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The Visiting Moon (Missing Scene from 'Duchess and the Devil')
by Pam and Del

 

". . . nothing left remarkable / Beneath the visiting moon. . . "

"What was he saying?"

"'E's delirious."

"No, no, it wasn't like that. It was from something."

She knew very well what it was from. Under her hanging sleeve one hand
clenched in on itself hard enough to dig the nails into her palm. Dear Lord,
this boy could know her secret! And if she were discovered . . .

Mr. Hornblower had said he had tried to starve himself. She would be safe if
he quietly slipped away. Perhaps it was best . . .

Abruptly, she was ashamed of herself. No masquerade was worth such a loss!
And not only the boy himself but her young friend, Mr. H., already frantic,
and casting about for what to do next.

"If we can only get him to eat--"

His words suddenly caught her attention and she responded without thinking.
"Eat? He can't eat anything solid, Mr. H., he'd just sick it back up again."

"But he's so weak--"

"It's the thirst that's the danger, Mr. H. Not the hunger. It's liquids
you'll need." She shrugged a little at his stare. "Well, I've done my share
of sick nursing."

Too late she realized the import of her words. Frantic dark eyes fixed on
her face, the long lashes still clumped together from the unnoticed,
desperate tears. "Then . . . can your Grace help him, *please*?"

She did not close her eyes but she cast them down briefly, damning herself
for soft-headedness, and damned Hornblower, and even the sick boy too, for
being so appallingly young and defenseless. "Of course, Mr. H. Whatever I
can do." She raised her eyes again and set about it briskly. "Now then,
we'll need water, and spirits, and . . . oh, I'd give my foot for some decent
tea, but they say there's none to be had."

A step heard just inside the door made her turn. "Don Massaredo! A word, if
you please?"

Three minutes of words and two of her best smiles brought water (instantly),
spirits (on the way), and broth ("with a bit of salt to it") to be prepared
and sent when ready. She turned back to Hornblower, still at the bedside,
anxiously chafing the boy's wrists.

"Poke up the fire a little, Mr. H. He'll need to be kept warm enough." She
checked the blankets on the bed; they seemed adequate. "We'll need to prop
him up so he won't choke."

An extra blanket had been left aside on the table--she rolled it up, then
folded and twisted it into a bolster. "Put this one behind the pillow."

The boy's restless muttering had stopped; he moved his head uneasily as they
worked around him. She took a spoonful of water from the drinking cup,
tilted it between his lips. Some of it ran out the side of his mouth,
but--some of it must have stayed in? She tried another spoonful and saw his
throat move.

One swallow.

She tried a third spoonful, saw that swallowed also.

"Good . . . good lad. Now, rest a bit." Across the bed, her eyes met
Hornblower's again. "It's a start, Mr. H. But we'll have to go very, very
slowly, and only a little at a time."

******

Getting a spoonful of liquid into the mouth . . . watching as it was
swallowed down . . . waiting to see if it stayed down before offering the
next spoonful . . . over and over--a laborious process. But not one that she
was willing to stop. Hornblower hovered anxiously in the background, stoking
the fire, sometimes adding fuel, handing her the cups and bowls of liquid as
she directed, and watching her with hawklike intensity as each spoonful went
in. Water first and foremost, later alternating with the broth, then the
spirits, used most sparingly of all. Privately, she hoped she would never
have to explain--to Hornblower, or anyone else--how she knew so much about
starving.

The boy seemed to drift in and out of awareness, murmuring sometimes but not
the lengthy quotation that had so alarmed her earlier. But he did seem to
respond to her voice; she used that, coaxing and cajoling, rousing him enough
to make him continue to swallow. She heard herself crooning soothing nonsense
she had overheard her mother using to her younger brothers and sisters; that
she herself had used when it became her job instead, in her mother's vacant
place . . . until she had run away finally, determined not to take the same
path. She had chosen, then, *not* to have children . . . strange how the odd
memory returned with the mind occupied elsewhere.

A faint moan from the boy recalled her to the present and she turned once
more to her task.

******

"There now, a little more. Just one more, now. That's fine, lad, that's
champion!" She sat back, watching as Hornblower felt for the pulse at the
side of the boy's throat. One and maybe another half-cup of water, half of
the bowl of broth, and perhaps a third of the cup of highly diluted
spirits--it should have been enough to help. The fire and blankets had done
their work as well, the convulsive shivering had stopped. He seemed to be
sliding into almost normal sleep.

