The Worth Of Your Soul
by Kim Heggen

 

"Penny for your thoughts, Horatio."

He jumped slightly at the hand on his shoulder, even as he recognized the voice. "You would not get much value for your money, Archie. I was... just looking out at the water." Horatio sighed, and rubbed a hand across his tired face.

To say it had been a difficult day would be an understatement of immense proportions. The horrible, gut-wrenching defeat in Muzillac, Mariette's brutal slaying, the retreat to the beach... these events had acquired a certain nightmarish and unreal quality. On the other hand, the few hours since he'd returned to the Indefatigable had rather more clarity. His debriefing by the captain, for example...

Horatio pushed the thought ruthlessly aside. He did not want to think about the way he had acted in front of Pellew. Oh, he could plead some excuses: fatigue, the shock of seeing so many innocent deaths, and the bewildering circumstances. But he would much rather not have been caught crying in front of his captain while giving his report.

Archie had found him not long afterward, and ignoring his tears, his embarrassment, and his rudeness, had persuaded him to climb up into the rigging. "It'll do you good, you know it will," he'd said. "You're the one who reminded me, when we were in Spain. Remember? You asked me if I wanted to go back, stand upon the deck, feel the wind in the rigging..."

"I remember." He'd managed a weak smile at the memory.

"Well, I can't imagine a better place to feel the wind in the rigging than to go up to the masthead." And he'd pestered the reluctant Horatio into following him up.

They had stayed up there almost an hour, taking deep breaths of the clean sea air... air not fouled by such odors as powder smoke, or blood, or burning houses. Mindful of his own unpredictable reaction to heights, Horatio had clung tightly to the ropes, but the vertigo and fear had not troubled him this time. He'd climbed down feeling much better; if not exactly at peace with the world, at least ready to turn and face it again.

Now, he smiled ruefully at Archie. "Honestly, there's not a thought in my head worth purchasing."

"Then I shall keep my penny. Horatio... come below and get some rest, or you will be dead on your feet for your watch in the morning."

Horatio did not answer, but looked back out at the water. He had tried sleeping, an hour or two earlier. He'd lain down on his bunk, dimly aware of the voices of Archie and the others conversing in low tones in the wardroom. Sleep had overcome him quickly.

And the dreams had followed.

After the third frightened, disorienting awakening, he'd come up here to brood instead. Exhaustion from lack of sleep seemed safer than the demons of his subconscious.

Archie tugged at his arm. "Horatio... stop it. Stop blaming yourself, or second-guessing yourself, or whatever it is that you're doing."

Horatio removed his hands from the rail. "I told you... I just came up here to look at the water. I missed the sea, last night in the village. It was so strange to be on dry land again."

Archie's gaze did not waver. "Come below, you silly fool," he repeated. "Or I'll have to hit you with something and drag you down the companionway.. and just think what that would do to your head."

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

Horatio stared pensively at the swaying lamp for a few seconds, then blew it out and climbed into his bunk. Across the little cabin, Archie had already curled up in bed but his breathing betrayed his still-awake state. If he was lucky, Archie would fall asleep before he had the chance to engage Horatio in any conversation.

He'd just settled himself under the rough wool blankets when he heard Archie clear his throat.

"Horatio?"

"Yes, Archie?" Horatio lay back on his pillow, hands under his head, staring into the near-darkness at the deck above.

"Who was she, Horatio? How did you meet her... and what happened? Why was she with you?"

He felt his chest tighten at the questions. "I'm not sure that I am ready to talk about this, Archie." His eyelids were stinging again, as he felt tears come to his eyes yet again. Too many times in one day, he thought. How could he be crying yet again? "She's only been dead a few hours," he whispered.

Silence for a minute or two. Then he heard Archie say, "I'm sorry, Horatio. That was tactless of me. But... you're so damned mysterious about so many things. You never said anything about meeting a girl in the village... and then, well, it was obvious that she meant something to you."

"Aye... she did," whispered Horatio. "I'm not exactly sure what, though. She and I... we saw something in each other, I supposed. I can't call it love, we didn't have enough time for that. Friendship, at least; that comes closer to the mark."

"Horatio... I've never seen you act the way you did when she died." Archie's voice was hesitant. "That speaks of more than just friendship, to me."

Horatio took a deep breath, once again cursing the tears that filled his eyes and threatened to clog his voice. "I failed her," he answered at last, his voice husky. "She was depending on me to get her out safely, and I failed her." He wiped angrily at his eyes with his nightshirt cuff. "She was innocent, and it was senseless for her to die, and I would really rather not talk about her or the rest of the damned mission any more." He swallowed hard, fighting for self-control.

Silence followed; Horatio at last began to hope that Archie had fallen asleep. He felt a twinge of guilt for his harsh words, but Archie was used to his moods and would be understanding about it. He lay awake for a while longer, thinking about the day's events, ruthlessly reviewing his own performance over and over. Inwardly, he was still disgusted with himself.

He had made a good enough showing, in a military sense, up until the point where Mariette had been killed. He'd showed courage under fire, he'd coolly reported his theories to Major Edrington, and he'd organized the village into its last burst of resistance. He'd even taken the time to reassure Archie, to talk objectively to him about why the men were in no danger from the guerrillas in the woods. After the incident on the bridge, though... He stirred uneasily, thinking of one aspect of those moments that particularly bothered him.

"Archie?" he said at last, softly.

"Yes?" The answer came back too clearly and quickly for Archie to have been asleep.

"You saved my life, today."

Silence for a few seconds, then Archie's slow response. "As you have mine, Horatio. My life, and my sanity... or had you forgotten?"

"I... I meant to thank you, earlier. But I had to talk to the captain, first, and after that... I didn't wish to speak with anyone, even you." Horatio leaned slightly out of his bunk and reached across the tiny cabin until he felt Archie's blanket-wrapped arm. "Thank you for risking your life for me. I do not deserve it."

From out of the darkness, Horatio felt a hand grope for his, then clasp it tightly. "Of course you deserve it. And... I had no choice, Horatio, you know that." Archie's tone was light, but Horatio could sense the emotion underlying the straightforward words. "I would be lost without you. Quite adrift, in fact."

Horatio returned the clasp for a moment, then pulled his arm back. "Nevertheless, I am in your debt... both for saving my life, and for the comfort you have given to me in my grief. I hope... I hope that I will not forget it."

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

The Indefatigable's progress back to England was swift. A fair wind blew steadily almost the entire time. It was almost, thought Horatio, as if the coast of France was bidding them to depart hastily, back to where they had started this mission in exuberant innocence. He thought about the bitter irony of it all: they could return physically to their point of origin, but he could never go back to the person he had been before he entered that little French village and saw the sights that still harried his soul. That idealistic and earnest young man was gone forever, never to return.

On the last morning of the voyage, Horatio came into the wardroom after the morning watch looking for a bite of breakfast. Most of the others had evidently already eaten and departed, judging from the scattered plates and tankards. A lone figure in a scarlet uniform coat sat at one end of the table, toying with the remains of his breakfast.

Horatio paused hesitantly. He had not conversed with Major Lord Edrington since their return to the Indefatigable, although they had encountered one another at meals. He realized that he felt more than a little embarrassed to be in the major's presence; the suave and cool Lord Edrington had, along with Archie, been a witness to Horatio's explosive emotional breakdown on the bridge.

After his conversation with Archie, that first night back on board, he had felt a little better regarding the entire episode. Archie, at least, did not seem to hold him in less regard for his outburst... but then, Archie had always been a bit of a passionate hothead himself. Horatio knew his friend to be as prone to impulsive gestures and quick judgments as he himself was wont to be careful and closemouthed.

No... Horatio knew himself to appear still untarnished in his friend's eyes. But as for this poised and reserved young man in the red uniform of the army, whose dry wit had stung Horatio's pride more than once during the Muzillac disaster... surely he must feel contempt for any officer who had behaved publicly as Horatio had.

Feeling incredibly self-conscious, Horatio helped himself to some of the remaining breakfast rations and a tankard of now-cooling tea, and sat down at the table across from Edrington. He cleared his throat.

"Good morning, my lord. I understand that we shall be back in Portsmouth in a matter of hours."

Edrington nodded. "Yes, back on English soil at last. A pity that we haven't much to show for our efforts in France." He glanced away. "A matter of hours? Then... I have letters that I cannot postpone any longer."

Horatio frowned. "Letters, my lord?"

"I lost men on this ill-conceived venture," the major answered quietly. "I must write letters to their families. It is not a task that I relish, but it is one that I should have done immediately rather than wait until now."

Horatio nodded in response, feeling rather foolish. Of course, as the commanding officer of the regiment, such a duty would fall to Edrington.

"I must also see to the further arrangements for the wounded," continued the major.
"Most are recovered well enough to return with us, but there are two that should go immediately to hospital when we make Portsmouth. Or so your surgeon informs me."

"I wish your wounded men a speedy recovery, my lord. They fought valiantly. I have seen no finer soldiers."

Edrington smiled faintly, then looked down at his plate again. "They would be pleased to hear that, I think, from a naval officer." He looked back up at Horatio, meeting his eyes with a cool, measuring gaze. "And yourself? You are recovering?"

Horatio flushed. "I sustained no wounds, my lord."

"Did you not?" Again, the searching look, the quiet voice. "I have come to realize, Mr. Hornblower, that not all wounds are obvious to the eye, and that not all injuries are to one's physical body."

Now it was Horatio's turn to look down at his tin plate. Edrington's grave concern unsettled him, more than if the major had simply ignored him or had treated him with scorn. He toyed with the scraps of food in front of him, staring at the cold beef and biscuit as if they held some answers to his own inner turmoil.

"My lord," he said at last, "if you are referring to my... my public display of emotions while under fire, I can only plead that I found my behavior shameful and without excuse. I beg you to both forgive my weakness, and to forget it if you can."

With his eyes still downcast, the touch on his arm made him jump. He felt a warm hand close around his forearm; the contact startled him enough that he looked up again into Edrington's unreadable face.

"Mr. Hornblower... do you know what happens to men who divest themselves of all natural human sentiment? Do you know what becomes of those who can watch men ­ and women ­ die, and feel no grief at the sight?"

Horatio shook his head. "No, my lord."

"Yes, you do. For you have met such an individual." Edrington paused. "We referred to him as Colonel Moncoutant, and he was our nominal commander... but he left his humanity behind long ago, that one." He removed his hand, but leaned forward a little. "After being forced to spend two days with even limited contact with the man, I much prefer your reaction." He smiled very slightly. "Better heartsick, than heartless."

"That may well be true," Horatio answered slowly. "But I still should not have showed such weakness in front of my men. Captain Pellew... as much as said so to me, when we spoke."

Edrington shrugged. "Perhaps. But I would contend, Mr. Hornblower, that there is no great harm done. I saw no indications that your men respect you any the less. Frankly, I myself thought that you were doing very well under very trying circumstances."

"Thank you, my lord," answered Horatio.

"Indeed... if it were not for the young woman's unexpected death, I believe that you would not now be berating yourself so uselessly for your reaction. That... obviously came as a shock to you, and one for which you simply were not prepared."

Horatio was quiet for long moments, thinking over the implications of this statement... then realized that the major seemed to be waiting for a response. He took a deep breath. "It is good of you, my lord, to take the time to reassure me."

"You were my comrade in arms, Mr. Hornblower, if only for a short time. We've shared some rather remarkable experiences, and I leave you having rather more respect for the navy than I had previously." Edrington held out his hand across the table. "I wish you the very best in your career, Mr. Hornblower."

Horatio put forth his own hand and clasped Edrington's. "And I wish the same for you, my lord."

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

England seemed somehow both greyer and grimmer than it had been on their previous visit, despite the clear skies. Horatio felt his heart sink at the familiar sight of the harbor. Last time he had been home, he had been a shiny, new-minted lieutenant, his career unshadowed by the gloomy defeat at Muzillac. He remembered standing on the dock in Plymouth with Archie, joking about the slovenly French troops, about the impeccably turned-out British infantrymen, and about Edrington's pompousness... but it was as if those flippant comments had come from the mouth of some other Horatio Hornblower. He now felt immeasurably older; older, sadder and somehow more lonely.

Pellew had left them almost immediately, to report to the naval authorities here in Portsmouth, leaving Mr. Bracegirdle in charge. Watching him go, Horatio found himself wondering how the captain felt. What was it like for Pellew to report this failure to his supervisors? Did he feel the same emotions that Horatio did, with regard to their defeat? Would his superiors chastise ­ or punish ­ him for disobeying orders and returning to Muzillac to pick up the survivors?

Horatio clenched his fists at this last thought, as he stood by the taffrail looking pensively out at the harbor. With no obvious scapegoat to blame for the debacle in France, it was not outside the realm of possibility that the Admiralty could seize upon Pellew as a target for their misplaced venom. He had been ordered to stay in Quiberon Bay, after all; no matter that the tactical situation had changed almost as soon as they had arrived in France. The Admiralty, never known for their flexible thinking, might see Pellew's behavior as inexcusable even though it had saved the lives of many men.

He heard the sound of someone approaching, and looked up to see a smiling Mr. Bracegirdle.

"That's a glum expression to see on the face of a young lieutenant in home port, on a beautiful spring afternoon."

Despite his gloomy thoughts, Horatio could not repress a slight smile at the remark. "Good afternoon, sir." He thought quickly. "I was merely thinking upon the contrast between the undoubted delights of Portsmouth and the lean state of my finances."

"Ah, yes... last time we were in England, if I recall, you were beggaring yourself to buy a new uniform."

"And it is certainly no longer very new," answered Horatio ruefully. The banter, he realized, was somehow easing to him... a welcome distraction from his earlier worries.

"That will work to your advantage, lad. You can substitute stains for experience."

Horatio nodded, his brief smile fading as he remembered the source of some of those stains. Mud and dust on his knees, from kneeling in the dirt, sobbing while holding a dying girl. Blood spatters, both from Mariette's fatal wound and from other unfortunates whose names he did not even know. The uniform had been cleaned, now, and the spots hardly showed anymore.

If only he could do the same for his memories.

The nightmares still troubled him, though not as violently. He didn't think that Archie had noticed; the one time he'd awakened with a yell had been while his friend had been on deck for one of the night watches. But he slept poorly, waking often in a shuddering sweat with no clear idea of his true whereabouts until he heard the ship's soft creaking sounds or Archie's light snore. Once, he awoke with an aching throat and tears still streaking his face, from a dream of holding the mortally wounded Mariette in his arms... holding her while the flesh fell from her bones and the skin of her face shrank to reveal the grinning death's head beneath.

"Mr. Hornblower?"

He looked up again, startled. How long had he been lost in thought, while the first lieutenant had been standing there?

"Would you and Mr. Kennedy care to go ashore for a few hours, this evening? I would be willing to trade watches with you, to let you get away." Horatio was scheduled to stand the first watch; since Archie had the first dog watch, that left them with little time to spare for a trip into the town. "I find the 'delights of Portsmouth' less attractive, at my age, than the chance to trade watches with someone young and foolish and therefore be in my bed by midnight."

Horatio started to decline, then checked his automatic response. Archie would enjoy it, and even with his lean purse Horatio could afford a modest supper and a pint of ale. Besides, with the ship in port, what else would he have to do besides brood? He'd been awake since four this morning, and the proposed trade would have him up for twenty-four hours straight, but he could always lie down and rest a little now before they went out.

"I... would like that very much, sir. You are certain it will be no hardship?"

"Of course not. Just be back before midnight, and in fit shape for your watch," the first lieutenant said with mock severity. "Not that anything is like to occur while we're here." Bracegirdle's face grew more serious. "Go and have a bit of fun, my boy. It will do you good, after... after what you've been through. And if you should happen to be a few minutes late... well, my pocket-watch always does seem to run slow."

The unexpected kindness touched Horatio, bringing a lump briefly to his throat. "Thank you, sir... thank you very much."

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

"Where shall we go, Archie?"

They had just clambered out of the ship's boat, and both men stood on the dock feeling the odd sensations of being back on land. Though it had only been a few days since they had last been off the Indefatigable, Horatio felt the solid surface of the dock heaving and rolling; he laughed as he pitched suddenly against Archie. He had to grab his friend's elbow to steady himself.

"By God, Horatio," laughed Archie. "People are going to think that you're drunk before we even do any drinking."

"My apologies, Mr. Kennedy... but it was either fall into you or land on my nose." Two hours of uninterrupted dream-free sleep had left Horatio feeling much restored. His earlier bleak mood had left him, and he now found himself honestly looking forward to the visit to the town.

Archie laughed again. "We would not want to see your nose damaged, Mr. Hornblower... it being your most memorable feature."

Horatio drew himself up with feigned anger. "You insult my nose, sirrah? Why... I received this nose from the King himself, as a reward for valiant service to my country." He shot a sly, sidelong glance at his companion's boyish features and snub nose. "I see, Mr. Kennedy, that you are still waiting for yours."

Archie snorted. "All right... truce?"

"Truce, indeed. But... you still haven't answered my question. Where shall we go?"

"How about the Swan? I seem to recall that their food was of a reasonable price, and their ale was excellent."

Horatio jingled his purse. "A reasonable price speaks more to me at the moment that the reputation of the ale."

Archie sighed. "Horatio... if you are short of money, I would be happy to loan you some. You know that I can afford to, for however long you need. I would like to enjoy myself tonight, not listen to you worrying about every penny."

"Archie, I can't let you do that. You know that I can't pay you back... at least not anytime soon." Archie's father still sent his youngest son a generous allowance to supplement the pittance he received as an acting-lieutenant. Horatio, on the other hand, having spent his entire last month's pay on his new uniform and sword and other accouterments of a commissioned officer, found himself poorer than ever despite his promotion. He was in debt to the Indy's other officers for his share of the wardroom supplies, and next month's pay would go primarily to pay for that.

Archie's eyes glinted mischievously, and he stopped in his tracks. "Horatio?"

Horatio had to halt as well, or leave his friend behind. "Yes?"

"You will come with me to the Swan. You will eat a tasty meal that hasn't been at sea for three months or more. You will quaff a pint or two of ale, and you will relax and laugh, and watch the pretty barmaids. You will let me pay, and we will worry about it later. If ever." Archie threw a companionable arm around his friend's shoulders. "Stop making it all so very difficult, Horatio."

Horatio studied the familiar face next to him, with its generous and cheerful smile. "Well, if you're sure it won't be a hardship for you, Archie."

"Paying for our night on the town is not a hardship. Watching you panic about the state of your finances every time we walk through a doorway gives me more pain than I wish to inflict upon myself." Archie grinned even more broadly. "I have to think of my own best interests here, Horatio."

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

Horatio pointed down and across the street. "Is that the Swan, over there?"

Archie peered in the direction of his friend's pointing finger. "You're right, that's it. I was beginning to wonder if we had taken the wrong turning; it's much farther from the waterfront than I remembered."

Horatio laughed. "A fine sight we would be if we managed to get ourselves lost here. Two naval officers, able to navigate the trackless oceans... bewildered by the narrow twisting alleys of Portsmouth."

They moved to cross the cobbled street, and were about halfway across it when Horatio heard the unmistakable clump of hoofbeats and the rattle-clatter of a coach. He turned his head just in time to catch sight of the good-sized berlin bearing down on them, and to yank Archie out of the coach's careening path. Despite Horatio's quick response, the coach passed within a few inches of his friend and splattered them both with foul-smelling street mud.

Stopping in front of a shop on the other side of the street, Archie looked down at his mud-spattered uniform and swore vigorously. Horatio, who had escaped with only a few muddy streaks on his coat, tried unsuccessfully to hide his amusement as he listened to the tirade.

"Archie," he broke in at last, interrupting his friend's somewhat unlikely description of the alleged ancestry of the driver of the coach, "I think it would be better if you stopped shouting now."

Archie brushed again at the dark splotches marring his uniform. "Why?" He scowled at Horatio.

"Because... the coach has stopped, and someone's getting out." He pointed discreetly to the berlin, stopped only a few yards away. Both of them watched curiously as a small feminine shape emerged and climbed out with the assistance of a footman.

"You see, Archie, it all evens out," Horatio said in a low tone. "One moment you are nearly flattened on the cobbles, the next we get to met a pretty girl. And we aren't even at your tavern yet."

The stranger approaching them was short and a little plump, but moved with a skipping grace that told Horatio that she was probably even younger than she looked. Soft dark curls framed by a straw bonnet, clear pale skin with dimples, and lively hazel eyes completed a roguishly charming face. At the moment, she wore an expression of deep dismay.

"Oh, I do beg your pardon!" she exclaimed. "I have told James over and over that he always drives too fast for these narrow lanes, but he rarely listens to me unless Papa is along. Were you hurt?"

"Of course not, Miss," Horatio answered hurriedly, cutting off Archie's response. "No damage done, I assure you."

"I am very sorry," she continued earnestly. "Do accept my apologies, on behalf of my coachman. Papa will be most vexed when he hears that James nearly ran over a naval officer," she went on breathlessly. "What ship do you serve on?"

The footman appeared at the girl's elbow. "Miss, we will be late," he said in a reproachful tone. From his expression, Horatio guess that he was none too pleased to find his young mistress conversing with strange young men.

"Oh, bother being late," she answered him crossly, but curtsied and turned to go. "I'm glad you weren't hurt!" she called over her shoulder as she scampered back the way she had come, with the footman trailing behind her. He handed her back into the coach and slammed the door shut with what Horatio thought was unnecessary vigor.

They watched the coach pull away. "A pretty girl indeed. Why didn't you let me say anything?" groused Archie.

"I thought that you were still angry, and that you might use some of those expressions you were using a few minutes ago," teased Horatio. "I didn't think that she was old enough to hear such words."

"I would have done no such thing. I would have shown her the famous Kennedy charm, and the next thing we knew we'd be invited home for a splendid dinner at her father's house by way of apology."

Horatio laughed and shook his head as they continued down the street.

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

The Swan proved to be a cozy little inn, with rough but clean trestle tables and a fine toothsome smell wafting from the kitchen. Horatio let Archie order their supper while he sat back and looked around him.

The common-room was about half-full of customers. There were no other naval officers present; most of those seated eating and drinking at the scarred tables had the look of ordinary tradesmen taking a frugal supper after a hard day's work. Several serving maids, ranging from astonishingly ugly to downright pretty, bustled about with platters and tankards. One in particular caught his eye... small and pert, with honey-colored hair and warm brown eyes...

He sighed inwardly. He needed to stop this gloomy business of letting everything and everyone remind him of lost Mariette. Time would ease the ache, he knew, but for now he still seemed to see her face looking out from every pair of feminine eyes. He shook his head and took a long pull at the cool brown ale.

Their supper arrived: smoking chops, roasted potatoes, pots of gravy and of mustard, fresh yeasty-smelling bread. Both young men fell to with enthusiasm.

"By God, I'd almost forgotten what fresh meat tasted like!" Archie tore into his first chop with glee.

