By Ruth W.
Commodore Sir Edward Pellew, Lord Exmouth, had never really approved of Archie Kennedy. Liked him, perhaps, but admiring the lad's wit and being glad to have him in the ship's company was not the same as approving of his professional judgement.
In his youth, Kennedy had not always known when to keep his mouth shut. Though this candour was considered becoming in the ranks of the lower aristocracy, it did not endear him to his superiors in the Senior Service. For all that, Pellew had to admit he had an honest disposition and a good, loyal heart probably too good for the hard place that was the Royal Navy.
Then, as the midshipman's career had been about to take off, he had disappeared into captivity for two years. The Kennedy who had come back was changed, shadowed, prone to fits and attacks of panic -clearly unable to function in the role of King's officer which had been thrust upon him. The Navy did not suit all men, and it had been Pellew's opinion in those early days that Kennedy would have been better employed in commerce or politics, where his free-thinking would be a blessing rather than a bane, and his defects might be overlooked.
To the young man's credit, though, Midshipman Kennedy had grown since then. He had fought his way through every barrier, mental and physical, to become Lieutenant Kennedy a man the crew looked up to, still good-natured, but now fiercely competent, with a formidable knowledge of the sea and the ships which sailed thereon, and a pleasant, forthright way with his superiors. To the commodore's horror, when young Hornblower had told him Kennedy was wounded, he had felt quite sorry about it. He had not realised how his respect for the lad had blossomed.
Just the same this visit was a chore, no doubt about it. He was fretting over this ridiculous and dangerous court-martial, and hospitals were unpleasant, unnerving places full of sick people And prisons were well, prisons. And this place was both rolled into one. He would make it a quick, humanitarian pep-talk, to speed his ex-junior lieutenant's recovery, and get back to work. Time and tide, after all, waited not even for Commodore Sir Edward Pellew . . .
There were two beds in the bare, incongruously sunlit cell, both occupied, and the two wounded men appeared to be sleeping. The surgeon on duty was a solemn man who rose when he entered, and did not smile when introductions were exchanged.
"I've come to see young Kennedy," Pellew announced quietly, "but if you feel he shouldn't be woken, perhaps I could leave it a day or two . . ."
"No," Dr. Clive signalled to the marine to open the cell door. "if you want to see him, I should take your chance. You may not have another opportunity."
He said it so matter-of-factly that Pellew gave him a quizzical look. "Shipping him out to convalescence already, Doctor?" he demanded. "Has he tried your patience so much ?"
Clive's face was impassive. He was too good a surgeon to discuss the condition of the wounded man with a third party, so he responded neutrally "Apart from an understandable frustration, Lieutenant Kennedy has been a model patient. But he is a very sick man, Commodore. You will oblige me by making your stay brief."
It was the first time Pellew had taken in the fact that he was not here for a cheerful chat with an old shipmate, but visiting a man who had been seriously wounded in battle. His first sight of his young friend through the prison bars was enough to turn his heart to stone. Far from sitting up in bed reading a book as the Commodore had expected, Kennedy lay flat and dreadfully still, his exhausted face turned away from the light. And he was covered only by a thin, sweat-stained sheet, the way extremely sick men are nursed in naval establishments, to ease the task of caring for them. The blood-spotted bandages did not shroud an arm or a leg, nor even a shoulder, but were tightly bound right across the middle of his body. He was wounded, then, in the lower chest or the belly, and after almost a week, was still bleeding . . . Oh, dear God . . .
A pistol shot, Hornblower had said. The ball, either still inside, or removed by surgery aboard Renown. Either way, the wound almost inevitably infected. And indeed Pellew recognised with shock the very faint but distinctive taint of infection in the air of the cell, disguised by carbolic, but undoubtedly present in their midst, like the Grim Reaper himself. How many men had he seen survive wounds like that? Two? Perhaps three, in his entire life. Most were dead within a week . . .
But no, not Kennedy. No, no, no . . . For the sake of Christ, he was only twenty-six years old . . .
Shaken, Pellew waited while Clive went round to the other side of the bed.
"Mr. Kennedy," the surgeon said softly, putting a gentle hand on the flushed forehead.. "Wake up, sir. You have a visitor."
