The rolling hills of Smallbridge were quiet of birdsong in the face of the gathering winter. The only sound was the rustling of dry grass and the low hum of wind in the eaves and chimneys, sucking the smoke away in one breath.
Barbara sat in the study, bent over the estate’s accounts. They were healthy - robust, even. The flush of funds that had rushed in on first marriage had not faded in the face of a few expenses. Supporting some of the unfortunates on the estate, rebuilding a crumbling bridge that happened to be the main thoroughfare. Smallbridge was in good standing and had barely noticed the absence of its master these last seven months.
Weary of her own thoughts shying away from the main source of her distraction, Barbara pushed herself away from her secretaire. She was restless, distracted, as she often was in the lull of the afternoon; nothing to do until supper, no one coming over to host. Her options were the frustratingly neat and orderly accounting books, or facing the dreadful prospect of embroidery. Instead she went to the east wing in search of Hebe and Richard.
Hebe was a sweet mulatto girl of seventeen, an orphan of the war just as Richard nearly had been. When her father died a sailor, Barbara had been determined to find Hebe a position that would see her secure and off the streets. It was simple Providence that she had shown a knack for being a lady’s maid. That job had taken the girl halfway across the world and back. Upon reading of the unfortunate death of the previous Mrs. Hornblower, Barbara had thrust upon Hebe the duties of a nursemaid, as well.
Barbara found the two playing in Richard’s nursery, quite absorbed in stacking a pillar of blocks. Hebe was smiling and speaking in the normal incoherence that adults use with children; Richard was stone-faced in his determination to settle the next block perfectly. He misjudged the angle, however, and the whole thing tumbled down.
“Oops!” Hebe cooed at Richard, laughing and cheering him as he threatened a tantrum. “Looks like we’ll have to build the next one taller!” She caught Barbara’s eye where she lingered in the door, asking a question.
Barbara nodded and stepped into the room. She felt her malaíse clear as Hebe turned Richard’s attention toward her; she never could resist this boy’s huge eyes and dark curls. It was something of a weakness.
“Ba!” said Richard, fumbling.
“Hello, my dear,” she told the boy, and he reached for her gratifyingly, trying to take a few steps and not quite managing. He was one and a half years now. She swept Richard up into her arms, settling his weight down on her hip almost gracefully. He babbled and reached for her necklace.
Hebe stood as well, eyes cast downward. “There’s some time before you must prepare for your supper at the Reades’. Do you wish me to stay, or shall I lay out your dress?”
This was a polite fiction of their different statuses. Hebe might stay, in her role of nursemaid, and take Richard away at the slightest change of Barbara’s whim. Or she might go in her role of lady’s maid and allow a moment alone with a child to threaten a Lady’s poise.
“Thank you, Hebe, the dress if you will,” Barbara said, and tried to untangle Richard’s clumsy fingers from her jewelry. Hebe went, and Barbara passed a pleasantly diverting afternoon there in the nursery, building a pillar to rival any steeple.
Hebe returned a little earlier than Barbara expected – it couldn’t be time to ready for supper already? – and her face was set in an uncommon frown. “My lady, it’s, there’s – excuse me. There is a midshipman at the door.”
Barbara felt she nearly flew to the foyer, leaving Richard in Hebe’s care.
Alton, the butler, was talking with the midshipman when she reached them. She recognized this midshipman; he must be Fielding, who had flitted around a lot when – well, right before.
“Mr. Fielding,” Barbara intoned, with all of her high upbringing coming to bear. No, she wasn’t breathless. No, she wasn’t worried. “What a pleasant visit. I am most gratified by your safe return.”
Fielding, a spindly blond youth of barely fourteen, whipped off his hat and knuckled his forehead – the wrong order. His cheeks were flushed, his feet shuffling. “Apologies, my lady,” he said, voice breaking. “And, and further, Captain Bush’s apologies – but he requests that he may call upon you at your earliest convenience. As soon as tomorrow.”
The great weight of her position pressed upon Barbara. A Lady, and earl’s daughter, the wife of a Knight of the Bath. In the normal course, she must accept, and wait the night, and receive Bush as a gracious host in the morning.
But she knew that she would spend that night awake, her mind tumbling through the possibilities. Why would Bush return without his Commodore – and if he hadn’t, why would his Commodore not already be at her door, in advance of this midshipman – and where was he , if he wasn’t with Bush, and, and.
Instead, Barbara said, “My regrets to Captain Bush, Mr. Fielding. I couldn’t imagine waiting so long as tomorrow to meet. I’ll have to ask you to invite him to supper, tonight.”
Fielding hesitated. Her suggestion appeared to be an impossibility; it would be at least two hours to Sheerness, and Bush’s reply another two hours getting back to her. It might be near midnight before he could return and confirm the meeting with her.
“Mr. Alton,” Barbara said, over Fielding’s doubt, “could I trouble you to ready the carriage? My supper plans have changed and I have some arranging to do.” To Fielding, she explained, “It appears that I’ll be dining in Sheerness tonight. Would you care to ride there in our carriage?”
The boy bobbed his head, bewildered. He would have ridden here on horseback, and been very saddlesore for his inexperience and unsuited lifestyle.
Barbara hurried back to the study and dashed off a quick letter of regret. It was deplorable form to cancel an engagement so near the event – hardly an hour out! – and she gave the Reades all possible apologies.
Hebe appeared in her door then, slowly prompting, “My lady, it’s time to dress?”
“Yes, I’ll dress,” Barbara answered. “But take this note to the kitchen boy. It will have to get to the Reade house as quickly as possible. I’ll be in Sheerness tonight.”
Quietly, Hebe took the letter, curtsied, and left.
Barbara next sped over to her dressing room. The dress was a little much to tackle alone, but she started pinning her hair, and putting on her creams and cosmetics. Hebe arrived soon enough to wrestle Barbara into the gown and finish up, pinning the last of Barbara’s stubbornly straight hair up.
Barbara moved for the foyer once again, more grounded in her battle colours. She glided past Fielding, beckoning him along with a word. She stepped over to the carriage, waiting for her with Alton at the door ready to hand her up.
When they were underway, Fielding was near-mute in the presence of his better. Barbara made a few polite inquiries, and learned that Russia was ‘cold’, that the language was ‘rough’, and that the fare had been ‘usual’. She left him to shake himself out of his uniform from nerves.
They arrived in Sheerness in plenty of time for supper – which, considering the lag in sending a message across to a ship, meant a late supper. Barbara waved Fielding off to be rowed in one of the port boats to the Nonsuch . She had last seen it when she waved off – when.
Barbara spent a cold half an hour shut up in the carriage, bundled up and looking away from the Nonsuch and scattered. Her thoughts could not cohere into something useful. Not without thinking – she couldn’t think that –
Thus, it was a surprise when a gloved hand knocked against her carriage’s window. It was Bush, his nose reddening in the frosty air. She opened the carriage door and beckoned him inside with her; she said a few words also to the driver, and they began moving.
Then Barbara sat across from Bush, and she wanted to jump out of her own skin from nerves, belatedly compassionate for Fielding. “Please, Captain Bush. Please tell me.”
Bush’s cracked and irregular lips flattened, grim. “It isn’t good news, Lady Hornblower.”
“But it isn’t the worst ,” Barbara beseeched him. “I would have had word from the Admiralty. I would have heard from more serious channels. Please.”
