A Perspectives Christmas
by Meanjean



December The 24th.

I walked along the deck of my ship, the evening crisp and cold. There is minimal
crew around me, and that is my own doing.

Christmas on a ship of war is a peculiar time. At this moment there are no
hostilities in the area we patrol; the French and Spaniards seem to have settled
themselves into their harbors, resolved to wait us out. But it is not as though we
can turn around and return to England for the day. And so my ship and my men
find themselves far from home on the most sacred day of the year.

I like to do what I can to ease their loneliness on this day. Thanks to my friend
Harvey, I purchased from my own purse the provision for a feast: three bullocks
and two pigs. Somehow cook endeavored to keep them alive on board for the
past three days. Today I ordered cook to slaughter them; the fresh beef for the
men, the fresh pork for the officers. A supply of fresh bread and, unexpectedly,
casks of apples, also arrived courtesy of Harvey. I hope he is not suffering too
much at the Dalrymple dinner. I also hope he is not spreading too many
falsehoods, or by the next time I am in port, I shall be Zeus, and Horatio, Apollo!

The joy that spread throughout the ship when the men learned of their good
fortune was heartening, and made me well pleased. The men had thought-as
the hard past had taught them to-that the animals had been for my own use. But
this evening, they too will dine like Captains.

Naturally, I have given permission for extra spirit rations, and requested that the
various divisions set up entertainment. On every ship there are men with musical
talent, or the ability to dance. All day long the men have, in good spirits, debated
who had the best jig or the finest tenor; and of course, there are other more
unusual talents that will also be showcased tonight: the bosun's mate who can
imitate nearly any kind of bird; the daredevil midshipman who can tumble like a
Chinese acrobat. Yes, my men will have their Christmas party, though I have
cautioned them not to over indulge.

And yet, someone must take the watch, even on Christmas Eve. And on this
night, I settled it, despite some arguing from Bracegirdle:

"Sir, you cannot be serious..."

"Mr. Bracegirdle, we are hove-to in friendly waters on a fine day. I can assure
you I am more than capable of handling the watch by myself. Should the
elements change, I shall call for assistance."

"But sir...it's...unseemly..."

An unseemly thing for me to take the watch? Perhaps. But the men would feel
freer and more comfortable without my presence; no matter how popular I might
be at this moment, I am still their Captain, and none of them will be able to forget
that. And for that matter, I cannot forget that myself; the risk of just that
happening if I were to allow myself the luxury of joining them is far too great.


Besides, I am 49 years old, far removed from the snowy Christmases of my
childhood. And with no family of my own to miss, it is I who am the officer least in
need of distraction, and least likely to be distracted in the event of an urgent
occurrence.

"Very well sir, If you insist." Bracegirdle gave in unwillingly, seeing I would not
be moved. "But at least let me send up one other man for you; a midshipman,
perhaps. After all, if conditions do change, you must have someone able to alert
the ship while you are on deck."

He did have a point there, though it was unfortunate that one of the boys should
be so chosen. Perhaps they could come in shifts. "Aye, Mr. Bracegirdle, I will
leave you to choose a lad. But mind you, not until he has had his proper dinner.
I am certain that the ship can be capably handled by myself alone for half an
hour, at least."

"As you wish Sir, though perhaps it might be best if he passed on the spirit
ration."

I pondered that. "Yes, that would be best, but make it clear to the lad,
whomever you choose, that he will be allowed the same rations after the watch
is over. After all, I don't wish this to be any more punitive for him than
necessary."

"Sir, I didn't mean to imply that..."

"I know what you meant, Mr. Bracegirdle, and I also know the reality of how that
boy will feel. I suppose I ought to choose one myself, but on this evening, for
once, I would like not to be Judas. So it unfortunately falls to you."

Bracegirdle looked half exasperated and half in admiration at me as he left the deck. And so I now find myself watching my breath frosting the air, knowing that dinner would be over soon in the mess below, with the true revelries beginning for all but one misfortunate boy.

I heard sound on the steps behind me, and knew the wretched midshipman was arriving for watch. I smirked a little as I imagined his thoughts; why was he so cursed as to have to spend his Christmas Eve under the watchful eye of his Captain? No matter how fond many of my men are of me-and in general, I believe they are-they are mainly awestruck and uncomfortable when in my vicinity, especially the boys.

