Footprints in the Snow
by Pam

Author's note: this is a sequel of sorts to "Simple Gifts"

 

The boar's head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary;
And I pray you, my masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio;
Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes Domino.

--"The Boar's Head Carol"

*****************************************

"Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious supper by this side of
pork . . . "

"Archie, if you continue in this fashion, I shall drop ice down your collar!"

Kennedy chuckled, tucking the large ham he was carrying more securely under
his arm. "My apologies, Horatio--there were 'but wild and whirling words' to
accompany all this wild and whirling snow!"

"I could do without either, personally," Hornblower grumbled, adjusting the
heavy sack slung over his shoulder and squinting against the aforementioned
snow. Windblown flakes caught in his lashes, stung his exposed face, lodged
in the weave of his new scarf. All in all, a confounded nuisance. "Where
did Dr. Sebastian say the almshouse was?'

"About two or three streets over. He said we wouldn't be able to miss it. Of
course," Archie squinted in his turn against a flurry of snow, "that was
before this wind sprang up!"

Horatio opened his mouth to apostrophize the wind as well but a
blood-curdling yell a short distance away drove the complaint from his mind.
He glanced quickly at Archie and, as of one accord, they ran towards the
sound.

At the end of the next street, they glimpsed the cause--four rough-looking
men assaulting a tall, thin stranger, who was doing his level best to keep
them at bay with something that resembled a quarterstaff. Nonetheless, the
odds were hardly in his favor. After a split second's assessment of the
situation, Kennedy hurtled into the fray, shouting a furious sizzle of Gaelic
learned from his father's ghillie. Hornblower followed, more cautiously but
with equal determination.

The man he tackled was several inches shorter than he but burly and thickset.
He had also, by the smell of him, been imbibing a considerable quantity of
gin--not enough, unfortunately, to incapacitate him but enough to have made
him reckless and belligerent. Horatio turned his head aside just at the right
moment to avoid a fist in the eye, but caught the blow on his cheekbone
instead and saw stars never sighted by any sextant. He was vaguely aware of
the stranger, wielding his quarterstaff with renewed vigor against two of the
thieves, and glimpsed Archie clouting his own opponent in the jaw with the
ham. Momentarily inspired, Horatio swung the heavy sack of potatoes and
onions at his foe, knocking him to the ground. With a bellow of rage, the
man lurched half-upright and charged at a crouch, catching Horatio about the
knees. They fell together, the impact driving the breath from Horatio's
lungs. Despite this difficulty, his discipline and sobriety began to
prevail--he squirmed, kicked, and pummeled, landing more blows than he
received. To his immense gratification, his opponent began to recoil,
putting up his hands to protect his face.

One of the thieves shouted harshly. To Horatio's ringing ears it sounded like
a call to retreat, that it wasn't worth it. Clearly the others agreed
because the next thing he heard was running footsteps fading away down the
street. Too breathless even to groan, Hornblower managed to roll over onto
his knees. Alone. . . thank God. Or rather, among friends again. Peering
hazily through the gloom, Horatio could see Archie half-supporting the man
they had come to help. Even as he watched, the stranger gently disengaged
himself, began to straighten up, though still cradling his right arm against
his body.

"Do not trouble yourself--it was . . . merely a blow to an old injury. It
will be better, presently. Please--go help your friend." The man's English
was impeccable, but there was something about it--a warmer, more guttural
accent--that made him sound foreign. German, perhaps?

"Horatio!" Archie hurried to his side, knelt in the snow before him. "Are you
all right?"

"Yes, Archie . . . " Breath was returning--it was now possible to drag air
into his lungs. "Are they--are they gone?"

"Aye. They misliked a fair fight." Archie gave a panting laugh. "First
time I ever used a ham as a weapon!"

"The sack of vegetables came in handy as well," Horatio wheezed, clambering
to his feet with his shipmate's assistance. "Archie, your lip is bleeding."

Kennedy probed the area with a careful tongue, grimaced in pain. "Damn." He
glanced at Hornblower in turn and the uninjured corner of his mouth flicked
up in a wry smile. "I'm afraid you haven't escaped unscathed either, Horatio.
You're going to have a magnificent bruise on that cheek!"

Touching his own stiffening face, Horatio had no doubt his friend was right.
Uncharitable though it might be, he rather hoped their assailants were
similarly--and more severely--afflicted.

Archie dabbed at his lip. "Thieves abroad--even at Christmas. Bloody hell."

Staring in the direction the would-be robbers had gone, the stranger shook
his head, clearly more in sorrow than anger. "Had they but asked, I'd have
given them freely what they tried to take by force." He turned back to the
officers. "Gentlemen, my thanks--I am in your debt."

Archie smiled, winced as his bleeding lip stung. "Four against one. It was
the least we could do--sir?" He let the last word dangle inquiringly.

