The Cause of the Fever
His belly was on fire. Horatio Hornblower tried to blink the acrid smoke from his eyes and instinctively beat desperately at his shirt to smother the flames. His hands were met with a sticky dampness and searing pain. Someone caught his hands and held them away.
"Get him below, dammit!" Captain Pellew's familiar bellow reached his ringing ears. The steady percussion of cannon seemed painfully loud as he felt his legs being lifted from the floor. He meant to protest the indignity of being slung over a shoulder like a bag of meal, but with every jouncing step his stomach swooped precariously. He thought he tasted the bitter tang of blood in his mouth but could not spit. His belly ached atrociously and, mortifyingly, he seemed to have fouled himself. That was his last, shame-filled, lucid thought.
The sheets were entangling him and he kicked them off impatiently. His mother was standing over him and her chin was lifted. If he didn't hurry out of bed, he would exasperate her. Why wouldn't the sheets respond? He kicked some more and pushed with his hands, which felt thick and clumsy, as though he'd slept on them. His mother was laughing at him and he was suddenly indignant. Couldn't she see he was trying to get up, he really was? Only the sheets wouldn't cooperate.
Matthews sighed. "Styles. Help me." The larger man moved to beside Matthews and helped him gently hold down Horatio's arms and legs, which were weakly windmilling as though they would thrash him out of bed if he had the strength. But the cannonball, which luckily had only grazed him, had nonetheless ripped open his side and he had lost a deal of blood. The doctor was not optimistic about the young man's body rebuilding itself. Already Horatio had been feverish and restless for two days and hadn't spoken a word.
As if on cue, however, the cracked lips parted and a low, hoarse sound came out. Both seamen instinctively leaned in to hear.
"Right 'ere, sir," Matthews said. Horatio's head lolled side to side.
"Muh, muh," he said, a trifle more decisively.
"Matthews, you fool!" It was seldom that Styles got to say that and he momentarily relished the novelty. "E's callin' for 'is mama."
"E don't 'ave one," Matthews snapped.
"I know that," Styles returned. "But do 'e know that?" He jerked his head toward Horatio, who was listlessly bobbing his head back and forth again.
"Muh, muh," he mumbled. "Help me get up," he slurred.
"No sir," Matthews said decisively. "No sir indeed. You're unwell, sir." He put a restraining hand on Horatio's sweat-dampened chest as Styles straightened out the thin blanket.
"Muh, muh." Horatio's voice, still thickened with delirium, became more insistent. Styles bit his lip. This had stopped being at all funny. He wanted to do something for Horatio. He shot a look at Matthews, who usually had all the good ideas. This might be a bloody bad idea. Then he leaned in close to Horatio, cleared his throat, and pitched his voice soft and unnaturally high to make a feminine whisper. If Matthews ever told it about, Styles would have to deck him, that was all..
"I'm 'ere," Styles murmured throatily. Immediately the thrashing stopped and the tension was released from Horatio's shoulders.
"Yes," Styles whispered. "Go to sleep. You're sick." He turned away and coughed, his throat tight with the effort of trying to sound like a woman. He turned back and lightly laid the back of his work-roughened hand on Horatio's hot forehead. Horatio feebly grasped it, not noticing or caring that it might not feel like Louisa Hornblower's gentle one. All the fight went out of him and his breathing became slower and more regular.
Styles slid his hand out of the weak grasp and noticed Matthews looking at him with something like respect.
"That was good, mate," Matthews whispered. "E needed that."
Styles shrugged, embarrassed.
Horatio was floating. Where was he? What was he floating on? He seemed to be hovering a few inches above the rain-dampened ground of the garden of the house in Kent. He put his hands out to try to feel the grass. His hands were clumsy, wooden, they would not respond. His mother was only a few yards away, tending her dormant winter flower beds. He struggled to get to his feet, to go to her. He was unable to stand, but seemed to be awkwardly swimming or drifting her way.
His mother turned, a smile illuminating her lovely heart-shaped face. There was her dear boy, already so tall and weedy at seven, all elbows and knees. She often winced at the jabs when he clambered onto her lap he was too big for that, really but she never let on, and she never denied him her embrace. His hair was impossibly tumbled again already. Hadn't she just trimmed it herself? And those eyes, large and fawn-like, always so very serious.
"Yes, my dear."
"Why doesn't Father let me into his surgery?"
"You could be hurt, dear. And there are things a young boy needs not see," she said patiently, for the hundredth time. Jacob's coolness toward the boy, she thought privately, stemmed in part from the brilliance he had displayed at the village school. The boy should be quick enough but not too intelligent, Jacob believed, or he would never be satisfied as a doctor in Kent, following Jacob's footsteps. His son was already proving a disappointment. And, God help him, Horatio was sensitive enough to discern the unspoken unhappiness. She reached out to smooth a wayward curl from the broad brow and was alarmed to find it damp with sweat.
