“If yer goin’ downstairs,
Nuss, you’d better take that there scuttle with
yer, for the coals is gittin’ low an’ it
ull save yer a journey!”
Marcella looked with amusement at
her adviser a small bandy-legged boy in
shirt and knickerbockers, with black Jewish eyes in
a strongly featured face. He stood leaning on
the broom he had just been wielding, his sleeves rolled
up to the shoulder showing his tiny arms; his expression
sharp and keen as a hawk’s.
“Well, Benny, then you look
after your mother while I’m gone, and don’t
let any one in but the doctor.”
And Marcella turned for an instant
towards the bed whereon lay a sick woman too feeble
apparently to speak or move.
“I aint a goin’ ter,”
said the boy, shortly, beginning to sweep again with
energy, “an’ if this ’ere baby cries,
give it the bottle, I s’pose?”
“No, certainly not,” said
Marcella, firmly; “it has just had one.
You sweep away, Benny, and let the baby alone.”
Benny looked a trifle wounded, but
recovered himself immediately, and ran a general’s
eye over Marcella who was just about to leave the room.
“Now look ’ere, Nuss,”
he said in a tone of pitying remonstrance, “yer
never a goin’ down to that ’ere coal cellar
without a light. Yer’ll ’ave
to come runnin’ up all them stairs again sure
as I’m alive yer will!”
And darting to a cupboard he pulled
out a grimy candlestick with an end of dip and some
matches, disposed of them at the bottom of the coal-scuttle
that Marcella carried over her left arm, and then,
still masterfully considering her, let her go.
Marcella groped her way downstairs.
The house was one of a type familiar all over the
poorer parts of West Central London the
eighteenth-century house inhabited by law or fashion
in the days of Dr. Johnson, now parcelled out into
insanitary tenements, miserably provided with air,
water, and all the necessaries of life, but still showing
in its chimney-piece or its decaying staircase signs
of the graceful domestic art which had ruled at the
building and fitting of it.
Marcella, however, had no eye whatever
at the moment for the panelling on the staircase,
or the delicate ironwork of the broken balustrade.
Rather it seemed to her, as she looked into some of
the half-open doors of the swarming rooms she passed,
or noticed with disgust the dirt and dilapidation
of the stairs, and the evil smells of the basement,
that the house added one more to the standing shames
of the district an opinion doubly strong
in her when at last she emerged from her gropings
among the dens of the lower regions, and began to toil
upstairs again with her filled kettle and coal-scuttle.
The load was heavy, even for her young
strength, and she had just passed a sleepless night.
The evening before she had been sent for in haste to
a woman in desperate illness. She came, and found
a young Jewess, with a ten days old child beside her,
struggling with her husband and two women friends
in a state of raging delirium. The room, was full
to suffocation of loud-tongued, large-eyed Jewesses,
all taking turns at holding the patient, and chattering
or quarrelling between their turns. It had been
Marcella’s first and arduous duty to get the
place cleared, and she had done it without ever raising
her voice or losing her temper for an instant.
The noisy pack had been turned out; the most competent
woman among them chosen to guard the door and fetch
and carry for the nurse; while Marcella set to work
to wash her patient and remake the bed as best she
could, in the midst of the poor thing’s wild
shrieks and wrestlings.
It was a task to test both muscular
strength and moral force to their utmost. After
her year’s training Marcella took it simply in
the day’s work. Some hours of intense effort
and strain; then she and the husband looked down upon
the patient, a woman of about six-and-twenty, plunged
suddenly in narcotic sleep, her matted black hair,
which Marcella had not dared to touch, lying in wild
waves on the clean bed-clothes and night-gear that
her nurse had extracted from this neighbour and that she
could hardly have told how.
“Ach, mein Gott, mein Gott!”
said the husband, rising and shaking himself.
He was a Jew from German Poland, and, unlike most of
his race, a huge man, with the make and the muscles
of a prize-fighter. Yet, after the struggle of
the last two hours he was in a bath of perspiration.
“You will have to send her to
the infirmary if this comes on again,” said
The husband stared in helpless misery,
first at his wife, then at the nurse.
