|Incurable - Part Two
||[Jan. 25th, 2006|04:02 pm]
Better than a Wife
Second and final entry for Incurable
Part One can be found here:
Rating: R (graphic surgical yuckiness)
Pairing: implied HH/WB more friendship BookVerse
Summary: The conclusion of Incurable, including the dreaded surgery, and Horatio's take on the whole disaster.
Once again, thank you to black_hound for the impetus, the historical nitpick and the detailed wonderful beta read. Cheers, woman. This is for you.
I hope you enjoy this.
Maybe now it'll stop running around in my brain and haunting my dreams.
First of all, I would define medicine as the complete removal of the
distress of the sick, the alleviation of the more violent diseases and
the refusal to undertake to cure cases in which the disease has already
won the mastery, knowing that everything is not possible to medicine. –
Through Hell or High Water, William….
“I told you, Signora, I do not want to see Mister Hornblower,” Bush
hissed, barely above a whisper. Notwithstanding the weakness in Bush’s
voice, Hornblower saw an icy flame in his friend’s eyes – fire usually
saved for those Bush despised the most -- the French – especially
“Well, now, William he is just…” Elizabeth began.
“William!?” Bush cut her off, sitting bolt upright. “You call me by my
Christian name? What sort of insolence do you… do you…damn!” Bush’s
words dissolved in a fit of coughing, peppered with winces of pain,
oaths, insults and blasphemies the like of which Hornblower had never
heard. Hornblower had to take a step back for fear of being toppled
over by the blue streak.
“Settle yourself, sir,” she soothed. She cooed Bush’s name, laid him
gently back down, stroked his forehead, and brushed the hair from his
face. Hornblower couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy at the
attentions. “There, now, Mister Bush,” Elizabeth breathed, “there.”
Bush’s coughing slowed and ceased. “Better? Yes, better now, sir.”
Bush made a growling noise deep in his chest and turned away, gazing out the window.
“Horatio here told me you would prefer it if I called you William.”
Bush swore again, and again, he sat upright. “Captain Hornblower told
you incorrectly, Signora.” He again focused his eyes on Hornblower, the
anger still burning therein.
Hornblower coughed and cleared his throat loudly, for the first time
feeling nervous and a bit intimidated by Bush – and Hornblower did not
know why. It should not be that way, Hornblower thought, for a captain
to be treated as such by his lieutenant. Perhaps it was the anger which
Hornblower did not fully understand. Perhaps it was the knowledge of
Bush’s fierceness in battle against the French; and having that ire
directed at him instead. Perhaps it was the abject fear of losing Bush
forever as a friend and brother.
Before Hornblower could respond, the door swung open and five men
entered. Hornblower immediately recognized the old surgeon’s assistant.
The other four, he assumed, included the surgeon, a young assistant –
perhaps a student, and, judging from the size of them, two burly
strongmen to hold Bush firm during the procedure.
The surgeon approached the bedside at a clip, unceremoniously shoving
both Hornblower and Elizabeth aside. Without word to Bush, he threw the
covers off the bed, exposing not only Bush’s wounded leg, but his
bloodied, torn, trousers and naked torso.
The older assistant worked as quietly, quickly and deftly as the
surgeon, preparing a table with various and sundry surgical
instruments. Hornblower ticked off a list in his mind as he watched the
man draw equipment out of a large bag, setting each item out in a
precise pattern: knives, saws, forceps, retractors, a metal tourniquet,
sponges, cloths, lengths of thread, needles, bandages, and a basin,
which he filled with water from Bush’s bedside pitcher.
Hornblower observed the man closely, thinking to himself that the
assistant and surgeon worked together well -- like cogs in a clockwork
– one seeming to know and anticipate the needs of the other.
Much like William and myself, he mused, much like we may never be again.
At the end, the assistant placed on the table a small, brown, wicker
basket, just the right size to cover the end of what would remain of
Bush’s leg after the surgery. The Badge of Honour, Hornblower thought.
Hornblower turned his attention back to Bush -- at the wrong moment.
Again, without a word, the surgeon tugged at the dressings covering
Bush’s leg, and plucked away the soggy, bloodied lint, exposing the
horrific wound. Hornblower could not help but suck in a breath through
his teeth at the combination of the sight of it and the sound of Bush’s
muffled cries of pain.
