March: a novel, page 24
“I will do so; you are very kind. If you please, of which nurse should I inquire?” My heart sank, dreading that he would say the name Flynn.
“Clement is the name, I believe,” he said. “A Negro woman from Virginia-a slave, they say, though you would not know it from her address. She is generally in the surgical wards, assisting Dr. Hale. Remarkable, really. He seems to prefer her to the gentlewomen nurses. Perhaps he finds a slave more biddable.”
Ordinarily, I would have bridled at such remarks from the lips of a Union chaplain. But all the fight had gone out of me, and I was grateful for the man’s small courtesies.
“Thank you, chaplain. I will seek her out directly.”
When he was gone, I stared at the small parcel in my lap. My husband had left Concord with a trunk of gear; books and tracts and song sheets for the men; needful things for camp life, his ever-present journals, the lap desk the girls and I had given as his parting gift. In the months of his absence, we had sewn and knitted tirelessly, replenishing his stores of clothing. I pulled at the string, wondering what tiny part of all of it had survived.
The paper opened with a crackle. Inside was a battered leather folder, a square of filthy fabric, and a small silk pouch. Of the three items, I recognized only the latter. I closed my hand over it, thinking what its contents must have meant to him, that he had kept it close through all, and then I slipped it into my bodice. I opened the leather folder. There were greenbacks inside: how extraordinary that no one had pilfered these. Behind the cash was the hard metal edge of an ambrotype. I drew it out. The girl depicted was a stranger. Since my husband had not written to me of any white women in his acquaintance, her identity was a bafflement.
I was baffled, also, by why anyone had troubled to retain the square of filthy cloth, and was about to feed it to the stove when I noticed the hemmed edges. They were irregular in a way I recognized. Jo never could stitch an even hem; her mind was always wandering off to the plot of her latest story, so that her sheets and kerchiefs had a kind of meandering scallop to their edges. I had often teased her about her rococo needlework. I smoothed the blue-green square upon my knee and smiled. It was, surely, one of the scarves we had made for the Negroes, so many months since, from the donated remnants of old ball gowns. What a journey this little fabric scrap had made! And then I looked more closely, and the mystery deepened. I realized that the black smudges upon it were not random stains but the smears of what once had been words, written, it seemed, with charcoal. I turned the cloth this way and that, but try as I might, I could not decipher them.
Not long after, the gentle orderly, whose name was Cephas White, came to fetch me. “Your enemy has left the field,” was how he announced himself He had a most endearing smile, despite the fact that one of his front teeth was broken quite in half But there was a drawn look about his mouth and eyes that spoke of suffering. As we made our way back through the bedlam of the lower wards, I took the liberty of asking about his wound and, when he commenced to answer me, swiftly wished I hadn’t.
“They fetched out the ball all right,” he said. “I was lucky: it missed the bone and I never did bleed that much. But it tore up the muscle pretty good I guess. I was on the mend fair enough till a week or so ago, an’ they had me to lift a big man what couldn’t turn hisself. The flesh hadn’t knit just right and it tore open. They’s put a big poultice of damp bread on it, and that does seem to make the pus pour out, which they say is a good thing, though it sure don’t smell so good ...”
His words, underlined by the reeks of the ward, conspired to make me feel quite faint. But that was weakness; if he, after all, had to bear his wound, I could at least bear to hear of it. I strove to master myself I told young Mr. White not to trouble himself by unnecessary stair climbing, wished him most sincerely a speedy recovery, and then turned to go up to the fever ward.
What a change had one brief hour wrought! My husband’s bed was dressed in snowy linens, the sheets pulled crisp and creaseless. His head and shoulders were propped high on large, full pillows, so that he breathed without the terrible, labored rattle. A nurse-the tall black nurse I guessed was Clement-was bending over him solicitously. How fortunate! I thought. I should be able to ask her what she knew of my husband’s history and condition. As I drew closer, I saw that she was feeding him some broth.
