Ship Fever
by Dunnage41

Horatio Hornblower shivered slightly as he stood gazing over tranquil waters. If the wind held, they should be in Kingston in only a few days’ time.

“All right, there, sir?” Matthews came up behind him, his arms full of rope.

“Fine, Matthews. A bit chilly here on deck today,” Horatio replied curtly. He’d had a headache for two days straight and felt uncommonly stiff and aching. Surely he wasn’t getting old?

The older seaman looked at his young captain. “Begging your pardon, sir, you look a bit under the weather.”

Horatio felt his jaw clench of its own accord. “Thank you, Matthews.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” Matthews replied and quickly moved on. He was worried enough, however, to go below and ask the ship’s doctor to have a look at the captain.

A look was sufficient. “Captain, a word, when you have a moment. Below, sir, if you please.”

Horatio, frowning slightly, nodded and murmured to William Bush. “Mr. Bush, in charge, if you please.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

Frowning, Dr. Wallis felt the captain’s pulse, which was too slow. His keen eye took in the flush suffusing his usually pallid features. “How long have you been running a fever?”
Horatio glanced away. “A day or two, perhaps. It’s nothing.”

The doctor knew Hornblower well enough to know that neither sentence was true. Unceremoniously he unbuttoned Hornblower’s waistcoat and tugged open his shirt.
Spots. Only a few dozen at the moment. Oh God. Dr. Wallis briefly closed his eyes. Ship fever. Typhus. Also known as jail fever, famine fever and a dozen other appellations. The doctor knew that it could spread but didn’t always; however, it was called “ship fever” for a reason. Moreover, the captain was likely to get far more ill before any hope of recovery.

As the doctor’s mind raced, Matthews poked his head in. “Begging your pardon, sirs. Only wanted to see about the captain’s health, sirs.”

“Ship fever,” Dr. Wallis pronounced grimly. Horatio spoke over him. “Nonsense. Pure exaggeration, sir,” and stood. Or attempted to stand. What the devil was wrong with his legs? His knees refused to function and his calves turned to water. He swayed, his face translucent below the hectic flush of fever. Matthews and Dr. Wallis eased him back into the chair.

“Ship fever, sir,” the doctor said. “I’ll have to rig a sick bay and make sure none of the men get near. But … He’ll need tending…” the doctor’s voice trailed off.

“I’ll see to that, sir,” Matthews piped up. “I’ve had ship fever. Years ago. They say you don’t get it again.”

Dr. Wallis considered. “They” did indeed say that. “Well, why not?” he said to Matthews. “Get him into bed and get him undressed.” As Matthews complied, over Horatio’s increasingly feeble protests, the doctor recited instructions. Cold compresses for the fever, plenty of liquids but no spirits, laudanum only when absolutely needed for delirium or pain.

“Aye, aye, sir,” Matthews kept repeating, as the doctor strung a makeshift curtain around the cot. “He’ll want the light kept out anyway,” the doctor said matter-of-factly. “Bothers them.”

“Matthews.” The hand that suddenly gripped his arm was surprisingly strong. “Tell them … no more oysters. Too … risky. Far … too risky.”

Matthews glanced at Dr. Wallis. Oysters? The doctor nodded. Humor him. “Aye, aye, sir.”
“Matthews!” The voice was urgent and plaintive. “Land … there.. Two degrees off starboard. It’s … slipping away … the closer we get … it evades us. Quickly, man!” The eyes slammed shut and a moment later opened, blazing with intensity and fever.

“Mr. Bush … to me … please.” The command was hoarse but clear.

A moment later William Bush was standing over his captain, face severe with concern. Horatio had been undressed down to his shirt and was still damp with sweat, face flushed, eyes glazed as though he’d been into the rum.

“Mr. Bush … I am … unwell,” Horatio rasped, unnecessarily; a blind man could see it. “Take charge … till … I … recover … if you … please.” Horatio was lapsing into weary unconsciousness, but force of habit prevailed.

