KING GEORGE'S WARRANT
BY Ruth W.

 

"Are you ready, Archie?" The officer coming off-duty found his friend
seated in a pool of sunlight at the wardroom table, watching the
weevils which had recently quit his biscuit walk aimlessly about the
table-top. It was clear his eyes were not seeing the weevils, and the
biscuit sat, untouched, in the dull pewter dish before him.

The Navy's most nervous acting lieutenant looked up,
blinking. "I've . . ." he paused to gather his wits, "I've been ready
for hours," he said quietly. "So long, in fact, I've probably become
unready again." He stood up, brushing dust from the bench off his
white breeches. "Check me over, Horatio," he requested with well-used
fatalism. "Will I do?"

Lieutenant Hornblower looked him up and down. Kennedy always dressed
correctly, but today he was perfect in every detail. "Can't fault
you," Hornblower admitted, "apart from the hole in the back of the
jacket."

But Archie had been caught that way before. "Not funny, Horatio," he
commented mildly. After Muzillac, it was the good, virtually new
shore jacket which had all the burn holes. The coat he was wearing
was older but ironically in better condition. He drew a deep
breath. "You know, I don't mind what torment and tribulation they put
me through, but I do object to hanging about waiting for the blow to
fall. Is the shore-boat here yet?"

Hornblower shook his head.

Fortunately, into this state of limbo, came Midshipman Hether, who
had been sniffing about the upper deck during the forenoon watch, for
inside information.

"The good news is, you've got the Old Man," he announced cheerfully.

Archie's eyes brightened. "Pellew! Alleluia!" he said softly. This
might not be such an ordeal after all.

"And Sir Walter Bartholomew"

`Uncle Bart' as he was known to most of the Navy, was
probably the
most amicable soul in the captain's list He would do. Archie
risked
a smile of relief.

"Wait 'til you hear the bad news, though . . . " Hether added
wickedly.

Now Kennedy went rigid.

Admiral Lord Hood," Hether concluded with a grimace of sympathy.

Archie looked up at Hornblower hopelessly. "Oh, God," he said
weakly, "what is the point? I may as well just report sick like I did
in S-Simpson's day."

"You'll be all right, Archie," Hether told him with facetious
confidence. "They'll recognise quality when they see it. They'll take
one look at the uniform and give you a commission out of hand."

The bright face of a young volunteer appeared at the top of the
stairwell. "SHORE BOAT FOR MR. KENNEDY!" he yelled, making Archie
wince. The reluctant examination candidate pulled on his grey
greatcoat and Hornblower stuck his hat on his head.

"Need this?" Hether asked, holding up Moore's 'Seamanship'.

Archie shook his head firmly. What he did not know after almost a
decade at sea and a month of sleepless cramming was probably not
worth learning.

"Best of luck, Archie," Hether called after him as he mounted the
steps, and he acknowledged the goodwill with a half-hearted salute.

"I should not have let you talk me into this, Horatio," he complained
as they emerged on the noisy gundeck. It was bedlam, as it always was
in port, as the men made a courageous and noble effort to make up for
the privations they had suffered during the long months at sea. He
liked women, but he preferred them in the drawing-room or some cosy
tavern or in a goose-feather bed Not here, cluttering up
his
ship.

And pigs should definitely be in a sty

"I?" Hornblower shrugged. "It was Captain Pellew who suggested you
try for your commission, not I."

Archie did not pause in his negotiation of the slung hammocks and
general havoc, as he replied quietly "We must hope that there's a
fireship attack on Admiralty Headquarters, and they give it to me for
a single act of gallantry."

Hornblower considered the suggestion for a time, smiling. "Such
things have been known," he agreed.

"Except . . ." Archie ducked under a low bulkhead, "I am not
gallant . . ." He negotiated a sticky mess on the floor where
something had been spilt and stopped to order one of the men to clean
it up. Then he added, in the privacy of the background noise, "Once,
when I was young and care free, I used to think I would make a fine
lieutenant. Just now I find my ambition singularly misplaced."

"You're just nervous," Hornblower assured him stoutly. "I have every
faith in you, Archie."

Kennedy stopped and faced him. "And what if I'm made up and given
something really important to do and I foul it?" he said in a low
voice, "Or can't control the men? Or have a fit? What then?"

Hornblower dropped his voice even lower. "Archie, you think too far
ahead. Already you are seeing yourself alone in command of a sinking
three-decker. This is folly, Mr. Kennedy. Take one step at a time.
Today you have your examination. Tomorrow is tomorrow."

