Tidings of Comfort and Joy
by Joan C
Note: This is a sequel to The Holly and the Ivy
How many Christmases had it been since he had been to church? More than ten, by Horatio Hornblower's reckoning. The last two had been spent on the Indefatigable; one in joy, one so consumed by storms that it had scarcely marked itself in his mind, until the danger had passed. He remembered Captain Pellew; his weathered face drawn with exhaustion, raising a glass of port to mark the holiday, before they were compelled to return to their stations, only hoping that when Christmas dawned, the Indy would still be afloat. In the years before he had gone to the Indefatigable, he and his father had scarcely mentioned Christmas. Horatio had lost count of the holidays he had spent with Margaret Dabney and her son John, eating a quiet meal in the kitchen and retiring to bed, to wait for the sound of his father returning from whatever medical emergency had presented itself. Illnesses, accidents, births, deaths ... they had not stopped because it was Christmas; and Dr. Hornblower had never refused a patient, no matter the day.
There had been other Christmases, nearly lost in the mists of passing time, when his mother had been alive, and the holiday had been celebrated with joy and hope. When the air had been filled with the scent of clove-studded oranges, and baking shortbread; the promise of plum pudding -- never mind that he did not care much for it, it was the ceremony of it, with Margaret Dabney's flushed face shining with anticipation as she pulled it from the pot, wreathed in steam and luscious aromas, and his mother standing nearby, biting her lip, and clapping her hands like a child when the task was accomplished. There were times when those memories were as painful as an edge of glass, and he had been glad to forget them.
This Christmas held the promise to be different. That he was at church was proof enough of that. He stood between his father and Archie Kennedy, and tried to ignore the choir and the rest of the congregation as they lustily belted out *Joy to the World.* The organ sounded like screeching cats to him and he closed his eyes, counting out the final measures and when it stopped he sighed with relief. He knew that Archie was laughing at him, shot him a glare, and was rewarded with a rude grin. Just beyond Archie's red-gold hair, he caught a glimpse of his childhood friend, Trudy Whitehall. Funny, her expression was a perfect mirror of Archie's, but before he could mark it as something to ponder, the hymn ended and Trudy was whisked away by her mother and father.
It was too cold to linger in the vestibule. As soon as John Dabney appeared with the sleigh, Dr. Hornblower was settled in with lap robes and a warm brick at his feet, and they took off across the snow-covered fields. Horatio was grateful for the warmth of his boat cloak. He tucked his hands deeper into the folds.
"Do you remember what your mother used to do to keep your hands warm, Horatio?"
His father was watching him with amusement. Horatio thought for a moment, then smiled. "Potatoes. She would bake them, then wrap them in a rag and stick them in my pockets." Curiously, he looked at Archie, sitting across from them in silence. "What were Christmases like for you, Archie?"
Archie's memories were not happy ones, but he would not ignore the question. If he said *something* then perhaps Horatio would not ask another. "Large, noisy, not at all like this. My father believes that if you have the means, you should be as extravagant as possible to impress everyone with your wealth." He shrugged. "That is what I remember -- confusion, lots of candles, company coming and going until after midnight." He did not add that after his mother's death, he had spent many lonely hours in his room, fearing that the noise and confusion would spark a seizure that would shame him in front of his father's friends.
Dr. Hornblower noticed the quick shadow in Kennedy's eyes, and guessed the cause. He spoke sympathetically. "This must seem very dull and quiet to you."
"No, sir. Not at all." He looked out at the passing landscape, thinking that of all the Christmases in his life, this was the one that he would remember; for pain, for healing, for peace. He wondered if Horatio would think of it the same way. He glanced covertly at his friend. It was difficult at the best of times to read Horatio's expressions, when he chose to be impassive, it was nearly impossible. It was too dark to tell; the moonlight was silvering the planes of his face, cheekbones, mouth, shadowed eyes. Impossible. Archie returned to viewing the scenery.
Horatio was thinking of things his father had told him earlier. They had spoken of his mother, and Horatio found himself wanting to hear more; but he did not know how to ask. If it had been painful for him to recall her; he could only imagine how it must hurt his father. He retreated to silence and the passing landscape.
Dr. Hornblower watched those two faces, so entirely different in every aspect, but so very similar in expression. Mingled memories of lost joy, and past sorrows marked them both, and he wondered if his own regrets were writ plain on his countenance. He could not entirely repress a sigh.
"Are you all right, father?" Horatio asked.
"Yes, just a bit cold and tired. But I can see the lights of home even as I speak." And they could; the candles in the windows beckoning and bright. Within five minutes, they were inside, and Margaret Dabney was waiting for them. She was in her glory; three needy souls with bodies to warm and stomachs to fill, and she was determined to make the most of every moment. Archie, being a novelty, was her chosen project.
He had no sooner hung up his cloak than she was standing before him. "Ah, Mister Kennedy, you are feeling better?" She peered into his face. "You must be cold -- ooh, your poor hands are like ice! I have just the thing -- hot buttered cider, and maybe a bit of gingerbread? Come, come, into the library, with you. There's a nice, warm fire burning, and you can sit and thaw out." She herded him towards the door, and then turned her attentions to Horatio and Dr. Hornblower.
"And you, sir. I knew you'd take a chill! You'll be aching on the morrow, certain sure," she scolded the doctor. He knew her well, and patiently let her fuss. If he did not, she would take it to heart and sulk in the kitchen for three days. Margaret needed to fuss, and there were times when he did not mind it at all.
