If Only in My Dreams
by Skihee

********

I'll be home for Christmas.
You can count on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe.
Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams....

Portsmouth, December 24, 1802

The winter winds blowing off the Solent brought an avalanche of fresh snow. Snow. Seldom did the white stuff come here. Though the channel waters were icy cold, they were still warm enough to forestall snow, but not this Christmas Eve. Old man winter was having a heyday. A wind blowing south and east down from the Arctic north had found its way here and now blew and buffeted and blanketed the cobbled streets with fresh powder upon ice.

A strange two hump camel-like figure, mounded with white flaked woolens, bent into the wind and stepped gingerly over the slick surfaces to press against the heavy oaken doors. The massive hinges creaked and squeaked protesting the cold temperatures and forced movement. The oddity entered and slammed the doors with a bang, then, separated into three separate beings, the middle collapsing to the floor.

"What's happened?" asked Jenkins, coming to greet the new comers and recognizing one. "Captain Blaine!"

The two standing men removed ice caked clothing. The one called Blaine knelt down beside the prone man.

The one still standing asked, "Is he alive?"

"Tripped over him in the lane, Jenkins. Covered with snow, he was. Do you know him?"

Jenkins peered at the man as Blaine brushed melting ice from his face and hair. The other man pulled heavy mittens from his own hands then took those of the unconscious man and began to rub them.

"Captain Blaine! Colonel Darren, is it not?"

"Indeed, M. le Marquis. Do you know this man?"

"Mr. Hornblower!" exclaimed the Marquis. "Oui! Yes! He is a player of whist here! What has befallen? Bring him by the fire!"

The troop managed to carry and lay him on a lounge near the blazing hearth.

"Monsieur Hornblower! Dear oh dear! Jenkins get a brandy and some blankets."

"Is there a pulse, Colonel?" asked Blaine.

"It seems erratic, faint. Not good. I wonder how long he was out there?"

"The amount of snow covering him would suggest a while. Is there a doctor?"

Hornblower moaned. "Doctor...Doctor... Hornblower."

"Is he himself a doctor, Marquis?" The indoors and fire proximity melted the remaining snow on Hornblower's curls. Blaine brushed the wet hair from the leftenant's forehead.

"No, no. He is a lieutenant in your navy, but on half pay. He plays whist here, but he left early due to lack of patrons on this Christmas Eve. The weather! I was waiting to see if the snow let up before attempting to go home myself. I did not know if Jenkins and I might have to spend the night."

"We might all be here for the duration. It's coming down thick as milk!" stated Darren.

"Should we get a doctor?"

"Here, Jenkins has brought the brandy. Try to get him to drink some."

"Let's get him out of these wet clothes. You're not expecting anyone else tonight, Marquis?"

"On Christmas Eve? No. Most are home with families or in church, though on a night like tonight, no one may be afoot. I am surprised to see you two gentlemen."

"Indeed. Last minute family concerns brought me out in this blizzard. Now it seems we will be spending the Lord's night with you...and our friend here."

"Aye. I was making my way home from a trip to London and my horse went lame. Thank God, I ran into Blaine here, or I'd have never known where I was. I might have ended up like this one."

"I pray he will be all right. Dear Mr. Hornblower! He is such a good whist player. I would hate to lose him."

Hornblower moaned again.

"Let us wrap him up warm."

"His pulse is weak, Captain."

"I do not know what else we can do, Colonel. We dare not venture into that white out."

"Pray God will have mercy on him."

The snow continued to fall heavily. The wind moaned loudly outside, low and then louder to a high pitch. Not a soul was to be seen on the blanketed streets. Indeed, not a creature was stirring,....... not even a mouse.

The night was crisp and cold. Panting, with a quick crunch through thick snow, his breath huffed and puffed white in the freezing air, billowing out the neck of his greatcoat. The warmth of golden light fell upon the new fallen snow giving a welcoming gleam to his approach. Off the path, near the hedges next to the house, he peered into the dining room from whence the glow emitted. Greenery abounded upon the sideboard. Extra candles lit up the room and highlighted various stations for edible offerings.

He grinned with remembrance. *Father must be in grand mood! I have not seen such a display since....before Mother passed. A good many years. A good many years, indeed.* His mother. A sad smile softened the exuberant joy. Pulling his hands out of his pockets, he blew warm air onto them, then rapped with the knocker. The cold seemed to disappear next to the door, and the night was silent.

The door opened wide. He was immediately bathed in the glow of light. Mistletoe hung from the lamp in the long hall. He grinned, recalling his mother succumbing to the kisses of his father beneath it. His da made a point of hanging it earlier and earlier each year.

"Master Horatio! Mr. Hornblower, sir! Ye've come home! Come in! Come in! I cannot believe ye are here! Your father shall be so pleased, sir!"

He was surprised to see the old servant of his boyhood. There was something he should recall about the man. Nevertheless, it was a happy night and the man welcomed him.

"Holloman, it is good to see you. It has been too long, too long, indeed!" He grinned as he removed his coat. The new uniform seemed to sparkle. It surprised him, at first, but he was home. He must have forgotten purchasing it. No time to consider. Where was everyone?

