A Life Of Duty: Pellew & Family
by Alison James
"Mama," called Mavis, "There's a packet of letters!"
Sophie stepped from the carriage. Her nerves were a little jangled from
long drive back from Chawton. A visit to Miss Austen was always enjoyable,
filled with passionate conversation, walks in the gentle slopes of the chalk
Downs and through ancient churchyards, but she was glad to be home. The
leafy Meon Valley lanes were beautiful but bumpy; her head ached. Since
miscarriage in Gibraltar, she had prayed each month --- but Edward had been
away in the Channel for six weeks already, and it was not to be this time,
either, despite her hopes when for a while her courses did not appear: only
disappointment, the usual cramps again, and a migraine starting. Still,
joy on Mavis's face was a welcome beyond price, and she rubbed her eyes
then held out her arms, into which Mavis flew with all the force of her
"I got three from Mr. Hornblower! He drew me a hoist saying Happy Birthday,
and another one with a picture of a seagull stealing a piece of biscuit
of his hand when he ran up on the quarterdeck in the middle of breakfast!
is so funny Mama, you should see the way he drew his face when the gull
snatching it away!"
"Oh that's lovely, darling. What a kind thing, to write back to you.
more conversations with him in the oak tree, I hope?"
"Mama, don't laugh at me! I really did think it was him that day! I
he'd come home and come out into the garden to find me and climbed up the
tree after me. And my foot slipped and I thought I was going to crash all
the way to the ground, but I fell onto that branch instead and just grazed
myself and he kissed it all better and told me I had better be a bit more
careful next time, specially if I intended to go up in the rigging again!"
Mavis was about to tell her mother that actually, yes: Horatio had been
the day before, at bed-time, when she missed her mother's goodnight kiss,
told her this time that she must put aside all thoughts of marrying him,
he was far too old for her, but that he would love her and be her best friend
always; but she saw the drawn look on her mother's face, and thought better
of it. She did not understand these appearances herself, only that they
as warm and unfrightening as buttered toast and cocoa on a cold day. And
when next he came ashore, she would soon put him right about the difference
in their ages.
"You must have hit your head as well as your knee, darling, I told
Papa write to you?"
"Of course, you know he wouldn't forget my birthday, no matter how
is! He told me to grow up like you and the world should be doubly blessed.
And he told me to mind you and not answer back - but he said he had a bad
of being convinced he had the right of it when he was a little boy, and
answering-back to the grown-ups himself, so he understood how tempting it
- but that I must learn that discretion is sometimes the better part of
valour, and that to be gracious may be better than to be right. Although
am missing numbers forty-one and forty-two."
Mavis was holding Sophie's hand as they went inside the cool green hallway.
The maid curtseyed and took Sophie's cloak: "Madam, you look all-in.
fetch you a pot of tea right away!"
"Oh, thank you so much, Maryanne. That would be lovely."
"There are six letters for you, mama, five came in the packet and one
itself. All from papa."
Sophie sat down in the parlour and brushed the hair back from her face.
matter how hard she tried to keep it in check, it had an unruly way of
falling down and escaping from its confines. Edward loved it best, so; he
had told her, many times, sometimes with words, sometimes with a look,
sometimes with the force of his response when she unpinned it and it tumbled
across his chest. This thought took her breath away and she had to force
thoughts away from it before she missed him more than she could bear.
Mavis ran in with the letters. They were all numbered but one. That one
thin and the seal hasty, unlike Edward's usual care. His hand on the outside
of the folded sheet seemed spiky and when she saw the word "urgent",
heart turned over. Was he coming home? Oh, please, let it be that!
She set aside the numbered letters and broke open the single sheet.
Oh Christ Sophie --- !"
