Although he was the first lieutenant, William Bush had spent more time in the navy than his current captain. It would have been something he’d take issue with if not for the respect he had for Captain Hornblower. He’d proven himself a valuable ally, a capable captain and, above all else, both a decent and honourable man.
Bush also counted himself privileged to be one of the few who had the ability to see Hornblower as a human being, rather than the unflappable, near immortal Navy captain.
“We’re a few more men down today. That horrid cold must be spreading faster than we’d anticipated.”
“Yes, Mister Bush, I can deduce that for myself.” The captain snapped, his hands folded behind his back as he looked out across his ship, not even making eye contact with the man he was berating.
Bush nodded, trying not to show the upset on his face. He understood how Hornblower would be on edge; with a large portion of the ship’s crew laid up in their hammocks they did not have enough hands to withstand a battle, although there were no white sails on the calm ocean.
While it left them in a vulnerable position, the captain had permitted a day and a half in bed for each man who fell to the disease, a full day more than most captains would allow.
The decision had caused high spirits amongst the men, and relief in the sick, but the prolonged recovery time of the crew clearly weighed heavily on Hornblower’s mind. He was torn, Bush could see, between sympathy for the men and regret about his decision.
As for himself, the lieutenant had woken that morning to the effects of the cold bearing down upon him. His throat had been sore and his head throbbed while his nose refused to allow him air. Bush had donned extra layers of clothing and checked himself in a chip of mirror to ensure his ailment did not show on his face.
He would not admit his miserable state to the captain until he was sure it would interfere with his work. Captain Hornblower would expect nothing less of him.
However, it was getting hard to cast his voice across the ship to command the men and it would be obvious to the sharp minded captain that something was wrong with his lieutenant.
... Or perhaps not.
Captain Hornblower jaw clenched and his eyebrows met in the middle. After a moment, his eyes squeezed shut, and the hands which were folded behind his back clenched and twitched as if they wanted to pull free of each other and be put to some other use.
He turned his nose into the shoulder of his uniform and there was a quiet, almost swallowing sound as his head jerked downward, twice, bouncing some of his curls around the edges of his hat.
William nearly spoke, to bless the captain or question him, he wasn’t sure, but caught himself quickly.
Hornblower cleared his throat in a mild, noncommittal noise to pass off the action as a throat irritation.
For not the first time, Bush found himself in slight awe of his captain. Although the troublesome feeling in his nose has not yet made itself publicly known, he doubted that he could smother it with the grace and completeness that Hornblower had demonstrated.
He rubbed his own knuckle against the side of his nose as it gave a sympathetic twinge for the captain. He sucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, subtly trying to itch it and prevent the sensation from blossoming into something more upsetting.
If Hornblower was falling ill then he had to be Bush’s priority. His own condition was irrelevant for the moment, he needed to be focused on getting the captain below, dry and warm. It was going to take all his rapidly diminishing energy to tear him away from his undermanned deck. Especially when it was so obvious that Hornblower would deny being sick until his voice gave out.
The captain casually ran a hand down the front of his jacket to flatten any creases. It was only because Bush knew Hornblower so well that he noticed a finger quickly sliding between the double breasted overlay of the captains uniform. The lieutenant knew that it was a favoured place amongst the senior officer to store a handkerchief for quick access, and his friend had looked for reassurance that it was still secure.
“At least the sea is clear and calm, the rain is light. We shouldn’t be running into unexpected trouble any time soon.”
“And you are qualified to make that prediction, are you? I believe they are called ‘unexpected’ troubles for a reason, Mister Bush.”
“You’re right of course, sir. I apologize.”
Bush bowed slightly and took a step back. He was no stranger to his captain in a frayed mood, but the added discomfort of illness gave him an unpredictable edge that he didn’t want to be impaled by. The lieutenant would make a round of the ship, perhaps a look through the lower decks to make sure there were no unsavoury games being played, and then return to his captain with a more solid plan to convince him to retire to his bunk.
It would also give Bush the opportunity to find a private corner away from Hornblower’s critical gaze. He could feel his nose running and was beginning to suspect he could not keep its state private should he remain visible much longer.
