Author's Note: I never included any notes with this when it was first published on the HHFic list. Suffice it to say that it's loosely based on a brief mention in the book (Mr. Midshipman Hornblower) plus entirely too many courses in hypothermia treatment. However, should you ever happen on a hypothermia victim, please don't slap them. Handle them very gently and warm them gradually.
Chilled to the Bone
Horatio called out the depth reading, then woodenly pulled the sodden line
back in, yard by yard. He gathered it up and threw it back in, preparing for
the next reading.
He'd been doing this for hours, during almost the entire time they'd been
chasing the French warship through the shoaling waters. When they'd first
closed with the enemy, she'd gotten off a lucky shot that hit the bow. It
had caused little damage to the ship, but had wounded the leadsman. Horatio
had run up to grab the line, as he was closest. In all of the excitement of
the chase, in the storm, in the dark... no one had thought to send someone
to relieve him. And he himself was much too busy to give the matter much
thought. His whole world had narrowed to those same three actions, over and over: Throw the line. Find the marker, and call the depth. Pull in the line.
He'd gotten soaked to the skin within the first hour, and realized
despairingly that it would be hours more before he would be able to get dry
again. Still, he continued, his voice growing hoarser as he shouted; his
body reaching a state of frozen numbness. Now, he leaned forward and grasped the line, feeling the markers tied to it. He turned his head to shout above the rising wind and the cannon fire, and in his exhaustion he tangled his foot in the part of the line that was coiled behind him.
He staggered and slipped on the decking, his feet sliding out from
underneath him, his fatigue-dulled reflexes too slow to save him from
cracking his skull painfully on the planks. He lay there stunned for a
moment, still tangled in the line, and was just struggling to rise when he
heard Pellew bellow to one of the midshipmen.
"You! Mr. Moore! Get down there and relieve him at the leads! He's been at
it for hours!"
As he levered himself painfully to his feet, clutching the rail, he became
aware of two figures descending on him, their outlines vague and blurry
through the mist. One was Mr. Moore, the midshipman that Pellew had sent to relieve him; Horatio handed the wet line to him gratefully. The other turned out to be Archie, who promptly put a hand under his elbow.
Archie? What was he doing here in the bow? Horatio shook his head to try to clear it. Archie ought to be with the gun-crews, or still with the boarding-party... He realized then, through the dull haze of fatigue and cold, that the sounds of the guns had stopped. The Droits De l'Homme floated placidly alongside them, and he could see the signs of the inevitable mopping-up activities that would be occurring as a result of the taking of an enemy ship. The Indy's crew had clearly been successful in their action, and Horatio had been concentrating so hard on the soundings and his own frigid misery that he had missed almost all of it.
"Horatio, are you all right?" Archie's anxious eyes searched his face.
"I'm fine," Horatio answered through chattering teeth. "I... I'm afraid I
may have lost track of events for a bit, though." He forced himself to
smile, the skin stretching tautly over his cheeks. "And how many Frenchmen
did you kill this time, Mr. Kennedy?"
Archie snorted. "None as far as I know, thank you very much. They
surrendered as soon as we boarded. Sensible, for Frenchmen." He gave
Horatio's arm a tug, leading him aft. "You look like hell, Horatio. However
did you end up taking soundings for so long? I thought that Wilson was up
there when we started the chase." Wilson was one of the master's mates, a
friend of theirs, and an excellent man with the sounding-lead.
"He was." Chilled to his very marrow, and inexplicably winded, Horatio had
little breath to spare for Archie's questions. "The Frogs got us with their
long-range guns, right where he was standing, early on. Blew out a couple of
feet of the railing. Didn't you see?"
Glancing at Archie out of the corner of his eye, he saw his friend shake his
head, his jaw clenching. "And Wilson?"
