An American Encounter
By Skihee :

Ch 23 Bliss (R Marital situations)


Pellew sat staring at nothing atop his desk drumming his fingers. "Damn!" He stood turning to gaze out his window at the gray seas. The ship's motion was capricious hove to. The fierce easterly wind blowing out of the Straits of Gibraltar kept them waiting like a courtier at the king's gate. Why did it seem he was stymied at every effort to get this damned ship Dolphin turned over to the Admiralty? He still wondered if his decision to turn it in at Gibraltar was the right one. He had prayed about it and each time he was given the assurance it was. And so, he stayed his course. Pacing. He walked to his door. "Call for Mr. Hornblower."

"Aye, sir."

Hornblower sat in his cabin reading. His wife, bent over his topcoat, pulled her needle in and out mending the latest damage to its right sleeve. "Ow!" she muttered.

Hornblower looked up from his reading and smiled. "Poke yourself again?"

"It's this damn ship and its constant tossing! Forgive my language, dear."

Rising he moved to sit next to her on their bunk. Placing his hands over her sewing he said, "Then, stop. You will have your fingers jabbed black and blue. Not to mention blood all over my sleeve again. Then it will be you doing the spitting."

"You're never going to forget that are you? It got your sleeve clean!" she emphasized.

"Yes," he smiled, "But I have never had to come up with so much saliva in all my life. A topcoat and a shirt! I am in your debt." He pulled his coat from her and sat it on the chair.

"Keeping my husband properly attired is my pleasure, sir..."

"I am thankful for your stain remedy, most assuredly."

"Though seeing him unattired is equally so," she added slyly.

The ship tossed causing him to lean over onto her. "Ah. I love the Indy. She knows what I really want."

"And, what would that be, sir?" she asked smiling under him, caressing his cheek.

"A kiss from you." He looked into her eyes, at her lips. Closing his eyes he covered her mouth with his. Their tongues met gently caressing one another. They were oblivious to all but this pleasing sensation of intimacy. The closeness of joining mouth to mouth tender and warming. Noses touching cheeks. "Hmm," he moaned as he shifted her beneath him that he might lay more comfortably atop her. They completed the kiss. Kissing each other's lips lightly. They gazed into one another's eyes. His smile mirrored hers. "What?"

"What do you think you are doing, Mr. Hornblower?"

He raised an eyebrow at her his smile widening. "The better question might be who."

She laughed. "Horatio, its the middle of the day!"

"How can you tell? It could be midnight. Besides show me where it is written that love should only be made at night...and at breakfast, in your case."

She laughed again. "Really, sir! What if your captain calls you?"
"Why would he? We are hove to. Besides Dr. Sebastian has me on light duty for another three days. God bless Dr. Sebastian!"

She smiled at him, studying his face, smoothing the curl playing on his forehead.

"What is this look, I see?" he questioned.

She smiled the more and touched his lip with her finger. "A very happy contented one, sir."

"Are you happy and content?"

"More than you could know." She rested her hand against his cheek. He turned to kiss her palm. "And you, Horatio, what is your state of mind?"

"More than happy, more than content." He stroked her hair above her ear, canted his head and squinted at her healing face. He sighed and smiled again.

"Such a big sigh, sir! What are you thinking now?"

"I'm thinking how fortunate I was to be given Dolphin as my assignment instead of Cymbaline. Then, you might have married Archie instead of me."

She chuckled. "What makes you think Archie would have interested me?"

"He's a very dashing fellow. Son of a lord. Handsome, charming, witty, brave."

She pushed him up from her, sitting up herself. "So you think I would have fallen for any sailor that came along to rescue me?"

He grabbed her shoulders pressing her back beneath him. "No! I don't! Because the moment the Indy rejoined Dolphin you would have taken one look at Leftenant Horatio Hornblower and said that's the man for me."

"But would you have listened?"

"You would have definitely had my attention."

"But what about Archie? Would you have stolen me from him?"

"You would have wanted me to." He grinned. She punched him lightly on his shoulder.

"But your friendship with him. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

He sat up pondering her question. She sat up grabbing the shoulders of his topcoat. "Come here, you are thinking too much." She pulled him back down on top of her.

He smiled gazing into her features. "You weren't meant for Archie. You were meant for me."

She returned his gaze, stroking his cheek. "I was. I am. I shall always be."

He lowered to her lips beginning another kiss. The ship tossed throwing the two to the deck. Horatio was on the bottom. Pamela on top. "Ooph!" He smiled at her. "This ship has such interesting ideas." He bent his head up and realized he could look down her dress. "And such marvelous views!"

