A Witness to Courage
by Naomi

Note: This story also appeared in the HHTO fanzine. This is a little
story of what the situation might be if Horatio met Edrington several
years after the debacle of Muzillac.


1809 - Corunna, Spain

The razor-sharp wind of January was veering, promising the very devil
of a storm. Captain Hornblower could scent the bitter tang of snow in
the air as he drew his boat cloak tighter about him and scanned the
low grey clouds above the beach, looking anywhere in fact save
directly at the beach itself. Following him closely, Lieutenant Bush
muttered an uncharacteristic oath.

"Indeed, William," Horatio's own dismay led him into a familiarity he
normally reserved for moments of leisure. "It is - I have never seen
anything like it!"

He lengthened his naturally long stride, wanting to put such ugliness
behind him. But everywhere he looked was a new and shocking vision.

Both men were long accustomed to the horrors of war, but the scene
stretching along the beach and up into the streets of the town was
something out of an opium-eater's nightmare. Horses, dead or dying,
lay everywhere along the shore. Hundreds of them. Many hundreds. By
Horatio's quick calculation the numbers might well run into the
thousands. A number of the animals had been shot but a lack of
ammunitiion meant that sabres had had to be used on so many that
their exsanguination rendered the shoreline an unnatural scarlet.
Like a scavenger making off with carrion, the tide was beginning to
tug on those horses that had fallen closest to the waterline,
dragging the butchered beasts into the surf and lending a gharish
pink tinge to the water. A few had yet escaped the general slaughter
or else were wounded to the point of madness, the wretched brutes
screaming and galloping blindly across the beach, blood spraying from
gaping slashes to their throats, their death cries an unholy chorus
to accompany the hellish tableau.

Horatio wheeled abruptly and turned down a narrow lane to escape the
scene. Bad enough to look at, but the overwhelming odour of so much
newly-spilt blood was making his stomach roil as well. Bedamned if
he'd lose his breakfast in front of the British Army!

Army? Surely that was to overstate the matter, for nothing could be
less representative of the powerful might of His Majesty's Army than
the pitiable creatures that now crowded the streets of this coastal
Spanish village and spilled into the countryside beyond. What must
have been a glorious sight when these men had disembarked at Lisbon
was now, months later, reduced to a starved, exhausted ghost of the
same.

The soldiers, infantry and cavalry alike, wore little more than rags -
some had not even so much but were both coatless and shirtless,
their emaciated torsos blue with cold, their eyes hollow with hunger.
Barefoot and bleeding, some had the remainders of their shirts bound
about their gaunt, skeletal faces. Their beards were long and matted
with dirt and vermin and frozen effluvium from nostrils and mouth.
Some stood staring off into the distance, seeing nothing, their
shivering frames occasionally jerking to some involuntary twitch of
muscles. Too many simply lay where they had at last been allowed to
halt, some sleeping but just as often dead or dying. No one of them
offered assistance or even a word of encouragement to his comrades
for those lying shivering and silent and cold had not strength enough
left to care for himself, let alone his comrades. Moaning was the
only sound as prevalent as the wind.

These were men that had been led - or pushed - past the point of
human endurance. The transport vessels that lay just beyond the beach
had been a vision of hope for those who had survived the forced 250-
mile retreat from Sahagun to Corunna - a vision at least for the
fortunate ones whose eyes had not been dimmed or entirely blinded by
fatigue. Those with yet enough energy greeted the representatives of
His Britannic Majesty's Navy with unbridled enthusiasm, for Jolly
Jack Tar was their saviour today As hard and fast as their officers
had pushed them over the mountains of Galicia the Frogs had done the
same and were even now bringing up their artillery to begin a final
assault on the tattered residue of Sir Johnny Moore's once-proud, now
demoralized army. The Royal Navy had been their only hope of rescue.

A near-naked man, blue with cold, fell almost directly into Horatio's
path and so he swiftly turned again, this time to the left, back onto
what appeared to be the main thoroughfare. There were pretty little
whitewashed shops lining the cobblestone lane and some degree of
bustle about them on the part of those soldiers still capable of
negotiating for food, shoes, clothes, anything for which they might
have enough money to purchase - or could swindle with Spanish coin,
the term for that curiously authentic-looking item which resulted
when a soldier hammered out a crested button from his jacket and
passed it off as money.

