Captain Pellew looked at the two set of notes in front of him. Since the Declaration of War with France (was it only a week ago?) he had received a lot of new personnel onto his ship the Indefatigable. He had little enough time to mould them all into an efficient fighting unit. These two sets of notes, dry and factual, related to two 17 year-old midshipmen. Small cogs in the wheels of war admittedly, but the notes, impersonal as they were, intrigued him. He had met neither boy yet.
This one here, what was his name? Oh yes, Hornblower. He would have to watch him. The lad had become embroiled in a duel of some sort. One midshipman had died, one had been injured. The boy himself seemed to have avoided the final encounter. A shrewd individual perhaps, a coward even? Pellew knew he would have to interview him and find out. Nothing was irredeemable at that age. The situation could be turned round. He had always preferred to rely on his own judgement. He would need to take the lad firmly in hand though. Perhaps bawl him out a bit to start with. Give him responsibilities to occupy his mind.
And this other boy, Kennedy. Sprig of the aristocracy common enough. Something not right here though. Something about a medical condition. Mmm. Pellew wasn't running a sanatorium. Perhaps he'd get his Lieutenant of the midshipman's berth involved here. Bracegirdle was excellent with younger crew members. He knew how to command their complete respect and yet he held their confidence too. There was something of the stern but approachable uncle in his manner. Yes, he was perhaps the man for the job
Lt. Bracegirdle looked at the young man in front of him. A slight, blond-haired boy with an incredibly open, boyish face. He looked far younger than his 17 years. His deep blue eyes were flickering with uncertainty and - yes - Mr. Bracegirdle also thought he could detect a hint of fear. Archie Kennedy, he had read in the notes. Aristocratic background, but according to Captain Pellew a definite question mark as to the boy's suitability for naval service. Yet he had been transferred to an operational frigate. Someone, somewhere had confidence in him. Why? The boy was looking down nervously and his hands were constantly moving. Best to be brisk to start with.
"Well er, Mr. Kennedy. The Captain and senior officers are interviewing all new crew members, and the honour of interviewing you has fallen to myself."
If there had been a hint of humour, the boy didn't pick it up.
"Yes Sir." It had almost been a whisper.
"You were on the Justinian, let me see, nine months, is that correct?
"And how would you describe your time there?"
The young boy looked up. There was a pause.
"I carried out my duties as best I could Sir."
"Yes, yes, of course."
A few barriers to get over here, thought Mr. Bracegirdle.
"I believe that you and Midshipman," he looked down at his notes. "Er Hornblower - were on the Justinian together. Got on alright did you?"
An extraordinary light of enthusiasm came into the boy's eyes and his chin came forward.
"Oh yes Sir. He's a good friend. He's very brave .."
"Why did he need to be brave? I believe the Justinian was moored in Spithead for the nine months you were on board her and saw no action."
Archie Kennedy almost physically ducked. A thick mask came over his features, ironing out his previous emotion.
"Oh dear," thought Bracegirdle. "This might take some time."
Indeed the Lieutenant of the midshipman's berth was becoming uneasy. The foul stench of bullying was beginning to reach his nose. The Captain had shown him something in Hornblower's notes about an argument and a duel. The details had been very sketchy.
"I believe that Mr. Hornblower had an er argument with another midshipman. Is that correct."
"Did the argument involve you?"
"Not directly Sir."
A look of misery clouded the youth's features.
Bracegirdle got up and began to pace the wardroom. If there was one thing he loathed it was bullying and he put a lot of effort into eradicating any whiff of it under his own control. But these boys had not been under his control.
He suddenly realized that his pacing was unsettling the lad and he sat down again. It was time to be frank.
"Mr. Kennedy," he said carefully. "If yourself and Mr. Hornblower have had er difficulties on board Justinian I need to know about them. Very soon we will be sailing into battle. We need to know that all our officers, however junior, will be operating at their peak of ability. Otherwise, men's lives will be put in danger."
He was being unfair he knew. Loading a young head with too much responsibility. But he had to break down the boy's defences somehow.
The head came up.
"I swear we will both do our duty Sir. The person who caused us trouble has not transferred to the Indefatigable."
Mr. Bracegirdle took the bull by its horns.
"Describe this person to me Mr. Kennedy. I will have to make some sort of report back to the Captain but, believe me, you can trust my discretion."
The boy looked down again. He took a deep breath and, it seemed, a momentous decision. He looked directly at Mr. Bracegirdle.
"He was much older than us Sir," the boy began, again almost in a whisper. "It was not like here. He ruled the midshipman's berth. We were all terrified of him. No-one could stop him. He hated Horatio, Mr. Hornblower, because he was clever and tried to stand up to him Sir."
Mr. Bracegirdle winced. He could well picture the situation. These youngsters in the hands of some embittered older midshipman who was free to misuse his power as senior warrant officer.
"Tell me how Mr. Hornblower tried to 'stand up to him'?"
The boy sighed.
"Well Sir, first of all this person - tried to break Horatio by depriving him of sleep. He would make me wake him up every half hour. He forced Mr. Hornblower to do things in front of the other midshipmen. Things to make him look silly like reciting poetry. If he didn't do them, the, the toadies would surround him and he would be punished with a dirk scabbard. "
Mr. Bracegirdle waited.
"And then one day Sir," the boy continued, "we were doing navigation lessons with Mr. Bowles, who's transferred here too."
