Title: More Infernal Bad Luck
Fandom: Horatio Hornblower
Disclaimer: This is a fanwork. I received no money personally for its creation nor am I affiliated with the books/miniseries in any way.
Summary: This time, Horatio Hornblower is determined to not embarrass himself at a formal engagement.
Word count: 3,845
Author Notes: Written for wig_powder as a thank you for donating on my fundraising page for the Walk to End HIV. The requirement was a 2,500 word fic.
More Infernal Bad Luck
This time—and in this matter he was absolutely determined—he would not embarrass himself. Not only could he not stand it personally, professionally it would be a terrible move. Embarrassing himself tonight would be the worst possible thing for his career. And for Horatio Hornblower, his career was the thing most precious to him in all the world. So he resolved to take extra care tonight in both his appearance and conduct, ensuring that both were exemplary.
During his first formal dinner just before leaving home, he had made an absolute fool of himself, not knowing which fork was for which course. He had accidentally taken a drink from the wrong glass, forcing the servants to stop and reset the settings for half the table. Then there had been the incident with the dessert. The pudding had come on a tray covered in flowers. Bright red flowers. Bright red flowers that had turned his nose and eyes a similar shade of bright red. Also puffy. And watery. Not only had he sneezed, he had sneezed on the dessert platter. And then he had spent a week apologizing to his father.
He had never before felt so mortified. So when he had received the invitation to accompany Captain Pellew to a government house, he had naturally been filled with worry. The officers of the Indefatigable had done their best to advise him, but he had still had to pad his stockings. And when he’d had to carve the chef’s masterpiece, the carving fork had slid easily into the meat with such an unappealing sound it had made everyone at the table flinch. The duchess, back when he’d thought she was actually a duchess, had even called him on it in front of the entire party.
Staring across a river at dozens of angry Frenchmen with rifles, Horatio Hornblower could handle. Commanding a sloop during a thunderstorm at sea, Horatio Hornblower could handle. Boarding a Spanish ship to take her, suffering through weeks of imprisonment, even seasickness, these were all things Horatio Hornblower could handle. But formal functions… occasions where a sword hung ceremoniously at his side instead of held tight in his hand during battle… those took him far out of his element and filled him with worry.
This occasion was no different. But this time he was determined to account for everything beforehand. His uniform was pressed and wrinkle-free. His new hat was pristine, not a dent to be seen. His shoes were shined. His scarf fluffed perfectly at his throat. He looked every bit the model officer. However, that didn’t make him feel comfortable. He was a fish out of water, and he knew it. He simply hoped the rest of the dinner party never found out.
The great government house was even larger than the last he had been in. It must have no fewer than four dozen bedrooms, if the windows on the second and—he could barely believe it—third stories were any indication. What one family could possibly need with so much space was beyond his reasoning, but there was no doubt in his mind that they must be using it for something impressive. Every inch of the exterior was beautifully painted, trimmed, and maintained, just as every bit of the interior was filled with some indication of nobility and fine taste. Music boxes sat on every side table. Portraits framed in gold adorned every mantle. Every pillow had a tassel. Every curtain had a ruffle. For a man used to living simply, with all his worldly possessions easily fitting into a small trunk, it was all overwhelming. There was so much to take in even before you considered the guests.
The place was chock-a-block with members of high society—politicians, military officials, lords, ladies, and so many more. At once, he longed for the solitude of his cabin back on board the Indy. Luckily, he located Captain Pellew almost immediately and was able to shadow the man who made introductions for him.
His nose nearly scraped the floor with so much bowing. He had learned the hard way that knowing when to stop bowing was just as important as when to initiate one, and he thought he had the measure of it now. He did his best, as well, to remember names. There were so many people, and there was no telling next to whom he would be seated at dinner. He went over and over the names in his mind as he said his greetings and made small talk about weather or the state of affairs out at sea. All anyone seemed to want to talk about were the adventures brought about by the current conflict. And at least this was a matter about which Horatio could speak with experience, though he was happy to let Captain Pellew take the lead.
