When you get back to England make sure my sister knows the truth. I know you're an honest, and honourable, man. Treat her as such.
Lieutenant William Bush sat his horse at the end of the sweeping drive, working to muster up the courage for what he needed to do. He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. Although a capable rider he always felt somehow insecure on horseback, preferring to keep his feet on solid ground. Or on the pitching deck of a ship at sea.
Which is exactly where I wish I was now, he told himself. But I made a promise that must be honoured.
I've given the Devil his due to purchase that for you. Don't let me down.
The echo of his friend's voice sounded loud in his mind. Archie Kennedy had been, to the last, an open and artless soul, greeting the world with good humour and always rising above obstacles.
Until the final one.
His heart still ached, even four months later. He had watched from his hospital window as Kennedy had been unceremoniously dumped in a common, unmarked grave. Days later, when he had been released, he visited the spot and fired one pistol shot over the grave. It was the best he could do to honour a man he had called "friend", even for so short a time.
And now he was confronted by the need to make good on his promise; confronted in the form of tall trees shading a long drive that lead up to an imposing house that glowed in the rays of the setting sun. He took a tighter grip on the reins and nudged the horse into motion.
As he drew nearer the house loomed larger; three levels, rows and rows of windows all seeming to stare at him like disapproving eyes. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat. He had grown up in much humbler surroundings; his father a cooper and his uncle a blacksmith, and had joined the navy when he was thirteen. He was unaccustomed to grandeur of any type.
He reached the circle at the foot of the steps. A young stable boy came running around a corner of the house and took the reins, stilling the horse so he could dismount. Almost as soon as his feet hit the gravel the boy led the animal off, not even staying to hear Bush's awkwardly mumbled "Thank you". He adjusted his uniform jacket and took a deep breath before ascending the steps and letting the heavy brass knocker fall.
The man who answered the door could have been cast from God's mold labeled "butler". Tall, thin, and with a face that would never show shock or surprise he was obviously born for his role in life. His dark eyes were not in the least curious about this visitor. He held a silver salver in his hand.
Bush felt a blush climb his cheeks as the butler, Jenkins, extended the salver towards him. He had no calling cards, and in truth had not expected to need such a thing. He cleared his throat and met the man's eyes squarely.
"My name is Bush," he said, pleased that his voice did not betray his nervousness. "Lieutenant William Bush. I wish to speak to Miss Kennedy."
If it were possible Jenkins' features became even more inscrutable. He moved to close the door. "Miss Kennedy is in mourning and not receiving callers," he said coldly.
"Wait!" Bush exclaimed, throwing out an arm to keep the door from shutting. "Give her this." And he handed Jenkins a small, leather-bound book.
Even if you never read it take good care of it, William. It's a piece of myself.
Something in the butler's expression told Bush that the man recognized the volume of sonnets. His eyes traveled from the cover to Bush's face and back again. His guard dropped and he swallowed before meeting Bush's eyes again. "Wait here, sir. I'll speak to Miss Kennedy." And he swung the door fully open and ushered Bush into the foyer.
He waited for an interminable amount of time, staring at a portrait of some Kennedy ancestor in full foxhunt glory, including holding the bloody carcass in one hand. He shook his head and laughed quietly, thinking perhaps the man depicted wouldn't be smiling quite so smugly if the fox was holding him.
"Mister Bush?" a soft voice called behind him. He turned and froze.
She was beautiful. Not even the severe black of her gown could detract from the peachy-gold of her complexion, and her red hair flamed in the sun that came through the transom window above the door. As she walked toward him he was struck by an overwhelming sense of familiarity. She was so like her brother it was almost physically painful. Only when she was close enough for Bush to see that her eyes were green, not blue, did the feeling pass.
"M... Miss Kennedy," he stammered, bowing somewhat awkwardly to her. When he raised his head he saw that she was holding the book in one hand, her fingers gripping it so tightly her knuckles were white.
I can't tell her the truth, he told himself. I'm sorry, Archie, but she's already been hurt enough.
Don't be afraid of hurting her with it; she may look delicate but she's tough as nails.
