Chapter Sixty: The Color of Blackness

I resolved to stay in London for a few weeks. I took up residence in a modest but respectable hotel as I gathered my wits and continued to write the stories of the people I had met in Scutari and Balaklava.

The first real order of business was pressing.  I had to purchase new clothing as what I had brought with me from the Crimea was very worn and several seasons out of fashion. I spent money on three lovely new dresses, undergarments, and shoes only to find that as a single woman there was much curiosity. Everyone from hotel staff and shopkeepers wanted to ask me personal questions and I had much difficulty explaining my situation.

In order to make life easier, I decided to enter full mourning again. No one would hassle the grieving widow. I moved about the crowded streets unhindered, an anonymous figure cloaked and veiled in black. When William had died the clothing had seemed a prison. Hot, stifling, uncomfortable. Now, as a shadow, I was unrecognized, untouched. Eyes were averted. No one spoke to me except to quickly give me what I wanted or needed, hoping I would move one quickly before I brought bad luck or my tears or worse. It was freedom itself. The color suited my grieving, stained heart and the veil hid my deep sadness.

Nathaniel’s gift I kept with me at all times but as the paper began to show wear quickly, I realized that it needed to be better preserved. Still, to do so meant giving up my one relic, if only for a time, an act that was painful to consider even if it were temporary.

Eventually I enquired after reputable jewelers from the desk clerk at the hotel and had been directed to an establishment several blocks away that specialized in memorial pieces. I had a very specific item in mind. A gold brooch enameled in black with the word Recuerdo engraved upon the face. A reproduction of the one worn by the young lady in the painting in my rood in Edinburgh oh so long ago. Inside, behind a thick crystal, would lie the bit of his hair and the message…Victo Dolore. Thusly, he would be locked away, my secret, but I could still have him close to my heart.

“Good day, Madame,” the jeweler croaked as I entered the shop. He was a tiny, wizened old gentleman with a loupe stuck into one squinting eye. Much of his posture and appearance reminded me of a troll, but he did not seem unpleasant. He had looked up from his current project when he heard me enter.

“Good day, sir.”

“I will be with you in a moment.”

He continued tinkering away on an exquisite garnet encrusted bauble as I wandered past the display cases with their jewels reclining luxuriously on the folds of red velvet. Pearl necklaces, onyx crosses, emerald earrings, diamonds watch fobs all twinkled and shone in the late afternoon light. Each was constructed with a place to stash some memento of a departed loved one, tucked away behind glads. As I examined the pieces I began to doubt that my design was elaborate enough to serve as a fitting memorial. I began to panic a bit.

At last the jeweler cleared his throat and stood, putting down his tools. His fingers were gnarled and misshapen. How could he do such fine work with hand like this?

“How can I help you?” he asked after what seemed a lengthy period. The loupe was gone, replaced by a pair of wire rimmed spectacles.

Wordlessly, I showed him my crude sketch, smoothing out the folded paper on the countertop. He nodded, peering over the wire frames. A “Hmmmmmmm…,” escaped his lips.

He looked up at me. “I can have it ready in about two weeks time, I believe.” Glancing down at the drawing again, he was apparently lost in thought, tabulating some important variable. “Yes. That should be sufficient time. Is that acceptable?” He again looked up at me, this time quizzically. A wiry gray eyebrow was raised as a question mark.

“That soon?” I was taken aback by the speed of his answer and the promised time to have the order completed.

“Certainly.” He shrugged. “It is a simple yet elegant piece.” My heart lifted a bit at his praise. He would know beauty when he saw it, wouldn’t he?

We discussed price with some good natured haggling. Eventually we agreed on an amount. Truthfully I would have paid any price.

“Well then, that is most agreeable.” I handed over my precious bit of hair and the scrap of paper, aching as I did so, then paid him half of the agreed upon sum. “I will return in two weeks.”

He nodded acceptance of the arrangement, then returned slowly to his workbench, easing along with an arthritic shuffle. I turned to leave.

“This will not make it better, you know.”

“Pardon me?” I paused with my hand on the door handle and turned back, not sure I had heard him correctly. He was staring hard at me.

“This will not make it better,” he repeated.

