Day 3

Title: Day 3
Author: tarotgal
Fandom: Horatio Hornblower
Rating: G
Pairing: None
Disclaimer: Not my characters. I wish they were mine. I definitely don’t get paid for this.
Summary: Horatio attempts to write a letter. Seems easy enough, but it doesn't go well for him.
Notes: Written during my 12 Ficlets in 12 Days in 2014 project for wig_powder

His shift on deck had been long. His First Lieutenant, William Bush, had been sniffling these past two days and today his cold had struck in full force with all sorts of coughs and sneezes and other symptoms that made duty a difficulty. In hopes that the man might sleep through the very worst of the ailment, Hornblower had ordered him to bed at once. But this meant Hornblower himself had to stand watch in back-to-back shifts. He was exhausted, his eyes weary, but there was still work to be done this night before he let sleep claim him.

So he closed himself in his incredibly small cabin. He settled on his bunk and pulled his desk over until the legs banged his knees; there wasn’t room for a chair. He reached over to his trunk and pulled out a sheet of paper, a bottle of ink, and a quill. After dipping the tip of the quill into the ink, he let a drip or two retreat back into the bottle as he realized he couldn’t see the paper well enough. The choice between saving money on candles and saving his eyes was a difficult one. He might have great success in his military career, but he made no profit from it. What little he had was sent straight home to Miria, leaving him to make ends meet any way he could.

But as his eyes already hurt and he might have to cover for Bush tomorrow as well, Hornblower knew he must not make his eyes any worse tonight. So he lit a candle, which already sat low in its holder. It wouldn’t give him more than a half an hour of light, if that, so he would have to work faster than usual. Once again, he dipped the quill in the ink and positioned it on the paper. He scratched a letter then a word into the paper. He could barely make it out. So he leaned forward a little and “Ah!”

Recoiling at once and dropping the quill, he slapped a hand to his eye. The end of the quill had poked him right in the eye. His eye watered, irritated with a light stinging sensation, but no serious damage had been done, thankfully. Knowing he shouldn’t, he rubbed at his eye with a knuckle then he wiped a tear from it and another appeared in its place, starting down his cheek. He wiped that one away as well before picking the quill back up.

This was the trouble with left-wing quills. They were a constant annoyance in his life, but one he was forced to endure as they were significantly cheaper than their right-wing counterparts. When you held a right-wing one, it naturally curved over one’s elbow, out of the way, allowing you to comfortably write and clearly read whatever you were writing. The left-wing quills, on the other hand, curved toward your face so you were forced to bend to see around it to the paper. But, on occasion, a left-wing quill might strike you in the face. It made for terribly uncomfortable writing.

Given that he could only afford the cheapest of quills, it should be an uncomfortable that he was used to by now. But each time, he thought he had it mastered. He was commander of the Hotspur, a fine sloop. He had stood up to the French and Spaniards. He had captured ships. He had escaped capture. One would guess that by now Horatio Hornblower would be capable of writing a simple letter.

And, in that, one would be incredibly, undeniably wrong. Hornblower bent over the paper once more, inspecting the ink blot the pen had made when he had dropped it a few moments before. It was an unfortunate mark, and he had only just started the letter. However, he was not willing to waste an entire sheet of paper. He would have to craft his words carefully so that one of the strokes of a letter overlapped the mark to hide it. He thought carefully for a moment, considering his message and how he would space it out on the paper. The candlelight flickered, the warm, golden glow illuminating the desk and the wall of his cabin beyond it. The candle wick burned away, marking the seconds wastefully. If he did not get to work on the letter at once, the candle would melt into nothing and he would lose his light.

He positioned the quill again and began to write, thoughtfully but quickly. They would reach a friendly port in two days’ time, and he would need to have quite a bit of correspondence completed by then. If he was on deck all day tomorrow, that left him little time to complete his tasks. And, thus, he wrote.

He could see the end of the quill, aimed right at his eye, burry and out of focus as it was so close and he was concentrating on the letter. So he tried to ignore the quill. And he might have succeeded if not for that ink blot. Hornblower leaned forward, drawing a letter P that incorporated the mark. But in leaning forward, the tip of the quill came too close again. It brushed against the bridge of his nose, back and forth and then down as the quill formed letters. Hornblower breathed out in a huff, fighting against the irritation. He leaned his head back and shook it a moment to clear the itch away.

Damned annoying quill. Hornblower tried to concentrate on the letter. Its content was what was important, not the writing utensil or the itch in his nose. He rubbed absentmindedly at his nose as he continued to write. He went letter by letter, word by word, and sentence by sentence. He had filled nearly half a page with his small but neat handwriting when he lowered his head at an angle to see the middle of the page.

Once again, the end of the quill brushed against his nose—this time, it caught the bottom of his nostrils, tickling them. They flared at once, and he pulled away at once in reaction. His eyes closed and he rubbed at his nose, trying to get rid of the tickle. The technique very nearly worked. “Ihh’tchhh!

