Author's Note: After writing the very sad short fic ("The Limit of Our Sight"), I found myself mulling over a concept. Horatio finds himself feeling very alone in that story, after Archie's death, and must in the end convince himself that he is not as lonely as he first thinks. Yet... in the series, there a time when he is even more alone, when he must feel pretty darn low. In The Duel/The Even Chance, after he has returned from the mission with the Papillon, he's really got no one to talk to, and he's in a great pickle. I would contend that this is one of the loneliest points in his early career. Clayton's long gone, Archie's now lost and presumed dead or captured, and we see no evidence that Horatio has managed to become friends with any of the other midshipmen. Two of the lieutenants are now dead, and kind Uncle Bracie has not yet made his appearance. And up to this point, his only private interaction with Pellew has been the scathing interview on his arrival. We, the readers, know that Sir Edward is going to become very fond of this young man, but Horatio isn't so sure yet; he still thinks that Pellew just might have him roasted for breakfast.
I know that I'm not the first one to take on this question: namely, what happened during the time between Horatio's acceptance of Simpson's challenge and the actual duel on the beach? I couldn't resist taking a stab at it. As background for this scene, I would argue that our boy is in pretty bad shape. He's just eighteen years old, he's just been in more physical danger than ever before, he's watched two senior officers die, he's been shot and nearly drowned and knocked about the head... and he has just misplaced his best friend. You can tell from that look of anguish when he whacks poor Archie with the tiller that it just about kills him to have to do it.
Anyway: this is one that I started to write some time ago, then shelved it thinking no one would really be interested in this sort of thing at the moment. There's not much adventure in it, and not a whole lot that is original in any sense of the word. But some notes I've received recently from readers made me realize that there are some of you out there that enjoy the whole Pellew-as-father dynamic. So, here it is, and I hope that you enjoy some bittersweet sadness. First-person, so that you can feel what the poor boy is feeling.
An Unfortunate Necessity
"Mr. Simpson, you are dismissed. Mr. Hornblower, I should like to speak with you for a few minutes more, if you please."
I was startled at the captain's request, but kept my face as impassive as possible. I tried not to shudder as Simpson gave me one last unsettling stare before leaving the captain's cabin. My heart was pounding, as the implications of what I had done started to sink in: I had accepted Jack Simpson's challenge, and I had no doubt that only one of us would be alive after the completion of the duel.
"Mr. Hornblower." Captain Pellew moved a few steps closer. "I understand that you were with Lieutenant Eccleston when he died... that you spoke with him last."
I swallowed. "Yes, sir." The memory was not a comfortable one. Eccleston had died on deck, crushed beneath a falling yardarm. His last words had indeed been directed at me, instructing me to take command of the Papillon in his place.
"I will, of course, be writing letters to his family, and to Lieutenant Chadd's as well. As you were witness to their deaths, perhaps you could write a short note to each family as well. It might bring them some comfort to know that both men died bravely while serving in combat."
"Of course, sir." I did not hesitate. "I would be honored to do so."
"Very good." The captain turned away, his hands clasped behind his back, and gazed out of the great stern windows. He was silent for a few minutes, and I held my tongue and waited for him to either say something else or dismiss me. My head was aching, and I could feel the ordeal of the previous twenty-four hours in every sore muscle.
"I also understand," he said finally, "that you were most likely the last man to speak with Mr. Kennedy before he was lost. Perhaps you could also write something to his family, that I could enclose in a letter."
I looked down at my feet. What with the news of the two lieutenants' deaths, and the ugly confrontation with Simpson, my description of poor Archie's fate had been very sketchy. I had told the captain only that Archie had suffered a fit which had left him unconscious, making it necessary to leave him on the boat during the actual attack... and that the boat had been lost. My captain did not know, yet, the part I had played in leaving my friend vulnerable and defenseless.
"Sir," I began hesitantly, "sir, I would much rather not."
Captain Pellew frowned at me, his disapproval clear. "I am surprised, Mr. Hornblower. I was given to understand that you and Mr. Kennedy were friends."
I felt my throat tighten and my eyes beginning to sting with unshed tears. "We were, sir." I trailed off, reluctant to tell the entire story, reluctant to hear my captain's judgment. "Sir, it was my fault that he was taken," I finally said, all in a rush.
Captain Pellew's expression softened slightly. "How so, Mr. Hornblower?'
I could feel a trickling sensation coming from the wound on my head; it had begun to bleed again. I reached up hastily with my blood-stained handkerchief to dab at the small laceration. "He did have a fit, sir, just as I told you," I explained. My voice rang dully in my ears. "But he was making so much noise, that I feared we would be discovered by the enemy." Here, I stopped and took a deep breath. "I had to take the tiller, sir, and hit him on the head to knock him out," I finished miserably.
