"She gloried in being a sailor's wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance." ~ From Persuasion by Jane Austen
"Dear me," cried the round little lady in the puce gown and befeathered turban as she gazed owlishly at the crowded ballroom, "all of Portsmouth must be here!"
"You know little of Portsmouth if you believe that, madam," Wentworth murmured. He was on the docks every day, and he saw the squalor and poverty that the ordinary citizen such as this well-fed, well-protected lady in puce never knew existed. He glanced down at Anne; her eyes were sparkling and her lips were quirking at the corners, and his sense of humour returned. "Not everyone in Portsmouth," he said to her quietly as they passed into the main room, "but every naval officer, certainly. The docks must have been chaos with all the boats rowing in from Spithead."
The ballroom sparkled with the candlelight reflected from the ladies' jewels and the gold braid and orders of the officers' uniforms. Wentworth reached up unconsciously to touch the single medal he had to his name, which he had been awarded for the action off Santo Domingo in 1806. He knew his uniform was in perfect order; Jenkins, his steward, had seen to that. He would not have known if Anne's gown was in accordance with the latest fashions, as he had the usual male ignorance of such subjects. However, she always dressed with a quiet elegance that was never out of place, and her jewelry, he noted with satisfaction, was better than the puce lady's amethysts. Anne wore the ruby necklace he had given her the previous Christmas, and the matching ear-rings with which he had presented her upon the birth of their son Edward a few months later. The fiery stones warmed her skin and reflected the chestnut lights in her hair. Wentworth's heart swelled with pride and love; he was still sometimes amazed that this elegant creature belonged to him. Keep your orders and medals, he thought. I've got the best prize of all.
"Shall we join the receiving line, Frederick?" she asked him.
"Certainly. I would like to present you to his lordship." He had a moment of doubt; the last time Wentworth had seen Lord Exmouth, his lordship had been Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, commander in chief of the Mediterranean fleet. Pellew had been raised to the peerage during Napoleon's confinement on Elba, and unlike Wentworth, he had actively participated in the final skirmishes of the long war. When Bonaparte had at last been vanquished, the Admiralty had sent Lord Exmouth to the Barbary States to arrange for the release of European sailors who had been captured and forced into slavery. Exmouth had conducted successful negotiations with Tunis and Tripoli, but the Bey of Algiers had proven obstinate. Exmouth had then led an assault on Algiers that had resulted in the freedom of the remaining Christian slaves. This ball was being held in celebration and congratulations of Exmouth's success; there was talk of a Viscountcy as well. All of these events had occurred in the nearly three years since Wentworth and Exmouth had last met, and Wentworth could only hope to be spared the mortification of Exmouth not remembering him. However, Wentworth had made most of his fortune while under Pellew's command, and a third share had gone to his admiral. Wentworth smiled to himself; Exmouth was not likely to have forgotten him.
"Oh dear," said a voice behind him. "Captain, I beg you will watch your step."
Wentworth looked down, and saw that several marbles had rolled between his feet, ready to send him tumbling to the ground with his next step. He bent to retrieve the marbles and then turned to face their owner.
Dark blue eyes met his forthrightly. The woman was tall and fair-haired and had a nose that could only be described as aristocratic. She was attractive, Wentworth supposed, if you liked that sort of woman; his taste was for petite, dark, delicate prettiness, like his Anne.
"Your marbles, madam," he said, restoring them to her with a bow.
The woman smiled, not at all embarrassed. "I do beg your pardon, Captain," she said. "My son must have hidden them in my reticule for a joke. When I pulled out my handkerchief, the marbles came out as well."
"I suppose I must speak to Richard about it in the morning," said her escort. He wore a well-tailored black evening suit and the red sash and order of a Knight of the Bath. He was tall, though not as tall as Wentworth, and had a round-shouldered carriage common to those who spent much of their lives in the confined spaces belowdecks. His face was set in rather harsh lines, with a prominent nose; his dark eyes gleamed with intelligence and not a little humour. His gaze met Wentworth's and they each nodded slightly.
