of capture. Men lost, and how. Days in captivity. The recovering of Mr. Kennedy. The failed escape and men lost. His punishment. His revived escape plans during the recovery of Mr.Hunter, which would result in no attempted escape for at least another three months, due to Hunter's wound. Then, the Almeria's wreck, and his being given permission to attempt a rescue by Don Massaredo.

On the condition of his pardon, and that of his men!

I could not believe what I was hearing. Hornblower, telling me he must return, as soon as possible, for he had given his word.

And how did I argue with him? I did not want to let him return, but he must do as his honor dictated. I did protest that he could not speak for his men, but I was fairly certain his men would follow his lead. In truth, I knew it was what I would do, but that did not make it any easier to agree to!

We had been distracted at that point, by the "Duchess". And out of nowhere comes those stupid dispatches, which, I had correctly surmised, she had been carting around the entire time. I took the opportunity to snap at Hornblower, hoping to disguise my very real hurt at losing him again so soon.

And at the same time, I was unable to resist tweaking him...just a bit. "Callous brute, Edward." I heard Grey chide me from beyond the grave. But I smiled a bit even now as I remembered the look on his face as I announced that he was no longer my 'acting lieutenant.' Oh, the pain there, as he felt his demotion, no doubt certain that it was due to the myriad failures he heaped on his head. Thus, his reaction made all the sweeter when I announced his promotion; if I must send him back to captivity, it would be as a commissioned officer. I think I will take that look of wonder with me to my grave.

And at least I had the dispatches to bring back to England with me, to get both Hale and Hood off of my back for a bit.

Of course, I tried to hide just how proud I was of him, but think I failed miserably. I made a rather smart comment that now we should see what his men think of him, 'for that is the mark of a true gentlemen.' He must have worried a bit when I told his men that they had the choice of remaining on board Indefatigable instead of returning to prison.

That it was Kennedy, who had suffered the most and been held captive the longest, who spoke first in alliance with Hornblower, says more about him as a man, than any number of stupefying reports of so-called fits from Hepplewhite could ever do. I do hope that somewhere in time he stops regarding the Navy as a punishment, and sees it as Brandon now does, as a chance at freedom.

The other men fell in line willingly, a testament to Hornblower. But I made a point of seeking out Matthews and Styles later. I told them that I was very proud of their service with Mr. Hornblower, that he was a fortunate officer to have such loyal men, and that their performance while in prison would be noted in their records. Matthews was stunned, I think, that I had spoken to them thus (for most captains would have passed along such a compliment to 'mere' seamen through a lower officer). But I think it was Styles who it meant the most to. I remember Eccleston's harsh evaluation of the man, when first he was transferred here. He has come a long way, as no doubt he is aware of himself.

I turned on the deck for my night-time stroll, and naturally who did I see standing in the distance, but Hornblower.

I strolled over to him, thinking to surprise him, but he anticipated me, and turned with a smile and a "Good Evening, Sir" before I could do so.

"Yes, a good evening Mr. Hornblower, the first one for some time, in fact."

"Yes, it has been nothing but storms for the past month, Sir."

Of course, I had not been referring to merely the past month, but I let it slide.

"I hope, Mr. Hornblower, that you have a chance to speak to Mr. Brandon before you leave. The poor boy has been quite without a rudder, what with his superior officer so long absent!"

Hornblower grinned. "From what I can see, Sir, he hasn't been in much need of me! Lieutenant Bracegirdle has filled me in on much of his adventures. I must say, my father would be so pleased to know that his lifetime of research was not wasted." A cloud came over his face then. "Hepplewhite..."

And I inhaled slowly. "Yes, Hepplewhite."

There didn't seem to be much else necessary to say.

"Well, at least Mr. Brandon has taken to caring for Mr. Kennedy, instead of Hepplewhite. When I left them, the lad was very earnestly consulting with him on his ailment, trying to search for some sort of solution, but without managing to make Kennedy feel as though he were defected."

"Good. Brandon will help him, if he can be helped." I smiled a bit. "They are two peas in a pod, really, those young men. They might even be brothers."

"I have thought so for some time."

For some reason I felt driven to be sentimental, something I so often try to fight. But I was more aware than ever of the perilous hold we all have on life. Although I do not like to believe it true, this might very well be the last time we ever saw one another. Another piece of falling mast a bit closer, and I might not be here when he returned; another escape attempt, and he might be the man killed.

"Mr. Hornblower, I have missed you on evenings such as these. I had grown used to our conversations."

"Thank you, Sir. I...thought often on them when I was in captivity. The memories helped me a good deal."

"I am glad to know it." Hastily I cleared my throat, and with resolve I forced my wry tone to creep back in. "I cannot believe that I am willingly handing you over to the Spanish tomorrow!"

He turned his head to one side, gazing at the sky. "I almost cannot believe that I am willingly going!" He closed his eyes. "But I cannot go back on my word, Sir."

"Nor would I ever ask you to." And then, thinking on my return to England, and my company, I knew there was something that must be asked. "So, Hornblower, who exactly is the Duchess?"

He turned abruptly, eyes wide. "SIR?"

"You spent quite a bit of time with her in Spain, Sir, and I have enough respect for your intelligence to believe that if I can learn her to be an imposter while miles away, surely she could not deceive you for so long!"

He blushed. "You give me too much credit, Sir." And then he smiled. "Funny, she said those very words about me once. Perhaps I am not as intelligent as everyone thinks I am."

I was confused, but knew I had him. "Out with it, then. I have a right to know my passenger."

"Mr. Kennedy recognized her, actually. She is an actress, apparently quite a famous one, by the name of Kitty Cobham."

I am, as I have often professed, a rather large fan of Shakespeare, and I felt a slight thrill run through me. "Katherine Cobham? On my ship?"

