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Seventeen

The years flew by like minutes now, like a flight of swift birds that wheel in the sky and are gone. There is nothing like regular routine to make time fly. Rosalie got up with the others now at half-past six—quite dark in winter—made herself tidy and was at the breakfast table at a quarter to seven, then on duty or in the classroom from seven to seven with a three hour break at noonday.

The little hospital of one hundred beds, stood on a green hill, and from its south windows you could look far down the wide harbor; Rosalie liked this and when her back ached, she looked out to sea and thought of the men who tugged at the lobster pots. There was nearly always a flock of black ducks in the reedy creek at the foot of the hill, diving, standing on their heads, their tails wagging, in search of food, the mothers quacking incessantly as they taught their young the art of living. Rosalie enjoyed the quack of the ducks, the honk of the wild geese. She had a sympathy for all migratory things, she was herself a migratory being. Past the smoke of the waterfront buildings, she could discern the dim shape of Blue Island and the speck that was the Lurcher Lightship.

The window of the room in the nurses dormitory, that she shared with two other student nurses, looked out upon all the best in the Nova Scotian landscape. The two girls with whom she shared the room were of better class and more intelligent than those she had rubbed shoulders with in the restaurant. Still they had the same interest, ‘fellas’, though now that interest had of necessity been subordinated to their work. Rosalie knew of course, by this time that this was Nature’s major law, and that men and women must mate, even as the birds mate.

On their bureaus, her companions had set out the framed photographs of their best young men, sometimes two or three, and of these they often talked. Rosalie had no photograph on her bureau, nothing but a first-class brush and comb, some good soap, toothpaste and her toothbrush. She had to admit that she had no ‘fella’.

“You’ll get one soon Stella, you’re pretty, you’ll get one soon.”

“I hope so,” said Rosalie brightly, I’m going to keep my eyes peeled.”

Rosalie found her chief pleasure in the classroom, where she spent the morning hours. She liked her instructress from the first, a tall, pale, gentle nurse, who never raised her voice, but who knew how to give a reprimand or exact a penalty, with no show of irritation or vindictiveness. She’s a disciplined woman, thought Rosalie, she knows how to control her emotions; that’s what I must learn to be, a disciplined woman.

The pile of books with which she was issued during the first week was rather frightening. There was so much to learn: Physiology, Anatomy, Materia Medica, Principles of Nursing, The Care of Children, Dietetics. Still these books with all their difficulties made her happy; she was burning to learn, she was a natural student, she had the inquiring mind. She resolved that she would solve all the mysteries of these books, and know them from cover to cover.

But it was not easy going, for when she looked into them she found them full of long mysterious words of which she had not the slightest idea of the meaning.

Rosalie did not know that the study of medicine, and in a lesser degree the study of nursing is cursed with a jargon that has its roots in the Middle Ages, in fact long before the Middle Ages, and that its terms are as much obscured as the terms of Medieval theology.

Of course, she observed as she got on, that this jargon was of use to the doctors in mystifying patients and preserving the tradition of the tribal medicine man. The less intelligent ones employed it more than the highly intelligent. In the Middle Ages all learned men wrote and spoke in Latin, that was the root of the trouble. Rosalie was glad that she had learned a good many Latin words in school for that gave her a little clue to the mystery of some words. But alas, many of the roots were Greek. She bought an Oxford Dictionary; she became wedded to her Oxford Dictionary. She found out that derma meant skin, and osteon, bone and arrived at the meaning of dermatologist and osteomalacia. But she could not yet guess that the English language was littered with fossils, like bilious, sanguine, melancholy, choleric, tiny shells like diatoms that once lived as part of a great mass of medical knowledge now long outmoded; nor that the ancient accepted theory regarded bile as the major fluid of the body, and the barber surgeons of the Charlemagne’s time and later, bled everybody to relieve this bile pressure regardless of diagnosis or disease.

The classroom was sunny, the instructress’s voice was pleasant; she knew her stuff; she did not fumble, Rosalie dug into her books and was happy she was getting somewhere; her wings were getting disentangled from the web of the cocoon of ignorance and were spreading and growing.

