Read CHAPTER XLII of Her Royal Highness Woman, free online book, by Max O'Rell, on ReadCentral.com.

ON NURSES

Nurses look the happiest women in the world-Their lives and their
privileges-True story of a nurse.

If I were a woman of robust health, rich or poor, and I had no fascination for men, and matrimony had no fascination for me, I would become a nurse. The great, the only problem to solve in life, after all, is happiness, and the only possible way to be happy is to feel that you are wanted and you cause happiness in others; in a word, that somebody is glad and grateful that you are alive. I know I should find a great deal of happiness in nursing. I have had to deal with nurses in France during nine months in a military hospital after the Commune, when a compatriot of mine, an insurgent, of whom I never had the pleasure of making the personal acquaintance, shot me in the arm, and also in Great Britain, during a severe illness which I contracted in the North of Scotland, far away from home.

Nurses look all cheerful and happy, and the beauty of their faces, in England, is enhanced, I must say, by a pleasing, very becoming semi-nunlike attire, that gives them a peculiar charm which you find in no other women. There is engraven on their faces that joy of living which Heaven seems to stamp upon the faces of women who devote themselves to the well-being and happiness of their fellow-creatures and to the assuaging of their pains and sufferings. Yes, nurses all look beautiful, and if I were a woman, theirs is the kind of beauty which I should like to possess.

I remember seeing one by the death-bed of a little girl whom she had tenderly nursed, standing at the bedside, motionless, beautiful in her impassive grace, and looking like one of those angels that painters delight in representing at the bedside of children whose souls they have come to bear to the abode of the seraphim.

Another thing that would induce me to embrace that profession-or vocation I ought rather to call it-is the absolute freedom that nurses enjoy. Their very dress inspires respect in all alike, high and low. They can go wherever they like with their uniform on-into a first tier box at the opera or into the lowest slums of the city. Everybody will stand back to let them pass; all will throw at them a glance of sympathy and admiration. The upper tens treat the nurse like the lady that she is, the submerged ones like the angel that brings them a ray of sunshine. The nurse may be ever so beautiful, the worst roue in the street will not only never think of following her, much less annoying her by his loathsome assiduities, but he will allow her to pass unnoticed in perfect freedom and security, and will not unlikely leave the pavement to make room for her. I believe that the pickpocket in an omnibus would hesitate to help himself to her purse, even if that light companion of hers made itself conspicuous to him by its proximity and easiness of access. If he should yield to the temptation and be caught, he would run the risk of being lynched.

I have heard it said that many women become nurses, hospital nurses especially, with a keen eye on matrimony. It is a fact that a good many nurses marry doctors they have come in contact with, hospital students they have worked with, and even sometimes patients they have nursed during a protracted and painful illness. The wounded officer and his nurse have been the hero and the heroine of many plays and novels; but very few women undertake to lead a life of seclusion and slavery, of abnegation and devotion, a life which entails work day and night, and even danger of contracting infectious disease, with a view to matrimony.

On the other hand, I dare say that a fair number of women have become nurses after the sad ending of some love-affair, in order to divert their thoughts from the death of a beloved sweetheart or the unfaithfulness of a light-hearted lover.

At all events, if the mother-in-law, the stepmother, the widow, the old maid, the strong-minded woman, the ruling wife, the woman’s-righter, the woman this and the woman that, have supplied themes for the entertainment and the gaiety of nations, the humourist has invariably left the nurse alone.

I was just now mentioning the fact that many women became nurses in order to bestow on their suffering fellow-creatures the love which the death of a dear lover prevented them from bestowing on a man.

As an illustration, I will give a little story that I extract from my early reminiscences.

We were fast getting the better of the Communards in 1871, and my men were warming to the work in grand style, when a piece of burst shell hit me, and some of the fellows carried me off to the hospital. I remember being puzzled that there should be relatively no pain in a wound of that sort; but the pain came soon enough when the fever set in. The doctor of the Versailles Hospital was a rough specimen, as army doctors often are-in France, at any rate-and you may fancy that the groans and moans of the other wounded were not soothing either. One day the doctor told me I should soon be able to be removed to a country hospital. That was after I had been under his treatment for six weeks.

