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Authors: Katharine McMahon

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

The Rose of Sebastopol (56 page)

BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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As we left the bastion we came up against the first evidence of authority—a British cavalryman on a lofty black horse. “Apologies ladies. Strict orders. No-one is to pass this way.”
“We had a message from Captain Max Stukeley, who we believe is inside the city.”
“Unlikely, ma’am.”
His horse was turned sideways to block the track and he gazed straight ahead, to quell any further argument. Back we went into the bastion and found another track leading down to the city. But here too our way was blocked by a cavalryman. By now we were accompanied by a furious posse of soldiers. “The French have gone in, the Turks have gone in. They’ll take everything. What about us?”
The officer remained impassive while the men retreated and stood at a distance. Nora, however, swore under her breath, took hold of my arm, dragged me behind the horse, and marched me on down the track, with the cavalry officer shouting after us and the band of soldiers yelling encouragement.
The track led past the pitiful remains of a domed church and into a deep ravine running down to the outer suburb of Sebastopol. Along this same scarred track hundreds of Russians must have marched each night at the start of their watch, heads full of the hours ahead, of the boredom and sudden shocks, the prospect of injury or death. Now the only Russians left were the dead. The street was paved with broken shells and shot that crunched underfoot and this sound was oddly clean and comforting compared to the sight of broken houses, the corpse of a man crawled into a doorway, another neatly propped against a wall, a dead horse lying on its side with its torn belly swarming with flies.
“Where do we go?” I cried to Nora. “How will we ever find them?”
It seemed like a violation to witness the city in this state, as if she had once been a gracious woman dressed in fine clothes but was now sprawled naked. The houses were reduced to doorways and window openings, the churches tumbledown and charred, no single building intact as the wind gusted along alleys and sent grit and rubbish skittering against piles of rubble. The deeper we got into the city, the more the streets teemed with French and Turkish soldiers laden with plunder stuffed under their arms or bundled on their backs: petticoats, bits of crockery, icons, garden tools, pictures, chairs, even bed-headboards. For a mad moment I caught an atmosphere of festival.
Beyond the stench of smoke and carnage there was a sudden whiff of brine and I realized that we must be almost at the sea. The road became deserted; no-one was frantically searching from house to house, no more allied soldiers with their armfuls of booty.
In fact a pall of silence had fallen and a few men were clustered round the door of a vast building that looked, from its ruined grandeur, as if it might once have been a civic hall.
A British officer was on the steps and held up his hand. “It’s the hospital,” he said. “You don’t want to be in there.”
“We are looking for Captain Max Stukeley,” said Nora. “Have you seen him?”
We didn’t wait for a reply. Inside were the remains of a grand lobby, the fragment of a balustrade, the shattered head of a plaster cherub. The few from the allied camp who had dared enter had covered their mouths and noses and peered about with outraged eyes; Mrs. Seacole was there, a reporter with a notebook, a couple of officers, an English doctor. Nora and I paused a moment, then stepped in among them.
Fifteen
DERBSHIRE, 1844
 
 
 
R
osa showed me her last secret on a hot, hot day,
when the lanes were coated with dust, even the flies were too crushed by the heat to raise themselves from the hedgerows, and the molten sky sank on the hills like a plump cushion.
She and I were listless and cross with each other because she had suggested a swim but when we reached the pool in the woods I refused to go in. The water looked cool and clean but you could never be sure, and when I dabbled my fingertips a water boatman skimmed away across the surface. “You can swim while I watch,” I said.
“It’s no fun by myself. I do things on my own all the time when you’re not here. We could race each other across if you came in with me.”
“I can barely swim. I only ever try when we go to the seaside.”
“Well, paddle, then.”
“Max will go with you.”
“I want to do things with you to make the most of you while you’re here.”
In the end we wandered off along the path through the birch wood and out onto the hillside.
“Where are we going then?” I said, when we had panted right to the top and could see down into the narrow valley on the other side.
Rosa had twisted her hair into a knot to allow the air to circulate more freely on her neck and her cheeks were unusually pink. She was looking dead ahead and her expression, both obstinate and nervous, frightened me.
“Where are we going?” I said again.
“You’ll see.”
“I’m very hot.”
“It’ll be cool where we’re going. And anyway, it’s not much further.”
But it seemed a very long way to me. The lane wove between dry stone walls to the valley bottom and then into a little copse with a stream rushing over stones. When I looked back I could see we had come far, far down and that it would be a steep climb home. The lane wound on for about another half-mile until we came to a little hamlet of stone cottages and on the left a much larger house, set well back behind high walls and locked gates, which of course proved no deterrent to Rosa.
“Come on,” she said marching down to the end of the left-hand wall and the next second had thrust her way through a gap between it and the adjoining hedge. As usual I had no choice but to follow, and there we were, looking onto the house from an oblique angle at the side of the garden.
“Do you know the person who lives here?” I asked.
“Yes.”
“Are we going to call on them?”
“We might.”
The house was very tidily built with six windows above and four below, arranged two on each side of a white front door under a little porch with three steps leading up to it, an unremarkable house set in what must once have been a well-stocked garden but was now a mass of poppy heads, delphinium, and willow herb gone to seed.
All the windows were firmly shuttered. “They’re out,” I said.
“Bound to be.”
She was very unlike her usual self, neither marching brazenly up to the front door nor making one of her forays into this private place by dashing down the garden. She just stood.
“If you think there might be someone about, could we ask for a glass of water?” I said. “I’m very thirsty.”
“There won’t be anyone. Can’t you tell? The house is locked up.”
“We could try.”
She now set off past a little stable block to a straggly lawn overgrown with dandelions, an ancient swing dangling from the branch of an apple tree, a slope down to the river.
“Where are you going?” I cried.
She didn’t answer, but stood stock-still, looking up at the house.
Sixteen
THE CRIMEA, 1855
 
