An American Encounter, Part Three
Ch 24 Fathers and Husbands
Three in the morning and Horatio sat in a chair with Meryl Coulson atop a table, her shoulders leaning against his chest. Both of them were bathed in sweat, though Meryl's was the greater. It was Meryl's loud cry that caused Horatio to jump up from the icy ground and run back into the house. Over the ensuing hours, her contractions decreased the space between them, and for the last four hours, the two had been linked in labor, the pains coming closer and closer together.
Nightfall brought with it the resignation that it was very unlikely that Dan Coulson would return this evening. The three of them were on their own. As he endured these hours with her, Horatio mulled over what Meryl shared about his father and how much his da meant to her as a physician.
As a young boy, he never spoke to his father's patients unless there was a reason. He saw them as separate from the little fractured family that was Hubbell and Horatio Hornblower. His father's clientele were people to be tended and endured, someone that stole his father's time. He resented his father's patients, and after all these years, he was facing why. There were so many layers to his emotions, especially considering they were tied to the two people he loved most, his mother and his father. It surprised him how much he desired his father's companionship, how much he found he needed his father's acceptance and approval, and how much his mother had filled that void with her love to accommodate them both.
From the vantage point seven years on, since leaving home, Horatio tried to make sense of his past while a desire to live his present life pressed him to return, and an almost equal desire pressed him to stay. It seemed there was much to say to his da, much that needed clarifying, and there was little time. As he watched his father work with Meryl, the words from the carriage ride out to the Coulson farm, seeped into his consciousness, and a new fear took hold. His father was aging. His father said 'I should have died a year ago last November.' Grievous fear gripped Horatio's heart. There was danger of losing his father to the enemy of every man. Death. He felt surrounded by the black tyrant. Pamela. His da. Himself. His mother, already taken.
Death had been desired when life seemed more like dread, his experience with Jack Simpson rising to the fore. It was acceptable as long as it took him honorably, as in the duel to defend his honor with that black-hearted devil. It would have brought happy release to be out from under the evil hand of the man called his superior in time served, but not intellect. But Simpson was dead, thanks to Captain Pellew, and his duty remained, and with that duty, the ever present possibility of his life becoming forfeit. Except for the love he felt and the responsibility he owed to his wife and child, dying in the action with Effington could have ended all his strivings, and ended them with honor, thanks to Edrington's time bombs. In a small way, he understood that benevolent accolade that a superior gains from the actions of his inferiors, those serving under a captain bringing praise to him who leads. But, he was not dead. He was alive, and so he was left to fear the enemy of men's souls. That black spectral figure that roamed the earth, taking who it will. Enough of these dark thoughts, Horatio shook his mind to attend the woman he held but then slipped into a reverie about her and others like her.
His father's patients, which Meryl unconsciously revealed, caused Horatio to view them as individuals with concerns. They needed his da. Inhaling a deep breath, he knew his boyhood inexperience made him callous to the needs of others, that, and his own wretched existence since his mother's death. If he had not been injured, he would not be here now, confronting all these attic memories that could have been left forever untouched and static, possibly never seeing the light of day again. But he was injured. His brain was rattled physically by the head wounds, his heart shaken emotionally by the burning love for his wife, his mind squeezed mentally by the bound duty of his position, and his soul twisted spiritually to face an Existence he considered uncaring and arbitrary. Overwhelmed, his attention went to the woman whose nails were digging into his shoulders.
As the contraction reached a peak and stayed there, Meryl panted and groaned and cried out, more sweat popping onto her brow and joining the existing rivulets tracing down her temples. All he could do was hold her and whisper it would not last much longer and encourage her that she could do this. Her pain and his exhaustion blurred his brain and half the time he did not know what he was saying. They were just words, words he hoped would help but from his point of view seemed hollow and ineffective. Still she suffered, and he was helpless to alleviate the suffering.
Her legs were spread wide and Hubbell cupped one hand on Meryl's abdomen and the other one lower. He looked up into the fearful eyes of his son and shook his head. Meryl's were, thankfully, closed.
"Horatio, ... I am going to cut her. She is going to tear anyway. If I can get my hand in, I may be able to help."
"You want me to hold her steady," Horatio confirmed.
"As best you can, boy," stated Hubbell, falling into the old familiar term with his son. He turned to the counter behind him and lifted the scalpel, but kept it low and out of Meryl's sight. He came near the girl, and mopped her soaking, pale visage. "Meryl," he said calmly, "we are going to deliver this baby now. Are you ready?"
"Yes, sir," she panted her face contorted with pain.
"Horatio will help you remain as still as may be. You have to do your part though. It is only the three of us here."
She nodded and moaned.
"You are going to feel a little pain as I help, but soon it will be over and you can rest. Do you understand me?"
She nodded again.
"You are a very brave girl, Meryl. I am proud of you," he encouraged.
"Hold onto Horatio. He is staying with you and soon you will have your baby in your arms."
She nodded and the grimace was briefly a smile.
Hubbell dabbed her lips with the damp cloth and wiped her face once more.
Hubbell returned to the end of the table and positioned his body so it did not block the bright light Horatio devised using the array of lanterns and dressing mirror.
"Meryl, try not to move your legs," ordered the doctor.
She moaned and nodded once. "It's starting!" she screamed, teeth biting into her lower lip. Her face contorted as the pains in her body took control of her senses, demanding total attention
"Hold, Horatio, we will wait until the contraction passes."
To Horatio this seemed an eternity. Pamela was going to go through this? How did his father do it time and again? The pain, the energy draining contractions, it was a nightmare. Every muscle in his body ached with tension from assisting Meryl. He was ready to do anything for this to be over.
"Here we go," stated Hubbell. Reaching the knife inside her, he sliced through the tissues quickly, the implement clattering on the stone floor. Blood pooled on the table and dripped over the edge. Hubbell could feel the rounded buttocks of the child and slipped two fingers in around the little thigh, searching for the calf and foot. If he could bend it at the knee, he should be able to pull it down and out. He gently pressed Meryl's abdomen, then, felt the ankle slip between his fingers. Pulling down, the little leg emerged covered red. "I've got one leg, Meryl. Do not push yet! Not yet!" Back inside her, he felt and found the second leg. "I've got it. Push, Meryl." Hubbell gently pulled and the child emerged out to the waist. "It's a boy, Meryl, push now, come on. Let's get this done," urged Hubbell calmly.
Horatio lifted his head trying to see what his father saw as he clutched the woman who suddenly went limp in his grasp. He looked down at her wet, ashen face. His father was working quickly with clamp and scissors. The doctor's apron was covered with blood and so was the small person he held in his hands.
With one hand holding the baby's chest, Hubbell tapped on its back with the other several times.
"All right, little one, be stubborn." He lifted him by his ankles and gave the babe a swift strike on his buttocks. "Come on, now, little Coulson. Your mama wants to hear you." He hit him again. Nothing. "Horatio, ease her down and come take him. I've got to sew her up before she bleeds to death."
Hubbell passed the child into Horatio's hands. Worry covered Horatio's expression. The baby looked blue beneath the blood.
"Get the syringe. Suction each nostril and make sure
his mouth is clear of debris, as I told you." Hubbell pushed
Meryl's legs down and felt for the parted tissues to sew back
together. Blood continued to issue forth.
Meryl roused enough to see Horatio working with her child and tears began to flow.
"He's going to be all right, Meryl," assured Hubbell.
"Father...?" called Horatio, worry reflected in his eyes. The child was not responding.
Hubbell looked over his shoulder. "Make sure his air passage is clear. If you have done all I said, then, hold him upside down, Horatio," Hubbell said frantically returning to his sewing.
**Do not let her baby die after all this,** Horatio thought.
"Will he be all right?" whispered Meryl, seeming to vacillate between consciousness and unconsciousness. "He cannot..... It is Christmas. Horatio, don't let my baby die. God, don't let my baby die."
**What had Christmas to do with anything?** Horatio thought distractedly. "Please," whispered Horatio, "live. For God's sake, live." He turned the child over and tapped him on the back. He was so small, so frail. "Come on, baby," Horatio urged, near anger.
"By the ankles, boy! Spank him! He's as stubborn as you were."
Horatio lifted the child and swatted his behind with a loud clap. A glop of mucus fell from the boy's mouth and he let out a cry. It was a hearty little wail but without much volume to propel the sound into the world. The blue of the flesh pinked immediately.