Wentworth turned away, and noticed that Anne was watching the other man intently. Wentworth pulled himself up to his fullest height, threw out his chest, and lifted his chin. He was not an especially vain man, but it always pleased him when Anne said he was handsome, and she usually found him most so when he wore his dress uniform. After a year and a half of marriage, such jealousy was ridiculous, he told himself; nonetheless, he was glad that he had a command, and the right to wear his number one uniform to the ball. The fellow behind him might be a knight, but no one would ever call him handsome. Then Anne slipped her gloved hand once more into the crook of his elbow, and looked up at him with a warm smile, and doubt and jealousy vanished.
At last the queue diminished to none, and it was their turn to be presented to Lord and Lady Exmouth. Wentworth whispered his name to the hovering servant, but it proved not to be necessary; as soon as Lord Exmouth turned to him, his face creased in a welcoming smile. "My dear Captain Wentworth!" he cried, moving forward to take Wentworth's hand. "I am delighted that you could join our celebration tonight! And this lovely lady must be Mrs. Wentworth." Anne curtsied politely, and Exmouth gallantly kissed her hand. "I am delighted to meet the wife of one of the most distinguished captains in the Royal Navy. My dear," he said, turning to his wife, "allow me to make Captain and Mrs. Wentworth known to you. Captain Wentworth had the command of the frigate Minerva when she captured the pirate ship Mirabelle in the West Indies last year."
"I did not know you were aware of that, my lord," said Wentworth, much gratified.
"Oh, I am not completely out of touch with the latest news, you know. But I confess to ignorance of your present command."
"The Admiralty has recommissioned the Laconia, and I have received orders for the Bermuda station when she is fit."
"I am glad to hear that the Laconia and her master are to be reunited. I dare say she needed some work to make her fit for service, though."
"She has been moored with her masts and yards struck since '14; it nearly broke my heart to see her so; but her hull's been scraped and recoppered, and the rigging will be finished this week. We sail in November."
"Do you accompany your husband to Bermuda, Mrs. Wentworth?" asked Lady Exmouth.
"My dear, Captain Wentworth is famous in the Navy for declaring that he will never have a woman on his ship," said Lord Exmouth with a twinkle in his eye. "I wonder if marriage has made him change his tune?"
"I am sorry to report that it has not, my lord," said Anne with a smile at her husband, who hung his head in mock sheepishness. "I sail a week later on the packet, along with our son."
"And the nurse, and the maid, and all the necessary accoutrements," added Wentworth. "I'm certain that your lordship will agree with me that there is no room for such on a fighting ship!"
"Indeed not," declared Lord Exmouth. "You will be much more comfortable on the packet, Mrs. Wentworth. A frigate has none of the luxuries to which ladies are accustomed."
"My dear Exmouth, you speak as though a naval wife would not endure any privation to be with her husband," said Lady Exmouth, sounding to the amused Wentworth a great deal like his sister Sophy.
"I would indeed, my lady; but I am satisfied with the arrangements," said Anne.
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, madam. Lady Exmouth and I both wish you the best in your new command, Captain Wentworth," said Lord Exmouth, and Wentworth and Anne, understanding this statement to be a dismissal, walked away.
They had not got far when they heard Exmouth exclaim, "My dear Hornblower! I am delighted that you and Lady Barbara—I beg your pardon, Lady Hornblower—were able to join us tonight. Had you a good journey from Kent?"
"A very good journey, I thank you, my lord," said the woman who had dropped the marbles. "And thank you for inviting us. Horatio and I were delighted to read of your successful mission."
Wentworth and Anne both turned sharply and looked at the couple with renewed interest. So that is Hornblower! Wentworth thought. Hornblower was not a well-known name to the general public, but amongst the service, it was a name that was uttered with respect. Anne was no less interested, he noticed. She had followed Wentworth's career in the Naval Chronicle during the long years of their separation; it made sense that she would be familiar with the name Hornblower as well.
Anne became aware of her behaviour with a blush. "We should not stare like a couple of country bumpkins," she whispered to her husband, taking his arm and pulling him away.
