Chapter Forty-Four: Forgiveness

What was forgiveness?

I did not know if I had the capacity for it. I did not help him for his sake. It was for my own self. Somehow it assuaged the guilt I felt for my own part in this. Now that it was done, now that my revenge had been exacted, I worried about the remorse I felt.

Through the coming days and weeks, his hands healed well. They had not been exposed to the acid as long; he had wiped them on the towel first. He was able to move them with a fair amount of dexterity. He would not loose his profession.

Elsewhere was a different story. I was instructed to obtain carbolic acid and apply that to the dressings. When that started to irritate the tissues, we diluted it. He instructed me to wash my hands before and after, telling me that he believed infection was not in the air, the miasma, but was rather spread by contact with infected tissues. Infection was all around us. He waited anxiously with each dressing change…would the purulence manifest itself this time?

His pain was great. As it should be. He did not ask for laudanum, and I did not offer it.

Madge and everyone in the place seemed deeply interested in what was going between us. Certainly, assumptions were made. Other women stopped speaking to me. Men gave me brazen looks that bordered on the offensive. Some took liberties, cornering me and touching me in unpleasant ways. But how could I tell them what I had done?

Eventually, he was able to move about. I made him start do his own dressings. He practiced movements with his fingers to keep them supple as the scar tissue formed: shaving, sewing, writing. Without the ability to feel, he had to relearn many things.

“I want you to leave,” I told him as I supervised him applying a new dressing to his genitals. The area, after many weeks, was almost completely healed. The scarring was extensive. And gratifying on some level.

He looked up, surprised.


“I would think that would be obvious.”

He grew silent.

“I have no where to go.”

“Why are you here, exactly?”

More silence. He did not look away, but I could tell he was uncomfortable. I knew the answer. His desires had burned bridges, chased him here to a war.

I had to tell him. “I hate you.”

“I know.” He offered no further apology. Only more silence.

I stood and took my leave. The next day, he was gone.

Chapter Forty-Three: Thawing

I yawned.

“Evie, cover your mouth!” Madge looked incredulous. “You don’t want the devil sneaking in, do you?”

Too late.

My breakfast of cold porridge sat untouched.

“May I?” she asked, gesturing to my bowl. When I did not immediately answer, she continued staring at me, expectantly.

My mind was elsewhere. Had he felt anything at all?

“Evelyn!” she said sharply.

“Hmmmmm?” I looked across at her.

Somewhat embarrassed, she sheepishly whispered, “May I have your leftovers?”

“Oh, yes, Madge!” I shoved the bowl across to her.”Sorry!”

She watched me thoughtfully as she spooned the cold muck into her mouth, but she asked no other questions.

I stared down into my tea as I rubbed again at the painful burn on my chest. Why didn’t it work on him? The water must have diluted the oil of vitriol too much. I had been stupid to think I could stop him. Who was I, after all? I knew the laundress used it as a bleach for cleaning linens and she managed to not burn holes in the sheets. The chemist here used it for making certain drug compounds and I had never heard of him injuring himself. I even had read years ago how it was used to make ether, not that ether was used here. It was too dangerous as an anesthetic.

I rose to get to work.

“Are you coming?” I asked Madge.

“Not quite yet. Let me finish this.” She motioned to the porridge with her spoon.

I nodded and was about to turn to leave. At that moment, a balding orderly with a crooked nose approached me and breathlessly whispered,”Dr. Jenkins is ill. He is asking for you.”

I could not disguise the shock on my face.

“Evie, what is wrong?” Madge looked at me, concerned.

What was his game? Some satisfaction arose in me. He was not well. But did I want to see him? Curiosity drew me forward. I had to know.

“I will be at the dispensary soon,” I said to Madge, ignoring her pointed earlier question. I turned to the orderly, drawing the shawl tight around my shoulders. “Take me to him.”

I followed the orderly through the wards. I did not want to make it seem that I knew the way.

“Water?” Came the rasped supplication from the corner again. He sounded even more desperate. I touched the orderly on the arm, to let him know I was stopping. I looked at the man as I poured him water from a nearby pitcher. He was delirious with fever. Sweat matted his blond hair to his youthful face. He tried to sit up but was too weak to get up very far. I helped hold his head up as he drank hungrily, water pouring from his chin onto his soiled uniform. Finally, he appeared sated, and he fell back onto the damp pillow with his eyes closed.

