Gingerly Emma picked her way up to the attic and turned on the dim light. Now that both their parents were dead, she had promised her brother Derek that she would clear the old place, Smallbridge House. Alright for him, safely ensconced in Australia with a wife about to produce offspring. Left the whole business to her. She sighed. Where to start? This house had been in the family for many generations, and to her knowledge no-one had cleared it before. The inheritance tax alone would be punitive. It was as if the burden of generations had fallen onto her slim shoulders.
She knew of course something of the history of the family, right back to the Napoleonic Wars. She had bothered to research about those on the Internet. They weren't on school syllabuses any more of course. Heroes like Nelson and Wellington far too politically incorrect! She had been fascinated though, especially as the family had an illustrious hero of its own who had become an admiral no less Horatio Hornblower. She had always laughed at the implausible sounding name. Thank God it hadn't been her own surname she'd have never lived it down at her school. Her mother, Rachel, had been a Hornblower though. A tall, beautiful woman with curly dark hair and the most expressive brown eyes she had ever seen in a man or a woman. Emma wasn't a bit like her of course. Small and blond rather insignificant looking in contrast. Why had she not inherited those powerful Hornblower genes?
"I expect he'd have had a whole army of servants to go along with all that gold braid," she thought petulantly. "As well as a whole bloody Navy to order about." What would he have thought of the new "Cool Britannia" where everybody had rights but nobody had duties? She smiled. Would probably have put the whole bloody lot in irons and ordered them flogged. Things must have been so much simpler, so much more black and white in those days. No soul-searching about human rights then.
She tried to set about the task methodically. Things to bin in black sacks, things to discuss with Derek, things that could be immediately sold off. Within two hours she had filled nine sacks and one whole corner of the loft looked like an auction room. One piece in particular intrigued her. She had found it behind an old hotwater boiler. In the dim light she'd nearly missed it. It looked like an ancient chest of some sort. Along its side there seemed to be some sort of stud marks. Perhaps where lettering had been. Indeed she thought she could make some letters out, but she wasn't sure, an "H" perhaps and a "W"? She ran a cloth over it to remove some of the dust and grime.
She hesitated. There was so much to do. Well damn it, she'd worked solidly for two hours, now she was going to award herself the luxury of a little curiosity. But how to open the chest? Would it be locked or hinged in some way? Cautiously she tugged at the lid. Miraculously, it flew open and she jumped back in surprise. She was besieged by a musty kind of smell, laced with a different sort of tang salt perhaps? The contents looked conspicuously uninteresting piles of paperbacks that no-one had bothered to take to the Charity shops. She suspected that if she moved too much in there, the whole ruddy thing would collapse as the timbers were rotting away. In fact one of the timbers had collapsed inwards and there behind it was an ancient tome of some description. What, a secret compartment? "How trite!" mocked the cynical woman of the twenty-first century. "How fascinating" countered the girl-child she had nevertheless remained. The book's brown covers were now stiff with mould. She picked it out of the chest with two hands, terrified that it would simply disintegrate. She could make out one word "Norie's". The print inside was barely legible, but she could see that it was some kind of book on mathematics or sailing perhaps. She was about to replace her find, when she noticed that something had been inserted at the back of it. Suddenly she suspected what it might be, and she held her breath. A letter no two. She stood up from her crouched position, her mind made up. She would take time off and examine the whole thing properly downstairs
The letters were in surprisingly good condition. The paper reminded Emma of her school days when the history teacher would give them a letter-writing exercise to do.
"Pretend you are at the Front writing to your sweetheart from a trench the night before the Battle of the Sommes. Stain the paper first with cold tea and dry it on a radiator."
These exercise had always seemed something of an intrusion to her. How could such agony be translated into a trite homework exercise by kids who had barely suffered inconvenience, never mind agony?
The writing was in that measured kind of copperplate that educated people used to be taught. It was difficult to read at first, but she picked it up surprisingly quickly. There were the odd smudges and stains, whether due to hesitancy at the time or the ravages of centuries she did not know. There was no problem dating the letters. The date and place was clearly given on the top of both Kingston, Jamaica, January 1802, and Smallbridge House, January 1856. Emma started to read the first letter.
Kingston, Jamaica, January 1802.
My dear friend Horatio,
I have no wish to be dramatic, but when you read this letter I will indeed be dead. I'm dying now I know, for every day the hurt of my wound grows less and my mind wanders more. Dr. Clive has noticed this of course. Yesterday he even asked me if I remembered his name silly old fool.
