Lady With a Lamp
by Marina J. Neary
Outside a surgical tent, Private Martin is on the bench, clutching the stump of his hand, rocking back and forth and moaning, his eyes wild. Florence holds him by the shoulders from behind, trying to console him.
MARTIN (rants wildly): It burns... Me hand burns! From the elbow to... where the fingertips once were. The hand’s gone, but the pain stays.
FLORENCE: Hapless boy...
MARTIN: I asked ’im fer drugs, I begged ’im. But he’d give me none!
MARTIN: The bloody surgeon... I hate ’im! I could kill ’im, I swear. The bastard, he passes by, grinnin’, mockin’ me...
Florence draws a small flask from her bag and holds it to Martin’s lips.
FLORENCE: Here’s some valerian root. It can’t hurt. Drink up.
Martin takes a few sips and collapses, breathing heavily, as Florence cradles him like a child and strokes his hair. After a few seconds Martin calms down.
MARTIN: Talk to me. ’Bout anythin’. I only need to hear yer voice.
FLORENCE (with forced optimism): Just think: you’ll be sent home soon. But first you’ll receive your pay. Spend your money wisely. Consult your mother.
MARTIN: She died whilst I was in pris’n.
FLORENCE: Ah, the whole world is a prison. Just because you aren’t chained, it doesn’t mean that you are free.
Martin notices a corner of an envelope peeking from the collar of Florence’s blouse.
MARTIN: A letter, eh?
FLORENCE: From a dear old friend.
MARTIN: What’s his name?
FLORENCE (faintly, staring into space): Sidney.
MARTIN: Does ’e have any good news?
FLORENCE: It’s an old letter, filled with promises yet to be fulfilled. When I have a dismal day, I reread it.
MARTIN: ’Tis pity I’m unlettered.
FLORENCE: I’ll teach you how to scribble your name. Your writing hand is unharmed. (Squeezes his right hand) There’s no excuse for continuing to communicate in muffled grunts. I hope that your writing will be more articulate than your speech.
MARTIN: Where’s Dr. Grant?
FLORENCE: He was sent back to England. I was informed earlier in the morning.
FLORENCE: I can only guess. Another friend leaving my side... I should’ve expected something of the sort. The moment I find a worthy conversation partner, someone who can construct elaborate phrases and use Latin terms, he is snatched from me.
MARTIN: And that’s why yer day’s dismal?
Martin’s body grows limp. He starts falling asleep. Florence continues stroking his hair, talking to herself rather than to him.
FLORENCE: He’d better make himself known when this travesty is over. He’d better find me home in England, or I’ll find him. He promised to give me his book. (With female jealousy) If I discover that he allowed another woman to read it first... So help him God! Oh, the sparkling dialogues we could’ve had. I can almost hear his cough behind my back. It’s not unlike that lingering pain from a hand that’s been severed.
Rebecca enters, wringing her hands nervously, mumbling indistinctly. Florence leaves Martin and pulls Rebecca aside.
FLORENCE (arms crossed): Miss Prior, you have exactly two minutes to spill your tribulations. I hope to God they are grave enough.
REBECCA: It’s Mr. Bennett...
FLORENCE: Does he still scold you for that incident last week?
REBECCA: No, he hasn’t spoken of that night. It’s not his words. It’s his glances. They leave me unsettled.
Florence looks down, covers her mouth, formulating an answer, inhales, nods, then looks up at Rebecca.
FLORENCE: Miss Prior, I can’t fathom what I could have done to encourage this sort of familiarity between us, to position myself as your confidant. When you barged in I thought for an instant that there was an attack or a fire. You distract me from my patients only to inform me that Mr. Bennett’s glances leave you unsettled? Why, do you think, he chose you of all women as his target?
REBECCA (Shrugs with contempt): The rest of the nurses are nuns. Molly Fields and I are the only laywomen. Most of them are too bloody old, some well over thirty, and some (shudders) — over forty!
FLORENCE (gasps in mock horror): God forbid... What business they have being alive! The audacity, to last that long! You and Molly are like yellow-beaked fledglings among old hens. What a lonely life it must be for the two of you.
REBECCA: When Mr. Bennett stares at me, I simply can’t work. My knees tremble, and my hands freeze.
FLORENCE: I think I know why your knees tremble, Miss Prior. There’s a scientific explanation for it. (Leans to Rebecca and sniffs the air) Have you been drinking sterilizing solution?
REBECCA (Raises her hands in defense): I swear it’s not my fault! It’s Molly... She carries a whiskey flask.
