When Midshipman Horatio Hornblower woke up one morning and immediately sneezed, his first response was to feel a rush of anxiety. When he lifted his hand to move aside the blankets and felt a tremor run down his back, he knew that anxiety was well-founded. It seemed he had somehow come down with another cold.
In a way, he wasn’t all that surprised. He was still growing accustomed to serving on a ship, which was a prime location for illness, what with all the dampness, cold air and water, and crowded conditions. After a year or so (he sincerely hoped), his body would toughen up and he’d be much less susceptible to illness. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t do him much good if his sniffling and sneezing in the here and now caused others to form a poor opinion of him. It seemed unlikely that any captain would deny an officer an advancement in rank because of poor health, but no doubt they would look upon him unfavorably if he was unable to do his duties because he was brought down by a simple cold.
“Nkt!” Horatio stifled another sneeze against the back of his hand and forced himself out of his hammock to dress and find a handkerchief. As he did so, he took note of his symptoms, and was somewhat comforted to find that this cold would at least be relatively mild. He may have been tired, cold, and congested, but at least there was no headache or aching throat. That meant his shifts on deck would be merely uncomfortable instead of tortuous.
Horatio had just finished dressing (having pulled out his thickest scarf and cloak in the hope of keeping himself a little warmer) and was in the middle of combing his hair when Archie appeared, no doubt having returned from the wardroom. “Good morning, Horatio,” he said pleasantly, “Sleep well?”
“Well enough,” Horatio said, managing a smile, “And yourself?”
His heart sank as Archie cocked his head, eyes running up and down Horatio’s form. “I would say I slept well. Horatio, are you all right?”
For one minute, Horatio considered saying yes. He didn’t want to be seen as whining or weak, after all, and it was just a slight cold. But then his new captain’s words floated back to him, as they always did when he reached a crossroads. “I judge a man by what I see him do, not by what others tell me he has done.” Well, Captain Pellew wasn’t physically present in the room at the moment, but word might get back to him if Horatio was untruthful. And while this was a small lie in the grand scheme of things, he didn’t want to give Pellew any more reasons to think Horatio was unreliable.
Therefore, he sighed. “I’m afraid I seem to have picked up a cold. Is it really that obvious?”
“It’s mostly your voice,” Archie said, “Though it might be less noticeable up on deck, when everyone will have runny noses from the chill anyway.”
“Fine, fine.” Horatio said, unable to stop himself from sniffling. Pulling out a handkerchief, he put it to his nose and glanced apologetically at Archie. “I’ll do what I can to keep this sort of thing at a minimum.”
Archie put a concerned hand on Horatio’s shoulder. “Perhaps you should rest for a little longer. Your watch doesn’t start for another twenty minutes. You could stay in your hammock and I could bring you some tea and something to eat. I might even be able to mix your spirit ration into the tea.”
“Thank you, Archie, but this cold appears to be much less bothersome than the one I had on the Justinian. I should be able to manage.”
“Horatio…” Archie said, lowering his voice as another one of the midshipmen passed by, “You don’t have to over-exert yourself this time. S…” He faltered, then tried again, “He’s not here to torment you. From our brief time here, I’d say the crew of the Indefatigable is much more understanding. I’m sure Mr. Eccleston would be more than happy to reduce your watch hours, if you asked.”
Horatio shook his head. “Perhaps if things were a little different, I would. But I have a division to oversee. They’ve finally started to act like proper seamen, and I can’t slacken the reins now.”
Archie seemed doubtful. “They may resent you if you wind up passing on your illness.”
That thought hadn’t occurred to Horatio, and he mentally kicked himself for not considering it. “I’ll try to keep that from happening,” he said, lifting the handkerchief for emphasis, “Besides, who’s to say they haven’t had this already?”
Archie sighed slightly. “If that’s what you want, I won’t stand in your way. Just try not to let yourself get worse.”
“I will,” Horatio promised, “But if we come across a French ship, I might not be able to manage that.”
Archie chuckled. “Yes, well, all the usual routines change when we beat to quarters. I can’t hold that against you.”
Horatio smiled back, but couldn’t do much more than that, because his cold chose that moment to flare up and he had to get the handkerchief back to his face. “Hipshh!”
“Bless you,” Archie said, “Are you sure I can’t get you some tea?”