“I will take my leave, sir, and inspect the men,” he gave another incline, using the opportunity to give his nose a swipe with his knuckle, to appease it until he was somewhere more secluded.
He trotted down the steps and across the deck, making his way safely below and first down towards the wardroom. He held the back of his hand firmly against his nose, uncharacteristically unconcerned with how he appeared to the men he passed.
Through the temporary wall that had been erected for the illusion of privacy, Bush eyed the canvas that separated his section from the other lieutenants, grateful for his rank for the small bit of modesty it granted him. The sound, he knew would travel through to the other men, but at least he did not have to look any of them in the eye.
He removed his hat and fished within the bicorn’s crevice for the small folded cloth he kept there.
Even though he could already feel his breath hitch and eyes flutter closed, Bush placed the article of uniform carefully on top of his sea chest.
“Huhh’Egktthhhoo!” Although the sound was generally soft, and he was alone, he still flushed in embarrassment. The expulsion had grated against his already sore throat and it had been fiercely wet.
He knew from experience that it was not the last sneeze, but he would have time to mop up and give a soft blow to clear his nose to make room for the next one.
Bush readjusted his handkerchief, “Heht’Dttchhhhoo!... Hihh’Ikttchhoo!”
Tending to his left nostril, then his right, Bush sighed. It seemed too brief an episode to be worth all the fuss and fear that had preceded it, but the relief it had produced, despite the congestion it had created, was phenomenal.
The lieutenant took a moment to close his eyes and catch his breath. He hadn’t realized how tense the deck had been, not letting himself surrender to the actions his body had demanded of him.
Bush thought again of his captain, and wondered if Hornblower knew how much more comfortable he would be if he took a few private moments.
Probably not, he decided. Captain Hornblower most likely thought that he could only be comfortable while observing his men.
Although he didn’t want to put the dampened material against his uniform, Bush tucked the handkerchief away into his sleeve, deciding it was best to keep it close and in a place that was more subtly accessible. When he’d put the cloth in his hat that morning, it had only been a security measure, a reassurance to get him out of his hammock and not something he ever thought he would need that day.
Hornblower probably placed the handkerchief between the folds of his jacket for the same reason. It was clear, however, that the captain hadn’t resigned himself to using it yet.
It had not been that long since he had previously been on deck, but he already felt exhausted. It was as if releasing the floodgates on his nose had allowed all the other symptoms of his cold to come crashing down on top of him in a matter of moments. He was tired, but he had to inspect the men before he returned to his captain’s side otherwise his lie would fall apart.
Then someone knocked on the thin, temporary door that separated the lieutenant’s quarters from the men.
A boy opened the door and stood at attention. “Sir. The captain requests your presence on deck. Immediately, sir.”
Bush nodded, “Understood. You may return to your duties, Darret, I will be up presently.”
His voice, the lieutenant noticed as the younger man took his exit, had deepened with congestion and he knew Hornblower would notice it if, of course, the captain’s condition didn’t impede on his normally keen perception.
Rising above the decks, Bush was hit the cold rain, which was falling in larger drops than before, but with a much calmer wind than he remembered. He pulled his uniform closer around him and made his way back to his captain’s side. He didn’t need to look at the men to ensure that they were still working, as having Hornblower’s gaze on them would insure they kept up their best.
The captain was speaking with the third lieutenant, and Bush slowed his approach. He coughed quietly to try and clear his voice for when the captain was ready to address him.
Although he was within hearing distance, Bush tried not to eavesdrop on Hornblower’s conversation, but the thick sniffles which punctuated the younger man’s speech caught his attention. His captain was a man of few words, and quite often his speech seemed consciously restricted, but under the influence of the cold it seemed unnaturally halted.
It took a moment for Bush to realize that the captain needed to sneeze, but was desperately trying to get through the conversation with his subordinate.
Bush looked on with an almost morbid fascination at the flaring of Hornblower’s nostrils, his twitching, furrowed eyebrows and the tightness of his jaw and shoulders which were working stiffly to speak without hitching breath or stuttering.
The officer saluted the captain and took his leave, leaving the commanding officer alone at the deck’s rail as Bush hesitated to approach him. He wanted to give Hornblower a moment to himself to allow him some relief in relative quiet if not privacy.
