Just take it and say goodbye
It had to be done of course. Archie tossed aside in a shallow criminal's grave unthinkable. Indecent, unworthy, unthinkable. Horatio's mind was still struggling to emerge from the thick pall of grief, of despair. Captain Pellew's words had hardly registered in that dark morass:
"I advise you when offered promotion to accept it Mr. Hornblower. Otherwise it may not be offered again. Do I make myself clear?"
So, the captured Gaditana was to be under his command. He no longer cared that this meant a precious promotion. His bruised mind could not deal with that now. But it did give him certain freedoms. It did enable him to carry out one last tribute to his friend
The long boat pulled away silently from the quayside. Styles and Matthews were pulling for all their worth. Commander Hornblower was staring at his new command, the Retribution. Yes, he could just make out the new name glittering in the moonlight. With its fresh paint the little ship looked like a pretty toy placed by a child in a tub of water. The sea was that still. Then he glanced down at the white shape lying at the bottom of the boat.
"Not long now Archie," he whispered.
The atmosphere was like that of a dawn raid, hushed and horribly tense.
"Are you frightened Archie?". He thought of the naïve question he had asked before the Papillon cutting-out raid. They were all bloody frightened. Especially Archie, with that demon Simpson in the same boat.
"No panic now. I am a little frightened though Horatio. It doesn't hurt. Don't let them say it hurts. There, better already."
Archie's last thoughts had been to put Horatio's mind at ease. Of course it hurt, of course it wouldn't get better. And Horatio could do nothing about it. In his despair, he hadn't even been able to hold Archie's hand. He could only utter stiff words, meaningless words:
"It has been an honour to serve with you Archie."
That was all he could do now. Serve Archie's honour.
They had washed the body and put on full dress uniform. Matthews had sewn up the hammock and Horatio had brought the Union flag with him. Now, with Matthews and Styles standing to attention, he read the old, comforting yet terrifying words from the King James Bible:
"We therefore commit his body to the deep to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea shall give up her dead and the life of the world to come through Our Lord Jesus Christ, who at His coming shall change our vile body that it may be like His glorious body according to the mighty working whereby He is able to subdue all things to himself."
"If Mr. Hornblower has given his word, then that holds good for me too."
Yes, Mr. Hornblower was giving his word.
"Lord, if you're there, this is my dear friend. I have been forced to give him over to you. I didn't want to and I wasn't ready to. There is nothing about him that is "vile" or "corrupt". Welcome him to, to wherever he's going. Look after him for me. Bring him peace and joy. Never let him be afraid again. One day I will restore his good name I give my word on it."
Was this a presumptuous prayer? Horatio thought it might be. But it had formed in his heart, not his head.
There was a splash and Horatio was aware that Matthews was quietly weeping. Styles had disappeared, but suddenly there was a sharp retort. Single-handedly he had fired a canon.
"It just went off sir," he muttered sheepishly. "While I was cleaning it like."
"Yes, alright Styles. It's alright." He had a picture in his mind of Archie ducking when Captain Pellew had fired a salute to them as they returned to Spanish imprisonment.
Horatio's soul was imprisoned now in a dark and fearsome place. Far, far more terrifying than Don Massaredo's oubliette.
"I won't survive without you, Archie, I won't survive."
Where was that loyal, kindly spirit travelling to now? Certainly part of it would remain with Horatio all his life. He had a duty to survive and to live that life. It was Archie's precious gift to him:
"Take it Horatio. Just take it and say goodbye."