Her hand flew to her mouth. His writing here was almost illegible. A great
blot covered the next word, and then more anguished still, her name once
more, and then
"Oh my darling I am so destroyed I have started this letter any number
times and then when I come to write it I cannot -- but I must -- let me
it then -- Sophie Horatio is lost. Dead. Cut down by a French bullet on
beach and I that ordered him to lead the raid on a tower that could have
stood till Doomsday and not been worth a hair of his head O Sophie O Sophie
They left his body on the beach for pity's sake and I sent them back for
another man was lost in so doing ------
He was everything an officer should be and Sophie to you alone I can express
this, how dearly I loved him ----- !!!!!!!! He was a son to me oh dear God
gave the order Sophie -- ! It is war and I had no choice but I would rather
have lost half my command and certainly my ship than him ---- now I must
take hold of my self and go out there on deck and send his body into the
and say the words of the funeral service with a firm clear voice, how am
do that??? O God help me Sophie I sent him there -------
I was more proud of him than I can ever say, I hope to God he knew it -----
this is a loss to his country as well as to me and to his men, he was set
be a shining light in this Navy, a natural leader of men and braver than
lion, I have written as much and more to his father already as if that could
be any comfort at all, which it cannot ------ all the praises in the world
are as salt in the wound of his loss ------
Sophie pray for me, I have not the strength to go on and yet I must -----
Tell Mavis gently my love, oh Christ I let her love him too, encouraged
even, how could anyone help it that knew him?
Sophie we shall be home soon but I had to tell you now, I could not bear
say the words to you and see your face --- an act of cowardice? No, I want
you to know so that when you greet me I do not have to tell you then, for
need you to comfort me and not I you -- pray for us Sophie, his death is
my soul and shall be as long as I shall live. ----- E.
She had let out a cry, and Mavis came running: "Mama, what? What is
Sophie could not speak. Mavis looked into her face. "It's not Papa,
can't be, that's his writing - is he hurt, mama?"
Sophie shook her head.
"Mama, is - is Mr Hornblower all right?"
Sophie shook her head again, and tried to find some words to break the news
to her darling daughter.
Two weeks came and went: weeks of red eyes and sighs, of wrung hands and
sleepless nights. No more letters came; they looked each day for the Indy
coming into harbour, for word, for the sound of a carriage in the street.
Mavis spent most of her time alone, up in the crook of the great oak tree;
Sophie, in her wisdom, did not chase her down, nor even insist that she
The days passed like beetles crawling.
Mavis did not tell her mother that Horatio had come to her once again, that
morning. "Now Mavis," he had said, "Your papa is coming home
today. And he
is hurt beyond measure. Be patient with him sweetheart, and do not plague
him, and above all do not ask him a lot of questions."
"But I want to know!"
"Of course you do - and he will tell you, if you will but wait until
bear to do so, darling. For I tell you, Mavis, if you press him, you will
only hurt him more. And you don't want to do that, do you?"
Mavis hung her head. "No. But I still think it was stupid."
"No, sweetheart, it was war and it was his duty. And mine too. And
look at him like that he will only find it harder to forgive himself. Yes,
that look. Don't think your thoughts are secret, Mavis, for they are written
all over your face. You must not blame him!"
"How can I help it? I love you! - loved you!" Mavis burst into
"I hope you still do, Mavis. For I still love you -- and I always shall!"
"Do you promise?"
"How could I help it?" She felt herself gathered to his breast
while she wept bitterly. A kiss dropped gently on the top of her tangled
hair: the kiss she had longed for, but never received. Her sobs abated,
and so then she was alone again, and fumbling for her handkerchief.
Sophie was waiting in the street for him, as she had been every day for
week, walking up and down looking for him. He did not even ask how she had
known he was to come home today: just stepped down from the carriage into
arms, all dusty and sweaty as he was, and drew great shuddering breaths,
said nothing -- he could not -- and squeezed her tightly, more tightly than
he meant to, for sure, and she let him, knowing he needed this and even
her ribs cracked she would not tell him to let go.
