To read the novel in start-to-finish order, click the Volume Two link and consult the Table of Contents links at the bottom of the page.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Chapter 3-4

This section now concludes Chapter 3. The central incident in this chapter is one that I could not invent. It's drawn from the diaries of Florence Farmborough, an English woman who was in Russia at the time that war broke out in 1914 and served throughout the war as a Russian Red Cross nurse.

The Great Retreat. Galicia. June 4th, 1915. The next day the retreat continued. They loaded their patients back onto the ambulances and once again there were the hours of dusty trudging or alternating with jouncing to each bump and rut in the road while taking rest in one of the wagons. But the conclusion of that chance encounter in the woods stayed with Natalile and from it came a new confidence. When Lieutenant Popov asked which building should be taken as the temporary hospital in another village at the end of the day’s march, she directed him and he did ask she requested. When she made up her the list of rations for the hospital patients at night, she included food for Vitek and Eva’s family, and Mamushka quietly obeyed.

One evening when she brought food to them Natalile found Eva even more pale and drawn than usual, but she held in her arms a bundle tightly wrapped in clothes. She showed Natalie the baby’s face, with its tiny nose and mouth quietly working in sleep.

“She came last night, and one of the old women from our village midwifed me,” Eva said. She lowered her voice to little more than a whisper. “Vitek said I mustn’t travel today, even in the hand cart. But the cossacks were driving all of us on from the village and setting fire to the houses. Vitek tried to argue with them, and they beat him.” She looked over to where her husband sat a little way off with his back to them. “When the march stopped today, he went and bought a pot of liquor. He doesn’t drink often, Sister. But you know how men are. They’re not like us. They must have their pride.”

The next evening, Vitek was his usual self, deferential and courteous. But Eva was flushed and looked at her with glazed eyes. Natalie knew even before putting a hand to her hot forehead that she had a fever. The four year old girl held the baby, bouncing it gently in her arms and giving it a small, dirty finger to suck while Natalie examined Eva.

“When did the fever start?”

“Today. During the march. Vitek pushes me on the hand cart, but it’s so hot.”

“Is there pain in your stomach?”

“Only the after pangs when she nurses.”

“And at the birth, was there much bleeding?”

Eva nodded. “It took a long time to stop. I had to stuff full of rags to staunch the blood when we set off in the morning.”

Of course. What would she do for bleeding but treat it as she treated her time of month. And yet whatever rags the midwife or family had been able to use were surely carriers for infection. Natalie’s hospital training cringed against the use of anything other than sterile bandages and antiseptic wash for cleaning an open wound. And when it came to infection, was this tearing of the body any different from the battle wounds she treated? She tried to recall the brief section on female anatomy and childbirth in her Red Cross training manual. There had been no intention that the nurses assist at childbirths. That was work for doctors, or in the countryside for village midwives, and so the subject had been given only the briefest outline. She could remember no more of use other than the risk of bleeding and the importance of avoiding infection.

“The midwife gave me willow bark to chew for the fever.”

“That may help the fever, but it will not cure the infection. You must try to stay cool as much as possible. Bathe your forehead with a cloth soaked in alcohol if you find yourself sweating too much. It will cool you faster. And I will get you a bottle of antiseptic solution. You can use it to clean yourself.” She paused to see if Eva knew what she meant. “To clean inside. It may hurt, but it will fight the infection if it has not gone into your blood.”

“Am I going to die?” The question was asked so calmly. Natalie had heard soldiers cry those words so many times, but seldom had she heard them in such a quiet, gentle voice.

“I hope not. I’ll do everything I can. After all, you have this beautiful child to live for.” She took the swaddled infant from the little girl, and looked at the tiny red features for a moment before nestling the bundle into her mother’s arms.

She brought the bottle of antiseptic solution later that night. Eva was sleeping, so Natalie gave it to Vitek and along with strict instructions on its use. He shifted awkwardly and looked away when she explained how to wash with the solution and sterilize rags with it, but nodded and promised it would be done.

The next two nights found Eva worse. The fever grew higher. Her mind wandered, and she had difficulty nursing the baby. The midwife, an old woman draped in a black veil, was sitting with her on the second night. Natalie could get no sensible words out of Eva, but the midwife told her that although she had stopped bleeding, the rags were now coming out soaked with a yellow discharge that smelled of putrefaction.

