Lady With a Lamp
by Marina J. Neary
Florence is asleep on the ground in a half-sitting position, wrapped in her shawl, her head on the bench, an extinguished lamp by her side. Grant emerges from the shadow, looking very weak, his every step, every move labored. He kneels near Florence and strokes her forearm. She stirs, raises her head, sees Grant and reels in disbelief.
FLORENCE: What time is it?
GRANT: It appears that I lost my pocket watch. Are you surprised to see me?
Grant lowers himself on the ground next to Florence. Still half-asleep, she stretches her arms towards him, and they embrace.
FLORENCE: I don’t understand. I was told that you were sent back to England.
GRANT: Not until all my evil deeds in Crimea are completed. Tell me now: do you like boring tales of political conspiracy?
FLORENCE: If they are told by you — surely.
GRANT: Oh, you’re in for such a treat. What if I told you that Cardigan offered me ten thousand pounds to drug Lucan?
Florence shakes her head and laughs after a pause.
GRANT: I know. I couldn’t believe it either.
FLORENCE (suddenly changing tone from amused to hostile): No, I can’t believe that you did not grasp at this opportunity.
GRANT: To stuff my pockets?
FLORENCE: No, to free England from a mid-caliber tyrant!
GRANT: But the Oath...
FLORENCE: The Oath applies to people, those illiterate no-names who groan on the surgical table, die of infections and are thrown into a mass grave. Cardigan and Lucan do not belong to that category. Don’t you know by now? Some epidemics come in the form of other two-legged creatures that look distressingly human. But we, as medics, must make such distinctions and take necessary actions. Amputate Lucan, as you would a gangrenous limb. By God, Tom, there are no victims on that yacht, only predators of various sizes, all equally despicable.
GRANT: And this is precisely why I cannot bring myself to destroy Lucan. Raglan will replace him with someone even worse. Lord knows, the British army does not lack for incompetent leaders. I simply don’t have enough chemicals to drug them all.
FLORENCE (sighs with embarrassment and looks away): Forgive me... Mr. Bennett was right — I let the chloroform go to my brain. God, you look abysmal. I suppose there’s no use asking you how you feel.
GRANT: I don’t feel much pain, only fatigue.
Florence unbuttons Grant’s shirt and presses her ear to his chest.
GRANT (jokingly): What do you hear — a requiem for the Famished Bear?
FLORENCE (straightening up): What I hear is fluid in your lungs. By God, Tom! How could you have been so negligent? Did you take the medicine I gave you? Naturally, you didn’t!
GRANT (mutters): I did...
FLORENCE (not hearing his last statement): Arrogant fool! You fancy yourself omniscient, immortal... And why should my patients take me seriously, if my own colleague, who sings my praises, dismisses my advice? Well, congratulations, Tom. You have earned yourself a splendid case of pneumonia. What am I to do with you now?
GRANT: Please, sit down. I have something to give to you.
Florence sits down reluctantly, arms crossed, still indignant.
FLORENCE: What is it?
Grant reaches into his pocket and pulls out a yellow journal tied with a rope.
GRANT: My intellectual dowry.
Florence shakes her head and pulls back slightly.
FLORENCE: I am not ready to read it. You said it wasn’t finished yet.
GRANT: I may not have the time to finish it.
FLORENCE: Of course, you’ll finish it — upon your return to England! Once this military circus is over, you’ll have all the time in the world.
GRANT: I won’t be returning to England. We both know it. In a week or two the chaplain will be wrapping me in sailcloth.
FLORENCE: I’ve had patients in my care recover from pneumonia.
GRANT: How old were those patients? I am no longer twenty... or thirty... or even forty... I have close to five decades of relentless self-abuse. Dear Florence, my body is a museum of horrid habits. It should be donated to Cambridge University.
FLORENCE (not paying attention): Very well. Your illness can still be reversed, if you surrender yourself to my care.
GRANT: I’ve outlived many patients, including my own children. This time I shall join them.
FLORENCE: But Tom, you’ve had so many opportunities to die, and you’ve bypassed them all. Why now? What shall I do?
GRANT (places the journal on her knees): You shall read over these lines and hear the Famished Bear growling from the slums of Southwark.
FLORENCE: Don’t ruin a perfectly scientific moment with poetic drivel.
Florence leans over and gives Grant a sorrowful kiss.
GRANT: I would not mind prolonging my life just a bit — not for any worthy cause but for my own selfish pleasure.
FLORENCE: Everything we do is for our own selfish pleasure, even the acts that are deemed as noble by onlookers. There is no altruism. There’s only vanity that can take so many forms. Behind every lofty cause there is a low motive. I am no better. My mother was right. From the very beginning, I’ve been indulging my own whims, even while wrapping gauze around bleeding stumps.
Grant shakes his head and laughs weakly.
FLORENCE: What? You find it hard to believe?
GRANT: No, I do believe it. This is why I laugh. It is altogether amusing. First Cardigan offers me ten thousand pounds, and then the unconquerable Florence Nightingale graces me with a kiss. These adventures are worthy of Dickens or Hugo. If you despise lyrical poetry, you must appreciate political satire. (Looks up and folds his hands jokingly) Oh please, God, give me another few months. I’m curious to find out how all this ends.
They kiss again, this time Grant being the initiator. The kiss is longer and more elaborate.
FLORENCE: Does that mean you will at least try to delay your departure?
GRANT: I promise to obey you if you in turn promise not to marry Sidney Herbert, even if he does become widowed.
FLORENCE: How did Sidney’s name surface?
GRANT: His name always hangs in the air, spoken or not. Every tourniquet you apply is dedicated to him. I know it, and it irks me no end. Be honest: am I hopelessly inferior to Sidney?
FLORENCE (without hesitation): Only socially. Not intellectually or even physically. Although, he is younger and better preserved. (Examines and strokes his face) Your jaw is every bit as defined as his, and your brow every bit as high. If a man possesses those features, he is handsome already. As a matter of fact, you and Sidney would get along quite well.
GRANT: You can’t expect me to harbor amicable sentiments towards him.
FLORENCE: In Sidney’s defense, he is my patron, the one who sent me here. We owe our meeting to him.
GRANT (without a blink): Then marry me. Together we’ll quake the academia, with or without Cardigan’s bribe.
FLORENCE: I suppose we should go and awaken the chaplain. He must be tired of funerals, poor soul. Surely he’ll welcome a chance to perform a different ceremony.
Florence rises to her feet and helps Grant stand up.
GRANT: We’ll celebrate with mouldy bread and contaminated water. A splendid feast!
FLORENCE: But there will be no guests. We must keep it a secret.
GRANT: Our secret...
They exit with their arms around each other.
Copyright © 2011 by Marina J. Neary