by Bev. F.
Author's Note: This fic is based on a paragraph in Forester's Lt. Hornblower, where he briefly mentions a 'lurid period' , 'two wild days and two wild nights' Hornblower and Bush spent in Kingston, Jamaica whereby they managed to spend all their prize money and Bush at least to return to his ship 'shaken and limp.' I always felt that to be out of character for Hornblower, thought perhaps Forester wished to strip Horatio of any wealth in order to set up the whist playing and Maria scenarios later on. After the dramatic conclusion to 'Retribution' I thought it even more incongruous. Until I got to thinking.... And this is the result.
"We'll drink Portsmouth dry!" Archie said.
"Reload!!" Mr. Bush replied.
"Renowns to me!" Horatio shouted. Too late. A cutlass cleaved his head in two, and a splinter of wood disemboweled him. Was that his blood on Archie's shirt?
His eyes fluttered open. His head ached unbearably, and his stomach roiled. He knew he could blame no cutlass or splinter of wood for that. Had they drunk Portsmouth dry? The shuttered window at the foot of the bed let in bright slivers of light. Funny, somehow he had expected to see bars on that window, not a shutter. Kingston! He was in Kingston, not Portsmouth, of course. And this was the Strap & Block's finest room, not a jail cell. But the blood.... Oh God, now he remembered. Archie. Archie was dead. It was the same every morning -- for a blessed moment or two, on awakening, he forgot.
Something else hovered just beyond reach of his memory. Something about Bush....
And something else again, something strange, out of the ordinary. He struggled to make sense of that strangeness, through the pounding in his head. Ah, now he had it. He was lying in his bed naked. Even in the hot tropical weather, he always wore his nightshirt. And something else, something about the feel of the bed....
"What the devil!" Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of dark hair on the pillow, and despite a stab of excruciating pain, swiveled his head round. He must have shouted out loud for the young girl sat bolt upright, her hair tousled, her sleep-drunk eyes struggling to stay open, her small hands grasping not quite quickly enough at the sheet which covered them both. God, she was just a child! And her dusky complexion could not conceal the split and swollen skin over her cheekbone.
"What have I done?" he whispered, "Oh God, what have I done!"
The girl seemed unconcerned. Tucking the sheet round her body, she brushed her hair out of her eyes, and said, "Yuh done good, mista. Yuh gimme de money now?" Then the last two days started to come back to him........
Horatio Hornblower sat wedged behind a corner table in the common room of the Strap and Block. A tankard of ale sat on the stained surface in front of him. It was his second since he'd left the solitude of his chamber. The first had slid down his throat with too much ease; he intended to nurse this one along. Strong drink had never appealed to him -- he disliked the feeling that he was no longer in control, that his tongue might send forth words he would wish to recall later, or that his body might betray him. He was a Commander now, looked up to, noticed. A seaman, or midshipman, or even a lieutenant might be allowed to slowly decline into a sodden heap without much notice, but he was marked now, marked with that damned epaulette on his left shoulder.
Commander. What an honour! Started out this voyage a third Lieutenant only, and now look where he was! But he'd give the damn thing back, if only....
Taking a deep breath, he half-drained the tankard. Good ale, it was too, not like the stinking brew on the Renown, even after a relatively short voyage. He'd be expected to lay in his own stock of drink now -- and tentatively he touched the pocket containing his prize money. Perhaps it was something he could do for the next two days -- lay in some stores, buy a new shirt perhaps. Any damn thing to keep moving.
For his new promotion had carried one blessing with it. Retribution was his now, and he was responsible for her. The Spaniards had maintained her in a slovenly manner; he'd kept busy having her rigging and sails checked, every inch of her hull gone over and her new crew whipped into some semblance of fighting readiness. She was a sloop only, and would run, rather than fight. But anything could happen between Jamaica and England. He'd lost two ships already on voyages ostensibly on easy runs; he had no intention of losing Retribution.
He might be aboard her still, but the carpenter had found some rotten wood in her and she'd been careened on shore and there was nothing to be done for the next day or two. So here he sat, and somehow the tankard in front of him was empty. He would not order another. Aimlessly he moved it around, and waved his hand in negation when the innkeeper hurried over. He bloody well couldn't sit here all day. But he made no move to rise.
"Mind if I join you, sir?"
He looked up to see Bush standing in front of him. Only a short while ago he'd been addressing Mr. Bush as 'sir'. Such were the fortunes of war. The fortunes of war...
"Suit yourself." He knew Bush didn't deserve such an uncivil reply, but he had no patience for the civilities anymore. In any case, the man did not appear to be put off by his manner, as he pulled out a chair and sat himself down. He must have spoken to the innkeeper as he came in, for that gentleman was already rushing over with two more tankards, one of which he placed in front of Bush, and the other in front of Hornblower.
"I didn't order that. "
"No, sir, you did not. I took the liberty of ordering for you. I thought to join you in a friendly drink. " Bush lifted his tankard and drank deeply. Horatio sighed. What the hell -- the man was only trying to be exactly what he had stated -- friendly. And they had become friends of a sort, though he would never have expected that, during Bush's first days on board Renown.
"I suppose you hate me." The words slipped out, and he assumed he could blame that on the fact that he was now drinking from his third tankard of ale.
"Hate you? Why should I hate you, sir?"
"For God's sake, man, stop calling me sir!" He slammed the pewter tankard down onto the table so forcefully that even with its lowered level, some of the ale slopped over. "You should hate me because by rights this belongs to you!" and he tugged at the epaulette on his shoulder."
"I believe the honour went to the man best fitted for the position, Mr. Hornblower -- I may call you that?" The man seemed to show the ghost of a smile on his open good-natured face. "The man best fitted -- that does not happen often enough in his Majesty's Navy. No, I fear that you have occasion to hate me."
"I survived, Mr. Hornblower." Bush took another drink of his ale before continuing. "And -- he did not."
The air in the common room of the Strap & Block was close and stifling; Horatio had opened his jacket to relieve a little of the prickly heat exacerbated by good British wool , but now a chill ran through him. These moments came upon him, unexpectedly, and it took all his effort to keep his face immobile. He'd become quite skillful at it, just as he was skillful in keeping his mind empty of any thoughts other than those having to do with His Britannic Majesty's Navy.
"I would, if I were you, " Bush continued, as though he were still discussing the rights and wrongs of Horatio's promotion. "I don't mind. Innkeeper, my good man!" The good man hurried over, all smiles now, as though he had caught the scent of money to be made, and perhaps lots of it.
"Enough of this swill, " Bush said, "Bring us your best rum!" He fished in his pocket and brought forth a crumpled pound note. "Your best, mind you!" The innkeeper snatched up the money with one hand, and the two empty tankards with the other, and grinning even more hugely, went off.
"You might ask..."
"Good God, Mr. Hornblower, we are sitting here two good Navy men in Kingston town. We'd be remiss not to sample the local rum. I'd say we've got a deal of catching up to do -- Sawyer was free enough with the stuff as far as the men were concerned."
How could he sit there so -- so damn calmly! -- and mention that name! If Sawyer had only remained the great leader he'd once been, if only....
"A toast, Mr. Hornblower? " Bush raised the glass newly deposited in front of him. "A toast to -- well, shall you name it?"
With shock, Horatio found that he'd clenched his hands so tightly they pained him. The glass of rum sat looking at him, dark and dangerous, and he suddenly realized that he might find some sort of oblivion by drowning in it. Painfully, he straightened out his fingers and reached out to grasp the glass.
"To Captain Sawyer than, " he said, and the fiery liquid ran down his throat. The rum following the beer produced a most unpleasant effect on his innards, but the fuzziness in his brain was more acceptable.
"I say, Mr. Hornblower, I have a capital idea. You're at loose ends for the next day or two, I believe? Well, it so happens, I find myself in the same position. I propose we take advantage of the situation. Two days leave, a bit of prize money in our pockets -- who knows what might develop!"
Horatio was thunderstruck. Bad enough the man had the nerve to imply -- that he -- that he might wish -- his somewhat addled wits struggled to form the thought, and then gave up. But to suggest, so lightly, that the two of them might squander not only two days, but such dearly won prize money -- to what purpose?