“You will not go away, mees,”
he implored, “you will not leaf me alone?”
Wearied as she was, Marcella could
have smiled at the abject giant.
“No, I will stay with her till
the morning and till the doctor comes. You had
better go to bed.”
It was close on three o’clock.
The man demurred a little, but he was in truth too
worn out to resist. He went into the back room
and lay down with the children.
Then Marcella was left through the
long summer dawn alone with her patient. Her
quick ear caught every sound about her the
heavy breaths of the father and children in the back
room, the twittering of the sparrows, the first cries
about the streets, the first movements in the crowded
house. Her mind all the time was running partly
on contrivances for pulling the woman through for
it was what a nurse calls “a good case,”
one that rouses all her nursing skill and faculty partly
on the extraordinary misconduct of the doctor, to
whose criminal neglect and mismanagement of the case
she hotly attributed the whole of the woman’s
illness; and partly in deep, swift sinkings
of meditative thought on the strangeness
of the fact that she should be there at all, sitting
in this chair in this miserable room, keeping guard
over this Jewish mother and her child!
The year in hospital had rushed dreamless
sleep by night, exhausting fatigue of mind and body
by day. A hospital nurse, if her work seizes
her, as it had seized Marcella, never thinks of herself.
Now, for some six or seven weeks she had been living
in rooms, as a district nurse, under the control of
a central office and superintendent. Her work
lay in the homes of the poor, and was of the most
varied kind. The life was freer, more elastic;
allowed room at last to self-consciousness.
But now the night was over. The
husband had gone off to work at a factory near, whence
he could be summoned at any moment; the children had
been disposed of to Mrs. Levi, the helpful neighbour;
she herself had been home for an hour to breakfast
and dress, had sent to the office asking that her
other cases might be attended to, and was at present
in sole charge, with Benny to help her, waiting for
When she reached the sick-room again
with her burdens, she found Benjamin sitting pensive,
with the broom across his knees.
“Well, Benny!” she said
as she entered, “how have you got on?”
“Yer can’t move the dirt
on them boards with sweepin’,” said Benny,
looking at them with disgust; “an’ I ain’t
a goin’ to try it no more.”
“You’re about right there,
Benny,” said Marcella, mournfully, as she inspected
them; “well, we’ll get Mrs. Levi to come
in and scrub as soon as your mother can
She stepped up to the bed and looked
at her patient, who seemed to be passing into a state
of restless prostration, more or less under the influence
of morphia. Marcella fed her with strong beef
tea made by herself during the night, and debated
whether she should give brandy. No either
the doctor would come directly, or she would send for
him. She had not seen him yet, and her lip curled
at the thought of him. He had ordered a nurse
the night before, but had not stayed to meet her,
and Marcella had been obliged to make out his instructions
from the husband as best she could.
Benny looked up at her with a wink
as she went back to the fire.
“I didn’t let none o’
them in,” he said, jerking his thumb over
his shoulder. “They come a whisperin’
at the door, an’ a rattlin’ ov the handle
as soon as ever you gone downstairs. But I tole
’em just to take theirselves off, an’
as ’ow you didn’t want ’em.
And taking a crust smeared with treacle
out of his pocket, Benny returned with a severe air
to the sucking of it.
“Clever Benny,” she said,
patting his head; “but why aren’t you at
“‘Ow d’yer s’pose
my ma’s goin’ to git along without me to
do for ’er and the babby?” he replied
“Well, Benny, you’ll have the Board officer
down on you.”
At this the urchin laughed out.
“Why, ‘e wor here last
week! Ee can’t be troublin’ ’isself
about this ‘ere bloomin’ street every
day in the week.”
There was a sharp knock at the door.
“The doctor,” she said,
as her face dismissed the frolic brightness which
had stolen upon it for a moment. “Run away,
Benny opened the door, looked the
doctor coolly up and down, and then withdrew to the
landing, where his sisters were waiting to play with
The doctor, a tall man of thirty,
with a red, blurred face and a fair moustache, walked
in hurriedly, and stared at the nurse standing by the
“You come from the St. Martin’s Association?”