"Captain Wentworth," cried Lord Exmouth, calling them back. "A moment, if you please. I beg your pardon, Hornblower. I require some speech with Wentworth," he added. "Official business, you know."
"Of course," said Lord Hornblower, turning a rather piercing gaze on Wentworth. "Shall I step away?"
"No, no, that will not be necessary. I have a favour to ask of you, Wentworth. There's a lieutenant in need of a berth, a Mr. Price. He is a protégé of Admiral Crawford." Wentworth managed not to grimace at the Admiral's name; he knew the man slightly, and did not think highly of him. "Crawford is here tonight and asked if I could find employment for the young man. I owe Crawford no favours, but Price's uncle is an M.P. from Northamptonshire, and a good friend of the Navy. I don't have to tell you that we need all the friends in Parliament that we can get these days."
"No, my lord."
"Have you a place for the young man on the Laconia? I assure you that he is a fine officer."
Wentworth remembered the last time he had taken on an officer at Exmouth's behest: one Midshipman Richard Musgrove, who had turned out to be the worst sort of scrub. Wentworth had got rid of young Musgrove as soon as possible, and assumed that he would have to do the same with Lieutenant Price, but it would hardly do to say so to his lordship. Besides, he owed Exmouth a favour; it had been Exmouth's letter to the Admiralty that had secured Wentworth the command of the Minerva, which had in its turn led to his present command. "I do indeed have room for another lieutenant. Pray have word conveyed to Mr. Price that he may report to the Laconia at his earliest convenience, my lord."
"You may give your orders yourself. Crawford brought him along tonight; he is here somewhere." Exmouth snapped his fingers at a sharply-dressed lieutenant, who ran to his lordship's side. "Find Admiral Crawford's protégé, Lieutenant Price, and bring him to me."
"Aye aye, my lord," said the lieutenant, and disappeared into the crowd.
There was a moment's silence, and then Exmouth remembered his company manners. "Hornblower, you know Wentworth, of course?"
"I have not had the pleasure," said Lord Hornblower politely.
"I beg your pardon! Hornblower, allow me to introduce Captain Frederick Wentworth of the frigate Laconia."
"Your lordship's servant," said Wentworth with a bow. "One could not serve under Lord Exmouth and not often hear the name Hornblower. It is a real pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lord."
Hornblower looked surprised, but gratified. "I thank you, Captain. In my turn, I can say that Lord Exmouth speaks the name Wentworth often as well. Were you not late of the frigate Minerva, sir?"
"I had the pleasure of briefly commanding her while her captain was recovering from an attack of malaria."
"Yes, I read about the capture of the pirate last year in the Chronicle. Well done, Captain."
Wentworth felt absurdly delighted at Hornblower's approbation. He had received many compliments on the capture of the Mirabelle in the past year, but from one such as the legendary Hornblower it was especially flattering.
"Have you received word of your next command?" Hornblower asked Lord Exmouth.
"No; I am off to Whitehall tomorrow to brief their lordships on Algiers, and then back to Teignmouth for a good long rest. I think I've earned it. It is time for you young men to take the Navy off my hands."
"I'm not as young as I used to be," Hornblower muttered.
The lieutenant reappeared with another young man in tow, and Lord Exmouth presented Lieutenant William Price to their notice. "Captain Wentworth has agreed to take you on the Laconia, Mr. Price," his lordship added.
"I thank you, Captain," said the young man eagerly. "It will be an honour to serve with you. The Laconia, and no less her captain, enjoy the highest reputation in the service."
Now that he had met Lieutenant Price, Wentworth quickly adjusted his first ideas. Price was a handsome, well-grown young man with an open, sensible countenance. He had a quiet confidence that he wore easily without any unbecoming arrogance. He reminded Wentworth rather forcefully of himself at the same age.
"Report to the Laconia at your earliest convenience, Mr. Price. We are fitting out for the Bermuda station."
"Aye aye, Captain. I shall report first thing tomorrow."