"I know this book, Mister Bush. My brother would only have parted with it under extraordinary circumstances, or to someone he could trust." Her expression grew quizzical and she cocked her head slightly to one side. "Do you have something to tell me about Archie?"
Bush could only nod; he didn't trust himself to speak.
"Let's walk in the garden while we talk," she said. "I've been inside too much lately. The fresh air will do me good."
"All these rose bushes were planted by my mother shortly after her marriage," Annie said. "Hence the name of the estate, Rosefield."
"Its beautiful," Bush said, his eyes taking in the myriad colours of the blooming flowers. Their scent swam in the warm air. "What a place to play as a child," he continued, smiling.
Annie sat on a bench in one corner of the garden, her face serious. "I would like to know what you came here to tell me, Mister Bush." She was still holding the sonnets. "It can't possibly be worse than what I've already been told."
"What have you been told, exactly?" he asked.
She swallowed and turned her face away from him. "That Archie died a condemned mutineer. That he pushed his captain into the hold in an attempt to kill the man. That he would have died a traitor's death at the end of a rope if his wounds hadn't killed him first." She faced him again, her eyes blazing with anger. "Its not true, I know it isn't! My father says Archie disgraced our entire family, but I knew him. He couldn't have done the things they said of him! Could he?" The last was spoken as a plea.
Bush shook his head. "No, he couldn't. And didn't. Your brother died a hero, sacrificing himself to save a friend. Two friends," he corrected himself softly.
She looked puzzled. "Two friends?"
Bush sat beside her on the bench and let the whole story spill out of him. The captain's fall, the fort, the Spanish prisoners, and the trial. When he spoke of his last conversation with Kennedy his throat tightened and his voice thickened. He blinked hard against the threat of tears.
Silence descended when he finally ran out of words. Annie's head was bowed, the book of sonnets open on her lap. Even as Bush watched a tear fell, blotting one of the pages. He reached out a hand and covered hers where it clenched the book, maintaining the contact until she brought her emotions once again under control.
"What about the captain's fall?" she asked, her voice husky from her recent spate of tears. "Was he pushed?"
Bush looked up at the bright blue sky. "We'll never know," he said. "Three of the people who were present are dead, and the fourth will never tell."
"And Horatio? How is he?"
Bush was surprised and didn't bother to hide it. "You know Hornblower?"
Annie laughed for the first time. "Yes, I do. I suppose he's being his usual self and not even speaking of any of this. Not for Mister Hornblower, the excessive display of emotion!"
Bush grinned. "Honestly, I don't know. I haven't seen him since he left Kingston as commander of the Retribution. But I imagine you're right. He's not very emotional. Odd that the two of them should ever have become friends."
Annie considered his words. "Not really. They each needed the other to provide some missing part of themselves. Archie as Horatio's emotional mirror, and Horatio as Archie's self-control." She looked directly at him then, her eyes narrowed shrewdly. "You said 'two friends' before. It was you, wasn't it? That's why Archie gave you this." She held up the book.
Bush nodded. "Yes, it was me. The second friend, saved by default." A note of bitterness crept into his voice. Bitterness at himself for being alive, and bitterness at Kennedy for extending that gift to him.
Annie smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. "If you think it was by default then you couldn't have known Archie very well. He may not have seemed that way, but he never did anything without carefully considering all the possibilities. You're alive because he wanted you to be."
Bush shook his head in negation and started to speak. Annie interrupted him. "If you don't believe me read this." She handed him the book, open to the front flyleaf. He read the handwritten inscription.
Take this piece of home with you everywhere. It'll remind you of me.
Your loving twin,
Bush felt his eyes widen in shock. "Twins?" he asked. When Annie nodded he returned his gaze to the inscription. "You gave this to him; you should have it back." He tried to return the book to her but she pressed it back into his hands.
"Its yours, Mister Bush. Like I said, Archie wanted this to be. Don't disparage his gifts."
And finally Bush felt that he understood everything that Archie Kennedy had bestowed on him. Not only the gift of life, but of friendship - honest, unquestioning and unswerving. His heart felt lighter than it had for months.
"I won't," he replied, taking the book and holding in tight in one hand. "I honour them, and him."