It's been three weeks since the last installment: eight days of writing and two weeks of being on vacation and finding myself unable to get the time to put words on the page. Sorry for the long delay.
This installment completes Chapter 13. The next chapter will go back to Jozef, now training for the Austro-Hungarian cavalry. The total novel is now a hair under 180,000 words. Four more full length chapters to go and then three short concluding ones. I'm still hoping to put some serious work in and wrap up by the end of the calendar year.
Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 30th, 1914. Breakfast in the Luterek household was not subject to genteel pretensions. Doctor Luterek was a believer in a hearty breakfast, as he often did not have time for a midday meal, and he insisted that it be served early so that he could be at the hospital by eight.
On Tuesday, the morning after Konrad’s memorial mass, Natalie has been hesitant to join the family at table, not sure what kind of greeting would await her. Instead she had taken a currant roll and a flask of tea from the kitchen to consume on the way to the hospital. That night it seemed that peace had returned to the household, and so she joined the family for breakfast Wednesday morning in time to see that peace shattered again.
Natalie was at the sideboard loading her plate with kanapki -- little open-faced sandwiches made of buttered toast set with either fresh cheese curds and a slice of tomato or else several paper thin slices of dry sausage -- when Borys entered the dining room.
“I just got news yesterday,” he announced. All eyes were immediately upon him. “I’ve received my temporary commission as a cadet and orders to report for training as an artillery officer.”
For a moment there was silence, then Madame Luterek burst into tears while the doctor and his daughters all began to talk at once.
“What about your university studies?” The doctor’s voice cut clearly through the noise. “The cavalry was Konrad’s career, but you’ve already spent years studying to become an engineer. Are you going to throw that away?”
“I can return to the university after the war,” Borys said.
“The war can’t last much longer. It’ll be over before you’re even through training. Why throw everything up like this?
“Konrad gave his life for the new Russia, and with him gone it’s my duty to take his place. They offered me a place in an engineering company, but I insisted I had to fight, so they gave me the artillery based on my studies.”
Madame Luterek gave a cry and rushed from the room.
Doctor Luterek rose to follow her, then stopped as the door swung shut behind her. He sat down again and for a moment covered his face with his hands. Watching him Natalie noticed for the first time how the signs of age had crept upon him in the last two months. He had gained weight, his dark suit no longer fitting smoothly as it had when she had first seen him as the eminent surgeon to whose daughters she would be governess. The skin of his face was looser, and as he lowered his hands from his face she could see it hung now in a fleshy fold along his jaw. “Did it even occur to you, Borys, to think about how this would affect your mother?” he asked.
Borys folded his arms before his chest. “Mother was proud enough of Konrad’s commission. Am I not worthy to follow after him and finish his work?”
“Do you really need to ask me why your mother would rather not see you follow Konrad’s example right now?”
“But those are just a woman’s feelings, Father. I would have expected you to take a more rational approach.”
“A rational approach? My son, nothing in the world is currently taking a rational approach. Is it rational that we send millions of men out to injury and death?”
Father and son glared at each other for a moment. It was the doctor who broke away, shaking his head and cracking what was very nearly a smile.
“Come, Borys. I never thought this was the problem that I’d have with you. I remember back in Warsaw, the first time you were home from university, you talked of nothing but the corruption of the empire and the need for reform. When you told Konrad it was foolish to fight for Russia when there were just as many Poles in Austria-Hungary and they were treated better, I thought he was going to hit you. And I worried that if you kept up the student radicalism, I’d get a visit from the police some day. Now you tell me you can’t even stop to think twice before rushing off into the army?”
Borys seemed to be struggling to put his words together. “Father, I--” He threw up his hands. “It’s so easy for you! You have good work, important work, at the hospital. You fight every day to keep men alive. And Natalie too. She’s doing something about this war. But I-- I’m trapped. Nothing I do matters. Nothing I do brings this war any closer to an end. Surely now that we’re in it the only way to a better world is to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible. I don’t want to tell my children someday that I didn’t do anything when my brother gave all.”
“Borys.” The doctor’s voice seemed almost to quaver as he said the name. His tone was alarming to Natalie. It sounded too much like the voice in which the he spoke of Konrad. “My son, I just want you to be alive. Konrad won’t have any children to ask him about the war.”
