AUTHOR'S NOTES: Awhile back, during a discussion about various motivations for writing fiction, my good friend Idler asked me what the driving force was behind my own writing. I hardly feel qualified to address that question, not exactly being the most prolific writer on the planet and having had only one story posted prior to this one, a long time ago in another fandom not nearly far enough away. Nevertheless, I had no difficulty in coming up with an answer. The reason I write is to fix things I perceive to be broken, and so it is with this story I set before you now.
Let me say up front that if you have not read Forester's
Hornblower novels and have plans to do so, I recommend you stop
right here. This story is not a stand-alone, but is an indirect
sequel to Lord Hornblower, although it is actually set immediately
following the events in Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies.
As such, there are many references to events and characters from
several of the novels, the knowledge of which would probably spoil
their reading for you. Likewise, if your only familiarity with
the characters comes from watching the A&E series of television
movies, you may have problems following the course of the story,
as it does require an extensive knowledge of the novels, especially
the Captain trilogy and Lord Hornblower. Also, depending
on your viewpoint, you may see little similarity between the characters
as they appear in the miniseries and as they appear in this story,
so there's a possibility that you might come away disappointed
with the way they have been portrayed here.
If, on the other hand, you have read all the Hornblower books, then I hope you'll find something here that is familiar, and appealing, and ultimately satisfying. I've tried to stay as closely to canon as possible, but it should be kept in mind that these are my perceptions of the characters, which may or may not agree with how Mr. Forester, his readers, or other writers have interpreted them. As far as I know, there are no direct contradictions in this story to anything in the Hornblower novels; even the event that provides the basis for my story was written in such a way as to leave an opening by which Mr. Forester (or an enterprising fan fic writer) might alter the apparent outcome. Once again, however, these are things that could be open to interpretation. If you should come across anything that you believe conflicts with canon more than literary license allows, please let me know. Feedback and constructive criticism are always welcome.
I would like to convey my most sincere and heartfelt thanks to Idler, my really, really, REALLY good friend and beta reader, as well as a most gifted writer, whose wonderful Run Aground novella was the initial inspiration for this story. Through her work, she has demonstrated to me quite convincingly that an author does not necessarily have to be C. S. Forester in order to write effectively and accurately about the characters that he created, and I am most grateful to her for her invaluable input, her unfailing encouragement, her apparently inexhaustible patience, and her generous willingness to neglect her own story in order to mentor mine. (To say nothing of her gracious loan of a prop from RA that somehow managed to make itself absolutely indispensable to this story.) Thanks, compadre; for all this you get a big box of Lemon Straws and two bags of Praline Pecans!
There only remains to give the standard disclaimer: I have written this story purely out of affection for the characters as created by C. S. Forester and as adapted for television by A&E Television Networks in association with Meridian Broadcasting Ltd., and I have no intention of using it for monetary gain.
So there you go. Lord Hornblower was always the most difficult of the Hornblower books for me to read, for within its pages something that was very dear to me was broken, seemingly beyond repair. In this story, I have endeavored to fix the unfixable, a task that may well prove to have been beyond my untried abilities; I'll leave that for you, the reader, to decide. I do know, however, that as a result of writing this story I will never look at Lord Hornblower in quite the same way again. Perhaps there are others for whom the reading of "Caudebec" will do as much; if so, then it will have been well worth the effort to set this little tale down on paper. In the meantime, I wish you happy reading and many Happy Returns!
Early December 1823
The swarthy man stared critically at his reflection in the cracked glass of the old mirror, as watery sunlight filtered in behind him, casting his dark features into even darker relief. With dismay, he noted yet another cluster of greying hair, rising impudently from the black unruly mass that covered his head and hung unfashionably to his shoulders. He sighed, taking his comb and trying ineffectively to coax the rebellious strands into decent discretion beneath their dusky companions. Replacing the comb in his portmanteau, he took a last glance as he settled his hat firmly on his head, twitched his neck cloth into a final order of sorts, and prepared to quit the cabin where he had spent a less than restful night. Not that the forthcoming day promised much better; his program called for a pilgrimage that he didn't really care to make but to which he felt obligated, thanks to a promise reluctantly made to a distant but favored nephew.
The letter from the young man still nestled in an inside pocket of his waistcoat as he carried his bag up to the deck, where the transition made him feel somewhat better about his proposed journey. The day was bright and fair, even if the morning wind that blew off the land was brisk and bracing. Pulling his cloak tightly about him, he climbed down into the ship's launch and sat down, his coxswain taking the tiller as he did so. The oarsmen gathered the sculls, and with a brisk tug, they set out on their journey, up the Seine toward Caudebec.
Knowing his master well, the coxswain kept silent for the first mile or so; then, when he judged the time right, he spoke cheerfully to the back of his master's head.
"Right coolish this morning, ain't it, Captain Gerard?"
Captain Gerard had in fact been thinking the same thing, with the sharpish wind whistling round his ears, but he made no reply, knowing that none was needed; Riley would babble on, whether or not he received any answers at all. With the drone of Riley's voice as a background to his thoughts, his mind wandered ahead to his destination. With an inner sigh, he wondered again why he had agreed to this although "agreed" was perhaps not the right word, as his reply to his nephew, serving His Majesty on the other side of the Atlantic, could not possibly have reached him as yet. Yet he still felt a certain obligation, not only to that far-off nephew, but yet again to the man in whose memory he was making this expedition, and perhaps even more so to the man to whom they had both owed their loyalty and allegiance so many years ago.
Thinking back to those long ago days inevitably drew his mind to their unfortunate culmination, leading to his own long incarceration in a French prison. He seldom dwelt long on his imprisonment; he had fared better than most, with his French name and his quick mastery of the language, reinforced by the memory of a Continentally-bred father who had occasionally tried to instill in his intelligent if wayward offspring a fluency in his native tongue. Still, it had been a hellish existence, those three or so years, during which he had suffered as they had all suffered from a shortage of food and drinking water, a constant round of dysentery and other diseases peculiar to prison life, to say nothing of the stench arising from too-closely packed humanity and practically nonexistent sanitary arrangements. The memory of the day they were released from captivity, though, could still bring his heart into his throat and tears to his eyes, and that first sight of England off the bow of their transport ship would remain vivid in his mind for the rest of his life.
His homecoming had been more than he had ever dreamed, at least from a financial standpoint. Blessed by a shrewd, if shrewish, wife, he had come home from his imprisonment to find that her efforts had increased his prize money, won in the Mediterranean and paid out to her upon his capture, most appreciably so much so, that he was more than willing to leave the principal to her competent care, despite his doubts as to the actual relationship that existed between her and the agent who had acted so willingly on her behalf. Instead, he had taken a goodly share of the accumulated earnings (much to the dismay of his wife and her man of business) and purchased himself a small merchant vessel. With his naval background and his hard-won mastery of French, as well as a never-ceasing clamoring in England for desirable French contraband, he knew there was a fortune to be made in the transport of formerly illegal French goods across the Channel.
And so it had proven, to the extent that this autumn-into-winter excursion into France was his reward to himself for years of hard work, with little time taken for personal satisfaction. He would have preferred the balmy days of summer to this bleak landscape, but the warmer months, with their calmer weather more suited to the transportation of delicate merchandise and fine wines, were his most profitable; it was only during the autumn and winter months, with their seasonal gales and bitter temperatures, that he felt he could spare some time away from his various enterprises. Besides, he had reflected comfortably, he was sure he could find something to warm his beds in the various French villages of his journey besides flannel sheets and homespun blankets. He was still a handsome man, blessed with that swarthy beauty that only became more accentuated with the passing years, and even though he was married, he did not feel that his favors should be necessarily confined to a single outlet. In that regard his holiday had been a successful one, and only this one last debt remained to be paid before he boarded his ship at Le Havre and sailed for home.
Thus had Gerard's thoughts come full circle as the miles had ebbed away, and it was with a start that he realized that the stone quay of Caudebec lay right before him. He gazed with interest at this small village, about which he'd heard so much. There seemed little to recommend it just another small fishing village, like so many others that dotted the landscape of France, up and down its rivers and tributaries and along the English Channel. The only things that seemed to distinguish this village from the others were the sparsity of older buildings and plant life near a certain portion of the waterfront and the relative newness of the quay, its stones still lacking the roughened and weathered finish of a long-established structure.
Riley had been silent for some time, he realized, and glancing behind him, he saw the boy gazing about with a lively interest. Riley was the son of a man who had been a shipmate in the Sutherland, the defeat of which at the hands of four French ships of the line had brought about their capture. Gerard had, at his friend's deathbed, promised to take into service the man's young son if he should ever become free. This he had done, to the extent that Riley had been installed as his shipboard servant and coxswain, because for all his seeming insouciance and lack of regard for the conventions, Gerard took his obligations very seriously indeed. That was why he was here this blustery morning, in this small hamlet on the Seine, in tribute to a friend who had paid the ultimate price for his sense of duty, not only to his country but to the man who had once been captain to them both a man named Horatio Hornblower.
The oarsmen pulled the boat aside the quay, and Gerard climbed up onto the damp stones. Riley scrambled up after him and followed as he strode towards the shelter of a small shed that stood at the far end. Riley scouted out a particularly sunny spot and prepared for a long wait, while Gerard took from his waistcoat his nephew's letter; settling against the shed wall, out of the glare of the sun, he once again read its contents, paying particular attention to the directions his nephew had given him.
"You cannot miss it," Lieutenant Gerard had scrawled. "It is not very large, but very well placed, right at the river's edge, and a small iron border fence around its base. There is a stone bench as well, facing the monument and the water, good for reflection on the past as well as for consideration on the future."
Glancing around, Gerard could indeed see the shape of a small monument, placed close to the bank of the river, and a bench before it, just as his nephew had described. As he walked toward it, he could also see a man already seated on the bench, staring out across the river, but he paid him no mind, his attention fixed firmly on the writing that became ever more visible as he came closer.
"To the Memory of the Officers, Seamen, and Marines of the Royal Navy of His Majesty King George III of England, under the Command of Captain William Bush, HMS Nonsuch, who Perished Here in the Service of Their Country on 7 December 1813, in Defense of the British Occupation of Le Havre. Their Sacrifice was Not Done in Vain."
Gerard grinned inwardly at the rather terse prose, remembering rather nostalgically the flowery handbills he and his fellow lieutenants had carried around the English countryside in their desperate search for men to crew the old Sutherland, under Hornblower's command. In his mind's eye, he saw Hornblower as he had first seen him after the war's end, perhaps a year or so after the fall of Bonaparte. Gerard had been in the village of Smallbridge, as the landlord of the local pub was a potential customer for some of his imported ales, and he had just been coming from the inn as the carriage containing Hornblower and his family paused just at that moment to allow a pedestrian to cross before them. Their eyes had met, and Gerard heard once more that imperious voice, commanding his driver to stop. Then Hornblower was out the carriage and striding across to meet him, only to hesitate at the last minute as if unsure of his reception. By that time, though, Gerard had recollected himself and, with the wide grin that had always been his trademark, he had brought his hand to his hat in automatic salute. Hornblower had gravely returned the salute, then held out his hand. The handclasp that followed had contained within it not only the bond of past memories, but the presence of a mutual regard.
Standing motionless on the quay, oblivious to all around him, Gerard continued to stare at the monument, its dark grey façade blurring as he recalled more of that reunion. Both Hornblower and Lady Barbara no, Lord and Lady Hornblower, why was it so hard to remember that? had, rather surprisingly, pressed upon him an invitation to stay with them overnight before resuming his journey, and he had accepted with gratitude. After an excellent meal presided over most graciously by Lady Hornblower, he and Hornblower had sat in wingback chairs before a roaring fire in Hornblower's study, smoking cigars, sipping port and discussing old times and old acquaintance. It had seemed odd to Gerard to be sitting there thus, conversing on easy terms with a man whose normal demeanor on board ship had been so isolated as to seem unapproachable, yet who could also be a gracious and charming host when the situation required it, as he had been this particular night. As a guest, as well as befitting a former subordinate, Gerard had allowed his host to lead the conversation, and it seemed that they had discussed everything, their old ships, the Gerard family members who had followed their father and uncle into naval service, Gerard's current ventures, the whereabouts of old shipmates, and fond remembrances of friends and family lost. Hornblower himself had reminisced about his own career after his miraculous escape from France, his experiences in France and the Baltic. Even such slight loquaciousness as this was very unlike the Hornblower that Gerard had known, but Gerard suspected that it was mostly the result of being able to converse with someone who shared so many memories, who could actually understand not only the things spoken, but those things left unspoken as well. There was one thing unsaid, however, the omission of which had been glaringly apparent. It seemed to Gerard that the conversation had skirted around, and above, and below it, but despite a mutual topic of interest that practically demanded recognition, never once did Hornblower refer to their old shipmate Bush.
For some time afterward, Gerard had pondered Hornblower's lack of acknowledgment of one whom he had valued highly, a fact of which Gerard was well aware. Despite Hornblower's constant attempts to disguise his innermost feelings and conflicts during the time Gerard had served under him, Gerard thought he knew his former captain fairly well, and he knew Hornblower felt things far more keenly than might be expected by someone with only a superficial acquaintance. It had hardly been a year since Bush had lost his life in France. Was it possible that the memories of Bush were in fact so painful that Hornblower could not bear to probe the wound still so fresh in his mind? And might guilt also be a factor? It had been under Hornblower's command, and in carrying out a plan of Hornblower's devising, that Bush had met his death. Although Gerard had not been as close to Hornblower as Bush had been, he had still a warm and sincere regard for him, and it grieved Gerard to think that his former captain might still feel the loss of his friend so intensely. When Gerard's nephew had written him of the monument at Caudebec, Gerard had had no doubt as to who had actually been memorialized there, and by whom.
The unexpected slap of water against the quay where he stood brought Gerard back to the present. Today was the tenth anniversary of the date of Bush's death, right here in Caudebec right here, in fact, at this very place where he and the stone monument stood. Involuntarily there rose in Gerard's mind a picture of Bush as when they had last stood together on the quarterdeck of Sutherland before that final engagement with the French. Burly and stocky, with a craggy, tanned face whose ruggedness was offset by a pair of brilliant blue eyes and a rare and attractive smile; an extremely competent officer on deck, a warm and friendly presence in the wardroom, a welcome drinking companion on those rare excursions on shore Gerard had not realized just how much he had missed Bush until all these memories came to assail him. His eyes suddenly blurring with tears, he turned abruptly away from the monument, inadvertently colliding with the man who had just been arising from the bench, after having sat silently the entire duration of Gerard's visit, apparently lost in his own thoughts. The contact had only been slight, but it was sufficient to knock the man off balance and back onto the bench, encumbered as he had been with endeavoring to rise while balancing between one normal leg and one wooden one.
Swiping his sleeve angrily across his eyes, Gerard automatically began his apologies before a sudden recollection caused him to stop and stare fixedly at those so very dissimilar legs. Slowly, his eyes rose until they settled upon the man's face, where a pair of brilliant blue eyes reflected his own complete and utter astonishment. Forever, it seemed, their eyes locked, their expressions grave and intent. Then the wood-legged man held out his hand and, with a tentative smile, said, "Hello, Gerard."
Slowly, Gerard reached out to take the other's hand, his eyes never leaving those bright blue ones, so clear, so honest, and so very well-remembered. "Hello, Bush," he answered solemnly. Then his own eyes began to sparkle, a flashing smile crossed his face, and with a tightened grip, he suddenly hoisted the other man up and off the bench, his free hand reaching out to steady his friend as they stood there uncertainly. Then they just looked at each other for a minute, speechless after their initial greetings, right hands still clasped together in recognition of a friendship once thought lost forever and now irrevocably reclaimed.
In a corner table of a small café located in an out of the way section of Caudebec, the only light provided by the long rays of the afternoon sun, Gerard and Bush sat sharing yet another carafe of red wine, covertly studying each other even as they talked quietly. They had left the quay together, Riley having been duly summoned to find a place to feed both himself and his oarsmen, and Bush had then led the way to this small quiet café, where they could eat and talk without the distraction of loud conversation from other patrons. The meal had turned out to be a time-consuming affair as well, as its progress had been constantly impeded by their own steady conversation. The initial shyness that might have been expected after so long a separation had never materialized; indeed, they had shared so much together in their past, and so much had happened since they had last met, the wonder was that they were able to eat at all.
Up to this point the main topic of conversation had been about Gerard and his accomplishments, as so frequently happened when he was a participant in the conversation. He had spoken with enthusiasm of his ship, and of his successes in the shipping business, and of his pride in the progeny of the Gerard family. Inevitably, however, they had come to the subject that Gerard generally avoided. But this was Bush, who was his friend, and who had suffered himself on that terrible day when Gerard's world had turned upside down, and Gerard found that he was able to speak honestly of his experiences, without reservation or misgivings.
"Prison in France was as bad as you might expect, but it did have its moments," Gerard was saying with a lopsided smile. Bush gave him a skeptical look, but Gerard continued, "I developed a, ah, connection with a lady who felt a compulsion to minister to the wicked Englishmen. She was able to provide some delicacies and comforts that wouldn't have come our direction otherwise. She took quite a fancy to me." From Gerard, this was no boast, only a statement of fact, as Bush willingly conceded. Gerard had always been the ladies man among the officers aboard their ships, and Bush could recall only one determined pursuit that had not ultimately ended in conquest. Just as well, thought Bush ruefully, remembering who had eventually claimed that Lady for his own.
Bush brought his attention back to the matter at hand. "And just what sort of payment did the mademoiselle expect?" he asked with a hidden grin.
Gerard's smile became broader as he recalled the lady in question. "Well, she seemed to have a taste for danger, and since I looked to be the most dangerous of us all, she came to me to indulge her, ah, appetites." For a brief moment, his face wore the irritatingly smug expression that Bush remembered all too well, as he said complacently, "I trust she came away satisfactorily sated."
Bush forbore to ask just what form those appetites had taken or, indeed, how they had been satisfied within the midst of a French prisoner of war enclave. Instead, he changed the subject, speaking with fondness of Gerard's nephew who had served on Nonsuch. "He's well, I hope?" Bush asked.
"Very much so, or was the last I heard from him." Gerard replied. "In fact, it's at his behest that I'm here. He asked me to come here today, since I had planned to be in the area at the appropriate time, though I might have come anyway, even without his nudging." He looked up at his friend, his face suddenly serious. "He took your death very badly, you know. He felt that had he been there, you might not have died." His expression brightened a little as he added, "As, of course, you did not. Still, to this day he considers you his hero." The astonished look on Bush's face tickled his ready sense of humour, and he burst into laughter. "Is it so amazing that you could be a hero to a young midshipman? I assure you, it is not so to me!"
The astonishment on Bush's face changed rapidly to unhappiness. "When I look into the mirror, what I see is not a hero," Bush replied a little morosely.
Bush's eyes dropped down to his hands as they toyed with the
cutlery that lay there on the table. In the silence that followed,
Gerard studied Bush over the rim of his wineglass, considering
the changes that all those lost years had wrought in his friend.
Bush was quite grey now; by Gerard's calculations, Bush should
still be in his mid to late fifties, yet he appeared rather older,
and he seemed more melancholy as well; clearly, the last ten years
had not been easy ones. There were other changes also. His years
in France had apparently improved his ability to hold his liquor.
