Distant Memory
by Dunnage41



Horatio Hornblower absently let the cool water of the shower rain over him as if it could wash away the past weeks. He might have stood there, lost in thought, until the reservoir of water emptied had it not been for the familiar shuffle of feet.

“Well?”

“My lord, his lordship the Earl of Antrim to see you,” Brown said.

“Very well,” Hornblower said, conscious of the edge to his voice. “My compliments to his lordship and I will attend him directly.” He hastily reached for the soap and flannel.

“Yes, my lord.”

Hornblower bathed and dried himself hurriedly, and here was Brown, helping him into his clothes. Hornblower nerved himself to ask the question he faced every morning.

“How is her ladyship this morning?”

“The same, my lord.” The same, and the same dreary answer. Hornblower swallowed the sigh he would have given vent to if alone, and manufactured a pleased expression as he descended Smallbridge’s front staircase.

“Archie.” Now the smile was real; Hornblower could not help it. He was glad to see his friend.

“H’ratio.” As they sat, Kennedy’s blue eyes gave Hornblower a searching look. “How is Lady Barbara?”

Here was the sigh that Hornblower had earlier repressed. “The same.”

“She remembers nothing?”

“She knows who she is, and that she is at home – whatever ‘home’ is. She knows me as the captain of the English frigate that bore her back to England. She does not, however, know me as her husband. She has no knowledge of Jamaica, Sweden, Riga, none of that. A blank slate.”

“However did it happen? Your letter was too brief.”

Hornblower closed his eyes. He would give anything to have prevented it.

“We were riding. It was early morning. Barbara’s horse … shied, I think it saw a snake. Barbara is a very skilled rider, but the horse reared so unexpectedly that she was thrown clear. When she fell, her head struck an exposed root, a large one. When she came to … she asked me who I was. It took her several days to place me as the captain of the Lydia.”

Hornblower stopped there. It was too painful to recall, even to Kennedy, the polite indifference she afforded him and his damnable pride and reticence that kept him from taking marital liberties that a mere acquaintance would not. He dared not take her hand, caress her cheek, take her in his arms. He had unthinkingly tried it once, when she was first out of bed after the fall, and her eyes had widened.

“You are a married man, Captain,” she had said coolly, and stepped back a pace. Hornblower’s cheeks had flamed. He had mumbled an apology and fled to his study, pacing in torment as he recalled her own words to him in his cabin on board the Lydia, when she had yielded to his heedless kiss – or had he yielded to hers?

“We are lovers – the world is ours,” she had said. But it had not been.

“H’ratio?”

Hornblower blinked. “Ha – h’m,” he said. “Sorry, Archie.” He glanced out the window, then met Archie’s gaze. “As I say … she recalls who she is perfectly well, but it’s as though the recent past has never happened, and she cannot seem to form any new memories. Nothing, since the fall. I tried to tell her that we were husband and wife.” He looked away.

“And…”

“And she only said that she had no husband.” Hornblower thought he could not bear the sympathy in Kennedy’s eyes. He cleared his throat again. Then his expression changed and he shot to his feet. Kennedy rose as well as Barbara glided into the room.

“Good morning, Lady Barbara,” Hornblower said formally. He bowed.

Barbara smiled. “Good morning, Captain Hornblower. I trust you are enjoying your visit?”

“Very much so, Lady Barbara,” Hornblower said with a calm he did not feel. “May I introduce his lordship Archie Kennedy, the Earl of Antrim.”

“But of course his lordship and I are old friends,” Barbara said, with a definite twinkle in her eye, one that Hornblower had not seen of late. “We knew each other in the nursery. Castlereagh and Lord Kennedy are quite fond of hunting together.”

Hornblower noticed, out of the tail of his eye, Kennedy’s expression falter for a moment, then regain its equilibrium. “It is indeed a pleasure to encounter your ladyship again,” he said smoothly. “You are keeping well, I hope.”

“Very well indeed, Lord Antrim,” Barbara returned. Her expression was more animated than it had been since her fall. Her eyes danced; a faint blush colored her creamy cheeks as she allowed Kennedy to kiss her hand; that bit of foolery had always charmed Barbara, Hornblower knew.

Barbara drifted out of the room; Hornblower made himself wait until he was sure that she was no longer within hearing before he rounded on Kennedy.

“What the devil was that about?” he snapped, a confusing muddle of emotions making his voice sharp.

