The hour was ridiculously late: half-past four and better. Horatio Hornblower felt his eyelids drooping and caught himself against a splintered doorway as his feet tangled up in themselves and nearly caused him to fall. He was all but asleep on his feet; some part of his brain reminded him that he was in danger of footpads. If there happened to be any about, he would appear an easy mark certain sure. He shook his whirling head, attempting to become more alert.
Late it was, indeed, but it had been greatly worth his time. He had made a fourth with several senior officers who, as they made inroads into the marquis’ claret, had lazily and easily raised the stakes several times: then, too, luck had been with him. He was not quite so foolish as to pat his breast pocket for reassurance in the narrow dark alley, but he knew that he had at last been able to replenish his corps de reserve. There was more besides, another four pounds; as well, it had been Saturday, the day when he received his weekly half-guinea from the marquis; a poor salary, perhaps, but welcome all the same. He could face Mrs. Mason with his head held high and pay what he owed, and he could eat for several weeks, besides.
He had become wearily accustomed to skipped meals. He had not much left to pawn, and when his corps de reserve became thin, he played with a flutter in his heart. He knew well the mathematical odds, but he nevertheless dreaded the thought that on one awful and unlikely turn of the cards he would be embarrassed before gentlemen. Before naval officers, perhaps. That safeguard of ten pounds was all that allowed him the cool attitude he needed to display in such games. It seemed a lot – it was a lot – but he had been in matches when the stakes went up with each hand. It would hardly do for him to quit the match when the stakes rose. At such behavior the marquis would quite likely terminate his employment, and it would be no more than he deserved.
Then, Hornblower thought grimly, he would likely starve. He shook his head again and reluctantly let go of the doorway, resuming his absentminded plodding. He was in no danger of that tonight, at least. The officers had called for lobster and carelessly invited Hornblower to join them. It had taken all his efforts for him to force himself to consume the splendid meal slowly and not embarrass himself in such distinguished company.
What was that? Hornblower turned round abruptly at the rush of sound, then relaxed as he saw it was only an alley cat, scrawny and damp, brushing against a pile of rubbish. He allowed himself to smile, and the relief gave him the energy to continue winding his way back to the shabby brick dwelling in Cooper’s Alley.
He opened the door as quietly as he could manage, but Mrs. Mason had very keen ears indeed and she was down the stairs in a flash, her shawl clutched around her and her hair untidy in its night-wrappings. Her sharp features drew into a scowl when she saw the figure in the doorway. Undoubtedly he presented a discouraging picture: hair tumbled after the long evening, for he had a habit of running his hands through his curls when tired; shabby lieutenant’s coat wanting brushing, at the very least, not to mention patching; his breeches worn nearly gray and hanging disgracefully from a painfully thin frame. He drew in a breath, fully expecting a broadside from his landlady’s sharp tongue before he would be able to show her his newly acquired funds.
“It’s a pretty business you make, showing your face at this hour,” Mrs. Mason snapped. “Fine for young rakes out squandering their rent money, and not a care for getting me up before dawn.” She snorted. “If Mr. Mason were here he’d throw you out!”
“Mother, please.” Maria had appeared behind Mrs. Mason on the stairs. Her face was prematurely lined with care and puckered with embarrassment. She made to lay a hand on her mother’s shoulder and Mrs. Mason turned, well able to fend off two minor adversaries at once.
“You keep your pert mouth shut, missy, and let me deal with this young spark,” she hissed. “And you,” rounding on Hornblower. “Show me some coin or show yourself the door.” Her chin tilted.
Despite his overpowering weariness, Hornblower felt hot embarrassment surge into his cheeks. He raised his chin in turn. “I’ll pay my reckoning right this minute,” he said haughtily. He plunged a hand into his pocket and drew out a handful, not knowing or caring what came forth. He deliberately plucked out the marquis’ half-guinea, turning it in the dim light: now the laurelled head, now the spade.
