Authors: Donna Fletcher Crow
Tags: #Christian romance, English history, Crimean war, Florence Nightingale, Evangelical Anglican, Earl of Shaftesbury
Jennifer prayed that her Lancer would still be alive in the morning. Then her thoughts returned to her conversation with Florence Nightingale. If only God would speak as clearly to her. What was she to do about the Honorable Arthur Nigel Merriott? He was such a good man. He wanted her to marry him. Her family wanted her to marry him. Was she being wicked and prideful to hold back? Or was she merely feeling normal maidenly shyness?
She knew it was evil of her to think of the horrors of the Crimea lasting one day—even one hour—longer than necessary just so she wouldn’t have to return to London and make that decision. And yet she dreaded the prospect of returning.
A soft plop followed by the sound of scampering feet just inches from her ear told her that a rat had narrowly missed falling on her face. Still, she did not want to return to London.
he next morning Jennifer sped through her duties. She and Sister Mary Margaret were assigned to take breakfast to the men in the corridor below the nurses’ tower and to the ward above and help feed the men not capable of feeding themselves. Although the patients in neighboring beds were always willing to help, Jennifer preferred to do it herself although she could never explain her instinctive dislike of the practice of men with fever and dysentery feeding others. So this morning, in spite of her desire to hurry, she took time with each patient.
Then the slops must be carried out and dumped in the latrines in the yard and the floors scrubbed. Miss Nightingale was fanatically insistent upon cleanliness, although the professional nurses from London hospitals laughed at her finicky ways. “Newfangled ideas. Never did it like this at Saint Bart’s, I can tell you. But what can you expect from one who’s always lived in fine houses? She’ll learn.” In spite of her grumbles Edith Watson stuck her brush into the soapy water and attacked the excrement on the floor with vigor. Rats squeaked as they fled from her splashing brush.
Jennifer finished her duties by midafternoon. She would not be required to assist a doctor in changing dressings for an hour yet. She tucked loose strands of her thick brown hair back into her cap and hurried to the ward where she had spent so much time last night.
Please let him be alive
, she prayed.
She had heard the nurses who had been there longer than herself refer to some of the beds as death traps. “That’s one o’ them fatal beds.” Mrs. Watson had nodded toward one they were scrubbing near a few days ago. “Every man put in it sickens and dies. Mark my words.” Jenny noted that the sulphurous stench of the ward seemed stronger there. Or was it merely her imagination?
And she had recalled Mrs. Watson’s words a few days later when she found the pallet empty. Remembering that, Jenny slowed her steps now as she approached the Balaclava ward. She nodded to Sister Mary Margaret and three other Catholic sisters who were just leaving their duties there, carrying scrub brushes and pails. Inside the door Jennifer’s eyes ran down the row of cots along the wall facing the tall, arched windows. Had it been the fifth down? Or sixth? No, those men were amputees. Seventh? Eighth? Her heart lurched. Both cots were empty.
She felt a sob rise in her throat. Clamping her teeth shut, she suppressed the cry. Among so many, why should she care so much about that one? She forced herself to go forward. She was here. She might as well see if there was anyone else she could help. She felt the pencil and thick pad of paper she carried in her pocket. There was never enough time to write all the letters the men would have sent home for them. She recalled how much her cousin Colin’s letters had meant to all her family. Before they ceased coming.
This was what she had originally thought she would do here. Mary Stanley had painted a romantic picture of holding the hands of brave men, soothing their fevered brows, and writing letters for them. Jennifer would never have come if she had had any notion her time would be filled eighteen hours a day with scrubbing, bandaging, and carrying slops. Nor would her parents, who allowed her to do only the most genteel charity work in London, have permitted her to come. But now she was here. The need was overwhelming, and Jennifer was not a shirker.
At the end of the row was a man with both hands bandaged. “Would you like a drink? Or a letter written for you?” She forced a smile at the sandy-haired man in the red jacket of the Sutherland Highlanders. The papers had been full of the bravery of “the thin red line” just before she left London. Perhaps this man had been one of them.
“Aye, lassie. Joost a wee drink, if ye please.”