A gasp and Horatio's relief was evident. Gently he righted the child, and checking the pan of water to be sure it was not too hot or too cold, he lay the babe in it, supporting his head as his father told him, the blood floating away from the soft skin as Horatio rubbed at it with a finger. He lifted the child onto a clean towel and dried him, then, wrapped him snugly as he was instructed. Even so, the baby snaked out a hand. Horatio was mesmerized by the tiny fingers, splaying out like the most delicate starfish. Horatio touched the tiny palm and each tentacle-like appendage slowly wrapped around his fingertip. The grip was soft and lacked strength, but he felt the tiny grasp for a moment before the child released him, made a loose fist and stuck it into his mouth and began to suck. Horatio watched all these goings on with rapt attention. This was a new life, a new beginning, with all the world ahead of him. He lifted the boy and cradled him in his arm.
"Father," he approached to reveal the child.
Hubbell could see the baby was well, but it was his own son's awe and satisfaction, peering down at the newborn, that captured his attention. "You've done a fine job, Horatio. Show him to his mother."
"Meryl...," said Horatio softly.
The girl was too weak to sit up, and Horatio held the child so she could see him.
"He's beautiful. Take care of him for me," she asked faintly.
"Put him in the cradle, Horatio, and get back here. We're not done yet," ordered Hubbell.
"Yes, sir," swallowed Horatio.
Delivering the afterbirth was almost as traumatic as delivering the child, but it was finally over. Meryl closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep against Horatio's shoulder. Hubbell sat on the chair that held his instruments and rested his forehead against a clean spot on the back of his wrist. Horatio leaned against one elbow, supported himself and Meryl, and sighed with exhaustion.
"Are you all right, Father?" he asked lowly.
"Tired, boy. I am getting too old for this," he stated, not moving.
Horatio watched his father for a moment before he spoke again. "You were brilliant, sir."
Hubbell slowly looked up at his son. "I could not have done it without your help, Horatio. Either she would have bled to death or the child would have died of asphyxiation. Thankfully you were here and I did not have to make that choice." Hubbell pushed up from the chair. "I've got to clean her and get her to bed."
"The fresh sheets are spread," informed Horatio.
"Good. Good. I don't know when you found the time, but good," said Hubbell staggering back from the opposite counter with clean toweling.
The two of them worked steadily, if not quickly. Up all night, both were worn out. The patient was sponged and they dressed the new mother in a dry gown. Horatio carried her to the bed and covered her, then, returned to the kitchen.
"Father. You are done in," said Horatio, coming to his side. "Let me do this."
"Rest. Please," urged Horatio.
He untied Hubbell's apron with a pull and removed the blood soaked covering. He held his father's elbow and gently ushered him towards the sitting room. Hubbell stopped at the cradle to peer at the sleeping child and snorted. Maneuvered to the best chair, the doctor sat down heavily.
"All right, all right. Just a few minutes rest." He leaned his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes.
Horatio returned to the kitchen, stood in the door and surveyed the carnage. It looked like a butchery. He stared down at the blood smudged apron where he had held the child. Taking a step, he peered at the baby and smiled faintly, then, set to work cleaning the table, side counter, and floor. By the dry sink, he pulled back the thin drape to see the pale light of dawn reflecting off the new fallen snow. A light precipitate continued to speckle the air.
The house was going off cool. He checked the child who slumbered, then, gathered an arm load of wood and stoked the failing fire of the sitting room.
He stared at his dozing father, seeing the wrinkles had grown deeper, the hair thinner, but the face had a peace about it he could not recall seeing since long before his mother passed. Suddenly, tired, he grasped the arm of the chair and lowered to sit at Hubbell's feet, studying every aspect of his da, sighing long and heavy.
His father stirred at the sound and opened his eyes. Reaching a hand, Hubbell rested it upon Horatio's curls, encouraged him to rest his head against his thigh, and began to pet him.
"Father?" asked Horatio, his voice shaky. "May I tell you something?"
"Of course, son."
Horatio thought, **Why do I have the need to say this? Is it exhaustion? Why does it press me? I must tell him and be done with it. I cannot think it anymore. It will drive me mad.** He turned imploring eyes on his father, who took his chin.
"What is it, Horatio?" His father's voice was low with fatigue. When his son did not speak right away, he returned to smoothing his curls. "Your hair always puts Louisa to mind."
Horatio lay his head against his father's thigh. "I do not want to hurt you."
"Nothing you can say will hurt me, Horatio. Get it off your chest, son. I've seen this look for days now. What do you want to tell me that is so hard?"
Horatio took a deep breath and looped his arm around his father's leg and trembled. He felt his father's fingers squeezing his shoulder firmly.
"I ... was ashamed of you... well,... not you, but ... your profession. The other boys... they used to... used to... but... " he lifted his view and met his father's understanding gaze. "Forgive me? Can you forgive me?"
"Horatio..." brow furrowed, concern etched his features. "It is I that should ask your forgiveness...for failing you. Humble Hornblower? I know what they called me. I did not know it hurt you so. "
"You never failed me. I... was wrong. I saw tonight what you mean to these people. How they need you. How you use your wisdom, knowledge, and experience to help them. I understand why mother felt as she did, always making excuses for why you were not home, why you were out late, or gone for days. I never understood until now. I used to work with you, Father. Why did I not see it then?" Horatio leaned against the thigh. "Mother was so very proud of you. I never understood before." He looked back at his father imploringly.
The soft steady hand caressed the brow of the son of his love. "Doctoring is my brand of duty," Hubbell said matter-of-factly. "Much of what I do puts me in the light of a servant. It is hard to explain, but ... being a physician is my core. Can you understand that?" his eyes pleaded for comprehension.
His father's words struck a chord in his soul. A chord of a different tone yet strung to a similar instrument, his own, that of military service. Being away from Indefatigable, even for medical reasons, fine tuned the string tied to duty, to king, to country. "I've been confused, Father. I cannot recall my thinking ever being so... unclear."
Hubbell stroked the curls.
"Being with you, at home, though I miss the Indy, ... Archie was right." Horatio laughed lightly. "Archie can be right about the oddest things. He said I would get my bearings. I seem to be getting them about a number of things I did not know were off course." He looked at his father for moments, his brown eyes soft with love and understanding and caring. "I want you to be proud of me."
"I am proud of you."
"But if you knew the things I have thought in the last six months... you would not."
"We all question ourselves, Horatio. And... there will be times when we lose our way, but... hopefully we find our way back to our true path in life."
"What is my true path?"
"You know it. You only think you do not. You are going to be a brilliant naval officer. All of England will know of your exploits. I, your wife, your children, your friends, and officers and men, will all be honored to know you, to serve with you, to survive with you. You are Louisa's son, and that places you very high, indeed."
"Father..." he shook his head.
"Yes, yes." Hubbell wiped the cheek with his thumb and nodded. "You have been through a great deal this past year, not the least of which are these head injuries. You've fallen in love,... married. You are soon to be a father. You have served with great men of honor and led others honorably. You are an officer and a gentleman, Horatio. No longer my little boy in the arms of the woman I love. You are a man. I have never known such pride as the pride I bear for you and for who you have become. I could not have a better son.... and... you said all the right things to Meryl tonight."
Surprise bloomed silently on Horatio's countenance and Hubbell responded to it with an affirmative nod and placed a hand on Horatio's cheek.
"You would have made such a fine physician."
"If that is true, it would be due to your example, Father."
"Then, Captain Pellew must be a very fine captain indeed. When are you going back to Indefatigable?"
"Do you think I am ready?"
"You have never been not ready, Horatio. The question should be do I think you are sufficiently healed."
Hubbell looked into the dark eyes, so like Louisa's. There was something different there, a stability that had replaced uncertainty. "I think you are very close. Care to avoid hurting your head will be necessary for some time, but... ," Hubbell taped the side of his own temple, "I think the fog is lifting."
Horatio chuckled, "No more refuge in the mists," and his countenance slowly settled into a more serious expression but a pleased one. He felt more confident, like a storm had passed and the sun shown through the clouds. He was ready to return to sea, but was Indefatigable? And, could they return to Gibraltar?
