The Gift
By Ruth W.

How cold it was, that raw, white morning, with the snow ankle-deep,
and the wind moaning over the moor. Nobody in their right mind would
be travelling by choice today. The innkeeper had told her she was
taking a risk, and that she might get up to the farm and find she
couldn't get back, but Emily was not put off. She had a mission
to fulfil perhaps the most important in her whole life, and she
would complete her journey or die in the attempt.

Had the situation been reversed, her brother would not have failed
her...

As the carriage drew near to the farm, the featureless, virgin white
of the open dales gave way to a huddle of mossy grey buildings
clustered around a courtyard. They rolled in, scattering skidding
ducks and hens in their path, and creaked to a halt, the horses
steaming and the iron bands of the wheels cracking the fresh ice on
the ground. The coachman opened the door for her, and she stepped
down, looking curiously up at the grey, square building of the
farmhouse, rough-hewn out of local limestone, looking as if it had
been there since time began, carved out of the very rock by the same
wind which now cut through her woollen cloak like a knife...

She was greeted by a tribe. She knew the old man had a large family,
but was still amazed when the doors opened and out into the snow
flowed a modest host. There were buxom women, a middle-aged man,
small children, medium-sized children, likely lasses in white aprons,
an ancient woman who might have been a hundred years old, several
dogs and a cat with four kittens. To Emily, who had been her own
companion for many years since the death of her father, it was a
little overwhelming.

To her embarrassment, there was much bowing and curtseying...

She put out her hand to the woman who came forward to meet her.
"Mrs. Matthews... Please," she said with a shy smile, her
breath
steaming on the cold air, "No ceremony, I beg you. I'm a
pilgrim, no
more..."

The woman grinned, a wide, pleasant grin which lit her face.
"Bless you, Lady Astwood., you must be froze...! We didn't
think you'd get up here on a day like this!"

Emily returned the smile. "I couldn't not..." she replied
quietly. "Am I in time?"

The broad smile faded a little... just a little. Emily thought that
face could not be devoid of happiness for very long. "Aye,
ma'am, God favours the Just. Grandfayther's still with us,
bless him."

A boy of about twelve took her bag and followed the women, crunching
snow underfoot, into the large, open kitchen. Behind her Emily could
hear the laughter of a couple of lads, busying themselves with
nosebags and blankets for the horses and joshing with the coachman.
She put back the hood of her cloak and stood awkwardly in the middle
of the flagged floor, resisting the urge to look about her in an
unmannerly way, but warmed nonetheless by the heat from the roaring
fire and the pots boiling on the stove. Something smelled savoury and
wholesome and substantial. In a corner of the inglenook, a neat,
beshawled young woman sat feeding an infant at the breast, smiling in
an open, friendly manner at the newcomer.

Emily lived the life of a rich war widow, in a huge house which had
been her childhood home, sole heir to the fortune which should have
been divided between six. Yet she would have given up every penny,
every brick, every blade of grass on the extensive estate, to have
cheer and light like this in her home to have a family...

At one time she had hoped against hope that somewhere there might be
some child, some long-lost offshoot of the family line, to take an
interest in and give her light for the future. But as the years
passed by, the lack of any solicitor's letter or knock at the
door with baby left on the steps of Hallowfield, had resigned her
that all her brothers had died without leaving an heir at least
one who could be traced.

Mrs. Matthews bustled about, spreading a linen square on the wooden
settle for her to sit down, making vague introductions of family
members, her husband, her son, various daughters and their children,
who all smiled and nodded in the background. Hot toddy was provided -
to warm the hands and the heart, young Jenny Matthews said with a
smile... The girl was about twelve years old, and could not hide her
open admiration for the newcomer. Her awe probably had a lot to do
with the silk dress and fashionably small hat. Emily found herself
wishing she was young and innocent and carefree enough to be thrilled
by such small, superficial things.

"With respect, ma'am," Thomas Matthews, the grandson said
confidentially, changing the subject, "Grandfayther is of a mind
to see you straight away."

