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Authors: Katharine McMahon

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Historical

The Rose of Sebastopol (34 page)

BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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“Look,” she said, “that is where the Battle of Balaklava was fought. You’ll have heard the stories no doubt.”
When I moved my head the pain shifted as if it was a stone rolling within my skull. I couldn’t equate this wide valley edged by low hills with the scene of the headlong charge by the Light Brigade into the very teeth of enemy fire, as described by
The Times’
correspondent.
“My friend dear Lady Paget’s husband was the unsung hero of that day,” said my guide. “When every other senior officer had been killed or sloped off to safety, he alone was left to rally the men and bring them back along the valley. Now come and look the other way.” She turned her horse, trotted a little distance further up the hill, and pointed ahead. “Sebastopol.”
The name of the city quickened my blood because of its qualities of mysticism and notoriety. There, spread before us, was the source of all the trouble, the focus of the world’s attention, the city under siege. It was both a Holy Grail and an enemy hell, we wanted it and we hated it, and here it was at my feet with the blue sea glinting beyond. What lay before me was so orderly and distant that I might as well have been watching a giant board game except that from one of the squares came real puffs of smoke.
Sebastopol—Henry had spelt it
Sevastopol
and pronounced it to me as Sebas-TO-pol—was a sprawling port, built mainly on the southern side of a wide estuary and on several smallish jutting peninsulas of land. This was why, in an unsuccessful attempt to surround it, the allies had spread themselves so far. In front of the city were the Russian defenses, artificial hillocks heavily fortified on top, linked by what looked like, from our viewing point, low walls or ditches. Between our hill and those Russian batteries were walls of sandbags which marked the snaking trenches of the allied forces, French mostly, said Lady Mendlesham, the British were sandwiched in the middle facing some of the worst fire. The Turks, the thankless crew for whom we were fighting, were an ill-disciplined lot, according to her, and not to be trusted, and the Sardinians were dug in somewhere back there—she waved her left arm at some hills behind us—but better at playing music than fighting.
She surveyed the scene with the proprietary air of a squire’s wife overlooking her estates, produced a little telescope from her pocket, and peered through it. “You’ll get used to the names of the Russian bastions, the Mamelon, the Great Redan, the Malakov, and so on. They are the bane of our army and the Russians are tireless in maintaining them, like beavers. No sooner do we make a bit of headway in breaking them down than they come sneaking out to build them up again. If you look hard to the north you’ll see a line of spikes across the harbor, masts of the battle ships sunk by the Russkies to prevent us invading. And then beyond is our navy. D’you see?”
The telescope gave me sudden circles of close-up vision. Once I had adjusted the lens I saw that Sebastopol had white churches and gracious civic buildings with massive walls and windows. It seemed wrong to bombard a city with domes, apartments, and parks, a bit like attacking a woman in petticoats and starched cuffs. The harbor looked like any other with ships and smaller boats steaming busily inland or moored in the docks, except that nothing sailed past the ghostly barrier of masts at the harbor mouth. And all round, neat as worm-casts thrown up in the sand at low tide, were walls and barricades of stone, earth, or wood, some many feet high, all of them bristling with black dots which I presumed were guns except in one place where the dots were blue, yellow, and white, and seemed to float above the walls.
“What are those colors over the Russian defenses?” I asked Lady Mendlesham.
She took back the telescope, fiddled with the lens, and snorted. “Impudence. The Russian women like to fly their kites on the barricades. It’s supposed to be a gesture of defiance but I don’t believe a bit of it. The Russian defenses are crumbling as we speak, they’ve got a quarter the number of our guns, the ones they do have are out of the ark, and their morale is rock-bottom. After all, they hadn’t reckoned with the British spirit.”
“But it all looks so well established.” I shaded my eyes as I squinted at the floating flecks of color. “How are they surviving if the city is barricaded like this?”
“They won’t survive for long once we’ve cut off their supply routes. Like I say, now Kerch is down they’ll really feel the squeeze.”
