A Midnight Clear
by Joan C.

There was a ring around the moon that Christmas Eve; an otherworldly
signal that some would say portended great events and disturbances. The
pale orb hovered over the English Channel and the ship that drifted in
silence on the waters, with furled sails, and lanterns like small, warm
stars. It was a cold night, and the sea was calm, though any sailor on
the Indefatigable knew that a ring around the moon meant a weather
change within a day.

Captain Sir Edward Pellew knew the old weather superstition as well as
any of the men he commanded, and he believed it. He scowled at the moon
from the wide windows of his cabin, and tapped the envelope in his hand
against his palm. He did not like the orders it contained, any more
than he liked the moon. Or being away from his wife and children ...
How many Christmases had he spent with Lady Susan since their marriage?
Perhaps five. Five Christmases to delight in his family, in the faces
of his children, in Susan's beauty. There had been too many nights like
this one, spent at sea on the quarter-deck of a ship, keeping watch.
What a dreary life, it seemed at times.

He sighed heavily and returned to his desk. He unfolded the letter and
re-read the orders. They had not changed. The dispatch had been
delivered three days ago, with instructions that it was not to be
opened until the Indefatigable had arrived off the coast of Brtittany.
Pellew disliked secrecy: it seemed whenever it was required, disaster
loomed not far behind. And these orders reeked of it.

To risk his ship, and the lives of his men to rendezvous with a French
spy! Was that one man worth it? Yet, even as he chafed against the
necessity of obeying those orders, Pellew knew that he would do his
duty and uphold his oath to King and country.

Pellew snatched up his cloak and cocked hat and ascended to the
quarter-deck. He had no difficulty recognizing the Officer of the
Watch. He could have picked that gangly figure out from a crowd. "Good
evening, Mr. Hornblower," Pellew said quietly.

Hornblower started with surprise. He had been so deep in thought that
he had not heard the Captain' approach. His hand went to the brim of
his hat. "Good evening, sir."

Even in the dim light, Pellew could see the flush of embarrassment on
the boy's cheekbones. Pellew tried not to smile. God knew where his
thoughts had been this night. Not on the Indefatigable, no doubt. Under
other circumstances, he might have been annoyed at the lack of
attention; but it was Christmas Eve, and Hornblower was very far from
home. It did not require much imagination to read the mind of a
eighteen-year old spending his first Christmas apart from his family.
If Pellew longed for his home after half a lifetime at sea, then he
could imagine Hornblower's emotions.

He considered his Acting Lieutenant. Judging from the unhappy droop of
his mouth, a diversion was needed. Pellew thought of the orders back in
his cabin. Despite his misgivings, it did not seem to be a particularly
hazardous errand. There were no signs of French warships waiting to
pounce on the Indefatigable or shore batteries that would pound her
into splinters.

In addition, Hornblower had proven himself to be more than capable of
handling responsibilities that would have daunted older and more
experienced officers. He had quick wits, imagination, and a flair for
tactics. Surely he could navigate his way to shore, pick up the agent
and return to the Indefatigable without incident. Surely he could.
Pellew cleared his throat. "Mr. Hornblower, I have a commission for
you."

"For me, sir?"

"Yes, have Cleveland take over the watch and come to my cabin."

"Aye, aye, sir."
***********

An hour later, Hornblower with Matthews, Styles, and Oldroyd were on
the shore, and making their way up a rocky beach. Matthews carried a
shuttered lantern. It was not to light their way, but to signal their
presence. They depended on the faint moonlight for illumination.
Horatio fingered the hilt of his sword. The instructions had seemed
simple enough: rendezvous with their contact at an abandoned
lighthouse, verify his identity through a password, and return with him
to the Indefatigable. A child could have done it.

The path ascended sharply, and as soon as they crested the cliff, the
lighthouse came into view. "Matthews, the lantern." Horatio ordered.
"Time to announce our presence."

"Aye, sir." Matthews cast an eye skyward. "It's gettin' colder, sir.
That wind'll start pickin' up soon."

"The we'd better find our man." Horatio stood slowly upright. "Give me
the lantern." He took it, and lifted the shutter twice. There was no
answering signal from the lighthouse. "Damn! There should be something
--" He tried once more, and this time, to his relief, there was a
response -- One long flash, then two briefer ones. "All right, men.
that's the sign. Let's get our passenger and go home for Christmas
dinner."

