Free Hosting

Free Web Hosting with PHP, MySQL, Apache, FTP and more.
Get your Free SubDOMAIN you.6te.net or you.eu5.org or...
Create your account NOW at http://www.freewebhostingarea.com.

Cheap Domains

Cheap Domains
starting at $2.99/year

check

Hornblower's Revelation
by Lt. Lila

Author's note: This should be read after reading the other two HH/Lt. Lila crossover stories. Though I try to write each story in such a way that the reader doesn't HAVE to read the others, I feel that the impact would be lost if they were read out of order. But it's up to you! (HH and the Lady Lieutenant #1 and HH and the Lost Weekend #2. This is #3, in a way.)

Note: For some mysterious reason my stories seem to all come out to about 18 double-spaced pages in length! I understand they don't POST that way, but, 'tis oddabout 26000 words!

***

"Jack Peters! Alive!" Captain Horatio Hornblower of His Majesty's Navy exclaimed upon seeing the tall, thin man before him. He thrust out his hand. "My word! I'd heard you had miraculously returned, but-my God!-to see you in the flesh!"

"And to touch my flesh as well," Jack replied, his face split in a great grin. He took Hornblower's hand in a hearty shake.

"You shall have to tell me of your adventures someday, Commander Peters," Hornblower said. He hadn't heard of Jack Peters' latest accomplishment, promotion, but he clearly saw the glittering epaulette on Peters' left uniform shoulder. Master and Commander, it signified.

"I shall be delighted, Captain, sir," Jack said, bowing his head slightly. "Tonight, I am sure! We have a goodly mix of people invited to share our good fortune! Lila made the guest list, of course, of those she knew were still in London after the funeral."

Hornblower nodded, exhaled. The Funeral. He had been a major factor in the Event, overseeing the Funeral Procession down the Thames to St. Paul's Cathedral where Nelson's body had been lain-in-state. The Procession had had its moments of difficulties, but Hornblower had seen his way through--at the exact same moment his wife gave birth to their new daughter.

His wife.

Hornblower started to attention, cleared his throat. "Commander Peters, if I may present my wife, Maria." He handed over the plump woman fidgeting next to him.

Peters bent to her stubby fingers, brushed the back of her podgy hand with his lips. "Mrs. Hornblower! A delight, I am sure! Well met, Madam!"

Maria blushed and fluttered her free hand at her breast. "Why, thank you, Commander Peters. I am ever grateful for your courteous invitation to dine with you and your friends and family!"

Hornblower looked at her.  She was flustered! Hornblower had known Jack Peters from years ago, eleven to be exact, and the man had had an animal magnetism about him then. Now it seemed magnified. Hornblower knew somewhat of what Peters' had been through a number of years gone-his abandonment into the hands of New Guinea savages-cannibals to be exact-the proclamation of his death, his subsequent discovery and return like the Prodigal Son. Jack Peters had a sharper, darker edge to him now, a leaner, more dangerous aspect that Hornblower found unsettlingly attractive.

Maria too, it appeared.

She stammered and scraped and curtsied, her face red and her apple-dumpling cheeks glowing.

She did not have to endure her discomfort in the presence of Jack Peters for long, however.  Far greater discomfort awaited her, unfortunately.

A voice at the top of the long staircase of the London townhouse drew her and Hornblower's attention.

"Horatio!" the woman at the top of the stairs squealed and dashed down the steps to his open arms.

Lila squeezed him tightly and he sucked in a lungful of her scent. Roses, as always.

He pushed her away, held her at arm's length, studied her up and down her slim, post-natal form. She had had a baby, too, on the very same day as Maria, the Gazette had announced, yet Lila carried none of the extra weight that plagued most post-birth women and Maria in particular.

Lila turned to Maria. Hornblower's wife drew herself up to her petite tallest, regarded her hostess haughtily.  Hornblower could sense Maria's disapproval. Lila was, as usual, wearing men's half-breeches and a maroon riding jacket that complimented her bright green eyes. Maria would, Hornblower knew, find the idea of a woman wearing men's clothing to be the most blatant of social faux pas.  Lila smiled at Maria, a slight crease shadowing her brow, unknowing and certainly uncaring of Maria's attitude.

