Missing Scene from 'The Wrong War'
Author's note: This scene goes between the second-to-last and last scenes in 'The Wrong War'.
Horatio paused outside Captain Pellew's cabin and fought to get himself
together. He took a deep breath, then another, and struggled to collect
his thoughts. The Captain's right, you know. We're an example to the men,
and a sorry example I am if all I can show with my lieutenant's uniform
is red eyes and childish tears. I am an officer in His Majesty's navy...
Horatio mulled the words over, spun them around in his head as he made the long way from the captain's quarters to the stairs leading to the topdeck. It was quiet belowdecks, most of the crew and officers were up enjoying the mild weather or hearing all about the failed invasion from the surviving British soldiers. There were some men below, relaxing at the rough wooden tables or playing cards and dice in the musty corners of the ship, but if any of them noticed Horatio they didn't acknowledge him, except for a single word, uttered low and respectfully.
Normally Horatio accepted the formality blandly - he'd been an officer for long enough to get used to being called 'sir' by men of twice his age and experience, and was full of youthful pride over becoming an officer so quickly. But at this moment, right now, the appellation grated him, made him want to hide from it as if it were a Spanish armada armed to the teeth. Because being a 'sir' meant being responsible, and being responsible meant you could fail.
And he'd failed. In the worst possible way.
Horatio paused at the wooden stairs that led up to the topdeck, ducking his head down as he bit his lip against the tears that threatened to advance again. Damn it all. Damn it, he and Mariette were almost there. They were almost to the bridge, almost safe. He was pulling her, carrying her, trying so hard -
- and again Horatio felt her jerk in his arms, heard her small gasp as she stiffened, just for a moment, before falling to the dusty road. Her life had been so close, he could almost have put his hand out and caught it, but it fled away, and she was gone.
Gone. And it was all his fault.
Horatio took a deep breath, cast swimming eyes to the blue sky above the hatchway, saw the bright fresh air and brilliant sunshine. I can't go up there. I'm not an officer right now, not fit to be seen. Damn schoolboy weakness...
He took another deep breath, but it still hurt. What had he done wrong? He'd followed orders, even when they were mad, even when he knew they were wrong, because that's what a good officer did. He'd followed the rules, did his job, and still he failed. That wasn't the way it was supposed to be, was it?
Horatio sighed, looked around the low-beamed space. My quarters. I'll go to my quarters, take this uniform off and have it cleaned. That sounded like an excellent idea.
The ship rocked and groaned beneath him as Horatio made his way to his quarters. He shook his head at the creaks and thumps about him, usually music to his ears. Today they sounded like funeral music; today, the lowest day of his life so far, the sounds of the sea were like a funeral dirge.
Once in his cabin, Horatio closed the door and stood there for a moment, listening to the noises around him, the lapping of the sea, the low moan of the timbers. It was all depressing to him now, and Horatio realized with a sickening wrench that he might never love being at sea again. Well, no, that wasn't possible, he'd always wanted to be at sea. He'd always wanted to lead, to fight for England and a just cause. It was in his character, his blood. It was in his heart.
But his heart was breaking.
Horatio slumped to the small wooden table, sat down at it and buried his face in his hands. He needed to forget Mariette, to forget the failure at Muzillac, to be stoic and accepting of defeat, as Pellew was. He needed to forget her silken lips touching his, the velvet caress of her skin and the soft scent of her hair. He needed to stop crying, dammit. We must never forget we are officers in His Majesty's Navy...
Horatio sniffed, ran one hand through his curly black hair. Everything hurt and was all
confusion. The whole Muzillac affair didn't make sense, it wasn't right, it was never right. Was this the life he'd fallen into? Obeying orders - giving orders - that were folly? Following leaders who were despotic madmen, with no concience or honor, who were only interested in their own small worlds and cared nothing for right and wrong? Being forced to watch in silent outrage as youth and innocence were cut down -
Horatio gasped, curled his hands into fists as the memories came back. He blinked, and a single tear dropped onto the rough-hewn table, soaking into the splintering wood as he watched. God, it was still so close. He was convinced he'd ache forever.
Horatio sighed, stood up. Forget. He should go abovedecks, see how his crew were faring. No doubt Styles was telling his comrades about his adventures among the 'damned Frogs'; it was a miracle he hadn't spit on the beach as they left, he'd hated the French so much. Fortunately, Matthews was there to make sure Styles' hands were as busy as his mouth, so the work would get done at least. And Oldroyd was dependable, if a bit scatterbrained. They were a good crew. They were his crew -
- and they might have all died at Quiberon Bay.