"You've heard of her, then?"

He was all innocence, and I laughed despite myself. This is when his being the son of a country doctor tells, and where our personalities differ, no matter how similar they are in other ways. "Mr. Hornblower, she is QUITE accomplished. I have never had the fortune of seeing her perform, but friends who know theater well say she may be the finest actress of our time!"

"Obviously. She certainly fooled me." He smiled. "I can say she is a fine woman, and a patriotic one. I was not always certain that she was trustworthy, but..." His dark eyes flashed fire, now. "She made great sacrifices in assisting all of us. I cannot betray her honor by explaining, Sir, but believe me, she is a far better woman than the Duchess of Wharfedale could ever be."

Curious, but knowing not to push him where a woman's honor was concerned, I merely said, "I cannot believe otherwise, given how she played her Grace."

Hornblower turned to me. "Sir...must her real name be known? I feel almost as if I have betrayed her already."

"Unless Hale were to be bright enough to ask me if she were an imposter, I see no reason to enlighten him. I simply wished to ensure that I was not harboring a fugitive back to England." No, instead I simply had a great artist sailing with me. I remembered her wit, slipping occasionally through the veneer of the Duchess. Perhaps, even without Horatio, this trip will be interesting.

Sighing, I turned to retire. "Hadn't you best get to bed, Hornblower? You might not have such a good night's sleep for some time."

He shook his head. "On the contrary, sleep is easy to come by. But this view...this air..." He sighed, arms behind his back. "This is what I wish to take back to prison with me, Sir."

I smiled at him, hoping to freeze that image of him in my mind. Then I headed into my cabin, anticipating nothing further of interest would happen this evening.

I was wrong.

I spent a good hour and a half filling in my logs, detailing the recovery of the crew and our impending journey to Spain under a flag of truce to return them. And, of course, there were various other notes on our upcoming sail for England to make, as well as remarks on the general state of the ship.

I was exhausted by this point. I had slept little myself since the incidents with the Almeria, and the excitement of today with Hornblower had been emotionally draining. I could feel my head jerk back occasionally, and I realized I was not far from collapse myself. If I could just get this last bit entered...

I must have been very close to the edge, for I never heard the footsteps approaching, only a forceful knock on my door, which startled me so that my pen went flying, resulting in a rather nasty stain on my uniform.

I was so overtired I was near a rage. "DAMN! Enter, then, and give me the reason for this disturbance!" I snapped.

Brandon, of all people, stood before me, and I was about to have a tirade that would have left him cowering under the desk, but the look on his face forestalled me. Because he was angrier than I was!

His face was infused with red, his eyes flashed fire; his lips were pursed in a thin line and he actually trembled, his clenched hands by his side. And I was left there with my mouth open, a blistering speech dying unborn on my lips.

"Sir." He said, forcing calmness, through clenched teeth. "Sir, I do apologize for the intrusion, but I have discovered something I think you are best made aware of immediately. I have done much to attempt kindness to Hepplewhite. I have tried to pity him, tried to understand him, but this, Sir, this...I cannot condone. Not as a Physician, and certainly not as a human being, Sir."

"God, Brandon, what has he done to you now?" I asked in hushed tones.

"To me, Sir? To me, nothing. This concerns Mr. Kennedy, Sir." He set his arms behind his back, but he still shook in anger.

Fear stabbed at my heart. "Is he in immediate danger? Has he had a fit?"

"No, Sir. This concerns past events, nevertheless, the circumstances, the CRIME is so heinous, that I could not in good conscience leave this another minute without bringing it to your attention."

I sat back in my chair, afraid I knew where this was going. "Please, sit, Mr. Brandon, you are making me nervous."

He swallowed once and nodded, forcing himself down but looking as if he could climb the walls.

"Now, from the beginning, please, tell me everything that happened."

He took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, Sir."

"As you know, Johnson is only now recovering from that bout of fever, Sir, what with the weather as it has been. So Hepplewhite has been assisting with duties. Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Hornblower both, it would seem, preferred to seek me out for treatment, but in Mr. Kennedy's case it was markedly so; I have sensed him to be a brave man, yet he almost seemed cast down when the Doctor was near him."

"Then, after my conversation with you earlier, I thought I understood why. Apparently Hepplewhite had no sympathy for Mr. Kennedy's condition, and that explained his, yes, his fear of being near him, I thought. So I tried to talk to Mr. Kennedy, learning about his history. I could see he was holding something back, but I thought that maybe it was just because he felt ashamed of what he saw as a weakness. Still, he looked better when I left him, more relaxed. I will admit, Sir, I liked Mr. Kennedy very much."

"After he retired, though, Captain Suarez of the Almeria took a bad turn. Unfortunately, I could see we were going to have to amputate his leg, and I had no choice but to seek Hepplewhite out for assistance."

I winced. As a Captain myself, this was too close to home.

Brandon seemed to understand my discomfiture. "I won't detail the procedure, Sir. Amputations are never pretty, and I could not have done this alone. Hepplewhite was actually sober and performed decently. Captain Suarez was resting finally, and we began to clean up. To my surprise he helped me instead of returning to his quarters; but Forbes was keeping a sharp eye on him, and I was not afraid."

"Hepplewhite began to talk of Mr. Kennedy, then. First he brought up the fits, in an almost medical manner, as if we were two doctors discussing a case. I was wary, Sir, knowing him as I do. Then he began to laugh, as if at some private joke, and I told him I didn't see that anything was funny. 'You want to see what Mr. Kennedy's fits are like, do you, Mr. Brandon? To get a diagnosis? Mention the name Jack Simpson to the little lady, Mr. Brandon. Bet you'll see a proper fit then!' And he kept laughing, Sir!"

