The Captain's Burden
"Glad to have you back safe, Mr. Hornblower." My words are soft, in contrast
with the stern lecture I have just delivered.
"And I am glad to be back, sir." He manages to get that out without a shake
in his voice, but it still sounds soft and muffled. Quite unlike his usual crisp responses.
I peer at him for a moment, hovering on the edge of a decision. In another
second, he will take another one of those damnable deep breaths, square his
shoulders again, and otherwise make it very plain by his body language that
it is time for me to dismiss him.
And certainly, that would be the easiest thing to do. He has given me his
report, maddeningly brief though it was. He has listened to my words about
duty. He has had his moment of weakness, and is once again master of
Or is he? Though he is obviously doing his best to ignore their existence,
several tears still course sluggishly down his face. More wait in his eyes,
for the moment when they will either be allowed to run unchecked or be
ruthlessly smeared away by his uncharacteristically grubby hands.
If I could trust that this young man would leave my cabin and go take the
rest that he so desperately needs... if I could trust that he would find
some fleetingly private place, or a sympathetic comrade, and give vent to
his grief and disillusionment, then I could let him go. But I know him so
well, this determined boy who reminds me achingly of myself at this age. He
will walk out of here and bury himself in his work, forcing his own feelings
into some internal crevice where they will fester and hurt. He will see to
his men, to the others who were on the expedition, and make his own needs
subservient to theirs.
All of this passes through my mind in a heartbeat, and in another heartbeat
I realize I cannot let him leave my cabin in this state.
I clear my throat. "Mr. Hornblower. I have one more thing that I must say to
you." Damn... too formal, too stilted.
"Sir?" His eyes flicker toward me.
"There are many skills an officer should learn to prepare himself for the
business of command. There are experiences he should have, ways in which he
ought to be tested. Battle, for example. Privation. Learning to handle his
men. Unexpected challenges; twists and turns of fate. By observing a man
under those circumstances, a captain can gain a fair idea of the kind of
officer he will become."
He nods again, a quick dip of his chin, and this time is able to meet my
eyes. "Indeed, sir."
"Up until now, I have been privileged to see how you have achieved and
responded to victory, to success of one kind or another. The manner in which
an officer handles defeat is at least as important, if not more."
His gaze drops again, and I see his jaw muscles working. When he speaks
again, his voice is once more rough with suppressed emotion. "Then I do not
believe, sir, that I am behaving as an officer should."
I do not wish to snap at him, but something in his tone makes me do exactly
that. "Damn it! Young man, you will let me be the judge of that! Do you
think that I doubt your courage? Do you?"
Now the tears resume their relentless course down his face. He gulps once,
but does not answer. And, of course, it's a rhetorical question anyway. I
"I have seen your bravery with my own eyes, man. I have seen you risk
yourself, time and time again. Now here you are, exhausted, filthy, having
done your level best to succeed, having given your utmost... and you think
that I will think the less of you because you weep?"
I take advantage of the intensity of my words to whirl away from him, to
face the porthole once again. Behind me, I can hear him scrub his hands
across his face. "I... do not know, sir," I hear him say, raggedly.
"Then know this." I continue to stare out at the sky. "On a ship such as
this, the Captain is alone, and must suffer his grief in private. You have
had a taste of command, if only for short periods, and you have learned
something of this.
"But you are not in permanent command of any vessel, not yet. You are one of my lieutenants, and the Indefatigable is your home. If there is any place on this ship that you ought to be able to unburden yourself, boy, then that
place is here."
"Yes, sir." A barely audible response.
"It is a captain's privilege to command his officers. And it is his
responsibility.. his burden, if you will, to see that their wounds are cared
for. I do not speak, Mr. Hornblower, merely of the wounds of the body." I
turn back to face him once again. "I have had a brief opportunity to speak
with Lord Edrington before you came on board. He is concerned for you,
although he did not have time to give me sufficient detail as to the reasons
for his concerns."
I pause for emphasis, studying the drained and discouraged face now only a
few inches away from mine. "You will give me a complete report, Mr.
