The Perilous Journey
by Dunnage41

Note: explicit medical discussions included.
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By Dunnage41
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One moment Horatio Hornblower had been sure of an easy victory – the next he was lying on a flat surface and gripping something hard in his teeth. He let out a groan that was half from pain and half from the desire to communicate. What the devil had happened?
//
“Bush,” he grunted, or tried to; and he must have had some success because one of the blurred figures wavering over him leaned in and dabbed at his forehead. “He’s still occupied on deck, sir,” the figure said, and Hornblower thought he recognized the surgeon’s voice. Hornblower wanted to say more, or thought he did, but at that moment a crushing wave of pain, emanating from his right thigh, stopped him. He knew, then, where he was and what the thing in his mouth was, and in disgust at his own weakness he feebly spat it out. The loblolly boy plucked it off his collar-bone and went away with it, no doubt to some fresh victim. O God! Was he, like Bush, to lose a leg? Nothing, not even death, would be worse.
//
Lady Barbara Hornblower, who had just risen from her chair in the drawing-room, staggered back against it, stumbling, and gripped its high back. She had never in her life felt such a pain. It seemed as though an enormous unseen hand was gripping her belly and was intent on wringing it out, baby and all. The pain was so great that she could neither move nor call for help. After an agonizingly long, cramping, seizing pain, the worst of it eased and she was able to summon Hebe.
//
“Send for the doctor,” she gasped, her lips numb, her face pale and dotted with sweat. Hebe, who had never seen her mistress undone, fairly ran from the room.
//
Barbara looked down to find that she was not imagining the clammy feeling gripping her legs – at her feet was a huge pool of clear fluid, tinged with blood. Then she knew what was happening and went calm. In an instant she was once again in control. The baby was coming. Childbirth involved blood; she knew that much at least. Although surely the birth of the twins had not involved nearly so much blood and fluid, had it? Nor did she recall so much pain. At length she found she was able to breathe normally again, though her face was still wet with sweat. She dabbed at her face with her handkerchief. Sitting down was out of the question, not with her gown sopping wet. At any rate, here was Hebe back again, with the information that she had sent for the doctor.
//
“You need to come upstairs, milady.” Deftly Hebe gave her a hand up the stairs, and with equal deftness undressed her and helped her into a night-dress, Hebe’s chattering tongue for once blessedly stilled. At that moment, however, maid and mistress both gasped, for here came yet another pool of fluid, this one almost entirely blood. Barbara felt her knees give way and, even as she despised her weakness, she felt the room whirl round and the rug rush up to meet her.
//
Hornblower struggled to sit upright, only to be defeated as the room swam round him. He lay back, silently cursing his feeble state, and listened. Loud cheering from the deck – that meant that the battle was over and had been won. Bush bellowing an order, most likely having to do with attending to the prize of war they had just captured. And here he lay, too weak to sit up, far too weak to command. His thigh ached abominably, and his left inner arm, just at the elbow, stung as well, and now here came the surgeon proffering the canvas-wrapped soft wood for him to bite upon.
//
“My leg,” Hornblower groaned, and there was urgency in the utterance..
//
“Still attached, sir,” the surgeon said with morbid good cheer.. “I’ve got the splinter out and sewed it up right and tight. Your arm, now, a few stitches will close it, sir. Bite down on this and it’ll be over soon enough.”
//
Barbara was only hazily conscious of figures moving round her. Gradually she came to know that she must be in the bed, with the curtains drawn back.
//
“Lost a lot of blood,” the doctor muttered. “Ah, awake, I see. Good. Your ladyship, you’ve been delivered of a fine boy.” He spoke with a forced cheeriness which belied his concern for his patient’s weakened state. The afterbirth had descended first, which made for a messy and dangerous delivery.[1]
//
“Boy,” Barbara murmured. Her eyelids fluttered shut. In a daze she dimly heard the doctor giving Hebe instructions for her care. The doctor did not see fit to entrust to a maid his concern for the patient’s continued survival, nor the fact that he had had to use forceps to extract the child. Forceps were a recent development, and some educated women opposed their use. Telling her ladyship would only unduly upset her. As he left Smallbridge, however, the doctor turned and looked back at the house and sighed. Her ladyship would be fortunate to live to see the baby after such a challenging parturition.
//
“No,” Hornblower said through gritted teeth. “Do what you must.”
