THE PRICE OF HONOUR
by Wendy B.
"Wreckage ahead!" Lt. Hornblower heard the lookout shout from inside his cabin. As Commander of the Medusa, he was given all that was due to a captain. The expected knock came seconds later. Matthews, acting as his coxswain, entered and reported.
"Sir, the lookout reports wreckage in the water ahead." Matthews face was a study in black. He knew what this might mean to his commander. To all of them.
"Yes, Matthews, I heard. Im coming just now." Horatio finished signing his name to the reports hed been writing, blotted the ink and tucked the books away. As always, he desperately fought revealing his true thoughts. Matthews eyes were still on him, still looking for the expected reaction. He wouldnt get it. Forcing himself to calmness, he deliberately lifted his uniform jacket from its peg and pulled it over his shoulders. One by one, he fastened the buttons. Only then did he follow Matthews out onto the deck.
"Well?" he demanded. "Report, Mr. Lindsey."
Fifteen year old Midshipman Lindsey brought himself forward. He was prepared to report, but faltered nonetheless. "S sir, there is debris in the water ahead; I will try to make it out when we get a little closer. I cannot state whether it is one of ours, sorry sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Lindsey." Horatio replied coldly. The tone of his reply was not the result of the midshipmans obvious lack of grace, but from a valiant effort on his own part to control his voice. Putting his own glass to his eye, he scanned the sea forward. He could see nothing but dark, indistinct shapes washed over by the foaming waves. Impatiently, he decided to climb.
What would the men think of this action on the part of their commander? "Matthews!" he exploded. "Go ahead, well look from above, and see what this is about."
"Aye aye, sir," Matthews complacent reply grounded Horatio once again. Good. He had started to wonder how long he could maintain his composure. Now he, was for the moment, sure of himself. They began their ascent toward the maintop, Horatio forgetting the vertigo that usually assailed him, in his anxiety to see for himself. Together, he and Matthews aimed their glasses over the bow and out toward the open sea. Wreckage. Quite a lot of it. It should have been spotted long before this, he thought. But then, what help would that have been, since it was not yet recognizable as anything particular?
"Shorten sail!" he ordered, "and signal Dolphin to do the same."
Horatio and Matthews returned to the deck as Medusa obediently slowed, allowing the crew and her officers a closer look at the debris in the water ahead. Blocks and bulkheads, waterlogged planks and spars were scattered a league across the surface of the water. But nothing, nothing to indicate who she had been except the casks. "English!" Matthews shouted. Yes, the markings on the casks were certainly that. Dated, burned with the Portsmouth mark, identical to the casks in Medusas hold.
"Sir! Look!" Matthews was pointing with a shaking hand. Horatio looked, and below the figurehead of Medusa he saw the Mermaids shattered figurehead. The two ladies were face to face, Medusa glaring in anger at the smirking Mermaid, challenging her, daring her. The gilt paint was flaked and peeling, the underlying wood black, saturated with salt water. No doubt then, Mermaid was gone to the bottom. Matthews face went white as he looked, and Horatio could feel the blood draining from his own. There was a shreiking sound in his ears, and his legs felt unsound. He locked his knees and grasped the rail with a shaking hand. God, no, it couldnt be!
But it was, and he must face it. This was the reality of war, of the Navy, of life. Death.
"Search the area for survivors," he ordered. He didnt recognize his own voice. Low and calm, he was simply repeating lessons learned. What were the chances of anyone surviving this wreck? They had lost sight of Mermaid three days ago, before the storm that had torn a mast from the other member of the small squadron, the Dolphin. Dolphin! She must be told. "Signal the Dolphin, Captian to come aboard, please."
Doubtless the jolly boat carrying Acting Lt. Dancer would also bring Styles, who was certainly as concerned as Matthews and the rest of the Medusas crew. He felt a hand on his arm, and looked up into Matthews concerned face with a start. The Dolphins commander had already arrived, having traversed the short distance while Horatios mind wandered. Damn, he had to keep himself together. They still had a thousand miles of ocean to cross before they would come to an English port.
Lt. Dancer came up the side of the brig right after Styles. He was right, then. Styles went to Matthews immediately, and they began whispering together. Let them, he thought. It had to be made known. "What is it, Commander?" Dancer was asking.
Horatio indicated that he should follow him into his cabin. Once there, he told him. "It appears that the Mermaid was lost, either in the storm, or by enemy action. I havent been able to determine which."
"What of Mr. Kennedy and her crew? Did you pick up any survivors, sir?"
"No survivors seen, yet, Mr. Dancer. Of course well keep a look out for the ships boats, if any were able to escape before she went down. We shall continue the voyage of course. Our orders are well, you know what they say, we must keep on. Between these three brigs, weve deprived the Inde of nearly fifty men. We need to rendezvous with her as quickly as possible."
"Yes sir, of course." There was a knock at the door. Matthews again.
"What is it, Matthews?" Horatio asked, his voice cracking with fatigue.
"Sir, judging by the level of water in those unharmed casks, shes not been under moren six hours. There may be a chance "
"Thank you, Matthews. Well take that into consideration." Matthews nodded and closed the door quietly.
"I know that Mr. Kennedy was a friend, sir. I understand from Styles that youve been with him for six years. I am sorry, sir, for your loss." Lieutenant Dancer was studying him, looking for the required words.
"Yes. Thank you, Lieutentant." Horatio didnt know what else he could say to this. His mind had not accepted yet that Kennedy was gone. It probably never would. "We had best be on our way."
"Aye aye, commander. Ill return to Dolphin and await your signal." Dancer left the cabin. The turmoil of Horatios mind tried to deny him the ability to reason. What should he do now? Wait and look? Continue on, and hope? If Kennedy had survived, which was doubtful, he would of course proceed in the direction they were headed. But what if he were incapable of navigating? What if he were injured? How did Mermaid go down?
Horatios aegis unexpectedly abandoned him, and he found himself gripping the side of the cannon with white-knuckled hands, his numb legs no longer able to support him. God, no! This cant be, cant be! His mind was as paralyzed as his legs. He put his hands to his temples, pressing. God his head hurtthree days of storms, twelve hours of thick fog, and now this. He couldnt remember the last time hed slept.
Strange, but he could not bring himself to move. A curious lethargy had taken over his mind. Darkness enveloped him like a warm cloak, and he slid into it.
A choking, burning sensation brought him back to his senses. Matthews was pouring spirits down his throat. Matthews! He threw his arms out and pushed the metal cup from him, splashing the seaman liberally with the liquid. Damn! Matthews had seen; he was weak.
He must never show vulnerability before the men! Now the imperturbable façade had a crack. No, it had crumbled. There would be no repairing it after this. He struggled to his feet and lurched across the cabin toward the door, but didnt quite get there. Dizziness took him, and he leaned against the bulkhead to steady himself.
Matthews took his arm, steadying him further. "Easy, sir. Sit a moment, and take a sip. Do you good, sir, its been three days since youve taken any restit had to catch up with you sometime, didnt it." Ever practical Matthews, not judging him or finding him wanting, just helping him as he always had, as he always would. Thank God he was the one to find him, rather than one of the young midshipmen.
"Matthews," he said. "You will keep silent..." Matthews looked hurt. Of course he would, he should not have said that to him, the man who had always done everything in his power to enforce Horatios command. Matthews knew him as well as anyone, and he knew what it took to manage the crew: an officer of unflagging strength, unflappable, a courageous leader who never doubted himself.
None of which applies to me, thought Horatio ruefully.
"Sir?" queried the loyal seaman. "You need some sleep, if I might be so bold as t say so."
Impatiently, Horatio replied. "Yes. Matthews, but not now. There is too much to " Do? What could he do? Think about? That would accomplish nothing. But his mind was electrified; he couldnt think of sleeping. Maybe later, when .when what? When he was sure it was hopeless, he supposed. Only then.
He stood again, more steadily this time, and left the privacy of his cabin. From the quarterdeck he gave orders to set sail. They would continue on in spite of Mermaids loss. With a pounding head he watched as they signaled "Dolpin" their intentions. Dancer was reliable and intelligent. Hed keep within sight of "Medusa" while stretching the distance as far as possible. In this way, theyd view a wider stretch of sea in their search for the missing.
As the remains of the afternoon were consumed, he found himself fighting a great battle, one which had nothing to do with the clear sky or the miles of ocean before him. He was fighting fatigue, uncertainty, and the possibility of grief. Fatigue he was accustomed to. The loss of equilibrium, the heaviness in his head and eyes, the headaches, these could be overlooked. Uncertainty, he considered a normal state of being, at sea. One never knew when the next storm would rear up, when an enemy ship might be sighted, when a man might be killedwhen even he might be killed, for that matter. He had faced death often enough to know it was a very real possibility.
Hed lost men, so many men. He could see the face of every man whos death he was responsible for, from Clayton and Hunter, to the dozens of men who came after. Every man on his ship, every man under his command looked to him for safety, and hed failed them countless times. In war, men died. It couldnt be helped. But try as he might, he could not bring himself to see men as just another resource, a commodity to be preserved or sacrificed to attain a goal. He wanted the impossible: he wanted to attain his goals without paying the price. Thus far, it had not happen that way. Not once.
Would he soon be grieving the loss of Archie? Hed done it before, but at that time, they were not well-acquainted. This would be different. Certainly hed seen many men die, many of them officers. How did Pellew manage to compose himself when faced with such news? A man did become fond of the officers and crew under him; it was inevitable. But Kennedy was different. He was not Horatios man, in the strictest sense. Theyd been through too much for that to be so.
Kennedy had been the first man to welcome him aboard his first ship, "Justinian." Since then, theyd served together almost continuously. They had saved each others lives more times than he could count. Archie was the first real friend of his adulthood. Archie knew him better than any man on earth, including his own father. They complimented one another perfectlyidentical in thought, opposite in reaction.
The headache that had begun in his cabin earlier became worse yet. An odd quivering disrupted his vision; he could only equate it to the way heat warped the air above the metal cannons on a very warm day. Annoying in itself, the interference also made him slightly nauseous. The combination was a heady warning that he needed some rest.
But how could he? Hed been placed in charge of all three captured vessels. It was the most responsibility he had shouldered since his promotion to Lieutenant. And he had lost one.
Granted, there was nothing else to be done. The men had their orders--they knew the heading. They knew that they had damn well better keep a sharp eye out for possible survivors. There wasnt much hope now, it had been hours. But they must continue to watch. His presence on deck was superfluous, but he could not bear the idea of sleeping, even if he could manage it. What if they missed something, some sign, or a tiny shadow on the horizon that might mean a small jolly boat harboring the remains of a crew, the Indes men, even perhaps his friend?
"Sir!" came Mr. Lindseys shout from across the deck.
"Yes, Mr. Lindsey?" he waited for the boy to come close enough to avoid having to shout.
"Sir, inside the cask we retrieved earlier. Look!" he exclaimed. In his hands were two rounded metal lumps. Grape shot. "Its certain, sir, the Mermaid was attacked by an enemy. This proves it, doesnt it, sir? Now we know!" His inappropriate excitement grated. The boy looked happy with his discovery, thrilled at finding a reason for the deaths of twenty comrades.
Horatio had an irrational desire to strike the lad. He clenched his shaking hands behind his back. A white-hot pain shot through his temples, and the light, the sun they had not seen for nearly four days was anathema. He had to get into his cabin. Without a word, he turned and stalked away. He had better rest, before he disgraced himself before the men. A captains word was law, at sea; he could make life hell, and hell led to mutinty. He needed control.
Matthews followed him into his cabin. It was his right, in a way, as coxwain, but Horatio couldnt tolerate the intrusion. "Matthews, I do not need anything," he stated simply, hoping the man would take it upon himself to leave.
"Aye aye, sir. I know that. But Ive brought some coffee, just made fresh sir, and thought as you wouldnt mind a cup."
"Thank you, Matthews." He took the cup and drank deeply, inhaling the rich fragrance as he did so. Handing it back, he said, "I plan to rest for a bit, Matthews. Wake me immediately if anything happens. This discovery of Mr. Lindsays tells us there are enemy ships about. Meanwhile, Mr. Johns has the quarterdeck. Keep an eye on him. Hes senior, but knows nothing."
Matthews nodded, understanding. He had a way of keeping an eye on things, without his superiors taking offense or even noticing sometimes who was really in charge.
Horatio took up a cloth and soaked it in the cool water remaining in his basin. Wringing it out and covering his eyes, he was suddenly overwhelmed with nausea. Strangely enough, this mutinous action on the part of his insides relieved some of the pain in his head. Damn it, he wished Matthews wouldnt always be around when he humiliated himself.
"Just you lie down sir. Ill wake you at the first sign of anything unusual."
