In May, 1855, Miss Nightingale decided to go to the Crimea, to inspect the hospitals there. In the six months spent at Scutari, she had brought its hospitals into excellent condition; now she felt that she must see what was being done and what still needed to be done elsewhere. Accordingly she set sail in the ship Robert Lowe, accompanied by her faithful friend Mr. Bracebridge, who, with his admirable wife, had come out with her from England, and had been her constant helper and adviser; M. Soyer, who was going to see how kitchen matters were going là-bas, and her devoted boy Thomas. Thomas had been a drummer boy. He was twelve years old, and devoted to his drum until he came under the spell of the Lady-in-Chief. Then he transferred his devotion to her, and became her aide-de-camp, following her wherever she went, and ready at any moment to give his life for her.
It was fair spring weather now, and the fresh, soft air and beautiful scenery must have been specially delightful to the women who had spent six months within the four bare walls of the hospital surrounded by misery and death; but when she found that there were some sick soldiers on board, Miss Nightingale begged to be taken to them. She went from one to another in her cheerful way, and every man felt better at once. Presently she came to a fever patient who was looking very discontented.
"This man will not take his medicine!" said the attendant.
"Why will you not take it?" asked Miss Nightingale, with her winning smile.
"Because I took some once," said the man, "and it made me sick, and I haven't liked physic ever since."
"But if I give it to you myself you will take it, won't you?"
I wonder if anyone ever refused Miss Nightingale anything!
"It will make me sick just the same, ma'am!" murmured the poor soul piteously; but he took the medicine, and forgot to be sick as she sat beside him and asked about the battle in which he had been wounded.
When they entered the harbor of Balaklava, they found all the vessels crowded with people. Word had got abroad that the Lady-in-Chief was expected, and everybody was agog to see the wonderful woman who had done such a great work in the hospitals of Scutari. The vessel was no sooner brought to anchor than all the doctors and officials of Balaklava came on board, eager to pay their respects and welcome her to their shore. For an hour she received these various guests, but she could not wait longer, and by the time Lord Raglan, the Commander-in-Chief, reached the vessel on the same errand, she had already begun her inspection of the hospital on shore. She never had any time to waste, and so she never lost any.
But the visit of a Commander-in-Chief must be returned; so the next day Miss Nightingale set out on horseback, with a party of friends, for the camp of the besiegers. M. Soyer, who was of the party, tells us that she "was attired simply in a genteel amazone, or riding-habit, and had quite a martial air. She was mounted upon a very pretty mare, of a golden color, which, by its gambols and caracoling, seemed proud to carry its noble charge. The weather was very fine. Our cavalcade produced an extraordinary effect upon the motley crowd of all nations assembled at Balaklava, who were astonished at seeing a lady so well escorted."
The road was very bad, and crowded with people of every nationality, riding horses, mules and asses, driving oxen and cows and sheep. Now they passed a cannon, stuck in the mud, its escort prancing and yelling around it; now a wagon overturned, its contents scattered on the road, its owner sitting on the ground lamenting. Everywhere horses were kicking and whinnying, men shouting and screaming. It is no wonder that Miss Nightingale's pretty mare "of a golden color" got excited too, and kicked and pranced with the rest; but her rider had not scampered over English downs and jumped English fences for nothing, and the pretty creature soon found that she, like everyone else, must obey the Lady-in-Chief.
The first hospital they came to was in the village of Kadikoi. After inspecting it, and seeing what was needed, Miss Nightingale and her party rode to the top of a hill near by; and here for the first time she looked down on the actual face of war; saw the white tents of the besiegers and in the distance the grim walls of the beleaguered city; saw, too, the puffs of white smoke from trench and bastion, heard the roar of cannon and the crackle of musketry. To the boy beside her no doubt it was a splendid and inspiring sight; but Florence Nightingale knew too well what it all meant, and turned away with a heavy heart.
Lord Raglan, not having been warned of her coming, was away; so, after visiting several small regimental hospitals, Miss Nightingale went on to the General Hospital before Sebastopol. Here she found some hundreds of sick and wounded. Word passed along the rows of cots that the "good lady of Scutari" was coming to visit them, and everywhere she was greeted with beaming smiles and murmurs of greeting and welcome. But when she came out again, and passed along toward the cooking encampment, she was recognized by some former patients of hers at the Barrack Hospital, and a great shout of rejoicing went up; a shout so loud that the golden mare capered again, and again had to learn who her mistress was.
