Red Sky at Morning, part 5
by Sarah B.
The prisoner was asleep.
Michael St. John, the middle-aged surgeon of His Majesty's frigate the Courageous, gathered up his sewing kit, damp cloths and bloodied rags and made ready to depart the small and cramped brig he'd been in for the last untold number of hours. The prisoner was asleep, and the doctor's job was done, for now.
But soon he would have more work, and he dreaded it, for Michael St. John hated the Courageous and her officers, and hated the work he had to do. But knew it needed to be done, and so did his duty.
It wasn't easy, getting the prisoner to sleep. St. John paused as he stood, stretched out sore muscles made stiff by sitting in one position so long. As soon as the tall officer from the other ship - Horatio, was it? - had left, the prisoner had slumped in the farthest corner he could find, away from St. John and Morgan and any human contact. Morgan had just stared at him with cold eyes and said to St. John, "Clean him up. I won't have anyone saying he was ill-treated while he was on board my ship." And then Morgan had turned on his heel and left, a pall of anger in his wake like a black cloud.
At first St. John had thought to leave too. The prisoner was cleaned up enough, anyway he wasn't bleeding anymore, and he was shackled hand and foot, with the end of the chain fastened to a large iron ring in the wall, so he wasn't going to escape. And, to be honest, it depressed St. John to look at him; the few times he'd made eye contact with the prisoner he saw pain in those blue eyes, pain that was sharp and screaming and much too close to the surface for St. John's tastes.
He knew never to get involved. He knew never to ask names, or say more than was needed to calm the patient down so he could do his work. So when he saw this prisoner's eyes, he knew he would have to leave very soon, or risk losing everything.
So, he had planned on leaving. The prisoner had remained jammed into that corner for a long time, although St. John knew he wasn't asleep; he could see the prisoner's eyes, they were staring at the wall, but they were blank and unfocused, as if he were in shock. And maybe he was - a lot of times the men St. John saw were in shock, sometimes they cried, sometimes they tried to kill him if he came close. This one, if he heard the name right...he had fits of some kind. Poor devil.
Don't get involved. It's none of your concern.
But still, St. John had mused as he quietly backed out of that small space, still you had to feel sorry for him. Probably didn't have a lot of friends, and just chased off the only one who cared enough to save his life. Not that he could save his life...if Morgan wanted this one hanged, it was as good as done, and that was a fact. He'd killed someone, had confessed to it, and that was the end of it. And if there was more to it...
Never mind. There was no more to it. No, not if one valued one's life there wasn't. That was a fact, too.
So when an hour or two had passed, and finally the prisoner's eyes had closed, St. John guessed he was asleep. It was time for him to go also, get some sleep. Then it would be: get up a few hours later, get some breakfast, see if anyone was in the sickbay, do his job.
Keep his mouth shut, and do his job.
And so St. John had put one hand on the heavy oak door with the barred window, and was ready to leave. He risked one last glance, saw the prisoner huddled in the corner, small and helpless and alone, a spot of light-colored clothing streaked with blood against the filthy dark room that would be the last home he would ever know.
And St. John had wished there could be redemption for this one, and resented that he still had emotions to make such vain appeals with. He knew how it would end, how it always ended. This time would be no different.
Then St. John had opened the door, and the tall dark-haired officer named Horatio was standing there.
St. John was amazed. He thought after the argument between them that this young man would abandon the prisoner to his own devices; after all, as of this moment they had nothing in common, the prisoner was heading for the hangman's noose, while this one - well, hadn't Morgan put his arm around him and almost called him friend? You could go far with friends like Morgan, no need to continue associating with rabble. Yet here he was.
The tall officer looked at St. John and said, "Captain Morgan tells me you're the ship's surgeon." He said it very quietly.
"Well, I suppose I am," St. John had replied, a little more brusquely than he intended to, but he couldn't figure out why this tall, proud officer was still bothering with the prisoner, when there was Morgan's friendship to be had. It didn't make sense.
The officer tilted his head, as if trying to see around St. John and into the brig. Immediately he asked, "How is he?"
"Oh, he's all right," St. John answered, mindful that Morgan did not want any ill treatment known. "He's banged up a bit, but I got him sewn up, and he's asleep right now."
The officer nodded, and it was then that St. John noticed how haggard he looked. "Have you been here all this time?"
"No sir," the officer responded - called him sir! - "No, I returned to my ship, but I have an obligation to my shipmate that I must see to before I rest."
"Oh?" St. John responded, marvelling again that this youth would stave off sleep - which he badly needed, by the looks of him - to come back and see his friend, who was going to hang for murder. "Well, like I said, he's asleep, so - "
"Would you give him this when he awakens?" The officer interrupted, and pressed something into St. John's hands.
He looked down. It was a book. He quickly checked the spine: A Complete History of Naval Combat Strategies ..
"He was most interested in completing it," the officer said in halting, soft tones, "and I need it back, so I am equally anxious that he finish it as soon as possible."
St. John hoped he didn't look too stupid, but this whole exchange was amazing him, so he simply nodded. "I'll give it to the prisoner when he wakes up, aye, sir."
The officer nodded, took a step away, was almost just a shadow in the gloom of the belowdecks. Then he paused, took a deep breath and said quietly, "Of course it, it may be nothing, it may not happen, but he ... " and here the officer stopped, and took another breath, then continued. "He sometimes has...there are times when the darkness troubles him, and he succumbs to fits."
Fits, the word almost sounded like a sob coming from this young man. Very strange.
St. John waited, and the young officer looked at him with fearful eyes. "If you take his hand and speak in soothing tones, the fit diminishes and goes away."
St. John looked into those anguished eyes, knew why the young officer was telling him this. Thought, no you don't, don't get involved, who cares if that boy has a fit and chokes to death? Morgan's marked him to die anyway. Don't you dare...
Then St. John found himself nodding, and saying, "Don't worry, sir. I'll take care of him."
The young officer had smiled then, relaxed visibly and smiled. "Thank you," he said, and it was sincere, St. John could tell. And then the officer had left.
And Michael St. John had watched him go, turned the book over in his hands and thought. Thought about how strange this was, how it wasn't like it had been before, how this prisoner had someone who still wanted to fight for him. Of course, the officer would lose. If you went up against Morgan, you always lost. But still...
He came over here, rather than get some sleep.
He begged me to watch over his friend, so he wouldn't be troubled by those fits.
He called me 'sir', and trusted me.
And so that was how St. John had decided, against years of experience and every sensible voice in his graying head, to go back into the brig, and sit watch over the prisoner until the sun came up, and it was time to go to work.
"It's an outrage, sir. A damnable outrage!"
Captain Morgan bellowed the words as he paced around his spacious cabin, glaring at Captain Pellew as he spoke. Pellew looked at the floor thoughtfully, listening to the low rumble of thunder as the Courageous rolled beneath his feet, and rain pattered at the small paned windows. Outside, and up top, the crew was stirring to begin the day's work; soon the news of Lieutenant Creps' murder would spread, and the day would continue as it had begun, in thunder and lightning. The weather is fitting, Pellew thought as he glanced out the window at the leaden sky; very fitting indeed.
"He was one of my best officers." Morgan lamented as he continued to pace around the cabin. "Bright, promising. He wrote his mother every day. And now murdered. What kind of a world are we living in, Edward?" Morgan shook his head and sighed. "Sometimes I don't know anymore."
Pellew raised his deep brown eyes to his friend. "My deepest sympathies for your loss, Julius. It is never easy to lose one of your men, regardless of the circumstances."
Morgan shook his head again, wider this time, and strode over to a decanter of brandy that was sitting on his desk. "I can't believe it, Edward. What was the navy thinking, letting that boy put on a uniform? Anyone would have known to look at him he would cause trouble one day."
"Hardly, sir," Pellew spoke up as Morgan poured them each a glass of brandy, "Mr. Kennedy has up until this point been a fine and able officer. I am saddened to think him capable of doing such a terrible thing."
"Huh!" Morgan put the decanter down and picked up the glasses, walking to Pellew as he spoke. "You sure know how to talk, Edward. Put the most diplomatic angle on things. Well, put it as prettily as you please, the boy's dangerous and you should have put him to shore as soon as you found out he was unfit."
"That is not my way, Julius," Pellew replied softly as he took the glass, "I try to give all my men an even chance at proving themselves, whatever their...challenges in life."
"Yes, and look where it's got you!" Morgan barked, walking over to his desk and sitting down in the chair. "Look, Edward, I know you always had the soft heart where the men are concerned but I honestly don't think it's doing you any good. A soft heart won't get you a fine crew like mine, or a ship that can boast more prize money than any in the navy." His eye fell to something lying on the desk, and he smiled and picked it up. "And it wasn't a soft heart that won me this prize, either."
He handed the object to Pellew, who walked over to the desk and took it. It was a small portrait of a beautiful woman with amethyst eyes and honey-colored hair. Pellew recognized the image immediately and said softly, "Elise."
"Ah, that's a good memory you've got, Edward," Morgan sighed, leaning back in his chair and smiling broadly. "Must have been twenty years since you've seen her. Yes indeed, my lovely wife Elise, now she could have been yours if you'd had the right kind of boldness. But it was always duty first with you, never had time to court the ladies, eh?"
Pellew didn't take his eyes off the exquisitely painted medallion. "She's still beautiful."
"Of course." Morgan said, sitting up again and taking the medallion from Pellew's hand. Staring at it a second, he sniffed and said, "Er, well, she has aged some since this was done, acquired some wrinkles and so on, but that's city living for you. She looks good enough in the dark, eh?" He grinned and set the medallion aside on a pile of papers, then tapped the stack and said, "Oh, by the way, did you get this yet?"
Pellew peered at the writing, recognized it and said, "A message from Admiral Hood?"
