The sense of justice of an individual and that of a group, regardless of its size, can sometimes be at odds with each other. It is not uncommon for a community to pull in one direction while the heart of a person to be elsewhere altogether, their moral code determined by their innermost beliefs rather than those professed by the society they find themselves in by birth. And even though birth itself can, on occasion, bestow an unsuspecting soul with all the riches and comfort the world has to offer, it can also put the person in a situation in which they have to choose between what is considered noble and what they feel is right in their heart. Such was the case of Lady Meredith.
She was of noble birth, belonging to a family that had held an esteemed position in society for longer than any record was able to show. With such status naturally came considerable wealth which may or may not have been the source of said esteem to begin with. Be as it may, her kin were rich and her future was secure. Even with four sisters and two brothers, Meredith still knew her parents would be able to provide an ample inheritance which would either serve as a dowry or allow her to live a life of comfort even if she was to remain unmarried or end up a widow. She herself had no objection to marrying and all the thoughts and aspirations of her young heart had been directed towards finding a soul as noble as hers to be joined in holy matrimony. Meredith was a modest and sincere young woman, one blessed with every fine trait of character, moderate in her thoughts and feelings, and generous towards all.
As such, and materially provided for, she was sure to attract many suitors. Meredith’s was only to pick and choose. She herself, much to the delight of her parents, seemed determined to employ both her heart as well as her rational mind in selecting the right husband. After spending the summer season in London, followed by a three weeks in Bath, she came home with a clear idea of who her choice would be. Young Lord Algernon seemed just the catch. Tall, exceptionally good looking, heir to a vast estate and a title to boot – his military career has placed him in the focus of anyone following the situation in Crimea or any other battlefront for that matter. He was a fine soldier, a natural born leader, and was rising through the rigid hierarchy of the army rather quickly, perhaps quicker than anyone at the time. His fame was already great and his already substantial wealth grew with it. In addition to that, he also possessed all the charms and graces expected from a man of his age, and seemed like a well-educated, well-intended, honest young fellow. What time he and Lady Meredith had spent in conversation give her the impression that they were on the same page on many things in life.
Still, as good as he was on paper, as happy as she was over the prospect of having him as a husband, and as likely as her parents were to approve – she somehow immediately felt his presence was too strong for her delicate nature. He was all that he was supposed to be, all that he was expected to be by society at large, by mothers and fathers alike – even your average novelist would pick him as their hero. Yet something wasn’t right. Behind his truly charming and highly attractive exterior laid something that Meredith couldn’t quite put a finger on it but that made her ill at ease. Still, she decided to do the sensible thing and marry for all the negative impressions she may have had seemed purely in her head, a product of her imagination of which she herself often thought had the tendency to run wild. So, they married and, to everyone’s eye, seemed destined for the happily ever after.
A couple of years went by and everything seemed to be just as it ought. Lord Algernon spent some of his time in battle, commanding the troops and himself fighting bravely for his country and the queen, earning one medal after another. The newspapers were full of praise for his valour and skill, for his dedication and ability to lead to victory even when all the odds were agains him and his men. Being a good husband as he was, he also made sure he spent enough time at home and took good care that his wife and their children. Yes, children arrived soon enough, each of the four born the summer after the previous one has rocked the cradle. Algernon made sure they had everything they could possibly need. Meredith had practically nothing to complain of and to her, and to those around her, life seemed a never-ending string of blessings. Yet, deep inside, something wasn’t right. Even if her mind couldn’t articulate it at first, she felt a constant sense of fear and apprehension.
Just like any good wife would, Meredith closely followed the news from the front – any front Algernon would find himself on at the time – and took close notice of each and every word that was reported. Most of it was unabashed praise for her husband – almost a national hero at that point – who had secured victory after victory for himself and his troops. She read every word, every single one, over and over, many times and, as much pride and joy she was supposed to feel – she couldn’t. Each report, as laudatory as it was, also came with numbers – numbers of enemies slaughtered, soldiers captured, numbers of towns and villages won over, numbers of miles of land conquered… What was to become of these people, these lands? What was their fate after the dust had settled? Even if the supposedly more noble, more civilized, more advanced side won – would they be shown mercy and compassion? Or would they end up just being numbers in a newspaper article and nothing more?
