Kiev, Russian Ukraine. August 22nd, 1914. The Kiev they returned to was a changed city. Soldiers were everywhere, and not the neatly uniformed soldiers who could be seen in parades on holidays: conscripts in ill-fitting brown field tunics, Cossacks in wide-skirted coats, and more exotically uniformed soldiers from further East.
Russian troops had crossed into East Prussia and Austrian Poland, and while news was vague, contradictory, and prone to sudden outbursts of enthusiasm, there was at least general agreement that the New Russia was in full swing. Thousands of miles of track had been laid, telegraph wire had been strung, reforms had been carried out, and surely in return for all this effort the Empire would be spared the humiliations which had come with the Russo-Japanese war ten years before.
War preparation had become fashionable, and at last Madame Luterek found herself prized for what she was, the wife of a famous surgeon, rather than feeling herself to be an art student’s clumsy and smudged copy of the masterpieces that were those born into position and wealth. Flattering little notes poured in on elegant stationery.
“Madame Luterek, My charitable society is packing bandages and other necessities for the field hospitals. We would be honored if you would join us and provide your advice.”
“Madame Luterek, I am sponsoring a hospital train for the treatment of wounded officers in our noble war effort. I would deeply value your assistance in choosing everything that is most modern and up to date.”
“Madame Luterek, I will be giving a charitable soiree to raise money for sending care packages to the front. Would you and the Doctor Luterek be willing to attend, and perhaps speak a few words regarding the wonders of modern medicine as it is applied today?”
Dr. Luterek himself had no truck with such society philanthropy. The hospital was expanding, with new wards being set up in a mansion lent for the purpose by Prince Mikhailov, and he was now a sought-after voice of authority in both medical and government circles. Money was flowing to the hospital, and he had been tasked to oversee the drafting of a new manual on the proper dressing and drainage of wounds. Madame Luterek, however, was eager to accept these newly offered honors. Not only did she herself accept every possible request for her time, but since she was much taken up with paying calls and attending meetings with the various noble and wealthy personages to whom she was suddenly dear, she deployed Sara and Lena, and Natalie with them, to roll bandages, assemble packages of comforts, and otherwise help to do the legwork of charity.
This meant that the girls’ lessons did not resume after the summer holiday, with only languages kept up in an informal fashion, but the girls thrived on the chance to feel themselves useful in the great national effort. Natalie also found a sense of satisfaction in doing some small piece of work to aid the sacrifice of Mother Russia’s soldiers, though being more than half a foreigner in her own land it seemed more natural to think of them in the pages of Tolstoy than as the actual men slogging down the streets in their brown uniform tunics. She also found in the aid work a welcome escape from the glances which, at moments of tiredness or frustration, Madame Luterek still cast at her. No word had yet been heard from Konrad since his departure. Each day Madame Luterek, after eagerly looking through the morning mail, would explain out loud to herself that the military post was still in chaos with so many men in motion for the mobilization, but she could not help afterwards resting her eyes on the young governess to whom her son had promised to write.
Thus it was that on Saturday, a week after the family’s return to Kiev, Natalie found herself happily occupied in the hospital’s new ward with her charges and a half dozen other young women -- in a grand, wood-paneled library of the old mansion, the shelves now emptied of books and lighter rectangles showing on the paneling where paintings that had long sheltered the wood from the darkening effects of the sun had been taken down -- folding up many-tailed bandages according to the instructions of a Red Cross nurse.
The technique was simple. First the thick, square pad of cotton, designed to stem the bleeding of some chest wound, was laid flat on the table. Then the “tails”, yard and a half long strips sewn onto each side, were paired off, pinned together at the end, and rolled up until the pad had a neat row of tail rows lying in the center. Lastly the pad itself was rolled up, and the whole bundle was placed in the case along with all the others.
“The tails on this one are not the same length,” Lena complained. She held up a pair of tails, one a foot longer than the other.
“Shoddy work,” the nurse supervisor ruled, after inspecting it. She pulled a pair of scissors from her pocket and trimmed the offending length. “This is the consequence when society girls are making bandages while paying more attention to their gossip than to their work. Let this serve as a lesson to all of you.”
Lesson given, she strode away to check on the work of another group of volunteers in the next room. Lena knit her brows and silently performed an imitation of the nurse’s scolding, drawing titters from another young woman.
