Horatio knew what he should have been feeling. After all, he’d been cleared of the accusation of mutiny, declared a hero for his actions against the Spanish fort, and been promoted to commander. There were so many emotions that would have been appropriate for the situation—relief, pride, embarrassment, nervousness. It even would have made sense if he felt guilt over what had occurred to get him to this point.
Yes, he knew what he should be feeling. But as he sat beside a prison hospital bed that had been occupied just an hour ago, fingers blindly tracing the corners of his new orders, he wasn’t feeling anything at all.
“Commander?” Lieutenant Bush stepped onto the quarterdeck and touched his forehead. “The wind’s picking up. Did you want us to make any changes to the sails, sir?” He was honestly a little surprised that Hornblower hadn’t already given an order; based on his experience with the man, Hornblower should have been suggesting they move to full sail the minute he felt the breeze on his face. Perhaps he was just overwhelmed with all the minutiae that came with command.
That certainly seemed to be the case, as Hornblower hadn’t even acknowledged Bush’s presence, instead staring out to sea with his hands clenched tightly behind his back. Bush looked out as well, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. There wasn’t even a cloud in the sky. Tentatively, he moved to stand beside Hornblower. “Commander?”
Hornblower blinked a few times, then shook his head and finally looked in Bush’s direction. “My apologies, Mr. Bush. My mind was elsewhere. What is it?”
Bush gestured up at the sails. “Did you want us to unfurl the sails further to take advantage of the breeze, sir?”
“Oh…” Hornblower looked around, then nodded. “Yes, that would probably be the best course of action. Give the order for full sail, if you would, Mr. Bush.”
“Aye, sir,” Bush said, before cupping his hands over his mouth to give the orders, “Full sail! All men to the topsails!”
“Thank you, Mr. Bush,” Hornblower said, turning away from the sea to gaze out over the ship, “If it hadn’t been for you, we might have lost the breeze.”
There was a hint of a smile on his face, but his eyes and voice lacked any humor. Bush hesitated, uncertain if he should remark on it. After all they’d been through, he wasn’t sure how well received it would be if he publicly questioned his commanding officer.
“Is there anything else, Mr. Bush?” Hornblower said.
Bush exhaled and decided to take the risk. “Nothing regarding the ship, sir. But…is there anything I can do for you?”
Hornblower seemed surprised by the question. “Not that I can think of, Mr. Bush. Why do you ask?”
“Well…” Bush braced himself, “Pardon me for saying so, but you seem a little…out of sorts. You’re performing your duties admirably, but you wind up lost in thought more often than not.”
“I suppose there’s truth in that.” Hornblower said, though it was said so quietly that Bush thought he’d meant to say it to himself. Clearing his throat, Hornblower looked at Bush with what was meant to be a reassuring smile, but almost came across as a wince instead. “I appreciate your concern, Mr. Bush, but I’m fine. I believe I’m still settling into my role as Commander. I’m sure all will be well in a week or so.”
“Aye, sir,” Bush said, touching his forehead again, “But the offer still stands. Should you want anything, be it advice or someone to just listen, I would be happy to provide it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Bush. I’ll take that under advisement.” Hornblower turned away, and Bush knew he had been dismissed. He returned below, though he couldn’t stop himself from glancing over his shoulder as he did so. While it was incredibly unlikely that Hornblower would open up about what was troubling him, he hoped the man would be able to sort it out soon.
Horatio sat at his desk, pen held over the logbook. There wasn’t much to report today—merely a few changes in course—but it was taking a tremendous effort to recall exactly when he’d ordered those changes, much less what changes had been made. By the time it came back to him, he realized that the pen had dripped, leaving a large blotch of ink that would almost certainly have bled through a few pages. Horatio set down the pen and tried to blot the worst of it away, his mind too fogged to even swear.
