Until six years ago, I was not a woman used to upsetting people.
I have always been quick to temper I will admit, but never had my anger burned so utterly incandescent as it did that late December morning on which I learned of my brother's intention to decline enlistment in Her Majesty’s army. Having accepted the Queen’s shilling in the form of drink from a recruiting sergeant in a public house the night prior, Harry had all but sworn an oath to serve. As his sister, I am ashamed to say my brother broke his word to our country.
On that very same day I left his home and moved to Town to live with our great aunt Vera, a lonely spinster for whom I cared until her death not long after. During the weeks I lived with Aunt Vera, I spent my days planning tactics that might allow me to make up for the cowardice Harry had shown the Crown on behalf of our family.
Once I settled on my course of action, I found a mentor in the form of one Doctor Margaret Tucker. Maggie was a gregarious woman some ten years my senior and one of a very few female doctors in the country, possibly the world. She had masqueraded as a man at the University of London and studied medicine until the new law passed that allowed her to take on her proper title as a woman and a doctor.
With Maggie I trained intensively for three years in both the science of medicine and the art of the masquerade. My intention was to claim practical training at the hands of a country practitioner and sit the University’s medical exam under the name John H. Watson. It was a name common enough not to attract scrutiny but similar enough to my own Jeanne to avoid any confusion while I played my part.
I dearly wished that I could sit the exam as a woman like Maggie had done before me, but it would then be impossible for me to enlist as an army surgeon and serve my country as I had originally set out to do. Regardless of how it pained me to hide, I persevered. In the winter of 1877, my dedication paid off and I officially became Doctor John H. Watson. The next day, I cut my hair and donated all of my feminine attire to charity. My new life as a man had begun and I wasn’t looking back.
Almost immediately, I began my training as an army surgeon and rose through the ranks even as I carefully built and maintained my male persona. The following spring, I began employment in Her Majesty’s army as an assistant surgeon and was attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers in India. War had broken out again in Afghanistan during my training and my assigned corps was already deeply entrenched in hostile territory upon my arrival in Bombay. I, along with several other officers and corpsmen in the same position as myself, followed the regiment to Candahar where we arrived safely and with little hassle.
We had seen a few skirmishes on the road of course, unavoidable in the Candahar region, but our skill was greater than that of the Afghan tribesmen and so the trouble was not terrible. Along the way I was introduced to Bill Murray, a corpsman who had also been assigned to the Fifth and what’s more, was to be the orderly directly beneath myself. I was none-too-eager to become well-known among the men for fear that I would be discovered, but despite my efforts, Murray befriended me. In the weeks that followed, we became quite close, reservations be damned. Though naturally I refrained from ever letting slip my real identity.
A month into our occupancy of Candahar, we encountered our first real engagement. Murray and I, having become very much attuned to one another during the course of our acquaintance, worked in concert, retrieving and treating as many men as we could get to through the smoke and chaos of battle. It was horrifying to see the men falling all around me, to find myself elbows-deep in a man’s guts with bullets flying past my head. I was very nearly overwhelmed entirely until I recalled Maggie’s stern voice soothing my panic at my first handling of a human cadaver. With her admonishments echoing in my mind, I strove to regain my calm and carried on with my duty.
Once I had myself pulled together, the horror slowly gave way to an exhilaration the likes of which I had never before felt. I was racing to and fro through the melee, dragging soldiers to safety and treatment. Focused as I was on the task of hauling a fallen gunman up over my shoulders, I failed to notice an Afghan tribesman sneaking up behind me until his bullet burrowed its way into my thigh. I spun around as my leg gave out beneath me, drawing my pistol just in time to kill the man before he could get off another shot.
Still, I collapsed to the sand and might have bled out right on the field beside my own patient had Murray not appeared. He hurriedly tied a tourniquet tight above the wound and lifted me in his arms. I protested his assistance fiercely, demanding instead that he retrieve the man I had initially gone to aid. He simply gripped me tighter, and froze for just a moment when his hands fit to curves he well knew belonged to no man. Held so close, I could see in intimate detail his lips tightening in anger. Before that moment I had never been more terrified.
Afterwards, there would be no denying it. Murray knew my secret and I was certain that it would only be a matter of time before the betrayal and his humiliation at having been fooled caught up to him enough to incite retribution. In the meantime, I steeled myself and continued tending my patients, slowed though I was on my wounded leg. The bullet had lodged itself too deeply to remove but I was determined that I would do my duty for as long as they would allow me and longer if I could manage.
Days passed and Murray said nothing. My leg slowly healed and we went about our regular work, tending the men and talking no more than necessary. I would often notice him looking at me, considering, and every time it sent ice through my veins. After a week, I was living on tenterhooks, certain that I would soon be exposed as a woman, branded, and sent back to Britain in disgrace.