Horatio shook his head. "Dead or wounded, I don't know. They took him below, I grabbed the line... and that was my world for the next few hours or however long it's been." He rubbed one wet and filthy hand across a scratch on his cheek. "He looked like he took some splinters, but come to think of it, he was at least still conscious. So maybe he's all right."
The two of them climbed slowly up to the quarterdeck. Horatio paused,
shivering, as they were approached by Mr. Bracegirdle. The first lieutenant
was wearing an expression of mixed relief and chagrin.
"Mr. Hornblower! Forgive me for not sending a man down to relieve you
sooner. But as treacherous as these waters are, I have to admit that I'm
glad we had your steady hand and eye taking soundings." Mr. Bracegirdle
grinned. "Though I would usually rather use our junior lieutenants in a more
efficient manner, leading the fighting."
Horatio felt himself swaying slightly, checked the motion by resting one
hand on the rail. Toppling over with exhaustion in front of the first
lieutenant was not on his list of desired experiences. "Thank you, sir."
"The captain is going to send me along in command of the prize crew, so you will both be a bit busier than usual for a while." Mr. Bracegirdle's eyes narrowed, and Horatio felt his scrutiny. "If I were you, Mr. Hornblower, I would take the opportunity to get below and get out of those wet clothes before the Indy gets under weigh again. You look abominably cold."
Archie tugged at his elbow again before he could force his chilled lips to
answer. "That's what I've been trying to tell him, sir. Come along,
During the brief period that they had stood on deck chatting with Mr.
Bracegirdle, Horatio could feel the rising wind stealing further heat from
his body. By the time they saluted their superior officer and headed below,
Horatio felt stiff and stupid with the chill. He thought that he had never
felt so cold in his life; warmth seemed only a distant and far-off memory.
Even so, he wanted to go to sick-bay in search of the injured Wilson, and
somewhat blearily stated his intention of doing so. Archie shook his head
and tugged him onward. "Time enough for that, when you're warmer. You can't do anything to help him now, any road."
Horatio felt a faint flicker of amusement: he might outrank Archie, but that
fact never seemed to make much of a difference when it came to these kind of decisions. "I suppose you are right." He shook his head. "He didn't look very good when they carried him below... I wonder if he is even still alive." He shuddered, half from the cold and half at the thought of the sick-bay full of its screaming wounded; the motion made him miss his footing on the companionway and nearly fall.
"Steady!" Archie reached up a hand and caught him by the elbow. "By God,
Horatio, I don't know when I've ever seen you so clumsy."
Horatio grabbed the handrail, tightly. Just for a second, his vision went
grey around the edges and he thought he would surely tumble down to the
deck... then the blood seemed to return to his head. "It's the c-c-cold,"
Horatio confessed slowly, his occasional stammer manifesting itself as it
sometimes did under adverse conditions. "I can hardly feel where my feet
When they finally reached their tiny cabin, Horatio sank down wearily on the first object that came to hand, Archie's sea-chest, while Archie promptly flung Horatio's sea-chest open and began digging through it. Horatio knew that he needed to get out of his soaked clothing in order to get warm, but any action at all seemed to require more effort than he was able to muster. His arms and legs felt leaden. His thoughts seemed to flow past one another slowly, as sluggish as oozing mud. At least, he noted dully, he'd stopped shivering, and the tingling pain in his hands and feet had lessened. Perhaps in another minute he would get up and get undressed and dried off, but it no longer seemed so urgent...
He came abruptly back to himself with a wrenching jolt, aware of a stinging
pain in his left cheek. He blinked his crusted and sticky eyelids open with
an effort, just in time to feel his face and head recoil from a second slap.
"Wha... what did you do that for?" he mumbled around a tongue several sizes too large for his mouth.
Archie's face came into view, oddly disembodied to Horatio's vision, and
very white and tense. "Horatio! Stay with me, you hear?" He could now feel
Archie's hands on his shoulders, supporting his limp form.