Now they approached the walls of Sebastopol; and Miss Nightingale, who did not know what fear was, insisted upon having a nearer view of the city. They came to a point from which it could be conveniently seen; but here a sentry met them, and with a face of alarm begged them to dismount. "Sharp firing going on here," he said, and he pointed to the fragments of shell lying about; "you'll be sure to attract attention, and they'll fire at you."
Miss Nightingale laughed at his fears, but consented to take shelter behind a stone redoubt, from which, with the aid of a telescope, she had a good view of the city.
But this was not enough. She must go into the trenches themselves. The sentry was horrified. "Madam," said he, "if anything happens I call upon these gentlemen to witness that I did not fail to warn you of the danger."
"My good young man," replied Miss Nightingale, "more dead and wounded have passed through my hands than I hope you will ever see in the battlefield during the whole of your military career; believe me, I have no fear of death."
They went on, and soon reached the Three-Mortar Battery, situated among the trenches and very near the walls. And here M. Soyer had a great idea, which he carried out to his immense satisfaction. You shall hear about it in his own words:
"Before leaving the battery, I begged Miss Nightingale as a favor to give me her hand, which she did. I then requested her to ascend the stone rampart next the wooden gun carriage, and lastly to sit upon the centre mortar, to which requests she very gracefully and kindly acceded. 'Gentlemen,' I cried, 'behold this amiable lady sitting fearlessly upon that terrible instrument of war! Behold the heroic daughter of England—the soldier's friend!' All present shouted 'Bravo! hurrah! hurrah! Long live the daughter of England!'"
When Lord Raglan heard of this, he said that the "instrument of war" on which she sat ought to be called "the Nightingale mortar."
The 39th regiment was stationed close by; and seeing a lady—a strange enough sight in that place—seated on a mortar, gazing calmly about her, as if all her life had been spent in the trenches, the soldiers looked closer, and all at once recognized the beloved Lady-in-Chief, the Angel of the Crimea. They set up a shout that went ringing over the fields and trenches, and startled the Russians behind the walls of Sebastopol; and Miss Nightingale, startled too, but greatly touched and moved, came down from her mortar and mounted her horse to ride back to Balaklava.
It was a rough and fatiguing ride, and the next day she felt very tired; but she was used to being tired, and never thought much of it, so she set out to visit the General Hospital again. After spending several hours there, she went on to the Sanatorium, a collection of huts high up on a mountainside, nearly eight hundred feet above the sea. The sun was intensely hot, the ride a hard one; yet she not only reached it this day, but went up again the day after, to install three much-needed nurses there; this done, she went on with her work in the hospitals of Balaklava. But, alas! this time she had gone beyond even her strength. She was stricken down suddenly, in the midst of her work, with the worst form of Crimean fever.
The doctors ordered that she should be taken to the Sanatorium. Amid general grief and consternation she was laid on a stretcher, and the soldiers for whom she had so often risked her life bore her sadly through the streets of Balaklava and up the mountainside. A nurse went with her, a friend held a white umbrella between her and the pitiless sun, and poor little Thomas, "Miss Nightingale's man" as he had proudly called himself, followed the stretcher, crying bitterly. Indeed, it seemed as if everyone were crying. The rough soldiers—only she never found them rough—wept like children. It was a sad little procession that wound its way up the height, to the hut that had been set apart for the beloved sufferer. It was a neat, airy cabin, set on the banks of a clear stream. All about were spring buds and blossoms, and green, whispering trees; it was just such a place as she would have chosen for one of her own patients; and here, for several days, she lay between life and death.
The news spread everywhere; Florence Nightingale was ill—was dying! All Balaklava knew it; soon the tidings came to Scutari, to her own hospital, and the sick men turned their faces to the wall and wept, and longed to give their own lives for hers, if only that might be. The news came to England, and men looked and spoke—ay, and felt—as if some great national calamity threatened. But soon the messages changed their tone. The disease was checked; she was better; she was actually recovering, and would soon be well. Then all the Crimea rejoiced, and at Scutari they felt that spring had come indeed.