Hornblower was polishing off a glass of champagne and making small talk with to a congressman and his wife when he first felt a tickle in his nose. At first he thought nothing of it. Those came and went occasionally, and usually one forceful rub at his nose could drive away any urge at all to sneeze. But it didn’t go away so easily. Marking the bubbles in his drink as the most likely culprit, he set his empty glass down on the next silver serving tray to pass by him. Then he carefully weighed his options. He did not like to be seen sneezing heavily into a handkerchief in front of such august company, but neither did he want the sneeze to strike suddenly and cause him to sneeze in anyone’s face. So, reluctantly, out came the handkerchief from his sleeve, just in case. It earned him a few looks and the couple he was talking to moved on to speak with someone else. The ticklish sensation backed away on its own and Hornblower felt foolish to have worried at all. He hid the cloth up his sleeve again, admonishing himself.
When it came time to be seated, their hosts had seated him practically at the opposite end of the table from Captain Pellew, so Hornblower felt he was on his own. But he was quite pleased with his immediate company. His opposite was a wealthy widower who seemed utterly fascinated by all aspects of the sea, repeatedly pumping Hornblower for detail after detail. To his immediate right was a young British politician everyone seemed eager to speak with, thus allowing Hornblower to listen and enjoy his meal more than converse. The man looked familiar, and Hornblower was sure he would know the name if someone spoke it, but he had not received a formal introduction and it seemed too late and insulting to ask for one now when everyone seemed to know the man. To Hornblower’s immediate right was the lady of the manor house just down the way. At the head of his side of the table was their hostess, who kept the discussion moving along at a steady and enjoyable clip and made sure they were all constantly plied with the best food and drink Hornblower had seen in months, if not longer.
Despite being on land, surrounded by strangers, and forced to remember which fork to eat with which course of the meal, Horatio Hornblower was actually having a fairly good time.
Around the time of the politician’s second glass of port, he began speaking energetically with the navy admiral who sat opposite him, and Hornblower listened with great interest, only to be distracted almost at once by another tickle in his nose. This one was sharper, as though a prickling were taking place inside, and an insistent one at that. He was fairly certain this one would not be diminished by a simple rub and, when he applied that technique, it only made the matter worse. His breath caught as the urge to sneeze flared up intensely in his nostrils.
Out came his handkerchief again, but he wasn’t sure if he should rise and remove himself from the table or attempt to stifle the sneeze quietly so as to go unnoticed. This sneeze was going to happen, he was certain of that, but the best way to handle it seemed unclear. After some internal debate, he excused himself from the table, cheeks flushed red as the hostess narrowed her eyes quizzically at him. His chair scraped back and nearly hit a woman who was standing just behind him, speaking and laughing merrily with a man who was gesticulating wildly as he spoke. Hornblower hadn’t time to wonder why they were standing just there, only cursed his luck for it. He managed to squeeze out from the table and past them, raising his handkerchief to his face just in time to hide his flaring nostrils. With an involuntary breath, his slightly watering eyes closed. And then the sneeze struck in full force, muffled sufficiently into the folds of his ready handkerchief. “hehhy-Ptshhphhhhh!” Though he genuinely hoped no one was paying him any attention, he uttered a polite “God bless m—“ but did not make it through the entire sentiment. “h-Gihshhhphhh! Oh, God bless.” He pinched his nose through the cloth and pulled downward, both relieving his nose of any further tickle and removing any lingering wetness. He gave his nose a wipe for good measure before tucking the cloth away and returning to the table, glad to see the guests who had essentially blocked him in were now gone, most likely having taken their seats further down the table. This allowed Hornblower to slip back into his seat with an apology everyone accepted with a polite nod.