In the old days, a bottle of rum would have had Bush either under
the table or singing at the top of his voice, whereas today, he
had already consumed an entire bottle of wine without any noticeably
adverse affects. Gerard had also been amused to discover that
Bush had acquired a fluency in French nearly as good as Gerard's
own, even if his accent was abominable. "If I wanted to
survive here, I had to learn French, whether I wanted to or not,"
Bush had stated bluntly after ordering his meal and intercepting
Gerard's surprised glance. Perhaps it was out of stubbornness
that even when speaking French, he still managed to retain the
same Sussex accent that had characterized his speech as an officer
in His Majesty's Navy. Still, in all the ways that mattered,
it seemed he was the same Bush that Gerard had known all those
years ago. Competent, kind, sensitive, and honest to a fault,
his major flaw being that he tended to see himself as others saw
him, or rather, as how he perceived others to see him one
other in particular.
"What do you see, then, when you look into the mirror?" Gerard asked gently, his concern for his friend evident in his eyes.
As always when required to give voice to intensely personal subjects, Bush had difficulty finding adequate words. "Oh, I don't know. I suppose I see a man who never really amounted to anything. Oh, to be sure," he said, forestalling Gerard's spontaneous and vehement expostulations, "I became a captain, of a ship of the line, no less. A flag captain, even. But it wasn't for me, don't ye see? It wasn't for anything I had done. And I'll never know if I would have ever deserved it otherwise."
I know, Gerard thought, for Gerard had vivid memories of Bush on the Lydia, haranguing and driving his exhausted men to monumental feats of accomplishment in getting their battered ship back into battle-ready condition, while Lydia's even more exhausted captain snored in a deck chair, oblivious to the activity about him, getting the rest he so desperately needed. Gerard remembered, too vividly, the sight of Bush being carried below as Sutherland was being beaten to a wreck, all the while demanding to be left on deck, despite the fact that he had already left his foot there as a souvenir of the brutal fighting he had endured. A true fighter, a true officer, and in some ways a truer gentleman than many who claimed that title by birth, a man who undoubtedly would have made that vital step to captain had he only been blessed with money, or family, or influence. His cause had not been furthered by the fact that he had spent much of his career laboring beneath the shadow of one whose brilliance and ability tended to dazzle all who cast eyes in his direction, thus blinding them to others as deserving. If Bush's promotion had indeed been a method of approbation for another whose accomplishments outshone those of many a veteran flag officer, much less an underappreciated first lieutenant, this did not detract from the fact that his was as deserved as any promotion carried out in the long history of the Royal Navy.
Speak he never so eloquently, though, Gerard knew there was small chance of getting Bush to ever appreciate his own worth. Gerard just shook his head and drained his glass of wine. Now there fell between them yet another silence, a silence of sadness and regret, and perhaps it was this melancholy atmosphere that prompted Gerard to ask his next question, one he had been burning to ask ever since he had first encountered Bush on the quay.
"Bush" Gerard said softly, causing Bush to look up with an inquiring glance. "What did happen here at Caudebec?"
Bush's eyes dropped back down to the empty glass before him; he fingered the stem as the silence gradually lengthened to match the shadows cast from a slowly setting sun. Finally, with a deep sigh, he looked up, and his eyes met Gerard's with a troubled expression. "I wish I knew," he replied simply. "I don't remember what happened. Oh," he said impatiently, seeing a look of incredulity beginning to spread across Gerard's face. "I remember the plan well enough. I even remember getting into the boat and starting out. But that's all. When they found me, I had a gash on the back of my head the size of a belaying pin, or so they told me, and most of my hair had been singed off, along with the back of my coat and most of my shirt. There's a pretty bad scar back there that's hidden by my hair thank God it grew back. You should see my back too; it looks like I was trussed and basted over a galley fire."
"They?" asked Gerard curiously. At Bush's surprised look, he explained, "You said 'they' told you that you had a gash in the back of your head. Who were 'they'?"
Bush sighed again. "Frenchies people who lived on the riverbanks between here and Le Havre, people who hated Boney and everything he stood for and weren't about to give up a few renegade Englishmen for him to chew on, even though we'd just brought the worst kind of destruction to their people here in the village. I wasn't the only one they found that night, you see, but I'm the only one who actually lived long enough to tell the tale if only I could remember how it goes." He looked up and smiled faintly at the look on Gerard's face, intent in its concentration. "For awhile, after I came to my senses, I wondered if perhaps we had been running away when it happened. It didn't seem possible, but you never know. Once I was back on myback to walking, I went to where it all happened, to see what I could make of it. But there was nothing left. The explosion had blasted it all away." He looked up, his expression marked by the pain superimposed there. "Those were good men, Gerard. They relied on me to get them safely out of there, and I didn't. Something went wrong, either by chance or design; what or why, I don't know." Then, suddenly, fiercely, he burst out, "But by God, someday I'll find out!"
There was a brief pause, then Bush continued in an even tone. "By the time I was up and about again, the war was over, and you could get English papers and sometimes even the Gazette. I read the letters the Commodore's, that is, and I think Captain Freeman had one in there as well but they didn't seem to know much more than I did. Eventually, all I could figure was that we must have finished what we set out to do, and our boat was already turning to come back down the river when the explosion happened. I don't know, maybe the force of the blast picked up the boat and turned it end on end, before the fire put an end to it once and for all. We survivors, I think, would have been just under the boat when it finally burned out all our backs were badly burned, and maybe that's the reason why. I suppose then we just floated down with what little wreckage there was until we came up against the bank where the French civilians found us later that night. Why I didn't just drown, I don't know. Why we didn't just get blown to bits like the others, I don't know. I just don't know, and I can't tell you, Gerard, how that fact has haunted me all these years."
Gerard quietly pulled Bush's glass across and refilled it from the nearly empty carafe, sliding it back across the table. Bush took the glass and drained its contents, staring across to the large uncurtained bay window, where a fiery setting sun was flaming all in its path. "Here it is sunset," Bush said, looking back across at Gerard. "Will you go back tonight, or will your ship sail on the tide without you?"
Gerard emptied the carafe's last remaining dregs into his own glass. "It would be a mutinous crew indeed that would sail without its master, wouldn't you say?" Gerard replied with a laugh. "They've been waiting a week now for me to finish my wining, wasting and wenching. I think they can handle another day or so."
At Gerard's words, and the wicked gleam in his eye, Bush's own blue eyes responded with a twinkle. "I can't offer you any chances for either wasting or wenching, but if you'd care to stay with me, I think I can provide some wining, and find you a clean pallet to sleep on besides. It's been a long time since I've spoken the King's English for so long on end. To tell truth, I'm reluctant to see you leave."
Gerard himself was reluctant to go, since he felt in his bones that Bush's story was by no means finished, and he himself still had unanswered questions. To Bush's obvious delight, he accepted the invitation to stay. "Though I'll have to find someplace for those men of mine."
Bush grinned, tossing a few French coins onto the table to cover the cost of the meal and the wine. "That's all right, then. If they don't mind sleeping in the hayloft, I can offer them a home for the night as well. Not as comfortable as a hammock, but we've slept in worse places, haven't we?"
Gerard just grinned in return, following Bush as he stumped out the door of the café into the now rapidly growing darkness. Although he had noted some changes in his friend, in most ways he still found that Bush was essentially the same man he had served with all those years. He found that thought singularly reassuring.
Gerard experienced a strange sense of déjà vu as he sat in a comfortable wing chair, smoking a cigar and sipping a glass of very creditable wine, with his host sitting in a matching chair, and both of them facing a roaring fire. Once again, he'd had an excellent dinner, and once again he found himself talking old times with a former shipmate. But these wing chairs were sadly faded and frayed, and the cigars they smoked were Gerard's own. Here, too, was no huge manor house with canopied beds and liveried servants to bring hot water; only an humble cottage, with a kitchen at the back, a bedroom to one side, and a trundle bed in the corner of the living area. Nor was there a beautiful and gracious hostess to welcome him to her home; that there once had been, though, came as a bit of a surprise.
"Her name was Nanette," Bush said, gazing somberly into the fire. "Her husband was one of those who fetched us from the water. I was the one he brought home, and she nursed me back to health." Suddenly he looked up, his rare smile lighting up his face. "It sounds like a fairy story, doesn't it? And so it seemed at the time or would have if it hadn't been so damned painful, and if I'd had any real idea as to what was happening about me. She wasn't really beautiful, you know about my age and looked it. Her children had died as infants, and she had no one but her husband to focus her affection on until I turned up. And then he caught pneumonia and died, I suppose from having to wade into that freezing river, and there she was alone and grieving, and only me here to comfort her."
Bush's voice had become soft with memory, and then, to Gerard's eternal amusement, he caught himself up and blushed a crimson red. Gerard rose and poured himself another glass of wine, giving Bush an opportunity to compose himself. When Gerard sat down again, Bush had himself in hand, although there was still a slightly pinkish tinge to his complexion. He glanced sharply at Gerard, easily reading his expression, and said in exasperation, "What you're thinking is not what happened." There was a brief silence, then Bush continued tiredly, "It couldn't have, you know. At that time, I could hardly raise my head from the pillow. Right there, in that bed, where you'll sleep tonight that's where I slept. And right there, in that room, was where she cried herself to sleep every night and me not able to do anything about itand then I did begin to recoverand then the end of the war cameand she needed me, you see," he said, looking pleadingly at Gerard, begging for understanding of something he had not yet been asked to explain.
Gerard tried, but it was all too much for him. "So that's why you never came back to England. I understand that, truly I do, but why, Bush? Why never send word that you were alive? Why not let your sisters and your friends know?"
"And return from the dead a second time?" Bush asked contemptuously, as if a second miracle was somehow more suspect than the first. "Can't you imagine how that would have looked? And what would I have accomplished? I had a will, my sisters would inherit after my death, and with my prize money, I knew they'd be taken care of. And who else mattered? Who else would care?"
One man had cared, Gerard thought but did not say, a man who cared enough to put up a monument to your memory.
But it was as if Bush had developed a sort of intuition in the years since their last meeting, and after a searching look at Gerard, he stated, "You're thinking of the captain." Gerard did not deny it, but continued to meet Bush's gaze straightly until Bush turned to stare again into the fire.
"I did consider him, you know," Bush said, the firelight dancing across his face. "But once again, what would I have accomplished? And remember too, it was nearly six months after the explosion before I was able to even leave my bed; had I come back after that, I might well have been branded a deserter. In fact, I probably would have been considered a deserter, with a rope on a yardarm waiting for me, because there's no denying that it was my decision to stay even after I was well enough to go back to England, and my decision to let no one know I was still alive. Maybe it wasn't fair to the captain that I didn't get word to him somehow, but we both know I had come by both my promotion and my command because of his influence. What damage might my actions have done to his career? He had so much more to lose, too, with his seniority and his connections to the Wellesleys, to say nothing of Lady Barbara and her good name. A man like the captain always has enemies, but I always did feel he had more than his share standing back, waiting for him to make a false step and stumble. How could either of us have ever borne the fact that I was the false step he stumbled over?"
Gerard had no answer to this, so he sat silent, considering all that Bush had said. Finally, he asked, "So what did you do, once the war was finally over and the English had left?"
The smile Bush gave him was poignant. "I married her, of course," he said with simple pride, and there was no doubt that he considered his marriage to have been a good one. Gerard was obscurely comforted by the knowledge that, despite the rough seas of Bush's life, he had been allotted at least one small harbour of happiness, even for what could only have been a relatively short period of time. Gerard forbore to ask the obvious question, but once again, Bush surprised him with that odd intuitiveness. "She died last year," he said into the silence. "It seemed to be her heart, or at least that was what the doctor said. It was quick, though; she didn't suffer."
This time they both stared into the fire, the dancing flames now beginning to burn into glowing embers. "So now you live here alone," said Gerard. "And how do you live? What do you do?"
"Well," Bush answered, "since neither she nor her first husband had any other family, I inherited all her property; this house and about ten acres of land, and together we had saved a little money. I'm no farmer, as you can imagine." A grin broke the gravity of his expression and brought the twinkle back into his blue eyes. "But I come from blacksmith stock, you know, and I found that I still had a little skill with the hammer and anvil, despite how long it had been since last I plied it. So now I lease parcels of land to my neighbours to pay the taxes and keep a forge at the edge of my land closest to the village. It's not the sea, you know. It won't ever be the sea, but it's a living. I don't know that I would say I'm happy, but I think I'm fairly content. And these people are good to me, too. I think they consider me a good luck charm, since out of about ten men they picked up the night of the explosion, I'm the only one who's still alive. The local ladies see to it that I'm kept well fed, as you've seen for yourself tonight, and the men see to it than I'm always with custom. Perhaps it's not the life I wanted or had hoped for, but it'll do me for now."
They lapsed again into a companionable silence, as the fire died and the air began to cool around them, each pursuing his own train of thought. Finally Gerard stirred himself, rose to pour himself one last glass of wine, and turned to look at his friend. "You should tell him."
Bush did not even pretend to be confused as to who him was. "For God's sake, Gerard! Why? He's a rear admiral now, with his own flag to fly, and it's not a yellow one either. He has everything any naval officer ever dreams of having. It's all he ever dreamed of having," added Bush, a hint of anger in his voice. "And he deserves to be able to enjoy it all without skeletons from the past showing up in his life again. I'm dead to him, Gerard! Why on earth do you think my coming back from the grave would be of benefit to him now? You tell me, Gerard, why?"
"Tell you why?" retorted Gerard in sudden heat, pacing agitatedly before the hearth, his black eyes flashing as they looked down into the startled blue ones before him. "All right, Bush, I'll tell you why! Because everything he has may be everything he ever wanted, but it's not everything he ever needed. Because I think he's a lonely man, even with his blue-blooded wife and his servants and all his officers and seamen who scrape and bow to his every whim and fancy. Because I think that at the back of his mind, he still feels guilt on account of you, the loss of your foot, the loss of your life, the way he treated you when you were alive. Oh, yes, I know," he ruthlessly rode over Bush's surprised protests, "he treated us all as if we were the village idiots, but his treatment of you was worse than all the other officers put together end to end."
"Gerard...," Bush said, now standing as well, aghast at the wrath he had unwittingly ignited. But Gerard would not be silenced now.
"Because he may care for his officers now, he may have cared for his officers then, he may have idolized the captains and admirals he's served under, he may have had a fondness for each and every man who has been privileged to have been personally associated with him during his entire career." Here Gerard stopped his pacing, turned and looked Bush full in the face. "but you yes, you, William Bush are the only man he ever grieved for like a brother."
The look on Bush's face, the astonishment that greeted Gerard's statement, was overlaid by a wretched unhappiness, revealing to a perceptive Gerard that Hornblower wasn't the only one who had suffered from this sacrificial separation. Then, turning aside and closing his eyes to the look of compassion that gradually replaced the anger in Gerard's face, Bush fumbled for the arm of his chair and slowly sank back into its comforting stability. Breathing hard, his head pounding after his spontaneous outburst, Gerard likewise reseated himself, but only after first pouring yet another glass of wine and handing it to Bush, pausing only to make sure that Bush had the glass in a firm grasp; his own hand was shaking as if possessed of a palsy.
The electricity that had charged the air slowly began to dissipate and evolve into the proverbial calm after the storm. There was a long interval during which they both stared at the remains of the fire, its darkness now and then enlivened by a red glow that showed its coals were not quite as dead as they appeared. Then, as if on signal, they both heaved deep sighs and glanced at each other, their eyes meeting in tolerant, if bewildered, understanding. They had known each other too well and too long for verbal apologies to be necessary now, and neither had ever been able to sustain a grudge. Bush was the first to speak. "I'd best be stirring those embers, or you'll be too chilled to sleep."
"Please don't bother," protested Gerard, embarrassed now by his uncharacteristic and unplanned tirade. "I'll do quite well without it."
"You may think so now, but I fancy you'll find this bed much colder without the, ah, bedwarmers that've kept you company up 'til now," said Bush with a faint grin, his earlier unhappiness slowly fading. "Now that I think on it, I'm a slight bit curious myself concerning all that wining, wasting, and wenching. You are married, you know." Not that it ever seemed to hamper your efforts in the petticoat line, was his afterthought, but he refrained from saying so.
No so Gerard. "So I am," he replied with an irrepressible grin. "Still, a man must find some means of entertainment, and after all, I'm not yet in my dotage."
Bush just sighed as he rose from his chair and prepared to spread sheets on his guest's bed. He was assisted in this endeavour by Gerard, who was obviously unaccustomed to doing such things on his own. Neither made mention of Gerard's outburst, although it was very much at the back of both men's minds. Gerard went to the small barn to do a final check on Riley and his seamen, who lay snug and snoring in various hand-packed beds of hay across the hayloft, all of them covered with a thick coating of quilts and blankets, while at the house, Bush cleared away the supper dishes and stirred the coals of the fire until they glowed once more, providing enough warmth to ease the chill in the room. As the two men bid each other a cordial good night, they were both well aware that there were still things left to be said, but by mutual, if unspoken, agreement, they let it lay until the morrow.
Presently the cottage reverberated with the sound of Gerard's snores. Bush waited patiently, knowing from past wardroom experience that eventually Gerard would turn on his side and the snoring would cease. In the meantime, he thought fondly on his friend, how his life had turned out, and how very glad he was that Gerard had come back into his own life. They had become good friends during the time they had served together, and they had complemented each other as officers as well, Bush's steadiness balancing Gerard's flamboyance although both were hard put to match Hornblower's more dynamic personality, both on and off the quarterdeck.
He lay back and stared at the moonlit ceiling, considering
Gerard's apparently unchanged attitude towards women. Oh, well,
he thought, at least Gerard knows exactly what he's doing and
is willing to accept the consequences. Hornblower, on the
other hand, never did have a grain of sense when it came to women,
in Bush's considered opinion. As he waited for sleep to come,
he found himself ticking down the list of Hornblower's own conquests.
First there had been Maria Mason, whose station in life had been
well below Hornblower's, but he had married her anyway. Then
had come Lady Barbara Wellesley, who had been socially above
his station, very much so, and he had married her also well,
not both at the same time, his sleepy mind assured him whimsically.
And then there had been Marie de Gracayand suddenly Bush wasn't
quite as sleepy as he had been, as previously buried and mostly
unwelcome memories crowded in unexpectedly. Had Hornblower really
thought that no one knew what was happening up in Marie's isolated
little turret? That desperately consummated little affair had
distressed Bush almost as much as the necessity of learning to
walk again, and no one was more relieved than Bush when their
homemade fishing boat had finally begun its descent down the Loire.
On the other hand, no one had been more distraught than Bush
upon hearing of the tragedy that surrounded Marie's death, and
the role Hornblower had played in her untimely demise.
Untimely demise, thought Bush. That had been the one time that he had regretted his own "untimely demise" and his decision to keep it thus. Bush had no means of estimating how his own death might have affected his former captain, but he had a very fair idea of how Marie's would, and somehow he did not think that Lady Barbara Lady Hornblower, as she was titled by that time was the type to provide much comfort to a husband grieving over the loss of a former mistress. On the other hand, he had not thought that Hornblower would be inclined to tolerate any expressions of sympathy, overt or otherwise, on such a delicate subject, even from such an old and staunch supporter as Bush. And so Bush had kept silent, for Hornblower's sake as well as for Nanette's and his own. But now, with Gerard's comments still fresh in his mind, he was no longer sure as to whether he had done the right thing.
As the crescendos of his guest's snores continued to hold his sleep at bay, Bush found himself considering what Gerard had said earlier. A lonely Hornblower? Well, yes, maybe. Bush knew that behind that frosty façade, there were still the vestiges of an enthusiastic young lieutenant who thrilled to the sight of his first flying fish, still young enough and naïve enough to wear his heart on his sleeve. They had become friends during that time, as lieutenants together aboard Renown, though Bush had known the equality of their friendship would last only a very short time. Even then, Bush had been certain that Hornblower was destined for far greater things, and subsequent events had not proven him wrong. Nevertheless, Bush knew their friendship had meant a great deal to a Hornblower starved for companionship, though their later associations had of necessity contained only a faint echo of that earlier warmth and sincerity. Not in France, though, Bush recalled gratefully. At least during those dangerous days in France, some element of their former closeness had been rekindled, and Bush warmed to the remembrance of it.
