The war had changed me. On this journey back to England, I weighed my future prospects.
Most of the young ladies at Scutari and Balaklava would be returning to their family homes and then likely on to other nursing posts if they could get past what they had witnessed in the Crimea.
I had no family to which to return. I was very afraid that my spirit was too marred by what I had seen to have much to return to anywhere. Living is dirty and messy I had learned, almost as much as dying. I was haunted by the faces and bodies of those broken men and by the sound of their unanswered cries for help.
The scent of sickness seemed to permeate every surface and multiplied in poorly ventilated spaces like my stateroom. It haunted me, everywhere as did the faces.
The young man from Cornwall, who had lost both of his hands and both legs, only to survive. He had prayed for death as each day had passed, even when it was clear that he would survive. One dark night, as I brought him water to drink, he grabbed my hand, spilling the water from the ladle it held. He pulled himself up while pulling me down and whispered into my ear, “Please miss, give me some poison or a knife or something….anything…. Help me! I cannot live like this!” Even thinking of it now, I shuddered. He knew that he would always be a burden. Even the joy of seeing his wife and children again could not erase that fear. Was it selfishness, not wanting to be degraded? Or was it love, wanting his wife to have a whole man who could care for her, rather than a half of man that would bring her down and make her old before her time?
I needed to document those details and stories before their edges faded into the dark mist of memories, interpreted and arranged unconsciously by my mind into the least painful construct it could live with. I began writing furiously using the portable writing desk brought by the steward. Soon, there was no paper left. I had even laid open the envelopes and written on them.
Days passed. We sailed closer and closer to England. Since my encounter with Nathaniel that night, I had lost my fear of seeing him, however we both took pains to avoid each other.
I stood alone on deck late in the crisp, cool night, taking in the myriad of stars blanketing the skies when I heard footsteps approaching from behind. Step, shuffle. Clunk. Step, shuffle. Clunk. Step, shuffle. It was unmistakable, even on this ship full of wounded bodies and wounded souls. His gait. His cane. He stood there for a few moments before stepping up to the rail behind me. We were due in port the next day.
“Good evening,” I said without shifting my gaze from the large waxing moon on the horizon.
“Yes, it is,” he replied. I looked over at him. He was dressed in a plain white shirt, uniform pants, boots and a regimental frock coat. He wore a mustache these days.
“What happened?” I asked cautiously, motioning to his hand and leg. I realized I did not know the story.
“Ah.” There was a pause. “It is the result of a death wish that put me on the front lines in the path of a mortar round. An ignorant decision that…that I will pay dearly for.” He stood silent for another moment, a half smile playing upon his lips. “You moved on to Balaklava after Scutari?”
“Yes.” A stiff wind caught my skirts and chilled the bone. I gave an involuntary shiver. “So you return to your family?” I asked cautiously.
I bent at the waist and laid my forehead on the cool rail between my gloved hands. I would not have expected less from him. I would not wish anything to happen to his wife or child, knowing the pain it would cause him if they were gone. I could not be so vain as to think that I could fill that great of a void.
“Evelyn…” My name on his lips.
“You do not need to offer excuses or explanations to me. You owe me none.”
He put his hand over mine, warming it against the cold metal. I looked up. He had sadness in the creases about his eyes. We stood there in silence for over a quarter of an hour.
“I should have stayed and fought for you in Cambridge.”
“No.” How do you say to someone that you were not ready for them then?
“Come, I will escort you to your berth,” he said, taking my arm.
“I do not wish to leave yet,” I replied.
“And yet, I cannot leave you out here alone.”
“I have been alone every night for the past two years. How is this night any different?”
He did not seem to hear me, however. He steered me firmly across the deck and down the stairs to my cabin.
“Please, talk to me for a while,” I pleaded. I was not ready for goodbye.