Horatio nodded and fell back into his cot. He woke briefly, when he felt Matthews pulling his shoes from his feet, and unbuttoning his jacket. He sat up and allowed the man to pull the coat from his shoulders. For some reason, Matthews helping him this way made him feel ten years old, and it was not an unpleasant sensation.
The departure of the storm had left a bout of icy weather in its wake. Frost blossomed on the cold iron fittings and cannons, turning black to white. The men left trails of breath-clouds as they worked on deck. Horatio stood near the rail on the quarterdeck with his face to the sea. Hed been there for an hour or more, but his men knew better than to disturb him. It was best to wait. Almost inevitably, these episodes of solitude precluded action, so in expectation of something, Matthews was busily but unobtrusively preparing himself and the small crew for whatever was to come. A nudge here, to get a mans attention, wake him up, a low-voiced direction there; he wanted every man at the ready when their captain did speak. Lt. Hornblower would have little tolerance for delays, once he made a decision.
This time was different, however. Another hour passed by without a sign or a movement. Matthews was beginning to worry. The severe headache and fatigue had left his captain, but still he looked ghastly. Hed gotten near four hours of sleep, but it wasnt enough. Hed come up before dawn, and he stood there yet, motionless. His shirt was soaked with spray and clinging to his body like a second skin. He seemed not to notice the frigid air or the drenching he was receivinghe seemed to revel in it. Matthews went below and retrieved Horatios heavy wool overcoat, which he draped over his captains shoulders. Horatio didnt notice him, or the coat. He was thinking.
It would be five days before he could reasonably expect to arrive at the nearest English port. Since finding the wreckage of the Mermaid, theyd come further than any ships boat could have sailed in the time since her sinking. There had been no sign of Kennedy or any of his crew.
So. A failure then. He couldnt think what he might have done differently, to prevent this. And now he knew, the thunder theyd heard a few hours after the storm had let up must have been the sound of cannon. The thick fog that had enveloped them that day had muffled the sound, making it impossible to determine with certainty. Now he was sure. Now that it was too late.
The small squadron of prizes had been blown nearly three hundred miles off course by the time the storm had ceased. The Mermaid had been lost from sight in no time, followed shortly after by the disappearance of the Dolphin. But the "Dolphin" had been found again within hours of the ensuing fog lifting. She was less than a league from Medusa and well back on the correct course. Mermaids wreckage was spotted very shortly after, so all in all, theyd managed to stay well-together, considering the circumstances and the different weights of the ships. Medusa was a pig of a vessel, heavy to handle and unwieldy in a gale. The other two were of a lighter class, a newer design, and should have handled well, even in a hurricane, according to their respective captains.
So with the exception of the Mermaid currently residing on the ocean floor, they had done well.
A lost ship, and Horatio was in command. He could see his heretofore somewhat promising career foundering as he thought of this. And Kennedy!
Kennedy, whos career thus far had been impeded by an unspeakable beginning followed by a lengthy imprisonment in Spain had now experienced the worst that could happen in a young officers career. Hed lost his ship. Even if hed lived, and even if he were found innocent of any wrong-doing or negligence, it was a setback. He was a Lieutenant, not a midshipman; they would both be held responsible for the loss. There would be an inquiry, at least.
He felt a wave of guilt, because he suddenly felt that his best friend was better off as he wasthat is to say, dead. He preferred to think of him out of pain, out of this miserable existence, out of it all. He no longer had to fight. He was better off! He tried to convince himself that he believed it.
Add to this that he did not know how to report the sinking of one of his ships. How could he explain that he had no idea how he came to lose her? How could he write that she had been attacked, sunk, but that he did not know who this elusive enemy was, or where? Out here, with the storm raging and the fog thicker than blood, it was understandable. But standing before a warm coal fire, surrounded by judges who had meals brought to them by the clock, and who whined when their tea was not hot enough, the story would seem ridiculous. It would appear to be the most transparent, idiotic fabrication imaginable.
He hated whoever was responsible for this, and he vowed that they would pay for it. For Kennedy, for the men with him, for the ship, and for his career, he would see to it that they paid dearly.
Once this vow was sealed in his heart, Horatio became aware that he was shaking with cold. His clothing was saturated, and someone had thrown his cloak over him. Matthews, presumably. He looked for the loyal seaman, and found him directly. Saluting acknowledgement, Matthews saw and nodded in response. Horatio headed below to change into something dry. By the time he entered his cabin, he was blue. He had begun to strip himself of his sodden shirt when Matthews entered and assisted him. As the chill left his body, he realized how tired he felt. Four hours of rest in four days was not nearly enough. How was it that he was still standing, he wondered. He made a decision to forgo the remainder of his toilet, and climbed into his cot. He was asleep almost instantly.
"Sorry to wake you sir!" a voice startled him. "But theres a ship been sighted. Youll want to be ready."
Horatio was unable to shake off his lethargy. He felt he had not slept at all. He heard the ships bell just then, informing him that he had turned in less than an hour ago. Damn this life, he thought. Its hell. Archie is well out of it!
Unexpectedly, he nearly doubled over with the pain that shot through him at the hideous thought. It was not worthy of him, or of Archie. True, Archie had not been entirely content with his career in the Royal Navy, but he had clung to his duty, and he was an honorable man. He had overcome obstacles that would have destroyed most.
On top of this, he had befriended Horatio, a man whos diffident nature repelled most friendly advances. He had been a man who was capable of piercing the thick armor Horatio wore. Archie had owned an uncanny ability to put Horatios self-torment into the proper light; he could make Horatio laugh at himself.
Groaning, he pulled himself upright and let Matthews hand him his clothing. Mindful, he noticed his commanders tormented mood, and thoughtfully averted his eyes.
Alone. Horatio felt more alone now than hed ever been in his life. He had not known before how much Archies friendship had meant. He knew now. Now that it was too late.
Dizzy with fatigue, he hooked his arm around a post and turned his face from Matthews. A wave of grief washed over him. "Thank you, Matthews," he said tersely. "Go above now, and see that all is in order."
Matthews hesitated, and Horatio lashed out: "Now, Matthews!" Another guilty moment. Matthews had been nothing less than perfect these many days. He didnt deserve this. "Just go, please. I need a few momentsto get ready."
"Sir?" Matthews set his face determinedly, then thought better of arguing. He let himself out and gently closed the door.
Horatio always hid his emotions, even from himself, but this was excruciating. There was a pain in his chest and it was difficult to draw breath. Stifling the imminent agony with great gulps of air, he swallowed the ache in his throat. After a few minutes, the initial violence passed, and he regained command. He had yet to navigate two ships to port, and there were thirty men whos souls were his responsibility. Add to this an unknown ship in the distance. His duty left him little time for indulging in self-serving pity.
He appeared on deck shortly after Matthews. A Captain was supposed to be beyond everyday emotion. He was expected to rise above obscene displays of feeling. If he had shown symptoms of grief, the men would have been alarmed. He showed no sign, so all was well.
"English shipshes English!" shouted the watch.
English, thank whatever gods there be. He wouldnt have to fight. Relief flooded through him while curiosity rose.
"Captain, its the Dreadnought," came another voice.
The Dreadnought! Damn, this was just what he needed today, that self-aggrandizing, belligerent Captain Foster. Granted, the man was ultimately responsible for his promotion to Lieutenant. But only because Horatio had literally saved his life, the day of his examination. Really, Foster had no choice but to promote him, even though he obviously had no liking for Horatio. His last formal address had labeled him Pellews young upstart."
Horatio had once verbally out-maneuvered the man, and he did not dare hope hed been forgiven. Men like Foster never forgave a public flogging, even if only a verbal one.
"Signal, sir. Captain to come aboard." Mr. Fries called.
"Very well, Mr. Fries. Matthews, see to the boat, please," ordered Horatio.
It seemed Matthews had prepared ahead for this eventuality. The oarsmen were already assembled and making their way into the ships boat. Horatio was prepared as well, due to Matthews foresight. All he had to do was gather up his reports in case Foster wanted to see them. He returned to his cabin and quickly bundled his papers in a scrap of oilcloth, and secured them inside his cloak. He blanched, thinking of what they said, knowing that his ignorance regarding Mermaid would be perceived as ineptness by Foster. As they rowed across to the Dreadnought he spent the time preparing himself for every cruel question Foster could possibly throw at him. He could parley with the best, but only when he was not nervous. And he was, at the moment, very tense.
As soon as he arrived, he saw that Foster himself was nowhere in sight. Not surprising, a lowly commander of a prize crew was hardly worth any upset. Why would a legend like Foster disturb himself for such as he? He wouldnt. Simple as that. He was directed to Fosters day rooms.
The marine at the door opened it, tapping lightly at the same time. Horatio entered, and faced the dreaded countenance of this particular captain. Foster did not deign to look up, he was busily cleaning his fingernails with his knife-like letter opener. He was a small man, but his arrogance was astonishing.
Finally Foster condescended to raise his head and glance at him. He started, not physically, but the surprise was evident in his eyes. Then, oddly, Horatio noticed something that looked like relief.
"Mr. Horn-blower." Foster stated the name like an accusation.
"Aye, sir. Its a pleasure to meet you once again. Thank you for inviting me on board." Tact at all costs, that was best, of course.
"Sit, Hornblower. Report. What are you about? Why are you here, in the middle of nowhere, with those two insignificant vessels, and where are you headed?" Fosters questions came like shots from many directions, and Horatio didnt know which one to evade first.
"Sir, we were three brigs, under my command. Prizes taken from the French, sir. In an altercation which occurred seven days ago. I am to take them to the nearest port, where we will be joined by the Indefatigable. We were blown off course two days out, by a storm." Horatio was finding this part relatively easy. God knew hed gone over it in his mind often enough, in the last day or two.
"And youve lost one." Horatio stared. How could Foster have known? Of course, it was obvious. There were only two of them now, and he had just reported that they had started out with three.
"Yes sir," he acquiesced. "Less than two days ago, the Mermaid. She was attacked, and sunk with all souls. Some may have been collected by the enemy, but we dont know it."
"And how do you know she was attacked, Mr. Horn-blower?" Foster had always had trouble getting his tongue around Horatios surname. "Were you there, hiding out of sight, perhaps, to save your own ship? Why did you not assist this vessel, your responsibility?"
Horatio gripped his shaking hands together, rigidly controlling his anger. He explained the discovery of shot in the wreckage, and did a creditable job of praising the midshipman who had reported the find.
Then came Fosters unexpected reply. "Yes, I know she was. I am a witness, Mr. Hornblower, and saw exactly what happened. Did you bring your reports? Yes. Give them to me please. I shall add them to my own."
Horatio was astounded. He had meekly handed the reports to Foster, his head whirling in confusion. "You .you were there, sir? Can you tell me what happened?"
"No sir, I must not. I am not required to report to you, Mr. Hornblower. Still an insubordinate little snot, arent you? I am responsible for your promotion, boy, and I can take it from you like THIS!" he said, snapping his fingers inches from Horatios face.
"Sir, I meant no disrespect. You must see that I would like to know what happened to my men! I lost a good friend with that ship, sir, and must know "
"Must? You must know nothing, Mister. What you must know is what your superiors choose to tell you, and that is all. Do you understand?" Horatio was beaten. There was no talking to this unreasonable man. But Foster was not finished.
"My men fished a few of yours out of the water, Lieutenant. Perhaps you would do me the favor of removing them from the care of my overworked surgeon. They have intruded upon the hospitality of my sick berth quite long enough. God, what a lot of infants Pellew has raised up. Never met such whining malingerers in all my days at sea, sir. Never. I expect to be reimbursed for the food and medical supplies theyve consumed during their little holiday, if you please."
"Of of course yes sir " Horatio stammered. He was floored, he had never heard of such a demand before. "But sir, could you tell me the names of any of the survivors? Do you know, did the captain survive?"
"I really havent the vaguest idea, Mr. Hornblower. I have not seen them. I certainly hope not. A courageous captain would never let himself survive, while his men perish." Foster seemed to have forgotten his own first meeting with Horatio, how he had been one of only two surviving men, hanging onto debris, and plucked out of the sea by the crew of the Indefatigable. Pompous ass, thought Horatio. How does he dare? He cares nothing for our men. What did I see in him? Newspaper writings, stories, legends told and repeated, these did nothing to describe the real Foster. The slight against Pellew was impossible to ignore, and the insult to Kennedyhe was livid. He swallowed an angry retort, and begged leave to see his men, the men Foster was so anxious to be quit of.
"Not just yet, mister. There are still some arrangements to be made. I want it understood that I will personally see to these reports. You will have no input into these proceedings, none whatever. And as to your responsibility for the loss, I will see to it that you are not harmed by this regrettable occurrence. I have always had some respect for your perspicacity; I think you understand me."
"Y yes, sir. I mean, aye aye, sir," said Horatio, not understanding at all. He just wanted to get below, to see who had survived, and remove his men from this ship as soon as possible. If only Foster would dismiss him! He couldnt help looking about himself, glancing longingly toward the door.