In the afternoons, she was assigned to a ward under a senior trained nurse. Here she learned to do the simplest kind of duty properly. If she failed to make a bed smoothly, with the corners tucked in after the approved hospital system, her senior told her to throw back the clothes and make it again. Rosalie did not pout over such a reprimand that she came to regard as just, but did as she was bid. She learned to clean out dubious corners, fetch and carry bedpans, set out and arrange trays and change the position of a sick and querulous patient. She watched men die and later saw babies come into being.

When on her vacation, in the first summer of her course, she told the little old lady of all this, the little old lady gave approval.

“That’s the way to learn properly,” she said, “books in the morning, practice in the afternoon. Learn the compass one week and see if you can do a trick at the wheel the next.”

“I believe it is a good way to learn,” said Rosalie.

“It is, I know it is,” said the little old lady vehemently. “That’s half the trouble with boys and girls in schools and college; they get crammed with fine theories that they never have to apply, and when they come out into the world, they find that the jig-saw puzzle of life won’t go to­gether. Some of them never grow up. They fail in what they attempt and then go around lecturing on how to run the Government and the Bank of Montreal. That’s the way socialists are bred.”

“Once the old man said to me,” replied Rosalie, “if you’re not a socialist at twenty you have no heart, and if you’re a socialist at fifty, you have no brains. He was wise, too, though not quite as wise as you.”

“That’s quite right,” said the little old lady, “you’ve got to be wild-eyed at first; wild-eyed as I was, when I went off with Mat.”

“I suppose I’m at the wild-eyed stage now,” said Rosalie

“Just coming out of it,” said the little old lady. “They can talk as much as they like about courses and angles and degrees and deflections, but you’ve got to do a trick at the wheel and hold her average on the lubber line, when the wind’s aft and the ship yawing, before you’re a true sailor-man. You don’t know much till you have the feel of things.”

“I’m getting the feel of things,” said Rosalie, and soon I hope my eyes will be more certain and steadier.”

“That’s the way it goes for those that learn,” said the little old lady. “Eyes wild and dreaming in youth, steady and firm in middle age, sure and certain when death is near.”

That was the last bit of conversation that Rosalie had with her little old lady.

 

~ 🌹 ~

 

Rosalie was well liked in the hospital, she kept her minor troubles to herself, she spoke ill of no one and was always laughing and good-natured. She was healthy and strong, and those qualities are the great backers of good nature as opposed to malice and envy. She respected the superintendent of nurses; who did not attempt any simpering sweetness but was fair and just. Twice Rosalie was on the carpet in the superintendent’s office; once accused justly of a minor offence. She had been very tired and, sitting down for a moment had dropped off to sleep when she should have been walking, and once accused of something that might have been serious, since a doctor’s orders had not been fully carried out. This time she was accused unjustly, for Rosalie knew that the fault lay with another student nurse who had not transmitted the order to her correctly when she took over. She took the reprimand without welching on the other her girl and felt no animosity against the superintendent, since she had wit enough to know that no executive, who has to decide many things, can make decisions a hundred per centum perfect. She remembered the little unwitting injustices she he inflicted when teaching children in the village school.

Sometimes, she thought, I don’t seem to make friendships that get me on in the world, the friends that have helped me come to me by chance I seem to have the faculty of getting on with the most inappropriate people. She was thinking then of the man who shifted the garbage and peeled the vegetables. He was a hump-backed and half-witted little man who was industrious and forever busy. He was just the man necessary to wheel the garbage to the pigs and rinse out the garbage cans. He was Rosalie’s slave and followed her about whenever duty took her to the basement. He had a merry twinkling eye, but always a ground of complaint against society.

“They don’t pay me enough,” he used to say, “where could they get another man to shift garbage at my price.”

“How much do you get?” Rosalie asked.

“Forty dollars a month and my room—a rotten room—and my meals.”

“That’s a lot of money for a bachelor.”

“Ay,” said the garbage-man, “but I got my eye on a nice, plump girl, an I’m goin’ to ask her soon.”