Marcella stiffly replied. He
took her temperature-chart from her hand and asked
her some questions about the night, staring at her
from time to time with eyes that displeased her.
Presently she came to an account of the condition
in which she had found her patient. The edge on
the words, for all their professional quiet, was unmistakable.
She saw him flush.
He moved towards the bed, and she
went with him. The woman moaned as he approached
her. He set about his business with hands that
shook. Marcella decided at once that he was not
sober, and watched his proceedings with increasing
disgust and amazement. Presently she could bear
it no longer.
“I think,” she said, touching
his arm, “that you had better leave it to me and go
He drew himself up with a start which
sent the things he held flying, and faced her fiercely.
“What do you mean?” he said, “don’t
you know your place?”
The girl was very white, but her eyes were scornfully
“Yes I know my place!”
Then with a composure as fearless
as it was scathing she said what she had to say.
She knew and he could not deny that
he had endangered his patient’s life. She
pointed out that he was in a fair way to endanger it
again. Every word she said lay absolutely within
her sphere as a nurse. His cloudy brain cleared
under the stress of it.
Then his eyes flamed, his cheeks became
purple, and Marcella thought for an instant he would
have struck her. Finally he turned down his shirt-cuffs
and walked away.
“You understand,” he said
thickly, turning upon her, with his hat in his hand,
“that I shall not attend this case again till
your Association can send me a nurse that will do
as she is told without insolence to the doctor.
I shall now write a report to your superintendent.”
“As you please,” said
Marcella, quietly. And she went to the door and
He passed her sneering:
“A precious superior lot you
lady-nurses think yourselves, I dare say. I’d
sooner have one old gamp than the whole boiling of
Marcella eyed him sternly, her nostrils
tightening. “Will you go?” she said.
He gave her a furious glance, and
plunged down the stairs outside, breathing threats.
Marcella put her hand to her head
a moment, and drew a long breath. There was a
certain piteousness in the action, a consciousness
of youth and strain.
Then she saw that the landing and
the stairs above were beginning to fill with dark-haired
Jewesses, eagerly peering and talking. In another
minute or two she would be besieged by them. She
called sharply, “Benny!”
Instantly Benny appeared from the
landing above, elbowing the Jewesses to right and
“What is it you want, Nuss?
No, she don’t want none o’ you there!”
And Benjamin darted into the room,
and would have slammed the door in all their faces,
but that Marcella said to him
“Let in Mrs. Levi, please.”
The kind neighbour, who had been taking
care of the children, was admitted, and then the key
was turned. Marcella scribbled a line on a half-sheet
of paper, and, with careful directions, despatched
Benny with it.
“I have sent for a new doctor,”
she explained, still frowning and white, to Mrs. Levi.
“That one was not fit.”
The woman’s olive-skinned face
lightened all over. “Thanks to the Lord!”
she said, throwing up her hands. “But how
in the world did you do ’t, miss? There
isn’t a single soul in this house that doesn’t
go all of a tremble at the sight of ’im.
Yet all the women has ’im when they’re
ill bound to. They thinks he must be
clever, ’cos he’s such a brute. I
do believe sometimes it’s that. He is
Marcella was bending over her patient,
trying so far as she could to set her straight and
comfortable again. But the woman had begun to
mutter once more words in a strange dialect that Marcella
did not understand, and could no longer be kept still.
The temperature was rising again, and another fit
of delirium was imminent. Marcella could only
hope that she and Mrs. Levi between them would be
able to hold her till the doctor came. When she
had done all that was in her power, she sat beside
the poor tossing creature, controlling and calming
her as best she could, while Mrs. Levi poured into
her shrinking ear the story of the woman’s illness
and of Dr. Blank’s conduct of it. Marcella’s
feeling, as she listened, was made up of that old
agony of rage and pity! The sufferings of the
poor, because they were poor these
things often, still, darkened earth and heaven for
her. That wretch would have been quite capable,
no doubt, of conducting himself decently and even competently,
if he had been called to some supposed lady in one
of the well-to-do squares which made the centre of
this poor and crowded district.