"Well?"

Hornblower looked up, eyes brimming again. "It's stronger. And steady."

"Then we've done the thing, Mr. H. At least for now." She felt the need to
add that warning.

He blinked at her. "What do you mean, your Grace?"

"While his mind was wandering, his body was willing to live. But you said he
was of a mind to die. So if he comes to himself in that same mind--

"I see." The anxious note was back in his voice.

"He's got to be made to *want* to live, Mr. H. Or all tonight's good work
will go for naught."

"And that will be *my* job."

"Maybe the hardest yet of this whole night. But I'm sure you'll be up to it."
She eyed him thoughtfully--but his face appeared quite composed now,
although his dark eyes were trained upon the sleeping boy with an intensity
that surprised her. As conscientious as Mr. H. was, no doubt he'd be
distressed by the illness of any of his men. But with this one--there seemed
to be just a bit more involved . . .

Frowning to herself, she studied the wan face on the pillow but felt no stir
of recognition. "Strange, that," she remarked, with a sideways glance at
Hornblower. "I don't remember this 'un from La Reve."

"No," Hornblower confirmed with a slight shake of his head. "He's not from La
Reve. He was--is--a midshipman on the Indefatigable." He paused, staring
broodingly down at the boy. "He was on my *first* ship too--we transferred
together after war was declared. But there was this--cutting-out expedition,
over two years ago . . . and he went missing. We all thought--he was dead."

"Was he your friend?" she asked gently.

"I . . . thought so." The firm line of Hornblower's mouth softened, almost
imperceptibly. "We were of an age, spent much time in each other's company.
He used to smile--whenever he saw me . . . " his voice trailed off.

She made a noncommittal sound in response, drawing her own conclusions from
what had been said--and left unsaid. A friend indeed--and one whose loss her
solitary Mr. H. must have felt deeply. And then to find that friend alive,
after all this time, but so close to death . . .

"He's so altered." Hornblower's voice was barely audible. "After five
escape attempts--I thought he'd be *pleased* to see us here . . ."

"*Five*?" She looked down at the boy in the bed with new respect. "Your
friend's nothing if not stubborn, Mr. H.!"

"And that's why I cannot understand his giving up *now*! Now--when he has
his shipmates around him, to help him. I *know* he's been in prison , that
he's been punished--but wouldn't our being here offer him *some* hope for our
future success?"

Hope. A dangerous thing to offer one who had lived so long without it. She
smothered a sigh. "Happen his wounds go deeper than you know."

Hornblower looked at her questioningly.

"To try to escape, to be caught--and punished, so many times . . . well, it
would break any creature's spirit. Despair's a reet cruel thing, Mr. H., and
hard to overcome. Especially when you've been alone as long as *he* has."

The planes of Hornblower's face, soft and youthful in the firelight, hardened
into obstinacy. "He's not alone *now.*"

"But he *was*--and 'tis a difficult thing to forget. Alone, adrift, in enemy
hands, with no one to care for him, force him to stay strong--" she broke
off, seeing the stricken expression on Hornblower's face.

"But surely, I can *make* him forget," he protested miserably, "or at least,
put it far enough behind him so he can--"

"You can't *command* his sorrows to just disappear," she warned. "Go
gently, Mr. H., gently . . . or you may end up doing him--and yourself--a
deal of harm."

Hornblower swallowed, eyes suddenly liquid, then gave a brief nod. She
sighed, feeling immeasurably older than both her companions, then rose to her
feet, shaking out her skirts. How long had it been? Three hours? Even four?
A great length of time spent intensely and most of her body felt stiff.

"Your Grace . . . how can I possibly thank you enough?"

"You asked for my help, Mr. Hornblower," she said simply. "And that made it
my duty." And she owed it to the other child as well, for having
shamefully--if briefly--wished his death for her own convenience. Somehow
that fear had ceased to concern her in these last few hours. If she could
not convincingly carry off her disguise against the delirious ravings of one
youngster, then she was most unworthy of her craft. And she knew that was
not the case.

"And having done my duty, Mr. H. , I'll say good-night and leave you to
yours. I'll look in on you both tomorrow."

"That will be most welcome. And--I thank you again."

His awkward bow over her hand was as deeply respectful as anyone could wish.
In her last glimpse before she closed the door behind her, he had settled
into the chair by the bedside, keeping vigil.

END