Chapter Thirty-Nine: Battle Plans

I reported back to the dispensary.

Blood on my apron was not the end of the world, by itself. Blood flowed in rivers here. It was the Crimea, after all.

But he had marked me. Again.

I threw the apron onto the fire. I would be damned if I was going to let him do this to me. I slipped away quietly to retrieve a fresh apron from the dormitories.

The question became what was I going to do now? Leave? And go where? Back to Cambridge? To London? To Edinburgh?

My heart was still pounding when I arrived back. I settled myself down in a wobbly, worn chair to make bandages and to think. Hours passed.

I had come here, to Scutari, to atone for my sins in service to the suffering. Across the channel leading to the Black Sea, the magnificent Hagia Sofia could be seen at the skyline. But here, in the converted Turkish military barracks that now served as the main hospital, evil reigned. One could not tell from the outside. The complex was a huge white stone square with tall towers in each corner that appeared sterile and efficient. Inside was a different matter. The whitewashed corridors housed hundreds of the mangled and deformed on cots lined up in rows beneath the arches. I had been here for six months, bathing bloodied soldiers, cleaning excrement caked bedpans and chamber pots, making bandages, assisting in the kitchens, scrubbing the floors. We were battling the miasma, the mysterious “thing” that brought infection and death.

“Evie!” I looked up. It was one of my bunk mates, Marjorie “Madge” Henson. Her pudgy middle had thinned out since coming here. One could not eat to silence your hunger when you knew thousands were starving in the cold. She stooped low and spoke in hushed tones so no one else could overhear. “The headmistress wants to speak to you!” I was not surprised. Somehow I knew he would not leave me alone.

Madge tucked a wisp of black hair back under her cap. “What did you do?” she whispered.

I sighed. “I will soon find out.” Standing, I stretched the stiffness out of my back and shoulders, steeling myself for what must come.

I climbed the stairs in the north tower to reach her throne room. On the first landing, I heard footsteps coming down. It was him. He paused to smile lasciviously at me as I passed, making sure he brushed my arm. I wanted to kick him in his most vulnerable region. Instead, I walked past him, careful to smile confidently back at him. Two more flights of stairs. I paused a moment to catch my breath.

I knocked softly on the door.

“Enter!” The sharp, commanding tone made me wince.

The blood had already drained from my fingertips and I could not feel the cold knob as the door creaked open.

And there she was. I had held audience with her only twice before. Once when I had first arrived, begging her to let me stay. We cannot pay you…but we will hold you to the same standards all of the other nursing staff. And once when I had been reported for sneaking out to the docks after midnight. We demand all of our staff to be above reproach. We cannot have someone destroying the reputation of this institution. She referred to herself in the third person, as if she were the queen. But here, in Scutari, she was.

This day, she was in a dark gray wool dress with a full skirt. Wide white cuffs were about her wrists and matched the collar that was fastened at her throat with a plain black broach. Her narrow face seemed pinched; her dark hair was pulled back into a severe knot that was so tight that her forehead seemed even more prominent.

“Mrs. Aspern. Please have a seat.”

I sat in a wooden chair that was only slightly less worn than the one I had just vacated downstairs. I folded my hands in my lap to keep them from trembling. A heavy, dark stained desk sat between us, deep gouges visible across the surface. She had placed a thin sheaf of papers face down in front of her.

“Dr. Jenkins was just here.”

“I gathered that,” I said simply.

“He says you disobeyed his orders and put his patient in jeopardy.”

I remained mute. I was not sure what tack to take. Denial, contrition, the truth?

She continued. “He has been here only five days. He has proven himself indispensable in the surgery and has saved lives that none of the others would touch.”

Again she paused. Again I responded with silence.

“We have dismissed two women this week for being too helpful with him.” She stared at me, her eyes boring holes into my soul. “Do we understand each other?”

I nodded.

“It would be strongly advised to steer clear of Dr. Stewart. If it is a choice between you cleaning vomit or his operations….” She trailed off.

I stood to take my leave.

“Thank you, Ms. Nightingale.” She nodded, then waved her hand in dismissal.

The fact that she, a woman, had been put in charge of any military hospital was remarkable by itself and was a testament to the battle of desperation that had been waged here. Her maintaining that post required numbers. Lives saved.

I understood that I was expendable. At least as far as she was concerned.  But I had a plan.

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