"Boiled beef and biscuits," Styles snorted. "We're in bloody France.
I've heard these Frogs can make oakum taste bloody good."

"And Frenchy brandy, right sir?" Oldroyd suggested hopefully.

Horatio wondered sometimes if the British Navy floated on rum instead
of sea water. "We are not here to plunder French larders!" he whispered
sharply. "Oldroyd, you're the best shot. Stay here and cover us just in
case there's trouble."

"You expectin' it, sir?" Styles sounded hopeful.

"I always expect it." Horatio muttered. They moved forward, hugging the
shadows until they were at the lighthouse door. "Wait here, Matthews.
No sense in all of us walking into a trap. If something happens, get
back to the Indy."

Horatio drew his pistol and knocked softly. When there was no response,
he cocked it. He was ready to signal retreat, when he heard a voice
from inside giving the arranged password. With his pistol still held at
the ready, he shoved inward, and the door swung open with a rusty
squeak. "Monsieur?" he whispered.

A snick of flint and steel, and a flare of light as a candle was lit,
revealing a man standing at a rickety table. He too held a pistol,
cocked, in a shaky hand, and he was very pale. When he saw Horatio, he
released the hammer with a sigh and laid the gun down. "Enfin! Merci du
Dieu," he gasped.

"Indeed, Monsieur --"

"Dupres, Giles Dupres."

"Acting Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower of the Indefatigable. Come,
monsieur, the sooner we return to the Indy --" His words were cut off
by a muffled cry of pain coming from the darkness. Instinctively, he
swung his pistol towards the sound.

"Non! M'sieur --" the Frenchman knocked his pistol away. "I beg you
--!"

"What is it, what's over there? Who are you?"

"Please, lieutenant. It is my wife."

"Your wife? Is she ill, or wounded?" Horatio's mind was already racing
ahead to the logistical problems of transporting an injured woman down
to the shore.

"She is in labor, lieutenant."

Horatio felt as if all the air had been sucked out of his lungs. His
father was a doctor, he was not ignorant of the implications. "H-how
long has she been having pains?" he asked. "Perhaps --"

"Impossible!" Dupres gasped. "She cannot be moved. The child is coming
--" A fresh cry of pain seemed to indicate that much was true.

Horatio pushed Dupres aside and snatched up the candle. There, in the
corner, huddled on a bed of tattered blankets, lay a woman -- scarcely
a woman, she looked a child herself. She was paper white, and her hair
was matted with sweat. There were deep shadows around her eyes, and
those eyes were filled with pain. "How long?" Horatio repeated.

"Since yesterday," Dupres admitted. "I did not want to travel, but I
could not risk being captured. I want my child to be born free, not in
La Force."

Better to be born in prison, than to die before drawing a breath,
Horatio thought. But to castigate Dupres was useless. He knelt beside
the woman. The pain seemed to ebb, and she gave a sob of relief.
Horatio touched her hand; it was dry and hot. "Monsieur, she needs
water."

He moved away and allowed Dupres to take his place. What a nightmare!
Clearly, she could not be left alone, or moved down to the beach until
she had given birth. He had two choices: he could leave Dupres and his
wife here and return to the Indy. A safe choice for himself and his
men, but unacceptable. Or, they could stay, risking their lives and the
lives of Dupre, his wife, and their soon to be born child. That was the
only choice he could live with. He crossed to the door and opened it.

"Matthews!"

He emerged from the shadows, his pistol cocked. "Is everything all
right, sir?"

"No. We have a problem. Monsieur Dupres neglected to mention that he
had a wife with him, and that she was about to give birth."

"Now, sir?"

"Yes, now. And she is not well, Matthews. My father is a doctor, not a
midwife -- I don't know what to do."

Styles coughed. "Can we get her to the Indy, sir?"

"No. She cannot be moved. Styles, do you know anything?"

"Me, sir?" He laughed. "I knows how they gets in, sir. How they gets
out ain't my concern."

"It is about to become your concern," Horatio snapped.

Matthews spoke up quietly. "Beggin' pardon, sir. But will she let me
have a look? I know summat. Can't live in the country and not see a
babe bein' born."

Horatio blinked. Matthews was an unfailing surprise. "Thank you,
Matthews. Styles, better fetch Oldroyd. We'll need him for a lookout."

They went inside, and Horatio led Matthews to where the woman lay.
"What is her name, Monsieur?" he asked.

