Gateway to the Classics: Florence Nightingale by Laura E. Richards
Florence Nightingale by  Laura E. Richards

The Lady-in-Chief

M ISS NIGHTINGALE arrived at Scutari on November 4th. You have seen what she found; but there was worse to come. Only twenty-four hours after her arrival, the wounded from the battle of Inkerman began to come in; soon every inch of room in both the Barrack and the General hospital was full, and men by hundreds were lying on the muddy ground outside, unable to find room even on the floor of the corridor. Neither Lady-in-Chief nor nurses had had time to rest after their long voyage, to make plans for systematic work, even to draw breath after their first glimpse of the horrors around them, when this great avalanche of suffering and misery came down upon them. No woman in history has had to face such a task as now flung itself upon Florence Nightingale.

She met it as the great meet trial, quietly and calmly. Her cheek might pale at what she had to see, but there was no flinching in those clear, gray-blue eyes, no trembling of those firm lips. Ship after ship discharged its ghastly freight at the ferry below; train after train of wounded was dragged up the hill, brought into the overflowing hospital, laid down on pallet, on mattress, on bare floor, on muddy ground, wherever space could be found. "The men lay in double rows down the long corridors, forming several miles of suffering humanity."

As the poor fellows were brought in, they looked up, and saw a slender woman in a black dress, with a pale, beautiful face surmounted by a close-fitting white cap. Quietly, but with an authority that no one ever thought of disputing, she gave her orders, directing where the sufferers were to be taken, what doctor was to be summoned, what nurses to attend them. During these days she was known sometimes to stand on her feet twenty hours at a time,  seeing that each man was put in the right place, where he might receive the right kind of help. I ask you to think of this for a moment. Twenty hours nearly the whole of a day and night.

Where a particularly severe operation was to be performed, Miss Nightingale was present whenever it was possible, giving to both surgeon and patient the comfort and support of her wonderful calm strength and sympathy. In this dreadful inrush of the Inkerman wounded, the surgeons had first of all to separate the more hopeful cases from those that seemed desperate. The working force was so insufficient, they must devote their energies to saving those who could be saved; this is how it seemed to them. Once Miss Nightingale saw five men lying together in a corner, left just as they had come from the vessel.

"Can nothing be done for them?" she asked the surgeon in charge. He shook his head.

"Then will you give them to me?"

"Take them," replied the surgeon, "if you like; but we think their case is hopeless."

Do you remember the little girl sitting by the wounded dog? All night long Florence Nightingale sat beside those five men, one of the faithful nurses with her, feeding them with a spoon at short intervals till consciousness returned, and a little strength began to creep back into their poor torn bodies; then washing their wounds, making them tidy and decent, and all the time cheering them with kind and hopeful words. When morning came the surgeons, amazed, pronounced the men in good condition to be operated upon, and—we will hope, though the story does not tell the end-saved.

Is it any wonder that one poor lad burst into tears as he cried: "I can't help it, I can't indeed, when I see them. Only think of Englishwomen coming out here to nurse us! It seems so homelike and comfortable."

In those days one of the nurses wrote home to England

"It does appear absolutely impossible to meet the wants of those who are dying of dysentery and exhaustion; out of four wards committed to my care, eleven men have died in the night, simply from exhaustion, which, humanly speaking, might have been stopped, could I have laid my hand at once on such nourishment as I knew they ought to have had.

"It is necessary to be as near the scene of war as we are, to know the horrors which we have seen and heard of. I know not which sight is most heart-rending—to witness fine strong men and youths worn down by exhaustion and sinking under it, or others coming in fearfully wounded.

"The whole of yesterday was spent, first in sewing the men's mattresses together, and then in washing them, and assisting the surgeons, when we could, in dressing their ghastly wounds, and seeing the poor fellows made as easy as their circumstances would admit of, after their five days' confinement on board ship, during which space their wounds were not dressed. . . . We have not seen a drop of milk, and the bread is extremely sour. The butter is most filthy—it is Irish butter in a state of decomposition; and the meat is more like moist leather than food. Potatoes we are waiting for until they arrive from France."

This was written six days after arrival. By the tenth day, a miracle had been accomplished. Miss Nightingale had established and fitted up a kitchen, from which eight hundred men were fed daily with delicacies and food suitable to their condition. Beef-tea, chicken broth, jelly—a quiet wave of the wand, and these things sprang up, as it were, out of the earth.

Hear how one of the men describes it himself. On arriving at the hospital early in the morning, he was given a bowl of gruel. "'Tommy, me boy,' he said to himself, 'that's all you'll get into your inside this blessed day, and think yourself lucky you've got that.' But two hours later, if another of them blessed angels didn't come entreating of me to have just a little chicken broth! Well, I took that, thinking maybe it was early dinner, and before I had well done wondering what would happen next, round the nurse came again with a bit o' jelly, and all day long at intervals they kept on bringing me what they called 'a little nourishment.' In the evening, Miss Nightingale she came and had a look at me, and says she, 'I hope you're feeling better.' I could have said, 'Ma'am, I feels as fit as a fightin' cock,' but I managed to git out somethin' a bit more polite."

How was the miracle accomplished? Up to this time, the method of giving out stores had been much like the method (only there was really no method about it!) of cooking and washing. There were no regular hours; if you asked for a thing in the morning, you might get it in the evening, when the barrack fires were out. And you could get nothing at all until it had been inspected by this official, approved by that, and finally given out by the other. These were called "service rules"; they were really folds and coils of the monster Red Tape, at his work of binding and strangling. How was the miracle accomplished? Simply enough. Miss Nightingale, with the foresight of a born leader, had anticipated all this, and was ready for it. The materials for all the arrowroot, beef-tea, chicken broth, wine jelly, of those first weeks, came out of her own stores, brought out with her in the vessel, the Victis,  from England. She had no intention of waiting a day or an hour for anyone; she had not a day or an hour to waste.

