Hornblower and the Lady Lieutenant
by Wendy Snow-Lang
"Sails aft!" cried Finch in the main top of the former French Brig La Souris.
Midshipman Horatio Hornblower, now captain of the small three-masted vessel, peered up through the billowing sails at the hook-nosed seaman high above him. "Where away, Finch? What do you see?" Hornblower's forehead creased. The pressure he felt because of the responsibility thrust upon him by his captain, trusting him to deliver this prize ship safely to Gibraltar, increased. Who was the strange ship Finch had sighted? Friend or foe? Should he order his small prize crew to prepare La Souris to run? Or should they turn and face the other ship? They had a few small pop-guns aboard, but no crew to man them and little ammunition to fend off any threat. His hands curled into fists. Run. What else could they do? He was only a boy, eighteen years old, and inexperienced to handle a crew, even as small a one as he had at his disposal. Finch, lookout on this watch, Matthews handling the wheel, Styles, Oldroyd, Hill, Flaherty, Peterson and Morton manning the rigging and ready at a moments notice to run up into the yards to tack the ship, or reef the sails. Whatever order Hornblower gave them.
"T'gallants, sur, I sees!" shouted Finch high above. "Me thinks she's one o' ours!"
Hornblower squinted in the direction Finch had indicated, but could see nothing but a hazy horizon, five days sail from Gibraltar. He peered up at Finch again, shielding his eyes from the harsh Spanish sun.
"Pennant, sur! A red pennant!" Finch continued, his eyes much sharper and his angle of vision much higher than Hornblower's. "She's definitely one o' ours, sur!"
Hornblower exhaled, tried to suppress the expression of relief that washed over his face. "Keep me informed, Mr. Finch!" he shouted back. He glanced over at Matthews, shrugged slightly.
Matthews dipped his chin, a gesture of encouragement, Hornblower knew. Matthews seemed to always look out for him.
Hornblower squared his shoulders. "Mr. Styles!" He shouted to the tall, pock-faced man standing at the fo'c'sle bell. "Reef sails, if you please! Let us meet the other ship!"
Styles sloppily saluted, tugged at young Oldroyd's sleeve, gestured aloft. Finch scrambled out to the yards of the main sail and pulled at reefing points, too.
Hornblower shook his head, impatient at his crew's slow progress. He was powerless to do more, he knew. He had been assigned only so many men to bring in Captain Pellew's latest prize.
La Souris slowed and the sails of the approaching ship grew in size as the new ship neared in distance.
Finch kept an eye over his shoulder as he worked on the sails. "They's sendin' up signal flags, sur!" He stopped tugging at canvas, put a hand to his bald forehead, shading his eyes. "'Request assistance,' sur, it says!"
Hornblower's frown deepened. Our assistance? How could they assist a naval vessel?
Finch pointed a skinny arm. "Frigate, sur! A frigate!"
Hornblower gazed aft at the approaching ship. He could see its hull now; it was fast catching up to La Souris. A frigate certainly, flying the pennant and ensign of the Red Admiral, the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet.
How in God's name could La Souris aide a man of war?
Athena hove to along side La Souris. A gig was launched to retrieve Hornblower aboard. He sat stiffly in the gig, climbed the battens with tense muscles, stepped through the entry port with held breath. A round faced officer greeted him there, expectant.
Hornblower saluted in crisp form, introduced himself.
"First Lieutenant Penny, Mr. Hornblower. Welcome aboard." He waved Hornblower onward. "Captain Tremayne would see you in his day cabin, if you please."
Hornblower nodded, pressed his fingers to his sweaty forehead. "Thank you, sir."
The marine sentry at the captain's door slammed his musket butt on the deck, loudly called out: "Cap'in 'Oratio 'Ornblowah, prize ship La Sooree!"
A gruff acknowledgement from within the cabin admitted Hornblower.
Hornblower entered the cabin, his eyes firm upon the broad man standing beside the mahogany desk that centred the small frigate cabin. Another officer, back to Hornblower, leaned over a basket, fussed with the contents therein. Strange noises emanated from the blankets within.
Hornblower scowled slightly. The cabin was well appointed, for its small size, the sign of a successful captain, much like his own Captain Pellew's quarters. He had no such resources to outfit himself in a manner even remotely like this, or like Pellew's.
The broad man, Captain Tremayne, fair-haired and flinty of eye, shorter than Hornblower by a hand's span, stood straight before the young midshipman. Hornblower could sense the aura of command this man possessed.
"You are Mr. Midshipman Horatio Hornblower?" Tremayne asked.
"Aye, sir," Hornblower answered.
"Your ship is a prize vessel, is it not?" Tremayne questioned. "With what ship are you attached, young man?"
"Ha-humm. Indefatigable, sir."
"Huh. Pellew. Of course" Tremayne grumbled. "Prizes come easy to him."
"Jealous, sir?" the officer in the corner said.
Hornblower's scowl deepened. He sensed rebuke in the other officer's tone. Not a thing Pellew would tolerate. He regarded the other officer, difficult to see clearly as the bright Spanish sun spilling from the stern windows silhouetted the person's figure. He made out a cascading curl of black hair tied into a queue by a garish red ribbon. A slim form, average height, broader in the hips than in the shoulders.
"Leftenant Peters. You've had your share of prizes, do not forget." Tremayne said.
The officer turned and Hornblower had a good look. He gasped.
"You-you're a girl!" he exclaimed, unable to control his outburst.
The "girl" straightened her back, raised her chin. "'Girl' indeed! A lady, if you please!" she said.
Tremayne paid no attention to Hornblower's fluster. "Leftenant Peters and her.um.situation need to raise Gibraltar at the earliest opportunity, Mr. Hornblower. We, unfortunately, are headed in quite the opposite direction. Your fortuitous appearance has proved most helpful."
Hornblower raised a dark, arched eyebrow.
His confusion increased as the basket in the "lady's" hands burst forth into squalling, screaming noise.
Tremayne flinched. "The baby, you see. He is not well. Our surgeon can do nothing for him. He must go ashore and see a proper doctor as soon as possible."
Hornblower's large brown eyes widened further.