Oh Horatio when I think of the times that we have shared and the troubles we have fought together, always together. Right since your dark curly head popped up over the entry port on the Justinian. Lord, how forlorn those dark eyes looked, how miserable. You were so solemn and so horribly sea-sick. Do you remember how I greeted you: "Welcome to Purgatory!" God, I babbled on. I was trying to distract you, you see. You didn't laugh at any of my jokes though never did as far as I recall, damn you.
Horatio you saved me in all the ways that a person can be saved. Through your bravery you saved my body and my soul from that demon Simpson. Through your perseverance you saved me from despair in the Spanish prison. Through your kindness you saved my self-respect by curing me of my convulsions and adopting me as your brother, when my own family had abandoned me. Through your patience you saved me from losing my head and my career in France. How did you do these things? More to the point, why did you do them? What did you see in Archie Kennedy that Archie Kennedy did not see? Surely I was always a mathematical uncertainty.
Horatio you have even given meaning to my death. If I had merely died from a stray Spanish bullet, where would the glory have been? But if I die protecting you and your honour, then I can think of no greater cause.
I would at this point quote some Shakespeare, because I know how it irritates you. Instead I will offer an original thought. Who is going to defend Horatio Hornblower against Horatio Hornblower when I am gone? I suppose I am young to die, but this is the only true regret that I have, for it was my one really important mission on this earth. William Bush and I have discussed the issue at some length. He says he is willing to take on the onerous task. Let him befriend you. He is a good man.
Do not grieve for me Horatio. I would have made a tiresome old man. I would have become fat. I would have complained endlessly about my gout and my rheumatism. I would not have been good company to myself or anyone else. It's true I am a little frightened to die Horatio, but there is no panic, for you cured me of that.
I offer you your life and your career, dear friend. Take these things. Be an admiral one day. Look after the old soggy island nor' nor-east of Ushant. You are the man for the job Horatio. Allow good fortune to smile on you. Avoid nor-easterly winds blowing up the channel, never allow yourself to be dismasted with Dover cliffs under your lee and avoid vomiting at Spithead (or anywhere else for I won't be there with a bucket).
Take it Horatio. Just take what I offer and say goodbye.
Your truest friend,
P.S. I forgot to return that damned Norie's Seamanship you lent me. At least it got me through my Lieutenant's exam. Please get it out of my sea chest. I don't think it's in very good condition sorry.
Emma sat quite still. She read the letter three times. There were a lot of references in it she did not understand. But somehow the loyalty, the deep affection and the good humour of this young man even in the face of his death flew across to her over a chasm of 200 years. A young man probably about the same age as herself. As with her history homework tasks, she felt like an intruder. But she could not help herself from eagerly picking up the second letter.
Smallbridge House, January 1856.
My dear friend Archie,
At last after more than 50 years I am ready to answer your letter. I have read it so many times, that each word was long ago etched into my memory.
I am now what you have never been Archie, an old man. Those
curls have all but disappeared and the ones that remain are white.
The brown eyes have grown dim.
Like so many old people, I seem to live more in my memories now than in day-to-day life.
I tried to live the life you planned for me Archie. I have had two wives, the second of whom is a soul-mate to me. I have a cherished son who has long entered middle age. And I have four grandchildren. I am inordinately proud of them all. I have captained many ships and lived through many adventures and heartaches. We saw off the French tyrant Archie, but tyrants are like Hydras with many heads. Please God our successors will be ready for the next one. I have seen many new and wonderful things. Soon Archie there will be steam run ships that do not need sails at all. And yes, I eventually became an admiral and a viscount a very solemn personage I can assure you.
But Archie, none of these things could make me miss you less. It was as if our friendship was forged in the fire of our shared misfortunes and not even death could make it grow dim. Yes the wrenching initial grief abated a little, so that I could at least breathe and live, for that was what you wanted for me. But the dull ache was never far away. I thank you for your recommendation of William Bush for he proved an unparalleled First Lieutenant to me and a good and true friend, but never your replacement Archie.
Archie you listed in your letter all the ways I had saved you. Did you not know that it was the other way round? It was only your support and good humour that kept me from suicide on the Justinian when Simpson was making my life a veritable hell. Please excuse my dim-wittedness Archie. It took me considerably too long to realize the far deeper hell he was putting you through. But of course you took pains to hide that from me. Through all my failures, and there were many, I knew I could always trust you to see the good side, to see my good side. I know my melancholy nature must have made this hard for you sometimes.
