Drinking Portsmouth Dry
As usual Archie Kennedy was far more prone to enthusiasm than Horatio Hornblower, but Horatio had to admit that on this occasion, it was highly contagious. He felt giddy as a schoolboy giddier he had never been a giddy child, but now he had amazingly to rein himself in lest a lieutenant in His Majesty's Britannic Navy be caught skipping in a Portsmouth street. His limbs trembling with suppressed energy, he scarcely heard Archie in his ear.
"We must celebrate."
"Celebrate! The very thing! Only " immediately Horatio's high spirits drained from him. "My purse is so slender..."
"And mine is so plump," Archie retorted, patting his pocket, though he at least had the good sense not to wave it in the air along the wharf. "Come, Horatio. Can you believe it!"
No, Horatio hardly could.. He kept looking at the orders as though the words would fade from the page as if by magic. Transferred to the command of Captain James Sawyer. A hero, a legend, a name forever associated with the daring victory of Cape St. Vincent. To serve under him would surely be to soak up courage just from being on the same deck with the man.
"We shall drink Portsmouth dry," Archie declared, and that was Horatio's last clear recollection of the evening. The next few hours passed in a whirl of tankards, with Horatio winning enough at an early round of whist, at least, to feel more a contributor to the merriment. It would be fortunate that he would later have no recollection of some of their early stops at waterfront grog shops; no recollection of his loose-jointed attempt at a dance with the barmaid, which resulted in a tankard of ale going down her substantial bosom, which ale he had still to pay for; no recollection of taking umbrage at an oversized local who bellowed at him for slapping another barmaid on the skirts; no recollection of Archie's slurred apologies and his urgent dragging of Horatio away from the scene before the now-bellowing Horatio could challenge the half-witted farmer to a duel. All that would pass in a complete fog and he would have been shocked to find also that he had
at one point stripped off his shirt to prove his muscularity to a collection of teasing young farmhands who had jibed at him and Archie as "britches-wearing sissies," a phrase which by then he was unable to repeat.
Later in the evening, when enough spirits had passed down his throat, he was inebriated enough to find that the music that normally jarred him to his bones was actually rather pleasant what on earth had he minded about those sweet chords? especially when the plump and willing young lady balancing unevenly on his bony knee was loudly and tunelessly singing along with the nautical-sounding air. But this was not right. He could not allow her to stand while he sat. Was she standing? She seemed to be gazing down on him. He stood in a clumsy tangle of ungainly limbs aggravated by drink and said politely, "Madam, I insist that you have my seat." The simple display of manners prompted a roar of laughter from a ruddy-faced Archie and the girl balancing happily on his knee. What was so funny? Horatio had no idea that what had issued from his lips sounded more like chopped French, his thickened tongue and natural shyness combining to produce, "Mithem, I asseat to me have my cyst." The bow he naturally attached to the words was also, it seemed, a hysterical failure as he overbalanced and pitched toward Archie, who fortunately had enough wit to push him back into a semblance of verticality.
And now the girl was hooking her arm through his and leading his stumbling limbs and swimming head up a narrow flight of stairs and flopping him without ceremony onto a filthy mattress that swayed dangerously on loose ropes hooked fraying to the bed frame. It should have felt wonderful to lie down, to gain some relief from the deck, which was swaying heavily and insistently and calling forward unpleasant hints of his old seasickness, but the bed was going around in circles and the room was as well. Unfortunately the circles did not completely overlap, and he became aware that his head was pounding, his tongue thick and his eyelids unconscionably heavy. Was it a storm? Where was his greatcoat? He slurred something to that effect, prompting gales of laughter from the girl and an equally incomprehensible bellowed reply from Archie, who might be in some distress, seeing as he was under the other girl and flailing helplessly.
"Archie!" he managed to call out despite the thickness of his tongue and the numbness of his lips. "I'll help you!" But then the girl was atop him had she fallen? and a pile of filthy skirting and petticoats was smothering him. A sharp pain in his privates, then another, but somehow this pain felt marvelous and he hoped it would continue, and it did, for a heavenly brief time, but then it stopped.