But what was it Gerard had said last? That Hornblower had grieved for Bush like a brother? Instinctively, Bush shook his head as it lay on his pillow, even before the thought formed in his head. Bush knew his own affection for Hornblower was practically indestructible if twenty years of Hornblower's irascible and cavalier treatment and ten years of separation could not eradicate it, then obviously nothing could. As for how Hornblower felt about him, Bush knew the captain for some reason, despite all the subsequent titles and promotions, Hornblower would always be "the captain" to Bush had always held a certain fondness for him, even after their initial friendship had inevitably evolved into the more formal commander-subordinate relationship. This was something that Bush had always known, despite Hornblower's determined attempts to conceal it beneath his irritable and aloof manner. But still, to believe that he, Bush, had been held in such personal esteem that Hornblower had grieved at his loss was still grieving, if what Gerard had said was true to think that Hornblower's regard for him might even now still bridge that unbridgeable span that now separated them, that was something more than Bush could ever comprehend.
As Bush lay there drowsily reflecting on these things, the snoring that had distracted him from sleep gradually decreased until the cottage was silent save for the odd settling and creaking of a very old dwelling, and the occasional rustlings of two very tired and slumbering old friends.
The next morning, Bush and Gerard were both sipping a last cup of coffee as Riley and his seamen set out to their boat, tied to the small pier that adjoined Bush's land.
"I'm sorry you've been delayed in getting home on my account," said Bush as they rose from the table. "But I'm only sorry for you, not for myself, for I have enjoyed your visit a great deal."
"Don't waste your sorrow on me," replied Gerard, as he was visited by an unwelcome vision of the impatiently waiting Mrs. Gerard. "As for myself, I have no regrets at all."
Bush walked with Gerard down to the pier, his wooden leg negotiating the hazards of the uneven pathway with practiced ease. But before they were halfway there, Gerard caught Bush with a hand to his arm. Bush stopped obediently, although he dreaded the interview he knew was to come. It wasn't like Gerard to give up easily, and undoubtedly he still had a few words to say on the subject that had come up so forcefully the night before.
But if Bush knew Gerard, so too did Gerard know Bush, and he was well aware that the harder he pushed, the more adamantly Bush would resist his shoving. So instead, Gerard contented himself with one final plea. "Do reconsider, Bush," he said softly. "If not for his sake, then for mine. How am I to meet him now, knowing what I know?"
Unfortunately, Bush knew him rather too well for this to be a successful gambit. "You'll meet him with the same deceiving smile and smooth tongue that you've used to fool every woman who's attracted your fancy!" retorted Bush indignantly. "Don't play the innocent with me, Gerard. You can lie like a thief when required. And this time, I think it's required!"
Unabashed and unrepentant, Gerard grinned and said nothing as they turned again to the path leading to the pier. He knew in his heart that there would be other occasions on which to press his arguments; he could afford to be patient. As they arrived at the boat, Gerard turned and extended his hand to Bush, who grasped it firmly with his own. "Take care, my friend," said Gerard seriously. "Now that I know where you are, you can be sure of hearing from me again."
"I count on it," answered Bush, gripping Gerard's hand tighter in response. "You won't tell anyone you've seen me, will you?"
Gerard took a long moment to consider his answer as he prepared to descend into the boat. "Since you're so determined to remain entombed in your self-made coffin, I suppose I'll let you rest in peace," he said finally, with a wry grin. "Don't worry about my men, either; they know how to be keep their tongues or they wouldn't be working for me," he added, taking his seat and casting a severe look at the men in question, whose expressions remained determinedly noncommittal.
"And you will let me know what goes on at home, won't you?" Bush asked anxiously. Now that he had re-established a bond with his former life, he was concerned lest it once again be severed due to neglect at either end.
"To be sure, I will." Gerard replied with an understanding smile. "Take care, Bush."
"And you as well, Gerard," said Bush quietly as he watched the boat slide smoothly into the current of the river, and he remained standing there, wistfully gazing in the direction of Le Havre, long after the ripples from the boat's passage had washed into small tidal pools at the water's edge.
Early June 1824
It might have ended there that cold December day, with the river's current sweeping Gerard's boat toward his ship and his own life in England, leaving Bush to stand there staring after him, lost in thought and lost in memory. They could each have made a deliberate decision to part the bond between them right there and return to the lives they had known before, never to meet again. But Gerard had always been one for keeping his promises, and Bush had never been one for what might have been. And so it came to pass that Mrs. Gerard began to wonder about the occasional letter her husband received, addressed in an unfamiliar masculine hand, yet lacking any indication from whence it had come. Likewise, Bush's neighbours began to take note of the handsome stranger who visited their blacksmith every so often, especially during the warmer months when the air was gentle and balmy, the blue sky dotted with high clouds and the quietness of the days punctuated by the sound of droning insects.
It was on one such afternoon on the verge of summer, six months or so after their unexpected reunion, that Gerard found himself propped against a support post of Bush's open-fronted forge, one leg stretched along the railing with its booted foot swinging lazily back and forth. His friend was hard at work, energetically pounding out a horseshoe; he handled the hammer and the tongs with the same efficient competency that he had once handled a telescope, or climbed to the top of the mainmast, or even hauled on stays and halliards when there was a need. Gerard watched in sleepy affection as Bush, squinting against the glare of the forge, eyed his handiwork critically before dropping the finished product into a tub of water standing at his side. The passion for perfection that had been a trademark of his performance as first lieutenant was still very much in evidence, and fortunate indeed was the horse that received the benefit, and the horseshoe, resulting from such devotion to excellence.
Wiping away with the back of his hand the sweat that had gathered on his forehead, Bush tossed his tools to one side and joined Gerard at the railing, leaning against the opposite post with a weary sigh. "Too hot for work such as this," he commented. "I could do with a glass or two in the village, Gerard. What say you?"
Gerard straightened with alacrity, his face brightening with the thought of the rough but fruity wine offered at the café they habitually patronized, and even more so with the thought of the lusty young woman who was the proprietress there. "By all means, my friend," he said with enthusiasm. "Just the thing to wash my throat of the ashes and dust I have swallowed."
Bush stumped to the tub of water and plunged his arms in up to the elbow, splashing his face and cleansing the more accessible portions of his body of the dirt and grit that had accumulated. Turning to Gerard as he dried his face with a towel hanging from the tub, he said, "Perhaps we'll have supper before returning home. Seems to me Jeannine's food becomes much improved when you're sitting there alongside me!"
His gentle teasing affected Gerard not at all, as he took a final glance at an old mirror that was positioned at an odd angle just inside the doorway. "I fear you do her an injustice, Bush. I've yet to have a bad meal there." He ignored Bush's derisive snort behind him, frowning in puzzlement at the glass before him. Catching Bush's reflection behind his own in the mirror, he said curiously, "You are most probably the least vain man I've ever met, Bush. Why would you, of all people, keep a mirror in your place of work?"
"For those rare occasions when dandies such as yourself come to call," Bush retorted with a grin. Gerard turned away from the mirror back to Bush, the frown still in place. Seeing that his answer did not satisfy Gerard, Bush added more seriously, "When I'm in the forge, I can't see what's coming up the road. Nanette made me tack that up there so that I'd not be surprised by unexpected visitors." Meeting Gerard's eyes steadily, he said, "It's no use pretending I'm the man I once was, Gerard. I do well enough, but quick movement isn't always a choice that's mine. After the war ended, there were bands of French soldiers who would come and raid some of the less protected villages. No real blame to 'em; they were starving and ill-treated, and not much inclined to pay for food with money they'd earned fighting for Boney but were never paid." At Gerard's raised eyebrows, Bush gave a reluctant half-smile. "I could understand, Gerard, and I could sympathize. But that didn't mean I was willing that they should terrorize us or our neighbours. We had to be prepared to defend ourselves. Even now, I don't like to think on what might have happened to Nanette had I not been here, even if her first husband had still been alive, for he was no fighting man."
"No doubt those were interesting times," said Gerard, wondering just what sort of defence Bush, one-legged and still in ill health himself at the time, could afford to offer against those roving bands of marauders. Oh, well, he told himself, it must have been sufficient for the purpose, since it was obvious that Bush suffered no ill effects from it now. By this time, Bush had run a hand through his grey-streaked hair and donned the shirt he had removed when he had begun work that morning. Together they set out along the dusty track that joined together with the main road leading into Caudebec. Gerard could have ridden the horse that was now taking its ease behind Bush's barn; he had quickly learned that it was easier and more economical to rent a horse in Le Havre than to hoist out his launch, thus requiring the use of his coxswain and his oarsmen. But the distance was not that far, and their conversation made the journey seem even shorter, so that before he knew it, they were at the outskirts of the small village where the tiny café stood.
As they settled themselves at their favourite table, secluded in a distant corner, here came the young woman who owned the café, bringing with her a bottle of wine and two glasses. She already knew Bush's preferences, and it seemed his friend shared his tastes in wine at least, if not in women. She caught Gerard's eye and smiled enticingly, earning a wide grin in return, while Bush watched both with a tolerant eye. He would really have to find some excuse to leave Gerard and return home alone, he thought. As a general rule, he favoured fidelity in marriage, but he rather thought Gerard's was a marriage in name only; by Gerard's own account, he rarely even saw his wife's bed, much less made use of it, and it seemed that her affections too had gone in another direction. As he was trying to devise some stratagem that would leave Gerard free to pursue his own interests, he noticed the woman lay a negligent hand on Gerard's dark hair and gently entwine her fingers into a stray curl. A sharp glance from Bush brought her hand back to her tray, and with a swing of her hips and a last alluring glance toward Gerard, she went back to her kitchens, Gerard's wondering gaze following her all the while.
"I wouldn't worry," said Bush with a grin. "She'll be back, and sooner rather than later, I should think."
With a sigh, Gerard turn his attention to the bottle; with a practiced hand, he uncorked it and poured out the two glasses. With a smile at Bush, he raised his glass and said, "To absent friends."
Bush's eyes narrowed in suspicion, but he didn't hesitate to answer, his own glass raised, "To absent friends." He drained his glass thirstily it had been hot work in the forge and a hot walk to the village. Then he reached for the bottle, pouring out yet another generous portion. Watching Gerard consideringly, he sat back and waited, certain that the seemingly innocent toast was only the beginning of yet another assault on Bush's sturdy walls of resistance to Gerard's desire to reunite himself and Hornblower.
Gerard brought his glass up to the light, studying its contents through a ray of light from the window beside them. "Excellent," he said thoughtfully, with the air of a connoisseur. "Good vineyard, good year. I think," he continued, with a sidelong look at his friend, "that perhaps the Admiral might like this one."
Bush refused to rise to the bait. "Surely an admiral, an English lord at that, can afford better than this, don't ye think?" he replied, studying his own glass carefully. "But you're right; this is a good wine."
"I wonder where Jeannine gets her stock?" said Gerard, with ever an eye to the opportunity.
Bush could very well have told him from whence her excellent wine was obtained, as he himself had made the arrangements for her supply, being an old friend of Felix, the former butler who had unexpectedly inherited the extensive vineyards of the late Count de Gracay. Thoughts of Felix and the Count brought, as always, other more bittersweet memories, memories of Marie, of Brown memories of Hornblower so that Bush's blue eyes took on a singularly wistful expression as he continued to stare at his glass. A slight cough from Gerard brought him back to the present, and he glanced up to see Gerard's eyes searching his face in curious but concerned inquiry. Bush just smiled and shook his head slightly, pushing his glass to one side.
Gerard continued studying him for a brief minute, gauging the
moment, before returning his eyes to his own glass. He continued
on a slightly different tack. "I hope to see the Admiral
soon after I return from this trip. I've not seen him since his
return from Jamaica, and I do wonder how he and her ladyship survived
Bush's expression never changed, although a slight stiffening of his body and a more intense look in his eyes betrayed his increased interest. "Hurricane?" he asked. "What hurricane?"
Just as a fisherman gently plays the fish he hopes soon to land, so too did Gerard begin oh, so gently! to play the fish that was Bush. "Oh, did I not tell you?" he asked in well-feigned surprise. "During his voyage home, he and Lady Hornblower were caught in a storm in the Atlantic it happened sometime last autumn, I think."
Bush turned to look out the window, his expression deceptively detached. "I do recall stories of such a storm back then; there was a great deal of damage done, to land and to ships alike, I hear. But I had not heard they were caught in it as well," he said. Then he glanced back at Gerard. "But they were unharmed?" he asked, his voice showing only the slightest hint of concern.
Gerard was not deceived. "So I have heard," he answered Bush, with just enough doubt in his voice to cause Bush's eyes to widen slightly in alarm. Grinning inwardly, Gerard began to draw his fish toward its inevitable fate. "I had understood, though, that they only survived by being lashed to the main mast. The ship's captain and most of the crew were not so fortunate." Bush, for all his alleged lack of imagination, had no problem envisioning the circumstances that would dictate such an action or the possible injuries that might have ensued; despite his best efforts, his face betrayed his thoughts, rather to Gerard's hidden satisfaction. Gerard continued in a pensive voice, "You know Hornblower, though; he'd never admit publicly that he was anything less than at his best, no matter the circumstances. And her ladyship is much the same."
"True," said Bush, abandoning all pretence at disinterest, although he was quite sure he'd never fooled Gerard to start with. There was a brief silence; then Bush continued, with a slight edge of anxiety lacing his voice, "You will let me know what you find?"
Gerard could see the tail of his fish swishing in the shallows as he assumed a deeply troubled countenance, "Of course I will only"
"Only what?" said Bush, suspicion again nipping at the edges of his mind, although he was careful to keep his expression unchanged.
"WellI do have a very important obligation that must be met immediately on my return to England. But wait!" Gerard exclaimed, just as if a new and extraordinary idea had suddenly struck him. "You could sail with me, then go to Smallbridge in my stead. There'd be no real danger to you; you could just ask about the village, find people who know, perhaps even set up a meeting with Brown."
Gerard's voice trailed off in exasperation as he realized his
fish had slipped his hook and was now heading back for the deeper
water. Even as he was speaking, Bush had begun to relax and now
was leaned back in his chair, his blue eyes twinkling. Why Hornblower
had ever considered Bush slow was beyond comprehension, thought Gerard in irritation, although to be fair to both, Bush had never really been at his best in his direct dealings with his former captain and commodore. It was regrettable that Gerard, at this moment, was less than inclined toward fairness to anyone.
A dour Gerard and an amused Bush eyed each other across the table for several moments before Bush asked, in a conversational tone, "And just how much of what you just told me is the truth, Gerard, and how much came from that overactive imagination of yours?"
"All of it is true!" Gerard replied indignantly, his heated response bringing the concerned expression once more to Bush's face. Gerard's anger cooled as he reconsidered his words. "Well, perhaps I exaggerated the possible aftereffects of their ordeal; since it's been more than six months, I expect they've quite recovered by now. But they did indeed get caught in the storm, and the ship's captain and most of the crew did perish. The story about their being lashed to the mast was rumour, I admit, but certainly there was very little else remaining of the ship by the time they put into the harbour at Puerto Rico. My sources are fairly reliable."
I'm sure they are, thought Bush cynically; a man with Gerard's chequered past would be sure to have friends with equally chequered backgrounds scattered here and there to provide a fairly comprehensive intelligence network. It had been that way on both the Lydia and Sutherland Gerard had always known what warrant officer was hiding a smuggled bottle of rum or what sailor had hoarded his precious allotment of tobacco. In silence he studied Gerard's face, his gaze unwavering, as he considered Gerard's words. Then he said firmly, with a chilling finality, "Gerard, we've discussed this, and it's useless to discuss it further. I am not going back to England. The Admiral is not to know I'm still alive, and you are to leave him in peace." He leaned across the table and looked hard at Gerard. "In peace, Gerard. Do you understand me?" He glowered at his friend for a moment, allowing the force of his words to sink in, then the sternness of his face softened as he sat back in his chair and said gently, "Old friend, I know you mean well. But truly, I think this is for the best."
Gerard was not convinced this was so, but in the face of Bush's inviolate stubbornness, he could hardly say as much such an action would not further his plans at all so he said nothing in reply. Instead, after a few minutes of silence, he listened with vague astonishment to Bush's sudden and rather transparent explanation of "a little more work at the forge" and his suggestion that Gerard remain at the café for his evening meal, to return to Bush's own cottage at his convenience. This was an offer that Gerard could not possibly refuse, and he smiled exuberantly at Bush in appreciation of the gesture. Yet even as Jeannine returned to the table with food and a veiled promise of much more, and as Bush stumped out the door of the café with a backward glance and a grin of his own, lurking at the back of Gerard's mind was a phrase he had heard on occasion from his Muslim sailors on the slavers he had commanded, "If Muhammad won't come to the mountain, then the mountain must go to Muhammad." And even as his hands became simultaneously occupied, food in one, Jeannine's ample flesh in the other, his agile mind began to consider ways and means of bringing an unaware Mountain across the Channel to his most unwilling Muhammad.
Early July 1824
It was with reluctance, and a certain sense of distaste, that Horatio, Lord Hornblower, surveyed the stacks of Gazettes that threatened to spill from their discreet hiding place beneath the table behind his study desk. A suitably dark damask tablecloth had concealed their presence, but recent additions to the collection had created an unsightly bulge in the graceful folds of the cloth not, he thought bitterly, unlike the bulge that had become much more evident around his midsection since his return from the West Indies. Today he was more aware of his physical lackings even than normal, for the date was 4 July 1824 his 48th birthday. With no commission at present, resulting in an unusually extended hiatus at his country estate and some much-appreciated time spent alone with his wife, his natural indolence had asserted itself with a vengeance, and he was now forced to admit that some form of daily exercise would be necessary to restore his body to its former lofty standards. When he had made an observation to that effect that morning at the breakfast table, his wife had countered with the suggestion that he begin his labours with the collection of old Gazettes that had begun to accumulate to an alarming degree behind his desk.
"Soon, my dear, you will no longer be able to fit between the desk and the table if things continue in this fashion," Barbara had said sweetly, and Hornblower had wondered if she was in fact referring to the periodicals or to his own ever-expanding midriff. Disgruntled, he had reluctantly agreed that something needed to be done, and since the maids were forbidden to touch anything within the hallowed precincts of his private study, it would be up to him to make sense of chaos and reduce the number of publications to a more manageable level. He had no plans of any great moment until the quiet dinner Barbara had planned to celebrate his birthday, an old friend their only guest, so he supposed there was no time like the present to begin a task that could only be described as less than enticing.
With a faint sigh, he hoisted onto the desk a stack of papers tied together with string and cut the fastenings with the battered seaman's knife he used as a letter-opener. Sitting down at his desk chair he still had several inches to spare between the back of his chair and the table behind him, he noted with relief he gazed down at the mass of Gazettes that now spread before him, and picked up one at random. He noted the date 7 March 1805 and began thumbing through the pages, looking for any items of interest that might indicate a need to save that particular issue.
He had never actually intended to amass such a collection of the weekly periodical in which the Admiralty reprinted reports and notices of interest to the officers of the Royal Navy. It had been Barbara who had initially discovered the cache in the Southsea lodgings of his first wife Maria he could hardly have called them his lodgings, since he had so rarely spent any time there. Lady Barbara Leighton she'd been then, widow of Hornblower's late admiral, who had taken upon herself the charge of his and Maria's orphaned son, Hornblower himself having been believed to be dead by the Corsican's hand. In doing so, she had also assumed the responsibility of dealing with Maria's bereaved mother and so, with the directness that she shared with her brother the Duke of Wellington, she had handled Mrs. Mason in a sympathetic yet expeditious manner, and had arranged for the final disposal of Maria's meagre belongings.
