Bridegroom
by Simon

He had been married just that morning, in a little half filled church
in Portsmouth.

The spectators had consisted almost entirely of his crew. There were
a few of Maria's friends and some people her mother knew. His father
wasn't there. He hadn't been told of the ceremony and likely wouldn't
have made the journey from Kent had he been so informed. It was of no
matter.

Thank God Bush had stood up with him. It should have been Archie, of
course, but then Archie was dead and so couldn't attend.

As he had watched Maria come towards him down the aisle, his main
thought, as he pasted a pleased looking smile on his face, was that
the dress looked quite awful on her. The color was wrong for her
complexion, making her look sallow and the style only served to
emphasis her short and somewhat plump stature. It had been an
unfortunate choice.

His mind wandered to the thought that the idea of an `unfortunate
choice' extended farther than just the matter of fashion. This
marriage was a mistake. He knew it the moment the proposal was out of
his mouth and being joyously accepted. He knew it as Maria was
throwing her arms around his neck in happiness and kissing him that
he was likely making the largest mistake of his life.

He could have rescinded the proposal, he could have simply explained
that he had changed his mind, that he didn't want to go through with
it, that they were unsuited to one another. He could have not shown
up at the church this morning, he could have just walked out.

In fact, he did none of these things and, slipping the ring on her
finger, had plighted his troth until death they did part.

Now, mind you, it wasn't that he disliked the girl, or that he had
other, better irons in the fire. No, that wasn't the case. He liked
her enough"well, not enough to marry her, perhaps, but enough to
treat her kindly. He liked her enough so that he couldn't hurt her
feelings.

He didn't love her, of course, and that was unfortunate because she
loved him. Perhaps if he were going to be about Portsmouth more, if
they would actually be living together he would have made more effort
to love her. The fact was that in three days he would be sailing and
would likely not see her again, assuming that he wasn't killed, for
months or possibly years. He would keep up the façade for a couple
of days. Besides, he wouldn't even be around her all that much before
he left, what with having to be busy on the ship.

Then they were walking back down the aisle, Maria clinging to his arm
and her face lit with happiness.

He passed through the rest of the morning almost as though he were
floating along in some sort of dream. He could recall glimpses of the
archway of raised cutlasses and swords that Bush had arranged,
moments at the wedding breakfast before he was called away by Admiral
Pellew. He could remember that conversation clearly, with
professionalism, but then shifted back into his dreamlike memory for
the rest of the day. He could picture Pellew proposing the toast to
the happy couple, he could remember his new mother-in-law complaining
about something or other and he could recall the relief when he
opened the note from Bush allowing him to escape back to Hotspur to
oversee the loading of some supplies. There was an unreality to the
entire affair (he smiled to himself at his unconscious choice of
words) that, in a detached way, he found almost interesting.

The proverbial spectator at the feast, which was how he thought of
himself.

The supplies loaded and with the sun now setting, Bush had shyly
suggested that he might like to got ashore, that everything would be
taken care of in his absence, not to worry. Knowing what his
Lieutenant was alluding to, Hornblower was momentarily panicked by
the prospect of what the evening's conclusion must be for him. He was
no virgin after ten years in the Navy"Hell, those three days in
Kingston with Bush would have put paid to that, even if nothing else
had"but the thought of Maria waiting for him, as he knew she would
be, was enough to put anyone off their stride.

He suggested that, perhaps, Bush would do him the pleasure of joining
him for dinner and perhaps to raise a glass.

Surprised by the suggestion from a man approaching his wedding night,
Bush couldn't very well say anything other than to reply that he
would be honored and looked forward to it.

Together they entered the ship's boat, made the short trip to the
quay and walked to a local inn known for fare a cut above the usual
offerings. Hornblower insisted that the treat was his, in thanks and
gratitude for Bush's services earlier that day and, indeed, during
the entire last week. The wedding coming just on top of the fitting
out of Hotspur made for a hectic few days and Hornblower told his
First, and his friend, that he was obligated to the man. Bush took
his praise and his thanks with embarrassment. After all, that was his
job; to do everything he could to help his Captain, wasn't it? Well,
yes, but he hadn't had to agree to act as his supporter at the
wedding, and that wouldn't be forgotten.

Hornblower asked the barkeep for another bottle of wine and Bush
thought it odd that a man on his way to his new bride would choose to
get drunk first.