The bottom half of Bush’s lower leg had been rent completely from the
body. Where the foot should have been there was simply open space.
Above it, the skin hung in ribbons of flesh, some thick, some thin –
shatters of what had been there before. It looked to Hornblower as if
some sea monster had taken a great bite out of Bush’s leg, yanking and
tearing with great teeth.
Bush’s leg shook with pain and nerves, causing some of the exposed
muscle to quiver and shake involuntarily in a gruesome display of the
workings of the human body. Bush’s disconnected muscle, searching for a
limb to move, reminded Hornblower sadly of a flying fish stranded on
the Sutherland’s quarterdeck -- flailing and tossing -- desperate for
re-connection with the sea.
Worst of all, the two bones of Bush’s lower leg were exposed, broken at
sharp, harsh angles, and stripped of flesh and muscle so that they
protruded out, stark and virginal white against the red meat. As the
surgeon moved Bush’s leg into place, the bones, bereft of support,
clicked together, making a nauseating grinding noise. Bush swore loudly
and bared his teeth against the pain.
Hornblower could stand no more. Despite his strong desire to appear
steadfast, his stomach could no longer bear the sight. Instead of
running out of the room, as was his desire, he strode up to the head of
the bed, and sat facing Bush in Elizabeth’s chair. Hornblower covered
his face with his hands, breathing shaky breaths between loud swallows
and nauseated coughs. Once calmed, he felt a hand touch his own, and
lifted his head.
The hand belonged to Bush, who was sheet-white with pain and
apprehension. “Are you… are you all right, sir?” Bush whispered, his
voice catching and rising an octave after a particularly painful move
of his leg.
Hornblower placed his hand on Bush’s and squeezed tightly. At that
moment, Hornblower no longer cared why Bush had so desired to reject
his company. He would ask Bush later, no doubt, given his own
insecurities, pride, and paranoia, but for the moment, it made no
matter. “Is that not a question I should be asking you, Mister Bush?”
“Yes, I… suppose it is, but I am not the one who… looks as green as a certain midshipman did his first day aboard ship.”
Hornblower gave a single chuckle through his nose. “I do not think I will ever live that down, will I?”
“I do not know, sir. I… was never on… the Justinian. I wasn’t there… but you know how reputations go.”
“Yes, Mister Bush. Yes, I do.” Hornblower fell silent.
“I can only pray that mine has not been tarnished by events of late. I
should… hate the indignity to have been known as the lieutenant who was
ordered to be carried below decks when his ship was… captured.”
Regardless of Bush’s wistfulness, Hornblower knew full well then and
there that such was the source of Bush’s resentment.
Resentment well deserved, Hornblower thought, and which shall be remedied in spades.
The surgeon stood at the foot of Bush’s bed, his hands folded. The
assistant stood to his right near the instrument table, and Elizabeth
to his left, placing a large copper basin on the floor beneath Bush’s
wounded leg. “Siamo aspettiamo, signori. Signore Bush?”
“What did he say, Horatio?” Bush breathed, his voice a staccato, reedy whisper.
“He said, they’re ready to begin.” Elizabeth interpreted, and nodded to
the two other men. “These men, William -- they are Henri and Jacques.
They will be holding you down. Please, do not give them a difficult
time.” She smiled sympathetically. “I have saved some brandy, and I
have it at the ready for you should you wish to have it.”
Bush glared back and forth between the French soldiers, eyeing them,
Hornblower thought, as if challenging them to force him otherwise. “No,
thank you.” Bush answered, satisfied.
“Are you certain?” Hornblower asked.
“Yes, I am certain.”
“You are a pigheaded fool, Mister Bush. I think you should at least have a drink or two to dull…”
“Is that an order, sir?”
Hornblower shook his head and sighed. “No, Mister Bush, it is not. It should be, but it is not.”
“Duly noted, then, Captain, sir.” Bush knuckled his forehead in salute.
“But, I will not have these Frog lubbers think less of England for the
sight of weakness in one of her officers,” he hissed through clenched
teeth. “Now, give me something to bite on, and get on with it.”
