An American Encounter, Part Three
by Skihee

Ch 22 Haslemere, Home...


The images of Haslemere remained unchanged. Time passed, but the place of his childhood was like a familiar book with the same worn watercolour pages, caught forever, unalterable. The clipping trot of the carriage horses and the rolling wheels and the creaking frame were the only sounds. He and his father fell into the old familiar pattern, each enmeshed in private thoughts, sharing a faint smile when eyes met. It was comfortable, not feeling the pressure to speak, or make decisions, familiar, basic, foundational, peace, no demands.

There was no further need to try to look back either. The sea was miles behind. The saltwater in his veins stopped its tossing, calming, allowing a respite of a home harbour. God, he did not think he would miss the sea so horribly, but the memory of its taste was resting on his tongue. Italy...yes. It was there the last time he felt this yearning, but now he knew what it was, and he comforted his psyche with the knowledge he would return, and return better. That was the purpose of this separation, was it not?

Home...without her... the emptiness. Shifting his eyes, he glimpsed his father, draped in the warm woolen coach blanket, swathed in a winter coat, the collar high around his ears. How does he survive... the loss...thirteen years? Thirteen years. Turning his head to gaze out the window, his eyes rose to the tops of the trees and beyond to bright clouded grey skies. No wind in those trees... becalmed.

Leaning his head back against the padded leather cushion of the carriage interior, Horatio looked down his nose, observing his father. He was older, greyer, tireder, though that might be the strain brought by his son's presence and condition. Resolving to do his best, he held to a frail hope of never repeating what occurred his first night back with his da. Weighting his father with his injuries did not sit well. Fighting harder to regain his equilibrium was the goal, for Hubbell's sake, for his own, for Pamela and their unborn child... and for the service, for Pellew, for Indefatigable. If he could but live up to his ship's name...but...she was injured, too.

Lowering his eyes to the cloak he wore, he did not need to see the ragged uniform beneath that mirrored his own feeble condition. The buttons were shiny, though not as bright as they once were. Was his reasoning as dull? Setting his elbow against the closed window base, he started to rub his forehead, but fearing his father would think his head ached, he took the curl laying there and rubbed it between his fingers instead. Eyes closed, he recalled Pamela pinching the ringlet and how her gentle tugs sent chills through his body.

**Pamela, Pamela, my Pamela. Your name is a sigh. How I wish you were here. You would be such a tonic, a healing potion, my lady.** He could see her huddled into the hollow of his shoulder, her deep brown eyes seeking his, the beam of love forming a bridge between them that he crossed to set his lips upon hers. The warmth and velvet softness...**Stop it, Horatio,** he told himself. **I love her,** he told the argument in his head wistfully. **I know,** came the sad reply. The image of the painting rested behind his eyelids.

A jostle and a familiar turn onto the lane and the cottage came into view. Horatio ducked and looked out the window to his right. A memory of his mother dressed in a heather blue frock with small white flowers, a straw hat upon her head, a brilliant smile and dancing eyes, a basket of bluebells resting on her arm, and her watching him as he neared, walking home from the last day of school at the beginning of summer. Many and many a day, he had seen her thus and the image was forever stamped in the library of his mind, cataloged, and called to the fore when he approached the home from this direction. A sad smile kissed his lips as he recalled her waving to him, ready to ask about his day, what he learned, how his mates were. He had a friend or two back then, it seemed. It was after, that he closed himself off, an invalid of sorts, having had a part of him cut away. A stroke of his curls, her hand under his chin lifting his countenance to hers, he recalled the immense love he held then, and still carried, for his mother.

Saddened with the loss, he leaned against the cushion, then suddenly remembered his father sat across from him, and he met his gaze, too late to hide the melancholy expression.

Hubbell leaned forward and patted him on the knee. "I am glad you are home for a while, son, despite the reasons."

Horatio smiled wryly and sadly. "Memories, father," looking back through the window, "memories." Weariness came on him heavily. Pamela, his mother, his father's health, his own wounded condition, it all seemed like a mountain to climb and he was at the base, not to mention his abandoned duty.

Hubbell rested a hand on Horatio's knee. "One day at a time, Horatio."

How did he know? Was it written on his features? Or, was it the father's innate ability to know the son? Whatever the answer, his father was right. He could not afford to let his mind become overwhelmed with so many details. These minutia were not like sailing a ship into battle, analytical and calculating. These were emotionally tied to his very foundation, upon which those other thoughts rested and maneuvered. It either had to be repaired or the connection needed to be ... cut. The thought sent a tremor through his being. **Not cut,** he thought desperately, **not cut.**

"Horatio."

His father's tone sliced its way into his thoughts.

"Sir?"

Hubbell sighed and slowly shook his head. "Horatio. It is not something we are used to, is it, son? I can guess some of your thoughts, but ... Dr. Sebastian is right. This wound you are carrying needs air to heal."

"Yes, sir." He stared out the window and worried. His father suffered a stroke. What if his problems brought on another? Or worse? Looking shyly at his father, he stated, "I will try." He moistened his lips and looked through the window. "Mother used to wait for me to come home from school, once I was old enough to walk alone."

Hubbell smiled softly. "She loved you greatly." If only he had come home sooner from tending the sick on the village outskirts, Louisa might have lived. So long ago, so long ago, he had to let it go, for Horatio's sake, if not his own. His view raised to meet his son's steady gaze, the guilt, the old blame they both knew so well, for Louisa's death, Horatio for bringing sickness into the house; Hubbell for doing his job for others too well.

"She loved you, too, Father," assured Horatio. "And so do I, sir," he added. That was easier than saying the 'love' word in relation to himself and his father. He supposed it was well that he had said it that first night. He was not sure he would ever be able to put those words together again, despite all Pamela's urging or his father's easy acceptance. He hoped it would be easier to tell their child. **Surely it will be,** and despite his efforts not to think it, he added, **if I ever get the chance.**

The horses were reined to a stop. Climbing out of the carriage onto the dirt road, Horatio turned to take his father's elbow to steady him down from the cab.