So, that was the way it would be then, Hornblower thought. Rivals.  As if he hadn't have guessed already.

"Mrs. Hornblower," Lila said. "Such a delight to finally meet you!" Her voice dripped honey-sweetness and she narrowed her eyes as she took Maria's hand in hers and squeezed. Hard. Hornblower saw Maria flinch.

He'd have thought better of Lila!

Maria regarded the lush Oriental runner adorning the foyer. "And I, you," she stated.

Hornblower beamed with pride at Maria's decorum. He had fretted overly about their meeting, the two women, each aware, however vaguely, of the other's impact on his life. He had loved Lila at one point, had imagined a life together with her but she had rejected him.

He had married Maria instead.

He had worried over Maria's reception of his old lover, though he had never actually come out and told her that Lila and he had spent shore leave together those four years ago, months before Hornblower had even met Maria.

Lover!

He and Lila had not actually been "lovers" as the word was generally construed. They had spent a wild weekend together, after Jack had been declared dead and buried, and long before Hornblower had been married.

Hornblower smiled in spite of himself. But they were lovers, he and Lila, even to this day. He inhaled, puffed out his chest.

He knew he loved her still.

Lila and Jack led Hornblower and Maria into the main drawing room of the townhouse that they rented.

Introductions began.

The admiral first, of course. Maria curtsied to her lowest and Hornblower cringed when he saw the look of pain flash across her face as she straightened up. She would be weeks recovering fully from the birth.

Lila seemed not bothered in the least from her own delivery. She bounced around the great salon, energetic and vivacious as always, seeing to her guests needs and teasing with her friends.

Admiral Lord MacHenry, Lila's uncle and patron, brushed his lips against Maria's fingers as Jack had done and received the same nervous fluster from Maria as had Jack.

"My Lord," she whispered.

Lord MacHenry was a tall thin man, with a sharp, hawk face and steel-grey hair tied into a precise queue. His blue eyes glittered from deep-set eye sockets. His mouth was a slash and Hornblower thought that hard mouth did not smile often.

"Captain Hornblower," he said and his voice carried deep and resonant. Hornblower thought on the midshipmen and crew who would dare to displease this man and their sorry state after he'd had his way with them. "You're under Jervie, I gather. You had command of the Funeral Barge. Good show, that. Well done, sir!"

"Thank you, sir," Hornblower muttered.  Good show! Aside from the barge springing a leak and nearly sinking, the overseeing of the Funeral Procession was a stress-filled, unrewarding task. Hornblower had felt almost as if he were being punished for some unknown indiscretion when he had received his assignment.

An equally tall man lurked by Lord MacHenry's shoulder.

"Steven Eldritch, of London," introduced Jack.

Hornblower extended his hand and his eyes widened slightly once his attention was fully on the man. Steven Eldritch wore a pale blue velvet jacket, fitted closely to his slim form, cut high in the front, with tall sweeping lapels and overlong tails. The shoulders of the jacket puffed up to an extreme Hornblower had not seen before. The underlying waistcoat, in deeper blue satin, protruded smartly from the waist and out of the jacket's lapels. Crisp white ruffles filled the man's throat like the wattles of a grand tom turkey. His sandy brown hair was clipped short and had been carefully curled and arranged to frame the face in the latest fashion. A Brutus Cut, it was called.   His blue eyes, to which the jacket colour perfectly matched, were large and languid. His face was narrow, the lips full and rouged. He offered his hand to Hornblower and it was soft and limp to Hornblower's shake.

Just who was this dandy and why was he here?

"A pleasure, I'm sure, Captain Hornblower, to meet someone to whom my dearest friend holds such fond memories. Lila and I are friends of the longest duration. From early childhood," he said, his voice soft and throaty. "We remain friends to this day." He threw a glance at Jack. "In spite of her choice of husbands." He smiled, his teeth brilliantly white, and winked at Jack.

Jack grinned and lightly punched Eldritch on the arm. Eldritch clutched the spot and pouted in pretend pain.

