The Oubliette trilogy
by Maggie

Don Massaredo was pacing up and down in his fine reception room. The boy had stood just over there when he'd given him the Don Quixote book and the lexicon. His expressive brown eyes had looked puzzled.

"It is about a man who jousts with windmills. The Duchess thought you'd understand ."

The youth's face had given nothing away, but yes he understood. So did Don Massaredo, though he pretended not to of course.

He remembered their first meeting.

"However sir I must inform you that outside the hours of my parole I consider it my duty to attempt to return to my ship and my country."

God, he had seemed so young, with his small growth of beard since his capture. Did such a sense of honour still exist in this mad, unseemly world? The boy would not have been out of place in the gentler world of Don Massaredo's own youth, when honour and integrity were everything in Spain.

"Well," he had countered good-naturedly. "As long as you do not murder me in my bed."

Now he had to punish the boy ­ and for something he had not done. God, he was so young to be in charge of men. He had been so concerned for his young friend Kennedy, that he had allowed insubordination to grow, led by that coarse cretin Hunter. Don Massaredo knew, knew with chilling certainty, that the boy would not hand Hunter over to him. Indeed he knew he would be disappointed if he did so. Yet now Don Massaredo was in a terrible position. Two of his men had died. Three had been badly wounded. He would have to exact vengeance. It would be expected of him.

He continued to pace. God, how the boy had cared for his friend. He had never seen such devotion. He had sat with him for hours, coaxed him to drink, to eat. He had coaxed his very soul from the hell into which it had fallen. Had he himself ever had such a friend? He thought not. Don Massaredo had felt pangs of guilt over his treatment of Kennedy. He had seemed so vulnerable, and yet he had kept trying to escape. He had had to put a stop to it. His credibility as prison governor had demanded it. The usual punishments had not seemed to work. The boy had an ingenious, scheming mind under that cloak of blond fragility. It had cost his conscience dear to chain the lad down, like an animal, after the fourth attempt, but almost as soon as he had gained release from the chains, he had been off again. Indeed he had covered 10 miles in-land before the soldiers had caught up with him. The boy had been starving and had almost seemed glad to have been recaptured. Until Don Massaredo had forsaken all compassion and ordered him to be thrown into the oubliette. At last his spirit seemed to have been broken ­ until Hornblower reclaimed him.

Don Massaredo kept pacing.

He remembered how young Hornblower had looked at him when Don Massaredo had pointed the gun at his head. Such a mixture of emotions ­ guilt, terror, but also pleading. Had he really thought that Don Massaredo would kill him then and there, unarmed? Or was he pleading for his men? The old gentleman tore his thoughts away from those pleading eyes. He would of course have to throw him into the oubliette. But how long could Don Massaredo stand for him to be in there? He knew instinctively he would suffer with the boy, just as he had with young Kennedy. With Kennedy his fury had led him to specify a period of time. He had then regretted it, for to shorten it would have seemed weakness. This time he could at least be unspecific on that point. Damn. He was so singularly ill-suited to this job ..

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Horatio Hornblower looked Don Massaredo steadily in the eye.

"Nonetheless it was me sir."

When all was said and done, how could he possibly put the weeping, injured Hunter at the mercy of this bitterly enraged man. He could not possibly heed Archie's whispered plea:

"Tell him Horatio."

No. He could not. In any case he must take responsibility for his men. It was his fault that he had lost control over them. Maybe that was why Don Massaredo was really disappointed in him. After all, he was disappointed in himself.

And it was obvious that Don Massaredo's rage was in no way abating.

"Mr. Kennedy is a friend, is he not? He will tell you that I am not afraid to be cruel."

Certainly Archie had been through hell in this place. After each escape attempt he had been punished, until at last he had been kept in the oubliette for a month "with no room to stand up or lie down." Horatio could not even imagine the agony ­ or didn't want to. Archie had been unable to walk and had been driven to the edge of madness by it.

"Your men," Don Massaredo was continuing. "Are confined to their cells. And You

Horatio had glanced into the hole many times, shuddering at the thought of Archie in there. Now it was his turn. It seemed almost inevitable. But still he could hardly fight the impulse of panic as the grating was slammed shut above him and he was left to squat awkwardly in the stinking pit.

And so had started a voyage of agony and misery. He tried to sleep as much as he could, but the cramping pains throughout his body fought against his numbed brain. Agonized awareness would not be denied. He would try to move his long limbs as best he could, or rub some relief into them. But such efforts only led to impotent frustration. The guards amused themselves by kicking sand into his burning eyes, so he tried to keep them closed as much as possible. The heat was so bad on some days that he felt like a lump of raw meat being roasted in an oven. Now and then a small cup of greenish water would be pushed through the grating at him and an odd scrap of bluish bread. He began to hallucinate and imagined he was being eaten alive by rats. One day, when it had rained, he found a rat on his shoulder and, for the first time, had wept terrified tears.

Sometimes he had felt so abject in body and spirit that he tried to think up ways to die. If he refused all water, how long would it take him to perish? He had no idea how long he was to stay in this horrifying pit, squatting in his own filth. Perhaps he could somehow loop his shirt into the grating and strangle himself to death. Then he would think of Archie. Archie had been here. There had been no-one to witness his courage, but he had survived. His spirit had only been broken because he believed he had been utterly abandoned.