Oserving him keenly, Foster said, "Very well, get out. Retrieve your men; get them off my ship. I shall not communicate with you once you arrive in port. Well be there far ahead of you, I am sure. Good day."
The sick berth of the "Dreadnought" was hideous. The smell alone would kill a healthy man. So much for the Navys boast that they had learned so much about the values of cleanliness! Apparently Fosters ship was exempt from such niceties.
Horatios eyes were slow to adjust to the gloom; he could barely make out the vague shapes of supine men and the skittering loblolly boys. He could only see them because each carried a dim bowl of burning grease, with a bit of rag for a wick. The flitting flames darting about combined with the dank air, making the berth a vision of what hell must be like. Pain, suffering, infection, suffocation. How could any place be worse? Horatio covered his face with his neck-cloth, so he could breathe without nausea.
He began the chore of mentally cataloging his men. He began look at each face, one by one, not sure he could recognize anyone due to the combination of contorted expressions, filth, and lack of visibility. Finally he came across the ships doctor, immersed to his elbows in a steaming cauldron of bandages soaking in boiled water. The smell of ammonia was overpowering, but Horatio had to talk to him.
"Good day, sir. Lieutenant Hornblower." He thought of offering his hand, then thought better of it. God knew what infection the doctor was washing out of those bandages. He shuddered at the thought. "I am looking for my men, sir. Those from the Mermaid. Can you tell me which they are, and how many? Captain Foster wants them removed to my ship immediately."
The doctor rose to his feet, and wiping his hands on his apron, walked in another direction. Horatio followed, assuming he was being led. The doctor did not look behind, he simply wended his way across the berth, occasionally jarring a man, and cursing when he bumped his shin on the corner of a sea-chest. The men were strewn about haphazardly, rendering progress nearly impossible. Whatever did they do, in an emergency? They could not rush anything, in this mess.
Finally he stopped, and pointed to a small group of cots and beds made of grouped wooden chests. "There are seven here, in all," the doctor s low voice barely carried through the thick air. "Here, and there. Most of them might have been released soon after they came here, but glad to see them go. As you can see, Ive little time just now." He abruptly left, taking the dim light with him. Horatio looked at each man in turn. Most of them recognized him, but several were badly hurt and only semi-conscious. Hed need help. Still hoping to find Archie, he searched the faces of the three unconscious men. With that last hope gone, he reverted to business.
"You " He looked at a young midshipman with an arm in a sling. Adams, that was his name. "Go above, and have Matthews send some men down to help carry these men up. The rest of you, go above, and let them know we need a second boat. Well not take Captain Fosters time by waiting for the first boat to return. Tell him to get as many as he can in this load, and Ill return with the second group."
"Aye aye, sir," they replied quickly. They all wanted to get back to their own men, the men of the Indefatigable. In one movement, all four trooped out and up, and soon the seamen came below. Stretchers were thrown together, and between the four of them, they carried two of the badly injured men toward the exit. There was one man still to go, and he the most badly injured. Sitting on a bench placed conveniently near the head of the bed, he looked closely. The man had been badly burned as well as having a severe head wound. Horatio recognized him as one of the topmen from the Inde, assigned to accompany Archie as part of the prize crew. He wore a crown of bandages. Horatio felt this one should remain with the "Dreadnought" until she reached port. It might be best if they not move him. He put a hand on the mans shoulder, and spoke: "Sorry, my friend, but I think well have to leave you here for now. Foster will reach port before us, and the sooner you can get to real help, the better your chances." The man didnt reply. Horatio didnt expect him to; he was deeply asleep, probably dosed with opium.
He decided, or his body decided for him, to wait for the men here in the sick berth. He was so tired. He could barely remember an hour ago, much less yesterday. His whole being screamed for rest. And he didnt like to leave this lone man here, without the company of any of his mates. He would be confused if he woke up to find them gone and himself alone among strangers. It would take at least fifteen minutes for the men to load the injured onto the boat, and to wait for the second boat to arrive. He decided to use the time wisely, to sneak in a few minutes of rest. His head fell forward, and in the gloom, he didnt really notice when his eyes closed.
A hand on his shoulder woke him, a light touch, but enough. A cup of grog was in his face, and he took it and greedily consumed half of it without a breath. He looked up at the person who brought it, expecting Matthews. Instead he found a dark-haired young man with vaguely familiar but unnaturally pale face. Five seconds later the cup fell from his limp fingers. He didnt notice it until he felt the liquid penetrate the fabric of his breeches. "Archie!"
The young man smiled weakly, and sat down next to him on the bench. Taking up the empty cup and setting it aside, he simply looked at his friend, and waited. Horatio was sure now that he was dreaming, and he waited for the surreal scene to dissolve before his eyes. But it didnt. Archie stayed firmly in place, still waiting for him to speak.
"Oh Christ, Archie. I thought I was seeing things. You look like a spirit." Horatio was having trouble catching his breath.
"Almost." Archie said, "He was a bit sloppy, though. Missed. Well, almost." He showed Horatio the furrow across the top of his skull, obviously the track of a mini-ball. The wound had not had any attention, and his hair was stiff and black with crusted, dried blood, powder, and filth.
"Merciful Christ, Archie, that was close! But why hasnt this been seen to?"
"No time. The doctor, as you can see, is quite busy. Foster insists on him seeing to his own men first, and he has not only this dozen here, but three in his own quarters, quarantined with smallpox. So you see, weve been taking care of our own, in a manner of speaking."
"But even so, Archie!"
"I have a bit of a headache, but otherwise its fine. Wounds do heal without assistance, sometimes."
He was grateful now for the lack of light, grateful that Archie could not really see him. Archie leaned forward, tried to see his face. "Horatio, what?"
"I thought we had lost. You, the crew, the ship, everything. I thought you were dead."
"So, you are upset that I am not?" Archie was wicked, always able to get through to him.
Horatio managed a grim smile. "Damn you."
"Thank you." Archie grinned. "Im glad to see you too, my friend. As always."
Horatio swallowed a couple of times and went on, "You look like hell."
Archie was defensive, knowing what was coming. "So do you."
Horatio looked aft and smiled to himself. Then, ironing his face into more severe lines, he turned back to Archie. "You are ghostly white; you need an enormous meal and a three day nap. And a wash, as well. You look like a quarter section of hell, Lt. Kennedy."
"Thank you again, Lieutenant." Archie dragged his fingers through his stiff, matted hair, hands shaking. Something was not right, even more so than was obvious.
By evening, all was calm. The "Dreadnought" was once again out of sight, the injured crewmen were under the care of the acting surgeon, a man with little experience but some common sense. Archie had been two hours in Horatios cabin, with Matthews in attendance, cleaning the muck from his hair, and attending to the days old wound across his head. A long soak in salt water had dissolved the dried blood after a time, and had also re-opened the wound. That might be best, as it too was now clean. The smell of blood, powder, and smoke was branded into his brain, apparently, because it couldnt have survived the wash.
While they worked, Horatio was silent. He couldnt discuss the real questions, the ones simmering away and threatening to boil over. That had to wait until they were alone, of course. Archie dressed in one of Horatios patched but clean shirts and a pair of breeches generously donated by Dancer.
Horatio was startled by an odd look on Archies face, then. Matthews was undoing the bundle Archie had made of his befouled clothing, examining them critically.
"I think these can come clean, sir. Its only "
"No," Archie repeated. "Toss them over the side."
"Sir, perhaps one of the men " Matthews began.
"You heard what I said, Matthews. Over the side. Now." Kennedy was uncharacteristically terse.
Frowning his displeasure at the wanton waste, Matthews obeyed, pushing the bundle through the gun port. The breeches were of very fine fabric, and though stained badly, could have been repaired easily.
"Anything else, sir?" Matthews addressed Horatio.
"No, thank you, Matthews. You may go." Horatio was looking at Archie, while he addressed Matthews. He waited until the door closed, and began.
"Archie, what? I dont want a report, just tell me what that was about." He demanded.
Archie narrowed his eyes, and glared at the port-hole which had just swallowed his garments as if he were daring the closed mouth to open and regurgitate the offering.
Without looking at Horatio, he replied quietly, "That, Horatio, was about Midshipman Todd. He was thirteen, thirteen! We were together, you see. He was lowering the flag. He was the first killed, the shot " Archie looked as though he might retch at the memory. "No matter how clean, I could never I wear them."
It took a moment for Horatio to realize what Archie meant. Then it dawned. Hed had it happen too, occasionally. When a man was killed, a man who had been standing beside you the instant before, it was impossible to avoid mentally he saw the blood-covered decks, the dismembered bodies, his shoes and stocking and breeches spattered with gore. And the boy was only thirteen, and had seemed uncommonly attached to Lieutenant Kennedy.
"I knew his family. His mother had written to me, asking that I look after him." Archies voice cracked, and he began to sob. "How in Gods name can I tell her? What words, what meaning to his murder?" The anguish on his face nearly undid Horatio, who had no answer for this. He could only put his arm across his shoulders, and let him weep. God knew Archie had done it enough times for him. It was the only thing he could do, and it felt dreadfully, horribly inadequate.
Then he was not weeping, he was angry. "What will Foster do now, Horatio? Did he tell you, offer you any explanation? Why did he do it? What gain, what motive did he have he can never justify his actions. Never."
"What what are you talking about, Archie? Foster said he witnessed the attack, but I dont understand; why didnt he come to your assistance? He refused to explain himself to me. You know how he is."
"Witnessed!" Archies shout threw Horatio back. "Witnessed! God damn him, Horatio, he WAS the attack. He sunk my ship, the bastard. And he murdered my men."
Horatio was stunned. "Foster? Foster attacked you?"
"And that, after we had struck! We surrendered, once we saw he would not accept that we were English. We struck, and still he fired! Then we were boarded. They slaughtered half of my men before they saw that we were truly English."
"I dont .what he didnt oh my God, Archie. I agreed, he ordered me to what did I do?"
Archie grabbed Horatios shirt at the shoulder, and shook him, his voice vibrating with suppressed anger. "What, Horatio. What did you agree to? Tell me!"
"The son of a bitch, I cant believe it. He thought I understood. I had no idea, he was so cryptic !" he was talking to himself, trying to recall the brief interview with Foster.
"Horatio," he said coldly, "What did you agree to?"
"He said he would report the incident. He would Archie, he took my reports, he said I was to have nothing to do with it! So this is why I didnt question it, he was so belligerent! He demanded my reports, and I gave them to him. And I agreed to let him handle everything, do you see? Everything!" It was all becoming clear, suddenly. "And he promised me that I would not be questioned! God, what an idiot I must look, now. Archie! I accepted his order, I agreed to help him cover himself, in exchange for a favor! Oh Christ!"
Archie was livid. "You know, dont you, what this means? My career in the Navy is over. I shall be sacrificed. He never even spoke to me, on the "Dreadnought." Do you know that? I am so small a threat to him that he refused my request to speak with him!"
"I might as well have gone to the bottom with that damned ship," he hissed. "The two of you have sunk me just as thoroughly as if I had. My God, I am disposed of, for his vanity, and for your career." He rose, and stalked out of the cabin, the sound of the door as he pulled it to struck Horatio like a shot.
With a white face and a pounding heart, Horatio flung himself into his chair. This was insanity. How could Archie censure him, and find him so wanting in honor? Never in his life could he recall being caught in such a compromising position. Archie was right in all that he had said. Just, the perception was all wrong!
It was bad enough that Foster believed he had accepted the filthy contract. Foster would be undeceived the moment Medusa made landfall, but what of Archie?
That reminded him. He called for Matthews, who appeared almost
"Yes sir?" he inquired.
"Matthews, turn Lindsey out of the Lieutenants quarters, and see to it that Mr. Kennedy is berthed there for the duration. Lindsey can berth with the marines for a few days. Have that other midshipman, Mr. Adams, berth with him, once the surgeon releases him."
"Aye aye, sir," Matthews replied, unsure whether his captain were finished with him. "Will that be all, sir?" Matthews knew when things were amiss, and this time the signs were far from subtle. Hed heard the raised voices, Kennedy shouting, the door slamming. Everyone on deck had seen Lt. Kennedy storming out; all eyes had followed him until he disappeared down the ladder.
"Yes, Matthews. Nothing more. Thank you."
Hopefully, Kennedy would get some sleep. Horatio had to thinkto consider his actions, and his explanation. He was not sure himself, what had happened.
He thought back to the half-hour he had spent in Fosters presence. He had reported himself and his circumstances. Foster had blatantly liedtold him he had "witnessed" the attack. The attack which he had actually executed. Then he had demanded he turn over his reports.
