Florence Nightingale needs me.
It was dawn.
Lord Tansberry stood on his terrace. 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 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. Skittish, the muscles on its hind legs rippled as it shuffled backward. Poised and ready to spring to safety, it remained watchful until it sensed the intruder posed no danger. Then, bowing its head once more, the deer turned its attention back to the grassy nourishment.
Tansberry stopped under the giant oak he and his brothers had played on as children. He reached out and traced markings carved with his pocketknife, 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, fixed on this image, 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 brought from a previous household. Bernice 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 her father’s suicide, Bernice 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.
“Bernie, my dear. It has been so long, and I must ask forgiveness for neglecting you. 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. I am not here to console you, Bernie. 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.”
“Really?” A puzzled look settled on Bernice’s face. She wondered what it was that she could possibly offer Florence. Her inheritance lost to her father's gambling debts left she 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 other's 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 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 use these skills 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. You want me to go to war?"
"Yes, dear. You are going to war. I need you to go ahead of me and find a campsite and organize the construction of a hospital. I will train the nurses here in London and prepare them to be effective from day one."
Bernice could not hide her bewilderment. She made to reach for her needlework, recently a comfort in these dark times, but she hesitated and pulled her hand back. She did not wish Florence to witness her loss of confidence brought on by her decline in social status. The downturn had weakened her usual straight-backed resolve.
"What do you say, Bernie?" Florence pushed.
"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." Bernice, despite her mixed emotions, managed to keep her face impassive. Florence read it as acceptance. "Good, it's settled. You are to be escorted to Istanbul by Captain Maximilian Carruthers of the 13th Light Dragoons."
Florence's statement was met with an incredulous stare from Bernice. "Max. Oh No. You ask too much of me, Florrie."
Maximilian's father, Lord Carruthers, owned the estate bordering Faversham Hall's grounds. She and Max had played together as children, and their friendship was to change course in the spring. She and Max were to be married. Then misfortune befell her. Her father had lost their home to Lord Carruthers in a poorly played game of cards. With the loss of the family home and their family honour, all hope of marriage was gone. Bernice, accepting her fate, had cocooned herself in her cottage to avoid any contact with her lost love. Now her friend was commanding her to spend days alone with Max on a ship. The thought of it was unbearable.
"You cannot ask me to do this, Florrie. And you know why."
"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 indiscretions continued to impact her life.
The carriage stopped beside cargo to be loaded on the ship. It was a short walk to the gangway. From her window, Bernice could see an officer on deck waving to men below. The carriage door opened.
"Lord Carruthers," Bernice whispered as she peered into his unsmiling eyes.
Outwardly she appeared stoic, but inwardly her rampant beating heart threatened to burst through her chest. She had decided when they met, she would keep it formal. Address him by his nobleman’s title, not Max. Such familiarity might cause him discomfort.
"Lady Tannesberry. Allow me to help you down," he said. His voice was controlled, and his manner gentlemanly correct.
Bernice hesitated, then accepted the offered hand. Standing beside him, he seemed taller. The thick black hair, now disheveled by the removal of his dragoon’s cap, framed his ruggedly handsome face. Her closeness to him caused a moment's anxiety and she bit her trembling lip to stop it from betraying her true feelings. She had sensed little warmth in his gestures, only courtesy and it 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 that there would be nothing more. She understood why. His family would insist he marry a family of worth, and she had nothing.
Maximilian said, "We have a travelling companion. May I introduce Alfred Tennyson."
The bearded man beside Maximillian, she knew instantly. There could be no mistaking the queen's new poet laureate, brooding and intelligent.
"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. I look forward to your rendition of the Lady of Shallot. A favourite of mine."
Tennyson smiled. "If I can remember it, of course."
Bernice noticed Maximilian had stepped back and although still near, it seemed the chasm that now lay between them was too wide to be bridged.
After three days on the HMS London, the pitching and rolling of the giant ship caused Bernice to suffer a bout of seasickness. At night the captain sent a tray of food to her cabin. In the morning the steward retrieved the tray, 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.
On the fourth day, the queasiness had gone. But she was weak and felt dreadful and in need of fresh air. Waiting until nightfall, 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. Then, she sensed someone behind her and slowly turned. It was Maximillian. She stiffened.
"Bernice. Please forgive the intrusion," his voice tinged with concern." But I must satisfy myself that all is well. I am charged with your well-being, and we missed your presence at dinner. The doctor assured me you had recovered. I came to check for myself. You were not in your cabin."