Nearly two full weeks after after his discovery, Murray approached me in the medical tent during the first evening watch when no others would be around. He told me how angry and betrayed he felt that I had lied to him so completely and that he had almost decided to reveal me as a deceiver to my fellow officers before his good sense took hold. It seemed he had spent the last weeks thinking his position through and came to the conclusion that my gender changed nothing between us. He told me that while I had operated under false pretenses, he understood that my accomplishments were my own and my character was unchanged. We would be the same friends we had been.
In that moment, I loved Bill Murray desperately.
We talked through the night and he later revealed that his father, who had also been an orderly in the army, had reported to a man named James Barry. If his father was to be believed, and Murray assured me he was, this James Barry had been in the same situation as myself and had played the role straight to his grave.
During the three years that followed, Murray helped me to keep my secret and proved himself time and time again to be an intensely honorable man and an invaluable confidante. We grew closer and closer and in his company I began, despite myself, to feel not only like a man, but almost like a woman again as well. My gender ceased to matter. I stopped being male or female and simply became John Watson. I have never been more of my own self than in the time I spent in Afghanistan with Murray.
Had it not been for Maiwand and the events that followed, we would likely have continued in much the same way. As it was, the Fifth Northumberland became overwhelmed in a staggering fashion in the Maiwand Pass, our defenses shattered by the shocking number of tribesmen previous scouts had failed to report. There was little we could do but defend ourselves as we were able and by God, to a man we did everything in our power.
Before Maiwand, I had already been privy to the horrors of war many times over but as the piles of my countrymen laying slain in the dirt grew higher and higher with every passing minute I could not bring myself to comprehend the massacre occurring around me. It must simply have been sheer bloody luck that I was not already counted among the dead.
In the end I was foolish and made an astoundingly misguided attempt to rescue a wounded officer laying just behind enemy lines, half concealed by a stretch of fallen boulders. I had not got anywhere near him when a bullet impacted my shoulder near the clavicle and I was thrown backwards into the rocks. The wound I had sustained all those years ago in my thigh could never compare to the agony I felt then. It was as if the entire rest of my body had caught fire, but what scared me more than anything was the utter numbness in my left arm. I could hardly breath for the pain and panic but I still remember myself screaming desperately to the heavens, begging to feel something, anything so I could at least know that the limb was still there. Or maybe I only thought it.
Regardless, I would later regret those words with all my heart.
I only know what happened after that because Murray told me himself a month later when I finally awoke from what I learned had been the burning grip of Enteric fever. He reminded me yet again weeks later after I succumbed to illness a second time and forgot. When I awoke from the third and final bout of fever, it was to Murray’s mournful face and the news that during the treatment of my wounds and the sickness, I had been found out for a woman and would be returned to Britain just as soon as I could be moved.
Murray had managed to convince our commanding officers to forego the punishment branding in face of my service and current condition. Nevertheless I was to be sent back, disgraced. The story of a woman impersonating a medical officer in Her Majesty's army, along with the date I was expected to make port would be sent ahead to the London papers. My real name would not be published because they did not know it and I refused to tell them but it would not matter when news reporters would be lining the docks with equipment set and ready to photograph the scandalous deceiver. Sooner or later, my face would be recognized and any chance I might have had at a new life destroyed.
A month later my shoulder was almost healed, with only small restrictions of my movement, but I could not bring myself to be happy. Not long after that I was made to don the old skirts of one of the nurses and to plait the hair they had not let me cut in the hospital. It was so dressed that I saw Bill Murray for the last time on Indian soil. The thought of being seen in such a state, of being viewed as what I no longer considered myself by Murray of all people, nearly had me undone right there in the hospital. But I have never been excessively emotional as a woman and certainly not as a man and so in that moment I restrained myself.
But then Murray embraced me tight, held me fast in his arms and all at once I realized exactly what was being taken from me and I could no longer hold back the tears. I didn’t sob or weep or wail, nothing so dramatic. I stood there, unable to even return his embrace as I shed bitter tears and felt them soak into his shirt beneath my face. I stood there for a long time, heart and body aching, a dull throb in my shoulder and in the leg that before had so rarely troubled me. Not once all the while did he loosen his grip, not until my escort forced our separation.
I do not remember much about the journey back to Britain, nor do I care to. My grand plan for family honor had failed most spectacularly and in all the hurt that I had caused, that was the least of it. I could not bear to contemplate anything else. Until six years ago, I was not a woman used to upsetting people. Now I had become a woman who had done nothing but upset people.
The battle at Maiwand was unutterably terrible. The events that followed shamed me more than I can express and the life I built first as a man and then as myself ended. Had fate taken a different turn, I might have completed my service and returned to Britain, might have become Jeanne again of my own volition and married Bill Murray. I might have been very happy in that life and the realization of that is and always will be agonizing.
And still I can’t help but feel perversely grateful for all of that. Because if everything had not played out exactly so, if everything had not been just right...
I never would have met her.