Title: The Ritual
Word Count 720
Disclaimer John Hornblower is mine
It was childish, he knew, but John Hornblower always did the same thing. He did it this morning, as he had done again and again, over the previous year and a half. They came irregularly, sometimes months apart, and he had developed a ritual to savor them. He would have been pink faced, had anyone known, but that would not have served to stop him.
When they came, it was always morning. Mary brought the mail, and she always saw the letters first. Her joy, on those days, was the first flavor of delight. She recognized Horatio's hand, of course. She had helped teach him to write.
He always propped the letter up against his sand shaker. He and Mary smiled at it together. If Horatio had sent a letter, then he was alive when it was sent. That, alone, was like long deep breath of the good air of morning.
As soon as Mary left the room the doctor picked the letter up. He did not break the seal immediately. He examined the little rectangle back and front, trying to learn all he could from his own terse address.
This morning, like every other letter morning, Dr Hornblower held the letter to his nose and mouth. It never smelled like anything, but it brought a memory to his muscles, and his stinging eyes. He remembered the heft of a small boy, limp with sleep, and the smell, of grass and sun, and child-sweat. Dr Hornblower remembered how Horatio's hair had smelled, on those long ago nights, as John settled him into bed, kissed him, and tucked the blankets around him safe. Somehow, John always expected the letters to smell like that.
Then he put the letter, unread, in his waist-coat pocket. It stayed with him, all throughout his day, a crackling promise of joy, for the lonely evening.
Now it was evening. The lamp was lit, the fire was crackling at John's feet. Now was the time. This was a long letter, several pages. John Hornblower wiggled his stockinged toes absently as he read the first page. By the second, he had his feet under him, and his brows drawn down.
“Dear Father, (Well, it began all right. Horatio had then remarked on the weather, and given report on the health of the Captain.)
As a result of action resulting from the capture of the Papillon...sore, but recovering....axillary artery completely missed....
John Hornblower stared, unseeing, into the fire. Action resulting from. Not action during. Strange. The doctor's mouth was tight, as he lifted the letter to read.
Regret to report, Mr Archibald Kennedy, my dearest friend...missing during action...open boat. Now missing 2 months.
Rather more than a dear friend, the doctor thought. And likely dead, if he had not turned up by now. The letter went on to report the deaths of two lieutenants, and another midshipman, someone named Simpson. It gave no details of these deaths, just listed them, as if for some future reckoning.
Dr Hornblower knew death quite well. He had seen it come, in many guises. It came sometimes as the classic scythe, cutting down the unready in numbers. Sometimes it came as the old peoples friend, a final sleep, uneven gasps leading to merciful silence. It came from violence, from farm accidents, from stupidity, and sometimes for no reason that the doctor could detect. Dr Hornblower had failed to save his wife, from child-bed fever. But he had kept death from his boy. He had saved other boys, over the years. Sometimes they could be saved.
The letter came to a quiet end, with the usual promise to write again soon. He let the hands holding the paper rest in his lap. He stared into the fire. Just there, the two boys had sprawled, talking over the chess board. He remembered being captivated by Kennedy, that grace, the bright hair, the lively face. The love between them had been as obvious as a beacon in the sky. He remembered the strange sadness in young Archie, somewhere too deep to reach.
Maybe there was hope. He would show Mary the letter when she came in the morning. And if the prayers of the good, and the wishes of old doctors meant anything, Archibald Kennedy would return alive.