"Will you never forgive me, Steven?" Jack pleaded.

"Never!" hissed Eldritch.

Jack smiled at Hornblower and Maria. "I punched him in the face the first time we met," he explained. "When Lila introduced us, he made a play at me, so I hit him!"

Eldritch waved a loose hand at Jack. "You were so handsome! I couldn't help myself!"

Maria stared, open-mouthed, her face red as Eldritch's rouged lips, at the exchange. She'd never met a dandy and Hornblower wondered if she even knew what those types of men did. Eldritch would never be allowed, of course, to serve aboard any ship and certainly not on Hornblower's. The Articles of War passed the harshest punishment for sodomites, death by hanging.

When Eldritch kissed the backs of Maria's fingers, Maria sputtered, speechless.

Jack continued to the middle-aged couple sitting on the damask-upholstered divan by the grand marble fireplace. The man seated there rose and extended a hand. "Captain Hornblower! Well met, man!" he said, his round face split by a merry grin. "'Tis been a long time, sir!"

"Aye, Captain Penny! How good to see you looking so well!" Hornblower replied. "Maria, dear. Captain Penny and I knew each other from the old days, when I was a midshipman. He was first officer of Athena and I aboard Indefatigable."

"Yes, and you showed potential even then, as unwashed and wide-eyed as you were!" Penny chuckled. "May I name my wife, Clara?"

Clara Penny was as round faced as her husband, and round of form too. Hornblower felt more at ease for Maria now. Mrs. Penny seemed a jolly soul, her expression one of a deep abiding happiness and contentment. She was not a pretty woman, by any stretch of the imagination, but as she chattered cheerily on with Maria, Hornblower could see the attraction of her happy personality.  Maybe some of her cheeriness would rub off on Maria.

Hornblower could only hope.

Lila was engaged in a deep conversation with a balding man in a black frock and a dowdy silver-haired woman standing next to him.

"Captain Hornblower! Mrs. Hornblower!" Lila called them over to her. "Please to meet the Right Reverend Mr. and Mrs. Bishop!"

Hornblower dragged Maria away from Clara Penny and bowed to the elderly vicar. "Your Eminence. My humble regards." Hornblower said.

"My regards to you and your lovely wife, Captain," Bishop replied. "But please do not trouble yourself to call me anything so lofty as 'Your Eminence,' sir. I am a humble Naval chaplain only and don't deserve such compliments." He grinned and his red cheeks bulged. "My wife, Rachel."

The silver-haired woman smiled with the same bulging cheeks as her husband and Hornblower marvelled at how each man and wife in the drawing room resembled each other, Bishop and his wife sharing apple-cheeks and a spiritual solemnity, Penny and Clara, a roundness of physique and a cheeriness of personality, Lila and Jack, the same black curls, slim form and unabashed passion for life. Hornblower had heard that such a thing sometimes occurred, that as the husband and wife grew closer in their marriage and the marriage aged, the two would begin to take on each other's spiritual and physical characteristics.

He glanced sidelong at Maria.  Dear God!  If only she would take on his and not the other way around!

Lila clapped her hands sharply together, causing a lull in the conversation swirling about the room.

The double doors at one end opened and in marched a diminishing line of little figures, five in all, with a young woman bringing up the rear, holding a sixth. The children ranged themselves in order of height and age in front of the mahogany sideboard by the doors. Their wide eyes stared at the strangers in their home, the guests brought in by their parents.

Lila grinned and clasped her hands in front of her. "Ladies and gentleman! May I present the Peters' children!  And-" she beckoned to the third in line, a boy of about five years of age with straight fair hair and dark eyes. He dashed to her and hugged her tightly, ducking his face into her thighs. "--Thomas Edward Tremayne.  My fair-haired angel!"

"Stand to for inspection!" boomed a loud voice. The children jumped to attention, young Thomas dashing back to his place in line. Admiral MacHenry, his hands clasped firmly behind his back, marched down the line of children, brushing errant curls from soft foreheads, tugging straight night robe tie-ribbons, peering at offered fingertips and teeth. Jack walked along behind MacHenry and Eldritch shadowed him. Penny joined the line of inspectors and tipped his head at Hornblower. A grin splitting his face, Hornblower stepped in behind the other.

