Debt of Honor
The familiar horny hand that lay in Horatio Hornblower’s was enfeebled with illness, its grip weak. William Bush had been tracked to a French prison, and Hornblower, in his role as governor of Le Havre, had managed at last to secure his release, but Bush had been gravely wounded at Caudebec and would not recover. His blue eyes were dulled and his lids fluttered. Every breath was so labored that it caused Hornblower pain to hear it.
"Sir," Bush managed to croak. "Sir." Even in his last moments he would not forget the unbending stratification of rank.
Hornblower swallowed hard, fighting the lump in his throat. "William," he said softly. He stroked his friend’s hand.
Bush furrowed his brow, thinking hard. "I have ... never ... had much savings," he said hoarsely. "My ... sisters ..." He shook his head, the mussed dark hair rustling against the pillows.
Hornblower caught his breath and looked away so as to master the stinging in his eyes. It was a long moment before he was able to meet Bush’s gaze.
"William," he said, and coughed. "William." He looked steadily at Bush. "You are the best sailor I have ever known. The finest captain I have ever sailed with ... and ... ha– h’m ... my dearest friend." He gripped Bush’s hand tighter. "Your sisters will never want. Never. You have my word of honor."
"No ... sir ..." Bush protested, his eyes narrowing in pain. He gasped. "No."
"Mr. Bush," Hornblower snapped, hoping that his familiar quarterdeck rasp would appease his friend. "You will obey orders. Put your mind at rest about your sisters. They will never want."
"Aye aye, sir," Bush croaked. His gaze slid away, then met Hornblower’s. For a moment, Bush’s eyes opened wide, the blue eyes meeting the brown ones. "Horatio," he murmured. "My friend. Home port at last." The eyes closed, the weak grip slackened, and the hand that Hornblower held grew cold.
Angrily blinking away tears, Hornblower stood. With infinite tenderness he pressed the eyelids. He arranged the limbs, lingering for a moment at the sight of those capable hands forever stilled. Never again would those hands hold rope, tiller, or even a mug of ale. Hornblower coughed, the tightness in his throat becoming unbearable. It felt as though someone had stabbed him in the heart. He turned away and walked briskly from the room, leaving the door ajar.
It was some four or five weeks later that the letter in the unfamiliar hand arrived at the Bush sisters’ Chichester cottage. Rose opened it.
"Dear Miss Bush:
"By now you have no doubt heard of the heroic end of your brother’s life. William Bush died for King and Country, and he died as he lived – bravely, wisely, and with honor.
"Captain Bush was not only the finest sailor I have ever had the privilege of calling a brother-officer, he was also my dear friend. You have my deepest condolences at your loss.
"I write not only to inform you of Captain Bush’s honor, of which there could never be any doubt, but because he entrusted to me the savings he had accumulated so that the welfare of you and your sisters would be assured.
"At his instruction, I am authorized each sixmonth to send you a note for funds sufficient for your needs. I can tell you with confidence that the amount he entrusted to my care is enough so that you must never hesitate to write and inform me if it does not satisfy. His only concern was that you pass your days in comfort and peace.
"I enclose herewith the first installment.
"I remain, Madam, your most obedient servant,
"Horatio, Lord Hornblower."
Rose Bush looked at the bank draft enclosed with the paper and paled. How in the world could William have saved so much money? Moreover, the letter promised an equal amount twice each year for however many years Providence granted them. Her eyes filled with tears. She swallowed them back and turned to gather her sisters. Even in death, William remained the sweetest, most caring brother imaginable. They would be able to live comfortably and with ease for the rest of their days.
At Smallbridge, Hornblower and Barbara sat together in the drawing-room. Horatio handed over the letter of thanks he had received from the Misses Bush. Barbara read over it, and smiled gently. Her blue eyes met Hornblower’s brown ones.
"How ever did Mr. Bush manage to put away such savings?" she asked. Her gaze danced in the flickering firelight. Hornblower’s eyes met hers, then looked away.
"Ha – h’m," was all he said.