An American Encounter
by Skihee

Chapter 21: Blinded By the Light

Pamela stared at the empty hospital bed. *I've missed him.* "Carlyle?" She called the orderly passing with an armful of bed linen.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"When did Dudley leave?"

"They packed him off early this mornin', ma'am."

"Thank you."

It was well that Dudley was gone. He was one of the last patients that knew her surname. Dr. Blakeney and the staff officers knew her last name, of course, but until 'he' was gone, 'the general', she would prefer to be known as merely a compassionate woman doting on any and all wounded.

Involvement with the appearance of injured men on the hospital's doorstep might raise suspicions and put the activities of Maria and her cohorts in danger. That was the last thing she wanted. Perhaps she should not have come at all, but she HAD to know how he faired. She expected to see him sitting up, better, on the mend. Her plan was to visit Dudley, sneak a peek his way, and then be gone! Out of his life! Why was he not stronger? Is he sleeping? Recognition was not her desire. On the contrary, anonymity was. Anyone discovering her activities could not only hinder her friends, but if Horatio found out, it was not a thing she wanted to imagine.

Looking towards the far end of the dormitory room, she could see him lying there, head bandaged. Were his wounds more life threatening than they seemed? He was given so cheaply. His captors thought he was near death, and glad to get the small ransom. When she visited him the next day, he seemed quite lucid, so lucid in fact he might know more about her than she ever intended. Speaking to him in the boat that night and day and night was meant to give him something to hold on to.... subconsciously.... not consciously.

"He worries you."

"Dr. Blakeney, you scared me!" She did not hear him approach. "I brought Dudley a loaf of bread, but it seems I am too late!"

"Dudley? Yes, he left this morning. I thought you might be concerned about our officer?" He inclined his head towards the far bunk.

"I am concerned for ALL the men, doctor."

"Forgive me, then, ma'am. You seemed deep in thought as you gazed his direction."

"Well...what I mean is, of course, I AM concerned for him as I AM concerned about all of them! You fluster me, sir!"

"Forgive me, Mrs. Hornblower. That was not my intention. Might I speak to you about him? In particular, I mean."

She fluttered her eyes, and not merely for effect. Being pinned down by the doctor about one of "them" made her incredibly nervous. "I do not know what I could tell you, sir." She took a step back. "Is he not mending?"

"Not as quickly as I would like. May I speak further?"

"Yes. I will listen if you think it a help."

"It almost seems as if he has given up."

She watched the medical man turn his thoughts inward as he explained. It was not to catch her, as she feared. Perhaps the good doctor DID merely need a non-medical sounding board. He continued.

"He has shut himself off from prompting by me, the orderlies. I even tried getting Captain Hargreaves wife to speak to him yesterday. Either he is asleep or he has no desire to communicate with any of us."

"I am sorry to hear that. Truly."

"The day you were here, did he say anything to you?"

"He asked for water. He said 'You're not an orderly'. Does that information help?" That WAS most of what he said. She could not very well tell the doctor he said, 'It's you.' All sorts of questions might ensue and THAT would not do, not do at all.

"The day you were here, did you notice that he responded in other ways? Besides asking for water, I mean."

"I do not understand." A woman has a right to be dumb sometime. This was a good time.

"While you were reading, I came back to observe. His features almost seemed soft. Do you know what I mean?"

"No, doctor. I..."

"It was almost as if he recognized your voice. But that is not possible. You do not know the man."

"I do not know him, sir. If I did, I would tell you!" She did not know his name, that was certain sure.

"Please, ma'am, I do not accuse you of withholding information! Certainly not!"

Was she sounding that defensive? She could feel her heart beating quicker. Inhaling, she tried to calm the turmoil surging within.

"It is just that...well....I have not seen him respond to anyone but you. When you were reading the other day, and one of the men called out, you stopped and went to him. I noticed the officer move his head and follow your voice....when you called for assistance. Do you remember?"

"I remember the man over there go into convulsions, but I..."

"I would not have expected you to notice the officer's attentions. The seized man was traumatic for you, I am certain. But I saw his head move to follow your voice. He followed you like a flower does the arc of the sun. He does not do that with me, and he must know MY voice by now." The doctor spoke quickly, trapping her in his explanation. "He seems to KNOW yours."

"Well, I ... I can't..."

"Dear lady, what I am asking is, ... would you....would you try to reach him?"

"I don't know what I could do, sir. I'm not versed in medicine. I..." she looked into a pleading concern in the medical man's features. His eyes were a piercing blue. She had never really looked at him before. His hair, reddish brown, a fair complexion pinking with concern, and rather plain academic-looking features. "Well.....what ....what can I do?"

He reached to pull the napkin from the loaf of bread in her basket. "Have you decided what you will do with this since Dudley is gone?"

"No. Would you like it?" Was he changing the subject?

"No," he chuckled. "I'm not fishing! But, you might offer some to him. I would like him to eat more. This should be easy on his digestion. It could be a way to ... to draw him out, if he remains conscious."

"You think him unconscious?"

"He does not communicate, ma'am! It is what I am trying to get you to understand."

She placed her hand on his forearm. "Doctor." She looked from eye to eye, quite calm. "I see you are very concerned for your patient. If you wish it, I will speak to him. I will read to him. I will feed him bread. I will do whatever I can, sir."

The doctor blinked and ran his hands through his hair. "Thank you, Mrs. Hornblower. I can never thank you enough."

"I have done nothing yet to be thanked for. He may not respond to me either." If he did, what could come of it? Would she be able to pretend she did not know him? Might it hurt him more? Why was he not getting better?

"I have high hopes he will."

The bow of her mouth turned upwards softly.

"Come."

She walked beside him feeling she was on the way to an inquisition. Coming nearer, his condition was more visible. His cheeks were sunken more than before. His head, though to the side, seemed tilted lower. Something about the body spoke of hopelessness.

"Oh, doctor. He does look worse!" She clutched Blakeney's hand.

"Sometimes they lose the will to live. I fear ... I..."

She released the doctor and stepped nearer to the head of the bunk. Reaching her gloved hand, she stroked his cheek. "What's this, my man? Your doctor is all in a dither over you."

The man jerked his head back as though startled out of a dream.

"Are you going to let me read to you today?"

