The address he had been given was in a rough part of Portsmouth, and he chose his wardrobe with care, well-worn and shabby clothing that he wore when tramping around the property or playing with his son, and articles that bore no hint of gold braid or fringes of bullion. He and the driver unloaded the goods he had packed with care, sacks and crates of provisions and a large bundle of fire-wood.
He glanced up and down the alley before thumping with a gloved hand on the splintering and warped door. No response came from within; bracing himself, he gave the thing a good shove with his shoulder, and thus gained entry. He stood a moment, blinking, as his eyes adjusted to the dim and shabby room within. The pitiful remains of a small fire stained the fire-place, on which hearth sat a small and battered cooking-pot encrusted with the remnants of meals. A portion of a loaf of bread reposed there as well, stiff and molding, and a sad collection of cracked plates and mugs, also bearing stains and festering splotches, was piled in a wash-bucket nearby.
Along one wall the inhabitant of this dwelling lay on his back in a filthy tangle of sheets and thin, holey blankets, snoring fitfully with his mouth gaping. He was also crusted and unwashed, and his chin bore a plentiful growth of beard; his hair tangled greasily upon a handful of straw serving as a bolster. One bare foot and ankle were streaked angrily with purple and red, sure signs of infection; and the visitor could smell the corruption from where he stood. The man slept on, untroubled by the noise made by his visitor upon gaining entry.
The second man nodded briskly to himself and cleared out the greasy remnants of the long-gone fire before laying a large new one. Shortly it was adding light and warmth, thereby revealing still further the meanness of the place. The man set aside the food-crusted pot and laid a new one on the fire, then waited for the expected knock at the door; his helper had brought in buckets of water, which the man poured into the new pot. His helper, with deferential stubbornness, tried to stay and assist him further, but finally was persuaded otherwise and went away shaking his head.
Then the man grinned to himself. He had already shed his coat and cloak; now he rolled up his shirt-sleeves and set to washing the dishes. The task took him quite a while, but the fire blazed cheerfully, now and again fed by a stray morsel of gristle or the crust of moldering bread which the man threw in with a shudder.
He took the broom he had brought with him and vigorously swept the small space, then scrubbed it, grinning at the thought of what his helper would say to find him on his hands and knees, laboring over a floor with his stiff brush. He then turned to the food-parcels he had brought, and the sacks and the contents of the crate, and improvised a stew which would do any man well. As the small pot was now clean, it would do for warming water for a bath; but first, there was something else he had to tend to.
His stomach turned at the thought, for he was no doctor and had hardly any stomach for the sight of wounds. More than once he had had to suppress his own nausea at seeing other men’s battle-memoirs whilst still fresh. Still, the thing had to be done. He poured a quantity of carbolic acid onto a clean cloth, soaking it well; then he wrung it out over the wound in the man’s leg. That did rouse him, while none of the other clatter of cleaning and setting the room to rights had done.
“And ’oo the bloody ’ell are you?” he demanded, at once hissing with pain as the carbolic stung fiercely.
“Is that how you address a superior officer?” the second man said, but gently.
“I don’t ’ave no superior officer,” the first sneered. He gasped, then continued. “Not since Captain ’elmond told me I were a disgrace to the service an’ put me ashore in Brest,” he added sullenly.
“Did he disrate you?”
“Nor read you out?”
“Then you are still an able seaman in his Britannic Majesty’s service, and are free to seek out a seaman’s position in any of that service’s vessels.”
“Not with this.” The pain had begun to subside, but one hand still gripped the sheets convulsively as the other man dabbed lightly away with the carbolic-soaked rag.
“And how did you come by it?”
“Footpad.” The word was a growl. “An’ ’oo the ’ell are you?” For all this time the second man had kept his head bowed and his face close to the wound. Now he stood, turning away as he did so.
“Someone who was told that you were in need of care.”
The man on the bed was still dizzy with pain. He snatched at the small glass of laudanum now offered and gulped it greedily. In a moment, he did not care about his visitor’s identity.
There being no chair in the room, the man leaned against one wall and watched as the man in the bed slept. He dozed himself, a little; for when he roused the fire had gone low. He poked it up again and dished up a plate of stew.
He helped the man in the bed sit up and propped him with the fresh pillows he had brought, then handed him the plate of stew. Rested now, the patient saw the doctor with clarity.