The clang of a pot lid hitting a hard surface and spinning noisily roused Horatio from where he slept folded up on the chair in the sitting room. The chair his father dozed in was empty and the blanket that once covered his da was spread over him. He unfolded his legs, feeling the muscles protest, then, rose, standing a moment to be sure his legs were ready to function as he expected. Heading for the kitchen, he grasped the wall, feeling a bit dizzy from lack of sleep.
"Father. What are you doing?"
"You did a good job of cleaning this room, Horatio. Our little patient was hungry," said Hubbell motioning to the cradle.
Horatio's eyes darted to the empty furniture. "Where is he?"
"Meryl is feeding him, and now we need to feed her. She has not eaten for nearly a day. Here." His father put a glass in his hand. "I believe they keep the jug milk in the mud room. Get her a glass, will you?"
He returned quickly. "Here, sir." He extended the glass to his da.
"It isn't for me, Horatio. Take it to her."
"But... " He licked his lips nervously.
"You are a married man are you not? Do not tell me you have never seen a woman's breast?"
"Father!" he exclaimed embarrassed.
"Look. For the time being, you are a doctor's assistant, so,... assist!"
Horatio frowned and sighed. His father was enjoying this, he could tell. "The woman is not my wife," he muttered, walking to Meryl's bedroom, "she is the wife of another man." The bedroom door was open. He averted his eyes and knocked on the door frame. "Meryl. I've brought you a glass of milk."
"Come in, Horatio. Come see our baby," she smiled, patting the side of the bed where a chair sat.
**Our baby?** thought Horatio. He entered the room hesitantly. She was sitting up against the headboard of the bedstead, the child cradled in her left arm. The globe of the left breast was exposed, but the babe's mouth covered the nipple, and he was sucking greedily. **Dear Lord!** he thought, darting his eyes away and feeling the flush. Steeling himself, he sat down in the chair as she requested.
"Look at him, Horatio. Isn't he beautiful?" She beamed at the little figure warmly pressed against her.
He swallowed. "Yes. Here is your milk. Father wants you to drink it. He is heating some soup for you." He sat the glass on the bedside table and looked longingly at the door.
"Bless your da!" said Meryl her eyes gazing lovingly at the child.
"Are you all right, Meryl?" asked Horatio, remembering what was done to her.
She looked him in the eyes, hers sparkling with joyous motherhood. "It hurts, I cannot deny it, but I will mend. Thank you for being with me." She placed a soft, warm hand on his. "You helped me more than you know. Where ever did you get the idea to tell me about your ship and the sea? It was like you transported me to another place, Horatio. I shall never forget seeing it through your eyes... and at such a desperate time."
He stared anxiously into her liquid, gleaming, green eyes. She remembered that? He could think of nothing more to say, the words of encouragement had gone flat, and it was where he wished he were at that moment. "I am glad you found it of service, Meryl. Forgive me, I must go. The baby is quite handsome." He rose. "Let us know if you require anything." Horatio exited the bedroom door and leaned against the hall wall and expelled a held breath. "Damn!" he whispered. Taking long strides, he walked rapidly passed the kitchen doorway.
"Where are you going, Horatio?" asked his father.
"To check on the chickens," called Horatio, the mud room door slamming behind him.
Hubbell stepped to the window and pulled back the drape. "Shouldn't you be wearing a coat?" he grinned and shook his head. The snow was deep and Horatio was lifting his feet to traverse it. "The exercise will you do you good... whatever it is."
By the time Horatio returned, Hubbell was absent from the kitchen, but the baby was back in the cradle. He felt moderately guilty at being gone for such a length of time. Finding a bowl, he transferred the eggs from his shirt tail into it, wiped at the bit of bird leavings on his shirt, frowned, and washed his hands.
"You've returned. Good. Everything taken care of?" Hubbell spread a blanket on the kitchen table and set a cloth upon it. He picked up the child and carefully lay him on the blanket.
"No, no, no," said Horatio shaking his head, sensing what was coming.
"Come here, Horatio. You are going to be a father yourself. You will impress your wife with your knowledge."
"Father. Pamela knows I am intelligent already." He backed against the dry sink, seeking how he might edge around and out of the kitchen.
"Come here," said Hubbell firmly.
His pleading eyes were met with the steady command. Giving in, he stepped to the table.
"Now," said Hubbell. "Diapering is achieved in two ways." He unwrapped the baby. A second later, a stream of urine emitted, but his father covered the child quickly, and captured it in the used nappy. "With boys, this usually happens the moment they are exposed. Get that pan there."
Horatio knit his brow, contemplating the boy, and did as requested. His father took the cloth floating in the warm water and wiped the child.
"If he is not finished, the wet cloth will usually cause him to complete the emptying of his bladder." His father held the cloth over the child's privates, then, lifted it cautiously. The baby moved languidly and gurgled softly. "The nappy for this size baby must be folded small to fit him." He lifted the boy by the ankles and slipped the cloth under him, then, pulled the diaper over the front. "Now, using these pins, you secure the front to the back. Viola!"
"Aren't the pins liable to stick him?" asked Horatio, intrigued by the process.
"We live in hope that they will not," answered Hubbell.
"What is the other way?" The question was out of Horatio's mouth before he knew what he was saying.
Hubbell's eyebrows rose. "An apt pupil! I forgot your curiosity. Very well," he sighed. Reaching around to the cradle, he took another cloth stored in the foot of the bed. "Like so," he lay out the cloth and formed it into a triangle. "You then, lay the child here, pull one side to the other, raise the bottom corner, then tie it in a knot."
"No pins this way," observed Horatio. "It would seem safer."
"Hm. I suppose so," agreed Hubbell. "Here. Put this gown on him." Hubbell held the garment out to his son.
Horatio hesitated. "You aren't going to let me out of this, are you?"
"No, I am not."
Horatio took the garment and his father watched. Horatio pulled the gown down over the infants head, making unsuccessful attempts to get the arms in the holes. The baby pushed against the body of the gown with a fist.
"He refuses to put his arms in," said Horatio frustrated. He looked at his da who wagged his head slowly.
Hubbell stuck two fingers into the hand exit of the garment, shoving the length accordion style, and with the other hand maneuvered one arm to meet the hole. He looked at his son, and held a hand out, waiting for him to do the other.
"Ahem." Horatio did as demonstrated.
"Good. Now wrap him as you did before and put him back in the cradle. I need to see to Meryl."
"Yes, sir." Once the child was tightly wrapped, Horatio picked him up. Hesitating to put him down, instead, he cradled and watched the child. He was so tiny. He could not have the weight of a nine pound ball. Horatio hefted him up and down in the crook of his arm. Maybe a six pounder. Horatio moved an index finger near the little chin and tapped it softly. He ran a long finger over the boy's cheek. The skin was silky soft and the babe turned his head towards Horatio's finger.
Hubbell returned and watched his son repeat the action with the baby.
Horatio grinned at his father. "Why is he doing that?"
"He thinks your finger is a breast. Watch." Hubbell stroked the boy's cheek closest to Horatio's body. The boy turned immediately and began to root against Horatio's shirt.
Horatio jerked him away. "Father!"
Hubbell chuckled. "Well, you asked."
Horatio looked at the bloody rag in the bucket Hubbell carried. "Is she all right?"
"Yes. The bleeding is normal, thank God. She wants him. Take him to her."
It would do no good to protest. He followed orders, but retreated as soon as possible. When was Dan Coulson going to reappear?
Not that evening, as it turned out. The Hornblower's were puzzled by Coulson's failure to return. Possibly the snow was the reason, though it did not seem that deep at the farm, and it had not snowed since early morn.
Late that afternoon, Horatio lifted the night lantern down from the hook and refilled the reservoir. Lighting the wick, he hung it in place, then, stepped toward the lane and listened intently. Not a sound. Blowing warm air on his hands, he retrieved the oil jug, and stopped and stared at the farm house. The snow covered the vegetation but a walkway could be determined by the snow-mounded, round river stones outlining the flower bed. Smoke curled from the chimney. It was a warm inviting kind of house but it was not home, not any of them, not his da's, not the Indy, and not Pamela.
A tree stood at a triangular point from the house and the barn with a swing hung from a low limb. Crunching through the icy pack, he swept the snow off the seat and sat down carefully, his knees bent exceedingly due to the low level, and eyed the ropes that held the child's contrivance. He slid his hand carefully over the hemp fibers, grabbed hold, and leaned his head against it.