The soldiers moved into place. One snaked his arms around Bush from
behind, pinioning Bush’s arms back by the shoulders against his
muscular body, and trapping Bush’s head facing upwards with his free
hands. The other placed both hands on Bush’s good leg, forcing all of
his weight downwards, holding it in place. The student stationed
himself over Bush’s other leg, preparing to force his weight down upon
Bush suddenly grunted, pushing against the binding of his upper body,
and his eyes went wild. He thrashed his head violently from side to
side. “Let… me… loose, damn you!” he ordered. “Christ, I want… to …
see… need to… want to … see…,” Bush growled. “You goddamned Frog, let
go of me!” His voice echoed for eternity, it seemed.
“Qu'il permette qu'il regarde son ami, Jacques,” Elizabeth intervened,
quietly, “il a besoin de lui.” She then addressed Bush. “You wish to
see, to talk with Horatio, correct, William? During this procedure? As
Bush nodded, and Jacques immediately loosened his grip on Bush’s
forehead. Bush turned toward Hornblower. “Stay with me, sir… Horatio.
Stay with me.”
Hornblower leaned in close, and laid his hand gently against Bush’s
face. With the same hand, he gingerly massaged open Bush’s jaw, and
when Bush complied, Hornblower fixed a wooden bite-stick, slowly
closing it between his friend’s teeth.
Elizabeth is right. Formalities be damned.
“I will stay with you through hell or high water, William. Through hell or high water.”
The Italian surgeon turned to his assistant and held out an expectant hand. “Vincenzo, diami il tourniquet, per favore.”
Rest, Captain Hornblower, It’s All Over Now.
The surgeon muttered and barked orders in Italian to his assistants
while examining Bush’s leg, which was now bound in a metal tourniquet.
Hornblower noticed with apprehension that the flesh downstream of the
binding was turning a horrid purple. While Hornblower was desperately
curious to know what the man was saying, he was too focused on Bush to
occupy his mind with translating the words.
Moreover, Hornblower was uncertain whether he wished to watch the
procedure occurring at the foot of the bed, or keep his eyes turned
toward Bush’s face, positioned at the head. Although, deep down,
Hornblower knew he likely could not stomach the sight of an amputation,
still, the thought of it carried a morbid draw – like the fascination
in watching a rated frigate slowly toss and sink beneath the waves.
All being said, and knowing Bush’s needs, Hornblower decided it would
be best to keep his mind on his friend, to be the diversion that Bush
would need over the next few minutes. Bush’s face was taut in his
attempts to appear under control and fearless. However, the rapid
blinking of his eyes, and curling inward of his lips gave away Bush’s
From behind, Hornblower heard the unmistakeable scrape of a metal blade
being lifted from a wooden table. Bush heard the same, Hornblower knew,
for at that very moment, Bush’s façade crumbled. He gasped and
swallowed against the bite-stick, and his breaths, pushed through his
nose, became short and fast.
Elizabeth laid a gentle hand on Hornblower’s shoulder and peered
kindheartedly into Bush’s eyes. “Aldafieri is going to make the first
cuts, now William. I wish I could say it will not be painful.”
Bush nodded rapidly, the look in his eyes saying, “get on with it.”
Hornblower chanced a look behind him and saw the surgeon, positioned
between Bush’s legs, skillfully clutching the long, curved blade in his
right hand, and holding a portion of Bush’s leg with his left, as if,
Hornblower thought, he were making ready to carve a roast duck or slice
a sausage. For a moment, Hornblower’s world slowed as he watched, his
stomach lurching like the roll and toss of a sloop-of-war. It seemed an
eon before the surgeon felled the blade against Bush’s leg and made the
first cut. As he did so, the knife squelched deep into Bush’s skin and
flesh, spilling and spurting out copious amounts of bright-red blood
onto the gray bedsheets while the surgeon undertook a practiced series
of turns and curves within.
Hornblower’s attention was snapped back to Bush by a bloodcurdling,
horrific scream. In all of his time in the Navy, Hornblower had heard
shrieks such as these from a distance, but had never seen the source of
one until now – and the source of this particular scream terrified him.