"Marie."

"Monsieur, this is Seaman Matthews. Will you let him examine your wife?
I believe he can help her better than you or I."

"Yes, anything. I cannot bear her suffering."

"Tell her who Matthews is. Make her understand that he means no harm."
Horatio knelt beside the girl. Her dark eyes were fixed on her
husband's face as he made his explanations. She nodded in comprehension
and then her face twisted in pain as a contraction hit. She was trying
so hard not to scream. Horatio could not help taking her hand.

Dupres held some water to her lips and smoothed the hair from her
forehead. He spoke some soothing words in French, too rapidly for
Horatio to catch more than a brief endearment. Neither he, nor Dupres
were able to watch Matthews as he did his examination.

"Well?" Horatio asked.

"It won't be long now, sir. If there is some clean linen -- petticoats,
a shirt -- something to wrap the babe in ... And we need to get a fire
goin' sir."

"Damn!" Horatio cursed. Why was nothing ever simple? A fire meant
smoke; meant possible discovery, capture and betrayal. Without a fire
-- Horatio looked down at Marie Dupres. She was breathing hard, her
lips bitten and bloody. "All right. What else?"

"Water, sir. And a knife."

Horatio did not want to know why. He went outside and stared up at the
moon. It was still ringed with light. Out there, on that dreaming
stretch of sea was the Indy, lights doused, waiting for their return.
Well, they would wait, he hoped, and had a nightmare vision of daylight
revealing nothing but an empty ocean.

"Sir, is everything all right?" Styles came beside him quietly, with
Oldroyd not far behind.

"As well as can be expected. Oldroyd, gather some dry wood. It will
make less smoke."

"Sir!" Styles protested. "Yer might as well send up a signal to the
Frogs!"

"We have no choice, Styles. That woman in there could die, and her baby
with her, if we don't keep her warm."

Styles grumbled, but he went with Oldroyd to gather some wood while
Horatio stood watch. When they returned, Horatio took the wood inside
and kindled a small fire. When the kindling caught, he held his hands
in front of it, and rubbed his cold fingers together. He hoped Marie
Dupres could feel the warmth.

Her labor was harder now, but somehow Matthews' presence had comforted
and steadied her. Most likely she did not understand his low-voiced
encouragement, but she knew that he was there to help her. Matthews was
a marvel: how he knew to support a woman in labor as easily as he put
heart into a frightened midshipman was a mystery to Hornblower. It was
a talent he wished he could learn.

Horatio stepped outside. The changing weather promised by the ring
around the moon was become a reality. The rush of surf on the rocks
below was more pronounced than it had been just an hour earlier, and
the faint silver light on the water glittered on the foaming waves. The
wind was shifting to the north, and it would bring snow. Overhead, the
shredded clouds unveiled a single, piercingly bright star, and Horatio
remembered that it was Christmas Eve. He shivered and tucked his hands
inside his cloak.

It should not matter to him. It was not a much celebrated holiday in
the Hornblower household in recent times. It had not always been so.
Horatio had memories, and they came to him with a force he had not felt
for years. He remembered the taste of the shortbread Mrs. Dabney plied
him with, hoping to put some weight on his slight frame; and the scent
of the pomander balls his mother had made -- oranges studded thickly
with cloves, smelling exotic and foreign. The light touch of her lips
on his hair as she paused in her work. ... and her voice, humming
Christmas carols. The music itself had meant nothing to him, but his
mother's voice made him happy.

And then she was gone, taken by the same fever that had nearly killed
him. After that, there had been no joy, or warmth, or music. Dr.
Hornblower had been called away frequently, for illness and pain did
not take holidays, and Horatio had spent many Christmas Eves in the
kitchen with Mrs. Dabney and her son, John. Margaret had tried to fill
the void left by Louisa Hornblower's death, but no matter what comfort
she offered, it had not been enough. Horatio had always been glad when
Winter term called him back to school.


He closed his eyes tightly against the burning tears. Surely, it was
the wind that caused them, not the memories. He turned with an angry,
restless motion and headed down towards the sentry post manned by
Styles.

"G'd evenin, sir." Styles nodded.

"Anything to report?"

"Naw, peaceful as a sleepin' babe, sir. Speakin' of which ..."

Horatio shook his head. "No, not yet. Matthews says it will not be long
now."