Maria hid a wide grin behind her hand.

Hornblower looked each child up and down, his face set in the sternest scowl he could muster. He stayed overlong peering at Edward, first in line. The last time he had seen the boy, he was 4 months old and colicky. But Hornblower could not mistake his large blue eyes, so like his father's.

The next in line, Athena, was the spitting image of her mother, lovely and full of fire.

Thomas Tremayne was third, from Lila's short marriage to the then newly promoted Rear Admiral Sir Edward Tremayne. Lila had declined Hornblower's own offer of marriage in favour of the more politically advantageous joining to Tremayne's house. When Jack Peters had washed back up on shore from his four-year exile in New Guinea, Tremayne had stepped aside, retired from the navy, and fled to Scotland.

The twins came next, though Hornblower knew better. They weren't really twins. Born days apart, but from different mothers-Aphrodite, black-haired, blue-eyed, a true Peters-John, Jr., a product of a wild carousal that Jack had engaged in after he and Lila had had a marriage-threatening row. Knowing Lila's temperament, she and Jack's rows would be monumental. Hornblower was glad he'd never witnessed one, hoped he never would.

The nurse at the end of the line bore Lila and Jack's latest accomplishment-Minerva-Margaret, named in Lila's usual penchant for classical names for the girls, with the added appellation of Jack's long dead mother.

Admiral MacHenry loudly declared the children fit for sleep duty and summarily dismissed them. They scurried off, giggling and shouting, children all, full of the energy of youth.

Maria batted her lashes at Hornblower, a sly grin puffing her cheeks. How she loved children!

***

Dinner was a lively affair in the grand dining hall opposite the drawing room. The finest bone china and silver service comprised the table settings. Finely cut lead crystal held the expensive, contraband French wine kept flowing by richly dressed servants hovering for every guest's whim. The servants were all sailors, Hornblower assessed, from their sun-browned faces, neatly tied and trimmed pigtails and the gold earrings each sported. From the admiral's ship, perhaps, or from Jack's assigned sloop-of-war, Spider, of 14 guns.

Sweeping conversation and incessant laughter spiced the roast duck and suckling pig, the vegetable tureens and braised squab. Candied carrots piled high next to thick kidney pies. Turnips and potatoes vied for space on the plates with blood and pork sausage. Delicate greens complimented a hearty lamb stew.

Hornblower sampled every dish, but restrained himself from eating too much. He didn't like the bloated after effects of too much consumption. He watched as Maria filled her plate time and again. She ate as if she hadn't had a decent meal in days. She certainly ate well all the time, Hornblower made sure in spite of his thin purse, but when confronted by so many rich dishes, she could not hold herself back.

Hornblower sighed. He would never chastise her about her plumpness, though it disgusted him. Her feelings would be crushed if he even hinted that he thought she was overweight. A round figure was currently fashionable, Hornblower knew, thanks to the popularity of Lady Emma Hamilton and her scandalous affair with the late, lamented Lord Nelson. And a portly paunch was an indicator of prosperity on a man. Hornblower hated the idea of growing such a belly and made sure he spent his mornings at sea walking the starboard side of the quarterdeck to at least fifty rotations. He counted the laps carefully, and sometimes walked more if his attention wasn't immediately needed elsewhere.

Dessert added to the gluttony. Sugared fruit pies, confetti-ed cakes, sweet meats and chocolates replaced the decimated carcasses abandoned steaming on their trays. A serving of lemon cakes brought conspiratorial laughter to Jack, Lila and Penny. Hornblower burned with curiosity as to why lemon cakes were so amusing, but politely held back his question.  Jack answered his unasked query unbidden.

