Exaggeration and Blank Verse
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It's just as I remember from my childhood, just as it is every year on a single cool autumn evening, the second night after the Naval Gazette announces that a certain vessel has come into port. The house has been cleaned from top to bottom, and I stare down into the glass chimney of the last oil lamp that needs tending. I can hear the maids chattering softly as I trim the wick, their words also a familiar part of this night of the year-- "such a handsome man, my word; to think, the likes o' him wasted on a ship at sea." I remember that when I was young (they were younger then too, of course), they would giggle behind their hands and sigh as they discussesd the charms of our expected visitors. There had been two men coming to the house, then.

I set the lamp back in its place and bend to light it, keeping my face turned so the women wouldn't see. Silly of me to still cry. For seven years it has been Lieutenant and then Captain Hornblower appearing on our doorstep on the second night after his ship makes port. Silly to still miss Uncle Archie, after all this time.

I remember so clearly, for all that the last visit was when I was nine. We children would strive to be quiet, starting just after teatime, straining to be the first to hear the strike of sailor's boots on the steps. The first one to hear would rush down the front hall and fling open the door, and then the world would open up with dazzle and noise as Uncle Archie swept inside.

I can only picture him laughing, nearly glowing in the light of the hall lamps. He would hug his sister-- my mother-- and kiss her cheek, greet my father with a handshake, and then stand stock-still with arms outstretched as all of us littles descended on him in a swarm, searching his pockets for candy and treasures. And they were always there.

"Archie, you spoil them," Mother would sigh, and he would smile at her-- Brigit the maid said that Uncle Archie's smile could charm the birds from the sky-- and press some little trinket into her hand as well. He would swing Marianne up over his shoulder-- "How big the baby's gotten! What do you feed them, Anne, I'd like to know!"-- and turn to look at then-Lieutenant Hornblower, who always hung back to the shadows of the hall and watched our reunions with a look that I didn't understand, not back then. Now, perhaps, thinking of it, I would call it longing, tinged about the edges with regret.

"Come now, Horatio," Uncle would say, smiling softly and holding out his hand to his friend. And Lieutenant Hornblower would step forward into the circle of lamplight, shy and awkward as a colt, permitting himself to be led by Uncle's hand on his elbow from the hallway to the sitting room.

It was always bright and warm there, a fire leaping cheerfully in the grate, and Mother would pour the men brandy while we children crowded at their feet and begged for stories.

Five years of those stories, beginning when I was quite young, so I cannot remember them all. Uncle Archie began to visit us as soon as he gained his commission as a lieutenant, and the privileges that came along. Somehow, fortune led his ship to England each fall, and he'd be at our steps on the second night, Hornblower faithfully in tow. Five years of stories, and I can't recall a one with any clarity. But I do remember the way they told them. Properly, the way Uncle Archie told them-- Lieutenant Hornblower sat mostly quiet, sipping his drink and watching Uncle Archie speak, only occasionally interrupting with a soft murmur of correction. Almost always, he would say that Uncle was passing too much credit to others, and not retaining enough honor for his own actions. Uncle Archie would laugh and roll his eyes, but I remember the look that would pass between them then, and at other moments in those afternoons. It was very like the way Mother and Father would look at each other, in a snatch of unguarded time. Then, I had no word for it; now, I think, I know to call it love.

"Miss Julia?" I shake myself from my reverie to find Brigit looking at me with concern. "Miss Julia, you're crying."

"No," I say hastily, brushing the back of my hand across my cheeks. "I simply had something in my eye. It's no matter. Where is Mother?"

"In the kitchen, miss," Mary says, glancing anxiously at the door. "Young Master Daniel is in a foul temper over something, and there's words...if only your father was here, mind..."

"Yes, thank you," I say sharply, and she falls silent. Father isn't here, and it's becoming increasingly clear that he does not plan to be again. "Please be certain the brandy is on the sideboard. Lieutenant-- that is, Captain Hornblower will desire some when he comes in from this chill."

I hear the scuff of boots on the steps even as I say it-- only one set of footsteps, now, and the silence where the other should be is the substance of grief. I move toward the hallway, but before I can reach the door, Daniel has pushed past me, his face flushed and his eyes bright with temper. He yanks the door open and I see Captain Hornblower's face over his shoulder, wide-eyed and startled.

"Welcome to Purgatory," Daniel spits, turning on his heel and storming away. He doesn't see, but I do-- the Captain flinches as though my brother struck him, and goes deathly pale. If not for my step forward, my impulsive reach to catch his arm, I am certain he would have fled at that moment.

"Captain Hornblower, sir," I say softly, and he looks at me. His face is impassive, as always-- "Does Lieutenant Hornblower ever smile?" I hear my eight-year-old self ask Uncle Archie, and the sparkling laughter of his reply. "Twice a week, Julia my love, and never on Sundays!", while the poor subject of our joke blushed furiously and squirmed in his chair-- but his eyes spoke much to me. Such terrible grief and pain in the depths of those eyes.

"Come inside, sir," I say, as if coaxing a skittish horse up the steps. He enters the hall and I close the door behind him, removing his means of escape. My mind casts it in such terms automatically; he is a warrior, after all, and I see his shoulders square as he realizes that the battle is set and there is no quarter to be had.

Mother sweeps into the hall in a feathery cloud of greetings and apologies. The Captain bows over her hand and murmurs his respects, avoiding her eyes even when she cups his face in her hand and studies him with evident affection. She calls him by his Christian name, as Uncle Archie did, and he offers not a sign of protest. The very idea of addressing Uncle Archie's solemn, silent friend with such familiarity would have caused any of us children to die of horror. Uncle encouraged us to call his friend Uncle Horatio, but we never did; suddenly, now, I find myself wondering if that ever pained him. He wears formality like a cloak, Captain Hornblower, but Uncle Archie was never formal with him, and they were the dearest of friends.

