Bush tore his eyes from the page in his hands in response to the insistent knocking at the cabin door. "Yes, yes..." he called crossly, and immediately regretted his momentary irritation. It must be Dawes, with news. It was a guilty measure of the strength of his reaction to the message he held that all thoughts of Fanshawe had flown from his mind.
He sighed and turned reluctantly to face both the door and grim reality. "Enter," he called, in a fractionally more pleasant tone: Dawes deserved at least that much, particularly if the news he carried was as expected.
At the invitation Dawes burst through the doorway, his face wreathed in smiles. "Sir!"
Given the look on Dawes' face further words were unnecessary, thought Bush, though Dawes was clearly bursting with them, restraining himself only with prodigious effort. Thus he merely nodded, allowing the young man to continue unchecked.
The words tumbled out. "He'll be all right, sir! Dr. Greene tells me that it was a close thing, and that it will take time, but it seems that Ev is tougher than he appears. He is still quite feeble, but the fever is nearly gone, and Dr. Greene suspects he will be terrorizing the women tending him within the week." Dawes grinned. "Quite a lot of them seem willing to risk it, sir."
"That is good news indeed, Mr. Dawes. Thank you." The strength of Bush's relief battered down his already shaken captainly reserve, and he responded with an answering smile. "Two bits of good news in this day, it seems." Bush winced inwardly at his own impulsive candor, though if Dawes found his captain's forthright manner unseemly he did not show it.
He appeared grateful for it, in fact. "Two, sir?" Dawes studied him with friendly regard. "May I ask....good news from the Admiralty, perhaps?"
"No, Mr. Dawes... a letter from an old friend." There was no harm in conveying the content of the letter to Dawes - after all, Bush considered, proper order had already been thrown to the winds, and Dawes would know soon enough in any case. "It seems that Captain Sir Horatio Hornblower has some business in Cornwall, and would be pleased to call upon me at the Two Brothers." He colored slightly, abashed at revealing this unexpected display of his former captain's benevolence, and dropped his gaze to read the brief lines again. "He would like to share my company, and wishes to convey some news of a personal nature."
"Captain Hornblower is coming here, sir?" Dawes stared, impressed. "I have heard so very much about him; I had hoped someday to meet the man, though I never imagined..." He pondered this for a moment, then cautiously ventured the question that had often come to mind during the past months. "I know that you served with Captain Hornblower for many years....is he anything like you, sir?"
"God's teeth, Mr. Dawes." Bush looked up sharply and regarded his lieutenant with an expression of genuine horror. "All England should be grateful that he is not." He scowled impatiently. The very idea of such a ridiculous fancy had to be immediately dispelled. "No, Mr. Dawes, there could be no conceivable likeness. Chalk and cheese, we were."
How could he possibly explain to Dawes that Hornblower was some sort of higher being, worlds removed from the likes of him? It sounded odd, but it was also true. He groped for some way to explain it, for the concept of a Hornblower so diminished was too much to bear. But fluency failed him, as he had few words he deemed adequate to the task. "He is the finest captain a man could serve, Dawes. Always thinking, always a pace or two ahead...Captain Hornblower has an uncanny ability to plan, to put himself in the mind of the enemy. I can claim no part of that. I was merely the one he chose to ensure that his orders were properly carried out."
Bush fell silent, the impact of his words striking home like a physical blow. I was. The words left a bitter taste on his tongue. For whatever his role, whatever his value, those days were past, gone, and there was no use in reflecting upon them. There was nothing left but for the occasional charitable visit, done out of courtesy. It had to be accepted: there was nothing else to do.
Nothing but to put an end to this foolish conversation. "Enough of this nonsense, Mr. Dawes," Bush snapped. "You are dismissed. When Greyhound is in good order you have my permission to return to shore. I expect you are wanted there."
"Aye aye, sir." Dawes studied his captain closely, watching the dreary burden of acceptance settle once again on the older man's shoulders. His own experience allowed him to fully comprehend it, yet he had also come to know this man well as he served under his command. "Iron sharpens iron, sir." He smiled enigmatically. "And so one man sharpens another."
Dawes could be so damned impenetrable at times, Bush thought dourly, and glowered fiercely at him. "Just go, Mr. Dawes."
