A Double Duty
Horatio Hornblower stifled a smile at the reaction of the butler. He had let his mouth hang open for a full five seconds at the sight of the squire of Smallbridge standing on the doorstep with an admiral, no less, in tow. Finally he had recovered himself and mumbled that he would inform Lady Hornblower. Then he shut the door in their faces.
Horatio, by now biting his lip to keep from laughing out loud, opened it and led his friend and former captain, Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, K.B., Lord Exmouth, into the drawing room. "I’ve never seen Jenkins so unnerved," he admitted, pouring Pellew a glass of port. "He’s used to my comings and goings."
Pellew was about to reply when a soft sound alerted them to Barbara’s presence. Pellew saw her first and his eyebrows rose. Horatio, who had his back to the door, saw Pellew’s response and turned.
His own eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline, which, damn it, was receding. His mouth fell open and he felt the color drain from his face. Barbara stood in the doorway, one hand on the wood, in a condition so advanced that few ladies would receive guests in such a state; moreover, it was a condition in which both Horatio and Barbara had long ago acknowledged would not could not occur. He felt his mouth open and shut of its own accord several times while no sounds of any import issued forth. He blinked rapidly but could not move, his feet frozen in place, his jaw working like a puppet’s. Finally Pellew gave him a gentle shove forward and he unstuck himself.
"Barbara," he stammered. He advanced toward her but was strangely reluctant to embrace her. He was accustomed to her tall lithe figure, not this ... this .... grotesquerie who appeared to have a full sail concealed below her gown, which billowed and draped over her hugely protruding belly.
Behind them Pellew cleared his throat. "If you will allow it," he murmured, "I might avail myself of a walk in the garden." He withdrew, and once the door had closed behind him and he was strolling along the path edged with fragrant lavender bushes, he allowed himself to smile. Dear God, he would not have surrendered for a thousand guineas the expression on Hornblower’s face. So seldom was the man taken unawares like that, the wide eyes and gaping mouth were priceless. For one moment he had looked for all the world like a cat encountering a snake.
In the drawing room, Horatio laid his hands, large and capable, on Barbara’s shoulders for simple want of anywhere else to place them.
"But but this is impossible," he spluttered. Barbara was smiling no, grinning at him, her hands at his waist.
"Apparently not, my dear," she replied coolly. Damn her! She had the advantage and Horatio knew it.
"But but " Horatio gave up that line of questioning as a bad deal. Clearly something both he and Barbara had thought not possible had been wrought. His mind flew back to the last time they were together and his rapid mind calculated.
"You are well into your confinement," he blurted out, a blush covering his cheeks.
Barbara nodded. "Just so," she said, again coolly. "It will not be a fortnight now."
"Are are are you well?" Horatio managed, his mind whirling.
"Excellently well," she said, though now he noticed that she was pale and that shadows smudged her beautiful blue eyes.
"Why did you not write?" he demanded, wishing to shift blame for his being caught by surprise. "Your last letters have said nothing of this news."
Now she was all but laughing at him, the blue eyes dancing. "Because, my very dearest," she said (misusing the superlative again, Horatio thought irrelevantly), "I was quite as taken aback by the news as you are." Her eyes were somber now. "I feared that my ... condition ... might change, and that any news that reached you would no longer be in force by the time you read of it."
Now Horatio was gazing at her, dark eyes solemn, and the grip on her shoulders involuntarily tightened. He drew a deep breath, which hitched, and then said nothing. Instead he silently, awkwardly gathered her in, noting that despite the girth of her pregnancy his hands still touched at the small of her back, and pressed her to him, feeling her face on his chest, then realizing that her features must be pressed into the embroidery of his coat. He released her and stood back, brushing a hand gently over her cheek.
"But you cannot allow Lord Exmouth to languish in the garden," she was saying, straightening his neckcloth out of habit. "Now that he has already seen me I think he will not be unhinged should we dine together."
Horatio swallowed. "As you will, my dear," he said unthinkingly and turned to retrieve his guest.
Pellew was in an uncommonly good mood all through dinner and ate with appetite; Barbara toyed with her food; and Horatio, distracted beyond all reason, ate little but unwittingly drained several glasses of wine. His head was already whirling with disjointed trains of thought. He thought of Richard asleep upstairs, and then relentlessly his mind led him to little Horatio, ill with smallpox, fretful in his arms, and little Maria, stiff and white, wrapped for burial. He was always stunned at gaining Richard’s favor by the mere fact of his being, and now here came another child who would doubtless offer the same response, and this was their child, his and Barbara’s together, and his heart was thudding so loudly he was sure others could hear it. No doubt that was why Barbara was saying his name, discreetly calling his attention to the fact.