Horatio shook his head, but the mental fog refused to clear. "Archie... why
did you hit me?" He frowned slightly at the slurred sound of his own voice.
"Because you passed out, and I couldn't wake you!" Archie's voice shook, and now that Horatio's eye's were focusing properly, he was stunned to see tears glinting in his friend's eyes. "You weren't even really breathing, for a moment there. Horatio, we've got to get you warm. You're so cold that...that something's not right with you."
Horatio felt a soft dry towel on his head, rubbing at his wet hair and being
wrapped around his head where it partially obscured his vision. Vaguely, he
was also aware of fingers plucking at his uniform coat; he tried to shrug
away from them.
"Horatio... please, cooperate with me here. You need to get out of those wet
With an effort, Horatio held still. But it took all of his self-control, as
he'd begun to shiver and shudder again... so violently that the towel came
loose from his wet hair and slid to the deck with a soggy plop. With the
towel out of the way, Horatio was able to get a better look at Archie's
face; he still looked white and terrified, and seemed unaware of the tears
staining his cheeks.
Despite the tremors, and despite the complete lack of any useful help from
Horatio, Archie soon had him stripped down to his trousers and had a
scratchy wool blanket wrapped tightly around him. "That's the best that I
can do, until you're able to stand up again," Archie said quietly. "Horatio,
are you feeling any warmer, at all? You're shaking so much." He sat down on the sea-chest next to Horatio, one arm going around his friend's shoulders. Even through the layers of blanket, Horatio could feel a little warmth creep into his body from that side.
"Think so..." He still heard his own words as if from a long distance. "B-be
warmer... in b-bed."
"You would be. Do you think you can stand?"
Horatio thought about it, and shook his head. His legs still felt completely
nerveless. "N-not yet," he admitted.
"All right." Archie nodded. "Just sit here for a bit." He pulled Horatio
closer, until he was slumped over with his head in Archie's lap. "Better
yet... lie here. And please... tell me if you feel like you are going to
pass out or anything."
Horatio nodded in turn, although the motion was obscured by the position of
his head. "I p-promise." He cleared his throat. "Archie... I want you t-to
know that I appreciate your c-care of me." His speech was growing more
distinct again; the slurring was almost gone though his chattering teeth
still interrupted many of his words.
"You frightened me, Horatio. I really thought, for a moment there, that you
were... not going to wake up." Archie whispered, shuddering.
Silence overtook the little cabin, then, as neither one said anything
further for a few minutes. Horatio still shivered, but it seemed to him as
if the tremors were finally easing slightly. While his legs weren't growing
much warmer, encased in soggy canvas trousers as they were, his upper body had stopped losing heat and was starting to feel more normal. He could see his bunk out of the corner of his eye, see the rough wool blankets piled on top of it. He wanted to be in that bed, covered with those blankets, as much as he'd ever wanted anything.
Horatio shifted his legs slightly, then cleared his throat. "I... think I
c-could stand up, Archie, if you help me."
"Let's try it." Archie gently levered him up to a more normal sitting
position, loosening the blankets enough to free both arms, then slung one of
Horatio's arms around his neck and hoisted him to his feet. Horatio groaned.
"Are you all right?"
Horatio nodded. "Just d-dizzy. Keep going." They shuffled a few steps to
Horatio's bunk. Archie slipped out from under his friend's arm, and helped
Horatio to grip the solid wood of the bunk with both hands.
"Can you hold there for a moment, while I get those wet trousers off of
"Yes." Horatio clung whitely to the bunk. "B-but hurry."
Archie finished stripping him speedily. "Now where did I put my... ah, there
it is." He shook out a nightshirt, and slipped it over Horatio's head. The
fine soft fabric was a balm to his wet raw skin. Horatio looked at it more
closely; it was a beautiful merino wool, tightly woven and generously cut.
"Archie... this isn't m-my nightshirt." He had nothing so fine and warm. It
must be Archie's. Yes... he had said something about one of his sisters
sending him a woolen nightshirt as a defense against the eternal cold
clamminess of nights at sea.
