Missing Scene: The Wrong War
The Indefatigable is sailing home to England. Horatio has just comeout of Captain Pellew's office...
Horatio paused outside Captain Pellew's cabin and fought to get himselftogether. He took a deep breath, then another, and struggled to collecthis thoughts. The Captain's right, you know. We're an example to the men,and a sorry example I am if all I can show with my lieutenant's uniformis red eyes and childish tears. I am an officer in His Majesty's navy...
Horatio mulled the words over, spun them around in his head as he madethe long way from the captain's quarters to the stairs leading to the topdeck.It was quiet belowdecks, most of the crew and officers were up enjoyingthe mild weather or hearing all about the failed invasion from the survivingBritish soldiers. There were some men below, relaxing at the rough woodentables or playing cards and dice in the musty corners of the ship, but ifany of them noticed Horatio they didn't acknowledge him, except for a singleword, uttered low and respectfully.
Normally Horatio accepted the formality blandly - he'd been an officerfor long enough to get used to being called 'sir' by men of twice his ageand experience, and was full of youthful pride over becoming an officerso quickly. But at this moment, right now, the appellation grated him, madehim want to hide from it as if it were a Spanish armada armed to the teeth.Because being a 'sir' meant being responsible, and being responsible meantyou could fail.
And he'd failed. In the worst possible way.
Horatio paused at the wooden stairs that led up to the topdeck, duckinghis head down as he bit his lip against the tears that threatened to advanceagain. Damn it all. Damn it, he and Mariette were almost there. They werealmost to the bridge, almost safe. He was pulling her, carrying her, tryingso hard -
- and again Horatio felt her jerk in his arms, heard her small gasp asshe stiffened, just for a moment, before falling to the dusty road. Herlife had been so close, he could almost have put his hand out and caughtit, but it fled away, and she was gone.
Gone. And it was all his fault.
Horatio took a deep breath, cast swimming eyes to the blue sky abovethe hatchway, saw the bright fresh air and brilliant sunshine. I can't goup there. I'm not an officer right now, not fit to be seen. Damn schoolboyweakness...
He took another deep breath, but it still hurt. What had he done wrong?He'd followed orders, even when they were mad, even when he knew they werewrong, because that's what a good officer did. He'd followed the rules,did his job, and still he failed. That wasn't the way it was supposed tobe, was it?
Horatio sighed, looked around the low-beamed space. My quarters. I'llgo to my quarters, take this uniform off and have it cleaned. That soundedlike an excellent idea.
The ship rocked and groaned beneath him as Horatio made his way to hisquarters. He shook his head at the creaks and thumps about him, usuallymusic to his ears. Today they sounded like funeral music; today, the lowestday of his life so far, the sounds of the sea were like a funeral dirge.
Once in his cabin, Horatio closed the door and stood there for a moment,listening to the noises around him, the lapping of the sea, the low moanof the timbers. It was all depressing to him now, and Horatio realized witha sickening wrench that he might never love being at sea again. Well, no,that wasn't possible, he'd always wanted to be at sea. He'd always wantedto lead, to fight for England and a just cause. It was in his character,his blood. It was in his heart.
But his heart was breaking.
Horatio slumped to the small wooden table, sat down at it and buriedhis face in his hands. He needed to forget Mariette, to forget the failureat Muzillac, to be stoic and accepting of defeat, as Pellew was. He neededto forget her silken lips touching his, the velvet caress of her skin andthe soft scent of her hair. He needed to stop crying, dammit. We mustnever forget we are officers in His Majesty's Navy...
Horatio sniffed, ran one hand through his curly black hair. Everythinghurt and was all confusion. The whole Muzillac affair didn't make sense,it wasn't right, it was never right. Was this the life he'd fallen into?Obeying orders - giving orders - that were folly? Following leaders whowere despotic madmen, with no concience or honor, who were only interestedin their own small worlds and cared nothing for right and wrong? Being forcedto watch in silent outrage as youth and innocence were cut down -
Horatio gasped, curled his hands into fists as the memories came back.He blinked, and a single tear dropped onto the rough-hewn table, soakinginto the splintering wood as he watched. God, it was still so close. Hewas convinced he'd ache forever.
Horatio sighed, stood up. Forget. He should go abovedecks, see how hiscrew were faring. No doubt Styles was telling his comrades about his adventuresamong the 'damned Frogs'; it was a miracle he hadn't spit on the beach asthey left, he'd hated the French so much. Fortunately, Matthews was thereto make sure Styles' hands were as busy as his mouth, so the work wouldget done at least. And Oldroyd was dependable, if a bit scatterbrained.They were a good crew. They were his crew -
- and they might have all died at Quiberon Bay.
