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
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
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
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
He was taking this machine-gun up to the front, and mighty proud he was of
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
Suddenly his lips moved, and Sister, kneeling down on the floor, bent over
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?"
She returned to her position by the bedside, with one arm laid across his
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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?"
"It will be all right now, Marny. The bad part is all past."
"Marny, you remember—the night—I left—Marny—I want—no—no,
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
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.