"You are headed immediately for Gibraltar, young man, with your prize. We are headed out to the wide Atlantic. I task you to deliver Mrs. Peters and the child to Gibraltar with all due expediency."
Hornblower's brows danced on his broad forehead. "Of-of course, sir! I mean, aye, aye, sir! But-"
Tremayne extended his hand, took Hornblower's in a firm grip. "Thank you, Mr. Hornblower! You are forever in my debt! If anything were to happen to the child-"
The baby punctuated Tremayne's solicitation by roaring forth with even louder cries.
"What is wrong with the baby?" Hornblower
"Colicky, we think," came the reply. The man to whom he was speaking, Jack Peters, the baby's father and husband to the unusual Lieutenant Peters, was taller than him by a few inches, slim, raven-haired. His most startling features were his eyes-pale blue as Arctic ice and large as a horse's. "Dr. Howard is a better dentist than a medical man, so we are uncertain," he continued.
Hornblower nodded, understanding perfectly the deficit of naval "surgeons." Most were former butchers or surgeons' mates with no formal medical education, skilled merely in hacking off a smashed limb or sewing up a gaping wound. Real medical men, real doctors were a dearth in the navy.
"I wish that I could accompany you-and them," said Peters. "But I have my duty." His slim shoulders slumped.
Hornblower could guess at the man's distress at the situation. Hornblower knew little of women, and less of babies, but he could sympathize with a man's anguish over his family's health.
Lieutenant Peters interrupted their conversation. "We are as ready as we shall ever be, Mr. Hornblower," she said, as she made her way up the gangway from belowdecks, the baby basket in one hand, a crewman following bearing her seachest. She glanced up at her husband, emotions marching across her pretty face.
Hornblower stared. She was pretty, even beautiful, he thought, aware that he had had little contact with women for him to be a good judge of pulchritude.
No. Look at her with an objective eye. He hadn't seen a woman in months. Was she indeed beautiful? Her arched eyebrows were thick, but shapely. Her nose bore a slight bump in its centre. Her skin was tanned dark from exposure to sun and wind, not porcelain white as was the fashion.
He was second guessing himself, looking deliberately for flaws. In spite of her small imperfections, she was a beauty.
What was she doing here? Why was she dressed in a uniform? Athena's crew seemed to treat her as a real officer, from what Hornblower could see. But a baby, aboard a man o' war, and the mother as an officer! He couldn't fathom the ideas.
She interrupted his thoughts again, as she clutched Jack Peters to her and locked her lips with his in a kiss of such passion that Hornblower ahemed and turned away. She pulled at Jack's coat front and muttered endearments to him that Hornblower attempted to ignore.
That he could some day feel such emotions of a spouse!
She tore herself from Jack's grip, straightened her dark blue coat front, gazed narrow-eyed at Hornblower. "Let us away before I change my mind!" she ordered. She glanced back at Jack, tipped her head, her eyes sad and doe-eyed. "What are we to do but seek help for him, Jack, dearest?" she said.
Peters shook his head, his incredible eyes closed tight. "He must be cured, somehow! If it means we are all separated, then so be it! The baby's health is most important!"
She sighed, nodded. "I know, my love. Certainly. But it is still difficult to be separated from you." She looked at Hornblower, whose cheeks had reddened at their impassioned exchange. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Hornblower. I have every confidence in your ability to deliver my baby and me to Gibraltar."
Horatio Hornblower gazed out the stern windows of his cabin at the distant horizon and the sails of Athena as she disappeared in the far-off haze. What had he done to himself? Bad enough that he had the responsibility of the deliverance of La Souris thrust upon him, but now he had to contend with the life of a little baby! He sucked in a breath. God, what he wouldn't give to be back in London at his family home, playing whist with his father and the vicar and his wife! No responsibilities what so ever, save help his father win the hand! But he had always imagined himself as the dashing captain of a seafaring vessel, defending the King's Good and Right Honour; he had never imagined the reality, the boring patrols, the horrible conditions aboard ship, the crushing weight of the responsibility of command.
And to have a sick baby thrust upon him. To complicate matters further!
A knock came upon his cabin door, a knock punctuated by a baby's desperate wail.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Hornblower," Lieutenant Peters entered the cabin, the protesting baby in his usual basket, swaddled in blankets. "'I do not wish to over step my authority here, but I believe it is time for a course change and the men are awaiting your order."
Hornblower set down his quill, with which he had been scribbling in his logbook. "Ha-humm. Mrs. Peters-"
"Lieutenant-" she countered.
He shuffled his long, slim fingers. "Ha-humm. I beg your pardon. Lieutenant Mrs. Peters. I thank you for reminding me of my duty and-" He thought quickly, analysing why she would be so quick to remind him of the ship's deportment, knew the source of her hurry. "I understand the need for a quick arrival at Gibraltar." He gazed at her worried expression, compassion welling up inside him. "We shall affect landfall at the earliest opportunity, I assure you, ma'am."
She squared her shoulders. "Please to call me 'sir,' or Lieutenant Mrs. Peters. 'Tis what the men in Athena and I are used to. It sounds odd to be addressed in a different manner."
Hornblower regarded his long fingers entwined before him. "Thank you, Lieutenant, for the reminder. I forget that you do, indeed, out rank me."
She inhaled, her gaze first on his face, then on the deck in front of his borrowed desk. "I mean no offence, Mr. Hornblower. I do indeed outrank you, but I do not wish to throw rank in your face. The baby-"
Hornblower exhaled. "Yes, I know. Speed is of the essence. This ship can only do as much as she can do."
Lieutenant Peters leaned in closer to him, her breath shallow and quick. "Do you know what this ship is capable of? Do you really know?" Her green eyes, for Hornblower suddenly noticed the intensity of their colour, sparkled.
He had a sudden sense of her love of the sea and the ships that sailed upon it. He knew that she could "read" ships and their abilities, by a mere glance, far better than he. He was a rank amateur compared to her!
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, shut his logbook with a bang. "I shall go on deck directly," he said.
She straightened, fully aware, he knew, of his hesitant attitude concerning her.