Her back was to me. I was about to speak, to utter my thanks for her kind attentions, when she set the spoon in the empty bowl, raised her hand, and smoothed back a lock of his pale hair. She tucked the lock, and then her hand turned, where it lay on his crown. She ran the back of her fingers slowly down his cheek, her thumb traveling lightly over his lower lip.
No. That couldn’t be. I must have been mistaken. That was the gesture of a lover, not a nurse. I blinked hard and told myself to stop imagining things. But when I opened my eyes it was to an even more astonishing sight. He was raising his wasted hand to her dark one and clasping it to his lips. Then his voice: a rasping whisper. “Thank you, Grace, my dear.”
I did not know what to do. Part of me, relieved at his return to consciousness, wanted to run forward, to embrace him. Part of me wanted to flee the room, the building, the city, the memory of that intimate caress.
Before I could do either, Mr. Brooke burst through the doorway with a joyous cry. “I met the surgeon in the hall and he said that Mr. March is returned to consciousness! And so it is! Sir! How wonderful to see you better! Our prayers are truly answered!”
Grace Clement had stepped back from the bed with a quick, neat movement that gave no evidence of awkwardness. She busied herself taking up the tray of broth and bread crusts and swept silently away with them.
His smile, when he recognized me, was his smile after all, despite the changed condition of his face. He reached out a trembling hand-not the hand that had touched hers-and I took it.
I had rehearsed this moment in my mind a thousand times, during the lonely nights and anxious days of his absence. I had thought that to see him again, alive, would be all I could ask for in the world. I had imagined the touch of his hand, the joyful weeping.
Well, there were tears. His, and mine also. But how could I have foreseen that the tears I shed on our reunion would not be tears of simple joy?
River of Fire
He was too weak for speech. The effort of even a few words sent him into agonizing spasms of coughing. I told him to hush, but he fixed me with his fever-bright eyes. “So much to say...” he whispered.
All I said was that we would have plenty of time-“a lifetime, to speak, when you are better.”
“Seeing you makes me better...” he rasped, and then the coughing fit seized him. Mr. Brooke had left us alone, in his tactful way, saying that he would go directly to send a cable, as the girls should not have to wait an extra minute to learn the good news. Another nurse, neither Clement nor Flynn, but a sensible woman of about my own age, came at last to administer his medicines. To my inquiries, she replied civilly that he had been on a course of calomel, which she gave me to understand was a powerful drug made with mercury and quinine, both of which were standards in the treatment for fever and pneumonia, and also laudanum “to ensure rest and help to bind the bowels.”
I sat with him, watching the drug work quickly in his depleted body. His eyelids were closing. There was a terrible agitation within me. There were things I had to know. I was aware that I should exercise forbearance. But as I watched him slipping again out of consciousness, it came to me that perhaps I would not get another chance. And I could not live without the truth.
I leaned close to him then, and whispered: “That nurse, Grace Clement. There is something between you, isn’t there?”
His eyelids fluttered but did not open. “Something...” he repeated. His words were a sibilance. I had to bend close, so that I was just inches from his face. “Long time ...” Suddenly, his eyes opened fully. He stared at me, and yet through me. His pupils were dilated, so that I looked into an immense,
His eyes closed again. There was no more. The drug had pulled him far away. I shook him gently, then roughly. I heard his teeth, loose in his inflamed gums, chatter in his head. Realizing what I did, I fetched my hands back like a guilty child and thrust them behind me. I stood up. I had been holding myself so hunched and tense that, as I straightened, the muscles in my neck and shoulders protested. I paced to the end of the ward and back again, and then sat down and drew out the small silken pouch. The touch of my girls’ hair, I thought, would soothe my troubled spirit. The first curl I recognized as my own. Then Amy’s golden cornsilk fell into my palm. Then Beth’s, Meg’s, and Jo’s-dear, generous-hearted girl, who no longer possessed a single curl on her head as long as this one—I smiled, but the smile died on my lips. For another curl had fallen from the bag. It lay in my hand: a tight-sprung ringlet, black as night. Negro hair. Her hair.
