An Overdue Confrontation
Author's note: In order to get the characters into the time and place I wanted them to be, I have altered ranks, ages, chronology, and even a little geography.
Admiral Sir Edward Pellew stood, hat in hand, in the back garden and gazed down at the sleeping figure. At 42, Commodore Horatio Hornblower was no longer the gangly coltish youth so quick to perceive a slight to his pride. Still the legs were as long as ever, stretched to their full length and lightly crossed at the ankles. The hands loosely resting on the broad chest were now roughened by years of work and sea but still held their elegant skill whether with a pistol or a hand of whist. The tumbled curls were beginning to be threaded with gray and were retreating from the broad forehead, and lines lightly fanned the large keen eyes that now fluttered open.
"Sir," Horatio unfolded himself and stood, wincing a little, and clasped his old friend's hand. "An unexpected pleasure. You will dine with us," he suggested.
The men sat, both a bit gingerly, for differing reasons Pellew merely from the stiffness of his fifty-nine years and Horatio still weak from the remains of typhus and Pellew fixed Horatio with a gaze. "You are not entirely well, sir," he remarked.
Horatio grimaced with impatience. "I am mending," he said, although his face was an unhealthy gray and his breath short. "I have been idle long enough. We sail tomorrow." Pellew did not ask where. He too had received orders, and each knew he would be accompanying the other toward the American conflict.
"I … come on a difficult mission, sir," Pellew said, stifling a cough. "Your age is two-and-forty, is it not?" Ignoring the raised eyebrows, he added, "The same as my own age when you first came aboard the Indefatigable." He cleared his throat.. "If your father approximates my age, he is nearly sixty."
"My father, sir?" Horatio spoke quietly but with an undertone of steel, and his face had gone bone white. Pellew ignored the steel and said impatiently, "Good God, man, there are no secrets on board a ship."
Horatio swallowed. "I do not speak of my father, sir." The tone of his voice was still and also wary, a tone which, had Pellew heard it from a midshipman, would have prompted an immediate rebuke. There flashed in his mind just such a tone he had heard from Horatio before, and just such a scene.
"You resent!" he had roared at the 17-year-old. "Damn your impudence, sir!"
Now, however, Pellew again ignored the tone and said only, "I once thought the sea would beat your damnably fierce pride from you, but you're as stubborn as ever." He frowned. "Surely courtesy demands"
"Courtesy, sir? Am I to return it when none has been extended?" He met Pellew's unflinching gaze.
"Will you not at least talk to the man?"
"To what effect, sir? I have nothing to say. Nor, I dare say, does he."
Wordlessly Pellew handed over a stiff folded sheet of paper. Even at a remove of three decades, Horatio recognized the writing.
"I thank you for your recent correspondence. As you note, once one attains our age, one discovers, if too late, that family is too precious to be so carelessly cast aside. You are correct in writing that my son and I seldom communicate.
"The blame, I hasten to add, lies entirely with me.. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to converse with the boy, and though I would desire nothing more, I fear he now would have little to say to me."
Horatio skimmed over the closing paragraph and the signature, then looked away, willing back the damnable moisture that prickled his eyes.
"You wrote to him," he said, hating the tremble he heard in his voice. Pellew saw him hesitate on the verge of a rebuke born of stubbornness and pride and disgust at having emotions.
Pellew gently cleared his throat. "Have you," he said softly, "so much family that you have and to spare?"
Now the eyes did flash and the lean body rose and decisively turned its back and the restless hands clenched and opened. A long moment passed, a moment in which Horatio surely willed from his mind's eye the image of his first wife and two children, before he turned to face Pellew, who had also risen.
"How dare you," Horatio said very quietly. "How dare you."
"How do any of us dare?" interjected a different voice.
Pellew now saw that for Horatio, courtesy did demand, at least to a minimal degree. He gave his father a nod of the head and a curt, "Sir," and gestured toward a chair. The older man sat, ramrod straight, and in silence. Pellew expelled a long breath through his nose and silently withdrew for a stroll. He had no idea whether the thing would go off in his face, but they surely deserved privacy.
"You are well, sir?" Horatio said quietly.
The older man nodded. "Tolerable," he said. "You, however, are not."