He smiled down at her as she unwrapped his muffler. "Now, Margaret, how could I possibly take a chill in fifteen minutes? John had me bundled up with blankets and hot bricks. I was quite comfortable."
"Get you into the library, sir." Then having completed that duty, she turned to Horatio, her bright gaze softening. He had always been her favorite; a quiet lad with dark, silky hair, and eyes too wide for his narrow face. Never mind that now he was a foot taller than she, or that he wore the blue and gold of the Royal Navy. She still saw that reedy child sitting at her kitchen table. "Hot cider for you, too, Master Horatio. Don't argue, I can tell that you are cold. And hungry too, I'll warrant, for all that you ate today." She gave him an aggrieved look that made it clear that she had noticed his earlier lack of appetite.
"Yes, Margaret." He recalled that it was no more use arguing with her than it was with Captain Pellew. He retreated to the library where Archie and Dr. Hornblower were settled into chairs before the fire. They sat in companionable silence until Margaret came with a tray of delicacies to tempt them.
Archie looked over the offerings -- hot cider with butter and cinnamon, spicy gingerbread, a crock of custard sauce, a plate of assorted pastries. Served with love. Archie's spine curved comfortably into the cushions at his back; he was warm, well-fed, and not even the tortured confidences he had revealed a few hours ago in that same room, could haunt him. Tonight, he might even sleep ...
Dr. Hornblower saw Archie's head nod. He turned to Horatio and raised an eyebrow. "Should I wake him and send him up to bed?"
Horatio thought of all the times he had heard Archie wake from
nightmares, or had heard him cry out in his sleep. He'd had little
enough rest the night before, Horatio knew, and had been laid
low with a sick headache earlier that day. "No. Leave him
be for a while."
Dr. Hornblower rose and went to the small cabinet where he kept his spirits. "Cider is well and good, but a glass of Madeira is balm for aching joints. Would you like some?" he asked.
Horatio smiled. "No, thank you. I never told you this, but I don't much care for it."
"Neither did your mother. She said it set her teeth on edge." He smiled. "Yet she always made certain there was a glass poured for me at night when I was called out. Sometimes she would be waiting for me," he sighed. "We would talk."
"I know." He gave his father a guarded look. "I used to sit at the top of the stairs and wait, too. When I heard your voices, I knew all was well, and I would creep back to bed."
Dr. Hornblower chuckled. "Except for the times when we would find you fast asleep in the hallway."
Horatio blushed. "I do not remember." He made a small, frustrated motion with his hands. "I wish I did."
Dr. Hornblower limped back to his chair. He sat sipping his wine meditatively. He was tired, and would have gone up to bed, but he sensed that Horatio needed something ... if not to talk, then perhaps to listen. "Son, earlier I said that I would tell you anything you wished to know about your mother. The offer stands."
Horatio looked at the portrait over the mantel. It was good to see it again. He had been away for so long that he had lost his visual memory of his mother; the ivory miniature was tucked away in his sea chest for safekeeping, and for months, he had been away from the Indefatigable. He found it distressing that he did not remember her. He had not thought it was possible to forget someone you loved so much ... or missed so much.
"Horatio?" His father's voice broke his reverie.
"You said you did not love her when you married her. When did --"
"When did I realize I loved her?" He took a deep breath. "On Christmas Eve."
Dr. Julius Hornblower was a man of solitary habit. He had never been a social creature, preferring his studies over the usual student pursuits of gaming, drinking, and creating mayhem. He took his calling as a physician seriously, attending to his duties with a grave severity that had given rise to some ridicule from his less dedicated counterparts, even choosing to practice amongst the docks and stews of central London, rather than the more fashionable areas, where he might have made his fortune. It was not an easy life, and he was not physically strong. The emotional toll was nearly as heavy, for he lost patients that he truly believed might have been saved, if only he could have given them the proper medicines -- if they could have afforded nourishing food, fresh air, warm, decent clothing. Yet that was beyond his power, and his income to give them.
In the end, the burdens of his calling nearly killed him. If not for the family of a young Naval officer whose life he had saved, he would have died of a putrid fever. Instead, he found himself whisked away to a fashionable home, where his fever-wracked body was soothed in smooth linen sheets, medicines and brandy were spooned down his throat, and he was given the sort of care he wished he could have provided for his patients on the docks.
His convalescence was excruciating. Clearly, he would not be able to resume his practice without permanently damaging his health. How could he repay the debt he owed to his benefactors? He would not accept charity. He worried himself into a relapse, and when he revealed his fears at last, he was ashamed of them.
His benefactor had nodded wisely. Of course, he could understand, but there was a payment that could be made to satisfy the debt. His elder brother, a country squire of some wealth and prestige, resided in Waltham Chase, Hampshire. He was a forward-looking gentleman, wise enough to see that the health of his tenants, and their neighbors, was of paramount importance for their incomes -- and hence for his. He was looking for a physician to open a practice, and he did not want a country quack, but a man of learning and science, who would truly care for his patients. Granted, it did not have the prestige of a London address, but it did include a modest house, a living wage, and the promise of a less strenuous life. Was Dr. Hornblower interested? Truly, he would be doing the Whitehall's an immense favor ... one that could be seen as an equal trade-off, surely.
It had taken several days of internal debate, pride warring with practicality, and the grim realization that if he did not leave London, he would be dead within a year, before he had acquiesced, with the condition that if either party had any regrets, the association would be dissolved. A contract was drawn up, hands shaken, and two weeks later, he found himself standing in front of a house that looked like heaven.