“Goodness, Sampson” (for that was his name) said Rosalie, “I hope you haven’t got your eye on me, I’m spoken for already.”

“No, Miss,” said Sampson, “she’s far fatter than you. I got a fondness for fat women.”

Rosalie laughed.

“I bin under a curse since my birth,” Sampson explained. Nobody ever appreciated me and I never had no luck. For one thing there was the matter of my name.”

“Sampson,” said Rosalie, “why that’s a good name, it’s a strong name.”

“But I ain’t strong nor yet big and the boys on the street holler ‘Sampson, Sampson, don’t get your hair cut.’ ”

“Don’t pay any attention to them” said Rosalie.

“But if I ain’t got strength of body, I got strength of mind, I got great strength of mind. Once I was on the sea alone for two days and two nights.”

“Were you a sailor-man?”

“A kind of sailor-man. I was a fisherman on a banker, on the Grand Banks you know. And I was off under-running trawl, and the fog shut down sudden and I couldn’t get back to the vessel. There was I alone in my dory upon the mighty deep and the fog thick as mud. Sampson, my boy, ses I, you’re in a box, a fix, a jam, and you’ve got to think this out. There was a short spar in her with a brown leg o’ mutton sail so I stepped the spar, and set the little triangle sail. I ses to myself, if I keep on sailin’ steady I’m bound to hit the land somewhere and then I’ll jump ashore. Then I remembered there was an old box compass under the after seat and I got that compass and looked at it, and see a big W on one side of it. Ses I to myself, that’s west, and if I steers west I’ll hit either Nova Scotia or the Boston States. And I steered west two days and two nights, and by gum where do you think I struck?”

“Where?” asked Rosalie.

“Blue Rocks! Not twenty miles from home.”

This was Sampson’s only story, his epic, his saga, and during her years of training Rosalie listened to it for at least fifty times.

Five months after her entrance Rosalie wrote her first examination. The papers were examined by the surgeon who had lectured to them and Rosalie passed third from the top. Someday, thought Rosalie, as she looked at the posted list, I’ll be at the very top and she was not mistaken in her prediction. Then came the capping exercise, when the student nurses first got their caps. It was very exciting and dramatic, the lights were low, the audience of friends and relatives were half-hidden in the dusky light; the nurses marched in in procession, graduates and seniors in front, students behind bearing in their hands unlighted candles. They were seated in rows upon the platform facing the audience. Rosalie felt a little tug at her heart for there was no one there who was especially interested in her. If only kind mother or hard-working simple father, or Johnny Allen, or the little old lady, or Mice, could smile at her from the audience, how glad she would have been. Strangely enough, she wanted Mice most of all, the boy of but three hours acquaintance. Nearly always when she opened a book to study at night she said to herself, “I’m learning now what Mice is learning, I’m so glad if I helped to start him off.”

Then there were speeches by officials and the brown-eyed surgeon whom she admired because of his reputed skill. His speech was encouraging for it told how responsibilities of the nurse were widening, how they were no longer simply makers of beds and carriers of trays. Without them he said the doctor would often fail. Rosalie’s heart beat high. Then they stood up and repeated together the nurse’s pledge, one of the most solemn and beautiful of all pledges. Rosalie in turn was kneeling before the superintendent and her cap was being pinned on. She had achieved the first step; this Rosalie felt was one of the greatest moments of her life. She arose from her kneeling position with exaltation in her face; now she felt she could lead armies and conquer the world. Then they lighted their candles at the mother candle—an inspiring bit of symbolism—and marched out to music. Afterward they sang together and laughed and danced and went to bed much later than was their custom.