Unexpected, but not extraordinary. Horatio had obeyed. Then the nightmare began. Horatio had asked him for information, and the attack had begun. Insubordinate? Snot? Discrediting names, indeed. He should have seen at this point, that all was not as it should be. He had been desperate for particulars, and had made what he considered to be a reasonable appeal for information. And for this he was attacked. Yes, he should have known. It was obvious!
Horatio was normally more clear-headed and perceptive to subtleties. Why not this time?
He was a fool; he had allowed Foster to beguile and manipulate him.
But what of Archies accusation? He tried to remember how it had happened. First Foster had demanded he replace the stores and supplies consumed by the Indefatigables men. That in itself was extraordinary. Was he trying to disconcert me? He had followed this up with insults to the Indefatigable, her men, and her captain. And to Archie Kennedy. This would have aroused any Lieutenants anger. But he was not any Lieutenant, and he should have seen the distracting ploy.
Then came the demand that he have no further interest in the matter. And Horatio had not cared. He was anxious to get out, to find out whether Archie had lived or died. He wanted nothing more than to get away from that loathsome, contemptuous, overbearing man. But Foster had refused to let him go.
Foster then told him that he would not be harmed, and he had been relieved. He would not be questioned, Foster had offered to take the responsibility. And Horatio had been grateful. Idiot! He was an idiot. By this time, his thoughts had become so chaotic, that he had felt the man was doing him a favor. Something Foster would never do, without motivation. He had been blind, and he had agreed.
Why? Because in his heart, he did not wish to know the truth. He did not wish to hear that Archie had made some error, done anything wrong. He did not want to hear how the Mermaid had come to be lost. That was his crime. He did not trust Archie Kennedy to have performed his duty flawlessly.
Fosters implications were such that Horatio had assumed this, and he had accepted it, and had been grateful to be out of it.
He had to be honest about it. He had become a participant in the destruction of a fellow officer, to save his own hide. Was there any way back?
An hour later he was still thinking, and still rejecting ideas. Before he could do a thing, hed need a full report, but the idea of demanding an explanation from Archie at this point tied his stomach in a knot. His guilt was too great.
Before he could finish the thought, the marine guarding the door rapped sharply. "Yes, come!" he answered the startling knock. The door opened, and Kennedy entered, still fully dressed, and quite obviously still awake. He placed several squares of paper in front of Horatio.
"My report sir, on the incidents surrounding the loss of my ship. I am sure youve been waiting for them. I apologize for the delay."
"Archie!" Horatio was dumbfounded.
"Yes sir?" he queried coldly.
"Archie, please! Let me .no. No, you need some rest. Why arent you sleeping?"
"Why arent you? Duty before pleasure, sir. If youll excuse me?"
"Ill excuse you only to go to your bed, Archie. I mean it. I can make it an order." Horatio regretted it instantly. Yesterday he could have said this. Today, he could not.
"Yes, I suppose you can," replied Archie in a flat, emotionless voice. "Good evening, commander." Archies affirmation of his position hurt him more than he cared to confess, and he flinched.
As he left, Horatio tried hard to think of a curse that would apply to the situation. None existed. He supplied the deficiency by throwing Archies report across the room. It was inadequate, however, as it flitted and drifted soundlessly to the floor. He followed up with the ink-well, which was much more gratifying. As was the mess it made.
It would be a long three days to England.
No matter how he agonized over options, no solution came to him. Foster would arrive long before this group. God only knew what he would find, when he rejoined the Indefatigable. He had no idea what Foster would say. Horatios noncommittal and ignorant reports would refute nothing. When he had written them, he knew nothing.
First, he would have to admit his dishonorable agreement with Foster, to Captain Pellew. He feared the results of that encounter.
Hed have to sleep soon. The necessity was overpowering, and there was no excuse to stay awake any longer. Nothing to keep watch for. There were no enemy ships about, the Mermaid mystery was solved, and Archie was not dead, of course, though not really with him at the moment.
He would do one last thing. He sent word for the volunteer surgeon, Mr. Abernathy, who arrived rather quickly.
"Come in, Mr. Abernathy, close the door," he replied to the surgeons tap. He then asked for a report on the injured me, to include in the report he would now have to re-accomplish.
"Mr. Stewart is recovering well," Abernathy remarked of the badly burned seaman. "There is no sign of infection, surprisingly enough. I understand the conditions on board Dreadnought were less than optimal. But however ."
"That is good news. I wanted to leave him there, but Mr. Kennedy insisted we bring him with us. Somehow, he felt the man would not live, if we were to leave him."
"I expect Mr. Kennedy was correct, sir," said Abernathy. "The man is very dependent upon our men for support, and sometimes the state of a mans mind has a greater effect on his recovery than the state of his body. Stewart is very attached to the Indefatigables men, and may not have survived, had he been abandoned by them."
"Then it is well that we brought him with us. And how is Midshipman Adams?"
"Broken arm, just above his wrist. It is a good break, sir, and will heal cleanly, without crippling. He will be as good as ever in a very few weeks."
"No other injuries?"
"No sir. He was in fact unhurt when he fell from the mainmast, into the water. It was during his rescue that he was injured, I understand. Mr. Kennedys rescue of the boy and the seaman is all the talk, sir. It seems the Lieutenant is quite a hero, where his men are concerned."
"And you have examined the Lieutenant as well?"
"Yes, sir. Only just. His injury is minor. He has some vertigo still, from the blow, but hes all right, sir. Its not uncommon, with an injury of this sort. He may return to duty now, if he chooses."
"Watch him carefully, if you would, Mr. Abernathy."
"Easily enough done, sir, he is in the sick berth now, he volunteered to stay when you sent for me."
"What! Damn damn! I ordered him to get some rest. Sir, do you know when Mr. Kennedy last slept? Do you?"
"Well, no sir. I had not thought to question him. He has been assisting Mr. Stewart with his meals, as he cannot help himself just yet."
"My God, man, what are you thinking of! Bloody Stewart can bloody well starve! Mr. Kennedy is ordered to get some rest! Do you understand me?" Horatios flashing eyes left the surgeon with no doubts as to his meaning.
"Of course, sir. As you say. He feels the responsibility most keenly, though. When the Lieutenant pulled Stewart and Adams from the water, well sir, he had been shot, and was bleeding quite a lot, but he dived in and saved them sir. Then he went back to the ship for the body of a young midshipman. The story is quite touching, to hear Mr. Adams tell it. Fortunately he did not go unconscious and drown, really. Very fortunate. Er, shall I relay your orders to him, then?"
"No. Bloody hell, no. Just find a way. Get him into a cot, and do not let him up, do you hear?"
"Aye aye, sir." Abernathy looked frightened at the idea of ordering Kennedy to do anything.
"Oh, never mind, Abernathy. This is my problem. I shall accompany you to the berth. Now."
"As you will, sir."
The sick berth was very quiet when they arrived. The injured men from the Mermaid were resting quietly, Stewart and MacDougal were both asleep. Midshipman Adams was reading a book, which he lowered to his lap when Horatio appeared. He made as if to stand, but a firm hand on his shoulder stopped him. Kennedy was seated near Stewart, with his head on the edge of the cot, asleep.
Horatio was limp with relief. He had escaped a second confrontation. He and Abernathy each took one of Kennedys arms, and lifted him. Stumbling, they led him to a nearby empty cot, and he dropped into it. His eyes opened for a brief second, then closed again. "Horaito, I am fine," he mumbled.
On his way out, he stopped to speak with Midshipman Adams, who shared the story of his rescue, and how Kennedy had returned to the sinking Mermaid to retrieve the body of Midshipman Todd. He had wrapped him in the brigs colorful ensign, the lowering of which had been the last duty he would ever perform. He was determined that the boy receive a proper burial. Then the explosion, and that was all Adams remembered, except waking in the sick berth.
Abernathy came to Horatio and implored him, "You could do with a spot of rest yourself, sir, if you dont mind me saying so. You are showing some signs of wear."
"I am on my way now, Abernathy."
The surgeon looked skeptical. "Indeed, sir."
"Indeed. Try to keep Lt. Kennedy in that cot for at least a day, please."
"Aye, sir. I shall make the attempt, certainly. And I will take you at your word where you are concerned, shall I?"
Horatio nodded and sighed. His word indeed. It meant nothing now.
Eight glorious hours later, Horatio woke up, astounded. For years, he had been unable to sleep for more than four hours in a stretch. He felt aches in every muscle, but at the same time, he felt wonderfully rested. He took breakfast, his mind already calculating a plan. The Indefatigable should be in port by today at the latest, provided she were not delayed, as he had been.
He made a morning walk around the deck, and all was well. His temper was good, considering the circumstances. Clambering down below, he decided to stop in the sick berth to check on the men there. He found Archie still asleep, and Abernathy eating breakfast. "Thank you, Abernathy," he whispered. "Has he been asleep all night?"
"Yes sir, that he has. Shall I wake him?"
"No! God, no. Let him be, as long as you dont need the cot."
"Aye aye, sir."
Returning to his cabin, Horatio steeled himself. He had to read Archies report. He found the pages neatly stacked on his table, along side the empty ink well. He looked about, and saw that the stains were still evident on the wall, despite an obvious attempt to remove them. The surrounding wood was white with scrubbing, but the ink had penetrated deeply. With a sigh, he picked up the first page.
Fosters frigate had come upon the Mermaid before sunrise, the day the storm had departed. Horatio recalled the freezing fog it had left behind, breathlessly cold and attaching itself to every surface that was not wet
"4:45 am, heading N.Nw. Lost sight of Medusa three days, twelve hours past. Heavy fog, sailing under only topsls and jib due to reduced visibility.
The tgallants of a frigate were first sighted by the lookouts, Midshipman Adams and seaman Stewart, who were perched at the highest possible point, above the level of the heaviest fog. The frigate not immediately identifiable, ordered colors raised, and men to quarters.
She was distinguished as English by seaman Stewart, and identified as the Dreadnought, having once sailed in her. When the frigate was clearly visible from our deck, fifteen or twenty yards off starboard, her identity was verified. Once within hailing distance, and a voice questioned us in the French language. Apprehensive at this unusual occurrence, guns were loaded, though not run out. We were cautious, thinking that perhaps she had fallen into French hands.
The following exchange then took place:
Dreadnought: We know who you are. Surrender, or we fire.
Mermaid: Who are you?
Dreadnought: Dreadnought, Captain Foster. Your ruse will not work, you have been recognized. Surrender, or we begin firing.
This exchange then reverted to English.
Mermaid: We are English. Indefatigable, Captain Pellew, captured this vessel five days ago.
Dreadnought: You lie! All Frenchmen know the name of Indefatigable.
Mermaid: We speak the truth! Come aboard if you like!
Dreadnought: Strike now, or we fire.
Mermaid: Hold your fire, we shall strike.
At my order, Mr. Todd began to lower our colors. We knew that once met, we would be able to convince Captain Foster of our not being a French vessel, or Frenchmen, but a prize crew from the Indefatigable. Fosters ship fired a shot, which told. Our mainmast was struck, and Midshipman Adams and seaman Stewart were sent into the sea with the wreckage. She fired once more, killing three men. They were Midshipman Todd, seamen Williams and Smith. By now, the flag was completely lowered, and we called to Dreadnought , asking that they cease firing, and telling them that we had surrendered. Dreadnought fired several times more, both cannon and carronade. The hull was breached and Mermaid began to list as she took on water.
We were then boarded by twenty men. In a fury of bloodlust, they struck down my men, and killed many before they realized we were indeed. During the attack, I was struck slightly by a shot from a pistol, which rendered me unfit for a few minutes. When I was able, I stood, and saw the carnage. Ten more of my men were dead. Mermaids men defended themselves as they were able, though they were unwilling to bear arms against men they knew to be their fellow countrymen. Thus, many were slain, rather than knowingly murder their comrades.
Burke Able seaman
Martin Able seaman
Thompson Able seaman
Valentine Servant and cook
MacIntosh Carpenters mate
Armstrong Surgeons mate
Hill Gunners mate
Watson Ensign, marine
These names, as well as the above three, shall be entered into the log as having perished, valiantly defending a Kings ship.
To the credit of the boarders, their horror was real and of a disconsolate nature, when they saw what they had done. Two of them were dead, and several wounded. They shouted to their ship, stating that our claims were honest, and that we were English.
Two of our boats were lowered, but owing to panic and improper handling, one foundered and was sunk before a man could board her. The men of the Dreadnought assisted one another and our remaining crewmen into the single boat. They carried with them two of Mermaids injured men.
