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Standing Fast

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It did not suit Bush’s sense of decorum to wear a jacket as ill fitting as this. He was one who very much appreciated the regulations and strict attention to details in the British Navy, and it pained him to not be in proper uniform for his homecoming to British shores. 

 

Portsmouth was visible, and Brown was almost quivering in excitement toward the bow, while the former prisoners (looking much better now that they had been fed consistently and were looking to the freedom of England) were craning their necks to get a better view. One of them was a Welshman and Bush saw that the man was fighting tears at the sight of his home country.

 

Well.

 

Being Welsh he likely wouldn’t say that a view of the ever so English Portsmouth was ‘home’ in quite the way it was to Bush or Brown, but it was close all the same and when he met Bush’s eyes, he gave the man a smile and a touch to his hat. 

 

He could see Spithead now and happily the Channel winds were behaving themselves---blowing sweetly as they made their way gently into harbor. 

 

There were no roaring crowds or ringing bells. It was a quiet arrival for the little cutter and Bush shifted again---uncomfortable in the slightly too big jacket and very conscious of the newly pinned epaulette on his shoulder. 

 

He should be grateful that they had found him uniform on board the Triumph and he was. He was even more grateful for the title ‘commander’ and all the security that held. It would mean an increase in pay--enough that two of his sisters would not have to take in mending and ironing to make ends meet. This was all thanks to Horatio, he was certain of that.

 

All of this was very good indeed.

 

But.

 

He was not returning as a whole man. His promotion meant a dockyard position at best. Perhaps something with the home fleet if he was very fortunate. 

 

And it was not until this moment, with the scent of England’s sweet green grass wafting to him over the waves, that he acknowledged the reality ahead. Bush typically tried only to think of what he must do in the next moment. He usually left the worrying for the future to his Captain. This however, he could not ignore and his sturdy heart was causing him pain with each beat.

 

No more nimble scrambles up a ship’s ladder. No pacing of the quarterdeck and bawling out midshipmen. No views of pure blue as far as the eye could see. No….. and this was the hardest thought, and he was forced to admit it to himself….no deep sense of rightness and joy of command with his tall and angular Captain at his shoulder. 

 

Horatio should sail without him. Bush was certain the court martial would acquit him. His own promotion was a small proof of that, though he was in no doubt that Hornblower would be fretting each day away wondering at the verdict. And Bush would not be there to distract him. He hoped Kennedy was up to the task.

 

He tightened his grip on the tiller wondering at the pain in his chest with each breath. He understood why Horatio could not have sailed with them of course. Protocols must be followed as he awaited trial. And Bush was glad to command even so small a ship as the Witch. 

 

But he would rather sail at the side of his closest friend. It then occurred to him that his sisters may not know he even lived. And if they did it would be recent. They would not have the time or means to travel to see him. 

 

He wondered if he might be allowed time to go to the cottage. But first he had dispatches to deliver, and reports to make, not to mention a trial at which to testify. 

 

All this whirled in his brain as they came within a close enough distance to hail the men ready to help them get the Witch to anchor.

 

“Captain,” said the Harbor Master’s mate, giving him a salute. “Are you familiar with Portsmouth, sir? Do you need me to direct you to the Harbor Master’s quarters?”

 

Bush touched his hat  (not his--another find for him and it was rather faded) in return before accepting the offered hand up to the docks. 

 

“I am familiar with Portsmouth, thank you,” he returned calmly, noting the other man take in his jury rigged leg and a flash of pity crossed his face.

 

Bush was sure it was well meant, but it was pouring salt on very raw wounds indeed, so he was perhaps more curt than he needed to be. 

 

“See to it that these men are all directed to The Lantern,” he directed. Then he turned to look at Brown.

 

“Brown, make sure you all get yourselves something to eat and drink. I shall join you to discuss lodging when I can.” He handed over some coin to the coxswain and ignored Brown’s concerned scowl.

 

“Sir. You should eat….”

 

“I said I will join you when I may, Mr. Brown, damn your eyes.”