“Hullo, nurse!” said a
cheery voice; “you seem to have got a bad case.”
The sound was as music in Marcella’s
ears. The woman she held was fast becoming unmanageable had
just shrieked, first for “poison,” then
for a “knife,” to kill herself with, and
could hardly be prevented by the combined strength
of her nurse and Mrs. Levi, now from throwing herself
madly out of bed, and now from tearing out her black
hair in handfuls. The doctor a young
Scotchman with spectacles, and stubbly red beard came
quickly up to the bed, asked Marcella a few short questions,
shrugged his shoulders over her dry report of Dr. Blank’s
proceedings, then took out a black case from his pocket,
and put his morphia syringe together.
For a long time no result whatever
could be obtained by any treatment. The husband
was sent for, and came trembling, imploring doctor
and nurse, in the intervals of his wife’s paroxysms,
not to leave him alone.
Marcella, absorbed in the tragic horror
of the case, took no note of the passage of time.
Everything that the doctor suggested she carried out
with a deftness, a tenderness, a power of mind, which
keenly affected his professional sense. Once,
the poor mother, left unguarded for an instant, struck
out with a wild right hand. The blow caught Marcella
on the cheek, and she drew back with a slight involuntary
“You are hurt,” said Dr. Angus, running
up to her.
“No, no,” she said, smiling
through the tears that the shock had called into her
eyes, and putting him rather impatiently aside; “it
is nothing. You said you wanted some fresh ice.”
And she went into the back room to get it.
The doctor stood with his hands in his pockets, studying
“You will have to send her to
the infirmary,” he said to the husband; “there
is nothing else for it.”
Marcella came back with the ice, and
was able to apply it to the head. The patient
was quieter was, in fact, now groaning herself
into a fresh period of exhaustion.
The doctor’s sharp eyes took
note of the two figures, the huddled creature on the
pillows and the stately head bending over her, with
the delicately hollowed cheek, whereon the marks of
those mad fingers stood out red and angry. He
had already had experience of this girl in one or
two other cases.
“Well,” he said, taking
up his hat, “it is no good shilly-shallying.
I will go and find Dr. Swift.” Dr. Swift
was the parish doctor.
When he had gone, the big husband
broke down and cried, with his head against the iron
of the bed close to his wife. He put his great
hand on hers, and talked to her brokenly in their
own patois. They had been eight years married,
and she had never had a day’s serious illness
till now. Marcella’s eyes filled with tears
as she moved about the room, doing various little
At last she went up to him.
“Won’t you go and have
some dinner?” she said to him kindly. “There’s
Benjamin calling you,” and she pointed to the
door of the back room, where stood Benny, his face
puckered with weeping, forlornly holding out a plate
of fried fish, in the hope of attracting his father’s
The man, who in spite of his size
and strength was in truth childishly soft and ductile,
went as he was bid, and Marcella and Mrs. Levi set
about doing what they could to prepare the wife for
Presently parish doctor and sanitary
inspector appeared, strange and peremptory invaders
who did but add to the terror and misery of the husband.
Then at last came the ambulance, and Dr. Angus with
it. The patient, now once more plunged in narcotic
stupor, was carried downstairs by two male nurses,
Dr. Angus presiding. Marcella stood in the doorway
and watched the scene, the gradual disappearance
of the helpless form on the stretcher, with its fevered
face under the dark mat of hair; the figures of the
straining men heavily descending step by step, their
heads and shoulders thrown out against the dirty drabs
and browns of the staircase; the crowd of Jewesses
on the stairs and landing, craning their necks, gesticulating
and talking, so that Dr. Angus could hardly make his
directions heard, angrily as he bade them stand back;
and on the top stair, the big husband, following the
form of his departing and unconscious wife with his
eyes, his face convulsed with weeping, the whimpering
children clinging about his knees.
How hot it was! how stifling
the staircase smelt, and how the sun beat down from
that upper window on the towzled unkempt women with
their large-eyed children.