Simpson! Always, always that name keeps turning up back on my ship! There is no hell deep enough for that man.

Brandon was calming as he told his story, the stark anger slowly being replaced by confusion. "I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck, then. There was a part of me that wanted to let it drop, have Forbes drag him back into his quarters, send him off with a bottle. But I...could not let it go, Sir. I felt that whatever he spoke of was at the bottom of Mr. Kennedy's ailments. And Cousins told me once something that you said, when he asked how bad doctors keep getting assignments in the Navy, Sir. That some people will turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to problems because it was easier that way. I did not want to be one of those people."

"So I asked him, Sir, who Jack Simpson was."

He began shaking again, this time more in horror. "He looked at me kind of strangely, Sir. Got this smile on his face, and he kind of--eyed me, from my feet to my head. I heard Forbes start forward but I motioned him off, even though I was unsettled. And he said 'Oh, Jack Simpson would have liked YOU, boy, yes, Jackie would have had you down in the cable tier in no time.' And then, Sir, he told me..." Brandon closed his eyes. "He told me what Jack Simpson used to like to do in the cable tier."

So Horatio had been right. Simpson had been a rapist. I listened in shock as Brandon continued.

"He told me that he used to do it to Kennedy, when he was just a boy. 'Not more than twelve, Mr. Brandon, the first time Simpson had Kennedy. Used him like a woman. Made him scream. And Styles, bringing me the boy in his arms, begging me to put him back together. And I did, none too gently. Didn't have time to waste on a lady like Kennedy. Sides, I knew he'd be back. Knew it wouldn't be long before Simpson needed him again. Styles, he was all cut up about it, crying, some fierce sailor, and I told him if he didn't shut up Simpson and I would see the skin peeled from his back. We'd tell Keene that it was Styles did it to Kennedy, after making sure Kennedy couldn't tell anyone a thing.' "

Tears ran down Brandon's face now. "And he laughed again, Sir. And I asked him why? Why would he do this? Why did he let this happen? And he shrugged and said Simpson knew how to treat a Doctor, always managing to find him some fine spirits. And besides, if Simpson had found some use for a pansy boy then why should he deny him? So what if he personally didn't share in the inclination? 'Yes, Simpson knew what to do with little boys who liked to play soldier. Simpson knew what they were good for. Such a shame he's not here now.' And he got up, Sir, and he...touched me...put his hand so gently on my face, and I was just rooted to the spot in shock. Forbes charged forward, and he stepped back, chuckling, and returned to his quarters."

He sat back, wiping his cheeks with his hands. I handed him a handkerchief with a shaking hand. He thanked me, and composed himself. It was a young man older than his years who looked back at me, his shoulders set resolutely and his eyes clear.

"That, Sir, is when I came here. Hepplewhite knew Mr. Kennedy was being raped. Knew that this was going on. And helped to cover it up. No Doctor, Sir, no REAL man would ever look away at such torture. And I will not condone his behavior, or hide it. He is, in my opinion, just as guilty as this Simpson ever was."

I stood and turned to the window. My heart was black. This was, indeed, the end of Hepplewhite.

Finally, resigned to the steps I must take, I turned back to him. He had risen when I did and stood to attention. "Mr. Brandon, you were correct to bring me this information. The man Simpson, as you are probably not aware, is rotting in hell. I sent him there, with my own bullet, long before you ever set foot in the Navy. Mr. Hornblower had told me once that he feared such events as you have described had happened, but he did not KNOW. And since Simpson was dead, and at the time we believed Mr. Kennedy to be also, there seemed no reason to bring such horrors up. But what you have told me changes things. First, it concerns a living man, who may never heal if he is reminded daily of his past. And second, there is, as you said, another man guilty of the crime, if only by inaction."

I walked towards him, staring down at his face until he raised his eyes to mine. "You have courage, Mr. Brandon. Unfortunately it is not true that no man would have walked away from this. Too many would have. You did not. And I can assure you, I will not. I will handle this."

I could see his shoulders relaxing as I took the responsibility away from him. "Thank you, Sir."

I nodded. "My primary concern is for Mr. Kennedy's well being. I know I do not have to ask you not to repeat this to anyone, including Mr. Kennedy. There may come a time where he will wish to speak with you about this, once he trusts you as a doctor, but I will not force that."

"Of course not, Sir."

"I will speak to Forbes now. Hepplewhite is under arrest, and will not be permitted to leave his cabin until...until I am able to take action. I will say no more at this time. Now, you should get some rest, Mr. Brandon."

"Aye, Aye, Sir."

Forbes was stationed outside of Hepplewhite's door when I arrived in the sick berth. He did not look in the least surprised to see me.

"I suspect you know why I am here, Sergeant."

He nodded. "Yes, Sir."

I studied him carefully. "You overheard Hepplewhite's conversation with Mr.Brandon earlier this evening?"

"Yes, Sir. I did."

"I would like it understood that I would be very angry to have any portion of that conversation repeated to anyone else on this ship. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Sir. Very clear."

I met his eye firmly. He was a young man, not much more than twenty-five, and had just been promoted from private. McAnn was a good captain, and had his men well trained, but they were, after all, not really sailors, and I have always a bit at a loss on how to best deal with them.

"I understand you came to Mr. Brandon's aid when Hepplewhite was approaching him?"

"Yes, Sir. Although he did not seem violent, I felt he had no cause to be touching the boy, especially, well," He faltered.

"Especially given the nature of their conversation." I finished dryly.

"Yes, Sir, I could see Mr. Brandon was most affected, and I was...disgusted, Sir."

"You did not serve on Justinian, did you, Forbes?"

"No, Sir. I came here from Athena, Sir. But I have heard quite a bit about her."

