When the Heart Breaks
by Dunnage41

Deathfic

Note: Several times while writing this I had to put it aside for a time because it was too difficult. This is a deathfic exploring the deaths of little Maria and little Horatio from smallpox and considering Hornblower's emotional state during those few days. It's depressing, but my hope is that it will prove something of an interesting character study. //

“Horry,” she had said. “Horry.” She had stared at him for a long minute without recognition. The happy anticipation he had felt as he strode up the street had fled in an instant. What could be troubling her so?
//
“I’ve come home, dearest,” he said gently, thinking as he did so how much those last two words meant to him. What ever was the matter with Maria? She still stood there dazed and frozen as Lot’s wife.
//
“I -- I thought you were the apothecary,” she had said, and, “the babies aren’t so well,” and she had shown him little Maria, the scrunched face flushed with fever and pain, and he did not recognize the child, so different did she look from the freshly wrapped newborn he had seen the evening of Nelson’s funeral procession.
//
Now he bent over his son, similarly flushed and fevered, as he lay in the bed upstairs, his small hand clutching Mrs. Mason’s finger. Mrs. Mason’s gray hair was disordered and the face she turned toward Hornblower bore the same abstracted expression as her daughter’s.
//
“Poor little man,” she had said. “He’s so sick,” and Hornblower had leaned over the bed to soothe his small son’s hot forehead. A single touch had been enough. He knew it was smallpox, and he knew that his children, whom he had hoped to see busily toddling around the place, would likely never sit up or smile upon him again.
//
"Hor … Horatio?" Abstractly Hornblower realized how very concerned Maria must be, to dispense with the nickname she used so affectionately and which he despised. He forced a calm he did not feel onto his face, trying desperately to ignore the sick horror which clutched at his chest.
//
"Yes, my dear." He straightened from his examination of little Horatio and faced his wife, wondering if his face was as pale as it most likely was.
//
"You … know what ails them." It was not a question but a statement of fact, bleak and hopeless. To his wife, at least, his face was an open book. He had vowed to comfort her as long as life lasted, and yet he knew the words he was about to say would blast her world open as surely as a cannon blast could tear apart a ship’s deck.
//
Hornblower was awfully torn between his desire to shield Maria from as many of life's harsh realities as he could, though he knew he had failed in that regard – his pitifully small pay forced her to poor lodgings, to scraping and chaffering for her family's needs – and his instinctive desire always to be straightforward in conversation. He disliked artifice and had no patience with men who would beat around the bush instead of coming out with bad news. He must now do the same. He felt sure his words would break her heart, as he could already feel his breaking, and he was taken somewhat aback at the depth of pain he felt at the thought of inflicting such grief on his wife. Still, she must be told. The harsh realist who resided at the back of his brain stepped forward to point out that even if he said nothing, and even if the apothecary was a dolt who somehow missed what Hornblower had known at a glance, his two precious little children had only a few
days to live, and perhaps knowledge would offer some poor sop of comfort to Maria. Since it was all that he had to give, he gave it as tenderly as he was able.
//
He stepped to her and placed his hands on her shoulders, preparing himself should she faint. He took a deep breath and gazed at her, hating the tears that stung his eyes for presaging what she would know to be the worst possible information.
//
"I am afraid it is bad news, my dear," he said gently, hating himself for doing the very evasions he scorned in others. Out with it, he told himself. Another deep breath, one that hitched in his throat. "It is … it is smallpox." The very word poisoned the air in the small stuffy room. He could feel its pall drape its evil self over himself and Maria where they stood. Mrs. Mason let out a pitiful moan. Maria turned even paler, but he felt her stiffen in his arms, as if willing herself not to be weak in his presence.
//
"Then … the end will come very soon," she said, so softly that he scarcely caught her words.
//
He was saved from reply by a thumping on the door. Hornblower silently turned from Maria to admit the apothecary, a lumpish unenthusiastic-looking soul who at least appeared clean.