Archie's eyes met his and he tried to look calm, but merely presented
the impression of a condemned man.

"Best o' luck, Mr. Kennedy," came a shout across the bustling deck,
and the cry was repeated over and over. He had a good many friends
among the men.

"You show 'em, Mr. K." a familiar voice added. Matthews, Oldroyd and
Styles were watching from their table in the corner. Archie was
becoming embarrassed. "Thank you, Matthews. Thank you, men," he
acknowledged with a watery smile.

"Here, Sir." Something small and round spun through the air and he
caught it with both hands.

"A rabbit's foot," Kennedy observed mildly. "What am I supposed to do
with this, Oldroyd?"

"It's lucky, Sir. Not that you need luck," the seaman added hastily.

Styles cuffed him. "What he doesn't need is bits of dead animals
stinkin' out his pockets," he growled cheerfully.

Matthews just gave Kennedy a wink. "Be all right, Sir," he promised
calmly. "They'll know an officer when they see one"

Archie coloured shyly, and answered with another stiff smile. The
last thing he heard as he climbed the companionway was Oldroyd's
parrot, squawking "Oooh, `s a'right, Archie!"

The wind was freshening as they reached the quarterdeck, pulling at
their hats and making them draw their coats closer around them. It
had been raining, the air clearing so that the outlines of Portsmouth
Docks looked sharp and close in the bright sunlight.

They found Mr. Bowles and Lieutenant Bracegirdle waiting for them.
Mrs Bracegirdle was there too, just come aboard with her two
children, a small boy of seven and a babe in arms. Archie and Horatio
touched their hats gallantly and she smiled in return.

"Wanted to wish you luck, Archie," Mr. Bracegirdle said,
giving him a
clap on the shoulder which made the dust swirl from the old coat.

"Thank you, sir."

The baby had instinctively reached out and grabbed his hat, mangling
the point. Resigned now to whatever fate had in store, Archie took
the child readily into his arms and pulled a funny face, making it
giggle. "You leave my hat alone, sir!" he ordered sternly,
"or I
shall have you put it on and sit the examination in my stead!"

"He'd probably pass, Archie," the lady told him with a
proud
smile. "Bright as a button are these boys like their
father"

It always amused the officers of the Indy to see the competent and
calm First Lieutenant become pleasantly embarrassed by his wife's
obvious devotion. Reluctantly, Archie handed the child back and
retrieved his mashed hat.

"Check your calculations, "Mr. Bowles shook his hand firmly "before
you report your answers. You understand navigation well enough,
Archie, but you make errors when you're nervous. Check everything
twice. You're well able to pass. Keep your head, and you'll
be fine."

"Aye, Mr. Bowles." Archie returned their casual salute and swung
himself onto the embarkation ladder.

"Remember, Archie," Hornblower said soberly, leaning over the
side, "one step at a time. I will be waiting with a celebratory
ration of spirits."

Kennedy gave him a condemned look and jumped into the little boat,
seating himself in the sternsheets. He looked neither up nor back as
it pulled away towards the Hard.

As Hornblower made to return to the wardroom, Bracegirdle stopped him
saying "Captain's respects, Mr. Hornblower, and would you join him in
his cabin before he goes ashore."

Hornblower frowned, puzzled, but said only "Aye, Sir."

"D'you think he'll pass?" Mr. Bowles asked conversationally, with a
nod towards the retreating shore boat.

Hornblower followed his gaze. "I do sincerely hope so," he said
soberly.

* * *

"Ah, Hornblower, come in, please." Captain Pellew was a wonderful
sight to behold in his full dress uniform, with his jet black woollen
cloak over his arm, gathering up his documents and personal items for
shore duty. He was clearly champing to be away.

"I'll only keep you a moment," he assured briskly, "but this is
somewhat important . . . and somewhat delicate. I trust you'll
forgive the imposition."

"Sir?"

Pellew met his eyes. "What can you tell me about Archie Kennedy, Mr.
Hornblower?" he demanded. "Is he ready to be handed a King's warrant?"

Hornblower was taken aback. Knowing that Pellew was on Archie's
assessment board, was he really being asked to testify to Kennedy's
fitness to become an officer?

"Surely you do not need to ask, sir," he argued, "if you
put him
forward?"