I nodded. "I'm sure you have." And I turned to leave, wondering how to go about performing my next step without arousing curiosity throughout the whole ship.

Forbes, though, looked uncertain, and then burst forth. "May I speak plainly, Sir?"

Surprised, I held my ground. "Yes, Forbes, if you have something to add, please speak up."

"Sir, I have a brother who is a Marine also. He served on Justinian for two years before being able to transfer. This is not the first time I have heard the name Jack Simpson." He nodded. "So do not fear I would impugn Mr. Kennedy's character, Sir. Any man who survived Justinian is a better man than I will ever be."

Well, that was a relief. And perhaps an opportunity, as well. "You have spoken plainly, Forbes. Now it is my turn to do so." I cleared my throat. "I have no intention of bringing Hepplewhite up on formal charges, because to do so would mean I would have to make these incidents public, and that would as good as end Mr. Kennedy's career. I wish to have him off of my ship, legally, but in such a manner that ensures he will not have employment in another ship. I have a plan, but I need help in executing it from somebody I can trust. Can I trust you, Mr. Forbes?"

He stood straight, his jaw set firmly. "YES, Sir."

I nodded. "I need for you, then, to go in to the men, and bring Styles to me. Make sure it is known that he's wanted in sick berth. Let it be thought that Hepplewhite is asking for him. It will create less comment that way."

"Who will guard Hepplewhite's door while I am gone?"

"I shall stay here and wait for your return. I don't think Hepplewhite will challenge me."

"Aye, Aye, Sir." And with a quick nod, he was out the door.

I paced, more in tension than in nervousness, until Forbes returned.

Styles, groggy and not quite awake, stumbled behind Forbes into the sick berth. He froze when he saw me.

"Capt'n? I mean, Sir!" He saluted nervously.

I held my hand up to quiet him, motioned Forbes to bring him over to the farthest corner of sick berth. Our only company was the unfortunate Captain Suarez, who was in a laudanum stupor. I sat, uncomfortably, on a crate there, and motioned an unsure Styles to do the same.

Still speaking in hushed tones. "At ease, Styles; as I said earlier, I am very pleased with your service on board this ship. And Mr. Hornblower speaks highly of you. But earlier this evening, Dr. Hepplewhite had a conversation with Mr. Brandon and your name came up."

His face grew red at the mention of Hepplewhite, but he said nothing.

"What is said here is between us as men. Did you...were you present when...Did you, some eight or nine years ago, bring a young Mr. Kennedy to Dr. Hepplewhite seeking medical attention for an assault?"

His face grew white, and he cast his eyes downward

"Yes, Sir, I did." He looked up sharply. "Doc didn't say that I...that I did it, did 'e? Cause I never, Sir..."

I shook my head. "He was trying to frighten Brandon and humiliate Kennedy at the time, not set you up, as I understand he threatened to do all those years ago. I know you are not responsible, that it was Simpson."

He looked down again, leaning into his knees, resting his head on his fisted hands. "But I am, Sir. Simpson made me keep watch. I saw 'im do it, that first time, and I din't stop 'im. I...he were just a boy, Sir!" He looked up at me, and the pain in his face was unbearable.

"You did what you could do, Styles. You sought help for him. And if Hepplewhite were any kind of Doctor, and Keene was any kind of Captain, that would have been enough. Simpson would have been reported, he would have been tried and hanged and thrown to the sharks. You were let down by your officers."

He met my eye. "Thank 'ee, Sir, fer understanding. But why...am I here, Sir."

"Time is short, Styles; you return to Spain tomorrow. But I wish to get rid of Hepplewhite, without subjecting another ship to his foibles."

Forbes broke in here. "Excuse me, Sir, but isn't he dying?"

"Not fast enough for me, Forbes. And if he has even a month left, that is more than I wish him to be allowed to practice medicine. Now, gentlemen, I have a plan. It involves letting Hepplewhite believe that I am bringing both himself, and you, Styles, on formal charges. Forbes, you are to bring both Styles and Hepplewhite to my cabin tomorrow morning, at dawn. Styles, anything I say to you is untrue; just go along with it as if we were not having this conversation now."

"Aye, Aye, Sir. Anything you wish."

"Good. Because afterwards, Styles, you will be given opportunity to speak with Hepplewhite. And Forbes, you will be very lackadaisical in your watch on him. We will permit Hepplewhite...to run."

"Run?" Forbes and Styles both whispered in shocked confusion.

"Aye, run. Right to Spain." I nodded.

And leaning forward, I explained exactly how we should set him up.
***
I did not get any sleep that evening. Powers remonstrated with me heartily when I arose half an hour before the sun, and I cut him off sharply. I knew I needed rest, but there was duty to attend to first. And, with some force, I sent Powers away, with instructions that would keep him in the farthest reaches of the ship for at least half an hour.

Right on time, Forbes arrived, with Hepplewhite and Styles in tow, both looking sullen.

And I went in to my act.

"Well, Good morning, Gentlemen. I expect you are wondering why you are here?"

Hepplewhite belched. "I don't see any reason why I would be summoned with THIS man."

Styles sneered. "Sod off!"

"Enough!" I roared. And both men looked at me in shock. "We approach the coast by the town of Huelva in about four hours. Styles, soon you will be in prison. I urge you to remain there, Sir, because should I see your face on my ship ever again, you will find yourself at the gratings, on the receiving end of five hundred strokes of the lash! And believe me, Sir, I will find a way to keep you alive to feel each one of them!"

Styles did a good job at looking shocked. "Sir! What d'I do?!"

"Quiet, Man, or I'll have you there now, promise of Hornblower or not!" I turned to Hepplewhite and stood inches from his face. "And you, you stinking beast. I understand from Mr. Brandon that the two of you conspired to cover up an assault of the most vicious nature. What have you to say to that, Sir."