"Of course." The glorious smell of meat and vegetables coming
from the cooking pot over the fire would evidently have to wait...
Emily drained her cup swiftly, the fiery liquid flushing warmth into
her frozen hands and feet, and stood up, smoothing her gown. She was
nervous. It was understandable, considering the summons she had
received, but she could not let it show. Whatever this kind old man
had to tell her, it would be in her interest and not his own, and she
must have faith.

She followed his granddaughter-in-law up the narrow, spiral stair to
the landing above, and into a large, bright room at the front of the
house with low rafters and a good fire burning in the hearth. A small
monkey, dressed in a weskit and fez hat, chattered when the women
came in, and scuttled up the faded bedcurtains to sit scolding at
them from above.

The old fellow was sitting up in bed, surrounded by pillows,
bolsters, knitted blankets and a large feather quilt, the undoubted
king of all he surveyed. He was still a handsome man, in his rugged,
sailor's way, his lined, leathered face intricately traced with
wrinkles of laughter, and his grizzled hair, once grey and now quite
white, still carried the curl which had, not so many years ago,
charmed the girls of Spice Island. When he saw Emily, his old, blue-
grey eyes twinkled the way she remembered from long ago, and he
treated her to a warm smile of welcome. The hand which he held out to
her was bone-thin but still had a grip of iron.

"Miss Emmy...!" he greeted with obvious pleasure, "I dint
think you'd come in this. There'll be another dose o'
snow before morning... but by the light, I'm glad you did...!
It's a real treat to see you!"

Emily was charmed. He had always been to her deferential, respectful,
reflecting the position of her family and the authority of her
brother, but now he was ninety-five years old, about to shuffle off
the mortal coil, and could afford to relax. She was glad to think
that he now saw fit to treat her as a friend.

"Mr. Matthews!" She grasped his hand. "I promise you wild
horses wouldn't have kept me away... Your message sounded
urgent..."

Emily sat down in the chair beside the bed. For a few moments they
sat smiling politely at one another, with the granddaughter beaming
in the background. Then she seemed to realise that her presence was
not required, for she picked up her skirts and gave a curtsey.
"If you'll excuse me, I'll fetch you something hot."

Matthews grinned cheerily at her, displaying unselfconsciously that
he still had all his teeth. "Mebbe you can stay and share a cup
o' tea with me, my lady. We saved a spoon or two against your
visit," he gave her a conspiratorial wink, "and I daresay our
Lottie
will be summat put out if you rush off without drinkin' it!"

"My dear sir," Emily said with a smile which made her look
ten years younger, "nothing would give me more pleasure!"

When Lottie had gone, Matthews' eyes returned to his visitor and
he gave her another easy smile. "You'll be wondering why I
wanted you to come, ma'am."

"I... I think it must be to do with my brother..." she began
carefully, "but I can't think what you might have to say of
him to me after all these years..."

"My word," he said quietly, "I often wonder what
he'd have looked like wi' a few years on him. Seeing your
smile,
ma'am, I can guess it now."

The simplicity and open generosity of his words floored her, and for
a moment she could not reply. When she did, it was in a husky voice
filled with suppressed emotion. "I'm told we were
alike..." she replied softly, "...as two peas in a pod."

And so they talked...

Emily stayed for more than tea. She had her dinner with him, and sat
beside the old man for the rest of the afternoon, listening with
delight as he reminisced about the early days in the good old Indy,
when her brother and Horatio Hornblower had been young men with their
whole lives to look forward to. He spoke of courage, at sea and in
prison in Spain... He told her of the times they had been not
friends, nor even shipmates, but a `band of brothers' every
bit as bonded and close as the King's men at Agincourt... And
Matthews told her of the frailties too... the mistakes and the
disasters, when things had gone badly for them all, and they had
found their way through the morass together.

And he told her that her brother had been not just one of many, but a
vital, pivotal part of those years, and the truth of that had not hit
any of them until he was dead and gone, and there was a gaping hole
where he had been.

