Mr. Sidney Herbert (afterwards Lord Herbert of Lea) was at this time at the head of the War Department in England. He was a man of noble nature and tender heart, whose whole life was spent in doing good, and in helping those who needed help. He heard with deep distress the dreadful tidings of suffering that came from the Crimea, and his heart responded instantly to the call for help. Yes, the women of England must rise up and go to that far, desolate land to tend and nurse the sick and wounded and dying; but who should lead them? What one woman had the strength, the power, the wisdom, the tenderness, to meet and overcome the terrible conditions? Asking himself this question, Mr. Herbert answered without a moment's hesitation: "Florence Nightingale!"
He knew Miss Nightingale well; she was a dear friend of himself and his beautiful wife, and had again and again given them help and counsel in planning and managing their many charities, hospitals, homes for sick children, and so forth. He knew that she possessed all the qualities needed for this work, and he wrote to her, asking if she would undertake it. Would she, he asked, go out to Scutari, taking with her a band of nurses who would be under her orders, and take charge of the hospital nursing?
He did not make light of the task.
"The selection of the rank and file of nurses would be difficult—no one knows that better than yourself. The difficulty of finding women equal to a task after all full of horror, and requiring, besides intelligence and goodwill, great knowledge and great courage will be great; the task of ruling them and introducing system among them great, and not the least will be the difficulty of making the whole work smoothly with the medical and military authorities out there. This it is which makes it so important that the experiment should be carried out by one with administrative capacity and experience."
He went on to assure Miss Nightingale that she should have full power and authority, and told her frankly that in his opinion she was the one woman in England who was capable of performing this great task.
"I must not conceal from you that upon your decision will depend the ultimate success or failure of the plan.... If this succeeds, an enormous amount of good will be done now, and to persons deserving everything at our hands; and which will multiply the good to all time."
It was a noble letter, this of Mr. Herbert's, but he might have spared himself the trouble of writing it. Florence Nightingale, in her quiet country home, had heard the call to the women of England; and even while Mr. Herbert was composing his letter to her, she was writing to him, a brief note, simply offering her services in the hospitals at Scutari. Her letter crossed his on the way; and the next day it was proclaimed from the War Office that Miss Nightingale, "a lady with greater practical experience of hospital administration and treatment than any other lady in the country," had been appointed by Government to the office of Superintendent of Nurses at Scutari, and had undertaken the work of organizing and taking out nurses thither.
Great was the amazement in England. Nothing of this kind had ever been heard of before. "Who is Miss Nightingale?" people cried all over the country. They were answered by the newspapers. First the Examiner and then the Times told them that Miss Nightingale was "a young lady of singular endowments both natural and acquired. In a knowledge of the ancient languages and of the higher branches of mathematics, in general art, science, and literature, her attainments are extraordinary. There is scarcely a modern language which she does not understand, and she speaks French, German and Italian as fluently as her native English. She has visited and studied all the various nations of Europe, and has ascended the Nile to its remotest cataract. Young (about the age of our Queen), graceful, feminine, rich, popular, she holds a singularly gentle and persuasive influence over all with whom she comes in contact. Her friends and acquaintances are of all classes and persuasions, but her happiest place is at home, in the centre of a very large band of accomplished relatives, and in simplest obedience to her admiring parents."
One who knew our heroine well wrote in a more personal vein:
"Miss Nightingale is one of those whom God forms for great ends. You cannot hear her say a few sentences—no, not even look at her, without feeling that she is an extraordinary being. Simple, intellectual, sweet, full of love and benevolence, she is a fascinating and perfect woman. She is tall and pale. Her face is exceedingly lovely; but better than all is the soul's glory that shines through every feature so exultingly. Nothing can be sweeter than her smile. It is like a sunny day in summer."