"You are all I see to remind me of Indy." He sighed, giving a half-hearted push with his feet, causing the swing to meander to the anchored position. "What a Christmas this has been, Pamela. Our first and what have we to remember?" Leaning, he sat the oil down, then, began to circle and twist the swing ropes together over his head. "Who have you spent Christmas with? Drake, Carden, Maria?" Lifting his feet off the ground, he spun around four dizzying times, then, stopped the swing. "I have helped my father deliver a baby for Christmas. Should I get to be with you for our child's entrance into the world, I am experienced." He evidenced a wistful smile. "I hope you do not hate me when you find what you will endure. Da says some women deliver quickly, and some can go for days." His arms looped around the ropes, he rested his elbows on his thighs and held his face. "God, I miss you. I want you here beside me, in my arms." Sliding his fingers into his dark curls, he gripped the cool strands.
The hardness of the swing seat and the cold brought a memory. He had been sitting on the deck for hours, waiting for Pamela to trust him, cold and dimly lit, it was. Her dress was ripped and blood stained, the wrists blackened, too, but the glint of the hand-held cold steel flashed with lantern light as she slipped to the deck. Using her other hand to pick up the scoop over and over, she emptied it of its contents, slaking the thirst of possibly days without water. He said nothing as she drank, both of them watching the other, eyes meeting, a window to the soul. Hers was in distress, he saw. Was it then he began to fall in love with her? The moment was a vivid memory. **God, she was dirty and blood stained.** Pushing back hair off his forehead, he stared into space recalling how she collapsed onto the planks, leaned against the bulkhead, and canted her head, exhausted. Her dagger hand wavered and dropped to her lap. Even with filth sticking to the tear streaked face, he found her pretty. She raised the dagger to her throat when he moved near. 'NO!'. The event echoed like sound off a mountainside.
He abruptly rose from the swing, lay his hand on the bark of
the tree, and slipped it over the cold rough wood, walking around
the huge oak. Leaning his cheek against it, he closed his eyes.
"No," he whispered, slowly sinking to the ground. He hugged his knees, head bowed against them. "No. Do not leave me. Please. Please, God, do not take her from me." He covered his eyes with a hand. "Do not leave me with only memories ...as I have of my mother. Please. I beg you." He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, and leaned against the base of the tree. The fearful thoughts were ever present. Sniffing, he pushed himself up, brushed snow from his clothing, found the oil container, and set a course for the house, crossing the ground with trudging icy steps.
Hubbell heard him enter the back hallway and expected he would come into the kitchen to speak to him. When Horatio did not, Hubbell found him in the sitting room, standing before the fire and leaning his head on his arm against the mantel piece. It was not time for jesting. Hubbell departed as silently as he had come, leaving Horatio to his thoughts. Breakfast. They would have breakfast for dinner. That was simple enough. He set about preparing it.
After a time, Horatio raised and stared about the room. It was in disarray and he picked up the blankets, folded, and piled them on one of the wooden chairs. Frowning, he determined he would not sleep bent in three parts on the chair again and neither would his father. Heading down the hallway that went past the kitchen towards, first, Meryl's room, then, the children's, he did not speak to his father, though Hubbell looked up from the preparations when his son passed by.
"Just like me, Horatio. Focused in thought to the exclusion of all else," Hubbell said to himself. "I understand, Louisa. Sorry, my love."
"Father, are you talking to yourself?"
"There's no one else to talk to."
Horatio's brow furrowed. "I've put your things in what looks to be Joelly's room. I'm taking the boys'. No sleeping in chairs tonight."
"Aye, aye, Captain," answered Hubbell, slicing through an onion.
Horatio put his hands on his hips. This teasing was something new between them and he was glad to have had the training from Kennedy, Bracegirdle, and Pellew. He accounted the change in the rapport with his da to the greater age of both, and ... something he feared to admit,... but he would enjoy this as long as he could. His father was decidedly lighter in heart than when he left seven years ago, or even two. When he had a moment, he would give it consideration and discover why. Certainly a stroke could not make one chipper. "Report, Mr. Hornblower. Just what are you about in the galley here?" demanded Horatio.
Hubbell grinned and chopped the white vegetable. "Breakfast, sir."
"Breakfast?" Horatio strode to the window and moved the drape. "Aye, it is looking to be a dark day."
"We are having breakfast for dinner, sir, as per your orders."
"My orders? Ahem, yes, of course."
"Take this," Hubbell held out a large gleaming butcher knife to Horatio, it catching the light on the blade.
A flash of it into Horatio's eyes brought immediately the scene of Pamela in Dolphin's hold.
The look on his son's face gave him pause. "What is it, Horatio?"
Releasing a caught breath, he replied with a faint wistful smile, "Nothing, Father." They were no longer captain and hand but father and son.
Hubbell thrust the handle towards him. "Slice off a hunk of bacon from that side in the mud room."
"How much, sir?"
"Say twelve slices worth."
Horatio hefted the big blade in his hand, looking at the gleaming metal as he walked.
Mud room. A handy thing in winter for keeping food. Locating the slab, he hacked into the meat.
Hubbell rubbed the huge frying pan over the iron stove top. The wood burning stove was the biggest he had ever seen, a wedding present for Meryl when Dan married her. It was not a romantic gift, but it was practical. Dan was practical. Meryl was practical. They were a good match even though the years between their ages was greater than what his and Louisa's had been. Thoughts of Louisa made him pause. She should have out-lived him.
"Do you want me to slice it?" asked Horatio, placing the meat on the cutting board, then, grabbing a towel to tie about his waist as an apron..
"Yes. How many eggs do you want? Two?"
"Yes, sir, over medium." Horatio positioned the bacon and cut.
"What was that about the knife?" asked Hubbell nonchalantly.
Hesitating at the cut, then resuming, "Pamela. I was thinking about Pamela... when I first met her."
"Oh? You said she was on a ship you took from pirates..."
Horatio looked at his da then attended the meat. "Yes. One of the men had reported hearing crying in the night, but I thought it was his imagination. He heard it again, dragged Styles below with him and found her." Horatio looked up from the cutting board. "The pirates did not have a chance to ... to rape her, but ... she was in shock and injured." Horatio hit the bacon forcefully, impaling the blade nearly through to the board. "Her dress was torn. Her wrists had been bound with ropes and she had yanked them free, leaving a good deal of skin behind. But that was not where the blood came from that soaked her heather blue satin gown." He could see it clearly. "They killed her father before her eyes." Horatio stopped, and held onto the table but did not look at Hubbell. The bastard that killed her father might be on one of the prison hulks in Portsmouth. He should look into what became of him. The pirate captain's name should be in the ship's records. He felt his jaw set like flint. He looked at his da, and saw a change in the expression. "What?" he asked icily.
Hubbell smiled wryly at the tone. "I think I am witnessing first hand Leftenant Hornblower of the Royal Navy."
Horatio crimsoned, but his mind was still set foul. He hacked at the bacon slab, pressing against the backbone of the blade.
"Did Pellew hang him?"
"Not to my knowledge. The navy is always in need of men... we did not know anyone had been killed at the time and there was the other ship to see to, Cymbaline, the American vessel." Horatio drifted into a memory, recalling how Pamela did not speak for more than a day. "Maybe Captain Pellew did hang him. I was not there. When we rejoined, I did not think to inquire. Things ... were ... complicated."
"You mean you fell in love with her."
"Yes... quickly. Why did I?" Horatio ceased his labor and pinned his father with a stare.
"When the right one comes along, it strikes like lightening, ... otherwise, you marry for other reasons."
"You mean money?"
"Yes, sometimes that is the reason. Sometimes love is not there but ... comfort is, you are comfortable with the person, and for some, that is enough. Or, sometimes love grows after. Or, it is convenience... or necessity." Hubbell picked up hands full of chopped onions and dropped them into the melted butter.
"How was it for you and ... and mother?"
Hubbell breathed in long, giving the onions a stir. "I had never intended to marry, Horatio. I told you my profession is my life. You know how I live." He faced his son. "We have never been rich by any means. How could I even consider taking on a wife and possibly children?"
He removed the ceramic lid from the teapot and measured in leaves. "I met your mother while attending the mother of a friend of hers. Louisa was much younger than I, and though I thought her pretty, I had no intentions towards her. Oddly though, I would find myself thinking of her for no reason. Then, we happened upon each other again, and fell into conversation. For days after, I discovered she had invaded my thought life. I noticed other women in the village that had something reminiscent of Louisa, and I would look twice to be sure it was not her. I recalled our discussion and began to analyze how the muscles in her cheeks drew a smile, saw that sparkle of life in those brown eyes." Hesitating, he saw the same brown eyes in his son. "They were always so... full of life. Just a glance and you could see the vibrancy."
