Second Chances
by Idler

Readers:

This story was inspired by Ioan Gruffudd’s striking resemblance to my mental image of, er,…another of Britain’s fictional naval heroes. It made me wonder…what would that man’s dearest friend have to say to Archie? This story may not make much sense if you are not acquainted with the Rear Admiral. If you are, I must apologize in advance. I not only meddled with time (as he appears as he was c.1816), I also made him a bit more forthcoming than he usually tended to be, and provided a possible (though no doubt erroneous) explanation for some of the difficulties he had when last we saw him. Nonetheless, I thought he might have some important things to share, and may possibly sow the seeds of future behaviour.

I make no claim upon any of these characters, and use them strictly for the entertainment of others who have enjoyed their creators’ works as much as I.

And please be generous, as this is my first attempt at writing fiction. …………Idler

 

It seemed almost unreal. To be standing once again on the familiar deck of the Indefatigable, watching the stars, and the sea. Breathing the clean salt air. To be…free. Archie sighed heavily. So why was it so hard?

As Hornblower came offwatch, he noticed the still figure at the taffrail. ‘Archie’, he thought with no small satisfaction, as a slight smile played across his face. It had been just over two weeks since they had returned to Indefatigable, so it was still something of a pleasant surprise to see his friend back where he belonged. He felt certain that Archie must be enjoying his freedom, savouring it. Why else would he be standing here, alone in the darkness, when any sensible officer due to stand the forenoon watch would be abed?

Archie must have heard some small noise; he swung round to face Horatio as he approached. Hornblower stopped short, taken aback by the anguish plainly written on his friend’s face. The last time he had seen Archie show such hopelessness and despair was during an unguarded moment aboard the Spanish longboat as they were being rowed back toward El Ferrol, and captivity…away from the Indy. Archie had seemed somewhat subdued since their return, but Horatio had attributed it to an understandable readjustment to living once more in the midst of the closely packed humanity of a ship of war. Apparently, it had been something else entirely.

"Oh God, Horatio…I cannot do this." It was a cry torn from Archie’s heart. "I am no longer fit for this–if I ever was. I should have stayed behind; you should have let me die."

Hornblower was acutely aware of his own tendency toward mental self-flagellation. He, at least, had the good sense to not share his misgivings with anyone who would listen. This night, it had seemed a long watch; he was cold, tired and hungry, and had surprisingly little tolerance for Archie voicing his doubts and fears aloud. Again. He could accept it, back on El Ferrol. The man he had found there was close to madness, nearly broken in body and spirit. But to his disciplined mind, that man was gone and this one stood in his place. It was time for Archie to put it behind him. He was once again an officer in this ship, with responsibilities to others whose very lives depended upon his stability and judgment. The time for the luxury of self-indulgence was past. Uncharacteristic impatience overwhelmed him and he snapped "Brace yourself, man! You are a King’s officer again, not some pathetic prisoner groveling in a cell!" Later Horatio would cringe inwardly at the cruelty of his words.

Archie stared at him; hurt, shocked, then he straightened as if drawing on some inner resolve. He said softly, coldly, "You are quite mistaken, you know. I will always be that pathetic prisoner. In your eyes, and in the eyes of the men." Horatio was astonished by the bitterness in his friend’s voice. "But you …to the men, you can do no wrong. The very model of a King’s officer, you are. Look at your record, for God’s sake. You damn near kill me, leave me behind, then lose the boat, and me, entirely. Did you ever think of looking for me? Then you sail the prize you so gloriously captured into the middle of the whole damned Spanish fleet. You and your crew are taken with a complete lack of resistance on your part. Once in prison, you fail to control your men and cannot prevent them from launching an escape attempt that you knew would be doomed to failure. And through most of it, what were you doing? You were strolling with the ‘duchess’, dining with that bastard Masseredo."

 

His voice dripped with wrath. "I was in that hellhole for three years, trying to escape but failing...and paying dearly for it…every time. Then you, His Majesty’s finest, appeared, and I was freed in a matter of weeks. Well, thanks to you, here I am, pretending to be a midshipman again. Failing miserably yet again. I have seen the Captain, the others, watching me when they think I am not looking. Waiting for me to crack, or have another fit. I am certain they would prefer that I were still rotting in that miserable hole–and good riddance. And where did your failures get you? You are still the Captain’s favorite, everyone’s golden boy. Damn you, Horatio. A few more of your crashing blunders and you will be promoted Admiral." He stormed off, his face contorted with rage, leaving Hornblower staring after him in disbelief.

He could hardly believe this was the same Kennedy he had always known. First in Justinian, where he had somehow managed to retain his good humour despite enduring God knows what at the hands of Jack Simpson. Later, the maturing young officer in the Indy, free from fear–at least for a time–and finally the man he had found at El Ferrol. Nearly destroyed, but still able to reach deep within himself to find the strength to go on. Hornblower had never seen this much anger–hatred, even–in his friend’s eyes before. He supposed that a resurgence of Archie’s old fire was a good thing; he wished with all his heart, however, that he had not been its target.

Neither young man had taken much notice of the dim light emanating from the partially opened skylight which lead to the captain’s cabin below. Captain Pellew and Indefatigable’s newly acquired surgeon, Dr. Luis Sebastian, had been quietly discussing the state of shipboard medicine but had fallen silent when the sound of the angry exchange above them reached their ears. "Whatever am I to do with that one?", mused Pellew, shaking his head. "I despair…I really do."

 

Sebastian hid a slight smile as he settled back in his chair. "When Mr. Kennedy first returned to this ship, he could speak of nothing but Mr. Hornblower. He sees him as the anchor which tethered his fragile hold on reality…and life itself. He believes, quite rightly, that without it, he would have been lost. Unfortunately, that also causes him to view himself as weak, dependent–and he despises himself for it. I do not know either young man well…yet. But I had the opportunity to observe them together in the sick berth for the first few days after their return. It was obvious to me that Hornblower needs Kennedy as well. For different reasons, of course, but the need is no less. As I see it, these young men bring out the best in each other. I do not know what to do for Mr. Kennedy–he still needs more time to heal, both physically and emotionally, before he can be the sort of officer he aspires to be."

He paused, busying himself with the intricacies of lighting a fresh cigar. When he at last looked up, his expression had altered to a look of resolute introspection. "It was surely Divine Providence that brought Mr. Hornblower to the very cell which confined Mr. Kennedy and guided their safe return to you. I have faith that God will continue to hold Archie in his hands, to provide the means for his recovery–though I do not know how…or when. But I shall pray for this."

 

 

II

The day dawned grey, with a distinct damp chill on the wind. "In for a bit of weather, we are" muttered the master. He was rarely wrong. Archie stood on deck beside him: immaculately turned out, hands clasped behind his back, projecting the very image of calm self-assurance. Privately, however, he considered it fortunate that appearances could be deceiving–he felt as though he were on the stage, acting a part. He had lain awake most of the night thinking about the source of his unwanted conflict with his best friend, and remained as yet unable to reconcile his emotions. Part fury, part envy, part terror.

A call from the masthead lookout woke him abruptly from his reverie. "Deck there! Sail fine on the larboard quarter–she’s a frigate, closing fast!" Archie quickly turned to go below to inform Captain Pellew…and narrowly avoided cannoning into him. The Captain must have heard the lookout’s hail just as he was arriving on deck for his morning inspection.

 

Pellew coolly looked down at him, thoroughly dismasting Archie’s frail confidence as only he could. "Mr. Kennedy," he snapped shortly, "as you are so eager this morning, take the telescope and get yourself up to the masthead. Find out who this newcomer may be."

Archie slung the powerful signals telescope over his shoulder, tucked the log into his jacket, and began to climb. I have not done this for three years, he thought incredulously. Sometime during those three years he must have forgotten how long a climb it was, as he was gasping for breath by the time he hauled himself up beside the lookout. The seaman regarded him with an amused grin and pointed. Even so, it took Archie a long moment to steady the telescope sufficiently to pick up the vessel’s topsails on the horizon. He studied the bright patches of color and consulted the signals log, then called down "She’s made her number: Innominate, 36, Captain Ian Clarke. She flies a Rear Admiral’s broad-pendant as well."

