by Pam and Del
Acting Lieutenant Archie Kennedy painstakingly examined the wood-grain of the door to the captain's cabin; he was examining his conscience for his most recent misdeeds and errors no less scrupulously. It was rare enough that he and the other senior officers were summoned to the presence of their captain; it was even rarer when he was summoned to speak with Pellew alone--in fact, Archie was not sure he recalled the last time that had occurred. He took a deep breath and warned himself sternly against faint-heartedness, then rapped on the wood.
"Enter," came the deep rumble from within. Archie moistened his lips before opening the door.
"Ah, Mr. Kennedy. Shut the door, if you please." Captain Pellew was seated at the wide table, a collection of rolled maps pushed to one side. "You may be seated."
Archie obeyed, ducking his head and taking refuge in obedience. "Sir."
He always felt himself at a loss for words when confronted by his captain--it was as if Pellew's confident presence overpowered any remark that Archie might make. Fortunately, as one of the most junior officers in the ship's complement, he was seldom required to speak.
Turning his glance uncomfortably aside, Archie noticed a stack of at least four books on another corner of the table. Two of the spines were turned toward him: the topmost was the familiar Clarke's "Complete Handbook of Seamanship," the second was Falconer's "Dictionary of the Marine." The other titles were not discernible from Archie's current perspective.
"I have had some favorable mention of you recently, sir." Pellew sounded as amiable as Archie had ever heard him; nevertheless he remained silent, unable to frame a proper response. "Both Major Edrington and Lieutenant Hornblower commended you in their reports to me."
"Thank you, sir." Archie glanced up, briefly, then dropped his eyes again as Pellew continued.
"Mr. Hornblower also speaks well of your practical experience."
"Mr. Hornblower . . . is very generous, sir," Archie managed to respond. Of course he had worked his fingers to the bone for Horatio--he owed him everything. Since their return to the Indy after Muzillac, he had stayed as close as Horatio's own shadow, trying to distract his friend from shock and grief through conversation, reading aloud from Shakespeare during their off-watches, and consulting him on tactical, logistical, or navigational matters. And winced inwardly at the dismay on his friend's all-too-expressive face whenever Archie erred.
"Now, then." Pellew's voice became brisk. "I had the opportunity to examine your certificates when I named you acting-lieutenant. Everything is in good order, you have served a more than appropriate length of time as a midshipman. As for the years you spent as a prisoner--I have included that as well, in the reckoning of your term of service. I also understand from Mr. Hornblower that you fully observed your duty as a King's officer in that period."
His failed escape attempts? Trying to get himself killed? It seemed better not to ask for clarification.
"But there are certain . . . deficiencies, owing perhaps to your--absence--from the fleet, which must be addressed," Pellew resumed. "I have noted the need for improvement in some areas of your studies--and even earlier than the Papillon mission. Mathematics, was it not?"
Archie felt his face growing hot. Mathematics indeed. "Aye, sir."
Pellew's eyes narrowed assessingly. "A most vital skill, sir, that will require dedication and constant practice if you are to ready yourself in time."
"Sir?" Startled out of countenance, Archie met his captain's gaze.
"Within the next year, Mr. Kennedy, there will be several occasions on which the examination for lieutenant will be given. You are not prepared now, but when the opportunity arises . . .you will be so. And you shall do credit both to yourself and to this ship."
Archie tried not to show his astonishment as Pellew continued. "For the present, while we remain with the Channel Fleet, I should be able to spare an hour every third day for your instruction. Mr. Hornblower, who has expressed great concern for your progress, has offered to assist you in mathematics on the other days. And as their own duties permit, you will see Mr. Bowles for lessons in navigation and Mr. Bracegirdle for tactics and strategy. Your first written assignment, to be submitted to me two days from now, is a detailed explanation reviewing precisely why four ships do not constitute an invasion."
Archie's cheeks burned; he fought the impulse to bury his face in his hands, wondering if his hasty, ill-judged comment would come to share the lasting notoriety of Horatio's seasickness at Spithead.
Mercifully, Pellew did not appear to notice his mortification, but took the book from the top of the pile and opened it in front of him. "Now, for our first lesson, we will begin with Chapter Three . . ."
Archie collected his scattered wits and did his best to attend.
(Four days later)
Lieutenant Bracegirdle arrived to take the watch, with a brief but cheerful greeting to his junior. To his surprise, young Kennedy did not immediately disappear below but remained staring abstractedly over the rail, his expression thoughtful.
"Acting Lieutenant?" Bracegirdle prompted.
Kennedy blinked, shaking himself as if rousing from sleep. "Aye, sir?"
"Hadn't you better return to your books?"
Kennedy flushed. "Indeed, sir." But still he lingered, instead of going below.
"Are you finding any subject to be--particularly difficult?" Bracegirdle inquired.
"Oh, no, indeed--not yet, anyway. It's only that . . . it's been a long time since I was made to study so hard!" Archie admitted ruefully, shaking his head at himself. He could remember other lessons now: when a small child, he had often been reproached for daydreaming by his tutors. "But I hadn't expected--to receive so much notice. And . . . from the captain himself."
"A captain must be a judge of men, as well as their leader," Bracegirdle remarked judiciously. He saw the younger officer turn and eye him speculatively, and elaborated on his theme.
"I've known Captain Pellew a good many years now, and have rarely seen him misjudge a man's character--or his capabilities." Cocking his head, Bracegirdle regarded the younger man again. "And how do you judge yourself, Mr. Kennedy?"
"Sir?" Puzzled, Archie took refuge in the all-purpose response.
"You've served your time in the midshipmen's berth--long enough for the captain to notice and make you acting lieutenant. Is it not your own wish: to advance your career? To obtain your commission? To earn your own command one day?"
Archie blinked, licked his lips. Under that shrewd gaze, he could not admit to never thinking that far ahead. "Well, I . . . of course, sir."
"Well, then," Bracegirdle advised serenely, "if you aspire to the uniform, lad--it's best you grew the shoulders."
Going below at last, Archie slipped into the small cabin he and Horatio now shared, and paused before the shaving-glass hanging on the near bulkhead. He had never cared before to examine his face too closely: its very youth had appeared only to impress others with his vulnerability, or worse. Now he almost wished the glass were of the fairy-tale sort, to show him his future.
Since El Ferrol, he had felt himself content to follow Horatio, who would surely and inevitably ascend to command rank. He had not dreamed--dared to dream--of anything more.
"And how do you judge yourself, Mr. Kennedy?"
A true king's officer. Maybe even a captain himself one day.
Did Captain Pellew think . . . did Archie himself truly think it possible?
Commissioned Lieutenant Archie Kennedy of His Majesty's Navy.
Archie found himself exhaling slowly, without realizing that he had been holding his breath, and then straightened to his full height.
Time to grow the shoulders.