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Out of Sight

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Aside from Frenchmen, boredom is the bane of a sailor’s life. Once you were used to the routine at sea, you quickly started looking for ways to pass the time when off-duty. Some wrote letters home, others read books, still others played cards. Archie Kennedy, on the other hand, solved puzzles. On the Justinian, unfortunately, that had meant trying to find places to hide from one Mr. Simpson. Now that he was away from his nemesis, however, he could turn his attention to more pleasant matters; namely, trying to figure out his new friend, Horatio Hornblower.

And Horatio was quite the odd one indeed. Even after escaping from Simpson, he was almost painfully shy. He participated in conversations, to be sure, but mainly to ask questions or murmur acknowledgements. But he very rarely started a conversation that wasn’t a question about life at sea, instead hanging back and watching quietly while the other midshipman joked among themselves. Archie tried to rope him into these conversations as often as possible, hoping that time would loosen him up a bit.

In general, though, it seemed that Horatio was a very private person. Most of his free time was spent reading or practicing some nautical task like tying knots. After two months of observing and mulling it all over, Archie concluded that Horatio was the sort of man who hated to let anyone down, someone who didn’t want to be seen as a burden or a bother. While admirable in one respect, it was definitely an attitude that needed to be moderated, and Archie decided his next project would be to try to draw Horatio out of his shell, at least slightly.

Then a mild head cold went round the ship, and Archie suddenly was confronted with a new aspect of Horatio’s personality; he was apparently a magician. He took a little longer to recover from it than the rest of the crew, who had been toughened up by life at sea, and took about two weeks to the rest of the crew’s one. Of course, the fact that he insisted on going about his duties as though nothing was wrong might have contributed to that; Captain Pellew finally had to order him to the doctor just so Cornell could make an official demand that Horatio’s watch hours would be reduced. Archie just shook his head affectionately at that and tried to convince Horatio to stay in bed when he was off-duty. After all his observation, Horatio’s devotion to duty wasn’t surprising.

What was surprising was Horatio’s ability to pull a handkerchief seemingly out of thin air. Archie knew from watching Horatio get dressed in the morning that he kept three handkerchiefs on his person (in his pocket, tucked into his sleeve, and one somewhere in his vest), but due to the sea air and some rather wet sneezes, they were rendered damp fairly quickly. Yet somehow, whenever Archie saw him sneeze, he always had a handkerchief at the ready. It was highly unlikely that he was abandoning his post to go below and get a fresh handkerchief, and equally unlikely that he was borrowing handkerchiefs from other crewmen. He’d yet to ask Archie to lend him one, so why ask one of the officers who he didn’t know very well? It was an interesting puzzle, and one that Archie was bound and determined to suss out.

To that end, he started watching Horatio carefully. Not to the extent of following him around the ship—there were limits—but enough that he could try to pinpoint Horatio’s handkerchief source. But from what he could tell, Horatio wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. While there were a lot of wet sniffs and rubs at his nose in an attempt to keep the sneezes at bay, it wasn’t as if he was diving down below the moment his breath started hitching. And his interactions with anyone who talked to him were perfectly normal, although he did turn red whenever anyone inquired about his health. Archie was baffled, but not about to give up.

It was an offhand comment from Mr. Eccleston that finally threw some light on the matter. He and a few of the other officers, including Archie, were sitting in the wardroom discussing ship’s matters when one of the junior lieutenants mentioned the crew’s eagerness to see some action. Eccleston chuckled and shook his head. “Not as eager as Mr. Hornblower, I’d imagine. I’ve never seen anyone so devoted to duty, illness be damned. I’m not sure if it’s patriotism or a desire for battle that’s got him avoiding bedrest.” Archie, not wanting to embarrass his friend, just smiled non-commitally while the others laughed. Eccleston continued, “It’s as if he wants everything to go perfectly. I’ve even seen him poking his nose into the storerooms to make sure everything is in order there. I have a feeling he’ll be able to recite the inventory from memory when we next encounter a supply ship.”

With that, the missing puzzle piece slotted into place in Archie’s head. “That clever devil!” he said softly, fortunately soft enough that no one else heard him. Making his excuses, he left the wardroom, looking forward to his evening watch.