Horatio Hornblower stepped out of the chill drizzle into the warmth and lively bustle of the little inn. As he shook the rain from his hat, he looked around the crowded room and eventually located Bush deep in a chair near the fire. The sight of his old friend brought a smile to Hornblower's face, and he rapidly made his way to Bush's side. Bush must have recognized his step - not at all surprising, having heard it upon the quarterdeck for so many years - and looked up. A welcoming smile creased Bush's face as well, and he rose to greet him.
Hornblower accepted Bush's proffered hand, and shook it warmly. "Come, Bush, let us sit down. I have been dreaming of nothing but dinner for the past hour...and we have much to talk about." He was gratified to see how effortlessly Bush led the way to a nearby empty table, without a trace of self-consciousness. Given his weathered features and commander's uniform, he looked as sturdy and dependable as ever. It was much as one might expect, Hornblower mused: Bush had obviously endured the loss of a leg with his usual stolid acceptance of adversity.
Bush settled comfortably into his chair and motioned for the huge innkeeper, who responded with a companionable smile and the prompt delivery of two tankards of foaming ale. He took a deep drink and set the mug carefully on the table before him. His blue eyes were lively; it was obvious that he was bursting with curiosity and was for once unwilling to allow Hornblower to torture him with waiting. "So, sir...what news?"
Hornblower suppressed an indulgent smile. Despite this unaccustomed directness, Bush would never truly change, he thought comfortably. Were fortune kind, allowing them to become doddering admirals, shore-bound together in some dusty corner of the Admiralty, the 'sir' would still be evident in Bush's voice. It was pleasant to think of it... and even more pleasant still when he considered the nature of the news itself. "I am to go to sea again, Bush. A squadron is fitting out as we speak, preparing to sail for the Baltic."
Bush accepted the news with a raised eyebrow and low whistle. "The Baltic, sir? A damned powder keg, that place is."
"Indeed, Bush," Hornblower nodded. "We must be there in strength in the event someone strikes a spark. And I..." he paused, as he was still coming to grips with the notion himself "...I have been named as Commodore." He shook his head in wonder at the whims of fate - and of the Admiralty - that had decreed it. "Commodore, with a flag captain under me."
Bush's honest delight in a friend's success showed plainly on his weather-beaten face. "Congratulations, sir. A just reward for all you have done...and it's about damned time." He grinned. "Commodore, eh? And First Class, with a flag captain? And who is the lucky devil?"
Hornblower smiled inwardly, warmth spreading through him like fine brandy, and leaned across the table. "Not who, Bush." He prodded Bush's arm. "You."
Bush sat back in his chair, astonished, his face alight with unrestrained emotion. Joy, pride, hope, relief...all of which abruptly vanished, as a candle flame might be snuffed by a sudden, frigid draught. He shook his head vehemently. "No. No ...sir."
Hornblower could only gape at Bush, wondering if he had heard the man correctly. "No? Whatever do you mean, no?"
"I mean NO, sir. I cannot accept it." Bush's jaw was set, determined. All evidence of friendship had fled, and the old mask of distant formality was rigidly in place once more.
Hornblower continued to stare, and still could not believe his ears. Bush had always been willing to accept his judgment without question ... at times, to a most irritating degree. He had occasionally wished that Bush would challenge his thinking, but this was hardly the moment he would have chosen for him to begin to do so. This sudden change in his behaviour was utterly inexplicable. "But ...there must be fifty captains ahead of you who would leap at this opportunity."
Bush folded his arms across his chest and studied Hornblower expressionlessly, though he failed to completely conceal the fire that smoldered in his blue eyes. "Perhaps you might ask one of them, sir," he said flatly.
Hornblower struck his hand on the table, causing several of the inn's patrons to turn and stare at the two officers grimly eyeing one another across the scarred surface. "Damn it, Bush," he snapped. "What is wrong with you? I do not want one of them. I want you, and I will have none other."
"What is wrong with me?" Bush echoed bitterly, glaring back at him with a face now dark with anger. "That much is clear enough to anyone with eyes. If you ask out of some sense of duty, or obligation ...if you think that you owe some debt to me, do not concern yourself further. You have asked, and your indebtedness is now repaid. I do not want your obligation, and I will not accept your pity."
"Good God, Bush, that is hardly why..."
"Then tell me why." Bush demanded coldly. "Surely there is someone better suited."