Roslie registered a vow that night that she was going to learn everything she could and as thoroughly as she could. One summer there came to the little hospital a young intern, a Jewish boy, who was still a student in the Medical College. Rosalie watched him closely; in the first place she had never talked with a Jew, though she had often heard strange stories about people of the Jewish race. They had been the murderers of our Saviour, and it was said that in the Middle Ages they had offered Christian children as living sacrifices. They were reputed to be usurers, sharp in practice, and said to control all the money in the world. All these defamatory stories Rosalie had heard of them, but as her mind was fair in spite of lack of experience, she reflected that after all, they had made that wonderful book, The Old Testa­ment, and Mary whom God had chosen to be the mother of Jesus had been a Jewess. Surely, there must be something good about such people. This young Jewish student’s name was Samuelson and Rosalie resolved to make his ac­quaintance. But her reason for this resolution was not solely to in­vestigate the morals of the Jewish race, she secretly hoped that she might hear some word of Mice and of his progress. She would not ask, but Samuelson might inadvertently mention, something about his fellow student.

Samuelson never made any mention of Ferdinand Meister, but the ac­quaintance she fostered had its rewards and compensations. Samuelson was the first man she met who had the scientific mind and the true spirit of scientific investigation. He was restless, tireless, indefatigable in his quest for learning. Rosalie talked with him as often as she could and often spent an hour of the evening with him.

“Why don’t you take a rest, why don’t you go to the movies sometimes?”

“I have no time,” he explained, “I have no time for pleasures. I am go­ing to be a doctor; I am a Jew and under a handicap of racial prejudice; I must be among the best and better than most; moreover, I have no money for pleasures.”

Rosalie sighed, “Oh, isn’t money or the lack of money a nuisance.”

“My father is a tailor,” he explained, “and there are seven of us. I am the eldest and three of my sisters work to put me through college. I should be a poor thing if I squandered their money. Later I will help them. We Jews have great family feeling, but very little national feeling. It is a matter of indifference to us whether we live in San Francisco, Montreal or London. We only strive to find a place where we can be free.”

Samuelson never tried to flirt with Rosalie nor with any of the pretty nurses. He wanted to know everything about a little hospital. He worked as assistant to the X-ray technician, he peered through microscopes in the laboratory, he had himself put on the switchboard to learn the duties of admissions clerk and office technique, he thrust himself upon the crotchety dietitian and helped prepare trays for diabetics, he invaded the laundry to examine motors, washing-machines, tumblers, electric mangles and drying rooms.

Samuelson learned a great deal that summer and Rosalie learned a great deal from him. “Someday,” he said, “I may be a great hospital executive; a little hospital is a great place to learn, for affairs are easy going and the authorities let you have a shot at anything.”

In the evenings, he often told Rosalie stories about Darwin and Huxley and Pasteur and Lister. “Darwin was the greatest of them all,” he cried, his eyes shining. They defamed him in his life and buried him in Westminster Abbey. That’s where the English win, they have a sense of greatness and justice. They may abuse their Great while living, but they bury them with pomp and honour. It is said that a portrait of the sectarian, John Wesley, hangs in Christ Church dining hall, a hotbed of the Established Church. That’s why the English win.”

“Do you know what Darwin told the world, Stella?”

“No”, said Rosalie, “I’m very ignorant.”

“He set men free by his knowledge. He told them that the world was enormously old, millions of years old, and that men have been on it for a very long time, and that the first life on this earth evolved from tiny organisms in the torrid estuaries of tropical rivers. Do you know that Stella?” he asked eagerly. “Do you know about the azoic rocks?”

“No,” said Rosalie. “I don’t even know what ‘azoic’ means.”

“It means without life. There are whole ranges, strata upon strata of azoic rocks laid down when there was no life upon this planet.”

“It’s rather frightening, isn’t it?” said Rosalie. “It’s no wonder simple
people want a religion that’s comforting and cosy.”

“You must read, too, about Lister and Pasteur and the beginning of the knowledge of Bacteria, and how the London doctors fought Lister and his antiseptics, and about Doctor John Stewart, the great Nova Scotian, who was Lister’s assistant. The world may come to great things; we are only a hundred years out of bodily slavery, and we are not yet free from slavery of the mind. I mean to add a bit to scientific knowledge, even a bit as big as a pin’s head, even if I have to starve for it.”

Rosalie was very sorry when Samuelson went back to Medical School in September. She thought she would like to give him a little money, but she dared not make the offer. She never forgot Samuelson, though she never saw him again after his departure. He had been a kind of supplement to the wis­dom of the little old lady.

