Take What is Offered
by Dunnage41

"'It keeps away hunger,' said Hornblower. It might indeed do that, but evidently Hornblower had not kept hunger away lately." -- Lieutenant Hornblower
//
The wind blew especially bitterly that afternoon as if to reinforce to Horatio Hornblower the folly of having pawned his greatcoat, and for only six shillings, which had promptly gone into Mrs. Mason’s pocket, leaving him only nine shillings in arrears. Hornblower stuffed his chapped hands more deeply under his arms as the sleet that had been beating down all day increased in intensity, and hunched his shoulders as he picked his way with care along the ice-coated rough cobbles. The coins from the sale of the coat had briefly mollified Mrs. Mason but had left nothing for the fourpenny ordinary with which he had hoped to fill his increasingly empty belly -- he had not eaten for five days now, and he clung for a moment to the doorway as he entered and let the splintered wood creak into place behind him.
//
He had been optimistic that spring would have to come eventually, even to a place as sodden and bleak as Cooper’s Alley in Portsmouth and to the tiny, drafty garret room which, aside from the sad furnishings, now contained nothing he could call his own save for his one uniform, shoes, and a change of shirt and breeches. The sword had gone, his Gibbon and Clarke and Norie’s had gone, and one by one the rest of his few possessions had gone to the pawnbroker as well. His boat cloak. The fine knife he had acquired in Kingston. His hair brush. Stockings and breeches, jackets, waistcoats and shirts. All were gone, and the pitiful amount of coin they had brought had paid only for the sorriest of bed and food, and recently neither.
//
Soon he would have to pawn his sea-chest. He hated the thought, the more so because he knew it would bring only a few shillings, probably not even enough to bring him up current with Mrs. Mason. He had had that sea-chest for long enough, and through enough adventures, to be rather attached to it. But it seemed sentimental to cling to it now when he had nothing to put in it. Wearily he mounted the stairs, grateful that Mrs. Mason appeared occupied -- he was not up to facing her sharp tongue. He clung more heavily than usual to the banister; his head was swimming and his legs seemed made of lead. He shuddered, unable to decide whether he was too hot or too cold. He seemed to be both at once, and the contradiction made his head ache.
//
As he lifted the sea-chest onto the sagging bed to examine it, he reflected bitterly on the irony that it was peace that was making his life such a misery. For ten years he had known nothing but war, and was heartily sick of the misery the Corsican tyrant was causing throughout Europe, but the Peace of Amiens, tentative though it was, had been enough to prompt His Britannic Majesty’s government to flush out the Royal Navy as if sluicing out a bucket of bath-water. Ships were laid up in every port, and every ship laid up represented hundreds of officers and seamen suddenly scavenging for many fewer jobs than there were men.
//
Hornblower no longer called round to the Admiralty -- he knew exactly how many men there were senior to him on the Navy List -- and he had already made increasingly desperate attempts to find work. He had looked first for the kind of employment requiring literacy -- clerk, tutor, schoolmaster -- then for the kind of work requiring only a strong back. There was nothing to be found.
//
It would not be so bad, he told himself as he slammed the lid back down on the entirely empty chest, if he only had his half pay. He would be entitled to a full three pounds a month, enough to pay his lodgings and food, if he were not finicking about what he ate, had the Navy not required him to repay the difference between a commander’s pay and a lieutenant’s. He would be a full five more months with nothing at all by way of pay, unless the war resumed. The circle of his thoughts came round again to where it had started -- the irony of wishing for war as a means of filling his belly.
//
The man who had hoped to catch up to Hornblower before he went into the boarding-house was rather warmer and better dressed, to say nothing of cleaner, than the impoverished lieutenant. He was shorter than Hornblower, and older, with hair in a neat graying queue and a greatcoat adding a layer of warmth to his broadcloth uniform, which in any event was made of much finer wool and with a far better cut, and which had gold epaulettes on both shoulders. He frowned at having missed his opportunity and strode forward, jerking the reluctant door open and blowing a gust of ice and sleet into the entryway with him. This brought the beginnings of a sharp rebuke from Mrs. Mason, which died on her lips as she saw that the stranger was obviously a gentleman.