Horatio waved his hand impatiently. "The remains of typhus," he said. "I am well enough. We sail on the morrow."
Silence fell again. Hornblower said awkwardly, "Admiral Pellew wrote me."
"Yes, I know," Horatio said, his words clipped as though he grudged his father each syllable he had to spend.
Stubborn and proud as both men were, they were also habitually direct, and so after another awkward silence, the doctor said: "Horatio. Why do you reject me?"
Horatio's eyes widened and he pulled his head back in some disbelief. "Reject you, sir? It was you who rejected me." At his father's blank gaze, he continued. "You blamed me for my mother's death. You might have spared yourself the effort; I blame myself."
Lips parted, Horatio paused, gathering strength for the question he himself had. "Is that why you sent me away?"
"Yes, of course," Horatio said. He might have been addressing an incompetent midshipman. "I heard you. It was the morning after … after I had recovered … I was in the hallway outside the kitchen. I heard you say to Mrs. Cameron, 'The damned boy won't listen. And now look. I wish to God he'd never been born.'" He paused. The older man's face had paled, and he held a hand to his chest. His breathing was shallow. Ignoring his own exhaustion, Horatio instinctively rose and felt for his father's pulse. "Are you well, sir?"
Now it was the father's turn to wave the son's query away. "Fine," he said hoarsely, color returning to his face. "Sit down."
Instead, Horatio rang a bell that stood on the table and told the answering servant, "Brandy. Quickly."
His father took a few sips, then set the glass down and looked away. Silence again descended. Horatio, unable to sit still, rose and began to pace, hands clasped behind his back, and it was to Horatio's back, easier to address than his face, that his father spoke.
"I didn't mean it, Horatio," he said, sounding near tears. "I didn't mean it. I was … a young husband, I was half-mad with grief, I couldn't think, I hadn't slept. I didn't mean it."
"You did, sir," Horatio returned coldly. "Else you would not have sent me away."
"The two are not related," the doctor said, foundering.
"One does not say such things and not mean them."
"Horatio. For God's sake."
"God, sir?" Horatio turned, his face marble, cold and expressionless. Such a look would chill a young sailor to his bones, the father thought irrelevantly. "Since the finger of God struck down my mother and left me to live, I've not had much use for him."
His father ignored the blasphemy. "Please. Sit down." Blinking, Horatio sat. He had never heard his father use such a pleading tone. Always before the voice had been brusque, coming from far above the young head, indifferent and supremely uninterested. Years of long-dulled pain had become sharp upon seeing his father again, and he thought his heart, around which he had built a thickly protective wall, might break from the confusion and anger he felt.
He sat, but looked away. "You cannot say you do not blame me."
"I can and I do," his father said. "You … know what it is to lose a wife."
In the instant, Horatio was again on his feet, back to the older man, hands locked behind his back.
"Will you listen to me!" The older man raised his voice and Horatio instinctively whipped around. The look in his eyes made the doctor raise a trembling hand to his mouth. He'd seen that look, but not for decades, not since Horatio was three or four or five. The look was of abject fear, of an animal waiting for the blow, and it had always unconsciously raised in his father resentment and guilt, which tended to manifest itself as impatient disgust. At such times he had invariably growled at the boy to go away and the boy had always scurried off, leaving his father to wonder if Louisa was determined to raise a trembling ninny of a son.
Seeing that look now, across the years, in a middle-aged man his own height and greater, a commodore in His Majesty's Britannic Navy, a man who had faced death countless times and whose reputation in the papers of the day was of a man of courage, resourcefulness, and determination, flooded the doctor with shame. He turned away and said nothing.
Horatio, too, was silent, hearing a dozen impulsive answers and letting none of them spring to his lips. Finally, enervated beyond all sense, he fell into the chair and took a large swallow of brandy. "So long as we both continue stubborn we will make no progress, sir," he said, a trace, incredibly, of humor in his voice.
The older man looked up with surprise, retrieved from the guillotine. "Horatio," he said. "Horatio."
"Yes, Father." The boy had not addressed him so in years.