Borys’s voice was hard, the more so because he was having to make an effort to keep it steady. “I have to go, Father.”
The doctor dropped his napkin on top of his half-finished plate and got up from the table.
“It’s getting late. I’m needed at the hospital. My advice to you, son, is to go see your mother in a few minutes and tell her what is most important: that you love her. Then give her some time to get used to the idea.”
He walked slowly to the door, then paused and turned back. “I am proud of you, Borys. And I hope you’re able to pay the Germans back for what their artillery has done to our family. But please, try to make it up with your mother. And stay alive.”
With that the doctor left. There was silence for a moment, and then Sara burst into her own questions: How soon would he be leaving for training. Would he be far away. Why was being in the artillery like being an engineer?
Natalie saw the room returning to something like its normal tenor and was relieved, but she herself needed to be at the hospital soon, and so she quietly excused herself.
Out in the streets the bustle was the same as on any morning. A handful of soldiers, enlisted men ambling along the street with the studied carelessness of men off duty, caught her attention. It was a common enough sight. It would have been strange to walk the mile and a half to the hospital these days without seeing soldiers in the street. But today Natalie wondered what family discussions, what tears, what ideals stood behind the presence of these men in the army.
Borys had given himself over to a cause, putting on a uniform that was in some sense a symbol of his commitment and beliefs. Doctor Luterek, when he put on his white doctor’s coat and walked the wards, was in another way devoting himself to winning the war. And she… Her work as a voluntary aid in some sense put her in the same fight as the doctor, the fight to save lives, the fight to keep the army strong and in the field. She might stand on the lowest rung of the hospital’s ladder, below the nurses and the male orderlies, but she too in her small, temporary way, was fighting to win the war.
Wednesday’s morning shift in the officers’ ward was, according to routine, one of the week’s busiest times, because it was a time for changing dressings. This was a labor intensive and harrowing process which occupied all the nurses and voluntary aids. One at a time, the officers were taken from the ward into a dressings room. There the voluntary aid, acting as the septic nurse, took the old, soiled dressings from his wounds and added them to the pile, redolent of old blood and fluid, which would be taken down to the boiling cauldrons of the laundry.
After the bandages were removed and the wound cleansed with antiseptic, the trained nurse, who took the duties of aseptic nurse, applied new bandages. The septic nurse was never to touch the new bandages. She did not touch the patient again after the moment she washed out the wound with antiseptic. In her turn, the aseptic nurse was never to touch the old bandages, or anything else which had not been sterilized.
The Prince Mikhailov hospital, the officer’s ward in particular, was proud of its record in preventing wound infections, and the wound dressings were carried on with all the solemnity of a sacred rite. It was exhausting work. Standing in the dressings room for hours, ever conscious of what she must not touch, would have been tiring enough, but the soul-wearing thing which left Natalie wishing to find some out of the way place to curl up and cry was the knowledge that she was hurting her patients. She saw each man grit his teeth as she began to unwind his wound dressings, as he waited for the tug which would pull away the layer of bandage which had become attached to his still open wound. She too felt every muscle and nerve on edge, the agony of knowing that she was about to cause agony. She channeled that tense fear into keeping every motion smooth, maintaining rigid control so that when the flinch or moan or even scream came, she did not jerk the bandage or stop moving but continued to move slowly and steadily until the bandage was completely removed. Then she poured antiseptic over the wound, again steeling herself against the patient’s pain, and she was done, able to stand quietly, trying to let her muscles un-tense, while the aseptic nurse applied clean dressings to the wound with the same smooth, controlled motions.
The ward was full. Noon came and went, but the men were carried into the dressings room one after another, a relentless pace that recreated the attacks which had left them thus torn and battered. Sister Levchenko, the trained nurse with whom Natalie was paired, was as relentless as the guns of the faraway battlefield. “Next patient. Remove the bandage. Gently. Antiseptic. Now dispose. Don’t touch, he’ll be all right. He’s an officer. He can withstand pain but he cannot withstand the infection your hands would give him, Nowakówna.”
Natalie had seen Sister Levchenko stay past her shift to sit all night with a dying man who had asked her to be near him. The grey haired sister did not lack feelings. When she ordered a man to keep still as she re-wrapped the gash which bared his hip to the sickly white of his pelvic crest, she did it with the calm of someone who has seen such things many times before and no longer cries at them. Natalie did not cry either, but she still wished she could.
