Sister by Henry Seton Merriman

It does not matter where it was. I do not want other people—that is to say, those who were around us—to recognize Sister or myself. It is not likely that she will see this, and I am not sure that she knows my name. Of course, some one may draw her attention to this paper, and she may remember that the name affixed to it is that which I signed at the foot of a document we made out together—namely, a return of deaths. At the foot of this paper our names stood one beneath the other—stand there still, perhaps, in some forgotten bundle of papers at the War Office.

I only hope that she will not see this, for she might consider it a breach of professional etiquette; and I attach great importance to the opinion of this woman, whom I have only seen once in my whole life. Moreover, on that occasion she was subordinate to me—more or less in the position of a servant.

Suffice it to say, therefore, that it was war-time, and our trade was what the commercial papers call brisk. A war better remembered of the young than of the old, because it was, comparatively speaking, recent. The old fellows seem to remember the old fights better—those fights that were fought when their blood was still young and the vessels thereof unclogged.

It was, by the way, my first campaign, but I was not new to the business of blood; for I am no soldier—only a doctor. My only uniform—my full-parade dress—is a red cross on the arm of an old blue serge jacket—such jacket being much stained with certain dull patches which are better not investigated.

All who have taken part in war—doing the damage or repairing it—know that things are not done in quite the same way when ball-cartridge is served out instead of blank. The correspondents are very fond of reporting that the behaviour of the men suggested a parade—which simile, it is to be presumed, was borne in upon their fantastic brains by its utter inapplicability. The parade may be suggested before the real work begins—when it is a question of marching away from the landing-stage; but after the work—our work—has begun, there is remarkably little resemblance to a review.

We are served with many official papers which we never fill in, because, on the spur of the moment, it is apt to suggest itself that men's lives are more important. We misapply a vast majority of our surgical supplies, because the most important item is usually left behind at headquarters or at the seaport depot. In fact, we do many things that we should leave undone, and omit to do more which we are expected (officially) to do.

For some reason—presumably the absence of better men—I was sent up to the front before we had been three days at work. Our hospital by the river was not full when I received orders to follow the flying column with two assistants and the appliances of a field-hospital.

Out of this little nucleus sprang the largest depot for sick and wounded that was formed during the campaign. We were within easy reach of headquarters, and I was fortunately allowed a free hand. Thus our establishment in the desert grew daily more important, and finally superseded the hospital at headquarters.

We had a busy time, for the main column had now closed up with the first expeditionary force, and our troops were in touch with the enemy not forty miles away from me.

In the course of time—when the authorities learnt to cease despising the foe, which is a little failing in British military high places—it was deemed expedient to fortify us, and then, in addition to two medical assistants, I was allowed three Government nurses. This last piece of news was not hailed with so much enthusiasm as might have been expected. I am not in favour of bringing women anywhere near the front. They are, for their own sakes and for the peace of mind of others, much better left behind. If they are beyond a certain age they break down and have to be sent back at considerable trouble—that is to say, an escort and an ambulance cart, of which latter there are never enough. If they are below the climacteric—ever so little below it—they cause mischief of another description, and the wounded are neglected; for there is no passion of the human heart so cruel and selfish as love.

"I am sorry to hear it," I said to light-hearted little Sammy Fitz-Warrener of the Naval Brigade, who brought me the news.

"Sorry to hear it? Gad! I shouldn't be. The place has got a different look about it when there are women-folk around. They are so jolly clever in their ways—worth ten of your red-cross ruffians."

"That is as may be," I answered, breaking open the case of whisky which Sammy had brought up on the carriage of his machine-gun for my private consumption.

He was taking this machine-gun up to the front, and mighty proud he was of it.

"A clever gun," he called it; "an almighty clever gun."

He had ridden alongside of it—sitting on the top of his horse as sailors do—through seventy miles of desert without a halt; watching over it and tending it as he might have watched and tended his mother, or perhaps some other woman.

"Gad! doctor," he exclaimed, kicking out his sturdy legs, and contemplating with some satisfaction the yellow hide top-boots which he had bought at the Army and Navy Stores. (I know the boots well, and—avoid them.) "Gad! doctor, you should see that gun on the war-path. Travels as light as a tricycle. And when she begins to talk—my stars! Click-click-click-click! For all the world like a steam-launch's engine—mowing 'em down all the time. No work for you there. It will be no use you and your satellites progging about with skewers for the bullet. Look at the other side, my boy, and you'll find the beauty has just walked through them."

"Soda or plain?" I asked, in parenthesis.

"Soda. I don't like the flavour of dead camel. A big drink, please. I feel as if I were lined with sand-paper."

He slept that night in the little shanty built of mud and roofed chiefly with old palm-mats, which was gracefully called the head surgeon's quarters. That is to say, he partook of such hospitality as I had to offer him.

Sammy and I had met before he had touched a rope or I a scalpel. We hailed from the same part of the country—down Devonshire way; and, to a limited extent, we knew each other's people—which little phrase has a vast meaning in places where men do congregate.

