The Winter of Our Discontent
by Dunnage41

//
The hand that reached down to stroke the dog’s silken head was still beautiful, and one of his wife’s favorite features, though of late his hands were thinner than usual and still shaky with the remains of typhus. It was a miracle that he had not died of the plague in Riga. He kept reminding himself of that.
//
But, Hornblower thought with a sigh, being an invalid was nearly as unendurable as he had dreaded it would be. Four weeks abed in Konigsberg before he was well enough to sail as an invalid aboard Clam. Another four weeks in Smallbridge, where he was first permitted out of bed only for a few hours on Christmas morning, sitting weary and drooping like a weakling, well blanketed, had brought him to this late January morning with sleet beating at the windows and the fire a welcome warmth in front of him.
//
He had never before considered stairs an obstacle, he reflected bitterly. But if he wished to return to his bed – and he did – he must force himself to stand, to walk what seemed the great distance to the stairs, and to mount them, dragging one foot in front of the other. Perhaps it would do as well if he were to simply doze in his chair. He had been out of bed and upright for all the forenoon, and the simple act of sitting up had, he was forced to admit, weakened him.
//
Wearily he hauled himself to his feet and paused for a moment to regain his legs. With a sigh, he set himself to cross the vast distance of the drawing-room, stopping occasionally along the journey to rest a hand on a table or chair and to catch his breath. At last he reached the stairs and sank onto the bottom step, leaning his head against the wall. There he rested, breathing heavily, for some minutes until he found the strength to lift himself upright again and cross to the banister. Leaning on it, he dragged up the stairs, step by weary step, sinking down again at the landing. It was there that Barbara found him.
//
“Horatio. Darling,” she said, stooping. “Why did you not call for someone? You should not have tried the stairs unaided.” She reached for his hand and instinctively he jerked back.
//
Not for anything would he wound Barbara’s feelings, but this damnable illness, and the cursed weakness that followed in its wake and seemed to be lasting forever, had made him pettish. His natural tenderness and his desire to safeguard Barbara’s heart warred within his breast with his revulsion at being caught in a moment of utter weakness, brought on through no fault of his own – the uncontrol of being an invalid fueled his indignation and propelled him, staggering, to his feet. He leaned heavily on the rail.
//
“I … need no … assistance … Madam,” he panted, unmindful of the hurt that flashed in Barbara’s blue eyes. With an effort, he turned his back on her and resumed his slow journey up the stairs. Barbara stood, watching his back, until he was out of sight.
//
Then she fled to her dressing-room and sank onto a stool, burying her face in her hands. Dear Horatio! Where was her husband? He was as absent from the house as if on commission. Illness made strangers of loved ones … she knew that … but she had seen nothing familiar in the lines of his body hunched up on the landing; known only a half-mad stranger staring at her with deep-set dark eyes; felt the impatience radiating from his posture and been stung by the coldness of his words to her. She dabbed at her face and implored Providence to return to her the husband she knew, the darling man whose strong arms around her made her knees weak; the cheerful father who played with Richard by the hour, laughing and tumbling with him and making the boy shriek with delight; the returning sailor who always spoke her name upon arrival with a catch in his throat, as though unbelieving that fortune should find her in his arms; the tender and compassionate lover whose touch made her shiver with pleasure.
//
The man who had been helped into the house on his return from Riga was an empty shell of a body, a stranger whose illness she tended dispassionately, but not her husband. In his waking hours he was silent and brooding, speaking only when necessary; he had not addressed her endearingly since his return. His silent demeanor by the fire at Christmas had made a mockery of the holy day. Now he was out of bed for a time each day and shuffling through the house, a ghost of the strong, tender man she once knew.
//
Hornblower silently allowed Brown to undress him and help him into a nightshirt. Silently he allowed Brown’s strong arms to help him into the bed and to pull up the covers. Silently he let his head sink onto the pillow and fell, with a queer sense of relief at its familiarity, into a brooding bitterness at how he had mistreated Barbara. His heart thudded whenever he saw her and his pulses raced as at adventure. With her lips to his and her body soft and yielding in his embrace he was loosed from all bonds of dull earth and felt himself soaring. Each return from a commission, he felt her deft fingers twitch his neckcloth straight and heard himself speak her name with a catch in his throat – his disbelief at having to himself such a marvelous wife. Doubtless he had hurt her feelings deeply and would have to apologize. He sighed heavily and allowed sleep to overcome him again.
//
January, bitterly icy, yielded to the iron-gray overcast days of February, and Hornblower was able to be out of bed most of the day, though the stairs still wearied him. He watched helplessly as though observing an unrelated individual as he snapped at Barbara and was brusque with Richard. His wife’s loving and solicitous inquiries he met with pettish impatience; her soft hand on his arm, which once caused a surge of tenderness to well up in his breast, now caused him instinctively to jerk away, and more than once he saw the flash of hurt in her blue eyes, quickly concealed. Richard now avoided him, which was entirely understandable, and in his more lucid moments he brooded over how the boy would never again smile upon seeing his father. Even as his body steadily and stubbornly continued to mend, his heart became increasingly sick and weary. He was helplessly hurting those most dear to him and the gloom of it hung over him and ate away at him so that
he could scarcely bear to chance a meeting with Barbara. As February grudgingly yielded to March, and March wetly to April, Hornblower found himself timing his movements so as to avoid any chance of seeing his wife. He was well enough now to be out of bed all the day, and took to spending increasing periods out of doors, hiding among the hedge-rows if he heard her voice addressing Evans.