 

He whirled stumping over the docks and then the cobbles as he made his way to the familiar buildings before he could be attacked with remorse too badly. Bush was not one to lose his temper. Oh, he could bawl out incompetent or lazy seamen with the best of them. Styles had learned that well after all. 

 

But it was rare that he was in a genuine temper, and he was displeased with himself for giving in to it. And he really did not have an appetite, though he was aware it had been some days since he’d had what could be properly termed a square meal. 

 

Becoming a right Horatio, he thought crossly to himself and wondered if they had perhaps moved the Harbor Master’s building as it seemed further than ever. 

 

No, it was just the slower pace of his wooden leg, and already he could tell that it would need adjustment once more. It had worn down and he was slightly off balance, jarring his leg and causing pain in the knee joint.

 

He scoffed at himself for being so very weak in the face of both his physical and mental pain. He had a report to make, then dispatches to deliver and he would do his bloody duty, by God, or die trying.

 

A touch dramatic perhaps and again, he smiled grimly at himself at Horatio’s influence. He missed Kennedy. Kennedy who brought the sunny balance he and Hornblower often needed, albeit for different reasons. 

 

The Harbor Master took note of the Witch’s presence and gave him a curious look which Bush ignored. 

 

“The Admiralty building in Portsmouth if you please, sir?” Bush asked, needing a reminder.

 

He received the directions and proceeded to make his way there. It was a long walk, and as it was March in England, it naturally began to rain. Bush missed his greatcoat keenly (damn the Frogs!) and tugged his collar up around his ears. 

 

Certainly he had endured worse in their terrible flight on the Loire during the winter, but it seemed as though all things were conspiring to make him feel particularly hopeless about everything.  Because while the rain driving into his face while on the deck of a ship was bracing and glorious, here it was merely adding to his chill and reminding him that he was trapped on land.

 

After waiting for what felt like an interminably long time at the Admiralty in his wet and shabby uniform, Bush stood before vice Admiral Thomas to hand the dispatches to his aide and make his report.

 

“The Witch of Endor you say,” the old man repeated. “And you met with Triumph and then Victory. Good Lord. We thought you all dead Mr. ah….Bush. Commander, by Jove, yes, so I see,” he added after his aide leaned to whisper in his ear. 

 

“Well, ah, Bush, you’ll no doubt be needing to find a post on land now I would imagine.”

 

Bush managed to keep his face stoic as the Admiral stared openly at the wooden leg, then shook his head.

 

And Bush could no longer be silent, his heart bleeding at the bleakness before him, but needing to make a defense if he could.

 

“I could manage well enough I think, sir. I did in our escape and in commanding the Witch here.”

 

Thomas clicked his tongue and shook his head again.

 

“No, I don’t see that happening, Bush. You did well, sir, in getting here, but His Majesty’s Navy needs able bodied men, not cripples.”

 

Bush winced internally, a flush rising up his cheeks. 

 

“Lord Nelson managed, sir,” he said and was rather amazed at himself for pressing the issue so far, with an Admiral no less. 

 

Thomas stared down his nose disapprovingly. “Lord Nelson, God rest his soul, was an Admiral . And a hero. I trust, Commander Bush, that you are not in any way comparing yourself to a national treasure like that?”

“No, sir,” Bush managed as the death of all hope was laid out before him. He was condemned to a life of longing. It was just possible the merchant service might take him, but it was not likely. They were hesitant to take Royal Navy personnel at the best of times. 

 

“That will be all then, ah….Bush. Good luck, sir. His Majesty thanks you for the return of his vessel.”

 

And that was all. Twenty years at sea ending not with a bang but a whimper. 

 

Bush saluted and then did not have much memory of making his way out of the large building with its stone edifices and lofty arches. 

 

He stood in the portico, watching the rain, and wanted nothing so much as to sit and weep. 

 

But William Bush was made of sterner stuff than that. He had sisters who needed him. He would swallow his pride and see about one of the harbor positions. Surely his ability in understanding the Navy’s workings would be useful there. Bonaparte was still very much a problem and war meant many postings were available.