"All right, sir?" asked Horatio.

"Yes."

With a nod, Horatio stepped to the rear of the carriage to assist the footman in lowering his sea chest from the boot. Horatio put a coin in the man's hand. "Be sure to thank Lord Edrington again for the carriage."

"Will do, sir," and the man saluted and climbed beside the driver.

"Dr. Hornblower! Mr. Horatio! Welcome home, sirs! Let me get that, Mr. Horatio," said Donald Grayson with a wrinkled grin. He was older than his father by a few years, but quite spry and wiry.

"I would appreciate a hand, Mr. Grayson, thank you."

"Ooo, not so formal with me, sir. Donald will do," said the servant.

Dr. Hornblower passed through the iron gate of the low stone wall, up the graveled path to the stoop, followed by Donald and Horatio with the chest. A woman with pink hands holding her pink face stood in the doorway, hair done up in a neat gray roll that framed the visage, topped with a muslin cap. A musky green shawl draped her shoulders over a dark green high necked frock.

"Dr. Hornblower, welcome home," smiled Mrs. Grayson. "Are you hungry after that long ride from Portsmouth, sir? I can do an afternoon tea in a jiffy. Ah, Mr. Horatio, it is good to see you again."

"And you as well, Mrs. Grayson," smiled Horatio amicably.

"A nice cup of tea and some of your scones would be most welcome, Abby," agreed Hubbell.

"Mr. Horatio, would you like something more substantial? You look thin as a scarecrow!" she commented, taking the discarded cloak, and noticing how worn his uniform appeared.

"One of your buttered butties might be nice, ma'am," he smiled.

She chortled gaily. "You do remember the oddest things. I've a bit of stew I could heat for you before dinner."

"Stew? You are making my mouth water, Abby. Fix us both a bowl, if you please. Are you doing the usual for dinner this evening?"

"Yes, sir. I've just popped the lamb into the oven," she nodded. With twinkling eyes, she looked at Horatio. "It's roasting with new potatoes, carrots, onions, and parsnips. I've some lovely green beans from the grocer's greenhouse, some salad greens, and just for you, Mr. Horatio... a trifle."

"A trifle? Is it dead drunk?" grinned Horatio.

"Oh, coo, sir, ye'll never let me live that down. I think it's better with double the brandy," she grinned.

"It was... and is," he agreed with a raised eyebrow. "I think it must be a permanent addition to the recipe."

She accepted the coat from Hubbell. "I'll have that tea for you straight away. Donald, get that case upstairs, then, come get a jug of hot water for Mr. Horatio. I know you will want to get settled in, sir. If you have anything needs mending, save it out for me."

Abby Grayson took over part of Horatio's care, and she was part of the reason he became closer to his dad, not that she was too much of a tyrant, but she had her own ideas about how boys should be raised, having two grown sons of her own.

"Thank you, Mrs. Grayson."

"Oh posh, dear boy, call me Miss Abby as you used," she said waving a hand.

"Aye, Abby, I've already had to correct him on that one," said Donald. "This chest don't weigh much, Mr. Horatio," commented Donald.

The Grayson's had come to live with him and his father when he was near twelve years of age. His father had brought Donald back from the brink of death, and having no money to pay, Mrs. Grayson began cooking and cleaning for them. He remembered her being appalled at the state of their living conditions and within six months the couple had moved in with them.

Passing through the bedroom door opening, Donald placed the end of the sea chest against the wall next to the washstand.

Horatio sighed from the effort of carrying it and stared around his old room.

"I'll get ye that hot water, young master."

"Thank you, Donald."

The slant ceiling room was clean, simple, the narrow bed neatly made with a down comforter of homemade quilting, his mother's handiwork. He sat down on the bed and traced the shape of one of the pieces sewn into the coverlet.

//////////"Do you like the colors, sweetheart?" she asked as she tossed the blanket out over his bed, then, smoothed it.

"I do, mother. I always liked this material," he said pointing at the blue heather fabric with the white flowers. "It's my favorite dress of yours."

"Thank you, my darling. This has been a labor of love for you, Horatio. Whenever you feel its weight, think of my arms around you."

She was hugging him now. He turned his face up to look into hers, and she smoothed back his curls.

"I love you, mother." He pressed his cheek into her middle and hugged her tightly.

"I love you, my son, my Horatio. I always will."/////////

Heavy steps on the stairs alerted him to Donald's approach. Standing, he unbuttoned the jacket he wore as the servant appeared in the open doorway and smiled.

"Here's yer water, sir."

"Thank you, Donald. Donald."

"Sir?"

"Is... is my father ... I mean, I know about the stroke. Was it bad?"

"Oh, sir," said Donald quietly. "He gave us a right scare, he did." Catching a breath, Donald glimpsed Horatio then averted his eyes. "We've cared for him as best we could. He's come back from it well, except for the need of that cane."

"I wish you had written to tell me," admonished Horatio softly.

"Me and Abby discussed it, but your da overheard us, and insisted you were not to be troubled."

Horatio frowned unhappily. "I know you mean to obey him, Donald, but should ... should anything else occur, I insist you inform me immediately. Please. In this regard, I ask you to disobey any such commands from my father," he pleaded earnestly.

"All right, sir," he said seriously, head bowed. "All right. Is there anything else I can get you, sir?"

"No, thank you, Donald."

"I'll let you know when the tea is prepared, sir."

"Thank you. And... thank you for caring for him when he was ill."

"Warn't nothing else to be done, sir. He's done it fer us time and again."