Curious, Pellew thought, a Rear Admiral aboard a frigate, and no squadron in sight. So…the flag was merely a matter of courtesy.

Archie’s voice drifted down. "She’s signaling, Captain: ‘Heave to, have dispatches’. And ‘Captain repair on board’, Sir".

"You may rejoin us now, Mr. Kennedy." As Archie arrived on deck by way of a backstay, Pellew could not help but notice that he was pale and sweating badly. Not fit by a long shot, he thought. Game, though, as he was grinning hugely nonetheless.

Indefatigable lay hove to, awaiting Innominate’s arrival. Each of her company watched the approaching frigate with curiosity, wondering what news she might bring, what reminder of home. It seemed an age before she drew close enough for a boat to be lowered. Pellew had been pacing in his cabin, fiercely determined to not convey his anxiety to his officers. He reviewed the alternatives in his mind. Indefatigable had previously been ordered back to Portsmouth …but what now? New orders, reassignment, perhaps? The possibilities were endless. He nearly sagged with relief when Kennedy finally appeared at the cabin door. "Mr. Bracegirdle’s respects, Sir, and your gig is ready." Pellew carefully kept his face impassive, revealing nothing, and replied calmly "Thank you, Mr. Kennedy; I shall be on deck presently."

It was early evening when Pellew finally returned to Indefatigable, appearing uncharacteristically preoccupied. As he arrived through the entry port, accompanied by the twitter of calls, he snapped "My compliments to my officers; I will see them in the chartroom directly".

As the officers assembled, Pellew noticed with considerable dismay that Kennedy and Hornblower, inseparable these past two weeks, stood apart from one another and studiously avoided meeting each other’s eyes. Apparently, the rift between them was not yet mended. He cleared his throat and began. "I met with Captain Clarke and received dispatches which we are to deliver to the squadron located off Malta, prior to our return to Portsmouth. I also met briefly with the Rear Admiral. He is aboard taking passage to England, as he is no longer on active duty; rather, he has been serving the Admiralty in an advisory capacity."

 

"Ah, of the Yellow Squadron", whispered Archie, grinning, out of the corner of his mouth to Bracegirdle, who shot him a withering look in return.

 

He had not spoken quietly enough, obviously, as Pellew angrily thundered "Hold your tongue, Mr. Kennedy! I have been acquainted with the Rear Admiral for many years. He is a man of great courage and high integrity, and deserves better treatment, particularly from a midshipman such as you."

Archie quailed, and fervently wished he’d had the wit to keep his thoughts to himself. Three years apart from naval discipline had done him no good. The Captain scowled darkly at him as he continued "We will depart at first light to rendezvous with the squadron. Should any of you wish to send letters for home, I suggest you prepare them now. You are dismissed." Feeling properly ashamed of himself, Archie made to join his fellow officers filing out of the cabin.

"Not you, Mr. Kennedy!", snapped Pellew.

 

Archie turned, cheeks flushing scarlet with embarrassment. "I am truly sorry, Sir. I spoke wrongly, without forethought, and for that I sincerely beg your pardon."

Pellew folded his arms and glared at him, dark eyes flashing with anger. "You have no idea how wrong you were, Mr. Kennedy, but I intend for you to find out. The Admiral is on passage to England, as are we. He is in need of an aide for the duration of the journey. You write a fair hand and have," he glowered, "usually, an acceptable manner. I have offered him your services; you will report to him tomorrow at the end of the morning watch. We shall rendezvous with Innominate at Portsmouth; you will rejoin us there." Pellew saw the questioning look on Archie’s face but gave him no opportunity for satisfaction. "You are dismissed, Mr. Kennedy," he said harshly, "make yourself ready to depart."

Much later that evening, as the ship was quiet, Pellew sat in his dimly lighted cabin, silently watching Dr. Sebastian as he moved to refill their goblets. He could sense that Sebastian was troubled, but waited. He would ask in his own time. Their glasses were nearly empty when Sebastian finally spoke. "Captain…you are sending Mr. Kennedy to Innominate? May I ask why?"

Pellew sat in the semidarkness, seemingly intent on swirling the dregs in his glass. When he finally raised his gaze to meet Sebastian’s, his face was deeply lined with concern. "I am not entirely certain myself. When Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Kennedy first came under my command, I quickly recognized Hornblower’s brilliant potential. A hard standard to ask any of his fellow officers to meet. And Mr. Kennedy…" Pellew sighed. "Mr. Kennedy paled considerably in comparison, to my mind. And then the fits…well, I fear I did not give him much of a chance." He lapsed into silence, apparently concentrating once more on what was left of his drink.

"And now?" prompted Sebastian softly.

The darkness could not hide the intensity of Pellew’s expression. "Now, I fear I sorely underestimated this young man. He survived three years of imprisonment under utterly deplorable conditions. During that time, he continued to attempt to escape, even though knowing his recapture would bring even more brutal punishment or even death. When Mr. Hornblower found him, he had survived a month in an oubliette, an experience which can irreparably break even the strongest spirit. And yet, he was willing to risk his life to save those shipwrecked on the reef and, even more incredibly, to willingly return to his captors because Hornblower had given his word of honour that he would do so. Despite all appearances to the contrary, this young man has considerable steel." Pellew sat back in his chair.

‘If you only knew the rest’, thought Sebastian, ‘what Archie endured aboard Justinian, before he came to you. Perhaps someday…’. Aloud, he said only, "But why, then, would you send him away?"

Pellew smiled slightly. "This time, I have been watching him. As I am sure you know, Doctor, he is not nearly recovered from his ordeal. I have seen how he struggles to hide his weakness from me, and from his men. I could temporarily relieve him from duty, of course, but you and I both know that it would be viewed as a lack of confidence in his ability, which would do him far more harm than good."

Pellew rose, gripped his hands behind him, and began to pace the cabin. "When Captain Clarke transferred his dispatches to me he also expressed great concern for his passenger. The Rear Admiral taking passage to England aboard his ship is to be preparing various reports for the Admiralty; however, he has sent the captain’s clerk away and will see no one. He will not even speak with Clarke. I first met him years ago, and our paths have crossed several times since. He is a fine man but has had much to endure, these last few years. I will lend him Mr. Kennedy…as an aide, perhaps. I have a feeling, nothing more, that Mr. Kennedy’s presence could be of some value to him. Moreover, the passage would give Kennedy three weeks to mend without feeling that he is being excused from duty, away from all who are aware of his past. It somehow seems like the right thing to do." Pellew stopped pacing, his dark eyes fixed intently on Sebastian, as if willing him to find fault with the plan.

"The Rear Admiral …who is he?" asked Dr. Sebastian. He looked up in surprise when Pellew spoke his name, and exclaimed "But I also know this man, Captain! I treated him in London some years ago, following the shipboard amputation of his arm. He very nearly perished aboard ship, then had further complications once ashore…had a second brush with death, in fact, which is when I became acquainted with his case. I have followed his career; at least, what remains of it, since. Like our Mr. Kennedy, he has seen more than his share of suffering. His amputation, I am certain, continues to cause him constant pain, and when I saw him, he was beginning to notice the effects of catarractae lenticularis "…he noticed Pellew’s puzzled expression and elaborated, "a clouding of the lenses of the eyes. All too common in sailors, especially those with light eyes such as his, after years of staring into the sun’s unrelenting glare. By now, he is probably experiencing substantial impairment; it is more than likely that he can read only with considerable difficulty, if at all. Of course," he mused slowly, "this man would never admit to it."

He sat, lost in thought, for several long minutes, then looked up with a gentle smile.

"Do you remember what I said, that our Lord would provide for Mr. Kennedy? I believe He has. Perhaps for the admiral as well."

 

 

 

III

True to the master’s prediction, the next morning was wet and bitter, with a rising wind lashing the icy rain through the rigging. By the time the jolly boat reached Innominate, Archie was soaked through, thinking he had never been so miserably cold in his life. He endured a few hard stares from the boat’s crew, who were even wetter than he. Trying manfully not to shiver, he arrived on deck and presented himself to the lieutenant on watch, who looked as wretched as he felt. The lieutenant eyed him sympathetically. "Go below to the midshipmen’s berth; one of them will find you space. Get into a dry uniform, should you have one–this will be quite bad enough without …" he broke off hastily, realizing that he had doubtless said far too much already.