What was worse, the source of that scream was Bush, and it struck
Hornblower deep with the knowing of it, the knowing of how, and the
knowing of why.
For the third time that day, Hornblower fought back tears, this time
upon seeing the frightfully contorted and nearly unrecognizeable mask
of pain that became Bush’s face – eyes screwed shut, lips drawn back,
teeth bared, forehead and eyebrows showing deep furrows. Hornblower
blinked furiously and couldn’t help but whimper slightly on an exhaled
It’s no good me standing here and of no use,
Hornblower thought, and resolved himself to serve his purpose there –
to help Bush through this ordeal. Hornblower bent over and tented his
upper body over Bush so that they were nearly nose-to-nose. “Look at
me, Bush,” he ordered, “you must look at me.”
Bush opened his eyes, connecting with Hornblower’s right at the moment
when the surgeon made the second cut – the one separating Bush’s skin
from muscle. Bush growled and moaned deeply with this cut, his eyes
rolling, blinking and lolling back into his head with the renewed pain.
Bush suddenly turned wavecap white and his face went slack.
“He’s going to pass out, Elizabeth.”
“Let him, Horatio,” Elizabeth said, “it would be a blessing for him if he did.”
Bush did not faint, but opened his eyes again, again fixing his glassy blues on Hornblower. “Still with us, Mister Bush?”
Bush nodded, his breaths still ragged. Yet, he managed to attempt a
small, wan, smile. “It… hurts,” he said, his words practically
unintelligble from the impediment of the bite-stick.
Before Hornblower could retort with, “that is the year’s best
understatement, Mister Bush,” Bush tensed, threw his head back, and
moaned anew. Hornblower looked down the bed to see that the surgeon was
now pushing and pulling the intricate saw back and forth across a
great, bloody chasm rent into Bush’s leg. Hornblower’s stomach flipped
and jolted, and, set on staying conscious himself, he turned back to
Bush. “It is nearly over, William. Nearly over now. Just hold on. Just
keep looking at me, please.”
As the saw cut through the small bone, and slipped down to begin eating
away at the larger, Bush thrashed his arms wildly against the new
intensity of the pain. The soldier instinctively tightened his grip on
Bush’s shoulders. Seeing no other alternative, Hornblower grasped both
of Bush’s arms and pinned them down against Bush’s sides. This action
elicited an icy, hate-filled stare and a severely garbled, “get the
‘ell off me, H’rnbl’er,” from Bush.
“I will not.” Hornblower matched Bush’s stare with a determined one of
his own. “I will not allow you to injure yourself further, now… stay…
still!” Bush struggled mightily against Hornblower and the Frenchman,
alternating between ear-splitting yells, mangled and jumbled swearing
through the bite-stick, and vicious growling for what seemed to
Hornblower an eternity.
Suddenly, then, at the tail-end of one rather protracted scream, Bush
went stock-still. Hornblower felt any resistance or stiffness in Bush’s
body dissipate and die.
“I believe he has had enough, Horatio,” said Elizabeth, gently drawing
Hornblower back off of Bush’s body. “He has had enough.”
Without Bush’s screams, mumbled oaths, and blasphemies filling the
room, Hornblower, despite the sound of his own heavy breaths, could
hear the distinctive “pop” of the saw finishing its cut through Bush’s
leg bones, and then a rhythmic “drip, drip, drip” of blood from the
table trickling into the copper basin below. He turned just in time to
watch the student lift the amputated end of Bush’s leg from the table
and unceremoniously heft it into the copper basin, causing the blood
therein to slosh and splash in a gruesome display. The student wiped
his hands against his brown leather apron, which was already slick and
glistening with blood and splattered with bits of red and black flesh.
The surgeon’s apron, hands, and even his blonde hair were equally
bedecked in gore, such that Hornblower fancied him not unlike a meat
At this thought, Hornblower sucked in a breath and, without realizing,
held it. He was still in shock, still watching the surgeon, who was now
weaving a needle and thread deftly through Bush’s flesh. After a
moment, he teetered perilously, his eyes losing focus, and his hands
starting to tingle.
Elizabeth, who had been mopping sweat from Bush’s brow, saw
Hornblower’s state, and rushed to his side, guiding him down into the
chair where he, himself, fainted dead away.