Though well known among a large circle of earnest and high-minded persons, Miss Nightingale's name was entirely new to the English people as a whole, and—everything else apart—they were delighted with its beauty. Had she been plain Mary Smith, she would have done just as good work, but it would have been far harder for her to start it. Florence Nightingale was a name to conjure with, as the saying is, and it echoed far and wide. Everybody who could write verses (and many who could not), began instantly to write about nightingales. Punch printed a cartoon showing a hospital ward, with the "ladybirds" hovering about the cots of the sick men, each bird having a nurse's head. Another picture represented one of the bird-nurses flying through the air, carrying in her claws a jug labeled "Fomentation, Embrocation, Gruel." This was called "The Jug of the Nightingale," for many people think that some of the bird's beautiful, liquid notes sound like "jug, jug, jug!"
Not content with pictures, Punch printed "The Nightingale's Song to the Sick Soldier," which became very popular, and was constantly quoted in those days.
Listen, soldier, to the tale of the tender nightingale, 'Tis a charm that soon will ease your wounds so cruel, Singing medicine for your pain, in a sympathetic strain, With a jug, jug, jug of lemonade or gruel. Singing bandages and lint; salve and cerate without stint, Singing plenty both of liniment and lotion, And your mixtures pushed about, and the pills for you served out With alacrity and promptitude of motion. Singing light and gentle hands, and a nurse who understands How to manage every sort of application, From a poultice to a leech; whom you haven't got to teach The way to make a poppy fomentation. Singing pillow for you, smoothed; smart and ache and anguish soothed, By the readiness of feminine invention; Singing fever's thirst allayed, and the bed you've tumbled made With a cheerful and considerate attention. Singing succour to the brave, and a rescue from the grave, Hear the nightingale that's come to the Crimea; 'Tis a nightingale as strong in her heart as in her song, To carry out so gallant an idea.
Of course there were some people who shook their heads; there always are when any new work is undertaken. Some thought it was improper for women to nurse in a military hospital; others thought they would be useless, or worse; others again thought that the nurses would ruin their own health and be sent home in a month to the hospitals of England. There were still other objections, which were strongly felt in those days, however strange they may sound in our ears to-day.
"Oh, dreadful!" said some people; "Miss Nightingale is a Unitarian!"
"Oh, shocking!" said others. "Miss Nightingale is a Roman Catholic!" And so it went on. But while they were talking and exclaiming, drawing pictures and singing songs, Miss Nightingale was getting ready. In six days from the time she undertook the work she was ready to start, with thirty nurses, chosen with infinite care and pains from the hundreds who had volunteered to go. There was no flourish of trumpets. While England was still wondering how they could go, and whether they ought to be allowed to go—behold, they were gone! slipping away by night, as if they were bound on some secret errand. Indeed, Miss Nightingale has never been able to endure "fuss and feathers," and all her life she has looked for a bushel large enough to hide her light under, though happily she has never succeeded.
Only a few relatives and near friends stood on the railway platform on that evening of October 21, 1854. Miss Nightingale, simply dressed in black, was very quiet, very serene, with a cheerful word for everyone; no one who saw her parting look and smile ever forgot them. So, in night and silence, the "Angel Band" whose glory was soon to shine over all the world, left the shores of England.
But though England slept that night, France was wide awake the next morning. The fishwives of Boulogne had heard what was doing across the Channel, and were on the lookout. When Miss Nightingale and her nurses stepped ashore they were met by a band of women, in snowy caps and rainbow-striped petticoats, all with outstretched hands, all crying, "Welcome, welcome, our English sisters!"
They knew, Marie and Jeanne and Suzette. Their own husbands, sons, and brothers were fighting and dying in the Crimea; their own nurses, the blessed Sisters of Mercy, had from the first been toiling in hospital and trench in that dreadful land; how should they not welcome the English sisters who were going to join in the holy work?
Loudly they proclaimed that none but themselves, the fishwives of Boulogne, should help the sœurs Anglaises. They shouldered bag and baggage; they swung the heavy trunks up on their broad backs, and with laughter and tears mingled in true French fashion, trudged away to the railway station. Pay? Not a sou; not a centime! The blessing of our English sisters is all we desire; and if they should chance to see Pierre or Jacques là-bas—ah! the heavens are over all. A handshake, then, and Adieu! Adieu! vivent les sœurs! the good God go with you!
And that prayer was surely answered.