Chapter Forty: Preparations

“What did she say?” Madge whispered softly.

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

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

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

“Madge! Go to sleep.”

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

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

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

“No, of course not!”

She nodded. “I hate him.”

I sat up. “You have met him?”

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

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

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

“Did he touch you?” I had to ask.

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

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

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

“Madge?” I whispered.

Silence.

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

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

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

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Battle Plans

I reported back to the dispensary.

Blood on my apron was not the end of the world, by itself. Blood flowed in rivers here. It was the Crimea, after all.

But he had marked me. Again.

I threw the apron onto the fire. I would be damned if I was going to let him do this to me. I slipped away quietly to retrieve a fresh apron from the dormitories.

The question became what was I going to do now? Leave? And go where? Back to Cambridge? To London? To Edinburgh?

My heart was still pounding when I arrived back. I settled myself down in a wobbly, worn chair to make bandages and to think. Hours passed.

I had come here, to Scutari, to atone for my sins in service to the suffering. Across the channel leading to the Black Sea, the magnificent Hagia Sofia could be seen at the skyline. But here, in the converted Turkish military barracks that now served as the main hospital, evil reigned. One could not tell from the outside. The complex was a huge white stone square with tall towers in each corner that appeared sterile and efficient. Inside was a different matter. The whitewashed corridors housed hundreds of the mangled and deformed on cots lined up in rows beneath the arches. I had been here for six months, bathing bloodied soldiers, cleaning excrement caked bedpans and chamber pots, making bandages, assisting in the kitchens, scrubbing the floors. We were battling the miasma, the mysterious “thing” that brought infection and death.

“Evie!” I looked up. It was one of my bunk mates, Marjorie “Madge” Henson. Her pudgy middle had thinned out since coming here. One could not eat to silence your hunger when you knew thousands were starving in the cold. She stooped low and spoke in hushed tones so no one else could overhear. “The headmistress wants to speak to you!” I was not surprised. Somehow I knew he would not leave me alone.

Madge tucked a wisp of black hair back under her cap. “What did you do?” she whispered.

I sighed. “I will soon find out.” Standing, I stretched the stiffness out of my back and shoulders, steeling myself for what must come.

I climbed the stairs in the north tower to reach her throne room. On the first landing, I heard footsteps coming down. It was him. He paused to smile lasciviously at me as I passed, making sure he brushed my arm. I wanted to kick him in his most vulnerable region. Instead, I walked past him, careful to smile confidently back at him. Two more flights of stairs. I paused a moment to catch my breath.

I knocked softly on the door.

“Enter!” The sharp, commanding tone made me wince.

The blood had already drained from my fingertips and I could not feel the cold knob as the door creaked open.

And there she was. I had held audience with her only twice before. Once when I had first arrived, begging her to let me stay. We cannot pay you…but we will hold you to the same standards all of the other nursing staff. And once when I had been reported for sneaking out to the docks after midnight. We demand all of our staff to be above reproach. We cannot have someone destroying the reputation of this institution. She referred to herself in the third person, as if she were the queen. But here, in Scutari, she was.

This day, she was in a dark gray wool dress with a full skirt. Wide white cuffs were about her wrists and matched the collar that was fastened at her throat with a plain black broach. Her narrow face seemed pinched; her dark hair was pulled back into a severe knot that was so tight that her forehead seemed even more prominent.

“Mrs. Aspern. Please have a seat.”

I sat in a wooden chair that was only slightly less worn than the one I had just vacated downstairs. I folded my hands in my lap to keep them from trembling. A heavy, dark stained desk sat between us, deep gouges visible across the surface. She had placed a thin sheaf of papers face down in front of her.

“Dr. Jenkins was just here.”

“I gathered that,” I said simply.

“He says you disobeyed his orders and put his patient in jeopardy.”

I remained mute. I was not sure what tack to take. Denial, contrition, the truth?

She continued. “He has been here only five days. He has proven himself indispensable in the surgery and has saved lives that none of the others would touch.”

Again she paused. Again I responded with silence.

“We have dismissed two women this week for being too helpful with him.” She stared at me, her eyes boring holes into my soul. “Do we understand each other?”

I nodded.

“It would be strongly advised to steer clear of Dr. Stewart. If it is a choice between you cleaning vomit or his operations….” She trailed off.

I stood to take my leave.

“Thank you, Ms. Nightingale.” She nodded, then waved her hand in dismissal.

The fact that she, a woman, had been put in charge of any military hospital was remarkable by itself and was a testament to the battle of desperation that had been waged here. Her maintaining that post required numbers. Lives saved.

I understood that I was expendable. At least as far as she was concerned.  But I had a plan.

Chapter Fifteen: The Ressurection

It had taken several hours for Emma to pass. Her breath had become more shallow and irregular, her fingers grew a deep purple and were cold despite the fact that the rest of her body burned with fever.