Somehow, it was that, rather than his forgetfulness and inattention, that made him take stock of himself. This…torpor that he’d found himself in ever since the end of the trial had gone on for far too long. Any shock at the events should have worn off long ago. But here it was, nearly a month later, and the feeling (or rather, lack of it) remained. Yes, he’d been able to outfit the Retribution and make her ready for the trip back to England, but most of it had been done by rote. That wasn’t to say that he didn’t care about his command and the men under him, but something just felt different. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he knew he needed to get to the bottom of it, and soon. Everything had been going relatively smoothly up to now, but what would happen if they encountered a storm, or an enemy ship? He refused to lose anybody thanks to some personal failing.
Having removed as much ink from the page as he could, Horatio managed to scribble down the proper information, then closed the logbook and got to his feet. There was nothing else requiring his attention at the moment, and while he could have rung for some tea or coffee, he decided to prepare for bed instead. Hot drinks hadn’t been able to chase away this feeling, so there was no reason to think they would do so now. Perhaps a good night’s sleep would help. If nothing else, it might give him a little more energy, which he could use to figure out what was happening to him. Should that fail…perhaps he would take Lieutenant Bush up on the offer he’d made two days ago. Or was it three? No matter. He wouldn’t involve Bush unless he felt it was absolutely necessary. This was his problem, and he felt honor-bound to sort it out alone.
Horatio changed into his nightshirt and climbed into bed, trying to will his mind to go blank so he could fall asleep more easily. It wasn’t as difficult as he expected.
Bush had been faintly concerned for Hornblower ever since their encounter on the quarterdeck, but when he emerged at eight bells in the morning and didn’t see Hornblower on deck, that concern blossomed into outright worry. Crossing over to the captain’s cabin, he rapped sharply on the door. “Commander? Sir? Are you all right?”
There was no response. Heart hammering in his ribs, Bush knocked again, a little more forcefully. “Sir?”
This time, he pressed his ear to the door, listening for any noise on the other side. Even through the thick oak door, he was able to hear a groan. Just as Bush was about to throw the door open and rush inside, the groan was replaced with a sharp, wet, cough. Bush immediately stepped away from the door, both embarrassed and relieved. Of course. He shouldn’t have been so concerned. There was only one reason Hornblower wouldn’t be on deck when he was supposed to be. It would also explain his behavior over the past few days. Dangerous situations might not be able to throw Hornblower from his stride, but illness was another matter entirely.
Bush knocked on the door once more. “Sir, it’s Lieutenant Bush. May I come in?”
“Yes.” Hornblower answered, his voice hoarse. Bush immediately pushed the door opened and slipped inside, shutting the door behind him before taking stock of the situation. Hornblower was still in bed, though he was obviously struggling to sit up. Despite the dim light in the cabin, Bush could make out a sheen of sweat on Hornblower’s face. It would have been quite the unobservant crewman indeed who would fail to notice that their leader wasn’t well.
To that end, Bush didn’t even bother with pleasantries. “You’re ill, sir.”
“I am indeed,” Hornblower said, though the words held no bite, just exhaustion, “It seems to have come on in the middle of the night.”
“It’s been known to happen,” Bush said, deciding not to mention Hornblower’s behavior over the last few days, “The only question is, what do you intend to do about it?”
Hornblower sighed, which just triggered a set of coughs, quickly muffled by his sleeve. “In normal circumstances, I would get dressed and go out on deck. A mild cold, even a sudden one, shouldn’t keep me from my duties. However, I think some rest would do me good. My father told me of cases where people were ill for a day or two, then got out of bed and were nearly fully recovered. Given how suddenly this appeared, perhaps the same will hold true here.”
Bush was skeptical, but wasn’t about to argue, especially if it meant Hornblower was willing to rest. “Very good, sir. Shall I inform the other officers?”
“No,” Hornblower said, “Tell them I am engrossed in Admiralty paperwork and cannot be disturbed. It will be partially true, after all; I intend to do what work I can from my sickbed. In the meantime, please report to me at every change of watch. If I cannot run this ship myself, I would at least like to know that it’s being run smoothly in my absence.”
“Of course, sir. Anything else?”
“Have the cook bring me some tea and broth,” Hornblower said, managing to remove the covers and slowly pushing himself to his feet, “I don’t have much of an appetite, but I know I should eat something regardless.”
“Sir, let me…” Bush said, stepping forward, but Hornblower raised a hand.