“Lady Hornblower, I most humbly regret to inform you that I have commanded home the Fleet which departed home port under Commodore Hornblower,” Bush said very formally, not a twitch in his demeanor. Then his mouth drew down on the left side, and he shrugged away the formal tone. “He took ill in Riga, with typhus. He was – it will not surprise you to learn that he acted heroically, I’m sure. But it was at the cost of his own health. I had to,” Bush paused, then corrected, “I have left him in Königsberg. To recover.”
Barbara tried to weather this storm of news. Typhus, in the heart of Empire-controlled Prussia. “What – what was in Königsberg that might make necessary…” she began to ask pitifully.
Bush’s face cleared in surprise and horror. “I must again apologize! I – the – my fleet also brings news to Sheerness that Prussia has revolted against the French yoke. I left him in an allied land to weather his illness as best as he could. Brown was with him, as well.”
Barbara took a deep breath of, and it was hard to identify at first, actual relief. Clear, recent news, of –
“Oh, Horatio,” she said, and pressed her hands to her face, and began to very nobly sob.
Bush let her go about it in silence, in the vacant way of a man who had never been around women in his adulthood. He coughed and looked out the carriage window, and when they arrived for dinner he made a great show of handing her out of the carriage, that she may have a moment to fix herself up.
In early December, Bush came to call for the afternoon.
He stumped in on his wooden leg, an impatient, sour-faced shadow that darkened her doorway. He’d been stewing for two weeks, left in charge of the Commodore’s anchored fleet as the Admiralty rearranged and repurposed the ships. Bush was bobbing about on the Nonsuch with no outlet and no prospects that were not drawn up in a liened command.
“Hello, Captain,” Barbara greeted him. “I hope you won’t mind if we take tea in the east wing?”
Bush’s acceptance was gruff, and he brought his dark mood through the halls as he followed her to the door of the nursery – where it seemed to melt away. “Is that,” Bush said, apparently registering the toys and the décor and the child squirming against the shoes Hebe was trying to put on him. “You’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but his name is Richard Arthur?”
“That’s right. He was born while you and Horatio were on the Loire,” Barbara explained, pausing with him in the hall outside the room. “I’m afraid it’s out of the normal course for such a visit, but I thought Richard might join us for a time. He has had very few common faces.”
Bush’s expression was slack with surprise or wonder still. Barbara allowed him a long moment to gather himself. Soon his features drew closed again, and she saw in him the reticence of one who had absolutely never been asked to hold a child, and if pressed might deny ever being one himself.
Hebe finished dressing Richard and picked him up, and Barbara caught Bush’s attention again to invite him one more room over. This was the green sitting room, which had the nicest light during the afternoon.
Barbara had left another guest in the parlor, who arrived early for tea. Katherine Reade was the sort of guest that could be left unhosted and never mind it. She looked up and tucked away her book when she heard Barbara coming in, standing for introductions.
Barbara showed Bush to his seat on the couch facing Katherine’s, and introduced them. “Katherine Reade, I’m honored to introduce you to Captain William Bush, of the H.M.S. Nonsuch , in Sheerness. Captain, Katherine is the daughter of the neighboring squire.”
“A pleasure,” Katherine said, with a curtsy.
“Yes, a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Bush said, bowing his head and looking outnumbered by two ladies, a nursemaid, and a child.
Barbara took a seat beside Bush to give him some reinforcement. Hebe settled Richard by Katherine, who began playing a hand-holding game with the boy. Alton, who had a talent for the timing of these things, brought out the tea.
Katherine asked, “Captain, I believe I’ve seen your name in the papers these last weeks. The Nonsuch brought in news of the Corsican pulling out of Russia, did it not?”
“That’s right,” Bush says, and began to recount the news, though sparingly.
Perhaps ten minutes later, Richard courteously announced that he had done quite enough hosting today, and started tugging at his shoes and clothes. Hebe made his excuses for him and took him off again – through the shared wall with the nursery, there were the faint sounds of a peevish boy.
Despite the interruption, Katherine picked up the subject again. “So, I understand that yours was the flagship that Commodore Hornblower sailed on. Can I press you for some tales of him? I met him a few times in the months he was here after the wedding.”
Barbara had drawn out these details and more from Bush, during their supper that first night. Now she could sit back and observe the man himself as he told these things. He was a very plain-spoken and expressive man, struggling visibly with tactfully omitting the unpleasant details of war for his female audience. He spoke of Russia in terms of the cold, and the monotony of a siege, and the morale of the men. He spoke of Horatio – well, much differently.
At length, a fascinated Katherine pressed, “Is it true what they say, that Commodore Hornblower’s horse was shot while he rode it in battle?”
Bush’s tone chilled. “It was.” He didn’t volunteer more.
Barbara filled the silence with, “We’re all thankful that he was not injured,” and Bush sent her a look that acknowledged her rescue.
Katherine also realized her misstep, and said, “Of course, Barbara! Captain, I must apologize for being carried away in the sensationalized manner in which this has been reported. It seems very harrowing.”
“It was a duty,” Bush corrected, more gently now. “It happens that on this occasion, my duty called me to remain on my ship and hear of the Commodore’s exploits well after the fact.” In his voice was a suggestion that had he been standing beside Horatio, some of the more dangerous of his exploits might have gone differently.
“The Captain has had the bad luck to serve with Horatio for more than ten years,” Barbara explained, smiling at Bush.
He accepted her tease, but then looked down and returned it with sincerity. “No, Lady Hornblower; I’ve had the privilege.”
Barbara laid a grateful hand on his arm, and moved the conversation on to lighter things.
Horatio’s arrival was a complete surprise which caught the whole of Smallbridge flat-footed. He had the characteristic timing of knocking on the door when Barbara was hosting carolers from the estate - so the news would be disseminated far and wide without much hope of curtailing dramatic license.
But he had arrived. A pale and diminished body, perhaps; but it delivered the most precious of cargoes.
The rest of the day’s plans were thrown out in the face of settling Horatio into place at home. Brown, the stalwart man, helped transfer Horatio over to their bed, where he could rest from the long journey home from Prussia. Soup and tea were sent for.
Then Barbara was seated by his bedside in their room, holding his hand in both of hers. They stared into each other’s eyes, and she felt as if she would wake at any moment, in a cold bed in a cold estate. His fingers still carried the bite of winter, and she rubbed them, wanting warmth at last.
Horatio’s voice came slowly, and hoarse. “Tell me this isn’t another fever dream.”
Barbara laughed, wet at the seams of her eyes. “Oh, I dearly hope not. I’ll have to take myself to Prussia to join you, if it is.”
“It mustn’t be,” he said, his grip tightening ever so slightly. “In my dreams you have neither the capacity nor the cause to weep.”
They went on in this ardent fashion; they had never been reunited as husband and wife after all. The last time Horatio had come home from war, they had been so overcome with love that they’d nearly been married before they could find a church.
The reunion was interrupted by the arrival of Brown and Alton, each carrying a meal. Alton’s was deposited on the table of Barbara’s dressing room for her convenience; Brown’s went direct to Horatio’s bedside. The seaman began in very accustomed movements to pull Horatio forward and help him to sit, then to bring Horatio’s soup to his mouth. He had thought - or learned by experience - to serve soup in a thick beer mug.
Barbara had a few spoonfuls of her lunch, still hardly able to glance away from the open door between them. The shape of her husband’s shoulders was unfamiliar and dear all at once. The curl of his hair, however sweat-slicked. The cut of his jaw.
Horatio tried to take his own teacup, but it shook and sloshed in his hands. He glanced at Barbara and set his tea aside quickly.
When they had finished their oddly separate meals, Barbara returned to the bedside and took up Horatio’s hand again. She sent Brown a heartfelt smile as he carried the dishes away, and he bobbed his head in a respectful nod.