//
"Good evening, sir, good evening madam," he muttered, and clumped across the room to where little Horatio lay tossing fretfully on the bed. He felt perfunctorily of the child's tiny chest, throat, wrist, and forehead – Hornblower saw the look of resignation that flitted across his face at the last, as he felt, as Hornblower had, the sensation of small shot felt through velvet that signaled certain death. Silently Mrs. Mason stood, took the girl from Maria’s arms, and laid little Maria on the bed, and the apothecary repeated his examination. The apothecary then straightened and turned, addressing his words to the man of the house, who stood now with one arm protectively about his wife and looking impressive in his uniform. The apothecary was nevertheless unimpressed. He had seen death visit too many households. The scythe spared no one. Moreover he had been going from household to household for the past week delivering the same bad news to parents. He
cleared his throat.
//
"I'm afraid it's smallpox, sir, madam," he said, making his countenance grave and clasping his hands in front of a well-fed belly that seemed to mock the children's absence of good health. He nodded toward his bag. "I can leave you somethin' for their pain if you like." He addressed Maria. "How long they been like this?"
//
"A day and a night," Maria said. She glanced apologetically at Hornblower. "They awoke listless yesterday morning."
//
"A matter of another couple o' days, then," the apothecary said matter-of-factly. His back was to them and the sound came of bottles clinking faintly together as he rustled in his bag. He turned and produced a largish bottle, into which he poured from a larger bottle still a pale liquid the color of dishwater. "Here. Give 'em a spoonful three times a day. It'll help 'em sleep. Might bring the fever down a little."
//
Hornblower felt Maria sag and tightened his grip on her shoulder. "There's … nothing to do, then." Again, what she said was a statement, not a question.
//
"No, madam," the apothecary said. " 'Cept … no, madam.." He changed his mind abruptly about whatever he was going to add – likely, Hornblower thought cynically, a line about summoning the undertaker, and instead clutched the bottle, waiting, Hornblower now realized, to see sufficient coin before he handed it over.
//
A hot galling fury boiled behind Hornblower's eyes that the shabby appearance of his wife, the furnishings, the room all translated to the meanest poverty, that in having this kind of a roof over their head they were barely a step removed from living in the alleyways of Cheapside. He usually managed to convince himself that their poverty was a temporary thing, that he was sure to move up the list and become better and better paid with every passing year, and so could force himself not to mind so much that he kept a wife and children in such mean conditions. He could thrust out of his mind the poverty of Maria's wardrobe, the cramped conditions of the lodging house, the knowledge that his mother-in-law's pointed comments were right, if ignorant of the Navy's Tables of Personal Pay. With such mental trickery he could usually keep at bay the torment that now gnawed at him, the worst part of such deprivations – the awareness that others looked at his family and saw only "poor people."
//
The knowledge that when Maria went marketing, chaffering with the butcher for the cheapest cuts, other people saw her and swept aside their skirts, assuming her to be ignorant and filth-ridden. They would never see, as he did when he looked at her, the girl who had silently slipped a half-crown into his coat pocket when he had none to spare, the girl who had redeemed his sword from the pawnshop for him and paid his rent arrears when he could not, the girl who had been a teacher to make ends meet; the woman whose face had been illuminated with happiness at the altar of St. Thomas a Becket, the woman who firmed her lips and pasted a smile on her face and gazed up at him each time he left her, who called on courage she did not feel to give him a brave and sturdy farewell, the woman who now stood trembling against his arm as she still contrived to be brave in front of this penurious apothecary.
//
And now at the worst moment of his life, at the moment when the specter of death hovered over this tiny squalid room in Southsea, Hornblower faced both the appalling knowledge of others' judgment and the bitter awareness that the apothecary was right to hesitate, the knowledge that there had been many times when his purse would not have held the coins needed to retrieve the laudanum, and that it was pure chance that he should have the money now. Even as he sneered at himself for bowing to the man's silent opinion, he made a point of pulling out a heaping handful of coins, hating their glitter even as he needed them, and picking several out.