“I understand,” I said, bowing my head. But I did not. And he did not. No one could understand because I could not tell them this dark black secret of mine.

He settled back to setting the showy garnets in their new golden home.

The door jingled as I closed it tight behind me, taking a deep breath.  The air inside was less polluted but had been stifling nonetheless.

I walked slowly back to the hotel. His words bothered me. I was not sure that I wanted to feel better. Somehow the pain made it feel more real and suffering seemed necessary to atone for my sin. I had enjoyed my sin, making it all the more sinful. Certainly this fellow was attempting to assuage his own guilt for capitalizing on the grief of others by offering bits of pseudo-sage advice. I would never see him again after I paid for my brooch and I was glad.

I felt lost without my treasure, ungrounded. This was silly I recognized but I was unsure how to change the fact.

I found myself wandering the streets wondering how would I fill up my days and my nights. I played through the moments with Nathaniel again, hidden behind the black veil. I hoped that the more I relived those feelings, the deeper they would be etched into my memory. I did not want to lose even a second of that precious time. The sea of people parted easily for me as I passed, no one wanting the bad luck of touching me, the widow twice over.

Chapter Fifty-Nine: Victo Dolore

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.

“Yes.”

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.

“I know.”

“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?”

“No.”

More bells.

“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.

Chapter Fifty-Five: Valise

“Get out!” I shouted at her, pointing to the door with my left hand.

The sister stared back at me, shocked. She was not moving.

“Evelyn, really.” She spoke in a calm and soothing tone, evenly. I hated her even more for thinking I could be placated.

“You know nothing of me or my life or what it is to love another human being, to bear the pain and the shame of it.” Her chipper mask slowly fell, replaced by hate.

“You are a sinner!” she hissed.

“So are you! You pretend to be filled with God’s love, pretend to care for mankind, but instead you, like the others, sit in judgement, consumed with pride in the belief that you are closer to God than everyone else. You don’t even realize that you are condemned to hell just like the rest of us.”

Sister Martha stared back, wide eyed. Apparently no one had dared to speak to her in this way before. It felt good to have power again, to be able to command someone else to feel smaller.

“You deserve to suffer. God will hear your blasphemy.”

“Get out,” I muttered through my teeth. I lunged at her at which point she stood. I tried to grab at her arm, intending to strangle her, having no doubt that I could and would do it, but also forgetting that my hand was only marginally functional. She slipped through my meager grip.

She paused at the doorway. “You are still a sinner…”

I stepped toward her menacingly before she could say another word. She turned and fled, leaving the door open, her quick steps echoing down the corridor.

My hands shaking, I tore off the lining at the back of the truck where I had hidden money before setting out on my journey to the Crimea.

I pulled out my worn brown leather valise with silver buckles and stared at the contents of my trunk. I would leave the majority behind. I needed a clean break. Arranging for my trunk to be moved given the current circumstances would create too much baggage. I wanted to leave this place and all of its suffering behind.

I selected a change of clothing, a brown travel dress similar to the one I was now wearing, and shoved it inside. I would only bring the corset and other undergarments I had on my person and the shoes on my feet. I dug out my miniature of William and the one of my parents. I had no jewelry with me, save a simple garnet and pearl necklace with matching earrings which were impossible to put on without assistance now and my wedding ring. I slipped these into a pocket. Hairbrush. Hair pins. Bonnet. Gloves. A handkerchief.

A book. I stared at my books. I had about twenty stashed away but had not had time to read a single one. No. I could use the time to think instead. I closed the trunk and heard the click.

There was nothing else left that I cared anything about.

Picking up my cloak and the valise, I left the room, the hospital, and Balaklava behind.

I booked passage on the Taurus, a military transport. It mattered not how much I was willing to pay, I was given berth below deck with other, more unfortunate women trapped in a dark hell that smelled of vomit and urine. There was a growing sense all around that the war would soon be over and these women who had stayed for so long were finally moving on. Some had small children, born in the camps. All day and all night, I could hear the cries and retching in my tiny cabin.

The stench, the rolling of the sea, the itching from the bites of the bedbugs and lice that infested the rickety cot, the loneliness and anxiety of my situation became a roiling in my own belly and I was left weak and dehydrated at the end of the three day voyage.

