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Advent Calendar, Day 4: Taking Stock (Horatio Hornblower fanfic)


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Now we go back to slightly more familiar territory...

The Indefatigable was one of the prides of the Royal Navy. Beautifully designed, successful in battle, commanded by an exemplary man…many a crewman wanted to sail on her. There was very little that could best her.

The one thing that was a match for her, it seemed, was boredom. The officers kept the crew disciplined and made sure the ship was kept in proper condition, but when the seas were calm and no French ships were in sight, the men started looking for ways to pass the time. That way lay drunkenness, slackness of duty, and a risk of being surprised by the enemy. Fortunately, Pellew knew how to keep his crew in line, so that “incidents” were kept to a minimum.

One of the other side effects of the unexpected lull was that the more inexperienced men and officers had nothing to help them get a handle on life at sea. Most took advantage of this downtime to relax or perhaps practice the skills they already knew. In a few cases, however, it could lead to trouble…

***

Midshipman Horatio Hornblower found himself pacing the deck, glad the senior officers weren’t around to witness it. While he did appreciate the lack of battles, not having any definitive orders left him feeling antsy. There were only so many times you could drill the men or climb the rigging before you started to look like a fool. And he’d read every book he could find, organized his seachest, and cleaned his entire uniform. There was literally nothing else for him to do, and that was what was driving him mad.

“Mr. Hornblower!”

Hornblower jumped, but tried to compose himself as he turned around to face his captain. “Yes, sir?”

Pellew was looking over the deck, apparently considering something. “When is your next watch?”

“At four bells, sir. I have another three hours until then.” Hornblower winced internally as he said it. The prospect of looking for ways to fill that time was not a pleasant one.

“I’m sorry to cut into your rest, but I have a request of you.”

Hornblower tried not to sound too eager as he answered “Oh?”

“I’ll be drilling the men in firing the cannons in a few hours, but I’d prefer to conserve our supplies if we’re running low. We don’t want to run into trouble if we do encounter a Frenchman. As such, I would like you to go into the powder room and take stock of things. Pay especial attention to the gunpowder, if you please.”

“Yes sir!” Hornblower said, quickly snapping to a salute. Pellew gave a faint smile. “Report to me just before your watch. Dismissed.”

Hornblower immediately turned on his heel and headed to the Midshipman’s berth to get paper and pencil. It might not have been a particularly difficult task, but at least it was a distraction, and he would take whatever he could.

Five minutes later, he found himself in front of the powder room, cautiously pushing open the door. Unable, understandably, to light a lantern, he would have to make do with ambient light. Fortunately, he was able to see well enough, although it would make writing figures a bit of a challenge. With a shrug, he tucked the paper away for now and set to work.

It seemed wisest to save the gunpowder for last, so he could devote his full attention to it. He quickly counted the cannonballs, the bags of shot, and the packing materials, and smiled to himself as he wrote down the numbers. Pellew had nothing to worry about on that front; the Indefatigable was still a match for any Frenchman.

Then he turned his attention to the gunpowder. Mostly, he’d have to deal with barrels, but there were a few bags hidden in a corner to consider as well. He quickly fell into a routine of opening a barrel to check if it was full, moving it to one corner, marking the paper, and moving on to the next barrel. Moving it inch by inch was difficult, but the months at sea had already given Hornblower a little muscle, and it took less time than expected. All told, they had ten unused barrels, and an eleventh that was still three-quarters full. Pellew could run drills for twenty-four hours if he liked, although the noise would probably leave the entire crew deaf.

All that was left now was the bags, and even in the dim light, he could tell they had over a dozen. Wanting them to be accessible to the crew when it came time for the drills, he moved them out of the way (counting twenty-one in all) and carefully returned the barrels to their proper position. Then he started to pile the bags on top of the closest barrel, so the powder monkeys would have easy access.

Hornblower had just picked up the last bag when he heard a roar from the upper decks. He quickly recognized it as a cheer from the men—no doubt they had done quite well on some other drill—but the initial sound caused him to jump. As he did so, he loosened his grip on the bag, which hit the edge of the barrel and tumbled to the ground. Cursing, Hornblower bent to retrieve it.

He’d only gotten halfway down when he caught the sharp scent of the powder. Just as he realized that the bag must have opened, his nose itched sharply. He raised his hand to rub it away, but apparently, it would not be denied.

“Eh…ih…Tchh!”

And it would have been fine if that had been the end of it. But the itch remained, even after Hornblower rubbed at it for a good ten seconds. I must have breathed it in, he thought, annoyed. Well, hopefully it will fade once I’ve left the powder room. Giving his nose one last rub, he bent down to pick up the bag again.

This time, he managed to close his fingers over the cloth. But as he lifted it up, the smell of gunpowder returned to his nose, and the itch once again changed into a sneeze. “Kchh!”

With a sniff, he brought the bag up to his face and squinted. In the dim light, he could see that the bag had ripped a little, probably when it hit the barrel. A small stream of powder was leaking out of it. Hornblower cursed again—the bag would be useless now. The safest thing to do would be to dispose of it. But how…?