//
"I trust you will find this sufficient," he said coldly, his shame compounding with his righteous anger that a semi-literate herbalist should doubt his purse.
//
"Quite, sir," the apothecary returned, nimbly relieving Hornblower of the coins – far too much, Hornblower guessed – and ironically tipping his cap to Maria as he left, slamming the door behind him.
//
"What is this, Horry?" Maria had recovered some of her composure and picked up the bottle.
//
"Laudanum," he said briefly. "It won't … cure them, but it will ease their discomfort." How could he speak so dispassionately when two tiny morsels of humanity – his children! – lay feverish and fretful on the bed?
//
Just then little Horatio stirred and struggled upright. He blinked and squinted at the sight of the tall man in the blue coat.
//
"Papa?" he said hoarsely.
//
At that moment Hornblower's heart broke. Hornblower fancied he could actually feel the sensation inside his chest: the main crack, in two uneven sections, and the resultant crumbling around its bottom and edges as pieces of his heart seemed to tumble into the fathomless depths of his innards.. His head bowed of its own accord under the weight of his grief. He had never known anything to hurt so much. No bullet or fever or fall to the deck had caused him this completeness of pain, so much pain that he was half-numb with it, yet, cruelly, still vital enough to feel all of the queer compound of guilt, anger, remorse, pity, and love that engulfed him as a wave engulfed the bow of a ship, relentlessly pounding it to pieces by its superior and unstoppable power.
//
"Papa?"
//
Hornblower forced himself to lift his head. He gazed dumbly at the small figure in the sweat-soaked nightgown. In two strides he crossed the room and lifted the boy – how light he was! – and cradled him to his broad chest. The boy instinctively jerked away from the buttons on the coat. Maria saw the movement and before Hornblower could bark at her she deftly stepped up and eased him out of his coat, Hornblower juggling little Horatio and freeing first one arm, then the other. Then he sank into the rocking chair and drew the sweat-soaked body to him. Too light, far too light, but when had he got so tall? At two, he was already displaying gangling arms and legs like his father. Hornblower realized with a pang that he could feel the boy's ribs distinctly and another surge of shame rose in his chest.
//
He was the worst sort of dodger imaginable to burden the world with children he could not afford to feed well.. If he had only exercised more self-control, he would not have brought children into the world until his position was more secure and he could see them raised as they deserved. They would have been living in comfort and doubtless free of the conditions that brought smallpox to the overheated, shabby room. He was angry now, angry at himself and at the fates, and he stiffened, forgetting for a moment the small burden in his arms.
//
"Papa! Want Papa," little Horatio muttered again and clutched at his father's waistcoat. His head tossed. "Papa, it hurts." Those innocent syllables mumbled in a child's endearing lisp, broke Hornblower's heart again and with clinical surprise Hornblower felt some more pieces tumble into the outermost darkness.
//
"Maria." Hornblower spoke over his son's sweat-soaked curls. "Give him some of that." Obediently Maria retrieved a spoon and with trembling hands poured out a spoonful.
//
"Here, my pet." Maria bent over the child and pressed the spoon to his lips; instinctively he jerked his head away. He had no time for hunger or thirst. He was hot and achy and only wanted the hurting to stop.
//
With a tenderness he had not known he possessed, Hornblower gently turned his son's head back toward Maria. "Take it, son," he said softly. "It will make it stop hurting." Little Horatio's eyes flew open and he gave Hornblower a trusting gaze that made tears gather in Hornblower's own eyes. Silently he opened his mouth wide, displaying his pearls of baby teeth, and accepted the spoonful. Though he choked at the bitter taste, as Hornblower stroked his wet hair he swallowed. Almost at once he stopped fidgeting and dreamily traced Hornblower's cheek and lips with a small sweaty finger.