“Miss?” A knock came at the door. I startled, now awake. “Miss! We have arrived at port!”

I sat up, my head spinning. I struggled to remember where I was. Then the horror and shame came flooding back.

The deck hand had to assist me to the shore as I could barely stand and I was blinded terribly by the bright sunlight that had not touched my eyes for so long down below.

I clutched the valise close to my side and looked around, squinting. The white hospital loomed imposingly upon the cliff above.

Scutari.

I was almost home, with home being a return to the civilized world, a world not at war. A world with tea parties and millinery shops, a world with less blood. My world was anywhere but here, a wide open place full of hope.

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.

Chapter Fifty-Three: Shrouded

“Alright! Let’s have a look, shall we?”

The nun’s chipper tone seemed forced even when coupled with her wretched smile. I searched her face for clues. What did it look like under there? The fake happiness was disconcerting. Solemnity would have seemed more apropos.

“Yes, fine,” I replied, hoping that I sounded braver than I felt.

I had not yet seen what was beneath the bandages. It had been two weeks since the infection had started and I had not been aware of my surroundings most of that time.

Candlelight flickered golden from the table, creating more shadows than it eliminated.

Slowly, the sheeting was wound around my hand, peeled off in bloody layers. The closer we came, the more it hurt. Nothing severe, but each tiny movement sent shock waves up my arm. The final layers stuck at some points, glued to the flesh with dried blood. I realized I was holding my breath as I braced myself for the searing pain that never came. This burning was nothing compared to what I had felt before in childbirth or from that arm in the haze of my unconsciousness.

The sister whispered, “So sorry…” and “Excuse me…” with each gentle tug.

And then, the last layers were off.

I felt dizzy.

It is one thing seeing gruesome wounds on others but another thing entirely when it is your own body that you are staring at. You can no longer disconnect yourself from the horror.

There was exposed flesh, pink and red, stretching across my palm. Necrotic tissue had been filleted, exposing muscles beneath. Some of it had been closed with sutures, two smaller areas had been left open to drain. Apparently, tendons or nerves had also been severed as I was unable to flex my thumb or index and middle fingers or my hand itself. The last two fingers had some movement but they were stiff and weak. There was wasting and atrophy of what muscles remained in the palm. Contractures had already started to contort my hand into an unnatural shape. A claw.

I was crippled.

In the open areas, granulation tissue had begun to form. No signs of infection remained.

“That should heal up nicely, Evelyn.”

I glared at her in disbelief, willing her tongue to rot. Look me in the eye when you say that!

Her attention was on my hand, readying the new bandages. I stared again at the unnatural thing that was now attached to my body.

Heal nicely?

“There was a man that came a few nights ago.” She was still not making eye contact. “He said he was a doctor.”

I sat up straight, the icy grip of panic clutching at my chest.

“Who?” I demanded.

But I knew. I had seen his shadow limp through the darkened doorway in the flash of lightening. I had thought it to be a dream. It had not been.

My Nathaniel.

“I forget his name. He was a patient, wounded at Sebastopol.”

“Wounded in the leg?” I asked.

“Yes.” The sister paused as she tied off the bandage. Shrouded in white, it was now my ghost hand. “He was leaving for Scutari.”

A sob caught in my throat. He was alive. But lost to me, again.

The sister patted me reassuringly on the shoulder then gathered her things into the basket in order to leave.

She leaned in close to me. “He said you were his guardian angel,” she whispered softly, as if to keep the Virgin ears on the wall from hearing. “Truth be told, he begged to be allowed to stay, to sit with you, but that would have been improper. In the end, he was stable enough for transfer, so away he was sent.”

“Thank you,” I whispered back, forgiving her for everything that had gone before.

She nodded an acknowledgment. Then was gone.

He knew.

He knew about my hand, what state it was in now. No wonder he had not fought the transfer to Scutari. I was a shadow, an imperfect, distorted reflection of the original.

Why had I not just died?

