The Deeper Scars
by Dunnage41

The guns were firing quickly and steadily; much too quickly, in fact. There should be at least a momentary pause between one discharge and the next, but this was an unrelenting thundering, and it seemed only to get louder, as if the guns were becoming frantic in the heat of battle. Someone was calling for him, the caller's voice loud and desperate.
//
"My lord! My lord! Please, my lord!"
//
Horatio Hornblower came back to consciousness with great reluctance. The guns resolved themselves into a pounding on the bedroom door, and the voice was unmistakably Brown's. Still stupid with sleep, he called out thickly, "Well?"
//
Brown opened the door before the word was out of his mouth. His hair was wild and he was hastily dressed but unshaven, holding a candle.
//
"Fire in the village, my lord! A big one, they can't keep it contained, it's getting worse."
//
At the word "Fire," Hornblower had leapt from the bed and shot into the dressing room beyond. With his eyes still bleary with drowsiness he grabbed stockings and trousers and dressed with his usual rapidity. Now Brown was beside him and helping him into a waistcoat and jacket. Hornblower grabbed the first hat that came to hand and shoved his feet into his boots. He did not know the time, only that it was dark, except now through the drawn-back window curtains he could see the awful glow of the fire in the village.
//
"Two o'clock, my lord," Brown interposed tactfully. Barbara had sat up, her hair tumbled.
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"What is it?" she mumbled. She was always slow to wake.
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"A matter in the village, my dear," Hornblower said calmly. "A fire. I am going to help. If you think you can, you might prepare to receive the wounded. Brown, have Marie prepare good hot food and plenty of coffee."
//
He spared Barbara a hasty kiss before tumbling down the stairs after Brown.
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"The others in the house are assembled, my lord," Brown said unnecessarily. Hornblower spared them hardly a glance.
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"Come on, men," he said briskly, wide awake now, and shoving a pistol into his waistband out of habit.
//
When they reached the scene, Hornblower saw at a glance that they all were needed. More, leadership was sorely lacking, as men and boys were still milling about and only beginning to form a bucket line. He raised his voice to his foretopmast bellow.
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"You men! Form a line with your buckets! Boys! Fetch blankets and wet them. Then start smothering blazes on the ground."
//
The half-asleep villagers responded smartly to an appearance of authority in the voice and person of the squire. Within a few minutes, lads were dragging sopping blankets along the icy ground, enthusiastically patting out sparks and auxiliary blazes, while the older boys and men had made a line from the pump to the main source of the fire, someone's barn. Several brave and sturdy women were blindfolding animals and leading them away. Hornblower shook his head. This was no work for women; on the other hand, not a male in the village could be spared. He took his place at the head of the brigade and began aiming the pitifully small buckets of water that were thumped into his hands.
//
After half an hour, he had shed his coat and hat and was pouring sweat like all the others. From time to time drops fell from his hair into his eyes and he shook them impatiently out. Despite the bitter chill of the deep of the night in March, the men and boys were dizzy with exertion and some of the feebler ones had fallen out, sitting down hard on the icy ground, heedless of anything but their own exhaustion. The animals safe, the women began leading the worn-out and injured toward the manor house, where the doors stood open to receive them.
//
Hornblower had no sense at all of the time, but it must have been a full three-quarters of an hour before he heard the rhythmic ring of horses' hooves. Thank God! The fire wagon was arriving. The dozen men ran out their hoses – and a great collective groan was heard as the water froze in the canvas and the hoses shattered at the folds. Shrugging philosophically, the firemen doffed their coats and began a second bucket line parallel to the first.
//
The fire seemed a living thing, impossible to kill or even to shrink. The surface of the earth, slick with frost, was clearly demarked from the pale gray sky by the first feeble lights of dawn before the great angry flames were reduced to sullen, sodden black heaps. Hornblower staggered backward against a tree and tipped his head back, feeling the painful pull of his lungs for the first time as he gasped for parched breath. Now the others were staggering wearily toward the manor house. He fell in behind the baker, utterly heedless of where his coat and hat had gone or that his body and clothing were drenched in perspiration and pump water.
//
Once inside, revitalized with a hastily drunk cup of coffee, he became the host in a queer and ghastly gathering. Ignoring Brown's pleas to shift his clothes or sit down, he moved from group to group, person to person, urging them to eat and drink, asking after their well-being, the safety of their homes, offering blankets and clothing as he could. When they finally began to straggle back to their homes, belatedly aware of their own animals' pressing needs, Hornblower finally fell into a chair, having no choice as his legs rebelled and refused any longer to hold him up.
