Florence Nightingale - Laura Richards


O the long and dreary winter!

O the cold and cruel winter!

Ever thicker, thicker, thicker

Froze the ice on lake and river,

Ever deeper, deeper, deeper

Fell the snow o'er all the landscape,

Fell the covering snow, and drifted

Through the forest, round the village.

O the famine and the fever!

O the wasting of the famine!

O the blasting of the fever!

O the wailing of the children!

O the anguish of the women!

All the earth was sick and famished;

Hungry was the air around them,

Hungry was the sky above them,

And the hungry stars in heaven

Like the eyes of wolves glared at them!

"Hiawatha," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The bad weather commenced about November the 10th, and has continued ever since. A winter campaign is under no circumstances child's play; but here, where the troops had no cantonments to take shelter in, where large bodies were collected in one spot, and where the want of sufficient fuel soon made itself felt, it told with the greatest severity upon the health, not of the British alone, but of the French and Turkish troops. . . . To the severity of the winter the whole army can bear ample testimony. The troops have felt it in all its intensity; and when it is considered that they have been under canvas from ten to twelve months —that they had no other shelter from the sun in summer, and no other protection from wet and snow, cold and tempestuous winds, such as have scarcely been known even in this climate, in winter—and that they passed from a life of total inactivity, already assailed by deadly disease, to one of the greatest possible exertion—it cannot be a matter of surprise that a fearful sickness has prevailed throughout their ranks, and that the men still suffer from it."—Lord Raglan to Lord Panmure, February, 1855.

After the battle of Inkerman, the allied armies turned all their energies to the siege of Sebastopol, the principal city of the Crimea. You will read some day about this memorable siege, one of the most famous in history, and about the prodigies of valor performed by both besiegers and besieged; but I can only touch briefly on those aspects of it which are connected with my subject.

The winter of 1854-5 was, as Lord Raglan says, one of unexampled severity, even in that land of bitter winters. On November 14th a terrible hurricane swept the country, bringing death and ruin to Russians and allies alike. In Sebastopol itself trees were torn up by the roots, buildings unroofed, and much damage done; in the camps of the besiegers things were even worse. Tents were torn in shreds and swept away like dead leaves; not only the soldiers' tents, but the great hospital marquees were destroyed, and the sick and wounded left exposed to bitter blast and freezing sleet. The trenches were flooded; no fires could be lit, and therefore no food cooked; and when the snowstorm came which followed the tempest, many a brave fellow lay down famished and exhausted, and the white blanket covered his last sleep.

In the harbor even more ruin was wrought, for the ships were dashed about like broken toys that a wilful child flings hither and thither. The Prince, which had just arrived loaded with clothing, medicines, stores of every description, went down with all her precious freight; the Resolute was lost, too, the principal ammunition ship of the army; and other vessels loaded with hay for the horses, a supply which would have fed them for twenty days.

This dreadful calamity was followed by day after day of what the soldiers called "Inkerman weather," with heavy mists and low drizzling clouds; then came bitter, killing frost, then snow, thaw, sleet, frost again, and so round and round in a cruel circle; and through every variation of weather the soldier's bed was the earth, now deep in snow, now bare and hard as iron, now thick with nauseous mud. All day long the soldiers toiled in the trenches with pick and spade, often under fire, always on the alert; others on night duty, "five nights out of six, a large proportion of them constantly under fire."

Is it to be wondered at that plague and cholera broke out in the camp of the besiegers, and that a steady stream of poor wretches came creeping up the hill at Scutari?

The Lady-in-Chief was ready for them. Thanks to the Times fund and other subscriptions, she now had ample provision for many days. Moreover, by this winter time her influence so dominated the hospital that not only was there no opposition to her wishes, but everyone flew to carry them out. The rough orderlies, who had growled and sworn at the notion of a woman coming to order them about, were now her slaves. Her unvarying courtesy, her sweet and heavenly kindness, woke in many a rugged breast feelings of which it had never dreamed; and every man who worked for her was for the time at least a knight and a gentleman. It was bitter, hard work; she spared them no more than she spared herself; but they labored as no rules of the service had ever made them work. Through it all, not one of them, orderlies or common soldiers, ever failed her "in obedience, thoughtful attention, and considerate delicacy." "Never," she herself says, "came from any of them one word or one look which a gentleman would not have used; and while paying this humble tribute to humble courtesy, the tears come into my eyes as I think how amidst scenes of loathsome disease and death there arose above it all the innate dignity, gentleness and chivalry of the men (for never surely was chivalry so strikingly exemplified), shining in the midst of what must be considered as the lowest sinks of human misery, and preventing instinctively the use of one expression which could distress a gentlewoman."