While he considered, he shook his head in irritation, forgetting about how close the bag was to his face. As a result, he inadvertently angled his face in such a way that the leaking contents of the bag spilled directly onto the tip of his nose.

Hornblower recoiled as his entire nose suddenly seemed to fill with the thick scent. It burned, it filled his mouth with an unpleasant taste, but above all, it tickled. No amount of rubbing would stop it this time. He had no option but to sneeze.

“Hah…Hah-CHSHH!”

His grip loosened, and he dropped the bag once more. This time, it landed atop the barrels. Unfortunately, it meant that when the powder escaped in a noticeable cloud, it was close enough to his face for him to breathe in yet another dose of powder. The tickle went from “insistent” to “downright unbearable.” Hornblower groped for his handkerchief, interrupted by sneezes all the while.

“Kshh! Ah-sheh! Kpshh!” Finally locating the cloth, he held it to his nose, as much to catch his sneezes as to keep from breathing in still more. But the damage, it seemed, had already been done.

He’d expected the sneezing to continue as before, but somehow, putting the cloth to his face had caused the tickle to die down. Not enough to stop completely, though, just enough to make him desperately want to sneeze. His breath started hitching.

“Hih…hihh…hahhh…ahhhh…”

There was an agonizing moment when he was stuck, frozen, while the sneeze decided what to do. Then it came out of him, painfully loud despite the covering of the handkerchief.

“AH-ESHOO!!!”

The sneeze seemed to have broken down whatever barrier he’d had, because now the sneezes came in quick succession, with barely enough time for him to take a quick breath before they started up again.

“Eshh! Shh! Tchh! Eh-gshh!”

As he stood there, sneezing helplessly, he remembered the time as a child when he’d been exploring the kitchen and picked up a pepper shaker to examine it. The resulting fit of sneezes was uncannily similar to this. Same burning in his nose, same insistent tickle, and the same damn powerless feeling. It was humiliating to know that he was in the same predicament at age eighteen as he’d been in at age six.

Remembering how his father had found him and the subsequent scolding he’d received, it suddenly dawned on him that there was a chance someone could hear him. While the powder room was far below decks, he was carrying on enough that it might be heard by anyone passing by. What if they came down to investigate and found him like this? Or worse, what if they ran to get someone else to do it? Hornblower wasn’t sure which would be more humiliating, being caught by Pellew, a fellow midshipman, or one of the crew.

His mind may have been in turmoil, but the rest of his body was focused on sneezing. “Hatchh! Heyshh! Kurshh!”

Hornblower managed to press the handkerchief to his nose to muffle the sound a little. When he sneezed again—“Chh!”—he could actually feel the powder flying out of his nose, landing in the cloth. He wasn’t sure if it was the sensation or if he was just breathing the powder back in, but it caused him to sneeze again, more forcefully. “Etchew!”

Slowly, the sneezes started to die down. They stopped coming in such frequency, instead giving him a slow build-up before release. It meant he had more time to gather his thoughts, enough that he managed to mentally ask himself a few questions between sneezes. Such as how on earth the powder monkeys and quartermaster managed to load the bags without sneezing their heads off?

“Ih…Ah…eh…et-CHUH!”

Did he have an overly sensitive nose, or would this happen to anyone if they inhaled gunpowder?

“Hah…hah…Hashh!”

Was there something in gunpowder and pepper that caused such similar reactions?

“Hih…Hishoo!”

Was it a coincidence that gunpowder and pepper both looked like black grains?

“Kertshh!”

That’s when he forced himself to shake his head. If he continued with that line of inquiry, people would be sure he’d gone mad. Then again, he had an excuse; at the rate he was going, he would have sneezed his brains into mush.

“Et-TISHA!!” Or at the very least, he’d sneeze his nose clean off.

As he braced himself for yet another sneeze, he realized that one wasn’t forthcoming. Lowering the handkerchief, he sniffed experimentally. No, there didn’t seem to be any powder in the air. Certainly his nose had finally stopped burning. Hornblower groaned in relief and shook out the handkerchief, watching with some consternation as he saw flecks of gunpowder fall out.

As he started to put the cloth away, a thought struck him, leaving his blood running cold. A little bit of spilled powder was to be expected, but a mound like the mess he’d just made was unacceptable. One ill-timed spark and the powder room was sure to go up. There was nothing for it; he had to clean it. Groaning again, he held his breath and bent down to scoop up a handful of gunpowder.

It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He opened up one of the barrels and quickly dumped the powder in, quickly turning his face away to sneeze into his shoulder. “Igshmp!” Once he was sure his nose was clear, he bent to pick up another handful. It only took five minutes, and about as many sneezes. Then he dusted off his hands, closed the barrel, and fled to the upper decks.

Part of him wanted to report to Pellew immediately and complete the assignment. But he suspected that all the sneezing had left his nose looking pink, and it was in his best interest to get that under control. So instead, he went into the midshipman’s berth once more and took a look in the mirror.

“Good god!” he yelped, staring at himself. His nose was actually the best part about his reflection at the moment. His entire face and the curls over his forehead had gone blackish-grey, and the front of his uniform wasn’t much better. Only his nose was clean, no doubt due to the copious use of his handkerchief.