When I looked up, the orderly was eyeing me suspiciously. Why? Had that given me away?

“Someone would have taken care of that,” he said.

“No they would not.” I did not tell him that I knew this fellow had been desperate for water since last night.

He looked at me, irritated, as if I had accused him personally of ignoring the wellbeing of a patient. Technically, he had to have passed this way at least three times already. Surely this was not the first time the soldier had cried out. So in a way, I was. And he knew it.

“He is not going to live, is he?” I asked as we continued on our way.

“No,” he said without looking back at me. And there it was. Once slated for death, resources were focused on those that could be saved.

We rounded the corner and the pace slowed as he tried to remember which was Dr. Jenkins’ room. Fourth door on the right.

He stopped at the door and rapped quickly with his knuckles.

“Enter!” I heard from inside. The orderly turned the knob and ushered me inside. I looked around as if seeing it for the first time. I blinked, allowing my eyes to adjust to the brightness of the daylight that streamed through the frosted window after the darkness of the corridor outside.

He was laying in the bed, the woolen blanket pulled up about his neck.

“Leave us!”

The orderly nodded and bowed out.

We were left alone. Together. I waited.

We stared at each other. Silent.

“Come see your handiwork.”

I did not move. I was frozen to the spot. I did not want to touch him.

“I do not know what you are talking about, sir. I have done nothing to you. Perhaps you have experienced the wrath of God.”

He laughed, dryly. “You are not God.” He peered at me, closer. “Where is your amulet?” He sounded sarcastic.

My breath caught and I flushed.

So he knew. Fine.

He threw back the blanket. He was naked. While his hands were red and raw, his genitals were worse. The skin had sloughed off in places. I winced. But I felt no remorse.

“There is no one that I can ask to help with this without compromising myself. Therefore I ask you to help me.”

“No.” I turned to go.

“Please.” I could hear the pain in his voice.

“No.” I opened the door.

“I am sorry, Evelyn. I am sorry for who I am.”

I stopped. That was not really an apology. Still. I had exacted my revenge. The scar tissue would make any arousal painful even after it had healed. Infection may cause death or amputation before then. Likely his days of terrorizing and dominating women were over.

“I will help you.” I closed the door.

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.”


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 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.

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Scutari

As I entered the surgery, I could see the physician, his back to the door, hunched over the macerated arm of an unconcious soldier.  The light was poor, requiring supplementation from the flame of an oil lantern that had been placed at the poor fellow’s shoulder.  The rusty smell of old, dried blood hung in the air.  I could see, by the orange glow of the flickering light, drops of fresh blood landing on the floor at the physician’s feet. Plip. Plop. Dripping from the patient’s fingertips. I walked quickly to stand next to the growing puddle, worried about stepping into the blood lest I slip or leave deep red footprints trailing behind me as I moved about.

He was busy suturing the pieces of filleted flesh together, trying to reassemble the poor fellow’s arm.  I also noticed that he was using chloroform, as the patient remained quiet throughout the procedure.  A chloroform mask lay on the table at his head, the faint sweet smell of the gas wafting to my nostrils from the bit of lint wedged within.  The use of anesthesia had been strictly forbidden by the chief of medical staff in the British Expeditionary Army.  I wondered how this particular physician had acquired chloroform given the moratorium.

“I was told to come assist you,” I announced softly as I stepped forward.

He looked up and opened his mouth to say a terse thank you, but stopped short.

We recognized each other at exactly the same moment.  I could feel the blood drain from my face and my heart land in the pit of my stomach.  My fingertips seemed to cease their existence.  If it affected him more deeply, I could not tell.  He had already returned to his sewing. 

I had no idea what I was doing in the surgery as I had spent the entirety of the preceding weeks and months on the wards, making bandages, washing linens.  I had come here as a volunteer, not as a trained nurse. He had to guide me step by step…daub here, snip there, hold this, pass that.  I stole furtive glances at him from time to time while he was engrossed in his sutures.  His furrowed brow.  The firmly set jaw clenching and releasing in rhythm to the stitching.  There were more creases in his features.  Gray was creeping into his beard.  Who are you now?