The captain nodded slowly. "An unfortunate necessity, Mr. Hornblower, but I don't see that you had any other choice."
"He was still out cold, sir, when we reached the Papillon, and I never heard another sound out of him." Unbidden, the image flashed into my mind: Archie's pale face and his crumpled form, lying in the bottom of the boat. "If I hadn't hit him, he might have woken up in a few minutes and been able to climb on board. I signed his death warrant, sir," I gulped. "For me to write to his family... it would be monstrous." I felt my voice crack on that last word, and knew that my face mirrored my distress.
Captain Pellew looked at me, his face unreadable. Then he walked to the wine decanter on the side-board, poured two small glasses of wine, and brought them over to the table.
"Sit down, Mr. Hornblower." His voice was quieter now, almost gentle; I hadn't heard him speak this way before. "Sit down, and drink this."
I sat in one of the gracefully curved wooden chairs, and immediately felt a little less shaky. I sipped cautiously at my glass of wine, which proved to be a rather alarmingly strong Madeira. I would have to use care, in my exhausted and wounded state, or it would go quickly to my head.
Captain Pellew seated himself at the table, only a couple of feet away from me. He said nothing for a few minutes, sipping from his own wine glass. I dabbed again at the cut on my head. This time, the cloth came away unstained; the wound seemed to have stopped bleeding.
"You and he were close friends, were you not?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, sir, we were." I tried to keep my voice steady, but it trembled despite my best efforts. "Since my first day at sea." I looked away for a moment, staring vacantly into space but seeing instead the tapestry of my memories: my waterlogged arrival on the Justinian, the cheerful face that had greeted me so unexpectedly, and the irrepressible good humor of the boy who had led me about the ship and helped me to feel more at ease. And how had I repaid that warmth and kindness? By knocking my friend senseless.
I felt tears gathering in my eyes again, accompanied by a wave of grief that washed over me almost physically. To cover my emotions, I raised my wineglass to my lips and took a great gulp of the fiery stuff. But some of it took the wrong path down my throat, and I found myself choking on it and coughing vigorously.
"Mr. Hornblower? Are you all right?"
I tried to answer, but I was still coughing hard from the burn of the misdirected Madeira. Tears, as much of pain now as of emotion, ran down my cheeks as I wheezed and spluttered.
Afterwards, I was never really quite certain what happened. One moment I was simply trying to cough the wine out of my windpipe, with Captain Pellew looking at me rather anxiously; the next, I realized that I was choking not on Madeira but on my own silent sobs. I tried to stop, but was unable to do so; in defeat, I lowered my head down upon my folded arms.
Some small part of me knew that I should not be too ashamed of myself, that I was severely fatigued and still injured. It was not only my grief and remorse over the loss of my comrade that shook me so, but also a delayed reaction to all of the violence I had experienced in the capture of the Papillon. I had been shot at, nearly drowned, and caught in an explosion. I had been forced to take command of the Papillon in the most unpleasant circumstances imaginable. And now I faced, once again, the prospect of a duel with the most sadistic and soulless man I had ever met.
After a minute or so, I managed to regain control of myself. I kept my head down on my arms, taking deep breaths, trying to work up the courage to look up. I hadn't heard Captain Pellew say anything... but surely he would be exasperated, perhaps even disgusted. With a churning in my stomach, I remembered the Captain's reaction to Simpson's all-too-clearly contrived show of emotion at the briefing just before the capture of the Papillon. My own breakdown had been both more understandable (and certainly far more genuine) but it had also been far more dramatic.
I gulped and raised my head, wiping my sleeve quickly across my eyes. To my surprise, Captain Pellew still sat there, his face showing only grave concern, unmixed with scorn or anger. As my eyes met his, he addressed me.
"Are you feeling better?" he asked quietly.
I flushed with embarrassment as I realized what kind of a picture I presented: exhausted, filthy, bleeding, and now tear-stained as well. "Sir, I must apologize. I... choked on the wine, and then... I don't know what came over me." I looked away, unable to meet my captain's penetrating gaze. "If you have no further instructions for me, sir, I think that I had best leave here and return to my duties."
Pellew shook his head. "When you leave here, you will go see the surgeon about that wound on your head. That's an order, Mr. Hornblower."
I gulped. "Yes, sir."
The captain stood and paced to the other side of the room, standing with his hands behind his back. I watched him from my seat at the table; while he was turned away, I took the opportunity to rub my coat sleeve across my eyes and nose. I longed to be dismissed, to be able to crawl away somewhere, anywhere but here. Anything, but stay here to be reminded that I had broken down like a child in front of my captain.
