March a novel, p.23

March: a novel, page 23


March: a novel

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  There were troubling things here. Much as I did not want to hear, I knew I must listen, and sift them for what specks of fact they might yield. For a while, he muttered incoherently, and then seemed to find himself in the midst of battle, urging comrades on one minute, trying to fetch them back the next, ducking his head, clutching at my arm as if he would drag me away from an imagined shower of shot.

  I had not seen a nurse in the fever ward, but as he began to cry out loudly, a stout woman with a pasty face and small, deep-set eyes bustled to his bedside. Without any word to me she threw her thick arm behind his shoulders and raised him up. He groaned, her roughness clearly causing him pain. I uttered a little cry, and she glanced at me with disdain. She prised open his ulcerated lips and forced a spoon of some viscous mixture into his mouth.

  “What do you give him?”

  “Laudanum,” she replied curtly. “We cannot have noise in this ward. Fever patients must have quiet.”

  “What other medicines is he receiving?”

  “You’ll have to ask Surgeon Hale about that,” she said, already turning away.

  “I have brought with me some bottles of good old wine, and some lemons, and the makings of rice water. Perhaps I could—”

  “That’s all very well,” she interrupted. “But you’ll not give him aught till you see the surgeon.”

  “And when will that be?”

  “When he gets here!” she snapped. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s more than one sick man in this hospital.” And with that she turned her back on me completely.

  I was so exhausted and in such a condition of nerves that tears sprang to my eyes. I tried to tell myself that the nurse was overextended, and did not mean to be unkind. But I think if my state had not been so utterly depleted I might have followed after her and given her back a dose of her own bitter medicine. Instead, I just sat there and watched over him, as the laudanum pushed him down into a deep place, where I hoped he was out of reach of the demon dreams that pursued him. I was sitting there, still, when Mr. Brooke came to fetch me away.

  A blast of icy wind hit us as we stepped outside, but I gulped it greedily after the torrid air of the hospital. Mr. Brooke was apologizing for the quality of the lodging he had secured and the fact that we would have to walk to it. I had told him that I would not permit any of Mr. Laurence’s money to be spent on my account; the old gentleman had been generous enough already. I had the money I had begged from Aunt March, and-the twenty-five dollars dear Jo had bought with the sacrifice of her beautiful hair, and no idea how long the modest total might have to last me. As a result of my insistence on economy, the first several tiers of lodgings were barred to us, and Mr. Brooke had found himself turned away at every affordable boarding house or set of rooms he had applied to. At last, he said, he had found us beds in a private residence, “a poor enough place, but respectable, I feel sure, and not such a very great distance from the hospital.” At that point, I thought any covered comer where I could close my eyes would do.

  The city, Mr. Brooke explained, was brimming with all those who might profit from the great armed camp it had become. The war seemed to have drawn hither every class of person. Accommodations were filled with correspondents and sketch artists from the newspapers of every state; by furloughed officers on the prowl for promotion; by embalmers and coffin makers, teamsters, rum-jug sellers, and, so he had heard, not a few swindlers and confidence tricksters. Although Mr. Brooke forebore from mentioning it, a few steps from the hospital door we encountered members of perhaps the largest class of war profiteers: the women’s army of the Magdalenes.

  Two girls waited in the shadows, hoping perhaps for trade from the convalescents. Under their hectic face paint, they looked no older than Meg or Jo. The young flesh indecently laid bare by their low-cut gowns was blue with chill. “Poor children,” I murmured. Mr. Brooke colored, and said nothing. I turned my face away from his embarrassment and gazed at the Potomac, where moonlight gleamed on a white steamer, tiered like a wedding cake. Hospital ship? Troop carrier? I could not tell. We turned up an alley that led to a canal towpath, to be greeted by a reek even worse than the hospital’s sour stench. The canal was lined by tiny row houses, whose occupants evidently used it as the repository of every waste product, human and animal. Just as we passed a fish peddler, he heaved a pan of bloody offal into the murk. Mr. Brooke’s apologies had been, as I said, incessant, but when he stopped at one of the canal-side houses, a narrow, two-story cottage of rosy brick only slightly less dilapidated than its neighbors, my heart sank.