***
"Good Evening, Sir. It's a bit cold out, this evening."

I whirled around. Horatio? But? "Mr. Hornblower, I was not expecting you.
Why are you not enjoying the revelries down below?"

He stood beside me and blew on his hands. "I am afraid, Sir, I have not an ear
for music. I had a tutor who I made quite mad with my tone deafness, Sir."

He settled in beside me, hands behind him, and I realized that this was not a
social call; he had placed himself on the watch. "Mr. Hornblower, I specifically
requested that Bracegirdle find a midshipman to accompany me on this watch."

"So you did, Sir, and he requested that I choose one. Since I have been
working with them, I think he felt I would choose one least likely to, well, if you'll pardon the expression, get under your skin, Sir."

"And you found nobody worthy? That does not say much for them, Mr.
Hornblower."

"The truth is, Sir, when I looked around the berth, I saw five boys under fourteen who are away from their homes and their families for the first time this Christmas. And after all, I have been to sea for three years now, have no family to think upon, and without my commission am really not so far removed from the Mids. So I decided that I would be the best choice for the watch, Sir."

I was not sure what to say, since the arguments he'd used to place himself here are essentially the same ones I'd used to assign myself this watch. "Indeed, Mr. Hornblower?"

"Unless you would prefer I send up Mr. Hunter, Sir."

"I would NOT!" I turned abruptly at him, in time to catch the hint of a smile on
his face. Well done, Mr. Hornblower. "Well, I suppose if you're not bright
enough to take the offer of an evening off when it arises, you might as well stay here with me."

"Thank you, Sir." He inhaled the air deeply, possibly relieved. "It is a very clear night, Sir. The stars are very bright."

"They are. They almost always are, on this evening." I mused on that for a bit. "You've been to sea for three Christmases, now, Hornblower?"

"Yes, Sir, once on Justinian; I transferred here the April following. Last year we were at Gibraltar at this time, just prior to going out on patrol."

"Yes, I dined with the Governor last year. Terrible boor he is."

Hornblower gave a half chuckle. "I spent the evening trying to teach Kenendy, Cleveland and Hether how to play whist. They had decided their careers depended on it."

And he sighed. Two of the three were dead now; at least we presume so in Mr. Kennedy's case. And Hether was transferred. All of his friends, gone.

"You would not guess what was on my mind at that time, Mr. Hornblower."

"I should imagine you were preoccupied with the blockade, Sir."

"On the contrary, I was preoccupied with you."

That startled him. "With me, Sir?"

"Yes, Mr. Hornblower. You had been on my ship over six months at that point
and I still had no clue what to make of you. Were you the proud and sullen
Midshipman Eccleston had reported you to be, or the conscientious officer
who'd taken on Dr. Hepplewhite for the sake of one of his own men? You
puzzled me a good deal."

"I'm sorry, Sir." He cleared his throat a bit. "I am afraid Lieutenant Eccleston did not think much of me at first. Those days on Justinian..." He closed his eyes and I prayed I had not, in my attempt at conversation, dredged up painful memories.

"I believe, Mr. Hornblower, he came around in the end."

"Thank you, sir."

I hesitated, and then plunged on. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and at
least the conversation would keep our minds off the cold. "Mr. Hornblower, will you not tell me the true circumstances surrounding your first duel? That's not an order; do not feel that you must. But I have often wondered how you came to find yourself in such a situation; you do not seem the type to challenge for the sake of wounded vanity."

Hornblower turned to me in surprise. "Vanity? Oh, no, it was much more than that. Simpson did accuse me of cheating at cards, but had it been anyone else who had done so I would have ignored it. But it was Simpson, and I snatched my opportunity."

"To kill Simpson?"

"No, to commit suicide."

I fell into stunned silence. Hornblower, so full of life...desiring death?

