An American Encounter, Part Three
Ch 23 That Which is Truth
A few of the townspeople recognized him and he would be lying if he said their surprise at his officer's rank did not please him. A word or two about the war, the French, a little praise for him for the work of the navy, and Horatio was on his way, a slight smile playing on his lips at the interest.
After posting the letter to Pamela, Horatio meandered through the town, no clear destination consciously in mind, taking in the sites of his boyhood. Though Archie had been with him the last time he was home, two years ago, after El Ferrol, he had been less interested in reviewing any recollections. Perhaps because of Archie and concern for his friend's continued convalescence after the prison experience, he had been too preoccupied to be visited by memories. Or was it the damned concussion making him so nostalgic? Or was it missing Pamela? Or... missing his mother? Where he ended up was not a surprise. He stopped at the stone fence, stared at the belfry and stone structure of the church, then, pushed against the squeaky iron gate. He entered the grounds, turning eastward towards the graveyard.
Stopping at the entrance to the low-walled cemetery, he surveyed the new and old graves. He knew just where she lay, twelve strides east, four north. Bowing his head, the soft breeze blowing the cape against his legs, he began the well known trek, and soon was looking down at the gravestone. He looked around. No one was present. On one knee, he knelt beside her grave and picked away some stray dead foliage. A bowl of red-berried holly with a sprig of mistletoe sat at the base of the headstone and he smiled ruefully.
//////////"Hubbell! Horatio will see!" she giggled, pressing her arms against the chest of her husband.
"Let him see. A boy should know his father loves his mother."
Horatio watched his father embrace her and kiss her under the hanging mistletoe in the hallway. It was a long kiss, and he hid behind the door post of his bedroom, on tip-toes, peering down at his parents in a clinch. His mother's fingers played in his father's hair. The kiss broke and his mother whispered into his father's ear, then, his da picked her up and carried her, the long skirt of the dress nearly reaching the floor.
Slipping out of his bedroom, Horatio descended just enough steps to peer around and see his father take her into their bedroom and close the door. He sat on the step, cupped his chin, and stared at the mistletoe. It was hung there every year, and every year his father sought to catch his mother beneath it.//////////
'Louisa Harley, Wife of Hubbell Hornblower Born 2 July 1740 Died 5 December 1785 Thyself away thou art present still with me' was inscribed upon the stone.
"Mother." Horatio's chin dropped onto his chest. The cold wind was making his eyes water and he wiped at them. "Mother, I am home. I've come to see you. I am married, Mother. Her name is Pamela. She's American. She is going to have a baby. You will be a grand..." his breath caught, "a grandmother." Pulling his cloak underneath him, Horatio sat on the ground. "Pamela is near as pretty as you," he smiled, "but you will always be my best girl."
//////////"One day you will leave me and marry, Horatio."
"No, I won't, Mother. I will never leave you," he declared defiantly.
His mother tousled his dark curls, then, held his chin. "If you never marry, how am I to become a grandmother?"
His brow was so knit over that declaration, it could have passed for the handiwork of a hedge maker, and his mother laughed, clearing away his furrow.
"I do not expect you to marry tomorrow, dearest," she smiled. "But someday a girl will come along and you will think of nothing else."
"No, I will not. I don't need a girl. I've got you, Mother."
"Oh, sweetheart!" and she kissed him on the forehead and hugged him tightly.//////////
"Think of nothing else," he said wistfully, repeating
the long ago words of his mother. "Indeed, Mother, you were
right," he nodded. "She is all I think of at times,
when duty allows and sometimes even when it does not. I wish
you could meet her. I do love her, Mother....and I am afraid.
I am afraid of losing her as I have lost you." He rose
to his feet abruptly as a feeling of betrayal flew through his
emotions. He brushed his calves. "I will come back...
By the time he returned home, it was dark. Entering and closing the door quietly, he kept his footsteps as silent as possible, reached the stairs and stepped over the fifth step, on the way to his room.
It was his father. He stopped, head lowered, and he wished his cape would make him invisible.
"You had me worried, son."
"Forgive me, Father."
"Abby has saved you some dinner." Hubbell paused, staring into the bowl of his pipe. "I will tell her to lay it for you."
"Father," he turned on the stair, "do not trouble her. I am not hungry." It was out of his mouth without thinking. His eyes locked with his father's. Of course his da would want him to eat. He stepped down to the closet, removing his cloak and hat as he went. "I need to wash my face and hands. I will return presently if you wish to inform her. Thank you, sir."
Hubbell watched him climb the stairs and disappear into his room.
Not many minutes later, Horatio returned and took a seat at the dining table. Mrs. Grayson arrived with steaming sausages, fried potatoes, winter squash, beans, carrying the dish with a thick dark green hand towel.
"Careful of this plate, sir, it's been in the oven," she cautioned as she sat it before him.
"May I join you?"
Horatio turned to see his father in the doorway, and nodded. "Of course, Father."
Hubbell sat heavily in the chair and leaned the cane against his leg.
"What can I get you, Dr. Hornblower?" asked Mrs. Grayson. "A nice cup of tea and a bit of brown bread?"
"Perfect, Abby," smiled the doctor.
"I apologize for not returning in time for dinner, sir."
"Eat, son. It will get cold quickly if you do not."
Tucking into the sausages, Horatio noticed he was hungry after all. The plump round and brown sausages were delicious. Fried potatoes with onions and a touch of bacon was one of his favorites, and he smiled. "Miss Abby remembered."
"She is a good woman. I am fortunate to have her and Donald."
"I, too, am glad they are with you, Father."
"Do you want to tell me where you were till these hours?"
"Here's your tea, sir," said Mrs. Grayson bundling in with a tray. "I've brought several slices of bread, some for you, too, Mr. Horatio, and there's an extra pot of hot water for more tea. Will you be needing anything else, sir?"
"This is grand, Abby. Off to bed with you."
"Thank you, sir. I've left a hot water bottle for each of you on the table near the kettle. If you need me..."
"We can manage. Go on to bed," advised the doctor kindly.
"Goodnight, Miss Abby," said Horatio.
The door closed behind her. Hubbell reached for the teapot and poured for the two of them, then, prepared the bread.
"Sorry, Father," he said bashfully.
"That word seems constantly to be in your vocabulary."
"I went for a walk and lost track of time. It grew dark... then, on the way back, I took the fork to the left when I should have gone right. I was some ways along before I realized."
Hubbell chuckled. "Navigational prowess?"
Horatio laughed, too, beneath the blush.
"Why were you in such deep thought?"
Horatio shrugged, then shook his head. "In a nutshell? I am worried about Pamela. I miss her. And the memories of ... Mother, seem to be overwhelming."
"Why are you worried? The pregnancy?"
Horatio nodded, and thought, **Amongst other things.**
"Who will attend her?"
"There is a mid-wife next door, and Pamela knows a doctor at the naval hospital should things ... not..."
Hubbell put a hand on his son's. "These are the worries of every expectant father, Horatio."
"Have you a reason she would not deliver safely?"
"No, sir. Pamela is quite healthy and fit."
Horatio stared into space, as if there was something else he wanted to say, and Hubbell quietly waited.
"It isn't the pregnancy alone. I fear... I am never going to see her again, Father."
Horatio lowered and shook his head. "I do not know. It is a foreboding." He met Hubbell's concerned gaze. "She felt it, too."
"It is compounded by the loss of your mother."
Horatio swallowed, feeling his chest tighten. What he said was true.
"The two of them resemble and indeed, from what you have told me, Pamela is much like my Louisa, your mother. Might you not be laying those old..."
"No. No. It's different."
"I don't know what to say, Horatio." Pushing up from the table, Hubbell stepped to the side board, removed a bottle of brandy, and two glasses. "Do not get me wrong. Alcohol is not the answer, but let us have something a bit stronger than tea before we retire." He removed the stopper.
The two of them sipped the liquor. Hubbell seemed thoughtful and Horatio said nothing more, hoping his father might have some words to assuage his fearful thoughts, but doubted there were any to be had. Finally, his father spoke.
