Florence Nightingale needs me.
Lord Tansberry stood on his terrace.
It was dawn.
He breathed in the morning air, savoured the sounds of nature awakening, and cast an eye along the avenue of elms to the iron gates. The gates were chained shut this last week. Today they would reopen.
As the morning sun slowly rose in the east, fingers of light gently caressed the morning dew transforming the manicured lawns into fields of diamonds. The melodic tones of a Song Thrush signalled it was time. With ceremonial aloofness, borne from the discipline of generations of forebears who had adorned the ranks of Britain’s military, Tansberry stepped off the sandstone terracing and strode away from Faversham Hall towards the wood. A Red Deer nibbling on grass shoots lifted its head at the sound of footsteps. Skitterish, the muscles on its hind legs rippled as it shuffled backwards. It was poised and ready to spring to safety; it remained watchful until it sensed the intruder posed no danger. Then, bowing its head once more, it turned its attention back to the grassy nourishment.
Tansberry stopped under a giant oak. The tree he and his brothers had played in as children. He reached out and traced the markings carved with his pocket knife, a childish engraving, declaring his love for Lady Llewellyn. He remembered the brush of her lips and the moment of sheer joy when she had taken his arm and allowed him to lead her deeper into the forest. There they had embraced more fervently. Such a wondrous moment. He closed his eyes and fixed on this image and then placed his father’s pistol against the side of his head and pulled the trigger.
The light tap and opening of the door interrupted Bernice’s daydream. She looked up from her embroidery to find her maid waiting for an invitation to speak. An annoying habit Mary had learned from a previous household and Bernice had found impossible to break. She wished she would be out with it and not waste time.
“Yes, Mary. What is it?” Bernice asked. A harshness to her tone, she instantly regretted.
“A Miss Nightingale to see you ma am. She says it’s urgent, and might she have some minutes of your time?”
Bernice, taken aback, put her needlework to one side. A visit from Florence Nightingale. Such a surprise. So unexpected. In the past months following Bernice’s father’s suicide, she had not heard from her friend.
“Show her through Mary and bring tea. Some cake too. Do we have cake?”
“Yes, Ma am.”
Bernice stood, smoothed her dress and scanned her room. It was small, humble, but tidy. Florence had never concerned herself with matters of affluence. She would not do so now. The door reopened, and her friend swept in, authoritative and larger than life as always.
“Bernie, my dear. It has been so long, and I must ask forgiveness for neglecting you so. It has not been the action of a friend. What can I say? I have had so much to do. So much.”
“Please sit Florrie, Mary is bringing tea and cake.”
“My dear, I have no time for tea and cake. Firstly I ask forgiveness, for I fear my visit might be misleading. I am not here to console you, Bernice. I am not here as a friend, and the good lord knows that is why I should be here, but no, I am here to seek a favour.”
Bernice wondered what it was that she could possibly offer Florence? Her inheritance lost to her father's gambling debts left her and her mother living on a meagre allowance from an aunt. She had nothing of value.
“These are difficult times, and difficult times call for exemplary conduct. Conduct conducive to our station,” Florence continued, “You agree, of course, don’t you, Bernie?”
“I'm sure I do, Florrie."
As young girls, they spent much time in each others company and never in all that time had Florence ever gotten to the point without instilling a pre- allegiance of duty and commitment.
"Are you going to tell me whatever it is you are on about Florrie?"
"I want you, Bernie." Florence pointed her finger at Bernice for added emphasis. "Sydney Herbert, the Secretary of war, has asked me to go to Turkey and establish a hospital to care for our soldiers fighting in the Crimea. I need women. Women I can trust. You know of my hospital work in London?" Bernice nodded. "Now, the authorities believe I can be of use elsewhere. "
Bernice had heard rumours of a possible liaison between Florence and the Secretary of war. Of others, she might have doubted the gossip, but with Florence, anything was possible.
"To war. I am to go to war?"
"Yes, dear. You are going to war. I need you to go on ahead and find a campsite and organize the construction of a hospital. I will train the nurses here in London and have them ready to be effective from day one."
