Excerpt: No Cure for the Dead

September 1853

Some said I must have been possessed by a demon to take on the position as superintendent at the Establishment for Gentlewomen During Temporary Illness. On exhausting days like this, I was in total agreement.

Shaking out my hat and gloves on the stoop outside the Establishment, I determined that the smuts swirling through the London air in a never-ending cloud of ebony flakes were the most repellent thing I’d ever encountered. They say it’s even worse once winter sets in. I had been out for a mere hour to visit my family’s banker, and in my short walk to and fro had accumulated enough coal dust in my hat and on my gloves and shoulders to form a diamond.

Satisfied that my accoutrements were as clean as possible for the moment, I twisted one of the massive brass knobs to open one side of the equally massive mahogany entry doors. The building offered a grudging, creaking acceptance of my entry, and I tossed the hat and gloves onto the mirrored stand along one wall of the spacious vestibule. I had been employed as the superintendent of the Establishment for only a week and breathed a sigh of relief to be back. I was eager to return to my growing list of plans and tasks for the hospital.

The week prior to my arrival had been taken up by a move from the old Cavendish Square location to this one in Upper Harley Street. The front part of the new facility had a gleaming white front and was full of multipaned windows. It had once been the glorious home of some Georgian-era lord, but it had fallen into disrepair, been sold at auction to the Establishment committee, and then hastily reconstituted into a small hospital. It had been joined in the rear to another abandoned home, and the intent was to eventually turn that rear section into a proper surgery and add more wards.

I had been permitted no opportunity to advise on the alterations to the old home, and now I was faced with making adjustments after the fact. However, it was my first chance at the life I had craved for years, and I was not about to complain.

Upper Harley Street might be a newer location with more beds, but it was still in terrible need of proper sanitation and organization. Worse yet, the nurses hardly knew how to take care of themselves, much less the women who came here to convalesce from a variety of ailments. Some of the ailments were real and some were most certainly imagined, but all of the patients—or inmates, as they are known—had been given the same level of inadequate care prior to my arrival. I planned to change all of that, quickly.

The walls of the corridor I now proceeded down on my way to the hospital library were a glaring example. Covered in what probably had once been a cheerful yellow wallpaper, the walls were now dingy, and the framed landscapes on them were covered in dust. Disgraceful.

The odor of the building was the same no matter which of the four floors I walked, and I paced through them all daily. I fully intended to replace the stench of stale urine and unwashed linens that had befouled Cavendish Square with the orderly smells of carbolic soap and vinegar. Heaven only knew how long that would take, especially since it was blended with the odor a building takes on when it has been abandoned for a long time. It is a peculiar smell—the essence of loss and despair.