Blakeney motioned for Carlyle to bring a chair. He placed it near her.

"You are awake? Shall I take up where I left off the other day?" She nodded to the doctor and motioned him away. More than anything, besides getting him well, she did not want any ears to hear the possible conversation.

The patient moistened his lips.

"A bit of water first, yes?"

 

 

The man turned his head to the sound of her voice and held out his hand. She placed her gloved hand in his and felt weak fingers close around it. His grip had been stronger five days ago. She put her other hand over the cold fingers she felt through the thick cotton of the gloves.

"How are you?" she asked tentatively.

His lips parted. After a few moments he whispered a word, a question, and an answer, all in one. "General..."

"Are you?"

He shook his head slowly.

"Why aren't you getting better?"

She felt his fingers relax around her hand. His head turned from her and he returned to that same position as when she arrived, listless, and closed off.

"I brought you a loaf of bread...well....actually I brought it for Dudley, but he's gone. Would you like some? I cooked it this morning." She pulled off the gloves, removed the loaf of bread from the basket and placed it on the napkin on the side table.

No response.

"What is wrong with you? You were stronger when I was here three days ago."

Nothing.

"You are in a British Hospital. You do know that, don't you?"

Nothing.

"Maybe you prefer to be alone after all."

His head moved, but returned it to its position, away from her.

"Do you want some water before I go?" She stood and leaned over so she could see what little of his face was visible. She turned away, but what her eyes beheld sunk in. Something she readily recognized. Tears. She looked at him closely, pulled her handkerchief out and dried the ones puddling by the side of his nose.

She assessed his size and did not think she could lift him. Leaning over upon him, she slipped her right arm underneath him at his chest and her left one under his shoulders, cradling his head. She pulled herself tightly towards him, settling her lips near his right ear. She felt the familiar sting behind her eyes.

"You will be all right. You must believe me. I am sorry you are hurt. I ... I did not understand." She saw Carlyle coming over with a question on his face. She shook her head no at him.

He mouthed did she want the doctor?

No!

She stroked his head. "You are going to be all right. You are with friends."

She felt him shuddering beneath her.

"I thought ... I thought you had gone," he whispered.

"That I'd abandoned you? Forgive me. Never would I! But you're not supposed to know about me...or us." she whispered. She pressed her cheek to his, feeling the roughness of his bandages. He was calming. She leaned up a little to see his face, but kept him in her arms. "We care about you. We went to get you. I tossed around in that boat till I did not care if I lived or died!" His head turned straight on to her voice. "But ...you are alive. We didn't know if you would be, but we had to take a chance," she whispered. "We all took a chance to bring you home. Don't let us down now. Please."

She watched his lips part. "Blind."

"No! No! It isn't sure! The doctor won't know until you tell him. What happened to you?"

He shook his head slowly. "Don't remember."

"Then there's hope!" She leaned in and hugged him again, pressing her cheek to his. "There's hope."

She felt his head turn in towards her ear. "Name? Your name?"

"Will you tell me yours?" she whispered.

She felt him nod.

"You must not tell them I brought you here."

"Understand."

"Pamela, my name is Pamela."

She waited, feeling his lungs expand beneath her as he took a breath.

"Alexander...Alexander Edrington."

Carlyle brought the doctor to see what was happening. Mrs. Hornblower was practically laying upon the patient for the whole ward to see, and see they did. The patients, well enough to know, looked back at the doctor.

"Let her be, Carlyle. Be vigilant should she call."

"Yes, sir."

"Alexander..." Her fingers entwined his and she pressed the back of his hand to her cheek. "I want you to eat and drink. Will you do that for me?"

He unlaced his fingers from hers, placed the palm of his hand on her cheek, and began to touch her face. Fingertips slid through the track of a tear. He swallowed and turned his head away. Moisture ran out from beneath his bandages.

She dabbed away the wetness. There was no sobbing, just a stream of tears, a sign of deep depression. A familiar emotion for a woman who had lost two husbands, a father, whose current husband was....away. She lay her head on his chest and closed her eyes, listening to his heart beat, and quicken.

He said nothing, but placed his hand lightly on her shoulder.

She looped one hand around his right shoulder, the other she rested on his chest beside her head, feeling the strong, steady thump. After a while, she felt his hand slip to her face and lightly search her eyes. She smiled and waited for his fingers to find it. She thought of Horatio touching her this way. Was she unfaithful to allow this injured man to touch her lips as he once did? And if unfaithful, to who? Horatio filled her thoughts, remembering his warmth, his heartbeat, his touch. Suddenly, she knew it was wrong and she took his fingers in her hand.

"Will you eat now, Alexander?"

"Why...are ...you doing this?"

"Selfish reasons, Alexander. I want you to live."

"Will I see ....?"

"You will see...I know, you will see." It was unknown. Why not err on the positive?

"Will I see....you?"

"It would be best not, I think."

His hand sought the hand that held his shoulder. His long slim fingers found hers and began to walk across each digit until they rested upon the two dolphins. He fingered the round metal. She felt his chest sink. His fingers came back to her face and felt her lips. There was no smile to be found this time. She would not have him think she toyed with his affections.

"How...how did you .... know?" he whispered. He felt a corner of her mouth rise.

"Life."

"I ...will eat. Have you.... more of that..... beef broth you gave... on the ship?"

"Oh, Lord! Were you conscious to all I told you?"

He smiled. "Most. You nearly ....had me talked into moving.... to North Carolina." He grinned and his chest lifted with easy laughter, though brief.

"I'll see what they have." She lifted over his head to plant a kiss on his forehead.

He bent his head back. Their noses touched and their lips were fractions apart. Neither moved, feeling each other's breath flow over warmed cheeks. With a swallow, she moved higher and kissed his bandaged forehead, as she intended.

"I will check on the soup." As she walked from his bed, she touched her palm to her hot cheek and nearly ran into the doctor.

The look on his face was indiscernible, mild shock, surely. They stared into one anothers eyes briefly, questioning. From him, how could she? From her, was she judged?

"He would like some beef broth. Have you any?"

His mouth hung open and his eyes blinked.

"I did what you wanted, did I not?"

The doctor closed his mouth and gulped. "I will check on the soup. Carlyle?"

She slipped around him. He turned and watched her go.

