Begin, as You mean to go On.
“There is an alternative. And we have little choice. I propose to examine her myself!” He did not ask for her approval for what he would do. She could see from the look on his face, that it was going to be done whether she approved or not.
“You, sir? But you are…you are a man, a sea-captain, not a physician.”
“Yes. Me! I need to know what Jessop may have overlooked. However, to give him his due, I suspect that when he first saw her she would be a mess, so it might be natural that he might overlook something that may now be seen.”
“Yes, sir. I believe she was somewhat bloodied and badly bruised, but when I arrived she had been cleaned up and the doctor had done all that he could for her.”
“So you said. And how do you know this? You did not observe him. You were not here.”
“No. I was not here. I was told some of it in the letter that Benson sent off, requesting that I come. I came as soon as I could but I have been here only a few days myself. I set out as soon as I got the letter. By the time I arrived, Dr. Jessop had done what he could, and left, promising to return, but he never did.”
They needed to get beyond this pointless discussion.
“As you rightly observed, Sophia, I am not a physician myself, though I headed down that road more than just a little, and I often assisted my own ship’s surgeon after battle, when he was swimming in blood.
“He trusted my judgment on many occasions to take the load off him, and although I did not deserve it I am sure he regarded me as a trusted apprentice. Thankfully, he always seemed more relieved to see me enter his operating area, than leave it, except after he had patched me up and treated me for my own injuries before I headed out again. I was often able to assist him after the fighting was over. We did not have the luxury of time, or of just one patient at a time to wring our hands over, but many. Men and women alike.” That, caught her attention.
“Women? On board a navy ship?” He had mentioned something that sounded like that earlier.
Why was she so surprised? Had her father, also a navy man, not told her the reality of what life on board ship was like? Except such goings-on were probably not the kind of thing one discussed with one’s wife or daughter over dinner, or at any other time. Well, she was old enough to hear it now.
“It is not generally acknowledged, but there are often women on board ship. The admiralty ignores them because it has to, and I ignored them because I chose to. They are smuggled aboard at every port. Many of them do not leave as they should when the ship sets sail. A wise captain learns to accept it. They live with the men in a kind of communal way.” He could see that his words shocked her.
“They fulfill a need on board ship just as an able seaman does, and when the fighting begins, they often work alongside the gun crews, and help the surgeon with the wounded. They are also wounded themselves on occasion. No one escapes that, on board a ship that comes under attack. We are all equal in that circumstance. There is no polite ceremony about dealing with the wounded, whether men or women. They are stripped and seen to, so that we may find what they cannot tell us. Just as in this case.” He pointed to the figure on the bed. Sophia was pale and not sure he might be believed. She had mouthed that word ‘stripped’ as though unable to either say it or contemplate it and had blushed at the thought of what he was saying.
“If we did not do that, we would never learn half of what might be the nature of their injuries before they died from loss of blood. Or learned of other injuries that they were unable to tell us about if they were unconscious”—he nodded to the bed— “as with our patient, there.” He watched as his words sank in.
“Jessop would spinelessly accept the foolish limitations imposed upon him by our vigilant and protective Nurse hovering over him and could miss any number of injuries and difficulties that would be immediately obvious to anyone who was not afraid to make a closer examination or was sober.” He looked at her for a few moments, realizing that there was no point in beating any further about the bush.
“What I am saying, if you have not already begun to understand me, is that I propose that I shall examine her for myself. Here! And now!” He looked at her, expecting an argument and objection. “I would like to be sure that neither Jessop, nor Nurse, missed anything that they should have known about.”
“Oh!” She was clearly caught off balance and was not sure how she should respond to that disturbing suggestion. He had shocked her, but he had also had an effect upon her.
She could sense his impatience with her. He did not like her hesitation, but he did not yet insist, even though he soon would.
Robert knew that if he was not careful, he would set the entire house into an uproar over what he intended to do. They would be too late. It was going to be done now, and before they might learn of it. It was almost too late to send a letter off to his ship’s surgeon, but he would do so once he had learned what he could. He looked at Sophia.
“So, what is it to be? Will I have your approval and help, or must I fight everyone here to do what should have been done properly at the outset?” He was now directly challenging her. This was the man he was. He would ride along easily and cautiously until he came up against an obstruction, and then he would not hesitate to remove it. She was now that obstacle, just as those men had been, on his way here.
“Did you mean what you said earlier, about knowing about such wounds and injuries, and never letting a comrade die without a fight to save them?” She seemed ready to acquiesce. He was relieved that he would not have an emotional fight on his hands with this young woman. It was a battle that he intended to win, even if he might lose the bigger war.
“Every word, Sophia. I did not mislead you. I have helped with many tens if not hundreds of men and women, English and French, all wounded in some way or other.” She made up her mind.