The sights, sounds, and smell of the place had grown so sickening to me, that I think I could have kissed him when he talked of sending me to St. Malo. He came in one morning, and, in his brusque way, said, as he probed the wound for bits of shattered bone:

’We shall be able to pack you off in a few days. You would like to get transferred to St. Malo, would you not? You come from that part of the country, don’t you? The air will suit you.’

He was a brute, but he had awfully good cigars, and used to make me smoke one when he was going to have an extra ‘go’ at my wound. I suppose he hoped the goodness might prove infectious. I used to call him strings of bad names while he was digging away at his work on my arm. Somehow it relieved me, and, truth to tell, he took it all in good part.

In a few days, then, I saw the last of him and he of me, and glad enough was I to find myself in the clean, quiet, nun-tended hospital in the dear old Breton town. There I had a room to myself, as each officer had, and to lie there in that sweet sunny room and hear no groans but my own was almost like being in heaven. The daily cleanings of the wound, still pretty painful, were recommenced under the hands of another surgeon, who proved to be a very good fellow. He and I struck up quite a friendship after a while.

Well, life was, if not exactly rosy, at any rate once more worth living. The brightness and calm were very sweet after the horrors of the Versailles hospital, and a serenity filled the air, like an echo of organ tones brought in by the nuns from chapel.

The nun who attended to me was an angel. I was there in St. Malo three months. Before one month had passed I had grown to love her as I should have loved my sister if she had lived. I loved the sound of her voice and the touch of her deft, gentle hands. I would have gone through the surgeon’s probings without a groan if she might have re-bandaged the arm afterwards. But Dr. Nadaud always did that himself. Sister Gabrielle-that was what they called her-would come directly he had done with me, and would try the bandages to make sure they were not hurting, arrange the pillows afresh, and smooth out the wrinkles in the counterpane and my brow at the same time, sympathizing with me all the while in the sweetest fashion possible. Her voice was a great part of her charm, very low, and yet the clearest voice in the world. She had a way of looking at one all the time, too, with a gaze that was almost like a mother’s caress, and that wrapped one around with a delicious feeling of security and well-being. Sometimes she would sit and talk with me about the battles, and lead me into chats about my mother, who was ill herself at this time and not able to come to see me.

How old was Sister Gabrielle? Oh, I suppose she must have been about twenty-four or five then, perhaps a little more. She had the Norman blue eyes and a fair complexion, which the white wrappings about her face seemed to heighten and irradiate. Is it the white lawn, or is it a beauty that the self-denying life lends to them which makes the faces of so many of those women look so lovely? I called Sister Gabrielle an angel just now, but you must not fancy there was any cold saintliness about her; in fact, it was her very ready sympathy with all my accounts of my young life in the outer world that drew out my heart towards her. It was her very womanliness that soon set me wondering who she could have been, and what had led her to shut herself away from the world. There was little to do, lying there in bed week after week, and hundreds of times, as I looked at that sweet woman moving about the room, I pictured her without the coif, and said to myself that if she were not then a beloved wife, with a husband’s protecting arm around her, and children climbing about her knees, it was not because the love that should have led to this had been wanting, but certainly because some marring chance had prevented the realization of such happiness. It amused me to make a pretty history to myself, with Sister Gabrielle for the heroine. A woman with a voice like hers and such a smile was bound to have loved deeply and to have inspired deep love. Sometimes, when she was not speaking, her eyes had a sad, far-away look. I can only compare it to the look that an emigrant who was toiling along a hot, dusty highroad to embark for a new country might turn and give to the dear spot that he had said a long good-bye to. But that look never lasted more than a minute in Sister Gabrielle’s face. It was as if the traveller settled his burden afresh on his shoulders, and, with fresh, vigorous resolution, stepped on into the long expanse of road that went stretching away to the horizon.

One day-I could not help it-I broke into one of those little reveries of hers.

‘My sister,’ I said, ’sweet and beautiful as you are, how is it that you never married?’

With lifted finger, as one speaks to a too daring child, she said only ‘Ssshh!’ Then, with the movement of the emigrant readjusting his knapsack, she added, ’Allons! half-past ten! Dr. Nadaud will be here before we are ready for him!’

From that day Sister Gabrielle avoided sitting by my bedside. She watched over me just as tenderly as before, but our talks were shorter, and I never ventured to repeat my question, as you may imagine. Nevertheless, lying there through the long days, it was impossible not to go on wondering what had sent this beautiful woman into the rough groove where I found her.

