Chapter Fifty-Four: Debt

“Mrs. Aspern, I am sure you understand. Your services are no longer required here.”

I was relieved of my duties, to be sent home.

“I will work for free.” My face reddened immediately, ashamed that I had said it. I was reduced to begging now.

Anxiety grew. I had no home to which to return. I would have to start my life over again. Alone. Where? “I will pay my room and board. Just…please let me stay.” My mind was racing. I could write to Mr. Hedgerly, have the money sent.

She arched a single eyebrow. Then frowned. “Mrs. Aspern. You cannot possibly deny that you are of no use in this state. Your hand is healed insomuch as it will. Our debt to you is paid. You must leave. We need able bodied women to take your place, who can assist with whatever is needed.”

“I see.” I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat. I will show no further emotion, I will not give you the satisfaction of seeing me broken.

I had attempted assisting on the wards for a few hours the past week. You do not realize how much you rely on a hand until it no longer functions properly.

“You may stay in the basement until other arrangements can be made.”

I was horrified. “With the rats and other vermin?”

“It is warm and dry. Other women live there, too. They have not complained.”

She referred to the camp followers, wives left destitute on the battlefield with no support. There were few ways to earn money aside from prostitution. So they camped in the hospital basements, taking odd jobs whenever possible. They complained. But they had no other choice and so bore their lot in so much as it was.

“I will have Sister Martha assist you with packing your things.”

“That will not be necessary. I can manage on my own.” I rose quickly from the chair in which I sat. It had been less than a year ago when I had sat here, interviewed by her upon my arrival. Stained.

With a wave of her hand, I was dismissed. The door closed firmly behind me.

Sister Martha arrived at my room shortly after. I had very little to pack and I refused her help. She shrugged, and sat on the bed as I folded as best I could. Her smile was disturbing and I could not figure out if it came from pity or from some secret well of joy within. Married to Christ. Regardless, I wanted to hate her for it. For anything. I wanted to hate someone and she was the closest at the moment.

I avoided making eye contact. I seethed as I gave up on folding and simply dumped items into my great black traveling trunk.

“He is married, you know.”

I froze. “Who?” I asked carefully.

“You know who.”

How did she know?

“I..I don’t know what you are talking about,” I stuttered.

“He told me about you.” She paused for dramatic effect. “Your Dr. Brierly.” The chipper smile still played on her face, and seemed at this point to be almost a gloat. “You tried to save his life by pilfering the carbolic acid, didn’t you?” Her blue eyes positively twinkled.

And then I understood. My hand. I had touched something that was not mine to touch. It did not matter if it were the carbolic acid or Nathaniel himself. She believed I deserved my fate.

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