Pellew grunted. "I did so in order to push him along, Mr.
Hornblower,
thinking he would rise to the challenge. He has risen, sir. He has
been most diligent. But not vigorous not wholehearted I
confess,
he has not reacted as I had hoped"

Pellew saw the dismay in his face. "Forgive me, Mr. Hornblower," he
added frankly, "but you know him better than anyone. If you are able
to allay my doubts, I shall be eternally grateful."

"Doubts, Sir?"

Pellew paced to his window and back. "When he first came to this
ship, he was like a peregrine shown the lure," he recalled, "and I
had every expectation he would make a sound officer. But lately . . .
I confess, I am not so sure. He hesitates. He looks to you to make
his decisions for him. When I offered him the chance, it took him two
days to summon the courage to put in for him examination. And that
was before Quiberon. Since that ill-fated operation, he has been
almost distracted."

"Quiberon affected us all, Sir," Hornblower pointed out reasonably.

"Indeed," Pellew agreed dryly. "Some more than others."

"I . . . think Mr. Kennedy has deferred to me largely out of loyalty,
Sir." Hornblower tried to sound casual rather than defensive, as
though he had not felt the frustration of Archie's negativity
himself. "He and I have been so much thrust together that we confer
on most things. As for the examination, I know he does fear failure,
Captain."

"He should not fear failure, Mr. Hornblower. What good is a
lieutenant disabled by a fear of failure?"

Hornblower realised he had given entirely the wrong impression. He
wished he had kept his thoughts to himself.

"That is hardly fair, Sir," he began with some vigour.

"Is it, Mr. Hornblower?" Pellew returned, equally heated. "Have I
misjudged his change of spirit since he first joined Indefatigable?
Or am I not such a bad judge of men's' strengths and weaknesses? You
must tell me which, because you know all the facts and I do not."

The young lieutenant was silent. To keep his thoughts to himself, on
this complex and potentially explosive issue, seemed the safest
option.

"It would be a very grave error on my part to lay the burden of
office upon a man of whose fitness I have any reservation," Pellew
continued soberly. "It would be a gross offence to the men he would
command, and indeed to Kennedy himself. It would do him no good, Mr.
Hornblower."

Now Hornblower did not know what to say. It was true Archie Kennedy
was not a natural leader of men. Not many lieutenants were. Born the
third son of aristocracy, he had never been required to be the master
of the house, and had grown up a dedicated romantic.

But he was a sound professional sailor and the men under his command
forgave him his unpredictability and the odd moment of indecision
because they liked his good nature and innate decency. They
appreciated his honesty and respected him for his energy and stubborn
British grit. He would make a far better lieutenant and
eventually
a captain than at least half those already elevated. It would
be
impossible to convey all this with Pellew hovering to be away. The
young officer opted for simple facts.

"I have always considered Mr. Kennedy to be the most dutiful of
officers, Sir." It was the truth, if perhaps not the absolute
endorsement Pellew would obviously have preferred. "And the men seem
to like him," he added - a detail which he knew the captain would put
at a premium.

"They like him - as I do - because he is likeable," Pellew said
sharply. "Because he is polite to them and fair, and has a pleasant
disposition - not necessarily because he has the ability to keep them
alive in an open boat for a month on quarter rations!"

Hornblower tried not to smile. "I am sure he could do that as well,
Sir," he assured confidently, adding with a little less confidence,
his conscience returning him to Muzillac, "I have never, in the end,
regretted delegating to him."

The Captain paced again to the window and back. "There's something
unsaid here," he observed, studying his lieutenant's face
astutely. "Something I don't know." His eyes suddenly
narrowed. "Spain," he said abruptly. "After the Papillon. Spain
changed him. What took place in Spain, Mr. Hornblower?"

Again, Hornblower had no idea what he should say. He had given a full
report of his own dealings there, and he had assumed Archie had done
the same.

"Do you not know, Sir?" he asked.

"Dammit, man, if I did, I wouldn't be asking you!"

Still Hornblower hesitated. "Perhaps this is not for me to discuss,
Sir," he objected lamely.

"I'm right then? There is something. Do you suggest I should take it
up with Kennedy?" Pellew demanded gruffly. "How far would that get
me, heh? Even if I had the chance, which I clearly do not." He looked
the young man in the eye. "This is too vital for me to pussyfoot
around the business, Mr.Hornblower. I know you are his friend." He
paused. "If you value him . . . as I do . . . then tell me why he's
acting like a volunteer instead of a lieutenant. For his sake, sir,
if not for mine."

Hornblower knew it made sense, though Archie would not forgive him if
he ever found out.