She found a side exit into the square garden bordered by the hospital halls. Walking out to a Joshua tree, she grabbed onto a lower limb and hung on, releasing the tension. She sucked a great breath into her lungs. Had she forgotten to breathe? Why were all these British men so damned dynamic? She turned and leaned into the crook of the tree, finding a steady strength, without the magnetism. She raised her eyebrows and sighed. "There is nothing wrong with THAT man!"

And here was another. Blakeney. She straightened and waited, wondering what broadside she was about to receive.

He stopped in front of her, hesitated, then held out a glass to her. "I thought you might like a drink. It's only water."

"Did you think I might want something more?" she challenged, holding a stare.

He pinked under her accusatory tone. "Ma'am, please. I ...you mistake my meaning!"

She took the glass, and eased her tense shoulders. "Thank you."

He watched as she sipped. "I....I wondered if he said anything ....that might be useful in his care. To, to ... help me .... help him..... I mean."

She watched him over the glass as she drank. Watched him fumble around with his speech, and rather enjoyed that he could be disarmed with so little effort. Well, maybe a little more than a little effort. She still felt flushed from her encounter with Alexander.

"He's depressed."

"Depressed?"

"Yes. He thinks he may be blind."

"Did he say what happened?"

"No, he doesn't remember. How did his eyes look when you bandaged them?"

"I gave him something to put him out while we tended his eyes, ... just in case. I was not sure what we would find."

"And, what did you find?"

"The eyes are in tact. There seemed to be burns on the skin around them, over the lid. The eyebrows were slightly singed. Like he was too near when a charge went off, or maybe he held a faulty weapon when it was fired. I did not see any visible damage to the eyes themselves, but that does not mean it is not there."

 

"When will you check him?"

"As soon as he feels up to it."

She turned away from the doctor. She made herself 'accessible' to Alexander to pull him out of the grip of depression. He said he understood when she told him not to give away her secret, but he is an army officer. They must be as duty bound as navy men. Her mouth twisted sourly.

"I fear, ma'am, I have caused you to ...compromise...your .... position... by asking you to intervene."

"More than you know, Doctor."

"Whatever led you to such a course?"

She turned quickly. "I did what my instincts told me to do, what I thought he needed. It was nothing more, Doctor."

"I did not mean to criticize, Mrs. Hornblower. Forgive me, I never intend ..."

"Of course, you don't!" she said haughtily.

"Ma'am, please! I am grateful. Did you learn his rank, his name?"

She was angry, but now was not the time to alienate this man. She put her hand to her brow. "Forgive me, Doctor. I..... he is a very dynamic individual, despite his weakened condition."

The doctor waited silently, while she calmed and composed herself.

"Doctor...in light of....of what I have just done... to pull him back...I must ask you....I must insist....that he not learn my identity more than he already knows. I told him my first name only. And...should he regain his sight, I fear it would be best that I not visit the hospital again until he has been returned to ...to.... his family, his regiment. You do understand, do you not?"

"I can order my attendants to keep silent where you are concerned....Does....does this mean you will attend until he regains more of his strength?"

*No! No! is what I should say* she thought. "Doctor..." she shook her head.

"No. You are right. You have done enough. It is wrong of me to impose upon you."

A way out! The doctor said she had done enough! But it was not true. If she abandoned him now, what was the use of them endangering all their lives in going to get him in the first place? No. She would have to stay. Stay long enough to see him on the road to recovery but bail out before he regained his sight. As long as the doctor kept her apprised of his condition, that should not be a difficult thing. She could always tell Alexander she was going away. Sorry to miss seeing you regain your sight, but private matters call. That made sense. The only other concern would be what Alexander was feeling... towards her. That would need careful handling. He had already shone himself to be a challenge.

"Do you have the broth?"

"Carlyle is checking."

"Oh, very well. I will ask him his rank and sit with him for awhile. I've nothing to do today that cannot wait." She passed the glass back into his hand. "His name is Edrington, Alexander Edrington.

"Edrington," he pondered. "Maybe if you explained to him that you are married...?"

"He KNOWS, Doctor." She walked purposefully back into the hospital proper.

"Oh." Blakeney stared at the ground, attempting to comprehend the revelation. "Oh! Then, Mrs. Hornblower,..." he shook his head no, trotting to catch up with her.
"Mrs. Hornblower..."

She pushed the door open to the dormitory. Walking slowly, her eyes did not leave the prone figure. With each step, she felt the mood encompass her. What the devil was it? A mothering instinct? The closer she came the more she wanted to protect and watch over him. He lay with his head to the side as before.

She stepped softly, not wanting to make herself known until she was ready. His hand lay limp at his side. She moved towards it slowly, sliding her palm over his, and held on.
Watching his throat, she saw the telltale swallow. The bandaged head turned towards her and he whispered.

"I thought... you left."

"I'm back. They are getting you some food."

Another orderly arrived with a tray and sat it on the empty bed next to his.

"This for 'im, ma'am." The man grabbed pillows from the bed and stuffed them beneath his pillow, raising his head. "Here ye go, sir. I'll elevate ye for dinner. Right nice it is, too. Put ye right, sure enough, sir. Nothin' like a cup o' beef tea to put ye right."

The incessant chatter was meant to give the wounded company, she knew.

"There you go." She tucked the napkin under his chin. Testing the heat of the liquid, she ordered, "Open."

After several spoonful and obeying her commands to open, he said, "It is not as good as yours."

"Open."

He swallowed. "Will you stay....awhile?"

"Open."

A swallow.

"Open."

A swallow.

"Open."

He turned his head away. "I...I'm sorry."

She lay the spoon in the bowl. "I accept. Open."

"But ..."

"Shhhh. Do not talk. Eat."

He opened his mouth to accept another spoon.

"Open. You may apologize more fully when you are stronger. I am glad to see you are repentant, however."

He smiled crookedly.

"Open. What is your rank? You are army, yes?"

"Hmm," he mouthed as the liquid passed down his throat. "Major, .... due a promotion."

"I see. Open."

"Lord." He took the spoon.

"After your actions, I would not have taken you for a religious man. Open."

He coughed, nearly choking on the last bit of liquid.

"Are you all right?" She lay the spoon in the bowl and studied him. A grin was tightly drawn over his lips. "What?"

He shook his head no.

"You wish no more?"