“Aye, aye, sir,” and Bush withdrew, troubled. He arrested Dr. Wallis with a hand on his arm.
“Ship fever, Mr. Bush,” said the doctor, “but for God’s sake don’t tell it about the ship or the men will panic. Simply say that he’s got a fever and mustn’t be visited. And keep the men away, sir.”

Bush nodded and returned to the deck, keeping his concern off his face, betraying it only in the hands the clenched and unclenched behind his back.

Horatio was strolling in the garden behind his childhood home. A dog was romping alongside. A few yards away his mother bent over her roses. Impishly Horatio aimed a stick just to her right, so Galen would bound up alongside her and startle her. It worked; he got his “Oh!” and, laughing, his mother stood and turned, smiling as she wagged her finger. Galen dropped the stick, panting happily, at his feet and Horatio bent to retrieve it … and lost his balance, unaccountably sprawling on the grass. He heard his mother’s laughter pealing like bells and felt Galen enthusiastically licking the side of his face, so enthusiastically that he was fairly dampening it. He put a hand up to push Galen away, but, oddly, Galen pushed back.

“Now then, sir.” Matthews’ voice was soft but firm. “You need this, sir. For the fever, sir.” Matthews gently laid Horatio’s hand on his chest and settled the cold compress on his forehead. He knew nothing about medicine but any fool could see the captain was bad off. He was restless, rubbing his arms as if they ached, and he was beginning to be gripped by chills. A low, awful moan and Horatio again pushed Matthews’ hand away. Matthews laid the back of his hand to Horatio’s cheek. White hot, it was. He stepped across and silently summoned Dr. Wallis.

Dr. Wallis likewise felt the cheek and checked the pulse. “Laudanum,” he pronounced. He poured a dose of the dishwater liquid into a small glass. “Tip his head back and hold his nose,” he told Matthews. “He won’t like it.”

As predicted, Horatio turned his head and tried to evade the dose, choking and spluttering; still, most of it got down his throat. Almost at once the long, restless limbs stilled and the eyelids stopped fluttering and instead slammed shut. The tension slipped from Horatio’s face and his breathing steadied, becoming the deep, audible half-snore of opiate sedation.

The typhus followed its usual course, the rash spreading across Horatio’s torso, arms, and thighs. The chills got worse and delirium returned. Matthews stayed by his side, glad to do something for Mr. Hornblower, sleeping in a chair and waking at the slightest sound or movement. Increasingly the patient could not keep still; legs and arms jerked and thrashed, propelled by muscle aches, fever and delirium.

Horatio tossed his head impatiently, shaking the damp curls from his eyes. It was so bloody hot. He longed to strip to breeches and dive into the inviting water, but that was French royalist behavior, of which he’d seen a bellyful with that damned bridge incident at Muzillac. He frowned. Seemingly an entire regiment of Spaniards was now pouring down the sandy dunes, swords drawn.


He yanked his sword from the scabbard, impatient as it stuck momentarily. Thrusting and lunging, he clashed with countless of the enemy, hearing and seeing the grunting and struggles of his men similarly engaged. His boots were behaving badly; he kept slipping in the warm, light sand and he was afraid he would be stabbed simply for being unable to plant his feet. There – no; he regained his balance and then suddenly tripped over an enormous branch of driftwood that wasn’t there a moment ago. Laughter rang over his head like bells as a hand helped him up.


A woman’s hand, and there was the beautiful Spanish woman he and Kennedy had seen bussing the soldier atop the fort … how long ago? She was laughing and the hot breeze blew her long dark hair in inviting tangles about her face. Her dress was scandalously low cut and Horatio could see more of her … chest … than he’d ever seen on a woman before. The battle continued, but no one seemed much concerned with Horatio and the woman. He turned to thank her and suddenly was in her soft arms, her embrace nearly smothering him, and her full skirt, petticoats visible at the hem, was entangling his legs again, and he was going to fall … he was falling….