"Soldier," he stopped one man, "where might I find your Commissariat?"

The soldier tucked in his beard as he spat contemptuously to one
side.

"In hell, I hope, zur The mizzerbull bastards Burned mountains o'food
to keep it from t'enemy wi' us all starvin' right in front o' them.
And there's poor Stemmons riskin' a hexecution just for jabbin' his
bayonet on twa piece of meat as we filed past Much good hit did'im,
too, for didn't he lay down by t'side of t' road t'next day and
say, "Henry, I'm done for." Nor I haven't clapped eyes on him from
that day to this Commissariat They done for poor old Stemmons, just
like what they done for hunnerds o'others "

He spat again for emphasis.

Hornblower exchanged a grim look with his lieutenant, who answered
for him.

"Well, there's food aplenty aboard ship if we can but get you men
embarked. And England at the end of the journey "

Bush's smile was rare and nearly as rusty as his diplomatic skills.
But if there was a good time to practice both arts he recognized this
must surely be it. These men, the ones up and moving, were even now
teetering on the edge of rebellion. Arrogance and military protocol
were just the kind of unnecessary irritations that could push them
into all-out mutiny.

"We need to make the arrangements with your quartermaster though."

"Oh, aye " The soldier was suddenly amenable, coughing and spitting
phlegm whilst scratching at his matted beard. "I hear tell the bloody
tars get three meals a day, rain or shine, whether they're hungry or
no And rum, too, ever' day Is that true?"

Hornblower's smile was reserved and he said stiffly,. "Three squares,
yes, that is true."

"Well, damme, let's board them floatin' coffins quick-like If I dies
wi' a biscuit in me, I dies happy Ye'll find them commissary bastards
down to the bottom o' this street and away to your right a half-mile
or so. And you can tell that fool Surtees - Never mind I'll tell'im
meself when I've recovered the use of m'limbs to the point I can
darken his daylights!"

A long hawking and another massive expectoration made Horatio wonder
queasily if the man was suffering from some lung ailment. The soldier
shuffled on his way, moving slowly in an effort to hold his broken
shoes together.

As the two officers moved on down the street, their expressions would
have been impenetrable to any who did not know them well. But
Hornblower's tightened lips and brisk step would have told every man
jack on the Lydia just what his mood was, as the condition of the
army was made more and more clear to him with every step he took.
Bush's countenance was impassive even at his most emotional, but his
blue eyes had gone as cold and wintery-grey as the waters off
Corunna. God alone knew what these men had endured to come to such a
sorry state, but if ever a Naval officer had been responsible for
such a sight he had better be reconciled to his court-martial!

"- and I shall be as quick about it as I can, I promise you, old girl
I stand in just that small need of some assistance, you see, but I
have no doubt we can find the right man..."

Horatio's head snapped to one side, as though jerked on a string,
seeking the source of that well-remembered voice. It had been years -
oh, a decade, at least - since he had heard those rounded,
aristocratic tones, but he knew he could not be mistaken. The owner
of that voice was a master of the crushing snub, though his words
seemed affable enough now. Words long forgotten, buried in the dim
mists of memory, suddenly rose to his recall: "I usually find that
the more able the officer, the better turned out the men. At least in
the Army."

A soft exclamation escaped him, in recognition and in irony.

"What?" Bush asked simply, attuned to his Captain's shift of
attention.

Without looking at him Hornblower said, "Follow me."

Only a few steps up a narrow street, little more than a path really,
a man and a horse had taken shelter against the piercing wind. A
living horse, too, or at least it had not yet laid down and died. But
Horatio would have been hard put to say which creature was the more
pathetic, for the horse was actually leaning drunkenly against the
building there while the man stood leaning against the horse,
appearing to be held erect by dint of one arm thrown over the beast's
neck. Enough remained of his uniform to identify him as an officer -
faded rags save for those glossy Hessian boots - but Horatio could
not distinguish the colors that would have proclaimed his
regiment.But that voice, that fair hair waving over a high, noble
forehead, those things told him he was not mistaken.

