A Christmas Confession
Rated PG for mild suggestiveness.
One of my favorite HH Christmas tales is “The Holly and the Ivy.” I’ve stolen the idea of a Christmas-time leave that pairs Horatio and Archie at the Hornblower home – as well as the inimitable Margaret Dabney – and spun my own tale on that particular loom.
If the Indefatigable had to refit, Pellew thought wearily, at least it had occurred at Christmas-time. He had dispatched Kennedy and Hornblower with instructions sufficiently subtle to ensure that the former would accompany the latter to the good Dr. Hornblower’s house. Pellew knew little about either officer’s father, but the little he did know persuaded him toward Dr. Hornblower as the more hospitable host.
Accordingly, when Hornblower’s cold and weary fist pounded on the house’s front door, despite his abominably clogged nose, throbbing head, and aching limbs, he had the pleasure of seeing the shock and delight on Margaret Dabney’s face as she beheld the familiar gangling and solitary lad, now considerably taller and decked out in the blue and gold of the Royal Navy. Her first thought was how the boy had grown; hard on the heels of that was dismay at how miserable he looked. Her swift expert glance took in the raw nose and chapped lips, the brow flushed with fever, the shabbiness of the uniform and the ridiculous fit – it had clearly been tailored to Master Horatio when he was a good several inches smaller yet.
With him was another officer, probably a shipmate. He was shorter and fair-haired, with a tentative, though open smile and friendly blue eyes. His uniform was only slightly less shabby. Straight as he stood, however, he seemed to hover, a step behind, almost as skittish as a deer, ready to bolt at any moment.
“Master Horatio!” Mrs. Dabney at last recovered herself. “Bless my soul! How grown you look! Come in, come in, you’ll catch your death!” She stepped back and tugged a laughing Hornblower forward. The other officer did not follow but continued to stand tentatively in the dooryard.
Hornblower turned and drew a circling arm round Kennedy. “Archie, come on, man. Mrs. Dabney, allow me to present Acting-Lieutenant Archer Kennedy, also of His Majesty’s frigate Indefatigable.”
“Ha—h’m.” The slight sound caught everyone’s attention. Dr. Julius Hornblower stood by the fire, his eyes brimming with unshed tears. Here was his boy, his own boy, his and Louisa’s, with her very own and much-missed dark mop of hair, deliquescent eyes, lovely and slender fingers – and looking half-dead. Mrs. Dabney, like a hen with her chicks. And another officer, fair-haired and hesitant.
“Father.” Even the uncommonly reserved Hornblower could not keep the joy out of his voice. He crossed the room in two strides and embraced the older man, gently, attentive to his father’s rheumatism. Dr. Hornblower stood back and braced his hands on his son’s shoulders. The two men had once been the same height, but now the older man had to tilt his gaze upward. The face was like a magic mirror, reflecting Hornblower’s future: a nose sufficiently straight, a forehead sufficiently high, a good mouth set firm, but the older man’s dark hair thinning and threaded with silver, the cheeks thin and weathered, the mouth bracketed with curved lines.
“How you’ve grown. H’m. Several inches at least – and far too thin for it.” A finger prodded at Hornblower’s ribs, feeling not nearly enough padding. The keen eyes gazed, and the slender, but still steady, hand moved upward, laid flat on the chest. Once slight, the torso was now broadly muscular, and again Dr. Hornblower felt a twinge at the transformation. The chest was warm and damp, the heartbeat fluttery.
“Fever. And a cold in your chest,” Dr. Hornblower pronounced. He was not overly concerned. Rest and good food, and the boy would mend. A brush of the fingertips, however, found the pucker of flesh at the left shoulder. A scar ... a bullet wound? Horatio had been shot. Dr. Hornblower’s sharp intake of breath alarmed his son.
“Father. It’s nothing.” The older man’s expert hand found the shoulder and biceps, once reedy and now well-muscled, and relaxed, not believing the untruth but accepting it.
“Father ... might I present Acting-Lieutenant Archer Kennedy, of His Majesty’s frigate Indefatigable.”
“Lieutenant.” Dr. Hornblower bowed, then straightened and gave Kennedy a steady gaze. “A pity your family is too far from Portsmouth for a visit this season.”
Kennedy gulped. “Ah, ah, yes sir.”
“Well,” Dr. Hornblower said briskly. “You are most welcome in this house. I am pleased indeed that Horatio wishes to share our holidays with a friend. Margaret, a hot bath for each of these lads, fresh clothing and a good supper.” A pair of claps on the back, a hand for each officer, sent them in the direction of the kitchen.
Yes, sir, right away, sir.” Margaret Dabney bustled off in a transport of delight. Master Horatio was home, safe and whole, and in need of a good building up to boot. And that other one, he just wanted some loving, and the maternal housekeeper had plenty to spare. And so had the good doctor – in his own way.