"Horatio!" she chortled looking where he was. She tried to get up.

"Where are you going?"

"Dear, we are on the floor and my trunk has tumped off Archie's bunk as well."

A knock came. "Mr. Hornblower."

He released her, standing and helping her stand. The trunk was indeed on the floor, and blocking the door. "Yes, just a moment." He tried to move it out of the way but the locking mechanism was open digging into the deck. He opened the door, then had to stand on its side to get where he could see who was there. "Yes?"

Midshipman Cutter looked up at him perched and bent on top of her trunk. "The...the Captain wants to see you, sir."

He looked over at Pamela who was covering her mouth snickering.

"He does?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. I shall be there straight away. Thank you, Mr. Cutter."

"Did you need some help, sir?"

"I think I can manage. Thank you. I shall be there directly."

"Aye, aye, sir."

He closed the door. "Don't laugh. Help me, I 've got to get out of here."

"But you look so funny up there on my trunk. Your hair is sticking up and you've got dust all over you." She laughed as she tried to help him right the trunk to move it out of the way. "Wait, sweetheart, let me brush you off."

"Thank you," he said smoothing his hair. "It's best we leave that trunk on the floor until we're out of these seas. I should get it lashed." He looked into her features with some disappointment. He threw his cloak over his shoulders. She did his clasp for him and handed him his hat. She sighed at the look of him and it made him smile.

"I'll be here," she said. He squeezed her hand and left.

He climbed out onto the waist into the pounding rain. It was a wonder the seas were not higher than they were. The wind blew singing through the lines, making them vibrate like the strings of an instrument. He held onto his hat for the half dozen steps that would take him into the foyer of his captain's cabin. He knocked.

"Come."

"You sent for me, sir."

"Yes, come in, Mr. Hornblower." Water dripped off his cloak onto the deck. His hat tucked under his arm. "Give me your cloak, sir." Pellew handed them to Powers, his servant. "Come, sit, Mr. Hornblower."

He did as requested. Pellew sat opposite him studying his leftenant. "Coffee, Mr. Hornblower?"

"Yes, thank you, sir."

Pellew tapped on his lip as Powers presented them both with cups of the dark steaming liquid. "Thank you, Powers. That will be all." His servant left them. Horatio swallowed nervously wondering what this interview might hold. "Mr. Hornblower, you realize we are not long for Gibraltar, do you not?" It was an obvious thing to ask, but he asked anyway to open the conversation.

"Yes, sir. It is unfortunate the weather seems to be against us." That sentence could have choked him in light of a few moments ago.

Pellew sipped his coffee, raising an eyebrow. "Indeed." He looked at Hornblower for a long moment. "I want you to know I have only your and your wife's best interests to heart."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," blushed Hornblower.

"She is well?"

"Yes, sir. Her injuries look better by the day. Thank you, sir."

"Good. I am pleased." He leaned back in his chair. "What plans have you made for Gibraltar?"

Hornblower sighed nervously. "Well, I ...I know she would like to contact her father's solicitor, sir. I suppose depending on what we discover from him will depend on what occurs next."

"And, what if her solicitor is unable to assist?"
"Then, I shall have to take care of her myself, sir." He had already made an inventory of his meager possessions. Selling his books, his watch. If it were necessary to support her, he would do so. He wondered if and when he might get his share of prize money for Dolphin, but he could not ask his captain. His pride would not allow him to appear that needy. It was bad enough to confess his wife would be supported by her family.

His eyebrows arched again. He knew Hornblower could not possibly have funds to support a wife. "It may be that Sir Hugh and Lady Dalrymple would take her in for a time."

"I hope it does not come to that, sir. She is fairly certain Mr. Hoskins will help her."

"Mr. Hoskins?"

"The solicitor, sir."

"Very well. Let us say he does help her. What then, sir?"

"We will rent something for her and she will employ a maidservant, sir. I would not have her left alone."

"I am glad you realize she needs someone with her. Your wife strikes me as being somewhat willful. The type that would strike out on her own if she could. Much like her countrymen." He muttered the last remembering his campaigns during the Anglo-American War.

Hornblower fought a smile. "She is head strong, sir."

"Indeed." He sipped his coffee and Hornblower his.

"Sir?"

"Yes, Mr. Hornblower?"

"I ...I look at my marriage to Pamela as valid, sir. I do. But, I ...I intend to locate a minister in Gibraltar to marry us in the church. I feel both our parents would want it that way, even though hers are deceased and my father is in England. I was hoping you would be willing to grant me the time for that as well as getting her settled into a new home."