She profited by Samuelson’s example and in the later years of her train­ing, got permission from her instructress and the superintendent of nurses, who was always anxious to promote ambitious students, to work by turns in the X-ray room—the X-ray technician was friendly and well informed—in the laboratory, in the kitchen with the dietitian, as admissions clerk in the office, in the children’s and infants’ wards and even in the laundry. She broadened her knowledge. “Someday,” she said to herself, “I shall be an expert in one of these departments. Someday I might go to a great school and learn biology and bacteriology.” She had a great teacher in Claire, who had tutored her through her High School examination and who now in her summer vacations worked in the laboratory. Rosalie learned to do blood counts and blood grouping and the simpler forms of analysis.

Rosalie never forgot two of Samuelson’s maxims: ‘Ignorance is not a virtue’ and ‘Surely the laws of science are the thoughts of God.’

It was in her third year, and as she was approaching graduation, that Rosalie got two pieces of information. She learned from the papers that Hercule’s marriage to her had been annulled on the grounds of her disappearance, and that he had married again. Cecile would just suit him—she remembered her well—she was just Hercule’s type. She was not sure that this made her legally free, but she felt at any rate that she was in reality free and her own property again. Although she had never worried much about Hercule, she felt as if a moral load were lifted from her shoulders. The other news was from a doctor: the little old lady was dying. Rosalie got leave as soon as soon as she could be relieved of her tour of duties, and drove down to the little yellow house by the half-burnt church. As she drove up the lane, she noticed that the blinds were all pulled down; the little old lady was already dead and laid in her black coffin.

Rosalie dismissed the tearful moron who acted as maid, and politely refused the offer of neighbours who wished to sit up with her. She brightened up the fire in the kitchen stove, got herself some supper, and went in and lit a lamp in the bedroom where the little old lady lay. How tiny and transparent she looked as she lay there, like a silvered moth of the night. What peace there was in her miniature face! All the wrinkles seemed gone now. What peace!

Rosalie said a little prayer over her; “O kind loving God,” she said, “please bring Mat’s soul from the depth of the ocean floor wherever he was washed to and fro, and let him and Kitty be young and brave together again, in a paradise of barques and tall sailing ships.”

Then she went into the kitchen and read awhile . She was not in the least timid or nervous; she had never loved anyone so much as the little old lady. Later, like a sensible girl, she locked the doors, went to bed and slept soundly till dawn.

Next day, they buried the little old lady by her half-mad parson husband in the little cemetery behind the church. The cemetery was old and half the stones broken, with the legends worn off by erosion. ‘It is not by stones and monuments that people are remembered’, reflected Rosalie.

The house and property were hers she knew; she would keep it as a haven; perhaps someday she too would be a lonely little old lady. She put things away neatly; hired and paid a native whom she believed to be honest, to go through the place twice a week, locked everything securely and drove back to work.

Rosalie was graduated highest in her class and spoke the valedictory speech. She spoke it well too in her pretty lilting voice. As there were several Acadian French girls in the class and a few French speaking persons in the audience, she was gracious enough to conclude with a few sentences in French, which had been her native tongue.

She wrote her Registered Nurses’ examination and passed with ease. Then she elected to take a couple of years graduate work in a big hospital in Montreal. She had been there before as a student nurse in the Children’s Hospital in the natural course of training, so that the big city was not new to her. But it is impossible to relate Rosalie’s adventures in Montreal, or we’d never get on with our story. Rosalie was the kind of person to whom adventures always happen; she was bright within and hence found a bright world without. Little things about people always seem to Rosalie to be adventures, and hardly a day passed without some thing that amused or taught her.

After her two years in Montreal, she elected to return to the little hospital where she had trained, because it was such a friendly happy place. She was a graduate nurse now on the staff, and the student nurses entering seemed like children. She was kind to them and laughed with them and helped them in their little troubles,

Now she was senior nurse in charge of the operating room; she admired the work of the two surgeons she served, one blue-eyed, frank and outspoken; the other more emotional and sensitive, both skillful and honest in their work.

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

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