"No. More. Yes! More." He still smiled.

"Which, sir?"

"More, please." He grinned.

"I'm not going to ask what you find funny. I do not think I want to know. Open."

*****

Three days out from Naples, the despatch vessel attended its rounds. Malta was left behind that morning, after delivering missives to Captain Ball. He, his ship, and others blockaded the port of Valetta, the main city on the small island, and kept the few French vessels inactive in port. These were the standard communiqués from Admiral Lord Nelson which kept his 'band of brothers', his captains, in the know, as much as THAT was possible.

Hornblower, feeling like a man of many hats, now played postman, delivering mail to the far, flung fleet. He pondered his many jobs since leaving Gibraltar, for he wished to compose a light-hearted letter to the love of his life, though that emotion of light-heartedness was far from him. Far from him indeed.

Happy was a spirited vessel, but its name did not identify the gangly, young officer, for when it appeared to rescue them from the interminable idleness of the Bay of Naples, it also brought with it a letter. A letter that should have made his heart glad, and did, but whose contents also brought a confusing sadness.

The ship was quite overloaded with manpower. She bore passengers, two leftenants and four ratings, and her small, though full, compliment of ordinary crew and captain.
Turning nor'nor'west, the small schooner beat steadily towards the next destination, Lord Keith's squadron, somewhere off Minorca, and it was hoped, Indefatigable, ...home. High spirits reigned for the majority of the passengers.

The starry night blanketed the sea with peace, quiet, and stillness. The little vessel lay becalmed. Her decks were littered with bodies, healthy ones, hopeful ones, playful ones, casting jibes at one another.

"Oldroyd! Ye bleedin' sod! Whyn't chee wash yer stinkin' feet! Bloody hell, move tother way!"

"At's perfume, Styles!" He wiggled his toes at the burly seaman.

"Perfume, my arse!" He yanked the strawberry blonde to his feet. "Let's dangle ye over the side and rinch them beauties, eh?"

"Styles! Belay that!" bellowed Kennedy.

"But, sir!"

"Put him down!"

Begrudgingly the rating complied.

"Oldroyd, haul in a bucket aft and rinse your feet man! Get some sleep, you men!" he ordered. Kennedy peered forward at the silhouetted figure at the bow. He shuffled tiredly along the narrow deck.

Hornblower's long frame stretched out along the bowsprit, arms looped in the rigging, hands behind his head, feet tucked under another line, holding him in place on his precarious perch.

"Horatio. You look damned uncomfortable."

Not even a grunt of recognition.

*Back to that again, are we? Not paying attention. Not answering. Not here, ...except in body,* thought Kennedy.

"I'm fine, Archie. I'm making a list."

Kennedy's surprise at the reply was hidden in the darkness. "A list?"

"Yes. Help me recall. I was a doctor's assistant, a .... God!"

A rip of light streamed silently across the midnight sky.

"Did you see it?" Hornblower sat upright on the sprit, suddenly disentangled from the lines.

"I did! Brightest falling star I've ever seen!"

"There was a shooting star the night Pamela and I were married." Hornblower slipped to stand the deck and looked Archie's way. The bow lantern no longer blocked by his reclining form cast a sparse light on Kennedy. At that moment a blow of spray, and then a smaller one was heard. Hornblower wheeled around leaning over the side. Kennedy joined him.

There, inclining sideways, looking up at them was a dark eye and cheerful grin. Beside the large, gray dolphin was a calf nudging its side. The sleek skin glistened in the yellow lantern light. They floated near the schooner like overnight guests seeking refuge.

"Archie," whispered Hornblower.

"They never cease to amaze me, Horatio."

"Indeed." *More beautiful to me, than you realize, my friend,* he thought. His full lower lip lifted in denial. "It isn't true. I know it isn't."

Archie knew. The baby. Pamela's letter.

"A sign, Horatio?"

He shook his head. "It was my letter. My stupid letter. It has to be." He felt his spirit lower that she would feel the need to .... well.... it was his fault. He knew it. He just knew it. He was not sure what he would say in the next letter. To his mind, his son was still there, with her, growing, this moment. The muscles in his cheek pulled at his mouth. "I'm still going to be a father, Archie."

Kennedy lay his hand on Hornblower's shoulder. "I hope you're right, old man." Archie yawned. "I'm going to sleep, Horatio. I've got our brood quieted."

Hornblower snorted softly, hearing the snores coming from the men. They were on their way home, home to the Indy. It would do. He would be glad to see his captain. He gave the resting dolphins a last look, then turned his eyes towards the heavens. Another smaller streak flashed above them. Lowering himself to the deck, he put his hands behind his head and smiled at the lights overhead and wondered what she was doing? If she saw the same bright stars, under the same calm sky?

Speaking to the hanging sail, he whispered. "There will be a wind by morning. Be ready."

The wind foretold came with a summer storm, whipping up waves to crash over the bow, sending the little vessel down into watery valleys and up thrashing liquid hills. The passengers and crew held on topside and below, working the pumps. All were soaked to the bone. It was well it was summertime.

By late afternoon, the storm had passed. The intrepid seafarers took stock and nourished their bodies with ship biscuit and beef jerky, some small beer and an orange.

Just before dark another vessel appeared on the horizon. Hardy climbed the mast, confirming friendly colours. At four bells in the first watch, the ship was close enough to hail and reef sail. The night lights defined her stem and stern.

"What ship?"

"Ship Gandy! You?"

"Happy! Where bound?"

"Leghorn, then Naples!"

"Have you seen Queen Charlotte?"

"Aye, south of Toulon or there abouts!"

"Any enemy?"

"None in view! You?"

"None!"

"All well?"

"Aye!"

"Queen Charlotte and the squadron may be setting sail for the Atlantic!"

"Why so?"

"Rumors the combined fleets have headed that way!"

"Was Indefatigable in company with Queen Charlotte?" called Hornblower, unable to remain silent.

"Aye, when last we saw she was!"

The Indy men took heart at the news.

"Sorry, sir," apologized Hornblower.

"No, need, Mr. Hornblower," replied Captain Stockard. "I understand. I was about to ask him myself."

Hornblower nodded to Happy's captain. "Thank you, sir."

"Safe voyage, Gandy!"

"And to you, Happy!"

Both ships released sail, using opposite tacks, headed opposite directions.