Pellew inclined his head and smiled. "A prudent move I would say, Mr. Hornblower. The time is granted you, but of course shall depend on the powers that be. While I may be able to wheedle a day or two in port as we turn over Dolphin and Mr. Kennedy takes his leftenant's exam, the Admiralty may not look favorably on our dawdling at anchor, sir."

"I understand, sir."

Shall I be invited?"

Hornblower smiled. "We would be most honored for you to attend, sir."

"Well," Pellew stood to retrieve a small pouch from his desk, "In that case, sir. I have something for you." Hornblower stood with his captain. "It is a wedding present, Mr. Hornblower." Before Hornblower could protest, Pellew had pulled his topcoat open dropping the pouch into its inner pocket. "This is for you. Use it as you see fit, sir."

Hornblower reddened at his captain's generosity. "You need not..."

"None of that, Mr. Hornblower. It is something I desire. A thank you will do, sir."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." He held out his hand to his Captain who shook it warmly.

"I wish the two of you all the best, sir."

"Thank you, Captain. And thank you for your concern."

"You keep me posted on how things go for you two."

"Yes, sir."

"If there is any problem, any problem," he emphasized, "You come to me. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Now. When is your wife going to show her face again? I am getting cabin fever with this contrary wind. I would like to invite the two of you to dinner before we make landfall."

"Her bruises lessen daily but are still noticeable. I shall relay your request, sir."

"Do. Yes, do." Pellew smiled at him.

"Would you care for a game of whist this evening, Mr. Hornblower? I had thought to ask you, Bracegirdle, and Sebastian."

"I would be delighted, sir."

"Shall we say half past eight? That should give you a chance to dry out a bit after your watch."

"Thank you, sir."

"Good, good. Until then, sir."

Hornblower took his hat and cloak exiting his Captain's cabin. The first dog watch was beginning. He had two hours until his. He threw on his cloak and hat making his way back below deck.

The men were quietly talking on the gun deck. Those that would be on watch with him were settling in for the evening meal. He smiled remembering Matthews cornering him a day ago to inquire after Pamela. He had told him she was well and extended her thanks for his and Styles part in her rescue, as did he. He told him she would thank them herself when her injuries had healed. And indeed, she had said so to him. He sighed with pleasure at the woman he had chosen to be his. She was unpretentious, friendly, loving, helpful, incredibly desirable. He found it strange that she felt at home with the ratings as well as the officers. Strange lot these Americans. At least, the part she came from. There seemed to be no class distinctions. Or perhaps, she was just one of those rare people that felt no need to be of a higher caste than her fellows. And, better than that, both levels seemed to like her as well. His captain, and the men of his division. Breathing deeply, he returned to his cabin.

He knocked before he entered. The door banged into the trunk again. It had shifted while he was gone. He peered around the door at her.

"Hello, darling," she called.

"Hello. I see the chest continues to sail about our cabin."

"It does."

"Would you allow someone in to see about it?"

"Oh, I'd rather not, Horatio." She got up to pull it away from the door.

"I could have done that," he said, helping to push it. "Come here." He took her in his arms. "I did not mean for you to move it. I just thought if you would let a man in here to lash it to the wall, I would go find Starns or someone to do it."

"You're wet, dear." She undid his clasp.

"Yes, sorry." He removed his hat. "The captain wants to know when you will have dinner with him."

She smiled. "He does?"

"Yes, and don't sound so surprised. I told you he bears you no animosity."

"Well, I can't, Horatio. My cheek..."

"Looks better by the day. I invited him to our wedding."

"Our wedding?"

"Yes. I told you the day we were married we would have a proper wedding when we reached Gibraltar. Have you forgotten?"

"The first one holds all the memories and validation I need, dear. I don't feel I need another one. "

"Well, I do. I shall have you down on paper properly by the Church of England. That's an order."

She sighed. "But I shall always see May second as our wedding day. Will the minister let us backdate the event? And, what shall I wear?"

"Your wedding dress will do. I don't see why we can't use May second whether the church says so or not. Or, we shall have two wedding dates and two anniversaries!" he smiled. "Who can boast of that, eh?"

She leaned against his chest. "Two wedding dates, two anniversaries. Will there be two honeymoons?" She asked sadly, knowing full well that Gibraltar would mean separation.