//
Instantly Brown was at his side with a warm towel. "My lord, please. You've been wet for hours and it's so very cold out, my lord. You must shift your clothing, you'll take ill."
//
"Nonsense," Hornblower rasped irritably, but his response was undercut by a deep and rattling cough that issued up and overtook any further objections. Displaying the wide latitude of a spoiled servant, Brown wordlessly stood back, inviting Hornblower to stand, which he did, if weakly. Barbara put an arm about him, and so did Brown, and overcome with exhaustion Hornblower finally allowed himself to be helped upstairs. Suddenly he was in a perfect panic to get warm, feeling the queer combination of chill and exertion for the first time in hours. Brown and Barbara undressed him, towelled him down, and helped him into a nightshirt.
//
"You must rest, dearest, you're exhausted." Barbara's gentle hands pushed him into bed and he fell back against the pillows. He meant to protest, but before he could open his mouth, darkness rushed at him and he fell spiraling downward into sleep.
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As he drew the covers over his master, Brown murmured, "I fear he'll take a chill, your ladyship."
//
Barbara sighed and laid a hand on Hornblower's damp curls. "I fear it as well. We can only wait and see."
//
Hornblower slept well into the forenoon, awakening reluctantly, still feeling wrapped in unconsciousness even as his eyes blinked open. As he climbed out of bed, he was unpleasantly aware of the queasiness of his stomach and the swimming of his head. It made no sense at all. Last night had been passed quietly at home, with a pleasant dinner and not more than two glasses of claret and one of port. Why then should he feel so unseated? He had utterly forgotten about the fire that had roused him, the hours of exertion, despite the acrid smell of smoke that clung to his hair and skin.
//
At that unwelcome moment, while he shivered in the breeze from the cracked-open casement which whipped his nightshirt round his legs, he heard the familiar light knock from Barbara’s dressing-room door.
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“Come,” he said, the word coming out unaccountably hoarse and too low to be heard. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Come.”
//
Barbara, dressed for the day in a belted dress of that exact shade of blue that so flattered her eyes and a pale satin pelisse, entered. Then her face registered concern and she crossed swiftly to him and laid her gentle hand along his broad forehead.
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“Horatio.” Even in her shock and dismay she did not allow her voice to rise unduly. “Horatio, you’re very warm, dearest.”
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“Warm? Nonsense,” Hornblower said a trifle thickly. “It’s uncommonly cool in here.”
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Now her tone brooked no reproach. “You must return to bed, dearest. I shall summon the doctor.” Brown was by her side now and, with only a glance, echoed Barbara’s sentiments.
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“You must get to bed at once, my lord. You’re unwell, my lord.”
//
Hornblower snorted in annoyance. It was bullying, clear and simple, and he would not stand for it. He opened his mouth to reply and saw the rug under his feet rise of its own accord from the floor, rushing up to meet his face.
//
When next he awoke, he saw only dimly, hazily. Everything in the bedroom seemed wrapped in a fuzzy glow, as though he were drunk, and something cool lay on his brow. The restless movement drew Barbara’s attention from the volume of poetry over which she bent, and she leaned forward in the chair she had had drawn up to the bedside.
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“The doctor has been, dearest,” she said, speaking very gently. “He says you’ve taken a fever from the chill.”
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“You must not take it,” Hornblower mumbled.
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“No, darling, I shan’t.”
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“Leave me,” Hornblower mumbled. “You must not take it.”
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“Shhh.”
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It was infuriating to be treated like a child, but Hornblower found he lacked the energy to protest. His head was whirling again, and spots of light danced before his eyes. Restlessly he turned his head from side to side; then a cool hand was laid on his chest, and he slept.
//
The fever held for three days before it receded. When he awoke clearheaded at last, it was to find Barbara still at his bedside. Hornblower’s first cogent thought was to hope that she had not kept a ceaseless vigil there; he would not want anyone to tend to him so diligently. It went against his grain. Nevertheless, his pride forbade him to ask about it.
//
“Thirsty, dear?” Barbara was again instantly attentive.
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“Yes,” he croaked.
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She helped him to sit up and drink from a tumbler by the bedside, then laid him back down and rested her hand on his chest, feeling his temperature.
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“Better,” she announced, then twitched a corner of his nightshirt back. “Horatio….”
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He met her gaze.
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“You have never yet told me about this scar on your left shoulder.”
//
He felt his expression harden and saw, in response, the hurt in her eyes. It flickered for only a moment and was instantly controlled, but it stirred a wave of guilt in him nevertheless. Not for anything would he wound her.
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“It was a long time ago. A very long time ago.” He hoped his voice made clear that the matter should remain closed.
