Title: Poppies and Pertussis
Word Count 1319
Poppies and Pertussis
“I still don't und---” Archie bent to cough. It was a hollow hack that brought no relief. He held his abdomen in his arms, Horatio noticed.
When it was over there were were tears on his face. He cleaned them from his skin with an impatient grimace.
“I don't understand, ” he repeated. “We fought them. We did not dine with them. It is not as if our boarding parties were there for any length of time—”
“I know, “ Horatio said. “Some contagion is more virulent though Like a miasma in the air. A breath can be enough.”
“Well,” Archie said, “Its a damn waste. I am confined to my hammock, and here are my books, but my head aches too much to even read. I am ordered to eat well, and I cannot hold my food for coughing.” He gestured at the nearby bucket.
“It will pass Archie.” Horatio touched the thunderous brow. He bent to kiss Archie's hair. It was safe enough, there was no one nearby. He nuzzled Archie a little. He could smell illness in the sweat of his skin.
“Just rest now. You will be well again soon.”
“I know.” Archie leaned back, with a limp acquiescence that hurt to see. “So glad you don't have it, Honeybee.”
“More work for me-- that's it.” Horatio huffed.
Archie gave a tired smile to acknowledge the joke, but he could not spare the air to laugh.
Outside it fine and clear. Light airs moved against his cheek. The touch was warm for now, but he could feel the bite in the breeze. The summer was ending. Recovery would come with autumn and the frost. The ship was oddly empty, with so many confined, but it echoed with the sound of coughing.
Horatio climbed to the quarterdeck, and took up his watch station. The quarterdeck looked very wrong without Mr Bowles. He had taken the cough badly, and early. He was not well yet, but he kept getting up. Captain Pellew kept sending him back to bed. The rebuke in Pellew's voice was the result of fatigue. The profanity was too. These were things that a ships company pretended not to hear.
“Good morning Mr Hornblower.”
“Good morning, Sir.” Horatio smiled. Mr Bracegirdle was easy to smile at.
“How are the men of your division today?” Bracey asked. It was kindness, Horatio knew, but more as well. It would be written down.
“Matthews is much better, Sir.” He should be back to his duties tomorrow, and--”
Horatio went through the list of his men, seeing them in his mind. Those who were going to take ill had probably done so. They were going to come through this. He would make his visits after watch. So would the doctor. So would the old men. That was what you did. You brought soup. You read aloud, you waited.
A ship looked after its people. That was how Bowlsy got sick, of course.
Grown men would not die of this. Two powder monkeys had died though. They had sent one to the sea yesterday. There had been weeping among the coughing, after. His name, Horatio had found had been Abijah Leach. It was a name intended for the man he would now never be. He would never now get his top front teeth either.
Horatio pushed the thought aside. The watches seemed long lately. He settled himself to his days work.
Horatio was deep in a daydream when the shout came. He had been thinking of the pond, at home, and he and Archie, sleek as two otters, and naked, and how good it had felt, and--
“Mail ship, Sir!”
The boy atop the mast saw it first, but everyone on the quarterdeck could see it now too. The midshipman with the long hook snagged it on the first try.
There was a letter from Father, Horatio tucked it into his waistcoat to read later. There was a letter from Archie's mother. He took that one too. It would cheer Archie.
The bag was almost empty now, the boy looked up.
“This came for a 'Mr Alltroit, able seaman.' do you know--” the upturned face was quizzical. He held up a package, damp and lumpy. Looks like it fell in the drink, Sir.”
“Oldroyd, I'll warrant.” Horatio took the dripping thing. It was tied up with twine, and the ink on it had run.
“I'll see he gets it.”
And so, down and forward, through the dim, to the crowded dark, and Oldroyd's hammock. Pellew had ordered a wind-sail set up, and gratings propped open. So there was a little light, and the heavy air was not entirely still, but it smelled of sickness anyhow.
“Oldroyd, Oldroyd—hey.” He was asleep.
“Mr Hornblower, Sir.” Oldroyd blinked his pale eyes, startled.
“No, no. Don't get up.” They were both nearly whispering. Other men were sleeping nearby, or trying to.
“How do you feel today?”
“Oh, much better Sir.” Oldroyd was clenching his teeth not to cough. He coughed anyway.
“You got mail. Its a little wet though.”
Horatio handed the thing over.
“Its from my mother.” Oldroyd said.
He was worrying at a knot in the twine. It could be cut of course, but Horatio did not suggest it. No sailor cut anything unless he had to. He let Oldroyd work until the wet knot came free. Oldroyd would keep the small length of twine, Horatio knew. He would tuck it away in some corner of his sea-bag. Someday he would find a use for it. And now, he unfolded the brown paper. He would save that too.
Oldroyd smiled. “Three pairs,” he said.
They were under-drawers. And Horatio could see that they were very special.
“Those are amazing.”
And they were. They were linen, but not all of one piece. They were made in a sort of patchwork, that Horatio had never seen. Odd shaped bits of cloth, brought together to make a whole, and somehow a pleasing balance. And the seams as fine as hair, and the whole thing embroidered with flowers. Crazy with flowers. They rioted, across the front, around the back, along the legs. They came complete with trailing stems, and little leaves, and they were red and yellow. They were fine and sprightly. Even the draw tapes at the waist had flowers on them.
“What flowers are those?” Horatio put out a finger to touch, and Oldroyd let him.
“Poppies Sir. I'm poppies, my brother James gets roses, and John is violets. That how she told our drawers apart. My mother is a dressmaker, Sir. So she had scraps, always, to make our clothes. There are eight of us, and she did that, like, to make do.”
“So you have been wearing poppy under-drawers this whole time?” Horatio marveled.
“Oh, yes Sir.”
Oldroyd chuckled, and it turned to a racking cough.
“Here.” Horatio took the bolster from behind Oldroyd's head, and put it against the heaving abdomen. He pulled Oldroyd up, and folded him forward over it.
“Oh, that helps,Mr Hornblower.”
Oldroyd drew in a deep breath, and held up a scrap of paper.
“She wrote to me.” he said. “my mother can write, Sir. And I can read, if I go slow.” Oldroyd's face was lit with his smile.
“Well then,' said Horatio. “I'll leave you to your letter. I hope to see you back at work and healthy soon, in your fancy under-drawers.”
Horatio headed aft. He felt the crackle in his waistcoat, of the letters for himself and Archie. Love was puzzling, in its variety.