He lifted her chin up inclining his head with an arched eyebrow. "Everyday is a honeymoon with you." He picked her up in his arms, placing her on their bunk. Straightening her skirts, he lay upon her. "Can we resume where we left off?" He placed his mouth over hers.

"Mmm." she said firmly.

He opened his eyes closing his kiss. "Yes?"

"Was that all Captain Pellew wanted? To invite me to dinner?"

"Well, no," he sighed. "He is concerned about you."

"Why?"

Horatio chuckled. "Why? Because you are my wife and he likes you."

"Do you really think he does? Like me, I mean?"

"Pamela!" he said incredulously, "Yes! He does!" She started to cry. "Oh, now, what's this? What's this?"

"I don't know," she sniffed. "I've been such a lot of trouble." She turned her head into the pillow tears flowing.

He reached into his pocket for his handkerchief. His brow knitted as he recalled the pouch put there by Pellew. He dried her eyes. "You are making it very difficult for me to make passionate love to you when you are crying."

She chuckled beneath him. "I'm sorry." She sniffed.

"He gave us a wedding present." She turned to look at him. He pulled the pouch out of his pocket. She grabbed his hand.

"No. Horatio. I don't want to know. He gave it to you."

"But it's for both of us."

"I understand. But, I don't want to know." She stroked his cheek. "All right?"

He inhaled deeply, shaking his head at her, stuffing the pouch back into his coat. "I love you." He searched her face, touched her lips with his fingertips. "I love you." She reached her arms around him. He embraced her hugging her tightly, hearing the rustle of his hands running across the soft material of her dress. Kissing her ear, he said it a third time, barely audible. "I love you."

She sniffed again. "I love you, Horatio."

"No tears, now," he said softly. "No tears." He leaned her back down on the bed. Releasing his arms around her, he kissed his way over to her lips. Closing his eyes, the kiss began. He tried to cease at one point, but she lifted her head reaching for him, he leaned back onto her soft lips at a different angle beginning the caress again. She became animated. This was not the normal kiss they exchanged tenderly. She was reaching for him with her lips, with her tongue, pressing against his lips harder. He returned her passion with his own until they broke the kiss with a pant. "What's got into you?" he asked breathlessly, beginning the kiss again. He left her lips kissing his way to her neck.

A knock. He continued to kiss her. Another knock. "Mr. Hornblower?"

"Oh, Christ!" he said. "It's our dinner."

"Oh, darling!"

"Yes."

"I've got your dinners, sir."

"Yes, I'm coming!"

He opened the door. "Thank you, Hardy." He took the tray from him.

"Your welcome, sir," grinned the rating.

He closed the door. Standing holding the tray, he looked wistfully at his wife and sighed. "Your dinner, madam."

She turned on her side, resting her head on her left hand, she opened her mouth to speak.

"Don't say it! I can see it on your face. Don't say it!" He lay the tray on the floor to prevent it sliding off the table, stepped over it to rejoin her on the bed.

"What do you think you are doing?"

"We shall resume."

"But your dinner."

He leaned to kiss her lips.

"But, Horatio, your watch. I would not have you stand your watch without dinner."

"I can eat it later." He rested his mouth over her neck.

"It will be cold," she inhaled at his touch. "Darling? I hate to...to think...to think of ...."

He placed his mouth back over hers. Ceasing the kiss, he said, "You're talking too much."

A knock. "Mr. Hornblower?"

He moved his head to lean over her shoulder, shaking it no. She began to snicker beneath him.

"Yes, Hardy?"

"I forgot your drinks, sir. Sorry, sir."

He got up from her again, knocking the tray on the floor with his foot. He looked back at her covering her mouth stifling the laughter.

He snapped the door open. Taking the mugs from his hands, he said firmly, "Thank you, Hardy."

"Yes, sir," he said meekly.

Closing the door, he sighed, stepped over the tray and sat down on the bed handing her one of the mugs. He put his hand on his forehead. He moved his eyes to look at her. He looked down at the tray. Was anything else missing from it? Could they possibly be interrupted again?

"There's always after your watch," she offered.

He closed his eyes, holding his lips tightly, and shook his head. "I told Captain Pellew I would play whist with him after my watch. I'm sorry, dear, I forgot to tell you. Come here." He pulled her onto his lap, hugging her, leaning on her breast. She kissed his head, running her hand over his soft wavy curls and smoothing his back.

"Eat now, sweetheart."

"Will that make you happy?"

"I'm already happy. But it will keep me from worrying about your stomach growling while you're playing whist with Captain Pellew."