//
“Mind that door! -- Oh! Sir,” she said a little breathlessly. “What can I be doing for you this afternoon, sir?” Her tone changed from abrupt to fawning, and the change caused the older man to tighten his lips and narrow his eyes in an instinctive gesture of dislike.
//
“Mr. Hornblower,” he said shortly. Mrs. Mason’s look changed as well, becoming hard and shrewd, more natural to her face than the simper she had put on a moment ago.
//
“Well if you’re ’ere to call him to sea then someone ’ad best pay his debts,” she said, wincing to herself as she heard the cutting edge of her tone. This man was clearly a very senior officer, and naval men gave her business, even if it wasn’t the best kind of business right now. Peace would only last so long, and the officers would soon be in the chinks again. She needed their custom.
//
“Have the goodness to direct me to his room,” was all the man said, however, and Mrs. Mason relaxed a trifle. She jerked her head stiffly.
//
“Top o’ th’ stairs,” she said, and leaned in and gave the man her best smile as he passed her. The man ignored her, however, and strode firmly up, making the boards creak. Sir Edward Pellew had business with Hornblower.
//
He pounded on the door, making it shudder in its frame. “Mr. Hornblower…. Mr. Hornblower,” he said, frowning.
//
“Come,” a voice finally said. The invitation was followed by a flurry of wet coughing.
//
Pellew wrenched open the door to find Horatio Hornblower looking over his sea-chest, its lid up and interior entirely empty. The only personal effects in the room were a shirt and a pair of breeches neatly folded on the sagging chair, a soaked-through jacket hung on the end of the bed, and a razor and flannel on the chest of drawers. Hornblower turned at the sound, his eyes widening as he took in the sight of his visitor. He instinctively straightened and Pellew winced at the sight of his finest officer, who resembled nothing so much as a pitiful scarecrow.
//
Hornblower’s hair was drenched from the sleet storm and his face was chalk-white, his cheeks hollow but flushed as if with exertion. The thin shirt, open at the neck, was soaked through. His collar bones and ribs protruded and his belly was sunken. The breeches clung wetly to his jutting hips and the saturated stockings sagged round his calves and ankles. The shoes were scuffed and bowed from long wear.
//
In a glance Pellew took in the virtual absence of possessions as well as the despairing state of the room. The shabby deal chest with the chipped basin and cracked ewer. The rust-flaked iron bedstead with the sagging mattress and translucent bedding. The worn curtains hanging limply and uselessly from the windows, which rattled noisily in their ill-fitting frames with every gust of wind. The cold which whistled in through gaps in the roof.
//
Pellew’s face darkened. “Mr. Hornblower,” he snapped.
//
“Sir,” Hornblower said hoarsely. He stifled a cough and his eyes watered.
//
Whatever Pellew had been about to say, he changed his mind. “Are you unwell, sir?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question, but Hornblower gave the answer that Pellew expected.
//
“It’s nothing, sir.” Pellew restrained the disapproval that rose in his throat. Hornblower would quite likely describe blood pouring from his head as “nothing” if left to his own devices.
//
Hornblower opened his mouth again. “I--”
//
The defense he was likely to have made went unspoken. Instead Hornblower’s eyes rolled upward and his knees sagged and wobbled uselessly. Pellew swiftly caught Hornblower up and gently deposited him on the bed, where he lay with eyelids fluttering and cracked lips parted. Pellew pulled off his greatcoat and draped it over the limp figure before hurrying down the stairs.
//
“Call a carriage at once,” he snapped in a voice that would have made a midshipman turn pale. Mrs. Mason, however, was made of sterner stuff.