FLORENCE (Sarcastically): And I suppose, Molly pried your jaws open and poured the content of the flask down your throat. And then she forcefully curled your hair (tugs at Rebecca’s hair), and stuffed rolled-up gauze down your blouse (tugs at the collar of Rebecca’s blouse), and smudged old rouge over your cheeks (tilts Rebecca’s chin). What a wayward, scandalous girl that Molly is! Perhaps I should have a private talk with her.
REBECCA (Hastily): Please, don’t be cross with Molly. She mustn’t worry in her condition.
FLORENCE: What condition? (With disgust) Oh, sweet mother of God... Not wasting any time, is she! Who’s the lucky partner in crime?
REBECCA: She’s not quite sure.
FLORENCE: Not quite sure? What a surprise! A fortunate baby, indeed! Some are born fatherless, but this one will have the entire Light Brigade for a father.
REBECCA: Molly was already in (giggles awkwardly) that way when she came here. For three days she vomited. We feared it was cholera... But it wasn’t cholera. Imagine our relief. So Molly came to Dr. Grant in hopes that he would help her... put this mishap behind her. But he refused...
FLORENCE (With growing disgust): What possessed her to approach Dr. Grant with such a request?
REBECCA (Matter-of-factly): We’ve all heard about his past, his days in Southwark. There are all sorts of tales going around. But Dr. Grant swore that he had never rendered such services to women. He persuaded Molly to keep the baby and stop drinking. So she gave me her whiskey flask, and I gave her my shawl to hide her belly as it grows.
FLORENCE: Why, this is female solidarity at its finest! And then you wonder why Mr. Bennett stares at you. Look at yourself! You’re a walking circus, drunk and painted while on duty! And then you run to me for protection! How do you expect me to protect you? I would have to dunk your head into a bucket of cold water first.
REBECCA (on the brink of tears): Miss Nightingale, I thought that you’d understand... Being a woman and all...
FLORENCE: I am not a woman — not in the sense that you and Molly are. Allow me to make myself clear. I am a sergeant in petticoats. Truth be told, I feel very little affection for women, weak and foolish ones in particular. Their lot does not concern me. If my work reflects well on them, if it raises their standing, it will merely be a fortunate coincidence. My mission is not to advocate for the females of the species. I’ve reaped no benefit from associating with them. I prefer the company of powerful men.
Rebecca nods feverishly, her attitude changing from imploring to aggressive.
REBECCA: I see now! You’re envious of me, old maid that you are. Those big and mighty men of whom you speak — they won’t bed you in a thousand years! That’s right. They have no use for you. Wouldn’t you love to trade places with me! Scrawny spinster... with a gray face and gray hairs...
Rebecca draws back, panting, terrified by her own outburst.
FLORENCE: Dear girl, if you carry on in this manner, you won’t live to be an old maid. You will die a young hussy — if that is a more appealing fate.
Rebecca slouches and runs off. Martin stirs on his bed and raises himself on the elbow.
MARTIN: Was Rebecca here?
FLORENCE (tersely): Yes, she just left.
MARTIN: I knew I heard ’er voice, so near... Seen ’er shadow. Couldn’t get me eyes to open.
FLORENCE: You were sleeping.
MARTIN (resigned): I s’ppose... But how heavenly ‘twould be... Havin’ her fer a mistress and you fer a mother... I’d be the jolliest one-armed thief in the whole of England.
His elbow gives in, and he falls back on the bench.
FLORENCE (throws her arms in despair): Why is it that every pickpocket under the sun considers me his mother? (Stands over Martin) Dear boy, if you were my son, you would’ve turned out quite differently, I assure you. For one, you would’ve developed a more discriminating taste in women.
MARTIN (taken aback by her tone): I don’t understand...
FLORENCE: I don’t expect you to understand. Perhaps you and Rebecca would make a fine pair after all. You both have limited vocabularies and limited control over your impulses. Alas, I can’t cure you of your origin. It is not in my power — or in my contract. I can only bandage your stump and pour some sedatives under your tongue.
Let us not pamper our illusions. I am nobody’s mother. I am but a frigid spinster. And you are an orphan, and a thief, and an invalid. And Rebecca is a hussy. What’s even more tragic? We’re all English citizens. We have allied with a Muslim nation against our fellow Christians. That alone can unsettle your stomach worse than cholera.
Florence exits, leaving Martin on the bed. Lights fade.
Copyright © 2011 by Marina J. Neary