Horatio Hornblower pinched his nose, stifling the sneeze to the best of his ability. In retrospect, diving into ice-cold water probably hadn’t been the best of ideas. Then again, he’d been on fire at the time, so he hadn’t had much choice in the matter. He just wished that the fire’s heat and the water’s temperature had balanced each other out, instead of leaving him with a stinging welt on his arm and what he hoped was just a chill.
“Lieutenant Hornblower?” Horatio dropped his hand quickly and straightened up as Captain Pellew approached him. “At ease, man, at ease!” Pellew said, waving a hand, “This is an inquiry, not an order.”
“Yes, sir.” Horatio answered, relaxing a little.
Pellew looked him over. “I merely wanted to see how you were faring in the wake of yesternights…events.”
“Well enough, sir,” Horatio said, deciding that it was not a lie if you left out a few unimportant details, “My arm aches a bit, but nothing a few applications of salve can’t ease.”
“Good,” Pellew said, still squinting at him in a way that made Horatio want to squirm, “I would prefer not to lose one of my lieutenants.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” Horatio interjected quietly, “But I’m not a lieutenant. I’m acting-lieutenant at best, but most likely destined to remain midshipman.”
He lowered his head as he said it, feeling tears pricking at his eyes. It wouldn’t do to cry in front of his captain, for two excellent reasons. One, he didn’t need Pellew to regard him as weak. And two, tear-filled eyes risked leading to an itching nose.
“Yes, that is certainly true at present,” Pellew said, “However, after your masterful handling of the fireship, I believe the examination board will consider that a point in your favor. Besides, I had a letter from Captain Foster earlier today.”
That caused Horatio to lift his head. Pellew’s face remained stern, but there seemed to be a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth as he continued, “Since you didn’t actually answer the question put before you, you haven’t passed or failed your examination. For the moment, therefore, he suggests that you retain your rank of Acting-Lieutenant.”
Horatio wasn’t sure what to say to that. Pellew wasn’t the one to thank for it, and it wasn’t in his best interests to disagree with the assessment. So instead, he just smiled a little. “I’m glad to hear it, sir.”
Pellew nodded. “Yes, I thought you might be.”
To Horatio’s horror, an itch sprang up in his nose at that moment, and he knew that this one would not be held back. So he lowered his head again and tried to bring his hand to his face as casually as possible. “Etnk!”
He couldn’t look up into Pellew’s face, too worried about what he might see there. He was startled, therefore, when he heard the captain chuckle. “Bless you, Mr. Hornblower.”
“Thank you, sir,” Horatio said, rubbing his nose, “I’m sorry.”
“Good God, man, don’t apologize for something beyond your control! Do you apologize for breathing?”
“N-no, sir,” Horatio responded, feeling himself turn red, “I just…”
“Look at me, Mr. Hornblower.”
Horatio raised his head reluctantly. Pellew was smiling a little, which reassured Horatio. “The water can be bitterly cold this time of year. It’s no surprise that anyone who dove into it would be a bit chilled. But with proper rest and a dose of spirits, most sailors will be up and about in a day or so.”
“Yes, sir,” Horatio answered, managing a tiny smile, “I’m sure you’re right.”
Pellew shook his head and waved a hand. “Away with you, Lieutenant Hornblower. I will inform the other officers that you have been taken off of watch duty for the day. I’d suggest you use the time to catch up on your studies. The next Lieutenant’s exam will be here before you know it.”
“Yes, sir,” Horatio said, saluting, “Thank you, sir.”
“Not at all, Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew said, as he continued his stroll across the deck, “I just like to see my officers in fighting shape.”