The Rose and the Thorn
by JOAN CURTIN

This story takes place during the action of Lieutenant
Hornblower. It is how I imagined Horatio became a
Professional Gamber, and met Maria. I know that she is
not a popular character, but she is a part of the
Hornblower legend, as you will see ...

RATING:PG
DISCLAIMER: I claim no rights, creative or financial
to these characters. They are the property of C.S.
Forester and the Hornblower series creators.

HORNBLOWER:THE ROSE AND THE THORN

Bleak. The word came unbidden to Horatio Hornblower's
mind as he stood on the quay at
Portsmouth. It suited both the setting and his
situation. He had never seen Portsmouth in the sun;
he doubted it ever shone on that harbor. The skies
overhead were heavy and grey, the stone piers
littered with trash, and his future ... Bleak
described that very well indeed. Six weeks ago, his
prospects had seemed assured; he had been appointed
Commander of a Sloop of War, his actions
had been commended by Admiral Lambert of the Jamaica
station, he had only to wait on official
confirmation from the Admiralty. The confirmation
never came. Instead the dispatches he had
received at sea informed him of the unthinkable: Peace
had been declared, and the Navy was to be
reduced to a peacetime force. They had no room for
recently gazetted Captains, much less for
homeless Lieutenants. Once his ship, Retribution,
docked at Portsmouth, he would be once again
Lieutenant Hornblower -- and worse yet, not even on
half-pay. It was enough to make him look
back on his cheerless days on the Renown with
nostalgia.

He sighed, and reflexively, his hand went to his
breast pocket where he kept his savings.
Savings -- it was all the money that he had in this
world. Fifty pounds. Enough to keep him for
three months, if he lived in poverty and half-starved
himself. His sea chest was still on the
Retribution, for he had no address to send it to. I
shall find a room, he thought, his teeth gritted.
And then I must find some way to survive. His
shoulders bowed against the wind, he stepped up
from the pier to the street, and began walking towards
the town.

He had reached the nominal center of Portsmouth, when
he heard a hearty voice calling
out his name. "Lieutenant Hornblower! As I live and
breathe!" A familiar portly figure came
hurriedly towards him.

Horatio turned with a wide grin on his face. "Mr.
Bracegirdle! How are you, sir?" He held
out his hand gladly. Bracie looked as sleek and as
plump as ever. His uniform was obviously new,
even in the dull light the gilt buttons on his cuffs
shone.

"Can't complain, sir. Can't complain. And you?"
Bracegirdle's sharp eyes were already
noticing the shabby state of Horatio's uniform and the
hollows on his young face. "I have read of
your exploits in the Chronicle. Well done, Horatio.
Captain Pellew is as proud as a peacock."

"How is he, Mr. Bracegirdle? I confess that I miss the
Indefatigable more than I can say.
How are Bowles, and Archie Kennedy?"

"Well, Horatio.Very well.Of course, we would all be
better for having a fight on our
hands, not this damned ëpeace,' that has disaster
written all over it. But when has the King ever
listened to his lieutenants, eh? Captain Pellew has
retired to his estates in Cornwall for the
duration. You know Mr. Kennedy passed his Lieutenant's
exam last year and is now with
Tonnant. At least she will not be decommissioned. And
Mr. Bowles has gone to Victory." He
watched as Horatio digested this news before he asked.
"And how is it with you, Horatio?"
Horatio was set to reply that all was well. It was
embarrassing to admit that it was far
from so; but Bracegirdle's wide, friendly face broke
his reserve. He sighed and shrugged. "As bad
as it could be, sir. My appointment as Commander was
never approved. My ship has been paid
off. And I owe the Admiralty back pay. I am in a very
sorry case, I am ashamed to admit."

Bracegirdle's face wrinkled in concern. "Aye, that is
hard indeed, Horatio. But perhaps I
can help --"

"I cannot ask you -- "

"Of course, you can! Come with me before you refuse
what I offer. Have you heard of the
Long Rooms?"