He drew a deep breath. "Mr. Kennedy suffered prolonged abuse at the
hands of the Dons, Sir," he confessed finally, "as a result of which
he was . . . somewhat broken in constitution when I found him there.
With only prison rations to restore him, his recovery was slow." He
hesitated before adding "I believe he also suffered a spiritual
breakdown which, perhaps, for a time, limited his confidence."

There. It was said and could not be unsaid. He felt like Judas
Iscariot.

Pellew stared at him, amazed. "And yet he returned to Spain on your
parole," he wondered quietly. "My God, Hornblower, here's gallantry.
Here's loyalty, sir."

"Yes, Captain," the lieutenant responded simply, glad that the
Captain had chosen to settle upon the positive side of his report
rather than the negative.

"He deserves his commission on the strength of that alone," Pellew
commented, "and I would be delighted to oblige him. But would it be
good for him, Mr. Hornblower? Would it be good for the Royal Navy? It
is my uneasy task to decide. Do you believe he will find his feet
again?"

Hornblower cleared his throat awkwardly, unsure what to say. "Really,
Sir, I have no knowledge of such things," he answered cagily.

"You must have a private opinion," Pellew pursued without mercy.

This was too much. Hornblower decided he had said quite
enough. "I . . . really cannot comment on the fitness of a fellow
officer to serve, Sir," he stated quietly.

Pellew observed his face for a moment, reading all there was to be
read. Then he seemed to reach a conclusion, for he shook out his
cloak and swung it about his shoulders. "I appreciate your help,
Mr.Hornblower," he assured. "None of this will go beyond these walls,
I promise you. And your candour has done your friend only good, you
have my word on it."

Hornblower straightened, relieved. "Thank you, Sir," he said more
cheerfully.

 

 

 

It was half past two in the afternoon, and the honey-coloured, wood-
panelled ante-room at Admiralty Headquarters was cold and
uncomfortable. The smell of polish always reminded Archie Kennedy of
the schoolroom at home, where he had spent begrudged chunks of his
childhood battling with poor translations of Homer, when he really
wanted to be out in the woods sacking Troy with his brothers, or
sailing triremes on the lake.

He had set himself apart from the other candidates by being the only
one not to have his nose in a book, and had waited alone, like a
goldfish sealed from its peers by a bowl, until his name was called.
Then he rose as a man condemned and tucked his hat under his arm to
follow the messenger.

Captain Pellew gave him the naval equivalent of a smile of
encouragement as he entered the room. Captain Sir Walter Bartholomew
wore his customary good-natured smile, but Lord Hood's eyes bored
into him as though the bridge at Muzillac was a story to be read in
his soul.

Archie saluted smartly. "Archibald Kennedy, Sir," he
announced. "Acting Lieutenant, Indefatigable. My certificates, Sir"

"Thank you, Mr. Kennedy." Pellew took the documents without checking
them. He had, after all, supplied them himself only that morning.

So far so good.

"You may be surprised to see me here, Mr. Kennedy," Pellew
remarked
as a welcome. "It is not usual for a captain to sit on the board
for
his own midshipman, but needs must. A dose of the flux has seen off
Captain Marchant this morning, and I have been called in at short
notice, as the only man qualified and available"

Archie stared at him, discomfited by the bad news of a popular
captain. "I'm very sorry, sir" he managed
sincerely.

Pellew smiled, amused. "You will be, quite possibly. I am a
harder
judge than he." He gave the young man a twinkle, "but you
have no
need to go into despair for his wife and family yet, Mr. Kennedy. I
meant he has been confined to his bed, not his grave."

"Oh..." Archie blinked, feeling a fool. What a good
start. "Then I'm glad, sir." He checked himself uneasily. "That is,
I'm not glad he
has the flux, sir, but that he's not dead, sir."

Oh dear...

Not being inclined to small-talk, Pellew indicated the papers Archie
had completed earlier. "Your calculations are all correct, Mr.
Kennedy," he congratulated. "Your navigational skills
obviously cannot be faulted."

Kennedy said automatically "Thank you, Sir."

"Now let us see" Pellew tossed the redundant papers aside "how you
handle your ship."

Sir Walter was leaning on his elbows, more businesslike now. Lord
Hood's eyes continued to dissolve Archie's spirit.

Archie's eyelids fluttered in panic. "Oh God..."

One step at a time... Easier said than done...!

What is the point of my aspiration to be a King's Officer, if I
can't
even face three unarmed old men?!

