A warning to the Archie-fans: Mr. Kennedy is absent from this tale, as it takes place during his long imprisonment. I felt that his cheerful presence and ready friendship would be too effective at bringing Horatio out of his sour mood. No, for this tale I wanted the stiffly controlled (to himself... sometimes terribly transparent to others), sometimes melancholy and often self-doubting man that is Horatio on his own. So, Archie is present only in memory, but you may be assured that Horatio misses him as much as you do... more, really, because he doesn't know that he will see his friend again, and we know that he will.
Timeline-wise, I should make a comment or two. This is meant to be December 1793, at the end of Horatio's first year at sea. For the purposes of the story, I have decreed that all of the events of The Duel/The Even Chance have occurred, but that Horatio has not yet been promoted to Acting Lieutenant. I think that he would have to be at sea a little longer for that to happen. In any case, he is still a midshipman in this piece. Mr. Bracegirdle is here, though, with his characteristic words of wisdom, so I suppose he joined the ship soon after the capture of the Papillon. Three cheers for our Bracie!
There may be some suspension of disbelief required when reading this story, especially the last bits. I don't necessarily believe that the events as described would actually happen to Our Hero. But it is, after all, a holiday story, and therefore the usual rules don't quite apply; we are outside of time here, and I hereby give the characters official permission to act in a manner that I would normally consider a bit goofy.
A medical note: I have here used the modern term of a "cold", rather than the period terms (things like "catarrh" or "grippe"). Forester did this, so I can do it, right?
Finally, (you'd better shut up soon, Kim, or the author's notes will be longer than the story... can you tell I like to write author's notes?), this tale is inspired by a bad cold (and several cups of hot tea-grog with which I was... ahem... self-treating) and the Christmas pudding that I steamed a couple of weeks ago for consumption by my family and friends on Christmas Day (which, by the way, was delicious). So: cheers to the English, for giving us wonderful treats like steamed plum pudding and hot grog! Grab yourself a cup of something sweet and hots, and maybe a hankie, and, oh, some of that fruitcake would be lovely... and let's begin the story…
To Family, Far and Near
"Evenin', Mr. Hornblower!"
Horatio looked up, startled momentarily. He had been sunk deep in thought as he walked along the deck, and had not really noticed the knot of men sprawled comfortably in the waist. Some of the men of his division sat there, warmly clad against the chill and busying themselves with various bits of hand-work. Oldroyd was stitching at a piece of canvas, Matthews could be seen whittling away at a smooth greyish block of driftwood, and Styles was making something intricate out of coiled rope. Intrigued in spite of his foul mood and congested head, Horatio walked a few more steps to get a closer look.
He watched with more than a trace of silent envy as Styles coiled and wove the rope into a symmetrical shape, forming a small oval mat. Curiosity finally overcame his reticence enough to make him speak. "What are you making, Styles?" His voice emerged hoarsely from the folds of the cloak that he was holding high around his neck.
He gestured. "The rope, Styles. What are you making out of the rope?"
"Oh. Well, sir..." Styles glanced around at the others, grinning. "Bit o' a surprise, sir, you see."
Horatio didn't see, not really, but thought better of commenting. Instead, he stood quietly and watched Styles work, the surprisingly nimble fingers tucking the rope over and under in what looked to Horatio to be a baffling pattern. He looked over at the others. Oldroyd's canvas, taking shape as he sewed with the firm neat stitches of the seaman, might be some sort of ditty bag or haversack, and Matthews appeared to be carving a small bird of some kind. All were working industriously, and probably were becoming nervous at having their midshipman's eye upon them.
He turned to go, but his feet tangled somehow in a pile of loosely coiled rope that sat next to Styles, presumably waiting to be wound into the whatever-it-was that Styles was making. His upper body was unable to check its forward momentum quickly enough, and he went sprawling onto his belly in a most undignified manner. He was able to break his fall somewhat with his arms, but not enough to save his prominent nose from a minor collision with the deck. He lay there for a second or two, with the wind knocked out of him, and with blood beginning to drip from his nose. Already abused by several days of sneezing and blowing, the bump from the deck had been enough to start it bleeding.
As he climbed furiously back to his feet, one hand clutching at his nose, he became aware of Matthews at his elbow attempting to help him rise. "Are ye all right, sir?"
He shook off Matthews' arm, and dug for his handkerchief. "Damn you, Styles," he roared. "Get that pile of rope out of the way before someone gets killed." He clapped the worn old handkerchief to his nose, but not before blood had liberally spattered his coat and waistcoat as well as the decking. He glared at the men and gestured at the blood spots by his feet. "Get this mess cleaned up. Matthews, you're getting shavings all over the deck; someone'll slip on those next. Take your little hobbies below where they won't be in anyone's way." He dabbed again at his nose. "And wipe those smiles off of your faces."
In truth, Oldroyd was the only one actually smiling. Styles had that sort of fixed expression that one has when one is trying very hard not to laugh at someone who would not appreciate the joke. Matthews, by contrast, looked chagrined.
Horatio scowled. His knees felt bruised from their encounter with the unyielding wood of the deck. His earlier headache had returned tenfold, along with an unpleasant scratchy sensation in his throat. The nosebleed was particularly humiliating; the illness and the bruised knees he could hide, but he was not looking forward to going below with the evidence of his clumsiness so openly displayed on his uniform. Worst of all, he knew himself well enough to know that some of his anger stemmed from a petty envy of the homely skills of his men: to take rope, canvas and wood and find in them objects of rough beauty.