When she was at last free to go to the nurses’ sitting room for a cup of tea, she sank into a chair and would have been happy to have spoken to no one, but Elena sought her out.
“Natalie, I thought Sister Levchenko would never let you go. I want to talk to you.”
Natalie looked at Elena. The tall, thin, middle aged volunteer was different in age and nation, but as the two voluntary aids who put in the most hours, as many as some of the professional nurses, the women had spent a great deal of time working together and shared many cups of tea. And yet...
“I can’t,” said Natalie. “There were so many this morning. I don’t want to talk to anyone right now.”
Elena’s brow furrowed with concern, and she reached out, folding Natalie briefly and silently in an embrace. “Later, then. How about tea when the afternoon shift is over?”
This would mean missing Madame Luterek’s tea at home, but although Natalie knew that might draw a certain degree of ire from her employer, she was willing enough to incur it. And perhaps with Borys’s announcement falling upon the still raw wound of Konrad’s loss, Madame Luterek would be as happy not to see anyone.
“Yes. After we’re done.” Natalie reached out and took the other woman’s hand and gave it a brief squeeze. “Thank you.”
Elena had only just left Natalie to her quiet when Sister Levchenko opened the door of the nurses’ sitting room. Her eyes scanned the room in which five voluntary aides were taking their tea between the morning and afternoon shifts. After taking in the group she settled on Natalie. “Nowakówna, I need a steady set of hands. Would you mind giving up your break?”
She did mind. She was not ready to return to the sights and smells of the morning. But Sister Levchenko, who seldom praised, had asked for her.
“Of course, Sister,” she said and put aside her tea cup.
Sister Levchenko led the way towards the breakfast room which had been converted into the downstairs operating theater. “I told Doctor Suprun about the case we saw this morning with the gas gangrene developing in the thigh.”
Natalie felt the muscles of her back tighten at the memory of the greying, malodorous flesh of the unhealed wound, flecked with the telltale sheen of tiny bubbles of gas forming in the tissue as infection destroyed it.
“He agrees that it requires immediate operation,” Sister Levchenko continued. “I will be assisting, and you will act as septic nurse and provide antiseptic irrigation to the wound during the operation.”
If she could have, Natalie would have turned and fled, left her red cross-emblazoned apron behind and with it the sight and smell of sepsis eating into men’s bodies. But she was the one who could, perhaps, help save a man’s life from the slow, agonizing death that was blood poisoning from the body’s own rot.
They reached the operating room, the patient already laid out on the table with the anaesthetist standing over him applying the mouthpiece, its pad soaked with a carefully measured amount of chloroform, to the patient’s face. At least this time he would be unconscious. The hospital did not consume precious supplies of anesthetic on the regular dressing changes -- the empire’s gallant soldiers were expected to possess the fortitude to maintain a manly silence while their old bandages were peeled away and antiseptic was poured over their open wounds -- but operations were considered worthy. She would not have to see him grit his teeth and shrink from her touch.
As the anaesthetist counted minutes on his watch and the patient sank into stillness, his breathing steady, Doctor Suprun gave his instructions. Few of them applied to Natalie, who would remove the old bandages and then use a rubber tube attached to a bottle of carbolic solution to wash the wound at intervals during the operation, assuring that as the septic tissue was cut away no infection survived upon the tools or the wound, while the doctor and trained nurse performed the rest of the procedure.
Built as a breakfast room in Prince Mikhailov’s city house, the room’s many windows faced east. The curtains which had once graced those windows had been taken down lest the folds of fabric shelter germs. The big, bare windows made the room even more light than it would normally have been. In morning it had been glaring with the direct sunlight streaming in. Now, the diffuse light of the afternoon gave it a quieter warmth. Through the glass panes, Natalie could see the windowboxes, unmaintained since the outbreak of the war, their flowers spilling over in the year’s last profusion.
On the table, the patient was still now: white bandages, dark hair, pale flesh. A sheet had been draped to maintain some semblance of decorum before the nurses, but the whole of his left leg and side was exposed. The calm sunlight of the room emphasized the contrast between the room’s use and its intent; the builders could not have imagined that a man would lie on a table there, waiting to be cut into, instead of breakfast. Nor, before the war, would Natalie have stood in a sun-drenched room looking on a male body so much exposed.