Kennedy’s expression was somber, his eyes soft with sympathy. “I’m sorry, H’ratio,” he said. “My family is acquainted with the Wellesleys, but I never knew Lady Barbara until she became your wife.”

The hope that had been faintly pulsing in Hornblower’s breast stilled and died. “Then why…”

“I don’t know, H’ratio,” Kennedy said quietly. Neither man spoke of the liveliness that Barbara had exhibited when meeting Kennedy, a vivacity she had not shown Hornblower for some weeks.

Kennedy had hoped and expected to offer his friend encouragement, but the unfamiliar awkwardness of the encounter, and Barbara’s unexpected responses, had made them both feel clumsy. At length, Kennedy patted Hornblower on the shoulder. “It will come right, H’ratio,” he said unconvincingly.

“Well,” Hornblower said helplessly. He shook his head, briskly, as if shaking off the momentary unpleasantness. “You see how it is, Archie.” He grimaced and spread his hands. He drew a deep breath. He had often felt surrounded, outgunned, utterly defeated. He had played out a losing hand to the bitter end many times before. In a vivid, painful, flash he recalled the ignominious kidnap by pirates in Jamaica; of having to pledge his word of honor on a known lie to Count Cambronne; to being trapped in a hurricane in the belief that he and his wife had only a few hours of life remaining. Time and time again he had been completely cornered – and somehow come out right. There seemed to be no making this come out right, by his own wit and experience or even by a flash of pure luck.

He had been looking forward to Kennedy’s visit and to the chance to unburden himself of some of his frustration and helplessness. Now that Kennedy was here, though, his reticence checked him. It was unexpected, to be sure; he could not recall ever feeling ill at ease around Kennedy until now. He nodded absently as Kennedy excused himself from the room, and sank into a worn wing chair and brooded. He simply could not prod his weary brain into producing a useful train of action. There was nothing – nothing – he could do or say to change the circumstances. He rose and began to pace, then stopped in his tracks.

Barbara was strolling through the garden, and there, escorting her, was Kennedy. They appeared deep in conversation. Barbara threw back her head and laughed. Though Hornblower could not hear her, he recognized the familiar pose, the enticing exposure of her slim cool throat, the delicate fingers pressing to her chest. He swallowed. Barbara had not laughed in weeks.

Good God! Barbara had previously, and very properly, taken Kennedy’s arm during their walk; now, as they resumed strolling, Kennedy slipped his arm round her slender waist. Instead of stiffening and drawing back, offended by the unwarranted intimacy, Barbara leaned into him. They looked for all the world like wife and husband. Hornblower felt a hot galling fury boiling up within him. He strode furiously toward the door, then checked himself, hand on the handle. Storming out in angry haste would injure all of them and solve nothing. He must think. He forced himself to withdraw his hand and move in a daze toward a chair.

He sank wearily into it and ran a hand through his hair. He was trembling with the unwelcome surge of excitement that had shot through him. He had been given a glimpse of the wife he knew and loved, the old Barbara back again – in another man’s arms. He knew these emotions, these old and well-worn wounds. He had felt this storm of feelings before: on the Lydia, when he had been yoked to Maria; when he had learned of Barbara’s marriage to Leighton; the wounds he had thought had been drained of their poison when he had heard her say that she had never loved anyone else. Now the venom was back with a surprising and vicious power. Barbara, her mischievous intimate ways, her dancing eyes, the gentle pressure of her lovely fingers, all there – in another man’s arms.

He drew a deep, ragged breath and resigned himself to wait.

After what seemed an age, Kennedy re-entered the room alone.

“Where’s Barbara?” Hornblower snapped.

Kennedy’s blue eyes widened at the warning shot. “I believe she has gone to her chambers.”

“What the devil do you mean by taking such liberties with my wife?” Hornblower had propelled himself from his chair and towered over Kennedy, who shrank back, utterly bewildered at the broadside.

“Liberties, sir? I have taken none,” Kennedy said carefully.

“I suppose my sight must be failing me, sir,” Hornblower barked. “I must have imagined that I saw you put your arm round her waist and saw her rest her head on your shoulder.” He turned away, his face dark with anger.

Kennedy swallowed. The silence that hung between them was palpable. At length, Kennedy spoke, his voice low and hesitant.

“I … I was play-acting, H’ratio. You know my antics by now, surely. She thinks she has known me all her life and … and I mean no more to her than a brother does. Nothing is intended, nothing! Believe me, H’ratio.” Archie’s voice broke. “I would sooner be a prisoner of Spain than lay a finger on your wife with ill design.”