The earth convulsed and from the ground between the allied and Russian lines came a rapid volley of rifle-fire answered immediately by a burst from the French batteries.
“What’s happening?” I cried.
“They fire all the time. The Russians are mean little fighters. But they should watch out. We’re all waiting for the final bombardment. You’ll see. One day soon we’ll be up and over those walls and then we’ll flush the Russians out like rats from a water pipe.”
“When will the bombardment start?”
“We are waiting for orders from on high. And the trouble with being allied to the French is that just at the very minute we think their generals will finally act, along comes a telegraph from Napoleon insisting that everyone change their minds. The French never could stick to any one idea for long.”
The low sun burnt on the brim of my bonnet, a skylark scooped an arc in the sky above me, and a soft breeze brought a waft of sea air, gunpowder, and dinner cooking. My right leg, hooked over the pommel, was numb and my head was shot through with migraine.
As I watched, the brilliant blue of the sky deepened and the sun sank a little lower. Then there was a shattering explosion from the allied trenches and balls of fire crackled over the Russian bastions to the north.
“And Inkerman,” I said at last, though I found I could hardly speak the name. “Where is Inkerman?”
“Inkerman?”
“My cousin Rosa...”
“Ah, Inkerman. Over there to the north, do you see, beyond the river. Those low hills actually mark a complete change in landscape, a treacherous bit of land, deep quarries and ravines, caves, some man-made. We fought a battle there, the bloodiest of the war by all accounts—it was before my time. Inkerman is just outside the Russians’ last defenses.”
“Can we go there?”
“Certainly not. Much too far. And dangerously near enemy lines.” There was another shattering explosion, and another, sending up a spray of earth a hundred yards ahead. “We should go,” said Lady Mendlesham, turning her horse’s head. “Things always hot up towards nightfall and I have a dinner with my...” An ear-splitting bombardment burst over the Russian defenses, my pony bolted after Lady Mendlesham’s horse, and my head was filled with spatters of light.
Though we had left the camp only half an hour ago everything was different when we returned. The men were now in uniform, fully armed, and hustling themselves into columns—battalions, said Lady Mendlesham. There was an air of controlled hurry, shouted orders, a scurrying about between the huts as if an ants’ nest had been disturbed and an entire colony was preparing to march. Lady Mendlesham’s head swiveled from left to right. “What is happening? Has there been a raid? Is there news? Just a moment, my man...” But nobody stopped, even for her.
From Sebastopol came a steady jabber of cannon fire and the June sky was extinguished by violent snatches of light and a slow drift of smoke. My ears were ringing and my wretched pony began to shuffle and drag his head from side to side, sprang about on the spot, and kicked his heels so that the pain in my head thundered. “Lady Mendlesham,” I shrieked. “Please help me. I don’t think I can...”
“We must get back to the harbor at once,” she cried, smacking her horse sharply on its flank. “If there is to be a bombardment, why wasn’t I told?” She disappeared in a cloud of dust and I tried to follow but my own pony had other ideas or rather was too maddened by the racket to obey orders of any kind. He bucked and careered from tent to tent, faltering over guy ropes and then, as there began the rhythmic pounding of marching feet behind us and a devastating cannonade to our right, panicked in earnest.
I screamed at him to stop and dragged frantically at the reins, tearing at his mouth as he plunged his head down then up. The reins went suddenly slack but before I’d the wit to gather them he was plunging forward again, so I lost my advantage and he was free to vent his frenzy by careering off the track altogether and galloping towards the guns, except that every time there was an explosion he zigzagged away. I bounced up and down on his back, each sobbing breath catching in my throat, my hands clenched on the reins, my thigh muscles aching with the effort of holding on to the saddle, and my flesh battered remorselessly as I landed on hard leather. Then, with every downward thump, I began to slide until in the end I couldn’t bring myself upright at all and was clutching the saddle with both hands. Dimly I saw that the grass was scattered with bits of shot, and cannon balls rolled about as if left over from some demented bowls’ match, that we were approaching a column of men and that ahead of us reared up a barricade of some kind from which smoke was pouring and guns were battering out fire. At last the pony realized his mistake and pulled away towards Balaklava and for a few minutes we flew on and on until we were almost back among the tents but I couldn’t keep a grip, the saddle twisted out of my gloved fingers, and the next second I had slid sideways, was tossed up by the movement of the pony, and landed with a crack on the small of my back that knocked the breath out of me and threw me back on my elbows.