Hearing the shouts of Midshipman Adams, I saw that he was hanging on to the spars, which were still attached to the sinking ship by the tangle of rigging. He was holding Stewart, with whom he had fallen, and who was not conscious. Realizing that he would be unable to maintain his hold for long, I made my way out to them. I pulled Stewart to the waiting boat; Mr. Adams was then able to save himself. I returned to the sinking vessel for the body of Midshipman Todd. I cannot explain this decision. I could not leave him to be entombed. Midshipman Aams and myself reached the boat at the same time. Dreadnoughts men took the body of Midshipman Todd on board the small boat. Being now over-crowded, Midshipman Adams and I clung to the side, during the short cross to Dreadnought. As we came along side, Dreadnought fired once more into Mermaid, causing an explosion as her stores caught. The repercussion of the blast threw the ships boat against the frigates hull, injuring Mr. Adams who was crushed between the two vessels. Stunned by the explosion, I was assisted on board by the crew of the Dreadnought.
In the sick berth of the frigate, our people were not cared for in a timely manner. According to her ships doctor, Captain Foster had ordered that he first care for his own men. Midshipman Adams and I assisted with what wounds we were familiar, aided by the three seamen who did survive the attack. Within several hours the ships surgeon did finally attend our most seriously injured men. Those with only slight wounds were not given attention. The surgeon was overwhelmed with sick and injured men, and I do not censure his actions. Any willful negligence stems solely from his captains orders. During the time I was confined in the Dreadnought, I sent several requests to Captain Foster, for permission to speak with him. My requests were either ignored, or never recievd.
Midshipman Todd was given a Christian burial by the chaplain assigned to the Dreadnought, in conjunction with the burials of her own dead. Our men prepared his body, not willing to leave the task to strangers.
Within forty-eight hours, I and my men were collected by Lieutenant Hornblower, Medusa. We were removed to his brig immediately, with the seven survivors of Captain Fosters attack
In conclusion, I will state my impression that Captain Foster, even after he was undoubtedly aware of his error, continued to fire upon a British vessel. I do not presume to predicate his motives. I hope my opinion will be justified, when I reach England. If it is not, I will be more than pleased to offer my most sincere apology to Captain Foster, who is well known as a most heroic and courageous officer of His Majestys navy."
Lieutenant A. Kennedy
Horatio leaned forward and closed his eyes, then forced them open again. He had much to do, still. He stowed the pages of Archies report within the covers of one of his books, for safe-keeping, then began the laborious chore of re-accomplishing his own reports. When this was done, he looked up and saw that Matthews had brought his noon meal to him, without his recollection. Already he was exhausted by the days labors, though hed only been up since six. He cradled his head in his arms, and closed his eyes again, praying that he would not be the recipient of a headache like the one hed had two days ago.
Horatio could not sleep. They would arrive within twelve hours, and he still had not been able to speak with Archie. The ship, which had seemed so large when hed been ordered to command her, had grown very small--too confining for men who were avoiding one another.
The cabin was over-warm, the weather having finally turned from the frost, and warming unseasonably for April. He got up and climbed into his breeches, pulling them on under his nightshirt, tucking the tails into the waistband. Diving into his boots, he went out for a breath of cooler air without bothering to tie his queue. He was quiet, hoping to avoid the eyes of the watch. But they were Inde-trained men, and they sighted him almost instantly. Fries came toward him at a trot, inquiring whether he needed anything. Somewhat conscious of his appearance, Horatio sent him back to his duties with a less than gracious reply. Thank heaven it was such a dark night.
Breathing deeply of the cooler air, he noticed the stars, blurred behind a thin haze. There was no moon, and the only lights were the ships lanterns forward. Movement to the left caught his eye. Kennedy.
He stood near the rail, one foot on the carriage of a twelve-pounder, elbow on his knee, and chin on his hand. He looked out at nothing, it was too dark to see more than a few feet.
He had to speak with him; this would be the last opportunity before landfall tomorrow. Horatio came up to him, placing himself on the opposite side of the carriage, and leaned against the rail with his back to the sea.
Archie was aware of him, as he had been since his arrival. He waited. It was Horatios place to speak first, and to determine the course of the inevitable conflict.
"Cant sleep, Archie?"
Archie didnt look at him. "No. You?"
"No," then, "We land tomorrow."
A long silence was the result of these insightful revelations.
"Archie, what would you have me do?"
Archie finally turned to face him, lifting his chin and dropping his hand across his raised knee. He studied Horatio.
It had to begin somewhere. "Commander, you know best what you must do. I cannot presume to advise you."
"You used to do."
"Can I tell youexplain what happened? Do you care to hear it?"
Archies gaze returned to the darkness. "No, but you can tell it if you like."
"I am not trying to excuse myself, Archie. I know what I have done. I have read your report and I am sure you know that you are blameless."
"And that surprises you."
Horatio was taken aback.
"You assumed I was at fault, Horatio. You were relieved to have the whole incident swept away. You were afraid to hear the truth. You did not question Fosters motives, did you?"
"Archie, you know I trust you with my life! I have done so, many times, and you have never failed." He was suddenly angry that Archie presumed to know his thoughts. Angry, because he was right
"Your life, yes. But not your ship. Horatio, you do not rely on me, as an officer. You have no confidence in my judgement."
"Archie, all I can do is offer my apology. Yes, I did assume some error had been made; I cannot tell you why."
"I can. Horatio, youve spent the last six years watching my every move. You stand in front of me and parley every obstacle for me. You do not trust me to act rightly, when you are not there to intercede. Stop protecting me, and start trusting me!"
"No! No, thats not it "
"Yes, that is exactly it, and I am fed to the teeth with it." Then he was near shouting. "You assumed I had erred because you were not there to direct my actions."
"Yes, Horatio." Archies voice was too quiet. " I do not really blame you, you know. When we met, it was needed. I needed it. On Justinian, I needed it. In prison, I desperately needed it, and I thank you for it. But we are not midshipmen now, and this is not the Justinian. Will you never forget those days, Horatio?"
"I? I dontthink about it. Its not a part of anything I do."
"It is a part of every decision you make, where I am concerned."
"No, I "
Archie interrupted again, "And until you let it go, I never can!"
"I never thought of it, Archie. I didnt realize it, but you have changed "
"No I have not! YOU DO NOT LET ME!" Archies shout drew the attention of the watch. They had been observing as much as possible, in the darkness. But when they saw their captain look in their direction at this, they wisely averted their eyes and tried desperately to appear preoccupied.
Archie went on, more quietly, but still too loud for privacy: "I know you see this as friendship. But you do me no favors, for all that you are acting out of affection. And it is your nature, to protect those who are weak "
"Archie, you are not weak."
"No, I am not."
They were silent again, while Horatio digested this idea.
Then Archie continued: "I want your friendship, not your protection. Forgive me for being harsh, but I will not be silent any longer!" Archie finished, breathless.
Finally, Horatio answered the charge. "Ive tried to act with honor in every situation. I have always done as my conscience dictated."
"I know that. But your conscience has, until now, been misinformed."
Horatio gave this idea some thought. "Until now, you said. And before now, I could always justify my actions. Now I cannot. I merit your anger."
"Archie, I have worn my honor like a suit of armor, thinking it would protect me. Now I find that it is as fragile as an eggshell, and has been crushed. I can never regain what Ive thrown away."
"That is absurd."
"What do you mean!"
"You seem to harbor some romantic definition of honor. But now you are forced to see what it can and cannot do. Your honor is not gone. If it were, you would not be speaking of this. Tell me, why did you give Captain Foster control? Was it purely for the preservation of your career?"
"No! You know me better than that, I hope. Though in hindsight, I admit it was some relief when he said I would not be questioned. But the whole bloody interview was impossible, I had no idea of what he was really saying. None!"
"And if he told you everything, would you still have agreed to compromise your integrity, to preserve your prospects?"
"No! Absolutely not!"
"Why did you not understand him?"
"What are you asking me?"
"Just listen, and answer. Why did you not hear what he was telling you? You are normally very perceptive. What was different?"
"I wasnt listening, Archie. I wasdistracted."
"He had only just informed me of the attack, that he had witnessed it. Then he mentioned survivors. I didnt know who had been rescuedI wanted to get out, to find youto see who had been saved, whether you were "
"Me? Exactly my point."
"You were so preoccupied looking after my hide that you were negligent."
"Archie, you areit was important!"
"So you neglect your duty for friendship?"
"Sometimes I do. Yes. And for our men."
"That is dishonorableyou cheat the service of your best effort, then."
"Men are more important than ships!"
"Tell that to Captain Foster."
"I intend to."
"I know you do. So you see? That is where you keep your honor."
"What do you mean?"
"Your duty to your men. Something Captain Pellew taught us well. Something much more commendable than loyalty to the service, I think. Just dont tell the admiral how you feel. Somehow, I dont think he would sympathize."
"No, probably not."
"Your honor is not gone, Horatio. You just forgot where you put it. Face it, my friend, you panicked."
Panicked? He never panicked. Did he? Horatios head spun as he rested against the iron of the cannon. The metal was cold against his side, and in the darkness, he could not tell where the weapon ended and the night began. He worked his way around to the other side of it.
"Horatio," Archie was saying, "you are human, and you failed to be perfect. It happens. Forgive yourself, and learn from it, rather than torture yourself with it. That does no one any good."
"I should not make such errors! If I make an error, I disappoint everyone. I disappointed you, did I not?"
"Disappointed? No, I was not disappointed, I was damned furious. But still, I forgive you."
"Do you, Archie? I thank you, though I do not deserve it."
Archie sighed. Will you forgive yourself? he wanted to ask, but he already knew the answer. Some things would not change.
By ten oclock the following morning, both Medusa and Dolphin were in sight of land. By eleven-thirty, they were able to ascertain that both the Indefatigable and the Dreadnought were put into port before them, along with Captain Pellews old ship, Arethusa. Something was brewing. Horatio did not know what, but he did know he was pleased to have rejoined the Inde before it took place.
The customs agent came aboard then, and took an interminable amount of time to see that things were right, collecting necessary information and examining the men for disease and fever. Horatio noticed that the man kept glancing at him from aside, looking away quickly whenever he was caught.
"Is there a problem, mister?" Horatio finally demanded, tired of the game.
"Nono sir, that is, I just heard what happened, and well sir, its a shame, thats all."
"What is?" Horatio asked, revealing nothing.
"About the other ship, of course. I mean to say, its bad when men are killed for fools, isnt it? That Lieutenant will have to give up his commission, wont he? I hear Captain Pellew is hopping mad, and that he and Captain Foster nearly came to blows this morning."
"Thats enough," Horatio snapped. "I doubt your duties here include repeating rumors about your betters."
"No sir! Of course not. Sorry if I offended." The young ensign quickly apologized and concluded his business on board. "You are clear to land sir, and good luck to you."
Now what did he mean by that? By any of it? Obviously Captain Foster had gone ahead with his report to the admiralty. God only knew what he had said. And Captain Pellew was angry. Of course he was. Foster had always irritated him, and was most likely using this incident to antagonize him even further. Horatio now dreaded meeting with his captain, where earlier he had looked forward to the reunion.
Dancer was through then with inspections on the Dolphin, and came over to Medusa in readiness to depart. Archie had been in the sick berth all the morning, still insisting on helping with his men there. Horatio sent word for him, it was time to rejoin the Indefatigable.
Matthews had readied the boat which would carry them home. As they were rowed across, Horatio made Archie aware of what he had heard already, and together they speculated on what Foster might have said. Finally, Archie sighed tiredly. "Horatio, this is pointless. We must simply wait and hear it from Captain Pellew."
By the time they reached the Inde, Horatios temper was at its finest.
As they clambered on board, they were met with silence from the crew. Sidelong glances, men pretending not to see them, pretending not to stare, and Mr. Bowles coming to them and leading them to the Captains cabin were the order of the day. Bowles left them just inside the door. The three men stood at attention, waiting to be recognized by Captain Pellew. When he did finally turn to face them, his face was haggard and drawn. He studied each of them in turn, for what seemed like hours.
Finally he spoke. "I assume you gentlemen have reports for me."
Horatio quickly undid the bindings and laid the reports on the desk before the captain.
"Thank you. You are dismissed. I will send for you as I have need of you."
Recognizing that he was in no mood to be disobeyed, they filed out one by one, and made their way to the ward room to wait, collapsing gratefully into the chairs. Mr. Bowles joined them shortly after, seating himself across from them, sighing as he sat looking at them all sympathetically.
"No matter what he says, gentlemen, he is greatly relieved at the return of the three of you. We had heard that Lt. Kennedy was deceased. Dont make a habit of this, Lieutenant, remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? Next time you die, I will simply refuse to believe it."
Horatio was appalled by this morbid jest; how dare they joke about it? He thought back to those days when he thought Archie was dead, and could not laugh. What a cruel way to treat mens feelings. Then he recalled an incident from years ago, also involving Captain Foster. Mr. Bracegirdle had asked him to decide: if given a choice between weeping and singing, which would he choose? Death was around them constantly. It was probably best not to give in to fear. That would give power where there should be none.
Archie relied in kind: "Havent you heard, Mr. Bowles? I have nine lives. It has been a while since I took a reckoning, but I am fairly certain I have one or two left me, even now," he grinned.