He swung his legs over to look at the tray of food. He looked up at her. "Come here."
She bent to kiss him, three light kisses.

"I love you, Mr. Hornblower."

"I love you, Mrs. Hornblower."

His watch came and went. Standing in the rain for two hours, balancing on a bouncing deck was made palatable with the memory he brought with him. It was a quiet watch. They were not going anywhere. This was just existence. When it was over, he was glad to go below decks for dry clothes before his appointment with his Captain.

A knock.

"Come."

"Good evening, sir. I trust I am not too early for our game?" asked Bracegirdle, removing his cloak and hat.

"No, indeed. Come in Mr. Bracegirdle. Let me pour you a drink. The rain has not ceased, I see. Put your cloak and hat there, sir."

He lay his cloak on a chair near the door. "Thank you, Captain." Bracegirdle took the glass of port offered.

"Your welcome, sir. Do sit down. Dr. Sebastian and Mr. Hornblower should be joining us momentarily,"

A knock. "There you see!" Pellew rose to open the door. "Dr. Sebastian! Do come in. A glass of port, sir?"

"Good evening, Captain. Yes, thank you, that would be delightful. Good evening, Mr. Bracegirdle."

Bracegirdle motioned him to put his things on the chair. "Dr. Sebastian. It is good to see you taking a break from sick berth, sir," responded Bracegirdle.

"Thank you, Mr. Bracegirdle. I leave it in capable hands. Mr. Brandon has nothing but my highest regards. The men are healing. It goes well."

"How is the marine, Private Creswick, doing, Doctor?" inquired Pellew, handing him a glass.

"Better, sir. He seems to know where he is. With rest and quiet, I hope to see him make a full recovery."

"Excellent, excellent news. I am glad to hear it. Please, gentlemen, sit."

"Our fourth tonight is...?" asked Sebastian.

"Mr. Hornblower. He should be here shortly. He had the second dogwatch."

"Hmm," chuckled Bracegirdle, "I saw him come below. His shoes were making quite a squish noise. No doubt he is changing into drier clothing."

"It is not the rain that bothers me but this damn easterly wind! It might do well when the fleet wants out of the Med, but for going in, it is quite impossible," commented Pellew.

"Indeed, Captain. I recall a similar occurrence on my old ship. We sat out here for three days waiting for the blow to change. My captain was quite beside himself," replied Sebastian.

"Yes, the wind can be fickle."

"There is one, or two, who find the wind favorable, I think," smiled Bracegirdle wryly. "On at least two occasions I have caught Mr. Hornblower with a smile on his face."

The three laughed. "If I had such a roommate as he, I am sure I would be smiling as well," added Sebastian.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen, it does not become us to so speak of a fellow officer," smiled Pellew.

"I meant no disrespect, Captain. I have the highest regard for our passenger, ...and her husband," grinned Sebastian. "And, as your doctor, I do not recommend dwelling on what might occur behind that closed door for any length of time. For the sake of your own health and well being." He grinned, they laughed.

A knock.

"Come."

Hornblower opened, entered, saying, "Good evening, Captain. Forgive me, sir, am I late?" Hornblower asked seeing the others already in attendance.

"No, sir. You are quite punctual."

They rose to greet him. Bracegirdle glanced at his feet to see him wearing his boots. "Mr. Hornblower, are you going riding?"

"Good evening, Mr. Hornblower," greeted Sebastian

"Dr. Sebastian. Mr. Bracegirdle, sir, if I had a horse we would be on our way to Gibraltar by now, but instead we wallow in an east wind." He, too, removed his dripping cloak and hat.

"No, change, eh, Mr. Hornblower?" asked Pellew, giving Bracegirdle a quick glance.

"The wind is down, sir, but still easterly."

Pellew sighed, "Well, we shall make the most of it, eh?" He handed a drink to Hornblower. "Come, gentlemen." Pellew motioned them to the table. "Mr. Hornblower, will you deal, sir?"

"Gladly, sir." Sitting and taking the deck, he began to shuffle the cards. Sebastian sat opposite him and would be his partner. Bracegirdle smiled opposite Pellew watching Hornblower shuffle.

"It has been a while since I have played, gentlemen, I hope you will be patient with me," said Sebastian, sipping his port.

"It will all come back to you, I am sure, Doctor," remarked Pellew. Hornblower continued to shuffle. His brow was knit as if pondering the fate of the world. Pellew looked at him with some concern. He was about to comment when Hornblower slapped the deck in front of Bracegirdle.

