Title: A Letter|
Author: Juxian Tang
Fandom: Hornblower, movies, The Duchess and the Devil
Pairing: Horatio/Don Massaredo, Horatio/others
Summary: The punishment for an escape attempt in Spanish prison is not only being locked up in the hole but also...
My dear brother,
Once again I find myself writing to you not because
there are actual events I want to share (although certain things did happen
since my last letter, and you probably have read about some of them in the
newspapers or have heard rumors at least) but when I feel a desperate need to
put my thoughts in order, and a sheet of paper and a quill in my hand seem to
be the best way to do so. I hope you will not begrudge me this comfort taken at
your expense. You always understood me better than anyone else, better even
than I did, and I still feel it is so, despite the distance between us and our
rare encounters. Anyway, it is what I'm going to tell myself - that my awkward
confessions will be welcome with you, as always.
You surely remember that failed escape of English
prisoners I told you about in the previous letter - a brutal and senseless act
that cost me lives of several of my men and filled me with anger and
disappointment. The time that passed should have put those memories into a
perspective, and in a way it did. Except for one thing that was a direct
continuation of this incident and that seems to hang heavily on my mind, even
I have not done anything that hasn't been my duty
and with complete honesty I can say that, if put into this situation once more,
I would have done it again (although I pray that I would never have to do it; a
strange weakness for the commandant, you might say, to pray not for the
security of the prison but merely for being spared from dealing with
consequences of an escape attempt.)
That English boy I wrote you about, their commanding
officer, Mr. Horatio Hornblower...
It's strange, really; I started this letter to tell
you about things you have no need to know, regardless of your wish. And yet now
I dally, unable to bring it onto the paper, and my thoughts, my recollections
that are etched into my mind so clearly seem to be scattered.
I hope I hadn't broken him. This is one thing that I
repeat, with a passion that would appear incredible to you when I should be
feeling exactly the opposite, should wish for breaking the enemy of our
country, the enemy that, given chance, will bring a lot of damage to us, I'm
sure, despite his youth and inexperience.
But I still hope... I didn't want that. He left me
no other choice, taking the blame for the escape attempt. This young, brave,
passionate fool, heroically stumbling into the punishment for something he
hadn't done and, I'm certain, despised as much as I did.
I would have liked to spare him. Think it a weakness
on my part but is it so unnatural to be unwilling to bring punishment on
someone who is innocent? My job gives me little joy, as you know, and yet I do
my duty and serve my country to the best of my abilities, as you also know. But
I have to say that the moment when I heard Mr. Hornblower stubbornly repeat
that it was him responsible for the escape was possibly the least joyful moment
of my entire career. And soon I had him standing between my men, in the part of
the inner yard that we used exclusively for one purpose, looking with widened
eyes at the post with attached loops of rope in front of him.
What I would not have given then to have the real
instigator in his place... But what could I do? And the worst of all was that
the boy had obviously no idea what he'd brought onto himself. His friend, Mr.
Kennedy, had not told him everything, apparently - but indeed, how could he?
So, he was supposed to find it out for himself now.
"You cannot say that I didn't try to prevent
it," I told him. "But discipline is discipline. If you try to escape,
you are to be punished for it. Please remove your shirt or my men will do it
It took a moment for him to break away from the
hypnotizing sight of the post - and look at me, with his dark, big, fervent
eyes. He has the most unsettling eyes, you know, so eloquent that you seem to
be able to read into his very soul through them... or feel that he can read
into yours. With time, I suppose, he will learn how to hide his feelings
better. He is still so young, too young for some things.
I saw him swallow with an effort as he tried to get
a grip on himself. His voice sounded quite steady.
"I'm an officer. You can't apply this kind of
punishment to me."
"An officer! An officer, Mr. Hornblower!"
The anger that was burning through me ever since his foolhardy acceptance of
the blame finally broke into words, even if under a fabricated pretext. "A
murderer is a better word. Three of my men are dead, three soldiers whose
families are left grieving, children orphaned. And you tell me that you want to
choose what kind of punishment is appropriate for you?"
I knew it would affect him - an idealistic boy like
that, ready to take responsibility for something outside his control. I saw
shame fill his eyes. His throat moved again convulsively, and then he fumbled
with the buttons of his shirt, his fingers working hastily, like he didn't want
me to get an idea that he was trying to delay his punishment.
