Authors: Donna Fletcher Crow
Tags: #Christian romance, English history, Crimean war, Florence Nightingale, Evangelical Anglican, Earl of Shaftesbury
The Brigade advanced with perfect precision. Lord Cardigan rode alone at the head, with the sun gleaming on the rich cherry and royal blue of his 11th Hussars uniform, splendid with fur, plumes, and gold lacings. He rode quietly at a trot, stiff and upright in the saddle, never once looking back.
As the Brigade moved forward down the long valley, a sudden hush fell over the battlefield. For a moment gunfire ceased. The silence was so profound that Richard could hear the jingle of bits and accoutrements from all six divisions of the Brigade. They were the finest light horsemen in Europe, drilled and disciplined to perfection. Bold by nature, they had been held in check for hours, burning to show what they could do. Now was their chance. Richard heard Coke behind him encouraging his horse.
Nothing existed for Richard except that moment. Frustrations of the past, dreams of the future vanished. And the high-spirited Legend needed no prodding.
They had advanced no more than fifty yards, however, when an extraordinary thing happened. Nolan suddenly shot from the line, his horse’s hooves flinging turf in Legend’s face. He galloped diagonally across the front.
Captain Morris shouted after his friend, “It won’t do, Nolan! We’ve a long way to go. Hold steady!”
Nolan galloped madly ahead and crossed in front of Lord Cardigan—an unbelievable breach of military etiquette. Nolan turned in his saddle, shouted, and waved his sword as if he would address the Brigade—to turn them back—to countermand the orders he had carried.
At that moment the Russians opened fire. A shell fragment tore into Nolan’s breast. It ripped open his fine blue uniform. The azure wool turned red as blood poured from the wound. The sword fell from his hand, but his right arm stayed erect. His body held rigid in the saddle. His horse wheeled and galloped back through the advancing Brigade. The gruesome specter was shoulder to shoulder with Richard when the stiff mouth suddenly opened. A strange and appalling cry burst forth. Richard felt his blood freeze at the unearthly howl. The horse ran on, carrying the still-shrieking body.
Cardigan never looked around.
But Richard looked. To his right were the redoubts of English guns, which the Russians had captured. The Russians stood ready to meet the English attack. Surely at any moment Cardigan would give the order to wheel and attack. Surely this was their objective—to regain the captured English guns. But no order came. Cardigan rode straight on past the redoubts. It seemed that even the Russian infantry gave a gasp of surprise.
Richard looked ahead. He saw what apparently Nolan had seen and what, incredibly, Lord Cardigan did not see. Their small force of less than seven hundred men was trotting down the valley in perfect order into a three-sided battery of Russian cannon. They were to expose themselves to a cross-fire of the most deadly kind. And they had no possibility of replying. They were to charge a bank of loaded cannon armed only with swords.
Richard looked to each side. Cannon on the left. Cannon on the right. Cannon ahead. Backed by battalion upon battalion of Russian riflemen, battery upon battery of guns. There was no escape. No hope of victory. The only chance was to charge. To break through that wall of death before the cannon could be fired. Recharged. Fired again. And again. Instinctively Richard tensed to spur Legend.
But Cardigan restrained them. They were to advance with parade-ground perfection. “Steady, steady, the 17th Lancers,” Cardigan called. They steadied while the guns boomed around them.
All Richard could see at the end of the valley toward which he rode was a white bank of smoke. From time to time great tongues of flame flashed through the smoke, marking the placement of the guns. Horses screamed. Men cried out. Then another flash. The Lancer to his left clutched his shoulder and pitched off his horse. Jamie Coke moved up to fill the space. A shell hit the plumed hat of the officer riding ahead. And not just the hat, but the head beneath. As each man or horse fell, the column swelled sideways to ride around him and then closed ranks again to resume their straight, steady lines.
Now they were in range of the guns at the end of the valley. Restraint was impossible. The line broke and plunged forward in a gallop. Mad to get to the enemy, Richard seethed. He vowed to take two Russians for each comrade who had fallen beside him. This was to be the sum of his glorious military career. But he would not sell his life cheaply.