That should have been the end of it all, but Hornblower could not keep his mind from racing around the question of what had caused him to sneeze such sudden, violent sneezes. He did not feel worn down in any respect; in fact, he felt finer than he had in some time, so he was certain he was not so unlucky as to be catching cold. The only other times he had felt such a desperate need to sneeze was when he was around those terrible red flowers; one did not encounter flowers at sea, but one did not forget the sensation they had caused in one’s nose. Hornblower looked around, seeing no such things adorning the table or even on anyone’s person. No flowers, red or otherwise, worn on lapels or even done up in a lady’s hair or wig. But logic dictated that if he had felt such a strong, irrepressible urge to sneeze there must have been a reason. Could flower petals have been added to the food, perhaps? His meal was extravagant but the tastes had all been easy enough to identify and he had been eating this dish for a while before the sneeze came upon him. The logic just didn’t track.
Not knowing the cause put Hornblower on edge for the rest of the meal. He tried to enjoy himself, but that was impossible to do with the knowledge that he might suddenly sneeze again and embarrass himself at any moment. So it was with great relief that the dinner concluded without so much as a sniffle from him.
But then came the part of the gathering he had dreaded from the beginning: the dancing. Though Hornblower understood the place of such merriment, he had no liking for it at all. To his mind, music was nothing more than an irritant, one he wished he could claim to have an allergy to so as to be able to avoid it entirely. As the stringed quartet began tuning up and the dishes and tables were removed to the kitchens to make room for dancing, Hornblower found a bare spot of wall and claimed it as his own, hoping to go unnoticed as long as possible.
But the politician whose name Hornblower had not caught found him at once. The man wasn’t much older than Hornblower and wore, if possible, an expression of even greater dislike upon his face. “This is the part I detest,” he confided in a whisper to Hornblower’s ear. “But our hosts seem to have done their duty in inviting a balance of gentlemen and ladies with the intention that we all join in.”
Hornblower, who had come to the same conclusion, nodded. “I suppose then we have no choice. And if it pleases others…”
“Quite right, quite right,” the man hastily agreed. He took a deep breath. “Well, then, once more unto the breach?” Hornblower nodded and, with determination, they both threw themselves into the mix to find partners.
After a minute or two of panic, Hornblower spotted an older woman, standing off to the side with a fan, looking forlornly at the couples pairing off and arranging themselves. He went up to her and presented himself with a small bow. “Lieutenant Horatio Hornblower, of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, My Lady. Would you do me the honor?” He extended his arm, bent at the elbow, and she placed a gloved hand upon it with an eager an appreciative nod.
Her name, it turned out, was Elisabeth Smith, second daughter of an earl and his wife who were in attendance. She was dressed finely in a pale blue dress with gold toggles and her wig was powdered a soft blue to match. Hornblower hoped he would not embarrass her, as he knew the steps but lacked the ability to execute them in time to the racket others called lovely music. They found a spot on the dance floor and waited for the song to begin.
Hornblower spotted the politician on the other side of the room, paired with the widow Hornblower had been sitting opposite during dinner. He tried to catch the man’s eye, but the distance made that unlikely.
“A reel!” Lady Smith hissed at him.
Hornblower turned his attention back toward her. “Hm?” Then he realized everyone around him was in position to dance a reel and he had been anticipating something quite different. How could they make out the auditory clues in all that noise? It was a talent he was sure he would never possess, but he quickly adjusted his stance and took her hands in his, her dainty fingers slipping into his, which were much more used to gripping swords and pulling ropes.
Around him, everyone took a step closer to their partners, and Hornblower knew that meant the dance was about to begin. He followed their lead and hoped to be able to keep up well enough.
But that was when it happened again. An enormous tickle flared up in his nose so suddenly Hornblower barely had time to react. “hah-hahCHISHH!” He sneezed, only raising his arm at the very last moment to sneeze into his sleeve instead of his partner’s face.
“God bless you,” she said, sounding as stunned as he felt.
He nodded gratefully as he took his handkerchief out again. He wanted to clean his nose up and reassure her that he was all right. But another tickle prickled at his nose like tiny daggers, and he surrendered to them at once. “hahh-IHChphhhh!” This time, he managed to bury the sneeze in his handkerchief, which he found he could not lift his head from any time soon. “hehh-Chihphhhh! H’shmphhhh!”
