Lady With a Lamp
by Marina J. Neary
Florence rubs her temples, breathing unevenly, trying to harness her anger, then sits down on the bench vacated by Rebecca and pulls out a letter from under her blouse, fans herself with it.
FLORENCE (mutters to herself): You’d better start reading my letters, Sidney. What sort of people have you sent here? The nurses dread the sight of blood, and the surgeons like it a bit too much. How am I to establish a hospital?
A coarse cough is heard. Enter Dr. Grant, rolling down the sleeves of his shirt that is stained with dried blood and dirt.
FLORENCE (savors the sound of coughing): I hear hundreds of coughs every day, but yours has a distinctive low-pitched undertone that reminds me of...
GRANT: A bear’s growl? (Chuckles tiredly) After nightfall my ursine nature emerges. Did I miss a mutiny?
Grant goes to check on the patient.
FLORENCE: Some of our colleagues take too much pleasure in their profession.
GRANT: Dare I guess: Timmy Bennett delivering another tirade?
FLORENCE: A perfect tyrant at age twenty-two! Imagine, being so young?
GRANT: What would I know about such things? I’ve been forty-nine my entire life.
FLORENCE: Rest assured, Dr. Grant, at this pace, I’m not far behind you.
Grant examines Martin and realizes that the whole hand is missing.
GRANT (mumbles under his breath): Damn that scrawny butcher... He took the whole hand!
FLORENCE: Who sent him here? He was just a barber from Manchester. I wonder how many customers he slashed in his life. This is what infuriates me. People come here because they have failed at everything else.
Florence’s eyes widen.
FLORENCE: A rat! I won’t have you infecting my patients, you nasty vermin.
Grant turns around. Florence grabs a broom and chases the rat across the floor, corners and beats it. Florence holds the rat up by the tail.
GRANT: Is this your heroic deed for the day, Miss Nightingale?
FLORENCE: This, Dr. Grant, is material evidence that I shall enclose with my next parcel to England.
GRANT: Save the rat for the next time we run out of provisions. I’m not joking.
Florence discards the rat and wipes her hands.
FLORENCE: I’m still waiting for dressing gauze to be delivered. Soon I will have to tear strips from the hem of my skirt to bandage wounds.
GRANT: If it’s any consolation, I have an audience with Cardigan tomorrow. I have no idea why he summoned me, but I’ll be sure to plead on your behalf.
FLORENCE: With Lord Cardigan? I wouldn’t let my hopes soar.
GRANT: At least I’ll see the interior of his infamous yacht. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch a whiff of his brandy. It’s been a long time since I smelled quality spirits.
FLORENCE: I honestly don’t know how much longer I can hold the fort. The hospital looks like a butchery, even after all my efforts to create a civilized medical establishment. I waste too much time writing letters that make no difference at all.
She sits down on the bench, exhausted.
GRANT: When was the last time you slept?
Their hands brush. Florence notices that Grant’s hands are hot and frowns.
FLORENCE: Good God... Have you been laying hot bricks?
GRANT (nonchalantly): No, I’ve been laying cold corpses. Forty in a day! The chaplain needed a helping hand. We wrapped them all in sailcloth and laid them in rows, based on ascending rank. Tomorrow will be a perfect day for a mass burial — cold and clear.
FLORENCE: How can you predict such things?
GRANT (gestures upward): I look at the stars. Their clarity tells a great deal about the atmospheric fluctuations.
Florence sighs and leans into Grant, her head almost touching his shoulder.
FLORENCE: Thank you.
GRANT: For the lesson in meteorology?
FLORENCE: No, for not ruining a perfectly scientific moment with poetic drivel. You had an opportunity to spout something nauseating about (deliberates for a second) cosmos, and infinity — yet you withstood the temptation. For that I am grateful.
GRANT: I assure you such thoughts did not even cross my mind. In turn, I am grateful for not having a mass burial in rainy weather with water destroying freshly dug graves. I looked up, and the stars told me what I wanted to know.
They look at each other.
FLORENCE (With a mixture of amusement and embarrassment): Did you know I was once courted by a poet? Richard Milnes, Baron Houghton.
GRANT (impressed): A baron?
