A Fool for Love
by Dunnage41

Horatio Hornblower, sunk lazily into his most comfortable wing chair, roused himself and got hastily to his feet at the arrival of his wife with a quiet rustle of skirt as she claimed a chair opposite his by the fire. He gazed at her with a storm of emotions warring on his face; chief among them was a hope that his untrammeled need for her was not as obvious as it seemed.

“Horatio?” Barbara was looking straight at him, her eyebrows slightly raised.

“My love,” he said with complete truth, “I was thinking only of how long it has been since I have had the pleasure of being in the same room with you. And wishing I had the words to express how much I have missed you.”

Her eyes went soft for him. “And I you,” she said. There was nothing more to be said – words were hopelessly inadequate in any case. But the electricity that leapt and met between them had the curious effect of warming Hornblower’s heart and lulling him into further lassitude at the same time. The restlessness which usually undercut his days on land had vanished. Part of it, no doubt, was the truth that he had just completed a two-year commission, a long time to be away. In time, he would be impatient to be in a ship again. For now he was content to be here, with Barbara.

The other part of the equation, however, was less familiar to him and his mathematical mind relentlessly analyzed it. When he had returned home to Maria, he was almost always returning to a cruel reminder of his own poverty, poverty he willingly bore himself but which foisting upon his wife and children made him sick with anger and failure. To be on land meant to be greeted by a wife who thought too much of him, and her misplaced idolatry and affection always irritated him further. He had given her his word, however, and he pitied her the feelings she bore toward him. All that meant that during his time on land, his frustration at not being in a ship was sharpened by the boil of familial emotions he always felt when he was in Maria’s presence.

Barbara was the brilliant sun to poor Maria’s clouded-over moon, a tall cool iris to Maria’s dust-choked roadside dandelion. Here pity had no place, obligation held no sway. Rather, he found himself astonished each time upon his return that Barbara had waited for him; that she, incredibly, seemed glad to see him. He saw how her expression softened and how eagerly she came to his arms. She loved him, clearly; and yet the love she had for him was not the same as the love Maria had had for him.

Maria had been incomplete without him, passing her days only waiting for the sun to come out, as it did for her with the sight of him. She had always been pathetically glad for even the briefest encounter – once with little Horatio in his arms, and little Maria expected, she had had to content herself with only a few seconds’ conversation while a chaise waited to whisk him to London. And she had been bravely grateful for that scrap of contact; that had been enough for her to live on until the next time. Barbara loved him, but she did not need him. Had they never come within each other’s orbit, she would have continued gladly on ignorant of his existence and been content. She even – and here Hornblower blinked with surprise at the discovery – she even might have become acquainted with him, become aware of his existence in the world, and gone on her way. As indeed she had, once. But now the words she had murmured to him in the wild hurricane came back to him: “I’ve never loved anyone but you.”

It was Hornblower’s characteristic cross-grainedness which had governed both his marriages, he now reflected. He took a swallow of port from the glass at his elbow and allowed this interesting train of thought to continue. He had married Maria because she had been kind to him during his bleakest poverty; even Mrs. Mason, with her unceasingly sharp tongue, had nevertheless allowed him to get into arrears on his rent. When his fortunes had improved while hers had precipitately declined, he had wished only to return kindness for kindness. He had not loved Maria, but because he had seen no other way to assist her in her time of need, he had promised to marry her. And, having promised, he felt bound to keep his word. And, having kept his word, he felt bound to keep it as well as he knew how.

Duty, loyalty, and a stubbornly proud refusal to do less than his absolute best in any situation had laid out the path he had followed. He had – yes, dutifully – seen to the little gestures which meant so much to her: begging for a kiss to soften her pouting; taking her arm and escorting her with a posture and gaze that told the world of his devotion; taking the time to speak little endearments to her, to make amends even when he had not felt himself in the wrong, to leave the bed reluctantly each morning as if he could not bear to part from her. All those things – such a small cost, he told himself – were sufficient to have made her blissfully happy during their marriage. She had died bearing his child – his son, the light of his heart – and had died believing herself the proud widow of a brave and noble officer who nevertheless had the greatness of heart to love her. She had seldom felt herself deserving of his love and had never taken it for granted.

Hornblower hastily took a large swallow of port and set the glass down rather more sharply than intended as his line of thinking took an unsettling turn.

Maria had not believed herself worthy of his love, yet she had died believing herself the fortunate possessor of it. Here he now was, married to Lady Barbara Wellesley, the bluest of bloods, from the noblest of England’s families, sister to two true heroes, an unshakably collected and unmistakably great lady – and how often he believed himself undeserving of her love while deluding himself into thinking that he was the fortunate possessor of it. He was as naïve and stupid in his enthrallment to Barbara as he had believed Maria to be when in thrall to him. He yearned for something that was not his – that would never be his. Barbara, despite her passionate words in the throes of the hurricane while the masts of the Pretty Jane splintered round them, was only politely tolerant, displaying no better than her upbringing would require. She was far too great to love someone like him. Her frantic sentences had been driven by fear and a mad panic, not by actual love.

The occasional qualms and solecisms which he observed in her, which made him smile fondly at her and which he had believed displayed her mortality – those were nothing, those were the foibles of the gods. He was stupid and clumsy, a village boy playing at sailors, and unspeakably gauche when forced to mingle on land among his betters. Just now he had fooled himself into thinking that her eyes had gone soft for him and that she had said that she had missed him. Doubtless she had been playacting out of kindness and condescension of the sort she would display toward Hebe or any of her servants.

Hornblower, thus wrapped in the increasingly dark clouds of his thoughts, gazed unseeing through the windows onto the gardens and neither saw nor heard Barbara’s approach. Lightly she arranged herself on the arm of his chair and slid a cool and gentle hand along his shoulder.

He looked up, startled, and strove to make his face calm, so that it would not reflect the turmoil which had unexpectedly beset him.

“Darling,” she said softly. “You look troubled.”

There was no blinking it, Hornblower told himself. She could not be so deft – no one could – as to be feigning the caress in her voice and the gentle touch on his shoulder. He glanced up at her. Unmistakably her eyes were not just soft with concern but tears lurked in the corners of their blue-gray depths.

On the instant, Hornblower’s heart went out to her and he remembered nothing save for her icy lips on his cheek. “I’ve never loved anyone else, darling,” she had said clear as a bell on that storm-tossed deck. “Only you.”

He forced a smile and with his long fingers took her hand from his shoulder and caressed it. “Anything but troubled,” he said gently. “Only thinking on how very much I love you, dear.”

She bent then and pressed her soft lips to his forehead. “As much as you love me,” she murmured, “even more do I love you.” For the moment, at least, he chose to believe her.

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