CHAPTER 1: Coming Home
The cobbled"stone beach was bathed in a harsh, almost cruel sunlight. The air was hot and distant smells of heather and thyme floated in the air. For a brief moment Horatio had a vision: his own home, back in England surrounded by green fields and tall trees, and a delicate face with teary eyes and a lovely sad smile waving him goodbye. A sudden pang of guilt overwhelmed him. What will be the consequences for his present actions? If he was killed, what would become of Marianne, his most beloved sister?.
Nevertheless, he faced his enemy. The odious face just grinned at him; the cold blue eyes shining with hate. Dr. Hepplewhite began the counting, and suddenly without warning, Simpson opened fire hitting Horatio on hi left shoulder.
"Sir, I said fire a the count of three!!"
"It's a misfire, I assure you!" Simpson threw away the pistol and moved towards Horatio's body." Did I kill him?"
Horatio got up. Pain and anger drew him almost to tears.
"No you did not!"
"Mr. Hornblower you may now return fire at will!" informed Dr. Hepplewhite. Simpson was furious.
"The duel is over, I wounded him!"
"Mr. Simpson, the rules are that Mr. Hornblower can return fire, You mut stand your guard and face him!"
Horatio raised his arm slowly and pointd his gun. Simpson whitened with fear.
"Don't shoot!" he cried desperately" For the love of God! Don't shoot me!!"
He kneeled down.
For just one second Horatio's finger lingered in the trigger. He the raised his arm and a gunshot was fired in the air.
"You are not worth the powder!" he turned his back in disgust.
A second shot was fired in the distance, leaving one body over the white stones.
Captain Sir Edward Pellew was in pensive mood that evening. He didn't regret having intervened with Hornblower's duel. As he always said: his judgment of a man were his own actions, and Simpson revealed himself as a most dishonourable and untrustworthy officer. He suspected that much, when first acquainted with the first duel in Spithead, were Midshipman Clayton was killed. Even though the circumstances of that first duel were not completely known to him, something in Hornblower's eyes told him that this particular young man was incapable of such a careless action.
He moved towards a small table. Letters were spread on its surface.
There was one in particular that filled him with uneasiness. It was from his steward, Mr. Dorson, who requested him most urgently to attend certain matters related to his estate in Oxfordshire. His dark brown eyes sunk in the darkness outside. There was an expression of sadness. Going back was always hard, for he felt no connection with his home.
""This ship is my home now... and the sea. It is so, because I've chosen to be so!"" He closed his eyes, feeling more tired than he had ever been in a long time. A soft knock on his door took him out of his gloomy thoughts.
Midshipman Hornblower, hat in hand entered his cabin.
"Reporting from deck, sir! Fair wind N"NE, course steady."
"Good! Thank you Mr. Hornblower"
"Thank you, sir" He was about to leave, when Sir Edward called him back.
"Mr. Hornblower, a word if you please."
Sir Edward came nearer the young man. A half smile was forming in his lips.
"Well, Hornblower, these two weeks in England are an unexpected leisure. I suppose you are looking forward to be back again, eh?"
Horatio smiled feeling more relaxed.
"Yes, sir. These are good news indeed."
"Do you have family Hornblower?"
"No, sir. My mother died when I was very young and my own excellent father passed away shortly before I reported for duty to the 'Justinian. My only family is my sister, Marianne, who lives at the family house at Everegreen."
"I see." It was not Pellew's custom to question his officers about their personal lives, but with this boy it was different. Somehow his appearance, his clear honest eyes invited to confidences; more than that: friendship.
"Evergreen, you say? That's in Oxfordshire, correct?"
"What an extraordinary coincidence!"
"Well, Hornblower, it seems we've been neighbours for years, not that I have been living much at Wood Hall. That is my house. It is about fifty miles of yours."
"Oh, yes, sir... Most extraordinary coincidence, and a happy one if I may say so!"
"Oh, and why happy if I may know , sir?" Sir Edward's voice was stern, but his eyes were bright and cheerful." Well? Speak up, man!"
"What I meant was... That I was... I mean it is..." Horatio stammered miserably.
