The little boy knocked apprehensively on the door. He was about ten years old, with sandy hair, blue eyes and a chubby, freckled face. The eyes at this moment showed more than a flicker of fear, for he knew what awaited him at the other side of the door. Yet again he had fallen foul of his aloof father's uncertain temper, and there would be the usual price to pay, that was a promise. He pictured the hated figure behind the door. The tall, pitiless man with cutting words on his breath and the cutting cane in his hand. Once again the boy steeled himself to neither cry nor shout out in pain, for his mother and two sisters were waiting for him downstairs and their hurt would be far greater than his own. Even more than this, his elder brothers would be eagerly listening and sniggering at the least sound of his discomfort.
Midshipman Kennedy was the junior officer on deck when the new recruit arrived. It had been raining steadily for two days and the whole world seemed to have melted into a cold, clammy greyness. He saw the figure hesitate before climbing on board.
"Jump!" he called. "You'll be alright!"
With this encouragement the gangling figure clung onto the ladder and somehow clambered up it. Immediately Kennedy's heart went out to the unknown boy. He knew only too well what it was to be out of your element and to be afraid. He tried to greet the figure cheerfully:
"Welcome to Purgatory!" he called before introducing him to Lt Ecclestone. The boy had obviously learnt his lines and found the proper words to address his superior:
"Come aboard, sir. H- Horatio Hornblower, sir. M- midshipman. My sea chest sir - it's forrard at the entry port."
Yet he stuttered and looked horribly ill. Kennedy, given the job of escorting him below, chatted on and on, hoping to distract the youth from his misery. However, he realized that the journey to the bowels of the ship must have seemed like Dante's journey to hell. He tried to make small jokes:
"I don't know which smells worse, the men or the beasts in the manger!"
but the boy seemed to be past all distraction. Every sinew in Kennedy's body wanted to protect him. He became genuinely angry when that old reprobate Styles shouted out:
"There goes his Majesty's latest bargain!"
"Belay that Styles!" he had yelled. "Unless you want to find yourself at the gratings!"
Due to various circumstances the other midshipmen on the Justinian were mostly around 30 years of age, and they did not relish the appearance of this miserable-looking youth amongst them. With a complete absence of any kind of sympathy they mocked his name, his age, his lack of knowledge.
The ship lurched at anchor and the wretched youth clung onto the table.
"Gentlemen," he quavered, turning away.
"God!" someone cried. "He's seasick. Seasick at Spithead!"
Kennedy had had enough. He supported the boy while he vomited and led him to one side.
"Do not mind them. It's just their way till they get to know you." He helped the boy remove his uniform jacket and vest and eased him into a hammock.
"My pardon, sir," muttered the boy. "And my thanks, "Mr. .Ö..?"
"I'm called Archie", said Kennedy. "Lie quiet until you feel more like yourself."
Archie stayed by the hammock until the boy seemed to have been rocked to sleep. There arose within him a fierce need to protect this new recruit - a boy the same age as himself, a boy who was perhaps even more vulnerable than he had been six months previously when he had joined the Justinian and there had been no-one there to protect him.
"He won't suffer like I did," thought Archie. "And that's a promise."
Kennedy had watched horrified as Simpson mercilessly thrashed Horatio. The others had tried to curb the bully, but he had sat completely motionless, unable to move. At last Clayton had threatened Simpson with a pistol and they had been able to move his unconscious victim to the sick berth.
Dr. Hepplewhite had shaken his head.
"You young fools," he muttered. "When will you stop hitting each other about. Worse than the common seamen. Doesn't anyone teach you manners these days?"
This was the third midshipman this week. As for Kennedy - the boy seemed to find his way in here with monotonous regularity. There was always something strange about his injuries though and the lad seemed half mad at times.
Hepplewhite looked at his patient laid out on the table. He knew it was the new recruit, Hornblower, who had seemed a quiet and solemn boy. Strange he'd ended up in this situation. The other midshipmen left, but Kennedy insisted on staying. The misery in the boy's eyes was painful to see - even for a hardened veteran like Hepplewhite, not easily moved to pity. With the help of Kennedy he undressed the prone lad on the table. No broken bones thankfully, but severe bruising on his torso and face. His nose and lips were particularly lacerated, as if his face had been banged continually onto a hard surface.