“Nature will force me to get out of this bed on occasion, regardless of how I feel,” he said, “Besides, I need to fetch my spare handkerchiefs from my seachest, and I have a better idea of where they are than you do.”
Bush actually smiled a little at that. Despite his obvious weakness, Hornblower’s reasoning sounded more like the man Bush was used to. “Very well, sir. But at least let me gather up your paperwork from your desk so you can return to bed a little sooner.”
Hornblower nodded his assent, and Bush quickly crossed to the desk and picked up all the papers he saw, before depositing them carefully on the bed. When he straightened up, he saw that Hornblower had knelt in front of his seachest, and was carefully digging through it. “Anything else, sir?” Bush asked.
“No thank you, Mr. Bush,” Hornblower said, glancing over his shoulder, “I’ll be all right. Please, return to your duties.”
“One of my duties is to look after my commanding officer,” Bush pointed out, “And given your state, I’d feel more comfortable if I stayed, at least until you were back in bed.”
Hornblower gave a half-laugh, which again turned into a short coughing fit. “You’d be in for quite a wait. As long as I’m out of bed, I might as well take advantage of what little strength I have. Fetching my handkerchiefs, pouring a glass of water, tending to the aforementioned matters of nature…”
He trailed off pointedly at that, and Bush once again had to concede Hornblower’s point. “Very well, sir,” he said, touching his forehead, “But I will return after I’ve given your orders to the cook to make sure that you returned to bed safely.”
Hornblower extracted a large collection of white squares and began to drag himself to his feet again. “That seems a fair compromise. I will expect you back in about five minutes, then.”
Bush nodded and left the room. Perhaps this wasn’t the ideal situation, but at least Hornblower wasn’t being too stubborn about it. He wasn’t sure what had caused Hornblower to accept his fate, but as long as it sped up his recovery, Bush wasn’t about to question it.
Horatio set down his papers and groaned, massaging his temples. While he was trying to keep to his word and do what work he could from bed, trying to read for too long caused his head to throb, meaning he could only manage to work in ten to fifteen minute bursts. The rest of his time was spent dozing fitfully or forcing down some food or drink, barring special circumstances, like Bush knocking on the door to give his report. Speaking of which…
Horatio groped around for his watch and finally managed to open it. He had another two hours before Bush’s next visit. With a slight shrug, he set the watch aside and lay down. He might as well try to get some sleep while he waited. The odds were that he’d be forced awake before Bush’s arrival by coughs or chills anyway.
Or perhaps there would be a third interruption. Despite the hot liquids he’d been ingesting, he was finding it harder and harder to breathe through his nose. And based on the faint itch that he could feel building, it was only a matter of time before he started sneezing. Annoying as that was, it did give Horatio a little hope that this was, indeed, a twenty-four hour illness. He normally didn’t reach this state until he was in the third or fourth day of a cold.
As Horatio closed his eyes, he wondered idly if this was perhaps some sort of new illness. It seemed obvious that his previous behavior was related to his current state—perhaps this illness was one that took a long time to fully manifest, but once it finally arrived, it was over and done within a short time. It would certainly be different, though Horatio wasn’t sure if it was better or worse than a more normal illness period. At least with a proper cold, he had a vague sense of when it would be over. With something like this, there was a chance you’d be left feeling “ill” for months.
Horatio wasn’t exactly sure when his thoughts changed. One moment, he was puzzling over his illness, the next, he was having a vision of himself, sitting up in a hammock, wrapped in a blanket and looking skeptically at a quill pen that was being offered to him by an unknown figure. “What’s this for?” echoed in his head.
“It’s something I do when I have trouble breathing through the congestion,” the other person answered, “I help the cold along. A few good sneezes, and I’m generally able to breathe well enough to fall asleep. Besides, the faster I rid myself of the congestion, the quicker I’ll recover.”
“It doesn’t really work like that,” Horatio’s vision-self said, “According to my father, all you can really do to fight off a cold is to rest and make sure you drink plenty of water.”
“Don’t spoil the illusion for me,” the other person said with a chuckle, “Besides, how else am I going to pass the time when I’m ill? Now do you want to give this a try or don’t you?”
