I'm back from the summer break as rested as one can be while writing a novel and training for a half marathon. My goal is to post sections at least once a week. This one begins Chapter 13 which returns to Natalie in Russian Ukraine. There will be a total of three installments of Chapter 13.
Kiev, Russian Ukraine. September 18th, 1914. Sister Levchenko pushed open the door to the small sitting room where Natalie and Elena were having an afternoon cup of tea while trying to discern the war news from the oblique reports of the afternoon edition of the newspaper.
“Nowakówna. Nikolayevna. Make a up bed immediately. There’s a new patient being brought in.”
She hurried away without waiting to hear the other two women’s response. The gray wool uniform dress and large red cross on her white apron gave her authority over the voluntary aides as complete as that of any doctor.
“There wasn’t a hospital train due today,” said Natalie, as they cleared their cups and saucers from the table.
Elena shrugged. They were the only volunteer aides that day. If they had to prepare a whole ward it would have taken over an hour at breakneck pace. One bed, however, was a quick task to practiced hands.
They spread crisp white cotton sheets which gave off the smell of disinfecting wash -- a small which at first had seemed harsh and chemical, but now conveyed a wholesome purity to their nostrils. Blood, dirt and infection conveyed danger; chlorine and carbolic solution were the weapons against those foes.
“Do you ever think of becoming one of them?” Elena asked, smoothing the regulation grey wool blanket.
“Who?” Natalie asked, tucking the bottom corners beneath the mattress.
“A red cross nurse.” Elena moved the big canvas-covered frames into place, turning the bed into its own private niche, ready for its patient. “They do all the real work. We might as well be maids, and they’ll be just as happy to have real servants when all the respectable ladies have tired of playing white-clad angel. The nurses are the ones who have the skills to make a real difference.”
“But surely-- You can’t just become a nurse. There must be a great deal of training.”
“Oh, a great deal. Even on a war footing, several months worth. But people do it. They’re not born nurses. My cousin Sonia took the training during the 1904 war and served in a hospital in Moscow.”
“Well, of course, but what I meant was--” Natalie felt the heat of blood rushing to her face, as if she had just provided a very poor answer in class while the other girls looked on. “Surely it’s not as simple as just taking some training and becoming a nurse. Don’t you have to be… the right sort of person?”
The words sounded wrong in her ears even as she spoke them, and she flushed again. The shade of difference, the idea that there was something Other about the professionally trained nurses -- whether some authority gained at nursing school or a natural air of command which destined them for a higher order -- this distinction was impossible to define and yet it put a chasm between her and the nurses as wide as that among between the doctors and the orderlies: between the men who cut and cured and ordered versus the men who carried, cleaned and did as they were told.
Throughout her upbringing in the convent it had been a principle as clear and unquestionable as the laws of motion which held God’s creations in their orbits that she was a member of that order in society which obeyed. Obeyed graciously, obeyed genteelly, obeyed the higher call rather than the lower, to be sure, and perhaps within that realm of obedience exerted authority over those temporarily or by birth of even lower status: children, servants. But the basic principle remained.
Leaving the convent, meeting her father, these had for a time given her the trappings of a higher station, a new Paris wardrobe, first class rail cars, a beautiful hotel room. Yet even these had seemed a window on another world, a world in which she still possessed no rights or authority. Her brief command of waiters and taxi drivers had not made it seem any less against the laws of nature for her to disagree when her father told her that she must never see him again or when Dr. Luterek held her to account for his son’s pursuit of her.
Could a few months training reverse all this and make her the ultimate female authority over a ward of patients and their care? Was she meant to wield such power and responsibility? The idea was by turns alluring and terrifying.
“You two, don’t stand there, turn the bedclothes down.” The ward sister had entered, all action and command, followed by two orderlies carrying a stretcher.
Natalie obediently helped turned down the sheets. As the orderlies gently slid the apparently unconscious men onto the bed, she recoiled at the sight of a head like an obscene newspaper caricature. The soldier had a massive, discolored swelling above his left brow. She knew it must be the result of some massive blow to the head, yet the way it distorted his forehead, and the dark patches of internal bleeding pooling around his eyes, gave the man the look of a cartoon drawing of an intellectual with swollen brain and weary eyes.
“Soldiers who brought him in said the cart horse was startled by a motor,” she heard one of the orderlies explain to the other. “Caught in the head by a falling barrell. Wonder he isn’t dead already.”
The nurse began issuing orders rapidly, and Natalie rushed away, first to fetch bandages and gauze, then for a basin of disinfectant. As she fulfilled these requests she watched the nurse’s swift and confident movements, thinking of Elena’s question and wondering if she herself could ever dress a man’s injuries with such calm professional skill.
The new arrival, Sergeant Utkin, had kept them busy throughout the afternoon, and Natalie had stayed an hour past her usual time. Madame Luterek never waited tea when someone was late, but any tardiness was displeasing to her. No letters had arrived from Konrad in almost two weeks, and although this left his mother in a state at once desperate for news and terrified at what it might bring, the extended silence also meant that no letter addressed to “My Lovely Natalie” or “That Little Governess” or whatever teasing endearment might next come to the young lieutenant’s mind had arrived to embarrass Natalie, enrapture Sara and Lena, and set Madame Luterek casting baleful glances at the young governess she remained convinced must somehow be at fault for capturing her son’s attention. This calming of the household tensions was welcome, and Natalie had no desire to spoil it by doing anything to upset Madame Luterek.
7 hours ago