“Lena,” said Natalie warningly.
The girl sighed and wrinkled her nose in annoyance, but went back to rolling bandages. Conversation returned to whether there would still be balls in the fall season despite the war.
This talk quickly blended into a background noise for Natalie. She thought of the Red Cross nurse, whom Lena had so casually mocked, comparing that figure with her plain gray wool dress, white nurse’s apron, and pinched expression to the young women around her in their summer frocks, cheerfully chattering away while wrapping bandages for wounded soldiers.
The volunteer work of the last week had provided a welcome change from the previous week at the summer house, when she had too often felt the ire of Madame Luterek on her and known that she was thinking of her treasured eldest son and the danger that he would be ensnared by a governess. Not only did rolling bandages and making care packages provide a welcome change from that silent accusation, taking her small part in the war effort provided a new sense of place and purpose which was welcome to her. It was the nurse, however, even with her air of tired frustration, with whom Natalie identified, not the cheerful young women volunteers around her. Soon these volunteers would tire of this activity and move on to some other minor piece of war-related charity or else abandon volunteerism entirely and return to their usual activities, and the hospital would not run the worse for their absence. Indeed, even as she diligently tried to do everything as instructed, Natalie wondered at times if the hospital would work more efficiently without their help than with it. However, if that nurse left, her lack would no doubt be noticed and regretted. She knew the purpose and the right way of doing things, and it seemed clear that her work was essential, not some mere hobby of the moment.
As Natalie was thinking about these things, a young woman from another team of volunteers, assigned to fold and put away bed linens, hurried into the room.
“A troop train has returned from Poland,” she announced, “and there are wounded aboard. The first patients have been moved into the officers’ ward!”
All work stopped.
“Wounded officers?” “What’s happened at the front?” “Has there been a battle?” “Of course there must have. How else could they be wounded?” “Did we win?” “Is the war over?” “How many wounded?”
The newcomer led the way down one hall and then another, past newly constructed shelves and stacks of supplies, and into what had been the ballroom, the wide expanse of polished wood floor now broken up into private niches by walls made of wood frames and white canvas. Above it all, incongruously, still hung the two huge, crystal-bedecked chandeliers, which had given light to different gatherings at which some of these same young ladies had danced with officers in brilliant dress uniforms just a few months before.
Two orderlies entered, carrying a stretcher between them with a wounded man on it. The other volunteers drew back, crowding Natalie back as well. Standing on tiptoe she could see over them a view of the officer being carried in: a gray military blanket covering him from the waist down and above a swath of bandages covering his chest, left shoulder, and the horrifyingly short remains of his left arm. His right arm and shoulder were uncovered, white flesh pristine beside the wreckage of the other. His eyes were open, his mouth a tight line which twitched at the movement of the stretcher. The men carrying him paused, as if uncertain where to go next.
A nurse strode in, her gait all confidence compared to the hesitation of the orderlies.
“Bring that man to the assessment station.”
The orderlies obeyed and set the stretcher gently down on the white draped table that stood in the center aisle between the rows of private niches. The nurse approached the officer, who asked her some question in a voice too quiet to be heard from where they stood. The nurses answer, however, was in a clear, firm voice, “Yes, it is. No more transfers for you. This is a long term ward.”
She lifted a paper tag that was pinned to the officer’s blanket, read it, nodded, and then looked around.
“You there!” It was clearly directed at the small crowd of young women volunteers standing as spectators. “What are all of you doing here?”
No one answered, and there was awkward shifting from foot to foot. With a surge of embarrassment Natalie noted again the contrast between their brightly colored dresses, their untrained eagerness and curiosity, and the nursing sister whose gray and white uniform and commanding professionalism seemed at home in the surroundings of white canvas walls, white sheets, and gray wool blankets.
“This is no place for gawkers, but since you’re here, two of you come this minute and make yourselves useful,” the nurse ordered.
For an instant no one moved. Natalie was mortified for them all, but determined that she at least would not follow shallow curiosity with timid uselessness.
“Come on,” she said to the others, and approached the nurse. For a moment no one else moved, and then she heard the sound of another woman’s boots on the wooden floor behind her. A quick glance over the shoulder and she saw that Sara was following her, eyes wide and mouth tight.
“There are no updates written on your tag,” the nurse was telling the officer. “Has anyone changed your bandages since you were treated on Wednesday?”