"Never mind!" The captain changed abruptly the subject." Do you intend to go directly to your home once we make port at Spithead?"
"Yes, sir. Unless other orders are given."
"I was thinking Mr. Hornblower. Since I'm going too in that same direction. Would it suit you to travel with me as far as your home?"
Horatio couldn't hide his astonishment.
"No, sir. It would be an honour, sir."
"Good! Then all is settled." By the captain's tone of voice the interview was over. Before Horatio left the cabin, he turned around and face him.
"Sir, since I owe you an enormous debt of gratitude... I'll consider an honour if you should come to my house. I would like very much to introduce my sister to you, and since it is a long journey to your own home, with all due respect, may I offer you my house to spend the night?... I mean, my sister and I..."
Pellew looked surprised. His first reaction was to decline such an offer, but he couldn't say it. It was a sincere invitation, offered heartily.
"I accept..Hmm! As long there's no inconvenience to you or your sister." It was hard for him to hide he was deeply touched by Horatio's invitation.
""Damn it! This is not the time to get sentimental, not in front of the boy. ""
"Thank you, sir. There would be no inconvenience at all. I've written much to her about the ship, and the men. She would be delighted."
"Very well then! Carry on, Mr. Hornblower!"
"Yes, sir. Good night, sir."
Sir Edward returned to his desk and sat down. He started reading the latest dispatches, but he couldn't concentrate at all, having to read each line twice, even three times in order to make sense. He stopped. An enigmatic half smile appeared on his face. He felt reconciled with the idea of going back to Wood Hall after all, and for the first time in years, he felt less lonely.
Abbey McClure has been on her feet since dawn. She wanted everything to be in perfect order for her sweet boy's coming home. And he was bringing a distinguished guest no less. What a bad luck the good Dr. Hornblower didn't left his affairs in good order at his death. God only knew they had barely been able to make 'meat ends' for months after Horatio had left. The few good silver pieces left in the house were sold in order to get enough food for Horatio, his guest and the rest of them. Abbey sighed deeply, feeling a lump in her throat. There was a time when that house was filled with comfort, even luxury, and above all joy. Dr. Hornblower was a very respected physician and all the wealthy land owners in the county, even people from London came to consult him. Money was never a problem.
But after his wife died at childbirth" Horatio was five at the time and Marianne almost thirteen" things began to worsen gradually. It was the eldest daughter who took charge of the household. She became mistress, surrogated mother for Horatio and nurse to a depressed abesent"minded father, who decided to cut himself off the world and live in a secluded private world of his own. There was no doubt he loved his children dearly, but that was nothing compared to the love he felt for his dear dead wife.
"Abbey where are you?" A young vibrant voice filled the corridor leading to the kitchen.
"In here, child!"
Marianne entered the kitchen almost covered by flowers. Her straw hat was crooked on her thick auburn curls and her cheeks were the deepest pink ever.
"Good Heavens, child! T'is is not flower pickin', t'is is plunderin'" She went to help the young woman.
"Oh, Abbey, you know I want everything to be perfect and lovely for Horatio. It is fortunate that after only six months at sea he had been given this leave."
She started to arrange the flowers in small colourful bouquets.
"I was rather worried at first. In his letters he seemed unhappy and preoccupied, even though he said everything was fine. And then, that duel business he wrote about lately."
"It's the damn frog's fault if you ask me!" To Abbey McClure there was something worse than being a foreigner" being french was an absolute disgrace".
"Abbey, that's not reasonable! The french government had nothing to do with Horatio's duel!"
"Oh, yes they have! If they were minding their own business, this war would have never started... Killing royalty, indeed! And murdering their own king!... They will all rot in hell! Mind my words!"
"All right Abbey. I concede the point. Now help me with the vases."
"You go upstairs and tidy yourself, child! Leave the flowers to me. Sure as me name is Abigail McClure, you have been runnin' around like a wild thing!"
Once in her room, Marianne began the task of rearranging he hair. It was long, thick, almost down t her waist. No matter how hard she tried, at the end of the day several untamed curls escaped the pins and ribbons. She didn't pay any attention to the way her greenish hazel eyes were shining, how her mouth curved in a smile of delight in anticipation of her brother's arrival. She had nearly finished, when the unmistakable sound of a carriage, announced the long awaited event.