Before this was accomplished, however, Barbara had set for herself the task of going through Maria's personal effects for items to keep for her new adopted son Richard, for Barbara always had the intention that he should know something of both his father and his mother as he grew older. It was in an old trunk that she discovered the stack of Gazettes, apparently every one that had ever mentioned Hornblower's name in any context. Despite herself, she found herself devouring the words of each report with much the same eagerness as Maria before her, and it was with some astonishment that she looked up from her dusty seat on the floor beside the trunk to find the sun setting and her driver waiting at the door to see if she were ready to depart for home. Replacing the periodicals in the trunk, she had directed her driver to place it in her carriage, and in her own boudoir that night, she continued her perusal of these brief glimpses into Hornblower's past, many events of which took place well before her first meeting with the man whom she had come to love so dearly.
This was how the collection had started, Barbara having continued Maria's practice of collecting the publications after Hornblower's return and their eventual marriage. Hornblower had harrumphed at the idea of such sentimentality, but when Barbara had suggested that they be thrown out if he felt so strongly on the subject, and had taken the necessary steps to do so, he had instead rescued them from the flames of the big kitchen hearth and hidden them beneath that useless table in his study, to Barbara's invisible amusement. Since that time, he had added to the collection, until its continual feeding had now threatened to engulf the entire east end of his study retreat, thus making necessary this waste of an entire day in order to tame the monster he himself had helped to create.
As the day wore on, he steadily worked his way through the
Gazettes, a neat stack on one side of his desk indicating
the ones to be retained, and an old wooden box on the floor beside
his desk acting as a receptacle for those that would be destroyed.
Some he read with great interest, many of those being his reports
from his long and extensive career; others he barely glanced at
before tossing into the box. But there were some that he neither
read avidly nor glanced at carelessly, but gazed at, with an unexpected
tug at his heart, prior to placing each with deliberate care onto
the slowly growing stack on his desk. The notice of his first
marriage; the notices of the births, and deaths, of their children;
the notice of the birth of their subsequent son Richard and the
tragic loss of Richard's mother at the same time. More cheerful
notices as well his triumphant return home after his escape
from France, his marriage to Barbara, his elevation to the peerage,
the final pinnacle as he hoisted his flag as rear admiral.
But it wasn't until the sun had begun to sink behind the trees outside his window, and the shadows were stretching toward the corners of the room, that Hornblower began to come across the ones that brought reminders of someone of whom he hadn't thought in years. Yet that wasn't quite true they were more like reminders of someone about whom he hadn't allowed himself to think, for a very long time indeed. Odd how they all seemed to be contained in the same string-tied packet, Hornblower thought, as if they had conspired together to bring him the maximum amount of pain in the quickest amount of time. Here was one announcing a commander to the newly regained cutter Witch of Endor, and here was yet another speaking of a posting of a new captain to the 74-gun ship Nonsuch. And now here was the one he'd dreaded finding, the one he thought he'd buried deep within the publications already concealed beneath the damask covered table. The one he'd never even glanced at before hiding it from his sightthe one he had never, ever intended to read.
Closing his eyes tightly against an old, familiar, yet long
forgotten ache, Hornblower sat motionless at his desk. Then,
reluctantly opening his eyes once more, he glanced down at the
Gazette that lay innocently before him, pristine in its
condition despite its age of ten years or more just as it
had lain there the day he returned from Le Havre. 11 January
1814, it said for some reason, these particular letters,
and this particular notice, had been delayed in their publication,
despite the fact that the actual events had happened in early
December 1813. He'd still been acting as governor of Le Havre
when this particular issue had been published, but his household,
on Barbara's standing orders, had dutifully purchased each issue
and saved them for their master's return home.
He been alone that wet, dismal morning, the day he'd returned to Smallbridge, separated from his wife by distance as well as by understanding, still counting the cost of all he'd left behind in France. He'd looked forward to coming here to his sanctuary, closing the door against all that with which fate had confounded him over across the Channel. And there, on top of the small stack of Gazettes centred neatly on his desk, had been that issue, bringing with it the remembrance of his black despair at the news that his best friend and staunchest ally had been killed not in a grand sea battle, but in a nasty little skirmish up the Seine River at that damnable little village named Caudebec.
Hornblower shook his head briskly, endeavouring to dispel the ghosts that threatened to invade his memory, and began to place the publication, unread, onto the waiting stack on the desk; even if he could not read it, nor yet could he throw it away. But, seemingly of its own volition, his hand stayed its motion and then, slowly, began to open the Gazette to the fateful pages. Sighing in defeat, Hornblower picked it up and, with eyes stinging from tears too long unshed, he began unwillingly to read the accounts of the events of that accursed December night, beginning with the notice that read, "Killed in action, 7 December 1813, Captain William Bush, HMS Nonsuch."
Hornblower had lost track of time, staring at the periodical before him, although he had long since stopped seeing the words on the page, instead seeing there, in startling clarity against the blurry white background, a pair of bright blue eyes, the bluest he'd ever seen. As he stared, there came a procession before his own eyes, one after the other blue eyes crinkling with amusement; blue eyes staring back at him in hurt bewilderment; blue eyes lit by the binnacle lamp, looking at him in honest concern as a surprisingly well-remembered voice said reassuringly yet, in retrospect, with terrible finality, "Don't you go worrying about us, sir."
Suddenly Hornblower was on his feet, cursing, flinging the offending Gazette across the room and shattering a vase in the process. And just as suddenly, he was startled by a tap on the door, loud in the silence that followed the breaking of the vase. White-faced and shaking, Hornblower said nothing, but only stared at the door in dismay, appalled at being discovered in these circumstances. Making a valiant effort to collect himself, he sat down again and picked up another Gazette, stilling the trembling of his hands by sheer will power and resolutely ignoring the shards of glass that now decorated the floor a few feet away. With what he hoped was a reasonably normal tone of voice, he said gruffly, "Come in."
The door opened, and Brown, the butler, stepped into the room, his face expressionless although he must have heard the breaking of the vase and the sounds of Hornblower's curses. "May I be of some help, milord?" Brown asked respectfully, rigidly ignored the broken vase fragments that lay practically at his feet.
Hornblower kept his face lowered and his eyes fixed on the page before him. To his dismay, he saw that a tremor was causing the paper between his fingers to shake ever so slightly, and he hoped against hope that Brown did not notice it as well. "No, Brown, thank you. I am nearly done for the evening."
Brown reached down to retrieve the crumpled papers that had landed on a chair near the door. Catching sight of Brown's actions from the corner of his eye, Hornblower said sharply, "Leave that, Brown. I'll take care of it directly." A brief pause. "And the broken vase."
Brown straightened obediently, but not before he had noted
the contents of the page that lay open before him, "Report
by Captain Sir Horatio Hornblower, Acting Governor, Le Havre,
France, Concerning The Engagement and Defeat of the Enemy at Caudebec,
7 December 1813." His eyes widened in comprehension, then
he faced his employer, his face again a mask of indifference.
"Very good, milord," he said, turning back to the door.
Before exiting, however, he turned back and said, to Hornblower's
barely suppressed consternation, "Her ladyship asked me to
remind you that you should be changing into your evening clothes,
milord. Captain Gerard is expected to arrive shortly."
After the door closed gently behind Brown, Hornblower sank his head into his hands. Of all the people on earth, he thought, Gerard was the last person he wanted to see at this time, amongst these particular memories. But this small dinner celebration had been planned for weeks, and Barbara had gone to some lengths to provide the only guest with whom her husband really seemed at ease. He could not back out now. But, dear God, how was he ever to get through the evening?
Five minutes later, when the sound of a quietly closing door signalled Hornblower's departure for his own suite of rooms, Brown returned to the study to remove the last traces of Hornblower's outburst. But the glimmer of candlelight revealed only a spotless floor where once a broken vase lay, and a crumpled Gazette, now carefully smoothed and straightened, residing atop a stack of its fellows on Hornblower's immaculate desk, a battered seaman's knife acting as its paperweight.
Gerard had arrived punctually at the appointed hour, the lamps above the wide entrance door providing a warm welcome to the weary traveller, along with that of Hornblower's butler Brown, who had been a seaman long before he had become a butler and had served with Gerard during those long ago days on board Lydia and Sutherland. Gerard had rooms at the local inn, but had not arrived in time to accomplish much more than refresh himself with a glass of wine before changing into his evening attire. As a result, he only listened with half an ear to Brown's continuous and seemingly innocuous conversation as they walked down the hall to Hornblower's study,
"He's not quite himself today, Captain," Brown was saying seriously, as to an old friend. "He's never really enjoys anyone making a fuss over him, and he's always a little downcast on his birthday anyway. But today he's been sorting old Gazettes, and something he's read seems to have," Brown hesitated just long enough to cause Gerard to look at him curiously, "upset him."
Before Gerard could reply, Brown had opened the door at which they had just arrived. "Captain Gerard, milord," Brown stated matter-of-factly, standing just inside the study door to allow Gerard to enter the room.
Hornblower, noticeably pale but well in hand, stepped forward to greet Gerard, who took his outstretched hand with a smile, although there was a certain unreadable expression in his eyes that made Hornblower somewhat uneasy. Hornblower forced himself to be natural, to welcome his guest, if not with enthusiasm, at least with some degree of cordiality. He escorted Gerard to a chair near his desk, but Gerard remained standing as his host walked to the decanters at the other end of the room.
Gerard idly scanned the top of Hornblower's desk, as the clink of glasses gave evidence of Hornblower's actions. His attention was caught by a knife placed precisely on top of a stack of old Gazettes, and without conscious intent, he read the opening lines of the first article, the same that had caught Brown's eye previously. His own eyes widened; darting a swift glance at Hornblower, still busy with the decanters, he craned his neck for a closer look. Noting how someone had tried diligently to smooth the paper's sadly crumpled surface, he then took a closer look at the knife that had been meticulously positioned. Somehow familiar, old and battered, he looked closely at the initials carved deep into the scarred wood of the handle. "W.B."
For an instant, there was an expression of compassionate understanding on Gerard's face, competing against a reprehensible look of startled triumph. Then he hurriedly composed his face into an expression of incurious blandness as Hornblower returned and offered him a glass of sherry; it would not suit Gerard's plans at all to have Hornblower guess Gerard's rising interest in Hornblower's current state of mind. Into his own mind came Bush's stern injunction that he "lie like a thief" when dealing with Hornblower, and Gerard passionately hoped his abilities in that line would not be put to the test at this particular juncture.
"So, Gerard, how is your family?" Hornblower asked.
His voice sounded insincere, even to his own ears, but for the
life of him, he could not feign interest in Gerard's affairs when
his own head had begun to ache abominably in reaction to the long-buried
emotions that had ambushed him so unexpectedly earlier in the
"Quite well, my lord, thank you for asking." Gerard took a sip of his sherry, his eyes never leaving Hornblower's face, noting its unusual pallor and the brightness of those brown eyes, while his mind busily speculated on how he could turn this unusual turn of affairs to his own advantage. His face giving away nothing of his thoughts, he in turn asked about Hornblower's wife and child, and thus their polite, superficial conversation continued. Despite his carefully concealed elation, Gerard was uncomfortably aware of a much more constrained atmosphere than any he had ever experienced in this house prior to this evening.
Even as Gerard began to wonder if this awkward, if enlightening, interview would ever end, a quiet tap at the door was followed by the rustle of silk as Lady Hornblower herself entered the room, resplendent in a blue gown that matched the blue of her eyes. Hornblower and Gerard rose at her entrance, both irresistibly reminded of a similar gown that she had worn upon leaving the Lydia those many years ago. That reminder inevitably brought with it other memories, of people, of adventures, of conversations, so that when she smiled at them both, the smiles they returned were entirely genuine the first really natural behaviour either of them had displayed since Gerard had entered the room.
"Captain Gerard!" Lady Hornblower exclaimed, her face alight with welcome. Gerard took Lady Hornblower's gloved fingers in his own and kissed them with a gallantry that made her laugh like a girl, somewhat to her husband's irritation. Gerard, noting the flush that banished completely Hornblower's pallor and the lowering of his expressive eyebrows, gracefully and swiftly released her hand, saying as he did so, "My lady, you are indeed a vision of loveliness tonight. I can truthfully say that your presence lights up a room as even a candelabra could not."
Lady Hornblower, well acquainted with Gerard's skill at flirtation and sensitive to her husband's incipient displeasure, merely smiled and said, "What nonsense you do speak, Captain! When it is all but darkness itself in here. Brown, light more candles; his lordship cannot work in this dimness!"
Hornblower, devoutly thankful that the guttering candles had hidden the more visible evidence of his recent agitation, said, "That won't be necessary, my dear. I believe I am finished for today. Snuff the candles, Brown, if you please." He then took his wife by the arm and began to escort her inexorably out the door.
Brown had entered in her ladyship's wake and was standing behind Hornblower's desk, taking in the scene with a discreet but watchful eye. Gerard took one last long glance down at the Gazette lying there, before looking up to find Brown's eyes waiting, a strangely knowing expression fleetingly crossing his face before being replaced by his habitual stolidity. As Gerard prepared to follow his host and hostess, it occurred to him that Brown might prove to be a most useful accomplice in the plan that had been taking form in his audacious mind since well before his visit this evening.
After yet another of the excellent dinners that were to be found at Smallbridge Manor, Gerard and his hosts walked to the massive entrance door, but at Lady Hornblower's invitation to stay the night, Gerard begged to be excused. "I am engaged in London on the morrow, my lady, and must make a very early start. The inn in the village will do well for me. But please accept my sincere thanks for a most enjoyable evening." At least that was true, Gerard thought virtuously, even if it was obvious that Hornblower could not say the same. All in all, as a result of his observations this evening, Gerard felt rather encouraged that he might yet accomplish that upon which he had by now set his mind and his heart.
His attention was recalled as Lady Hornblower responded with simple sincerity, "You are always very welcome here, Captain." Her hand tucked possessively inside the arm of her husband, she glanced at Hornblower and was disturbed by the expression she saw there, a dejected unhappiness that had been noticeably absent for quite some time. She wondered if its return had been occasioned by Gerard's visit, but since Hornblower was saying goodbye to Gerard with every sign of good will, forced though it might be, she could only assume there was another reason with which she was as yet unfamiliar.
After the farewells had been said and the door had closed upon Gerard's retreating back, she turned to Hornblower and asked in concern, "Are you not well, dearest? You seem rather dispirited."
"It's nothing, my dear. Just an old memory come to call, along with an old friend," Hornblower answered, forcing a smile for her benefit. "Shall we take a turn in the garden before retiring?" With as good an effort as he had in him, he made his expression and his conversation determinedly cheerful, although his pretence was not quite as successful as he might have hoped.
And on the other side of the solid oaken door, down the walk to the entrance gate, their late guest stood bathed in a silvery beam of moonlight, examining with interest a scrap of paper that Brown had pressed into his hand along with his hat. Then he began walking back toward the small village of Smallbridge, whistling softly to himself, an expression of supreme self-satisfaction upon his handsome face.
Gerard sat at his ease in the small pub just outside Smallbridge,
nursing a pint and thinking back over the last few hours. There
had been no doubt that Brown was correct something had upset
Hornblower prior to his arrival; his pale face and slightly distracted
manner had been evidence enough of that, even without Brown's
warning. Nor had Gerard to look far for the reason, with that
revealing Gazette and that knife lying together on Hornblower's
desk. He had always suspected that Hornblower was not as reconciled
to Bush's death as he had appeared to be; his very avoidance of
even Bush's name made that plain, and indeed, it was that suspicion,
coupled with Bush's own very evident unhappiness, that had caused
Gerard to contemplate his personal interference in the first place.
But it began to appear that the wound perhaps went far deeper
than even he had supposed.
Perhaps, he reflected, Hornblower's situation was like that of an amputee at first, an agony so intense as to be almost unbearable; then a gradual healing that could still erupt into acute pain at an unexpected bump or fall. Then, finally, a complete healing or as complete a healing as could happen when an entire appendage had been forcibly severed from one's body. Even then, there would always be that sense of loss, the lack of something that had once been a vital part of one's existence, and there would always be the phantom pain that so strangely seemed to emanate at odd moments from the limb that was forever gone. An amputee could always learn to live with his disability he could even learn to be happy and content but still, a person who had suffered such a loss would undoubtedly give anything to regain that missing limb perhaps even that peace and contentment he had worked so hard to attain.
It was inevitable that thoughts of amputation would lead to thoughts of Bush, on whose unknowing behalf he was acting. Bush seemed content, even with all he had lost, but Gerard knew that deep inside he was hurting at the knowledge that one loss, at least, could be remedied if not for his stubborn sense of honour and self-sacrifice. Odd, now that he thought on it, how similar Hornblower and Bush were in dealing with their respective losses, Hornblower emotionally, Bush both emotionally and physically. Both had buried their pain beneath a layer of apparent indifference, but the vulnerability of each was painfully visible once that thin veneer was stripped back to expose the tender scars that still lurked beneath.
All this while, Gerard had continued to sip slowly at his tankard, patiently watching the entrance as his mind wandered along its twisted path. He studied with interest the crumpled piece of paper that had brought him here tonight; a strong handwriting, he noted, the grammar not quite perfect, but very readable. Glancing up, he straightened in his chair and tossed the paper onto the table when he saw the door open and Brown enter, taking an appraising look around the panelled public room. Catching sight of Gerard in the corner, Brown made his way between small groups of local farmers and the occasional solitary drinker to the table where a serving girl, obeying a signal from Gerard, was setting down a brimming tankard of the local home brew. Brown pulled out a chair and sat down, then without hesitation, he lifted the tankard and took a healthy swig of its contents, wiping his mouth on his perfectly pressed sleeve.
Gerard was amused at this sudden emergence of the coxswain
Brown from the well trained servant that was ever present at Smallbridge
Manor. Physically there was no difference between this Brown
and the one Gerard had known all those years before, save those
small changes that the intervening years inevitably bring. Brown's
physique was such that one would think he still climbed backstays
and hauled on cables larger than his considerably muscled forearms,
although Gerard was sure it had been at least ten years since
Brown had been required to do any of those things. It was in
his demeanour that the change was most evident there was
a gentility that had been nonexistent during his years as coxswain,
but which in his present occupation surrounded him like an aura.
Or at least it had done so until just now, when the original
Brown, here in the company of an old shipmate and officer, had
suddenly reasserted himself.
Still silent, Brown pulled the crumpled piece of paper across the table and gazed at it critically, his eyes unmistakably following the lines of script. "You follow instructions well, Cap'n," Brown stated, glancing up and pushing the note back toward Gerard. "I thank you for coming."
Gerard stared at him. Why, he thought in surprise, had it not occurred to him that Brown had, at some point in the past few years, acquired the ability to read and write? He had wondered who had written the note on Brown's behalf and worried a little as to the continued secrecy of his plan. But from Brown's confident manner, as well as his obvious familiarity with the contents of both that Gazette in Hornblower's study and the note now residing on the table, it was clear that he had no need of a second person to either convey or interpret his messages. Good, thought Gerard a man who could still act like an illiterate, common seaman despite his status as a favoured servant, yet be possessed of at least some education, might come in quite useful. The humour in Brown's eyes told Gerard that Brown's ability to read might not be confined to words set down on paper, and he hastened on lest Brown see more than Gerard was prepared yet to reveal.
"You look well," he began, and the humour in Brown's eyes was supplemented by the huge grin that spread across his face.