"Horatio? Have you been running?" The thought seemed absurd. Horatio spent nearly every waking moment in or under a tree with a book. He seldom ran.
She moved her hand and laid the back of it on the boy's forehead. "You're feverish. Go inside at once." She stood and moved to take his hand, but he was like lead, his eyes glassy. Suddenly afraid, she scooped him up, a bony tangle of limbs, and moved toward the house. Jacob, stepping out the side door of his surgery, saw her coming and strode to meet her.
"Well?" he said brusquely. She blinked. His own son. Couldn't he at least be concerned? It never occurred to her that his brusqueness might be led by fear.
"He's feverish," she said, panting for breath, for the boy had proved unexpectedly heavy, as if asleep. Jacob relieved her of the burden and wordlessly carried the boy up to the nursery, where he swiftly and skillfully undressed him, then allowed Louisa to slip a cotton nightshirt over the perspiring little body.
"Tell Mrs. Cameron to bring some cold compresses," he said.
"Jacob ... I .... will tend to him myself." She so seldom spoke decisively that Jacob Hornblower, taken by surprise, merely nodded.
She fetched a basin of cool water and endlessly and patiently sponged her boy's forehead, held his hand, sang lullabies, told stories. After three days she ached with weariness; her shoulders and arms were sore, her legs heavy, her ears rang and her own forehead throbbed, but she never left Horatio's side.
"God! E's getting worse, not better," Styles breathed. Matthews elbowed him sharply. As if it mattered. Matthews could see it as well as he could, and who else would hear them?
"Why ... Father ..." he mumbled thickly. "Surgery." The seamen exchanged a glance. The doctor had stitched the wound several days ago and had changed the dressing every day, sniffing for possible infection. Horatio had been delirious and semiconscious with the pain but had forcefully spit out
the mouthful of laudanum that Hepplewhite had tried to give him. The doctor had shrugged and sewed him up. The surgery was long past.
"Easy there, sir," Matthews murmured. He sponged Horatio's forehead. Horatio feebly pushed the cloth away, but he was too weak to succeed.
"N-no. Muh," he said hoarsely. Matthews eyed Styles. Damn it. It had been a good enough idea once, but he hadn't planned on being saddled with the role for life. Sighing, he cleared his throat and leaned in.
"You 'ave a fever," he mumbled. Horatio flopped his head from side to side.
"Stay. Muh, muh. Stay," Horatio said thickly, a hand moving weakly on the blanket.
"I'll stay," Styles said softly. For the second time he laid a hand on Horatio's forehead, but this time Horatio was too spent to grasp it. He quieted and seemed to fall asleep. Matthews gave him that look again.
"Ow long am I gon' to keep this up?" Styles griped as they left the room.
"Long as it takes," Matthews said firmly. "Long as it takes."
On the fourth day, Horatio opened his eyes and found that his head did not ache. Sunlight streamed in the nursery window and the chair by the bed was empty. He struggled upright. He was in his small bed, in a clean nightshirt, and for the first time he felt well. Dizzy, but better. Horatio's father came into the room and sat heavily in the chair.
"Where's Mother?" Horatio blurted, then felt guilty as he saw the look flicker across Father's face.
His father exhaled through his nose, a sure sign of displeasure. "She has caught a fever," he said shortly.
Though Father didn't say, "She has caught YOUR fever," Horatio heard it as such. Where else would Mother have caught a fever but from tending his own? Horatio gulped, his voice sounding loud in his ears.
"Will she ... will she ... get better?"
His father fixed him with a hard, unyielding stare. His eyes seemed to drill into Horatio's chest, and he felt his scalp and neck prickle. Where was Mother? Where was Mother? His head, light from several days of illness, began to spin and swim. Where was Mother?
Father was staring at his feet. His head snapped up. "Where's Mother?" he echoed. Had Horatio spoken aloud? "She is dead," he barked. "She caught a fever and died."
Horatio's large eyes widened and abruptly brimmed with tears. He turned his head, ashamed to be caught crying. He knew that men weren't to cry. Father had told him that several times, always with disgust. He heard his father leave the room and he fell face down into his pillow, the tears falling thick and fast and clogging his hot smothered face. Mother's dead of a fever, my fever, she's dead she's dead she's dead. I made Mother die. Mother's dead of a fever, she's dead, dead.
Matthews and Styles stared at each other. This wasn't good. They'd never seen anything like it. Tears were streaming from Horatio's eyes, but he was still caught in delirium. A fever shouldn't go on so long after a wound had been mended.