If it was so with the orderlies, you can imagine how it was with the poor fellows for whom she was working. Every smile from her was a gift; every word was a precious treasure to be stored away and kept through life. They would do anything she asked, for they knew she would do anything in her power for them. When any specially painful operation was to be performed (there was not always chloroform enough, alas! and in any case it was not given so freely in those days as it is now), the Lady-in-Chief would come quietly into the operating room and take her stand beside the patient; and looking up into that calm, steadfast face, and meeting the tender gaze of those pitying eyes that never flinched from any sight of pain or horror, he would take courage and nerve himself to bear the pain, since she was there to help him bear it.

"We call her the Angel of the Crimea," one soldier wrote home. "Could bad men be bad in the presence of an angel? Impossible!"

Another wrote: "Before she came there was such cussin' and swearin' as you never heard; but after she came it was as holy as a church."

And still another—perhaps our Highland lad of the night vigil, perhaps another—wrote to his people: "She would speak to one and another, and nod and smile to many more; but she could not do it to all, you know, for we lay there by hundreds; but we could kiss her shadow as it fell, and lay our heads on our pillows again content."

Miss Nightingale never wearied of bearing testimony to the many virtues of the British soldier. She loved to tell stories like the following

"I remember a sergeant who, on picket—the rest of the picket killed, and himself battered about the head-stumbled back to camp (before Sebastopol), and on his way picked up a wounded man and brought him on his shoulders to the lines, where he fell down insensible. When, after many hours, he recovered his senses, I believe after trepanning, his first words were to ask after his comrade: 'Is he alive?'

"'Comrade indeed! yes, he's alive—it's the General!' At that moment the General, though badly wounded, appeared at the bedside. 'Oh! General, it was you, was it, I brought in? I'm so glad; I didn't know your honor. But if I'd known it was you, I'd have saved you all the same!'"

I must not leave the story of this winter without telling of all that Miss Nightingale did for the soldiers' wives. There were many of these poor women, who had come out to this far country to be near their husbands. There was no proper provision for them, and Miss Nightingale found them in a wretched condition, living in three or four damp, dark rooms in the basement of the hospital. Their clothes were worn out; they were barefooted and bareheaded. We are told that "the only privacy to be obtained was by hanging up rags of clothes on lines. There, by the light of a rushlight, the meals were taken, the sick attended, and there the babies were born and nourished. There were twenty-two babies born from November to December, and many more during the winter."

The Lady-in-Chief soon put an end to this state of things. First she fed and clothed the women from her own stores, and saw that the little babies were made warm and comfortable. In January a fever broke out among the women, owing to a broken drain in the basement, and she found a house near by, had it cleaned and furnished, and persuaded the commandant to move the women into it. All through the winter she helped these poor souls in every way, employing some in the laundry, finding situations for others in Constantinople, sending widows home to England, helping to start a school for the children. Altogether about five hundred women were helped out of the miserable condition in which she found them, and were enabled to earn their own living honestly and respectably. Writing of these times later, Miss Nightingale says: "When the improvements in our system which the war must suggest are discussed, let not the wife and child of the soldier be forgotten."

Another helper came out to Scutari in those winter clays; a gallant Frenchman, M. Soyer, who had been for years chef of one of the great London clubs, and who knew all that there was to know about cookery. He read the Times, and in February, 1855, he wrote to the editor

"SIR: After carefully perusing the letter of your correspondent, dated Scutari. . . . I perceive that, though the kitchen under the superintendence of Miss Nightingale affords so much relief, the system of management at the large one in the Barrack Hospital is far from being perfect. I propose offering my services gratuitously, and proceeding direct to Scutari at my own personal expense, to regulate that important department, if the Government will honor me with their confidence, and grant me the full power of acting according to my knowledge and experience in such matters."

It was April before M. Soyer reached Scutari. He went at once to the Barrack Hospital, asked for Miss Nightingale, and was received by her in her office, which he calls "a sanctuary of benevolence." They became friends at once, for each could help the other and greatly desired to do so.