//
The surgeon, unfazed by his patient’s stubbornness, handed the biting stick off to the loblolly boy and bent over Hornblower. “Some rum, then, sir?”
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“No,” Hornblower said as forcefully as he was able.
//
“Here we go, then, sir,” the surgeon said, and ran the needle through the edge of the ragged tear just above Hornblower’s inner elbow.
//
Despite himself, a great roar of pain was torn from Hornblower’s lips. “A-a-ahh,” he gasped, seeing dark spots before his eyes. Involuntarily his back arched, and the surgeon growled in impatience.
//
“Boy! Here, hold him down,” the surgeon snapped. Obediently the boy pressed Hornblower’s shoulders to the trunks being used for an operating-table. Another loud groan with the next stitch. Then Hornblower’s eyes rolled upward, his lids fluttered, and a weak stream of vomit trickled down his chin. His eyes closed. He had fainted from the pain, which, the surgeon decided, was as good a way as any to keep him still.
//
The doctor now came to Smallbridge every day, and every day he left looking grim and drawn. Lady Hornblower had lost a deal of blood, and very nearly her life. Though she showed no signs of childbed fever, she also showed no signs of recovery. She had not even laid eyes on the baby boy, small but healthy and now five days old. The wet nurse dutifully tended young James, and Hebe hovered over her mistress, trying to spoon beef tea into her.
//
Barbara had lost all sense of time. The bed-curtains remained drawn, though when they parted to admit Hebe, Barbara would catch a glimpse of either moon or sun. She had no thoughts of her own at all; her disordered mind ratcheted from unformed notion to unformed notion with no lucidity. She rarely spoke, and when she did, it was to murmur “Horatio” through cracked lips. All traces of elegance and poise had vanished. Now there remained of the proud Wellesley only a thin, distant shadow, hovering tentatively between life and death, uncertain where to place the firmer footstep.
//
“He ought to be progressing better than this,” the surgeon informed Bush. “Both wounds were stitched up in their own blood, and so far they have shown no sign of corruption.” He shook his head. Bush could only gaze at Hornblower, worry clouding the loyal Bush’s blue eyes. Hornblower’s brown ones, on the rare occasions they were open, were bleary and unfocused, and he was clearly not himself.
//
The surgeon, for want of anything else to do, re-examined the inner elbow and then the thigh. The stitching had been quick and tidy and showed no inflammation, rotten smell, or other hint of gangrene. Only Hornblower, who had the devil’s own luck, would take a splinter to the thigh and a bullet to the arm at the same time and even survive the surgery, Bush thought admiringly. Gently he patted the pale hand whose long fingers lay limply upon the coverlet. Hornblower blinked awake.
//
“Bush,” he murmured thickly.
//
“Yes, sir?” Bush tried not to let the relief show in his voice.
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“The battle.”
//
“Over, sir. We boarded her and claimed her as a prize, sir. You’ll be due a couple of thousand pounds at least, sir.”
//
“Are you well, Mr. Bush?” The words came slowly, slurred with laudanum.
//
“I’m well, sir. And you, sir?”
//
But Hornblower had lapsed back into unconsciousness, his face gray and drawn.
//
At last, desperate to be able to converse with someone about his concerns, the doctor had sent for her ladyship’s sister-in-law Kitty. When she arrived, the doctor took her aside, away from servants, and communicated his fears.
//
“She lost a deal of blood, your ladyship,” the doctor said. He tugged at his goatee. “Although there is no fever, she remains feeble and semi-conscious.”
//
“Semi…” Kitty frowned.
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“She is not often awake, your ladyship.”
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“Oh. Well … How might I assist?”
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“Sit with her, your ladyship. Read to her. Converse with her as though she were listening. I believe,” the doctor said with a flash of insight, “I believe she wants companionship beyond what her servant can provide. Shame the husband isn’t here,” then, seeing Kitty’s expression darken, he hastily added, “though of course his duty must come first.” He certainly did not wish to insult the wife of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the wife of Sir Horatio Hornblower, and Sir Arthur and Sir Horatio themselves in one careless sentence.
//
“Very well.” Kitty, though tired from the long journey from Rye to Smallbridge, dutifully ascended the stairs. She drew up a chair and gently pulled back the bed-curtains. Only years of discipline held back her first shocked cry. What lay in the bed bore little resemblance to her spirited sister-in-law. Instead she saw a wraith, fair hair braided and the plaits trailing on the pillow-slip, skin gray, face drawn, dark circles under the eyes. She was skeletally thin and the hand that Kitty picked up and pressed gently to her lips was limp and cold.