The man’s arm was gradually looking more human and less like ground mutton.  You are not a surgeon.  Where were the surgeons? They must have been on the battle fields. 

“Cut,” he ordered, presenting the suture ends.

“Yes, sir.”  I replied hoarsely as I snipped, fumbling with the scissors yet again.  It required two attempts to sever the dark thread.  I desperately needed to seem capable, confident, unaffected…but had failed.

 Finally, he placed the last suture and tied it.  I cut the ends.  He put down his instruments and stepped back to examine his handiwork.  The sutures were even and neat, like little ants marching single file up to the shoulder.

“Just apply a dressing and he’s done.”  He finally looked up from the arm to my face.  There was a wan smile there.  I was not sure how to read it.

My heart sank further as I registered the request.  I had not realized it was possible until that moment. I could feel my cheeks flush. I did not want to ask this man for help, but the patient would be the one to suffer and I swallowed my pride.

“I am afraid that I do not know how,” I confessed softly.

He nodded and proceeded to demonstrate the techniques of proper bandage application. At one point his hand brushed mine, producing a shudder.  I was not sure if it had been on purpose, his touching me.

The chloroform began to wear off and the man groaned as I cleaned the area with cold water.  I gathered the instruments and placed them into a metal tray; the clatter was a welcome distraction.

I did not know what to do now.  I stood awkwardly.

“Pain” I quoted Galen, “is useless to the pained.”  He arched an eyebrow in surprise. “How did you come to defy Dr. Hall?” I asked.

“If God can be seen as the great anesthetist when he placed Adam into a deep sleep while he removed a rib, then I figure there is a higher power than Dr. Hall.”  It seemed highly inappropriate, but I wanted to laugh outright.   Nervousness was affecting my reason.

He stepped closer to me. I could smell his stale breath as he looked down at me. He must have brought some scotch with him to this godforsaken place. The hairs at the back of my neck stood up on end. I took a cautious step back.

“What is the matter, Evelyn?”  He grinned.  My breath caught. “Yes, I do remember your name.”

The man on the table let out an even louder groan as I tried to move around the man blocking my path.  He reached out his right hand to stop me, grabbing me about the waist. 

Leave me alone, you bastard!

“If you touch me again, I will scream for help.” 

He moved his hand but did not step back.  “And then say what when I explain to everyone how we happen to know each other so well?”

“Leave me alone,” I muttered, then pushed past him and out of the room. I looked down at my apron.  His bloody handprint was there.  I quickly untied the white smock and wadded it up in my arms.  I prayed I would not get caught out of uniform. I walked until I believed my footfalls would be out of earshot, then I ran. As I ran through the maze of corridors, all of my fears came to life.  I had not thought about this man in years.  I had buried him, expunged him.  But here he was.  In the Crimea?

Stewart Jenkins.

Chapter Thirty-Two: Payment

The pain washed over me and I could feel my insides splitting in two, tearing from the inside out.  I could not help but cry out.  There was no one in Cambridge or Boston that was willing to administer obstetrical anesthesia, despite Nathaniel’s lecture and the seemingly enthusiastic response.  The pain was more intense than I had ever imagined.  I was compelled to push over and over again.  Finally, the pain stopped.

There was a slurping gurgle and feeble cry and a hushed silence fell over the room.  By the time I was able to register my surroundings again, I saw the look of horror on the doctor’s face as he looked at my baby.  Fortunately, Dr. Quincy did not lower himself to the practice of obstetrics and we had enlisted the services of a Dr. Farber.  He was personable and reassuring and had assured me that things would go well.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked quietly.

There was no answer.

“IS IT A BOY OR A GIRL?”  I demanded.

“A…a boy,” the doctor finally replied.  Seeming to regain his senses, he quickly wrapped the baby up in a sheet and passed him off to Hannah, one of the maids who stared wide eyed at the child.  He nodded at her, motioning to dismiss her.  She made a few hesitating steps toward the door of the chamber.

“Wait!”  I said.  She stopped but did not turn.  

“Go,” the doctor said quietly, firmly.