"Come on, man! Why not!"
Had he even answered? Damn the rum, anyway. Bush sat, watching him; and suddenly, like that first clank of the capstan, something seemed to give inside of him. Perhaps he would disgrace his uniform, and be summarily cashiered. Perhaps he would insult some drunken lout, and be run through for his words. Perhaps he could drink himself to death. Who knew what might develop?
That had been the start of it. A chance meeting in an inn, a tot of rum on top of three tankards of ale, and a need to forget, that two days of idleness in his own company was not likely to provide.
"You might want to change your jacket, Mr. Hornblower, " Bush had said. "No need for anyone to know a commander is keeping company with a common lieutenant. "
"Is that so, Mr. Bush? Well, I am not Mr. Buckland, so don't think I'll be following all your suggestions." Suddenly the whole idea struck him as indescribably funny, and he stifled an undignified giggle with great difficulty. Damn that rum! He might follow this mad scheme of Mr. Bush's, but he'd not end up befuddled, like Clive. No, he'd keep a clear head. "Clever idea, nevertheless."
Carefully, he climbed the stairs to his room, removed the small wad of banknotes and the handful of coins, and transferred them to his most worn, least new jacket. He still needed to order stores, and buy that new shirt. Surely in two days he could find time to take care of that chore. Damn! He felt as though he was back on board now, the way the floor seemed to dance under his feet. Steady, man, steady! Nevertheless, he managed to trip on his way to the door. He looked down at the seachest he'd stowed in his room, because he couldn't leave it in Retribution. The seachest someone else had packed, because he couldn't bring himself to touch any of -- his things.
Hell! What was he thinking! Drinking, carousing, and God knew what else when....
"Coming, Mr. Hornblower?" There was that infernal Bush again, couldn't he leave him alone? He saw Bush's eyes slide over the wood with its A.K. in bright letters. I won't let him see -- no I won't. But he seemed rooted to the spot, until he felt Bush's fingers light on the sleeve of his jacket. "Come, Mr. Hornblower."
"Turnips, innkeeper. Turnips for my good friend, Mr. Bush!" They'd moved on from the Strap and Block. Too expensive, Mr. Bush had suggested. "If we'd captured a ship-of-the-line we'd not have to worry."
So here they were in one of Kingston's less gentile establishments, where the navy jackets and white breeches of officers were replaced by the duck trousers and checked shirts of common seamen and laborers, not all faces were fair-complected, and the rum was of a certainty rawer. Mr. Bush had ordered a fiery hot rice concoction that burnt even more than the harsh spirits, and insisted on inflicting the same dish on his companion. His careless remark on the cliff top -- about turnips -- had suddenly slipped into Horatio's mind, and it seemed a capital idea that his 'good friend Mr. Bush' should have some.
"But I never eat 'em, " Bush laughed, shoveling down his food with no apparent ill effects from the hotness.
"But you said..."
"I lied. I hardly think an aversion to turnips will hinder my rise to Admiral. A fear of heights on the other hand......" Bush drained his glass and slammed it on the table. "You there, more rum! ." God, the man had a better head for the drink than he did. Already he wasn't sure if he could navigate his way from here to the doorway, much less all the way back to the Strap & Block. He fumbled in his pocket for his watch, and tapped it several times before he could be satisfied that the damned thing hadn't stopped on him. Was it only one o'clock? If he stopped drinking now, he could find a way to ease out of here, take a short nap to clear his mind, and think about those cabin stores.
"Though I must say, Mr. Hornblower, you didn't let your fear of heights stop you from going over that cliff. Much obliged I'm sure, though I had my sympathies for Mr. Kennedy. Imagine jumping off a cliff with a man who was afraid of heights and a man who couldn't swim..."
"Damn your eyes!" The man had been listening, must have still been in the gaol sickberth, and now had the impudence to throw back those words at him. Without thinking, he leaned across the table ; his hand shot out and gripped the frills on Bush's shirt; his other hand gathered into a fist .
"Good God, man, are you mad?" Bush flinched in anticipation of the blow. Horatio's fisted hand trembled, but something about Bush made him hesitate. Even his rum-induced haziness could not hide from him the fact that Mr. Bush had no idea what he might have said. He looked apprehensive, puzzled, questioning, but not sly. A man who could throw those words at him with malice would have need to gloat, and the man sitting awaiting his hovering blow was not gloating.
Horatio dropped his hand to his side, and released Bush's shirt. "My apologies, Mr. Bush, " he mumbled, and tossed off the rum remaining in his glass, for at that moment, he had no idea what else to do.
"You did give me quite a start there, Mr. Hornblower." Bush adjusted the neckline of his shirt, and picked up his fork. "Was it something I said?" Without waiting for an answer, he recommenced eating his dinner.
"Was it something I said?" he repeated. Horatio started; his empty befuddled thoughts drawn back sharply. "If it was, pray tell me what it was, so I shan't do it again."
The man deserved an answer, he supposed. "Just something -- something Mr. Kennedy said."
" I expect he had the same thought I did. If any one of us had taken a moment to contemplate the situation, we'd still be back there. Slaves to the slaves, or worse. " He rapped his glass hard on the table top and shouted "More rum here, I say!"
Horatio waved the proffered bottle away, but somehow his glass suddenly was brimful once more. Well, he wouldn't drink it.
"You and Mr. Kennedy served together quite some time, I believe." Bush had managed -- despite his chatting, and drinking, and calling for the innkeeper -- to demolish the meal laid before him, and now sopped up the last juices lingering on the plate with a chunk of bread.
Why the devil did he insist on talking about Archie? Couldn't he just damn well leave it alone. Horatio stared down at the mess of rice and vegetables on his plate. Suddenly the rice reminded him overwhelmingly of maggots, and he pushed the plate away as his stomach heaved.
"What?" Somehow he'd forgotten Bush's question entirely. Something about -- something about Archie?
"You and Mr. Kennedy served together before your transfer to Renown?"
Oh, yes, that had been the question. "We were Midshipman together on Justinian, just before the war started." How long ago that seemed. Yet he could easily call to mind Archie's cheerful face looking down from the deck of the 74, and giving him hope that the future might not be quite as miserable as he thought it might be, looking up from that heaving little shoreboat.
"And so you have served nine years together."
"Congratulations, Mr. Bush, your mathematics are impeccable." God, had it been nine years? Justinian, Indefatigable, Renown. Perhaps he would have just a little more of that rum. Jamaican rum, the best there was.
"You must have seen a fair amount of action on Indefatigable. Pellew has quite the reputation. You were fortunate to have lasted that long together."
"Fortunate? Not anymore, it would seem." Damn the man. Nothing seemed to daunt him. He *would* go forward, no matter how surly his companion.
"But think, man, you had nine years of friendship. I resented the both of you, when I came on board Renown. Buckland was a fool, and the Captain was mad ....." Bush laughed. "Yes, I can see by your face that I've surprised you there. I didn't want to see it; he had been a great Captain and I couldn't believe my luck to receive a posting to his ship, to the Renown. And then to find -- I suppose I couldn't face up to it, at first. But I digress. Buckland was a fool, the Captain was mad, and you two -- damn but I could only think you read each other's minds! "
Horatio took a deep breath. Read each other's minds? Perhaps, sometimes ....
"You seemed to read each other's minds that day up on that cliff. Thank God, you saw fit to drag me with you! But it wasn't until we were back onboard Renown, and Buckland said to me .... he said to me 'You three are so full of yourselves and of each other' , that I finally felt one of you. I -- um -- well, I felt honoured, I can tell you that right enough, Mr. Hornblower."
"Mr. Bush...." God, what could he say? He'd been damnably short with the man, ill-tempered and sulky. And the man had been honoured to feel one of *them*. A man who had held his commission longer than both of them. A man who had certainly proven his leadership, and courage. A man who had been passed over when the time had come to chose a Commander for Retribution.
"We didn't serve together nine years, " Horatio suddenly blurted out. " Mr. Kennedy was left behind on a cutting out party in France, and eventually ended up in Spain. In prison. Where I had the ill-fortune to join him some time later. "
"I see. I take it then you were either ransomed or escaped."