"Abbey, Abbey! Horatio's here!" She flew down the stairs and rush through the door, almost knocking the old woman, who was carrying the flower vases.
There he was, in his uniform, tall, and so handsome, and with such an expression of tenderness in his face, she almost began crying. Horatio opened his arms and came running towards her.
"How's my lovely sister?"
"My darling brother, you are home, safely!" Brother and sister hugged each other very tightly.
Captain Pellew descended out of the carriage and his eyes caught the tender scene. For a second his look was fixed in the feminine figure embracing his officer. She was medium height, but very small and delicate. With the tiniest waist he had ever seen in a woman before. And that hair! His heart started pounding in his chest and for a split second he felt a little envious. What it would be like to be welcome in such a loving way? To have all that loveliness and tenderness in his arms?
Suddenly a pair of bright hazel eyes were upon him, as if she knew what he was thinking. He tried to contrive one of his sphinx"like expressions.
"Do forgive me, sir. Marianne, this is Captain Sir Edward Pellew of His Brittanic's Majesty Frigate 'Indefatigable'. Sir, this is my sister, Marianne."
Sir Edward bowed in a most elegantly manner.
"Sir, welcome to Evergreen Cottage!" Marianne gracefully bent her knee.
"Thank you, Miss Hornblower." Their eyes met. It was just a second but it seemed an eternity to Marianne.
"" He's not at all what I expected. I imagined him a dear old soul like papa, or Captain Keen. But he's so...."" She interrupted her thoughts, feeling herself blushing up to the root of her hair.""My God, what s wrong with me?""
The three of them came closer to the house.
"Where's Abbey?" asked Horatio while holding his sister's hand.
"Waiting for you in the house. So you'd better hurry!"
Horatio rushed in the direction of the house. She then turned to her brother's guest.
"You'll meet quite a character, captain. Mrs. McClure "Abbey"has been in this family since we were children." She laughed a little" I'm afraid you will find her a bit of a dragon! But don't mind her. She is the sweetest of souls. It's just that she's terribly scotch."
Sir Edward nodded politely. Inside the house, Abbey was embracing Horatio with all her might, mumbling some ancient language. It was then that Marianne lifted her eyes to the elegant officer at her side, intrigued by his silence. Their eyes met again, not expecting that kind of inspection from one another. They walked very close to each other in silence.
"" God Almighty! I'm behaving like a complete fool. Say something, Edward or else she might think you an idiotic pup ! ""
But it was Marianne who finally broke the silence.
"Welcome once again captain! I'm really glad you are here with us."
"Thank you Miss Hornblower. I'm deeply grateful for your kind hospitality."
Two days instead of one.
If anyone would have asked Captain Pellew to give a brief account of his first hours at Evergreen Cottage, it would had been a complete surprise to find this man of details and acute memory speechless for the first time in his life. He could though remember vividly an incredible sensation of peace, of tranquillity within. Never in all his life he has received such kind, sincere attentions. Every little detail spoke of a true desire of making him welcome" not merely as an invited guest" but as an important member of the household.
Mrs. McClure was very attentive to him, but he could not help to feel a certain distrust on her part, as if she would say in every word or movement: "Careful captain, I've watched these two from their cradle and while I'm alive nothing and nobody will harm them" . So Marianne was right, she was a bit of a dragon, in the best sense of course.
The food was simple and well cooked. By the appearance of the spotless table cloth, the china, cristal and silver it was evident that the house has known better times, buy still preserved a quiet elegance in its own simplicity.
For the evening, Marianne changed her dress: a simple pale green silk that added brightness to her delicate white skin. There were times when he couldn't kept his eyes from her ("He was sure that Abbey noticed his quick glances at the head of the table"). He memorized every detail of her face: the little wrinkles in her nose every time she smiled or laughed, her small white teeth, a long creamy neck with dozens of playful curls around it. He had never felt this way, not even in his youth, when he still believed in romance, poetry and everlasting love between men and women.
