The Red Acorn by John McElroy
Chapter XIV. In the Hospital.
As the tall ship whose lofty prore Shall never stem the billows more Deserted by her gallant band, Amid the breakers lies astrand-- Soon his couch lay Rhoderick Dhu, And oft his fevered limbs he threw In toss abrupt, as when her sides Lie rocking in the advancing tides, That shake her frame with ceaseless beat, Yet can not heave her from her seat;-- O, how unlike her course on sea! Or his free step on hill and lea!--Lady of the Lake.
An Army Hospital is the vestibule of the Cemetery--the ante-room where the recruiting-agents of Death--Wounds and Disease--assemble their conscripts to prepare them for the ranks from which there is neither desertion nor discharge. Therein enter those who are to lay aside "this muddy vesture of decay," for the changeless garb of the Beyond. Thither troop the Wasted and Stricken to rest a little, and prepare for the last great journey, the first milestone of which is placed over their heads.
Humanity and Science have done much for the Army Hospital, but still its swinging doors wave two to the tomb where they return one to health and activity.
It was a broiling hot day when Rachel Bond descended from the ambulance which had brought her from the station to camp.
She shielded her eyes with a plam-leaf fan, and surveyed the surroundings of the post of duty to which she had been assigned. She found herself in a little city of rough plank barracks, arranged in geometrically correct streets and angles about a great plain of a parade ground, from which the heat radiated as from a glowing stove. A flag drooped as if wilted from the top of a tall pole standing on the side of the parade-ground opposite her. Languidly pacing in front of the Colonel's tent was an Orderly, who had been selected in the morning for his spruce neatness, but who now looked like some enormous blue vegetable, rapidly withering under the sun's blistering rays.
Beyond were the barracks, baking and sweltering, cracking their rough, unpainted sides into yawning fissures, and filling the smothering air with resinous odors distilled from the fat knots in the refuse planking of which they were built. Beyond these was the line of camp-guards--bright gun-barrels and bayonets glistening painfully, and those who bore them walking with as weary slowness as was consistent with any motion whatever, along their beats.
On straw in the oven-like barracks, and under the few trees in the camp-ground, lay the flushed and panting soldiers, waiting wearily for that relief which the descending sun would bring.
The hospital to which Rachel had been brought differed from the rest of the sheds in the camp by being whitewashed within and without, which made it radiate a still more unendurable heat than its duller-lustered companions. A powerful odor of chloride of lime and carbolic acid shocked her sensitive nostrils with their tales of all the repulsiveness those disinfectants were intended to destroy or hide.
Several dejected, hollow-eyed convalescents, whose uniforms hung about their wasted bodies as they would about wooden crosses, sat on benches in the scanty shade by one side of the building, and fanned themselves weakly with fans clumsily fashioned from old newspapers. They looked up as the trim, lady-like figure stepped lightly down from the ambulance, and the long-absent luster returned briefly to their sad eyes.
"That looks like home, Jim," said one of the fever-wasted.
"That it does. Lord! she looks as fresh and sweet as the Johnny-jump-ups down by our old spring-house. I expect she's come down here to find somebody that belongs to her that's sick. Don't I wish it was me!"
"I wouldn't mind being a brother, or a cousin, or a sweetheart to her myself. That'd be better luck than to be given a sutler-shop. Just see her move! She's got a purtier gait than our thoroughbred colt."
"It does one's eyes good to look at her. It makes me feel better than a cart-load of the stuff that old Pillbags forces down our throats."
"You're a-talking. She's a lady--every inch of her--genuine, simon-pure, fast colors, all-wool, a yard wide, as fine as silk, and bright a a May morning."
"And as wholesome as Spring sunshine."
All unconscious that her appearance was to the invalids who looked upon her like a sweet, health-giving breeze bursting through a tainted atmosphere, Rachel passed wearily along the burning walks toward the Surgeon's office, with a growing heart-sickness at the unwelcome appearance of the task she had elected for herself.
The journey had been full of irritating discomforts. Heat, dust, and soiled linen are only annoyances to a man; they are real miseries to a woman. The marvel is not that Joan of Arc dared the perils of battle, but that she endured the continued wretchedness of camp uncleanliness, to the triumphant end.
With her throat parched, garments "sticky," hair, eyes, ears and nostrils filled with irritating dust, and a feeling that collar and cuffs were, as ladies phrase it, "a sight to behold," Rachel's heoric enthusiasm ebbed to the bottom. Ushered into the Surgeon's office she was presented to a red-faced, harsh-eyed man, past the middle age, who neither rose nor apologized to her for being discovered in the undress of a hot day. He montioned her to a seat with the wave of the fan he was vigorously using, and taking her letter of introduction, adjusted eye-glasses upon a ripe-colored nose, and read it with a scowl that rippled his face with furrows.
"So you're the first of the women nurses that's to be assigned to me," he said ungraciously, after finishing the letter, and scanning her severely for a moment over the top of his glasses. "I suppose I have to have 'em."
The manner hurt Rachel even more than the words. Before she could frame a reply he continued:
"I don't take much stock in this idea of women nurses, especially when they're young and pretty." He scowled at Rachel as if she had committed a crime in being young and beautiful. "But the country's full of women with a Quixotic notion of being Florence Nightingales, and they've badgered the Government into accepting their services. I suppose I'll have to take my share of them. Ever nursed?"
"No, sir," responded Rachel, compressing as much ahughtiness as possible into the answer.