"I regret what I said … just now. And I have for years regretted that thoughtless remark in the kitchen. Even more do I regret that you overheard it." He sighed.. "I … Louisa was the one who wanted a child. I had nothing to do with children and knew little about them, save how they came into the world." He heard a dry snort of laughter from his right, but did not meet his son's gaze.
"Louisa and Mrs. Cameron raised you. I had no knowledge of my role and knew not how to speak to you, what to do with you…. Sometimes your mother would lead you to me and say, 'Play with him,' and go away, and I never knew what I was supposed to do."
"You did not know your duty, sir," Horatio said dryly.
"Duty? No, sir. I … did … love you, boy. I suppose I just didn't know how." He took a swallow of brandy and waved away the proffered bottle. "I sent you away because … because …" He swallowed hard. "You were your mother's image, you know. Her hair, her eyes, her hands, that smile … I was shy and studious, more fond of books than people … books would not hurt one … she was thoughtful and graceful and kind … so kind … her heart would contain the whole world. She never could bear to see anything suffer or in pain. You were like her, always, and when she died I thought there was no point in continuing." The words finally, after fits and starts, poured forth like a torrent over a dam that had given way. "I would see you and my heart would break all over again. I knew you were too bright for the village school … you would have to be sent to school eventually … and what was I to do with you after your mother died?"
Horatio wearily brushed a hand against his eyes. "You forbade me to go to the village. Had I not gone.…"
His father shook his head impatiently. "Your mother had already been to the village, helping families tend their children." He felt, rather than saw, Horatio grow still beside him. "She might even have given it to you. I couldn't stop her. I told you, she could never bear to see anything or anyone suffer."
Now Horatio was crying, and he waited for his father's rebuke. When it did not come, he glanced over to see, to his shock, that his father had a handkerchief to his own eyes. Hastily Horatio dried his tears and took a deep, shaky breath. He had never been so exhausted.. He felt as drained as an emptied bottle.
Into the heightened silence erupted an explosion of sound. A blurred figure wrenched open the door and streaked heedless into the garden, followed by a dog. The boy and dog tumbled, laughing, along the grass before the dog bounded off and the boy stood, breathless.
Doctor Hornblower caught his breath sharply. "He's you," he breathed. "To the life."
Horatio glanced interestedly at his father. "Me, sir?"
"By God," his father's lips twitched. "Your image, sir."
"Was I all elbows and legs and hair that wouldn't stay tamed?"
"Yes, and … before … your mother could always make you laugh. Bright, too, and … ahem … stubborn."
Horatio's face had entirely softened as he watched Richard with the dog. "Richard," he called. "Come here." As the boy trotted over, Horatio stood and allowed the boy to grab him about the thighs. He waited until the fierce grip loosened, then squatted down to the boy's level something, the doctor noted, that he did instinctively, yet something that he himself had never done with the boy Horatio.
"Richard," he said softly, "this man is … your grandpapa."
"Grandpapa?" Richard said in confusion. "I did not know I had one."
Horatio bit his lip. "Have one you do, sir, and here he is. Manners," he added in an undertone.
Young Richard straightened and made a hopeless attempt to brush his tumble of dark curls from his eyes. He held out his hand. "Hello, Grandpapa," he said calmly.
"Hello, Master Richard," his grandfather said with equal solemnity. "Will you sit?" He patted his bony knee and the boy immediately clambered aboard, curving his slender body against the man's frail chest.
"Papa," the boy turned his gaze on Horatio. "Do you sail tomorrow?"
"Where are you going?" the boy demanded.
"That, I cannot tell you."
"I know, Papa," the boy continued.
"Do you, my boy?" Horatio's eyes danced. "Where now?"
Immediately, Richard returned, "Away from Portsmouth."
All three Hornblowers turned at the sound of Edward Pellew's bark of laughter. He had rounded the corner of the house in time to hear the exchange.
"Away from Portsmouth, eh, Master Richard?" Pellew said cheerily. He dug in his pocket. "Such cleverness deserves reward. Here is tuppence for you."
Without prompting, Richard slid from his grandfather's lap and made a small bow. "Thank you, Admiral Pellew," he said, taking the tuppence, then dashed inside without excusing himself. The Hornblowers, father and son, stood, and without awkwardness the older man put his arm around his son and helped him inside.