Horatio nodded, a little guiltily. He'd had a splendid meal that night in Muzillac, at Count Moncoutant's table; Archie hadn't been present but had been camped by the bridge eating field rations. "Is it as good as you remembered?" he asked, a little stiffly.

"Better. Here, have some of this bread."

After the first few bites, Horatio ate more slowly, savoring the flavors and the textures of the fresh food. The ale was of excellent quality: smooth brown nutty stuff that both quenched his thirst and warmed his belly. His first pint slid down with ease, and a second appeared at his elbow almost immediately.

He tried to frown at Archie, but it came out as a lopsided grin. "Archie, you are spending too much money," he protested.

"I will be the judge of that, my friend. Drink up. Shall we toss a coin for the last chop?"

Horatio shook his head. "It's yours. I should be ill if I ate much more."

The honey-haired serving girl returned to clear away the bone-littered plates; Archie leaned back in his seat and watched her... too obviously, Horatio thought. Instead of crossing around to Archie's side of the table for his plates, the girl stood very close to Horatio and stretched over the table to reach them. Her skirts brushed his arm, and he was very conscious of the heat of her body so near to him. He felt the blood rise in his face in one of those damnable burning blushes that he never seemed to be able to control.

The girl straightened up, her tray laden with the greasy dishes, and faced him. Horatio now found himself eye-level with her bosom, scandalously displayed in the tight bodice that she wore. "Anythin' else you gentlemen need?" she asked in a low, purring voice. "More ale? Lodgings... for the night?" She emphasized the last word.

Horatio heard himself begin to babble. "No, thank you, miss, we're fine, we're almost finished, we must be back to our ship by midnight. How... how much do we owe?" He fumbled for his money; in his burst of embarrassed panic he'd forgotten entirely about his agreement to let Archie pay for the meal.

Archie cut in, obvious amusement tingeing his voice. "Bring us one more ale apiece, miss, then we'll settle up and let you have your table back." He winked at the girl. "It's a shame, but my friend is right... we do have to be back to our ship by midnight."

She smiled at Archie, and whirled away in a rustle of skirts. As soon as she was out of earshot, Archie leaned across the table.

"Horatio, you're blushing like a virgin. You'd think you'd never had a girl flirt with you before." He drained the last swallow of ale from his tankard. "We really must get you off the ship more often." Archie rested his chin in his hands, propping his elbows on the table, and looked speculatively at Horatio. "And here I was thinking that your recent experiences would have broadened your horizons somewhat."

Horatio shook his head, embarrassment changing to confusion. "I don't understand... experiences? What do you mean?"

Archie looked amused. "That night in France, of course. Edrington said that you were staying with one of the villagers... it was Mariette, wasn't it?" He grinned. "Wish I'd known then exactly what you were up to; the rest of us could have toasted your success."

Horatio felt his face darken even further, this time in suppressed fury. A moment or two passed before he could speak. "Archie," he said as evenly as he could, "you are my dearest friend, and I owe you my life, and... and much more besides. But I'll not sit here and listen you bandy her name about as if she were nothing more than a common tavern whore!" He pounded the table on the last word, and started to rise to his feet, though without any clear idea of what he intended.

Archie's grin vanished immediately, and he reached across the table to grab one of Horatio's forearms. "Hold a moment, Horatio! I meant no offense, to you or to her. But... if your liaison with the girl was entirely innocent... then you've more mistaken impressions to correct than mine, I think. Edrington certainly seemed to think that you were lovers... and I've overheard some speculation from your men as well." A rueful smile touched Archie's face. "They seem rather proud of you, actually."

Horatio sank back down into his chair, thoughts tumbling past one another in his ale-clouded brain. He had no desire to dishonor or profane Mariette's memory, or to allow others to do so. But... Archie's jibe about 'blushing like a virgin' had taken him aback, almost as much as the implied slur to Mariette.

Joining the navy as a mere boy of seventeen, he'd had no real knowledge or experience of women. Since then... there had been occasional opportunities, of course, but Horatio had always recoiled from the idea of mingling his flesh with that of a stranger. The 'Duchess' had teased him and flirted with him, breaking down much of his social awkwardness around women and teaching him how to converse without feeling so tongue-tied... but he had always known that the formidable Katherine Cobham had seen him as a mere youth. Their friendship had remained chaste, except in his dreams.

And Mariette? He'd felt drawn to her, of course; she'd been warm, and pretty, and vibrant, and close to his own age. Had they had more time together, he felt fairly sure that they would have progressed beyond those few shy kisses. But... to take advantage of a girl he had placed under his protection? If he'd forced his attentions on Mariette, he would have been no better than the ragtag French loyalist soldiers from whose leering he had sought to protect her.

A brave man, an honest man, thought Horatio, would look his friend in the eye and insist that he had done nothing to besmirch the girl's honor. Yet he could not bring himself to say the words that would admit to his utter lack of experience, in the face of Archie's undoubted sophistication. He looked self-consciously down at his plate, and cleared his throat.

"I am sorry, Archie, for getting angry with you. As you said... I have certainly given cause for rumors, but I would appreciate it if you would do your best to help suppress such loose talk." He looked up at his friend. "Whatever passed between Mariette and myself is no man's business but my own," he said in a quiet, slightly hoarse voice. "She carried her memories of me to her grave... and I shall do the same with mine."

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

As he climbed up on deck, Horatio looked about him with some curiosity. The sun still shone brightly in a perfectly blue sky (in itself an anomaly for spring in Portsmouth), but more puzzling to him was the lack of activity on the ship.

He and Archie had returned promptly by midnight from their foray ashore. Their walk back to the ship had been somewhat subdued after the conversation in the inn. Though Archie had assured him that he had not been offended by Horatio's outburst, there was something tentative in his friend's manner that made Horatio regret his angry reaction to Archie's comments about Mariette. For this reason and a variety of others, Horatio had much to think about during the sleepy hours of the middle watch.

He'd seen a light in the captain's cabin after they had returned, and Pellew's boat had been stowed back in his usual space. He surmised that the captain had mostly likely completed his debriefing with the Admiralty. The Indy needed no repairs this time, and restocking had been going on all day; surely, then, they would be departing at sunrise. He'd stumbled into his bunk after his watch, certain that he would awaken to the familiar gut-churning motion of the Channel breakers. Not that he expected much trouble from his sea-sickness this time; the weather was fair and his unpredictable stomach had performed beautifully on the return leg from France.

But daylight had found him waking in his cabin, sensing from the quiet of the ship's slight motion that they were indeed still in port. The wardroom stood deserted; he'd eaten hastily and come out in search of news.

He smiled slightly. Mr. Bracegirdle stood on the quarterdeck; Horatio had no doubts that the first lieutenant would be able to enlighten him.

"Good morning, sir," he said, as he climbed up onto the quarterdeck. "I must admit, Mr. Bracegirdle, I did not expect to find us still idle in port."

"Only for one more day," came the answer. "Their Lordships at the Admiralty do not seem to be in a hurry to let our good captain shirk his social responsibilities while we are here."

Horatio raised one eyebrow. "Social responsibilities, sir?"

"A breakfast meeting in his cabin this morning, with three of Their Lordships and their wives... and dinner somewhere tonight." Bracegirdle studied Horatio, his face speculative. "Which reminds me: the captain wants to see you."

Horatio nodded. "I'd better report straight away, then. Ah... he is finished with the breakfast meeting, is he not?"

"They left about half an hour ago, taking their formidable wives with them." Bracegirdle's eyes danced. "You're safe, Horatio."

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

Horatio rapped at the captain's door.

"Come!" came the familiar shout. He opened the door and looked around it, into the day cabin.

"You asked to see me, sir?"

"Yes... come in , Mr. Hornblower." The captain waved him in. He was seated at his desk, with its usual wild disarray of papers. He picked an envelope out of the pile and gestured with it.

"I'll be going ashore again this evening, to dine with Lord Waterston and his family. He's a stuffy old bird, but not someone from whom I can lightly refuse an invitation."

"Yes, sir." Horatio frowned slightly, puzzled; why was Pellew telling him this?

"He also requests that I bring along, as he put it, a respectable young officer. Someone with whom his niece would enjoy conversing -- she and her parents will be there as well ­ and who could be her dinner partner." Pellew gave the papers on his desk one final shuffle, then stood.

"A respectable young..." Horatio trailed off. "Dinner partner? For his niece, sir?"

"Better make sure that new uniform is all cleaned up and ready to go, Mr. Hornblower. They expect us at seven o'clock."

Horatio opened his mouth in astonishment, then shut it with an audible snap. The captain, his eyes crinkling with amusement, leaned back against his desk and folded his arms.

"Well, Mr. Hornblower? You have a question?"

"Sir... pardon me, sir, but wouldn't Mr. Kennedy perhaps be a better choice? He is far better versed in... in the manners of polite society than I am."

Pellew snorted slightly. "Mr. Kennedy, I think, would be just a little too eager for this commission. I don't need any complaints from Lord Waterston about one of my officers trifling with his niece's affections." He sat back down. "That will be all, Mr. Hornblower. There will be a carriage meeting us at the dock at 6:30. See that you are present and appropriately dressed well before that time."

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

"An escort," groused Horatio as he brushed lint and dust off of his best uniform topcoat. "I cannot believe that Captain Pellew is going to make me do this."

Archie snickered. "Horatio, it's just dinner. You've eaten dinner with important people before." He finished cleaning mud and grime from one of Horatio's shoes, set it down on the deck, then picked up its mate. "Rather more often than I, as of late."

Horatio looked sharply at his friend at these last words, but Archie had already bent his head and his attention back to the shoe. "All you have to do," continued Archie, "is eat delicious food and be charming to Lord Waterston's niece. Make light conversation, that sort of thing. What could be easier?"

"Taking a French corvette single-handed," answered Horatio gloomily. "Archie... I am sorry that you are not going in my place; you would enjoy this. I did ask the captain if he would send you instead of me."

Now Archie looked up. "You did? What did he say?"

Something in Archie's face made Horatio change the reply that he had readied. He had been about to tease his friend by informing him of Captain Pellew's actual answer to the question, but thought better of it in that instant. Archie did unquestionably have an eye for the ladies, even if he rarely accomplished much by his flirtations. But... there had been a note in the captain's words which had stung Horatio's pride as well. Perhaps Archie tired of being considered a bit of a rascal, just as Horatio tired of being seen as an innocent.

"He... wasn't very specific," he answered at last. "I think that I must somehow have done something to annoy him... something for which he wants to punish me a little by making sure that I have to suffer alongside of him."

And for all Horatio knew, that might indeed be true.

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

Horatio swallowed nervously as he followed Captain Pellew into Lord Waterston's fashionable townhouse. A servant met them at the door to take their hats and cloaks, and ushered them into the drawing room.

Pellew strode in confidently; Horatio smiled wryly, shook his head and followed after a brief pause. When he caught up to Pellew, the captain was bowing to a richly dressed but rather corpulent gentleman wearing a wig. Real gold buttons decorated the man's suit, and he clutched a gold-headed walking stick.

"Ah, Mr. Hornblower, come on, man," Pellew rose and turned to him. "Thought I must have left you on the front step or something. Lord Waterston, may I present Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, one of my officers from the Indefatigable."

Horatio bowed in his turn, and managed to murmur the appropriate words in response. There followed a bewildering series of introductions to the important personages assembled there; Horatio's head swam as he tried to keep track of all of the names. There were several impressive dowagers, ranging from haughty to grandmotherly. There were numerous middle-aged men and their wives, all with connections to Lord Waterston of varying importance. And lastly, he was introduced to Lord Waterston's younger brother and his family.

Thomas Waterston, unlike his brother, wore his own gingery hair, but his girth gave some indication that he was following in his brother's footsteps. After he and his dark-haired wife were introduced, he turned slightly and beckoned a shorter figure out into the candlelight.

Lord Waterston, who was looking on, smiled... rather obsequiously, Horatio thought. "And here is my little niece Lydia, the flower of the family. Lydia, this is Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower."

With a shock, Horatio recognized the young girl that he and Archie had met the evening before when she had emerged from her carriage to make sure that neither of them had been hurt. The dark curls were uncovered now, and she wore a dress of some soft pale green stuff, cut rather low in the neckline, but he knew that he was not mistaken.

He thought he saw an answering flicker of recognition in the hazel eyes, but she said no words to indicate that she remembered the encounter. Suddenly recalling his manners, he bowed stiffly. "Your servant, Miss Waterston."

She bobbed in a pretty curtsy. "How very nice to meet you, Mr. Hornblower." She rose and smiled at him, her eyes dancing with obvious amusement. "I am glad that your captain has allowed you to come with him and join us for dinner. It must be very tiresome, spending all of your time aboard one of those smelly ships."

"I am... grateful for the invitation, Miss Waterston." Not precisely true, but what else could he possibly say? That he would rather be aboard his 'smelly ship', eating simple food in the safely masculine atmosphere of the wardroom? "I understand that I am to have the honor of your presence at dinner?"

She laughed, and stepped a little closer. Her parents, Horatio noted with some nervousness, seemed to have melted away somewhere. "You are. And now I am even more glad that James did not injure you with his inept driving, last night."

He relaxed a little. "You do remember."

"Of course. But papa would be vexed if he knew that I had been speaking with strange officers in the street. So... it will be our secret."

He was saved from answering this mildly flirtatious comment by the appearance, in the doorway, of Lord Waterston's butler. "Dinner is served, my lord."

Horatio offered his arm to the girl, who giggled and took it.

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

Dinner progressed much too slowly for Horatio. The food was of excellent quality, but after his straightforward and hearty dinner of the previous night he was less appreciative than he might have been. There was a roast capon stuffed with bread and chestnuts; he devoured his portion of the bird eagerly. There was roast beef, but by the time it got to his end of the table the best slices had been consumed. Fresh spring vegetables abounded, however, and it was these ephemeral treats that he enjoyed the most. When the sweets appeared, -- meringues, jellies and custards, all with a delicious aroma -- he was full enough to look upon even these with a sated eye. The wine had an excellent flavor, but he carefully nursed one glass of it through the entire meal. Miss Waterston drank several glasses; he wondered if she were usually allowed to have this much or if her parents were merely less attentive tonight.

As the most junior male present, he thankfully had little conversation to make. Miss Waterston talked enough for both of them, anyway. He ate his fill and listened to her chatter with one ear and to the talk of the men with the other.

Halfway through the meal, Mr. Waterston leaned forward and fixed Captain Pellew with a watery stare. "Sir Edward! My brother tells me that you were just involved in a mission to France."

Horatio winced. The 'invasion' of France, he was fairly certain, would be low on the list of topics that his captain would wish to discuss at a fashionable civilian dinner. Had it been a successful, dashing endeavor, Pellew could have told the story with gusto; Horatio had heard him do that sort of thing before. He watched his captain closely, to see how he would answer.

Pellew nodded, and helped himself to more boiled new potatoes. "We were," he answered evenly. "I might add that we present in mainly an advisory role, and served also to transport men and arms for the French loyalist cause."

"Heard it was a bloody shambles," persisted Mr. Waterston. "The French loyalist general killed, good British soldiers ­ and sailors ­ dying like flies. Nothing gained for us, that's for certain." He leaned forward slightly. "But I hear that some of your men survived."

Horatio frowned. In actuality, Mr. Waterston's public comments about the venture in France were not all that far from Horatio's own private views. It had been a disaster, it had seemed pointless, and there had been considerable loss of life. But to hear this civilian casually dissect those two bloody days ­ at the dinner table, no less ­ somehow set his teeth on edge.

"Most of the Indefatigable's men did survive," answered Pellew, still evenly. "We lost four in defense of a bridge, which they successful destroyed in order to slow the enemy troops." He poked rather savagely at a potato with his fork, his actions showing the emotions that his voice undoubtedly hid. "We were fortunate enough to be able to take them off the beach near Muzillac before they could be taken by the French republican forces."

"And General Charette's men? Did none of them survive to be taken off at the beach?" Mr. Waterston stared even harder at Pellew.

Gulping nervously, Horatio looked down at his plate. The Indefatigable, of course, would not have been able to take up any survivors at Quiberon bay, as she had already left by then to rendezvous with Horatio's own men at Muzillac. Later, Pellew had confirmation from Mr. Bowles that there had not been any other known survivors, but at the time he had made the decision to leave Quiberon, he had only been able to assume the worst. Not for the first time, Horatio pondered the Captain's decision. Had it been a cold-blooded one, balancing the near-certainty of the loss of the French loyalists versus the hope of some survivors from the Muzillac landing? Or had Pellew's own affection for Horatio and loyalty to the Indefatigable's men blinded him to any such logic?

"Mr. Waterston... there are ladies present, and I think that discussions of this nature would be better delayed until some future time." Pellew laid down his fork and matched Mr. Waterston, stare for stare. "I would add, though, that no man can fully comprehend the ramifications of any difficult decision, unless he himself were present and wholly cognizant of all of the facts."

 

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

Soon after that, Miss Waterston, her mother, and the other ladies withdrew. Horatio eyed the girl as she left; she was starting to look very sleepy from the wine and the long meal, and leaned on her mother's arm as they departed for the drawing room. He wondered what the ladies would be discussing amongst themselves: would they continue the conversation about the disaster in France? Or, horror of horrors, would they talk about Horatio? He winced to think of himself as a topic for discussion ­ and possible mirth ­ for a group of well-bred ladies.

Port, whisky and cigars were brought forth and passed around. Horatio allowed himself half a glass of port, no more; he appreciated its taste but knew that he needed to keep his wits about him tonight as always. He tensed, waiting for the subject of the mission in France to be re-opened, but nothing more of any consequence was discussed. Pellew said nothing at all, staring into his own glass of port while the conversation flowed awkwardly around him.

When the men finally rejoined the ladies in the drawing room, Horatio did not immediately see his little dinner partner. Perhaps, he thought to himself, she had already said her good-nights to her parents and uncle and had gone upstairs to rest; she had certainly looked tired enough.

Then he spotted her, sitting near the fireplace on an ottoman. She was leafing through the pages of a picture book, and did not appear to notice him until he sat down next to her. She smiled at him tentatively, but Horatio frowned in concern when he saw her heavy-lidded eyes and flushed cheeks.

"Miss Waterston... are you well? Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked quietly. Inwardly, he was annoyed with her parents, who were across the room setting up for an animated game of cards with Lord Waterston and a stone-faced Captain Pellew. This girl ­ this child ­ should be in bed.

She shook her head. "I am well, only a little tired. I should not have had so much wine with dinner."

Horatio looked at her seriously. "Indeed, you should not. You are too young to spoil your health in such a manner." He smiled slightly at the thought of how pompous he must sound, lecturing this girl as if he were ever so much older and wiser. "If you are so weary, should you not then retire?" A thought occurred to him: had she been told off to entertain him, as much as he had been instructed to be her escort? "I would, of course, be the poorer for your absence," he added hastily and with as much gallantry as he could supply, "but you should not fatigue yourself on my account. Or anyone else's."

She sighed. "Indeed, I wish it were time for us to leave. Uncle's parties can last so long, and papa encourages him. We will be here several more hours at least."

He frowned again. "You do not stay here tonight, then?"

"No, of course not." She smiled wanly. "We have our carriage, and it is only about half-a-mile to our townhouse." Raising one small plump hand to her mouth, she muffled a yawn. "At least it will be a short ride."

Horatio studied the drooping little creature who sat next to him on the ottoman. Despite the heightened color in her cheeks, she looked ill and exhausted, with dark patches under her eyes. "Wait here a moment," he said, quite unnecessarily. "I will speak with your parents and see if I can prevail upon them to take you home, or send you home, or something."

"That would be lovely," she sighed. "But papa won't want to leave yet, and he will want the carriage to wait here for him."

"Nevertheless, I shall attempt this mission to the best of my ability." That brought forth a tired giggle from the girl, as he rose to his feet and gave her an exaggerated, sweeping bow. He straightened up and smiled at her encouragingly. "Only half-a-mile, you say? Perhaps... perhaps the fresh air would make you feel better. We could walk back to your home, instead; I would be honored to escort you."

"I could manage the walk, I think," she agreed, stifling another yawn.

Horatio nodded approvingly. "I will return in a few minutes."

He strode to the card table, and was saved from having to break into the conversation by Pellew's slight smile and nod. "You're too late to join us for this game, Mr. Hornblower. But I have been boasting of your card-playing skill to Lord Waterston and his family. Therefore, we must save you a place at the table for the next game in order that he may know that I am a truthful man."

"That would be pleasant, sir, but I have an errand of mercy to a lady that I must complete first." He winced as he said it; the phrase sounded so pompous to his ears. "Mr. Waterston, sir... your daughter is feeling most weary. I came to ask on her behalf, sir, if there was any way she could be allowed to go home."

Mr. Waterston looked at his brother. Lord Waterston merely snorted and sat back, looking saturnine. Mr. Waterston then shook his head.

"Impossible," he growled. "The girl will just have to wait until we've had a game or two more."

"Perhaps," ventured Horatio, "she could be sent home in your carriage, and it could return for you later?"

"What nonsense." Lord Waterston dealt the cards, snapping each one onto the table with a flourish. "Too hard on the horses, stopping and starting all night like that." He glared at his brother. "Thomas, you spoil that girl enough as it is."

Horatio took a deep breath, trying to conceal his growing irritation. He could see sympathy on Captain Pellew's face; from his seat at the card table, the captain had a clear view of the sleepy girl near the fire. That sympathy, and his own internal sense of outrage, gave him the courage to press further.

"Then... allow me to escort her home, somehow. On foot, if necessary... the fresh air may do her some good. Perhaps if there was one of the servants who could accompany us?" He added the last part hastily. Even a girl as young as Miss Waterston would normally have some sort of chaperone if she was to be escorted home by a young officer.

But Mr. Waterston was already nodding in assent. "Capital idea, young fellow, capital idea. No... you needn't take a servant; I see that I can trust you to look out for my little Lydia." He turned to Captain Pellew. "Sir Edward, this young man of yours is trustworthy, is he not?"

Pellew's dark eyes grew serious, and he looked at Horatio as he answered. "Mr. Waterston, Mr. Hornblower is one of the finest and most honorable young men that I have ever been privileged to have in my service. You may trust him with your life... and with your young daughter."

Horatio flushed with embarrassed pleasure. "Thank you, sir."

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

As they moved out into the crisp and starry evening, Horatio was glad to see his little companion brighten visibly. "Oh, that's so much better," she cried, taking several deep breaths. "Uncle's house gets so hot and still when there are that many people in it."

Horatio smile down at her as she slipped her plump little hand under his arm. The top of her curly head came barely to his shoulder, and he wondered again what her real age was. Her round, rosy face and adolescent chatter seemed to place her at around fourteen or fifteen years old, at the most. She reminded Horatio poignantly of his three younger female cousins, girls whom he had not seen for several years now. On the other hand, there was a sadness about her, a deep bone-weariness that spoke of too many evenings spent in drawing-rooms such as the one that they had just exited. She might be closer to his age, then, more like seventeen or eighteen.