It was late. If any man were caught entering my stateroom, it would have meant serious trouble in any other world. But here, in the middle of the ocean at the tail end of the world’s most brutal, awful war, what could be ruined that meant anything to me at this point? “In war time, miss, certain rules no longer apply.”
He shook his head.
“Please…” I whispered. I opened the door and stepped back. There was another moment’s hesitation. Then he entered.
Once the door closed behind me, I had no time to even light a lamp. His lips closed upon my own. We kissed as if with a thirst that could not be slaked. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath, holding me to him, his breath in my ear.
As we undressed each other in the complete darkness, our hands explored what we had not had time to explore before. We made love slowly, sadly, as if discovering each other for the first and last time all over again. As he entered my body, I felt him flow through my veins, filling me and awakening me. I clung to him as I felt his warmth spill into my very depths.
This night, we actually slept together, skin touching skin. We had never had the opportunity before. My head rested in the crook of his arm, my leg draped over his, an arm resting across his chest. We fit together comfortably in a way that I had not known with William.
I did not want it to end. It was sheer bliss feeling his warmth beside me, feeling the pulse of his heartbeat through my cheek. We slept until mid morning, when the light streamed through the tiny port window and landed in a circle on the dusty floor.
While he was still asleep, I watched him for what must have been an hour. I could not resist the feel of the day old stubble of his chin as it brushed across the palm of my hand.
He was stirring from my touch, so I withdrew my hand. I rolled over onto my belly, propping my torso up on my arms, my chin resting on my hands. I could feel the remains of his seed slipping from me, wetting my thighs.
The bells were sounding land.
“Thank you,” I told him, smiling. He smiled back at me, kissed my forehead.
“I love you,” he replied.
“Where will you go, Evelyn?” Instead of answering, I let my hand run across his chin again, feeling the wiskers. “What will you do now that the war is over?”
With no family, I was truly alone. Or perhaps free was a better term. I hesitated, realizing that I was afraid. I did not wish to admit this, leaving him to feel obligated to assist me in any way.
“You could stay with us?” He sounded almost hopeful.
“No.” That was impossible.
“Do you need anything?”
“I cannot leave you like this.”
There was no sense in even answering. It hung in the air like an empty promise. There was no other choice left for him than to return to his family. I knew this. If he did not, I would find him to be half the man I thought he was. I knew he had to go, not simply for his family, and for himself, but also for us.
We lingered there. I was nestled in the crook of his arm, my head resting on his shoulder. I could catch his scent as I shifted to press my ear against his chest. I could hear his heart beating, steady. I must have dozed there for a few moments. At last, he pulled his arm out from behind my shoulders and sat up. His thumb traced my lips and cheek as he stared at me. He took my mangled hand and kissed the palm then placed his hand over my heart for a few moments. Oh, don’t go. Please.
The bells were sounding again.
“I have nothing of you,” I said, beginning to feel the panic rising and catching in my throat. It would take everything I had within me not to beg, even if I understood that I must let him go in order to continue to love him.
He sat silently on the edge of the bed, pulling on his trousers. I watched the muscles shift beneath the skin of his bare shoulders as his arms moved. He stood but did not turn.
“What would you like?”
I was stymied. What did I want? There was so much that I desired. Your child? Instead I merely shrugged, afraid to give further voice, and set about dressing myself.
Nathaniel assisted with my corset. There is something bittersweet about being bound into a shaped piece of silk and bone that is pulled tight by one’s lover, never to be undone by him again. The rest of my toilet, I attended to myself.
He leaned over to kiss me one last time, his lips lingering on mine, then was gone.
I busied myself packing what little belongings I had lying about. I had resolved to remain in my cabin until he was safely ashore. I did not want to happen upon a joyous homecoming. I had not asked if she would be meeting him here but I did not wish to take any chances.
Distracted, I almost missed the little piece of paper he had left on the dresser addressed to me. My hands shook as I unfolded it. Written in his simple hand were the words “Victo Dolore” along with a lock of his hair.