Among the many subjects that entered the conversation that evening, inevitably Marianne asked about the duel incident. Pellew couldn't helped smiling at Horatio's reaction: just like a child who had been misbehaving and was ready to take a good scolding.
"Was no other way to solve the matter?" Asked Marianne. Her voice was soft not accusing, just asking for reasons.
"I'm afraid not."
"I see. And that's where you got your shoulder wounded?"
"Yes, but you mustn't worry. I'm completely recovered now."
"Thank God for that!"
Sir Edward noticed a darker look in her eyes. He could read on them as if they were an open book: concern, devotion and loyalty to her brother. She was deadly curious about the whole affair" after all curiosity was a feminine virtue, and she was more female than any woman he had met in long time"but she wouldn't dare to trespass her brother's privacy, and that gave him enormous satisfaction, for there was nothing he couldn't abide more than foolish interfering women. He tried to rejoin the general conversation, realizing he had lost track of it, submerged as he was in his own thoughts.
""What are they talking about? Music?""
"I was thinking Marianne; perhaps after dinner you could play and sing." Horatio turned to the captain." Sir, my sister excels in music. It is really a pleasure to listen to her."
Marianne lowered her eyes, blushing. Captain Pellew blinked his eyes.
"" My God! . She has the longest eyelashes I have ever seen""
He gave a polite answer in the warmest tone of voice he could manage.
"I'll look forward to it very much. That is if Miss Horblower really wishes it."
"I'm afraid... there's no piano forte."
Horatio looked at her in astonishment.
"No piano!... But, how? What happened?"
"Well my dear. If you remember it was a very old instrument. Time and termites got the better of it in the end. We disposed of it..."
Captain Pellew felt he had to intervene. For a strange reason Hornblower wasn't able to understand that the subject was painful to his sister. He could sense that her explanation was not altogether the truth.
"Well, it is my experience that once the wood is damage either by corruption or insects, there's nothing to do but to use the darn thing as fuel for the fire."
The warm smile given to him by Marianne completely took his breath away."" How could she have such changing expressions in her face?""
"Very true, sir. But never mind. We'll look for another instrument in time. And this I'll promise, next time you'll have a full recital."
"I'm sure I'll enjoy it very much indeed!" was Pellew's polite answer.
The captain's original plans were to spend the night at Evergreen Cottage and make an early start the next morning to Wood Hall. That evening an interminable rain poured for hours, along with thunder and wind. Horatio, Marianne and even Abbey convinced him of the necessity to postpone his journey for another day due to the bad conditions of the roads on such weather. After a little resistance on his part, he finally accepted their hospitality for one more day.
After dinner they all sat in the library. This time conversation flowed more easily; the Navy, the political situation with France and Spain and of course anecdotes from the 'Indefatigable' and his crew. Sir Edward was much surprised to discover how much knowledge of seamanship Marianne displayed. Most women would have openly show their disgust in the subject, and in the best cases their boredom and tried to manipulate the conversation to their domain: gossip and flattery. But Marianne knew how to listen. Her silences were reassuring and respectful and her comments when asked, were assertive, logical and correct.
"You see, sir, when I decided to join the service, my father recommended me to start studying basic seamanship and make a greater effort in Mathematics. My sister, who is a great reader and far more better student than I, help me in this endeavour, testing my knowledge constantly."
"Believe me, captain! One more week of 'Norris Complete Book on Seamanship' and I would have gone out of my wits. Even poor Abbey began to look at the pots and pans as if they were ships about to set sail."
Sir Edward laughed spontaneously. Horatio stared at him in disbelief. He had never, ever in the six months aboard the 'Indie' seen the captain laughed that way. Of course there were moments of good humour, camaraderie and he knew all to well that the captain loved to jest, specially with him. But this, never.
"And your father, didn't object to that kind of reading for your sister?"
"No, sir. Not at all. My father encouraged it. He was a very liberal man concerning education."
"You see, sir. I was fortunate enough to have a father who did not think that education was wasted on women. Since childhood he made me study with Horatio; same subjects, same books, he even taught me the principles of medicine. My mother on the other hand was in charge of more subtle matters"
"Subtle matters! Hmm.. Such as?"
