"A Bit Singed, Sir"
by Kimberly Heggen
Every time I watch "The Fire Ships", and see the bit where Horatio jumps off the Spanish ship with flames shooting up his arm, I start wondering about the condition of the shirt and the flesh underneath his coat. Wool doesn't catch flame very easily (unless you have a special effects team standing by), so for it to really burn like that, things must be getting toasty. It all gets extinguished promptly when he jumps in the water, and he seems to be okay... but you know Horatio when it comes to pretending that he's fine when he's not. And, of course, there's Mr. Bracegirdle's nice formerly clean (not to mention intact) white shirt to consider (which must have been just HUGE on Horatio... I wish that they'd shown a shot of him standing in that tent of a shirt, before it got covered up).
Horatio felt very much like the proverbial drowned rat as he dragged his dripping self up over the side of the Indy from the shore boat. No-one noticed him at first; the chaos left by the passage of the Spanish fire-ship still reigned on deck. No flames burned there now, but Horatio could see scorched bits of rope and canvas where fires had started.
"Ah, Mr. Hornblower! Welcome back from your adventures!"
He turned, to see the substantial figure of Mr. Bracegirdle approaching him. "I trust that you're had an exciting evening, young man?"
Horatio smiled through his weariness. "Very much so, sir. Is... is everyone all right on the ship? No-one was hurt?"
"No casualties but a few coils of rope." Mr. Bracegirdle shot him a penetrating look. "Thanks to you. We, ah, had a fairly good view here of your actions aboard the fire-ship. Very courageous of you."
"I had to try, sir." Horatio felt himself flush self-consciously.
"You succeeded. Were you hurt at all?"
"I... well, yes, burned a bit, I think." Horatio had a foggy memory of seeing flames shooting up his right arm, just before jumping of the deck of the fire-ship into the water. The cold sea-water had of course quenched the flames immediately, and he only now realized that he felt a stinging pain from that arm. "I'm sure it's nothing serious."
"See the surgeon, Mr. Hornblower. And then, the Captain wants to see you in his cabin."
"I should go there first, then, sir. My burns can..."
"See the surgeon NOW, Mr. Hornblower. The man has nothing to do right now anyway. That's an order." Mr. Bracegirdle eyed him speculatively. "In fact... I think I shall walk you down there and make sure that you arrive."
The wet topcoat came off easily enough, though Horatio winced when he saw the crispy texture of the scorched right sleeve. His best uniform coat, already so shabby... maybe he could patch it somehow.
"All right, Mr. Hornblower, let's take a look at that arm..." The surgeon's eyebrows shot up as the coat came off fully. "I think we'd better have you sit down to take the shirt off of you."
Complying, Horatio sat down on the bench. He looked over at his arm, and blanched. The fine white shirt was also badly scorched all down the right sleeve and back across his right shoulder. If the shirt looked this bad, how was the flesh underneath?
With fingers suddenly nerveless, he tried to unbutton the shirt. Seeing his difficulty, surgeon reached over and undid the fastenings for him. "All right, let's have this off. This is going to hurt."
Mr. Bracegirdle, who had been standing quietly in one corner of the sickbay, came over to help. Together, he and the surgeon lifted the wet shirt over Horatio's head, leaving a good deal of burned fabric stuck to his arm. "Well, my boy... " he teased gently, "I'm going to think twice before lending you any more clothes."
Horatio hissed with the pain. "I am sorry, sir," he answered. "I will find a way to replace it for you." How, he was not sure... he had no money right now for a new shirt, and no shirt of his would fit Mr. Bracegirdle's larger frame.
"You will do no such thing, Mr. Hornblower." The first lieutenant looked at him sternly. "If you can risk your skin to save your ship, I can certainly risk my clothing." He shook his head. "Rather, we should take up a collection to get you a new uniform coat."
Horatio tried to smile, but grimaced instead as the surgeon grasped forceps and begin to remove bits of burned shirt from his arm. "Hold on, Mr. Hornblower. I'll have this debris off of you in a few minutes, then we can dress the burns."
He nodded, and closed his eyes which the surgeon picked and tugged. He was dimly aware of a supportive hand on his good shoulder, and was grateful for the kindly presence of Mr. Bracegirdle. At last, he felt the surgeon spreading a cool salve over the burned areas, and he opened his eyes. He watched while the surgeon wrapped the salved burns with many layers of fine gauze bandage.
"You are going to be very sore for a few days. Leave the dressings alone, and come back tomorrow to have them changed. We'll do that every day until I am sure that they are starting to heal." He handed Horatio a small stoppered bottle. "Use a little of this every few hours for the pain, but especially tonight. I want you to sleep. And drink all of your water ration. We've no shortages here, so if you are thirsty I will see that you get more. Your body will lose water through those burns."
"Thank you, Doctor." Horatio stood somewhat unsteadily, with Mr. Bracegirdle's help. He looked at the ruined shirt, then carefully shrugged the topcoat on over the bandages.
"Let me help you back to your cabin, lad." The first lieutenant put a hand firmly under his good elbow and guided him out the door. "I happen to remember... I may have something else to help you out of your present difficulties."
Mr. Bracegirdle stopped them first at his own cabin, and bade Horatio sit while he rummaged through his sea-chest. "I'm not sure why I have kept this for so long... it doesn't even fit me anymore, as you will see. I daresay it will be a bit large for you, but better than nothing. Aha!"
He pulled out a much-creased midshipman's topcoat, complete with white collar rectangles. Unlike Horatio's coat, this one was of excellent construction and made from silky-soft fine merino wool. The buttons still shone, and there seemed to be no holes visible. "I've no use for this now, lad... I don't think it's too likely that Captain Pellew with ever have me demoted. And I hate to see you spend the money on a new one, when hopefully you won't need it much longer." Mr. Bracegirdle hesitated. "Or... perhaps I shouldn't ask, but how did the examination go?"
"Poorly." Horatio sighed. "I am afraid that I must not have passed... but the testing was interrupted."
"Well, there is always hope. Here, lad, try it on."
With help, Horatio slipped the coat on. It was a bit generous in the middle, but Mr. Bracegirdle had clearly been slimmer in his midshipman days and the extra fabric was not too noticeable. The arms were long enough, at least, and it was clearly a beautiful garment.
"That will do nicely." Mr. Bracegirdle stood back in satisfaction. "Now, go find one of your old shirts... and you can go speak with the captain as he requested."
"Sir... I cannot repay you for your kindness." Horatio shook his head. "You are being much too good to me."
Mr. Bracegirdle looked uncharacteristically serious. "Some debts, you cannot pay, lad. Sometimes... you must simply look for an opportunity to help someone else, down the road." He cleared his throat. "You did us all a service tonight, and this gift cannot come close to repaying that debt." He clapped the younger man lightly on his uninjured shoulder. "Wear it in good health."
"Thank you sir. I will do that."