Emily heard now, for the first time, how Horatio had behaved in
Kingston how he had had to be coaxed away from the cell where
Archie had died, as though he didn't want to face the world. In a
low, fragile, sober tone, Matthews told her how he had spent the
entire voyage home lost in a black silence, not exchanging any word
with anyone unless strictly necessary to the sailing of the ship. She
had always thought the command must have cheered him, as if somehow
being made up should have been some compensation for his loss. How he
disabused her! Until Hornblower had met William Bush again in
Portsmouth over a year later, he had been dour and miserable, and a
deeply unhappy man.

Something was stilled in Emily. All these years she had been unable
to view Horatio with any sympathy in his sorrow, thinking it less
than her own. Now she knew the truth, and it was too late to go to
him and weep on his shoulder, or let him weep on hers, but at least
she knew... and she felt warm towards him for the first time in half
a century.

As he spoke of his old captain, Matthews shifted a little, and a
slight shadow crossed his face the first sign he had given that
he was in any discomfort, but it was gone in the instant. He gave her
a very direct look. "You heard Mr. Hornblower was dead,
ma'am?"

It was her turn to hide the pain. "Yes," was all she could
say. Yes, she knew. She'd had the news just after All Hallows,
when the thoughts of men and women were naturally turning to the dead and
the void they left behind. She had not seen him for years, and there
had been so much she should have said to him, so much she might have
shared, but could never bring herself to do so. His death was the
last piece in the puzzle the one remaining vestige of her youth
gone. Her life was now closed, and all she needed to do was die
herself. In an effort to hide her sadness, she looked away, and her
eyes were drawn to the monkey in the bedhangings.

"Don't mind him, ma'am. He's cheeky, but there's
no harm in him." Matthews held up a piece of apple in a bony
hand. "Come, Nelson! Down!"

To her amusement, the little animal shinned down the curtain-tie like
a topman and snatched the fruit, baring his teeth at her in warning,
before hopping onto the old man's pillow and settling to eat.

"Oh I don't mind monkeys, I assure you. In fact I'm
rather fond of them."

He chuckled the dry, knowing laugh of a very old man. "Just
as well in this house! No doubt you passed a fair few on your way
in!"

"You have a fine family, Mr. Matthews."

His eyes softened, and his voice became solemn and gruff.
"I'm very blessed, Miss Emmy. There's better men than me
never had the chance..."

It was obvious this was some sort of opening statement given
the nature of his invitation to `Share a memory or two, with a
view to setting things aright', it could only refer to her dear lost
brother - Her attention was riveted.

"I'm not long for this world," he said matter-of-factly.
It was a comfortable and comforting statement, not calculated to strike dread,
but to affirm the balance of nature. He had lived close to death all
his days, and had no fear of it now. "and I want to tell you the
truth... about what happened... I want you to `ear it from one
who was there."

She was startled. "Renown..." she whispered...

"Aye... wi' Mr. Hornblower gone, there's nowt to hold me
now."

Emily's eyes narrowed. Fifty years, she had waited. Five long
decades of despair, of watching her family life fail, her parents
fade with disappointment (shame would be too harsh a word) and her
hopes crumble. There is nothing like a public scandal to wreck family
life, especially when the mischief concerns not some mistress or a
few hundred pounds in gambling debts, but the security of the beloved
homeland in wartime... Mutiny is not what her father had had in mind
for his beloved youngest son, when he had sent him off to sea...

"I don't know the whole story," Matthews continued
soberly, "Only three men ever knew that, and bless their souls
they've taken it faithfully to the grave. But there are things I
can tell you which you won't know things which might make
you think differently, like..."

She was rigid, waiting. "I'm all ears, Mr. Matthews..."

His face became grim, and he dropped his voice, so that it would be
impossible for any but Emily to hear. "It weren't mutiny,
ma'am... least not the way I always understood the word. And it
weren't murder."

Emily's eyes locked with his. This was right at the heart of the
matter. "There was violence done against the captain, Mr.
Matthews. What else could it be?"

"Confusion... despair... no more mischief in it than that..."