Morgan nodded and sighed. "Apparently he's heard of some of our ships being lost on missions around Spain. Lost in a way that suggests the enemy knew they were coming."
Pellew's eyebrows raised. "The Admiral suspects a traitor?"
Morgan nodded. "You'll probably get one of these too, he's sending a message to all of the captains, and sending dispatches to all the ships in the fleet. He's having the diplomats secretly watched too, but keep that under your hat."
Pellew's eyes jumped to Morgan in curiosity. "How do you know all this?"
Morgan smiled a little, and raised his glass to take another drink. "Connections. One of the advantages of being ambitious. Anyway, it's just a short letter telling all the captains to watch their men, you know, the ones from the press gangs and other ones."
Pellew didn't like the way Morgan said 'other ones'. "Julius, I hardly think now is the time to discuss the possibility of Mr. Kennedy being a traitor."
"Why not?" Morgan shrugged. "He's a murderer, I've been told he spent a lot of time in a Spanish prison. He could be a spy."
"Or it could be someone from your ship." Pellew replied, somewhat rankled by Morgan's assumption.
"Oh, please!" Morgan retorted, "My men are the finest in the fleet. They make too much money from captured ships to be bribed by the Spanish, or anyone else. Besides, most of the ships we capture are Spanish. If I've got a traitor on board, he's pretty lousy at warning the Spanish not to lose their own ships."
Pellew made a deliberately impatient face. Morgan was getting off the subject.
"In any case," Morgan said, his eyes telling Pellew he'd gotten the hint, "my point is that we mustn't coddle these men. Kennedy is a menace, to himself and the fleet. We must think of the safety of the navy, and see that justice is done."
Pellew hesitated before taking a drink out of his glass. "Whatever Mr. Kennedy's failing, I have seen nothing in his nature that would even hint at any temper at all, let alone a murderous one. I must talk to him as soon as possible."
Morgan stood up, picked up his brandy glass and shrugged. "Fine, whenever you want. He's down in the brig."
Pellew nodded his satisfaction and continued, "And when the court-martial convenes, I will need to know exactly what you saw, so we can determine how Mr. Kennedy came to take such leave of his senses."
"Hmph!" Morgan had been taking another drink of brandy, and lowered his glass quickly to swallow it with a sardonic smile. "Yes, Edward, that was exactly it! As I've said, that boy's known for having fits, and I imagine he had some sort of attack while in Creps' company and - well - " Morgan took another drink, stared out at the pouring rain and shook his head. "Damn shame."
Pellew pursed his lips, glanced down at the stains on Morgan's clothes. "Did you see Mr. Kennedy strike Lieutenant Creps?"
Morgan thought a moment, shook his head. "I came up right after. There's a stairway down the side of the tavern, with a landing at the bottom, which is pretty well hidden from the street and the courtyard. That's where Creps was killed."
Pellew nodded. "But you didn't see it happen?"
Morgan's face darkened as he shook his head. "When I went down the steps, I heard some arguing, but it was quiet. Then I turned the corner, and your Mr. Kennedy had Creps up against the wall and had one fist in his gut. It almost - " He paused, swirled the brandy in his glass. " - it almost looked, well, indecent if you get my drift. Surely you've heard the stories about - "
"I'm not interested in gossip, Julius." Pellew snapped. "I'm interested in getting justice for whoever needs it. What happened then?"
Morgan made a disgusted face. "When Kennedy saw me, he drew his hand back and there was a knife in it. I yelled to alert my men to what had happened, ran to see to Creps, and...well, you know the rest." He shrugged and took another drink.
Pellew sighed and closed his eyes impatiently. "Please pretend I don't."
Morgan lowered the glass, thought a moment. "Creps was dead. Three or four of the officers grabbed Kennedy, but he seemed kind of dazed, that's what makes me think he had one of those fits. Then they hauled him here. Would have hanged him on the spot if I hadn't stepped in."
Pellew's eyebrow went up. "My thanks for that, Julius."
Morgan shrugged. "Merely doing my duty as an officer. That little whelp took the life of one of my men, and I'll be damned if I let him just hang for it without going through the shame of a court-martial first."
Pellew nodded, set the brandy glass down with a soft sigh of regret. "We'll convene the tribunal at Admiral Hood's earliest opportunity. I am certain His Majesty would want this matter conducted as swiftly and quietly as possible." He paused before looking at Morgan in puzzlement. "I must say, Julius, that I still cannot believe Mr. Kennedy would take another's life in such a vain and ruthless manner. I rather believe he would die himself before performing such an act."
Morgan's eyebrows went up as he studied the burgundy-colored liquid in his glass. "That's the second time I've heard such a glowing testament to Kennedy's character. If he weren't a murderer, I daresay he could get himself elected to Parliament with such friends."
Pellew regarded his friend with mild surprise. "Who else have you spoken to about this?"
"That young hotspur of yours, Hornblower," Morgan replied as he turned to pour himself some more brandy. "He was at my side not thirty seconds after Creps breathed his last, pleading Kennedy's case."
Pellew looked at the floor once again, his eyes clouded with foreboding. "That does not surprise me. He and Mr. Kennedy transfered to my ship as midshipmen together. Doubtless this is a great shock to him also."
"Hm." Morgan poured some more brandy, straightened his back and looked at Pellew meaningfully. "Well, he'll get over it. Not to change the subject, but that Hornblower's a fine buck, Pellew. He's the kind of man to model your crew upon. He'll make a top-rate captain someday, maybe even higher than that."
Pellew nodded, allowed himself a small smile. "He's one of my best officers. I have high hopes for his future. Would that his present were not so visited by tragedy."
"That's not his fault," Morgan said as he raised his glass to study the color of the liquor. "It's the weakening influence of men like Kennedy, brings everyone down. Hornblower won't like it when Kennedy is convicted and hanged, but it must be done to ensure a stronger England. He'll learn the way of things eventually." Seeing Pellew's solemn look, Morgan put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Now Edward, I know it isn't your way of thinking, but it's the truth. It's the strong that win, not the weak. It's the men that go out and take what they want that succeed, that have the boldness to risk everything to live life to its fullest. Hornblower's a romantic youth now, and he's foolish enough to make friends with anybody. He simply needs to learn what to do when those friends become deadweights on his career, like Kennedy has."
Pellew had been gazing at the little portrait on the desk, and tilted his head to voice the question Morgan wanted him to ask. "And what precisely does one do, Julius?"
Morgan's smile was wide and just a little covetous. "One makes new friends," he replied, and drained the glass.
Elise woke at dawn, and he was not there.
She rolled over in the large bed, wondered at how rested she felt, and remembered that she had fallen asleep waiting for her husband to come home. She glanced over to his side of their bed; it was empty and unslept in.
She was puzzled, but the day was swiftly coming. She rose to take her breakfast.
The floor was cold, she put her slippers on and draped her elegant dressing gown over her shoulders. She brushed her hair, looked at her face in the mirror, rested and a little puffy. I look younger, she thought, knowing it was only an illusion.
Her youth was gone, squandered and misspent. There was only the present, and the stolen moment's victory of a good night's sleep. A hollow victory; tonight he come home for certain. And she had nowhere to go.
The bedroom window was open, and there were songbirds outside in the trees. Elise listened to them as she brushed her hair, thought of a bird she had as a young girl, one she kept in a cage until she couldn't bear the thought of the little creature missing its friends and let it go. It was a rare bird, a very expensive pet, and her father was angry about it. He'd struck her, and she didn't understand because she was trying to be kind -
The door to Elise's bedroom opened, and she started, almost dropped the brush, but it was only her maidservant Violet with the breakfast tray. Usually the young girl was smiling, but this morning she looked pale, and no sooner had she entered the room when she blurted out, "Oh, miss! Have you heard what's happened?"
A bolt of hope shot through Elise as she thought, he's dead. But no, that could not be, no one could kill the great Captain Julius Morgan. No one would dare take the risk. So she put the brush down and asked, "What is it, Violet?"
"Oh, the most horrible thing," the girl gasped as she set the tray down and set about preparing the tea. "Someone was murdered at the Peddler's Pig last night!"
Elise's eyes flashed up at her maid, and the girl threw her hands up and stuttered, "Oh no, ma'am, not your husband, I'm sorry to frighten you, I'm such a stupid goose! It was just a shock, that's usually such a nice place to go."
Elise cast her eyes down, ashamed of the joy that might have slipped out of her soul and shown itself to Violet. "Who was it then?" she asked.
"A leftenant off the Courageous," Violet answered as she continued preparing the tea. "Stabbed right on the stairway, right where my fella Jack and me had a kiss last week. It's the perfect place, no one can see you at all. Anyway, I got a message about a half hour ago to tell you as soon as you woke that your husband was on board his ship all night settlin' the matter, and will be home this afternoon."
Home this afternoon. Elise stared at the wallpaper and said nothing.
Violet poured the tea into a delicate china cup and nattered on. "Jack's friend Terry cleans up at the Pig, and he told me all about what happened last night. Said he's never seen the Captain so angry, that the Captain told somebody he saw the whole thing."
Elise's eyes flickered over. "He did?"
Violet nodded, her blue eyes big as saucers. "The leftenant was stabbed with this huge knife, and he bled all over the stairs and the captain, who showed up right after. Caught the killer with the weapon still in his hand and shakin' like he was fit to fly apart. Least that's what Terry told me."
Elise shut her eyes and tried to care.
"Oh, and I didn't tell you who the murderer turned out to be," Violet said in a cheerful chatter as she stirred some sugar into the tea. "Seems he was some half-wit middie from another ship, Terry thinks he might have been trying to - well, he didn't tell me, said I didn't need to know such things, but I've heard the kinds of things some sailors like to do, and I can bloody well guess."
