It was late in the evening, but not too late, when Acting Lieutenant Archie Kennedy skipped carefully down the stairs to the officer's mess. Thus he was surprised to find it deserted.
With a sigh he set the bottle of wine he'd brought onto the table then plopped himself into a chair. Archie did not want to be alone. Alone and without stimulus he would dwell upon all that had gone wrong the last few days, and his part in it. With others he could forget all that and rally, could celebrate their safe return from the sacred soil of France. Now he had the means and the orders to do so, but no company.
He could have gone back on deck, but it was not his watch. Captain Pellew had relieved the returning officers and men for that evening and the entire next day, to allow them a bit of rest after their long and doomed labors. That explained the absence of the other officers-they were probably sleeping-but not of Horatio, whom he'd been sent to find.
Horatio had not been in their cabin. Where he'd run to earth Archie did not know.
Thus Archie sat, trying to decide what to do next, his only company the sound of creaking timbers as the Indy fought a northerly wind on her way back to the Channel. The still-lit lamps swung pendulously in the sway of the ship, sending quiet amber beams vacillating about the room to shine upon the hanging maps and wood paneling.
The familiarity of the surroundings was not soothing. It only lulled him into the despondence that had been threatening to overtake him all afternoon, and brought back the thoughts he'd been trying to forestall. My behavior at the bridgeI wish I could have--
His depressed ruminations were rescued from imminent descent into self-pity by a human sound, almost like a sniff. Archie peered into one shadowy corner not reached by the lamplight, and detected a glimmer of movement. A pale face slid out of shadow to press against the glass window in the corner.
The face belonged to a lanky body clad in white breeches and shirt. It was Horatio. He stared out the glass with a lugubrious intensity that would put any drooping London poet to shame.
Not the best company for the moment, then, thought Archie. But it was a presence all the same, and the very one he'd wanted and been ordered to seek out.
"There you are, Horatio," Archie called merrily to the melancholy figure of his friend. There. He was rallying already, and became determined to cheer them both. "I've been looking for you. I've brought you a present; come and see."
Without a word Horatio unfolded himself from his spot in the corner and joined Archie at the table. He offered a small smile, quickly banished, then eyed the bottle without interest.
"Yes, it's for you. Or for us," Archie said with a grin, and stood to fetch two glasses from the cabinet. He set them on the table and pulled out a knife to dig at the cork. "My Lord Major Edrington sent it with me after I made my report to the Captain. I hadn't even been sure he'd ask for one, from me. But that's beside the point. 'Make him drink,' My Lord said, and so I shall."
"No, thank you," Horatio said, then he fell silent again to stare at his laced fingers on the table, thumbs rapping out a distracted, disjointed tattoo upon the wood.
Archie sighed. "Well, it was for you, but if you wish to refuse I certainly shan't have any qualms about accepting." He twisted the cork out with a small pop and tipped the bottle. "I will pour you some anyway. There! What do you think of that?"
Horatio gave a small, forced-looking smile at the jesting taunt, but made no other reply. His eyes were dark in his pale face. He watched Archie drink for a few silent moments, then said, "My lord is very condescending. I am surprised."
"Condescension? Congratulations, more like."
"Well, I have not seen him since we embarked. And then, he did speak to the Captain before I did"
"Yes, what did the Captain say to your report? You never told me." Archie was slightly curious; Horatio had looked ill when he returned from the Captain's office.
"He was disappointed, I think," Horatio said with a sigh and a characteristic opening and closing of his hands. "I was asked to justify the loss of the men and the cannon, and I could not. I think I may have behaved"
"Never mind," Horatio said, waving his hand again. "It wasnothing."
"So drink then, and forget," Archie said, deciding not to take the bait and further this particular conversation. Horatio often had crises of confidence but was not in the habit of airing them. Only very rarely did he do so, and only to Archie. But now was not the time, because Archie wasn't feeling so wonderful himself.
