Horatio opened his eyes unwillingly. The burning pain in his back was still there, now delightfully accompanied by the taste of blood in his mouth and a throbbing in the side of his head. He had not imagined he could feel any worse, but that had been a mistake. He squinted painfully through the below-deck gloom. This was the captain's berth of the Falcon; it was even tinier than his quarters. Archie was sitting on his haunches beside him, his face shiny with swollen bruises.
"This is an improvement, "Archie said.
"I should think so. You cursed me for a filthy Frenchman and came after me like a madman. " Archie grinned. "I thought I was going to have to shoot you, Mr. Hornblower."
He helped Horatio sit up. That was much, much worse. "I believe I would have thanked you," he said.
"I thought your crew was going to tear me apart," Archie said. "Wipe your mouth with this. No, lunatic or not, they weren't about to have you damaged. I took all the pummeling I could take and decided I had to drop you or be killed myself. "
"It feels as though you used a handspike." Horatio dug his hands into his hair to try to hold the top of his skull on. He had a dim vision that he was about to be unspeakably ill.
Archie held up a swollen hand. "Archie Kennedy, late of Drury Lane, now a celebrated prizefighter. I'm sorry, Horatio, I didn't want to hit you, but you were wild."
"Is my ship all right?"
"All hove to safely while we sorted this out. Including..." he said softly, the light in his eyes like sun coming off cold steel, "the prize Falcon took- the Solange. "
"By God, Archie!" Even in his distress Horatio felt the surge of delight and pride - and a small prick of jealousy. Archie smiled widely and he smiled back; they were for a moment two small boys on an adventure. "Oh, well done, Archie. Well done!"
"Maybe," Archie said soberly. "We've got to get you to the Indy, Horatio. "And we will be there soon enough," Horatio said. He was beginning to slip back. It was becoming hard to breathe.
"No, I mean quickly. I want to take the Falcon ahead. I don't want to leave the brigands on a ship they know, we'll take them on. We've enough crew between us to man the brig and your ship; my first mate Bamber can take the brig. Matthews and Styles came aboard with me - they don't trust me with their precious Captain, that's plain. Surely one of the midships can handle your scow, with your crew, and they can wallow along to Cornwall. But I am taking you out of here."
"Archie, I am not leaving my command."
"I don't suppose you've looked in a mirror lately, "Archie said. "And I'm sure you don't remember leaping on me like a panther from the quarterdeck. You're burning with fever, if that's also escaped your notice, and that hole in your back stinks like rotten meat. You can go in a dignified way or I can tie you up and take you back that way."
His voice was as hard as the set of his jaw. Horatio felt a flash of hostility toward his friend. A little above ourselves, now, aren't we Mr. Kennedy? He met Archie's eyes defiantly. Archie looked a little frayed himself - in his eyes there was only a troubled concern. He was supposed to be able to depend on me, Horatio thought, as a friend and a senior officer. And I've failed him on both counts.
Horatio drew a long ragged breath.
"You're right. You may consider me relieved from command. Note it in the log." It was one of the most difficult things he had ever said.
It was a formal statement. It meant nothing , really, to Archie except that he was not going to have to argue anymore but it meant everything to Horatio. I am beaten, he thought; I have failed.
"Thank you, Mr. Hornblower, "Archie said just as formally and then "I'm glad I needn't hit you again. Put your arm around me and let me get you to your cot. I'll shift our crews around and then we're Indy bound."
"The prodigal sons," Horatio joked feebly.
"The odds on the fatted calf being killed are rather low, though."
Before he left the cabin Archie looked back at Horatio, lying on the too-short cot. He was thinner and paler than Archie could ever remember seeing him, even in prison. And he was so hot; the heat coming off him frightened Archie. People died of a little fever, never mind this.
He won't die. He's made it this far. And I can get him through this. He'd do it for me if he had to sail through Hell itself.
But as he stepped up on deck, he realized that might be exactly what he was going to have to do.
The sky had gone a bitter gray. There was an ominous feel in the air. The sea was rising and the wind was zinging through the ratlines. Archie hunched into his coat against the wind, which had a rising sea-witch wail. The glass was falling rapidly. Matthews looked at him. "I think we're in for it, sir."
"It looks bad," Archie agreed. His triumph over the Solange evaporated. He had not made up his mind whether they were spies or privateers - they were in civilian clothes but there were French uniforms scattered about - but right now they were just one more thing to worry about. Could he get the Falcon ahead of this storm? He lifted his telescope. The sea was foaming; the storm clouds lowered on the water that lay ahead. The storm was all around them. What was he gaining if he got halfway to the rendezvous and got blown off course? He should have forced the issue with Horatio earlier. But Horatio would never have agreed to do anything other than stick doggedly to his orders except for this last extremity.
