Printed from https://shop.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2319093-Duty-formerly-Aristocrat-to-Angel
by MikeDK
Rated: E · Short Story · History · #2319093
Lady Acton only wanted a husband. She found a new life

Kanner / Aristocrat to Angel/ 23

"Aristocrat to Angel"

by Mike Kanner

"Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today." The hospital commander offered the young woman a seat. He would not have taken the appointment except it had been requested by a member of the War Cabinet.

"Now, Miss ...

"Not Miss. Lady Acton"

"My apologies, your Grace. I was only told a woman named Acton was looking for an officer. " The commander took out a pen and paper. "If you could give me his name, my staff can find out where he is being treated."

"Oh, I don't have a specific name. I am looking for any blind or disabled officer." She was nonchalant about it as if this was an everyday request.

"Excuse me?" He looked at her. "Is this a joke? If it is, it is in extremely poor taste."

"No, I am quite sincere. I am looking for a blind or disabled officer to marry."

"Marry?" The colonel sat back in his chair.

"Yes. As you know, the war has wiped out much of the aristocracy. I've already lost my fiancand my two brothers. I've been raised to fulfill one role - wife - and I've no desire to be an old maid, so marriage is my only option. A wounded officer is an acceptable substitute for a member of the aristocracy."

"I'm sorry, your Grace, but my patients are not pets to be adopted." He stood to indicate that their interview was over. "If you have nothing else, I think our time is over. I have a hospital to run."

# # #

If the commander would not help, Lady Acton reasoned that assisting in a hospital would allow her to meet an acceptable husband, so she decided to volunteer.

The next morning, she went to the hospital and stopped an orderly who was dressed in a blue hospital uniform with a pinned-up sleeve. "Excuse me."

"Yes, Ma'am?"

"Can you tell me where I can volunteer?"

"Are you a nurse?"

"No. I thought I could read to the patients or write letters for them."

"Then it would be the Red Cross. You'll find them around the corner on High Street."

"But - "

"Nurses go to Voluntary Aid. Everyone else goes to the Red Cross." He had repeated this line many times.


"COMING MATRON." He turned back to Emily. "Now, if you'll excuse me. I'm wanted. High Street, Miss."

# # #

Once on High Street, she found the office by the flag flying outside.

Addressing a woman at the front desk dressed in a black pinafore, Lady Acton asked, "Is this the Red Cross?"

"No, it's the Swiss embassy."

"No need to be sarcastic. I'm looking to volunteer."

"Uh-huh." The woman looked her over. As expected for someone in her station. Lady Acton was dressed in the latest fashion. "I suppose you want to read or write letters for the troops."

"Yes, I thought it would be helpful." She actually had no idea about what was needed. Her only desire was to be in a position to consider her prospects.

"Let me guess. You're a posh toff and want to tell your friends how you're 'doing your part.' Well, we don't need that. What we need is people willing to muck in. If you're not willing, you can sling your hook."

Lady Acton was not used to being talked to that way, nor was she used to being challenged. She stared at the woman. "I will do what is necessary."

"Now that's more like it." The woman grabbed a form and pushed it across the desk. "You fill this out, and I'll get you sorted."

"Thank you." Lady Acton looked over the paper, which asked if she had any skills. She couldn't cook, clean or do anything else the form asked about. Under 'Other,' she wrote, 'Fluent in French, Italian and passable in German' and returned the form.

The Woman looked over the paper. "Well, at least we won't need to unlearn any bad habits. Says here you speak a bunch of languages. How's that?"

"Finishing school in Switzerland."

"Oh, you are a posh toff." She handed Lady Acton a pamphlet. "Well, here's the rules. Make sure you know them. You need to buy your uniform over there." She pointed to a side room. "I'm guessing you can afford it--report tomorrow morning at eight to Matron Roberts at hospital in uniform and no jewelry. Don't be late and don't be out of uniform. She is a bit of a dragon."

# # #

The next morning, Lady Acton knocked on the door marked 'Matron.'


She stepped into the office.

The woman at the desk was in her late thirties and appeared angry at something or possibly the world. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

"I'm Lady Emily Acton. I was told at the Red Cross to report to Matron Roberts."