Anyway, he couldn't imagine the Captain being too terribly harsh on Horatio, especially after the relative success of their own part of this mission. They'd defended the bridge, and destroyed the bridge. Duty done. Pellew hadn't asked about that first, futile firing of the guns, so perhaps no one had mentioned it to him. Therefore it was forgotten. Everything else had been out of their control, and Pellew had known that. His own interview with the Captain had made that clear.
"To be honest, I don't think I don't think the Captain cared for the mission," Horatio said, continuing despite the lack of prompting from his friend.
Archie blew out a breath in frustration. "Of course he didn't. It was doomed from the beginning, Horatio."
"It wasn't. If I could have swayed Colonel Moncoutant from his folly or perhaps if the Colonel himself hadn't alienated his people. If he hadn't killed them," Horatio said, for once deflecting some of the blame from himself onto a dead man. "Perhaps they would have followed him"
"You could have done nothing to save that man, Horatio. Or have you forgotten why he was in England in the first place? Because his people wanted him dead years ago."
"True," Horatio admitted, then reached out a hand to finally grasp his glass. He sipped at the wine and made a face.
Archie laughed out loud in reply, feeling better already for the demise of that subject and the distraction of watching Horatio try to drink. Trust Horatio not to recognize an excellent wine when he tasted it. Archie raised his own glass to his friend in a toast. "To France at our backs, and may She stay there; we left nothing worth retrieving." Then he winced at his own forgetful nature, hiding it behind his sip of wine. That girl
Horatio didn't let it pass; he scowled at him. But his thoughts seemed to be taking a different tack. "What about honor?"
"What about it?" Men had died, but men were always dying. Archie regretted the deaths but most of them had been Frogs, after all. And he and Horatio hadn't been among them. That always made Archie feel a little better about the subject of death. "We did our duty. It's over. Drink."
Horatio set his glass on the table with an angry little clink. "It was my fault she died"
Ah, thought Archie, they had at last reached the crux of the matter. That girl. Archie had hardly seen her, except as a corpse. A dead French peasant. He had thought her nothing special. Nothing, at least, that could have caused Horatio to become so enamoured after only two days. Granted, she hadn't been shown to her best advantage when sprawled in the dust, but still
"It was not your fault," Archie said. "Did you put a gun to her head? It seemed to me you were trying to help her."
Horatio rolled his eyes and snorted before sipping once again at the wine. "It was she who told me about the Republican army. I made her a collaborator. She had no choice but to follow me."
That was the truth, thought Archie. All followed Horatio, free will and rational thought notwithstanding. Including himself. Had not Horatio dragged him, half-insane and half-dead, back and forth across Spanish waters? And while Archie was fully aware that he followed his friend so faithfully and blindly, that did nothing to stop him from doing it. He suspected that were he an Angel in God's own perfect heaven, he would follow Horatio to Hell if his friend chose to embark upon that particular journey.
So what hope had that peasant girl had, when faced with the gravity well of Fate that was Horatio Hornblower?
Archie said none of this aloud. It was something private, not for voicing. But he was losing patience. Why now, of all times, was Horatio choosing to pity himself out loud? After all, Horatio had lost a peasant girl he'd known for two days. Archie had lost years of his life; from almost from the moment he'd set foot upon a ship, he'd been half-dead. He'd intended to make up at least for those years in prison, to re-apply himself to life and his naval career. But his every victory seemed small and too hard-won.
That thought made him feel a little harsh in the face of Horatio's inexplicable and unlooked-for despondence. They were supposed to be cheered, dammit. "Then she was a casualty of war, Horatio. One of many, and less well-known to you than your own men."
Horatio glared at him again, hurt. Then he looked away toward the window he'd been gazing through earlier, as if he couldn't bear to look at Archie. "I cared for her. And and I promised her I would keep her safe"
Some Angel Archie was; an imp of Satan kept his tongue sharp despite all good intentions. "You can't save every stray, Horatio."
Horatio turned back at that, and now his eyes were dark, angry. His lip curled. "She wasn't! She was kind and and I was as responsible for her as I was for our men that died."
"Don't try to steal the credit for my defeats as well as your own, Horatio," Archie said. "You will allow me to keep some of the blame for myself, thank you."