"Hard a-lee, Mr Matthews!" Hornblower ordered.
Matthews tugged at the wheel. The sails shivered and lost the wind.
"Haul away!" he roared. Styles, Finch and Oldroyd pulled laboriously at clew lines. La Souris backed to the wind.
Hornblower noticed Mrs. Peters glancing up into the sails, then at him, then shaking her head.
He felt his blood pressure rise. Who was she to judge his ship handling? He was only following Pellew's best lessons.
The sails shivered and strained, then filled again. La Souris surged forward, kicking up foam as the ship's motion reversed abruptly from sternway to headway.
Mrs. Peters stepped up to Hornblower, cleared her throat, tipping her head toward the starboard rail. He paced to the rail in front of her, painfully aware that she was allowing him to lead the way in deference to the crewmen and their notions.
She whispered. "A suggestion, Mr. Hornblower, if you'll listen."
He inhaled. What kind of nonsense would she give him?
"We have plenty of sea room," she said. "May I handle her at the next tack? With your permission, if you please?"
He stared at her. Permission to handle the ship? She was his superior officer! She did not seek permission of him!
"'Tis only proper to ask," she continued in hushed tones. "You are Captain, after all."
He cleared his throat, his eyebrows arched high on his forehead, his brown eyes wide and staring at his toes. He was at a loss of words. Did she think she could handle the ship better than he? He looked up at her, her expression carefully set at non-judgmental passivity.
Of course, she could! He was mere months at sea, still fresh-faced and inexperienced at seamanship.
"I-yes, of course, Lieutenant," he conceded. "Please let us see what you can do with her. She is not very handy."
"And she is very old, too, but I think we can whip her into shape!" One side of her mouth curled up at him and a dimple appeared on her cheek. "Between you and me, we'll see her fairly racing to Gibraltar!"
He nodded his head slowly, returned her wry grin. He didn't feel like smiling, but was ever the polite young officer. She would wish to show him up in front of his division!
No, no. Don't think like that of her, he thought. She was merely trying to quicken the voyage. She didn't know Hornblower, had nothing to prove to anyone on this ship. Her unusual position as a woman in the navy would make her prone to proving herself at every opportunity. She would not be accepted otherwise.
Just what was she doing in the navy? Naval life was not the most desirous of existences; sailors and officers alike had to endure the harsh vagaries of the sea, storm and battle; they became a very separate society than that lived by those ashore. He stopped himself from coming right out and asking her. Invite her to dinner, he thought. Ask her then.
"Mis-Lieutenant, sir," he stuttered, suddenly flustered to ask a lady to sup with him, a married lady. "Would you join me for dinner this evening? We have plenty of stores. Even fresh cheese and bread. Apples. French wine." He smiled again, feeling genuine pleasure at the ease with which his invitation finally issued from his mouth.
She returned his smile and he saw dimples crater each cheek this time. Her smile lit up her face and accented her easy nature. "I would be delighted, Captain! I had hoped that I wouldn't have to suffer a lonely voyage." Her smile faded and she looked down at her toes as he had done moments before, trepidation shadowing her expression. She lowered her voice again, not quite a whisper. "I had fears that I would be confined to my cabin for the duration." She looked up into his eyes and he sucked in a breath at the fright in her eyes. He didn't like to see that emotion on her face. He wanted to see her smile again.
"I've not served aboard any other ship save Athena." she continued. "Captain Tremayne is my sponsor and thus demands the men obey me. On another ship, out from under his protecting wing, I've no idea my reception as an officer equal to a man."
Hornblower clasped his hands behind his back, not wanting her to see his fingers' nervous twitchings. Equal to a man she wanted to be. Preposterous! But he would not confine her to her cabin. He vowed his obeisance to the King's Coat. This woman wore one, of Lieutenant Rank. He would treat her as such, no matter her gender.
He sucked in another long breath. "You are welcome here, Lieutenant Mrs. Peters. You will be treated as a King's officer, as befits your rank."
She smiled at him, that stunning smile, but her eyes were watchful. "Thank you, Captain Hornblower."
Satisfaction welled up in him, and something more.
"Mr. Matthews! Wear ship, if you please!" Mrs. Peters ordered.
Matthews suppressed a grin. He tugged on the wheel, put the helm to weather. Styles, Finch and Oldroyd brailed up the after sails. La Souris brought her head around with the wind. The four other crewmen scrambled up the foremast shrouds, shifting the fore sails about the yards. The three at the mizzen sheeted the aft sails to bring her stern to the wind.
Matthews righted the helm and they hauled the sheets aft.
Hornblower watched the procedure with wide eyes. He could see immediately the effect; the ship never neared missing stays and the strain on the rigging was negligible. Though they looped back on their original track, he could calculate the sweeping flow of the move, much more efficient than nearly causing the ship to back up and the lost leeway his earlier move had cost.
Mrs. Peters' manoeuvre was much more elegant and graceful.
He had no idea how he would survive dinner this evening.
"My father is a partner in the East India Trading Company, Mr. Hornblower," Mrs. Peters answered his hesitant question. "My uncle is Admiral Joseph, Lord MacHenry." She flashed that smile that Hornblower now knew had melted his heart that afternoon on the quarterdeck. "Their.ahem.influence greased my way into my uniform, shall we say."
Hornblower inhaled, tossed back another mouthful of wine. He sucked a breath through his teeth, the wine biting his tongue. He was not a drinking man and usually carefully monitored his alcohol consumption.
Not tonight. He found himself self-consciously reaching again and again for his glass, reaching for the bottle. He had had Finch open a second, then a third.
Mrs. Peters had laughed as Finch brought in the third. "My steward usually constricts my wine drinking. I am nursing, he reminds me."
Hornblower felt heat rise to his cheeks. Nursing! The baby!
"How-how is the child?" he sputtered.
Mrs. Peters' brow creased slightly. "He cries still. No matter what I do to sooth him, he cries. Especially in the evening."
Hornblower felt guilt rise in him. "Is he-is he crying now? Is he-is he suffering as we speak?"