“Then I shall not oppose you. I love my sister too much to see her die for lack of, as you say, the determination to understand what is truly wrong with her. She should have been conscious long ago. She seemed to be making progress at first, but I fear she has slid back over the last day or so. I was at my wits end over this, about what to do until your arrival began to give me hope. If you believe you can help her then I shall hold my reservations at bay and request that you do what you can for her, sir.”
He had won. He could now attempt to recover some lost ground.
“Are you sure? You might be embarrassed by what I will need to do!”
“I do not care about that. I am sure I will be embarrassed, but better that, than my sister die for lack of backbone on my part or anyone else’s.” His eyes shone in admiration of her, and he touched her on the shoulder as a sign of approval.
“Thank you!” He seemed relieved. “Then I shall ask you to lock the door. It will not do to have anyone blunder in upon us.” She walked over to the door and locked it.
It had not been as difficult as he had feared. He looked about the room once more, and focused upon the task ahead of him, recognizing that he would need to be more circumspect than ever he would have tolerated on board ship. He moved over to the bed and sat beside Selena as he studied her in the bright light of the sun, gathering his scattered wits once more. Sophia was momentarily forgotten. His entire future might depend upon what he did and learned in the next few minutes, unless the fateful die had already been cast, and if so, it would not matter what he might do. But he needed to calm himself first.
Her hair was a deep raven black, as he remembered it, like that of the children, as were her eyebrows. Together they lent even greater emphasis to her relatively untanned face, though he knew, from Charles’s letters, that she spent many hours outside with the children. His brother had described her well and accurately, but such a description penned into a letter, had not done justice to her. A sketch of her, that Charles had done, did do justice to the woman he remembered. It, along with other sketches of the children, were carefully rolled up in his belongings, and had travelled through one battle after another with him. One ship to another.
Selena looked even more beautiful than he remembered, considering how many children she had borne. She was almost his own age, all but two years. Charles, and he, had been twenty-one on the day he and Selena had married, and she had been nineteen, the age Sophia was now. Her skin was completely unblemished upon her calm and untroubled face. She actually looked contented and happy, and seemed to have a healthy blush to her features, despite her reported injuries. He would do what was needed, whatever that would be if it might save this woman’s life, and perhaps his own. His audience was momentarily forgotten.
Robert was calm enough now. He returned to his initial examination. He moved the thin coverlet off her to show her in her light nightdress. There were no obvious signs of limbs out of place, or injury at all, apart from her leg. He had not been sure what to expect and was still afraid of what he might find.
She seemed entirely at peace and was breathing slowly and regularly. Her lips were delicate pink. All good signs, except that her lips were dry. He dipped his finger in a glass of lemonade beside the bed and moistened them. There were no marks on her face from the accident, as he might have expected, nor significant bruising there, and she was unmarked by the ravages of smallpox, which still affected so many. Families deserted their homes for the countryside when there was even rumor of an outbreak. He and his brother had both avoided it by their mother’s insistence that they see Dr. Jenner, in London. He brought his wandering mind back to studying this woman.
Charles had loved this woman just as he had. His happiness had been clear to see in his written words and the great pride he had shown in his children, as well as the obviously contented nature of his settled life. He had told this woman his intimate secrets (even those about Mary) as they had shared the same pillow and had shared his memories with her. And all of that time, Robert had been at sea, with that same woman on his mind, knowing that he could never return home. And yet here he was. He bit back the sadness.
Who would know that she had given birth to so many children. Four, that he knew about. She showed none of the signs on her face of being worn down with so many cares but revealed all the signs of a much-relaxed existence, as one who lives in a deeply loving environment would be expected to show and would let things unfold as they may.
He reached out and touched her hair. He wished that he had come to know her better, and that she had consciously known him; though thankfully, she had not. He paused for a moment, stood up, and moved to the window, as though questioning his ability and his right to take on full responsibility for this woman and in such a way as he now would need to do. What he had done on board his ship in similar circumstances had been expected of him, and he did not back away from it, but here…? He stared out across the lawns to the distant trees and then on to the dimly perceived horizon of low hills. He was at a loss. Here he was, the brother who never lacked for decisiveness, and suddenly he was now at a cross roads, not sure how to go forward without calling the house down upon him. So many things seemed to depend upon what he decided. Not only his own future, but that of this woman and her children. He could not easily delegate anything to others this time. Nothing he decided would be easy.
He watched as Sophia checked on her sister for herself while he was out of the way. He knew his way forward. Selena was propped up fairly high on the pillows to make it easier for her to breathe. Her breathing seemed regular, and he could just see the faint pulsing beside her neck where a slight shadow played, to show that her heart was working at a steady, slow pace.