Elise pursed her lips and said, "Violet, please watch your language."
"Ooh, sorry, ma'am," Violet said quietly, "I'm still a bit excited I suppose. Anyway, they hauled him off in irons to the Courageous and Jack told me they'll be hangin' him by the end of the week."
Elise sighed and held out her hand for the tea Violet was nearly done preparing. When did talk about death and hanging and murder fail to stir her? She didn't even feel sorry for the dead man, and once she had passion enough for the world and the moon. But now, nothing. I am dead too, she thought, and could not even care about that.
"It's a shame I suppose," Violet nattered on as she pulled the porcelain cover from the plate of toast, "I talked to Angie, she's one of the serving girls, and she remembered that middie, said she served him some ale just an hour before. Told me she'd never have pegged him for a murderer, said he was right kind and had the loveliest blue eyes she'd ever seen 'cept they were kind of sad..."
"That's enough, Violet," Elise said, a little sharper than she meant to. "I want no more ill news today."
"Yes, ma'am," Violet said. and finished setting up the tray. Then before she took another breath she said, "Captain Morgan said if you need him he'll either be on his ship or the other one, where the middie was serving before he - well, before."
"What ship is that?" Elise asked as she reached for the toast.
"Ooh, I knew you'd ask me and I don't remember," Violet whined softly, "It was some long word, Indelible, Indetachable, Indefeatable?"
Elise's hand stopped. "Not Indefatigable?"
"Oh!" Violet almost jumped. "Yes, that's it. Funny name, isn't it?"
"The midshipman was from the Indefatigable?"
Elise pulled her hand back and stared at the tray.
"Oh," Violet said again and reached into her apron, "The boy who came from the Courageous this morning had this for you too. It's from the Captain, I think."
Elise blinked, said before she thought: "The Captain of the Indefatigable?"
Violet started a little, looked puzzled but smiled. "No, ma'am, the Captain. Your husband."
Elise gasped, shook her head a bit as if to say, of course. Reached her hand out and took the crisply folded letter with its wax seal. "Thank you, Violet."
"Yes, ma'am," the girl said, "I'll go draw your bath."
Elise waited until Violet had left the room to break the seal on the note and read it. There was no greeting, simply the words:
Ruined my best clean uniform this morning, I'm sending it home, make sure the laundress gets the stains out. Will be all day making sure the little wretch that cost me a night of release pays for it, he's in the cage now. Come to the ship for tea, and wear your lowest-cut dress. Pellew is here and I want him to see what he's missing. Make yourself presentable, and for God's sake don't embarrass me.
Elise folded the note back up very carefully and placed it on the breakfast tray. She stared at it for a few moments, and listened to the birds singing outside her window. Then she picked up her tea and drank it slowly as she wiped tears from her eyes, and thought of chains. And cages.
Oldroyd studied the rigging he was mending, made a face and looked up at his mates. He was confused, and they weren't helping.
The belowdecks of the Indefatigable were the best place to be in bad weather like this, with the rain coming down and thunder booming overhead like a great cannon. Yes, enough lamps burning, some music going on somewhere, and something to keep your hands busy - a girl would be fine, but some work was all right too, in a pinch - and life was just fine.
Well, most days it was fine. Today it wasn't fine at all. The place was quieter than usual, and everybody, especially his workmates, had these sour, hangdog expressions on. Nobody was saying anything about what had happened with Mr. Kennedy, but Oldroyd knew that's what they were thinking about.
Except just thinking wasn't enough for Oldroyd. He wanted to talk about it. So he did.
"Who would have thunk it, eh?" he asked Styles and Matthews, who were sitting with him mending the same pile of rigging. "I mean - you live with a mate, you think he couldn't hurt nobody, and then boom!" He looked around, then leaned toward Styles. "It could have been us, you know. I bet he didn't know who he was even killin'."
Styles pushed him away in irritation, glanced about him nervously, then went back to his work. "Stop it, Oldroyd. We don't need that kind of talk."
Oldroyd shrugged, undaunted. "Well, I mean, nothin' against Mr. Kennedy, he were - well, he were all right and all that, but - but I mean - " He looked around again, then dropped his voice to a whisper. "After Simpson got hold of him, it seemed like he weren't all there anymore, dinnit? You know, them fits and everything?"
This time it was Matthews who looked up sternly, his grizzled face dark even in the bright lamplight. Before he could say anything, however, Oldroyd plowed ahead, cutting off any objection. "And then in the prison, tryin' to kill hisself? And back on that bridge, he sort of - went off, dint he?"
Matthews and Styles glanced at each other, then both went back to their mending. Behind them somewhere, the music stopped for a few moments, and the room became a little quieter. Almost under his breath Matthews said, "He saved Mr. Hornblower's life, that's all I've got to say about it."
"Aye." Styles agreed.
"Well - well, sure he did," Oldroyd whined, because he really wanted his mates to agree with him, but the way they were acting he couldn't tell if they did or not, "And that's all right, but - still, there was always something kind of odd about him, wadn't there? And mebbe - mebbe that's how come he killed that officer?"
The other two men were silent, going about their work like Oldroyd hadn't said anything. Huffing in frustration, the young man decided to change the subject, a little, and asked, "You s'pose they'll hang 'im?"
Matthew's brow furrowed, and he frowned reflexively before saying, "Too early for that kind of talk."
"Stow it, Oldroyd," Styles growled, giving the youth a less friendly stare than before.
"Or firing squad mebbe?" Oldroyd pressed, ignoring the bits of rope that were lying untended in his hands. "I mean - he done it, so they'll have to do something, won't they?" He stopped a moment and thought. "Wadn't there an old law that if you did murder they tied you to the body and threw you in the sea, or buried you alive wit' it? You s'pose maybe that's what - "
Styles reached across the pile of rigging and smacked Oldroyd on the shoulder as hard as he could.
"Keep your mouth shut, you great bloody idiot," he hissed. Oldroyd was shocked, and in a lot of pain, but saw that Styles was looking not at him, but at something over his shoulder. So, curious, Oldroyd turned around and looked.
Behind them, at one of the nearby tables, Mr. Bracegirdle was sitting going over some log books with another officer. The other officer was Mr. Hornblower. And they were both close enough to hear what Oldroyd had been saying.
Rubbing his smarting arm, Oldroyd turned back around and didn't look at his mates again, instead turning his eyes to the rope in his hands, and hoping his face wasn't turning too red.
Matthews just went back to his work, but Styles gave the younger man an angry, warning look.
"Bloody idiot." He said softly, with just a tinge of pity. Then the three men continued mending the rigging in uneasy silence.
Bracegirdle scanned the figures in the book in front of him, frowning at the numbers that didn't make sense in the low lamplight of the belowdecks. Wondering how Horatio was coming with balancing the ship's store logs, Bracegirdle lifted his head to glance across the table and was about to ask. Then he saw the look on the young man's face and changed his mind.
Horatio wasn't looking at the open ledger in front of him; instead, his head was tilted a bit toward the backs of his crew, who were sitting together some yards away repairing some frayed rigging. They were talking more than working, though, and Bracegirdle had caught enough of their words to know what the subject of their conversation was.
And Hornblower had heard it too, damn it.
He should have gotten more sleep, Bracegirdle thought. Well, he'd gotten a couple of hours at any rate; Bracegirdle himself had gone to wake him up just after Captain Pellew left for the Courageous. He'd hated to wake the sleeping lieutenant, but Pellew had been adamant, if not enthusiastic, in his orders: see that Mr. Hornblower is occupied, Mr. Bracegirdle. He has duties this morning, and he is aware of them.
And Horatio was trying to see to them, really he was, but he was not only tired but distracted and frayed at the edges. His shirt wasn't even buttoned correctly.
Bracegirdle shook his head. It was shocking enough to report for duty only to be told that one of your lieutenants was in the brig for murder, but the real shock was the effect the previous night had had on the young man sitting across from him. Hornblower was such a sensitive lad, every worry sat plain on his visage like a signal flag: drawn face, pale skin, dark circles under the eyes, and they did not come just from lack of sleep. They came from hearing words like 'murder' and 'hang'. And 'firing squad'.
Bracegirdle felt a small surge of anger. First Muzillac, and now this. There simply wasn't any justice. Clearing his throat a little, he said quietly, "Mr. Hornblower?"
Horatio snapped his head around, and Bracegirdle saw him trying to wipe the melancholy from his features. "Yes, sir?"
Bracegirdle smiled a little. "How are you coming there, with the logs?"
"Oh - " Horatio looked down at them in bleary confusion. "I apologize, sir, not very well. It's - I'm usually quite good with figures - "
Bracegirdle shook his head compassionately, indicating the huddled crew beyond them. "Don't pay their chatter any mind, my boy. It's all just idle speculation, coming from idle minds."
Horatio looked at his crew again, and sighed. "I suppose." He paused, then said, "Mr. Bracegirdle?"
"Yes, my boy?" Bracegirdle replied, looking down at the books again.
"I must apologize for my shameful lack of attention."
Bracegirdle looked back up, and he let his voice go softer. "Worried about Mr. Kennedy, eh?"
Horatio nodded a bit, then shook his head firmly. "I don't understand it. How could he be admitting to a murder he couldn't possibly have committed."
Bracegirdle sighed and pushed the book away a little. "I must admit I don't understand it either. He was fine when I left him."
Horatio tilted his head. "You talked to him last night?"
"Yes, we were with the other officers, having dinner. He wasn't though; just some ale."
Horatio sat for a moment, then said, "And when you left, he wasn't upset, or angry?"
Bracegirdle shrugged. "Not that I saw. He seemed kind of distracted, after he came back from the courtyard. He asked where you were, if you were coming, seemed to want to know that."