"We were off the Eastern coast of Spain, before we were married, before we even had admitted anything to each other, and we discovered a trail of lemons floating in the sea," Jack explained. "The lemons led us to a pitched battle with a French 74 and a dunking for Lila and me. We spent a time clutching fearfully onto each other atop a floating hatch cover, terrified that sharks would at any moment leap from the waves and eat us, until Athena's launch finally reached us." He grinned. "Our cook made lemon cakes from the lemons he had been scooping from the water as we followed the lemon trail." He took Lila's hand, brought it to his lips. "That was the moment I first knew I was in love with my dearest Lila. Hopelessly, madly. When we sat atop that board and waited for the sharks."

Penny chuckled. "You were in love with her long before that, Jack Peters! You just wouldn't admit it to yourself. You were in love with her the moment you laid eyes on her. I saw it plainly, as plain as the nose on your face!"

Jack scowled at Penny, but his mouth curled into a smile. "Yes, yes! As you continually remind us!"

Hornblower had felt a hint of that love, remembering his own time with Lila, and even those first days of his honeymoon with Maria. He loved Maria certainly, but not like the love Jack and Lila shared. Maria was the love of a man for his dog, or to a favoured cousin. Passion had rarely lifted its fiery head in Hornblower's marriage. Lila and Jack, however, lived every moment of every day filled with passion.

A twinge of envy tickled Hornblower's sensibilities. No, not envy. Jealousy, green-eyed as Lila. He choked it back into its dark corner, leashed it to its dungeon wall. Maria was a good wife and any man would be glad to have her. She was steady and compliant, doting and the perfect, attentive mother to her children and her husband. She did not have the sparkling personality of Lila, nor was she beautiful or vivacious. But she had those other qualities that had first attracted Hornblower to her.

He smiled at her as she shovelled another forkful of cake into her bulging cheeks.

What were those qualities again?

***

Jack blew out a slow puff of smoke. "Cigars were one of the things I missed the most during my exile in New Guinea." He sat back in the leather upholstered couch in the study, Lila curled up beside him, the rest of the dinner guests perched upon other bits of furniture in the cosy, bookcase-lined room, a roaring fire at one end and candles glowing on the sideboard and desk. All the guests clutched goblets of port or brandy, the men sucking contentedly on cigars. Lila too.

"And what of me?" Lila asked, her eyes wide and indignation playing across her features.

Jack kissed her forehead. "You were number one on my list, dearest. As always. And Edward. And I wondered too about the child you were bearing at the time of my disappearance. Would I ever get to see the new one? Would I survive the savages there long enough to be discovered and returned to my family?"

Eldritch patted his breast, his breath short and his eyes wide. "Savages!" he wailed. "Oh, you poor unfortunate thing! How horrible for you!" he exclaimed.

Jack shrugged. "'Twasn't so bad, after all. When I had been left for dead on the beach, the savages as you call them, dragged me and the rest of the British dead back to their village. They called themselves 'The People.'" Jack gazed off into the distance of his memories. "They were not savages. I have seen our so-called civilized people do far more savage things than the People did."

Eldritch patted his forehead with a lacy handkerchief. "Surely you cannot say such things! Naked barbarians eating each other! Hideous!"

"Did they really eat other human beings, Jack?" Penny leaned forward, his expression intense.

Jack pressed his lips together, jerked his chin once. "Yes. But not for food, mind you. For the glory of the victory over the dead enemy!"

Penny's eyes narrowed. "And why didn't they eat you?  Why didn't they kill you?"

Jack shrugged. "They are warriors, not executioners. When I awoke in their midst, they simply took me in. I did not threaten them in any way, so they cared for me until I could walk again."

"What did you do, Commander?" Mrs. Bishop's eyes were wide. "You lived among them, as one of them?"

He nodded. "Yes. At first, I kept my distance, spending everyday on the beach or on the cliffside, peering out to sea. After six months and not a single sail sighted, I-I gave up. I pulled off the shreds of my uniform and started dressing as they do, with leaves on my head and myuhmyumprivates, er, wedding tackle as it were, stowed in a hollowed out gourd which was tied up around my waist. I smeared white ash on my skin and started learning their language.  Really learning it."

"And what about their cannibalism?" Penny returned to the subject.