He took off his shirt and held it like he didn't
know what to do with it, didn't want to put it into dust on the ground - and as
much as he tried to appear calm, I could see his ribs going up and down with
his too deep breath as if he couldn't get enough air. He had that boyish,
angular look about him, tall and skinny and his limbs too long and awkward.
You see... I have quite an abundance of memories,
taking into account that I'd rather forget it. But what difference does it make
whether to remember it or not if it has happened and I have done it, as it was
my duty and necessity of the situation?
He dropped his shirt when my men, upon a sign from
me, dragged him up to the post, wrenching his arms up, putting his wrists into
the loops and tightening them. Why did I apply force? I didn't expect any
resistance from him. But I told myself we didn't have all day to wait till he
got used to every new step of his predicament, did we? And probably it would be
easier for him to understand right away that he had no control over the
situation. But the thing was that it was getting on my nerves so badly that I
had no wish to make it go on for longer than possible.
I have witnessed this kind of punishment many times,
you surely can guess it, and it wasn't always deserved, as things might be. I
do not call myself a compassionate man, in fact, misplaced compassion can be
extremely harmful at the times like these. So, I mostly disentangle my mind
from what is happening, just see a body tied to the post, abused - yes,
brutally most of the time. In this situation, every prisoner or soldier is the
same - tense arms, twisted shoulders, hands clenching on the rope like it can
be of any help.
And yet this time getting into the detached state of
mind was more difficult than before, even though I must say to Mr. Hornblower's
credit that he didn't try to do anything that would affect me. His stare was
resolute - too resolute for me not to suspect how nervous he was.
I came up to him, talking quietly for only him to
"One more time, just because I know that it is
not you who arranged the escape - give me the real instigator and we'll hear no
more of it."
His mouth compressed tightly and then his look
"It was me, sir."
"Fine," I said. What else could I do when
he was so bent on the intention to implicate himself? I stepped aside and
watched how he tried to glance back at first, at the soldiers standing behind
him, canes in their hands - and then turned away forcibly, bracing himself, his
eyes looking at the post. "Fifty," I said.
I am sorry, dear brother, for this detailed account,
as I'm not going to spare you from the descriptions that are hardly of any
interest for you. In your position, you doubtlessly witnessed enough
punishments to have a good idea of the routine. Everything that I say is rather
for my sake, it is my way of getting rid of my memories, and I hope you will
forgive me for it.
The first impact of the canes on the bare back is
always sickening, the sound blunt and heavy... and when it happens in such
complete silence, him not making even a sound, his face hidden against his
upper arm, it is somewhat even more disturbing. Twenty-five double blows - I
wondered if the boy had any idea of what he would have to go through. He was
young and strong so there apparently was no chance he would be considered unfit
to take the whole punishment. The question was just how long it would take for
him to be unable to take it silently.
His friend, the misfortunate Mr. Kennedy, had made
me admire him when he had been going through his punishment. The beating hadn't
broken him, it was what happened later that did. But I believe I had got him
'into my care' already quite damaged, something cracked inside him a long time
ago. It was a wonder how he kept fighting for so long, all those escapes of
his... I have to say that while a commandant in me was satisfied with breaking
him out of this habit, a man still felt regret seeing the brave, bright man
like Mr. Kennedy turned into a mere shell.
And then this English boy came and brought him back
to life, something I thought was not even possible, giving him an incentive to
live. And there I was now, in the process of breaking everything that was
brilliant and alive in this boy. Will you understand me if I say how unhappy it
He didn't cry out, even once. Just his hands
clenched on the ropes, pulling his body closer to the post, like he wanted to
melt into it - the reaction he couldn't control. I knew he was biting his own
arm during that, made it bleed actually, and I thought I could have given him
something to bite onto, a piece of wood, for example. But we never do it for
other prisoners, so why would I make exclusion for him?
His back was already marked, with thin, dark red
strips that, I knew, would turn into spreading black bruises hours later. Where
the canes landed harder, there was blood, small trickles of it.
The boy shuddered now - with every new blow his body
was swaying, as if his legs didn't hold him steady. He still held his face
hidden from me and I suppose it was truly a relief not to meet his eyes.
