This closes out Natalie for Volume One, as we see her get a leg up on her new duties as a Red Cross nurse in a field hospital.
There are three more chapters to go, but they're all single installment chapters so just three more installments to put up: Henri, Walter and Philomene in that order.
Near Tarnow, Galicia. January 10th, 1915. The Tatar driver clucked to his two horses and the horse cart turned back onto the road, where frozen ruts caused the vehicle to bounce viciously. Natalie turned and craned her neck to see Anna. For a moment the other nurse looked after them, then with a last wave she turned and started towards the cluster of buildings and tents which marked the 7th Field Hospital’s second unit.
The wind bit, and Natalie pulled the blankets, still warm from covering both nurses for the last few hours, around her more tightly.
“How long until we reach the first unit?” she asked.
The driver shrugged, but after a moment he answered anyway, “Perhaps an hour if there’s no trouble.” His Russian was strongly accented but understandable.
“What sort of trouble?”
“Shelling. Broken axle. Drunken soldiers.”
If the previous week was any indication, the last of these might be the most likely to appear, though surely they could be little real danger while Natalie sat next to the large, sober Mohammedan with his coiled horsewhip resting across his knees.
When he had arrived at the medical depot that morning to drive Natalie and Anna out to the two field hospital units, Anna had demanded to know why someone had not come to get them sooner, her tone colored with the sense of outraged order which Natalie had become so familiar with over the previous week.
In reply the Tatar had offered his characteristic shrug. “Christmas. All the Christians have been drunk. Now the Austrians attack, so time to sober up maybe.”
It was a strange, drawn out, increasingly lonely Christmas which had dogged Natalie throughout her last days in Kiev and now into her first week in occupied Galicia, a Christmas muddled by the clash and mixture of East and West.
The Lutereks, as Poles and Roman Catholics, celebrated Christmas on December 25th of the Gregorian Calendar, a reform of the ancient Julian Calendar which the pope had introduced in the 16th century and all Western nations had adopted by the middle of the 18th. Not so Mother Russia, which still abided by the calendar introduced by Julius Caesar. Thus when the Lutereks went to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Nicholas to celebrate mass on the night of Christmas Eve, and the doctor stayed home from the hospital the next day to spend the holiday together with Borys before he left to join his regiment, for their neighbors and the Orthodox Church Christmas was still thirteen days away.
For Natalie too it had been Christmas, but though as a little girl living in the convent school she had often imagined what it would be like to live in a real house with a family on Christmas, now she had slipped quietly up to her room as soon as she got back from Christmas Eve mass, determined to avoid causing any scene by discomforting Madame Luterek as she prepared to send her second son to war. Remembering the joyous shouts and scrambling from bed to bed in the convent school dormitory as the girls came back from Christmas mass and opened the ‘charity bundles’ containing candy, illustrated cards, and little toys piously assembled by the ladies who supported the convent -- the hugs and confidences and best wishes for the coming year scribbled in autograph albums on that night of the year during which the sisters’ tolerance was nearly limitless -- Natalie for the first time in many weeks took the miniature of her mother and her old wooden doll, Lalka, into bed under the pile of blankets which kept her warm in the upstairs bedroom.
In the days leading up to the holiday, she had been waiting for a letter, hoping that perhaps the spirit of the season and the letter she had sent to her father’s lawyer, telling him that she was leaving her work as a governess and joining a field hospital, would inspire her father to write to her himself. Even if it remained true that she could not see him again just one letter, a few sentences written with tenderness, would be a treasure. But no. The letter which had arrived in that morning’s post was a formal one written by a legal clerk, expressing approval for her service to the Motherland and providing a credit draft which she could take to a bank in Kiev to get money for the clothing and equipment she would need.
And so she had spent her first Christmas like many other days: a full shift worked at the hospital and then a meal with Elena at an inexpensive cafe. Remembering her Christmas Eve night, alone, huddled under the blankets with her tokens of family, she had been particularly reluctant to say goodnight to Elena, who had just accepted a certified nurse’s position at a new military hospital on the outskirts of the city, and when the waiter began to make it clear to them that customers with such a paltry bill must cease lingering over their empty plates, the two had gone back to Elena’s little flat to make tea and sit next to the gas heater with blankets around their shoulders.
It had been late when she returned to the Luterek’s, stealing up the stairs in hope of disturbing no one, but Sara had appeared on the landing and drawn her into the nursery for a last goodbye with the three young people, before Borys caught the morning train to the front.