"Bless my soul, Cap'n Gerard, you don't have to make small talk with me," Brown said cheerfully. "You don't have time for that and frankly, neither do I. His lordship's already a mite suspicious that I asked leave to come out at this time of night." Brown's expression became solemn as he considered his next words. "Even so, I'm glad we were able to meet, 'cause I am troubled about his lordship. It's strange he's been happy the last few months, ever since him and her ladyship came back from Jamaica, even with that bad storm they went through. And you know him, Cap'n, he's never been one for being happy."
Despite the seriousness with which Brown delivered this statement, Gerard could not restrain a smile at this brief, but accurate, description of Hornblower's perpetual melancholia. "I expect there's been very little in his past to promote much happiness," he remarked.
"That's the truth, and no lie," responded Brown glumly. "What with losing the Sutherland like that, and with the first Mrs. Hornblower a'dying whilst we were in France, and I hear there were a little girl and a little boy died even before then. And then there was what happened to Cap'n Bush he took that real hard, never talks about it even now. And problems between him and her ladyship before she went to Vienna, and then we got back involved with the Gracays" Suddenly he bit down on his words, as if it had occurred to him that he'd said too much, and his expression became oddly noncommittal.
Gerard took note of this strange reaction and spent a brief moment speculating as to its source, but it was the reference to Bush that caused him to prick up his ears. Relegating his curiosity to the back of his mind, he said lightly, "But things have surely improved since then, have they not? He and Lady Hornblower seem quite a contented couple."
"And so they are, Cap'n, especially these last few months. And Master Richard's doing well too, scamp that he is, trying to turn that boarding school of his topsy-turvey. Everything's been going along so well," Brown said in a bewildered voice. "What went so amiss tonight?"
With the conversation going in the general direction he wanted, Gerard proceeded carefully he wanted no fiasco such as his previous attempt to manipulate Bush had proven to be. Almost offhandedly, he said, "It seems that you were quite right; something indeed seems to have distressed him before my arrival tonight. He seemed very pale, almost unwell, and then there was that Gazette."
Gerard saw that he need not have been concerned, for Brown obviously had every intention of imparting his own information to Gerard's willing ears. Brown's face darkened as he recounted the incident of the thrown periodical and its decimated victim. "Peculiar thing about them things. When I went back to tidy, like I always do, the vase was all picked up, and the Gazette was back on the desk, nice and smooth like it'd never been anywhere else. Interesting Gazette it was too," Brown said musingly, examining his tankard. "All about Cap'n Bush and how he got killed over there in France, back toward the end of Boney's war. It's peculiar, 'cause he ain't even mentioned Cap'n Bush's name in years." He looked up at Gerard, and the directness of his gaze took Gerard by surprise. "What's even more peculiar, I got the idea you thought that Gazette was mighty interesting as well."
Intelligent as well as literate, thought Gerard, and too easily underestimated. First Bush, now Brown he'd always considered himself fairly sharp; was he losing his touch? Suddenly he decided to lay all his cards on the table, or as many as he could without breaking his promise to Bush. "Brown, I think the Admiral should go back to France. He needs to go back to France." He hesitated. "Back to Caudebec."
The eyebrows of the usually imperturbable Brown shot up into his still-thick thatch of hair. "You don't mean it, sir! You'll never get him back there, not after what happened to Cap'n Bush. It wasn't so bad at first don't get me wrong, he was hurting and hurting bad, but he was making the best of it. But then some other pretty bad things began to happen, things I can't talk about, and I think he really began to miss him then." He was silent for a few seconds, thinking. "Or maybe it was always that bad, and just like getting cut with a knife, it didn't really begin to hurt until the numbness wore off."
Now that was unexpected perceptiveness on Brown's part. Definitely more there than meets the eye, thought Gerard appreciatively. And again, there was that reference to an event, or events, that could not, or must not, be discussed; the look on Brown's face reminded Gerard of a an expression he'd observed on Bush's face as well, whenever discussion of Hornblower had seemed to travel into similarly murky waters. Whatever this mysterious event was, it had apparently happened after Bush's "death", but it seemed Bush knew the details despite that fact. Gerard could rarely resist a mystery, but he forced himself to stick with the matter at hand. Plenty of time for that other problem, once he'd accomplished this current self-appointed task.
Brown sat quietly, carefully watching, as Gerard digested his words. Then Gerard said tentatively, "He did put up that monument." At the astonished look on Brown's face, he made haste to explain his remark. "I was there last December, Brown. My nephew you remember Midshipman Gerard aboard Nonsuch he asked me to go. It was the tenth anniversary, you see, and he couldn't be there himself. He thought quite a lot of Bush, you know."
"So he did, sir," answered Brown. "When the Commodore, as he was then, wasn't around, Cap'n Bush was a lot easier to get to know than his lordship ever was. Of course, when the Commodore was around," Brown said with a reminiscent grin, "Cap'n Bush always felt he had to act like the Commodore." His grin faded, and he continued, "About that monument, sir. His lordship's never even seen it. He went across to the American station not long after he'd commissioned it, and he's hardly been back since."
"Then it's time he went to see it," Gerard replied briskly, inwardly amazed at how neatly it was all falling into place. "It seems to me that it's these reminders of Bush that have depressed him so. He needs to be made to deal with it once and for all."
Brown's expression remained rather dubious, but he could see the sense in the suggestion. It had always been evident to Brown that Hornblower had never really accepted the death of the man who had been his closest friend, nor had he ever actually dealt with the guilt associated with his loss. Perhaps it would be best to get him over to France, to Caudebec, and force him to face up to that which could never be changed. He did wonder at Gerard's determination to see Hornblower return to a place where Gerard himself had few, if any, past associations, aside from his friendship with Bush; but he knew Gerard's concern for Hornblower was genuine, even if his motives seemed slightly obscure and his methods a trifle devious. Gerard was right, Brown decided, this needs to be resolved once and for all. Even as Gerard watched the play of emotions across his homely face, Brown's expression cleared, and his honest eyes unflinchingly met Gerard's across the table as he said firmly, "What do you need me to do?"
Early September 1824
Now that Gerard was sure of his mark, and had a willing accomplice besides, he began to consider ways and means of attaining his goal. The timing had to be perfect, not so distant that Hornblower's frame of mind returned to its former shell-hardened state, yet not so soon than he became suspicious of Gerard's motives. Gerard had sent Brown back to Smallbridge Manor that night with no more instruction than to merely wait on the opportunity and, should that opportunity present itself, to ensure that Hornblower was supplied with sufficient clothing and necessities to last longer than the brief Channel crossing Gerard intended to use as a lure to put his plan into motion. It more suited Gerard's taste for the dramatic to orchestrate his reunion on the very same date as his and Bush's own meeting the year before, but he dared not wait that long, lest other outside influences, such as illness or Admiralty orders, affect his plans. Too, the quicker and calmer the crossing, the more pliable Hornblower might be, since under those circumstances, Hornblower's unpredictable seasickness might well be averted; such a voyage would be more easily accomplished in the late summer, rather than during the gale-ridden autumn and winter months. Gerard already knew he would have to deal with Bush's anger at journey's end; he was loath to be required to entertain a nauseated and irascible Hornblower during the voyage as well.
In the midst of his busiest season, Gerard was still perfecting his plan of action when a letter from Brown turned all his calculations into confusion, for Hornblower had received a letter from the Admiralty. Brown was unsure of its contents; that they were not of an urgent nature, he knew, since under those circumstances, Hornblower would have thrown the entire household into disarray in his haste to prepare for immediate departure. Since this had not happened, it could be assumed the orders had allowed a little leeway before putting to sea, if indeed they had been orders at all. Whatever the reason for the letter, Gerard knew that he himself must now move without delay, with or without adequate preparation, or risk the opportunity slipping from his grasp at the last moment.
The express letter from Brown had arrived just as Gerard was returning from his latest foray, and it was with groanings and cursings that his crew received the news that they were to prepare for an immediate return to France. Gerard ignored their protests; it would not hurt them to miss their biweekly appointments with the local grog shops and ladies of the evening, and he must be prepared to sail the instant Hornblower agreed to accompany him. He debated as to whether to send his invitation to Smallbridge Manor via express or to take it in person. Deciding on the latter he would always chance his own personally delivered persuasions against any he might put down on paper he took the best and most comfortable of his carriages to Kent, in the hope that Hornblower might be induced to return with him. He had decided on no definite course of action, but trusted to his native cunning and good luck to bring about the necessary turn of events.
In the end, he needed neither native cunning nor good luck to accomplish his purpose, as it seemed the Admiralty had done an excellent job at doing his work for him. The minute he stepped inside the wide entrance hallway, he detected an atmosphere that reflected an odd mixture of gloom and tension, and the expression on Brown's face as he formally greeted Gerard made obvious the fact that whatever the letter from the Admiralty had contained, an immediate return to the sea was not in the foreseeable future. As Gerard waited outside Hornblower's study door for Brown to announce him, he considered that this might well work to his advantage, and he was sure of it when he saw the unconcealed relief on Hornblower's face at his entrance. Clearly Hornblower was about to explode with frustration, and equally clearly Gerard was to be the outlet for his exasperation.
"Damned idiots," Hornblower began without preamble, gesturing to a chair and striding to the decanters without even asking Gerard's preference. The Gazettes were all safely hidden out of sight beneath the damask-covered table, noted Gerard as he waited, and the constraint that Hornblower had displayed at his last visit was absent as well. Hornblower returned with two glasses of sherry and, handing one to Gerard, sat in another chair and tossed his off with a single gulp. "Should have brought the decanter," he muttered in irritation, while Gerard was hard put not to laugh, so different was this Hornblower from the one he had visited only a couple of months before. Gerard was careful, however, to keep his amusement hidden, and his face showed only an idle curiosity.
"Idiots, my lord?" Gerard asked, just as if he had no clue of the Admiralty letter that was, unbeknownst to him, even now residing in the top drawer of Hornblower's desk. "To which idiots are you referring?"
"Those asses at that damned Admiralty House!" Hornblower exploded, his face reddening with his anger. "I wrote them several weeks ago about the possibility of another commission, and I just received the answer this week. 'We do not anticipate a need for your services in the immediate future.' Popinjays!" He took a deep breath and continued in a more temperate tone of voice. "I tell you, Gerard, it's more than a soul can stand, to be punted aside in this manner!"
Gerard smiled understandingly. "But surely, my lord, in a time of peace, there are few opportunities among so many deserving flag officers. I am sure when a vacancy becomes available for any of the squadrons currently in service, your name will be first on the list of those to be considered."
The fulminating look that Hornblower cast at him made it clear
that this was not, in Hornblower's opinion, an edifying observation,
but Hornblower was a fair man fairer, indeed, than he had
been as Gerard's captain, such had the intervening years mellowed
him. He sighed deeply, gazing into his empty glass, as his brief
spurt of temper subsided. "You're right, of course. But,
damn it all, I've been on shore too long. Even with all the benefits
of being in my own home, with my own family, I find it tiresome."
He glanced up at Gerard and said, with a wistful smile, "I'm
not a man for the land, Gerard. I long for the creaking and groaning
of a ship, the sound of the wind in the rigging, the waves slapping
against the hull." He blushed slightly at the poetic turn
comments had taken, but still he continued, "I know I sound too much like those romantic oafs whose verse is all the fashion, but it's true. I miss the sea, more than I can say, and knowing that my return is to be delayed yet again is somehow more than I believe I can bear."
Gerard stared at Hornblower stupidly, awed that Fate could deliver such an opportunity into his hands with no more effort on his part than a hastily arranged carriage ride. Quickly he pulled himself together and considered his next move. He was reluctant to use a tactic that had failed so miserably with Bush earlier, but perhaps Hornblower was more in a humour to accept the lure than Bush had been. At any rate, he had no better course of action, so with hidden misgivings, he said with a smile, "My lord, I cannot offer you an appointment as commander of a fleet or a squadron, or even of a ship of the line. But if you would be so kind as to honour me as my guest, I can at least offer you the sounds and sights of a ship at sea, if only on a short voyage across the Channel."
Hornblower looked at him long and hard before replying; thus would any starving man look at a tempter who offered a meal of bread and wine without any discernible expectation of reward. "An unusually opportune invitation, Gerard. And just when did you have in mind for this voyage of yours?"
Despite Hornblower's sarcasm, Gerard's countenance showed only unfeigned sincerity as he answered, "I cannot express what it would mean to me for you to be a passenger on my ship, my lord. And as it happens, we are even now preparing for sea. I have only just returned, but it seems that an order from a treasured client must be filled within a shorter time than is usual. We could sail as early as tomorrow night, if that would suit you. "
Hornblower rose and went back to the decanter, this time returning with it clutched firmly in his hand; silently he filled his glass and topped Gerard's. Then he sat and ruminated on Gerard's proposal, until a stray thought prompted him to abruptly look up and ask, "Why are you here today, Gerard, if you are only just now returned from France?"
Gerard silently cursed Hornblower's ill-timed scepticism, but was nonetheless prepared with his reply. "I have been going back and forth across the Channel constantly since I was last here, my lord. I was concerned, though, that you seemed out of sorts at that time, and I had promised myself that I would return at the end of this trip to ensure myself of your well-being. Promises made to oneself should always be kept," he added sententiously, "despite the obstacles that circumstances may toss in their way. I am glad to have done so this time, my lord, since it gives me the opportunity to provide even this slight service to you."
It appeared that Hornblower was not quite convinced of the sincerity of Gerard's explanation, but the chance to once again go to sea, even if only as a passenger and even if only for so brief a time, was more than he could resist at this moment of dejection and disappointment. "Allow me to consult with my wife, and if she has no objections, I would indeed be honoured to accept your invitation, Gerard." Hornblower's actions following this statement, however, did not indicate that he considered his wife's wishes to be a serious obstacle, as he rose and headed toward the door, roaring as he did so, "Brown!" Brown's head appeared almost instantly around the door; had Hornblower not been so preoccupied, he might well have been a little suspicious at the promptness with which Brown had obeyed his summons. "Please pack my things for a trip across the Channel, and pack for yourself as well. You're coming too." Hornblower cast a repentant glance back at his prospective host. "If that is convenient to you, of course."
"Oh, yes, by all means, bring Brown with you," Gerard hastened to assure him. As Hornblower departed to find his wife, he missed the conspiratorial glance that passed between Gerard and Brown, and he would have been astonished to see the little jig that Gerard danced across the room in celebration of completion of this, the most important step in his carefully drafted, yet slightly awry, plan.
As Gerard stood waiting in Hornblower's study, staring out the window at the wind-blown trees, he heard a faint rustle of material behind him, and turning, he found himself face to face with Lady Hornblower, or Lady Barbara, as she would always figure in his mind. Although she smiled a greeting, her expression was serious as she waved a hand toward the pair of chairs he and Hornblower had so lately occupied and said, "Pray be seated, Captain. I think we have things to discuss."
Gerard felt a momentary panic as he began to wonder if all was about to become unravelled, even at this late stage. Obediently he seated himself in the chair opposite the one Barbara had gracefully occupied. They stared at each other measuringly for a few brief seconds, then Barbara said, in a tone as serious as her expression, "Please, Captain Gerard. What is this about, that you must spirit my husband away so mysteriously?"
Gerard thought quickly, even as he instinctively said in protest,
"There's nothing mysterious about this, Lady Hornblower!
I merely felt that his lordship might enjoy an opportunity to
sail across the Channel. It seems he's hankering for the sea,
and he's not seen my ship. I am quite proud of it, you know."
He added this last in a self-satisfied tone that was not entirely
counterfeit. Barbara's expression did not relax, however, and
Gerard realized with a sinking heart that she would be much harder
to mislead than her husband. Gerard had always considered her
one of the most intelligent and perceptive women he'd ever known,
and he saw now that he had not overestimated her talents in the
least. Her husband, whose longing to return to sea for even such
a brief time had overcome his natural reservations and who in
any event had no real reason to distrust Gerard, was more than
willing to take this invitation at face value. Barbara, on the
other hand, with her quick intuitiveness, clearly understood there
was more to this than Gerard had thus far revealed, and Gerard
knew at once that for her, nothing but the truth would suffice.
It must be a truth cautiously told, however, for there was still
Bush to be considered, and even after all these years, there might
still be an enemy of Hornblower or even of Bush himself,
for that matter who could turn these unusual circumstances
into a telling blow against either.
As the silence between them lengthened, Gerard considered his words carefully. Finally, looking at Barbara straightly, he began, "Lady Hornblower, I would that I could answer your question, but I fear that in doing so, I may well imperil one who has no knowledge of my actions. But perhaps, if you will allow it, I could tell you a tale that might give you some indication as to my motives."
Barbara gave her assent with a polite nod, although her eyes never lost their watchful expression. Thus encouraged, Gerard began his story. "There were once two men who had a great brotherly affection for each other, although their respective stations might have seemed to preclude the development of the friendship they shared. Unfortunately, one of the men, sadly lacking in self-worth, felt that anyone who held him in such high regard as his friend did must be lacking himself in some way, and therefore, this man on too many occasions treated his friend unjustly in accordance with this belief. And the other, while he understood his friend very well and knew the depth of affection that was concealed beneath that aloof exterior, was also aware that in the matter of intelligence and quick wit he could not compare to his friend, so that he too suffered from a certain lack of self-appreciation. And because they could not believe they actually deserved any such high esteem from each other, they failed to recognize the true value of the friendship they held until it was considered too late."
From Barbara's intent expression and the dawning comprehension in her eyes, Gerard knew that she understood far more than might be expected from the avowed meaning of his words. He continued, "It was their lack of faith in themselves and each other that eventually caused each friend to seriously wrong the other. The first man, because of his belief that dependence on any other person must necessarily be perceived as a weakness, held at a distance one whose support could have been invaluable when times were most dark. And the second man, finding himself grievously incapacitated and separated from his friend through no fault of his own, came to believe that he had become a dangerous burden. As a result, he determined that he must relieve his friend of that burden even though it meant that he could never return to his homeland or his vocation or even his own identity, since to the world at large, he was considered to be beyond reach of any mortal touch."
It was with a certain sense of satisfaction that Gerard saw Barbara's eyes widen and her complexion pale, as the full import of Gerard's words made itself known to her. Swiftly, she rose from her chair and went to stand before the window, her back to Gerard, contemplating the same tempest-tossed trees that had so fascinated Gerard before. Presently her voice came back to him, quite calm, yet perhaps not as firm as she would have liked. "One must assume from the direction of your narrative that the second man, the one who had been so unjustly treated by the first, is in fact not beyond the reach of mortal man or mortal forgiveness." She continued to stare out the window, saying with a catch in her voice, "But this is no mere fiction, is it, Captain? Incredible though it may seem, it is in fact a true story, is it not? And you think you can bring these two together again, despite the years between and the deception that has been played? You believe that their former friendship can be restored despite all?"
Gerard left his chair and came to stand beside Barbara at the window. Staring out the window, not looking toward the figure at his side, he said, "I do not know, my lady. All I know is that, even now, they both suffer from the injustices and injuries each has inflicted upon the other, and it is my belief that they should be given the opportunity to try to heal those wounds as best they can. As for their former friendship, was it not one that was beset by barriers of their own making? I think any friendship they can achieve now would be an improvement upon the relationship they previously enjoyed, if that word can be used in such a context."
Barbara turned to him, her eyes dimmed by a certain mistiness, a lopsided and whimsical smile only adding to her beauty. Her words, however, showed that she not only understood the meaning of Gerard's story, but the need for circumspection as well. "Captain, I distinctly remember my voyage on Lydia, and I comprehend all too well the situation as you have described it to me. As for Horatio's own feelings on the matter, I have only to recall the circumstances under which he revealed his loss to me, at such an inopportune time and from one who had never before shown me such a lack of courtesy or consideration, to appreciate even now the depth of his distress at that moment. I agree, if such wrongs can be righted and such a friendship be restored when before there was no remote prospect for such, some attempt must be made to do so, even if neither party is aware of that attempt. I do assume from what you say," she continued delicately, "that the one who waits in France is unknowing of your efforts on his behalf?"