He looked up at the stars. "It seems so long ago, Sir, and my life is so different
now, that it is hard to remember the black despair I felt. Simpson, as you
know..." He shivered slightly, and drew his cloak around him. "He was an evil
man, Sir, and he tormented all of the midshipmen unendingly. But when I came
on board, I was fresh meat for the kill. And I was better at mathematics than he
was, which Captain Keene made a point of emphasizing during one of our
classes. He laughed at Simpson while praising me, and all while he was doing it
I felt Simpson's eyes boring into me, and I knew it would not be long."

"Was that when he beat you?"

"You knew about that?"

I nodded. "It was reported in your file as a fight, but I read between the lines."

"Then you know Lieutenant Eccleston ordered me confined to the riggings for it.
I was there for eight hours. A storm came up; a bad gale. I feared I would
either drowned or freeze to death; after a while I began to pray that I would. But I could not have told Eccleston the truth. What would that have gotten me? Simpson in the riggings for eight hours instead? And then what? He'd have been cut down and returned to find me."

I closed my eyes. Where had Keene been in all of this? A seventeen year old
boy pushed to desperation, and none of his officers noticed? Not on my ship;
never, never on my ship could this occur.

"It was the next day that I was assigned to go with Simpson to enforce the
press. Before I went, Mr. Clayton brought me hot grog, but I barely heard him. I could see nothing before me but black agony and I wanted only to die. I truly believed that would be my only way free of him. But, as Clayton pointed out, suicide is against the law of God."

"When we were in town, waiting for the East India ships to come in, an officer
from another ship suggested a game of whist." Hornblower smiled coldly. "I
doubt very much that my father knew exactly what he was doing for me when he taught me that game, but with Simpson's mathematical skills what they were, beating him at cards was easy enough. And so he accused me of cheating, and I thought, if he kills me in a duel, then I am dead, with honor, and away from him still."

He turned and looked back at me with a wry smile. "It made sense at the time, Sir. I told Clayton and Kennedy, and they tried to talk me out of it. But I was determined."

"The day of the duel, Clayton...who had become a very dear friend, made his
choice. He hit me over the head while I was reaching for my cloak, knocking
me out, and took my place in the duel. By the time I arrived, he was dying, and
Simpson was threatening to flay me alive."

I exhaled. "I knew it. Eccleston came just shy of accusing you of cowardice in his report, but after I saw you, that just didn't fit."

He shrugged. "To the outside world, no doubt it appeared I was a coward. And there I was, no better of than before. Then, bless the French, they declared war, and I was transferred to Indefatigable, before Simpson could return to his duties."

I winced as I remembered my greeting to him when the Justinian's crew joined
us. How hard had I been on him, and for what crime? He must have read my
mind, for he looked at me and said,

"I am sorry I did not tell you this at the time, Sir. Or at least enough of it to make you understand me. But I...forgive me, Sir, I did not know that I could trust you."

I began pacing; the cold had stiffened my joints, and we fell into step together. "No apology is necessary, Mr. Hornblower. I can understand why you did not trust me. No officer before had ever given you reason to." It occurred to me at that moment how much he must trust me now, and the thought warmed me a bit.

"There is one thing more I would like to know about Simpson, Mr. Hornblower."

"Sir?" He looked at me in confusion.

"What passed between him and Mr. Kennedy?"

Horatio pulled up to an abrupt stop, his eyes wide. I had not expected quite this reaction.

"Sir, I tell you honestly, I don't know anything..." He ran a hand through his hair.
"Mr. Kennedy had been serving with Mr. Simpson since the age of twelve. Five years before I got to Justinian."

I turned and faced him now. "You say you don't know anything. But you
suspect?"

"Yes." He whispered hoarsely, eyes closed. "I suspect much, Sir."

I placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Do not go on, if you do not wish too. I
have no desire to cause you pain."

He opened his eyes. "Sir, will it make any sense to say to you that Mr. Kennedy had already gone far away by the time I arrived on Justinian? I mean, when I first got there, he seemed fine, normal, a happy man, enthusiastic. But Simpson was serving as Acting Lieutenant. After he failed his exam and returned to the Midshipmen, Archie justÖwent away? He started having fits; apparently an old trouble that had disappeared in Simpson's absence. Yet Simpson did not bother him in the open; as I said, I was fresh meat. Still, there are times when I would come upon them together, and Simpson would be making some comment, and he'd smile and walk away, and Archie would tremble. You saw him, Sir; in battle Archie feared nothing. And then, even on Indefatigable..."