The young man's eyes opened instantly, unfocussed and a little bewildered. "Nngh . . . " He appeared to be dragging himself into reality. "Horatio . . . ?" he tried hopefully.
Lord Exmouth approached the bed. "I'm afraid not," he said. "It's only me, Mr. Kennedy . . . Edward Pellew."
Kennedy blinked away his amazement. Ominously, he made no move to show deference to his visitor's superior rank. They had last met six months ago in Portsmouth, and it was a great surprise to find one another here, and in these circumstances. Nevertheless, the wounded man did not make any attempt at a formal greeting.
"Sir . . . " His tone was flattened by exhaustion into a dry monotone, but the diction was as distinct as ever as he asked "What brings you here?"
Pellew sat soberly on the simple wooden chair which the ward orderly brought him. "That's no welcome for a friend and shipmate, Mr. Kennedy," he greeted, trying to keep the tone of his voice light. "I am sorry to see you so . . . under the weather."
Dr. Clive took his patient's wrist and measured the rate of the pulse against his pocket-watch. "Fast," he commented shortly. "Are you in pain, Mr. Kennedy?"
"No," came the flat response.
"You're a liar, sir," Clive observed with a dry smile. "and not a very wise one. You should accept medication."
Archie's eyes closed, and he let out his shallow breath in an irritated sigh. The subject was evidently not open to discussion.
With a meaningful lift of the brows at Pellew, the surgeon laid the limp hand back on the sheet. "Then I can do no more for the moment," he decided quietly. "I shall be within call if he should need me, Commodore,"
After he had gone, Kennedy's eyes opened once more, and he gave a faint but mischievous grin. "You have to be firm with him," he said softly.
Pellew found himself smiling back. "I gather your relationship with your surgeon is not one of total trust . . ." he observed wryly.
To his surprise, the young man gave a little chuckle. "You would have to spend four months shut in Renown with him and a mad captain, to comprehend, Sir," he answered. "and I wouldn't wish that on any man . . . We were glad to get to Samana Bay and meet an enemy we could fight . . . "
"So I hear . . ." Pellew hesitated. As chairman of the board of captains for the Court Martial, he should not be discussing the details of the Renown affair with one of the defendants, but somehow it was difficult not to be drawn into Kennedy's candour. "Mr. Hornblower has told me of your . . . tribulations aboard that ill-fated ship, sir. A very . . . unfortunate business . . ."
The wounded man took a deep breath as if to respond, but shut his eyes instead, overtaken by something pain or confusion or weakness, it was difficult to tell. Pellew waited patiently for a few moments, but it seemed that the visit might be at an end. He had no intention of putting the boy through more discomfort by waking him up just to chat. But as he rose to leave, Kennedy's eyes opened again, unfocussed now, and shadowed, full of clouds.
"Don't go, Captain . . ." he begged. "I must speak with you . . . "
The Commodore sat down again, reluctantly. "Don't stir yourself, Mr. Kennedy," he said, "You are tired . . ."
"No . . . Well, yes, I am . . . but . .. I have to tell you about the captain. His fall . . . into the hold . . . "
Pellew's eyes narrowed. What was coming here?
"It was an accident . . . " Kennedy swallowed, licking his dry lips, his voice becoming hoarse with the effort. "Mr. Hornblower was not responsible . . . "
Pellew frowned fiercely. "Mr. Kennedy, the matter of Mr. Hornblower's part in that incident has not been raised as an issue open to debate . . . What are you suggesting, sir?
Their eyes met in the silence that followed, and there was a flash of total clarity between them before the wounded man recovered his wits and closed the door of communication.
"I'm . . . sorry, Captain," he said quietly. "I'm afraid you have me . . . at a disadvantage this morning, sir. I was . . . rambling a little . . . "
Pellew grunted. "Nothing new to me in that, Mr. Kennedy," he growled. But the words had disturbed him nevertheless, and he realised that anything left unsaid now could spell disaster in the future for the surviving officers of Renown.
He stood up and called for the orderly. "This man needs something strong!" he said sharply. "Do you have wine here, or spirits?"
