I'm back from the summer break as rested as one can be while writing a novel and training for a half marathon. My goal is to post sections at least once a week. This one begins Chapter 13 which returns to Natalie in Russian Ukraine. There will be a total of three installments of Chapter 13.
Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 18th, 1914. Sister Levchenko pushed open the door to the small sitting room where Natalie and Elena were having an afternoon cup of tea while trying to discern the war news from the oblique reports of the afternoon edition of the newspaper.
“Nowakówna. Nikolayevna. Make a up bed immediately. There’s a new patient being brought in.”
She hurried away without waiting to hear the other two women’s response. The gray wool uniform dress and large red cross on her white apron gave her authority over the voluntary aides as complete as that of any doctor.
“There wasn’t a hospital train due today,” said Natalie, as they cleared their cups and saucers from the table.
Elena shrugged. They were the only volunteer aides that day. If they had to prepare a whole ward it would have taken over an hour at breakneck pace. One bed, however, was a quick task to practiced hands.
They spread crisp white cotton sheets which gave off the smell of disinfecting wash -- a small which at first had seemed harsh and chemical, but now conveyed a wholesome purity to their nostrils. Blood, dirt and infection conveyed danger; chlorine and carbolic solution were the weapons against those foes.
“Do you ever think of becoming one of them?” Elena asked, smoothing the regulation grey wool blanket.
“Who?” Natalie asked, tucking the bottom corners beneath the mattress.
“A red cross nurse.” Elena moved the big canvas-covered frames into place, turning the bed into its own private niche, ready for its patient. “They do all the real work. We might as well be maids, and they’ll be just as happy to have real servants when all the respectable ladies have tired of playing white-clad angel. The nurses are the ones who have the skills to make a real difference.”
“But surely-- You can’t just become a nurse. There must be a great deal of training.”
“Oh, a great deal. Even on a war footing, several months worth. But people do it. They’re not born nurses. My cousin Sonia took the training during the 1904 war and served in a hospital in Moscow.”
“Well, of course, but what I meant was--” Natalie felt the heat of blood rushing to her face, as if she had just provided a very poor answer in class while the other girls looked on. “Surely it’s not as simple as just taking some training and becoming a nurse. Don’t you have to be… the right sort of person?”
The words sounded wrong in her ears even as she spoke them, and she flushed again. The shade of difference, the idea that there was something Other about the professionally trained nurses -- whether some authority gained at nursing school or a natural air of command which destined them for a higher order -- this distinction was impossible to define and yet it put a chasm between her and the nurses as wide as that among between the doctors and the orderlies: between the men who cut and cured and ordered versus the men who carried, cleaned and did as they were told.
Throughout her upbringing in the convent it had been a principle as clear and unquestionable as the laws of motion which held God’s creations in their orbits that she was a member of that order in society which obeyed. Obeyed graciously, obeyed genteelly, obeyed the higher call rather than the lower, to be sure, and perhaps within that realm of obedience exerted authority over those temporarily or by birth of even lower status: children, servants. But the basic principle remained.
Leaving the convent, meeting her father, these had for a time given her the trappings of a higher station, a new Paris wardrobe, first class rail cars, a beautiful hotel room. Yet even these had seemed a window on another world, a world in which she still possessed no rights or authority. Her brief command of waiters and taxi drivers had not made it seem any less against the laws of nature for her to disagree when her father told her that she must never see him again or when Dr. Luterek held her to account for his son’s pursuit of her.
Could a few months training reverse all this and make her the ultimate female authority over a ward of patients and their care? Was she meant to wield such power and responsibility? The idea was by turns alluring and terrifying.
“You two, don’t stand there, turn the bedclothes down.” The ward sister had entered, all action and command, followed by two orderlies carrying a stretcher.
Natalie obediently helped turned down the sheets. As the orderlies gently slid the apparently unconscious men onto the bed, she recoiled at the sight of a head like an obscene newspaper caricature. The soldier had a massive, discolored swelling above his left brow. She knew it must be the result of some massive blow to the head, yet the way it distorted his forehead, and the dark patches of internal bleeding pooling around his eyes, gave the man the look of a cartoon drawing of an intellectual with swollen brain and weary eyes.
“Soldiers who brought him in said the cart horse was startled by a motor,” she heard one of the orderlies explain to the other. “Caught in the head by a falling barrell. Wonder he isn’t dead already.”
The nurse began issuing orders rapidly, and Natalie rushed away, first to fetch bandages and gauze, then for a basin of disinfectant. As she fulfilled these requests she watched the nurse’s swift and confident movements, thinking of Elena’s question and wondering if she herself could ever dress a man’s injuries with such calm professional skill.
