Simple Gifts
by Pam

 

I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day.
I saw three ships come sailing in,
On Christmas Day in the morning.

--Traditional English Carol
*******************************

Clang. Clang . . .

"Noooo," Archie Kennedy groaned, pulling the pillow over his head and
burrowing deeper under the coarse blanket. "Go away!"

Oblivious, the bell rang twice more. Horatio Hornblower opened bleary eyes
and glanced over at his cabin-mate, who'd had the bad luck to draw the middle
watch that morning and was now radiating the resentment of a man rudely
awakened after a mere two hours of slumber. "Jus'--go back t'sleep, Archie,"
he advised drowsily.

"It took me forever to fall asleep the first time!" Archie said querulously,
squirming onto his back and glaring at the ceiling. "Bloody bell!"

Horatio grunted. He should probably be more sympathetic to his friend's
difficulties but at least Archie hadn't spent his watch fighting a losing
battle with nausea, as Horatio had. The Indy's sail into Plymouth Sound
yesterday had been plagued by high winds and rough seas; the deck had leapt
and rolled underfoot as though it had a life of its own. Horatio's battle
had ended as it always did, with a dash for the lee rail while he lost his
last meal and all desire for future ones. Even now, with the ship riding
calmly at anchor, his stomach gave a faint queasy lurch at the thought of
food.

*Thump*. Archie's feet hit the deck with none of their usual lightness as he
swung his legs to the floor. Horatio watched through half-closed eyes as his
friend pulled on his clothes, splashed water on his face, and tied back his
hair--all without the habitual good humor that characterized most of his
actions. It was like sharing the cabin with a small blond thundercloud.

Dressed, Archie padded over to his sea chest, sat down beside it with another
thump, and regarded it without enthusiasm.

Sea chest. Oh yes . . . Horatio's memory stirred sluggishly. "Aren't you
going to open the package your family sent?"

"Package?" Archie echoed, his blue eyes blank. Then, "Oh, *that* package."

Horatio nodded, then wished he hadn't. "It *is* the 25th of December, is it
not?"

"Oh, God, I suppose it is!" Archie rubbed his forehead. The last few days
had been so taken up with getting the Indy safely back to England through the
winter storms that Archie had completely lost track of time. And this
morning, his thoughts seemed to be working their way up through countless
layers of cobweb and cotton wool. "Another Christmas, here already." He
opened his sea chest, lifted out a heavy parcel, done up in what felt like
layers of brown paper. A single envelope was just visible beneath a cat's
cradle of twine. After loosening the twine slightly, Archie just managed to
work the letter free. "Margaret's handwriting, " he reported, then stopped,
unsure whether to proceed. It did seem discourteous to open a Christmas
present in front of his friend, who had not yet received so much as a letter
from *his* family.

"Shipboard mail is never reliable," Horatio remarked with a shrug, as though
reading his mind. "My last letter from my father was nearly a month old--but
I expect to hear from him again, soon enough. What does your sister have to
say?"

Archie opened and scanned the letter quickly. "She and the children are
still in London, with my sister, Alice. Robin enjoys playing with his new
cousins and Medora's musical education continues apace--she's even sent me a
carol she composed herself. And everyone contributed something to this
package which Margaret describes as 'a happy blend of both Sensible and
Frivolous gifts!'"

'Sounds intriguing." Horatio hoisted himself into a sitting position,
clamping his lips shut over the faint spasm of nausea that gripped him at the
motion.

"Mm." Despite that unencouraging sound, Archie did look more interested.
Without further ado, he cut the remaining twine with a penknife and began to
tear away the brown paper wrapping.

The frivolous gifts promised the most entertainment, so Archie located them
first. Homemade marchpane in a sealed jar; a carefully wrapped fruitcake
heavy with dried fruits, nuts, and spices; even, he discovered to his
amusement, a small flask of brose. He glanced over at Horatio with a thought
towards offering him tastes of anything that caught his fancy but his
shipmate's pallor and sudden convulsive swallowing made him think otherwise.
The seas had been restless and turbulent of late--Horatio had probably been
as sick as a dog. Stupid of him not to remember--lack of sleep must be making
him slow-witted, a condition Archie always hated. No, he'd share the edible
treats with his friend later. More "frivolous" gifts to explore--Medora's
carol and a book of John Donne's songs and sonnets.