"Horatio, you have to live your life. Do what you know to be right. Comport yourself as the gentleman I know you are. Continue to behave bravely in the face of the danger in which you exist. Love your wife. Love your child. Be there, when life makes it possible. Other than that, you do not rule the universe." Hubbell gathered the remaining thoughts. "If your mother were here," Hubbell patted the back of Horatio's hand, "she would tell you ... ," his father stopped again, furrowed his brow, and stared at his hand on his son's, "she would tell you ..." his eyes raised to Horatio's, " to trust God." Hubbell inhaled long, lowered his eyes, and removed his hand. "I never thought I would say those words, Horatio."
Horatio bowed his head. Was that the best his father could offer?
"He has not proved trustworthy thus far," said Horatio bitterly.
Horatio's conscience pained immediately. Why was that not true and what was he refusing to admit? He did not believe in prayer, even though his thoughts sometimes seemed like a prayer. Was he not praying that night in the foretop? That he did, frustrated him. Why do men constantly utter the name of a being that does not exist? It was habit. It was a way to speak. It did not mean anything. Well, maybe to some of the weaker minded it did.
"I am going to tell you something your mother once said to me, then I will say goodnight."
Horatio met the kindly blue eyes of his father who told him that first night in Portsmouth that as a man aged, sometimes he had to reevaluate what he believed. Dr. Sebastian constantly spoke of prayer and God, Pellew, he knew to be a Christian, and even Archie appeared to believe, not to mention Pamela.
"Look for Him in the details. That is what Louisa said. I've thought about that phrase many times in my long nights alone and after you left for the navy." Hubbell was quiet and then said, "Another night, perhaps I will tell you how you have brought an understanding to that phrase."
"Why another night, Father?" he asked anxiously despite himself.
"It is late and I am tired. You have enough to ponder with those few words. Believe me, I know."
Horatio stood and stacked the dishes on the tray. His father opened the door and the two of them went to the kitchen. Hubbell picked up the ceramic water bottle and stood it on end.
"Are you warm enough up there, son?"
"Yes." Horatio lifted the kettle and poured into one bottle, while his father positioned the next. "Mother's quilt keeps me warm."
Hubbell smiled. "She was a marvel with a needle and thread. If she were here now, she'd be working day and night to make you a new uniform. Nobody was more surprised than I to find out Louisa was Mrs. Coulson's London supplier."
"I thought you knew. Your mother. She used to make clothes for Mrs. Coulson to sell in her shop. I didn't know until after she passed. Mrs. Coulson gave me the last of what your mother earned." His father shook his head. "Louisa never told me. She knew I would not have allowed her to do it. I always wondered how she made my meager earnings go so far." He looked at his son's shocked features, and took his arm. "I see you have even more to ponder. To bed with you, Horatio. Tomorrow is another day."
The days passed, a trip to Portsmouth and a check of Indefatigable, all was well. At least, the bowsprit had been removed if not yet replaced. Archie had gone to visit his family and was not expected back until the day before Christmas Eve, when Mr. Bracegirdle would be going home for a fortnight, if no word was received to return to Indefatigable before then. Rampling's family lived in Portsmouth and he visited with them when his duties would allow, sometimes sleeping in ship and sometimes not, Pellew's boon. Men with families in Portsmouth were released to go home, but the majority of their pay was withheld until they returned, that was the deal Pellew worked out with the men. The money from the prizes taken on the way back to England was a tidy little sum and was incentive enough to bring them back. Besides, Pellew was still known as a prize taking captain, and losing a berth on his ship was something to regret. Of course, there were the naval 'wives' that were living on the ship with those who remained. Sebastian was not there.
In Haslemere, the memories of Horatio's mother became comfortable and welcome. He and his father spoke of her easily, both of them reflective together. It was good to speak her name, when before, it was nigh impossible; his father had mellowed over the years. Some recollections of his mother, Horatio compared to Pamela and he realized more and more just how much Pamela and Louisa were alike. Smiling ruefully to himself, he used to try to examine how and why love for Pamela came so easily and so swiftly, even though he recognized from the outset that Pamela's features reminded him of his mum. Snorting, he remembered his mother climbing up a tree for him, and shook his head recalling Pamela up the main mast.
Dressed warmly in civilian clothes, Horatio trudged through the new fallen snow to the little barn behind the cottage. As he opened the door, the smell of dry hay and dust met his nostrils. The dark brown horse snorted and nodded its head, surprised by Horatio's entrance to his present quarters.
"Is he ready, Donald?" Horatio peered at the leather reins, buckles, and trappings that connected the horse to the sleigh.
"Aye, I'm near done. He's a frisky one, this colt. Take it easy with him, or is your da driving?"
"Father, I imagine. I've not had much experience steering a horse," answered Horatio. "Frisky, is he?"
"Mmm. 'Mind your da keeps him in rein. I can just see the two of you headed across a meadow at full tilt, this one with the bit between his teeth," said Donald completing the hitching. "Still, ridin's better than walkin' in this weather. Dan Coulson coulda give ye old Marleybone instead," Donald continued, thinking aloud as he placed the reins over the edge of the sleigh. "He's sure and steady, but he wanted to keep him for the misses should somethin' bad happen." Donald cocked an eye at Horatio. "Sorry youngun, don't mean to make ye worry."
"What's his name?" asked Horatio ignoring the reference to fears for Pamela's pregnancy.
"Hm." Donald frowned and his brow furrowed. "Fireball." He shook his head. "Like I said, keep a tight rein on him. Horses don't get names like that fer no reason. Open the doors, will ye, Mr. Horatio?"
Donald held the bridle at the horses head and the colt snorted and jerked. The animal's ears flicked forward and his eyes flashed at the wide open doors to a white world. He was lifting his knees high and prancing, the cold weather and clear smell of new fallen snow exciting. The horse lowered his head nearly to the ground, pulling Donald's arm with him, and snorted repeatedly.
"I'll walk him around front. Get your da."
"Yes, sir," answered Horatio automatically to the order. He bounded through the back door, the warmth of the house assaulting him after being in the cold temperatures. "Father?" he called.
"In here, Horatio," came the voice.
Horatio stood in the door of the little room where his father kept his doctoring things. A cabinet of many small drawers stood to the side and a couple of them were standing open. Bottles of varying sizes lined the shelves. The high table, where his father performed a rare surgery at home, held a stack of books and an open case in which his father was checking the implements.
"The sleigh is ready," informed Horatio.
"Mm. Good," answered his father absently, moving to a shelf, lifting a bottle, then another, and placing it inside the case. "You know, Horatio, the navy has done immeasurable good for the common man where health is concerned."
Hubbell picked up a journal and held it out to him. "Yes. You might find this fascinating reading. Dr. Lind. His observations and practices appear sound to me. Dr. Trotter, I read, has continued to press Dr. Lind's suggestions to the navy. Take this one, too." He passed Horatio another booklet.
Horatio read a few lines of the cover page. Indeed, this Dr. Lind was discussing ship board life and medical measures.
"Stick it in your pocket. You will have time to read, I think. You may find something to help you when you command a ship of your own," smiled Hubbell. "Have you your kit?" His father bent over a paper and was writing.
"Yes, sir. It's by the door. Where is yours?"
Hubbell gestured behind him. "There." He grabbed Horatio's forearm to get his attention. "Are you sure you want to accompany me on this one?"
Horatio answered, looking him in the eye. "Yes, sir. Right now, I fear Fireball more than Meryl Coulson's delivery."
"Ha ha ha! Indeed," laughed Hubbell. "Spirited, is he? Get that extra bag, too."
"Donald says to keep a tight rein on him," Horatio answered lifting Hubbell's kits and following down the hallway to the front door.
"Oh, you two. Making this trip right here on Christmas Eve. Do be careful, Dr. Hornblower. Don't you let him over tire himself, Horatio," worried Miss Abby, cupping her cheek.
"We will be fine, Abby. Do not expect us back for a few days, unless that child decides to cooperate. I've left you a list of what bottles need shaking starting tomorrow. I don't want to lose those tinctures due to inattention."
"I'll give 'em a shake everyday, sir. Don't you worry. I'll be praying for all of you. You tell Mrs. Coulson I send her my best, won't you, Doctor?"
"I will, Abby, now stop your worrying. You and Donald enjoy the peace of the house, eh?"