Her voice was a little harder as she demanded shortly, "So why
was my brother convicted?"

Mattthews gave a sad sigh. "Because he confessed, Miss Emmy,
under oath, and they had to take his word for it, or call him a liar
before the whole of the Navy."

"But you're telling me he was..."

The old sailor sniffed, as if she should have understood. "Aye,
well in that sense, `appen he was. But clearly not for his own
sake, and not for anything he stood to gain by it."

She stiffened. "Since he was within hours of death and knew it, I
hardly think that needs to be said," She reminded shortly.

Matthews observed her patiently for a moment, recognising her
distress, before he responded in a gentle voice "Nobody was more
upset about that good lad than me, Miss Emmy. I'd have given my
right arm to `ave him put back together again, but that's the
way of things, and when you've seen it often enough, you give up
kicking agin' it, if you take me..."

Emily set her lips, regretting the outburst. Simple frustration had
given her words a bite which she had not intended. "I'm
sorry, Mr. Matthews. Please go on..."

His tone was kindly, almost persuasive. "What you have to
understand, Miss Emmy, is the Renown weren't an ordinary ship,
and that trip to the Indies was no plain voyage. To begin with, the
captain... well, not wishing to speak ill o' the dead, but he
were not himself, you see."

"You mean he was ill?"

"Aye... not just ill like you'd have the fever, or a broken
leg... He weren't thinking straight, like."

Being a true Kennedy, she said frankly "You mean he was mad?"

Matthews was determined not to attack a man who could not defend
himself. "He was confused, Miss. Sometimes he'd know exactly
what he was about, and you could relax wi' him. Others, well...
he'd damn-near sink the ship..."

"Surely if he was ill, he should have been relieved..."

Matthews put a bony hand to his stubbly chin and rubbed it
ruminantly. "Aye, that would be favourite, but the Royal Navy is
a very funny place, Miss, and you can't always do what's
right."

Emily sat very still watching his face. "Go on, please," she
invited.

"Well, he got worse as we got closer to the Indies, and he led
these boys such a dance, Miss, and to their credit it is, that they
didn't do him a violence on that long voyage. Lesser men would
`ave thrown him in the sea, and no need for a mutiny. But there it is...
they kept their heads, and their honour... and in the end they paid
for it..."

Emily had been brought up on straight talk, and she trusted this old
man implicitly. Whatever he told her would be the truth. "Did my
brother push the captain into the hold, Mr. Matthews?" she asked
quietly.

"No, Miss Emmy, he did not." He lapsed into silence,
dog-tired, but unwilling to let her see it. She had not come all this
way to have their meeting cut short by his weakness. Finally he
rallied to add "Mr. Kennedy was the kindest man I ever knew, and
he could no more do the captain injury than he could walk on water.
Besides, I don't just think it... I know he dint do it, because I
know the truth from one who was there. I give you my word, Miss
Emily, as I've never broken in ninety-five years."

Emily's eyes closed, and she let out the breath she had not
realised she was holding. "Thank you," she whispered softly.

He took her hand, his great age giving him licence to cross the line
which divided her class from his. "He was a good man, Miss
Kennedy..." He seemed, in his weariness, to have forgotten she
was married and a widow now. "...a man to be proud of. He was good
with everyone, from the Admirals to the little nippers, and all in
between." His voice was steady, but it was clear the conversation
was affecting him. "We missed him when he were gone, like you miss
the sun on a cloudy day."

She nodded, too moved to respond. Finally she looked up, composing
her face with concentration. "Do you know how the captain fell,
Mr. Matthews? Who was my brother trying to protect?"

"On my honour, Miss, I truly don't know `ow the captain
came to fall. There's not much more I can tell you on that
matter... "

Her eyes narrowed again, and she asked the question she had wanted to
ask on that first day, when Retribution had sailed into Portsmouth
with the despatches containing the account of her brother's
death. When a stone had been thrown through the window of her family
home, and she had braved ostracism and abuse at the docks to find out
more... When Horatio had approached her, ashen-faced, and had been
the recipient of the full force of her frustration and distress. What
she had said to him on the dockside that day had closed the lines of
communication between them irreparably, and she had never had from
him the answer to her burning question...