Sensing his dismay, Hood glowered at him. Inevitably the candidate
lost his nerve.

His concentration evaporated. He listened intently to the details
Captain Pellew was feeding him, but none of them penetrated the fog
of panic. Then from nowhere the spectre of Jack Simpson popped into
his head, laughing at him. "You're just a snivelling little coward,
Kennedy . . ." hissed a malign voice from deep inside him. "You'll
never be anything else!"

Archie seemed to be standing there for days, staring up at the stars
through a metal grating, his back breaking and tears coursing through
the dust on his face.

His breathing almost stopped. He stared into nothing. He felt nothing.

Then a quiet voice from the far corner of his mind said calmly "These
are new times, Mr. Simpson. You have no hold on us here."

"Mr. Kennedy!" Pellew was saying sharply. "MR. KENNEDY!"

Archie jumped - drew breath - blinked away the terror, which was his
deadliest enemy.

"Um . . . " he struggled for balance, "I . . . I would do nothing,
Sir," he found himself saying in a hoarse whisper.

"Nothing, Mr. Kennedy?" Pellew folded his hands on the table in front
of him. "Nothing?"

To his utter joy, Archie realised the question had gone in and the
right answer had come out. With renewed confidence, he added "If the
wind is freshening, Sir, the sail I already have would be adequate,
with the tide, to take me out to sea. I would have no need to trim,
Sir."

"Good boy!" Murmured Uncle Bart with a pleasant twinkle.

Pellew glanced at his fellow examiners, impressed. "Very good, Mr.
Kennedy," he agreed. He gave Archie another encouraging smile. "Let
us see how you make out in an engagement,"

The questions this time were tricky but he had been on the Indy to
see Pellew deal with most of them, and he had read what he had not
witnessed first-hand. Once the Captain responded to his rather vague
answer "I would take in sail, Sir," with the irritated tirade "Take
in sail, Mr. Kennedy? Be specific, man. Which sail? How much sail?
Your men are not clairvoyant, Sir! They cannot be expected to guess!"

Otherwise things were going well. He realised by now he must have
passed, and the knowledge made him light-headed and unwary.

"What about the conduct of a shore operation?" Admiral Hood said
suddenly. "Imagine for me that you are holding a position on land,
when you are surprised by enemy fire . . . What would you do?"

Archie froze. The smell of polish was making him feel suddenly sick,
and he could almost feel Jack Simpson's breath on his neck...

Hood's eyes still bored into him, and it seemed that the Admiral had
been at Muzillac, on the bridge, watching the acting lieutenant lose
his head. Did he know? Had the men reported Kennedy's inadequacy, or
Horatio? Or perhaps Lord Edrington?

Feeling his face flush crimson, Archie took a deep breath, seeing his
commission slip away from him again. Nevertheless, he kept his head
as he responded, licking dry lips, "Can . . . can I see the enemy,
Sir?"

"Damn good question!" Captain Bartholomew congratulated
kindly. "Bravo, Sir!"

"No," decided Lord Hood. "They are hidden in trees and bushes."

"And . . . would the fire be small-shot or artillery, Sir?"

Hood considered this for a moment. "Small shot, I should say, at this
stage," he decided.

Archie nodded. "Very well . . . " He narrowed his eyes, expecting
this to be a trick. "In that case, I would do nothing, My Lord."

Hood's eyes bored through him. "And why is that, Mr. Kennedy?"

Because I panicked once and used half a barrel of powder and a ton of
round shot blasting at shadows...

"Because . . . to open fire at this stage would waste powder
and . . . give away my position to the enemy, My Lord," Archie
answered with some conviction.


"Good man!" he heard Pellew mutter under his breath.


"Well . . ." Hood sat back in his chair, "I think that will do, if
you agree, gentlemen."


Pellew gave Archie a tight smile. "Thank you, Mr. Kennedy," he said
briskly. "If you will give us a moment to confer."


Shaking with relief, Archie gave a smart salute and withdrew to a
seat in the far corner of the room.

 

 

* * *

 


In the dying light of a cold, bright afternoon, Horatio Hornblower
paced the deck of the Indefatigable watching the line of the quay
anxiously, stopping occasionally to raise a glass to his eye to sweep
the Hard.

Captain Pellew had been back hours, and had disappeared into his
cabin with Mr. Bowles, but Archie was still nowhere to be seen. He
must have found a tavern to celebrate his commission. Hornblower
wondered whether he should go ashore to share a pint of ale with him.
The more he thought about it, the more the idea appealed. He even
knew where Archie was likely to be. The King's Head was between
Admiralty Headquarters and the quayside and most of the naval
officers in the port were wont to spend their time there.