"Sail on, Mr. Peeps!"

"Aye, aye, Cap'n!"

The only way to dry their clothes was to stay in them. The cool night air brought shivers and they wrapped in blankets. Everything was damp, but they were headed home. Indefatigable. They longed for her. They had to reach her before she left for the Atlantic.

Cat naps were the only rest this night. The wind held and they sailed on nor'west. The Indy men took sailing positions to keep her going, relieving her regular crew. Hornblower stood near the helm, speaking with the man on watch.

"How much farther do you reckon to south of Toulon, Mr. Peeps?"

"Day, maybe two. Depends on the wind. We've sailed this route so many times I feel I could do it with me eyes shut, sir."

"How long have you worked despatch?"

"Oh.....more'na year. Year an' eight months mid-August. Yes, sir."

"You must have been around after the Battle of the Nile."

"Oh, yes, indeed, sir! We was all amazed at THAT news! I reckon that's what keeps the Frogs hol' up in Toulon." His white teeth revealed a grin in the dim light of partly cloudy starlit skies. "Ol' Nels gave 'em what for."

Nels. Hornblower was astonished at the familiarity from the seaman. How loved was the battle worn little admiral. Little admiral? Maybe in size, but not in heart and not in action. He was a tower of strength for his nation and his men loved him, even those that could only claim brotherhood by the same service, the navy. His chest swelled with air and pride, and he felt fortunate to have the opportunity of meeting the man. Indeed, the privilege. He took note of the peace and calm the mere mention of the Admiral's name gave. He hung his head in thought. England's greatest naval hero. He met him, touched him, laughed with him, was yelled at by him. He smiled wryly. THAT would be something to tell his son.

"Admiral Nelson is as fine as they come, sir."

"Yes. There has been no sign of the combined fleets?"

"Naw, sir. They think the Frogs sailed into Toulon, and the Dagos, we got a report they ran into some trouble off Oran."

"Indeed? I had not heard this rumor."

"Well, that's the rub, ain't it, sir. Unless ye've got an eyewitness account, who can ye believe?"

"What kind of trouble? Who reported it?"

"Local fishing boats questioned by somebody on patrol. Said the Dagos ran into foul weather. It's more n'likely true, or else that Spanish Fleet never existed. Hard to imagine them two in any kind of union, sir."

"War creates strange bedfellows."

"Aye, sir. But it ain't the first time the Dagos has sided with the Frogs. Pro'ly won't be the last."

Hornblower heaved a sigh. "No. No. Probably not."

"Mr. Hornblower, sir?"

"Yes, Matthews? What is it?"

"I'll stand with Mr. Peeps, sir. Ye should get some rest. There's a right dry spot near Mr. Kennedy there, sir."

"Thank you, Matthews. I will take your offer."

Both men bade him a goodnight.

"How long ye been with him, Matthews?"

"Six years, Peeps."

"He seems a good sort, for an officer."

"Aye, that he is."

"A bit young."

"In age only."

Peeps studied the older man.

"Good one in a fight, eh?"

"Aye. Our Mr. Hornblower's got plenty o' pluck."

"What's he readin'? Orders?" Peeps and Matthews could see Hornblower standing near a lantern, peering at a paper in his hand.

"Letter from his wife." Matthews whispered.

"Wife? She ain't thrown 'im over has she?"

"HA! No, there ain't no chance in hell o' that. I know the lady. Them two was meant for each other. Might be cut too closely from the same cloth, though."

"Whadye mean?"

"Oh. She's got a mind of 'er own, that one. As much pluck as 'im, I fear."

"You make it sound as if she were sailin' the Seven Seas herself!"

"Hm."

"Is she?"

"I hope not. But she's got no one to rein her in. No one to reef her sails."

"So, he's worried?" Peeps nodded towards Hornblower.

"Aye."

"Might be she needs a firm hand, eh?" chuckled Peeps.

"I doubt that'd stop her."

"Headstrong, eh?"

"Yep. As they come." The two watched Hornblower return the note to his inner pocket and seek a resting place. "Winds picked up a bit. I'll tighten up the jib."

*****

The sun shone on the parapet above the walled hospital. Gibraltar was such a narrow peninsula, made narrower by the great rock itself, the hospital was situated very near the sea. Thick walls, topped by a walled walkway, were spotted with sentries keeping guard and watching the harbour.

"Is she there?" asked the bandaged Edrington.

"Yes, my lord."

"Dr. Blakeney, you are not to call me that when she is near."

"Yes, my...yes, Major. But she is on the parapet. No where near," he advised the blinded man.

"Yes, well....please, remember!"

"Yes, my....Major, as you wish."

"Stop calling me, my Major!"

"Yes."

The peer was as nervous as a school boy approaching the object of his desire. Blakeney squinted in the bright sunshine as he watched Mrs. Hornblower anxiously pace and gaze their direction. She more than kept her word to help the major under the conditions she specified, and Blakeney did his best to comply.

The major, whom he learned was Lord Edrington, played a similar 'name game' as Blakeney called it within his own mind. Why the two carried on the charade were reasons known only to themselves and Blakeney acquiesced to the position in which he found himself. The Earl, as he began to regain his strength, tried to pressure the doctor into telling him more about "Miss Pamela" to which he replied that if he revealed her identity to him that he would have to inform her, and that she vowed she would never return to the hospital until he, the major, was gone! To which the Earl replied.

"That's a bit of a sticky wicket. Very well, then. She is not to know I am a peer. Understood?"

What kind of foolishness made these two behave so, was beyond him, and he did not have the time to give it thought.

"Blakeney! Stop fidgeting over me!" Edrington slapped at the doctor's hands as he prodded his healing head wound. "Take me up!"

"Major! I am your doctor and I want to examine your head wound. Calm yourself, sir, or I shall have you returned to your bed!"

Edrington drummed his fingers on the wheel chair arm. "Ow!" He yelled at the doctor's prodding.

"Hm. Bruising. Bruising and scabbing. Probably good to let the sunshine at it. The brightness is not affecting your eyes, is it, ...Major?"

"No."

The doctor glanced at the set lips, the white bandaging circling his head at eye level, waiting with whatever patience a peer could sustain. Perhaps the anonymity of Mrs. Hornblower taught him a thing or two about patience.