"Did my brother suffer a great deal?" she asked softly.

Matthews lay back in his pillows, considering the question, and it
was obvious he was weighing his response. Clearly an outright lie
would be unacceptable, but how could he present the truth in a form
which would not cause her too much pain.

"It `appened just west of Santo Domingo," he told her
carefully, buying time to choose each word. "a week away from
Kingston. Mr. Kennedy were shot during a scrap on deck. It were very
hot below, and he had a troublesome wound. I think he must have found
it trying, but he was never one to make a fuss..."

"No." She hesitated. She did not want to put him in a
position of compromise, but he might know something which would help
her understand. "Mr. Hornblower never told me any of this,"
she said quietly. "He always refused to even discuss it, as if it
were a powder-keg, not to be interfered with. Don't you think that was
unfair?"

Matthews gave her a knowing smile. "No, Miss Emily, it
doesn't surprise me. If you know how close those two were, it
comes as no surprise at all." Then in answer to her unspoken question
"I took the view that it was Mr. Kennedy's will, Miss, that the
matter be laid to rest with him. I'm only breaking faith now, because
there's none left alive that can be hurt by it. And I think your family have
suffered enough."

Emily squeezed his withered old hand. "I'm quite sure my
brother would have approved," she told him warmly. "He was
prepared to bend with the wind in life, I'm sure he would do so in
death... Though there will be little benefit to the family, since I'm the
only one left."

Matthews fixed her with a very steady eye. "Mebbe..." he said
in a voice so low she hardly heard it.

Emily's whole body became very still, as if the cosmos had been
suspended.

Her voice was a little shaky as she asked "Is there more, Mr.
Matthews?"

He rubbed the stubbly chin with a skinny finger. "Do you remember
Sally Ross, ma'am... Once was Sally Makepeace, as used to run the
Boar in Old Portsmouth High Street?"

"Yes, of course I do. She's an old family friend. Archie and
I knew her when we were children... What of her?"

"Well it might profit you to ask her what she can tell you about
your brother, ma'am... `appen she knows a thing or two would
clear the water, if you take my meaning. She's a fine woman, and
close... too close for her own good. But I've had eyes to see these last
fifty years, ma'am... and some things are too plain to miss. You seek
out Sally, ma'am. It could be a real dish o' worms, if ever
there was one, and if you open it, `appen you'll change more lives
than just your own... but the world rolls on, and I couldn't take my
leave without pointing you her way, like..."

Emily stared at him. "Can't you tell me any more than
that?" she asked tensely.

With a slight smile, he shook his head. "Not my place to say
more, my lady," he answered frankly. "I'm just a sailor
with keen eyes for spottin' ships." He gave her a quizzical look.
"Mind, it helps if you know what ships to look for and where to look for
them..."

Emily blinked at him, nonplussed.

Matthews turned to look at his bedside table. There was a letter
there, tied up with string and sealed very officially with aged,
cracked wax. "This is for you, Lady Astwood..." It seemed in
this moment of great gravity, she had become her real self to him

elderly and titled, rather than the fresh young girl he had once
known. "

Her lips parted, and her eyes widened as she read the faded
address. "This is Archie's writing..." she whispered,
almost in awe.

The old man's voice was very low now, as his strength failed.
"Aye... a bit shaky, if you take me... he were right poorly when
he wrote it... but he did it himself, and gave it to me before we left
Renown. Said you was to `ave it after Mr. Hornblower's death,
if you
was to live the longer. It's been behind a brick in the chimney
here ever since the war ended..."

She looked up at him, her eyes full of tears. "Do you know what
it says, Mr. Matthews?"

He looked very old and very wise. "I think I have a good
idea," he responded calmly.

Emily clutched the letter to her breast. It was strange that even
after all these years, anything connected with Archie still had the
power to leave her harrowed and shaken. "I don't know how to
thank you," she told him, her voice wavering slightly.

