Snippets 79. The following snippet, although abridged, is a longer quote than I normally include here, but is such an interesting and heart-rending story that it is well worth a read. It is taken from an 1891 edition of Strand Magazine and was written by Mary Blouet, née Bartlett, the wife of Léon Blouet, better known as Max O’Rell. Regular readers of Windows into History will know that O’Rell is one of my favourite travel authors, sadly almost forgotten today, but hugely famous in his day.
Mary tells of her husband’s encounter with a nun with a mysterious past, who tended to his wounds after he was injured during the Franco-Prussion War.
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out I was a young girl, and the awful news of the commencement of hostilities made a profound impression upon me. When, four years later, I met and married my husband, it was one of my great delights to get him to tell me “all about the war.” Of the many reminiscences of his soldier days, none, perhaps, interested me more than the story of a sweet nun who nursed him in St. Malo Hospital. This is the story just as I heard it for the first time years ago. I hope it will not lose too much by not being told in French, as it was then given to me. We were sitting by the bridge of Neuilly, near the Bois de Boulogne, in Paris: “There,” said my husband, “is just about the spot where I was knocked over. We were fast getting the better of the Communards, and my men were warming to the work in grand style, when the piece of spent shell hit me, and some of the fellows carried me off to hospital. I remember being puzzled that there should be relatively no pain in a wound of that sort; but the pain came soon enough when the fever set in. The doctor of the Versailles Hospital was a rough specimen, as army doctors often are — in France, at any rate — and you may fancy that the groans and moans of the other wounded were not soothing either. One day the doctor told me I should soon be able to be removed to a country hospital. That was after I had been under his treatment for six weeks…
“In a few days, then, I saw the last of him, and he of me; and glad enough was I to find myself in the clean, quiet, nun-tended hospital in the dear old Breton town. There I had a room to myself, as each officer had ; and to lie there in that sweet, sunny room and hear no groans but my own was almost like being in heaven. The daily cleanings of the wound, still pretty painful, were recommenced under the hands of another surgeon, who proved to be a very good fellow. He and I struck up quite a friendship after a while.
“Well, life was, if not exactly rosy, at any rate once more worth living. The brightness and calm were very sweet after the horrors of the Versailles hospital, and a serenity filled the air, like an echo of organ tones brought in by the nuns from chapel.
“The nun who attended to me was an angel. Don’t be jealous. I was there in St. Malo three months. Before one month had passed, I had grown to love her as I should have loved my sister, if she had lived. I loved the sound of her voice, and the touch of her deft, gentle hands. I would have gone through the surgeon’s probings without a groan, if she might have re-bandaged the arm afterwards. But Dr. Nadaud always did that himself. Sister Gabrielle — that was what they called her — would come directly he had done with me, and would try the bandages to make sure they were not hurting, arrange the pillows afresh, and smooth out the wrinkles in the counterpane, and my brow at the same time, sympathising with me all the while in the sweetest fashion possible. Her voice was a great part of her charm: very low, and yet the clearest voice in the world. She had a way of looking at one all the time, too, with a gaze that was almost like a mother’s caress, and that wrapped one around with a delicious feeling of security and well-being. Sometimes she would sit and talk with me about the battles, and lead me into chats about my mother, who was ill herself at this time, and not able to come to see me.
“‘How old was Sister Gabrielle?’ Oh, I suppose she must have been about twenty-four or five then. She had the Norman blue eyes, and a fair complexion, which the white wrappings about her face seemed to heighten and irradiate. Is it the white lawn, or is it a beauty that the self-denying life lends to them, which makes the faces of so many of those women lok so lovely? I called Sister Gabrielle an angel just now, but you must not fancy there was any cold saintliness about her; in fact, it was her very ready sympathy with all my accounts of my young life in the outer world that drew out my heart towards her. It was her very womanliness that soon set me wondering who she could have been, and what had led her to shut herself away from the world. There was little to do, lying there in bed week after week, and hundreds of times, as I looked at that sweet woman moving about the room, I pictured her without the coif, and said to myself that if she were not then a beloved wife, with a husband’s protecting arm around her, and children climbing about her knees, it was not because the love that should have led to this had been wanting, but certainly because some marring chance had prevented the realisation of such happiness. It amused me to ‘make a pretty history to myself,’ with Sister Gabrielle for the heroine…
“One day — I could not help it — I broke into one of those little reveries of hers.
“‘My sister’ I said, ‘sweet and beautiful as you are, how is it that you never married?’
“With lifted finger, as one speaks to a too daring child, she said only: ‘Sssshh!’
“Then, with the movement of the emigrant readjusting his knapsack, she added: ‘Allons! half-past ten! Dr. Nadaud will be here before we are ready for him!’
“From that day Sister Gabrielle avoided sitting by my bedside. She watched over me just as tenderly as before; but our talks were shorter, and I never ventured to repeat my question, as you may imagine…
“August came. I had been three months in St. Malo Hospital, and now the time for leaving it had arrived.
“It was early morning. A fiacre stood at the gate, with my luggage upon it, and Sister Gabrielle had come to the doorway which led into the courtyard to see me off. Early as it was, the sun was already well on his day’s journey, and perhaps it was the strong glare from the white wall that made her shade her eyes so persistently with her left hand while we were saying ‘Good-bye.’ As for my own eyes, there was something the matter with them, too, for the landscape, or so much of it as I could see from the St. Malo hospital doorway, had taken on a strange, blurred look since I saw it from the window ten minutes before…
Several years passed before my husband saw again the old steep streets of St. Malo. These years brought great changes to him. His right arm being no longer capable of using a sword, he retired from the army, took to journalism, and eventually accepted an engagement in London. In the English capital he made his. home, marrying and settling down to a quasi-English life, which possessed great interest for him from the first.
