Friends in Need
Dr. Hornblower called his son to him. The child was seven years old and so like his mother that sometimes the good doctor could hardly bear to look on him. The same rebellious dark curls, the same walnut eyes so full of expression. Even his manner, quietly self-contained, was redolent of the wife he had lost two years previously.
"Horatio" said Dr. Hornblower. "The Squire of Dinsdale Manor is having some high-born relatives to stay with him for a week. They have a son about your age."
"Yes father?" Horatio couldn't see how this piece of information could possibly affect him. He did not like the Squire or his wife whose carriage he had to salute if it passed him on the road.
Dr. Hornblower looked down affectionately at the little boy. He saw the downward tug at his mouth and sighed inwardly. He did not like the job he had been given.
"Well Horatio, the Squire has requested that you go to the Manor for a week to be company for the boy."
Horatio squirmed. "But Father - "
Dr. Hornblower quickly interrupted any argument. "You will go Horatio. You must learn that sometimes we have to do things which we dislike."
Seeing the start of tears in the child's eyes, Dr. Hornblower softened his tone.
"I don't want to upset you Horatio. After all, you may enjoy the company. You lead a solitary life here with me."
"But Father, you know I am happy here with you and with my books and our walks."
Yes, the child seemed happy enough. In some ways he was a strange little lad. Happy with his own company, yet at times disturbingly strong-willed. Only last week he had been caned by the village school master for arguing over some minor unfairness he thought a classmate had suffered. Dr. Hornblower had been angered by the incident. He did not believe in corporal punishment and did not think that his solemn little boy had earned it.
Dr. Hornblower hugged the child to him.
"It will only be for a few days," he said. "And you will be helping another boy to enjoy his stay here. He has lost his mother too, just like you."
"Alright Father. When must I go?"
And so their thoughts turned to practical matters. The housekeeper Susan sorted out clothes and belongings to be packed. Horatio was to miss time at school.
"Oh well," chuckled Dr. Hornblower. "At least the other children can catch up." He knew that Horatio's quick mind had already all but exhausted the scope of the village school and that, in the not too distant future, he would have to send the boy away for his education. The thought, usually pushed to the very recesses of his mind, now came to stab at his heart in a most unpleasant way.
"Are you ready Horatio?" he called up the stairs. The child came down slowly, a linen bag in his hand.
"Yes." He suddenly looked uncertain. "You are sure it's only for a week, aren't you Father?"
Dr. Hornblower laughed. "Quite sure. I'm only loaning you out for a little while. After that I'd come to rescue you from King George himself!"
Horatio smiled and looked reassured. He solemnly kissed a tearful Susan goodbye and took his father by the hand. Father and son toiled up the hill towards the Manor. After a while Horatio turned. Susan was still there. He waved but turned purposefully back. He must carry out his duty and he must not cry. Just as he had refused to cry when Mr. Todd had caned him. The Hornblower honour depended on it.
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Horatio looked at the boy before him. He seemed younger than himself, though he knew they were about the same age. The child had been led down the stairs by a stiff-backed governess who seemed very happy to relinquish him to the care of Horatio. The boys eyed each other somewhat cautiously. They could not have been more different. Brown curls rioted above a sleek blond bob, questions in brown eyes were countered by the same questions in blue ones. Horatio wasn't quite sure, but he thought that those blue eyes were slightly rimmed with red had the boy been crying? Then something extraordinary happened. The boy's face lit up with the most expansive grin that Horatio had ever seen. The blue eyes sparkled.
"Hello. I'm Archie," said the boy. "Are we going to be friends? God, I hope so. Is that your bag? Do you want to see your room? It's next to mine. It looks right over the park and you can see that weird folly thing with the gargoyles on it they give me nightmares. Do you have nightmares? No, of course not."
At last the boy drew breath. Horatio could not help but laugh. The words had seemed to stream out of the boy like soap bubbles from Susan's hot washtub.
Archie grabbed his hand and almost dragged him upstairs to see his room. The size of it astounded Horatio. He was used to the little eaves bedroom at home, with hardly room for a bed and a chest. Here there was room for three beds and a huge wardrobe stood in the corner.
