A Christmas Without Archie
by Michele

 

'How fortuitous to have shore-leave at this time of year!'

William Bush was not a slight man, but even he had to work to keep up
with Horatio Hornblower. Why any one would want to hurry whilst on
shore-leave would normally have been quite beyond Bush's
sensibilities, but under the circumstances, he did understand his
captain's reasoning.

`Yes.. yes, it is...' Hornblower said absently, never breaking or slowing his stride. His head was bowed -- raised only enough to prevent him bumping into the December crowds bustling
through the white-covered streets of Portsmouth.

`Fine view of the cobblestones, then, eh?' Bush made an
attempt at teasing. He knew he was no Kennedy, but in the months
since the Fourth Lieutenant's loss, William had attempted to take
his commander outside himself now and then by an occasional good-natured
jest. Most of the time, Hornblower had graciously accepted his
friend's gift, never saying so outwardly but in his guarded heart
greatly appreciating the gesture, and the sentiment behind it.

And William knew it.

But this time, Horatio was grossly preoccupied. Possessed, even.
However, his friend's words stopped him, and for the first time
since leaving Retribution, he looked up and met the lieutenant's
blue eyes.

Blue. Like the colour of Archie's. And yet, different. As
different as the two men were. Had been.....

`Yes, Mr Bush, we are indeed fortunate to have put in to port
during what is always a very busy time -- when the streets are
crowded with all manner of rabble, pick-pockets are rampant, prices
exorbitant, and clerks short of temper! Yes indeed, I am VERY happy
to be on shore-leave now!!'

And Hornblower closed himself off once more and resumed his brisk
pace.

But Bush was a man of hidden talents, and his ability to read his
commander and friend was one of them. Hornblower knew this about
William, but he pretended to ignore it, thinking to himself,
*I've already HAD a `conscience', and now he's gone.*
However,
despite himself -- and perhaps even without consciously realising it -
- Horatio appreciated William's friendship. And persistence. For
without such, Hornblower would have let himself brood and stew in his
own thoughts, regrets, and self-judgment forever.

Just like he had done before he'd known Archie...

`Mr Hornblower --` Bush reached out and grabbed Hornblower by
the shoulder -- `Horatio...' he said gently, `I feel it
is my duty to advise an officer in his Majesty's Navy that he is not
properly caring for himself, and may indeed be doing himself an
injury. Please, let us go some place and warm ourselves....'

Horatio hung his head, closing his eyes as he did so, in an attempt
to not only block out the world, but to keep his friend from seeing
his soul. It didn't work, of course, for despite the relatively
short time they'd known each other, they had been through a lot
together; and William had come to know him a bit too well for
Hornblower's comfort.

Or (as Horatio would NEVER admit), just ENOUGH for his comfort.

As Hornblower sighed in weary resignation, nodding his head ever so
slightly, his breath steamed about his chill-reddened features,
evaporating with all the symbolism of the transience of life.

