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Dead Reckoning

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October 15, 1810
HMS Sutherland

Dear Madam:

First of all, I do not write with evil news. All is well on the Sutherland, as I hope it is with you also. Besides that, I am not at all sure how to begin this letter, but I told your husband that if he did not go to sleep soon I would write you, and William agrees with me that if I do not carry through on my threats the captain will not listen to me in future.

Perhaps I should explain first. We are hunting four French ships of the line which recently slipped past the blockade as I write. The captain believes that we are hot on their heels and may engage them at any moment. I have no doubt that he is correct, but he has not slept in two days and the third is beginning as I speak. I do not expect that this letter will arrive until after the crisis has ended of course, but I have decided to write this anyway, in hope that your influence will perhaps reduce the chances of this problem recurring.

Your humble servant,
Archie Kennedy
Second Lieutenant, HMS Sutherland

Barbara put down this extraordinary missive and looked out over the grounds of Smallbridge in a mixture of bafflement and amusement. Her voyage on HMS Lydia had been full of surprises, from the mercurial brilliance of the ship's captain to the peculiar relationship he seemed to maintain with his two most senior lieutenants, who had once invited her to dinner in the wardroom in order, as she later discovered, to determine her intentions towards their captain. Having ascertained those, they had then had the respectful audacity to give her warnings of the kind usually reserved for older brothers upon the marriage of their younger siblings. After she had taken said warnings with the grace of a lady (though not entirely without cavil) and received their approval, she had realised that she and the captain had very often been watched, and that they now were not. It was evident that the captain himself had not noticed either his lieutenants' presence or their current absence, and she found herself admiring how skilfully the two men could handle him, crude as that phrase sounded.

Smiling, she put pen to paper.

November 30, 1810
Smallbridge House

Dear Sir,

The opening of your letter was a relief to me, I do confess, as it is not often that my husband's officers write to me. Therefore, I appreciate the consideration which led you to begin thus and allay my fears. I am in the best of health, as I hope you are still when my letter reaches you.

I can appreciate the delicacy of the situation with my husband, who tends not to take kindly to suggestions as to his personal life. No doubt you can also, and so I trust that you will not misuse the permission I give you to use, should the emergency reoccur, a reminder of the incident in the stables at Smallbridge to convince him that I have in fact written you. As the memory of that incident is a tender one, however, I suggest that you use it only in serious cases, and that you do so combined with an emphasis on your and my personal concern for his wellbeing.

I must say that this correspondence is not entirely what I would have expected to find in married life, but I am grateful to have found that there are those at sea who care for my husband's welfare as earnestly as I do upon land. I wish you well. Please convey my greetings also to Lieutenant Bush.

Yours sincerely,
Lady Barbara Hornblower

 

The next month there was no letter, though that was not terribly unusual, for dispatch vessels were hard to come by and the mail service in the fleet was irregular at best. But then, in February, the Naval Gazette reprinted an article from the Moniteur. For some minutes Barbara got no further than the first heading above it. Killed in the line of duty, it read, January 1811, Captain Horatio Hornblower, Lieutenants William Bush and Archibald Kennedy, HMS Sutherland.

I wonder if he ever got my letter, she could not help but wonder as she stared fixedly at the page, the news still beating at the doors of her mind for admittance and finding none. Dead, all three of them.

Memories forced themselves to the surface of her mind, and would not be denied.

Horatio, or Captain Hornblower as he had still been to her then, standing on the battered and bloody quarterdeck, pale and tense and exhausted, refusing to go belowdecks until the Natividad was sunk, while Bush and Kennedy and Polwheal the steward stood in the companionway, holding respectively the captain's cloak, a hammock chair, and a tray of biscuits, whispering together about which of them should go on deck first.

Bush and Kennedy standing shoulder to shoulder in the wardroom, facing her the way they might have faced a broadside, uncertain of their standing with so great a lady, but determined to protect their captain from any pain she might wittingly or unwittingly inflict, regardless of the cost to themselves and their careers.

Horatio when the Lydia went to sea again after her careening, grinning like a schoolboy at his beaming lieutenants, and then turning that same smile to her — a very rare smile, but one that had taught her just how handsome his face could be when he forgot to scowl. Horatio remembering his mislaid scowl shortly afterwards. Bush and Kennedy exchanging amused and affectionate glances with her as he strode off in a huff, and her own sudden and grateful realisation that she had been, after a fashion, adopted into the tight-knit little family of the Lydia.

Horatio in his own cabin that he had given up for her, kneeling at her feet with adoration in his brown eyes, holding her hand like it was the most precious thing in the world, his impassive facade (for that was what it was, she knew now) forgotten and his whole face alight with love and awe and a touch of disbelief at finding his love requited.

It did not seem possible that three such vital men should have met their end so ignominiously — the Moniteur claimed that they had been drowned in an attempt to escape their trial for piracy, and she rose to her feet in wrath. Piracy? They were no pirates. I can think of no three more honourable men.

The British newspapers believed that the three had been murdered in secret, but that was only a little easier to believe. She could hardly imagine that Horatio, with his own quick mind that could turn impossible odds to an advantage, and besides that Kennedy's unfailing humourous insight and Bush's immense strength ready to be called upon in his need, could have perished at the hands of a Bonapartist agent, in some hidden cell in France. But so, it seemed, they had.

A maid came to the door, and Barbara realised that she had spoken at least some of her thoughts aloud. She dismissed the maid and gave orders that she not be disturbed, then turned miserably away from the door and buried her face in her hands. Lady Barbara Hornblower, neé Wellesley, had no choice and no wish but to face the death of her husband with dignity, and when she emerged from her room she would do so. But for a moment, with her privacy ensured, she could be only Barbara, and a woman, and she could weep for three lives that had grown dearer to her than she would ever have guessed, one of them above all.