"I'll be on pins and needles till you return, sir, worried for the lot of you."
"So be it, Abby. So be it." Hubbell looked over her head, saw the mistletoe, and kissed her on the cheek. "Merry Christmas, Abby."
Horatio moved in next and did the same, grinning. "Merry
Christmas, Miss Abby."
The appearance of the mistletoe after so many years of absence was an unexpected surprise. Julia Arminter had been the first recipient of his father's attention, and it was where Horatio gained his first suspicions. But the two parted as quickly as the innocent kiss had been given, both of them pinking under Horatio's gaze. He found he liked Mrs. Arminter, and she was good company for his father. Around her, his da brightened as he had not seen in a decade. Miss Abby patted his chest twice, dispelling the swift recollections.
"You two Hornblower boys! I do declare!"
Both of the "boys" chuckled and grinned at each other as they exited the front door.
The colt was standing steady though his look was attentive. The weight was attached to the bridle ring. Donald met Horatio to unburden him somewhat.
"There's storage in the back," informed Donald, his steps crunching to the rear of the sleigh. "Nice little rig, this. Are ye sure ye don't want me along, Doc?"
"No. You stay here with your wife, Donald. It's Christmas. I won't have her alone."
"All right, sir. This colts young fer doin' this kind o' duty. I'd wager this is only the second time he's been tied to a sleigh. Watch him closely."
"Thank you for the warning, Donald," said the doctor, laying his cane down, and settling into the seat, taking the reins. "Horatio, get the weight."
"Yes, sir." Stepping carefully beside the horse's front legs, Horatio released the clip securing the weighted line to the bridle. "Whoa, Fireball," he said softly. He bent to retrieve the iron biscuit, then, climbed in beside his father, adjusting the lap blanket to cover them both. "This is like old times, da."
Hubbell turned quickly hearing the childhood term, and smiled. "It is, son. Though we've never been for a sleigh ride that I can recall." He lifted the reins softly to tap the horses rump, and the sleigh lurched with the tug.
The cold wind was chilling as the little horse trotted the five miles out the east road towards the Coulson's farm. Horatio noticed something sticking him in the side and he pulled the two journals from his coat pocket.
Hubbell nodded towards them. "Those medical journals I gave you, Doctors Lind and Trotter expound on cleanliness. Preserving health not preventing disease, Lind says, is the focus of medicine. Simple. Wise. If you preserve the health there will be no disease to prevent." He smiled briefly at Horatio.
"Dr. Sebastian is of a like mind, I believe, sir."
"Take those with you when you return to Indefatigable. He might like to read them if he has not already."
"Meryl's mid-wife should be there even though these complications set in a ways back," thought Hubbell aloud. "We will need hot water, Horatio, once the birth begins. Clean linen. That is what is in the extra kit. I do not want to take a chance on none being prepared since... I just want to be ready. Meryl is the second mother of three children. I don't want them deprived of another."
"No, sir. I know you will do your best. You are a fine physician, Father."
"I appreciate your confidence in my abilities." Hubbell watched the road and nodded.
The two were quiet, each wrapped in private thought. Hubbell looked askance at his son. Horatio seemed to be doing better. There had not been another incident like the first night in Portsmouth. Neither had he disappeared, as he had that second night in Haslemere. The thought led him to recall the conversation. It had not been broached since then and Hubbell was curious what conclusions Horatio might have reached.
"Do you remember our discussion that night you were late for dinner?"
"Mother's phrase about details?"
"Yes." Hubbell was only slightly surprised that Horatio knew immediately what he referenced.
Hubbell eyed Horatio briefly but spoke not a word.
"She means ... that God can be found in the smallest inconsequential areas of life?"
"You said I brought you an understanding of the phrase. How?" Blue sky above flashed through his memory, he shivered, and stared at his wrist, twisting it to view the veins on the underside.
Hubbell breathed deeply, eyes on the horse and the way of the lane.
"I ..." sighing, "Do not be upset by what I am about to tell you." He glanced at Horatio and wavered, finally speaking. "I should have died a year ago November."
A flash of pain shot through Horatio's head. //////////He looked over his bare shoulder and up to the yard where the noose hung, dangling in the breeze.//////////
"The stroke," said Hubbell.
Horatio bowed his head, then raised. "I am glad you did not, sir."
Hubbell patted Horatio's knee. "Me, too, son. Once the grim reaper made his appearance in my life, after I had wished him there for so many years, I found myself with more regrets... about you... and... " Hubbell turned and glimpsed Horatio, then set his eyes forward. "After the stroke, my speech was affected. I know. It is fine now, but for three months, I could not speak. My speech began to return, but it was quite affected and I was very frustrated. Julia visited me regularly."
Horatio listened and felt his face redden with the mention of Mrs. Arminter. Another stabbing pain in his head, the mistletoe, his mother in his father's arms, changing to Julia, altering to reveal himself with Pamela.
"Julia prayed for me. At first when she started the practice, I was incensed. I did not want to hear it. I did not want her to do it. But I could not speak, and half my body was paralyzed."
//////////Horatio pulled at the bindings around his wrists and felt the rope cut into them. His half naked body shivered with the cold wind's caress./////////
"Fortunately, my incapacity prevented me from being rude to her and telling her off. As the days passed, I came to first see it as a punishment for all those years when I had feigned religiosity to help my patients." Hubbell raised an eyebrow, and a crooked half smile shown. "God has a strange sense of humor."
"You are saying the prayers of Mrs. Arminter ... helped your recovery?"
"I do not know, Horatio. Maybe time was the healer... but she was there... and she was praying for me. My speech was ... near unintelligible. Julia set up a series of hand signals for me until... this story is much too long. Am I boring you?"
"No, Father, please, continue." Horatio forced his pained head to focus on his father's words.
"Julia prayed and prayed, until finally she said I was blocking my healing." Hubbell turned to look at his son to see how that was received. "Julia can be a forceful woman when she wants to be."
"What did she do?"
"She threatened to stop coming to see me. She said she had already watched one husband die by degrees and that she was not going to watch me."
//////////Archie's blue eyes and concerned but supportive expression connected with Horatio across Oceanus' deck./////////
Horatio was feeling queasy listening to his father speak of his illness, or from the headache, and ... God in it? The old war raged in his soul, the God that took his mother. His heart was near beating out of his chest, and he broke out in a sweat beneath the layers of clothing in the freezing temperatures.
"What did you do?" Horatio asked, but felt strangely disconnected from his speech.
//////////Horatio shook his head no at Kennedy. *Don't let them do anything foolish, Archie.*/////////
"I grabbed onto her hand with my one good one and would not let her go."
//////////Horatio gripped the grating with angered futility, his wrists bound.//////////
"I did not understand her, this coming from a woman who watched her husband die from consumption. If I could have spoken clearly I would have argued with her that surely Charles had asked for healing and not been granted it. She broke into tears and said, 'God will not force Himself on you. You've got to ask Him. Just ask.' she said, 'Ask Him to heal you.' "
//////////Pamela's lips brushed his cheek. Her deep brown eyes gazed urgently at his own. "You only need ask."//////////
Hubbell continued. "It was more religious mumbo to me, but in that crucial moment, I realized I was about to lose her, and it hit me like a slap across the face, that I did not want to lose her."
//////////Archie struck him. The sound of Archie's hand hitting his cheek echoed in his ears; the cold skin stung with the impact. Archie grabbed the lapel of his coat and bounced him against the grating./////////
Hubbell turned to look at his son, whom he no longer felt as close next to him. "Horatio!" He hauled back on the reins to halt the sleigh and Fireball snorted and tossed his head. Leaning towards his son, he cupped Horatio's face and checked the neck pulse. "Horatio! Son?" Hubbell jumped from the sleigh, the need for a cane forgotten. With the weight to hand, he secured Fireball, then, he lay Horatio on the seat of the sleigh, elevating his legs. The lap blanket tucked around Horatio, he held his son's hand and rubbed the back of it, then stroked his son's forehead, and waited.