Horatio sighed, and his eyes seemed to droop before the coming toll of travel and food and safety. He mumbled, “I’m sorry I didn’t send word, Barbara. I did think of you often.”
“I received word in any case,” Barbara told him, hushed. “Don’t worry yourself about that. Captain Bush came near four weeks ago and let me know at his earliest chance.”
“Good man,” Horatio said, and slipped off quite completely.
That afternoon, Barbara wrote to Bush a glowing letter of relief and encouragement to visit.
Barbara kept her dinner engagement, because with Horatio snoring away it simply couldn’t be borne to cancel on the Reades again.
She wound up at a stiff kind of dinner, with many sidelong glances sent her way. It wasn’t until the men withdrew to their drink and smoke in the study that Mrs. Sansom asked, “So, Lady Hornblower, may I endeavor to confirm that the stories of the Commodore’s return are true?”
All conversation ceased, of course, and all eyes fixed upon Barbara, of course. She set her tea and saucer aside before squaring her shoulders and answering, “Yes, Mrs. Sansom. My husband the Commodore Hornblower returned this early afternoon.”
Barbara did not say: And I know very well that you know it, because your granddaughter was one of the carollers in my foyer when he arrived.
“That’s such wonderful news,” Katherine effused immediately, having learned from her mistake with Captain Bush and not wishing to soon repeat it.
“We’ll soon see it in the papers, as well,” her younger sister decided. “Can we expect a brand new set of heroics and gallantry?”
“No,” Barbara demurred, “I daresay that all of the really satisfying gossip was carried back with the fleet last month. This time it’s only Sir Hornblower.”
“Hmmph.” This was, again, from Mrs. Sansom. “Our Martha tells us that Sir Hornblower was looking quite peaked, quite peaked indeed.”
Barbara took a moment and put on an air of consideration. “I suppose that so long at sea may have taken its toll. Sometimes, one becomes so used to the motion of waves that its lack brings its own sort of seasickness. Sailors say that they must ‘get their land legs’ back,” she hinted with a joking smile.
Mrs. Reade said, “Then we’ll pray that Sir Hornblower adjusts to Sheerness again quickly,” and made a point of pausing for Mrs. Sansom to agree. Then, as the hostess, Mrs. Reade took her moment to divert them away from the topic.
Barbara arrived home at a normal hour for such a dinner, but in the cold hush of mid-December it seemed very late indeed. There was something about having a child in the house that caused one to tiptoe, no matter how far the nursery might be.
And with her husband waiting in the the west wing - Barbara decided that it was quite late enough to retire.
She passed Brown in the hall, and nodded as he knuckled his forehead to salute her. “He’s just about asleep, Lady Hornblower,” he told her.
“Thank you, Brown,” she answered, wishing to thank him for more than this moment.
“Of course, my Lady, of course.” Brown sounded just as Bush had when he spoke of serving with Horatio.
Barbara went into the bedroom and found Horatio a gaunt, white figure under the covers. One lamp had been left in her dressing room with the door cracked, the wick turned down very low. She changed into her sleeping gown in the faint light, leaving her dress for Hebe to retrieve.
When she opened the door to the bedroom, the change in light or the sound must have roused Horatio; he squinted at her in the dark. “Who’s there?” he barked.
“Barbara, my dear.” She moved further into the moonlight from the window near him.
“Oh. I - oh.” He stared at her with his dark eyes and dark tangled curls, and he seemed very disconcerted. “I’m sorry. I nearly forgot that the journey was over.”
She glided her hand over his on the blanket. “Yes, it’s over. Don’t worry.”
He lay back, eyes still wide and darting, energized by the moment of alarm. When she came around to the other side of the bed and slipped under the blanket, his fingers were slow to let it out of their grip. “You were out,” he said, recollecting. “At the Reades’, was it?”
“Yes,” she said, “they asked after you.”
“Asking after the invalid,” he grumbled.
Barbara reached to press his hair back from his face, gentling him back toward rest. “They pray, as I do, that you’ll soon be out and about. I’m sure all of Sheerness prays so.”
Horatio didn’t answer her. He just set his mouth in a grim frown and reluctantly allowed his illness to drag him into sleep.
Barbara woke early the next day, almost with the sun. She still could not beat Hebe, who was stoking the fire and already had the day’s dress set out. Barbara held a finger to her lips for silence, got a fast nod from Hebe, and they completed their morning routine with no more communication than some simple hand motions.
When Barbara went out to the hallway, Hebe followed her rather than tidy up the dressing room as usual. After carefully closing the door, she whispered, “My Lady, do you have any instructions concerning Master Richard?”
Barbara began walking, putting some distance between them and the bedroom. “I’m not sure what you mean. Has his normal schedule posed any difficulty for him?”
“I mean to say,” Hebe tried again, glancing significantly back down the hall, “that this isn’t any normal kind of day, my Lady.”
Well, Barbara hadn’t really considered it in yesterday’s rush. Richard had seen his father’s arrival, but he was probably too young for it to make a lasting impression. She asked, “After Horatio returned, did Richard seem bothered by it? Upset, or perhaps preoccupied?”
“He was… excited?” Hebe hazarded. Barbara often forgot that Hebe had only slightly more experience with children than she. “But he settled down after running me up and down the hallway enough.”
“Then unless he gets too much to handle, we’ll leave it up to Horatio.” Barbara’s heart turned, twisted; she worried about Horatio being able to lift Richard, or even keep him in his arms, as fatigued as he had seemed. But truly, it was at Horatio’s discretion; she was his guardian, not his true mother. She decided, “If he asks for Richard, Brown knows to come to you. You may take the boy directly to see him and needn’t ask my permission. Stay very nearby and be watchful that,” she hesitated, “that Richard’s temper doesn’t start to turn.”
She couldn’t say directly that Horatio might tire of their meeting much faster than the child. He was so weak and unsteady, and he would never think to limit himself because of his own discomfort.
Hebe dipped a fast curtsy and returned back the way they had come to finish her morning duties.
Barbara spent her morning arranging matters in Smallbridge for its master’s homecoming. There were solicitors who must be alerted to Horatio’s return and orders to put in for the supply of the larger household. It seemed that she had dozens of letters to write to their friends and acquaintances to at least stem the tide of rumors.
Yes, Horatio has returned, she wrote in the politest phrases; no, we won’t be attending any engagements during the holidays. We’ll be focusing on our son and our reunited family. Please don’t come to call.
She also beckoned the village’s doctor for a patient visit at his earliest convenience. Horatio’s recovery must be undertaken with all possible advantage and speed, after all.
Lunch was in the bedroom, again served separately, again a soup brought to Horatio in a mug.
When Barbara came in, Horatio pushed himself up on his elbows and then hands to sit up. Brown hurried to pile pillows up behind him before Horatio’s strength gave out and he collapsed backward into them.
“Hello,” he said, struggling not to show how even that much effort left him winded.
“Hello, my dear,” she echoed warmly, and took her bowl over to the chair at his side of the bed, which Brown jumped out of like a hare. “Brown, you may go and have your own lunch.”
Brown opened his mouth but said nothing. He looked at Horatio.
Horatio frowned at Brown and turned the frown on Barbara. “Brown has been of very great assistance to me during my,” he scowled, “illness.”
“Yes, and now I can be of some assistance as well,” Barbara countered. “It doesn’t seem very complicated to help you hold your soup.”
“It’s no trouble, Lady Hornblower,” Brown offered.
Barbara said, “I’ve played nursemaid before, Horatio. On the Lydia , after your surgeon was killed - this is the simplest thing in comparison. For as long as you’re weak --”
Horatio balked at this. “No.”
