Lady With a Lamp
by Marina J. Neary
I stand at the Altar of the murdered men, and while I live, I fight their cause. — Florence Nightingale
A surgical tent at a field hospital. Half-conscious wounded soldiers are spread over the benches, their limbs wrapped in dirty rags. Rebecca Prior, a young nurse, is sobbing hysterically into a towel. Florence Nightingale is standing over her, unperturbed. Mr. Bennett is pacing behind Rebecca, fuming.
BENNETT (throws his arms up): This is preposterous!
REBECCA (lifts her head): I’m so dreadfully sorry...
BENNETT: It isn’t my forgiveness that you should be begging. Apologize to Private Martin, who had to witness your tantrum from the comfort of the surgical table.
REBECCA: It’s that... It’s that I’ve never seen so much blood before.
BENNETT: What did you expect, Miss Prior — a parish outing, a tea ceremony, perhaps? So much for being a butcher’s daughter!
Rebecca rubs the bridge of her nose, disoriented.
REBECCA: Miss Nightingale, what happened in there?
BENNETT (pauses and hovers over Rebecca): Perhaps I should refresh your memory. You vomited into the surgical tray and dropped it on the floor. I was forced to finish the amputation unassisted.
Rebecca gasps into the towel and has another sobbing fit. Florence grips Rebecca’s head and makes her turn towards Bennett.
FLORENCE: Now, look Mr. Bennett in the eye and promise him in a steady voice that this shall never be repeated.
BENNETT (to Rebecca): You can bet your sweet life it won’t! You are not to come near the surgical tent ever again. Do you hear me?
Rebecca mumbles indistinctly.
BENNETT: You’ll be on the first ship back to England, where you can resume rationing gruel at a workhouse!
FLORENCE (hastily): It won’t be necessary. If I send every incompetent nurse home, I won’t have any hands left. There’s a fitting occupation for everyone. I shall put Rebecca in charge of sanitizing the instruments and boiling the laundry. You start with your soiled linens. Remember to soak the blood out with cold water before boiling.
Rebecca nods, pulls her head into her shoulders, picks up the linens timidly and exits. Florence inhales and shakes her head. Bennett wipes his bloody saw nonchalantly and prepares to leave.
FLORENCE: Mr. Bennett, I marvel at the pliancy of your conscience. Taking your personal embarrassment out on a creature like Becky Prior — how convenient!
BENNETT (coldly): Miss Nightingale, I don’t have the faintest...
FLORENCE (takes a step forward): Come now, we both know why you lashed out at Rebecca. Naturally, you are infuriated by your own mistake.
BENNETT (insulted): What mistake?
FLORENCE (gestures towards the surgical tent): The loss of Private Martin’s hand. Had you followed my instructions for cleaning and dressing the wound, the infection would not have spread, and gangrene would not have developed. There would’ve been no need for such... terminal surgical measures.
BENNETT: I shan’t continue this conversation with you.
FLORENCE: Very well, then you shall have it with your superiors! I’m certain that Dr. Grant will have something to say regarding this matter. Your imaginary crown wouldn’t tarnish if you would heed my advice from time to time. Young man...
BENNETT (raises his voice): It’s Mr. Bennett to you! I address you by your surname, so please, extend the same courtesy to me. I would be most grateful if you did not project your unused maternal sentiments onto me.
FLORENCE: Rest assured, Mr. Bennett, the good Lord spared me such sentiments. I’ve been endowed with more practical talents, such as speaking candidly, especially in the face of blatant malpractice and negligence. Crippled soldiers are of no use to England. If you continue to butcher them—
BENNETT (with sinister softness): Miss Nightingale, I worry about your well-being. The whites of your eyes are turning quite scarlet. So much righteous anger will do you no good. You recall that you’ve already suffered one emotional collapse. (Squints maliciously) And do not let chloroform go to your brain.
Bennett salutes Florence mockingly and leaves.
Copyright © 2011 by Marina J. Neary