Horatio had. The Long Rooms were a sort of club where
military officers and influential
civilians gathered for conversation and
entertainment. Games of chance were played there, some
for very high stakes, indeed. It was not the sort of
establishment for penniless Lieutenants. "Yes,
but -- " he began to object but Bracegirdle took him
by the elbow and propelled him down a
narrow street, to a dark green door with polished
brass fittings. They entered, and were greeted
by a manservant who took their cloaks. Then they
ascended a flight of stairs to a gracious room
with wide windows overlooking Portsmouth Harbor.

"Monsieur Bracegirdle!" The little man who came
forward had quite a time getting his
French tongue around the very English syllables. He
was plump and elegantly dressed, and his hair
was powdered. "It is always a pleasure, M'sieur.You
are here to play?"

"Alas, not today, Monsieur Le Marquis. However, I
should like to present to you a friend
of mine, Mr. Hornblower. Horatio, this is the Marquis
de Sainte Croix. He owns these rooms."

Horatio made the proper reply in his French, which was
grammatically perfect, if not
perfectly fluent. The Marquis nodded. "M'sieur
ëornblowerr. Bah, such an English name!" He
gave Horatio's hand a sharp shake. "An ëonor,
M'sieur."

"Monsieur le Marquis, Mr. Hornblower is an exceptional
Whist player. I thought that his
services as a fourth might be of some use to you. And
to him." Bracegirdle left the assumption
that Horatio was in dire financial straits stand.

"C'est vrai?"

Despite the hot flush he felt staining his cheekbones,
Horatio was not about to be modest;
he could not afford to salve his pride. "Yes, sir. I
have some skill at the game."

"Then you shall come see me tomorrow evening, hien?
Prove that what you say is true,
and we may come to an arrangement." The Marquis made a
brief bow and left to greet a new
group of arrivals to his establishment.

So I am to go from the lofty station of Commander in
His Majesty's Navy, to professional
gambler. How low the mighty have fallen. The irony was
not lost on him. He gave Bracegirdle a
wry smile. "I am in your debt, sir."

"Nonsense. You are a friend, Horatio. You would do no
less for me. Come, let us eat
while we are here. The Marquis sets a notable table,
and you lad, are as thin as a rail."

Horatio's stomach had been beating at his backbone for
some time. The thought of food
made him rather faint. Again, his damned pride made
him demur. "Mr. Bracegirdle, I cannot -- "

"You can and you will, Mr. Hornblower. It will give me
a chance to repay the debts I
incurred during those games of Whist on board the
Indy." He laid a friendly arm around Horatio's
shoulders. "Come, sit and tell me of your adventures
in Santo Domingo. Is it true then, that
Captain Sawyer went mad?"

The two old friends sat and talked until the servants
came to light the candles. Horatio
looked around him, noticing for the first time the
lateness of the hour. "Good Lord. I must be on
my way. My sea chest is still on the Retribution and I
must find a room yet, or I shall be sleeping
on the streets."

"If I may provide one final service, Horatio. I know
of a place -- a rooming house run by a
widow lady. It is not pretentious, and Mrs. Mason can
pinch a penny until it yelps, but it is as
clean as a whistle. And while the meals are not as
savory as the Marquis' at least she will not let
you starve to death as long as you pay your month's
rent."

Horatio laughed. "Very well. If Mrs. Mason is willing
to let a room to a sailor who has no
income and no prospects, then I shall overlook her
deficiencies as a cook. I tell you, Mr.
Bracegirdle, as dreadful as it is, I find myself
praying for war. What are we to do otherwise?"

"Aye, lad. It is a cold, hard world we live in. But we
are not given a choice of another.
Come, and I will walk with you to Mrs. Mason's. It has
one more advantage -- it is close to these
rooms."

Indeed, Highbury Street was only two blocks from the
Long Rooms, a feature Horatio felt
he would appreciate when the winter winds began
blowing. He was unduly quiet as he paced
beside Mr. Bracegirdle, mentally taking stock of his
possessions. His sea chest was pitifully light,
and his peajacket and boat cloak were two years old
and showing hard wear. God only knew how
long his shoes would last. Already he could feel
small, sharp stones digging through his soles. As
the warmth of the Long Rooms left him, he felt the
familiar down-drag of despair.