We turned in pretty early—I on a hospital mattress, he in my bed; but Sam would not go to sleep. He would lie with his arms above his head (which is not an attitude of sleep) and talk about that everlasting gun.

I dozed off to the murmur of his voice expatiating on the extreme cunning of the ejector, and awoke to hear details of the rifling.

We did not talk of home, as do men in books when lying by a camp-fire. Perhaps it was owing to the absence of that picturesque adjunct to a soldier's life. We talked chiefly of the clever gun; and once, just before he fell asleep, Sammy returned to the question of the nurses.

"Yes," he said, "the head saw-bones down there told me to tell you that he had got permission to send you three nurses. Treat 'em kindly, Jack, for my sake. Bless their hearts! They mean well."

Then he fell asleep, and left me thinking of his words, and of the spirit which had prompted them.

I knew really nothing of this man's life, but he seemed singularly happy, with that happiness which only comes when daily existence has a background to it. He spoke habitually of women, as if he loved them all for the sake of one; and this not being precisely my own position, I was glad when he fell asleep.

The fort was astir next morning at four. The bugler kindly blew a blast into our glassless window which left no doubt about it.

"That means all hands on deck, I take it," said Sam, who was one of the few men capable of good humour before tiffin time.

By six o'clock he was ready to go. It was easy to see what sort of officer this cheery sailor was by the way his men worked.

While they were getting the machine-gun limbered up, Sam came back to my quarters, and took a hasty breakfast.

"Feel a bit down this morning," he said, with a gay smile. "Cheap—very cheap. I hope I am not going to funk it. It is all very well for some of you long-faced fellows, who don't seem to have much to live for, to fight for the love of fighting. I don't want to fight any man; I am too fond of 'em all for that."

I went out after breakfast, and I gave him a leg up on to his very sorry horse, which he sat like a tailor or a sailor. He held the reins like tiller-lines, and indulged in a pleased smile at the effect of the yellow boots.

"No great hand at this sort of thing," he said, with a nod of farewell. "When the beast does anything out of the common, or begins to make heavy weather of it, I AM NOT."

He ranged up alongside his beloved gun, and gave the word of command with more dignity than he knew what to do with.

All that day I was employed in arranging quarters for the nurses. To do this I was forced to turn some of our most precious stores out into the open, covering them with a tarpaulin, and in consequence felt all the more assured that my chief was making a great mistake.

At nine o'clock in the evening they arrived, one of the juniors having ridden out in the moonlight to meet them. He reported them completely exhausted; informed me that he had recommended them to go straight to bed; and was altogether more enthusiastic about the matter than I personally or officially cared to see.

He handed me a pencil note from my chief at headquarters, explaining that he had not written me a despatch because he had nothing but a "J" pen, with which instrument he could not make himself legible. It struck me that he was suffering from a plethora of assistance, and was anxious to reduce his staff.

I sent my enthusiastic assistant to the nurses' quarters, with a message that they were not to report themselves to me until they had had a night's rest. Then I turned in.

At midnight I was awakened by the orderly, and summoned to the tent of the officer in command. This youth's face was considerably whiter than his linen. He was consulting with his second in command, a boy of twenty-two or thereabouts.

A man covered with sand and blood was sitting in a hammock-chair, rubbing his eyes, and drinking something out of a tumbler.

"News from the front?" I inquired without ceremony, which hindrance we had long since dispensed with.

"Yes, and bad news."

It certainly was not pleasant hearing. Some one mentioned the word "disaster," and we looked at each other with hard, anxious eyes. I thought of the women, and almost decided to send them back before daylight.

In a few moments a fresh man was roused out of his bed, and sent full gallop through the moonlight across the desert to headquarters, and the officer in command began to regain confidence. I think he extracted it from the despatch-bearer's tumbler. After all, he was not responsible for much. He was merely a connecting-link, a point of touch between two greater men.

It was necessary to get my men to work at once, but I gave particular orders to leave the nurses undisturbed. Disaster at the front meant hard work at the rear. We all knew that, and endeavoured to make ready for a sudden rush of wounded.

The rush began before daylight. As they came in we saw to them, dressing their wounds and packing them as closely as possible. But the stream was continuous. They never stopped coming; they never gave us a moment's rest.

At six o'clock I gave orders to awaken the nurses and order them to prepare their quarters for the reception of the wounded. At half-past six an Army Hospital Corps man came to me in the ward.

"Shockin' case, sir, just come in," he said. "Officer. Gun busted, sir."

"Take him to my quarters," I said, wiping my instruments on my sleeve.

In a few minutes I followed, and on entering my little room the first thing I saw was a pair of yellow boots.

There was no doubt about the boots and the white duck trousers, and although I could not see the face, I knew that this was Sammy Fitz-Warrener come back again.

A woman—one of the nurses for whom he had pleaded—was bending over the bed with a sponge and a basin of tepid water. As I entered she turned upon me a pair of calmly horror-stricken eyes.

