A Bag of Cats
by Ashley

 

"How can you listen to that noise? It brings to mind a bag full of cats."

Lieutenant William Bush laughed outloud at the image that statement brought
to mind. He turned to face Captain Horatio Hornblower, who was standing
next to him, frowning at the pipers playing in the center of the town
commons.

"But, sir, how can you say that? It's a classic tune, been around since the
middle ages. Times of King Arthur, I've heard it said."

Hornblower sat tiredly next to his friend, and gladly accepted the hot cider
offered him. He sipped, smiling as the hot liquid burned a path to his
stomach, before answering.

"Just because it's old doesn't make it good, William. You should know
that."

"And just because it's music doesn't mean it's unenjoyable," Bush countered,
and Hornblower turned slightly sideways, meeting Bush's blue eyes with his
own brown ones.

"True, true. However, if it were a mathematical presentation, 'twould be
you complaining rather than me."

"Indeed, Captain," Bush laughed, and turned back to the pipers, who were
currently wrapping up a dirge like air. Following the slower piece, a
fiddle player joined them, and they rapidly whipped the watching crowd into
a frenzy. Bush and Hornblower had been lucky, or perhaps unlucky enough in
Hornblower's mind to happen upon the strange gaity they were currently
witnessing.

Visiting the Portsmouth Admiralty was never Hornblower's favorite way to
spend time, but after reporting his recent doings and his current plans, he
had given himself and Bush the night to visit friends and get some decent
food while the Hotspur was being resupplied.

He had found Bush waiting for him near the market road, and had grinned to
himself watching his lean, gangly friend rocking in time to what sounded to
him like animals being tortured. Aside from the fact that he had absolutely
no ear for music whatsoever, he really, really disliked the pipes. If
pressed, he wasn't sure if he could have explained why. He knew what he
liked, and bagpipes did not fit into that category.

"How did the meeting go, sir?" Bush asked politely. Hornblower shook his
head.

"As you know I am not overfond of puffed up, blustering admirals, but luck
was with me, and I received our new orders in record time," he said.

"Excellent," Bush replied, and took a drink of his own cider. Hornblower
found it slightly odd that the other man hadn't asked for any more details,
but then he decided that a night off should be a night off.

"So, Mr. Bush. Fancy any dinner, or shall we be listening to this wheezing
and scratching all night?"

"I have not procured any food yet, however, there are several stalls set up
on the north of the grassy area, just there," Bush said, pointing to the
wooden booths Hornblower could barely see behind the musicians.

"Wonderful. Shall we?"

Bush stood, slapping his hat on his head. "After you, sir."

The two men crossed the plaza at a slow pace; it was strange but oddly
comforting to be among so many strangers, if only for one night.

"I still feel a bit out of place," Bush yelled in order to be heard over all
the commotion.

"What? Why? You have been serving as my first lieutenant for many months
now, Mr. Bush. You shouldn't feel that - oh."

Hornblower's look of incredulity was replaced by one of sheepish
understanding.

"Yes, I do as well. Strange to among so many people you don't know. I'm
used to seeing at least a few faces I know well in a crowd this size," he
added, getting a grasp on what Bush was referring to.

"Aye, sir. It's nice, but also hard to get accustomed to," Bush said,
quieter now that they had crossed the commons area and reached the food
stalls. The two men had both been at sea for several months, and being
among a large crowd of strangers without seeing a single person you knew by
name was a new experience for both of them.

"I always had to force myself to look out the window first thing when I was
home in Chichester with my sisters; if I didn't, I would be thrown off
looking at grass instead of ocean. It was mildly disturbing. Although have
you noticed, that when we are at sea, the main thing we wish for is home?
Peculiar."

Hornblower smiled. Bush had a charming way of stating the obvious.

"Yes, William, I had noticed it, and participated myself. One is expected
to long for whatever one doesn't have. I think it's human nature, quite
honestly."

The older man smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. Hornblower
associated that particular expression with comfort, warmth and
companionship. He valued Bush highly, and was happy to have an informal
evening with his friend.

After purchasing and partaking of some remarkably good lamb pie, the two men
got more ale and sat on a bench, the sound of the pipers not as loud as
before. Horatio silently thanked his good fortune, and crossed his slender
calf over his left knee.