"Sooner the better if you ask me, sir. Damn way to be spendin'
Christmas Eve."

"Yes, it is."

Styles grinned. "Not as I've ever had much of one -- growin' up like I
did. Me mum allus said it was the worst night of the year. All the
Toffs stayed ëome or went to church."

Horatio stirred uneasily. To Styles, he was one of the ëToffs.' Rich,
idle folk who spent Christmas in warm houses, and exchanged gifts that
would have kept a family like his for a month. "Keep an eye out,
Styles. I'll check on Oldroyd."

"Aye, aye, sir." Styles watched Hornblower's thin form fade into the
darkness. He was a good lad, but with no idea that one could go hungry
on Christmas Eve because there were no pockets to pick, or men willing
to pay a whore so she could feed her family. He remembered how his mum
would come home, her worn face pinched with cold and hunger. If they
were lucky, she would have a loaf of bread begged from a shop at the
close of the day. When he was little -- five or six, she would give him
a penny -- a shiny one, and he would feel like a king. As he grew
older and streetwise, he would be out on the streets with her. He'd had
good hands, and he was quick when he was small. But then he grew tall
and menacing. Men would cross the street to avoid him. All except the
Press Gang. He'd managed to escape their clutches, too. Until the day
he'd been hauled up before a Magistrate for stealing food. He'd only
done it to feed his mum and his younger brothers. A bloody Christmas
that had been ...

Reckon that magistrate had saved his life -- not what he had intended
when he had sentenced the scarred, bitter young man to servitude in his
Majesty's Navy. The Navy or Newgate -- those were his choices. Styles
sighed and looked up at the stars. They were much brighter here than
they ever been in the rookeries. He hadn't made such a bad choice after
all ... Styles sighed and settled his back more comfortably against the
rocks.

Horatio paced down the path towards Oldroyd's sentry post. It was
sharply colder now, the wind whipping away the plume of his breath in
an instant. The sea even seemed thicker; as if the water were slowing
down, and the moon was just a faint silver lozenge in the clouds.

"Who goes there?" Oldroyd whispered. The moon glinted faintly off his
long musket.

"Hornblower." He stepped behind the rocky outcropping and stood next to
the seaman. "Still quiet?"

"Yes, sir." Oldroyd looked sidewise at the officer next to him. The
Acting Lieutenant was younger than he was, but he had a way about him
that made him seem nearly as old as Captain Pellew. Odd, but Oldroyd
took some comfort in that. It was bad enough being in France, but at
least with Mr. Hornblower you could count on getting out of there with
your head intact. Damned Frenchies and their gillyteen.

The cold wind ruffling his hair reminded Oldroyd of England. Back home
his mum would be getting ready for Christmas dinner. Goose, they always
had and plum pudding with all the trimmings. His dad, a seaman like his
father before him, missed a lot of those dinners, but his mum, she
always made them special, even if it meant doing without for a month
before and a month after. This year, he had sent home some of his pay,
and he wondered if it had helped. Three younger brothers and a baby
sister needed to be fed, and not just on Christmas Eve.

Prompted by that thought he asked, "Sir, has the baby come yet?"

"No." Horatio sighed. "I'd best be getting back. Just keep an eye out
for anything unusual."

"D'ye think the Frenchies'd do anything tonight, sir? On Christmas
Eve?"

"Why not? It's just another day." Horatio made his way back to the
lighthouse, feeling as if the weight of the world was bowing down his
shoulders.

Oldroyd shook his head. It wasn't just another day, not in his mind.

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

Horatio paused outside the lighthouse door. He had faced the horrors of
battle, had seen men wounded to death, had heard their screams as
surgeons had cut off limbs and probed for bullets; but he was unwilling
to face childbirth. Matthews had more spine than he did, that was
certain. And then, ashamed to show weakness, he set his jaw and went
inside.

Matthews turned as the drift of cold air struck his back. The grim
expression on his face softened as he saw Hornblower. That look made
Horatio's heart sink. "What is it, Matthews?" The sailor came forward.
Horatio saw blood on his hands. "Oh, God. Is it that bad?"

"She's a game lass, but about out of strength, sir."

"And the baby?"

Matthews shrugged helplessly. "I don't know, sir."

Horatio went to the corner where the woman lay. Giles Dupres was
kneeling there, holding his wife's hand. He looked up at Horatio, his
eyes haunted. "You should leave, Lieutenant. I never intended that you
should be in such danger."