“Let me see my baby.”  I was surprised by the level of force in my voice.  When no one moved and no one responded, indignation swelled up within.

“LET ME SEE MY BABY!” Hannah jumped as she heard my raised voice.  She slowly turned, compelled by a mother’s demand, but her eyes were pleading with me to let her take him away.  At that moment he began to cry, loud mournful wails.  I could see a little fist peak out from the blood smeared white sheeting.

Slowly, Hannah crept back across the room to my side and placed my son in my arms.  He stopped crying within seconds.  I pulled back the folds of the sheeting, my heart racing.  My breath caught in my chest as I stared at him.

He was beautiful. 

“Hello, Levi,” I whispered.  “Look at mommy.”

But I knew he could not see me.  His fused eyelids covered sunken holes where his eyes should have been.  His upper lip was missing as was the roof of his mouth and his nose was reduced to a fleshy mass.  I unwrapped him carefully.  There was a large translucent sac containing his intestines that was attached to his umbilical chord.  There was even an extra finger on his left hand. Who knew what else was wrong inside.  I sighed a breath of relief.  All of my fears for this child had come true…all except for the worst.  The most horrible thing I could imagine was that he would have something wrong with him that would keep me from loving him.  But I realized at that moment that would have been impossible. 

“He will not live long,” the doctor said flatly.

“How long?”  I asked.

“A few hours, perhaps.”

“I see.”  I wrapped him up again and held him.  “How do I feed him?”

“You cannot successfully.  His cleft lip and palate will prevent it.”

I felt another urge to push and the doctor delivered the placenta, afterward performing an exceedingly uncomfortable uterine massage to increase the cramping of the uterus and prevent further bleeding.

Levi was strong.  His color was pink.  He had a good cry.  I hoped for his sake that this would be quick, but I knew somewhere inside that it would not be.

“Where is William?”  I asked.  It was not long before he was at my side and the rest of the room emptied.          

“I am not sure I can do this,” he said as he examined the child he thought was his son. His ragged breath was tearing through his chest and a fit of coughing overwhelmed him.   I caught a glimpse of a fleck of bright red blood on his handkerchief, but I was unable to process the meaning.

“Please.  I need you.”  He caught his breath.  His eyes welled and overflowed as he put his arms around Levi and around me, wracked by silent sobs.  I could not help but cry out loud, crying for all of us.

It dragged on for three days.  It was supposed to be easier than this.  The doctor had said it would just take a few hours and I hated him for being wrong.  I prayed for God to take little Levi, begged Him to ease his suffering and ours.  There were times when his breath came fast and erratic and times when he stopped breathing altogether.  His skin would take on a bluish cast, then pink up again.  He always struggled back.  At times, he would seem hungry, fussing, and I would spoon feed him sugar water which choked him and never really seemed to help anyone but me.  My breasts ached, full, wanting him to suckle.  But he could not. 

William was always there, unfailing in his devotion.  I grew to love him during those days.  Perhaps not the romantic love he deserved, but a love that grew out of friendship and respect nonetheless. 

The end came at last after a seizure.  His little fists curled up tight and never let go.  His lungs filled only in gasps, strange whimpering sounds escaped from his lips.  Finally his breathing stopped and his skin turned first purple and then ashen.  He was gone.

It was a tragedy, and I cried and mourned as I had not cried or mourned before.  It seemed such a slap in the face that in the midst of this tragedy, this catastrophic event that would forever change our entire lives, the world continued on.  I wanted some recognition of the pain I was feeling, some hiccup in the routine of daily life around me.  But there was none.  The sun continued to rise and then fall.  Business went on as always.  Well meaning people told me that God needed a little angel in heaven but I wanted to scream at them that God could create any angels that he wanted, he did not have to rob me of mine.  He was God, wasn’t he?  Other people, including our pastor, told me that I must have some terrible sin in my life to have God allow this to happen, that I must figure out what that sin was and then repent of it in order to ensure that it never happened again.  I hated them, too.  I could not accept a God that would punish the innocent. 

Love had created Levi, right or wrong.  How could he be a punishment? 

