Mixed Blessing
by Dunnage41

A prequel to “The Winter of Our Discontent.”

Brown thundered on the door of the house, and Wiggins in due course opened it. Despite Hornblower’s fatigue and appalling weakness, he was nevertheless hugely tickled at the look of shock on Wiggins’ face.

Mercifully for Hornblower’s tone-deaf ear, the carol-singing appeared to come to an end almost as soon as he became aware of the source of the din. Barbara appeared, cool and lovely in burgundy satin. Her face displayed only a momentary consternation at his appearance – so momentary that few would have seen it. She laid her hand on his arm, already recovered.

“Glad tidings of comfort and joy,” she said, and here came Richard, wide-eyed at this strange father of his. Hornblower caught him up in his arms, where the boy continued to inspect him solemnly at close range. Finally his face broke into the smile that always melted Hornblower’s heart, just as Nurse came to take the boy away to bed. Richard was already rubbing his drooping eyes with his small fists.

Barbara gave Hornblower her arm and led him through into the drawing-room, where the carolers were enjoying refreshments. A meaning glance from his wife told Hornblower that, as much as he longed for his own comfortable bed, he was obligated to first address the singers.

“Ha–h’m,” he said, uncomfortably aware of his appearance. “I am ... pleased to be able to enjoy this ... h’m ... seasonal entertainment...” He managed to say all that was expected and hoped that relief did not show too plainly on his face when the carolers gathered their wraps and left.

Then Barbara was all concern. “You’ve been ill, darling, very ill.” She gave him her arm, and Brown miraculously reappeared, taking Hornblower’s other arm.

“Beggin’ your pardon, sir, if you’ll just lean on me, sir, we’ll have you up those stairs in no time, sir.”

In a daze Hornblower felt himself helped up the stairs; in a daze he felt his uniform being peeled off and a soft nightshirt, warmed before the fire, draped over his aching head; in a daze he climbed into bed and felt Brown pile up feather pillows behind his head and smooth the coverlet over his still thin and shaky legs. Here was Barbara, settling herself into a chair beside him. She laid her hand, cool and soft, on his own.

“All England is agog over the word of your magnificent triumphs in the Baltic, of course, dearest,” she said. Her eyes danced, but their usual sparkle was dimmed by her worry over his appearance and obvious weakness. “You not only persuaded Russia to her side but turned back that man single-handedly.” She never could bring herself to say Napoleon’s name, a minor failing, but it made her human, and Hornblower felt himself warmed and reassured by it. In his weakness, she was not impossibly far above him after all.

“Toward the end ... just before Bonaparte began to retreat ... we learned of typhus among Essen’s ranks,” Hornblower began, forgetting that the name Essen meant nothing to Barbara. “Essen told us that Kladoff had ten cases already.”

Barbara knitted her velvety brows. “Bonaparte’s retreat was more than six weeks back,” she said slowly.

Hornblower smiled, ready to allay her fears, but felt the smile weak and unnatural. “Ha– h’m,” he said. “My last memory was of a hillside near the Dwina River,” he said. “When next I awoke, nearly four weeks had passed.” He smiled naturally enough now. “I may be the first ever to be able to claim a palace as my hospital – I spent those weeks in the palace of the King of Prussia, in Konigsberg.” He coughed, dryly, and Barbara instantly proffered a glass of water from which he drank thirstily.

“Once I learned of my situation, and was told that Captain Bush had sailed the squadron for home under orders, I was able to take passage on the Clam, which had returned with dispatches. I sent no word because I would have reached you as fast as any note. I ... h’m ... was lucky to have survived,” he added. “Tens of thousands died.”

Barbara nodded. “The papers were as full of the epidemic as of your great victories,” she said. Deftly changing the subject: “I hope Captain Bush’s abilities were recognized?”

Again Hornblower smiled. She thought highly of Bush, but women were quite incapable of understanding the Byzantine logic of the Admiralty – Hornblower did not always understand it himself.

“I am sure the Admiralty is properly grateful,” he said, pleased as his phrasing. Of a sudden, his head swam dreadfully, and Barbara’s figure appeared as a blurred outline, smudges of alabaster and burgundy. From a great distance he heard her voice, but could not make out what she was saying.

Barbara stood by as Brown laid a cool cloth on Hornblower’s forehead.

“He’s been six weeks in recovery?” she asked hopefully.

“That’s so, milady,” Brown said. “Beggin’ your pardon, milady,” he added, “they say recovery from typhus takes ’most a year. They’ve detached ’im on sick-leave, milady, Sir ’Oratio won’t be goin’ anywhere for a while, beggin’ your pardon, milady.”

Barbara took herself to her dressing room and sank onto a settee. She drew her feet under her and rested her chin on her fists and her fists on her knees. It was a miracle that Horatio was here at all. A miracle to have survived eight months of battle in the Baltic, to have survived typhus – nearly everyone who caught typhus died, and he had been in that barbaric wasteland, leagues away from England. But now, safely alone, she could let the shock wash over her at his appearance.

Her handsome, strong, tall husband – he looked twenty years aged. His cheeks were sunken and his jawbone and cheekbones too prominent. His dark eyes that gazed into hers were deep-set and ringed with shadows. His hair was recently trimmed, but unwashed and madly tousled; his broad shoulders were bowed, his strong chest caved in, his arms and legs sticks. When she had taken his arm at the foot of the stairs it had required all her self-control not to snatch her hand back, disgusted at the feel of the bony limb beneath his jacket.

She dabbed at the tears that now streamed unchecked. She had never seen Horatio ill, much less an invalid for a prolonged period. The next year would be a mixed blessing, and she choked out a sobbing laugh at the thought that Providence had given her a longer space of time with her dear husband than she had any right to expect during the wars, yet it was a very mixed blessing indeed. Horatio was so proud and so private that she foresaw the year ahead as a time when he would be at Smallbridge, but stubborn, pettish, even sulky like a child. There would be no broad-shouldered, handsome, tender lover to enfold her in his strong arms and stroke her hair with his beautiful hands. The vista of the months ahead stretched out in her mind’s eye, endless and bleak.

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