//
"Make it better," he whispered.
//
"Yes," Hornblower agreed thickly. "This will … make it better." The lump in his throat made it difficult to choke out the words. Then the tears came, tears he could not stop, coursing hot down his face and dropping softly onto his son's damp curls. Little Horatio did not see them; he had already fallen asleep and his breathing was deep and soft, helped along by the opiate. Awkwardly Hornblower stood and gently deposited Horatio onto the bed. Then he picked up little Maria, even smaller and lighter than her brother. At seven months, she was scarcely yet a child, little more than a tiny adorable bundle, but now there was nothing adorable about her: her face was scrunched in pain and illness; her soft limbs drenched in sweat, her fair hair plastered to her head, and she squirmed fretfully in her father's strong arms.
//
"Mama," she moaned; "Mama." Hornblower's face unconsciously darkened as the child stated her preference, but he silently handed her over. Maria took the damp little bundle and sat, as Hornblower had, in the rocking chair, and now it was Hornblower's turn to pour out a measure of laudanum, which little Maria took easily; and when she had fallen asleep Hornblower lifted her, clutched her sleeping body briefly to his chest, and laid her beside little Horatio. Then he stood, and Maria rose from the chair, and he held his wife silently, each leaning on the other, beyond the need for words.
//
They stood like that for an unmeasurable amount of time – minutes? Days? Hornblower clutched her to him, wordless, beyond words. He had never needed anything so much in his life as he needed the embrace of someone who understood -- not just sympathetically but viscerally -- how deeply awful this prolonged ache was becoming. He had come home in good spirits, with a full purse and every expectation of a homey welcome, and instead Maria had stared at him with glassy sleepless eyes and said only that he was not who she had expected to be at her door.
//
Finally the spell was broken when Mrs. Mason rose and patted her hair. “I’ll make some tea,” she muttered, and went stiffly down the stairs. Hornblower turned his back on the bed -- he could not bear to look -- and stared unseeing out the window. Behind him he heard Maria going to the bed and gently rearranging the children’s limbs, covering them, dipping a cloth in the basin of water and patting their foreheads. He knew she did not mean the brave front she presented whenever he left her, and he expected that she wept afterward, when he could not see. But now she was possessed of all the courage in the world, and he had none. He could not bring himself to look at his children feverish and desperate, and yet she tended them as calmly as if they were not her own. He knew that her heart must be breaking as his was, and she still carried out her duty.
//
Duty. Strange how the word could break the heart. He wondered that his heart could continue to break when it was already crumbled inside his chest. It had never before occurred to him that when he went away to do his duty, she stayed behind to do her duty. From nowhere came the words of the wedding-toast. “May they never know sorrow. May they always enjoy health and prosperity. May the wife always find comfort in the knowledge that the husband is doing his duty for King and Country, and may the husband be supported in his duty by the loyalty of the wife.” With bitter irony he realized that very little of that wedding-toast had been borne out. Indeed they knew sorrow, and if they enjoyed health for themselves, certainly there had not been any prosperity. At least, he thought, he himself was being supported by his wife’s loyalty if nothing else; for he doubted very much that Maria was finding any comfort at the moment.
//
At last he compelled himself to turn around, intending to help her, but at the moment of his resolution she came to him, and slipped her arm around his waist, and he followed her down the stairs to where Mrs. Mason had laid out tea. No one ate anything, no one even pretended, but the tea was a help and Mrs. Mason had thoughtfully added a slosh of brandy to it. Hornblower closed his eyes and leaned his head back. He swallowed hard and felt tears prick behind his eyelids. God! Hornblower had no use for religion but he desired some consolation and doubted he could think where to find it. If only he habitually sought comfort in church or in companionship or in gambling or drinking. He knew only one consolation and that was that he was not alone. Much as his wife had embarrassed him on occasion with her coarse upbringing, and much as his mother-in-law kept a pointed tongue with which to make sly comments, they were his family, and he knew their hearts were
breaking as well.