His nostrils twitched with the smell of her perfume. To smell anything other than tar and wood and canvas and the inevitable human stench of the ship was something of a novelty for him, but the sensation was not unpleasant. Lavender, he thought, the scent stirring a faint memory from his childhood: his mother in her little still-room, simmering a pot of lavender buds to make a sweet-smelling infusion.

"Which way do we turn to go to your house, Miss Waterston?"

"Left at the end of the lane, then straight for a while. I'll tell you when it is time for us to turn."

She carried the bulk of the conversation after that, telling Horatio one story after another. Most of them featured the adventures of Miss Waterston herself, along with two or three of her closest feminine companions, and all were deeply frivolous. She had just returned, he learned, from a month in Bath with the family of her dearest friend Margaret, and the holiday in Bath was the setting for most of her tales.

"We had such lovely times there," she sighed. "So many utterly fascinating people, so many wickedly handsome young men. Margaret and I were both invited to at least one ball every week, can you imagine? I had ever so much fun dancing. Do you dance, Mr. Hornblower?"

He shook his head. "Very poorly, I am afraid, Miss Waterston."

"Oh... do call me Lydia! Please. At least until we reach my father's house," she added, with a doubtful note in her voice.

He patted her hand. "If you wish, Miss... Lydia. So, you are not pleased to be back home in Portsmouth for a while?"

She made a face. "There's nothing here but boats and sailors. No balls or dancing, nothing to do."

"Your friend, Margaret... she does not live nearby?"

"Not at the moment. She is at her family's country house in Sussex. It may be months before I see her again." She kicked at a loose cobblestone in her path. "I wish that she were here," she added in a small voice. "I do so miss having someone that I can talk to."

Horatio shook his head. His annoyance at being forced to come ashore and suffer escort duty had long since faded. Rather, he found that he was glad for the opportunity to dance attendance on this artless child, to treat her with kindness and concern. Certainly, she sounded rather lonely, with no one her own age nearby in which to confide.

Suddenly he stopped, looked around, and frowned. They had left the genteel district of respectable townhouses and rooming-houses, and now were in a shabbier neighborhood. Some of the windows were boarded up, giving the street a sinister air; the buildings were ramshackle and built close together, and the cobbled street had a gap-toothed look where the stones were missing. Horatio saw one set of curtains twitch quickly, when he looked at the window... as if someone had been watching but had hurriedly let the curtain fall back into place.

"Miss Waterston... Lydia, have we missed the turning to your home? This does not look at all as if we are heading in the correct direction."

She flushed and looked guilty. "We passed the turning quite... quite a few lanes back. But... I was having such a lovely time talking with you. I wanted to keep walking a while longer."

He turned to face her, giving her arm a little shake. "Lydia, that was wicked of you. And dangerous. I am responsible for your welfare tonight. If any harm should come to you, your father and your uncle would blame me." He frowned at her sternly. "This does not look like a very safe part of town for a very young lady with only one lone officer to protect her. Now: which way to your father's house?"

He was sorry almost immediately for his harsh words, for she looked away quickly. The angle of her face did not hide the tears on her eyelashes or the trembling of her chin. She made no answer, only stood still biting her lip.

"Lydia," he tried again, much more gently this time, "do we turn around? Or can we get to your house by one of these side streets?"

"We... we should turn around," she whispered at last. "Back down to where we passed the Fox and Pheasant, then left." She sniffed, and rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "I am sorry, Mr. Hornblower."

Horatio felt another pang of guilt, for reducing the poor girl to tearful meekness. He patted her hand. "I am sorry I spoke so angrily to you, Lydia. But you must see... it is my responsibility to see you home safely."

She nodded and said nothing. Horatio turned them around and they started back the way they had come, at a much more rapid pace. A few minutes later, he felt her stumble and lurch sharply. He instinctively tightened the muscles of his arm to take her weight, and stopped to let her catch her balance back.

"Are you all right? Did you trip over something?"

"Only a loose cobblestone," came the shaky answer. "I turned my ankle a little bit, but I am sure it will be fine."

Now Horatio looked down by her feet, and cursed himself mentally. There were several gaps that marked the place of missing cobbles, and the remaining stones did indeed look loose. Lydia, with her unsuitable high-heeled boots and her eyes blinded by tears, had undoubtedly missed her step and not only trodden on a wobbly stone but indeed had probably stumbled into one of the holes. Even now, despite her brave words, she stood biting her lip and wincing as she leaned some weight onto the injured ankle.

Unbidden, a swirl of images rose before Horatio's eyes. Mariette, jumping out of the window, at his bidding, into his arms... slipping, landing badly, injuring her ankle. Mariette, hobbling as fast as she could hop and as fast as he could assist her, hoping against hope to outrun danger. Mariette, collapsing soundlessly onto the dusty ground after the sharp crack of the sniper's musket ball. He gasped and almost lost his own balance as the memories pounded painfully against him.

What a fool he had been, to allow himself to be persuaded into this party, to begin to enjoy himself a little... to once again accept responsibility for a young woman. What had he been thinking, when he offered to see her home safely? He had let his own attention wander, pleasantly distracted by her silly talk and her warm feminine presence... let those roguish hazel eyes blind him to the everyday dangers present even on home soil. What if they now encountered bandits or ruffians? This girl would no more be able to outrun them that Mariette had been able to outrun the French soldiers.

"Mr. Hornblower?"

Horatio shook himself mentally, and forced himself to be practical. "I am sorry... just thinking a moment." He cleared his throat "Can you stand without me? I want to look at your foot."

She nodded. He knelt down, and carefully teased the little foot out from under a welter of skirts, and stared at it dumbly. There was little he could see; her boot covered the foot and ankle. He gently squeezed the small part of her leg that showed between her boot and... some ruffled feminine undergarment, he realized with a furious blush of embarrassment. "Does that hurt?"

"No... only lower down. My ankle."

He let the hem of her skirt drop, and straightened up. "I'd best leave it alone, then. If I take your boot off, we might not be able to get it back on." He returned to her side and offered his arm. "Do you think that you can walk, with my help?"

She nodded vigorously. "I think so."

And indeed, she did very well for some time. She limped; only a little at first, but soon more heavily, but she did seem to be able to put some weight on the injury. She said nothing other than to point out the proper turnings, and Horatio did not try to make conversation. Finally, they had left the more dubious neighborhood behind and entered an area of stately townhouses and other respectable buildings, graced by an occasional tiny park.

Lydia stopped, grimacing. "We are not so far, now," she said, as if to encourage herself. "Only to the end of this lane, and right about eight more houses. But... Mr. Hornblower, I am not sure I can walk much further. Perhaps... perhaps I should send you on to get one or two of the servants."

He frowned. "And leave you here? That is out of the question." He looked at her, gauging her size and thinking of his own wiry strength. He took a deep breath. "With your permission, Miss Waterston, I shall carry you this last part." He bent and slipped one arm behind her knees, one behind her shoulders, and lifted her without too much effort. She put an arm around his shoulders and clung tightly.

"Oh, that is so much better," she admitted, as her feet left the ground. "But I am afraid you will grow very tired."

"Nonsense," he added, a little breathlessly. "A officer in His Majesty's Navy is supposed to be fit and strong. If I cannot carry one small girl, I do not deserve to wear the uniform." He was reward for this comment by a weak smile.

Even thus burdened, he managed to carry her fairly rapidly. Following her directions, they reached her father's house in about ten more minutes. His arms were tiring by the time he was able to ease her gently to the ground, and he was also becoming painfully self-conscious of the nature of this soft, sweet-smelling, ruffled bundle of person that he carried. Young and innocent she might be, but she was certainly more than attractive, and he was glad when he was able to disentangle himself. It would not do for him to be thinking lustful thoughts about the niece of a Lord of the Admiralty... nor, for that matter, for the servants to see them in this somewhat compromising position.

The door was answered immediately by an immaculately dressed butler, who raised his eyebrows but said only, "You are home early, Miss."

"Papa and Mama are still there. Mr. Hornblower escorted me home... and I was foolish enough to twist my ankle. Please call Amelia down to help me." She turned to Horatio, and offered him her hand. "Thank you, Mr. Hornblower, for your gallant assistance," she said formally. "I wish you a safe voyage tomorrow."

He bowed. "You are most welcome, Miss Waterston. I hope that your ankle recovers speedily."

She gave him a last wistful smile; then the maid appeared, and she and the butler whisked the girl inside... leaving only Horatio and a lingering whiff of lavender. Horatio remained on the step for a moment or two, smiling faintly, then turned to begin the long walk back.

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

A long, weary time later, Horatio rang the bell for the front door of Lord Waterston's house. He waited a nervous minute or two, wondering if perhaps everyone in the house had gone to bed... but no, there were still flickering lights in several of the ground-floor rooms. Nonetheless, he breathed a silent sigh of relief when the butler opened the door and ushered him into the house.

The walk back had not gone well. Conscious of the circuitous route that he had traveled with the girl, and anxious to return as speedily as possible, Horatio had attempted to take a short-cut rather than simply retrace his steps. This, in his fatigued and distracted state, proved to be disastrous. He was unfamiliar with this part of Portsmouth, and despite paying close attention to his left and right turns, he had eventually lost his bearings. He might have been all right if the streets had been more regular, but they stopped and started in what seemed to Horatio an utterly illogical manner. The sky had clouded over, so he gained no clues from it; several times he cursed himself for not having a compass in his pocket.

He had begun to think that he would be forced to knock on a door and ask directions, when he realized that he was only a few doors down from where Lydia had twisted her ankle. From that point, with careful attention to his memories of their earlier walk, he had finally been able to find his way back.

Now he walked into the drawing-room, and looked about in sick dismay. The guests had departed, except for Pellew and Mr. and Mrs. Waterston. The three of them still occupied the card-table, along with their host. Pellew was just starting to deal the cards when he looked up and met Horatio's nervous glance.

Relief, mixed with consternation, was evident in the captain's face. "Mr. Hornblower! You return at last. Did you meet with some misfortune?"

"Only my own lack of familiarity with the streets here, sir." Horatio felt himself flushing. "I am afraid that I am too late to be able to join you for cards," he said, hesitantly. "I apologize for the late hour of my return." He turned slightly to address Mr. Waterston. "Your daughter reached home long since, sir, but I failed to pay proper attention to the route and made some wrong turns." He tried to smile reassuringly.

Mr. Waterston burst out laughing. "I hope that you don't let this one plot your course, Sir Edward! You would end up in the Arctic!"

Pellew smiled thinly. "I assure you, Mr. Waterston, that navigation on the open sea is a very different matter than learning the twists and turns of a city. Mr. Hornblower is, in truth, normally an excellent navigator." He coughed slightly. "Lord Waterston, I ought to be returning to my ship, now that my missing officer has revealed himself to be among the living. Might I be excused from finishing this game?"

"Certainly, Sir Edward." Lord Waterston gestured to the butler standing respectfully behind Horatio. "See that the carriage is brought round, Parker." He turned back to the table and fixed Pellew with a penetrating glance. "I shall enjoy the opportunity to continue this conversation at some later date."

Pellew stood, and bowed briefly. "I sail in the morning, my lord. However, I am certain our paths will cross again sometime in the near future."

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

As soon as the carriage door closed on them, Pellew rounded on Horatio. "Good God, man, do you realize how late it is? Any later, and I would have had to return to the ship without you!" He snorted. "And reaching there, my first action would have been to send the marines out looking for a missing officer. It wouldn't have done your reputation any good, I can tell you that."

"I am sorry, sir," Horatio answered miserably. "I have no excuses to offer."

Pellew glared. Horatio swallowed audibly. In the close confines of the carriage, Pellew's anger and frustration seemed almost palpable. "You are lucky, boy... very lucky, that Waterston was so amused by the idea of a King's Officer getting lost in Portsmouth. Else he might have spent more time wondering just how long his innocent daughter had been alone in the company of a hot-blooded young lieutenant!" The captain leaned back against the upholstery. "You did get her home in a timely manner? And without incident?"

Horatio thought quickly. Lydia's sprained ankle had come about from her own foolish action of not giving him correct directions. Better for the girl to tell whatever story would best satisfy her father on that score, than for a conflicting version to filter back from his lips. "Yes, sir."

"Then... no real harm is done." The captain shook his head, and finally a ghost of a smile played upon his face. "Lost in Portsmouth. This story will be all around the fleet in a few weeks, I am sure. It is just as well that we are sailing in the morning."

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

As Horatio climbed slowly up the side, his legs now heavy with fatigue, he grimaced when he saw Archie Kennedy standing at attention to salute the captain. He had forgotten that Archie had the middle watch tonight, and he was not especially looking forward to enduring any of his friend's particular brand of wit.

After the captain had gone to his cabin, and the small clot of men on deck began to disperse, Horatio tried to slip nonchalantly past Archie. If he could make it to his cabin, he would be safe at least for a few hours. He had reached the companionway and had set his feet on the first rung when he felt a hand on his arm.

Irritated, he looked up to see Archie's wide grin and laughing blue eyes. He shook his head, half-smiling in spite of himself, and turned to return to the deck.

"So... the prodigal returns from his night of debauchery," quipped Archie. "And tries to sneak past the officer of the watch, I might add."

Horatio tried his best to appear stern, dignified, and sleepy. "Archie, please. It was just a long, boring evening of duty to one's superiors." He yawned, and did not try to conceal the motion. "Why would you assume anything else?"

Archie grinned even more widely. "Well, for starters: it's after midnight, you've a certain wild-eyed look to you, and you smell like a boudoir." He leaned closer and picked a long, gracefully curling dark hair off of Horatio's white lapel. "And what's this?" He held it up so that it caught the faint light of the moon, which had come out from behind the clouds in the last few minutes.

"My hair, you clod." Horatio made an ineffective swipe at the offending strand, but Archie pulled it back quickly.

"Ah, ah, ah... don't think so, my friend. It's a bit too long, and a bit too fine. I have found enough of your hairs sticking to my personal belongings over the last months to be able to tell the difference." He handed the long spiral back to Horatio, who snatched it out of his hand with a glare. "Could it be," continued Archie, "that our studious, inexperienced... nay, almost monkish junior lieutenant has become the object of romantic pursuit by a daughter of the gentry?"

"Mr. Kennedy, that is quite enough," spoke Horatio through half-clenched teeth. "My conduct on shore is no business of yours. I am going to go below for a couple of hours of sleep. I will be back to relieve you at the end of your watch." And gathering the shreds of his dignity about him, he hastily began to retreat back down the companionway.

Once again, he was only a step or two down when he felt a hand, this time on his shoulder. "Horatio? Wait, Horatio... I apologize. Come back."

He paused for a moment. Archie sounded repentant enough; but Horatio was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to find his bed. "It's all right," he said at last. "I will tell you about her... um, about the evening, when I get a chance, Archie. But I need some sleep now." Looking up, he could see Archie silhouetted against the sky, his hair gone silvery in the moonlight and his expression not quite readable as he looked down the companionway.

An idea struck Horatio, and he grinned wickedly. "After all, I have a right to be fatigued after my... activities." He was gratified to see Archie's eyes widen.

"Sleep well, then. Horatio?"

"Yes?"

"Was she pretty?"

He shook his head with resigned amusement. "Very pretty, Archie."

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

When the blow came, it blind-sided him completely.

Summer was well under way, and the pickings along the French coast were at their richest. Despite the British blockade, despite the lack of much in the way of foul weather to hide their activities, the French persisted in trying to slip past the squadron. The Indy participated in many a merry chase in those weeks, along the coast and even into the harbors when possible. There were raids on French shore-batteries, carried out in the deep silence of the night, and wild pursuits under the golden sun and sea-spray.

Life was exhilarating and splendid for Horatio during these weeks. His responsibilities were clear-cut, his goals blessedly straightforward, and his captain a man of honor. After the horror of the Muzillac mission, when he had been forced to obey the orders of a commander with no more respect for human life than might be expected from a West Indies shark... that last consideration was not a small one.

He was just coming off watch one afternoon in early July when word came to him that the captain wanted to see him. They had made rendezvous with the squadron earlier in the day, receiving dispatches as well as a boatload of fresh food.... more welcome than usual, as they were nearing the end of their stored provisions and would have to return soon to England to restock more completely. With a young man's hearty interest in food, Horatio hoped that the captain's summons just might presage an invitation for dinner, and he hurried to respond.

"You wanted to see me, sir?" He stepped into the captain's day-cabin, after knocking quietly and being given permission to enter.

"Yes, Mr. Hornblower, I did." Pellew was seated at the table, some letters in front of him. "A matter has come to my attention, which involves you most closely."

"Sir?" Horatio did not try to keep the puzzlement out of his voice.

Pellew stood. "I have here a letter that I received today, from England. From Lord Waterston."

Horatio felt his heart turn over uneasily. Why would a letter from one of the Lords of the Admiralty be any concern to a lowly lieutenant? Pellew's face was unreadable, but that could mean anything; the man took a positive delight in guarding his facial expressions. For that matter, he had also enjoyed teasing Horatio in the past. Perhaps this was nothing more than Pellew's peculiar brand of humor. He cleared his throat to answer. "I don't understand, sir."

Pellew flung the letter down with unnecessary vigor. "I had hoped, Mr. Hornblower, that you would be able to explain this matter to me... that you would have an appropriate answer when I tell you that Lord Waterston writes to me to accuse you of dishonoring his niece."

"Dishonoring... his niece, sir? What exactly ­"

He was not allowed to finish. "The girl, he tells me, is with child. After much pleading from her parents... she has reluctantly named you as the father."

Horatio felt the blood leave his face, and his legs felt momentarily unsteady. He grasped the high back of one of the wooden chairs for support. "Me, sir? Miss Waterston... accuses me?"

"Her father does, anyway. Presumably he would not do so without some indication from his daughter as to the truth of the matter!" Pellew did not quite shout, but his voice had that controlled intensity that Horatio had come to associate with a severe dressing-down.

"Sir, I did not do it," he answered as steadily as he could, keeping his face turned rigidly away. "I treated her with honor and respect. There must be some mistake. Her father ­"

"Her father has enough influence, thanks to that brother of his, to ruin your career! You could find yourself a disgraced lieutenant, on half-pay, for the rest of your life!" Now Pellew was indeed shouting.

Horatio's head spun with the news. Surely this could not truly be happening. That sweet and silly girl, accusing him falsely? He had never even touched her, except to look at her foot, and then to carry her those last few yards when her injury had overcome her... A chill ran through him as he remembered how he had still smelt pleasantly of her lavender perfume, even after returning to the ship. Archie had noticed; had the Waterstons also smelled their daughter's presence on Horatio?

A tumble of other thoughts followed: his conversation in the carriage with Pellew, omitting any mention of Lydia's sprained ankle or of her semi-deliberate misdirection... his irritated response to Archie's teasing later that night. If he had set out to deliberately paint himself as a despoiler of young girls, he could not have done a more thorough job of it. A faint groan escaped him despite his best efforts, and he closed his eyes for a moment, seeking for the right words.

"Sir... I maintain that the young lady in question took no harm from me. But..." he swallowed audibly, "I may have inadvertently fueled suspicion in this regard by... by omitting certain details."

Pellew frowned and folded his arms. "Mr. Hornblower, just what are you trying to tell me? Quit mincing words, man! And sit down; you look likely to pass out."

Horatio sank into the chair, grateful for its reassuring solidity under his thighs, and bowed his head over his hands. The captain sat down across from him, and leaned across the table.

"I think, Mr. Hornblower," he said, his voice ominously quiet, "that you had better tell me everything about that evening. In that way, I can best judge how to help you out of this predicament."

Startled, Horatio looked up. "Sir?"

"While there are many weaknesses to which a man may succumb... I have some difficulty in imagining that you, of all the men in my service, would commit this particular sin." Pellew shook his head. "I think too much of your character, young man, to credit that you would have seduced a young girl under your protection. In short... I believe you."

"Thank you, sir," gulped Horatio, in relief.

"Now... tell me everything that happened after you and Miss Waterston walked out the door of the house."

Haltingly at first, Horatio began to recount the tale. He had only managed a few sentences when Pellew stopped him. "Hold a moment. You said, when you came over to the card table, that the girl was weary. Was she complaining of anything in particular? Did she feel faint?"

Horatio shook his head. "If she felt so, she did not say. She told me that she had drank too much wine with dinner, and indeed she had."

"I confess, I paid her little attention. Was she pale? Unsteady?"

"Pale, yes. Unsteady... not really." Horatio could no longer contain his curiosity. "Is that important, sir?"

"It could be." Pellew stood up and began to pace. "If she truly is with child, and I think that we can assume that you did not perpetrate this deed... than perhaps she was already feeling the early signs that night. Women often feel more unwell in those first weeks than they do when they begin to obviously increase."

Horatio blushed, uncomfortable with such a blatantly feminine topic. "If you say so, sir."

"Go on... tell me the rest."

Gradually, the rest of the account came out. Pellew did not interrupt again, but shook his head when Horatio finally finished. "It doesn't look good, boy," he said at last. "You were alone with her for long enough for almost anything to have happened. To come out with this story only now, after she has accused you... her father will believe that you are simply trying to account for the missing time." Pellew cleared his throat. "Is there... anyone else to whom you might have told the full story? Mr. Kennedy, perhaps?"

"No, sir." Horatio shook his head, remembering his conversation that night with Archie. "Not only did I not tell him the details that I just told you... I am very much afraid that I may have misled him as to the nature of the time I spent with Miss Waterston."

He had intended, of course, to set the record straight... to tell Archie just how dull his evening had truly been. But their schedules for the next day or two had been such that they had not had any time to speak privately, and Horatio had mostly forgotten that he had promised to enlighten his friend. And... he had to admit it, the surprised look on Archie's face, after Horatio had hinted at intimacy between himself and the girl, had been both amusing and gratifying.

A boy's pride and bravado, a shy young man wishing to sound confident and experienced... that was all that lay behind that last comment. How he wished he could retract those words now! Would Archie even believe him, if he confessed?

Pellew's heavy sigh brought Horatio's attention back to the present. "Mr. Hornblower...the timing of this letter is particularly bad. We are down to ten days of provisions, and as per our standing orders from the commander-in-chief, I have been planning to take us back to England to re-supply in the next few days.

"I am afraid that when we arrive in Portsmouth, you shall have to answer to this accusation. Lord Waterston insists that you stand before a board of inquiry as soon as possible."

"A board of... Sir, I don't understand. This is not a navy matter, but a civil one."

"If a Lord of the Admiralty wishes it to be a navy matter, Mr. Hornblower, it will be one. I suggest you spend the bulk of your free time thinking about what you will say in your defense."

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

Horatio left Pellew's cabin as smoothly and as swiftly as he could, trying to keep his face as blank as possible as he slipped past the sentry at the door. As soon as he was out of sight, he leaned against the bulkhead for a moment, breathing deeply.

This was not just bad news, this was disaster. Horatio knew enough of his own position in life and in the navy to realize how much trouble now lay ahead for him. He was nothing, a nobody... a very junior lieutenant with no wealth or family connections upon which to draw. True, he had Pellew as his mentor and commanding officer, and he knew that his captain would help him in any way that he could, but even Pellew's influence and charisma would probably avail him little in this situation.