The dance was happening around them now. Hornblower felt people bumping into his back and his shoulders, jostling him from all directions except from the front. His partner, also not moving in time to the music, was receiving the same treatment, so she moved closer to him to avoid being bumped.
Naturally, that was when the tickle in Hornblower’s nose grew wildly out of control. His breath hitched uncontrollably and he had to fight to keep his eyes open. “P-please ex… excuse…” was all he managed to get out before he pulled away from her and fled from the dancing. He staggered away just a few pages before the sneezes exploded from him like rifle fire. “hehGshphhh! heyKTshhhhh! Heptshhhhh! Heh… hehEHptshhh! Hihshihh Hehshihhh! hahh-IHPTshhffffff” His handkerchief could barely contain them all, wet as though it had been thrown overboard and only just recovered.
His eyes itched. His nose twitched madly. It seemed he would not be able to sneeze enough to satisfy it. “hehhhEhtshhhh! HIHShhhh! H’Kschhphhh! Hehptschoo!” Vaguely aware that the room was quiet, it wasn’t until he felt a hand on his back, leading him forward, that he realized the music had stopped. Hornblower opened two tear-filled eyes to find that everyone was watching him. Everyone. He’d ruined the dance. He’d ruined the event. And, once more, he had embarrassed himself. It was one thing to catch cold and have a sneezing fit in his bunk with only Archie and the other midshipmen there to see and quite another entirely to sneeze like this in front of so many members of high society, admirals who were judging his fitness, ladies who would no doubt find this unattractive. Horatio Hornblower’s ears and cheeks burned pink with shame.
“Come along,” came Captain Pellew’s voice as the man led him to a smaller room just beyond. The incomprehensible musical noise started back up as soon as they were gone, but the damage had been done. Hornblower found himself being planted on a settee.
He tried to thank the man, but the sneezes kept coming. “heh-IHPTshhh! hehKTshhhh! Heh-hehTChhphhh!” They weren’t quite as intense now, but his nose simply tickled so badly. He was fairly certain just nose that he might never stop sneezing. “hehhh-Ihtschhh!”
“Oh dear.” Hornblower recognized that voice as the lady of the house, come to see what ailed him, presumably. She came over to him and brushed her fingers tenderly against his cheek.
Hornblower sucked in a breath, feeling the tickle surge up anew in his nose. He couldn’t help snapping forward again with a hearty “HEHBTshhhhhhhh!” Only half-caught in the increasingly useless wet handkerchief. “hehhhKTshhhh! hehhhhPtshhhh! HEHkdshhhh! hehWhfffffff!”
“Perhaps a glass of water?” she suggested and hurried away to get him one.
“hehh.. hehhhhIHTshhhh!” He sneezed wetly and finally found a respite. His nose was so full and ticklish and he needed to blow it so badly, but his cheeks were like fire at the mere notion that he might do so here.
Captain Pellew put a hand on his shoulder. “Go ahead, Hornblower. Give it your all.”
With a weak smile and no further hesitation, Hornblower let loose with a substantial blow. And, as soon as he was done and had lifted his head in relief, Captain Pellew handed a handkerchief to him. Hornblower took it just in time. “hehhhIHPtshh!”
The lady returned with water, and Hornblower tried his best to sip some. But his nose… the sneezes… it was a battle he could not win. “hehhh-IHTShhphhh!” The captain’s handkerchief was warm but rough and he tried rubbing his nose through the cloth. That only seemed to make it worse. “heh-IHPTshhhh! Hehshhhh! Hey-IHShhhh!”
“hah… hahIhptphhh!” At some point, Hornblower was aware of the lady asking if she could do anything to help and Captain Pellew urging her to return to her other guests. But it was hard to be relieved when this tickle would not let up. “hehKtshphhh!” Frustrated, he tried to hold back, thinking maybe if he kept one sneeze back, the others might follow suit. He tensed up and struggled, holding his breath, pinching his nose through the handkerchief’s folds. His breath raced ahead of him, bursting out in loud, desperate gasps, before forcing a sneeze from him anyway. “heh-GIHSHHH!”