"On this ship?" I whispered.

"Yes. When we arrived here, Archie became normal again. Until we picked up
Simpson. That night, as we were preparing for boarding the Papillon, I went in search of Archie. It was right after you had spoken to me. I realized, then, Sir, that you would not accept Simpson's behavior here. And so I was not afraid of him. But when I walked into the Midshipmen's berth, there was Simpson with Kennedy, and Archie looked pale and cowered."

I gripped the railings. I should have just tossed that man back into the bloody
ocean where we'd found him. "And then Mr. Kennedy had a fit in the Jolly
boat."

"Yes, Sir." He trembled slightly. "I had to strike him down for the sake of the mission. But I thought he would be fine. And then, he was cut loose..."

"By Simpson." I could not keep the anger out of my voice. "I should not have
shot that man dead; I should only have wounded him to hang."

"Sir, he is dead, and the world is a better place." He straightened up. "It was
only afterward, when I thought about it, that it all seemed so senseless. Why
would he kill Archie? I could understand his attacking me, because I had
affronted him, but he controlled Archie. I thought about that many nights, as my shoulder still healed."

"And you came to a conclusion?"

He set his face in a grim line. "A theory, if you will. Sir, had he not gotten us out of the way, undoubtedly he would have tried his old tricks here and you'd have been on to him in a flash. He was not so stupid as not to see that. You would have questioned both of us. I would have told you of my past with Simpson, but there was nothing SO bad in that, that would cause Simpson fear."

"Assuming I even managed to get the information out of you." I interjected,
remembering his stony demeanor in that first interview. "But Mr. Kennedy had not your strength in that way."

"No, Sir, I think you'd have gotten him to open up. So I asked myself, what
could he have done to Kennedy that was so horrifying that it would make
Simpson fear for his life to have it known? That could destroy Kennedy in that
quiet way? What could you do to a man...a boy...that is so horrifying it cannot be spoken of, cannot be forgiven except by death?"

He met my eyes, in dark agony, and I caught his meaning. My breath came
quickly and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Simpson...must
have...raped Kennedy?

Horatio saw I realized where he was going, and the fact that I did not leap into
denial confirmed it for him. He nearly collapsed, and I held him up until he could
brace himself. He had been carrying this burden for almost a year, now. It must have been a heavy one.

"Forgive me, Sir."

I shook my head, and guided him to the step, and sat him down. "It was I who
insisted on knowing, Mr. Hornblower. I thank you for telling me this. If I had
ever felt any remorse in killing Simpson, it is gone, now."

I looked up at the stars, the North Star, hanging above. God, I thought, I cannot control everything that goes on in this Navy, but let me control always what goes on in my ship; let me guide the men I lead in such a way that one day they themselves will have an opportunity to share these lessons with others. Let me be a good man; and let me inspire others to be the same.

Hornblower started suddenly. "Sir!" He rose and pulled out the glass. I had
almost forgotten we were on watch "Up ahead, Sir, the weather..."

I followed his view. Sure enough, the stars seemed to be going out forward of us, although the wind did not rise. We both headed towards the wheel.

"Shall I call up the hands, Sir?"

I raised my face to the wind, which was still gentle. "Not yet, Mr. Hornblower. Let's see what she brings us."

We moved in silence, the sky growing darker, but the wind not picking up, until suddenly...

"Sir..." Hornblower held out his hand, and caught a drifting snow flake.

"Snow!" I whispered. "By George!"

Within a few minutes, the sky was filled with the gently whirling flakes. But it was not enough to be a storm, and did not seem to impede the ship. Horatio smiled. "It is quite pretty, isn't it, Sir."

Indeed, my old ship was quite a site, her ropes and decks now wearing a white
dusting. We looked at each other in wonder.

"Now it seems like Christmas, Sir." He said. "After the surprise of the food, the men will probably think you ordered it yourself."

I smiled at that, and then realized something. "I have not seen snow at
Christmas, Mr. Hornblower, since I went to sea, when I was fifteen. Thirty four years."