Very well, then. He had a few days to think about what defense he could offer. He must stop panicking, and start being clear-headed about the problem. To begin with, he knew that as much as it went against his grain to involve others in his problems, he needed to talk with Archie right away and give him the truth about that night in Portsmouth and about some other issues as well. He might need a witness to his character, and he could not think of anyone better equipped for the job than the friend who knew him best.

He drew another deep breath, squared his shoulders and tried to assume his usual facial expression of studied nonchalance as he began to walk briskly to the wardroom. He tried to remember the watch schedule. Archie had been on watch just before him, so he would most likely be loafing about somewhere. Finding him would not be tricky, but making an opportunity to speak privately with him before tonight could prove to be difficult.

As he had half-expected, Archie was in the wardroom. Some of the other officers were present, joking and laughing uproariously over a familiar story that Mr. Bowles was relating. Horatio slid into the seat next to Archie and waited until the laughter rose again, then leaned over and muttered into his friend's ear.

"Archie. I must talk to you."

Archie's head swiveled slightly. "Now?" he whispered. "What, is something wrong?"

Horatio sighed. "Yes. Come up to the masthead with me. I want to be able to hear myself think, and that's impossible in this noise."

"But I wanted to hear the end of this story."

"I'll tell you how it ends. He's told it to me at least twenty times. Now, come on."

Archie turned a little more, and eyed him speculatively... then snorted and rose from his seat with a mocking little bow. "Your pardon, gentlemen, and we will see you at supper. Lieutenant Hornblower requires my advice, and I must hasten to obey."

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

"Horatio, you cannot be serious. The girl is with child?"

Horatio had forced Archie to follow him all the way up to the masthead before he would say anything about his dilemma, though he could feel Archie absolutely seething with curiosity as they climbed the rigging. Once situated, he began to launch into the bald facts of the situation.

"Yes, at least according to the letter that her father sent to the captain. I haven't had any direct communication with her, if that's what you mean."

Archie grinned. "Congratulations. Personally, I always thought that I would be a father long before you. Your timing is a bit awkward, though... it's customary to have the wedding first."

"Don't, Archie," growled Horatio. "Dammit... I need your help, or you can be sure I wouldn't be telling you any of this at all."

"Sorry." Archie did not sound very contrite. "I just thought... well, you never did tell me anything more about the, um, evening in question."

"And therein lies part of the problem." Horatio sat on the tiny deck of the masthead, his head propped up on his knees. "Archie, I misled you, deliberately, with regards to that evening. Nothing happened between Miss Waterston and myself. Oh... she flirted with me a little; she probably flirts with every eligible young man that she meets. I did walk her home. But nothing really happened."

Speaking quickly so as not to give Archie a chance to interrupt, he told his friend the rest of the details... how he had gone to Lydia's parents to intercede on her behalf, how the girl had not told him the correct directions, how she had sprained her ankle and he had been forced to carry her.

Archie shook his head sympathetically. "So that is why you smelled of her perfume. I confess, that was the part that really made me wonder if you had made a conquest."

"No, it was all very innocent and logical. But it must not have looked that way to her parents and uncle. Archie... I got lost on the way back, if you can believe that. By the time I reached the house, even Captain Pellew was ready to believe the worst of me."

Archie sat down as well, and leaned back against the mast. "So what happens now?"

"I'm in for it," sighed Horatio gloomily. "As soon as we get to Portsmouth, her family will be looking for me. There's to be some sort of hearing; apparently they are trying to turn it into an official matter. It's implied, of course, that if I step up and marry her, that will be an end of the affair."

"Except for you. You can't marry her, Horatio."

"It might be easier."

Archie shook his head stubbornly. "You can't. Think of what kind of life that would be, for both of you. No, you must fight this. Did she say anything at all to indicate who the real father might be? Did she mention any man's name?"

"Not that I remember." Horatio rubbed his hands over his face. "She talked a lot, and most of it was utter nonsense. I didn't pay very much attention."

"Well, think about it. It could be important. How long were you alone with her?"

"An hour, perhaps? And I have no idea if the servants noted the time when I did finally bring her home. If they did not, then she might claim that it was even longer."

They sat quietly for a few moments, both deep in thought. Horatio tried to recall his conversation with Lydia that night. Had she mentioned any other suitors, any possible fathers for this child? If Pellew's suspicions were correct, the girl had already been pregnant. She might have somehow deliberately engineered the entire scene, pretending to be ill in order to lure him into seeing her home so that she might entrap him.

He shook his head. He did not want to believe such a thing about Lydia. Surely, this accusation was only a desperate move from a panicked girl, naming a young man who had only been kind to her. For reasons that only she knew, she evidently preferred to name him rather than he who had dishonored and abandoned her. Perhaps the man was already married, or perhaps he was cruel and vicious; he had no idea.

If Lydia only knew how unlikely a candidate he was for this role she had cast him into, she might perhaps laugh in spite of her own misery. Horatio smiled slightly at the thought. If only a physician could examine him and pronounce him completely inexperienced, like an Oriental bride on her way to the harem, his worries might be over.

That particular thought reminded him of another confession that he needed to make. "Archie?"

"Hmmm?"

"I meant to tell you..." Horatio trailed off, suddenly terrifically embarrassed. "What I mean is, poor Mariette... she and I never... oh, hell." He laughed shakily. "I was more evasive about her than I meant to be, Archie. Our... relationship was entirely innocent."

Archie looked amused. "Horatio, it's all right. It's your business, after all. I'm sorry that I tried to pry into that in the first place."

"No, it's important," insisted Horatio. "I may need you to speak for me, as a witness to my character, if it comes to that. I mean for you to know the truth. Not only did I not seduce Miss Waterston... I am afraid I would have very little idea about how to go about doing so."

"Poor, innocent Horatio," teased Archie. "When this is all over ­ if you don't end up married at gun-point ­ we shall have to find you a nice, experienced older woman who will show you the ropes. Someone with an elderly husband, and a secret taste for inhibited young naval officers."

Horatio glared at him. "I am in enough trouble already, thank you very much." He leaned back against the mast as well, and folded his arms over his chest. "Please confine your remarks to helpful suggestions only."

"There, now you sound more like yourself," snickered Archie. "Look, Horatio... this girl does seem to like you, and I would bet you anything she doesn't feel very good about trapping you like this. If you could just talk to her, I'm sure that you could get her to drop the accusation."

"But how?" Horatio shook his head. "I doubt very much that her parents will let me in the house, let alone allow me to speak with her without someone else present."

"You can't know until you try. And I shall accompany you, to make certain that you don't lose your nerve. We'll call on them as soon as we arrive and can get permission to leave the ship."

 

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

They arrived in Portsmouth in mid-afternoon a few days later, and the summons that Horatio was dreading came soon after. When word was passed to him to report to the captain, he did so with a sinking heart.

"Sir, you have instructions for me?" It seemed useless to pretend that he did not know why he was being sought.

"Yes... come in, Mr. Hornblower." Captain Pellew was standing beside his desk, which looked rather more tidy than usual. He had evidently been making inroads into his paperwork. "I afraid that Lord Waterston and his family have indeed been waiting for your return in order to pursue this matter. I am instructed to send you ashore immediately; you are to meet with the port admiral."

Horatio frowned. "The port admiral, sir? That seems a bit irregular, given the nature of the case."

"Nonetheless, those are my instructions. As I said to you before, Lord Waterston seems intent on taking this through official navy channels. At this point, I am not certain whether that will work to your advantage or your disadvantage." He drummed his fingers on his desk. "Admiral Gray has broad control over the activities of the ships in port here, so he certainly has the authority needed to judge your case. Whether or not he has the experience or the objectivity necessary will remain to be seen... although at one time, I knew him quite well, and I believe that he will be as fair as he can."

"Yes, sir. I will report immediately." Horatio tried to keep his worry from showing on his face, or in his voice.

"Take one of the ship's boats. And... take this as well." He handed Horatio a sealed envelope. Horatio looked at it questioningly as he accepted it.

"I assume, that should this become a formal hearing, that you will be allowed to bring in some appropriate witnesses to testify to your character." Pellew looked intently at Horatio, and his gaze softened. "I would hope that you would not be so foolish as to deny me a chance to speak on your behalf, as I fully intend to do. But it does not hurt to give the Admiral something to think about in the meantime.

"In that letter is a summation of your service since coming aboard the Indefatigable, as well as some pertinent comments and observations that I have seen fit to add. I believe it will be of some assistance to you. Admiral Gray is above all a military man, and an account of your various courageous deeds of the last few years will speak more loudly than anything else."

Horatio hefted the envelope, suddenly more precious than jewels, in his hand. "Thank you, sir. It is more than I deserve."

"Nonsense." The captain spoke with a bluff heartiness that Horatio felt sure was covering his own emotions. "I am serving my own best interests here, Mr. Hornblower. I wish a speedy and fair end to this whole unpleasant business, so that we may return to our real duties."

Horatio placed the envelope carefully in his inside coat pocket. Just then, he remembered Archie's suggestion. "Sir... might I have permission to take Mr. Kennedy along with me?"

The captain frowned slightly. "To what end? You will have a chance later, I am sure, to produce witnesses on your behalf."

Horatio explained, with some trepidation, Archie's idea about trying to visit the Waterstons. "And Mr. Kennedy thought that the family might be more willing to admit me to the house if I brought another officer along. Indeed, sir, he is much more familiar than I with the ways of the gentry, and might prove to be more persuasive."

"Do you wish to attempt this, Mr. Hornblower?" The captain looked at him searchingly.

"It frightens me, sir, more than going up against an enemy while outgunned and outmanned," answered Horatio ruefully. "And certainly more than meeting with Admiral Gray. But I believe that I must try, that I must give her the chance to retract her story."

The captain nodded. "Very well. I give Mr. Kennedy permission to leave the ship as well. Let Mr. Bracegirdle know if either of you need to make changes in your watch schedule. However... you are to report immediately to the Admiral, and you are not to call upon the Waterstons until you have completed your business with him. And if he forbids you any contact with the family, I expect you to abide by that."

"I will do so, sir. Thank you." He half-turned to go, then stopped. "Captain Pellew... thank you again for your efforts on my behalf, and your support. I will do my best to see that they are not wasted."

"See that you do, Mr. Hornblower, see that you do."

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

After some minutes of questioning and of wandering about the dockyards, Horatio and Archie finally located the offices of the port admiral. Horatio gave his name, rank and ship to a well-dressed and supercilious secretary, who left them kicking their heels in the anteroom for a good twenty minutes before finally ushering Horatio in to see Admiral Gray.

"Come in and sit down," growled the Admiral, pointing to a battered wooden chair, quite appropriate for the posterior of a lowly lieutenant. "Hornblower, eh? Seems I've heard something of you... before this disgraceful business, I mean."

Admiral Gray was middle-aged and portly, and balding as well, but wore no wig. His office was a scene of haphazard disarray, with stacks of boxes and papers placed willy-nilly about the room. Obscurely, Horatio found this lack of decorum rather reassuring.

Horatio sat gingerly in the proffered chair, then remembered the precious letter that he carried. He pulled it out of his coat and handed it across to the admiral. "Sir... Captain Pellew sends this to you."

"Oh, does he? And just what does that sly fox Pellew want to write to me about? No... let me guess: it's about you." The admiral snorted and ripped the envelope open, scanned the letter for a few seconds, then laughed unexpectedly. "Ah, he hasn't changed a bit." He continued to read through what looked like several pages more, black with crowded script, while Horatio sat sweating nervously in his best uniform. Finally, he chuckled one final time and lay the letter on his cluttered desk-top.

"Well, your esteemed captain speaks well of you, boy."

Horatio nodded cautiously. "Yes, sir. That is... I am grateful for Captain Pellew's good opinion of me."

"Oh... stop being obsequious. No need for it." Admiral Gray looked at him sourly. "This whole business is disgraceful, as I said. Why Waterston wants me to deal with this, I've no idea... but he does, and I'm stuck with it, and you are stuck with me. My goal is to get to the truth of the matter, and the sooner the better."

"Yes, sir." Horatio held his tongue, not daring any further comments.

"Here is the plan. I've sent word to Miss Waterston's parents that your ship is in. Therefore, we will proceed with the inquiry tomorrow morning at nine o'clock. I will question her and her parents first, then you and any witnesses you care to produce."

"Aye aye, sir. I will make arrangements."

Admiral Gray sat back and folded his arms. "The way I see it... if you have ruined this girl, you will pay for it. You will marry her, and your career may be affected accordingly. However... she must prove that to my satisfaction first. I'll not countenance having a promising young officer's career blighted on a girlish whim, no matter how powerful her family might be."

This time, Horatio could only nod, his mouth gone completely dry with anxiety.

"If she does not prove her case, this whole affair will be dismissed. I do not like the idea of holding up an entire frigate's return to the fleet just for one man to answer to charges. Therefore, we will make an end of this tomorrow. You will then either return to your ship a free man, or a married one. So see that you have any evidence ready that you wish to present."

"Aye aye, sir. I will do that."

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

"Wait a moment, Archie." Horatio stopped and leaned up against the gate. "I don't know that I'm ready for this." He rested one hand against his churning stomach, suddenly afraid that he was going to be sick.

Archie, who had already stepped through the entry gate, turned around and came back. "Are you all right, Horatio? You look positively green."

After leaving Admiral Gray's office, and conferring briefly with his haughty secretary regarding the location of the next morning's hearing, they had walked hastily into town. Horatio had to rely on his confused memories of his last visit to locate the Waterston townhouse, and doing so had taken them some time. His mood wasn't helped by the memory of being lost on that previous occasion; he was beginning to have the same disoriented feeling when they finally stumbled onto the correct street and found the right address.

"Just give me a moment." He pulled out his handkerchief and mopped the beads of nervous sweat from his brow, then laughed shakily. "I don't understand why I am so frightened of these people. It's not as if they are shooting at me, or anything like that."

"Not yet, anyway," quipped Archie. "It has been known to happen in these kind of situations." He mimed putting an imaginary musket to his shoulder. "Touch me daughter again, young feller, an' I'll be chasin' ye off me land!"

"A lot of help you are." Horatio glared at his friend, then replaced his handkerchief. "Right. Well, waiting here won't make it any easier. Shall we?" He spoke with a casualness that was entirely feigned.

Moments later, they were at the Waterston's front door. Horatio recognized it from that night when he had brought Lydia home, but it seemed more forbidding by daylight. He tried to reassure himself with the knowledge that this was not the home of Lord Waterston, but only that of his less formidable younger brother. If he and Archie could just gain entrance, if they could just talk to Lydia and her parents face-to-face, much might be accomplished.

Mouth dry and heart pounding, Horatio raised the ornately carved door-knocker and rapped it smartly three times. He stepped back, colliding into Archie in the process.

"Do you have to do that?" he snapped.

"Do what?"

"Stand right behind me, looking over my shoulder. It's unnerving."

Archie gave him a measured look. "Horatio, you're already unnerved. You don't need my help."

"That," answered Horatio, gritting his teeth, "is exactly my point. You ­"

The door opened suddenly, and Horatio broke off in mid-sentence. An immaculately dressed butler appeared, his face expressionless. Horatio thought that he was the same one that had been at the door the night that he brought Miss Waterston home, but he couldn't be certain. He tried to paste a pleasant look upon his face, and cleared his throat.

"I am Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, of His Majesty's frigate Indefatigable. This is Acting Lieutenant Archie Kennedy. We would like to speak with Mr. and Mrs. Waterston, if that would be possible."

The butler nodded smartly. "Right. If you would just step into the front parlour, sirs, I will see if they are available."

He ushered them inside, and into a small but highly decorated room that Horatio supposed must be the front parlour. It was furnished with delicate little chairs and ottomans; a profusion of knickknacks, lacy doilies, and flower vases covered most of the available flat surfaces. Framed paintings hung on the walls. Horatio, used to the spartan conditions aboard ship, found the effect faintly oppressive. He sat gingerly down on one of the fragile-appearing chairs and watched as Archie walked about the room.

"Archie!" he hissed.

"What?" answered his companion in a normal voice, intently studying a portrait that hung in front of him.

"Sit down and wait. Quit staring at all of their... things."

Archie snickered. "We'll be waiting a while, Horatio. Either they are going to see us, in which case they will be a little while getting ready to look as formidable as possible... or they won't see us, in which case they will be discussing how to have the butler word the refusal." He touched the frame of the painting. "This is her, isn't it? A very pretty likeness, if I recall from those few minutes in the street."

Curious despite his nerves, Horatio rose and walked over to look at the portrait that seemed to have captured Archie's attention. He had to pick his way carefully around the ottomans and end-tables in order to avoid inadvertently knocking over some delicate ornament. "Yes, that is her... an extremely accurate likeness, indeed. But I wonder who that is with her?"

The artist had posed Lydia standing next to another girl of about the same age. Both wore white frilly dresses, lace mitts and straw bonnets, and Lydia held a white lace parasol. It was an outdoor setting; Horatio could see gardens and buildings in the background, as well as an open carriage or two. It was a beautifully done portrait, full of detail, and the unknown artist had managed to capture enchantingly sweet smiles on both Lydia Waterston and her blonde, freckled companion. Girlhood, in all its innocent joy, looked out at him from inside the gilt frame, and Horatio shook his head as he thought of poor Lydia now. With child, and therefore with her own childhood at an end, she'd never again go back to being the carefree maiden of the portrait. Despite his own worries, despite his indignance over being falsely accused... he could still felt a smoldering anger toward the cad who had left her in this position.

Archie pointed at one of the buildings in the background. "That's the Pump Room in Bath. I was dragged to Bath, once, by my sisters. I suppose that's where this was painted... there are more than a few good artists there."

"Miss Waterston was there, just before we met," remembered Horatio. "With her friend Margaret. That must be the other girl. I wonder ­"

He whirled around as he heard a soft cough behind him. The butler had returned to the front parlour. Horatio felt himself flushing with embarrassment at being caught poking around like someone's poorly behaved child.

"I am sorry, sirs, but Mr. and Mrs. Waterston are not at home at present. If you wish to leave your card, I will see that they receive it." His tone was respectful, but there was just a hint of a smirk on the butler's middle-aged face.

Horatio, of course, had no such items as calling cards. For a second, he had a wild mental vision of boarding an enemy ship, only to hand them a tasteful, cream-colored card with his name and rank... He shook his head, both in answer and to clear his mind of the absurd image. "No, thank you. I suppose we will be about our business, then."

Guided by the butler, they trooped reluctantly back out to the street. Once there, Horatio shrugged his shoulders. "Well... it was worth a try, Archie."

"Aye, it was. I'm sorry, Horatio."

"At least now I feel as if I have tried," observed Horatio gloomily. "It doesn't bode well, though, that her parents are so angry that they will not even speak to me. And if the worst happens tomorrow..."

Archie grinned. "Well... usually it takes a while to start having problems with your in-laws, Horatio. You can just save time by getting off on the wrong foot with them from the very beginning."

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

The other officers were just beginning the evening meal as Horatio and Archie returned to the ship. With Archie's eagle eye upon him, he was therefore obliged to sit in the stuffy wardroom and pretend interest in his food, rather than retreat to their cabin to be alone with his own morose thoughts. Worse... despite the fact that he himself had told no-one but Archie about the upcoming hearing, he could tell from some of the meaningful glances about the table that the others had at least an inkling that he was in some sort of trouble. They were all too polite to say anything directly to him, but he finally kept his eyes on his plate rather than risk intercepting anymore sympathetic ­ and curious ­ looks.

He picked at his food and pushed it around his plate with no appetite, not even for the fresh vegetables that the wardroom steward had somehow already managed to procure after only a few hours in port. As soon as he felt he could do so, he rose and made his excuses, truthfully pleading both fatigue and the need to be on deck soon for the next watch. Archie was still eating, so he was able to slip out with any comments from his friend about the fact that he had eaten almost nothing.

Up on deck, he felt better, with the fresh air cooling his hot cheeks, and he was finally able to mull over the events of the afternoon. He had been sullen and quiet on the walk back from the Waterston's house. Archie had tried to get him to discuss his strategies for the next day's hearing, but Horatio had cut him off sharply. "I don't want to discuss it," he had finally said. "I will go in there tomorrow and tell the truth, Archie, and the Admiral will either believe me or he will not. Nothing I can do or say tonight is going to change that. So... please leave me be."

Horatio had seen a flash of hurt in his friend's eyes at that, and he had wished that he had chosen softer words. He had chosen not to say anything more, though, knowing that he could apologize later when he did not feel so distracted and confused.

Now he leaned over the rail and gazed into the distance with unseeing eyes. How did the situation become so complicated? By all rights, his life ought to be simple. Follow orders, perform his duties to the best of his abilities, carry out his responsibilities in this little world of wood and tar and canvas... those were the tasks set for him. And indeed, when the Indefatigable was at sea the world seemed such a straightforward place; it was only when he went ashore, he reflected ruefully, that things became muddled.

He heard steps behind him, and closed his eyes briefly in mute frustration. Someone was coming to talk to him. If he had any luck, it would be one of the men with a question that he could answer... he certainly had no answers for any of his own worries.

"You are not looking particularly well tonight, Mr. Hornblower. Is anything amiss?"

Of course, it was Mr. Bracegirdle. Horatio usually appreciated the first lieutenant's gentle concern and helpful advice, but much like Archie, the man had a talent for interrupting Horatio's solitary brooding. Politeness demanded a courteous answer, all the same.

"I am well, sir, just a bit preoccupied. I... have much on my mind as of late."

"I have noticed that, for the past several days." Bracegirdle came up next to him and also leaned over the rail. "Would it help for you to tell me what you find so worrisome?" He turned and looked at Horatio, and out of the corner of his eye Horatio could see his look of warm sympathy. "Perhaps I could be of some assistance."

Horatio shook his head slowly. "Sir... it is not entirely my own story to tell. There is another's honor at stake as well... and the fewer people I involve in this, the better."

"I see." Bracegirdle was quiet again for a long moment. "Then... I will leave you with your thoughts, again; you still have a few minutes before your watch." He turned slightly as if to go. "But you must know," he said quietly, "I would of course keep anything that you say in the strictest confidence."

"I know that, sir." Horatio felt even worse now. Mr. Bracegirdle had given him much excellent advice in the past, and had listened more than once to Horatio's reluctantly expressed doubts and fears. To reject his kind offer seemed ungrateful and mistrusting. "It is myself whom I do not trust," he added softly.

Bracegirdle nodded, and began to walk away. Horatio watched him go, suddenly doubting his decision. The Admiral had told him that he might bring witnesses to speak of his character. He had planned on bringing Archie, certainly, and Captain Pellew had already made it clear that he would be willing to testify on Horatio's behalf. But might he also ask the first lieutenant to do the same?

"Sir?" he called out impulsively.

Bracegirdle turned. "Yes, lad?"