He doubted it had changed much over the last hundred years; the stones had always been grey, the shutters white, the door dark green, and the lilac bushes flanking it looked as if the house had been built to accommodate them, not the other way around. This was the modest house he had been promised? Surely there was an error! He looked about him, searching for some other habitation -- a cottage, perhaps. But the door had opened, and a plump young woman with merry blue eyes and a welcoming smile was standing there to greet him.
"Dr. Hornblower, sir?" She dropped a curtsey. "Welcome home. I'm Margaret Dabney, and I'm to be your housekeeper. Come in, come in!" she urged and stood aside to let him enter. "My husband, Peter is to be your manservant, and my son John, well, he nought but five, but he's an able lad with the horses. Are you hungry then, after your journey? I've a nice bit of roast to be carved ..."
Julius was overwhelmed. The strain of the journey, of meeting Squire Whitehall, of being greeted so effusively, it was too much, really. He passed a hand over his eyes, and in an instant, felt Margaret Dabney's hand take his arm.
"Why sir! You are still unwell! What was the Squire thinking to send you here like this! I'll bring you some tea, why don't I? And you just sit here and rest, hmm?" She led him into a cozy room off the foyer. He sank down in a comfortable chair and closed his eyes. Damnation! He was weaker than he had realized, what an appearance he must present. He knew what he saw in the mirror -- a tall man, now far too thin even for his slight build, a pale, bony face, dark hair tied back informally and with a tendency to curl at his temples. Hardly an appearance to inspire confidence, he thought. But perhaps confidence would come with time. Whatever doubts he had, he was certain of his medical abilities. He would do his best to earn the other.
Dr. Hornblower paused in his narrative. He had been so lost in the past that he had nearly forgotten that Horatio was in the same room. He feared his story had sent Horatio to sleep, but when he looked over at him, he was sitting slightly forward in his chair, waiting. Dr. Hornblower was oddly gratified by this reaction. It was unexpected. "Shall I go on?" he asked.
"Yes, if you are not too tired." Horatio was surprised to find himself so deeply involved in the story. He had never heard how his father had come to Waltham Chase. He had known that his father had practised first in London before coming to Hampshire, and that Margaret Dabney had been his housekeeper for many years. He had only the vaguest memories of Peter Dabney, who had died when Horatio was four. He found himself deeply moved by his father's loneliness and dedication, by his illness. He had never known.
Dr. Hornblower smiled. "No, I am not tired at all." He glanced at Archie, deeper yet in slumber, and looking like a disheveled angel. "Which I cannot say for Archie." He rose a bit stiffly and pulled an afghan from the back of the settee. He shook it open and laid it over Archie's shoulders. "But I suppose he'll do for a while yet without getting a stiff neck."
He returned to his chair, waiting for Horatio to finish tending
to the fire, before continuing his story. "That was in high
summer, Horatio. At first, the patients came slowly; they were
a stubborn lot, and I was a stranger, but as they grew to know
me, and I to know them, we managed to go on. I had been here for
scarcely a month when I met your mother. I remember that day as
if it had just happened, but at the time, it scarcely seemed remarkable
The quality of the air in the country never ceased to delight him. After spending the greater part of his adult life in the fetid atmosphere of London, he had not imagined that drawing a breath could be a pleasure. He reined in his pony trap at the top of a gentle rise overlooking the town of Waltham Chase and inhaled the scents of late summer. New mown hay, the faintest tang of smoke and sweet clover, and the ripe aroma of crops ready to harvest. There was a rhythm to life in the country that was entirely different than the frenetic pace of London. He had been so reluctant to leave, and now he could not imagine returning. He was a different man here.
He knew he looked different from the sad, pale wretch he had been just a few weeks earlier. Margaret still despaired of putting weight on his lean frame, but he was no longer skeletal and the colour of sun and good health burnished his face. He was more at peace than he had been in a long time, but that peace had only emphasized how solitary his existence was. The house was far too big for one person; it begged to be filled. He shook his head at his musings and clucked to his pony to encourage her to move on. He had a patient to see.
Waltham Chase was a small town, a poor relative of its larger cousin a few miles to the north, Bishop's Waltham. It had its own charms, but also its areas of poverty, like any town. His patient was one Thomas Graves; a retired schoolmaster. He had been summoned by a note begging him to come to the town as Graves was far too ill to make even the short trip to the surgery at the Doctor's house. Julius feared that he had been called too late, but he would do what he could for the man.
He stopped in front of a small, shabby cottage on the far outskirts of the town. It had a forlorn air about it, despite the curtains in the windows and the flowers some hopeful soul had planted in the window boxes. The curtains moved, the door opened, and he stepped down from the trap, his medicine bag in his hand. The interior of the cottage was dark, and after the bright light outside, Julius' eyes took a moment to adjust. He blinked, "Mr. Graves?" he asked.
The person who had admitted him, stepped from the shadows. Not Graves, but a girl, a young woman, slender and dark-haired, wearing a gown faded from many washings, but spotless. The interior of the cottage was the same; the quality of the furnishings was poor, but again, everything was well-kept and clean. He removed his straw hat and nodded to the young woman. "I am Dr. Hornblower." He said it apologetically, as always, for the name seemed awkward. "To see Thomas Graves?"
"Yes. Thank you for coming, doctor. I am Louisa Graves. My father is in the next room." She moved gracefully away from him. Her voice was lovely, Julius thought. Sweet and soft, soothing. He followed her into the small bedroom. The room was close after the air outside, and odors of illness unmistakable. It was hot, but the man in the bed was covered to his chin with a blanket.
