“Damn, damn, damn!” Horatio muttered, closing the lid and sniffling miserably. He’d known he was running low on clean handkerchiefs, but he’d thought he had one or two left buried in the corner of his seachest. He tried to remember if he’d ripped or lost any recently, but gave up after a moment, brain to fogged to fully focus on the task.
This was, unquestionably, the worst cold he’d ever had in his life. Oh, he’d had worse fevers in childhood, and once or twice he’d lost his voice from coughing, but it was the combination of things that was really leaving him so weak. But the worst of the worst was the sneezing. They might not happen often, but when they did…well, the entire ship knew about them. And of course, anyone in the vicinity felt the need to comment on them, which was the last thing Horatio needed.
He felt a familiar prickle in his nose and groaned, pulling out an already sodden handkerchief. Pressing it to his face to muffle the sound (a futile effort, but one he did out of habit anyway), he braced himself for the inevitable. “Ih…ahh…TCHIEW!!”
Horatio swore he could hear a cup rattle on a nearby shelf. With another wet sniff, he rubbed at his nose, trying to judge how much use he could get from the cloth before he’d need to wash it. For that matter, he needed to figure out how exactly he was going to wash his handkerchiefs. He didn’t want to bring them to the washroom and risk infecting anyone else with this infernal cold, nor did he want to impose on Archie and ask him to do it, thus risking getting Archie sick as well. If he was desperate, he could make a makeshift mask out of his remaining handkerchief and try to do it that way, but that would open him up to more criticism and joking. But he couldn’t see any other option.
The door creaked open. “How are you feeling, Horatio?” Archie asked, voice full of sympathy. He’d been as amused as everyone else initially, but seeing just how awful Horatio felt had caused him to tamp down on his laughter, something Horatio greatly appreciated.
Horatio muffled a cough into his handkerchief and looked over at Archie. “I’ve felt better,” he admitted, “But right now, I find myself in a bit of a crisis. I’ve run out of clean handkerchiefs.”
“That is a problem,” Archie agreed, “Would you like to borrow some of mine for now?”
“I appreciate it, Archie,” Horatio said gratefully, “But I don’t want to put you out any more than I already have. You’ve already had to deal with me coughing and sneezing at all hours, I can’t deprive you of your handkerchiefs as well.”
“I don’t mind,” Archie said, “It’s the least I can do.”
Horatio considered his damp handkerchief. “Perhaps we can have a compromise of some sort. Give me one of your handkerchiefs to tide me over for now, then see if you can sneak me a bowl of hot water and I’ll try to wash my own handkerchiefs here. That way, I won’t have to inconvenience you any more than I already have.”
“Very kind of you, Horatio,” Archie said, moving to his own seachest, “I’ll see what I can do.”
“I promise you, Archie, I’ll bring it back to you once I’ve fully recovered.”
“I know you will,” Archie smiled, tossing Horatio a clean white cloth, “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. Now wait here and I’ll bring you that water.”
Horatio smiled at Archie gratefully and added his used handkerchief to the cloth bag where he kept the others. Hopefully he’d have enough to see him through the rest of this cold once he’d given them a wash.
By the fifth day of Horatio’s cold, he was starting to wonder if it would just be easier to throw himself overboard. God knew he was wet enough already, between the feverish sweats and the sneezing. It was a minor miracle no one else had caught this off him yet, something he attributed to copious handkerchief use and the fact that one look at him was enough to have crewmen scurrying for cover. He’d stopped looking in the mirror, not wanting to see how much of a mess he’d become.
He was currently on his afternoon watch, handkerchief discreetly tucked in one hand as he paced the deck, looking out to sea and back to his men. Sick or not, he had a job to perform, and he was determined to do it to the best of his ability.
“Hih…” The hitching breath gave him enough advanced warning to turn out towards the sea and get the handkerchief at the ready. “Hah…HAH-ESHHH!!!”
“God bless you, sir.” someone said nearby.
Horatio waited until he’d wiped the worst of the mess away before he turned to face Matthews. “The sentiment is appreciated, Matthews, although if He had blessed me, I wouldn’t have this cold in the first place.”
“True enough,” Matthews smiled, “But God works in mysterious ways, you know. Perhaps there’s a reason for it.”
“I’d like to know what it is.” Horatio said bitterly, dabbing at his nose. Matthews, correctly guessing his commander’s mood, saluted and moved away. Horatio had to give his division credit; perhaps they were joking about this cold of his below decks, but whenever he saw them, they were always sympathetic. It made his watches a little more bearable. Well, that and the cups of tea and coffee Archie snuck out to him whenever possible.
He paced the deck, rubbing and wiping his nose whenever there was no one present to see him. Everyone knew about his condition at that point, but he wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of seeing him cave into it. If he didn’t need to cough or sneeze, then he’d keep up the illusion of being well. It was what was expected of an officer, after all.
Another sneeze started building, and he quickly turned back to the railing. “Ah…AHKSHHHTT!!!”
“Is everything all right, Mr. Hornblower?”
Horatio straightened up and turned to face Mr. Bracegirdle. “Fine, sir. Nothing to report.”
“That’s a relief,” Bracegirdle said, eyes twinkling, “I could have sworn I heard gunfire.”
If Bracegirdle hadn’t been a superior officer, Horatio would have glared at him. As it was, he just pointedly rubbed at his nose. “Not at all, sir. The seas have been empty.”