“Mister ’Ornblower,” the man now said, his voice a mixture of surprise and gruff embarrassment.
“Styles,” Hornblower replied, the familiar tone of indulgent reproach in his voice.
Styles was prepared to tell him to go to the Devil in spite of himself, but his ravening hunger took precedence, and he gulped down the hot stew and looked for more. Hornblower suppressed a smile and brought another plateful, adding several slices of fresh bread spread thick with new butter. While his patient ate, Hornblower, sitting on a crate, drew out in detail the story of Captain Helmond, and the Sparrow which he had commanded, and his drinking and fits of impulsivity that had made him a frightful captain.
Helmond had put several seamen ashore; together they had managed somehow to get passage back to England (here the details grew rather vague), where Styles had fallen victim to a footpad not long after securing the room in which he lay.
“Do you not wish to return to the service? The press-gang will have you as soon as that heals,” and Hornblower rolled a considering eye upon the wound, now freshly bandaged.
“They won’t ’ave me.”
“Helmond will not, to be sure; but I know of at least one who will, provided you have learned to hold your tongue.”
“You don’t want me neither. Sir,” Styles added belatedly.
“Why not?” Hornblower knew full well, but he wanted to hear the reason from Styles’ own lips. Instead Styles’ gaze betrayed him; it went instantly to the formerly dark and filthy corner where, until not many moments before, had lain a pile of empty bottles.
“Sir...!” Styles’ voice held its familiar note of wounded innocence. Then habit took over. “Sir – I coulda got a penny a dozen for ’em. Sir...!”
“Styles,” Hornblower chided. “Look around you, man. You won’t need to be calling on the rag man any more.” Then, more gently, he added, “Drink is a far harsher master than any sea captain, Styles. Its demands are unmerciful, and your temper is hot enough without inflaming it further.”
Styles sulked, causing a smile to tug at the corners of Hornblower’s mouth, a smile instantly suppressed.
“We’ll talk about it later,” Hornblower said decisively. “For now, the water’s hot, and you’ll want a bath.”
Styles spluttered in loud protest but illness and idleness had made him soft, and he was in no shape to resist. Silently he let Hornblower peel away the clothing that fell to rags in his hands; silently he submitted to having his own filth scrubbed away and his hair washed and combed and his beard clipped and shaved. Silently he helped around the edges as Hornblower supplied the rude bed-stead with a mattress and bedding. Silently he submitted to being tucked in.
While Styles slept, Hornblower paced as well as he could. The room was hardly larger than his own cabin, but now at least it was clean and some of the lingering stink had gone. At length Hornblower sank wearily onto the floor and dozed, his back against the wall.
At dawn he rose, washed his face in cold water, and prepared a decent breakfast. Styles was shaky and subdued. At length he burst out.
“Just a drop, sir, won’t do me no ’arm. Just a drop an’ I’ll do whatever you say.”
“There, you see, Styles,” Hornblower replied, “how harsh a master is drink. If I promised you rum you’d be my slave willingly, and I could command you at my desire. Even the most idiotic captain in His Majesty’s service does not prove so unmerciful.”
Styles grumbled, but settled for coffee. He was still unwell, and ate little of the breakfast Hornblower served. Afterward, Hornblower undid the dressing, releasing a flood of impressive oaths, ending with a sheepish “... Sorry, Sir.”
Hornblower raised his eyebrows, suppressing the surge of his stomach as he did so. The carbolic acid had done good work in drawing out some of the festering corruption within, and laudable pus, a dimly remembered description, now came to Hornblower’s mind. The stream which trickled from the wound was clear, or nearly so, and the anger of the streaks round the ankle had subsided. Hornblower silently daubed the pus away, treated the wound with carbolic again, and bandaged it.
He did the same that evening, and by the next morning, he could see to his satisfaction that the wound was now healing naturally.
“Well, Styles,” he said briskly. “I think you shall live.” He glanced around. “There are provisions enough for a fortnight. My own ship is being refitted and its main topmast repaired. I shall hold a place for you in her if you wish. If you turn up at the docks in ten days’ time, I’ll take you on. If not, I shall sail without you.”
He glanced round once more, satisfied at the improvements.
“The choice is yours.”