|Primary Characters:||Horatio, Archie|
|Warning:||Violence, some strong language|
|Description:||Hornblower and Kennedy lose the important letters they are sent to deliver. At one time, Kennedy holds his friend’s life in his hands. The choice he makes places his own life in serious jeopardy.|
“Mr Hornblower. I have an assignment for you. Take mr Kennedy and deliver this to Captain Marlowe. There is to be a meeting concerning the enemy’s latest offensive. You will find the Captain at Tregallen House. The meeting will be hosted by sir Hawthorne.”
On his way back to his quarters, Hornblower could not hide a smile. This was an important assignment, and furthermore, it would allow him and his friend Kennedy some time ashore. Patrol duty might be of vital importance to the war effort, but when the enemy scarcely made an appearance in more than six weeks, the tedium was beginning to wear on the entire crew.
“Archie? I have been sent on a mission ashore.”
As always, his friend Kennedy was pleased on his behalf, which made it doubly pleasant to be in a position to deliver his good news.
“I am very pleased for you, my friend.”
“But that is not all.”
“Is there to be a new offensive?”
“Yes. That is what the missive tells of. Though I should not be telling you this. But what I was referring to was something else. Guess again.”
“The Captain is going to celebrate his birthday by allowing us all shore leave for a week?”
“Close, my friend. Shall I tell you now or do you wish to continue guessing?”
“Tell me at once. I can not bear the suspense much longer.”
“You are going with me. The Captain said to bring you, and so I shall.”
“Are you telling the truth? You did not ask him to allow me to keep you company?”
Kennedy was not entirely convinced that the Captain appreciated his skills as much as he wished he would.
“I would never deceive you. It is as I told you.”
“Where are we going?”
“To deliver the missive to Captain Marlowe, at Tregallen House. Sir Hawthorne’s manor.”
Kennedy’s smile warmed Hornblower. After all the pain and losses they had both suffered in the past years, it was amazing that they could still smile and rejoice at life’s simple pleasures.
Though both young men tried their best to act with the decorum worthy of officers and gentlemen, there was a certain amount of pushing and shoving at the door. Both wished to be the first to go. At a time when they were not under enemy fire, it was good to be able to act young and carefree once more, if only for a brief time.
One of the crewmen rowed them ashore, left them there and rowed back to the Indy. He would return that evening to bring them back. This was a rare opportunity, and they intended to make the most of it.
It appeared that Tregallen House was located not far from the town, and Hornblower and Kennedy declared their intention of walking the full distance. The day was clear and bright and it was a pleasure to be out walking. On the way, they met scores of country folk on the way to and from market, and apparently occupied with a number of rustic undertakings, the nature of which neither young man was familiar with.
A fair-haired girl passed, smiling delightedly at the two handsome young men. It saddened Kennedy to see how the sight of the girl caused Hornblower’s own smile to fade. He did not return the greeting, which made Kennedy feel obligated to extend his greeting to the girl in his friend’s stead.
“Horatio, my friend. Is anything amiss?”
With a forced gaiety, Hornblower smiled again at his friend.
“Nothing at all. Let us continue our pleasant walk.”
“By all means. It is a lovely day, is it not?”
“So it is.”
But some of the cheerful humor from earlier was gone, and it was not difficult for Kennedy to guess why. Louise Radcliffe had left deep scars in Hornblower’s heart. Perhaps it was inevitable. Being young, in love and very soon, have his heart broken.
Kennedy had suffered his share of broken hearts, and though he was now fortunate enough to have known the love of a good woman, he could understand his friend only too well. To Kennedy’s knowledge, time was the only cure for a broken heart. He fervently hoped that yet again, time would heal the pain of a young man so deeply miserable. Though Kennedy knew far too well the evil men were capable of, women also, there were good people in the world, and all Hornblower need do was wait until the right woman came along.
Sir Hawthorne’s estate was situated on a low hill, with an excellent view of the surrounding fields and groves, and on a bright day such as this the distant sea would be in clear view in the distance.
It seemed to Kennedy that this was a fine place for a man to make his home. There were days, such as today, when he sensed a deep longing for something he could call home. Something more than merely a ship, no matter how fine. One day, he would be back in Robbie’s arms. He would make her home his own, and never roam the seven seas again, at least unless Robbie chose to join her sister aboard the Liberty once more. Wherever Robbie journeyed, he would follow, to the end of the Earth if need be. Why had he made the choice to return to the Indy and his naval career which appeared to be leading nowhere? Kennedy’s brooding was interrupted by his friend Hornblower.