He turned his head on the pillow, and Julius' heart sank. Thomas
Graves' face was emaciated, his complexion waxy, but for two spots
of colour on his cheeks. His eyes were dark, patient with suffering.
"Da, this is Dr. Hornblower. He's here to see you." She stood at the bedside, and touched his hand. "Maybe he can help ..." Her voice trailed off. She looked back at Julius, her eyes welling with tears. She knew of course, that there was very little he could do. "Excuse me," she said softly, and left.
It was unbearable in that room. Julius looked at the window. "Are you cold, sir?" he asked.
"Good, then I shall let in some of the air outside. It is quite warm, and will do you no harm." He raised the latch and pushed the window open. The air was not as sweet as it had been on the hill, but it was better than the miasma of illness.
Thomas Graves gave a wispy laugh. "There is very little that can do me harm at this point in my life, is there, Doctor?"
He knew then. "No, most likely not. Let me have a look, though. Perhaps I can make you more comfortable." He moved to the bedside. Graves' wrist was nothing but skin over bones, his pulse, light and fluttering. Julius touched his forehead, it was warm and dry. "You should be drinking as much water as possible. The fever will be less debilitating if you do." He ran a light hand down his patient's chest, feeling every rib, every knob of bone. He listened to his lungs, noting the spongy sound of his respiration. When he had finished his examination, he pulled a chair up to the bedside. "You know that you are dying," he said gently, and Graves nodded.
"Aye, I've suspected for some time that I will not rise from this bed." He rested his head against his pillow and closed his eyes. "I do not mind so much for myself, but for Louisa ... she will be alone in this world when I am gone, and she deserves so much more."
Julius did not know what to say. He rose and took several vials from his bag. "I will leave some medicines with your daughter. They will ease your pain, make it a bit easier for you to sleep. And keep in mind what I said about the water. You need it."
"I will die, regardless."
"Yes, but you will feel better if you follow my instructions." He smiled slightly. "I will check back in a few days, Mr. Graves."
Graves nodded. "Dr. Hornblower?"
"Would you -- perhaps I should not ask this, but --"
"Ask me, and if it is in my power, I will do it."
"Take Louisa for a walk in the sun. I shall do well enough for a little while."
Julius smiled. "That, I can do. Goodbye, sir."
The girl was waiting outside the door. When he came out, her face lit up with an impossible hope, only to fall again when she saw his expression. Julius took her arm gently. "Come, let us go outside for a few minutes. We can talk without disturbing your father, then." He led her out into the light, and for the first time saw her clearly.
Her eyes were wide and dark, set beneath winged brows. Her hair, which had looked non-descript in the shadows, was a wealth of colour in the sun; mahogany, red-gold, brown, with a chestnut sheen to it that was very lovely. He noticed a dimple in her chin, and a sweet curve to her mouth when she smiled. Julius realized that he was staring and cleared his throat. "Come, let us walk."
"My father ..."
"He told me to bring you outside. You wouldn't want me to disappoint him."
"No," a dimple showed briefly at the corner of her mouth, and Julius was enchanted.
"You know how ill he is," he said, after they had walked a bit. "He will not recover, but there are things that can be done to make him more comfortable." He went on to describe what she could do, and when she hesitated, he knew it was not for lack of kindness or willingness. He had seen that look before, when money was too tight, and the treatment for illness dear. Some things did not change. He took a breath. "Squire Whitehall has given me an allowance to use for those patients who cannot afford some of my medicines. Your father will not suffer for lack of funds."
"I do not want charity!" Louisa cried. "I have some money set aside --"
Julius stopped in his tracks and took her shoulders in his hands. "It is not charity. It is the squire's wish to help the people who have helped him in his life. If it were charity, I would not be here!" he said. Then realizing that he had no right to speak to her that way, he dropped his hands and stepped away. "My apologies, Miss Graves. I am only thinking of your father's welfare. I do not want him to suffer needlessly for stubborn pride."
"I am not so proud," she whispered. Her shoulders drooped, and Julius' heart ached for her. "Thank you."
"I will come again in a few days to see how he goes along.
If you need me before then, please do not hesitate to call. I
am not so busy that you need fear taking me from other patients."
"You have just come here?" she asked. "I have not seen you before."
"Yes. For about a month. Have you lived here long, Miss Graves?"
"Two years. We came from Portsmouth. The damp air was not good for my father's lungs, you see."
"Do you have family there?" he asked.
"No. No one. Just myself and my father."
They were standing at the pony trap now, and Julius was loathe
to leave, but could not think of a way to stay and talk with her
some more. He was awkward around women when they were not patients,
and did not know if she found his company interesting or desirable
in any way, and he was far too shy to ask if she would see him
again as anything but her father's physician. He gathered the
reins in his hands, and bade her farewell. He did not know that
she stood looking after him until the trap turned the corner and
vanished from her sight.
Dr. Hornblower gazed into the flames, remembering those days, remembering the helpless sorrow he felt as he tended to Mr. Graves, and yet at the same time, the pleasure he found in Louisa's company. "We grew to be friends, Horatio. I did not expect more, and could not ask more of her given the situation. I tried to visit several times a week, to give Louisa a few hours of respite from nursing, and to do what I could to ease Mr. Graves' pain. It was so little, but they were grateful for whatever small kindness I could offer ..." He sighed, and continued. "He lived for three months, none of them easy. I was with him when he died. Poor Louisa, she was exhausted and frightened, but determined to do what had to be done to give him a decent burial. She was very strong like that, but not strong enough to face the world alone. One day, a week or so after the funeral, I went to see her, and found her packing her belongings. The cottage had been let, and she was being forced to find new lodgings. There was nothing to be done, but to leave Waltham Chase she said, all the while with tears streaming down her face. And then, before I knew it, she was weeping in my arms, and I was asking her to marry me."
