When a young nurse dies on her watch, Florence Nightingale must uncover the deep-hidden secrets someone will kill to keep buried.
It is 1853. Lady of the Lamp Florence Nightingale has just accepted the position of Superintendent of the Establishment for Gentlewomen During Temporary Illness in London. She has hardly had time to learn the names of the nurses in her charge when she suddenly finds one of them hanging in the Establishment’s library. Her name was Nurse Bellamy.
Florence’s mettle is tested by the dual goals of preserving what little reputation her hospital has and bringing Nurse Bellamy’s killer to justice. Her efforts are met with upturned noses and wayward glances except for her close friend and advocate inside the House of Commons, Sidney Herbert. As Florence digs deeper, however, her attention turns to one of the hospital investors and suddenly, Sidney becomes reluctant to help.
With no one but herself to count on, Florence must now puzzle out what the death of an unknown, nondescript young nurse has to do with conspiracies lurking about at the highest levels of government before she’s silenced too.
For fans of Anne Perry and Laurie R. King comes No Cure for the Dead, the rich and enthralling series debut from Christine Trent.
Longtime readers of mine know that I was my mother’s caretaker for many years before she passed away from a completely mysterious and undiagnosed condition that required her to receive blood transfusions every week for five years. Eventually, her liver could no longer tolerate the transfusions and I lost her in 2015.
Earlier in her life, mom had been a nurse. She was very proud of her nursing license and maintained it long after ill health forced her to retire from her profession.
One day while mom was still alive, I had been casting about for a new series idea. I didn’t want to venture too far from the Victorian time period of my existing LADY OF ASHES series, yet I wanted it to be unique. Then it occurred to me that I could pay homage to my mother by writing about the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale…who lived in the Victorian era.
“Eureka!” my agent said.
Although mom knew about my book idea and was very happy about it, she did not live long enough to see it get sold to Crooked Lane Books. It is bittersweet to me that the book was published but I didn’t have the opportunity to give mom the news. I like to think she would have been very proud to know that this book was published.
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 that swirled through the London air in a never-ending cloud of ebony flakes were the most repellent things I’d ever encountered. They say that 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 only been employed as the superintendent of the Establishment for a week and I 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 in a move from the old Cavendish Square location into this one in Upper Harley Street. The front part of the new facility had a gleaming white front and full of multi-paned windows. It had once been the glorious home of some Georgian era lord, but it had fallen into disrepair, sold at auction to the Establishment committee, and then been 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 to 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 was probably once 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.
However, what was unique to the place, and it was oddly comforting to me, was that instead of unvarying wards full of beds in long orderly rows, the large rooms of the home had been carved into smaller rooms. Thus each inmate had privacy, almost as if she were being treated at home. It meant fewer inmates could be accommodated, and certainly more work for the nurses, who must constantly enter and exit rooms rather than shifting from bed to bed, as was typical. But in the experience of my youth, caring for family members and local villagers, I had done exactly that—go from home to home and room to room.
I had many ambitious plans for refurbishing the Establishment, but right now I only wanted to confirm a theory about the spread of malaria. The supposition had popped into my mind while waiting in the bank’s lobby to conduct my business.
The sound of my heels echoed on the oak floors as I made my way to the library. The floors were scraped and worn, as though large trunks had been carelessly dragged along them by servants. It made for a very poor presentation to inmates and visitors to the facility. I made a mental note to ask the hospital’s committees for money to have the floors refinished. I sighed at the thought of the verbal battle it would entail. Not only with Lady Canning, whose idea the hospital had originally been and who chaired the Establishment’s ladies’ committee, but also with the men’s committee. Those gentlemen in a short time had already proved to be very miserly fellows.
I was halted in my mission by the distinctive thud of the door knocker, a silly thing in the shape of a leopard’s jaw. Obviously an absurdity of the original owner, I intended to have it replaced with something far more dignified.
I hurried back to the door and opened it. Before me stood a scowling, middle-aged woman wearing a bonnet that seemed far more fashionable than her dress. I wondered if she had borrowed the hat.
“Miss Nightingale?” the woman asked, still looking all the world as if she were angry with me.
“Yes, how may I help you?” I did hope she wasn’t about to ruin my day.
“I’m here to apply,” she said stoutly, her threadbare reticule slapping against her midsection as she crossed her arms in front of her.
I raised an eyebrow. “To apply for what, Mrs…?”
“Gilbert. Maisie Gilbert. I understand you’re the new superintendent here. My husband has left me and I need work, so I’ve come to join as one of your nurses.”
This was curious. I had not advertised for any new staff members. So much had been happening that I hardly knew who was on staff as it was. “I see,” I said.
As I considered the woman before me, she began scowling again. “Will you not let me in?”
I opened the door and stepped back. “Of course.”
Maisie Gilbert swept in and surveyed the entry hall with apparent disdain. “This does not look like a hospital. I have visited St. Barts, you see.”
I was actually amused by the woman as I shut the door and turned back to address her. “Indeed?” I asked. “The more important question is, for whom have you served as a nurse?”
I could tell she was resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “I cannot say that I have taken on a position in the formal sense. But I did my father’s bedside vigil in the weeks before he died, putting cold compresses on his head and reading to him.”
“Is that all?” I said.
Gilbert looked at me uncomprehendingly. “Is that all? What do you mean? What more is there to nursing?”
I sighed. “Mrs. Gilbert, today I intend to instruct my nurses on the proper cleaning of a hospital. Are you experienced with stewing rhubarb to make a rust treatment?”