This pulled her up short. She pinched her lips together, quite stymied. Such an unqualified refusal wasn’t to be argued down or circumvented.
After a long moment, she capitulated. “Very well.” She surrendered the chair to Brown and took her bowl back to her dressing room, with very little hope of dinner proceeding differently.
That night, she retired to bed even earlier, while Horatio was reading a newspaper from the months he had been away. She had collected them for him, anticipating that he would want to catch up on events at home whenever he came back to his civilian life.
She glanced at the date of the paper - July - and saw the headline. She said, “Oh, I suppose you may not have gotten word that the States are acting up.”
“Opening a new front for us to fight on,” Horatio grumbled. “Over a few press-gangs.”
“Don’t worry yourself too much.” It was more than a few Americans pressed into the British service, and that was hardly the only issue, but it was still another split in the Navy’s attention that it could ill afford. “For now we must focus on your health.”
He shook his head at that. “I’ll have to get over this fatigue, that’s all.”
“I think it may be a bit more than that,” she began to protest, but he set aside his paper and doused the lamp.
“Then I’ll start by resting.” He lay down and pulled the blankets up to his chin, apparently with every intention of willing himself to sleep in the next few seconds. And he was certainly capable of it - Barbara had witnessed this little skill quite a few times. The Navy bred in its sailors the knack for sleeping in a hurricane.
Barbara drew closer to him. Her hand slipped across his chest over his nightshirt, resting over his heart, feeling the steady beat there. Feeling the prominence of his ribs, as well.
He shrugged her away wordlessly, pulled the blankets tighter about him, and slept.
The doctor, a portly and cheerful young man named Lobb, came calling in the morning. When he was introduced, Horatio welcomed him with all the grace of a cat suddenly dunked in water.
“The fever broke two weeks ago,” he protested. “There’s nothing that medicine will change now.”
“Sir Hornblower, typhus has very serious lingering effects,” Dr. Lobb protested right back.
Barbara asked, “Can’t you endure this, Horatio, please? For me?”
Thus Horatio allowed Dr. Lobb’s observation.
At the conclusion of his examination, Dr. Lobb advised, “You’re stronger than many patients so recently out of the fever. However, if you wish to be able to walk before February, you must begin at once.”
“Begin what?” Barbara inquired, when it was obvious that Horatio would not.
“Lifting objects of some weight, stretching and reaching, standing for short periods of time.” Dr. Lobb shrugged as if this were all self-evident. “Otherwise the period of recovery could be considerable. Walking unassisted may take as long as the end of spring.”
Horatio scoffed. “That would be unacceptable.”
Dr. Lobb opened his hand, in agreement or encouragement or offer. “Thus, exercises. I can show you a few to begin with, and depending on your progress I’ll return in the new year with a few more.”
“That’s your earliest prognosis?” Barbara asked, getting their attention. “The ability to walk in six weeks, and not before?”
“If the exercises are followed and his old strength is regained, yes, that’s the earliest time that I would say. Safely, of course. If he,” he remembered that his patient was in the room and addressed him directly, “if you push yourself too hard, sir, you may set your recovery back considerably. Six weeks is the safest goal.”
Horatio crossed his arms and visibly reined in his impatience. He waved at the doctor and ordered, “Very well. Show me.”
Brown knocked on the door of the study early in the afternoon and entered at Barbara’s call. “Begging your pardon, Lady Hornblower, but Miss Hebe asked me to pass word to you that Master Richard is with the Commodore.”
“Thank you, Mr. Brown,” Barbara said, and instead of dismissing the man, she invited him to come in and close the door entirely. “I wonder if I can have a word with you.”
Brown fidgeted and shifted his weight. “Of course, Lady Hornblower.”
Barbara told him, “The doctor gave Horatio a few exercises to perform daily, in order to build his strength up again. I trust that you will assist him with those?”
“Of course, Lady Hornblower,” he repeated.
“Thank you. Horatio can instruct you in them.”
“Aye, Lady Hornblower.”
There was a moment, looking at this weatherbeaten man so bashful on her carpet, when Barbara’s emotions tested her. She wanted to order Brown not to assist Horatio anymore; her husband must accept help from her hands or not at all. She wanted to ask Brown why he thought that Horatio was so resistant to her, and so bloody-mindedly obstinate on the entire subject of his health besides. She wanted to turn back time to nine months ago and forbid Horatio from leaving for his oh-so-important assignment in Russia.
But she could do none of those things. She merely said, “Again, I must wholeheartedly thank you very much for your dedication and work, Mr. Brown. That is all.”
He touched his knuckles to his forehead to salute her and took the dismissal.
That night, Barbara retired very late, hoping somehow to outlast her caged frustration and spare her husband any of her tossing and turning. It was terrible manners to go to bed restless. (She ought to know of the toll it took on a bed partner.)
This left her slipping into bed as lightly as she could, and shifting the bedclothes as little as was possible, in a pitch black room.
Her wrist was grabbed, hard, suddenly. She gasped and froze.
“ Who’s there? ” Horatio barked, as he had that first night back, this time more vehement and hissed and frantic. “Name yourself, by God!”
“B-Barbara,” she answered, shocked. His grip could not be maintained, and it weakened and tightened in pulses as he fought against his own muscle and sinew. She tugged against him, but he bore down, and she was caught fast.
“Sneaking up in the dark--!” he snarled, and Barbara realized that he was nearly asleep still. It was a cloudy night, the lamp was out, the fire banked. She couldn’t show herself to him.
There was a moment when Horatio’s strength gave out entirely, and his grip on her failed. She wrenched backward, stumbling several steps back from the bed. She shouted, “Horatio!”
All movement ceased, and she heard him gulping for air.
“What,” he panted, confused and nightmare-trembling.
“Horatio,” Barbara said, no more steadily, “you had a very bad dream.”
Several more long moments passed. He shifted under the blanket again, but feebly. Adrenaline had used up all of his scrimped vitality. He said, “Yes, I, yes, I must have. It’s very -- I’m sorry, my dear, did I --?”
Barbara’s wrist was hot, but she didn’t think it would bruise. She said, “It’s alright, my dear, but are you -- did you strain yourself --”
“I’m fine.” His voice was rigid, sharp.
It was like a slap. After days of worrying about him, and about his health - and stymied at every turn - and she had only asked.
But she was overwrought, she told herself. From the last few minutes.
“Then let’s go to sleep,” she said to Horatio, trying to inject an energy that she did not feel into her voice.
The next day she received an offer from Dr. Lobb, and answered back to accept his assistance; the day after that, the device arrived.
“What is that,” Horatio asked, concealing his abject loathing quite imperfectly.
“It is called a Bath chair,” Barbara told him.
The device was indeed like a chair, but covered and mounted on three wheels. The person who sat inside it was shaded from the weather, and a door closed over their legs. They could steer using a handle attached to the front wheel, but could not move the chair themselves; Alton and Brown had strained themselves even lifting the chair up the front steps.
Horatio looked away from it. “It is ridiculous. Return it to the doctor at once.”
“You can’t remain in your bed all day until February, Horatio.”
“I would rather that than have to be hauled around in that barrow,” Horatio bit back.
Barbara sagged her weight against the doorway for a moment, gathering her strength to argue the point. “I had word from Captain Bush,” she tried. “He’ll be visiting for the weekend, and you certainly can’t receive him in here.”
“He’s seen me in worse positions,” Horatio dismissed.