Captain Pellew took a seat beside him. “At your ease, Man. Be at your ease.”
That was difficult to do, but he appreciated the sentiment. Hornblower tried to relax. “hehhKshhhh!” That sneeze felt better, bringing with it some measure of relief. The more he sneezed, the more the tickle began to back down. “ihhh-HShchhhh! Hehhh-IHPtshphhhh!” He folded the new handkerchief, trying to find a dry portion in which to bury his nose. “hehhh-Ihktshh! hehhPtshhh!” This time, he did not hesitate to blow his nose when he needed to, and the immediate need to sneeze went with it.
“Have we lost another poor soul to wig powder then?”
Hornblower looked up through streaming eyes to see his friend, the politician, striding over with a glass of port in one hand and in the other a clean handkerchief, already extended. Setting his used ones in his lap, Hornblower took the fresh one at once, wiping at his eyes. “Wig powder?”
“I’ve a good friend who’s terribly allergic to the stuff as well. Sneezes his head off at any formal gathering.”
Now that the man suggested it, everything made perfect sense. Wigs were not as fashionable as once they had been, so not many of the guests tonight wore them. But his dancing partner had, as had the Lady of the house who had brought him water. The gentleman who had been standing behind his chair briefly during dinner had also been wearing one. It all made perfect sense. Hornblower nodded and blew his nose miserably, but it still burned and tickled, and another sneeze forced its way out almost immediately. “heh-Keychhphh!” But it was so nice to have something soft and dry at his nose, he barely minded the need to sneeze now.
“Damned outdated social custom. They’re nothing more than gaudy signs of nobility and class,” the politician was muttering. “We should abolish the whole notion of wigs if you ask me.”
Horatio found the words to be a comfort and smiled appreciatively. It was far easier to not feel embarrassed now. “Perhaps a tax?” He suggested.
The politician nodded thoughtfully. “A high enough tax upon wig powder might just do it.” He patted Hornblower’s arm reassuringly with a laugh. “I’ll see what I can do when the House reconvenes.”
Hornblower smiled and folded the handkerchief around the wet area, intending to give it back. But the man waved it off. “Thank you,” Hornblower said, unfolding it again in case another sneeze came.
“I suppose I must reluctantly rejoin the dancing. I trust you’ll be well, so long as you avoid wigs for the rest of the evening?”
“I should think so,” Hornblower agreed. “I… hep… hehh-TSHhuphhhh!” He smothered another large one into the handkerchief and then snuffled and blew. When he looked up, the man was gone. Hornblower looked over at Captain Pellew, whose eyes were wider than normal, and confusion once again took hold.
“You never cease to surprise me, Mister Hornblower. Talking politics with the Prime Minister?”
Hornblower swallowed back his shock. “The…” Was that why the man had looked vaguely familiar to him?
“Yes, William Pitt the Younger himself. Good God, Man. Do you mean you didn’t know who he was?” Hornblower shook his head as his captain laughed and patted him on the back. “Perhaps it’s time to head back to the ship, before you accidentally cause any more laws to be written.”
Directing another lingering sneeze into what had been the Prime Minister’s handkerchief, “hah-EHPTchphhh!” Hornblower agreed whole-heartedly.
End Notes: I had a hard time with the timeline. William Pitt levied a tax on wig powder in 1795 and was Prime Minister from 1783-1801 the first time he held that distinguished office. Mr. Midshipman Hornblower supposedly takes place between 1794 and 1798 and Lieutenant Hornblower in 1800-1803. So I botched the dates a bit to make this work considering I reference the scene from “The Duchess and the Devil” when he is a Lieutenant. Please forgive me. The idea of picturing a young Benedict Cumberbatch offering Horatio his sympathies and a handkerchief was just too perfect to pass up. As was, of course, an extremely slight and not based in reality but nonetheless adorable hint that William Wilberforce had an allergy to wig powder as well. *EG*