Lady With a Lamp
by Marina J. Neary
A stateroom on Lord Cardigan’s yacht. Cardigan is sitting in his armchair, clutching a bottle of brandy. He hears the door creak and twitches. Enter Grant, his body posture communicating great unease and reluctance. Cardigan puts the brandy bottle behind the chair, stands up and opens his arms with extravagant familiarity.
CARDIGAN: Ah, Ted!
GRANT (coldly): Tom.
CARDIGAN (slowly, as if addressing an idiot): No, my name is Jim.
Grant struggles to maintain dignity and diplomacy, then responds, mimicking Cardigan’s condescending tone.
GRANT: I am aware of that — your Lordship. (Taps his chest) I am Tom... Thomas Henry Grant, doctor of medicine and philosophy. (Straightens out) Reporting for duty — Your Lordship...
CARDIGAN: Well, Thomas Henry Grant, do you know why you were summoned here?
GRANT: I dare not fathom, Your Lordship.
Cardigan paces around his stateroom; Grant remains standing.
CARDIGAN: So tell me: how do you like your occupation?
GRANT (reluctantly): I am honored to serve my country.
CARDIGAN (rolls his eyes): Bah! I would’ve expected a more original answer from you. (Mocking pompously) “Honored to serve my country...” At any rate, your service won’t continue much longer.
GRANT: Why is that, Your Lordship?
CARDIGAN: I’ve been conversing with Mr. Bennett.
CARDIGAN: He was kind enough to inform me about your past practices.
GRANT (rubs the back of his head): What exactly has he told you?
CARDIGAN (flicks his wrist casually): Only good things: your fondness for Bohemian women, your selective adherence to the law, your intimate knowledge of narcotics. Clearly, a man like you does not belong in the military hospital.
GRANT: It grieves me infinitely to hear that, Your Lordship. If only I could persuade you to rethink your decision...
CARDIGAN: Let me finish. A man like you should not squander his time, talent and knowledge on the sort of tasks you’ve been performing for the past month. He should serve his country on a higher level.
GRANT (fearfully): Exactly, how high?
CARDIGAN (in a businesslike manner): How much do you know about sedatives?
GRANT (nods): Enough.
CARDIGAN (mysteriously, all-knowingly): I have a family member in dire need of sedation. (Dragging out vowels) Deep sedation...
GRANT (frowns, perplexed): I am afraid I do not understand...
CARDIGAN (irritated): You know perfectly well of whom I speak! Lord Lucan, my brother-in-law! The fault is all his, you know.
GRANT: What fault?
CARDIGAN: The Charge of the Light Brigade, naturally! My dear brother-in-law botched the campaign. (Vindictively) It is his choleric temper and incompetent leadership that cost us so many soldiers. He sent us in the wrong direction. Of course, he’ll attempt to put all blame on me, coward that he is. He’s always hated me. Lord Raglan has demanded a private audience with him. It won’t astonish me if poor old George is court-martialed.
GRANT: So, how does my pharmaceutical expertise fit into your vengeance plan? Am I expected to poison Lord Lucan?
CARDIGAN: Of course not! I want him alive, to watch him reap his shame in full. I want him debilitated, unable to lead another Englishman to his death. (Lifts his index finger, having gotten a brilliant idea) Better yet! Instead of a sedative, give him a hallucinogenic. Turn him into a raving lunatic. (Rubs his hands in evil delight, then throws his arm around Grant’s neck, hanging on him) Yes, yes... Humiliate him before his subordinates and superiors, his mistresses and his bastard offspring. I know where he stores his wine bottles.
GRANT (moves away from Cardigan): Your Lordship, I do not believe that you are in the condition to plan such intricate retaliation. Perhaps, we could continue our audience at a better time, when your mind is a bit more lucid.
CARDIGAN: You think I am drunk? I’m perfectly sober! You haven’t seen me drunk, my friend. I only took a few sips of brandy to warm up. Would you like some? Perhaps, that will place us on the same altitude. In no time, you shall be thinking and behaving like Cardigan!
GRANT (mumbles): Oh, joy...
Cardigan grabs his bottle, his hands still trembling, and pours a drink for Grant.