  The door was opened to us by a pale woman with a long, angular face, plainly but respectably clad in widow’s black. She bore, already, the fate I feared. Mr. Brooke introduced me to Mrs. Jamison, who greeted me in a low monotone and ushered me inside. The tiny house had no hall; we entered direct into a spare little room which might once have claimed the title “parlor,” but now was converted into a two-bed dormitory, the cots separated by small, improvised screens which failed to conceal that one of the beds was already occupied. “Mr. Brooke will share this room with Mr. Bolland, who works as a copyist at the treasury. You will room with me, in the attic, Mrs. March. There is a privy in the back, if you would care to use it before you go up.”

  I had not eaten but a mug of broth all day, and I had no appetite, but kindly Mr. Brooke had bought some oysters and a loaf of bread, which he insisted I take, though I had to eat perched on the single ladder-back chair by the room’s meager fire. There was a kettle on the hob, and Mrs. Jamison poured me a basin of hot water for my toilet. I went to the drafty little outhouse, closed the door, and, alone for what would be my only moment of privacy, gave way to sighs of self-pity.

  How different my life should have been, if our fortune had not been lost so completely! I had never blamed my husband for squandering all on Brown’s ventures: I had no right to do so. The money he advanced was his entirely, the product of his own labors and sage investments, and the cause, surely, was dear to us both. Yet it bit at me cruelly that he had not even consulted me in this, a matter that touched me so nearly and had such large consequences for us all. I had tried to bear the small insults and indignities of poverty, even to embrace, as he did, the virtues of a simple life. But where he might retire to his study and be wafted off on some contemplation of the Oversoul, it was I who felt harassed at every hour by our indebtedness and demeaned by begging credit here and there; I who had to go hungry so that he and the girls might eat. Oh, he gardened to put food on our table, and chopped wood for others when the larder was truly bare. And what praise he won for it: “Orpheus at the plow,” Mr. Emerson hailed him. (No one thought to attach such a poetic label to me, though I might wear myself to a raveling with the hundred little shifts necessary to sustain us all.)

  I had grown used to this state in Concord, where we had the help of friends and the elevation of a good name. But I could see that it would be a very great deal harder to be poor here, where I was unknown, a vagabond, and friendless, save for Mr. Brooke. Sitting in that privy, assailed by yet more evil smells, the thought occurred to me that if my husband were fated to die, I would be obliged if it happened sooner, so that I could depart this scene of squalor. The second the notion formed itself, I wished it unthought. Exhaustion was my only poor excuse.

  I bathed my face and arms in the welcome warmth of the water and returned to the cottage. The treasury copyist was already snoring like a beast, and I felt a pang for poor Mr. Brooke. I made my way up the stairs to my narrow iron bed, where the mattress was the thickness of a floor mat. At least, I noted gratefully, the threadbare coverlet was clean. I barely had the strength left to undress. I was just about to lay my head on the single, mildewed pillow, when a piercing cry came from below.

  “Hey-y-y-y-y, lock!”

  It was a bargeman, rousing the lock tender. With despair, I realized that these cries might well punctuate the night.

  Whether they did or no, I cannot say, for the thought was barely formed befor
e I fell into the deep sleep of the truly spent, from which, I think, no sound on earth could have roused me.



  I will not say I awoke refreshed, but when I opened my eyes to gray daylight it was with considerably more fortitude than when I had closed them. Sleep is a great mender of spirits, and as I looked around the bleak little room, I was able to manufacture some cheer by thinking of all the ways its deficiencies might be turned to advantage. It had become a habit of mind to start each day so; I had schooled myself to do it ever since the turning of our fortune into dust. It stood me now in good stead as I enumerated the cracked panes in the casement windows, and told myself that they at least afforded healthful ventilation. The blotchy-looking glass, no larger than a handspan, would be too small and dull to reflect the frightful truth of my worn appearance. The extreme discomfort of my bed would assure that I spent every available hour fruitfully, in the waking world.