With those treasures duly noted, Archie unearthed the sensible gifts: four
handkerchiefs, embroidered with his initials; three pairs of woolen
stockings; six grosgrain ribbons, in black, brown, and dark blue, with which
to tie his hair. To his great surprise, there was also a stiffly polite note
from his father, inquiring after his health and enclosing a five-pound note.
So Milord had spent part of the holidays visiting his estranged daughters . .
. well, well, well. Nothing, not even a note, from Malcolm and Duncan. But
then he hadn't written to his brothers either. "Prosper, and be hanged to
you" seemed to be the attitude all around where the Kennedy sons were
concerned.

Shaking off the memory as he would a dusting of snow, Archie drew out the
last items in the parcel. His brows rose at the sight of two small
individually wrapped packages, about the same size, one labelled with his
name, the other . . . "This is for *you*, Horatio." He held out the package
marked "H. Hornblower" to his friend. "Margaret's doing, by the looks of it."

Horatio's eyes widened, a flush staining his cheeks (and making them look
slightly healthier), as he accepted the package. Trust Margaret to remember
his friend at Christmas! Archie smothered a smile and turned his attention
to his own package. Tearing away the wrapping, he found a fine pair of
knitted gloves, of thick brown wool, and a deep blue--almost
Navy-blue--scarf. Smiling more openly, Archie tried on one glove to check
the size (perfect), before placing it and most of his other gifts back in his
sea chest. Despite his fatigue, he felt his spirits lifting. Nothing could
put his family back the way it had been before his mother's death so many
years ago, but it helped to know that some good things had been salvaged from
the wreck.

"Archie." Horatio's voice, sounding oddly stilted even in that one word.
Archie glanced at him--his friend's package, now lying on the foot of the
bunk, was only half-open but another pair of gloves, similar to his own, and
a corner of a dark red scarf were still visible through the torn wrapping.

"What's wrong, Horatio? Did she make the fingers too short?"

"N-no . . . no, I'm sure everything is perfect. It's just--I can't accept
this, Archie!"

"What?" Kennedy stared at his friend but Hornblower's face, flushed and
strained, was completely serious. "Good God, Horatio, why *not*?"

The red patches on Horatio's prominent cheekbones darkened. "Well, for one
thing, it wouldn't be proper! I mean, I've never even met your sister!"

"An omission that I hope will be corrected, someday!" Archie retorted. "In
the meantime, I can impart all you think you should know about her, including
that she's an excellent knitter."

"I don't doubt that, but the plain fact remains that your sister does not
know me!"

"She knows *me*," Archie pointed out. "And she knows that you're my friend.
Oughtn't that to be enough?"

"Archie!" There was an almost pleading note in Horatio's voice as he pushed
the package into Archie's unwilling hands. "I could never hope to repay such
generosity!"

"No one's expecting you to! It's a gift, Horatio, a simple gift--offered
freely from a member of my family to my closest friend." Shaking his head
over Hornblower's obstinacy, Kennedy tried for a lighter tone. "If you lack
the sense to appreciate these, I'll give them to someone who will!"

"You must do as you see fit, Mr. Kennedy."

Archie stared at his shipmate. "You--you actually think I'm *serious*?"

"Well . . . perhaps your proposal would be best." Horatio's stubborn chin
lifted in a way that Archie had always found particularly exasperating. "No
doubt some poor soul would be glad of them. Or *you* could keep them, as a
spare. I do still own a pair of gloves myself."

The last of Kennedy's patience evaporated and his temper went with it. "Oh,
for God's sake, Horatio! *Your* gloves are out at the fingers and fraying at
the cuffs--in no time at all, you'll be losing fingers to frostbite and
rendering yourself unfit for duty. Would you rather have that happen than
bend your stiff neck enough to accept my sister's gift?"

Brown eyes widened and sparked with indignation. "Mr. Kennedy, I don't at
all care for that tone--"

"I don't much care for what *you* don't care for, Mr. Hornblower!" Archie
snapped back. Surging to his feet, he extracted the gloves from the package
and tossed them onto his shipmate's bunk. "You may as well take
these--*I've* no use for 'em, not having four hands!" He then caught up the
end of the red scarf and flung it over Horatio's nearest shoulder. "I don't
have two necks, either--and I look dreadful in maroon!" Not waiting for a
response, he grabbed the fruitcake, tucked it under one arm, and stalked
stiff-legged from the cabin.

