The Package (New Life 2)
by Archer's Aim
Sequel to "A Fair Match"
May 1842, London.
"A pointless waste of time," fumed Horatio Hornblower as he stalked through the door of the London home he and Barbara had rented for the Season.
Hornblower was not fond of society, attending its functions only when his position or his wife absolutely required his presence. When ashore, he much preferred to stay in the country, despite Barbara's insistence that he should journey to London for some entertainment.
However, last Christmas, Barbara had received a letter from the husband of her late childhood friend. The man had a simple, yet time-consuming, request would she assist in presenting his daughter to society? The girl, who had been named after Barbara, was making her bow this Season.
His wife had leapt at the opportunity, and over the next several weeks, planned her campaign through society with the same care Hornblower devoted to missions for the Admiralty. Then, late one night, she mentioned, off-handedly, that the presence of an older, distinguished, somewhat famous man /might/ be of some small assistance in achieving a successful match for her namesake.
In a moment of weakness, Hornblower heard himself agreeing to accompany her to London.
Over the last two months, he had endured the parties, teas and luncheons held at their home, and even, with long-suffering patience, attended a few balls, although he escaped from the pain of the music into a card room as soon as he was allowed. Finally, seeking a respite from the 'entertainment', he had accepted an invitation to journey to Plymouth and review plans for a revolutionary type of ship destined, its designers said, to be the future of the Admiralty's fleet.
'Some future,' Hornblower thought derisively, doubting very much that the vessel would stay afloat long enough to be christened.
He was tired, dirty from the journey, and feeling very old as he climbed the stairs. London was in the grip of an unusual heat wave, and the air inside the house felt stifling. All he wanted was a bath, clean clothes, and time to rest.
The first two were easy to arrange, but the last, it seemed, was not for him this day. The butler Barbara had engaged informed him that his mail had been "accumulating" in the study during the time he was away.
With a sigh, Hornblower sank into a chair and surveyed his desk or what he could see of it. Stacks of envelopes covered the surface, arranged by his secretary according to Hornblower's exacting standards. Letters from family and friends a pitifully small pile. Communications from his business manager concerning the estate. Bills to be paid a much larger stack, including, he knew, several from Barbara's modiste he did love her but presenting her namesake to society had spurred her shopping instincts to new levels. And the last, and largest, stack solicitations seeking his support for, and investment in, all types of projects.
Hornblower did not immediately notice the package. It was small, wrapped in brown paper and marked only with his name and the postal frank. Not knowing the contents, his secretary had placed it to one side, behind the pile of 'investment opportunities'.
He almost left it unopened. He had spent or wasted, in his opinion two hours clearing the piles from his desk, with most of the 'opportunities' ending up in the trash basket. He looked at the package, for a moment contemplated leaving it till after dinner. But Hornblower had never liked to leave matters unfinished, and so he slit the seal and removed the paper.
He was left holding a simple wooden box. Opening it, he found three items a letter addressed to him, atop a small parcel wrapped in white paper, and beneath them, a leather journal, cracked and worn. The letter, along with his name and titles, bore the caution "To be opened first".
A lifetime of obeying orders had him reaching for the letter.
"Horatio Hornblower, Admiral, Royal Navy."
I am directed, by the will of my late father-in-law, Benedict Peabody, to present to you the enclosed items, along with the instruction that, I quote, 'He is to open the parcel first, then read or destroy the rest as he best determines.'
After opening the parcel, should you then wish to receive the remainder of your legacy, contact Mr. Harkins of the venerable firm Harald, Greeves & Harkins, London. He has kindly agreed to act as my agent in this matter, and shall retain the rest of Captain Peabody's bequest to you in his office until you instruct him otherwise.
I remain, your servant,
Attorney-At-Law, Boston, Massachusetts"
Hornblower read the letter, twice, then leaned back in his chair and looked at the box in confusion.
He had been left something by a man from America. A Captain Peabody.
Staring blankly at the box, he once again relived an encounter he'd never, try as he might, been able to understand.
Captain Peabody, of the 'Fair Kate', out of Boston. Met only once, off the coast of the Americas. A man who had outmaneuvered every attempt by Hornblower to board the 'Kate' and seize men Hornblower desperately needed to crew his own, much under-manned ship. Peabody had been able to anticipate every move Hornblower made, almost before he made them. And twice he'd had Hornblower's ship square in his guns' sights and refused to fire.
Hornblower had spent the last thirty-three years wondering how.
He had never lacked for courage. Taking a breath, Hornblower opened the parcel to find a blue-velvet presentation case. Inside it, a locket, an ivory miniature of a smiling woman with curling hair and expressive dark eyes.
"What . . . how . . .?" Hornblower stammered aloud.
After Jack Simpson had ripped the locket from his neck that fateful night, Hornblower had feared losing the last piece of his mother that he possessed. He had carefully wrapped her locket in a strip of oilcloth, then hidden it deep in his seachest, where it remained for years. Until he left it with a friend.
Clutching the locket in his left hand, Hornblower opened the journal.
