Chapter Fifty-One: Silence

The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, I ran to check on my Nathaniel. I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving to God and to the Virgin. I had been heard.

He was still there, still incoherent, still feverish. But he was alive. I changed out the bandage, cleaned the wound which now had less of the purulence, and reapplied the carbolic acid. I could see his pain was great, but tried to detach myself from it. It was necessary.

I spoon fed him the morning rations of tea, bread, and broth, giving extra care to soak the dry, stale bread in the broth to ensure that he did not choke on it. Then I enlisted a passing orderly to help change the sheets. The fellow from the night before had apparently returned after I had left, leaving the fresh sheets on the table by the bed.

I debated bathing him. After knowing him so intimately, and then not at all for so long, the act itself seemed so much more than clinical. It was the right thing and wrong thing to do all at once. I postponed a decision. I had duties to attend to elsewhere. I would return later.

The Castle Hospital had been my home for three months now. Spring was dawning outside.  The wind still blew cold but the sun was warm.  Sometimes I took a few minutes to just close my eyes and stand in the sunshine, letting it clean my soul. I had no time for that this morning.

I had been put to work almost immediately upon my arrival. I was given menial tasks like washing floors and cleaning chamber pots, things the orderlies should have done. I understood that I was being tested so I bore my burden dutifully and without complaining.

“Mrs. Aspern, today you are needed in the kitchen.” I would spend the day kneading bread until my arms ached.

“Mrs. Aspern, today you will work in the laundry.” I would spend the day scrubbing sheets with my arms in lye, burning and chapped.

“Mrs. Aspern, you are needed in the scullery today.” I would peel potatoes and chop onions for hours until the smell of onions eked from my pores and my eyes were blinded from the burning.

After several weeks of these tasks, I was allowed on the wards.

Nurses were not allowed to bathe patients. That was left to the male orderlies. Generally speaking, the orderlies were either morally or physically unable to serve in the army. They were quite the unpredictable collection. Between absenteeism and alcoholism it was a wonder they did anything they were told. In the end, there was quite a bit that the nursing staff was left to make up for when the orderlies failed to perform their duties.

I had no issues with bathing a male patient and in short order, that was my given assignment as the sisters themselves wanted nothing to do with a naked male body. There was no purity left in me and I did not fear my reputation.

I also fed, bandaged, and assisted in surgeries when needed, working long hours. From time to time I would return to the kitchens or laundry if needed. The repetitive, mindless work was a welcome and necessary break.

When the noon meal arrived, I returned to Nathaniel’s bedside. I again fed him. He would look at me now and seemed to see me, but he did not appear to remember who I was. Had I changed so much? As I left, he whispered a soft, “Thank you.” My heart soared.

My right hand, however, was hurting. At first I thought the scrape had been rubbed raw from the morning chores but through the afternoon, redness and swelling began to develop. It became difficult to move it.

Infection. I had washed my hands after cleaning and dressing Nathaniel’s wound, but soap and water were no match for my scraped and open skin from my fall. I was unsure what to do. Should I show one of the surgeons?

Instead, I hurried to Nathaniel again at the end of the day. As I neared his bed, I saw that he was sitting up, feeding himself.

Suddenly, I panicked. I could not let him see me! Not like this. My hair was still terribly short. My dress was drab and dirty and still bore the wine stain on the sleeve. What if he did not like what he saw? Could I bear the rejection? I had been with other men since I had last been with him. I was suddenly ashamed of that.  I thought I had heard him say the name “Anna” yesterday. What if he were married? Should I tell him about our son Levi and that he was dead?

No. I could not go to him.

I turned quickly back to the open doorway of the ward. I made it a few steps, then hesitated. The men who had been watching gave me puzzled looks. I ignored them and started towards the door again.

But wait! I turned back. I needed to let him know that I was here.

Yet, I could not. Ultimately, I lacked the necessary courage when it came to him. I clenched my hands into fists, the pain from the right one bringing tears to my eyes that I blinked away. Instead, I quickly and quietly left the ward, not sure if I could go back.

Chapter Fifty: Fever

His hand.

I had not felt it for years. It was now rough, chapped.

Here he was, his face barely recognizable from the contortions brought on by pain. Dirt had settle into the creases of his skin and the grizzled facial hair had taken over everything else. I gingerly pulled back the sheets. He was naked, I recognized immediately, as I quickly dropped the sheets. I saw naked men dozens a day, but somehow seeing him exposed in this way seemed wrong. His right leg was bandaged, blood seeping through onto the mattress, mingling with his urine. Somehow his bandage had been missed by the orderlies this morning. He needed bathing. And clean bedding.

His eyes stared ahead fixedly or furtively darted about but they only saw things that I could not.

I felt his dry, feverish skin beneath my fingertips. His nails had grown long and they were blackened with grime. When he realized there was a hand touching his, he clasped it holding fast as if clinging to life. Somehow mine still fit perfectly within his.

But he did not know it was me.

His lips moved but he never spoke out loud. I leaned in to try to listen but the whispers made no sense. Sevastopol. Knife. My knife. Brandy. Now. Knife. Anna.

I sat silently allowing him to hold my hand for nigh on two hours. Eventually his thrashing about calmed. There was no more groaning. His tensed muscles began to relax. At last he slipped into a fitful slumber.

