Learning the Worst.
Robert walked across to the bed. He was ready now. He owed everyone that, himself included. He would not let her die if there was a way of cheating it. Had he been able to give up his own life to save hers, he would have done. He looked at Sophia and smiled before he spoke.
“Is this what she coughed up?” He picked up a bloody cloth from a bowl beside the bed. It had been overlooked in the relatively dim light. She seemed embarrassed that he noticed her lapse in tidying it away, and he recognized that she might remonstrate with the girl here earlier, that she had not tidied it away with her when she had left.
“Since when?” He needed answers now. “And my name, is Robert.”
“Since early this morning. I did not have time to get rid of them, and I should have told Deirdre where they were, but I overlooked them in the low light.” She seemed to feel that the responsibility was hers. A good sign. He opened the cloth up and examined it. He spoke aloud.
“Very little blood, and very thin. Is this the first you have encountered, or has she been doing this over the last few days since the accident?
“It is the first, to my knowledge, and I have barely left her side for the last two days. She was leaking it from her mouth, almost like a dribble. But…”
“So she didn’t cough it up?” He stalled her going any further with what she had seemed about to say.
“No, sir.” He accepted that answer.
“How badly was her leg broken?”
“I do not know. Do you know anything of such injuries sir?”
“We got that out of the way, earlier, remember? But, unfortunately, yes.” He spoke quietly, lending his words great power. “I have seen several dozen, and helped with many others. Splinted them, bandaged them, and I have even helped take legs and arms off, when necessary, and the need was there.” He anticipated her concern, and even horror at hearing that. He hoped that it would not be necessary here.
“Yes, hardly the job for a Captain. And cauterized them.” He still could remember that sickening smell of burning flesh. But more memorable than that, were the screams. He could still hear the screams in his head, before the patient – held down by three or four men - passed out from pain. Some didn’t. The memorable part of it all was that they had thanked him afterward for saving their lives. Too many died from neglect of such wounds, so he had certainly helped save their lives. They had known that, and had been grateful.
“I have patched up hundreds of men when the need was there before I ever became a captain, and just as many after that too.” He did not tell her that he had seemed to have been up to his armpits in blood more often than he liked and had felt an overwhelming sense of anger and inadequacy each time one of his men had succumbed to his injuries for lack of proper, timely care and attention. His decisions going into battle, had caused all of this. He, was responsible. He vowed at that time that he would learn whatever he could from his own surgeon, and never tolerate such a needless loss of any of his crew again if he could change it. And he had changed it. It also made him that much more dangerous going into battle. He would do everything in his power to limit the ability of any opponent to retaliate, while doing maximum damage to that enemy.
“I was a captain who did not like to lose any men – or women - for lack of care, especially as I had caused their injuries by my decisions.” He continued talking to keep her mind occupied, though prepared to deal with any objections to what he knew he had to do next.
He moved the nightdress up her leg and out of the way to well above her knee, quite far beyond the splint, and examined the leg without touching it. There was no obvious puncturing, or discoloration that he could see where her leg was exposed; no obvious misalignment of upper or lower, and no obvious bleeding or smell of gangrene. There was no puncture, or tissue damage that he could see. It must have been a clean break; likely involving both bones. She had been lucky. Jessop had not made things any worse. He began to feel the first stirrings of relief but cautioned himself not to be optimistic just yet.
Sophia watched. She was still not sure exactly what he intended, or how far his examination of her sister might extend.
The leg was still badly bruised above, and below the bandaging, as was her other leg. He would not be surprised if there was an injury to that one too, remaining to be discovered. He moved her nightdress up on that other leg. He was aware that the young woman was feeling some little discomfort when it looked as though he might roll it too high for modesty’s sake.
He took her mind off what he intended to do, no matter her objections, by talking to her.
“I had several responsibilities that I spelled out to those that I chose to sail with me. The most important was to get my ship back into the battle, to do the greatest damage to disrupt the enemy; to destroy them if possible, or to get out of the way when necessary if we had too much damage and had lost leeway, and let others take over. If not, then we fought to the point where one of us, or neither of us could fight further. We often were given little choice about how that could be done, other than to use what little maneuverability we might still have and take advantage of every breath of wind. At no time did we ever let up on our bombardment of the enemy ship if they were in range, and we had guns that might fire.”
He felt along Selena’s seemingly uninjured leg, gradually putting more pressure upon it, and moving her ankle about as he did so.
“No breaks there.” He looked up briefly at Sophia, and smiled, before returning to what he was doing.
