Life of Duty: De Vergesse
by Sarah B.
The shouted words rang through the French chateau, were accented by heavy boots stamping on the costly tile, up one way and down the other. Back and forth. And still the words came.
The soldier standing at attention in front of his commander was sweating, and not because of the weather. But like any good soldier he stood at attention, and took his superior officer's abuse without complaint. It was his duty.
The officer 's swearing would have gone on much longer if the elegant painted doors at one end of the long room had not opened, and another officer had not walked into the morning sunlight.
An officer who smiled and said, "Etienne, I can hear your profanity all the way in the garden. What on earth has you in such a temper this morning?"
Etienne scuffed his pacing to a stop, regarded the other officer with cold blue eyes. "Gerard, it is sacrilige! This moron - " he stabbed an accusing finger at the trembling soldier - "Tells me our signal tower on the coast is gone! Gone - destroyed! Merde - "
"Ah - " The other officer said abruptly, as if to stem the tide of cursing with his words, "The signal tower on the coast of Brittany? Your pride and joy?"
"Oh, you mock me!" Etienne said hotly, resuming his pacing with a sour frown, "But you do not know what this has cost. The best engineers - months of work - for nothing!"
Gerard made a sympathetic face.
"And worse..." Etienne walked to the other side of the room as he spoke, his posture tense and hunched, like a cat's. "Far worse, my name brought down in the eyes of the government. "
"Oh yes, that's the hard part," Gerard said, in a distinctly unsympathetic tone as he eyed his friend, "It's not so much the men are dead and the tower is lying in ruins. It's that broken rung on the ladder of your ambitions."
Etienne turned and gave Gerard a glare so intense the lieutenant cowered.
But Gerard merely shrugged. "A reputation sullied can be polished again. Simply build another one."
"Build another one!" Etienne sneered. "You talk as if the whole of Antoinette's purse were at my disposal. And those English dogs know the place, it would be as building a stone house on the waves. Zut alors- "
"Oh, Etienne, calm down," Gerard walked around his smoldering friend, around the quaking soldier, to the fashionably carved desk that sat gleaming in ebony and gold by the window. "You take these military matters far too personally. Every triumph strokes your vanity, every defeat is a personal affront - "
"So it is!" Etienne fumed as he threw another glare at the soldier. "I have told you before, these English are underhanded, dishonorable thieves. They steal to my tower in the dark of night, destroy it like vandals in a churchyard."
"And you'd never THINK of doing the same to them, if you had the chance." Gerard said archly, studying the map that lay unfurled on the table. "Well, I've no great love for the English either, but if they cut down one of your towers they had no shortage of courage. Either that, or they didn't know you arm those towers to the teeth."
"They knew," Etienne growled, putting his hands behind his back and staring at the map as if his eyes would burn holes in it. "Those demons have spies everywhere. Cancers invading the very body of France."
"Well, not with your efficient surgeon's knife to cut them out," Gerard quipped as he looked up from the map. "Heaven help a spy if you're the one who finds him out."
Etienne's ice-blue eyes went back to the map. "So where can I build again? Show me."
Gerard raised his eyebrows in reflection. "Well, you'll want to move up the coast, and probably back a bit. Perhaps here..." He pointed. "That's not a bad spot, not as good as the old one unfortunately, but there is nothing you can do about that."
Etienne crossed his arms and scowled at the map. "No, nothing. My reputation ruined, my tower destroyed, and the ships of England roaming the seas like packs of wild dogs. And there is nothing I can do."
Gerard shook his head and stood away from the table. "Etienne, you really do have a flair for the melodramatic. I wonder why you never went into the theater."
Etienne gave the map on the table a final glare and stalked away. "When next we are in London, I shall go into their theaters - and burn them to the ground."
Gerard chuckled at his colonel's temper - he was used enough to it - and cast his eye on the bundle of papers sitting beside the map. "What are these?"
Etienne glanced over his shoulder, then turned toward the window to try and stare the morning sun into submission. "Newspapers and other documents from England. The best way to fight an enemy is to know his life."
Gerard picked up the one on the top, unfolded it and glanced at the writing. "The English language certainly has none of the poetry of the French."
"Please!" Etienne scoffed. "It is the tongue of barbarians."