All though the next day’s journey, the sick young mother was in Natalie’s mind. The sick mother, the nursing baby. Both seemed all too similar to the story her father had told her of her own mother’s death when she was only a few months old. The little silver framed picture was buried deep her in her bag where she could not get at it, but in her memory the little photograph of her infant self laid one last time in her dead mother’s arms was hauntingly clear.

Holy Virgin, please, among all this suffering, do not let this tiny child grow up without a mother.

When, in the afternoon, Lieutenant Popov rode up and told her that the the regiment had at last received orders to dig in and hold the line, ending the retreat for now, Natalie’s first thought was that at last Eva would be able to rest as a recovering mother should. Only after another moment did the military implications of his statement strike her. If they stopped retreating, there would be fighting. All this time, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians had been following just a day or two’s march behind them.

“We will need somewhere to set up the hospital that gives us space for casualties,” she said.

Popov had clearly been waiting for this to occur to her. He winked. “I have found just the place. Wait till you see it.”

The place he had found was a nobleman’s country house. This was no small rural retreat, like the hunting lodge in which the hospital had made its home through the winter and early spring, with its wooden walls and wide porch. This as a major estate, the main house built of white stone, with rank on rank of windows looking out upon the woods and gardens. The hospital’s ambulance wagons -- wooden vehicles covered in canvas and pulled by shaggy, ill groomed horses -- looked distinctly out of place as they made their way up the tree-lined drive.

An old woman, the retired housekeeper, met them on the steps and declared that she would report to Prince Uvarov if anything was stolen or damaged. Otherwise, however, the house was empty. Even the servants had fled.

Natalie gave orders and set the housekeeping sisters and the orderlies to work turning several of the large ground floor rooms into wards. The house war far larger than they could ever need. The upper floors and the north wing would be completely shut off. They would touch as few rooms as possible. But those they needed must be stripped of their finery, both in order that the paintings, rugs, and furniture be preserved, and also so that the newly bare rooms could be scrubbed down with antiseptic solution.

It was late when she finally was able to go in search of Eva and Vitek. But although many refugees had encamped in the estate’s woods and outbuildings, she could not find their family nor any word of them. She returned to the house after midnight, exhausted and worried, but telling herself that surely Vitek must have found some place where Eva could rest along the way. Perhaps the Cossacks were at last employed in fighting the enemy rather than driving the peasantry ahead of them.

The housekeeping sisters had prepared a room for her. Just a small guest room by the standards of the house, but still grander than anything Natalie had stayed in since the hotel in Warsaw where her father had sent her after their meeting. She took a minute to revel in the canopied bed, the inlaid mahogany wardrobe, and the gilt mirror hanging over the dressing table. Then she sat down to take off her shoes and stockings in order to walk barefoot through the soft pile of the oriental carpet.

At last she slipped between the clean sheets: smooth, oft-washed linen against her skin. She felt a moment’s guilt that the availability of water had allowed for the washing only of hands, feet, and face the last few days. Surely this bed was used to more refinement. But for tonight it was hers, and she drifted quickly into a dreamless sleep within its softness.


The next day was one of constant activity. Guns could already be heard in the distance when one of the housekeeping sisters woke Natalie in the pre-dawn light. Wounded began to arrive in the mid-morning, even as the wards were still being prepared. It was the first time they had faced a major influx of casualties without a surgeon. Natalie called the other two nurses together as the first patient arrived.

“Sister Travkin, you have the most experience with triage. Can you take charge of receiving patients?” A nod. “We won’t be able to perform major surgeries, just clean, stitch and bandage, so adjust the categories as needed.” She turned to the other nurse, “Sister Gorka, you have the steadiest hand with wound preparation. Would you be willing to act as a surgical nurse and trim and stitch where needed to close up wounds?”

This was the part which she had almost been afraid to speak, the violation of all their training. Here they were treading upon doctors’ territory and without the necessary training. And yet, more casualties would survive the three to five day journey through ambulances and hospital trains to a hospital back in Warsaw, Kiev, or Moscow if they first received the most basic surgical care. The difficult cases might not survive anyway, but at least men would be less likely to die from blood loss or infection due to wounds that avoided the organs and bones.