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

An empty sick berth on Christmas day was one of the best gifts a doctor could
receive, Dr. Luis Sebastian reflected as he made his way back to his cabin.
He'd stopped by to check on his various stores and see what medicines he
needed to replenish, but no one had turned up ill or injured while he was
there. A good omen for the holiday--and it left him with more time to carry
out his plan for this evening. Storms and rough weather had delayed the
Indy's arrival in port, but they'd made landfall yesterday--still enough time
to arrange a delivery of food to the almshouse, so that the poor might enjoy
something resembling a Christmas dinner tonight. Between them, the ship's
officers and crew had donated a respectable sum to that cause--anonymously,
in a collection box Dr. Sebastian had set up a few weeks earlier, so that no
one need be ashamed or embarrassed by whatever amount he could afford to
give. The proceeds might not stretch to a turkey or a goose, but a haunch
of mutton or a ham should lie within the realm of possibility.

"Happy Christmas, doctor," a familiar voice hailed him.

Sebastian roused from his thoughts to greet the young man standing just
outside his half-open cabin door. "Mr. Kennedy! A happy Christmas to you
too." He looked the lieutenant up and down, automatically assessing him for
signs of damage or distress but finding none. "I hope you are not ill?"

"No, not at all," Archie assured him. "Only a bit weary. The bell woke me at
least two hours early and I doubted I could fall asleep again easily, so I
opened the Christmas parcel from my family." He indicated the swaddled
object he was carrying. "My sisters sent me a fruitcake--a large one. I
wondered if your patients, in sick berth, might like some--that is, if you
approve."

"Ah!" Dr. Sebastian smiled as he opened the cabin door further. "I am happy
to report that I released my last patient from sick berth yesterday
afternoon. But it was a kind thought, nonetheless."

"Oh!" The younger man looked both pleased and slightly crestfallen, if such a
thing were possible. "Well . . . I hope I can persuade you to partake of some
with me, doctor?"

"I accept with pleasure, Archie." Dr. Sebastian beckoned his guest inside,
seated him in the chair beside his desk, and located a clean knife with which
to cut the fruitcake. "Would you care for some tea? I left it to brew while
I visited sick berth--it may be rather strong."

"Tea would be fine, thank you, doctor," Archie said gratefully. "And under
the circumstances, perhaps the stronger the better!"

If the tea was slightly bitter, the fruitcake's sweetness balanced everything
out. The cake was a fine specimen of its kind, though, still moist and
richly flavored despite its lengthy stint in a parcel. Consuming the last of
his piece in appreciative silence, Sebastian studied the young man opposite
him; it had, after all, become something of a habit to keep an eye on Archie.
Fortunately, the boy appeared to have spoken truthfully about not being ill,
although he did seem to have something on his mind. Well, if he felt it
was something the doctor could help with, he would say so, soon enough. In
the meantime . . .

"And how is Lieutenant Hornblower this morning?" Dr. Sebastian inquired.
"Has he partaken of your fruitcake?"

Archie shook his head. "Not yet. The storms have played the merry devil
with his digestion for the last few days."

"Ah," Dr. Sebastian said sympathetically, remembering how terribly Mr.
Hornblower suffered at such times.

"I'll offer him some, after his innards settle." Archie's mouth twisted.
"Perhaps he'll even deign to accept it!"

Dr. Sebastian raised his brows at the note of asperity in the usually gentle
voice. "Mr. Kennedy--is there something . . . amiss, between you and Mr.
Hornblower?"

The fair face colored slightly. "Well . . . " A corner of his mouth turned
up in a lopsided smile. "Would you describe wanting to knock some sense into
Horatio with a belaying pin as 'something amiss'?"

"*Highly* amiss!" Sebastian replied, surprised. "How did matters between you
come to such a pass?"

"Oh . . . " Archie grimaced. "It was something--quite stupid, really. But we
did have words--and I don't know that we're speaking now!"