“Archie? You appeared to be deep in thought. A penny for them.”
“I was pondering what a fine place this is. A highly suitable abode for a man such as sir Hawthorne.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
For the moment, it seemed the dark thoughts in Hornblower’s mind were blown away. As they approached the house, Hornblower called out to a servant and asked about his master’s whereabouts. The man slowed his pace and offered to take them to his master’s study. It seemed sir Hawthorne was awaiting the reply to his summons.
The gentleman appeared to be rather haughty and did not look twice at the lowly messenger, let alone the other young man. Delivery of the missive took less than a minute, after which sir Hawthorne pointedly looked away from the two messengers. The audience was over. There was an impression of a forceful personality and a quick mind, not dimmed by age. It was only the briefest of encounters, but the meeting left a deep impression in Hornblower. Such a great man. He wondered fleeetingly where his own career would take him. Surely not to a peerage and such a manor as this? But if he was diligent in his work and performed all his duties to the best of his ability, surely he would rise in rank as quickly as he already had? A career was of far more importance to a man than the love of a woman. Women were after all, fickle things. Forgotten was the memory of the days in the sun with Jo. Hornblower’s mind shied away from any such recollections.
“I suppose we must return to the Indy now.”
“I do not believe our return is expected for some time yet. Shall we take a stroll around the countryside and perhaps explore the town before returning?”
“Excellent idea, my friend. Let us make haste.”
Leisurely making their way back to the town, the two young men took their time admiring the beauty of the scenery, watched children at play on those rare occasions, the children were allowed to catch their breaths and most of all, enjoyed the sunshine and the fresh air.
From time to time, however, a horse and cart would stir up the dust of the road, and force the two officers off the road momentarily. Such incidents did not mar the perfection of the day. Towards early afternoon, they found themselves back in the town, where they sought out an inn to quench their thirst. The cider was fine and the meal being offered, also most satisfactory. This break from their normal routine was welcome. The young men were determined to enjoy their day out to the full. After their meal, they sat back over another glass of cider, to indulge in careless conversation.
What they failed to notice was a man seated in the shadows by the opposite wall. He seemed to be unusually intent on studying the two young officers. A scowl twisted his features as he perused them with a fascination approaching the abnormal.
At last, they regretfully came to the conclusion that their absence would soon be missed aboard the Indy, and they paid the innkeeper and were on their way. In the harbour, the man who had rowed them ashore in the morning was waiting for them.
In the days to come, Hornblower and Kennedy were kept busy making preparations for the meeting. Captain Pellew would be attending the meeting, assisted by mr Bracegirdle. That led to a busy time aboard the Indy. There was expectation in the air, but also concern. Something was afoot, and each and every man knew that this might be the beginning of a phase of more intense hostility. No peace was yet in sight. It seemed there would be glory and booty enough for everyone. Promotions would be forthcoming.
Kennedy, however, had abandoned all hope of ever rising above the rank of midshipman. For some reason, he was constantly overlooked, when promotions were handed out. He assumed that his fits had already disqualified him, though they were now virtually gone, and whatever dreams haunted his sleep, he no longer drew attention to himself.
There was also a lingering suspicion that his association with Simpson marred his reputation. Simpson had not been known to keep such liaisons to himself. Any opportunity to torment and humiliate his victim had been seized upon. No man aboard the Indy could be unaware of his situation aboard the Justinian, or so Kennedy told himself while tossing and turning, enduring yet another sleepless night. Had he known that only his friend Hornblower and a few of the crewmen knew his sad story, and furthermore that at Hornblower’s orders the knowledge was a closely kept secret, he might have been cheered. Not to any greater extent, however. The memories of his degradation would never die. In the daytime, he was partially successful in repressing the thoughts. Not so at night. Even so, he would never let anything interfere in the performance of his duties.
It seemed the Captain had chosen Hornblower and Kennedy as his personal messengers, and the following week or two saw them running back and forth between the Indy and Tregallen House almost daily. The two young men in no way resented these visits. In time, they came to know the estate of sir Hawthorne quite well. Hornblower was increasingly impressed with the great man and his home.