Since he could not think of anything remotely appropriate to say, he merely took a deep breath and nodded, then turned and walked to the rail to gaze at the rolling expanse of grey water while dabbing at his nose. His conscience was already pricking at him; only months ago he had scolded his men for skulking about in the cable tier with their rat-games and had exhorted them to spend their free time on deck when they could. Now, in a fit of pique, he had completely contradicted himself by telling them to take their pastimes below. He toyed with the idea of going back, of saying something to soften his words, but... maybe it would be better just to leave the situation the way it was. By the rules of the navy, he owed them no explanation, and he knew that they would forgive him for worse offenses than speaking sharply to them.
December 23, it was. Just two days until Christmas, and now eleven months since he had left home to serve King and Country. Two days until his first Christmas spent away from both home and family; a Christmas that would be empty of the small faithful traditions of his childhood. In typical youthful fashion, he had not realized that those traditions had become so deeply rooted in his soul... not until now, when he faced a Christmastide devoid of them and of his family. This winter, while they beat up and down the French coast in single-minded pursuit of the enemy, the Feast of the Nativity would be marked by little more than a hot pudding from the steward - if no storm prevented the cooking of hot food - and a double rum ration.
No family to share a Christmas meal with, no real friends with which to exchange gifts or even commiserate about being so far from home... Horatio sighed. With Simpson dead, he no longer had any enemies on board ship; he had a good working relationship with the officers and with the other midshipmen and the master's mates. He had to admit, though, that he missed both poor doomed Clayton and the hapless Archie Kennedy more than he would have thought possible.
His friendship with Clayton had barely had the chance to materialize before the ill-fated duel cut the older midshipman's life short, but had he lived, Horatio was sure that they would have become lifelong friends. And poor fit-ridden Archie... Horatio shuddered away from the memory of the attack on the Papillon, of the dreadful necessity of whacking Archie's skull with the tiller to silence him. His last glimpse of his friend had shown him unconscious in the boat, insensible to the knowledge that he would be lost to the crew of the Indefatigable. Horatio felt his loss keenly, missing Archie's unquenchable cheerfulness and unconscious generosity.
He heard a soft sound next to him, and turned to see Matthews. "Beggin' your pardon, sir, but... you wasn't hurt when you fell?"
Horatio's irritation ebbed away, and once again he felt abashed at his earlier harsh retort. "No, I am uninjured. Thank you, Matthews."
Matthews frowned. "But you're bleedin', sir."
Horatio managed a sheepish smile. "My nose, but it's stopped now."
"Glad to hear it, then, sir." Matthews grinned. "Wouldn't want you to get all banged up. After all, it'll be Christmas soon."
Horatio eyed the grizzled seaman, slightly exasperated. "And what does that have to do with me falling on my face, Matthews?"
"Nothin', sir, nothin'. Sorry, sir." He was still smiling.
Horatio sighed. "Well, it's cold, and I'm going below. Matthews?"
"Never mind what I said about... well, about the men working on their pastimes up here on the deck. I spoke out of temper only. They should of course continue what they are doing. Just be more careful about leaving out rubbish that could cause a fall."
Matthews saluted him. "We'll do that, sir, An' thank you."
Horatio spent a restless night; swelling from the blow to his nose combined with the effects of his cold left him breathing noisily through his mouth. He awoke several times gasping and snorting for air; by the grumbling sounds he heard from the other hammocks he was disturbing the sleep of the other midshipmen as well. When he finally arose to stand his watch, his head had begun to ache again and his throat was raw.
To his relief and gratitude, the gunroom steward was up and about preparing breakfast; there was nothing much ready to eat but Horatio was able to grab a mug of hot tea. It hurt his throat to swallow the steaming liquid, but he felt somewhat better afterwards.
In the predawn gloom of the first watch, the midshipman of the watch had little to do except stare into the darkness. Horatio paced restlessly in order to stay warm, flexing and extending his chilled fingers to keep them from cramping. The cold and damp of the last few weeks was taking its toll on his skin; deep red fissures now marked the back of his knuckles while his face was growing rough and chapped. When he tired of pacing, he stared over the rail into the black water.
His mood of the previous day had not improved much. He still felt irritated and short-tempered, though he had managed to avoid any more public displays of open annoyance. His conscience niggled at him for yesterday's loss of control, and for chiding his men for such a trivial offense. The vague sense of guilt only added to his frustration with himself.
Of all of the maladies that he had expected to encounter in his first year at sea, he had given surprisingly little thought to the spectre of homesickness. Indeed, the idea seemed slightly shameful to him, that he should be plagued with a sentimental crying-after home and family like a young boy sent away to school. He had always been a deeply self-contained and self-possessed youth, content to be by himself much of the time and finding satisfaction in lonely study. Oh, during those first hellish weeks on Justinian, while he had been sick with despair and torment, he had certainly longed for the quiet austere home of his childhood... longed for the company of those who had known him all his life and respected his silence and reticence.
With the transfer to the Indefatigable, his world had changed overnight; he found himself too busy to be miserable, too fascinated with his new ship and captain to think of his home. He had found himself facing one new challenge after another, with little time to rest in between, and little leisure in which to brood upon his self-perceived failings. On the whole, he was well pleased with his life aboard the Indy; all that long spring and summer he had felt himself stretching and growing into his role as a serious-minded young midshipman.