However, captain Hornblower gave bush a small nod to wave Bush over to where he was by the railing. The first lieutenant approached the other man touching his hat as he did; a move of respect which earned him an appreciative glance. The captain then looked from Bush and back out across the water, bringing a fist to the underside of his nose and tensed further.
Although he had allowed himself the concession of covering his nose with his fist, Hornblower sneezed in almost the exact same way as before; a choked swallowing sound that allowed no air or dignity to escape. Bush could see the lump in the other man’s throat bob and strain against the action, and he cringed.
Guiltily, Bush used his captain’s discomfort to pull an inch or so of handkerchief from his sleeve, bring his arm to his face and attend to his dripping nose. Although he felt sorry for the captain not knowing the relief he had felt in the privacy below decks, he was still tending to the repercussions from the ferocity of his own nose, and he envied his captain’s ability to contain the fallout.
Hornblower cleared his throat noncommittally, and Bush jerked his wrist away from his face, but the other had not noticed the lieutenant’s indulgence.
An apologetic looked flashed behind the captain’s eyes. A struggle, it seemed, between the politeness of begging Bush’s pardon and the position of rank preventing him to beg a lieutenant for anything.
It occurred to Bush that although the captain did not relax in his presence, Hornblower had summoned him over knowing that he would be witness to the display he had had fought to keep from the second lieutenant he had been conversing with earlier. He felt slightly honoured.
He gave an understanding look, hoping he didn’t look too sympathetic as to make his captain defensive or too tired as to give his condition away.
“You summoned me, sir?”
“You left your wadtch just before, to inspect the ben below decks?”
“And you disbissed yourself frob by deck?”
Oh, he was still in that kind of mood. Bush swallowed slowly and difficultly around his aching throat.
“It’s possible. I apologize if I left hastily, sir, I meant no disrespect by it. I wished to inspect the men, perhaps see if any had recovered and could be sent back to their duties, sir.”
“And thad’s your decision tehhh... to bake?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I-”
Hornblower quickly brought a hand to his mouth, but in order to achieve his normal stunted volume he had to pinch his nose between his thumb and forefinger. His body shook, and his head was violently flung forward several times. At a particularly sudden spasm, his free hand gripped the railing at the same time Bush pressed a hand to his captain’s chest for fear that he would topple over and into the water.
When there was enough pause to allow it, Bush could, in their close proximity, hear a barely audible ‘Hih’ proceeding the forceful, silent jerks.
“God bless you, sir.” He contributed once Hornblower had stopped.
The captain gave Bush a look over the top of his hand, sniffling slightly as he did. The lieutenant realized that his hand was still on Hornblower’s chest, resting on top of where the other man’s handkerchief was hidden, and he removed it quickly, flushing with embarrassment as his captain went to fish for the cloth as soon as he was able.
“Dow, Bister Bush. I should be the ud abologizig.” He halted and flushed red when he realized what he sounded like.
Bush looked out across the water as his captain gave his nose a quiet, yet extremely wet sounding blow, not able to bring himself to witness the display, but shifting himself so that he could block the view of his superior officer from any onlookers.
Hornblower cleared his throat in his usual manner, but this time Bush could hear the congestion within it.
“I’m sure it couldn’t be helped, sir.”
“No, not for... that.” He sighed, and Bush looked over to see the tired lines around his captain’s eyes as his sickness weighed on him.
“I know, but the sentiment still stands.”
Hornblower nodded and turned to look back out at the water in silence, handkerchief clasped loosely in his hands. Bush frowned, and tried not to sniff in the companionable quiet that had fallen over the two. He rubbed at his wrist where his own handkerchief lay in wait. He could feel his nose running, and a deep tickle within his sinuses that warning him of what was imminent.
While his nose always gave him fair warning, which he was appreciative of, but it did not seem to have the most optimal of timing. He rubbed a knuckle against the side of his nose to try and appease it.
He knew he couldn’t make a mad dash below decks as he had before, not now that the stressed captain had offered him peace about his previous transgression, so he squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head away from his captain. His breath hitched for a moment as the lieutenant tried to decide whether he could sneeze in front of his captain.
