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The Story of Deborah Sampson
By Sheila Solomon Klass
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2009 Sheila Solomon Klass
All rights reserved.
1. The Smock-faced Boy
"He's dead." The nurse's voice rang out loud and clear, indicating that she felt no further need to whisper. Then she slipped into the chaplain's solemn role for a moment and spoke more gently. "Rest in peace, Robert Shurtliff."
"Amen," the two orderlies responded.
"All right, gentlemen" — immediately, she was businesslike and brusque again — "let's clean up."
There followed a fearful clatter of instruments and bottles and tin basins.
Indeed, the corpse was not dead.
The corpse was me, and I was terrified.
Their voices came to me unevenly as echoes quivering over a long distance. These medics had done all they could possibly do, inspecting and pummeling me as they tried to revive me, as they sought a pulse, a heartbeat, any small sign of life. They'd given up after working for what seemed like hours once the plague cart, which carried the sick of Philadelphia to this almshouse converted to an army hospital, delivered me tied up in an old army blanket.
"Puking black and burning with a fever for four days," Mike O'Connor, the driver, reported. He was a bluff, red-faced, elderly man, with the resounding voice of a town crier. The nurse heard him, but, fortunately, the others around me were too sick themselves to listen.
He was eager to hand me over but had to wait while the orderlies cleared a body from a pallet.
"This soldier wouldn't go near a hospital, but when his skin turned yellow — well — the other men in his tent decided that the British couldn't kill him, but this fever might. So they wrapped him up and gave him to me."
The nurse's fingers searched for my pulse.
Finding that there was not a clean sheet left, the orderlies laid me on the bare, stained, straw mattress.
"They should have sent him when they first saw the jaundice," the nurse complained. "We've posted warnings everywhere. Soldiers are supposed to obey orders. Why did they wait so long?"
"Because," Mike said, "this lad's stubborn as a mule. They tried but he just wouldn't go. He swore to them that his folks' skin always colored this way when they were sick, and it was a natural thing."
"Pshaw!" The nurse dismissed that idea. "They should have forced him to come."
"Maybe he'll still make it," Mike said hopefully. "According to his mates, he fights like a tiger though he looks a bit of a sissy."
I could have done without that last bit of opinion, but it hardly mattered in this chaos, this hot stinking dispensary.
"I can't breathe in here," Mike complained, fanning his face with his cap. "'Tis truly like the plagues in the Bible." He coughed hard in the dense musk that came of medicines, blood and urine and vomit and human waste.
Men on cots were crammed side by side into every possible space. I lay below them on the floor in one of the rows of aligned mats covering the walking areas. The attendants had to tiptoe around the edges. Some of the sick slept; others groaned or cursed madly. One or two managed to stagger to their feet, turning into ghastly bandaged dancers toeing their way about until they were recaptured by orderlies. Most patients were bedridden and inert. Once in a while, a sleeper would wail pitifully for a mother or wife, for a missing leg or a lost sense.
Next to me lay a freckled, carrot-topped lad who couldn't have been more than fifteen, a black cloth sealing his eyes as if he were "It" in an interrupted game of blindman's buff. "I can't see, Mother," he whispered over and over, his open hands imploring. "Who will care for the chicks if I can't see?"
"You will see, Patrick, darlin'," the nurse comforted him. "You must rest now. I promise, you will see."
The boy turned and suddenly reached out to clutch Mike's shin. "Help me to see," he begged.
The nurse gently extricated the cartman's leg. "Step round over here, Mike. Give me the information on this soldier, then you can go."
"R-O-B-E-R-T S-H-U-R-T-L-I-F-F. Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, Light Infantry. Rangers under Captain Webb."
She recorded it. "Age?"
"Eighteen? A smock-faced lad," she said as she made her notes. "With that flaxen hair and no beard on his cheeks, he is more like sixteen."
The driver was coughing again. He pulled at his collar.
"Mike, I've kept you too long. Time to go and collect some more."
Driven by a Christian impulse, Mike lingered a moment longer to kneel beside me and whisper, "Good-bye, Bobby Shurtliff. God be with you."
His parting words rippled away from me as if carried by waves under water, the sounds growing fainter as the plunge deepened. My eyes followed Mike's macabre exit dance, first around Patrick and then around the other bodies and bedding and bedpans, the only path out of this charnel house. He leaned forth as if into the wind in his eagerness to be out of there. Though he did his driver's job responsibly, he surely did not relish his deliveries.
The nurse glanced over at Patrick, who was quiet now, and then at me. "A war fought by younger brothers and striplings," she muttered resentfully.
With gentle fingers, she repeatedly sought a pulse at my wrist till at last she sighed, pressed my eyelids closed, and pulled up the winding sheet. "We're done here," she said. "Notify Matron Parker and call the undertakers. I've got to make rounds."
On the spur came two hardened gravediggers to arrange for the burial.
I, though fully conscious, could not speak and did my best not to move. First and most immediate, each ghoul took hold of one of my boots and tugged so violently that I was sure they were trying to yank off my feet.
Then the grisly clowns began at once to quarrel.