“The great Captain Horatio Hornblower of His Brittanic Majesty’s Navy,”
Elizabeth laughed. “Rest now, you and William both need it.” She picked
up Hornblower’s dangling hands and placed them gingerly across his
chest. “Rest, Captain Hornblower, it’s all over now.”
I Will Not Have You Wake Again In This State, Bush. I Will Not.
Hornblower sat on the edge of Elizabeth’s chair, his crossed arms
resting on Bush’s bed and his chin resting on his arms. He had sat
there for nearly an hour, staring alternately between Bush’s placid,
slumbering face and the now-darkening bloodstain at the opposite end of
the bed. He worked the familiar length of black ribbon in his right
hand, calming himself with the movement and the feel of the silk
against the tips of his fingers.
The words, “Leave me on deck! Let go of me, you dogs!” echoed over and
over in his mind, accompanied by the memory of his own, brusque order,
“take him away.” Take him away…Dear God, did I really say that? Take… him… take… Bush… away. Away. Hornblower shook his head in self-disgust. Inattentive, dismissive, horrible and rude to even the best of your friends, aren’t you, Horatio?
“It was all my fault, William,” Horatio whispered. “All of it, and I am
sorry.” Hornblower glanced around the room. “What do we do now,
William?” Hornblower laughed. “Not a question I thought I’d ever be
asking of you, of all people, my simple friend.” He let his head loll
to one side. “Just look at the mangle I’ve gotten us into – a mangle
from which I promise we will recover -- somehow.”
Bush continued in a twilight sleep, induced hours ago after Hornblower
had fed him a bowl of lukewarm broth -- broth which Elizabeth had laced
with a dose of laudanum. As Hornblower had spooned the onion-scented
soup into his friend’s mouth, he could not help but remember the
assistant’s words, “We have ways to, how do you say – sneak -- small
Hornblower lifted his arms from the bed, rested his elbows upon his
knees, and cupped his head in his folded hands, the thumb of his right
hand rubbing absentmindedly against his lower lip. The room, save for
Bush, was quiet and empty, the light from the window waning into the
oncoming darkness of the French night. Hornblower looked up again at
his comrade, Bush’s angluar face casting long, harsh shadows in
reflection of the orange and pink sunset sky.
Hornblower sighed and rose to light a candle on the other side of
Bush’s bed. As he did so, he again noticed Bush’s long, dark curls
cascading helplessly and untamed against the white nightshirt and
Bush’s damp skin. “This will not do,” Hornblower muttered, lifting a
wayward strand off of Bush’s neck, allowing the curl to wind around his
index finger, “this will not do at all.”
He lit a candle, placed it on the side table, pulled up a chair, and
sat down. As Bush was facing the other direction, Hornblower had
perfect access to the nape of Bush’s neck. “I will not have you wake
again in this state, Lieutenant Bush. I will not.”
With that promise made, Hornblower gathered Bush’s hair in his hand,
and combed through it with the fingers of his other. He divided the
locks into three and began braiding, making a tight cable weave from
Bush’s scalp, down to the flipped-up ends of the forming queue.
Satisfied, he held the braid fast in his left hand, and with his right,
reached across the bed and gathered up the black ribbon he had left
Slowly, and deftly, Hornblower began the time-worn ritual of wrapping
Bush’s braided hair into a seaman’s queue, finishing it with a small,
skilfully knotted bow, as he had done so many times in the past. Only,
this time, Bush did not squirm as was his wont. Bush did not try and
turn his head to follow the path of a wayward midshipman, thereby
ruining Hornblower’s handiwork. He did not curse whenever Hornblower
pulled his hair too tightly or yanked out a strand or two with the
braid. He did not reach his hand behind to criticize the tautness of
the queue or the neatness of the wrap. In fact, this time, Bush did
nothing. Bush was silent.
Hornblower placed Bush’s finished queue gingerly back against the bed,
satisfied with his work. Yet, there was something sadly missing, very
sadly missing – something, Hornblower knew, that would never be the
same -- and Hornblower’s heart broke with the realization of it.
This time, when he felt the bitter sting of tears behind his eyes, Hornblower let them flow unbound and unconstrained.