 

Archie obediently went below, carrying the small bundle of clothing he had brought with him. He stooped to enter the cramped, airless space. A very small midshipman…no more than a boy, really…looked up at him from his study of navigation, a trace of apprehension in his eyes. Archie was suddenly aware of how much older, and larger, he was…and thought of Simpson. He gave the boy a friendly grin. It was almost heartbreaking to watch him visibly relax. Oh God, I must have been just like that, he thought and thrust out his hand. "Archie Kennedy, from Indefatigable. I am here just until we reach Portsmouth, as I am to be assisting the admiral," he explained, hoping to put the boy at ease.

The young midshipman accepted his hand with a tentative smile. "Aidan Fraser", he said in a soft Scots burr. "Here to assist the admiral?" His smile widened. "I hope you have a thick skin!" He made no further comment, as he helped Archie rig his hammock and indicated some hooks where he could hang his wet gear out to dry. Though ‘dry’, Archie thought wryly, was a generous description for anything aboard this ship, given the current weather.

Once reasonably presentable in a fresh uniform, Archie made his way to the wardroom and reported with some trepidation to the first lieutenant, who examined him critically and said, not unkindly, "You will do. I suppose it is time to get the Captain; then we will all face the lion in his den." Archie dutifully followed the lieutenant, though all the while pondering the disturbing comments that had accompanied his arrival. This was a punishment after all, it seemed. He found himself wishing that he had made peace with Horatio before he had left the Indy, as it appeared that he may not survive the passage intact.

They found Captain Clarke leaning moodily against the chartroom table, reviewing their course with a pair of brass dividers. A tall, ungainly man, he looked more like a tired schoolmaster than captain of a frigate. He looked up as they entered, and smiled thinly. "Mr. Kennedy, I presume. Captain Pellew informs me that he can spare you for the next few weeks. I am indeed grateful." It appeared to Archie that Clarke had been about to say more, than checked himself. "Allow me to present you to the Admiral."

They approached the door of what had been the Captain’s cabin. Archie observed a brief exchange of glances between Clarke and his first lieutenant. It could have meant anything, but it served only to increase Archie’s sense of dread. Clarke knocked: they were committed.

"Come," said a harsh voice, though its tone distinctly indicated the opposite.

The rear admiral sitting at the Captain’s desk was nothing like Archie had envisioned. Archie’s general impression of a flag officer was a commanding presence wearing blinding amounts of gold lace and a haughty attitude. This man, however, hardly fit that description. Despite the cabin’s damp chill, he sat at the ornate desk in his shirtsleeves…or sleeve, more accurately, as the right hung empty. His hair was quite grey, pulled untidily back in a common seaman’s queue. The uniform coat, tossed carelessly on a nearby chair, was faded, the once bright braid badly tarnished from long exposure to salt spray. The admiral dropped the page he had been examining, hastily but incompletely concealing what appeared to be a large hand-lens. He looked up with more than a trace of hostility on his weather-beaten face and in his blue eyes. "WHAT?" he growled crossly.

Archie took a step forward and said crisply "Midshipman Archibald Kennedy, Sir, reporting for duty". He forced himself not to back down under the older man’s intense scrutiny. "As your aide, Sir, for the remainder of your passage". He was astonished to see what could only be described as fury building on the admiral’s face.

"Sir" Captain Clarke interjected quickly, "I thought it best…this young man was available. Perhaps he can be of some assistance to you in the preparation of your reports."

The Rear Admiral regarded him with a stony stare. "I requested no… assistance". He fairly spat the word out, as if it were a curse. With an obvious effort, he rose and made his way to the large bank of windows, and peered aft. Damn that Clarke, he thought angrily. The Indy was rapidly falling astern and barely visible through the sheeting rain; with the rising wind and sea, returning this errant midshipman would be difficult. Unfair to the boat crew, who would face a hard pull both ways. Damn. "Since you are here," he said abruptly, without turning around, "perhaps you can be of some use. Return at eight bells. For the moment, however, you are dismissed."

Captain Clarke escorted Archie from the cabin. Once safely on deck, Archie looked at the captain inquiringly, hoping for some sort of explanation for this peculiar reception. "Come with me to the wardroom, as my cabin is occupied" he grimaced; "we may speak further there".

Once seated at the wardroom table, Clarke leaned back in his chair and spread his big hands. "I am sorry, Mr. Kennedy, but I did not know what else to do. It is my responsibility to get the admiral safely to England. I am aware that he has many reports to present to the Admiralty upon his arrival; however, I also know he is not prepared yet refuses to let my clerk even set foot in his cabin. He brought no servant but sent mine away. He allows his meals to be brought to him but barely touches them, if at all." He repeated, helplessly, "I did not know what else to do."

Clarke saw the questions plain on Archie’s face and added "You may speak freely, Mr. Kennedy."

"Captain Clarke, Sir…it appears that the admiral was not expecting me."

"That is true." Clarke sighed gustily. "It was unfair to you, I know. Had I informed him, he would have refused your aid. But I know his reputation well enough to guess that if you were already here, he would not send you back."

"What ails him, I wonder…", mused Archie. "Drink, perhaps?" .

Clarke shook his head. "No. I thought as much, but that which was in my cabin remains untouched".

Archie’s face creased in a puzzled frown. "But Captain, how do you think I can help? And, if I may ask, why is it your concern? Is it not his own responsibility?"

Clarke shrugged. "I suppose it is. But even so, I feel compelled to do something. Anything. And Pellew felt the same. I did not know him, before, but your captain did. He was quite shaken when he left the admiral’s quarters yesterday, which was when he approached me regarding your temporary reassignment. He did not share any details with me, other than that he had always held the rear admiral in the highest regard. He gave me no indication whatever about your role, save to tell me he was confident that ‘you would fathom it out’. And that will be the sum of your duties while aboard, as I have sufficient officers; there will be no need for you to stand watches. You have been given space in the midshipmen’s berth?"

"Yes, Sir, I was made welcome", replied Archie.

"Then prepare yourself to report to the admiral at eight bells, as ordered." Clarke stood, stretched, and made to leave the wardroom, then turned. "Mr. Kennedy…"

"Yes, Sir?"

"Good luck. You may need it."

Good Lord, thought Archie, what had Pellew gotten him into? And why? The squalls had abated while Archie had been in the wardroom with Clarke. He decided to take a turn around the deck, as that often helped to clear his mind. As he slowly paced, pondering the strange course of events, a grizzled older seaman approached him, knuckled his forehead, and ventured "Beggin’ yer pardon, Sir, but…yer here to be helpin’ the admiral?"

Amazing, thought Archie, how quickly word travels through the lower decks. "Yes", he admitted, "though I am not sure how."

"Well, Sir, I were one o’ his men, once. He were a young cap’n then…an’ we was a fine ship. It were just a little 64, old and summat’ rotten." He looked up to meet Archie’s eyes, and smiled proudly. "But the Cap’n could handle her like she were a frigate. We done things you wouldna’ thought we could. I ain’t seen the like of him since, y’know–none finer, nor braver, nor a better seaman. He’d a’ sailed us through the gates of hell and back agin…and we’d a’ gladly gone wi’ him. He were always thinkin’ of his men, y’see…not like some." He shot a furtive glance around the deck, hoping he had not been overheard. He put his face close to Archie’s and whispered "Y’know, we was in the Great Mutiny, at the Nore…but we was willin’ to let him stay w’ us–an’ he did. An’ when things got out o’hand, we made a break fer it an’ he got us the hell out of there."

"Thank you for telling me. Might it do some good for you to speak to him, I wonder? Has he recognized you, er…….."

"Huggard, Sir" the man volunteered. He smiled, abashed, and shuffled his feet. "Bless you, Sir, don’t say nuthin’. I don’t think he could rec’nize me now, anyhow, though he knew us all b’name. It were a long time ago. But you shoulda’ seen him then, Sir. He never stayed safe up aft. I kin still see him, shoutin’, leadin’ us, boardin’ them Frogs…an’ Gawd A’mighty, could he fight." He looked Archie squarely in the eye, deep distress etched on his weathered face. "Looks to me like he’s quit fightin’. Please, Sir, do what you can fer ‘im. He don’t deserve this."