"Ah, here we are." Bracegirdle's hearty voice broke
his reverie. They had paused in front
of a narrow grey house in a row of other narrow grey
houses. The green paint on the door was
fading, but the brass hardware was polished within a
painful inch of its life. Even the stoop was
spotless, as if any piece of trash or a stray leaf
were afraid to settle there. Horatio squared his
shoulders.
"Thank you, Mr. Bracegirdle. I will not forget your
kindness." He felt an unaccountable
lump in his throat as he held out his hand to his
friend. "Perhaps we will serve together again, one
day."

"Aye, I pray for it, Horatio. Take care, lad. I have
every faith that something will turn up."

Horatio was not as sanguine, but he nodded in accord.
"And what will you do, sir?"

"I am for home, for Essex. My wife is waiting for me.
And I have been fortunate in my
prize money. If this peace is not indefinite, and I am
certain that it will not be, I shall be
comfortable enough for a while. Goodbye, Horatio."

They shook hands, and Horatio watched Bracegirdle's
stout figure fade into the darkness.
There had been a few rough patches between them early
on, but those had long been smoothed
over by mutual respect. Bracegirdle might not have the
dash and daring of a man like Captain
Pellew, but one could not ask for a more steady
lieutenant. He had that in common with Mr.
Bush. The thought of the man he had come to regard as
his friend made Horatio wonder what had
happened to Bush in all this sorry state of affairs.
Horatio hoped he had found a situation, but if
not, at least Bush was not under pay stoppages, and
had a family to love and shelter him.

Horatio steeled his backbone and lifted the brass
knocker. A skinny maid of all work
answered the door, and ushered him into a small
parlor. As Horatio waited, he took stock of his
surroundings -- a reflexive action, and a defense.
The rug beneath his feet was thin, the hearth
had no fire laid in the grate, and there was no
ornamentation save a dreary landscape above the
mantel. The walls were a dingy yellow, and in need of
repainting. Bleak ... there was that damned
word again! He did not hold high hopes for his
reception from Mrs. Mason.

He was pacing, his hands behind his back when Mrs.
Mason entered the room. "Is not my
carpet threadbare enough without you wearing a hole in
it, sir?" Spoken in a less accusatory tone,
by a different sort of woman, it might have been taken
as a jest.

The vitriol in Mrs. Mason's voice surprised him, and
he stammered awkwardly as he
replied. "M-my apologies, Ma'am. I am used to the deck
of a ship."

If he had expected to win a smile from her, he was
mistaken. Mrs. Mason was a stout
woman in her middle years. But there was no softness
in that round face, no sign that a smile ever
made those thin lips turn up, instead of down in
disapproval. Her hair stood out in stiff ringlets
beneath a starched mobcap and her spine was as
straight as Captain Pellew's. "So, you have come
about a room?"

"Yes, ma'am." He felt as it she were evaluating the
worth of everything on his person
from his tarnished brass buttons, to the worn toes of
his shoes. "I will pay a month in advance,"
he said hating the desperate tone in his voice.

"I should not accept you as a boarder if you did not."
Mrs. Mason replied. "I don't need
another half-pay Lieutenant pleading for a stay on his
rent until the next month. This is not a
charity establishment, Mr ... "

"Hornblower, ma'am. Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower." He
doubted she knew the
meaning of the virtue. "And I do not expect charity,
ma'am. Just someplace to lay my head."

"This is a Christian household, Mr. Hornblower. I
won't tolerate drunkenness, blasphemy,
or disrespect. There will be no female visitors
entertained on the premises, and if you should have
a gentleman for company, they must abide by the same
rules as yourself. A cot may be had for a
shilling a night. And since most of my gentlemen are
much older than yourself, no loud talking or
sport after nine o'clock. Laundry is on Mondays. It
will cost a shilling for linens, and an extra
tuppence for personal items. Your rent includes one
candle per week, additional charges will be
levied for additional tapers. Tallow is dear. If you
accept these terms, I have one room available,
at the top of the house." She gave his slender frame a
once over and sniffed. "You don't look very
strong, but you're young."

