Christmas Visitors
by Dunnage41

The far too mushy result of reading Hornblower books while watching the Patrick Stewart version of “A Christmas Carol” on tape. Rated G for severe goofiness. Enjoy!
Dunnage41
//
In spite of the numberless Christmases that he had spent at sea, Horatio Hornblower felt unaccountably lonely. He had dutifully taken part in the celebrations of the seamen and officers and had had the captains of the squadron in to dine handsomely. He had forced himself to be cheerful, had smiled till his jaws ached with the effort, though he felt neither cheery nor much like smiling.
//
At last, however, the allotment of revelry had been concluded, and Hornblower had been free to withdraw to his cabin, where he submitted stoically to Brown undressing him. Brown, sensing his mood, merely bade him good-night and silently withdrew.
//
Hornblower was about to throw himself wearily across his cot, but was given pause by the sight of a large parcel on his pillow, which Barbara had evidently entrusted to Brown with instructions to impart it to him on Christmas Eve. A bit of holly was twisted into its twine fastenings. Somehow the sight made Hornblower grievously sad, and lonelier than ever. He thrust the parcel aside and brushed angrily at the tears that pricked his eyes.
//
Only last Christmas he had been home with Barbara and Richard, even if he had been too ill with typhus to do more than be allowed to sit, warmly blanketed, in a chair by the fire for an hour. But this Christmas, he was cold and weary, weary of beating about the harbor at Brest – again – weary of the war, weary of being parted from Barbara and Richard, weary of everything. He found himself half wishing that a cannonball from the recent battle had provided him a swift deliverance from this seemingly endless and cheerless vale of life.
//
He shifted uncomfortably in the cot. This would never do. He was serving his country, and by doing his duty he was helping ensure a much safer and happier Christmas across England, even if it meant that he was damnably lonely and unhappy; he had been lonely and unhappy his entire life, it seemed, from boyhood on; and he let himself remember Christmases when he was left behind at school; Christmases at sea when he had not even memories of Smallbridge to comfort him; Christmases when no one at all spared him a thought. No matter his loneliness; Christmas in England was bound to be happier than in any country where Bonaparte had … what the devil was that light? By God, if some tipsy seaman had …
//
Hornblower swung his legs out of the cot. The light filled the tiny cabin and dazzled his eyes. Squinting painfully, he made out a slight, white-clad figure, neither male nor female, sitting patiently on the eighteen-pounder.
//
“What are you, sir?” Hornblower croaked.
//
“The Spirit of Christmas Past,” the spirit returned, its voice a whisper, yet Hornblower caught every word.
//
“What is your business?” Hornblower snapped.
//
“To ease your sadness.”
//
“Good luck to you then,” Hornblower said pettishly. Spirit or no spirit, his head ached fiercely and he wanted his rest.
//
“Touch my robe,” the spirit said, the soft voice strangely insistent. Despite himself, Hornblower found himself obeying..
//
A blast of icy air, a load roaring, and Hornblower found himself in the corner of a cheerless, if sunlit, schoolroom, a room that brought a surge of memories, painful ones. Wildly he groped for something to say.
//
“I, I, I cannot leave my ship,” he stuttered, and the spirit smiled.
//
“You have not left your ship,” it murmured. Then: “Why is that boy still at school in the Christmas holidays?”
//
For the first time Hornblower noticed the gawky lad sitting at a desk and gazing unseeing at the bleak winter landscape. A lump formed in his throat.
//
“Wasn’t wanted at … home,” he said thickly.
//
“Are you sure?”
//
“My … father … turned against me when my mother died,” Hornblower said heavily. He fidgeted. “My ship …”
//
“You are there at this moment,” the spirit said and smiled broadly. “Touch my robe again.”
//
Still dazed, Hornblower did so, and found himself in a small but cozy kitchen. His father’s longtime housekeeper was washing dishes and conversing with his father.
//
“I do want him home,” Jacob Hornblower insisted. “But he so reminds me of Louisa, especially at this time of year….” He sighed, and his voice broke.
//
“I know,” the housekeeper said soothingly. “The poor lad,” she added, with hardly a change in tone. “To be left alone at Christmas, when the other boys are sent for..” She busied herself with the dishes.
//
Jacob Hornblower began to pace. “Ha-h’m,” he said. “It is because I loved Louisa so that it fairly breaks my heart to have him here, so very like her – it is scarcely that I do not love the boy! No matter,” he finished firmly, “what he thinks.” He turned and strode from the kitchen.