 

And yet…

 

...he was so very tired. And he had no desire to meet with Brown and the others who would no doubt be on the second pint by now and very jolly. 

 

The streets here were very busy as the Admiralty was located more toward the centre of the city. He stood rather numbly (quite literally so as the rain was a chill one and he had no gloves) and watched the carriages, horses and foot traffic. Other officers passed him occasionally and sometimes gave him curious looks, but none stopped to speak with him and he was grateful.

 

What now?



“Mr. Bush? Commander, I should say,” came a sweet voice from behind him, and he turned to behold an angel in a rich blue cloak.



******

 

Barbara Hornblower stepped out of her carriage and hurried up to the Admiralty in Portsmouth. The roads had been terribly crowded, and she was worried that she might be too late. That the object of her search might have moved on.

 

Horatio had managed to send correspondence via a small sailing ship which had been hailed as the fleet did their Channel maneuvers. He had been worried in the writing of it, that it might not reach England before William did, and so Lady Hornblower had dropped everything the moment she received it in London, to hasten to Portsmouth and make arrangements. 

 

He had expressed his happiness that Bush had been made commander, but also his displeasure that he had immediately been sent on a mission once more, having just escaped the French in their long and arduous action.

 

More was to be told naturally, and Barbara had this letter with her even now, as proof that her Captain lived.

 

Her grief had been profound at the reports of her husband’s death. Receiving this letter might have sent a lesser woman into a faint. 

 

Barbara was not a lesser woman.

 

Though she did have time to be somewhat amused that after the first two lines of ‘my darling’ and the following reassurances, his immediate thought had been for the care of his faithful first officer. 

 

She was aware that Horatio could be rather terrible when it came to observing people’s natures and needs. But he was not so bad at it as he supposed, and when it came to those close to him, he was exceedingly quick indeed to see what he might do for their comfort.

And William Bush needed comfort right now.

 

She ordered her carriage to wait in the street and moved swiftly through the portico toward the main entrance when a slim figure in a blue coat slightly too big for him came into view after a group of chatting lieutenants moved past. 

 

He stood quite still, hands clasped behind his back, as he gazed at the busy street before him. Barbara was very good at observing people as well. And the line of Commander Bush’s shoulders was quite defeated indeed. She saw the wooden leg immediately. Horatio had mentioned it---having not had much time to state more than bare facts in his swiftly composed missive. She could only imagine what was going through the head of this man, now on English shores without his Captain. 

 

“Mr. Bush?” she called. “Commander, I should say.”

 

He turned at her voice, looking as cold and miserable as she had ever seen him. And she had seen him in violent storms and close action on the Lydia. This was different and it cut her to the heart. 

 

He gave her a smile, mustered from the depths of the gentleman he was, and removed his hat. 

 

“Lady Barbara,” he said warmly and she reached her hands out to him. He gripped her fingers and she felt the icy coldness of his skin.

 

“Goodness, Commander,” she exclaimed. “We need to get out of this rain and find you someplace warm. No coat?”

 

“No my Lady,” he said, releasing her swiftly and rubbing his hands together. “Things after we escaped….well.” 

 

He paused, unsure. “How much do you know? And….how did you know I was here?”

 

She smiled into tired blue eyes. “Horatio wrote.”

 

He raised his eyebrows at that.

 

“He wrote….? But… you came from London ?”

 

“William,” she said gently, taking his arm in hers and tugging lightly back toward her carriage. “Let us discuss this where you can get warm and fed. You look far too thin.”

 

He allowed himself to be maneuvered a few feet before pausing.

 

“I told my coxswain that I would meet him and the others at the Lantern. They will be wondering….”

 

“I shall send a servant to inform them,” she said firmly. “Please. I can see for myself that you need some care. Of course you do. Consider this sailing orders from Horatio if you must.”

 

He gave a small smile at that, and something about it was so very sad.