Mrs. Peters shook her head, her lips squeezed together into a grim line. "He sleeps. Finally. He had an episode after I fed him earlier, to the point that I thought I would decline your invitation, but he fell asleep, the poor dear." She sighed. "If he were to.succumb.to this illness, I do not know what I shall do. I do not know if I can bear it." Mist rose in her eyes and her chin trembled ever so slightly.
Sympathy and concern rose in Hornblower's breast. He felt that he would lean over the tiny captain's table and enfold her in his arms, comfort her somehow.
He reached for his glass instead.
Mrs. Peters rested her chin on her hand, her eyelids lowered, her expression relaxed. She exhaled. "I thank you for this evening, Mr. Hornblower. I have not been able to relax since Edward first took sick." She reached across the table and took his hand.
His body stiffened. Her fingers were calloused, but the feel of them on his flesh was the most wonderful sensation he'd ever felt.
She continued, unaware of the change she had caused in him. "I know that you will deliver us safe and sound to Gibraltar and there I shall enlist a man of medicine to cure my poor child." She squeezed his hand. "Thank you," she whispered.
He dared not move. "You're welcome," he squeaked.
The baby, in the next cabin, squealed.
Mrs. Peters loosed Hornblower's hand. "I am being summoned," she stated, the wry smile he had witnessed earlier in the day back on her face. "Thank you for an engaging dinner!" she called out as she hurried into her cabin, steps from his. "By the way, Mr. Hornblower," she poked her head back in the doorway. "Please to call me Lila when you see fit! I don't hold to much formality!" She ducked out again, not waiting for his answer.
He exhaled loudly once he was certain she was not going to return, leaned his forehead onto his fingertips, closed his eyes. God, what had he gotten himself into?
Styles grinned widely as he worked the aft pump over Hornblower's naked body. Hornblower twirled unselfconsciously under the spray of warm seawater, the bath doing wonders for his over-heated, hung-over state. He had remained awake hours after Mrs. Peters had retired, his brain awhirl, his emotions uncontrollable. He had, uncharacteristically, finished the third bottle of wine all by himself. He had heard her tend to the baby in the next cabin, fussing and cooing to the child until it quieted. He heard the kisses she bestowed on the little face and hands and yearned to feel those kisses himself. He tortured himself throughout the long, hot Mediterranean night, imagining and chastising himself for coveting another man's wife. Black depression overwhelmed him at his baseness and he mentally punished himself until the first streaks of dawn lifted the cabin's gloom and his mood if only slightly.
He welcomed his morning bath more than usual. The brisk seawater sloshing over him refreshed him, physically and mentally. It was a new day, after all.
He spun once more, stopped of a sudden, his eyes wide, and clutched at his nakedness.
"Well, good morning to you, Captain Hornblower!" Lila exclaimed, a smile upon her lips as she stepped from the quarterdeck companionway.
Styles guffawed and increased his pumping at the hose. Water shot out and pummelled Hornblower's torso.
Hornblower sputtered from the assault, fended off the stinging water with his hands, his self-protection instincts no longer allowing him to hide his manhood. "St-Styles! Belay that, you b-bastard! Belay, I say!"
Styles grinned as he ceased his frantic pumping, tugged at his curly, greasy forelock with his free hand, and retreated.
Hornblower grabbed at his towel, wrapped it about him. "Ma-Missus Peters! What do you here? And so early?" Red rose to his cheeks. Why did she have to come on deck now, of all times? The sun was barely above the horizon, for God's Sake, why was she out of bed so early?
'Out of bed.bed!' God, 'bed!'
Thoughts from the darkest moments of his long night came into his head as he stared at her fresh face, and he in his nakedness. His towel was nearly inadequate to hide his reaction.
She allowed her gaze to rove his slim form. She knew what ailed him, he was sure. Her smile spread to the full blown grin he had hungered for after first witnessing it yesterday.
"Please, Mrs. Peters," he gasped. "You have me at a disadvantage! If you could-if you could-"
She smirked. "Dear me, Mr. Hornblower, I am a married woman. I have seen a naked man before!" She turned away, after a final, lingering look, and folded her arms in front of her. "I have lived aboard a ship at sea far longer than on dry land, Mr. Hornblower. Men at sea cannot hide their physicality from each other, especially when they enjoy swimming." she explained. "Do not fret, please, over my untimely intrusion."
Hornblower stammered further. "Mrs-Mrs. Peters. My clothing is all aft, in my cabin. If you could-"
She giggled, a light, hearty laugh from deep within her. Hornblower melted. "I promise I shall not look," she said. "Again!"
Later that morning, Hornblower stood stiffly at the binnacle when Mrs. Peters ascended the quarterdeck, his embarrassment much too fresh for him to consolidate.
But she melted his severity as quickly, her dimpled smile cutting through his bluff exterior. "So, Mr. Hornblower, how think you goes our voyage? Have we strayed much from our course? Do you expect landfall in the next couple of days, as you had calculated?"
He dipped his chin once, returned his gaze to the distant horizon. "Of course," he said, his voice filled with confidence. If nothing else, he knew his mathematics were sound.
Lila followed his gaze and her brow furrowed. "Are you quite certain?"
He glared at her. "What mean you, Mrs. Peters? I took readings this very morning! Our position is good!"
She tipped her chin up, bellowed. "Mr. Matthews! What see you to the North-East?"
Matthews' voice came back down to them from the maintop. "A haze formin', sur! Me thinks a blow is comin' on t' us!"
Lila peered at Hornblower and he sensed the blunder he had again made in his inexperience.
She jerked her chin toward the starboard rail. He followed her this time, instead of the other way around.
"Mr. Hornblower. Captain Hornblower," she whispered. "Your course is good and will see us make Gibraltar in two days time."
He inhaled, awaiting the inevitable 'but.'
"But." She'd said it. He knew it was coming. "Mother Nature has changed our plans, methinks," she observed. "A storm brews to the north and is moving in fast. Have you not consulted the barometer?"
He regarded his toes, stammered. "No. I-I am remiss." His head sunk lower.
"Mr. Hornblower!" Her rebuke was quiet, but firm. He jerked his chin up to peer into her eyes. "You haven't the luxury of regret aboard a ship at sea! Action must be taken immediately to keep the ship safe from any impending threat!"