Horatio shook his head to dislodge that thought, it frightened him somuch. He stood there for a moment, breathing hard, not ready. I might sendthem to die. Or someone else might, an admiral or another commander, andI would have no choice but to lead them into the abyss. Against all reason.
Horatio took a deep breath, looked at his hands and suddenly felt lostand alone, as if he were still at Muzillac, pleading with Count Montcoutantto withdraw. The roar of battle in his ears mingled with a sense of theworld turned upside down. Horatio sighed and sat down at the table again.Command was painful, battle was futile, and love ... everything was tarnished,wounded, or dead. He felt betrayed.
At that moment there was a knock on the door, and Horatio jumped a little.Glancing in the mirror to make sure he at least didn't look a sobbing schoolgirl,Horatio wiped his face and coughed a little. "Yes?"
The door opened a little ways and around the edge of it peeked the curiousface of Archie Kennedy. His blue eyes looked at Horatio with concern, butas soon as Horatio saw who it was he quickly looked back down the table.
There was a pause, then as Horatio stared at the table he heard Archiesay, "Sorry to disturb you, sir, but the men are asking after you."
For a brief moment Horatio wondered at why Archie's sudden appearancemade him feel so much worse; then his numbed mind felt its way backwards,back to that horrible moment -
- Horatio? There's nothing you can do, she's gone -
On the stone bridge, his world falling apart...
- Come on, Horatio. Come on -
The stone bridge. The bottom of Horatio's world had fallen out, therehad been a great, disbelieving wail of horror on his lips. He rememberednow. The French Republicans were right in front of him, ready to kill him,they would have and he would not have cared at all, at that moment. So whyhadn't he died? He hadn't even been paying attention...
Horatio frowned, stared at the table in a dazed kind of shock even thoughhe knew that Archie was standing there, waiting for him to say something.But what could he say? Archie had seen him fall apart, had been right athis shoulder and seen everything. We must always be an inspiration to ourmen...
An inspiration. Kneeling and sobbing in the dirt, having to be pulledto safety by one of your own men at the risk of his own life. Some inspiration.
That's what it is. Archie's seen the worst of me and I'm ashamed of myself.
Horatio thought Archie would simply take his silence as an indicationthat he didn't want to talk, and go away and leave him alone. Instead, themidshipman took a few steps around the table, so he was opposite Horatioand said softly, "Did it go badly with the captain?"
Horatio blinked. The captain? Oh - that's right. He shook his head. "No.The captain was very..." What was the word he was looking for? "...charitable."
He glanced at Archie, just quick enough to catch his relieved nod. ThenHoratio dropped his eyes back to the table.
"Well, that's good," Archie responded conversationally, andHoratio heard the rough scratch of a chair being drawn opposite him. "Isuspected he might be, once he heard the story. Mr. Bracegirdle told meof the most extraordinary - "
"Archie, if you don't mind," Horatio interrupted, suddenlystanding up. He still couldn't look at him. "I'm rather tired, andthis uniform - I've got to - " He turned away, stammered, tried again,"Give the men my regrets, but I'm not... I don't think..." Hestopped, took a deep breath, stared at the floor. And felt like a failure."Right now I need to retire."
He gazed at his boots for what seemed like an eternity, and became fascinatedby a large scuff on the right one. If I stare at that scuff long enough,Archie will get fed up and leave me alone, and then I can go to sleep. Butdo I want to sleep? I can feel her dying now, do I want to dream...
Behind him, Horatio heard the creak of a chair, and thought perhaps Archiewas leaving. Instead, a moment later he heard Archie's voice say, "Well,I'm sorry about that, but the truth of the matter is Mr. Bracegirdle needsboth of us right away. He sent me to find you."
Horatio coughed, wished everyone would just go away and leave him tohis grief. "What for?"
"Pellew wants the riggings on the topmast checked," Archieexplained, "and he asked that you and I do it, personally. He'll trustno one else."
Horatio blinked, looked at Archie, really for the first time since hisfriend has arrived. "Check the riggings on the topmast?"
Archie nodded soberly. "Your crew are already checking the mizzenmast.Come on, he wants us to do it right away."
With that, Archie turned around and began to walk out of the cabin. Horatiogaped after him in confusion, took a few faltering steps toward the door."A-are you sure he wants *us* to do it?"
Archie leaned back in, a cockeyed smile on his face, "Unless youknow another Horatio Hornblower, and then it would be my regrets to himfor having such a name."
Horatio glared at Archie. "That's not funny."
Archie shrugged. "That's why I chose the navy, and not the musichall. Come on."