"Well the usual... embroidery, managing a household, dress"making, drawing and music. She was a very proficient pianist." There was a hint of sadness in her voice now. Sir Edward changed the subject.
"And you, Mr. Hornblower. Were you also taught subtle matters?"
"No, sir. Not at all.." said Horatio feeling not very sure of what was his captain's meaning.
Marianne gazed at the captain. He was trying to maintain a serious demeanor, but not very successfully. She burst out with laughter.
"Sir, I must defend my dear brother! Horatio is an excellent dancer."
Her dear brother seemed really distressed by now.
"Oh, that must be quite a sight Mr. Hornblower. I hope you will favour me and your fellow officers with a selection once we are on board the 'Indefatigable'.
"Sir, I think it would be hardly appropriate to... I mean..." He was interrupted by incontrollable laughter both of the captain and her sister.
"Horatio, the captain's jesting! Nobody is asking you to go around your ship jumping and thumping...." She got up from the sofa and kissed him gently on his forehead."You darling fool!"
"" Good Lord! What am I thinking now? I want her to kiss me exactly the same way. No, not exactly the same way... Oh, Edward take a grip of yourself or better, go to bed. This is unpardonable of you!.""
"All right that's enough pampering... What would my captain think of me?" Horatio took one of his sister's hand and kissed it.
Sir Edward became momentarily serious.
"I would think that you are a good officer with a bright future ahead of you. And a very fortunate man in your family situation."
"Thank you, sir." Marianne returned to her seat. Once again the captain's eyes were too intense and attentive on her for her own good. She felt her knees trembling under her skirt.
""My God, he has such beautiful dark eyes! Specially when he looked at me just now. And his voice... so..."" She couldn't finish the thought, for she was blushing intensely.
Horatio felt this was the time to have a share in the conversation. He explained to his sister that most probably the 'Indefatigable' will be returning to Gibraltar once put at sea again. Captain Pellew confirmed this.
"At this moment the diplomatic relations between France and England are practically non existent; and Spain no doubt is waiting in the wings to see who is likely to engage first in open acts of war. You see, Miss Hornblower, Gibraltar is vital for the defence of the Atlantic and is the nearest port of supplies not only for the Navy, but also for the militia on firm land."
"What is Gibraltar like, captain? Does it resemble to England?"
"No, I'm afraid not. It's a rock surrounded by water, very close to the Spanish coast. Not much to see, local fishermen, government buildings, some private houses owned by high ranking officers. The old part of the city is interesting though, and there's a fine view from the Moorish castle on top.
"Then it is an interesting place by your account! And the fact that my brother will be there, makes it worth seeing it all." She got up once again and picked a small book form one of the small tables nearby." Gentlemen, I take my leave now."
The men stood up from their seats.
"I must apologize once more for the inconvenience to both of you. My arrangements were only on day instead of two." Pellew searched into Marianne's face, looking for some kind of reassurance that his presence will not be unwelcome. The smile on her lips was enough.
"There's no inconvenience at all, sir... It is lovely that you should spend with us two days instead of one." Marianne extended her hand to him. Pellew took it in his.
"" Good Heavens! I can't let her go.... But I must...""
Horatio's voice broke the spell.
"Good night, dear sister!" and kissed her gently on her cheeks.
Even though the captain spend one of the most restless night of his life, he woke up shortly before dawn. It was not raining anymore.
""Good! This means I can leave today after all... But, do I really want to leave?"" A part of himself urged him to do so. He could be at Wood hall before tea time, rest a bit, settled his business affairs with Mr. Dorson and start his journey back to Spithead. In less than two days he could be again on board his beloved ship.
"" Perhaps it would not be polite. Hornblower might be offended. No, I'll spend the day here, and continue on the 'morrow... Yes, surely, that's best.""
He finished dressing. And decided to make better use of his time reading in the library until breakfast time.
The house was quiet. He opened the library doors and to his surprise Marianne was standing close to the windows facing the garden. The pale sunlight glittered on her auburn hair, and there was such an expression of reverie in her face, as if she was lost in some private world of her own. He didn't want to disturb her, so very gently started to move back to the door. There was no success. Marianne noticed his presence.
