Word Count 1418
Once long ago, longer ago than I wish to say, I asked a question. Why did Mike have to go to sea the day after we arrived in Norfolk, when we had only moved into our apt at midnight the night before and I knew nobody? Or later, why did he have to lave for a 6 month cruise when we had a week old baby? My answer-- the needs of the Navy. The Navy has needs. You cannot argue, there is not any room for wiggling or debate. The Navy is implacable, like a hungry dog. Horatio and Archie know this.
This is part one of two
Needs of the Navy
Indefatigable at sea
Eight Bells, Midwatch
“Even on Justinian it never rained for three weeks straight.” Archie said.
Horatio coughed in reply. He sounded miserable. They both were, they all were. It was the deep down wetness of wool and linen that never seemed to dry anymore, the weather had been the same for so long, the airs unvaried. And it was the peculiar nature of this particular wind that it cut through clothing and under hats, and that, even so, seemed to trap the smoke of the ship’s stoves in an eye-watering miasma just above the deck.
Archie was almost done on deck, for tonight anyway. He shivered as he waited, waited for the sand to run out, for the Marine to ring the bell. The last minutes were the longest always. But now— the bell spoke. The Marine stepped forward. Surely he too was shivering? Certainly he must be squelching in his boots? Archie could see the red jacket dark with water. You would never know it though, the way he moved, stone faced, rigid, perfect. The bell spoke— and Archie turned over the watch. He walked aft to the rail where Horatio waited.
“What are you laughing at?” Archie kept his voice low, but he knew he sounded peevish,and Horatio knew it too. It would have been fair for Horatio to snarl, but he did not. He turned on Archie with the first smile of the new day. This was a good one too, the rarest of Horatio’s smiles, the wide unchecked delight that made him look approximately nine. It made Archie’s heart stumble every time.
“You,” Horatio said. “Not laughing but— that is how I first saw you, ever. With the rain running off your hat, in front, and down your back too. You told me it would be all right. You told me not to be afraid.”
“I remember.” Archie did, and his own mouth quirked a little into something close to the second smile of the day.
They both fell silent then, and thought of the cold wind of Spithead,and a different ship, so long ago now.
Enough of that. Archie butted his shoulder against Horatio, a hard nudge to bring the laughter to the surface. “Come, Mr Hornblower— let us get below.” They wasted no time at this, almost racing each other down the companionway. Archie thought for a moment that they would get stuck, the two of them abreast in the doorway like fools. But no, Horatio was a whisker ahead. Archie closed the door behind them. It did not make it any warmer. His hands were as numb as wooden blocks. He fumbled at his neckcloth, his jacket buttons. His skin stippled and shrank as he peeled away the wet layers. He could see that Horatio was the same, a clumsy pale shadow, undressing at top speed. Their clothing slumped to the deck with a wet splat.
“It is already eight bells now,” Horatio said. “Everything will still be soaked at morning watch.” He reached back to wring the water from his hair, shuddered as it ran down his back. He was draping his jacket over the chair back even so, and Archie’s over the desk. “My shirt is hopeless,” he said. “And I don’t have another even close to clean.” He poked at it with his foot.
“You can wear mine from Tuesday,” Archie said. “I changed it when I bled on the sleeve, remember? It is clean except for that— well, somewhat clean. And dry.”
“All right,” Horatio said. “The blood won’t show under my jacket anyway.”
“My hammock tonight?” Archie said.
Horatio’s skin was as clammy as his own. But Archie could feel the heat under the skin, Horatio drew him close, to the pillow of neck and shoulder, his chin against the top of Archie’s head. Horatio’s hand traveled down Archie’s back, neck-bone to tail-bone, slow slow. Warming now, and Horatio’s heart beneath his ear. Horatio’s hand came to rest beneath the damp curtain of Archie’s hair. Sleep came.
Six Bells, Morning watch
Inspection was conducted under a canopy of wet canvas, sagging like a fat man’s gut. Water oozed therefore, at horribly irregular intervals, instead of instead of falling as honest rain should. The men of Archie’s division stood, stoically hatless, under the wet Sabbath sky. They blinked in the light. The ship smelled of smoke and fungus. Out of the corner of his eye Archie could see Horatio inspecting his own division. Horatio with the blood encrusted shirt he had been so grateful for. Archie forced himself to smile.
“Easy day today boys,” he said. "Services, and then a rest. Who knows--maybe the sky will clear.” They looked unconvinced.
Archie had a secret fondness for Sunday mornings. The comfort of ritual, the old words. Red Ned was a good speaker, he had a voice smooth as an oak banister. Once a month, of course they read the Articles instead. Archie stood, on those days, outwardly attentive, his face blank as a brick wall. He let those words slide over his shoulders and away. It was easy, he had done it now almost half his life.
Six bells Monday morning
Horatio put down his fork, beside his plate. Archie saw him sigh. There was room for elbows between the cups and plates. Archie put them there.
“Are you full now?”
“Oh yes,” Horatio said.
“Those last three sausages were—”
“Don’t laugh. You ate just as much as me.”
“I finished first.”
“You ate faster.”
Maybe it was true. They had both been addressing their food with focused attention for the last half hour. Pellew kept a good wardroom, but eating ashore was like stepping from dark into light. Everything tasted so good, sweet, bitter, greasy, salty. Archie wanted it all. But now even he could not fit another bite. Archie watched as Horatio took a long swallow of his ale, his eyes were wide in the dim light, and he kept them on Archie as he swallowed. That was just fine. Nobody was going to notice the length and heat of gaze, not here. The men in this place were eating, they were reading newspapers. The only one who knew them here was Cleveland. He was done eating too. He was on the room’s far side, trying to read the Naval Gazette and to keep his pipe from going out. It appeared to be taking all his attention and both hands. It was dim in the little tavern, but it was warm by the fire. Outside the rain still fell implacably.
“I was surprised we were sent ashore for this,” Horatio said. “It seems extravagant. Won’t it be a terrible expense for Captain Pellew? All those women? And I cannot imagine they like it. It seems indecent to me.”
“He has to think of ship’s morale Horatio. They will wash it in real soap and fresh water and dry it all indoors. Every Indefatigable will be clean and dry from the skin out. And anyway, That is what washerwomen do. Doesn’t Mary wash your father’s things at home?”
“Yes, but—” Archie knew what the ‘but’ was. Mary was a servant, yes, but Horatio thought of her as family. She had been there all his life, tending him with a mother’s love; Horatio who had no mother.
“I expect they appreciate the money too,” Archie said. “They seemed pleased enough with two jolly boats full of laundry.
“They are going to see our underwear.”
“Well yes,” Archie said. “I expect they will.”
Archie stretched his feet toward the hearth. Archie was dry and warm, he had the pleasant burn of whiskey all down his gullet. He had a cigar, carefully wrapped in waxed paper, that he had been saving for such a moment. He patted at his waistcoat pocket.
But Horatio was watching him, his dark eyes wide and soft. Horatio’s hand was resting on the table beside his empty plate. A bruise stained the knuckle of his thumb, and the nail was black and ragged with it. Archie knew that if he lifted the hand to his mouth it would smell of smoke and powder The skin would be warm and taste of salt. The cigar would be there in the morning. Archie reached across to take Horatio’s hand. His own body blocked the action from the room, even if anyone cared nobody would see.
“Shall we go up?” Archie said.