It was then, once the confusion of my unsettled brain wore off, that the meaning of the fever sank into my consciousness. Infection! He was dying. The orderlies had stopped changing his bandages. He had been marked for death.

This could not be.

My mind raced. Maybe carbolic acid could help once infection had started, if it could prevent infection as Dr. Jenkins had suggested. I stood and quickly ran to the store room, my heart pounding. As I rounded a corner, my foot caught on an uneven bit of wooden plank flooring and I fell forward, catching myself on my hands and knees. One of the sisters, passing by helped me up by the elbow. Her name was Flora.

“What happened? Are you alright?” Concern showed on her face.

I looked down at my hands. The abrasions smarted. My knees also stung but I was afraid to look at them just yet. I should have been paying attention.

“I am fine, thank you.” I smoothed out my skirt, dusting it off. I wanted to tell her, to enlist her help. But I was afraid. She patted my arm reassuringly, then went on her way.

At the storeroom at the far end of the hospital I located fresh bandages and a bottle of carbolic acid and a knife. Fortunately no one stopped me or asked questions, they were distracted sorting through the most recent meager shipment of supplies.

Back at the bedside, my hands shook as I pulled off the old bandage, eliciting a few shouted curses from him. The wound was at his upper thigh, was a purulent mess. After flushing the area with water, I attempted to debride the necrotic tissue as I had seen the surgeons do at Scutari. He was in terrible pain, but it could not be helped. There was no more laudanum available in all of the British hospitals in the Crimea.

“Mrs. Aspern? Do you need help?” A young, fresh faced orderly stood at the foot of the bed wide eyed.

“No.” Then I hesitated. I did not want him watching me. The less he knew the better. “Fetch me some clean sheets. Please.” He nodded and dashed off. That will take him a while. The hospital was short on clean linen, too. The sheets were often stolen by those doing the laundry, sold in the villages to supplement their meager incomes.

I looked around after he left. Other soldiers were sitting up in their beds or propped up on elbows watching, curious. I nodded at them, and went back to work.

After soaking the new bandage in the phenol, I wrapped up the wound again. I sat down, holding his hand until he was peaceful once more.

Why had they not amputated his leg? How long had he been here? The hospital was not as large as Scutari but it still housed hundreds of the wounded. How long could I have missed him?

Finally, I had to go. We were not allowed in the wards past 8:30 in the evening in an effort to maintain the spotless reputation of the nursing staff. We are a hospital, not a bordello, Mrs. Aspern. I did not want to leave him. I contemplated risking breaking the rules but now that he was here, I could not afford dismissal. I needed to be with him.

I leaned over close to his ear. “I need you,” I whispered softly. Then I slipped my hand from his. He opened his eyes and looked right at me. I was not sure that he heard me, however, as there was no recognition in his eyes.

I turned back to look at him after a few steps. His eyes were closed, a painful grimace played on his face.

Old wounds rubbed raw.

To have gone so long without him and then see him like this…I prayed to God that he did not pass this night, that he would not die without me. The aching in my chest that I had had all along, now I knew why. There were tears locked inside my heart but I had forgotten how to set them free. Somehow I knew that they were holding me together, that to let them free was to allow myself to fade away with them.

I sat on the end of my bed, not sure if I was feeling joy or sadness. If I laid down instead, I was afraid that I would fall asleep. So I sat up and held vigil in my tiny cloistered room through the night, praying for his soul and for mine. A wooden cross hung over my bed and a small print of the beatific Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus on her knee hung in a simple thin frame on the wall by the wash basin, thanks to the Sisters of Mercy. I prayed at first to God. Then I thought that the Virgin might understand my prayer better and I asked her to intercede for me. She was a woman, after all. Perhaps she would understand?

The candle burned for hours then sputtered out, leaving me in darkness.

Chapter Forty-Nine: The Godless

When we arrived at Balaklava in the early morning, there were dozens of ships jumbled together in the harbor, a thick, low lying fog wrapped its cold arms around the town. With their sails tied down, the ships looked like a giant tangle of toothpicks poking up from a sea of clouds. I stood on the deck, watching, anxious to be on dry land again.

It took a number of hours to secure a driver to take me to the hospital. I hoped that even if they did not need my help, they would allow me to stay the night before I moved on. By then the fog had burned off, leaving the frozen, bare ground exposed. Several men loaded my trunk into the back of a wagon filled with barrels of gunpowder. I was allowed to ride on one of the barrels, which made me quite nervous. I had virtually no experience with gunpowder except to know that lighting it resulted in the most spectacular explosions.

Even from several miles away, I could see the mass of white, conical officer’s tents that speckled the horizon as we drove into camp. There were larger, rectangular tents that served as barracks. The wagon bounced raggedly along the deeply rutted road and my backside ached from coming down on the barrel I was sitting on over and over again. As we entered the encampment the red coated soldiers looked up, some touched their hats, some bowed.

I watched as we passed the fires. The costumes were varied. Some, the Highlanders, wore plaid pants. Some wore ridiculous looking monstrous black furry hats that stood as high as two heads over their own, like wearing a bear cub for decoration.