  So resolved, I rose, and found my landlady and fellow lodgers already up and about their business. Mr. Brooke had left me a note stating that he had gone out early to tend to some commissions for Mr. Laurence, which he thought could be addressed in an hour or two. He asked that I wait for him, but I could not. My desire to see how my husband had passed the night was too pressing. I wrote a brief note of apology, loaded my pannier with some of the wine and tonics I had brought, and set out for the hospital.

  I had to pick a careful way over the piles of unshoveled mule droppings that lined the towpath. It was cold, yet not cold enough for snow. I longed for a blizzard such as we had at home: how improved would be the prospect if the incessant drizzle could only turn to pure flakes that would bury this city’s muddy imperfections under a clean white quilt.

  I had not thought to inquire if the hospital had set times for morning visits, and as I approached the sentry I wondered whether I should be turned away to await a certain sanctioned hour. But I need not have worried: the hospital’s corridors were, apparently, open to all comers, and staff carrying trays of bread, meat, and soup had to weave between all manner of civilians: some, haggard and anxious, evidently relatives; some, the bustling and self-important agents of relief societies and others who seemed to have no business but to gawk and weary the wounded men with all manner of tactless and impertinent inquiries.

  I climbed the stairs with heart thumping, wondering in what condition I would find my husband. Few of the curious souls downstairs bothered to ascend to the fever wards; wounds, I expect, were more exciting. My husband’s ward was deserted, save for the patients. I caught my breath when I saw him. He lay thrashing, all tangled in a disarray of bedclothes, his sheets smeared with the watery green excretions of his illness. On the low stool beside his bed stood a bowl of soup, untouched of course, and cold, with a thick layer of grease floating on the surface. No wonder he was so thin. If no one had been troubling to feed him in his delirium, he must have been going without nourishment entirely. There were no nurses or attendants of any kind in the ward.

  It was clear that if my husband was to be cared for, I should have to do it myself I took off my cloak and bonnet, and pushed up the sleeves of my dress. I spoke as soothingly as I could as I worked the bedclothes from around his thin limbs. As I stripped the noisome sheets and bed gown, his body was laid bare to me. I had not seen my husband’s body in more than a year, and even then, never in so unprivate a manner, in the harsh light of day. The sunken chest, the pallor—all of this was pitiable. I thought of the young limbs that had enfolded me, years ago, on the pine-scented pond shore. How the strangeness of his flesh-hard and muscled from a youth of physical labor-had surprised and aroused me. Knowing almost nothing, then, of the circumstances of his upbringing, I had expected the soft hands of a wealthy pen-pusher, but his had been the roughened touch of a working man. And now here he lay, all wasted and unrecognizable, too frail even to withstand an embrace.

  I realized then that I had no idea where to find clean bedding, a basin, warm water, sponge-clouts, or any of the things necessary to ease him. So I drew the coverlid, which had fallen completely off the bed and therefore was not soiled, over his poor body. Then I gathered the befouled bundle in one hand, picked up the plate of cold soup in the other, and went in search of help.

  As ill luck would have it, the first person I encountered was Nurse Beady-Eyes from the previous evening’s terse exchange. She saw me coming and stood in my path, arms planted on her ample hips.

  “If you would be kind enough to direct me-”

  Before I could finish my sentence, she began her harangue: who did I think I was, upsetting hospital routines, and putting my needs above the other desperate cases ...

  I folded my lips tight and tried to keep my composure, drawing on the years of discipline imposed by the half-dead man I sought to help. I let her say her piece, and when she had done I asked again, politely, where I might find supplies. She pursed her mouth and told me I would have to wait ... “perhaps some hours, till the grave cases are dealt with.”

  “Grave cases!” I exploded. “My husband is nearly in his grave, thanks to your neglect! Kindly tell me where the linens are-now!”

  “I’ll not have you address me that way!” Her voice had gone up an octave. “Orderly!” she cried. “I’ll have you put out on the street!”

