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.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Chapter 7-3

 Wrapping up Chapter 7 with this installment.  The next chapter will focus on Jozef.  

I did a bit more looking at dress designs from 1910-1915 as I was thinking about what the present Natalie receives in this installment might look like.  I think it looks a lot like this 1912 vintage mourning dress, but it's a deep red color rather than black.  (source)


Terespol. Aug 2nd, 1915. Before the war, Russian Poland had stretched out as a peninsula, the westernmost part of the Russian Empire, surrounded by Germany to the north and west, and Austria-Hungary to the south. Through the summer offensives of 1915, that peninsula was being gradually eaten away. Not only was Warsaw now at the extreme western end of this peninsula, but it was under assault from both the north and south.

Much closer to where the field hospital and Third Army were in the fortress of Terespol, at the end of July, a mixed force of German and Austro-Hungarian forces commanded by Generalfeldmarschall August von Mackensen successfully captured the main southern railroad line which connected Brest-Litovsk and the rest of Russian Poland with Kiev.

Warsaw had not yet fallen, and in Brest it was yet another heavy summer day with the enemy still in the distance, but the men who moved pieces on maps at the Russian central command consulted their rail maps and their unit strengths and determined that it was necessary to begin moving resources out of Poland lest they be cut off and lost to the enemy.

These map men wrote up a strategic note. That note was turned into a set of army group orders. The army group orders were turned into orders for divisions, regiments, and battalions and support formations, and on Monday afternoon Doctor Kalyagin called the field hospital’s key staff together and announced, “We have orders to leave the city.”

This led, naturally, to an explosion of questions. Where were they going? Would they take the patients with them, send them back to the nearest base hospital, or leave them behind? How soon would they leave? Why were they leaving when things seemed relatively peaceful?

To most of these Doctor Kalyagin had no answer, so he answered those he did: They were to board a train for Bialystok, well to the north, within 48 hours. They would indeed take their patients and their supplies with them. The process of packing and moving must be as orderly as possible. This was no panicked move. Nothing should be abandoned which could be used. But with the Germans advancing and Warsaw about to fall, the front would be split and the field hospital would be serving the northern half of the Russian forces as they fell back. No one was to see this as a defeat or as hopeless in any way. They were falling back in an organized fashion. Surely the generals and the Tsar knew what they were doing. Anyone who had read of 1812 knew that Russia knew how to defend through the depths of her territory. Soon the Germans would be as confounded as Napoleon had been in his time.

Many of the orderlies and sisters were still asking questions about why they were leaving and the military situation. Natalie’s mind was already on what needed to be done in the next two days in order to move the field hospital. The patients were to come with them, but even so it would be as well to assess all of them and send any who would eventually need to go to the base hospitals off now. Were there medical stores in Brest which they could take with them in order to avoid shortages later? Could they replace some of the cots which they had lost in their sudden retreat earlier in the year?

She recognized a similarly thoughtful look on Sister Travkin’s face, and together the two of them stepped aside from the press of staff and began making plans, speaking in the half completed phrases and cryptic nicknames which are the language of people who have long worked together.

As with so many aspects of her hospital service, it caused a moment’s shock to think that this familiarity with packing up the hospital and getting it onto the road was the product of only three months’ experience, since the hammer blows of the May offensive had started Third Army’s long retreat from southern Galicia to this point. Three months and two hundred and fifty miles, which had left them feeling like seasoned veterans of maintaining a hospital on the road. Just as the time before the war seemed a lifetime away, it now seemed that the hospital had always been on the move. And Doctor Kalyagin had only been with them on the last, though admittedly longest, of these moves. Here was an area where they were expert while he was still comparatively new.

The doctor finished speaking to the staff and approached the two of them, with Sister Gorka following in his wake. “I’ve already told the regimental transport unit that we require wagons or trucks to move the patients to the rail depot. It’s difficult because we don’t yet have our train schedule assigned. But I’ve made it clear that we must have the absolute highest priority. We must make sure that we have a clear plan for what goes in each load, what goes first, and who is to oversee both here and at the rail depot.”

Natalie could see Sister Travkin’s mouth tightening into a thin line and resolved to deflect the doctor before an argument broke out. “We were just saying, Doctor, that this journey by train offers us an opportunity which our previous movements have not. If you could review all the patients and determine which ones could be returned to duty with another week or two of care, and thus should remain with us, and which should be sent back to a permanent hospital for longer term care, we could arrange for the long term cases to be transported immediately and we would have fewer patients to care for on the journey to Bialystok. After all, there’s no sense in carrying a patient all the way north only to send him off on a hospital train a day or two later.”

Doctor Kalyagin hesitated. Natalie hoped she had been sufficiently diplomatic in directing him. Assessing the patients and determining their course treatment was rightfully a task for a doctor, and in this sense he should not wish anyone else to do the work. But it was also quite clearly his work. It would keep him occupied while the nurses and the housekeeping sisters organized their own domains without his interference.

“Of course,” the doctor said at last. “The patients must be assessed. That first of all. I will prepare the list of which cases should be transported. Send an orderly or a runner to regimental transport and ask when they can provide a couple of cars on a train for Minsk or Vilnius so we can dispatch the patients who won’t be staying with us.” With this resolved, he strode away with purpose, his footsteps echoing on the floorboards.