There were a few women. Most were dressed as vivandieres, women that stayed at the front lines with the soldiers nursing and sometimes fighting alongside them. I thought they looked ridiculous. They were dressed in distinctively male clothing with titillating feminine corsets and short regimental overskirts covering their trouser legs to the knee. Each carried a bidon, or flask, from which they dispensed brandy to the troops. I knew that they were revered by the men. Revered. The British camp followers and officers’ wives were ridiculed and harassed. This I found hard to understand until I tried to negotiate the rough, frozen terrain on foot myself in my own long skirt and petticoats. We should have all been wearing pants.

“Whoa!” The wagon jolted to a halt as the driver, a young man not much older than sixteen, pulled up on the reigns. He hopped down nimbly as a cat, then held out his hands to assist me.

“No thank you.” I waved him away. “I will do it myself.” I grasped the side of the wagon box and threw myself over. I was less than graceful, realizing too late that my legs had fallen asleep from the pressure of the lip of the barrel and then slipped in the mud. I caught myself in time to prevent landing on my backside in the sloppy mess by clinging to the edge of the wagon but not soon enough to prevent the searing pain that tore up my leg from my left ankle as I landed on it. I held back the urge to wince. I could not show weakness or poor judgment this soon after arriving!

I paused a moment to let the acuteness of the pain pass.

We were outside the Castle Hospital, run by the Sisters of Mercy. It was a towering stone edifice that appeared to be in ruins. There were many long huts arranged in rows along the ridge below that were used to house. The report was that the death rate from gangrene was much lower here. I wanted to know why.

The driver unloaded my trunk with the assistance of a soldier standing nearby and deposited it in the entrance hall. I was told to wait while an orderly fetched one of the sisters.

Looking around, the place seemed clean and organized. The floor was spotless despite the mixture of mud and ice just outside the doors. Everyone apparently took care to wipe their feet on the provided mats before tracking anything further.

In short order, one of the sisters arrived and ushered me into a small office. She appeared dour and severe in her habit. After motioning for me to take a seat, she sat down across from me and looked me over head to toe.

“Do you drink wine, Mrs. Aspern?” she finally asked, suspiciously.

“Yes…no…I am sorry? Why do you ask?” I was taken aback by this line of questioning straight away.

She motioned disapprovingly at the stain on my sleeve. “We do not tolerate drunkenness here.” Despite the stain, this was the only wrapper in my possession that was in presentable condition.

“No. It spilled on my arm while I was helping a vomiting patient at Scutari,” I lied without blinking. Alcohol was readily available and one of the few sources of diversion for the nursing staff. I was sure it had already been a problem here as it had been at Scutari.

Her head nodded thoughtfully as she pressed her fingertips into a steeple in front of her. She seemed satisfied. For the moment.

“What exactly do you expect to do here, Mrs. Aspern?

“Make myself useful.” I shrugged. “I learned much at Scutari.”

“Bah! Nurses do nothing at Scutari. They are allowed to do little beyond hold hands and read aloud.”

“That was true for most of Miss Nightingale’s women. But I did not come with them. I volunteered and learned to do most everything. There were several of us.”

She stared at me. “Why did you leave?” she asked pointedly.

“To be closer to the fighting where my presence may be more meaningful. It seemed that most of what we did at Scutari was futile. The men were dead even before they got there, even if they had not yet taken their last breath.”

“I am not sure you will feel service here that much more gratifying.” She stood. I followed suit. “You may stay but you will be required to attend chapel and devotionals with the sisters. Not that you will find God here. He has abandoned this place.”

Chapter Forty-Eight: Stained

“In war time, miss, certain rules no longer apply,” said Frenchy. His mouth was full.

“I’ll drink to that!” Exclaimed the captain. He performed a mock toast with his tankard in the air, laughing. Others joined in with “Hear! Hear!” and slammed their tankards and cups against each other.

We were sitting around the worn table eating what Frenchy, who also served as the cook, referred to as “little bags o’ mystery”. Sausages and potatoes. And wine. Lots of wine.

There were eight crew members, each with their own stereotypical personalities, so much so that I felt I had been kidnapped and taken aboard a pirate ship. Whenever I sailed before, I had only been allowed to come face to face with the “respectable” staff. Men such as this were present, I am sure. They were the work horses, after all. Perhaps they were simply stashed behind the scenes. Or maybe they had been there all along, I had just thought they were invisible?

I had already met the captain and Thomas and Frenchy. There was also Stephen, who was missing all of his teeth. Harold was missing most of his teeth. Warren had most all of his teeth but they were colored an odd brownish black that made one think it might not be long before his teeth also started to go. Albert was heavy set with a thick black beard, everything was a joke to him. And last was Freddie. He looked to be about 95…frail, wrinkled, slow…but he had a tremendous voice that could sing out a haunting sea chantey that reverberated and resonated in depths your very soul.

Between bites, I would have to pause to pick bits of gristle and bone from my teeth. The sausage was not of the best quality and in fact I could not identify the taste and consistency as any recognizable beast of origin, but it was meat. And the wine made everything taste better.

“So you think that sins are no longer sins when war is involved?” I asked Frenchy.

“What I am sayin’ is that none of us have the right to judge. What is a turn on the sack the night before a battle if you are going to die?”

Thomas coughed uncomfortably, causing the candlelight to flicker. Everyone grew silent as seven pairs of eyes looked nervously to me. Frenchy was looking down into his plate. What would the woman say to that?