Bernice could not hide her bewilderment. She reached across for her needlework, always a comfort in times of great confusion.
"What do you say, Bernie?"
"How am I to get there? What will become of mother, my lodgings? What of Mary?"
"Your mother is perfectly capable of seeing to herself. After all, she is a Tannesberry. She has strength. You know she has. Mary will see to her. So you see your problem has a solution. You are to be escorted to Istanbul by Captain Maximilian Carruthers of the 13th Light Dragoons."
"Max. Oh No. You ask too much of me, Florrie."
Maximilian's family owned the estate that bordered the grounds of Faversham Hall. Her father had gambled away their home to Lord Carruthers. Worse still, in the spring, her friendship with Maximilian was to change course. Then, they would be engaged, but now, all hope of marriage was gone with the loss of the family home and their family honour. She had accepted her fate and cocooned herself in her cottage in the hope that her self removal from society meant no confrontations with her lost love. Now, the thought of days alone with him on a ship was unbearable.
"You cannot ask me to do this, Florrie. It would be far too painful."
"You must put that to one side, Bernie. Our fighting men are dying. I assure you that a broken heart is less painful than death by cholera or limbs smashed by cannon. The queen demands it, and so do I. It's your duty, Bernie."
Bernice knew Florence would not be denied. Not when she set her mind to it. It seemed her father's suicide and gambling continued to impact her life.
The carriage stopped, and Bernice waited until the door opened. She gasped when she looked up and saw unsmilingly eyes.
"Lord Carruthers," Bernice whispered. She had decided when they met, she would keep it formal. Address him as the nobleman he was and not as Max, the name of her childhood friend. To not do so would embarrass them him. She was no longer his betrothed. Bernice hesitated then accepted the offered hand.
"Lady Tannesberry. Allow me to help you down."
Bernice flushed at the touch of his hand. Her heart raced, and she thought she might faint. It took a moment before she dared look at him. He seemed taller. The thick black hair, now dishevelled from the removal of his hat, framed the ruggedly handsome face she carried with her, always. The closeness to him caused her a moment's anxiety. She must be careful not to betray her true feelings. She had sensed little warmth in his gestures, only courtesy. His lack of emotion left her defeated. Did she now mean so little to him? She had become a duty that he would perform with the utmost chivalry and the manners expected of a gentleman. But his demeanour made it clear, there would be nothing more. Reluctantly, she understood the reasoning. His family would insist he marry a family of worth and she had nothing.
Maximilian said, "We have another guest to accompany us. May I introduce Alfred Tennyson."
The bearded man she knew instantly. Brooding and intelligent, there could be no mistaking the queen's new poet laureate.
"Lady Tansberry, a great pleasure."
Tennyson took Bernice's hand and brushed it with his lips. "The arduous journey will be much more pleasurable having a beautiful lady to dine with each evening."
"I assure you the pleasure will be all mine, Mr Tennyson, having such a famous poet to entertain us. I should love to hear your rendition of the Lady of Shallot. A favourite of mine."
"I shall be delighted. If I can remember it, of course, "Tennyson smiled.
Bernice noticed Maximilian had stepped back and although still near, it seemed a chasm had developed that could never be bridged.
After three days on the HMS London, the pitching and rolling o the giant ship caused Bernice to suffer a bout of seasickness. At night the Captain sent a tray of food to her cabin. The steward retrieved in the morning, the food untouched. The wretchedness of her circumstance threatened her health to such an extent she thought she might die, and now, after three days, she wished she would die.
On the fourth day, it had queasiness had gone. But she was weak, looked dreadful and needed fresh air. So she waited until nightfall, and then under the blanket of darkness, Bernice made her way onto the deck. She manoeuvred herself between two lifeboats until she found the railing. Leaning on the wooden structure, the fresh salty breeze soon soothed her, and her feet gained stability. Her eyes closed as she enjoyed the tranquillity and solitude. She sensed someone behind her and slowly turned.