He turned to stir the sauté. "The next time I
was with her, I found my view... constantly drawn to her lips.
My body would tingle when she was near." He chuckled.
"I realized my reactions were like a silly school boy crush
and I resolved to stay away. I could not get involved with a
woman. I had my own life to lead,... my profession. I wanted
to be a healer,... but being a healer meant suffering losses,
too." Hubbell paused in the story and stirred the food roughly.
"She happened upon me in the graveyard of the church one Sunday afternoon. I had lost a,.. no, not one ... two... patients. I was in such a state. She must have seen it, for I did not tell her, or maybe someone else did. I do not know." Hubbell scooped the diced potatoes with two hands and dropped them atop the onions, then, sprinkled salt, pepper, and dropped a dollop more of butter. "She ... walked with me. Did not say anything. She was just there. We must have walked for miles. Finally, we faced each other. It was like coming out of one trance and going into another. She extended a hand and I took it. It was the first time we had ever touched one another. Lightening. That was when it struck, when I took her hand." He stirred the potatoes and onions. "Bring that bacon over here."
"Yes, sir." Horatio quickly finished slicing it, having been mesmerized listening to a history he did not know. "How long were you married before..."
Hubbell glanced his way, "Before you were born?"
"Yes." Horatio moved to his side and lay the bacon flat on the griddle.
Hubbell thought before he answered. "I told her plainly that I did not want children, indeed that I did not want a wife. Though at that point, even I knew that if she would have me, I was ... not lost... but..."
"I understand, da. You were bound ... to your profession," he said shyly. "Go on."
"I told her that I was a poor country physician with no plans for wealth, that marrying me would have little to no expectation." He stopped and smiled. "I think your mother was a missionary at heart, and she saw me as her mission."
"Mother loved you," defended Horatio abruptly.
"Yes, she did."
"I'm sorry for interrupting. Please, continue," asked Horatio.
Hubbell cocked an eyebrow. "Well, with all that laid at her feet, I said she could not possibly want to marry me. It was a backhanded proposal. But she said, yes, she did, and then I proceeded to try to talk her out of it until she started to get angry and accused me of not wanting to marry her. She said, 'If you do not want me to marry you, then, why have you asked?' Says she, 'Did you ask me to marry you or not?' I said, yes, I had, but that if I were her, I would say no." Hubbell chuckled at the memory. "That was the first time I saw her get red-faced with anger. The only other time was about you and that bully, Jack Iverson. Anyway, she says, 'I said, yes. You come and get me, Dr. Hubbell Hornblower, when you are sure I am what you really want.' And, she stalked off, leaving me standing there."
"So, you went after her."
"No! I was a mutton-headed fool! But I did have her best interests to heart."
"Then, how did you come to marry?"
"I could not stop thinking about her, no matter how hard I tried. No matter how logical I tried to be, she was constantly in my thoughts. I reached a point where I was not eating, not sleeping, I could not keep my mind on my work. It became clear that if I was going to continue in my profession, I would have to marry her."
"So, you went to her and..."
"Well, yes, but I had been thinking and trying to resist for a fortnight. When I showed up on her doorstep, she said she was not at home. But she was, I mean she was there talking to me," grinned Hubbell. "Then, the two of us had this conversation speaking of her as if she was another person. Your mother! Well, by the time we were finished bandying about this ridiculous conversation, and I was getting quite confused, but something about the entire affair was amusing, and I began to see that sparkle in her eye. She was pulling my leg in a big way. Thank God she was willing to take me, poor as I was, ... and am." Hubbell gave Horatio a slight questioning look, but his son did not catch it.
Horatio turned the sizzling bacon. "How long... how long before..." he looked at Hubbell.
"Oh, we were married for nine years before you came along. Not that Louisa did not want you sooner, but... I am a doctor, and I do know where babies come from and what can forestall them." Hubbell eyed his son. "You do not know ... do you?"
"Not exactly. I know it has something to do with a monthly calendar, but..." he glimpsed his father, "it ... isn't ... something... I ... need to know in the navy."
"No, I suppose not. And, in your case it is too late."
"You had best stir those," suggested Horatio.
"Oops." Hubbell scrubbed at the pan beneath the mounds of potatoes and onions.
"How many people are we feeding?" asked Horatio. "You have enough potatoes there for the entire wardroom."
A second evening came and went without Dan Coulson. Talking over his absence with Meryl, the three decided Horatio would saddle up Fireball and ride back to the village on the morrow. Hubbell remained calm, not wanting to alarm the new mother, though she seemed certain something substantial was keeping Dan.
Horatio planned to sleep in a real bed that night, but he continued reading the medical journals his father gave him long after Hubbell retired and he fell asleep in the chair. Around midnight, a persistent noise wakened him. Rousing, he shivered and saw the fire was but glimmering coals, then, realized the baby was continuing to wail. Rubbing his eyes, he went to Meryl's room. She was on the verge of rising from the bed.
"No, no! Meryl! Father does not want you up until he has checked you."
"But, Horatio, I cannot quiet him, and he is not hungry. He is wet."
"Give him to me and you get back into bed."
"Are you sure?" she asked over the baby's protesting.
"Yes, yes. I will change him."
The baby ceased his mournful cries when Horatio took him, making Horatio wonder and Meryl smile.
"He likes your touch," said Meryl. "I do not know what I would do without you, Horatio. How will I ever repay you?"
"I am happy to be of service, Meryl. Shall I put him in the cradle once he is changed?"
She lay back against the pillow carefully. "If he will sleep, yes, but when I carried him, he was always most active after I retired."
Once in the kitchen, he shifted the babe to his shoulder and arranged the table to replace the child's diaper and dress him in a dry gown.
"What is this now, the tenth nappy you've had today? I can see what keeps a mother busy, changing you, feeding you, washing diapers. You shall certainly have her hopping to keep you happy. Though I imagine your brothers and sister will be useful in that respect. Your older brother James takes care of Danny. They seem to be good boys. You must behave yourself, as well.
"I know Pamela will appreciate Drake when our son is born. You know she is convinced we are having a boy. Though Drake may decide to go back to Indefatigable. I think Captain Pellew misses him sometimes, even though he seldom spent time with him, at least not to my knowledge. I caught him glimpsing the boy when we were in action. No one was more surprised than I to learn Drake was the captain's god-son. There. Dry nappy, dry gown. It is chilly in here. I want you to sleep in your cradle now and give your mum a break. I need to see to the fire. Come on now. To bed with you."
He lifted the child to his shoulder. The little body was warm and the baby moved gently against Horatio, making tiny squeaking noises. Shifting the blankets of the cradle, Horatio lay the child on his side and covered him. He rubbed the tiny back of the newborn, then tucked the blanket around his sides. Sure the child was quiet, he went to the sitting room to build the fire before the coals went completely cold. Nearly finished, and the kindling catching around the larger logs, Horatio heard the baby crying, the sound amplified by the hollow room.
"You are going to wake the house," he said, stretching his long legs to reach the kitchen quickly.
The baby had rolled onto his back, kicked the covers away, and flailed tight fists, his face red with protest.
"What's all this?" He picked him up and the child continued to wail cradled in Horatio's arm. "You have not wet yourself again have you? I do not understand why they have not already chosen a name for you," he muttered, laying the child on the table again. "Although, Pamela and I have not discussed names, but we are apart. Your mother and father are right here. I would have thought they would have chosen one by now." The diaper was dry. "You aren't wet. Why are you crying? Are you hungry?"
Horatio put a knuckle at the boy's lips but he wagged his head away from the offer. Throwing a clean diaper over his shoulder, Horatio hefted the boy. Two heaving sobs and the baby went silent. Turning his head, Horatio tried to see what he was doing. The child lifted a shaky head then relaxed upon Horatio with a sigh. Shifting the cradle bed clothes, he lowered the baby towards the mattress. The child started to cry the moment he reached waist level.