 

“Thank you, my Lady,” he said, and they moved to her carriage without further delay. 

 

She could feel how damp his uniform was, and the dark circles under his eyes informed her of the strain he had been under. 

 

He handed her in courteously and then followed awkwardly, the wooden leg smacking the edge of the door. He flushed as he drew it in and the coachman shut the door after him.

 

Barbara lifted the blanket on the seat beside her and handed it to him.

 

“Tuck that around yourself, Commander,” she ordered, her own mind whirling around what she needed to say to this man, and wondering how best to say it without hurting his pride.

 

‘Be direct’, Horatio had advised. She loved her husband all the more for the thoughtfulness he was exhibiting toward his dear friend and officer. At the same time, it was perhaps just as well that she was the one to deliver the ideas that she and Horatio had in mind for William, as her Captain was an abundant mess when it came to conversations with great emotional weight. 

 

However, she would wait until he was fed and dry and preferably rested before she laid out the plans she had.

 

She had booked lodgings the day before near the centre. The moment they arrived and entered the pale stone house, she was giving instructions to the servants and sending them scurrying in all directions.

 

In short order, a runner had been sent to the Lantern, another to the shops for clothing, a bath was being drawn, and tea was in the making. 

 

She shooed a bemused Bush to his room with Samuel while she herself donned an apron to help speed the preparation of tea. 

 

Barbara Hornblower was rather proud of the fact that she could make scones with the best of them, but this was naturally a complete secret as a lady of her station should not be doing such things. 

 

She was waiting in the comfortable sitting room, the curtains drawn to shut out the gloomy day and a fire roaring behind her while she had lit as many candles as possible to chase the dark away.

 

Bush was running a hand through damp and curly hair and looked very unsure of himself now as he entered, being faced with a lady of her station and no Horatio to help him.

 

But she was well in command now, and knew how she wanted to proceed.

 

“William. Do come and sit down. How do you like your tea?”

 

He stumped over, intending to sit on the sofa, but Barbara inclined her head to the deep armchair by the fire.

 

“This one should suit you I think.”

 

He sank into it and couldn’t contain a sigh. He looked more exhausted than ever and he gave her a rueful smile at whatever he could see in her face.

 

“I confess that I nearly fell asleep due to hot water, Lady Barbara. Nothing in my tea, thank you.”

She handed him a cup and proceeded to prepare him a plate. Cook had outdone herself as well and so a slice of quiche, a scone and several sausages graced his plate. But first she moved quickly to the ottoman and nudged it over to him.

 

“Get your feet up on that, Mr. Bush, and then you should eat as much as you like.”

“Foot now, my Lady,” he replied, obeying and she nodded very casually.

 

“Well of course. I should like to hear that story I think. And how you escaped. I know only the very small amount that Horatio wrote.”

 

She sat opposite him, but close enough that she could hand him things and take things and over the course of their meal, she coaxed the essentials out of him. She could guess at everything he wasn’t saying, particularly when he spoke of their escape on the Loire. 

 

There was color in his face once more and she poured him more tea, taking the plate and setting it aside before she drew her chair closer and perched on the edge of it. 

 

Two months in captivity and he had been ill that whole time from his wound. Horatio must have been mad with worry. His was not a nature that could stand being caged anyway, but to also worry so for William’s life…..

 

She longed to see her Captain, but he was still likely three days’ sail out. 

 

She would do her best by his first officer in the meantime. 

 

“All right then,” she began setting her own half drunk tea down, and smiled at her own version of clearing the decks for action. 

 

“There is to be a court martial of course. And you will be called as a witness. We shall get you measured for a new uniform directly. And it would ease my mind no end if you would consent for a doctor to examine you. I cannot imagine you had many that were proficient for an English prisoner.”

 

He leaned back into the comfortable depths of the chair to gaze at her.

 

“I….well.” He cleared his throat. “It could have been worse, my Lady. The surgeon who took my foot was quite proficient as a matter of fact. It was after we left the fort that things were sporadic. It was the Captain himself who took out the last ligatures actually. I am forever indebted to him. Escaping in winter with a crippled and ill lieutenant was a miraculous feat.”