"Indy, no. Warn them. No way to warn them. Leave me be, Archie!" Horatio grabbed the hand on his face and sucked a breath, opening his eyes and seeing the same bright, azure blue sky and feeling the same cold, but this time he was clothed. His eyes flickered and he saw it was his father, not Archie, whose hand he held. "Father!" He panted and turned to the back of the sleigh, drawing a sharp breath. "What happened?"
"I was hoping you could tell me." Hubbell felt his son trembling. "What happened to Indefatigable?"
Horatio shook his head.
"You can tell me, son. You've got to tell me,... for your own sake, Horatio. Captain Pellew wants you back well. What about Indefatigable?" Hubbell pressed.
The hard swallow was audible and visible as Hubbell kept a close eye on his only son.
"It would have been my fault. My fault. I... acted impulsively. Not giving a thought to others. The ship could have been destroyed... taken, worse yet,... and it would have been my fault. My stubborn bravado because I lost Renard de Mer. I would have been responsible for all their deaths. A beating and hanging is what I deserved. Oh God, Pamela! Forgive me!" Horatio covered his eyes.
Giving Horatio a moment, Hubbell gently took the hand from Horatio's face, leaving him exposed.
"Your ship is fine. The people are fine, Horatio."
Horatio shook his head. "No thanks to me."
"You followed your instincts. You did not know there would be three ships of the line waiting for you."
Horatio turned astonished eyes on his father.
"Yes, I know. You went after your men, taken by... Armant, but instead of that single ship, you came upon it plus three ships of the line. You rescued your men, Horatio."
"He was going to destroy Indefatigable."
"Indefatigable sits in Portsmouth Harbour awaiting repair."
"I would be responsible for all their deaths."
"They did not die. You were instrumental in sweeping the seas clean of a ... madman."
"You know of Effington?"
"Dr. Sebastian told me ... and Archie. He is a good friend, Horatio. I know both of them were under orders not to speak of him."
Horatio turned his head away from his father and hugged his stomach. "I feel sick. Let me up." Horatio clumsily exited the sleigh and staggered to a nearby tree. Leaning a hand against the rough bark, he vomited.
Hubbell waited close by while Horatio cleansed his mouth with snow. Horatio faced his father, then looked away, ashamed of what he was.
"You are blaming yourself for something that did not happen."
"But it could have. I was helpless to warn them, Father. I should have warned them. Better yet, none of us should have been there."
"Did you know Pellew was coming after you? According to Archie, it was Indefatigable's arrival on the scene that stopped your beating and execution."
That was true. Horatio leaned his back against a tree, then bent over, rested his hands on his knees, and looked up at his father. "Yes, and she could have been destroyed if it were not for Edrington's bomb."
"As I was told. Did you not supply the time for Edrington to compose the bomb?"
"It was his idea."
"So. You did not stop him from creating it, did you?" Hubbell could see the muddled thinking Archie was talking about. "Do you think you are the only person that can save the day?" he accused.
"No! No, Father!"
"Damn it. Horatio, you've made me swear!" Hubbell slipped fingers over his forehead, thinking, then, stared at his son. "God was in the details, wasn't He? You've been fine until today when we started discussing this. What did He do, Horatio? What did you do? I know you have blamed Him, me, yourself, for Louisa's death. She was sick. A disease killed her. Not you, not me, not God. I know that now. You need to face it, too."
"Stop, Father, please!" he cried, covering his face.
"I cannot stop. I cannot let you bury this. What did you do that day on Oceanus that you do not want to face? It is not that Indefatigable could be destroyed. What did you do?"
Horatio hung his head, shaking it in disbelief but knowing the truth. "I prayed! I asked God to help us! Pamela told me to ask, and I did."
Hubbell stepped closer to his son.
"It isn't a bad thing to pray, Horatio. You reached a point where there was nothing else you could do." Hubbell knew he was on the right tack. He knew his son. He had been mulling over the events relayed to him in Portsmouth. This was the key. Surely he had found the key to what was weighting his son. "He answered it, did he not?"
Horatio shook his head, verging on tears. "You cannot truly believe that."
"Don't you? Is that not part of what is confounding you? That God might help you, when you consider Him anathema? Think. Your hands were tied to a grating. You were stripped and about to be beaten. You used the only weapon you had and it was one you had never used before."
How did his father know all these details? Sebastian and Archie? Perhaps Pellew? Or was it Matthews and Styles? His father had spent an afternoon in Portsmouth having a drink with his men. Horatio covered his eyes, and Hubbell embraced him.
Horatio wanted to tell his father, no, but to do so, he would have to push away from where he stood and something in him needed this embrace more than he needed to refute God.
"You are safe now. Tell me, Horatio. I want you to remember. What happened after you prayed?" It was time to drain the poison from the abcess in his emotions. The internal physical injury was healing; the emotional one was ready.
Horatio calmed. He wanted to go back to Indefatigable. These 'spells' he was having had to stop. What if he blanked out during a battle from some unbidden memory? He rested his cheek against his father's shoulder and looked at the bright white snow surrounding the trees. "I prayed." he confessed weakly. "The flogging was about to begin when Indy was sighted." He gripped his father's back becoming tense, reliving those moments. "I remember mocking God for the answer, that now I would not only be beaten but made to watch the destruction of my ship. When I saw the white ensign on Ulysses, I wanted to scream. I wished the beating were over and that I was already hanged. Then, Archie came. He wanted me to think of something to do. I couldn't. All I could see was that my ship, my captain, the crew, were about to be ... destroyed by Ulysses and it would be my fault. I would be responsible for so great a loss of life." He turned his face into his father's shoulder, his breath catching in his throat.
"Go on, son," he said softly.
"Archie... " his throat closed on the following words.
Horatio nodded, no longer surprised by what his father knew. All that was left was voicing his experience, his fear, his guilt. The flood gates were open. There was no stopping him now. "Yes. And then he carried me over to the side and threw me overboard. The water was so cold. We swam to Renard de Mer. Dooley came and helped us. Archie insisted I take command. I did not want it. Then, Ulysses exploded, and I knew it was Edrington's bomb. Our men were back on board, Edrington and Bentley. The men on Oceanus started firing at us soon after. We were about to get under weigh when Oceanus exploded. That is when I was wounded. The explosion caught Renard on fire. Edrington pulled me to Indefatigable." Horatio relaxed against his father, resting his cheek on his shoulder once more and silent tears streamed down his cheeks.
Hubbell said nothing, giving his son time.
"If Ulysses had not exploded when it did, Indefatigable might have been destroyed. Why do you think it took so long for the bomb to explode? Why did it end up on Ulysses instead of Oceanus? Weren't you expecting it to go anytime?"
Horatio nodded. "I thought the barrel might have leaked, or been discovered for what it was. You are saying it was saved for just that moment?"
"Can we ever know this side of heaven?" asked Hubbell. "Horatio, you know more about the situations surrounding the people and events in which you live. I do not understand why it is easier for women, like your mother, to have faith than for men like us. I can only assume it is because of their weaker nature, that they are willing to depend on something greater than themselves. Whereas we are used to being the strong ones, indeed, we are expected to be."
Horatio released his father and looked into his face as Hubbell continued.
"We are the ones that think we can do it all on our own... a prideful lot. You can see, I have given this a good deal of thought. Personal brushes with death make one introspective." He smiled and lay a hand on Horatio's cheek, wiping a damp streak with his thumb. "But then, you already know that." Smiling and sighing, he said, "We have a baby to deliver...." Hubbell's eyes sparkled. "There may be something for you to learn about life." He tweaked Horatio's chin, then, returned to the sleigh.
Horatio retrieved the weight and climbed in. His father smiled again before clicking at Fireball and tapping the reins. Despite the cold, Horatio's eyelids became heavy, his head drooped onto his chest, and he fell asleep. A jostling lurch woke him from where he slumbered against his father's shoulder as he reached a hand to catch himself.
"Whoa, Fireball!" called his father. "This horse knows he's home," said Hubbell leaning back and pulling with all his might on the reins.
The horse's head was low on its chest as it strained against the bit and drug them next to the barn.
"As you wish," sighed Hubbell, releasing the reins.
Fireball took another step toward the barn and whinnied loudly, nodding his head.