“I’ll get it myself,” Horatio said, “I’ll stop by the mess before I go on duty.”
Archie nodded and moved aside to let Horatio pass, though Horatio thought he saw a flash of concern in Archie’s eyes. He hated worrying his friend like this, especially after all Archie had been through, but he needed to assure the men of the Indefatigable that he wasn’t a layabout. And Archie had known Horatio long enough that he hopefully understood that impulse.
Two hours into his watch, Horatio knew that, despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to hide his cold from the men on deck. Archie had been right that it was cold enough to have the rest of the crew shivering a little and dabbing at their noses, but while they were only doing it every few minutes, Horatio had reached the point where his handkerchief was permanently against his nose. Furthermore, the cold air seemed to burn his throat, so whenever he had to raise his voice, he would wind up coughing immediately afterwards, something that was impossible to ignore after the third time it happened. Then, of course, there was the sneezing, which had also been exacerbated by the cold and seemed to occur every five minutes. The only small mercy was that the sneezes were relatively soft and light, so while he couldn’t disguise the bob of his shoulders every time it happened, he was generally able to muffle them enough to keep everyone from hearing them.
After checking his watch, Horatio moved down the deck to examine his division, who’d he’d last left securing the lines. As he approached, he could see that they were actually working, though they weren’t being as quick or efficient as they could be. Perhaps he’d have to run some timed drills to make them take it a little more seriously.
As he stepped down onto the deck, the creak of the wood alerted the men to his presence, and they immediately began tying the knots a little quicker. While it did mean that his men saw him as a credible leader, he wished that they had the initiative to work like that on a regular basis. With luck, his efforts and working under a captain like Pellew would eventually instill good habits in them.
He slowly walked down the line, glancing at each man’s work, occasionally reaching over and giving the knots a tug to make sure they were firm. Everything was going smoothly, but three-quarters of the way down, he had to step back as he felt another sneeze approach. “Eh…Ekshh!”
As he straightened up and opened his eyes, Matthews, the oldest man of the division, said “God bless you, sir.”, while a number of the other men nodded in agreement. Horatio murmured his thanks and resumed his examination, trying to act as though nothing had happened. But if his nose was blocked, his ears certainly weren’t, and he could hear the men whispering behind him. He could feel his face heating up, and while he tried to keep up his usual air of competence, he wondered if he should turn round and confront them on the matter. It was impossible to stop gossip from spreading on a ship, but that didn’t mean that it shouldn’t be discouraged from time to time. Then again, asking them to refrain from commenting on his illness would just make them think there was something to talk about. It seemed that he was between a rock and a hard place.
Once he tested the last rope, he turned around to address the men. “Your knots are in fine shape, men, but your pace leaves something to be desired. I’ll arrange for a timed drill to take place next week to see if you can’t improve.” Then, as the men glanced at each other, he added, “I may also be able to convince the captain to give an extra spirit ration to the winner.”
That put a more enthusiastic look on their faces, which caused Horatio to smile slightly. “We’ll start practicing,” Matthews said, knuckling his forehead, “I’m sure most of us can find a bit of rope to practice on in our spare time.”
Horatio nodded. “Very good, Matthews.”
He hesitated, debating whether or not to address the whispering. Then the matter was taken out of his hands when his nose twitched once in warning. “C-carry on.” he stuttered, pressing the handkerchief to his nose a bit more firmly as he tried to move out of his division’s line of sight before he sneezed again and embarrassed himself further. Unfortunately, he only made it partway up the staircase before he had to give in. “Ih…Ipshh!”
No one called out a blessing this time, though he suspected he had moved far enough away that it seemed silly to shout it down the deck. He wondered if the men were whispering among themselves again, and resisted the urge to turn around and look. Bad enough he’d already made a fool of himself; looking back would just give them even more to gossip about. Stiffening his back still further, he continued up the stairs, hoping to project an air of authority as best as he was able.
“How are you doing, Horatio?”
Horatio managed a smile. “As well as can be expected given both the cold and my cold. Don’t tell me you came up on deck just to check on me.”
Archie shook his head. “I wanted to get a little exercise. Looking in on you was just a further incentive. You’re quite sure you’re all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” Horatio insisted, “The chill makes me look and sound worse than I actually am.”
His argument would have been more convincing if he hadn’t punctuated it with a sneeze. “Ah…Akshh!”