She stood straight and reasoned, “I grant that the chair may be more practical for the outdoors. We’ll have to find a different solution for inside. But you aren’t happy cooped up in here, Horatio, and to take a walk in the gardens --”
“Walk!” he exclaimed to mock her.
“-- To be outside. To feel the wind on your face. I know that you love those things,” she went on beseechingly, probing for the right angle of attack. “We could go into town, you could see some of the people who wish you well, some new faces.”
Horatio scowled at the chair, and at her. He said with distinct, gunner’s precision, “It is no different than a refuse cart for the invalided and enfeebled to be wheeled out to the midden heap where they belong.”
Barbara stared at him. He met her eyes, vibrant in his defiance and rejection, an absolute authority as he ever was on his ship.
“What an extraordinarily cruel thing to say,” she observed coolly, and left.
Later that day, the chair was returned to Dr. Lobb with gratitudes and regrets.
That night, she had Hebe change the sheets in one of the guest bedrooms, and stir the fire there. She did not admit that she would sleep there until she was already in the room, and dressing for bed, and chasing around excuse after excuse in her mind.
She didn’t want to find Horatio awake, and retread the argument about the Bath chair; she didn’t want to find him asleep, and wake him from a nightmare; she was heartsick from the way he drew back from her touch and shrugged her away.
None of it ameliorated the guilt.
“Mr. Brown, do you have any skill as a carpenter?” Barbara asked the man the next time she saw him.
“I’ve done a bit, Lady Hornblower, but truthfully I’m better at mending sails and clothes,” he admitted.
She waved for him to follow her, and led him to the dining room. “I wonder if you could take the wheels off of the garden cart and safely affix them to the back of a chair.” She pulled one of the chairs out from the table, and showed him its wooden legs. “A little bit low, so that the chair could be tilted back,” she demonstrated, “and rest just on the wheels.”
He frowned thoughtfully at it. “I reckon that’ll fair ruin the set.”
“Never mind the set,” she dismissed. “Can it be done?”
“The wheels off the cart,” he repeated, nodding. “I’ll take a look at how they’re fixed to the cart, Lady Hornblower, and see if I can’t do the same. This for the Commodore?”
This gave her pause, but she shook it away as soon as she recognized it and agreed, “Yes, it is.”
“Then I’d better get on it right away, as he has a terrible tolerance for delays,” he said, in the tone of one suppressing a wink.
Naturally, Horatio took to the simple wooden wheelchair with aplomb and began directing that Brown take him out to the green sitting room for the length of the afternoon, chasing the sun.
If he noticed that Barbara continued to keep to the guest room, he didn’t show it through word or action.
Barbara met Bush in the foyer. He was in full uniform, his oilskin bringing half-melted snowflakes with him. He took off his hat and tucked it under his arm, a smile cracking his sun-baked face. “Lady Hornblower. I’m so happy to congratulate you on your good news.”
She smiled, too, and offered her hand to him. He kissed it, and then on impulse kissed it again, and she was startled into laughing. “Oh, Captain, you’ll have to sustain this energy! Come, come, to the east wing.”
Bush chivvied her along, and asked after Richard when they passed the empty nursery. They arrived in the green sitting room to see Horatio in the wheelchair with a squealing child on his knee.
Richard was loud, bouncing, and nearly standing on the chair. Hebe hovered nearby, her hand behind Richard’s back, should he start to tumble against Horatio’s weak hands and slowed reflexes.
Barbara let Bush go in first, and he chose the closer couch. As Horatio wasn’t on a couch, it was an easy decision for Barbara to take the facing seat and balance the room.
“Hallo, Bush,” Horatio called, in a good mood. He seemed to have more energy, and there was colour in his face - he looked better than he had even a few days ago.
“Hallo to you, sir,” Bush answered, just as earnest if in a slightly more decorous expression. “What a pleasure to see you home again.”
Horatio made a face at Richard. “And what a pleasure to be so - oh!” Richard tipped backward, and Hebe caught him before a serious fall. Horatio regarded the maid and his son ruefully. “I’m afraid I’m not quite up to my usual physical standards at present.”
Hebe said, “Shall Mr. Richard stay, sir, or go, sir?” She perhaps saw Horatio the least out of the household, and she knew that Barbara - well, that the guest bedroom was occupied.
Horatio looked to Barbara, unschooled. She said, “Hebe, let me have him here, and I’ll call you if he needs anything.” Thus Richard was settled on her couch and she offered her fingers in the usual hand-holding game.
Bush said, “As I can see you’re well, sir, I can offer news of your fleet?”
“Tell me the Admiralty didn’t take that little sloop Raven ,” Horatio started, as any gossiping grandmother might.
Barbara let them trade their news, and busied herself with Richard. He reached for her, then somersaulted backward, and she cooed at the little man. “We shall be safe, dilly dilly,” she sang to him.
Bush joined her to sing, “Out of harm’s way.”
Barbara looked up, surprised that the men were watching her. “Oh, Captain, what a wonderful voice!”
Horatio had the usual bored expression - he was so tone deaf it was a wonder he could hear any inflection at all. “Is that a nursery rhyme?” he asked, incurious.
“Yes, dear,” Barbara said, and then cooed to the child, “I love to dance, dilly dilly,” and Bush joined her as if he’d always known the words, “I love to sing! When I am king, dilly dilly, you’ll be my queen.”
At this point, Richard began to fuss, and Hebe whisked him away. Barbara asked Bush, “Why, Captain, I had you pinned as a terminal bachelor! What children have you been around, pray?”
Bush, at this point, began to colour. “Well, Lady Hornblower,” he began, and it tied his tongue. “I am supporting three sisters in Chichester. The fourth has married and begun a family. And there are my cousins, and their families.”
“I hadn’t guessed,” Barbara said again, bemused. He had certainly given her the impression that he was uncomfortable around children. Perhaps it was only Horatio’s son that gave him pause. “When are you next to visit home?”
“Well, I have no plans at present,” Bush demurred. He looked over to Horatio. “As long as I’m stationed in Sheerness with the fleet, there I shall remain, excepting short visits such as this one.”
Barbara watched Horatio’s hand clench in his lap, impotent. He always put himself in the center of things. But this time, he could not take Bush’s burden from him, and he was in no position to find another to shoulder it.
Horatio said with formality, “Thank you, Mr. Bush, for taking that command when I was unable.”
“Oh, sir,” Bush gasped, like he’d taken a blow. “You were ill. You tied up the last threads of our time in Russia. There was hardly anything for me to do but to see you cared for and to return to Britain.”
Stubbornly, Horatio reiterated, “And again, I thank you for stepping in where I could not.”
Bush started, “But I hope you see, sir --”
Barbara foresaw the whole afternoon spent this way, and so intervened. “Yes, yes, you’re both well aware that you hold each other in the highest esteem. I fear that many more rounds of this shall see our tea growing cold.”
This left both men shy, making no move to soften or elide her words. Horatio turned away from both of them, his eyes fixed on the window but not taking in anything beyond or before it. Bush picked at his cuffs, straightening the way they fell on his wrists.
“But really, Mr. Bush,” Barbara said, covering Horatio’s silence, “I must press you further on your family. Isn’t there some solution to their distance? Your visits were a dear comfort for me while Horatio was delayed, and I hate to think of your sisters missing you in a similar way.”
“I write them often,” Bush offered, still a bit red under that salt-weathered tan. “I don’t feel they’re too put out. My sisters have often remarked with pride on my service and promotions.”
Barbara nodded, allowing that he knew them better than she. The last comment she allowed herself was, “And I hope that service isn’t putting you out, either. Sheerness doesn’t offer quite the company or the amenities of a home. You’re always welcome here in Smallbridge, as it’s closer to your command, and you’ll be able to return in a day if anything is amiss.”