The whole wedding had surprised Bush, as a matter of fact. He and
Hornblower had been in Mrs. Mason's lodging house when they had
received notification that they were no longer on half pay and had
been requested and required to ready Hotspur to leave. He had both
seen and heard Maria's reaction, had discounted the tears even as he
knew that the lass had fallen in love with Hornblower. He had even
heard his friend proposing to the girl, knowing that would likely be
the only thing to stop her crying.

Bush had just shaken his head. He knew that Hornblower didn't love
her; anyone with eyes in their head would know that. She was a nice
enough girl, not completely stupid, he supposed, but plain as a mud
fence and would likely only grow heavier with children. She would
never be the asset to his career that Hornblower would have been
thought to seek out"a Commodore's daughter, or perhaps some Admiral's
niece. He was an ambitious bastard, there was no mistaking that and
this seemed an amazing lapse in his usual methodical approach to
things.

Well, it was his bed, let him lie in it.

The second bottle finished, the toasts done, Bush did what he could
to speed his Captain out the door to his wife. His arms firmly around
the taller man's waist to steady him, he led him to Mason's
Guesthouse. He quietly helped him in the front door, removed his
cloak and hat and, assured that he would be able to find his way to
his bride, silently let himself out and back to the ship. The cool
night air and the walk seemed to have cleared his head somewhat and
Hornblower should be all right on his own.

When Hornblower climbed the stairs and let himself into Maria's room,
he noticed that a candle still burned for him, the fire had died down
and she was sitting up waiting for him in a padded rocking chair,
sound asleep.

He took a minute to study her as she dozed before him. She was not a
beauty, but she was pleasant enough looking, if plain. Her figure
could only be termed plump and she would likely become fat at some
point. Although literate and relatively well educated for a woman,
she was nowhere near his match intellectually and he knew that she
would never fully understand the man she had married.

He wondered why she loved him. She must know, to some degree, that
her feelings weren't returned. She knew that he would usually be
away, that they would have almost no life together. He had little to
offer her beside his name. God knew he had no money. He supposed that
she would make a life with their children, should they have any, and
being married would be a better life for her than being a spinster,
though under the circumstances, the difference seemed small to him.

So why did she love him, as he had no doubt that she did? She seemed
to like his looks, which he always though grotesque, she liked that
he was an officer and that somehow made her feel more important. She
liked that he went exotic places and would come back with stories of
adventure"at least the ones he would tell her.

In the end he decided that she likely loved him because he was
probably her last chance. He was the only game in town for her.

Fine, so be it. She was kind to him and would be loyal and loving
when he was with her. They would each live their own lives and, now
and then, come together briefly.

He could accept that.

He removed his shoes and his stockings, placed another few logs on
the fire and turned back to find her eyes on him.

"I'm sorry that I'm so late, dearest, am I forgiven?"

She stood to meet him. "Always."

When he kissed her, she could taste the wine. He tried to untie the
ribbons on her nightgown and fumbled with them. She knew that he had
gotten drunk and was hurt that he had been drinking instead of with
her, but immediately forgave him. He was a man and he was leaving so
very soon. She wasn't the only one who wanted him.

He was becoming frustrated with the ties when her hands gently
brushed his away as Maria opened them herself. He felt her undo his
cravat and his waistcoat. He noticed that his coat was gone and was
relieved to see it on the chair, not remembering it being removed.

He thought that he should do something gallant, so he bent enough to
slip his arms around her and lift her to the bed. She was heavy and
he hoped that she didn't notice that he had to strain to do so.

Sometimes he wondered why sex had never been all that important to
him. Oh he liked it as well as any man, Lord knows it felt good, but
it wasn't something he couldn't put out of his mind when need be. Not
like the other men on the ships, it seemed that was all they ever
talked or thought about.

Later, collapsed on her, his breath coming in gasps, he finally
managed to regain enough of his mind to ask if she was all right, to
say he hoped it hadn't hurt too much.

The gratitude in her reply almost broke his heart.

Carefully lying beside her, his hand on her belly, he kissed her
gently. Thanking her, making sure she was all right, he gave in to
sleep.

Twice that night he woke again, each time taking her. If she minded
being woken, she didn't admit it. If she were too sore to have him
again, she wouldn't let on.

The next morning, eating the breakfast that Maria's mother had
actually, to their surprise, served them in bed, he had looked at his
wife and regarded her kindly.

He wouldn't love her, in fact he didn't think it possible that he
would ever love Maria, but he would only be back now and then.

He knew that his true wife, his real lover and mistress was the sea.

This would be enough for him on land.