The ladies in the room gasped, except Lila, of course. Reverend Bishop's eyes bulged. Eldritch looked as if he might faint. Admiral MacHenry cleared his throat.

Jack gazed at the floor, took a long pull at his port, swallowed. Hornblower could see that Jack was struggling to frame an answer.

His reply caused a rush of exclamations to circle the room. He looked up at Penny, ran his gaze over each person seated before him. "'Tisn't like what you think, you must understand. 'Tis a solemn ceremony. When a man kills an enemy, he eats the man's heart as a tribute. To gather the dead man's strength to himself."

Penny wouldn't let Jack wriggle free. "But what of you? Did you ever partake?"

Jack sucked on his cigar. "I think that is a question for another night, without the ladies present."

"So you're saying you did!" Penny pushed.

Jack smirked. "I'm saying nothing, Captain Penny! 'Tisn't the subject of a nice dinner party with good friends!"

"So close-mouthed you are, Jackie! And impetuous, too!" exclaimed Eldritch, recovering slowly from his shock.

"There's more to the People than their cannibalism," Jack said.  "They were a generous people, peaceful unless provoked. Then they were ferocious! They killed their enemies mercilessly during battle!"

Hornblower heard a sharp intake of breath from Maria and he glanced at her. Her cheeks flared red and her eyes sparked. She, as well, was excited by Jack's tale!

Penny sat back in his chair, chuckling. "So you went native on us, did you?"

Jack nodded. "The People's chieftain thought of me as his white-skinned adopted son. He gave me his daughter! She was a pleasant enough girl, very dark of skin, with a wide nose and big, flat feet." He spread his hands to show the size. "There is another Peters' child out there in the world, I'll have you know, besides the six under this roof. Fala bore me a son whom I named George, and she added King to his name, in honour of the king of my native country."

Gasps circled the room again.

"She didn't say the word "King" but used her native tongue's word for headman. Apaka. Apaka George. Two months old when the Belgian ship topped the horizon and sighted my quickly built signal fire."

Clara leaned forward. "And what of Fala and Apaka George? Whatever became of them?"

Jack shrugged. "I left them there. What would I do with them here in England? How would they survive in our society? It would have been cruel to drag them out of the only world they knew and plop them unprepared into our world."

Clara put fingers to her lips and glanced wide-eyed at Mrs. Bishop.

Mrs. Bishop nodded her approval. "'Twas a kindness, Commander. A gift of God to leave them behind."

Jack nodded, but a hint of sadness touched his face.

He had regrets at leaving the native girl, thought Hornblower.

***

Jack had few other revelations about his three year life as a "savage" and the conversation returned to more pedantic topics, though it was Lila's turn to raise eyebrows when Eldritch inadvertently brought up the question of John Jr.'s parentage.

Maria's eyes bulged when the tale was told. Hornblower imagined her thoughts of outrage that a man could cheat on his wife in such a manner and that the wife could take the husband back. He could imagine the night of the reconciliation, and the wild passion that would have ensued, resulting in the little girl Aphrodite. He didn't think Maria's imagination could stretch so far, or her sensibilities.

Hornblower had sampled that same wild passion with Lila and his eyes burned at the memory.

His memory disappeared, interrupted by the sight of little faces peering at him from the side door of the study. He was directly facing the door, Jack and Lila facing exactly opposite and Hornblower was startled to see the door creep open a crack.

John Jr., the object of the conversation and his sister Aphrodite gawked at him, their eyes wide.

Hornblower struggled to keep a smile from his face and thus alert them. He, instead, cleared his throat, his eyes still firmly holding the children's attention. "Jack," he said quietly. "We have visitors."

Jack's eyes widened and he spun in his seat, glaring at the now slammed shut door. "Excuse me a moment, if you please!" He set his glass on the table and his cigar into the ashtray and strode from the room.

Lila shook her head and smiled. "One cannot blame them. They are ever curious. Which ones?" she questioned.

She laughed out loud at Hornblower's reply. "Of course it was them! They are devils in disguise, those two! Though they are only half-siblings, they are inseparable and ever in trouble! They keep me busy, I tell you!"