"My Lord Edrington!" he greeted the man. "I thought I must be seeing
things "

And what things! Bush bit back an exclamation at the sight of so
bedraggled a British officer, while the incongruity of those well-
polished boots made him stare closely.

A normally round face, now thinned by the hardships of the headlong
retreat to Corunna, turned up to meet the newcomers. The eyes were
sunken and red-rimmed, matter thickly crusted along the edge of his
eyelashes. That resolute chin had not changed though, nor that
arrogant lift of the head.

"I fear you have the advantage of me, sir?"

Oh, lord, yes! That was the same snotty voice Horatio remembered from
the wharf at Plymouth. On that day he'd never thought he would find
anything to admire in Major Lord Edrington of the 95th Foot, but only
a short while later, during the disaster of Quiberon Bay, he had
found much to respect in the young lord: A cool head, a keen
awareness of duty, and a sense of humour so dry as to make the
listener crave water with his jests. And Horatio owed his lordship a
debt of gratitude for the occasion of an iron grip on his shoulder
that had prevented an incensed Lieutenant Hornblower from making a
bad situation worse in the village of Muzillac.

"You may not remember me, my lord." Horatio suddenly felt as shy and
backward as the youth he had been when first he set eyes on the
bright scarlet coat, pristine white breeches, and the highly glossed
leathers of the Earl of Edrington. That Horatio had long ago elevated
himself into a position of similar status by marrying into the great
Wellesley family faded from his immediate recall.

"Forgive me, it has been some years since we met. My name is
Hornblower. If you recall -."

"Good lord! Yes, of course, I remember! How do you do, sir? Muzillac,
wasn't it? A mere peccadillo compared with the scandal of retreat you
witness today, sir. But as you might guess from the remains of our
army, we were all mighty pleased by the timely appearance of His
Majesty's Navy off the coast this morning."

Horatio hesitated. The Earl still had that matter-of-fact quality to
his words that belied the gravity of the situation.

"My First and I are just going to make arrangements with your
quartermaster to begin the embarkation. I wonder if-."

"I beg your pardon," Edrington said, never glancing at Bush. "Your
First, you say? You received your promotion then? My congratulations,
Captain Hornblower."

Horatio paused, wondering that the Earl had not already noticed the
twin epaulets on his shoulders. He dared a glance at the phlegmatic
Bush who lifted his shoulders in the merest hint of a shrug as if to
say, 'well, that's the army for you '

"Thank you, my lord, yes. Would it be presumptuous of me to ask if
you would have any objections to my arranging for your company aboard
my vessel? I should be delighted to renew our acquaintance, for
however brief a time."

"Not at all, Captain Hornblower. I should be honoured." But the
habitual ennui in Edrington's voice implied complete indifference.
His thoughts seemed to be elsewhere than on the timely salvation of
his lordship's person by the Royal Navy. "Though I wonder, Captain,
if I might - I beg your pardon May I call you Horatio? I fear I am
too weary to be formal."

Bush cocked one thin eyebrow in amusement. Edrington was as stiff-
rumped an aristocrat as any he'd ever met, and he'd bet his last
shilling this peer of the realm had no notion how to be anything
except formal He noted, too, that although the Captain assented to be
called by his first name (which anyone at all acquainted with
Hornblower knew he bloody well hated ) the Earl made no such
concession on his own behalf, but apparently still expected to be
addressed as 'my lord ' Nor was he polite enough to allow the Captain
an opening to introduce Bush. On the contrary, it seemed that his
High and Mighty Lordship was looking to dispense with the low-born
lieutenant's company altogether.

"Thank you," the Earl bowed gravely, as rigidly polite as if he stood
watching the dancing at some soiree or other, instead of lingering in
a filthy alley surrounded by the death throes of man and beast.

"I wonder, Horatio, if I might have a word with you in private?"

"Certainly, my lord. That is, once your men have embarked -."

"I fear... I really do think I must impose on you further, Horatio,
and press you for an immediate hearing."

The words were appropriately courteous but the starched delivery made
them almost a command. Bush carefully refrained from looking at
Horatio, being desirous neither to put his captain in the position of
issuing an abrupt refusal nor of acceding too readily. Another rare
moment of diplomacy overtook him and he said, "I'll just wait 'round
the corner, shall I, sir?"