“Are we ready?” asked Doctor Suprun, having completed his instructions. “Good. Let us begin.” He turned to Natalie. “Sister, remove the bandages.”
The tea house catered to genteel women who lacked the money to frequent the marble topped tables of more exclusive venues. The main room was small and dim, small tables scattered across a floor of black and white tiles, its feminine character shown by the fact that there was no odor of tobacco smoke mingling with the smells of strong tea and pastries.
A young woman took their order -- a plate of pastries and a pot of strong tea -- and as they waited for these to arrive Elena took a folded piece of paper from her bag and smoothed its creases flat on the scarred wood of the tabletop.
“Did you see these notices?” The older woman was clearly excited, enough so to cut through her own exhaustion after the day’s shifts.
“No.” Natalie leaned closer to read the paper, experiencing once again the slight feeling of dislocation that still came to her on seeing official printing and signs in Cyrillic letters rather than in the blocky Latin letters of French signs and papers. These uses continued to feel alien even as she had become used to used to hearing Russian in the streets and at the hospital, and Polish in the Luterek’s home.
“Women! Enlist to Nurse the Wounded Sons of Mother Russia!” the headline enjoined. There followed a red cross, and below it several paragraphs describing the two month training program to be certified as a Red Cross Sister of Mercy.
“I read about it in the paper this morning,” Elena said. “The army needs ten thousand nurses, and so they’ve created this new program: two months to be certified a Red Cross Sister of Mercy instead of the usual year. Then I saw the notice when I got in this morning. There is to be a training class here – at the main hospital. We could be nurses before the new year.”
“Why?” The exhaustion of the day, emotional even more than physical, sat heavy upon Natalie, and Elena’s clear excitement was exasperating. Had Elena spent the afternoon shift pouring antiseptic over an infected wound as Doctor Suprun cut off more and more flesh until he decided that the entire leg needed to removed?
Elena seemed to read Natalie’s mood and looked away. Then she gave a slight shrug, her voice quiet and expressionless as she replied. “If we became fully trained sisters we’d be paid.”
“Paid?” The idea was offensive. Surely, she was already in the wards almost as many hours as any of the trained sisters. But could any pay make up for standing next to the young officer, that afternoon, when he awoke from chloroform dreams to discover that his left leg was only six inches long? He’d held her hand so tightly and called her “Sister” as he poured out to his fears about a life with one leg. Even as she’d fought to keep her own voice steady and the fog in her eyes from turning into tears that would be visible to him, she had felt a small pride blooming in her that she was a woman doing an office which only a woman could do. Could she accept money for using this womanly power of compassion and healing? The idea sounded as sacrilegious as accepting money for bearing a child.
“Yes, child. Paid.”
Before either could expand upon her thoughts the waitress arrived and placed a teacup before each of them, then a large teapot in the center of the table. Elena took the teapot and poured out cups of the strong brew for each of them.
“And what is so very bad about being paid?” Elena asked. “Before we leave here we’ll pay for our tea. The waitress will use that money to pay for her rent and dinner. And we; we need the money to keep ourselves too, don’t we?”
“Yes, but--” She tried to marshal her thoughts, but they seemed to tumble and surge to get out into the air, the sheer force of them enough to convince regardless of the order. “We give compassion and care, not things that can be bought and sold. You can’t buy a family or a friend, can’t pay for love. Demanding pay would be wrong. How could they ever pay us for the value what we do?”
Elena sat back and looked at Natalie for a moment. “You’re a governess, aren’t you?”
Natalie nodded. The older woman’s tone was calm, and she immediately felt embarrassed at having so clearly expressed her own feelings. Did Elena feel offended?
“When the family’s son died, you spent a lot of time comforting your charges, didn’t you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And they pay you a salary as a governess. Is your comfort for hire?”
“Of course not. They pay you to teach their children French and such. You don’t give comfort for money. You give them comfort because you are there and you have a heart. How could you not comfort someone you knew who had just lost a brother?”