The house was about a hundred feet away. A man emerged from a back entrance and waved, walking rapidly towards them. "Dr. Hornblower!"
Hubbell opened the storage compartment of the sleigh and retrieved his case.
The man extended a hand as he strode. "Thank you for coming, Doctor, it bein' Christmas."
Hubbell accepted the greeting. "It is what I do, Dan. This is my son, Horatio. I do not know if you remember him."
Coulson offered his hand to Horatio. "I certainly do, though I doubt he remembers me. Many a time I watched you whilst your mum talked with mine. You were a wee lad, about the size of my Danny," motioning about two feet off the ground.
"He is home on leave from the navy," informed Hubbell. "I left Donald home with Abby, so Horatio came along."
"Glad to see ye again, Horatio." Coulson automatically removed the items from the sleigh and carried all the bags, save the one in Hubbell's hand, leaving Horatio empty handed and feeling awkward.
"You and he have something in common. His wife is expecting in late February, early March."
"Indeed so? Your first?" Coulson took long steps toward the house and looked back at Horatio.
"Yes," he blushed, finally able to get a word in edgewise.
"This'll be my fourth but Meryl's first. Are ye worried?"
"It is a trying time. May your wife and mine both deliver safely."
Horatio nodded his thanks.
"I'm ever so glad ye've got here, sir. Mrs. Donnelly has not come and I am doubting she will. She's got sickness at home and she knew ye were attending my Meryl already."
"I see," said Hubbell, evaluating what that would mean for himself, Dan, and Horatio. "Have you taken the other children to your mother's home?"
"Well, that's just it, sir. I haven't. I did not want to leave Meryl on her own. I thought once you arrived, I 'd take them. I would have sooner if Mrs. Donnelly had come," Coulson added quickly.
"I understand, Dan. Do not worry. You go ahead. Horatio and I will be with Meryl."
"I thank you, Dr. Hornblower."
Though his hands were full, Dan Coulson was able to open the door for the Hornblowers. They entered a mud room and Coulson stamped his feet to knock snow and dirt from his boots. He slipped between Hubbell and Horatio, opened the next door, and passed into a moderately sized hallway with coat pegs on the wall. Setting the bags on a long narrow bench, he moved an assortment of outerwear to make room for the Hornblowers' apparel.
"Hang your coats there, gentlemen."
A little girl of about five years, dressed in a long sleeved beige dress buttoned up to her neck, stared at Horatio with big brown eyes beneath a full head of bouncing brown curls.
Hubbell grinned broadly at the girl. "Joelly. You are looking extremely pretty today." He motioned towards Horatio. "I've brought my little boy to see you."
She grinned doubtfully. "He isn't little, Dr. Hornblower."
"No, but he will always be my little boy." He reached and tickled her side. "Horatio, this is Joelly Coulson. She has agreed to marry me when she comes of age. Joelly this is Horatio."
She curtsied, pulling her skirt out to the side, and Horatio smiled and bowed, making a leg. "How do you do?"
Joelly giggled and ran out of the room, curls bouncing over her head and shoulders.
"Meryl's resting now, Doctor, but she had a rough night last night. She couldn't sleep and I couldn't keep her in bed no matter how many times I used your name," informed Coulson.
"Why don't you acquaint Horatio with the kitchen, Dan, while I see her."
"Yes, sir. Come on, Horatio."
Horatio was shown where food stuffs were kept, including a ready made dinner brought over by a neighbor early that morning, a roasted chicken surrounded with bright orange yams and a bowl full of green Brussels sprouts. Horatio arched an eyebrow at the hated vegetable but said nothing about it to Dan. A loaf of fresh bread sat covered on a cutting board and a crock of creamy butter was near the window. Tea, cups, sugar, milk, everything they could possibly desire for refreshment was pointed out, including a fruit cake under a ceramic lid.
"You don't know how much I appreciate your da doing this for Meryl. She trusts him. It means a lot to her for him to be here."
"I know he is pleased to help, Mr. Coulson," agreed Horatio.
"Call me Dan or I shall have to call you Mr. Hornblower," he remarked. Dan inhaled a nervous breath. "I hate this waiting. I dearly do." He ran a hand over his thinning hair, being older than Horatio by at least ten years if not more. "I've got to get the children to my mum's. I don't want them to hear... I mean. If ye can, it's best they aren't around. More worry, you know?"
"Of course," nodded Horatio, but he did not really know, but he could imagine. There was only the one time he accompanied his father on a delivery. He remembered the woman was vocal about how she felt about her husband but nothing more.
"If you'll excuse me, I want to see how it goes with Meryl."
"Yes." Horatio agreed and was left alone in the kitchen. Taking a breath, he looked around at the trappings. It was relatively clean. Dishes from breakfast had been washed and were set to drain but not put away. He lifted the lid on the teapot and thought about making tea, still feeling a bit chilled from the ride over. A sound behind him made him spin around.
A boy stood in the doorway holding a smaller one. "This is my little brother, Danny."
"Hello, Danny," said Horatio with a slight smile and nod.
The little boy removed his index finger from the side of his mouth and held it out to Horatio. "Daaaaa?" asked Danny.
"No," chuckled Horatio, cocking an eyebrow, "not yet, anyway."
The older boy set him down on his own two feet and took his hand.
"My name is James. Joelly said you were Dr. Hornblower's little boy. How old are you?"
"I'm twenty-three," answered Horatio.
"You have your da's mouth," commented James. He touched his own cheek. "You have dimples like Dr. Hornblower."
Horatio tried to stop from revealing those dimples, but the comment made him smile. "I suppose I do."
"I have my da's nose," said James touching the member. "Danny has our mum's eyes. Meryl isn't our real mother, but her baby will be our brother or sister. Mrs. Donnelly says she is going to have a boy."
"Do you want a brother?" asked Horatio.
James shrugged. "It will be a while before he can help out," he sighed. "Danny is not much help yet."
Horatio squatted down to their level. "How old are you, James?"
The two boys stepped nearer to him, the younger one toddling with a thick nappy between his legs. "I'm eight. Danny is almost two." Danny offered his index finger for Horatio to see up close.
Horatio smiled and held out his hand. Danny toddled closer and touched the center of Horatio's palm with the wet appendage, then looked into Horatio's face and grinned, revealing some upper and lower teeth.
"I have a little boy, well, he is not mine, but he lives with my wife. He will be eight soon."
"Where is he? In town? Could he come to play at my gram's house?"
Horatio chuckled. "He is not in Haslemere, I'm afraid."
"Where is he? What is his name?"
"He is a long way away at a place called Gibraltar. Have you heard of it?"
James shook his head. Danny was grinning and playing the hand game he started with Horatio, rubbing the wet finger across Horatio's palm.
"His name is Drake, Robin Drake."
"Why isn't his name Robin Hornblower? Oh yeah, you said he was not your little boy. Is he your wife's little boy?"
"No. He just lives with us."
"He's an orphring then." James's brow furrowed. "If he lived here they would make him work in the shot factory, I bet. Does he work in a factory in Gi..."
"No, he does not work," smiled Horatio, "unless it is to help Pamela around the house."
"Your wife's name is Pamela?"
"How come you're here and she's there?"
Horatio's eyebrows rose. "That is a very good question, James."
Coulson returned and ordered the boys away from Horatio, apologizing, then, the two men went to the barn to trade out Fireball for Marleybone. By eleven o'clock, Coulson and the three children were ready to leave, and Horatio waved good-bye, the five of them exchanging Christmas farewells, Coulson vowing to return as soon as possible.
In the coming hours, Hubbell planned out the regimen with Horatio, telling him what to expect, and that the baby was in a breech position, ready to come into the world buttocks first. The contractions were hours apart and they did not last long, but that could change any moment, especially if her water broke.
Hubbell explained what to do with the baby once it came since he would be busy with Meryl afterwards. If Dan did not come back, it would be up to Horatio to clean the child and wrap him. If things went horribly wrong, a Cesarean section might be necessary. Hubbell stated he was hoping for the best, but he intended to prepare his instruments, in any case.
"I do wish Mrs. Donnelly were here," voiced Hubbell. "I should have acquired someone to nurse for us if I had known she was not coming."
"I will do what I can, Father."