Horatio would have said that Dupres should never have brought his wife
with him, but could not be so cruel. "There is no immediate danger. We
will not leave you in any case." He touched Dupres' shoulder. "You
should get some fresh air, m'sieur. Your wife will need your strength."

Dupres nodded and rose. "Thank you, lieutenant. You are a good man."

Horatio felt a blush rise to his cheeks. He shook his head in denial,
and crouched beside Marie Dupres. Her breath was coming in shallow
pants, as if she were running a race, and her forehead was beaded with
sweat. As Horatio watched, her pale face suddenly contorted and she
grabbed his hand so hard that he thought his bones would crack. She had
no strength to scream, but a harsh sob of pain broke from her throat.

Matthews handed Horatio a damp cloth. "Here, sir. If you would wipe her
face." Matthews bent close to speak to Marie. "You're a brave lass.
That's a good long pain -- you'll be coming along now, and soon that
babe will be in your arms and this will be over."

Horatio held the cloth against Marie's forehead, and as the contraction
passed, she opened her eyes. They fixed on Horatio's; huge dark wells
filled with exhaustion and pain. "It will be all right," he said,
realizing too late that she did not understand him, and that his
reassurances were a forlorn hope at best. He tried to recall the words
in French, and found himself mute. "You and the baby will be all
right," he repeated, more for himself than for her. Horatio raised her
head and gave her a sip of water. She tried to smile with her swollen
lips, and formed a silent "merci," before the next pain took her.

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

Matthews thought a night had never seemed so long. He was afraid; he, a
man who had been in battles, who had weathered storms, who had spent
ten days in an open boat with little hope of rescue -- he was afraid
that he could not save two lives. He was not doctor, nor even a
midwife; it was hardly his responsibility. That blame lay with Dupres
who had been fool enough to bring a wife about to drop a child. The
damn fool!

He walked away from the makeshift bed for a moment. The lass would be
all right with Lieutenant Hornblower at her side. Funny, that she
should seem to know it, too. Matthews was glad to step out into the
cold, fresh air. He looked up at the stars, and thought of the first
Christmas. Here he was with a woman about to give birth, a fugitive
husband, and only a bed of straw and rough blankets. Seemed fitting
somehow.

He smiled at the thought. Quite a Christmas. Eighteen years ago, he had
been a green sailor; seized by a wanderlust he could not explain. He
had taken the King's shilling and joined the Navy. He had no wife, no
children to worry about, just a desire to see the world. And so he had.
Eighteen Christmases, and his feet were still itching for adventure.
Maybe if he were to leave the Indy, things would be different, and he
would want a home and a hearth. Right now, he wanted to be around when
young Mr. Hornblower made his mark. It was only a matter of time ...

"Matthews!" Hornblower's anxious cry broke his reverie. "Quickly!"

**************
The Indefatigable rode on the waves; sails furled, but waiting for the
rising wind. The chop was more noticeable; the threat of worsening
weather becoming a reality as the night wore on. But it was not only
the weather that had Captain Pellew frantic with worry.

Two hours -- it should not have taken above two hours to land, pick up
the agent, and return to the Indy. Even if there had been a delay, two
hours should have been enough.

Pellew paced. Five hours had passed. Endless hours. There had been no
signs of distress from the shore. If there had been some sort of
conflict, they would have heard gunfire on the wind. But not if there
had been a trap laid, Pellew thought, and shivered as the wind whipped
his cloak about him. Damn! Where was Hornblower? One more hour, one
more and he would have Mr. Bowles set out with a company of Marines to
retrieve them.

When that hour had passed, and fifteen minutes more, Pellew made a
decisive move. He turned to his Sailing Master. "Mr. Bowles, take
Captain Smythe and twenty marines to that damned lighthouse, and find
out what the devil is happening."

"Aye, aye, sir." Bowles' eyes narrowed. "There's been no sign of
trouble."

"No, but better to err on the side of caution than to risk..." Pellew
cleared his throat roughly. "...valuable men. There must be some reason
for this delay -- and it had better not be a cask of French Brandy."

Bowles smiled at that, but there was no answering glint of humor in
Pellew's dark eyes. He left the quarter-deck, assembled the Marines,
and in thirty minutes they were preparing to land on the beach below
the lighthouse.