The new arrival, Sergeant Utkin, had kept them busy throughout the afternoon, and Natalie had stayed an hour past her usual time. Madame Luterek never waited tea when someone was late, but any tardiness was displeasing to her. No letters had arrived from Konrad in almost two weeks, and although this left his mother in a state at once desperate for news and terrified at what it might bring, the extended silence also meant that no letter addressed to “My Lovely Natalie” or “That Little Governess” or whatever teasing endearment might next come to the young lieutenant’s mind had arrived to embarrass Natalie, enrapture Sara and Lena, and set Madame Luterek casting baleful glances at the young governess she remained convinced must somehow be at fault for capturing her son’s attention. This calming of the household tensions was welcome, and Natalie had no desire to spoil it by doing anything to upset Madame Luterek.
She invested her pocket change in a streetcar ride, reducing the half hour she normally took to walk home by half. Even so, it was past four when she reached the decorative iron gate, and so it was with a knotted feeling of apprehension in her stomach that she let herself in at the front door, hung up her hat, and hurried to the sitting room.
The room was empty. The samovar had not been put out on the table in its usual place. Natalie looked around for some sign of what could be going on. She heard a sound and turned to see the door leading to the kitchen passage, used by the servants when bringing in the tea things, being eased closed. Someone had looked in, seen her, and shut the door again. She crossed to the door and opened it, but the passage was empty, the kitchen door at the far end already swinging shut. She thought of following to demand an explanation, but the emptiness and the strange behavior made everything seem threatening. What sort of trouble could she be in that everyone was avoiding her?
She started at the sound of the library door and turned to see Borys entering. He stopped when he saw her, then glanced quickly to either side as if looking for someone else.
“Natalie, I didn’t know you were home. Did Father speak to you at the hospital, then? I sent the footman to tell him.”
The words made no sense but his tone made it clear something was terribly wrong.
“No, I haven’t seen him; haven’t seen anyone.” The anxiety knotted tighter in her chest.
“Oh, God. So no one has told you. I’m sorry.” He looked away, first down at the floor, then over to one side, avoiding her eyes.
Her father was cutting her off. She was being let go. She would no longer be allowed to work at the hospital. She must leave the house immediately. Each possible misfortune was chased away by some larger one which her imagination supplied.
“Borys, tell me.”
He took a small envelope from the inside pocket of his coat and handed it to her, meeting her eyes again. “Natalie, I’m so sorry. I know how this must hurt you.”
The handwriting on the envelope was unfamiliar and she fumbled with it, fingers suddenly clumsy as she tried to pull out the letter. At last she had it unfolded, her eye running down it too fast to truly read, catching scattered phrases which, as she forced herself to slow and reread, assembled into comprehension.
Konrad was dead.
In the instant she realized it, she felt relief, and then as soon as she applied conscious thought to it she despised herself for that feeling.
Sara, Lena, Borys, the doctor and Madam Luterek -- these people who had given her a home during these last few months which had been some of the happiest of her life -- they would be devastated by this news. And she herself, she had wanted him gone, but not… gone.
The letter was brief, written by another officer in his regiment. They had been sent in to help screen the army during the retreat towards Gumbinnen. An artillery shell. The officer assured them that Konrad had been very brave and had not suffered much.
Natalie folded the letter and handed it back to Borys.
“The family already knows? The girls? I’m so sorry. What can I do? Isn’t there something I can do?” The words flowed rapidly out of her, none of them seeming quite right for the moment. The knowledge that her feelings about this news must be so different from his made it seem all the more essential to say the right thing.
“Natalie.” Borys put his hands on her shoulders and began to move as if to pull her into a hug, then stopped. It was not an aggressive touch like Konrad’s that night in the hallway, yet she felt herself tense. “You’re so good, thinking of others first. No wonder he loved you. I know this must be at least as terrible for you as for any of us.”
What? But yes, of course, he too, like all of them, thought that she was attached to Konrad. Who could not love the family’s treasured eldest son? She shrugged her shoulders to shake off his hands.
“Please let me help. Is there something I can do? Where are the girls? What can I do for them?”
Borys nodded and stepped back. “Yes. Yes, of course it’s best to stay busy. The girls are in the nursery. I’m sure they would be comforted to see you. And I must find Father. Mother is half mad with the news and only he can help her.”
“Then I’ll go to the girls. And if there’s anything else that I can do to help, just send for me.”
She left the room, feeling Borys’s eyes on her as she did so. As she passed, he made a hesitant move, as if to take her hand or grip her shoulders again, but she moved steadily on and he let her go without another touch or word. There was one who was truly trying to manage his grief by helping others, yet clearly what he wanted more than anything was someone to hold him while he wept for the older brother he had idolized. Yet having just escaped, through tragedy, from entanglement from the one brother, she could not allow herself any hint of such with the other. Nor would it be any comfort to the family if Doctor Luterek were to come back and find his other son crying on her shoulder.