"What is this?" Horatio put him back on his shoulder and the boy was quiet. Grabbing the cradle blanket, he covered the child and walked into the sitting room. Horatio turned in front of the hanging mirror so he could see him. His eyes were wide open. "Lord." Horatio shook his head. He sat down but the child would have none of it. "All right, all right. The middle watch, eh? So, you are trying to get me back into form? Well, this is definitely warmer than the quarter-deck, but it hasn't any of the atmosphere," he commented, pacing the room.
After some minutes, and finding a path straight and long enough to mirror the one he walked on Indy, Horatio slowed in the back and forth movements.
"I am wrong, little one. Your home has some very fine atmosphere. The fire gives a warm glow. The furnishings are humble but comfortable. You have a happy life ahead of you with mother, father, sister, and brothers. I do not have a single sibling, but you have three.
"The closest I have to a brother is Archie Kennedy. He must be back on the Indy by now. He was due back the day before we arrived here. It is probably cold and damp on the ship, but she rocks gently in harbour and the noise of the water against her hull is soothing. Is that what it was like to be inside your mother? The ship is a sort of mother. She's our home, but she fights in battle, too, with the men at task. The Indy is a fine ship. I shall never forget her for as long as I live...or the men who serve in her.
"She is my second home. Not the Justinian. Justinian was never home... thanks to Jack Simpson. This is the second time that man has come to mind. What a tyrant he was. I hope your path never takes you across such a ... I will not use offensive terms in your young ears. He was an unpleasant individual."
Horatio stopped in front of the mirror. The boy was still wide awake. "Do you want to know what it is to be at sea?" he asked, looking into the boy's eyes reflected in the glass. Pacing again, "Once we get out away from the land and the wind is blowing steady, her sails fill and puff out like great bellies. Against the blue of sky and wave, she flies like a tremendous white winged bird. If you stand out on the bowsprit,... or go to stand on a top yard,... it is like you are soaring above mountain tops! The wind sings through the rigging, the lines creak against the wood, and the water gaily splashes her hull. The sound of a ship under sail is the most beautiful music in the world.
"At night,... when it is clear,... the stars come out by the millions! They seem so close you think you can touch them. They hang from heaven like a jeweled curtain and reflect upon the sea, doubling their number and strength. You would not believe the amount of light they give. And when the rising moon is full the sea turns into a liquid silver path; the sails are cast with a blue light... and the silence,... except for the music of the ship, the watch bells, and the soft footfalls of the men....any speech is hushed and spoken softly, as if you were in a magnificent open cathedral... her yards and masts like great standing crosses, swathed in canvas." Horatio heaved a sigh. "Nights at sea can be beautiful. Pamela was with me on nights like these. Dolphin was my command. She was a beautiful little lady for my lady and me." He fell silent, seeing Pamela in his mind's eye, standing with him by the taffrail in Dolphin, the white wake of the ship catching the light. He stopped in front of the mirror. The eyes were closed.
The kitchen was too cold, the fire in the stove nearly out. Horatio opened the iron door as quietly as possible and shoved in a few sticks of cord wood, trying not to jostle the baby. Walking to Meryl's room, he entered hesitantly. He stood over her, seeing she was asleep. He eased the child off his shoulder and held him across his palm and forearm.
"Meryl," he whispered. "Meryl."
"What is it, Horatio?" she asked, sleepily.
"The kitchen is too cold. I am going to move the cradle back in here."
"Not tonight. It will be too noisy and may wake your father. Put him beside me."
He lowered the child but just before easing him off his arm, he woke and complained with a plaintive wah. Horatio returned him carefully to his shoulder and the babe quieted.
Meryl looked up at the two of them with amused pleasure and pushed herself to a half sitting position. "You poor dear. Give him to me, Horatio."
"No. He will cry." He swayed and patted the child's back, seeing Meryl watched them. He turned so the baby faced her. "Is he asleep?"
"I fear the second I move him, he will waken," whispered Horatio.
"Lay down with him and ease him off once you are prone," suggested Meryl.
"You mean on your bed?" questioned Horatio.
"That would be highly improper, Meryl."
"You being in my bedroom at two in the morning is already improper," she said.
Horatio's face was aggrieved.
"I am teasing you, Horatio. But I am serious about you lying down. Come, now. It is worth a try." She turned over, pulled back the blankets where her husband would have slept and patted the bed.
"Are you sure?" asked Horatio doubtfully.
"Yes. I've just had a child. There is no way I could engage in anything ... questionable. You aren't going to do anything, are you?"
"No!" he replied abashed.
"Come then," she urged.
Stepping to the other side, he lowered onto the bed, keeping his body and the baby as motionless as possible. He could not deny the comfort of the mattress as his body relaxed. The baby stirred but was quiet. Carefully, Horatio shifted him to his other shoulder, then waited.
"Are his eyes still closed?" he asked.
Meryl smiled and nodded and pulled the blankets up to cover the child and part of Horatio.
A wait and Horatio started to move the child but was met with a complaint. Horatio looked over at Meryl.
"Wait a bit and then try again," she whispered, stroking the back of the baby's hand with a finger tip. "You will make a very good father, Horatio," she yawned.
Horatio fought a yawn in reply and closed his eyes, intending to wait five minutes and then try to ease him off, but his eyes did not open again until the smell of coffee reached his senses. Meryl was asleep and the baby was snuggled against her. He eased out from under the covers onto the floor, not taking his eyes off them. He closed the bedroom door and walked into the kitchen.
His father looked up and smiled. "Sleep well?"
"Ahem. He would not sleep... I... I had to walk him. Is that not what fathers do?"
"Yes. You seem to be doing everything that fathers do."
"Father." He lowered his chin. It was too early for this kind of banter.
"You need a shave. There is hot water. Do you want a cup of coffee first?"
After breakfast and resupplying the wood stores inside the house, Horatio struggled to get a saddle on a most uncooperative Fireball. The horse neither wanted to be saddled, bridled, nor leave his cozy stall. It was Hubbell that forced the bit between his teeth.
"I do not like leaving you alone, Father. What if something should prevent me or Dan from returning? Maybe I should stay here." He talked over his father's shoulder as his da adjusted the girth with the billets and buckles around Fireball. "Sooner or later, Coulson will return. There is no danger for us," argued Horatio, his breath faintly white in the chill barn.
"He should have been here by now, son. Perhaps the sleigh was upset coming back and he is lying injured in the snow along the way. No. I want you to go."
Frowning at the saddled horse, he said, "I am no horseman. I could count the number of times I have ridden on one hand."
"You just have to let him know who is in charge."
"Yes... so I've been told... and my reply to that was and still is, he knows." The open frown revealed clinched teeth.
Hubbell gave him a winning smile. "I know you can do it."
With a single nod, "It is my turn to thank you" he emphasized, "for the vote of confidence." Horatio put one foot in the stirrup. "God, I hope I can remember how to do this," he muttered. Grabbing onto a hunk of mane and letting the reins hang evenly, he propelled upwards, slinging his right leg over the saddle, nearly losing his balance and going over the other side. He grabbed onto Fireball's neck. "Oof!"
Fireball's ears were turned towards Horatio and he attempted to look back at the rider, but Hubbell stood at his head and prevented him.
"Take the reins, Horatio. Use your heels and let him know you are in command."
"Yes, sir." Horatio gave a kick to Fireball's sides.
The horse snorted, turned, and walked back into his stall.
Hubbell bit back the grin.
"I tend to agree with you, Fireball," muttered Horatio.
With a deep sigh, Horatio looked over his shoulder at his father.
"Come on." Hubbell walked to Fireball's head, grabbed the bridle, and led him out of the barn.
Fireball blew white steaming breath from his nostrils, pawed the snow, and shook his head.
**He does not want to go and neither do I,** thought Horatio. **This is folly. If Dan Coulson is not stranded in the snow, I soon may be.**
"Hold onto the reins, Horatio, that is how to tell him which way to go."
"I know that much, sir," he droned.
"Are you ready, son?"
"Yes. Come on, Fireball." He kicked the horse's sides.
The horse shook his head and stood his ground.
Horatio looked askance at his father. "The sooner we leave, the sooner we will return," he admonished his transport. "Damn it, horse, let's go!" Leaning forward and digging in his heels, Horatio urged him forward.
Hubbell gave the horse a resounding slap on the rump.
Puffing out his lips, as horses do, and tossing his head, Fireball lurched into a trot.
"We'll be here, Horatio!" called Hubbell, waving.