"All right you men. Carry him up there."

Edrington was lifted, chair and all, and carried up the long incline of stone steps.

"Thank you, men," said Pamela. She moved to the back of his chair and pushed him along the walk.

"It is kind of you to come out with me today, Pamela."

"You are getting stronger, Alexander. I pray when next the doctor checks your eyes, you will find your vision completely restored."

Alexander thought about her words, knowing she planned to cease her visits once his sight returned. At last examination, he found he was able to discern light, though images were but shadows.

After a few moments he said, "If getting my sight means losing your company, I might ...prefer blindness."

The forward motion of the chair ceased. Silence. He turned his head, listening behind.

"Major Edrington, you promised me you would not speak so when next we met."

He reached out to grab her hand from the chair handle before she could move away. His grip was firm and he pulled her to his side. Raising his head towards what he reckoned would be her face, he felt the sun warming his covered eyes and saw a red brightness he had not seen for weeks. He lowered his head immediately, fearing she would see something in his features. He hoped his bowed head would be recognized as penance, not panic, panic at his sight returning, and with it, loss of his rescuer and companion.

"Forgive me for declaring my..." he searched for the right word, "...appreciation to ...my rescuer."

"Shhh!" She looked around for any listeners. "Why I said yes to visiting you again, I will never understand!" She tried to pull her hand away, but he held on tightly.

"Because you have feelings for me?"

"Let go of my hand!"

"I will."

His head was bowed, and with the promise to release her, she waited patiently. He pulled her hand to his lips and brushed them lightly over the soft skin, ending with a planted kiss, and kept his promise to let her go.

"I'm married. I love my husband." She took two steps away and looked over the wall to the shipping. *Would that the Indy were there!* she thought. *Horatio!*

"Then, why does he allow his wife ... to go on dangerous escapades?"

She rounded on him and whispered. "He does not know. He must never know."

"Secrets? From a man you love? I would not abide such behaviour if you were my wife."

"Well, I'm not! Nor will I ever be!" Why did she argue with him? What great stupidity!...folly!... was she engaged upon with her presence here? With a flourish of her skirts, she strode away towards the stairs.

"Pamela!" He stood from the chair and tried to take a step. His feet entangled in the chair foot rests and he fell onto his face, unable to catch himself with his left arm in a sling.

"Alexander!" She ran to him, pushing the chair out of the way. "Alexander! Are you all right?" She cradled him in her arms and brushed the dirt from the side of his face. "Alexander?"

A satisfied sigh emitted. "This is as I remember. Those long hours in the tossing boat. I like it when you say my name."

"You're insufferable! Answer me, you ruddy fool! Are you all right?" She blew off some dirt from the bandaging over his eyes and brushed some from his shoulder and arm.

He smiled more broadly. "When I am in your arms, all discomfort disappears."

She shook her head. "How can you speak thus to me? What kind of rogue are you?"

"I live in hope."

"What hope? I have given you no assignation? Is this how you return my kindness?"

"Why are you so upset unless I have some effect?"

"Ooo! Effect? Yes, you are making me bloody well angry!"

"Tsk. Tsk. Your navy associations are showing."

"Ooo!" She pushed him out of her arms. "Yes! Navy!"

A sentry approached. "Are ye all right, sir?" He lifted the major to his feet and helped him back into the chair. "Ma'am?" He extended his hand to help her.

She pushed the soldier's hands away, rising on her own, and brushed off her dress.

"Shall I get the doctor, sir?"

"No."

"Yes, soldier! Get the doctor! The Major needs his head examined! No! Wait! I'll get him!"

Edrington grabbed her skirt. "I do not need the doctor. Go about your business, soldier."

The man wavered and decided to follow what sounded like an order. "Yes, sir."

Edrington felt the pull from the clothing and he tugged back.

"Stop!" she whispered, mindful of the soldier nearby.

"I apologize. Please don't leave." He released the fabric. Three or four steps sounded in his ears. "Pamela?"

She leaned against the wall staring out in the harbour. A sniff. "Yes?"

Leaning, he felt for the foot rests and made sure his feet would not tangle when he stood to his six foot height. He wincingly removed his arm from the sling. In less than two long steps, he took her in his arms.

"Don't!" She tried to push him away.

"Why are you crying?"

"Someone will see us!"

He lay his arm across her shoulder and leaned towards her. "There. It should appear you are helping me stand."

With his weight towards her, she was forced to support him with her left arm under his right and across his back. He was tall and the muscles of his torso were firm beneath her touch.

She shook her head. "Major!"

His hand lightly touched her face. "Tears. Because you are angry with me?" He held her jaw and bent near.

She shook her head and he felt her hair touch his exposed forehead. Turning his head into her hair, he breathed in the aroma of the sun-heated tresses.

"Then, why?" He leaned down. The puff of breath from the word 'why' caressed her lips, and his were upon them. Her lips were soft and pleasant beneath his, but the kiss was not returned. It ceased. Fresh tears ran onto his fingers. He swallowed as he pulled away. "I apologize. I..." He took his weight and turned away, feeling the breeze from the harbour and the smell of salt air.

"Alexander....I told you. I love my husband. I never meant to do anything but help you. I certainly have no desire to hurt you."

"Nor I, you. Forgive me."

"Can we not be friends? Even if only for the next moments?"

"You must find me repugnant for my advances."

"No. I don't."

He was conflicted.

"Alexander."

He felt her hand upon his broad back and stiffened at the touch. She was still desired and he relished her touch rather than refuse it.

"I am flattered."

"Is that why you let me kiss you? To flatter yourself?" The words were tinged with anger, yet he stayed. He felt her touch upon his right shoulder. Leaning his cheek onto her hand, he said, "I should like to flatter you again." He turned slowly around and took her hand as he did so. Holding it and silently facing her, he ran his hand slowly up her arm, over her shoulder, up her neck, and cradled her jaw. She shook her head as he held it.

"I let you kiss me, because ... because I had to be sure..."

"Sure of what?"

"That I had not fallen in love with you." She began crying softly as he took her in his arms a second time.

"Pamela." He rested his cheek upon her head.

"I miss him so dreadfully! And, you're right. I am doing things he would not approve. I've lied to him." She buried her face in his chest and wept.