Fall had brought waning activity to the ship and crew; fewer French ships ventured out as the autumn squalls hit. As the year waned, Horatio tasted the flat boredom of blockade duty against an enemy that rarely showed its face. His spirit, always restless for activity, drooped with the change. Oh, to be sure, not every day was dull; the weather proved to be tempestuous and unpredictable, and Mr. Bowles was kept busy with the task of keeping the ship safe during the storms. But the erratic motions of the ship during the squalls only served to disturb Horatio's uneasy stomach, until he was quite ready to trade seasickness for boredom.
With too little to do during his watches, he had been spending entirely too much time brooding again. Thoughts of Christmas and his home, impossible to avoid even aboard ship, only made the matter worse. Almost daily now, he found himself thinking of his father, wondering how he was faring by himself... wondering if he found time in his busy day to think of the son that he had given to the King's service.
Horatio's father had always worked long hours, even when Horatio was a small boy. After his wife's death, five years ago, he had managed to become even busier. Except for the time he spent with tutors, Horatio had come to spend more and more time on his own, with his own lonely thoughts for company... walking quietly along the hedgerows, or reading the books that he so loved.
His mother had died in November, those five years ago, after months of wasting illness. Christmas had loomed ahead, only five weeks after the funeral... an unspeakable, unbearable thought. Horatio's throat tightened at the memory. He'd drifted about the house and yard, a silent wraith of a boy unable to confront his own loss or fully comprehend his father's grief. He knew, now, that his father had been unable to look at his son without seeing his dead wife: Horatio had always born a startling physical resemblance to his dashing, beautiful, headstrong mother. The illness that killed her had stolen that beauty, aging her in a matter of weeks to a pale withered creature that nonetheless still possessed her soft brown eyes and her sensitive features.
It was his Aunt Agnes, his father's younger sister, that saved them that first terrible winter. She had bustled into the house a week before Christmas, with her meek husband and their three chattering daughters. She had taken charge of the household, planning the meals and hanging greenery. She had brought armloads of hand-made gifts for her brother and her lonely nephew. Horatio, starved for simple affection and amazed by this woman who had stepped so competently into the bleakness of their house, attached himself to her and spent many hours at her side listening to her endless talk
"You must have new traditions, Horatio," she'd told him on the second day, as they sat in the kitchen drawing up the Christmas menu. "You must not dwell in the past, and you cannot let your father do that either." She'd ruthlessly changed the dinner menu from her dead sister-in-law's favorite roast beef to the roast goose that she and her brother had enjoyed as children, adding other dishes that she had come to appreciate as an adult. She had left the last course unchanged.
"Your mother loved the Christmas pudding." She'd rested one plump arm around Horatio's shoulders, and he had leaned closer to her, smelling spices and gingerbread. "I'd rather have a good trifle, myself... but we will make this one dish for her, and remember her when we eat it." He'd cried a little, then, there with his aunt in the sweet-smelling kitchen... cried some of the tears that he had been too stubborn and proud to shed in front of his father.
And the dinner had been a surprising success. Aunt Agnes had orchestrated the day carefully to keep everyone too busy to dwell on sad thoughts. Horatio's task had been to keep his three younger cousins occupied. They were all three tomboys of the tree-climbing and banister-sliding variety, and he had been tired and bewildered by the time dinner was served. It was not until the end, when the pudding was brought to the table and flamed, that he remembered his loss... and then it had swept over him in a wave of sadness that very nearly had him in tears again.
Horatio shook his head as he came back to the present. Aunt Agnes had returned every Christmas, and his cousins were well on their way to becoming dignified young ladies. The menu for Christmas dinner had not varied since that first year, and always Horatio found himself thinking of his mother as he ate his Christmas plum pudding.
He looked up, startled out of his reverie, as Mr. Bracegirdle approached him. "Good morning, Mr. Hornblower. I take it all has been quiet for you this morning?"
Horatio smile ruefully. "A bit too quiet, sir."
"Never say that, lad, it's tempting fate. I've a bit of drudgery for you, I'm afraid."
"A message just came to me that your colleague Mr. Cleveland has been taken ill, and he begs for someone else to take his watch. I hate to do that to you, since you should just be finishing... but we'll make him pay you back."
"I don't mind, sir, really. I'd rather be busy." Horatio brightened visibly. The sky was almost light now, and he would be expected to be up top watching for signals from any other ships in the squadron. While he still disliked heights, learning and sending signals fascinated him and provided a natural outlet for his obsessive perfectionism.
"Excellent. Go ahead and climb up with the signal-book. I'll detail one of the boys to take you up a bite of breakfast." Mr. Bracegirdle grinned. "Perhaps we should signal a carol or two to one of the other ships, by way of Christmas greetings."
Even in his current mood, Horatio had to grin at the thought of that.
This second watch slid by more slowly than the first; by the end of it, Horatio was weary and glad to be going below. After picking wearily through his mid-day meal, he found himself nearly nodding off into his meat. Sleep deprivation combined with his illness and the effort of standing two watches in a row had combined to make him close to exhausted.
Hether, seated next to him at the table, elbowed him amiably. "Your topmast's sagging, boy. Better take in some sail before you're dismasted."
Horatio straightened up with a rueful grin. "I supposed I'm a bit tired."
"And none too well." Hether eyed him. "You look far worse than Cleveland, and he's been snoring in his bunk all morning." He snorted. "The lazy sot. You took his watch, didn't you?"
Horatio nodded. "I heard he was ill," he said simply. "I felt I'd rather be out working in the fresh air anyway."
"But it's off to bed with you now, if you know what is good for you." Hether waggled a finger in his direction. "We'll wake you if any of the Frogs show themselves."
Horatio started to answer, and begin to cough instead. When he was able to catch his breath, he nodded. "I think, gentlemen, that I will take this excellent advice and rest for a while." He rose amidst general laughter.