Bowles and Dancer laughed, but Horatio was astounded. This was going too far, surely! Luckily Mr. Bowles changed the subject. "I am unsure what has been said, but I will tell you that Captain Pellew and Captain Foster nearly came to blows, when they last met. Gentlemen, I hope you are aware that the captain will follow the letter of the law, whatever happened out there. Hopefully, this will not cause you undue worry."
"I am not afraid of the LAW, Mr. Bowles," Horatio nearly shouted. "My fear is of those who may be allowed certain freedoms outside of it!"
A noise behind them made them turn. "Gentlemen, may I?" Captain Pellew inquired quietly.
In a movement, the all stood, shocked to see him in the wardroom. "Please, sit, gentlemen. At your ease. May I join you?"
"Of course sir, and welcome," Horatio responded, slightly breathless at the unprecedented visit. "May we offer a drink, sir?"
"With pleasure, thank you."
Mr. Bowles did the honors, knowing that calling a servant would mean an additional pair of ears.
"Do any of you gentlemen have any objection to Mr. Bowles remaining with us while we speak?" the captain inquired. None did.
"Good. First, then, let me express to you gentlemen that I am relieved indeed to see all three of you. I had heard reports that one of you, at least, was no longer with us. The report was once again premature, it appears." Pellew looked at Kennedy, as he said this.
All four of them stared fixedly down at the table before them, suddenly finding a great deal that was interesting in the grain of the wood from which it was made. Horatio mentally challenged Archie to repeat his earlier comment, and without warning, he was struck by an uncontrollable urge to laugh. His mouth was quivering, his shoulders shaking, and then to his horror, his eyes began to water with the effort to control it. Captain Pellew was still silent, and eventually he had to look up at him.
"Your feelings do you credit, gentlemen," he said with all seriousness.
Horatio did his best, but finally it had to come out. The room exploded as the others apparently had been undergoing the same tortures of restraint. Captain Pellew rose from his chair with disbelief blazing from his face. This only made control the more difficult for his officers, and they laughed until they were out of breath, finally taking pity on their captain and clueing him in on the joke.
"I quite understand," he said dubiously, obviously not understanding at all. What he did know was these men had all been through a week of hell, and that it had to come out somehow.
When they had calmed themselves, he began again. "Now gentlemen," he said quietly. "Captain Foster" he spit the name out as though it were poisoning him, "has made a statement that in several points disagrees with those I have before me." He slapped his hand down upon the stack of pages before him. "Can any of you explain to me the reason for this mysterious discrepancy?"
Horatio was in a bind. He obviously could not accuse Foster of lying. The Articles of War prohibited contemptuous behavior toward a superior officer. And contempt exactly described his feelings toward the man. "No sir, I cannot," he decided on a course. "I have not heard Captain Fosters report, and do not know where the discrepancy lies."
"Very good, Lieutenant. Diplomatic, but useless. And you, Lieutenant Kennedy? Do you offer any explanation?"
"No sir. I believe my report to be complete and truthful. I cannot, in good conscience, change a word of it." Kennedys voice was strong, but it was evident when he spoke that he was still incensed.
"Indeed, Lt. Kennedy?" Pellews dark eyes pierced those of his fair lieutenant, searching. He seemed to find something which satisfied.
"Yes, sir," replied Kennedy.
"Gentlemen, this incident will be investigated thoroughly. I will insist on it. And I assure you that I am determined that my men shall be found blameless in the matter. Now if you will excuse us, Lieutenant Hornblower, I wish to see you in my cabin for a moment. Thank you for your hospitality, gentlemen. Good day."
Horatio paled, knowing what was coming. As he followed Captain Pellew out, he looked back at Archie and saw the sympathy in his eyes. But it didnt change anything. He would have to take what he deserved now, where his mistake with Foster was concerned.
Pellew closed the door to his cabin, and sat, leaving Horatio standing before him. A good clue, Horaito thought, when a man is not offered a seat. Pellew paged casually through the pages of the reports before h im, then read a particular one with care. Finally he looked up. "Lieutenant Hornblower, I am disappointed."
Horatio felt himself go another shade paler, and his vision tunneled. With ears ringing, he fought to focus on Captain Pellews left epaulette, not daring to meet his eyes.
"Yes sir" he almost whispered.
"How dare you, sir?" he growled. "What posessed you to enter this dishonorable agreement? What in Gods name were you thinking! Obviously you were not thinking at all, sir." He threw the books down on his desk with a crack like a pistol firing. "Well, sir? I require an answer!"
"S sir, I have no excuse."
"No, you do not. And I did not ask for one. I asked, Mr. Hornblower, for an explanation!"
"Yes, sir." But he couldnt speak.
"Well?" Captain Pellew waited a few more seconds, then added, "Am I to have the honor of a reply, sir?"
"Sir, I cannotexplain."
"Am I to understand that you are refusing an order, Lieutenant?" Pellews voice was low, and almost threatening.
"Sir, I justpanicked. I was intimidated because of previous encounters, I think that, and I was very tiredI know thats no excuse, I mean no reason, but I dont know!"
"You dont know. This is not the sort of behavior I have come to expect from you, Lieutenant. You do not panic in battle, do you? Why should you do so in a conversation with Captain Foster?"
"Sir, I apologize. Ihe gave me an order, and I agreed; I didnt think. I was distracted, thinking of the men, sir. He had just informed me of survivors, and I didnt knowwe thought them all dead, sir, or captured at leastI just wanted to know who had survivedI could think of nothing else " The horror of those few days came back suddenly, and his knees began shaking. He remembered with astounding clarity the sight of the Mermaids figurehead staring up at him through six inches of water, smiling, she was smiling at him, laughing, taking pleasure in his pain, mocking the idea that Archie was under there with her, inhaling the foul waters that were hers for eternity.
With a jolt, he forced himself back to the present. Captain Pellew was studying him intently.
"I see," he said. "You are dismissed. Confine yourself to your cabin until further notice.
"Yes sir," he agreed, blinded, head spinning, nauseous.
He saluted and stumbled to the exit, and made his way unsteadily toward the ladder. Unconsciously he noted that Matthews and the others were just coming on board. So long, why had it taken them so long to come back? They should have been here hours ago. No, that wasnt right. The sun has not moved, its still midday. How could that be? The men began to surround him, all wanting to have a word, to repeat rumors they had heard, but he couldnt hear them, or even see them.
Noting the look of the Lieutenants face, and having seen him just come from Captain Pellews cabin, Matthews ran interference. "You men!" he shouted. "Get on with you, what do you think this is, a holiday? Clear up this mess, and get below and store your gear. Come on, get moving there " Magically the press of men disappeared, and Horatio was able to move. He bolted below and through the ward room, past the strange faces there, Archie, Dancer, Bowles, he recognized no one. Finally, leaning inside the closed door of his cabin, he took a moment to catch his breath. Exhausted, he stripped off his uniform, letting it fall unheeded to the floor. He fell across his cot, and lay there, studying the overhead beams.
Six years. He had spent every day of the last six years trying his utmost to emulate and impress Captain Pellew, who was, in his mind, a perfect captain. And in one second, he had destroyed all that he had worked so hard to build. One moment of laxity, one second of letting his guard down, and he was ruined. He would never forgive himself for it. Nor would he forgive himself the sudden tears that filled his eyes as Pellews words echoed in his heart.
A boy brought Horatio his dinner that night, and then his breakfast in the morning. He had seen no one all day, and was at a loss as to what he should be doing. He was unable to stop the cycle of thoughts turning over and over in his mind.
Perhaps that was the point. Captain Pellew must know how he would feel about this confinement. In his six years on the Indefatigable, he had never been confined to his quarters. He had never thought of it happening to him. He recalled his shame as he crossed the wardroom last night, the vague unrecognizable faces of the men he had been conversing with just minutes before his interview with Captain Pellew. He had been deeply humiliated as he passed them without a word. He was sure everyone on the ship knew of his disgrace even before he left the captains cabin. He would rather have faced the gauntlet at the receiving end. What must they all think of him now?
No one had come to his door all day, not even Archie. So they all knew. The noon meal came and went, the boy who carried it out saw that it was as untouched as when he had brought it in.
The ship was unnaturally quiet for being in port. He heard no sounds of the usual revelry, drunkenness, ships boats arriving and departing. It was like a ghost ship. Were it not for the boy and the food he brought, Horatio thought his imagination might get the better of him. He was desperate to know what was happening with the Dreadnought and Captain Foster. He needed to know what the fiend had said, in his reports. What lies had he told? Am I under arrest? I could be disrated.
It seemed the longer he stayed alone with his thoughts, the more morbid they became. During the night, he had dreamed of his ignominious death at the end of a rope. It got worse from there. He thought of his death, and the grief of his friends and the joy of his enemies. And of the enemy he might meet, once they were joined in death. That thought had provided an additional nightmare, so he spent the rest of the night awake.
He imagined every possibility, every eventuality that might result from his actions. Once he even had Captain Pellew begging for his bread on the docks of Portsmouth. And it was all because of his stupidity.
A steady tapping brought him to the present again, and he realized that the sound had been persisting for some time now. He opened his door, and Archie Kennedy entered, dressed in his finest shore-going uniform. The sight of another human being was better than a feast. In the last six years he had thought at times that he would commit murder for a few minutes of solitude. He was surprised to realize that solitude had its drawbacks. He pulled Archie in by his hand and held it, not wanting to let go.
"Too much of a good thing, Horatio?" Archie, guessing his feelings, was almost laughing at him. Then seriously, "How are you?"
"My God, Archie, how did you stand it for years? I am insane in less than a day. How I salute you. And I am here within inches of men I know."
"Knowing they are there, and being unable to see them, that would be worse. At least I knew I was alone." Horatio could see the memory flitting across Archies features, the agony of not knowing whether he would ever be returned, whether his shipmates had survived the raid, whether they knew he was alive. Prison should be outlawed. Death would be more humane. He could not believe that Archie meant what he said. Being alone would be much worse.
"Why are you here, Archie?"
"You had better get dressed, Horatio. The men have insisted on a burial service for those who were for the dead. Captain Pellew has agreed to let you attend. You have about ten minutes to get ready."
"Oh. That is good, I think. Yes. We need to do something, dont we? There will be hard feelings between our people and those of the Dreadnought. This may help dislodge some of it, and keep them out of trouble."
"Too late for that, Im afraid. There have already been two incidents, and now our men are confined to the ship. No shore leave, and no visitors without the captains permission. They are taking it well though. This is giving them something to think about, and they arent much in the mood for skylarking anyway."
That explained the unnatural silence, at least. "A good idea, then. Yours? Of course it was. Fighting like that will lead to killing, especially if drink is involved. More death will not bring them back."
"No. Nothing can do that."
Horatio pulled on his last clean shirt, and began fastening it. Archie was very quiet, and as he looked up, he saw that something was disturbing him. He had a bundle of fabric under his left arm, and his eyes appeared unfocused.
"Archie?" He didnt appear to hear. "Archie " he touched his shoulder, shaking him a little.
"What?" Archie looked up, confused.
"Are you well? How is your head?"
"Fine I am fine." He lost focus again. Horatio knew this response like litany. He had heard it often enough. Fine, yes. Fine indeed. Compared to what, precisely?
"Has something else happened?"
"No," he took his time replying. "Horatio, we have seen action many times. We have fought, and killed, and seen our men die, more men than I can remember. Do you ever wonder why why some men die, while other men live? Are they chosen to die, is it their time? Or is it chance? Why are we still here, still alive, why do we still possess all of our limbs, while others "
"It is luck, Archie. Chance. It is about war, and cannon balls and shot flying over our heads, cutting down those who are in the way. That is all. It is about the damned Frogs and the stinking Dagos trying to kill us, while we try not to let them."
"You forget the English."
"The British Navy. Foster is British."
"I watched Christopher Todd die, and he was less than six inches from me. Why him, and not me? He was a child; he had never even lived! He was potential. So much more than I, why am I still here?"
"Archie, it is not a question of worth. It is a question of luck, and the failure of the enemy to aim properly at your person. It is nothing more. There is no answer; dont think about it."
Archie did not appear to hear, or hearing, could not correlate this idea with his convictions. Horatio decided upon a change of subject.
"What is that?" he asked, indicating the bundle Archie was gripping.
"Oh, the flag. From the Mermaid, of course. We have decided to burn it tonight, after. I had thought to save it, for Christophers family. But I cannot, it is too dismaying to look upon." Horatio remembered the story Midshipman Adams had told, of how Archie had used the flag to wrap Todds body, to bring it to the Dreadnought. Archie spoke again, "The last vestige of the Mermaid; hopefully the gesture will satisfy the men."
"Are you ready? They will be starting."