The woman at the desk dug through the papers on her desk. She finally found the paper she was looking for. "So you're Acton."

"Yes, although I am usually referred to as your Grace."

"That's 'Yes, Matron,' and from now on, you're just Acton. Understood?"

"Yes, Matron." Emily was reminded of her worst headmistress.

"Good, now that that's clear, let's see." She put on a pair of glasses. "You have no skills except language. Welsh or Gaelic would have been more useful." She tossed the paper back on her desk. "Right, I'm assigning you to help a nursing sister for now. She'll show you the ropes." Matron Roberts stood and strode out of the office. When Lady Acton didn't follow immediately, she turned and bellowed. "Well, don't just stand there; follow me." Emily almost had to run to keep up with the matron. They finally came to a set of double doors. Mrs. Roberts did not slow down and pushed right through. Acton barely made it into the ward before the doors closed behind them.

The ward consisted of two rows of beds filled with wounded. All were missing arms or legs or a combination. Many also had parts of their faces bandaged. At the end of one row, two nursing sisters were trying to wrestle a young man who was screaming and fighting them.

"PRIVATE JENKINS!" Mrs. Roberts shouted and advanced until she was in front of the young man's bed.

Her shout got his attention because he stopped struggling, stood and came to a semblance of attention.

"Matron!" He answered.

"Sisters, you can leave him now. Back to your duties." The two sisters retreated from the scene. "Now, Private, what seems to be your problem?" Acton saw that half of the soldier's face was covered in bandages, and he was missing his right arm.

"Sorry Matron. Nightmares, Matron." His voice faded at the end.

"Right. You're with me. Get your robe on." The soldier struggled to put on his robe but couldn't tie it closed with one hand. "Sergeant Carew, help him. No one wants to see the private's privates." A man missing both legs and in a wheelchair came over and tied the robe. "Now, Jenkins, you follow me." Matron Roberts turned to address the rest of the ward. "You men still taking the King's shilling?"

"YES, MATRON!" Came the reply from all.

"Well, start acting like it. I want you all in proper kit and your areas squared away when I get back. Understood?"


"Good. Sergeant Carew, I'm holding you responsible as a noncommissioned officer to do your job."

"Yes, Matron!"

Mrs. Roberts turned to the ward sister. "Sister Kennedy, you've been asking for help, and here she is, although I don't know how much assistance she'll be." Mrs. Roberts shifted her attention. "Acton, you do what Kennedy says, and you might learn something." With that, she and the soldier left.

"You heard Matron." Sergeant Carew called out, "Get yourselves sorted. Give a shout if you need a hand ... or a leg." He wheeled himself up and down the ward, directing the men.

"Well, you've met Matron." Sister Kennedy was more soft-spoken than Mrs. Roberts.

"I can see why I was told she was a bit of a dragon."

"Matron, a dragon?" Sergeant Carew interrupted. "She is one of the finest nurses in the hospital."

"How can you say that the way she orders you all around?"

"She treats us as soldiers and not children. Gives us a bit of dignity, she does. Now, she's going to take Jenkins to her office, give him tea and a biscuit and let him tell her all about his nightmares. Then she's going to let him cry in private, so he won't shame himself in front of us. Though we've all done it." His attention turned to a soldier who was struggling to make his bed. "Here now, Clyde, you know better. Now unmake that corner and start again."

"Well, I guess I should fill you in. By the way, I'm Peg when Matron's not around."

"I'm Emily." Matron Roberts had made it clear that her rank meant nothing.

"You any nursing training at all? First Aid?"


"Well, you'll learn quick here. For now, you'll help keep the place clean, empty the bedpans and give the men baths as needed. I hope you're not prissy about that."

"I've seen naked men before." On more than one occasion, she had come across her brothers and their friends swimming naked in their estate's lakes.

"Good. Right now, I need you to clear the breakfast dishes while I get things ready for doctor's rounds."

Sergeant Carew rolled up next to them. "We can lend a hand--those of us who have them, that is."

"Thank you, Sergeant," Peg said.

Carew yelled for a few men to start collecting the dishes. He and other wheelchair-bound soldiers placed them on their laps and wheeled them to the meal cart.

