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Nineteen

The hospital was an irregular building or mass of buildings of wings reaching out to get the maximum amount of sunshine in the wards. It was but one story, built of cement and well sandbagged. Beneath it were many tunnels and caves, bombproof shelters to which ramps led from the ward floors. It was set in a little valley or rather oval depression, among wooded hills and it was well camouflaged with nets and painted canvas with broken designs and the branches of trees. You could pass quite close to this great hospital and scarcely notice it, although over fifteen hundred wounded lay there. But the Boche knew exactly where it was, and one day an exalted house-painter wrote as an amendment on an order; ‘It is of the utmost importance to the Reich that their bases and military hospitals be destroyed.’

Here Rosalie saw the real harvest of war, the broken, the maimed, the legless, the blind, strong fine men from whom all the hope and colour and zest for living had been stolen. She was in charge of a ward and assistant in one of the operating rooms to the blood-stained surgeons. She had little time off, she rested when she could, and drove herself to the limit.

It was only after three months that she saw Mice; of course, it was inevitable that she should see him again. He arrived with a group of young surgeons, tall and straight and grown into a man. Rosalie spotted him at once—she was glad as she knew at first glance that he had emerged, that he was no longer tangled in the cocoon of youth—but Mice did not see her, and for several days did not recognize her or even look her way. He was busy with a new kind of intense concentration in his work, and she just one of the nurses who swiftly handed him the proper instrument.

Rosalie bided her time, but one day when Mice had an hour of rest, and was standing looking out a window, looking at the somber French landscape, she stepped up behind him and said;

 

Isn’t it nice

To find you, Mice.

 

It was truly an inane couplet, but nonetheless the appropriate remark. Mice wheeled around and stared at her.

“God in heaven,” he said. “It’s Rosalie. Sprung from the sounding sea. Where have you been?”

“I’ve been handing you instruments for three days, and you’ve never even looked my way.”

“Concentration,” said Mice, laughing. “Profound thought and all that line, you know. But where really have you been? I never could find out.”

“I’ve been a dishwasher,” said Rosalie, “and a waitress, and the girl on the bread counter, and the girl on the cake counter, and the girl on the cash. I went back to school—at least I mean I had a tutor at night.”

“Man or woman?” inquired Mice.

“Woman. And I’ve been a student nurse, and a graduate nurse, and I’ve learned a little, and people have helped me, and now I’d like you to know, I’m in charge of this ward, and I’m not at all sure that I should allow handsome young surgeons idling about and staring out my windows.”

“And I,” said Mice, laughing, “I am a young surgeon full of knowledge—as yet undigested, I’ll admit—and applesauce. And because of my rank I am the boss of all nurses; all nurses have to bow down before me and pay homage to my greatness.”

“I told you what the little old lady did to the skunk, didn’t I,” laughed Rosalie.

“No,” said Mice, “I don’t remember that tale. You were only there three hours, you know, and a woman can’t say much in three hours. Still, at that, it was the most illuminating three hours of my life.”

“The little old lady said, ‘You gotta be kinda quick, to hit a skunk behind the ear with a hoe’.”

“A good adage,” said Mice. “You certainly gotta be kinda quick round here in wartime, and if you’d ever feel like using the hoe on me, Rosalie—I won’t take it from everyone—I’d like it.”

“Do you still rhyme?”

“No,” said Mice. “I’ve given up trying to make John Masefield look like a penny stamp. I graduated from rhyme to blank verse and now I’m trying to learn to write intelligible prose.”

“And you never kicked the pebble again?”

“Never again. You know I threw it in the river.”

“And the hair cut?”

“That very night. I got a country barber; he put a bowl over my head and scissored all around it. Mother said I was a sight when she arrived.”

“You’re just the same ‘Mice’.”

“And you’re just the same ‘Rosalie’, only grown and with steadier eyes.”

“I’m not ‘Rosalie’ here, you know.”

“And I’m not ‘Mice.’ I got rid of that degrading nickname years ago. We’ll sneak off and have luncheon and tea together whenever we can, and then you can be ‘Rosalie’ and I can be ‘Mice’.”

They did; they had many happy laughing times together. Then the bombers came, the great gray ugly monsters of the sky, unearthly product of an age of mechanism, crude instruments of destruction to life and youth and hope. On the first few nights they did not get very near the hospital, but only tore great raw brown craters in the little valley and shattered the forest trees. Always there was an alert, everyone on post and sometimes the wounded wheeled down the ramps to the shelters.

But one night they got very near, for the first bomb shattered many of the hospital windows. Rosalie cleared her ward, gave orders to her nurses, herded the walking wounded down the runways and helped wheel down those that were bed-ridden. When all were under cover in the cellar bomb shelter and the beds and stretchers placed in orderly rows, she ran back up to the ward, to make sure that no one was left, and to fetch a necessary case of medicines. A voice spoke out of the half-light,

“That you, Rosalie?”

“Yes.”

“Got your ward cleared?”

“Yes, Mice.”

“Then come quick with me, they’re going to get us tonight.” he grasped her by the arm and hurried her towards the ramp.