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Anesthesia

Boston was bustling.  It was actually a short ride in an open carriage from our home in Cambridge over the West Boston Bridge to North Grove Street near the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.  While only a few miles and the Charles River separated us, it seemed a world apart from the sleepy college town.  Boston had been slowly creeping into Cambridge over the past decade, but not enough to squelch its own character. 

The lecture hall on the ground floor of the medical school’s main building was to be the venue for this particular lecture series.  Generally women were not allowed to attend, however given the subject matter and my husband’s financing of the lectures, I was granted admission.  William had assented to my request to sit at the back of the room, nearest the exit, should I need an escape.  I had chosen an exceptional gown of deepest blue with the requisite full skirt, high neckline, and tight bodice accented with jet buttons, black braid, and many pleats and tucks.  I had ordered a new corset for the occasion, with exquisitely detailed embroidery that no one would ever see.  It had cost a fortune.  It gave me immense satisfaction to know that come what may, my undergarments were more costly than anything else anyone was wearing.  The chemise and underpinnings all had matching embroidery and mounds of French lace.  My hair was parted down the middle with two braids that swung from each side and met in the back in a simple twist that was wound into a tight knot at the base of my neck.  A pair of jet earrings dangled from my earlobes and a large jet brooch held the collar at my throat.  New black shoes cut into my ankles and I could feel the blisters forming.  The pain would serve to keep me focused.  I cursed myself for lacing the corset so tightly.  I could hardly breathe with my heart beating against the stays as insistently as it was.  I had pushed the maid into pulling the laces tighter, knowing that the intervening years of marriage had made me a bit thicker around the middle than I had been in Edinburgh. 

William guided me around the room, introducing me to one finely dressed gentleman after another, accepting the slaps on the back, knowing glances, and veiled innuendos with genuine pride.  He whispered in my ear after one particularly flattering complement, “You look ravishing darling…thank you!”  It is not for you.  Sadness and guilt welled up within me but it was not enough to keep me from glancing furtively around the room for that familiar sandy hair, those broad shoulders.

When I finally saw him enter across the room accompanied by the dean of the medical school, I turned away quickly, feeling my cheeks flush.  I tried to appear engrossed in my husband’s conversation with an elderly fellow with a long, flowing white beard. What was this fellow’s name? I cannot remember what they were saying, as I could not focus on their words despite my valiant attempts.  It was as if in slow motion that they spoke, jaws opening and closing…gaping holes of nothingness full of meaningless gibberish.  In what was likely a matter of seconds but which felt instead like a half hour, I was aware of Nathaniel’s presence at the edge of my peripheral vision.  His companion began motioning in our direction, leading him across the room to our little group.  I resisted the urge to turn and run.

As the pair arrived, the dean, closest to me, announced, “May I present Dr. Nathanial Joseph Brierly.”  The group nodded silently in his direction.  “This is Mr. William Aspern, Mrs. Aspern, and Mr. Barnard Townshend.”

Dr. Brierly nodded acknowledgement to Mr. Townshend then turned to William, offering his hand.  “Mr. Aspern, I must thank you for your support of my lecture.” 

“It was a topic of particular importance to my wife, as you may imagine.  May I present Mrs. Aspern?”  William gestured to me and I turned to make eye contact with Dr. Brierly, presenting my hand.  I searched his face for some recognition, but there was none.  He had not seemed to have aged in the slightest. 

“Ah, Mr. Aspern, what a lovely wife you have.”

He bowed as he took my gloved hand and kissed it, then stepped back.  He turned to the gentlemen again.

“I must prepare, we will begin shortly.”  Then he was gone. 

We began gravitating to our seats.  I could see him shuffling papers at the podium, locating diagrams.  The lecture itself was tedious, filled with numbers and statistics on ether and chloroform safety.  The Scottish brogue with which he spoke was the only thing that made it bearable.  There were a few technical diagrams demonstrating proper technique for the administration of analgesic gasses via patented machines that were mildly interesting.  Then, the floor was opened up for discussion and things became much more entertaining. 

“James Simpson favors the use of chloroform early in labor and until the woman is rendered entirely unconscious.  Is this safe?  Or do you advocate these more controlled methods exclusively?”  This was from a stooped, older gentleman on the front row.