"Neither. A long story, Mr. Bush. But he tried to escape five times. I couldn't even manage to conjure up one escape attempt. He was a very brave officer."
"Yes, there's no doubt about that, Mr. Hornblower, no doubt at all. Now drink up -- time we were off."
Time we were off? "I have cabin stores I need to purchase ..." His tongue was starting to trip him up. He'd have to watch that, didn't want to sound like Dr. Clive.
"Nonsense. Plenty of time for that later." Mr. Bush stood up and walking round the table, pulled on Horatio's sleeve. "Come on, now. Though I expect you'll wish you'd eaten that dinner!"
Bush was right. He should have eaten something. He vaguely remembered leaning very heavily on Bush's shoulder, and needing to stop once and a while as his stomach gave a particularly wretched heave. Had he actually been sick? He couldn't recall. Poor Bush. But no, he felt no sympathy for Bush. It had been Bush's idea all along.
They'd stumbled through some kind of market place, with loud noises and bright colors, that hurt his head. He'd wondered why it was not dark; certainly feeling this drunk should take as long as nightfall to accomplish. Bush had stopped at a fruit vendor's and bought him a mango, and he could still taste the sweetness and feel the juice drip down over his fingers and onto his shirt. He'd realized then how thirsty he was, and how painfully the bright sun seared his eyes. He was mad, to be here with Bush, his senses addled.
A dark-skinned girl had clutched at his sleeve and mouthed words in a language he didn't understand, though her intentions were plain enough. Perhaps .... no, he remembered now. He had brushed past her, and caught up to Bush, who now strode with some purpose towards the outer edge of the market.
"Come along, Mr. Hornblower. Dawdle here, and you'll have more than one young lovely after you."
"Mr. Bush -- perhaps it is time for a return to the Strap & Block. "
"Whatever for, Mr. Hornblower? "
Horatio struggled for a plausible answer to Mr. Bush's question. He was feeling very intoxicated, though his companion had outpaced him easily with seemingly little effect. He was feeling sick. And --- God, but he felt guilty, almost celebrating, as it were, when damned if there was anything at all to celebrate. He should never have left his comfortable table at the Strap & Block; he would have ceased imbibing after his two tankards of ale, his head would be clear, and he might even have found a few fellows interested in a good game of whist.
"Whist, Mr. Bush!"
"Whist, Mr. Hornblower?"
"Yes, whist, Mr. Bush. So if you wouldn't mind...." Grimly he looked around, trying to find one familiar landmark, so he might find his own way back, if Mr. Bush were bent on continuing this ridiculous perambulation through Kingston.
"Ah, of course. I had heard you were a capital whist player. But the Strap & Block isn't the place for a game of it. Come..." And once again, Horatio found himself trailing along side Mr. Bush . It wasn't so much Mr. Bush's strength of character turning him from his own wishes, though damned if he knew where he was. The suggestion being made, he found it easier just to follow, giving up his own feeble plan.
would suggest, Mr. Hornblower, " Mr. Bush lowered his voice slightly as they approached an elegant house which apparently had been turned into an inn of some kind. "that you choose the rum punch when ordering. The whist players here are certainly a cut above any you might have encountered in the wardroom. You'll need a clear head.'
A clear head. Imbibing more rum, even watered down with lime juice, would scarcely be of value in clearing his head. But whist. Even in his present state, he had no fear that his mathematical acuity would fail him. The day had made small inroads in his prize money; he would remedy that and more at the whist table.
"Where do you find these places, Mr. Bush?" he whispered, as they stepped into a large room inhabited by elegantly dressed gentleman, a sprinkling of officers sporting both military and naval uniform, and exquisitely bedecked ladies. Suddenly he felt very shabby, in his most-worn jacket, and mango-stained shirt.
"I've been in the Indies previously, " Bush explained. "You get to hear about these places. Not that I'm a whist player myself. But you'll find a table, I'm sure."
"Mr. Bush!" A middle-aged man in the dark blue of a lieutenant's uniform had raised his hand over the heads of the patrons.
"I think you might have your game sooner than expected, " Bush whispered, and threaded his way through the tables. Horatio could do nothing but follow him, feeling absurdly that every eye was watching, noting the slight hesitation in his steps, judging him by the stains on his shirt. Damn, damn, damn!
"Mr. Bush! " The man stood as Bush and Hornblower arrived at his table. "I'd heard you were here in Kingston. How long has it been -- a good five years at least! "
"Mr. Barnard! Indeed! Still in Andromache, then?"
"First lieutenant. Waiting for my chance, as it were. And this fellow here?"
"A fellow officer looking for a friendly game of whist. Mr. Barnard, Mr. Hornblower."
Barnard gave him a hard look, then smiled and inclined his head. "I believe you have come to the right place, sir. You there! " He snapped his fingers impatiently and a moment later, a foppishly dressed manservant stood rigidly to attention at his side. "Two decks of cards. " The servant bowed his head and scuttled away. "Mr. Hurley? You'll join us? " The other man sharing Barnard's table nodded his assent. "Mr. Bush?"
"I'll look on, if I may. I fear my playing might not prove challenge enough for the three of you."
"Afraid you'll be fleeced, Mr. Bush? Very well, then. I believe Mr. Patton might oblige. " The servant returned with the cards and was immediately sent off to fetch Mr. Patton. Horatio's head was spinning. Thankfully he took the seat indicated, as he did not think he could remain standing much longer. His head was starting to pound, and he knew he would need all his wits about him. With grim determination he tried to remember exactly how much money still nestled in his jacket pocket. Certainly near eighty or ninety pounds yet. Enough to risk a modest wager or two, and still have ample left for those cabin stores. He expected to win, nevertheless, for the cards had proven his friends in the past, and he need only sit back and let others make their mistakes.
The game was set. The four men around the table, Hornblower and Mr. Patton, a man of some means, judging by his stylish clothing and heavy gold ring, forming one pair, Barnard and Hurley, a Commander himself, forming the other, with Bush looking on. Horatio remembered Bush's good advice and ordered a rum punch from the stiff-backed serving man. The first round was dealt, the first trick taken, the rum punch brought. God, it tasted delicious. He hadn't realized how thirsty he was. The first rubber finished, and he and Patton had taken it. He'd drained his glass without noticing, and without noticing, another had taken his place. The next rubber went to his opponents, and the next.
"I fear your mind is not on the game, Mr. Hornblower, " his partner pouted. "Perhaps I was too hasty in agreeing to play."
His mind *was* on the game. But somehow, tricks seemed to slip away, just as his rum punch slipped away also. Mr. Bush had started twitching at his sleeve. "Have a care, Mr. Hornblower, " he said softly, but Horatio needed no reminders on that account. The next rubber would be his.
God, what now? Had he not followed suit? Or was it even his turn? He looked towards Mr. Barnard, who looked back at him with a very satisfied look on his face.
"I knew I recognized that name! You were court-martialed for that mutiny on board Renown! "
"I don't believe, Mr. Barnard, that this is the time or place for mention of that!"
"No, no, Mr. Bush; I'd be most interested to hear the details from one who was there. One, who, if I am not mistaken, was one of the principals involved." Mr. Barnard, whose deal it was, instead placed the cards down in front of him.
"Then you must address me, Mr. Barnard, " Bush said, "For I outranked Mr. Hornblower during the events you refer to."
"Ah, but it was Mr. Hornblower sitting in that court room, Mr. Bush. And from all accounts, it was Mr. Hornblower most closely involved, and not yourself, sir."
Horatio sat motionless. For an hour or two, he'd been lost in the intricacies of his beloved game, and lost too, it would appear, in the refreshing taste of an excellent rum punch. That the Renown and all that had transpired on her could be grist for casual conversation seemed beyond bearing. But he bit his tongue, lest he answer imprudently. Even in his less than coherent state of mind, he knew enough to do that.
"And his Mr. Kennedy, " Barnard went on, "What kind of an officer was the man, to push his own Captain into the hold! "
"Sir, I protest!"
"Have a care, Mr. Hornblower, " Bush hissed.
"As I understand it, Mr. Hornblower, he saved your neck," Barnard said. "Good thing the man died; saved the Admiralty the bother of a hanging!"
