All is Bright
During the American Civil War, 1861-1865, the North and the South fought against each other. Northern General William Tecumseh Sherman became famous, or infamous, for marching his army through the South, leaving utter destruction in his wake. The beautiful Southern coastal city of Savannah, Georgia, in an effort to preserve its historic charm, chose to surrender without a fight. Sherman accordingly sent to President Abraham Lincoln a telegram which said, in part, "I beg to present to you as a Christmas-gift, the city of Savannah."
Here, I beg to present to hhfic readers, especially fans of Archie Kennedy, as a Christmas-gift, a story including not only Archie alive, but Archie alive and available. I wish you the very warmest blessings of the season.
Mistrustful as he was of his own capacity for happiness, Horatio Hornblower, as he surveyed the gathering in the drawing-room, with doors flung back to make one large room with the adjoining ones, was momentarily willing to admit that, if not happy, he was for the moment sublimely contented. He felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth.
Admiral Pellew stood by the mantel, listening patiently to Lydia, who talked far too much for a girl of fifteen. Over by the Christmas tree, William Bush’s eldest sister was deep in conversation with Lady Manningtree, and Bush himself, who was ill at ease in parties, took a deep draught of champagne and listened with small patience to the vicar expounding earnestly. Hornblower had seen the identical expression on Bush’s features before: Bush was not hearing a word the man said. Bush’s two middle sisters appeared to be in thrall to a couple of classmate’s of Richard’s from Sandhurst, and Edward – Edward! – was, evidently, captivating Bush’s youngest sister, who was rather older than Edward’s fifteen years. Perhaps it was the uniform, and Hornblower had to admit that Edward did look well in the dark blue coat and midshipman’s collar patches. It gave him a pang, in fact, to see his son, who had always favored Hornblower in looks. The years had slid by with dizzying rapidity and it seemed but yesterday that he had been a soaked and shivering midshipman himself, seasick and miserable on the Justinian.
Where was Barbara? There, on a settee, keeping a close and critical eye on Lydia. Soon, no doubt, Barbara would draw Lydia out of the conversation and remind her again how much more proper it was to let the man do the talking. Out of the tail of his eye Hornblower noticed James cross the room and join in conversation with the vicar; a greatly relieved Bush melted away and sought out Archie Kennedy, who was looking uncommonly thoughtful and melancholy. This was the first time Hornblower had persuaded Kennedy to visit since the death of his wife a little over a year ago, and seeing him, Hornblower now felt a twinge of regret. He had always associated Kennedy with wit, mirth, and friendship – with parties, in short – but it was natural for a widower to feel sorrowful at Christmas.
That quickly, Hornblower’s fleeting happiness evaporated like mist over water. He did not mourn its passing since he never entirely trusted it. His mouth twisted into a lopsided half smile as he looked over the scene again. Barbara, sensitive as always to her husband’s peculiar moods, had come up beside him. He turned and smiled gratefully down at her.
“Did you speak with Lydia?” he asked mildly.
Barbara nodded. “Of course, succeeding at curbing Lydia’s tongue is akin to succeeding at holding back a raging river with a tree branch,” she said, her voice dancing with amusement.
Hornblower’s expression darkened. “She will never find a husband if she cannot keep still long enough for any one to ask her.”
Barbara laughed out loud at that statement, and Hornblower unwillingly felt his momentary vexation vanish. He twined his arm round Barbara’s slim waist and together they surveyed the laughing crowds, enjoying the hum of conversation and the crackling of the large and welcoming fire.
At length dinner was announced, and such a dinner. Brown’s wife had outdone herself, and the long polished table fairly groaned with dishes. Hornblower had put Bush’s oldest sister on his right hand, and Barbara at the other end had Admiral Pellew on her right, and the double rank of women in gowns and men in evening dress looked, Hornblower thought, very well indeed.
After the women went out, the men repaired to the sitting-room and the decanter was circulated. Hornblower stretched his legs out to the fire. Some of the men had joined the women in singing carols, but fortunately the music-room was upstairs and at the other end of the house and Hornblower could scarcely hear the din. Pellew, Bush, and Kennedy had all stayed and again, as he surveyed the little group, he had to admit to feeling content. Full of a good dinner, and with several glasses of wine in him, he felt no awkwardness or social pressure among these men. Nothing at all was required at him, and he need only recline in his wing chair and toast his feet and enjoy their company.
“Do you remember,” Kennedy said, swirling the brandy in his glass, “jumping off that cliff?”
Pellew looked interested. “That was never in the Gazette,” he said mildly.
“Oh, that’s right, sir,” Kennedy said. Mischief danced in his blue eyes. He glanced over at Hornblower, who quirked an eyebrow. This was Kennedy’s story to tell as far as he was concerned.
Kennedy, with his natural ease for storytelling and his flair for the dramatic, explained how Buckland had sent Hornblower to his almost certain death – Pellew knew that much from the trial.
“Mr. Bush was the senior officer,” Kennedy explained, “and naturally felt bound to assist Hor– Mr. Hornblower. As did I, sir.” Kennedy related the climb up the stairs, the waving of the white handkerchief.
“I greeted them by asking, ‘Have you both gone mad?’” Hornblower interjected.
“By that point, sir, I believe we had,” Bush added. He drained his glass and refilled it.
“It was only after that damned great explosion that we found ourselves at the edge of the cliff,” Hornblower said.
“I knew at once there was nothing for it, sir,” Kennedy said.
“So you contrived to jump,” Pellew said dryly. He set down his glass and rubbed his temples with his fingertips. It was coming back to him just how exasperating Kennedy and Hornblower had been as a pair.
“And I said, ‘I’m afraid I think you’re right,” Hornblower said helpfully, hoping to deflect some of Pellew’s skepticism.
“It wasn’t Mr. Bush’s fault at all, sir,” Kennedy put in. “I fear we gave him no choice.”
“Indeed they did not, sir,” Bush grunted, though without animosity. The brandy was warming his interior to a really comfortable pitch now, and there was not much that he would have minded.
“And so we jumped,” Hornblower said simply, and Pellew closed his eyes and put his hand to his forehead.
“Good God,” he muttered, but waved his other hand. “Pray continue.”
“I, er, I can’t swim, sir,” Bush said apologetically. “But we made it back all right, sir,” he added philosophically.
“I presume, Mr. Hornblower, that that is when Mr. Buckland put you in charge of La Gaditana,” Pellew said.
“Er... yes, sir,” Hornblower said. To his astonishment, Pellew chuckled.
“Perhaps the most sensible action of his career in command,” he said dryly. “Divide and conquer.”
The evening swirled on, the decanter was emptied, the fire died down, and by the time the four friends departed to their separate rooms Hornblower was startled to realize that the warm glow inside him was due neither to the fire, which had ceased to provide heat, nor the wine, although he had partaken more than was customary.
The glow was due, he was forced to admit, to happiness, that elusive emotion which had found him, if temporarily, on Christmas Eve.