“Hardy,” cried Nelson, striding into the cabin with that air of single-minded ferocity that usually swept whole enemy fleets before it, “I owe you a thousand apologies.”
Hardy blinked, looking up from the slop-book he had been frowning over. “My lord?” He couldn’t think what Nelson could have done in the hour since they had last spoken that might need an apology, but anything was possible with Nelson. His mind was suddenly taken up with various worrying thoughts of Nelson trying to “improve” the rake of the Foudroyant’s masts, or the trim of her sails.
It was nothing like that, however. Instead Nelson waved his hand in the air, and Hardy saw the letter clenched in his fist. “The medals from Davison arrived this morning,” he said.
Hardy failed to see the connection between this statement and the last, but all he said was, “Yes, my lord, I saw them.” Very handsome they were, too; Mr. Davison had outdone himself.
Nelson gestured impatiently. “But I did not attend to his letter. You will recall he intends to have gold medals struck for all the captains at the Nile, but your name was not on his list.”
“Oh.” He wasn’t sure what else to say. Had it been an official service medal, he would surely have felt the sting of the oversight more keenly. Granted, being overlooked by the fleet’s prize agent was a reasonable cause for concern, but as it was, Mr. Davison’s gesture - though highly gracious and complimentary, he was sure - felt to Hardy like something close to an extravagance, a gesture meant to compliment Mr. Davison more than any of the officers who received it. He could live without it.
“I am sure it’s no more than a foolish mistake,” said Nelson, “some damned clerk’s error, I make no doubt. But I am most heartily embarrassed, Hardy. I am truly sorry.”
He looked so genuinely aggrieved that Hardy almost laughed.
“It’s fine, sir. Really.”
“It is not fine!” Nelson cried, his pale face flushing. “It is not fine that you should have been slighted like this! You of all people, Hardy.”
Hardy was glad that he didn’t feel particularly indignant over this, as Nelson seemed to be working up enough indignation for the two of them.
“I will write to Davison at once,” he went on, “get this straightened out. I cannot have you passed over in this way, Hardy, it won’t do.”
“Really, my lord, it’s no trouble,” said Hardy, more earnestly, worried now that Nelson might fret himself into a fever over this. “As you said, the medals are meant for you and the captains of the Nile. I was still only commander of the Mutine then, so I hardly count.”
Nelson looked at him, aghast. “But of course you count, Hardy! Why, in my view, you were as much a captain at the Nile as Berry, or Troubridge, or any of them.”
“That’s very kind of you to say, my lord, but I doubt the Navy List would see it the same way.”
“In any case,” Nelson forged on, regardless, “this medal is not just for the battle, but for the entire campaign. And who worked harder for me during that than you, Hardy? But for you, I would never have even found Bonaparte’s fleet!”
“Well.” Hardy’s chair creaked under his weight as he shifted. He could accept praise if it was warranted, but exaggeration made him uncomfortable. “Strictly speaking, sir, it was Zealous and Goliath signalled that they were in Aboukir Bay. I had nothing to do with it.”
“Oh, nonsense, Hardy, you were in and out of almost every port in the Med,” said Nelson. “If it had not been for you, I would have had no idea what was going on.”
“I only did my duty, my lord.”
For some reason, that made Nelson smile. “Yes. Yes, you did. You always do, Hardy. Which is why I cannot see you go unrecognised. I just wish there was something... but I have already promised the spare one to Sir William Hamilton.”
A more sardonic soul than Hardy might have queried exactly what valiant service Sir William had done to earn Nelson’s gratitude, but as it was, he said nothing.
Nelson was frowning now, his mouth half-open, as if he were on the verge of saying something but had lost the words for it. His frown deepened; he glanced down. His hand briefly touched the new gold medal, already fastened at his buttonhole to gleam amidst the galaxy of all the other honours on his coat. For the briefest instant, his frown took on an expression almost like pain, then it was gone, and his face was set, resolute. His hand tightened around the medal; he gave a few quick, clumsy tugs, and it came free.
“Here, Hardy.” He opened his hand and tipped the medal into Hardy’s palm. “I want you to have this.”
Hardy stared down, uncomprehending, at the little golden disc. He looked up at Nelson, blinking stupidly. “My lord?”
“I want you to have this one, Hardy,” Nelson repeated. “I can’t have you going without.”
Somehow managing to shake himself out of his stupor, Hardy shook his head. “I can’t take this, my lord.”
“What?” Nelson cried. “Whyever not?”
“Because it’s yours, sir.”
Nelson gave a strange noise, almost a laugh. “And now I’m giving it to you.”
Hardy shook his head. “No, sir.” He held out his hand. “You must take it back.”
All laughter disappeared from Nelson’s face, leaving a look of sheer desolation behind it. “Hardy...”
“Please don’t think me ungrateful, my lord,” said Hardy. “I am, very grateful. But I can’t accept this. Mr. Davison awarded it to you, for your bravery. It wouldn’t be right for me to take it.”
“Oh, don’t talk rot, Hardy,” Nelson snapped; then, at once, his face softened. “We both know that all my bravery would not be worth a brass button if I did not have you beside me, keeping me on course. Right from the start, you have shown me nothing but loyalty. Good God, you let yourself be taken prisoner by the Dons just so I could complete that mission to Elba. It is that, Hardy, that courage and loyalty, that makes our navy great, and I’ll be damned if I see it go unrewarded.
“So, here.” He stepped up, closing what little space was left between them, and before Hardy could protest further, Nelson’s thin, hard fingers closed his own around the medal and held them there. He looked up into Hardy’s face, his face open and beseeching. “Please, Hardy.”
Hardy considered the medal now closed in his fist, and could not help but glance at the now-empty buttonhole of Nelson’s coat. A curious sensation twisted in his chest. There was not an officer alive who did not love a mark of distinction - for his own part, he was unutterably proud of the two epaulettes on his shoulders. But for Nelson it went further. He lived for for recognition, for glory. For him to willingly part with such a thing...
“My lord...” he began, but could get no further.
Nelson’s mouth gave a wan, self-mocking twist and, almost as if he had guessed something of his thoughts, he said, “Believe me, Hardy, I can spare one medal. And if I must lose it, there is no one else in this world whom I would rather see wear it.”
For once in his life, Hardy’s lack of speech was due, not to his natural stoicism, but to the fact that he simply could not find the words to say. His throat had closed over; a welling of emotion in his chest made it suddenly hard to breathe. He hesitated just one moment longer; then he nodded - it was all he could do - and fixed the medal to his own buttonhole. Nelson’s pale, pinched face was suddenly transfigured by a smile so bright it rivalled the Mediterranean sun outside. He reached out and grasped Hardy’s wrist, looking fondly up at him.
“My dear Hardy,” he said with a laugh, “you are a hard man to pay a compliment.”
Hardy laughed, too. “Thank you, my lord.”