"Well, yes, sir," The old fellow put down the mop with which he had been cleaning the stone floor in the corridor and came to peer through the bars. "but Dr. Clive says he's only to have water . . . "
"Nonsense," When Pellew had made up his mind, only heroes disagreed with him. "He is allergic to water. I should imagine that is nine-tenths the cause of his indisposition. Bring a glass of decent burgundy, straight away!"
When he sat down again, Kennedy's eyes were on him, and under the weakness his drawn face wore a wry smile. "Royal Navy prisons do not run to champagne, then, sir?"
Pellew cleared his throat awkwardly. In truth he found the dry humour more moving than he cared to admit. "Certainly not, sir," he responded gruffly. "I want you talking to me, not giggling like a girl!"
He was not a natural nurse, but he had done his share of caring for wounded men during his early years at sea, and knew vaguely how to handle the sick. He stripped off his coat and fed the wine to Kennedy himself, gently supporting his head with one hand whilst dripping the rich, blood-red liquid into his mouth from a clean sea-sponge, which was the only way to coax it into him.
". . . And they filled a sponge with wine, and gave him to drink . . . "
Pellew heard the words in his mind, and was caught by a wave of guilt which he quickly suppressed. It was all very well being haunted by religious imagery, but in the real world hard choices must be made. Unpalatable truths must be faced and unyielding deeds done. Kennedy knew that as well as he.
A quick glance at the other bed reassured the Commodore that the second lieutenant Hornblower had called him Bush was asleep. Then he drew his chair closer to Kennedy's bed and wiped his face and neck with a clean towel. "There," he said, tossing the cloth under the bed with distaste. "Is that better?"
The blue eyes were bright with fever, but nonetheless clear. "Much, thank you, Sir," Kennedy answered, still wearing the same half-mocking smile. "I never had you in mind for a loblolly boy . . ." His voice had a little strength now, and seemed to contain more emphasis. In the short term at least, the burgundy appeared to have done him more good than harm.
Trying not to seem eager, Pellew said casually "You were saying about the Captain's fall . . . something about . . . Mr. Hornblower . . . ?"
Kennedy's eyelids fluttered, his only sign of unease. "I do assure you, I was merely rambling, Sir," he responded evenly. "repeating the obvious . . . that the Captain's fall was a tragic accident . . . and could not be prevented . . ."
Pellew straightened in his seat. So it was to be verbal chess, was it? Well he could be as devious as young Kennedy any day . . .
He leaned towards the wounded man so that no other soul might hear what passed between them.
"Mr. Kennedy," he said quietly, "I believe you and I are of the same mind, and indeed we pursue the same . . . ultimate goal . . . If you have any information which would illuminate the affair in my mind, I give you my word it will be used only to promote the attainment of that goal . . ."
Kennedy's look was almost too shrewd for one so badly wounded. "I would do anything to achieve it, sir . . . " he vowed meaningfully. "Anything . . . "
Pellew's eyes searched his face for the usual Archie facetiousness, but this time found none. "Yes . . . " he agreed with equal gravity, "yes, I believe you would . . . "
"The business is in grave jeopardy, sir," Kennedy went on, warming to his subject. "You were not there. You do not know the political mire we are in. It will take a very great effort on our part to steer this ship into a safe haven . . . "
"On MY part, Mr. Kennedy," Pellew corrected firmly. "I want you to rest assured I shall be very active in the pursuit of our mutual goal, but there is little you can do from your sickbed . . ."
Kennedy did not answer in words, but their eyes met, and the timeless wisdom of the immortal was in the steady blue stare. Pellew was shaken. He had always regarded the lad as being about as deep and occluded as a saucer of water. Either he had been seriously misled, or Archie Kennedy had come to a maturity which his open nature could only hint at, his soul walking now in places where others could not follow.
Pellew dropped his voice again. "Your deposition is the key," he said urgently. "Our case will stand or fall by the testimony of you four . . . Be careful, Archie. Don't let slip anything . . . ANYTHING . . . which could make matters worse . . . Better to take those things . . . " He broke off, suddenly dismayed by the line he had nearly uttered.
"With me . . . yes . . . " Kennedy fulfilled quietly.