At last he came into the house, and Maryanne hurried in with tea, having
the carriage draw up. He did not sit, but paced up and down the drawing-room
as if it were his quarterdeck. Sophie knew better than to stop him. His
face broke her heart: she had never seen him so careworn, not even the time
he had come home to her in a fever with the pleurisy and she had nursed
back to health, in the early days of their marriage, back in that little
house in Gibraltar. Then he had been drawn and glittering-eyed, but somehow
in his fever burning more fiercely than ever - she blushed when she recalled
how they had disobeyed the doctor's orders that he was not to exert himself,
for as he had said when begging her for the third time with a break in his
voice, how could he lie all day and all night in her bed and not --- !
But this time the fire was out - cold - his eyes seemed so flat, she could
not see into their depths at all, and this worried her more than anything
had failed to say. The lines in his cheeks and brow seemed to have been
scored with knives.
"I am on my way to London," he said at last; and he failed to
further of importance all afternoon and most of the evening, even when Mavis
came flying into the room and he gathered her up in his arms and let her
upon his breast, and the look on his face then burned Sophie to the core,
tortured was it, until he saw her tearful gaze on him, and turned from her.
It was as if he had been allotted only a dozen sentences to say in the six
hours between his arrival and bed-time, and he must eke them out and make
them last, for there would be no more -- as if he was struggling to contain
something far beyond mere words, and that to speak might start the crack
would cause all to break and spill.
Mavis held her tongue - Sophie could scarcely believe it, for the child
never achieved such self-control in her life for so much as five minutes,
yet here she was, hours on end, without a single question.
Five of the sentences were questions to them, how they did, what was Mavis
learning in school now, was Sophie quite well in herself? - he seemed to
reassurance of this, as if testing her strength to bear his grief -- and
was for Mavis, when she kissed him before going up to bed: his voice broke
on it: "I -- I am sorry, Mavis."
Mavis's eyes filled with fresh tears. "I know, papa," she said.
Sophie wondered what would come next. "Go to bed," he said, after
after asking her to play the piano for him for an hour and more while he
stared out of the dark window, out to sea. "I -- I will come up to
She took his hand, that hung at his side, and kissed it; did as he asked
She undressed and put on her nightgown with shaking hands, wondering how
was to bear this grief, if even now, a month into it, he was so felled by
She surmised that aboard ship he could not allow himself this silence, nor
indeed even to feel what he must feel; and so it must be falling freshly
his shoulders, now that he was finally come into the haven of home, away
his responsibilities at last.
She waited for him awhile, and when he came to her, he was already undressed
and in his shirt alone. She held her arms out to him, and he blew out the
candle before coming into them. His body was as rigid and unyielding as
mainmast, every muscle taut and strained, as it had been without mercy for
the past four weeks. He did not turn to her, but instead lay flat upon his
back and stared up into the darkened room. She lay beside him and let one
arm rest gently across his breast. He said nothing; did not move. When she
went to withdraw it, fearing even this was trespass, he grasped it so hard
she bit her lip and drew it back to its resting-place. He did not touch
After a while - it might have been five minutes, or ten -- he said, "Sophie
-- I cannot -- not now. Not -- not yet."
"I understand," she whispered.
After a long vigil, she slept.
In the middle of the night, she had no idea of the hour, he woke her. His
breath was hot upon her shoulder, and his kiss there hotter: it burned
through her thin lawn nightdress. Then he was reaching for her, climbing
top of her in the bed, gulping for air and gasping in between, "Sophie
need you -- please -- ?"
For answer she took him in, without hesitation.
If she thought he had ever been rough with her before, he was more frantic
now. His desperation communicated itself in every breaking wave: he was
storm crashing upon her, and she received his force with all the strength
solidity in her, not shrinking back from him but meeting it, as resilient
Land's End granite under all the fury of the Atlantic. "Oh God,"
cried, harshly, "oh God, Sophie, help me -- oh God -- oh, dear God
loved him -- "
"I know," she whispered.