FLORENCE: A sentimental dolt! And a clumsy liar too. How he swore he wouldn’t interfere with my practice! He even donated a sum to the hospital. Yet I knew it was only to cajole me into marriage. Had he attained his goal, all his false interest in my work would have dissipated. (Wags her hand) Ah, he’s married now. (Boastfully and flirtatiously) That does not prevent him from writing to me on occasion.
GRANT (with mock pity): Ah, poor Richard!
FLORENCE (indignantly): Poor Florence! Those self-proclaimed connoisseurs of the female soul know nothing about the female body. The man kissed as if he were afraid of poisoning me. Is it such a crime on my part to desire a skillful, well-executed kiss that isn’t followed by a poetic couplet? (Categorically, crossing her arms)
GRANT (fist in the air): I endorse your righteous indignation!
FLORENCE (relieved and sincerely appreciative): I knew you would.
GRANT: Abstinence is next to idleness. Together, they cause insomnia and fits of hysteria. Like men, women need physical work and physical pleasure.
FLORENCE (throws her arms up): Amen! I attempted to communicate those simple medical facts to my dear Mama, and she howled that she had never heard such obscenities from a lady.
GRANT (echoes): From a lady...
FLORENCE: According to Mama, the sole purpose of my endeavors was to humiliate the family. In her eyes it was all a spectacle, a prolonged adolescent rebellion. A spoiled privileged girl experimenting with charity, poking beggars and orphans, dirtying her hands only to enrage her mother... What can be said in my defense? That’s the kind of unfeeling ogress I am. (With humorous self-deprecation) I have a turnip in place of a heart.
GRANT (pensively): A turnip in place of a heart... Is that your expression?
FLORENCE: No, that’s what Richard stated in his last letter to me. He does not recover from rejection quickly. (Nostalgically) And then there was Sidney Herbert, a divine man in every way — but married.
GRANT: You saw that as an obstacle?
FLORENCE: I didn’t — but he did. Amusingly, years ago, when Sidney was free, he had an affair with a married woman. But now he won’t betray his own wife, (with a sense of superiority) even though she disappoints him, and temptation is so near. Believe it or not, it was his initiative to send me to Crimea. He thought it would be prudent to put some distance between us. His wife was relieved, I’m certain. Sidney had joked about marrying me, should he suddenly become widowed. It’s a hellishly awkward situation, and there will be no relief as long as all three of us are alive. One of us must die, or...
GRANT: Or you could find yourself a new lover. That would be a far more peaceful and pleasant solution.
FLORENCE: I wish it were so easy. I was impossible to impress in the past, but after meeting Sidney... How should I put it in scientific terms? Having tasted morphine, how can one return to opium? I just know I shall die alone, a victim of my own fantastic standards. (Rubs her eyes, embarrassed by her moment of weakness) Forgive me, Dr. Grant. It is awfully rude of me to burden you with my complaints. You need not hear any of this.
GRANT: I’m accustomed to hearing all sorts of confessions from my patients. They mistake me for the chaplain. One of the lads from Donegal caught me by the waistcoat and sang a mournful ditty from his native village — in Gaelic. But, Miss Nightingale... I wish I could lift your spirits. (Lifts finger up) I know! I have the perfect book for you.
Florence shakes up and moves closer to Grant.
FLORENCE: Oh, what’s the title?
GRANT: “England on Her Deathbed.”
FLORENCE: And the author?
GRANT (bows): Yours truly.
FLORENCE: I am not astonished one bit. (Pompously) Where can I procure this masterpiece?
GRANT: Oh, it hasn’t been completed yet. I’ll be sure to give you the final version before sending it to the printer. Imagine decades of medical journals, depicting everything from epidemics to opium addiction. There you’ll find the most peculiar deaths of various English citizens, including my own children.
FLORENCE (frowns incredulously): You had children?
GRANT: Not by blood. It’s a long story... Those two entered my life after I had vowed not to pursue conventional fatherhood.
FLORENCE (impatiently): How they entered your life is immaterial to me. I only care to know how they departed. What was it: cholera, diphtheria?
GRANT: I fear you’ll have to wait until the book is finished. The suspense will give you a reason to continue our friendly dialogue. I trade my knowledge for your company.
FLORENCE (indignantly): That is unpardonable cruelty, taunting me in this manner!