One day I discovered that Dr. Nadaud came from the same town as herself, and I fell at once to questioning him about her. All that I could elicit from him was that her name in the world had been Jeanne D’Alcourt, and that she came of a good old Norman titled family. I did not learn much by that. It was not necessary to hear that she was noble, for she had the stamp of nobility in every line and in every pose of her body. For a talkative fellow, I thought Nadaud had remarkably little to say about his former townswoman, and, after gently sounding him once or twice on the subject, I came to the conclusion that it was useless to look to him for enlightenment, but I also came to the conclusion that Sister Gabrielle had a history.

August came. I had been three months in St. Malo Hospital, and now the time for leaving it had arrived.

It was early morning. A fiacre stood at the gate with my luggage upon it, and Sister Gabrielle had come to the doorway which led into the courtyard to see me off.

Early as it was, the sun was already well on his day’s journey, and perhaps it was the strong glare from the white wall that made her shade her eyes so persistently with her left hand while we were saying ‘Good-bye.’ As for my own eyes, there was something the matter with them, too, for the landscape, or so much of it as I could see from the St. Malo Hospital doorway, had taken on a strange, blurred look since I saw it from the window ten minutes before.

Adieu, mon lieutenant, adieu!’ cried Sister Gabrielle, in a voice meant to be very cheery.

Adieu, ma soeur! May I come to see you and the old place if ever I find myself in these latitudes again?’

’Yes, yes, that is it; come back and see who is in your little bed under the window. Take care of the arm!’ touching the sling that held it. ’Dr. Nadaud will expect a letter from you in copper-plate style before another month is over. Allons! We will say au revoir, then, not adieu. Bon voyage, mon lieutenant, bon voyage!’

Another hand-grasp, and I made my way to the cab, feeling a strange, intoxicated sensation at being once more on my legs in the open air after such a long stretch between the blankets. Away we rattled down the steep stone-paved street, past the queer old high houses that, as the window-shutters were swung back, seemed to open their eyes and wake up with a spirited relish for another day’s bustle and work. Very different to the lazy drawing up of a roller-blind in England is the swinging open of a pair of French persiennes. Whiffs of new bread and freshly-ground coffee floated out from the open doorways of the bakers and the earliest risers of St. Malo, and presently the pungent, invigorating odour of the sea made itself smelt in spite of the mixed odours of the street. It was new life to be out in the open again, and I was going to see my mother; but I could not forget Sister Gabrielle.

Several years passed before I saw again the old steep streets of St. Malo. These years brought great changes to me. My right arm being no longer capable of using the sword, I retired from the army, took to journalism, and eventually accepted an engagement in London. In the English capital I made my home, marrying and settling down to a quasi-English life, which possessed great interest for me from the first.

One summer (six years after the war) I began to make a yearly journey to a town on the borders of Brittany, and always landed at St. Malo to take train for my destination. Trains ran there only twice a day, and so there was generally time enough to climb the dirty, picturesque street to the hospital and see sweet Sister Gabrielle, whose face would light up at sight of her old patient, and whose voice had still the same sympathetic charm. When the now English-looking traveller presented himself, it was always the Mother-Superior who came to him in the bare, cool room reserved for visitors. And then Sister Gabrielle would arrive, with a sweet, grave smile playing about her beautiful mouth, and there would be long talks about all that I had been doing, of the pleasant, free life in England, etc., etc.

One hot August morning, just seven years after I had left the hospital with my arm in a sling, I pulled at the big clanging bell and asked to see Sister Gabrielle. I was ushered into the shady waiting-room, and stood drinking in the perfume of the roses that clambered about the open window. Presently the Mother’s steps approached, but when she saw me she had no longer in her voice the cheery notes with which she used to greet me, nor did she offer to send Sister Gabrielle to me.

In a few sad words she told me my sweet nurse was dead, that she had died as she had lived, beloved by all who were privileged to be near her. There was no positive disease, the doctor had said, but some shock or grief of years before must have undermined her health, and the life of self-sacrifice she led had not been calculated to lengthen the frail strand of her life. Gently and without struggle it had snapped, and she had drooped and died with the early violets.

Touched and saddened, I turned down the steep street to the lower town. More than ever I wondered what had been the history of the brave, beautiful woman who had nursed me seven years before.

Turning the corner of the Place Chateaubriand, I ran against a man.

‘Pardon, monsieur!’