Whistling bullets and crashing shells took their toll at every stride. Smoke stung Dick’s nose. His eyes watered. Sweat poured down his face, momentarily blinding him. He leaned close to Legend’s neck as the superb animal tore forward, the long black mane whipping in Dick’s face. The cheers and battle yells of the charging troopers behind and ahead rang in his ears as loudly as the repeated roar of the guns. And then the cheers changed to death cries. Men and horses fell screaming.
Now Richard and those still advancing faced a new horror—riding over the bodies of their fallen comrades—and worst of all, those not yet dead. Richard swung sharply left, barely missing a fellow Lancer attempting to crawl to safety. The ground was so thickly strewn with wounded men it seemed there was no place to turn Legend. He swung to the right to avoid a billow of smoke.
It was a terrible mistake. Through the haze the first Lancer Richard had made friends with on joining the regiment held the bloody stump of an arm out toward him as if imploring help. He swayed in his saddle, then wild-eyed, the man crashed forward, streaking Richard and Legend with his blood.
Richard turned in his saddle at the sound of wildly thudding horse’s hooves. Mad with fear, eyeballs protruding, a riderless, fear-crazed horse bore down on him, seeking leadership. Yet through all the cheers, the groans, the ping of bullets whizzing through the air, the whirr and crash of shells and earth-shaking thunder of galloping horses, Richard had encountered not one Russian to attack.
It seemed years—a lifetime. Yet it had been less than ten minutes since the advance had begun. Now they were within a few yards of the battery. Richard could see the face of a Russian gunner. “Close in! Close in!” Orders rang in his ears. Only a few more galloping strides, and he would be past the guns.
At that moment a mighty roar split the air. The ground shook so that Richard first thought it was an earthquake. Huge flashes of flame shot out from the mouth of the nearest gun. The smoke was so dense it covered the sun.
All went black.
ennifer Neville smoothed the skirt of her gray tweed uniform and pulled herself wearily to her feet. She had already been nursing for nine hours that day—feeding soldiers too ill or too desperately wounded to feed themselves, carrying slops along miles of corridors, changing bandages soaked through and caked stiff with blood, and scrubbing walls and floors in a futile attempt to reduce the persistent stench. And still the sick and wounded continued to pour across the Black Sea from the battlefields of the Crimea to the old army barracks-become-hospital in Scutari. They must do what they could to make ready.
Jennifer and forty-some other nurses had arrived from London with Mary Stanley a few days earlier. Florence Nightingale had been furious. Jenny could still see her delicate features held in control, as rigid as her words. “There is not enough room for the wounded. Where do you expect me to put more nurses? Nurses I did not request. My own forty are crowded into three tiny rooms. There is no decent food.”
“But, dearest Flo, that is precisely why we are here,” Mary Stanley gushed. “We know how dreadful it all is—what a heroine you are. We want to help.”
“I barely have time and strength to train and direct the women already under my charge. I cannot take on a fresh batch.”
But Mary Stanley, her head full of romantic notions of caressing the brows of wounded men and inspiring them to recovery, heard not a word. “Don’t be silly, Flo, dear. We won’t bother you a bit. I shall take charge of my girls. I’m certain it can’t require anything like the fuss you’re making. My girls are all from the very best families.”
“Precisely. I expressly refused to take any young, well-born women for this job.” Florence Nightingale held her ground. “This is no place for anyone with tender sensibilities.”
Mary Stanley laughed. “Flo, Flo, if I hadn’t known you all my life, I would think you were jealous. Could it be you don’t want to share the limelight?”
Florence’s face was a study of control. “Very well. I shall choose nine of your ladies to add to my staff. No more.”
Jennifer had been one of the nine chosen. Now she was determined to make good.
The plop of a small, soft body hitting the stone floor made her jump and shudder with horror. She had learned to stifle her screams, but she couldn’t get used to the sound of rats falling off the walls. It was strange, really, because rats were a small matter amid all the filth and suffering she had seen in her few days here. The rats, however, seemed somehow to symbolize the unbelievable chaos and misery Florence Nightingale and her small band of women were battling.