Horatio smiled wryly. "Thank you, Mr. Bush," and watched his First
exit the lane before turning back to Edrington. Horatio's hands found
their way behind his back and clasped themselves together loosely,
his broad stance one he unconsciously assumed when preparing for
battle.

"And how may I be of assistance, my lord?"

His own attitude was more brusque now as he had overcome his initial
diffidence, deliberately intimating his impatience to be on his way.

He thought Edrington's cheeks grew faintly pink but the man was yet
so pale and so little light penetrated the narrow confines of the
street that he may have been mistaken.

Edrington fumbled at his pockets for a moment, then drew forth a
pistol, saying with something shockingly akin to humility, "Would you
mind very much loading this for me, Horatio? I would be - most
grateful."

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

Bush was not surprised to see Hornblower step briskly around the
corner only a few minutes after he himself had done the same, but he
was concerned by the stricken expression in his captain's eyes. But
Horatio was as reserved as ever, and merely drew his cloak tighter as
he nodded silently for Bush to fall in with him. They had taken no
more than half a dozen strides when the explosion sounded and then
resounded, echoing from the narrow confines of the street where they
had left the Earl.

"My God!" Bush cried, and he quickly turned back again but Horatio
caught his arm in a tight grip and would not let go.

"Let be, Mr. Bush!"

"But - his lordship! Sir!" Bush protested.

"You can do nothing for him," Horatio insisted. "It is only that he
has had to shoot his horse, like all the others. He put it off as
long as he could I daresay, but there is no room for the animals on
board. And they cannot be left for the Frogs to use."

A relieved enlightenment settled on the lieutenant and he turned
again to walk beside Hornblower.

"He must have had a strong affinity for the beast, sir. To put the
deed off in order to - to make it a private matter."

Hornblower nodded. "I believe the animal was bred on his estate."

He hesitated, unsure whether to say more. Clearly Edrington did not
want - and yet once aboard the frigate there would be no hiding it.
Bush might as well know now, and he could alert the ship's surgeon
later.

"His lordship is also blind, William." Unconsciously he slipped into
familiarity.

The tiniest hesitation in Bush's step was the only outward sign that
he comprehended.

"Ophthalmia," Horatio went on. "Apparently it's running rampant
amongst the men, and the exigencies of retreat have not permitted of
his being seen by a surgeon. He asked my help in making sure his
pistol was loaded properly. He did not want his mount to suffer as
some of those we saw on the beach." And he did not want this rabble
of an army to see his weakness.

Edrington had finally displayed some small emotion when he gritted
his teeth and vowed he would return his men to England - and then
retire to his seat in Kent where he would recover his sight. Or not.

Bush had paused and was staring oddly up at the rough peaks of the
snow-covered Cantabrian mountains. It made sense to him now: His
lordship's rudeness, his failure to so much as glance at Bush, his
refusal to allow an introduction, all carefully managed so that he
might hide his infirmity a little longer. The Earl's man must know,
of course. There was no hiding anything from a servant.

"His boots... And he came over those mountains like that..." Bush's
words were soft and filled with awe.

Horatio, too, seemed almost dazed by it for all he could say
was, "Indeed " And then suddenly, "What about his boots? He always
kept them highly polished, even under enemy fire. I suppose his man
takes care of them for him."

Bush slid a glance sideways at his captain and wondered which man was
truly blind.

"They were only tops, sir Did you not notice? Carefully mended, and
certainly they were beautifully polished, but - there were no soles
at all He must have walked more than ridden - perhaps to keep his
horse alive. If I had to guess I'd say that he joined his men and
walked every last mile from Sahagun to Corunna.. His feet must be cut
to ribbons And the frostbite..." His voice faded as he thought of
that sheltered, pampered lord enduring so much without complaint.

And now Horatio, too, was staring up at the mountains. His expression
tightened into one of implacable determination.

"William, if his lordship does not wish anyone to know of his
blindness, then..." He paused.

"Then they'll not know!" his First said fervently. "I'll see to it,
sir."

Hornblower could not imagine how it could be done, but Bush was a
model of shipboard efficiency. The details were best left to him. He
nodded and they marched on together.

 

The End