“Bless you,” Archie said, and Horatio swore he shook his head faintly, “Just promise me that you’ll take yourself straight to bed and get under the blankets once your watch ends. Every scrap of rest and warmth will help.”
Horatio chuckled; Archie sounded quite a bit like his father with advice like that. “I promise. I’ll stop by the mess as soon as the bells are rung, and after some tea and food, I’ll come back to the midshipman’s quarters.”
Archie shook his head. “You should head straight there. I can bring you something to eat.”
“No, Archie,” Horatio said, politely but firmly, “I appreciate your concern, but I don’t want to give the rest of the crew any more indication that I’m an invalid. I’m certainly strong enough to get my own meals.”
Archie opened his mouth to argue, but seemed to see the futility in it, because he sighed and closed it again. “All right. But will you at least leave your dishes for others to tend to once you’re finished? You won’t be the first one to do that, after all. You’ve seen what Cleveland is like.”
“If that will satisfy you.” Horatio said with a shrug.
“It will,” Archie said, “Thank you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll take my exercise now.”
Giving Horatio a half-bow, he moved off down the deck, while Horatio resumed his rounds in the opposite direction, shaking his head at Archie’s attempts at coddling. He really did appreciate the effort, but surely Archie could see that it wasn’t necessary? It was just a cold, after all.
An hour later, the bell sounded, indicating the end of Horatio’s watch. True to his word, Horatio immediately made his way towards the mess, moving as quickly as he could in the hopes of minimizing his time spent waiting for food. Even so, he did his best to not appear as though he were rushing, since he didn’t want to give the wrong impression about his motives.
The rush of heat that came up to greet him as he came below was welcome, but it also threw into sharp relief just how cold it had been on deck. Not only did Horatio find himself shivering due to the change in temperature, his nose started running even more, if that were somehow possible. He pressed the handkerchief to his nose once again, grateful that he’d brought a few spares, and hoping both the shivering and the dripping would subside by the time he reached the mess. While he did get his wish, that turned out to be the least of his problems.
When he entered the mess, he was momentarily gratified to find that the congestion was still mild enough that he was able to smell the meal, which appeared to be beef. Unfortunately, the steam and the spices seemed to be working together to irritate his nose, and while he tried clamping his handkerchief even further around his nose and breathing through his mouth, he could tell there was no way to keep the sneeze back. The best he could do was muffle it and hope the men were too busy eating and warming up to notice what was happening.
“Heh…Hepshh!” While the sneeze remained at its normal volume, Horatio realized with a flash of horror that the scent was bothering his nose more than he’d expected. “Heshh! Eshh! Ihkshh!”
The last sneeze was a little louder and stronger than the others, clearing out the irritation but also causing him to bend forward a little more dramatically, so much so that he could feel his queue bounce between his shoulder blades. He tried to sniff quietly and straightened up, keeping his eyes on the cook. Even so, he was sure some of the men closest to him were glancing in his direction, and while it might just have been his imagination, he thought the chatter in the room had died down significantly. Feeling himself blush once more, he tried to ignore the growing feeling of shame and dread in his stomach and waited for his chance to be served, hoping he would be able to take his meal and retire back to the midshipmen’s section without further incident.
If Archie had convinced the other midshipmen not to draw attention to Horatio’s condition, there was no way to say for certain. All he knew was that none of them said anything about it, other than to offer up blessings. Grateful for their silence, Horatio ate quickly, then kept his promise to Archie and retired to his hammock, where he managed to doze for a few hours. Upon awakening, he felt a little better, though lying prone had increased the congestion in his nose and throat. Sitting up in the hopes of dispersing it, he stayed in “bed”, reading a book of Shakespeare that Archie had lent him. Despite everything, he felt surprisingly peaceful by the time the bells rang again, signaling his next watch.
That peace lasted for less than half-an-hour. Horatio was peering into the darkness, looking for any sign of activity, when he heard someone coming up behind him. “Pardon me, Mr. Hornblower.”
Horatio turned around to face Mr. Bracegirdle, offering up a smile and a salute. “No trouble, sir. What is it?”
“Captain Pellew sends his compliments, and asks that you see him in his cabin once your watch has ended.”
Horatio felt like his blood had turned to ice. “Did…did he say why, sir?”