Once she was gone, two orderlies had come to remove her body, transporting it to the morgue. She was unceremoniously rolled up in her bed linens and then rolled off of the bed onto a wooden gurney with a hollow thump. The wheels squeaked with each turn under the weight of her small body as it made its way out of the ward. Her path was traced by fearful eyes from each bed as it passed. You will be next, the wheels seemed to say.

I was not sure what to do beyond this point. When I asked the nursing staff, they stared at me, incredulously and shrugged. Coffin? Burial? Funeral? How would we collect the body? Being a servant in our household and not a family member, we would not be required to observe mourning rituals, but that seemed wrong somehow.

Placental presentation, or previa, meant that if she had gone through with the abortion it would have ended her life almost immediately. To bleed to death this early in the pregnancy was highly unusual, but perhaps it was more merciful in the end than what was to come? I tried to console myself with this thought as I tried to swallow the rock that seemed to be creeping up my throat. I knew that if it reached a certain point, I would not be able to hold back the tears. I was not yet ready to cry.

John had been waiting for me by the carriage all this time. The streets were crowded, everyone hurrying to some engagement, no one looking at the gray stone building. They were all oblivious to the fact that someone had just died within those walls. Or maybe they understood, but the dozens of other deaths that occurred every day in this city muted the poignancy of this one.

John opened his mouth to ask, but I shook my head and he remained silent. His jaw was clenched tight and I could see the sadness in his eyes. Emma had been a gentle soul. It would have been difficult for anyone to have disliked her. I took his hand as he helped me step into the carriage.

He leaned over and quietly whispered, “Thank you.” I turned to him, surprised.

“For what?” I felt in reality that much of this had been my fault, that somehow I should have been able to do more.

“For not letting her die alone.” With that, he closed the door of the coach firmly and climbed up himself to take the horse’s reigns.

When I arrived home, I found that my mother had collected herself. She was dressed in a lovely dark blue day dress and had been waiting on John to return home so that she could leave to attend a previously scheduled luncheon.

“Ah, Evelyn. You are back! You have just enough time to wash up and dress. Come along.” She appeared relieved. “I have hired a new ladies maid, she will attend to you.” There was a slight woman of about forty who appeared in the doorway. She kept her eyes focused on the floor, waiting.

“Mother, I am not going!” I almost yelled. She winced.

“What will I tell everyone?” She seemed shocked.

“You can tell them that I am indisposed. Tell the ladies that I am menstruating for all I care. But I am not going.”

I turned to retreat upstairs, expecting a battle. After two steps, I paused. “Who will take care of her body and where will she be buried?” I asked. I needed to know. I expected she would be given a pauper’s burial. A nameless, twisted, decomposing body entwined with the limbs of a dozen others in a trench somewhere. A nervous laugh escaped my mother’s lips.

“She will go to the anatomists!” There was satisfaction in her voice.

What?

“The only way they would take a dying servant who was pregnant out of wedlock was if I would agree to have her body released to the anatomy department. I was not paying for a funeral for that harlot! And I did not want the stigma of her dying in this house. The Royal Infirmary is a teaching hospital for the University of Edinburgh. They were very grateful to have the opportunity of such a fresh body.” She met my gaze, daring me to challenge her.

There was nothing further I could do.

I suspect that there is the point in every child’s life when they realize their mothers are not the saints that they are held up to be. That one point when you see that their hearts are as human and as imperfect as everyone else’s…as imperfect as your own. This was that moment for me, and it left me feeling utterly alone. My respect for her had been eroding, to be sure, but here at this moment, she was at last merely mortal. I returned her gaze, telling her silently that she no longer held any power over me, that I knew her now. I stared until her own eyes faltered and she turned to cover her shoulders with the shawl she had carried in her hands. Then she was gone.

I imagined that she had already penned a letter to my father, taking great delight in relating all of the bloody details. I wondered if my father would feel any remorse. Fear perhaps, wondering what we knew? Or had my mother accused him? Maybe she had left him to the torture of his own imagination.

I resolved at that point to make myself my own woman. I would work tirelessly to ensure that I had control over my own life, so much as could be afforded to a woman in this age. Whatever lies or intrigue, whatever actions that I must take, I would do them to save myself.

But what was salvation?

Nathaniel had told me of the Anatomy Act of 1832, how it had stopped the grave robbers or resurrectionists. Prior to the Act, only condemned criminals were allowed to be dissected legally by the anatomists. There was an extreme shortage of suitable bodies. So to fill the void, bodies were stolen from graveyards or worse, sold after they were murdered. Watchmen would be paid to stand guard for days or weeks after a burial. Steel coffins, or mortsafes (cages that covered a freshly buried coffin) would be employed. Now, none of that was necessary since the Anatomy Act allowed for the selling of unclaimed bodies from hospitals and poorhouses. Emma had no family. No one to object. I imagined her body, dismembered on a wooden table in the anatomy theater. She would be highly prized, being pregnant. Dozens of greedy eyes would pour over her naked body, more exposed than she ever would have thought possible, as they took in all there was to learn about her most intimate parts.

Perhaps that was all we could hope for…any of us…to be useful somehow, even in death? If she must suffer a senseless death, at least there was some use to it in the end?