Since the duel, and Simpson's subsequent death, relations between the remaining midshipmen had improved greatly. Horatio had no close friends among them to take the places of Kennedy or Clayton, but an atmosphere of mutual respect and support prevailed for the most part. Cleveland held the most seniority among them, but he tended to be lazy and seemed to have little interest in making use of any advantage his position might grant him. Hether had changed dramatically from his days as Simpson's toady and reluctant supporter, and now appeared to go out of his way to see that all in the midshipmen's berth were treated fairly.
Horatio reached his hammock, and was starting to sit on his seachest to remove his shoes when he noticed the lumpy package balanced on the corner. Picking it up in both hands, he hoisted it curiously and sat down.
It looked like a piece of canvas... no, a bag. As he unfolded and unwrapped, Horatio realized that it was a carefully constructed canvas ditty bag, with nearly invisible stitches and a drawstring top that closed tightly. On one side, a somewhat scraggly "HH" was worked in coarse black waxed thread.
He stared at it, a lump catching in his throat. He had no doubt that this was the ditty bag he had watched Oldroyd working yesterday. And he had a growing suspicion as to the identity of the lumpy objects he could feel inside. Slowly, he reached into the bag, and felt his hand close around something small and hard and irregular. He drew it out into the flickering lamplight.
Nestled in his callused palm, so lifelike that he half-expected it to take flight, was a delicately carved little bird... the same, he was sure, that Matthews had been whittling out on the deck. The bird's head was held tilted at a saucy angle, and the wings were half-spread; the slender beak poked out cheekily. From somewhere, Matthews had gotten paints to decorate the carving: shiny black except for a broad band of white near the tail. Horatio turned it over: sure enough, a tiny "M" was scratched into the belly.
He set the bird down next to him on his sea-chest, where it stared at him with its glossy painted eye, and reached once more into the bag. He pulled out a folded scrap of paper and an interwoven rope mat. Holding his breath, he unfolded the piece of paper and read the spidery printing:
"Dear Sir: The others asked me to Write this Out for you since I know the most Letters. Matthews made the bird. He says that it is a Stormy Petrel, and Styles made the Rope Rug. Someday when you are a Lieutenant and have your own Cabin you can put in on the deck. The Rug, not the Bird. Oldroyd sewed the bag himself and I Helped a Little.
We are proud to be Your Men, Sir. We Wish you a Happy Christmas. Your Obedient Servant, Seaman Finch."
Through blurring eyes, Horatio read the note again, then folded it reverently and laid it with the bird. He ran his fingers over the rough hemp of the mat, noting its perfect symmetry and tight weave. It would feel satisfyingly scratchy against cold bare feet in the morning. He leaned back against the bulkhead, suddenly overwhelmed.
His men had made these gifts for him, with their own hands and their own time. Never had it occurred to him to believe that someone on the ship would give him a gift of any sort. He knew that he had nothing to give in return, nothing but his honest gratitude and respect for these fine sailors that followed him... would that be enough? Especially in light of his behavior?
His heart sank and his face burned with shame when he recalled his angry show of temper the previous day. He almost groaned aloud at the memory. Bad enough to let his self-discipline slip and his annoyance show; infinitely worse to be angry at the men when they were engaged in making gifts for him. His vision swam with unshed tears, and he cursed himself for both his weakness and his sentimentality as he picked up the bird once again and caressed its wooden feathers, holding it momentarily to his cheek to feel its satiny texture against his face.
Thus lost in a combination of remorse and wonder, smiling through his foolish tears, he did not notice the approaching footsteps until they grew quite near. Hurriedly, he scrambled for his handkerchief and made a great show of coughing and blowing his nose. When he looked up, he was abashed to see Lieutenant Bracegirdle standing only a few feet away. Horatio stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket and started to get to his feet.
"As you were, lad. This is a social call only." The First Lieutenant usually had a smile for any of the midshipmen, especially the younger ones, and today was no exception. "I wasn't sure that I would find you awake. Your comrades yonder said that they had sent you off to bed to sleep off your cold."
"They did, sir." Horatio swallowed hard against the emotion still clenching the back of his throat. "I'm afraid that I have not yet taken their advice."
"Ah. Well, the best advice is the hardest to follow, I have always found." Mr. Bracegirdle's eyes strayed to the wooden bird, which Horatio still held on his lap. He gestured toward it. "Either the local wildlife is making its way below-decks for the winter, or someone has a uncommon fine talent for carving. May I see it?"
Horatio handed over the little sculpture and watched as Mr. Bracegirdle turned it over in his hands. "A lovely piece of work, if I may say so."
"One of the men in my division carved it and painted it, sir... they gave it to me, along with some other things they had made. I myself have no talent with such things." He knew that he sounded glum and depressed, and hoped that his superior officer would think it due to his illness.
Mr. Bracegirdle gave the carving back. "Come now, my boy... you can't be good at everything, after all." He grinned. "You've the makings of a fine officer, which is more than I have been able to say about some feather-brained midshipmen who have passed through my clutches. Be content with that, and leave the whittling to those with no worries in their heads."
Horatio nodded, and stood up to place the bird and the other gifts carefully in his sea-chest. "I suppose. But..." He trailed, off biting his lip. "Mr. Bracegirdle," he plunged ahead, uncharacteristically impulsive. "I don't understand why they gave me these gifts in the first place. How exactly am I supposed to respond? I have nothing to give them in return."
