Regrets
by JanL

 

It was always worse at night.

He could manage, in the daylight. There were duties to perform, routines
to occupy his mind, and the constant coming and going of the men about
their various tasks. It was even easier to sleep during his daylight
off-watch, for some reason -- perhaps because he was so exhausted that
his body overrode his yammering thoughts.

But in the dark there was no escape. What was that line from Shakespeare
that Archie had quoted, one cold, wet, seemingly endless night when they
were on watch: "I am a spirit condemned to walk the night?" Or was it
doomed to walk? He couldn't quite remember.

Archie would have had it letter-perfect. Archie had a phenomenal memory
for such things, and combined it with his ready wit to bring a touch of
humor into even the most dismal circumstances. Hornblower admired that
talent, recognizing that he had none of it himself. He had no idea how
he would have made it through his first weeks aboard Justinian without
Archie's ironic humor, especially after Simpson's arrival.

He had no idea how he was going to make it through, now. There was a
hole in his life big enough to sail a 74 through with plenty of space on
either side. He would turn to say something to Archie, and find himself
alone. Or he would hear a joke, or have a navigation problem come out
exactly right -- and there would be no one with whom to share it.

He had not noticed the amputation, at first. He had been too intent on
facing down that bastard Simpson -- and though he had feared being
wounded or crippled, he had not much cared whether he would survive the
duel. After
that was over, Captain Pellew had confirmed Eccleston's assignment of
command, and let Hornblower sail the captured Papillon back to England in
convoy with the damaged Indy and the two captured corvettes. He had left
her
quarterdeck only to collapse in his cot, and that seldom. His mind had
been occupied with the responsibility, and the honor, and the sheer,
nearly overwhelming details of running an entire ship. He had been fully
alive at the Papillon's helm, and blessedly distracted.

And now he had the dark, and the quiet, and the memories.

//You're in the Service. England is at war. Friends die.//

That didn't help. It was one thing for a friend to be killed by enemy
fire, quite another to be in the limbo of not knowing whether your friend
was dead or alive, captured by the enemy or floating out at sea with no
food, no water, no compass. And something else all together to know that
you were yourself responsible for his pain. Simpson had claimed he had
killed Archie, but Hornblower realized, much later, that he would not
have had the chance. Simpson had gone up the side of the Papillon just a
little aft of Hornblower himself, and Matthews had been with Archie until
after Simpson left the jollyboat. Archie had been safe until then ... if
he were not already dead from Hornblower's blow. It wasn't likely that
Simpson had a chance to go back. He might not have had to.

It had been dark, when the cutting-out expedition left to capture the
Papillon. Dark as this very night. Had Archie known a fit was coming
on? He'd once said that he could sometimes tell -- that there was some
sort of forewarning. Had he realized what was about to happen, or had he
been in such turmoil over Simpson's presence that he had not noticed?

But there had been a hint; as they were standing waiting to board for
the cutting-out, Archie had been lost in a daze, had barely responded to
Hornblower's attempt to lighten the tension.

//I should have noticed. I should have done something.//

But what? What, realistically, could he have done? Asked Archie to see
Dr. Hepplewhite? Archie never went to Hepplewhite if he could help it.
Should he have gone behind his friend's back, spoken to the Captain?
Told Lt. Eccleston that Mr. Kennedy was about to have a fit? That would
have looked as though he were trying to cut Archie out of the action, and
the prize money. It would have been cowardly and mean. He'd have lost
his friend just as surely -- through betrayal.

And what if Archie had been held back, and the fit had not occurred? Or
if it had? He would likely have been put ashore, a useless mid,
uncommissioned, sent home to live on the charity of a father who already
saw him as flawed.

He would be alive, at least.

//And he'd have wished he were not.//

There were a hundred what-if's and if-only's, and Hornblower had been
over them all. And at the end of all of them was the horrible hollow
chunk! of the tiller bar against Archie's skull, and the glimpse of his
friend floating away in the ill-named jolly boat. And the knowledge that
had been his constant, relentless companion: If Archie were a prisoner,
Hornblower himself had sent him defenseless into enemy hands.

//And if he died, I killed him.//

And instead of being tried for his crime, he had been promoted to Acting
Lieutenant and further rewarded with rare praise from the Captain.
Archie's loss had been dismissed as truly unfortunate.

Unfortunate....

 

The stars were so bright this night.

"They say those stars might be suns like ours, Horatio. Can you imagine
-- what if there are other worlds like our own? What do you think it
would be like, sailing out there beyond the stars?"

"Archie, you could not. Even those mad Frenchmen in the hot-air balloon
-- "

And Archie's grin had given the game away -- the game being "tease
serious Horatio." Being caught like that, by anyone else, would have
made him quietly furious, but Archie always seemed able to include him in
the joke --

No more.

He had grown up alone. The other children thought him dull for his
interest in books, and he thought the same of them for different reasons.
He had learned to read in English, then in Latin, and had hugged his
learning to him, letting his sense of intellectual superiority insulate
him from his fellows. Other youngsters could make jokes about one's
spindly build, but they knew nothing of the Roman philosophers. They
would labor as their fathers had, and live identical lives, and never
venture more than a few miles from their doorsteps until they were laid
to rest in the churchyard.

He was different. He would become an officer and a gentleman, and he
would sail the world. He was sufficient unto himself; he had never
needed a friend.

He had never *had* a friend. Had never known the inexpressible comfort
of having someone who would stand at his side, or at his back; the
knowledge that however bad the circumstances might be, there would be a
cheerful grin or, at the very least, the knowledge of shared hardship.

He almost -- almost -- wished he had never known what it meant to have
one. He would not have known what it meant to grieve for what he had
lost. And to wish that would have dishonored the gift Archie had given
him; the gift of his humor, his insights... the simple gift of his
company. He could not regret that.

But he could regret having left himself open to the pain of loss. And
he could be certain that it never happened again.

After all, to command meant to be alone, did it not? The Captain shared
responsibility with no one; he was in full control of his ship. Honor
required him to treat the men humanely, and with respect and discipline;
it did not require him to leave his heart open to be torn asunder by
loss.

He would learn. He would command. And he would never, *never* risk
this pain again.

 

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