"I... there is something I would ask of you, sir. If you have a moment."

He was both pleased and relieved to see a slight smile appear on Bracegirdle's face. "I have all the time in the world for you, Horatio."

Just then, eight bells sounded, and Bracegirdle laughed. "But you perhaps do not. Stop by my cabin after you come off watch, and we will talk. You will tell me as much as you feel you can, and I will help you in any way that I may."

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

The night dragged on for Horatio, resting uneasily in his cabin and unable to sleep. The four hours of his watch had actually been relatively restful; he had been able to pace the quarterdeck and brood to his satisfaction. The men had stayed away from him, and since they were in port there was no need for anyone to bother him with any questions or annoying trivialities. By the end of the watch, he had come to some conclusions, mostly gloomy, and at least one decision.

He had acted on the decision as soon as he was relieved and able to go below. Stopping by Mr. Bracegirdle's cabin as promised, he had told the first lieutenant the entire story before he asked him to be a character witness at the hearing to be held in the morning. He felt a little better afterwards, especially when Bracegirdle agreed without hesitation to testify.

"You've been a good officer, one of the best I've ever had the pleasure of serving with," he had told Horatio quietly. "And in all of the time I have known you, you have never asked me for anything.."

"I did borrow a shirt from you, once," Horatio had interjected, grinning in spite of himself. "And returned it with scorch marks, if I recall."

"You've never asked for any help or favors," Bracegirdle had continued, undisturbed by the interruption, "and you have always performed more than your own share of the work. I could no more believe you capable of the deed of which you stand accused, than believe Captain Pellew to be guilty of piracy. I should be honored to speak for you."

Horatio had left Bracegirdle's cabin feeling somewhat heartened. It was not until he entered his own cabin and prepared to sleep that he realized that it was still going to be a very bad night. Despite his fatigue, he did not feel drowsy in the slightest. He would have liked to toss and turn fretfully, but feared that he would wake Archie if he made too much noise. He thought about giving up on sleep and going back on deck to walk some more, but rejected the idea. Enough of the other officers knew about the hearing in the morning and would know, if they saw him, that he had been unable to sleep. He felt he could not bear the sympathetic but knowing looks.

In the end, he lay awake staring into the darkness, his worries growing less and less coherent, until he finally drifted off into a troubled and restless slumber just before dawn.

 

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

"All rise for the Admiral."

Horatio stood from his place at the table. The hearing was being held in what he strongly suspected was simply an empty warehouse, with tables and chairs hastily added. Other than himself and the Admiral, now striding to the table at the front of the room, the only others present were a couple of clerks, the Admiral's private secretary, and the flag lieutenant. As witnesses, the captain and the other two officers were waiting outside until their turn came to testify on his behalf. There was no sign as of yet of Lydia Waterston or her parents; Horatio supposed that they too were waiting somewhere until their turn on the witness stand.

Admiral Gray sat down, and after a beat everyone else did likewise. The Admiral cleared his throat, and addressed Horatio.

"Mr. Hornblower... this is the part, in a real court-martial, where we would read the charges. This is as irregular a proceeding as I've ever been a part of, so I presume that I have the privilege of deciding how it will be run... and so I will read the 'charges' to you. That's a good a word as any." He picked up a paper from the table in from of him.

"Mr. Hornblower... I have here a complaint, signed by Mr. and Mrs. Waterston as well as Lord Waterston, that alleges that you did willfully have intimate relations with their daughter Lydia, age sixteen years, and that a child is expected from the aforementioned union. How do you answer to this charge?"

Horatio fought the urge to clear his throat nervously. "Sir... I did not do it."

The Admiral looked at him intently for a moment, then nodded. "Noted. Let's hear the witnesses, then." He waved on hand at his flag lieutenant. "Who's first on that list?"

"Sir... the first name is Mr. Thomas Waterston."

"Call him in."

The Admiral's secretary rose and went to the double doors at the back of the room, and returned a few seconds later ushering Mr. Waterston ahead of him. Lydia's father was impeccably turned out in a resplendent dark blue suit that, perhaps consciously, echoed the naval uniforms that most of the other men wore. Today, his gingery hair was held back by a dark blue velvet ribbon. He walked up to the makeshift witness stand without a single glance in Horatio's direction, and took his seat.

The Admiral leaned back in his chair, causing it to creak loudly. "Mr. Waterston," he began. "Please be so kind as to tell us how you first met Mr. Hornblower."

Question by question, the admiral took Mr. Waterston through the events of the dinner party. In spite of the seriousness of his situation, Horatio could not help but admire Admiral Gray's facility as he questioned the witness. Several time, Mr. Waterston attempted to deviate from the strict telling of the events in order to slip in some insulting remark about Horatio; each time, the admiral brought him back to the subject at hand.

Mr. Waterston's account of the evening, for the most part, was consistent with Horatio's own memory of the dinner party. When Mr. Waterston began to tell of how Horatio had come to him to beg for the privilege of escorting Lydia to her home, Admiral Gray interrupted him.

"Mr. Waterston... how was your daughter feeling that evening? Was she unwell?"

Mr. Waterston scowled. "She was well enough. I didn't notice anything particularly wrong with her."

He went on to describe Horatio's departure with Lydia, and the subsequent long wait while playing cards. Not too surprisingly, here Mr. Waterston's point of view began to differ from that of Horatio.

"He was gone for hours." Waterston leaned back in the chair. "I was on the verge of calling the constables, when he walked in around midnight... saying that he had become lost after escorting my daughter home."

The flag lieutenant and the secretary shared a grin at that, but both young men reverted to stone-faced seriousness at a frown from the Admiral.

"Very well, Mr. Waterston. You are nearly finished. Only tell us how you came to discover your daughter's... indisposition, and what she told you."

Waterston looked slightly uncomfortable. "It was about a month later, perhaps six weeks. She had been feeling unwell, and finally she swooned when she and her mother were out in the coach. My wife grew worried when Lydia remained pale and listless, and we summoned the doctor." He pause for a moment in his narrative. "The doctor spoke with her and examined her, and told us that she was almost certainly with child. Naturally, we insisted that she tell us the name of the father."

"Naturally," said Admiral Gray, with obvious impatience, drumming his fingers on the edge of the table. "And she told you?" he prompted.

"Eventually. She was most reluctant at first. But when we pressed her... she named him. She named the man who had offered to escort her home that night from the party, and who had instead seduced her. " Waterston looked up, and for the first time, met Horatio's eyes with his cold gaze. "Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower."

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

Mrs. Waterston's testimony followed; it was much the same but included a few additional details. It had been she, for example, who had spoken to the servants upon after she and her husband had returned from the dinner party; she remembered only that the butler and the maid had reported that the young mistress had reached home safely. "They were not aware of the exact time," she said softly, almost apologetically.

"I see," the admiral nodded. "Where was your daughter when you arrived home, Mr. Waterston?"

"Why... she was in bed, asleep. I saw no reason to wake her."

Mrs. Waterston was also able to describe Lydia's fainting spell first-hand, as well as her own growing suspicion that led to the doctor's visit. The admiral asked her a few more perfunctory questions, then dismissed her as well.

He turned to his flag lieutenant. "Who's next?"

"Miss Lydia Waterston, sir,"

"Ah. Escort her in, please."

Horatio felt himself grow even more tense as the double doors opened to admit a familiar little figure. He forced himself to keep his eyes straight ahead as she walked slowly up to the witness stand, but he need not have bothered. Even when she reached her appointed chair and sat down, she kept her eyes cast down and would not look in his direction.

She wore a street dress of a dark burgundy, almost a brown, and a plain straw bonnet. The dress was cut with the high waist that was currently still the popular fashion; the shape of it was loose enough that Horatio could not tell if there was any outward sign yet of the child she carried.

The Admiral's craggy visage softened as he addressed the young girl. "Miss Waterston... I will try to make this as painless as possible for you. I know that this whole affair has not been a pleasant experience."

"Thank you, sir," came her slightly tremulous reply.

"Please tell me, my dear, how you first met Mr. Hornblower."

She darted a quick, unreadable glance at Horatio. "I... I did not tell my parents, sir, but I did not meet Mr. Hornblower for the first time at my uncle's dinner party."

Horatio sat up even straighter. He had almost forgotten that first encounter in the lane outside of the inn. Why was Lydia mentioning it now? True though it was, it neither could exonerate him not further incriminate him, so he deliberately forced himself not to react any further to the remarkable statement.

The Admiral, on the other hand, looked quite surprised. "You had met him previously?"

"Yes, sir, but not formally. I was on my way home from having tea with my mother's cousin Sophie, and our carriage nearly ran down Mr. Hornblower and another officer."

Horatio thought he could see a trace of a smile cross the admiral's face. "I see. A chance encounter. Did you speak with him?"

"Only briefly... to make certain that they hadn't been harmed. Then... the next night, we were invited to my uncle's house for dinner; the guest of honor was to be Sir Edward Pellew. When we arrived, my uncle told me that Sir Edward was bringing a young officer to serve as my dinner partner." She blushed and looked down again; Horatio thought it made her look even prettier. "I was excited at the idea of having a young man to talk with, and even more so when I saw that he was the one we had almost ran over with the carriage."

She went on to tell of the rest of the evening. At first, she talked fairly easily, but as she brought the story up to the point of their departure from Lord Waterston's house, she faltered and was quiet.

"Go on, my dear," prompted the admiral. "You left the house with Lieutenant Hornblower..."

"Yes," she said softly, and stopped again.

Horatio watched her; against all logic, sympathy stirred within his breast as he saw her struggle for words. Of all the people in the room -- and waiting just outside of it -- only he and she knew for certain that her accusation was a complete falsehood. Now, she would have to face him and tell her lie, in front of strangers... as well as in the presence of the young man whose life and career she had the power to ruin.

She looked down again, and Horatio could see tears glistening on her eyelashes. "We walked toward my house..." Her voice shook, and she trailed off.

Silence filled the room. The other men looked away from the humiliated girl on the witness stand. Only Horatio dared look at her, but with her head down all he could see clearly was the top of her straw bonnet and her dimpled little chin.

"I am sorry," she said. "I... we walked toward my house, and we talked, and had... had a pleasant time..." She stopped again. This time she covered her face with her hands.

Horatio could stand it no longer. Giving way to an impulse that he did not quite consciously understand, he stood. "Sir... might I approach and speak with you a moment?"

The admiral frowned. "Mr. Hornblower... you are interrupting the young lady's testimony."

Horatio gulped nervously. "With respect, sir, she seems to be having great difficulty in proceeding. I wish... I wish to discuss with you something that I believe will have some bearing on this current... impasse."

"Very well. Come up front."

Horatio walked up to the admiral's table and stood as near as good manners would allow. He pitched his voice as low as he could, hoping that the admiral did not have problems with his hearing.

"Sir... I request permission to absent myself during Miss Waterston's testimony."

Admiral Gray looked puzzled. "You wish not to be present? That is most irregular, young man... and highly ill-advised, I might add. You have the right to hear the accusation against you."

"Nevertheless, sir... that is my wish. I think that my presence here is causing great distress to Miss Waterston. If I were to leave, she may be able to regain her composure."

The admiral shook his head. "You take a great risk in doing this, Mr. Hornblower. I strongly advise against it, though I will not forbid it."

Horatio glanced at Lydia, who had removed her hands from her face and straightened up again. Despite her tears, she was looking at him with a certain amount of curiosity. He turned back to the admiral.

"I am certain," he said, a little more loudly this time, "that Miss Waterston is a young woman of honor. She does not require my presence here to remind her of the gravity of her testimony, and I will not insult her by insisting on my right to confront her while she speaks. With your leave, sir, I will therefore wait outside with the other witnesses until she has finished enlightening you with the truth."

Greatly daring, he looked at Lydia again, who was now staring at him in astonishment. "Your servant, miss," he said softly, and walked out of the room.

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

"Horatio, have you taken complete leave of your senses? Are you mad?"

Seated on a bench outside the warehouse-cum-courtroom, and leaning his head wearily on one hand, Horatio winced at Archie's question. "I don't wish to discuss it, Archie. Please leave me be."

The rush of hot indignation that had led him to stalk out of the hearing had fled, and now he only felt sick and depressed. He knew that Archie was correct, at least on some level; he was taking a dreadful risk by letting Lydia give her testimony without staying to listen. But as he worried over the events in his mind, he still came to the same conclusions.

He knew that he had not seduced Lydia, but someone had. And given Lydia's age and her sheltered life, the seduction must have been a frightening and traumatic experience. Horatio was almost certain that whatever tale she told her parents must have been a hybrid between their own walk that night, and her encounter with whoever had stolen her innocence. If she told that same story here, now, in front of this informal court... for him to listen would make him feel as if he were somehow a participant in her debasement after all.

He'd stumbled out here, with the beginnings of a blinding headache, to find his captain and the other two officers waiting apprehensively. He had explained, tersely, but the reasoning which seemed to make so much sense to him a few moments before became garbled and incoherent as soon as he tried to put in into words for them.

"You can't run away from this, Horatio," persisted Archie, coming to sit next to him. "You say that she was too upset to speak. If you had stayed there, she might never have been able to tell her story... her lie. The admiral would have had to throw the case out, without a clear accusation from her."

"And I would still not be free." Horatio rubbed his pounding temples. "Archie... think about it. Her parents would still come after me, somehow. What I need, if I am to be cleared, is for Miss Waterston herself to decide that she cannot live with this deception."

Captain Pellew, who had been silently observing the conversation, nodded slowly. "He is right, Mr. Kennedy... he is taking a grave chance, true, but if he had stayed, the Waterstons would merely claim that he had somehow intimidated the girl into being unable to speak. They cannot accuse him of that, now, at least."

Horatio looked up at him gratefully. "Thank you, sir... that is what I was thinking, yes, but I was having difficulty coming up with the right words."

Bracegirdle said nothing, but Horatio could see him nodding as if he understood.

"Then there is nothing for us to do, but wait." Archie leaned back against the wall, and stretched. "How long, do you think?"

Horatio shook his head. "That depends entirely on what version of the story Lydia decides she will tell."

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

Away from the rigid shipboard routines and from the ever-present ship's bell, Horatio had difficulty gauging the passage of time. His pocket watch was notoriously unreliable, so he rarely carried it except when away from the ship; in the rush to get ready that morning he had forgotten it. So he had no idea whether it was five minutes or twenty-five minutes that had passed before the admiral's secretary abruptly opened the doors.

"You're to come in now. And your witnesses."

Horatio straightened up. "Where is Miss Waterston?"

"Lieutenant Bristol took her out the other door, since you were out here."

Horatio stood, and brushed hastily at his uniform. "My witnesses? Am I to bring all of them, now?"

"That's what the admiral said. Come on now, don't keep the man waiting."

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

Tense and jittery with anticipation, Horatio walked back into the makeshift courtroom accompanied by Pellew and the others. The secretary motioned them all to sit at the same long table that Horatio had occupied early.

When all were seated and quiet, Admiral Gray addressed Horatio.

"Mr. Hornblower, I understand that you have several witnesses here today who are prepared to testify to your character."

"Yes, sir." Horatio was annoyed when his voice squawked with nervousness. "In addition, they have knowledge of some small details that will help to corroborate my own testimony."

"I see," replied the Admiral. "I know Sir Edward Pellew well, of course... but perhaps you would care to introduce these other gentlemen?"

Feeling oddly as if he had left the hearing and been transported to some formal social occasion, Horatio did so. "This is Mr. Anthony Bracegirdle, the First Lieutenant of the Indefatigable, and this is Mr. Archie Kennedy, Acting Lieutenant, also of my ship."

"A distinguished collection of defenders," responded the Admiral gravely. "And you, Mr. Hornblower? You are also prepared to take the stand and tell your own version of events?"

"I am, sir."

The Admiral looked at him for a moment, then his face eased into a slow smile.

"As much as I would enjoy hearing Sir Edward and these others tell of your dashing exploits ­ I did read the letter you sent me, Sir Edward ­ I am pleased to tell you that it will not be necessary. Nor will your own testimony, Mr. Hornblower."

"Not... not be necessary, sir?" Horatio asked guardedly, not quite daring to acknowledge the sudden burst of hope flowering in his mind.

"No, indeed. The young lady, Miss Waterston... after some minutes of obvious struggle on her part, she did state here before witnesses that her accusation against you was false, that you are not the father of the child, and that she regrets drawing you into this controversy." Now the Admiral actually grinned. "The charges are dismissed, Mr. Hornblower. This hearing is adjourned. Mr. Hornblower, I would like to speak with you privately for a few minutes; the rest of you are free to go."

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

Back aboard the Indefatigable again several hours later, Horatio lay on his bunk, pretending to nap in anticipation of the middle watch. He kept one arm flung over his face, that he might both appear to be asleep yet also open his eyes unnoticed should Archie or anyone else enter the cabin. He knew that he needed rest, but the tension of the last several days had left his nerves a-jangle and kept him awake despite his undeniable weariness.

Over and over, his mind re-played the events of the last few hours, and inevitably came to rest on that final interview with the Admiral. After the dismissal of the charges, he had at first had some difficulty in believing his good fortune; the reality of his escape had taken several minutes to sink in. But the Admiral's comments did much to deflate his newfound elation.

"You have been a very foolish young man, Mr. Hornblower. You should never have put yourself into a situation of such vulnerability. For the sake of the service, I hope very much that your judgment in military matters proves to be superior to your judgment in social matters."

Horatio had flushed uncomfortably at the criticism, but nodded in agreement. "Indeed, sir, I have learned much from this entire encounter."

The Admiral rose to his feet and stood by one of the windows, looking out at the dockyard. "Your record, up to this point, is exemplary. Had Miss Waterston sustained her charges against you, I would have chosen to take that into consideration. Your captain speaks highly of you. Your fellow officers were ready to bear witness to the content of your character." The Admiral stopped to cough into a handkerchief. "You should have an excellent career ahead of you... but you may have made some powerful enemies over this whole affair.

"As the young lady has retracted her story, you have no further obligations toward her in the legal sense... nor is the Navy officially interested any more. Indeed, as none of the questionable events ­ even in her original accusation ­ were alleged to occur aboard ship or in the course of your duties, it should probably have been handled through civil channels. But that is over and done with now.

"I would advise you, Mr. Hornblower, to consider your next course of action carefully. Regardless of the truth of the matter, a young lady's reputation has been ruined, her family is angry, and the good name of the Royal Navy may yet be dragged into the mud along with her. It is one of the sad facts of gossip that slander always travels faster that truth... your name will inevitably be coupled with hers for some time, regardless of the factual outcome of this hearing."

The Admiral turned back to look at him. "While I certainly have no justification to order you to carry out any particular action with regards to her, it remains in your power to do much to amend the situation. Although she had retracted her accusation of you, she has not chosen to name anyone in your place... I am afraid that her family will undoubtedly remain unhappy with you for some time."

Here he had narrowed his eyes, and Horatio felt his penetrating gaze. "You could do far worse than to marry her anyway, young man. I advise you to think very carefully upon this."

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

Now he lay quietly in his cabin, his stomach churning with the nervous aftermath of the hearing. It had been a pyrrhic victory only, he realized. He was technically now a free man, but he felt worse than he might have if he had been ordered to marry the girl.

And his career? He would now undoubtedly grow to be the oldest lieutenant in the service, unless Lord Waterston lost influence or simply grew tired of tormenting Horatio. Not a happy prospect for a young officer with many years of potential service stretching ahead of him. He tried to imagine himself growing grey and elderly, following the commands of a captain much younger than himself, training young men and watching them pass him by. God knew, he did not think of himself as a proud person ­ he was too ruthless a judge of his own character to ever be conceited ­ but this vision nearly made him ill with discouragement.

There was a noise at the cabin door, and Horatio instantly closed his eyes and did his best to appear relaxed. He did not wish to speak any further with Archie, nor indeed anyone else, about the matter at hand. The news would travel soon enough.

He could hear someone enter and move about. He slitted his eyes open a merest fraction, and confirmed the familiar presence of Archie Kennedy. But what was he doing? He was kneeling on the deck with his sea-chest open, hurriedly stuffing items into a canvas ditty bag. Surprised and puzzled, Horatio forgot that he was supposed to be pretending to be asleep and sat up abruptly.

"Archie, what are you doing?"

Even through his misery, a small part of him was gratified to see Archie startle and jump. "God help me, Horatio, don't do that! I thought you were asleep!"

"I was trying to be," answered Horatio slowly. "Are you... going somewhere?" He frowned as he watched Archie place a clean shirt and his shaving items into the bag, then close it off.

Archie cleared his throat. "I've got leave for a few days, while we are here. I'm going to run home for a day or two, see how my family is doing. It's been a long time, you know."

"But..." Horatio trailed off. Even with the usual bureaucratic hold-ups from the Victualling Yard, the ship ought to be re-stocked and ready to return to the fleet by tomorrow morning. "We'll be sailing soon. You'll miss the ship."

Archie shook his head, his face expressionless. "The captain seems to think we'll be here for a few days. I'll be back in time." He picked up the canvas bag and slung it over one shoulder.

Horatio stood up slowly, and tried to maneuver around between his friend and the cabin door. "Archie... is something wrong at home... someone ill? Did you have a letter?"

"No, everyone is well as far as I know. I just wanted to give them a bit of a surprise, is all." Archie laughed briefly; but it sounded forced to Horatio's suspicious ears. "I'll be back in three days, no later. I promise." The last two words were delivered with an intensity at odds with the rather breathless character of the rest of his statement.

Horatio shook his head. If Archie wanted to be mysterious, that was certainly his business, and badgering him for answers would not likely be helpful. "Well... be careful, anyway. How are you going to travel?"

"I'm just going to rent a horse from one of the inns," grinned Archie. "Much cheaper than going by coach, and unlike you, I can ride."

Horatio put out his hand. "Safe travel, then."

Archie took the offered hand briefly, then dropped it ­ and his canvas bag ­ and leaned forward to seize Horatio in a quick hug. Horatio was momentarily startled by the unexpected gesture of affection, but returned the embrace with as much warmth as he could.

"I'll be back in three days," repeated Archie, pulling back swiftly and bending to retrieve the bag. "In the meantime, try not to do anything foolish."

Horatio smiled slightly, despite his worry. "I shall do my best, Archie,"

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

After Archie's unsettling departure, Horatio returned to his pose of feigned sleep on his bunk. He still needed rest, having slept so poorly the night previous, and now he had even more in the way of disturbing thoughts to keep him from reaching sleep. The puzzle of Archie's abrupt, unprecedented visit home proved to be a more attractive mystery than thinking about his own problems, and he racked his brain for some time before succumbing to the slumber that he had not actually expected to achieve.

He woke abruptly, to the sharp sound of someone knocking at the door of his cabin. Groggy and disoriented from his unexpected foray into sleep, he lurched out of the bunk and staggered to the door, yanking it open.

Mr. Bracegirdle stood there, but the familiar round face wore an startlingly unfamiliar expression of worry and dismay. The usually cheerful blue eyes were shadowed with tension, and his complexion looked grey and unnatural. Horatio frowned.