“Hep’Tittchhhoo!” He had pulled his handkerchief out to try and contain the explosion. He did not want to embarrass himself by trying, and inevitably failing, to restrain the sound with the skill his captain possessed.
As always, he was permitted some time to compose and brace himself, but he did not resurface from the cloth as he wasn’t able to meet Hornblower’s eyes.
“Hihh’Atettchhhoo!” he snuffled and massaged his nose, blowing it softly before remerging. “Beg pardon, sir.”
“You are pardoned, Mister Bush.” The captain turned to look the man in the eye, the discomfort that had marred his face had faded. It seemed that the lieutenant’s display had made Hornblower more accepting of his own lapse in strength, however there was a deep compassion in his eyes that was struggling to break through the practiced detachment. “And you are pardoned from the deck, if you’re feeling ill.”
“I appreciate the offer, sir, but I’m fine to keep watch.” At Hornblower’s critical gaze, Bush flushed, “I may have caught cold, but it is not my chief concern.”
“The health of my crew is mine. I believe I have standing orders regarding this matter.”
Bush sniffed and cleared his throat nervously, “A day and a half a-bed, sir. I thought, perhaps, there were exceptions in the case of the higher officers.”
Hornblower gave the lieutenant a look that told Bush that the captain wanted to say something, but was restraining himself in order to allow for some form of explanation.*
Bush knew he had been handed a perfect opportunity, but he would have to tread very carefully. He wanted to clear his throat or rub his nose to give him more time to choose his words, but in this moment, he needed to be as dignified as possible. So he merely took a deep breath and said “The officers need to be there for the men, sir. If they see us going about our duties, ill or not, it will remind them that life goes on as normal. Perhaps it may spur some of them to push through the remnants of their own ailments.”
Hornblower’s eyebrows raised slightly; even with a mind fogged by illness, he could tell Bush’s argument wasn’t wholly sound. Bush remained still, looking at his captain mildly, trying to ignore the heavy wetness in his nose for the time being. It was only when Hornblower relaxed slightly that Bush pulled out his trump card. “After all, if the Captain’s first duty is to his crew, then the first officer’s duty should be as well.”
Ill or not, Hornblower picked up on Bush’s implication well enough. His jaw moved in such a way that it seemed likely that he was resisting the urge to snap at Bush again. He lifted the hand holding his handkerchief and started to bring it to his face, only to think better of it and consider it carefully. Then he exhaled in a way that might have been a sigh. “Very well, Mr. Bush. You may remain on duty if you wish. But…if you should feel too weak, take yourself off to bed immediately. That’s an order.”
Bush pulled his handkerchief from his sleeve and tended to his nose, primarily to hide a smile. He knew that his captain had just entered into a pact of sorts, that his words applied to himself as well as to his first officer. It was a step in the right direction, at least. Bush might not be as adept at strategic games as his captain, but he was sure he could bring this out to his favor. He just had to bide his time. “Thank you, sir,” he said, tucking the handkerchief away and saluting, “You have my word I will do so.”
“Good,” Hornblower said brusquely, turning back to the deck, “You may return to your duties, Mr. Bush.” Bush nodded and withdrew, not wishing to push his luck.
Even with a skeleton crew, two-thirds of which were still battling with this cold in one form or another, the ship performed admirably enough for the rest of the day. For Mr. Bush’s part, he endeavored to keep his illness, if not hidden from the men, then at least relatively under control. He allowed himself to sniff and rub at his nose, and even to cough on occasion, but he would always find a place to sneeze in private when the need arose. In between tending to himself and keeping tabs on the ship and her crew, he also made sure to discreetly look in on Hornblower every hour or so. The captain remained where he was, looking over the crew, perhaps ducking inside once or twice to make a note in the logbook. Unlike Bush, he was unwilling to show any weakness if he could help it, and thus found reasons to turn away or look out to sea, even if it was for something as simple as a sniff. Bush noticed that Hornblower was now pinching his nose as a matter of course, though the sneezes remained as silent as ever. His devotion to duty and appearances were admirable, but there was a limit to such things.
Bush was about to leave his watch when a crewman approached him, voice hoarse from coughing but clearly on the mend. “Captain’s compliments, Mr. Bush, and he requests that you join him for dinner. He wishes to discuss ship matters with you.”