And as the two men resumed their walk, this time not nearly so
briskly, and no longer a race, Bush hoped with all his heart that a
few ales might loosen his friend's tongue -- or at least, let him
admit that he had a heart which needed tending.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

~~~~~~~~~~

tTwo tables to starboard, a group of seamen was chorusing `O Come
All Ye Faithful,' but due to one too many pints, had perverted
some of the words into something roughly approximating,
`She's fun and she's graceful.' Hornblower was not a
religious man; if
nothing else he found himself appalled at the lack of decorum amongst
King's men. But no matter, he finally decided, as ANY reminder
of the holiday was a stab to his heart, and he would just soon not
have been reminded of what had been one of Archie's favourite
carols;
with the lyrics coarsely disguised, the tone-deaf Hornblower was
unable to
distinguish the tune as something belonging to Christmas. So to his
mind it was all to the good. And anyway, the would-be singers soon
became so drunk that most passed out, and the rest descended into
coarse jests, accompanied by slapping one another on the back, and
the banging of empty tankards upon rough-planked tables with cries
for `More! More, me wenches!!'

Spying a fireside table -- one farther from the revelers -- suddenly
become vacant, Hornblower grabbed his own tankard and moved quickly,
Bush following him.

`I am not a man prone to headaches, but I vow that this sort of
thing will likely turn me into a man afflicted!!' Horatio said,
lifting his hand to his head dramatically.

William smiled knowingly, but raised his tankard to his lips to cover
his reaction. After a moment's thought, he spoke softly, in that
soothing `voice of reason' for which he was known.

`It isn't the reveling seamen, Mr Hornblower.. is it...?'

Horatio looked up. `Mr Bush??'

But Bush could see right through the faux quizzical mien.
`It's Christmas... is it not??'

Hornblower's gaze went again to the table. Bush knew EVERYthing
that was in his heart. And he hated it. Still....

Still.... this IS what Archie would have done... If only......

With two pints in him, and a weariness in his soul, Hornblower
decided, half-consciously, and half not even caring, to give in.

`Yes, Mr Bush..' His anguished brown eyes met his
friend's blue ones. `It is....'

*I must tread carefully,* William thought.

`Have you any thoughts to share, Mr Hornblower?' he said
aloud, tentatively, a moment later adding, `to do him honour,
perhaps...?'

The anguished brown eyes took on a vaguely perceptible note of
intense loneliness. Vague, perhaps, but the observant Mr Bush did not
miss a thing. He may not have been the strategist Horatio was, but he
had his own peculiar talents, and he did know what to do with them.

Hornblower responded.

`Nothing is the same, Mr Bush... William.... This is far worse
than the Christmas we spent in El Ferrol.. far worse indeed....'
Horatio allowed himself a sigh. `Even in that dark place, there
was a light that glowed with the spirit of the holiday, in the person
of the most enthusiastic proponent of Christmas I have ever
known....'

`Yes...' Bush said quietly. He had his friend talking, and
that was a great accomplishment -- even if it DID take two pints of
England's finest spirits to assist in the endeavour.

`That was quite a Christmas...'

`I don't believe you or Mr Kennedy has ever told me the
details,' Bush prompted, gently. At times, he had heard vague
references, usually tossed lightly about between the two old friends
as jests and jabs -- something which had always make him feel very
lonely, and very much an outsider. But the three of them, in a short
time, had become close friends, and William often lamented, in his
heart, the lack of time to see the three-way `brotherhood'
grow and flourish. It was, to be sure, a rare enough thing in
King's Service, and Bush was grateful to have even been a part of
it
for a short time.

`I could do with a plate of shepherd's pie,' Hornblower
said, feeling the effects of the spirits.

`I shall ask the innkeeper immediately,' Bush offered, not
realising what he had said.


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

`Is there going to be any more room left for US in here,
Archie???' Horatio rolled his eyes in mock annoyance, as he
nearly tripped over a paper chain his friend had half-hanging on the
stone wall, and half-draped across the floor in the doorway.
Hornblower had just returned to the cell the two men shared in the
prison at El Ferrol, Spain, from one of the two daily walks he was
allowed. Since their return to confinement, from the Indy, Don
Massaredo had been treating them well. And, as it turned out,