He wanted to ask Horatio what he should do, but he couldn't; and he already knew the answer: Don't risk the ship, don't risk the men. And he couldn't fight a gale. He had a vision of the Falcon beaten to death in the wind and Horatio dying slowly in the bottom of an open boat.
"We'll ride it out, Matthews."
"Mr. Hornblower's in a bad way, sir."
"I know," Archie said. "I know. Perhaps this will be over quickly."
. He felt the mocking kiss of snow on his cheek.
Horatio in torment:
Sometimes it was sharks tearing at him; sometimes rats. Sometimes it was something unspeakable that wrapped clawed tentacles around his body and dragged him through murky water until his lungs almost burst. Sometimes it was Jack Simpson he fought and sometimes it was his rotting corpse. The screaming of the gale topside cut into his delirium and some lucid part of him repeated: My ship - my men - my ship...
like a drumbeat.
I am dying.
He begged his father for help, but his father shook his head and went away. All of them, Pellew, Bracegirdle, even Archie, ringed him round, their faces hidden, angry. He was in disgrace. He was dying in disgrace.
He was lashed to a hot grating and flogged. He could hear himself crying out even though he bit down until his lips bled. A naval officer had a certain code to uphold, even in disgrace. You must be an inspiration to your men. You must be an inspiration to your men even dying even with the cat eating up your back how'd'ya like that, Snotty, and there's worse waiting for you. I promise. There's rats.
So hot. So hot - if he could just get to the sea, dive over the side - how cool the water would be...
I love the sea.
I love the sea.
But the sea was black and cruel; he was disgraced and the sea would not have him. There was no forgiveness anywhere.
And there were rats.
The gale had screamed steadily for twelve hours and looked like it could easily do it another twelve. Archie had to hold onto the mainmast when he went up on deck. The waves were up to the gunnels now, but Falcon was weathering well; all the pumps were going and the other two ships seemed to be surviving, sails reefed, anchors holding. He had made sure there was plenty of grog and food, and under the circumstances the men were cheerful.
While Horatio had still been in his senses, he had pushed himself mercilessly to give Archie everything he knew, everything he could think of to help him with the ships and Archie had taken it ruthlessly because he needed Horatio's seamanship even as he realized that his friend was using strength he could ill spare.
" Archie, you must remember..." And he would go over it again, sweat on his face, jaw muscles standing out like rigging.
But that had been hours ago. For the last four hours Horatio had been raving with fever. It made his delirium of the previous day look like whimsy. It was hard to believe there was that kind of fury hidden behind that calm face.
Horatio, wild with fever, had decided he was taking the ship back by force. You never knew with Horatio, Archie thought. Maybe he could. He felt he would be happy to hand all three ships back to his senior officer and then quietly jump overboard.
"Beggin' your pardon, Mr. Kennedy, " Matthews had said as Archie tried to make sense of the spray-soaked log. "I'm sorry to interrupt but Mr. Hornblower -"
"He's out of his head. I know."
"Well, I've taken his weapons - just as you said. But he's that determined to get back on deck - I'm afraid he's doin' himself an injury, sir."
Archie had wanted to put his head in his hands. "We must - secure him - in some way until this passes. Without hurting him." It had been surprisingly painful to make that decision. What if I woke from a fit tied down? I should go mad, he thought.
There is no gentle way to tie a man down when he is fighting with everything in him. He had screamed and cursed and fought like a panther. It took six of them to do it and even then Villard -who showed a certain dogged courage - got slammed into a bulkhead. But they had done it.
Damn you Kennedy damn you all of you let me go let me go let go....
" I don't care if he hurts you," he had told Villard harshly , now nurse and guard "but don't let him hurt himself. Call me if - if anything changes."
He went topside with Horatio's yells echoing under the wind.
When things were very bad for Archie - and they had often been very bad - he had a little trick: he could go away in his head to someplace else. Sometimes, as in his fits, it happened without him being able to control it, but most of the time it was something he willed. Now, he thought, crouching down beside the forecastle to keep from being blown across the deck, now I am in England. It's warm. It's my grandfather's garden. I can smell the flowers - it's so lovely here, it's so warm...And then Horatio's voice cut through like cold steel:
God damn you let me up let me up you filthy bastards let me up let me up give me back my ship you BASTARDS
The howl of rage snapped him back to the present. You fool, you utter fool, you are in command of three ships, you can't cower here and dream! He made his rounds, and then fought the wind to get back down to the small bay where they had put Horatio because it was empty of everything but Archie's cot that he had moved in.