So that was it. Dr. Sebastian just managed not to smile. He'd counseled his
young friend through many of the painful memories that still haunted him--of
his childhood, of his time as a prisoner of war, of his years aboard the
floating hell known as Justinian. It was an unusual but oddly diverting
change of pace to be asked, if only tacitly, to mediate an ordinary dispute
between Archie and Lieutenant Hornblower. But the doctor knew how both young
men valued their friendship--no doubt Horatio was feeling as out-of-sorts
about their quarrel as Archie--and the sooner things were mended between
them, the happier they would be. Maintaining an encouraging silence,
Sebastian waited for Archie to explain further.

Nor was he disappointed. "I mentioned that I opened my Christmas parcel this
morning," Kennedy continued. "One of my sisters enclosed a gift for
Horatio--which he refuses to accept for various reasons, each one stupider
than the last!"

"Was it a very expensive or elaborate gift?" Sebastian asked, inwardly amused
by Archie's heated tone.

"Not in the least. Margaret's my *sensible* sister--she wouldn't send
anything that didn't have a practical use or purpose. As it is, she gave me
the exact same thing. There wasn't anything . . . improper about it either."
Archie pulled a face. "Horatio is generous to a fault, but God help anyone
who tries to give him something in return! He's like that even with *me*,
and I don't understand it at all!"

"Ah, but many prefer to be the giver, rather than the recipient, " Dr.
Sebastian pointed out, "especially when they feel they have less to offer,
materially."

"But . . . I don't think of our friendship that way--in material terms, I
mean!"

"Of course you don't. No more does Lieutenant Hornblower--most of the time.
But perhaps there are some moments when the difference between your stations
in life is forcibly brought home to him--and this may be one of them. And
then there is the matter of a debt owed."

Archie shook his head, bewildered. "Being a lord's son . . . well, it never
shielded me from anything--difficult, disagreeable, or, or *degrading*," he
finished, flushing slightly. "At least, not after I was twelve years old.
And I cannot imagine what . . . *debt* Horatio might feel he owes me, but
whatever it is, he's repaid it a thousand times over!"

"Archie, it is not so much a debt to *you* that Mr. Hornblower fears he
cannot repay. Rather, it is to your family--specifically, your sister, whose
generosity has taken him by surprise."

"He saved my life, in prison. Is it so--inconceivable to him that some
members of my family might wish to express their appreciation? With a simple
gift?" Archie pushed back a sweep of fair hair that seemed to be escaping its
ribbon as a testament to his frustration. "If my sisters happened to send
Horatio a--a robe of purple velvet, trimmed with ermine and lined with
cloth-of-gold, it would be no more than he deserved!"

Sebastian paused for a moment to consider this unlikely image, then shook his
head, dark eyes holding a faint gleam of amusement. "You know, of course,
that Mr. Hornblower would never wear such a garment?"

"Yes, but that's beside the point!" Archie retorted, half-laughing,
half-vexed. He sighed, the vexation gaining the ascendancy. "It was gloves
and a scarf--both of which he needs. Yet he still digs in his heels like a
balky horse at a gate, and I do not understand why! It *is* the season of
giving and sharing, isn't it?"

"Indeed it is, Mr. Kennedy . . . but it is also the season of tolerance and
*patience.*" Dr. Sebastian laid a gentle but unmistakable emphasis on that
last word, and concealed a smile as a rising tide of pink spread from
Archie's jaw to hairline. "Tolerance and patience. Understanding . . . and
forgiveness."

"Oh, God." Archie's eyes dropped to his waistcoat buttons. "I *have* been an
ass, haven't I?"

"On the contrary--you have been a loyal and concerned friend. It is not
always easy to fathom someone's reluctance to accept the generosity of
others. I imagine such a trait might be a sad burden to bear . . . but it is
not one that can be set aside at will."

"Or bullied or scolded away," Archie added, by now thoroughly ashamed of
himself.

Dr. Sebastian smiled again, more visibly. "Lieutenant Hornblower is a proud
and independent young man, as you yourself have cause to know. But he is not
an ungrateful or unappreciative one. Just--give him some time."