//
“Dear Barbara,” she said softly. “Dear Barbara. You must come back to us. Horatio needs you,” she added impulsively, and was rewarded with a twitch of the bony fingers.
//
William Bush, at the weary surgeon’s offhand suggestion, spent all his free time sitting by the hammock in the sick-bay, holding Hornblower’s limp and skeletal hand, the once-beautiful long fingers now pinched and slack, and talking about anything that came to mind. Bush was nothing of a conversationalist, and from time to time, in desperation, he read aloud slowly from the copy of Gibbon he had found on Hornblower’s cot in his cabin. The battle for Hornblower’s life was proving, uncharacteristically, to be a subdued one. He would regain consciousness for only moments at a time; his eyes hardly ever opened and each day saw him a little more slight, a little more drawn, a little closer to making the decisive step over the abyss where a hammock and round-shot awaited him, followed by a final pitiful splash into the sea.
//
“Who mentions the … the Runic characters,” Bush now read aloud, “is, Ven… Ven… Venatius Fortunatus, who lived toward the end of the sixth century – Barbara Frax… Frax…”[2] the word with which Bush struggled was “Fraxines,” part of a Runic inscription shown as an example, but fortunately he had no need to continue his struggle, for now Hornblower’s eyes blinked open and focused unseeingly on Bush.
//
“Barbara,” he gasped. “Barbara.”
//
“Sir?” Bush, unfamiliar with Latin and trying mightily to work his way through Gibbon, had barely a notion that he had even said the word “Barbara.” But Hornblower had heard it.
//
“Barbara,” he said again, and struggled to sit up.
//
“Easy, sir,” Bush cried, and dropped the book. Now his strong hands supported Hornblower’s back. Hornblower leaned gladly against Bush’s supporting grip, and for the first time in more than a week his eyes appeared to have some sense in their gaze. He turned and with an effort gave Bush a proper look.
//
“Where is Barbara?” he asked thickly.
//
“Her ladyship? Why, she’s at home, sir. You’ll see her soon enough; we’re under orders to return to Plymouth to be refitted, sir.” Bush was passionately glad to be having a reasonable conversation with Hornblower at last.
//
“She needs me.”
//
Perhaps not so sensible after all, Bush thought, and tried not to let his disappointment show in his face.
//
“I daresay she does, sir. Like I said, sir, you’ll see her soon enough.” Bush divined that this was not the right time to inform his superior of the dispatch from the Admiralty detaching Hornblower to a month’s sick-leave.
//
By way of a reply, Hornblower only nodded dully. His head drooped upon his breast, and Bush eased him back into the hammock and smoothed the blanket over him.
//
Kitty, more properly the Duchess of Wellington, had never nursed an ailing person and knew nothing of practices suited to invalids. She had seen, though, the faint flutter of fingers in response to a mention of Hornblower, and thought it might be helpful to so continue.
//
“You’ll see Horatio soon,” she said, smoothing Barbara’s brow. There! Again the fingers moved convulsively on the coverlet. “He’s very brave, you know..” A closing of the fingers around Kitty’s. “You must get well, for Horatio’s sake.” As if providing a perverse response, Barbara moaned feebly, and the little color that she had gained drained from her face.
//
“Horatio needs you,” Kitty said softly. “He needs to see your smiling face welcoming him back. He’ll be here any day. You must recover!”
//
Bush found that he had taken on Hornblower’s habit of pacing, and he paced now, in the little space allotted beside the hammock in sick-bay. The surgeon was beside himself with doubt. Perhaps he should have taken off the leg after all. There had been no infection, no gangrene, no fever. Yet Hornblower grew increasingly weaker, almost like a young girl pining for a lost love. The surgeon looked at Bush. Bush returned the look.
//
“When you, ah, visit, sir, you might mention his good lady,” the surgeon said, looking at the deck. He abruptly turned away. Bush had already had the same thought, as only the mention of “Barbara” had prompted anything like a lucid response from his dying superior.
//
Bush abruptly cut off his pacing and dropped back onto the trunk beside the hammock. “Sir,” he said, feeling damnably awkward. “Sir… think of Lady Barbara. She needs you, sir.”
//
Though Hornblower’s eyes remained shut, the hand on the blanket twitched and reached for Bush’s hand, holding it convulsively in a weakened grip.