"I must especially express my gratitude to Miss Nightingale," says the good gentleman in his record of the time, "who from her extraordinary intelligence and the good organization of her kitchen procured me every material for making a commencement, and thus saved me at least one week's sheer loss of time, as my model kitchen did not arrive until Saturday last."

M. Soyer, on his side, brought all kinds of things which Miss Nightingale rejoiced to see: new stoves, new kinds of fuel, new appliances of many kinds which, in the first months of her work, she could never have hoped to see. He was full of energy, of ingenuity, and a fine French gayety and enthusiasm which must have been delightful to all the brave and weary workers in the City of Pain. He went everywhere, saw and examined everything; and told of what he saw, in his own flowery, fiery way. He told among other things how, coming back one night from a gay evening in the doctors' quarters, he was making his way through the hospital wards to his own room, when, as he turned the corner of a corridor, he came upon a scene which made him stop and hold his breath. At the foot of one cot stood a nurse, holding a lighted lamp. Its light fell on the sick man, who lay propped on pillows, gasping for breath, and evidently near his end. He was speaking, in hoarse and broken murmurs; sitting beside him, bending near to catch the painful utterances, was the Lady-in-Chief, pencil and paper in hand, writing down the words as he spoke them. Now the dying man fumbled beneath his pillow, brought out a watch and some other small objects, and laid them in her hand; then with a sigh of relief, sank back content. It was two o'clock. Miss Nightingale had been on her feet, very likely, the whole day, perhaps had not even closed her eyes in sleep; but word was brought to her that this man was given up by the doctors, and had only a few hours to live; and in a moment she was by his side, to speak some final words of comfort, and to take down his parting message to wife and children.

The kind-hearted Frenchman never forgot this sight, yet it was one that might be seen any night in the Barrack Hospital. No man should die alone and uncomforted if Florence Nightingale and her women could help it.

This is how M. Soyer describes our heroine:

"She is rather high in stature, fair in complexion and slim in person; her hair is brown, and is worn quite plain; her physiognomy is most pleasing; her eyes, of a bluish tint, speak volumes, and are always sparkling with intelligence; her mouth is small and well formed, while her lips act in unison, and make known the impression of her heart—one seems the reflex of the other. Her visage, as regards expression, is very remarkable, and one can almost anticipate by her countenance what she is about to say; alternately, with matters of the most grave import, a gentle smile passes radiantly over her countenance, thus proving her evenness of temper; at other times, when wit or a pleasantry prevails, the heroine is lost in the happy, good-natured smile which pervades her face, and you recognize only the charming woman.

"Her dress is generally of a grayish or black tint; she wears a simple white cap, and often a rough apron. In a word, her whole appearance is religiously simple and unsophisticated. In conversation no member of the fair sex can be more amiable and gentle than Miss Nightingale. Removed from her arduous and cavalierlike duties, which require the nerve of a Hercules—and she possesses it when required—she is Rachel on the stage in both tragedy and comedy."

The long and dreary winter was over. The snow was gone, and the birds sang once more among the cypresses of Scutari, and sunned themselves, and bathed and splashed in the marble basins at the foot of the tombs; but there was no abatement of the stream that crept up the hill to the hospital. No frostbite now—I haven't told you about that, because it is too dreadful for me to tell or for you to hear—but no less sickness. Cholera was raging in the camp before Sebastopol, and typhus, and dysentery; the men were dying like flies. The dreaded typhus crept into the hospital and attacked the workers. Eight of the doctors were stricken down, seven of whom died. "For a time there was only one medical attendant in a fit state of health to wait on the sick in the Barrack Hospital, and his services were needed in twenty-four wards."

Next three of the devoted nurses were taken, two dying of fever, the third of cholera. More and more severe grew the strain of work and anxiety for Miss Nightingale, and those who watched her with loving anxiety trembled. So fragile, so worn; such a tremendous weight of care and responsibility on those delicate shoulders! Is she not paler than usual to-day? What would become of us if she—

Their fears were groundless; the time was not yet. Tending the dying physicians as she had tended their patients; walking, sad but steadfast, behind the bier that bore her dear and devoted helpers to the grave; adding each new burden to the rest, and carrying all with unbroken calm, unwearying patience; Florence Nightingale seemed to bear a charmed life. There is no record of any single instance, through that terrible winter and spring, of her being unable to perform the duties she had taken upon her. She might have said with Sir Galahad:

"My strength is as the strength of ten

Because my heart is pure."