# # #

Emily arrived back at the family's townhouse just before supper.

"There you are, dear. I was about to tell Cook that I'd be dining alone. Well, you have a little time to change."

"I need to bathe first. You will not believe what they had me doing."

"You can tell me about it at supper. Don't be long. Cook said dinner is about ready."

It was about a half hour before Emily was washed, changed and seated in the dining room.

"Better, dear?"

"Much." Emily turned to the butler. "Jenkins, can you please bring me a very large whisky?"

"Of course, your Grace." He returned with her drink while the soup course was served.

"That bad?" Her mother asked.

"You would not believe. They had me emptying bedpans and cleaning up sick. When I wasn't doing that, I was mopping the floors." She downed her whisky. "Whatever we are paying the maids, it isn't enough."

"What are the people like?" Her mother asked.

"The ward sister I'm working with is nice, but the matron is an absolute beast. She has no sense of courtesy. You should hear her bark at the soldiers. I should report her for abusing the wounded. It must be against the law."

"What do the soldiers think of her?"

"They absolutely love her," Emily exclaimed. "They say she treats them like soldiers and gives them some dignity."

A fish course replaced the soup course.

"You know, when your father and I were stationed in India, there was a company sergeant major that I thought was horrid. He was this short Cornishman. Anyway, he used to yell at the soldiers and called them all kinds of names. I asked your father about him. He said the men considered him the best sergeant around."

"You're kidding."

"No. He told the soldiers that his company was the best in India, and he expected them to maintain those standards."

"And did they?" Emily started on her fish.

"Oh, yes." Her mother stated. "They had the fewest discipline problems and the best performance in regimental competitions. The men took great pride in being part of his company."

"What happened to him?"

"Unfortunately, he got cholera and died. My point is soldiers take pride in discipline."

"I suppose."

"And what are the soldiers like?" Her mother asked.

"In surprisingly good spirits given the extent of some of the injuries." Emily was quiet and stared at her plate. "They've lied to us. The press and the government, they lied to us. It's not pretty, and it's not glamorous. Some of the injuries. They're horrific. Young men, almost boys, who've lost legs, arms." She put her fork down and faced her mother. "There's one soldier, Jenkins. He's lost an arm and half his face. He's not even nineteen."

Emily's remarks silenced their conversation. They finished the meal in silence, the only sound being their forks on the plates.

"Let's have dessert and port in her sitting room." Her mother suggested.

Once they were settled and dessert served, they resumed their conversation. "Well, the whole thing sounds horrible." Her mother stated. "Someone of your rank acting like a between maid. And exposing you to those disgusting conditions."

"Yes, Mother." Emily only picked at her dessert but quickly finished her port before pouring herself another one. She stared at it.

"Emily, what are you thinking?"

It was a while before she answered. "This was one of the worst days of my life. The smells. The men swearing and screaming when their bandages were changed. Having to hold a man down while they scraped away dead tissue." Emily downed her port in one. "It was like being in Dante's Inferno. I don't know how the nurses do it."

"I take then that you are not going back."

Emily looked at her empty glass. "On one hand, what I saw, what I experienced will haunt me forever."

"And on the other hand?"

"At the end of the day, I was exhausted, smelled and horrified by what I had seen. Then Matron Roberts came by, looked me over and said, 'You look like hell. But Kennedy says you stayed at it. Most quit by the mid-afternoon. See you tomorrow.' "

"And will she?"

Emily stood up and smoothed her dress. "Yes, because for all the horror, this is the first time in my life I felt that I was more than an ornament." Emily went over and kissed her mother on her head. "Now, I'm going to have my maid show me how to clean my uniform so I can have it ready for tomorrow."

"Let Cook know when you'll be wanting breakfast."

# # #

Emily returned the next day, the day after that and the day after that. In addition to housekeeping, over the subsequent weeks, she learned how to change bandages, debride a wound and restrain a patient without getting injured--the last after receiving a black eye and a bruised cheek.

A few months later, she reported to the ward but could not find Sister Kennedy. Assuming that she was busy elsewhere, Emily started her usual routine of cleaning away breakfast dishes and collecting and cleaning bedpans. She had just returned from washing the last bedpans when Mrs. Roberts arrived.