"It seems only yesterday you were caught stealing apples from Brown's orchard!"

"I was seven years old, Holloman! Many, many yesterdays ago!" He felt a shiver, but ignored the passing feeling.

"Go on in, sir! They are in the library preparing to toast the glad celebration! It will be an even gladder holiday with you home, sir! We certainly did not expect to see you! What a surprise!"

Hornblower could not contain the joy and beamed widely. Stepping to the door, he opened it slowly.

There stood his father by the mantle, it, too, was covered with evergreens. The forest smell delighted and the candles gave that same warm welcome. As he did every Christmas Eve, Dr. Hornblower held a glass in toast to the picture of his wife, the love of his life. Hearing the door open, the old gentleman turned.

"Horatio! Horatio, my boy! What on earth...?" He stepped more quickly than he had in years, with hand outstretched. "Do these old eyes deceive me? And, look at you, a commander!"

Horatio beamed, but hesitated, just half a second, at the comment. He was dressed in the uniform of a commander. No time to consider. He was here to keep his promise, a promise to be home for Christmas. This was his father. It had been such a long time since he had seen him! The older man was spry, not so careful in his steps as last he had seen him, several years ago. " I told you I'd be home for Christmas! Father, I am more than pleased to see you looking so well!"

"And I you. Well, this tops the holiday to perfection! I thought no more could possibly make it happier. Old friends, Louisa!" He glanced back at the painting. "A happy Christmas, indeed. No man deserves such joy."

Dr. Hornblower smiled over Horatio's shoulder and he turned to see.

Archie. Archie? Impossible! Was it not? Horatio became puzzled, but it was Christmas. Do not worry about things best forgotten, said a whisper in his hearing. He is here and so are you.

"Haven't you got a kind word for me? Or has Bandit got your tongue?"

"Archie?"

"It is as I said, Horatio. A wondrous Christmas! Archie Kennedy and you together again. It does my heart good to see it. Almost as good as my own dear reunion."

The two young men grasped hands.

"You look no worse for wear than when last I saw you. A new uniform! Still setting the standard for us, are you Horatio? But what the devil are you doing here? You are early, by all accounts."

"I came as quick as I could. I promised father I would be home for Christmas."

Archie cocked his head and studied his friend. "Your father is pleased. But..."

"Where is Pamela?"

"Pamela?"

"Yes, and the baby. I have longed to see my daughter."

"You mean son." stated Archie.

"No! We thought he, er she, would be a boy, but he's a girl. I mean, she was a girl. She would be nearly two now."

"Pamela and the baby are not here, Horatio. Why ...? I must say, I am quite confused as to why YOU are here. But it is deucedly good to see you." Archie grinned with pleasure.

"I told you, Archie. I am keeping a promise to my father."

"But, Horatio..."

Another officer, a midshipman, entered the library, passing through the shadows of entry before the candle light revealed the speaker.

"What is this? Hornblower?"

The voice was one from the past, long ago past, nearly ten years. This cannot be true. Perhaps someone that resembles only. The man came closer. Could this be a twin?

"Clayton? It cannot be! How is this possible?" Horatio was surprised and overjoyed. A warmth flowed upon his soul. "I cannot believe it!"

The two grinned and pumped hands. Horatio glanced his father's way and grinned with pleasure.

"What ARE you doing here, Horatio?" asked Clayton.

"That is what *I* would like to know, old man," added Archie.

"I told you. I've come home for Christmas."

"But not 'this' Christmas, old man."

"I want to see Pamela, too. Is she here?" Some part of him understood the situation and some part of him did not. He felt a shiver and wondered why, when the room was aglow with firelight.

"Are you all right, Horatio?" asked Kennedy.

The room became dark and foreign. His companions seemed to blink in and out like visions on a black night in a lightening storm

"A little cold," he shivered. He turned from Archie and spoke to emptiness. "No!"

"What did you say, Horatio?"

"Hm? Nothing. Nothing." The warmth of the room returned. His father still smiled warmly. At last, he had kept a promise, when so many others failed. "Where is Pamela?" He wanted to see her, in case,.....in case...... He felt another shiver.

"Horatio...?" Archie grasped his forearm.

A woman entered the library, deep brown hair with a strand of gray here and one there, the bell skirt rustled in deep green satin folds as she drew near. Her dark eyes shone with recognition.

"Horatio! I was waiting for you outside the Long Rooms, dear. What on earth are you doing here?" They embraced and she looked up into his young, handsome face with concern.

"The Long Rooms, Mother?" a shadow crossed his features, and then the cold and a shudder. "I want to see Pamela and our child. Where is she?"

"She is home, dear."

He turned this way and that searching the room.

"This IS home, Mother, our ... ultimate home." What did he know that his own mind kept from him? "It has been lonely without her. I ... have been lonely without her. I want to see my child. Where is she?"

"He....Horatio, a son. He's bright as quicksilver and looks just like you."

"He's a .... I mean, she's a girl! They told me ...a girl, Mother."

Louisa watched the eyes of her son, so desiring to see his wife and child. She glanced over at her husband and knew nothing could be revealed.