"Yes, sir," answered Horatio, his voice tremulous with bouncing.
He managed to rein him onto the road, aimed in the correct direction. Growing weary of his head being rattled with the trot, he gave a kick, leaned low, and Fireball took off at a gallop. The nearly black mane whipped at Horatio's cheeks and he squinted to protect his eyes. The cold wind reddened his cheeks and nose while the rest of his face went pale with the chill temperatures, his breath panting white. The beat of hooves set a cadence and Horatio found a rhythm with the speeding steed. Ice clumps flew out behind as the horse raced down the snow covered lane.
**God! I hope there are not any holes under this snow.** Horatio's heart raced with the lengthening strides. Never had he been propelled at such a speed on land. It put him to mind of the gales this time of year in the channel but without the seasickness.
Fireball kept the pace for an unknown time period. Horatio was lost in the repetitive beat, hanging on with tensed legs and gripping the reins along with Fireball's mane. How long would the horse keep up this rate? Horatio leaned with the curve Fireball was making, and suddenly, there it was, not one but two horse drawn conveyances coming at them.
Horatio and Dan must have seen each other at the same moment. Coulson pulled back on the reins of Marleybone and stood up, concern etching his features. Horatio sat up straighter and hauled aft on Fireball, but the colt had the bit in his teeth. Horatio jerked the reins back deftly, acting on instinct, yanking the metal rod back against the corners of the horse's mouth. He felt the horse shift his weight and the hind-quarters move under him. The horse was stopping, but he was not. Flying off the back of the horse, he landed unceremoniously in a mounded snow drift, barely missing the trunk of a bare tree.
"Horatio, man!" called Dan, jumping from the sleigh.
"Leftenant Hornblower! Dear God in heaven, are you all right?" A female quickly exited the barouche, lifting the crinoline thick skirt for clear passage.
The voice was that of Julia Arminter. Before he had a chance to move, he was surrounded. Hands were under his arm, turning him over. Dan brushed ice from his chest. Julia knelt beside him in the snow, the full skirt of her dark blue coat-covered dress fanning around her. She wiped his face with gloved hands of the sticking white flakes.
"My heavens! You gave me a fright!"
"Mrs. Arminter," he swallowed, blushing under her care.
"What the devil, man? What's happened to have you riding at such a pace? Is it Meryl? Is she all right?" asked Dan, fear in his voice. If Dr. Hornblower was not enough of a physician and Horatio was sent for help, what could that possibly mean? Another young woman stood behind Dan, peering at Hornblower.
Fireball stepped near Horatio's head, sniffed and whickered a breath on his former rider. Horatio glanced at the horse, then, reached up and brushed the velvet nose.
"Give him a minute to get his senses, Dan," urged Julia. She sat in the snow and positioned to provide a place for Horatio to lean.
"Meryl is fine," he said, somewhat dazed and breathless. "You have a handsome baby boy."
"Oh!" he said relieved, clutching his breast and falling back on his heels, "Thank the Lord." Dan gave a reassuring look to the woman behind him. "I do apologize, Horatio. I tried to come back Christmas Eve..."
"Not now, Dan. Let him catch his breath," ordered Julia.
"Is he all right?" asked a third female, warmly dressed in a fine black fur trimmed fitted green overcoat with a matching hat. The eyes were a startling blue and the hair blonde like the sun. "I do not think I have ever witnessed such a fascinating dismount!" she offered, gazing down at Horatio.
Horatio's brow twitched with recognition. It was her! He would never forget those eyes, the color of a London blue topaz, like the Mediterranean on a bright summer day. She was a woman, but the unmistakable, unforgettable features of the young girl she had been were even more lovely now.
She offered a dazzling smile, her visage haughtily accepting the awe she knew her appearance evoked. "Dan, you must introduce us," she stated.
"Oh, yes. Horatio Hornblower, this is Lady Ann Delaney. Lady Ann, this is Leftenant Horatio Hornblower of His Majesty's navy," said Dan. "And this is Meryl's younger sister, Beryl."
Beryl curtsied and Hornblower nodded.
"How do you do, Leftenant Hornblower. You do not look like a sailor, ... but I see, too, you are no army man," Lady Delaney teased.
"He is home on leave, Lady Ann," filled in Mrs. Arminter.
Noting Horatio's constant stare, Lady Delaney said, "Have we met before, Leftenant?"
He sat up abruptly and rose to his feet, assisting Mrs. Arminter as quickly as he had his footing.
"No, ma'am, we have not," he answered shyly.
"More's the pity. Is Haslemere your home? You do seem slightly familiar. Or, perhaps it is the resemblance to your father," she commented gaily.
"Yes, ma'am. Haslemere was my home. I joined the navy about seven years ago."
"Oh," she said eyeing him one way and then another. "Hm. It was eleven years ago that I was in Haslemere,... before I came out. I suppose you would have been too young to truly notice. The boys that summer were such precious attentive little men. Are you sure you did not hold a door, or offer your hand to assist me?"
"I am sure, madam," and he bowed slightly.
"But you do remember me, don't you?" she questioned, the nose slightly raised and the eyes narrowing knowingly.
"I believe I do recall seeing you in the village," he confessed.
Her expression was highly satisfied.
"Leftenant Hornblower, you will ride in the carriage with us," said Julia, taking command. "Mr. Farkin, tie Fireball onto the back of the carriage. Come. Are you sure you are all right?"
"I am better by the moment." Fireball pushed him with his nose, jostling him, before Farkin could take the reins.
Lady Ann laughed, sounding like a new summer waterfall after a rain. "Dan, is this your horse? He is quite a character! I think he likes you, Leftenant Hornblower."
Horatio glanced doubtfully at Fireball.
"She is probably right, Horatio. Nobody knows horse flesh like Lady Ann," advised Coulson.
"His kind of friendship I can do without," offered Horatio, rubbing his shoulder.
Her ladyship trilled out another liquid laugh and smiled coyly at Horatio, extending a waiting hand. "Will you help me into the carriage, Leftenant? That is, if you are not too injured." She gave Julia a cagey glance.
"Certainly, ma'am," and he offered his hand, first to Lady Ann and then to Julia, whose cheeks had pinked.
As Horatio entered the carriage, both women eyed him, Lady Ann smiling knowingly.
He had a feeling no matter where he sat, Lady Ann would find some explanation that would please her. If he sat next to her, then, she would take it that he preferred her over Mrs. Arminter. If he chose to sit next to Julia, then, she would believe it was so he could admire her beauty. It was a win-win situation for her, so he sat next to Julia, his father's friend. He thought he noted a slight look of pleasure or relief from Mrs. Arminter. Closing his eyes briefly, he wished he could trade both these women for one Pamela.
"Is your father well, Leftenant?" asked Julia, anxiously.
Horatio heard the clear concern and looked Julia full in the face. Meeting the fretful gaze, and smiling faintly, he nodded. "Yes, ma'am." He knew in that moment that Julia was in love with his father, and that he had known it for some time but resisted the idea. Another truth revealed itself. His father was in love with her. He filled his lungs and turned abruptly to look out the window, not sure how he felt. /////If ever there should be something that befell me,...I want you to find someone else.//// **God, no,** he thought. Pamela's words. She and his mother were so similar, would not his mother have wanted the same for his father? He felt overwhelmed, but no one in this carriage should see these feelings. He raised his head and the old familiar mask, long unused, wiped away all sign of emotion.
Julia squeezed his arm, requiring his attention.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
She was perceptive. Did all Hornblower men attract such females? He turned to see her concern and a half smile escaped briefly. His eyes raked her, seeing her beauty despite the age,... and... the attraction for his father.
"I am all right," he replied softly, considering and comparing Julia to the last memory of his mother. How he wished Lady Ann were not here. He could not speak freely and the desire to do so was strong. "I am all right." He placed his hand on top of Julia's that still clutched his upper arm. Her grip eased, and he pressed her fingers beneath his.
He was cognizant of Julia's steady intake of air. She did not remove her hand, nor did he his. Both of them perceived that Lady Ann was watching them, and the peer raised one eyebrow.
"Is it the new Coulson's entry into the world that brings you two ladies out on such a crisp day?" he asked, surprising himself.
Lady Ann's smile broadened. "Indeed. I am employing an old wives tale, Leftenant Hornblower."
"Pardon?" He had no idea of what she was speaking.