He paused, as another part of his mind catalogued something else he had just learned.
“After the battle, I checked that we were in no immediate danger of sinking, or being taken on again, and that I had men enough left to man her for the next battle, which might even then be coming up on us, minutes or hours away. Sometimes two or more ships would engage us, so we could be fighting for our lives all day, tripping over fallen rigging and the bodies of our fallen comrades.”
He checked for the tightness of the splints and bindings, aware that he was watched closely. Neither too slack, nor too tight, so Nurse must have seen to that recently. Good.
“My surgeon was an excellent man, but was always much overworked, both during and following the battle. Immediately after a battle, and even during it, is the most crucial time for a man’s survival. I saw to the ship’s recovery, and if there was no other battle imminent and everything that could be attended to, was being attended to, I left my officers to get on with their duties and went to help the surgeon. I ignored protocol, broke with tradition, and helped my surgeon out, often for hours at a stretch where I could. I had good and reliable men around me that I could depend upon to run the ship and to keep me informed of anything that needed my immediate attention. I did not follow navy regulations when it was pointless to do so.
“An experience of that kind below deck and treating and ministering to the men that your orders put there, is a sobering experience. I would recommend it for all captains and generals in any field of battle, rather than have them skulking well back from any danger. However, a captain of a ship does not have that choice of staying out of the action. They all live, die, sink, or swim together. His life is often more on the line, than that of any of his men. He is the main target of snipers. He is also the one who might lead a boarding crew into what becomes the thick of the fight, and with everyone seeking to cut him down. One engages the enemy with a much better respect and understanding after that, and with the recognition that the same things were happening on their ships too. On occasion, I was down there with the surgeon when I did not wish to be, but on the receiving end of the knife. Not something one chooses to remember, and better to avoid it.” She stood by him and remained silent as she watched everything he did, checking each of Selena’s ankles.
“So I have had experience of more bloody and wounded men, than ever a city surgeon would see in a lifetime of lancing boils or treating coughs; physicking, purging, bleeding. We chose never to bleed anyone. There was always too much blood lost without adding to it.”
She watched him as he closely examined the splinting and bandaging yet again, and the leg above and below, but touched nothing other than the bindings, to test how snug they were. He was methodical and took his time. Most of the work was hidden, but he could see enough. Now came the hard part.
“I will examine the rest of her now.” He sensed the difficulty Sophia still had despite their earlier conversation.
“But only her leg was broken, sir. And I am not sure it is proper, sir. She is a woman. You should not….” She now seemed unsure. “A doctor will often take great pains…” He interrupted her, exasperated at her ill-timed reservations.
“I thought we had put that behind us. I realize that it would be improper under any other circumstance. And she is a woman, isn’t she, and an attractive young woman too, and obviously little younger than I am, myself. It would be a shame to lose her for lack of fortitude on anyone’s part. But what has that got to do with any of this? She is injured, and I need to know how badly so that I can help her survive.”
Sophia was hesitant about it all but could see his firm determination. He tried to moderate his approach. What he could do aboard his own ship, even with injured women was one thing, but ashore, was a different matter.
“But you are right, it is certainly not proper at any time, but under the circumstances…” He bit back his impatience and closed his eyes as he spoke, choosing his words carefully. “I would like to know what else I might find that others missed or misinterpreted, that might just kill her or, at best, might leave her a cripple for the rest of her days, or see her lose a leg, or worse. She would not thank us for that, and you would not thank yourself.”
She was startled at his forthright words, but he was right. She might be shocked or offended, but better that than see her sister die. He did not give her an easy choice but did not intend to. He looked directly at her and spoke more considerately than he was inclined to do.
“We already went over some of this when I asked what you wanted for your sister. It seemed to have worked with you for a while. I hope you are not getting cold feet at this early stage. I doubt that this is the time for you to be modestly protective of anyone. Your sister is unconscious and will not be offended. She will know none of it and will not be self-conscious about it. I won’t be. You may, but that does not count, does it! You are not the one lying here, injured. I would hope that if I were injured severely, that there would be no question of protecting my modesty in any examination, even by you. Though I have no modesty anyway, as I am sure Nurse will soon tell you. I would rather live, than die for lack of any firm resolve in those looking after me.”
“I doubt that anyone else need know about any of this. If it might offend you too much, you may leave, though I would rather you stayed. I may need your help. However, whether you are here or not, I do intend to find out what it is that I can best do for her.”