Alone once more, he closed the door and removed his coat. Recalling Abby Grayson's swift assessment of his thin physique, he pondered the patches on his coat and frowned, knowing the housekeeper must have noticed. He was not much of a seamstress.

///////"Do you like to sew, Mother?"

A smile appeared immediately upon his mother's lips. "Yes, I do, Horatio. There is something satisfying in creating ones own clothing. Why do you ask?"

Horatio shrugged. "Will Damon's mother buys her clothes ready made at Mrs. Coulson's store."

"Does she? Well, she is missing out on a very congenial craft."

"If you could, would you buy your clothes from Mrs. Coulson, Mother?"

She lay down the fabric and looked at her son. "I have purchased something from Mrs. Coulson, Horatio, my Christmas frock. It was a present from your father."

"But... I mean ... all the time.... would you?"

"All the time? You mean never sew another thing?"

He nodded doubtfully. "I guess so."

"No, not all the time. I enjoy sewing. Do you not like my dresses?"

"N..no, Mother! I mean, yes...I love your dresses. I was just asking."

"Horatio, come here." She held out her hand and as he neared, she pulled him gently next to her lap, put her hands on his shoulders, and studied his eyes, making him somewhat uneasy. "Are you ashamed of me?"

"No, Mother!" he said anxiously, "No!"

"Are you ashamed of your father?"

He bowed his head and licked his lips. "No."

"Horatio, your father has a most admirable profession." She lifted his chin lightly and sought his eyes. "He helps to heal the sick."

"Yes, Mother, I know." But there was a doubt in his voice and his mother heard it.

"Horatio. The poor need physicians as much or more as the wealthy."

"Yes, I know."

She hugged him suddenly. "Do not be ashamed of your father, Horatio. God will reward him with far more than tangible things. He has given us you."//////

God. That jolted him back to the present. His mother had been the heart of their little home and her faith in God was strong. They never missed a day of church as long as she was living. When his father was off on a call, his mother and he still went to Sunday services. Pamela has a strong faith in God as well. Grabbing his forehead, he thought **Why was I given a woman to marry with such a faith?** His shoulders sagged. **Mother, Mother, I miss you. I will always miss you. You and Pamela are so much alike. I think the two of you would have liked each other.**

Laying the coat on the bed, he stepped to the washstand and poured water into the ceramic basin decorated with bluebells. His eyebrows rose wistfully. They were his mother's favorite flower. Dipping both hands into the dish, he splashed the warm water onto his face.

//////////"Come on! Come on! Lift your feet high!" His mother laughed, one hand hiking up the side of her dress, and the other clutching his hand. They ran laughing through the field of bluebells growing wild in the spring grass. The skirt of the cream muslin she wore cut a swath through the foliage, her legs pressing against the fabric the faster she ran. She screamed happily and tumbled to the ground, sinking below the tumult of green and dusty blue and sweet scent of the flowers, losing hold of his hand.

He ran back to where she lay and knelt panting beside her. "Are you all right, Mother?"

Her chest was heaving for air and the bright sun made her squint. "A day like this lasts forever, Horatio!"//////////

He ran the towel under his chin. **You are right, Mother. It does last forever. I shall never forget it.** The memories were too much. He needed the company of others to stop them. Pulling the frayed coat back on, he exited the room, leaving the sea chest to be unpacked another time.

The tea, stew, buttered bread, and scones were some of the best food he'd eaten since landing, despite the fare consumed at the Rose and Thorn. Afterwards, sitting in one of the stuffed chairs in his father's study, a few embers burning in the fireplace, Horatio fell asleep, recalling the time spent in Portsmouth.

Edrington hosted them for three days while navy hospital paperwork kept them from leaving. Sebastian bordered on becoming irate, and other than the doctor's strict nature concerning himself, Hornblower had never seen the doctor so adamantly displeased with the behavior of fellow officers.

Edrington's family, learning by post he was on British soil, sent a coach for him, the one loaned for their journey to Haslemere. Edrington gave an excuse about the horses needing a respite, that the short trip to Haslemere would give them a breather, and Bentley concurred, though it seemed odd for him to do so. Hornblower did not know much about the animals and doubted the verity of the statements, but acquiesced, yet again, to the major's insistence, for his father's sake if nothing else, since Edrington's coach would deliver them to their doorstep.

His father seemed amused by Edrington's attentions. On the pretext of giving another opinion on the state of the peer's wounds, Hubbell spent an afternoon with the man chatting about the friendship between the lord and his son, and Edrington's connection to his daughter-in-law, Horatio learned later.

Horatio did not know what explanation Edrington was telling his own mother, Lady Edrington, for delaying his return, but Horatio did know the peer had purchased a goodly number of Christmas presents. Being a port town, the major seemed to know who to ask to arrange every in and out of finding some exotic gifts. Hornblower finally put his foot down as to spending any further money on him, his father, Pamela, or the unborn child, telling Alexander he would take himself and his father out to Indefatigable to stay if he spent another farthing. Edrington smirked smugly with that irritating lip of his and made Hornblower wonder if he had won a battle or just been out maneuvered.

Every day Horatio had gone to stare at Indefatigable, seeing nothing was being done to effect her repair. It made him frown that she was left waiting, but also, made him feel easier about leaving Portsmouth, if there was such a thing.

The chimes of the mantel clock tinged musically, meshing into a brief dream of ship's bells, and Hornblower awoke feeling the lap blanket cover him and the ottoman beneath his feet. His mouth was dry as he smacked it closed. The edge of the coverlet was damp where saliva had seeped from his mouth. Wiping his chin, he sat up in the chair then rose to his feet. None of the candles were lit and only an orange ember of light came from the fireplace. The room was cool but not cold. He stepped nearer to the fireplace mantel and gazed at the painting of his mother. The pretty face was content, calm, and the eyes held a flicker of something...trust, joy? He was home. It had not been a dream. The smell of roasting lamb wafted in as the door opened and framed Mrs. Grayson.