"Why?" Hornblower repeated uncertainly. "Why do I ask for you?" He had not paused to consider this himself as, to his mind, there had been neither alternative nor likelihood of refusal. He fumbled through his own racing thoughts and emotions...this was not the reaction he had expected, or been prepared for, and this was apparently not the predictable William Bush he thought he knew so well. "You are the finest seaman I have ever known, and...and..." Words failed him, and his voice trailed to silence.
"And should you fall, sir? I would command the squadron. Surely you must consider that." Bush shook his head firmly. "I have proved that I cannot adequately command a few revenue cutters. I had planned to request reassignment to the dockyard...that, or resign my commission."
Hornblower eyed him in disbelief. "But...you have been successful, when all's said and done."
"Poorly." Bush snapped. "Clumsily. And at a high price."
"There is always a price. You of all people must know that: you have paid it more than once with your own blood. I have read your reports. How many men did you lose? Nine? Ten? Of how many? And you did accomplish your objective; Carson is dead, his nest of smugglers is no more...and a corruption that fouled the Admiralty itself has been excised. Is that not enough?" Hornblower's voice rose slightly as his irritation mounted. "Recall that I lost Sutherland, and accomplished damn little in doing so. Those of my men who did not lose their lives lost their freedom, and I need not remind you of what you lost that day."
Bush doggedly refused to be placated. "The French did that, sir. Not you. This was different. I led my men into..."
Hornblower held up his hand to stop him. Bush, in his unsophisticated way, had crystallized the thought that he in his confusion had been unable to articulate. "Yes, Bush, you led your men. And that is precisely why I need you. Any captain can give orders...but not all can lead. Your men...did they question your orders? Did they object, or did they follow you?"
"They followed me. Dear God, they followed me." Bush sighed, anger abruptly replaced by a look of utter desolation, a sea change that shook Hornblower to his very bones. The man across the table seemed no longer the competent, confident Bush he had known so well, and relied upon so often. He had never seen Bush look so lost.
No. He had seen the same fathomless anguish in those eyes once before, during those early days in France when Bush despaired of ever learning to walk again. During that bleak and dismal time, Hornblower had been forced to set aside his natural reserve and had extended both his hand and kind words of encouragement, urging the fallen Bush to rise and try again, after what seemed - time and time again - like certain defeat. It had been difficult, though his mind had shied like a nervous horse from the reasons why it should be so.
The few times his mind began to consciously grasp the truth of it he found it impossible to contemplate. Through his own actions and his own failures, his greatest fear had been precisely visited - not upon himself - but on Bush, the closest thing to a friend he had ever possessed. He could not bring himself to speak of it, and thus merely offered his presence. It had sufficed, at the time.
But this Bush would have none of it, and Hornblower felt a helplessness greater than that he had felt even during those dark days. Then, Bush had expected too much of himself far too soon, and had been profoundly shaken when he found himself unable to fulfill his expectations. And this was no different. Bush had done well in this, his first command. But Bush, for some reason, was holding himself to impossible, unreachable standards. It never occurred to Hornblower that he himself had set them.
All Hornblower - being Hornblower - could do was to sit, and listen, and contemplate his own impending loss.
As he did so Bush found his voice again, and continued. "They trusted me. Followed me. And I..." he caught Hornblower's gaze, and did not flinch from it: his courage at least, Hornblower observed, was as it had always been. "I failed them. I fell on my face, and was not there to lead them."
"But you were," Hornblower interrupted, suddenly inspired by the truth of it. "You were, and you did. Even without you leading them in body, you still led them in spirit. Did they surrender, or turn and run?"
"Of course they did not." Bush scowled. "But that means nothing. I was not there. I fell..."
Bush's distress was too painful: Hornblower could not permit it to continue. "A thing that might happen to any captain, at any time. Not even Nelson himself walked his quarterdeck at the end of Trafalgar, yet the battle was won. You know," Hornblower reminded him gravely. "You were there."
Bush eyed him with unconcealed disgust. "I am no Nelson."
"No." Hornblower's brief smile softened the word. "Nor am I. The men of my squadron do not know their commodore, nor will they. But they will come to know their captain. And the men will trust you, just as they will know that I trust you." He reached into his coat and withdrew an envelope, and handed it to Bush. "And the admiralty trusts you." He raised an eyebrow. "Admiral Chadwick was most vehement in that regard."