Horatio heard a crash behind him, and realized he'd jumped to his feet, knocking his chair to the floor. "I take exception to that remark, sir!"
Barnard was on his feet too. "You do, sir? You speak for a little coward...."
The events which followed on this remark still remained hazy in Horatio's mind. He remembered shouting something, and Barnard going very red in the face, and then inexplicably, or so he thought at the time, Mr. Bush had shouted also, in that gruff voice of his, that he would not have any man stand up for a cowardly blackguard, and threw the contents of a full glass of rum punch in his face.
Then he remembered somehow being outside again, and managing to land one very solid blow to Mr. Bush's face before giving into his befuddled senses and sinking to the ground beside the shaken Mr. Bush, their backs against a stone wall. A sickeningly sweet fragrance enveloped him; some damned tropical flower, he had no doubt -- the smell of it was no help to his perilous health.
"I am waiting for your apology, Mr. Hornblower. " Bush said, and pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped a small drop of blood from the corner of his mouth.
"What the devil for!"
"I believe I have saved your life!"
"Hell and damnation, you insult Ar--- Mr. Kennedy's good name and then have the gall to shower me with rum punch!" Rum punch! God! He must look a sight! Feebly he brushed at his jacket and shirt with his hands. He could only hope the punch might dissolve out the worst of the mango stains. "And you think you have saved my life? How is that, Mr. Bush!"
"You were on the edge of calling Mr. Barnard out, were you not, Mr. Hornblower?"
"I don't know what business it is of yours if I choose to call someone out. Given your actions, Mr. Bush, I may have to call you out!"
"I think not. But you must know that no one stands against Mr. Barnard. He is a dead shot, and a master with the cutlass. Of course, if you wish to die, then by all means return and insult the man some more. After that blow, I might just let you go ahead."
"I wasn't to know, was I?" He glanced over at Mr. Bush. The light was fast disappearing, but he could easily see that Bush's face was swelling. "My apologies, sir. "
"Apology accepted. But come to your senses, Mr. Hornblower. If you call out every man who disparages Mr. Kennedy, then you will die, or worse, be discharged from the service. Hardly what Mr. Kennedy had in mind when he gave his testimony, was it?"
Blast the man! He had now made it virtually impossible for him to ever defend Archie's good name, at least among those who counted for the least, and could do the most harm. If you wish to die -- he'd seen that as an acceptable outcome all those many years ago on Justinian. And clearly now, he could see the bullet entering his body, and knowing, with the last failing sense in his brain, that he had given his life to honor his friend. He sighed, and pressed his fingers against his aching temples. Just as clearly, he knew that picture to be false. That in choosing such a selfish course of action, his dishonor would be real, and not merely feigned.
"That morning, " he said, hardly realizing that he spoke his thoughts out loud, "when I stopped round and found Archie's cot empty, and you said he was up and about, I thought ..... I suppose I thought a miracle had occurred. I never expected ...."
" He never thought you would. But he had a gift well within his ability to bestow, and he did so. The miracle, in my mind, was that he was able to walk at all."
"Good God! Might he have survived if ..." The thought was too painful to pursue.
"Might he have survived if he'd stayed in his cot? I take it you've not spoken to Clive since?"
"No." Perhaps he had been afraid to hear the truth. Perhaps he *had* harbored the fear that Archie had indeed given his life for him.
"The good doctor never expressed hope that Mr. Kennedy would recover. "
"Clive was a drunken fool!"
"Perhaps not as much of a drunken fool as we might have thought, Mr. Hornblower. You will remember that I was under his care too, and I could not fault him. Mr. Kennedy put on a very brave face during your visits, but I can assure you, he was failing badly. His wound was mortal, and resting quietly in his cot while his best friend was sentenced to hang, might have prolonged his life a day or so to be true, while killing his spirit."
Archie's wound *had* been mortal. He could see that as soon as he'd ripped his friend's waistcoat open, there on the deck of Renown. And later, when he'd changed out of his own clothing, soaked in Archie's blood, the truth of that was almost more than he could bear. Mr. Bush was right. He would learn to curb his anger, school his face, as the honour of the most loyal, brave man he'd ever know was shredded again and again.
Suddenly something skittered up the wall beside him, he jerked convulsively from the surprise of it, and struck his head with a resounding crack against the unyielding stone.
"Just a croaker, Mr. Hornblower, a lizard. Here, a little something to settle the nerves. " And Bush passed over a small metal flask. The man was insufferable! He was -- God damn! -- drunk now, and Bush was to blame.
"You advised me to drink rum punch, Mr. Bush, " he said. "You promised me a clear head were I to order rum punch, Mr. Bush. You lied, Mr. Bush!" He jabbed ineffectually in Mr. Bush's direction, and was rewarded for his efforts by Bush's hearty laugh.
"I advised you to drink rum punch, Mr. Hornblower. I did not advise you to drink quite as much of it as you did! And on an empty stomach too, I might add. I at least had the benefit of an excellent dish of rice and ackee. You must thank me for not only saving your life, but saving at least some portion of your prize money."
Prize money! His fingers flew to his pocket. The small wad of bills was even smaller now; he hadn't the heart to pull it out and count it.
"The correct strategy, I believe, " Bush continued, " Is to assure your opponent is in his cups, and not you in yours.
Bush was right. Had he been sober, he might have found Barnard and Hurley formidable opponents. Drunk, he'd had no chance. He realized he was still holding the flask Bush had given him. He lifted it to his mouth and drank.
He had no recollection of spending the night. Obviously they'd spent it somewhere, but obviously not at the Strap & Block, for he remembered quite clearly standing in his soiled clothes, his face unshaven, as he contemplated Mr. Bush's next surprise.
"What the devil is this, Mr. Bush!"
"I should think it quite clear, Mr. Hornblower. You do ride?"
Oh God! The animal led out for his perusal had that same malevolent gleam in its eye that he remembered only too well from the beach at Muzillac. Well, Mr. Bush had gone too far this time!
Bush had taken the reins of the second mount and swung himself up into the saddle. He looked quite at ease up there, and Horatio found himself irrationally irritated. Where had the man learned to ride? What did he know about Bush, anyway? Nothing -- he knew nothing about Bush. The man might have been a master of the hunt back in England, born and bred to the saddle. Or he might be riding for the first time, and making it look devilishly easy. Show the horse who's master, Lord Edrington had said, and Horatio knew the man had been laughing at him, though too well bred to show it.
"Come on, man, we'll never get to Spanish Town at this rate!"
"Spanish Town? "
"Right. Thought we'd visit old Rodney in his toga."
"You are talking of Lord Rodney?"
"Of course. Come on man, we haven't got all day."
Horatio wasn't sure why Bush would think they hadn't got all day; he knew he certainly didn't. He wanted only to retire to the Strap & Block, change his clothes, and see about those cabin stores. And two shirts, for this one might never pass muster again.
He looked at the horse, and he looked at Bush. Was the bastard grinning at him? Be damned if he'd be shown up by a lieutenant with so little ambition that he harbored no hard feelings at being passed over for promotion.
'Show him who's master.' Grimly he caught hold of the dangling reins. His first attempt to board a horse had ended in disaster, but he *had* managed it in a more dignified manner on the next occasion. Surely he could do so now. Hold the horse steady, one foot in the stirrup, the other leg over. For one agonizing minute, he thought he might go all the way over on the other side, but somehow he managed to settle down on the wretched animal's back.
"And how far is this Spanish Town, Mr. Bush? "
"About three or four leagues, I should think, Mr. Hornblower."
Four leagues! He'd barely survived the short distance from the beach on the French shore to the little village of Muzillac. Four leagues. Impossible!
But Mr. Bush had already nudged his horse into a walk, and Horatio had no option but to follow.
"Mr. Hornblower, I do believe I see a smile on your face!"
Horatio's thoughts shattered. The horse's jerky motion under him, the hot sun on his back -- for a time he *had* been back in France, still playing at invasion, still clinging to the hope that Charette's plan might succeed. He'd been thinking of Archie...
"I was thinking of dungcarts, Mr. Bush." His companion peered at him with narrowed eyes -- or perhaps it was just the bright sun.
"Dungcarts. An interesting object for a Naval Commander to contemplate."