A silence fell between them, and Pellew was aware of the distance growing. He would get no more out of Kennedy now, but was comforted to know that at least nor would anyone else.
"Well," he stood up, taking his dress jacket from the back of the chair and putting it on. "I promised Dr. Clive I would not exhaust you, and I seem to have done just that. Would you like me to call him?"
Kennedy gave a short sigh. Deep breaths appeared to hurt him. "No thank you, sir. I don't need anything," he responded.
"Are you in pain, sir?"
The wounded man gave a slightly twisted grin. "The pain is more tolerable than old Clive's ministrations, " he declared honestly.
Pellew considered the matter for a moment. "My own surgeon is available," he offered generously. "Would you like me to send for him?"
Kennedy's eyes softened. "No, thank you, sir. You have done enough. Besides, it will make little difference to me now, and would only serve to upset the old fellow . . . Clive does his best, and he's not a bad doctor when he's sober . . . "
Pellew straightened. "Your service at Samana Bay . . . and in the defence of your ship . . . was most . . . creditable, Mr. Kennedy," he began, careful not to sing too much praise. "It has been noted . . ."
The lieutenant merely smiled again, more wryly than ever. "The credit is all Mr. Hornblower's, I assure you, sir," he said. "I served only to get in his way . . ."
Pellew grunted. "I would believe you, Mr. Kennedy, except that he says otherwise, and however fallible you and I may be, he, at least, would not lie . . . Your part in the affair will be recorded in the Kingston Chronicle, and thereafter the Naval Chronicle. No doubt your parents will be proud of their son . . ."
This time, Kennedy actually gave a quiet little chuckle. "That will be a novelty for them," he observed dryly. "In fact, my mother may not survive the shock . . ."
"Nonsense, man," Pellew responded instantly. "I met your family on several occasions in London. Your father always spoke very highly of you!"
"Not to me, he didn't!"
Pellew smiled too, at that. Some sides of the boy had not changed at all.
Then Kennedy looked up again, sober now. "I used to think that war was a game," he stated quietly, "when I used to mess about with my brothers on the lake at home, playing heroes . . ."
The Commodore felt sorrow rising deep inside him, and he fought for control. Perhaps that was why he had always found this young man hellish difficult to deal with. He said the things that everyone else dared not, and he was prepared to take the consequences. The world would miss Archie Kennedy.
"And now here you are in Kingston," Pellew said gently, "not playing any more . . . "
This time the silence was comfortable, as though something had been made better, though neither of them could have explained quite what the 'something' might be.
"Do you want anything, Archie?" Sir Edward asked, to steer the ship back into the shallower waters of the everyday.
The blue eyes flashed. "I would like to see him, sir," Kennedy said. There was no need to specify whom. "but I know he has a lot on his mind . . ."
"Has he not been to see you yet?" Pellew shook his head. "My fault as much as his, I'm afraid. I have occupied his time over this wretched business, to the exclusion of all else. It was unforgivable, Archie. I will see that he visits you within the hour!"
Kennedy relaxed visibly. Pellew was only now beginning to realise how things really were between these two young men how close they had become. Somehow the knowledge made the situation ten times worse. But at least there was something he could give to Kennedy, which would help him a little . . .
"Mr. Hornblower is, in my opinion, a very fine officer," he stated simply. "If nothing stops him, I believe he will be Admiral of the Fleet one day . . . "
Kennedy's lips tightened with an emotion even he would not let out of check. "I'm glad, sir . . . " he said simply.
And God bless the boy, his eyes were shining. Pellew was inexpressibly moved.
"And you, Mr. Kennedy . . . " He held out his hand, allowing Archie to find his own strength to take it in a grip which was surprisingly firm. "You have been a . . . worthy shipmate, sir. And you found honour at the end . . . I am glad of it . . ."
Archie's eyes met his in a silent valediction. There seemed to be nothing more to say.
Try as he might, the Commodore could not find the courage to say 'Adieu', and any less final farewell would be the coward's way. Without another word, Lord Exmouth turned on his heel and strode out of the prison.
They could not know that, in the crucible of the next forty-eight hours, they were to have the pleasure of each other's company one final time . . .