Matthews deftly stepped to the side as the captain’s bare feet kicked the covers off, thrashing nearly straight into his breeches. Again. Matthews had gotten rather good at dodging the captain. Calmly, speaking quietly, he merely said, “Now then, sir,” and re-covered the restless legs, laying a hand on them as if his touch would quiet the captain.
He felt a chill run through his own body. The captain’s legs were not warm but cold as ice. Alarmed, he flicked a glance upward. The captain’s face, contorted in delirium a moment ago, was now still. Matthews’ heart seized for a moment; then he heard a deep, slow, rattling inhalation and the answering exhalation. Mr. Hornblower looked as though he’d just been dosed with laudanum, even though he hadn’t. Luckily, the doctor looked in just at that moment.

“Sir,” Matthews whispered urgently. “He’s asleep, sir. But … he don’t look right, sir.” He gestured.
“Have you given him laudanum?” the doctor asked.

“No sir. He just … well … fell out, sir..”
“No?” The doctor frowned and stepped over to the hammock. He checked Horatio’s pulse, which was very slow, but steady. His shoulders relaxed.
“Stupor. The last stage of ship fever. He’ll be like this for a day or so. It’s the first sign of recovery.”
Matthews’ face showed surprise. “Recovery, sir?”
Dr. Wallis nodded. He gently lifted Horatio’s nightshirt. “There. See?”
Matthews saw that the fiercely red spots of earlier in the week had been scabbed over. “Aye, sir,” he said uncertainly.
“Believe it or not, Matthews, Captain Hornblower is beginning to get better. When he awakes, he will be weak, but he will also be himself again.”
True to the doctor’s prediction, Mr. Hornblower stirred gently and his eyes fluttered open the next evening.
“Matthews,” he muttered.
The large dark eyes flicked from side to side. “Where am I?”
“Sick bay, sir. You’ve had fever.”
“Aye, sir, ship fever.”
Mr. Hornblower tried to sit up, but he wasn’t up to it, that much was clear. He sank back onto the pillow. “Has it spread?”
“Spread? Oh, no sir. The doctor, sir, he wouldn’t let no one come to see you.”
Mr. Hornblower smiled. “Except you, Matthews?”
“Oh, I’ve had it, sir. Years ago, sir.”
“I see. Thank you… for … seeing to me.” Mr. Hornblower hated to think he owed anyone.
“It’s now’t, sir. Now’t. You’d do as much for me, sir.”
The hammock swayed as Mr. Hornblower tried again to rise. “No sir. You mustn’t. Rest, sir. You’ll feel all right in the morning, sir.”
To Matthews’ surprise, Mr. Hornblower sank back down. “Yes. Of course. Thank you, Matthews.”
In the morning, sure enough, Mr. Hornblower was sitting up when Matthews came in with a cup of beef broth.
“No sir, don’t try to dress yourself, sir!” Matthews said, alarmed. “Here, drink this, sir. Then I’ll help you dress.”
The captain’s shoulders drooped. “Thank you, Matthews,” he sighed. He drank the broth hungrily, a good sign, although he was still a mite shaky getting dressed. And he still looked right pale. As soon as he was dressed, though, he headed for the stairs.
The captain looked back over his shoulder, his face like normal for the first time. “I’m going up on deck, Matthews.”
“Aye, sir.”
Bush started slightly as the figure came up beside him. “Good morrow, Mr. Bush.”
“Captain Hornblower. Ah … good to see you about, sir. How is your health, sir?”
“Much improved, Mr. Bush.” Horatio squinted out to see. “I … thank you for your command, sir.” He paused, spying two young midshipmen standing idle.
“Mr. Orrock!” he said loudly.
“Sir! Captain, sir!”
Horatio’s lips twitched. “Perhaps you have the time to demonstrate a fisherman’s line for me, Mr. Orrock.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” the midshipman stuttered, his fingers fumbling inexpertly for nearly a minute before he finally held up a knotted piece of rope.
Horatio compressed his lips to keep the laughter in. “A tardy but fine example, Mr. Orrock … of a bowline knot.” He cleared his throat, eyes twinkling. “When we put ashore in Port of Spain, you will stay behind and keep watch with Mr. Bush, sir, and allow him to educate you on the various of knots that a British naval man must know. Agreed, Mr. Bush?”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Bush replied, his own lips curving into a smile. Captain Hornblower was back.

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