Hepplewhite paled. "That boy is a stinking liar, Sir! I deny ever saying such a thing to him. Bring the bosun, Sir, and he'll soon have the truth out of him!"

This almost shocked me out of my act, and I struggled to hold it together. "Sir, remember who brought you up here. Or do you suggest that I have to bosun 'speak' with Forbes as well?"

Hepplewhite turned and eyed the man, and shrugged. "He's just a marine, Sir."

"He is His Majesty's servant, as we all are. Forbes, do you back up Mr. Brandon's statements?"

"Aye, Sir. I do."

Styles, on cue, protested. "Sir, I doan know what that sot told Mr. Brandon, but I never did no 'arm to Mr. Kennedy!"

"YOU KNEW, STYLES. Or do you deny that as well? You brought him to the Doctor and then the two of you conspired to keep it a secret. For all I know you enjoyed favors with the man yourself." I sneered in full disgust.

"No, Sir! Doc and I, we were in Mr. Simpson's hands, Sir. 'E were an evil man."

Hepplewhite jumped at the chance of defending himself this way, as I suspected he would. "Styles is right, Sir. Mr. Simpson, as I told the boy, assaulted Kennedy, and he had us in his power. We had no chance of winning against him."

"That is not what you told Mr. Brandon last night, now, is it Doctor." I practically purred in Hepplewhite's ear.

He flushed. "That, sir, that was just the drink talking. You know that sometimes...I am not as prudent as I ought to be when enjoying my brandy."

Oh, lord, keep me from laughing! "Not prudent. Well, that's one way to put it." I cleared my throat. "Hepplewhite, you are under arrest. After we deposit the men on the coast, you will answer to charges. I expect nothing less than to see you put to death."

His eyes widened. "Sir! Under what charges? I did not assault Kennedy. Simpson did!"

"I do not believe you."

"Sir?"

"Jack Simpson was an officer in this Navy, and an officer could never be guilty of such an obscene action."

"Sir, he was...if you don't believe me, ask Mr. Hornblower! Simpson was at him once or twice, not in the same way, but he beat him bad enough."

"Interesting. I have no report from Captain Keene about Simpson beating Mr. Hornblower. I do have a report of a fight, but that's common enough among midshipmen, and Mr. Hornblower, no doubt, antagonized Simpson. He probably deserved it!"

That Hepplewhite believed me is astonishing. "Sir, I must protest! Hornblower suffered major contusions, cracked ribs! I admit I did not care for him at the time as I ought to have, but I was afraid of Simpson."

"Bah! If it were that bad, Keene or Eccleston would have noticed."

"Keene was dying, he noticed nothing. And Eccleston?" He spat. "Eccleston was so stupid he had the boy tied in the riggings for it."

I turned to him, my face white with fury. "You dare imply that a Captain would not be in control of his ship? That a First Lieutenant would mistake a severe beating for a fight? And both men dead and not able to defend themselves! You know what I think, Hepplewhite?"

Wide-eyed and helpless, he gulped for air and waited.

I stared at him with an unwavering glare. "I think you assaulted Kennedy yourself."

He quivered then. "Not true, Sir. Ask Mr. Kennedy."

Styles followed his script to perfection. "Sir, I saw what happened!"

I glanced coldly at him. "As if I would take your word over that of an officer." I cleared my throat. "And I am not asking Mr. Kennedy anything. I find the subject distasteful, and to be honest, I have a low opinion of Kennedy for ever allowing it to happen."

Styles burst forth again. "Sir, he were twelve years old, if that!"

I walked up to him. "One more word, you sad excuse for a man, and I'll have you FLAYED ALIVE!"

I motioned to Forbes. "Get 'em out of here. Keep them together, though, until it is time for Styles to be shipped off. I don't want him mingling with the other men more than necessary."

Forbes saluted smartly, and then with a gruff. "C'mon with you then!" he took them away.

And I sank down into my chair, hoping that Styles would get Hepplewhite to take the bait. I was getting ready to prepare a letter for Don Massaredo when the door flew open again.

An Avenging Angel strode in and slammed the door behind her. "Sir Edward! I cannot believe what I have just heard, Sir!"

The Duchess...er, Miss Cobham! I had forgotten, she had been placed in the spare quarters next to mine. She must have heard the whole thing!

Oh, Dear.
***
"You, Sir, are a scoundrel and no gentleman! I cannot believe you acted in this manner! Why, Mr. Styles is a loyal officer and stood most boldly by Mr. Hornblower's side throughout their term in prison. I will not permit you to so viciously punish the man for some imaginary offence..."

"Your Grace..."

"And, for that matter, implying that Lieutenant Hornblower would have ever deserved some kind of vicious beating from a fellow officer. I know of no man, Sir, with a higher sense of honor, of right and wrong, of Justice..."

"Please, your Grace, if you'll let me explain..."

Tears sprang into her eyes. "And poor Mr. Kennedy! Victimized so brutally at so young an age, and you being totally without compassion! As if it was his fault that this happened! Sir, I had regarded you as one of the finest naval officers I have ever seen; I cannot believe I was so thoroughly misguided..."

"MISS COBHAM!"

Well, that shut her up. She stared at me in stupefied silence and I quickly guided her to a seat an sat across from her.

"Please, Ma'am, let me explain. I have no intention of ever flogging Styles, I would give the world to erase the violence done to Mr. Kennedy, and Mr. Hornblower is the finest officer I have ever worked with, and I can assure you if he had been beaten so badly on a ship of MINE, there would have been hell to pay." I paused for breath. "Please excuse my using your real name, and know that your secret is safe with me."