"Bernice. Please forgive me for the intrusion, but I must satisfy myself that all is well. I am charged with your well being, and we have all missed your presence at dinner. The doctor assured me you had recovered. I came to check for myself. You were not in your cabin. Are you well?"
Maximilian stood so close to her she feared he might see that the last few days had drained the colour from her face. She looked haggard. Why had he come? A gust of wind caught in the rigging of the 26000 tonne Rodney class warship, the giant hulk groaned and tipped its mastheads towards the northern star. She tightened her grip on the rail and fought to regain her balance. Her stomach churned, and she feared she might disgrace herself. In that instant, Bernice despised Maximilian for placing her in such a disagreeable position.
"Lord Carruthers," Bernice whispered, "I fear you have found me a little the worse for wear. I beg of you, let me be and let me surrender myself to the waiting arms of a merciful ocean. "
"The curse of the sea," Carruthers said sympathetically. "You will adjust."
"How much longer before we reach Istanbul."
"In a few days, but we do not stop there. We sail up the Marmara sea, through the Bosporus waterway, into the black sea and onto Balaklava. After a few days, a ship will return you to Istanbul. I apologise for the delay, but my troops must arrive in Balaklava as quickly as possible."
Bernice bowed her head. The thought of so much time at sea was almost too unbearable. So should she jump overboard and end her suffering.
"Might I ask a question, Bernice?"
"Why did you leave Faversham Hall? Why did you leave without a word? Not a note. Such cruelty is not you, Bernice. The harshness of your manner confused me greatly."
"You know why Lord Carruthers. This pretence of ignorance is unforgivable. It is cruel to trifle with my emotions in such a way. You can see I am fragile."
"Your father's death. I understand how painful the loss is, but to leave Faversham. To leave me. We were to be married, Bernice. "
"I repeat Lord Carruthers, to pretend you know not the answer is deceitful, "She whispered.
She dared not turn to face him. He moved closer until his breath was warm on her neck.
"You speak in riddles, Bernice."
"If you truly do not know, you must ask your father."
"My father? What part does my father play? He does not interfere with my decisions."
Maximilian stepped back as Bernice now turned towards him. She could see from his expression he genuinely did not understand.
"My father killed himself because he lost Faversham Hall to your father in a game of cards. Your father demanded that I no longer see or make contact with you and I should find somewhere else to live. If I did not obey, you would be disinherited. It had to be this way, Max. "
Bernice felt her eyes water. "I must return to my cabin. I am tired."
"Not yet, Bernice. It cannot be left like this."
"It can, and you must accept that, Max. It is finished, and if you respect me at all, you will not pursue this matter further."
Bernice pushed past the bewildered Maximilian and rushed back to her cabin. She lay on her bed and wept long into the night.
Bernice’s steps increased in pace as she hurried up the hill. Tennyson, breathless, tried to keep up, begging her to slow down. At dinner on Lord Cardigans yacht the previous evening, Lord Raglan had expressly forbidden Bernice and Tennyson from entering the theatre of war. Bernice would have none of it. Early morning she had overheard a conversation and knew that Lord Lucan carried orders commanding Cardigan to attack the Russian guns. A major battle was to take place. She chose to ignore Lord Raglan’s request. If she could not be at Maximilian’s side, she would be close enough to support him in spirit, no matter what the danger. Tennyson cursed his luck that the woman he chose to escort should not succumb to his sternest protests. He liked spunk in a woman but ventured to believe her high spiritedness might just get him killed.
Bernice reached the top of the hill and looked down at the scene below in awe and dread. Tennyson stood beside her, equally mesmerized. She lifted the spyglass she had commandeered from the Captain of the HMS London and studied the horsemen slowly moving forward. She looked for Maximilian and his 13th Hussars. They were to form on the left flank of Cardigans Light Brigade.
Then she saw him.
Out in front, his sabre drawn and seated tall on Neptune, the horse his father had bought him on the birthday before her father's death. The black stallion cantered. How graceful, Bernice thought. The riders now lifted lances high, and the regimental pennants flickered in the light breeze.