GRANT: Come now. I promised you will be the first one to read it. Until then, you’ll have to muster all your patience.
FLORENCE (defiantly): In that case prepare to hear more unsavory confessions from me. By the end of this campaign you will be so satiated with my company that you will shove your unfinished manuscript into my hands just to be rid of me. Let’s see whose patience runs out first.
GRANT: I accept the challenge.
Florence and Grant look at each other for a few seconds and then burst out laughing; Grant’s laughter turns into cough. Florence’s face assumes a more serious expression.
FLORENCE: Something must be done about this beastly growl.
GRANT (dismissively): Ah, it’s nothing...
FLORENCE: That chamomile extract I gave you? Drink it. I spotted that flask on your night stand. It wasn’t even opened. And fetch another pillow for your upper back. It will help you breathe. And open the window, even though it’s cold.
Enter Bennett, chin lifted.
BENNETT: It pains me to interrupt your intellectual tryst, (To Florence) but Miss Nightingale, you’d better attend to Private Martin. Soon he will be waving his stump and screaming out your name.
Florence examines Martin one last time.
GRANT: You’d better rest. I’ll send for someone to watch the patients.
FLORENCE (to Grant): Now, remember my instructions. This is no joking matter. You’re one cough away from pneumonia.
Florence throws one more glance at Grant and leaves. Bennett tilts his head disdainfully behind Florence’s back.
BENNETT: There she goes: the Joan of Arc of English medicine!
GRANT (sternly): Mr. Bennett, I wish you would show more courtesy to your female colleagues.
BENNETT: You mean — my female subordinates? As far as I recall, surgeons still rank somewhat above nurses, (tone changes from sarcastic to hostile) who in turn rank only somewhat above common whores.
GRANT: Well, since you raised the question of hierarchy, I am forced to remind you that I am still your superior. But, hierarchy aside, I implore you, as a fellow gentleman—
BENNETT: You still classify yourself a gentleman? Thomas Grant, the Famished Bear!
GRANT: Bravo! I see you’ve done your detective work.
BENNETT: I know why you lost your medical license: you nearly killed a young patient, Lord Middleton’s nephew. So you spent the last two decades in Southwark trading opium, sleeping between two circus girls and sheltering criminals in your home.
GRANT (nods): Yes, very well-researched... Some of those events took place before you were even born. Your interest in ancient history is commendable.
Bennett draws back and shakes his head incredulously.
BENNETT: What, you have nothing to say in your defense? For God’s sake, have you no instinct for self-preservation?
GRANT: If I had any such instinct left, would I have sailed to Crimea?
BENNETT (points finger triumphantly): Oh, I see where this is leading! It’s all perfectly logical. After indulging in every perversion under the sun, the Famished Bear resorts to a life of asceticism. He has no instincts! (Opens his arms and lifts them) He has transcended them!
GRANT: Can’t you admit being envious of my colorful and adventurous past? (Patronizingly) Don’t despair, my young friend. You too will have a reputation some day. I need not defend myself before anyone. It may disappoint you, but all my misdemeanors are common knowledge. I have no secrets. I have no shame. However, I still have an obligation to my patients, which brings me to the subject of Private Martin, whose hand you amputated earlier. I had specifically instructed you to remove the index finger above the joint. How do you explain your (pause)... improvisation?
BENNETT: The hand was gangrenous! Another day — and we’d have to amputate up to the elbow. Two days — up to the shoulder. Three days — and he’d be dead.
GRANT: Mr. Bennett, your youthful imagination paints all sorts of Shakespearean catastrophes. I examined the patient this morning. The hand was perfectly salvageable. You crippled a man for no reason. It was my decision to make — not yours.
BENNETT: You are not fit to make such decisions! And I shall make sure that everyone knows it. You’ll go back to trading opium and helping slum whores get rid of their unwanted offspring.
GRANT (rubs his chin defiantly): I’ve been alive for half a century. Over the course of that time, many wars have been waged against me. Yet I’m still alive, which cannot be said for my adversaries. It is God’s will that I should remain in this world and in this profession. You may want to consider that, Mr. Bennett, before your next attempt to remove me from your path.
They both exit. Lights fade.
Copyright © 2011 by Marina J. Neary