“I see,” I replied. He was right. People who passed these judgments were not the ones walking the fields of blood, losing life and limb. I nodded to Frenchy, raising my own wooden tankard to his pewter one. I was met with a lopsided smile and a forceful slam into my cup that produced a slosh of my wine which landed on my dark gray sleeve, staining it. Well, I will be remembering this conversation for quite some time, then.

Morality was not the same for everyone. It was affected by parents, friends, religion, society and often evolves. If it could be manipulated, then how could that be used to decide right or wrong? How could it be trusted? I agreed with his point in principle, but there still had to be right and wrong.

The silence was broken by Albert making a crack about Frenchy’s own bags o’ mystery being too salty for human consumption. I assumed this was a reference of a more personal nature. I blushed. The men all laughed.

I excused myself and returned to my cabin. I lay on the straw mattress, fully clothed, and blew out the candle I had taken from the table to light my way. On my back, under the mound of old blankets, I was awake and listening to the creaking of the boat. There were no windows and as such, no visible moonlight. Only pitch black loneliness.

Chapter Forty-Seven: Voyage

I walked down the wharf looking for my ship. There were dozens moored here. The wind blew so cold my teeth were set to chattering. Each new gust took my breath away, I was left gasping every few steps. The Tsar was reported to say that he had three secret weapons on his side: January, February, and March. They had certainly taken their toll.

Much of the British army’s winter uniforms and blankets had sunk with the Prince in November. We had seen frostbite so bad that when the linseed meal poultices were removed on arrival at Scutari, entire toes came with it, chunks of flesh peeled from the bones of the legs and ankles. These men died by the hundreds.

In the distance, moored quite a ways away, were three supply ships. I could make out crates and barrels being tossed overboard. The rumor was that thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables had been allowed to rot in the holds, bound up in interminable beaurocracy while solders were dying from scurvy and starvation.  This was almost as unforgiveable as the hundreds of pairs of boots shipped from England that were too small for anyone but a woman to wear.  It would be laughable except that people were dying from these ludicrous mistakes.

I was leaving the hospital at Scutari, moving to the Castle Hospital at Balaclava. I had no hopes of a “better” life, per se.  I looked to be more useful closer to the lines, where I could make a difference.  Most of the men arriving at Scutari already had their fates decided well before they set foot there.  If they had feet.

“Excuse me!” I called to a sailor. “Can you point me in the direction of the Resolute?” It was a medical supply ship that was on its way to Balaklava and then on to Sevastopol. He squinted at me, sizing me up. Then, wordlessly he pointed south.

I kept walking, doing my best to read the names on the ships. Finally I found it. My heart sank. It hardly looked seaworthy. Paint was peeling, the sails patched.

My trunk had been delivered earlier. Or so I hoped. I stepped up onto the gangplank and carefully made my way up, praying fervently that I did not loose my footing.

A gruff voice shouted from below, “Who goes there?” When I did not answer immediately, lest I lose my concentration and my step, a grizzled, leathery head popped up from the hold. He appeared to be as worn as his ship and his clothes hung from his body in the most incongruous way, apparently sewn for a man twice his size.

“Ah! Mrs. Aspern I presume?” He scrambled up to assist me. His hand was worn and calloused as he offered it to me, but his grip was strong as a vise and reassuring. He introduced himself as the first mate. “Just call me Frenchy,” he muttered.

He welcomed me aboard and showed me to my berth in the cargo hold, a sparsely furnished and very tiny room with a narrow bed. My trunk had indeed arrived. There was no heat source in the room, but it was out of the wind and for now, that was enough.

The journey would take several days. I had packed some provisions but not not enough as there was little to spare. I had hoped that there would be some food to be spared by the crew but that seemed unlikely.

There was a knocking on the door. I opened it a crack.

“Beg your pardon, miss!” a young lad of about twelve was standing there, a cap twisted up in his grimy hands. His greasy hair was plastered to his head. He grinned. “The captain would like a word with you.” His voice cracked.  He looked sheepishly apologetic.

“Certainly. Please lead the way.”

I closed the door firmly behind me and followed a path through the piles of provisions on their way to the troops. As we made our way I was halted when my skirt caught on a protruding nail, tearing a nice gash in the fabric that I would have to repair later. I moved more carefully thereafter. Skirts were not for the Crimea.

The captain was a swarthy fellow who smelled of stale tobacco. I had met him the day before when I had booked passage with him. Every few minutes he would pause to lean over in his chair. He would hawk the juices from the chaw he held in his mouth, grinning with satisfaction as it rang out upon hitting the spittoon beside him. The wad was so large it made understanding him somewhat difficult.

“Missus Aspern,” he said, wiping the leftover spit from his chin with the sleeve of his dark blue coat. “Won’t ya sit down?” He nodded at the worn sofa.

“Mr. Brandishire.” I remained standing. Truthfully, I was afraid to sit on the thing. I imagined him lying naked on it at some point, scratching his balls. I shuddered involuntarily.

He cocked an eyebrow at me but said nothing. Awkward silence ensued. My eyes wandered over the worn table, bolted to the floor, the wooden chairs stacked in a corner. This room must double as an officer’s mess. The Resolute was a private vessel contracted by the British army to deliver goods, it had clearly seen better times.

Finally, he spoke. “I hope you will join us for dinner?”

“Yes. I would be delighted.” I was certain that the word delighted was not the right choice. I was, however, grateful for the offer of food.