"Oh my god," Tennyson whispered. "This is madness."
"What is it, Alfred?" Bernice asked.
"It’s a valley. A funnel. There is cannon to the left of them, cannon to the right of them, cannon in front of them. These glorious fools are riding into a valley of death.”
Bernice kept her eyes firmly fixed on Neptune and Maximilian as six hundred horsemen moved forward across the valley floor. The rhythmical thunder of hooves was easily heard. The guns as yet stayed silent.
“Look.” Bernice cried. “Someone is riding across Lord Cardigan’s path. Perhaps these are orders to stop.”
The ground in front of the lone horseman erupted. Bernice screamed. The sound of cannon echoed around the valley walls. Lord Cardigan rose in his stirrups, raised his sabre and brought his horse to the gallop. The charge had begun.
“Dear God, please protect them,” Tennyson yelled to the skies.
Time passed so slowly, and yet Bernice knew it must be late afternoon. The sound of cannon had ceased long ago. The cries of the wounded and dying, men and horses, carried across the bloodied ground. Cawing crows had gathered in anticipation of a feast of the dead. Bernice sank to her knees. Tennyson knelt beside her and took her in his arms. Sporadic shooting continued.
“The battle continues, Alfred. Will it never end?”
“It is the Russians. They are shooting the wounded.”
Bernice spun on him.
“This cannot be so. Tell me it isn’t true.”
Tennyson bowed his head and nodded. He was forlorn. Overcome by an all-encompassing sense of hopelessness.
“Maximilian. What if he is only injured?”
Bernice had not cried out when she saw him fall. She had stood tall. He would want her to be brave, to be strong. Expect it. The man she loved had fallen in battle. She must show equal fortitude. She had to match his courage with her own. Maximilian deserved that from her. But to be shot like a dog by a Russian soldier, no, this cannot be allowed to happen.
Before Tennyson could stop her, Bernice rushed down the side of the hill. Rider-less horses stood at the base, waiting for masters that would not return. Bernice had ridden since a child. Reaching for the nearest reins, she mounted and, nudging the horse forward, weaved her way between the dead and dying towards the spot where she had last seen Maximilian.
When she dismounted, she forced herself to ignore the cries for assistance, but the pain in so doing ached to the core of her soul. A torment she knew she would carry forever. But what could she do? So many young men, brave men, had fallen not in victory, not in defeat, but in a glorious display of senseless duty. Bernice wanted to cry at the futility of it all, but tears in this field of horrors would be felt by no one.
Neptune lay beside him.
Maximilian’s left leg was trapped under the dead animal. Bernice stroked her lover’s cheek. Thankfully he looked at peace. She ripped a piece of material from her petticoat and wiped the blood from his forehead. She would carry the message of his bravery and death back to his family. Blood re-appeared on his forehead, and again Bernice wiped it away and then a third time. Suddenly Bernice remembered one of her discussions with Florence. Blood will only flow if the heart still beats. Maximilian was alive. The realization filled her with joy and a renewed sense of urgency. She must get him to safety.
She took hold of his leg and pulled but could not free it from under the horse. Maximilian groaned. His agonized cry spurred her on. The pain from his shattered leg must be unbearable. She lay on her back and wriggled forward until both feet were on Neptune’s side. She again took up Maximilian’s leg and pushed and pulled. For a moment, nothing happened, then slowly, the leg came free.
She scrambled to her feet, looking for the horse. It had gone. Fifty metres away, a horse licked the face of an unmoving soldier. Bernice moved stealthily towards it and grabbed at the reins. The horse came willingly. Now Bernice contemplated just how she might get Maximilian onto its back. Then she heard hoofbeats. She looked up, expecting to see reinforcements. Instead, it was a squad of Russian cavalry. They circled her then stopped. No one spoke. Just watched.
Bernice picked up Maximilian's sabre and held it out in front of her.
“What is a woman doing on the field of battle?”
Bernice turned to confront the man who had spoken.
“Why are you here?” The Russian repeated.