"Well, …er, Huggard…I will surely do whatever I can."

Huggard knuckled his forehead again and mumbled "Thank ‘ee Sir". He ambled off to rejoin the press of offwatch men taking full advantage of the break in the rain to catch some fresh air on deck. Damp or no, it was a distinct improvement over the stuffy and malodorous climate belowdecks.

Archie stood, deep in thought, watching Innominate’s crew. What was it that Samuel Johnson had said of the Navy…"a man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company". He smiled wryly. Obviously Dr. Johnson had not spent much time in a Spanish prison lately. Conditions at sea had improved somewhat, thanks in part to the Great Mutiny. He had missed that black mark on the Navy’s history while in captivity. Horatio had told him some of it, how the seamen in the fleet at anchor at Spithead, then at the Nore and Yarmouth, rose up as one, objecting to the miserable conditions that were tolerated as being a sailor’s lot. Most officers were put ashore with their dunnage. It was the rare captain who was invited to stay–and the exceedingly rare captain who accepted the offer.

The mutiny at Spithead was a more or less orderly affair but at the Nore, however, it had been a different story. It began in support of the Spithead uprising, but persisted even after the Channel Fleet returned to service, spurred on by a firebrand organizer. The crews of a handful of ships recognized that things had gotten beyond reason, and sailed through the mutinous fleet to freedom despite being fired upon. The admiral’s ship must have been among those few.

What kind of man had he been, then, to inspire such deep and lasting loyalty and concern among both fellow officers and seamen alike? And what could this miserable excuse for a midshipman possibly have to offer such a man? Archie stared at the featureless horizon until his eyes watered, but it provided him no answers.

It would have been no comfort to him to know that Pellew, at that moment pacing fretfully in Indefatigable’s cabin, would himself been hard-pressed to explain. Pellew did know that if anyone could help his old friend, it would be Kennedy. Regardless of his apparent shortcomings as an officer, it was difficult not to be charmed by the young man, with his guileless, open face and irrepressible humour. Pellew recognized Hornblower’s frequent dark, self-critical moods and had observed that at those times Archie seemed to be especially drawn to him, invariably managing to lift him from them. He doubted that Archie could have articulated how–he was probably unaware that he even did so. He could only hope…and pray…that Archie might find some way to reach the admiral as well. He had been shocked to find what little remained of the vital, courageous man he had once known and deeply respected.

 

 

 

IV

 

Dear God, the pain was bad today. Most days, he could master it. A constant companion, but oddly it steadied him somehow, gave him focus. Kept his mind occupied and prevented his thoughts from straying into more treacherous ground. But not today. He gritted his teeth against it. How could something missing cause so much pain? Far too easily, the admiral realized suddenly, as he considered all that was lost to him forever. His dearest friend, his beloved wife, his command…all gone. His arm was almost the least of it. His gaze wandered to the decanter on the sideboard. It would be so simple. It would dull the pain…all of it…for a while. Just as quickly, his innate sense of what was right and proper made him reject the idea out of hand. He had known others who had succumbed to that temptation, for a variety of reasons, and held only contempt for them. The one time he attempted to drown his pain in spirits had ended in outright disaster. He had vowed then that never, never, would he start down that road again.

He heard the marine sentry outside the cabin door shift uncomfortably, undoubtedly bored. Nothing for him to do, really. Few comings and goings from this cabin since he had occupied it. Were it up to him, he would dismiss the man. He had always felt that a sentry was unnecessary, as it would have been a sad day indeed had he ever needed protection from his own men. Nevertheless, it was the Navy’s way. He glanced around the Captain’s quarters with hatred. This was where he belonged…but not this way. In his own cabin, on his own ship. Most of the passage thus far had been spent inside this cabin, alone. He refused to go on deck–once there, he would doubtless be forced to make conversation with the captain. He had no wish to do so, no matter how well-meaning Clarke might be. It was a terribly hard thing to be transported like a piece of cargo, to be aboard a King’s ship and not feel a part of her…regardless of the flag she flew at her mizzen.

He pulled out his watch and tried to bring its face into focus, then swore under his breath and retrieved the hand-lens. About time for that damned midshipman to report…an aide, for God’s sake. At least it was better than the captain’s clerk. He had serious doubts about his ability to conceal his declining vision from a sharp-eyed clerk–who might reveal his discovery to the Captain. And God only knew who he might tell. It had begun during his final years of active duty, but he had been able to hide it. Had to retain some dignity, after all. Even his dear wife had gone to her grave knowing nothing of it. It was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid detection, however; he had had a few close calls of late. Recently, while boarding a frigate, he had misjudged the position of a guide rope and nearly gone headlong into the sea. Fortunately… fortunately–an odd choice of words, he thought… such lapses could also be blamed on the loss of his arm. Most certainly a more visible excuse.

There was a slight sound of voices outside the cabin door; the marine sentry rapped the butt of his musket sharply on the decking and bawled "Midshipman Kennedy, Sir." The door opened to admit the young man, who drew himself smartly to attention and crisply stated "Reporting for duty, Sir. I am here to assist you in any way I can, Sir."

One of Pellew’s castoffs, the admiral thought irritably. He eyed him with unconcealed contempt and growled coldly "I should damn well hope so. Though it seems you were little enough use to Pellew that he would ship you off to me, instead."

He paused, ashamed, as even to his own ears his words sounded needlessly harsh and unkind, though he was not a man ordinarily given to compassion. He could have been, but learned early on that there was little room for empathy in the Service. An overly compassionate officer could just as easily be seen as capricious, a perilous condition indeed. He had known a precious few who could safely tread that fine line, but he had little trust in his own ability to do so. He had altogether too much knowledge of incompetent captains and mutinous crews to attempt it: for him, ‘by the book’ had to be sufficient…it had to be.

He sighed deeply, profoundly depressed by the sudden realization that it no longer mattered. "My apologies, Mr. Kennedy, I had no cause to have you bear the weight of my anger. If you are to be my aide these next few weeks…" he gestured to a desk and chair. "Sit down. I do have some tasks you could accomplish." He thrust some papers in Archie’s direction. "Prepare two copies of these." Archie immediately settled in to work, his head bent over the papers, glad at last to be actually doing something.

The older man studied Kennedy, intent on the task before him. A handsome young man, but almost delicate, he thought. Another damned overbred aristocrat. Hardly the powerful, robust sort one ought to find leading men aboard a ship of His Majesty’s Navy. What he himself had been. Once. He looked down at himself, at the empty sleeve, and the other damage mercifully hidden by his uniform, and felt the familiar surge of resentment. He had always been tremendously strong: at sea since the age of eleven, never ill, even thriving in the often harsh living conditions aboard His Majesty’s ships. How had he come to this?

 

He had often thought that the honourable end for a King’s ship was to be lost in battle, giving her all for glorious victory. More than one had gone to the bottom under his own feet. Far better than to end her days ignominiously listing at anchor on ‘Rotten Row’ or worse, as a dismasted storeship or prison hulk. Not until recently had he realized that it was equally true for a King’s officer. He had never expected this to be his own fate. A useless wreck, now…he mentally shook himself, knowing there was no value in pursuing that tack.

He scrutinized the midshipman again. Better luck to you, my boy, he thought bitterly.

 

 

 

 

V

 

 

Archie sat at the officer’s table in the wardroom, sawing busily at his ration of meat, which would have been far more appropriate for the resoling of his shoes than as his dinner. But, he considered, the wine was tolerable–and plentiful. That, and the company of fellow officers who accepted him as an equal, knowing nothing of his history, made the common food seem like a banquet.

The others were understandably curious about Archie’s role as the admiral’s aide. After all, the rear admiral had been aboard for over a week yet they had hardly seen him. They had heard him, however. The wardroom had been abuzz with speculation since Archie’s arrival; they had bombarded him with questions from the moment he stepped into the room. He had little information to impart, and so turned most of their inquiries away with his usual ready humour.

The fourth lieutenant, a ferret-faced, arrogant young man who immediately set Archie’s teeth on edge, leaned across the table to pour him another glass of wine. "I will wager that it is bloody awful, trapped in that miserable old goat’s cabin for hours on end, day after day. However do you stand it?"