"Indeed," Gerard said with a whimsical smile of his own, "he expressly forbade me to take any steps whatsoever to bring about a reunion, as much for his lordship's sake as for his own. He fears for your husband's career if knowledge of his desertion and desertion it must be considered, regardless of the circumstances became widely known. He knows the risks he himself would run, but I believe it is the possible damage to Lord Hornblower that carries the greater weight."
Barbara waved away such considerations. "After so long a time and under those conditions, I cannot see that this could be an issue. There is no doubt that, had he been able to do so, he would have rejoined Horatio at the first opportunity?" At Gerard's emphatic nod, she continued, "Then I believe your fears can be set at rest, Captain. Such bravery and integrity as has been displayed by our friend so consistently in the past cannot help but weigh in his favour. And we," she said with the arrogant toss of the head that spoke of generations of both military and parliamentary authority, "are not lacking in influence as well. I believe I can say with assurance that, should your efforts be successful, there would be no hindrance to his returning to England if he should so desire."
"I beg your ladyship not to speak of these things to anyone before we return," Gerard said in alarm, a little surprised at just how quickly and easily Barbara had grasped both the significance and intricacies of his story. "It is our friend's belief that betrayal was possibly a factor during that event to which we refer; since he has no recollection of it at all, he has no clue as to who might have been involved. It would be best, I think, if this belief could be proven or disproven before any efforts to clear his name are implemented. Desertion due to debilitating injury might well be pardoned; treason must always be a hanging offence, and a man facing such a drastic penalty may feel compelled to go to equally drastic measures to ensure that it does not come to pass."
"I understand," Barbara replied gravely. "It
will be as you wish. In that case, I can only wish you a safe
and prosperous voyage, Captain. And please, if you will, convey
to our friend my own pleasure at his continued existence and my
desire to see him once more." Her face was lit by a sudden
and heartfelt smile, revealing just how truly she spoke. "And
if he should feel uneasy at the thought of coming here, then assure
him that we will not hesitate to go to him, wherever it is that
he has made his home. Regardless of how things stand between
him and Horatio when all is said and done, be sure he understands
that I will always stand his friend." Before Gerard could
reply, she gathered her skirts and hastened for the door, saying
as she did so, "It is indeed fortunate that Horatio and I
have already made our farewells, for he would be sure to know
something was amiss if
he saw me now." At the door, she turned one last time and said gently, "May God bless you always, Gerard, for what you are so valiantly endeavouring to accomplish." With those words, she disappeared, closing the door softly behind her and leaving Gerard to stare after her in amazement and admiration.
He was still standing in that awed state several minutes later when the door opened and Hornblower stepped in, his travelling cloak swirling about his shoulders. "What is it you find so absorbing, Gerard?" he asked in irritation.
Coming to with a start, Gerard answered, "Nothing, my lord. Just cogitating on what a remarkable creation woman really is."
Hornblower, well aware of Gerard's interest in women any woman greeted this explanation with an ill-concealed snort and said, "My bags are packed, and Lady Hornblower and I have said our goodbyes. I assume you have a conveyance here in which we can travel?"
"To be sure, I do," Gerard exclaimed. "Plenty of room for us all, and well sprung too. Are you ready to leave, then?"
"I have one or two things to take care of here. Perhaps you could show Brown where to stow our gear." Unconscious of the nautical turn his language had taken, he watched Gerard depart down the hall, then closed the door behind him and walked to the desk. Sitting down, he scanned a few documents that had been left for him by his secretary, signing a few and appending his seal. He then cleared away a few odds and ends, took one last sardonic look at the letter from the Admiralty before returning it to its resting place in the top drawer, and prepared to arise and follow Gerard to his carriage.
His attention was caught by the old seaman's knife resting along the edge of the pad that protected the top of his desk. Hornblower sank back down into his chair, picking up the knife and studying it carefully, his thumb absently tracing the letters carved deep into the handle. He had acquired the battered old relic nearly eleven years ago, in circumstances that even now he did not care to dwell on. Since then, they had not been apart, the knife accompanying him on every commission he had held in the intervening years, and he found that he could not leave it behind this time either. Cursing himself for a sentimental old fool, he placed the knife carefully in an inside pocket of his coat, wishing vaguely for the capacious pockets that adorned the uniform coats he wore while on active duty. He arose from his desk; then, his travel cloak billowing behind him, he was out the door, ready to embark on this adventure that had so unexpectedly presented itself and that would reunite him once more with the sea he so desperately craved. And as he strode down the hall, the knife lay heavy against his chest, its contact a comforting reminder of a past association that must not be thought of, yet must never be forgotten.
It was the tossing and turning that brought Hornblower out of his uneasy sleep. Groaning as the first faint queasiness began to assail his stomach, he opened his eyes to a lamp swinging in a violent arc over his head, its glare only adding to the pain currently lancing through his brain. He clambered out of the hammock, only to find that his sea legs had apparently deserted him during his extended stay on land. Clinging desperately to whatever came to hand to preserve his precarious balance, he managed to stumble out the door and up to the deck, heedless of his rumpled appearance. Once on deck, though, he forgot his loss of balance, his unkempt state, and even his ever-increasing nausea in the sensations that suddenly surrounded him. To his wondering eyes, the sea that frothed and foamed and danced in the wake of the plunging ship was more beautiful than the most breathtaking woman he had ever encountered, even though its colour at this moment reflected the greyness of the lowering clouds above, rather than the blue-green of fairer skies. The salt spray that lashed his face was as pleasing as the softest touch of a lover's hand, its taste as rewarding as the finest wine; and the fresh scent of the sea as intoxicating as the most expensive French perfume. In that moment, Hornblower knew as intense a satisfaction as ever he had felt, and he marvelled that he could have gone so long without returning to the sea, his own true mistress and the one he loved above all others even, if he were to be honest with himself, his own beloved Barbara.
A particularly violent swoop of the ship alerted Hornblower once more to that other sensation, one not nearly as pleasurable as those that had overwhelmed him upon his arrival on deck. The lurch in his stomach matched the one that again brought the ship up and over, and clinging to the rails, he fought against the sickness that was so miserably familiar, yet so completely unexpected. This unfortunate tendency was something he thought he had conquered over the years, but he supposed the lack of stability presented by Gerard's small ship, combined with his own overlong stay on land, were why the seasickness had manifested itself once more, to his total and utter disgust. In the corner of his eye, he saw Gerard start towards him, his expression solemn although his eyes sparkled with mischief, and Hornblower turned to him with a grim, if green-tinged, face. He watched jealously as Gerard walked nonchalantly across the deck, easily balancing against the rise and fall of his ship, and Hornblower made a desperate effort to regain the dignity that seemed to him to lie in shreds about his unsteady feet.
Hornblower's first instinct was to snap at Gerard, but he was forestalled by Gerard's opening remarks. "My lord, I again offer you my cabin for the duration. As you might recall, I did so last night when we embarked, but you were so emphatic in your refusal that I did not feel I could press the issue. I think, though, you would be much more comfortable there, so I have taken the liberty of instructing Brown to shift your belongings." He hesitated, watching Hornblower's glowering face, but since Hornblower amazingly offered no demur, he continued, "We should arrive in Le Havre well before noon, so in the meantime, I beg you will use my cabin as if it were your own."
Still Gerard waited for the explosion of wrath that he felt must be forthcoming, and he was perplexed when it did not arrive. He could not know that uppermost in Hornblower's thoughts upon hearing Gerard's offer, thankfully repeated from the night before, was the knowledge that Gerard's cabin contained a comfortable hanging cot, operable stern windows and a private head all of which seemed like the ultimate in luxury to Hornblower's aching brain and heaving stomach. Gerard therefore was most gratified to hear Hornblower say, in a rather colourless voice that was in marked contrast to the strained expression on his face, "Thank you, Gerard. I believe I will avail myself of your kind offer." With a last, strangely longing glance at the sea that surged about them, he nodded to Gerard and disappeared to his new and far more comfortable accommodations.
With a smile, Gerard watched him go, and then returned to his own pacing. They would indeed be arriving in Le Havre during the forenoon watch, and he was now wrestling with the problem of how to get Hornblower up the Seine without his grasping the purpose for their journey. Suddenly, he realized that he had been joined on deck, and glancing over, he saw Brown at the railing beside him, gazing forward toward the French coast that was growing larger on the horizon.
"Well, we've got him here," said Brown finally. "Or at least, we will if he doesn't decide to jump overboard first. He's that sick, he is." He gave a low chuckle. "I can't thank you enough for the use of your cabin, sir. The way he was, we'd have had a time doing anything with him once we docked. As it is, though, he's snug in bed with a tisane for his head, after spending the last ten minutes heaving his guts out. He's not happy, but he'll do."
"Won't he be yelling for you soon, though?" asked Gerard curiously, surprised that Brown would, or even could, leave Hornblower's side for even a moment.
Brown grinned. "Seems he's taken a fancy to that cabin boy of yours, Riley, is it? Well do I remember his father, sir. A fine man. It was good of you to take an interest in his son." His expression became distant as he remembered those long-ago days. "He's a lot like his father too, and seemingly knows how to wrap an irascible gentleman right around his little finger." With a sidewise glance at Gerard, he wondered aloud in an innocent voice, "Now, where do you suppose he picked up a talent like that, young as he is?"
"Well, it wasn't from tending to me, Brown!" retorted Gerard, his very tone giving the lie to his words.
Brown just grinned in reply. Then his face became more serious, as he asked, "Have you thought on just how we're to get him up to Caudebec? Because he'll not go willingly, sir, you do know that."
Gerard sighed. "That's what I was considering when you came on deck. I suppose we can hardly bundle him up in sailcloth and carry him against his will, can we?"
Brown laughed out loud at that remark. "The results might be interesting, but I doubt he'd be in the frame of mind we're hoping for, if you don't mind my saying so, sir. And I wouldn't want to be the one coming back down river with him either."
"No, I suppose not," Gerard replied musingly. "Well, there's nothing for it. We'll just have to shame him into going."
"Shame him into going?" asked Brown in puzzlement. "And just how would you be planning to go about that, sir?"
"I'll just have to play it as it goes, Brown, and you'll just have to follow my lead." Gerard shook his head in exasperation. "Damn it, none of the plans I've made have gone the way I intended, yet the results have been all I could have hoped for. It's almost like God, or Fate, or what have you, has taken an interest, and we're all just chess pieces to be pushed around. Oh, well," he continued with a wry smile at Brown's bewildered expression, "I don't mind being someone else's playing piece for a while, so long as we get the outcome I'm hoping for." Both men fell silent, watching the horizon draw ever closer. Gerard was very conscious of the fact that it could still fall apart, that he might well bring Hornblower and Bush within ten miles of each other and still be unable to effect the meeting he'd striven so hard to achieve. Well, he thought to himself, if it looks to go in that direction, then his lordship may yet find himself trussed up in sailcloth and delivered like a package at Bush's front door. Both men would be furious even without such a scenario, both men would probably be furious but if it meant that past wrongs were righted and a treasured connection restored, then Gerard was more than willing to be the target of their united wrath, for however long it took forever, if need be. In the confusion of his thoughts, it never even occurred to Gerard that his own willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of his friends was neither more nor less than that which Bush had been so willing to do for Hornblower's sake, and for which Gerard had so roundly taken him to task. Nor did it occur to him that in his quixotic attempt to re-establish the friendship of these two people he held in such high regard, he might well be striking a mortal blow to his own future peace and contentment.
The ship rocked gently as Gerard's seamen made fast its ropes
to the jetty that loomed alongside there in the waters of Le Havre.
He watched their actions for a few minutes, smoking a cigar and
steeling himself for the interview that was to come. From where
they had docked, he could just see where the mouth of the Seine
opened into the wider waters of the estuary, and he found himself
wondering just what Bush would say when he heard of Gerard's activities.
Gerard had seen Bush only once since that June visit, and on
that occasion, Bush had given no indication he suspected anything
out of the ordinary. Whatever Bush said would be nothing compared
to what Hornblower would have to say, however, once he learned
that Gerard had known for nearly a year that Bush was alive, yet
had made no mention of that fact to Hornblower. Hornblower would
be less than pleased, too, with the speech that Gerard had prepared
and memorized, but Gerard had to get Hornblower to Caudebec somehow,
and even his ingenious mind could not come up with a plan that
would allow him to come out of this situation completely unscathed.
Hornblower was an intensely private man; yet in order to get the reaction he wanted, Gerard would be delving into personal areas where no one but Hornblower himself was allowed admittance, and he could not even guess at the possible consequences of the action he was contemplating this forenoon.
Finally, with the air of a man making a fateful decision, Gerard tossed the cigar over the side. Then, taking a deep breath, he climbed quickly down the companionway to his cabin, where he paused for a brief tap on the door before passing through to the area beyond. Hornblower, looking much improved in both complexion and attitude, was just tying his neckcloth by the small cracked mirror that hung on the wall. Glancing at Gerard, he made one final adjustment and turned to his host, frowning, for even Gerard could not quite conceal his nervousness, now that the moment for decisive action had come.
"What is it, Gerard?" Hornblower asked in concern, for it was clear that Gerard was in some measure of agitation, however desperately he was trying to hide it.
Gerard cleared his throat, then said formally, "My lord, if you would be seated, there's something I need to discuss with you."
All Hornblower's dormant suspicions came to life in a rush, and his brows drew together in a well-remembered gesture of irritation. Still, he seated himself as Gerard requested, for it was obvious that Gerard's underlying motive and Hornblower had never really doubted that there was some underlying motive involved was about to be revealed. In that assumption, Hornblower was not quite correct, but still, he was unprepared for what Gerard had to say.
"My lord, I think you will remember the day I dined at your home, back in July on your birthday, as I recall. You seemed rather unwell, but it appeared you were more disturbed in spirit than in health." Hornblower groaned inwardly; he had hoped that his distraction that day had gone unnoticed, but evidently he had overestimated his own powers of subterfuge. He nodded in assent but made no comment, unsure as yet just what direction Gerard was going.
"Well, my lord, I noticed that you'd obviously been spending that day reading over old Gazettes. And I noticed one Gazette in particular that was lying on your desk. I couldn't help but notice, sir," Gerard added hastily, omitting indeed, forgetting entirely the punctilious "my lord". It seemed almost like they were back on board the Sutherland, the second lieutenant confronting his captain, with all the awkwardness that relationship had entailed. "You had left me there while you fetched the wine. And it wasn't like the subject of that Gazette was one I had no interest in myself."
Hornblower just stared at him, unable to trust his voice. He had known that returning to Le Havre, with all the memories contained within the town and its surrounding countryside, would be difficult, but this was worse than ever he had imagined. He had hoped that a quick visit, and Gerard's irrepressible and irreverent conversation, would keep his memories pushed safely to the background. But here was Gerard himself deliberately bringing all those carefully suppressed memories to the surface.
Gerard went on remorselessly. "Sir, I knew you were upset. I've known you for far too long not to know when something's upset you, no matter how hard you try to hide it. And it didn't take any great cleverness on my part to know what it was that had troubled you either, not when I saw that Gazette." Hornblower's face was set like stone now, rigid in his determination to reveal no emotion at all, and it was perhaps just as well that Gerard in his nervousness never gave him an opportunity to answer. "I know you miss him, sir, even after all these years. And you feel guilty for how he died, don't you, sir? It's no use denying it to me. How can I not know, when you won't even talk about him? We've talked about so much from our past, you and I, but no matter what we talk about, somehow you manage to avoid his name entirely. It could only take a really sharp man like you to be able to cut someone that completely from conversations that so much concern him. And why would you do something like that to someone who had been so loyal to you, unless maybe you hated him so much that you couldn't stand even the thought of talking about him? Or maybe it's because you so felt his loss so keenly, and felt so responsible for his death, that you can't bear the very mention of his name, because it's a reminder of a past you can't change. And you'd give your soul to change that past if you could, wouldn't you, sir? Isn't that true, sir?"
Even in his stunned state of mind, Hornblower could not but notice Gerard's sudden eloquence. Gerard was at all times an articulate man, but the passion with which he now spoke was evidence that this was something about which he felt very strongly. Yet why had this become so important to Gerard now, after all these years? Somehow Hornblower felt there was more to this than Gerard's accidental reading of that Gazette in Hornblower's study and his uncanny interpretation of its effect upon Hornblower. Despite his internal musings, Hornblower's expression still showed an icy detachment, and it seemed that his very lack of reaction touched a sensitive chord in Gerard, for his increasingly emotional monologue unexpectedly became less sympathetic in nature and assumed a darker, more accusatory quality.
"Brown tells me you've never even seen the memorial you had built at Caudebec. Why is that, sir? Is it perhaps because you've never had the time? You have been busy, haven't you, sir? Have you been at sea all that time? I thought not, but perhaps I was wrong." Gerard's voice became harder. "Or perhaps it was because you felt that with the memorial you had fulfilled any obligations to the men who died there. And to one man in particular, isn't that so, sir?" Gerard was so caught up in his unforeseen anger that he was hardly aware of what he was saying, words spilling out that he had long wanted to speak but was too hesitant or too fair-minded to ever give voice. The last barrier came down as Gerard spat out viciously, "It was indeed easier to encase your remembrances in stone than it was to reveal even that much of yourself by a personal visit to honour the man who so much had your own best interests at heart, was it not, sir? Did you think that by doing so, you could just force his memory to remain in France? I don't think it worked, sir, do you? You do remember that man, don't you? The one who was your right arm for so many years, the one who gave his leg in your service, the one who gave his life in your service, if not at your command? Or have you been so successful in suppressing his memory that you can't even remember his name? Well, for your information, sir, his name was William Bush!"
"Enough!" Hornblower roared, surging to his feet with a face as black as thunder despite the ivory of its complexion, and he continued in a voice so cold that it brought a chill to Gerard's very marrow. "I do not know what you want from me, Gerard. It seems that here's a debt that you feel I have not yet paid. Do you actually think it will be accomplished simply with a visit to Caudebec? I think not, but since you've gone to all this effort to bring me here, not in friendship as I supposed, but as a means of bringing me to a sense of my obligations, then by all means, let us go there and accomplish whatever it is you demand of me." With those words, Hornblower strode through the door, slamming it after him and leaving behind a tense atmosphere of disappointment and distrust.
Gerard stood there, alone in the cabin, sick at heart and shaken by the direction his well-intentioned homily had led. Where had all that come from? And when had he completely lost his ability to control both his emotions and his mouth? He was reminded of his equally impassioned speech to Bush last year, but that had been the result of his exasperation at Bush's refusal to accept the obvious. What he had said just now had been the result of some deep dark rage that Gerard himself had been unaware he possessed. His anger was now directed at himself, for despite his best intentions, he had allowed himself to react to Hornblower's superficial indifference, rather than to the pain he knew lurked just beneath that hard veneer. It was true that he had obtained the reaction he had hoped for, but at what cost to himself and to Hornblower, he could only guess. If the meeting between Hornblower and Bush did not go well, Gerard knew his actions had now effectively removed the last remaining link Hornblower had to the life he had lived before fame, and promotion, and prosperity, had changed that life forever. For there was little doubt that from henceforth, Gerard would no longer be welcome in that pleasant and inviting study at Smallbridge Manor. Belatedly he realized just what he himself had jeopardized in this wild gamble he had taken, for the loss of Hornblower's good opinion and Bush's friendship would leave gaping holes in his life that he did not think he would ever be able or even want to fill. But the game was not yet over, he reminded himself sternly, and it was an incompetent gambler indeed who anticipated either winnings or losses before the last hand was played.
