Chapter Forty-One: Learning

I did not want to kill him. No. I wanted something more sinister, more painful.

The work I did here at Scutari was mind numbing but necessary. It left my brain free to wander. To plan.

“Mrs. Aspern!” The sharp tone brought me round instantly. I looked up from The bandages. An orderly was at the doorway. A look of disdain washed over his face. “Dr. Jenkins requests your assistance.”

I stood.

This was what I had been waiting for. Days had passed and I had been afraid that my bravado might have sent him away from me for good. Apparently not.

I followed the tall, shuffling orderly to the surgery wing. When I entered the room, I found him alone with an unfortunate soldier whose left leg was clearly unsalvageable. The sickly sweet smell of gangrene was evident. The tourniquet was wound tightly at the upper thigh and the chloroform mask was in place. Muffled groans were audible but there was no struggle. The amputation saw was at the ready.

“Shall I stay to assist, Dr. Jenkins?” The orderly sounded hopeful.

“No, George, you may go. I am sure there are many other places you are needed.”

The orderly looked over knowingly at me, then made his retreat. Did he know this was going to be awful or that I was now a target?

Dr. Jenkins stared blankly at me. No trace of emotion. “Hold his leg there,” he said curtly, pointing to what was left of the lower thigh.

I placed my hands on the shredded flesh, warm and yet cold beneath my fingers. He expertly sawed through the muscles and sinews.

“Hold it tighter for Christ’s sake!” he said through clenched teeth. The savage sawing of the femur bone generated quite a bit of force and holding it steady was near impossible.

Sweat broke out across his forehead as he worked.

Finally, it was done.

“Dispose of that leg in the corner. The orderlies will clear it out later.” He pointed to a spot by the door where two other legs lay.

The weight of the single leg was actually quite a bit heavier than I was expecting. The whole thing was unwieldy as the knee and ankle flopped about and the fractures ground against each other. I stood it up in the corner, balancing it upright somehow. It looked more natural that way.

I returned to his side and assisted with cutting sutures as he sewed the skin and muscle flaps neatly over the stump. Soon, the job was done.

As he threw soiled instruments and bone saws into the bloody basin, I applied a close approximation of a dressing. The patient grimaced beneath his five day stubble but remained unconscious.

I looked over and caught Dr. Jenkins watching me. He did not turn away even when he realized I had caught him staring.

“What do you want from me?” I asked finally. “What will it take to get you to leave me alone?”

“You know what I want.”

“Why?”

He approached me, leaning against the length of my body, pressing his groin against my hip. He was aroused. His lips were at my ear. “I want control. Of you.”

He pressed in closer. I looked down at his hands. I was relieved. He had already washed them.

I whispered back, “And if I do this, once, you will leave me alone?” I willed myself to stay put, to not back away. He repulsed me so.

“If you wish.”

But we both knew that was a lie.

“Fine,” I said warily. This was crucial. He wanted control, I had to make him believe that he had it.

“My room tonight. At midnight.”

I nodded assent.

Physicians and surgeons on staff had their own private rooms at the other side of the hospital. I would have to be careful to not be seen, particularly as Ms. Nightingale made her nightly rounds.

I was startled by a muffled slap. I looked over at the corner. My leg had toppled over.

“Ah, well. I look forward to it Madame!” He backed away a few inches, laughing unpleasantly. Then, as if on impulse, he stepped toward me again. He took my face in his hands and kissed me violently. I had to choke back vomit as I pushed him away.

He left the operating room, whistling, leaving me alone with the soldier and the severed limbs, unsure of what to do next for the waking man’s pain.

I hurriedly washed my hands in the now bloody water, stirring it into a cloudy, red vortex with my fingers. I dried my hands on a bit of towel left unsoiled by Dr. Jenkins. I knew that while they may appear spotless, there was no possible way that they were clean.

Then I tried to calm the now agitated patient, and hoped that his screams would soon bring an orderly.

I waited.

Chapter Forty: Preparations

“What did she say?” Madge whispered softly.

We were in the dormitory. We had ended our long shifts, eaten a few bites, washed up as best we could, and were lying in our bunks in night gowns, bundled in coarse army issue woolen blankets to guard against the chill. Moonlight streamed in from a tiny window at the end of the long room. The only other light came from the glow of the wood stove at the center of the room, used for heating. Other women were already asleep or had just awakened to begin the night shift.

I did not want to discuss this with Madge. I rolled over and said, “Go to sleep.”

“No! Tell me.” Her bed creaked as her body shifted and suddenly her head was peeking over the mattress above me. Her hair dangled in a long plait that stretched almost comically to my own mattress, swaying to and fro.

“Madge! Go to sleep.”

In seconds, she had slid down off of the bunk and was kneeling barefoot beside me. She knelt there silently, inches away from my face, making it clear that she did not intend to go anywhere until I had told her what she wanted. Damn it!

I whispered, “She said that Dr. Jenkins had told her that I had disobeyed an order and put a patient at risk.”

“You didn’t did you?” she whispered back.

“No, of course not!”

She nodded. “I hate him.”

I sat up. “You have met him?”

“Yes.” She started to climb back up. “More than met him.”

“Wait! What do you mean?” I grabbed her arm.

She paused a moment, thoughtfully, then spoke. “He told me that I had to perform certain services for him or he would report me to her. Watch out for him, Evie.”

“Did he touch you?” I had to ask.

Again, she paused. She uttered a very quiet, almost imperceptible, “Yes,” then launched herself back up atop her bunk.

I was not sure what to say. Should I comfort her? Tell her my plan? Pretend I had not heard?

I allowed a few minutes to pass, the bed frame creaking again overhead as she settled into a comfortable position beneath her covers.

“Madge?” I whispered.

Silence.

Perhaps it was best that way. I did not want to talk about the details of my experiences with him. One could not predict human nature. Would she feel compelled to purge her conscience by telling others of what happened to me? In this case I could trust no one.

Clearly, this man was a predator. In the short time he had been here, he had managed to threaten his way into the drawers of how many women? And in the intervening years between my time in Edinburgh and now, how many hundreds more had he hurt? Guilt ate at the fringes of my mind. I had known what he was then, but I had not tried to stop him.

In a dark corner of my trunk, at the end of the bed, lay the small, glass vial that would be his undoing.

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.