‘Pardon, monsieur!’

The exclamations were simultaneous. Looking up, we two men recognised each other.

‘Ah, my dear doctor!’ I exclaimed.

Sapristi, my dear lieutenant! What are you doing in St. Malo?’

Having properly accounted for my presence in the old Breton town, and made known to Dr. Nadaud how glad I was to see him again, we two went off together to lunch at the Hotel de Bretagne, where I had left my luggage.

Having refreshed ourselves with a light French dejeuner, the doctor and his former patient strolled out of the long dining-room into the central courtyard of the hotel, which the sun had not yet made too warm, and there, installing ourselves at a little round table, we smoked and sipped our coffee.

‘I will tell you all I know,’ said the doctor, in reply to a question from me. ’It seemed almost a breach of confidence to tell you Sister Gabrielle’s story while she lived, for I knew that she had come away out of the world on purpose to work unknown and to bury all that remained of Jeanne D’Alcourt. When she first came, she seemed not at all pleased to see me, no doubt because my presence reminded her of Caen and of the scenes that she had turned her back upon for ever.

‘Well,’ continued Dr. Nadaud, ’the D’Alcourts had lived for generations in a fine old house on the Boulevard de l’Est, and it was there that Jeanne was born. Next door lived my sister and her husband, M. Leconte, the chief notary of the town, and a man well considered by all classes of his townsmen. It is the old story of affections knotted together in the skipping-rope, and proving to be as unending as the circle of the hoop. My sister had a girl and a boy. The three children played together, walked out with their nurses together, and were hardly ever separated until the time came for Raoul to go to Paris to school. The boy was fourteen when they parted, Jeanne was only eleven, but the two children’s love had so grown with their growth, that, before the day of parting came, they had made a solemn little compact never to forget each other.

’Eight years passed, during which Jeanne and Raoul saw little of each other.

’The first time the boy came home, he seemed to Jeanne no longer a boy, and the shyness which sprang up between them then deepened with each succeeding year.

’The boy was allowed to choose his profession, and he chose that of surgery. News reached Jeanne from time to time through his sister of the promising young student, who, it was said, bid fair to win for himself a great name some day.

’At the age of twenty-five Raoul left Paris. His parents, who were growing old, wished their son near them, and steps were taken to establish him in a practice in Caen.

’Time passed on, and Raoul had been six months in partnership with old Dr. Grevin, whom he was eventually to succeed, when Mme. D’Alcourt fell ill of inflammation of the lungs, and so it happened that the two young people often met beside the sick-bed, for the elder partner was not always able to attend the patient, and his young aide was called upon to take his place.

’By the time that Mme. D’Alcourt was well again, both the young people knew that the old love of their childhood had smouldered in their hearts through all the years of separation, and was ready to burst into flame at a touch. But no word was spoken.

’It was Raoul’s fond hope to be one day in a position to ask for Jeanne as his wife, but he knew that by speaking before he was in that position, he would only destroy all chance of being listened to by her parents.

’The touch that should stir the flame soon came.

’One day in the summer following, a hasty summons from Mme. D’Alcourt took Dr. Grevin to Jeanne’s bedside, and a few moments’ examination showed him that the poor girl had taken diphtheria. After giving directions as to the treatment to be followed, he said he would return late in the evening or would send M. Leconte.

’It was Raoul who came.

’With horror he saw that the case was already grave, and a great pang went through him as he spoke to Mme. D’Alcourt of the possibility of its being necessary to perform tracheotomy in the morning. When morning came-in fact, all next day-Jeanne was a little better, and the young man hoped with a deep, longing, passionate hope.

’The day after, however, it was evident that nothing could save the girl but the operation, and it was quickly decided to try this last chance.

’The rest is soon told. In that supreme moment, as Raoul made ready for the work, the two young people told all their hearts’ secret to each other in one long greeting of the eyes, that was at once a “Hail” and a “Farewell.”

’The operation was successful.

’All went well with Jeanne, and in two days she was declared practically out of danger.

’But Raoul, unmindful of everything except Jeanne’s danger, had not been careful for himself, and had received some of the subtle poison from her throat.’

In the cemetery of Caen, high up where the sun first strikes, can be seen a gravestone with the inscription:

Ci-git

RAOUL LECONTE,

Décède lé 18 Juillet, 1869.

And this is why Sister Gabrielle never married.