One summer (six years after the war) we began to make a yearly journey to a town on the borders of Brittany, and always landed at St. Malo to take train for our destination. Trains ran there only twice a day, and so there was generally time enough to climb the dirty, picturesque street to the hospital and see sweet Sister Gabrielle, whose face would light up at sight of her old patient, and whose voice had still the same sympathetic charm. When the now English-looking traveller presented himself, it was always the Mother Superior who came to him in the bare, cool room reserved for visitors. And then Sister Gabrielle would arrive with a sweet, grave smile playing about her beautiful mouth, and there would be long talks about all that he had been doing; of the pleasant free life in England, of the English wife he had married, and of Bébé, a regular little Norman, whom he promised to bring and show her some day. But that day never came.
One hot August morning, just seven years after he had left the hospital with his arm in a sling, my husband pulled at the big clanging bell, and asked to see Sister Gabrielle. He was ushered into the shady waiting-room, and stood drinking in the perfume of the roses that clambered about the open window. Presently the Mother’s steps approached, but when she saw him she had no longer in her voice the cheery notes with which she used to greet him, nor did she offer to send Sister Gabrielle to him.
In a few sad words she told him his sweet nurse was dead, that she had died as she had lived, beloved by all who were privileged to be near her. There was no positive disease, the doctor had said, but some shock or grief of years before must have undermined her health, and the life of self- sacrifice she led had not been calculated to lengthen the frail strand of her life. Gently and without struggle it had snapped, and she had drooped and died with the early violets. Touched and saddened, our traveller turned down the steep street to the lower town. More than ever he wondered what had been the history of the brave, beautiful woman who had nursed him seven years before.
Turning the corner of the Place Château-briand, he ran against a man.
The exclamations were simultaneous. Looking up, the two men recognised each other.
“Ah, my dear Doctor!” exclaimed my husband.
The younger man having properly accounted for his presence in the old Breton town, and made known to Dr. Nadaud how glad he was to see him again, the two went off together to lunch…
“I will tell you all I know,” said the doctor, in reply to a question from his companion. “It seemed almost a breach of confidence to tell you Sister Gabrielle’s story while she lived, for I knew that she had come away out of the world on purpose to work unknown, and to bury all that remained of Jeanne D’Alcourt. When she first came she seemed not at all pleased to see me; no doubt because my presence reminded her of Caen, and of the scenes that she had turned her back upon for ever.”
“Well,” continued Dr. Nadaud, “the D’Alcourts had lived for generations in a fine old house on the Boulevard de l’Est, and it was there that Jeanne was born. Next door lived my sister and her husband, M. Leconte, the chief notary of the town, and a man well considered by all classes of his townsmen. It is the old story of affections knotted together in the skipping rope, and proving to be as unending as the circle of the hoop. My sister had a girl and a boy. The three children played together, walked out with their nurses together, and were hardly ever separated, until the time came for Raoul to go to Paris to school. The boy was fourteen when they parted; Jeanne was only eleven; but the two children’s love had so grown with their growth that, before the day of parting came, they had made a solemn little compact never to forget each other.
“Eight years passed, during which Jeanne and Raoul saw little of each other.
“The first time the boy came home he seemed to Jeanne no longer a boy, and the shyness which sprang up between them then deepened with each succeeding year. The boy was allowed to choose his profession, and he chose that of surgery. News reached Jeanne from time to time, through his sister, of the promising young student who, it was said, bid fair to win for himself a great name some day.
“At the age of twenty – two Raoul left Paris. His parents, who were growing old, wished their son near them; and steps were taken to establish him in a practice in Caen. Time passed on, and Raoul had been six months in partnership with old Dr. Grévin, whom he was eventually to succeed, when Mme. DAlcourt fell ill of inflammation of the lungs, and so it happened that the two young people often met beside the sick-bed, for the elder partner was not always able to attend the patient, and his young aide was called upon to take his place.
“By the time that Mme. D’Alcourt was well again, both the young people knew that the old love of their childhood had smouldered in their hearts through all the years of separation, and was ready to burst into flame at a touch. But no word was spoken.
“It was Raoul’s fond hope to be one day in a position to ask for Jeanne as his wife, but he knew that by speaking before he was in that position he would only destroy all chance of being listened to by her parents.
“The touch that should stir the flame soon came.
“One day in the summer following, a hasty summons from Mme. D’Alcourt took Dr. Grévin to Jeanne’s bedside, and a few moments’ examination showed him that the poor girl had taken diphtheria. After giving directions as to the treatment to be followed, he said he would return late in the evening, or would send M. Leconte.
“It was Raoul who came.
“With horror he saw that the case was already grave, and a great pang went through him as he spoke to Mme. D’Alcourt of the possibility of its being necessary to perform tracheotomy in the morning. When morning came, in fact, all next day, Jeanne was a little better, and the young man hoped with a deep, longing, passionate hope.
“The day after, however, it was evident that nothing could save the girl but the operation, and it was quickly decided to try this last chance.
“The rest is soon told. In that supreme moment, as Raoul made ready for the work, the two young people told all their hearts’ secret to each other in one long greeting of the eyes, that was at once a ‘Hail’! and a ‘Farewell’!
“The operation was successful.
“All went well with Jeanne, and in two days she was declared out of danger.
“But Raoul, unmindful of everything except Jeanne’s danger, had not been careful for himself, and had received some of the subtle poison from her throat.”
In the cemetery of Caen, high up where the sun first strikes, can be seen a gravestone with the inscription:-
Décédé le 18 Juillet, 1869.
And this is why Sister Gabrielle never married.
To read more about the brilliant Max O’Rell, take a look at Journals 5, which explores in detail his book A Frenchman in America.
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