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“Was it in battle?” Damnation, she was not letting the matter drop.
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“No,” he said between clenched teeth. “It was not.”
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“Please tell me, dearest,” she said softly. “I find it unwise to keep secrets. More,” she added dexterously, “I love you so very much that I feel as if I must know everything about you.”
//
He swallowed hard and turned his face, still fever-flushed, to hers. Deftly she raised his head and turned his pillow, so that it was now blessedly cool.
//
“Very well.” He could scarcely refuse so prettily worded a plea. He sighed and began.
//
“I was recently transferred to Indefatigable when we were sent to take a French vessel, the Papillon,” he said, beginning with the facts, by far the easiest part. “I was sent up the yardarm to cut some of the ropes so that her sails would not function. When I … was atop, I was shot just above my left eye.” He traced the barely recognizable scar above his eyebrow.
//
That much was fact. Some of the rest had to be told … but how much? He hardly feared to shock her, for in tending the wounded aboard the Lydia she had shown herself to be imperturbable … and damned useful … but some matters were simply not for ladies’ ears. He swallowed again, and the pain of swallowing made his ears ring. Then Barbara was lifting his head and giving him a little more water.
//
He made an instantaneous and unconscious decision.
//
“The man who shot me was another midshipman … Jack Simpson.” Extraordinary how just saying the name made his stomach churn in protest and he unthinkingly grimaced. He drew a deep breath. “Simpson and I had been midshipmen in Indefatigable. He was … somewhat older than I … he had failed his lieutenant’s examination several times.” That was being charitable. He had no wish, however, to reveal how close he had come to failing his own examination.
//
Now came the part he must gloss over. No. He made another instant decision. Though it reflected poorly on his character, he must tell the whole truth; Barbara deserved it.
//
“Dear,” he croaked. “A little more water?”
//
Instantly the gentle hands were lifting his head and carefully giving him water. Delightful. He was sorely tempted to feign sleep, but Barbara was persistent and the matter had to come out eventually.
//
“Simpson and I, whilst still in Justinian, were deputed to assist with press-gang absconders along the waterfront,” he said dully. “To pass the time, we played at cards with another midshipman and a lieutenant from Goliath. Well. You’ve seen me at whist. The way the cards fall is a simple matter of mathematics and usually easy enough to predict.”
//
Barbara smiled. So far this scarcely seemed to be a tale of horror.
//
“Simpson allowed as how he might take another trick, but given what I held in my hand I knew it to be impossible,” Hornblower said, trying to keep the emotion from his voice. He swallowed. “Simpson’s … mind did not incline the same way and he accused me of cheating.”
//
“What happened after that?”
//
“He … refused to apologize.” Hornblower’s mind played vividly back to him the despairing and arrogant 18-year-old he had been, searching for a way to die, unable to bear Simpson’s petty thuggery any longer, miserable, dizzy with blind alleys, wanting only to make it all stop.
//
“I … should have … made light of the matter and let it pass,” he said quietly. With the admission, he felt not lighter but more weighed down. An enormous black creature seemed to be crouching on his chest and it was hard to draw breath.
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“Water,” he gasped, and Barbara had the cup to his lips in an instant.
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“Dearest,” she said contritely. “This is too much for you. You must not tell me any more.”
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“I think I must,” Hornblower said thickly, “if you can bear it.”
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“Please go on,” Barbara said gently.
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“Simpson refused to apologize. I … challenged him to a duel.” He heard Barbara’s gasp. That quickly, her iron self-control had returned, and she covered her vexation by lifting the cloth from his brow, wetting it in the basin, wringing it out and placing it back on his forehead. Then she sat back.
//
“Shipmates tried to dissuade me,” he continued, now unable to stop the flood of confession. “But I felt honor bound to continue.” He swallowed hard and took a deep breath which ended in coughing. Barbara helped him sit up, and when the coughing abated she handed him the cup and let him take a deep draught for himself. He handed the cup back without meeting her gaze and continued.
//
“Another midshipman, Mr. Clayton, had volunteered to act as my second.” Dear God. He was suddenly at the precipice of guilt with no notion of how he had got there. He would have to tell Barbara the worst. She would think him a coward, and she should, and the love they shared would be over. There would be no public scandal -- she was too self contained for that -- but she would never again be more than coldly correct to him even in private. He was about to say words that would cost him everything he held dear, but there was no choice other than to say them.