"France. Quiberon Bay. You've surely heard.... "
"Of course. You were there? Quite a debacle, I understand. " Mr. Bush had urged his horse into what Horatio supposed could be called a trot, and had thrown his words back over his shoulder as he pulled ahead.
With reluctance Horatio gave his own mount a kick with his heels; thankfully the animal seemed to understand his hesitant signals, and broke into a trot also. At least the beast had not bolted; though Horatio felt every bone-jarring motion the animal made and he began to think that he might reach Spanish Town in one piece after all.
"Quite a debacle indeed. Our duty was to hold the bridge at Muzillac -- some seamen from the Indy, Mr. Kennedy and myself, and a detachment of soldiers. My first encounter with a horse, Mr. Bush. Believe me, I would have gladly relinquished my mount and relieved Mr. Kennedy on his dungcart."
"Good God, Mr. Hornblower, you fought the French with dung? No wonder Quiberon Bay failed so miserably."
Horatio laughed. Then choked on his laughter, aghast. How could he laugh, how could he! He remembered so clearly now looking up bewildered as Archie had touched him on the shoulder, urged him back across the bridge, just seconds before it blew up.
"Mr. Kennedy saved my life in France."
"Indeed. " Mr. Bush stared at him with a quizzical look on his face. "It appears Mr. Kennedy had more at his disposal than the contents of his dung cart."
"He had his courage, Mr. Bush." Archie had stayed by his side as they hiked back through the French countryside, down to the beach. He had stayed by his side until they reached the deck of the Indy and then given him a look of encouragement as he was summoned to face his Captain. And he stood by his side atop the yardarm as Horatio had looked out over the sea, the glorious sea -- for once experiencing exuberance, and not fear from the height, viewing not the sea, but the future, and all its glorious possibilities.
Well, there was no yardarm to stand on today. And while he still had a future, one which at this moment he cared little about, Archie did not. Another event after the disaster at Muzillac would never occur again either. He had broken down in front of Captain Pellew. Broken down and cried. Another man might have taunted him for it, but Pellew, as usual, had cut to the heart of the matter. A life of adventure and adversity. A life of duty. He could not lead men if he could not lead himself. It was a lesson he would never forget.
He knew now he'd learned his lesson well, learn to slip the mask on, and hide the doubts and fears underneath.. During the remainder of the Renown's passage to Jamaica, during the trial, during the hours he spent in vigil after Archie's death, during Captain Pellew's brief visit -- the mask had not slipped.
"Mr. Hornblower! I say, are you asleep?"
Horatio jerked his head up. Once relieved of constant encouragement, his horse had come to a standstill, more intent on nibbling some grass along the roadway than continuing on to Spanish Town.
For a moment, Horatio almost turned back. What point was there in continuing? On the other hand, what point was there in turning back? There *was* no view from the masthead, no clear destination. He gave the horse a gentle kick, and the animal started up once again.
"There you have it. Lord Rodney in a toga." Bush was right. For some inexplicable reason, Rodney, the savior of Jamaica , the man famous for breaking the line in the Battle of the Saints, was wearing a toga.
Horatio had made a stern promise to himself that he would keep his head clear. He would allow Mr. Bush to show him Spanish Town, for that is what Bush seemed intent on doing. But he refused to allow himself to be led into such a state as he had found himself in last evening (and the headache he still suffered this morning.) Perhaps he might put his visit to good use, and purchase at least his shirts here.
Somehow, though, stern promise or not, he now found himself staring up at Rodney's toga, the taste of wine on his lips (and another stain on his shirt, if he were not mistaken.) and his thinking muddled once again. When had it started? Oh yes, when he'd made the mistake of massaging his still-aching temples, and Bush had declared a goodly potion of the hair of the dog might be just the remedy he needed.
So they'd stabled their horses, found a tavern, then wandered through another market -- this time Bush had purchased some sugar cane for him to suck on. Then they'd meandered through crowed little streets, stopping at another tavern, paused briefly at the entrance to St. James.
"Do you wish to go in, Mr. Hornblower, " Bush had said, oddly hesitant, considering how forward he'd over the last twenty-four hours.
"I think not, Mr. Bush, " he answered, and then thought wildly how he might soften the abrupt tone he had taken. But already Bush was striding on ahead of him. Horatio glanced up at the church's spire -- he would not find Archie's spirit here, nor comfort for his own, though he knew that Mr. Bush only wished to be helpful.
Another tavern -- God, could Bush not pass by a tavern without entering -- thankfully some bread and cheese this time, and they were off to gawk at King's House, and finally, Rodney in his toga.
"Perhaps we might see a statue of you, Mr. Hornblower, when you become an Admiral. I wonder how you would look in a toga. " Bush said, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and mopping the sweat from his face.
It was infernally hot. Having already left his jacket with his horse and unbuttoned his waistcoat, Horatio now loosened his shirt at the neck. Shirt! Damn! He'd forgotten. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his money. The wad was alarmingly small now, but surely he had enough for a shirt. Suddenly he felt a small shove, and the money was gone from his fingers.
What the devil.... He looked around, and saw a small figure running across the square.
"That bastard's got my money!" he shouted, and took off in pursuit. The thief wove expertly in and out among the slow-moving crowd in the square and seemed to be getting farther and farther away by the second. Horatio's legs pumped, but shipboard life gave little chance for sustained exertion of this nature, and that fact, coupled with the dissolute nature of his last twenty-four hours, soon had him gasping for breath, and his muscles screaming.
In the end, it was the boy's own clumsiness, and not Horatio's heroic efforts, that brought a resolution to the situation. Just as the distance between them seemed to be lengthening, the boy turned into an alleyway, where he most certainly would have been lost forever, and suddenly stumbled and fell.
He must have been knocked unconscious for just those few valuable seconds required for Horatio to come up to him, and from the sounds at his back, Mr. Bush also. The boy sat, holding his head in his hands, with Horatio's money littering the ground around him.
Hurriedly, Horatio gathered up the precious notes, and tucked them securely back in his waistcoat pocket. That was the end of it, then; he had no intentions of punishing the boy. Just as he turned to go, the boy raised his head. His eyes were sunken, and full of fear. He cringed as Horatio paused; and Horatio could easily see that he was just a child -- a child dressed in rags, his skinny arms and legs poking out of what little clothing he had. A slave, perhaps, or the child of a freed slave, desperately trying to survive.
"Here, " he said, pulling a note out of his pocket.
And when Mr. Bush cleared his throat preparatory to saying something, Horatio gave him no chance to admonish him for wasting his money. "Go to the devil!" he spat, and strode off.
Mr. Bush at that point felt it politic to leave Spanish Town and return to Kingston.
"We shall go to the north, " Bush said, as he handed Horatio the reins to his horse. "Wonderful view from there."
He'd barely remembered the sights on their journey out, earlier that day. His mind seemed blank much of the time now, except when Bush so damnably reminded him of Archie. He doubted whether Mr. Bush's view would hold any appeal for him, but he'd learned not to argue with the man -- though he grimly hoped the way was not any longer. He now had grave doubts about his ability to ride the animal waiting patiently for him to mount.
Perhaps the poor dumb beast was already the wiser of the two of them, for it held itself rock-steady as Horatio painfully hauled himself into the saddle. And when Horatio urged it forward, it seemed to take great pains to walk smoothly, keeping the jarring to a minimum.
Spanish Town soon dropped away behind them, and the dusty road Bush was following presently started to slope upwards. The horses' easy amble fitted well with the heavy heat and lush vegetation now lining their way. Spanish Town. Named of course after the Spaniards who had settled this island first. Glancing down towards Kingston and the coastline, he could see the blue of the sea, and almost imagine himself back in Spain again, with its bright colors and an unforgiving sun beating down.
"Keep up, Mr. Hornblower, " Bush's voice carried back to him. The horse's ears pricked up, as though it knew something would be required of it, but when Horatio gave it a kick, it broke into a trot, then a canter, than a full out gallop. Desperately he pulled on the reins, but the meek animal he had rode so successfully this far had suddenly turned into a wild beast.