He shook his head.
“I’m going to have to change the outer bandages and check for signs of infection.”
She began by unwrapping the outer bandages on the stump of his arm. “No drainage tube,” she said. “Old fashioned field doctors. Dr. Luterek will not approve.” She set the bandages aside and took a notepad and pencil from her apron pocket. “You’re to take notes,” she said, handing these to Sara. “Dressings not changed since Wednesday. No drainage stent.” She sniffed at the stained under-wrappings she had revealed. “No smell of infection.” Now she reached pulled back a little of the wrapping on the shoulder. “Shoulder is warm and shows some inflammation. You,” she indicated Natalie, “Hand me the scissors over there.”
Natalie took the scissors from the side table and handed them to her. The nurse began cutting away parts of the bandages on the officer’s chest, and as she gently pulled away one of the bandages she had freed Natalie realized that what had looked an intricate nest of wrapped bandages was in fact several of the many tailed bandages such as she had just been helping to roll. The thick pads were laid across the shoulder and chest, in overlapping layers, and the long tails were then looped around the back and tied to hold the bandage in place without having to wrap a long bandage round and round the chest.
As the nurse pulled away layers of the bandages they began to come away wet, not with blood but with a slightly yellowish liquid, and a sick-sweet smell of pus and infection began to rise from the wound. The nurse was moving more and more slowly. She started to lift another layer of bandage and the officer’s body jerked sharply.
“I’m sorry,” she said to him, in a voice much softer than she had use with Natalie and the volunteers.
He nodded, tight-lipped. “Is it bad, sister?” he asked after a moment.
“There is some infection,” she said. “The surgeons may have to open it up to remove dead flesh and put in a proper drainage stent that will allow it to heal better. I won’t take off any more now, since the doctor will have to look at it anyway.”
She turned to Natalie and thrust the handful of soiled bandages into her hands. “Go put these in the soiled bag over there.” Then turning to Sara, “Write this down: Signs and smell of infection in left shoulder wound. Significant drainage. Surgeon assessment required.”
As Natalie carried the bandages, whose smell set her teeth on edge and made her back tense, to the bag for soiled linens, she saw that Sara’s hand was trembling badly as she wrote. Surely this was nothing compared to what the officer himself had seen on the field of battle, and yet she found herself horrified at the darkened and soiled bandages she was carrying. The cheerful talk and gossip while rolling bandages earlier in the day now seemed almost sacrilegiously inappropriate to the end for which those bandages were made: covering the wounds torn in human flesh by pitiless lead and steel.
After disposing of the bandages she stood looking down at her hands. She could still smell the drainage from the wound and didn’t want to touch anything until she had found some way to clean her hands.
The nurse saw her. “Over there. The white bowl is carbolic solution. Wash your hands in that, and then rinse them in the water in the blue bowl.”
The acid solution stung her hands, but after she had rinsed and dried them the smell of infection was entirely gone, replaced with a chemical smell which was at least one of cleanliness.
The orderlies were carrying the officer away from the assessment table and to one of the beds. The nursing sister turned on the volunteers. “You’ve had your eyeful now, and I have other patients to assess. Off you go.”
They obeyed, and during the rest of their volunteer shift conversation was much more restrained.
Sara in particular was nearly silent as they finished their work and during the taxi ride back to the Luterek house. Natalie put a hand on her shoulder as they reached the front door. “I’m sorry. I felt we had to do something, but… I didn’t know.”
She nodded fractionally. “I’m thinking of Konrad. You must think of him every day too. That couldn’t happen to him, could it?”
Of course it could, she could not deny it. And while there was a sense in which she thought of Konrad every day, it was not with the longing that his younger sister imagined. But what to say? She hugged Sara to her for a moment instead, and her charge gave a quiet sniff.
It was tea time. Natalie and the girls took a few minutes to freshen themselves and then reported to the sitting room. Madame Luterek was already seated by the samovar, a porcelain cup of tea in her hand and a pile of rather formidable little cakes at her side. It was the gracious ritual of the female afternoon, and yet her expression was not particularly gracious as Natalie and the girls joined her. Indeed, there was something in her look that suggested the outraged Russian bear in all its maternal glory.
Sara and Lena each drew tea from the samovar, took a cake to gnaw on, and retreated to a chair in silence. Natalie felt Madame Luterek’s gaze heavy upon her, but unconscious of wrongdoing reached for a tea cup and waited for developments, which were not long in coming.