It was late afternoon by the time they had ascended the Seine in Gerard's launch, with Brown acting as coxswain, Riley tossing an oar, and Hornblower sitting like a statue in the thwarts. He had not so much as cast a glance in Gerard's direction, but sat there in injured dignity, his face devoid of expression. Gerard himself sat next to Brown in the stern, ignoring the anxious glances Brown cast at him from time to time and wondering at how quickly it had all gone wrong. By now, he had recalled more of his heated exchange with Hornblower, and at the realization that he had, to all intents and purposes, accused Hornblower of deliberately sending Bush to his death, he wanted to slide over the side and drown himself in the murky waters of the Seine. He might as well drown himself, he thought in morbid humour, as he was quite certain Bush would do it for him once he heard of the shambles Gerard had left in the wake of his single-minded pursuit of his unauthorized and ill-conceived goal. Gerard closed his eyes, forcing his mind into retreat to a black, cold area where stray thoughts of terribly mismanaged plans were uninvited and unwelcome. It was with reluctance that, an indeterminate time later, he became conscious of his surroundings again, prompted by a jab by Riley and a whispered, "We be at the forge's jetty, Captain. Do we stop here?"
Gerard stared at the small pier as it slowly approached, then he shook his head slowly and said in a low voice, "No." In his dejection, he could no longer look with anticipation to the culmination of six month's worth of hopeful planning, only with dread at the probable results of his careless mishandling of affairs that had never been entrusted to his care in the first place. Suddenly, Gerard realized that he could not see this through. Who was he to disregard so lightly Bush's own requests, to cast into disarray what tranquillity Hornblower had managed to secure for himself? Thus did he finally acknowledge the good sense of Bush's arguments, while conveniently forgetting the pain that both Bush and Hornblower carefully kept hidden from the scrutiny of those who knew them less well than Gerard. His own face cast in iron, he stared straight ahead, where the polished stones of the quay at Caudebec began to reflect the reds and oranges of the sun that had begun to set behind them.
So fixed was Gerard's gaze upon the quay and the smooth stone monument standing near it, that once again he failed to notice a grey-haired, stocky, wooden-legged man who stared in disbelief at the gradually approaching launch from his partial concealment beside a horseman with whom he had been conversing. Combined with Bush's incredulity was intense anger that Gerard had actually and deliberately gone against his wishes. But prudence had always been one of Bush's besetting virtues, as well as a besetting sin, and so he repressed the impulse to go immediately to the launch that was now coming alongside the quay, forcing himself instead to wait on events. Backing into the shadows of the small shed close by, he stood silently, studying the boat's occupants as, one by one, they climbed up out of the launch.
It was natural that Bush would first look to Hornblower; his lasting affection for his friend would dictate his actions, even had it not been so many years since they had last met. It seemed that there were many more lines carved into that composed face than had been there before, and his hat hid the loss of hair that Bush was certain had not diminished with time, no doubt to Hornblower's great dismay. As Hornblower stood on the quay, Bush could see that he was as tall as ever, but heavier than before, though not more so than was suitable to a man of his years and his build. Studying Hornblower's face as closely as the distance would allow, Bush also thought he detected a maturity that sat well on that worn and thoughtful countenance, despite its current grimness. A certain set to his mouth spoke of a recent temper, so well could Bush still read the signs, and Bush wondered if he were in fact a reluctant participant in this pilgrimage, or if he even realized for what purpose he had been brought here. With a wry smile, he noted that there was no sign of the grief Gerard had sworn existed; perhaps it was well buried under Hornblower's current wrath.
With the thought of Gerard came a return of his own anger, and he turned his gaze toward his unfortunate friend, only to find his anger diminishing in his shock at what he saw. Gerard was white as a ghost, and the rigidity of his expression only served to mark the haggardness of his face, a haggardness that had most definitely not been present at his last visit. Whatever was owed by Gerard in accountability for having brought about this expedition, Bush suspected he had already paid the first instalment in his dealings with Hornblower; better to wait and see what subsequent events might bring before demanding his own pound of flesh.
Their arrival had attracted the attention of the local villagers, who stood apart and whispered among themselves. Several of the young women in the crowd tried to attract Gerard's attention, but for once his mind could not be distracted by a pretty face or a neat ankle. Instead, he watched as Hornblower slowly walked to the monument, followed by his entourage, and stood there, reading the inscription with an inscrutable countenance. They stood there a long time, as the sun sank behind the trees and a full moon began to emerge, providing a backdrop to the landscape around them. The few remaining locals finally dispersed to their homes and their evening meals, until the quay was deserted except for Hornblower, Gerard, and the men who had crewed the launch. Then Hornblower, his eyes never moving from the grey stone before him, said in a firm, cold voice, "Go."
Gerard said uncertainly, "Shall we return for you, my lord, or would you prefer to meet elsewhere?"
Before Hornblower could reply, the boyish voice of Riley piped up, "There's the landing of the local blacksmith only a little ways round the bend of the river, my lord. We could take the launch and wait for you there. He won't mind." With the surprised eyes of both Hornblower and Gerard upon him, he continued cheekily, "The road there, sir, to the left that'll take you right to the blacksmith's forge, and the path to the river runs right past it. With a full moon, you won't lose your way." Riley flicked a knowing glance at Gerard. "And the blacksmith's house is set well back from the road, no need to bother him at all."
Gerard was appalled, both at Riley's impertinence and his suggestion of a proposed meeting place, but Hornblower just nodded calmly and said, "I believe I can find my way. Wait for me there, and explain to the blacksmith if he should question your presence." He turned back to the stone as the launch's crew began to clamber down into the boat and cast off its moorings. Riley looked up to see Gerard turn away and begin to walk down the dusty road Riley had indicated.
"Where are you going, Captain?" Riley called softly, so as not to disturb Hornblower.
Gerard stopped and turned to smile at him, so sadly that Riley suddenly felt a lump in his throat for his captain's apparent desolation. "I believe I'll walk, Riley. You can find the landing without any direction from me, and I believe that in taking the road, I'll not lose my way either. Not this time anyway." With those cryptic words, he turned back and walked slowly away, each step so leaden that it seemed he carried an unbearable weight upon his shoulders. Riley watched, his only thought a wish that somehow he might relieve his captain of this burden he had caused to be cast upon himself, but suspecting that the only ones who held that power might well be disinclined to do so by the time this long night had ended.
Then the launch began to pull back downstream, and Gerard continued his solitary trek toward the forge. But no one saw the concerned blue eyes that followed the progress of both from the shadows of the small shed that stood at the very edge of the quay.
Once Hornblower had dismissed his companions, he paid no more attention to them, and it was with relief that he realized that he was now entirely alone in the gathering darkness. Tendrils of light from the full moon began to shine softly through still leaf-laden branches, with the promise of illumination as bright as day once the moon began to clear the taller trees. He sat on the stone bench, his hat by his side, his concentration so focused on the marker before him that he never noticed the solitary figure leave the safety of the shed and, keeping to the grass fringe that muffled the fall of his wooden leg, slowly approach the bench. The figure's advance was suddenly halted as, fumbling in his inside pocket, Hornblower pulled out the old knife he'd brought from Smallbridge and, with an awkwardness that betrayed his age and lack of agility, dropped to his knees before the stone monument. Then he began to speak softly, in a conversational tone, just as though the man he addressed was right there with him as indeed he was, if Hornblower had only been aware of his presence not ten feet away.
"Hello, Bush," Hornblower began softly. "I've brought you something." Gently he held out the knife and laid it over the small border fence and against the base of the stone. "I won't leave it there, for I'm sure some local vagabond would remove it once my back was turned. I've kept it with me ever since." He swallowed, then continued with determination, "since the day I learned of your death. Even now, all these years later, I cannot leave it behind, even on so short a journey as this. It's all I have left of you, don't you see. I could not bear to give it up now."
Bush stood still, not daring to make any movement at all, as he listened, with a lump in his own throat not unlike that of Riley's, to his former captain's quietly spoken words that for once were totally lacking in self-consciousness. At first he felt guilty, eavesdropping in this manner, then it occurred to him that he, of all people, had the greatest right indeed, the only right to be standing here now, listening to these words that were directed to him and him alone.
"Of course, I didn't know I was coming here; Gerard didn't think it necessary to tell me of that fact. He's still the scoundrel he was when we served together, Bush. You'd find him little changed." The slight smile that had lightened his face faded, as his words became more somber. "I'm sorry I haven't come before, Bush. I should have been here before now, I know, butI couldn't. You know me better than anyone, I think, except perhaps Barbara. You understand why I could not do so. Gerard did not understand, and why should he? He never knew me so well as you." Hornblower paused. "Do you know, he accused me of encasing your memory within this stone, so that it would trouble me no longer." His voice faltered as he continued slowly, "Perhaps he knew me better than I give him credit for."
There was a long silence, then Hornblower reached once again across the small fencing and retrieved the knife. Holding it before him, his fingers gently rubbing the handle, he said, "I suppose I thought that if I put your name on a stone marker and left it here, my memories of you, and the memory of what happened that night, would remain here as well." He laughed, a harsh, self-derisive laugh that made the hairs on the back of Bush's neck stand on end. "But that's what I've always tried to do, isn't it, Bush? Keep those closest to me at arm's length, then lock their memories away when they are no longer there to press closer. So I cannot feel the loss of their presence. So I can pretend they meant nothing to me. And it seems that's what I tried to do to you. But I never could bear to part with your knifeI fooled no one but myself. I never fooled anyone, did I, least of all you. But still, I tried to put you away, like some tool that has lost its usefulness. How could I do such a thing?" His voice darkened with the cadence of self-loathing. "I couldn't even be bothered to visit your grave such as it is."
He closed his eyes against their sudden stinging, and his hold on the knife tightened. "There's naught I can say that can make it right between us now, Bush. I sent you to your death, you of all people, and I must bear the guilt for that until the day I die, just as I must bear the guilt for the others whose lives I have forfeited in the name of duty." He stopped, unable to continue, as he began to replay in his mind that terrible night. Then he said softly, his voice strained, "Dear God, I would that we had abandoned the attempt before I jeopardized your life and those of your men. Your sacrifice spared Le Havre both siege and surrender, but to me, the gains we made were less than nothing compared to your loss, Bush. Do you remember what you said before you left? You told me not to worry, and I said I would not. But I did, Bush. I would not even admit to myself I worried, but I did. As it turned out, with good reason." He stared down at the knife in his hands, its appearance inexplicably blurred. "Your lieutenant cleared your cabin before Nonsuch sailed and brought your things to me, Bush. So few personal belongings to show the sum of a man's lifeand you left your knife, Bush." Hornblower looked up at the monument, confused, as if the stone could explain what he did not understand. "Why did you do that? You always had your knife about you, why would you leave it behind that night? Did you know, Bush, that you would not be coming back? Was that why you left your knife? To show me that you knew and that you understood what I did not?"
His eyes still burned with unshed tears; he knew he should
be angry at his weakness, for such displays of emotion had always
been abhorrent to him, but the knife he held, and the memories
it represented, made mockery of such considerations. He had not
wanted to come here, he had hated Gerard for forcing him to come,
but he knew now that Gerard had been right. There was indeed
a debt that was yet to be paid to Bush, whose loyalty he had never
doubted, whose devotion he had tried to rebuff with brutal indifference
and angry rejoinders, only to find that Bush was impervious to
such self-protective tactics. Bush deserved final payment of
that debt, here in the place where he died, for he alone could
remember the happier times as well as the darker ones. Only he
had been present during most of Hornblower's tenures as commander,
captain, and commodore, the one constant in a continually changing
cast of players, and it was his support on which Hornblower had
most depended during all those years of war and conflict. It
had been Bush's words of encouragement and approval that had brought
comfort and peace to Hornblower during the darkest hours of his
worst doubts and insecurities, though Bush had never known just
what an anchor he had been in the ebbs and flows of Hornblower's
tempest-tossed life. He had never known, because Hornblower had
never told him.
Well, he would know now, of that Hornblower would make certain. There were words that must be said, acknowledgments that must be made. Hornblower could no longer hide behind the safety of his self-imposed isolation. He had no excuses now. Here, alone, in this place that epitomized all he had lost, and with no curious eyes to see or ears to hear, he could finally reveal those truths to which his cursed and contrary nature had never before allowed him to give voice, to the one man to whom he could do so without fear of either rejection or reprisal.
And so Hornblower began to talk. In a quiet, uncertain voice, Hornblower spoke aloud for the first time of his loneliness; of his constant internal battle to reconcile the man he was with the man he felt he should have been; of his desperate need for a friend, a confidante, someone he could trust without reservation; and of how terribly he had missed Bush, his best friend and his bulwark for so many years, however misplaced that loyalty and support might have been. The stone Bush to whom he spoke was deaf to his words. But the flesh-and-blood Bush who stood close by had no need of them, for in his heart he had always known these things, without ever a word being spoken.
At the end of his painful discourse, for the barest flicker of a moment, Hornblower felt a sort of peace. But it was a only an illusion, for the darker side of Hornblower's nature, the contemptuous, mocking side that seemed to form a black border about his every happiness, struck down that peace with its insistence that words spoken to a granite monument were no good, for granite could not hear, or understand, or forgive. So he had accomplished nothing here after all, Hornblower realized in a spurt of desolate anger, lost in a black reaction from which, as always, there seemed no escape. His very heart and soul had been revealed to no purpose; those memories he had kept so carefully imprisoned had been released and would not now be recaptured. The pain he felt was as fresh and real as the day he'd heard the news, as intense as that day he'd come across that old Gazette, and he knew now that he was helpless to do anything about it.
And then, in the midst of this black depression, he realized that in all the words he'd said this night, he'd still not said the right ones, the ones Bush deserved to hear more than any others, the ones that must be said before he quitted this place and returned to the reality from whence he'd come a reality that somehow seemed colder and less inviting than it had before. Still on his knees, he lifted his face, not to that cold granite monument, but to the night sky where the whiteness of the moon was still partly obscured by the treetops on the opposite shore. Then, in a pain-filled voice that acknowledged the futility of his gesture, he said simply, "I should have said this years ago, when you were still here to hear my words, and I wish with all my heart you could hear them now. Bush, I'm sorry that you bore the brunt of my fears and anxieties. I'm sorry that I sometimes doubted your abilities and your intelligence. Most of all, I'm sorry that I never gave you reason to believe you were my friend, when you were in fact the best and firmest of all. I'm so terribly sorry, Bush. Please forgive me." Numbly he knelt there, emptied of emotion, for he had confessed all now, and there was nothing more to be said.
As if in answer to his plea, the moon finally broke the cover of the trees, its light streaming across the landscape, casting long shadows across the stone of the quay to the fringe where Bush had been frozen in place, deeply touched, yet deeply troubled by what he had heard thus far. But in that moment of moonlit revelation, Bush saw for the first time the wounded unhappiness on Hornblower's face, as had been present that cold December dawn in 1813; and at those words of heartfelt sorrow and regret, Bush's heart constricted within him, and he could stay still no longer. As he moved impulsively toward his friend, however, his wooden leg struck the stone of the quay with a loud crack that seemed to echo endlessly through the deserted streets and alleys of the sleeping village.
The noise, coming so unexpectedly, shocked Hornblower to his very core. As he clutched the knife protectively to him, his mind tried desperately to come to grips with this new threat, this intruder who had undoubtedly listened to admissions Hornblower had never meant any living creature to hear. There was a profound, almost tangible silence, frightening in its intensity. And then, unbelievably, he heard a soft voice nearby, heartbreakingly familiar, saying in a whisper of reassurance and compassion, "It's all right, sir. There's no one to hear what you said but him you was speaking to. And I promise you, sir, he heard every word."
Hornblower remained where he was on his knees, unable to believe the evidence of his ears. It seemed that he could not move, his limbs locked in place, and he remained immobile as he heard the other man coming closer, the unmistakable sound of a wooden leg on the stones only serving to reinforce his disbelief. He felt someone kneel awkwardly beside him, and involuntarily he tried to shrink into himself. Then he heard a muffled curse and a clatter of wood upon stone, and he felt an arm come about his shoulder, gripping him tightly, as a calloused hand closed gently around the fists that still clung to the knife like a talisman.
For a moment, there was no sound at all, not even the sound of breathing. Then the blackness that had descended upon Hornblower began to dissipate, and he was comforted beyond measure by the embrace that provided solid proof of a new reality in which, even now, Hornblower could hardly begin to believe. But there had been no mistaking that voice, or the feel of the calluses on the hand that so gently covered his. And as the last remnants of that dark depression disappeared, so too did the pain, for he knew in a heart already full to overflowing that his words had indeed been heard and he would be forgiven, for Bush had always had an unlimited capacity for forgiveness, however little Hornblower deserved it. Sheltered by the bracing arm that lay steadfast across his shoulders, Hornblower felt a serenity that he had never known before, the existence of which he had never imagined.
They remained there, as solid as the stone beside which they knelt, until Hornblower finally stirred, his fingers finally slackening their grip upon the knife. Bush's arm dropped from Hornblower's shoulders, but before he could remove his hand as well, he felt Hornblower's free hand turn and catch his, holding on tightly as if to assure himself that this was no dream. Then Hornblower let go, turning to look at the man who he had thought was gone forever but who was inexplicably kneeling here at his side. Even in the moonlight, Bush was clearly recognizable, and he sheepishly submitted himself to the same intense scrutiny to which he had earlier subjected an unknowing Hornblower. The blue of Bush's eyes was washed out by the uncompromising light, but he was healthy and whole more or less and in this time of thankful discovery, that was all Hornblower cared about. Glancing past Bush, he saw the wooden leg lying forlornly near the water's edge and realized that Bush must have discarded it in his search for a closer and more comfortable position. Stiffly, with a barely-suppressed groan, Hornblower came to his feet, slipping the knife once more into its pocket hiding place; he hoisted Bush up as well, Hornblower's own body acting as a balance as he assisted Bush to the bench. Hornblower then retrieved the wooden leg and brought it to Bush, watching with an ever-increasing feeling of incredulity as Bush briskly and handily restored the leg to its rightful location.
Other than Bush's first whisper, there had yet to pass a word between them, but somehow, conversation did not seem necessary now. There would be many words to come later, some perhaps in comfortable conversation, others most probably in anger and recrimination, for Bush definitely had some explaining to do. But that was for later, when this sudden blazing happiness, this fierce joy that had replaced that cold, numbing darkness, had abated to a steadier, but no less comforting, glow. For now, it was sufficient for both that they were together once more.
They stood together and looked at the granite marker one last time, its words once again clearly visible in the incredible brightness of the moon, and then in one accord, they turned and began to walk away, Hornblower accommodating his longer stride to Bush's more restricted gait. Hornblower had no idea of their destination; he was just following Bush's lead, and it did not occur to him how long it had been since he had followed anyone's path but his own. At this moment, it seemed right and natural that Bush lead the way, even as his very presence had led a lost and frightened Hornblower out of that black and bottomless hellhole into which he had descended back at the monument. Still, they did not speak, content in each other's company as they walked side by side down the road leading out of Caudebec. They were nearly past the last outbuilding of the village when Hornblower broke the silence, the tension in his voice providing a sharp contrast to the comfortable silence they had shared earlier.
"So Gerard knew," Hornblower said flatly, staring straight ahead.
Bush glanced at Hornblower in amusement; he had wondered what Hornblower's first words would be, but this he had not expected. Still, he kept his voice neutral something he'd had plenty of practice at in the old days as he answered, "Yes, Gerard knew."