Chapter Fifty-Two: Perchance

I was in our garden. There was sun warming my skin, sending pleasant shivers down my spine. Birds were singing merrily. William was sitting with me, holding my hand. We were discussing the arrival of the baby. I could see love and excitement in his eyes. Had it all been a dream? Pain seared my consciousness. The baby! Only it was not labor pains. I looked down and instead of William’s hand there was a skinless boney set of fingers with exposed tendons gripping mine, so tight that the pain was unbearable. I tried to pull it away, but could not. I looked up. Instead of William, there sat a disintegrating cadaver. She smiled at me, gums exposed, gaping holes where teeth should have been. I could not move. A weight was lying heavy across my chest and I felt that the ground was suddenly falling away beneath me.

“Mrs. Aspern?” A hand shook my left shoulder. My heart was racing, but it was black all around me.

I cracked an eye open and peered out. “Mrs. Aspern!” A sister was smiling down at me, a benevolent ghost barely visible in the dim light from behind her white mantle. I knew her but from where?

I struggled to sit up, but the pain in my right hand as I tried to push up caused me to give up the effort immediately. I brought the hand up a bit but it was wrapped in bulky bandages, only fingertips were visible peeking out from the end. I still had my hand!

Panic struck me.

I tried to speak but it came out as only a mumble. My mouth was dry and all of the parts were glued together. The sister placed two extra pillows behind my shoulders then held a glass of water to my lips. A few sips loosened up my tongue and I tried again.

“What day is it?” I recognized that I was in a room.

Where?

My brain was cloudy, moving slowly as if trying to tread water in a pool of dark molasses. The sliver of light from the tiny window spread long across my lap, trapping particles of dust in its path. It was late afternoon. I could barely make out a picture of the Virgin and the infant Jesus hanging over the washbasin. A convent?

“Sunday.” She shrugged as she placed a cool, damp cloth across my forehead, brushing back wisps of hair.

I was given a few sips of broth but the effort was almost too much. I closed my eyes and drifted away again.

This time I felt the hand gripping mine again only it was my left hand and not my right. I could feel the rain on my face. Sadness filled my heart, a deep mourning, but I did not know precisely why. Then a clap of thunder. There was no pain. Was I awake? I opened my eyes to a flash of lightening and saw a male shape disappear through the doorway.

Who?

Wait! Don’t leave me…

My mind was playing tricks on me again. I registered this as my eyes shut once more, this time I welcomed the darkness and I begged God to allow me to leave this place forever.  I wanted to die.

Chapter Fifty-One: Silence

The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, I ran to check on my Nathaniel. I said a silent prayer of thanksgiving to God and to the Virgin. I had been heard.

He was still there, still incoherent, still feverish. But he was alive. I changed out the bandage, cleaned the wound which now had less of the purulence, and reapplied the carbolic acid. I could see his pain was great, but tried to detach myself from it. It was necessary.

I spoon fed him the morning rations of tea, bread, and broth, giving extra care to soak the dry, stale bread in the broth to ensure that he did not choke on it. Then I enlisted a passing orderly to help change the sheets. The fellow from the night before had apparently returned after I had left, leaving the fresh sheets on the table by the bed.

I debated bathing him. After knowing him so intimately, and then not at all for so long, the act itself seemed so much more than clinical. It was the right thing and wrong thing to do all at once. I postponed a decision. I had duties to attend to elsewhere. I would return later.

The Castle Hospital had been my home for three months now. Spring was dawning outside.  The wind still blew cold but the sun was warm.  Sometimes I took a few minutes to just close my eyes and stand in the sunshine, letting it clean my soul. I had no time for that this morning.

I had been put to work almost immediately upon my arrival. I was given menial tasks like washing floors and cleaning chamber pots, things the orderlies should have done. I understood that I was being tested so I bore my burden dutifully and without complaining.

“Mrs. Aspern, today you are needed in the kitchen.” I would spend the day kneading bread until my arms ached.

“Mrs. Aspern, today you will work in the laundry.” I would spend the day scrubbing sheets with my arms in lye, burning and chapped.

“Mrs. Aspern, you are needed in the scullery today.” I would peel potatoes and chop onions for hours until the smell of onions eked from my pores and my eyes were blinded from the burning.

After several weeks of these tasks, I was allowed on the wards.