************
Styles yawned. It had been a long night; it was cold, and the wind was
piercing his thick pea-jacket. He thought longingly of the lighthouse,
where there was four walls and a fire. And a woman giving birth. Better
to be out here than closed in with a crying woman. He rubbed his aching
eyes and looked back to the water. Bloody Hell! There was a boat in the
cove. The transient moonlight had leached all color from the scene, but
there looked to be at least twenty men and they were nearly to the
beach. Styles cursed and as quickly and quietly as he could hurried up
the path toward Oldroyd's post.

"Oldroyd!" He hissed. "Bloody boat coming! We've got to get Mr.
Hornblower." He grabbed the younger man's arm before he could say
anything and towed him towards the lighthouse. They burst into the door
at the same instant a scream broke through the silence.

**************
Mr. Bowles and his company of Marines toiled up the steep path to the
lighthouse. The red coats of the Marines were dulled to burgundy by the
darkness, but they were hardly invisible, or soundless. Bowles felt
horribly exposed, and the captain of the marines next to him was pale
and tense. But as yet, there was no sign of trouble, and aside from
the ships' boat dragged up on the beach, no sign of Hornblower and the
men of his division.

"Mr. Bowles," Captain Thomas tugged at his sleeve. There's smoke coming
from the lighthouse chimney."

Bowles thought that if he found Hornblower and his men huddled in front
of a cozy fire, he would shoot them all, and blame the French. It was
hardly like Mr. Hornblower to be so derelict in his duties, Bowles
argued to himself, and then cursed as he twisted his ankle on a rock.
Happy Christmas, indeed.

The marines closed upon the lighthouse, and there was still no sign of
any hostile activity. Mr. Bowles was beginning to feel as though he
were about to swat a butterfly with a cannon. He motioned to the
marines to stay back, while he and two seamen approached the door.
Still cautious, and with his pistol cocked and ready, he reached for
the door handle and shoved it open.

"STAND WHERE YOU ARE!" He roared, and then felt as if he had stepped
off the end of the world.

"Mr. Bowles!" Horatio gasped and lowered his sword which had been about
to lop off the Sailing Master's gun hand. The two men stood facing each
other, chests heaving. Horatio wondered which of them was more pale;
Bowles or himself. He thought his knees were about to give way.

"Well, lad. I hope you have an explanation for Captain Pellew --"
Bowles' intended lecture was cut off by the high, thin wail of a new
life.

"Mr. Hornblower, sir. I could use a hand here."

Horatio turned. "Yes, Matthews." He grinned at Mr. Bowles. "As you can
see, we've been unavoidably detained." He sheathed his sword, nodding
to Styles and Oldroyd who were placed between the door and the corner
where Marie Dupres had given birth.

Matthews gave him a wide smile. "It's a wee lass, sir. Pretty as a
picture." He held out an impossibly tiny bundle. "If you would, sir.
I've a couple things to attend to here. Mr. Dupres, if you would hold
your wife up a wee bit -- "

Horatio took the baby in his arms. So small, so light, so fragile. He
turned back an obscuring fold of the shirt the child was wrapped in.
She was smeared a bit still with blood, testament to the struggle her
mother had waged to give her birth. She was not beautiful, he thought,
but she was miraculous. Her mouth opened in protest at the chilly air,
and Horatio shielded her with the cloth again and went to Dupres' side.


The man looked as exhausted as his wife. "M'sieur Dupres. Your
daughter." He passed the child over to Dupres, who knelt beside his
wife.

"Marie, voici notre fille. Elle est tres belle. Comme toi."

Marie touched the child's cheek. She was too weak to hold her, but her
eyes glowed with love. She smiled at her husband, and then looked at
Horatio. "Merci, monsieur. Merci." Her eyes closed and she sighed.

"Matthews, is she all right?" Horatio asked.

"Aye, sir. Just plumb wore out. Birthin's hardest work in the world, me
mum used to say."

"When can we get back to the Indy?"

Mr. Bowles came forward. "Sir, I have a company of Marines with me.
Surely we can rig up a stretcher for the lass as soon as she can be
moved. The weather's turning."

"I know." He was suddenly weary. "Perhaps we can send one of the boats
ahead to the Indy. To tell Captain Pellew that we are all right."

"Aye, aye, sir. You've had quite a night, lad."

"Indeed, Mr. Bowles. I shall be very glad to be back on board and away
from this place."