The service was read by a borrowed chaplain. Captain Foster had sent a representative, a Lieutenant Silver, to attend the evening. Horatio thought this to be in very poor taste. Berthed just outside of hailing distance, the Dreadnought maintained a respectful silence all the while. Horatio wondered how Captain Pellew had managed this without causing further animosity. But had they caused any disturbance, the Indefatigables men would have mutinied to seek revenge. They were wise, over there, to show respect. It insured their safety.
Horatio did not listen to either the service or the prayers. He could find no comfort in them. The chaplains monotone speech left his mind to wander, thinking of what tomorrow would bring. He looked about for Captain Pellew, but it was now too dark to recognize a particular person. The only lights were several lanthorns scattered about, but they served more to accentuate the darkness rather than relieve it. He could make out only those nearest him. The unrecognized man close by on the quarterdeck was likely the visiting Lieutenant. Silver, Archie had said. A tall man with a bland face, a nondescript officer type, they sort of man who appeared to have been born wearing the uniform he would likely die in.
The chaplain had finished and Acting Lieutenant Dancer began to speak, drawing Horatios attention out of his thoughts. Archie pulled his sleeve and whispered, "Dancer is going to read something now, a poem he bought on shore this morning. Its been going round the fleet for a while. I have heard of it, but not read it. He felt it would be appropriate, so he asked Captain Pellew for permission to read it."
Dancer had already begun. Horatio wondered at first why Archie had not chosen to do this, until he thought for a moment. Archie had a good voice for recitation, but he had abandoned maudlin romance. Death was far from romantic. Dancer was young, and the prosaic reality of it had not reached him yet.
In the silence of the evening, Dancers voice carried over the deck and across the water, eerily echoing. Ashore, the night birds were silent; they seemed to have cancelled the evening concert out of compassion. The men listened as though hypnotized.
Horatio found the reading fascinating. He had always enjoyed the classical style of rhyme, cadence and mathematical rhythm of ancient poets. This modernization of the style, and the perfect blending of sounds were more like music to his ears than the warbling of fife or flute.
The story itself was of a mysterious voyage to the frozen lands to the south, and what happened to a man who senselessly killed an albatross.
He looed at the men nearby as they sat enraptured by the tale.
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
He was not surprised to see that many of the men were weeping, tears streaming unheeded down ruddy cheeks.
Beautiful, horrible scenery, painted for men who understood the sea; the brutal mistress who heeded not, whos insatiable appetite was well known to them. She had cut her teeth on their hearts.
Dancer went on, another verse:
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
A thousand thousand slimy things
And so did I.
From well inside himself, Horatio heard a sharp intake of breath, and felt a strong grip on his shoulder. He suddenly recalled the conversation earlier, in his cabin. Archie was struggling already with guilt, the feeling that he was not worthy to have survived the slaughter. This was dreadfully callous, considering the circumstances.
I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
Horatio felt more than knew that something was wrong. Instinctively, he reached out an arm and realized he was supporting nearly all of Kennedys weight. "Shut him up" Archies face was white, even in the darkness. "God, shut him up, Horatio "
"I cannot, he is too far away, he cannot see us!"
But Dancer had suddenly heard the words that were coming from his own lips. He hesitated, confused. He went forward some pages, advancing the story. Choosing another line randomly, he began anew.
I woke, and we were sailing on
As in a gentle weather:
This was better.
"Twas night, calm night, the moon was high;
The dead men stood together.
No! God, someone stop him
All stood together on the deck,
For a charnel-dungeon fitter:
All fixed on me their stony eyes,
That in the Moon did glitter.
Horatio looked wildly about, desperate for help.
The Pang, the curse, with which they died,
Had never passed away:
No help came.
I could not draw my eyes from theirs,
Nor turn them up to pray.
Why did no one help him! "Archie, walk hang onto my shoulder and walk away." He pulled, tried to get between the officers gathered there, but could make little progress. He felt Archies hand clutching his coat, could hear his ragged breathing. He pushed against a long black coat, and was face to face with the strange Lieutenant, who studied them curiously. He must think we are drunk, Horatio thought calmly. Did it matter?
After an age of struggling, Archie seemed suddenly lighter. He glanced aside, and was startled to find Captain Pellew beside him. "Thank God, sirhelp me, please! I have got to get him out of here."
"Easy, gentlemen." Pellews voice calmed, even as it encouraged. "Kennedy Mr. Kennedy!" his voice shouted a whisper in Archies ear. He flinched, but did not answer.
"He needs help, where is the doctor!"
"Take his arm, well get him below, then worry about finding "
"I saw, but I could not get to you, Horatio. I am sorry." Dr. Sebastian was with them then, leading the way. "Archie, hang on, you are fine. Remember what we discussed? Take deep breaths, sir, and think of nothing else. Do you hear me?"
Archie nodded, concentrating all of his efforts on that on task.
As Horatio pulled Archies arm up over his shoulder, the flag he was holding fell to the deck at their feet. A man bent down and picked it up, and held it. It was Lieutenant Silver, of the Dreadnought. Captain Pellew reached out and took it from him.
"What is this?" he asked.
"The flag sir, from the Mermaid." Horatio informed him. "They wish to burn it over the water, after the reading I believe."
"Indeed? Youboy!" Captain Pellew snagged a young lad by the ear, and pulled him near. "Take this directly to Lieutenant Hornblowers cabin. Do you know exactly where that is? Take it there, and wait there with it until you hear otherwise. GO!" he released the terrified boy with a shove in the proper direction.
Moving forward, Horatio noted Lieutenant Silver watching the drama, his face unreadable. Archie was talking now, and not quietly. "Did you hear that, Horatio? I told you it was more than chance. A thousand slimy things lived on, but none of the men, do you see? Lived on, and on, and so did I, and so did I, I wonder why I wonder why I never die care to join the game? You do the next line, Horatio, and Ill add one "
"No, Mr. Hornblower." Dr. Sebastian corrected him. "Let him go on, its what he must do."
"NO!" shouted Archie to the air. Then again, more quietly, "No!"
Horatio did not understand at all. What was going on? Archie seemed to be fighting a battle, one that only he was not aware of. Captain Pellew and Dr. Sebastian were watching Archie intently, ignoring everything else.
Suddenly Captain Pellew turned on Horatio. "Lieutenant, return to your quarters now."
Horatio couldnt believe his ears. No!
"WHAT DID YOU SAY TO ME, LIEUTENANT?" Captain Pellew was twelve feet tall.
Oh God, had he said that? No, he couldnt have but he had, he had, and he was about to die. He closed his eyes, and waited for the lightening to strike.
"No!" Archie shouted.
Dr. Sebastian touched Captain Pellews sleeve and whispered a word. Pellew shook his head. "Lieutenant, obey me instantly." His voice was quiet, his eyes flint. Horatio went.
"Its more important than he knows," he heard Captain Pellew saying. "Is it a fit?"
"No, not not yet. Hes getting the upper hand of it, you see?" Dr. Sebastians voice carried up the ladder.
Then he heard a last word, floating. "God, what a nightmare of a day this has been. And that God-awful poem. I shall have the man flogged, I really shall "
He was out of earshot then, the noise from above taking over. The men were repairing to the berths now, there would only be a minimal watch in port.
Why had Captain Pellew insisted he return to his quarters? Horatio wondered. Why was it important? It had nothing to do with Archies condition, of that he was certain.
He opened his cabin door, and was bewildered to see a boy inside. "Sir, I waited for you, as he said."
The flag, that damned flag. He had forgotten about it. "Thank you, I will take it now, you may go."
"S..sir, will Lieutenant Kennedy be all right? I mean, he is not sick, is he? I heard there were pox on the Dreadnought, might he have it?"
"No, no boy, he will be well soon, I swear. Do you care?"
"Yes sir! We I mean I well sir, hes very good, isnt he?"
"Yes, very good. Would you do us both a favor then, lad? What is your name?"
"Mr. Johns, will you go below and see if Dr. Sebastian needs any help?"
"Yes, sir. I mean "
"Never mind, just go."
The boy raced off with enthusiasm, to perform his assignment. He looked down and realized the flag was still in his arms. Cautiously, he unfolded it, and studied it. Why was Captain Pellew so concerned about this? Burning was about all it was good for. It was peppered with shot holes and powder burns. As it fell open, he noticed odd markings on it, an interesting pattern of diamond-shaped patches at regular intervals, each mark centered at a crease or fold in the fabric. He nearly dropped it when he realized they were blood stains. He re-folded it and wrapped it in sailcloth slops before tucking it away with his linens. He did not want to soil the few he had left.
Sensing a presence, he looked up. Lieutenant Silver was watching him. "Can I help you?" he asked.
"You are Lieutenant Hornblower?"
"Yes. And you are Lieutenant Silver, of the Dreadnought. I thank you for attending this evening. Does it mean anything?" Horatio was not usually so candid, but he obeyed his instinct. He was sure the Lieutenant had only come for a display of ceremony, not out of any real concern or regret experienced by his captain.
"Yes and no. Captain Foster did not send me, I came because I wanted to. But I must go back soon."
"And why did you want to come?"
"Just I would like to talk, if I may."
"Come now, Lieutenant. Really! I simply want to speak with you and Lieutenant Kennedy. Surely you can "
"No, I mean, I am not I am confined to my quarters, and cannot speak to anyone. Our men are restricted, no visitors without permission from Captain Pellew. I am sure that impediment applies doubly to me. Shall I send for Captain Pellew? I am sure he would like to hear anything you have to say."
"Why? I am not here to be questioned. I simply wish to talk to you and Lieutenant Kennedy. I saw him taken below. Is he ill?"
"No, he will be well, I believe. I am not certain. Please, I must "
"Very well. I have already permission to come aboard. Shall I wait here in the ward room, until someone comes?"
"Yes, certainly." And with that, Horatio closed his door. He did not wish for another reason to anger Captain Pellew. Within minutes, Johns returned to him with a note. Horatio unfolded the paper, and saw that it was from Dr. Sebastian.
First of all, calm yourself. Your Captain is not angry, nor is he punishing you. He spoke out of fear, and will explain matters fully when he can. Do as he ordered, and do not leave your quarters for any reason.
Archie is well, and will continue to be so. He is weaning himself of my sick bay, and I think you must know how this idea makes me smile. He refuses now to even lie down on one of my tables. He is stubborn at times, would you agree?
Ah, I see a boy outside the door, I assume he has come from you. Take care, Horatio, to be less predictable when you have your own command. If you do not, you will lose your ship within the first fortnight.
Horatio grinned slightly as he read. Then he said to the boy, "Mr. Johns, I need you to go once more. Return to the sick bay, and ask for Captain Pellew. Tell him it is somewhat urgent that I speak with him."
This time, when the boy returned, Captain Pellew was with him.
"Mr. Hornblower, where is the fire, please?" Horatio noted the worry underlying the sarcasm.
"Sir, I asked for you, for Lieutenant Silver, of the Dreadnought. He requests permission to see Lieutenant Kennedy, before he returns."
Captain Pellew turned toward Lieutenant Silver, and addressed him. "Yes, Lieutenant? What do you want of my officers, sir?"
"Captain, I led the party that boardedthat killed your men."
"Yes, Mr. Silver, I am aware of this."
"I wish to offer my apology sir, and my sympathy to you and your men, for our blunder. And I would like to apologize to Lt. Kennedy for the treatment he received on board the Dreadnought while he was out guest."
"Indeed. And is that all you came here to do?"
"Yes sir, at least yes sir."
Captain Pellew studied him onerously. "Are you certain?"
"Yes sir," came the reply, more firmly this time.
"An officer does not apologize for doing his duty, or for following his captains orders. Why are you here?" Captain Pellew seemed to be suffering the same lack of tact that had afflicted Horatio earlier.
"Sir, I believed your men to be English. And still I followed my orders. I wish with all my heart that I had not."
"Lieutenant," Captain Pellew said slowly, "this is not the first time in my career that I have found myself wishing an officer had disobeyed his orders. And each time it has happened, men were senselessly killed. I live with the consequences of having once made the same decision you made."
Horatio was astounded by this revelation; what could Captain Pellew mean?
"Sir, I accuse only myselfI should have refused the order and faced the consequences. I would prefer to live with the dishonor of loosing my commission than the dishonor of knowing I am a murderer."
"Lieutenant, you have my permission to speak with my officers. Lieutenant Hornblower will accompany you. But wait here, I must have a word with my Lieutenant before you go."
"Yes, sir. Thank you for indulging me, sir."
Captain Pellew walked into Horatos small cabin, and closed the door tightly. Surprised, just as he was when Pellew had joined them in the wardroom the day before, he was nearly speechless. His captain had never before entered his cabin, and he was grateful that he would find nothing to shame him. Had he entered earlier in the day, he would have seen his uniform in a crumpled heap on the floor, not to mention general mayhem where he had sought to occupy himself with books or papers.