One night, the meeting had dragged on unusually late, and Hornblower and Kennedy had been advised to remain nearby to carry another letter, this time to the Invincible, and Admiral Hayes. This was the most exciting mission they had been sent on so far, and both young men were eager to fulfil their assignment, and to meet the Admiral. Hornblower was hoping to attract the great man’s attention, in view of future promotions, and Kennedy was at least enthusiastic about the prospect of delivering a letter of somewhat more importance than ever before. At last, their names were called, and one of the secretaries appeared, carrying the sealed letter as if it was made of gold. He looked the two young men over, and with something akin to contempt, placed the letter in Hornblower’s hands.
“Mind you deliver this into the Admiral’s hands.”
“Yes, sir. Certainly.”
Hornblower did not think he owed this civilian such courtesy as to address him as sir, but he felt it was best to err on the side of caution. This was after all, a man who was close to sir Hawthorne.
They hurriedly left the grounds of Tregallen House and made their way to the smaller coast road. It was more of a track but Hornblower had found that it was far quicker to walk. There was a half moon in the sky, and it was not overcast, leaving enough light by which to trace their route. The first part of the walk involved climbing down a sheer slope towards the sea below. As it was a dry summer night, there was not much difficulty involved, though there was need for caution nevertheless. Down on the shore, the waves were rolling in, hitting the shore, then pulling back again. There was a fair wind, but nothing unusual, just enough to make talking difficult, should the two young men have had anything in particular to discuss. The tide was coming in, and the wind picked up, but there would still be enough sand to walk on until they reached the harbour. In fact, they could already spy the masts of the ships from afar.
Suddenly, they were surrounded by a group of heavily armed men, advancing on them too fast for them to be able to draw their weapons or do anything to fight back. Their attackers were too many, and within minutes, Kennedy and Hornblower found themselves disarmed, tied up and taken away. Through a red haze, Hornblower saw that they were taken to a low-lying cave. He wanted to protest, as he watched the tide rising higher and higher, but no words came. Hornblower faded out, and knew no more, until the cold water reached his face. Quickly rousing himself, he looked around for his friend, and spying Kennedy’s fair hair bobbing about in the swirl of the waves, he dove for it, grabbing hold of him.
Shaking his friend, finally to his relief, he could see Archie’s eyes opening.
“Where are we?”
“In a cave. The tide is rushing in, and I can not see the opening.”
“Why would anyone attack us?”
“I very much fear they were after the letter for the Admiral.”
“I see. There does not seem to be much we can do.”
“We must find the entrance and leave before the tide reaches the roof of this cave.”
The roaring of the inrushing tide made it difficult to hear each other, and after having exchanged these words, they fell silent, straining their eyes through the darkness. Time was running out and if they did not find the opening soon, they knew they would drown. Fortunately, they were both excellent swimmers though that might not make much difference, unless they found their way out. With the tide rushing in there were treacherous undercurrents, and not a shred of light penetrated the dark depths. It was luck more than anything else, that finally had the two young officers emerging into the cool night air on the outside. A few moments of mutual perusal determined that they were injured, but not badly so. It seemed they would be able to make their way back to their original destination without much more ado.
It was, however, not a pleasant prospect, facing the Admiral, and ultimately, Captain Pellew, after having lost the important missive. Hornblower keenly felt his failure to live up to the trust placed in him. On the way back, the two young men leaned on each other to gain a little support.
“Horatio? Let me take the blame. My career shall not suffer to the extent yours might.”
“I will not hear of it, my friend. We were taking the letter back together, and together we shall face any possible punishment.”
“But Horatio, you know as well as I do, that no promotion is ever coming my way. I do not wish to stand in the way of your advancement.”
“You are not standing in my way. No one could have fought all our attackers and been victorious. I will hear nothing more of the matter.”
“You are a true friend, but this will not harm my prospects as it might yours.”
“Do not say such things. Your prospects are good. It won’t be long before the Captain takes notice of the excellent work you are doing and you too will face promotions and glory.”
A look of sadness flew across Kennedy’s features. He did not for a moment believe such things. Something, be it the Sight, or otherwise, told him that there would be no promotions in his future. Furthermore, he was having premonitions of worse to come. But of this, he said nothing, and allowed his friend to do his best to comfort him and while doing so, himself as well.
Facing the Captain was not, however, nearly as bad as they had feared. It seemed to Kennedy that the Captain was filled with concern on Hornblower’s behalf. Yet another reason to envy his friend, but Kennedy did not resent his friend’s luck. The Captain placed no blame on either of his two young officers. As Hornblower had predicted, it was plain that what they had faced were overwhelming odds. Furthermore, it turned out that the missive was not quite as important as they had been led to believe. The surgeon tended to their wounds, which mainly consisted of minor cuts, scratches and bruises.