He seemed surprised at that. "Have you not been to England for a Christmas in all that time?"

It was my turn to wince, then. "Once, Mr. Hornblower, only as it happened there
was no snow that year. It was the year I got married."

Hornblower was all surprise, now. "Married, Sir? I have never heard you
mention a wife..." he paused, his mind catching up with his mouth. "I'm sorry,
Sir, that was unthinking of me."

"At ease, Mr. Hornblower. I don't think there's a man on this ship that knows I'd
been married. Her name was Anne, and she was the loveliest woman I have
ever seen." I smiled at the memory. "We were newlyweds, lodging in
Portsmouth, while I awaited reassignment. A quiet Christmas, it was, but we had
each other, and that was enough."

To my surprise, the memory caused me no pain this time. In fact, it was
welcome; as if I was spending my evening with loved ones after all.

Hornblower dusted the snow off of his shoulder. "Were you married long?"

"One blessed year. That March, I was assigned to command the Westminster. I
found out shortly after setting sail that she was with child. I was fortunate
enough to return that December when she was due. So now that I think about
it, there have been two Christmases in England, but the second one was far from
happy."

He hesitated. "So she..."

"Died, yes. In childbirth."

"And the baby?"

"He died a few hours after." My voice caught, for the first time. "He was
so...small, it seemed as though I could hold him with one hand. But he was so
beautiful, and perfect. The midwife tried to get me to put him down, knowing he
was lost, but I would have none of that. If he had nothing else in his life, he
would at least have a father with him for the time he was there."

I cleared my throat, and blinked once. "Nobody knows of these things, Mr.
Hornblower; I trust you'll keep this as our secret?"

"Sir," He said gently, "I don't see any reason for either of us to repeat any of our
conversation this evening. It is nobody's business, after all."

I saw then, the way I sometimes did, my son. Often in the passing years, in the
quiet moments, I would suddenly have a flash of what he would be like if he
were alive. As a toddler, as a rambunctious eight year old; as a serious student.
Tonight I saw him in uniform, on my ship, much like the young man standing
next to me. He smiled confidently and then was gone.

"Just as well things happen as they do. I would probably have been a terrible
father anyway."

I did not even realize I had spoken out loud until I felt Horatio's eyes on me. "I
beg to differ, Sir; whether or not you realize it, you've been a father to many men
over the years."

I remembered then a conversation with a strange old man in a tavern in Gibraltar,
and felt I had to say something. "Your father was very proud of you, Mr.
Hornblower, and he loved you very much...I have no doubt." I hastened to add.

To my surprise, he did not seem so beset by doubt as he had earlier. "I believe
now he did, although neither of us were very good at letting our feelings be
known. I am not sure why I am so convinced of it, but since returning from the
plague ship, I have felt this...peace...between us. I do wish you could have
known him; I believe you would have liked him."

It slipped out before I could think. "I liked him very much," I muttered.

Horatio started slightly, and would have questioned me, had not the men
suddenly streamed on deck, the party breaking up. They discovered the snow
with whoops of delight. Hornblower and I both stood erect, as officers in the
Navy, and not as men who'd spent the evening baring their souls to one
another.

Bracegirdle appeared by my side. "Gentlemen, I trust you've had an uneventful
watch?"

I was surprised it was over already, but did not show it. "Other than the unusual
weather, we saw nothing out of the ordinary." I cleared my throat and resumed
my characteristic demeanor. "Give the men fifteen minutes above decks, Mr.
Bracegirdle. Then those not on duty should return below."

"Aye Aye, Sir."

I hesitated a moment; Hornblower was handing the glass to Midshipman Cousins
along with some advice. I watched for a few moments as the men frolicked
around me.

"Beggin' your pardon, Sirs..." Matthews appeared now by our sides. "Styles
and I were thinking we might need to keep a watch up from the top?"

"Hmmm...might not be a bad idea, Matthews, although there probably won't be
much to see. I assume you are fit to climb the rat lines?" Bracegirdle
responded.

"Fit as a fiddle, Sir, both of us."

"Then get to it. I'll send a man along for your relief mid watch."

Styles and Matthews scampered up above. Cousins was gently dispersing the
rest of the men below decks now. They went with laughter and joy. It was just
past midnight.