****************
Captain Pellew paced the deck. Two ships' boats gone, two crews
vanished into the darkness of the Brittany coast, and still no word.
Damn! He had trusted Hornblower. Had he been mistaken? And what about
Mr. Bowles? If any lack of attention on Hornblower's part had cost the
Indy the best Sailing Master she had ever had, he would see him before
a Courts Martial. Pellew paced, worried, and glowered at his crew. One
more hour ...

One more hour, and what? To risk another boat and another twenty men
was out of the question. Was it a trap? Pellew shuddered. He had an
unhappy vision of Hornblower and Bowles spending Christmas in a French
prison. Damn! Where were they ...

"Boats ahoy!" the topman called, and Pellew whipped around, cape
swirling. He swung his spy glass to his eye and peered over the waters,
not daring to hope that his prayers were to be answered. The shapes
resolved themselves slowly, ghosts come from a misty grave. Pellew held
his breath. As the boats neared, he could pick out the shakoes of the
Marines, and then Mr. Bowles' form at the head of the first boat. The
second boat drew closer, and Pellew breathed a sigh of relief.
Hornblower, unmistakable at the tiller. The three men of his division,
and someone else -- the agent, perhaps? Pellew's gaze narrowed and he
lowered the glass slowly.

"Mr. Cleveland," he ordered the Midshipman at his side. "It seems Mr.
Hornblower has an unexpected guest. Prepare quarters for a lady."

"A lady, sir?"

"Quickly, man. And have the steward dole out some rum. No doubt they
shall need it."

"Aye, aye, sir." Cleveland hurried off and Pellew watched as the boats
drew alongside the Indy, and the crews climbed on board.

**************
Pellew peered rather self-consciously into the sickbay. There were many
things in this world he had never thought to see; and certainly one of
them was the sight of his self-contained Acting Lieutenant gazing down
in wonder at a child in his arms.

Marie Dupres was sitting propped up by a number of pillows, two which
had come from Pellew's own cabin. Her dark hair, brushed and glossy,
tumbled across her shoulders, and her husband was at her side, holding
her hand and smiling. Hornblower stood nearby, the baby cradled
carefully against his chest. And standing near Hornblower, the three
men of his division; Styles, Oldroyd, and Matthews, who by all accounts
had been a superior midwife. The entire scene was lent a pale, golden
glow by lantern light. The features of the principles were shadowed and
gilded; Hornblower's sharp cheekbones, Matthews' weather-beaten
countenance, Styles scarred face, softened by an expression he would no
doubt have denied. Pellew smiled, reminded of a painting he had seen
once of the Nativity. And so it was Christmas, by God.

He cleared his throat, and came into the cabin. "Mr. Hornblower, if you
please, I will need you to set down the events of the evening for the
ship's log."

"Aye, aye, sir." He returned the babe to Madame Dupres. "Merci, madame.
Elle est tres belle." As he started to leave, Monsieur Dupres detained
him for a moment. "Lieutenant Hornblower, what was your mother's name?"

"Louisa. Her name was Louisa."

"Then that is our child's name. Merci, monsieur. Without you and your
men, the night's outcome would have been much different. We are in your
debt."

Hornblower blushed, as Pellew knew he would. "I am honored, Monsieur. I
only did what was right." He followed Pellew out of the sick bay.
Neither man spoke until they were standing on the quarterdeck.

Overhead, the clouds were shredding into misty veils, and the stars
showed like gems through lace. Pellew drew in a breath of icy air and
stood with his hands clasped behind his back. He felt Hornblower near
him. "It is past midnight, Mr. Hornblower. I suggest you take some
rest. You've earned it."

"Thank you, sir." Horatio did not make a move to leave. He stood, his
body accustomed now to the dip and sway of the Indy; to the way she
rode the waves and the sound of the wind in the rigging and sails.

Captain Pellew smiled slightly. Yes, he knew what it was like to
realize that you were in love with the sea. Perhaps this would not be
such a lonely Christmas for Hornblower, after all. "Happy Christmas,
Mr. Hornblower."

Horatio's eyes filled with tears that he quickly blinked away lest the
Captain think he was maudlin. "And to you, sir."

And so they stood, each grateful for the others' company, on this
extraordinary night. One man thought of the past; of a wife and a warm
house, and the laughter of children. The other thought of the future,
which at this moment seemed as limitless as the heavens overhead.

THE END

And Merry Christmas to all!