"Mr. Hornblower!" Already they had passed Bush, and he now thought only of staying on, for surely such a placid animal would lose its wind after a few yards, just as he had lost his chasing after the remains of his prize money, and they would both come safely to a more dignified gait. And so it might have happened, had the horse not shied at something in the roadway, and reared up. Horatio felt himself slipping off, helpless, and then knew only blackness.
"Come on, man, wake up! You're not in Spain now!" Someone was shaking him. Spain? Was he still in Spain? Reluctantly he opened his eyes, to find Mr. Bush bending over him. Well, Mr. Bush was never in Spain, at least not in his company, so --- ah yes, he remembered now. He'd been thinking of Spain, but he was in Jamaica. On a horse. Or not, as it now appeared.
He struggled to sit upright, and with the aid of Bush's strong arms, managed to do so.
"Oh, God, " he gasped.
"Anything broken? " Bush asked.
Horatio felt as though everything was broken. Nevertheless, his arms and legs all seemed to move, and he could swivel his head without it falling off. His side ached, but he seemed able to take a deep breath without screaming, so he'd probably bruised himself badly, but not broken anything.
"I -- I don't think so. "
"Except your pride of course, Mr. Hornblower. You did look damnably comical, hanging on for dear life. " Mr. Bush was chuckling. "Damned comical, indeed."
"I'm pleased to have afforded you so much merriment, Mr. Bush!" Somehow he had to consider how he might lever himself into an upright position without further loss to his dignity.
"I was concerned when your mount threw you, though. You were dead to the world for a minute or two and then you started babbling on about Spain!"
"Indeed! You were imprisoned in Spain, I believe you informed me yesterday. A long story, you said. Since you would do well to take some time to compose yourself, I'd be pleased to hear some of this long story."
Horatio sighed. The man was as inexorable as the half-hourly clanging of a ship's bell. Best get on with it then; for the sooner Mr. Bush's curiosity was satisfied, the sooner they would be on their way, the sooner....well, he'd given up on the cabin stores by now, but he might just manage a cheap shirt.
What to say? Certainly not that Archie'd had a fit, and he'd been forced to knock him out. Certainly not that Archie had wanted to die there in that Spanish prison, and that he, Horatio, had bullied him into living.
Suddenly he heard, at the edges of his memory, a snippet of conversation as he'd tried his best to talk Archie round.
"You'd do the same for me, if I were in your shoes. "
"But you're not, and you never would be." Oh, Archie, how wrong you were. I *was* in your shoes, and you did more for me than I ever did for you.
Horatio started. "Oh, yes, Spain. I managed to sail a prize into the midst of the Spanish fleet. Unfortunately I was not so able as to sail her out again. So myself and my crew found ourselves as the guests of the esteemed Don Masseredo. Mr. Kennedy was also enjoying his hospitality. "
"Hospitality? A curious phrase, Mr. Hornblower. I assume that conditions were more bearable for you than on our prison hulks."
"The Don *was* hospitable, I suppose. There were few of us, and he allowed us certain freedoms. Of course Mr. Kennedy had to endure a month in a dirty wet cramped hole in the ground. As I was myself, for a few days. I nearly went mad -- how Ar-- Mr. Kennedy survived...."
"His courage, no doubt. You have no need to extol Mr. Kennedy's courage to me, Mr. Hornblower. And eventually, you were ransomed..."
"No, not ransomed. A ship was driven onto some rocks offshore -- I volunteered, along with my men, to try and effect a rescue. Some were saved. Eventually we were released in recognition of our attempt."
"Hm..." Bush groped in his pocket, and brought forth a small package. "I seem to have one piece of sugar cane left. If you would care to..."
Horatio shook his head, though carefully. At least Bush had not offered him a flask of rum. But even a thought of the sugary treat left him nauseous.
"I see that Mr. Kennedy was not the only officer guilty of courage, there in Spain. Now, have you the courage to attempt to stand?" Mr. Bush hopped up, and held out a hand. The courage to stand. He reached up, clasped the proffered hand , and somehow unfolded himself to a standing position. The movement made his head swim and his stomach -- oh God! Retching, he heaved out the contents of his stomach, managing by some great good fortune to soil neither himself or Mr. Bush in the process.
What a fool he must appear to the man! He must apologize -- and he opened his mouth to do so. But once again his companion acted too quickly.
"Here, " he said, pulling a handkerchief from one of those seemingly bottomless pockets of his, and shoving it into Horatio's hand before it could be refused. Wiping his mouth, Horatio balled the cloth up and shoved it into his own pocket.
"There now, I'm sure you're feeling much better..." And by God, he was, Horatio was startled to realize. "And look, there's your horse, feeling very ashamed of himself for throwing you."
The horse. He'd forgotten about the horse. And though the beast did indeed look very abashed, if such an emotion could be attributed to a dumb beast, Horatio had no inclination to trust him again.
"Ride or walk, Mr. Hornblower. Make up your mind."
He supposed he had no choice.
He couldn't get the idea of turnips out of his head. His body ached, from both the jarring ride ahorse, and the ignominious tumble he had taken. Mr. Bush's laughter still rang in his ears, and inexplicably he remembered Archie twitting him about his fear of heights. He knew he wasn't the kind of man who invited such familiarity. He knew his face often displayed a dour look; and in an odd moment, when that dour look slipped, he was quick to don it again. Poor Buckland hadn't a talent for that. All his insecurities and misgivings were written plainly for the crew and officers to see. Perhaps underneath he and Buckland were not so dissimilar after all.
But Archie had never let a dour look stay his saucy wit. Horatio would miss that. As Commander of Retribution, he knew that in public at least, Archie would have accorded him the reserve his rank demanded. But in private.....? Mr. Bush might be free with his tongue now, but tomorrow rank would return, and with it reservedness.
Tonight though he would twit Mr. Bush about his turnips once again.
"Are you sure you don't fancy a fine dish of turnips, Mr. Bush," he said. His companion in debauchery had led them this time to a boisterous tavern that obviously catered to the very lowest inhabitants of Kingston. Looking down at his now thoroughly disgusting attire, he could only agree with Mr. Bush's choice of eateries. And this time he fully intended to eat a decent meal, and leave the rum alone, and get rid of that damnable aching head once and for all.
"Back there again, are we? I assure you, Mr. Hornblower, I am quite safe from turnips here, if not from your continual mention of them. This is Jamaica, man! Breadfruit's the thing! Lives were lost to bring that ideal comestible to this very island."
"Ah yes, poor Captain Bligh. Mutiny most foul....." His voice trailed away. All the dark miasma which had surrounded and deadened him ever since that day that Archie had taken the blame onto his frail shoulders seemed to weigh down on him more heavily than ever. Now and then, in the last two days, it had lifted momentarily and in Mr. Bush's company, he'd even managed to mention Archie's name without bringing it back down. "Black bloody mutiny, " he whispered.
For once Mr. Bush had no ready reply. Plates were set in front of them, and drink. As quickly as he'd decided he needed to eat, he found he had no appetite.
Black bloody mutiny. Pellew's words rang fiercely in his ears. There had been no other way. Surely there had been no other way.
"Yes, Mr. Hornblower?" As usual, Bush let nothing interfere with his appetite.
Why am I doing this? The drink must be making me foolish. "Do you feel, Mr. Bush -- do you feel that there was any other way to ..."
"I'm not sure I understand your meaning, Mr. Hornblower. Are you referring to ..."
"Our taking over command of the Renown. If we had done nothing...."
"Come, Mr. Hornblower. Obviously, events would have played out differently, but with no less disaster, surely. Even if Captain Sawyer had not fallen ..... The man was quite out of his senses."
"Of course, I'm sure you are right." Horatio picked up his fork, and stirred the rice around on his plate. He had to eat. He had to clear his head. He raised a forkful of the stuff to his mouth, and gingerly tasted it. Palatable, he supposed, but who was he to judge, after years of weevily biscuit, and rotten salt beef.
"You are thinking perhaps that Mr. Kennedy might still be..."
"Dammnit, I don't know what to think!" He shoved the food into his mouth, and followed that forkful with another. Instantly his mouth was on fire. Damn the man! Damn his Jamaican food, and damn his unflagging candour. Picking up his tankard, he attempted to dampen the heat with ale, but with little success.