For some time, the Captain refrained from sending Kennedy and Hornblower on any more missions. Hornblower could not but see that as a sign of the Captain’s disfavour and this caused him considerable distress.
What Kennedy thought he kept to himself. It was becoming a familiar sensation, letting someone down.
The meeting dragged on for another week, and at the end of this time, the officers of the Indy found that a major council of war would be held at sir Hawthorne’s estate, only a few weeks later. Orders came for the Indy to remain close to the shore, and other ships were sent to continue their patrol duty.
Captain Pellew hastily returned to his ship, lest he be forced to remain ashore while he awaited the admirals and other prominent delegates. He left mr Bracegirdle at Tregallen, and again Hornblower and Kennedy were selected to carry messages to facilitate communications. Pellew never referred to the unfortunate incident on the shore, but Hornblower was determined never to let his Captain down again.
To Kennedy, it was a mystery why the Captain still chose to appoint him messenger, along with Hornblower. It was a fact, however, that both young men were sent along together on most occasions.
When summer approached autumn, the illustrious delegates began to arrive, and Pellew regretfully left his ship, to once again attend what might be the most vital council of war that had been held in some time. Leaving a senior officer in command, he was reassured that the Indy was in good hands.
To begin with, during the first three or four days of the council, no messengers were required, and Kennedy and Hornblowe resumed their normal duties on the Indy. Towards the end of the first week, they were once again called upon to provide their services, but on each occasion the message involved was a minor one of no great importance, mainly dealing with the running of the Indy.
As the council drew to a close, however, some vital decisions were being made, and after the proceedings were ended, a few documents of the utmost importance were drawn up. Each of these missives were to be delivered to each of the captains of the ships still awaiting orders in the harbour.
By that time Pellew had been forced to return to the Indy, along with mr Bracegirdle. The Captain had instructed Hornblower and Kennedy to await the conclusion of the council, in anticipation of the letter that would need delivering.
Again, it was towards nightfall that the summons came, and the young officers wasted no time answering the call. The same secretary placed the letter in Hornblower’s hands, giving him a stern look, which Hornblower steadily returned.
Outside on the grounds, they found that though there was a sliver of moon in the sky, it was overcast, and dark clouds were rolling in from the sea. It would be a stormy night. Walking down by the shore might not be a pleasant prospect, but Hornblower came to the decision that speed was of the essence. He had been given the impression that if there were to be a favorable wind, the ships still at harbour would be sailing with the night tide.
Kennedy felt a shiver go down his spine as they began their climb down to the sea. He was not sure if this was yet another instance of the Sight reasserting itself, or if it was merely his own deplorable cowardice. However, he felt impelled to confide in his friend something of what was on his mind.
“Horatio, my friend, perhaps we ought to go by the land road?”
“Why? Are you afraid a storm will have rolled in before we are back aboard the Indy?”
“No. I mean, I do not know. Horatio, I feel somewhat concerned over this letter we are carrying. We might do better choosing the land road.”
“But why indeed? This time we come prepared. Is not your weapon loaded and ready?”
“It is. That is not my greatest concern.”
“Then what? Pray confide in me.”
Kennedy shook his head, dejectedly. No. Hornblower, who was the son of a physician and a great believer in rational thought, would not give any credence to old superstitions.
“Ah. I know what is on your mind. You are remembering the last time we were carrying a missive this way, are you not? Do not concern yourself my friend. This time things will be different.”
That was what Kennedy feared, but he found no words to express his misgivings, so he smiled and shrugged, allowing Hornblower to make the decisions. After all, his friend now outranked him. It was his duty to bow to a superior officer.
And his sixth sense had not deserted him. They had not walked but a fraction of the way to the town and the harbour when once again, they were ambushed and surrounded. This time, however, their attackers outranked them four to one. Though both young officers fired their weapons and seriously injured one and lightly wounded two others, they were overpowered, trussed up and taken away. They did not lose consciousness this time, but were helpless to stop their abduction.
Not far from the location of the ambush, a rowing boat was awaiting their arrival. Only three of their attackers came aboard, leaving the others on shore. Under cover of night, the two young men were taken to a house on the outskirts of town, and left to themselves for a moment. So close to the harbour, yet so far away. At the moment, they were bound and gagged, and had no way of calling the attention of their fellow officers. It pained Hornblower that once again, he was failing his Captain.