Nurses were not allowed to bathe patients. That was left to the male orderlies. Generally speaking, the orderlies were either morally or physically unable to serve in the army. They were quite the unpredictable collection. Between absenteeism and alcoholism it was a wonder they did anything they were told. In the end, there was quite a bit that the nursing staff was left to make up for when the orderlies failed to perform their duties.

I had no issues with bathing a male patient and in short order, that was my given assignment as the sisters themselves wanted nothing to do with a naked male body. There was no purity left in me and I did not fear my reputation.

I also fed, bandaged, and assisted in surgeries when needed, working long hours. From time to time I would return to the kitchens or laundry if needed. The repetitive, mindless work was a welcome and necessary break.

When the noon meal arrived, I returned to Nathaniel’s bedside. I again fed him. He would look at me now and seemed to see me, but he did not appear to remember who I was. Had I changed so much? As I left, he whispered a soft, “Thank you.” My heart soared.

My right hand, however, was hurting. At first I thought the scrape had been rubbed raw from the morning chores but through the afternoon, redness and swelling began to develop. It became difficult to move it.

Infection. I had washed my hands after cleaning and dressing Nathaniel’s wound, but soap and water were no match for my scraped and open skin from my fall. I was unsure what to do. Should I show one of the surgeons?

Instead, I hurried to Nathaniel again at the end of the day. As I neared his bed, I saw that he was sitting up, feeding himself.

Suddenly, I panicked. I could not let him see me! Not like this. My hair was still terribly short. My dress was drab and dirty and still bore the wine stain on the sleeve. What if he did not like what he saw? Could I bear the rejection? I had been with other men since I had last been with him. I was suddenly ashamed of that.  I thought I had heard him say the name “Anna” yesterday. What if he were married? Should I tell him about our son Levi and that he was dead?

No. I could not go to him.

I turned quickly back to the open doorway of the ward. I made it a few steps, then hesitated. The men who had been watching gave me puzzled looks. I ignored them and started towards the door again.

But wait! I turned back. I needed to let him know that I was here.

Yet, I could not. Ultimately, I lacked the necessary courage when it came to him. I clenched my hands into fists, the pain from the right one bringing tears to my eyes that I blinked away. Instead, I quickly and quietly left the ward, not sure if I could go back.

Chapter Fifty: Fever

His hand.

I had not felt it for years. It was now rough, chapped.

Here he was, his face barely recognizable from the contortions brought on by pain. Dirt had settle into the creases of his skin and the grizzled facial hair had taken over everything else. I gingerly pulled back the sheets. He was naked, I recognized immediately, as I quickly dropped the sheets. I saw naked men dozens a day, but somehow seeing him exposed in this way seemed wrong. His right leg was bandaged, blood seeping through onto the mattress, mingling with his urine. Somehow his bandage had been missed by the orderlies this morning. He needed bathing. And clean bedding.

His eyes stared ahead fixedly or furtively darted about but they only saw things that I could not.

I felt his dry, feverish skin beneath my fingertips. His nails had grown long and they were blackened with grime. When he realized there was a hand touching his, he clasped it holding fast as if clinging to life. Somehow mine still fit perfectly within his.

But he did not know it was me.

His lips moved but he never spoke out loud. I leaned in to try to listen but the whispers made no sense. Sevastopol. Knife. My knife. Brandy. Now. Knife. Anna.

I sat silently allowing him to hold my hand for nigh on two hours. Eventually his thrashing about calmed. There was no more groaning. His tensed muscles began to relax. At last he slipped into a fitful slumber.

It was then, once the confusion of my unsettled brain wore off, that the meaning of the fever sank into my consciousness. Infection! He was dying. The orderlies had stopped changing his bandages. He had been marked for death.

This could not be.

My mind raced. Maybe carbolic acid could help once infection had started, if it could prevent infection as Dr. Jenkins had suggested. I stood and quickly ran to the store room, my heart pounding. As I rounded a corner, my foot caught on an uneven bit of wooden plank flooring and I fell forward, catching myself on my hands and knees. One of the sisters, passing by helped me up by the elbow. Her name was Flora.