"OH!" she whispered meaningly, stepping back to let me approach. I had no time to notice then that she was one of those largely built women, with perfect skin and fair hair, who make one think of what England must have been before Gallic blood got to be so widely disseminated in the race.

"Please pull down that mat from the window," I said, indicating a temporary blind which I had put up.

She did so promptly, and returned to the bedside, falling into position as it were, awaiting my orders.

I bent over the bed, and I must confess that what I saw there gave me a thrill of horror which will come again at times so long as I live.

I made a sign to Sister to continue her task of sponging away the mud, of which one ingredient was sand.

"Both eyes," she whispered, "are destroyed."

"Not the top of the skull," I said; "you must not touch that."

For we both knew that our task was without hope.

As I have said, I knew something of Fitz-Warrener's people, and I could not help lingering there, where I could do no good, when I knew that I was wanted elsewhere.

Suddenly his lips moved, and Sister, kneeling down on the floor, bent over him.

I could not hear what he said, but I think she did. I saw her lips frame the whisper "Yes" in reply, and over her face there swept suddenly a look of great tenderness.

After a little pause she rose and came to me.

"Who is he?" she asked.

"Fitz-Warrener of the Naval Brigade. Do you know him?"

"No, I never heard of him. Of course—it is quite hopeless?"

"Quite."

She returned to her position by the bedside, with one arm laid across his chest.

Presently he began whispering again, and at intervals she answered him. It suddenly occurred to me that, in his unconsciousness, he was mistaking her for some one else, and that she, for some woman's reason, was deceiving him purposely.

In a few moments I was sure of this.

I tried not to look; but I saw it all. I saw his poor blind hands wander over her throat and face, up to her hair.

"What is this?" he muttered quite distinctly, with that tone of self-absorption which characterizes the sayings of an unconscious man. "What is this silly cap?"

His fingers wandered on over the snowy linen until they came to the strings.

As an aspirant to the title of gentleman, I felt like running away—many doctors know this feeling; as a doctor, I could only stay.

His fingers fumbled with the strings. Still Sister bent over the bed. Perhaps she bent an inch or two nearer. One hand was beneath his neck, supporting the poor shattered head.

He slowly drew off the cap, and his fingers crept lovingly over the soft fair hair.

"Marny," he said, quite clearly, "you've done your hair up, and you're nothing but a little girl, you know—nothing but a little girl."

I could not help watching his fingers, and yet I felt like a man committing sacrilege.

"When I left you," said the brainless voice, "you wore it down your back. You were a little girl—you are a little girl now." And he slowly drew a hairpin out.

One long lock fell curling to her shoulder. She never looked up, never noticed me, but knelt there like a ministering angel—personating for a time a girl whom we had never seen.

"My little girl," he added, with a low laugh, and drew out another hairpin.

In a few moments all her hair was about her shoulders. I had never thought that she might be carrying such glory quietly hidden beneath the simple nurse's cap.

"That is better," he said—"that is better." And he let all the hairpins fall on the coverlet. "Now you are my own Marny," he murmured. "Are you not?"

She hesitated one moment. "Yes, dear," she said softly. "I am your own Marny."

With her disengaged hand she stroked his blanching cheek. There was a certain science about her touch, as if she had once known something of these matters.

Lovingly and slowly the smoke-grimed fingers passed over the wonderful hair, smoothing it.

Then he grew more daring. He touched her eyes, her gentle cheeks, the quiet, strong lips. He slipped to her shoulder, and over the soft folds of her black dress.

"Been gardening?" he asked, coming to the bib of her nursing apron.

It was marvellous how the brain, which was laid open to the day, retained the consciousness of one subject so long.

"Yes—dear," she whispered.

"Your old apron is all wet!" he said reproachfully, touching her breast where the blood—his own blood—was slowly drying.

His hand passed on, and as it touched her, I saw her eyes soften into such a wonderful tenderness that I felt as if I were looking on a part of Sister's life which was sacred.

I saw a little movement as if to draw back, then she resolutely held her position. But her eyes were dull with a new pain. I wonder—I have wondered ever since—what memories that poor senseless wreck of a man was arousing in the woman's heart by his wandering touch.

"Marny," he said, "Marny. It was not TOO hard waiting for me?"

"No, dear."

"It will be all right now, Marny. The bad part is all past."

"Yes."

"Marny, you remember—the night—I left—Marny—I want—no—no, your LIPS."

I knelt suddenly, and slipped my hand within his shirt, for I saw something in his face.

As Sister's lips touched his I felt his heart give a great bound within his breast, and then it was still. When she lifted her face it was as pale as his.

I must say that I felt like crying—a feeling which had not come to me for twenty years. I busied myself purposely with the dead man, and when I had finished my task I turned, and found Sister filling in the papers—her cap neatly tied, her golden hair hidden.

I signed the certificate, placing my name beneath hers.

For a moment we stood. Our eyes met, and—we said nothing. She moved towards the door, and I held it open while she passed out.

Two hours later I received orders from the officer in command to send the nurses back to headquarters. Our men were falling back before the enemy.