“Well, then, Lieutenant,” Archie Kennedy said, clapping his hand on his friend’s shoulder, “What do you intend to do with yourself? Strut about the decks, showing off your new finery? Take tea with the Captain, since you’re now among the ranks of the privileged? Or maybe just give us all a few orders, to see how fast we jump to it?”
“Oh, stop it, Archie,” Horatio Hornblower said, blushing, “You know I would never abuse my station.”
“I know,” Archie grinned, “But it’s a friend’s job to tease. Honestly, I’m happy for you. I can only hope my own rise to Lieutenant is accomplished half as quickly.”
“And with half as much anxiety.” Horatio responded, thinking back to the fireship that had simultaneously delayed and guaranteed his promotion. He wouldn’t wish such a thing on anyone. And Archie had been through enough already; he didn’t need stress like that.
“True enough,” Archie laughed, “Now then, tell me honestly. Have you been asked to dine at the Captain’s table in celebration? If not, I and the other Midshipmen would be glad to have you with us for one last dinner and round of drinks. We’ll even let you have the best cuts of meat.”
Horatio smiled. “I’d be honored. I have no particular plans this evening; Captain Pellew seemed rather preoccupied by news he received from the Admiralty, so I doubt he will be in a mood to have dinner guests.”
“Excellent!” Archie said, “I’ll tell the others and let you get up on deck. Wouldn’t want to keep a new officer from his duties, after all.” With a wink, he waved Horatio off and disappeared. Horatio allowed himself a chuckle as he made his way above decks. Despite his preference for solitude, he had to admit that a little bit of Archie’s enthusiasm never went amiss. No doubt there would be more teasing over dinner tonight, but that was par for the course where Archie was concerned, and if nothing else, it was something Horatio had to learn to take with good grace. He’d be glad for the learning experience.
Once on deck, he started to make his rounds, falling back into the familiar routine. Promotion or not, life on a ship followed a familiar rhythm. The only difference now was that Horatio had a few more men to oversee.
“That knot there looks a little loose, Briggs,” he called out to a crewman who was rolling coils of rope, pointing to the knot in question, “When you’re done there, you might want to check…”
He trailed off as an itch sprang up in his nose. Trying to rub it away did no good, so Horatio withdrew his handkerchief from his jacket pocket and held it to his face. “Kishh!”
“Bless you, Lieutenant!” Briggs called, a bit of a chuckle in his voice, “I’ll check the lines as soon as I’m done with this rope.”
Blushing a bit at the involuntary interruption, Horatio answered “Carry on.” and continued with his rounds. Everything else appeared to be in fine working order, happily, and Horatio couldn’t stop himself from smiling. The Indefatigable really was a fine ship. He’d honestly be sad to leave it, though should he continue to rise through the ranks, a transfer was inevitable. Best to enjoy this while he could.
As he passed the quarterdeck, Lieutenant Bracegirdle appeared at the railing, doing his own inspection of the deck. When he saw Horatio, he lifted a hand in greeting. Horatio touched his knuckle to his forehead in response, and was just lowering his hand when the tickle in his nose returned, and he had to pull out his handkerchief again. “Tichh!”
“Bless you, Mr. Hornblower,” Bracegirdle called down, “That better not be the start of a cold, young sir. You’ve got a new jacket to keep you warm, after all.”
“No, sir,” Horatio assured him, “I feel perfectly fine.”
“Good, good,” Bracegirdle said, before turning away, “We’ll need our men with clear heads in the days ahead.” A bit puzzled by Bracegirdle’s choice of words, but assuming it had something to do with the Indy’s new orders, Horatio shrugged and continued his watch.
When the watch rang six bells and Horatio was relieved, he immediately made his way down below, hoping to tidy up a bit before dinner. As he opened the door to the wardroom, he saw Archie bent over the basin, splashing water on his face. “Ah, you’re off duty. Excellent,” he said, raising his head at the sound of the door and spotting Horatio, “We’ve still got a few minutes before everything’s ready, so at least we’ll be able to pass the time.”
“You haven’t gone overboard, have you?” Horatio asked, taking Archie’s place at the water basin, “I’m not going to find out that someone sacrificed the sugar they were saving to have the cook make me something sweet, am I?”
Archie chuckled. “No. We know you well enough to know you’d feel uncomfortable. They’re just wheedling the cook for a little extra alcohol, that’s all.”
Satisfied with that, Horatio bent to splash water on his face. As he groped for a washcloth, his nose tickled again, and the washcloth had to double as a makeshift handkerchief. “Igshh!”
“Bless you,” Archie said sympathetically, “I hate it when I get water up my nose. Either you’re sneezing it out for ages or your nose just burns. Well, better out than in, after all.”
