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The First Variation

Chapter Text

"Sir," said the colourlessly respectful voice of a marine, "One of the prisoners wishes to speak to you."

"Hornblower?" Admiral Pellew had to admit there was still a part of him that hoped against hope that Hornblower would invent some remarkably clever explanation for Captain Sawyer's fall that cleared all four lieutenants of blame to Charlie Hammond's satisfaction, but it was an unlikely hope and not one he could afford to indulge.

"No sir. Buckland."

Pellew's first impression of Buckland had been of a harried mediocrity, a man consistently outshone by his three juniors and keenly aware of the fact. His behaviour throughout the trial had reinforced that initial impression. Even the half-conscious Kennedy, dying by inches of a bullet through the liver, had more life in him. Buckland was the last man Pellew would have expected to request a private conversation for any reason, especially after he had taken the easy way out earlier in the day and accused Hornblower, without evidence or corroboration, before the entire court. But there was no mistaking the name, and the novelty of the request alone was enough to decide Pellew. "I'll come."

The unfortunate first lieutenant was pacing his cell nervously when Pellew arrived, but turned to greet his superior officer with a proper salute and an uncharacteristic look of resolve. "You requested to speak to me, Mr. Buckland," Pellew said.

"Yes sir," Buckland answered, clenching his hands behind his back. "I have...a proposition, sir."

"And what might that be, Mr. Buckland?"

"I am not a stupid man, Admiral. I know that my career is as good as over even if I escape the gallows. When I took command of the Renown, I expected to be fit for that command. That I was not has been proven more times than I care to count."

Pellew opened his mouth, though he did not know what he meant to say. He could hardly deny Buckland's observations; they were shockingly similar to his own. He did feel a moment's pity for a man who was clearly as aware of his own failings as he was powerless to remedy them, but that could never be spoken. Better that it not be acknowledged, even. To Buckland it would be an insult, to the Admiralty a weakness. Fortunately, Buckland saved him the trouble of saying anything by carrying on.

"It was fear that made me accuse Hornblower in the courtroom, simple fear of the gallows and nothing more. But while I may be a coward, sir, I am not entirely without morals. I do not know that Lieutenant Hornblower pushed the captain. For all I know Captain Sawyer fell by simple accident. I owe Hornblower a debt for that accusation, sir, and I have the means to pay it."

"What are you suggesting, Mr. Buckland?"

"That fear could easily be given another explanation than the gallows, sir. It could be supposed to be the product of guilt."

"You suggest that I blame you for the captain's fall."

"I suggest that I confess to having pushed him, sir."

"The court does not exist to punish the innocent, Mr. Buckland."

"Better one innocent than four, sir. And what the devil can I do with myself after this, anyway? Hornblower, Bush, Kennedy -- they'll do the Service proud. I'm...well. I won't."

"And if I use this conversation as evidence of your innocence?"

"Then that would throw the blame back on Hornblower, sir."

"If your mind is made up, Mr. Buckland, I fail to see what need you had to speak to me."

"I told you, sir," said Buckland with a queer sort of smile, "I'm a coward. I might back out at the last minute if I don't tell someone, and besides that I can't bear the thought of going to my grave with every officer in Kingston convinced that I'm a mutineer. I had to tell someone. If I told Hornblower he'd try to stop me -- damn it, even Bush would try, sickbed or no. But you won't. If I was really shameless, I would ask you to tell them for me. But I won't do that. Then I can go to the gallows with a few shreds of self-respect left."

Pellew sighed. He and Buckland both knew that Charlie Hammond wanted a hanging, and he had enough influence with the Admiralty -- at least in the matter of Captain Sawyer, whose reputation was a force of its own -- to get one. He had been looking for the way of least injustice. It seemed that that way had found him, though he did not like it. "Well, Mr. Buckland," he said, "Should you choose to make your oath-bound testimony to the Court Martial that you pushed Captain Sawyer into the hold, I cannot stop you. And what I may say to Lieutenants Bush, Hornblower and Kennedy after that court has concluded its proceedings is not a matter of record."

Gratitude was shining out of Buckland's eyes by the time he had finished the last sentence, and it sent a pang of guilt through Pellew to know that the man was about to thank him for the privilege of dying on the gallows. The suppressed emotion in Buckland's tone as he said quietly, "Thank you, sir," was worse.

Pellew held out his hand. "It has been a pleasure, Mr. Buckland," he said as Buckland shook it firmly.

"Likewise, sir."

And then Pellew was out of the cell, with the knowledge that tomorrow an innocent man would hang so that three others could live. If all three lived. Dr. Clive was not optimistic about Kennedy's chances.