"Pamela has talked to me many times, but she is not here....nor....the child."

"But, I thought...?" Horatio's countenance was frantic as he searched each well known face.

A little man entered, carrying a tray of cups.

"Where'd ye want this, Mrs. Ornblower?" The beady eyes looked out of the scant hair head. "Mr. Ornblower? Mr. Ornblower, sir! I ne'er expected to see ye here so soon, sir!"

Archie grinned at the little man and took the tray. The fellow extended his hand and grinned, revealing a missing tooth.

"Finch!" Concern was forgotten as he took the man's hand in friendship. "I've mastered that fisherman's bend!"

"I never doubted ye would, sir!"

"Three men who saved my life....I...." he blurted without thought. Horatio looked from face to face,...Finch, Archie, Clayton. "Lives laid down...." he shivered though the room seemed warm enough. "You ... you each..." He felt his teeth chatter and looked to his father, calmly watching.

"Indeed, Horatio, and it is time to ask...Why are you here?" stated Archie.

Each person in the room stared back as he encountered the wondering looks. He rested his gaze into the eyes of his father.

"I am keeping a promise."

His father approached. "It is not your fault we could not be together for Christmas, son."

"I'm here, father."

"Still gambling?"

"No, I cashed in my cards."

"But, they are not yours to cash. You have a destiny."

"But father....you sound like Pamela. Destiny. I want to be with the ones I love.....that love me."

His father inhaled deeply. "Horatio, my son." He shook his head. "It is not time."

"Cold. I am so cold." He shuddered. "It is warm here....in more ways than one. The love of family..." he gazed at his mother, "... and friends." The two officers smiled warmly and the rating nodded. "Do not send me away."

"There will be others that love you."

"But I..... I love you," he stated looking from his mother, to hold his father's gaze.

"Of course you do, darling," said his mother. "The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return."

"It is your destiny, Horatio," said his father. "You will be an admiral one day."

"But....I want ....I want you. I want Pamela. Why is she not here? I'm cold and I want to see my wife! Do not send me away!"

"It is not time, Horatio," added his mother. She took his hand.

"Then, my daughter..."

"You do not have a daughter....yet.....but you will." His mother held both his hands. "Do you remember that awful time on Indefatigable, when you were so sick, and then, when you were lost and missing your little family?"

"I did not see you last year, Mother."

"I was there, but you were sleeping. Mad Captain Sawyer kept you on watch on watch. I did not have the heart to wake you, and you slept too soundly to remember me in your dreams."

"Dreams? Is this a dream?" he asked sadly. Once more, he studied each countenance. Finch, rescuing him from the depths and never quite recovering his health from the cold night and cold water. Clayton, facing the evil that taunted them all, taking the pistol ball that should have been his. Archie, rising too soon, and taking the blame.

"Poor Horatio. So quick to give, so slow to accept the simplest gift." Archie repeated, accenting the words that still echoed in his memory.

He stepped before his father. "I did not get to say goodbye to my mother, nor to Finch, nor....I did not get to say goodbye, sir. I did not get to say..."

"But I've known it all along, son."

He gazed deeply into the eyes of his father. As he told Pamela so long ago, they had an understanding. It was undeniable and his father DID know. It was a comfort. Horatio returned to his mother. "I hoped to see her."

Breathing deeply, his mother replied, "You will see her, Horatio. You WILL see your wife."

*Will see?* What did she mean? He did not understand and looked from face to face. "I ...I'm all alone."

"A solitary boy," echoed the doctor.

Horatio shuddered. "I....I'm cold."

"It is time for you to go."

"I want to stay. Please....let me stay. I said I'll be home for Christmas. Don't make me break another promise. You can count on me. Expect me. Father, could you not wait for Christmas? Why did you leave before I...." His body began to shake in earnest. Holding his arms close, he closed his eyes and trembled.

>From behind the darkness of his eyelids, he heard the voice of his father. "You kept your promise, son."

Then, his mother. "There will be others that love you, Horatio."

"Yes, old man, there is more in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy." Archie's chuckles faded in his hearing as others joined him good-naturedly.

"He's coming around, Captain Blaine," said the colonel.

"He has lasted till morning. I think he might have an even chance."

"Lord be praised! I have worried all night, fearing the worst!" said a woman still wrapped in a snow covered cloak.

"He's been quite restless and talking in his sleep. Jenkins, does his father live near here?"

"His father died about a month ago," revealed the woman. "I know he was planning to visit him for Christmas. I think it was a great blow... to lose him so suddenly."

"Mr. Hornblower. Can you hear me?" asked Blaine.

He sucked in a breath, opened his eyes, and they rested upon her. "Maria?"

A tired breath exited his body and he stared at the features of a man he did not know. Letting his head loll to the side, he spoke, to no one, to himself, to those whose promise he tried to keep. "I'll be home for Christmas... I'll ....be home." A single tear coursed down his temple. "If only in my dreams."

***

Christmas Eve will find you, where the love light gleams.
I'll be home for Christmas, if.....only.....in .....my .......dreams.

 

The end.