//
“Barbara,” Hornblower mumbled thickly. “Barbara.”
//
“That’s right, sir,” Bush said eagerly. “You’ll see her soon. Won’t you hold on, sir, please, for Lady Barbara’s sake?”
//
Again with the mention of the name, Hornblower’s fingers fluttered. Then his eyes blinked open and he turned a bleary gaze upon Bush..
//
“Where is Barbara?” he asked hoarsely.
//
“She’s at home, sir. Where you’re headed, sir. You’ll see her soon.”
//
“When?” There was a tone of demand and the eyes showed Hornblower fully awake for the first time since the battle.
//
“Ah … a fortnight, sir, no more,” Bush temporized.
//
“Not soon enough,” Hornblower said pettishly and turned his gaze away.
//
“It’s the best that can be done, sir. You must get well, sir. For Lady Barbara’s sake. And …” Here Bush stumbled, unwilling to be so indelicate as to mention her condition.
//
“The baby,” Hornblower said thickly, following up Bush’s train of thought.
//
”Yes, sir,” Bush said eagerly. “Think on that. You must get well, sir.”
//
When Kitty drew back the bed-curtains, she was immeasurably heartened by seeing Barbara’s gray-blue eyes gazing steadily at her.
//
“Kitty.” The voice was thick and hoarse but lucid, Kitty thought. She briefly closed her eyes and murmured a prayer of thanks to a merciful Providence.
//
“Where is Horatio?”
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“He’ll be coming as quickly as ever he can,” Kitty said, importuning that same Providence that Hornblower was not months or years from coming home.
//
“Now.”
//
“What?”
//
“I want Horatio … now,” Barbara said distinctly. She made a move to sit up. Quickly, Kitty leaned forward and assisted her, propping plump pillows behind her. There was color in her cheeks for the first time in more than a week.
//
Bush had, quite by chance, found the one thought that had the power to pull Hornblower back from the tempting abyss of eternity. Blushing with embarrassment, Bush spoke to Hornblower of seeing Lady Barbara again, even of taking her hands in his and … by now his face suffused with a blush … kissing her.
//
And as he spoke, Hornblower slowly and reluctantly seemed to back away from the edge of death. Within two days he was able to sit up; another three days saw him standing, weakly and tentatively, leaning heavily on Bush’s strong arm.
//
“My ship,” he mumbled. “I must go on deck.”
//
Bush knew better than to deny Hornblower the life-giving tonic of salt air and the feel of stout oak underfoot. Together Bush and Brown helped bathe Hornblower, shave him, and help him into clothing. Hornblower feebly ascended to the deck. As soon as he smelt the breeze and stood, if feebly, on the quarterdeck, he became himself again. He glanced round and frowned.
//
“What is our position, Mr. Bush?”
//
Bush told him, adding diplomatically, “Of course, we’re heading to Plymouth to be refitted, sir.”
//
Bush would ever afterward wonder how much of Hornblower’s mysterious decline and equally mysterious recovery had to do with getting back on deck and how much with mention of his lady. It was irrefutable, however, that he had begun to recover.
//
Barbara, leaning heavily on Kitty’s arm, allowed herself to be lowered into a chair by the fireplace and for the baby to be laid in her arms.
//
“James,” she murmured, seeing him for the first time in more than a fortnight. The baby blinked, then fixed his solemn infant gaze upon her tender maternal one, James’s brown eyes large and serious like his father’s. Her face softened into a smile, and by chance the baby’s idly waving fingers touched her lips. Barbara closed her eyes and drew a deep, satisfying breath. “Your father will be home soon,” she informed him. The baby wriggled in his tightly wrapped blanket.
//
For once Bush had refused Hornblower and matched his stubbornness. So it was that, as Hornblower rattled along in the post-chaise, Bush was beside him. Hornblower was still weak, but well enough to take note of the passing scenery. He knew when Smallbridge was near, and seemed to relax, leaning back against the upholstery and closing his eyes. A smile danced over his lips, the first Bush had seen in several weeks. Home.
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[1]Today the condition would be termed “placenta previa.” It occurs when the placenta, a central fluid transport medium during pregnancy, descends prematurely and blocks the cervix, making delivery difficult. Its primary symptom is consistent vaginal bleeding.
[2]The word “Barbara,” which in Latin means “stranger,” whence “barbarian,” is found in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in a footnote on p. 242 in my edition (1993, Everyman’s Library) and is a fortunate coincidence I gladly exploit here.