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.


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.


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.

Chapter Forty-Five: Deeper into Hell

“Get your hands off of me,” I said again through clenched teeth, carefully enunciating each word.

I was pinned against the wall in a narrow, dirty passageway near the kitchens in Scutari. I had been returning missed dishes from dinner on the ward, items the orderlies had not collected when they had come through.

The orderly was obese, his belly pressing into mine. “Aw, you don’t mean that, do you?” He leaned in closer, attempting to kiss me. His hands tried to lift my skirts. I ducked away and broke free, but he stood in my way. He had that stale, sour smell of fermentation about him, the smell that indicated he was not able or not motivated to clean adequately between the skin folds.

“I most certainly do mean it, Mr. Blige, I can assure you.” I glowered at him, hoping the display of anger would hold back the tears. Do not show weakness. “Now, let me pass or I shall scream loud enough to bring Ms. Nightingale herself running straight over.”

He did not appear to take me seriously. As he laughed, his belly shook. I shoved past him.

“What is wrong? I am not good enough for you? Where is your good doctor, anyway?” he called out after me. Go to hell, you bastard.

I made haste to the dormitory. Madge was already asleep. That was just as well. We never spoke anymore. I spent my days fighting off men and enduring spiteful glares and gossip from the women. The only relief I had was sleep.

Meanwhile on the wards patients were dying, dozens at a time. Not from their wounds. Instead it was a cholera outbreak. The halls were overrun with vomit and diarrhea, the stench was overpowering. The orderlies stopped feeding or cleaning the ones they felt would soon die, leaving them to lie in filthy pools of their own excrement. Wounded soldiers made a 13 day journey aboard tightly cramped ships from the battlefields to the hospital at Scutari. Cholera was starting there and spreading throughout the remainder of the hospital and staff was not immune. The death rate from cholera here was sixty percent. New faces quickly succumbed. Beds were crowded 1-2 feet apart, as there was simply not enough space to house all of the ill. In the morning I would have to find the bodies that had grown stiff in the night and have them removed.

I lay in the bed. Fatigue overwhelmed me but my thoughts could not leave me in peace.

Dr. Jenkins was gone but no one understood what that meant. Only I knew that a man like that does not change. He would have continued to make his conquests, his desires never sated. Now, while the desires may be there, the scar tissues would prevent him from acting on them. Arousal would be too painful. I did not know why he had left or where he had gone, nor did I care. I had no remorse for assisting him afterward. But I was not sure how much longer I could endure this. Fantasies about packing up and moving on began to arise.

Sleep found me.

The following day, I took the few minutes of my noon meal to instead walk along the wharf for some air. I did not get to come often, but the brisk sea breeze and the cries of the gulls helped to clear my mind.

As I was made my way along the sea wall, a dark skinned woman approached. She had stepped off a ship that was moored there, the Hollander. It had arrived earlier this morning with supplies. Deck hands were busy unloading pallets and barrels, their shouts punctuating my steps. I stopped and waited for her as she looked as if she were lost.

“Excuse me. I am looking for a hospital…Scutari. Is this it?” She gestured to the white stone building on the hilltop over my shoulder.


I stared at her. She must have been about fifty. Her accent was strange. Jamaican. But not. I could not see much of her dark, wavy hair because of the expensive stiff, dark brown bonnet tied beneath her chin. She was pleasantly round and had a reassuring, comforting countenance. Her dress was a brown silk made for traveling but exquisitely detailed, nonetheless. She liked nice things.

“Thank you.” She placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed as she moved past.

I watched her go, starting the ascent by following the road the casualties followed from their ships to their doom.

“Wait!” I called. “I will go with you.”

We all wore the same uniform at Scutari, the nurses. A frightful gray tweed dress called a wrapper with a matching jacket, a dark gray short wool cloak, and a plain white cap with a sash that had the word Scutari embroidered in red that was worn like a banner across the chest. While ugly, it showed we were were not part of the group of rowdy prostitutes that resided in the encampment below when we ventured out. I had been promoted to nurse recently, as I had shown aptitude on the wards and was willing to work hard.

I hiked up my skirts a bit so I would not trip, but not enough to be scandalous, and ran to catch up. Breathless, I asked “What is your name?” as I stretched out my hand.

She took it, “Mary. Mary Seacole.” I provided my name and we walked side by side in silence until we reached the hospital itself.

“I must speak with Ms. Nightingale. I have a letter of introduction to her from a Dr. Jenkins whom I met in Malta.”

Malta. So he did not kill himself? Damn. I had held out hope that even though I could not actually kill him, that he or God would do that for me.

I had assumed that she desired to join the staff here, but as I walked her to the tower, to Ms. Nightingales’ office, she told me of her intentions to open a British Hotel at Balaclava. It would provide food and lodging to sick and convalescing officers.

Balaclava was across the Black Sea, closer to the fighting. Away from here. My heart pounded and my palms sweated. Did I dare?

But I said nothing. Instead, I showed her the stairwell and pointed her toward the offices. Then I returned to my duties among the sick and dying.

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.