//
When the spirit touched Hornblower’s arm, he jumped – he had forgotten his queer circumstances for a moment.
//
“Look here, sir,” the spirit said, and guided Hornblower’s hand to its robe. The cozy kitchen was gone, replaced by the tiny, stuffy rooms in Driver’s Alley that he and Maria had inhabited. Maria held in her lap a pair of tortoise-shell combs from Jamaica that had been Hornblower’s gift to her, and with a start Hornblower saw himself opposite Maria, holding a volume of Coxe’s Travels. He felt all out of countenance to be in two places at once, in a way that glimpsing the schoolboy Horatio had not made him feel. The Hornblower in the battered chair looked enough like the Hornblower observing the scene to cause him to unconsciously feel for his own wrists and elbows, to ensure their corporality, which made the spirit smile patiently.
//
“I only wish I could give you more, dear,” the Hornblower in the chair said to Maria, and she gazed at him with her face suffused with love, as she had nearly always looked when gazing on him. Hornblower felt a queer rush of tenderness in his breast, mixed with guilt, his prevailing emotion in the face of Maria’s undeserved admiration.
//
“You have given me yourself, Horry darling,” Maria said, and rose to drop a kiss on his forehead. “I am the wealthiest woman in England.” The Hornblower observing the scene saw that she meant it, and he felt guilty all over again for his mad lust for Barbara having driven him to impregnate her with the child whose birth had killed her.
//
Then Maria’s face fell a little. “I only wish I could make a better dinner for you.” Hornblower rose from his chair to gaze over Maria’s shoulder at the table, which was poorly set despite her best attempts.
//
“Your love nourishes me, darling,” that Hornblower said, and embraced her from behind.
//
“You were happy then, were you not?” The spirit spoke softly, but again, Hornblower heard it clearly.
//
“Yes,” Hornblower was forced to admit. He opened his mouth to qualify that answer with condemnation on himself for being such a poor provider, but found himself unable to speak.
//
Then: “It is time,” the spirit said solemnly, and that quickly, Hornblower was once again on his cot. Thoroughly bewildered, he sat up and gazed round him. There was no sign that there had ever been anyone but him in the cabin, and when he troubled to swing his legs out of the cot and brush his hand along the eighteen-pounder he found it cool to the touch, with no evidence of recent habitation.
//
Then he sat back, a knot forming in his chest as he contemplated the vision of his father. He had long accepted as gospel what he had believed to be his father’s indifference to him. He had even come to welcome, in a perverse fashion, being left behind at school at the Christmas holidays. He had been a solitary boy even then, and had been grateful for the weeks of quiet and privacy his abandonment afforded him. He had grown cynical about Christmas, a cynicism that had persisted … until … until, his characteristic honesty forced him to admit, Maria had put such a brave face on the holiday despite his failure to provide well for her. He had not been with her every Christmas, but her bravery when he had been, and her letters and small parcels when they were parted, had made the day surprisingly dear to Hornblower. He had forgotten that, somehow…
//
… and once again an unfamiliar light flooded the cabin..
//
Again Hornblower said uneasily, “What are you, sir?”
//
“The Spirit of Christmas Present.”
//
This figure was unmistakably male, a brawny, bearded character dressed all in green and wreathed about with live evergreen ropes and a crown of holly. He fairly filled the cabin, and as Hornblower recovered his first shock and sat up, breathing deeply, a pleasant perfume filled his lungs, a scent all mingled of oranges, cloves, greenery, incense, and … did he smell Barbara’s lavender scent?
//
He blinked dumbly at the figure for a moment more, then stood and said decisively, “I will do as you say, sir.”
//
The Spirit smiled broadly. “Then touch my robe, sir,” he chuckled, “and you shall know me better.”
//
In an icy, roaring whirl, as before, Hornblower found himself of a sudden in a cottage both familiar and strange. Four women, plainly dressed but wreathed in smiles, were engaged in trimming an evergreen tree with homemade ornaments.
//
“If only William could be here,” sighed one, seemingly the youngest one, with a round rosy face and fair hair.
//
“It is because of his devotion to his duty that we are able to live as simply and as easily as we do,” another said, mildly, but with a maternal tone that told Hornblower that she was likely the oldest of Bush’s four sisters.
//
“Do you suppose he’s opened his parcel yet?” The youngest one again.