//
“I told you before,” she snapped back, all concern about Naval custom gone, “if you want to take ’im out of ’ere someone’ll ’ave to pay ’is debts. ’E’s nine shillin’s in arrears and,” she added with a toss of her head, “it’s ten shillin’s for a week’s notice.”
//
The sound Pellew made was very like a growl. Impatiently he fished in his pocket and hauled out a guinea and a half crown and held them up for inspection. Mrs. Mason’s eyes widened and she quickly slipped the coins into her pocket. She eyed him shrewdly for another moment before opening the door and calling to a passing urchin to summon a coach.
//
Pellew mounted the stairs again and pushed the door open. Hornblower lay exactly as Pellew had left him, shivering under the greatcoat. Pellew glared round at the room again as though it were to blame and quickly packed the few belongings into the sea-chest. He carried it down himself and set it in the front hall and nodded to the arriving coachman.
//
“Put that in,” he said, “then come up.”
//
The coachman spared him a glance. “Yes, sir.”
//
Pellew gently lifted the greatcoat from Hornblower. With an infinity of care, he eased the unconscious man to a sitting pose. He nodded to the coachman, who hesitated. “Poverty’s not catching,” Pellew barked, and the coachman pulled a face and reluctantly put an arm round the wet skeletal figure.
//
Together they lifted Hornblower up, causing a pitiful moan to issue from him, and supported him cautiously from the room and down the narrow staircase. Mrs. Mason watched from the hall entrance as they steered Hornblower into the coach.
//
“The Lamb,” Pellew snapped. “Quickly.”
//
At the Lamb, the innkeeper shook his head. “No rooms save your own, sir,” he said. “It’s this weather.”
//
Pellew thought rapidly. “Bring up a mattress -- a paliasse -- something,” he said. “And whatever pillows and blankets you can spare. Put them in my sitting-room.”
//
The coachman began to lay Hornblower down onto the paliasse, but a look from Pellew stopped him. Instead they set him on the edge of the bed in the room beyond, and swiftly undressed him. Pellew gave the coachman a coin and a nod, and the man slipped out of the room. Pellew, his lips tight with anger, gently tucked Hornblower in. He moaned at the movement, and the moan occasioned another flurry of coughing which finally eased but which left his cheeks hectic and flushed with effort.
//
When the serving-girl brought up the beef broth and brandy Pellew had called for, he lifted Hornblower’s head and carefully fed him a spoonful of broth. Hornblower took a few spoonfuls, then his head sagged to the side and the coughing resumed. Pellew closed his eyes and found himself importuning a God he scarcely believed in. It was less a prayer than an order. “This man will not die,” he growled. He picked up the spoon again and slowly, slowly, returned to feeding Hornblower.
//
The doctor hauled up Pellew’s nightshirt and shook his head at the patient’s prominent ribs and the belly fallen away to nothing. He laid his head against Hornblower’s thin chest and listened, frowning. He felt the chest and forehead, which were still hot with fever, and took his pulse.
//
“Keep him propped up,” he said. “If he begins to cough whilst lying down, it’ll go badly for him.”
//
“Have you nothing to bring down the fever nor stop the cough?”
//
“Laudanum,” the doctor offered. “Perhaps … soothing-syrup.”
//
Pellew accepted the soothing-syrup but not the laudanum, brusquely rejected the doctor’s offer of bleeding, and sank back onto the chair by the bed. He rose after only a moment and began to pace between the bedroom and sitting-room. He was angry. He had seldom ever been so angry, even at the Admiralty. They had effectively promoted Hornblower to commander in Retribution, then punished him for the great crime of having served His Britannic Majesty as a commander. Pellew knew the difference between a commander’s pay and a lieutenant’s: 100 pounds 15 shillings per annum for the latter as opposed to 225, 2s. 8d. for the former, a difference of nearly 12 pounds a month. Hornblower was having to repay 36 pounds, and his half pay would amount to all of 3 pounds a month. It was not only cruel, it was deeply unfair.