Bracegirdle shook his head. “If it’s any reassurance to you, he didn’t seem angry. I don’t believe you’re in for a reprimand.”
Horatio doubted that, but managed a wan smile. “Tell the captain that I will attend him directly after the bells have rung.”
Bracegirdle nodded and departed, leaving a quietly panicking midshipman in his wake. This had to be about his illness; what other option could there be? Had he been remiss in his duties in some way? Was Pellew disappointed in his performance? Surely he wasn’t about to be reprimanded for falling ill, or at least for not taking enough precautions to prevent illness. The Navy had many rules and regulations, but that couldn’t possibly be one of them. Realizing that dwelling on it could cause him to become even more lax in his duties, Horatio shook his head and tried to concentrate on keeping an eye on things. That didn’t stop his heart from fluttering nervously in his chest, of course, but there wasn’t much he could do about that.
When the bell rang to signal the end of his watch, his heart shot into his throat, but he dutifully approached the captain’s cabin and rapped on the door, tugging at his coat and straightening his hat in an attempt to look presentable. Unsure what to do with his handkerchief, he lowered it from his face but kept it folded in his hand, in order to have it ready should the need arise. He had just managed to arrange it to his satisfaction when Pellew called for him to enter. With a deep breath, he stepped inside.
Pellew was sitting at his desk, hands steepled as he looked Horatio over. “Ah, Mr. Hornblower. Thank you for being so prompt.”
Horatio nodded, unsure what the proper response would be in this situation. He stood at attention, mentally bracing himself for some sort of reprimand, hoping that the tension didn’t show in his posture. For his part, Pellew looked Horatio up and down once more, eyes lingering on the handkerchief in Horatio’s hand, then leaned back in his chair, folded his hands, and said;
“It has come to my attention, Mr. Hornblower, that you may not be in the best of health.”
Horatio swallowed. “There is truth in that, sir. But as it appears to be just a cold, I saw no reason to neglect my duties because of it.”
Pellew nodded. “An admirable way of thinking, and a refreshing change from some of the layabouts I’ve known who take any injury or illness as an excuse to avoid work. However, there is a difference between working through an infirmity and working so much that it exacerbates an infirmity. It doesn’t seem as though things have reached that point with you as yet, but should the cold weather continue, you run the risk of making yourself worse.”
“I do what I can when off duty to rest and stay warm…” Horatio said faintly.
“Which is right and appropriate,” Pellew assured him, “I merely wanted to request that you continue to do so, and perhaps to find an excuse to duck below and warm yourself from time to time. If nothing else, that may prevent your voice from giving out.”
“Aye, sir.” Horatio said, his nerves somewhat soothed. Pellew’s tone was soft enough that this didn’t feel like a reprimand, more like advice. And it was good advice, which Horatio would endeavor to follow.
“Very good,” Pellew said, “And if I could make one more request of you?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Should you find your symptoms getting worse despite your best efforts, pay a visit to Doctor Cornell. He’s a good judge of when an illness needs to be tended to instead of ignored.”
“Aye, sir,” Horatio said again, “I’ll do so.”
At that moment, he felt his nose prickle, and knowing that there was no possibility of escaping the room before the sneeze struck, he put the handkerchief back to his face and waited for the inevitable. “Hiihh…Hipshew!”
He could feel his face heating up once more at the indignity of sneezing in front of his captain, and when he opened his eyes, he couldn’t quite look Pellew in the eye. But he did see Pellew shake his head, and there appeared to be a hint of a smile on his face. “Bless you, Mr. Hornblower. I won’t keep you from your rest any more than I have to. You are dismissed.”
“Thank you, sir. Forgive my rudeness.”
Pellew waved a hand. “I’ve seen and heard much worse in my time. Why should I hold this against you?”
Horatio could think of a dozen good reasons, but knew better than to voice them. Instead, he merely saluted and left the cabin, uncertain what to make of the conversation. While he was still ashamed that his illness had apparently been noteworthy enough for the captain himself to comment upon, Pellew didn’t seem to think less of him, either. As long as he followed orders, the incident would most likely be forgotten about once his illness subsided. He still felt there was more he could do to earn his captain’s respect, but at the moment, he appeared to be doing the right thing.
Managing a slight smile, he put the handkerchief back to his nose for the trip across the deck. His hammock, and perhaps another cup of tea, were waiting for him, after all.