Horatio knew he was blushing and hated it. "It will
not be a problem, Mrs. Mason. If I can
ascend to the foretop mast, I shall have no trouble
over stairs, I assure you," he said with some
asperity, but Mrs. Mason did not recognize it. "What
is the cost of a room?" he asked, seeing no
alternative to her conditions.

She named a sum that he knew was reasonable, but
which still put a dent in his funds. He
handed the bills over, and she counted them again
before she put them in her apron pocket. "Very
good, Mr. Hornblower." She had her money from him, and
that was all that mattered. "Susan will
show you to your room. You have belongings, I assume?"

"Yes, ma'am. I will have them brought from my ship."
When Mrs. Mason left him, he felt
weak. God, what a harpy! Mr. Mason must have gone to
the afterlife a happy man, for he would
have his peace at last. It was not a kind thought, but
Horatio was not in a compassionate mood.
He stepped outside into the street and sent a boy to
the Retribution with a message to have his
sea chest carried to Highbury Street, and then he
climbed the three flights of stairs to his new
home.

Home was a small, bare, cramped space with eaves so
low that he could only stand
up-right in the middle of the room. One small grimy
window leaked chilly air and had a view of
chimney pots. A narrow cot hugged one wall and looked
unyielding. There was a faded rag rug
on the floor next to the bed, and a small nightstand
with a stub of a candle stuck in a tin
candlestick. A second taper lay next to it. Horatio
was surprised that the half-burned candle had
been missed by Mrs. Mason. It might give him a free
hour of light. Bracegirdle had been right
about one thing; the room was clean. Let us be
thankful for small favors, Horatio thought. He lay
down on the skimpy mattress. The pillow was as hard as
a rock and the case smelled like lye. But
it was clean. Cleanliness and Godliness, but no
charity. And very little hope. Horatio's eyes
closed, and he slept.

***********
The sea chest was delivered at dusk. Mrs. Mason looked
at the battered piece of luggage
with disdain. It was dirty, salt-stained, and
undoubtedly mildewed. "Susan!" She shrieked for the
maid of all work, and when she received no reply, she
shrieked again. "Maria!"

A small, plain, plump young woman came from the
kitchen, dusting flour off her hands.
"Yes, Mama?"

"Where is that useless girl?"

"I-I sent her to purchase more flour, Mama. Otherwise
we shall have no bread tomorrow."
She noticed the sea chest on the floor and cocked her
head to better read the faded writing on its
cover. "Hornblower?"

"Another half-pay lieutenant. As if there weren't
enough already." She frowned at her
daughter. "Go to the third floor and tell him that his
chest is here. He'll have to carry it, for we
surely can't manage a heavy thing like that."

"Yes, Mama." Maria made no effort to put her hair in
order, and she knew her face was
flushed and moist from the exertion of kneading dough.
She was too tired to care. The stairs
seemed very steep today. And the children at the Dame
School where she taught had been
particularly naughty. She sank down on the top step
for a moment to catch her breath. If only she
could imagine a life beyond what she had now! Was it
so much to ask for a husband, a child, and
a home of her own? I would gladly take even a half-pay
Lieutenant, she thought. She rose with a
sigh and knocked on the door. When there was no
answer, she pushed lightly, and it swung open;
the occupant had not put on the night latch.

She peered into the dim room. "Mr. Hornblower?" she
whispered, and stepped inside, her
candle held high to illuminate the reaches of the
room. When she saw him, she thought her world
had come to a standstill. Her mouth fell open slightly
as she gazed down at his sleeping figure.
Oh, Lord. He is the most handsome man I have ever seen
...