He frowned at his stockings; he hadn't realized just how bad a shape his
uniform was in. He was embarassed at his state of shabbiness; the lack of
time and of funds had kept him from purchasing any new clothing. For a
relatively untried captain, he felt he certainly didn't look the part.

"At least your boots are new," Bush empathized, and Hornblower started. Had
the man read his mind?

"Now you're frightening me, William. How on earth - "

"I know that expression," Bush answered. "You had that same look on your
face when Orrock spilled coffee on your trousers."

Hornblower snorted at the memory.

"If I recall, Mr. Bush, I did say to forget that very incident. You
certainly aren't trying to bring up any embarassing moments from the past,
are you?"

"Oh, no, sir, of course not," Bush replied, and Hornblower was sure the man
had actually giggled.

"How many cups of ale have we had?" he quiered his friend.

"Just the cider and this, sir. Would you like some more?" Bush was
instantly attentive, transformed into his usual helpful self. Horatio wasn'
t sure whether he liked this behavior or not, off ship.

"William, relax. I'm merely trying to keep stock of my purse, and my self
control," Hornblower said, pushing Bush back onto the bench. A woman
passing by with a tray of drinks stopped in front of them, dropped a pretty
curtsey, and Bush bought two more.

"Don't fret, Horatio; there is plenty to purchase still, and plenty of
money. To your health, my friend."

Horatio raised his mug to clink with Bush's, whom Horatio was beginning to
think had had more than just two drinks.

But again, a night off. Bush could drink whatever and how ever much he
wanted to, as long as he was at the Hotspur by morning.

They both drank deeply, and Hornblower made an ungainly sound at the sight
of Bush with a foamy mustache.

"What?" the other man asked, then reached a long fingered hand up to his
mouth. He smirked, then wiped his face on his coat sleeve.

"How fares Mrs. Hornblower?" Bush asked suddenly, and Horatio winced
slightly. He had seen Maria briefly, then gone to the Admiralty, telling
her the meeting might last quite a while. He was expecting to sleep at
home, but was perhaps not so excited to get there. He knew he was
procrastinating, but time spent casually with Bush was not something he
wanted to miss out on.

He told himself that he was being a good captain and friend, and would be
remiss in not taking part in his shipmates' lives. He also told himself
that William Bush had no family here in Portsmouth, and it would be unseemly
to leave him alone for a night.

He sighed.

He was a terrible husband, and he knew it. No amount of guilt or lying on
his part would make up for it, yet he found he couldn't just go home and act
the part like he should.

"She fares well, thank you. I should be at home, actually," he shook his
head. Admitting fault had never been easy for him. "Do you think I made a
mistake, William?" he asked quietly.

Bush's eyes widened, and a small wrinkle appeared between his eyebrows. He
took a deep drink of his ale, then thought, his head cocked.

"You know my answer to that, Horatio. You heard me in the church. But this
is not just your life any longer. You have a family, and other people to
consider. You cannot just reverse your decision now."

"I know that, William," Horatio answered, a bit testily. He drank more of
his ale, and was surprised to find his mug empty. He caught the sleeve of
another passing serving girl, and got two more.

Bush cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing, merely accepting his glass.

"It's - God, it's awful. I know she loves me. More than that, the woman
lives for me. And like I've said before, it's nice to know someone on shore
cares whether you live or die. But I - I'm not happy."

Hornblower's last words dropped off sharply, and Bush had to strain to hear
them.

"I'm sorry, Horatio," he said simply. He ached for the man, he truly did.
But he had no answer for him. "I sometimes worry about your sense of honor.
It one day may cause problems for you. But then I think that other men
would not do the things you've done, nor would they be half the man you are.
And I thank the fates that I happened to meet you, for I wouldn't choose to
serve with anyone else. I aspire to be as good a person as you are."

Hornblower blushed fiercely, and drank to hide his face. He did not deserve
such friends as William Bush.

Bush stuck out his hand, and Hornblower grasped it tightly, shaking it. The
two friends smiled at each other in the evening twilight, happy to be
together.

