The Simplest Gift
"Ha ha ha. Seasick in Spithead?" Bush asked, incredulously.
Archie nodded. "The sea was a little choppy that first day. I'll give him that.... and the 'tween decks were particularly odorous with the beasts of the manger wondering about and all the 'wives' visiting the men. Rain was keeping everybody and everything below. The only thing not staying down was Horatio's lunch. His stomach was ripe for mutiny."
"That must have been a hard one to live down," said Bush wryly.
"In his mind, he hasn't lived it down. One of the last times we were in Portsmouth he introduced himself as Leftenant Hornblower, better known as the only midshipman seasick in Spithead, to, of all people, a leftenant released from L'Impeteaux! He was in one of his black moods that day, ruminating over Pellew's lot and ours. You would have thought it was he and I sent to that mutinous ship, not Captain Pellew."
After a pause for air, Kennedy resumed. "The sea sickness is a habitual thing with him. Should you serve with him again, expect it. He will do his best to hide it, believe me. But on a fresh outing, after being land side for any length of time, he pays dearly, the retribution for time on terra firma. It takes him about three days to adjust. As to heavy weather, the first sign is not the rolling sea, but Horatio's pallor."
"Green about the gills, eh?"
A spate of coughing took Kennedy as he nodded and he did not continue for some minutes.
"Take it easy, Archie," cautioned Bush.
Calming, Kennedy breathed lightly, and Bush helped him with a drink of water.
"Better," whispered Kennedy. Archie stared into space, crinkling his brow, tightening back a smile.
"Oh, I think my favorite was the day bloody Simpson got Styles to send Horatio aloft, saying Eccleston wanted him in the fighting top. Not that I would approve of anythin' Simpson proposed, mind you. But Horatio had not been aboard more than a week when he tried the climb. Silly sod. He's always done his best to carry out orders." Archie saw in his mind's eye, Horatio clinging to the shrouds, frozen with fear. "I was about to go topside when I heard Simpson laughing. I waited until he came below and disappeared towards the midshipman's berth. Finch saw me in the shadows and motioned that I should go up. When I came on deck, I saw him immediately. He was petrified, fearing to go up or come down. Simpson delighted in making the rest of us look weak and inept. Anyway, I climbed up, helped him calm down and climb down."
"It's difficult to believe Horatio would fear anything," commented Bush thoughtfully. "Certainly, he's overcome that by now. Despite what he said on the cliff, he shimmied down that rope handily. It's always difficult the first time or two," he qualified.
"Yes," said Archie. "For the most part, he has overcome his fear, as we all do." Archie quirked an eyebrow and gave a slight snort, followed by a smirk.
Bush smiled curiously. These two friends. It was a privilege to be included in the tight circle of Hornblower and Kennedy's camaraderie. "What else have you recalled, Archie?"
Archie sighed. "I was just remembering another climb after an assignment in France. He near scared me to death on that one. Styles, Matthews, and Oldroyd were working on the main mast top gallant yard replacing frayed lines. We could hear them up there joking and laughing. Horatio watched them for a while, his face a blank, and I could not tell what he was thinking. He was not listening to a word I said was all I knew, or was just plain ignoring me. I was worried about him, you see. We had just come off a failed mission in France and he was ...well... he endured some unsettling events."
Kennedy's blue eyes reflected sadness. "Horatio is not used to losing. When he plays, he plays to win. We were just in the wrong war with those Frogs and our lobsters." Archie paused ruefully, then continued.
"Anyway, I am trying my best to draw him out of the somber mood he is in, using my best quips, as the duchess would say, and out of the blue, he steps over to the side and starts climbing the shrouds. I followed him up, and I mean he went straight up, not stopping for a second thought. He ignored my calls to explain what the devil he was doing, or why. We went as far as we could go, and Will, if there had been more there to climb, he would have kept going. I was winded when I reached the top gallant yard and I stopped to catch a breath and watch him, standing as firm as if he were on earth, mind you. He stared at the deck for the longest time and I feared he was thinking of self-slaughter. Then, old Matthews yells to him, 'Well done, Mr. Hornblower. I'm right proud of ye, sir.' I have pondered that day on many a long night's watch, wondering if those few words of praise coming from the rating were what prevented him from... " Kennedy shifted his eyes to Bush and did not complete the sentence. Looking away, Kennedy continued.