"Merry Christmas, Sir." Several of them said, saluting me as they passed me.

I acknowleged the salutes, and only when the decks were quiet again, did I
realize how cold I was.

Bracegirdle officially complained. "Sirs, if you don't get yourself both below
decks, you'll be dead of pneumonia within a week, and that's more responsibility
than I want."

Horatio and I walked along the deck towards the stairway, now out of sight of
Bracegirdle and Cousins. He soon outstripped me, as I was deep in reverie.

As he reached the head of the stairway, he turned to me. "A Merry Christmas to
you, Sir."

And I lost all reason, then. We were out of sight of the rest of the ship, and I had
been so envious of the men just a few moments earlier...

I had absentmindedly gathered a handful of snow as we'd been walking, and
with the impishness of a twelve year old...I flung the ball full force at my second
Lieutenant.

My aim, after so many years at sea, was not what it should be, and I grazed his
shoulder. "Damn!" I muttered.

The look on his face was priceless; stunned disbelief; shock, as he looked at
the wet patch now on his cloak, then a mischievous grin, which I matched. And
before he bent to gather snow himself, I had formed another snowball, and threw
it full again, this time nailing him square on the side of the face. He gasped, but
did not let that slow him down, and pitched a shot from below, underhand, that
hit me dead center.

And for the next minute, the snow went flying. Then, in a second where we both
paused for breath, I heard Mr. Bracegirdle call out to Mr. Cousins, that perhaps
he might rouse cook to get the Captain and Lieutenant Hornblower a cup of tea.

He had not seen us...I do not think. But it brought both of us to our senses, and
we started like guilty schoolboys, and scurried down below.

"A Merry Christmas to you as well, Mr. Hornblower."

"Thank you, Sir. Good evening." And we overcame our momentary
embarrassment to laugh, quietly, as we went our separate ways.

A very Merry Christmas to the world.

****

Styles and Matthews had no ulterior motives in volunteering for watch, other
than the desire to spend more time out in the snow. Styles, in particular, had
been a farmer by trade, and missed his winters. To be sure, there seemed
something almost magical about the Indefatigable that evening, in her glittery
dress. They had been comfortably settled and watched their less fortunate
mates be returned below decks, where it was warmer, but not nearly so
wondrous.

But they had no idea how wondrous it would be. Styles suddenly poked his old
buddy in the ribs. "Cor, look at that, would you? The Captain's got a handful of
snow on 'im. You don't think he'd..."

No sooner had Matthews looked down than it happened. Their Captain...the
great, stern but fair Captain Sir Edward Pellew, had thrown a snowball at their
favorite officer.

"Oh, Tisn't fair, Styles. Mr. 'Ornblower, he can't return fire..."

Then, to their stunned admiration, Mr. Hornblower prepared to do just that. And
they watched the fireworks below. They saw the guilty jump both men gave
suddenly, and watched them return to some attempt at dignity...not an easy thing
to do covered in snow...and return below decks.

Matthews and Styles stared at each other in dumb silence. Then Styles roared
with laughter. "Oh, they'd never believe it, the other men won't. They'll think
we're off our heads with grog."

"I dunno that we should tell them, Styles. I'm sure the Captain thought nobody
could see them."

"Aye..." Styles said, settling down. "Yer right, we should keep it quiet. Nice to
see him let go a bit, though, him and Mr. Hornblower both. A good thing Oldroyd
isn't up here with us; they'd know it back in Gibraltar."

Matthews shook his head. "Sometimes I don't understand this ship, mate; I've
never sailed on one quite like it."

Styles, a pressed man, grinned and put his hands behind his head, looking up at
the whirling snow. "Aye, it's different all right." He thought about the many
ships, where he'd been beaten and flogged, and worked near to death, and
officers too drunk or callous or ambitious to care. He thought about all the
Christmases, away from his family, and the meals of weevily biscuit and
shapeless food that used to be beef or pork, but had been too long in the brine
to be much of anything anymore. And he thought of Mr. Hornblower, and
Captain Pellew, and smiled again.

"It's the first ship I HAVE understood."


(THE END!)