"Acton! There you are."

"I don't know where Sister Kennedy is, Matron."

"She's sick. Some type of flu. You're in charge today."

"But ... but I'm not a nurse."

"I know that," Mrs. Roberts stated. "Kennedy's taught you how to change bandages?"

"Yes, Matron."

"She's taught you how to debride a wound?"

"Yes, but --"

"You know how to order this lot around so they're not faffing about?" This got a round of laughter from the patients.

Emily allowed herself a grin. "Yes, Matron. You could say that I was born to it."

"Klein!" Matron Roberts turned to a patient.

"Yes, Matron!" A soldier answered.

"You're an RAMC orderly, aren't you?"

"Yes, Matron"

"Good. You give Acton a hand running things."

The soldier raised a stump that ended at his wrist. "Matron."

"You've another hand, man. Stop entertaining yourself with it and help her." The patients started to laugh and make remarks until Mrs. Roberts glared at them.

"Yes, Matron."

"Now that we've got that all sorted," she returned to Emily. "If you make it to the end of the day without killing anyone, we'll count it as a success."

"Yes, Matron."

"Good. Now I'll be back when I can to check on things." Mrs. Roberts left. Emily looked around at the expectant patients. She had been brought up to organize a dinner party, not to run an amputee ward.

"It's okay, Miss." One of the sergeants spoke up. "Better men than you have tried to kill us."

# # #

A week later, Mrs. Roberts stopped by the ward around midnight.

"Evening, Matron." The orderly on duty whispered.

"Evening, Johnson." She pointed to the corner of the ward. A screen was pulled around a bed, but she saw a small light behind it. "What's that about?"

Johnson looked over. "That would be Miss Acton. Came back to sit with Corrigan. He's not long."

"Hmmph." Mrs. Roberts walked quietly over to the screen. She heard a soft voice reading, "How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God."

Mrs. Roberts joined in, "Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself."

"Matron." Emily stood up. "I was just --"

She nodded at the soldier in the bed. "How is he?"

"I don't think it will be long. I've tried lowering his fever, but nothing seems to work."

Mrs. Roberts checked his chart and his temperature. "He's got blood poisoning. There's nothing to do for it." She turned back to Emily. "What are you doing here? Your shift ended hours ago."

"I didn't think it would be right for him to die alone."

"I see. Well, carry on. I'm duty Matron tonight, so stop by my office when he passes or if you decide to leave."

A few hours later, there was a soft knock on Mrs. Roberts' office door. "Come in."

Emily entered. "He's passed. I've told the morgue. They're collecting the body now."

"Have a seat. Unless you're in a hurry to get home."

"Thank you." Emily pulled some papers out of her apron. "He told me some things to pass on to his family."

"So, you finally got to read to a soldier and write a letter." It was the first time Emily saw Mrs. Roberts smile. "Give it here. I'll make sure it gets to his family along with his things." Mrs. Roberts put the letter in her desk and took out a bottle of whisky and two glasses.

She opened the bottle, poured them drinks and pushed a glass over to Emily. "Drink?"

"Thank you, Matron."

Mrs. Roberts poured them drinks and passed a glass over. "Slnte."

"Slnte," Emily answered, knocked the drink back and put her glass on the desk. Mrs. Roberts refilled it.

Mrs. Roberts sipped her drink. "What you did tonight, it was a good thing."

"Thank you, Matron."

"So, Emily," It was the first time Mrs. Roberts had called her by her first name. "What are your plans when this is all over?"

Emily sighed. "I don't know. It used to be all clear. Be received at Court, find a suitable husband, marry, and have a family." Emily finished her second drink and put the glass forward for a refill.

"And now?" Mrs. Roberts filled the glass again.

"Well, my fiancand many of the male aristocracy are dead." Emily drank some more whisky. "I originally volunteered to find a blind or disabled officer to marry."

Mrs. Roberts chuckled. "So, how'd you end up cleaning bedpans?"

"I was told to volunteer for the Red Cross." She punctuated her remarks by finishing her whisky. "So, I did. After that, I was too stubborn to let you think I wasn't up to it."