"Good morning , captain! I trust you have slept well?"
"Yes, thank you..." Now it was his turn to feel like the boy caught in mischief."Do forgive, Ms. Hornblower for having disturbed you. I never thought you would have risen so early."
"Oh, I always do. Abbey says that there's not a bed in the whole of England capable of holding me once I opened my eyes in the morning..." She stopped at once, regretting her words. Talking of beds seemed very improper in this situation, and with him looking at her in that serious way.""What would he think of me? ""
On the other hand, the captain was lost in his thoughts.
"" Bed? Not a bed capable of holding her? I'm sure as hell I know one bed that would hold her for a long while... Dear God! What is wrong with me?"" He felt a cold sweat sticking his shirt on his back.
Marianne grabbed the door knob like a drowning man to a lifeline.
"Captain, it is a beautiful morning. Would you care for a little stroll before breakfast?"
"It would be... my pleasure Ms. Hornblower."
Once again he felt they were on safe grounds.
The fields surrounding Evergreen were magnificent that morning. For almost half an hour, Marianne and Pellew walked in silence. Finally conversation broke in.
"My brother tells me you live at Wood Hall."
"Indeed... Fifty miles North"Northeast of Evergreen." He suddenly realized he sounded cold and pompous." " For the love of God, why do I have to talk in latitudes and coordinates, this is ridiculous!""
" That's almost six hours distance. Would you like to send word to your family?
About your delay, I mean.. I'm sure they are eagerly awaiting you."
Captain Pellew felt a lump in his throat. He cleared his voice before answering.
"There's no need for that m'am. Nobody awaits me except my house staff, my steward and an old friend from childhood, who I'm sure will be please enough to see me, no matter the unexpectedness of my arrival. I have no.. family."
Marianne felt his loneliness. A wave of sadness overwhelmed her. She would have liked to tell him that from now he can consider Horatio and herself as his true friends, and that he would always be welcome to their house, no matter the "unexpectedness" of his arrival.
"I see. But nevertheless captain... Those persons will be much preoccupied by your delay... Perhaps they are not family, but they are people who I'm sure have affection, and respect for you..."
"Perhaps.... If it pleases you, I'll send word."
"It does, sir. If I were expecting my brother and he didn't show after a whole day, I know I'll be most concern. I'll give instructions to Abbey to find someone from the village to carry your message."
The path finally led to the top of the hill. Ruins of an antique castle were scattered all around, Only part of the tower was still intact.
"This is a charming spot!" exclaimed Pellew.
"Oh, yes. This hill and these ruins are my favourite place in the world. Horatio and I used to come here when we were children and play all sorts of battles. Sometimes we were Saxons, others Knight Templars. When I was twelve I even sprained my ankle trying to attack Horatio from the top of the tower.... Papa and Mama were furious with me afterwards. I cherished all the memories related to this place."
"For what you are telling me, it seems you were a very active child."
"Too active for my own good. Papa used to say that he and Mama should put a cow bell around my neck in order to know where I was."
"And now, do you still climb towers?"
"No, not towers... But I climb trees from time to time!" Marianne smiled at him. It was a sort of friendly and unpretentious smile, as if they had been friends for a long time.
Sir Edward recalled later that moments at the ruins as one the most joyful he had spent in years. It was a complete discovery of his nature: so accustomed to hide his feelings, he never thought possible to converse in such and easy way, not pretending anything, just being himself and accepted the way he was. Time flew, and Marianne proposed their return to the house. Once they arrived at the cottage, she stopped at the door, wiping her feet covered with mud.
"Come captain! I'm sure you are hungry. And a long day awaits you, for I know Horatio plans to show you every spot in the county."
Captain Pellew couldn't help himself no longer. He took her hand in his and spoke in a very quiet voice, only to her ears.
"Do you know how enchanting and remarkable you are, Ms. Hornblower?"
Marianne became as red as a hot iron. She manage somehow to smile.
"That's a lovely thing to say, sir. Thank you. I promise I won't hold you to it, even if one day you'll change your mind about it."
""I doubt that very much! ""