Maximilian stood so close she feared he might discover how wretched was her appearance. The last few days had drained colour from her face. She looked haggard and her hair was uncombed. Why had he come? A gust of wind caught the rigging of the 26000-ton 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 maintain 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," Max said sympathetically. "You will adjust."
"How much longer before we reach Istanbul?" Bernice asked.
"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 more time at sea filled her with horror. Should she jump overboard and end her suffering?
"Might I ask a question, Bernice?"
She nodded. But did not turn to face him.
"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."
Bernice's hands tightened on the railing. "You know why Lord Carruthers. This pretence of ignorance is unforgivable. It is cruel to trifle with my emotions in such a way." She paused. "You can see I am fragile. You have me at an unfair advantage."
Maximillian moved closer and she felt the warmth of his breath on her neck.
"Your father's death. I understand how painful the loss must have been, 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 said, her voice hoarse and shaking. The confrontation had weakened her. If she did not immediately return to her cabin she might collapse.
And still, she dared not turn to face him.
"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 gathered strength enough to spin on her heel. She glared into his face but could see from his confusion he genuinely did not understand.
She said, her voice flat and sad, "Your father demanded that I no longer see or contact you, and I should find somewhere else to live. If I did not obey, you would be disinherited." Bernice felt her eyes water. "I must return to my cabin. I am tired."
"No, Bernice. The matter between us cannot be left like this."
Bernice said, "It can, and you must accept that, Max. It is finished, and if you respect me, you will not pursue this matter further."
Bernice pushed past a distraught 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. Breathless, Tennyson 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. She had overheard a conversation and learned that Lord Lucan carried orders to attack the Russian guns. A major battle was about to take place. If she could not be at Maximilian’s side, she would be close enough to support him in spirit, no matter 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 believed 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 Cardigan's Light Brigade.
Then she saw him.
Out in front, his sabre drawn and seated tall on Neptune the horse his father had bought him. Maximillion leaned forward signalling the black stallion to transition from a walk to a canter. How graceful, Bernice thought. The riders behind him 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 on the left and to the right of them, and see up ahead a line of cannon they are about to charge. Lady Tansberry, these glorious fools are riding into a valley of death.”
Bernice had difficulty breathing as she recognised the danger. She clasped her hands to her chest and kept her eyes firmly fixed on Neptune and Maximilian as six hundred horsemen moved forward across the valley floor. The rhythmical clopping of hooves was easily heard as hooves pounded upon the hardened surface. The guns 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 blast of cannon erupted into a deadly crescendo and 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 firing 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 turned 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 much from her. And she could not stand by and watch him 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 hill. Riderless 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 reappeared on his forehead, and Bernice wiped it away twice 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 hooves. 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 took up Maximilian's sabre with two hands and held it in front of her. Fearlessly, defiant.
“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.
Bernice gestured with her head at Max ensuring the blade of the sabre remained upright and threatening. “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 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 his men. They joined in the laughter.
“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 watched the exchange. Of the many displays of courage he had witnessed on this day, he would long remember the visual statement of fearless heroism displayed by the English Rose, Bernice Tansberry. Standing so strong and so unwavering, she had commanded respect from an enemy that could do little but acknowledge her act of bravery. ###
Months passed, and Bernice had grown exhausted. The wounded never stopped filling the hospital beds. Her friend, Florence Nightingale, continued to battle official indifference to the plight of the injured soldiers. The medical staff remained overworked, and medicines were 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 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 wearily made her way to the head nurse’s tent. She dared not look into a mirror, dreading the horror image that might peer back. Slumping into a chair, Bernice could only feel shame and inadequacy for not having the strength shown by her indefatigable friend.
“Bernie, it’s time for you to go home,” Florence said.
Bernice gave a slow shake of the head. “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. The soldiers will forever be eternally grateful to you, 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 read, 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 then, mercifully, quickly returned to its more reliable beat. An overwhelming sense of joy threatened to engulf her, and she felt as if she might faint, but now was not the time for such foolishness.
Maximilian’s letter had lifted her flagging spirits. When she had brought him back to the main camp from the battlefield, she had held his hand until forced to relinquish it. He had not regained consciousness before he was sent to the hospital base in Uskudar, Turkey. She had resigned herself to never seeing him again.
In Max’s letter, he explained that Alfred Tennyson had especially travelled from London to visit Lord Carruthers and Maximilian. He had related Maximilian’s battlefield rescue in detail. Lord Carruther’s gratitude knew no bounds, so grateful 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 the start of her new life at Faversham Hall.