 
 
T
he hospital was stone-cold,
because its windows had been broken during the bombardment. In the last few days of siege more and more mortally wounded men must have been dragged down here and left to die on pallets, trestles, and stretchers until every available inch of space was filled. They were lined up in their dozens, abandoned during the desperate escape across the floating bridge: the long-dead, the recently dead, and the just-alive, steeped in excrement and blood, some crawled up against pillars or walls in an attempt to separate themselves from the rest, some so long dead that they were in the same state as Newman’s corpse before the Redan. Others still twitched and groaned, their mouths gaped open from the pressure of their swollen tongues.
At one end of the room was a flight of steps leading downwards. We covered the lower part of our faces with our shawls and wove our way across the floor, which was sticky with blood. More bodies had been piled on the stairs and below was an even darker space lit by a pair of guttering candles.
In one corner a British officer sat on the floor with his legs stretched out and his back to the wall. His black, tortured gaze met mine across a waste of corpses. Max, Max. In his arms he held the body of a woman and in his hand, clenched against her shoulder, a crumpled envelope.
I took another step. Rosa in death was as demanding of attention as in life. She was wearing a stained apron over a torn blue dress and her head had fallen back on its slender neck. Her face was upturned, her mouth half open, her eyes wide, and her fair hair hung down like a flag across his red tunic.
“Rosa.” I knelt and lifted her cold hand.
Nora put her fingertips to Rosa’s throat where the pulse should have been. “She cannot have been dead long.”
Max raised her head a little to show us the wound in the back of her neck. “A shell, perhaps, or a rocket. One of our own, no doubt. I found her curled up here, still warm.” He shifted his hand and pressed the envelope into mine. “You were right. Trust Rosa to out-journey everyone else.”
Seventeen
Sevastopol September 6, 1855
 
My dear love, my Mariella,
This I think really will surprise you—first to be hearing from your cousin Rosa at all, then when you see where I am.
Early evening, in a cellar, actually, my current bedchamber, and it could do with a touch of the Mariellas, being somewhat lacking in all the comforts at which you are such an expert. I have been sent by one of the nurses to try and sleep—not even I dare argue with her, she being half again as tall, twice as wide, very fierce. I sit at the bottom of a flight of steps, holding my paper up to the light. We are covered in smoke at present and light of any kind is at a premium.
If I send this, Mariella, it will be out of weakness and I’m sorry. I promised you I’d write often, didn’t I, and your letters of course arrived faithfully each week. But I found myself faced with a somewhat stark choice: silence or lies.
I had made a vow to myself: I won’t haunt her, I won’t pester her, I’ll leave her to imagine that I simply crumbled away like all the other Crimean dead. But I can’t bear you to be grieving and angry with me for disappearing without a word. So here’s my word. This war is hell, start to finish. And now I have been just a little too bold for my own good and put myself beyond reach. There is a way out, we’ve watched a bridge being built to the north of the town, but I can’t cross it because I am pulled back again and again for another glimpse of the British camp. I need to see the lights from the campfires and the occasional flash of a scarlet uniform. I like to imagine that even though I don’t want him to, there is a chance that Max, the enterprising and valiant, will find me, and bring me back.
I have come to the end of the world, and it is a bitter end. Despite what I have written above, I discovered that I couldn’t stand my own kind any longer. The British fumbled carelessly into this war, never mind the consequences, and go on killing and killing because that’s the habit they’re in. So here am I, living the consequences. We’ve run out of everything: doctors, bandages, medicines, but still the wounded are hauled from the bastions and the shelled buildings and we can’t send them away or do anything for them. Cholera rages. I don’t have clean water. All I am is a hand to hold while a man dies.
I have this idea in my head of my wretched stepbrother Horatio inspecting his lead works and sifting through a crate-load of ammunition with his damp fingers. Then he writes in black ink
SEBASTOPOL,
charges an extortionate price, and sends it across the sea. I sit under the splintering sky and think I am Rosa, I am nothing except a soft bit of flesh on which one of Horatio’s bullets will fall.
You came to the railway station and waved me good-bye, dressed in your best bonnet and bravest smile. But I saw your face dissolve, like one of my watercolors, and as the train drew out of the station I knew I was loved. I mattered then.
But whatever you do, don’t be sad or sorry that I haven’t come back. Remember this is what I chose.
Are you married? Are you snug behind the polished oak of your new front door? Has Henry made you happy, Mariella?
I saw him on the battlefield, perhaps he told you. He was far from being himself. I wish I knew that you are happy. To Henry you are a constant. I know this because I have been guilty of the same thought. But do you want to be a constant? I have watched you when you’re roused—in the carriage when we drove back after our visit to the hospital, the look in your eye when you turned on me—and I am frightened and excited by what might happen next. Max called it the power of the needle. She awes me, he says, because I do not know, nor does she, what she is capable of were she to put all that energy elsewhere. You ensnared us both, you know, we sat in his hut at night under the clamor of shelling and tried to conjure you up.
I think I will send this letter after all. I think I must. I know an officer who could take it over the water and see it safely dispatched to London. I thought I could bear to disappear but I find I can’t. It’s too late, Mariella, I reach out my hand, I listen for your voice and I can’t find you.
So I allow myself the comfort of knowing that your deft fingers will unseal the envelope and draw out this page, that you will sit with your feet pressed together and your back straight, but leaning very slightly forward, as you do when you are concentrating, the light falling on your carefully parted hair, and when you’ve finished reading you will fold the letter in your lap and pick up your sewing again.
But for a while longer I will exist, I think, in each of your immaculate stitches,
Rosa
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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