A Game of Whist
by Bev F.

"Care to join us in the gun room for a game of whist, Horatio?"
Archie asked.

His friend stood at the railing, gazing out over the empty ocean.
Horatio's usual rigid stance, hands clasped firmly behind him, had
been abandoned for a dejected slump of the shoulders. His fingers
gripped the railing tightly, as though only by that supreme effort of
will he remained upright.

"Horatio?"

"I did not think you particularly fond of whist, Archie."

"Mr. Bracegirdle and Major Edrington have quite beaten me
down. You must join us, or they will hold me accountable for
spoiling their evening's entertainment." Archie kept his voice
light. "Perhaps your brilliant play will be enough to compensate for
my miserable abilities. I would look forward to depriving both of them
of a few shillings." He almost added '... and it will do you good' but
managed to stop the words from escaping. The brooding look on
Horatio's face warned that he had no interest in improving his
condition.

"Is there no one else?"

"No, or I certainly would not have been invited to play either."

A slight squaring of the shoulders was the only answer Archie
received, but he sensed as he turned to go below decks, that
Horatio was following.

The gun room was empty. A deck of cards sat forlornly on the
table, and Horatio caught it up as soon as he seated himself.
Archie watched fascinated as Horatio's long nimble fingers cut the
deck, shuffled the cards expertly, hit them on the table to square
them off, then shuffled again. A machine could not duplicate the
motions so exactly as Horatio accomplished with ease, over and
over again. Archie glanced up at his friend's face, and was
shocked to see the bitter depth of misery in his dark eyes.

"Horatio..."

"I was thinking on death." With these words, Horatio stilled his
hands, the deck held as though ready for dealing. Slowly a single
card sailed onto the tabletop.

"Clayton." Another card joined the first. " Williams." And two
more ... "Eccleston. Chad." They flew faster now. "Finch. Bunting.
Hunter. Mariette. " The last card fllipped as it landed, and Archie
was horrified to see the Queen of Hearts staring up at him. Horatio
placed the deck on the table and placed his hands very carefully,
one on either side of the small pile of cards -- the small pile of
death -- that he had dealt.

Desperately Archie prayed that Mr. Bracegirdle and Major
Edrington would join them now, this very minute. But the room
echoed only the faint far-off voices of the crew, and the creakings
and workings of the Indefatigable .

He himself reached over to the deck, and slid two more cards
onto the table. "I suppose we might add Simpson and the Marquis,
" he said, almost choking on the first name and refusing to turn the
cards over, so sure he was that one would be a Jack. Horatio
made no answer.

What depths of darkness had his friend reached, that even his
favorite pastime -- a game of whist -- could remind him of death?
Some of the deaths Horatio had named were familiar to him; the
others he had learned of as he and his fellow officer whiled away
the dreary hours of their second incarceration in Don Masserado's
gaol. For a moment, Archie's mind remained blank, but as he
gazed at the cards lying so accusingly between them, a small idea
started to shape itself.

He picked up the deck. "Even an addlepated whist player such as
myself, may win if the cards fall right. And even a brilliant player,
like yourself, may lose, if the cards fall very badly. You win often,
Horatio, do you not?"

Horatio's head came up. "I do, Archie, but I have no interest in
discussing..."

"So how you play the cards you are dealt makes the difference.
Clayton played from a weak position, until he had to risk all on one
hand. " Archie slid a single card from the small pile Horatio had
formed. "Williams and Finch were given no cards to play at all.
Eccleston and Chad -- a bad deal, that may have gone to you, for
but a small change in position. " Four more cards were moved.
" Bunting played wildly, with no thought for the consequences.
Hunter assumed he was a better player than you, but learned
differently. Simpson and the Marquis both cheated to win, but
were caught out in the end." Now only one card remained where
Horatio had placed it.

"And this?" Horatio touched the Queen of Hearts gently.

"She chose to play as your partner. Had she chosen your
opposition, the game may have played out the same. But just look,
Horatio ..." Archie fanned out the cards he still held in his hand.
"Sometimes even your partner cannot save you, but sometimes he
can. Today you think on death, but many enjoy life because you
played the game on their side. I count myself among them,
Horatio."

Horatio's eyes were bright. "I know you are trying to cheer me,
Archie...."

"Have I succeeded?"

Horatio moved the rectangles of pasteboard slowly around the
table top. Finally he made a tidy pile of the death cards and
covered them with the life cards.

"A little better than you play whist, Mr. Kennedy." The smile he
gave was sad, but Archie could see that his friend perhaps had
started to think a little less on death and more on the game of life.

"Well, Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Kennedy!" Mr Bracegirdle bustled
into the gunroom, followed by Major Edrington. " Are we ready to
play?"

"I believe we are, gentlemen. " And Horatio picked up the deck of
cards, shuffled, and started to deal.

The end