The pipes struck up again, and Hornblower groaned. Bush just laughed and
tapped his foot in time with the music.

"Cats, I tell you, have a better tune," the captain said, and Bush whacked
his shoulder.

"Just listen."

*

They stopped outside Hornblower's new home, both watching the quay and the
ships docking there. The Hotspur was one of many getting resupplied for a
trip out to sea.

Bush turned to the younger man, and clapped him on the arm.

"Good evening, sir. I shall see you at dawn-" the door opened behind them,
and Maria stuck her mobcap covered head outside.

"Oh, Horry, thank the lord. I was beginning to worry - Mr. Bush! How good of
you to see him home."

Hornblower winced slightly at the sound of the nickname, then turned a
bright smile on his wife.

"Maria, dear, I'm fine. I do believe I can escort myself from place to
place without help."

She returned his smile, unaware of his annoyance at her comments. "Of
course you can, darling, but I can't help but worry. I would be at a loss
if anything should happen to you - Mr. Bush? Do you have a place to sleep?"

Bush started, not expecting her attention. "I was planning on returning to
the ship," he pointed back down the quay.

"No, no, you must stay with us, we have plenty of room, now that Horry's not
using the extra bedroom," she said loudly, then blushed when she realized
what she had said.

"I mean, please join us. Any friend of my husband's is welcome here.
Besides, this way you can have a decent breakfast, instead of that horrible
stuff you men are forced to eat on ship."

Bush looked at Horatio, who had a neutral expression plastered on his
angular face.

"William?" he said, gesturing to the door.

"I would be honored," Bush replied, and the three trooped inside.

*

Bush sat on the spare bed, his borrowed nightshirt a tad bit stretched
across his broad shoulders. The moon fell in the open window, the only
light in the room. It was half past two a.m., and he should be resting.
They had a lot of work ahead of them in order to be ready to sail in a day's
time.

A quiet creaking reached his ears, and he turned to see Horatio tiptoeing
into the room. He smiled at the younger man, and turned back to the window.

"Does Mrs. Hornblower know you're awake?" Bush asked, keeping the volume of
his voice down.

"God, no. If she did, she'd probably be trying to force hot milk into me in
order to get me to sleep, or some awful tincture of her mother's," Horatio
whispered back, and the two men shared an evil cackle.

"We sound like old housewives," Hornblower said, wiping tears of mirth from
his eyes.

Bush sobered. "I am sorry for her, you know."

"I as well, William," Horatio said, not needing to elaborate. They both
knew the poor young woman would never get the love she so desperately
craved.

"Where are we bound, sir?"

"Brest. More sitting and watching," the captain said, his chin in hand.
"We are 'required and requested' to see if we can't get the local fishermen
to talk."

"Ah," Bush said noncommitally, and let silence decend.

"I should get back before she wakes," Hornblower said at last, and stood to
go.

"I will get you to enjoy music one day, Horatio," Bush replied, and his
friend cocked his head, his hands at his bony hips.

"Oh, aye? And how will you do that?"

"I have my ways," he answered, a mysterious smile on his lips. Hornblower
just shook his head.

"A bag - "

" - of cats. I know," Bush said, and touched his forehead in a gesture of
respect.

"Goodnight, Horatio."

"Pleasant dreams, William."

Bush watched him go, sadness in his heart at the slump of his friend's
shoulders. He knew Horblower would rather be anywhere then where he was
right now - and cursed himself that he hadn't tried to do more to dissuade him
from doing what Hornblower had thought of as 'duty' to a friend.

Maria's all encompassing love and obsessive worry would bury the young man,
and Bush had no desire to see the energetic and happy captain reduced to a
shell of himself. He was afraid this was exactly what would happen - and had
no idea what to do about it.

A few notes of pipe music drifted through the window, and Bush's last
thought as he lay down to sleep was of how he was going to get Hornblower to
appreciate a good tune.

A simple night off.

But a night off he would take to thinking on when he was at sea during
winter, practically doing a jig on the quarterdeck to try and stay warm. A
night he would remember fondly when he was eating ship's biscuit and
drinking water.

He slept, his dreams of Irish pipers meshing with the mildly disturbing
images of loudly yowling felines.

Fin.