Dazed, she gaped up at me. "But, Sir Edward...that whole scene I heard..."

"An act, ma'am, which I hope you can appreciate. Forbes and Styles were both in on it; once, well, once my plan has hopefully reached fruition, I would be happy to have you speak to Styles for confirmation of that fact."

"But why? What plan?"

I sighed. "There is much that has happened on this ship that you do not understand. I desire to remove Dr. Hepplewhite only, and in such a manner that I do not have to drag Mr. Kennedy's name through the mud. Please, I cannot explain more at this time."

"I see..." She whispered, and then blushed. "Oh, my, I seem to have made a bit of a spectacle of myself, haven't I."

Trying to laugh her out of her embarrassment, I quipped, "Not at all. I appreciate your concern for my men. I am glad to know your opinion of them is so fine, even if my own has fallen in your estimation!"

She turned even redder as she stood up. "Not that the opinion of a Drury Lane whore would matter to you, I suppose!" she muttered, turning to run out.

Shocked, I caught her arm and turned her gently towards me. "Miss Cobham!" I said softly. "I do not claim to understand the reasons for your impersonation, but I have it from Mr. Hornblower that your actions were of the most patriotic and self-sacrificing." She looked at me searchingly then; I could not guess for what reason. "He would tell me nothing else, Ma'am, indeed, I had a hard time getting him to give me your real name."

She seemed to relax a bit. "You knew...since when?"

"Please do not take this as a slight on your acting abilities, but there were moments, well, when Miss Cobham slipped out instead of the Duchess of Wharfedale."

She sighed. "I was afraid of that. I always had a hard time pulling it off around you. I don't understand why; it was easy enough around Dalrymple and Hale."

"And, Ma'am," I added, "My good friend Captain Harvey was acquainted with the Duchess. He happened to describe her in a letter to me. Your eyes, Ma'am, are wrong. The wrong color, I mean, not that there's anything wrong with them, they're fine eyes, alright." I cleared my throat hastily. What the hell was I babbling about?

She smiled at me in a rather nice way, then. "Thank you, Sir Edward. And I am glad to know that you are not the callous brute you pretended to be. You should have gone on the stage, Sir. You'd have made a fine King Lear."

And, to cover my confusion, I added: "Lear, huh? I've always been partial to King Henry the Fifth, myself."

"Royal aspirations, hm?" She raised an eyebrow, and then sighed. Returning to Duchess form, she gave a loud yawn. "Welllllll, Sir, Edward, Now that ye've been properly set down fer interrupting me sleep, I s'pose I can be returning to my cabin!"

"Of course, Your Grace. I have much to prepare before our arrival in Spain, otherwise I would invite you to join me for breakfast. However, let me take an early opportunity of requesting your company for dinner."

"Why Sir Edward, I would be charmed."

And she flounced out of my door, leaving behind the sound of her laughter. And shaking myself a bit, with the disaster averted, I returned to my work, knowing Powers would be here shortly with coffee. And I still had a letter to write.
Some four hours later, as we were within short distance of Huelva, as close to the shore as I could sail. We were at anchor, and my men were being prepared for returning to their duties. Styles appeared suddenly, looking at me and knuckling his forehead, as he joined his mates. I had made an excuse for his absence by saying he was performing a special task for me.

Within seconds after I saw Styles, Forbes reported to me.

"Beg your Pardon, Sir, but I seem to have been most remiss in my duties."

"Indeed, Forbes, in what way?"

"You requested that I guard Doctor Hepplewhite. However, I stepped up here for a moment to check on the status of Mr. Hornblower's departure. I must have failed to lock his quarters, Sir, and he took the opportunity to go overboard."

"Deserted, has he? I wonder where he got such an idea."

"Why, I believe it was Styles who suggested he make a run for it."

"Tcha! Imagine that. Did you see him leaving?"

"I could see him swimming for shore, Sir."

"Did anyone else?"

"No, everyone else was focussed on the men returning to Spain, Sir."

"Did you not fire on him?"

"I do not think I am such a good shot, Sir. Would have been a pity to waste the powder."

"Yes. Well, I guess I shall have to mark him as Deserted, then, shouldn't I?"

"I suppose so, Sir."

McAnn came by, then. This might be sticky.

"Is there a problem, Captain Pellew?"

"Not at all, Captain McAnn. Dr. Hepplewhite has finally succeeded in deserting, and Sargent Forbes was letting me know."

McAnn went red. "Forbes, I am surprised at you..."

I held up my hand. "Forbes let him desert at my request."

McAnn blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"I desired for Hepplewhite to leave, and I instructed Forbes not to stop him if he did so."

And, true Lobster that McAnn is, he took it in stride. "Very well then, Sir." And walked away.

"Thank you, Sir." Forbes said softly, knowing how close he had been to losing his stripes.

I nodded. "You've performed well, Forbes. I won't see a man disciplined for doing his duty."

Clearing my throat, I walked forward. Horatio stood preparing to enter the boat, watching his men. At my beckon, he came to my side.

"Lieutenant Hornblower!" I said, emphasizing his title, and enjoying his slight blush of pride. "I have no doubt it will not be long before we meet again. However, I do request that you take this letter..." I handed him the sealed missive. "To Don Massaredo. Try not to lose sight of this dispatch, will you?"

He blushed a bit deeper. "No, Sir. But why do you write..."

I raised an eyebrow, and his voice trailed off. "You know better than to ask such a question, Mr. Hornblower! Now, be off with you, before I change my mind about this folly."

He turned his head to one side. "Aye, Aye, Sir."

And I walked a bit away, preparing for the salute the men did not know they were about to receive, a lump in my throat.

Hornblower had a few final words with Miss Cobham before he headed over the side, and then she returned to me. "You planned this, didn't you?" She whispered.

