Chapter 1: One: "Midshipman"
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.”
Chapter 2: Two: Lieutenant
“Feeling all right, Horatio?” Archie said casually, leaning against the railing and looking up at his friend.
Horatio certainly did not look all right. His face was extremely pale (which, in the West Indies, was very strange indeed), and his jaw was set, clearly an indication that he was irritated by something…or trying to keep from revealing something. Nevertheless, he nodded. “Of course I am, Archie. Captain Sawyer has been locked up and will be able to cause no more trouble. Why wouldn’t I be all right?”
Normally, Archie would have been willing to let that pass. But today, flushed with the success of escaping the Spanish fort and finally being free of that madman’s influence, he decided to push the issue.
“You just seem quieter than usual, that’s all. I would have thought you’d be a bit more pleased that you’re off continuous watch.”
“That, Archie, will be obvious when I settle into my hammock tonight,” Horatio said with a bit of a smile, “For now, though, I’ll settle for enjoying the sunshine.”
Archie raised his eyebrow, but decided to suss things out discreetly instead of a full on assault. “As you say. I’ll leave you to it, then.” Patting his friend on the shoulder, he took himself off. Except instead of vanishing to another part of the ship, or going below, he took a spyglass from the quarterdeck and climbed the rigging nearest to Horatio’s position. Unfolding the glass, he trained it on Horatio.
As he watched, Horatio pinched his nose and dipped forward a little, before immediately straightening up and muttering something. Glancing around, he withdrew a handkerchief and wiped his nose, before hugging himself and shuddering a little. Archie couldn’t stop himself from laughing; Horatio’s stubbornness would probably cause him great harm one of these days, but at the moment, it was rather amusing seeing him trying to maintain unnecessary decorum. Closing the spyglass, Archie thought over his options before climbing down. He spared another glance at Horatio, who had resumed his old position, before heading below.
He emerged a few minutes later with his spare cloak folded over his arms, as he approached Horatio once more. “When do you get off your watch?” he asked as casually as he could.
Horatio blinked at the question before consulting his watch. “In another three hours.”
“And I can’t persuade you to let it lie? No one’s going to hold it against you if you do, and Buckland’s reversed the continuous watch order.”
“This is my normal watch, Mr. Kennedy,” Horatio said, drawing himself up stiffly, “and I’m honor bound to observe it, no matter how tired I am.”
“Well, take this, then,” Archie said, draping the cloak over Horatio’s shoulders, “It looks like there’s going to be a strong breeze blowing in, and you shouldn’t be any more uncomfortable than you need to be.”
“Thank you, Archie,” Horatio said, smiling, “I appreciate it.”
“No trouble at all. Just promise me that you’ll come right in after your watch and take yourself to bed. You’ve earned it.”
“I promise.” Horatio said, giving Archie a salute. The two of them laughed (Archie was encouraged by the sound) and Archie moved on again. It might not be much, but it would do for now. Maybe once Horatio found himself in bed, he’d be against leaving it for a few days.
Chapter 3: Three: Commander
The door slammed behind the two men as Commander Hornblower and Lieutenant Bush entered the captain’s cabin. “I’d say the men have acquitted themselves admirably, sir,” Bush said with a slight smile, “They fought damn well today.”
Hornblower nodded idly, his mind clearly elsewhere. Bush cocked his head and looked at his captain. He hadn’t been limping or moving gingerly when they came in, so that ruled out an injury. They’d lost a few men, but none that Hornblower seemed particularly attached to. The ship was in excellent shape, and they had absolutely trounced the enemy. So why did the man look so preoccupied? Bush decided to risk his friend’s wrath and just ask.
“Captain…are you quite all right? You don’t seem yourself.”
“I’m fine, Mr. Bush!” Hornblower snapped, “I’m just planning out my report to the Admiralty, that’s all.”
Bush knew his captain better than that. “You seem more on edge than usual, sir. I merely wished to enquire…”
“There’s nothing to enquire about!” Hornblower growled, sitting down at his desk, “My affairs are my own business, Mr. Bush, and I’ll thank you to leave me to them!”
Knowing he wasn’t going to get anything more out of the man, Bush saluted and withdrew, closing the door behind him. He wasn’t too proud, however, to linger with his ear at the door. There was silence for a minute. Then, finally, came a noise that confirmed Bush’s suspicions.
“Essshhh! Oh, bugger this!”
Bush nodded to himself. He had only ever seen Hornblower act like this a few times before, each time when he was either injured, concerned about his new orders, or suffering from a slight cold. Why he was so bound and determined to pretend he was all right when anyone who spent time with him could see something was amiss, Bush would never know. But he had learned in the many months of serving with his friend how to deal with the situation.
Doughty seemed a bit skeptical when Bush made the request. “You wish me to make the Captain a cup of tea, but not tell him you ordered it?”
“Yes,” Bush explained patiently, “He told me he was going to write his report to the Admiralty, and you know how phenomenally boring that can be. I thought he would appreciate something to keep him awake.”
“He normally prefers coffee in such a situation.” Doughty said, still unsure.
“Tea is a bit more unobtrusive than coffee,” Bush fibbed, hoping Doughty couldn’t see right through him, “I truly think he’d appreciate it.”
Doughty gave him a hard look, then shrugged his shoulders. “If you say so, Mr. Bush. What shall I tell him if he asks?”
“Just say something about feeling he could use something to drink. I don’t believe he’s had anything since we encountered that ship, so that should help your case.”
Doughty nodded. “Very well. I shall bring it to him presently.” Bush said his thanks and left the galley, smiling. If Doughty noticed his captain’s affliction, so much the better; Hornblower would get help from two sides. If not, well, at least he’d have something to warm him up a little.