Lady Ann shifted her gaze to Julia, then back to Hornblower. "I want to have a baby, Leftenant."
If this was meant to clear things up for him, it failed.
"He has no idea of what I am talking about, Mrs. Arminter." Seeing she was right in her supposition, Lady Ann stated, "There is an old wives tale that says if you want to have a baby, you have to hold one."
He absorbed this information solemnly. Ridiculous.
Lady Ann snickered. "Do you doubt it?"
He was in a spot. Why could he not have remained silent as he was used? If he had not questioned them, he would not now be questioned. "Last I heard, your Ladyship, ..." he hesitated to say it.
Lady Ann laughed heartily. "Are you going to say something bawdy?"
Her laughter made him smile. "Well, ... "
"Leftenant, do not say another word. Lady Ann is married. She has a husband," said Julia Arminter, matter-of-factly, her demeanor slightly aghast. The things young people discussed these days.
"Yes, I do." The lady's cheek held a faint blush. "I have been married for nine years. That is not the problem, sir," she admitted, her eyes twinkling.
Pamela apparently became pregnant on their wedding night. That someone would have difficulty was foreign. **Nine years? She must have married young,** he thought.
"So, you are saying the old wives tales states that if you hold a baby, that ..." he chose the word carefully, "the magic, shall we say... will rub off on you."
"How nicely put! Exactly!" She leaned back against the cushioned seat. "And after waiting for nine years, I am ready to try anything. I know your father was jesting when he said it, but, damn me, I am quite desperate. I am getting old, Leftenant."
She could not yet be nine and twenty, he thought, but he knew females preferred to gestate in their youth. His father said once that the sooner a woman began having children, the easier later offspring would be. What could that mean for him and Pamela? Though he did not want to admit it, if they were available to one another, they might be reproducing like rabbits. "Ahem."
Lady Ann observed him expectantly and waited. "Were you going to say something, Leftenant?"
"Leftenant Hornblower's wife is with child," informed Mrs. Arminter.
Lady Ann traced the length of him with her eyes, down, then up. He felt Julia's fingers tighten. Horatio looked askance at Mrs. Arminter and then back at Lady Ann. He could think of nothing appropriate to say.
"Ahem," he cleared.
"Indeed," said Julia, clasping his arm and shifting in her seat.
"Congratulations, Leftenant," offered Lady Delaney.
He nodded his thanks, then, shifted his view outside the barouche to the whitened scenery and wondered just how far down the road Fireball had carried him.
The sleigh and the barouche drove into the expanse between the house and the farm. Coulson helped his sister-in-law down. Farkin opened the door, extending a helping hand. Dr. Hornblower came out to greet them.
"Dan! It figures that the moment I sent Horatio into the village you would return. I see you met on the road," stated the doctor.
"In so many words, yes, but I will leave that for Horatio to explain. Excuse me, sir, but I must see my wife. Forgive me," and Coulson strode swiftly into the house with Beryl close behind.
"Lady Ann, Mrs. Arminter. This is a pleasant surprise. I take it you are here to see the baby," suggested the doctor, his eyes floating over Julia's pleased visage.
"Doctor Hornblower, I have indeed," said Lady Ann. "You did not tell me you had such a handsome son away in the navy."
"I ..." taken aback by the compliment, he saw Horatio shying away, then, Hubbell rephrased to say, "he does take after his mother," and absently extended a hand to Julia. "It is good to see you, my dear."
Horatio stepped to untie Fireball from the barouche.
"Back sooner than later, eh, Horatio?" commented his father.
"Yes, sir," he answered. "I am going to unsaddle Fireball. By your leave, my ladies." It seemed a good excuse to escape all the female company. The horse nuzzled between Horatio's upper arm and body and Horatio patted the horse's neck.
"Hubbell, we have brought dinner," stated Julia, pulling a basket from the barouche.
Inside the barn, in Fireball's stall, Horatio removed the lightweight saddle and bridle from the young colt. The horse stuck his nose into a pail of oats, blowing tufts of the grain into the air with an exhale. Horatio found a cloth and began to rub the horse down, wiping away the sweat or wet from the sleek dark hide. Next, he lay a blanket over Fireball's back and fastened it across the broad chest of the animal. Giving him a pat on the hindquarters, Horatio stopped at the opening of the stall and gazed at the barn door. Shaking his head, no, in answer to the mental conversation, he closed the stall gate, then, climbed into the stored field wagon that was half filled with hay and lay stretched out and stared at the rafters above, the straw affording some warmth. He was tired and absently rubbed his right shoulder, thankful he had not broken any bones when he went flying off the back of the halting horse.
As he brushed the upper arm, he recalled the pressure of Julia's hand there. From the first day of their meeting, he sensed something subconsciously, and today, he saw it for what it was. She and his father were in love. The only explanation for not having realized it sooner was the preoccupation with his own problems and the frazzled thinking that was fading into a memory. Examining his mental and physical state, Horatio found his recovery palpable.
Lady Ann appeared on the tapestry of his mind. She had a singular beauty and he could not deny the pleasure of her loveliness, but he had no desire to be in her company, or anyone's for that matter. He was ready to go, first to the home in Haslemere, and hopefully soon, to Indefatigable.
He was not sure how long he had been lying there, staring at the rafters. Recalling his thoughts, he remembered comparing the beams overhead to those on the Indy. A touch on his arm, and he startled, seeing the smiling visage peering over the sideboard of the wagon.
"Hubbell said you were a solitary boy, though I think he should alter that to a solitary man. Are you all right, Leftenant? We were getting worried about you out here in this cold drafty barn."
His expression softened with the calming voice of this woman that seemed to fit effortlessly in the life of the Hornblowers. "I am well, Mrs. Arminter. It is not so drafty," he replied gently, sitting up. "Forgive me. I did not mean for either of you to worry." He dropped onto the hardened earth beside her. "Am I needed?"
The soft smile and warm eyes soothed his emotions and before she spoke, he knew nothing was amiss.
"No," and she ceased speaking abruptly to keep from using some term of endearment with this young man that she considered pleasant and amiable. Picking straw from his back and hair, Julia searched his eyes for something more of which to speak. "The dinner is warming and should be ready soon. Will you come? Or are you not hungry?"
He shrugged a smile, letting his eyes shift from her features briefly.
"What is it, Leftenant?"
"You know," he hesitated, "you ... should call me Horatio. Leftenant seems... inordinately formal."
The blush on her cheek amazed him and made the corners of his lips tug slightly higher.
"Has he asked you to marry him?" he queried boldly.
She gasped softly, then, her eyes returned to that warm glow. She shook her head, no. "He ... is afraid ... you would not approve."
Horatio's brow twitched at the idea that his father would think his approval was something he needed. Reaching slowly, he took Julia's hand, raised it to his lips, and kissed it. He turned to leave but stopped and faced her.
"You are in love with him, are you not?"
The question astonished her, Horatio saw. Money could not possibly be the appeal. His father had none to speak of. There was not time for bandying words. He was ready to go back to sea. He knew it. It was time to go.
Recovering after a breath, she said simply, "Yes."
He was heading for the barn door.
"Horatio!" She made several swift steps. When he faced her, she opened her mouth as if to speak, but no words came.
With a reassuring gaze, he held out his hand and watched her eyes dance. She took it and he closed his fingers tightly around her small warm hand and lay it on his forearm. Thus entwined, the two made their way across the broad opening between the barn and the house, with Julia's clothing dragging a swath through the snow, their steps crisply crunching.
"Are you sure you do not mind?" she asked anxiously.
He stopped. Anxiety dissolved from the sweet, calm face of this woman, and he saw what appealed to his father. There was comfort, warmth, and love in the expression.
"You would be good ... for both of us. My mind will be at ease if I know he has you with him. If you need my blessing,... you have it. I will tell him, if you think he needs to hear it."
She nodded, hope drawn across her visage.
"My father is a lucky man."
"With you for a son, indeed, he is."
Setting modesty aside, he received the compliment silently.
Julia's eyes pooled, and he automatically retrieved the handkerchief from the coat pocket of his civilian clothes and offered it.
"Not you, too! I thought my wife was the only one that moved so easily to tears."
"They must be tears of joy for the love you share," Julia suggested, dabbing the corners and laying the length of a finger underneath her lower lashes. She rocked up on her toes and kissed his cheek. "Your acceptance is the best gift I have received this Christmas, Horatio."