Unearned Mercy
by Dunnage41

A sequel to “Broken and Contrite Heart”

//Although the real Baur au Lac Resort in Lausanne, Switzerland, did not open for business until 1844, the idea of resort vacations became popular both in the United States and Europe beginning in the early 1800s. In Europe, the journeys to such places as spas and resorts were typically arduous, and as a result, visitors stayed for as long as two months or more.
//
“I wish a divorce.” Barbara gazed steadily at him. Neither her look nor her voice betrayed a quaver, not even a hint of regret.
//
“Why … dear?”
//
“I do not think,” she said calmly, “that you can truly tell me that you have been completely faithful to the vows you made to me.” Her gaze drilled into him. “Can you?”
//
Hornblower could not say a word. He was stricken dumb. This was Barbara at her iciest, her stiffest, her most Wellesley, he thought irrelevantly. There was no hole, no opening, only solid stone. He was humbled, he was laid bare on the altar of her judgment, and it was no more than he deserved.
//
“A divorce requires an act of Parliament, my dear,” he heard himself say.
//
“Indeed. I am informing you of my wishes so that you might petition the king.”
//
“It’s hardly as simple as that,” Hornblower stammered, looking for a handhold.
//
“Surely you are capable of executing a simple petition.” Barbara continued to stare him down.
//
“As you wish,” he said dully. He thought he saw a flicker of disappointment at his capitulation. Damnation! Women were such unreadable creatures.
What did she want of him? He was far too proud to beg her for the salvation of his marriage and she knew it. He rose, unable to bear her company a minute longer, and for some inexplicable reason found his napkin fastened to his chest. It had grown enormous and was tangling his arms to his sides so that he could scarcely move. Instinctively he thrashed and tossed, trying to break free.
//
Then he was in bed, sitting up, the sheets wound round him and his heart pounding wildly as though it might burst through his chest. Sweat streamed from his temples and his neck, cascading down the front of his nightshirt. Barbara next to him sat up, stupid with sleep, and braced him with her arms, her hair tumbled and her eyes half-closed.
//
“What is it, dearest?” she mumbled.
//
“What?” His voice was hoarse and clotted.
//
“A dream?” She laid a hand to his forehead. “You are not feverish, I think, though perhaps a little flushed.” She pushed aside the bed curtains and rose. He heard her pouring him a tumbler of water. She brought it back and gently untangled the sheet, patting it into place on his lap.
//
“A dream … yes, a dream,” he mumbled. Barbara sat down again next to him and rested her hand on his chest.
//
“Will you share it with me?”
//
Hornblower shook his head and gulped the water greedily. “Horrible,” he mumbled. “Horrible. I would not wish to shock you.” He was only half awake himself and feared like a child that speaking the words would make them real.
//
“I think you should tell it, darling. It will help.” Barbara was gently insistent.
//
He could scarcely make himself say the words. “A divorce,” he mumbled thickly.
//
“A what?”
//
“A divorce,” he repeated more clearly. “You wanted a divorce.”
//
“My dear!” Now tears formed in Barbara’s eyes. Hornblower was instantly contrite. He had made her cry. The sight of a woman in tears always made him feel helpless and impatient in consequence. Before he could move she laid her head on his shoulder and contrived a sideways embrace, her arms draping him fore and aft. After a moment she regained her composure and allowed the tears to dry on her sleep-flushed face.
//
Though to her it was no more than an odd dream, to him it still seemed plausible. The woman for whom he had longed when he could not have her, when first he and then she in turn were claimed by others, the woman he had finally won at the painful cost of first Maria’s shameful, poverty-ridden death and the more honorable death of Leighton at Rosas Bay (a name he could never after think of without also recalling his defeat and capture) -- this woman was completely his, his to worship, his to love, his to come home to after every journey, and he had treated that devotion and covenant as though it were no more than a scrap of cloth to be used for some base purpose and then burnt, something he could toss aside easily, carelessly, thoughtlessly. His face flamed in the darkness as he thought of how gladly and easily he had gone to Marie, the first time perhaps pressed by dint of circumstance but the second time deliberately, without the threat of war (or so he thought), coldly, morbidly, with hardly a thought for his dear wife. //