"Planned what?"

"For this fellow Hepplewhite to desert. One of the men was telling me some of the things that Doctor did. You wanted him off your ship."

"Perhaps I did."

"Why not release him in Portsmouth?"

"Because he could find employment on another ship, and endanger other men."

She looked at me very sweetly. "You are a good man, Sir Edward."

"Nonsense!" I said wryly. "I rule with a firm hand. Lord Exton says so."

The guns went off, saluting our men, as they returned to imprisonment. But although I felt a pang in my chest, I knew it would not be long before Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Kennedy and the men returned to me. In the meanwhile, there was a sail home to be accomplished.

And new adventures ahead.
****
The Evening of November 5TH, 1796, would be a memorable evening in the lives of three men, and one woman.

Don Massaredo relaxed in his library, sipping his wine and rereading the letter from Captain Pellew:

Don Massaredo:

Please excuse this intrusion on your time.

I have understood from my Lieutenant Hornblower that you are fine man, and an honorable one. Therefore, I felt it prudent to explain a certain extraordinary request I am about to make of you.

I have returned my men to your care, understanding that you were given their parole. I do not pretend to like it much, but I do accept it.

One of those men, Midshipman Kennedy, had been with you for some time. Without going into unsavory details, let me have you understand, Sir, that as a boy, while in service on another ship, with another Captain, he was very cruelly used. One of the men responsible for his torment, it has recently come to my attention, was my ship's doctor, a useless drunken sot by the name of Hepplewhite. Unfortunately, I had no legal way of dispatching of him for crimes committed nearly ten years ago without requiring Mr. Kennedy's making a formal statement. And Mr. Kennedy has suffered enough.

Not wanting some other poor wretch of a Captain to get stuck with the bastard, but no longer requiring his services, thanks to a fine pair of men with better medical skills and less inclination to gin, I permitted him to desert. Although he did not understand it that way.

So the man is currently a fugitive in the Spanish countryside. Should he be brought to your prison, I leave him to your will. But I must beg of you, do not hold him in your care with my men, and especially do not subject Mr. Kennedy to his further presence. I ask you this for the sake of my men. And for the sake of your own, I caution you not to let him practice medicine.

I must further offer you an apology. If your men mean half as much to you as mine do to me, then I understand your anger at the botched escape attempt last summer that cost you three lives. I will tell you now what Mr. Hornblower would never admit: it was Mr. Hunter who instigated the whole plot. Mr. Hunter, however, was lost in the rescue attempt of Almeria, and I think the men will follow Horatio unquestioningly now.

Not to say that you may expect Mr. Hornblower to rest contentedly there indefinitely. But as you've spent seven months with him, I expect you know that!

With Sincere Regards,

Captain Sir Edward Pellew, HMS Indefatigable.

Massaredo chuckled. A remarkable letter, from a remarkable man. That Hornblower did not know its contents he was certain, based on the curious look on the young man's face as he handed it over. He should very much like to spend time with this Captain Pellew. In fact, he should like to discuss Hornblower with him.

The young man had returned. He had risked his life in saving the enemy, found his way to his old ship, and returned as promised anyway. Leaving behind comfort, promotion, and the camaraderie of what most assuredly would be a fine group of officers, because he had a promise to keep. And bringing with him men who were loyal to him, including Mr. Kennedy, who had suffered so much.

"The Indie." Massaredo mused, rolling the word over his tongue. "If I were but twenty years younger, Captain Pellew, I would sign up to serve with you myself."
***
Back in his prison cell, Styles lay awake, staring at the ceiling, musing at the incidents of the past couple of days.

He had not quite realized, perhaps, the weight of the guilt he had carried with him about Mr. Kennedy's assault. For so many years it had simmered, below the surface, never quite forgotten. It had eaten away at him on Justinian, especially as he continued to watch Kennedy's torment and near destruction. Only on Indefatigable did the pain lessen, but even then, it never fully went away.

For whenever Mr. Hornblower praised his work or paid him a complement, he would remind himself of what Mr. Hornblower didn't know about him, about what he had done to his friend. And then, when Kennedy was lost, and Simpson nearly killed Hornblower in that duel, the guilt welled up again. For if he had been a man, and taken Simpson's life that day, like he had wanted to, then so much suffering would have been averted. Of course, he would have been hanged, but how much was his sorry life worth anyway?

But last night, Captain Pellew had offered him both absolution and redemption. Absolution, in affirming what Styles had never really permitted himself to believe, that as a mere seaman battling indifferent officers, he had never had a prayer of doing more than he did. Absolution in saying outright that the officers had failed Mr. Kennedy, and he had not. And he had seen enough of Pellew to know that he did not criticize an officer lightly.

Redemption? Redemption came with assisting Pellew in ridding the Indie of Hepplewhite. His Captain, the famed Sir Edward Pellew, had given him trust, requested his help, to start undoing the wrong done eight years ago. And he had done it, played the game, outsmarted the Doctor.

He remembered with a half smile the Doc's stark terror as they sat in his quarters, under 'arrest'.

"Tough break, Doc. 'Least I got a chance. If we escape in Spain, I can always take off. Spain ain't so bad, lotsa pretty ladies, and the drinks is okay, Doc."

Hepplewhite had just stared at him, dumbfounded and in terror.

If ye likes wine, that is. Guess I can develop a taste fer it. Ye likes that stuff, don't ya Doc? Shame there's no chance fer you to get away. We must be pretty close te land right about now."

And then the commotion, the one Styles had been expecting, and he got up and pressed his ear to the door.

"'Cor, sounds like Forbes is goin' off, Cousins is callin him to see to somethin' about the boats. Must be gatherin' everyone nigh te head over. Reckon they'll be comin' fer me soon."