I'm sorry... you hardly need to know it - but the
only thing that justifies me in burdening you with these details is that they
are not going to dwell in your mind. You have your own haunting memories, I'm
sure, how it can be otherwise. I don't actually know why I'm writing it. Why do
I feel the need to recount it all, why do I feel the need to tell you how on
the twentieth stroke he made that sound, an open-mouthed gasp, like he was
surprised something could hurt so much and he still was bearing it. But after
that he clamped his mouth on his bitten through arm again and kept silent.
Why am I telling that? If not to punish myself with
He hadn't lost consciousness all through the caning,
and when it was over, he sagged, hanging on his hand for a short while, then
hastily tried to find his footing again, turning his head to look at me as I
His face looked utterly exhausted, pale and his
nostrils flaring as he was coping with pain - and yet in his darkest eyes I
could see the expression that made me wish I were anywhere but there at this
moment - pride that he'd gone through it and relief that it was over.
He even smiled a little, a faint, trembling smile
showing his bloodied teeth, saying in a hoarse, dazed voice:
"Is that all, sir?"
"I'm sorry," I said. I was sorry, indeed.
"Caning is the punishment for an escape attempt that went without victims.
But you... your people killed my men."
There was a shadow going over his face and then I saw
how he was trying very quickly to reconcile himself with this thought, not to
give away how disappointed he was.
"You will take the rest now," I said.
"And after it is over, you can think no more about it."
It was what I wished to happen - that was why I said
that; even though I knew that it was not likely to be this way.
I nodded to my men who came up and pushed his feet
wider apart, tying them to the rings planted in the ground. There was such a
puzzled expression on Mr. Hornblower's face - like he wondered what was going
to be done to him.
A long time ago, when we both were children, you
always teased me for what you called being squeamish. I suppose in the years
since then I had successfully coped with my 'squeamishness'. Would you call it
squeamish if I said that ruining someone innocent and pure - yes, pure because
that is what the boy was - sickened me to the depth of my heart?
But I didn't see what else I could do - and I don't
see it now. My men were killed. What would it do to the discipline among their
fellows if I spared the man guilty of it? Could I risk the morale of the
garrison for the sake of sparing one enemy? One bright, courageous,
self-sacrificing, silly English boy?
He still had that bewildered, incomprehensible
expression when they unfastened his breeches and pulled them down - but his
eyes acquired a wounded, embarrassed look as if he couldn't understand why I
was shaming him like that.
"It's just a punishment," I repeated.
"Take it and forget it."
He jerked when he felt the hands on his hips, the
thumbs pushing his buttocks apart - thrashed to get free, to get away from
violation. There was no way, and soon he knew it, his face blank with shock and
pain, his lips white.
I don't think I want to remember it. But I will
hardly forget, the protest dying on his lips as he understood that he couldn't
prevent it, it was already being done to him and there was no way back, no way
to undo it. I will hardly forget the expression of utter mortification passing
over his face, and how he bit his lip to stay silent, and his eyes, the
brightest eyes I've ever seen, closing.
Rape is not what I ever enjoy watching. It is a
sordid thing, defiling both a victim and a doer. Last time I had to witness it
was when the poor Mr. Kennedy was tied to the post, my men thrusting into him
savagely. It had actually been nearly an accident that time that he had to go
through it, the soldier he'd knocked out falling from the wall and hitting his
head against a stone.
But this time there were three men dead - and there
was no way I could spare Mr. Hornblower from it. And it was my duty to watch,
partly to prevent it from becoming too brutal and damaging, since, as you know,
such things might happen.
When the first man finished, he didn't move, his
face very pale and expressionless, his eyes closed. Like he was sure it was not
over yet - and he was right. There was blood leaking over his legs, but not too
much of it, mostly diluted with come. I made the sign to another soldier.
What can I say? There was no way to change it or to
make it easier. I knew that with every next man it was getting worse,
physically, even though I suppose something essential in him had been shattered
already with the first violation. His breath was getting hasty and shallow and
his very pale face was wet with sweat, but he kept silent through all that.
After four men I let the doctor take a look at him.
He shivered when the fingers probed his anus but he didn't open his eyes so he
didn't see the doctor showing two more fingers.
When finally that was done, he looked deathly pale,
slumping against the post, but when I walked up to him he must have felt it
because he opened his eyes, dark and full of pain and dazed.