"My dear friend," read the first entry, scrawled across the endpage and flyleaf in a shaky hand.
"I trust that this communication does not cause too many problems for you. I thought it best that there be no contact between us these many years, for, I will admit, I desired to continue enjoying my freedom and my life, and also wished to shelter you from any conflicts you might otherwise face. Had I risked sending a letter to you, I feared that it would be intercepted and brought to the attention of the wrong parties, resulting in the destruction of what has become, as I once predicted, a bright and shining career."
"If this letter now causes you pain, or reminds you of things you truly, at this point in your life, wish forgotten, I beg you to forgive me. You have my freely-given permission to read no further, and to destroy this journal and what I leave to you. It is not my intention to hurt you I merely thought that, after these many years, I could offer some small, belated, explanation to you, for the sake of the friendship we once had for one another."
"I enclose your mother's locket, which you left with me in Kingston. I imagined, when I finally was in a mind that could imagine anything, that you meant it as a gesture of comfort to my memory, a symbol that I still had one friend a brother who would always remember me fondly. Thank you, Horatio. You will never know how much I needed that. Her locket served as comfort and support to me in a time when I knew not who to trust or where to turn. And in the end, I found the strength to accept and live my new life."
"I have had many years of happiness that, had events gone differently in Kingston, I would otherwise never have known. Since we parted, I married my sweet Molly, who taught me to love and trust again, and left me only last year. I had children two sons and a daughter who brought me joy, made me proud, and presented me with the most beautiful and intelligent grandchildren any man could wish for. I captained my own ships, and built many more."
"I became a part of a most-interesting country, where I was finally free of the shadows. I saw such amazing things, Horatio, things that I have often wished I could have shared with you."
"I found, at last, a place in life, with a beloved family and many good friends."
"Yet none of those friends ever came as close to my heart as you, my brother. I never ceased to miss, at least a little, the life I left behind. In a corner of my mind, I mourned that I was never your lieutenant, that it was Mr. Bush, good man that he was, who stood in the place that should have been mine."
"And when it came to it, I could not fire upon you and your ship, not even to save myself and my family and friends. Not if I could find a way to avoid it. I have thanked God every day since then that he gave me the wisdom to keep the Kate out of your way."
"Or perhaps I should thank the many, many games of strategy we played against one another while on the Indy!"
"Please know, Horatio, that I do not regret Kingston. On that day, I honestly believed I was to die, and soon. I made the only choice that I could, when presented with the facts by a man who had nothing to gain from telling me the truth. And so I did what I did. That with the help of that man, and others, I survived, and lived to prosper in a new land, does not change my conviction that my choice was the right one. Now, at the end of my days, I look back to that day with pride."
"And Horatio? It was not your fault. I know that somewhere, in some corner of your mind, you have never ceased harboring a doubt or two about those events. Stop. If you must, place the blame squarely where it should have always rested with the fools yes, fools, Horatio who controlled the Admiralty and our lives at that time. Men who placed personal gain and political power over the real needs of their country and the men who defended her. Including poor Sawyer, who deserved a much better reward for devoting his life to his country's service."
"So I give you leave now to release any regrets. You could have changed nothing. You could not have prevented us from being assigned to Renown and placed under Sawyer's command. You could not have stopped his descent into the madness that claimed him. Knowing women so much better, I believe, than you do, even now!, let me tell you that you could not have prevented the Senora from finding a way to free her man."
"And had it not been me in the way, you would have been shot, and left to lie in that bed, while I fumbled my way through that farce of a trial and probably led us all straight to the steps of Hammond's gallows!"
"All life, all things, have a purpose for being, so a wise woman told me to be honest, told me repeatedly until I finally came to believe her, on the day our first son was born. For whatever reason, we were always meant to be parted, I to a new life in the Americas, you to the greatness you deserved. I have kept track of you from afar, felt pride at your accomplishments and sorrow for your many losses."
"But we have been near 40 years apart, as I write this, and it may be that you have changed more than I know, so much so that the ramblings of an old man now cause you embarrassment, or anger, or fear of some betrayal. And so, enough. If that is the case, burn this little book, then issue instructions for the remaining volumes to be destroyed as well. Or else, if you are still my Horatio, and wish to know what became of one you thought lost long ago, read on. Then send for the other volumes which Adam, the husband of my beloved daughter Rosalind, has promised to entrust to a reliable friend for safekeeping."
"Whatever your decision, know that it will not change in one iota my love and respect for you, my friend."
"May we meet again afterwards. Till then."
Underneath the name, two initials, carefully drawn.
Laying the journal down, Hornblower wrapped his hands around his mother's locket. He closed his eyes, his mouth set in a tight line. For the next hour, he made no sound, merely breathed softly, sitting motionless until the sun was setting, the tree outside the window casting wide shadows across the desk.
Finally opening his eyes, he smiled faintly, running his thumb over the face of the locket. Placing it gently in its case, he reached up to light the lamp resting on the corner of the desk.
Then he picked up the journal and began to read . . .