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Authors: Katharine McMahon

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

The Rose of Sebastopol (55 page)

BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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F
or three days, as the bombardment of Sebastopol
went on and on, I left the cholera ward only to eat and sleep. When I emerged into the light I squinted like a kitten and sucked in the clean air. But even had I been a free agent there would have been no walking up to Cathcart Hill to find out what was going on. Apparently the allied commanders had at least learnt one thing from the June defeat: that a cluster of spectators on the hills not only drew enemy fire but their attention to the fact that significant moves were afoot. There were whispers that renewed attacks were planned on the Redan and the Malakov for September 8, and that once the bastions had been taken the allies would march onwards into Sebastopol.
I heard nothing from Max, though I so longed to see him that every time a door opened, I heard a male voice, or saw a red tunic, I was convinced it would be him.
“Well now, why on earth would a captain in the British army be sending messages to you at a time like this?” demanded Nora. “Whatever it was that went on between you that day you have come back soft in the head, I see. Just you be careful with that Max Stukeley.”
“I don’t want to be careful. I’ve always been careful.”
“Well then, I think the pair of you deserve each other, is all I’m saying. In fact, I would go so far as to say I envy you, Mariella Lingwood, but I only hope that your heart does not get broken in the process.”
During the night of September 7, the weather changed so suddenly that I woke up in the small hours rigid with cold and had to pile on layer upon layer of clothing. In the end I gave up trying to sleep, wrapped myself in my thickest shawl, braced myself against an icy wind, and went to the ward, where I found an orderly attempting to light the stove for the first time since spring. Yet, despite the cold, Mrs. Whitehead’s condition had improved; her lips were no longer purple and her breathing was steady.
It was not until I had hugged my patient and rushed away to fetch a bowl of broth and have a requisition signed for extra blankets that I noticed another great change: silence. No guns. There could be no further doubt that the renewed assault on the Malakov and the Great Redan were about to begin.
All that morning we worked distractedly and spoke in whispers as we waited for news. The first account came from the orderly who brought the breakfast bread and coffee and told us that during the small hours British and French troops had piled forward into the trenches. “Of course they had to start going down way back in the early hours, because the passageways are so narrow they’ll only take two abreast. And they say the men could scarcely walk for the size of their packs—two days’ worth of rations. The idea is that they will race up the sides of them bastions and then on, right through to Sebastopol.”
I was sure that Max would have gone forward with his men; I imagined him confined to the trench, the agony of his injured leg, the beetly damp of the earth walls, the whispered orders, the exchange of banter. Last time he had survived less than three minutes before having his leg half blown off. This time he would be so slow. What chance did he have?
The next news came from Mrs. Whitehead’s doctor, who had been up at headquarters the previous day and was smugly in possession of every last detail of the plan of attack. He told us that the French sappers had dug their trenches so close to the Malakov that troops would be able to step out under its very walls and spring a great surprise on the Russians. Then, as soon as the tricolor was flying over the Malakov, the British were to break out of their trenches and charge the Redan.
Just before noon we gathered on the windy path outside the huts and heard the volley of fire signaling the French attack. Ten minutes later we saw four rockets shoot across the murky sky, said to be a sign that the British should begin their assault on the Redan.
I went back to work; I fed Mrs. Whitehead arrowroot flavored with lemon juice, I changed her sheets and bathed her face, and still there was no more news.
Then word was passed from ward to ward that a messenger had come galloping up to warn us of the imminent arrival of ambulance wagons. Though the Malakov had been taken by the French, the British had again failed in their assault on the Redan. Just as before, when the troops emerged from the trenches they had been picked off in their hundreds by the waiting Russians. At six o’clock the number of casualties was confirmed: ten thousand allied soldiers, thirteen thousand Russian.
By midnight the hospital was awash in so many wounded men that even I was allowed to work among them provided I stayed close to Nora and did as I was told. I pressed tourniquets onto wounds pumping blood, I dripped water into gasping mouths, I held up bleeding limbs to be dressed. It seemed to me that I must be soaked to the neck in blood and every time I knelt by a stretcher and looked into another suffering face my heart missed a beat in case it might be Max.
If a door was opened the wind bit our skin and tore at the flames in the oil lamps but we hardly noticed. Nor did we lift our heads when a series of explosions blasted into the night and brought terror into the dull eyes of our patients. And at four o’clock in the morning, when the earth shook with yet another great blow, I hardly gave it a thought as I fell into my bed, even though I did not believe, given all I had seen and all that I may have lost, that I would ever sleep again.
Fourteen
I
woke a couple of hours later to silence;
outside my hut, the hospital was shrouded in an autumnal mist. When I reached the ward I saw that Mrs. Shaw Stewart was stooped over Mrs. Whitehead’s bed and I hesitated, fearing a relapse, but my patient was fully conscious and though feverish was able to drink a little tea. Mrs. Shaw Stewart, who had probably not been to bed in twenty-four hours, took one look at me, told me I was in no state to be on the ward, and sent me to the laundry store to audit our depleted stocks.
I unlocked the door, watched a rat scuttle into a distant corner, and then began counting sheets. My teeth were rattling as I went through pile after pile, checking and rechecking as the numbers slipped from my head. If Max had been in the forefront of that attack on the Redan he could not have survived—with his wounded leg he would have been a slow-moving target for even a novice. I remembered his long, warm limbs, the firmness of his hands, the heat in his eyes when he kissed me. And I remembered the wreck of Newman’s body pinioned to the abatis.