“But…” Natalie let the word trail off and fought down the urge to argue simply because she did not like to concede that her instinct could in any way be wrong. Why was it that the idea seemed repulsive? Perhaps her first explanation had been wrong, but there must be some good reason for her natural reaction. As she questioned herself, however, she found no further rational arguments, just a deep exhaustion of the heart, on this day in particular, and an unwillingness to commit to a life of similar days. “I’m sure you’re right. But we’re already volunteering in the wards, and they’ll keep us as long as the war goes on. Once the war is over, I’ll never want to see the inside of a hospital again. It’s too much.”
“I know. It is hard.” Elena looked down to take one of the little pastries from the plate the waitress had set before them. She held it up, a little rose-shaped blossom of pastry with soft white cheese blooming from the center of it. “These are my favorite vatrushka. I’ve been coming here to eat them since I was your age -- more years than I like to admit. Do you know how big they were a year ago? As large as my palm.”
Her attention called to it, Natalie could see that the two inch pastry was smaller than when she had first gone to the tea house with Elena, though even then they had been significantly smaller than the palm of a hand.
“Flour. Butter. Meat. They’ve all nearly doubled in price since the spring,” Elena continued. “And the income my parents left me is in bonds: five percent of principle every year, never more, never less. Except that five thousand rubles a year is becoming a good deal less very quickly. If the war goes on much longer, I won’t have any choice but to work, and nursing is something that I know now, something that helps the empire and all those poor soldiers. If I’m to work, I’d rather be a nurse than… I don’t know: Stand behind a counter all day selling silk undergarments.”
She consumed the pastry, and Natalie watched in silent thought.
“And perhaps there’s a selfish reason too,” Elena added. “What is it the novels say, ‘A woman of small but independent means’? Well I’ve never felt independent. I live off my little income that Mother and Father left me, their girl with a nose a little too big and a fortune a little too small to ever find a husband. And I spend one month out of each winter staying with each of my brothers, keeping an eye on my nephews and nieces while avoiding the cost of heating my own flat during the coldest months. My independence is all dependence on others. I think I’d enjoy finally earning a living from work I do, rather than relying on them.”
Natalie sat in her bed that night, her knees drawn up before her under the covers, the hinged frame with the portrait of her mother in her hands.
Her mother’s eyes, blue-green flecks in a face no larger than Natalie’s thumb, looked back with the same lovely but uncomprehending expression that they always bore.
Surely a lot of people were afraid. Soldiers before they went into battle. Miners before they went into the pit. Factory workers surrounded by all the steam and huge machines. But she had never had to do something she was afraid of to make her living. She had been taken care of. By Nianka. By the sisters. Without her knowledge, by her father’s money. Even now, she had a job as a governess, but that job hung somewhere in the balance between the whims of the Lutereks and the influence of her father.
“They let me have my respectability, but I’m still a kept woman,” she told the portrait. “But there is a door if I can find the courage to open it.”
Some of what was outside that door she knew: the difficult, draining work. Sometimes it was excruciating but bore some aura of heroism, as when she’d assisted in the operation that afternoon, saving a man by taking his limb. Usually it was the routine of making beds, changing bedpans, giving sponge baths -- all the household and bodily needs which the sick and wounded were unable to meet themselves.
The idea of a life spent doing all of these, no end in sight, was oppressive. And yet, coming home to find Madame Luterek taking out her anger and fear -- inspired by Borys returning home now clad in an artillery cadet’s uniform -- on the servants, she had found Elena’s desire for the independence of work taking hold in her own mind as well.
Where did Elena live? She’d spoken of a flat which she had left to stay with relatives during the winter, to avoid the cost of fuel. Could she, Natalie, have a flat if she was a nurse? She could put away all the warnings that the sisters had provided about the perils of entanglement when living as a governess or a lady’s companion, at the sufferance of her employer’s household -- always in danger of not being liked enough by the lady of the house, or liked too much by the men. Perhaps some day she would have a bird, or a cat, or even a little dog like the one Madame Ricard had brought with her on their shopping trip to Paris.
In her mind she constructed quiet and cozy refuges, which she described in hushed tones to the portrait of her mother. And to maintain those rooms, she would rely not on the whim of a host family nor on the pleasures of a man, she would pay for them with her salary, the salary she earned. She would be a nurse.
Read the next installment.