What kind of creature was he? He no more deserved her respectful attention and concern, which she was now giving him, than a predator deserved the gratitude of its prey. And yet she gave herself to him gladly, unstintingly, and he had been petty enough to be jealous and grudging when family connections had accorded her a period of honor and pleasure in Vienna. He could never make up to her his base conduct; nor would he ever forget the icy disappointment clear in her voice when he had shouted at her, “I’m damned if I will go!” And now her face was flushed with concern, not disappointment, and she still cradled him and repeated her words.
//
“A divorce! What ever made you think such a thing?”
//
“I should have accompanied you to Vienna,” he said apologetically. “I should have. It was your finest hour, your greatest triumph, and I was selfish, selfish and small not to want to share it with you.” There! It was hardly a handsome apology but it was at least an admission of guilt. It was, perhaps, a beginning, a first step on the road to the redemption he assumed he would have to earn at high cost, for as adept as he was at mathematics when it came to human relationships he always failed to calculate for the effect of mercy born of love.
//
That made Barbara smile. “You would have loathed every minute,” she admitted. “Much as I enjoyed myself I could not have endured putting you through such a time. You were in the right not to go. I only wish you had not had such trials of your own in my absence.” She rubbed his back as one might soothe a child. Ordinarily it would have made him petulant but now he was, in fact, soothed by the gesture.
//
“Your duty has parted us many times,” she continued. “Neither of us should think the less of the other because this time my duty parted us.”
//
Put like that, it was a simple matter, and her description of it as a duty calmed Hornblower as no other word might. Duty. Yes, duty. As Pellew had said, he had done his duty in France, and Barbara had done her duty for king and country in Vienna. He half-turned and cradled her face in his hands. He kissed her, and she returned his kisses. He knew now that she would never say another word about his time at the villa, just as he would never ask her how she had passed her evenings in Vienna, or in whose company, and that was well. It was less than forgiveness but more than he deserved. He sensed instinctively that regardless of whatever unforeseen situation might conceivably arise in the future, he might never again be tempted. The guilty passion, followed hard on its heels by Marie’s awful and needless death -- death at his hands as surely as if it had been his finger on the trigger -- it had put paid to a part of him that would never arise again.
//

Though in the abstract he would never have described himself as a faithless husband, and had nothing but contempt for men whose infidelity was public knowledge, now he was one of those men -- and it hurt him the more that no-one would ever know of it. Nelson and other Naval officers had seen their infidelities serve as jeering common coin below decks. He was spared that fate. Did that make it better, or worse?
//
Regardless of what others might know or not know, say or not say, his concern at the moment was wholly for Barbara. A small and supremely selfish part of him wished to blurt out his doings, because even with Marie dead -- or perhaps because Marie was dead -- his shameful secret burned in his breast and he feared it might eat him alive. At the same time he knew he must never speak of it, never even hint at it, to Barbara. She deserved the best of him, and now more than ever he was determined that he should have it, as a reformed drinker is determined to avoid the bottle. Just as he never wished to burden her with the terrible and the mundane that occupied his time while he was at sea -- doing his duty -- she had spared him descriptions of what would have been equally mundane to him of her time in Vienna, ballets, operas, balls -- and the intrigues and hints and sotto voce negotiations on which so much depended.
//
What had happened in France must be completely behind him, he decided. Regardless of how torn he might have found himself in the past, the decision had now been made for him, even if it was a decision he might never have had the courage to make. Now as always his duty was concluded with the inexpressibly pleasant truth of his wife’s presence. They were together again, he had her back, and she was in his arms (or he in hers) and it seemed that hardly anything else mattered or could ever matter.
//
“A divorce,” she murmured now. “Such foolishness. Why, pray tell, would I ever want to be parted from you any more than duty requires?” Again the word ‘duty’ saved him. It saved him when the wave of guilt crested over him; it saved him from blurting foolishness about a woman who was now dead and whose claim on his body and heart would surely fade in time; the word ‘duty’ recalled him to his own vows. “With my body, I thee worship,” he said now; and though the words made her blush, it seemed to stir something in her. Certainly it stirred something in him. The horror of the nightmare faded and he encircled her in his arms, wishing to bring her completely to him, to reinforce their union.
//
//
THOUGH IT HAD seemed like foolishness at the time she proposed it, Hornblower now had to admit that, as usual, Barbara’s proposal had proved wise counsel in the end. He had easily put out of his mind the unpleasantness of the long journey to Lausanne and, after a full month at the Baur au Lac resort, he found that he delighted in the idleness to be found there. Awakening from a half-doze in one of the wing chairs by the spacious fireplace, he found Barbara standing in front of him looking uncommonly rosy and languid. He rose and hooked her arm through his and together they strolled onto the broad stone veranda, down the few steps, and along a path delightfully shaded by the trees arching overhead.
//
After a while, Barbara glanced up at him. “Happy, my dearest?”
//
“More than happy,” he replied, with complete honesty. “I might even go so far as to say that I am content.” He smiled down at her.
//
“Then there is nothing that might make you even happier?”
//
“If there is, I cannot imagine it,” he assured her. He was not just speaking pretty words. The resort in Switzerland was delightful; the rooms uncommonly luxurious; the grounds, breathtaking in their tidy beauty and made for the sort of behavior in which he and Barbara had been indulging: walking, riding, even a little boating, wherein he was modestly pleased and being able to play at steering a rowboat and she showered him with pretty compliments on his “seamanship” as they plied the waters of the serene and impossibly blue lake. More, Pellew had been right: his last holiday had proven decidedly unrestful and he was amazed to discover that a full month on land had not yet made him restless for duty and a sea-command. Doubtless in time the restlessness would come; but for now he was utterly contented with the prospect of another month, or even two, in Lausanne.
//

