The Morning After
by Dunnage41

At approximately 4 o’clock in the morning, Horatio Hornblower had been awakened by a succession of unfamiliar noises. He propped himself up on one elbow and drew back one of the bed-curtains, careful not to wake Barbara. Once he realized that he was hearing a pair of feet clumsily ascending the stairs, he identified the earlier sounds as the front door of Smallbridge being noisily opened and closed, and the entrant noisily bumping into the table that stood in the front hall, before achieving the stairs. After he was satisfied with the knowledge of what he was hearing, he was able to go back to sleep until dawn, when he followed his usual routine of waking, swiftly dressing, and walking round the village for an hour. He returned home, availed himself of the shower-bath, and settled into his library until breakfast.
"Brown."
"Yes, my lord?" Brown was in the doorway of the library before his name had entirely left Hornblower’s lips.
"When Richard awakens," he said deliberately, "see his is sent directly to me."
"Yes, my lord."
At breakfast, Barbara looked surprised at Richard’s absence and also at the apparent indifference which her husband displayed. At last she lifted her eyebrows. "Where might Richard be, dearest?"
"I fancy he had a rather late night of it, my dear," Hornblower said carelessly. He was determined not to show any emotion until he learned exactly how Richard had occupied himself up till 4 in the morning.
Hornblower devoted the morning to sorting through papers in the library, but as the ormolu clock on a nearby book-case ticked the morning away he found it difficult to keep his irritation in check. At long last Richard appeared in the doorway. Hornblower rose and looked his son over. At seventeen Richard had the gangling coltish appearance of his father as well as his tumble of curls, but his eyes were the light hazel of his mother. Though normally large, keen and intelligent, this day they appeared as reddened slits, the lids puffy above and shadowed below. His cheeks were unshaven and his face pallid. Hornblower noted with amusement that he moved as though in fear of being disjointed. He heartlessly made his voice louder than necessary as he spoke.
"Good afternoon, Richard." He was rewarded with a pained wince as his son unthinkingly put a hand to his temple.
"Good afternoon, Father," Richard mumbled, his voice thick with sleep and discomfort.
"Sit you down," he said kindly, but undid the effect by raising his voice again for Brown. This time Richard put both hands to his temples.
"Coffee for us, Brown," he said, noting the wave of nausea that Richard quelled at the thought.
"I assure you," he said dryly, "its effect will mitigate some of the discomfort you are experiencing. The party at which you disported yourself must have been extraordinarily pleasant for you to have stayed until 4 o’clock in the morning." At that a faint groan escaped; had Richard really believed he had made it into the house unheard?
"Well?" Hornblower said sharply when nothing followed the groan..
"I … er … I seem to have had too much to drink," Richard mumbled.
"Clearly," Hornblower said. "Do you remember anything else that occurred? Did you play cards, perhaps?"
At that Richard turned even paler and blinked several times, forcing himself to gaze in horror at his father. "I played," he gulped.
Hornblower had been prepared to offer merely a mild comment about overindulging in drink and to let Richard take his disquieted head and stomach as his punishment, but now his attention was sharpened and he found his pulses racing, not with excitement but with anxiety. What in God’s name had Richard done?
"Richard," he snapped, hearing the familiar quarterdeck rasp in his voice, "Were you foolish enough to play at cards after having overindulged?"
Richard merely nodded miserably, unable to meet his father’s eyes.
Hornblower tried a ranging shot. "Did you lose the balance of your allowance for the month?" Even that would not be enough to cause Richard such embarrassment. He would merely have to live without it until his purse was refreshed a fortnight hence.
Another nod, but Richard still would not meet Hornblower’s eyes.
"How much?" Hornblower raised his voice and hardened his tone. He might have been addressing an unalterably stupid midshipman. Richard winced and looked past Hornblower’s ear, still unable to look his father in the eye. Hornblower grimaced in expectation of bad news.
"I … I …"
"Out with it!" Hornblower bellowed, rising in sudden fury and slamming his hand down on the desk so hard that the quill juddered in the ink pot.
"Oh," Richard gasped, but the authority Hornblower had displayed at last had its effect. "I … er … I am in debt to … a gentleman."