“Wait a minute,” said Rosalie, and she grabbed up her flash­light and shoulder satchel. Then she went along with him. She was glad Mice was with her.

They had hardly got to the foot of the ramp and into the narrow corridor that was on a level with and led to the safety caves, when two frightful crashes came and their part of the hospital tumbled down about their ears, like a child’s house made of cards.

When Rosalie came to, for of course the shock stunned her, she was lying flat on her back on a cement floor in utter darkness. “It’s a nightmare,” she thought, but gradually consciousness of reality dawned on her. She sat up and moved her head, her arms and legs; she was bruised and sore, but not broken. “I’m all right,” she said to herself. “I’m Rosalie all in one piece.” Then she suddenly remembered about Mice, where was he?

“Mice,” she said in a weak voice, “Mice, where are you?”

There was no answer; she could only hear from somewhere the groans of the sick and wounded. It was deathly still otherwise, after those awful blasts. She got her flashlight from her satchel, and began to crawl along the corridor. She must find Mice, that seemed, a thing above all other things, now. As she crawled there was but a scant two feet of clearance above her back. She found him; he, too, was lying on his back, his legs jammed against the cement floor by a piece of broken floor-joist. She felt his forehead and his pulse in wrist and jaw; it was faint but he was living. She tugged frantically at the heavy floor-joist, but she could not budge it. Then the spirit of her fishermen ancestry, the spirit of people who move impossible weights, people who by the sole strength of their hands have met the challenge of forest and sea, arose in her. “Dear God,” she cried. “I’ve never asked many favours before, but do help me to shift that beam.” She crawled back along the corridor, whence she had come; she must find a lever and something for it to bite on. A ‘bite’, that was a good old country word. She found a shattered two by four, and a shattered lump of cement; somehow, she dragged them back to where Mice lay.

“It’s something now,” she thought, “like Mat and Kitty together in the old Arethusa; Kitty standing in the companionway with the pistols.” She pried and she levered; she fixed the bite that slipped fifty times, to get more strength, she braced her back against the sunken wall of the corridor; she was inhuman in her strength; she had the power of the insane. At last the floor joist trembled, then gave and was no longer wedged between the walls; she shifted it little by little and at last lifted it from Mice’s legs and dragged it down the corridor. Then in the darkness, she sat down by Mice, trembling in her weakness after her fury of strength. She put her hands under his head and raised it gently and so held him. Presently she heard a feeble whisper.

“That you, Rosalie?”

“Yes, Mice. Can you move your legs?”

“No,” he said, after a trial. “I guess both my legs are busted.”

“Lie quiet, then, they’ll get us out.”

“Maybe. Got any morphine? Give me some. Doctor’s orders. I don’t care what happens if you stay with me.”

She gave him the morphine and he was easier.

“You my girl, Rosalie?”

“Yes, Mice.”

“I’m your man, Rosalie.”

“Yes, Mice.” With that he dozed off into restless sleep.

Rosalie sat there in the pitch darkness by Mice’s side; sniffed and sniffed; there was no smell of smoke. Presently her hands beneath his head got cramped and tired, She groped about, found two short pieces of broken boards, tore off six inches from the hem of her skirt, wrapped it about the boards, and made a kind of pillow for Mice’s head. Through the night she listened; she could hear no sound of rescuers; there was a vast pile of cement and wooden debris above them. Sometimes she dozed, leaning her back against the wall; her wrist-watch was still going, and whenever she woke she looked at it. The hours dragged on slowly; morning would never come to them there; it would always be pitchy night. “I wish the little old lady were alive,” thought Rosalie. “I’d have a story of living to tell her now, or a story of dying,” she added illogically.

About six in the morning Mice stirred and woke up.

“You there, Rosalie?”

“Yes, Mice.”

“All right then.”

She flashed her flashlight on him; he was very white. She reached out and took his hand.

“I’m awful hot. I’ve got some fever.”

“Of course, you’re hot. What would you expect with two broken legs?” Rosalie fumbled in her satchel, got out her thermometer, stuck it between his lips, and after a minute read it by the flash-light,

“It’s only a hundred and one,” said Rosalie. “You’re all right.”

“I’m all right,” said Mice, “but I’m awful thirsty.”

Now, all through the night as Rosalie had listened for the sound of rescuers, she had imagined that she had heard the drip of water.

“I’ve got to leave you a few minutes, Mice,” she said.

“All right,” said Mice. “Don’t get caught anywhere; don’t push against anything. You’ll come back, won’t you.”

Rosalie took her torch and on hands and knees crawled down the corridor towards the ramp, now blocked with rubble. The corridor ran beyond the ramp, but with the wall crushed in, there was only a space of eight inches to go through. Rosalie, careful to displace nothing, managed to wiggle through, and drew audibly nearer to the sound of a trickle. She flashed her light upward; there it was, a tiny trickle of water oozing down over broken cement. It might be from a broken pipe or a bathtub drain, or even a toilet. “Thank you, dear God, for that,” said Rosalie.