The nurses were supposed to make the men feel better. But this man’s gentle voice and kind smile made
feel better. By the time she had refilled his canteen from the bucket of drinking water by the far wall, she didn’t have to force her smile.
And then she saw. Coming in the door was a tall, thin man in a Lancers’ tunic. His head and eyes were bandaged, and he was being led slowly by a man with one arm. Stifling a silly impulse to run to him, she turned instead to refill the canteen of the man in the bed next to the Scotsman. She worked her way back up the row—straightening blankets, filling canteens, and giving encouraging greetings.
The Lancer was back in his cot when she got to him. “Good afternoon, Lieutenant.” She was learning to decipher the ranks of the stripes on their sleeves. “Are you feeling better today?”
He held out a hand in the direction of her voice. “Much better. Thank you, nurse.”
She took the hand. It was cooler. Not yet normal, but cooler.
Thank You, Lord.
“Would you like me to write a letter for you?”
He nodded. “My sister Livvy. She sent me one by the last packet.” He leaned over and began groping for the small box under his bed.
“I’ll get it.” Jenny fell to her knees. In a moment she had the single, closely written sheet. “Shall I read it out to you?”
The wide mouth in the face beneath the heavy bandages smiled. “Please.”
It was a cloudy day, so the room was dim despite the tall windows on the other side of the room. Jennifer held the letter up to the light.
My dearest brother,
You shall be happy to hear that we are back at Greyston Pitchers and shall remain here for Christmas. Auntie GAL fusses over everything as usual. George and Olivia shall join us next week.
May I be the first to send you intelligence of our great news—Olivia is in an interesting condition. Now that will give Great-aunt Lavinia something to fuss over. Papa is less patient with her than usual and spends most of his time at the pottery. Dearest Dick, we read such terrible, terrible accounts of the war. Surely the papers exaggerate. The British military can’t possibly be as inept as they say. Such awful charges against Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan—your very own officers. Please assure us that your wounds are recovering apace. Be assured that we are all well here. I would send Legend a carrot for Christmas if I knew how to go about such a thing.
Your loving sister,
Jennifer lowered the small sheet of paper. For a moment the warm words full of familiar family references had transported her back to her own family in England. She had not realized that next week would be Christmas. For an instant she could smell the sharp scent of pine boughs in the parlor and the sweet tang of spicy puddings boiling in the kitchen. She could feel the welcome warmth of the fire when she came in from the cold, wet street with her arms full of bundles.
“Oh.” She recalled herself to her duty. “Your sister sounds charming.” She drew the pad of paper from her pocket. “What shall you say to her?” She glanced at the envelope she held. “Lieutenant Greyston. Is that right?”
He was a moment in answering, as if he, too, had been caught up in the reading. “Yes, that’s it. Richard, actually. Lieutenant Richard Greyston, 17th Lancers, ma’am.” He made an impatient gesture. “Oh, blast these bandages. Livvy isn’t half so charming as you sound. Why can’t I see you?”
Jennifer gave a small laugh. “Perhaps to save you disappointment, sir. I assure you I am very ordinary. Brown hair and eyes with the usual allotment of eyes, nose, and mouth. Now what shall I write?”
“Oh, tell her I’m well enough and anxious to get back to my regiment, but the doctor’s keeping me under wraps.” Jenny’s pencil scurried across the paper. “Say I’m glad they’re all in Newcastle for Christmas.” He paused. “Congratulations to George on producing an heir.” He turned his head restlessly on the pillow as if searching for words. “And Legend thanks her for the thought,” he finished in a rush. Then he added between clenched teeth, “Heaven knows I hope he does. If only I knew where…”
Jennifer touched his hand in a professional manner. “Lieutenant Greyston, I’ve tired you. Your fever is coming back up.” She gave him a drink of the wine she had brought with her. “Has the doctor ordered drops for you?”
Richard shook his head.
“I shall see what can be done.” She slipped Livvy’s letter and the unfinished one back in his box. “I’m on duty now. I shall try to return tomorrow—or the next day—to finish your letter. In the meantime, keep to your bed. You are not yet strong enough to be gallivanting about the corridors.” She certainly understood the men’s preference for using the privy rather than slop buckets, but it was a vast distance to the yard, especially from the upper wards.