“Will all due respect to Dr. Simpson, I believe I have proven that a more controlled approach, tailoring anesthesia to the needs of the patient is a much safer use of anesthesia.”

“Does the use of chloroform reduce the strength of contractions, prolonging the birth process?”  asked a young fellow a few rows ahead and to the left.

“Certainly not.  I have seen it actually speed delivery by allowing women to relax and allow nature to take its course rather than fighting against the agony that they are feeling.”

A rather dour, dark haired man near the front stood.  “Are we defying God by removing his curse over Eve?”

“Do men not use machines for cultivation? Does doing so damn us for removal of our curse to toil upon the land?” he replied calmly.

“Why should we rob women of this essential part of womanhood?” 

“Well, why don’t we ask a woman?”  He gestured toward me.  “Mrs. Aspern, do you believe that the pain of childbirth is an essential part of your experience of womanhood?”

There was that noise, that rumble that signaled that now every man in the room had shifted in their seats to stare at me.  “Stand up, my dear.” William whispered into my ear.  I stood slowly and hesitated.  I looked down at William, sitting beside me to my left.  He gave my hand an encouraging squeeze and winked.  I directed my comments to the two hundred or so men in the room.

“I…I would say…”  I struggled to find something to say.  Here I was, about to appear the fool.  Then the answer struck me like a lightning bolt between the eyes.  However undignified it would be for me to speak of such things, it was my only recourse.  “Some cultures have young men circumcised as their rite of passage into adulthood rather than performing it in infancy.”  I could hear a shocked intake of air resonate from the lips of the men in the room.  “I would pose that when men consider experiencing the pain of circumcision to be an essential part of their experience of manhood, then they can speak to me of the pain in childbirth as an essential experience of womanhood.  My only regret would be that there is only one potential foreskin to be removed from each male, and yet perhaps half a dozen children or more to be had for each woman.  I believe that the theologian Thomas Chalmers stated before his death that there was no theological part to the debate about the use of analgesia during childbirth.  To echo his sentiments, if we are to debate anesthesia in childbirth, let us keep it limited to questions of safety and efficacy.”  I was met with stunned silence from the crowd.

“Well said, Mrs. Aspern, well said.”  There was a hint of admiration in his voice as there was a round of “Here, here!” that echoed from a few members of the audience as I returned to my seat. 

I do not recall how the rest of the questions and answers went as I was feeling rather lightheaded, like the buzz one gets after a couple of glasses of good red wine.  Or scotch.  I do remember William leaning over to whisper, “Well done.”

After the presentation, William dragged me up to the front and we hung around until everyone had finally finished with the questions they were too embarrassed to ask Dr. Brierly in public.

I stood there alone as William was dragged a short distance away by the dean.  I could not hear what they were discussing.  I felt a light tap on my shoulder and a quietly whispered, “Excellent response, Evelyn.”

Nathanial was there as I turned. 

“So you do remember me, after all?” I whispered back.

“Ah, yes.  I have been unable to forget.”  There was some sadness there. Good.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Well.  And you?”  He paused.  “I see that you are married after all.”  He had a look upon his face that seemed to say I told you so.


“He adores you,” he said simply.

“Yes, he does.”

“And you?  Are you married?”  I needed his answer to be yes but I wanted it to be no. 


“I see,” I said softly.

William rejoined us as Nathaniel was about to say something else and put his hand on my shoulder.  He was eager to discuss medicine and Edinburgh.  “Would you honor us by joining us at our home, Dr. Brierly?  In fact, I would be pleased if you would consider relinquishing your hotel room to stay with us in Cambridge.”  Oh, no!  I must have gasped because Nathanial’s eyes darted over to meet mine. I could see hope and fear dwelling behind his eyes.

“I…I am…not sure…,” he stammered.  He seemed a bit taken aback by the offer.

“Nonsense!  You will come!  Where are you staying?  We will send the carriage straightaway for your things.”  William said this rather forcefully, a tone I had not heard in his voice before.  I wondered how often he used it when I was not around?  Perhaps often in the course of business?

“…I am at the…” 

I could not make out what he said, but William nodded and assured him that the bags would be sent for immediately.  “You must accompany us!  Come!”