"What's in your bag?" asked Archie. "Are all your clothes in there?"
A frown furrowed Horatio's brow. What was he supposed to have brought? Susan had only packed one spare set of everything as that's all he had.
Archie saw his new friend's unease and quickly sought to dispel it.
"Oh well," he said. "If you need anything else, you can borrow mine. I've got too many clothes and I'm always being told off for not wearing the right ones!"
Archie caught sight of some books that Horatio had brought with him. A closer inspection however made his nose wrinkle.
"Maths books!" he cried in disgust. "Why did you bring those?"
Horatio looked apologetic. "I like working things out." he said "And I'm missing school - .."
"Lord, you're lucky!" Archie interrupted. "I bring my school with me wherever I go. You saw her," he added, looking glum. "The governess."
For a moment Archie's head bent and it seemed that he would be lost in some private misery for a while. But he snapped his head up quickly.
"Oh well," he said. "Perhaps you could help me with maths. I'm not very good at it you see. And then she gets terribly cross and tells my father - "
Archie dipped his head again.
Horatio did not understand why this might be a problem.
"There are things I'm not very good at Archie. My father loves music, but it's only a nasty noise to me."
Archie looked up.
"Does that make him cross at you Horatio?"
"Lord no." said Horatio lightly. "It makes him laugh at me!"
Archie's blue eyes widened in astonishment.
"I'm not sure I've ever heard my father laugh," he said dully.
Then he seemed to physically shake himself.
"Oh well," he said. "He's out hunting somewhere and he doesn't come back till this evening. There's hours till then. Let's go out in the park and explore!"
Horatio looked at the little boat by the lake somewhat hesitantly.
"Archie, it does seem to have rather a lot of holes in it."
Archie walked round it.
"The holes aren't actually at the bottom though Horatio. Let's try!"
Horatio sighed. It seemed as though he'd been holding Archie on a tight rein all afternoon, rescuing him from trees, extricating him from bushes and stopping him from popping all sorts of organic matter into his mouth that would have made him extremely sick. It was not at all the behaviour Horatio would have expected from the son of a Viscount. Yet there was an element of infectious fun about Archie that was beginning to strip away Horatio's formidable layers of decorum and common sense.
"Oh, alright Archie," he said. And then as an afterthought, "Can you swim?"
"Well, almost," said Archie blithely, stepping into the boat. "Can you row?"
And so the two little boys set off. All was well for a few minutes. Archie decided that he was the Captain of a 74 and that the clumps of waterlilies were "Frog frigates". Horatio, being of the lower orders, was the crew and had to row. Archie was just threatening him with a flogging if he didn't row faster, when an urgent gurgling sound alerted the boys that the voyage might be shorter than they had expected.
"Abandon ship!" shouted Horatio, forgetting that the lower orders didn't give orders.
Archie seemed to have become frozen.
"Horatio," he gasped. "I can't swim actually."
Horatio stripped off his jacket and jumped into the water. He grabbed Archie, who had become exceedingly pale and pulled him from the boat. Supporting his head above water, he struggled to reach the edge of the lake. The two boys lay gasping for breath on the muddy bank. And there they lay until rescued by one of the estate gardeners who bundled them into a wagon filled with manure destined for the rose garden.
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And so the two intrepid adventurers found themselves side by side that evening facing an irate Lord Aylward.
He did not raise his voice, but there was a cold timbre to it that sent a chill down Horatio's back. When his father was cross, which wasn't often, he would sound disappointed rather than angry. Horatio always strove hard to avoid causing such disappointment. Now he wasn't sure how this tall, forbidding man was going to react. With some alarm Horatio could see that he was holding a riding crop in his hand and that Archie was looking horribly pale.
Surprisingly the Viscount ignored his own son first and turned towards Horatio.
"I believe I have to thank you for rescuing my son, although the foolishness lies with you both."
Horatio glanced from the riding crop to Archie. He didn't know if this cold, frightening man had the authority to beat him, but he rather thought he didn't. Archie on the other hand - - .
Horatio stepped forward.
"It was my idea to go in the boat Sir."
Archie turned paler still, but said nothing.