Standing side by side in tubs of steaming water by the kitchen fire, Kennedy and Hornblower sank groaning into the baths. The steam eased the fierceness of the knot in Hornblower’s chest. Lazily he reached back to undo his queue.
“Your father was happy to see you.”
“Yes, of course.” Hornblower turned his head, gazing at Kennedy in surprise. “Why ever would he not?”
Kennedy had spoken without thinking. “It ... never occurred to me that one’s father would be happy to see one.”
“Archie.” A considerable amount of splashing as Hornblower struggled up. Clasping his knees to his chest, he leveled a stern look at Kennedy.
The look Kennedy returned was almost childlike: simple and open, without a glimmer of the fear or pain that Hornblower had become accustomed to seeing lurking in the depths of those blue eyes.
At length Kennedy spoke. “My father’s marriage was a political alliance, H’ratio. My mother bore my father a son, as required to carry on the family title and holdings. Then a second son, a matter of insurance, so to speak. Then a daughter, to be married well. Then ... well ... me. Not a daughter to be married off, not the heir, not the spare. At the last, another daughter, another opportunity for a fine marriage.” Kennedy chuckled, playing for time; he drew out the sponge and squeezed it, letting the warm water run down his broad chest.
“It’s all right, H’ratio.” Kennedy sensed his friend’s troubled gaze without turning his head. “It doesn’t bother me. You see, I’ve never expected paternal affection because I’ve never had it. All Father expects of me is to stay out of trouble, keep from disgracing the family name, and for the love of God,” here bitterness crept into the voice, “keep from having a fit in front of company.”
Kennedy’s voice thickened. “Your father ... greeted you like the prodigal son, only a prodigal who had done no wrong. And ... he seemed glad to see me, even though he’s never met me.”
“You’re my friend, Archie. That’s enough.”
A long pause.
“Well,” Kennedy said finally, “I don’t know about you, but my water’s got cold.”
They clambered stiffly out and helped themselves to the pleasantly coarse towels warming on the hearth, and then to the plain shirts, stockings, breeches and waistcoats beside them. Kennedy, chilling rapidly, dressed briskly, but Hornblower was hampered by his illness, which left him shuddering violently in the change of temperature and interrupted several times by deep coughing fits. At last, however, they were dressed, and Mrs. Dabney chased them both from the kitchen so she could lay a supper worthy of the returning son of the house.
It warmed the housekeeper’s heart, as she laid the dishes, to see the boys’ faces light up at the sight of good, honest fare, well prepared and with fresh ingredients. Both heaped their plates. Kennedy, unreserved, ate with real pleasure. Hornblower, though he was undeniably hungry, and his mouth watered at the scents, found his appetite dulled by illness and could only pick at his food. His stomach, always finicking, had become queasy, rebelling against the good smells that had only just enticed him.
He glanced apologetically at his father. “I fear I cannot find an appetite, sir.”
“Well, no matter,” Dr. Hornblower said, keeping the concern from his voice. He pushed a mug of tea, thickly honeyed and laced with good brandy, in front of his son. “Drink you that down, and to bed with you. A good sleep will do you wonders.” He glanced at the other man. “I’m glad to see that the supper pleases you, Mr. Kennedy.”
“In—indeed, sir,” Kennedy stammered, caught off guard at having been spoken to. “It is a rare pleasure to be given fresh meat well cooked.”
Hornblower obediently gulped the hot tonic, gasping as the heat and liquor seared his sore throat and reached his painfully tight chest. One tankard was all it took – his head was swimming and he could scarcely feel his knees. He allowed Kennedy and his father to steer him up the stairs. Gentle hands undressed him, floated a clean nightshirt over his head, tucked him in. He let his weary and throbbing head float onto the pillows, mildly interested at the lights that flickered behind his eyelids and the way the room tilted and swirled, so unlike the movement of the ship.
At Dr. Hornblower’s invitation, after the meal the men moved into Hornblower’s small library. Kennedy swirled the brandy in his glass, pretending to be fascinated by the play and sparkle of firelight on liquid.
“You are not the eldest of your family,” Dr. Hornblower said mildly. Stated as a fact, and sounding almost like a physician taking a patient’s measure, the words caught Kennedy off guard.
“No—no, no,” Kennedy stammered. “I, uh, the fourth of five, the third son.”
“An ... arranged marriage.”
“I expect so, sir,” Kennedy said. He took a swallow of brandy.
“What is the nature of your problem?” Another unexpected question, and the swallow became a rather larger gulp than Kennedy had intended.
“Fits, sir,” Kennedy said simply. Something about the familiar features writ grave and wise with a lifetime of experience, the abrupt change in routine, the absence of the sounds and smells of the ship, the good dinner, the warm fire, the brandy, even the gentle but affectionate clap on the shoulder the doctor had bestowed in the drawing-room earlier – they all combined to make him feel utterly safe for the first time in his life. Here was a refuge.