God Archie could you never see how stupid and cack-handed I could be? How I did not foresee that Clayton would take my place and challenge Simpson. How I lost my first command through ignorance and cried. How I did not speak out when Simpson was put in our boat for the Papillon cutting-out. How, when the inevitable happened and you suffered a fit, I knocked you out viciously with a belaying pin so that I would not be blamed. How I believed Simpson when he said you were dead and didn't look for you. How I miscalculated and sailed into that bloody nest of dons, although at least that mistake brought me to you. How I left you alone with that cretin Hunter in Ferrol so that I could walk in the sun with a beautiful woman. How I couldn't understand your motives for wanting to die when you had almost starved yourself to death. How I lost my head in France and put your life horribly in danger. Were you blind Archie that you could not see all these failures? Why could you only see the good in me and never the bad?
Archie, we took you out of that criminal's grave, Styles, Matthews and I. We took you to my new ship and we buried you properly at sea. We dressed you in your best uniform. We gently closed your blue eyes and combed your blond hair. Matthews stitched your shroud, I prayed over your body and Styles let off a salute 'cleaning a gun'. We rendered full honours to you Archie. It is the one act in my life that I am unreservedly proud of, even though I could have been court-martialled for it. I have myself asked for a simple burial Archie, but it will not be as dignified as yours.
You were made a scapegoat Archie to protect the reputation of that mad tyrant Sawyer yes, and to protect my reputation. At the blackest moments you encouraged us all on that hellish ship. You tried so hard to save young Wellard from the mad man's cane and I know for a fact that your kindness saved him from suicide. You tried to keep me awake when Sawyer put me on continuous watch. On that fateful night you even tried to divert Sawyer's attention away from the rest of us. But I could not stand by Archie and see him threaten you with pistols waving in his lunatic hands. I had to push him into the hold Archie, and I'd do it again. But because you suffered a fatal wound at the hands of the Spanish colonel, you took the blame. You carried that blame to a shallow, criminal's grave and I let you do it.
Soon I too will die Archie. Unlike you, I never believed in a life after death, but now I want to believe in it more than anything on this earth. For I would have the chance once more of hearing your gentle voice encouraging me, praising me, absolving me, making me fit to be your friend in death as I was in life. I will follow your words, loyal friend, wherever they may lead me: "If Mr. Kennedy has given his word, then that holds good for me."
God Archie, how I've missed your fun and your laughter. However solemn or melancholy I would become you would find a way to lighten my spirits! In some time and in some space we will again walk the decks of our beloved Indy, hear the wind in the rigging and hear Captain Pellew bawling out orders. But we won't hear tales of how Horatio Hornblower saved his shipmate. Oh no Archie. It will be the other way round. For only a part of me has survived without you. I have become impatient and want the other part back again.
Wait for me dearest friend. It will not be long.
P.S. I took back Norie's Seamanship and I can tell you now Kennedy , I will never lend you another book.
Emma suddenly realized that there were tears running down her cheeks. So everything was black and white 200 years ago was it? No soul-searching then eh? What a fool she was. Human-beings don't change, even if their circumstances do. The two letters had painted a deep friendship between two young men who had more or less grown up together in a pitiless world and in a bloody war. How they had come to rely on each other for different strengths and, perhaps more importantly, for different weaknesses.
How one, her own ancestor who she had thought of as a stuffy establishment figure of harsh authoritarianism, had been made to suffer the hardest part. For he had been left alone to shoulder the burden of an unspoken guilt. Spin-doctoring had gone on then too. For the reputation of this tyrant Sawyer and of a brilliant young officer had been deemed more important than the honour of a young lieutenant who had been willing to take the blame. But now with a start she realized that Horatio Hornblower was no longer alone, for she shared his secret. She would honour that secret and take it to her own grave.
Horatio did not have to wait long to meet his friend. For she knew that he had died a year later at the age of 80. She closed her eyes and saw the two young officers, the dark-haired and the blond-haired, walking the deck of their beloved ship, quietly talking. Solemn brown eyes full of earnestness and flair, twinkling blue ones filled with wit and understanding. And she saw a Captain looking down on them with a fatherly affection and pride. She decided to leave them there before a cruel tyrant had shaken their respective fates. She folded up the letters and placed them back in the book so martyred by Archie's careless hands.
And into her heart she folded some new words which her mother had tried to instill there, but which she, the new look-out-for-number-one-and sod-everyone-else generation had despised and rejected: Integrity, Honour, Generosity, Duty. And yes, Love. Love for her "soggy island" which had indeed fought off other tyrants and would perhaps be called upon to do so again. The country that seemed now to be bent on self-destruction, wantonly unpicking the various strands of its Union flag, as a child would pick at an unfashionable jumper. Her soggy little island that opens its shores to countless peoples across the world fleeing their own tyrants.
And she thanked those two time-travelling youngsters who had spoken these words to her across 200 years and had enriched her very soul. For her new generation she would try to follow where they had led:
"If Mr. Hornblower and Mr. Kennedy have given their word, that holds good for me too."