Villard had had the intelligent idea of propping Horatio up so he could breathe more easily (oh Christ, why was he having trouble breathing?) and it was from this position that Horatio cursed Villard furiously, straining against the bonds. His wrists were raw, the skin rolling back like paper from the abrasions. There was a blistery welt across his chest. He was panting like a horse that runs itself to death. His dark eyes were swollen and glazed.
Oh God, just please let him faint, Archie thought. I can't keep on like this. He can't keep on like this.
Horatio focused on Archie, standing in the halflight in his sodden uniform. The look on his face was one of confusion and betrayal.
"Archie, why are you doing this to me?"
Because I love you, Horatio; I never had a friend and I hate my older brothers, but you have been both to me. So I have tied you to your bunk in the worst storm I've ever seen so you can die a little more painfully because I couldn't get us out.
"We didn't have enough men to hold you," he said gently. "You were staging a one-man mutiny, Mr. Hornblower."
"Archie - I thought you were my friend -" Horatio's voice, hoarse with yelling, cracked a little.
Archie kept his head down so that Villard could not his face. He reached down for one of Horatio's hands and gripped it. "I am. I am, Horatio." Please let him faint.
"Let me go then! Give me my ship - Christ!" Horatio's hand tightened into a fist. His long legs drew up in a spasm of agony. Villard, with a quickness Archie had not anticipated, cut the makeshift restraints. Horatio doubled up on his side, retching.
"I was afraid he'd choke,sir," Villard explained. "He's been in pain like this for hours - Matthews coaxed him into drinking some water, he'd had nothing to drink - but it seemed to make it worse."
Archie knew something about that.
He remembered the long starvation in Massaredo's prison. When he had finally decided to live - when Horatio had bullied him into living - he had gulped cup after cup of cold water. He still remembered the taste of that water. Neither of them had known any better, but they soon learned. He could still remember hanging over the side of the bed with his outraged belly knotted into one unbelievable cramp. All he could do was hold onto his belly and retch miserably, surer every moment that his insides were coming up. Horatio had been frantic - he was positive he had killed Archie; with eyes squeezed tightly shut and head firmly averted, he had held the slop bucket for him, mumbling through gritted teeth: "There now, you'll feel better - bit of a stomach-ache...Oh God. Oh God damn. Oh, Archie, don't -"
It had been funny to them later, Horatio's determined if inept nursing. He doubted this would ever be funny.
He could do nothing for Horatio except hold his head for him as he hung over the side of the bunk and keep the long matted hair out of his way. Horatio was fighting for breath with terrible harsh gasps, sweat running into his eyes. Oh, Horatio, don't.
Archie looked for something to wipe Horatio's face with; Villard handed him a wet cloth without being asked.
The spasm ceased. Horatio's rangy body went limp like something unstrung. Archie dragged him back up onto the cot and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. He could not bear to tie those torn wrists again. But Horatio's tormented eyes were lucid.
"Archie - I am so sorry - about everything -"
"There's nothing to be sorry for. Don't be a fool. "
Horatio turned his head away and threw his arm over his face. It took Archie a moment to realize that the harsh barking sounds were muffled sobs of exhaustion and pain.
"Go out, Villard, " Archie said tensely. He sat there with his head hanging almost to his knees, knotting and unknotting his hands. He could not leave and he could not continue to listen to those wrenching sounds. He racked his mind for a way to comfort him without acknowledging that he was weeping. If I touch him now, I'll start, too, and then won't that be a bloody lovely sight....
"Horatio," he said finally - lightly, desperately, "Can you see Captain Pellew pacing the deck and cursing us?" ""Where in the name of hell are they!" He'll flay us when we get there, Horatio. He'll ask us where we keep our minds - if we were born idiots or if something made us that way -"
He plunged on desperately. "And when he paces around you - and all the hair stands up on the back of your neck...."
Horatio rubbed his arm across his eyes and drew a ragged breath. Archie watched him out of the corner of his eye. Horatio said,
"Yes...and...and when he says, "Sometimes I despair of you, Hornblower..."
"Yes! And, "Mr. Kennedy, is there a reason for this or was it just a whim?""
Horatio smiled then, torn lips curving a little. He closed his eyes. Oh God, even if you are not there, thank you, Archie thought fervently. At least let him be quiet. At least let him sleep.
"I love...the sea..."
"I know, Horatio. Try to sleep."
"But it is good to be home again..."
"I know, Horatio. I know."