Horatio nodded, though he didn’t remember any water going up his nose. Maybe it was a reaction to the cold water more than anything. Accepting that answer, he continued tidying up, neither he nor Archie making any comment when he sneezed three more times in the course of combing his hair. “Ready?” Archie asked, once Horatio had redone his queue.
“Lead the way.” Horatio answered, smiling.
Archie led him down to the midshipman’s dining area, pushing the curtain aside to allow Horatio through first. Upon seeing him, the midshipman gave him three cheers, and though Horatio could feel himself blushing, his smile was genuine as he thanked them and sat down at the head of the table. Archie immediately took charge, pouring drinks from an entire bottle of wine (the cook must have been in an exceedingly good mood) and keeping the conversation light as everyone filled their plates. Only when everyone had been served did Archie sit down and raise his glass in Horatio’s direction. “To Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower. May he not let the power get to his head, and may we all attain the same rank with similar alacrity.”
“Here here!” the midshipmen chorused. Horatio smiled slightly and raised his glass in response, but had to set it down before drinking. “Hishh!”
He received a smattering of blessings, and he had the wit to respond with “I believe I already have been.” before finally taking a drink. The group settled down to eat, mixing reminisces of some of Horatio’s earlier escapades with gentle teasing and questions of his plans. Horatio answered their questions as best as he was able, partly because he didn’t fully know himself and partly because every few minutes, he needed to break off from the conversation and sneeze. He wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it, honestly; the sneezes came on him with barely any warning other than a short tickle, but they vanished as quickly as they came, and there were no other symptoms that generally accompanied a cold or a hayfever attack. It was a little troubling, but as long as he was able to go about his business, he wouldn’t pay it any mind.
Unfortunately, his dinner companions didn’t have the same opinion. As he lifted his head from his tenth sneeze, he saw all of them looking at him with a mixture of amusement and concern. “What is it?” he asked, feeling his self-consciousness return at their scrutiny.
“Horatio…” Archie said, “Be honest now. Are you feeling all right?”
“Of course I am,” Horatio answered, a bit indignant, “I would have regretfully declined your invitation to dinner if I wasn’t feeling well. You know I do my utmost not to cause anybody to fall ill because of me.”
“Yes…” Archie said hesitantly, “But you’ve also been known to…well, keep up a façade of wellness for as long as possible. And given that you’ve just been promoted, it’s only natural that you’d want to make a good showing of it.”
“I assure you, I’m fine. I won’t deny that I’m sneezing a fair bit, which I have no explanation for, but other than that, nothing’s the matter with me.”
“You’ve said that before,” Archie said, “And three days later, someone has to order you to bed before you make things worse.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Archie,” Horatio said, glaring at his friend, “I'll admit I’ve underestimated my strength when ill on occasion, but it doesn’t happen on a regular basis, as you seem to suggest.”
“Let’s see…” Archie said, starting to tap his fingers, “There was that time shortly after we signed on to the Indefatigable where the doctor had to reduce your watch hours…the fact that you were obviously ill after returning from the Marie-Galante trip but insisted on going on the Papillon raid…”
“He probably would have worked himself up to a cold after the fireship incident if the captain hadn’t suggested he spend a day abed.” Midshipman Summers piped up.
“And of course, the El Ferrol incident,” Archie said, before looking pointedly at Horatio, “And that’s just off the top of our heads. I’m sure we could come up with a few more if we really thought about it.”
Horatio involuntarily sank down in his seat, his cheeks positively burning. He knew he had a tendency to push himself if he thought he was well enough to work, but if it had been obvious enough that his fellow midshipmen had started detecting a pattern, he must have been making quite a spectacle of himself. “The service comes before my health…” he said faintly.
Archie shook his head, giving Horatio a half-teasing, half-understanding smile. “I know, Horatio, I know. But keep in mind, it’s not good for the service if the men within it overdo it. That’s the one lesson you can’t fully seem to wrap your head around.”
Horatio sighed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Starting now,” Archie said, “Do you swear that you’re not hiding an illness?”
“I swear it,” Horatio said, putting one hand to his heart and raising the other to the air, “I feel fi…ishh!”
Archie folded his arms. “Well then, if you mean it, then you won’t mind going to the doctor to confirm it.”
Horatio opened his mouth to protest, but realized that that would only make their suspicions rise. So he nodded and rose to his feet. “If that’s what it will take to convince you, then yes. I’ll go at once. But I don’t want all of you trailing after me. No need to cause a scene.”
“Fair enough,” Archie said, also standing up, “I’ll go with you, though. Just to make sure you follow through.” Accepting that concession, Horatio left the table, Archie on his heels.