CARDIGAN: Do you see, Tom? I pour my own brandy with my own hands for you. Tell me, Tom. When you were in Southwark, did you think you would ever find yourself on the most splendid yacht, in the presence of England’s greatest general? I’m almost envious of you. To rise so high in such a short span of time.
Lucan comes in. Cardigan twitches, visibly disturbed.
CARDIGAN: What are you doing on my yacht, George?
LUCAN: I was about to ask you the same question, James? How long did you think you could hide from the world?
CARDIGAN: I am not hiding. I am recovering.
LUCAN: I see... (Points at Grant disdainfully): What is this?
CARDIGAN: This? This is my new chum, Tom Grant.
Cardigan pushes Grant forward and hides behind him.
LUCAN (cheerfully): Ah, the pioneer of human vivisection! Cambridge is famous for producing mad scientists.
GRANT (coughs): Lord Lucan, forgive my intrusion, but I would like to contest those allegations. I have never cut a living being without an explicit consent.
LUCAN (dismissively): Good doctor, your wild experiments are none of my concern. I have more important issues to ponder than a few dismembered orphans. (To Cardigan, menacingly) James, you know well that you and I have a lengthy discussion ahead of us. I’d like the pleasure of your brotherly company for the next four or five hours. So get rid of the evil genius.
CARDIGAN: The evil genius is treating my injuries.
Cardigan grabs his shoulder and makes a grimace of pain.
LUCAN: Ah, the injuries you sustained while riding back from the front lines, as the men in your command rode to their deaths? You can show those injuries to Lord Raglan during our audience tomorrow. Anything to prove your valour!
CARDIGAN: My presence was not requested. It is not my custom to go where I am not invited. I have no doubt that you will relate your version of the story coherently.
LUCAN (with mock affection): But I want you to be by my side, Jimmy. You are my right hand, the one that doesn’t always follow the commands of the brain. I’ve grown to find your stupidity endearing. It adds excitement to the dull military routine. I never quite know what my darling Jim will pull on the battlefield. This mystery is what keeps me in the saddle. And at this moment I am relying on your brotherly love to do what is asked of you. Do not make me employ my status as your superior.
CARDIGAN: But George, if we stand side by side, the thin ice beneath our feet will surely crack.
LUCAN: The ice has already cracked, my dear. I’m already up to my chin in water. And as I go under, it would be comforting to know that you too are drowning, not far from me.
Grant, desperately trying to bring comic relief, points at the revolver sticking out from under Lucan’s belt.
GRANT: Is that a Model Adams? Excellent choice! You know, my son used to extract those guns from the factory in London. He’s dead now. But when he was alive, he was quite a metal scavenger. You should’ve seen the oddities he brought home from the streets.
Cardigan laughs hysterically in support of Grant’s jokes and hides behind his back. Lucan moves in menacingly.
LUCAN (to Cardigan): You think this haggard mass of bones and chest hair can protect you? Quite a bodyguard you’ve found! A sickly bear with red eyes... Will he dare to raise his claw in your defense, against me? This is why you invited him here, didn’t you? So you wouldn’t have to be alone, with me...
Lucan leaps forward, reaches behind Grant’s back, pulls Cardigan by the front of his shirt and knocks him down with one punch to the jaw. Cardigan reaches his hand out towards Grant, begging for protection, but Lucan steps on his hand. Grant remains standing still; his breathing quickens.
LUCAN (to Grant): Watch this, good doctor. After all, what else can you do? Here’s an intimate moment in English history, something for you to discuss in the surgical tent with your butcher colleagues.
Lucan kicks Cardigan a few times and then backs off abruptly.
LUCAN: There’s no sport battering a drunk. Good doctor, do your duty. My brother-in-law will need a few cold compresses. Thus he won’t need to fake his injuries for the audience tomorrow. His pain will look more authentic.
Lucan turns around and leaves, fetching the half-empty bottle of brandy on his way out. Cardigan twitches on the floor, wincing in pain. Grant comes to his senses and helps Cardigan to his chair.
CARDIGAN: Now you see that he is perfectly insane.
GRANT: All I see is that you and your brother-in-law have much to sort out.