 

Barbara recalled that Horatio did not do well with wounds and medical things, and loved him the more for it.

 

“I do not think there was ever a question that he could leave that lieutenant behind, William,” she responded evenly. Blue eyes met blue eyes before his looked down. 

 

“Well….a doctor would be welcome, my Lady. Just to see how things are healing still. And perhaps his advice on a prosthetic.”

 

She had seen that he was listing on the current one and agreed completely, glad he had suggested it first.

 

“Yes indeed. I imagine that one is causing some discomfort,” she told him, because he should know she did not miss much and would brook no downplaying of his physical state. 

 

He shrugged uncomfortably. “Some it is true. My Lady, I would like to get word to my sisters….”

 

“Of course,” she replied. “You can write something first thing in the morning and we shall send someone to post it. They will be so very glad. I have been communicating with Susan after we feared you all dead. They are well, if grieving you.”

 

He looked up again at that, his face conveying surprised gratitude. 

 

“That was very kind of you, Lady Barbara.”

 

She felt the time was right now and reached to grip his left hand in both of hers, sliding off her chair to kneel by his.

 

He raised his eyebrow at her but waited, knowing that this was important.

 

“I think that you should be clear on some things, William, because both Horatio and myself would hate to have you worrying about the future. The first thing is the most important and Horatio wrote it very specifically.” 

 

She removed one of her hands from his, to draw the letter out of her pocket and shake it open to read the section she needed.

 

“...should the outcome of the court martial be in my favor, please let William know that my fate is his if he should desire it. That I shall not sail with another first officer as long as I live. Unless he is promoted to his own ship, and then of course, I shall be delighted.”

 

She placed the letter aside to meet Bush’s gaze once more. “Horatio cares for you a great deal. I hope you know that, even when he is rather terrible at expressing it. And he values you, not just as a friend, but as an officer he can trust implicitly.”

 

His blue eyes were glimmering suspiciously, but she kept on, gripping his hand firmly. “This is not pity, lest you accuse us of that. You know Horatio well enough to know he does not make foolish decisions out of sentiment. Well. When it comes to the navy.” They shared a smile, both of them aware that Horatio Hornblower could indeed be foolishly sentimental.

 

“You have a place with us always, William. You are my husband’s dearest friend. But you are my friend as well. Do not think I have forgotten our time on the Lydia and the stalwart support you were to us all. And based on that friendship, my dear Mr. Bush, I wish you to know this--” 

 

She paused to gather herself, striving for the right words to help him understand, to give him assurance. 

 

“You have been physically hurt and mutilated. I would wish it were not so. But your soul and your character are as whole and as good as they ever were. Too many men have it the other way and have mutilated their souls, hiding their darkness in their whole bodies. We value you, dear William, because your character will always stand tall on two feet.”

 

He bowed his head over their hands and she moved one of hers to draw his head down a little more to rest against hers. 

 

“You are weary and worn out with so many cares. Please allow me to give you a resting place here and you can recuperate while we wait for Horatio to arrive. Because he will need us.”

 

He nodded and drew back slightly. Barbara reached up to lightly wipe the tears off his cheeks with her hands before kissing his forehead and releasing him. She was pleased to see that something had clearly eased in his face, and she hoped that she had given him something certain to hold onto.

 

“Your room should be ready now. Sleep as long as you like---I have given orders for the servants not to wake you.”

She rose to her feet, smoothing down her skirts before offering him her hand to help draw him out of the chair. 

 

He kissed the hand he held and smiled at her. 

 

“Thank you, Lady Barbara. You are the best woman I know. It gives me great pleasure therefore that you are married to the best man I know.”

 

“Very kind, Mr. Bush. And tomorrow we can strategize on how to best help that man through his court martial. But for now----go. Sleep.”

 

He bowed and left the room slowly, and Barbara stood for a long time before the fire.