Bush reluctantly accepted the envelope, running his fingers over it as a blind man might, turning it in his hands as if to convince himself that it was real and not some illusion borne of wishful thinking. The heavy wax admiralty seal caught the firelight, shining dully like spilled blood. He looked up, confusion twisting his features; though Hornblower thought he could also detect a flicker of hope in those familiar blue eyes.
He smiled gently at Bush, and handed him a small parcel. "And you will need this as well, my friend." He rose, and placed a hand on Bush's shoulder, which felt as unyielding as if it had been carved of oak. He knew full well that further prodding of this stubborn man would do more harm than good, and hoped that time and deliberate consideration would accomplish what his words had not. "Think on it. Please. We will speak again tomorrow." He collected his hat and cloak, and stepped out into the evening.
Before starting down the track, however, he looked in through the window. Bush was still sitting at the table where he had left him, now with shoulders bowed, his head in his hands. The parcel remained before him, unopened, untouched. The sight depressed Hornblower enormously; the thought of going to sea with any other captain had removed the joy and anticipation from his spirit entirely.
Mara entered the inn's common room and was surprised to find Bush settled there, deep in his usual wing chair by the fire, a glass of brandy waiting untouched at his elbow. She hastened to his side, though he did not seem to notice as he continued to stare fixedly into the leaping flames. She gently laid a hand on his shoulder, and only then did he slowly turn to look up at her. The expression on his face was one she had never seen there before: a curious and unsettling mixture of resolve, of hope - and of fear.
Concerned, she drew up a chair to join him. "Did your friend not arrive?" she asked softly.
Bush shook his head briefly, refusing to meet her eye, and returned instead to his study of the fire. "Oh, no...he was here. He had to return to his ship." His voice was distant, preoccupied.
"I am sorry." Mara smiled reassuringly at him and placed a comforting hand on his arm...perhaps he was simply disappointed. "I know you would have liked to have spent more time in his company."
Bush regarded her bleakly. "No. No....that is not it. He brought me......this."
He looked down; only then did she notice the objects resting in his lap. He handed her a heavy parchment envelope, inscribed
Capt. William Bush, Esq.
Mara held it in her hands, not daring to breathe.
She returned the envelope to him as he handed her a black japanned box. She opened it slowly, carefully. Inside, nestled amid cream colored silk, lay a single object glittering in the firelight. An epaulette.
She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "My God."
Bush smiled shakily at her. "Indeed. I am to be his flag captain. He said..." He shook his head in wonder; his eyes seemed unnaturally bright. "He said...he'd have none other."
Mara sat silently, as stunned as he. She had lived with the sea at her doorstep all her life, the sister of a sailor and the wife of another, and thus was no stranger to the ways of the Navy. But never in her experience had she heard of such an extraordinary second chance: a one-legged officer - no matter how skilled - was invariably condemned to relative inactivity, his days lived out aground and bereft, left behind by more fortunate men. The best he might hope for would be command of a Revenue cutter or courier brig. It may have seemed unfair, but it was the Navy's way. She knew it as well as did the bewildered man beside her, and found it no surprise that he was utterly overcome.
Bush closed his eyes and sighed despondently; he found the burden of false hope far heavier even than the weight of impossibility. "I cannot accept this; it is absurd. God only knows how he convinced the Admiralty of such a ridiculous notion. He claims to believe I am capable...and perhaps ...once... I may have been. But not now, not...as I am. It is sheer foolishness to think so - I have proved that much."
Mara studied Bush's strained face, knowing with all her heart that he had abundantly proved his worth. But she also knew this man, and knew full well that he would not hear her, not now. Instead she smiled gently, touched his arm, and changed the subject. "Ev is so much better. Have you spoken with him this evening? Go, sit with him awhile. I will be here when you return."
He nodded wordlessly and rose to comply, obviously relieved by the prospect of turning his beleaguered thoughts to something else for a time. She watched him as he carefully navigated the stairs, knowing that within the space of a heartbeat everything had changed. He could not remain here, not now, whatever her own feelings were on the matter. It would be a simple thing indeed to convince him that his fears were justified, and that his proper place was now ashore. But if she did...he would never be the same, and she would never forgive herself for knowingly inflicting a wound far more grievous and disabling than any he had already endured.