//
Somehow the night passed. He supposed they each must have slept some, in snatches, moving in turn from chair to chair among themselves, Hornblower pacing in the small space overheated space until he grew too sweaty to bear it, then flinging himself into the chair with such violence that on one occasion he tipped the thing over; but even that did not wake the children, who, dosed with laudanum, slept quietly.
//
In the morning, however, they roused, and voiced in childish piping tones their misery. Little Maria woke first and, having no words, exercised her lungs by crying ceaselessly until she made herself hoarse with it. Nothing eased her distress, though Hornblower would later, and dispassionately, be astonished at the patience he displayed. Few adults can bear for long the wailing of a child, the more so when it cannot be quieted, and certainly Hornblower would acknowledge that he was not the most patient of men. Moreover, he had never held a child, even his own, in his arms for very long at a time and knew nothing of how little Maria cared to be held, what sounds might soothe her, or even if she knew who he was.
//
Still he took in his turn the tiny lump of squalling misery and rocked her, spoke gently to her, patted her little back, tried and failed to distract her, paced with her over his shoulder, finding to his astonishment that he had to take great care in carrying her because she was so small and so light that he feared if he were careless he would inadvertently fling her to the ground. When Maria or Mrs.. Mason relieved him of little Maria, he took up little Horatio, who croaked hoarsely in turn for Papa and Mama, so that all through that endless second day and night the three of them rotated the two restless bundles among them, taking to the rocking chair, the straight chairs and the bed in turn. Periodically they dosed the children with laudanum and the little ones finally slept, and it was then -- in those blessedly prolonged periods of quiet -- that the pointless and circular conversations would begin.
//
Maria would speak of the suddenness of the illness and look at Horatio for approval, as though she doubted her own judgment. Horatio would agree patiently that smallpox most always came on suddenly and Mrs. Mason would point out that it was rampant at present in the neighborhood. From time to time Mrs. Mason raised the cost of the funeral, her anxiety making her tone more pointed than usual. Then Horatio would bite his tongue because he knew there was no money -- the purse he had brought home had gone almost immediately to settle debts -- and Maria would defend their poverty in a way that turned his stomach with guilt. Most of the time tears were rolling from Maria’s eyes and she dabbed them endlessly away.
Afterward Horatio wondered with some surprise that he had not gone mad. The room was unbearably stuffy, the time wore away endlessly, and yet he poured out reserves of patience he had never before possessed, so that not once during those awful days did he find himself impatient with the repetitious conversation, or irked with Mrs. Mason, or fretted with boredom. He wished for one thing only and that was for his children to be well and happy, to be smiling up and him, and he could never again have the things he wanted most.
//
In the second evening little Maria died. She died so quietly and peacefully that it was the contrast to her struggles that alerted her parents. Maria had been holding her and pacing while the baby fretted and wriggled, Mrs. Mason stared dully at her lap and Hornblower gazed out the window unseeing. The squalling from little Maria died away to nothing and all three adults abruptly turned their gazes to the child.
//
“She’s dead.” Maria spoke the words flatly and stopped her weeping, but Hornblower could see her pressing her lips together to stop the trembling. Mrs. Mason rose and silently took her tiny granddaughter and sat down again and Hornblower embraced his wife as if through sheer force of touch he could right her world. At the same time he realized that he longed for someone to right his world. He felt as if he were on a ship that had heeled sharply and he seemed to be waiting for the ship to right herself; with sickening clarity he knew that she would not come right and might never come right. He had witnessed far too many deaths in battle; he had seen numberless hammock-shrouded figures dropped into the sea and with a sigh of regret had returned to his duties. But these were his children, his tiny helpless beings, and he thought of little Horatio’s fevered stare finding his gaze and trusting in it and he felt his exhausted body heave with the urge to vomit, though nothing came.