Slowly, drawn out by the doctor’s steady and professional questioning, Kennedy described the strange aura that surrounded him, a moment’s warning, then a blank in his cognition. As a child, he would wake to find himself in bed, the nurse knitting nearby and a cold cloth on his forehead.
In the Navy it had been different. He’d been entered in Justinian, and there had been Jack Simpson waiting for him in the midshipmen’s birth. The fits had remained his constant and unwelcome companion. The aura, always. And after that, the blank in his cognition, and then, or so his shipmates had told him with a mixture of awe and disgust, he screamed like a girl. Only Clayton could bring him down. Clayton’s low and steady voice had quietened his shredded nerves and let him sleep. Hether and Cleveland avoided mentioning the fits, and Simpson never spoke of them outright, but mocked and needled as he did, the way he needled Clayton and all the rest.
“Jack’s got the cure for what ails you, boy,” and the shock of Simpson’s nightshirted body sliding into the hammock alongside him. The awfulness of what would follow, standing out stark as a flash of lightning out to sea, with no merciful blankness to shield him.
By the time Kennedy finished his story, the glass hung limply from his fingers and his head throbbed insistently – not the start of a fit, just a plain and awful headache.
The silence laid heavily in the room. Dr. Hornblower stood, stiffly, and stepped through a side-door, leaving it ajar. A moment later he was back with a small dosing glass full of a thin, dark liquid.
“Drink this, son.” The gentle hand on his shoulder made Kennedy start badly. He dropped the glass, which rolled harmlessly on the carpet. He dragged his gaze upward and saw – Horatio’s face, seamed and older, but with the same insistent kindness in those dark eyes, the same concern hovering on the brow, the same infinite poignancy in the downturned lips.
“It’s tincture of willow bark. The taste is vile, but in a few moments your headache will ease.” Hornblower pressed a glass into Kennedy’s unresisting hand.
Kennedy tossed it back – then gasped, gagging and coughing. The thin hand patted him on the back until the reaction passed. Embarrassed, he stood, pale from the awful story’s telling, shaking from the near-fit, and suddenly his head lay on Dr. Hornblower’s slender shoulder. Unhesitatingly the doctor embraced Kennedy, patting his back, rocking slightly, as naturally as if the boy were his own. Slowly, tentatively, Kennedy returned the embrace and finally, finally, sobbed on the doctor’s shoulder. He wept for his youth, he wept for poor Clayton, he wept for anger and cold hurt and finally a kind of peace with his father.
At length the doctor eased Kennedy back into a chair, disappeared into the side room again, and returned some minutes later with cool water and a basin. He let Kennedy bathe his face and pat it dry, and silently he retrieved the brandy glass and poured a modest measure into it. Then they talked late into the night. Kennedy had always felt a measure of protectiveness toward Hornblower, but toward this Hornblower, with the same kind face, he felt the beneficiary of protection. Here was a father he could not disappoint, could not shame, could not let down, here was a father who wanted to hear whatever was in his heart.
Hornblower woke with the dawn. He stretched, groaning with pleasure at the softness of the bed and blankets, the luxury of the thick pillows, the unaccustomed sensation of being able to stretch head to toe with plenty of room to spare. Then he yawned hugely, which brought on a fit of coughing and made his head throb. Sleep or breakfast? His eyelids fluttered, slammed shut, and he dimly felt himself burrow back down under the covers.
He awoke some time later to sense somebody standing by his bed. He forced his eyes open, grunting drowsily.
“H’ratio.” There was barely suppressed excitement in Kennedy’s eyes.
“H’ratio, do wake up.” An enthusiastic shaking of his shoulder. Hornblower dragged himself to sitting, glowering with bleared eyes at his friend.
“H’ratio. D’you feel better?”
Hornblower coughed, experimentally. “Yes, a little. Archie....” Hornblower scrubbed his hands over his face and focused on Kennedy. The tension and forced good cheer was absent. The depth of pain and fear that Hornblower had always known, tingeing even Kennedy’s highest good humor, had vanished. The blue eyes danced now, open as the sky, with no dark clouds scudding in their depths. Hornblower could tell that something had gone on the night before, something that in his plaguing illness he had missed, but far from minding, he felt a surge of gratitude in his breast for his father, who despite his reserve had made Kennedy feel at home at last.
He stood, unable to keep the smile from breaking across his face. “Here,” he said, clapping Kennedy on the back. “Let’s see what Mrs. Dabney has to give us. I’m starving.” He threw off his nightshirt and dressed hurriedly in the clothing of the night before. Then, arm in arm, Hornblower and Kennedy trotted down the stairs, both feeling very much at home.