William let the way to the carriage waiting outside, his hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder.  As William chatted about Boston history, Nathaniel looked back at me, walking cautiously behind them and mouthed the words, “I am sorry.”  I scowled at him. Why did you agree to come? I could not meet his gaze for long, instead opting to look more closely at empty reflections from the windows of the nearby hospital until I was ushered into the carriage sitting across from Dr. Brierly and my husband.  William continued his dialogue about local history until we passed over the Charles River again and arrived at our home.  I sat silently in the corner watching the face of my husband and my former lover as they conversed.  The sun was fading behind the trees with the most spectacular reds and oranges I had ever seen.  I was not at peace.  Not at all. 

What had begun as a voyeuristic adventure, intending only to peek into the life I might have had, now ended here with my two worlds colliding.  God help me. The devil would be sitting in my drawing room.


Chapter Twenty-Eight: Numbing

It was evening.  The candlelight flickered across the table.  At dinner, William was in unusual spirits as he ate.  He put down his spoon, dabbed at his beard with the napkin from his lap, then cleared his throat.

“How do you feel about going into Boston for a day or two next month?”  He glanced over at me, hopeful.

I looked up at him from my soup.  “Why?”

“For a lecture in obstetrical anesthesia.”

“Oh, really?”  I wondered if this was a veiled attempt to bring up starting a family.  I would see how the conversation would proceed.  I took another silent sip of the oyster soup.

“I thought you might be interested in the topic.  Apparently, it is so controversial that all of the traditional backers balked.  I overheard the discussion at the club between Cornelius Felton, the university president, and Jack Waterhouse, of the medical faculty in Boston.  I do not believe that Cornelius wants the lectures to occur.  There is a part of me that delights in making that man miserable.  So, I wrote a check to Mr. Waterhouse.  We will bring anesthesia to Massachusetts!”  He said this with a flourish of his hand.  He smiled broadly.

“But Dr. Morton has already demonstrated anesthesia.  Several years ago, in fact!”  Everyone knew of the story of the huge neck tumor removed from Mr. Gilbert Abbott at Massachusetts General Hospital.  It had been all over the papers and had occurred before I had left for Edinburgh myself.

“Not in childbirth, my dear!  Dr. Brierly is from Edinburgh, where Dr. Simpson has been administering chloroform and ether during childbirth for years.”  He seemed quite proud of himself.

But, my heart stopped suddenly.  I was not sure if I had heard the name right.  No, it had to have been him. 

Deep within my chest I felt a heavy sinking, as if a rock had just dropped onto my diaphragm, my fingers and lips numb.  “You are doing what?”

“I am sponsoring a lecture series at the college,” he said patiently.

“Yes, but who is speaking?”  I could not breath.

“A Dr. Brierly on obstetrical anesthesia.” He shrugged, then squinted suspiciously at me.

I was not mistaken! Did he not know? Did he not remember?  Was he testing me? Did he know but now was planning to show me off as his trophy?

“I see.”  It was difficult to keep my tone even and impassive.

Did I really want to go to Boston, then?  Difficult question, really.  But I knew what my answer would be, what it had to be. 

“Well, then certainly, I would be happy to accompany you, dear!” 

I sat down my spoon, a tiny clank rang against the china.  My appetite had left me. I worked hard to not betray any emotion.

We finished dinner conversing about the rest of his day. 

When I had retired to my room, I sat at the mirror brushing my hair and examining my features.  Why did I feel so much older?  It had been three years, only, since I had last seen Mr. Brierly.  I had finally stopped thinking about him every day and now this?  Why? Dr. Brierly.  I was running through in my mind the things I needed in order to make sure I was in the best presentable condition possible when I was startled by a gentle tapping at the door.  Not tonight, please, God.  Not tonight of all nights when I longed to give my thoughts over to another man.  My hands shook as I put down the brush.

“Yes, come in,” I said softly.  I could see William enter the room in his dressing gown behind me via his reflection in the mirror.  He looked almost sheepish, imploring.  I knew he was trying to be kind to me, but I hated him for it.  Most days I longed for him to simply take control, but he was too timid to do that.  Tonight, I just wanted to get it over with so that I could get back to my secret sadness.