"Is something wrong, sir?"

The senior officer took a deep breath before speaking. "May I come in?"

Surprised, Horatio stepped aside. "Of course, sir."

Bracegirdle slipped into the little cabin, looked around for a second, then perched on the edge of Archie's bunk. "There has been a change of plans. We will not be returning immediately to the fleet when we are finished provisioning. Instead, we will be staying here at least a few more days."

Horatio nodded slowly. "Mr. Kennedy mentioned a delay of some kind, but he did not seem to have any details."

Mr. Bracegirdle frowned. "He should not have known even that much, unless he has been listening at doors." He paused for a moment. "Mr. Hornblower... Horatio, the captain received a letter about an hour ago. From Lord Waterston."

Horatio shifted uneasily. "Lord Waterston is undoubtedly unhappy about the outcome of the inquiry today."

"Unhappy? He is more than unhappy, Horatio. He is vindictive... and he is determined to have his revenge on you somehow. Having failed at attacking you directly, he has now apparently focused his attention on Captain Pellew."

"I don't understand, sir. What can he do to the captain? I am innocent of any charge but my own foolishness, in putting myself in such a vulnerable position... but the folly was all mine. He cannot hold Captain Pellew responsible for my behavior."

Bracegirdle took another deep breath, and lowered his voice substantially. "The captain took a great risk when he disobeyed Admiral Hood's orders to leave Quiberon Bay and returned to Muzillac to pick up you and the other survivors. I was with him when he made that decision, and though I will not minimize how difficult it must have been... I must agree that he made the only decision that his honor could allow.

"I do not think I have ever seen a man so tormented as he was during those hours that we lay becalmed. If he could have made us move faster by swimming alongside and pushing, I think he would have done so. Indeed, he took a turn at the oars while we towed. He was like a man possessed, absolutely consumed with the need to get back to the beach and retrieve his people." Bracegirdle looked up and met Horatio's eyes. "Especially you. He loves you like a son, Horatio, and yet he must risk you again and again. It is the way of the service."

Horatio swallowed hard. "And now... because I have offended Lord Waterston, they will discipline the captain for leaving his post to come and retrieve me and my men?"

"Worse." Bracegirdle shook his head. "He has been ordered to present himself for a court-martial."

"A court-martial? Now?" Horatio edged back toward his own bunk and sat down with a flop. "But it has been months. Surely if the Admiralty were that upset by his actions, they might have acted sooner."

"They might... but you know as well as I, Horatio, that the whole affair in France was an embarrassment, best left alone. No, I believe that the Admiralty was quite willing to simply ignore the entire ill-advised incident until Lord Waterston decided to bring his influence to bear."

"But..." Horatio shook his head stubbornly. "The inquiry... my inquiry, that is, just finished today... only a few hours ago. He can't have acted that quickly."

"He's had several weeks to lay the groundwork, I fear. Probably, if your hearing had concluded to his satisfaction, he would have intervened to call off the court-martial. We'll never know."

Horatio felt sick. Of all of the outcomes he could have foreseen, he had not expected this. His own reputation damaged, yes, his own career in tatters... but that of his captain as well? He owed so much to Pellew. Was he now doomed to repay his captain's trust by causing him to be court-martialed?

With difficulty, he forced himself to calm down, forced his mind to study the situation. He steered himself away from the panic that nibbled at the edges of his consciousness. A sudden thought occurred to him.

"Sir? Am I supposed to know any of this?"

Mr. Bracegirdle looked pained. "No... no, you are not. In fact, Captain Pellew specifically told me that you were not to know."

"Because he knew I would feel responsible." Horatio looked down at his feet. "I've dragged him into this disaster with me, yet he is still trying to protect me." He let his gaze travel back up until he was meeting Mr. Bracegirdle's eyes. "Thank you for taking the risk of telling me, sir. You can be sure that I'll not let anyone, including the captain, know how I learned of this."

Mr. Bracegirdle stood up and came over to lay a hand on Horatio's rigid shoulder, squeezing it gently. "I'm sorry to hurt you with this news, lad, when I know you've not had an easy time of it these last few days. You don't deserve any of this. But I think you can understand why I felt that you needed to know."

"Yes." Horatio's response was almost a whisper, and he closed his eyes. "You need not fear for me. I know where my duty lies... and what I must do."

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

"Oh, damn and blast! This will never do!"

Horatio crumpled up yet another scratched-out, ink-blotted version of the letter. He was usually fairly good with words, at least with the terse formal phrases of official military reports. Try as he might, however, he could not seem to get his thoughts down onto paper this time.

He threw the rejected wad of paper viciously at Archie's bunk, by way of venting his frustrations. It came to rest on Archie's pillow, near several earlier versions that had also met the same fate and lay there as mute testimony to his wasted efforts. And just where was Archie, anyway? Gone gallivanting off to visit his family, just when Horatio could really use his cheerful presence. On the other hand... Archie would surely have tried to talk him out of the action that he was planning, so perhaps his absence was for the best.

Sighing, he put the stopper back into the ink bottle, cleaned his pen, and got up. He would simply have to carry out his mission in person instead. He crossed the cabin to use the tiny washbasin, reveling briefly in the lack of restrictions on water while in port, and washed and shaved meticulously. Finally, he donned his best uniform coat and hat.

He looked at himself in the dented little mirror. Serious face, long nose, rumpled hair that would never quite behave, and a somewhat haunted look in his eyes. There was no doubt that he looked nervous, which seemed entirely appropriate. At least his uniform was as spotless as it could possible be.

At the cabin door, he paused to think. Mr. Bracegirdle had sufficient authority to allow Horatio to go ashore for a few hours, and it would be best to get permission from him rather than from the captain. Captain Pellew just might take it into his head to wonder why he wanted to go into town when he had already left the ship once that day and once the evening prior.

The wardroom was deserted, and Mr. Bracegirdle was not in his cabin. Very well, then, he would most likely be up on deck somewhere. Hampered by the sword banging against his hip, and the cocked hat which kept trying to slide off of his head, he made his slow and cautious way up to the quarterdeck.

As he was coming up the last companionway, a particularly vicious and sudden gust of wind caught his hat and nearly sent it flying. He saved it with a quick snatch, and then had to clutch at the railing to keep from losing his balance. He arrived up on the quarterdeck feeling windblown and flustered, and then his heart sank as he realized that Captain Pellew stood alone on the deck.

There was no escape; the captain had already seen him. Horatio could see Pellew's eyebrows lift at the sight of his junior lieutenant dressed in all his very best gear, complete with sword and cocked hat.

"Are we expecting a visit from royalty, Mr. Hornblower?" came the captain's dry inquiry. "You seem awfully well turned out this evening."

Horatio flushed, but decided to bluff his way through the conversation. "No, sir... but I wanted to request your permission to leave the ship for a few hours. I have the middle watch, but I would of course be back aboard long before that time."

"I see." Captain Pellew looked searchingly at him, and Horatio did his best to remain impassive under that steady gaze. "Some unfinished business, then, Mr. Hornblower?"

"I... yes, sir." He swallowed convulsively.

"Perhaps an evening spent carousing at the taverns? Or making purchases from the good merchants of Portsmouth? Another new, custom-tailored uniform, perhaps, paid for with your abundant wealth?" The captain's voice was deadly quiet, but the sarcasm came across clearly. "Or perhaps visiting your many friends and family in town, ah, of course."

Horatio had no answer to that, so he remained silent. The captain snorted.

"Do you take me for a fool, Mr. Hornblower?"

"No, sir," answered Horatio miserably. "Of course not."

Pellew turned away, toward the rail. "I think that you had better tell me just what 'unfinished business' is drawing you ashore this evening, before I consider your request."

Horatio cursed himself mentally, both for not having a ready-made story to supply and for being so utterly transparent. "I... cannot do that, sir."

"Then you had best stay on board. Tonight, and until we depart."

"Sir, I must... it is a matter of personal honor..." Horatio trailed off. It was no good. Pellew knew him well enough to have a least a suspicion of what Horatio might be intending. Now he was trapped, forbidden to leave the ship without disobeying a direct order. No captain could ignore such a transgression in one of his officers; to attempt to leave without permission would now unthinkable. His heart sank at the realization.

Pellew whirled back around. "That will be all, Mr. Hornblower."

"Aye aye, sir," answered Horatio as steadily as he could, and turned to leave.

Some of his despair must have made itself known in his voice or his demeanor, for he heard the captain call him back in a gentler tone. "Mr. Hornblower!"

Horatio turned. "Yes, sir?"

"I think that we have some matters to discuss. Be so good as to come to my cabin in about twenty minutes."

His heart sinking, Horatio nodded his acquiescence. "Yes, sir. I will be there."

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

Horatio knocked on the captain's door.

"Come!"

He stepped into Pellew's day cabin, feeling rather like a small boy called into his father's study to explain why he had been digging tunnels under the shrubbery. After his encounter on deck with the captain, he had stopped off in his cabin and divested himself of the hat and sword. At least now, he felt less awkward and clumsy.

"It's not been quite twenty minutes yet, sir. I can come back in a bit if you prefer."

"Oh, come in and sit down, Mr. Hornblower." Pellew, who was seated at his dining table closed the book that he had apparently been reading and pointed to a chair.

Seated, Horatio felt a little better. When the captain was in a shouting mood, he inevitably left the culprit standing. Being invited to sit usually signified a somewhat less confrontational approach. Captain Pellew's next actions seemed to bear this out; he went to the decanter resting on the sideboard and poured two glasses of wine. He handed one to Horatio, and sat down next to him at the table.

"So. Suppose you tell me about this urgent business awaiting you in town." The captain's voice was neutral.

Horatio looked at his wine glass, twirling it absently in his fingers. "Sir... I am not sure that I may honorably discuss it."

"I see." Pellew answered dryly. "Back to that again, are we?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then let me hazard an educated guess. No, do not interrupt. At a guess... I suggest that you were headed ashore with a proposal."

Horatio said nothing; he did not trust his voice.

"A proposal of marriage," continued the captain. "To a young woman who has not only slandered your good name, but has now admitted to her untruthfulness in front of witness. Am I correct in my conclusions, Mr. Hornblower?"

"You are, sir," answered Horatio miserably.

Pellew leaned forward. "Have you lost your wits, Mr. Hornblower? The girl admitted her lie. You have won your case. You owe her nothing."

"Sir," Horatio struggled momentarily for words. "Sir, she has still not named the father of the child. She is now friendless and alone, and her parents are undoubtedly furious with her." He took a sip of the wine to moisten his dry throat. "I have grown fond of her, and you must admit that her family is well connected... a match that I could normally not aspire to. I believe I could do worse than to marry her."

Pellew sighed. "All very true, and no less than I should have expected of you. You've a kind and generous heart, boy. But," he suddenly hit the table with his fist so hard that both Horatio and the wineglasses jumped, "what is your blasted hurry?"

He rose and paced over to gaze out of the great stern windows. "Anything could happen in the next few months. The real father might step forward, or be forced to admit his crime. Some other kind gentlemen might wish to marry her. Or... she could lose the baby. It does happen... especially to so young a woman."

Horatio cleared his throat. "Sir... it occurred to me that if we sail tomorrow, as it seems we must, I might not have another opportunity for many months. I did not wish for her to suffer alone all that time." Spoken aloud, his reasoning sounded lame and tentative.

"Ah, yes... if we sail tomorrow... well, you might be relieved to know, then, Mr. Hornblower, that we do not sail tomorrow." He turned rapidly to face Horatio, and the younger man felt Pellew's intense scrutiny as an almost physical force. "But then again, perhaps... perhaps you already know that." The captain's eyes narrowed.

"Sir?" Horatio did his best to sound both puzzled and innocent. "I don't understand. Are we not needed back in the fleet, as soon as possible?"

Pellew ignored him and strode to the cabin door, and opened it. Horatio could hear him clearly speaking to the marine guard who stood outside. "Pass the word for Mr. Bracegirdle, and tell him that I wish to speak with him here immediately."

Horatio's heart sank, and he swore silently to himself. It was so easy, sometimes, to fall into the trap of believing that the captain might be unaware of the small intrigues aboard his ship. Pellew had never been an interfering sort of captain, that kind of petty tyrant who insisted that no decision be made aboard the ships without his express knowledge. But the man could display a damnably uncanny ability to know about details of shipboard life that he had no business hearing about. Not for the first time, Horatio wondered if the captain had some secret network of well-paid, well-hidden spies that did nothing but bring him information that might someday be useful.

Pellew returned to his stance of staring out the stern windows, but he said nothing; Horatio dared say nothing, and instead did his best to be silent and invisible.

The rap on the door came only a scant three minutes later. Pellew finally spoke. "That will be Mr. Bracegirdle. Be so kind as to let him in, Mr. Hornblower."

Horatio did as he was told, ushering in an apprehensive-looking Bracegirdle. He lingered by the door a moment, hoping to be dismissed, but Pellew frowned at him. "Close the door and come back and sit down, Mr. Hornblower. We are not yet finished."

As Horatio slid nervously back into his seat, he watched his captain confront the first lieutenant.

"Mr. Bracegirdle... did you see fit to inform Mr. Hornblower about the communication that I received this afternoon?"

There was only a fraction of a second of hesitation, then Mr. Bracegirdle nodded. "Yes, sir, I did so inform him."

"Did I not specifically instruct you to keep this news confidential... that Mr. Hornblower in particular was not to know?"

Mr. Bracegirdle blanched. "You did, sir. Most clearly."

"And yet... you left here and proceeded to do exactly that. Without wasting much time, apparently." Pellew's voice rose. "Do you wish to offer any explanation for your behavior?"

"Sir, I have no excuses for my behavior." Bracegirdle stared fixedly ahead.

Horatio felt even more miserable. He longed to somehow assure the first lieutenant that he had not told the captain of the source of his information, that Pellew had deduced the situation on his own, but he knew he could not interrupt this dressing-down. He shrank further into his chair, acutely embarrassed on Bracegirdle's behalf.

"I did not ask for excuses!" thundered Pellew. "I require an explanation!"

Bracegirdle took a deep breath. "Sir... after being a part of the inquiry today, and after hearing Mr. Hornblower tell of his interactions with the Waterston family, it is my belief that this court-martial is motivated by personal animosity. I felt that Mr. Hornblower was in the best position to... possibly placate the Waterstons, and I therefore felt that I should assume the risk of telling him of the impending court-martial."

"Damn it, man!" roared Pellew. "Did it ever occur to you that I might be perfectly aware of this? And that I might not want Mr. Hornblower to know for precisely that reason?"

"I... yes, sir, but..."

The captain glared. "Do you think that this is the first time a captain has been court-martialed for petty reasons? And do you believe me so enfeebled with age and long service that I cannot mount an effective defense without my senior officers conspiring to protect me?" Pellew's voice rose to a shout.

"No, sir," replied Bracegirdle.

Pellew turned away, and spoke more quietly. "Your intentions were good, though misguided. Yet to allow this act to go unpunished would be poor for discipline. Do you not agree, Mr. Bracegirdle?"

"Yes, sir."

"Excellent. I am glad that we feel the same way." The captain folded his arms. "I believe that I will have you stand some extra watches. I have sent Mr. Kennedy on an errand that will cause him to be absent for a few days. You will take all of his watches, in addition to your own, until he returns."

"Aye aye, sir." Bracegirdle's response was tinged with obvious relief.

"One more comment." Pellew turned back, and took a step closer to the first lieutenant. "There are ship's captains in this service who would have you shot for disobeying a direct order of this nature, man. You should never take a chance like that again."

"I am aware of that, sir... but in this case, I felt that the need outweighed the risk."

Pellew sighed. "I appreciate your concerns. But I have abundant experience in dealing with the intrigues of the service, and I have no doubt that this court-martial will be brought to a speedy conclusion. You are dismissed, Mr. Bracegirdle. Mr. Hornblower, stay here."

Horatio watched Mr. Bracegirdle leave, and wondered what the captain was going to say to him. Unlike his superior officer, Horatio had not disobeyed any orders... yet. But he had certainly been a part of Bracegirdle's little conspiracy, and might come in for some punishment all the same.

Instead of pacing the cabin, though, the captain sat back down again at the table. "Am I correct in my deductions, then, Mr. Hornblower? Were you planning on proposing marriage to Miss Waterston in order to placate her family and to encourage Lord Waterston to call off the court-martial?"

Horatio nodded. "Yes, sir... though I am still concerned about the girl herself. And my own career," he added ruefully.

"You would marry a girl not of your own choosing, whom you barely know... a girl who is with child by another man, who attempted to fix the blame on you even though you had been kind and considerate to her?"

"Well, sir," gulped Horatio, "I wasn't exactly thinking of her like that."

"I see." Pellew leaned back in his chair. "Mr. Hornblower... no. Horatio, I would like to give you some personal advice."

Horatio was stunned enough by the captain's unprecedented use of his first name that all he could do was nod.

"A good marriage, ideally, begins with love. But even without love, mutual respect and devotion can suffice... if both husband and wife fulfill their duties to one another. You cannot convince me that you love this girl."

Horatio shook his head. "No, sir. I am fond of her, despite everything... but, no."

"And after what she has done, you shall never truly be able to respect her... not as a good husband should. All you have left, then, is pity and gratitude. Pity for her plight, from you... gratitude from her for rescuing her. How long do you think that would last?

"How long, lad, before you would begin to resent her for the trouble she caused you? How long before you would start hating her child ­ the child that you would have to pretend that you had fathered -- for not being yours? And how long before she would start hating herself, for her indiscretion, for her lies? How long before you both begin to dread the idea of your ship returning to port?"

Horatio bowed his head briefly. "But what is to become of her?"

"You cannot live anyone's life for them... only your own. She will find her own way. Perhaps it will involve marriage, perhaps not. Her parents will forgive her in time, and she will not lack for material things."

"You are undoubtedly correct, sir..." Horatio said slowly. "But it is a hard thing." He managed a slight smile. "I wanted to save her... and I wanted to help you."

"As much I appreciate your willingness to sacrifice yourself in my stead, boy, I cannot allow you to do it." Now, the captain's voice was very gentle. "As always, you are quick to see the benefits of your actions to others, and too slow to count the cost to yourself. Sometimes, Mr. Hornblower, the price of honor is too high; sometimes, you must not only consider what you perceive as the needs of others, but also the worth of your own soul. I would not see you ­ and that poor girl ­ made unhappy for your lifetimes, only to prolong my career." The captain stood, and rested one hand on Horatio's shoulder. "That is a gift that I cannot accept, even if I knew for certain that I had need of it."

Horatio felt his throat tighten with unbidden emotion. "Yes, sir. I understand now, I think."

"Do I have your word, then, that you will make no offers of marriage to Miss Waterston at this time? Otherwise... I fear I will need to confine you to your quarters, and that would leave me desperately short of officers." A wintry smile crossed the captain's face.

"You have my word, sir."

"Good. You may go... and we will speak no more of this." Pellew lifted his hand.

Horatio rose from the table and walked to the door. He paused for a moment, his hand on the knob. "Captain Pellew, sir, you should know... even if I were reluctantly married to the most unsuitable girl on earth... I would count it small cost, as long as I could serve with you."

He was rewarded with a genuine smile in return. "Mr. Hornblower, if this court-martial goes badly, and I am languishing somewhere on half-pay with no ship... I will remember those words with the greatest of pleasure."

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

After supper, Horatio slipped back into his little cabin... ostensibly to rest a little more before going on watch at midnight, but in reality to collect his scattered thoughts.

Pellew to be court-martialed. The thought still made him almost nauseous. The captain had done nothing wrong, he told himself fiercely. Had he not chosen the course of action that he had, it was probable that none of those who had gone ashore in France would have ever walked the decks of the Indefatigable again. Pellew's quick thinking and iron determination had saved many lives.

And yet... ironically, if he had blindly obeyed orders by waiting in Quiberon Bay to take off the survivors that never came, the captain might have been court-martialed for that as well. Such was the nature of the service; it placed captains into situations for which there was sometimes no correct response.

Horatio shook his head. He had no doubt that Bracegirdle's suspicions were correct, that Lord Waterston had engineered this court-martial in order to wound Horatio indirectly. He was also nearly certain that an offer of honorable marriage to Lydia Waterston would have resulted in the charges being dropped. He knew in his heart that he had been willing to make that sacrifice, to redeem both his beloved captain's professional future and his own.

But he had given his word, now, to do no such thing... and as a mere junior lieutenant, penniless and without family or connections, his word and his honor were all that he truly owned. If he broke his word, if he marched up to the deck and took a ship's boat to the shore, telling some plausible lie to the sentries (who would have no reason to doubt him)... he could escape to make his proposal, but only at the cost of his soul.

And, he realized, also at the cost of the respect that Captain Pellew held for him. If he broke his word to come to Pellew's aid, against the captain's express instructions, the growing bond of affection between them would suffer a permanent rupture. Bracegirdle had observed that Pellew loved Horatio like his own son, but even a son could offend a father past all endurance.

Horatio smiled sadly to himself, thinking of his earlier scheme. There had been a certain boyish glamour in the thought of sacrificing himself to save both the girl and his captain all at once. He should have known that Pellew would find a way to turn the tables on him, putting the risks squarely back on his own shoulders.

Very well, then. His options had been taken from him. He must pull himself back together and behave properly. He must be cheerful and reassuring to his captain, lest his own worry undermine Pellew's confidence. He must go over the details of his brief disastrous mission in France, in case (as seemed likely) he was called upon to testify. And he must perform his duties aboard the ship, giving them more attention than he had of late.

Decisively, he blew out the lantern and lay down on his bunk. Discipline, coupled with fatigue and the after-effects of his emotionally demanding day, helped him to drop off. As he was falling asleep, though, his mind fixed suddenly on a puzzling thought.

What had the captain said? "I have sent Mr. Kennedy on an errand."

Where, indeed, was Archie?

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

What with the process of re-victualling the ship, there was enough coming and going between the frigate and the shore during the following day that Horatio did not immediately pay attention to the approaching shore boat. He did not have the watch, but was instead only standing moodily at the rail and staring out at the sea.

He jumped slightly with surprise when he heard a familiar voice address Mr. Bracegirdle. "Permission to come aboard?"

Turning, he was able to confirm the visitor's identity with his eyes even before the first lieutenant's response did so for him. "Major Edrington! Welcome aboard, my lord. We had not looked to see you again so soon."

Horatio grimaced. He could well guess what business had brought the commander of the 95th Foot down to Portsmouth. Edrington had been the senior surviving infantry officer on the mission to France; he had no doubt been summoned to testify at Pellew's court-martial. Horatio had received his own official summons early that morning. The court-martial was set to convene the following day, if all of the important witnesses were available by that time. Mr. Bracegirdle, as Pellew's second-in-command had of course been summoned as a witness, as had Mr. Bowles. The sailing master was in the unique position of being the only known survivor of the ill-fated main landing force; his testimony could be the strongest evidence for defending Pellew's actions.