//
Barbara had taken to spending much of the day in her dressing-room, which Hornblower would never, even when well, have entered unbidden. She, too, found herself avoiding her own husband. She had wept until she had done with weeping and now spent hours in a comfortable chair, her hands restless in her lap, wondering what was to become of her, of Richard, of her marriage. She knew several of her acquaintances whose marriages were only symbolic and who blessed the size of their homes because they could live quite comfortably without meeting their husbands except over dinner, which could be conducted in silence without arousing the servants’ suspicions.
//
Divorce was entirely unthinkable, and besides, it required an act of Parliament. She knew she would never seek such a thing. She did not want a divorce. She wanted her husband. He had sailed on commission to the Baltic and had never come back. She discovered with a shock that her thoughts had brought her round to this point. Her husband had not returned. She was tending an invalid, but she had no more feeling for him than if he had been a stranger in distress. Perhaps her broken heart might begin to mend if she began to think of her husband as lost in battle and showed to the sick man the tenderness she would show an invalid.
//
Hornblower knew he owed Barbara a handsome apology, but his stubborn pride warned that even the handsomest of apologies would not come close to making up for the months of distance, coldness, and damage he had inflicted upon her. Nothing he said could be adequate, and the enormity of the task made him despair of even attempting it. He could no more scale the mountain he had made than he would think of taking on a three-decker while aboard an 18-gun brig.
//
Lost in his own thoughts, he did not hear the quiet voices nearby and unthinkingly rounded a corner of the garden path to encounter Evans – and Barbara. Evans bowed respectfully and backed away, and here was Barbara, her expression blank. She drew a breath as though to speak, but said nothing.
//
Hornblower gulped. “Barbara,” he stammered, and his cheeks flamed in mortification. His wife’s name sounded strange on his lips. He had not pronounced it in months, it seemed.
//
“Horatio.” She met his gaze coolly.
//
Hornblower gulped again. His hands were trembling damnably. There was nothing for it now but to continue. “I owe you an apology,” he said helplessly. “A thousand apologies. I…” Now that the thing was begun, he wanted it done well, but words were failing him.
//
“I love you,” he blurted, and as his cheeks flamed again he impulsively reached for her hands. Barbara could not help flinching at the touch, and Hornblower felt it, but before he could withdraw his unwelcome hands, his beautiful hands whose fingers she had once been wont to kiss one by one, she unthinkingly tightened her grip and drew the hands closer to her. Still her expression was cool.
//
“Words fail me,” he stammered, quite truthfully, and nonetheless tried again. “This illness has lingered so long … I could not … find myself.” What the devil was he babbling? “I know I’ve hurt you dreadfully … darling.” Again the endearment sounded strange to his own ears. “I scarcely deserve forgiveness.” He found his heart racing. He was on the verge of asking something outrageous of someone who had every right to withhold it. “I’ve been a wretch. I’ve treated you shamefully.” The words were coming in a torrent now; he scarcely knew what he was saying. “I … I don’t deserve it … but … can you ever dream of forgiving me?” To his horror, he felt tears begin to sting his eyes. The last words had come out thickly, over the catch in his throat, and he knew he had sounded a weakling.
//
Barbara’s own heart was pounding. She could hardly hear her husband’s words over the roaring in her ears. Now would be the time to draw back and slap his face for his impertinence, which was what a lady did when a gentleman sought pardon for having behaved unforgivably. He had treated her coldly and cruelly and made her winter a living torture. She had shed more tears in those months than ever before in her life; she had lain sleepless and miserable through countless nights; she had grown thin and pale with despair and the loss of the man whom she loved with a passion. She kept her gaze steadily on him, cool and appraising.
//
Then she saw the depths of the dark eyes gleam with unshed tears. She felt his hands trembling in hers and heard the hitch in his voice. Her husband was crying. She stared at him as at a spectacle. Never in all the time she had known him had he shed a tear – which was as it should be, of course. Weeping was for women and children. But of a sudden, seemingly from nowhere, her long-absent husband had returned and was pleading with her. Now he was on his knees, his face pressed to her hands; now, still on his knees, he lifted his face, pale and frightened, to meet her blue eyes.
//
With long-dormant tenderness she tugged at the hands she still held, compelling him to his feet. He dropped his gaze.
//
“Horatio.” The word came out lovingly, softly, caressingly. “Look at me.” Shamefacedly, his entire body downcast, he forced himself to meet her gaze. “You don’t deserve it.” Then all on their own her eyes gleamed and she felt her soft lips curving upward. Her husband was back. His commission had simply lasted longer than either of them had thought.
//
She cautiously pressed herself to him and trembled with relief as she felt his arms, still too thin but regaining strength, enfold her.
//
“I love you with all my heart,” she murmured into his ear. “I’ve missed you dreadfully.” She pulled back just enough to meet his tender, anxious gaze shining down on her face. “Welcome home.”