A couple days late but here's the last installment of Chapter 8. This almost marks the end of Part 1 of the this volume (there are three parts and twenty chapters total in volume one.)
Kiev, Russian Ukraine. August 22nd, 1914. The Kiev they returned to was a changed city. Soldiers were everywhere, and not the neatly uniformed soldiers who could be seen in parades on holidays: conscripts in ill-fitting brown field tunics, Cossacks in wide-skirted coats, and more exotically uniformed soldiers from further East.
Russian troops had crossed into East Prussia and Austrian Poland, and while news was vague, contradictory, and prone to sudden outbursts of enthusiasm, there was at least general agreement that the New Russia was in full swing. Thousands of miles of track had been laid, telegraph wire had been strung, reforms had been carried out, and surely in return for all this effort the Empire would be spared the humiliations which had come with the Russo-Japanese war ten years before.
War preparation had become fashionable, and at last Madame Luterek found herself prized for what she was, the wife of a famous surgeon, rather than feeling herself to be an art student’s clumsy and smudged copy of the masterpieces that were those born into position and wealth. Flattering little notes poured in on elegant stationery.
“Madame Luterek, My charitable society is packing bandages and other necessities for the field hospitals. We would be honored if you would join us and provide your advice.”
“Madame Luterek, I am sponsoring a hospital train for the treatment of wounded officers in our noble war effort. I would deeply value your assistance in choosing everything that is most modern and up to date.”
“Madame Luterek, I will be giving a charitable soiree to raise money for sending care packages to the front. Would you and the Doctor Luterek be willing to attend, and perhaps speak a few words regarding the wonders of modern medicine as it is applied today?”
Dr. Luterek himself had no truck with such society philanthropy. The hospital was expanding, with new wards being set up in a mansion lent for the purpose by Prince Mikhailov, and he was now a sought-after voice of authority in both medical and government circles. Money was flowing to the hospital, and he had been tasked to oversee the drafting of a new manual on the proper dressing and drainage of wounds. Madame Luterek, however, was eager to accept these newly offered honors. Not only did she herself accept every possible request for her time, but since she was much taken up with paying calls and attending meetings with the various noble and wealthy personages to whom she was suddenly dear, she deployed Sara and Lena, and Natalie with them, to roll bandages, assemble packages of comforts, and otherwise help to do the legwork of charity.
This meant that the girls’ lessons did not resume after the summer holiday, with only languages kept up in an informal fashion, but the girls thrived on the chance to feel themselves useful in the great national effort. Natalie also found a sense of satisfaction in doing some small piece of work to aid the sacrifice of Mother Russia’s soldiers, though being more than half a foreigner in her own land it seemed more natural to think of them in the pages of Tolstoy than as the actual men slogging down the streets in their brown uniform tunics. She also found in the aid work a welcome escape from the glances which, at moments of tiredness or frustration, Madame Luterek still cast at her. No word had yet been heard from Konrad since his departure. Each day Madame Luterek, after eagerly looking through the morning mail, would explain out loud to herself that the military post was still in chaos with so many men in motion for the mobilization, but she could not help afterwards resting her eyes on the young governess to whom her son had promised to write.
Thus it was that on Saturday, a week after the family’s return to Kiev, Natalie found herself happily occupied in the hospital’s new ward with her charges and a half dozen other young women -- in a grand, wood-paneled library of the old mansion, the shelves now emptied of books and lighter rectangles showing on the paneling where paintings that had long sheltered the wood from the darkening effects of the sun had been taken down -- folding up many-tailed bandages according to the instructions of a Red Cross nurse.
The technique was simple. First the thick, square pad of cotton, designed to stem the bleeding of some chest wound, was laid flat on the table. Then the “tails”, yard and a half long strips sewn onto each side, were paired off, pinned together at the end, and rolled up until the pad had a neat row of tail rows lying in the center. Lastly the pad itself was rolled up, and the whole bundle was placed in the case along with all the others.
“The tails on this one are not the same length,” Lena complained. She held up a pair of tails, one a foot longer than the other.
“Shoddy work,” the nurse supervisor ruled, after inspecting it. She pulled a pair of scissors from her pocket and trimmed the offending length. “This is the consequence when society girls are making bandages while paying more attention to their gossip than to their work. Let this serve as a lesson to all of you.”
Lesson given, she strode away to check on the work of another group of volunteers in the next room. Lena knit her brows and silently performed an imitation of the nurse’s scolding, drawing titters from another young woman.
“Lena,” said Natalie warningly.
The girl sighed and wrinkled her nose in annoyance, but went back to rolling bandages. Conversation returned to whether there would still be balls in the fall season despite the war.
This talk quickly blended into a background noise for Natalie. She thought of the Red Cross nurse, whom Lena had so casually mocked, comparing that figure with her plain gray wool dress, white nurse’s apron, and pinched expression to the young women around her in their summer frocks, cheerfully chattering away while wrapping bandages for wounded soldiers.
The volunteer work of the last week had provided a welcome change from the previous week at the summer house, when she had too often felt the ire of Madame Luterek on her and known that she was thinking of her treasured eldest son and the danger that he would be ensnared by a governess. Not only did rolling bandages and making care packages provide a welcome change from that silent accusation, taking her small part in the war effort provided a new sense of place and purpose which was welcome to her. It was the nurse, however, even with her air of tired frustration, with whom Natalie identified, not the cheerful young women volunteers around her. Soon these volunteers would tire of this activity and move on to some other minor piece of war-related charity or else abandon volunteerism entirely and return to their usual activities, and the hospital would not run the worse for their absence. Indeed, even as she diligently tried to do everything as instructed, Natalie wondered at times if the hospital would work more efficiently without their help than with it. However, if that nurse left, her lack would no doubt be noticed and regretted. She knew the purpose and the right way of doing things, and it seemed clear that her work was essential, not some mere hobby of the moment.
As Natalie was thinking about these things, a young woman from another team of volunteers, assigned to fold and put away bed linens, hurried into the room.
“A troop train has returned from Poland,” she announced, “and there are wounded aboard. The first patients have been moved into the officers’ ward!”
All work stopped.
“Wounded officers?” “What’s happened at the front?” “Has there been a battle?” “Of course there must have. How else could they be wounded?” “Did we win?” “Is the war over?” “How many wounded?”
The newcomer led the way down one hall and then another, past newly constructed shelves and stacks of supplies, and into what had been the ballroom, the wide expanse of polished wood floor now broken up into private niches by walls made of wood frames and white canvas. Above it all, incongruously, still hung the two huge, crystal-bedecked chandeliers, which had given light to different gatherings at which some of these same young ladies had danced with officers in brilliant dress uniforms just a few months before.