  All the times, all the very many times, I had been forced to thwart and stifle my own nature seemed to gather together then, in that hot and dismal corridor. I heard a rushing sound in my head and felt a pressure in my breast, like floodwaters rising behind a flimsy dike. Before I knew I did it, the soup bowl was rising in my hand as if elevated by some supernatural force. Then, its yellow-gray contents were running down the nurse’s pudgy face.

  “Wipe yourself with that!” I cried, thrusting the green-smeared sheets at her. “And then tell me that a human being should spend ‘some hours’ in such filth!”

  “Orderly!” she was hysterical now. “Help me! I am being assaulted!”

  I do not know what would have happened if some swaggering man had appeared at that moment in the corridor. But the youth who limped into view was a pale convalescent, wincing with pain at every step he took.

  When he asked me, gently, to come away with him, all the anger flowed out of me, and I followed meekly.

  “I-I’m afraid I will have to retrieve my cape,” I said. “I left it ...”

  “Never you mind that, ma’am. I’m not fixin’ to turn you out, don’t you worry.” He led me down the stairs and into what must have been a servery in the building’s hotel days. A kettle steamed on the room’s small stove and he poured me a mug of tea made of lime rinds and huckleberry leaves.

  “Drink that and you’ll feel better by and by,” the man said kindly. “We jus’ needs to git you clear of Nurse Flynn for a spell, that’s all. She goes off duty shortly. We all of us knows she’s a right terror, that one. All that fine talk ’bout caring for the serious hurt ones... Truth is, she don’t care for no one t’all. Just struts round the place tellin’ the convalescents what all work to do, and some of us ain’t fit to be up out of our own beds anyhow.” He stirred the mug and handed it to me. “Fact is, plenty people in this place gonna be right glad when they hear what you done. She had it comin’, right ’nough.”

  The orderly, a private, wounded in his thigh during the Peninsula campaign, told me to stay quiet and that he would return for me directly Nurse Flynn went off duty. “And don’t you worry ’bout Chaplain March, ma’am. I’ll git someone to see to him, or I’ll do it meself, if I has to.”

  The good young man went out and I felt the great relief that simple kindness can work. It is a salve of the spirit, surely. Then, of course, I began to repent my outburst, and hope that word of it would not come to Mr. Brooke, whose good opinion I would not lightly cast away. Just as I was beginning to fret and to pace about the confines of the little closet, a scratch came at the door.

  “Come!” I said, expecting the young orderly. Instead, a sober-faced
, middle-aged man clad in the black suit of a minister opened the door.

  “Forgive me. Mrs. March?”

  “Yes?” I said, feeling a weight of guilt descend upon me, for at that moment I was sure that the hospital chaplain had come to rebuke me, as my own husband had always done, in the aftermath of my rages, and to deliver a humiliating lecture on the proper comportment of a gentlewoman, a wife, a mother.

  “I am sorry to intrude upon you, ma’am, but I have certain of your husband’s things. One of the nurses who was detailed to transfer the patients from the Red Rover gave them to me for safekeeping-things do have a habit of vanishing in this place, you see. One might blame certain little black imps that dandle round the laundresses, but one mustn’t add to the afflictions of Africa, must one?” He gave an arch look and a rather stupid grin. Apparently the man was attempting some kind of witticism. I made my face a stone to convey my disapprobation.

  He cleared his throat and went on. “When I heard you had come I thought you should have them.” He had a very small, brown-wrapped packet in his hand, which he held out to me. I took it with thanks.

  He was already turning to go, but I stopped him. “Chaplain?”

  “Yes, ma’am?”

  “Can you tell me anything about my husband’s condition-how he came to be evacuated on the ship? For his last letter to me gave no indication that he was ill, or in any particular danger.”

  The chaplain had a good face for his profession, mobile, easily able to adopt the moment’s required emotion. His mouth turned down, registering sympathy. “It is so often the case, I fear: bad news comes suddenly to near kin, because those who love them try to spare them hard truths. Apparently your husband had been ailing for some time, and much weakened, before he succumbed to his present violent illness. And there was a skirmish of some kind, that caught him up, but of that I have no details. All I know I have from the nurse; you should speak with her yourself, for she talked about your husband’s case at some length with the sisters who nurse on the Red Rover.”

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