Trying to rid both his face and his voice of the worry that gnawed at him, Horatio left his solitary place by the rail and went to greet the young peer. "Major Edrington, it is good to see you again." Horatio put out his hand. "May I add my welcome, as well, my lord?"

"You look well, Mr. Hornblower." Edrington shook his hand warmly. "I am pleased to speak with both of you again... I only wish that I were here for some more felicitous reason." The major snorted briefly. "An absurd business, if you ask me. But... as I suspect the two of you are both witnesses as well, I daresay we should not be discussing this."

Horatio nodded. "You speak accurately, my lord."

"Instead... let us speak of something more cheerful." Edrington's face broke into a rather sly smile. "I have engaged rooms at the Boar's Head Inn for the duration. I would be pleased if either of you two gentlemen ­ or Mr. Kennedy, for that matter ­ could dine with me this afternoon... at about two o' clock?" He grinned. "I must repay the hospitality that the officers of the Indefatigable gave me while I was aboard your fine ship."

"Mr. Kennedy is not here; he has been granted leave for a few days," Horatio answered cautiously. "But I would be glad to accept your offer, my lord... if you do not think it will compromise our value as witnesses." He wondered, briefly, if the captain would deny him permission to go ashore... but he had given his word, after all; surely Pellew would now trust him to leave the ship.

Edrington waved a negligent hand. "I am certain that we will be able to find safe topics of conversation. Mr. Bracegirdle?"

The first lieutenant shook his head. "I fear I must decline. The captain may find it necessary to leave the ship on short notice during his... preparations for these proceedings, and my place is here in the event that he must do so. I do appreciate your offer, my lord."

Edrington nodded. "So be it. Mr. Hornblower, I will see you at the Boar's Head at two o'clock. Be certain that you are properly hungry... the inn sets a fine table."

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

Pausing just inside the doorway to the inn to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light, Horatio looked around. He was once again dressed in his best uniform and hat, yet he still felt a little shabby in these surroundings. The Boar's Head was clearly an inn frequented by the better folk of the city: prosperous-looking merchants, dashing dandies, and not a few meticulously-appointed scarlet or blue uniforms filled the common room. Gold braid glinted at him from several directions. He half-expected to see some familiar faces among them, but a quick survey showed no one that he knew.

One of the inn's serving girls approached him, the expression on her pleasant face an obvious prelude to an inquiry.

"I'm invited to dine with Major Lord Edrington," he stated softly, when she was close enough to be able to hear him. "Could you direct me?"

She nodded. "Milord is upstairs, in one of the private parlours. If you will follow me, sir, I'll see you up to him."

She let him up the carpeted stairs. Horatio took the opportunity to goggle further at the sumptuous feasting going on in the common room, from the aerial vantage point of the stairway. Roasts, lobsters, immense pies, pheasants, marzipan fruits... and countless bottles of wine and brandy. He noted, too, that wealth and refinement seemed to be no sure guarantee against overindulgence: he saw many red and choleric faces perched above fleshy necks, crammed into tight stocks.

At the top of the stairs, he switched his attention to the serving girl who was guiding him. Unlike the girls at the Swan, where he and Archie had enjoyed a dinner months ago, this maid was quietly and demurely dressed. She walked with an unspoiled grace, rather than with the exaggerated insolent sway of that girl who had so discomforted him at the Swan.

She stopped at an open doorway, halfway along one wing of the second floor.

"Lord Edrington, here's your guest arrived. Shall I give word to the kitchen, m'lord, to start sending up your dinner?"

"If you would, Becky. In any case, have the wine sent up immediately."

"Yes, m'lord." She curtseyed prettily, and slipped past Horatio.

Edrington rose and shook Horatio's hand as heartily as if he had not just spoken with him a few hours previously. "Welcome, Mr. Hornblower. Thank you for joining me." The young major smiled very slightly. "It's been a rather dull summer for my regiment so far ­ for which I suppose I should be grateful ­ and I am glad to have the opportunity to have a bit of a chat with you." He beckoned to the empty chair. "Please... sit down."

Horatio sank into the deeply upholstered chair across from Edrington. They were in a splendid little parlour, richly furnished with a dark, gleaming table and chairs and a little velvet sofa. Flocked wallpaper in a pattern of browns and golds covered the walls. A large window opened out into the inn's courtyard, letting in a pleasantly muted hum of noise and chatter that wafted up from below. The table was laid with a spotless cloth and a gleaming silver service.

He leaned back into his chair and forced himself to relax. Despite the worries pushing away at the back of his mind, he was determined to make a good meal and to enjoy himself. He still felt a little nervous dining with such exalted company, but told himself that he was being ridiculous. Had not he and the major served together on a perilous mission? And they had parted cordially, as respected colleagues and friends. Tomorrow might bring disaster and ruin, but today would at least bring the pleasure of a delicious meal and excellent conversation. And, he noted to himself with wry amusement, here there were no fetching little upper-class young ladies to lead him into trouble... unlike his last fancy dinner.

The wine arrived at once, and Horatio found himself with a glassful of fine claret in front of him. He raised an eyebrow at the discovery. Most Englishmen of means preferred the stronger, sweeter wines from Madeira and Portugal that were also far easier to obtain since the turmoil in France.

"No salt pork or weevilly biscuit for you today, Mr. Hornblower." Again, that sly half-smile. "As I said earlier, I mean to repay the hospitality I received aboard your ship."

Horatio allowed himself to grin. "Indeed, my lord, I had no idea that we treated you so sumptuously. I had thought you would have found your accommodations aboard the Indefatigable rather spartan at best."

"Oh, a bit... but there is far more to hospitality than simply fine wines and good food." As if on cue, the food began to arrive; two serving girls each deposited an armload of platters and left silently.

Horatio gaped appreciatively at the food. A rich-smelling platter of roast lamb held center stage, nestled cheek by jowl with golden potatoes. Plates of tender young carrots and glazed onions rounded out the presentation, accompanied by fresh hot bread, mustard, and chutney.

Edrington picked up the carving implements. "A simple, yet elegant repast for us. Some from the end, Mr. Hornblower?"

They ate quietly for a few minutes, then Edrington paused and set down his cutlery. "I am aware, of course, that we should not be discussing our testimonies at this point. I wonder, though, if you are aware that your captain may be in more trouble than you think."

Horatio took a quick gulp of his wine. "Indeed... I am quite aware that he has made some rather powerful enemies, and that there are some at the Admiralty who are quite unhappy with him."

Edrington nodded, and helped himself to more carrots. "They will be focusing, of course, on the debacle in France... but your Captain Pellew has been so successful in all that he attempts, that he has long been a source of irritation to some and a source of jealousy for others. Most appreciate and admire him, but there are not a few who would be gratified to see him pushed aside." He fixed Horatio with a knowing glance. "Some of those are men who would see their own favorites advanced, at Sir Edward's expense."

Horatio shook his head slowly. That Pellew had a reputation as a lucky and successful captain, he knew well. Success in the service could make enemies, though, as well as bring admiration, if one was unlucky enough to catch too much attention from the petty-minded.

"But I was surprised to hear," continued Edrington, "that Lord Waterston seems to be behind this effort to discredit your captain. I'd rather thought the old bore was more or less one of his supporters."

Horatio flushed, and looked away. He toyed with some of the scraps on his plate for a moment before answering. "I know little, my lord, of Lord Waterston's previous attitude toward my captain... but I believe that recent events have conspired to ruin any good will that may have existed between them." He took a deep breath. "And I very much fear, my lord, that I am largely the cause."

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

Horatio climbed wearily up the side of the Indefatigable. It was amazing, he decided, how fatigued one could be after doing next to nothing the entire day.

As expected, he had spent long hours waiting for his chance to testify. To his surprise, though, he had been allowed to remain in the courtroom and to listen to the testimony of the other officers involved. He realized the logic behind this when his turn finally came, late in the afternoon: his involvement with Pellew's decision was only peripheral. The timely arrival of the Indefatigable at the beach off Muzillac had saved his life and those of his men, but his testimony added little to what had gone before.

He had listened, at first with interest, to the entire story: Pellew's account of his meeting at the Admiralty, the departure for France, the execution of the plan. He grew more restless and weary as the day went on, but sat as patiently as he could while Mr. Bowles told of his adventures ashore with the French emigre army. He whistled under his breath as the sailing master told of his narrow escape, disguised as a French Republican. And he listened with astonishment and growing admiration to Mr. Bracegirdle's account of events aboard ship during this time.

Unfortunately, all of this testimony took a very long time, as the captains conducting the court-martial had many questions regarding every annoyingly small detail. Horatio was nearly the last witness of the day, followed only by Major Edrington. By the time that the court-martial was adjourned for the day, Horatio felt simultaneously exhausted and twitchy.

Now, as he came up on deck and looked around, he was startled to catch sight of a face that he had not seen for several days.

"Archie!" He felt himself grin in surprise and delight. "When did you get back?"

Archie's grin echoed his own. "Only about an hour ago. Imagine my surprise, arriving back and finding all of the officers gone, and a midshipman in charge! Although it felt rather grand to sweep on board and be the ranking officer, if only for an hour."

"And how is your family?" asked Horatio, looking at Archie through suddenly narrowed eyes. "You did visit your family, did you not?"

Archie rubbed one finger across his upper lip as if to suppress a smile. "Of course I did. Since when have you become so suspicious, Horatio?"

"Since Captain Pellew let slip a rather remarkable statement about having sent you on an errand. It didn't exactly match the story that you'd told me."

"Ah. Yes. That." Archie looked blank for a moment, then smiled at something, or someone, over Horatio's shoulder.

"Mr. Kennedy! You've returned, then." Captain Pellew sounded as pleased as Horatio had ever heard him as he stepped closer, ending up between Horatio and Archie. "I take it your... visit, was satisfactory?"

"Very much so, sir."

"Excellent. Report to me in my cabin at once, if you please." Pellew nodded at both of them, and strode away.

Horatio frowned. "Why does the captain want a report on your visit to your family?"

Archie shrugged. "Oh, I'm sure he has his reasons, as he always does... but I can't keep him waiting, now, can I? We'll just have to talk later."

"Archie," Horatio growled warningly, "what have you been up to?"

"You'll find out soon enough. Oh, one more thing... you can't go to our cabin at the moment."

"And why not?" Horatio folded his arms.

"It's occupied. I'll explain it all later, I promise. Your things are in the wardroom if you need anything." He turned and began to walk rapidly away.

"What I need," grumbled Horatio, fixing Archie's retreating form with a glare, "is an explanation."

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

Horatio sat at the wardroom table, trying to read before supper. He had seen no sign of Archie since that brief conversation on deck, and no sign of the captain either. He strongly suspected that Archie was avoiding him, and his inconvenient questions, but he was now determined to appear calm, unruffled, and incurious.

His eyes flickered up, and over the table, to the closed door of the cabin that he shared with Archie. Sailcloth had been tacked up over the little square windows, blocking any view of whoever was inside. No-one had gone in or out of the cabin since Horatio had come below-decks, and he had heard no sounds either.

He sighed heavily, and returned his attention to his book. He'd read no more than three pages when he heard Mr. Bracegirdle's unmistakable tread approaching him.

"Ah, Mr. Hornblower, good. The captain requests our presence in his cabin at once."

Horatio shut his book with a kind of relief, and rose from the table. "I don't suppose you can tell me, sir, what is happening?" he asked as they walked.

"I know little more than you, lad. But some kind of a grand conference appears to be forthcoming. There were some rather well-dressed civilians approaching by shore boat just as I left the deck to look for you."

By then, they had reached the captain's cabin door. The sentry saluted them and stepped aside; Mr. Bracegirdle raised his hand and rapped sharply on the door.

"Come!"

For a moment, from his position lurking behind Mr. Bracegirdle's solid bulk, Horatio could tell only that Pellew's day-cabin seemed to contain rather a lot of people. Then he stepped around the first lieutenant, into the cabin itself, and was hard-pressed to conceal his surprise.

Pellew was there, of course, and so was Archie. But off to one side stood Lydia Waterston, along with both of her parents. Horatio only had time to observe that Lydia seemed as puzzled and startled as he himself felt, before Pellew turned and spoke to Archie.

"Mr. Kennedy, it appears that we are all assembled. I believe that this would be an appropriate time for you to fetch your guest."

"Aye aye, sir." Archie slipped quickly through the still-open door, closing it behind him.

Horatio envied him, the more so because Mr. Waterston was staring at him with ill-concealed irritation... the way a man might look at a particularly loathsome tropical insect that he has found on his person. His face was red, and he seemed to be positively overflowing with indignation.

"See here, Sir Edward," he spluttered finally. "I demand to know why you have sent for us! I'll not be made a fool of in front of my own wife and child!"

Pellew held up one elegant hand. "I ask your indulgence for only a few more minutes, Mr. Waterston. Then I believe you will learn something very much to your advantage."

Mr. Waterston continued as if he hadn't heard a word that Pellew said. "And you have the audacity to bring that... that victimizer of young girls," here, he pointed at Horatio, "bring him here to gloat over our misfortunes!"

"Mr. Waterston." Pellew's voice was not particularly loud. But Horatio, intimately familiar with his captain's moods and having been on the receiving end of many a chewing-out, recognized the danger signals. "Mr. Waterston... it is my understanding that your daughter testified, before witnesses, that Lieutenant Hornblower is innocent of any wrongdoing toward her. He is a commissioned officer aboard my ship, who has served his country with the utmost courage, and as such he is worthy of your respect. You would do well to remember that."

Horatio glanced at Lydia during this last exchange. She had gone very white about the mouth, and was clinging tightly to her mother's arm. He longed to say something reassuring to her, but thought it more politic to remain silent as long as her father was glaring at him so fiercely.

Then the door opened, without any premonitory knock, and a rather breathless Archie entered. But not alone: hanging onto his arm, nearly dislodged by Archie's headlong progress, was an equally breathless young woman. Horatio had only the briefest impression of curly blond hair and a pretty summer frock, before there was a great shriek from Lydia.

"Margaret!"

Horatio gaped as he watched Lydia run to the other girl and embrace her joyously, almost knocking her over with the force of her greeting. He shook his head in wonder and sudden understanding.

Margaret. He remembered the name, now, from Lydia's girlish accounts of her time in Bath. And he remembered seeing the girl in the portrait, when he and Archie had made their abortive visit to the Waterstons. But where did Archie fit into the story?

The two girls separated again, with obvious reluctance, and the blonde girl took Archie's arm again. Archie cleared his throat.

"Captain Pellew... may I introduce my maternal cousin, Miss Margaret Woodhollow? Margaret, this is Captain Sir Edward Pellew, who commands the Indefatigable. And I believe you already know the Waterstons."

"But..." Lydia was biting her lip and looking worried. "Margaret, I am of course very glad to see you, but why are you here?"

Margaret looked at her for a moment before replying. "Lydia, dear, I think you must know. You never made me promise not to talk about it, though of course I haven't... You must tell them the truth, Lydia. Or I will."

There was silence in the cabin. Horatio took the opportunity to study Archie's cousin, with some curiosity. He knew that Archie had sisters, as well as older brothers, but he had never particularly mentioned any cousins. This girl did indeed have a certain similarity of feature to Archie, especially around the nose and chin. She had warm brown eyes instead of Archie's clear blue, and the blonde curls were a true gold without any of the red that showed in Archie's hair, but Horatio had no difficulty in believing that they were related.

"I can tell them, Lydia, if it would be easier for you," continued Miss Woodhollow. "But you must tell them what you told me, on that last night in Bath... how it happened."

Lydia put her hands over her face. "Oh, Margaret, I can't! Papa will have him shot!"

Captain Pellew cleared his throat. "I think, Mr. Waterston... that your mystery is soon to be solved. I suggest that this would be an opportune time for my officers to withdraw, while you and you wife speak with her daughter and her friend. I shall stay, with your leave, to provide any assistance that I may." Horatio saw Pellew gesture quickly, with a brief jerk of his head, indicating that the lieutenants should now leave.

Lydia lowered her hands. "No!" she exclaimed, in a surprisingly strong voice. "I want Mr. Hornblower to stay. He has been wronged... and I want him to know the truth."

Pellew frowned briefly, then looked at Horatio for a moment, his face unreadable. Then he nodded. "So be it, Miss Waterston, if that is your wish. Mr. Bracegirdle, Mr. Kennedy, you are dismissed."

Archie met Horatio's gaze briefly as he moved to the door, and Horatio saw him smile slightly. Then he and the first lieutenant left.

Pellew turned to Lydia and gave her a winning smile. "Miss Waterson, there is nothing to be afraid of. I am certain that if you simply tell your parents what happened, truthfully, they will do their best to assist you in obtaining justice."

Lydia took a deep breath. "It is not easy, sir. You see... the young man who is responsible is one of whom my father does not approve, though his family and ours are neighbors and we have been friends since childhood. Indeed... I believe my parents allowed me to go to Bath with Margaret's family in hopes that I would forget my growing affection for Freddie."

A furious Mr. Waterston rounded on his daughter. "Freddie Nicholson? He is the father of your child? I forbade you to ever see that... that feckless young lout, ever again, after his impertinence in courting you without my permission! That useless wastrel! Had I known that he was to be in Bath, I would never have let you make the visit!" he thundered.

Lydia turned even paler, and swallowed audibly. "I did not know that he would be there, Papa," she said wearily. "He sought me out, and was so very charming. I kept trying to send him away, but he was most persistent."

Her father folded his arms and glared at her. "So he seduced you," he said darkly.

She shook her head. "We were both foolish... we were giddy on wine and excitement. We had been dancing together at a ball, and we managed to slip away together. We went walking about the garden, in the moonlight, and ended up in a little dark gazebo..."

Pellew raised a hand. "I think," he said delicately, "that you need not continue, Miss Waterston. Any such further details are for you to discuss with your family. I would simply like to make absolutely certain that Mr. Hornblower is now finally free of suspicion."

Lydia sniffed and rubbed one hand across her face. "He was never anything but a gentleman to me, and kindness itself. I am very sorry, Mr. Hornblower, to have caused you so much trouble."

Horatio shook his head. "Don't give it another thought. I am only happy to know that you have been able to come out with the truth." Impulsively, he reached out and caught her hand for a moment; she squeezed his hand gratefully.

Mr. Waterston cleared his throat, and spoke rather gruffly to the captain. "Sir Edward... do I understand correctly that this... mystery, was unraveled by one of your officers?"

"Indeed, yes. It was Mr. Kennedy who realized that your daughter's friend Margaret was his cousin, and that she would most likely have some helpful knowledge."

"Then... I am in your debt, sir," Mr. Waterston said slowly. "Perhaps you will allow me to return the favor, as I believe that I may be of some service to you with regard to an urgent matter."

Pellew shook his head. "It is not necessary, man. And I can scarcely take any credit for Mr. Kennedy's flash of inspiration."

"Nevertheless, Sir Edward, please hear me out." Lydia's father tapped his fingers nervously on the back of the nearest chair. "I have no small amount of influence over my brother. I confess, to my shame, that my fury over my daughter's plight caused me to encourage him in his desire to see you held accountable for the failures in France. I believe that I may now be able to convince him to have the charges dropped, and the court-martial halted. Before the proceedings go any further."

Startled, Horatio glanced at Pellew. The captain's face was a expressionless mask, but he seemed to draw himself up a trifle straighter.

"I appreciate your concern very much, Mr. Waterston. However... your intervention will not be necessary. The actions of myself, my officers and my loyal crew will speak for themselves. I did not want this court-martial... but now that it has begun, sir, I fully intend to see it through to its end."

Mr. Waterston shook his head. "Then may God help you. My brother says..." He trailed off.

"Your brother says what, Mr. Waterston?"

"He says... that Admiral Hood will take the stand tomorrow, and that his testimony will destroy you and your career beyond all hope of salvation."

******************************************************
Several hours later, Horatio paused before the captain's cabin door. "Do you think that he is still awake?" he asked the sentry quietly.

The young sentry nodded. "I believe so, sir. Mr. Bracegirdle was in to talk with the captain earlier, and he only left a few minutes ago."

Horatio sighed inwardly. No doubt the captain was thoroughly weary of meetings and private conversations after the last few days. He hesitated before raising his hand to rap on the door, reluctant to disturb his captain for no better reason than to air his own worries. This was the first time he could ever remember that he had come to Pellew's door without either a summons from the captain himself or an item of official ship's business to report.

But two hours of pacing on deck after supper had brought him no peace of mind. He dreaded returning to the court-martial in the morning. What was the Admiral going to say? How could Pellew defend himself against whatever accusations the Admiral was planning to add?

The sentry was now looking at him oddly, so Horatio took a deep breath and knocked smartly on the door.

"Come!" The captain's voice was strong and alert, dispelling Horatio's fears that he might be preparing for sleep. Horatio stepped inside, stooping slightly as always to avoid knocking his head as he entered the cabin.

"I wondered, sir, if I might talk to you for a minute or two."

Captain Pellew sat at his table, clad casually in his dressing gown. "We have another long and busy day tomorrow, Mr. Hornblower. You should be resting while you can."

Horatio shook his head. "Long, perhaps... but I should be surprised if it were very busy." He drew a deep breath into his lungs. "Sir... must you go through with this? Could you not accept Mr. Waterston's assistance, and avoid this court-martial altogether?"

Pellew looked at him searchingly for a moment, then the ghost of a smile appeared on his face. "Ah. I thought you might find my decision troubling. Rest assured, Mr. Hornblower, that I am quite aware of what I am doing."

Horatio blushed painfully at the touch of sarcasm in the captain's voice. "That isn't what I meant, sir. I would not presume to question your judgment. It is only..."

"Speak up, man! It is only what?"

"I still feel responsible, sir. You have been very kind about this whole affair, but that does not change the facts. You would not be facing this court-martial if I had not given offense to the Waterston family."

Pellew shook his head. "It isn't that simple, Mr. Hornblower. Oh, the scandal with the girl gave Lord Waterston a reason to target me... but it would have happened eventually. I have irritated enough important people over the years."

"But..." Horatio bit off his response.

"You are wondering why I am determined to go through with this," Pellew said quietly.

"Yes, sir. It seems unnecessary, at this point."

"It is completely necessary." Pellew stood and paced a few steps to stare out of the darkened window. "If I use my new-found influence, if I use the Waterstons' sudden gratitude to bring this trial to a halt... who knows where and when the accusations will surface again? I do not wish to have this matter hanging over my head for the rest of my career."

"But, Admiral Hood will..."

"Admiral Hood and I both know what orders I was given, and what other matters were discussed. If he chooses to..." Pellew trailed off, and looked sharply at Horatio. "If the Admiral's memory proves to be faulty, my own recall of his instructions to me is most exact. I do not anticipate that this will be as difficult as you seem to think."

"Yes, sir," gulped Horatio. Then, greatly daring, he asked, "Sir? Have you... have you ever face a court-martial before?"