The first lieutenant sat down on another sea-chest Cleveland's and his expression softened as he studied Horatio. "I think, Mr. Hornblower, that your men gave you those gifts simply because they are fond of you, and proud of you. You need look no further than that. As for giving them something in return: your honest appreciation is enough." The blue eyes twinkled. "I think if they could have seen the look that you had on your face a few minutes ago, before you realized that I was catching you unawares, they would wish for no greater reward."
Horatio flushed with embarrassment, and answered stiffly. "I am sorry, sir, if you observed me behaving foolishly. I... was greatly taken by surprise by these gifts."
"Foolishly?" Mr. Bracegirdle shook his head. "You are many things, Mr. Hornblower, but foolish is not one of them. Stubborn, headstrong, but not foolish. No... say, rather, that I believe I caught a glimpse of a lonely boy, away from his home and family, touched that someone would actually remember him at Christmas." He smiled gently. "When did you join up, lad?"
"January, sir. Almost a year, now." Unbidden, a brief memory of his parting moments with his father crept into his mind, only to be ruthlessly pushed aside.
"So... this will be your first Christmas away from home, then."
Horatio nodded. A wave of faint misery swept over him. Bad enough that he was lonely and homesick after almost a year of service; worse that the First Lieutenant should notice and feel that he needed to console one of his midshipmen. "I suppose that it gets easier, sir?" he asked, trying to smile and appear less morose than he felt.
"It does, lad. Eventually... your ship becomes your home, and your fellow officers your family." He sighed. "But thanks to the whims and dictates of the Admiralty, you can expect to go through many such 'families' in your career." He reached over and laid a sympathetic hand on Horatio's shoulder. "I would imagine you can expect to be with us for a good long while, though. We'll have time to get you settled in."
Horatio gulped a little. "Thank you, sir."
Mr. Bracegirdle gave his shoulder another pat, then stood up. "I nearly forgot why I came here looking for you in the first place. Captain Pellew requests your presence tomorrow at Christmas dinner."
"Dinner?" Horatio frowned a little. He had assumed that he would have Christmas dinner with the other midshipmen and the master's mates; they would be pooling their meager resources to make the meal at least a little bit festive. Cleveland and Hether had hinted at a chicken or two, purchased from the officers from their collection of livestock, and many of them had been saving their spirit rations for days. Horatio knew that he himself had little to contribute beyond his presence, but he felt the first stirrings of guilt at abandoning his comrades for the greater gastronomic delights of the captain's table.
"Yes, lad, dinner. Four bells in the afternoon watch, and you can be sure it will be a feast sufficient to chase away the morbid fancies of any homesick young midshipman." The first lieutenant looked at him speculatively. "You don't look precisely pleased, Mr. Hornblower."
Horatio shook his head. "I am honored, sir, and if the captain wishes..." He trailed off. The captain's request was not to be spurned, and Horatio knew that as well as anyone. But if truth be told, he would much rather not have been invited. In the rollicking and noisy midshipmen's quarters, his quiet misery would not go unnoticed but it might at least pass without comment. The others would likely be too busy with gorging and drinking to pay him much attention. At the captain's table, on the other hand, he could expect a certain amount of inquiry from the others if he did not appear in good spirits. "It is only, sir, that I fear I will not be very good company." He swallowed, suddenly unsure of himself. "I would not wish to inflict my own black moods on the captain and the other officers."
Mr. Bracegirdle's blue eyes twinkled as he smiled gently. "I think, Mr. Hornblower, that you need not worry overmuch about that."
"How do I say this, without giving you even more reason to be embarrassed?" Mr. Bracegirdle returned to his previous perch on the nearby sea-chest. "As I said earlier... we must be family to one another, lad. If you miss your father, and you must... Captain Pellew misses his own family, his wife and sons, this time of year." He rested his hand on Horatio's shoulder again. "You've proven yourself a man, by your courage and by your actions. But I hope you will not take offense if I suggest that Captain Pellew invited you so that he might spend Christmas with someone of an age to remind him of his own boys."
Horatio managed to smile at that. "Do I seem as young as that, sir?"
"Sometimes, my boy, sometimes. I take it we will have the pleasure of your company tomorrow afternoon, then?"
Horatio took a deep breath. "I shall be honored to attend, sir."
All of Horatio's earlier trepidation returned as he dressed in his best uniform for the Christmas dinner. He'd purchased this uniform almost a year ago, when he was preparing to join the navy, and he must have grown since: the breeches were short and tight and the shoulders of the uniform coat were uncomfortably snug if he lifted his arms. Still, it was all he had; he couldn't appear at Christmas dinner at the Captain's table in the monkey-jacket and canvas trousers that he typically wore on duty these days. At least, he reflected, the tightness of the breeches would help discourage him from overeating.
He ran a comb through his unruly dark hair and tied his queue with clumsy fingers, scowling at the thin and hollow-eyed face that stared out at him from the looking-glass. He wondered afresh about his conversation with Mr. Bracegirdle the previous day. He knew himself to be often melancholy and usually close-mouthed, not a young man of charm or sparkling conversation. Oh, he was a good card-player, and the captain had often invited him for dinner and cards with two of the senior officers; he enjoyed those sessions, largely because he knew exactly what was expected of him under those circumstances.
When he arrived at the Captain's cabin, his nervousness increased. He had assumed, from Mr. Bracegirdle's invitation, that all of the senior officers and department heads would be present for this occasion. The table, when fully extended, could hold about ten men comfortably and a dozen in a pinch. In his current state of mind, still battling the combined effects of his cold and of yesterday's brush with sentiment, he had hoped to take refuge in the comfortable anonymity of a crowded party.
