Through a Glass Darkly
by Dunnage41


Note: I have enjoyed reading several fine fics exploring the death of HH's father and his reaction to the news. This is just a little piece taking a look at Pellew's perspective. Not too deep or detailed but okay for a quick weekday read. Enjoy.

 

Captain Sir Edward Pellew squinted against the late-afternoon sun illuminating the taffrail. The familiar gangling figure of Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower stood on the quarterdeck, officer of the watch. Pellew frowned. Something was wrong with the familiar silhouette. Moving closer, he realized that Hornblower was … oh God. Surely he wasn’t asleep. Please don’t be asleep, Pellew thought. His throat closed at the thought of finding his finest lieutenant guilty of a hanging offense.
 //
Then he could breathe again. Hornblower wasn’t actually asleep. He was close, but close never hanged a man. Hornblower’s lids were drooping, but he was dutifully gazing out over the deck, and as Pellew approached he lifted his head and bellowed, “Mr. Stanley! Belay that nonsense!”
 //
“Aye, aye, sir,” came a chastened voice from above, and Pellew looked up to see a midshipman’s shoulders slump. Whatever he’d been doing, he was no longer doing it. That provided Pellew with the opening he sought. But irritation and worry clouded his mind so that he scarcely knew what to say. His lips tightened at what he saw. Even though he was still some yards off, he could see that Hornblower was looking worse by the day.
 //
Already gangling and coltish, Hornblower could now only be described as skeletal. His uniform hung on him, yet despite the extra cloth Pellew could see shoulder blades protruding; his breeches hung loose on jutting hips although they were clearly tied at their tightest. His stockings bagged and his ankles seemed grotesque, almost swollen, in relation to his spindling legs. He looked like a child clothed in his father’s garb.. Above the stock which could not disguise the protruding collar bones, Hornblower’s face looked like that of a specter. Sharp cheekbones emphasized hollow cheeks; his eyes were dark, bottomless holes against the stark whiteness of his face, and shadowed by deep smudges.
 //
Pellew swallowed whatever it was he was about to say and moved silently away, going below and into his cabin. As he entered, he said to the sentry, “Pass the word for Mr. Kennedy.”
 //
A few moments later came the knock.
 //
“Enter.”
 //
“Ah, Mr. Kennedy,” Pellew said dryly. “Have a seat. At your ease, man, you have committed no sins of which I am aware.” He raised his eyebrows. “I wish to question you about Mr. Hornblower.”
 //
“Mr. Hornblower, sir?”
 //
“Yes, Mr. Kennedy, your fellow officer, Mr. Hornblower. He seems to be disappearing before my eyes. I scarcely have enough officers to allow one of them to become a ghost,” Pellew snapped. “Be so good as to share with me what ails him.”
 //
“I … I don’t know, sir,” Kennedy stammered, but his gaze was steady and he did not look away.
 //
Pellew canted his head to one side. “Indeed, Mr. Kennedy? You share a berth, do you not? It is fair to say that you spend more time with him than anyone. Surely you must have some … insight to offer.”
 //
“Indeed I do not, sir,” Kennedy said. “I wish I did.” He shook his head. “He hasn’t been eating … and it seems he scarcely sleeps.”
 //
“But you do not know what ails him.” It was not a question, more an admission.
 //
“No, sir.”
 //
“He displays no symptoms of fever? No signs of illness?”
 //
“He has … vomited several times, sir.”
 //
“Mmm,” Pellew said, as if he could make a diagnosis on that unhelpful basis. A thought occurred to him.
 //
“Has he perchance been … unlucky in love?”
 //
Kennedy swallowed hard. He felt a blush creeping over his fair features. “Not to my knowledge, sir.”
 //
“Very well,” Pellew said. He suppressed a sigh. “My compliments to Mr. Hornblower, and you are to relieve him of watch and ask him to attend me at once.”
 //
“Aye, aye, sir.” Kennedy sounded relieved to be done with the interview.
 //
The next knock came.
 //
Enter Ghost, thought Pellew, recalling a stage direction from the opening of “Hamlet.” Then he thought of another scrap of dialogue: “What, is Horatio there?” “A piece of him.” That was all he saw standing before his desk: a piece of Horatio, and hardly the best piece either.
 //
“Sit, Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew snapped, his worry making his voice sharp. Hornblower sat, perching stiffly on the edge of the chair, his spine rigid, his eyes blank and unreadable. Pellew pursed his lips, wondering where to begin, what to say to him. He drew in a breath. “Mr. Hornblower,” he repeated.
 //
“Yes, sir?” His voice sounded hoarse and thick, and it was only with an effort that he could raise his weary lids to look at Pellew.
 //
“What ails you, man?” Pellew finally decided he could do nothing but be direct.
 //
“N-n-nothing, sir.”
 //
“The truth, Mr. Hornblower, if you please,” Pellew snapped. “I am told that you do not eat and scarcely sleep.” His eyes bored into Hornblower’s. “If you choose not to divulge the truth, I fear I shall be forced to charge you with rendering yourself unfit for duty.”
 //