What? That couldn't have been right. Matthews brought his ear closer.
"Dead," Horatio was saying. "Dead. Dead."
"No sir," Matthews said blankly. "You're not dead sir. Come on, now, sir. Buck up," he said helplessly. Horatio was still weeping and his nose was starting to snot up in an undignified fashion. He coughed weakly. For want of anything better to do, Matthews helped Horatio sit up and thumped him lightly on the back. Styles reached in and mopped the face, stained with tears, snot, and sweat. He reached for the cool wet cloth and wiped him down. Horatio's eyes were open but unseeing, wide, glassy, staring into eternity. Styles bellowed for the doctor.
Hepplewhite snorted with impatience. "Hold his nose. Tip that head back," he snapped at Matthews. "We've got to get some laudanum into him whether he wants it or not." He braced himself, poured the small glass of medicine down Horatio's throat, then expertly pushed his mouth shut. Horatio weakly spluttered, choked, and reflexively swallowed.
The tears trickled to a stop and Styles mopped his face again, then helped Matthews ease him back down. Matthews smoothed the blanket over him and the three men left the room, hoping that the opiate would allow Horatio to sleep and maybe break that damned fever.
Edward Pellew absently rubbed a finger behind his ear. The battle had been relatively quick and decisive, and they were now in safe waters, nearly to Portsmouth, but eleven men had been killed and three wounded. One of the men, now minus half a leg, would be put ashore at Portsmouth; the second had merely caught it in the shoulder and was already back to his duties. The third, dammit, was Hornblower, who had been brushed by a cannonball, opening a gaping side wound. Hepplewhite had stitched him up, and he swore there was no sign of infection, but his quickest lieutenant was now in the grip of a fever that seemed destined never to break. More, according to reports he had requested from Matthews, he was delirious, calling for his mother. Pellew knew perfectly well the boy's mother had died when he was a child and the boy had been sent away to school. He frowned and rose, making his way through the carpenter's walk to sick bay.
Hornblower was sleeping. Feeling foolish, Pellew sat on a chest beside the bunk and watched him.
"Don't send me away," Hornblower said abruptly, the words thickly mumbled but understandable. Pellew frowned and touched a hand to Hornblower's cheek. Was it still fevered? He couldn't tell.
"You're not going anywhere," he said automatically.
"Don't send me away."
"I won't," Pellew said impatiently.
"Don't send me away."
"No. I won't." This time the response was gentle. Clearly the man was still delirious. He stood abruptly as Hepplewhite came in.
"Has he a fever or not?" Pellew demanded.
Hepplewhite silently brushed by Pellew. Slowly, slowly, he unwrapped the bandages soaked with sweat and grime and examined the healing wound. He bent to smell the area. Good. He sponged it down and wrapped it in clean bandage, Pellew silently holding Hornblower upright. The men laid him back down and Hepplewhite felt his pulse and touched his temples. Finally he straightened.
"He still has a fever," he said. "But not as bad. It has broken and is going down. He will recover."
Pellew nodded. After the doctor had left, however, he slumped, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. What the devil was going on in that disordered brain? He went to the doorway and stood, staring at nothing, then returned to the chest.
"What?" Pellew stared at Hornblower.
"Please. Don't send me away. I'm sorry," Hornblower slurred. "Don't send me away." Tears were trickling down the lieutenant's begrimed cheeks. Pellew took his own handkerchief, spotlessly clean, and wiped the tears and perspiration away. Hornblower coughed weakly and stirred. His eyes, blurred with illness, slowly blinked half-open and looked unfocused at Pellew. There was a pause.
"Sir." The voice was still hoarse but lucid.
"Mr. Hornblower," Pellew said softly.
"Wh-wh-where am I?" Thank God. Weak and unwell he might be, but at least the delirium had at last let go of him.
"Sick bay," Pellew said simply. He put out a restraining hand as Hornblower struggled to sit up, then sank back against his pillow.
"Easy, Mr. Hornblower. You've been unwell for several days."
Hornblower stilled himself, but his eyes roved around the small space, his brow drawing into a frown. He opened his mouth, his breath hitched, and he closed it again.
"Yes, Mr. Hornblower?"
"I .... nothing, sir." He blinked several times as his eyes stung. Pellew nodded as he rose. "You're not to return to duty until the doctor says you may, sir," were his parting words, accompanied by the familiar gimlet look.
The boy, propelled by his father's bleak stare, stepped into the carriage, then turned. "F-f-father?" It was impossible to tell whether the icy moisture dripping from his nose was rain ... or tears. His father closed the carriage door and knocked on it, signaling the driver, who cracked his whip, hunched his shoulders against the gathering wind, and started up the hill, away from the house in Kent.