Holding her this way was a confirmed dream. But he would rather she were crying for love of him, not another. He sighed and thought, *If you really love her, you will not allow this suffering.*

"I know he would not approve of you putting your life in danger as you did for me. Is that what you have lied to him about?"

She shook her head, still weeping.

"You can tell me. I doubt I will ever meet the man. You won't even tell me your name. Sometimes it helps to confess our sins."

"Oh, God! I let you kiss me!"

"My dear, that is definitely NOT something you should confess, nor the reason, as you have done with me." He smiled. "But I DO thank you for telling me. My confidence is somewhat restored."

She laughed in between sobs.

"Here. Look at me. What is the great lie you have done? We both know you are not in love with me, though that is hard to believe. Come on." Even though he could not see her, he lifted her chin and used his sling to dry her face.

"I told him I...I told him I was not with child."

Edrington stopped cold. "Then? You mean you are?"

"Yes. I told him I was before he left and then I wrote him and told him I was not."

"You're....you're expecting a child?" he was incredulous. "And you are out sailing around the Mediterranean rescuing dead men?"

"Shhh! Shhh!"

"By God, I'm tempted to give you a thrashing myself! It is well I do not know him! Maybe I should do him the favor of hiding you! And those other idiots that let you go! Or do they not know your condition?"

"Shhh!"

"Pamela...." he held her shoulders tightly. "I have not said this, for I owe you my life." He pressed his lips together. "I am grateful. But you must not do anymore of these, these dangerous expeditions! It would not be difficult for me to discover your identity, especially if I told how I came to know you."

"You wouldn't! You mustn't! You will put others in danger!"

"You must promise me you will do no more, though I doubt the word of a liar!"

She pushed his hold off of her, shook her head and backed away in disbelief. Was this how Horatio would respond when he learned the truth? She turned and ran from the parapet.

"Pamela! Pamela!" He could hear her footsteps running over the rocky surface. "Damn it, Edrington! What have you done?" He yanked the bandages from his eyes and cried out at the glare of brilliance that met them. "Argh!" He bent and covered his eyes with his hands.

"Sir! Sir!"

"Get Dr. Blakeney, man!"

*****

"Ship ahoy!"

The schooner beat its way into the squadron. A frigate hailed her as she passed.

"Queen Charlotte?"

"About six miles abaft!"

Stockard saluted the man on watch. The frigate, Belladonna, was well familiar with the little despatch vessel.

"It won't be long now, Mr. Hornblower."

It was good to be at sea! Even more so now that his ship was near. He searched the horizon for her. A seventy-four rode not far to starboard. He could see the men watching the approach of Happy.

"A fine day, Mr. Hornblower!" Kennedy grinned from ear to ear. "After such a long wait, it will be good to get home."

"It will, indeed, Mr. Kennedy!"

They played with each other by using their formal names. Kennedy grinned with pleasure, feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment in returning Indefatigables second leftenant whole. A moments worry crossed his countenance. Would the ship still remind him of Pamela? Inordinately so? He sucked in a breath. *He will be all right. It will be all right.* He assured himself.

The ratings were far forward, Styles as far out on the bowsprit as possible. Hardy was half way up the mast.

Hornblower breathed deeply the salty air. He had an errand to perform before setting foot on Indefatigable. Stockard's man aloft shouted down.

"It's the Queen, sir!"

Stockard leaned out to see around the sail and rigging. "Mr. Peeps!"

"Aye, aye, Cap'n!" The man called out orders to reef in sail, slowing the approach on the massive man-of-war.

"Langley! Bring up the bags! Mr. Hornblower, I am glad to say it is you delivering this message. I've had my fill, sir. Nelson's got more balls than any man I've ever met!"

Hornblower colored at the Captain's bawdy statement about his recent commanding officer. "I'd have to agree with you, Captain Stockard. He does indeed."

Stockard clamped him on the back and laughed.

"Boat away!"

The men moved the jolly boat from deck to sea easily and began the short row over to the hove to Queen.

Hornblower grabbed a deep breath as he climbed her sides, leaving his men waiting for him in the small boat. Saluting the quarter-deck, he watched two senior officers approach him.

"Leftenant Hornblower, sir. I've letters for you from Naples."

Lord Keith's mouth was set in a frown. He glanced at Happy. "Where is he?"

Hornblower did not reply and still held the letters.

Keith's stare was rock hard. "You aren't one of Stockard's men."

"No, sir. My ship is Indefatigable, sir. Happy has brought my men and I from Naples, sir, to rejoin her."

Keith stared at the letter held in Hornblower's hand. With a wide sweeping motion, he snatched it away. "Oh. You're Pellew's man that helped deliver Foudroyant. Good. I'm glad your back. How long were you with Nelson's ship?"

He swallowed. "Over a month, sir."

"A month? Has it been that long? Come with me."

Hornblower dropped his jaw and glanced towards the side. His men were waiting for him.

Keith noted his concern.

"Captain Stone! Have his men tie off and come aboard."

The Admiral headed to the aft cabins. Captain Stone motioned with a jerk of his head for Hornblower to follow.

He dipped his chin affirmatively.

"Janes! Get Hornblower there a drink."

Keith sat in a stuffed chair with a sigh and opened Nelson's letter.

"Brandy, sir?"

Hornblower's eyebrow went up. It was not even lunch time yet! He saw the expression on the servant's face and nodded. He gulped and glanced nervously towards Lord Keith as he read and hoped he was right that the officer would not shoot the messenger.

He stood at attention, holding his glass of brandy.

At last, a long sigh released from the admiral. He shifted his eyes to Hornblower without moving his head. "Sit down, Mr. Hornblower."

"Yes, sir." He found a stiff backed chair and sat, still in attention stance.

"Are you going to drink that or just hold it?"

"I..."

"Take a drink. Then, I want you to tell me WHY you think the wishes of the King and Queen of the Two Sicilies are more important than the agent of His Majesty King George!" His voice was steady but pinched, his eyes steel, and his face a mask of command.

"Yes, sir." Hornblower began by sipping at the brandy, keeping the lip of the glass to his. He drank more quickly seeing Keith's eyes did not waiver. He tossed the remaining brandy back in a gulp. "Thank you, sir." He passed the glass to the servant.

"What the blazes is going on in Naples, Mr. Hornblower?"