That piqued Bush’s interest. Was Hornblower doing this to keep appearances, or was it an acknowledgement of sorts? Then again, perhaps he really did wish to discuss ship matters. Bush coughed quickly and said “You may tell the captain that I will be delighted. I’ll join him presently.”
He quickly ducked into his “cabin” to tend to his nose and make sure he looked relatively presentable. Ill or not, he would make sure his uniform was in good condition. Once he was satisfied, he tucked a clean handkerchief into his sleeve and made his way to Hornblower’s cabin.
Even through the solid oak door, Bush could hear the congestion lurking in Hornblower’s voice as he bid his officer to come in. Bush composed himself as he pushed the door open; he would sit back and let the captain direct proceedings.
Hornblower was sitting at his dining table, a simple meal of bread and poultry already laid out. “So glad you could join me, Mr. Bush,” Hornblower said, giving him a smile that was only a little strained, “Please, sit down.”
Bush obeyed, nodding at Polwheal, Hornblower’s steward, as the man came in with two cups of steaming liquid. “Forgive the lack of wine,” Hornblower said, “I believe it is best to save it in celebration for when the crew is back on its feet.”
“Understandable,” Bush said with a nod, “This will do nicely, thank you.” He took a sip, expecting it to be tea, but blinked with some surprise at the taste of alcohol. “Sir, forgive me, but I thought you said…”
Hornblower was holding papers up to his face, apparently squinting at them, but the sudden blocked quality to his voice suggested the real reason for it. “A hot toddy, Mr. Bush. If you won’t take bedrest, the least you can do is to keep warm and try to drive out the cold that way.”
“I appreciate it, sir,” Bush said, taking another sip and letting himself appreciate the taste, “Will you have one with me? A man does hate to drink alone.”
Hornblower’s shoulders had tensed with the suggestion, but relaxed when Bush explained. “Coffee will do for me. I am rationing the alcohol, after all.” Bush couldn’t help but note, however, that the liquid in Hornblower’s mug looked to be the same golden shade as his own toddy, and he busied himself with his utensils quickly.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Bush?” Hornblower said, once Polwheal had served the meal and gone, “I don’t need you making yourself any worse.”
“If I’m perfectly honest, Captain, my body feels run-down, and my nose is rather troublesome. But it’s nothing I can’t handle.” Bush replied.
Hornblower nodded, putting the napkin to his lips unnecessarily, cloth conveniently covering his nose. “Do remember my orders, Mr. Bush.”
“Aye, sir.” Bush agreed, unable to read Hornblower’s tone or expression but content that things were going as planned.
For a while, the meal was like any other, save for the discussion of the illness sweeping the ship and what to do about it, both Hornblower and Bush pointedly avoiding discussing the state of the officers. Then Bush felt a familiar sensation in the back of his nose, and pulled out his handkerchief. “My apologies, sir, but…” He gestured helplessly with the cloth before putting it to his nose in preparation.
In front of the men, Bush refused to sneeze. Here, however, in the privacy of Hornblower’s cabin, and with a point to make, he allowed them free rein, though he muffled them slightly for politeness’ sake. “Hihht’Ktchhhoo! Hip’kshhooo!”
“God bless you, Mr. Bush.” Hornblower said almost dismissively, as though it was common for his Lieutenant to sneeze like that. Bush murmured his thanks and set the handkerchief on the table for easy access. While it wasn’t the ideal response, it wasn’t a setback, either. All he could do was wait.
And then, five minutes later, Hornblower paused mid-word, hand diving down below the table. Bush had kept track of Hornblower’s regular rubs at his nose and sniffs timed with the clatter of cutlery. He wasn’t sure if the captain had retreated into modesty or if he thought this fit would be particularly long. Either way, it seemed that the sneezes would no longer be denied. Bush busied himself with a slice of bread, allowing Hornblower a little privacy. He waited for the usual swallowing noise, but was surprised when he heard small, slightly strangled sounds instead.
“…Nxt! …Mmp! …Knnk!”