"Horatio and I could hear the three men well. It seems they had seen Horatio start the climb and had placed bets on how far he would go. That had to appeal to Horatio's gambling nature, I suppose. He must have decided he had an even chance and triumphed in the duel between life and death." Kennedy chuckled and coughed. "Matthews won the bet, much to Styles and Oldroyd's dismay." Kennedy breathed quick, striving for a clear lung full of air.
"Easy, Archie," warned Bush.
"I'm all right."
"What happened in France, if you think you are up to telling me," asked Bush.
Kennedy nodded. "He is as tight lipped as a clam about her,... and Pamela, so do not ever expect to hear of either of them from him."
"Who is Pamela?"
"Do not ask. It is too long a story. If you ever feel you must know, ask Matthews. Just ... never mention her to Horatio, if you want to keep your head."
"Very well. What of the other one?"
"I do not know how far it went." Kennedy pondered a moment and then went on. "But, I do know ... he feared she would be looked upon as a collaborator and guillotined. He convinced her to come with us. She injured her leg during the escape from town, and he was helping her, but both of them were moving slow. There was a bridge and our duty was to blow it up to stop the movement of artillery and slow the infantry down. Anyway, he was late, and it was decided we could wait no longer. In truth, we did not know if he was living or dead. Almost immediately after the fusing was lit, we saw the two of them coming. She was hit by musket fire and ... well... it tore Horatio to pieces. You know how he takes the blame for things."
The two men locked eyes.
"But not this time... eh?" said Bush placing a hand on Archie's shoulder.
Archie gave Bush a rueful gaze. "No. Not this time."
"You know we all owe you a debt..."
"Sh, Will. The walls may have ears. Commodore Pellew closed the hearing, but... let us take nothing for granted."
"You know he will blame himself. If you had stayed in bed..."
"But I could not, Will. I was the one that ... Do you not think I have replayed that night over and over, thinking what I could have done differently? Sawyer was raving," he whispered. "It was a time of lunacy and loyalty became the pawn. The man was capable of anythin'. Thinking on what could have been is fruitless. The die is cast." Kennedy closed his eyes and struggled softly for air.
"Save your strength, man. I know he will come."
Kennedy breathed in slowly and carefully, feeling the fluid in his lungs rippling inside. After a few moments of rest, he spoke.
"Will, I do not know what will happen after ... after I...." he licked his lips, then, fumbled with his hand towards the floor and made to rise.
"Here, here. What do you want?" asked Bush anxiously.
"My kit. Is it there?"
"Yes. Here you go." Bush lay it across Archie's stomach gently.
Unfolding it, Kennedy located and opened the tin box that held striker, flint, and linen, and removed from the bottom a gold crown. "Here. Take it. If the two of you get the chance, have a drink on me."
"Take it, Will."
The single shining coin was held between the index and middle finger. Bush extended his palm and Kennedy placed the coin in it, then, covered Bush's hand with his own, in a clasp of friendship.
"It is a simple gift," said Archie.
"There is nothing simple about you, sir," said Bush, wagging his head sadly.
"Do not let him mourn," said Archie. "Tell him I... tell him not to mourn for me."
"You can tell him yourself," urged Bush.
Archie shook his head. "No. I can not. I ... No, Will. I do not know what I will say to him when he comes, but..." he shook his head, "any word that would intimate remorse, I fear, neither of us would ... maintain..." Kennedy's voice broke, "I cannot be maudlin with him."
Overcoming the emotion pinking his features, Kennedy grinned, "I can only be my cheerful self," he chuckled. "I'll think of something. I have found,... a little late perhaps,... but,... I have found I work well under pressure." He giggled, then, coughed.
Bush put a hand on Archie's shoulder to steady him.
"Are you ready, Mr. Bush?" asked Dr. Clive, entering the room and eyeing the two men.
An orderly lifted and carried Bush's kit bag and waited outside the hospital jail door.
Bush nodded, then, held out a hand to Archie. "It has been a privilege serving with you, Mr. Kennedy. I will never forget you."
Kennedy smiled and grasped the offered hand and nodded.
"All the best, Will."
"You are the best, Archie. It won't be the same without you."
Blue eyes bright and shining, Archie said, "I know," and he smiled, a glimmer of sadness reflected in the saphire gaze.
Bush lifted a finger in salute. "Be seeing you, sir." He hesitated, and then turned smartly, his heels ringing in the silence.
"I'll be right back, Mr. Kennedy," said Clive and he followed Bush out.
Kennedy answered with a look, then, watched Bush's back disappear from view. "Not too soon, Will," he whispered, " Watch over our true captain, when you can. I've done my part," he smiled. "I'll see you in heaven."