Before long, the door opened, and a man stepped into the room. There was something familiar about him, but it was some time before either one of the young men recognized him. He belonged to a past perhaps not so distant in time, so much as far away on the other side of the world. The man seemed to read their confusion, and take pleasure in it. It was not what Kennedy or Hornblower would have considered a gentleman, and furthermore, he had the appearance of a scoundrel.
“We meet again.”
His accent betrayed his low heritage, and confirmed the first impression.
“I see. I’m forgotten. But I have not forgotten the two of you. Doesn’t my name mean anything to ye? Rawlins.
Seeing that yer cost me my job, it seems ter me, that the least ye can do is remember me.”
“Rawlins? You were given a dishonourable discharge, for your despicable actions towards a native girl.”
“Despicable? What gives yer the right to judge me? The wench was a nigger. A hussy. Not worth the coppers I wasted on her. Seems ter me ye ought ter be more concerned with another good British man than the likes of her.”
“Why have you brought us here? ”
The haughty tone in Hornblower’s voice appeared to further infuriate the man.
“I’ll tell yer. Yer didn’t find it so difficult to take yer fists ter me back in those acursed islands. Now it’s your turn, mr Kennedy.”
“Midshipman Kennedy to you.”
“Horatio, let the man finish.”
“I will let yer bosom friend ‘ere watch as I beat yer to death, Midshipman Kennedy. And as for you, Lieutenant Hornblower, ye shall know the touch o’ my whip. That will send a nice little message to yer protector, Pellew.”
He spat out the name of his former Captain.
Kennedy saw a hard glint in Hornblower’s eyes, and fervently wished his friend would not aggravate the situation. But to his relief, Hornblower held his tongue for the moment.
Rawlins called in four men to aid him in the task of turning Hornblower over to facilitate the use of the whip on his skin. Kennedy bit his lip hard, when he heard the cloth of Hornblower’s shirt tearing. The harder material of the coat resisted the men’s efforts, so in the end, they merely removed it. With the back bared, and the young officer as securely fettered as before, the four men retreated from the room, leaving Rawlins alone to carry out his revenge.
As the whip ate into Hornblower’s skin, Kennedy closed his eyes, silently praying that someone would overhear the screams issuing from his friend’s mouth, but he did not have much hope. The roar of the wind outside must be swallowing up the noises from inside. When Kennedy at last dared to open his eyes, the vile sound of the whip eating into Hornblower’s skin had ceased and his friend too was quiet, spent from the effort of holding back the cries of pain.
“Now for Midshipman Kennedy – I shall have you taken outside. There will be more room for what I have in mind.”
Again, he called for his four assistants, and the two young men were taken outside. The ropes tying their ankles were removed so that they should be able to walk on their own. Despite knowing the uselessness of such a course, they both struggled desperately against the bonds holding their wrists tied behind their backs, and though the straining caused them some pain, they could not abandon their efforts.
Once outside, the two men holding Hornblower, contemptuously flung him to the ground, but at a word from Rawlins, they raised him up again. The purpose of the entire scene was to allow him to witness his friend’s last moments. Hornblower’s mind was in a daze from the pain of the whipping, but he struggled to remain lucid. This must not be allowed to pass. He too, mumbled a quick prayer for a stay of the execution. And it seemed his wish was granted. A newcomer walked in on the scene. The reaction of the men under Rawlins’ command told him this man too had to be in league with their enemy, and he experienced a sinking feeling.
“Arrete. Rawlins, what did I tell you? Your personal revenge shall have to wait. And as for you – allez. Go.”
The man’s heavy accent made it abundantly clear that he was a Frenchman. A Frenchman, here on British soil? Hornblower’s mind struggled to make a plan for reporting this to the Captain. The four men Rawlins had addressed scuttled away at the Frenchman’s command, leaving their master alone.
“Rawlins, mon ami. You shall now be fully reimbursed for your service to me.”
Without further ado, the Frenchman pulled out a pistol and fired it into Rawlins’ face. The traitor fell to his knees, a stunned look in his eyes as a slow trickle of blood flowed from his forehead down into his face.
“Now, Lieutenant Hornblower. Let us make this easier for all us, shall we? Turn over the document that you are carrying.”
