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Hornblower and the Hotspur

C. S. Forester



Chapter 1

“REPEAT after me,” said the parson. “‘I Horatio, take thee, Maria Ellen —’”

The thought came up in Hornblower’s mind that these were the last few seconds in which he could withdraw from doing something which he knew to be ill-considered. Maria was not the right woman to be his wife, even admitting that he was suitable material for marriage in any case. If he had a grain of sense, he would break off this ceremony even at this last moment, he would announce that he had changed his mind, and he would turn away from the altar and from the parson and from Maria, and he would leave the church a free man.

“To have and to hold —” he was still, like an automaton, repeating the parson’s words. And there was Maria beside him, in the white that so little became her. She was melting with happiness. She was consumed with love for him, however misplaced it might be. He could not, he simply could not, deal her a blow so cruel. He was conscious of the trembling of her body beside him. He could no more bring himself to shatter that trust than he could have refused to command the Hotspur.

“And thereto I plight thee my troth,” repeated Hornblower. That settled it, he thought. Those must be the final deciding words that made the ceremony legally binding. He had made a promise and now there was no going back on it. There was a comfort in the odd thought that he had really been committed from a week back, when Maria had come into his arms sobbing out her love for him, and he had been too soft-hearted to laugh at her and too — too weak? too honest? — to take advantage of her with the intention of betraying her. From the moment that he had listened to her, from the moment that he had returned her kisses, gently, all these later results, the bridal dress, this ceremony in the church of St Thomas à Beckett — and the vague future of cloying affection — had been inevitable.

Bush was ready with the ring, and Hornblower slipped it over Maria’s finger, and the final words were said.

“I now pronounce that they are man and wife,” said the parson, and he went on with the blessing, and then a blank five seconds followed, until Maria broke the silence.

“Oh, Horry,” she said, and she laid her hand on his arm.

Hornblower forced himself to smile down at her, concealing the newly discovered fact that he disliked being called ‘Horry’ even more than he disliked being called Horatio.

“The happiest day of my life,” he said; if a thing had to be done it might as well be done thoroughly, so that in the same spirit he continued. “In my life so far.”

It was actually painful to note the unbounded happiness of the smile that answered this gallant speech. Maria put her other hand up to him, and he realized she expected to be kissed, then and there, in front of the altar. It hardly seemed a proper thing to do, in a sacred edifice — in his ignorance he feared lest he should affront the devout — but once more there was no drawing back, and he stooped and kissed the soft lips that she proffered.

“Your signatures are required in the register,” prompted the parson, and led the way to the vestry.

They wrote their names.

“Now I can kiss my son-in-law,” announced Mrs Mason loudly, and Hornblower found himself clasped by two powerful arms and soundly kissed on the cheek. He supposed it was inevitable that a man should feel a distaste for his mother-in-law.

But here was Bush to disengage him, with outstretched hand and unusual smile, offering felicitations and best wishes.

“Many thanks,” said Hornblower, and added, “Many thanks for many services.”

Bush was positively embarrassed, and tried to brush away Hornblower’s gratitude with the same gestures as he would have used to brush away flies. He had been a tower of strength in this wedding, just as he had been in the preparation of the Hotspur for sea

“I’ll see you again at breakfast, sir,” he said, and with that he withdrew from the vestry, leaving behind him an awkward gap.

“I was counting on Mr Bush’s arm for support down the aisle,” said Mrs Mason, sharply.

It certainly was not like Bush to leave everyone in the lurch like this; it was in marked contrast with his behaviour during the last few whirlwind days.

“We can bear each other company, Mrs Mason,” said the parson’s wife. “Mr Clive can follow us.”

“You are very kind, Mrs Clive,” said Mrs Mason, although there was nothing in her tone to indicate that she meant what she said. “Then the happy pair can start now. Maria, take the captain’s arm.”

Mrs Mason marshalled the tiny procession in businesslike fashion. Hornblower felt Maria’s hand slipped under his arm, felt the light pressure she could not help giving to it, and — he could not be cruel enough to ignore it — he pressed her hand in return, between his ribs and his elbow, to be rewarded by another smile. A small shove from behind by Mrs Mason started him back in the church, to be greeted by a roar from the organ. Half a crown for the organist and a shilling for the blower was what that music had cost Mrs Mason; there might be better uses for the money. The thought occupied Hornblower’s mind for several seconds, and was naturally succeeded by the inevitable wonderment as to how anyone could possibly find enjoyment in these distasteful noises. He and Maria were well down the aisle before he came back to reality.

“The sailors are all gone,” said Maria with a break in her voice. “There’s almost no one in the church.”

Truth to tell, there were only two or three people in the pews, and these obviously the most casual idlers. All the few guests bad trooped into the vestry for the signing, and the fifty seamen whom Bush had brought from Hotspur — all those who could be trusted not to desert — had vanished already. Hornblower felt a vague disappointment that Bush had failed again to rise to the situation.

“Why should we care?” he asked, groping wildly for words of comfort for Maria. “Why should any shadow fall on our wedding day?”

It was strangely painful to see and to feel Maria’s instant response, and her faltering step changed to a brave stride as they marched down the empty church. There was bright sunshine awaiting them at the west door, he could see; and he thought of something else a tender bridegroom might say.

“Happy is the bride the sun shines on.”

They came out of the dim light into the bright sun, and the transition was moral as well as physical, for Bush had not disappointed them; he had not been found wanting after all. Hornblower heard a sharp word and a ragged clash of steel, and there were the fifty seamen in a double rank stretching away from the door, making an arch of their drawn cutlasses for the couple to walk beneath.

“Oh, how nice!” said Maria, in childish delight; furthermore the array of seamen at the church door had attracted a crowd of spectators, all craning forward to see the captain and his bride. Hornblower darted a professional glance first down one line of seamen and then down the other. They were all dressed in the new blue and white checked shirts with which he had stocked the slop chest of the Hotspur; their white duck trousers were mostly well worn but well washed, and long enough and baggy enough to conceal the probable deficiencies of their shoes. It was a good turnout.

Beyond the avenue of cutlasses stood a horseless post-chaise, with Bush standing behind it. Wondering a little, Hornblower led Maria towards it; Bush gallantly handed Maria up into the front seat and Hornblower climbed up beside her, finding time now to take his cocked hat from under his arm and clap it on his head. He had heard the cutlasses rasp back into their sheaths; now the guard of honour came pattering forward in a disciplined rush. There were pipe-clayed drag ropes where the traces should have been, and the fifty men seized their coils, twenty-five to a coil, and ran them out. Bush craned up towards Hornblower.



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