Mrs. Roberts laughed and then leaned forward. "Have you thought about nursing?"

The whisky and long hours began to affect Emily. She raised herself in her seat. "I am Lady Emily Acton of the Lincolnshire Actons. We do not work for a living." She looked at her dirty and blood-stained apron and then broke out in giggles. "Well, I guess I've broken that rule."

"That you have. I knew you were posh, but I didn't know how posh.

"My mother and grandmother were both ladies in waiting to the late Queen. Posh enough?"

"Posh enough."

"Well, thank you for the drinks." Emily started to stand. "But I will be going now." Emily began to teeter.

Mrs. Roberts came over and helped her onto a small couch in her office. "I don't think you're going anywhere, princess."

"Duchess." Emily's voice began to fade. "I've a cousin who's a princess if you would like to meet her." She was asleep by the time she finished the sentence.

Emily woke up the next morning, looked around and realized where she was. "Shite!"

"I see you've picked up something in your time here." Mrs. Roberts was at her desk reading a newspaper.

"Matron." Emily tried to stand and ended up back on the couch.

"There's coffee and a bacon butty for you, as soon as you're able to stand."

"Oh, God." Emily realized that waking up in Matron's office meant she had not returned home. "Mother will be worried to death."

"I sent an orderly over last night to tell her we were busy and you were sleeping here."

"Thank you." Emily could finally stand and walk over to Mrs. Roberts' desk. "I don't know what happened. I usually handle my whisky much better than that."

"I think working eighteen hours before had something to do with it."

"More than likely." Emily took a long drink of coffee and a bite of the sandwich.

"Well, congratulations, Acton. You've now completed the nursing experience."

"Excuse me, Matron?" Emily's head was beginning to clear.

"You've been hit by a patient, had them go sick all over you, and stayed up with a dying patient. And then got drunk when they died. Every nurse I know has spent at least one night on a Matron's couch." She pointed to the sandwich. "Now finish your butty. You can wash up in there." She pointed at a door. "I found a fresh uniform for you."

"Thank you."

"Now, to it! You're back on shift in twenty minutes."

"Yes, Matron."

# # #

"Kelly, I know this hurts, but we don't have any morphine. If I don't clean this wound, it will go septic, and your Susan will be planning a funeral and not your wedding."

"Yes, Miss Acton."

Emily turned to the soldier standing at the head of the bed. "Wilcox, not having a leg doesn't mean you can't hold him down. My great aunt can do better, and she's seventy."

"Sorry, Miss Acton."

"Okay, now let's try this again." Emily leaned over and started scraping away the dead tissue from the burns that covered most of Kelly's torso. She did not notice Mrs. Roberts and the hospital commander outside the treatment room.

"What's going on here?" He peered in. "I see, debridement. No morphine?"

"No, Sir. That's what I mean by the problem with the shortage of drugs."

"And why is that nurse dressed as a Red Cross volunteer?"

"That would be Miss Acton. She's been filling in as a ward nurse for the last three months. I meant to talk to you about her."

"I should say so. We can't have amateurs working on the patients." He rushed into the treatment room. "Stop at once!"

Emily was still examining the wound to make sure she had cleared all the dead flesh. "I'll stop when this is dressed. Now, whoever you are, hand me that bottle of alcohol." Mrs. Roberts handed it to Emily. "Kelly, this is the last bit. I'm going to pour some alcohol on to kill what my knife didn't get. Are you ready?"

"I'd be better if you poured that in me instead of my wound."

"I promise you a nice bottle of whisky when you get released. Ready?"

"I said Stop!" The Colonel grabbed Emily's arm.

"Let her finish before all that work goes to naught." Mrs. Roberts pulled the colonel back.

Emily ignored them both. "As I was saying. Ready?" Kelly and Wilcox nodded. Emily slowly poured the alcohol on the wound. She then padded it dry and wrapped it in gauze. "You all right, Kelly?" He gave a weak nod.

She patted his shoulder. "You did well. Wilcox, you did well, too."

"Thank you, Miss."

"Now, you two can stay here until Kelly's feeling better. I'll be right outside." She then turned to Mrs. Roberts. "Matron. Can I help you and the colonel?"