“Very good, Mr. Hornblower. Continue your rounds.” Bracegirdle turned away, the bob of his shoulders revealing his muffled laughter. Horatio balled his hand into a fist and returned to his duty, praying once again that the cold would be gone tomorrow morning.
His nose behaved itself for the rest of his watch, but as soon as the bells rang to signify the changing of the guard…“Eh…EKTCHOO!”
Horatio froze, handkerchief still to his nose. He swallowed, cleared his throat, and turned towards the speaker. “Yes, Captain?”
“If I could see you in my cabin, please?” Pellew’s head disappeared from view, and Horatio straightened up, tucking the handkerchief away. What could the captain possibly want from him? He was positive it had something to do with his illness, but he wasn’t sure what it could be. Pellew would have taken him off duty ages ago if he feared the illness was a danger to the crew. Was he about to be chastised for being sluggish on watch?
He rapped on the door, slipping inside when Pellew gave the word. “You wished to see me, sir?” he said, standing up straight and praying he didn’t look too disheveled.
“Ah, yes, Mr. Hornblower. I just wished to inquire as to the state of your health.”
Horatio willed his voice not to sound congested as he answered, “I’m still not fully recovered, sir, but I hope that the worst has passed. With luck, I’ll be back to full health by the end of the week.”
“Hmm…” Pellew said, apparently distracted as he read over a sheet of paper. Then he looked up, looking Horatio over intently. “Well, I hope it doesn’t clear up for another day, at least.”
“S-sir?” Horatio said, unsure what to make of Pellew’s statement.
Pellew’s expression softened slightly. “Forgive me, Mr. Hornblower, that was poorly worded. What I mean is, I have something I’d like you to do, especially in your current condition.”
That just made Horatio even more confused. “I’ll do what I can, sir. What do wish me to do?”
“Tomorrow, if the wind holds, we’ll be near the coast of France. I’m sending a group of men ashore to gather fresh water from the nearest stream. I want you to go with them to supervise proceedings.”
“Aye, sir,” Horatio answered, “But if I may speak freely…?”
“Of course, Mr. Hornblower.”
“Are you sure it’s wise for me to come along? It means exposing the crew to this…” he gestured pointedly at his face, “and besides, I might attract undue attention.”
Pellew gave a faint smile. “Your concern is admirable and understandable, Mr. Hornblower, but I assure you, I have a reason for this. I’ll explain it to you upon your return.”
Still baffled, but willing to accept Pellew’s word, Horatio merely nodded. “Very well, sir. Tell me the time and I’ll be up on deck.”
The mission went off better than Horatio had expected. Pellew had picked a fairly isolated spot, and the men were very efficient at loading up the water barrels. He did, of course, sneeze a good two or three times in the course of the mission, but he kept them relatively silent. He did prickle a little when he heard some of the crew talking in stuffy voices once they reached shore, assuming they were mocking him, but it wasn’t his place to reprove them. Perhaps he’d note their conduct to the captain when he came in for his report.
After one particularly harsh sneeze, he thought he heard the faint sound of French voices, and quickly ushered the men to the boat. In a stroke of luck, they were out on the open water before anyone spotted them. Horatio smiled. Getting away unscathed, fresh water for the ship, and his fever, at least, had abated; things seemed to be looking up for him.
Once the men and the casks were safely aboard, Horatio went to the captain’s cabin to give his report. Pellew listened, nodding approvingly. Then he said, “Now then, Mr. Hornblower, I will satisfy your curiosity.”
Horatio took the chair Pellew offered him and waited. Pellew couldn’t hide a smile as he said “While the men busied themselves with the water casks, I instructed one of the men to leave a satchel of papers behind. In them are false details about our ship locations, a set of orders about a fictional raid on a nearby port…and news that a nasty strain of influenza is sweeping through the fleet.”
Horatio felt his mouth drop open, and quickly shut it again. Pellew nodded at him. “That’s why I wanted you along. It would provide proof to anyone who might hear you. I also instructed the crew to feign being ill as well, or at least to cough a bit.”
Now that the captain mentioned it, he did remember quite a bit of coughing during the excursion, but he’d assumed it was just due to exertion. “It’s…very clever, sir,” he said at last, “But why go to all that trouble?”
“It’ll plunge Bonaparte’s divisions in this area into chaos. Preparing for invasions that don’t come, heading out to sea and into an ambush, all while assuming we’re too weak to do anything. We should be able to score a few victories, as well as some extra prize money. I’m not saying it’ll turn the tide, but it’ll remind France that we’re not about to give up.”
Horatio could feel himself starting to blush. “I’m…glad to have helped, sir?” he said faintly.
“Your assistance is greatly appreciated,” Pellew answered, “You’ll have an extra ration of spirits tonight, and you’ll be taken off watch duty for the day to have some time in your hammock to try to get rid of that cold. We need you fighting fit for the days ahead.”
“Aye, sir. Thank you.” Horatio rose to his feet. “And I apologize if any men have fallen ill due to me.”
“Doctor Cornell has reported a few ill men, but nothing as bad as yours. Perhaps you hadn’t been exposed to this particular type of cold before. At any rate, you’ve done a masterful job of keeping your illness to yourself, and the service is grateful for it.”
“Thank you sir,” Horatio said, rising to his feet, “Am I dismissed?”
“You are. I wish you a quick recovery.”
Once the door closed behind him, Horatio covered his face with his hand. Well, Matthews had said the Lord worked in mysterious ways. He just wished that it wasn’t at his expense.