Something in the man’s tone made him seethe. Archie forced a smile. "It has only been a few days, after all. My only complaint could be that it is fairly boring–it is surely only a matter of time before I land face-first in the inkwell, fast asleep."

"I heard something about a court-martial, though he was obviously not found guilty since he is still in uniform" he drawled sarcastically, "such as it is. Do you know anything about that, Kennedy?"

"No, Sir, I do not, as I have heard little news from home these past few years". He did not elaborate further.

The talk moved on to other matters, when it became clear that Archie was not going to indulge in idle speculation. Archie sat sideways on the bench, with his back against the bulkhead, watching the other officers engaged in pleasant conversation and lively banter. A convivial atmosphere, in the cheery lantern light. His thoughts returned to the rear admiral, alone in the captain’s great cabin. Closed off, holding himself apart from all others around him. Never uttered any casual conversation; stolidly resisted any friendly overtures. Archie could not recall ever seeing even the trace of a smile on the man’s face. He had had ample opportunity to watch him over the past few days. It was obvious to him that the admiral was in great pain. Archie had enough experience with pain, and with the difficulty of concealing it no matter how hard one might try, to recognize it easily in another. The involuntarily clenched jaw, and narrowed eyes before even the slightest movement, as if bracing for the onslaught–the signs were all there. Archie also understood, with equal clarity, that he must never acknowledge having noticed.

Yet there was something else which caused his reluctance to join the others in their speculation. He had the strangest feeling that this was not the true man at all. When the admiral was preoccupied and not snapping with barely controlled anger, or brusque and emotionless, he had a soft, pleasant accent at odds with his usual manner. Archie could see that, though not tall, the admiral had once been powerfully built–doubtless not someone to be trifled with. Now, it was obvious that he was not sufficiently self-indulgent to let himself run to overweight like many flag officers put out to grass. In fact, he had a slightly underfed look to him, as though dining well was just one more pleasure he denied himself. He was also not as old as Archie had first thought. Just sixty, if even that. He should have had several years of active service still ahead of him, despite the obvious wounds he had suffered. Archie was as curious as the others about the admiral’s history. He recalled what Huggard had told him. It was difficult to reconcile the captain that the veteran seaman had described with the tormented man he had seen thus far. What in God’s name had happened to him?

 

 

VI

Archie and the admiral settled into a routine, with the older man grudgingly accepting his assistance. It was slow going, even so. The admiral wrote out his own reports, left-handed. Archie watched him and marveled at how well he’d adapted to it, as though he had done so all his life. He found it odd, however, that the admiral never reviewed a single word he had written; instead, invariably handing it to him to read aloud. He was beginning to have some suspicions about the cause, though he hoped he was mistaken.

One afternoon–they were all much the same–as Archie was busily preparing additional copies of a completed report, he gradually became aware of another’s voice drifting faintly into the cabin. He immediately recognized the haughty, sneering tone as belonging to the junior lieutenant, who apparently considered himself far above the position which his lowly rank ought to dictate. He listened more closely; the lieutenant was once again exercising his considerable ill-humour on some unlucky soul who could not respond in kind. "…..Idiot! Fool! You worthless gallows-bait! You and your fellows must surely be the most useless crew I have ever had the misfortune to command…"

The scratch of the admiral’s pen ceased; he had obviously heard it as well. Archie looked up to find the admiral staring at the cabin door, his bright blue eyes ablaze with anger, as the stream of invective continued unabated. "I can stomach no more of this. I have heard far too much abuse in my short time aboard this ship." He struggled to his feet and reached for his uniform coat, slipping his left arm in and easing the coat over his right shoulder. He jammed his hat firmly on his head, and looked back at Archie. "Come" he snapped. "And learn from it." His eyes were hard, his jaw set. Archie caught up with him on the quarterdeck and watched him stride confidently over to the fourth lieutenant, who was still berating the unfortunate seaman. The admiral hardly glanced at the man, sending him back to his post as he passed. He placed himself squarely in front of the astonished lieutenant and pinned him where he stood with a blistering glare. "You WILL NOT treat the men this way aboard my ship. And yes, you heard a’right–this is my ship. I have elected not to interfere with your captain’s command, but the flag that flies above you from the mizzen truck is MINE. Do not forget it."

He was controlling his temper with commendable success; his voice was low but somehow conveyed the full extent of his command experience. "Despite your fine uniform, you are no better than these men, who jump to obey your every order without complaint and sail into battle at your command. With them, you and your ship are part of the finest fighting force ever known. Without them, your ship…and you…are useless. Never forget: they are men, not beasts, or so much tackle and cordage. You rely on them for your very life. They are the backbone of this ship, not you."

His voice had risen–a fine, resonant quarterdeck voice; every man-jack on deck could hear it. "If you are wise you will learn that the heart of your ship comes from these men, from their loyalty to their ship, their mates, and for their officers, should they deserve it. The respect and loyalty of these fine men can only be earned–it is not bestowed upon you simply because you wear the King’s coat. I suggest that you realize the value of these brave men and treat them accordingly." He dropped his voice again, for the lieutenant’s ears alone. His voice took on a tone which Archie could only describe as threatening. "For if you do not, I will see you off this ship myself, if one of the crew does not see to it first. It would not be the first time." He turned on his heel and stalked back toward the cabin, leaving the luckless lieutenant gaping after him.

 

Archie could scarcely believe this was the same man he had found, solitary and diminished, in the Captain’s great cabin. The years had fallen away; he had seemingly grown in stature. This was an echo of the captain of whom the old seaman, Huggard, had spoken; the one whom his men would follow to hell and back. He looked about the deck. The men had returned to their tasks, but each bore an expression of satisfaction, of …pride. Pride in the notion that to some, at least, their worth and their sacrifices were recognized. It would not take long until word of what had transpired on deck would be told and retold throughout the ship.

Archie returned to the cabin to find the admiral having some difficulty struggling out of his coat. "May I assist you, Sir?" he asked softly, fully expecting an angry retort in response. Instead, the admiral simply nodded and half-turned, allowing it. Archie took the faded coat, unconsciously brushing at the worst of the salt stains. The admiral turned round in time to catch him doing so but only grunted "I have never had much use for the trappings of rank. Command takes far more than that."

He returned to his desk with a look of profound disgust on his face. " ‘We call you with honour, not press you like slaves, For who are so free as the sons of the waves…’ " he snorted in derision. "If only it were so. Ordinarily I would hesitate to undermine the authority of any officer aboard this ship. This one, however, had no authority to begin with. And deserves none, regardless of his parentage. I was told that his family is "highly placed". Clarke is obviously too concerned with his own advancement to chastise him. I suspect others have allowed it to continue for the same reasons. I, however, have no such compunctions. I can not allow this sort of abuse to continue–if I ruined his career, so be it. Better that than have him rise through the ranks. I was never slack, never an easy captain to serve, but my men always knew of my regard for them. In return, they gave me their best…they fought and died for me. I am not certain that I deserved it, but my men seemed to think so." He unwittingly echoed the words of the old seaman, Huggard. "There were none finer, or braver, than my men."

 

My men, thought Archie. That says so much about this man.

The admiral peered at the unfinished document he had been toiling over before he left the cabin. Archie watched him surreptitiously as he retrieved his own work. The admiral held the paper in the strong light from the window, then tossed it back onto his desk in obvious exasperation. He sighed, picked it up again and handed it to Archie. "Read back to me what I have written; I have no patience with this."

So…thought Archie, with a pang of sadness which surprised him. I was right. He accepted the papers, and looked at the admiral steadily but said nothing.

The admiral turned away to gaze out the stern windows, his face very composed. "I have not deceived you, have I." It was more a statement of fact than a question. "I have been able to manage adequately thus far, but it is getting worse. I can still write my reports, but reading what I have written…that is another matter entirely. It is like trying to read through salt-smeared glass." He turned to face Archie and shrugged indifferently. "Curse of a blue-eyed seaman, I am told. It does not matter much anymore, in any case." The hopelessness and despair reflected in his eyes, however, told another tale entirely.

"Sir," Archie ventured, "I am here as your aide, after all. Please allow me to help you. I would tell no one." The earnest sincerity in the young man’s voice touched the admiral’s heart...a thing that he would have sworn was no longer possible.