She couldn’t help but think, over and over again – was this something that was correct and truly morally right? Was Algernon the hero of the nation or something different altogether? Was he there to protect or simply to viciously attack and destroy? Were the wealth and comfort they were enjoying justly earned or simply spoils of war plunged from those that may or may not have deserved such a fate? All these and a thousand other questions swirled around her head and she couldn’t drive them out, no matter how hard she tried. Was the man that was supposed to be her very own a fighter for justice or a cruel war lord? She didn’t know. She had no way of knowing, away from the world, away in the ancient halls of his ancestral home, surrounded by every comfort, by refinement and elegance, but ultimately trapped in a gilded cage of her own making. Still, she continued reading and continued keeping track of the situation.
Over time, her inner strength, inner sense of justice, or at least what she perceived to be justice, only grew stronger. Instead of a loving husband, or at least a good partner in life, she started seeing him as the enemy, the bloodthirsty villain that took pleasure in death and destruction. Good as he was to her, kind and generous – her impression grew stronger with each passing day. Every time he would come home to spend time with her and their children, she would be torn between giving him the respect, love and affection he appeared to deserve, and rejecting him altogether – chasing him out of her parlour, out of her dining room, and out of her bed. Truth be told, he never once exhibited any sort of violent or even mean-spirited behaviour towards her. In every sense of the word, he was the perfect husband. Meredith’s inner voice however couldn’t agree. It kept getting louder and louder, sounding like an alarm, boisterously announcing the most recent death toll from the battlefield.
She had to do something, anything, to fix the problem, to get out of the situation, release herself from the prison and be able to help others, to stop being an accomplice and instead start fighting, fighting against something that she was trapped in but wanted to be no part of. Her strength grew, her determination too with it. He was home again, after one of his missions in the east. Now was her chance to put him on the spot and demand answers to each and every one of the questions that were swirling around her mind for months, even years. What was he doing? What was the nature of his missions? Were his soldiers as brave and as noble as the public wished to see them? Were they really fighting for a just cause or was something different altogether the ammunition for their deadly weapons? Her mind was overwhelmed by thoughts and ideas she barely dared to touch. Each would but rush through her brain, leaving a toxic trace behind it, only to make way for the next frightening idea. Meredith couldn’t bear it anymore. She had to know.
She sat at the edge of their large canopied bed, in her white, flowing sleeping gown made of most precious silk. Her hands clenched the side of the mattress and her nails dug into the sheets. She was waiting for him to come into the room. Soon enough, he quietly opened the door, believing her to already be in repose. The candles glimmered but faintly and the heavy canopy concealed her from his view. Algernon gently tiptoed over the lush, soft carpet towards the bed. He finally noticed her sitting on the edge of it and decided to approach, intending to surprise her with a kiss. Before he could do so, she took the pistol that, until then, was hidden in the folds of her flowing white nightgown and fired a shot that went straight through his heart.
Dead silence took over the vast country house. None of the servants were close enough to hear the shot. All was still. Algernon laid dead on the lush, soft carpet covering the floor of the room. Meredith was not one bit disturbed by the situation. Instead, she finally felt free. She felt as if she had rid the world of a demonic creature that wasn’t doing anyone any good, that was no hero but a villain, a destructive force seeking to obliterate any trace of all that was pure and humane in this world. “Let the wretched souls of his victims feast on his damned spirit.” she thought to herself. It was a moment she had been waiting for for years, even if unconsciously – a sudden gust of courage and strength that she knew not whether she even possessed. And yet she did. It was there. It had condensed itself into a force that, sooner or later, had to catapult its projectile towards him and obliterate once and for all all his evil doing. The shot was fired. It was all over. Or was it?
Of course not. It was only now that her life was beginning. She was finally free to pursue her dreams of helping others, of becoming a benefactor of many, of sharing the immense wealth she would inherit with those in need, with the poor close by and the victims of Algernon’s bloodthirsty military pursuits far away, as a way of begging forgiveness from those that her now dead husband had hurt. Her dreams were grand – of becoming the new Florence Nightingale she has heard so much about. Still, she was not to be a Florence Nightingale working for and with the army but against it, against all that is violent and cruel, against all that is inhumane, against all the ills of the world! But was she really to expect this to become reality? Would it really be possible for her own, individual sense of justice to overcome that of the multitude, of the community, of society as it was – as it is?