As he was still tied up, Hornblower knew that the Frenchman’s request was merely a formality, but that knowledge did not make this any easier on him. As he had know he would, he was forced to helplessly accept being robbed of the missive once again. What he did not know, was that the bonds tying Kennedy’s wrists together had not been made with any greater skill, and by now, in his desperation, he had managed to work his hands free, and the moment the letter was in the Frenchman’s hands, Kennedy sprang. He grabbed the letter and retreated some distance away from the scene, still unsure about his course of action. His duty was clear: to make his way back to the ship with the important missive.
The pistol was still in the Frenchman’s hand and now he aimed it at Hornblower’s head.
“Ah. I have for you, mon jeune ami, a pretty little choice. Your friend, ou ce lettre. Facile, non? Donnez-moi le lettre et voilá, your friend is free to go.”
Kennedy knew better than trusting in the word of one of their enemies, but undeniably this man held his friend’s life in his hands.
“Archie, go. Do not concern yourself with me. Run to Captain Pellew.”
Suddenly, Kennedy knew what to do. He did not hesitate, though he knew the consequences of such treachery. His friend’s life was more important than anything else. He moved a few steps closer to the troubled waves crashing onto the shore and flung the letter into the sea.
“Merde. Sale anglais.”
With a cry of rage, the Frenchman pocketed his pistol and ran after the missive, leaving his prisoners unattended. That was the moment Kennedy had been waiting for. He ran back to his friend, and with an arm around his shoulders, helped him get to his feet. With his friend’s aid, Hornblower was able to run into the darkness, and no shots were fired after them. Not a word was said during their short but draining rush for freedom.
On their return, they were called upon to report to the Captain. Hornblower and Kennedy exchanged looks, as if trying to agree on who would begin the account. Finally, Kennedy spoke up. He recounted the entire incident from the beginning to the end, knowing as he did so, that he was finished. It was all over. All the years of struggling and suffering, all for nothing. At the end of his account, the Captain subjected Kennedy a somber gaze.
“You threw the letter into the sea? Was there any possibility the enemy might get his hands on it?”
“I – there was no time to see. My first concern was Hornblower.”
“I see. Mr Kennedy, I am afraid this is very serious indeed. From the looks of things, you have handed over a letter containing information vital to the war effort to an enemy. My course of action is clear. I must have you confined to the brig, until a full investigation can be made. In the meantime, I will send a few men to search for the man. Should he be found before he is able to return to France, all might not be lost.”
“I understand, sir.”
Kennedy would not plead. His friend’s life had been in danger. What else could he have done? Deep down, however, he wondered if Hornblower would have done the same for him.
Pellew sent for two officers to take Kennedy away. That duty fulfilled, he turned to Hornblower.
“You can confirm Kennedy’s account?”
Part of Hornblower wished to do something, anything to save his friend, but he knew the rules as well as any officer. Kennedy had been amiss in his choice, and there was nothing anyone could do to remedy that now. All the same, Hornblower wished anything but this had occurred. How could he watch his friend being punished for saving his life?
“Very well, mr Hornblower, you may now see the surgeon. Have him see to that back of yours. Confounded bad luck all round.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Sir?”
“May I speak to mr Kennedy?”
Pellew frowned, deep in thought.
“I am afraid that would not be appropriate. You must wait until this matter is resolved one way or another.”
“What will happen to him?”
Again, Pellew paused, as if weighing his words.
“Mr Kennedy, I am very much afraid, is in serious trouble. This incident will be investigated.”
“I will not deny that there is a very great risk your friend will be court-martialled.”
Hornblower’s eyes widened as he considered the implications of the captain’s statement.
“And if he is?”
“Then I fear mr Kennedy will be sentenced to be hanged for treason. I will of course do my best for him, as I would for any member of my crew.”
“Have that back seen to now, mr Hornblower.”
On his way to the surgeon, during the treatment, which was painful and trying on Hornblower’s humour, and later, alone in the cabin he had shared with Kennedy for so long, he pondered his friend’s sad fate. How could this have come about? Was he to lose his friend after all they had been through together? Seeing Kennedy drift away after Simpson had cut him lose, he had believed his friend lost. In that Spanish prison, while Kennedy had tried to starve himself to death, he had feared him lost. Now he could not imagine life without his friend and constant companion. Hornblower spent a miserable night, and in the morning he woke to the news that the investigation of Kennedy’s actions would begin that very afternoon. Not all of the prominent delegates had as yet returned to their ships or homes.
An assembly of great men gathered aboard the Indy, but Hornblower was not invited to take part in the proceedings. He was not informed of the findings of the group until he walked into mr Bracegirdle late that night, as they were both strolling around the deck, their faces studies in deep concern.