A soft swish of tweed on stone announced Miss Nightingale’s entrance, swift and assured, as were all her movements. After even longer hours and harder labor than Jennifer had performed, Florence still looked fresh. Her large gray eyes and delicate features were emphasized by the small, close-fitting cap she required as part of the nursing uniform. “I have just received word, Miss Neville. We have another boatload of patients arriving from Sebastopol. We have nowhere to put them. They must lie on the floor in the corridors.”
Jennifer could only shake her head. They already had more than four miles of patients lying almost touching one another—those with cholera and dysentery next to the amputees and head-injury cases.
Florence continued talking as she sorted through the supplies stored in a tall cupboard, all meticulously indexed. “I have sent to town for fabric.” She handed Jennifer a basket of needles and thread. “We will stitch bags and stuff them with straw from the stables. At least that is clean.”
“How many are we to expect?” Jennifer asked.
Florence sighed. “Three hundred—more perhaps.”
Jennifer couldn’t imagine what they would do. Already the wounded lay up to the very door of the nurse’s quarters. But Florence Nightingale never wasted time fluttering. She proceeded in orderly fashion to instruct all available hands in the stitching of pallets. Jennifer chose a chair near a window overlooking the harbor and began sewing.
Light was dimming by the time the
pulled into harbor, but Jennifer could still see clearly enough the pitiful parade begin across the flat quay. She watched it snake its way up the steep precipice toward the hospital. Some—the “lucky” ones—walked alone, supported by improvised crutches or leaning on comrades. Others were carried on stretchers by Turks. Even from her distance, Jennifer could see the red blotches soaking through the rough field dressings of most of the wounds. And she could feel the agony of the injured men being jolted over the uneven ground. She imagined she could hear their cries when, all too frequently, the porters dropped their stretchers and the soldiers fell into the dirt, only to be slung carelessly back onto their conveyances and trundled on up the hill.
Florence glanced out the window on one of her frequent passes to inspect the progress on the pallets. “Those wretched Turks! Why can’t they be more careful? We are fighting for their country, and they handle our dying soldiers more roughly than firewood.”
“And after such a turbulent journey across the sea.” Mrs. Watson, one of the sturdy, middle-aged professional nurses brought to the Crimea by Florence, shook her motherly head. Jennifer looked at the white-capped billows tossing the ships anchored below them in the Bosphorus Strait.
A soft voice on the other side of Jennifer added, “They cram them aboard, three in the space for one, so tight that if one dies, the others must continue to lie with him until they dock. Father, help the poor lads.” Her needle still in her hand, Sister Mary Margaret crossed herself.
Florence nodded. “Yes. Most arrive in such a state of agony they are more dead than alive. I suppose it’s a miracle that any survive the trip.” An anger she seldom allowed crept into her voice. “The matter is simply criminal. On the last landing two died while being carried up the hill. We lost twenty-four on the first day. It should not happen. They should get better here—not worse. So—”
She whirled with a rapid, graceful motion. “Mrs. Watson, Sister Mary, Miss Neville…” She named six more of their group. “Bring all the finished pallets and come with me.” Florence picked up five bags, an armful almost as large as herself, and led the way out the door, leaving the rest of the women to finish the stitching.
They descended the narrow stairway leading from their quarters in the tower and followed Florence down a long corridor with sick and wounded men lying against the walls on both sides. The passageway left barely room to walk, so the nurses had to be careful not to brush the men with the floppy bundles they carried. Jennifer couldn’t imagine where they were going to find room to bed the new arrivals. Their leader seemed to be heading toward the unused bunt-out wing of the barracks.
She was. “I have ordered the women from the washing house to do what they can to make the space usable,” Florence said. “Of course, there is nothing we can do about the hole in the roof and the broken windows, but if the men do not have blankets, I shall buy them with my own money if I have to.”
Jennifer was too out of breath to reply. She had discovered that even in the occupied part of the hospital many broken windows exposed the men to the December air, and many of the supplies had been purchased with Florence Nightingale’s own funds. The normal military channels often failed to provide the bare necessities, or—more maddening—supplies were locked in storehouses, barricaded behind miles of red tape, while men died for their lack.
“There.” Florence led them into a cavernous room with blackened walls that still smelled of charred wood even though the floor had been cleared of rubble and scrubbed clean.