“Is there anythin’ else ya be needin’?” he asked.

“No. No, Mr. Brandishire. Thank you.”

“Thomas will see you back to your room, then.” He stood and stuck his head out the door, bellowing, “Tommy!” I winced.

While we waited for the boy, he took my hand and with a flourish made a chivalrous bow that made me laugh. It helped put me at ease. “Please, if ya be needin’ anythin’….” He trailed off.

“I will be sure to notify you at once. Thank you.”

He was smiling, his tobacco stained teeth showing as I left. It was nice to be in the presence of someone who was not suffering, or dying, or looking to get into my drawers. Maybe this brief voyage would be pleasant after all.

Chapter Forty-Six: Parasites

My hair fell into a great reddish-brown cloud at my feet, illuminated by the cold early morning sunlight that crept through the window in the washroom. Tears caught in my throat, making it difficult to swallow. I was parting with the one thing that defined who I was, what made me Evelyn.

I had no choice. Lice!

They were everywhere. A personal infestation was inevitable. I had tried all of the remedies I could find, short of mercury. Kerosene, sulfur mixed in lard, nit combs daily for weeks at a time, vinegar. Nothing worked for long.

In the end, it was too much. The itch in my scalp along with the raised, itchy sores on my body from the bed bugs were driving me to the brink of insanity. I rid myself of the mattress, choosing instead to sleep on the wooden slats. I washed the sheets and blankets and clothing myself in boiling water once a week.

Then I had cut off my hair. I used the scissors myself and cropped it as short as I could without assistance. My white uniform cap would hide it well for the most part but I was still losing a part of myself. I worked as fast as I could. I had a full day of work ahead of me.

My hand ran across the short stubble that now lay across my scalp. That should do it. It felt better once the deed was done. It would grow back.

I spent the rest of the day sorting through new arrivals from the ships, dressing wounds and telling the orderlies who to bathe. Nurses were not allowed to touch the men in certain areas and bathing them was strictly forbidden. In fact, there was so much fear over the men’s lusts, they were given bromide to curb it. Never mind the fact that the majority here could not begin to act on any desires they may have felt. It was the orderlies that needed something, the whole lying, stealing, cheating lot of them.

By the time the wounded finally reached Scutari, the layers of accumulated filth had to be addressed. Much of the clothing had to be burned. Patients were triaged. The actively dying over there, those requiring surgery over here, those with fevers including those with typhus and cholera were sent to other side of the hospital in the hopes that they would not infect others from their relative isolation. Not that it helped any at all.

I moved through the dozens of new arrivals, careful to not breathe through my nose so as to avoid the stench. Camphor could only do so much.

There were missing limbs, gangrene, camp fever, dysentery, chill blains. Faces swollen from dental abscesses. Malnutrition. Boils.

One young man had lost his left eye. The ear on that side was hanging off, only attached by a small bridge of flesh. Much of the tissue was rotting, but he would not allow anyone to remove it, even if it meant his death.

Another had a wound on his chest that had not received attention for weeks. When I pulled back his shirt, I was taken aback by the mass of maggots writhing in the cavity. I began scooping them out by hand.

For the most part now, though, I was numb to the horror. I had spent several hours one night crying but not because of the death here. I was crying because I could not feel the sadness anymore that I thought all of that death should warrant. I had become something less than human. Then, I realized how much of a blessing this numbness was. Some women never reached that point and it broke them. Others looked for other ways out.

Like Madge. At dinner, Madge announced to everyone that she would be leaving in a few weeks. She was marrying one of the men she had nursed back to health. This prompted a rare visit to the dormitory by Ms. Nightingale. She was livid. Her face red, she demanded that Madge pack her belongings and leave immediately, telling her that she was a disgrace. Never mind the fact that there was nowhere for her to go.

It was then that I decided finally to leave Scutari.

Chapter Forty-Five: Deeper into Hell

“Get your hands off of me,” I said again through clenched teeth, carefully enunciating each word.

I was pinned against the wall in a narrow, dirty passageway near the kitchens in Scutari. I had been returning missed dishes from dinner on the ward, items the orderlies had not collected when they had come through.

The orderly was obese, his belly pressing into mine. “Aw, you don’t mean that, do you?” He leaned in closer, attempting to kiss me. His hands tried to lift my skirts. I ducked away and broke free, but he stood in my way. He had that stale, sour smell of fermentation about him, the smell that indicated he was not able or not motivated to clean adequately between the skin folds.

“I most certainly do mean it, Mr. Blige, I can assure you.” I glowered at him, hoping the display of anger would hold back the tears. Do not show weakness. “Now, let me pass or I shall scream loud enough to bring Ms. Nightingale herself running straight over.”

He did not appear to take me seriously. As he laughed, his belly shook. I shoved past him.

“What is wrong? I am not good enough for you? Where is your good doctor, anyway?” he called out after me. Go to hell, you bastard.

I made haste to the dormitory. Madge was already asleep. That was just as well. We never spoke anymore. I spent my days fighting off men and enduring spiteful glares and gossip from the women. The only relief I had was sleep.