The doctor went to work with hot water and witch hazel and before long the youth, goaded by the stinging ministrations, began to open his puffy eyes a little. He moaned quietly to himself, almost as if he didn't want to disturb anyone. At length, the doctor left him to attend to other duties, with young Kennedy by his side.
Kennedy checked the doctor was distant enough not to hear his words.
"Horatio," he whispered. "It's Archie. I'm so sorry. I couldn't help you. I wanted to, but I couldn't."
Something in his tone made Horatio, till then lost in his own misery, try to focus on Archie's words.
The last words he had heard were those of Cleveland:
"Stay down boy...! He's finished Jack, you'll kill him!"
Why wasn't he dead? That's what he had wanted. He'd wanted that since the Captain had praised his mathematical skills over those of Simpson. Since that moment he had wanted to die, for he knew his life would become more of a burden to him than he could bear. For Simpson had bullied and beaten him since he had returned to Justinian from his failed examination for lieutenant. Horatio had been made to dance, made to recite verses from Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard", made to answer questions regarding his homelife and his boyhood. Innocent answers which Simpson would invariably turn to ridicule. The bully would lay his dirk-scabbard on the table in front of him with a significant glance, and his toadies would close round Horatio, who would be stretched across the table and the dirk-scabbard applied at the least hesitation. The flat of the scabbard was painful, the edge of it was agonizing. But the pain was nothing to the utter humiliation of it all.
Through everything though, Hornblower had been semi aware of a desperation in Archie that was perhaps worse than his own. He at least had found the strength within him to fight back at the bully. Archie seemed to be caught in Simpson's evil glare, like a moth in a flame. Upon his inauspicious arrival on Justinian Horatio had, through his haze of sea- and home-sickness been aware of Archie's kindness, of his wish to protect and even to guide. On Simpson's return however, Archie had become taciturn and withdrawn. Had Horatio misjudged him in the first place?
Now here was Archie, desperately trying to explain something to him. If only he could concentrate harder. All he wanted to do was to slip back into unconsciousness and escape this horrible pain.
"Horatio, can you hear me? I've got to explain. Please try to listen."
Again that note of desperation. Horatio made an heroic effort to lean on his left elbow. That side seemed to hurt a little less.
"Yes Archie. I'm listening," he croaked through his swollen lips.
"I was here six months before you, Horatio. Almost immediately Simpson began to seek me out. I suppose I was easier to bully than the older ones. He never hits my face, but ...."
Archie paused, then took a deep breath.
"He doesn't hit me in front of the others, like he does with you Horatio. He forces me into dark places like the Carpenter's Walk and he - he does things to me Horatio. I can't get away from him - quite often he posts someone as a lookout. I scream, but no-one seems to hear. Do you believe me Horatio? I tried to tell Dr. Hepplewhite once, but he said I was mad. I think the officers might have a clue about it but they'd rather not trouble themselves. Clayton knows the truth. He tries to shield me when he can, but he's terrified of Simpson too. Apparently they started the service together and he was always a cruel bastard."
Horatio was beginning to forget his own miseries.
"Yes, I believe you Archie. I wondered why he never picked on you for his inquisitions."
"Oh," laughed Archie bitterly. "He doesn't need to find out anything more about me. He knows me body and soul."
With difficulty Horatio raised himself higher on his elbow. What dark savageries had his friend endured? He didn't want to imagine - and he knew he would never ask.
"My father seemed to enjoy hurting me too Horatio. Do you think there's something," Archie hesitated. "Something strange about me that ..."
"No," said Horatio firmly. "None of this is your fault Archie." Horatio thought of his own father, kindly and fair. But, even in his own small experience, he had heard of other fathers who were not so.
"Archie. I'll find some way to save both of us. I promise I will. You don't really know me yet, but when I promise things, I carry them out."
Archie would always remember those words. He didn't yet know they were true of course. But he sensed the utter sincerity contained within them, a sincerity forced out of the poor tortured lips like a ship through a Channel storm.
Horatio, exhausted, slipped back onto the pillow.
"Yes. That's a promise."