Talk on the Quarterdeck
by Simon

 

It was late, almost the end of the second dogwatch and Lieutenant
Horatio Hornblower was breathing on his hands, trying to warm them
just a bit. There was only a sliver of a moon and the ship was
asleep. The only sounds were the creak of the rigging and the slap of
the waves against the bows.

He wasn't even supposed to be on watch now. Earlier that day
Cleveland had slipped on a wet length of decking and sprained his
ankle. It wasn't anything serious, but as he could barely hobble,
Horatio had offered to take his place. It was late and cold and he
was tired and wishing that he were anywhere else than he was at the
moment. He was also, unusual for him, bored. There was almost no
chance of either the Dons or the Frogs appearing in the sector they
were patrolling and there was nothing for him to do other than to
pace in an effort to keep warm.

The sound of a footstep behind him made him turn and he automatically
saluted as he saw Captain Sir Edward Pellew approaching him.

"Good Evening, Mr. Hornblower, I take it that all is quiet."

"Yes, sir, nothing to report."

"Ah, good. This is a long day for you, this standing the late watch
after your earlier one this evening."

"Yes sir." Hornblower wondered at the Captain. It wasn't like him to
strike up idle conversations in the middle of the night.

"Holding up alright, are you?"

"Yes, sir, thank you for asking." Well, maybe he was unable to sleep
or some such. He is human, after all. That thought surprised Horatio.
Somehow he had never thought of the Captain as human, any more than
he thought of the King or, for that matter, his father as human.
Somehow they all seemed to be beyond or above that concept. He was
tempted to ask if something was troubling him, but immediately
dismissed the idea as intrusive. Pellew was a conscientious officer;
he was probably just checking the ship, making sure that everything
was as it should be. The Captain continued to stand next to Horatio,
making him self-conscious.

After several minutes and without warning the Captain asked, "How
long has it been since you've seen your family, Lieutenant?"

Slightly startled Horatio answered, "I only have my father, sir, and
I've not seen him since I shipped aboard Justinian almost three years
ago."

Pellew seemed absorbed in his own thoughts. "That's a long time for a
father and son not to see each other. Are the two of you close?"

"Um, no sir, not really."

Pellew looked sharply over at him, his expression intent and his eyes
seeming to burn into the younger man. "Why not? Did you row?"

Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, but with no choice but to answer he
replied, "No sir, I'm afraid that my father doesn't think much of me.
He never has."

Pellew gave him an appraising look. "Why is that?"

"Ah, well, heum he blames my mother's death on me."

Whatever answer Pellew was expecting, that certainly wasn't it. "Why
would he do that?"

After an awkward pause as Horatio gathered his thoughts he
said, "When I was six there was a fever which went through the
village we lived in. When I became sick she nursed me and also became
ill. I lived, she died. . My father believed that if she hadn't been
near me, she wouldn't have become sick."

Pellew looked at him with interest. "So what did he do? Beat you?"

"No, sir. About a fortnight after she was buried I was sent away to
school. I stayed there for ten years."

"Walk the deck with me. It's too cold to stand still." Perhaps
realizing that what he was asking was really quite personal, the
Captain added, "Forgive me questioning you, Lieutenant, but in all
honesty you interest me. You have a very real talent for this life
and I've wondered how you came to be here with us. This is hardly the
expected career path for the son of a country doctor." They moved off
down the length of the deck. "You didn't go home for ten years?"

"At first I did, sir. I went home on school holidays, but when I was
about nine I realized that I was in the way when I was there, so I
preferred to stay in the dormitory instead."

Pellew was looking at him closely now. "What would you do there?"

"I'd usually spend the time reading or studying, sir."

"You didn't go home with friends?"

"I was shy, sir. I didn't make friends easily."

"I see." Horatio had the distinct impression that he did, in fact,
see. They stopped walking for a moment, turning to the rail and
resting their hands there.

"So how did you end up in the Navy?" For a moment the Captain didn't
think that he'd get an answer, but after several beats Hornblower
began to speak. He looked straight ahead of him, out to sea.

"After I finished school the headmaster told my father and me that he
had made applications to Oxford and Cambridge on my behalf and that
they had both accepted me." Horatio smiled in spite of himself at
what was obviously one of the happiest moments of his life, dropping
his mask of self control for one of the only times since Pellew had
known him.

"Oxford or Cambridge. God, sir, to be able to study at either of
them. Reading history or philosophy, perhaps really understanding the
advanced theories of mathematics. Just thinking about the books that
I'd read and the minds I'd be with" He shook his head in wonder of
what he might have done.

"So what happened? Why didn't you go? You're certainly bright enough
to have made a success at whichever one you chose."

Horatio glanced over at the Captain and shrugged slightly. "There was
no money." It was obvious to Pellew that the inability to continue
his studies at one of the great universities was a blow to the lad at
least as serious as the death of his mother had been.