"Cut, sir." The first leftenant did, watching Hornblower take them up again and begin to deal. Sebastian and Pellew traded glances. At the last card, Hornblower placed it face up, the king of diamonds.

"A king! Indeed, sir, God save him!" said Bracegirdle jovially.

Pellew, being to Hornblower's left, began the game. It was the first of several hands. Pellew and Bracegirdle won the first round. Sebastian was apologetic to Hornblower, who kindly encouraged him. In the next hand, Pellew and Bracegirdle won again.

"Mr. Hornblower, your game seems to be off this evening," commented Pellew. "I do not think Dr. Sebastian can take the blame for that one, sir."

"I shall endeavor to do better this round, sir." He smiled.

"Your deal, Dr. Sebastian," said Pellew handing him the cards.

Hornblower leaned back in his chair sipping his port. Sebastian took the cards, shuffling them skillfully.

"I can see a deck of cards is no stranger to you, Dr. Sebastian," said Bracegirdle.

Sebastian smiled as he placed the deck before Pellew to cut. "Many a calm night I have spent in the company of these four kings, sir. What is most interesting is to see what the queens are up to." Hornblower looked up at his partner bringing himself to an upright position. Sebastian came to the last card and placed it carefully face up. "The queen of hearts! Fancy that! Mr. Hornblower perhaps our luck shall change!" he grinned.

Hornblower smiled gently, picking up his cards to view.

"How is Mrs. Hornblower?" asked Sebastian.

"She is well, sir, well,...thank you." Hornblower stared at his cards. He put them down, sighed, and looked into the dark windows of the stern, seeing the room reflected in them.

The three older men exchanged glances.

"She must be getting weary of sitting in your cabin. I know she lets her injury confine her," said Sebastian studying his cards.

"Yes, maybe that's what it is," Hornblower said softly in a far away voice.

Bracegirdle looked at Pellew, then at his cards. "Trouble in paradise, Mr. Hornblower?" he asked.

Hornblower sighed, looked at the ceiling, rubbing his chin. He looked at his fellow officers all staring at him. "Sorry! What did you say?"

"Your mind is not on this game, sir," declared Pellew.

"I'm sorry, sir." He picked up his cards, looked at the queen of hearts. "Is it my play?"

Bracegirdle threw down a jack of clubs. "It is now, sir."

Hornblower studied his hand. He was having trouble concentrating. He played a two of clubs, Pellew a three, Sebastian trumped with the queen of clubs.

"The lady takes it!" smiled Sebastian picking up the cards. "You can often find the female of our species to be advantageous when you play to win." Once more the queen of hearts stared from her position on the table.

"And, she can be as changeable as wind off a lee shore," said Hornblower thinking out loud.

Pellew leaned back in his chair staring at Hornblower. "Is this some strategy to confound your opponents, Mr. Hornblower?"

"Sir?"

"I can see your mind is not on the game. Are you trying to distract the rest of us as well?" Pellew felt Sebastian's hand on his arm. Turning to him, the doctor gently shook his head.

"N..no, sir. Sorry, sir" He stared intently at the cards in his hand.


"Your play, Mr. Bracegirdle," said Sebastian.

Bracegirdle put down a ten of spades. Hornblower studied his cards. He held the king, jack, and eight of spades. He played the jack. Pellew played a four with a sigh. And Sebastian played a two of spades, grinning at Hornblower.

"Very good, Mr. Hornblower," said his partner. Hornblower lifted the cards from the pile, the queen of hearts revealed again. "She is still there," said Sebastian seeing Hornblower's attention caught again by the red card. Hornblower peered at the doctor. "She has not changed."

"But she seems to. Moment by moment, in fact," said Hornblower.

Pellew and Bracegirdle stared at one another. "My sister went through a changeable time," commented Bracegirdle.

"Indeed, Mr. Bracegirdle?" asked Pellew.

"Yes, sir, you know, well, you know. Have you ever been married, Dr. Sebastian?" asked Bracegirdle.

A dark shadow passed across Sebastian's face. A slow smile took his expression. "Once, Mr. Bracegirdle." Pellew, knowing the histories of his men, tried to change the subject.

"Your turn, Mr. Bracegirdle," he said tapping the table with his finger.

Bracegirdle tossed his card onto the pile, a king of diamonds. "I just remember the devil of a time my sister had. Happy one moment, sad the next, then happy again. She nearly drove her husband and the rest of us mad. I still don't quite know how Kenneth survived!"

Hornblower sat staring at his superior. "What was wrong with her, Mr. Bracegirdle, if you don't mind my asking."

