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The First Variation

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It was not a month later that Bush, packing his scanty belongings in preparation for a journey to Portsmouth, was distracted by the sounds of excited female chatter from the parlour. He hastily donned his waistcoat and put his head out into the hall to find out what was the matter. There had been little enough excitement in the Bush household of late, and plenty of reasons for thoughtful and worried silence. He could hear male voices too, now -- familiar ones.

"Horatio, Archie, whatever are you doing here?" he asked, brushing past his sisters as they filed out to leave him alone with his unexpectedly arrived friends.

"William!" Archie wrung his hand firmly before tilting his head towards Horatio, who was rocking back and forth on his feet nervously with his hands clasped behind his back, though his face was quite blank. "We have news," he added, and speared his friend with a very significant look.

Horatio cleared his throat for a few seconds before managing speech. "As you know," he began, "I have met Admiral Pellew several times at whist over the past few months. The last time he summoned me to his flagship the following morning. It seems that we are not alone in being suspicious of the ongoing peace. He wished to tell me that Hotspur is being recommissioned and he needed a commander for her."

"And he…"

"Selected me."

"Congratulations, Horatio! Sir." It was Bush's turn to shake his friend firmly by the hand.

"And, of course, I now need another lieutenant."

Bush could not help the pang of envy when he heard this, but he would not be so low as to give voice to it. "Congratulations, Archie," he said, and meant it.

"What?" Archie looked genuinely confused.

"You're to be his lieutenant, of course."

"Oh. Oh, no. I am to be a lieutenant. Second lieutenant, if...well." He smiled mischievously.

Horatio -- no, Captain Hornblower now -- looked slightly pained. "What I mean to say is, would you do me the honour of being my first lieutenant, Mr. Bush?"

Bush realised that he had been standing and staring at Horatio for several seconds now, and the latter was beginning to look uncomfortable. He recalled himself at once and stood automatically to attention, shirtsleeves or no. "It would be my honour, sir."

Hornblower's face relaxed into a grin and Bush shook his hand again, and then Archie's for good measure. "Well then," Archie said, "you'd better start packing! We sail for France the instant the last supplies are on board."

"I'm already packed."

"Excellent. We'll leave as soon as you're ready then," Hornblower said.

"Aye aye, sir!"