//
Pellew continued to pace. The Admiralty was penalizing one of its finest officers, a man whose courage and unswerving loyalty had saved countless lives and done real damage to the French and who was now left to starve in the streets. If he should die -- Pellew checked himself. He had been about to punch the wall in frustration and prudently thought better of it. Still. It was wantonly wrong to cut Hornblower off without a penny, and this was what they got for it -- Hornblower would not be fit for duty again for some time, and the peace would not last long. When they resumed battling Boney, very likely they would have to do without the services of someone on whom the Navy, at least, had come to depend.
//
A moan from the bed stopped this unproductive line of thinking. Hornblower was shivering violently with chills, his head tossing side to side on the pillows. Pellew laid his hand on Hornblower’s forehead.
//
“Father,” Hornblower croaked. “F-f-father.”
//
“Yes. Sshhh,” Pellew said instinctively, taking the hand that lay on the pillows. A feeble grip met his and Hornblower quieted. Then the coughing started up again. Pellew lifted Hornblower from the pillows, supporting his back, watching helplessly as the thin frame was wracked with deep, wet coughing that seemed as though it would tear him apart. Pellew swabbed the flushed face with a wet cloth and got a spoonful of the soothing-syrup into Hornblower, whose eyes glazed. His body slumped, unconscious, and Pellew lowered him back against the pillows, watching closely as he slept.
//
For the next few days, whenever Hornblower was conscious, though still delirious, Pellew carefully and patiently spooned beef broth into him, and sometimes a little brandy. He felt Hornblower’s forehead, paced the floor, woke with every moan or cough, and fretted himself nearly into a fever. His anger at the Admiralty was heightened by his knowledge of the unproductiveness of his passions. There was nothing at all to be gained at railing against the existing system, even though he was having to see its effects. The system was as vast and immovable as Dover Cliffs, and as yielding.
//
Hornblower tossed and shivered, coughed and slept. “Sail … on the larboard bow,” he murmured once, and, “By the mark five.” Mostly when a word issued from cracked lips, it was, “Father.” Each time, a touch from Pellew quietened him.
//
After an endless four days, Hornblower returned to himself, in mind at least. Pellew, roused from a restless doze in the chair, heard a change in Hornblower’s breathing and looked over sharply. Hornblower was fully awake, blinking drowsily up at the ceiling.
//
“What place is this?” he murmured thickly.
//
“My rooms at the Lamb, Mr. Hornblower,” said Pellew, relief making his voice sharp.
//
Hornblower furrowed his brow in pained concentration. “I … cannot recollect what brings me here,” he said, his voice hoarse and raw. He struggled to sit up. Pellew leaned forward and put a restraining hand on the bony shoulder.
//
“Lie back, sir,” he snapped. “You’re unwell.”
//
At the familiar voice, Hornblower turned his head too sharply, and a moan issued from his lips as a shiver tore violently through him. He subsided reluctantly against the pillows.
//
“Sir,” he murmured. “Sir.” There was urgency in the voice.
//
“At your ease, Mr. Hornblower. At your ease.”
//
“Sir. Wh-wh-what has been the matter with me?”
//
Pellew very nearly said, “The Admiralty,” but checked himself. “You’ve had a fever,” he said quietly. “A cough. Now lie still, sir,” the last occasioned by Hornblower attempting again to haul himself upright. To distract him, Pellew lifted a cup of beef broth from the table.
//
At the first spoonful, Hornblower closed his eyes with pleasure and without thinking reached out and took the cup. Pellew, smiling, sat back and watched as Hornblower thirstily drained the cup and looked round, his eyes fully open for the first time in nearly a week. Pellew bellowed for the serving-girl and had her bring up a bowl of gruel and began cautiously to spoon it into Hornblower. After a few swallows, however, Hornblower groaned and clutched at his belly. Another few spoonfuls and Hornblower was suddenly sick, vomiting wretchedly into the basin Pellew held, gruel and broth coming back up as quickly as they had gone down.