Sister Travkin sighed. “You managed him. I wasn’t sure he could be managed.”

“Well, for now, at any rate,” Natalie replied. “Let’s make the most of it.”

A housekeeping sister approached the three of them. “Excuse me. Sister Nowak√≥wna? There’s a woman here to see you. I think she’s a Jew. Should I send her away?”

It was not the moment Natalie would have chosen to accept a visit from anyone outside the hospital, but the tone with which the sister said, “She’s a Jew,” did not sit well with her.

“Yes, of course I’ll see her. Where is she?”

The visitor, when Natalie was led to her in the nurses’ sitting room, was Anna Isaakova from the clothing and notions shop. With a slight bob of a curtsey she handed Natalie a package done up in brown paper and string.

“Your petticoats, Madam. I’m sorry they took a little longer than I expected.”

“Of course. I’m so glad that you came today. And the bill?”

Anna handed her the piece of paper and Natalie counted out the banknotes and coins.

“I can never thank you enough for saving my grandfather from those Cossacks,” said Anna.

“There’s no need--” Natalie began.

“But I did want to do something for you, to express my gratitude. All of our gratitude. Our whole family.” When handing over the parcel and the bill, she had kept her eyes down, but now she was looking straight at Natalie with an emotion that was almost painful. “I know it is no small thing to stand up against the authorities, especially on behalf of … a Jew.” With the last word she looked away again for a moment, but then forced herself to meet Natalie’s gaze again. “Thank you!”

She thrust a second package into Natalie’s hands. Like the first package it was soft, and it seemed to be of similar weight. Another three petticoats?

“Thank you,” said Natalie. She could see Anna’s eyes lingering on the parcel. “Should I open it?”

“If you like, Madam. It’s a token of our thanks. I hope you will like it.”

Setting the parcel of petticoats aside, Natalie undid the string and paper on the second package. As she pulled back the wrapping she saw a beautiful, soft, fabric -- such a deep red that it was almost purple. Silk? It was wonderful to the touch, but she hesitated to run her fingers over it too much as her hand -- so often washed in harsh antiseptic solution -- felt as if it would snag against the surface. Carefully she lifted it up and saw an elegant dress, simple in its decoration, though trimmed at the neck and wrists with intricate white lace. It seemed starkly out of place in the nurses’ sitting room of the makeshift hospital. This belonged to the world of her dresses and skirts, carefully packed in paper at the bottom of her trunk, from her one Paris shopping trip before the convent sent her East to meet her father for the first time. Those dresses were more elaborately trimmed, but there was a beauty to the lines of this as she held it up that suggested it might wear more elegantly even than those.

“You made this?” Natalie asked, and immediately wished she had found some more articulate compliment, but from Anna’s smile she could tell that the tone had said what the words had not.

“Well… Yes.” Anna spread her hands. “I’m afraid it’s not all new. There wasn’t time. It’s an example I was making from a Paris fashion print, to display in the shop. But when I tried to think of something I could do for you I realized the measurements were very close to yours that I took down for your petticoats, so I made it over for you. I hope it will fit well. I wish I could have done something new and with more detail work, but I didn’t want to keep you waiting longer for your order.”

“It’s beautiful. I can’t possibly take this. It’s not fair. It was just a few words I spoke.” Natalie found the words tumbling out in no clear order.

“Surely it’s hard to say what anyone deserves, but I wanted to give you this. Our whole family did. I can’t think when you’d use it now, but perhaps some day… And at any rate, it allowed me to use my skill to thank you.”

For a moment the two stood looking at one another. Natalie was so overwhelmed by the gift, so transported into a place other than the soon-to-be-abandoned hospital, it was hard to know how to return to the moment.

“May I fold it properly and wrap it back up for you?” Anna asked.

“Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you so much.” For a moment Natalie let words of thanks tumble forth, while Anna smoothed the fabric out on the table and folded it so as to avoid creasing as much as possible. Then it occurred to Natalie that there was indeed something she could do in return for this beautiful gift. “Perhaps I can help you again,” Natalie said. “You can see that everything is in tumult here. We’ve just received news that the field hospital is leaving the city. They say that Warsaw will be captured at any moment, and the rail lines with Kiev will soon be cut. The army will be pulling back soon as well. When they do, they’ll try to take or destroy anything that would be of value to the enemy. I’ve seen it happen in towns and villages. I can't imagine the chaos of a whole city. You and your family must pack up and leave now, while it’s still possible to get a wagon or space on a train.”

Anna had stopped half way through the process of wrapping the parcel, her expression alarmed. “But surely… Is it necessary to leave now? Warsaw is hundreds of versts away. And everything seems so calm. If we close the shops--” She left the horror of closing down their livelihood hanging in the air.