He nodded, inhaled. "Of-of course, sir! We must make preparations for a storm!"
She smiled up at him, her head following his own's attitude and deportment. "Keep a 'weather eye out,' Mr. Hornblower, as the saying goes!"
"Horatio," he said. "My name is Horatio."
Her dimples appeared and she nodded. "Horatio."
The storm came upon them quickly, but they were prepared, ship wise.
Hornblower knew before hand what would plague him once the seas became high and he dreaded the weakness in front of Mrs. Peters-Lila. She, he knew, would feel none of the affects of the blow, not with her background at sea.
He was another matter. His seasickness was legendary among Indefatigable's crew.
He crashed into his hammock at the first cresting of the high storm waves, unable to keep his footing, or his dinner. He was in hell at each storm he experienced and each was worse than the last. He didn't think he would ever outgrow his seasickness, but that it would plague him his entire life.
And he had foolishly chosen this life! How typical of him to pick the worst of the options offered him!
His misery, however, did not last uninterrupted.
Lila knocked softly, then entered his cabin, a damp cloth offered for his forehead. She ministered to him and comforted him in his queasiness. She held the sick bucket to his chin as he vomited numerous times into it.
He was grateful, but guilty that she would care for him when she should be seeing to her child.
In a moment of clarity, he questioned her.
"As soon as the sea rose," she said, "he quieted. As if the ship's motion sated his suffering." She shrugged. "I don't know. I knew little of babies when I bore him; know little more of them now. No one aboard Athena could help with any advice, as they are all experienced seamen who have been at sea for years and know little of life ashore, and less of life with women and babies." She exhaled. "I shall have to wait until landfall. And pray."
Hornblower nodded, then scrambled in quick activity until he found the sick bucket. The mere motion of nodding his head had sent nausea through him, causing him to vomit once more. Lila plied the damp cloth to his forehead again.
"Poor dear," she said. "My own Jack is prone to seasickness, too, though I doubt a blow of this size would trouble him much." She ran her fingers through Hornblower's brown curls, sticking sweatily to his forehead. "I wish that I could do more for you, Horatio. I cannot stop the ship's motion, or call upon Poseidon to withdraw His storm."
Hornblower groaned in assent, but could not add to her observation without being sick again. The effort was not necessary, he knew, so he settled back into the covers as she drew them up about his chin.
She ran her slim fingers across his sweaty forehead again, leaned forward and placed a quick kiss on his brow. "Be well come morning, Horatio. Steel yourself to it! Be the commander I know you are capable of being! Command yourself!" She tucked in a corner of blanket. "But do not fool yourself! Do not overextend your abilities! Do not step beyond the abilities I know you have! That path leads to failure!"
She stood as if to leave, then leaned back over him again, planting another kiss on his tortured forehead. "Some day," she whispered, "I will show you the Way!"
He wondered momentarily what she had meant by "showing him the way" but he was too far into sleep to speak further.
He awoke sometime in the night, disoriented, unknowing where he was or the time, or even for a quick moment who he was. His eyelids were crusted and stuck together as he blinked. The ship's extreme heaving motions hadn't subsided, but Hornblower's queasiness had. He fell out of his hammock, staggered to the table steps from the bed, searched the table top for the carafe and glass he hoped it contained. He found the bottle, upended it into his mouth without bothering with the glass. Tepid water poured down his throat. Such was his thirst that he felt he'd never tasted better. The water drained with a thud into his stomach and he gulped at the gag reflex it initiated, but he held it down.
His ship! What was the disposition of his ship? He was Captain; he could not cower in his cabin any longer! If Pellew even suspected he'd spent a good part of the night abed while his tiny crew battled a vicious Spanish squall, Hornblower would be in irons and Pellew would head the court-martial panel himself! Seasickness would never serve as an excuse, especially if La Souris ran into trouble.
Hornblower quested in the darkness, found striker and flint, sparked the candle he kept beside the water carafe. Light eked out, struggling to brighten the centre of the tiny cabin and not even attempting to banish the shadows within the bulkhead corners.
He gazed down at his attire. Good God! She had dressed him in his nightshirt while he lay insensate, which meant she had undressed him! The woman had no shame, no propriety at all! He staggered into his breeches, his shirt and coat, fought his pinchbeck buckled shoes onto his naked feet, stumbled out the companionway and onto the deck.
Wind and rain instantly soaked him through. Roaring waves and gusts made him block his ears. He gritted his teeth. He'd stepped from the hell of his own body's betrayal, into the fury of the hell thrown at him from the Forces of Nature. He pulled himself up the quarterdeck gangway, struggled to the wheel. Finch gripped the wheel spokes, fought to control the wildly pitching ship. He nodded and grinned stupidly at Hornblower.
"Mornin' sur," he said, exposing the many gaps in his dentition.
Hornblower shook his head, wiped water from his eyes, squinted about him at the deck. He actually was grateful for the pounding rain; it reminded of his morning pumphead bath, clearing the fuzziness from his brain.
Where was she? "Where is Missus-"Dammit!-"the lieutenant?" he shouted in Finch's ear.
Finch looked exactly where Hornblower knew, and dreaded, he would look.
Aloft. She was up in the yards, with the others.
No, God, no!
He scrambled forward to the mainmast, peered upwards into the darkness and the rain.
"Missus Peters!" he yelled, his voice cracking and inadequate. He gulped, cleared his throat, tried again. "Lieutenant!" His shout was louder this time, and he inhaled at the sound of her reply.
"Captain! Up here, on the larboard main yard!"
Hornblower gritted his teeth again, a groan escaping with his sudden exhale. "Missus Peters, come you down here! Immediately!" he bellowed, water streaming from his upturned face. La Souris swooped up and over another enormous wave. He staggered, one hand gripping the rain slick mainmast.
He picked up movement out of the corner of his left eye. There she was, descending the larboard shrouds quickly, too quickly for his tastes, and hurrying up to him.
"Aye, Captain! At your service, Captain!" She stood stiff before him, her arms at her sides, water sloshing from her oilskins in rivers.