//
“Your pardon, sir,” Hornblower said thickly.
//
“No need, Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew said. He set the basin aside and sponged Hornblower’s face with a wet cloth. “I apologize for having been too optimistic. We’ll try again later.”
//
“Sir,” Hornblower said urgently. “My lodgings. I …” he swallowed hard. “I … am indebted.”
//
“Your debts have been settled, Mr. Hornblower.”
//
Hornblower’s pale face tightened and he leaned forward from the pillows. His hands had clenched themselves into fists through no knowledge of his own. He swallowed hard again, ignoring the raw pain in his throat. “Yes, sir. I … I cannot take your charity, sir.”
//
“Charity? Not charity, sir, but … ha-h’m … friendship.”
//
Hornblower lowered his gaze, looking away and blinking hard at the stinging behind his eyelids. There was no suitable answer to that. He wished to protest; his stiff-necked pride flooded him with guilt and shame at the knowledge that someone had come behind him and paid his debts, but he also knew, as a practical matter, that for the moment he had no alternative. More, he felt a ridiculous amount of gratitude at the knowledge that Pellew had called him friend.
//
Pellew was his superior; more, debts must be paid, and in truth he had no means of paying them nor even the energy at the moment to think about the matter overmuch. He had a deal of experience now at doing things that were hard or distasteful because they had to be done, and this was another such thing. He knew himself to be weak and ill and without funds for food and lodging. He had no relatives to help him, so he must accept help whence it was offered, hard as it was to be obliged to anyone.
//
For the moment, at least, he could do no more than to allow himself, a weakling and an invalid, to be tended to; but even as his mind told him all those hard truths his cheeks burned with embarrassment.
//
“There attaches no shame, Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew said quietly beside him, “to allowing oneself to be attended when unwell, or to be provided food and lodging when circumstances temporarily deprive one of means. You will be well again shortly, and … ha-h’m … I foresee a day when soon His Majesty’s Navy will be required to serve her country once again, and you will once again command a ship. Meanwhile,” he added briskly, “we must get you well again so you can be fit for duty when the time comes. You could rest, I think?”
//
Hornblower suddenly felt himself exhausted, worn out by the effort of emptying his stomach and by the embarrassment that laid heavily on his shoulders despite Pellew’s words.. He nodded and allowed himself to be settled back and tucked in, and he was already half in a doze when he felt a hot brick being slipped under the coverlet. In another minute he was snoring.
//
It was a further several days before Hornblower was able to sit up unaided, to keep down both beef broth and gruel, and even a little brandy, and finally he was able, on a morning when thin winter sunlight streamed weakly through the windows, to be helped out of bed, settled in a chair before the fire, and to have a blanket tucked round his legs. He looked at Pellew and cleared his throat.
//
“Sir … I will repay you as soon as I am able.”
//
“Yes, yes,” Pellew said impatiently.
//
“I must … I must thank you for everything you have done.”
//
“There, Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew said. “Pray do not concern yourself. The Navy needs you fit, sir.”
//
A ghost of a smile finally flitted across Hornblower’s face, which was beginning to have a little color in it at last. He was still weak, but he no longer felt helpless; the shivers which had been playing up and down his spine had stilled, and his chest and throat were beginning to mend. Pellew handed him a cup of hot grog and he drained it gratefully, with a shudder of pleasure at the warmth which spread through him.
//
“Now, Mr. Hornblower,” Pellew said, smiling. “Suppose in a few days’ time I should stake you to a game of whist in the Long Rooms. I’ll cover any losses which might occur -- should there be any, which I doubt -- and if you can do whatever you like with your winnings.”
//
“Whist, sir?” Hornblower said, returning Pellew’s smile. “I would like nothing more.” As he said the words, he found them to be true.