//
“Only if he is as impatient as our Abigail,” said another sister, laughing and patting the youngest one on the head. Laughter followed.
//
“If I know William,” the eldest said, “he’ll wait until the dawn just breaks on Christmas Day, then he’ll open it.”
//
“As usual, Rose, you have the right of it,” Abigail said with a mock sigh. Laughter broke out again, and was renewed when the fourth sister added:
//
“And his note of thanks will be … effusive and … tongue-tied all at once.”
//
“Just like William!” Abigail cried, her face blushing with smiles at the memory of her brother.
//
One of the sisters began to sing, softly, “Silent Night.” The others joined in, their voices twining in sweet harmony.
//
Hornblower found himself melancholy and touched all at once by the simple domesticity of the scene. Sisters and brother were parted on this holy day, but instead of sinking into depression, these women were making merry, with decorations and music, and bringing joy to themselves by recalling their brother’s attributes and habits, making him present despite his absence.
//
When the Spirit touched his shoulder, he positively jumped -- he had actually forgotten about the thing.
//
Then the domestic tranquility was gone, and they stood instead -- Hornblower blinking with surprise -- in Barbara’s dressing room. Hebe, her servant, was just slipping out of the room, and Barbara sat at her dressing table, fingering a small silhouette she had had made of Hornblower during the year he had been convalescent. Then she set it aside and unlocked a small drawer. She drew out a thick bundle of letters. The sight made her sigh, then smile. She sat for some time, poring over the letters. Sometimes what she read made her face serene; other times she seemed to be fighting off tears. Then she gazed off into the distance and spoke aloud.
//
“My darling Horatio,” she said softly, “wherever you are tonight, know how dear you are to me. Know how much I love you. I hope that you will open your parcel and that when you do, you will think fondly of me.”
//
Fondly! Hornblower actually started forward, but the Spirit’s burly arm restrained him.
//
“Wait, sir,” the Spirit murmured.
//
Barbara sighed, deeply, and rose. She actually brushed by them and Hornblower pulled back at the queer sensation, as though he had been doused by ice-water. Numbly he followed the Spirit through the familiar halls of Smallbridge, down the stairs and all the way to the kitchen, where the servants had gathered and a modest but pleasant-looking table was set.
//
“Your ladyship,” Mrs. Brown said, and curtseyed. The other servants bobbed and curtseyed in their turn, and Barbara’s smile was genuine and warm.
//
“A happy Christmas to all of you,” she said. She drew a bag from her skirts and began to hand out parcels for the servants’ children and purses for the servants, generous ones from the chinking sounds they made when handed over. Her momentary melancholy was gone, it seemed, subsumed by the company of others. If she was lonely, she shook it off by finding revelry and joining herself to it; and by adding to their merriment with her generosity.
//
Hornblower found he could do no more than gaze longingly at his wife, so tantalizingly close and yet so clearly unavailable. Barbara! He almost cried out her name, but the Spirit held him back.
//
“No, sir,” the Spirit said. “That is not why we come.”
//
“Then why, pray?” Hornblower snapped.
//
“To ease your sadness.”
//
Hornblower was more irritated now than ever. Forgetting entirely the unreality of arguing with a ghost, he barked, “You wish to ease my sadness by showing me my wife so close to hand and yet so far away? You have some very different ideas of what constitutes easing one’s sadness.” He actually stamped his foot in frustration. There was Barbara -- he was less than an arm’s-length away -- and yet they were hundreds of miles apart.
//
“To ease your sadness, sir,” the Spirit repeated, “by showing you the wisdom of allowing other emotions their free rein on this holy day.”
//
“Ha-h’m,” Hornblower said uneasily, then a smile quirked at his lips as he realized that the noncommittal sound was as useful with spirits as with humans. More, he was suddenly amused at the realization of how quickly he had come to be so at ease with the fantastic circumstances of the evening that he was willing to enter into debate with these beings, whatever they were.
//
No sooner had the thought formed, however, than Hornblower felt the now-familiar icy roaring whirl and they were set down in the midshipmen’s berth of his own ship. Hornblower blinked at the juxtaposition. Here he was on comfortable ground, yet he was clearly not here, as evidenced by a pair of midshipmen entering, brushing by him and producing that ice-water sensation again. Hornblower found himself suddenly fascinated. Here was a rare opportunity to hear what, if anything, the midshipmen might have to say about their commodore.
