T soon became a recognized thing in Florence's own home and in all the neighborhood, that she was one of the Sisters of Mercy. Nothing was too small, no creature too humble to awaken her sympathy and tenderness. When the stable cat had kittens, Florence was the first to visit them, to fondle the tiny creatures and soothe their mother's angry fear. When she walked along the pleasant wood roads of Lea Hurst, the squirrels expected nuts as a matter of course, and could hardly wait for her to give them. When anyone in the village or farm fell ill, it was Florence who was looked for to cheer and comfort. Mrs. Nightingale was a most kind and charitable lady, and delighted in sending delicacies to the sick. It was Florence's happy privilege to carry them, and whether she walked or rode there was apt to be a basket on her arm or fastened to her saddlebow.
If you think hard, you can see—at least I can—just how it would be. Old Goody Brown's rheumatism, let us say, was very bad one morning. You children who read this know little about rheumatism. Very likely you think it rather a funny word, and that it is just a thing that old people have, and that they make a good deal of fuss about. If it were a toothache, now, you say, or colic—but the truth is, no pain is in any way pleasant. If a red-hot sword were run into your back you would not like it? Well, sometimes rheumatism is like that.
So old Goody Brown was suffering, and very cross, just as we might be; and nothing suited her, poor old soul; her tea was too hot, and her porridge too cold, and her pillow set askew, and-dear! dear! dear! she wished she was dead, so she did. Martha, her good patient daughter, was at her wits' ends.
"Send to the 'All'!" said poor old Goody. "Send for Miss Florence! She'll do something for me, I know."
So a barefoot boy would trudge up to the great house, and very soon a light, slight figure would come quickly along the village street and enter the cottage. A slender girl, quietly dressed, with perfect neatness and taste; brown hair smoothly parted, shining like satin; gray-blue eyes full of light and thoughtfulness; regular features, an oval face, cheeks faintly tinted with rose this was Florence Nightingale.
I cannot tell you just what she had in the little basket on her arm, whether jelly or broth or chicken or oranges; there was sure to be something good beside the liniment and medicines to help the aching back and limbs. But the basket held the least of what she brought. At the very sound of her voice the fretful lines melted away from the poor old face. I cannot tell you—I wish I could—the words she said, this little Sister of Mercy, yet I can almost hear her speak, in that sweet, cordial voice whose range held no harsh note; can see her setting the pillow straight and smooth, making the little tray dainty and pretty with the posy she had brought, coaxing the old woman to eat, making her laugh over some story of her pets and their droll ways. Perhaps before leaving she would open the worn Bible or prayer book, and read a psalm; can you not see her sitting by the bedside, her pretty head bent over the book, her face full of tenderness and reverence? I am sure that when she went away there was peace and comfort in that cottage room, and that heartfelt blessings followed the "Angel Child" as she went on her homeward way. "She had a way with her," they said; and that meant more than volumes of praise.
The flowers that Florence used to carry were from her own garden, I like to think. Both at Lea Hurst and Embley, she and her sister had each her own little garden and gardening tools. Florence was a good gardener; indeed, I think she was a good everything that she tried to be, just because she tried. She dug, and sowed, and watered, pruned and tied up and did all the things a garden needs; and so her garden was full of flowers all summer long, giving delight to her and to every sick or lonely or sorrowful person for miles around.
As Florence and her sister grew older they became more and more helpful to their parents in the good works that they both loved to carry on. I have read a delightful account of the "feast day" of the village school-children, as it used to be given at Lea Hurst when Florence was a girl.
The children gathered together at the schoolhouse, all in their best frocks and pinafores, and walked in procession up the street and through the fields to Lea Hurst. Each child carried a posy and a stick wreathed with flowers, and at the head of the procession marched a band of music, provided by the good squire. In the field below the garden tables were set, and here Mrs. Nightingale and her daughters, aided by the servants, served tea and buns and cakes, waiting on their little guests, and seeing that every child got all he wanted—or at least all that was good for him. Then when all had eaten and drunk their fill, the band struck up, and the boys and girls danced on the green to their hearts' content.
What did they dance? Polkas, perhaps, and the redowa, a pretty round dance with a good deal of stamping in it; and of course Sir Roger de Coverley, which is very like our Virginia Reel. (If you do not know about Sir Roger de Coverley himself, ask papa to tell you or read you about him, for he is one of the pleasantest persons you will ever know.
Perhaps they sang, too; perhaps they sang the pretty old Maypole Song. Do you know it?
Come lasses and lads, get leave of your dads,
And away to the Maypole hie,
For ev'ry fair has a sweetheart there,
And the fiddler's standing by.
For Willy shall dance with Jane,
And Johnny has got his Joan,
To trip it, trip it, trip it, trip it,
Trip it up and down.
"You're out!" says Dick, "not I," says Nick,
"'Twas the fiddler play'd it wrong."
"'Tis true," says Hugh, and so says Sue,
And so says ev'ry one;
The fiddler then began
To play the tune again,
And ev'ry girl did trip it, trip it,
Trip it to the men.