Sister Gorka nodded slowly. “I will attempt it, but I will be much slower than Doctor Sergeyev.”

“Of course. Take all the time you need. Whatever you can do will be better than they would receive otherwise. And I will deal with wound cleansing and bandaging.”

They set to work. The morning turned into afternoon and then evening, the time marked only by the stream of patients who filled the cots in the wards. Battle weary men lay looking up at the plaster medallions and chandeliers which in times past had looked down on balls thrown for the local nobility. It was as the windows began to darken with evening that one of the housekeeping sisters approached Natalie.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Sister, but there’s a little girl here who says she knows you.”

Natalie looked down and saw the four year old daughter of Vitek and Eva.

“What’s wrong? How is your mother?” What was the little girl’s name? Amid the pressures of the wound ward she could not recall whether she had known.

“She’s nursing the baby in heaven, and father is drinking. Do you have food for me? There’s been no food all day.”

Had Eva died? The baby had not seemed sick. Had something happened to her as well?

Natalie made her excuses to Sister Gorka and secured the chance to step away for a few minutes. She took a loaf of army bread and a jar of the plum preserves they had found in the country house’s store room. Then she asked the little girl to show her where her family was.

The girl led her out into the parkland of the estate. Here and there, where the woods gave cover from the Cossacks and other authorities who might try to force them to move on, peasant families were encamped with their belongings among the trees. The girl picked her way among them, munching the piece of bread spread with preserves that Natalie had given her. Then the old woman Natalie recognized as the midwife who had been helping to treat Eva rushed towards them.

“Hannia! Where have you been? You bad girl!” She swung an open palm at the girl’s ear, which she deftly dodged.

“What’s happened? How is Eva? Where is Vitek?” Natalie asked while Hannia took shelter behind her skirts.

“Ah, it’s very sad.” The old woman clucked her tongue. “Poor Eva died last night. She’d gone into convulsions on the road, the fever would not drop. Nothing she said was sensical. Poor child. Vitek stopped his cart and cradled her in his arms as she died. I offered her every curative I had, but when the Lord’s time comes, there’s naught that can be done. At least she went quietly in the end, poor soul.”

“But the baby?” Natalie asked, looking around. She spied the cart, and next to it Vitek lying prostrate and rumpled like a pile of dirty clothes. “Did she sicken as well?”

“That was the hardest thing. Her milk had given out all day, the fever burning her up so. And the baby cried till she could cry no more. Poor thing, it was a suffering to hear.”

“Where is she?”

“At peace, poor babe. Vitek dug the grave for Eva himself, dug it all night. And in the morning he laid her in it, and the baby at her breast. That calmed the poor creature. He wept as he put each shovelful of earth back over her, but what else could he do? With the mother dead, there was no way to feed the baby while driven through the country like this. It was that or watch the child suffer for days.”

“Are you saying he buried the baby alive?”

The old woman shrugged. “God has mercy on those who suffer. You’ve seen Vitek. He’s a kind man. How could he let the baby die in fear and hunger? It’s she and Eva that are at peace. Pity the living.”

Natalie turned away. She could not speak. The weight of the idea pressed down on her like so many feet of earth. Smothering. All the wounds they had treated in the hospital that day seemed honest and kind now by comparison. This was what it all came to. War. Destroying villages. Burning crops. Driving people from their homes. And now a man who in any other time and place would have been a doting father had laid his living infant daughter at her dead mother’s breast and shoveled earth on top of both of them.

Hope and love and life were buried, smothered by this war.

And that child, that little child who knew nothing but the need for food and touch, laid at the breast of her dead mother and buried alive.

The thought choked her. Who was she but the daughter of a peasant woman who had died young? She had the photograph, her infant self laid upon her mother one last time and photographed by the undertaker. She could have been that child, thinking that she was loved and sheltered from all the world as the earth was shoveled over her.

She cried and couldn’t stop as she stumbled back towards the country house, whose beauty the night before had seemed like such a refuge. Now it seemed a whitened sepulchre that hid the rot inside.

