On Going Home, Chapter 15
Word Count, 1434
Disclaimer, I did not invent them
On Going Home, Chapter 15
“There is coffee, “ Horatio said. He was combing his hair, trying to get it reduced to a tail shape he could put into a queue. It curled wildly in the humid air. He was hissing in frustration.
“Let me help.” Archie said. “You are going to rip yourself bald, before you are done.” He climbed up to kneel on the bed. Horatio sat on the edge, and submitted to the comb. Archie began gently, seeking out tangles, starting at the bottom.
“You've done this a lot.” Horatio said.
“Now, that I will admit to.” Said Archie. “I've been combing out somebody most of my life. Four years on Justinian. I used to do Clayton. I could trust him at least not to be horrible. Before that, sometimes in the theater. And before that, well, I have three little sisters Horatio.”
The comb was doing wonderful things to the skin of Horatio's neck and spine. He closed his eyes and shivered. Being combed like this should have felt foolish. He should have been thinking of children or horses tails. He should be doing it himself like a man. But he was thinking about leaning backwards, taking Archie, (and perhaps the comb,) back to bed. “Archie,” he said, and his voice sounded lost to him. “We should go down now, to breakfast.”
“Are you going to leave your hair like that? “ Archie asked.
“I think it is the course of greater wisdom.”
They went down to breakfast.
Dr. Hornblower looked up from his notes, wiped his pen, and smiled.
“Good morning boys,” He said “Please sit down and eat. Mary has prepared at least 4 times what we need. She says both of you need feeding up. Mr Kennedy, please do not neglect the sausages.”
They sat, and as the meal started Horatio was transfixed again by a wave of strangeness. So much was just as always. The smell of the little room was the same, and the sound of Mary's footsteps, even the heft and feel of his fork. All the same, as far back as he could remember. He had come back, and found that his life had gone on without him. It was a little like being a ghost.
And yet everything was so different. Tomorrow they would be back on the coach, rattling and bouncing back to Justinian. Then, quite soon, on to the frigate. On to war.
His old life was all around him, sausage and eggs, and his father, and the ease of knowledge in the bones. Yet Horatio knew himself to be utterly changed. Archie was beside him, romping through an absolutely enormous breakfast. He quirked an eyebrow at Horatio, and his smile was soft. His eyes were a little purple underneath. He had a bite mark, under the angle of his jaw.
Looking at Archie, Horatio could not pretend, even to himself, that he ought to feel regret. He felt like a fizzing comet of joy. He wanted to get up and dance.
“Ha'hm.” Horatio looked up. He realized he had been staring at Archie, with his mouth hanging open for some time now. His father had put down his pen, and taken a long pull of his coffee. He was waiting to say something.
“ I found something in my papers today that I wanted you boys to see.” Dr Hornblower's voice was a light tenor, and his tone was habitually gentle. In times of crisis or injury his voice got softer. It inspired obedience, certainly, but by the force of logic and restraint. It would not serve in the Navy. Dr Hornblower would not be heard to the end of the jib, much less up the topgallents. Still, Horatio knew when his father was in earnest.
Dr Hornblower leaned across the small table and handed Horatio thick piece of paper. It was old and dry, and tied with string, forming a roll the length of Horatio's lower arm. He picked the string loose, and gently unrolled it. Archie leaned close to his shoulder to see too.
It was an ink drawing. It depicted two little boys, of about 4 or 5. They were handsome little fellows, drawn with a dashing and natural line. The thing looked as if it might be a sketch intended for rework later. The boys were shown in motion, one ahead of the other, the hindmost reaching forward, the other looking back and laughing. Around their feet dashes of ink suggested leaves. The two little faces were rendered more carefully than the rest. They had little snub noses and round cheeks, perfect little mouths were shown open in shouts of joy that Horatio felt could almost hear. Yet the artist had made the two of them unique. Horatio felt certain that he would know the little imps if he met them on the street.
Archie let out a long appreciative breath. “It is beautiful Sir. They look so real.”
Dr. Hornblower gave a gentle smile. “They are real.” He said. He pointed to the pursuing boy. “That one is me.” He said. “And this little fellow is Phil Keane.”
The doctor smoothed the paper gently. “He looks much older than me, now. But in fact we are very close in age. I have not spent the past 50 years at sea. My health has been protected by long hours at the fireside with a book. That has not been his lot.” The doctor cleared his throat again.
“His health is very poor And he knows it. I believe he is dying. He knows that too. Anyway – I want you to take this drawing, Horatio. If you are able, I would like you to give it to him. He was my friend, all the years of my youth. He lived in God's Pocket. That is the yellow house down the road, Mr Kennedy. You should have seen him at your age, boys. He was handsome, intelligent, and a good man. Very good. And to see him in his blue coat – my God, I felt so shabby in comparison. Your mother was fond of him too. I think she very nearly married Phil instead of me.” Dr Hornblower's gaze softened. “Good thing that didn't happen. Where would I be then, I ask you?”
He took the paper and rolled it gently up. “Put this with your things. I know he will wish to see it. And, if he does not wish to keep it, I would like you to have it.” The doctor smiled. “As I get older, I find myself thinking more and more of the past. I have come to believe something many will deny. I think that the things we believe, and the people we love, in youth, are as vividly real and important as anything that comes to us later, in our more learned years.” He looked at them both searchingly, over the debris of the breakfast table.
“I know I hardly need to tell you to look out for each other.” He said.
He gave them a genial smile, but his eyes were deep and grave. “Work to do.” He said. “See you at dinner.”
Horatio and Archie were left behind, among the plates and cups, astonished.
The door closed behind Horatio's father. They were alone.
“Well.” Horatio said, “What do you make of that?”
Archie looked at him wide eyed, and shook his head.
“I should go up and put this away.”
“Do you want to come with me?”
Up the stairs then, and Horatio carried the paper scroll carefully. He set it down carefully on the bed they were not using. He closed the door carefully with his portside foot. ( His hands and mouth being occupied.)
“Do you think my father – with Captain Keane?” Horatio quavered. He had gotten his tongue free for a moment, and the question was troubling him.
Archie's face wrinkled. “Surely not, I mean, no-- eww!”
Horatio nodded, relieved. He found imagining his father in a moment of passion with anyone to be profoundly disturbing. He had always been confident that his parents had done it exactly once, and had found it not to their taste.
Now he was not so sure, but Archie was reaching under his shirt, and he had much better things to think about.