Horatio shook his head to dislodge that thought, it frightened him so much. He stood there for a moment, breathing hard, not ready. I might send them to die. Or someone else might, an admiral or another commander, and I would have no choice but to lead them into the abyss. Against all reason.
Horatio took a deep breath, looked at his hands and suddenly felt lost and alone, as if he were still at Muzillac, pleading with Count Montcoutant to withdraw. The roar of battle in his ears mingled with a sense of the world turned upside down. Horatio sighed and sat down at the table again. Command was painful, battle was futile, and love ... everything was tarnished, wounded, or dead. He felt betrayed.
At that moment there was a knock on the door, and Horatio jumped a little. Glancing in the mirror to make sure he at least didn't look a sobbing schoolgirl, Horatio wiped his face and coughed a little. "Yes?"
The door opened a little ways and around the edge of it peeked the curious face of Archie Kennedy. His blue eyes looked at Horatio with concern, but as soon as Horatio saw who it was he quickly looked back down the table.
There was a pause, then as Horatio stared at the table he heard Archie say, "Sorry to disturb you, sir, but the men are asking after you."
For a brief moment Horatio wondered at why Archie's sudden appearance made him feel so much worse; then his numbed mind felt its way backwards, back to that horrible moment -
- Horatio? There's nothing you can do, she's gone -
On the stone bridge, his world falling apart...
- Come on, Horatio. Come on -
The stone bridge. The bottom of Horatio's world had fallen out, there had been a great, disbelieving wail of horror on his lips. He remembered now. The French Republicans were right in front of him, ready to kill him, they would have and he would not have cared at all, at that moment. So why hadn't he died? He hadn't even been paying attention...
Horatio frowned, stared at the table in a dazed kind of shock even though he knew that Archie was standing there, waiting for him to say something. But what could he say? Archie had seen him fall apart, had been right at his shoulder and seen everything. We must always be an inspiration to our men...
An inspiration. Kneeling and sobbing in the dirt, having to be pulled to safety by one of your own men at the risk of his own life. Some inspiration.
That's what it is. Archie's seen the worst of me and I'm ashamed of myself.
Horatio thought Archie would simply take his silence as an indication that he didn't want to talk, and go away and leave him alone. Instead, the midshipman took a few steps around the table, so he was opposite Horatio and said softly, "Did it go badly with the captain?"
Horatio blinked. The captain? Oh - that's right. He shook his head. "No. The captain was very..." What was the word he was looking for? "...charitable."
He glanced at Archie, just quick enough to catch his relieved nod. Then Horatio dropped his eyes back to the table.
"Well, that's good," Archie responded conversationally, and Horatio heard the rough scratch of a chair being drawn opposite him. "I suspected he might be, once he heard the story. Mr. Bracegirdle told me of the most extraordinary - "
"Archie, if you don't mind," Horatio interrupted, suddenly standing up. He still couldn't look at him. "I'm rather tired, and this uniform - I've got to - " He turned away, stammered, tried again, "Give the men my regrets, but I'm not... I don't think..." He stopped, took a deep breath, stared at the floor. And felt like a failure. "Right now I need to retire."
He gazed at his boots for what seemed like an eternity, and became fascinated by a large scuff on the right one. If I stare at that scuff long enough, Archie will get fed up and leave me alone, and then I can go to sleep. But do I want to sleep? I can feel her dying now, do I want to dream...
Behind him, Horatio heard the creak of a chair, and thought perhaps Archie was leaving. Instead, a moment later he heard Archie's voice say, "Well, I'm sorry about that, but the truth of the matter is Mr. Bracegirdle needs both of us right away. He sent me to find you."
Horatio coughed, wished everyone would just go away and leave him to his grief. "What for?"
"Pellew wants the riggings on the topmast checked," Archie explained, "and he asked that you and I do it, personally. He'll trust no one else."
Horatio blinked, looked at Archie, really for the first time since his friend has arrived. "Check the riggings on the topmast?"
Archie nodded soberly. "Your crew are already checking the mizzenmast. Come on, he wants us to do it right away."
With that, Archie turned around and began to walk out of the cabin. Horatio gaped after him in confusion, took a few faltering steps toward the door. "A-are you sure he wants *us* to do it?"
Archie leaned back in, a cockeyed smile on his face, "Unless you know another Horatio Hornblower, and then it would be my regrets to him for having such a name."
Horatio glared at Archie. "That's not funny."
Archie shrugged. "That's why I chose the navy, and not the music hall. Come on."