Horatio’s eyes snapped open at that point, and he sat up as best he was able, looking around. The vision—no, the memory—had been real enough that he needed to get his bearings. He rubbed his temples again, wondering what exactly had brought that memory back to his attention. Taking a tentative breath through his nose, he realized it was almost completely blocked, though the itch in the back of his nose was still relatively mild. Perhaps that was it, he thought, It was my mind signaling me that I was having difficulty breathing, and trying to offer up a solution.
His eyes landed on the quill Bush had brought over on his last visit, and he paused. He knew what his father had said all those years ago was still true, but if this really was a new type of illness, who was to say that it might not follow a different set of rules? Besides, removing the worst of the congestion might allow him to get a little more sleep, which would certainly be good for this cold. After checking his watch again to make sure Bush wouldn’t catch him in the middle of the act (an hour and a half until the next watch), he shrugged and reached for the quill. If the memory served him well, it actually had been somewhat effective, to his surprise and the amusement of…
A bolt of pain lanced through Horatio’s heart, causing him to drop the quill and touch his chest in concern. But the feeling was gone as quickly as it had come, leaving nothing but a slight increase in his heart rate. Swallowing, Horatio reached for the quill again. He wasn’t sure what had just happened, but if he was going to do this, it was probably best if he did it sooner rather than later.
Sliding the quill into the left side of his nose, Horatio tentatively inhaled, wiggling the feather at the same time. The itch grew significantly larger, though not quite enough to actually sneeze. Undaunted, Horatio pushed the feather in a little deeper and took another breath. The itch promptly moved to the front of his nose, and Horatio pulled the quill out, grabbing a handkerchief and holding it at the ready.
As his head snapped forward into the cloth, another memory sprang to his mind. He’d sneezed in a similar manner once, during a set of cannon drills. If he remembered correctly, he’d been recovering from a cold, and the smoke and gunpowder in the air had irritated his still sensitive nose. The sneeze had been loud enough that several of the men had looked around to see if a cannon had accidentally gone off, leaving Horatio even more embarrassed. That was when a hand had landed on his shoulder. “Bless you, Horatio. Goodness, a few more of those and we might be able to convince the Frogs that we have superior firepower without having to fire a single shot.” While he couldn’t actually hear the voice repeating the words, he remembered the affectionate tone, how it had been so warm and amused that he hadn’t needed to look up to know that the speaker was smiling.
Horatio’s heart throbbed painfully again, and he touched his chest once more, wincing. Yet, once the pain had subsided and he actually thought about it, it wasn’t a physical pain. It felt more like the pangs of anxiety he felt whenever he was called before Captain Pellew, or the stabs of shame whenever he was justly reprimanded. In fact, now that he was allowing himself to reflect on things, what it really reminded him of was the way he’d felt in the months after his mother had died. How sometimes, a memory of her would spring unbidden to his mind, leaving him stunned and on the verge of tears.
Horatio closed his eyes, taking a careful breath through his mouth and exhaling slowly. He was tempted to just put down the quill and try to sleep despite the congestion, but now that he had started, he had a feeling that this was what was best for him, despite the discomfort. Taking a tighter grip on the quill, he reinserted it into his nose and breathed in again. “Ih…ISHHH!!”
The memory of the cannon drill returned, and this time, Horatio kept his eyes closed, allowing the whole scene to play out in his mind while he continued to fiddle with the feather. He recalled looking up at the speaker, irritated. “I believe all that would do is give away our position. I’d rather try to keep them quiet, thanks.”
Horatio breathed in again, his breath becoming shaky almost at once. “Eh-EPSHH!”
There had been a pair of blue eyes, sparkling with mirth, but also showing more than a flash of sympathy.
There was that smile, teasing yet reassuring at the same time.
Blond hair that looked mussed no matter how many times it was brushed, always trying to escape the queue.
“TCHH! CHH! CHH!”
The hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. “I know. And you did an admirable job right up until the end. Come on, I think you’ve earned a rest. I’ll give the report to the captain, then get some tea for the both of us. All right?”