As Bush disappeared from view, Mara heard a familiar voice beside her. "So he's to be goin', then?"
She turned to face her brother. "Aye, I expect he will."
"It's right that he should. He has made few friends in Mount's Bay." Brendan gazed down at her, his face filled with concern. "Save one or two. An' thank God he kept his distance."
"Because you asked it of him." Mara stated flatly.
"He gave me his word." Anger coloured Brendan's heavy features. "And still he told you?"
"He did not." Mara looked up at him sharply. "I have spent a great deal of time with Ev these past days, and in the course of it I have learned much about his captain: Ev speaks of little else. He told me some of it...it was not difficult to guess the rest."
Brendan moved closer, encircling her shoulders with a protective arm. "I knew he'd go, one way or another." He shrugged. "Fact is, I figured he'd disappear one dark night, with no one but Carson t' be the wiser. And you'd be left again. It was clear enough what was beginning to pass between you and I knew I must stop it. I would not see you harmed."
Mara studied him silently and nodded, as if acknowledging the sense of it. It was plain that his actions had come from his heart; there was no point at all in letting him know that he had broken hers, instead.
Bush, however, was wholly unaware of any disquiet but his own. He reached the top of the stairs, tapped gently on the door, and slowly opened it as Fanshawe called "Please come, Captain Bush." The welcoming voice was stronger, far more so than it had been for days.
As was the man himself: still thin and worn, though the hectic flush that had stained the young man's cheeks was now replaced by a more natural, if pallid, hue. "How did you..." Bush smiled slightly, pleased to see him so much improved. "Heard me coming, did you?"
"I can't deny that, sir," Fanshawe grinned faintly up at him from the pillow. "You are rather...unique."
Bush sat down, not wishing to tire the young man overmuch; he remembered the depth of this weakness all too well. He also recalled how impatient one got with the prodding and perpetual tending and the endless, interminable discussions of one's health, and thus avoided the subject entirely. He eyed the young man with mock severity. "I trust Mr. Dawes was here."
"Indeed he was, sir." Fanshawe smiled, grateful that Bush granted Dawes a bit of leave each day in which to do so. Not all captains would have given it a thought, he knew. But, as he had discovered, this man was not all captains, and deserved better treatment than he had received at the hands of one of the Admiralty's own.
Fanshawe's smile vanished as his thoughts followed the well-worn path they had trodden endlessly during these past few days of lucidity. One expected to be placed in danger by one's enemies - that was a hazard of the Service, to be sure - but the very thought of betrayal within that same service could scarcely be grasped. And such perfidy from within one's own family was repugnant in the extreme, and must be acknowledged. "When Admiral Chadwick was here, sir, he gave me this." Fanshawe plucked at a letter that lay opened on the coverlet. "From Uncle Douglas."
Bush studied Fanshawe's face; he knew him well enough to recognize the veiled anger in the young man's eyes. Thus he said nothing, and waited. Fanshawe would tell him in his own time, and in his own way.
Fanshawe sighed, and the temper receded. "I could not bring myself to even speak of it to you, sir, until today." He shook his head sadly. "The man has changed out of all recognition. He expresses some remorse for what has happened to me." The anger and indignation flared again. "But shows none at all for his actions."
Bush nodded. Chadwick had told him that much, at least.
Fanshawe was clearly torn between fury and despair. "I cannot believe he is the man I knew. I thought I knew him...but I did not, truly. Perhaps I could not recognize the weakness within him." He fell silent for a space: the effort of strong emotion had been taxing indeed.
"I can clearly see it now. Though Uncle Douglas lost a great deal, he lacked the strength to withstand adversity and disappointment, and his weakness exposed the rot within." Fanshawe studied Bush carefully. "I understand now that it need not be so."
Bush's thoughts refused to grapple with the meaning of Fanshawe's words; the reminder of the admiral's lost health and career sent them back amongst the shoals of his own troubles, instead.
"Sir?" Fanshawe's voice broke abruptly into his melancholy reflections. "If I may say so, sir...you seem, er,....adrift. Is there something amiss?"
"No." Bush's face registered confusion. "Yes. I...I do not know. I have been offered Nonsuch." He shook his head vaguely. "Flag captain. Post rank."
Fanshawe smiled, looking genuinely delighted. "May fair winds go with you, sir."