"You do not know what you are offering, Horatio."
"Father, I have seen men with limbs lost and bodies blown apart beyond recognition."
Hubbell looked into the eyes of his son. "Yes." He paused. "A woman giving birth is something completely different. You may have heard the cries of wounded men, but the cries of a woman..." A wry smile eased over Hubbell's face. "Well, we will see how you do, Leftenant Hornblower."
Going to consult Meryl, Hubbell laid out a similar though less detailed scenario. She rubbed her stretched abdomen and asked if the baby could not be turned. Hubbell shook his head.
"Meryl, I do not see how there is room," stated the doctor.
"Could I stand on me head or somethin', sir?" asked Meryl, fright in her voice.
"Calm down, now, Meryl. I know you are a brave girl. Everything is going to be all right."
She sniffed and tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Meryl. Listen to me, dear. There is something you could do."
"What? Tell me, sir. I'll do me best," she cried.
"Walking sometimes helps."
"I'll do it. I will."
Once she was out of earshot, Horatio asked, "Will walking help?"
Hubbell shook his head. "Doubtful, but she needs to think so." Hubbell removed his coat despite the coolness of the rooms.
For the next twenty minutes, Meryl journeyed the house. Horatio watched her as she passed by the sitting room doorway, worry in his eyes, wondering if Pamela might go through something similar. Rising, he removed his coat and vest and rolled up his shirt sleeves. He needed to occupy the time employed in some task, so he advanced to the kitchen to prepare for, the hopefully unnecessary, operation. The last time he had cleaned a table with vinegar was on Foudroyant to aid Sebastian in removing Leftenant Dodd's appendix. He checked the pot for boiling water and carefully placed the operating instruments in it. Stoking the fire with more wood, he closed the oven door and wiped his hands on the towel tied around his waist.
Meryl cried out, startling Horatio, and he rushed to her. She was doubled over as much as a pregnant woman could double over. Taking his hand, she gripped it tightly and moaned and panted, leaning against him and the wall. Was this going to be Pamela in a couple of months?
Hubbell arrived shortly after Horatio and they both waited through the contraction.
"Why is she breathing that way?" whispered Horatio.
"Some women find it helps." Hubbell pulled the pocket watch from his vest and clicked it open. "Mrs. Donnelly probably suggested it."
Meryl nodded and moaned and rubbed her broad abdomen. Calming, she reached for a nearby chair and sat down, still clutching Horatio's hand. He had to step nearer because of it, and she leaned against his middle. Horatio swallowed and began to stroke her hair, imagining Pamela in such a state. He could feel the heat and sweat. Where was his father?
Hubbell arrived with a wash cloth. Kneeling in front of her, he wiped her face. She let go of Horatio's hand and took Hubbell's shoulder.
"All right, Meryl?" asked his father.
She licked dry lips and nodded, and Hubbell dabbed them with the cool cloth.
"Do you want to go back to your bed?" asked the doctor.
"No. Let me rest here a moment. I'll walk some more."
Horatio followed his father into the sitting room. Hubbell sat and wrote the time, the length of the contraction, and then, sat back with a sigh. "It's after five. I wonder what is keeping Dan." He walked to the window and pulled the curtain back. "The light is fading fast. Horatio, there is a lantern there on the post. Would you light it?"
Outside, the cold air revived Horatio, and he breathed deeply, dispelling the anxiety Meryl Coulson's delivery was bringing. Lighting the lantern, he replaced it on the iron hanger, then, peered up the lane where Coulson would be coming from. He walked out to the road and listened and looked. The wind picked up and moaned around the house. A few snow flakes swept around his face, coming down from the tree limbs. He looked up into the night sky. Snow clouds had gathered and no stars were visible. This did not bode well for Dan's return unless it was soon.
He looked back at the house, the few lights giving a warm glow through the windows. Shivering, he thought of Oceanus, but this time he looked at the scene in his mind in a different light. His father knew. Sharing what happened that morning over a month ago dispelled its power over him. His father held him as he remembered those devastating minutes and he felt safe in his arms, the way his mother used to make him feel. He swallowed and felt a shallow prick behind his eyes, but then, he berated himself for the weakness, not only for the threat of tears, but also for relishing the embrace of his father.
//////////"It's who and what we are, sir. You couldna keep Cap'n Pellew from comin' after you, just like Mr. Kennedy couldna talk you out o'comin' after us."////////
**Whose voice? I know that voice,** thought Horatio. He listened to the words in his memory. **Matthews? When did he say this to me? Did I dream it?**
//////////"Nobody knew there was three seventy-fours a waitin' and especially not that madman. Not you and not Cap'n. It's what happens. It's just what happens. I'm thankful we're all alive, sir, and we'll mend."//////////
Horatio pressed a palm against his forehead. He could see the old sailor in his mind's eye, wounded with stripes, sick berth behind him, a cup and spoon in his hand. It was not a dream.
//////////".....we're all alive, sir, and we'll mend.////////
Horatio dropped to his knees and lifted two hands full of snow to his face, wiping it over. He bent his head to the ground and put a handful of snowy ice onto the back of his neck, then stretched out on the cold white ground. Rolling over onto his back, he flailed his arms and legs, making a half-hearted snow angel, then, he lay there staring up at the heavens. He watched the clouds and then saw a bright star peek through a separation. It was Christmas Eve, and he was without Pamela. "What are you doing tonight, my love?"
A delicate hand held the end of a stick into the fiery flame in the hearth. Once alight, the matchstick was lifted to the three virgin candlewicks of the mantel candelabra surrounded with greenery at the base, and then, passed to its twin at the opposite end. Pursed lips blew out the lighter.
On the wall, centered over the fireplace, was a portrait of a naval officer. The face held an assurance and vibrancy in the glinting eyes and expressive mouth, the lips together, with the slightest upturn at the very edges. The nose seemed slightly large for the youthful face, the owner had not quite grown into its size, like a kitten with an over long tail. A curl lay on the left side of the forehead, and the rest of the hair gave the viewer the idea that a breeze had come up at just that moment. The eyes, a deep shining brown, seemed to hold a secret for the one on whom they rested and they gave a sense that one might wish it was for oneself for whom the message was intended. The chin, slightly lowered, was strong and dimpled with a bare crease. The cheek bones were high, pinked by the sun, being slightly shiny, as opposed to the way a flush of embarrassment might appear. Each eyebrow was perfectly arched and symmetrical, and due to a most meager turn of the head, the lobe of one ear appeared turned up and out, enticingly plump if ones mind was to run in that vein, perfect for lipping and nipping and then nosing into the hairline. The right hand wrapped around a bicorn, and the left rested on the hilt of a sword, the frilled cuffs of the white shirt visible and bright over the tanned long-fingered hands. The painting ended around the bottom of the ivory waistcoat, overlaid with the white lapels of the uniform rank, a leftenant.
"If only this picture could come to life. I miss you, my darling, but if I cannot have you, this is the next best thing. You will be here for our little Christmas gathering, if not in body, then at least in spirit." She reached up and held a finger just off the rose caramel lips. "I will rub a hole into your portrait if I do not keep my hands off. I miss your kiss, Horatio. I miss your face. I miss your voice. I miss you," she whispered.
A loud knock and Pamela turned quickly, tossing the dangling dark brown curls held by the comb that swept the tresses up along the back of her head. She was dressed in a dark green satin evening gown gathered just beneath the rounded breasts and over the protruding abdomen, a woman in a family way. Pinned on her left shoulder was a small spray of vibrant dark green holly, red berries, and petite little white flowers carefully interspersed among the stems.
"I'll get the door, Miss Pamela," said Drake excitedly. The boy looked like a shiny new penny with his blonde hair freshly washed and slicked back, dressed in starched and pressed dark brown trousers, wearing a broad red bow at the neck of the bright white shirt, overlaid by a green vest, a veritable Christmas present.
Pamela smiled lovingly and said, "Let's both go."
Reaching the door, Drake turned and waited for Pamela to stand behind him. She took a quick deep breath, nervous about the first dinner en masse she was hosting, gave Drake a nod, and he opened it. The man standing behind the door wore a white collar denoting his association with the clergy of the Church of England.