The quill was nearly soaked through by now, but Horatio could tell that he’d almost cleared the worst of the congestion. Bracing himself, he pushed the feather as far as it would go.
He’d actually smiled at the offer, unable to stay irritated for long. How could he? “All right…”
Horatio sniffed sharply, his free hand curling into a fist, nails digging into his palm.
The sneeze burst out of him, loud enough that it was entirely possible that the entire quarterdeck had heard. “HAKTCHIEW!!”
Even before he’d raised his head, he felt a twinge in the back of his nose, and he knew he’d pushed it a little too far. Sure enough, when he opened his eyes, he saw two bright red drops of blood on the back of his hand, and based on the hot liquid streaming down his face, there was more where that came from. He extracted the quill immediately and grabbed for his handkerchief with shaking hands, pressing it to his nose to try to stop the bleeding. As he did so, he looked at the blood on his hand and forced himself to remember the last time he’d been directly confronted with blood. He couldn’t recall the actual details of the wound, but the elements surrounding it were clear as day. The way he felt as if he’d been shot as well. The red standing out starkly against the white shirt. Most of all, the words that had been spoken, trying for the familiar humor but hampered by weakness.
“It’s not as bad as it looks…”
“Oh God…” Horatio said, as his vision blurred and tears started mixing with the blood, “I’m so sorry, Archie. For everything.”
He closed his eyes again, hands pressed firmly against his nose and mouth to hold back both the blood and any sounds he might make. While he wasn’t sure of the time, he was sure he still had at least an hour and fifteen minutes until Bush arrived. And he intended to use almost all that time to remember everything he could about the first man he’d ever considered a friend.
“Are you sure you want to go out on deck this instant?” Bush said, “It will probably be another hour or two before it warms up. Maybe you’d rather wait until then. You don’t want to wind up back in bed again, after all.”
“I’ll wear gloves, a scarf, and my cloak,” Hornblower assured him, hooking the last button on his jacket, “But I don’t think it will be necessary. As I said, the worst of the illness seems to have passed. As long as I don’t exert myself too much, I believe I’ll be fully recovered in a day or two.”
Bush knew better than to question his commander. Besides, Hornblower really did look and sound better than he did yesterday. Other than some redness around his eyes and nose, his coloring was perfectly normal. His voice was a little rougher than normal, but speaking didn’t seem to cause him pain. Above all, his expression matched the one Bush remembered from The Renown, analytical and probing. “Very well, sir,” he said, “But should you start feeling unwell, please let me know. I would hate to see you collapse on deck.”
Hornblower looked at him then, eyes narrowing slightly, as if he was searching for something on Bush’s face. Bush straightened up and tried not to shift nervously. After a few moments, Hornblower lowered his eyes and smiled faintly. “Thank you, Mr. Bush.”
“For what?” Bush said, puzzled.
“For your concern. I assure you, I will monitor my health carefully while I’m on deck.”
“Very good, sir,” Bush said, still puzzled but relieved that Hornblower was taking his advice, “I’ll wait for you on the quarterdeck then, shall I?”
“Mr. Bush?” Hornblower said, just as Bush turned towards the door.
Bush turned back to him. “Yes?”
“Would you…” Hornblower paused for a second, then continued, “Would you like to join me for dinner in my cabin this evening? Despite our…experiences on Renown, I don’t believe we’ve had much of a chance to get to know each other. I know you’re a fine officer; I’d like to learn more about you as a man.”
Bush was startled, but nodded. “I would be delighted, sir.”
“Good,” Hornblower said, and then his usual demeanor returned, “Now then, I need to dig out my scarf from the bottom of my seachest. I’ll meet you on deck in a moment.”
“Aye, sir.” Bush said, saluting and making his way outside. Once the door was firmly closed behind him, he allowed himself to smile. He wasn’t sure what had caused Hornblower to make the offer, but Bush would certainly do his best to rise to the occasion. Truth be told, he was curious to learn more about Hornblower as well. If nothing else, Hornblower could probably use a friend to sympathize with after everything he’d gone through on the Renown and at Kingston. And that was something Bush was more than willing to be.