His dark hair waved on his forehead and his lashes
were a thick tangle on his cheeks. He
had a straight, noble nose, and a curving mouth with a
deep lower lip. The wavering light cast
shadows in the hollows of his cheekbones, and there
was a cleft in his chin. Maria, with her face
as plain as a pudding, and no pretense to beauty at
all, fell in love with Horatio Hornblower at
first sight.

She hated to wake him, for he seemed to sleep so
easily. One arm was flung over his head,
the other lay quietly on his breast. He had beautiful
hands, fine-boned, but strong; marked by the
scars and calluses of his years at sea. "Mr.
Hornblower, sir?" she whispered. He did not seem to
hear her. Timidly, she touched the back of his hand.
If a drop of hot wax from her candle had not
fallen on his wrist, he might not have waked even
then. But the touch and the heat woke him
suddenly, and he sat up with a gasp, blinking into
unexpected light.

"What is it? What's wrong?" He was trained to come
awake quickly, and to expect
unknown disasters to be waiting for him. It was a
moment before his eyes truly focused and he
recalled where he was. He blinked up at Maria, and not
recognizing her asked rather sharply.
"What are you doing here? Do you always enter a
private room without permission?"

Maria, who was not quick-witted at the best of times,
was completely taken off-guard by
both her emotions and his demands. Her mouth opened
helplessly, and she blushed a furious shade
of red. "I-I'm sorry, sir. I knocked, but you did not
hear me."

Horatio had never seen anyone so flustered. Not even
poor Wellard from the Renown,
when caught in some error. He ran a hand over his
unruly hair and rose from his cot. The poor
girl stepped back, as if she thought he would strike
her. Horatio felt ashamed of his accusation.
She was in quite a state over a trifle. He sighed,
"No, I did not. I apologize if I startled you, Miss
-- "

"Mason. Maria Mason." She swallowed, hoping that she
would not appear a total fool in
front of this stranger. "I-I am Mrs. Mason's daughter.
I only wished to tell you that your sea chest
has arrived, and Mama wishes it to be taken from her
doorway." To her shame, she felt tears
welling in her eyes. "It won't happen again, sir. I-I
mean, not knocking loud enough."

"So the next time I may expect a summons like a
cannon?" Horatio's eyebrow rose, to
devastating effect.

Maria turned even redder. "Yes, sir. I m-mean ... I
mean, no sir. Please, forgive me." She
stammered and fled from the room. Horatio had the
impression that she would have liked to have
hidden her face in her apron, but some smidgen of
pride had kept her from doing so.

What an odd young woman, he thought as he shrugged
into his jacket. She reminded him
of nothing so much as a timid, brown field mouse. He
pitied her, as he would pity any defenseless
creature.
*********

Horatio began his new life the next evening. The
Marquis de Saint Croix offered him a
position as a fourth player in Whist games. He was
paid a small weekly stipend in addition to any
winnings that he might accrue. In return, Horatio was
expected to be available and able to play
most evenings; sometimes through to dawn. Those hours
did not endear him to Mrs. Mason.
Horatio, who kept his occupation a close secret,
imagined that she thought him a free trader at
best, or a thug at worst. He would return to the
house, pale as a shade with bruises of fatigue
beneath his eyes, and she would greet him in the hall,
her arms akimbo and a frown on her face,
muttering dire threats about his future in her
household. Sometimes he was amused, but mostly he
was too exhausted to care.

One morning, as he came in from a cold, driving rain,
Maria was waiting for him in place
of Mrs. Mason. It had been a particularly gruesome
evening at the tables; his cash reserve was
down to shillings, and he had been forced to pawn his
boat cloak to provide enough funds to play
again that night. He was chilled to the bone, soaked,
and stupid with fatigue. He stood in the open
doorway, swaying slightly and looking as miserable as
he could possibly be.

All of Maria's mothering instincts and the secret
affection she had been harboring in her
heart came to the fore. For once, she knew exactly
what had to be done; and she knew she could
do it. "Mr. Hornblower, sir! Just look at you!" She
took him by the arm and drew him inside.
"What has happened to your lovely cloak?"