//
At his tremble, Maria held him all the tighter, and Hornblower sighed with exasperation at his own weakness, knowing that she was comforting him, whilst he should be comforting her. With an enormous effort he set aside the numbness of his own misery and made himself stroke her hair. “It … it is … better for her now,” he managed, choking the words through a throat thick with dumb grief. Then his heart tore yet again as she pulled back and looked up at him with reddened eyes, giving him that same trusting gaze as their son gave, and he knew that she believed him and took the lie to heart. He clutched her to him again, and they might have stood like that for all time, except that then little Horatio woke, coughing and moaning, and instinctively they both turned to him.
//
Mrs. Mason still sat dully in a chair by the bed holding the body -- the body! -- of little Maria and staring at nothing.
//
“Papa! Want Papa,” little Horatio croaked, and Horatio took his son in arms to weary to lift him and somehow cradled him to his chest once again and sat in the rocking chair. He stroked his sweat-soaked hair and touched a finger to his cracked lips and then had to press his own lips together to keep back the moan that would escape him. For here was little Horatio, flush-cheeked and eyes glazed with fever, giving him the same trusting gaze that Maria had just turned on him and he was sure he could not bear it. He waited numbly for his body to crumble to dust under the weight of the pain it carried. From somewhere he found the reserves to speak.
//
“Papa is here,” he said hoarsely. “Papa is here.”
//
“Don’t go,” the boy pleaded.
//
“Papa will never leave you,” Hornblower said, the untruth coming more easily to his lips because he knew that instead little Horatio would leave Papa, and very soon.
//
It was very soon.
//
Somewhere in the night, little Horatio having been dosed with laudanum, he slept cradled in his father’s weary arms, and with the fretting quieted Hornblower slept as well, so that in the cold gray light of dawn Maria awoke and her heart leaped for a moment. She saw her two men sleeping peacefully together, her son in his father’s arms, and she imagined hazily that all might be well. Then a shaft of early light broke through and shone on the boy and showed her that his face was still and pale; and she knew.
//
With the gentlest of touches she roused Hornblower, who instinctively tightened his grip on the bundle he held; and she laid a hand to her husband’s face in a caress as she said softly, “Little Horatio has gone to join his sister.” Her voice broke on the last word and she withdrew, sitting down and putting her face in his hands.
//
Hornblower was weary beyond telling, utterly broken by grief, and felt nothing now but resignation. He knew that later, when the fortunate first numbness wore off, he would feel his heart break again and again, but now, his son and daughter were dead and he felt only a cold gray fog enshrouding his mind. He could not think. He felt Mrs. Mason, having laid little Maria on the bed, lifting little Horatio and laying the boy beside his sister. He dimly overheard a murmured conversation; then Maria drew out a pitifully small purse and took up her shawl.
//
“Hor … Horatio,” she said. Hornblower’s heart broke again as he realized that she had, in her awful grief, nevertheless stopped herself using the nickname. “Horatio … I will go to the undertaker’s.” Her determination propelled him to his feet, though he swayed with fatigue.
//
“Not at all, my dear,” he said thickly. “That is my duty.” There. Somehow, in his inconsolable misery, he could recall the remnants of the man he used to be with that word. Silently he lifted the pitiful purse from her willing fingers and hated himself for receiving the admiration that shone in her eyes. Silently he took up his coat and hat and silently stepped out and drew the door shut behind him.
//
He paused for a moment and looked up and down the street, astonished that the world went on unhindered, heedless of the death that lay behind the rough painted door on whose knob his hand still rested. There was bustle and good-natured laughter and people going about their business as though nothing was wrong with the world; and indeed, nothing in their world might be wrong.
//
He took a deep breath, his lungs responding to the cool clean air after the awful stuffiness of the rooms, and unconsciously squared his shoulders. Then he set out upon his duty.