Bush's blue eyes refocused in the present, and he snorted derisively. "I am going nowhere but the dockyard, I should think. I must refuse it; Sir Horatio is merely exercising his sense of honour and obligation. The winds have blown dead foul for me of late."
"Yes...I suppose there is a great deal of truth in that, sir." Fanshawe agreed, openly studying Bush's wooden limb and nodding soberly. He sighed sympathetically, and lay silent: to Bush's eye, perhaps discomfited by the notion of having so narrowly escaped a similar fate.
After a time Fanshawe frowned, as if puzzled. "Sir, what does a proper seaman do when the wind shifts against him? Does he run for harbour?"
"Of course not. He resets the sails and changes tack, but keeps to his course." Bush glared at the young man in sudden frustration. "For God's sake, Fanshawe...have you learned nothing these past months?"
"Oh, I have, sir - quite a lot, in fact." Fanshawe regarded him mildly. "But....have you?"
Bush stared at the young man for a long moment, a muscle working in his jaw. He swallowed hard. "Cheeky bastard." His voice steadied. "You will never make a respectable officer."
"Indeed I hope not, sir," grinned Fanshawe. "But perhaps...having been given the influence of a certain captain, I might someday make a good one."
Bush rose and managed, somehow, to muster the ghost of a smile. "Perhaps."
Fanshawe reached out a hand, and Bush took it. "Good luck, sir."
Bush shook his head. "I do not know if..."
"Yes." Fanshawe nodded firmly. "You do."
And for once the tables were turned: Fanshawe had at last left his captain entirely incapable of speech.
Later, to his consternation, Bush would discover that he was utterly unable to recall descending the stairs to the common room, nor could he say precisely how or why he found himself at Mara's side. He only knew that he had gone to her, and to the hearth, for the warmth and comfort they provided in the midst of chilling, storm-tossed waters.
Mara offered a friendly and noncommittal smile. "And how is your lieutenant this evening?"
"Impertinent." Bush grimaced, tight-lipped, and avoided Mara's eye. "And sadly misled."
Mara made no comment, and Bush offered none. It was clear enough to Mara that Fanshawe had given Bush his wholehearted support; it had been her purpose in sending Bush to him, after all. She studied Bush out of the corner of her eye. The firelight threw the lines on his face into sharp relief; his face was closed, shuttered, giving nothing away. But that alone spoke to her far more eloquently than any words.
The pain Mara felt for him moved her to speak. She had not intended to do so - it was not her place - but she could not stand idly by and watch the fulfillment of a dream slip needlessly away. She knew far too much about the emptiness lost hopes left behind them. "You believe that you cannot accept the Commodore's offer. Do you not respect him?"
Bush scowled darkly at the very suggestion. "Of course, more than any other; I would gladly have died for him, given the chance. But...at that last battle, aboard Sutherland..." he looked away, as if ashamed. "...I fell, and could do nothing."
"And you were taken below."
"I was....because Captain Hornblower so ordered. I wanted...no, I demanded...to stay." He looked up at her now, blue eyes flashing defiantly. "I could no longer die for him....but I could still die with him. I could not leave him there to meet death alone, on the empty quarterdeck of a dying ship."
"Just so," she nodded. "And just as Evelyn Fanshawe would have willingly died for you, or at your side. You must know that you make a mockery of his courage if you do not accept this posting."
"But..." Bush shook his head in disgust: why did no one understand? "But...I am no Hornblower. I am hardly worthy...of the posting or of Fanshawe's bravery."
"Ev seems to think you are. And Commodore Hornblower does as well, it seems. Why did he give the order that you be carried below? I should think there is little time for concern for one man in the midst of a losing battle."
Bush frowned, perplexed: he had never considered this before. "I...I do not know."
"I do. He did not wish to lose you." Mara eyed him calmly. "He has come back for you....should he lose you now?"
He studied his hands, unable to meet her eyes. She had no knowledge of the thousand times he had been found wanting, his slightest inadequacies brutally exposed by Hornblower's thoughtless derision, and he could not bring himself to tell her of it. "That cannot be. You do not know him."
"No, I do not," Mara conceded. "But I do know you. You may not be another Hornblower - but you are William Bush. That was enough for Evelyn Fanshawe."
"And that damn near got him killed." snapped Bush.