But only Captain Pellew, Mr. Bracegirdle and Mr. Bowles sat at the table, and its snowy linen-covered surface was clearly set for four. There was no food placed as of yet, but the wine decanter was out and the glasses full. Horatio removed his hat and cleared his throat. "I beg your pardon. I hope I am not late."
"Not to worry, Mr. Hornblower, not to worry." Captain Pellew gestured at the empty chair. "My steward is still putting the final touches on dinner. Come and have a glass of wine." The captain poured him a generous glass.
Horatio slid carefully into his seat, mindful of the too-snug breeches - a fine picture he would make if he managed to split them - and accepted the proffered glass. "Thank you for inviting me, sir."
"And who else would I have invited? Mr. Bowles and Mr. Bracegirdle are eagerly awaiting a rematch after our last game. They assure me that they have not forgotten the trouncing that we gave them." He set the wine decanter back on the table, just as the steward came in loaded with platters of food. "Ah, here we are, gentlemen."
Horatio felt himself relax a tiny bit as the steward loaded the table with food. So it was to be a post-Christmas dinner game of whist; he should have realized it when he saw who else was invited. The three of them were Captain Pellew's usual card-playing companions, fighting out an ongoing rivalry. When the cut of the cards allotted him Mr. Bracegirdle or Mr. Bowles as a partner, Horatio found himself challenged to keep up with Captain Pellew as an opponent; he lost about half of those games. When he was partnered with the captain, the two of them were undefeated. Pellew was a brilliant player, but of a different style entirely than Horatio; he seemed to rely on an almost uncanny ability to predict his officers' actions and an aggressive attack that was not unlike his character during combat.
He turned his attention to the food. It proved to be a worthy subject. The table was laden with steaming, richly scented delicacies... or so they appeared to be to a young man who had been subsisting largely on preserved foods - and the occasional bartered treat - since leaving Portsmouth last winter. There were bowls of mashed potatoes and of turnips, laden with real butter. There was good honest red cabbage, cooked with sugar and vinegar. And to Horatio's astonishment, the center of the table was occupied by a crisp and golden roast goose, overflowing with a stuffing of onions and biscuit crumbs. He realized that the goose must have been kept forward with all of the other livestock, waiting for Christmas and its chance to become the captain's dinner.
As he ate, Horatio did his best to ignore the still-annoying symptoms of his lingering cold, but he was unable to completely suppress his cough or to avoid having to embarrass himself with several honking nose-blasts into his handkerchief. After one coughing fit, he noticed the captain looking at him sympathetically.
"A bit under the weather, Mr. Hornblower?"
"Aye, sir." Horatio hurriedly stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket. "Nothing serious, sir, just a bit of a cold."
The captain looked at him speculatively. "How long have you been ill?"
"A week or two, sir. But I have been fit for duty."
Bracegirdle spoke up. "He should have the hat cure, sir."
Pellew nodded slowly. " Yes... maybe we can help you be more fit. There's an old navy remedy that might make you feel better. We'll give it a try, before the pudding."
This attention and the threatened remedy (hat cure? what did a hat have to do with his cold?) alarmed Horatio so much that he found it difficult to concentrate on his dinner, and continued eating almost mechanically. Great piles of goose, stuffing and vegetables disappeared from his plate without him truly noticing. At last, his own plate was empty, and the others seemed to be finished as well.
Pellew pointed to the remaining food on the platters and gestured to his steward. "Divide that up, and send some to the wardroom and some to the midshipmen. Doubtless it will be a welcome addition to their own feasting." Horatio felt his spirits lift; his comrades below-decks would get a least of taste of what he had been eating. Distracted by the pleasant mental picture of hungry young midshipmen exclaiming over the roast goose and fresh vegetables, he missed the captain's next words to his steward. Something about tea, he thought.
As the table was cleared, the captain reached for the deck of cards. "We can have our game before the pudding. Richards informs me that it is not quite finished steaming, and needs to mix up the whiskey sauce still."
The first cut of the cards caused Horatio to be partnered with Mr. Bowles. After a hard-fought game, they won by a small margin. Just as they were concluding the contest, Richards brought in a tray. Horatio looked up, expecting the pudding his mouth was watering a bit at the thought of something sweet and saw instead a teapot and other tea-time accessories. Ah: the promised cold cure. He relaxed; certainly a cup of steaming tea would do him no harm.
"Ah, good. Thank you, Richards. Now, Mr. Hornblower, this will set you up." Pellew pulled the tray closer to him. Horatio could see that in addition to the teapot and cups, there was a pot of honey and a decanter of an amber liquid. "Have you your hat handy?"
Horatio was puzzled. "My hat, sir? Yes, but..." He reached under his chair and withdrew it from underneath, holding it gingerly.
"Splendid." Pellew snatched up the hat, and walked to the other end of the cabin where he hung the hat on a hook. "This is how it works, Mr. Hornblower. We hang your hat over here. Then... you drink this."
He sat down again, and poured the strong fragrant tea into a waiting cup, added a generous amount of golden honey, and then topped of the mixture with a rather alarming amount of the contents of the decanter. Pellew slid the cup toward Horatio, and as he breathed in the fumes he realized that the decanter must contain rum.
"Go on, boy, drink up. That'll take care of that cold."
Horatio took a cautious sip. He could taste the rum, but only faintly; both the tea and the honey were of an excellent flavor. The concoction slid smoothly down his inflamed throat, easing the rawness in its passage.
"Of course," Pellew was saying expansively, "it should have lemons and cloves in it as well, but we've only limes and the cloves have gotten spoiled."