Leaving Borys to find what comfort he could in being the family’s strength, she went upstairs. On the landing she had to pass the door to Madame and Doctor Luterek’s rooms. A maid stood hesitating outside the door with a tea tray.
“Should I go in to her, Miss?” the maid asked.
Natalie shrugged. “Did she ask for the tea?”
A tight lipped shake of the head. “Cook thought it might help.”
Indeed. Cook could have the satisfaction of doing something without the difficulty of actually confronting the grieving mother while proffering a tea tray.
“To answer honestly, I don’t think she will want it. But are you willing to go back and tell cook that, or do you think you need to try first?”
The maid considered for a moment, then opened the door and carried the tea tray into the room. Natalie continued on towards the nursery. Just as she reached the door she heard an unearthly wail of despair from the Lutereks’ rooms. She looked back and saw the maid scurry out of the suite and hurry downstairs with the tray. Muffled sobs could still be heard behind the closed door. Natalie kept on moving. If anyone could aid Madame Luterek’s grief, it would be Borys and his intention to fetch Doctor Luterek. Of one thing at least Natalie was sure, Madame Luterek would not want to see her, of all people.
She turned instead to the nursery, where as soon as she opened the door the two girls rushed to her.
It was nearly eight o’clock, the evening growing dark outside the windows, whose curtains no one had bothered to shut. Though the servants were mostly new, hired when the family moved to Kiev, and had no deep connection with the eldest son who had never lived in this house, the grief of the family had caused a general disruption in the running of the family. Dinner had not been announced. Windows had not been closed. Natalie had lit a fire in the nursery grate with coal she fetched herself.
Lena had at last fallen asleep in one of the armchairs, her feet drawn up under her dress and her face buried in the crook of her elbow. Sara had fallen silent, sitting on the floor and staring into the flames in the grate.
“Would you like some food?” Natalie asked. “It’s getting late. I’m sure cook must have something.”
Sara didn’t turn. “No. I’m not hungry.”
The silence began to draw out again. Natalie was hungry, and having done everything that she could for the girls in their first hours of shock, she began to wish that she could be alone.
After a moment longer, Sara shook herself and turned. “I’m sorry. In all this I haven’t thought at all of you. I was looking at the flames and thinking how impossible it is to really believe that he’s dead; that the Konrad from all those memories, my whole life, won’t ride back home one of these days and hand me a fancy little trinket from wherever he’s been. But there must be something like that for you too. You had just that short, beautiful week with him at the country house. And then he sent you those gallant letters. Doesn’t it seem as if tomorrow this will all blow over and you’ll get another letter or he’ll come to see you?”
Now it was Natalie’s turn to stare at the glowing coals. It was not the time to try to explain that she had never wanted Konrad’s protestations of love, indeed that she found it difficult to think of Konrad without anger. And if she could not let go her anger towards him, perhaps it was indeed hard to believe that he was gone.
“Yes. You’re right.” She met Sara’s eyes and saw in them a new age which the girl’s studied calm and floor length skirts had never given her. If only this war would end before it made this fifteen-year-old’s eyes look any older.
Sara nodded. “You must want some time to be alone. Go ahead. I’ll be here in case Lena wakes.”
“Are you certain?”
The grieving house was silent. Natalie saw no one until she reached the kitchen, where the cook drew her a strong cup of tea from the samovar and heaped a plate with tea cakes and a generous dollop of jam.
“How are the young misses?” asked the cook.
“As well as can be expected. Lena is sleeping now. Sara says she is not hungry. How is Madame Luterek?”
Cook shook her head. “Poor soul. The doctor went up to her a couple hours ago, but of course there’s no consoling her. She’d much rather have died herself than have her son taken from her. Wouldn’t any mother?”
Natalie found she did, indeed, desire solitude, and after exchanging a few more words with the cook she brought her tea and food up to her room.
With the door closed firmly between herself and the rest of the family she could try to think what had occurred to her.
A life had ended, a son and brother about whom all those around her cared deeply. For several hours his sisters had told stories about him: The scary stories he had told them when they were tiny. Watching him and Borys play their rough and tumble games. The time the girls’ dog had been kicked by a horse, his leg broken. Sara and Lena had been told that the dog would have to be put down, but Konrad had badgered the veterinarian into putting a splint on the dog’s leg and patiently cared for the beast until his hopping gate returned to normal.
These and hundreds more made up the family memories of Konrad, and yet in her mind the name brought up only those terrifying and humiliating moments at night in the hallway of the summer house, followed by his constant, teasing flirtation, which took no account of the difficult position he put her in with his parents.