“Yes, mr Hornblower?”
“May I ask what the investigation concluded regarding mr Kennedy?”
Bracegirdle’s worried frown prepared Hornblower for the shock of the news, but hearing the result of the investigation nevertheless caused him much pain.
“I regret to have to inform you that your friend will be court-martialled some time in the following days. The assembly found his transgression very serious indeed.”
Hornblower did not know what to say. This was inconceivable. He could not lose Kennedy now. For a moment, even his career prospects meant nothing to him. But the navy’s rules were what they placed their trust in. Those rules could not be bent or broken at whim. Hornblower firmly believed in the validity of such rules.
“I understand. What are his chances? ”
Mr Bracegirdle did not at first reply, and Hornblower knew what that hesitation signified. Finally, picking his words carefully, Bracegirdle continued.
“I am afraid, I must say that they are very slim. There is no room for personal initiative in the Navy. You have my sincerest sympathies, mr Hornblower.”
Hornblower swallowed, then coughed to clear his throat.
“Thank you, sir.”
Hornblower beat a hasty retreat, lest his superior officer should spy the tears glinting in his eyes. He entered his lonely quarters and lay down on the bunk, trying to rest. The Captain had forbidden his return to duties for the time being. It was perhaps no more than concern for the pain he still suffered after the whipping, but he couldn’t help but suspect it to be a precaution to keep him away from his friend Kennedy.
Whatever the reason, Hornblower did not find sleep within reach that night. Some hours into the night, Hornblower could not take the idleness anymore, and fled up on deck. It was a dark night. The sliver of moon from the fateful night so recently was gone. No clouds covered the cool black sky, and Hornblower felt despair unlike anything in his life until now.
Suddenly, a slight noise had him startled him out of his brooding, in search of whoever might have made the sound. It now occurred to him that there should have been a man on watch, but he had met no one. Could the French be attacking already? But the men who detached themselves from the deeper shadows were all familiar. Matthews, Oldroyd, Styles and behind them mr Bracegirdle. What in the world would they be doing at this hour on deck, all of them together? They parted and in their midst, he caught sight of another even more familiar shape, and one infinitely more dear to him. Kennedy. What was afoot? When it dawned on Hornblower that this was an attempt at escape, he was placed in a heart-breaking dilemma. Should he sound the alarm and almost certainly have his friend sent to his death, or should he risk his own career, and break the rules he lived by?
The decision was taken from him, as the men discovered they had been spied. Bracegirdle approached Hornblower with a query in his eyes.
“Well, mr Hornblower, it seems we are at your mercy. Will you sound the alarm or will you stand aside and let us finish what we have begun?”
Hornblower gazed into Kennedy’s eyes. There had been despair in them before, frequently, but this time, the pain was so tangible, Hornblower felt his breath catch in his throat. How could he send his friend to his death? It was unthinkable. His career be damned. Though he would never see him again, Kennedy must live.
On Kennedy’s face there was a look of defeat. He was not going to protest, or struggle. If Hornblower were to turn him over to the Captain again, he would accept his fate.
Hornblower closed the distance separating him from his friend, with a few light steps, and pulled Kennedy into a hard embrace. It seemed to last forever, yet when Bracegirdle lightly touched his shoulder, it was as if no time at all had passed.
“Time to go, mr Kennedy.”
“Where will you go, Archie?”
“It is best if you do not know. May the Lord watch over you and keep you safe. One day you will be a great man.”
“Stay safe, my friend. I love you.”
“As I love you, Horatio.”
Hornblower stepped aside, watching the preparations being made. Styles would row Kennedy ashore. Matthews and Oldroyd were carrying his chest.
Impulsively, Hornblower removed the gold cross, hanging from a thin gold chain around his neck. It had been a gift from his mother, but he wanted his friend to carry it with him on his lonely journey.
“Wait. Here. Take this. When you wear it, think of me and remember our friendship.”
Kennedy’s eyes filled with tears, and it seemed to Hornblower that his friend might not after all accept his gift. He hastily walked over to Kennedy and placed the chain around his neck. Again, they embraced if only briefly.
By now, Oldroyd and Matthews had lowered the chest into the boat, and Styles was restlessly pacing the deck behind them. A tactful cough from Bracegirdle brought home the seriousness of the situation to the young men.
“Farewell, Archie. May you reach a safe haven and want for nothing.”
“May all your dreams come true, Horatio.”
