Horatio Hornblower debated the wisdom of opening his eyes. He was on his back and swaying unmercifully, if rhythmically, and seemed to be lying on something made of canvas and smelling horribly of mildew.
Someone was smoothing a blanket over him. Impulsively he did open his eyes, then, and arrested the movement of the person standing over him. It was one of the other midshipman, the one at the table who had not said something cutting but had merely glanced at him and returned to his smoking. What was the man’s name?
"Your pardon, sir," Hornblower murmured thickly. The sour taste of vomit was still clogging his throat and nostrils. Not ten minutes aboard ship and he had sicked up.
"There," the other man said soothingly. He patted Hornblower’s shoulder. "Just lie quiet until you’re yourself again."
Good advice. In fact, perhaps the first good advice Hornblower had heard of late. He obediently closed his eyes, trying to ignore the expostulatory heaving of his stomach in concert with the swaying of the hammock. How in God’s name had he gotten here?
When his father had permitted him to stay on at school for an extra term, Hornblower had been cautiously optimistic. Perhaps there would be a way for him to go to college after all. He chose to think, afterward, that his father had not realized how badly he wanted it, because the alternative would be to believe that Father had been deliberately cruel in teasing him, letting him think one thing whilst planning another entirely.
That Christmas, at term’s end, his father had said, "Horatio, I have a plan for your future."
Hornblower swallowed hard as he recalled the way his heart had begun to pound.
"One of my patients is captain in Justinian, a ship of the line," Dr. Hornblower had continued. "He has agreed to take you in as midshipman." He gave his son one of his steady gazes. "Further advancement will, of course, depend upon your own merit."
Had he succeeded in masking his dismay? His mind raced. He had no particular trade he wished to take up and in any case he was far too old to begin an apprenticeship. His father had allowed him to continue studying – he was now half past seventeen – when other boys his age were already employed. He had no dreams, no hopes for the future. He wished only to be left alone with his books, which did not tease or mock or expect him to be good at games.
"Y-yes, Father," Hornblower said. He gulped. "Thank you, Father." He managed to look his father in the eye and, he hoped, the smile he forced looked natural enough.
The coaching inn at Andover. He had lain awake all night. He knew nothing of ships, nothing of the sea, nothing about the life on which he was to embark. "An honorable service," his father had said, "to King and country." That sounded well, at any rate. But what did it entail?
What it entailed, it appeared, was an uncomfortable uniform that he was sure made him look ridiculous. A clumsy descent into a ridiculously small boat rowed by two women, in a driving, icy January rain. With the first stroke of the oars his stomach had lurched and swooped appallingly. It had taken all he had to keep from being sick over the side.
The boat pullied up alongside a ladder whose bottom rung seemed miles above his head while the boat bobbed and slid back and forth round it. From far above came a loud, cheerful young voice.
"Jump! You’ll be all right!"
Numbly, he had swung for the ladder, his booted feet scrabbling and his freezing fingers fumbling for the slick cold wood. His actual destination was so far above his head he thought he might climb for the rest of his life; then his head was brushing something hard – a cannon – and his feet were marvelously on something that appeared solid, the wet deck.
The deck, however, was no more stable than the boat had been; worse, in fact. It dived and rocked and Hornblower again suppressed a nauseating surge from his belly. He had slept not at all the night before in the coaching inn, and had been unable to swallow any of the breakfast provided, but his empty belly was surging nonetheless. The other man, the one who had bellowed for him to jump, led him over to a cluster of drenched officers.
"C-c-come aboard, sir," Hornblower managed, finally dredging the phrase from his memory.
He had managed to stumble through the brief interview that followed, though he was certain he had made a hash of the business of saluting. Nothing, it seemed, about being in this service was simple. The uniform was abysmally complicated, the transport from land to ship was sick-making, and even the simple act of bringing hand to brow was, it appeared, something that could be done wrong.
The other man had led him below, to a scene that resembled nothing Hornblower could have imagined. The cramped space, the ceiling so low he had to bend double, was filled with shrieking, blowsy women, idling seamen, and a clutch of farm animals. It looked, sounded, and smelled like a combination of brothel and barnyard.
The other man kept up a stream of conversation, of which Hornblower heard little and cared less. Something about the men ... six months ... gillie, whatever that was ... Johnny Crapaud ... and then he had been brought to a halt at a table round which sat bored-looking men in white shirts like his.
And the mocking had begun at once, and his abominable pride had come to the fore and he had said something about Norie's Seamanship, and then ... dear God ... about then he had soiled the decks with a pitiful spew of bile that had been all the contents of his wretchedly empty belly.
What a fool he had been! And yet there was really no point at which he could have stopped recent events. Was it possible, once in the Royal Navy, to get out? If so, what could he possibly do then?
No alternative seemed to present itself. At least, he could not think of one. He reflected on the Stoics, the ancient philosophers whose writings he so admired. For the moment he would do what was required of him, then. With a shudder, he thought of Captain Keane, who apparently had been doing what was required of him for fifty years or more. Was this life at sea to be the sum total of the rest of his years? Was he doomed to spend the next fifty years or more wearing a uniform, finding his footing on heaving decks, getting drenched to the skin, being seasick?
Hornblower forcibly pulled his thoughts back to the Stoics. He would, having no alternative, do his duty as best he could.
One thing he knew for certain sure, he reflected as, with a yawn, he burrowed deeper into the blankets. He would never love it.