Disclaimer: Owe nothing, earn nothing, love you all...
As much as I like the Hornblower universe, the love story in the Happy Return is just a little too... too... whatever you want. So, my own little twist of the story. And before anybody flames me about commentaries on the lady's age, may I remind that the life expectancy was under forty in these days? The original Lady Barbara Wellesley in the book is around 27, which means she was very nearly considered an old maid.
July 1808, HMS Lydia, off Panama.
"Very well," said Hornblower abruptly to the Spanish officers, "I will take my ship back and fight the Natividad".
Before leaving the Lydia, the Spanish envoy added casually that the Viceroy had a little request for Captain Hornblower. Hornblower raised his eyebrows. "There is an English lady in Panama."
'No' thought Hornblower. 'I'll say no.'
"She is a prisoner, she arrived from Porto Bello with the Governor's wife. There is yellow fever in Porto Bello."
She had been a female companion to another lady on the West Indian Packet that was captured by a Spanish privateer and brought to Porto Bello. Her employer died while a guest in the Governor's palace.
"She is old, at least fifty-five. In the name of humanity, his Excellency would like to see her safely returned to English soil and to her children."
Hornblower understood, and asked rather cynically, "She has no maid?"
"No maid, captain."
No hope of a ransom; a burden to feed and maintain, but probably too ladylike to be made a servant by high hidalgo sticklers, too old to be considered entertaining or foisted into marriage even on a minor civil servant... Had probably been listed as hostage with her family making them mild nuisances... So, they were going to foist her on him, and good riddance.
The Viceroy knew perfectly he couldn't refuse, after the predicament he'd placed himself in with that change of alliances and handing over the Natividad to El Supremo. Even the slightest polite request of his would be met like an Admiralty order; "You are required and requested to..."
A woman on board. On his ship. 'Lucky me,' he thought savagely. He still remembered the hair tearing occasioned by Mrs Bonaparte's sojourn aboard the Hotspur.
From very far, he heard Kitty's voice pleading, "I want to go home", and himself saying, "I would have been honoured to have you aboard my ship, whether you'd be the duchess of Wharfedale or Kitty Cobham or any woman seeking refuge..."
Dear, courageous Kitty, who'd carried out her mad deception and got shipwrecked, captured and bedding that unctuous sadist, De Vergesse.
Spanish exigencies apart, could he really, wilfully, abandon one who had nothing to recommend herself? Except the fact that she was stranded in a foreign land, a compatriot and a female...? He sighed inwardly.
A woman aboard.
"Mr Bush, we are going to have a passenger. A female passenger. I'll let you arrange the particulars."
Bush was rarely at a loss, but this was one of those occasions. "Sir?"
Hornblower secretly savoured it. "Ah-hum. She is an English widow stranded in these parts. So, a little... chivalry is expected of us. And I understand the lady is not of an age to cause trouble with the men."
"Of course, sir." So, Bush plunged as seriously and efficiently as always into another of the strange duties that were likely to befall a lieutenant in His Majesty's Royal Navy.
"Not your cabin, sir?"
"Definitely not, Mr Bush."
"We could put her in one of the lieutenants' cabin or... Sir?"
"What would you say if we put her in the surgeon's quarters?"
The surgeon had drunk himself to death, as had many a Navy surgeon. Yet, it was difficult to excuse that he'd done so in the middle of the Pacific, leaving them with only that silly fool Laurie, his hapless assistant, while they were going to engage in a desperate battle with an opponent twice their size and fire power.
At least the fool's cabin was available, and so far from the Captain's quarters as to guarantee he would have no trouble to avoid the -ahum- female passenger. "Excellent, Mr Bush."
And he forgot all about her, until he got a glimpse of an old lady in a faded dress of uncertain colour in the court of the palace, when he was taking his leave from the Viceroy. Of course, he took her back with him in his gig.
She had introduced herself as a Mrs Barbara Wellesley. A slightly raised eyebrow had been understood at once, and had her explaining that no, she was no relation to the famous Irish family - the only thing she might have in common with them would be poverty. She was the daughter of a country squire, and her late husband had been an attorney in Bristol but he had left her with nearly nothing, except for three surviving children she had managed to establish in the world.
Hornblower cynically predicted to himself that some of the hands and indeed the officers (trust Gerard!) would embellish the story to impress drinking mates, recounting how they had sailed with a lady of the marquis of Wellesley's family... and probably a beautiful, dashing young lady at that.
She had one son in a trading house in Jamaica (she had taken the post of hired companion as an opportunity to visit him) and two married daughters in Bristol. She was just anxious to go home. She had a kind smile, obvious dignity and something of that look he knew so well – the look of people who have had to struggle with poverty for years yet must put on a brave face every day and act as if they were smarter and richer, and ready to die for King and Country every morning.
After the shock of finding her in charge of the sick bay during the first engagement with the Natividad, with the raw courage and the easy competence of a woman who had lost several children and nursed a dying husband, he had found himself in almost daily contact with her. And she had proved indeed surprisingly well read and well informed, and a very pleasant companion.
When he returned shaken to the core from his last encounter with a chained, mad and humiliated El Supremo, displayed by his gaolers as a rare entertainment, just as he and then Archie had been by the Court Martial in Kingston, Bush had conspired with Mrs Wellesley to try to console and cheer him.
Soon, Hornblower came to rely on the solace of their discussions, often late in the night, both tucked against the ship's rail, under the stars.
In due course, she learned much about Maria; the resigned affection he bestowed on her when he was in what still qualified as home; the wreckage the death of Little Horatio and Little Maria had left in his heart, and in Maria's now aimless life. Whatever her shortcomings, Maria had been a good mother and he had left her a shell of what she had once been.
She had implicitly understood too how he no longer resented his mother in law, that drunken shrew who had managed to maintain her daughter in drudge and poverty, despite her marriage to a Navy Captain - until the cold despair of her grand children's death had turned her almost overnight into a senile old hag.
She had even suggested, very delicately, that Maria was still young enough, and that maybe, for both their sake, another child...
She was grateful, rather motherly, and not such a hapless little mouse as people automatically thought a woman of her age and condition would be. And she had warmed to that strange man who imposed on himself the unnatural task of posing as strong, silent and devoid of emotion - because he had decided he was not able to find a balance between the exigencies of a captain's dignity and his own craving, confiding personality.
One morning, he had her called to his cabin. Here, they were on easy, intimate terms. "Mrs Wellesley, we're to reach St Helena in two days at most, and I'll have to hand over reports and present the ship's books. So, I need your signature on some documents."
And there it was, in the ship's muster: Wellesley, B. acting surgeon, com. aboard Panama, 28th July 1808.
"What does it mean, Captain?"
"That you are officially aboard, officially in charge of the sick bay for the duration of this voyage, and that you are entitled to junior surgeon's pay until we reach Portsmouth. Nobody will need to know more."
"Can you understand I prefer to entrust my men's health to your care rather than to Laurie's?"
She put both hands into her lap, deep breathed and finally said, "thank you, Captain, I appreciate what you're doing," and she signed herself in the books.
With some pride.
Very gently, he said, "carry on, Mrs Wellesley."
"Aye aye Captain."
In the end, it was a happy voyage, and, yes, one could say a happy return. At least, as happy as he'd ever managed.