"Keep on, Mr. Hornblower, you'll get used to it. And as for the capture of Renown by the Spaniards, why, I suppose any one of us might have had the misfortune to be bound to our bed, like poor Buckland."
'Aboard his ship, there is nothing outside a captain's control'. Keene had been ill also, though in quite a different manner than Captain Sawyer. Both Justinian and Renown had suffered from their captains' illness, and one of the symptoms of this was a general lack of discipline. If Sawyer remained the leader all men said he had been, or if Buckland commanded, instead of dithered, would the Renown have been saved from the insurrection of her Spanish guests? Or could even the great Captain Pellew himself been thwarted by a Marine kept too long from the company of women?
Mr. Bush was right. Perhaps he was getting used to it. Or perhaps his mouth was so inflamed, that he was past feeling anything more. Nevertheless, he was managing to eat. Looking up, he found Mr. Bush observing him, and not showing any discomfort at being found out in his scrutiny.
"The Spanish officer shot Mr. Kennedy. Ortega. I raised my pistol and brought him down, but not in time." Now Bush did look away, and Horatio realized that someone else beside himself might have pondered on what ifs.
"You were severely wounded yourself, Mr. Bush. You could do no more."
"I suppose you're right. I suppose we all did what we thought best."
"For the good of the service."
"For the good of the service. Exactly, Mr. Hornblower. It was for the good of the service. Now come, man, how much money do you have left?
"I have no idea. " He fished in his pocket and plucked out a pitiful handful of notes and coins. Bush could so easily skip from one subject to the other. From the perilous shoals of mutiny and the good of the service, to the state of their combined finances. His head spun now, and he was keeping only the most tenuous grip on his senses; how Bush managed he had no idea.
Bush was idly flicking through the small pile of money on the table. "Enough, I think, to see us through the evening. Innkeeper, a bottle of your best rum, here!"
"I must ..." Horatio groped through his memory. Something he needed to buy. Ah yes. "Cabin stores. I need to lay in some cabin stores." No, that wasn't right. He'd given up on the cabin stores. A shirt, yes, a shirt....
"Come, Mr. Hornblower, show the men you are willing to share their hardships. We still have a few hours of leave left. No sense in wasting it in sobriety!"
"I fear, Mr. Bush, there is no danger of that!" Nevertheless, Bush pushed a portion of the money across to the man bringing the bottle, and splashed a goodly measure into Horatio's glass. How many times had Bush replenished his glass in the last two days?
"Better, I suppose, if Mr. Kennedy had been cut in two by a French ball."
Horatio choked on the rum, and had to endure Mr. Bush thumping him soundly on the back. Finally his coughing stopped, he wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. The shirt was ruined anyway.
"Think on it, man, " Bush continued. "The Indefatigable, a French frigate, engaging the enemy more closely -- I understand Pellew was known for that -- we've all lost friends that way, in the heat of battle. It would have been clean."
Clean. Damn the man, but Bush was right. Archie had deserved better than to die because a captain had slowly gone mad, or a first lieutenant been caught napping. Even his deadened mind could get round this idea. Clean. Having the sea, and sky, and ship as the last images in his sight, and not those cold iron bars.
"Come, Mr. Hornblower..." He felt Bush's hand resting on his shoulder.
"He -- he would have wanted to be buried at sea, " Horatio whispered.
"I know, " Bush answered, and for a second Bush's fingers tightened, and then fell away. "I need your help with this rum. " he continued.
Horatio supposed he must have helped, for the rest of the evening dissolved into whisps of memories, and fleeting ghosts of images.
But now he did remember the girl. A sharp cry had worked its way through his drunken senses, and he'd looked up to see her sprawled on the floor several tables away, a well-dressed older man standing over her, clutching at her garments with one hand, and drawing back the other in a manner he had no difficulty in construing.
"She's just a whore, Mr. Hornblower, " Bush had said, as Horatio leaped to his feet, but nothing would stop him now as he reached the man in several long strides, snapped his fist out without thinking, and watched with a ridiculous satisfaction as the stranger crumpled backwards onto a table laden with food and drink.
Perhaps he saw Mr. Barnard's sneering face as he'd struck, or perhaps he'd seen all the sneering faces that might sometime in the future call Mr. Archie Kennedy a dishonourable man. Or perhaps he just could not countenance such treatment of a woman, even if she was -- as Mr. Bush had so forthrightly stated, just a whore. Her dark skin, and her assailant's willingness to leave her where she lay, indicated that she was whore, or mistress, but of a certainty no wife.
The man had been quickly hustled outside by his companions; the woman, when helped to her feet, had said little, but quickly transferred her attentions to him. She was younger than he had first thought, and close-up he could see that her dress was worn and faded. At first he had attempted to put her off, embarrassed by Mr. Bush's huge grin as she clung round his neck, and plucked at his waistcoat buttons. Then he'd tossed off another rum, and she felt good, and he didn't worry about Mr. Bush anymore.
The rest of the night was lost in the rum-soaked recesses of his mind. How he'd gotten back to the Strap & Block, he'd no idea. About the rest -- well, he'd no idea about that either. Elusive little whispers seemed to mock him, but he could not fashion them into any semblance of a memory. As to the nature of their encounter here in his room -- the girl had not been paid yet -- she would say what she thought a man would wish to hear.
Paid! Hell, did he have any money left? His waistcoat lay crumpled on the floor, just out of reach. Ridiculous at this point to feel prudish, but God help him, he did.
"Get dressed then, " he said, and turned his head as she let the sheet drop, and scurried out of the bed. Quickly he did the same -- pulling on his trousers, and dropping his disgusting shirt over his head. Far from starting his command with a brand new shirt, he'd probably have to burn this one. The waistcoat was dirty, also. What the devil had he been thinking? His head almost exploded as he bent over to retrieve it, and for a horrible moment his stomach heaved, and he fully expected to disgrace himself entirely.
Grimly, he kept his balance, and fished in the pocket. His fingers met a few coins and a single bill. Without even glancing at the value of the note, he handed it over to the young girl. She smiled hugely, her white teeth gleaming , and shoved the money down the front of her dress.
"I come back, mista..."
"No, no! Just -- just go!"
Just a moment after the girl had swayed through his doorway, Mr. Bush appeared. His jacket slung carelessly over his shoulder, his shirt untucked, his hair disheveled, a two-day growth of beard on his face -- he looked thoroughly disreputable, and Horatio was shocked to realize that his own appearance most probably mirrored Mr. Bush's, in most respects.
"Hm..." Bush said, glancing back out the doorway. "She appears quite happy. I gather that the evening was concluded satisfactorily?"
"Damned if I know!" Horatio snapped. "She's laughing because she's got the rest of my prize money in her ah, um, well... no doubt I've paid her a month's wages! " Suddenly a horrendous thought smote his already throbbing head. "I've probably caught the pox as well. A Commander, even an acting Commander...." the words trailed away. For one wild dreamlike moment, he almost could see Archie standing there in the doorway, a big grin on his face. He shook his head, welcoming the crashing waves of pain that accompanied the movement. And when he looked again, it was only Bush, a little darker, a little older, with his own grin on his own face.
Without thinking, Horatio looked down at Archie's seachest.
" Wherever Mr. Kennedy is at this moment, " Bush said, "I'm sure he's laughing at you too."
And you believe that Mr. Kennedy *is* somewhere at this moment? He kept the bitter question back, for whatever his intellect believed, was no balm for his heart. But Bush was right about one thing. If Archie could see him right now, he *would* be laughing.
"I expect he is, " he said. "You should have stopped me, Mr. Bush."
"I do assure you, Mr. Hornblower, there was no stopping you. And though you might have saved her from a beating, you had also denied her a night's wages."
He supposed that was one way of looking at it. He'd disposed of his precious prize money foolishly -- a drunken game of whist, a young thief, a black whore. And he suspected Mr. Bush had not fared much better, for he seemed always to be first to offer payment for the prodigious amount of drink they had consumed, and what little food he remembered eating. And the horses. Those damnable horses.
Bush took a step or two into the room and gestured towards the seachest Horatio had tripped over what seemed a lifetime ago. "Have you kept something for yourself? "
"I haven't opened it. Someone had it packed and sent to Retribution for me."