//
He plunged, his head spinning with the recklessness of it. “Clayton had always been very kind to me. He was older than I and looked after me. On the day of the duel, he … asked me to hand him his cloak. When my back was turned … he … struck me with a belaying-pin and knocked me out. Then … he went to the duel … in my place.” He felt tears sting his eyes and covered his embarrassment with a contrived coughing-fit, which quickly turned real. Now Barbara reached for a cup holding hot grog, which he took gratefully. The liquid shot down his throat, stinging his chest and firing him with false courage.
//
“By the time I roused, the … duel … was over,” Hornblower said dully. “They were being tended at the local inn. Simpson took a bullet to the shoulder. He was well enough. Clayton … well … Simpson was one of the best shots in the Navy.”
//
“Was Clayton killed?”
//
“I was just in time to hear him say that he … could not run from Simpson … forever,” Hornblower said thickly. “Then he died. Oh God,” and now all hope of control was gone and he was sobbing like a child who has had a nightmare. In his profound embarrassment he heard Barbara, not understanding any words but hearing the soothing rise and fall of her soft voice, feeling her arms holding him, and his pride vanquished, he leaned on her shoulder and sobbed, unreservedly, crying at last, across all the years, for poor Clayton, mourning his first friend.
//
After a seeming eternity, Barbara mopped his face and handed him a cup of water, which he drained gratefully. Then he lay back, unable to meet her gaze, and spoke to the bed-canopy overhead..
//
“Well. Clayton … died … and out in the street Kennedy came to me and told me that Louis was dead. ‘The Frogs have murdered their king,’ he said. ‘This means war.’ And so it did, that was the start of it.. Kennedy and I were among those transferred to the Indefatigable and Captain Pellew.” He gulped. The next memory was less painful but still deeply unpleasant.
//
“His first words to me were, ‘You should know, Mr. Hornblower, that I do not think much of men who allow others to fight their battles for them.’ He forbade me to issue any further challenge whilst under mhis command.”
//
“But that was not the end of it.”
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“No.” Hornblower choked on a sound that might have been a sob or a laugh. “The Justinian was sunk by the Papillon and Simpson was among the survivors we picked up. He … volunteered to join the party taking the Papillon. And when I was on the yard, he shot me. I fell, of course, and Seaman Finch rescued me. When afterward I reported to my lieutenant that it had been Simpson who shot me, he denied it. He called me a coward in front of Captain Pellew. Of course I could not respond because of Pellew’s order.”
//
Hornblower took a gulp of water. “Pellew said, ‘I should be very wary, Mr. Simpson, of calling a man only lately distinguished in battle a coward.’ Then he removed the order he had placed on me. Again I challenged Simpson to a duel.”
//
“With more cause, I think, dearest.”
//
Hornblower’s heart leapt. That modest defense was giving him unaccountable courage. He took a deep breath and continued. The rest would be easy.
//
“We were counted off,” Hornblower said. “But Simpson fired early. On ‘Two.’ He swore it was a misfire. I was told to return fire at will, but Simpson … Simpson fell to his knees and pleaded for his miserable life,” he said bitterly. “I was out of my head with pain, but I couldn’t just shoot the man. I … fired into the air. ‘You’re not worth the powder.’”
//
He heard Barbara’s quick intake of breath. In the etiquette of dueling, to deliberately miss, and further to state that one had deliberately missed, was a grave insult indeed and against all the rules.. Hornblower might as well have slapped Simpson across the face.
//
“My back was turned,” Hornblower continued remorselessly. “Simpson was enraged by my words and grabbed someone’s knife. He came at my back. Then there was a shot from some distance away. It struck Simpson straight in the heart. He fell back and died.”
//
“Who on earth fired the shot?”
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This, too, was hard. “Pellew. He later said he dispensed justice as he saw fit.”
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“The … scar?”
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“Simpson’s bullet. Pellew later told me, ‘You have fought your duel. That is well. Never fight another. That is better.’ And I never have.”
//
Barbara leaned in and kissed him. “You are the bravest man I know.”
//
Hornblower choked back a sob. “Hardly that.”
//
“The fire…”
//
Hornblower stiffened, his eyes widening. The fire! There had been a terrible fire.. “The village,” he stuttered. “The villagers…”
//
“All is well,” Barbara interposed. “Only the barn was lost, and no lives, thanks to your command.”
//
“The barn … whose?”
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“Farmer Dabney.”
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“We must pay to have it rebuilt.”
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“As you wish, dearest. The village will think it a most handsome gesture.”
//
Nearly dancing with embarrassment, Hornblower found himself a week later being publicly praised in church for his generosity and forced to make a speech in which he dwelt on the bravery of the villagers. Barbara never again asked about his scars, but sometimes when they were in bed her hand found his way to his left shoulder and she would tenderly caress the raised flesh, soothing the wounds that lay buried deeply beneath.