"Horatio. Horatio. Horatio."
"Hornblower!" Pellew snapped, and Horatio shook his head and blinked, looking with some surprise at Pellew. "Good God, man, Lady Barbara’s been trying for your attention."
Horatio turned his face to Barbara and felt the color drain from his cheeks. Barbara, who had stood coolly beside him lashed to the mast of the Lydia, was looking distinctly unnerved. Nothing, nothing had ever shaken her reserve before now, not hurricanes, not death, not the London season, she was unshakable, steady as they came, and now she was faintly green and looking most discommoded.
"Horatio," she repeated, faintly, "send for the midwife."
The last word finally pierced Horatio’s distraction and recalled him to his duty. He stood and rang insistently and bellowed at the serving maid to "pass the word for the midwife." He all but ran into Pellew reaching his wife’s side. She stood, now more gray than green, a pool of liquid at her feet as though she had overturned the water pitcher, and as he reached her she grabbed for his hand and all but squeezed the life out of it, making not a sound but swallowing hard and stiffening her spine with the pain.
"What can I do, my dear?" Horatio’s voice was tenderer than most men ever heard it.
"Help me ... upstairs." Gently Horatio escorted his wife up the stairs, where Hebe took over and helped her into bed. "Go, my dearest," Barbara said
with all the firmness she could muster. "You must leave me."
Horatio was torn between his own squeamishness and his reluctance to abandon Barbara, but the midwife, irrespective of rank or title, had arrived and was now unceremoniously pushing him out. Husbands were husbands and had no business being in the room.
"Out with you," she ordered. "Your man’ll call you when it’s time."
After that there was nothing to do but pace. Pellew, sitting comfortably in a wing chair by the fire, watched with tolerant amusement as Horatio strode the small room as if it were the quarterdeck, hands clasped and twisting restlessly behind his back. He occasionally stopped and looked up toward the stairs, but he had been ordered out, and he knew his duty. The winter afternoon passed into full darkness, with no visible moon and with snow spitting at the panes, and finally Horatio, in one of his brief pauses, felt his legs tremble with weariness and realized that he had been pacing for an hour ... three hours ... four. He sank into the chair opposite his guest and rested his head in a hand.
"If Barbara..." he could not complete the sentence. As soon as he sat came unbidden the gloomy paragraph he had been shown. "We regret to announce the death in childbed, on the seventh of this month, of Mrs. Maria Hornblower." "We regret to announce ... we regret to announce..." Unbidden his mind leapt to the worst. If Barbara died! There would be more than a brief paragraph in the morning Chronicle for his second wife. There would be fine and dignified notices in the Times and the Naval Gazette. Wife of Hornblower, widow of Leighton, sister of Wellesley and Wellington. "We regret to announce ... we regret to announce..." He swore he could hear the rattle of muffled drums. His marriage to Maria had been his duty, if marked by occasional surges of tenderness borne by the knowledge that he held her happiness in his very smile, his touch, his look. But Barbara was a different matter altogether. He loved her fiercely, the one person he had let wholly into
his heart, and now his heart was vulnerable and, as with most vulnerable things, had been got at most thoroughly.
A moan slid from his lips and he realized guiltily that he dared to feel hunger and thirst. He had scarcely eaten a mouthful since ... since ... breakfast seemed in another lifetime and his head was pounding.
"Come on, man," Pellew said impatiently. "At least have a drink."
Horatio shook his head.
"Well, look." Something very like wheedling had entered Pellew’s tone. "Your man’s left a collation."
Horatio stared blankly at the plate hovering before him, automatically taking it and just as mindlessly eating the cold ham, fresh grapes where had they got grapes this time of year? and cheese. Then he did drink, draining the port in one swallow and obediently drinking some more when the glass was refilled.
"There," Pellew said briskly, noting with satisfaction that some color was returning to the man’s face.
"There should be word," Horatio said grimly.
"These things take time."
"How much time? There should be word," Horatio repeated stubbornly.
Pellew checked himself; he had been on the verge of saying, "It’s hardly like firing a gun," when he realized the remark would have been importune in the extreme.