Horatio was grumbling inwardly as he plodded after his friend, certainthat Archie had to be making this story up to get him to go topside. Buthis suspicions were quelled when he finally got abovedecks, and spied CaptainPellew standing on the topdeck, staring out at the open water with Mr. Bracegirdleat his side. Archie gave them both a nod, then with nimble hands began toascend the spiders-web of rigging that would lead straight to the top ofthe tallest mast on the ship.
Horatio frowned after Archie, still not entirely convinced. But he glancedat Pellew as he took the rough rope in his hands, looked for any sign thathe was doing something unexpected or unwarranted. No - even as he beganto climb slowly up into the sky, repeated glances at his captain showedonly mild interest, then not even that. So Archie was telling the truthafter all.
But why? Why would Pellew have him check the rigging, especially afterall he'd been through? Horatio shuddered, felt again the awful thrill ofhis defeat. He wanted to hide. He wanted to forget the sea, not look atit. He wanted to..to...
They were halfway up now, and Horatio looked skyward. Above him, on thetop of the mizzenmast, the small forms of Styles, Matthews, and Oldroydcould be seen, carefully working their way along the narrow beam that wastheir only perch, and their only haven against a quick death. Horatio couldhear them laughing, knew they were loving being up there, in the open airand cool salt breeze.
It wasn't so bad, at that.
Three-quarters of the way, and Horatio paused to look around him. Francewas behind them now, and there was a fair breeze blowing. It billowed inthe sails and pushed the Indefatigable away from land, away from memories.There was only the sea around them now, the vast and timeless sea that couldtake a man's troubles and lose them, swallow them forever and forget.
"Come on, Horatio." Archie called from above, and Horatio lookedup to see his friend had already ascended to the topmast, and was smilingdown at him. Horatio took a deep breath and began to work his way up again,feeling unaccountably lighter with every firm handhold on the rope, everyinch he attained toward the summit. The sea air ruffled through his darkhair, swirled around him in cleansing waves, and Horatio noticed his heartached a little less, felt a little freer than it had down on the deck. Mariettewas still there - would always be there - but it was as if her spirit wassomewhere in the wind, in the brilliant sunshine, in the endless blue wavesthat sang to his heart and urged him upward. She was there, and thus wouldlive forever.
But it was more than that. As Horatio put one hand on the topmast andmade to haul himself onto it, he glanced up and saw Archie kneeling on theother side, one hand on the mast and the other on a supporting rope. Therewas a smile on Archie's face, the contented smile of the completely happy,and with a start Horatio realized that he felt the same way. In spite ofeverything, in spite of the loss and the failure and the heartbreak, Horatioknew that his heart was lifting, he could feel it. Feel it in the warm sunshine,in the rhapsody of creaks and groans of the majestic ship, in the ripplingocean of canvas beneath his feet. Freedom was here, and he had but to stepinto it and be cleansed.
So Horatio put his hand on the topmast, took a deep breath and stoodup.
Mr. Bracegirdle was busy winding his watch, and so didn't think to lookup into the rigging to check the crew's progress until a few minutes afterhe'd closed the back of his watch and put it back into his pocket. Thenhe tilted his head upward and squinted into the afternoon sun. After a momenthe said, "Captain Pellew?"
Pellew glanced over from where he was standing, just a foot away. "Yes,Mr. Bracegirdle."
"Who's that up there on the topmast?"
Pellew sighed, followed Bracegirdle's gaze toward the swelling sails."I should imagine that's Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Hornblower."
"What?" Bracegirdle's face betrayed his alarm as he lookedat the captain. "What are they doing up there?"
Pellew pursed his lips and tilted his head. "Checking the rigging."
Bracegirdle's eyebrows went up, then back down again. "Your orders?"
Bracegirdle looked down at the deck. "Sir, with all due respect,if you keep sending your officers to the highest part of the ship you'regoing to run out of midshipmen to replace them with."
Pellew's smile was slight, just a tugging at the corners of his mouth."I've not lost one yet, Mr. Bracegirdle."
"Yes, sir," Bracegirdle muttered, letting his gaze travel upwardeven as he swallowed nervously, "But - but I had my doubts about thisthe last time, after those men came back from the Spanish prison and youordered Mr. Kennedy up there to check the rigging."
Pellew nodded, his eyes on the slight figure that was standing now, likea sail in the sun. "I recall your trepidation, Mr. Bracegirdle."
"And now you've got him up there again, with Mr. Hornblower? Whatin Heaven's name for?"
Pellew paused for a moment, his brown eyes on the vast, immortal sea.Then he said quietly, "You must rely on my judgement here, Mr. Bracegirdle.It is time for us to return to the sea."
Mr. Bracegirdle nodded. And the Indefatigable sailed on.
Questions, comments, brickbats to: SarahB1@ix.netcom.com