"Ah. You've waked on your own, sir. Dinner won't be long. As soon as your father returns, I will put it on the table."

"Returns? Where has he gone?" asked Horatio worriedly.

"Oh, Mrs. Barber's boy has had a croup these past days. Many a villager prefers your da to the new man. Though sometimes I think it is your da's ... forgive me, Mr. Horatio, what your da does as a doctor is none of my business."

Horatio could guess what that meant. His father was still accepting payment in chicken eggs and woven flax.

"When did he leave? How long has he been gone?" Horatio strode to the hallway, passed the housekeeper, and grabbed his cape from the closet peg.

The front door opened and cold air entered along with the cloaked figure, a case in hand.

"Father! I was just about to come looking for you."

"Why? What's the problem?"

"No problem, sir, but that you are out in this weather."

Hubbell smiled. "Do not worry about me, Horatio."

"I will. Father..."

"Abby, am I late for dinner?"

"No, sir, but I will begin to set it out."

"Give me a chance to wash."

"Yes, sir," she called, walking down the hallway towards the corridor to the kitchen.

"Horatio, your concern is touching. Hang that for me," he said handing over his greatcoat to his son. "I'm going to wash up." He trundled off to the bedroom at the back of the hallway. Horatio followed and stood in the door, not entering, not ready to face any memories this room might throw at him, watching his father.

Drying his face and hands, Hubbell asked, "Did you have a good nap?"

"Yes, sir," he answered irritated with himself for sleeping when his da was out on house calls.

"Good. Rest is what you need."

"And you, too, sir."

Hubbell chuckled. "Are you a physician now? I thought you despised my profession."

"I never said that, Father," defended Horatio.

"Maybe not with words."

"You mean because I did not choose outright to become a doctor?" Horatio clamped his mouth closed. He was not looking for an argument. In fact, that was the last thing he wanted.

"Forgive me, Horatio. It was a poor choice of words. We both knew doctoring was not for you, did we not?"

Horatio hung his head. "Father..." he hesitated, and his father drew near. "Father, ..." Hubbell waited. "In the last six months there were times when there was nothing I could do for my men but what I learned from you."

Hubbell clasped Horatio's upper arm.

"My son..." he studied Horatio's eyes and saw no falsehood, "that is the best Christmas gift I have ever received."

Before he knew what he was doing, Horatio had enveloped his father in an embrace, there in the darkness of the doorway. He had not been given a chance to tell his mother good-bye. His emotions were on edge, and part of him was growing angry with the outburst, but the other part of him would not let him let his father go. He thought of Pamela and how she had lost her father to an assassin, and here was his own father, nearly taken from him without his knowledge... like his mother. She became ill while Horatio was at the peak of the fever, and while his young body fought for life, she died. He leaned his head against his father's.

Hubbell returned the lingering clasp. "What is it, son?"

"Forgive me, sir," said Horatio, releasing him and turning away, embarrassed.

"There is nothing to forgive, Horatio." Hubbell stepped closer behind his son. "You have faced death on a personal level... again. It is inevitable that in life you will see death." Hubbell squeezed Horatio's shoulder before he left him.

Horatio turned, but his father was on his way to the dining room and the opportunity for further conversation in the cover of darkness was ended.

After dinner, in the warmth and golden glow of his father's study, Horatio waited for an opportunity and the courage to broach the subject earlier, but it did not come. His father announced his weariness, inquired if Horatio needed for anything, and he could not tell his father he wanted to talk.

Assured the embers in the fireplace would die safely, Horatio blew out the three candle candelabra, and picked up the single one. Everyone had retired but him. He tread the stairs as lightly as he could, but the fifth step up had squeaked since ever he could remember. He made a mental note to step over it next time.

His bedroom was not overly cold. but there was no fireplace in it. Pulling the chair next to the sea chest he opened the lid and began to unpack. Placing Pamela's picture on the washstand, he gazed at it for moments, sighed, then, went back to taking out his few possessions to place into the drawers of the washstand dresser, tossing the nightshirt onto the bed. Disrobing, he pulled on the night clothes, and slipped under the clean, crisp, white sheets and heavy down comforter, feeling the cold feathered blanket as heavy as he remembered. He brushed his feet rapidly against the cold sheets, the friction warming them, then, hunched the blanket next to his ears, and closed his eyes. He opened them, again, realizing he had not blown out the candle. Throwing back the covers, he bounded from bed, grabbed Pamela's portrait and set it on the table next to his bed. A breath for the candle, and he was back beneath the heavy coverlet, staring into the darkness to where the picture sat, wishing impossibilities about his wife.

No one woke him the next morning. The bed was as he remembered, soft, and the down blanket kept him warm. Rolling onto his back, he stared at the white-washed ceiling overhead, no monkeys to be seen. **What time is it?** Laying and listening, there was nothing to hear. His door was closed, there were no watch bells sounding in Haslemere. A watch, he needed his pocket watch. Lifting his head, he did not see the topcoat anywhere. **Mrs. Grayson. Miss Abby! Oh, Lord! Pamela's letters!** Jumping out of bed, he swept the room quickly. His coat was gone.

Opening the door, he ran thumping down the stars, barefoot, hair long and loose on his shoulders, squeaking the fifth step, in his frilled night-shirt. Where was she? Not in the dining room, the table was clear of any sign of a meal. What time was it? He opened the door to his father's study.

His father looked up from reading, startled at first, removed the pipe from between his lips, and then grinned. "Good morning, Horatio, well nearly afternoon."

"Good morning, Father. Where is Mrs. Grayson? I mean, Miss Abby? Has she taken my uniform jacket?"