Meanwhile on the wards patients were dying, dozens at a time. Not from their wounds. Instead it was a cholera outbreak. The halls were overrun with vomit and diarrhea, the stench was overpowering. The orderlies stopped feeding or cleaning the ones they felt would soon die, leaving them to lie in filthy pools of their own excrement. Wounded soldiers made a 13 day journey aboard tightly cramped ships from the battlefields to the hospital at Scutari. Cholera was starting there and spreading throughout the remainder of the hospital and staff was not immune. The death rate from cholera here was sixty percent. New faces quickly succumbed. Beds were crowded 1-2 feet apart, as there was simply not enough space to house all of the ill. In the morning I would have to find the bodies that had grown stiff in the night and have them removed.

I lay in the bed. Fatigue overwhelmed me but my thoughts could not leave me in peace.

Dr. Jenkins was gone but no one understood what that meant. Only I knew that a man like that does not change. He would have continued to make his conquests, his desires never sated. Now, while the desires may be there, the scar tissues would prevent him from acting on them. Arousal would be too painful. I did not know why he had left or where he had gone, nor did I care. I had no remorse for assisting him afterward. But I was not sure how much longer I could endure this. Fantasies about packing up and moving on began to arise.

Sleep found me.

The following day, I took the few minutes of my noon meal to instead walk along the wharf for some air. I did not get to come often, but the brisk sea breeze and the cries of the gulls helped to clear my mind.

As I was made my way along the sea wall, a dark skinned woman approached. She had stepped off a ship that was moored there, the Hollander. It had arrived earlier this morning with supplies. Deck hands were busy unloading pallets and barrels, their shouts punctuating my steps. I stopped and waited for her as she looked as if she were lost.

“Excuse me. I am looking for a hospital…Scutari. Is this it?” She gestured to the white stone building on the hilltop over my shoulder.


I stared at her. She must have been about fifty. Her accent was strange. Jamaican. But not. I could not see much of her dark, wavy hair because of the expensive stiff, dark brown bonnet tied beneath her chin. She was pleasantly round and had a reassuring, comforting countenance. Her dress was a brown silk made for traveling but exquisitely detailed, nonetheless. She liked nice things.

“Thank you.” She placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed as she moved past.

I watched her go, starting the ascent by following the road the casualties followed from their ships to their doom.

“Wait!” I called. “I will go with you.”

We all wore the same uniform at Scutari, the nurses. A frightful gray tweed dress called a wrapper with a matching jacket, a dark gray short wool cloak, and a plain white cap with a sash that had the word Scutari embroidered in red that was worn like a banner across the chest. While ugly, it showed we were were not part of the group of rowdy prostitutes that resided in the encampment below when we ventured out. I had been promoted to nurse recently, as I had shown aptitude on the wards and was willing to work hard.

I hiked up my skirts a bit so I would not trip, but not enough to be scandalous, and ran to catch up. Breathless, I asked “What is your name?” as I stretched out my hand.

She took it, “Mary. Mary Seacole.” I provided my name and we walked side by side in silence until we reached the hospital itself.

“I must speak with Ms. Nightingale. I have a letter of introduction to her from a Dr. Jenkins whom I met in Malta.”

Malta. So he did not kill himself? Damn. I had held out hope that even though I could not actually kill him, that he or God would do that for me.

I had assumed that she desired to join the staff here, but as I walked her to the tower, to Ms. Nightingales’ office, she told me of her intentions to open a British Hotel at Balaclava. It would provide food and lodging to sick and convalescing officers.

Balaclava was across the Black Sea, closer to the fighting. Away from here. My heart pounded and my palms sweated. Did I dare?

But I said nothing. Instead, I showed her the stairwell and pointed her toward the offices. Then I returned to my duties among the sick and dying.

Chapter Forty-Four: Forgiveness

What was forgiveness?

I did not know if I had the capacity for it. I did not help him for his sake. It was for my own self. Somehow it assuaged the guilt I felt for my own part in this. Now that it was done, now that my revenge had been exacted, I worried about the remorse I felt.

Through the coming days and weeks, his hands healed well. They had not been exposed to the acid as long; he had wiped them on the towel first. He was able to move them with a fair amount of dexterity. He would not loose his profession.

Elsewhere was a different story. I was instructed to obtain carbolic acid and apply that to the dressings. When that started to irritate the tissues, we diluted it. He instructed me to wash my hands before and after, telling me that he believed infection was not in the air, the miasma, but was rather spread by contact with infected tissues. Infection was all around us. He waited anxiously with each dressing change…would the purulence manifest itself this time?

His pain was great. As it should be. He did not ask for laudanum, and I did not offer it.

Madge and everyone in the place seemed deeply interested in what was going between us. Certainly, assumptions were made. Other women stopped speaking to me. Men gave me brazen looks that bordered on the offensive. Some took liberties, cornering me and touching me in unpleasant ways. But how could I tell them what I had done?

Eventually, he was able to move about. I made him start do his own dressings. He practiced movements with his fingers to keep them supple as the scar tissue formed: shaving, sewing, writing. Without the ability to feel, he had to relearn many things.

“I want you to leave,” I told him as I supervised him applying a new dressing to his genitals. The area, after many weeks, was almost completely healed. The scarring was extensive. And gratifying on some level.

He looked up, surprised.


“I would think that would be obvious.”

He grew silent.

“I have no where to go.”

“Why are you here, exactly?”

More silence. He did not look away, but I could tell he was uncomfortable. I knew the answer. His desires had burned bridges, chased him here to a war.