The light was fading when the admiral stood and declared "Thanks to you, Mr. Kennedy, we have accomplished a great deal today". He straightened his back in an attempt to ease the tension in his shoulders, but was unable to completely suppress the wince and sharp intake of breath from the pain the movement awakened. He hoped that Kennedy had not noticed. "Mr. Kennedy, you are relieved. Perhaps there is still time for you to take your evening meal in the wardroom–I suspect that you have had quite enough of solitary confinement in this cabin for the day."

Archie said mildly "I would hardly compare this to solitary confinement, Sir." He looked up from his work and smiled gently, successfully concealing the feelings of horror and revulsion those words awakened in the very depths of his soul.

"And what would YOU know of that?" the admiral demanded, immediately infuriated that this young privileged upstart would presume to know anything about the hardships of captivity. He knew his anger was unwarranted, but it was already far beyond his control. "I have been held captive–for several months, in fact, and have one arm less to show for it. How could you possibly have any idea…"

Archie could tolerate no more…insubordination be damned. His face hardened; he spoke with sudden intensity. "Sir, I know all too much about captivity." He had not wished to discuss it at all, but once begun, he was committed. "I too have been held against my will, captured first by the French, then given over to the Spanish. I spent three years in one miserable hellhole or another. I was not housed in comfort…I would not give my parole; it was my sworn duty to try to escape." Archie could not keep himself in check any longer, he leapt to his feet and began to pace the cabin. He met the admiral’s eyes for the first time, his face pale. His voice shook with emotion as he continued, "Oh, and I did try, five times. Each time I was recaptured, the punishment was worse than before. My last effort won me over a month in a pit in the ground, with only the rats and my thoughts for company. So yes, I can possibly know what solitary confinement entails." Archie sat down, spent with the effort of reliving it.

"Three years?" asked the admiral softly, his face rigid with thoughts of his own far shorter ordeal. "How…how long ago?"

"I have been free for nearly three weeks, Sir".

"My God" he said incredulously "why did you not tell me?" Small wonder the young man appeared fragile. He wished he could take back all the less than charitable thoughts he’d had during the past few days. This officer deserved his respect, not derision. He studied him intently, wishing he could see his face more clearly. He had always prided himself on his ability to understand the officers and men who served under him. But this–he had not expected this at all. He realized with a start that this time, he had not cared enough to look. He steadied himself and asked, "How were you finally liberated?"

Archie smiled suddenly; it was like the sun breaking through after a full gale. He answered with one word only, though it spoke volumes: "Horatio".

 

 

VII

 

The next morning the admiral made no mention of Archie’s admission. There was much to do, and they worked doggedly at it throughout the day. Darkness was falling as there came a soft knock at the door, which then opened to admit the captain’s servant carrying a steaming pot of coffee in his hands. Both men accepted it gratefully, thankful for the interruption to the day’s tedium.

The admiral sipped at the scalding coffee and gazed at Archie over the rim of his cup. His bright blue eyes were mild, almost amiable. "How did it happen, that you were taken by the French?"

"I was, er, left behind after a boat action, Sir. I had sustained a head wound." There, it was done, thought Archie. No need to provide further unpleasant detail.

"You were serving on Indefatigable at that time?"

"Yes, Sir. And I was reassigned to the Indy as well, after my release."

"And prior to joining the ‘Indy’, Mr. Kennedy…on what ship did you serve?"

Oh no, thought Archie, it follows me still. "Justinian…" he said, softly.

"Justinian?" The admiral looked up sharply. "I have heard ugly rumours surrounding that unfortunate ship. But all were lost before the necessary questions could be asked." His face twisted with disgust. "If only half of what I have heard was true, more than one of her officers should have swung from the mainyard."

Archie looked down at his hands. Clenched around his cup, the knuckles bloodless, they betrayed his external composure. Fortunately, though, the admiral did not, or perhaps could not, notice. "I was…relieved…to be gone from her, Sir."

Thankfully, the admiral appeared to accept that as a sufficient response and did not press him further. He regarded Archie searchingly. "And Indefatigable…how do you find her?"

Archie could not suppress a smile. "She is all I hoped a King’s ship would be, Sir. She has great heart."

"I am reassured to hear that, Mr. Kennedy. Your Captain Pellew is a fine man and an equally fine officer."

He said as much about you, as well, thought Archie, though I hardly think you would accept it.

The admiral sat back in his chair and gave Archie what might have been the ghost of a smile. "Even from my early days at sea, I have felt that a well-run ship has a certain spirit about her. A sort of soul, if you will. I find it encouraging that you perceive it as well. Considering some of the officers I have met of late, I had begun to lose hope for the future."

Archie looked at him in surprise. This was the first time the admiral had initiated an exchange that could be described as even remotely conversational. Perhaps disclosing his experience of captivity had not been a mistake, after all. He had feared that to reveal it would engender doubts about his fitness, as it had done aboard the Indy. Instead, it seemed to make the first, albeit tenuous, connection between himself and this stiffly reserved man. He smiled. "I would not lose hope entirely, Sir. The officers with whom I have had the pleasure of serving on the Indy are exemplary. Both as leaders of men and as friends."

"Friends" the admiral repeated thoughtfully. "Many with whom I have served believe that it is best to avoid forming any sort of familiarity with their fellow officers. They may well avoid the pain of loss, but also deprive themselves of much, in my view. If you are fortunate, perhaps one day you too will truly understand. The experience of battle, often against seemingly impossible odds, welds men together in the sort of bond that one who has not experienced it can never hope to comprehend or share." He peered at Archie earnestly. "Do you understand what I am saying, lad?"

Archie found that, to his astonishment, he was beginning to genuinely like this remote, shuttered man. "Yes, Sir, I believe I do understand exactly what you mean." He smiled, as he always did when thinking of the theatre, and recited "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…". Archie’s voice trailed off as he realized that the admiral was staring at him, visibly shaken. His face had gone a sickly shade of grey.

 

"Dear God…," he murmured, "WHAT did you say?" He sagged against the desk as though he had been struck.

Archie stammered "It…it is Shakespeare, Sir, from King Henry V…"

He got no further.

"Get out", the admiral interrupted, in a harsh whisper.

"Sir?" Archie asked, uncomprehending.

"NOW."

Archie turned and fled in confusion.

Archie stood at the rail, staring out into the darkness, wondering what it was that he had said to cause the admiral such distress. He had had time to notice, before he had taken to his heels in such an undignified manner, that the older man’s eyes were wet with tears. Tears, by heaven…the last thing he would have expected from that tightly controlled, impenetrable man. He had always viewed senior officers, flag officers especially, as lofty beings somehow removed from the emotions that frequently gripped him. He had, often enough, infuriated superior officers...caused them to fairly dance with anger and frustration. But he had never, in his short and undistinguished career, actually brought one to tears. He sighed. His career was doubtless becoming shorter and less distinguished by the minute.

Archie was sufficiently preoccupied by the dismal tone of his thoughts that he did not hear the footsteps approaching tentatively behind him. He was startled by the touch of a hand being laid gently on his shoulder. He shrank from it, as it reawakened old fears…until he heard the hesitant words "Mr. Kennedy…would you please rejoin me below?" Through the gloom he could see the admiral’s face, ordinarily so impassive, now lined with obvious emotion. He turned away quickly and headed for the hatchway, clearly expecting Archie to follow.

Archie stepped inside the cabin and drew himself stiffly to attention, and began " Sir, I sincerely beg your pardon for..". "No", interrupted the admiral. "You have no cause to chastise yourself." He walked to the sideboard, poured two large measures of brandy, and handed one to Archie. Archie was astonished to see that this seemingly unemotional man’s hand was shaking. "And sit down. Do not let rank divide us here tonight." He seated himself in one of the leather chairs in front of the desk, and indicated for Archie to take the other. He placed his glass on a nearby table, then massaged his temples with his hand. After a long moment, he looked up. "Mr. Kennedy, it is I who must apologize for my earlier behaviour. I am sorry, I…" he hesitated, as this was clearly very difficult for him, "lost control of myself. You unwittingly spoke of something painful for me to remember, but which I must not ever forget."

The admiral gazed at him intently. "Mr. Kennedy…Archie… tell me about Horatio."