Christmas-time brought out the child in His Excellency, and for now,
the fortress was transformed -- as much as an enemy prison COULD be --
by a spirit of unusual kindness, and by extra allowances the Don
made for his own men, as well as for the English prisoners.

`I've not got to celebrate Christmas for three long years,
Horatio,' Kennedy responded, a twinkle in his blue eyes.
`Don Massaredo has graciously provided some rough materials to
make
some decorations -- and along with what Miss Cobham has despatched to
us, a creative soul such as myself has quite the task ahead of
me.'

`And one you take quite seriously, I'd wager, Mr
Kennedy...' Hornblower teased right back, plopping onto his bunk
as the guard finally turned the key in the door.

`QUITE seriously, sir,' Archie smiled, as he went back to
draping the paper chain across the cell and onto the top bunk. It
wasn't easy to get such things to stay in place, without wooden
walls to nail things to -- even if they HAD been allowed something
sharp like nails. But Kennedy loved -- no, ADORED Christmas, and he
had sorely missed it for the long years he had unwillingly called
this place home.

Horatio rose from his bunk and covered the few steps across the cell
to where Kennedy was now working, near Kennedy's own cot. The
lieutenant bent over and rifled through a small crate the guards had
brought in. Alternately he lifted items from it -- first a shiny
star-shaped ornament, next a small wooden model of a manger and three
worn and cracked figures, and then some old, wrinkled, partially
shredded lengths of red ribbon. The wretched refuse of an old
aristocrat, but to Archie, they were treasures -- gifts of mercy, and
with life-saving power.

`And what have we here?' Hornblower asked, taking two soft,
round, meticulously wrapped packages from a corner of the box. Tied
atop each of them -- smelling quite like a piece of heaven itself --
was a surprisingly fresh green spring of English boxwood. Horatio
ran his fingers over the smooth leaves, not believing how wonderful
they felt. Holding the packages carefully, he sat on Archie's
cot and looked at them.

Kennedy had just hung two pieces of the ribbon from the bars on the
window, and was starting to form a third, longer piece into a bow.
He stopped at his friend's question, and sat down on the cot next
to him, ribbon still in hand.

`I don't know, H'ratio...' he said, regarding the two
packages curiously. `The guards brought this box in here whilst
you were out for your walk, and I admit I've not gone through it
all
yet.' He put down the ribbon and leant in close to Horatio,
conspiratorially, his eyes with a merry glint. `Perhaps we
should open them... they might contain secret despatches with an
escape route... or deep, dark secrets meant to topple the Spanish
government...'

Hornblower rolled his eyes in mock annoyance. `Very well, Mr
Kennedy... we must do our duty.' And he handed one of the
packages to Archie. Kennedy, too, reveled in the little piece of
home that adorned his package, inhaling deeply of its delicate
fragrance, and remembering how such greenery used to grace his
father's estate in many a long-ago December.

The two men carefully unwrapped their packages and both caught their
breath when they saw the contents. Holiday pudding! And tiny cakes,
with white sugar sprinkled lightly on top. They had never even seen
such things whilst free men aboard ship! And now, to be so blessed
with such treasures, at Christmastime, far from home in an enemy
prison....

Archie fought back a tear. Horatio's eyes were large, and
betrayed his deep appreciation.

Hornblower recoved himself first, to find a small, folded piece of
paper under his cake. His friend saw him open it and read it.

`Well.. what does it say, Horatio?' He covered his emotion
by jesting, `Is it a secret message, and these presents are really
the means to hide deeper secrets, cooked into their centres??'

But Hornblower had to clear his throat so that his voice would not
break. That would not do at ALL, not even at this time of
year. `They're from Miss Cobham...'

Archie became excited at more news from his favourite
actress. `No... first the decorations... and now this... It is
too much, H'ratio... She is far too kind...'

`She is quite a lady,' Horatio said quietly, his eyes still
on the note.

`Well, what does she say??' Archie repeated.

Hornblower looked at his friend. Kennedy's eyes were full of
hope and encouragement -- something Horatio knew his friend had known
precious little of these past few years. It at once warmed him, and
stabbed at his heart, knowing that they had both been reduced to such
a state in which they would find excitement in a simple care package
from a far-away friend, and a few worn-out pieces of discarded ribbon