Horatio's eyebrows came together in puzzlement. "Why?"
"I don't know."
Horatio leaned forward on the table. "You said he was in the courtyard?"
Bracegirdle nodded. "The man that was killed, Lieutenant Creps, invited him out there with the other officers from the Courageous."
Horatio stroked his chin. "Yes, Matthews said something about that...said they were a bad lot, that they were friends of Simpson's."
"Simpson?" Bracegirdle didn't hide his dislike for the name. "Well, in that case I can see how your crewman would call them trouble. Mr. Kennedy certainly didn't spend more time with them than he had to. Their captain is, pardon my liberty, rather a braggart, fond of brandy and money, and they follow suit. Captain Morgan." Bracegirdle shook his head at the name, as if he'd just remembered it. "Not every man's type of seaman, I suppose."
"But he's a friend of the captain's, isn't he? He was on the Indy last night."
"Was he?" Bracegirdle was surprised. "Oh, well, maybe that's not so unusual. Yes, as I recall he and our illustrious captain do have a history together, friends in the lower ranks and all that. Come to think of it..." Bracegirdle peered into the rafters a moment. "I believe Morgan's wife was once Pellew's sweetheart, but I shouldn't say that since I'm not certain."
Horatio's expression told Bracegirdle he hadn't even heard the last words of what the senior officer had said. Staring at him keenly, the youth asked, "Do you suppose Morgan would grant Archie any leniency, out of respect for the captain?"
"Hm," Bracegirdle considered this. "Maybe, but I wouldn't count on it. Captain Morgan is very influential, and the gossip is he has his hands in more than a few magistrate's pockets. If Mr. Kennedy's confessed, I'm afraid Morgan will make sure he hangs."
"Even if Mr. Kennedy is innocent?" Horatio shot back. "What if someone could convince Captain Morgan that he has the wrong man?"
"'Someone'?" Bracegirdle teased gently. Then he saw the worry in Horatio's eyes, and sobered. "Captain Morgan is powerful, but so far as I know not unreasonable. Do you have a persuasive argument?"
Horatio looked at the splintered table, and reluctantly shook his head. "Only my certain knowledge that what happened last night couldn't have been the way it appears. There must be something else. If only Archie would tell me what it is!"
"Mr. Kennedy won't talk to you?"
Horatio sighed in exasperation and shook his head. "Only to damn himself in every syllable he utters, and take the blame for every wrong in the world. At least that's how he was when they first took him to the Courageous."
"Well, did anyone see what happened?"
Horatio rolled his eyes and shrugged irritably. "Captain Morgan said he saw - something - "
"The captain saw it happen?" Bracegirdle tried not to sound too worried, but it was hard.
"Yes," Horatio admitted, then added almost frantically, "He - he said he saw Archie, with blood on his clothes, and the bloody knife in his hand. But - it couldn't have been as he said, I know it!"
"Easy, lad," the older officer cautioned, "Captain Morgan's not a man to cross or debate with. No use ruffling his feathers and doing Mr. Kennedy more harm than good."
Horatio pursed his lips in frustration, and picked at the wooden table with an aggravated stare.
"Besides," Bracegirdle continued, trying to think of some way to reassure his young friend, "Given some time for sober reflection, Captain Morgan may remember something that would swing the tides of fortune in Mr. Kennedy's favor. Or, Mr. Kennedy himself may repent his words and have new ones, he's surprised us before. Why, he came back quite the hero from Muzillac, and yet I've heard he doubted himself until the last critical moment. And he survived a Spanish prison, no mean feat I assure you, and I understand he was prepared to die when you discovered him there. He may have been condemning himself last night, but this morning may be another matter altogether."
They were almost babbling words, intended by Bracegirdle to shore up his junior officer's flagging spirits, but as he spoke the older man noticed a change in Horatio's expression. In the beginning the youth merely nodded and leaned back, and for what seemed to Bracegirdle a long time simply sat there, staring at the book in front of him but not seeing it. Then a light appeared in Horatio's eyes, a light that had been gone when he sat down but was gradually beginning to burn again, brighter and brighter. By the time Bracegirdle had finished, he could see that Horaito had awakened considerably. The change was so dramatic that Bracegirdle said, "Mr. Hornblower?"
The younger man's eyes gleamed as they locked onto Bracegirdle's, and his voice was sharp with conviction. "Archie's innocent, Mr. Bracegirdle. I'm certain of it, as I'm certain of my own life. He is no more a murderer than you are a cuttlefish."
Bracegirdle allowed himself a small smile at that remark. Then he said, more seriously, "But I thought he'd already confessed."
Horatio shook his head slightly. "He was half-mad with fear, and beaten on top of it. He won't be held to anything he's said under those conditions, not by me and not by a tribunal of court-martial, I'm sure of it."
"Well, I hope you're right." Bracegirdle replied.
Horatio's eyes narrowed as he drummed his fingers on the table. "No, Mr. Bracegirdle, it is you who are right, and I am in your debt for it. Mr. Kennedy was distraught when I spoke to him, unaware of what he was saying, just as he was in the Spanish prison and on the bridge. He came around from those despairs, and I'm sure he'll come around from this one. Once Archie is calmed, and can speak reasonably, I'm certain he'll be more interested in saving himself, and he'll tell me the truth. And I can take that truth to Captain Morgan and win his release."
There was such certainty in Horatio's voice that Bracegirdle had to remind himself that the events Horatio spoke of hadn't happened yet. "You sound confidant Captain Morgan will listen to you. I'm impressed."
Horatio blushed a bit and shrugged. "He seems to think - I might have made some favorable impression - " Obviously embarrassed, Horatio slapped the table and blinked rapidly. "The important thing here is to prevent Mr. Kennedy from condemning himself. There is more to this than we've seen, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let Archie sentence himself to the noose without telling me what it is."
Bracegirdle considered the set look on his young friend's face and thought, well, you wanted him to be occupied, Captain Pellew... "So you're going to talk to Mr. Kennedy again?"
Horatio nodded firmly before his face clouded in thought. "I don't see how, though. He's been taken in irons to the Courageous, and I'm bound to my duties here. Even if I were not, without being on official business - I cannot just announce myself over there as if I were on holiday."
With a sly grin, Bracegirdle reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of thick envelopes.
"You're in luck, Mr. Hornblower. These communications arrived from Admiral Hood this morning, for the captain. I was waiting for one of the midshipmen to take them over to him, but since none have completed their duties yet, and the morning is wearing on..."
Horatio's smile matched Bracegirdle's as he took the dispatches in hand. "Would you excuse me, sir? I will attend to this at onc - "
"Oh - " Bracegirdle yelped, his blue eyes wide with alarm. "Well, you do have to complete your duties as well, sir! The captain will have me flogged if I let you go without balancing the stores."
Horatio's eyebrows shot up, then he looked at the open book before him and nodded. "Aye, sir."
Bracegirdle watched with a small smile as the younger man studiously attended to his chore, swiftly doing the figures with an ambitious, newfound zeal. It's as if he's running across that bridge now, Bracegirdle thought, to pull Kennedy back before the young man blows himself to pieces. If only it would go as smoothly as he hopes. Then he pulled his own book back in front of him, and attended to it once again, to keep the images of a powerful, influential captain testifying at a court-martial, and darker images of hangings and firing squads, as far from his mind as humanly possible.
Dark. It was dark.
No - it couldn't be dark. He hated the dark -
But it was dark, a deep thick darkness where terrible things happened. Archie knew he was alone there, alone except for the nameless dread hunched in the shadows nearby, but he fought to keep calm, it was always the panic that undid him. So he fought the panic, even though he knew it would win again. It always had.
Darkness. Archie tried to breathe, tried to escape the fear that was clutching at his throat, but breathing was painful and the fear was everywhere. He had to get away, had to run, but something was holding him down and he couldn't move. His arms and legs were weighted down, bound, and Archie pulled his fettered limbs as hard as he could. But it was useless.
It would happen again, come again, and he had to get away. Had to run -
Archie felt the fear coming closer, almost consuming him, but still something was holding him back, something more than the cruel iron that circled his arms and legs. He had to run, but he couldn't because -
- help me -
Someone else was there, in worse danger than he was. And Archie had to save him.
I can't, something in him cried, I'll fail, I always do, but still there was that awful realization that someone was counting on him, that he couldn't fail or else all would be lost. So Archie fought against the panic, pushed against the hysteria that threatened to engulf him, and even though it was all darkness and chaos he felt someone clutch onto him, desperate and afraid, and he knew what he had to do
And did it.
It was impossible, Archie was still fettered and it was so dark, but somehow he was running, slipping, falling, then getting up again, running not for him but for the one he was trying to save, had to save from the blackness and the torment and the red, terrible pain. But there was nowhere to go, no way to know if he could escape, and suddenly a huge wave of uncontrollable anguish washed over him, and Archie realized when it had cleared that the one who was looking to him for protection was gone.
Archie flailed in his nightmare, frantic for another chance, but there nothing but a horrible feeling of failure and despair, and he cried out his anguish, but he had no voice and the pain was looming over him, hungry and all-consuming and red as blood, and somewhere in his mind Archie screamed at it, thrashed and swore and railed against it as hard as he could, until there was nothing in his world but the fight and the darkness, and Archie cried out against it and felt himself fall, pulled into that nightmare world where he had no control, no escape, and there was only white-hot agony and something being ripped from him that he'd never get back, and blood, bright red and hot on his hands -
"Here, lad? Hey, what is it?"
He tried to breathe, only managed heaving, useless gulps of air, and the world was splintering, shattering, hurting him, and he only wanted to get away and hide -
"Hey, take it easy! Easy - "
Someone was talking to him, who was it? Not a voice he knew, but it was a lifeline from the dark, and Archie took another huge breath and tried to find it, and his way out.