"Merry Christmas, Reverend Godwin!" greeted the two of them.
"Merry Christmas! You look radiant, Mrs. Hornblower, and Drake you are quite the handsome young man. I've brought you a Christmas bouquet." He presented the bundle of red roses, white lilies, and holly leaves. "Am I the first?"
"Oh, they are lovely, Benny." She sniffed the flowers. "Ah. This is so sweet of you. Yes, you are first," said Pamela. "Thank you for coming." She hugged his arm. "Would you be willing to taste test my rum punch?"
Benny grinned. "Rum punch? Dear lady, I am your man."
"Maria! Look what Reverend Godwin brought us."
"Merry Christmas, Reverend. Let me put them in some water," said Maria taking the bouquet.
"Use the green glass vase with the fluting, Maria," suggested Pamela.
"Drake," Godwin extended his hand. "How polished you are."
"Thank you, sir. Let me have your coat and hat," said the boy.
Relieved of the outer garments, Godwin followed Pamela through the parlor to the dining room.
"How do you find the weather, sir?" asked Pamela, passing him a taste of punch.
"Mild compared to winters at home, quite mild."
"Mild for North Carolina, too. Your verdict on the punch?"
"Mmm. Delicious. A goodly balance of spirits and juice! Those Spanish blood oranges give it such a magnificent colour!"
"I so agree!" She filled the glass and returned it. "We do not have such fruit at home. Ours tend to follow the name."
"I see Delucca finished Hornblower's portrait," he commented stepping into the parlor and approaching the painting. "My, my. He has captured him perfectly."
"He has," smiled Pamela, gazing at her husband.
Benny faced her. "Are you well?"
"The baby is quite well behaved," she stated, softly touching her rounded belly. "Only Horatio's presence could make me happier."
"I know you miss him. Have you heard from him?"
"Yes, two letters came just yesterday, an early Christmas gift. Horatio writes he is in England. He is spending the holiday with his father." She looked away, her eyes suddenly moistening.
Benny took her hand. "You poor thing. I know you must miss your father, too... and home, yes?"
She sniffed, raising a handkerchief to dab at her eyes, and nodded. "I promised myself I would not cry."
"Nothing to forgive, Benny," she smiled bravely. "I'm fine, really. Thank you for thinking of him. I do have many special memories of my father at this time of year. I comfort myself with the thought that Horatio is with his father. Our child will have one grandfather, at least, ... and a grand uncle," she added.
"Ah, Mr. Dawson. Does he still plan to return for the birth?"
"By the last letter I received, yes."
While they conversed in front of the portrait, two more guests arrived, greeted by Drake and Maria.
Amelia bent and held Drakes chin in her hand. "You look so handsome, Sir Drake!" She handed him two small packages. "Put this away somewhere till I ask you for them."
"Yes, ma'am," he smiled.
"Hello, Maria." Amelia removed the russet cloak, revealing a velvet dress of a muted dark cornflower blue, long sleeves, a fitted bodice with a high neck, but with a lace filigree over the chest allowing the cream white skin to shine through, though no cleavage. The skirt was full, radiating over her hips to nearly reach the floor.
"Welcome, Mrs. Holly," responded Maria. "Good
evening, sir. Give me your coat, Leftenant," asked Maria,
holding Amelia's cloak over her arm. "They are in the parlor."
Pamela turned to the newcomers.
"Mrs. Holly! I love the dress! You look absolutely divine! Leftenant Barnstable! Do come in!" she invited. "Reverend Godwin, have you met Mrs. Holly?"
"No. How do you do, Mrs. Holly?" smiled Benny bowing.
"Mrs. Holly, this is Reverend Godwin. He performed our landside wedding ceremony," informed Pamela.
"Good evening, Reverend," said Amelia.
"Leftenant Barnstable, you know," said Pamela to Godwin. "Mrs. Holly, have you met Leftenant Barnstable?"
Amelia smiled with an appreciative eye for the officer. "We met just outside your door."
"Thank you for coming," said Pamela, squeezing Amelia's hand.
"Come, Barnstable, Mrs. Holly, let's get you a dish of this rum punch. Very refreshing!" said Godwin.
Pamela smiled at the leftenant.
"Mrs. Hornblower, thank you for inviting me this evening," said Barnstable sincerely. His eye caught the portrait of Horatio over the fireplace and he took a step towards it. "I've seen this man before. This is Horatio Hornblower?"
'Yes," smiled Pamela. "You are the one that suggested Reverend Godwin to him."
"Yes! Yes! Gibraltar is a small world. So that is Leftenant Hornblower. Quite a good likeness from what I recall," commented Barnstable. "Is this one of those Delucca paintings?"
"Yes! You know of Mr. Delucca?" asked Pamela.
"Oh, yes. He is getting quite a name for himself amongst the higher ranking officers. I know Dreadnought Foster had his portrait done, and I believe Lord Convey is sitting now. Foster alone would be enough of an advertisement for the man," snorted Barnstable. "I doubt he will stay much longer in Gibraltar with such a talent."
"I am fortunate to have found him," stated Pamela, gazing at the picture.
Barnstable saw the admiration glow from the hostess. "Hornblower or Delucca?" he questioned good naturedly.
Pamela grinned broadly and looked Barnstable in the eye. "Both."
The expression on her face made Barnstable wish it were for him, but even getting it through the auspices of two other men sufficed.
"You look beautiful tonight, Mrs. Hornblower," said Barnstable seriously.
Pamela took his hand absently. "You are kind to say so, Leftenant," she said softly.
Barnstable fought the urge to raise her hand to his lips, feeling his body freshly tingling while she held it.
"Here you go, Barnstable," said Godwin offering him a glass.
"Thank you, Mr. Godwin," said Barnstable. Their eyes met and Godwin passed a silent warning to the leftenant, resulting in a light blush for Barnstable who took a half step back from Pamela and snatched a nervous glimpse at the portrait over the mantel.
"How's the knee, Leftenant?" asked Godwin, sipping the drink.
Pamela's attention was called to the arrival of the last two guests, Dr. Blakeney and his visiting older sister, Rebecca Harkness. Introductions were made. The season, England, the war, America, and Horatio's portrait were topics of discussion before dinner was announced.
Once the guests were seated, Maria and Drake ferried the steaming platters and bowls of food to the table. Three crispy brown roasted ducks displayed on a huge platter, like spokes of a wheel, with cherry sauce flanking the sides, was set near Dr. Blakeney at the head of the table. Drake placed a plate of crunchy butter floured potato halves next, then, Maria returned with a bowl of full length green beans with slivered almonds sautéed in olive oil to a shiny perfection. A large bowl of mixed red and green lettuces tossed with a raspberry and walnut vinaigrette dressing, yeast rolls with a baked hard crust that hid the white softness of the flesh within, and sweet cream butter, arrived in due course. Maria filled each guests' glass with French white wine.
"It's a feast, by God!" exclaimed Godwin.
"You are the resident surgeon, Doctor. Would you mind carving?" asked Pamela gaily.
Mrs. Harkness gazed appreciatively at her brother, then turned to the hostess. "Mrs. Hornblower, this is a Christmas meal to delight a king!" commented Mrs. Harkness. "The aromas and the colours reflect the season magnificently! Have you a chef?"
"As a matter of fact, Mrs. Harkness, I do, in a way. When I decided to host the dinner, I remembered the delicious meals I had at the King and Crown. I was able to arrange for their chef to provide much of what you see here. He is quite the artiste when it comes to food!" said Pamela.
"I am very thankful to be here, Mrs. Hornblower. This is far better than what we officers would be having at the ward room," said Barnstable, spooning potatoes onto his plate and passing it.
"I fear I would be sitting alone in the back of my shop this Christmas without your kind invitation," said Amelia, setting her wine glass down.
"Indeed, we all seem to be Christmas orphans!" stated the Reverend. "We are all happy to be at your table, Mrs. Hornblower."
"And, I am happy to have you. Each of you has been so kind to... a foreigner, really," said Pamela.
"Not a foreigner, Mrs. Hornblower. You are wed to an officer in His Majesty's navy. That makes you one of us," said Barnstable, holding her gaze with his.