“This man and I are betrothed. He is badly injured. “
“This is not an answer to the question I asked. What are you doing here? This is war. It is no place for a woman.”
“I can only agree with you, sir, but I am sure it is the same in your country. The men make the mess, and the women must clean up after them.”
The Russian roared laughing and then translated to the rest, who in turn laughed.
“I think your intended husband is a lucky man, although maybe one day he might not think so. A woman with such a strong mind will not make for a harmonious marriage.” The Russian smiled. “Today, I think too many have died.”
He turned and yelled an order, and three men dismounted. Bernice steadied herself for the worst.
“Do not be afraid,” the Russian said, “We will not harm you.”
The three men lifted the unconscious Maximilian onto the horse.
“Take your man to safety, madam. Have a good day.”
With a salute, the cavalrymen turned and rode away.
On the hilltop, Alfred Tennyson had looked on in amazement. He had heard of many displays of stoutheartedness before this day, but never such a visual statement of fearless heroism than that of the English Rose that was Bernice Tansberry, standing so strong and so unwavering and demanding respect from an enemy that could do little but acknowledge her act of bravery.
Months passed, and Bernice had grown wearily accustomed to the daily routine of the hospital. Florence continued to battle official indifference to improve the lot of the injured soldiers but to no avail. The medical staff remained overworked and medicines in short supply. Bernice had long since stopped crying, as had the rest of the nurses, powerless to stop the thousands dying of cholera, typhus, typhoid and dysentery. Keeping the overcrowded wards sanitized and the bed linen and bandages cleansed had become almost impossible. So many dead, so many not going home, so many buried in the muddied dirt of this foreign land.
When one day Florence called for her, Bernice made her way slowly to the head nurses tent. Her legs had grown heavy even though she had lost weight. She dared not to look into a mirror, dreading the horror image that might peer back. Slumping into a chair, Bernice, as always, openly displayed her admiration and affection for the indefatigable Florence Nightingale.
“Bernie, it’s time for you to go home,” Florence said.
“There is still much to be done. I cannot leave you.”
“I have received word from London. They are sending a sanitary commission. So it seems my complaining has finally brought its rewards.”
“You could always stir up the broth Florrie. A trait I much admire.” Bernice managed a smile. “What has this to do with me? Are you dissatisfied with my work?”
“My darling, Bernie,” Florence rose from her chair and placed an arm around her friend's shoulder. “Words can never express my gratitude for your efforts. I’m sure the soldiers will be eternally grateful, but dear, you are tired, and I fear, ill. Others are coming. You must go home now.”
Florence turned to her desk and took up an envelope.
“A letter came for you.”
Bernice took it and turned the envelope over. She at once saw the sender’s name. Maximilian. Her eyes watered as she held it to her chest. Then, as she began to tear it, open Florence quietly slipped from the tent.
The train pulled into the station, and Bernice searched those waiting on the platform for Maximilian. Then, finally, she saw him. Standing back from the crowd as was his way, his shoulders pulled back in a military stance, looking handsome and welcoming and showing no signs of his injuries. Her heart fluttered ever so slightly and mercifully quickly returned to its more reliable beat as she rested her hand across her breast, hardly daring to breathe. An overwhelming sense of joy threatened to engulf her, and she felt as if she might faint, but no, now was not the time for such foolishness.
Maximilian’s letter had lifted her flagging spirits.
He had not regained consciousness before being sent back to the hospital base in Uskudar, Turkey. When she had brought him back to the main camp from the battlefield, she had held his hand until forced to relinquish it. When he had gone, she had resigned herself to never seeing him again. In Max’s letter, he explained her new dear friend Alfred Tennyson had especially travelled from London to visit Lord Carruthers and Maximilian. He had related Maximilian’s battlefield rescue in great detail.
Lord Carruther’s gratitude knew no bounds, so grateful was he his son had lived.
Bernice picked up her small valise and bid a farewell to her carriage surroundings of the last two days. She then stepped down from the carriage and ran to the arms of the waiting Maximilian and to her new life at Faversham Hall.