I had to tell him. “I hate you.”

“I know.” He offered no further apology. Only more silence.

I stood and took my leave. The next day, he was gone.

Chapter Forty-Three: Thawing

I yawned.

“Evie, cover your mouth!” Madge looked incredulous. “You don’t want the devil sneaking in, do you?”

Too late.

My breakfast of cold porridge sat untouched.

“May I?” she asked, gesturing to my bowl. When I did not immediately answer, she continued staring at me, expectantly.

My mind was elsewhere. Had he felt anything at all?

“Evelyn!” she said sharply.

“Hmmmmm?” I looked across at her.

Somewhat embarrassed, she sheepishly whispered, “May I have your leftovers?”

“Oh, yes, Madge!” I shoved the bowl across to her.”Sorry!”

She watched me thoughtfully as she spooned the cold muck into her mouth, but she asked no other questions.

I stared down into my tea as I rubbed again at the painful burn on my chest. Why didn’t it work on him? The water must have diluted the oil of vitriol too much. I had been stupid to think I could stop him. Who was I, after all? I knew the laundress used it as a bleach for cleaning linens and she managed to not burn holes in the sheets. The chemist here used it for making certain drug compounds and I had never heard of him injuring himself. I even had read years ago how it was used to make ether, not that ether was used here. It was too dangerous as an anesthetic.

I rose to get to work.

“Are you coming?” I asked Madge.

“Not quite yet. Let me finish this.” She motioned to the porridge with her spoon.

I nodded and was about to turn to leave. At that moment, a balding orderly with a crooked nose approached me and breathlessly whispered,”Dr. Jenkins is ill. He is asking for you.”

I could not disguise the shock on my face.

“Evie, what is wrong?” Madge looked at me, concerned.

What was his game? Some satisfaction arose in me. He was not well. But did I want to see him? Curiosity drew me forward. I had to know.

“I will be at the dispensary soon,” I said to Madge, ignoring her pointed earlier question. I turned to the orderly, drawing the shawl tight around my shoulders. “Take me to him.”

I followed the orderly through the wards. I did not want to make it seem that I knew the way.

“Water?” Came the rasped supplication from the corner again. He sounded even more desperate. I touched the orderly on the arm, to let him know I was stopping. I looked at the man as I poured him water from a nearby pitcher. He was delirious with fever. Sweat matted his blond hair to his youthful face. He tried to sit up but was too weak to get up very far. I helped hold his head up as he drank hungrily, water pouring from his chin onto his soiled uniform. Finally, he appeared sated, and he fell back onto the damp pillow with his eyes closed.

When I looked up, the orderly was eyeing me suspiciously. Why? Had that given me away?

“Someone would have taken care of that,” he said.

“No they would not.” I did not tell him that I knew this fellow had been desperate for water since last night.

He looked at me, irritated, as if I had accused him personally of ignoring the wellbeing of a patient. Technically, he had to have passed this way at least three times already. Surely this was not the first time the soldier had cried out. So in a way, I was. And he knew it.

“He is not going to live, is he?” I asked as we continued on our way.

“No,” he said without looking back at me. And there it was. Once slated for death, resources were focused on those that could be saved.

We rounded the corner and the pace slowed as he tried to remember which was Dr. Jenkins’ room. Fourth door on the right.

He stopped at the door and rapped quickly with his knuckles.

“Enter!” I heard from inside. The orderly turned the knob and ushered me inside. I looked around as if seeing it for the first time. I blinked, allowing my eyes to adjust to the brightness of the daylight that streamed through the frosted window after the darkness of the corridor outside.

He was laying in the bed, the woolen blanket pulled up about his neck.

“Leave us!”

The orderly nodded and bowed out.

We were left alone. Together. I waited.

We stared at each other. Silent.

“Come see your handiwork.”

I did not move. I was frozen to the spot. I did not want to touch him.

“I do not know what you are talking about, sir. I have done nothing to you. Perhaps you have experienced the wrath of God.”

He laughed, dryly. “You are not God.” He peered at me, closer. “Where is your amulet?” He sounded sarcastic.

My breath caught and I flushed.

So he knew. Fine.

He threw back the blanket. He was naked. While his hands were red and raw, his genitals were worse. The skin had sloughed off in places. I winced. But I felt no remorse.

“There is no one that I can ask to help with this without compromising myself. Therefore I ask you to help me.”

“No.” I turned to go.

“Please.” I could hear the pain in his voice.

“No.” I opened the door.

“I am sorry, Evelyn. I am sorry for who I am.”

I stopped. That was not really an apology. Still. I had exacted my revenge. The scar tissue would make any arousal painful even after it had healed. Infection may cause death or amputation before then. Likely his days of terrorizing and dominating women were over.

“I will help you.” I closed the door.

Chapter Forty-Two: Revenge

I could hear Madge’s heavy snoring and knew it was time. I sat up in the bed and looked around warily. Everyone else seemed asleep. Good.

My shift was thin and hardly a barrier against the cold but I did not want to dress. I considered throwing on my dressing gown but decided against it….nothing else should get in the way. I wanted this unpleasantness to go quickly.

I stood and silently opened my trunk. The white cotton flannel gown billowed up softly around me as I squatted. The glass was cold in my hand. Revenge was cold. And calculated.

