A Short Story
by Kelly Powers
Captain Pellew was already tense about the mission as he made his way topside upon hearing his young lieutenant s voice.
"Please tell the captain I must speak to him." Shouted Hornblower from the longboat. What in the world was the lad doing, Pellew thought to himself.
"What is it, Mr. Hornblower?"
"Bad news, I afraid, sir. The Black Death is at Oran. It could only have struck today, sir."
Pellew stood there dumbfounded for a moment, his mind furiously trying to process what Hornblower had just said until Mr. Bracegirdle s voice broke through his reverie.
"Then they are already dead, sir," said Bracegirdle.
"Enough of that!" He hadn t meant to sound quite so abrupt, but it was out of his mouth before he could stop it. The Black Death, that is what he had said, the Black Death. He kept repeating it over and over again as if trying to fully get the meaning of it. It meant that his first lieutenant was probably right, they were already dead.
"Keep to leeward, Mr. Hornblower." Pellew s senses were finally coming back into focus as he remembered he must think of the welfare of the rest of the crew aboard his ship.
"Aye, aye, sir. I have a suggestion, sir."
"Yes, what is it?" Asked the Captain, not at all surprised by Hornblower s continuously working mind.
"The fleet needs the supplies. We could serve our three weeks at sea aboard the Caroline to preserve them."
"A waste of time, sir," replied Bracegirdle quietly to the captain.
"One moment, Mr. Hornblower." Turning to Bracegirdle the captain sought out his lieutenant s opinion. "You have something to say?"
"Like it or not, they ll all be dead in a week and you will lose the Caroline," Bracegirdle informed him.
"Yes, but I must weigh that fact against the chance of supplies, Mr. Bracegirdle. And at this moment, that is of far greater importance to this fleet."
Turning back to Hornblower, the captain continued. "Very well, I appoint you in command of the Caroline."
"Thank you, sir."
"Where s Mr. Tappling?"
"He s ashore, sir, with the Marines."
"Good, He may continue on as your passenger."
"Very good, sir."
"Hm, yes, what now?"
"My books, sir."
"For my examination, sir."
"Yes, right, uh, see to it." he said turning to Mr. Bracegirdle. "I hope I hope you have time to study them." Is that what he really meant to say? He didn t really know, the only real sensation he could discern at the moment was the incessant pounding in his head.
"Thank you, sir," said Mr. Hornblower as he saluted his captain.
As Pellew saluted back, he couldn t help but reproach himself for showing his emotions even slightly.
Death, it was something he saw on a regular basis, something Edward Pellew had hardened himself to along time ago. He was a leader of men, a pillar of strength aboard this ship, letting go of that was not something he welcomed or wanted, but an inevitability, nonetheless. He could feel his resolve slipping as he stood there on deck watching as the loading of the Caroline got underway. Damn, why couldn t he handle this better. He had even let his voice break as he told Horatio he hoped he had time to study for his examination. What a fine lieutenant he would have made, thought Pellew.
It was with a final farewell to Mr. Hornblower that Pellew made a hasty retreat to his cabin, informing Mr. Bracgirdle that he wished to not be disturbed. It almost felt like business as usual, the way he had instructed the boy to report in three weeks at Gibraltar. He supposed it was a way of keeping the situation optimistic for everyone involved, but that was not how he was feeling now. Now, alone in his cabin, he removed his hat and uniform jacket, the professional image he so proudly displayed on deck, and gave in to the lump that had formed in his throat. He made no sound as the tears fell unbidden from his eyes and tried desperately to gain some sort of understanding as to why he could not let himself harden to this particular death as he had accepted so many deaths in the duration of his career. How had he let this happen, how had he let this phenomenal young man claim such a large part of his soul?
He suddenly remembered a day many years ago when he had written a letter, the type of letter he had written many times as a captain in His Majesty s Navy. He had written to his dear friend, Sir Robert Harris, telling him his beloved son had died bravely during battle. He hated having to write the letter, but never felt the impact of it even after he had received a letter from Robert a few months later.
Pellew opened the drawer of his desk and pulled out a small wooden box. Opening it, he pulled out a stack of personal letters that he had kept over the years. He had no wife or children, no real family from which to receive correspondence, so the stack of letters he kept in this box was small. Going through them, he finally came across Robert s letter, folded neatly at the bottom of the stack. With shaking hands, he opened the letter and read its contents for only the second time in his life.
It is with great sorrow that I write these words. I cannot begin to tell you how much it pained me to receive your letter informing me of Henry s death. I wish for you to know that I in no way hold you responsible for what befell my beloved Henry for I know you to be a fine captain and a fine man. It was with great fear that I sent him off to sea for I knew this fate was a possibility. I can only take strength from knowing he died a noble death fighting for his country. Oh, Edward, you cannot begin to understand the desperate loneliness and pain in losing ones child. He was my most precious treasure.
Your disheartened friend,
Robert had been destroyed over the death of his son, a boy of seventeen. It made no matter that he died bravely, the pain was just as deep. He, himself, had been affected by the loss for the sake of his friend, but still unable to understand it for he had no child of his own and no idea what it was to lose one so dear. Was that possible? Is this what the pain feels like? Standing there as Horatio told him he had been exposed to the Black death he experienced a fear he had never felt before. There had always been a connection to the boy and he knew that had he been blessed with a son of his own, he could not ask for a finer child.
And the letter, there was the matter of the letter. The letter that he would have to write to Horatio s father. It wouldn t be the form letter that he had automatically written so many times to grieving parents and wives. The words he would use to describe the loss would be from his heart, felt just as strongly in writing them as Dr. Hornblower would feel in reading them.
It was this sudden awareness that brought an image into Pellew s mind. He thought back to a night, not to long ago, when he had found Horatio up on deck attempting to study for his examination. He remembered Horatio trying to keep the pages of his book from being taken by the wind. And he remembered vividly the expression on Horatio s face as he looked up at him with those wide dark eyes.
As he recreated this image in his mind a thought struck him, an awakening almost. With every fiber of his being, he wished he had been the one who had helped bring Horatio into this world. He wanted to be able to see himself in this boy, to know that he had something to do with the incredible young man he had become.
With a deep, shaky breath, Captain Pellew shook off any lingering feelings he may have been wearing on his face. The letter he held in his hand was folded neatly and put back in the small box. Putting his jacket and hat back on, he left his cabin and returned to the quarter-deck beside Mr. Bracegirdle, head held high and hands clasped behind his back. Any signs of his grief were replaced with the strong, stoic expression his crew had come to expect from him. It was time to lead this ship through the next three weeks, until their rationing would be over, or
so he prayed it would.
Looking at the charts laid out before him, Captain Pellew became irritated when he heard the cheers coming from above. He understood the crew's need for good spirits during times like these, but he had been in no mood lately to indulge in them himself. He quickly ascended to the quarter-deck to find out what the commotion was about. Upon Mr. Bracegirdle s joyous declaration that the Caroline had been spotted, Pellew let the crew s enthusiasm overtake him. All of the strain and uncertainty he had felt over the last three weeks was quickly washed away and replaced with a great sense of relief for the son returned.