Mr. Bracegirdle nodded.
"The Captain came Sir and checked our answers to a problem set by Mr. Bowles. Horatio was the only midshipman to get the problem right. The Captain particularly made fun of Simp of the person. Horatio knew that he would be beaten. He seemed to be so depressed he didn't care. That night an 'inquisition' was set up and the, the toadies stretched Horatio over the table and, turned him round to face ."
The boy broke off and Mr. Bracegirdle noticed that his hands were trembling.
"It's alright Mr. Kennedy." The lieutenant tried to remain calm and encouraging, although he felt a cold fury welling up inside him. "Please continue."
"The person kept asking Horatio questions Sir that he had to answer. Then he saw a medallion around Horatio's neck. It was of his mother. He snatched it off and said something about her .."
The boy gulped.
"Horatio's mother had died Sir when he was six. It was all he had of her."
Another gulp. Another deep breath.
"Horatio was so furious that he seemed to get strength from nowhere Sir. He leapt up from his captors and head-butted Simp the person. But he was no match for him and he was beaten insensible. His face was banged against the table over and over, he was kicked again and again but Horatio wouldn't stay down. He could have died "
Mr. Bracegirdle knew there was a question he had to ask and guessed that it might be painful for the boy to answer.
"Who put a stop to it in the end Mr. Kennedy?"
"It wasn't me Sir. It should have been me. But I didn't move a muscle. One of the better midshipmen, Clayton, stopped him by threatening him with a pistol."
Mr. Bracegirdle decided to leave that where it was for the moment.
"Was the person charged after the incident?"
A bitter laugh.
"Who would charge him Sir? Horatio was punished for fighting though. The wounds on his face were only too obvious. He was hung in the rigging for two hours in the pouring rain. None of us could say what had really happened. Later on, he challenged the person to a duel, but Clayton knocked Horatio out and fought it instead. He died."
Mr. Bracegirdle took a very deep breath. He could hardly believe the litany of tragedy and despair that these two youngsters had suffered. But he knew there was still something else.
"I didn't move a muscle," the boy had said scathingly of himself.
"Mr. Kennedy," he said. "You have told me how this man bullied Mr. Hornblower. Did he not bully you as well?"
The boy moved his hand across his face. His voice fell to a whisper again.
"I was on the Justinian six months before Horatio arrived. I was the youngest midshipman there. Oh yes, he bullied me alright."
Mr. Bracegirdle felt he was getting to the crux of the matter, and he realized he was reluctant to proceed. But it had to be done.
"Mr. Kennedy," he said quietly, almost holding his breath. "How did he bully you?"
The boy flinched.
"First of all, it was like with Horatio."
His voice had become so low that Mr. Bracegirdle had to lean towards the boy to hear him.
"He kept taunting and beating me Sir. But then he started saying that I looked like a girl and and ..
The boy threw a look of total panic at Mr. Bracegirdle.
The lieutenant took a sharp intake of breath. So that was it. That was the demon in the bottle. Instinctively he placed a hand on the boy's shoulder, and was appalled that this innocent contact caused Kennedy to flinch.
"When Mr. Hornblower came, did you tell him?"
The look of panic intensified.
"Oh no Sir. The man had gone briefly to do his Lieutenant's exam. But he failed it. Horatio was two weeks on Justinian before he came back."
The boy suddenly stood up.
"Horatio must never know, Sir. How could he be friends with me knowing. But he did know something was wrong because of the fits."
Mr. Bracegirdle sighed. There was more misery here?
"Alright Mr. Kennedy. Please sit down again. Tell me about the fits."
"Sometimes I have these fits Sir. Horatio is the son of a doctor. He helps me to come out of them."
"Have you had them here on Indefatigable?"
"No Sir. It was the person who brought them on. I'd never had them before."
Against his better judgement, Bracegirdle began to pace again. He had to put his mind into some kind of order.
"Mr. Kennedy," he said, sitting across from the boy again. "Why did you not report this man to your Captain?"
The boy sighed.
"After the first - time - I said I would report him Sir. But he laughed. He said if I did that he would deny it and say I was trying to lead him on. Then I would be hung. After that I was too ashamed and too frightened Sir."
Mr. Bracegirdle came to a decision. It was imperative that the boy be given a proper chance to pursue his naval career.
"You have been through horrifying ordeals Mr. Kennedy," he said. "But now you are safe here on the Indefatigable. This man can no longer touch you here. If anybody were to make any such approach to you, you are to inform me immediately. Do you understand?"
"I have to make a report to the Captain about you. I will mention that yourself and Mr. Hornblower were bullied by this man and that you are both recovering from the ordeal. That is as far as my report will go, unless you specifically want it otherwise."
Mr. Bracegirdle saw another emotion in the candid blue eyes hope. Hope for a future that could redeem a past.
"Thank you Sir"
The lieutenant continued:
"Unfortunately Mr. Kennedy you are not the first youngster who has suffered in this way in the Navy. But rest assured, none of this is your fault. I respect that you do not wish to tell Mr. Hornblower, but, if he is the true friend you say, it wouldn't make any difference to your friendship. You are now on a fine ship with a fine Captain and no harm will come to you here."
"Thank you Sir," whispered the boy, tears at last pricking his eyes. "All I want is a chance to prove myself."
Mr. Bracegirdle smiled at his midshipman.
"I think you've already done that lad," he said quietly.