And then, leaning against the door, it gave way, and he and Hepplewhite were in the doorway.

"Blimey, he left it unlocked! Stupid lobster!"

And according to plan, nobody was in sight, and he got his "great idea."

"Look, Doc, all the action's on the other side. Ye can swim, Cain't ye?"

At first it looked like Hepplewhite was going to balk, but when they snuck up to the deck, unnoticed (not surprising since nobody would have been looking for them) the land was too close and the temptation too great. Especially after Style's extremely graphic description of having seen a man hanged once.

So over he went. And Forbes joined Styles by the side, never having been far away. And together they watched the last of the problems from Justinian swim away.

Tonight, Styles knew he was in prison. There were walls around him, bars on the windows, a strange language spoken. But the truth was, for the first time in a long time, he was free.

Archie Kennedy sat back, wide awake, and listened to Horatio's slow and steady breathing. So much had happened between them in the years of their acquaintance.

This evening, after their return to their cell, he had gotten Horatio to open up, to talk about his father to him. First there had been difficulty in recovering from his mother's death that drove a wedge between them. Then their differing thoughts on Horatio's career path. And his sudden death that left Horatio in the lurch, as it were, unable to ever clarify the feelings they had for one another.

The similarities struck him for the first time. He had listened to Horatio's description of his father, the admiration, the awe he so obviously held for the man. Partially, Kennedy knew, Horatio would have chosen the Navy because he felt he could never live up to his father's standards as a Doctor. Not at all unlike Kennedy's own rather maddening feelings for his own father, who was one of England's finest peers, well educated, prosperous, never touching anything without it turning to gold. Of course, Horatio had not the complication of brothers.

Then again, was that a good thing? How much worse would Archie's life have been if he had been the focus of his father's attention? The sole hope. The heir. The one who would have had to succeed. Horatio did not have brothers to make him feel inferior, but he also did not have any brothers to hide behind.

Horatio, although unwilling to give verbal credence to a spiritual feeling, spoke of having found "peace" with his father over the past months. Archie confessed that he hoped one day to follow that path. But first he was seeking peace with himself. And Horatio, who knew him better than anyone, understood that.

For some reason young Brandon came into mind. The youngest of six children, fifth son of Lord Exton, a man Archie had seen once and despised. His father had called Exton the sort of man who was the reason the French were having a revolution to begin with. Although his brother David had been at school with Brandon's oldest brother, Stanton, and described him as a fine man. David was the least stupid of his own brothers and therefore Archie considered him more reliable than most.

But Brandon himself was quite a lad. Smart, too; Archie envied him that. He had promised to look into his fits, and called the distance between the last of them "encouraging." He had told him this morning that he hoped to have something to help him on his return. In the meantime, he had sent him back to imprisonment with a supply of willow-bark, in case he should be stricken by the headaches that had also plagued him since boyhood.

Horatio, of course, was Brandon's mentor, he could see that. But somehow the boy managed to pull that off this side idolatry. He could keep everything in perspective, something Archie was still learning to do when he contemplated his friend. After all, they all had their troubles. None of them were perfect. But together, Archie was beginning to believe, they might all of them find what they were looking for,
***
Katherine Cobham had been a bundle of nerves, getting ready to join Pellew for dinner that evening. Especially when she considered her attire, which had been pieced together from various men on board. Breeches were not, after all, standard dinner wear, Duchess or Actress.

She was surprised and relieved to find they dined alone this evening, however. She could drop the pretense and just be Kitty Cobham with Sir Edward. And she had a feeling he reveled as well in being able to drop his mask for a bit.

They had talked of poetry and art. He was well educated, and had a fine eye for sculpture, and an ear for music. And yet...she remembered back to that evening when he had made that quip on Florentine statuary, and brought it up.

"Oh, uh, well..." He looked a bit uncomfortable. "After all, Ma'am, consider the company. Those in admiralty do not usually see much point in statuary, clothed or otherwise. And it would not have been the time for me to break out into a sonnet."

She had laughed, then, enjoying the fine wine and the good food, and the Captain's company. She was rather amused to note that he did not treat her so very differently than he would a gentleman who was dining at his table. Perhaps so many years at sea had made him forget that women were not considered equals in opinion or thought. Certainly, he never made her feel that she was fragile, or useless, or worse yet, good for only one thing. No, he simply made her feel human. And she wished that she'd met this man many years ago.

Slightly giddy on wine, she headed for the windows, murmuring that it was wonderful to have such a view at one's disposal. With a shiver, then, she feared he would follow her there, feared he would touch her, that he would, like DeVergess, expect things from her, and shatter the illusion she'd built of him, as a good man.

But he didn't follow her. She stood for some minutes, marveling at the quiet, fearing to break it. Finally she turned around .

And there Sir Edward sat, head turned towards her, where he had watched her go to the window. But his eyes were closed, his head rested on his arm, his breathing was deep and even. He was sound asleep, with a slight smile on his face.

Poor man! And she remembered Horatio, collapsing the other day, not having slept in so long. How long had Pellew been awake? Worrying about his men, handling that bastard of a Doctor, the storms of the past days. It was a miracle he'd stayed awake this long. She touched her hand to his head, but he did not stir, just smiled a bit more broadly.

Powers entered, and she quickly snatched her had away. He looked at his Captain and shook his head, then addressed her. "I told him, Your Grace, that he was too tired to entertain this evening. But he wouldn't listen."

"A stubborn man, is he?" She said, using her Duchess voice

"Yes, Your Grace." He smiled at her. "You can go on ahead, Ma'am, I'll see to it he's taken care of."

"I have no doubt, Powers," She nodded. And returned to her own cabin, softly humming to herself, enjoying the thought of the journey to come.