Bracegirdle looked at the faces around the table. Each looked back at him except Sebastian whose gaze was fixed upon his cards, biting his lower lip. Pellew tilted his head at him anxious to continue the game. "She was in a family way. In fact, every time she becomes so it is the same thing all over again. The rest of us have sort of gotten used to it. I don't know what Kenneth does. But he seems happy enough. I mean....you know, he is partly responsible."

Hornblower stared at Sebastian, still avoiding his gaze. Blinking, he felt blood rising from his lower regions to fill up the tips of his hair. His ears burned; he was that red. Swallowing he felt his stomach turning to butterflies in flight. He remembered to breathe taking a gasp of air.

Pellew put Hornblower's drink in his hand. "Drink something, man!" he ordered.

Sebastian leaned back in his chair thinking how he would defend himself to Pamela when next he saw her. The information did not come from him. Indeed, it still was not known for a fact. He thought about easing Hornblower's mind with that information, but decided it best not to lead him in the other direction either. Mr. Hornblower, he was afraid, was on his own.

Hornblower raised the glass to his lips shakily, downing what was left of his port. Pellew slapped his cards face down going for a carafe of whisky. He filled Hornblower's glass. Hornblower drank it quickly, coughing afterwards. Pellew pounded him on the back. "Thank you, sir." He stared at Sebastian who smiled.

Pellew poured himself a whiskey. "Mr. Bracegirdle?" he asked holding the carafe forward.

Bracegirdle lifted his glass, smiling. "Thank you, Captain."

"Is that what's wrong with her, doctor?" asked Hornblower raspily.

"What do you mean, sir, WRONG with her?" asked Sebastian seriously. Pellew offered the carafe to Sebastian who shook his head no.

Pellew and Bracegirdle sipped their whiskeys turning from one end of the table to the other listening to the conversation.

Hornblower stood not knowing whether to be angry or hurt. He settled somewhere in between the two. "Mr. Bracegirdle has just described her to a tee. She is happy one momment, sad the next. When I left her just a while ago she was on.... sad!" he blurted. "AND, she could not tell me why. Is...is...is" his brow was scrunched as he motioned with his arm in the air. "Am...am..." he couldn't complete that sentence either.

"Is she pregnant? Are you going to be a father? Is that what you wish to ask?"

Hornblower stood blinking at him feeling the earth move from beneath his feet. He swallowed. Pellew filled his glass again. Drinking, he coughed again. It was a good thing the glasses were small. Bracegirdle stood to hit him on the back this time as Pellew's hands were full with his own glass and the carafe. "Thank you, sir." Hornblower's worried expression managed these faint words, "Is she?"

Sebastian sighed. "It is too early to tell from a medical standpoint, Mr. Hornblower."

"But, what he said, what I've ..." he looked at Bracegirdle motioning with his hand.

"It is a fact that many husbands have described what you and Mr. Bracegirdle have depicted. Is it a sign of pregnancy? Only time will tell. From what you and I know of the lady, it does seem a bit out of character for her, does it not?"

Hornblower thought. "Yes. I think so." He slowly sat down thinking. He did not recall her behaving this way, at least not so rapidly.

"Do you want children, Mr. Hornblower?"

"What?" he asked, he needed time to register the question even though he comprehended it.

"Do you want children?" said Sebastian slowly.

"Can it happen this quickly, sir?"

Sebastian chuckled. "Mr. Hornblower, without asking some very personal questions in front of Captain Pellew and Mr. Bracegirdle, I will say it only takes one time in many cases. You and Mrs. Hornblower have been married for what, almost three weeks, isn't it?"

Hornblower put his elbow on the table, supporting his forehead with his hand. "You've...she's spoken to you of this, hasn't she? That night on the fo'csle, it wasn't just an apology." He looked back at Sebastian, who exhaled heavily. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Mr. Hornblower," Sebastian stood, "I told you, as I told her," he leaned forward on the table, "It is too early to tell medically. She displays symptoms that are classical in a pregnancy."

"Symptoms? More than one symptom?" Hornblower stood. "What else, doctor?"

"This is not the time nor the place to discuss this, sir. She did not wish me to speak of it to you at all. It is not certain, Mr. Hornblower."

"But it is possible," he stated.

Sebastian sighed. "Yes."

Hornblower sat down. Pellew and Bracegirdle sat down. Sebastian lowered into his chair. Pellew sipped his whiskey looking from Sebastian to Bracegirdle to Hornblower, saying, "Your play, Mr. Hornblower."