Hornblower, of all that has befallen you since you left with the landing
His eyes close briefly. "Sir, might I request a... favor?"
"What is it, man? Speak up?"
He looks down at the floor again. "Sir, I believe that I could produce a
more precise account in a written form. Might I retire for an hour, sir, and
write such a report for you?"
"No, Mr. Hornblower, you may not." My words are soft, but my tone final. "I wish to hear you story now. Now, while your memory is fresh and clear." I know that if I give him time to write a written report, all of his defenses will go back up, and he will edit out the horrors that he has undoubtedly seen.
This time, when he glances back up, I can see pain and bewilderment in his
eyes. I feel a sharp pang of guilt at my apparent cruelty.
"Now, Mr. Hornblower, if you please," I repeat.
It is too much for him, as I knew it would be. He continues to stand his
ground, his straight posture giving no indication of the turmoil within...
but his eyes close tightly and remain closed. His chin trembles just
slightly, and fresh tears spring forth to track down his smudged cheeks. He
weeps soundlessly before me... for this quiet eternal moment, just a weary
and heartsick boy.
Now, it is time to be kind. I take him gently by the arm, with the intention
of leading him to a chair. He stiffens briefly, and for a moment I fear that
he will actually flee my cabin rather than confront the horrors of the past
few days... then surprises me by turning to me and pressing his
tear-streaked face into my shoulder. I hesitate only briefly, then wrap my
right arm around him and pull him slightly closer, patting him awkwardly on
"It's all right, son. It's all right," I murmur.
My heart aches at the sight of him, my brave and determined young
lieutenant, as he cries almost soundlessly on my shoulder. After only a few
seconds, he pulls away from me and drags his sleeve across his face. "I'm
sorry, sir. Please forgive me."
I ignore the apology and take his arm again. "Come and sit down, my boy." He
complies, stumbling a little in his fatigue and tear-blindness. I pull the
other chair closer and settle myself into it, one hand still resting on his
arm. "Now, tell me what has happened to the expedition, and to you." I need
to know why he looks so shattered, why I can still see his broken heart in
It is some time before he can begin, and now I no longer try to hurry him.
His voice, almost inaudible at first, gains strength as he speaks. In low
tones, he tells me of the landing, the deployment of the forces at the
bridge, the march to Muzillac. When he describes the executions and violence in the village, he looks as though he might be sick at any moment. He masters himself, and continues.
He describes the course of events leading up to their appearance on the
beach today, but toward the end his account grows more bare, more clipped.
Finally I interrupt him.
"Just a moment, Mr. Hornblower. Major Edrington mentioned something about a French girl, killed at the bridge." I pause for a moment." Tell me about her."
He sighs deeply. "Mariette. Her name was Mariette. I...met her in the
village, and helped protect her from the soldiers. She... helped me in
return... gave me information regarding the movements of the French
Republican troops. We fled the village together when it was overrun, and a
sniper killed her at the bridge."
I study his face, still tear-stained but beginning to look stronger, more
assured. "I am sorry, Mr. Hornblower."
He shakes his head and chokes out a bitter sound, half laugh and half sob.
"I suppose that I had some idea about bringing her away with me, to the
ship. I know now that I couldn't have done that, not without... ruining
"Nevertheless, I am sorry. Sorry about her, but more sorry that I could not
avoid sending you on this... this ill-fated expedition." Unable to sit still
and longer, I stand and begin my usual restless pacing. He of course stands
as well, probably thinking that this interminable interview is over at last.
"Mr. Hornblower, I will allow you to go rest now. Neither you nor Mr.
Kennedy are to take a watch until tomorrow. We can manage without you until
then. I will expect you both to be able to be back on duty by tomorrow."
"Yes, sir," he nods. He looks much better now, still rumpled and dirty, but
back in command of himself. At the door, he pauses.
"I must thank you for your kindness to me, sir. I... feel much better than I
"That was my intention, Mr. Hornblower. That was my intention."