"There you go son, just take it easy now, it's all right, he said you might be like this. Just take a deep breath now."
Archie felt his way to the voice, grabbed it, pulled himself upward toward it. He breathed deep, and it felt good, sensed a hand on his forehead, not hurting or threatening but soothing, and he felt the world settling down a little.
"That's good, another one now. Just calm down, lad, no one's out to hurt you here. You're safe from all that, just relax now. Just calm down."
Calmer, calmer. Archie felt something solid beneath him. The cot...he rolled over on it and opened his eyes, found himself staring at the ceiling of the Courageous' brig.
A face floated over him, and Archie struggled to focus on it. The doctor. With a sigh, Archie tried to form a question.
The doctor's relieved face answered it for him. "Well, are you all right? You had one of them fits, the officer said you might. I guess I got you out of it well enough, did you rip any of them stitches?"
Archie pulled in a breath, blinked in confusion. "What?"
The doctor stood up. Archie looked around a little, saw the murky interior of his prison, felt the rock of the ship beneath him. Tried to move his hand, and felt the heavy chain that bound him to the wall, and remembered everything.
Shivering, Archie rolled away from the doctor, balled himself up as best he could and closed his eyes. The nightmare was still so close, he could feel the fear, the helplessness, and something else he had to think about for a second
- help me -
then he remembered what it was, and squeezed his eyelids together even tighter against the sudden tightness in his gut, the horrible nauseating loneliness there. No, it was just a nightmare, it wasn't real, but it could have been. But what was real was bad enough. Archie pulled himself in a little tighter. Bad enough.
There was silence behind him, and Archie thought for a moment the doctor had left. The loneliness of his nightmare returned, and with it a peculiar sense of detachment, as if he wasn't connected to himself anymore. Archie sank into that detachment, almost relieved to have something familiar, something he knew. He'd always had that place to go to, a soft corner of his mind where he didn't think or feel. He hadn't been there lately, but perhaps now was a good time to be in that place again. He didn't want to think, didn't want to feel anything anymore, only wanted to spiral down into the black pit that yawned before him, and disappear. How fine it would be to disappear...
Suddenly a soft voice said, "Don't be alarmed, lad, I'm going to check these stitches."
Archie barely heard those words, and didn't understand them until he felt hands on his back, gently pulling up his shirt to where the bandages were. He flinched, a little, but realized this doctor knew how terrified he was at that moment of anyone touching him, and knew to warn him so he would not be frightened. It's as if he's done this before, Archie thought. Impossible - there isn't anybody here like me...
The doctor's hands were kind, and his touch didn't hurt, and after a tense moment Archie folded back into himself again, not caring about what the doctor might find; it was all over anyway. His mind drifted back to the previous evening...his words with Horatio on the Indefatigable...going to the tavern... and then...Archie swallowed hard and squeezed his eyes shut tighter yet. Wrong. It had all gone so wrong, for all of them, but only he had to be punished. Only he
- help me -
Had to pay for his sins. No one else. Please God, no one else.
He would hang. Archie knew it, accepted it, welcomed it almost. It seemed natural somehow, in this stinking hole where it was dark and cramped, that this should be the end of his life. He had failed, as he always suspected he would. No, wait, it wasn't really a failure, he had done what he'd meant to do but -
- oh, it needn't be willingly -
but oh God, why did it have to end this way? Why hadn't they just left him alone? Left Horatio alone? But they had left Horatio alone, he was all right, he would be all right, as long as he stayed away from the ship, away from men whose malevolence Archie knew his friend couldn't begin to imagine. Just as he himself couldn't have imagined it, before Simpson
- Hello, Archie. It's been a long time -
But now knew he would never escape.
Horatio was gone, if he had half a brain and had listened to Archie's plea. Jesus, had he even made sense? Archie didn't remember. But he hoped Horatio had heard him, and would not come back. As much as he would like him to. As much as it would help, to have a friend right now to stand between him and the darkness...
- old Jack's missed you, boy -
Archie shuddered, and at once heard the soft concerned voice at his back. "You all right, son?"
The young man nodded, a little, thought, please leave me alone.
There was a few moments' silence. Then St. John pulled the back of Archie's shirt over the bandages and said quietly, "I saw your captain above, talking to Captain Morgan. They'll be down here in a few minutes to have a look at you."
Archie felt his stomach drop, whispered, "Captain Pellew's here?"
"Aye." St. John said evenly.
"Oh, God," Archie balled himself up a little tighter, felt a painful surge of shame. I can't face him. He didn't know how much Pellew knew - oh, what did it matter? He would hear it all sooner or later, but for now - Archie pictured that stern but fatherly face, flush with disappointment, we expected so much more from you. You're a disgrace to the navy, boy. Just look at you.
And the other captain, Morgan - Archie bit his lip and fought the trembling that threatened to consume him. Two words ran through his mind, frantic and sharp as daggers biting into tender flesh: he knows - he knows - he knows -
No. He couldn't face it. Archie brought his hands up and put his face in them, let the despair wash over him like a brackish tide. Everything was lost now, and he hurt. Hurt and ached and felt alone. Yearned for the pit to open and swallow him, take him so he wouldn't have to feel that torment of shame and guilt, oh God it hurt so much and he had nowhere to go, no way to make it stop...
"Here, now," the doctor said, again from behind him and so gently Archie was at first only half-aware he was speaking, "Here now, it's all right, look. The officer brought this for you, wanted me to give it to you."
Officer? Archie fought his way to alertness, turned over just a little. "Huh?"
St. John's face was dim in the low lamplight, but Archie could tell he was holding something in one hand, something he almost pushed into Archie's hands.
Archie peered at it. It was Horatio's book. "He brought this here?"
"Yes, this morning early."
There was a long pause, and Archie stared at the book stupidly. Why had Horatio brought it? What difference would reading this book now make, when his life would be ended before the week was out? Why did Horatio think Archie should still care?
Because he thinks he knows you. And he's not giving up.
Archie's heart broke at this realization, and he pressed his eyes shut as the shame and despair within him turned to resentful anger. Oh God Horatio, you won't make this easy on me, you won't let me simply disappear as I long to do, will you? You're going to go and do something noble and kind, remind me that I'm still a member of the navy and your friend, and that if I don't face Pellew, if I don't carry myself with the dignity and courage that you think I possess, then I am betraying our friendship, a friendship that you will not betray even when I am in the brig for murder, and my name is a poison to yours?
Well, God damn you, Horatio. Damn you for being the only person I know who could force me to turn my face to the light that has burned me.
For you, I'll do my part. For our friendship, I'll face my captain. I only ask one thing from you in return.
Please, for the love of God, accept that I have done this thing, and let me die. And don't be there when they cut me down.
With that thought, Archie put the book down, turned over on the filthy cot, and without looking at Dr. St. John stood up, listening to the chains that bound him rattle their condemnation as he did so. Then he brushed his hair back, straightened his bloodstained shirt, and stoically waited to meet his captain.
Captain Pellew tried to organize his thoughts as Morgan led him down the narrow wooden staircase to Courageous' brig. He was thinking of several things in rapid succession, and so found the organizing extremely difficult. And Morgan hadn't made things any easier.
It was all such a damned mess. What had happened, why had God chosen now of all times to turn his life upside-down, and the lives of his men? They needed rest, all of them did, but now it didn't look like any of them was bound to get it, including himself.
What on earth had possessed Mr. Kennedy to commit such a foul act, and so soon after proving his gallantry and valor? It was beyond reason, but there was no denying the facts: there were witnesses, one unassailable, and Kennedy's own admission. Pellew tried to check his sadness, reminded himself that he should feel only detached anger toward anyone admitted of murder, but it was difficult to do. There was only one road for young Mr. Kennedy now, and it would be a short one ending in a shameful death and an unmarked grave. This for an earnest boy of seventeen. Only a man of stone could think on such a thing and not be moved.
And then, what of Mr. Hornblower? The failures at Muzillac were too great for such young shoulders, too great almost for Pellew's, but Hornblower had borne them like a true British officer, had taken responsibility and asked for no pardon, and for that Pellew was proud of him, although he hoped it didn't show too much. Favoritism was bad for any captain, but...Pellew felt his heart sink a little lower. For all of his courage and maturity, Hornblower was still a sensitive teenager, whose heart was too tender to weather impassively the blows fortune dealt him. Pellew remembered the interview in his office after the lad had returned from France, the unbidden tears that had embarrassed Hornblower and caused him to stammer self-conciously, forgive me sir.
How close had Pellew's heart been to breaking at that sight, the agonized bravery of the child trying not to cry, the boy striving to batten down the thrashing storms of emotion, and be a man? How long had he lain awake that night, and wondered at his own soul that had long ceased to be novice enough to shed tears? Pellew shook his head as he ducked below a timber; Hornblower did not need this trial, to add to his others. And there was nothing Pellew could do to ease the blow of another loss.
And what about yourself? Pellew winced at that question. You didn't need this problem either, a few days' rest in harbour would have suited you just fine. Some decent sleep, a chance to catch up on some reading, perhaps a visit to one of the parks to remind yourself what dry land is like. That would have been nice, wouldn't it? Instead you're threading your way through another frigate, on your way to question one of your own men who's being accused of murder. A fine welcome home, indeed...
And it had to be *his* ship, Pellew thought a little sourly as he looked at Morgan's back, then checked that thought. He didn't hate Morgan, they were friends in fact, after a fashion. Not bosom companions certainly, but he had known Morgan a long time, watched him ascend in rank and achieve a sort of fame for his dash and his talent for running down and capturing enemy ships. No, Pellew didn't hate him, but he was suddenly aware of the disparity in their lots, the swaggering bon vivant and the solitary bachelor dedicated only to the sea. Morgan was what the papers called a success, and Pellew realized he was embarrassed that one of his men should prove to be unworthy in front of Morgan; it was a personal insult.
