New Year, New Life
by Holly Hornblower
DEDICATION: To all military wives who have faced pregnancy
childbirth alone while their husbands have been away, doing their
duty against everyone from Napoleon to Osama bin Laden.
It was nearly midnight on New Year's Eve, 1803, and Maria Mason
Hornblower could not sleep. The little fluttering pains she had
experienced most of the previous day were getting stronger now, more
insistent, and she knew she would soon need to send for the midwife.
She clumsily rolled out of bed, put on a flannel wrapper (although
her condition precluded her being able to fasten the robe around her
enormous belly) and went to sit in the straightbacked chair by the
window. She looked out at the ships anchored in Plymouth Harbor and
wistfully thought of her Horatio, on blockade duty somewhere off the
coast of France. She wanted so badly for him to be with her now, as
their child was born. She didn't want to be alone. But Horatio had
his duty to do, Maria was all too aware of that. Even her mother
wasn't expected for a few more days. "First babies are always late,"
Mrs. Mason had proclaimed. "No need for me to sit in Plymouth
waitin' for you to pop. I've got my own things to keep me busy
here. Besides, if Horatio wasn't off sailing around looking for
Boney, he could be with you, like a proper husband ought to be."
Thinking of Mrs. Mason's reproaches towards Horatio saddened Maria.
A single tear welled up in her eye, and she brushed it away.
Only once since her marriage nine months ago had Maria allowed
herself to cry over Horatio's devotion to the Navy. Two months
previous His Majesty's Sloop Hotspur had arrived in Tor Bay, just 30
miles from Plymouth. Maria had traveled in a carrier's cart to
Brixham and waited all day on the pier, hoping that Horatio would
come ashore. The cart fare was an extravagance she really couldn't
afford, and she had worried about traveling in her condition, but
nothing could keep her away from Horatio. She could see Hotspur out
in the bay, but the men aboard looked like tiny ants from her vantage
point. In the afternoon, she watched as the quarter boat was lowered
and someone climbed down into it. It was the captain, others on the
pier told her. Maria's heart was pounding as the boat got underway
and headed straight towards her. But then it had veered off towards
the admiral's flagship, and remained there until after dark. Maria
went back to the shabby little room she had engaged for the night
(yet another expense, she now ruefully recalled). Early the next
morning she returned to the pier, hoping that today Horatio could
find a moment for her, but Hotspur was gone - weighed anchor and
sailed off in the middle of the night. With her heart as heavy as
the child she was carrying, Maria returned to Plymouth, bone tired
and her ankles swollen the size of grapefruits. When she got back to
the boarding house she laid on her bed and cried, cursing His
Britannic Majesty's Navy, Admiral Cornwallis, Napoleon and every
other person and thing that conspired to keep her and her beloved
apart. She had been ashamed of herself later. After all, she knew
what she was getting into when she married Horatio; that he was a
King's Officer first and foremost, and his duty to the Navy would
always come before his duties as a husband and soon, as a father.
Maria shifted uncomfortably in her chair and unconsciously
swollen abdomen. She ruminated over the past year, and all the
changes her life had seen. A year ago she had been a schoolteacher
bordering on spinsterhood, filled with an unrequited love for the
unemployed and penniless Lieutenant her mother wanted to evict from
her rooming house. "Oh mother, it's the middle of winter! Where
will he go?" she had pleaded. He was the only man who had been
genuinely kind to her; to take an interest in her life. In March he
had been promoted to Commander, appointed to Hotspur and proposed to
her. They had been married two weeks later, and after two days of
marriage he had sailed off to blockade Brest. She had quit her
teaching job, left her mother's home in Portsmouth and moved to
Plymouth to be at the Channel Fleet's home port, in case Horatio was
able to bring Hotspur in. Most importantly, her very fervent prayers
had been answered when she discovered she was carrying his child.
The child which, the growing intensity of her labor pains attested,
would be born on New Year's Day, 1804. Yes, it had been quite a
As she often did, Maria wondered what Horatio was doing at
moment. It was snowing in Plymouth - big, wet snowflakes. Was he
battling foul weather as well? Or, worse yet, was he in harm's way,
engaged in some horrifying action against one of Napoleon's ships?
She knew very little of her husband's life in the Navy. It was not
something that he had easily shared with her. But whatever his
circumstances, Maria prayed for his safety and that of Hotspur, her
husband's friend and First Lieutenant William Bush, and the rest of
The church bell chimed twelve o'clock midnight. New Year's
Another contraction spread a spasm of pain through her. "Happy New
Year to you, my beloved, wherever you are," she said quietly. "Come
home to us soon." She ponderously rose from the chair. It was time
to wake the landlady and have her fetch the midwife. It was time to
give birth to her and Horatio's baby.