"It is over," I said. He looked at me and
I didn't even know if he understood. But then he struggled to stand straight,
and I was partly relieved to see it. If he still cared, if it mattered for him,
it meant he was not broken.
I don't know why I felt the need to continue talking
to him. This part of his punishment was over, now he had to proceed with the
next one. But I found myself speaking, like it was vital to make my words
penetrate his mind.
"You have taken your punishment. Now you can
put it behind you. Your men will be informed that you've got a beating, nothing
else. Do you understand me?"
He still looked slightly hazy but then his lips
moved, and he answered in a hoarse whisper:
"Yes. Thank you."
He thanked me.
His back was a horrible sight, black and blue
bruises spreading quickly and blood seeping from deeper cuts. I made a sign to
my men and a bucket of vinegar water was thrown at him, washing his back and
I saw him thrash, his teeth clenched, just a hissing
sound escaping him as his eyes rolled up. He finally lost consciousness, to my
relief. So, he didn't feel it when his breeches were pulled up and his hands
freed from the loops and his shirt put over his injured back. He started coming
round when my men dragged him back to the prison yard and to the oubliette
The time in the hole would be hell for his aching
body, I knew it, but for his mental state... I knew that for a weaker man,
being left alone with his memories, with his shame would mean to be broken. But
for a stronger personality it could be a salvation, the time to cope with his
demons and to overcome the initial weakness, to banish the memories as far as
I could see his men watching him being shoved into
the hole, the bars put in place and locked. There was a guilty silence among
them, and I thought that with his foolish self-sacrifice Mr. Hornblower has
done more for their discipline than I could ever do. They would never disobey
him again, would do nothing to endanger him.
For those days he spent there, in the hole, I kept
wondering what kind of man he would come out of it. Was he broken by what I had
done? I wished I could stop thinking about it, even though you know many things
can be said about me but not that I ever shy away from taking responsibility
for my actions.
I'll tell you a strange thing now. Remember La Duquesa,
I wrote to you about her, who left Mr. Hornblower a keepsake when leaving, a
book? The very book you disliked so much in the years of our youth and called
'a ridiculously boring tale of an old fool', and I used to copy your sarcastic,
cynical attitude to it.
You can laugh. I wonder if I'm becoming an old
romantic fool myself, to my shame. But this English boy... I've never thought I
would actually meet someone like him - so unbearably noble, so stupid... so
shining. So unforgettable. As ridiculous as it sounds, he made me want to be
Well, I'm possibly too old to change. But I suppose
if there is going to be an encounter I'll remember before my death, it is going
to be the one with Mr. Hornblower.
The man I have done everything to break.
Offering him back his privileges was the least I
could do - and I can't help but admit that when he said he was giving me his
parole, looking at me with his swollen, sore eyes, his lips cracked and
parched, it filled me with ridiculous joy. As much joy as I felt seeing that he
was able to walk again.
And when a few weeks later I looked at him standing
on the shore, under the rain - wet and cold and oh-so-enthusiastic, begging for
a boat to go risk his life to rescue his enemies - a part of me felt proud for
him. He wasn't broken; he hasn't changed.
But at the same time my heart was aching for him -
exactly because of how eager he was, how much he wanted it. Like worrying for
the fates of Spanish sailors was something behind which he was hiding not to
think about his own troubles. Perhaps he'd taken my words too much to heart.
Forget it, I told him - and he did, his eyes as bright, fiery and alive as
But I knew, and I regret to think about it, that no
matter how he tried to forget, no matter how far away he shoved the memories,
they still would be there. And who knows when they would come back to haunt
him. Because I have broken something in him after all - something he didn't
even start to mend.
You probably know the rest of it, Their
Excellencies' generosity made it to the papers and by no means I would ever
call in question this decision. If our enemies can act nobly towards us, then
we can and should be noble towards them. And by God, if anyone deserves to be
free, it is this young man, an enemy of Spain or not.
I just wish I could stop thinking about him and
about the notch I had made on his soul... and the one he'd made on mine. But
humor me because I can't.
Yet I supposed I have already troubled you enough.
Though... there are some letters that are not meant to be sent. Anyway, I'd
better finish these bizarre reflections of an old insomniac now.
Your caring brother,
Alfredo Fernando de Massaredo