Kennedy vanished over the side of the Indy. At a word from Bracegirdle, Oldroyd and Matthews returned to their cabins, to resume their interrupted sleep. Bracegirdle placed an arm around Hornblower’s shoulders and led him to the stern where they might enjoy some manner of privacy, should the man on watch resume his duties.
“Trust in me, mr Hornblower. This was for the best. For some time now, it has seemed to me, that your young friend’s heart was not in his work anymore. Perhaps he shall find a task more suited to his talents. Mr Kennedy is a gentle soul and the life of a naval officer might not be to his liking.”
“I know it has not been. Indeed, it was not by his own choice he entered the service.”
“That does not surprise me greatly, mr Hornblower. It has been my understanding, that mr Kennedy was cursed with a highly cruel and insensitive father. Such a shame. I believe mr Kennedy is filled with promise and should he but find a career more suited to his talents, I am sure he will excel.”
“As am I.”
“As it happens, mr Kennedy rather reminds me of my youngest son. A fine boy, but – it has taken him a while to find his true calling. I sense that when mr Kennedy does, he will prosper.”
Hornblower hesitated. He wanted to ask if the arrangements made for his friend’s escape were satisfactory, but he knew such a question was useless. Worse, an insult to the planning and foresight of a man such as mr Bracegirdle. Safe in that knowledge, Hornblower refrained from posing his question. He would have to trust in Bracegirdle and in God. Surely Kennedy would find his way to a better place and reach safety? He would pray that he would.
“Now, mr Hornblower, perhaps you ought to retire to your quarters. It would not do for the Captain to catch you on deck, on the night an erring officer made his escape. As you know, it is the Captain’s wont to take a stroll around his ship at any hour.”
“Yes, sir. And – thank you. For saving Kennedy’s life.”
“Ah. No thanks are necessary. I could not stand by idly, while such a fine young man was so harshly punished.”
“Indeed. Good night, sir, and thank you again.”
Mr Bracegirdle inclined his head, and reassuringly squeezing the young man’s shoulder, proceeded on his own way.
The following morning, the ship was alive with rumours and all manner of wild tales concerning Kennedy’s escape. It was the belief of most of the crewmen, that the young midshipman had ended his life, and that no search would uncover any trace of his whereabouts. Among the officers, it was widely held that rather than face execution, Kennedy had offered his services to the enemy. Such talk was offensive to Hornblower and frequently in the days to come, he had to bite his tongue. No search could indeed find any trace of the fugitive from justice, and in the end, no further searches were conducted.
One evening, about four days after Kennedy’s escape, Pellew sent for Bracegirdle and bade him sit down.
“A drop of cognac, my friend? It is a chill night.”
“Why, thank you, sir. I believe I will. Most generous of you, sir.”
“Do not mention it. It is pleasant to enjoy a good beverage in the company of a friend.”
“To the war effort, Captain.”
“To our eventual victory, mr Bracegirdle.”
After their toast, both men fell silent. It was not surprising that their thoughts dwelled on the sad conclusion to Midshipman Kennedy’s career.
“I was wondering – do you think there is any chance that mr Hornblower might be able to shed some light on mr Kennedy’s whereabouts?”
“Most certainly not, sir. Mr Hornblower would never risk his career over such a risky undertaking.”
“That is my belief also, mr Bracegirdle. Perhaps someone else aboard this ship might be able to tell me?”
At this, Pellew subjected mr Bracegirdle to an intense scrutiny. Bracegirdle was far too seasoned to blink an eye at this. It would take far more to make him lose his head. In the end, Pellew looked away, as if satisfied. What he had concluded, he did not confide in Bracegirdle.
“Ah, I expect we shall never know. Some things are never explained, that is my experience. As far as I am concerned, the matter is closed.”
“I see, sir. Very well.”
“I can not but wish that young mr Kennedy shall find a safe haven far from British shores. It is most tragic that loyalty such as Kennedy’s was to have been punished so severely. Perhaps this unfortunate incident was for the best.”
“Indeed, that is possible, sir.”
Mr Bracegirdle took his leave of his Captain, an enigmatic smile playing on his lips. Possible, indeed. In fact, of the highest likelihood. He had no fears for young Kennedy’s safety. The young man, who really did remind mr Bracegirdle strongly of his youngest son, was in the best possible hands, and if Bracegirdle was not very much mistaken, before long, the boy would in even better hands. All in all, a highly satisfactory solution to the problem.