She smiled and nodded his acceptance.
"I've never tasted duck this crispy on the outside and so moist on the inside, Mrs. Hornblower. You have made a fascinating discovery," said Dr. Blakeney.
"I am pleased you find the meal to your liking," she responded.
"Mrs. Holly, you are the proprietess of the clothing shop on the square, are you not?" asked Blakeney.
"Why, yes, Dr. Blakeney," answered Amelia.
"A clothing store, Mrs. Holly? Does it have such clothes as the dress you are wearing? The colour is magnificent with your complexion," observed Mrs. Harkness.
"Yes. If you will be here in Gibraltar long enough, come by, Mrs. Harkness, and we will look at some drawings and fabric you might find to your liking. I am able to get quite a selection being here on the crossroads of civilization, as it were," said Amelia.
"Is that where Mrs. Hornblower's gown came from, as well? It, too, is so lush and complimentary for ... Oh, forgive me!" said Mrs. Harkness.
"A woman in a family way?" asked Pamela. "Do not worry, Mrs. Harkness. I know I am a bit of a way along to be receiving visitors."
"Is that how you came to know Mrs. Hornblower, Mrs. Holly?" asked Barnstable, attempting to move the conversation beyond the awkward moment.
"Actually, it was through Sir Drake that we became acquainted."
"Sir Drake?" questioned Mrs. Harkness.
"My little boy," smiled Pamela. "Mr. Kennedy, a friend of my husband, knighted him before Indefatigable sailed."
The men at the table were amused, but Mrs. Harkness was confused.
"Mr. Kennedy was playing with the boy, Rebecca," explained her brother.
"Yes, Mr. Kennedy came into my shop to purchase clothes for Robin. Some needed altering and I delivered them to Mrs. Hornblower," informed Amelia, her thoughts reflecting on Mr. Kennedy.
"Yes, I was surprised to find her knocking on my door with a bundle of clothing for Drake."
"Drake is Robin?" asked Mrs. Harkness. "And he is your son?"
"Yes, Drake is Robin, and he is, sort of, adopted," Pamela explained. "Drake was on my husband's ship and they called him by his surname. It has stuck, I fear," smiled Pamela. "I think it makes him feel like a grown man and he prefers it to Robin."
"Is your husband in the navy, Mrs. Holly?" asked Godwin.
"Yes, he is," answered Amelia, eyes lowered to her plate.
"What ship does he serve in?" asked Barnstable.
Amelia flashed a look at the leftenant, "Last I heard, he was in Impregnable."
A momentary silence ensued with the qualification.
Then, Benny commented, "Not the ship you were on, eh, Mrs. Hornblower?"
Laughter erupted around the table, easing the tension.
"Mr. Godwin, I believe you have had enough wine!" joked Pamela.
"Oh, it is French wine, isn't it?" smiled Godwin.
"That is one thing at which they excel. If you cannot fight a decent sea battle, wine making is not a bad alternative," said Dr. Blakeney.
"Mrs. Harkness, how long will you be passing in Gibraltar?" asked Pamela.
"Through the new year, Mrs. Hornblower. I am hoping to take Reg home with me."
"Home? Dr. Blakeney, do not tell me you are going to leave us?" asked Pamela.
"Rebecca is being optimistic, Mrs. Hornblower, but I have requested a transfer. There is a good chance I will be here until you are delivered, but you know Mrs. Mueller is the best mid-wife on Gibraltar. You could not be better situated."
"Indeed. Her mother-in-law recently arrived from Germany. She doesn't speak a lick of English, and she appears to have no desire to do so," said Pamela, obvious surrender evidenced in her tone. "I am now adding German to my smattering of Spanish, Italian, and French. Gibraltar is quite a cosmopolitan experience for this little North Carolina girl. But having ones mid-wife living next door is a comfort."
Amelia lay her hand on Pamela's. "If there is anything I can do to help, let me know."
"Thank you for offering, Mrs. Holly," said Pamela, keeping her response formal for her other guests. She and Amelia had become close friends since the day Amelia arrived with Drake's clothes.
"Speaking of transfers," said the Reverend. "I have received a letter from my father informing me the clerical position associated with the estate is now vacant. I will be leaving on the next ship bound for England."
"Oh, Benny, no! Not you, too!" said Pamela. "Who will pastor the church?"
"The laymen will serve until the new man arrives. Mr. Hodell will manage, and I know he will revel in delivering the sermons."
"Mr. Hodell is a godly man, but we will miss you, none the less. What kind of Christmas has this become?" she said woefully, then, covered her mouth. "Oh, but I am being selfish. Both of you will be returning home, won't you? Forgive me, Reverend Godwin and Dr. Blakeney."
"I am flattered that you consider me a loss," said Godwin.
"The departure of both of you will be both joyful and sorrowful," said Pamela, " and not just because of the service you perform. Truly, both of you have become good friends."
"I am not going anywhere," offered Barnstable happily.
Pamela chortled. "Thank goodness, for that!"
Barnstable pinked and Pamela looked away shyly, suddenly realizing how that must sound, and she avoided looking at Barnstable for the next moments.
"You said earlier you had heard from Horatio. What is the Admiralty's current dispensation concerning his ship?" asked Godwin.
"He said she was to have a new bowsprit installed. He did not say what happened." She caught Barnstable lowering his head. "Leftenant, do you know something?"
He smiled crookedly and nervously, and shook his head.
"You do! Has a Gazette come from England? You must tell me. Is Indefatigable in it?"
Each person's attention rested on the leftenant.
"Come on, sir," said Godwin, "we know Hornblower is safe. She's received a letter from him."
Barnstable gave in under so much scrutiny. "She met with what appeared to be a French convoy. Five or six prizes were taken. Two, no, three ships of the line were reported sunk and a frigate burned to the water line," said Barnstable.
"How in God's name did a frigate sink three ships of the
line?" asked Blakeney.
"Indefatigable did not..." Barnstable paused, "...it seems an army major devised a type of floating bomb and while one of the prize vessels was under the command of Leftenant Hornblower the first of three ships was caused to sink."
"Oh, Barth, why did you not tell me?" asked Pamela, forgetting her other guests.
"I ... " Barnstable was not given a chance to continue.
"Is Horatio mentioned further?" questioned Pamela
Barnstable looked pained.
"Tell her, Leftenant. Not knowing will only make it worse," advised Blakeney.
"He... suffered a concussion but is expected to recover."
Pamela's eyes pooled immediately. "Please forgive me." She pushed back her chair and left the table and as she passed through the parlor, she glimpsed the portrait which encouraged the tears to flow. Rapid footsteps up the stairs echoed into the dining room.
The guests were silent until Amelia said, "I will see to her. Excuse me."
Barnstable shook his head. "She is so damn perceptive. I was not going to tell her at all."
"She told me he said in his letter that he was with his father," said Godwin.
"Hm. Sent home to heal, it sounds," said Blakeney exhaling. "What about the other ships? Report, Barnstable."
Amelia met Maria at the bottom of the stairs.
"What has occurred?" asked Maria.
"Horatio is in the Gazette. I will go to her," stated Amelia, lifting her skirt to traverse the stairs.
"Not...?" asked Maria.
"No. No, he is not," said Amelia halfway up the
Pamela lay across the bed, sobbing, biting the handkerchief wrapped around her finger, trying to stifle the sound.
"Pamela! Pamela!" said Amelia climbing onto the bed behind her and grasping her shoulder. "He is alive. You know he is alive from the letters you received."
"He is hurt, Amelia, and he did not tell me." Amelia brushed the hair away from Pamela' cheek. "It must be bad or he would have told me."
"He wrote you. He is with his father. The Gazette said he was expected to recover. He probably did not want you to worry. He loves you, Pamela. That is what it is. He does not want to worry you. You bear his baby. He is more worried about the two of you than himself."
Pamela calmed, sat up, and dried her eyes. Amelia shifted to sit in front of her and took her hand.
"Did you not tell me his father is a doctor? Could he be in a better place?"
Pamela's eyes pooled and she shook her head.
"Oh, my darling," said Amelia, pulling Pamela onto
her shoulder. "What our men do to us. We love them to excess
or hate them just as much."