"But you did not love her?"
"How could I know?" Dr. Hornblower shrugged. "I knew that she was precious to me, that the thought of not seeing her again was impossible. And I was lonely, Horatio -- as I knew she was. It seemed that if we wed, we would not have to endure the loss of our friendship -- if nothing else, we at least had that feeling between us. Louisa accepted my proposal and Squire Whitehall was able to obtain a dispensation so that we could wed as quickly as possible. We married in early November, as the first snow fell ...
Julius woke at dawn Christmas Eve morning. It did not matter that it was the holiday; people fell ill, had accidents, and gave birth, regardless of the day of the year. He dressed quietly and left his room. Across the hall, no light showed from the Louisa's bedroom. She had been restless last night, he knew. He had heard the eighth step creak as she crept downstairs after midnight. He wondered if her insomnia was due to the lingering stress of grief, or if there were another cause ... regret perhaps, for a marriage that should not have taken place. He did not think he could bear it, if it were the latter.
He was a practical man; he had expected difficulties for both of them. He was thirty-five and set in his ways, and she was in mourning, still. He had not insisted on a physical relationship when they scarcely knew each other. Their only kiss had been a chaste brush of the lips on their wedding day, but as the weeks passed, Julius realized that Louisa was more than a pleasant companion. The very scent of her was intoxicating in ways that he had only dreamed of, causing him to wake in a state of arousal that was physically painful, and emotionally embarrassing. He assumed that at some point, they would become intimate, but he was too proud to beg, and too reticent to act. And so the impasse remained.
When he reached the bottom step, Margaret Dabney was heading towards the kitchen. It was a constant mystery to him, how she knew when he would be awake. But every morning, she was there, ready to make him tea, or the coffee she knew he preferred. She nodded at him in greeting. "Good morning, sir. You're up early."
"Not early enough to beat you, Margaret. One of these days, I will, you know."
She laughed. "G'wan, Dr. Hornblower. That'll be the day I'm ready to retire. Will Mrs. Hornblower be joining you?" There was the very faintest hint of disapproval in her voice. She could not help being aware of the awkward domestic situation of his household, and she obviously had to bite her tongue to keep from adding her own tart observations. So far, she had not, for which Dr. Hornblower was exceedingly grateful.
"She is still sleeping, I believe. She was up again last night."
"Poor lass. I heard her. You know she sits in the library. Sometimes, I hear her crying. She must miss her Da something dreadful."
"They were very close, and it has only been six weeks."
"Aye. Perhaps a gift will cheer her up a bit, it being the holiday and all."
Margaret stood with her hands on her hips. She would not comment on the state of her employer's marriage, but she had no qualms about voicing her opinion on less personal matters. "Oh, sir. Don't tell me that you didn't get a her a wee present?"
"I-I hadn't thought," he said helplessly.
"Hmph! Men." Margaret scoffed. "It is Christmas, sir. And like as not she'll be feeling the loss of her da even more."
"Oh God, of course, you're right." He rubbed his forehead. "I will try to think of something ... What would you like, Margaret?"
"Yes. What would you like for Christmas?" he asked.
"Well, beggin' your pardon, sir. I wouldn't mind having the night off to spend with Johnny and Mr. Dabney."
"Done. If that is what I can give you, then you shall have it." He watched Margaret's cheeks pink with pleasure.
"Thank you, sir! Don't you worry, I'll have a nice dinner for you and Mrs. Hornblower all prepared. And you leave the dishes for me in the morning -- don't you let her do them, for you know she will try."
Julius smiled. Louisa was still adjusting to a life that she had never known, with the luxury of servants, plentiful food, and new clothing. The household could scarcely be called extravagant, but neither was it impecunious. One of his chief delights had been taking Louisa shopping in Bishop's Waltham, and watching her face light up when she realized that for the first time in her life, she did not have to count every penny or make do with flawed goods for the sake of cost. That had been a good day. He recalled a certain length of crimson wool that she had fingered and regretfully put aside as being too dear. Yes, that would be his gift to her. He ate his breakfast quickly, called for Peter to hitch up the pony trap, and headed out to Bishop's Waltham, hoping that the shop would be open, and still had that bolt of fabric.
"Did you get it?" Horatio asked. He had been watching The doctor's face as he spoke, seeing in him the father he had known for the first ten years of his life. A gentle man, with a wry wit, who had delighted in surprising his mother with small gifts that made her laugh like a girl.
"The fabric? Well, yes. I did. But that is not the end of the story." He settled himself more comfortably in his chair. "You know, Horatio. There are moments in life that if you could go back and change them, would alter forever the course of your future."
"Yes," Horatio said softly, thinking of sailing ships into the fog, of taking passage on an American schooner, of stepping forward to protect a young woman from a madman's rage. He had no doubt that there would be other moments like that in his life that he would be powerless to change. But different choices were not always the best. If he had taken another tack off Cape St. Vincent, Archie would have died in Don Massaredo's prison. That he was here, sleeping peacefully in the Hornblower library, was evidence that fate played a different hand than reason. "What happened to change your future?" he asked, curious to know the reasons prompting his father's observation.
"My pony cast a shoe."