Time stopped. My spine seemed to have hit my ribs and I could only croak and watch the sky splinter and feel the ground shake with the boom of cannon and the rack-a-cack of rifle fire. My back arched, the sky went black, no breath would come, only a grinding from my tortured windpipe. Then suddenly my elbows gave way, I was flat on my back, and I breathed again. The sky reformed into deep evening blue and at eye level were grasses and little grape hyacinths.
I lay still for several minutes, so fearful that some part of me was broken that I hardly dared test my limbs. The astonishing thing was that nobody seemed to have noticed my fall, which was a relief, given that my skirts were rucked up round my waist. Eventually I turned over onto my stomach, brought myself to my knees, and tested my body. All in one piece. Then I stood upright on the unsteady ground, kept my head averted from whatever horror was going on in the trenches and beyond, and began to walk to Balaklava. There was no sign whatever of my pony.
With the first step pain collected itself together in my head and began to pound, only this time it shot tentacles into my stomach, stirred them about, made me retch, then stagger to one side and vomit into the grass. I sat down heavily and buried my burning head in my hands. Was it the fall that had made me sick? Fear? Typhus? No.
Cholera
. It must be. At last it all added up. The headache, the raging thirst, the sickness, the delirium. Cholera. Henry had taught me the signs, in fact everyone in London was stalked by the symptoms. And in the Crimea, we’d heard, the cholera was even more voracious; a man could be eating breakfast at eight in the morning, dead by lunchtime.
The odd thing was I felt relieved. At least I wouldn’t have to go back to Narni and face Henry again or return home and deal with my parents’ reproaches. But in the meantime I obviously couldn’t just die there in the middle of the allied siege of Sebastopol, so I stumbled on. A lock of hair tormented me by dangling in my eyes, my bonnet had fallen sideways, but I had no energy to untie it and my leg muscles had been so stretched by the saddle that they could hardly support my body. After half an hour or so I found myself in Kadikoi and then began the slow trail back to the top of the steep incline leading down to Balaklava Harbor.
Once in the little town, I skulked past Barnabus’s office, praying that he was not working late that evening, and came at last to the
Royal Albert
, as glad to see that verminous little steamer as if it had been my own dear Fosse House. I put my hand on the rail, climbed aboard, and fumbled down to my cabin, which was in pitch darkness. I groped for a taper, took a flame from an oil lamp in the passage, lit the lantern in my cabin, seized the pitcher of stale water, left since morning, and drank deeply. Though my bed was rumpled and hopping with fleas I lay down fully dressed but the instant I was horizontal the cabin rolled about and shook loose the contents of my stomach again.
I reached for the washbowl, then staggered up on deck to empty it. Wretched Nora. The headache was driving skewers down the side of my face. How many hours had I been ill? One or two? So I had at most four left to live and during those hours my stomach would evacuate its contents, then would come the agonizing cramps and vicious sweats. I was surprised, when I glimpsed my face in the scrap of mirror, that though I was streaked with dirt and very pale I didn’t yet have the livid complexion of a cholera victim.
Then I noticed that behind my reflected image three slips of paper had been pinned to my cabin wall.
The first was a transcript of a telegram.
Come home. Immediately. You must. It is arranged. P. Lingwood.
The second, in a neat official hand, was from Barnabus.
 
June 6. Encl. your father’s telegram. Have agreed that you should leave on first available ship. The
Wellington
sails for Gallipoli 9.00 a.m. tomorrow. Have secured passage for you and maid. Kindly be onboard in good time.
The third was in a woman’s well-formed copperplate:
 
Dear Miss Lingwood,
We have your companion, Mrs. McCormack, up with us in one of the hospital huts. We regret that she is very ill, not like to last until morning. She asks would you kindly bring her things, that she would like to have around her.
God bless you, Miss Lingwood.
Sister Doyle at the Castle Hospital
 
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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