Down at Heel
by Dunnage41



It was a miracle that the man was alive at all. Admiral Sir Edward Pellew had to remind himself of that. Still, it wasn’t easy seeing Commodore Sir Horatio Hornblower moving slowly and hesitatingly toward him, leaning heavily on a walking stick. Pellew was accustomed to Hornblower’s almost indecently good health and prepossessing sturdiness, to seeing him scramble lithely up cliffs, move with lightning rapidity in daring attacks, and to have the devil’s own luck when it came to cheating death. By Pellew’s own private estimation the man should have been killed a dozen times over, at least.

The Hornblower whom Pellew now observed was skeletally thin and unnaturally pale, drained of his usual tan and stoop-shouldered and frail in his manner. He was dressed, but in clothing that hung loosely on him, and his steps were uneasy, as though he could not trust his limbs not to betray him.

After what seemed an eternity, Hornblower reached Pellew, who had to force a smile he suspected to be a painful grimace. Up close Pellew saw that Hornblower’s dark eyes were sunken and rimmed with smudgy shadows, the sharp cheekbones too prominent and the hair tumbled.

Hornblower made a small, cautious bow. "Sir."

Pellew cleared his throat. Ha–h’m. You’re ... looking rather better than the last time I saw you," he said briskly. That, at least, was true.

Hornblower coughed. "I should hope so, sir," he said, those sunken eyes nevertheless glinting with humor. He hesitated. "Nevertheless, sir, this seems a devilishly long recovery." He gestured with his free hand, which, Pellew noted, trembled.

"Only in the last two months have I been permitted out of bed at all. Only in the last month have I been given the liberty to descend the stairs. And it is just this week that I have been permitted to be out of doors."

Pellew’s own lips now twitched. "Your world expands exponentially, sir."

Then Hornblower’s saving humor came to the fore again. "Exponentially, indeed, sir. Mathematics are a wonder."

"The wonder is you did not die in Konigsberg," Pellew reminded Hornblower pointedly. It was most unlike Hornblower to complain. The man must be understandably restless. As soon cage a wild bird as to mew Horatio Hornblower within the bounds of four walls.

A handsome English setter pup, perhaps six months of age, now bounded up and stood by Hornblower’s leg, there to receive a pat on the head.

Pellew looked his surprise.

"A gift ... from Lady Barbara," Hornblower explained. "Upon my return from Riga last December." He actually laughed, a little embarrassed. "I seem to have no more jurisdiction over the naming of my animals than I do the naming of my ships, sir."

"Pray explain yourself." Pellew’s eyebrows rose.
Hornblower gestured to a pair of sheepdogs ambling across the broad lawn. "Those were presented to us by one of the local tenant farmers whose dog had been bred. Lady Barbara happened to be entertaining a visit from her sister and nephew, who was then about six, and he begged to be allowed to name them. Of course, I expected him to bestow some innocent appellations such as Rover and Shep."

He paused. Pellew obediently asked, "And did he?"

"Ha–hm," Hornblower said. "He ... ah ... named them Boney and Don."

Pellew smothered a laugh. "Lad must have overheard a fair bit of parlor-gossip."

"Ineed, sir," Hornblower agreed. "On my last commission but one, I returned to find that Lady Manningtree had made a gift to Lady Barbara of one of those small furry dogs from Malta. Of course, Lady Barbara had already named the dog ... Duchess."

This time Pellew did not bother to smother his laugh. He looked instead at the springer pup, who had circled both the men several times before heeling beside its master.

"Lady Barbara presented you with this animal, then," Pellew prompted.

"Already named, sir."

"Yes," Pellew growled, impatiently.

Hornblower ducked his head, feeling a blush warm his hollow cheeks. "She named the dog ... Admiral, sir."

Upon hearing its name, the dog leaped happily, placing muddy front paws on Hornblower’s chest. Pellew watched silently, his expression softening, as he saw Hornblower’s face light up as he gamboled with the pup. He no longer looked half so ill.

Now the smile that seamed Pellew’s face was not forced at all. "Aptly named, Hornblower. Aptly named."