“I thought it would be like that, from the look on St. Vincent’s face. So I sent off Brown to Smallbridge to pack your kit. It’ll be ready for you when we get there.”
Capable, farsighted, levelheaded Barbara! Yet “Thank you, dear” was all he could say. There were often these difficult moments even now, after all this time with Barbara; moments when he was overflowing with emotion (maybe that was the reason) and yet could not find words.
“May I ask where you are going, dear?”
“I cannot tell you if you do,” said Hornblower, forcing a smile. “I’m sorry, dear.”
Barbara would say no word to anyone, nor convey by any hint or sign upon what kind of mission he was setting out, but, all the same, he could tell her nothing. Then if news of the mutiny leaked out Barbara could not be held responsible; but that was not the real reason. It was his duty to keep silent, and duty allowed of no exceptions. Barbara smiled back at him with the brightness that duty demanded. She turned her attention to his silken cloak, and draped it more gracefully over his shoulders.
“A pity,” she said, “that in these modern days there are so few opportunities for men to dress beautifully. Crimson and white sets off your good looks, dear. You are a very handsome man — did you know that?”
Then the brittle artificial barrier between them broke and vanished as utterly as a punctured soap bubble. His was a temperament that longed for affection, for the proofs of love; but a lifetime of self-discipline in an unrelenting world had made it difficult, almost impossible, for him to let the fact appear. Within him there was always the lurking fear of a rebuff, something too horrible to risk. He always was guarded with himself, guarded with the world. And she; she knew those moods of his, knew them even while her pride resented them. Her stoic English upbringing had schooled her into distrusting emotion and into contempt for any exhibition of emotion. She was as proud as he was; she could resent being dependent on him for her life’s fulfilment just as he could resent feeling incomplete without her love. They were two proud people who had made, for one reason or another, self-centred self-sufficiency a standard of perfection to abandon which called for more sacrifice than they were often prepared to make.
But in these moments, with the shadow of separation looming over them, pride and resentment vanished, and they could be blessedly natural, each stripped of the numbing armour the years had built about them. She was in his arms, and her hands under his cloak could feel the warmth of his body through the thin silk of his doublet. She pressed herself against him as avidly as he grasped at her. In that uncorseted age she was wearing only the slightest whalebone stiffening at the waist of her gown; in his arms he could feel her beautiful body limp and yielding despite the fine muscles (the product of hard riding and long walking) which he had at last educated himself to accept as desirable in woman, whom he had once thought should be soft and feeble. Warm lips were against warm lips, and then eyes smiled into eyes.
“My darling! My sweet!” she said, and then lip to lip again she murmured the endearment of the childless woman, to her lover “My baby. My dear baby!”
The dearest thing she could say to him. When he yielded to her, when he put off his protective armour, he wanted to be her child as well as her husband; unconsciously he wanted the reassurance that, exposed and naked as he was, she would be true and loyal to him like a mother to her child, taking no advantage of his defenceless condition. The last reserve melted; they blended one into the other in that extremity of passion which they could seldom attain. Nothing could mar it now. Hornblower’s powerful fingers tore loose the silken cord that clasped his cloak; the unfamiliar fastenings of his doublet, the ridiculous strings of his trunk hose — it did not break into his mood to have to deal with them. Some time Barbara found herself kissing his hands, the long beautiful fingers whose memory sometimes haunted her nights when they were separated, and it was a gesture of the purest passion without symbolism. They were free for each other, untrammelled, unhindered, in love. They were marvellously one, and one even when it was all over; they were complete and yet not sated. They were one even when he left her lying there, when he glanced into the mirror and saw his scanty hair madly tousled.
His uniform hung on the dressing-room door; Barbara had thought of everything during the time he had been with St. Vincent. He washed himself in the hand-basin, sponging his heated body, and there was no thought of washing away impurity — the act was one of simple pleasure. When the butler knocked at the door he put his dressing-gown over his shirt and trousers and came out. It was his orders; he signed the receipt for them, broke the seal, and sat down to read them through to make sure there were no misunderstandings which ought to be cleared up before he left London. The old, old formulas — ‘You are hereby requested and required’; ‘You are therefore strictly charged’ — the same ones under whose authority Nelson had gone into action at Trafalgar and Blake at Tenerife. The purport of the orders was plain, and the delegation of power unequivocating. If read aloud to a ship’s company — or to a court martial — they would be readily understood. Would he ever have to read them aloud? That would mean he had opened negotiations with mutineers. He was entitled to do so, but it would be a sign of weakness, something that would mean lifted eyebrows throughout the Navy, and which would cast a shadow of disappointment over St. Vincent’s craggy face. Somehow or other he had to fool and trick a hundred English seamen into his power, so that they could be hanged and flogged for doing something he knew very well he would have done himself in the same circumstances. He had a duty to do; sometimes it was his duty to kill Frenchmen, and sometimes it might be another duty. He would prefer to have to kill Frenchmen if someone had to be killed. And how in Heaven’s name was he to set about this present task?
The door to the bedroom opened and Barbara came in, radiant and smiling. Their spirits rushed together as their eyes met; the imminence of physical separation, and Hornblower’s contemplation of his new distasteful duty, were not sufficient to disrupt the mental accord between them. They were more united than they had ever been before, and they knew it, the fortunate pair. Hornblower rose to his feet.
“I shall be ready to leave in ten minutes,” he said. “Will you come with me as far as Smallbridge?”
“I was hoping you would ask me to do so,” said Barbara.
It was the blackest imaginable night, and the wind, backing westerly, was blowing half a gale and promising to blow harder. It blew round Hornblower, flapping his trouser-legs about his knees above his sea-boots and tugging at his coat, while all round and above him in the blackness the rigging shrieked in an insane chorus, as though protesting at the madness of mankind in exposing frail man-made equipment to the violence of the world’s forces. Even here, in the lee of the Isle of Wight, the little brig was moving in lively fashion under Hornblower’s feet as he stood on the tiny quarter-deck. Somewhere to windward of Hornblower someone — a petty officer, presumably — was cursing a seaman for some unknown error; the filthy words reached Hornblower’s ears in gusts. A lunatic, thought Hornblower, must know these mad contrasts, these sudden changes of mood, these violent alterations in the world about him; in the one case it was the lunatic who changed, but in his own case it was his surroundings. This morning, hardly more than twelve hours ago, he had been sitting in Westminster Abbey with the Knights of the Bath, all dressed in crimson and white silk; he had dined with the Prime Minister the night before. He had been in Barbara’s arms; he had been living in Bond Street luxury, with every whim that might arise ready to be satisfied at the mere pulling of a bell-cord. It was a life of self-indulgent ease; a score of servants would be genuinely shocked and upset if the slightest thing occurred to disturb the even way of the life of Sir Horatio — they ran those two words together, of course, making a curious bastard word like Surroratio out of them. Barbara had watched over him all through the summer, to make sure that the last seeds of the Russian typhus which had brought him home sick were eradicated. He had wandered in the sunshine through the gardens at Smallbridge hand in hand with little Richard, with the gardeners backing respectfully away and pulling at their hats. There bad been that golden afternoon when he and Richard had lain side by side on their bellies beside the fish-pond, trying to catch golden carp with their hands; returning to the house with the sunset glowing all about them, muddy and wet and gloriously happy, he and his little child, as close together as he had been with Barbara that morning. A happy life; too happy.