“What? Rhubarb is for pie and jam.” I had thrown her a little off balance.
“I see. Today my nurses will also learn how to remove stains from our inmates’ clothing by rubbing raw potatoes on them before sending the clothing off with the laundress. Are you willing to learn to do this?”
Now Gilbert was distinctly uncomfortable. “Miss Nightingale, I don’t mean to tell you your business, but this is all work for the maid and the laundress.”
“Is that so? When I have trained them on both of these cleaning techniques, I intend to show them how to make medicinal plasters. Have you made one before? A blend of wax and healing ingredients laid atop a thin slice of leather and applied to the affected area.”
“I—er, miss, a nurse just sits and watches the patient and brings him some food and maybe serves up some physic prescribed by the doctor, which is always delivered by the chemist.”
I clasped my hands together in front of me. “Not in my hospital, Mrs. Gilbert. I have plans to train up women to become not just caretakers of the ill, but healers of them.”
Mrs. Gilbert’s expression returned to incredulity. “That is simply ridiculous. Decent women won’t do such work. You’re fortunate enough that a respectable woman like me has graced your doorstep. Don’t think I don’t know what most nurses are like. Mucking about with wax and leather—it’s preposterous and I’ll not be part of it. I’m certainly not that destitute that I need to reduce myself to such circumstances. I’ll go and live with my cousins first.”
I went back to the door and swung it open wide. “Then that,” I said firmly, “is exactly what you should do. Good day, Mrs. Gilbert.”
She swept back out in a huff, and I was none too happy with the encounter, either.
With the door firmly closed on Mrs. Gilbert, I retraced my steps back toward the library. A nurse scurried down the corridor from the opposite direction, dropping into a quick curtsy as she approached me. She had likely been a maid in some London household that had gone bankrupt, or perhaps she had been terminated for some sort of improper behavior. I hoped it was the former.
“No need for that. Nurse Hughes, isn’t it? You need only nod and acknowledge me with a ‘Good afternoon, Miss Nightingale.’”
The nurse, who was clearly wearing an old maid’s uniform that had been recently embellished with some ribbon trim and a lace collar, bobbed her head up and down and seemingly parroted me. “Yes, Miss Nightingale. Good afternoon, Miss Nightingale.”
The nurse’s plain face was worn thin with the endless days and sleepless nights of household service, making it impossible to know if she was twenty-five or fifty. She wore her hair back in a simple fashion, which I liked, although her expressionless face was unnerving. Her eyes were such a pale blue as to be nearly without color at all.
I really needed to sit down with each woman for a lengthy interview, not only to know each one personally, but to determine whether they were fit for the sort of nursing role I intended to cultivate here.
As washed out as she was, the nurse did obey me without question, and thus seemed to have some promise. “Good afternoon to you, Nurse Hughes,” I replied, inclining my head.
Hughes caught herself in mid-bob and blushed, the pink tinging her cheeks so that she appeared much more alive. She then hurried down the corridor away from me. At least she wasn’t slovenly, nor a slug. Yes, Nurse Hughes had promise.
I reached the library, which was tucked away at the back of the building. It was unusually dark and unoccupied in the middle of the day. The librarian, Miss Jarrett, was probably pestering Cook, hoping to stuff herself with pigeon pie and custard tarts. The librarian was one staff member I had already come to know quite well, since the library was my favorite location in the building. Miss Jarrett had held some other sort of position at the previous location, but had apparently pleaded for the role of librarian here, and it had been granted.
She had an enormous capacity for food, yet nothing she ingested had any impact on her, for she remained as thin as an iron bedpost. I imagined Miss Jarrett would be killed in a jealous rage by another woman one day for her ability to consume so much, seemingly without consequence. In the meantime though, I preferred the library empty, and so was grateful for Miss Jarrett’s absence.
The library had been carved out of a previous ballroom, and was a peaceful place for inmates to spend time outside of their rooms in inclement weather. Its new walnut bookcases were pleasingly stocked, not only with the expected romance and mystery novels, and a smattering of religious texts, but also with medical texts and journals. It was an unexpected benefit of my new position. What I especially loved were the two side alcoves—one on either end of the library. They were cozy square spaces lined with shelves and topped with horizontal windows; whose panes filtered the sun. Those familiar and comforting rays, teeming with floating dust particles, provided a shadowy light.
In each alcove was a small study table and chair crowded into an opening between two bookcases. The gasoliers that hung from the ceilings did not work anywhere other than in the main area, but that was to be expected of such newfangled machinery. Candles are so much safer and less costly, but they say gas is the future. I remain doubtful.
I was glad of every opportunity to settle myself among the tomes and read all I could about medicine, away from the suspicious looks of the Establishment’s committee members. Some of them had already appeared at random moments to inspect me, as if they still weren’t certain that a woman with a background as privileged as mine had any business embroiling herself in so lofty a field as medicine, and so disreputable a pursuit as nursing.
Because Miss Jarrett wasn’t there, there were no lamps lit in the main room, so I searched around on Jarrett’s messy desk until my hand stumbled upon the handle of a lamp. Lighting and holding it aloft, I made my way to my favorite alcove in the north end of the library.
It was here at the entrance of the alcove that I stopped so suddenly in my shock that I nearly fell backward in my skirts. Recovering my balance and holding the lamp aloft, I tried to understand what I was actually seeing while willing the strength to stop myself from screaming like a wounded soldier having a limb amputated.
Dangling from the chandelier, which had been nearly yanked out of the ceiling from the weight, was the body of a young woman.
Excerpt copyright 2018 Christine Trent.