"Lieutenant Hornblower, you will accompany Lieutenant Silver while he is on my ship. You are not to leave his side, do you understand?"
"No, sir. I think you do not. The man has some hidden agenda that I cannot fathom. It may have to do with where is the flag?"
"Here sir, in my locker." He retrieved it and handed it to his captain, still confused.
"This small bit of silk and cotton is the evidence that will refute Captain Fosters claims of Lieutenant Kennedys wrongdoing. Should anything happen to it, he would loose. And damn his sentiment, he was going to see it burned."
"Sir, I dont see how "
"Lieutenant Hornblower, think, man! What action do you take, when you wish your enemy to cease firing upon your vessel?"
"Yes, STRIKE. Lower your colors, surrender! And Captain Foster claims that Mermaid did not strike. Now we have him," he growled menacingly.
Horatio understood. He reddened with anger. "How does he dare, sir! There must have been witnesses, men on the Dreadnought! Does he expect his men will lie for him?"
"There are those who will, Hornblower. Do not be deceived, do not judge all men by your own standards. There are many who would ingratiate themselves to their captain in this way, if they thought it would be to their advantage."
"And Lieutenant Silver sir, you think he is one of those men?"
"Ask yourself why he is here, Lieutenant. How many of Fosters men must have known of this flag? Kennedy told me why he had it still in his posession. Many men must have seen him carry the body across the several yards of sea, wrapped in this..."
"So you think, sir, that he might have come here to find it? To destroy it, perhaps? I thought him sincere in his regret, sir. I hope this proves untrue."
"It may do so, but meanwhile, I do not trust him, or any of Fosters men. Until this incident is settled, I order that you do the same, no matter how poignant the sentiments spoken. I see something in him, he has a motive for his presence here. What it may be, I cannot tell. Perhaps he will tell you."
"I hope so, sir.
"When he is gone, I want you and Lieutenant Kennedy to report to me, in my quarters. I will share with you what progress we are making in this inquiry. Lord Bridport is not sympathetic, he has set up Foster as the popular hero of the press, and he will go far to keep the admiralty from discountenance. He has not been a friend to us, but since Jerviss illness, we have no recourse."
"I think I understand sir. When Foster is proven wrong, nothing will be done."
"Precisely, sir. My only hope is that the affair might be ignored, and that you and Lieutenant Kennedy might not be harmed by it. Bridport will make it disappear, for his own internal comfort. I pray he does not demand my two officers disappear along with it."
"Disappear, sir? You mean he would order us elsewhere?"
"It would not be unheard of. The fleet has a way of sweeping up her errors, hiding her embarrassments. You might have lied, and saved yourself this. This the price you pay for honor, Hornblower. I think the hardest lesson for you yet."
"Yes sir, I agree."
"As Foster outranks me by far, as he outranks you two even farther, well sir, it has a way of rolling down hill and making a great heap at the bottom. I should dislike being one of his seamen at present. The ones who saw Kennedy with that flag, and who did not tell him of it. I wouldnt give a bent hapence for their lives now no, I do not accuse the man of murder. Think of it, there are many ways for a seaman to die. His life is one of risk. A simple shuffle of the decks, and next time they see action, his problems have ceased to be."
Horatio was horrified that any captain would think of such methods, and vowed he would never be such a man, no matter what. A great price, but he had to live in the shoes he wore, and nothing less would answer.
"I see you comprehend me. Lieutenant Silver is waiting, and he seemed in a hurry. Take him, find Kennedy, and when he is gone you need not consider yourself confined any longer."
"Thank you sir."
"I pray the days reflections have done you no harm?"
"No sir, none or well, it was far from enjoyable, sir." Horatio wondered what Captain Pellew would think of his imagining the great man begging on the docks, dressed in rags. He wisely decided not to share that charming fantasy. He almost smiled.
Captain Pellew left the door open.
He found Lieutenant Silver where they had left him, anxiously pacing the wardroom. Horatio took him by the arm and quickly headed below, where he hoped to find Archie Kennedy looking as well as Dr. Sebastian had implied in his note.
They were still in the sick berth, as expected. Kennedy enjoyed Dr. Sebastians company, and though he might not lie on his examining tables, he would stay for conversation. And Archie had apparently some strong ideas to discuss, after the events of the last week. His views on death, for one. And why he was still alive. Horatio hoped that between Captain Pellew and Dr. Sebastian, they had been able to un-warp his skewed views and ideas. For himself, it was beyond him. He could not discuss such things.
"Ah, your retinue has come for you, Lieutenant, just as we predicted. You may go of course, whenever you wish. And who is this?" he asked, studying the Dreadnoughts handsome Lieutenant. Horatio introduced Silver, and looked toward Archie while the two men made themselves known to one another. Archie looked well.
"Archie, Lieutenant Silver wishes to speak with us," he said in a low voice. "Captain Pellew has given his permission. After we are through, we are to report to him, he wishes to share what progress he is making, in the inquiry."
"Yes, he told me some of what we should expect." Archie looked a little worried.
"Take care," they heard Dr. Sebastian say to Silver. "I must be off, gentlemen, so I bid you goodnight."
They decided to converse on the gun deck, as the wardroom would be crowded by this hour. As they settled themselves amongst the cannon, Archie spoke first.
"I recognized you, Lieutenant," he said, unconsciously touching the wound on his head.
"I thought you might. I am sorry about that, Kennedy. I tried to miss, but my aim was off. I shall do better next time."
"You tried to miss? And I thought I was just lucky."
"That is why I am here. I tried to see you when you were our guest on board, but I was prevented. Bluntly, Captain Foster would not allow it."
"I have come to offer my apologies to you, on my own behalf. You will get no others, I know. We were wrong, and I knew it, and I was powerless to stop it. I led the party that murdered your men, our men, English men! I was unable to stop it, my feelings were not they didnt care what I thought. So I shut my mouth, and followed my orders."
Horatio wished he could keep these disclosures from Archie, it would do him no good to hear this, he thought. How can it help to know your men were wantonly and knowingly murdered?
But he had taken to heart the words Archie had spoken in the cabin on the Medusa. He would not interfere. He saw Archie look at him, he had seen the struggle as clearly as if he had spoken the words aloud. And Horatio knew he had done right. He must let Archie stand on his own.
Lieutenant Silver went on: "Gentlemen, my time is short. The boat will come for me in minutes. I had hoped for more time. Ive written to the commodore in charge of the inquiry, stating what I saw, and what I know. I think perhaps it will be considered, as I am also resigning my commission this day. I no longer wish to die as an officer in His Majestys Navy."
They were speechless with sympathy, then with understanding. If they had to suffer under such a captain, what might they do?
"I am a murderer, in my own eyes. I am sorry for your loss, Kennedy, especially of the young lad. I understand from our chaplain that you are acquainted with his family. Please, would you express my condolences to them? I cannot tell them how sorry I am. It was a useless and pointless waste, and a horrible loss. I have written also of your bravery and determination, where that young man was concerned. I saw you go back to your ship, and carry his body to us. Your loyalty should be rewardedyou risked your life to accomplish that. I found myself admiring you greatly, that day. I know of no man who would do the same for me."
Archie looked a little confused, as though he did not recall the circumstance clearly.
"Now gentlemen, my boat will be here. We shall not meet again, and that is for the best. Will you see me out?"
They walked on either side of him across the deck to the gangway. Once above in the still night air, they were silent. A hired boat was waiting, and they left him at the entry port, said farewell, though they knew in their hearts that he would not. He was a tortured man, Horatio thought, as they walked away. His own crime paled in comparison. He hoped he would never have to face the same decision.
Then he recalled that they were to meet with Captain Pellew now, and reminded Archie. They went below and found a Marine at the door, but the Captain was not there. He had been summoned ashore by the commodore a short time ago. Mr. Bowles had been sent to find them, but could not locate them in time.
They looked at one another in consternation. "We had better find Mr. Bowles," Archie decided.
The sound of a pistol shot on the deck above sent them charging back up the ladder. A signal perhaps? What could be happening? The French would never dare attack this number of ships, so well protected in port. The came up into the darkness, and looked about, anxiously, trying to locate the source of the alarm. Then few men on watch were likewise clueless. "It came from that way," one of them shouted. "I saw the flash!"
Archie grabbed Horatios arm, abruptly perceiving the truth. "My God, Horatio! He said he did not wish to die as an officerhe resigned his commission today hurry!"
Archie, still gripping Horatios arm, pulled him across the deck, stumbling and tripping in the darkness toward the entry port.
"Hes here oh God, no! Oh dear God--hes gone. Horatio, dont look." Too late, Archie roughly seized him and thrust him away.
"Go, Horatio, get Dr. Sebastian. GO!" Archie snatched up a canvas tarp, and used it to cover the man, to protect him from curious eyes.
The deck was filling with men, lights; where had they all come from? In agony, he descended ladder against the rush of questioning men. He collided against Dr. Sebastian, who had heard already, and was on his way. The doctor pulled Horatio aside, and looked into his stricken eyes.
"Who, Horatio, can you tell me? The lieutenant? From the Dreadnought." Horatio nodded, stupid with shock.
"Is he dead?"
Horatio shook his head, unable to speak.
"You stay here." Dr. Sebastian ordered, roughly.
He would have preferred to stay, but he could not. Captain Pellew had ordered him to keep an eye on him, and he had failed. He had to go. He felt himself faltering, pulling back, then he prodded himself: It was his responsibility, he must go toward the deck, toward that sight, that horrible thing that used to be a man.
The men parted for Dr. Sebastian; Horatio followed hesitantly. Archie came toward him, and pulled him away again. "Horatio, go to the Dreadnought, and tell them what has happened."
He felt numb. "Is he will he be all right?"
"No, Horatio, hes gone. You saw him." Archie looked at him, bewildered.
No! No, you pushed me away, I saw nothing, nothing!
"Tell them to send some men across. After that, go ashore and find Captain Pellew."
"No, I have to stay! Captain Pellew told me not to leave his side; I should have stopped him." he cried. "I have to do something!"
"Horatio, Mr. Bracegirdle is in charge. You do as I said; go now!" For once, let someone protect you, he seemed to be saying. Horatio went.
He returned shortly with an officer from the Dreadnought, and some of her men. The pistol shot, and the lights and commotion on the deck of the Indefatigable had alerted them, and they were preparing to come already.
He ordered the boat about, and started toward the shore to find Captain Pellew, but just a few short strokes out they met the captain returning. "What the devil is happening on my ship, Mr. Hornblower!" he shouted.
Horatio did not care to shout the news across the seven seas, so he replied, "One moment, captain!" He waited until the captains boat came alongside. "Captain, I regret that is, it was Lieutenant Silver, sir. He shot himself and he is I think " He was uncertain of anything at this point, except for the tingling ice that was creeping up his limbs. He felt himself begin to tremble and could not control it. "I was j..j ust on my way to find you, s..sir " The tremors in his muscles were getting worse.
"Hornblower, get yourself up the side, Ill join you on board. Go ahead."
"Aye aye, sir."
He jumped for the footholds and began to ascend, still insensible with shock. He couldnt feel his hands, or his feet either, for that matter. He kept seeing the mans face before him, the light gray eyes, the wide-surprised questioning look. He willed himself to climb further, but found he could not move.
"LIEUTENANT!" Captain Pellews voice startled him. "Get up that ladder, sir. That is an order!"
This is not panic, he thought. Captain, I am not panicking, I am perfectly rational. Only nothing will cooperate. Why?
He had seen men die, he had seen dozens of them, dead men littered the decks after a battle. But this was different! His mind argued. He took his own life, shot himself seconds after saying goodbye, seconds! I should have known, I could have stopped him, I know I could have!
With a will of iron, he removed one numb hand from the foothold and placed it on the next. Nothing, he could feel nothing under his hand. He tried the other. Just cold, icy numbness that was taking over his body inch by inch. He saw the dripping foothold slide from under his blue hands, saw the ships ladder pull itself up and away. How? Shouting, voices from another world, Captain Pellews voice, he thought. He plunged into the sea, feet first, and could not comprehend how he had come to be there.
It was quiet, deadly silent under the surface. He felt salt water sting his eyes, but they did not close. Dancers voice was in his ear, he could hear it clearly, alone, alone, all, all alone yes, alone was good. It was quiet here; no one annoyed him with talk of dead men or pain.
It was good. At first it was pleasant. Then she came. She wrapped him in her arms, her icy cold grip searing him. She had no care for him, she held him like a lover and like a condemned prisoner, and he felt no comfort in her embraces. But he did not have the strength to break from her clutchesher chilly fingers were reaching for him, and when they touched him, he knew he would never be warm again. She was his love, his mistress, and their union would reform him, he would be as cold as she, for ever a frigid claw gripped his heart.
But he did not want this! Bright lights were dancing before his eyes, perhaps an angelbut no angel could live here in the murky depths. It must have been a mermaid.