As he made the journey to Bishop's Waltham, Julius mulled over the first six weeks of his marriage. At first, Louisa had been timid, uncertain, as if she could not quite believe that he had actually chosen to marry her, to take her into his home, to care for her. But as the days passed, and she became accustomed to Margaret Dabney and began to find her place in the household, her natural spirit had begun to assert itself. He still worried over her tears in the night, but just in the last few days, she had begun to laugh again. The first time she had done so, it had startled him. He heard laughter in the kitchen, and found her playing a child's card game with Johnny Dabney. He peered inside, and was captivated by her mirth as she lost a game to the boy. She reached over and ruffled his hair, and Julius had felt a stab in his heart of something ... a desire he had never realized. He wanted a family. A family with Louisa; a child with her eyes, her hair, her curving mouth. She had seen him standing in the doorway, and had asked him to join the game, and so he had for a hand or two, until he was called away to his surgery. For those few minutes, he had been utterly happy. For a man who had been as solitary as he was, it was a revelation.
Preoccupied with his thoughts, he arrived in Bishop's Waltham before he knew it. He found the shop, and brought the bolt of wool, thinking how fine Louisa's dark hair and fair skin would look against the rich colour. Feeling extravagant, he added a creamy lace shawl to his purchases and left the shop, pleased with his selections and looking forward to Louisa's pleasure when she opened the packages.
He was nearly out of the town proper when he noticed something off in his pony's gait. He reined in, dismounted from the cart and found that the beast had cast a shoe. With a sigh of exasperation, he turned back to Waltham, hoping that the farrier would be open for business on Christmas Eve. He was in luck, but the livery was busy and he was short of help. It took nearly an hour to get the shoe replaced.
As he paid the farrier, the man looked up at the sky. "Careful there, guv. Looks like snow. Ave ye got far to travel this day?"
"No. Just to Waltham Chase." Julius frowned at the darkening clouds on the horizon. He was not used to the countryman's way of watching for weather. In London, snow was a nuisance, beaten down by constant traffic into muddy slush. A clean fall was an anomaly. He had never thought of it as a danger. He would get home in plenty of time, he was sure. As he left town, he felt the first chilly touch of snow on his face.
By the time he had journeyed half-way back to Waltham Chase, the snow was falling so thickly that it was like driving through a drift of feathers. It was dizzying, and more than once, Julius had to stop to wipe the melting snow from his eyes. There were several inches of snow on the road, and no tracks to follow; he could only pray that he was not driving off into some farmer's field where he would become hopelessly disoriented. He wondered if Louisa worried about him, as he worried about her. The thought that she might, warmed him and gave him the heart to press on.
He squinted into the swirling flakes. There was something ahead, a dim, dark shape. He could not see ... when he could see, it was nearly too late. The shape resolved itself into a human form, standing in the road and waving its arms. "Whoa, lad!" Julius tugged hard on the reins, and the pony skidded to a standstill, the wheels on the cart sliding perilously close to its heels.
"Sir! Sir! I need help! Please come!" There was a young man tugging at his arm. "Hurry!"
"You could have been killed, boy!" Julius jerked his arm away angrily. "Standing in the middle of the road in a blinding storm like this!"
"Sorry, sir. But I had to stop you -- I had to." The boy was panting in short gasps. "It's me dad, ye see. We was on our way back to the house when the wagon slid off the road and overturned. Me dad is caught beneath it, see? I don't know what to do!"
Julius instantly regretted his burst of temper. "All right, lad. I'm a doctor. Let's see what the trouble is." He climbed down from the seat "Where is he?"
"Just over here, sir." Julius blinked through the snow. It was hard to see ten feet, and the overturned wagon was no farther away from the side of the road than that. He let the boy lead him to his father. The man lay crumpled beneath the wagon, pinned by the front wheel. Julius knelt beside the man and searched for the pulse in his neck. It was steady and fairly strong. There was a knot on the man's head where it had struck the ground, but it did not seem to be a serious injury.
"Can you raise the wagon enough for me to pull your father from under it?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. I think so." The boy put his shoulder to the boards and managed to lift the wagon clear. Julius quickly moved the man's body, and examined his leg. Even without seeing the injury itself, he knew it was severe. Most likely a compound fracture of the tibia. The cold weather had actually been beneficial for it had slowed the blood flow from the wound.
"Is he alive?" the boy asked fearfully.
"Yes. He's alive. But we have to get him to shelter quickly. How far is it to your home?"
"Just down the road, sir. The cottage with the big oak tree at the front. Ye can't miss that tree, sir."
"Can we right the wagon?"
"We c'n try, sir. It ain't a heavy one, we use it fer light work."
It was an effort, but they managed after several tries to tip the wagon back on its wheels. They lifted the man into the bed, and Dr. Hornblower hitched his pony and trap to the back. The snow squall had slackened, and the outlines of the road were faint, but visible, and the way to the cottage, clear.
"What's your name, lad?" Dr. Hornblower asked.
"Penrith, sir. Tommy Penrith."
"Good work, Tommy. Let's get your dad home so I can take a good look at his leg, hmm?"
The cottage was an oasis of light and warmth in the gathering darkness. Mrs. Penrith stood in the doorway, waiting. When she saw them, she gave a cry of relief and hurried forward. "Tommy! Thank God -- where's your father?"
"He's hurt, mum. Bad. The wagon overturned."