Hornblower glowered at her. "Missus Peters, what in the Good Lord's Name were you doing up there?"
She stared at him, her eyes wide and uncomprehending, her head tipped to the side like a querulous puppy's. "Why, reefing the mainsail, Captain." She answered plainly.
He exhaled again, his brows together into a fierce scowl. "Wha-how cou-" He clenched his fists. "Go below, woman! You have a sick child there! You cannot be skylarking about in the rigging when you have such a responsibility in your cabin!"
Her eyes widened, then narrowed. She sucked in a breath. "My responsibility is to this ship, sir! If the sails are not taken in, we could lose a spar or, worse, a mast! Then there'd be no more ship, or belowdecks, or lieutenant's cabin!" She inhaled again. "Or baby!"
He would not concede to her outburst. He kept his voice quiet, his teeth clenched as he spoke, leaning in to her ear. "If you were to fall from the yard, what would we do about your child? How would we feed him?"
She blanched, lowered her gaze to the deck.
"Go below, Missus Peters!" he reiterated.
She complied, throwing him a baleful look over her shoulder.
Hornblower firmed his lips, struggling to keep from grinning because of the victory he'd finally won. The grin came full blown, finally, but his heart wasn't in it. The safety and responsibility of the child was foremost. And the safety of Lieutenant Mrs. Peters.
Dawn's light found the storm vanished, but thick grey fog blanketed the sea and enshrouded La Souris.
Hornblower stood before his tiny shaving mirror, scraping the stubble from his chin. He had rushed below once the rain had stopped and hurried to clean himself up. Yes, he had been washed heartily all the late night, standing in the drenching squall, but he needed to indulge in the routine ablutions of the civilized world.
A soft knock came upon his door and then the door swept open without his bidding. Mrs. Peters-Lila-- entered, bearing a tray. She smiled at him, placed the tray on the table next to his still slung hammock. "Breakfast, Horatio. I made it especially for you." She had dark circles under her eyes, but her eyes were bright and cheery nonetheless.
Hornblower thought briefly to clutch his towel to his naked chest, realized, what was the use, and returned to dragging the straight razor across his jaw. "Thank you, Mis-Lila." Why did he continually stumble over her name?
He wiped the soap scum from his blade. "How goes it on deck?"
She shrugged. "Truthfully, I have no idea. I awoke but an hour ago, saw to the little one and then lit the galley fires. I have been cooking like a scullery maid since then." She grinned. "I made breakfast for everyone, but brought yours in before I call the others below to dine."
Hornblower shook his head, returned her grin. "You are an amazingly resourceful woman, Mrs. Peters." He cleared his throat. "I mean, Lila."
Her brows rose on her forehead. "Please, Horatio. If you have difficulty calling me by my given name, as I have asked you to do, then avail yourself of whatever you wish to address me by of your own accord. Call me anything, but do not call me late to dinner!" Her dimples created craters in her cheeks.
He grinned in return. She was utterly charming! No wonder she had captured the heart of someone as handsome and promising as Jack Peters!
He finished his morning ritual while she set the breakfast table and prattled on about the baby and her hopes for its speedy recovery, how the child would grow into a fine, tall man to rival his father, how her husband had stated that he wanted many more like the baby, a whole herd of children.
Hornblower listened by half, hearing her words but shying from their meaning. He felt a slight jealousy rise in him. He would never have such domestic bliss in his life, he felt. No woman would want him. He stared more intently into the mirror as he struggled with his unruly curls. His melancholy brown eyes stared back. His long face, and longer nose and full, soft lips had, in spite of his firm, square jaw line, none of the hard manliness women found attractive. He looked like a little sad-eyed, home-sick, love-lorn boy, skinny and gawky.
He frustratedly tugged his brush through his hair, snarls from his tortured night resisting the bristles. An exhale from behind caused his eyes to go wide.
Lila grabbed the brush from his hand. "For Pity's Sake, Horatio," she said. "You'll pull all your hair out by the roots if you continue brushing it like that!"
No, she wouldn't!
"Sit you down now and let me fix your queue."
He sat obediently at the table, tense with terror. He should refuse her offer, send her away. It was not right, a married woman fussing over a man other then her husband, unless she had been hired to do so. Her fingers followed the bristles gently through his hair, and he wanted to lean into the fingers, feel them stroke his skin. He squeezed his eyes closed, swallowed, his breathing quick and shallow. He dared not move.
He felt her lean over him. "Horatio, whatever is the matter?" she asked.
His eyes popped open and he gazed at her concerned face. "I-I don't think you should be doing this. I don't think-" He started to rise but she restrained him with a firm hand on his shoulder.
"Oh, don't be ridiculous, Horatio!" she exclaimed. "Sit back and let me finish your queue!"
He sighed and acquiesced.
He sighed again when she had completed tying the black ribbon in his hair, pulled up to the table at her direction before the morning feast she had laid for him. He saw no table setting for her. "You will not join me?" He gazed up at her with round eyes, hurt colouring his face.
She shrugged. "Thank you again for your kind invitation, Horatio, but I must go topside and relieve Mr. Styles at the wheel. Mr. Matthews and I will stand watch while the men break their fast. We will dine afterwards."
Hornblower stared at her, then nodded, realizing the sense of her words. But he was the captain, he was the one who should stand watch while his men dined. He knew, however, that she was ultimately the best one to stand a short-handed, abbreviated watch. He dove into his meal, sucking down the piping hot coffee, sweetened just to his taste-how did she know these things?-devouring the porridge, pudding, bacon and biscuit. He stuffed his pockets with the apples she had offered, downed the last bit of coffee and hurried on deck.
The fog was thick enough that he could barely make-out the two figures on the quarterdeck above him. He rushed up the quarterdeck ladder, stepped up to Lila and Matthews.
"Good mor-" he started.
"Shhh--!" they both admonished.
He stared at them, his mouth still open from his interrupted greeting.
Lila pointed to her ear. Listen, she was signalling.
He heard the groaning and gentle snapping of La Souris' rigging, the lapping of waves on the hull. He looked up. The sails were still weather-reefed. La Souris drifted through the water.