Bush seemed to consider this a moment, and took a quick measure of Horatio’s mood. He seemed to notice the same markings of an introspective abstraction that Barbara knew well. Bush told her, “I thank you for that welcome, Lady Hornblower. I’ll admit that a ship at anchor isn’t quite the challenge of one at sea. I find myself left to corresponding with the Admiralty, a hobby I’d rather leave for those with a better skill for politics than I.”
“Well, the estate hasn’t even that much challenge. But I’ll do my best to be diverting.”
Bush glanced again at Horatio, who had remained motionless. He said, with the air of a confessor, “I couldn’t interrupt his convalescence.”
Barbara reached across the table - Bush was a little out of her reach, so she just touched her fingers to the wood surface. “You won’t. He’s more desperate for a diversion than you, I daresay. You know how restive he can become.”
There was a moment that Bush resisted, never one to speak ill of a superior, but then he nodded.
“Horatio?” Barbara called, to see if she could attract any of her husband’s attention. “My dear, it might be time to lie down.”
Horatio’s head snapped back around, and he looked at her quite piercingly, still in his thoughts; it took two blinks for him to settle, and sink down in his wheelchair. “Sorry, I was distracted. I - yes, I suppose a rest is in order before supper. You’re staying, I believe, Mr. Bush?”
“Yes, sir, for the weekend,” Bush answered.
“Then, until supper,” Horatio said, and called for Brown.
Barbara issued Bush a standing invitation to the study, which doubled as the library, small though it was. She also showed him to his room for the duration of his stay, so that he could set down his things.
“Thank you very much, Lady Hornblower,” he said, clomping into the room.
“Please, Captain Bush, would you call me Barbara?” she asked.
He shook his head, and deferred, “I can try, but I make no promises.”
Barbara said, “I can offer you a few other ways to spend the time until supper, but I’m afraid reading does top the list. We’d need another for a hand of cards.”
“And you may have heard that I’m abysmal with cards, at any rate,” he joked.
She chuckled. “It may have come up.” During that first voyage home on the Lydia , she and Horatio had played countless hands of whist - and only one time with Bush. It had ended in a perfect disaster. “So, Captain,” she added, “perhaps you’d rather that I leave you for the afternoon, and you can rest your --” she stuttered, “f-feet. Oh, I am so sorry.”
“It’s nothing,” he told immediately, “it’s a common mistake.”
“No, I can’t believe it slipped my mind,” she disagreed. “Please, accept my apology.”
He sighed as he sat down in the room’s chair, and bent his knee to turn his wooden peg out into the light. “I’ll accept it with no ill feelings, Lady Horn-- Barbara. It’s been awhile and I hardly think of it myself.”
Barbara nodded at him, and cursed her inattention, and then decided, “Well, then, I’ll leave you until supper before I put my foot in my mouth again. Good afternoon, Captain Bush.”
“Wait,” he called before she was gone. “If you expect me to use your Christian name, surely you must use mine, as well.”
“Very well, William,” she said, and smiled at him.
He winked, and she went away laughing.
In the morning, Barbara went in search of her guest, knowing that Navy men kept a much earlier morning than she did. He wasn’t in the library, or the green sitting room; she even checked on Hebe and Richard in the nursery, just in case.
William was in their master bedroom, in the end, in the chair pulled up to Horatio’s bedside. The two men were telling some story about - well, something about the maneuvering of ships. She caught the word ‘leeward’ in there, anyway. William made a cuttingly mild remark, and Horatio chuckled.
It came to Barbara, then, how much laughter had filled the rooms of this house in only the past day. And how little came before that.
Then she realized that she was standing in the hallway peering through a crack in a door, and this behavior was entirely ridiculous, and took herself off again.
They passed the afternoon at cards, after Horatio ordered Brown to leave his duties and sit as their fourth. It wasn’t a very good game, as Brown had never learned the rules, and Bush was still as transparent as glass. But it was Horatio’s favorite pastime, so they played.
At the end of the rubber, Brown cleared his throat and said, “I wonder if you notice the time, sir.”
Horatio checked the clock and nodded, and William looked between them inquiringly.
“The doctor has me taking exercise for my recovery,” Horatio explained to him. “Eight bells every morning and afternoon watch.”
William signaled his understanding by starting to clear the cards and the flat piece of wood they had used as a table from over Horatio’s lap. “Right, then, sir, you had better not shirk them.”
Horatio said, “Actually, Captain Bush, as long as you’re here, you might be of some assistance. Several of these exercises require that I pull against someone else’s strength.”
Barbara, who was moving the excess chairs away, stood bolt upright and stared at the wall in front of her.
“I’ll be of any help I can, sir,” William answered.
“Thank you, Captain.”
Barbara did not turn around. She did not finish clearing the chairs away. She simply walked straight out the door of the bedroom, went to the study, locked the door, and wept.
Sunday morning found Barbara and William taking the carriage into Smallbridge to attend the church service.
(There were sure to be rumors enough about why Horatio had not a service since his return. Now Barbara was taking another Navy officer on her arm. She would love to hear what sorts of fits this would send Mrs. Sansom into.)
Afterwards, there was, of course, a tour of the little village. Barbara tucked her gloved hand under William’s arm and the walked past the store, the seamstress, the bakery.
“And there,” Barbara pointed out, “is the newly reconstructed bridge of such famously small stature.”
Bush pretended to inspect the bridge, nodded sagely, and then grinned at her. “Well, it certainly could be bigger, Lady Hornblower.”
Barbara giggled. “It’s the source of all the village’s renown! No, it can’t grow even an inch.”
Just then, William’s weight shifted very suddenly, and Barbara’s grip on his elbow tightened and propped him up. She saw that his wooden peg had set on a patch of ice and slipped away from him.
He grunted and righted himself with some effort. “Thank you,” he said breathlessly.
“Of course,” she assured him, concerned. “I’ll have the carriage brought alongside here. I should have considered the difficulty of all this ice.”
He nodded his assent and leaned against the nearest tree trunk - they had walked out to the bridge, what had she been thinking - and Barbara hurried back into the main square to wave at Mr. Alton, who had driven them out.
By the time this small crisis was over and they were shut up in the carriage again, Barbara had worked herself up into a very energetic state, and she was sure that her face was awfully flushed.
William watched her try to calm down from the other seat, his expression twisting between amusement and discomfort. Finally he commented, “You know, I don’t think I’ve had a chance to remark upon this, but you’re a very impressive woman.”
“Why, William, whatever do you mean?” she deflected, sheepish.
“Well,” he began slowly, ordering his thoughts, “there was the way that you demanded to see me in Sheerness less than six hours after we made port. It wasn’t what I had meant by ‘earliest convenience’.”
She sniffed. “It was easier that way.”
“And on the Lydia , when then-Captain Hornblower ordered you to stay safely out of the battle, and you became the nursemaid instead,” William went on.
“Horatio was being precious,” she said, scoffing now.
William was quiet for a few moments, smiling at her and then out the window. He commented, “If I may be so bold, that sort of attitude was a great comfort to me when I learned of your marriage.”
Deep down at the core of her, there was something tender that flinched away from the subject of her marriage. Keeping her voice steady and looking away, she prompted, “Oh?”
“The previous Mrs. Hornblower, God rest her, was a good woman, and sweet,” he told her carefully. “However, she had the bad habit of ceding to the Commodore far too often. He was barely aware of her on shore, let alone at sea.”
Still turned away, Barbara bobbed her head to show she was listening.
