Two days after Archie Kennedy died of his gut wound,
and all the other officers of the Renown were cleared
of charges of mutiny most foul, and one day before
Captain Hornblower will sail the Retribution back to
England, Horatio takes William out into Kingston
Harbour and teaches him how to swim.
The beach is wide, the water warm, and yet William is, plainly, afraid of it. The deep water mocks him with its ability to swallow everything. He stands at the waters'-edge, ankle-deep, and frowns down at his wet toes.
Horatio, stripped to his breeches, wades out chest- high and then begins long slow strokes, cutting through the water like a porpoise. A quarter mile out, he stops and treads water. "Mr. Bush!" he shouts. "It's only a little water! You couldn't fill a teacup with this!" William can see, even from that far out, the shine of water on Horatio's brown skin.
"Maybe a very small one!" he shouts at Horatio, who simply waves an arm: forward, forward, damn the torpedoes. So William wades in a little more, and at waist-level he feels something curl round his foot and he can't help but jump a bit.
"Damn it," he says quietly. Horatio turns and begins swimming back, his black hair sleeked down and all the curl washed out of it. William's hair isn't even out of its queue, isn't even wet. He considers dying of humiliation -- just lying down and letting the water suck him into some cavern, some forgotten shoal.
Horatio floats up to him, all adrift on his back, and smiles from half underwater. "Mr. Bush, you aren't frightened of the sea? You, a King's man? You depend on it for your livelihood."
"She gives and she takes away," says William hoarsely. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea."
"If you don't learn here, you're not going to learn in England," says Horatio practically. "It will be almost Christmas when we return. You'll freeze to death."
"Don't worry. I don't even mean to take a bath."
"Right -- look." Horatio ponders for a minute, sitting up in the shallower water. "William. You trust me, I expect?"
"To get us off a shoal, to blow up a fort."
"To guide a seventy-four gunner through the Atlantic ocean, armed with shaky mathematical equations and a sextant?"
"Indeed." It makes William smile, for Horatio's equations are as solid as the North Star. "You haven't steered us wrong yet."
"Except for ...." Horatio trails off, looking up at the faultless sky, leaning back on his hands. The water washes up and fiddles with the greyed cloth of his breeches. William just stands there and looks at him. He knows what Horatio won't say -- except for when Archie Kennedy took a real bullet to the stomach and a figurative one for his fellow officers. Archie Kennedy, dead now and in the best grave that Bush, Hornblower, and even a reluctant Buckland could afford.
It had rained during the funeral, a brief summer squall, and so William hadn't known whether the water running down Horatio's face was tears or not. He suspects not: Horatio would have cried somewhere else, where no one could see it. The man had an iron shell, or at least liked to think so. Everyone knew different but didn't say so.
William himself had not cried: though he had thought Kennedy was a fine officer, if a bit hotheaded, he had only known him a little while. He and Horatio had kept to themselves for so long that only during their mutinous meeting had they really shown any kind of friendship, and a very precarious one at that.
They had both saved him, though, by jumping off a cliff with him, and he hadn't forgotten it. Here, standing in the sea, he wonders if Kennedy wouldn't have preferred to have a seaman's burial: a quick service and a shove from the deck. Davey Jones's locker. It chills William again to think of the bones down in the sea, of fish and men and ships and little coral animals.
Horatio's moment of silence stretches to a few moments. He is squinting that same sort of famous squint, that all of his friends had learnt the hard way meant "leave me alone." It is a sad, desperate squint, but Horatio doesn't thank anyone who calls attention to it. Eventually he shakes himself off and stands up, holding out his hand.
"I am as fallible, William, as any man. But I believe I can teach you to swim under your own power. After all, what are captains for if not to command?"
And William, suppressing a comment about third lieutenants being made captains before second ones, gallantly takes Horatio's hand and lets himself be led out into the green sea.
There are several tries after that, many more unsuccessful attempts, and Horatio finally leans up against William, puts an arm around his chest and under his arms, and says in his ear, "Lean."
And what can William do but lean, but put himself again in Horatio's hands? With just the heat of Horatio's skin against his and the slow motion of their legs moving underwater, William feels like a piece of heated shot, ready to set the sea aboil. He lays his cheek against Horatio's hair, spreads his arms out, and lets go.
After that, floating is not so hard. He smiles up at Horatio, outlined against the sky, and the sea begins to feel more like a friend. After that, Horatio shows him a frog-like crawl and an overhead stroke. He isn't very good at them, but when he looks around, the shore is just a thin line. He must be half a mile out. Amazing.
"You should give lessons," he says to Horatio, treading water as he is shown. "Fully half your crew can't swim, I'd wager."
"You'd read about it in the Gazette within the week," smiles Horatio back. "Newest captain, Horatio Hornblower, seeking to ingratiate himself with the crew, throws them overboard and then rescues them again."
They both laugh at that, and William can see the relief in Horatio's eyes. Both of them know it's selfish, it's immoral, nay, it's even a cardinal sin to feel so relieved that the whole Renown affair is finished and will never be brought up again. It's buried deep now in the government annals, which are as silent and cold as any ocean.
And it's a cardinal sin to revel in being alone with Horatio, to be glad there's no Archie Kennedy to command attention. Shameful thought, with the man dead less than a week, but it persists anyway. He smiles at Horatio, who returns with his own wide-open grin.
William exhales, turning to watch the horizon for a moment and then spinning awkwardly to face the shore. "Shall we race back, sir?" he says to Horatio, and the newest captain closes his eyes, leans back into the sea.
feedback to: email@example.com