The stranger inclined his head. "Ah. I am Vaclav--of the merchant vessel,
The Maid of Bohemia."

"Lieutenants Kennedy," Horatio nodded towards Archie, "and Hornblower--of His
Majesty's Ship Indefatigable."

"I am honored to make your acquaintance. And deeply sorry," Vaclav peered
more closely at them, "that you should have been hurt coming to my defense!"
Quickly, he bent and scooped up two handfuls of mostly clean snow, pressed
one to Hornblower's cheek, the other to Kennedy's lip. "There! That should
ease the pain, a little."

"Th-thank you," Horatio stammered, trying not to flinch away from that
gentle but icy touch. Despite a bushy brown beard that matched his bushy
brown thatch of hair, Vaclav, he noticed for the first time, was actually
quite young--about the same age as himself and Archie. He'd an air of calm
authority that made him seem older, though. A merchant captain, perhaps?

Archie had retrieved the ham and Vaclav's quarterstaff, handing back the
latter to its owner. "Are you sure you have taken no hurt yourself?"

"None, I assure you." Vaclav adjusted the enormous pack strapped to his back.
"Nor have my supplies for the almshouse suffered any damage."

"Almshouse?" Horatio and Archie exchanged a glance. "We were headed there
ourselves."

"Bringing home the supper," Archie added, holding up the ham by way of
explanation. "But--we got a bit lost. Couldn't remember whether it was two
or three streets over." He paused, trying to remember. "It's called St.
Agnes's, if I recall correctly."

"The very one," Vaclav confirmed. "And it is *two* streets over--shall we go
together, gentlemen? I believe there will be greater safety in numbers."

Shouldering his own sack, Horatio glanced again at Archie, who nodded
vigorously. "An excellent idea, sir. Lead on, and we shall follow."

**********

Easier said than done, Horatio reflected grimly, some ten minutes later.
The wind had started up again with renewed force, blasting snow in their
faces and shrieking in their ears like a Billingsgate fishwife. He could
hear Archie stumbling in his wake, reached out and behind to catch the
shorter man by the arm and steady him.

"You all right, Archie?"

He sensed rather than saw the exhausted grin spreading over Kennedy's
features. "'Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are, / That bide the pelting
of this pitiless storm '. . . I'm fine, H'ratio--though I can barely see my
hand in front of my face!"

"No more can I," Horatio admitted, grasping Archie's shoulder in reassurance.
"Vaclav!" he called into the storm. "How much further is it?"

The taller man's voice floated eerily back to them. "We have but a little
distance more to travel, gentlemen. Are you in difficulties?"

"We can hardly see through this snow, I'm afraid!"

"Ah." Vaclav halted, some distance ahead of them. "Mr. Hornblower, Mr.
Kennedy, if you will look down . . . can you still see my footprints?"

Horatio frowned but obeyed. It *was* easier to look down than straight
ahead right now--and before him, on the snowy ground, he could indeed see the
imprint of Vaclav's boots. "Aye, we can. But what--?"

"He means, quite literally, that we should follow in his footsteps, Horatio!"
Archie explained on a breathless laugh. "Or rather, *you* follow in his, and
I follow in *yours*. That way, we *should* arrive at our destination.
Unless, of course, Vaclav gets lost too--in which case all bets are off!"

"If the frost hasn't addled your wits, it's done nothing to improve your
quips and sallies, Mr. Kennedy!" Horatio remarked with a roll of his eyes,
but he had to admit, if only to himself, that the plan could work. Stepping
forward resolutely, he called back to Vaclav. "Ready!"

"Excellent. Take heart, gentlemen--we *will* reach the almshouse soon."
Vaclav set off again, the pale hump of his huge pack just visible through the
gloom.

Jaw determinedly clenched, Horatio trod the path their leader set for them.
Surprisingly, he felt his confidence increasing with each step, his anxiety
receding. Behind him, he was aware of Archie also moving with greater ease
and assurance through the snow. Perhaps it would be all right, at that. . .

********
******************************

O, star of wonder, star of might,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.

--John Henry Hopkins, "We Three Kings of Orient Are"

*********
Intent on his progress, Horatio nearly collided with Vaclav, who had finally
come to a stop at the end of a narrow street, but managed to halt his own
forward momentum in time. Archie drew level with him three paces later.

"Gentlemen, we have arrived." Vaclav gestured towards a large building,
half-stone, half-timber. "And it appears," he added with a smile, that
someone has even left a light burning for us."

And indeed, on closer inspection, the front windows of the almshouse were
seen to glow with a daffodil-hued radiance in the gathering dusk. Horatio
expelled a long breath, felt Archie relax as well. This brief journey had
proved more eventful than either could have wished, but at least it was
safely ended. Even the wind blew more gently now, as though ashamed of its
earlier bad temper.