"By his own choosing." Mara countered. "Should such a choice be dismissed lightly?" She turned to look steadily into his eyes. "You did the same for another, and he has accepted your gift with gratitude and pride. He appreciates that its value is priceless, and knows that it cannot be replaced."
"But it is not the same as it was." Bush blue eyes were bleak.
"Perhaps not." She studied him intently, willing him to understand. "But it has been tested, and it has not been found wanting."
She left him standing in front of the fire, gazing numbly into it as if the answers would appear deep within its heart. He was still there when she drew the bolt on the inn's door, and extinguished the lanterns, and she did not disturb him.
It was the rich scent of coffee that woke her. Mara sat up and looked about, momentarily at a loss. Grey light had scarcely begun to creep through the windows: Brendan was up and about early, it seemed. An uneasy suspicion assailed her as she dressed hurriedly and clattered down the stairs.
Her breath caught for a moment as her eyes found the small neat bundle waiting at the inn's doorway: the few possessions this man of the sea kept ashore. She blinked away the tears that threatened, and turned, hearing voices in the parlour. Brendan was there, placing a steaming mug into Commodore Hornblower's hands as Bush looked on, grinning hugely. The expression on Bush's face - and the twin epaulettes that now adorned his shoulders - left no doubt of the decision he had made. His smile softened as he turned and saw her, and he crossed to her side, leaving his commodore to enjoy Brendan's conversation and his coffee.
Bush took her hand and kissed it reverently, as if it were the slim white hand of a duchess and not work-reddened and nearly as calloused as his own. "I thank you, Mara Bryce, for all you have done for us...and for me."
She tried to smile, caught as she was between pleasure and tears. "The sooner to be rid of your lot, you'll recall."
The gentle jest rang hollow, and Bush's high spirits were forgotten as his eyes met hers. He found, to his astonishment, that for reasons he could neither name nor articulate he could not bring himself to break the touch shared between them. All he had ever wanted but thought lost forever was now at hand, yet something unexpected, and unlooked for, and surprisingly precious was here within his very grasp, only to be left behind. It came down to a choice, one far more painful than he could have ever imagined. Though perhaps it had only to be set aside for now, and not abandoned forever. There was always time. "I will come back to you, Mara. I promise you that."
"I know, William." Mara said quietly. "I know."
They stood in silence, each studying the other, knowing that no more could safely be said or done. Neither, however, would be the first to break the handclasp that still joined them.
Mara proved to be the stronger, and gave his hand a final, gentle squeeze as she released him. She touched his arm. "Godspeed, William." she said softly. She lifted her chin. "Now go, Captain Bush - your command awaits you."
Bush turned as Hornblower approached them, wholly unaware of the exchange but for Mara's final words. "Indeed it does, Captain, indeed it does. There is much to do..."
As Bush could well imagine: Nonsuch had to be manned, provisioned, and properly fitted out... His professional mind began to organize, to plan, to efficiently calculate her needs, and he smiled despite himself in anticipation of this undreamed-of return to the world he thought was no longer his. "Aye, sir."
He turned back to Mara, who had seen his smile and did her best. She nodded firmly, dismissing him, denying her own emotions. "Farewell, Captain Bush."
She walked with him as far as the doorway and watched him go, even managing a smile at the last glimpse of his familiar irregular gait as he strode off at Hornblower's side and into the chill grey dawn. The expression on his face as he left the inn behind him had told her all she needed to know, and had given her the strength to stand quietly to watch him as he left her. He looked whole again, complete.
As she watched, he placed a restraining hand on his companion's forearm, halted, and turned back. He grinned, and raised his hat to her in farewell. The joy on his face was hers as well, and she bravely smiled back, and waved, and knew in her heart that she would never see him again.
William Bush, 1766-1814
"...there were a hundred and twenty captains junior to Hornblower, men of most distinguished record, whose achievements were talked of with bated breath in the four quarters of the world, and who had won their way to that rank at the cost of their blood and by the performance of feats of skill and daring unparalleled in history...Yet there was no hesitation about his decision. There might be more brilliant captains available, captains with more brains, but there was only one man that he wanted.
"I'll have Bush," he said, "if he's available."
C.S. Forester, Commodore Hornblower
One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the thousandth man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.
Kipling, The Thousandth Man