"So says the defeated Roman." Gerard muttered absently as he scanned the words. "Hm - hm! Well, at least it looks as if when you do get that tower rebuilt you'll have no danger of it being destroyed by the same criminal who led the attack last time."
Etienne didn't move from the window. "And why is that?"
"Well, it says here he is dead."
Etienne turned, curiosity in his bearing, a hopeful smile on his face. "Dead?"
Gerard nodded, and as Etienne walked slowly away from the window began to read, "... the tower was completely destroyed, sadly however not without loss of life. Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, distinguished in service aboard His Majesty's Ship the Indefatigable, was struck down by a sniper's bullet as he deployed his men on the coast, and was later recovered by his men and buried at sea. Lt. Hornblower..." Gerard scanned ahead, "Um...blah blah blah, uninteresting stuff really."
Etienne had stopped not five paces from the window, his expression now confused. "Hornblower?"
Gerard nodded. "Yes, unusual name, isn't it? Such vulgar people, the English, no music in their - "
"No, Gerard, you do not understand. I knew that man."
Gerard started. "You did! How?"
"It was some years ago," Etienne began to walk again, slowly, a smile playing on his lips, "He was a prisoner - a spy - in a Spanish prison. He thought himself clever, but I saw through his clumsy attempt at deceit like sunshine through a window."
"A spy! How was it you didn't have him hanged?"
Etienne's head came back a little. "There were - circumstances - that prevented me from carrying out my duty to France and sending him to his death." Etienne dropped his eyes, and the smile did not go away. "Circumstances..."
Gerard tapped the newspaper in one hand impatiently until Etienne looked back up and noticed his restive expression.
"Oh - " Etienne's smile was swift, his eyes hard as January ice. "He was a boy, but very dangerous and cunning. I often regretted that I could not do my duty and end his life." Etienne's eyebrows went up a bit. "How gratifying it is to know that he met his end on French soil after all, and by my hand, however indirectly."
"Well, I suppose," Gerard said noncommitally as he reopened the newspaper. "And according to this, you've nearly put his ship out of commission as well."
Etienne's eyes glittered hopefully as he strode over to the carafe of wine sitting on the sideboard. "Oh? This news gets even better."
"Hm - yes, says here Mr. Hornblower was beloved by his crew and captain, and that the - mon dieu, what's that word? - In-de-fah-tig-abel...hm! - will soon be in port to make repairs and receive condolences. Well, this paper was published some time ago, they've probably made Portsmouth by now."
Etienne had poured himself a glass of wine, and was drinking it very slowly. When he turned to Gerard again, the officer saw a light in those eyes. A light he did not like.
"That will do it." Etienne said simply.
Gerard frowned. "Eh?"
Etienne walked swiftly over to the table, nodding to himself as he went. "We will rebuild the tower. Here."
Gerard looked to where Etienne was pointing. "That's its old location."
"Yes, precisely," Etienne replied, his voice betraying his deep concentration, "And when word reaches England that we are rebuilding, they will send a ship to destroy it. And if what I know of English pride and honor holds true, there will be one ship that will insist to go."
Gerard frowned. "You think so?"
Etienne sneered. "Count on it, my friend. Those people have doubtless already raised a shrine to this hero Hornblower in their shrivelled, starved lives. When they hear we are desecrating his memory by recreating that which he died for, his crew will scream for our blood. And I will have them then. Have them - and my reputation will be restored to its rightful glory."
Gerard cocked his head. "What if another ship comes instead?"
"Then I will destroy them," Etienne said offhandedly, "But I do not think another ship will come. I think I will be fighting a desperate, grieving crew and a weakened captain. The English are so unaccustomed to emotion, when it shows itself they are swiftly conquered by it."
"And - in turn - by you." Gerard looked down at the map and shook his head. "Well, if that's your command, I'll set the men to gathering supplies to rebuild the tower. But even if sinking the Indefatigable does restore your reputation, I hardly think it will satisfy you. After all, what you really want is Hornblower, and he's already dead."
"Ah, but there is still more I can do to crush those he leaves behind," Etienne said slyly as he raised his glass. His face gleamed with anticipation.
Gerard looked up from the map. "And what's that?"
Etienne's smile was as ruthless as a wolf's. "Ensure that their dearly departed Mr. Hornblower died in vain."
And so saying, he drained the glass.
To be continued...