After staring in horror for a few seconds, Hornblower quickly started trying to figure out a solution. Splashing water on his face would deal with the worst of it, and then he could comb his hair out to get rid of the rest. As for his uniform, well, he could shake it out overboard, but it clearly needed a proper wash. He’d have to use his spare coat when he went to talk to the captain. There were a few streaks of black on his breeches, but hopefully Pellew would dismiss that as a natural consequence of being down in the powder room. Checking his watch to make sure he had time, he set to work.

Thankfully, no one came in to inquire what he was doing, so he was able to move about with minimal embarrassment. He splashed water on his face, wiping it down with a towel and leaving it crumpled and grey by the time he was finished. His nose prickled a little at the cold water, but fortunately decided to behave itself. Quickly grabbing his spare coat and a comb, Hornblower returned to the deck to give his report.

The few crewmen he ran into on deck were in the middle of tying knots, so other than the required salute, they ignored him, which Hornblower was grateful for. He focused on getting his hair to look presentable and buttoning up his coat properly, and soon found himself in front of Pellew’s door. Tucking the comb away, smoothing out his hair, and taking a deep breath, he rapped on the door.

“Come in.” Hornblower pushed open the door and saluted. “Inventory of the powder room has been completed, sir.”

Pellew looked up at him. “Very good, Mr. Hornblower. And what is our situation?”

“We’re in fine shape, sir. We have plenty of ammunition and supplies for the cannons. Do you want exact numbers?”

“Only for the gunpowder, Mr. Hornblower. The rest is of lesser concern.”

Hornblower hoped he wasn’t blushing as he answered. “Eleven full or mostly full barrels and twenty bags. We won’t need to worry about resupplying for some time yet.”

Pellew nodded. “Excellent. I’ll have Mr. Bracegirdle run the drill as scheduled. Thank you for your help, Mr. Hornblower.”

“It was nothing, sir,” Hornblower said modestly, “The Indefatigable needs to be prepared, after all.”

“Indeed, Mr. Hornblower. Away with you now, to prepare for your watch.”

Hornblower had just reached the door when Pellew called him back. “Wait a moment, Mr. Hornblower. Something has just occurred to me.”

Hornblower turned back obligingly. “Yes sir?” he asked, wondering what it was. Another assignment, or possibly a request for advice?

He felt like all the color was draining out of his face as Pellew said “I was certain that there were twenty-one bags of gunpowder the last time someone did inventory. The amount of gunpowder in them may change, but the bag count is always the same. Are you sure you counted them all correctly?”

Hornblower swallowed. “Yes, sir. I…” He closed his eyes, trying to figure out how best to phrase it. “While I was taking inventory, one of the bags slipped and hit the ground in just the right way to rip. I believe it’s useless now, sir.”

“Ah.” Pellew nodded at that, cocking his head in a way that suggested he was looking Hornblower over. Hornblower tried not to squirm. At last, Pellew said, “I presume you dealt with the worst of the mess?”

“Aye, sir,” Hornblower answered quickly, hoping the line of inquiry would end soon, “And the bag’s still down there, if the quartermaster thinks it’s salvageable.”

“Very good, Mr. Hornblower. I trust you came out of it none the worse for wear?”

Hornblower swallowed. “Yes, sir. A little dusty, but otherwise fine.”

“Well, don’t feel too bad about losing the bag. These sorts of things happen all the time. I’ve known of many a powder monkey who couldn’t hold onto it and let go. Miserable stuff, especially when it caused a fit of sneezing down the gunline.”

Hornblower clasped his hands behind his back, heart hammering, wondering if his fears down in the powder room had been warranted. However, Pellew gave no sign of reproach as he continued “It’s part of the reason why I keep the men in constant practice. I like to minimize the chances of them becoming slipshod.”

“Understandable, sir.” Hornblower said weakly.

“I just hope that this lull lets up. I believe the men are ready for a bit of action. And if there’s a bit of prize money in it for them, so much the better.”

Relieved at the change in topic, Hornblower nodded. “We’ve entered French waters. We’re bound to encounter something soon.”

“Very true, Mr. Hornblower. Very true. Now, I believe your watch starts soon?”

“Yes, sir. In another twenty minutes, I believe.”

“I’ll let you get to it, then.” Pellew waved a hand. “Dismissed.”

Once outside, Hornblower moved to the side of the ship and looked out over the sea, turning the events of the past hour over in his mind. Now that he was clean and able to breathe, he was actually able to see the humor in it. Clearly, he had more to learn as a Midshipman; no doubt the lieutenants knew better than to stick their noses anywhere near gunpowder. He chuckled softly and moved away. At least the incident had given him another excuse to clean his uniform. And he should probably take a bath tonight, just in case…

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Hehe~! Cute!

I love his adorable little predicament~

You write Horatio so well! This reads just like a book <3. Well done!

Link to comment

Hehe~! Cute!

I love his adorable little predicament~

You write Horatio so well! This reads just like a book <3. Well done!

Thank you so much for that last bit. I'm always glad when Horatio's voice rings true.

Glad you liked the fic!

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