Horatio was nerving his tired legs to resume pacing when Jenkins burst into the room without knocking. Horatio rose and rounded on him, ready to growl, but Jenkins gasped out, "It’s done, sir."
Horatio blinked, letting the brief sentence filter through his mind. Jenkins had sounded exuberant, not downcast. "Done? Is Lady Barbara ... well?" He was holding his breath, though he did not realize it. A single word, a simple "Yes" or "No" would alter the balance of his world. He felt with a pang that he had no wish to continue living without Barbara, that death would come as a formless relief, that no one, not even Marie, had such a claim upon him, body and soul, and that her could not resume breathing until he heard.
"She’s very well, sir. She’s asking for you, sir," Jenkins spilled out. Horatio’s head was spinning with the wine and the closeness of the room and his own eternal weariness. There was another question he should ask. What was it? By God, the child.
"Well?" he demanded of Jenkins and was heartlessly gratified at seeing Jenkins turn pale and swallow hard.
"A boy, sir. A fine big boy, sir. And her ladyship’s asking for you, sir," Jenkins repeated daringly. Now he looked like a cat with a mouthful of canary. "And sir, there’s more, sir."
One dark eyebrow rose.
"And a girl, too, sir."
"What?" Jenkins was talking nonsense. "Which is it? A boy or a girl?"
Jenkins, entirely disregarding his employment, was now openly grinning. "Both, sir. Twins, sir."
Twins! The room spun and Horatio staggered, catching hold of the back of the chair. Pellew was openly grinning as well. The unflappable Horatio Hornblower was thoroughly discombobulated and Pellew would never forget the look on his face not once but twice this evening. Hornblower, who boarded ships as though boarding a carriage, who scrambled up cliffs and escaped from French prisons and saw men blown to jelly at his feet, was wide-eyed as a child seeing a Father Christmas, as open-mouthed as an imbecile, was incapable of speech and deprived of his feet. This was a sight.
"Her ladyship’s asking for you, sir," Jenkins said stubbornly. Of course! Barbara. She wanted to see him! Horatio nearly knocked Jenkins over and took the stairs two at a time, rushing heedlessly into the room without knocking. There she was. The melancholy "We regret to announce" drummed through his mind, but sheer glee knocked it out, possibly forever. There was Barbara, pale and perspiring but smiling proudly, as well she should be, having been delivered of two babies in one night, and there was the midwife holding a bundle and there was the nurse Barbara had undoubtedly engaged holding another bundle; there was no mistaking it, there were two babies at once in that room.
Horatio felt his knees go weak and hastily sat on the side of the bed and took Barbara’s hand. "You have exceeded your assignment, my dear," he said thickly, stupid with weariness and yet borne on something lighter than air.. "Two babies! Trust a Wellesley to go beyond the necessity," he said, nearly choking with glad laughter. He leaned in and pressed his lips to hers, heedless of the servants, and sat back up and stroked her hand.
"Do you care to see our children, my dear?" she whispered, and Horatio’s heart soared again. "Our children"! Her happiness was complete and so now was his. He obediently stood and the midwife thrust one into his hands.
"The boy, sir," she said, respectful now in hopes of a well paid fee. Horatio gazed at the tiny bundle, eyes squeezed shut and one infinitely small hand clutching the blanket. Then the baby was removed and the nurse laid a similar bundle into his hands.
"This must be the girl," he said, feeling foolish.
"Since I took the liberty of naming Richard you must give us their names, dearest," Barbara said, yawning. Of course! As exhausted as he was she must be ten times as tired.
"Take them downstairs to show the admiral," he ordered the hovering women, "and let Lady Barbara sleep." The women made for the door and he pulled the blanket over Barbara as her eyelids fluttered. In a flash of inspiration, he knew what to name the babies.
Downstairs, Pellew inspected the infants the women held, seeing little remarkable in them surely all babies looked alike but was finding far more interest in inspecting the face and bearing of Hornblower, who now was nearly giddy with exhaustion but beside himself with pleasure as well. His face, though lined with tiredness, shone with a pure joy that Pellew had seldom seen in his officer former officer, he corrected himself and he was nearly dancing with some sort of withheld knowledge: aha.
"What are their names?" he growled.
Hornblower instinctively straightened at the tone of voice. "Respectfully, sir," he said, "if you will do us the honor of serving as his their godfather, we should be pleased to name the boy Edward?"
"And the girl?"
Of this there was no question. He had whispered the name in Barbara’s ear and seen her drowsy smile. This was easy, this was love triumphant.