I am not an innocent. I know how people can be tempted. Adultery is a most commonplace sin. Did I not watch, for years, and from too intimate a vantage, how Henry Thoreau and Lidian Emerson were tortured by their desire one for the other? Even the best of us can fall. I know all this. And therefore I had to know the truth of my own situation. What had he meant: My love? Was he addressing me? Or did he mean, as I feared, that she was his love? Only two people in the world could enlighten me, and since one of them was incapable to do so, I should have to apply to the other, no matter how awkward the encounter.
But as always happens when one sets out with an absolute necessity of locating someone, Grace Clement was not to be found. I walked the surgical wards, then climbed again to the fever wards, but no one had seen her, no one knew where she might be. Eventually, I applied to Cephas White, whom I found carrying away spent dressings from the wounded wards.
I explained that the chaplain had recommended I speak with Nurse Clement, since she had been in the party that brought my husband from the hospital ship. He regarded me over his grisly bundle and shook his head. “The white nurses, now; I could tell you where to find ’em.” He winked at me, and gave me another snaggle-toothed grin. “There’s dormitories for them up in the attics here. But I’m pretty sure there ain’t none of the dusky ladies up there and I ain’t at all sure where they rooms is ... Maybe you could ask the laundresses? They’d surely know.”
Mr. White hobbled with me down the hall and pointed out the laundry. It stood across a cobbled yard at the rear of the hospital and announced itself by billows of steam that hung low in the chilly outside air. I had not fetched my cloak and so I shivered as I hurried across the courtyard until the humid heat of the laundry enveloped me as I stepped inside. What I had not reckoned with was finding myself in a dead house. The laundresses’ duties evidently included washing the bodies of those soldiers whose battles had finally drawn to an end, and the first room of the laundry was set up for this purpose. One corpse-a double amputee, I noticed, before I turned my eyes away-lay naked on a trestle as an elderly Negress plied a cloth over his abbreviated body, carefully cleaning around the stitches that had failed to hold the life within him. Two more ravaged bodies lay waiting for her attentions. She was singing as she worked, which struck me as unseemly, until I realized that what she sang was a hymn. Her voice was deep and resonant. In the clouds of steam that issued from the coppers beyond, I thought she seemed like a large black angel, serenading the man to heaven. Beside the table gaped thin plank coffins, waiting for their cargo. She looked up from her work and smiled at me, and asked how I did. In truth, I did badly, and could not stand there and banter across the bodies of the naked dead. I wished her a good day and pressed on, holding my skirts high off the wet floors, to the room behind, where several women toiled over washboards and mangles while their infants tumbled about like puppies, sliding on the spilled suds that slicked the floor.
The women looked at me curiously and so I blurted out my query. “That one?” replied an older laundress, straightening up and pushing a fist into the small of her back. “That yaller woman don’t bide with the likes of us.” The woman working the mangle caught her eye and the pair of them laughed.
“I worked here since this place was a hotel, and them days we roomed up in t’attics. But they needs them rooms for the white nurses now, so we’s all got give the shove, and we has to sleep down in the boiler room, yes’um. But that yaller girl take a look down there and wrinkle up her itty-bitty nose.” The woman pinched her own broad black nose and tilted it into the air, provoking general hilarity. “Not good enough, no ma’am, never mind she come direct from being a slave on over the river. So the doctor done give her a place in his own house, big ol’ red mansion on up the hill a piece. And way dat ol’ man looks at her, we reckon she ain’t sleeping in the servant quarters, if he let her sleep at all!” The other women convulsed with laughter.
I felt the color drain from my face. What manner of a woman was my husband entwined with? I was trembling with anger as I strode back into the ward, retrieved my cloak and bonnet, applied for directions to the doctor’s residence, and set out to find it.