"He will have no need for leather boots where he's goin', Pete," the first hoarse jocular voice decided.
To which there was a cackle of agreement. "You're right, Georgie. No need for them in potter's field."
"I'll have the boots then. They'll just fit me, for I'm tall as he is."
"Boots! You're wearin' the boots of the last bloke," Pete protested. "You've only got two feet. I can trade these — I'll get a good price for 'em."
"You take the britches," George rejoined.
"Britches don't bring much. Let's toss for it," the other scoundrel suggested, and in a moment he'd won the toss and claimed the boots.
"Well, let's see what other worldly goods 'e's got," the loser grumbled.
Quickly, they pulled the cover sheet off me so that they could divest my body of its valuables. My great terror was that in the next moment they would strip off my breeches and thus reveal to the world what was private. I lay rigid.
"Wait!" The matron arrived and took command. She was old and sharp, and she thwarted them and saved me. She crouched down low and bent close, and then, making a horn with her hand over her mouth, she called as loudly as if she were signaling in the Alps, "Yoo-hoo, Robert Shurtliff, can you hear me?"
I needed to be left for dead.
I had no idea whether my rigid pose fooled her.
Again, in a voice truly loud enough to summon goats or, indeed, raise the dead, she roared, "Robert Shurtliff!" Then, again, she waited.
Surely she would now declare me dead and turn away.
Lying prostrate and holding my breath was good practice for being buried alive, a terrible fate but preferable to being discovered.
"Matron, this one's a corpse if I ever saw one," affirmed the boots-fancier enthusiastically.
"The poor sod's 'ad it," the other ruffian agreed. "Let's get on with the buryin' before he rots here and spreads the fever."
"I need to see your diploma before you practice medicine here," she snapped. "Be quiet so I can judge."
Waiting for her to declare me dead, I was agonized by the effort it took to control my weakened body. I was further disheartened by this indomitable woman. Why would she not believe her eyes? Why would she not accept defeat?
Give up and go away, I willed silently. I'm dead.
Holding my breath proved a mistake, for I suddenly gagged and a paroxysm seized my body.
The matron started. "Hark! He is still alive." She set her ear to my chest.
I could no longer suppress my heavy breathing.
"Dear Lord," she murmured, thankfully. "Yes, he is alive."
Rising now, she turned to face the undertakers, directing her fierce anger at the boot-holder. "Soldiers are to be buried with dignity, not robbed or stripped. Put those boots down and give me your billets."
There were whimpers of protest. "'E looked dead to me and already wearin' wings. 'E had no need of boots."
"Go, you two rascals, or I shall have you both court-martialed for grave robbing."
As they stumbled out, she summoned the sentry. "Fetch me Dr. Binney at once. One of our cadavers has risen from the dead!"
Her triumphant cry heralded my doom. Next there would be discovery and public ignominy. The nurse had closed my eyes and now I kept them sealed in despair, and I did my best not to listen to what was being said about me, for there was nothing I could do to save myself. Therefore I did not see the doctor with the distinguished goatee enter, consult with the nurse, and kneel down at once.
He thrust his hand inside my military jacket, feeling for a pulse. "Yes! There may be something!" he exclaimed softly. "Indeed — there is definitely something!"
His examination was hampered by the undergarment I had fashioned: a firm linen inner cloth, shoulders to waist and buckled in the back. It was a contrivance that tightly bound my chest, compressing all and blocking the doctor's fingers.
In a single motion of impatience, Dr. Binney lunged forward and ripped the cloth in two.
Then he freely inserted his hand. First there was an instant gasp of recognition, followed by a long silence once his fingertips truly identified what they'd brushed against. Breasts.
"Incredible!" He covered up my bare chest hastily.
I kept my eyes shut tight because my shame was so immense. Nothing but disgrace and humiliation could come upon me now. What would they find?
A young woman disguised as a man.
A young woman who had run away from home.
A Christian female clad in a man's clothing.
A soldier in the Continental army who had lied at the swearing-in. Who had slept in the barracks among men. Who had managed this deception for more than a year and a half.
Whatever my good intentions, my noble charade would be read as folly, as stubbornness, as boldness — as madness.
My tentmates and Mike had saved my life by bringing me to this hospital, and thus unwittingly exposed me to hideous dishonor, such as few women in the colonies had ever known.
"Rest in peace." Piously, the nurse had pronounced me dead. Ah, would that it were so. For only in death would I be at peace.
* * *
The doctor, distracted, was silent. He remained kneeling beside me.
"Dr. Binney?" inquired Matron Parker.
"This patient is most certainly alive," Dr. Binney declared resolutely, and he now hurried to take from his bag a small flask and administer a good dose of brandy, forcing it into my closed mouth and spilling it freely down my chin.
"Praise God," the good woman whispered. "It's a miracle."
"More than you know," the doctor muttered, a certain irony in his tone.
He performed a quick, cursory examination. "This soldier is very sick — a rare malady. He will die in this crowded place; he must be moved at once and sequestered. This is a most curious case. I shall attend him in my own home, where Mistress Binney herself will do the supervising. Isolation and privacy are crucial in this instance."