"Anyway, sir, I hadn't learned a trade at school. A classical
education doesn't really lend itself to employment." He smiled at
this. "Captain Kean was a patient of my father's. They arranged that
I would be accepted as a Mid on Justinian."

"So you had no real interest in the sea of the Navy?" Hornblower
looked at the Captain, trying to judge if he was angry or
disappointed or just seeking information. He decided to be honest.

"Not at first, sir, no." He looked somewhat rueful. "I was often
seasick, and almost all the other Mids were older than I was. Then
Simpson came back and " He just shook his head at that as Pellew
nodded in understanding.

"But then after we were transferred to Indy, sir, it was different. I
began to realize why men would join voluntarily and stay for their
entire lives. I understood the sense of pride and belonging which
exists in good ships, under good captains."

Pellew almost snorted in derision at this last. "So you consider
yourself a judge of captains, do you?"

"I, umer, no, sir, not at all. It's just that you're so obviously
good at what you do, that a blind man could see it."

Hornblower didn't know quite what to make of the look of amusement on
Pellew's face. "Well, perhaps we should ship a blind division aboard
then, for everyone's enlightenment."

Just then the bell rang, signaling the time. Mr. Bracegirdle came up
to assume the watch from Horatio, saluting Pellew as he approached
them both. "Good Morning, Captain, Mr. Hornblower." The watch was
changed, but Horatio was unsure whether the Captain had finished or
not. "Mr. Hornblower, I realize that it's late, but would you care to
share a glass of port with me before retiring? I would appreciate the
company, if you're not too tired."

"Of course, sir, I'd be honored to join you."

As they made their way to the Captain's cabin, Horatio wasn't sure
what the Captain wished to discuss, if indeed there was really
anything on his mind. Perhaps he simply couldn't sleep.

They removed their hats and cloaks as they entered the cabin, hanging
them on wall pegs. Horatio sat himself where the Captain indicated at
the polished table as Pellew poured two glasses of his private stock.
The Captain handed Horatio his glass, as he tasted it, he thought
that it was probably the best wine he'd ever had.

"I'm, curious, Mr. Hornblower. If you had no interest in the sea, why
did you agree to the Navy? Surely there was something you could have
done to keep body and soul together."

"Yes, sir, I suppose that I could have found a position somewhere. "
Another of his small shrugs. "At that point, I didn't really care
what I did. This seemed as though it would suit as well as anything
else."

"That anxious to get away were you?" Horatio looked down at his
glass, declining to answer. "You're undoubtedly wondering why we're
having this conversation this evening, are you not?"

The Lieutenant looked up. "Well, yes, sir. I was, actually."

Pellew rose and crossed to his desk, picking up a letter that had
been lying there. "This arrived in yesterday's dispatches. It's
addressed to me but I thought that it might be of some interest to
you." He slid the piece of paper over; Horatio picked it up, glancing
at it.

"Sir?" He had seen enough to recognize his father's handwriting.

"Read it."

Captain Pellew, Sir, (it said)

I must ask your forgiveness at this intrusion into your time to ask
if you might be persuaded to attend a matter of great importance to
me.

My son, Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower has been aboard your
Indefatigable for over two years now. From what I understand, in that
time he has managed to serve with distinction, earning commendations
and promotion. As you may well imagine, this causes me much pride.

I fear that I must confess to you a great personal sorrow. Since
Horatio has first set foot on one of His Majesty's ships, we have had
no contact. He will not permit it. I send him countless letters that
are returned to me unopened.

I hasten to tell you that the estrangement that exists between my son
and myself is entirely of my making and Horatio bears no part
whatsoever in the making of our breech. However, as a doctor, I have
cause to believe my time is limited and I would wish for just this
last.

What I ask, as one father to another, is that you tell him that I
have always loved him, that I regret with everything in me that these
years have been wasted and that I forced him away from a life he
would have cherished. I am joyful that he seems to have found
contentment in the life he has embraced and I wish for him only that
he have the happiness that I foolishly denied us both for so many
years. I wish this with all my heart.

I beg you to do this, Captain Pellew. Perhaps we gain some wisdom in
our dying, or perhaps we simply become honest at that time. I love my
son desperately and I regret beyond measure that he will never hear
those words from my lips.

Please God, tell him this for me.

In gratitude,

Jacob Hornblower

Horatio gently put the piece of paper down in front of him, his hands
lightly clasped before him, his eyes fixed on the darkness beyond the
cabin's windows.

"Are you alright?'

He nodded, saying nothing.

"We'll be at Portsmouth in less than a week. Perhaps you could see
him."

"No, he died two weeks ago. I received a letter from my uncle in with
the dispatches. They must have been written at almost the same time."

"You're excused from your duties for the next twenty-four hours. Just
rest."

Horatio stood and turned to gather his belongings.

"Thank you, sir, but that's not necessary. Forgive me, but this
arrived ten years too late to matter."