"Sophie -- Sophie -- oh, Christ forgive me -- "
"Edward, oh, Edward, there is nothing to forgive!" she said, and
and jolted in sharp spasms, and broke altogether then.
Sometimes at these moments he said her name; sometimes he made sounds
without words. This time she was unsurprised, and yet still it brought tears
to her eyes, to hear him cry out: "Horatio -- !!"
And then he collapsed upon her breast, and his groans turned to harsher
sounds, and he wept .
She held him - he lay heavily upon her, but she would not have moved under
him for the world - while he heaved with great shuddering sobs that tore
from his throat. It was a terrible sound, hoarse and beyond sanity, almost.
She knew better than to shush him, or indeed to speak at all; she knew she
must not break this spell, or he would draw back into himself, swallow this
grief, struggle to return to self-control. His agony wrung her heart: the
tears spilled down her cheeks, silently.
"Thank God," came a soft voice from the corner of the room.
Sophie stared into the shadows, blinking. She did not feel afraid, nor even
surprised; instead, the familiar tones seems oddly comforting. She must
imagining things! she thought to herself -- but remembered also other
occasions on which her eyes had met Mr. Hornblower's in a look of mutual
concern for their beloved Pellew; and so it did not seem at all strange
they should do so once again, now, in this most painful of all moments.
Looking harder, forcing her fancy to dissolve, instead she thought she could
see a figure in a pale shirt, with a most tender look upon his face: a
beloved visitor to their home,
a son to them in fact if not in name, that she had thought never to see
in her life, looking at the shaking Pellew in her arms with such love that
she felt only hope and joy. It was if he had come when he had heard his
called, summoned by his captain's cry.
"Thank God," said Horatio again, "thank God, madam, I thought
he would never
- I have been so afraid for him, these weeks -- it seemed he must break
the strain --oh, I thank God he has you to come home to!"
Pellew, it seemed, did not hear: the words were for her alone. The figure
shimmered faintly, and dissolved into shadow. By a strange grace Sophie
reassured, confident once more of her ability to give Edward the refuge
her arms he so needed; able to be strong for him in this greatest trial.
Slowly now he began to speak, all the things he had been unable to say,
before, flooding out now with the tears that wet her breast: the
heartbreaking details, irrelevant, meaningless in the face of the loss,
essential somehow to communicate, as if in them lay meaning, lay comfort,
redemption; lay forgiveness: "I had him dressed in your shirt, Sophie
would have done it with my own hands, but his men wanted to -- I must tell
Mavis -- Styles said to be sure she knew -- that he had her letter in his
pocket when he fell, right by his heart -- and to tell her he spoke of her
all the time, what would Miss Mavis say -- he'd make them laugh, come on
now, Miss Mavis could do a better job than that! -- let's make Miss Mavis
proud , he'd say -- and he said -- Styles -- he looked at me and he said,
reckoned she'd be right proud of him now, Captain Pellew, Sir -- and --
God, Sophie, then he just wept -- Styles -- in front of me -- I thought
certain I should lose my composure then, and break down too, right there
the deck -- it was all I could do not to --- !!!"
"Yes, Edward," she whispered.
"He was my best officer, Sophie, I had to send him -- d'you see?"
"Of course you did," she said. "He knew that. You both did.
"Do you think - he ever knew - how much I thought of him?"
"I'm sure," she whispered. And felt, for the briefest of moments,
upon her shoulder, squeezing.
And then he slept, right there upon her breast, worn out from care and grief
and spent utterly.
And so the son that was to be named Horatio came to being in her, in those
silent hours before dawn: a gift beyond price, born of his father's greatest
hurt -- the loss of a son, in some miraculous balance not to be understood
mortals, bringing another to be; and floated, the tiniest of specks, smaller
than a promise, less than a hope, infinitesimal and secret, in whose name
being the other Horatio would one day soon and forever henceforward be hourly
cherished and remembered and beloved.