While she still lay desperately ill, a visitor climbed the rugged height to the Sanatorium, and knocked at the door of the little lonely hut. I think you must hear about this visit from Mrs. Roberts, the nurse who told M. Soyer about it:
"It was about five o'clock in the afternoon when he came. Miss Nightingale was dozing, after a very restless night. We had a storm that day, and it was very wet. I was in my room sewing when two men on horseback, wrapped in large guttapercha cloaks and dripping wet, knocked at the door. I went out, and one inquired in which hut Miss Nightingale resided.
"He spoke so loud that I said: 'Hist! hist! don't make such a horrible noise as that, my man,' at the same time making a sign with both hands for him to be quiet. He then repeated his question, but not in so loud a tone. I told him this was the hut.
"'All right,' said he, jumping from his horse; and he was walking straight in when I pushed him back, asking what he meant and whom he wanted.
"'Miss Nightingale,' said he.
"'And pray who are you?'
"'Oh, only a soldier,' was the reply, 'but I must see her—I have come a long way—my name is Raglan—she knows me very well.'
"Miss Nightingale overhearing him, called me in, saying: 'Oh! Mrs. Roberts, it is Lord Raglan. Pray tell him I have a very bad fever, and it will be dangerous for him to come near me.'
"'I have no fear of fever or anything else,' said Lord Raglan.
"And before I had time to turn round, in came his lordship. He took up a stool, sat down at the foot of the bed, and kindly asked Miss Nightingale how she was, expressing his sorrow at her illness, and praising her for the good she had done for the troops. He wished her a speedy recovery, and hoped she might be able to continue her charitable and invaluable exertions, so highly appreciated by everyone, as well as by himself. He then bade Miss Nightingale goodbye, and went away...."
After twelve days Miss Nightingale was pronounced convalescent. The doctors now earnestly begged her to return to England, telling her that her health absolutely required a long rest, with entire freedom from care. But she shook her head resolutely. Her work was not yet over; she would not desert her post. Weak as she was, she insisted on being taken back to Scutari; she would come back by and by, she said, and finish the work in the Crimea itself. Sick or well, there was no resisting the Lady-in-Chief. The stretcher was brought again, and eight soldiers carried her down the mountainside and so down to the port of Balaklava. The Jura lay at the wharf; a tackle was rigged, and the stretcher hoisted on board, the patient lying motionless but undaunted the while; but this vessel proved unsuitable, and she had to be moved twice before she was finally established on a private yacht, the New London.
Before she sailed, Lord Raglan came to see her again. It was the last time they ever met, for a few weeks after the brave commander died, worn out by the struggles and privations of the war, and—some thought—broken-hearted by the disastrous repulse of the British troops at the Redan.
Rather more than a month after she had left for the Crimea, Miss Nightingale saw once more the towers and minarets of Constantinople flashing across the Black-Sea water, and, on the other side of the narrow Bosporus, the gaunt white walls which had come to seem almost homelike to her. She was glad to get back to her Scutari and her people. She knew she should get well here, and so she did.
The welcome she received was most touching. All the great people, commanders and high authorities, met her at the pier, and offered her their houses, their carriages, everything they had, to help her back to strength; but far dearer to her than this were the glances of weary eyes that brightened at her coming, the waving of feeble hands, the cheers of feeble voices, from the invalid soldiers who, like herself, were creeping back from death to life, and who felt, very likely, that their chance of full recovery was a far better one now that their angel had come back to dwell among them.
As strength returned, Miss Nightingale loved to walk in the great burying ground of which I have told you; to rest under the cypress trees, and watch the little birds, and pick wild flowers in that lovely, lonely place. There are strange stories about the birds of Scutari, by the way; the Turks believe that they are the souls of sinners, forced to flit and hover forever, without rest; but it is not likely that thoughts of this kind troubled Miss Nightingale, as she watched the pretty creatures taking their bath, or pecking at the crumbs she scattered.
Birds and flowers, green trees and soft, sweet air—all these things ministered to her, and helped her on the upward road to health and strength; and before long she was able to take up again the work which she loved, and which was waiting for her hand.