"Horatio." Archie repeated thoughtfully. "We first met in Justinian, though we were transferred to Indefatigable shortly thereafter. What can I say about him? He is everything I am not. He succeeds brilliantly where I fail. I should despise him for that but…" he smiled suddenly, "…usually…I cannot. He is so straightforward, so honest. There is no arrogance, deceit or manipulation in his soul. It simply does not occur to him. He is exceptionally intelligent, though he would be the first to deny it. The mathematics of navigation, of gunnery, are effortless, like breathing to him."

"And as a leader of men…when we transferred to the Indy, he was assigned to command a division of the men who came with us. They were a rough, surly bunch, who in Justinian had been under the direction of another officer…" Archie’s eyes flashed contemptuously, "who was far less of a man".

The sudden disgust in Archie’s voice was not lost on the admiral. There is another story there, he noted, for another time.

"Horatio quickly earned the respect, and more importantly, the trust of even these hardened men. They would all willingly die for him without question. Horatio is deeply honoured and, I think, somewhat perplexed as to why they would do so. This respect is also felt by fellow officers, even those senior to him. One of the senior midshipmen transferred with us from Justinian did, in fact, deliberately give his life to protect Horatio." He looked up at the admiral, his eyes clearly showing the depth of his own admiration. "Anyone can see Horatio’s ability and promise, Sir…it is like finding an eaglet in a nest of sparrows."

The admiral studied him, deep in thought. "And you call him your dearest friend. But does he consider you his?"

Yes, I believe so, Sir, though I cannot begin to imagine why."

The admiral raised his eyebrows questioningly. From what little he had glimpsed of this young man’s character, he could hardly imagine why not. "And why is that?"

"I am not nearly the man he is. What do I have to offer to him? He is the one who found me, rotting at El Ferrol, when he and his prize crew were imprisoned there. I had been in captivity for three years…I had lost the use of my legs," he looked down at his feet, shamefaced, "and nearly my mind as well. But Horatio refused to consider escaping without me, though others disagreed with him. As I did. He encouraged me to get well, to not give in, and told me that he needed me." Archie shook his head incredulously. "No one else has ever said that."

The admiral could hear the pain in Archie’s voice, and wondered at it. "And you believed him. So you must, after all, think that you can offer him something."

"Friendship, I suppose. Someone to talk to." Archie laughed shortly, though there was little humour in it. "Though I fear that the last conversation we had did him no good." To his surprise, he found himself speaking of the hostility he had felt, and his resulting outburst to Horatio immediately prior to his temporary transfer. "I am afraid that I heaped all the blame for my past misfortunes squarely on his shoulders and expressed only resentment for his success…"

The admiral abruptly raised his hand, stopping Archie in mid sentence. "I have erred so often in this life. And none of it can ever be put to rights. All I can do is to prevent you from doing the same. If you feel envy toward your friend, you must put it aside…now." He leaned toward Archie, his face very stern, then reached out impulsively to tightly grip Archie’s arm, and shook him slightly. "Because if you do not, I tell you, it will destroy you. Remember this: you are not his equal. And never will be–few are. Just accept it. Even so, he will need you, someday. I know this; better’n most." He released his grip, looking slightly embarrassed at the intensity of his display, then reconsidered, and plunged ahead.

"I, too, have had the honour to call such a man my dearest friend. There were none like him, though it appears that you may have found another. He was everything I always aspired to be. At any moment, I would have gladly traded my life for his. In fact", he smiled genuinely, for the first time Archie could recall, "more than once I was sure I had." His smile faded, his blue eyes distant. "I always expected to–no, wanted to–fall in his defense, on his quarterdeck or, later, on my own. But in the end, I could do nothing for him. I was not even there when he fell."

The admiral did not speak again for a long time. Perhaps, Archie thought, because he could not trust himself to do so. At length, he took a ragged breath and repeated "Not even there. I failed him, even at the end. He looked for me…and I was not there." The anguish in the man’s voice was almost too much to bear; it brought a lump to Archie’s throat. The admiral dashed his hand angrily across his eyes and continued, "I have lost everything I ever cared about. I never expected it to end like this, outliving my purpose…or outliving him. I have even entertained the idea of ending it myself, taking matters into my own hands" he grimaced at his choice of words "so to speak, but I cannot. It is not right, the coward’s way out. I have never quit, never run away before. And I am still too damn stubborn to do so now." He half-smiled bitterly, though this time his eyes did not. "Besides, I can hardly load my own damn pistol anymore."

Archie groped for something meaningful to say, anything to penetrate the man’s pain. "But Sir, though you were not granted the opportunity to trade your life for his, you gave him something equally precious–your friendship. He somehow expected you to be there, at the end, which tells me that you must have been a great source of strength to him."

"No", said the admiral softly. "That is the worst of it. At times, if indeed he still thought of me as his friend, I surely did not merit it. We were the best and truest of friends for so many years. I was the one he chose to stand with him at his marriage–twice, in fact, as he once did for me. Then I allowed my own stupidity and infernal stubbornness…and envy… to come between us. I failed him, too many times. He still offered his hand in friendship to me, but I would not accept it. I was a fool. To my mind, I had a convenient excuse for rejecting him. But I deceived myself. After failing him, I simply could not take what he still freely offered. I have never been able to accept that which I did not rightly earn." He shook his head sorrowfully. "I did, eventually, feel worthy of it once again, though it cost me dear. But so many years were lost. And I caused so much grief."

"But you did regain it, Sir. He offered you his forgiveness."

"Aye, but I needed it not once, but many times". He clenched his hand tightly around the arm of his chair, his face grim. "Indeed, he offered it to me many times, but I could never take it…I never deserved it."

Archie pondered that thoughtfully for a time, then met the admiral’s gaze, his face illuminated with hope. "Perhaps it is not so much a question of your being worthy of his forgiveness. Forgiveness is not like respect, Sir. True forgiveness is a gift that is freely given and is not a thing that can be deserved, or earned. ‘How many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Do you recall His reply, Sir? ‘…not seven times, but seventy times seven’. If I may say so, Sir, it is you who must forgive yourself."

The admiral stared at him, thunderstruck. Archie knew he’d gone too far; saw the rage mounting in the man’s face, and braced himself for the tirade he knew was to come. Just as suddenly, the anger evaporated, leaving only pain in its wake. "Impossible. How could I have acted thus? I was blind, far more so than I am today. Even in the best of times, I hardly deserved his friendship. I tried my best, but I was never half the man that he was. There were none finer, none fairer, none braver, than he. Never arrogant, or abusive–he always had complete authority over his men and yet, somehow, was one of them. He truly cared for his men; hated the waste of life war made necessary. I have served others who wielded their power like a weapon. Not he. Allow me to tell you…"

Once begun, his words poured forth as if floodgates had been opened. Archie had the distinct sense that the admiral had never confided this to anyone–perhaps there was no one left to whom he could unburden his heart. He felt privileged to be sitting there in the candlelight, sharing it. The admiral’s eyes were clear, but unfocussed, as he told of his friend’s character, his quiet heroism and leadership. Instead of the indistinct image of the cabin about him, he was seeing into the past with the clarity of youth. He only alluded to his own role in the events that he related, though Archie was suddenly convinced that his must have been equally courageous.

The candles were guttering when the grey-haired man finally fell silent. He gazed at them in wonder, as if realizing for the first time that he had been speaking for hours. He had told a tale of service, in actions great and small, that stood as a legacy of one man’s character. But he had also shared a hero’s doubts and fears, regrets and second thoughts, all of which had made his friend a truly exemplary man. "I…I am sorry, carrying on like that." He shook his head slowly. "But it is all that is left. It is all I have, now. He must not be forgotten."

Archie was nearly speechless, overwhelmed by the story he had just heard. He swallowed hard. "Sir, I will not forget." He quietly left the cabin, leaving the admiral lost once again in his memories.

 

 

VIII

They never spoke of it again. Their days continued much as before, Archie writing the reports as the admiral dictated. But the admiral was different, somehow. Still not talkative, still in great pain–of body and spirit–but the walls had been breached. Archie was astounded to find that he was changed as well.