He would rather die than admit what he had done. "I-I
left it somewhere." It sounded as
stupid as he felt. "I shall recover it."

"If you're lucky you will. Come, sir. I have just
started a fire in the kitchen. A nice bowl of
porridge and a mug of tea will set you right."

Horatio hated porridge, and preferred coffee to tea,
but stronger men than he had been
seduced by the lure of warmth and a full belly . He
let Maria lead him towards the kitchen. She set
him at the table, took her own knit shawl from her
shoulders and wrapped him in it. The sheer
pleasure of being warm, and the unexpected kindness of
Maria's attentions startled Horatio. It
had been a long time since anyone had cared for him
with such solicitude. "Thank you, Maria," he
said, and thought the words simple enough; but to
Maria, they were everything.

"Oh, sir. Please, it is no trouble -- nothing is
easier than caring ..." Maria bit her lip and
turned away from him, knowing that every thought and
every emotion was visible on her face. "I
mean, it is such a little thing ... porridge and tea."


The porridge was lumpy, but she put raisins and sugar
in it, and a dollop of cream. She set
it in front of him, and watched surreptitiously as he
ate. He is too thin, she thought. If he were
mine, I would make certain he ate. And he would not
lose his cloak, and his shirts would be
properly mended ... Thus began Maria's heartfelt, and
quite hopeless game.



A few days later both the weather and Horatio's luck
took a turn for the better. He played
eight rubbers of Whist and won the last seven with
his partner; a thin, clever man who claimed to
be a lawyer. Their opponents were Captain Hilliard of
the Merchant service, and Viscount
Aumery. Aumery was young, exceedingly wealthy, and
exceedingly spoiled. Horatio disliked him
on sight, and was only too happy to lighten his
pockets to the tune of twenty-five pounds. It
would be enough to ransom his cloak, replenish his
emergency funds, and pay his rent for the next
month. He tried very hard not to smile as he counted
out his share of the pot.

He must have failed for Aumery rose swiftly and with a
disgusted sneer, tore the pink rose
from his lapel and flung it down on the table. "You
might as well have this, too. For you've taken
everything else!" He strode from the room in a cloud
of black temper.

Captain Hilliard shook his head. "That is what happens
when boys play a man's game, eh
gentlemen?"

The lawyer nodded in agreement. "A pity for you, sir.
He was an inauspicious partner."
He folded his money and tucked it in his breast
pocket. "Mr. Hornblower, it was a pleasure. I am
not often in these parts, but if I ever am, it would
be an honor to play with you again."

"Thank you, sir. Though I admit I would be happier not
to be in these rooms. I would
rather have a ship, sir."

"Even if it meant war?"

Hilliard exchanged a knowing glance with Horatio. "We
men of the sea have a different
view than you, sir. To us, these rooms are stifling.
Give us the scent of the sea, and the space of
our quarter-deck. Not these four walls."

The lawyer laughed. "I get the heaves at Tower bridge.
I would have London any day.
Goodnight, gentlemen. I take your leave."

Captain Hilliard bade Horatio a good evening and left.
Horatio stood, relishing the weight
of coins in his pocket. The candles were burning down;
soon the Marquis would come to close
the rooms for the night. He gazed down at the rose, a
forlorn sight on the tabletop. Its fragrance
still lingered despite its wilted state. Horatio
picked it up and held it to his nose. It reminded him
of his father's home, and his mother's garden. She had
grown roses; hearty blooms, not like this
hothouse flower, and smelling so sweet .... But that
had been a lifetime ago.

The cold rains of the last few days had gone, and
there was an unusual softness in the
autumn air, as if summer had returned for a brief
visit. Overhead, the stars spread in a milky
swath, and Horatio spent a moment picking out familiar
constellations, wishing and dreaming that
he were looking at them from the swaying deck of the
Indefatigable. Or even the dowdy Spanish
prize, the Retribution which he had sailed from Santo
Domingo. He sighed deeply. At least I did
not fail, he thought. I lost her through no fault of
mine ... and someday, I will be a Commander
again. At that moment, it was what he wanted the most
in this world.