Horatio took a good-sized gulp. "It's very good, sir, thank you. But..."
"But what, Mr. Hornblower?"
"But where does the hat come in? I don't understand."
Mr. Bracegirdle grinned. "How many hats do you see on the hook, Mr. Hornblower?"
"Why... one, of course, sir." He took another long swallow of the hot drink. It tasted even better.
"Then you're not cured yet." Captain Pellew poured cups of tea for the rest of them, adding honey and rum as well. Horatio couldn't be sure, but it didn't seem to him as if the captain added nearly as much rum to these cups. "We'll keep you company. Drink up, lad."
Without much effort, Horatio managed to drink the rest of the cup. It wasn't that different, really, from some of the hot drinks he remembered his father recommending to his patients with a chest cold. He was certain that he felt a little better already.
No sooner had Horatio set the empty cup down than Pellew took it smoothly from him. "Good, good." He poured another cup of tea. Horatio meant to watch just how much rum the captain was putting in, but just then Mr. Bracegirdle leaned closer and spoke softly to him.
"Tell me, lad... have you had a chance to tell your men how much you appreciated their gift?"
Horatio felt his cheeks grow warm. "Yes, sir. I spoke with them this morning."
That had been enjoyable... at first a little awkward on his part, but altogether a nice moment. He'd meant, when he approached his men at their breakfast, merely to thank them and wish them a Merry Christmas. Instead, he'd found himself saying more than he'd ever intended.
"I want to thank you all for the very nice gifts," he'd said, a bit hesitantly. "It's obvious that you spent a lot of time on them; they are all beautifully made. And thank you, as well, for the words that you sent with the gifts.
"I must apologize for my temper the other day... for shouting at you for what was none of your own doing, only my own clumsiness." He'd paused there, uncertain as to what to say next. Matthews had shifted uneasily, then grinned.
"Beg pardon, sir... but we've had our share of being shouted at, and by some right mean bastards that would just as soon hit us as look at us. You gets used to it. What you said... it wasn't nothin'; we've had far worse. We knew you didn't really mean it."
Styles spoke up next, a broad smile on his homely face. "So... you liked the gifts, sir?"
Unaccountably, Horatio had felt tears stinging his eyes at Styles' earnest question. "Yes, Styles. I liked them all very much. In fact," he took a deep breath to steady his voice, "I believe they are some of the most beautiful gifts I've ever received. I shall treasure them."
He'd managed to get away then, as the men bade him holiday wishes amidst a flurry of cheery salutes. He had then spent a thoughtful hour on deck afterward.
Horatio came back to the present as the captain slid another large, sweet-smelling cup of tea in front of him. This time, he could smell the rum wafting up to his nose. He picked it up with a hint of a rueful smile.
Clearly, the captain and the other officers had decided that the best way to cure Horatio's cold, as well as lift his uncertain mood, was to get him a little drunk. He knew that he was unused to spirits; he often gave or bartered away his own rum ration. But he knew also that he had a stomach full of rich food to soak up the alcohol, and that the honor of his companions would not allow them to actually force him to drink more than he wanted.
And not only did the tea mixture taste delicious, but he was beginning to feel the dull knot of pain and loneliness start to loosen as the rum had its effect on him.
"So... how many hats, now, Mr. Hornblower?" This time it was Mr. Bowles.
Entering into the spirit of the game, Horatio shaded his eyes with his hand and pretended to squint at his hat. "Still just one, sir, but I think it is beginning to get a bit fuzzy 'round the edges."
That brought laughter from around the table. "Ah, you are beginning to catch on to the idea of the cure, Mr. Hornblower. When you see TWO hats, you know that your cold will not bother you anymore." Mr. Bracegirdle chuckled. "At least... not until you wake up in the morning with your head splitting open."
That led to Mr. Bowles telling a raucous story involving a drinking session at a Portsmouth tavern, which involved Mr. Bracegirdle, improbable amounts of ale, and some kind of practical joke involving the horse trough. Horatio didn't really follow all of it. Not only was his head starting to swim with the effects of the rum, but he was beginning to feel slightly feverish. The tale grew increasingly more incoherent anyway as it reached its dramatic climax, with Mr. Bowles snorting so with laughter that he was nearly unintelligible.
Sometime during this story, Horatio realized that he'd drained his cup again, and that the captain had refilled it. Of his own volition, he looked up at his hat, still hanging faithfully albeit slightly askew on its hook. It was still most definitely singular in nature, but Horatio now felt as if he was seeing it from a great distance. He blinked owlishly, and set the cup down. Perhaps he had better let the tea-grog alone for a while.
The door to the cabin opened, and Richards walked in bearing a platter. On it rested a rounded, dark brown Christmas pudding, still steaming gently. Horatio could smell it within seconds, even with his clogged nose. Fruit and spices, nuts and butter... the aromas wafted deliciously about the cabin. Richards set it on the table, along with a pitcher of whiskey sauce, then bustled about with fresh plates and cutlery.
As the wedge of moist, gleaming pudding was placed in front of him, Horatio was transported back in memory to that Christmas five years ago. He reached for the pitcher of sauce to pour some over the pudding, and for just an instant he was once again that thirteen-year-old boy desperately trying to pretend that his world had not fallen apart only a few weeks earlier. He took a bite, tasting the plums and raisins and spices, and felt his remembered grief wash over him in a wave as he closed his eyes.