“Ten shillings, Mrs. Mason,” he said, and held it out. She snatched it and stowed it quickly in her apron; she had opened her mouth again when Hornblower forestalled her, holding up his hand.
“Perhaps you’d care for a week’s notice as well,” he said harshly, then winced. Not many places would extend him credit. He drew a breath, wondering how to undo his words.
“You wouldn’t want to be leaving us, sir,” Mrs. Mason said, and now there was a note of pleading in her voice.
“Very well,” was all Hornblower could bring himself to say. He thrust the remaining money back into his pocket. Mrs. Mason stepped down from the stairs and bustled toward the kitchen to wake the serving-girl. Maria headed back up the stairs and Hornblower dragged wearily after her.
It was all he could do to pull off his coat and take the time carefully to hang it over the splintered chair. He sank onto the sagging bed and pried his shoes from his aching and swollen feet. His hands felt clumsy and wooden as he drew out his newly won funds and meticulously concealed them in his hiding place. His head drooped on his breast as he numbly unbuttoned his waistcoat and tugged off his shirt and breeches. Heedless of the dawn beginning to filter palely through the ragged curtain, he collapsed onto the bed and was snoring in seconds.
The sun was high in the sky before Maria had a moment to go upstairs and tidy the lodgers’ rooms. It was the best time of day for such work, as most were out and about their business at such an hour. She tapped softly on the door of the last room, the tiny garret space. Hearing no reply, she pushed the door open. She was weary from her labors and had automatically gathered up Mr. Hornblower’s scattered clothing before her eye caught sight of the figure on the bed. She gasped, her breath caught, and then she relaxed. Mr. Hornblower, despite the hour, was deep in slumber. Her quiet ministrations would hardly rouse him.
She tended to his clothing, dusted the tiny space, and even made bold to straighten the thin blanket over the sleeping figure. Her expression softened. He was so thin, so pale, and the shadows smudged below his eyes. He had scarcely a shirt in his chest, as her mother had noted. She knew the peace to be hard on naval officers; clearly, Mr. Hornblower had no other security.
Her kindly face wrinkled with concern as she gazed on him. What in the world did he do with his evenings? She saw him go out at midday every day but Sunday; she knew him to return late, after midnight – her mother had complained often enough. What could he be doing that earned him coin, but only spasmodically? Her heart went out to him. He was much too gentle to be engaged in such a rough business as war in the first place. He always spoke to her with kindness and sympathy in his voice, his handsome face making her heart beat faster, his eyes soft with concern for how hard she worked. A shudder ran through her. In this part of town, he was likely engaged in rather dodgy business. She hoped that it was not dishonest, whatever it was. He should not have to dirty his pure hands that way.
Hornblower stirred and muttered in his sleep, making Maria jump. She must not stand there staring at him. It wasn’t proper. But oh – how the sight of him made her stomach flutter so. As much as she knew she ought to get on with her chores, it was so pleasant simply to stand and gaze, to drink in his kind and handsome face, the way his beautiful hands rested on the covers, the way he was at peace. She loved him; she knew it in that moment. She knew that he did not return her feelings – but why could he not? Perhaps, she thought wildly, he cared for her but was reluctant to display his emotions. Perhaps he thought it improper. She would not – must not – speak her feelings. Distractedly she set the neatly folded clothing on the chair; then, on an impulse she could not put to words, caught up his coat. It looked a sight. She would press it … brush it … patch the worn spots … treat it with spirits of hartshorn. If Mr. Hornblower could not afford a new coat, he would awaken to one that looked, well, almost new. He was a gentleman in the way so few men were these days. He deserved better.
He would pick it up, she imagined, when he awoke. He would give the elbows and cuffs closer examination. He would turn it wonderingly in those beautiful hands. His brow would furrow, then that handsome mouth would curve into a smile. “Maria,” he would say softly, the name exploding into the tiny room, and even if she did not hear him, her heart would know when he spoke her name. She closed her eyes and drew a deep, longing breath, savoring the moment. She pulled the coat to her chest and slowly backed out of the room.