"Outside, now!" The colonel ordered.

"Yes, Sir." Emily followed them into the hall.

The three of them left the treatment room. "What are you playing at, treating a patient? You're not a trained nurse."

"You're right. Sir. I learned by filling in when all the trained nurses went to France."

The commander realized who she was. "I remember you. You were looking to marry any blind or disabled officer."

"That was months --"

"I don't care. I won't have you working in my hospital. Get out now and do not return. I will give orders for you to be arrested if you do."

Emily looked at him, took off the dirty, blood-stained apron and dropped it at the Colonel's feet. She turned to say something to Mrs. Roberts but was scared that she would cry if she tried to talk.

"It's all right, Emily. I understand." Mrs. Roberts said.

# # #

"You're home early, your Grace." Jenkins and the house staff had gotten used to her coming home late in the evening. "Your mother is at Lady Reynolds for dinner. Cook is only preparing a meal for the staff."

"That's okay. I'm not really up for anything right now. Please ask Cook to leave a cold plate if I change my mind."

Jenkins had gotten used to Emily coming home tired but not in her current mood. "If I am not out of place, your Grace, is anything wrong?"

"Yes, but nothing you need to worry about it. I'm just going to go wash and change. I don't need my maid."

"Yes, Miss. Please let me know if there is anything I can do."

Emily went up to her room and took off the uniform that had come to mean so much to her. Although she had left her apron at the hospital, the uniform still showed traces of blood and smelled of antiseptic. She hung it up, put on her robe and lay down on her bed. The purpose that she had found in her life was gone. Once again, she would be a decoration with no purpose except to look pretty and entertain.

An hour went by, and she was still thinking about how empty her life had become when there was a knock on her door.

"Yes?" She sat up in bed.

"There's a Mrs. Roberts for you, your Grace. Shall I tell her you are not receiving visitors?"

Matron, here. What could she want? Emily thought.

"No, I'll be down in a few minutes. Please show her to the library." Emily got up to dress. "And offer her a whisky."

Emily was dressed and down in the library in fifteen minutes. "Matron. I'm sorry for keeping you waiting. I wasn't expecting anyone."

"So, your man said." Mrs. Roberts raised the glass. "But if this is what you offer, then you can leave me in here all you want."

Emily grinned. "I'll have a case sent to you. But what brings you here? Am I in more trouble?" Emily had imagined what the hospital commander might charge her with. In the rush of war, Parliament had passed a slew of laws. She had probably violated one of them.

"Well, you left your post and patients. That would be dereliction of duty."

"I have never been derelict, and you know it!" As much as she and Matron had formed a friendship of sorts, she would not allow her to accuse her of that. "I was always on time and served my patients to the best of my knowledge. If I am derelict for leaving the ward during my shift, it is that idiot colonel's fault."

"Your patients?"

Emily had not realized what she had said. "Yes, my patients. I'm the one that has been with them every day, changed their bandages, listened to their stories." She remembered Corrigan. "... and sat with them when they died." That was it for her. She collapsed on the couch and started crying.

Mrs. Roberts moved beside her and put an arm around Emily's shoulders. "That's okay. It's what I told the Colonel."

Emily wiped her eyes. "You did?"

"I did. I told him that you stepped in as a ward sister months ago, and none of the doctors found fault in your work. That I thought you were an exemplary nurse even if you hadn't been trained. There was also talk of a possible mutiny."

"Mutiny? I never --"

"Not you, your patients. Kelly and Wilcox told them you'd been fired. They threatened to camp out in front of the commander's office until you were reinstated."

For the first time since that afternoon, Emily had a reason to smile. "That's because I promised Kelly a bottle of whisky."

"Anyway, the Colonel saw the error of his ways. You're back on shift tomorrow at eight in the morning."

"I'm sorry, but I'm going to be late." Emily finished drying the last of her tears.

"Listen, Acton, just because you won this, don't think -- "

"I am signing up for nursing training first thing tomorrow morning. In a perverse manner, the last few months have been the best in my life. I think I want to do it for a bit longer."

"Well, in that case, you don't have to report until ten."

"Thank you."

"And not one minute more."

"Yes, Matron."

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