Captain Pellew cleared his throat. "Are you absolutely certain that you wish to proceed with this duel?"
"I believe it necessary, sir," I answered him, miserably.
"In what way? You spoke of your need to prove your accusation against Simpson... but your story, boy, has the ring of truth. It is true that I am loathe to prosecute the case, without clear objective evidence of guilt..." He trailed off, and I shook my head stubbornly.
"I would not ask that of you, sir."
"Nevertheless... you may have forgotten, but Mr. Simpson was only taken on this ship out of courtesy, as a stranded survivor of another ship. With the Justinian gone, he holds no position here unless I choose to give him one." Pellew turned away, to stare out the windows again. "I do not choose to accept him aboard the Indefatigable as a midshipman. He will be returned to England at the earliest opportunity, and he may seek employment aboard some other captain's ship."
"Sir," I began.
"Hear me out, Mr. Hornblower. Decline the challenge, and I will personally see that Mr. Simpson does not cause you any more trouble." He turned and looked at me again, his expression stern but not unkind. "You have shown your quality. I am most reluctant to hazard you, and your fine mind, in a useless duel."
"Sir... it is a matter of honor. I cannot back down now, or he will have won." I repressed a shudder as I heard myself repeating those words. Once, I had said something almost identical to poor doomed Clayton, and the similarities chilled me, but still I went on and said the next sentence. "I would never be free of him, then."
And this time, I vowed silently to myself, I would run my own risks. No one would fight my battle for me; no friend would throw his mortal body into the bullet's savage path. If it were my fate to die, then die I would. Pellew could promise to keep Simpson under control, and I trusted his good intentions to do so... but he could not know Simpson the same way that I did. I knew, with a growing certainty, that if I found a way to squirm out of the challenge, that I would meet a knife in the dark some moonless night, wielded by a revenge-crazed hand. "I would never be free." I repeated the words more softly, as if completing a pledge.
"I see." Pellew held my eyes with his for a long moment, then walked closer and placed a hand upon my shoulder. "I will not command you in a matter like this... but, are you certain? I cannot prevail upon you to change your mind?"
This time, I was unable to avoid a violent shudder. I had spoken my lines, but now my captain was unwittingly falling into his role. Clayton's role, Clayton's words... the same words he had spoken to me, the same question he had asked me just before he knocked me cold and took my place in that first ill-fated duel with Simpson. I closed my eyes, feeling profoundly disoriented.
"Mr. Hornblower, are you all right? You look even more ghastly than you did earlier, if that is possible."
"I am all right," I half-whispered. "Just an unpleasant memory. Captain Pellew, sir, I must ask you... please, I know that you believe me ill-advised, that I pursue this duel, but I must ask you not to interfere in any way." I swallowed. "I must do this, sir, even though I may not be able to explain why."
The captain narrowed his eyes and looked at me more closely. "There are layers and layers to you, boy, and I don't believe I have even begun to understand you."
There seemed to be no good answer to this, so I held my tongue and tried to look as if I felt better than I looked. I was glad that I was seated, as my heart was pounding still with a queasy sense of foreboding.
"You've no lack of physical courage," he continued, "that's abundantly clear. Yet you find it almost unbearable that you were forced to injure a friend, to save many other lives."
I looked down at the table. No, the captain had not been fooled at all by my choking-on-the-wine story. "I apologize for my outburst of earlier, sir," I said in what I hoped was a quiet and steady voice. "It will not happen again."
"And then, you are bold enough to tell me that I must not interfere in your duel! You are a mystery to me, Mr. Hornblower." He sighed, and lifted his hand from my shoulder. "So be it, then. You shall have your duel, your justice, and unless there is treachery, it shall go ahead without my interference. However... I am relieving Mr. Simpson of duties, and he shall be under guard until we reach a suitable location for this duel. I do not trust him, Mr. Hornblower."
I shook my head. "Neither do I, sir."
"I have wearied you long enough. Go and see the surgeon, then get some rest. And, Mr. Hornblower... about those letters."
I had forgotten all about our original topic of conversation. "I will write them, sir. And... the one to Mr. Kennedy's family as well."
His face softened. "Are you certain? If it brings you that much pain..."
"It does, but..." I fumble for words. "I suppose I understand a little better now, sir. Since he was my friend... well, if he is truly gone, it may be the last gift that I can give to him, or to his family. And if he does return to us, I do not think that I want to explain to him both my reasons for knocking him unconscious and my reasons for failing to write to his parents."
He nodded, with just a ghost of a smile. "Indeed, Mr. Hornblower."