A Different Title
by Dunnage41

William Bush stared at the letter in his hand. It made no sense. It was as though he had been reading a dispatch that had suddenly departed from the King’s English into Hindoo or some other gibberish.

 

Please come, and welcome. I only wish your business brought you here more frequently. Barbara joins me in pressing you to stay at least a fortnight. It has been too long since we were last in each other’s company.

That much, at least, made sense. Then came the garble:

 

However, I must warn you that you will find Smallbridge much altered. You may have read of the unfortunate deaths of Captain Arthur Freeman and his lady of fever some six months past. Freeman was my captain once, Barbara was adamant that we take in their four children. You know, of course, she did the same for me when Richard was new born and I was thought to have fallen.

 

Even Horatio, straightforward as he was, could not write of himself that he was thought to have been dead. Horatio had written. Then:


I feared the toll on her, but she would brook no argument. You can imagine the futility of arguing with a Wellesley. As well to singlehanded engage three corvettes with a single pistol. So here we are, just with Richard about to go to Eton, and four additional children under the once quiet roof. Edward is seven years, Horatio had written, and Andrew seven months. They are the bookends. Inbetween are Margaret, who has four years of age, and Frances, who claims two years and a half. They are as yet a trifle subdued as one might expect after such a blow but I fear for the china once they make themselves at home.
We will, nevertheless, entertain you at least half so handsomely as you deserve. We impatiently await your arrival. Be on your guard for Barbara inclines toward match-making of late! As ever, H.

 

And as ever, Horatio had signed with the single initial, his escape when he could not sign "Hornblower," for if ever a man so heartily disliked his own name it was Rear Admiral Sir Horatio, Lord Hornblower of Smallbridge. Bush wondered in passing whether the weight of so many attached honorifics lessened the dislike, then smiled to himself as he realized that his friend bore the honors as stoically as ever he bore anything. Then he rose and searched for his coat. Before he finished packing, it seemed he would have to make for town and try to find some trifles that would amuse children.
Bush was a lifelong bachelor who had once told his own captain at the altar that "there’s never a good time to get married."

As little comfort as he had in the company of all women save his sisters, he had less comfort in the company of children. He never knew what to expect and in consequence was forever on guard, a position it is hard to maintain for long. The Freeman children, however, won his crusty heart instantly by being winsome and shy, clustering protectively round Horatio and Barbara and peeping at him with wild childish eyes. Only Richard, who knew him better and who had not recently seen a father die, ventured near enough to stand at his elbow.
"Come, William," Horatio said at last, rising with a child – Frances? – balanced deftly on his hip. "The day bids fair and the garden awaits."
William Bush would not have been more surprised at what followed had Boney himself strolled up the hedgerow. Having shed his coat, Rear Admiral Sir Horatio, etc., was on hands and knees, laughing – laughing! – and Margaret and Frances clambering onto his back. "Come aboard, my pets," he cried, and now the older boy ... Edward? ... was gazing steadily at Bush until it finally dawned on him that he, too, was being silently requested and required to act the horse. He dared to glance at Horatio and note the unaccountable gleam in his eyes before doffing his coat and getting onto all fours. He stifled a sigh.
"Come aboard, Master Edward," he managed to say half-cheerily, and the boy solemnly clambered aboard, possessed of seemingly more than the ordinary number of knees and elbows.
"A race, then?" Horatio asked rather breathlessly, for the girls were already tugging at his shoulders. "To the end of the hedgerow and back?"
There was nothing for it and Bush bowed his head in assent.
"One .. two ... THREE," and they were off. Horatio bore the burden of two jockeys, hampered by their skirts, no less, but he was younger, and so were his knees, Bush thought, as he crawled awkwardly along. Yet soon his competitive nature flared at being presented with the rear view of his admiral and he attempted to increase his stride. Both men made the turn as awkwardly as could be expected, but while Bush was enduring, Horatio was as Bush had never seen him. His expression had softened like melted candle wax, his brown eyes nearly liquid, and at the same time, alight with pure unadulterated delight. A grin split his face nearly in two and Bush had seldom seen his admiral and naval mate so pleased. Come to think of it, he had never seen Horatio in the presence of children, save Richard, and he’d seen Richard only thrice in ten years. And suddenly Horatio was dropping flat onto his belly ...
"Come on, ladies, time to dismount," he said, breathing heavily. "Give the poor horse a rest."
Dutifully, the girls slid off and trotted away after a large sheepdog that had appeared around the corner, followed, mercifully, by young Edward. Bush flopped onto his own belly and rolled, groaning, onto his back. Horatio imitated him and for a long moment they lay silently contemplating the sky and recovering their respiration.
"Ah," Horatio managed at last. "Ah. Been years since I’ve been pressed into such service. And my knees were rather younger then."
"You’re forty-six," Bush pointed out helpfully. This occasioned a choking sound from his stablemate.
"While you, Mr. Bush, are ... are ..."
"Older," Bush said succinctly.
Horatio offered a short laugh. "Well. I did warn you that things would be rather different. You’ll never come to Smallbridge again, will you?" His voice was casual, but he looked over at Bush. The look on his face told Bush, poignantly, that Horatio thought himself a failure at fatherhood as he thought himself a failure in most things, disregarding his consistently remarkable abilities and actions and distorting the trivial. Horatio, Bush realized, sought as only the very proud can seek an affirmation of his worth as a father.
Bush cleared his throat, imitating unconsciously the "Ha–h’m" that Barbara had teased Horatio out of using years before. "To see you as a father is remarkable," he said simply. "You take to it as naturally as anything."
"Naturally, William?" Horatio said quietly.
"Yes, naturally," Bush pressed on. "With an instinct that, I think, not many men possess." His lips quirked. "Perhaps it comes of dealing with incompetent midshipmen."
"We were all midshipmen once."
"Whereas you," Bush said, still half jesting, "were never a child." His voice faltered as he sensed Horatio grow still as the grave beside him. He looked over. "My God," he murmured. "You were just Edward’s age when ... when ..."
"When my mother died of a fever," Horatio said tonelessly. "And my father sent me to school." He swallowed. "Yes. And chance forbade me spend much time with ... with Horatio and Maria." His voice thickened slightly. "What ... instinct ... I may possess is ... um ..." he paused, groping for the word. "A ... happy accident."
Bush knew he should abandon the conversation, but he pressed on. "You seem to succeed at whatever you turn your hand to, sir."
Silence from the horse on his right. Then, "A merciful providence, sir." Bush heard Horatio rose, heard his left knee crack – that must have been painful – then a hand was extended. "Your hand, sir. Time for a drink before dinner, I trust." A smile flitted across Horatio’s face. "I’ve been warned that at least two maiden ladies have been invited to the table."
Bush allowed himself to be pulled upward, suppressing a groan as his back seized momentarily. It dawned on him that horsemanship was nothing compared with women. He rather suspected that he might shortly be drinking too much.