At that, Hornblower’s eyes snapped open. There! Pellew had hit a nerve somewhere deep in that nerveless collection of jangled bones before him. He had recalled the man to his duty. Whatever beset him, his loyalty to his duty was paramount. He knew that Hornblower, having heard the Articles of War read out to him each Sunday, understood the penalty for an officer rendering himself unfit: flogging round the fleet, which almost invariably killed a man and which would certainly kill one as enfeebled as Hornblower was at the moment.
 //
Hornblower opened his mouth. He paused for a frighteningly long moment and Pellew felt his heart drop at the unimaginable possibility that Hornblower would refuse to tell him. Surely the man would answer to his duty. What in God’s name could be unbalancing him so?
 //
“I … received a letter, sir,” Hornblower finally croaked out.
 //
Pellew frowned slightly. Hornblower had no family; and, as far as shipboard gossip told, no lady friends. He seldom received letters, except from … his father.
 //
The penny dropped.
 //
“Er, about your father, Mr. Hornblower?”
 //
Hornblower swallowed audibly and dropped his gaze. “Yes, sir,” he mumbled to his shoes.
 //
“Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew said, as gently as he could, “I should be … ha-h’m … greatly obliged if you would tell me your news.”
 //
Something in Pellew’s tone reached the miserable young man. Slowly he raised fatigued eyes and met his captain’s gaze, which was kind and concerned. It was … paternal. It was such a look as he had seen often on his father’s face, and the familiarity combined with the freshness of his devastation broke down the remains of Hornblower’s weakened reserve.
 //
“My father … has died, sir,” he said thickly. “Some weeks ago, rather … suddenly.”
 //
“My deepest sympathies, Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew said softly. He paused. “Such a loss is particularly difficult when one has not seen one’s family for some time.” He drew a deep breath, debating whether to go down the path that would recall Hornblower to normality or the less familiar, but tempting, path of paternity, playing the role of Hornblower’s father, whose death had clearly unmanned the lad. Pellew knew next to nothing about the senior Hornblower, and less about Hornblower’s relationship to him, but at any rate, the boy needed something. He’d never seen Hornblower so consistently undone and for so prolonged a period. For a moment his mind flashed sharply on the awful possibility that Hornblower could easily arrange to “accidentally” fall from the yard and the likelihood, at least for the moment, that he might.
 //
At last he sighed. How fragile the young gentlemen under his command were at times. And yet, his duty towards them was to firm them up into men. He understood that the death of a parent was a much different occasion than the death of a comrade, and he had seen Hornblower take the latter in stride. He finally chose a path.
 //
“There now,” he said, again softly. “There.” He rose and came from behind his desk compelling Hornblower automatically to his feet, and embraced the frail officer, drawing a sharp intake of breath on feeling for himself the man’s skeletal frame. After a momentary shock, Hornblower returned the embrace, allowing his head to drop down onto Pellew’s shoulder and his arms to lay relaxed by his sides, slowly coming up to meet on Pellew’s broadcloth-clad back. Pellew instinctively stroked Hornblower’s dark curls as he stroked the tumbled hair of his own Neddy or Emma when they sought comfort. He felt the gangling body tremble with silent sobs and felt his own shoulder dampen with hot tears.
 //
Neither said anything, but stood in such fashion for several slow minutes, accented by the suddenly loud ticking of the small clock on Pellew’s desk, until Pellew sensed that Hornblower had regained control. He stood back, and Hornblower straightened, able to meet his gaze with wet, reddened eyes. The younger man hastily swiped at his face with his long fingers and visibly squared his shoulders.
 //
“Now, Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew said. His lips twitched. A time for a little gentle humor cloaking a reminder that he was in no shape to tend to his duties. He let his discerning gaze roam up and down the lieutenant until the latter had to restrain a squirm.
 //
“You may not resume your watch. I order you to get some rest and you are further to resume eating.” He barked the last word as though distasteful, the way he tended to snap out the word “dawdling” to recall someone’s attention. “I order you to take all your meals in the presence of Midshipman Kennedy, unless he is on watch, in which case you shall dine with me.” He suppressed a smile at the startled look that flicked across Hornblower’s face and was quickly squashed.
 //
“Yes, with me, Mr. Hornblower. I shall be glad of the company and your … body, I think … shall … ha—h’m .. be glad of the nourishment.” He finished with the familiar gimlet gaze that could bore holes through a man and broke the spell himself by turning and pouring Hornblower a decent tot of brandy. “Here, Mr. Hornblower. I think this should aid you admirably in your search for the sleep that has eluded you.” He raised his own glass. “Give us a toast, if you will.”
 //
“To …” Hornblower paused to clear his throat … “to the memory of Doctor Jacob Hornblower, God bless him.”
 //
Pellew nodded solemnly and raised his glass. Through its distorted image he saw once again a familiar and reassuring sight: Horatio Hornblower, straight and tall, shoulders squared, ready for duty.