It had been surprising, and heartening, to find that even those amongst the most illustrious of His Majesty’s officers had misgivings much as he did. But they did their duty, nonetheless, and only confided their trepidation to a chosen few. It was an astonishing revelation. It was entirely possible that he was not inferior, after all…only human. Perhaps his painful history of abuse at the hands of both his country’s enemies and his own fellow officers could serve to strengthen rather than destroy him. And forgiveness…Archie had known the verses he had quoted to the admiral since childhood, but it had never occurred to him to apply them to himself. Perhaps somehow, through forgiveness…if that were possible…he could let go of the deeply held anger he felt toward so many. Simpson, Don Massaredo, even Horatio…and especially himself. It certainly bore thinking about.

Archie felt a sense of impending loss on the day the dark shadow that was England appeared on the horizon. This passage had been far more rewarding than he could ever have anticipated. He reluctantly went below to inform the admiral of the landfall.

The admiral looked up from his desk as Archie was admitted into the cabin, this time making no effort to conceal the hand-lens he had been using to review his reports. His eyes were very clear and intensely blue. Archie still found it hard to fathom that they were not as discerning as they appeared. "We have arrived, Sir; we should drop anchor well before nightfall."

"Yes", he said absently. "I think I heard the lookout’s hail. I suppose I must prepare myself to report to the Admiralty." he uttered the word with obvious distaste, and shook his head. "Far too much intrigue and manipulation in that damned place for my liking. Though I suspect I will be done with all that soon enough." He met Archie’s eyes, his gaze very frank. "Do you know, I was never comfortable with flag rank. Would that I could have remained a captain. I could have been content with that. I was far better suited to it."

A surprising admission, Archie thought. But then, much about this man has surprised me. I wish I knew more about him. He smiled to himself. Perhaps, before the Indy’s arrival, I might find time to seek out old Huggard again.

Immediately after Innominate dropped anchor at Portsmouth, the admiral was to meet the London coach to begin the seventy-five mile journey overland to the Admiralty. Archie was packing the many reports neatly into a leather carrying-bag when the door to the sleeping cabin opened to reveal the admiral. Archie could only gape in amazement. Resplendent in glittering full dress uniform, silver hanger clipped to his sword-belt, queue neatly trimmed and tied with crisp black ribbon, it was difficult to see him as the same man. Even the pinned-up sleeve bespoke courage and sacrifice instead of disability. Only the bright blue eyes were familiar–clear, steady, with perhaps a new glint of defiance.

After Archie felt confident that he had sufficiently recovered his voice, he offered "Sir, perhaps I ought to accompany you? You may have need of me…" he hesitated, unsure of how to express his anxiety that the Admiral’s fading vision would be discovered, thereby effectively eliminating whatever frail hope of future service might still remain.

"Dear God, no", chuckled the admiral quietly. "Be seen with me? And risk having a fine young officer like yourself tarred with the same brush? No, I will manage well enough…but thank you. I do understand your concern, as I must admit that I am feeling some measure of it myself."

"Good luck, Sir. I hope…"

"I know," the admiral interrupted, and shook his head. "But it is highly unlikely. They have little use for me anymore. Too many errors and bad decisions in my service for that." He smiled slightly. "Unless, of course, they are looking for someone to shoulder the blame if a dubious venture turns to dismal failure. Someone whose loss would not be too keenly felt…", the smile faded, "…by anyone."

 

*****

 

 

Archie was pleased when the admiral returned to Innominate before the Indy’s arrival, as she had been expected any day. He said little about his experience, save to reassure Archie that he had, in fact, managed. Archie, having spent considerable time with Huggard, plying him with both questions and rum, had little doubt of it.

Indefatigable did indeed arrive shortly thereafter, and was nearly finished taking on water and stores as Archie reluctantly prepared to leave Innominate. He was anxious to return to his ship, it was not that…he was simply hesitant to leave the admiral. The man was so devastated, so completely alone. Having someone–even an insignificant midshipman–to confide in seemed to have done him a world of good. What he really needed was a woman…a rare one who could see the inner man, not his disability. Archie grinned to himself, imagining how the admiral would scoff at such a notion. But perhaps she was out there, somewhere. He fervently hoped so.

Archie had put off his departure long enough; he went to the admiral’s cabin to take his leave, and was disappointed to find it empty. He was startled to find both the admiral and Captain Clarke awaiting him on deck. They shook hands at the entry port, Archie offering his left to match the admiral’s remaining hand. "It was a great honour to serve with you, Sir", Archie said with heartfelt sincerity. "I have learned a great deal."

The admiral, to Clarke’s obvious astonishment, accepted Archie’s hand, but did not release it. He smiled gently and said "No, young man, the honour was mine. I am certain that a distinguished career awaits you. But do not forget those who have gone before."

Archie returned the smile. "Sir, I will not forget any of them."

He clambered nimbly down the side and took his place in the jolly boat. He nodded, acknowledging the Indefatigable’s men manning the oars. It never occurred to him to notice that it came easily, without self-consciousness this time. How different from three weeks past. As the boat backed water away from Innominate, he was gratified to see the admiral and Captain Clark still on deck, apparently deep in conversation. Clarke seemed to be listening intently as the admiral pointed aloft…the professional seaman emerging once more.

Pellew and Dr. Sebastian watched the young man come aboard. Sebastian eyed him with more than clinical concern and marveled at the obvious change in Archie. He looked confident, even relaxed. The haunted look, the shadows under the eyes had been erased as if they had never been. Archie surely still had a long way to go, but had clearly made some progress. Sebastian glanced at Pellew, wondering whether he had seen it as well. Judging from the satisfaction plainly visible on the captain’s face, he had. That expression was quickly hidden as he turned to Kennedy and demanded "Well, Mr. Kennedy, have you had sufficient time lollygagging about the Innominate? Report to Mr. Bracegirdle immediately–I am certain he can find some work for you to do."

Archie snapped to attention. "Aye aye, Sir. At once, Sir." He relaxed slightly, and gave Pellew a small smile. "And… thank you, Sir."

Pellew said nothing, simply lifted his chin and looked down his nose by way of reply. Archie, knowing a dismissal when he saw one, hurried off to find Bracegirdle. Pellew watched him go, all eagerness to resume his duties. "My pleasure, Mr. Kennedy", he said quietly.

He examined the folded note that Kennedy had handed to him as he came aboard, addressed with a simple ‘Pellew’. Typical, he thought fondly, remembering the man he had known all those years ago. He broke the seal, opened it, saw the familiar sloping handwriting. ‘A fine young man. I am indebted.’ was all it said. But it was enough.

As the Indy warped out of the harbour, Archie stood on deck, gazing at Innominate. He smiled sadly, thinking of the fine officer the admiral surely must have been…and the fine man that he remained. Whatever would become of him? Pity that he could not be recognized for that which he could still offer, could not walk his own quarterdeck just one last time. Sad that he and his friend could not have grown old together…or died together in service to their King, and England. He was quite convinced that, despite his urging, the admiral would never completely forgive himself for not being able to trade his life for his friend’s.

Archie reflected upon his own experience. Back in El Ferrol, when he could see no future, nothing to live for, it had been ridiculously simple to be willing to die in order to not hinder the others’ escape. But now, with freedom and a second chance at the life he had dreamed of his for the taking…would he, could he ever be so selfless again, if that circumstance arose? Probably not. He thought once more of the admiral; alone, consumed by pain and regret. But my God, to end one’s days like that…

Horatio joined him at the rail and clapped him on the shoulder, abruptly jarring him from his thoughts. "Well, finally back where you belong. Penance over?"

Archie turned and grinned at him, though Horatio thought he could detect an odd trace of sadness in his eyes. "Not penance, my friend. I would not have missed it for the world."

*****

 

The rear admiral selected the strong signals telescope from the rack and trained it on the departing ship. He was forced to steady it in the nettings, as it was far too heavy–even one accustomed to it could not manage it with only one hand. Eventually he located Kennedy standing on the quarterdeck, watching the anchored Innominate as Indefatigable quit the harbour. Another young man, this one in lieutenant’s dress, joined Kennedy at the side. Hornblower, no doubt. He examined him closely through the powerful lens. Tall, slender, with a few unruly dark locks escaping from his queue. He watched as the young man placed a companionable hand on his friend’s shoulder and saw Archie’s answering grin.

He smiled, though it nearly broke his heart.

End

John 15:13

Matthew 18:21