He picked up his cards, finding the ace of diamonds he tossed it on the pile. Pellew frowned, discarding the five. Sebastian, the nine. Hornblower took the cards. He stared again at the queen of hearts. Bracegirdle threw down his next card, proceeding in order around the table. Words went unspoken. The men played, took tricks, and at the last round...

Bracegirdle played a seven of hearts, Hornblower the king, and Pellew the ten. "She's yours, Mr. Hornblower!" stated Sebastian.

He sat staring at the cards. The king of hearts lay diagonal on the pile obstructing Bracegirdle's seven. Pellew's ten had not quite made the pile. The queen and king stared back at him. He hesitated, looking from one card to the other. "Indeed, she is, sir. Indeed, she is." Smiled Hornblower at his partner, sweeping the cards from the table.

The game picked up after that. Hornblower and Sebastian won the next five rounds, trouncing Pellew and Bracegirdle.

The ship's bell told the time, eleven thirty. "It is late, gentlemen. This has been a most enjoyable evening. You shall have to give Bracegirdle and I a chance to redeem ourselves."

"Yes, sir," answered Hornblower. Turning, he added, "Captain Pellew, I must apologize for being distracted earlier."

"Tut, tut, Mr. Hornblower. You may have good reason to be distracted. Just be sure it does not distract you from your duty."

"No, sir. It will not. I assure you."

"That is all the answer I need, sir. If and when you are sure of the happy news, I am sure you will let us know, eh? Otherwise, the discussion tonight does not leave this room. Correct, gentlemen?" He turned to look at each man.

"Of course not, sir," chimed in Bracegirdle and Sebastian.

"Good night, sirs."

Taking their cloaks and hats the three left. Entering the waist, the rain had stopped. They gazed at the mist that hung in the dim lantern light of the ship. The air was cool. The smell, fresh. The decks shone with the sparkle of rainwater. The pitching had eased. The ship moved easily over broad swells. The lap of the water against her hull, beat an easy cadence.

"Goodnight, sirs. I have the forenoon watch, I am afraid. Must get my beauty sleep," smiled Bracegirdle.

"Goodnight, Mr. Bracegirdle."

"Goodnight, sir."

Hornblower stepped further out into the deck, breathing deeply. Rainwater dripped on him from the yards.

Sebastian followed him. "Are you not retiring, sir?"

"I need a little fresh air, to think, sir."

Sebastian started to leave him but canted his head for a question. "You did not answer earlier, Mr. Hornblower. Do you want children?"

Hornblower looked at his boots. When he lifted his face to Sebastian, it came up with a genuine smile. "I do, sir. I believe I do."

"How will you handle what you know with what your wife thinks you do not know?"

He sighed. "I guess that's what I need to think about. Did she say why she did not want me to know?"

"I think she wanted to be sure before she said anything."

"And, when can she be sure?"

"Possibly another month, maybe two."

"Then, there is a chance she may not be? And, if that is so, I should remain worried about these quixotic moods of hers?" These sounded more like statements than questions.

"I would not worry about anything, Mr. Hornblower. How have you responded to her so far?"

He breathed in and answered on the exhale. "With dismay, confusion, and.....love. I just love her." He shrugged his shoulders.

Sebastian smiled. "Then, you have your answer, Mr. Hornblower. As long as you love her, and she knows it, the two of you will be all right. No matter how many children you have."

Hornblower laughed.

Sebastian squeezed his forearm. "Goodnight, sir." He made his way to the fo'csle for a smoke.

Hornblower leaned against the rail. With the overcast sky the sea was pitch black, like the unknown future. Only the ship lanterns gave out a glow. They seemed to represent his present, what he could see. He scratched his head tousling his hair. With a sigh, he went below deck.

Sebastian watched him from the fo'csle as he went. Releasing smoke from his lungs, he said lowly, "God, bless him. He is an intelligent man, Lord, a good man, but he will need You as we all do, whether he admits it or not. I pray You will protect him and his good lady. Especially Pamela, Lord. See her through this most wonderful and dangerous time. Keep her and the child safe. Protect Mr. Hornblower in this war as I pray You protect us all. Let them grow old together, Sir, with children and grandchildren surrounding them. I ask it in Your Son's name." Drops of rainwater pelted him from the yards as a fresh burst of air roamed the rigging. He looked up, seeing a hole in the clouds allowing the twinkle of bright stars to shine through. He smiled at the beauty of the heavens. "I know You hear me, Lord. Thank You, for hearing me."