“What happened? Are you alright?” Concern showed on her face.

I looked down at my hands. The abrasions smarted. My knees also stung but I was afraid to look at them just yet. I should have been paying attention.

“I am fine, thank you.” I smoothed out my skirt, dusting it off. I wanted to tell her, to enlist her help. But I was afraid. She patted my arm reassuringly, then went on her way.

At the storeroom at the far end of the hospital I located fresh bandages and a bottle of carbolic acid and a knife. Fortunately no one stopped me or asked questions, they were distracted sorting through the most recent meager shipment of supplies.

Back at the bedside, my hands shook as I pulled off the old bandage, eliciting a few shouted curses from him. The wound was at his upper thigh, was a purulent mess. After flushing the area with water, I attempted to debride the necrotic tissue as I had seen the surgeons do at Scutari. He was in terrible pain, but it could not be helped. There was no more laudanum available in all of the British hospitals in the Crimea.

“Mrs. Aspern? Do you need help?” A young, fresh faced orderly stood at the foot of the bed wide eyed.

“No.” Then I hesitated. I did not want him watching me. The less he knew the better. “Fetch me some clean sheets. Please.” He nodded and dashed off. That will take him a while. The hospital was short on clean linen, too. The sheets were often stolen by those doing the laundry, sold in the villages to supplement their meager incomes.

I looked around after he left. Other soldiers were sitting up in their beds or propped up on elbows watching, curious. I nodded at them, and went back to work.

After soaking the new bandage in the phenol, I wrapped up the wound again. I sat down, holding his hand until he was peaceful once more.

Why had they not amputated his leg? How long had he been here? The hospital was not as large as Scutari but it still housed hundreds of the wounded. How long could I have missed him?

Finally, I had to go. We were not allowed in the wards past 8:30 in the evening in an effort to maintain the spotless reputation of the nursing staff. We are a hospital, not a bordello, Mrs. Aspern. I did not want to leave him. I contemplated risking breaking the rules but now that he was here, I could not afford dismissal. I needed to be with him.

I leaned over close to his ear. “I need you,” I whispered softly. Then I slipped my hand from his. He opened his eyes and looked right at me. I was not sure that he heard me, however, as there was no recognition in his eyes.

I turned back to look at him after a few steps. His eyes were closed, a painful grimace played on his face.

Old wounds rubbed raw.

To have gone so long without him and then see him like this…I prayed to God that he did not pass this night, that he would not die without me. The aching in my chest that I had had all along, now I knew why. There were tears locked inside my heart but I had forgotten how to set them free. Somehow I knew that they were holding me together, that to let them free was to allow myself to fade away with them.

I sat on the end of my bed, not sure if I was feeling joy or sadness. If I laid down instead, I was afraid that I would fall asleep. So I sat up and held vigil in my tiny cloistered room through the night, praying for his soul and for mine. A wooden cross hung over my bed and a small print of the beatific Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus on her knee hung in a simple thin frame on the wall by the wash basin, thanks to the Sisters of Mercy. I prayed at first to God. Then I thought that the Virgin might understand my prayer better and I asked her to intercede for me. She was a woman, after all. Perhaps she would understand?

The candle burned for hours then sputtered out, leaving me in darkness.

Chapter Forty-Nine: The Godless

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.”

Chapter Forty-Seven: Voyage

I walked down the wharf looking for my ship. There were dozens moored here. The wind blew so cold my teeth were set to chattering. Each new gust took my breath away, I was left gasping every few steps. The Tsar was reported to say that he had three secret weapons on his side: January, February, and March. They had certainly taken their toll.

Much of the British army’s winter uniforms and blankets had sunk with the Prince in November. We had seen frostbite so bad that when the linseed meal poultices were removed on arrival at Scutari, entire toes came with it, chunks of flesh peeled from the bones of the legs and ankles. These men died by the hundreds.

In the distance, moored quite a ways away, were three supply ships. I could make out crates and barrels being tossed overboard. The rumor was that thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables had been allowed to rot in the holds, bound up in interminable beaurocracy while solders were dying from scurvy and starvation.  This was almost as unforgiveable as the hundreds of pairs of boots shipped from England that were too small for anyone but a woman to wear.  It would be laughable except that people were dying from these ludicrous mistakes.