“Is there anything that you should be telling me, Mademoiselle Nowakówna?” Madame Luterek asked.
Natalie hesitated. Surely only something to do with Konrad could inspire this level of hostility. If there was some new offense that she had committed on that front, she had no idea what it was, and yet long experience in a school in which it was held that any girl who had managed to give offense to some figure of authority must surely know her guilt -- indeed must have intended it from the bottom of her sinfully begotten soul -- told her that the one thing which was unforgivable was to express ignorance of the wrong, not matter how real that ignorance might be.
She bowed her head and remained silent, knowing that the offense would be revealed soon enough.
“The afternoon post has just arrived,” announced Madame Luterek.
Something from Konrad? Natalie bowed her head again, as if this brief factual statement of Madame Luterek’s were itself enough to explain her guilt.
“This arrived for you,” said Madame Luterek and handed her a letter addressed to Natalie in Konrad’s bold handwriting.
Natalie set down her cup of tea and accepted the letter. Yes, a letter from Konrad, and from Madame Luterek’s behavior, doubtless the only letter from Konrad. How could he think that he would win her through this behavior? For a moment she remembered the injured officer and found it in herself to wish that Konrad had suffered a similar fate, only to whichever hand it was that he used to write. Was he right or left handed? She did not know. That was the ludicrousness of it. She knew so little of him. She wanted nothing of him but to be left alone, and yet he was determined to try to win her in a fashion that made her life miserable.
Conscious of Madame Luterek’s eyes on her, opened the letter.
There were two sheets, each written on both sides. She skimmed down the page. Flattery. Oh God, how could he say that about her? She flushed. Didn’t he know that she would have to show his letter to his parents if she didn’t want to be suspected or even turned out of the house? No, doubtless he did not. That would require him to put himself in someone else’s place and think of them.
“His squadron has crossed into East Prussia, along with the rest of the First Army,” she said aloud, reading further. “Listen to this. ‘Yesterday we saw two men, out of uniform, on bicycles watching us from the top of a hill. They were clearly watching the progress of our formation, and Captain Soldetsky asked that my men and I run them down. We gave them a good chase over open roads and at last captured them as they attempted to take refuge in a barn. They would admit to nothing before the captain, but they were clearly spies and so we had them shot and the farm they were taking refuge in burned.’”
“Spies!” exclaimed Lena.
“There’s more. He says, ‘Today’ – the letter is dated the 18th, so that is Tuesday – ‘we saw our first real action. A dozen German Uhlans were seen deployed to the West. The whole squadron gave chase and we had a glorious charge over gently rolling land. They fell back behind a skirmish line of Jager troops, at the edge of a line of trees, who gave us fire. We couldn’t charge them on account of the trees, but we gave them a pair of volleys from our carbines and then fell back over the rise. The captain informed the field artillery, and they let loose a very satisfying barrage of shrapnel shells after which the infantry went over the ridge and occupied the treeline without difficulty. We are all very satisfied with ourselves and had a feast tonight during which I broke open a case of the champagne I’d bought in Warsaw.’”
She skimmed over a section in which he speculated as to how he might greet her when he returned, in order to celebrate the triumph of Russian arms, then relayed, “He says they are approaching Konigsberg with overwhelming force and expect that the war will be over quite soon.”
Sara and Lena were thrilled with this news, which entirely erased Sara’s anxiety from the day at the hospital. They insisted that she read it again to Borys when he returned to the house an hour later, and yet again at dinner for the benefit of Dr. Luterek. Madame Luterek did not criticize further, but it was clear that although she was excited at the news from her son, her resentment that it had come only to Natalie and not to the members of the family was not yet mollified.
That night Natalie sought out the doctor in his library and gave him the whole letter to read.
“This letter is to you,” he said, “and although you are a part of this household as the girls’ governess, you do still have the right to your own privacy. You do not need to share every letter that you receive with me.”
Natalie studied his face, which was set a grave expression.
“I know. And you’ve been very kind to me. But I want to you read the letter because I did not seek it, and there are some things which he says which…” she searched for the right words that would express her discomfort without reflecting badly on the family’s favored son.
“Ah, I see,” said the doctor, and accepted the letter.