How would he phrase his answer? What would he say to the Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet? Nelson's commanding officer. The officer Nelson disobeyed for the fourth time...that he KNEW of. Taking a final swallow and a breath, he fixed his eyes on Lord Keith's.

"War, sir."

"War? Whose war?"

"The French made incursions as far south as Naples, sir. The country is near in civil war. It is chaos. Chaos and destruction."

"And what are we doing there, sir?"

"Helping to restore order, sir."

Keith sighed. "Is it the job of the British Navy to play policeman for a foreign court?"

Hornblower stared at the carpet at the Admiral's feet. "It is not for me to judge, sir."

"Did you feel our presence was warranted, Mr. Hornblower?"

"Are you asking my opinion, Admiral?"

"Yes, I am."

"From accounts, sir, it seemed the French Army was moving south into the boot of Italy, sir. Should they conquer the seaside town of Naples and keep it, they would control her forts and thereby her sea batteries. It could give safe passage for her ships should she desire to sail south for Egypt, sir. The French already hold Valetta on Malta. If they gained Naples a formidable line of defense could be established."

"Are these views yours or Nelson's?"

"They are mine, sir. The Admiral did not discuss his motives, nor his plans, with me, sir."

"Malta. Did Happy go to Malta?"

"Yes, sir."

"And?"

"Captain Ball and his squadron seem to keep the French ships in check. The blockade holds, sir."

"Hm." He eyed the young leftenant. "That will be all, Leftenant Hornblower. Check with Master Crimmons. He can give you a rough plot for Indefatigable."

"Yes, sir."

"Hornblower."

"Sir?"

"Tell Captain Pellew to expect a meeting soon."

"Aye, aye sir."

Hornblower was anxious to exit this ship. His eyes went wide as he caught Styles features. Exhaling, he motioned with a nod of his head for them to go overside.

"Master Crimmons?"

"Here ye go, sir."

"What's this?"

"Indy's plot points."

"Thank you." He saluted the ensign, and descended to the waiting boat.

"Row for Happy."

 

*****

He sat waiting in the darkened room.

"Here."

A glass of water.

"Thank you." He took a sip. The person sitting before him appeared to be in his mid to late thirties. He wore glasses and in the dimness of the room he could not quite tell the eye color. His hair was dark. The face did not look particularly happy and the short answers and mild disgust of his voice told him this was his doctor. But for the darkness, he could see him quite well. He blinked as he stared at the person and a tear rolled down his cheek. He wiped it away. "How long is this damned tearing going to go on?"

"Be glad for those tears, my lord. They will help heal your eyes more than anything I can do for you. At least yours are a physical cause," the disgust still evident in his voice.

"Damn it! I must speak to her!"

"I think you've said enough."

"What did she tell you?"

"That she would not be back. That she was sorry."

"Is that all?"

The doctor exhaled and replied accusingly, "Her face said more than her voice."

Edrington stared at the doctor. His heart skipped a beat. Her face. He knew it only by touch. He broke eye contact and stared at the floor. "What does she look like?"

The doctor laughed. "You think I would tell you? She meant you only good! I do not know what you said to her, but.....I will tell you nothing, sir, nothing."

"My words were unkind. I confess it. But it was out of fear for her. Don't you see, I want to apologize to her. I spoke without thinking. Please, Dr. Blakeney. Won't you help me?"

"What fears could you have for her?"

"As you will not reveal her identity to me, I cannot reveal this to you. I am as sworn to silence as you. Please?"

"The return of your sight nullifies any possibility of meeting your request."

"But she does not know that."

"I cannot trust you where she is concerned, my lord."

"Can you not see my contrition? I spoke in haste! Without thinking! Said something that hurt her! I did not mean to say it. Doctor, have you not ever uttered words you would wish to take back? I ....beg...you. Please?"

Another tear ran down his face and he wiped it away.

"That is a good effect you have going for you."

Edrington looked at the wetness on his palm. He turned away from the doctor and bowed his head.

"I am in love with her."

Silence.

"She is married, major."

"I know."

The doctor shook his head. "There are reports of some under the care of a doctor that mistake gratitude for ... love.... You will get over her." He softened towards the major and put his hand on his shoulder. "Write her a letter. I will see that she gets it. That is the most I can do for you, sir."

"Would you ask her to see me?"

"You are a persistent man, Major!"

"My lord, if you please."

"My lord," bowed the doctor. "Now, what about your eyes?"

*****

Pamela sat in the recesses of the chapel. She wanted to sink into the darkness. Slouching down, she let the wooden bench support her head. She sniffed and wiped her face.

"Lord, what am I to do?" she whispered. "I've lied to him! What am I to do?"
Tears ran down the side of her face. She leaned over to wipe them with her dress fabric. Spreading the skirt over the pew, she stretched out upon it, tucking her knees up under the fullness. "Horatio! Forgive me, my love!" Turning into the cloth, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.

When she awoke, the church windows were dim from the angle of the sun. She sat up. The chapel remained empty. She wiped her mouth, her face, and brushed her hair from her face, running her fingers over it to smooth any muss. Rising from the pew, she side stepped her way out. It was so quiet. Before she left the sanctuary, she gave a final glance over her shoulder to the altar, and whispered a prayer. "Watch over him. Help him forgive me."

Her stomach told her she was hungry. Maria and Mr. Carden would wonder where she was. Sleep dimmed self accusations, leaving her dazed and without thought, except that of returning home. She began the long walk. Coming upon the square, the people went about their normal everyday business, oblivious to the torment she suffered with her own feelings of guilt.

"Pamela! By God! Pamela Dandridge!"

She blinked and looked at the man addressing her. The voice was familiar. "Uncle Daniel?" She swallowed. She did not like her uncle and he was the last person she expected to see.

"You ARE alive! I've been looking for you for days! Hoskins said you were here, but did not know where you were staying. What is wrong? I know you miss your father. Speak child."

"I....I'm hungry, Uncle." There was no fight in her. Normally the mere presence of this man brought a negative reaction, but she was worn out from guilt, hungry for lack of food, and no matter how she felt about him personally, he was her father's brother.

He took her arm. "Come with me and I will get you some food. What on earth are you doing wondering around without .... Never mind. Let us get you something to eat. I want to hear ...everything. Come, child."