//
“Spect he’s all right,” piped one whose voice had not yet changed. “Ha’n’t he got plenty o’ money? Ha’n’t he got a wife an’ family an’ all? Bet they send him parcels an’ all.”
//
“ ’smore to Christmas than parcels, you dolt,” said an older midshipman, and thumped the boy on the head for good measure. “He wishes he were at home… we all do.”
//
“That means you think he’s got a heart,” groused one from a dark corner. The naysayer was instantly overridden in a ragged chorus.
//
“You don’t talk about Horny like that,” the young midshipman said stoutly. “I’ve been under him a year an’ I tell you, he’s a bit of all right.”
//
There was knowing laughter as the boy unwittingly applied to his commodore a phrase usually used in description of dockside women, but there was also a murmur of agreement running round the quarters.
//
“He works you hard,” said one, “but you get the feelin’ that he was worked as hard as a mid, an’ you know it’s to make a better officer o’ you.”
//
“Aye, that’s right,” said another. “An’ he works as hard as we do, no one can say aught about that.”
//
“No ship’s captain or commodore ever has a heart,” said the dark corner’s occupant, but again he was indignantly silenced.
//
“If you want to be a grouch at Christmas, go ahead,” said one. “Course the commodore misses his family. Who wouldn’t? But I tell you, there’s no better a one to serve under. You listen next time we’re in port.. You listen to the mids off the other ships. We could be serving under a drunk, or a fool, or a coward. Horny’s distinguished himself in battle, he’s no coward, an’ he’s no fool. There!” He thumped his mug on the table for punctuation and got a murmur of agreement for his trouble.
//
“Sides,” said one of them. “Didn’t he give orders to lay a dinner for us? And give us light duty tomorrow? There’s plenty of commodores who wouldn’t give light duty for anything.”
//
Hornblower blinked. He supposed he had known he was talked about, and the cynic in his head reminded him of the times he had said or done something as a purely theatrical gesture, to impress the men, but still it warmed his heart to hear such loyal defenses being made by these greenest of officers.
//
Too soon, came the icy roar and Hornblower again found himself alone in his cabin. Damnation! This was getting tiresome. Then he sat up, blinking hard, and reflected on Barbara. Dear Barbara. She missed him as deeply as he missed her. However, Barbara-like, she was setting aside her feelings and tending to the servants. Since there was nothing she could do to change her circumstances, she would not dare to wallow in her self-pity, as, Hornblower realized sharply, he had been doing. He swung himself out of bed and began to pace, thinking first about Barbara and then about the defenses of himself he had been privileged to hear from the midshipmen.
//
He knew that in his advancing age he was becoming ever more fond of the midshipmen and feeling paternal toward them, as he supposed Pellew had felt toward him once. He smiled. “It’s very hard,” Pellew had once told him, “for a father to see his children grow up.” He had not understood it at the time, but the more midshipmen he had pass through his command, and ascend the ranks, the more he came to appreciate the comment. Those lads were very nearly as dear to him as his own young son.
//
He blinked at the realization. If he was lonely, it was his own fault entirely. Here he was, surrounded by subordinates who were inordinately fond of him, and who would defend him to the last ditch; more, they had been very glad of his company this Christmas Eve, and would think warmly of him on the morrow, if he would let himself enjoy their company and their good wishes. He had been a fool! He started to laugh at himself, but here came the light again, and this time, it was not bright but dim, and deeply disturbing. Hornblower shuddered as his eyes picked out the diaphanous form of a towering figure cloaked entirely in ragged black.
//
“Are you … the Spirit of Christmas … Yet to Come?” Hornblower croaked. The figure did not speak, but nodded.
//
Hornblower sighed tiredly. “Tell me, pray … are you the last of the spirits that will visit me?” He wished to be left alone with his new insights, and he was monstrously weary besides.
//
Again the figure nodded.
//
“Very well, sir. Show me what you will.”
//
To his mild surprise, the figure whirled him into Fladong’s, one of the naval coffee shops.
//
“Pity he died,” a figure by the fireplace said mildly.
//
“At least he died honorably,” said another. “Still … I suppose one must attend the funeral..”
//
“One almost wishes,” said a third, “there had been no occasion for a funeral. He’d got to be such a … distant … figure of late..”
//
“He had a wife,” said the first, in some reproach.
//
“Means nothing,” said the third. “I’ve heard that second of his, Bush, of the dockyard, isn’t planning to attend.”
//
That drew an intake of breath from the others.