"I believe she did say something about doing a better.... Horatio?" His son was gone from the doorway. Rising, his father said in a normal voice knowing he would not be heard, "Son, you ought to have some proper clothes on, and some shoes." Reaching the doorway, he saw the tail of Horatio's nightclothes disappear into the kitchen corridor.

"Miss Abby, do you have my uniform jacket?" asked Horatio, panicked.

The woman had her back to him and was stirring a pot. "I do, Mr. Horatio, it's an awful mending job you've..." turning to address him, she stopped speaking.

Horatio looked down at himself and pulled both sides of his nightshirt across his chest. "Forgive me, madam, but where is my jacket?"

"It's in the sewing room upstairs."

He turned to leave, but his father was behind him in his way.

"But what you want aren't with it," added Miss Abby.

He faced her. "Wh....what?"

"The things that were in the pockets I left in the top drawer of the wash stand."

"Oh. Thank you," he said meekly. "You didn't..." he blushed, "I mean..."

"I did not," she was offended. "I don't generally pry into the affairs of others."

"Affairs? I..." He looked at his father nervously. No, she did not mean it that way. Why was his father smiling at him?

"I hope you don't run around Indefatigable dressed that way," teased his da.

"Father," cheeks dimpling in embarrassment.

"Get up stairs and get some clothes on, child, for heaven's sake!" ordered the housekeeper.

"Yes, ma'am."

"I'll be right behind you with a jug of hot water." She sat the pitcher on the counter and filled it. "With those bare feet, Doctor, he is going to catch his death of cold! The very idea running around in his night shift," she muttered. "Excuse me, sir."

Dr. Hornblower stuck his pipe back between his teeth and grinned. These were sounds of days gone by and he was relishing the moment.

Horatio bounded up the stairs two at a time and felt the draft up his nightshirt. Back in his room, he pulled open the drawer, saw the two letters in tact, and breathed a sigh of relief. Miss Abby might die of apoplexy if she ever read those letters. He would have to do something to secure them while he was here.

He could hear her muttering as she climbed the stairs and then stood in the doorway. He took the jug from her hand.

"Thank you, Miss Abby," he smiled, and placed the container on the stand.

Mrs. Grayson's brow furrowed and her hands were on her hips. The smile on Horatio's face evaporated. She had something to say.

"I apologize for not dressing before coming downstairs. It will not happen again."

"I've seen more in my time than you've got to show, Mr. Horatio," indicating his clothing, "though running around half naked in these temperatures, for any reason, is foolhardy." She paused and lifted her nose a little higher. "Dr. Hornblower told us this morning that you were married."

"Yes,... yes, I am," he admitted, becoming curious of the tone he heard in her voice and the sudden turn in the conversation.

"Is that her?" she motioned towards the portrait on the night stand, her voice strangely affected.

"Yes. Her name is Pamela."

"She's a pretty little thing." Her eyes avoided him.

"Thank you, Miss Abby." He recognized it now. She was offended, hurt, maybe the better word, that he had not told them sooner about the marriage.

"Dr. Hornblower says you've been wed for at least six months and that you are to be a father."

Her tone was flighty and disinterested but her questions were not. Mrs. Grayson averted her eyes.

"Yes, yes, that's true."

"But you did not bother to tell your father until now?"

"Well, I... It was wrong of me," he confessed.

She was tearing up and her head was unsteady. "I know I am not your mother and I would never begin to try to take her place. Would you have hidden this marriage from her?" she accused. "Does Miss Pamela even know we exist? Or, aren't we good enough for her?" She sniffed.

"No," he emphasized, "I mean, yes. Miss Abby..."

"I've said my piece. Lunch will be ready in thirty minutes."

"Yes, ma'am," seemed the most prudent answer. He had no means of handling the tears of Abby Grayson, but he was not trying to hide his marriage. Women, it appeared, saw things differently from men. Pamela knew about his father, but he did not think he had ever mentioned the Graysons... maybe he had, he could not recall.

She closed the door behind her, but before she did, he heard another sniff and saw the apron lifted to wipe her cheeks.

He should have written. He owed the Graysons much; they had taken care of his father. Another worry, another problem, another wrinkle to be smoothed.

He washed and shaved and dressed and tucked Pamela's letters into his pocket. There was nothing else to put on but his dress uniform, and even it was looking the worse for wear, as Alexander so aptly noted that day at the Admiralty.

He was downstairs early and peeked in the dining room to be sure nothing was set for lunch. Stepping quietly down the kitchen corridor to keep his shoes from sounding, he stood silently and watched the housekeeper gathering the dishes for the meal. She must have caught him out of the corner of her eye, for she gasped and stared, starting with his feet. Black leather boots rising nearly to his knee, off-white breeches, blue woolen coat with white facings and gold buttons, waistcoat, neckerchief, hair tied back with a black ribbon, a leftenant in His Majesty's Navy, if ever there was one. A hand rose to cover her open mouth.

He glanced down, self-consciously, checking to see nothing was amiss. Satisfied, it was something other than his clothing causing her astonished countenance, he spoke.

"I was not hiding my marriage, Miss Abby. I ... do not normally give excuses for my failings, but ... you are a woman and not my captain," he said softly. "I let myself get distracted...by..." the war he wanted to say, but instead waved a hand in the air. "Pamela knows about father, and you, if not specifically by name, at least that you are with him."

Her eyes glistened with moisture and her cheeks and the tip of her nose pinked.

He moistened his lips and took a step closer to her. This was not the desired effect. "Miss Abby, please,... don't cry," he said gently.

"Oh, Mr. Horatio. You don't know how we've worried about you. Not hearing for so long. The only solace we had was that Captain Pellew had not written. When that letter came,... I was afraid to give it to your da."

He did not recall taking the final step to pull the old housekeeper to him, but he was holding her, and she was sobbing jerkily onto his dress uniform.

"Forgive my thoughtlessness, Miss Abby. I beg you."