Hornblower hurried below for his cloak and Mr. Bracegirdle's
permission to take a boat.

* * *

The Sally Port was cool, dark and quiet; too early in the evening for
much to be going on. Hornblower peered round the door into the gloom.
They always had good food here, and as the first whiff of new-baked
bread and fresh malt ale caressed his nose, he began to realise how
hungry he was. He would stand Archie a good dinner tonight to
celebrate. The thought made his mouth water.

At first he thought Kennedy was not there. The place looked quite
empty. Then he caught sight of the edge of the familiar grey coat
over the partition which lent privacy to the far corner of the bar.
He smiled.

Archie was alone, staring down into a full tankard. He looked up as
Hornblower's shadow fell across the table, but disappointingly, his
face registered no joy.

"Oh . . ." he managed a smile of sorts "Horatio . . ." He stood
up. "Here . . . sit down. I'll fetch a pot of ale."

Hornblower sat, smiling. "Shouldn't we make it something stronger?"
he suggested, "Whisky, perhaps, or brandy, to celebrate?"

Archie turned back. "No, we should make it ale," he returned
flatly. "I sank like the Mary Rose, H'ratio. I was refused."

Hornblower stared at him, half-smiling. "You're playing the fool..."
he decided.

"No, I'm not. I assure you, Horatio, I was refused."

There was a long, stunned pause. The ticking of the huge clock by the
door seemed to fill the dim room. When he could speak, Hornblower
said simply "Why?"

Archie's shoulders shifted restlessly. "Captains and admirals do not
have to have a reason," he answered bitterly. "Now, I'll get your
ale . . . if you still want to mix with a humble midshipman."

Hornblower stared at him, unable to take the information in. He shook
his head slowly. "Archie . . .I . . ." he began.

"There's nothing you can say, Horatio," Archie cut him off
shortly. "Not a thing." and he stalked off to buy the ale.

Hornblower was silenced, stunned. He was used to looking to Archie's
welfare, as he was with all his men, in the general run of things,
but how could he pick up the pieces after this? And a horror began to
grow in him that Pellew had not kept faith - had taken all in his
testimony that was negative and had used it to hold Kennedy down.

By the time Archie returned with the jug and an extra tankard,
Hornblower's thoughts were in turmoil.

"You must have some idea what went against you," he argued
desperately, hoping for an error or omission on Archie's part which
would have explained the disaster. But Kennedy shook his head.

"None whatever," he shrugged, seating himself opposite. "My
seamanship is exemplary. Likewise my navigation - and my grasp of
procedure and tactics was judged first-class."

"So?"

Kennedy poured ale to hide his face. "I don't know, Horatio. Perhaps,
deep down, I always knew my sins would find me out . . ."

"What are you talking about? What sins?"

"My moment of mental decay," Archie's voice had dropped to a dry,
languid murmur. He took an long and reckless draught of ale, which
Hornblower had already noted was the local brew - dark and
potent,
the strongest they had. "Hardly Homeric, was it?" Kennedy added
bitterly.

Horatio knew he was cornered and honesty was the only course open to
him. His friend deserved the truth.

"Archie, I really felt the Captain should know what happened to you
in Spain," he confessed carefully.

Kennedy stared at him blankly. "Spain?" he repeated. "Don't be a
fool, Horatio. I'm not talking about that. That's all done and gone.
I mean Muzillac. That damned bridge." He drank slowly,
brooding. "Perhaps the men were overheard talking of it, or Lord
Edrington may have told the story."

"I don't think so, Archie. He was a man of discretion, and the men
would not gossip about such a thing."

"No." Archie looked up and met his eyes as though another possibility
had occurred to him, but then he looked away again, back to his
tankard, obviously discarding the thought. "Well, it matters not a
jot why," he said quietly, thickly, and at that point Hornblower
realised he had already had more ale than was good for him. "The fact
is I failed," he concluded deliberately. "I shall probably grow old
in the midshipman's mess, like Hunter and S-Simpson . . . growing
mean and embittered, until I become desperate and throw my life away
on some stupid indiscretion." He downed the rest of the killer brew
in one go.

In Hornblower's opinion, the lad had spent far too much of his life
down at Drury Lane.

