Prison Talk
by Simon

Acting Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower was sitting, as he sat every day
at this time, on a narrow bench by a table in the shade of an
overhang. It was hot, the flies were buzzing about, as they always
did. The air was still and oppressive. It was quiet and there was
nothing to do. He had watched a few of his men racing cockroaches up
a wall a few feet away from him, but the races seemed to be over for
another day and now they all just sat and waited, talking in slow
quiet attempts at conversation that didn't go anywhere.

After a while Styles turned to Horatio and said, "Sir, do you
remember wot I said to you when you first came aboard Justinian? I
wanted you to know that I didn't mean it."

He did, indeed, remember the remark. Attempting tact, though, the
young man answered,
"You insulted me? I've no memory of anything like that."

Styles laughed. "If you don't remember, then you must have grown a
better memory since you `ad a bit more time on board ship, sir." The
other ratings were laughing along with him.

"Well, perhaps I do recall something about the King's latest bad
bargain, as I was walking past you lot. I was sure that you were
referring to someone else." His smile gave lie to what he was
saying. "Why do you bring that up now?"

"Well, like I said, I just wanted you know that I didn't mean it,
sir. That's all. It was just talk."

Horatio was touched that the sailor was concerned about his feelings.
No one else was, certainly. "I knew that at the time, Styles, there
was no harm done."

"How's Mr. Kennedy doin today, Sir? Is `e any better?"

"Yes, he is, a bit. He's eating solid food now. He's getting better
every day, I can see it."

The conversation seemed to lag again when Oldroyd spoke up for the
first time. "Sir, I was wonderin. We spend all this time together and
we know all sorts of things about each other, but we `ardly know
nothing about you. Where do you come from, if you don't mind my
askin, that is. `Ave you got a big family, like?"

The other men looked from Oldroyd to Hornblower in turn. This was
something they'd not have the right to ask on a ship, even if they
had found the nerve. Sure, they'd all been wondering, but you never
asked personal questions, certainly not of an officer.

Horatio turned his eyes to the blonde rating. Shrugging he
answered, "No, I don't mind. I'm an only child from a small village
in Kent that no one has ever heard of, about fifty miles from
Portsmouth, along the coast."

Styles looked at him. "That's where you grew up then, sir?"

"Only until I was six. After that my father sent me to school. I
lived there, really, until I turned sixteen."

"Cor, no wonder you're so good at reading and such, sir Your Ma
must `ave missed you, though. Ladies do."

Another shrug, accompanied by a small headshake. "No, my mother died
when I was six. That's why my father sent me away then. He didn't
want me underfoot when he was trying to work."

The men digested this bit of information for a minute.

Finally Styles asked, "What did `e do for `is work, sir? You're Da, I
mean."

"This is turning into my life history, such as it is. My father is
the local doctor."

"Well, with all that schoolin, why didn't you go into doctoring
yourself, sir?'

Horatio looked over at Matthews in surprise. He seemed startled by
the question and the men weren't sure that he'd answer it. Making up
his mind, he finally said, "There were several reasons, really.
Medical school is expensive and I'm not all that sure that I'd have
made a very good doctor anyway."

"Is your Da a good doctor, sir?"

"People seem to think so." Horatio hoped that they wouldn't pick up
on the fact that he was being evasive. He breathed a secret sigh of
relief when they didn't seem to.

"So, beggin your pardon, sir, `ow did you end up in the Navy? Did you
always like the sea?"

"I don't know, I suppose that I did. When I was small I would walk
down to the cliffs overlooking the water with my mother. We'd take a
picnic and watch the ships going by." He laughed to himself. "I'd
make up stories about them. This one is going to India but shall
encounter a huge storm and will never return, and that one will
discover riches in the New World, but the crew will all die of
scurvy."

The men were all laughing at this, picturing the boy making up tales
about the passing ships.

"Anyway, when I finished school, my uncle was going to arrange for me
to sign on as Mid for the East India Company, but then war seemed
likely and they stopped hiring. Captain Kean was a patient of my
father's. They agreed to my signing onboard Justinian. I went aboard
her a few days after I turned seventeen."

"But `ow's come you ended up on a ship, sir? I mean, you could `ave
done lot's of things."

Horatio seemed to be thinking back for a few moments, sadly, from the
look on his face. "No, not really. I had what's called a `classical'
education. It was interesting, but not really practical, I'm afraid.
About the only thing from school that I've really used has been
mathematics in navigation."

"But the Captain has you speaking French when he needs that, sir.
That's something you use now and then."

Hornblower looked over at Matthews. " I didn't learn that in school.
One of my father's patients couldn't pay his bill, so they worked out
a trade. He was a French expat. He taught me. About the only think I
might have done was teach, and no one would have hired me when I was
sixteen."

"But didn't you want to go to sea, sir? Wot do you think that you
might `ave liked, then?" The idea seemed to surprise Oldroyd.

Hornblower paused before answering, as if considering how much to
say. Speaking softly, almost to himself, he finally continued. "I'd
have liked to go to Oxford or Cambridge. I had been accepted to read
History. I think that I'd have been happy doing that and then going
on to teach." He looked up at the men, gave a rueful smile and a
shrug. "But then I'd never have had the leisure of learning to speak
Spanish as the guest of the Spanish government. And now I think that
after a while I would have been bored if I had done that."

"But, don't you like bein' in the Navy, sir?" Styles seemed upset at
the idea that his favorite officer hadn't even wanted to sign up.