But how to get it back to Mice, that was the question? There was no tin can or twisted mug available. “Well,” said Rosalie, “there’s only one thing to do,” and she tore another six inches off her skirt and added to it a sizeable piece from her slip. “I’ll be a naked savage when they find us,” thought Rosalie. “If I’m dead I’ll go down in history as a wild woman.”

She soaked the wad of cloth under the drip till it had attained the saturation point, then cupping it in her hands she crept back to Mice.

“Open your mouth wide, big as you can; this is straight from the bathroom drain.”

“I don’t care if it’s out of the pig-sty; this germ theory is all blah, isn’t it, Rosalie?”

“Certainly,” she said. “What does a poor nurse know? You must know, you’re a surgeon.”

“I want water however foul,” said Mice

Rosalie squeezed the water from the rags into his mouth. “Just like feeding a little robin,” she said. In the next twenty-four hours, she made twenty trips to the trickle of water.

After a while Mice said, “Do you think it’s compound or simple, Rosalie?”

“I don’t think it could be compound with a beam falling on you on hard cement; the cement floor would give your legs support.”

“You’d better give me some more dope and have a look,” said he.

“If it’s simple, knead around in the muscles and see if you can get the bone ends to click together; you’ll hear a crepitation, and perhaps if you can find some bits of sticks, you better lash on some rough splints.”

“There goes more of my costume,” said Rosalie. “I’ll soon have nothing below the waist line. Perhaps I should have begun at the upper end.”

“I’m sure you’d look best in nothing at all,” said Mice. “I’ll know some day perhaps.” Then he drowsed off again.

Rosalie did as she was bid. She worked the muscles with her long skillful fingers, then tearing out some pieces of lathes from a lump of shattered plaster, she devoted some more of her skirt and slip to bandages and lashed on the splints as securely as she could. Then she found a lump of cement that had a deep hollow in it and collected a reserve of water.

Mice woke again, and said, “Got me lashed up?”

“Yes,” said Rosalie.

“It doesn’t hurt much now. Do you suppose we’ll get out of this?”

“Sure,” said Rosalie. “The English are slow but they dig steadily. I do wish they had a dozen Cape Breton miners with them though, and another dozen lobster fishermen. I wish fog-horn MacDonald was bossing the job!”

“Us Nova Scotians are very pleased with ourselves, aren’t we.”

“We are,” said Rosalie. “Only you should say ‘we’ instead of  ‘us’.”

“All right, school marm,” said Mice. “Got a bit of wire?”

Now Rosalie had always carried in her purse, ever since Johnny Allen had told her the story of the horse race—what was that horse’s name; it wasn’t Tamar. That was the horse out of the milk-cart, ‘Lightnin’ that was it—a little piece of haywire for good luck, just as some people carry a rabbit’s foot.

She fished it out and handed it over to Mice.

“Flash your torch and hold it on for a minute,” said he.

He felt carefully in his pocket, produced a pair of pincers and fashioned the haywire into a rude ring, twisting the ends closely.

“We may not get out of this, Rosalie. I want to marry you now.”

“How can we?” said Rosalie, “without a priest or parson.”

“We’ll marry each other,” explained Mice. “Here, hold out your hand, and we’ll say after each other all that we can remember.”

In the pitchy darkness, with a mountain of rubble above them, they plighted their troth. Who dare say there is no courage in human hearts?

“With this ring”

“With this ring”

“I thee pledge”

“I thee pledge”

“For better or worse”

“For better or worse”

“For richer or poorer”

“For richer or poorer”

“Till death do us part ”

“Till death do us part”

“We’ll be poor as rats if I lose my legs,” said Mice.

“Have another guess,” said Rosalie

They were in the tunnel forty-eight hours before the searchers found them, and they were both pretty far gone. But Rosalie had not lost her sense of humour even when near death. When Mice had been lifted out on a stretcher, she said to one of the nurses, “Fetch me a barrel or a sheet or a window blind.”

They shifted Mice to a ward that was still intact, and as soon as he was half-well he insisted on being properly married.

“Why this undue haste?” said the Army Chaplain, who was a solemn young fellow who believed in Apostolic Succession, the Divine Right of Kings, and touching for the Kings Evil. He was not more than three hundred years behind the times.

“Haste,” said Mice. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited. Get a move on, fetch your book or I’ll call in the Methodist padre. You don’t know when the Boche might drop another egg on us. You gotta be kinda quick these days, as the old lady said, when she hit the skunk behind the ear with the hoe.”

So Mice sat up in bed and Rosalie came in to the Officers’ Ward and they were properly married, And all the nurses and doctors came crowding in and brought little presents. And some gentle soul crowned Rosalie with a little wreath of myrtle. They all liked Rosalie, because Rosalie had love in her heart that induced affection in others.

~ 🌹 ~

So that is what happened to Rosalie, believe it or not. And if you like her as much as I do and want to find her, you must search for a woman who wears as a wedding ring a twisted bit of haywire. Moreover, you can always consult the Surgeons’ Register. But if you find her, do not tell her secret. She is now to her own folk, only a fireside story in the village where she was born.

 

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Nineteen by Dalhousie University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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