“But that is why it is important to leave now. Right now I’m sure you could still buy a cart or get space on a train. You could take the merchandise from your shops with you. But when it comes down to the last, when soldiers start ordering people to leave their homes and setting fire to the supplies that can’t be transported in time, then people will be pushing wheelbarrows and baby carriages full of whatever they can carry. Then your grandfather will be walking or trying to ride on a pushcart. It’s terrible. Inhuman. The army requisitions the houses along the way for necessities and the refugees have to sleep in the open. I’m sure the time to leave is while things still seem normal.”

Now Anna was nodding, and her fingers were typing up the parcel with practiced motions. “I will tell my father and grandfather everything you said.”

“Please. Perhaps it will sound mad to them at first, but you must tell them. Our hospital has come all the way from Tarnow since the spring, much of it on foot, and we’ve seen the crowds of people driven from their homes again and again. I wouldn’t want that for you.”

After this their goodbyes were quick. Anna thanked her again -- for deliverance from the Cossacks and for the warning -- and Natalie thanked her for the dress. For a moment she took Anna’s hands in her own, and wildly thought of hugging her. The dress was so beautiful and the giving of it more so. And this moment of generosity seemed infinitely precious against the backdrop of the chaos and suffering so soon to be unleashed. But there was a barrier of class and religion and convention between them, and Natalie was not a person accustomed to the giving or receiving of physical gestures of friendship. She led Anna out of the hospital and thanked her one last time before watching her disappear into the bustling crowd in the street. Then Natalie went to stow both parcels carefully in her trunk before returning to the hurried preparations for the hospital’s evacuation.

On returning to the ward she heard voices raised between Doctor Kalyagin and Sister Travkin. She found them standing outside the dispensary closet, where Sister Travkin had been directing a pair of orderlies in packing the medicines.

“What is the difficulty?” Natalie asked.

“These are essential and highly addictive analgesics,” Doctor Kalyagin said, his voice still loud, as he indicated the crate the orderlies had been packing. “I have asked these men to show me the state of the bottles and account for how much is being packed. It is in a chaotic moment like this that supplies are lost or stolen, and I do not want our patients to suffer from its loss, nor,” he looked significantly, “do I want our carelessness to result in some poor sufferer getting hold of drugs which could very well cause his death.”

Sister Travkin held up the ledger book. “I have checked each bottle against the ledger and have clearly recorded how many doses are packed and how many are being kept out to continue treating patients. There is no need for an inspection unless the doctor is accusing me of personally stealing morphine,” she said, refusing to look at Doctor Kalyagin as she spoke.

Natalie took the ledger from Sister Travkin and looked over the columns of figures. Everything was being recorded precisely according to the system which Natalie had laid out. Doctor Kalyagin had been very complimentary of her drug tracking ledgers when he had first inspected them. The two-entry system -- totalling amounts dispensed and dosage given to patients separately, and then totallying the two to assure they matched -- both did a great deal to prevent theft and also was the sort of big-city-hospital system which appealed to him. Yet the doctor seemed to be someone who, when under stress, felt suddenly that he needed to have a hand in everything. Perhaps, however, it was still possible to appeal to that calmer, more systematically-minded version of the man.

“Doctor, she is following the ledger system precisely as it has been laid down. We will be able to see the amounts of medicine dispensed and administered, and check those two totals against the inventory.”

She could see him hesitating. The doctor’s power within the hospital, especially at a time like this when they had only one, was absolute. In that sense, she was even less within her authority than when she had faced down the Cossacks. But perhaps if she remained calm as she had then, and pointed the way towards the path he knew they ought to follow even if his restless energy drove him differently, perhaps he would follow her direction.

“There are so many things within the hospital that require a surgeon’s direction. I hope that with these more routine matters, we can create systems which can assure you they will run properly even without your supervision. There is a bit of extra time now, before we get the order to start loading the train, and we could indulge in putting everything on your shoulders, but soon enough we’ll be stretched to the breaking point with getting the patients onto the train and providing care during transportation. We mustn’t let ourselves break the routines that we’ll need then.”

She could see in his expression the argument warring against Doctor Kalyagin’s own instincts, but when he spoke it was the argument that won out. “Of course. We just use our energies as efficiently as we may. Thank you for dealing with the dispensary so efficiently.”

He walked away, leaving Natalie and Sister Travkin to exchange silent looks of relief.

Whether it was her speech that turned the doctor’s heart, or he took his time away from inspecting other people’s work to gather his own thoughts more calmly, that was the end of the frantic element of the hospital’s preparation. By the time that their transport order arrived the next afternoon, they were well ready for it. Wagons carried the patients and hospital equipment to the rail depot in good order.

The platform was curiously calm as orderlies and porters hurred everything abort. Six cars had been given over to the field hospital. The rest of the train was taken up with soldiers of various descriptions, including livestock and freight cars loaded with horses and fodder. Natalie sat next to the window in the compartment she shared with the other nurses and several of the housekeeping sisters. As the train at last pulled away from the platform and gathered speed -- passing through Brest and then north of the city -- Natalie could see the light of the city, still seemingly peaceful. No people or carts were on the road that ran next to the railroad embankment at this late hour. How soon would the sky over the city be lit with the artillery flashes of the approaching enemy? How soon would the road be choked with those desperately using the last house to attempt an escape from the invasion? But right now all was quiet.