It must have been a wonderful cargo, that of the Victis; I can think of nothing but the astonishing bag of the Mother in the "Swiss Family Robinson," or that still more marvelous one of the Fairy Blackstick. Do you remember?

"And Giglio returned to his room, where the first thing he saw was the fairy bag lying on the table, which seemed to give a little hop as he came in. 'I hope it has some breakfast in it,' says Giglio, 'for I have only a very little money left.' But on opening the bag, what do you think was there? A blacking-brush and a pot of Warren's jet, and on the pot was written,

"Poor young men their boots must black;

Use me and cork me and put me back!"

So Giglio laughed and blacked his boots, and put the brush and the bottle into the bag.

"When he had clone dressing himself, the bag gave another hop, and he went to it and took out—

1. A tablecloth and napkin.

2. A sugar basin full of the best loaf sugar.

4, 6, 8, 10. Two forks, two teaspoons, two knives, and a pair of sugar-tongs, and a butterknife, all marked G.

11, 12, 13. A teacup, saucer, and slop-basin.

14. A jug full of delicious cream.

15. A canister with black tea and green.

16. A large tea-urn and boiling water.

17. A saucepan, containing three eggs nicely done.

18. A quarter of a pound of best Epping butter.

19. A brown loaf.

"And if he hadn't enough now for a good breakfast, I should like to know who ever had one?"

When I was your age, I never tired of reading about this breakfast; and then there was that other wonderful day when the bag was "grown so long that the Prince could not help remarking it. He went to it, opened it, and what do you think he found in it?

"A splendid long gold-handled, red-velvet-scabbarded cut-and-thrust sword, and on the sheath was embroidered 'ROSALBA FOREVER!'"

But I am not writing the "Rose and the Ring"; I wish I were!

So, as I said, all good and comforting things came in those first days out of the Fairy Florence's bag—I mean ship. She hired a house close by the hospital, and set up a laundry, with every proper and sanitary arrangement, and there, every week, five hundred shirts were washed, besides other garments. But now came a new difficulty. Many of the soldiers had no clothes at all save the filthy and ragged ones on their backs; what was to become of them while their shirts were washed and mended? The ship bag gave another hop (at least I should think it would have, for pure joy of the good it was doing), and out came ten thousand shirts; and for the first time since they left the battle-field the sick and wounded men were clean and comfortable.

But the Lady-in-Chief knew that her fairy stores were not of the kind that renew themselves; and having once got matters into something like decent order and comfort in the hospital, she turned quietly and resolutely to do battle with the monster Red Tape.

The officials of Scutari did not know what to make of the new state of things. As I have said, many of them had shaken their heads and pulled very long faces when they heard that a woman was coming out who was to have full power and authority over all things pertaining to the care of the sick and wounded. They honestly thought, no doubt, that the confusion would be doubled, the distraction turned to downright madness. What could a woman know about such matters? What experi ence had she had of "service rules"? What would become of them all?

They were soon to find out. The Lady-in-Chief did not cry out, or wring her hands, or do any of the things they had expected. Neither did she bluster or rage, scold or reproach. She simply said that this or that must be done, and then saw that it was done. Her tact and judgment were as great as her power and wisdom; more I cannot say.

Suppose she wanted certain stores that were in a warehouse on the wharf. The warehouse was locked. She sent for the wharfinger. Would he please open the warehouse and give her the stores? He was very sorry, but he could not do so with out an order from the board. She went to the chief officer of the board. He was very sorry, but it would be necessary to have a meeting of the entire board. Who made up the board? Well, Mr. So-and-so, and Dr. This, and Mr. That, and Colonel 'Tother. Where were they? Well, one of them was not very well, and another was probably out riding, and a third—

Would he please call them together at once?

Well, he was extremely busy just now, but tomorrow or the day after, he would be delighted—

Would he be ready himself for a meeting, if Miss Nightingale could get the other members of the board together? Well—of course—he would be delighted, but he could assure Miss Nightingale that everything would be all right, without her having the trouble to—

The board met; pen, ink and paper were ready. Would they kindly sign the order? Many thanks! Good morning!

And the warehouse was opened, and the goods on their way to the hospital, before the astonished gentlemen had fairly drawn their breath.

"But what kind of way is this to do business?" cried the slaves of Red Tape. "She doesn't give us time! The moment a thing is wanted, she goes and gets it!!! The rules of the service—"

But this was not true; for, as methodical as she was wise and generous, Miss Nightingale was most careful to consult the proper authorities, and, whenever it was possible, to make them take the necessary steps themselves. Once, and only once, did she absolutely take the law into her own hands. There came a moment when certain stores were desperately needed for some sick and wounded men. The stores were at hand, but they had not been inspected, and Red Tape had decreed that nothing should be given out until it had been inspected by the board. (This was another board, probably; their name was Legion.) Miss Nightingale tried to get the board together, but this time without success. One was away, and another was ill, and a third was—I don't know where. The clear gray-blue eyes grew stern.

"I must have these things!" she said quietly. "My men are dying for lack of them."

The under-official stammered and turned pale; he did not wish to disobey her, but—it meant a courtmartial for him if he disobeyed the rules of the service.

"You shall have no blame," said the Lady-in-Chief. "I take the entire responsibility upon myself. Open the door!"

The door was opened, and in a few moments the sick men had the stimulants for lack of which they were sinking into exhaustion.

When Miss Nightingale arrived at Scutari, the death rate in the Barrack Hospital was sixty per cent; within a few months it was reduced to one per cent; and this, under heaven, was accomplished by her and her devoted band of nurses. Do you wonder that she was called "The Angel of the Crimea?"

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