He put on his spectacles and read it carefully. To Natalie, standing before him and watching him slowly turn the pages, knowing what it said and watching for his reaction, it seemed to take an age. At last he folded it and returned it to its envelope.
“I must ask you a somewhat indelicate question, after reading this letter,” he said, taking off his spectacles again and rubbing his brow with his fingers.
Natalie squared her shoulders, for she felt that she knew the sort of question that must be in his mind. “Yes?”
“Have you… had relations with my son?”
Knowing that the words were coming had not in any way prepared her for the shame of hearing them spoken aloud. She flushed and looked down at her skirts.
“Did he try to persuade you to?”
Her face burned and she wished that she could suffer any other indignity than this. The doctor’s tone was not unfriendly. It was as if he were interrogating a patient about some troublesome symptoms. And the cough, did that start on Monday as well? But the indignity of it was felt as if she had been caught in the middle of some indecent act and forced to answer questions without having anything with which to cover herself.
The doctor himself looked away, scratched the back of a knuckle, fidgeted with the envelope to which he had returned the letter, embarrassed at his own question and the answer he had received.
“I am sorry.”
She felt a wash of hope mixed with shame. He understood, and yet, what a thing to understand.
“You are a good girl,” he continued, still looking down at his hands rather than at her. “I am sure that the sisters would be pleased with your behavior. And I’m sorry that you were tested thus in my house and by my son.”
He fidgeted again with the letter. It was clear that he was not angry with her, and yet Natalie found this of curiously little comfort. All she wished was for the interview to be over and to be safely in her room, where she felt tears would come.
“I appreciate your candor in showing this to me. I will assure Madame Luterek that I have read it and know you to be blameless, but you must understand that she cannot see it. We can none of us quite know the feelings of a mother whose son is at war, and I do not think that she could bear to think her son had behaved dishonorably in any way. So this must be your secret. And mine.”
At this last he lifted his gaze to meet hers. She gritted her teeth to keep her jaw from trembling. Sobs wanted to come out, of anger, of loneliness among this family which she was close to and yet was so definitely not hers, so instead of speaking she nodded.
“Thank you, Mademoiselle Nowakówna.”
It was a dismissal, and she accepted it gladly. Without another word she turned and hurried from the library. No one saw her as she rushed up the back staircase to her room or as she cried into her pillow.
The next day was tense, and she made it pass by accompanying Mrs. Sowka to church and then, in the afternoon, going to the hospital to help again, while the girls were occupied with more familial pursuits.
Monday’s morning post brought two more letters from Konrad, one addressed to Dr. Luterek and the other to Sara. The following day brought two more, for Lena and for Madame Luterek. Last of all, on Wednesday, came a postcard for Borys. All had been written on the evening of the 18th and told of the brief cavalry engagement, but the chaotic state of the military post had apparently separated them in transit. Madame Luterek made no apologies, but her eye was, for the present, no longer accusing when it rested on Natalie.
On Friday evening Natalie again approached Dr. Luterek in his library and asked for permission to volunteer at the hospital on a full time basis. The girls were now busy on a new project of their mother’s, helping to organizing the writing of letters to comfort and encouraging those suffering bravely at the front. Wounded soldiers and officers, those injured seriously enough to justify shipping them far from the front for a long recovery, continued to arrive at the hospital, and while the trained nurses provided medical care, and the orderlies washed floors and emptied bedpans, there was need for women volunteers to help with the more everyday needs of the patients.
“The girls are so busy right now I don’t know when they will be ready to return to lessons,” said Natalie. “And the work at the hospital-- I feel that I’m doing something important.”
“Is it so uncomfortable for you here that you’d rather spend time spooning porridge for injured men?” the doctor asked.
There was some truth to this, Natalie acknowledged to herself. The wounded officers were grateful for her help, and the nurses were tolerant of her now that she knew enough of their world to be more help than hindrance. There was none of the awkwardness around the topic of the absent Konrad, ready to spring up at any moment.
“It’s good work,” she said.
“Indeed it is. And this is a medical family. Well, I certainly have no objection. You’ll maintain your wages as a governess and live here, but for the duration of the war (or until you tire of it) you may volunteer at the hospital. Perhaps you can just make sure that the girls read a good book in French every so often when they’re not busy packing comfits for the soldiers.”
“Thank you!” Natalie said. It was the most truly happy she had felt in weeks.
End Part One
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