Despite the flippancy of his tone, guilt and memory had returned with a mercurial vengeance. The men had been under Archie's direct command, and he'd not controlled them properly. He'd panicked. He'd not watched them, and some of them had died. He picked up the bottle and poured, to keep his hands busy and to divert his thoughts.
"Oh, Archie, don't say that"
Of course, Horatio would never say it was Archie's fault. In fact, Horatio would never point out any of Archie's faults, whatever he thought of them, and never had. He was much too charitable a friend. He saw only the best in others, and would offer only encouragement in the face of any disillusionment. Archie found it strange that he should value and admire that quality and yet resent it at the same time.
Now was not the moment to point that out. Nor was it the time to be mean-spirited, however badly he felt for himself. His tongue forced the platitude that the situation demanded to defuse it. "I am sorry for your loss, Horatio. Let us speak of it no more."
"Very well," Horatio said with a small scowl. Apparently he now wished to distract himself-he began to examine the bottle, holding it up and swaying it with the motion of the lantern as he tried to read the script. He brought it right to his nose and squinted at the label, then turned to Archie with raised eyebrows and a careful expression. "This is quite old."
"Yes, indeed," agreed Archie, glad to have found another subject for discussion. He flipped a fingernail against the side of his glass with a small ting, a pure sweet note to dispel the gloom. "My Lord Edrington is a pretty decent fellow after all, don't you think?"
"I would agree, " Horatio nodded. He set the bottle on the table, moving it slightly about on the wood as if to achieve a mathematically aesthetic arrangement of bottle and glass before releasing it. Then he leaned back in his chair, thoughtful. "He is an excellent soldier."
"A bitstuffy, perhaps."
"He has to be," said Horatio, drawing together his eyebrows. "He has to set an example for his men. Did you note how well-disciplined they were?"
What, compared to ours? was Archie's first thought. His second was, Here we go again. This could turn into a true bacchanal of commiseration if Archie were to let it. If he didn't do something, or say something, to stop it yet again.
"A toast, then?" Archie suggested. "To My Lord Major Edrington. An example to his men, and a condescending gentleman with an excellent cellar."
"A toast," Horatio said, and sipped. The wine was beginning to work in him; he hardly pursed his lips at all. Until he spoke again. "A fine gentleman, and his behavior in the end was impeccable, at least. I must remember to thank him."
"If you wish," Archie said. He wondered if Edrington would have suggested this celebration, if he had known more of Horatio and his moods. "As fine a soldier as he is, I for one am thankful to be heading for England where we can deposit him and his men on shore and put this whole episode behind us. It is over."
"You're right," Horatio said with a half-smile and a release of breath. "Let us not dwell upon it. I am determined to be self-pitying, and you are determined to not let me."
You do not have a monopoly on self-pity, Archie wanted to say, but accidentally bit his tongue in his haste not to, drawing blood. It was bitter mingled with the taste of wine in his mouth, and burned like acid down his throat as he swallowed the words and found others.
"Not tonight. Any other time, you may hate yourself at your leisure," Archie replied, forcing a grin. He wondered briefly if he was trying to distract himself or Horatio. Perhaps both. His instincts had been right earlier, when they'd warned him that Horatio would not be good company tonight. Usually Archie could ignore Horatio's morose pronouncements of doom and failure; he'd let them trickle past his ears like a shallow stream, secure in the knowledge that Horatio usually did what was right without Archie's help and without any real need to hear himself confirmed. But tonight Horatio was an undertow, dragging Archie down with every change of heart.
"You are a good friend," Horatio continued, blindly, secure in the knowledge of support.
"Yes." Archie hated himself at that moment, felt so pathetic that it hurt. Pity for himself congealed hard as a rock in the pit of his gut, unyielding and sharp. Always it was there, waiting for the right situation to remind Archie of its presence. He wished he could cough it up, to vomit the self-hatred from his stomach like a bad supper, and be free of it forever. But he couldn't. He could only chip away at it, release bits of it in half-joking self-deprecating remarks, reminding others here and there of his own incompetence, and hoping that they wouldn't notice the load he was placing on them.