"Archie," he said firmly. "You have only failed once. You are young,
and Captain Pellew will have you put in again as soon as your six
months are up. As for Muzillac, I do advise you to forget it."

"As you would, you mean? Tell me honestly, Horatio, would you forget
an aberration like that . . . or would it trouble your sleep?"

Hornblower bridled. He hated it when Kennedy drew these unnecessary
and unconstructive comparisons.

"This is reality, man, not one of Mr. Shakespeare's plays." he
reminded, heated now. "We are not required to describe the dimensions
of high tragedy just because we make one mistake."

Archie's chin lifted. He did not want pity, or even sympathy - he
wanted catharsis. He had just had the gates of Paradise slammed shut
in his face for no straightforward reason. To be forbidden to feel
sorry for himself was just too much. He stood up, unsteady now, and
reached for his coat.

"You'll forgive me, Lieutenant," he said shortly "if I do not return
to the ship with you."

Hornblower rose also. "Why?" he asked, alarmed. "Where are you going?"

"I have . . . one or two items of business to attend to . . ."
Kennedy's voice was still clear, but it had a lazy edge now which
Hornblower knew and did not like. Then his face changed, and he
looked up, suddenly armourless.

"Tell them for me, Horatio," he begged. "I can't face their pity."

Hornblower straightened. This was going to be tricky. Many a
midshipman had been found the morning after his failed examination,
floating in the harbour.

"Archie, come back with me," he said urgently.

"Why? So you can help me pack up my things and settle back into the
mess with Hether and Cleveland?" Kennedy pulled his hat on, radiating
irritation. "I am able to cross a stretch of water without you,
Horatio," he insisted. "I can't be in your shadow forever."

It was the truth and they both knew it. If Archie Kennedy was
condemned to play second fiddle to his friend for the rest of his
life, at least tonight he was entitled to be on his own.

"When is your watch?" Hornblower asked with resignation.

"I . . . I hardly know. Midnight, I think."

"If you are not back, do I have your permission to stand it for you?"

"No." The response was decisive and immediate. "I thank you for the
consideration, but I shall be back in good time. Goodnight, Horatio."
With just a little more concentration than usual, Archie's behaviour
was in every way calm and normal as he walked away. How he would be
by midnight was anybody's guess.

 

* * *

 

It was a lonely Lieutenant Hornblower who took the shore-boat back to
the Indefatigable in the blustery darkness. The wind was dropping
after a squally day, but it was still cold and full of sea-mist. He
met only Hether shivering on deck.

"He failed," Hornblower told him before he could ask.

"My God," Hether breathed solemnly. "Poor Archie. Where is he?"

"He had business to attend to onshore." Hornblower returned grimly.

Hether's face was expressive. "I can imagine," he breathed. "Oh well,
he's no trouble. It'll be no penance to have him back in the mess for
a bit."

No penance for you, Hornblower thought grimly.

All the way from the shore, anger and injustice had been gripping
him, and Hether had just rubbed salt in the wound. Hornblower knew he
must approach the Captain and politely request an explanation. It was
highly irregular but then so had been Pellew's earlier approach to
him. Even his presence on the examining board for one of his own
midshipmen was a little extraordinary. Captain Sir Edward was not a
regular man.

Pellew was with Lieutenant Bracegirdle when Hornblower knocked at his
door. He had been expecting this approach all evening and was ready
for it. He gave Bracegirdle a look and the latter made a tactful
withdrawal. "I'm very sorry, Horatio," he murmured as he left, for
Hornblower's ears alone.

"You want to know," Pellew said flatly, "why we had to fail Archie
Kennedy."

Hornblower tried to hide his indignation. "Had to, Sir?" he repeated
pointedly.

"Yes, Mr. Hornblower, I use the word advisedly. There was no choice."

Hornblower straightened, unconvinced.

"And before you ask it" the Captain continued "your words to me this
morning only served to underline what I already knew. He is a good
man, capable of carving himself a valuable, solid career. But he's
had a bad start, and cannot do with being pushed. I was quite wrong
to believe it would help." He began pacing, his habit when
exasperated.

"It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, Mr.
Hornblower," he stated, staring grimly out of the window, "to call
him back and tell him he had been refused. He did not make it easy
for me. He did not sulk so that I would have lost sympathy. He gave
me no fey look which would have allowed me to say that he deserved
it. He just accepted it. As you should, Sir. He accepted it because
he is a Kennedy and a King's servant, and knows what is expected
of
him."