Then when feast and dance and song were all over, it was time to re-form the procession and take up the homeward march. The two sisters, Florence and Parthe, had disappeared during the dancing; but now, as the procession passed along the terrace, there they were, standing behind a long table; a table at sight of which the children's eyes grew round and bright, for it was covered from end to end with presents. Such delightful presents! Books, and pretty boxes and baskets, thimble-cases and needle-books and pin-cushions; dolls, too, I am sure, for the little ones, and scrap-books, and—but you can fill up the list for yourself with everything you like best in the way of pretty, simple, useful gifts. I am quite sure that Florence would not have wished to give the children foolish or elaborate gimcracks, and that Mr. Nightingale would never have allowed it if she had; and I think it probable that many of the gifts were made by the two sisters and their kind and clever mother.
All about Lea Hurst, in many and many a pleasant cottage home, those little gifts are treasured to-day like the relics of some blessed saint; which indeed is just what they are. The saint is still living, and some of the children of the school feasts are living, too, and now in their age will show with pride and joy the gifts they received long ago from the hands of the beloved Miss Florence.
As Florence grew up to womanhood she found more and more work to do. There were mills and factories in the neighborhood of Lea Hurst; and in the hosiery mills, especially, hundreds of women and girls were employed, many of whom lived on the Nightingale estate.
She may have been seventeen or eighteen when she started her Bible class for the young women of the district, holding it in the tiny ancient chapel at Lea Hurst which I described in the first chapter. Gathering the girls around her, she would read a chapter from the Bible, and then give them her thoughts about it, and explain the difficult passages; then they would all sing together, her sweet, clear voice leading the hymns. Here is another memory very precious to the old women who were once those happy girls. They love to tell "how beautifully Miss Florence used to talk."
Long years after, when Miss Nightingale, spent with her noble labors, would come to Lea Hurst for a time of rest and refreshment, the daughters of these girls counted it a high privilege to gather on the lawn under her window and sing to her as she sat in the room above; and would go home proud and happy as queens if they had seen the saintly face smiling from the window.
Shall I try to show you Florence Nightingale at seventeen? Her face was little changed from that of the girl we saw in the cottage, cheering old Goody Brown. She still wore her hair brushed smoothly "Madonna-wise" on either side her face; often, now, she wore a rose at the side, tucked in among the shining braids or coils. You would think her frocks very queer if you saw them today, but then they were extremely pretty; full skirts (no crinoline! that was to come later) and full sleeves, with broad flat collar of lace or embroidery. When she went to church or to make visits she wore a spencer, a kind of full plaited jacket with a belt, something like a Norfolk jacket-only different! and a Leghorn bonnet. You have seen pictures of the Leghorn bonnets of the Thirties and Forties; "coal-scuttles," some people called them, and they were something the shape of a scuttle. Some of them were enormous in size, and they look queer enough now in the pictures, or—if your grandmamma had a way of keeping things—in the "dress-up" trunk or cupboard in the attic. But people who were young in those days tell me that they were extremely becoming, and that a pretty face never looked prettier that when it peeped out from the depths of a huge straw "coal-scuttle."
When Florence rode on horseback, her habit was so long that it nearly touched the ground (that is, if she followed the fashion of the day, but I should not wonder a bit if she and her mother were too sensible!) and she wore a round, broad-brimmed hat with long ostrich plumes. I remember a picture of the Princess Royal (afterwards Empress Frederick of Germany), in a costume like this, which I thought one of the most beautiful things I ever saw, so I shall imagine Florence, on an afternoon ride with the squire, let us say, dressed in this way; but when scampering about on her pony, I trust, she wore a less cumbrous costume.
You will remember that the Nightingales spent the winter at Embley Park, in Hampshire. Here, too, Florence was busy in good and helpful work. At Christmas time she found her best pleasure in giving presents to young and old among the poor people about her, in getting up entertainments for the children, training them to sing, arranging treats for the old people in the poorhouse. On Christmas Eve the village carol singers would come and sing on the lawn; old English carols, that had been sung by generation after generation. Poor Anthony Babington over at Lea Hall may have listened on Christmas Eve to the same sweet old songs.
As Joseph was a-walking,
He heard an angel sing,
"This night shall be the birthnight
Of Christ our heavenly King.
"His birth-bed shall be neither
In housen nor in hall,
Nor in the place of paradise,
But in the oxen's stall.
"He neither shall be rocked
In silver nor in gold,
But in the wooden manger
That lieth in the mold.
"He neither shall be washen
With white wine nor with red,
But with the fair spring water
That on you shall be shed.
"He neither shall be clothed
In purple nor in pall,
But in the fair white linen
That usen babies all."
As Joseph was a-walking,
Thus did the angel sing,
And Mary's son at midnight
Was born to be our King.
Then be you glad, good people,
At this time of the year;
And light you up your candles,
For His star it shineth clear.
Then who so glad as Florence to call the singers in and bid them welcome and "Merry Christmas!" and aid in distributing the mince pies and silver coins which were always their due.
When Florence was fairly "grown up," other things came into her life, the gay and merry things that come to so many girls. Mr. Nightingale was a man of wealth and position, and liked his wife and daughters to have their share in the gayeties of the county. So there were many parties, at Embley and elsewhere, and Florence danced as gayly, I doubt not, as the other girls. She went to London, too, and she and her sister were presented to Queen Victoria, and had their share of the brilliant society of the time.
But much as she may have enjoyed all this for a time, still her heart was not in it, and she soon tired, I fancy, of dancing and dressing and visiting. Already her mind was turning to other things, already her clear eyes were looking forward to other ways of life, other methods of work.