Title: On Going Home
Characters: Archie Kennedy, Horatio Hornblower, P. Keane
Rating: This chapter is G
Word count 1362
Disclaimer: I did not invent these people
ON GOING HOME
Philomon Keane took what now passed for a deep breath. Two breaths to a sentence now. The weakness, and the pain he had accepted, he thought, with reasonable grace. But he bitterly resented losing his wind. He clenched his meager lips. I never thought to get old, he thought, but what old man does?
He drew his eye along the line of boys, arrayed before his desk. They stood in rigid splendor, brushed braided, braced, careful not to catch his gaze. They were strong healthy, unlined, untested. They were good boys, these three. He had given them a start. A comfort, to take with him, to the cold ground. He grimaced again, and they made sure not to notice.
“Ah, Mr Kennedy, Mr Cleveland and Mr Hornblower. Good Afternoon.
As you no doubt are aware, you three are to be transferred next week to the Indefatigable. You will be under the command of Captain Edward Pellew. I know you will make him proud. I am going to grant you a week of leave, starting tomorrow. I suggest that you use this time to visit family, and forgo the usual detestable haunts of young midshipman.”
Keane managed to get the speech out without gasping, or losing his voice completely. He noticed the delight in the well scrubbed faces before him. They could not smile, of course, and their struggles were entertaining. He smiled at them. I had a good smile once. Keane thought. It served me well, in detestable haunts. Surely, these shining boys would not believe that. The young, they think they invented everything.
“That will be all, gentlemen.”
“Where will you go Archie?” Horatio asked.
“ Oh...Detestable haunts, probably. My family is in Scotland now. That is too far to go, and get back. The London house is empty for the season. Rugs rolled up, and so on. Locked too.”
Horatio hesitated. On the ship, he and Archie were equal. Archie still knew more, but he was scrupulously kind about it. He never made Horatio feel any less for being the only child of a country doctor. He smoothed Horatio's awkwardness with his generous kindness. He never once had mocked, or made Horatio feel he had nothing to offer.
“What do you think Cleveland will do?” Horatio asked. It was not that he really cared where Cleveland went, it was just something to say, while he worked up courage.
“His family is here in town. He doesn't have far to go.”
“Oh.” He would ask. He wanted to ask
“Um, Archie?” Archie looked at him quizzically.
“Would you like to come with me? To my house, my father's house I mean. It wouldn't be as exciting as London, but if you want, I mean...” He slid to a stop
“Would your father not be inconvenienced, not having any warning?” Archie asked.
“No, no, not at all.” Horatio said. “He would be pleased, I know. He will like very much to meet you.”
Archie looked dubious.
“Would I not be ...”
“Archie, before I left home, my father told me that his dearest wish was that I find a true friend.
I would like him to know, as I do, how lucky I have been.” Horatio flushed.
Archie's smile was immediate and wide. “Well, all right then.”
“Which do you think is worse,the bouncing or the dripping?”
“I don't know,” said Horatio. He descended from the ceiling abruptly as they lurched from the latest mud-hole. “This is the worst coach I have ever....Ouch.”
“He is not going very fast, Horatio, I don”t see how he can contrive to fling us about this way.” Archie had his head out the tiny window, craning into the wind like a curious dog. “ I trust that we are still on what passes for a road....If the rain would stop maybe he could see where he was going.”
“Get back in here, Archie you are going to get even more soaked-- Hey!” He cringed dramatically as Archie shook the rain off. Horatio was always amazed by the reviving effect of fresh wet air on his friend. Horatio avoided rain like a cat, when he was able. Archie seemed to revel in it.
Horatio reached into the bag at his feet, and drew out a spare shirt. “Here Archie,” He began drying Archie's hair. “Sit still. Stop that.... Believe me, you do not want to have to drink one of my father's ague remedies.”
Archie moved close against him. Even wet, even cast uncomfortably from from side to side, the wool held heat. And Archie gave off heat like stove The damp shirt, draped over both their heads, protected somewhat from the dripping from above.
To wet to read...” Archie said softly.
“ And too dark too, like the dog.”
“Oh, never mind. An old joke my father used to make. Doesn't matter. I think going home has made me think of it. My father had a collection of foolish jests, to comfort children. He had to do things that they would not like sometimes, but he never wanted children to be afraid of him. He always said he wanted his patients to talk freely to him.”
To Horatio's surprise Archie did not persist in wanting to hear Dr. Hornblower's dog joke. Ordinarily Archie would be helpless with curiosity unwilling to be denied. He realized, stunned, that Archie, the witty rich man's son, Archie the worldly, was distracted with nervousness at meeting John Hornblower.
Horatio knew of course, that his father was going to delight in meeting Archie. Dr Hornblower would not know how Horatio treasured the feel of Archie's skin, how often Horatio's thoughts returned to the time Archie had kissed him. Horatio would not discuss these feelings with his father. He could not begin to explain to anyone, how his mind and body returned to the memory of that moment. He could not tell his father, only because it was deep beyond speech, he himself had no words for it. But had he been able to say it, that would have been all right too. And Horatio knew, as he knew his own skin, that his father was going to love Archie. John Hornblower loved all that was good.
He wedged a leg against the opposite wall, with Archie braced against his side, and his leg stretched just so, they were more or less stable. It kept their heads from hitting the ceiling at least. Damp and contorted, they slept.
The coach came to graceless stop. The rain was sheeting down, loudly. The sun was a pale disc of uselessness. Horatio's leg was numb. His arm was twisted backwards where Archie had burrowed under it, the soaking wet shirt was wound around his head, and his mouth felt as if owls had been living in it. He was home.
“We're here, Archie.”
They gathered up the dunnage, paid the coachman, and stumbled up toward the dark house.
The sense of home struck Horatio like a blow. There it all was, all as before:The shell path, and the boxwood tree which always smelled a little like cat urine, and the dark height of the dormers above him, and the stone step, where he had once cut his foot so badly. All the same. . Archie, silent at his side, was at least was proof that he was not dreaming.
Horatio opened the door. The house was dark. The fire banked. The house was empty. Horatio shivered. “ It looks as if my father is not at home.”
Notes: The joke is one that you probably already know. Archie just had not heard it before.
“Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it is too dark to read.”
I imagine that Groucho Marx must have gotten the joke from the notes of Dr. John Hornblower.