What was that? An echoing sound of rigging and yards creaking, the tramp of footsteps on decking, voices barely heard above the sounds of his own ship around him.
Another ship began its morning life a short distance from them, hidden by the fog.
Was it an English ship or--?
Hornblower's mind stumbled and sputtered then began speeding through the possibilities, the consequences, the options. La Souris had few options if the ship was French. He had no idea the size of the other ship, but the sounds to him seemed to come from higher up, as if it were a two-decker, or a large merchantman. He listened more intently to the voices.
He exhaled. French. They were speaking French!
He pushed his fists into the small of his back, not wishing Lila or Matthews to see the trembling in his fingers, or the nervous, frustrated way in which he clenched and unclenched his hands.
What to do? He noticed that Matthews had the wheel turned to the extreme for the rudder, away from the hidden ship, but would La Souris' momentum overbear the ocean current? Would they drift away or toward the enemy? He looked up into the fog-shrouded yards, debated unfurling all sail and praying for a strong breeze. The presence of the fog, however, attested to the air's calm. Unless the sails could immediately fill, the sounds of releasing them would betray them to the French.
He leaned into Lila's ear. "Go below and warn the men, if you please, Lila," he whispered as quietly as possible.
She nodded and slipped away.
She returned minutes later, the rest of the men at her heels.
Hornblower gasped at what she held in her arms. He leaned into her ear again. "What do you to bring the baby on deck now?" he whispered.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "If he starts to fuss, I can quiet him right away. Below he would raise the dead before I could reach him1"
"And who says you can quiet him?" Hornblower hissed. "His illness is his unceasing crying. How do you think you can quiet him now any more than you been unable to of late?"
She shrugged, held the baby closer to her bosom.
"If he makes even the slightest sound, Mrs. Peters," He used the formal address on purpose. "I shall have nothing for it but to throw him over the side!"
Her face reddened and he saw sparks alight from her eyes. "You-"she blurted out, then caught herself, lowered her voice to a harsh, hissing whisper. "You wouldn't dare!" The final word burst out louder, but quiet enough, he hoped.
He stood straight, his hands clasped impassively behind his back. He would dare! His shoulders slumped. "Of course not, Lila," he admitted. "I would never see harm befall your baby." He shrugged. "Let us pray we don't end up spending the rest of this war in a French prison because of a baby's illness."
Lila's anger subsided, but Hornblower could still see evidence of it in the creases on her forehead. He must learn to control his tongue! He had lost ground with her, respect from her, by his one stupid comment.
Matthews made a tiny sound in his throat. Hornblower stepped to him, leaned into his lips. "We's driftin' to leeward, sur," he whispered.
Hornblower gazed out into the wall of fog, a frown creasing his brow. He saw nothing, felt noth-wait! He peered at the compass. The dial rode ever more to the east, nor, east. Hornblower caught Styles' attention, standing directly below him on the waist deck, pointed aloft. Styles nodded, plucked his forelock and soundlessly incited some of the other men into the yards.
Hornblower watched the compass dial ride gradually north, sweat starting from his upper lip.
A squeak from the bundle in Lila's arms split the air, then a loud squall. Hornblower spun to Lila, reached, then pulled in his arms, his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. He glared at her, then cupped his hands around his mouth.
"Loose sheets!" he bellowed. "Haul away!"
Sails snapped to the slight wind, flapped loosely, filled. La Souris kicked up foam from her prow as she slowly gained way.
Confused, angry shouts sounded behind them. They could hear the French ship come to life, could hear their men rush up into the yards and loosen sail.
"Mr. Matthews," Hornblower said, his eyes searching the solid wall of grey astern them. "Two points to larboard, if you please. Let us confound them. Every two minutes, turn two more points to starboard. Let us run astern them, loop right around behind them, then away!"
Matthews grinned, saluted, turned the wheel the ordered two points. "Aye, aye, sir!" he said.
"Mr. Styles!" Hornblower called out. "Ready to wear ship, if you please!"
He gazed over at Lila. She stared at him through narrowed, blazing eyes, then spun on her heel and stomped below.
Hornblower stood outside the door to Lila's tiny cabin, the former ship's mate's quarters, next to the captain own, and hesitated, his knuckles poised to knock. What could he possibly say to her to return him to her good graces? His reaching for the baby when the little one squealed had been instinctual. He had again acted without thought. He leaned his forehead against the cold wood door. He had been so pig-headed, so stupid. Why was he so dense? He thought to push open the door and fall to his knees before her, throwing himself at her mercy. What a pretty sight that would be! Debase himself before her; grovel for forgiveness at her feet. He might as well offer to lick clean her shoes while he was at it.
He straightened as best he could under the low deckhead, thumped himself on the forehead. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
He exhaled in frustration, turned from the door, stepped into his own cabin, spun around again, his knuckles poised once more at her door.
He steeled himself.
A squeal pierced the air, followed by insistent, ear-splitting wails.
Lila's door flung open and she started through, brought up short by Hornblower's body blocking the corridor. Her eyes were wide and terrified. She clutched at him, pulling him into her cabin.
"He is terribly distressed, Horatio!" she cried. "I nursed him and he just curled up into a tight ball and then began this wailing! This attack is much worse than any I've seen!" Her eyes filled with tears. "I-I cannot comfort him! Before I could rub his belly and he would quiet somewhat, but this time." She turned her tear-filled eyes to Hornblower's face. "What am I to do?" She bit her trembling lip and a sob caught in her throat.
Hornblower gave her as compassionate a look as he could muster, then bent to the baby, naked and kicking in his basket. Little Edward's tiny hands balled into fists and his legs drew up to his abdomen. He wailed in horrid, tortured tones, his round face red with the strain. Hornblower thought he had the look of someone struggling with terrible stomach cramps. Was the poor little thing constipated?
Hornblower reached out and tried his hand at rubbing the velvety belly, with its protruding umbilical button. The baby's stomach was distended, taut as a drum. Maybe he was constipated. Hornblower thought a good physic would do the child a world of good, like that which Indefatigable's doctor prescribed to the many complaining seamen after eating the cook's bean soup.