Hornblower fell into his chair in disbelief, then instinctively rose again and began to pace, unable to keep still in the face of such unthinkable news. To run up a minor debt to a tailor or other tradesman until one refreshed one’s purse was entirely acceptable and even expected for young
gentlemen of a certain class. But to play beyond one’s purse at the card table was a serious embarrassment and risked actual disgrace. Hornblower was suddenly so furious that for a moment he was actually blinded by it, his vision clouded. His temples throbbed and he felt a vein in his throat pulsing as well.
In one impulsive stroke his son -- his son! -- had besmirched the good name Hornblower had striven for thirty-five years to pass on to him, had handled it as carelessly as though it were a twig to be used and discarded. He had embarrassed himself and his father and stepmother, and done so publicly, in the company of other gentlemen.
"You played beyond your purse!" Hornblower roared, so angry that he could only state the obvious. "You made bets you knew you could not afford to pay on the instant, on a game not even of chance but one that requires a clear head and a steady hand! You -- never -- bet beyond your purse! Never!"
As his voice rose, it only stoked his fury rather than spent it. Brown cautiously put his head round the doorframe but instantly withdrew.
Hornblower paused in front of his son, suddenly roused by the sight of him lolling incautiously back in his chair and nursing his head. "Stand up!" he bellowed. Richard obediently rose, stiff and dizzy, his head throbbing unmercifully and his father’s raised voice merely adding to the compound of misery he was now experiencing.
"How much?" Hornblower’s fury had transcended volume, and Richard found to his surprise that the sudden deadly quiet in his father’s voice was more menacing than the angry bellow that had preceded it. What would Father do to him? He might -- he might -- Richard’s disordered mind groped for the most extreme possibilities. Father might throw him out of the house and cut him off without a farthing. Richard stuttered in his nervousness.
"T-t-t-twenty pound," he finally stammered out. His father’s eyes widened and the color drained from his face.
"Twenty pound," he said, the two words snapping out of him like the quiet but fatal snick of the guillotine. "Twenty pound." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "Dear God." Without warning came the bellow again. "Brown! Brown!"
"Yes, my lord."
"Bring me twenty pound at once."
"Yes, my lord."
Hornblower gestured abruptly to the desk. "There are pen and paper. Write a note. You will take the twenty pound immediately to … this gentleman’s house and deliver them to him with an apology, both spoken and written. You’ll go on horseback" -- this sudden inspiration of Hornblower’s prompted another groan from Richard at the thought of being unmercifully jounced -- "and you’ll return to me before the half hour has passed. Well?"
"Yes, Father," Richard mumbled. He bent stiffly over the desk. The instant he had finished and sanded the note, Hornblower snatched it up and read it over. Then he folded into it the notes Brown had brought and sealed the packet. He thrust it unceremoniously at Richard.
"Twenty minutes, sir, and not one minute more." He sank back into his chair as Richard glumly left the room. In the welcome silence a very unwelcome thought struck him with clarity. He had not yet determined what else Richard might have said or done. When the wine was in and the wit was out, it was entirely possible to say or do something that might not be so easily repaired. To have bet beyond one’s purse was a serious social offense, although the relatively prompt payment would no doubt put it to rights, at least Hornblower devoutly hoped. What else might Richard have done or said while inebriated? Hornblower’s mind raced round the awful possibilities. By the time a chastened Richard reappeared, Hornblower had been pacing for a full fifteen minutes.
"Well, sir," he snapped, as Richard edged into the room. "I assure you that twenty pound will come directly from your next month’s allowance. It would seem that from a serious want of funds, perforce you will be passing your evenings for the next – ah, six weeks -- at home. Perhaps that will give you time to reflect on your folly. And time, I daresay, for me to devote to your education. Oh, yes," he added, as Richard looked up in some surprise. "Clearly I have failed in my duties as a father to allow you to be both so unaware and disrespectful of your head for spirits. I can see that we have much to address. Meanwhile," he said, changing his tone ominously.
Richard felt his stomach, already unquiet, lurch. What could his father possibly be saying next?
"I had asked you what you remembered of the evening," Hornblower continued remorselessly. "I suppose we must be gratified that you at least remembered your debt," he snapped. "I gather, however, that you might well have taken action with your tongue or your hands of which you have no recollection."
"No ... yes .... I ..." Richard stammered helplessly.
Hornblower sank into his chair. "Dear God," he muttered. "Let us pray that the remainder of this day does not bring fresh evidence of your folly. Yes, your folly," he added, as Richard allowed an injured expression to show. "While it is common enough for young gentlemen to indulge in drink," he spat the word out with the contempt of a naturally abstemious man, "it is also their responsibility to find where their head for spirits might lie and to respect it. I suppose we must be grateful that at least you do not appear to have challenged another gentleman to a duel at first light."