"All right, Admiral, up with you," a coarse female voice was demanding. Strong arms were pulling him to his feet and the floor rose up alarmingly for a moment, then returned to its rightful place.
By a combination of pushing and tugging the girl was hauling him toward the stairs, and he tried to obey this force of nature, but his knees and feet were disobedient and seemed badly jointed, like a cheaply made wooden puppet. Finally the girl grabbed him by the ear the ear! and propelled him down the same narrow stairs. He banged his head unmercifully on the beam but amazingly managed not to fall, despite the tangle that his feet had become.
And then he and Archie were outside and the cold sharp air struck his face and lungs forcibly and he blinked, for the stars overhead were blurred, their outlines fuzzy.
"Archie," he slurred. "S’wrong with the stars?"
Archie, who could hold his spirits rather better than his more modestly brought-up friend, swung his head back obediently, which nevertheless caused a wobble in his orbit. "Nothing," he declared solemnly. "They sh’ll make the face of hev’n so fine...." He hooked his arm through Horatio’s. "Come aboard, sir. We must ... we must ... golden lads ... come to dust." Horatio’s knees wobbled wildly and Archie untangled his arm with some effort and slapped it around his friend’s waist, catching him before he pitched onto the unforgiving cobblestones.
"Ahoy there," Horatio bellowed thickly, causing the heads of the few mischief-makers about at that ungodly hour to turn with mild interest. Archie clapped his free hand over his friend’s mouth and Horatio promptly and instinctively clamped down with strong teeth.
"Ouch," Archie hissed, reclaiming his hand. "Shhh."
"Shhh," Horatio mimicked, his bleary eyes alight. Archie leaned his head back and took several large gulps of the night air, then stumblingly propelled himself and his inebriated friend toward the shore boat. Between them they had only a few pence left, but either they met the cost or the women took pity on them, for they silently took the coins and rowed for the Renown. Horatio, his spinning head combining with his weak stomach, was sick over the side twice in the short journey, but the women were unamazed by the sight of vomiting sailors and said nothing.
Archie, though he had downed his share of ale, was in better shape and wisely heaved Horatio onto the ladder, then quickly clambered up behind him, clinging to his back to keep Horatio from falling. In this awkward fashion they contrived to come aboard, receive an amused glance from the midshipman of the watch, and clatter noisily down below, Horatio smacking his head on the beam again.
Their return to the ship had come so very late in the night that dawn came with unmerciful quickness. By far the more experienced of the two, Archie had made himself down bread and water before obtaining his cot, and felt only a slight ache in the center of his forehead, one that would soon abate. The unfortunate sounds from through the curtain, however, told a different story, and Archie looked in to find Horatio vomiting excrutiatingly into a bucket.
"Morning, Horatio," Archie murmured, unable to keep the tease out of his voice.
Horatio groaned in reply and looked up at Archie. He looked awful, Archie thought inconsequentially. Dark eyes deeply hollowed above shadows like bruises, a greenish cast to the slender face, and an unmistakable bruise on the forehead.
"Are you unwell, Mr. Hornblower?" The quaveringly sharp voice of Lt. Buckland made both men look toward the doorway.
"No," Horatio said unconvincingly. "Only ... something I ... ate." In the presence of his superior he succeeded in suppressing the newest discombobulating surge of his stomach.
Buckland looked sharply at them both. "You’re on the next watch, sir," he said, and mercifully withdrew.
"God," Horatio groaned.
"Just stay close to the rail," Archie said. Horatio rose totteringly to his feet and clung to Archie’s shoulder, his grip painfully strong. His half-closed eyes focused on his shipmate and he visibly suppressed another heave.
"Archie," he said, his throat raw.
"Don’t ... ever ... let me ... drink ... Portsmouth dry again," Horatio managed, his free hand clutching his unfortunate belly.
"Aye, aye, sir," Archie returned, and handed him his coat.