"In your own home, Doctor?" Matron Parker was clearly surprised. "You have never once before — all during this long war —"
"Matron Parker," he started very softly but firmly, "I must rely on your discretion as I always have in the past. This case is extraordinary. I have never encountered one like it in my career. I trust you to care for him now till I take him away, and once he is gone you will forget that he exists."
"Yes, Doctor." Matron Parker respectfully accepted his judgment. "I shall follow your orders exactly. Private Shurtliff is lucky that he was brought here to you."
"Lucky? Hmmm. I'll grant that he's had extraordinary luck, if we discount the fact that he is mortally ill."
This doctor knew!
For the first time, a man knew my secret. If it disgusted him or horrified him or outraged him, he kept it to himself. He did not say a word about it. He went right on treating Robert Shurtliff.
My thoughts were filled with gratitude: You, sir, are an amazingly kind man. Because I am very ill and mute, you will try to help me recover before you turn me in, as is your duty. I will be sent to prison. Since I am now on my deathbed, that is hardly of consequence. It will simply come down to the name on the toe tag of a corpse. What matter is it if I be buried as Robert Shurtliff?
The doctor immediately began to prescribe medicines and poultices. He sent the matron off to commandeer a bed so that they could raise me from the floor.
Before she returned, he bent down and spoke close to my ear. "Blink twice rapidly if you understand me."
I did as told.
"I believe you have a secret. Blink if that is so."
He watched closely.
"It is safe with me. If you can speak, say your name."
There was silence.
"Illness and shock have deprived you of words. Should your voice return, do not use it or all is lost. I shall give it out that you are mute and need special care.
"Blink if you understand me."
"Perfect!" he said softly. "Now we are medical co-conspirators." And he rose.
When Matron Parker returned with an orderly, the doctor informed them, "The patient is mute from the illness."
"We must remove his soiled gar —" the matron started, but the doctor stopped her. "No. Let him rest. He is too feeble to be hastily handled here. A bed gown over what he's wearing will cover him for now. In my home he will be cleaned up and all his contagious clothing fumigated."
The doctor stayed on just long enough to supervise a careful transfer of me to the bed. "I shall notify my wife at once to send our carriage as conveyance," he told the matron. "Dispatch the patient to my house just as he is, the sooner the better. Till then keep him absolutely isolated."
Hastily, he took his leave.
"The doctor has probably recognized some rare dangerous ailment," Matron Parker confided to her aide. "He is very knowledgeable about such things."
Within an hour I was bundled into Dr. Binney's private chaise and driven to his home, where his cordial wife was waiting. "Welcome," Mistress Binney called from a safe distance as she supervised the coachman and the maid, who together conveyed me inside and upstairs. "You will recover quickly here," she called after me. "You must look upon our home as yours."
Installed alone in a vast, book-lined room at the top of the house, I was so weak and feverish that once in bed I immediately abandoned consciousness for sleep. For several days I mostly slept and swallowed food and drink, only feverishly aware of the activities around me; the coachman helping the doctor change the bed linen, the doctor attending me periodically with medicines and compresses or examining me. These two attendants were like gentle shadows spoon-feeding me and applying cool compresses to my burning brow. They plied me ceaselessly with chilled drinks, for even in my stupor I was ravaged by the fever's thirst.
When I finally truly awoke, I found myself washed and freshly clad. The fever had broken. I lay in this handsome attic room, apparently the doctor's study, for the books on the shelves were huge volumes, probably medical texts. On opposite walls facing each other, two human skeletons dangled from hooks.
I did not care much for these roommates. Mind, I am not afraid of skeletons; still, they offer no conversation and are not pretty sights. But I had little choice. Pete and George I christened them. "You see what happens to grave robbers," I instructed them silently. "Now, you have little use for boots. And you will surely never sprout wings."
Days had passed — I knew not how many — but I was now alert. And alone. I was, of course, happy to be alive, and then quickly despondent. Unable to decipher the doctor's motives, I feared the worst. Why was he protecting my secret? Why had he not turned me over to the military? I was completely at his mercy. Had he told his wife of my situation? How could he have explained it? There on the luncheon tray alongside the crockery was a lovely red rose. Did Mistress Binney know I was female? Into my head came vague recollections of swallowing savory soups and smooth creamy puddings, which she must have prepared. What did she think? A small glass vase on the night table contained other short-stemmed blossoms, two tulips, a lily, and a sprig of rosemary. Surely they were gifts from earlier meal trays, kind tokens from the lady of the house. But I, myself, had not been visited. Of course, there were young daughters — their hushed laughter drifted up and was a sweet sound — and they had to be shielded from the disease.
Still — I was powerless, an unprotected young woman. Was he going to take advantage of my desperate situation? Surely not. I'd overheard Matron Parker say that he was a man of integrity and character, a fine doctor, and he had, indeed, saved my life.
Excerpted from Soldier's Secret by Sheila Solomon Klass. Copyright © 2009 Sheila Solomon Klass. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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