********

When Archie returned to the cabin, the first thing he saw was Horatio, seated
on the edge of his bunk, wearing his uniform and a doleful expression. He
looked up as Archie appeared in the doorway; brown and blue eyes met warily.

Archie suppressed a sigh and spoke first. "Forgive me, Horatio--I don't wish
to quarrel. Especially not today of all days!"

"Nor do I." The corners of Hornblower's mouth turned up for a moment before
drooping once more.

"Lack of sleep always makes me cross."

"I hate the whole world when I'm seasick."

They spoke at the same time, their words overlapping, then stopped at once,
regarding each other with identical sheepish smiles. Archie held out his
peace offering. "Here--try this, if you still don't fancy breakfast."

Horatio accepted the steaming mug. "What is it?"

"Ginger tea, courtesy of Dr. Sebastian and the steward. With a little honey.
It's meant as a remedy--for the nausea."

Horatio murmured his thanks, sipped cautiously at the brew. Archie drifted
into the cabin, put the leftover fruitcake back in his sea chest, and went to
perch on his own bunk.

"Archie?"

"Hmm?"

"Will you--be writing your family, in the near future?"

"I expect so. Why do you ask?"

"I--I should like to enclose a note . . . to your sister, thanking her for
her gift."

"That would be," Archie searched for just the right words, "entirely
appropriate."

Horatio flushed. "I do not wish her to think me ungrateful--or ungracious.
Though I am afraid my earlier behavior was both."

Archie made a noncommittal sound. "What changed your mind--about accepting
her gift?"

Horatio's flush deepened. "This." He held out a folded bit of paper. "I
found it among the wrappings."

Archie took the paper, read the brief message in Margaret's distinctive
slanted handwriting: *Dear Mr. Hornblower, Thank you for being my brother's
friend. Happy Christmas. Yours, etc., Margaret Kennedy Tresilian.* He
smiled--she did have a way of cutting to the heart of the matter.

"After that," Horatio studied the contents of his mug with uncommon interest,
"all my reservations seemed as, as ridiculous to *me*, as they no doubt did
to you!"

Archie refolded the note and handed it back to his friend, careful not to
betray his satisfaction. No need to crow or rub Horatio's nose in it.
"She'll be pleased to hear that her gift is being put to good use.
Knitting's one of the 'womanly skills' she mastered with no trouble at
all--unlike embroidery!"

Horatio's mouth twitched in a tentative smile. "Well, it seems by far the
more useful of the two!"

"Exactly. Margaret leaves all the fancywork--cushions, firescreens, and the
like--to Alice, who has the leisure for such things."

"Was it Alice who put the initials on your handkerchiefs?'

"Very possibly. I'll take a closer look later, to be sure." Archie lay back
on his bunk, head cradled in his interlaced hands. Despite Dr. Sebastian's
tea, he was beginning to feel more relaxed, even a bit drowsy.

"Where did you go--before?"

"Oh. I went to see Dr. Sebastian. I thought I'd share some of the fruitcake
with his patients but sick berth was empty. So I just stayed to visit him,
instead." Archie prudently decided not to mention that Horatio's name had
come up in their conversation. "D'you know, he wants to arrange Christmas
dinner ashore, for an almshouse?"

"Does he?" Horatio sipped again at his tea and considered the matter. "A
worthy plan. But is there time to arrange something like that on such short
notice?"

"Well, if anyone can, it's Dr. Sebastian. Perhaps Captain Pellew will grant
us liberty to help him." Archie yawned suddenly. "Lord, I'm sleepy! Maybe I
*can* close my eyes for an hour or so, at that."

"Would you," Horatio cleared his throat, "would you care to open *your*
Christmas present first?'

Blue eyes widened at that. "Horatio?"

Hornblower reached under his pillow, drew out what looked like a long tube
wrapped in brown paper, and handed it to Kennedy.

Mystified, Archie tore off the wrapping, blinked at what he uncovered.
"A--recorder?"

"I bought it the last time we were ashore," Horatio confessed. "From a
traveling seller of instruments. I asked him--which one had the sweetest
tone, because *I* couldn't have told the difference!"

"Oh, Lord!" Archie said ruefully. "Did he sell you the most expensive one in
his pack?"

"Perhaps. But it seems that he dealt honestly with me all the same--Mr.
Bracegirdle played a few notes on it, and told me I hadn't been cheated too
badly."