Horatio was grumbling inwardly as he plodded after his friend, certain that Archie had to be making this story up to get him to go topside. But his suspicions were quelled when he finally got abovedecks, and spied Captain Pellew standing on the topdeck, staring out at the open water with Mr. Bracegirdle at his side. Archie gave them both a nod, then with nimble hands began to ascend the spiders-web of rigging that would lead straight to the top of the tallest mast on the ship.
Horatio frowned after Archie, still not entirely convinced. But he glanced at Pellew as he took the rough rope in his hands, looked for any sign that he was doing something unexpected or unwarranted. No - even as he began to climb slowly up into the sky, repeated glances at his captain showed only mild interest, then not even that. So Archie was telling the truth after all.
But why? Why would Pellew have him check the rigging, especially after all he'd been
through? Horatio shuddered, felt again the awful thrill of his defeat. He wanted to hide. He wanted to forget the sea, not look at it. He wanted to..to...
They were halfway up now, and Horatio looked skyward. Above him, on the top of the mizzenmast, the small forms of Styles, Matthews, and Oldroyd could be seen, carefully working their way along the narrow beam that was their only perch, and their only haven against a quick death. Horatio could hear them laughing, knew they were loving being up there, in the open air and cool salt breeze.
It wasn't so bad, at that.
Three-quarters of the way, and Horatio paused to look around him. France was behind them now, and there was a fair breeze blowing. It billowed in the sails and pushed the Indefatigable away from land, away from memories. There was only the sea around them now, the vast and timeless sea that could take a man's troubles and lose them, swallow them forever and forget.
"Come on, Horatio." Archie called from above, and Horatio looked up to see his friend had already ascended to the topmast, and was smiling down at him. Horatio took a deep breath and began to work his way up again, feeling unaccountably lighter with every firm handhold on the rope, every inch he attained toward the summit. The sea air ruffled through his dark hair, swirled around him in cleansing waves, and Horatio noticed his heart ached a little less, felt a little freer than it had down on the deck. Mariette was still there - would always be there - but it was as if her spirit was somewhere in the wind, in the brilliant sunshine, in the endless blue waves that sang to his heart and urged him upward. She was there, and thus would live forever.
But it was more than that. As Horatio put one hand on the topmast and made to haul himself onto it, he glanced up and saw Archie kneeling on the other side, one hand on the mast and the other on a supporting rope. There was a smile on Archie's face, the contented smile of the completely happy, and with a start Horatio realized that he felt the same way. In spite of everything, in spite of the loss and the failure and the heartbreak, Horatio knew that his heart was lifting, he could feel it. Feel it in the warm sunshine, in the rhapsody of creaks and groans of the majestic ship, in the rippling ocean of canvas beneath his feet. Freedom was here, and he had but to step into it and be cleansed.
So Horatio put his hand on the topmast, took a deep breath and stood up.
Mr. Bracegirdle was busy winding his watch, and so didn't think to look up into the rigging to check the crew's progress until a few minutes after he'd closed the back of his watch and put it back into his pocket. Then he tilted his head upward and squinted into the afternoon sun. After a moment he said, "Captain Pellew?"
Pellew glanced over from where he was standing, just a foot away. "Yes, Mr. Bracegirdle."
"Who's that up there on the topmast?"
Pellew sighed, followed Bracegirdle's gaze toward the swelling sails. "I should imagine that's Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Hornblower."
"What?" Bracegirdle's face betrayed his alarm as he looked at the captain. "What are they doing up there?"
Pellew pursed his lips and tilted his head. "Checking the rigging."
Bracegirdle's eyebrows went up, then back down again. "Your orders?"
Bracegirdle looked down at the deck. "Sir, with all due respect, if you keep sending your officers to the highest part of the ship you're going to run out of midshipmen to replace them with."
Pellew's smile was slight, just a tugging at the corners of his mouth. "I've not lost one yet, Mr. Bracegirdle."
"Yes, sir," Bracegirdle muttered, letting his gaze travel upward even as he swallowed nervously, "But - but I had my doubts about this the last time, after those men came back from the Spanish prison and you ordered Mr. Kennedy up there to check the rigging."
Pellew nodded, his eyes on the slight figure that was standing now, like a sail in the sun. "I recall your trepidation, Mr. Bracegirdle."
"And now you've got him up there again, with Mr. Hornblower? What in Heaven's name for?"
Pellew paused for a moment, his brown eyes on the vast, immortal sea. Then he said quietly, "You must rely on my judgement here, Mr. Bracegirdle. It is time for us to return to the sea."
Mr. Bracegirdle nodded. And the Indefatigable sailed on.