Julius and Tommy carried Penrith inside on a blanket and laid him before the fire. Mrs. Penrith was biting her lips to hold back her tears, but she followed the doctor's instructions efficiently, and soon Penrith was stripped of his cold, wet clothing and Dr. Hornblower took a good look at his leg. It was as bad as he had feared, but not as terrible as it might have been. The break was clean, and no blood vessels had been severed by the bones. That the man remained unconscious worried Julius, but for the moment, it was a mercy, for he could set the break without pain. Even with Penrith in a faint, it was not an easy procedure, requiring both Tommy and his mother to help align the bone until Dr. Hornblower could splint it properly. When he had finished at last, and Penrith settled in bed with blankets and heated bricks tucked at his side, Julius was so weary that he could have dropped to the floor and not moved for a week. But he could not leave until Penrith regained his senses.
"Well, that's done," he said. "If I could trouble you for a basin of hot water, ma'am?"
Mrs. Penrith turned her worried gaze from her husband to Julius. "Oh, sir. How can we thank you? Surely it was a miracle that you happened by."
"Perhaps it was." He washed his hands in the water she set out for him, and sank down in a chair at his patient's beside. He felt his pulse once more. Stronger now, and steady. Mrs. Penrith set a mug of steaming tea on a small table at his side. Julius took it up gratefully, and drank it in silence. He lost track of time, and dozed for a while, warmed by the tea and by the fire, and exhausted from his efforts to save Penrith and set his leg.
When he roused, Tommy and his mother were standing at the bedside; concern and love plain on both of their faces. Mrs. Penrith gently smoothed the dark hair from her husband's forehead. "There, Jack. There, yer home and safe, now," she whispered and bent to kiss him.
As if in response to her touch, Penrith moaned softly, the first sign of returning consciousness, and a moment later opened his eyes. They went first to his wife's, and he smiled weakly. "Hullo, Peg. What happened?"
"Don't ye remember? The wagon overturned. If not fer Tommy and this brave gentleman, you'd be out there covered in snow, and likely dead." Tears overflowed her eyes and she wiped them away. "He's a doctor, Jack. You tell me that ain't a miracle!"
Penrith's eyes went to Julius'. "Aye, Peg. I reckon it is. Thank you, sir."
Julius rose. He looked down at Penrith's pale face. "Well, now that you've rejoined us, I will be on my way back home. If the pain becomes severe, you must send for me immediately. I will leave some medicine with your wife, that will help. And I will be by the day after tomorrow to take a look at that leg. Meanwhile, you must be as still as possible. I'm afraid it won't be much of a Christmas for you."
Peg Penrith looked him square in the eye. "It will be the best Christmas ever, sir. Fer what better present than to have my Jack alive?" She retrieved his coat from the hook by the fireplace where she had hung it to dry, and handed him his bag and his scarf. "Tommy, fetch the doctor's trap, now." She looked out the window. "It's stopped snowing, sir. But you be careful. Yer wife must be worried half to death fer you."
Was she? Julius wondered. He shrugged into his coat. "Goodbye, Mrs. Penrith. Happy Christmas."
"And to you, sir. The very happiest." Blushing, she gave him a quick hug. "May you have yer own miracle, sir."
Outside, the snow had stopped, and the skies were clearing quickly. A full moon skated in and out from the clouds, casting shimmering light on the fresh snow. Julius heard his pocket watch chime softly. It was nearly midnight. Lord, it had been hours since he left the house. But thankfully only a short journey home.
The lights of his house welcomed him. He pulled the pony trap into the stable, unhitched the horse, rubbed him down, and gave him oats, hay, and water. The sturdy animal had given him good service that day. "With any luck, little chap, tomorrow will be a day of rest for us both," he said, giving the pony a final pat on the flank.
He walked slowly up to the house. The curtains were drawn in the windows, and he supposed everyone had gone to bed. He let himself in as quietly as he could. The door to the library was ajar, and the faint glow from the fireplace beckoned. Madeira, he thought. I shall have a glass, and then I shall fall into bed and sleep for a hundred years.
He went to the cabinet and poured a glass of wine. When he turned to the settee, he froze in his tracks, stunned into immobility. Louisa lay there, asleep, a book open on the floor beside her. Her cheek rested softly on her hand, and her breath stirred a strand of her hair that had strayed from its knot and curled against her cheek. Her rosy lips were slightly parted, and she looked so lovely that his heart felt like it would crack in two from the force of his love. His love. Oh, God.
Unable to resist, he knelt beside her, and brought his lips to hers. Her gasp of surprise startled him, and he drew back quickly, feeling as if he had committed an unpardonable trespass.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you," he stammered.
"Oh, Julius!" She flung her arms around his neck. "Oh, my love, I was so worried!" She took his face in her hands. "I was so afraid ..." Her beautiful eyes searched his anxiously. "Are you all right? Where have you been?"
He was in a daze. "An accident ... a man broke his leg, and I had to help, you see."
"Yes, of course, you did." Her lips were only inches from his, and he could scarcely think.
"You were afraid?" he asked. Her fingers were twined in the curls at the nape of his neck, her slight body was warm and soft in his arms.
"Yes," she whispered. "I was afraid that I would never hold you like this. Never kiss you ... like this. Never say that I loved you." Her cheek was soft as silk against his, and she smelled like roses. "I do love you."
He was trembling. She drew back, troubled. "Julius?"
He took a deep breath. "Then it is a good thing that we are married."
"Oh!" She melted against him. There was nothing tentative in the kiss that he claimed, and there was no doubt as to the meaning of his words.
Later, much later, as he lay in bed with Louisa tucked against him, and feeling more complete than he had ever felt in his life, he remembered that he had left her gift in the pony trap. He sighed, and felt Louisa's small, warm hand stir on his chest.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I brought you a present, but you will have to wait until morning to open it."