I had fashioned a pouch that would go about my neck. I slipped it over my head and slid my revenge into it, pulling the drawstring tight. My heart beat faster as it lay between my breasts. The pouch would hold it securely and hopefully keep the glass stopper in place. Nothing could be allowed to spill.

I crept quickly out of the dormitory, past the sleeping bodies, into the wards.

The silence was as thick as the darkness. It was disconcerting, particularly given the fact that the hospital was full of wounded men in pain. Not a single groan could be heard.

I dared not use a lamp. Some light was visible through the windows but moonlight was hard to come by as it was a cloudy night. I had travelled the route several times during daylight hours in preparation for this journey, but the landscape had been rearranged in the interim, I was certain.


I froze. Who was there?

I looked around. No one was moving in the shadows. I could not tell where the hoarse whisper had come from. Finally, I took a tentative step. Nothing. I took another.

“Please, miss. Some water?” A bed creaked in the corner. There!

“Yes, yes. I will bring you some water shortly,” I whispered back. Hopefully he would be asleep when I returned.

Moving more quickly, I rounded the corner to the physician quarters. I was not entirely sure which room was his and I had worried about this since I had not questioned him in the surgery. However, I had no reason to fear. He was standing in his darkened doorway, waiting.

“I have come,” I said quietly.

“I had no doubt.”

He ushered me inside and closed the door firmly, turning the lock.

He lit a lamp on the dresser. I was relieved to see that he still had his conquests use the alum and sulfate of zinc solution, the metal syringe lying next to a small bowl by the wash basin.

“Take off your shift. I want to see your body.”

I hesitated.

“Now!” Anger flashed in his eyes.

I complied, untying the neck and allowing it to fall to my feet.

“Your amulet will not protect you.” He pointed at my revenge.

“Perhaps not.” I shrugged. I clasped my hands across my back, unsure what to do with them and afraid that the trembling of my hands would give me away.

He circled my naked body, slowly. There was a fire in the grate but the chill was still enough to make the goose flesh stand out.

He paused, putting his hand on my belly where the stretch marks and extra flesh lay. He caressed it.

“You carried a child once.”

“Yes.” Anger burned within me. I hated him for knowing where my most vulnerable parts hid.


“It was not yours, if that is your concern,” I said sharply. You bastard.

He smiled, satisfied. The hand moved to my fabric pouch, lifting it slightly as if to look at it closer, then dropped it, apparently thinking the better of it. His hand moved to my left breast instead.

He used his thumb to caress the nipple. I glared at him. He laughed.

“Well, this is for me, not for you.”

He squeezed, digging his nails into my flesh. I winced and wrested away, but he grabbed me and pinned me face first into the nearby wall. He was behind me freeing his trousers. He pushed me harder, my breasts shoved flat against the cold wall. He used his foot to shove my legs apart.

Soon it was over. I could feel it running down my leg.

He released his hold and stepped back.

“Clean up! You know how.” He buttoned his trousers.

Silently, careful to keep my back to him, I moved to the dresser. He sat down on the bed behind me. I imagined his arms were crossed, a self satisfied grin playing on his face.

I used his solution, leaving a small puddle on his floor.

“Clean that up!” he said sharply. I looked around for something to use. My eyes settled on his shirt. No, that is asking for trouble. There was a towel but I needed that for myself. Instead, I used my shift. That would make him happy.

I poured water from the pitcher into the wash basin and splashed my face. Quickly, I pulled the pouch open, removed the vial, and poured the contents into the water. I shoved the bottle back into my pouch, drawing the string closed as I reached for the cloth laid out beside the bowel and dried my face.

I stooped down and picked up my gown, pulling it down over my head and settling the soft fabric onto my shoulders. I tied the string at the neckline again. Careful not to make eye contact, I walked quickly to the door, unlocked it, and retreated into the darkness. I moved as quickly as I could. I could hear the lock turn behind me as I reached the end of the corridor.

If he were like most men, after relations he would wash his genitals first. That was what I was counting on.

As I moved through the wards, I stopped at a sleeping soldier’s bed. A double amputee, I could see from the outline of the blankets on his bed. I opened my pouch and slid the now empty vial beneath the mattress. Perhaps it would not be found for some time. Sheets were changed very infrequently as keeping up with the laundry here was almost impossible. Hopefully, I could use this to my advantage.

“Water!” the patient in the corner of the next ward rasped as I moved fast past him. Not asleep. I kept my face averted, hoping it was dark enough that he would not recognize me later in my shapeless shift.

Once back at the dormitory, under the pretense of putting another log in the stove, I dropped my pouch into the fire and watched as it quickly turned to ash.

I lay awake the rest on the night, waiting for the alarm to sound. Hours passed and I began to worry that pouring it into the water had diluted it too much. I was not a chemist. Or an apothecary.

A drop from the vial had touched my skin, leaving a tiny burn on my chest over my heart. The pain was not bad. It was only a small drop of the sulfuric acid. But the burning nagged and could not be ignored.

As dawn arrived, those around me stirred. I rose to face the day, full of self doubt. If my plan had failed, he would continue to use me until he tired of my body. Then he would move to the next one. I wrestled with whether or not to steal more acid from the pharmacy as I dressed.

Next time, I decided, I would steal a knife from the surgery and deal with the consequences of a direct attack.