Mariella’s fiance, Dr. Henry Thewell, is already there, serving in the understaffed, underequipped hospitals of that woeful war. That they are so nightmarishly unprepared is partly Henry’s fault: He’d been part of an advance team that was supposed to get everything ready.
However, the civilian surgeons were unable to imagine either the scope of the casualties, the bitterness of winter in Russia, or the possibility of cholera. The exalted medical minds also forgot that wounded men need bandages.
“Imagine a building the size of one of your new London railway stations, just as empty but a hundred times dirtier and older, the only provisions a handful of bedsteads, a few sacks, and a dozen bottles of port,” Rosa writes to Mariella in one of the few letters that make it back to England. “Imagine that a couple of steamers come puffing and snorting up to the ramshackle jetty outside and discharge 300 wounded men, each in need of warmth and sustenance and skilled nursing. Imagine that what they find instead are half a dozen Rosas and a clutch of nuns, all more or less empty-handed and in a state of shock. That’s the hospital at Koulali.”
“The Rose of Sebastopol” opens with Mariella traveling to Italy in 1855, to visit an ailing Henry. Their reunion is more romantic than Mariella ever dreamed – until a delirious Henry moans Rosa’s name. Once he regains consciousness, he explains that Rosa disappeared and has been missing for months.
Henry, himself, seems blasted in both his health and ideals.
“I hacked off body parts and called it surgery,” he tells Mariella. “Dear God, I could have saved so much pain, in my time, had I been issued with a pistol so that I could have shot all my patients in the head and had done with it.”