But no, there was something else there, something more intimate. Having this incident occur under Morgan's eye made Pellew very uncomfortable, and as the larger man slowed down Pellew watched his walk, the confidant stride of a man who owns the universe, and dwelled on it for a moment. Morgan was all fireworks and bright sparks, one of those meteors that attracts all attention, someone whose association made you feel at once privileged and unworthy. And that was the problem, Pellew realized suddenly as they made their way down an increasingly dark and narrow passageway. Yes, that's the problem, you stolid old goat. You're jealous of Morgan because it's the butterfly the ladies go after, not the moth. Not all the ladies; only one -
Elise. Dammit, why did he have to bring up Elise?
"Here we are." Morgan said as he drew himself up before the barred door that marked the entrance to the brig. Turning his broad shoulders to face Pellew the taller man said, "Just so you know, Edward, the accused was beaten on the way over here, not after he was brought aboard this ship. He's been well-treated while he's been here; my own physician is looking after him, in fact."
Pellew brought his thoughts back to where they should be, and nodded. "Of course, Julius."
Morgan gave Pellew a stern look as he put his hand on the door handle. "Well, just so you know. He's a mess, and I didn't want you thinking my men did any of that."
Morgan nodded, and as Pellew tightened his emotions in readiness pushed against the door and made it open.
The brig was dark and musty, and it took Pellew's eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. There was one lamp lit, on a low table by the ragged cot at the end of the small space, and in that light Pellew first made out a smallish man sitting on the cot by the lamp - Morgan's physician, apparently - and then, as his eyes adjusted further, Pellew made out another figure standing a few feet in front of him, straight and still and weighted down with English iron on his wrists and ankles.
Acting Leftenant Archie Kennedy.
"Good God, St. John," Morgan barked, a little too loudly for Pellew's taste; he imagined he saw Kennedy flinch. "It's dark as hell in here. Turn up that goddamned lamp."
The doctor did so, and the flame threw the face of the young man in front of him into sharp focus, bright light and deepest shadow. For a moment, Pellew stared at him in shock.
Kennedy was staring straight ahead, not at Pellew at all but at some spot on the wall, not even squinting as the light became brighter in that dim room. His face - his whole body, Pellew noticed - looked to be badly beaten and cut. His hair was tangled and matted with a few patches of crusted brown, and there was one vicious bruise on the left side of his face that suggested a severe blow. Good God, Pellew thought. This is the murderer? He looks like the victim...
But for all that - and this was what made Pellew pause before speaking, what made him examine his thoughts - for all that, Kennedy's eyes were calm and clear, and gazed ahead without a hint of fear. He stood as straight as he could manage, his hands at his side, every inch the British naval officer, even now. Bloodied, defeated by whatever demons had driven him to commit this vile act, but still mindful of his superiors and anxious to make a good impression. All this, and he would be condemned to die at seventeen.
It is too much, Pellew sighed to himself. Certainly, too much to bear.
Beside him, Morgan cleared his throat as if to say, get on with it. Glancing at his friend quickly, Pellew fixed Archie with his sternest gaze and said softly, "Mr. Kennedy, are you aware of what you're being accused of?"
Kennedy didn't hesitate. "Yes, sir. They're saying I caused the death of Leftenant Creps."
Pellew allowed an edge to creep into his voice. Why did Morgan of all people have to witness this? "These are very serious words that are being spoken against you, Mr. Kennedy."
Still the blue eyes stayed focused on the wall, straight ahead. "Yes, sir."
"You're aware of the severity? Your fate should you be found guilty of this crime?"
A little hesitation there, just the slightest pause. "Yes, sir." Another pause, a breath's width. "They'll hang me, sir."
Pellew nodded, felt his blood rising. "Yes, they will, sir. Do you know how it feels for a commander in the British navy to see one of his men, whom he must answer for, put in the dock for murder? Can you comprehend the gravity of what they are saying you've done?"
Kennedy's face flushed, but otherwise he showed no emotion. After swallowing visibly he said, a little quieter, "I - I have been contemplating it, sir."
"Well, was it a brawl? A fight? Were you defending yourself? Come, man, I want to hear under what circumstances this incident occured."
Kennedy seemed to think about it, then shrugged a little bit. "I - I'm not sure I recall, sir."
"Oh, he recalls!" Morgan said sarcastically, putting his hands on his hips. "And if he doesn't, I do!"
"Captain Morgan, if you please!" Pellew said impatiently, then paused, thought, slow down. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the doctor had risen from the cot and was standing not too far from Kennedy, his wary eyes on Morgan. He knows his captain, Pellew thought, and took the warning.
Kennedy was still staring ahead, and seemed to be struggling to maintain his composure. Pellew brought his eyes back to him and in a lower voice said, "Mr. Kennedy, I am anxious to hear what you have to say in your own defense."
Kennedy paused, blinked. Suddenly Morgan said, "Defense? Christ, Edward, that little coward knifed Creps in cold blood. He has no defense!"
Kennedy's eyes shot over, just a little, and Pellew noticed how pale the youth had become. His eyes lost a bit of their composure, looked suddenly trapped and frantic.
"See?" Morgan snapped, stomping around Pellew to stand close to Kennedy and glare at him angrily. "He knows what I saw. He knows he's finished, don't you? Don't you!"
Morgan grabbed the chain to Kennedy's right manacle, and the boy jumped in fear. Pellew took a quick step forward, but before he did anything else the doctor moved to Kennedy's side, placing one hand on the boy's shoulder and the other over Morgan's arm as it gripped the iron chain.
Morgan glared at the doctor in furious surprise. Pellew watched as the doctor positioned himself between Kennedy and Morgan and said, "Easy, captain, he ain't well."
Morgan blinked again, and Pellew noticed he was looking at the doctor with an expression almost as poisonous as the one he'd been giving Kennedy. For his part, Kennedy had shrunk back as far as he could get from Morgan and was staring blankly at the floor.
"Julius, please!" Pellew said in exasperation, putting an arm out to separate his friend from the prisoner. "No one grieves Leftenant Creps' loss more than I, but there's little to be gained by terrifying the accused."
Morgan backed up a little and dropped the chain, chagrined, but the menacing look did not completely leave his face.
"My apologies, Edward, but...Creps was my best officer," Morgan growled, his anguished eyes not leaving Archie's wide blue ones for an instant, "My best officer, dammit, and that filth murdered him."
Pellew waited a moment while Kennedy composed himself. The boy took a deep breath, shook his head a bit as if to clear it. Then he raised his head, stood at attention and waited.
"All right, then," Pellew said softly, giving Morgan a warning glance. Morgan's face was still flushed, but he stood well back from Kennedy and gave Pellew a conciliatory shrug. Pellew nodded his acceptance before turning back to the prisoner. "Mr. Kennedy, you stand accused of one of the few crimes a British naval officer can be put to death for. Only treason is worse. Do you have anything you wish to say on your own behalf?"
Kennedy blinked again, slower this time, as if he was concentrating very hard. Then his eyes dipped a little bit toward the floor, and when he spoke it seemed to Pellew that he had heard that tone before, in another room, from another young man full of grief over a lost cause.
"Sir," Kennedy whispered, so slightly Pellew could barely hear him, "There is no help, no pardon, no excuse for what I've done. I'm guilty."
Those words -
Sir, I have nothing to say. The men died, the cannon were lost, and the Royalist cause...
The same despair, the same barely-checked tearfulness. It was eerily like the aftermath of Muzillac, and Pellew felt the same bereavement, the same anguish he'd felt that afternoon when Hornblower had stood in his cabin close to weeping, and the disbelief in Hornblower's eyes when Pellew had admitted his own failure.
Failure. Lord, Pellew thought, fatigued in every bone in his body. I am so tired of failure...
And he was facing another one.
"There, Edward, you see?" Morgan said in the same loud voice, "He admits it. Why even bother with a court martial? Just string the little bastard up now and get it over with."
Pellew saw how Kennedy closed his eyes tightly as Morgan spoke, gave his friend another warning look. Then he looked at Kennedy again and said, in the same quiet tones he had conveyed to Horatio, "Mr. Kennedy, I beg you mind what you're saying. An admission of guilt with no amendment to self-defense or other cause will seal your fate past any man's power to redeem it."
Kennedy's eyes flickered to Pellew's, just for a moment. One moment, as if he were making up his mind. Then his gaze shifted to some spot on the wall over Pellew's shoulder. "I know, sir."
"Then are you saying that you did strike Leftenant Creps with the intent to kill him?"
Kennedy hesitated. His eyes widened a bit, still on the same spot on the wall behind Pellew, and he cleared his throat and said in a louder voice, "Leftenant Creps is dead, sir. And I'm the one responsible."
Pellew felt his heart tighten painfully.
"I killed him," Kennedy continued, in a voice clear enough for all in the cabin to hear him, "And I deserve to die for it."
Pellew looked at the youth, at the determination in that battered face, in those light blue eyes. A failure, then, he thought, and the word stayed with him as he sighed and said to Kennedy in somber, hushed tones, "Then I'm afraid, my boy, justice will be done. God have mercy on your soul."
Horatio was so happy he could hardly contain himself.
Any observer would think him mad to be smiling the way he was as the little jollyboat he was riding in sliced its way through the rain-driven waves toward the Courageous on that grey, overcast morning. It was cold, wet, and miserable, and the events of the previous evening had cast everyone down, from the captain to the sailors that pulled at the oars.
But not Horatio. At that moment, he was easily the happiest man in the harbour.