//
“Really,” said the second.
//
“Yes,” said the third. “Nor any of his old seamen.”
//
“He didn’t used to be so distant,” put in a fourth man, who had just drawn up a chair. “I was a midshipman with him, some years ago,” he nodded a confirmation to the first man, who looked his skepticism. “He was helpful and loyal and brave. But … I don’t know,” he finished with a sigh, “maybe all those years at sea made him …” he trailed off, unwilling to complete the thought.
//
“Spirit,” gulped Hornblower, “Am … I the subject of their converse?”
//
The Spirit pointed, and Hornblower’s gaze followed the finger to a Naval Gazette on a nearby table. “Hornblower killed in battle,” a headline read. There was more, but Hornblower’s gaze blurred.
//
“Spirit,” he said hoarsely, plucking at the ragged sleeve, “Is this what will be … or what may be?”
//
The Spirit, irritatingly, said nothing. Hornblower was about to insist when the icy whirl enveloped him once again, and once again they were in Barbara’s dressing-room at Smallbridge. Barbara was dressed this time in black, and once again Hornblower had to stand back and merely watch as Barbara unlocked the dressing-table drawer and drew out his letters. To his dismay, she did not even glance over them but merely laid the bundle onto the fire in the bedroom, then put the fire screen back and turned to go about another task.
//
Dear Barbara! Had his gloom become so pervasive that even she did not miss him? She had burnt his letters as though they were rubbish, when the Barbara that Hornblower thought he knew would have re-read them, sighed over them, and probably even kept them rather than consigning them coldly to the flames.
//
“Spirit,” Hornblower importuned the silent figure. “Spirit. Please tell me this is not the future that must be! Tell me that it is the future that might be turned aside. I have been a fool,” he said recklessly, babbling now in his urgency to change what he saw, what terrified him and made his blood run cold. “Yes, a fool, to let loneliness gain the upper hand. My men have done their best by each other and by me on this holiday, and so have Barbara and so have … so have Bush’s sisters, and my own midshipmen! I see now they want nothing but the best they can have at Christmas, and I’ve been selfish not to take what those dear to me are offering. Barbara … that parcel … I’ll open it, I will, on the instant, and I will never again let being parted at Christmas sadden me so. Truly, I will learn from what you have shown me! Only, let this future be changed! Let it be changed!”
//
To his shock, Hornblower was clutching not at a ragged black sleeve but at his own blankets, in his cot. There was a pounding on the door. Dear God! Had someone heard his hysteria?
//
“Come,” he rasped, and sat up and ran a hand through his disordered hair.
//
It was Brown, and if his master’s ranting had been audible, he gave no sign of it. His broad homely face was wreathed in smiles, and he bore a tray of coffee, which he set on the trestle table.
//
“A Merry Christmas, to you, sir,” he said, beaming. “An’ Mr. Bush’s compliments, an’ he wishes you the very same, sir. It’s just four bells, sir, an' a beautiful morning. Why, sir! Ha’n’t you opened her ladyship’s parcel, sir? I expect you was that tired, sir. Here it is, sir, an’ here’s your knife, sir.”
//
Brown made to slip out, but Hornblower arrested the movement.
//
“Please, stay, Brown,” Hornblower said. “Enjoy the contents with me.” He felt a surge of affection for the loyal Brown as he cut the twine on the parcel, and playfully laid the sprig of holly alongside the coffee-cup. He gave vent to a long and deeply satisfying sigh.
//
“After all, it’s Christmas Day.”
//
It was Christmas Day. And Hornblower found unexpected delight in turning up a work by Jonson that Barbara “thought you might admire, dearest,” a fine silk scarf, light and warm, though Hornblower knew she detested fiddling with needle and thread, A drawing from Richard that purported to resemble his father but which made both Hornblower and Brown break out in fond smiles. A full pound of the best coffee, which made Hornblower positively grin. A new pair of gloves, a nightshirt of the finest merino wool, and a note from Barbara, folded tight, that opened to reveal that Barbara had also included “a hundredweight of my best love for you, dearest.” That last made Hornblower blush. Brown again tactfully made to withdraw. Hornblower stopped him again.
//
“Brown,” he said, “Give my very best wishes for the day to Mr. Bush, and I shall be up presently. And, Brown,” he added, his heart suddenly light as a bird, “lay a breakfast for the men from my own stores. It’s Christmas Day,” he said, and found his face breaking into a broad smile.