Archie ultimately found that he was either good enough a person, or Horatio was dear enough to him, not to extend his vitriol that far. He was the only one to whom Horatio could voice these doubts, and he knew it. Airing his own despairs would only make things worse, so Archie's tongue had to be stilled once more. He felt a small iron core of pride begin to grow, competing for space inside him with everything else. He was a good friend. It was one thing he knew damn well how to excel at.
"By the way, Archie," Horatio said, turning to lounge as best he could in his hard wooden chair, all obliviousness. "Did I thank you for saving my life?"
"Why no, Mr. Hornblower, I don't believe you did," Archie said, pasting on a false smirk, yet not averse to a little repeated appreciation in this of all moments.
"Thank you, Mr. Kennedy, for running after me, then," said Horatio with a quirked lip and a nod. "At risk of your own life, and especially after you'd already lit the fuse."
Archie started to admit that he hadn't been able to light the fuse, and that it had fallen to Matthews to do the dirty deed. But he couldn't bear to do it. Would a different sequence of events have made him more or less heroic? Small victories, too-hard won. "You're welcome. Sir," he added.
A somewhat companionable silence hung over the room for a few minutes, as Archie allowed his bitterness to dispel and compelled himself to enjoy the fine wine. But it was not to last. Horatio began to frown again; he was a barometer, and Archie could only sit and watch as his mood dropped yet again.
"Our escape was clean, all things considered," Horatio finally said.
"Yes" Archie replied, carefully.
"She saved my life too, you know, in the village. I believe I was the only one to escape. And I was the only one who didn't belong there"
No, you weren't. "All for the good you're gone, then," Archie said lightly, trying to forestall the inescapable.
"Yes," Horatio said with a tight smile. He was not to be swayed-rather, he was a whirlpool, almost fey and capricious in his despondent irony. "A village. A battle fought in a village. With simple people who were only trying to get on with their lives. We brought an unasked-for cargo with us, and left it there to continue its damage"
"It's war, Horatio. It ruins people's lives. We are only the players, and we do as we are told."
"That's what the Captain said. Sort of," Horatio admitted.
Of course he did. He's one of those in charge. Now Archie was gaining momentum in his descent into rancor, and wondered if he'd be able to halt it. "This was a minor battle. No one will remember it. It will not go down in history, and neither will we."
"Those people will remember it," Horatio said in his most pedagogic tone, as if he were instructing the wayward and the weak in the methods of the wicked world. He waved his hand as if to emphasize the correctness of his words. "The women-the wives, and the children They will continue to pay for trying to be free."
"Yes," Archie ground out. The hard knot in his stomach twisted, edged its inexorable way into his throat, demanding liberation. Archie bit at it. Who cares about those people, he wanted to ask. I will remember it. One more chapter in the sad story of the wasted life of an acting lieutenant. Even I don't believe it.
He worked to swallow it, and mostly succeeded. Only the imp of Satan returned, twisting his tongue with sharp, pointed nails.
"Vive le Roi!" he yelled, and swung his glass to his lips.
Archie looked back at Horatio, and caught the look on his face, and snorted in the midst of swallowing his wine. The spirits burned and tickled his nose, so he laughed harder, caught up in his own daring hilarity and extreme poor taste.
Horatio simply stared at him, stupefied.
Archie was inexplicably proud. He laughed until tears ran from his eyes and wine dripped from his nose. About him the ship creaked, the lamps swung, and he was an island of mirth.
"We are both tired, it seems," Horatio said, finally, and stood, very stiffly on his stiffs. "I will retire, and see you tomorrow. Good night." And then he was gone.
Archie remained where he was, watching Horatio go. All would be well in a day or two, he thought, still laughing in spurts. 'The mathematics of defeat,' Bracegirdle had said earlier. Now that was something Horatio could understand. He certainly didn't have enough imagination to be tragic forever.
"Vive le Roi," he whispered to himself with
only a small snort, and finished the bottle of wine.