“My cup of happiness,” he continued, carried away, “is filled to the brim.”
//
“Nothing might make you happier?” Barbara repeated. They had reached a stretch of path bordered by a low stone wall and set about with benches and she sat on one and fanned herself. The commonplace gesture made Hornblower look at her closely. The day was delightfully mild and the walk they had just taken had been so undemanding that she should not be in need of fanning herself. But her face was pinked with exertion and he noticed now that there was weariness in her eyes, which Hornblower found odd, because since their arrival she had been retiring quite early and sleeping quite late. On several occasions she had not awakened until noon, having missed breakfast entirely, yet even then she had been peckish and not in good appetite.
//
“I am happy,” Hornblower repeated, sitting down beside her and placing his arm lightly round her shoulders, “and the air has done me good indeed, but you, my dear, do not look at all well.”
//
She turned her face toward him over her fan and beamed upon him. “My dearest husband,” she said, and her tone was confidential. “Has it not occurred to you that there might be the happiest of reasons for my color and my tiredness of late?”
//
Hornblower stared. She could not be saying what she seemed to be saying. He must be misinterpreting her words. He wished women would speak straightforwardly, as he was accustomed to, and not always hide behind hints and subterfuges and implications.
//
“I hardly think that ill health can be a reason for happiness,” he said shortly, vexed at her womanly subtleness. Barbara laid her hand on his arm and her eyes danced. She was all but laughing at him.
//
“Indeed it can be, my love, if one knows that the ill health is but temporary, and will shortly be removed and replaced by something that brings only joy to a home.”
//
Hornblower felt himself start. His eyes grew wide as a child’s and he felt his mouth drop open. He tried to speak but failed. Barbara, a smile of satisfaction on her face, gently lifted his hand and laid it on her dress, below her bosom. Vaguely his mind registered that her belly did not bear its usual flat firmness but felt rounder, even though she had scarcely been eating of late. Rounder! At last his mind made the connection between what his hand told him and the words Barbara had been saying.
//
“Barbara,” he gasped, and felt himself blush. He was remembering vividly the night six weeks ago when he had awakened from a dreadful nightmare and sought solace in her arms.
//
“Yes, it is true.”
//
“Impossible,” he breathed. “I thought --” he was blundering like an idiot now, and at any moment he would say something hurtful.
//
“Yes, my dearest, I had always believed as you did. It seems that the claims of restored health made by this place might be more true than they realize.”
//
He sat back, his initial shock fading, and looked at her with renewed respect. A moment ago he had been able to declare with full honesty that his cup of happiness was full to the brim, and suddenly now it was spilling over, pouring out in exuberant extravagance. He closed his eyes and forced himself to call to mind Marie’s face. With a shock of pleasure he realized that he could scarcely recall his features; and further, thinking of her caused him scarcely a pang. He did not deserve such a one as Barbara, and certainly he did not deserve the news she was no imparting to him, but deserved or not, such gifts were his, and he was not going to be so very foolish as to waste them a second time.