And yet somehow their Konrad and hers were the same person, transformed by the war, by some shell fragment, into a broken, pitiful thing not so different from the patients she helped each day in the hospital. If he had survived to reach a central hospital, would he have seemed any less sympathetic than the officers in her ward? Would the men who spoke and looked at her with such respect have seen anything wrong with treating a convenient governess in the way Konrad had treated her?
Perhaps not. Yet when she put the expansive white apron with its large red cross over her dress, and set the white nurse’s veil on her head, she became sestritsa. The men who might otherwise have treated her as fair game instead bit back the pain of dressings being changed and seemed almost to apologize when they called to her for water, food or a fresh bedpan.
Whatever their past sins she could care about each one of her ward patients as a hero injured in the war and as a fellow human suffering under things beyond his control.
She had to go back.
Rapidly, and almost without tasting it, she drank the tea and ate the cakes she had taken from the kitchen, licking the powdered sugar from her fingers. She would go back to the hospital. No one would need her here again tonight, and the clarity of helping her patients seemed more appealing than lying on her bed and wrestling with conflicted thoughts about what Konrad had been to his family and to her.
The streetlamps were lit. The people on the sidewalks were different than at her usual times, some clearly respectable people, dressed as if going to a dinner or play, others more alarming to her unpracticed eye. She took the streetcar rather than walk the shadowed streets, taking a seat next to an old woman wearing a charwoman’s apron and kerchief who sat rapidly knitting, the needles flashing under the streetcar’s harsh electric lights.
In the ward, the nurses and orderlies on shift were mostly unknown to her, but the patients were the same. She went from bed to bed, exchanging a few words with the men who were awake, seeing to what needs she could. When she reached the bed where the new arrival, Sergeant Utkin, had been, she found it empty: the sheets stripped away and the bare mattress lumpen and naked compared to the fully made beds.
“What happened to Sergeant Utkin?” Natalie asked the Red Cross nurse on duty.
“That non-commissioned officer who was brought in during the morning shift?”
“He went into convulsions shortly after our shift began and then died. It sounds like he was in a very bad way, never regained consciousness since being brought in.”
Another life, gone. Some more modest house would be plunged into similar despair when word reached his home. What sort of man had he been, and how did those who had known him think of him?
“Has the body already been taken away?” Natalie asked.
“No. They don’t come until the early morning. I had the orderlies move the body down to the unused operating theater until then. It’s so difficult in a building without proper facilities.”
The officers’ ward was housed in a city house lent to the hospital by Prince Mikhailov to meet the expanded wartime need for space. The secondary operating theater had, until this conversion of space, been a breakfast room. The tile floor suited it for the purpose as it was easily cleaned, and white sheets had been hung over the windows to create privacy and a space without distractions for the surgeons.
Natalie descended the grand staircase, which echoed hollowly under her feet, its carpet runner having been removed for the duration as unsanitary. The white slatted French doors leading to the breakfast room turned operating theater were closed, but she pushed them open and turned on one of the electric surgery lamps. The bright light fell on the body, its stretcher set upon the operating table. The hospital sheets and blanket had already been taken away to be washed and so the sergeant lay draped in his army coat.
For a moment she hesitated in the doorway, remembering the grotesque swelling on the sergeant’s head and wondering what it would look like in death. For all that she had spent so many hours assisting with bandages and bedpans and all manner of injuries over the last month, she had never had cause to see a dead body until now. She could easily leave, turn off the light and let the poor crushed body lie in peace until it was taken away in the morning to be buried. But somehow it seemed important to face death today.
She stepped close and looked down at the sergeant’s face. The swelling of the head still distorted his features, and there was discoloration in places where he had hemorrhaged beneath the skin. Yet even so she did not find herself revolted by the face, as she had feared.
He didn’t look the part of a hero. An unshaven, slightly heavy man such as might be seen driving a cart or leading a horse down the street, put into a uniform by the war and but then killed not by bullets or artillery but by just the sort of accident which could have happened to him at any time when dealing with freight carting.
There was still some blood matted in his hair. Natalie went and fetched a basin of hot water and a cloth and cleaned the body, laying him out neatly for his final journey the next day. As she did so, she found herself thinking kindly not only of this man, but of Konrad, dear to his family if not to her, who might never have received even this last small token of human care.
“Bury the dead” had always seemed incongruous among the other works of mercy the sisters had made her and the other girls memorize from the catechism. Surely the thirsty could appreciate drink and the hungry food, but how could the dead know what was done for them? Now paying that last respect to the body which had been a person seemed the most reasonable and necessary thing in the world.
When she was done she said goodnight to the nurses on shift and took the streetcar home. The house was silent. She could see a light glowing under the library door as she passed it, but she heard no voices and saw no one. She offered a silent prayer as she climbed the stairs, for the peace of any in the family who were still awake. And then going to her room she went to bed.
Read the next installment.