God, he'd only just nursed Archie back to health. Would he slide back into his misery in the presence of the despairing Hunter. Was Hunter still alive? He thought of his men, so near to him physically and yet so far away. Matthews, such a safe pair of hands ­ capable and sensible. If Horatio didn't make it, Matthews would be a more than efficient second for Archie. Styles, strong, vulgar, yet oddly caring. Oldroyd ­ they must be giving him hell, but Matthews would curb any vengeance from Styles. They would all, he knew, give their lives in a second to get him out of this hole.

Sometimes he thought of the "Duchess". What an extraordinary woman ­ so courageous and so resourceful. Perhaps a lot of women were like that. He hadn't known many in his nineteen years. His own mother had died when he was six, and he had been brought up in a very male world. Unlike Styles and a lot of the men he didn't frequent brothels. Something about that offended his sense of dignity and integrity. Like Styles though, he had thought the Duchess "good looking". She had awakened something in his young body. The pangs of jealousy over her encounter with de Vergesse had been real enough and had bruised something deep inside him. But he had been terrified to go down that path. Life in this Spanish prison had been complicated enough.

But most of all, Captain Pellew strode into his despair and misery.

"Well, Mr. Hornblower. Lost control of your men, did you? A good officer always thinks of his men Mr. Hornblower. He doesn't wallow in his own self pity. Well man? Well?"

"No sir. But I'm very weary sir."

"Weary, weary? You are an officer in His Majesty's Navy sir. You have no right to be weary. Pull yourself together man!"

"Yes sir. I'll try sir."

"Mmm. Well, carry on Mr. Hornblower."

But sometimes something strange would happen. Captain Pellew would put a hand on Horatio's shoulder.

"You're doing alright Mr. Hornblower. I see something in you. You'll be alright. I'm proud to have served with you. It'll be good to have you back on board Mr. Hornblower."

"Yes sir. Thank you sir."

Sometimes he dreamt he was on the Indy on watch. He could feel the restless motion of the ship, hear the wind whistling through the rigging, touch the tangy salt air. To wake up in his sordid hole then was almost worse agony than he could bear.

Then one day he was roused by a clanging sound. Suddenly the grating was flung open and rough arms were pulling him out. He could only stay bent over and the sun seemed to blind him like a flashing sword. Was this a dream? Was he hallucinating again? No, there was Don Massaredo.

"Do I have your parole Mr. Hornblower?"

"You do sir."

"Then your privileges are returned to you."

He was overcome by a huge feeling of relief. His ordeal was over. Involuntarily he tried to smile, but a searing pain stopped him. It was as if his lips were splitting apart. He thought he heard cheering from somewhere and then he was propelled unceremoniously into his cell.

Strong arms stretched out to check his fall. There was Archie's face, wreathed in smiles. And Hunter. He thought he heard himself talking, even though to do so was causing him agony.

"How's your leg Mr. Hunter? .. Yes Archie, I'm alright, except I feel I've been bent in two .. Oh dear!"

and then he slipped into a welcoming oblivion.

 

 

He wasn't alright of course. Archie knew that well enough. He'd been through it himself for God's sake. Even superhuman Horatio Hornblower couldn't just shrug off this experience. The physical wounds were the easiest to heal. The cramped limbs, the tortured lips, the diseased eyes ­ Archie had begged for enough water and ointments to deal with those. He had pleaded to be allowed to move Horatio out of the cell, but Don Massaredo had refused. Three of his men had died because of the escape bid ­ two immediately and one later from his wounds. As governor of the prison he could not be seen to be weak. He had already shown as much mercy as he could by freeing Horatio after only three weeks, instead of the customary four. Archie had briefly felt just a little proud about that. Did he think Archie was tougher than Horatio? No, he probably cared a little bit more about Horatio. He seemed to have developed an almost paternal concern for his young prisoner. Seemed almost to seek him out, even after the "Duchess" had gone.

No. Physically Horatio was improving. He was a lot stronger than suggested by his gangling frame and he was even able to walk a little in the courtyard. To the delight of his men who seemed to compete in readiness to catch him if he fell. No, it was the nightmares that were becoming worse. Archie remembered them well. It was as if the unconscious mind could not yet catch up with the body and comprehend its release from hell. Sometimes Horatio would scream about rats. Other times he would shout pitiless orders to himself:

"Get HOLD of yourself, for the sake of the men."
"DON'T wallow in self pity man!"
"Lost control of your men, did you? Not fit to command! NOT FIT TO COMMAND!"

Archie was surprised at the tortured tone of self-loathing implicit in these "orders". He had always thought of Horatio as supremely confident in his own powers of command ­ command of others and command of himself.

Sometimes Horatio would give in to his despair during these nightmares and he would sob out loud:

"I'm too weary! Please help me, help me! I can't do it anymore!"

Then Archie would cradle him and whisper encouragement to him as if he were a child:

"It's alright Horatio. Go to sleep now. It's all over. Just a bad dream, just a bad dream."

And he would soothe his friend back to sleep and trust to its healing power.