It's solved, he thought to himself as he clutched the dispatches Bracegirdle had given him close to his relatively dry uniform so they would not catch the rain's dampness. Thanks to Mr. Bracegirdles' inventiveness and the wisdom of his words, I know exactly what's to be done. Archie will be a free man this afternoon.
Archie was innocent. Horatio knew it, knew his friend could not possibly have been the raving murderer Captain Morgan had said he was. But until Bracegirdle's talk, Horatio had been confused as to why Archie would confess to something he hadn't done, and allow himself to be so beaten in a clearly unjust misunderstanding. So of course, Horatio hadn't known what course to take to free his shipmate; he had simply had nothing to work with.
But now he had something to work with, it was all so clear. Why, it was even obvious, Horatio was furious at himself for not seeing it before. He didn't understand Archie's actions sometimes, but at least he'd seen them. In the prison in Spain, when Archie should have been overjoyed to see Horatio again, should have rejoiced at a chance for escape, what did he do instead? He sank into despair and sought to destroy himself so Horatio and the others could escape. And later, in Muzillac, he doubted his own courage and ability to the point of self-destruction, again. In both cases, as Horatio's father would say, the symptoms were the same; a clear and unreasoning will to die.
Just why Archie wanted to forfeit his life Horatio didn't know. He surmised it had something to do with Archie's childhood perhaps, or the bullying he received at the hands of Jack Simpson. Simpson obviously terrified Archie, Horatio had seen it from the start. But Simpson had bullied Horatio too, and the other men of the Justinian, and they didn't seem to have the penchant for self-destruction that Archie was prey to. That part of the puzzle baffled Horatio, but he attributed it to Archie's sensitive nature, and concluded that his friend had simply been cowed at a young age, and had stayed there.
But that was changing, Horatio could see it. Archie had been getting stronger, more self-confidant, didn't his heroism at the bridge prove that? Certainly it did. despite his attempted suicide in Spain, despite his crisis of confidence earlier in the mission, and the more Horatio thought about it the more certain he was of his argument.
Archie did not commit that murder. But in his terrified anguish, he might have thought he did.
Yes, Horatio said to himself as his boat drew near to the Courageous, no one else might have guessed it, but he knew. Archie's mind was delicate, and he had in the past believed things that were simply not true, only to change his mind in the daylight. One night he wanted to die, the next morning he awoke and said he was hungry. After a nightmarish fit he refused to return to the Indie with Horatio, but when they finally had the opportunity to go back he was right there with Horatio, pale and still unwell, but as straight and true a seaman as ever walked the deck. He didn't think he could command at Muzillac, but when it mattered he made a decision that would have made any British officer proud.
And last night...Horatio collected his thoughts as the little boat drew nigh to the Courageous' ladder. Last night...perhaps Archie did get into a fight, or an argument. Perhaps even blows were exchanged, although knowing Archie that was unlikely. Something caused that huge bruise on Archie's face, but whatever it was, Horatio refused to believe it would lead to murder. Archie might have found himself in the middle of a drunken brawl, or maybe come between two contesting shipmates. Horatio could see it, Archie in the courtyard, seeing a fight, perhaps going to see about breaking it up...got in the middle somehow...became confused and saw Creps with the knife in his belly, and went to his assistance...
And Morgan had seen him then, and assumed it was murder.
That's it, Horatio thought firmly as he tucked the dispatches in his cloak pocket and stood to ascend the ladder, it has to be. Archie was confused last night, he must have been near to having a fit with all the excitement. He was simply out of his head with anguish and fright at being accused, and had found himself saying things he was certain to recant.
And he would recant those words, Horatio was sure of it. And if he didn't, Horatio would sit him down and talk to his friend until he was calmed, and together they would sort out what had happened. Surely there was some detail Archie was blocking out, something he didn't remember that would put the puzzle together, and clear him.
Of course, Horatio thought as he began to climb the ladder, there was still Morgan's word to deal with, but that wouldn't be a problem because Horatio knew that he had found favor with Morgan. When Archie was recovered enough to remember for himself, Horatio would simply take his word to Morgan and convince the captain that he was mistaken. It would take diplomacy of course, and extreme courteousness - Morgan had been nearly purple-faced with rage the previous evening. But had he not also put his arm around Horatio, spoken kind words to him, escorted him to see Archie personally? There was an advantage there, Horatio was sure of it.
That was the only part of the plan that bothered Horatio: the knowledge that Morgan would listen to him because he liked him. Archie's innocence should be proven with facts, Horatio heard his father say in his mind, not bought with sly winks and favors. Horatio remembered his revulsion of Morgan's philosophy, his assertion that everyone was corrupt. Horatio had said that wasn't true, had judged Morgan harshly for saying it was, and now here he was on his way to do something that seemed to him the rusting edge of corruption itself: using Morgan's friendship to win a favor.
But it's not just a 'favor', he argued to himself as he continued to climb. It's Archie's life, and if he's just going to sit there and let himself be hanged you've got to bloody well do something. It's only this one time, after all. Not like you're going to make a habit of taking advantage of other people's high opinions of you, but since the opportunity is here and Morgan is in a position to help Archie out, why not take it? Archie will thank you for it, and when you've grown up some and stopped being so starry-eyed you'll shake your head that you even worried about it. And if Morgan does you this favor, it will only make you look good, like you're 'in the ranks'. That can't be bad, can it? Surely not...
But wait, a small voice in Horatio said, this favor may be too easily won. Remember Morgan's words of last night, how you felt about his offer of an easy captaincy, of gaining without sacrifice. You didn't like that, it was the road too swiftly gained, and now because of this you want to travel that road? Can you even see where it might lead?
Horatio reached the top of the ladder and stepped onto the deck and thought, it isn't to my palate, but that doesn't matter. I've got to get Archie out of here, and if it means bowing to a bluster of a man like Morgan, I'm willing to do it. It's five minutes of distastefulness for Archie's freedom. Damn well worth the price.
As soon as he wiped the rain out of his eyes, Horatio blinked and looked around the deck of the Courageous. It looked very different in the misty morning light, and crowded too, not only with the tars doing their duties but with other men as well, important-looking men in great cloaks and captain's hats. He figured he ought to try and find Pellew, but for a moment Horatio was lost, and didn't know where to go.
Thankfully, a young man wearing a rain tarpaulin came forward and gave Horatio a welcoming smile. "Can I help you?" He asked, speaking up a little to be heard above the rain and the noise.
"Yes," Horatio answered, grateful that someone was talking to him. "Do you know where I can find Captain Pellew?"
"Oh - " the young man looked surprised. "He's in the brig with Morgan, talking to the little bastard that killed Creps last night. He should be up in a minute."
Horatio nodded, trying not to react to this youth calling Archie a 'little bastard'. "Can you take me down there? I have some dispatches for him."
"I don't think so," The young man answered amiably, "The captain's given us orders, nobody but him and the doctor are to see the prisoner. Afraid someone will take a knife to him before the court-martial, you see."
Horatio winced. "Well, I'm not going to do that."
The young man shrugged. "How do I know?"
Horatio threw him a look.
The young man grinned. "Well, you're right, you don't look like an assassin, but then neither did he. Come stand out of the rain, until the captain comes back up."
Horatio nodded, and followed his guide. "I'm in your debt, Mr. - ?"
"Lafferty," The young man said over his shoulder as he made his way to the doorway that would lead them belowdecks, and out of the rain. "Phillip Lafferty."
"I'm in your debt, Mr. Lafferty," Horatio responded earnestly. "My name is - "
"Horatio Hornblower," Lafferty chirped, giving Horatio a smug grin over his shoulder. "Yes, I know."
Horatio blinked. "Oh. I'm sorry, sir, are we acquainted?"
"No," Lafferty replied, with a smile on his face Horatio didn't understand, "That is, not really, you were just pointed out to me once by a mutual friend, that's all. You've got to admit, it's a name you remember."
They reached the doorway, and the small overhang that jutted out over it, and Horatio stopped and turned around, looking once again at the small crowd on the deck. "Who are all of these people?"
"Oh, well, God," Lafferty answered with a sweep of his hand, "What do you expect, after last night? They're mostly captains, or lords, or magistrates, here to offer their condolences to the captain and see if there's anything they can do to redress this horrible crime."
Horatio felt his stomach flutter and thought, lords? Magistrates?
"Of course, most of them just want to be seen with the captain," Lafferty said tiredly, "But there's a few here who are offering their services, to make sure justice gets done. Morgan wants this thing taken care of quick, everyone's so upset about Creps it's like a powderkeg around here. One spark and the men would riot to hang Kennedy from the nearest yardarm."
Horatio swallowed hard. "But - but surely nothing has been proven yet. You cannot even be sure you have the right man."
"Ha!" Lafferty barked, then when faced with Horatio's shocked expression said, "Sorry, Hornblower, I hear he's a friend of yours, but don't fool yourself. That little shit is guilty, and when Morgan's through with the court-martial tribunal he'll be lucky if all he gets is hanged."
Horatio's eyes glanced at the men drifting in the fog before him and thought of his nightmare, the ship on fire and a headless Marquis. "But Mr. Lafferty, you know to have the tribunal influenced is not justice. It cannot be right."
Lafferty's smile was cold as he replied, "Mr. Hornblower, you are on the ship of Captain Julius Morgan, the most powerful man in the British Navy, next to Admiral Hood. Believe me, for your friend - his justice is the only justice that counts."
Horatio shivered, tried to think. He watched the lords and captains talking among themselves, thought, as long as Morgan thinks Archie is guilty he will pursue this. I have to get to the brig and beg their pardon. It will be a gross breach of etiquette, but Pellew will understand. Morgan will too. He has to.