"You need it more than I do, and you know it. Now... into bed with you."
With a lot of help from Archie, Horatio managed to climb into his bunk.
Archie covered him up, not only with every stitch of Horatio's bedding, but
all of his own as well. Horatio was still too cold to protest this latest
attention, though he smiled slightly through his misery. He still shook with
chills, but began to feel as if someday he might be warmer. He lay there in
the nest of blankets with his eyes closed, and listened to the sounds of
Archie as he bustled about the cabin picking up the wet clothes and towels.
God, he hurt. He knew that he was no longer losing heat, but every set of
tremors that racked his body jarred aching bones and muscles. He had used up every last bit of his reserve of energy and strength out there tonight. The cold had not only made him ill, it had so numbed his to the messages from his own tortured body that he hadn't realized how much damage he was doing to himself. He would be sore for days.
"Horatio? Are you still awake?"
His eyes opened with reluctance, and he saw Archie's face appear as his
friend sat down on the edge of the bunk. "Do you feel any warmer?"
"H-hard t-to say," stuttered Horatio. "M-maybe."
"Your skin still feels like ice." For a moment, Archie rested his hand on
Horatio's forehead. The hand felt warm, deliciously so... Horatio groaned
when the hand left.
Archie frowned. "Are you in pain?"
Yes, Horatio thought to himself. "No," he said aloud. "J-just still s-so
The hand came back, resting once again on his cold forehead. Warmth seemed to spread outward from it. After a minute or so, Horatio realized that he could once again feel the stinging of his chapped and wind-burned face. When the hand started to leave again, Horatio grabbed it with a strength that
"D-don't leave," he croaked.
Archie shook his head, his worried expression tinged with amusement. "I'm
not going anywhere until I'm certain that you will be all right." He patted
Horatio's shoulder. "Hang on, there's someone at the door. I'll be back in a
Horatio nodded; that was easier than speaking with his teeth still
chattering so. He continued to shiver, and let his eyes close. Please, he
prayed silently to himself... please let me get warm again now. He heard the
cabin door open and close. Ah... Archie was just outside, by the sound of
his voice, talking to someone else whose voice sounded familiar. The door
opened and closed again; Archie was back. Horatio could hear him whistling
under his breath as he finished putting things away.
Then Horatio's eyelids sprung open, as he felt the bunk's thin mattress give
way under a weight... as if someone else were climbing into it. "Wha-what...
Archie, stripped down to his own nightshirt, was indeed seated again on the
edge of the bunk. "You're still quite ill," he said matter-of-factly, "and
I'm going to stay with you for at least the next hour or two until you look
less like an animated corpse. Bolton's got the watch, and he can manage
quite well without either of us. I'm not as cold as you are, but I am tired,
and you've got all my bedding... and dammit, Horatio, you're still
shivering. So move over."
Horatio did his best to move aside and make some room in the little bunk.
"Who w-were you t-talking with, j-just now?"
"Your favorite mother hen. Matthews." Archie folded back the thick pile of
blankets and slid underneath them. "I told him about you, how cold you still
were. He said that the only was to get you warm was to put a warmer body
next to you."
"M-Matthews said that?"
"And he said that if I didn't come back in here and climb into bed with you,
he would do it himself... but that I probably smelled better." He wrapped
his arms around his still-shivering friend. "There. That should help. By
God... you still feel like a block of ice."
"Don't be," Archie said against his shoulder. "You would do the same for
me... you know that."
Horatio nodded. Finally, he could feel welcome warmth creeping into his
body. Over the next few minutes, the shivers and shakes gradually ebbed
"Archie?" he mumbled into his friend's hair, his teeth finally no longer
Horatio burrowed deeper into the blankets. He was just barely awake when he
heard his friend mumble at him again.
"Next time... wear a raincoat."