"Of course not. Girls at your age are not at all likely to know anything that is useful, and least of all how to nurse a sick man. I hardly know which is the worst, a young one who don't know anything, or a middle-aged one who thinks she knows it all, and continually interferes with the management of a case. I believe though, I'd rather have had the middle-aged one to start with. She'd be more likely to tend to her business, and not have her head turned by the attentions of the good-looking young officers who swarm around her. Mind, I'll not allow any flirting here."
Rachel's face crimsoned. "You forget yourself," she said, cuttingly; "or perhaps you have nothing to forget. At least, man an effort to remember that I'm a lady."
The bristly eyebrows straightened down to a level line over the small blue eyes, and unpleasant furrows drew themselves around the corners of his mouth. "You forget," he said, "that if you enter upon these duties you are in the military service and subject to your superior officers. You forget the necessity of the most rigid discipline, and that it is my duty to explain and enforce this."
"I certainly expect to obey orders," said Rachel, a little overawed.
"You may rightly expect to," he answere with a slight sneer; "because it will be a matter of necessity--you will have to. We must have instant and unquestioning obedience to orders here, as well as everywhere else in the Army, or it would be like a rope of sand--of no strength whatever--no strength, whatever."
"I know it," answered Rachel, depressed even more by th apparition of martial law than she had been by the heat.
"And what I have been telling you is only the beginning," continued the Surgeon, noting the effect of his words, and exulting in their humbling power. "The cornerstone of everything military is obedience--prompt, unfailing obedience, by everybody, soldier or officer, to his superiors. Without it---"
"Major Moxon," said an officer, entering and saluting, "the General presents his compliments, and desires to know why his repeated orders in regard to the furloughing of men have been so persistently disregarded."
"Because," said the Surgeon, getting purplish-red about the cheeks and nose, " because the matter's one which I consider outside of his province--beyond his control, sir. I am Chief of the Medical Department, as you are perhaps aware, sir."
"We presumed that you were taking that view of the matter, from your course," answered the Aide calmly. "I am not here to argue the matter with you, but simply to direct you to consider yourself under arrest. Charges are being prepared against you, to which I will add specifications based on this interview. Good afternoon, sir." The Aide saluted stiffly and moved away, leaving the Surgeon in a state of collapse at the prospect of what he had brought upon himself by his injudicious contumacy. Mis Rachel was in that state of wonderment that comes to pupils at seeing their teachers rebel agains their own precepts. The Surgeon was too much engrossed in his own affairs to pay farther heed to her. He tapped a bell.
"Orderly," he said, to the soldier who responded, "conduct this young woman to Dr. Denslow. Inform him that she is to be with us as a nurse, and ask him to be kind enough to assign her suitable quarters. Good afternoon, ma'am."
In another office, much smaller and far less luxuriously furnished, she found Dr. Denslow, a hazel-eyed, brown-bearded man of thirty, whose shoulder-straps bore the modest bars of Captain. The reader has already made his acquaintance. He received her with the pleasant, manly sympathy for her sex, which had already made him one of the most popular of family physicians in the city where he was practicing at the outbreak of the war.
Rachel's depressed spirits rose again at his cordial reception.
"I am so busy," he said, after a brief exchange of commonplaces, "that I'll not have the time to give you much information this afternoon as to your duties, and I know that you are so fatigued with your journey and the heat that you will not care to do anything but rest and refresh yourself. I will therefore show you immediately to your quarters."
"This will be your field of labor," he said, as he led her down the long aisle between rows of cots toward her room. "It's not a cheerful one to contemplate at first. Human suffering is always a depressing spectacle, and you will see here more of it and more varied agony than you can find anywhere outside of an army hospital's walls. But as the deed is so is the duty, and the glory of doing it. To one who wants to serve God and his fellow-creatures--which I take it is the highest form of religion--here is an opportunity that he may bless God for giving him. Here he can earn a brighter crown than is given them who die at the stake for opinion's sake."
So earnest was his enthusiasm that Rachel felt herself lifted up by it, in spite of her discomforts. But then she turned her eyes away from his impassioned face, and looked over the array of white beds, each with its pale and haggard occupant, his eyes blazing with the delirium of fever, or closed in the langor of exhaustion, with limbs tossing as the febrile fire seethed the blood, or quivering with the last agonies. Groans, prayers, and not a few oaths fell on her ears. The repulsive smell of the disinfectants, the nauseating odor of the sick room where hundreds of invalids were lying, the horrible effluvia of the typhus rose on the hot air, and seemed part of the misery which so strongly assailed her other senses.
She was sick at heart, and with every feeling in active revolt, but without a word she turned and followed Dr. Denslow to a hot, close, little room which had been cut off one end of the hospital, though not so separated from it but that the sounds and odors from the sick wards continually filtered in through the wide cracks in its plank sides. An iron bedstead, of the same pattern as that upon which the sick lay, stood in one corner, and in another was a rudely-fashioned stand, upon which was a tin-basin, a cake of yellow bar-soap, and a bucket of water for washing. This was all the furniture.
As the door closed behind the Doctor, Rachel threw herself upon the cot, in a fit of despair at the wreck of all her fancies, and the repulsiveness of the career upon which she had embarked.
"I can not--I will not--live here a week," she said to herself, over and over again. "I will die for the lack of comforts--of the decencies of life, even--to say nothing of being poisoned by these horrible smells, or driven distracted by the raving sick and that boor of a Surgeon. But I can not draw back; I would rather die than go back to Sardis with a confession of failure at the very outset of my attempt to play the heroine."
Then she remembered her last words to Harry Glen: "I only know that you have failed where a number of commonplace men have succeeded, and that is sufficient."
Would she subject herself to having him throw these words in her teeth? No. Any shape of trial and death, rather.