Doctor Cornell’s reaction to Horatio’s appearance was not particularly comforting. “Ah, Mr. Hornblower. What’s wrong with you this time?”
“Nothing,” Horatio said, “Except that I’ve been sneezing on and off all day, for no apparent reason. I have no other symptoms otherwise, but Mr. Kennedy and the midshipmen wanted you to confirm as such.”
Cornell quirked an eyebrow skeptically, but gestured for Horatio to sit. “Well, let’s have a look, then.”
He ran the usual cursory examination; checking Horatio’s forehead for fever, touching his throat, listening to his breathing. Finally, puzzled, he stepped away. “You appear to be correct, Mr. Hornblower. I can’t see any sign of illness.”
Horatio glanced sideways at Archie, who shrugged. “Thank you for confirming that, Doctor.”
“Hold on there, we aren’t finished just yet. We need to determine the cause of your sneezing. For all we know, it could be prefacing an illness. Take off your coat and roll up your sleeves so I can look over your arms.”
As Horatio reluctantly started to unbutton his coat, his nose, which had been behaving itself up to that point, prickled again, and he had to turn his head away. “Tishh!”
“Hold on,” Cornell said, tilting his head to the side, “Drop your hands and sit still for a moment.”
Baffled, Horatio did as he was told, Cornell watching him intently the whole time. Just as Horatio was starting to shift uncomfortably, Cornell broke the silence. “Have you felt the urge to sneeze at any point since I told you to sit still?”
Horatio shook his head. “All right then,” Cornell continued, “Start unbuttoning your jacket again.”
Horatio did so, and seconds later, felt the urge to sneeze. “Igshew!”
“Bless you,” Cornell said, satisfaction in his voice, “If you’ll allow me…”
He stepped forward, pinched the fabric of Horatio’s coat between his fingers, and rubbed for a few seconds. Then he lifted his fingers to his face and sniffed. “As I thought. I am, of course, very aware of your recent promotion, Mr. Hornblower. Tell me, you wore your new uniform right out of the shop, correct?”
“Of course,” Horatio said, “It’s expected. Isn’t it?”
“Naturally,” Cornell said with a reassuring smile, “But think back. Just before you left, or perhaps while you were examining yourself in the mirror, did the tailor brush something over you, or spray something on you?”
“He did run a brush over my shoulders,” Horatio acknowledged, “but I thought that was just to get rid of any dust or stray threads.”
“Oh, that was certainly the intent. But I’ve known a few tailors who like to spray a little scent on the brush, to allow the garment to smell pleasant for a little longer. In this case, it appears to be a lavender based scent.”
“I…do have a certain sensitivity to lavender,” Horatio admitted, “But I never caught a hint of the scent before I needed to sneeze.”
“I believe the spray the tailor used was light enough to keep from being obvious from a distance. However, if you were to put your nose directly to the fabric, which I certainly wouldn’t recommend in this case, you’d probably pick up on it. Your sensitivity was enough that it detected the lavender without the scent, if that makes any sense.”
“I believe so,” Horatio said, “What can I do about it?”
“Take the jacket off and give it a good scrubbing. Once it’s dried, you shouldn’t have any more trouble.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Horatio said, getting to his feet, “I’ll make sure to do that at once.”
“Good,” Cornell said, waiting until Horatio and Archie were almost out the door before adding, “And Mr. Hornblower? Thank you for addressing the problem immediately for once.”
Horatio just coughed and touched his forehead, sneezing as soon as he’d closed the door behind him. “Hiptshh!”
“Bless you,” Archie said, “Well, it’s good to know that it’s not something serious.”
“Agreed,” Horatio said, “And I’ll be sure to wash my jacket this evening. In the meantime, I’ll remove it to prevent any further interruptions during dinner.”
“By all means,” Archie said, “But if you don’t mind, let me be the one to wash it. After pestering you about going to the doctor and not believing you when you said you felt well, it seems the least I can do.”
Horatio smiled. “If you feel it’s necessary, Archie, I will surrender the coat to you.”
To prove his point, he held his breath and quickly removed his coat once they’d descended the stairs, passing it over to Archie. His nose did prickle a bit once he breathed in again, but thankfully nothing more came of it. Archie took the coat and gestured towards the midshipman’s berth. “After you, Lieutenant. Let’s see if we can continue our celebrations properly.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Kennedy.” Horatio responded.
“Oh, stop it,” Archie protested, “I’m acting-lieutenant, nothing more.”
Horatio shook his head and laid his hand lightly on Archie’s shoulder. “Based on what I’ve seen, you’re halfway there already.”
Then he pushed through the curtain, leaving Archie standing there, startled. Well, being a Lieutenant did mean changing his ways a little, after all.