He coughed, suddenly fearful of intimacy. "He had to be made to
wait," he insisted, and it seemed to Hornblower as if he were
persuading himself all over again. "He will be a better officer for
it. To give him his commission now would be folly. The Royal Navy is
not sentimental, Mr. Hornblower. It is a place of duty and danger -
of death and hard choices. I will not be cavalier with men's lives.
His Majesty's shore prisons are full of court-martialled men who were
not up to the test of their warrant - who have lost ships and men
and friends and freedom because they were not ready for the burden of
command. After thirty years at sea, Sir, I can assure you I know what
I am talking about." He looked around for an acknowledgement and was
gratified to see the change in Hornblower's expression.

"Yes, Sir," the young lieutenant said quietly.

Pellew took a deep breath of evening air at the window. "The next six
months will tell all," he predicted. "If he has it in him, he will
have his commission. Meanwhile we must both be vigilant. I must know
if you have concerns, Mr. Hornblower."

"Aye, Sir."

The Captain brought the interview to an abrupt close. "Where is he?"
he demanded.

"Oh . . . he had business onshore, Sir."

"What business does a man have at seven o'clock at night?" Pellew
asked sharply.

"Private business, I believe, Sir," Hornblower responded, minutely
reproving.

Pellew was tempted to be nettled, but his affection for young
Hornblower got the better of him. He gave a look of infinite patience.

"He had better be back in time to stand his watch, or he'll find
himself under court-martial. I mean it, Mr. Hornblower."

"Aye sir."

'I know you do!' he thought grimly...

* * *

Hornblower waited, pacing about the deck, until after ten o'clock,
but there was no shore-boat and no sign of Midshipman Kennedy.
Thoroughly dissatisfied, Hornblower went to bed, but cold and anxiety
made him sleep badly, and it was nearly midnight before he fell into
a doze. He awoke again almost immediately with a jolt of dread.
Falling out of his bunk, he pulled on his clothes and hastened to the
deck above. It was very dark. Indefatigable floated at anchor on a
calm sea, lit only by the binnacle lamp and the tiny lights of the
heavens.

And Archie Kennedy was there, still and straight at the taffrail,
doing his duty as a King's officer should.

Profoundly relieved, Hornblower approached the rail to stand in
companionable silence beside him and for a long time they stood
looking out over the dark water.

Finally Hornblower decided it would not be an imposition to
speak. "The stars are fine tonight, Archie," he ventured softly.

There was a pause while Kennedy considered the dark vault of the sky.
Then he said "They are my friends. Every one of them. They give me
peace and balance. I know all their names, Horatio. I've spent much
of my life looking up at them."

His voice was calm and perfectly sober. Though it was too dark to see
his face, he had obviously not spent the evening drinking.
Hornblower began to view him with a new kind of respect, one which,
for the first time in a year or so, did not have any element of
pity. "Have you eaten?" he asked casually.

"No . . . I shall have something later. Cleveland and Hether were
very civilised to me when I moved back into the mess. They promised
to save me some supper, and I believe I will find an extra ration of
rum when I come off watch, courtesy of them."

Hornblower's brows lifted, but he made no comment.

Archie gave a deep sigh. "Perhaps I should be glad I failed today,"
he added with unusual gravity. "Had I been made up, Pellew would have
been obliged to have me transferred. It would be odd to find myself
in a new ship among strangers - away from you..."

"The Indy would be the poorer, then, Archie," Hornblower said
quietly. "We would all be the poorer."

They stood side-by-side for a long time in the fresh, quiet night,
still and at peace, enjoying the comfortable ease of friendship. They
could have talked, as many might have done, articulating things felt
and understood, saying all and keeping nothing within - but between
these two there was no need. There never was...

Finally Archie drew a deep breath of chilly salt air and let it out
slowly, as though shedding a weight. "There," He decided firmly. "The
day is done. Tomorrow is tomorrow." He turned to his companion
with a calm smile. "All is well, Horatio..."

 

**********************************************************

 

I am a man... Little do I last, and the night is enormous.
But I look up. The stars write. Unknowing, I understand.
I too am written, and at this very moment, someone spells me out...

Octavio Paz

 

 

I have taken the liberty, for my own devious designs, to have Pellew
on the Examination Board for one of his own men. I should think this
would be highly unlikely, and the concept of any captain consulting a
lieutenant on the fitness of a friend to be promoted also seems far-
fetched, but no less credible than the whole of the last thirty-five
minutes of Retribution, so I rest my case!:):):);)