Fortunately, luck seemed to be smiling on Horatio, as at that moment one of the midshipmen took Lafferty's arm, and he was distracted from Horatio's side. Biting his lip, Horatio slipped out into the rain and made his way to the companionway which would take him, he knew, to the brig.
Once below, he was unbothered, and putting his hand on his hat so as to disguise himself Horatio hurried as swiftly as he could toward the brig, hoping with every step that Archie was back to himself, and was at that moment calmly telling Pellew and Morgan what really happened.
By the time he reached the iron-barred door, Horatio could hear the sounds of conversation and knew they were talking to Archie. His friend's voice sounded even and composed, and Horatio relaxed a bit. Possibly Archie was exonerating himself at that very moment, and he would have no work to do, no cajoling or convincing. Only the dispatches to deliver to Pellew, and then it would be, Mr. Hornblower, kindly see that Mr. Kennedy makes his way back to the ship and sees to his duties, will you? Perhaps Captain Morgan would even offer them all an apology...
Horatio smiled at the thought, put his hand on the door to gently push it open. He could hear Pellew's voice, and it sounded strangely detached and sad.
"Mr. Kennedy, you stand accused of one of the few crimes a British naval officer can be put to death for. Only treason is worse. Do you have anything you wish to say on your own behalf?"
Horatio stopped, his blood suddenly running cold. But - but no need to panic, Pellew was only reminding Archie what he was accused of. Certainly it wasn't too late -
Another voice, as thin and sorrowful as teardrops on paper. "Sir, there is no help, no pardon, no excuse for what I've done. I'm guilty."
Oh, no, Horatio thought, his blood freezing and turning solid in his veins. I couldn't have heard that right, couldn't have -
"There, Edward, you see?" Another voice, so angry Horatio flinched. Morgan. "He admits it. Why even bother with a court martial? Just string the little bastard up now and get it over with."
Horatio shuddered, unable for a moment to think, or do anything but stare stupidly at the half-closed door -
Pellew's voice again, quiet and soothing but stern at the same time. "Mr. Kennedy, I beg you mind what you're saying. An admission of guilt with no amendment to self-defense or other cause will seal your fate past any man's power to redeem it."
Horatio listened, stunned, as he heard Archie whisper, "I know, sir."
Pellew again: "Then are you saying that you did strike Leftenant Creps with the intent to kill him?"
Oh no Archie, Horatio's mind shouted, don't say it, you didn't do it, I know you didn't for God's sake save yourself! The thought was so overwhelming, and so loud in his mind, that it forced Horatio to action. He pushed the door open, and once there was room he made his way inside.
It was dark in there, unlit except for a single lantern, and for a moment Horatio couldn't see anything. But then he saw the backs of Morgan and Pellew, who were unaware of his presence, and Archie, who was staring at the wall but on Horatio's entrance turned his eyes to him. Horatio saw recognition, but little else except a bleak and hopeless anguish that chilled him to the pit of his heart. For a moment their eyes locked and Horatio pleaded silently with his friend, God Archie, don't do this. You know you're innocent, don't condemn yourself. Don't.
Archie blinked, slowly, but if his friend read the message in Horatio's eyes he didn't respond to it. Instead he simply set his jaw and said, "Leftenant Creps is dead, sir. And I'm the one responsible."
Oh Jesus, Archie, Horatio thought. And for a moment he couldn't breathe.
"I killed him," Archie said, and he was still looking at Horatio as he said it, with eyes that cried out as they had the night before, for salvation and damnation at once. "And I deserve to die for it."
At that instant something flashed through Archie's eyes, a flutter of emotion so intense that for a moment Horatio couldn't look at his friend, and glanced down at the floor in shock. He had seen that look in Archie's eyes before, in the Spanish prison, when half-starved and desolate the youth had started up in his sickbed with the hated name of Simpson on his lips. Archie's eyes had been terrified then, terrified and knowing - knowing of what, Horatio couldn't imagine. But that same knowledge was there now, and it was killing Archie, Horatio knew it.
And knew also that he couldn't stop it.
All of Horatio's hopes crumbled as he slowly brought his gaze back up at his friend. Archie was not hysterical, or anguished, or on the verge of tears. He was calm, rational, and completely himself. Admitting to these things. Telling Pellew and Morgan - telling Horatio with eyes that begged, believe me - that he was a murderer. Horatio gasped, and leaned against the wall behind him, thought no, it cannot be right. But Archie's eyes were on him, unwavering and distant, and Horatio knew by looking into them that it was right. It was right, and true, and beyond any nightmare either of them had faced so far.
Archie had committed murder. And he was going to die.
Pellew said something, but Horatio couldn't make it out, his blood was rushing in his ears and hammering in his skull. He felt light, unattached, did not move even when Pellew and Morgan turned to leave. Morgan was shaking his head and giving Kennedy one last, hateful look as he said, "Well, that's the last nail in his coffin, Edward. When the tribunal hears that, he'll swing for sure."
"Please, Julius." Pellew said in irritation, and turned to leave. As soon as he spotted Horatio, however, he stopped up short and stared at Horatio in surprise.
Horatio stared back, for the swiftest moment too overcome to do anything. That quickly passed, however, and he straightened up and stammered, "Forgive me, sir - "
Morgan was frowning, his frame dark and somehow ominous over Pellew's shoulder. "Hornblower! What the hell are you doing here?"
Horatio blinked, glanced at Archie but his friend had turned away. "I - I was given some dispatches - "
Morgan grunted and pushed his way past Horatio. "Well, don't bring them to the brig, for heaven's sake. Come on, even in the rain it's more pleasant topside."
"Yes, sir." Horatio muttered, at once ashamed of his affrontory and embarrassed by the look Pellew was giving him. It was surprise, pity, and anger all rolled together, and with a start Horatio realized that this was the first time he'd seen the captain since the previous evening, before he'd gone ashore. He cleared his throat and stuttered, "Sir, I beg your - "
Pellew's eyes didn't soften, but he sighed and said softly, "Come, Mr. Hornblower, this is not the place for discussion."
"Yes, sir," Horatio answered, then looked at Archie, who was now standing with his back to all of them, his shoulders slumped in utter dejection. As Horatio watched he brought his hands to his face, and the sound the chains made when he did so broke Horatio's heart. Almost instinctively, he tried to squeeze past Pellew and get to Archie's side. "Sir, if I may just for a moment - "
"No, Mr. Hornblower, you may not," Pellew said, more sternly than before, and quickly put one hand firmly on Horatio's arm. Giving the youth a commanding stare he whispered, "We can do no more here, this is now a matter for the British navy to decide. There are protocols and procedures, and you cannot interfere."
He's forcing me to leave, Horatio realized, and a childish impulse made him fight the pressing hand. "Please, just one word - "
"No, Mr. Hornblower, not one!" Pellew hissed as he almost pushed Horatio out the door, but Horatio could tell by the captain's eyes that he hated what he was doing even as he did it. When they had passed over the threshold Pellew stopped Horatio and said in tight, low tones, "Mr. Kennedy's crime is very serious, and his fate is out of our hands now. Anything you do will be seen as suspect, and anything he says will be damning to him."
Horatio had no words, could only stammer a syllable or two. He was bereft of thought.
Pellew sighed again and patted Horatio's arm. "You are his friend, Mr. Hornblower, and your desire to come to his aid does you credit. But he is beyond your help, or anyone's but the Admiral himself."
"But sir," Horatio whispered helplessly, then paused for a moment, what could he say? Finally he muttered in a thick voice, "Please, sir, I must do something, this is all wrong. He's innocent -"
"He's confessed." Pellew said in a voice that was equally distressed, but in control. "He is guilty by his own admission."
Horatio's soul battered against that reality, but he couldn't argue. Finally, his eyes filling as he glanced back at the barred door behind them he said, "They'll hang him."
Pellew's gaze dropped to the floor, and he briefly closed his eyes. When he opened them again, there was something in them Horatio didn't recognize, and he said slowly, "Yes, Mr. Hornblower. Unfortunately, that is the fate of a man who has committed murder."
Horatio paled at the word, at the way it was said, struggled against the feeling of helplessness that threatened to make a child of him, again, in the presence of his captain. But it couldn't end this way. Archie couldn't be guilty. He just couldn't be...
But he was. Horatio had seen it in his eyes. The eyes that stared at Jack Simpson in cowering fear. The eyes of the Spanish prison. The eyes of the bridge at Muzillac. It was there, the shame and the sorrow, but so much deeper and more painful, and Horatio finally had to admit it. Against every ideal of Archie he held, Horatio stood in the dark, cramped bowels of the frigate Courageous and knew that his friend was guilty of murder. And by the end of the week Archie would be lying in an unmarked grave with a broken neck, and be gone from the world forever.
But it couldn't end this way. It just couldn't...
A loud voice startled him, coming from a long way down the passage. "Did you two fall asleep back there?"
Pellew winced a little and turned back to Horatio, gently taking his arm. Giving the young man a sympathetic look he said, "We'll talk on this more later, Mr. Hornblower. I am sorry this had to be laid on your shoulders at such a time."
Horatio looked at the floor for a moment, then looked back up and stood as straight as he could. "It was not laid there, sir. Mr. Kennedy is my friend. I took it on willingly."
The captain's expression changed, whether it was to pity or pride Horatio couldn't tell in the darkness. Pellew turned and walked up the passage, and Horatio fell in right behind him. As he followed his captain Horatio glanced back just one more time, to cast an earnest prayer over his shoulder for the desperate soul in the barred and desolate room behind him.
Then, as he made his way through the dark maze of corridors that would lead him topside, Horatio prayed for himself, for strength. He would need it, he knew, because he was so tired and the fight was just beginning. But it would not end until Archie was free, or Horatio knew the cause of his destruction.
And Horatio knew exactly where to start looking.
End of part 5
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six