"Let me take your cloak," Mother says, and I start at this odd parallel to my wandering thoughts. "My goodness, Horatio, you're thin as a rail. Don't you have anyone on that ship of yours who'll look after you properly?"

"My crew is very capable," he says in his low, shadowy voice, the one the servants sigh over. Perhaps I should have sighed over it myself, when I was a younger, sillier girl, but somehow I never harbored a schoolgirl passion for my uncle's friend. I suppose I sensed even then that he was not meant for such things as girl dreams love to be. He was Uncle Archie's, in some mysterious way, and then he was the Navy's alone, and there was never a place for someone else. Certainly not someone like me.

He is enquiring after Mother's health, and ours, and I blush and stammer properly when Mother announces my engagement. He is startled again, though not so badly as when Daniel opened the door. "To be married in the spring," he repeats, looking at me as though he has never seen me before. "Are you so grown already, Miss Julia?"

"Yes, sir," I say, casting my eyes demurely to the floor. "I am sixteen."

"Sixteen," he says, and though his voice remains even, when I glance up I see that his eyes are even more terribly sad. "So many years gone by..."

Mother touches his arm and he flinches away, clearing his throat loudly. "Well," he says, fumbling through his pockets. "Well." He produces a small paper packet, and my throat tightens at the sight of it. Mother folds her hands and looks away.

"Horatio, for the seventh consecutive time, this is not a debt you must repay."

"The debt I owe can never be repaid," he says harshly, and drops the packet to the sideboard. "Not while I am living."

She closes her eyes, and now I look away, because my mother is proud and I cannot watch her pride fight with necessity. My mother married for love, and beneath her station; it has ended badly, and for as long as I can recall, we have lived beyond our means. Kennedy pride demands two maidservants we cannot afford, among other things. The packet Captain Hornblower brings every year at this visit-- the one he claims holds Uncle Archie's pension from the Admiralty-- is what keeps our heads above water. And if only I could still believe that pretty pretense, if only, three years ago, Daniel's brief flurry of passion for all things to do with the Navy had not led him to discover the truth about men who die dishonored. If a pension is drawn for such a man, it comes from a friend's pocket and charity, not from a nation that spits on his name and denies him even a proper grave in Kingston.

Mother guides the Captain to the sitting room, and I follow a step behind. The packet will lie on the sideboard, neither mentioned not forgotten for an instant, not to be touched until the visitor is gone. Mother pours him a brandy; I fold my hands in my lap; the other children file in to murmur their hellos. He sits stiffly, his back straighter than the chair's. They are afraid of him. Except for Daniel, they do not remember the way Uncle Archie softened him, brought light to his eyes, caused him to speak with feeling instead of this expressionless bark. It never occurs to them to look beyond the sternness of his face to his eyes.

I saw a carriage overturn once, and the wheel-horse broke its leg. The coachmen and passengers were injured, so it was some time before anyone thought to fetch a pistol and end the poor thing's suffering. I remember the mute agony in its eyes, the pain and misery drawn out over the space of an hour. Captain Hornblower's eyes are similar, except he has held his pain for seven years.

Being here is making it worse, sharper; I can see him fighting to wall it off inside himself, and failing. Every word Daniel speaks breaches the wall. I have never really thought on how my brother resembles Uncle Archie. From the Captain's eyes, he can suddenly think of nothing else, and it is wounding him terribly.

In the end, it is more than he can endure. "Forgive me," he says after a long, tense silence. "I fear I-- I cannot-- I must go."

"What about supper?" Mother asks, but it's an empty question, mere formal words. She knows he cannot stay.

"I'm so sorry," he says, rising to his feet and staring at the brandy glass until Brigit takes it away. "But I cannot--"

"Of course," she says, and she escorts him to the hall. My brother and I follow; Daniel offers a casual goodbye and vanishes into the kitchen. Captain Hornblower stares after him for a long moment.

"I believe I shall be at sea next year, Anne," he says at last, still looking at the shadow where Daniel disappeared. "My next voyage is to be extensive. Perhaps it would be best if I made arrangements to send the package by post next year."

"Of course," Mother says again, and I clench my fists and bite my tongue as I watch from the corner. We all know he doesn't mean next year; he means forever. He cannot do this again.

"Promise me--" he says suddenly, and he meets her eyes for the first time this afternoon. "Promise me you won't send him to sea."

"Never," Mother says, and there is a fierceness in her voice I do not know.

"Let him be a-- a doctor, or a lawyer, or, hell, an actor if he wants to." The Captain shoves his hands into his pockets, and tucks his chin, and I shudder at the numb grief in his eyes. "But do not let him go to sea."

"Kennedy blood treading the boards at Drury Lane?" Mother laughs without humor. "I think even the rebellious daughter of the family would be hard-pressed to get away with that."

"I will fund it myself, if that's what he wishes," he replies, his voice cold and even again. "Only let him follow his heart's desire."

"As my brother did," Mother says quietly, and Captain Hornblower turns away.

He gives me a small nod as he pulls his cloak into place. "My congratulations on your forthcoming marriage, Miss Julia. May it bring you joy."

"Thank you, sir," I whisper. He pauses, and stares at me for a moment.

"So full of light," he says in a small, odd voice. "You Kennedys-- you're made of light."

And then he's gone, hurrying out the door and down the steps in a clatter of boots on stone, and in less than a moment he's faded into the gathering dark.

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