strung round a cold cell.

But ANY hope was hope, any encouragement needed, and any warmth most
welcomed.

Horatio turned back to the note he was holding up, and read.

"Dearest Gentlemen,

I trust that this simple gift has found its way into your hands, and
that my warm regards have found their way into your hearts."

Archie could not suppress a tear at this. Horatio allowed him the
dignity of pretending not to notice, and read on:

"England is truly lovely at this time of year, and I dearly wish
you could be here now. But I venture to send to you a little piece
of England, and a big piece of my heart, with my most sincere wishes
for the most happy Christmas you could have -- considering the
substandard foreign accommodations..."

Both men had to laugh at this sarcastic jest, and could just picture
Miss Cobham saying that in her best `Duchess of Wharfedale'
voice.

`She always did have an eye for the finer things,' Archie
said, quietly, to keep his voice steady.

`Much like yourself, Mr Kennedy.' Horatio smiled. He
continued reading:

"Please know, Archie, and Mister Haytch --" again a smile
from both men "-- that my thoughts are always with you, and with
your men, for whom I have also sent gifts. I have for them the
utmost respect as well, and, Horatio, you are most fortunate to have
such fine men in your command. I trust that you will look after
them. After all, I could not remain there forever -- it was SUCH a
dull post to be imprisoned on..."

Horatio and Archie laughed at this, again picturing the
`Duchess' accent. Hornblower, despite himself, found himself
longing to see her hit someone with her fan, as she had done to the
startled Captain Pellew at Sir Hew's dinner, seemingly so long
ago.
He found that even after all these years, he missed his mother
intensely (especially at this time of year), and for a while, in this
faraway enemy land, Miss Cobham had almost filled the aching in his
heart for the gentle, comforting hand only a woman could provide.

`A dear lady, certain sure...' Archie said softly.

`There's more,' Horatio noted, and read on.

"I wish you only the best, Gentlemen, and do keep heart -- I have
a feeling you will be home soon, and have no doubt but that your next
Christmas will be spent as free men, back in the bosom of dear old
England.

Until then, I shall remain, as ever,

Yours,

Katherine Cobham.
PS: Have you found the other package yet?? It is a small, flat
parcel... Oh, I DO hope those Dons have not lost it on you!"

`Other package??' Horatio asked. `Did you see anything
else in there, Archie??'

`No, H'ratio... Not yet, anyway...'

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~

A familiar rattling of keys at the door was then heard, and a guard
came in bearing another small crate. As Horatio stood to face him, he
said, in heavily-accented English, `His Excellency has just found
this for you.'

Hornblower took the box, and with a bow of his head said, `Thank
you. Please convey my gratitude to His Excellency.'

The guard nodded, and left, locking the door behind him.

`What news?' Archie prompted, rising from the cot and peering
inside the old crate like an anxious child.

`I know no more than you, Mr Kennedy.' Horatio placed the
crate onto the cot, and they rummaged through it. A few more pieces
of ribbon, two oranges, and a small bottle of Madeira! This was far
too much to expect... But -- there was one more item: A small, flat,
paper-wrapped package, just as the note had said. Archie lifted it
carefully from the crate, already knowing by its familiar, and
intensely comforting feel, what it was.

A book.

He quickly unwrapped it.

Hamlet.

Kennedy opened the front cover. `O Horatio....' There was an
inscription, and Archie noticed that a small piece of paper stood
just slightly above the smooth edge of the pages on the top edge of
the little volume, obviously marking a passage.

He read the inscription:

"To Messrs Hornblower and Kennedy:

So am I as the rich, whose blessed key
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming, in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in the carcanet.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special blest
By new unfolding his imprison'd pride.
Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope,
Being had, to triumph; being lack'd, to hope.

--Sonnet 52

With deep Affection,
Kitty Cobham."

The officers sat down and pondered the words, which, of course, went
straight to Kennedy's heart. Horatio had to think on them for a
moment, but he too felt the warmth their friend had sent to them.

Finally Hornblower spoke. `Did she mark a passage?'

Archie turned to the marked page. `Yes.. she did....' Again
his blue
eyes grew moist as they scanned the page, and he read aloud:

"Some say that ever `gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long,
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm:
So hallowed and so gracious is that time."*

Both men sat in silence for some time, looking round them at the
stone walls, the bars, the simple bunks and old, worn blankets -- but
suddenly, seeing past all the symbols of imprisonment, and seeing
instead the symbols of ultimate freedom: The symbols of Christmas.
Not only the worn ribbons, crudely assembled paper chains, discarded
baubles, and blessed sprigs of holiday greenery, but seeing in their
hearts the beautiful words of hope that Archie had just read.

And they knew therein that Miss Cobham was right.

Finally, Archie stood, the book still in his left hand, and, with a
great flourish and formality, offered his other hand to his
friend. `Happy Christmas, Mr Hornblower.'

Horatio stood and followed suit, shaking the proffered hand
warmly. `And to you as well, Mr Kennedy.'

The junior officer looked out the window, seeing the warmth of the
red ribbons more than the coldness of iron, and spoke softly. His
voice held a note of hope, but it was guarded, as though he were
afraid to hope. `Do you think she's right, H'ratio..?'

The superior came to stand beside his friend, and placed a hand upon
his shoulder. `Yes... we WILL be home next year, Archie.... And I
promise you, we will never have to endure even a hint of sadness at
Christmas-time again.'

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

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

Mr Bush sat in silence for a long time, pondering in his heart, and
with his mind, the story his friend had just told him. Two
shepherd's pie-stained plates sat before them, along with two
nearly-empty tankards. The inn had become quiet, as many of the
midday patrons had gone back about their business, and only a few
officers and civilian travelers sat thinly spread at tables here and
there. The fire continued to crackle happily, and it warmed Bush; but
William could see that its glow did little for his companion's
spirits.

Hornblower was just as silent, his head down, and one hand idly
caressing the handle of his tankard, now rubbing a thumbnail into the
groove the metalsmith had carefully worked into it, then smoothing
its plain parts with the flat of his fingers. In the worn metal of
its cup he could see the warm, hopeful, appreciative smile Archie had
shown him at those words he had spoken, on that long-ago December
afternoon, in the cell of a far-off enemy prison. His heart stabbed
at him as he thought of how warm and content he had felt there --
with no fire, no seven-course meal, no brightly-coloured blankets or
fresh, crisp sheets, no family, no open sea, no navigational charts
to study, and no courses to calculate. Certainly, he'd missed
those things, and he'd missed his freedom. But at the time, he
couldn't help feeling -- as he KNEW Archie had -- that it had
been one of the best Christmases of his life, for he'd had all he
really needed.

And now, he sat in a nice, warm inn, before a roaring fire, with a
loyal friend who cared deeply for him. He'd had a good hot meal
of his own choosing, and fine ale, to fill his belly. The fresh,
crisp, comfortingly familiar scent of England in December filled his
lungs. He was a free man -- and captain of his own ship to boot! But
he would have given up ANY amount of freedom or accomplishment or
warmth or comfort to be back in that rotten, damp, cold prison cell --
if only it would mean Archie were with him again.

`There is nothing left...' Hornblower finally said, almost
inaudibly. `The memories... I see him everywhere, William... He
loved Christmas -- it made him as a child. Shore-leaves at this time
of year were a great joy to him, and I fear we had all too few
together -- only two. Still, aboard ship -- and even in prison -- he
was always trying to get me to sing carols with him, but they all
sounded like an unintelligible din to me. Then, he would tease me and
tell me that not EVERYthing could be a mathematical formula or a
navigational calculation! He saw the beauty and wonder in
everything.... And now, without him, I fear I may never see it
again....'

William's heart was at once cut, and touched: Cut at his
friend's pain, but touched and admittedly a bit encouraged that
he could at last talk about it. He knew, from the loss of his own
family members and friends, that as hard as it was for a man to
openly express such things, holding everything inside -- as he knew
Horatio tended to do -- would accomplish nothing, and indeed would
only make things worse. He also knew the depth of the friendship his
commander had shared with Mr Kennedy, and he believed that it might