“Yes, miss.” His voice was weak, but there was a note of humor underneath, as if he were mocking her for playing the nanny. Then the note turned to pleading. “But must you go? Am I not even to know your name?”
“Nurse Neville. Jennifer. And, yes, I must go.” She almost ran from the ward and along the corridors. Miss Nightingale was strict about her nurses reporting at the proper time.
With the retreating footsteps Richard’s impatience and despair returned. He was alone again inside the darkness of his bandages. Never during the almost two months he had been in this damnable place had he felt closer to reaching up and ripping them off.
Once when he had been there only a few days, he had started to tear at them and Miss Nightingale had caught him at it. He had received a sharp lecture on patience and obeying doctor’s orders. Then her voice had changed to gentleness. “I realize how wearying and long it is. Burns are very slow to heal, and there can be complications. It is important to leave the wraps on.” And so, with his stiff military discipline, Richard had stifled his urge to reach out and rip and smash, to shout, to do
And the days had passed. He had joined the cheering when news went around the ward that the 4th Light Dragoons had achieved the impossible and silenced the guns at the end of that dreadful battlefield—so he supposed the charge of the Light Brigade would be counted a victory. Yet even as the cheers rang, all in that room remembered vividly the terrible cost.
Night after night the dreadful scene played out again like a magic lantern show on the screen of his bandages: smoke, fire, blood… and then it wasn’t the heat of battle he was feeling, but the burning of fever. His skin burned, his throat burned. He tried to reach for his canteen—or was it his sword? He groped over the rough surface of Legend’s hide—or was it a blanket?
And then one night an amazing thing happened. An incredibly small, soft, cool hand held his. And he ceased groping.
Now he turned his head from side to side as if the motion would make everything come clear. Jennifer Neville, she had said. That had been her hand. And she had given him a drink. And he had slept. But now she was gone. And it was dark.
Richard turned his face to his pillow and tried for perhaps the hundredth time to pray. But the wall was still there. The stone wall he had charged into when the cannon exploded in his face and all the world went dark. The wall that now encompassed his whole world and stopped his prayers.
It hadn’t always been that way. He recalled the end of his second year at university when he and two other gownsmen had gone to the nearby village of Waterbeach to hear the boy preacher who was causing such a stir in Cambridgeshire. Had gone to mock and had stayed to pray.
A large thatched-roofed barn had been turned into a chapel with whitewashed walls, but the crowd was too great to get inside. So the eighteen-year-old Charles Spurgeon had preached in the open air. Richard had recognized a wisdom in the preacher’s simple words—far beyond his years. He couldn’t recall the exact words, but he remembered hearing that salvation was all of grace: love and goodness and forgiveness and mercy and eternal life. Nothing of works or judgment or rules, but all of love and grace. And Richard had responded.
It turned out that they had arrived on an anniversary day for the little congregation, so the preaching service was followed by a most singular event—a baptismal service in the river. Richard, who only a few hours before would have mocked at such unorthodox proceedings, now stood reverently among the vast crowd of people lining the banks of the Cam to observe the baptism of six new Christians.
He could have closed his eyes and thought himself by the River Jordan, but he preferred to remain sharply observant. The simplicity and sincerity of the occasion affected him deeply. When he returned after that to his own more formal worship, he did so with a heart renewed. Two months later he left Cambridge for the Lancers—and the Crimea.
And now all that seemed long ago. He had only one thought—how much longer must he lie here in the blackness? The doctor had come by once or twice. Dick supposed his bandages had been changed—he had a memory of sharp pain and probing fingers—but the words were always the same: “Wait. Burns heal slowly. Complicated by fever. Wait.”
So he waited. But still the fears came. What if it wasn’t just the head wound and burned skin? What if it was his sight? What would he do with his life if he were condemned to live in this dark forever?
And then it was dark again. Dark until the whole world exploded with sharp, swirling light. And he wasn’t sure whether he heard the booming of cannon or only imagined it. But there was no questioning that he did not imagine the searing pain behind his eyes. At those times it required all his willpower to keep from crying out. And then he was glad for his bandages, because they absorbed the tears he could not hold back.