Archie blew experimentally on the recorder, raised his brows as the mellow
alto tone which emerged. A little haltingly, he attempted a brief tune, sent
a bright flurry of notes dancing off the cabin walls.

"I can't tell one note from another, of course," Horatio admitted, trying not
to wince too visibly. "But I know that *you* enjoy music and I thought . . .
" His voice trailed off self-consciously.

"Horatio, thank you." Archie smiled at his shipmate. "It's a fine gift--and
I'll enjoy it very much. Though in deference to your sensibilities, I'll
endeavor not to play it when you're in the cabin."

Hornblower's answering smile was more definite this time. "Your
self-restraint is admirable, Mr. Kennedy. And now you can learn to play your
young friend's carol."

"In due course. Meanwhile, I have something for *you*--if it pleases your
Gravity to accept it." Archie smiled to see Horatio relax still further at
his use of the familiar nickname, then brought out a small leather pouch, no
larger than a child's fist, from his breeches' pocket.

Horatio stared at it in bewilderment. "What--?"

"Open it."

Brow furrowing, Horatio obeyed, loosening the drawstring and reaching inside.
Brown eyes became enormous as he drew out a length of fine chain, gleaming
silver in the dim light. "Archie . . . "

"You weren't the only one to purchase something last time we were ashore."
Archie tried to keep his tone off-hand and casual. "It's . . . for your
mother's pendant. I know you didn't have the chain repaired or replaced
after . . . "

*After Simpson broke it, the night of the Inquisition.* The words and the
terrible memory they evoked hung unspoken between them. Archie suppressed a
shiver--he hated to dwell on those days, on what a coward he had been back
then, too paralyzed by his own fears to come to Horatio's defense when the
older midshipman brutally beat him. Rescuing the pendant was about the only
deed he was proud of himself for doing that night. But Simpson hadn't cared
about the necklace except as a means of hurting Horatio. Soon enough he'd
dropped it disdainfully to the floor to pick up another weapon--it had been
possible in that brief moment for Archie to scoop the pendant up, shove it in
his pocket, and return it to his friend later, when they were no longer under
their enemy's malevolent eye. Horatio never wore it again, though--rather,
he'd stowed it at the very bottom of his sea chest, as though fearing further
assaults upon his precious keepsake.

"It wasn't too dear," Archie rushed on, trying to fill the empty space with
something, *anything.* "I found it secondhand, actually--but I thought the
workmanship was very fine, although it needed polishing. The steward told me
he could remove the tarnish certain sure, but it would take several days--I
picked it up this morning, along with your tea . . . "

*Oh, Lord, stop chattering, you fool.* Biting his lip, Archie watched his
friend, sitting with dazed eyes and parted lips as he stirred the chain about
in his palm with a careful forefinger. *Please take what I offer--for both
our sakes.* As a symbol of healing . . . from something--and someone--that
had hurt them both.

Then Hornblower lifted his head and gazed straight at Kennedy with dark eyes
gone suddenly and suspiciously liquid. "It's . . . it's beautiful, Archie,"
he began--and was abruptly unable to continue.

Archie released a breath he had not realized he had been holding. "I know
you don't wear jewelry anymore," he continued after a moment, in a more
cheerful tone. "And it's deuced impractical in the Navy, except on special
occasions. Too easy for it to fall overboard or get caught in the rigging.
But you *could* keep the necklace for your children--and tell them all about
what a fine woman their Grandmother Hornblower was."

The wide mouth turned up in a somewhat wobbly smile. "An excellent idea, Mr.
Kennedy. I think . . . I will go see how they look--the chain and
pendant--together." With an audible sniffle that Archie pretended not to
notice, Horatio got to his feet and started towards his own sea chest.
Halfway there, he paused and looked back. "And Archie?"

"Yes, Horatio?"

"Happy Christmas."

"And to you too, Mr. Hornblower." Smiling, Archie leaned back on his pillow,
his new recorder tucked tenderly in the crook of his arm. "Peace on earth,"
he murmured contentedly, and closed his eyes.

END
*********

Then let us all rejoice amain,
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day.
Then let us all rejoice amain,
On Christmas Day in the morning.