Sniffing briefly, she said, "It is good to have you home, sir," stepping back and wiping her cheeks. "You've become a man for sure and a handsome one, at that. You fair take my breath away. It's no wonder that Miss Pamela married you." She curled her bottom lip inside her mouth, somewhat wide-eyed, then, patted his coat front. "I've made your uniform wet."

"It is not the first time it has been wet. I AM usually at sea."

That brought a smile to her face and she laughed lightly. She lay her palm on his cheek. "You are a good son, Horatio. Your mother is right."

He fluttered his eyes. Mrs. Grayson had never met his mother. Why was she speaking in present terms? But he let it go and accounted it to her age.

"Go speak to your father, now." She pulled his arm to turn him out. "You've no business being in my kitchen," pushing against his back. "I'll let you know as soon as I have food on the table. Get on with you, now. You missed breakfast. It's lunch you'll be getting. Was your da said to let you sleep."

Walking out into the hallway, he breathed deeply and blew air through his lips. This was an unexpected battle, of sorts, but he felt he had won, something was accomplished, certain sure. He was on a firm footing with his father's housekeeper. He nodded, pleased with himself.

Lunch came and went and his father decided to rest having been up since before dawn. Horatio learned his father had already been out that morning to check on Billy Barber, the boy with croup, and had made another house call to a woman in a family way. The lady was due Christmas day, it would be her first. His father would not give any details but that he was watching her closely. Horatio did not press the subject. He did not need to feed his worry for Pamela with the problem pregnancy of someone else. Just hearing the possibility of a difficulty set a hand tapping his thigh and brought the need to pace, which he did for a quarter hour before retrieving his writing box from upstairs.

Seated at the desk by the window, the winter light illuminating the room, Horatio leaned back in the wooden chair and stretched his legs out crossing his booted ankles. The box of paper Pamela sent him via Archie last summer sat open on the table. All of the paper in hand, he shifted sheets from the back and read over the five letters he started to her, frowned over one he found started to his father, and then tapped his lower lip, pondering which letter to complete. He skimmed the five once more, then, chose one. Laying it on the table, he leaned over it and read what was there.

 

 

 

Pamela, my wife,

Wife. I am astonished I have a wife, but that she is you makes it all the more amazing. I sometimes feel I must pinch myself. I am married. I am married to an American. And, I am going to be a father. I am smiling, my lady, my love. You know I miss you. I love you. A day does not pass that is not spent with you in thought, though sometimes I must force myself to attend other things, or go mad for craving that which I cannot have.

 

 

He changed the period to a comma and added:

 

 

as I feel now.

 

 

Then, wrote:

 

 

It is December, Pamela. Your birthday has come and gone and I am not there with you. Did you like the present?

Currently, my love, I am home. Well, my boyhood home, that is. You are my true home and I will never be at home without you, but here I am. I do not want to worry you. I have not lost any limbs or have any wounds (he stopped and considered that, then added) to my body, but I have been detached from Indefatigable, and I am with my father.

 

 

 

He stopped, hesitated, holding the quill above the lines, wondering if he should scratch through any of it, biting his lower lip, reading the new part, then, continuing.

 

 


I am fine, truly. It is a leave. I am on leave. I am not in trouble either, should
you think it. I am due to rejoin Indy as soon as she is ready for sea.
She suffered a bit of damage on the way back to England and needs a new bowsprit, that is all. Do not worry. The dock hands will make her right again. You know old Starns, he and Locker kept her together.

 

 

He stopped and bit his lip again, wincing. Was that too much information?

 

Edrington and I got along famously on the way back. He

 

 

Stopping again, what would he say? **He saved my life? No, no, no. She is pregnant. I cannot tell her that.** he thought. He lay the quill down, leaned back against the chair, ran a hand down his face, then, stared at the paper and read what was there. Placing the letter to the side so as not to smear the ink, he picked up the other unfinished letters. Choosing one, he leaned over it and read.

 

 

Pamela, my lady,

We have been at sea two weeks and it seems like a year. We hailed a post vessel and found it was on its way to Gibraltar. I have sent a rather long letter to you, and now start another. When will we be together again? God only knows. I know you pray. Pray it will be soon. I miss you like a newborn misses its mother. It has been difficult not having
you beneath me, surrounding me. God, even now my body burns for you.
If you were here

 

And that was where he had left off writing that one. Raising an eyebrow, he knew why he had not finished it. "Ahem!" But she had written him two such letters. Concentrating, he read the last unfinished sentence again, picked up the quill, and...

 


I would be making passionate love to you. Never would I have dreamed
I could fall so utterly, unfathomably, in love, but I have. I want to take you
in my arms and shake you and with you shake the thoughts that drive
me to distraction, but I never could. I would enfold you in my arms and kiss you so bruisingly each kiss would be sweet agony. Thoughts of you steal away my senses. I must make an effort to hear people when they approach, and I am lost in memories of you, of us. My body is flushed with heat, Pamela. I want to hold you in my arms, feel the velvet softness of you beneath me. I want to lay my head upon your warm silken breast and listen to the steady beat of your passionate heart, to touch you in those secret places and listen to the beat increase along with your breathing. I want to pleasure you until both our hearts fairly burst for the running.

 

 

"Hahr!" He threw the quill down and came to his feet, ran a hand over his hair, the curls reforming after the press, and paced. Turning, he strode back to the desk, took the quill, leaned over the letter, and wrote rapidly.

 

 


I want you, Pamela. I want you in my arms. Now. I need you. My heart cries
for you. I received those two miraculous letter you sent. I do not know whether
to think you are an angel or a devil to make me crave, desire, you even more than
ever I have. It is cold outside and there is a bare powder of snow. I need to fling
my body into a snowdrift and become soaked as the flame in me melts it to water.
How am I to live without you? I will go mad. God help me, my love.