He turned to Lila, his arms out to the baby. "May I-may I pick him up?" he asked, his own eyes wide. He'd never held a baby before, but maybe he could comfort the little one. Maybe the baby would think he was safe in his own father's arms and that would soothe him.
Lila nodded, tears falling freely from her eyes. Horatio wanted to embrace her, wanted to comfort her, but if he could affect solace in the child, he would as much have accomplished as he desired. She would indeed be comforted.
He worked his hands tenderly under the weightless, warm neck and back, shifted his hands to the back and buttocks, shifted back to support the neck again, gingerly lifted. The baby squirmed, his squealing increasing. Hornblower lowered him again, his hands shaking. Try again. He placed his hands once more under the head and the buttocks, lifted the tiny bundle and placed it against his shoulder like he had seen mothers hold their babies. Edward screamed in his ear. Hornblower winced, patted the child's back. Edward's screams gurgled into steady crying, much as Hornblower had heard from the baby the entire three days since he'd been aboard.
Hornblower exhaled. At least the really tortured screaming had subsided.
The gurgling increased from Edward's mouth and Hornblower heard Lila gasp. What now? She took up a towel, wiped at the baby's mouth, then wiped down Hornblower's back.
"Terribly sorry, Horatio, about that," she said. "I shall clean up your coat for you at the earliest moment."
He rolled his eyes. The baby had spit up all over Hornblower's coat.
The child quieted somewhat. Maybe he had nursed too much. Hornblower had heard of that, overfeeding. Lila had confessed to not knowing much about babies. Maybe that was the little one's problem. She was letting him nurse too long.
But what did Hornblower know?
He patted the baby's back, rocked back and forth, bounced the little one up and down. Edward wailed and cried.
Lila had stopped her own crying, regarded Hornblower with sympathy in her green eyes. "'Tis how I spend many an hour, Horatio. He cries more if I put him down. I fear you are trapped."
Hornblower tipped his head, his lips curling up into a gentle smile. "I can think of worse confinements," he said. He put his nose into the crook of the baby's neck, inhaled. The gentle scent filled his nostrils, the crying still shaking the little body. He lightly brushed the baby's black curls with his lips. "There, there, little one. Life is not so hard, not for one like you. Do not be so distressed. 'Tis only later that life becomes difficult." His smile increased and Lila smiled in return.
He was in love!
Lila's smile widened. "I think he likes you, Horatio. He is quieting."
Hornblower leaned his head against Edward's, listened as the cries subsided. Contentment and peace washed over him.
A loud blowing of matter and air filled the cabin. Hornblower felt warm goo wash over the hand which he used to support the baby's bottom. A foul odour, worse than any he could remember, swept over him. Warm liquid dripped down his breeches' front.
Lila clapped her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide.
Dear God! Edward was definitely not constipated!
"Leftenant Mrs. Peters! Hurmph!" Captain Sir Edward Pellew paced back and forth in front of the mahogany desk in his richly appointed cabin aboard HMS Indefatigable. "Not on my ship, you're not!" Pellew raised his chin, his flinty eyes staring at Lila. "Of course Edward Tremayne would come up with such a cock-and-bull idea as a woman officer! The man is positively eccentric!"
Lila stepped forward. "If it pleases you, sir, I came here merely to thank you for the use of your prize vessel as a transport for my child and me. We did not even draw the ship away from its intended course, but helped with its deportment and quick arrival here in Gibraltar!"
Pellew narrowed his eyes at her. "Mrs. Peters, never let it be said I am unfeeling to another's distress. You are welcome and I have not the slightest objection to your captain transferring you and your child to my prize. I merely make an observation that you and your kind are unwelcome in the navy!"
She stepped closer, her own eyes as hard as his. Her voice was quiet. "And what kind might that be, sir?"
Hornblower stood beside them and he, as well, stepped closer to Pellew. "Ha-humm. Captain, what kind of person are you referring to, might I ask?"
Pellew drew himself up, attempting to match Hornblower's height and failing miserably. "Not you too, Hornblower! And you held such promise!"
Lila spoke up. "Mr. Hornblower is an excellent officer, Captain Pellew! I would be proud to have him under my command!"
Pellew snorted. "'Under your command,' indeed, Mrs. Peters. As I said, not on my ship!"
Hornblower glanced at Lila, caught her gaze, shrugged. She drew her lips into a tight line, rolled her eyes.
"You will cease that immediately, Mrs. Peters! 'Tis unbecoming of an off-'tis unladylike!" Pellew commanded.
Hornblower ducked his head, attempted to hide the smile that had come to his lips. He bent, instead, to Edward's basket, fussing with the baby's blankets.
Pellew followed his motion. "And how is the child?" Pellew cleared his throat. "Has your mission been successful?"
Lila raised her chin, looked at Pellew down the length of her slightly crooked nose. "The doctors here were of little help, Captain. I had to take matters into my own hands. A physic of dandelion root and fennel seed that I myself mixed for him has done wonders for the child. He fusses still, but his episodes are lessening."
Pellew exhaled. "Well, at least one aspect of your voyage was successful."
"Every aspect of my voyage was a success, Captain, sir. We escaped from the French. We preserved your prize from a vicious squall. We delivered her unharmed to your own good fortune." She squared her shoulders. "And we saved my child's life, sir. Foremost and most importantly."
Edward punctuated his mother's statement by sending forth a wail of distress.
Lila's shoulders slumped slightly. "He still, unfortunately, has his moments. He is not cured completely, just comforted."
Picking up the baby, Hornblower held him against his shoulder, patted the tiny back. Edward squirmed and fussed. Hornblower transferred him to both his arms, cradling him to his chest. Edward cried, his tiny face flushing. Hornblower, inspiration hitting him, thrust the end of his pinky into Edward's pursed mouth. Edward quieted immediately, sucking contentedly at Hornblower's finger.
Pellew's right eyebrow rose. "Well, Mr. Hornblower. It seems you are skilled at many things. You have discovered your true calling!" Pellew guffawed. "Looks as though you'll make a bloody fine father some day!"