He walked slowly back to Highbury street. By the time
he reached the front door, a faint
light was shining in the east. He uttered a fervent
prayer that Mrs. Mason would not have risen
from her bed for he did not think he could bear her
acrimonious commentary. He let himself in
quietly, and started up the stairs to his room.

"Mr. Hornblower, sir!" An urgent whisper halted him in
his steps.

"Yes, Maria." He was tired, and he wanted nothing more
than to lay his head on his hard
pillow. But he waited patiently for Maria, because she
had been kind to him.

Maria came up the stairs towards him. She was wearing
her nightgown, with a shawl
draped over her shoulders, and seemed unaware of the
impropriety of her situation. Horatio
glanced nervously at the closed doors, imagining nosy
neighbors with their eyes at their keyholes.
"Maria, please. You shouldn't be out here like this.
Your mother --"

"Mama says that if you do not pay your rent that
she will toss your sea chest out on the
streets." She said the words swiftly, as if they hurt
her to speak them. It had cost her a great deal
of courage to sneak out of her room, and to wait for
him, and she was afraid that she would lose
her nerve and run back inside. "She swears it, Mr.
Hornblower."

For a moment, Horatio amused himself with the image of
Hermione Mason battling with
his dunnage. "Does she?" Maria stood one step below
him. Her brown eyes were uncomfortably
earnest, and Horatio could not imagine why she should
care if he slept out on the streets or not.
He had done nothing to warrant her concern but treat
her like a human being and not a drudge. "I
have no doubt that she does. And perhaps I deserve
it."

"Oh, no! Never say so, sir." She was so earnest, her
plain face screwed up in a frown of
concern. "She cannot throw you out! Perhaps if you
spoke to her -- Perhaps I could speak to her
..."

"Maria, you must not do that! Please, do not fret. I
have the money." At least this month
the wolf at the door would be fed, he added to
himself.

"Thank God!" It was a prayer of gratitude. She did not
think she could bear a life without
his presence. It was what she lived for; a glimpse of
him, the sound of his paces on the stairs, that
half-smile that he gave her in greeting.

She was clutching his arm so tightly that Horatio had
to gently prise her grip loose. He
reached into his pocket, intending to count out the
bills to Maria. Instead, his fingers closed
around the rose. He pulled it out, wondering how it
had come to be there. It lay in his palm, limp
and fading, the scent slightly hinting of decay. .

Maria's brown eyes widened. "How beautiful!" she
exclaimed. She reached out tentatively
to stroke the petals. "A rose, in November. It is a
miracle."

Horatio, knowing that it was scarcely that, was
touched by Maria's naivet . "It is for
you," he said. "For your kindness," he added
brusquely.

Maria snatched it from his palm as if she feared he
would change his mind. "No one has
ever given me a flower," she said wonderingly. "If I
put it in water, it may come back. And if it
does not, I shall press it in my Bible." Maria held
the faded petals against her cheek. "Thank you,
Mr. Hornblower."

Horatio did not understand. It was just a wilted rose;
he should have cast it in the dustbin.
He was ashamed that he had even offered it to her. He
could not know that Maria treasured
anything from him; a glance, a kind word, the
acknowledgment that she even existed. And this
gift, this sorry pink rose, the discard of a spoiled
Lord, could not have meant more to her if
Horatio had given her a diamond.

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

A life is made of thousands of such moments; tiny
ripples that grow and expand to
encompass an entire existence. Horatio would wonder
what might have happened if he had not
given the rose to Maria. Would she have fallen in love
with him? Would he have bound himself in
a marriage that he did not want, if he had not felt
such pity for her? Would he have recognized the
passionate love he felt for Lady Barbara, if he had
not the sad comparison with Maria?

As a youth, he had endured his unhappiness, wishing
that he had made different choices.
But as he aged, and watched the child Maria had died
to give him grow to manhood; as his life
grew richer, and his love for Lady Barbara deeper, he
could not regret that sad, single rose.