Pellew's eyes went hooded, and his gaze flickered away. "Once." He was silent for a few moments, and Horatio began to think that he had overstepped his bounds. He shifted his weight nervously, and was about to clear his throat and bid his captain good-night when Pellew spoke again.

"It was long ago, when I was just a commander with my first sloop. We engaged a pirate vessel, much larger than us... but we had no choice. We were with the East India convoy, and one of the merchant ships had gotten separated from the convoy. She was feared lost, but we were dispatched to look for her.

"We found her, just as the pirates were firing their first broadside. The winds were lucky, and I was able to get into position and engage her. We shot each other bloody, until there was little left of either vessel. The pirates fled their sinking ship, and my sloop was dismasted. The East Indiaman tried to get to us with a tow line, but could not maneuver quickly enough... and my little sloop was driven onto the rocks."

Pellew turned away again, and spoke more quietly. "They launched boats quickly enough, and almost everyone who had survived the battle made it to the East Indiaman. The merchant captain spoke for me at my court-martial, and made it clear that he would have been lost had we not arrived. There was no question that we had performed our duties; I was honorably acquitted. But the losses were great: both my first lieutenant and the sailing master were killed in the battle, as well as several promising young midshipmen... and many experienced and able crew." He cleared his throat. "All because a merchant captain did not think that it was important to keep the other ships in sight."

Horatio held his breath, not daring to speak. Even now, many years later, the pain and grief in Pellew's voice were unmistakable. He could think of nothing to say in response.

"To lose men because of another man's folly... it angered me then, and it angers me now. The expedition to France was a risky undertaking from the beginning, but the Admiral..." Just as the captain's voice was growing louder and his tone more heated, he halted and then spoke more quietly. "The Admiral chose to see the situation differently than I did."

Now, he looked again at the younger man. "Mr. Hornblower... if you should survive your time aboard the Indefatigable, and someday rise to command of your own ship, remember one thing. Take risks, be bold, yes... but never allow your pride to get the better of you. You may not see it now ­ like all young men, you have your head stuffed full of notions about honor and bravery ­ but there is as much to admire in an orderly well-led retreat as in a hopeless but glorious attack."

Horatio swallowed. "Yes, sir. I will try to remember that."

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

"And that completed the official briefing," Admiral Hood was saying to the assembled listeners. He looked relaxed, and he spoke with apparent confidence.

Horatio shifted slightly in the hard wooden chair, wishing that he had seated himself in the back of the gallery that he might slip out unseen. He was accustomed to long hours standing watch aboard ship, but at least then he had the luxuries of fresh air and a deck on which to pace about. Here in this stuffy room packed with sweating, nervous men, he felt as restless as a caged lion.

The morning had dawned grey and chilly, with threatening clouds hovering almost anxiously overhead. Horatio had felt windblown rain spattering his cheeks as the captain's gig lurched uncomfortably towards shore. He had not been required to come ashore for this second day of testimony, as he had not been recalled to the stand, but something in his heart rebelled at the idea of allowing his captain to face the court-martial without at least one loyal supporter by his side. Consequently, he had appeared on deck in time to accompany Pellew, dressed once again in his best uniform. Pellew had said nothing to him, but had merely nodded and climbed into the barge. Horatio thought he had seen a flicker of gratitude in his captain's eyes.

"General Charette left to prepare his forces. I was escorting Captain Pellew down the stairs when it occurred to me that the General might benefit from a possible escape route, so before Pellew left I gave him a final amendment to his orders."

Pellew did not move; nor, as far as Horatio could tell without actually turning to look at his captain, did he change his expression. But Horatio could sense some kind of subtle change in the tense lines of the captain's body: a shift from passive listening to a more active state. Coughing into his hand to hide the motion, he darted a quick glance at Pellew... and realized that he knew that look upon his captain's face, that set of his jaw and shoulders.

He'd seen it many times, as the Indefatigable went into battle. This was not the demeanor of a man condemned to failure and censure, but that of the experienced warrior preparing for a conflict. Pellew, he suddenly concluded, was spoiling for a fight, and his opponent had best beware.

"A final amendment to your orders? What did you tell him?" One of the captains judging the court-martial, a youngish, hawk-face fellow, leaned forward as he spoke. Watching him, Horatio wondered briefly how it must feel for a captain to be questioning an admiral.

"I ordered him to remain on station, offshore with the Indefatigable, after the troops had disembarked. The other vessels were allowed to return to the Channel fleet."

"And did you specify a time limit for Captain Pellew? Or was he expected to remain off the coast of Brittany until the war was won?"

A ripple of muffled laughter spread around the room. Admiral Hood flushed and cast a murderous glance at his inquisitor. "I expected him to remain for a reasonable length of time. I did not expect him to pull out less that a day later, leaving General Charette and all of his men to be slaughtered!"

Dramatically stated, but somewhat inaccurate, as earlier testimony had already shown. But would that matter? Horatio thought that the captains judging the court-martial just might be daunted by Hood's choleric display of temper... not to mention his rank and position of power.

One of the other captains, a tubby balding man who reminded Horatio faintly of Lieutenant Bracegirdle, made a motion with one hand.

"Admiral Hood, sir... I understand that there was an unfortunate incident that same day with regard to one of your staff. One of your senior aides, I believe."

Admiral Hood looked slightly startled, but his facial expression quickly changed back to its usual craftiness. Horatio shook his head very slightly in puzzlement. Pellew had said nothing to him about any 'unfortunate incidents'.

Hood sighed; was it Horatio's imagination, or did that sigh seemed forced? "My secretary, Lieutenant Collins, was fatally wounded that day. He wandered into a most dangerous part of town, and received a mortal wound when he tried to defend himself against the thieves attempting to rob him. He managed to make his way back to the Admiralty, but died before we could even summon medical assistance."

The hawk-faced captain cleared his throat. "What were the thieves after? Or was your secretary independently wealthy?"

No laughter this time, but a few grins were exchanged. Hood shook his head. "He came from a wealthy family. I can only assume that the thieves found something to make their efforts worthwhile, curse them."

The most senior of the captains, a fierce-looking man with iron-grey hair and a hooked nose, spoke up. "Any more questions for the witness?"

There were none. Hood rose and left, and quiet settled over the room once again.

Horatio chewed nervously at his lip. Pellew would be expected to testify next. Would his captain be able to defend himself against the charges? At the moment, he had to admit, it did not look good. Hood had ordered Pellew to stay in Quiberon Bay, and he had left, apparently without any reason other than his own infallible instincts.

"Captain Pellew." The grey-haired captain now looked directly at Pellew. "I believe it is now time that we heard from you."

Pellew rose. "If you would permit me a small indulgence, gentlemen, I have one more witness who wishes to testify."

The grey-haired captain, as well as his colleagues, looked puzzled. "You made no mention of this earlier."

"I was not certain that he would be able to attend, sir, nor that his testimony would be necessary." Pellew motioned to a nervous-looking marine corporal standing at the door. "Bring him in."

Horatio did not recognize the young man who entered. He was dressed like Horatio himself in the uniform of a naval lieutenant, but of a much richer fabric and extremely well-cut. Medium height, with dark brown hair and an anxious face, he seemed very young to hold his current rank. The officer darted a few glances around the room, then took a deep breath and walked to the stand.

"State your name for the record, Lieutenant," said the hawk-faced captain, quietly.

The young man nodded. His adam's apple bobbed up and down nervously as he spoke. "Matthew Harris, sir. I am on Admiral Lord Hood's staff."

Horatio shot another furtive glance at his captain, but could read nothing on his face. The grey-haired captain shook his head irritably. "Captain Pellew, why is this young man here?"

Pellew stood again, and spoke smoothly. "He merely has a few details to add to the tale, sir. Some... clarifications, as it were. Mr. Harris... please tell the court what you heard and saw on that day that I visited the admiralty offices."

Harris took a deep breath. "I was not present for any meetings, sir, but I know that the Admiral was meeting with General Charette and yourself." He swallowed. "Just before the briefing, I finished copying out the orders, and gave them to Lieutenant Collins, who was to carry them to the First Lord. Afterwards, I returned to the outer office on the first floor, and went back to my regular duties."

"Just a moment, Mr. Harris," interjected Pellew. "You said, 'Lieutenant Collins'?"

"Yes, sir... Admiral Hood's confidential secretary. He always carried the most important papers himself."

Pellew nodded. "Please continue."

Greatly daring, Horatio studied the faces of the captains. All looked stunned, though the hawk-faced fellow was nodding slowly as if he was beginning to understand something that had puzzled him.

"Suddenly, I heard a strange sort of choking sound in the hall. I ran out to see what it was... and there was Lieutenant Collins hanging on to the door-post, covered in blood." The young man shuddered, and actually looked a bit green.

Horatio eyed him cynically, taking in the luxurious and spotless uniform as well as the soft and well-cared-for hands. This was no seasoned officer, but some pampered son of the aristocracy whose military 'service' offered no greater dangers than paper-cuts and boredom.

"I helped him to a bench, and shouted for assistance. But there was nothing we could do; we could all see that he was terribly wounded. Just then, I saw Admiral Hood come down the stairs with Captain Pellew."

The courtroom had gone very quiet. The hawk-faced captain frowned. "Go on, man. Don't keep us waiting all bloody day."

"Yes, sir. The Admiral was right there when we searched poor Collins. The papers were gone, no question of that. I stepped back a bit... I was feeling a bit queer, sir, looking at all of that blood, and needed to get a little further away. And I couldn't help it... but I could hear the Admiral and Captain Pellew talking to each other."

Now the courtroom grew so quiet that Horatio could here the other men breathing. His own heart pounded with suspense and excitement, so loud to his own ears that he half expected Pellew to turn and admonish him not to make so much noise.

"The Admiral told Captain Pellew that Collins had been carrying a copy of the invasion plan. Captain Pellew... he was worried, and didn't think the mission should proceed. The Admiral told him..."

Everyone in the courtroom leaned forward to listen. "He told him to go anyway, that he wasn't going to cancel the invasion just because someone might have the plans. He said that they might be anywhere, even floating in the river. Then he ordered Captain Pellew not to speak to anyone about the missing orders."

The bald-headed captain cleared his throat. "That is a serious accusation, young man. You are certain that you heard him correctly?"

Harris nodded. "I am certain, sir. Then, the Admiral... he told Captain Pellew that he had changed his mind, that he must wait off the coast in case the General and his troops needed an escape route." He shook his head. "I was so shocked by Collins' death, that it wasn't until hours later that I really thought about what I had heard. And then... it was too late to do anything about it, even if I could."

***************************************************
Finally, Horatio was free to pace.

Captain Pellew had been asked to wait out in the hall, that the court might discuss his case and come to a verdict. Horatio had gone with him, unable to stand the tension of the courtroom any longer, and the rest of the gallery had either taken the opportunity to slip outside or were hanging about darting curious glances at Pellew and the young lieutenant whose testimony had proved so shocking.

Pellew was talking to the young man now. Horatio strained his ears to hear the conversation, despite a few prickles from his conscience. His pacing route, from the middle of the hall down to one end and then back again, kept him mostly within earshot while allowing him to work of some of his nervous energy. He couldn't make much sense out of what they were saying, but Pellew seemed to know the lieutenant from somewhere.

"Mr. Hornblower!"

He stopped in his tracks, and turned. "Yes, sir?"

"Stop that. You are wearing a groove in the floor, and you will have me in a straight-jacket if you keep it up." Despite the ferocity of his words, Pellew looked more amused than angry.

Horatio rubbed his upper lip, suppressing a sheepish smile. "Sorry, sir. I'm not a very patient person."

"I should say not." Pellew looked at him for a moment, his face unreadable. Then his expression softened slightly. "I hope, Mr. Hornblower, that you never have to stand outside a door like this, waiting to hear your verdict."

Horatio had no real answer to that; he had just been busy fervently hoping that same thing. To fill the silence that followed, he extended his hand to the other young man.

"Horatio Hornblower, of the Indefatigable. Thank you... for coming forward and giving your testimony. That cannot have been easy for you to do."

Harris shook his hand warmly. "Matthew Harris. No... but my father would never have forgiven me if I had not spoken the truth... not with Captain Pellew's career at stake."

"Your father?" Horatio looked from Harris to Pellew, his face puzzled.

"Captain Pellew saved my father's life, a long time ago before I was born," Harris explained eagerly.

Pellew raised his eyebrows. "Ah, yes, so long ago," he said dryly.

Harris plunged on, apparently oblivious to the captain's gentle sarcasm. "My father was the first mate on a merchant vessel. They were bound for the East Indies when they were threatened by pirates. Captain Pellew's sloop was the only vessel near enough to help." He turned to Pellew. "I wouldn't be here today, sir, if you hadn't engaged that pirate and saved my father's ship."

Horatio nodded slowly, recalling the story that his captain had told him. "And in doing so, he lost his own sloop... and many men besides," he said softly.

"That day at the Admiralty... I kept thinking about what I had heard. When word reached me that Captain Pellew was to be court-martialed, for doing what any sane captain would do... I sent a message to him offering to testify."

"I kept him waiting outside, until it became clear that I would need his help." Pellew's face grew solemn. "Until Hood actually took the stand, I had hopes that he would tell the story the way we both remembered it. I had no wish to have young Harris throw his own career away for mine." He shook his head. "Hood will certainly dismiss him."

Harris grinned. "I've no career to ruin, yet. I only passed my lieutenant's exam two months ago. Perhaps now... well, I've no choice but do ship duty, if any one will have me. I've grown soft in these months ashore."

Horatio looked at him with new respect. "Perhaps not. Courage is more than facing cannon fire, after all. Based on what I have seen today...I think you will do quite well."

Pellew nodded. "Mr. Harris... I have no position to offer you at present. But my first lieutenant is a man of long service and great talent. It is only a matter of time, I think, before he earns a promotion. When the time comes, I will send for you, and you may try your hand aboard a frigate."

The door opened, and both of the lieutenants jumped. The marine corporal stuck his head into the hallway. "Captain Pellew, sir... you are to come back. They've reached a verdict."

"Excellent." Pellew strode forward confidently. Horatio and Harris followed him, somewhat less so.

Horatio's knees almost buckled with relief when he saw the sword. Pellew's sword, the beautifully tempered blade that he must have handed over to the court at the beginning of the trial, was now lying on the table in plain view. The hilt was turned to face the gallery, the deadly sharp point away towards the wall.

So they had found in Pellew's favor. Horatio stopped and groped for a seat in the back row of the courtroom, suddenly unable to walk further. Harris slid into a chair next to him, but Pellew continued up the aisle to stand in front of his sword. Horatio watched him, unable to keep a silly grin from forming on his face. The grey-haired captain cleared his throat and leaned forward.

"Captain Sir Edward Pellew, it is the judgment of this court that you be most honorably acquitted of all the charges. Your actions were both appropriate and courageous, and consistent with the traditions of the service." The captain smiled slightly, and handed the sword to Pellew. "Now get back out to sea and confound our enemies."

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

Horatio was sitting at the wardroom table that evening, only half-paying attention to the book in front of him, when a breathless young midshipman clattered into the wardroom.

"Mr. Hornblower, sir... there's a lady come aboard looking to speak with you."

Horatio set down the book. "A lady, you say? Is she very young, with dark hair? Not very tall?"

The boy nodded. "That'd be her, sir. I left her up on deck, by the rail where the breeze was fresh. She was looking a little ill from the boat ride out."

"You did right. Run back up, and tell her I will be right out to speak with her." Hastily, he closed his book and went back to his cabin to grab his uniform topcoat; he had been reading in his shirtsleeves.

Sure enough, when he emerged, on deck, he immediately spotted Lydia. She had apparently recovered from her brief spell of seasickness and was conversing animatedly with Mr. Bracegirdle.

"And here is Mr. Hornblower now, so I will leave you to him." Bracegirdle bowed to the girl with surprising grace, and stepped discreetly away.

Horatio smiled, feeling suddenly rather shy. "Miss Waterston, I had not expected to see you back aboard the Indefatigable, so soon."

She gave him a sad and rather wistful smile. "You sail in the morning, do you not? Now that you and your captain have both been cleared? I wanted to see you, and to say goodbye."

Horatio almost unconsciously reached out and took her soft little hand in his. "You... will all be well with you? I mean..."

She nodded. "Father and Uncle have already left to find Freddie... that is, Mr. Nicholson. They seem quite certain that they will return with him, and that... appropriate arrangements will be made." She looked away, but kept her hand in his.

He felt a surge of unexpected concern and affection. "Miss Waterston... Lydia, do you love him?"

She took a deep breath before replying. "I believe that I do, truly. We have known one another for a very long time, as children... and I had often thought that we might marry, at least until Freddie became so wild. I never expected that we would have no choice."

"Lydia... why? Why did you tell your parents that I was the father, rather than this Freddie?"

She colored, and looked at her feet. "I... we'd had a bit of a falling out, before I left Bath. I was angry with him for... well, for letting me get silly on wine, and for... letting it happen. I don't think either of us really understood what we were doing. At any rate, I was angry, and I told him so. I told him that I never wanted to see him again, that he had behaved abominably.

"And then I met you, that night at my uncle's house. I had not been feeling well, but I had no idea, yet, that I was with child... you must believe me," she added earnestly. "I was quite captivated by you; you were so serious and responsible, yet so kind." Now she looked up at him. "And every bit as handsome as Freddie, in your own way."

Now it was Horatio's turn to blush. "You give me far more credit than I deserve," he said quietly.

"And," she continued, "when I realized that I was carrying a child, I was afraid. Afraid that Freddie would find a way to deny his responsibility, afraid that my family would not accept him, and afraid of being married to him, so young, and neither of us with any good sense.

"I knew you were not a rich man, and I could see that you were generous and honorable. I thought... that if I named you, that you might marry me, since my family is so comfortably well-off, and to avoid a scandal. And then, you see, you would have gone back to sea, and I would have been able to remain with my parents. But respectably married, all the same."

Horatio squeezed her hand. "And they would have cared for you, and your baby, while I was gone. I understand, I think."

She nodded, and now tears glistened on her eyelashes. "I wanted a home for my child, and a husband who would save me from disgrace... but I suppose I was afraid to be a wife just yet."

"And now?"

She straightened up, and gently pulled her hand away. "Now, I have had some time to think, and I realized what I must do... that it is time for me to grow up.

"When you left the hearing that day, in order to let me speak more easily... I knew that I must tell the truth, that you were not the father."

"And now?" he repeated. "Will you be all right?"

"I believe so," she said slowly. "My father knows the Nicholsons well, even if he dislikes Freddie. Freddie and I are certainly both rather young, but it is a good match. And I think that he will become more settled, more responsible, in a few years."

"Then, you must promise me something." He reached out and managed to recapture her hand.

She gave him a watery smile. "Yes, Horatio," she replied, using his given name for the first time. "If I am able to, I will promise."

"Promise me, that if you are ever in any need... if you are ever in any trouble, or... or if you are mistreated, God forbid, that you will write to me... and I will come from the ends of the earth to help you."

"You would do that for me?" she asked in a whisper.

"Of course." He tried to speak more lightly, to bring a smile to her face. "We were very nearly married, you know. That gives me a special responsibility toward you."

He was rewarded by a tiny smile from her. "I promise, Horatio. But in turn, you must promise to forget me... unless I should need your help. You have been most kind to me, but the fact remains that I have used you most abominably, and I am ashamed. You must not think about me, but must return to the sea... and perhaps someday, you will meet a young woman who deserves you."

Horatio shook his head, laughing ruefully. "I doubt that very much, Lydia. I believe that I would try the patience of a wife beyond measure... what could any woman do to deserve being saddled with me for a husband?"

She smiled again, and this time the smile reached her eyes. "Perhaps we are both in the habit of underestimating ourselves. But at any rate... I must say farewell. I am sure that you have tasks to do, to make ready to depart. And as it seems that I will soon be wed, I have more than a few tasks ahead of myself as well."

He squeezed her hand. "Farewell, Lydia. Be well."

She moved closer, and stretched on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. "Farewell, Horatio."

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

Epilogue: Plymouth, England, approximately six months later...

"Horatio!"

The young man thus addressed, who had been sprawling half-dozing on his bunk, raised himself up on one elbow as his friend and fellow officer entered the tiny cabin. "Yes, Archie?"

"We should try to get ashore for a few hours this evening. You know Mr. Bracegirdle will let us."

With a grunt, Horatio levered himself up to a sitting position. "I think... I would rather stay on board. I seem to get into trouble of one kind or another whenever I leave the Indie."

Archie shrugged. "Suit yourself. Hey... did you get a letter?" He snatched at the envelope before Horatio could put it out of his reach. "That doesn't look like your father's handwriting." He sniffed the envelope. "Scented letters? My, my, my..." He looked at the return address. "Who's it from? Oh... drat. A Mrs. Frederick Nicholson? What, are you getting letters from lonely widows, now?" He waved the envelope about, scenting the little cabin with lavender and rosemary.

"Give that back!" Horatio grabbed the envelope from a snickering Archie. "It's Lydia, you fool. The former Miss Waterston. She just wrote me a polite note, that's all."

"Oh." Archie sat down on his bunk. "How is she?"

Horatio glared. "I don't know that I want to tell you. You will find something in her innocent little letter that you can laugh about."

"Sorry." Archie had the grace to look embarrassed. "I promise, I won't make sport of you, Horatio. Nor of her."

"Well..." Partly mollified, Horatio picked up the letter again. More lavender scent drifted up, making his nose tickle. "She is well. She married Freddie Nicholson only about a week after we left. And she came safely through childbirth. They have a baby girl, and Lydia is delighted with her."

"That's wonderful news. What did they name her? Not Frederica, I hope?"

Horatio flushed slightly. "Lydia says that she wanted to somehow name the baby after me, but, thank God, there is no way to turn Horatio into a girl's name." He grinned. "It was bad enough for me. So... they named her Honoria." He hesitated slightly. "She says in her letter that she... that she thought I... oh, bother. It's rather embarrassing." He flung the letter down. Archie snatched it away, holding it up in the air away from Horatio.

"It's in the last paragraph," Horatio mumbled.

Archie read it aloud. "'My dear friend, as I cannot give your name to my sweet child, I can only choose instead to name her after that quality which, more than any other man I have met, you possess. You are made of honor, Horatio, and there is so much of it inside you that a little bit can spill over to those around you.'" He put the letter back down and grinned at Horatio.

"Not a word, Archie," growled Horatio. "Not a word from you. And if this gets around the ship, I will know whom to blame."

Archie shook his head. "I promised, so I won't tease you about it. But..." His face grew more serious. "Are you sad you didn't marry her?"

Horatio shrugged. "Yes. No. I don't know. I didn't, so I will never know. But... someday, it would be nice." He face grew wistful. "And I would like to have children, I think."

"You will, Horatio. I'm sure of it." Archie stood. "I still think you should come ashore with me. It's even more important, now."

"Why?"

Archie edged toward the door. "Remember that conversation we had about finding a nice experienced older woman for you? I think that tonight... mmmpphh!!!"

The hat caught him squarely on the mouth, and Horatio chuckled with satisfaction.

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