help to honour his memory by at least recalling him and talking about
him.

AND that Archie would have wanted for Hornblower to someday be able
to once more enjoy what had always been to Kennedy such a very
special time.

Bush carefully considered his next words, and finally spoke
gently. `Mr Hornblower... Horatio.... Do you not see, sir? You
ARE seeing those things, now....'

The superior officer looked up and met Bush's eyes questioningly.

`Merely by remembering him... by SPEAKING of him.... by BEING
here, Mr Hornblower.'

`I do not understand, Mr Bush....'

`Your very existence, Horatio, is a testament to Mr Kennedy's
friendship, and indeed, his continued presence in the world.'

Again a questioning look from the large brown eyes.

`He gave of himself, for you, for Mr Buckland, and for myself. As
long as we are here, HE is here, for that is what he set out to do,
and indeed, that is just what he accomplished. And..' Bush
hesitated a moment, trying to find the right words `I do believe
that he would wish for you to continue to observe this holiday. From
your tale, it is clear how important it was to him, and if we are to
continue his spirit, we must continue such things in earnest. Do you
see, sir?'

Hornblower nodded slowly, the faintest hint of a light dawning in his
eyes. The wisdom of his friend's words had made its way from his
analytical mind, to a brief, jolting stop in his heart, and back
again to that ever-thinking, action-oriented mind. Quickly,
methodically, he had analysed it all, considering first how difficult
it would be to carry on at such a merry time when his soul ached and
his heart felt leaden. Then, weighing the thought of closing himself
off, which would have been the LAST thing Archie would have wanted,
versus allowing himself to find at least SOME small joy somewhere in
this bright season, which was what he knew Archie WOULD want. And
finally, concluding that Bush was right: that he would try -- that he
MUST try -- to keep living, to keep finding the good, and to keep
celebrating life, including celebrating Christmas. For Archie.

And, as he knew Archie would have said, *For YOURSELF,
H'ratio...*

Bush, for his part, could see the wheels turning inside
Hornblower's head, but of course could not read his every
thought. Only Archie had been able to do that. Nonetheless, William
supposed what carefully calculated process might be working through
that mind of Horatio's, and being the observant man he was, saw
at
last the conclusion his commander must have drawn, merely by reading
his face.

`Yes, William... I see it now....' Again he permitted himself
a sigh. `I also see that it will not be easy...'

Bush couldn't help but smile as a thought struck him.
`Neither was jumping off of a cliff with you two madmen, but
somehow it was accomplished....'

Hornblower was surprised at his own laugh. `Easier than eating
turnips, eh??' he teased, despite himself.

Now Bush laughed. `ANYthing is easier than eating turnips, Mr
Hornblower, and upon my word if you should EVER entertain thoughts of
ordering me to ingest such an abomination, I do believe I should at
once resign my commission, and promptly sign myself into the poor-
house!!'

The two men were now laughing heartily, and as the serving woman came
back to their table for the umpteenth time, Bush gestured, amidst his
laughter, for her to refill their tankards.

`MISTER Bush, if I take one more drop of spirits I fear I shall
drop MYSELF!'

`Nonsense, Mr Hornblower... We are celebrating.'

The attractive young woman finished only half-filling, at
Horatio's restrictive gesture, their tankards, and Bush raised
his, as for a toast.

`And pray, WHAT are we celebrating, Lieutenant??' Hornblower
picked up his own tankard, clanking it to that of his friend.

`Life, Horatio. We are celebrating LIFE.'

`Very well, then,' and the commander took a drink, wrinkling
his nose at the beginnings of a headache, fed by another bit of
spirits. But he didn't care. There would be ample time to rest
later. `But, may I suggest one other thing to which we must
drink??'

Bush bowed his head, making an overly dramatic, light-hearted show of
deference. `Of course, sir.'

`To life, then,' Hornblower declared, a bit more loudly than
he normally would have spoken in public, and once more meeting his
friend's tankard with his own. `And, to friends...
everywhere.'

William was smiling, but then sobered, ever so slightly, if for
nothing else then for the solemnity of the occasion -- and for his
gratitude that his friend would, in time, be all right.

`Happy Christmas, Mr Hornblower,' he said quietly, and with a
most heartfelt earnestness and warmth in his blue eyes.

`Happy Christmas, Mr Bush.'

 

 

~~~~~
The End

 

 

 

*Hamlet; I, i