Chapter 4: Four: Captain
Maria Hornblower may have had her faults, but there was no denying that she knew when her husband was under the weather. When he returned from meeting the king (His Majesty himself! Wouldn’t her mother be so proud!), she took one look at his pale face and obviously twitching nose, and ran to his side. “Oh, Horry, dear, you shouldn’t be up. Get yourself into bed and I’ll fix you up.”
“Maria…” Horatio sighed, but was unable to get another word in before she had her hands on his shoulders and was pushing him onto the mattress.
“Not another word!” she scolded him gently, “You need bed rest. I let you out of bed today because one doesn’t simply say ‘no’ to a meeting with the king, but until you get through a whole day with no coughing or sneezing, you’re not to leave this room.”
Horatio opened his mouth to protest nevertheless, but it seemed his body would be doing the talking for him. “At-pshh!”
“God bless you, darling,” Maria cooed, brushing his hair behind his ears so she could feel his forehead, “Well, you don’t have much of a fever. Are you cold, Horry?”
“No.” he said curtly, although he didn’t seem to be hiding the fact that he was shivering. She smiled fondly at his stubbornness.
“Wait right there. I’ll get you another blanket. And don’t you dare leave the bed while I’m gone!”
Maria found herself thoroughly chided by the landlady for being out of bed herself (“You’ve just had a child! It does you no good to be up and about like this!”), but managed to procure an extra blanket. Feeling the landlady’s eyes glaring at her retreating back, she slowed her pace and returned to the room at a walk.
Horatio had disobeyed her orders and left the bed, but since he was in the process of changing into a nightshirt, Maria forgave him. “Get in bed, now!” she said mock-sternly, “I’ve got another blanket for you, and I also asked the landlady to bring up a warming pan. When she comes, would you like to have a little tea or coffee? That’ll warm you up and maybe clear out some of the congestion.”
Horatio made a noise of assent and put a handkerchief to his face. “Kershh! Kshh!”
“God bless you,” she said, waving him towards the bed, “Just get in bed and relax, darling. Your ship matters can wait another few days. No one’s going to object if you take some time off for your health.”
The expression on Horatio’s face seemed to say otherwise, but Maria dismissed it; he was always so concerned about his position, poor lamb, and no amount of soothing on her part seemed to assuage his fears. Well, maybe this time he’d take it to heart. It was the Navy’s fault that he was in this position, after all.
Chapter 5: Five: Post-Captain
“Het-kshh!” Horatio sneezed into a handkerchief, not bothering to muffle it. Polwheal was in the kitchens, and the rest of the crew were about their business; there was little chance that he would be disturbed tonight. So much the better.
He’d felt the cold coming on two days ago. He wasn’t sure what had caused it; the weather had been fair, and his bathing water had been warm. The only explanation was that this illness was going around the ship, and it was his turn to fall prey to it. He sighed and dabbed at his nose. His only consolation was that it was a mild cold, with no fever and only a bit of soreness in his throat. But it still made his head feel fogged and made his nose itch almost constantly. But Horatio would be damned if he was going to see the doctor about this. He had more important things to worry about than his captain’s runny nose, and besides, he’d dealt with colds before. Sleep well at night and stifle his sneezes by day—why should he bother the doctor about it?
He stripped off his uniform quickly and replaced it with his nightshirt. Then he slipped his handkerchiefs out of his chest and tucked most of them into his desk. Polwheal never cleaned over there, assuming that his Captain would have his own way of organizing (and he was right). It was the perfect place to hide things he would rather no one saw. Horatio took two of the handkerchiefs and tucked them underneath his pillows for easy access during the night; in the morning, he’d put them into his coat pocket.
The itch flared up again. “Ah…ihh…Tchh!” He sniffed wetly and rubbed his nose, and was about to climb into bed when a creak at the door caught his attention. He froze, concerned that Polwheal had come in to ask a question, and had seen the whole thing. He straightened up and turned towards the door, prepared to come up with a plausible explanation.
Emmeline, the ship’s cat, padded into the room. Horatio relaxed and smiled at her. “Hello there.” She mewed and wound around his ankles. He patted her vaguely, then gently pushed her away. “On your way now. You’ve got your rounds to do, and I’m sure the men could do with a little company.” Paying her no more mind, he blew out the lantern and climbed into bed, propping himself upright so he could breathe a little easier.
All was quiet for a minute or two. Then Horatio had to sneeze again. “Eh-shhew!” He had just set down the handkerchief when he felt something heavy land on the end of the bed. Disoriented for a moment, he quickly realized that Emmeline had jumped on his bed. “Shoo,” he said, too dazed to put any real force into the command, not that she’d have listened to him anyway, “This is not your bed. Off.”
Emmeline pawed up to him, and in the dim light from the porthole he saw her stick her face up into his, looking at him intently. “What?” he said, feeling slightly ridiculous that he was talking to a cat. She blinked at him, then nudged her head into his elbow. He sighed and scratched behind her ears. She started purring richly, before climbing up onto his stomach. Horatio didn’t have the energy to stop her. She kneaded the blanket for a minute, then curled up into a tight ball, purring all the while.
Horatio sneezed again, wondering if that would dislodge her, but she just lifted her head and looked at him before returning to her old position. He reached out a hand and stroked her back. She seemed to re-double her purring at that, and Horatio closed his eyes and listened to the sound. He’d never been around cats much—the cats on his other ships had been too aloof to interact with most of the crew, and there’d never been any around the house when he was a child—so he’d never realized just how interesting purring actually was. It initially sounded harsh on the ear, but the more you heard it, the more soothing it got.
He smiled at Emmeline before closing his eyes. He certainly wasn’t happy at the prospect of dealing with this cold for the next few days, but if it caused the cat to visit him and lull him to sleep like this, maybe it wouldn’t be the nightmare scenario it usually was.