As "first thing tomorrow" had been precisely what Wentworth intended by "at your earliest convenience," this statement earned Mr. Price a faint smile and a nod from his new commander.
"Excellent," beamed Lord Exmouth. "I shall send word to the Admiralty to have your orders written up, Mr. Price." He nodded to the flag lieutenant, who went off to tend to the paperwork. "They shall be delivered to the Laconia within the week; but they are a mere formality, of course. You may consider yourself under Captain Wentworth's command."
"I thank you, my lord." Mr. Price bowed and left them, unable to keep from grinning.
"That was well-done of you, Captain Wentworth," said Lord Hornblower. "I remember what it was like to be an unemployed lieutenant."
"It is always a pleasure to offer a place to a promising young man."
Exmouth had returned to the receiving line, and Wentworth and Hornblower embarked upon a highly professional conversation about the refitting of the Laconia. His lordship seemed keenly interested in all the details of masts and rigging and stores; to Wentworth he seemed almost wistful, as though nostalgic for the homely details of commanding a fighting ship.
"You are fortunate to have a command, Wentworth. Likely I'll be without employment until I get my flag, and that won't be for several years at least."
"I am well aware of my good fortune," said Wentworth. "I did not expect it so soon; I thought I would be able to pursue a quiet life in the country for a time."
"Does such a life appeal to you, Captain?"
"When I am at sea, it sometimes seems like heaven itself; but when I am home and unemployed, there are times when I can think of nothing else but returning to the sea. I begin to entertain all sorts of unsuitable arrangements: commanding the West Indies mail packet, or perhaps a barge on the Thames."
"I understand you perfectly. I am, however, grateful for the opportunity to spend time with my wife and son."
Both men, remembering their wives at that moment, looked around for the ladies, and were only in time to see Lady Hornblower and Mrs. Wentworth disappearing into the crowd arm in arm.
"I thank you for agreeing to take a turn with me, Mrs. Wentworth," said Lady Hornblower as they strolled around the perimeter of the ballroom. "I know from painful experience that when my husband gets started on professional subjects it is no use trying to pry him away. I dare say your husband is the same."
"Yes, my lady. And we are at a decided disadvantage in our current situation."
"Indeed we are. I forget, when we are in Kent, how insular the company can be in naval towns. Do you live in Portsmouth?"
"No, my lady; we have a house in Somersetshire. We have taken lodgings here while the Laconia is undergoing—oh, I forget the word. I would say 'renovations,' but I know my husband would scold me for doing so."
"I understand you completely. My brother Arthur often takes me to task about my shocking ignorance of military subjects, though he considered me sufficiently well-informed to act as his hostess in Vienna. I suppose even grown-up brothers like to tease their little sisters."
Anne had felt so comfortable with Lady Hornblower that it was something of a shock to realize that the teasing brother to whom her ladyship so casually referred was the Duke of Wellington. She suppressed a smile, wondering what her sister Elizabeth would say if she could see her inconsequential younger sister at that moment.
Her ladyship continued, "Is your husband still with you, then?"
"Yes, ma'am. The Laconia is not yet attached to the fleet, and the captain need not live aboard her."
"Do you look forward to Bermuda?"
"I do. I have always thought that the opportunity to travel was the most attractive aspect of marriage to a naval officer." Realizing how this must sound to a sophisticated, well-traveled woman, Anne hastily added, "I have never before had any opportunity to travel, and I see very few new places."
"You will like Bermuda. The weather is temperate, without being overbearingly hot as in the tropics, and the society is very decidedly English." Her ladyship smiled. "But I dare say you did not marry your husband solely for the opportunity to travel."
"No, ma'am." That time, Anne did not bother to suppress her smile.
A sudden roar of laughter claimed Wentworth's attention momentarily. A group of young officers, adoring girls clinging to their arms, were having a riotous time in one corner of the ballroom. Wentworth noticed Lieutenant Price amongst them, as well as one of the Laconia's other lieutenants, Mr. Murphy.