Horatio

 

 

 

Folding it and penning the address, he flipped it over, lit and dripped the sealing wax, then, pressed the seal to it. He lay it on the desk and read the address: **Mrs. Pamela Hornblower. Mrs. Pamela Hornblower. Gibraltar.** He sat down suddenly, and a cry erupted from his deepest being. She was so far. Breathing rapidly, he held his head and shut his eyes tightly. "God! How am I going to survive?" he muttered lowly. **Pamela! I need you. I need your touch. I need your presence. I want you with me.**

Two hands slipped onto his shoulders and for a moment he thought he was hallucinating, but the tips of the fingers gently pressed and massaged the tight muscles. He leapt to his feet and faced the intruder.

"Who are you?" he asked, startled. He was staring into the face of a middle-aged woman, her hair a copper color with a strand of silver here and there, her eyes like London blue topaz, and her skin cream white. She wore a cloak of deep green, over a burgundy full skirted dress, tightly drawn at a small waist. She was not pretty, but she was attractive for a woman of her years.

"I apologize. I guess you ... did not hear me. I guess no one heard me. Even Abby did not come to the door," smiled the woman, the wrinkles at the edges of her eyes creasing slightly. "I am Mrs. Arminter."

"Ho...how long have you ... been here? What do you want?"

"I did not mean to intrude. I knocked, no one came. I called, and still there was no answer." She smiled sweetly. "You must be Horatio. You do resemble your father, but," she turned a moment to look at the painting of his mother, "the first impression is you look more like Louisa. Yes, you must be Horatio. The uniform should tell me that if not your looks," she said lightly.

Horatio gripped then released his shoulder. "Why... why were you...?"

"You looked tense sitting there. Are you all right? I know there was news from your captain that ... you had been injured."

Brow furrowed, he cocked his head. "Why would you know that? About my captain?"

She covered and moistened her lower lip with the upper one. "I understand your father was out to see Meryl Coulson... I wanted to be sure she was well, and that your father returned without ... without difficulty. Is he here?"

"Yes, but he is sleeping."

"Oh? May I... Where is Abby?"

"I do not know. I would assume the kitchen. Shall I get her for you?"

"Could we hunt together?" she asked.

Her voice made Horatio think of jasmine on a summer day and he did not know what to reply to the suggestion. The woman obviously knew his father and Mrs. Grayson. Irritated that she would come upon him in such a state, he remained on edge and stalked out of the study. Hearing his heels ring on the hall flooring, he stepped lightly, but took long strides to the kitchen, the shush of her skirts falling away behind him.

Once in the kitchen, he checked the larder, and then knocked on the door leading to the Grayson's rooms. "Miss Abby?" Looking over his shoulder, he could see the uninvited guest waiting in the kitchen. **She cannot be a peer if she is willing to stand in a kitchen,** he thought to himself. He strode out, still upset with the intrusion. "What did you say your name was?"

"I am Mrs. Arminter."

"And how do you know my father? Forgive me," he bowed suddenly. "I am Horatio Hornblower, Leftenant..." he did not finish the entire title that connected him to the ship. He was rattled. "What did you hear me say?"

Confusion crossed her visage. "I am Horatio Hornblower, Leftenant...?"

"No, no, before. In the study," he blushed.

Confusion departed her face, and she seemed thoughtful. "A prayer perhaps?"

He felt his face go fire red, and shook his head no. "She may be upstairs. I will be right back." Stopping, he turned. "Was that all you heard,... or saw?"

She smiled softly, becoming more attractive. "Forgive me, I neither saw nor heard anything else, Leftenant Hornblower. I did not mean to trespass on your privacy."

His face remained somewhat displeased. "Yes. Well,... Excuse me, and I shall look for Mrs. Grayson." His steps on the stairs echoed down the kitchen hallway.

Reaching the staircase, the lady observed him disappear into a room off the landing. She slipped around the banister and walked quietly to the back bedroom door. Opening it slowly, she could see a small cast of light coming between the curtains that were not fully closed. Steady breathing, she heard. Walking quietly to the bed, she sat on the edge and gazed at Dr. Hornblower.

His hand moved to touch hers, his breathing changed, his forehead wrinkled and released. He opened his eyes, and smiled, seeing his visitor.

"Julia."

"Hubbell, you old dear. What are you doing walking all the way out to Dan Coulson's farm?"

"Walking is good for you. That's a fact," his speech was gravelly.

"Listen to you. Your voice tells me you are either worn out or getting sick from being out in this weather."

"My dear," he patted her hand. "I am fine. What spies have you had out to tell on me?"

"Just the man who gave you a ride back home,... John Hamblin"

"Oh, Johnny. It's a conspiracy. Louisa never gave me so much grief in our entire marriage as you have given me in the last nine months." Hubbell knew he spoke his wife's name, and he watched Julia take the reference without a hitch. It was one reason he found her company pleasing.

Julia clasped one of his hands in both of hers. "Louisa did not know you with a stroke, or at this age."

He smiled and patted the back of her hand. "I appreciate your concern, dearest lady."

"How does Meryl fare?"

His face shadowed and he looked away. "I'm holding out hope for a safe delivery."

"And I am praying for one. Cannot Dr. Carlisle take her for a patient?"

"Julia, Julia," he shook his head.

"I know, I know. You have been her physician since she was born." She leaned down close to his face, stroked his cheek, and studied his eyes. "Hubbell, you are so stubborn. You are going to kill yourself taking care of these people." She quickly put her fingers over his lips. "Please don't say it, today. I can see you thinking it. You will make me cry."

"I do not ever want to make you cry, my dear," and he kissed her fingertips. He held her cheek with his palm and she leaned against it.

"Well, you will. I am not going. You will have to bear up under my tears or stop your foolishness."