A loud voice boomed from the other side of the door. "Don't make me come up there! Floggings all around if you're not in bed in two shakes!"

The dinner guests broke into laughter.

***

Maria yawned often as she hobbled along beside Hornblower, out in the fresh London night air. Hornblower glanced down at her. He had kept her out far too late, and she so fresh a mother. He knew she had been anxious hours ago to get back to little Maria, but Hornblower had no worries about the child. His good coin had purchased the services of a well-recommended wet nurse to care for the baby for the evening.

Hornblower sucked in a lungful of city air. Not like the crisp air at sea, but refreshing none-the-less. He had thoroughly enjoyed himself this evening. He felt rejuvenated, the energy and vivaciousness of his hosts had infected him with uncommon good cheer. Maria had been silent much of the evening and Hornblower saw the gleams of excitement filling her eyes and the flush of interest colouring her cheeks.

She was a good woman, Maria was, and Hornblower was pleased too at the reception she had received under the Peters' roof. He had thought that Maria and Lila would have proved difficult to each other, but he realized he was being unfair to Lila. Maria he knew could hold a grudge, but Lila had no patience for such nonsense. And she proved herself well, endearing herself to Maria, Hornblower felt, to the point that she invited Maria upstairs when the nurse interrupted with the news that Minerva-Margaret was fussing and would not quiet to the young girl's ministrations. Maria had returned to her seat next to Hornblower half an hour later, her cheeks bulging and red, her eyes sparkling.

He slowed his pace, realizing that Maria was puffing as she struggled to keep up with his long-legged stride.  He smiled at her round face and short, quick strides. She waddled like a duck, both from her excessive weight and her recent ordeal. Hornblower wished he could afford a coach to return them to their inn, but he also knew their lodgings were not far.

He reached out his elbow to Maria and she clutched it, looking up at him with wide eyes.

Why was she so startled by his attention, he wondered? He knew he was not an affectionate man, but she knew his feelings for her. She was his wife.

She peered about them, into the gloomy alleyways and side streets. "Oh, dear!" she gasped, whispering. "Do you fear blackguards lurking, Horry?"

Hornblower started in surprise.  Blackguards! She had misconstrued his courteous gesture of offering his arm as a protective gesture.

He patted her hand. "No, no, dear. Fear not. The night is beautiful!" He drew in a breath, let it escape slowly. "The stars are lovely tonight!"

Maria peered at him. "Horatioare you well?"

He grinned. "Extremely! Such a wonderful evening, dear, wasn't it?'

She gasped. "Wonderful? Those horrid people! I am ashamed that you call them friends!"

Hornblower stopped in his tracks, gaped at her.

"Such horrible things they talked about! Such awful things they found amusing!" Maria shuddered. "They were crude and base!"

Hornblower scowled at her. How could she say such things about human beings who were so obviously in love with life?

"Do you know what thatwoman did?" She did not wait for him to answer, but plunged on ahead. "When she brought me upstairs to see the baby, she opened her blouse and nursed the child in front of my eyes!" She tisked. "I was mortified, I can tell you!" Maria always nursed the children behind a screen or in another room and Hornblower had never told her how it disappointed him to not witness such a tender sight as his wife nursing his child.

He exhaled, exasperated, speechless.

"Those stories that commander told! And in front of ladies!" Maria sniffed her disapproval. "I have a mind to ask you not to associate with them anymore. I have never liked the idea of your correspondence with that woman!"

"Maria!" Hornblower roared. "I will do no such thing! They are my friends, whether you like them or not!" He realized, of a sudden, the real reason for her flush of the evening and the glint in her usually dull eyes.  She had been angry, incensed by the behaviour of her hosts, though Hornblower had found their embracing of life to be refreshing and rejuvenating.

"I do not like them, or approve of them!" she continued, and Hornblower could not remember her being so adamant about anything else since he had known her.

He dropped his chin, disappointed that such a gulf would rise up so suddenly between them, realizing how little they had in common. He felt the affection he had held minutes ago vanish.

He raised his head, squared his shoulders, offered his elbow yet again. Maria took it and let him lead her home.

The End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1