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"The General, Madam, is safe and well. Colonel 유흥알바 Scott has been killed. The General has placed a guard around his body, and he will be sent here early to-morrow. The General bids me say he will not return. The fight will be renewed, and will continue until the enemy is driven away."
My resolution was taken. My children were safe with their grandmother. I would write. I would ask that every particle of my household linen, except a change, should be rolled into bandages, all my fine linen be sent to me for compresses, and all forwarded as soon as possible.
I would enter the new hospital which had been improvised in Kent & Paine's warehouse, and would remain there as a nurse as long as the armies were fighting around Richmond.
But the courier was passing on his rounds with news for others. Presently Fanny Poindexter, in tears, knocked at my door.
"She is bearing it like a brave, Christian woman."
"She! Who? Tell me quick."
"Mrs. Scott. I had to tell her. She simply said, 'I shall see him once more.' The General 181 wrote to her from the battle-field and told her how nobly her husband died,—leading his men in the thick of the fight,—and how he had helped to save the city."
Alas, that the city should have needed saving! What had Mrs. Scott and her children done? Why should they suffer? Who was to blame for it all?
Kent & Paine's warehouse was a large, airy building, which had, I understood, been offered by the proprietors for a hospital immediately after the battle of Seven Pines. McClellan?'s advance upon Richmond had heavily taxed the capacity of the hospitals already established.
When I reached the warehouse, early on the morning after the fight at Mechanicsville, I found cots on the lower floor already occupied, and other cots in process of preparation. An aisle between the rows of narrow beds stretched to the rear of the building. Broad stairs led to a story above, where other cots were being laid.
The volunteer matron was a beautiful Baltimore woman, Mrs. Wilson. When I was presented to her as a candidate for admission, her serene eyes rested doubtfully upon me for a moment. She hesitated. Finally she said: "The work is very exacting. There are so few of us that our nurses must do anything and everything—make beds, wait upon anybody, and often a half a dozen at a time."
"I will engage to do all that," I declared, and she permitted me to go to a desk at the farther end of the room and enter my name.
As I passed by the rows of occupied cots, I saw a 182 nurse kneeling beside one of them, holding a pan for a surgeon. The red stump of an amputated arm was held over it. The next thing I knew I was myself lying on a cot, and a spray of cold water was falling over my face. I had fainted. Opening my eyes, I found the matron standing beside me.
"You see it is as I thought. You are unfit for this work. One of the nurses will conduct you home."
The nurse's assistance was declined, however. I had given trouble enough for one day, and had only interrupted those who were really worth something.
A night's vigil had been poor preparation for hospital work. I resolved I would conquer my culpable weakness. It was all very well,—these heroics in which I indulged, these paroxysms of patriotism, this adoration of the defenders of my fireside. The defender in the field had naught to hope from me in case he should be wounded in my defence.
I took myself well in hand. Why had I fainted? I thought it was because of the sickening, dead odor in the hospital, mingled with that of acids and disinfectants. Of course this would always be there—and worse, as wounded men filled the rooms. I provided myself with sal volatile and spirits of camphor,—we wore pockets in our gowns in those days,—and thus armed I presented myself again to Mrs. Wilson.
She was as kind as she was refined and intelligent. "I will give you a place near the door," she said, "and you must run out into the air at the first hint of faintness. You will get over it, see if you don't." 183
Ambulances began to come in and unload at the door. I soon had occupation enough, and a few drops of camphor on my handkerchief tided me over the worst. The wounded men crowded in and sat patiently waiting their turn. One fine little fellow of fifteen unrolled a handkerchief from his wrist to show me his wound. "There's a bullet in there," he said proudly. "I'm going to have it cut out, and then go right back to the fight. Isn't it lucky it's my left hand?"
As the day wore on I became more and more absorbed in my work. I had, too, the stimulus of a reproof from Miss Deborah Couch, a brisk, efficient middle-aged lady, who asked no quarter and gave none. She was standing beside me a moment, with a bright tin pan filled with pure water, into which I foolishly dipped a finger to see if it were warm; to learn if I would be expected to provide warm water when I should be called upon to assist the surgeon.
"This water, Madam, was prepared for a raw wound," said Miss Deborah, sternly. "I must now make the surgeon wait until I get more."
Miss Deborah, in advance of her time, was a germ theorist. My touch evidently was contaminating.
As she charged down the aisle with a pan of water in her hand, everybody made way. She had known of my "fine-lady faintness," as she termed it, and I could see she despised me for it. She had volunteered, as all the nurses had, and she meant business. She had no patience with nonsense, and truly she was worth more than all the rest of us. 184
"Where can I get a little ice?" I one day ventured of Miss Deborah.
"Find it," she rejoined, as she rapidly passed on; but find it I never did. Ice was an unknown luxury until brought to us later from private houses.
But I found myself thoroughly reinstated—with surgeons, matron, and Miss Deborah—when I appeared a few days later, accompanied by a man bearing a basket of clean, well-rolled bandages, with promise of more to come. The Petersburg women had gone to work with a will upon my table-cloths, sheets, and dimity counterpanes—and even the chintz furniture covers. My springlike green and white chintz bandages appeared on many a manly arm and leg. My fine linen underwear and napkins were cut, by the sewing circle at the Spotswood, according to the surgeon's directions, into lengths two inches wide, then folded two inches, doubling back and forth in a smaller fold each time, until they formed pointed wedges for compresses.
Such was the sudden and overwhelming demand for such things, that but for my own and similar donations of household linen, the wounded men would have suffered. The war had come upon us suddenly. Many of our ports were already closed, and we had no stores laid up for such an emergency.
The bloody battle of Gaines's Mill soon followed—then Frazier's Farm, within the week, and at once the hospital was filled to overflowing. Every night a courier brought me tidings of my husband. When I saw him at the door my heart would die within me! One morning John came in for certain supplies. 185 After being reassured as to his master's safety, I asked, "Did he have a comfortable night, John?"