"And when did he discover this?" Hornblower asked, still in that flat toneless voice.
"Last December." Bush answered reluctantly. "We accidentally met on the quay. He'd come because his nephew, my old midshipman, had asked him to. And Iwell, I go there pretty much every day."
"And he did not tell me." The latent anger now present in Hornblower's voice did not bode well for Gerard's future well-being.
It occurred to Bush that perhaps he should come to Gerard's defence, despite his own exasperation at his actions, and so he replied, "I told him not to. That much at least he managed to keep of his promise to me." He thought for a moment, then laughed softly. "But then, as I recall, I only told him he couldn't tell you. I never said he couldn't bring you to France and show you."
"But why, Bush?" Hornblower asked, drawing Bush to a halt with a hand on his sleeve, the wounded look on his face clearly visible in the moonlight. "Why would you not want me to know?"
Bush looked at him in dismay. "Because it had been ten years, sir! You'd gone on with your life, and so had I. It's as I told Gerard, why would I want to cut up your peace at this late date?" He stopped, the memory of what he'd just witnessed back at the quay reflected in the expression on Hornblower's face, then he said softly, "I'm so sorry, sir. I just didn't realize." He looked down and sighed. "It's not been easy for me either, sir. It wasn't just your peace of mind I was concerned about. Legally, sir, I'm a deserter. That alone would make any 'resurrection' of mine a danger, to you as well as me." Then his eyes met Hornblower's. "I was wrong, sir. I know that now. Better that I should have come to you, and us face these things together, than that we should both have suffered apart. But I truly thought I was doing it for the best."
Hornblower made no answer, his face giving no outward indication of his thoughts, but Bush suspected this was not an end to the subject. They turned and walked in silence, while it crossed Bush's mind that this was the least constrained conversation they had ever held between them. Bush cast a sidelong glance towards Hornblower, then he could contain his curiosity no longer. "Just how did Gerard get you here, my lord?"
Hornblower stopped dead in his tracks, turning to look at Bush in an unmistakable fury, and for a few startled seconds, Bush doubted his ability to defend himself, much less Gerard. But once again, Hornblower surprised him with his next words.
"You're not to call me that, Bush. Not ever!" Hornblower snapped. His burst of anger vanishing as quickly as it had appeared, he turned to stare once again down the road they travelled, though not so quickly that Bush missed the look of regret that was clearly visible in the moonlight. "You are my friend, not my lackey," Hornblower continued in a quieter voice. "'Sir' will suffice for now." Then he began to walk again, in a tread so swift that the bemused Bush was hard put to catch up.
"Aye aye, sir," Bush answered breathlessly, causing Hornblower to glance back at him suspiciously. But it had been a natural and automatic response, and Bush met Hornblower's glance candidly, without a trace of guile. Contritely, Hornblower waited until Bush could once again walk by his side.
They continued in silence; then, in belated response to Bush's question, Hornblower said bitterly, "He tricked me."
No wonder he's so angry, Bush thought with an inward sigh. He glanced at the stern countenance of the man marching beside him. "How so, sir?" he asked curiously, for in a true contest of wits, he had always considered Hornblower and Gerard to be fairly evenly matched.
"He offered me the chance to go to sea again. I told him of my disappointment in not being given a new appointment, and he took advantage of that to get me across the Channel. He gave no indication that his purpose was anything but a friend's gesture until we docked in Le Havre." Hornblower's mouth set in a straight line, clearly indicating his continued wrath, and Bush could see his work was cut out for him in reconciling Hornblower to the wretched Gerard, whose motives had only been for the good of the two men most concerned. He recalled what Hornblower had said back at the monument, and he wondered what on earth Gerard had been about, to say such things to Hornblower at a time when honey would have been a better inducement than the vinegar Gerard had apparently employed. Got carried away, Bush thought with grim amusement. Started one of his little speeches and couldn't stop. Poor Gerard.
"He implied I had deliberately sent you to your death." Hornblower continued abruptly. "He said you had given your life in my service and at my command."
Bush's amusement vanished without a trace, and now it was he who stopped dead in the middle of the road, staring at Hornblower in consternation. "He said what?" he said in disbelief. "But Gerard, of all people, knows better than that, sir. Although," he continued slowly, "it was a close-run thing, it was indeed. But none of us knew that night how it would turn out, sir, you least of all. It wasn't fair to throw that back at you, after all these years." Bush shook his head sadly. "But you have to keep in mind it was Gerard speaking, sir. There's been many a time he's let his heart have the run of his mouth, when he'd been better served to let his mind take charge instead."
Hornblower stared back at him in puzzlement, his anger fading as he contemplated Bush's words. "I never noticed any such tendency in him, Bush. In fact, I was a little surprised at his eloquence, there on his ship today when I wasn't being bombarded with his accusations, veiled and plain spoken alike."
Bush chuckled softly. "You never spent much time in the wardroom, did you, sir? And of course, on duty he'd be the picture of the perfect young naval officer. Gerard has one of those what they call flamboyant personalities, but underneath there's a caring, decent man just waiting to get out. Sometimes he used to get upset at what he considered injustices not much at you, sir, leastways not out loud, he knew better than to talk about you in front of me. But still, there's always some sort of unfairness on a ship, any ship, and Gerard was never much of one to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself." He paused, considering his next words, then continued hesitantly, "If you'll pardon my saying so, sir, you weren't always so fair with the officers yourself, and Gerard has it in his head that you were even less so with me. I knew it had festered some, but I never dreamed he'd actually tax you with it, not ever in person. I'm that sorry, sir, for I know that in every other way, he admires you more than he could ever say."
Hornblower looked at Bush, that loyal and honest man, and answered gravely, "I know that, Bush. Just as I know the justice of his accusations." There was a painful pause, then he continued diffidently, "I don't know how I can ever make up to you the disservice I did you all those years, Bush. But I would try, if you'd let me."
Bush stared at him in astonishment, then looked away quickly, unable to bear the helpless apology he saw in Hornblower's face, so unaccustomed in a man of his temperament. Then Bush remembered those words on the quay, and he knew that this time he must not protest, but simply accept what was offered, unnecessary though that penance might be. He looked back at Hornblower's anxious face and said, "You could start by forgiving Gerard, sir. I know whatever he's said has upset him even worse than it's upset you, I could tell that just by the look of him in the village, and I know he didn't mean it the way it must have sounded." He grinned suddenly, his whole face transformed, as he added, "And you must admit, sir, however devious his manoeuvrings, the end surely justified the means."
Bush's happiness was infectious, so that Hornblower could not resist a smile in reply, his own pleasure chasing away the sadness that had made so brief a return. They continued on down the road, once again in companionable silence, as Hornblower reflected on how good it was to be here, walking beside Bush, for once without the disparity of rank to impede their friendship, to say nothing of the fetters of death. Certainly there were still obstacles on the horizon that would need to be dealt with eventually, but they would tackle each one on its own, as they encountered it. Let tomorrow take care of itself, Hornblower thought with sudden recklessness. For this day, and for one of the few times in his life, he intended to concern himself only with the here and now.
Hornblower and Bush had been walking for some minutes when Hornblower stopped, startled, as Bush turned down a dusty track that led off to the left. Hornblower recognized as a blacksmith's forge the low dark building that stood back from where the track met the road, and he hesitated, causing Bush to pause and look back in inquiry.
"This is where Gerard and the men are waiting, is it not? Must we go there now? Could we not go to your lodgings first?" Embarrassed, he stammered, "We have so much to catch up onI'd hoped to have more time before we met the others."
"But, sir," Bush said, embarrassed as well, though for what reason he had no idea. "These are my lodgings."
"But Riley said" Hornblower began in confusion. "I mean, I understood this to be a blacksmith's home. And that is surely a forge."
"Aye, that it is," Bush said, smiling at Hornblower's bewilderment. "And I guess that would make me the blacksmith, wouldn't it, sir?"
Hornblower just stared at him, at a loss of words. For the first time, questions began to surface, about how Bush had survived all these years, who had befriended him, what ills he had sufferedbut now was not the time for questions, Hornblower told himself firmly. Questions were for the morrow. So, keeping his natural curiosity firmly in check, he answered, rather shortly, "I see."
Bush barely repressed a chuckle at that brief yet revealing reply. He had covertly watched Hornblower's internal struggle, and he could guess at what price Hornblower's determined self-restraint was purchased. Bush was grateful as well, though, for he knew the questions Hornblower would ask, and he was unsure as to just how his answers would be accepted. He made no comment, however, but continued along the track, Hornblower walking by his side.
Hornblower could see the glint of water through the trees to his left, and the dark shape of the launch tied to a small pier there, but there was no sign of Gerard or his men. Bush, rightly interpreting his inquiring glance, smiled and said, "I expect they've gone to roost in the barn, sir. Riley knows the way, he's slept there before, and Gerard will have had no trouble finding them blankets." His smile grew wider at Hornblower's startled expression. "Why, surely you didn't expect to return to Le Havre at this late hour, did you, sir? The barn will do well enough for Riley and his men, although I expect Brown has become accustomed to more elegant quarters. As for you and me and Gerard, I believe I can make us all tolerably comfortable in the house."
Hornblower looked at the house in question, a cottage really, there at the end of the track, and he narrowed his eyes as he detected an orange glow coming from the tall gate that stood like a sentinel in front. As they came closer, they could see that the glow came from the end of a cigar, held carefully in one hand by Gerard as he leaned against the gatepost, solemnly watching their progress toward him.
Gerard straightened at their approach, scrupulously extinguishing the cigar before laying it atop the fence, preparing himself for the well deserved reproaches he knew were forthcoming. It had been in fervent relief and thankfulness that he had seen them coming down the path together, realizing that somehow he had accomplished his goal despite all that had gone wrong, and that having done so, he could never regret the impulse that had spurred him to devise and carry out his plot. Even so, its success, gratifying though it was, could excuse neither his blatant disregard of Bush's wishes nor his use of deceit in bringing Hornblower to Caudebec. And nothing could ever excuse the things he had said to Hornblower that day, angry, cruel words that should never have been voiced, even if he'd had the right to say them in the first place. He had only brought pain to Hornblower and mortification to himself, and he could not forgive himself for that, any more than he could expect forgiveness from Hornblower. So he waited for the rejection that must surely come now, from these men of whom he had only become fonder over these recent months, and braced himself for the final blow to fall.
Hornblower and Bush, for their parts, had no trouble recognizing the apprehension that manifested itself in the strained expression on Gerard's face and the clenched fists at his side. Bush himself had decided hours ago, on that moonlit riverbank in Caudebec, that Gerard's ends had indeed justified the means by which he had achieved them, devious though they seemed in retrospect. For that reason alone, Bush would not allow Gerard to needlessly sacrifice himself upon an altar of friendship as Bush himself had done all those years ago, even had his own affection for Gerard not been a factor. But it was Hornblower who had suffered the greater wrong this time, and it was Hornblower who must pass his own judgment. Bush could, and would, speak for himself, but only Hornblower could speak for Hornblower.
Hornblower himself stood quietly at Bush's side, studying the
wan face of the man before him. His own face did not betray his
thoughts, but internally he seethed, for this was the man who
had betrayed him, who had used his role of confidante for his
own purposes, thereby forfeiting the trust that had been placed
in him, a trust that had not been bestowed lightly. Yet was that
really fair? No matter from which direction he approached the
matter, Hornblower could see no means of material gain by which
Gerard had profited from his actions. Indeed, it seemed that
he had in fact gone to a great deal of trouble and expense in
bringing about this reunion a reunion from which he could
have received no personal benefit except the satisfaction of seeing
two good friends brought together again. And had he really deceived
him in this journey? All Gerard had actually promised was a trip
across the Channel, an opportunity to once again experience the
sea he loved, and in that regard, Gerard had more than delivered
on what he had promised. No, Hornblower decided, somewhat to
his surprise; in the matter of deceit and betrayal, the evidence
demanded an acquittal.
But there had also been the personal attack earlier that day or yesterday, he supposed, since it must be well past midnight by this time a verbal attack that was both unjustified and unprovoked. But was that true as well? The fact was, not one word had Gerard said on his own behalf; it had all to do with Bush, and Hornblower had admitted to himself long since that most of what Gerard had said contained at least a kernel of truth. And had it really been unprovoked? Hornblower forced himself to recall the scene in the cabin, Gerard caught up in the emotion of the moment, while Hornblower had sat there like a basilisk, to all appearances unmoved and uncaring. In all fairness, Hornblower had to admit that he might have reacted even as Gerard had, had his words uttered in passionate conviction met an equally stony indifference; under those circumstances, he too might have been overcome with an irresistible desire to goad some reaction, any reaction, from his listener. And perhaps in doing so, he might also have unintentionally tapped such a rage from the deepest, darkest centre of his soul and given voice to accusations he'd never even have admitted to thinking under more normal conditions.
And then there was also Bush's own personal plea on Gerard's
behalf that must be taken into consideration. During all their
service together, even during that terrible period after the surrender
of Sutherland when Bush had lain so ill, he had only made
requests of Hornblower out of the most urgent need. Hornblower
knew that Bush might never again make such a request of him, and
in his relief and happiness in having Bush alive and by his side
once again, he realized he could not find it in his heart to refuse
this one appeal.
Gerard endured Hornblower's long, thoughtful gaze stoically, though he found himself constantly holding his breath, then forcing himself to release it, only to find the whole process beginning again. One single swift glance at Bush had reassured him immeasurably, for the sympathy and concern he found in that open, honest face assured him that at least one cherished friendship would be salvaged from this debacle. Now he just waited on Hornblower's final pronouncement, and if it should be against him, then he would leave despite the lateness of the hour, for he would not allow Bush to become caught in the middle of any conflict between himself and Hornblower, not after all the trouble he had gone to bring those two together again.
Suddenly Hornblower advanced toward him, and Gerard stiffened, his fingers digging into his palms until he thought they must come through the backs of his hands. Hornblower stared at him, then said sternly, "Please stand at ease, Mr. Gerard. Mr. Bush and I have decided to stay your execution." At the look of disbelief on Gerard's face, Hornblower added grudgingly, "Indeed, it may even be that we owe you our thanks."
The expression on Gerard's face went from disbelieving to sardonic, as he answered, "I hardly deserve any thanks, my lord. Every plan I tried to implement was supplanted by circumstances, until it seemed I was just a pawn in another's hand. And in the end, my ill-advised oratory nearly destroyed what little I had managed to accomplish." He looked Hornblower straight in the eye. "I will not say that I did not mean what I said, sir, for I did. But it was not my place to take you to task for it." His eyes went to Bush, who was standing by, watching their interplay in silence. "Nor was it my right to ignore your own wishes in the matter, Bush." His gaze shifted one last time, taking them both in. "It is I who owe you both my most sincere apologies, and I can only hope that perhaps someday you might both find it in you to forgive me."
Hornblower was silent, but Bush never hesitated. Extending his right hand to Gerard, he said, "I never could hold a grudge against you, Gerard, and I cannot do so now, so I suppose your 'someday' for me is today. And here's my hand on it." Gerard took Bush's hand gratefully, gripping it tightly until Bush, with a reassuring squeeze, let go. Gerard then turned to Hornblower, waiting once more for his final verdict.
The severity of Hornblower's face never altered as he said, "Those were indeed hard words you said to me, Gerard, but I cannot deny the truth of their content. Nevertheless, I do hope in the future, when you visit my home, you will attempt to conduct yourself with a little more decorum and restraint than you have exhibited while I have been your guest."
Perhaps another would have considered that statement somewhat ambiguous, but Gerard knew that this speech, with its intimation that there would be future visits to Smallbridge Manor, would probably be the closest he would get to an actual declaration of forgiveness from Hornblower, and that was more than good enough for Gerard. Suddenly the last of the tension that had inhabited Gerard's body for the last few hours departed in a rush, so that the ground beneath him seemed unsteady, and he would have fallen had he not already taken a firm hold on the closed gate. Then, recovering himself with amazing swiftness, he smiled widely, his trademark flashing smile that had caused many a maid's knees to go weak and had portended the accurate fall of many a well-laid broadside. Swinging the gate open, he retrieved his cigar and bounded exuberantly up the steps of the porch, his friends following at a slower, more tranquil pace. Turning at the door, he said with enthusiasm, "Come in, gentlemen. Lord Hornblower, I think you'll find that Bush keeps a most admirable wine, and I believe I happen to have a few more of my best cigars right here in my pocket. And we've had no supper either. Bush, you do what's needed out here, and I'll see what you have in the pantry."
He retreated into the house, his voice fading as the door slowly closed behind him, leaving Bush and Hornblower to face each other in the light of the lanterns that Gerard had already lit on the small porch. In that golden light, Hornblower saw for the first time that Bush's blue eyes had faded not at all, but were as vivid as they had ever been. They gazed at each other, each finally coming to terms with the fact that the other was actually right there, standing before him. Then Hornblower smiled, a rare smile of deep satisfaction, and held out his hand. "Hello, Mr. Bush. I've missed you."
Bush smiled back, his eyes shining in the lamplight, and his hard, calloused hand gripped Hornblower's firmly. "Hello, sir. I've missed you too."
The clasp of their hands tightened briefly, then as they let go and Bush moved toward the door, Hornblower said suddenly, "Wait!" Bush looked back to see Hornblower drawing something from his pocket and holding it out to him. And there, carefully laid in his palm, was the old battered seaman's knife, with the scarred wood handle where the initials "W.B." were engraved.
Bush took the knife and studied it fondly, hefting it experimentally, drawing out the blade and testing its sharpness. Then, he glanced up to see Hornblower's eyes still on the knife, wistfully following its every move. Slowly and carefully Bush replaced the blade, and catching Hornblower's hand, he laid the knife back into his palm and closed Hornblower's fingers about it, where they tightened of their own accord. Hornblower looked up to see Bush's eyes waiting for him, alight with understanding and affection. "Why don't you keep it for me, sir? I doubt I'll ever go to sea again, and you never know, you may need to cut a line or slice a halliard on your next flagship. I'd hate you to be lacking the very tool you need." Remembering a remark overheard on the quay, his eyes softened as he added gently, "After all, sir, some tools never lose their usefulness."
Hornblower's brown eyes blurred as he answered in a low voice, "I've lacked the tool I've needed for too many years, Bush, for it had never lost its usefulness to me, and its absence has tried me sorely. But thank you just the same. I'll treasure this always just as I have always treasured its owner, despite evidence to the contrary."
"I never had any doubt of that, sir despite evidence to the contrary," Bush replied, with a crooked smile, then gestured towards the door, where the sounds of Gerard singing in a loud and lusty tenor drifted faintly out onto the porch. "Shall we go in, sir? I fear Gerard may already have drunk through too much of the fine wine he was boasting of."
"It does appear that way," said Hornblower with a sigh, for even to his tone-deaf ears, Gerard's voice was pathetically off-key. "And we still have much to discuss."
"That we do, sir, that we do." Bush glanced out toward the river, where the moon was already beginning to disappear behind the trees. "It's strange, sir, but do you know, I feel almost like I've made a new beginning tonight. I'm in the same house I've lived in for years, and tomorrow I'll do the same work as I did today, but it all seems different somehow. Like my life's been given back to me all new and shipshape, and even better than it ever was before." He looked at Hornblower questioningly. "Does that make any sense to you, sir?"
Hornblower looked at him in silence, remembering with sudden sharp clarity the feel of a strong arm around his shoulders, giving him support as the pain caused by years of heartbreak and guilt was replaced by a serenity that even now he could feel like a warm blanket upon his senses. With a heartfelt smile, he put his own arm around Bush's shoulders and drew him through the door, saying as he did so, "I believe I understand exactly what you mean, Mr. Bush. I do indeed."