When the watch finally came, Archie did two full circuits of the deck, then, when no one was looking, quickly ducked into a storeroom. This particular room held the telescopes and sextants when they weren’t in use, the sextants each given their own case and, in some cases, labeled with the initials of the owner. The case with “H.H.” scratched into it was resting nearest the door, and with only a twinge of guilt, Archie cracked it open. Sure enough, a white cloth, neatly folded, was tucked into the empty side of the case, positioned just where the glass eyepiece met the wood. In other circumstances, it could have been passed off as a protective measure, but the fact that it looked freshly washed and that one corner of the cloth clearly bore traces of being embroidered revealed the truth of the matter. Archie smiled affectionately, returned the case to its position, and went back to his watch.

Throughout the course of his watch, he slipped into the various storerooms and had a quick look around, finding what he was looking for in fairly short order. Horatio was nothing if not ingenious; there were handkerchiefs hidden under belay pins, wrapped around the hilt of a sword, even hiding in the center of a coil of rope. They were all protected from the elements by small cloth bags that were crudely made, suggesting that Horatio had made them himself. Was this how he was spending his time off-duty? It made sense that he’d want to be prepared for every eventuality, but Archie was surprised that he’d extend it to such minor details.

His curiosity satisfied, Archie returned to his watch, planning to just add it to his observations about Horatio and otherwise forget about it. Most of those handkerchiefs would probably return to Horatio’s trunk once he was fully recovered, anyway. But then he actually took a moment to think about what it all meant. Even if he was a doctor’s son, it seemed highly unlikely that Horatio had brought all that many handkerchiefs with him. Which meant, if he wanted to have one ready at all times, he needed to wash, dry, and replace those handkerchiefs after every use. He went to all that trouble to keep from inconveniencing everyone else, while also keeping up an air of politeness. And even that was a form of avoiding inconvenience, because every sneeze into a handkerchief limited passing his illness on to someone else. Archie felt a wave of sympathy pass over him; Horatio was trying so very hard not to offend anyone, and no one would even know what he was doing! Well, except for Archie himself. Which is when the idea occurred to him.

The next night, when he was sure Horatio was asleep, he dug his spare handkerchiefs out of his trunk. Then he returned to the storerooms and slipped one of his handkerchiefs into each of Horatio’s hiding places, the handkerchiefs turned so that the K on each cloth was clearly visible. He also left a note with the one he left in the sextant;

“In recognition of your efforts in maintaining the health of the service. I only ever needed two or three handkerchiefs anyway.”

***

Horatio never said anything to Archie about the four new handkerchiefs he’d acquired, not that Archie had expected him to. He didn’t even blush when he made eye-contact with Archie the next day, which was a surprising but positive development. The illness finally went its course, the handkerchiefs disappeared from their hiding places (although Archie suspected the ones in the sextant case remained where they were), and he basically put things out of his mind. There was a war on, after all.

About a year later, however, after returning from El Ferrol and readjusting to the life of a sailor, Archie contracted a head cold that was basically one step removed from influenza. Cornell took one look at him and ordered him taken off duty until he could stand up without wobbling. Feeling embarrassingly like a burden, Archie did as he was told.

He was dozing in his hammock when someone knocked at the door. Faintly croaking out a greeting, he smiled a little when he saw Horatio in the doorway, carrying a tray. “Come to look in on the invalid?”

“Looking in on a friend,” Horatio corrected, setting the tray within Archie’s reach, “I’ve brought water, a little broth, and some spare handkerchiefs. I could hear you coughing through the walls last night and thought you might need them.”

“Thank you, Horatio.” Archie said, reaching for one of the handkerchiefs to dab at his nose. As he unfolded the cloth, his eyes caught sight of the green embroidered K at the edge, and all the memories came rushing back. He glanced over at Horatio, who had the faintest of smiles playing around his lips.

“Keep them, if you need them. In recognition of everything you’ve done for me. I only need six or seven handkerchiefs anyway.”

Archie’s laugh was raspy but genuine, and Horatio’s eyes sparkled briefly as he got to his feet. “Best wishes for a speedy recovery, Mr. Kennedy.”