Louisa raised her head to see him. "Oh, Julius. I wish I had known. I have nothing for you!"
Her distress was evident. Julius brushed her hair back, marveling at the silken length in his hands and kissed her silent. "Nay, love. I need nothing but what I have. You have given me the greatest gift of all."
Horatio's voice brought him back to the present. He had no idea that he had fallen silent, or that his face in the soft light of the fire was not so different than that of the man who had discovered love on that Christmas Eve many years past. He closed his eyes, wishing he could recapture that moment, but it was gone. Or was it? His gaze went to the portrait over the mantel, and then to Horatio, whose eyes and mouth and stubborn chin mirrored his mother's. The proof of her love was there. "Yes, Horatio?"
He started to speak, and then fell silent. Dr. Hornblower's narrative had been spare, restrained, but he had not been able to disguise his emotions entirely. Horatio thought of his father's revelations of earlier that day; his despair at his wife's death, the pall of grief that had led him into a melancholy so severe that he had sent his son away to spare him the agony of seeing it. And now, the story of that love. Horatio felt the ache in his own heart, understanding now, those lonely Christmas Eves. "Thank you for telling me, father."
Dr. Hornblower smiled at his son. "It was good to remember it." He rose, his knees aching fiercely. Lord, Margaret had been right, as she ever was. He looked down at Archie. "I think it is time for us to follow his example." He laid a hand on Archie's shoulder, just a gentle pressure to rouse him gradually. "Archie?"
Kennedy's eyes opened. "Dr. Hornblower?"
"It's after midnight, son. Happy Christmas."
Archie stretched and rose. "Happy Christmas, sir. And to you, Horatio."
But there was an absent tone to his voice which made Archie glance at Dr. Hornblower, as if he had said something untoward. The doctor shook his head to reassure Archie that it was not so. How could he explain his reticent, complicated son, when he was so like himself? He retrieved his cane from where it leaned against his chair, and limped over to Archie. "I fear the cold has caught these joints of mine unawares. Do you mind?"
"Not at all, sir."
Dr. Hornblower took Archie's elbow. "Horatio, are you coming?"
"Yes." But before he did, he paused to look at the portrait. And before he left the room, so did the doctor, as he did every night, to bid his love goodnight.
After they had seen Dr. Hornblower to his door, they went down the hall to their rooms. Horatio had remained silent, giving no hint as to his thoughts. When they reached his door he sighed. "Goodnight, Archie. I'll see you in the morning." He set his hand on the knob.
Archie gathered his courage. "Horatio, wait. There is something I've been meaning to ask you all evening -- who was that girl sitting across the aisle from us? The one with the red cloak?
Horatio looked relieved, as if he had been expecting an entirely different question. "Oh, that was Trudy Whitehall. The squire's daughter."
"She's very pretty," Archie said wistfully.
Horatio had never given it much thought. Trudy was his childhood friend, he still saw her as the girl he had known growing up. "Yes, I suppose she is. She has more courage than most men I know," he added. "But that's a story in itself. So, you noticed her, did you?" he asked, bemused by Archie's reaction.
"I noticed she could mimic you to perfection!" Archie retorted, but at the same time blushed helplessly. When Horatio's eloquent brow soared, he relented. "Yes, I noticed." He rocked nervously on his heels. "You aren't -- I mean, you don't ... have intentions towards her, do you?"
"Towards Trudy?" Horatio said, faintly appalled by the suggestion. "Lord, Archie. She's practically my sister!" And when he caught the gleam of satisfaction in his friend's eyes, he had to struggle to keep from grinning. "The field is clear as far as I'm concerned."
"Well, good. I--I mean ..." He looked away in confusion, and Horatio cast his eyes heavenward. "Go to bed, Archie." He opened his door. "And Happy Christmas to you." He vanished inside before Archie could respond.
Once inside, he realized that he had not carried a candle with him. It did not matter, the light from the moon filled the room cool, silver illumination. Horatio shrugged out of his jacket and weskit, and sat in the pale spill coming through the window. It had been a long day, yet he was not ready to sleep. He thought of his father, and of his mother. Of the Christmases past; joyous, sorrowful, and perilous. And of this Christmas with its promise of hope for them all. He reached for his coat and dug into the deepest pocket. He pulled out the ivory miniature of his mother and studied it for a long while. His father had said she would be proud of him; he hoped she was. It was the only gift he could give her. The reflection of the light on the snow seemed suddenly dazzling, and he shielded his eyes.
He heard the door open, the soft thump of his father's cane on the floor. He would not look up to show his father his tears, but he felt the doctor's hand rest lightly on his shoulder. "It is a beautiful night. A Christmas to remember," Dr. Hornblower whispered.
When Horatio did not respond, the doctor sighed. "Well, Good night," he said.
Horatio felt his father's hand drop from his shoulder as he moved away. He did not know why, but he did not want the night to end this way. He turned from the window. "What will you remember, father?" he asked, more to stay him, than for an answer.
At first Dr. Hornblower did not know how to reply to that question. Then he saw the miniature glinting in Horatio's hand. A smile touched the corner of his mouth as he found the words he sought. "Comfort and joy, son. Comfort and joy."
His eyes met Horatio's, seeming very bright and young in the silvery light. Horatio found himself smiling in return as the memories of the lonely years faded in the glow of the present. Comfort and joy ... he had lost them when his mother died, and had only found them again in his father's story. A gift freely given and without price. "Happy Christmas, father." It was all he could think to say. But for this night, it was enough.