Horatio realized that he was treading on thin ground and considered
his answer. "At first, when I was told that I'd be going aboard and
that I really had no choice, no, I didn't want to go. And then when I
got on Justinian I determined to make the best of it, but then
Simpson came back." Here he almost stopped, not wanting to speak ill
of another Mid, even Simpson, in front of the men. Finally he decided
to continue since they had all known what he was. "I truly hated it
then. I think that I'd have done almost anything to get out of that.
It's turned out all right, though, after all. When we all got to the
Indy I realized what a ship could be like and why men joined and
stayed for their entire lives."

"Do you want to do that? Stay, sir?"

"Yes, very much so. I'd follow Captain Pellew anywhere he wanted to
go. And I'd do anything he asked of me, gladly."

"Her seems right fond of you, sir. Everyone has noticed that. Treats
you almost like `is son."

There was a look on Horatio's face, almost wistful. "Something
troubling you, sir?"

"It's just thatI know that The Captain treats me well, and there are
times when I'm grateful, certainly, butsometimes that makes things a
bitawkward"

"Yeah, we've noticed that the other officer's `ave it in for you
sometimes. Jealous, they are. They know that you'll be Post when
they're still wearing white patches on their collars, that's all it
is. Don't you be worryin yourself about that. We all know who's got
the goods and who don't."

Horatio looked at Styles with something like gratitude, and then
covered by saying, "You've heard most of my life's storywhat about
you men? Were you all pressed?"

Matthews spoke up first. "I was, sir. Just under twenty years ago
now. They took me one day as I went to town to get a few things for
me Mum. She wasn't feelin too good that day, and so I was `elping
her, like. Didn't even give me a chance to say goodbye to her."

"But you seem to enjoy the ship and sailing, Matthews. Would you jump
if you had the opportunity?"

"Back then I would've in the wink of an eye. Now I do like it, sir.
There ain't nothing like sailin down a fresh wind, all the sails set
and the ship with a bone in her teeth. There aren't nothing like it
at all." He smiled at Horatio. "I'll stay until they toss me off the
deck. It's me life now, y'see, sir."

Horatio smiled back at him, understanding each other.

Looking over behind Matthews, Horatio asked, "What about you,
Styles? You were pressed, weren't you?"

Straight forward as always, he answered, "Nah, I was in prison, this
seemed like a way out." They all laughed at that one, considering
where they were sitting.

"Wot was you in for Stylesie?" That was Oldroyd.

Styles looked down at the ground, reluctant. "Nothin much."

Seeing that he was uncomfortable, Hornblower broke in, "What about
you, Oldroyde? how did you end up on the Indy?"

"Oh, I signed up, I did. I like sailin. Always `ave. Me uncle was a
fisherman off Land's End. I was going to go with `im, but his boat
sunk in a big gale a couple of years go. `E couldn't afford a new
one, so's I signed on with the Navy. You get to travel around and the
grubs usually pretty good."

At this Horatio looked at him with a smile, but controlled his face
when he realized that Oldroyd was serious. He actually liked the food
onboard ship. Well, good to know that someone did.

"Have you a sweetheart waiting for you back in England, Oldroyd?"

"Me? Cor, no. Who'd `ave me, sir?" There was general agreement to
that statement.

"What about you, Matthews? Is there a lady watching the docks for
you?"

"Aye, there is, sir. I've me wife. She's a darlin lass, she is. Puts
up with me, and that's askin a lot. And me two girls, the apples of
me eye, both of them."

"That sounds nice, Matthews. You must miss them dreadfully."

"Aye, but I see them when I can. They understand how it is with the
sea."

"Wot about you, sir? Have you got a piece o' ski---I mean a lady at
home? Someone who writes you love letters?" Laughter about the love
letters, Horatio smiled along with them.

"No, no one home in England is thinking about me, other than my
father."

"Do you hear from him a lot, sir?"

"He writes me when he can. He's busy, though. He doesn't have that
much time." It was a telling remark.

"Seems that `e's been busy a lot when it concerns you, sir."

Hornblower looked up sharply at Styles, about to come out with a
rebuke to silence the man, but instead simply met his look calmly and
said, "Yes, I suppose so, but it doesn't matter any more."

"Decided to make your own way, eh, sir?"

"Everyone does, sooner or later."

"Speakin of makin your own way, sir, when do you think that we might
get out of `ere?"

"Mr. Kennedy should be ready to join us soon. As I said, he is
getting stronger by the day. It won't be all that much longer. Just
be patient and we'll al be walking the decks of the Indy before we
know it."

The men seemed to take him at his word and started to move away to
other entertainments, though what they could be in here were beyond
Horatio at the moment. He went back to trying to make his way through
Cervantes when he realized that Styles was still sitting near him.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Styles."

"It was murder. What I was in gaol for. I killed me Da. I `ad to do
it, sir. `E was beatin me Mum awful bad. I was afraid that `e was
going to kill `er. `E needed killin', sir."

Horatio looked at him calmly. "Yes, I'd thought that it must have
been something like that."

"You don't think the less of me for that, do you, sir?" It was
obvious that he was truly concerned about what Hornblower thought of
him.

Simply gently shaking his head "No." was enough answer for Styles.

"Good."

"Like Simpson."

"That's right, sir, like Simpson." The seaman smiled a bit. Horatio
returned the small smile. They understood each other.

 

The End