Vaclav shifted the pack on his shoulders. "I must take my supplies around to
the kitchen. Mr. Hornblower, Mr. Kennedy--I thank you once again for coming
to my aid and I wish you a very happy Christmas."

"We wish you the same, Mr. Vaclav." Horatio inclined his head. "Thank you
for bringing us here. Perhaps we will see you again, later?"

A smile, half-hidden behind the plentiful beard. "Perhaps you might. Good
evening."

"Good evening," the lieutenants echoed as their companion disappeared around
the side of the building.

The sound of a door opening drew their attention back to the front of the
almshouse and they both caught their breath. Light, warm and golden, seemed
to pour forth onto the snow--in the next instant, a tall figure, crowned with
flame, stood framed in the doorway. Hornblower and Kennedy stood transfixed
as the figure took a slow step towards them, and another, and another . . .

. . . then resolved itself into the familiar person of Dr. Sebastian, bearing
on his shoulders a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, wearing a miner's
helmet. On the slightly depressed crown of the helmet blazed a single candle.

********

"I am glad to see you, gentlemen," Dr. Sebastian greeted them warmly. "Your
arrival was so long delayed that I felt I should send up some sort of signal.
And," he addressed the child, "I thank you for your assistance in that
matter, Miss Lucy."

"'Tweren't nuffin'--just me da's old helmet," a gruff little voice, barely
recognizable as a girl's, responded. "They're 'ere, ain't they?"

Dr. Sebastian knelt to let her clamber down from his shoulders. "They are
indeed. Did you miss the way, in the snow? We'd almost given you up for lost."

"We very nearly *were* lost," Hornblower replied, grimacing. "But we found
someone who was also coming here--and then we saw your signal." He regarded
the candle atop the helmet with considerable respect. "I had not guessed a
single candle could cast such a light."

"'So shines a good deed in a naughty world,'" Archie quoted.

"I ain't naughty!" Miss Lucy said indignantly, doffing the helmet and letting
a pair of long flaxen plaits slither down her back.

Archie blinked. "Of course you're not," he agreed cheerfully. "Santa Lucia,
beloved of sailors, we are most grateful for your light!" This last with a
courtly bow and a sun-bright smile.

Very few people, Horatio knew, could resist Archie Kennedy when he smiled.
Clearly, Miss Lucy was not going to be among them. The thin face, too wary
for a child's, slowly eased into an answering smile.

"You must be chilled to the bone, both of you," said Dr. Sebastian. "Come
inside and tell me everything."

***********

Blessed warmth. Horatio glanced approvingly around at the common room, where
a cheerful fire blazed in the grate. It appeared that Christmas had prompted
some generous impulses from the well-to-do: a stack of firewood and a sack
of coal flanked either side of the hearth. The almshouse residents, those
strong enough to leave their beds, sat around the room in groups, talking
quietly among themselves or simply enjoying the warmth. The firelight was
kind to them, softening and gilding hollowed cheeks and eyes, giving wan
faces a spurious look of health. Archie's young friend had been called to
her mother's side--she'd gone reluctantly, with a wistful backward glance at
both officers.

A handful of the Indy's seamen, dispatched to assist Dr. Sebastian, could be
seen wandering hither and yon, carrying sacks and crates. Horatio even
glimpsed Styles and Matthews rolling a barrel, turned on its side, in the
direction of what was probably the kitchen. Captain Pellew had apparently
donated a cask of salt beef to the cause.

" . . . so am I to gather that you fell among thieves?" Dr. Sebastian's
smooth voice recalled Hornblower to the present.

"Very nearly," he replied. "Or rather, we came to the aid of a man set upon
by a gang of ruffians."

"And chased them off?"

Horatio nodded, trying not to look too obviously pleased with himself. "I
think we gave a fairly good account of ourselves."

"Not least because of our choice of weapons!" Archie remarked with a grin,
brandishing the ham like a battle-axe. "The shank of a pig encountered the
jawbone of an ass--and, I'm happy to report, prevailed!"

"The sack of potatoes proved an effective deterrent as well," Horatio added,
not without satisfaction.

Dr. Sebastian glanced at them with mingled amusement and concern. "I am glad
to see that you emerged victorious, if not unscathed. But that bruise must
be quite painful, lieutenant, and so must that lip, Mr. Kennedy." He placed
a gentle hand under Archie's chin, tilted his face for a closer look.

"Actually," Horatio reached up and touched the place where he knew the bruise
must be, "I haven't noticed any pain."

"Nor have I," Archie chimed in. "Not since Vaclav put snow on my face."

"Vaclav?" Dr. Sebastian stared searchingly into the younger man's eyes.

Archie nodded. "The man we helped. A merchant seaman--from The Bohemian Maid
, I think."