Cardigan gestures in the direction in which Lucan left moments ago.
CARDIGAN: Tom, I can’t reason with the man. He won’t respond to logic. But he will respond to your concoction. It is our only hope.
Grant straightens out abruptly and backs away from Cardigan.
GRANT (self-deprecatingly): On another thought, I must confess that my knowledge of the apothecary field has been over-praised. I do not know that much about sedatives after all. Perhaps you should recruit someone more experienced. It sounds like an awfully important mission, and I would hate to botch it.
CARDIGAN: Tom, you are a pitiable liar!
GRANT (sighs, resuming a sincere tone): This is precisely why I am a doctor and not a politician. (Pause) Honestly, Your Lordship, I should not partake in this plot.
CARDIGAN: Leave the plotting to me. Your duty is to mix the potion.
GRANT: My Lord, you put me in a most unenviable position.
CARDIGAN: But then, whose position is enviable, do tell? You know any men who sleep well at night?
GRANT: The chaplain! He dumps the corpses in a mass grave, blurts out a prayer and snores away the night. A job well done...
CARDIGAN: I mean men of importance, men whose names are mentioned in history tomes. Tom, as much as I detest resorting to such bluntness, you have no choice. You aren’t leaving my yacht pretending that this conversation has not taken place.
GRANT (sternly and defiantly): My Lord, as much as I detest resorting to such bluntness, you have no power over me. This ragged old puppet’s strings have been cut long ago. I do not fear for my own life. As for my loved ones, they are all dead.
CARDIGAN (raises his index finger): That is not entirely true. Mr. Bennett told me that you’ve been growing quite chummy with a certain nurse.
GRANT: You mean, Florence Nightingale? She means nothing to me. A conceited spinster... I am not saying that she is entirely useless. A pair of hands... But there’s nothing about her to capture my fancy. I do not pursue women over the age of thirty.
CARDIGAN (shakes his head reproachfully): Ah, Tom... One day, I’ll teach you to lie with a straight face. Until then, don’t make any attempts. You are in love with Florence Nightingale! And why wouldn’t you be? She is an exceptional woman. And you (points at Grant) are an exceptional man.
GRANT: I can’t compete with Sidney Herbert.
CARDIGAN: And Florence can’t compete with Sidney Herbert’s wife. It’s hopeless. I’m privy to the situation. Sidney is another close chum of mine. He shall never divorce or betray Elizabeth. For that I can vouch. In the meantime, our saintly Florence, the Lady with the Lamp, has nothing left to do except pray secretly for her rival’s death and grow mad little by little.
Ah, the demon voices in her weary little head... It would be a crime to leave her in such a perilous state. She needs somebody seasoned, witty and commanding to distract her from her unhealthy fantasies — someone like you.
GRANT (with embarrassment): Why, Lord Cardigan, I don’t think I’ve received so many compliments from another man in my entire life.
CARDIGAN (mysteriously): But wait: I have more than mere compliments to offer.
GRANT (with growing unrest): What exactly did you have in mind, my lord?
CARDIGAN: How about ten thousand pounds as a modest appetizer? The sum may seem fantastic to you now, as you haven’t adopted my habits yet. But you shall learn to burn through money with breathtaking elegance.
And if you do not care for money, I shall find other ways to compensate you. Imagine having a splendid laboratory in Westminster, and all the leisure and comfort in the world for your intellectual endeavors. Imagine being surrounded by dazzling minds. You will not need to seek them — they shall seek you. A few words from me — and all the young medical prodigies of England shall flock to you.
And Florence shall be by your side all the while. I shall advocate for that stubborn girl. You two can become the golden couple of English medicine. Now tell me that all this is not worth a small flask of potion?
Grant suddenly wavers, clutches his chest with one hand and with another hand leans on the back of Cardigan’s armchair.
GRANT (faintly): Forgive me, your Lordship... I have been unwell for a few days. There’s an infectious cough in the hospital corps. If you don’t believe me...
CARDIGAN: No, this time I believe you. Dear friend, you must preserve your strength. We have much work ahead of us.
Cardigan hastily vacates the armchair and helps Grant sit down.
Copyright © 2011 by Marina J. Neary