For a timeless eternal moment, past and present blended together into one. As he remembered that past Christmas dinner, a vision of his father's face came to him, the way it had looked that day... still and composed, yet somehow still etched with agony. How would his father look this year, when the old doctor faced a Christmas with neither his wife nor his only child?
Horatio opened his eyes and set his fork down slowly. It was only when he tried to focus his rum-muddled eyes on his plate that he realized that he was weeping silently, tears running down his cheeks in plain view of his dinner companions. Horrified, he lifted his dinner napkin to wipe them away, hoping desperately that the others had not noticed. When he dared to look up, though, his heart sank when he saw Captain Pellew looking at him with grave concern.
"Mr. Hornblower... something is distressing you." Not a question, but a statement.
The part of Horatio's brain that still functioned normally despite the rum-induced haze observed dryly that now would be a good time to make a joke... something vaguely sentimental about the pudding being so delicious as to bring tears to the eyes. That seemed like something Mr. Bracegirdle would say. Then they could all have a good laugh and he could recover himself, and make a quick getaway.
But no such witty words made their way from his brain to his tongue. Instead, he could only sit there, dumb and miserable and half-drunk, and feel the fresh tears forming in his eyes as he looked helplessly down at his plate. Even without looking up, he could feel the sympathy and concern of the others, as palpable as a physical presence.
He heard a chair scrape against the deck, and the captain speaking in a low voice. "Gentlemen, would you excuse us for just a few minutes?"
Two more chairs were pushed back; he could not quite hear the murmurs of assent from the two officers. But he heard the cabin door open and close, and knew that he was alone with the captain.
Horatio thought, bitterly, that he would rather face cannon fire that be in his current predicament. Here he sat, having been invited to Christmas dinner to be a cheering youthful presence, and he had instead destroyed the holiday mood of the party beyond any repair. In the presence of the captain and two senior officers, he had doubly demonstrated his weakness: both by being unable to hold his liquor, and by crying like a homesick child. Captain Pellew had every right to be thoroughly disgusted with him. He waited to be admonished, eyes still downcast, as he sensed the captain standing beside him.
Instead, he jumped a little when he felt a hand on his shoulder. "Mr. Hornblower... I must apologize."
Startled, he looked up in spite of himself and met the captain's eyes. In those eyes, he read none of the scorn or condemnation that he was expecting, only compassion and regret.
Before he could attempt to answer, the captain continued. "I should not have encouraged you to consume so much rum, especially as it appears you are not accustomed to it." The faintest trace of a smile appeared around Pellew's mouth. "That you have no tolerance for spirits is no criticism of you, boy... in fact, I find it refreshing."
Now Horatio found his voice, husky and tear-clogged though it was. "Sir... it is I who must apologize. I fear I have ruined your Christmas dinner."
"Nonsense. You are not to blame." Pellew removed his hand and sat down in the chair next to Horatio. "But I admit, I am still somewhat concerned. I should have expected you to grow merry with several cups of grog, not saddened." His sharp gaze studied Horatio. "'In vino veritas,' it is said, and I suppose the same thing might be said of rum. I have no wish to intrude on your private griefs, but... can you tell me what is troubling you so, Mr. Hornblower?"
Horatio shook his head, still deeply embarrassed. "It is nothing, sir." Belatedly, he found his handkerchief and wiped at his eyes.
"Is it just that you miss your family, your home? There is no shame in that, and all of us have felt the same." The captain's voice was gentle.
"I... that is part of it, sir." Horatio took a deep breath. "I was thinking of my father, and how lonely he must be feeling right now, and..." He was unable to continue.
"I see. He has no one?"
"My mother died, five years ago... I am my father's only child." Horatio forced the words past the dull ache in his throat. He did not mean to say any more, but the treacherous liquor was still at work on his tongue. "Plum pudding at Christmas... it was my mother's favorite dish, and tasting it again..." He trailed off.
The captain nodded slowly. "I understand, Mr. Hornblower. You need say no more, unless you wish to."
"Thank you, sir." Horatio found that if he spoke in an almost-whisper, he could keep his voice steady.
"I have no cure for your heartache, boy... only time will help with that. However..." The captain paused as if searching for the right words. "In this time of war, every man must choose, it seems, between his duty to his country and his duty to those that he loves. You have chosen your country, and I fear that you are suffering a certain amount of guilt with regards to that choice, as it has meant leaving your father by himself.
"If it is any consolation to you, Mr. Hornblower, I believe that you have made the correct choice. You are as promising a young man as I have ever been privileged to have in my service, and I see in you the makings of a fine officer. You would have been wasted as anything else, and Britain would be the poorer if you had chosen some other career."
"Thank you, sir," Horatio said once again. The captain's praise did not precisely ease his re-awakened grief, but went far to relieve his consternation and embarrassment over his untimely display of emotion.
"Your father must be very proud of you. And... I must say, that I am proud to be able, in some sense of the word, to act in his stead and offer you what guidance I can."
Horatio could think of nothing to say to this remarkable statement. Pellew stood up.
"I think, if you are recovered... I will summon Mr. Bracegirdle and Mr. Bowles to return, and we will finish our dinner. Though, perhaps... no more whist. I think it would be most unfair to you to force you to play cards after you have had so much to drink." Pellew was now smiling quite openly. "Though it would be most entertaining."
Now Horatio could manage a rueful smile at the thought of trying to play whist in his current tipsy state. "It certainly would, sir."
"But: before they come back, a toast." The captain reached for two clean cups, and filled them both with plain tea, passing one to Horatio. He raised his teacup. "To family... both far away, and here on board ship with us."
Horatio raised his own cup. "To family, far and near," he whispered.