“Ah --” William went on, more unsure. “I only meant to say, there is a great difference with you. I think planting yourself in his way and making him move is the only way to make him see you.”
Barbara nodded again.
“Lady Hornblower?” he beckoned to her. “Barbara?”
There was nothing for it. Barbara put her face in her hands and let him see that she was crying, curling inward, nearly with her head on her knees. She tried desperately to stop, which only made it worse; she held her breath too long and let out a loud, gasping sob.
“What,” William said, sounding adrift. “I must apologize, I didn’t mean to… Barbara, what?”
“How can you say so?” Barbara sobbed, when she could actually speak. “Since his homecoming, he’s refused my help at every turn. But he’ll accept your help, no, he’ll ask for it. You say he sees me, but he’s smiled more this weekend than during the six months we spent together married!”
A hand slowly came down to rest on the back of her shoulder. William told her, “No, no. I can see that you’re upset, but that’s casting a pall on your memory. He was very glad to find you at home, taking care of Richard, hoping for him.”
Barbara started evening out her breath, deliberately forcing herself to listen to his words, to consider them clearly and without her tumultuous emotions in the way.
“The Commodore is used to being superior to other people,” William told her, in a very confidential and guilty tone. “He is used to having the luxury of modesty and humility. Being so transparently weak, and needing assistance, and no way to excuse or cover it - he’s vulnerable. Any offer of help feels like pity to him, and he can’t abide it.”
By degrees, Barbara sat up, and wiped her eyes, and held the cool backs of her gloves to them. Her voice was still thick and damp when she asked, “William, could you -- come to visit again? Soon? Horatio can be so… thoughtless, sometimes. I’m finding it very difficult. And you really, truly have been a comfort to me.”
His shoulders straightened up, as if he were receiving an order from the Admiralty itself, and he said, “I couldn’t consider otherwise. Next weekend, then?”
Bush left that night, for the fleet that was still his in Sheerness. After waving him off, Barbara decided that she would have to start being that impressive woman that William had observed, and damn well stop ceding to Horatio so often.
Barbara gave Horatio peace until the next morning. His exercises were completed by 8:30, and she went to their room afterward, excusing Brown as she came in and sat down.
She took Horatio’s hand in both of hers, cradling it between them. She said, “Horatio, I must tell you that I have been very unhappy of late.”
Horatio reacted as he normally did around emotions; he cleared his throat uncomfortably. He acknowledged, “I did suspect so.”
“I’ve been unhappy because I have felt rejected by you,” she explained. “You wouldn’t let me help you in any way. You were horrible about that Bath chair. You even drew away from my touch, Horatio.”
“That wasn’t my intention,” he argued.
Barbara told him firmly, “That was the result.”
Horatio offered, “Then I must make it up to you somehow. Please, tell me what I can do.”
“This afternoon I will help you with your exercises,” she said.
He squirmed. “Very well.”
“And tomorrow morning?”
“Yes, if it will make you happy,” he conceded.
Barbara blew out a breath, relieved. It was the right answer, and she had worried that it would take much more to get it. She said, “My last condition is that you allow me to touch you. Hold you. And that you hold me in return. If that can be met, then I shall sleep in this bed with you tonight.”
Horatio grimaced at her, and told her, “I’m afraid my -- stamina -- is not really --”
“Don’t be silly, Horatio,” she said, and laughed at him. “I’m well aware of that. But I missed you terribly while you were gone.” In a tender moment, she brought his knuckles up to brush her cheek. “I miss you still.”
He turned his hand to cup her face, and then tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I’ll do my best, then, won’t I, Barbara?”
The exercises passed with no complaint. Brown did not even comment on her inclusion.
The real test would come that night.
Barbara got into their bed almost shyly, and felt very foolish for it. She sat up against the pillows, and let Horatio finish the newspaper he was reading - he was catching up to the beginning of November - and thought it was a very odd thing, to demand that someone embrace you.
Presently, Horatio finished reading, and set the paper aside, and turned to regard her. “Well, Barbara,” he invited archly, “this is your command. What are your orders?”
“Don’t you poke fun at me,” she said affectionately. “Come here.” She guided him to lie down flat, and she tucked herself close to him, her head on his shoulder. “And now, put your arm around me,” she instructed.
He did, and after some shifting, they settled down and into each other. His other arm came up and found hers, over his heart.
“See, there,” she hummed, very low. “This is what I wanted.”
“A successful operation, then?” he asked, and when she giggled, he did too.
This week passed much more pleasantly than the last. Horatio was much more pliant with her now, after she apparently showed him that while he had command of a thousand men on half a dozen ships, she had command at home.
She was deeply amused when he came to read the week-long paroxysms that the Gazette had had over the news of his returned fleet and the break of the siege in Riga. He was well shot of the whole affair, and at any rate, they had gotten half the details wrong.
“I’m surprised they don’t claim I killed that horse by riding it in solid gold plate armor,” he complained.
“Oh, and I heard about that horse plenty,” she teased him. “You should have been here when Katherine Reade started interrogating William about the entire affair. I thought he might have brought a cold wind right down from the Arctic Ocean.”
Horatio paused for a beat, and then asked, “When did you begin to call him William?”
“Just during this last visit. I invited him to call me Barbara, as well,” she told him. “He’s a wonderful man. He’s put up with my blubbering twice now.”
“I suppose that’s one luxury of civilian life,” he commented pensively.
She watched for a few moments, silhouetted against the lamp light. She suggested, “You’ve counted him as a friend for a long time.”
He shook his head, then shrugged. “He’s my subordinate officer. There have been times that I’ve ordered him into almost certain death. There is -- a divide.”
“Then at least, know that he has counted you one of his.”
“Perhaps he has.” Horatio was frowning, slow and - wistful?
Leadingly, she said, “I’ve sometimes guessed that you prefer his company over mine.”
He whipped his head up to look at her, and his face was all shadows, just the hint of his brow and nose.
“Socially, of course,” she finished lightly.
“Of course,” he echoed, and stayed quiet through the rest of the night and into the morning.
William arrived again that Friday worried, but relaxed after a few minutes’ conversation and careful inspection of them both. Admittedly, even their bodies were showing the repairs in their marriage; turning toward each other like flowers to the sun, always attentive and seeking attention.
When she brought William to his room once again, she took the chance to have him alone to say, “I must thank you for your advice and patience with me last weekend, William.”
“I’m sorry for its need but glad for its usefulness,” he told her. “Are you -- I’m sorry, I shouldn’t pry.”
“I believe I was the one who made it your business,” she remarked, “and anyway, I’m fairly sure you’re Horatio’s dearest friend on this Earth.”
This startled him, and Barbara realized that spending the week stating her feelings outright had already given her a bad habit. “Oh, that was out of line.”
“I just wouldn’t have expected him to say anything resembling it,” William said, still bewildered.
“Come, he doesn’t need to say it,” she said, though judging by his wide eyes, perhaps it needed saying by someone. “But I’ll take my leave and see you at supper.”
She left him there, and took herself to the nursery. Children were sometimes much easier than adults, after all.
The heart of the matter was that Barbara knew very early in her acquaintance with Horatio that he preferred to socialize with men, and knew almost nothing about women. He had been married to the first Mrs. Hornblower for ten years, then.
Now, knowing him better, she could guess the trajectory of that relationship: Maria had loved Horatio; it was the proper thing to be married and have someone to greet you at the end of a ship’s journey; and so they had married. And Horatio had been home so little that an unhappy or loveless marriage had barely touched him.