"Father ... I ..."
"Go away," Hornblower snapped, suddenly weary of the exercise, his disgust at Richard’s behavior overcoming whatever small pleasure he might derive from his son’s discomfort, which in any event was small indeed. As Richard crept from the room, Hornblower sank his head into one hand and sighed deeply. Not for the first time did his sense of duty war with his ties to his family. He had long since reconciled himself to abrupt departures and long separations with hardly a qualm, an equanimity helped in large measure by the steady knowledge of Barbara’s acceptance of the necessity of such departures and separations.. It helped a great deal that she was a Wellesley with two brothers in service. She had sent him off time and time again with poise and grace, and he showed his gratitude by being such a poor father that his own son behaved disgracefully. He would have to tell her, and he did not relish the task.
At once he was both spared of the necessity of sending for her and faced with the unwelcome thing he must do, for she was coming into the library, stopping beside his chair, and bending over him, her graceful arms round his neck.
"What troubles you, dearest?" She could not have but heard his raised voice and quite probably had seen Richard slinking away with his tail between his legs.
Horatio felt his head drop, his neck bent with embarrassment. He cleared his throat – he could hardly help it – and met his wife’s cool gaze. He thought about the time that she had asked him for two hundred pounds and not told him at first why she wanted it. He took a deep breath.
"Richard has behaved abominably," he said at last.
"In what way, dearest?"
"He ... indebted himself at cards." Even at his most frustrated Hornblower could not bring himself to be any more direct.
Though Barbara considered indebtedness at cards to be a minor matter, settled between gentlemen, and of passing import at best – unless one persistently avoided his debts – she had no doubt that the incident had been the cause of her husband’s raised voice and her stepson’s abashed appearance. Clearly to Horatio the question of indebtedness at cards meant embarrassment verging on social disgrace. Wisely, then, she said nothing.
Hornblower sharpened his gaze. "Well?"
Despite herself, amusement glinted in Barbara’s eyes. "Well, dearest?"
"Do you not find this news most unwelcome?"
"I assume that by now Richard has settled his debts?"
"Indeed he has," Hornblower returned stiffly. Then, "Barbara, can you not see it? Richard embarrassed himself amongst gentlemen! You gamble with what you have with you! Never more.. Further, he has impugned the good name that I worked so hard to give him – and the good name he had the good fortune to receive from you and from your brothers – his godfathers. I’ve devoted thirty years of my life to making the name Hornblower worthy of respect, and a night’s drunken foolishness could very well have imperiled a lifetime’s work."
"An exaggeration, surely, darling," Barbara ventured. She drew a deep breath. She did not wish an argument.
Hornblower closed his eyes and shook his head. "Time will tell. He confesses that he does not recall all of what passed last night."
"Oh, dear," Barbara blurted.
"Indeed," Hornblower said dryly. "No telling what the next days will bring. He’ll have to face the consequences – as already he has begun to do."
Barbara lowered her eyes. Whether she spoke or remained silent, she would be the recipient en passant of the remains of her husband’s anger. "I am sure you chastised him most appropriately, darling," she said quietly. Amazingly, it was the right thing to say. Even more amazingly, it touched Hornblower’s reserve of humor. Now when she met his gaze his dark eyes were dancing and his lips twitched.
"I dare say," he said, a gurgle of laughter in his voice. "I suspect he will not again be so foolish as to attempt to play whist after drinking." He straightened. "In any event, whilst I am here I will supervise his ability to respect his head for spirits a trifle more." He would have said more, but a slight noise interrupted him. Richard stood in the doorway, all penitence.
"Well?"
"Father." God, the effort it cost Richard to say that word.
"Yes?" Hornblower snapped impatiently. He was hardly making this easy.
"Might I ... might I ... offer my apologies?"
"Your apology is noted, Richard," Hornblower said, then unbent slightly. "I will make my acceptance of it conditional upon your continued good behavior." The look he gave Richard was all the forgiveness the boy needed. Other young men might have seen those words as a threat, but for Richard Arthur Horatio Hornblower, they proved both a tonic and a bracing challenge, and the reply leapt unbidden to his lips.
"Aye, aye, sir."