Bush risked a glance at Hornblower and saw that he was pinching his nose firmly, yet the sneezes were emerging anyway. Perhaps the cold was weakening his strength, or the sneezes were becoming more powerful. Whatever the reason, it finally stopped after a fit of ten. Bush opened his mouth to bless him, then thought better of it. Instead, he raised his mug in Hornblower’s direction. “Good health, sir.”
Hornblower’s cheeks were more flushed than they’d been a few minutes ago, but he managed a smile and raised his own mug. “And yours, Mr. Bush.”
The dinner broke up shortly thereafter, Hornblower citing reports as a reason to forego further conversation or a game of cards. Despite his exhaustion and sore throat, Bush couldn’t help but feel pleased. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to admit it to himself, but Hornblower’s resolve was weakening. One way or another, Bush would see the captain got the rest he needed; it would merely help if he got the man’s cooperation.
Bush woke up the next morning, feeling as though someone had blocked his nose with damp rags. Shivering, he reluctantly got to his feet and took stock of the situation. The pain in his throat was gone, at least, though there was a tickle in the back of his throat that suggested that he would still be subjected to the occasional coughing fit. There was clearly a fever, although at least it allowed him to stand. And as for his sneezing…
He quickly brought a handkerchief to his face, given only a few seconds of warning this time. “Hup’Krchhhooo!” A pause, a sniff, and then…“Hit’Egschooo!”
The sneezes were harsher and wetter than the previous days, thoroughly dampening the handkerchief. While Bush was sure he’d be able to perform his duties, the day and a half of bed rest looked incredibly tempting. But he had other responsibilities to attend to. Getting dressed (not as difficult as it seemed, since he’d gone to bed mostly dressed to conserve warmth), he made his way onto the deck.
Hornblower was in the same spot as he’d been yesterday, as stiff as ever. But up close, he looked dreadful, with dark shadows under his eyes, a painfully pale face, and a very distinctive pink tinge to his nose. Bush made no mention of it, instead touching his hat in a salute. “Good morning, sir,” he rasped, “I’ve come to take my morning watch.”
Hornblower nodded, then glanced over Bush’s shoulder. Apparently satisfied by what he saw, he looked back at Bush. “If I may see you in my cabin, Mr. Bush?”
Bush obligingly followed a few steps behind the captain, a little more alert than he’d been a few minutes ago. As soon as the door to the cabin closed, Hornblower all but collapsed into his chair, his stiffness replaced with obvious exhaustion. “Mr. Bush, I…” he paused, cleared his throat, and tried again. “I was studying the charts last night, Mr. Bush, and I discovered a small bay, surrounded on three sides by mountains.” He pulled out a map and tapped a certain spot. “Just there.”
Bush squinted at it. “I see it, sir.”
“I believe we would be well-concealed there, in order to gather fresh water and to make minor repairs to the ship. I estimate we could remain there for three or four days.”
Bush smiled slightly. “I believe you’re right, sir. Shall I order the course set?”
“Yes, Mr. Bush. And…” Hornblower paused again. When he continued, Bush could hear the reluctance and relief mixing in his voice. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, would you be willing to command the men for the first hour or so? Somehow the Admiralty paperwork has crept up on me, and I need to sort it out. I shall, of course, take your place shortly thereafter.”
“Of course, sir,” Bush said, “But if I could ask a favor in return?”
Hornblower nodded. Bush continued, “Once we have arrived in the bay, may I have that promised time of rest? I am still fit to lead the men for now, but who knows what the afternoon may bring?”
“Granted, Mr. Bush,” Hornblower said with a faint smile, “And I wish you a…a…”
Bush waited for Hornblower to pinch his nose, but was surprised to see him merely draw out a handkerchief and clap it to his face. “Heh-atshh!”
Hornblower lowered the cloth and shot Bush a quick glare before saying, “Dismissed, Mr. Bush. Tell me when the bay has been sighted.” Bush quickly saluted and made his way outside. As soon as he was safely out of earshot, he allowed himself a hoarse chuckle. Perhaps it would take longer than was preferable, but Hornblower would be safely resting in bed by the evening, pride relatively intact. Perhaps then he would allow himself to relax. Giving his nose a quick rub, Bush turned to give the new orders. The sooner they reached the bay, the sooner he could get some rest himself.