Meanwhile, on a ship of war, he thrived. He won respect easily and lost it at dear cost. He gave his respect, as well, to his officers and mates. William Bush had not followed him through so many different commands by chance, but by Horatio’s deliberate choice.
So it was a short journey from knowing he preferred men socially to -- well.
Katherine came to dinner that night, at Barbara’s invitation. After some sleight of hand - she arrived to find Horatio already seated at the table, and Barbara drew her to the nursery while Horatio was wheeled into place at the card table - she left with plenty to report in Smallbridge about the health of Sir Hornblower.
The ruse absolutely galled William, naturally.
“You have to consider what the gossips will say,” Barbara tried to explain to him.
“Yes,” Horatio said rather bitingly, “they must be assured that I’m recovering swiftly, mustn’t they.”
She sent him a speaking look and he shut his mouth.
“What’s the harm if they know he’s in a wheelchair while he’s recovering?” William asked.
“Well, you yourself saw the way they reported on his heroics. If you thought that was overeager, just wait until those same papers learn that their hero of Riga was tragically taken ill, and may never walk again.”
William blanched and looked at Horatio in concern.
“Of course, it isn’t true,” Barbara sighed at him. “But it’s what they will report. And it’s what the public will believe. So I’d rather that no one outside this household knows about the typhus at all.”
Horatio gave her a sour look. “You’ve gone about it very curiously.”
“I don’t know what you’re referring to, Horatio,” she told him, “so you had better say it directly.”
“The first night I returned!” he protested. “You told the Reades, at least, that I was an invalid and weak as a kitten.”
She shook her head at him, puzzled. “I never did.”
He paused, equally puzzled. He tried, “You came back from dinner and said they were praying for my recovery.”
“I told everyone that after your absence, we weren’t receiving any visitors, and that if you looked ill when you first arrive, it was because you had lost your land-legs,” she said.
There was a long silence, and then Horatio said very abashedly, “Oh.”
William was fidgeting, glancing around the sitting room as though he wanted to give them privacy.
Barbara said, “Thus, William, you have to think tactically around these sorts of people. When you’re dealing with the enemy, a ruse is sometimes necessary.”
William’s eyes passed from hers to Horatio’s, and he grinned. “That sounds familiar. You have no idea how many times the Commodore here has ordered us to sail under the Tricolour only to strike it at the last possible moment.”
Endeared, Barbara smiled at Horatio - to find him frowning thoughtfully. He said, “In such an informal setting, I believe you may call me Horatio.” After a moment, he added cautiously, “William.”
“Why, of course sir,” William said, and then laughed at himself. “Horatio.”
In bed that night, with Horatio’s head on her belly, Barbara asked, “Would you be terribly offended if I told you that you have loved people very seldom in your life?”
“No, that may be fair,” Horatio hummed sleepily.
“And if I further told you that you’re unpracticed at recognizing that emotion? What then?” Barbara ventured.
Horatio turned his head, rubbing his cheek against her. He looked at her upside down. “That may be fair, as well. It took me a long time to learn how quickly I fell in love with you.”
She touched his curly hair, ran her fingers through it. “Horatio,” she said very quietly, “I believe that you are in love with William.”
He jerked to sit upright, shaking her hand away. “What,” he started, but didn’t know where to go from there.
“I think you’ve loved him for a very long time, and in such a steady way that you never had to consider it,” she told him, calmly, soothingly.
He hesitated, sitting there in bed, letting all the warmth out of the blankets. Finally, glacially, he lay back down, and pressed his face down on her breastbone, weighing on her. He turned his cheek up and said, “I fear you may be correct. There was something you said, during his previous visit -- and I was so pleased to see him again --” He fell silent.
She ran her fingers through his hair again. “There, now. Let’s decide what we’re going to do about it.”
The next day dawned sunny and crisp, and it was Christmas Eve.
Alton and Brown had acquired a tree and set it up in the green sitting room, resplendent in garlands and baubles. Before the afternoon, the tree was stripped two feet from the floor by Richard’s machinations, and Hebe had surrendered the idea of fixing it before the boy went to sleep.
They all ate lunch together - including Richard - and in general had a gay afternoon. Richard had warmed to William gratifyingly and led him in a game of hide and seek that Richard never lost.
The day wore on and Richard flagged, and it was just Barbara, William, and Horatio for dinner - they dismissed Brown to have his own dinner and kept to just the three of them.
And then dinner was over, and Barbara couldn’t send any more significant looks in Horatio’s direction. She pressed the issue by taking Horatio’s hand and squeezing it.
Horatio cleared his throat.
William looked at him, and at Barbara, and his brows rose. “Is there something I’ve forgotten?” he asked.
Very roughly, like grinding rocks, Horatio forced out, “William. You are… very dear… to me,” before he lost his momentum.
William’s mouth dropped open and his eyes went round, and he stammered, “Sir -- Horatio -- I mean, yes, I hold you in the same regard.”
“Which is why…” Horatio petered out completely, and waved for Barbara to step in.
Barbara said, “William, we would love to give you a standing invitation to spend your weekends here in Smallbridge, with us. You’ll have to do quite a lot to get out of it.”
“That’s… very kind,” William accepted, stunned.
“We’re asking you this,” Barbara said as delicately as she could, “because you have proven a wonderful addition to our home. And… our marriage.”
William Bush began to blush from the tops of his ears to his toes. “I -- I merely -- that’s --” He swallowed hard and said, “I could be sent to sea at a moment’s notice --”
“No, you won’t,” Horatio brushed this away entirely. “You won’t be sailing anywhere until I’m recovered enough to take the fleet off of your hands. And look at me, I’m still bound in this wheelchair.”
Barbara leaned in to share a private joke with William. “And when you do sail off together, I do hope you’ll be sure to step into my place at his side. Or, is it that I have stepped into yours?”
Oh, dear, William really was very red now. He said, “Barbara!” perfectly scandalized, and she was delighted to have caught a sailor out that way.
Needless to say, the night went on in that fashion.
Christmas Day was colder than the day before, but none of them noticed it.
Opening presents was quite the adventure for Richard - he particularly enjoyed the wooden soldiers he received from William, as they had been repainted Navy blue. He was overcome with the excitement and dropped right to sleep in the middle of the carpet before it was noon.
Barbara and Horatio had decided that their family would not be attending the Christmas service. It was out of the ordinary, but there was simply no way to avoid using the wheelchair. William skipped it as well, but he gave a more bashful impression that he wanted to talk last night over with the Lord privately before attending church again.
Certainly the highlight of the day was discovering that Brown had hung a sprig of mistletoe over the threshold of the master bedroom - and William and Horatio were the ones to discover it.
They spent the afternoon reminiscing about past Christmases, each of them having been raised very differently from the others. The fire was roaring, and they were together; they couldn’t have been cozier.
Horatio initiated their private gift giving. He produced a small box for Barbara - made his apologies to Bush.
Barbara found inside the box a lovely stone of amber, delicately mounted to a silver necklace. It was gorgeous.
“Riga is famous for its amber,” Horatio told her, embarrassed at her effusive praise for the gift.
“Well, you’ve put me to shame,” Barbara declared, “but I might as well bring out your gift, Horatio.”
She went to her dressing room and produced a cane of dark, smooth wood, unadorned but elegant. When she brought it to the bed, Bush began to laugh, and then to guffaw. This was quite inexplicable until he reached under the edge of the bed and showed that he had hidden - a cane that was identical apart from the type of wood.
“Really, William,” Barbara pretended to scold him, but Horatio was laughing now, too, and so she gave up and laughed right along with them.
And during the new year, when Horatio was recovered enough, they would all walk across that small bridge together, and into town.