"Indeed!" exclaimed the Viscount. "Well it was an extremely silly venture. I will send a note to your father and I hope he will make you learn a little sense. I believe it will be best if you return home tomorrow before more harm is done. Now please go to your room and close the door after you."
Horatio could only do as he was bidden. He suspected that his intervention had been useless and he was aware that Archie was left standing miserably alone. But this was his father and there was nothing more Horatio could do. As he went up the stairs he could hear that cold voice again, followed by pleas from Archie. Horatio had reached his door when the cold voice started to be raised. He could hear certain words: "snivelling", "idiotic" and "that common boy". Perhaps that comment referred to him. Horatio gulped and closed the door quickly behind him before he could hear any more insults. He lay on the bed and buried his head in the pillow. Hot tears seemed to scald his cheeks and he felt horribly sick. He did not like that man and he did not like his riding crop. He was beginning to understand why Archie had seemed so scared of his father.
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But Horatio was only a little boy. His day had been long and hard and eventually he fell asleep. He dreamed of being a captain of a frigate whose ship was sinking. He could feel the cold, black, waters swirling around him and dragging him down. He awoke with a start to feel something damp against his arm. He spun around.
"Do not be cross please" whispered a familiar voice.
"Archie! What are you doing here?"
"I h-hurt so much Horatio. I don't want to be alone. Please let me stay."
Horatio put his arm around the boy and Archie began to sob.
"Have you got any story books Archie? I could read to you."
"Oh yes," said Archie, brightening up. "I've got a book called Gulliver's Travels'. It's about a man who travels all over the world and meets all kinds of different peoples. You'll love it!"
"Alright," said Horatio. "Go and get it and I'll read some of it to you."
Archie struggled out of the bed, and Horatio lit a candle. With horror he could see streaks of blood where Archie had been lying. Soon the little boy was back holding a large book like a trophy.
"There's even pictures in it. Look Horatio!"
It was indeed the most beautiful book that Horatio had ever seen. He was particularly impressed with one picture, which showed a giant Gulliver tied to the ground by hundreds of little people.
"Shall I read that chapter Archie? The one about the little people?"
"Oh yes," breathed Archie. "That's my favourite!"
And so the two little boys snuggled together and Horatio began to read about the Lilliputians. He was in the right mood to read about the small triumphing over the large. He felt a kind of suffocating fury within himself that Archie had been punished so severely by his father. And he suspected that this was not an unusual occurrence. However, he kept his voice calm and soft, hoping that Archie could forget his pain and be lulled to sleep. The occasional sob still racked the little boy, but gradually his eyes became heavy. Horatio felt the extra weight on his shoulder as at length Archie fell asleep.
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Ten years later.
"Jump! You'll be alright!" called a voice to Horatio. He doubted it, but jumped anyway. The pitching of the small boat in a January gale had by now taken away most of his will to live anyway. Yet here he was on the deck, greeted by a huge smile.
"Welcome to Purgatory!"
Strangely, there seemed something vaguely familiar about the boyish smile, but Horatio certainly felt too ill to explore that possibility. He was introduced to the two imposing lieutenants on the deck, and then led below by the same ebullient figure, wending his way through the dizzying throng.
"Mind your step!" he cautioned. "Difficult to say who smells worst, the men or the beasts in the manger forrard. One gets used to its. Watch your head! - . They're not bad men for the most part provided they're kept busy. But this endless waiting. Most of us have been here six months already. Things will be different once we transfer to a fighting vessel I don't doubt. But who knows when that may be? Our only our only hope at present is that the unpleasantness in France might come to something. You've heard the latest rumours of course that Louis was captured just before Christmas. What do you think they'll do with him? You can't kill a King. As my father explained to his gilly, alright perhaps some of these people may have missed the odd meal or two, but knocking off the heads of the nobility's not going to fill their bellies, is it? Still, that's Johnny Crapeau for you - - .."
The words washed around Horatio and suddenly he had a vision of soap bubbles issuing from Susan's washtub. But that had been years ago. Why would he think of that now? Why would he think of anything when he felt so sick. Why wouldn't this boy shut up, so he could concentrate on controlling his rebellious stomach? What was his name? Oh well, he'd find out soon enough - - - ..