"Look at them," said Hornblower darkly. "We dreaded the coming of peace in '02, do you remember? They make me feel old. It wasn't that long ago that Pellew wrote to me saying that he felt old because a man who had been midshipman under him—myself, you understand—had become a Knight of the Bath. I thought it a kind joke at the time, but now I am thoroughly in sympathy with him. Our time is passing, Captain Wentworth."
Wentworth shook his head. "Begging your lordship's pardon, but I believe that neither one of us is quite finished as of yet."
Hornblower directed his penetrating gaze upon Wentworth. "I fear that is for others to determine. I do not like this inability to control my own fate."
"Have our fates ever been truly our own? Post-captains in the Royal Navy do not declare war; we merely wage it on behalf of those who do. Men like you and I must needs place our trust in Providence to some extent."
Hornblower snorted. "I think perhaps your Creator has been kinder than mine if you can speak so. I prefer to make my own luck."
"Of course; but to do so, we must take the situation in which we find ourselves and turn it to the best account; which, if the stories one hears are to be believed, is precisely what you have done for your entire career."
"I took advantage of the opportunities I was given, certainly."
"Just so! And you made your fortune," Hornblower cried, emphasizing his words with a forefinger to Wentworth's chest. "Will those children be able to say the same in a few years? Trafalgar was eleven years ago; Waterloo just last year. The Navy does not enjoy the same regard that it has in the past."
"How can you abuse poor Captain Wentworth with such nonsense, Horatio?" cried a voice behind them, and they turned to behold their wives, by all appearances now the best of friends. Her ladyship continued, "Every officer in this room tonight is a hero, from Lord Exmouth to the lowliest midshipman. Yes, my love, even those children in the corner. They are a hero to someone—a wife, a sweetheart, a mother. And some," she added, slipping her hand into the crook of her husband's elbow, "are heroes to more than just their loved ones."
His lordship said nothing, but made a curious noise that sounded very much like "Ha-h'm."
Flynn, the groom, appeared with true naval alertness at the very moment that they most wished for him. Wentworth handed Anne into the landaulet, climbed up behind her, and settled back against the cushioned squabs. "A most interesting evening," he observed.
"It was. I enjoyed meeting Lady Hornblower a great deal; she is a very pleasant woman." Anne smothered a yawn, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes.
Wentworth cast her a sly look. "Shall you write to your elder sister and tell her about it? I dare say she would have given the Elliot diamonds to be in your shoes tonight, arm in arm in a ballroom with the Duke of Wellington's little sister! A Baroness, yet!"
Anne gave an uncharacteristic giggle. "She would have handed over the whole set without a murmur." There was proof that Anne was truly fatigued. She almost never criticized her family aloud, even to her husband, no matter how well-deserved the criticism might be.
He took her hand and raised it to his lips. "After such an evening, do you regret marrying plain Captain Wentworth, of no connection to the Strafford family, instead of a truly accomplished officer who had the wit to scramble himself into a peerage?"
She opened her eyes and smiled at him, stroking his face with her hand. "In my turn, I would give the Elliot diamonds to be plain Mrs. Captain Wentworth, of no connection to the Strafford family."
"It is just as well that you were not required to do so, I suppose."
Flynn had learned to respect the privacy of others, even at close quarters, in the crowded berth of the Laconia years before. Even if he had been inclined to eavesdrop, with all the noise of the busy Portsmouth streets, he was unable to hear anything more than subdued murmurs from inside the landaulet. However, he was a married man, and the significance of the sudden ceasing of those murmurs required no explanation. He smiled to himself and clucked at the horses.
This story was originally published in Fair Winds and Following Seas II, the fanfic zine of the Horatio Hornblower 2003 US Convention. Reprinted by permission.
The characters of Horatio Hornblower and Lady Barbara Wellesley Leighton Hornblower (whew) are copyright of the estate of C.S. Forester. No copyright or ownership of those characters is claimed or implied by the author of this story. I'm just being a fangirl.
I truly value feedback and constructive criticism from my readers. Leave feedback or discuss this story at the Beneath the Trapdoor discussion forum.