He sighed, and with a twinkle in his eyes stared into the depths of her topaz ones. "You make me young again, Julia."

Feeling the barest tug towards him, she lowered her lips to his, kissing lightly.

"I've met your son," she smiled. "He looks like you and Louisa."

"The navy is right for him, despite his injuries," sighed Hubbell. He held her gaze. "We've got to wait."

"I will do whatever you wish."

He stroked her cheek with a finger and smiled. "My boy is married."

"Oh, darling! I know you must be pleased."

"It gives me peace, Julia." He patted his chest, holding two of her fingers. "It gives me peace. He just needs to heal now, from what he's been through."

"Can you tell me about it?"

"I would like to, but I do not know it all, as yet. That is why I want to wait, concerning you and I. I ... I am not sure how he would react to ... you. He will think you are taking his mother's place... at first anyway. I know once he takes the time to think... but I do not want to overload him just now."

"I understand."

"I knew you would."

She snorted, smiled, and looked thoughtful.

"What, dearest?"

"I am afraid I startled him earlier. I like him, Hubbell. I hope he likes me."

"How can he not?"

Horatio pushed open the door to his mother's sewing room. No time for memories, he told himself absently. "Miss Abby, here you are. There is a woman downstairs asking for you." He picked up his undress jacket and looked at the rend in the sleeve and on the side where Abby had removed his poor mending.

"I do not want to know how you came to put such tears in this wool jacket. I declare. I declare." She looked up at him, setting the trousers in her lap. "These knees are as thin as paper, and the seat! You need some new clothes. Doesn't the navy pay you? How are you going to support a wife and child?"

He put down the jacket, shaking his head, and held his breath to hold back an answer. "Don't ask. Who is this woman that just walks into the house without... without... "

"Oh! It must be Mrs. Arminter! Why did you not say so, for heaven's sake!" She shoved the clothing onto the table, and bustled past him, into the hallway, down the stairs, throwing her hands up and muttering something Horatio could not catch.

He followed her down the stairs and into the study. She turned, as he walked in behind her.

"Well, wh...where is she?" he questioned.

"I'll find her," said Miss Abby, and she left the study, closing the door behind her.

Horatio watched her leave curiously, but saw his writing box open and the unfinished letters sitting on the desk. Eyes widdening, he was glad the lady had not returned to wait in the study. Those letters could not be left lying around either, he thought feeling Pamela's in his breast pocket, but the worst of the lot was sealed and ready for mailing. Should he? "She will know you love her if you do." He answered his own unspoken question and decided to mail it right away.

Reaching the bottom stair with his box under his arm, he saw Abby emerge from the kitchen. "Did you find her?" he asked without waiting for an answer, taking the stairs two at a time.

A trilling "OOoooooh," was all he heard, as he reached the top of the stairs. He paused a moment to look back before entering the his bedroom, but he heard no more from Abby.

The housekeeper trotted bouncingly, yet light in step, to his father's bedroom door.

Tap tap tap.

"Dr. Hornblower? Mrs. Arminter?" whispered Abby.

In but a moment, Julia opened to her and smiled. "Abby."

"I hear you've met the doctor's son," said Abby anxiously.

"Julia. Go to the study. I will be right there," ordered the doctor, rising from the bed and pulling on his coat.

"Hubbell..." she cautioned.

"I am fine! I've been resting for at least an hour. Go," he insisted. "Quickly now! Go with her Abby," he urged.

"Yes, sir."

The two women stepped swiftly and softly, hesitating, to peer up the stairs. With no sign of Horatio's coming, they scooted into the study, and giggled like school girls.

"Oh, Abby, I feel like a skulker!" Julia placed a hand on a reddened cheek, and exhaled and fanned her face.

"That boy loved his ma, Miss Julia, and don't I know it." She shook her head. "The doctor has told me mum is the word where you and he are concerned," she whispered.

Julia nodded, heard a thump on the stairs, and grabbed Abby's arm. "Ask me if I'd like a cup of tea," she whispered.

Abby nodded, waited till she heard a footfall on the hall planking, then said rather forced, "Would you like a cup of tea, Mrs. Arminter?"

"Yes, Abby. On a day such as today, a hot cup of tea would be welcome."

"I'll see to it straight away, then," she said, and turned to leave the room as Horatio entered it.

"Oh, Leftenant Hornblower, thank you for finding Abby for me," said Julia nonchalantly.

He nodded his head once, keeping his eyes on her. "You are welcome, Mrs. Arminter. You will forgive me if I leave to post a letter?" he asked.

"Certainly, sir."

"Posting a letter, Horatio?" came Hubbell's question.

"Father. You are awake."

"Well, I am glad to see you write someone," he said gruffly, eyes twinkling.

Face going from serious to relaxed, Horatio caught the jest. "Yes, sir. One of many I started to Pamela and never completed, as well. You were not the only one with whom I was remiss." He lowered his chin.

"I am glad to hear you are mending your ways. You've met Mrs. Arminter?"

"Yes, sir. We introduced ourselves."

"Finally, we did, yes, Doctor," teased Julia.

Hubbell raised his eyebrows.

Horatio inclined his head, and opened his mouth to speak, but halted. Was no one going to give him quarter?

Julia laughed with a sunshine smile, and caught Horatio's heart strings unexpectedly. "You may not survive around the both of us, Horatio," she admitted.

He watched those incredible blue eyes dance between himself and his father, but other things were on his mind. Two women in one house, and two in his heart. To be immersed in so much femininity would require some adjustment to tactics.

"I fear I will need to fall back and reqroup, sir. I beg your leave," stated Horatio.

"You have it. Do not lose your bearings." Another jest from his father.

"In Haslemere? I am known for my navigational prowess, sir," Horatio bowed and backed to the door. "It was nice to meet you, Mrs. Arminter."

"And you, young, sir."