Near the door she stopped and leaned against the wall. The stone was cool and rough against her forehead. She had to stop crying. The horror and despair had to be forced away into some quiet place within her until the patients and her fellow nurses did not need her any more. Then her bed could absorb her tears, if they must come.

Slow breaths went from ragged to smooth. She stepped away from the wall. Smoothed her skirts. Squared her shoulders. She could do nothing for Eva and the baby. There were others whom she could help.


The ambulances had stopped coming near sunset, and the sound of guns in the distance had died down for a time. Nevertheless it was nearly midnight when the last of the day’s casualties had been cleaned and bandaged by the nurses and laid in a cot by the orderlies.

In the kitchen one of the field kitchen cooks had kept stew hot for them, and there was a buzz of cheerful chatter from the housekeeping sisters and orderlies as they ate and talked in groups. Natalie hesitated in the doorway and realized that she had passed the point for eating that night. She turned away and went slowly up the curving marble steps of the main staircase and to her room. There she stood, he back against the door, looking at the bed and carpet which had seemed so welcoming and opulent the day before.

Were these some great injustice or fraud? How was it that the war took everything from Vitek and Eva and yet to her it gave a room that looked as if it might be in a palace.

In the silence of the room she felt tears begin to grip her again, her throat tightening. Then she heard a sound. Someone else was crying, long desperate sobs.

What was wrong?

The grip of her own pain loosened as she turned and let herself quietly back into the hall. Up and down, listening at each door, she found the room the sound was coming from and knocked softly. The crying stopped. A few loud sniffs, and then, “Come in.”

She opened the door and found herself facing Sister Gorka.

“It’s you.” The words were flat and lifeless. Sister Gorka sat back down at the chair in front of her dressing table. There was a bottle on the table. Sister Gorka poured pale brown liquid into a glass and took a sip. “Madeira. Whoever our hosts are, they kept a full cellar. The cook put it under lock and key for fear of the soldiers, but he got this for me. Do you want some?”

Natalie shook her head.

“It’s not ladylike, is it,” Sister Gorka said. “But I haven’t been a lady today, and here I am drinking like a real doctor.” She took another sip, and held her hand up and examined it. “Steady now. I was shaking like a leaf when I came in here. Maybe that’s why Doctor Sergeyev couldn’t leave it off.”

“I heard you,” Natalie said. “What’s wrong?”

Sister Gorka folded her arms on the table before her, laid her head down on them, and began to cry again. For a long moment her shoulders shook with the wailing. Natalie stepped forward and put a hand of Sister Gorka’s shoulder. She had never seen the other woman show such strong emotion.

At last the crying subsided and Sister Gorka raised her head again. “I don’t know how they do it. Every time I went to pick up the scalpel or the needle my hands shook. Whenever I cut flesh or pushed the needle through skin I felt my teeth on edge.”

Natalie’s hand was still on her shoulder. “Whatever you felt, you always looked calm and precise. You did good work today. You helped a lot of patients.”

“I know. I forced it down all day, but I hate it. I hate it so much.”

Another bout of crying. Then Sister Gorka started to pour another glass of madeira but slipped and spilled it.

“Here. I’m sorry I asked you to do it,” Natalie said, mopping up the spilled wine with a handkerchief. “You must be exhausted. Why don’t you come to bed?”

She guided Sister Gorka across the room to the bed, sat her down, and helped her take off her shoes. Then she settled her back in the pillows and tucked her in, sheet pulled up to the chin, like putting to bed one of the small girls back at the convent school.

The other nurse clung to her hand. “I don’t want to be a burden, but please... Sit here a while. So that I’m not alone.”

Natalie sat down next to her in the bed, still holding her hand. Sister Gorka’s breathing slowed, and at last her grip on Natalie’s hand loosened in sleep, but by that time Natalie herself found her whole body, and particularly her eyelids, heavy with tiredness.

The two of them were awakened by one of the housekeeping sisters, who threw open the curtains to let in the pale light of dawn.

“There’s news!” she said, showing no surprise at finding the two nurses together, both still in their uniforms as they lay on the bed. “A new surgeon arrived during the night. He’ll be taking over the hospital.”