Horace knew he was being a coward and berated himself for it. But the thought of what he was leaving behind set his feet moving toward London’s navy docks.
“An’ where are you going at this early hour, young man?” a man’s voice boomed.
Horace spun to his right.
“Shush, Evan! People are trying to sleep.”
“Notably the people you’re sneaking away from,” the old man said.
Horace grimaced but didn’t contradict Evan Smith. “That’s none of your concern.” He started walking up the street again and wasn’t surprised to find Evan tagging along.
“Had enough of your old man and the ale-serving trade, have you?” he said in a reasonable tone.
“Yes, by God, I have. I’m following your example and heading to sea.”
The old seaman nodded. “It was a good life for me ’til I lost an eye and a hand. It was a good life, and I’d recommend it to any young man.”
The endorsement told Horace that Evan wasn’t likely to peach on him. “I do have serving and kitchen experience. I thought I might be able to sign aboard one of the big three-decker ships of the line as galley help.”
Evan grunted affably. “Could well be. They might like a youngster who doesn’t fancy himself the next king of the seas.”
Horace began to daydream aloud. “That would be the life: join the Royal Navy, sail away, visit the Mediterranean or the colonies, likely even see some exciting action against Boney’s ships. That’s patriotic, isn’t it? Helping to rout Bonaparte?”
“Very,” Evan agreed.
“And if there was a bit of fun, so much the better. That life would suit me much better than working under my father and elder brother at the Sovereign Arms.”
“What about Miss Polly?”
Horace frowned. “Polly’s a nice-enough girl. Comely. Obliging. But she had no call to get herself pregnant. Being tied down to inn, wife, and forthcoming child is not the fate I mean to suffer.”
Evan kept his peace; he had been a young man and knew from that experience that young men stood for only so much correction.
They walked on in companionable silence. Horace’s steps quickened as the masts in the distance beckoned him. As he neared his goal, he heard a growing commotion. He and Evan stopped in their tracks as the shouts became clear.
“Boney has surrendered! Bonaparte has surrendered to Maitland on the Billy Ruffian!”
Horace looked glumly at the old sailor with him. “The war’s over.”
“Aye, so it seems.”
“Maybe…” But Evan was shaking his head.
“No, lad. With Boney captured, that’ll be the end of it. The navy will soon be throwing men onto the shore as fast as it can. They’ll lay many of the ships up in ordinary. That route of escape is blocked.”
Horace sighed and his shoulders slumped as his life closed in around him.
Men began to gather and conversations sprouted.
“Did they throw Boney in chains?”
“Don’t be daft! He may be a frog and a tyrant, but he’s an emperor. Maitland’s showing him the courtesies.”
“Courtesy for Boney, but what for me?” Horace asked himself quietly. “The country? Milking cows and the studying the arse end of an ox while plowing the fields? Elsewhere in the city? Same misery in a different location?”
He turned back toward the Sovereign Arms, and Evan stayed with him.
“Might as well go home. Everyone will be up now. There’ll be hell to pay as I’ve disappeared when there’s work to be done.” Having said as much, he paused again to rest his head against the brick wall of a millinery. “What a hell of a thing it is to wish Bonaparte at liberty to ravage the continent.”
“It’s backward, all right,” Evan said, “but I take your meaning.” He mused quietly for a bit. “It occurs to me both you and Boney are prisoners. Maitland may indeed be showing the emperor the courtesies, but that ship is his prison, no mistake. The Sovereign Arms is your Billy Ruffian. ”
“Yes, it is. It’s my prison. And there’s no more escape for me than there is for Boney.”
“There’s only one thing Boney’s got to his name, now. There’s but one thing he had with him when he boarded that ship.”
Horace turned his head to look a question at the old man.
“His dignity. That’s one thing he’ll never surrender. Whatever suffering comes to him, he’ll not whine or grovel. He’ll keep his pride about him like a velvet cloak. And in that, no one will ever break him. He’ll be an emperor to the end.”
Horace just stared at Evan.
“When they put me ashore as a cripple, imprisoned, as it were, in my own wrecked body,” Evan continued, “I had choices to make. I could drink myself to death in some back alley, or I could fight and scrap for everything I could make life give me. And with only one eye and one hand, I’ve made a decent way for myself. The canes I make are in the hands of some of the finest gentlemen in the city. And when they buy ’em from me they say, ‘Thank’ee, my good man.’ So now you have to choose how you’re going to face your life.”
Horace turned his face away from Evan, thinking. Then he lifted his head from the wall.
“You’re right, Evan. Boney’s surely kept his dignity, and, by God, I’ll keep mine. I’m about to enter a man’s estate with both wife and child, so I’ll act like a man. No, it’s more than that: like Boney, I’ll be shown the proper courtesies or know the reason why. And if Father and Albert don’t like it, they can always tell me to shove off. Slim chance of that, though, so I’ll make the most of it. If surrender is good enough for an emperor, it’s good enough for me.”
He spun around and sketched a quick salute toward the sea. “All the best to you, Boney, and if you ever get to London, there’s a free pint for you at the Sovereign Arms, even if you have to drink it outside.”
Evan laughed, and they headed back toward their homes. Horace lifted his chin and whistled a jaunty tune as he went, considering himself an emperor in exile.