"The Maid of Bohemia," Horatio corrected. "He was headed for the almshouse,
just as we were."

"Indeed." Dr. Sebastian straightened, his dark eyes thoughtful. "I believe I
should like to meet this new acquaintance of yours--if only to thank him for
bringing you safely here."

"He went to bring his goods round to the kitchen," Horatio supplied. "We
should go there in any case, to give the cook what we've brought."

***********

Savory odors filled the kitchen and Horatio inhaled with pleasure. He,
Archie, and the other officers were due to dine in the captain's cabin later
that evening and for the first time since the Indy had reached Plymouth, he
found himself looking forward to a meal. If the smells were any indication,
the almshouse residents would also be enjoying a treat today. The cook moved
among the pots and pans with the practiced ease of someone who knew her job.

What she *didn't* know was where Vaclav had gone. "That tall, thin chap wi'
the beard? A bit foreign-soundin' but a gentleman? 'Course I remember, but I
can't say as I saw 'im leave. I was up to me elbows in the puddings at the
time--so I just told 'im to put what 'e had down on the table in the pantry."
She wiped her hands on her apron, brow furrowing slightly. "Must say I never
thought 'e could have fit so much in one pack or carried it all 'ere by
'imself. There's enough to feed this whole lot past New Year's, if we're
careful!"

Horatio and Archie stared at each other in shock. Dr. Sebastian merely
smiled. "Might we put what we've brought in the pantry too, my good woman?"

The cook gestured with a floury thumb. "It's right round there, sir."

******

"Good God!" Horatio stared at the pantry table, almost groaning under the
weight it bore.

Loaves of bread. A wheel of cheese. A haunch of beef, and another of mutton.
The plucked and tied carcass of a green goose. A box of herrings, packed in
salt. Two bottles of wine. A fat sack of meal, propped against the table
leg. The contents of Vaclav's pack, if the cook was to be believed. Only
how--? Unless the pack were somehow larger on the inside than the outside .
. . which was, of course, impossible.

Behind him, Horatio heard a sharp inhalation of breath, then a deep, slow
sigh. A small, wary voice, barely recognizable as Archie's, ventured, "Well
. . . Christ fed a multitude with just a few loaves and fishes--didn't he?"

"N-no." It emerged as a hoarse croak. Horatio shook his head. "Forgive me,
Archie. I cannot--*cannot* believe . . . " His voice trailed off helplessly.

"In this case, I must agree with you, Lieutenant Hornblower," Dr. Sebastian
remarked.

Brown and blue eyes stared at him incredulously, though for entirely
different reasons.

The doctor continued with his usual serenity, "I do not believe it was Our
Lord you encountered tonight . . . but, rather, one of his servants on
earth."

"Then who?" Archie's blue eyes were wide and puzzled.

"Vaclav. Only I think you would be more familiar with the Germanic form of
his name. Wenceslas--king and patron saint of Bohemia." Dr. Sebastian
glanced again at the laden table, mouth curving in a gentle smile. "Known
for his kindness, charitable works, . . . and alms-giving."

In the silence that greeted this revelation, Horatio's mind raced furiously,
searching for something, anything, to refute what he'd just heard. Opening
his mouth, he prepared to argue--doggedly and a little desperately--about
coincidences, the popularity of saints' names for children, the likelihood of
finding Vaclav's ship at anchor in Plymouth Sound . . . and felt a gentle but
unmistakable dig in the ribs before he could utter a single word. Blue eyes,
lambent with amusement, sympathy, and a faith he himself would never possess,
gazed into his, their message plain to read: *More things in heaven and
earth, Horatio* . . .

And perhaps there were. Closing his mouth, Horatio turned back to his
contemplation of the table and, for this one night alone, permitted the
existence of a miracle.

END
********************

In his master's steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

--John Mason Neale, "Good King Wenceslas"

***********************

Author's Notes

Vaclav (Wenceslas), son of Duke Wratislaw, was born in 907 and educated by
his his grandmother Ludmilla, a devout Christian. Succeeding to the title in
922, Vaclav himself ruled as a Christian and was zealous in the performance
of good deeds--clothing the naked, giving shelter to pilgrims, and buying
freedom for those sold into slavery. He worked closely with the clergy,
planning and building churches, and opposed the oppression of Christians by
the nobility. In 929, Vaclav's pagan brother, Boleslav, had him stabbed and
beaten to death in a church. The report of miracles at Vaclav's tomb led
Boleslav to have his relics interred in the Church of St. Vitus in Prague.
His feast day--September 28--was celebrated from 985 on and he became known
as Bohemia's patron saint some twenty or thrity years later.

Saint Lucy, whose feast day falls on December 13, is usually represented as a
fair-haired young girl wearing a crown of candles.