Sniffling, he rubbed again at his nose, shaking his head counter to the directions his first and second fingers rubbed. The candle had flickered violently during the sneeze, threatening to go out. There was so little wick left that relighting it would be difficult. So he dug his hand into his pocket for his handkerchief, but his fingertips did not find the familiar cloth. It took him a moment to remember he had given the hanky he kept there to Bush earlier. Checking the spot up his sleeve where he kept his spare handkerchief would also do no good, he knew, as he had given that to Bush as well, after a strong bout of sneezes had caught him off guard and the first handkerchief had been too sodden to be of any use.

Hornblower sniffed again and resisted the urge to rub the cuff of his sleeve at his nose. He was not that desperate. It was only one sneeze. With a deep breath—let out softly and slowly so as not to extinguish the candle—Hornblower resumed work on his letter.

But he only got two sentences in before the light and feathery end of the quill once again brushed against his nostrils. A tickle flared up in them immediately. He drew a quick, involuntary breath before snapping forward. “h’Ktshhhh! Heh’Shehhhhh” This time, he avoided dropping ink on the paper. However, he did sneeze on part of the paper. As luck would have it, he missed the freshly written words where the ink was already drying. He blotted the page with his sleeve then fanned at it. He was just about to resume the letter when he felt the urge to sneeze again. He flared his nostrils and gave his nose a hard rub with the back of his hand, but neither did any good. “huh-SHIHHhhh!” This time, when he sniffed, there was an overwhelming sense of relief and completion. The tickle in his nose was gone for good. There would be no more sneezes. Which was good, considering he was starting to resemble his First Lieutenant right now. If anyone were to pass by his cabin and listen in, they might in fact think he had caught cold as well. He couldn’t risk any of the crew thinking that. It was bad enough when he was actually ill; he didn’t need to be covering up for a cold he did not actually have.

With a resolute expression on his face, he turned back toward the letter. He bent his head at a different angle, hoping that would help. It required him to close one eye and focus on the paper with the other, which was still difficult to see in the dim candlelight. He managed to get a line written, but he couldn’t quite see the far end of it without tilting his head in the opposite direction. When he did, the quill poked straight into a nostril.

Hornblower pulled back in surprise breathing out through his nose. But his nose still tickled wildly. He tried pinching it at the bridge, but that wasn’t where the tickle was. His nostrils twitched and he tried rubbing, massaging them. “hehhhh…” He held his breath. He shut his eyes. He tensed in his seat.  But it seemed nothing he was trying tonight—including the simple act of writing—was working. “heh-IHShhh! Heh-shehh! H’TSchuhh! Hehh-IhShuhh!” It still felt like the end of the quill was still in his nose, tickling. He managed to open his eyes long enough to make sure that the quill was on the desk. He turned, not wanting to spray the letter, and buried his nose safely and warmly in the crook of his arm. “H’shfff! hehShiffff! Heh… hehh-Shfffffff!” Resisting the urge to bang his palm on the desktop in frustration, knowing that would overturn the ink bottle, Hornblower instead gripped the fabric of his pants in a strong fist. “hehh-Shhhfff! h'Shihfff h’Shuffff! HEH-Shifffff!

Finally he felt the relief he was looking for. He wiped tears from his eyes and nuzzled his nose against his sleeve, wiping it dry. His whole head felt cloudy, stuffed-up, and sniffly with a runny nose. Clearing his throat, he pushed the desk away and squeezed around it. He stumbled over to the basin in the corner and splashed cool water on his face repeatedly. He twitched his nose, which made him laugh as he lifted his head and looked into the small mirror above the basin. His gaze met his reflection’s and locked there.

As he stared, it became harder and harder to see his reflection. At first, he thought it was his eyes losing their focus. Then he realized it was because the light in the room was fading. He turned on the spot just in time to watch the candle burn down to nothing. The flame disappeared into the pool of wax, plunging the small cabin into complete darkness.

Laughing, Hornblower felt his way back to bed. He could certainly light another candle and finish the letter. But he didn’t feel much like writing at the moment, or wasting more coin on a new candle. If he went to sleep now, he could wake early at first light and finish the letter without the assistance of a candle. Instead of wasting the time changing, he threw himself onto his bunk and drew his blanket up over himself. He was nearly asleep when his nose tickled again.

h’shhhffffff!” he sneezed the last of the sneezes into his pillow. And that reminded him, of course, about the quill. And his desk. He rolled over and put a stopper in the inkwell so it wouldn’t tip over and ruin the partial letter if the ship rocked. He moved the letter to one side of a small desk and the candleholder to the other side. Then he felt around in the darkness until he located the offending quill. He ran his fingers along the soft feather’s length. With a deep breath, he snapped it in half. In the darkness, the sound was louder than expected, but full of reassurance and a fair measure of vengeance. “Let’s see it try to make me sneeze now!” he laughed as he rolled back over in his bunk and worked through the rest of the letter in his mind until sleep took him.