Gradually I became aware that the path outside was clustered with men looking at the sky above Sebastopol and when I went among them I heard the astonishing news that during the night the Russians had fired their own bastions, including the undefeated Redan, and evacuated every single living soul—about ten thousand civilians and soldiers—across a floating bridge extending from the south of the harbor to the north. Then, once the last man was safely over, they had burnt the bridge behind them.
The men spoke to each other in low-voiced disbelief: our generals, for all our massive superiority of fire-power, and even though, with full control over the bastions, they could easily have driven the entire enemy army into the sea, had allowed the besieged Russians to escape and done nothing to stop it. So there were the Russians snugly entrenched in the north side of town. Meanwhile, the south of Sebastopol, emptied of all its inhabitants, was ours.
Some men were smiling at the news, others cursed the generals for allowing the bastard Russkies to escape, others were too exhausted to react at all. I went back to Mrs. Whitehead and bathed her hands and neck.
What had happened to Rosa?
All that day Nora and I asked everyone who’d listen whether they’d seen Max, but there was no word of him. She gave me a pair of tweezers and showed me how to pluck squirming maggots from a festering gash in a man’s shoulder. I removed the bandage from a bleeding stump and swabbed the wound. For half an hour I sat beside a boy who had no visible mark on him but whose fingertips gradually turned black and who died wracked by homesickness. As the freezing wind gusted through the huts and blew the flies into oblivion we stoked the inadequate stoves and piled more blankets round our shivering patients.
At midday I scribbled a note to Max Stukeley of the Ninety-seventh Derbyshires, and gave it to one of the drivers.
There was no end to the trail of ambulance wagons and as the day went on the condition of the injured men whom they brought grew worse. They had been plucked out of the trenches and from the deserted bastions, some so horribly burnt by gunpowder that there was not an inch of skin that hadn’t been blasted away. One man, Laidlaw, had lost half his spine from a shell-wound but was in an elated state, convinced that he’d been floored by a slight blow to the head. When I gave him a sip of lemonade he smiled at me fondly.
“Miss Lingwood, ain’t it?”
“Yes, however did you know?”
“Seen you up at the camp. Rosa’s cousin, they said.”
“You’re with the Derbyshires?”
“That’s it.”
I managed to utter the name: “Captain Stukeley?”
“Couldn’t say what happened to him, ma’am. I seen him up on the Redan waving his arm and hollering for us to follow. But not all of us could. The Russian fire...”
“And then what?”
“Next thing I know I’m lying in a ditch under a dead man.”
I was called away to another patient. When I went back to look for him Laidlaw was being carted out to be lain among the other dead.
At three in the morning we were sent to bed but I sat in the hut with my hands clenched and my head full of the wounds I had tended. Laidlaw haunted me more than any other, with his ragged smile, the way he had sailed into death all unknowing. When Nora came in half an hour later she said not a word but held out her hand. She was holding a scrap of paper, the note I had sent up to the Derbyshires’ camp. On the back was scrawled the word:
Sebastopol
.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“Well, for heaven’s sakes, girl, it means that she’s there, just like you said, and he’s gone after her.” She tied on her bonnet, tore a blanket off her bed, folded it in half, and flung it round her shoulders.
“Nora?”
“If Max has gone to Sebastopol then we must follow. He will need us.”
We packed our baskets with lint and bread and water, hunched our shoulders against the bitter dawn wind, and set off down the path into Balaklava, which was the quietest I’d ever seen it, as if the ships themselves were sunk in a torpor, then on up past the General Hospital, where hundreds of lamps were burning, and into the camp.
Although it was only days since I had last ridden this way with Max, everything had changed. In the waking camp men emerged from their huts with an air of slack despondence and beat their sides against the cold. Fires were coaxed into life, pots clattered, but the men were gray-faced and uninterested. As we walked on we seemed to gather a train of men after us, all heading for Sebastopol. More and more men overtook us until we came to the deserted trenches and looked over the plateau towards the smoking bastions.
We were confronted with bands of swirling gray: the strip of sea, the pall of smoke over the city, penetrated occasionally by fire, the blank sky. Nora and I locked our arms together and stepped out beyond the British defenses. The trek across land pocked with shell-fire, in the teeth of a blistering wind, felt insanely reckless: it was like being on a shore where the tide has suddenly pulled itself incomprehensibly far out but may at any moment come rushing back to engulf us. Towards us came wagons laden with the dead and a dejected group of Russian prisoners, escorted by a party of jaunty Frenchmen.
Now it was all too clear why the British had sustained such a crushing defeat under the Redan. Our trenches ended some eighty yards from its towering sides and our men must have been mown down, a few at a time, as they clambered into the open. And the Redan was preposterously steep-sided. How had anyone hoped to scale it under the Russian guns? How had Max, with his injured leg? The stench of corruption was powerful and the sides of the Redan were littered with scaling ladders and other pathetic remnants of the British assault—broken guns, caps, boots, knapsacks.
The feeling grew on me, as we scrambled up the side of the Russian bastion, that I had somehow got myself into the wrong side of a looking-glass and it was as if we visitors to that reflected world were intruding on intensely private territory. Although most of the dead and all of the wounded had been removed from the inside of the bastion, the stink of decay was appalling. The inner defenses, a warren of earth and stone works, had been reduced to heaps of broken guns, charred gabions spewing broken rocks, bits of clothing, boots and hats, and a few scraps of individual men’s lives: a torn slip of paper, a crust of black bread, a kettle, and a red handkerchief. On the far side, set deep under the Redan, the door to a bomb-proof shelter swung open and a soldier emerged grinning because he’d found a cage containing a little yellow bird.
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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