I was leaving the hospital at Scutari, moving to the Castle Hospital at Balaclava. I had no hopes of a “better” life, per se.  I looked to be more useful closer to the lines, where I could make a difference.  Most of the men arriving at Scutari already had their fates decided well before they set foot there.  If they had feet.

“Excuse me!” I called to a sailor. “Can you point me in the direction of the Resolute?” It was a medical supply ship that was on its way to Balaklava and then on to Sevastopol. He squinted at me, sizing me up. Then, wordlessly he pointed south.

I kept walking, doing my best to read the names on the ships. Finally I found it. My heart sank. It hardly looked seaworthy. Paint was peeling, the sails patched.

My trunk had been delivered earlier. Or so I hoped. I stepped up onto the gangplank and carefully made my way up, praying fervently that I did not loose my footing.

A gruff voice shouted from below, “Who goes there?” When I did not answer immediately, lest I lose my concentration and my step, a grizzled, leathery head popped up from the hold. He appeared to be as worn as his ship and his clothes hung from his body in the most incongruous way, apparently sewn for a man twice his size.

“Ah! Mrs. Aspern I presume?” He scrambled up to assist me. His hand was worn and calloused as he offered it to me, but his grip was strong as a vise and reassuring. He introduced himself as the first mate. “Just call me Frenchy,” he muttered.

He welcomed me aboard and showed me to my berth in the cargo hold, a sparsely furnished and very tiny room with a narrow bed. My trunk had indeed arrived. There was no heat source in the room, but it was out of the wind and for now, that was enough.

The journey would take several days. I had packed some provisions but not not enough as there was little to spare. I had hoped that there would be some food to be spared by the crew but that seemed unlikely.

There was a knocking on the door. I opened it a crack.

“Beg your pardon, miss!” a young lad of about twelve was standing there, a cap twisted up in his grimy hands. His greasy hair was plastered to his head. He grinned. “The captain would like a word with you.” His voice cracked.  He looked sheepishly apologetic.

“Certainly. Please lead the way.”

I closed the door firmly behind me and followed a path through the piles of provisions on their way to the troops. As we made our way I was halted when my skirt caught on a protruding nail, tearing a nice gash in the fabric that I would have to repair later. I moved more carefully thereafter. Skirts were not for the Crimea.

The captain was a swarthy fellow who smelled of stale tobacco. I had met him the day before when I had booked passage with him. Every few minutes he would pause to lean over in his chair. He would hawk the juices from the chaw he held in his mouth, grinning with satisfaction as it rang out upon hitting the spittoon beside him. The wad was so large it made understanding him somewhat difficult.

“Missus Aspern,” he said, wiping the leftover spit from his chin with the sleeve of his dark blue coat. “Won’t ya sit down?” He nodded at the worn sofa.

“Mr. Brandishire.” I remained standing. Truthfully, I was afraid to sit on the thing. I imagined him lying naked on it at some point, scratching his balls. I shuddered involuntarily.

He cocked an eyebrow at me but said nothing. Awkward silence ensued. My eyes wandered over the worn table, bolted to the floor, the wooden chairs stacked in a corner. This room must double as an officer’s mess. The Resolute was a private vessel contracted by the British army to deliver goods, it had clearly seen better times.

Finally, he spoke. “I hope you will join us for dinner?”

“Yes. I would be delighted.” I was certain that the word delighted was not the right choice. I was, however, grateful for the offer of food.

“Is there anythin’ else ya be needin’?” he asked.

“No. No, Mr. Brandishire. Thank you.”

“Thomas will see you back to your room, then.” He stood and stuck his head out the door, bellowing, “Tommy!” I winced.

While we waited for the boy, he took my hand and with a flourish made a chivalrous bow that made me laugh. It helped put me at ease. “Please, if ya be needin’ anythin’….” He trailed off.

“I will be sure to notify you at once. Thank you.”

He was smiling, his tobacco stained teeth showing as I left. It was nice to be in the presence of someone who was not suffering, or dying, or looking to get into my drawers. Maybe this brief voyage would be pleasant after all.