The drizzle had turned to a drenching rain. The fallen leaves, rotted into a wet brown mash, slicked the soles of my boots so that I slid and skidded as I toiled up the hill. Water sluiced off my bonnet until I could not see my way. I tore it off impatiently and pressed on bareheaded, regardless of propriety. I had been careless pinning up my hair, in my haste to be at the hospital, and now I felt the sodden skeins unloose and dangle about my shoulders. By the time I reached the top of the hill and mounted the steps to what I deduced must be the doctor’s mansion, I was soaked.
The liveried Negro who opened the door was so appalled by my appearance that he took an involuntary step backward. My manners made no better impression than my looks.
“I want to see Nurse Clement!” I blurted angrily.
He was a good servant; his impassive face betrayed distaste only in a swift downturn of his lips. “One moment,” he said, and closed the door on me.
When it opened again, a tiny, silver-haired woman regarded me. She was richly clad in mahogany silk trimmed with a pale lace tippet. “Good gracious!” she said. “You are soaked through! Do come in and get out of the rain.
“Markham, please take Mrs.-I’m sorry; what is your name?”
“March,” I said.
“Please take Mrs. March’s wet cloak and bring her the robe from the Chinese room. And be kind enough to ask Hester for some tea.”
“Very well, Mrs. Hale,” the Negro said, holding my dripping garment as if it offended him.
“Do step in here, Mrs. March, and warm yourself.”
The parlor was very fine, with swagged velvet draperies and a marble mantelpiece surrounding a deliciously hot fire. I stood there, dripping onto the wine-colored carpet.
Mrs. Hale waited until the robe had arrived and been reluctantly accepted, and the tea set down by Hester upon a low table of polished marble, before she turned a direct green gaze upon me and asked, firmly but not unkindly: “Would you be good enough, Mrs. March, to say what has-prompted this extraordinary call?”
I set down my tea dish and stared at my hands, which were blue with cold and trembling. “My husband is very ill. We had a telegraph from Dr. Hale; he summoned me to Washington. I arrived yesterday. Today, the chaplain told me that Nurse Clement knows the history of my husband’s condition. I-I am anxious to learn of it. That is all.” I looked up. The cool green eyes regarded me steadily.
“And you did not think it could wait until Nurse Clement, who works with my husband for sixteen to eighteen hours every day, was on duty at the hospital? You had to invade the privacy of her dwelling and intrude upon her few scant hours of respite?”
I felt the sting of her words as an errant schoolgirl feels the slash of the ferrule. My voice, when I answered her, was small. “My husband’s condition is very grave. I have to know the truth so I might be better able to help him.”
“I think it is you, Mrs. March, who is w
Her eyes traveled from my wet head to my sodden boots. “I do not think I shall disturb her unless you care to be more frank with me.”
I looked down at my boots. Scuffed, muddy. A piece of rotted leaf clung to the left sole. The right had a hole in it, and the water had wicked up my stocking. Mrs. Hale would not speak to me so, I thought, if my attire did not so plainly cry out “Poverty.”
I felt the fury rekindling itself How could my husband have set me in this humiliating situation? I raised my head. But the sharp words died on my lips. Grace Clement had come in, soundlessly. She stood just inside the doorway, clad in her simple nurse’s dress of dove gray wool, her hair tied up in a spotless white rigolette, her hands clasped calmly before her.
“It’s all right, Emily. I am quite prepared to receive Mrs. March.” The silver head turned sharply. I saw that her chignon was held in place by a diamond clasp.
“Grace, my dear, are you certain? It is not necessary that you-”
“Please, Emily. It is really quite all right.”
“If you say so, but—”
“Really, it is better so. I should like to set Mrs. March’s mind at rest.”
“Very well, my dear. But call me if you need anything.”
They spoke to each other like equals, like sisters. This was hardly the manner of a gentlewoman dealing with her husband’s fancy piece. I flushed, ashamed. I would not have listened to envious, malicious gossip from the mouths of white washerwomen. Yet I had been willing to hear and believe it from black
Mrs. Hale rose and excused herself On the way out, she took Grace’s hand in hers and pressed it. Grace, who was much taller than Mrs. Hale, leaned down and kissed the older women’s cheek.