Hornblower sank back into his chair, his thoughts a muddle. Anger still clutched at his heart, but it was joined, confusingly, with a deep unidentifiable hurt and a bewildering stupidity. Always before when he had needed it, his mind had worked rapidly and well to find a solution. Lie to Cambronne, even at the cost of his honor. Tie Barbara to the mast, cut away the shrouds, subsist on coconuts. Hope died quietly within his breast, leaving only a deep, searing streak of grief. Kennedy had meant well, but with him Barbara was her beloved self. With her own husband she was a polite stranger.
Should he allow Kennedy to continue in Barbara’s company? Should he yield to his friend the joyful intimacy that gladdened his days and made meaningful his years?

Kennedy broke into his thoughts. “As I said, H’ratio: Your wife is not mine and never will be. If she thinks she knows me, perhaps that can be of some help to her – and to you. But if such activity wounds you, I will depart at once.” Kennedy stood.

“Wait,” Hornblower said, disgusted at the weakness in his voice. “Wait, Archie.”

Kennedy sat, his expression furrowed with concern.

“Perhaps – ha-h’m – perhaps … it will … help her come to herself.” The words were drawn from him slowly. Hornblower tipped his head back, furious at the way his eyes were stinging.

Kennedy stood, went over to Hornblower, and took his hand. He tugged Hornblower to his feet. Feeling like a foolish child after a tantrum, Hornblower fell into Kennedy’s embrace and did not even mind the tears that soaked hotly into the shoulder of Kennedy’s coat.

Without a word, Kennedy stepped back, went to the side-table, and poured Hornblower a large measure of brandy.

“Take this,” he said firmly. Obediently Hornblower gulped it down, so highly strung at the moment that he scarcely noticed its bite. Then, knees trembling, he sank back into his chair.

“God, Archie,” he said hoarsely.

“We’ve met,” Kennedy replied quickly.

After a startled moment, Hornblower giggled. The giggle became a full laugh. He surrendered to it gladly, feeling its healing course through him, brisk as carbolic acid, cleansing weeks of emotional filth.

At length his near-hysteria subsided. He managed to look Kennedy in the eye with no more than a twitch of lips. “I didn’t know you were acquainted with the Almighty, Archie.”

“Only slightly,” Kennedy said cheerily. “He shows up at Christmas each year.”

Hornblower cleared his throat. “Thank you, Archie. I think I needed your unorthodox brand of medicine.”

“That,” Kennedy said firmly, “is why I’ve come. Now let’s agree that I’ve no designs on your wife, save for helping her recollect herself, and let’s see if she remembers how to play whist with a dummy.”
Kennedy stayed at Smallbridge for a month. His presence was doing Hornblower some real good, but Lady Barbara’s condition seemed as hopeless as ever.

The rain that lashed at the windows and bent the trees mirrored Hornblower’s gloom. Three months, a full season, had gone by with Barbara as distant to him as ever. Though she flirted harmlessly with Kennedy, she did indeed seem to regard him as a brother and never expressed herself further.

It was by chance that Hornblower and Barbara encountered each other in an upstairs hallway. “Good afternoon, Captain Hornblower.”

“Lady Barbara.” Hornblower nodded.

She gazed at him a long moment, her head tilted to the side. “Who are you?”

Hornblower’s heart raced. Who was he? Who was he to her? Numbly, unable to quell the hope that surged foolishly in his breast, he murmured, “I am your husband.”

Her eyes widened. “My husband is not so tall, sir.”

Pain pierced Hornblower’s chest. He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. “I- I- I … am … your second husband,” he managed. God, how it hurt!

“My second husband?”

“Yes.”

The pause seemed endless. Hornblower could almost see Barbara’s brain working.

“Horatio,” she said wonderingly.

“Yes. Hor-Hor-Horatio,” he stammered.

She glanced round. “This is your home.”

“Our home.”

“Smallbridge?” she said hesitatingly.

“Yes.”

She shook her head briskly. “Horatio. Darling. You’ve returned.”

Hornblower felt as though he were stepping onto quicksand. Any moment the ground might open beneath him. “Yes,” he said, bubbling with gladness. “I’ve returned.”
Her blue-gray eyes met his brown ones, then. Her soft lips curved into the gentle smile he knew so well. Her slender fingers reached out. Tenderly she straightened his neckcloth.

*Special thanks to Sherry Watson, M.D., for medical advice.