Bush cleared his throat. "I believe that was me. I do hope you don't mind."
Unaccountably Horatio found that he too had to clear his throat before speaking. "No, of course not. I don't know whether...." He stopped and took a deep breath. "But perhaps you're right. I should keep something, shouldn't I?"
"I think Mr. Kennedy would want that, Mr. Hornblower. " Bush made an effort to tuck his shirt in properly, and then shrugged himself into his creased jacket. "I'm due to report back on Renown at noon. Just time for a shave and a change of clothes. Though I think we could both use one of those seawater showers of yours." Awkwardly he stuck his hand forward. "I would be pleased to serve with you again, Mr. Hornblower."
"And I with you, Mr. Bush. " He clasped Bush's hand firmly. "And might I hope that the next time we meet, and have cause to raise a glass or two, you could find your way clear to call me Horatio."
For the first time in the whole two day span of their mutual debauch, Horatio caught a look compounded of shyness and pleasure on Bush's solid countenance, and felt absurdly pleased for it.
"I -- um, yes, I would -- like that very much. But only if you would call me William." Bush's hand slipped from his, and his former superior, and fellow mutineer, and friend, turned, walked through the doorway and was gone.
Horatio stood still for a few minutes, and then looked down once more at the fine wood of the chest sitting mutely in front of him. Slowly he dropped to his knees in front of it, and ran his fingers over the smoothness of it, lingering on the raised metal lettering that adorned the wood. Then, with a small sigh, he raised the lid.
Mr. Bush had packed the contents neatly. Shirts, waistcoats, jackets -- all of a finer material than he himself had ever enjoyed. A very thin packet of letters. A sword. His shaving things. And stacked near the bottom, his books. He remembered Archie chafing him for doggedly reading and rereading Gibbon. "The play's the thing, Horatio," he'd grin, as he'd thumb through his dog-eared Shakespeare and insist on declaiming some dramatic passage or other, and challenging him to find such words in Gibbon. And there it was. A large volume, the complete works. Carefully he picked it up and opened the stained cover, knowing that inside, in ink already browning, he would find the name "Archibald Kennedy" and a date. The pages seemed to warm the tips of his fingers, as though some life force still lingered there, caught up in the Bard's immortal words.
And as he knelt there, book in hand, his mind roved back over the peculiarities of the last forty-eight hours. Near-fought duels, and botched games of whist. Turnips, togas and tots of rum. A bone-rattling run through the countryside, and the indescribable beauty of mountains and sea. And God help him, that nameless dark-skinned girl. And Mr. Bush. Was the man artless -- or cunning --to think that two days of drink and debauchery could hope to assuage the guilt and grief that had numbed him so thoroughly? Now, though, whether artlessness or cunning, the fact he could sit here , Archie's seachest open in front of him, and Archie's beloved Shakespeare in his hands , was due to Mr. Bush. The rum might have helped, but it was Mr. Bush who somehow managed to trick him into remembering, and then to talk about those memories. Bush who chose to ignore his short temper , and dark moods. Bush, who could let Archie's name fall so naturally off his tongue, and never ever sound disrespectful in the saying of it. Bush, who acquainted him all over again with the friend whose bodily presence he'd lost forever.
"You hate me -- I survived -- and he didn't." The memory of Bush's words now made him feel small and cheap. He'd been right, of course, though Horatio hadn't thought of it in just that way. Sitting there all those hours on the end of Archie's cot, and looking at the depression where his body had lain, and knowing that his next resting place would be the ground, and not even the sea for the fine naval officer he'd been. Then to look across at Bush's bed, only Bush's bed no more. He'd been moved, as soon as Archie's testimony had lifted the guilty verdict hanging over them all . Only Archie had been left lying there, to stare at the iron bars surrounding him. Oh, yes, he'd hated Bush for that.
Hated him then, but he thanked him now, despite the intense bodily discomfort he was trying his best to ignore. No weight had been magically lifted from his shoulders. He knew that he would still wake up in the morning forgetful for the moment, and then bear the dying of Archie all over again. He knew he'd set aside thoughts to pass on to his friend, and as quickly realize that there was no point to it.He knew he would endlessly analyze the events on board Renown and his own part in them, knowing there was no point to that either. He did *not* know how long he would suffer this dreadful sorrow. But Mr. Bush had given him the strength to speak Archie's name out loud and hear it spoken without flinching.
With a start he realized that , while Archie's name, and mention of the mutiny, the trial, and so much else had rolled easily off Bush's tongue, the man had never once inquired as to the nature his testimony might have taken, had Archie not forestalled him. No one would hear that testimony now.
Gently he replaced the lid on the seachest. Then, rising to his feet, he strode over to his own battered chest, and placed Archie's Shakespeare within.
"Anchor's aweigh, sir, " the shout came loud and clear, and as Matthews put the helm over, the sails bellied out, and the Retribution surged forward, her bow headed out past Gallows Point towards the open sea.
"Keep her steady, Matthews, " Horatio said, knowing the words were formality only. He'd been lucky to retain Matthews and a few of the steadier hands from Renown; they formed a strong backbone to his crew. Already the men were starting to work together, and with some luck Retribution would reach England safely. Of course, though he now bore the loneliness of command, he would not enjoy any special delicacies in the matter of his cabin store. Except for the mangos.He had been deeply touched to find a small crate of the fruit waiting for him in his quarters, a gift from Mr. Bush. Obviously the man had retained a few more shillings than he had!
For a time Captain Hornblower and Bo'sun Matthews stood in silence, as the land slid by on either side of them. Finally Matthews broke the silence.
"If you don't mind me askin' , sir, 'ow'd yer find Kingston?"
It might only have been a pleasant remark, between two men, separated by several levels of rank, but close nevertheless. But there was something in Matthew's voice, not disrespect, never that, but a hint of -- perhaps a knowledge of events he would not be expected to have.
"You know something of that, do you, Matthews?" Retribution was swiftly gathering way now, and starting to roll slightly as she approached the tip of the Port Royal peninsula. Horatio braced his feet firmly apart, and clasped his hands behind his back. A sideways glance at the grizzled seaman at the wheel confirmed his suspicions. Horatio thought back to the blowing up of the fort at Samana Point. Buckland had been leaving them behind. He could forget that now, but he'd never forget the look Matthews had given him, as he'd climbed, wet and bedraggled , up on deck. For a moment, he'd thought the man was going to hug him; only later did he realize how much the simple emotion of a British seaman had touched him; more than any honors or commendations heaped upon him from his superiors. Harder to fool the man below you, than the man above. Well, he was seeing something of that look now, but tinged with -- God, the man was looking very smug indeed.
"Out with it, man! Just what do you know about my -- er -- time in Kingston? "
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"We all knew, sir, 'ow 'ard yer were takin' the death of ...."
"Mr. Kennedy. It's quite all right, Matthews, you can say his name."
"Mr. Kennedy. And we thought as 'ow yer need to let go a bit. So when I 'appened to see Mr. Bush in ...."
"Good God, Matthews, are you telling me you and Bush cooked this whole scheme up between the two of you!"
Matthews made a slight adjustment to the wheel. "Not as such, sir. It's just that we got to talkin' and -- sorry, sir."
The fact that his situation was cause for conversation between an officer and a bo'sun might have irked him to no end -- before that strange interlude he and Bush had shared. Now he only stood even more stiffly and growled, "Carry on, Matthews.".
"Aye, aye, sir."
The two men stood side by side, as Retribution pushed her nose out past the last bit of land and met the full roll of the ocean's waves. A new beginning. "Jump, you'll be all right." Damn, he couldn't cry now, not after everything. Not here, not in front of the men. He clenched his hands together and concentrated on that single epaulette -- and the distance his little ship still had to sail, and whether she was trimmed correctly, and he'd have to watch that new midshipman, too quick to order punishment...... "See, better already." Somehow the white caps of the waves and the line of the far horizon had suddenly become blurred anyway. And as Jamaica fell behind them, Horatio said, not caring that Matthews might hear: "Farewell, my dear friend."
"To me, fair friend, you never can be old." -- William Shakespeare