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.”