His watery eyes twinkled at her as he settled back into bed with the
same air he must have had in years gone by when he returned to the
ship after a successful shore duty or a cutting-out. The light was
beginning to fade from the frosted window now, and the fields outside
were turning grey-blue towards a cold, hard night. He stirred,
though, when she stood up, and raised a skeletal hand to take
hers. "Take care, ma'am..." he said simply.

"I will... Thank you, Mr. Matthews." It was no good hoping
for a further meeting, or wishing him good health, but she felt an
overpowering need to express her affection and gratitude to him. She
leaned down impulsively and kissed his grizzled old cheek, making
Nelson the monkey chatter jealously.

Matthews couldn't hide the pleasure in his eyes. "It's a
long time since I been kissed by a fine young lady," he teased
her gently. "Goodbye, Miss Emmy... and a Merry Christmas to
you..."

She tried to respond, but the words would not come, and she could
only give him a smile of gratitude as she left the room and walked
out of his life forever.

"It'll be a chilly ride back, my lady," Lottie Matthews
said to her on their way down the narrow, winding staircase to the
kitchen below. "Are you sure you won't bide here until
morning? We have a room we can make private for you, and a good barn for your
coachman."

Emily smiled warmly. She owed these people the earth, and yet she
knew, if she offered them money, it would be refused. Perhaps when
she got back down to Wensleydale, she would order some luxuries to be
sent up for them. If it was to be poor Mr. Matthews' last
Christmas, it should at least be a memorable one.

"Thank you, no," she responded firmly. "I gave my word I
would have the coach back tonight." She looked out at the
swirling snow beyond the little casement window. "I think if we leave
straight away, we shall be in the village before nightfall."

And so she took her leave, knowing that she would never come back.
The old man would die, and so would she, and the story would be
over... Those who remembered, or who knew the people involved in the
events were passing from the world now, and soon it would not be an
emotional powder-keg any longer. She would not for all the world seek
to deny her brother's dying request, but she would be sure all
the facts were left in her will to Richard Hornblower, who would deal
with them fairly and with unselfish detachment. She would not be in a
position to prevent anything of it he saw fit to publish. Perhaps
justice, in the end, would be done...

Sitting alone in the swaying carriage, with the white world passing
by outside, Emily closed her eyes and took a deep breath... and broke
the seal on the dry, browned parchment on which her dear brother had
written his final words. She read the scant message instantly, unable
to believe that she was reading his last testament after all these
years, or that the hand which had held hers through childhood, so
very long-lost, had written it.

Oh lovely, lovely it was to see his writing again, even distorted as
it was by pain and weakness. This was a scrap of nothing, compared
with the great essays he used to send her, his elegant style flowing
across the page, the phrasing fed by literature and a lifetime of
books. but it was still essentially him wounded, driven,
desperate, but still her Archie - speaking to her across the divide
of mortality and the passing of the decades...It was the first time
she had seen true evidence of what he had gone through in the last
week of his life, and harrowing as it was, it shared the final hours
as nothing else in the world could have done. It made her feel
suddenly unbearably, agonisingly - delightfully - close to him...

A single tear trickled down her lined, worn face, and in that
instant, she realised how much anger and resentment had been
festering in her soul for the one man who deserved it least her
own brother. And at last she could let it go. This, after all, was
his last wish, and she could no more fail him now than fly to the
moon...

His message contained just two words.

"Forgive me."

"Oh, Archie..." she whispered softly... When the spirit of
her brother and her friend reached across the decades and touched
her, Emily's heart, aching and cold for so long, finally broke
into tiny shards, dissolved, and was healed again, all in a single
moment... And for the first time since that day in 1802 when
Retribution had sailed into port without him, she felt whole. She
felt balance...

How could it be otherwise?

Emily smiled to herself. He was quite unbelievable... still getting
his way after fifty years in the grave... That must be a record...

...even for a Kennedy...

 

 

RW. December, 2004.