Authors: Stacy Henrie
“You’re not in trouble, child. She only wishes to ask you about a change in assignment.”
Relief made her shoulders droop and relaxed her tight jaw. Evelyn dipped her head in acknowledgment. A new assignment she could handle, though it did seem odd Sister Marcelle wouldn’t simply ask Sister Henriette to pass on the information.
“She is waiting in her office. Just report back to the ward when you are finished.”
She strode down the hallway with new confidence, passing the open doors of the other wards on both sides. The murmur of voices and occasional laughter floated out to her. After climbing another set of stairs, Evelyn paused outside the worn wooden door of Sister Marcelle’s tiny office. She knocked once and an alto voice called out, “You may enter.”
After stepping inside, Evelyn stood before Sister Marcelle’s large desk. Stacks of papers and ledgers stood in neat piles on one side. The only other furniture in the room was two wooden chairs, one occupied by Sister Marcelle. A large crucifix hung on the wall behind the sister. Just as Evelyn had on her first visit to this office, she avoided looking directly at the cross.
“Ah, Nurse Gray. Thank you for coming.” The sister’s blue-gray eyes, the same color as the dress she wore, shone bright with kindness. Unlike the other sisters, she spoke with nearly no trace of a French accent.
“Sister Henriette said you wished to see me.”
“Yes.” Sister Marcelle motioned to the chair opposite the desk. “Please have a seat.”
Evelyn perched on the edge of the chair.
Sister Marcelle folded her hands on top of the desk. “As I am sure you are aware, Sister Pauline is in charge of Sister Henriette’s wards at night. However, as the oldest sister here at St. Vincent’s, she is finding it more and more difficult to manage the irregular sleep schedule. And we certainly cannot fault her.” The sister’s lips curved into a smile, increasing the laugh lines around her mouth. “I think she has finally concluded she is no longer as young as she was when she came here at twenty-five.”
Evelyn smiled back. She’d heard from some of the other nurses that Sister Pauline mostly slept during the night shift. But she couldn’t blame the older woman for dozing. Lately Evelyn could hardly keep her own eyelids from closing at the end of a day shift.
“Sister Monique will be taking over Sister Pauline’s place, but her sister is ill and she has asked for time away from the hospital to tend to her. In the meantime…” Sister Marcelle leaned forward, her gaze intent on Evelyn’s face. “I would like to propose that you supervise Sister Henriette’s wards during the night shift. The other ward nurses will report to you, and you will have access to the books and keys. It should only be a few weeks at most, until Sister Monique returns.”
Evelyn’s eyes widened with surprise. The sisters were in charge of all the wards in the hospital, while Evelyn and the other girls from the Army Nurse Corps served as ward nurses. The extra responsibility showed Sister Marcelle’s trust and confidence in her. But would she be able to perform her best? Especially when her pregnancy sapped her stamina? She’d actually been grateful her turn for the night shift hadn’t come up yet.
These were concerns she didn’t dare voice, though.
“I’d be happy to help, Sister Marcelle.” Her voice carried more assurance than she felt.
Sister Marcelle’s ready smile appeared again. “Thank you. Sister Henriette praises your meticulous work. You have undoubtedly proven to be a great role model for all of our nurses.”
Evelyn blushed, feeling less than worthy of the sister’s last compliment. She trained her eyes on her lap. What would Sister Marcelle say if she knew Evelyn had broken the rules, to be with Ralph, and now carried his child?
“I will need you to be especially diligent about not overusing supplies.” Sister Marcelle’s admonition interrupted Evelyn’s troubled thoughts. She lifted her chin and gave a determined nod. No matter what physical discomforts she had to endure with this new assignment, she would do it. Anything to keep her secret safe until she and Ralph married. “We will need to use pain medications sparely at night. If you will see that the other nurses adhere to this.”
Sister Marcelle studied her for a moment, causing Evelyn to shift on the hard chair. What did the sister see? Could she read Evelyn’s secret in the tense line of her shoulders or the exhausted furrows on her once smooth face?
“Do you enjoy nursing, Nurse Gray?”
The question surprised Evelyn almost as much as the new assignment. No one had ever asked her if she enjoyed what she did. “It’s the same line of work as my father, when he was alive. My grandparents were very proud of him. Naturally they hoped their only grandchild would follow in his footsteps.” The explanation sounded weak, even to herself. Of course she enjoyed nursing. Didn’t she? If not, why had she worked so hard, for so long, at her grandparents’ expense no less, to be right here. “I—I do enjoy helping others, if that’s what you mean.”
Her expression thoughtful, Sister Marcelle sat back. “And we appreciate your help, I assure you—”
The rat-tat-tat of raindrops drummed the window behind her, but that didn’t seem to be the sound that made Sister Marcelle twist in her chair. Evelyn heard it, too—the distant rumble of motor vehicles.
“It appears we have our next round of patients.” The sister released a quiet sigh as she stood and crossed to the window. Evelyn joined her. Through the rain-splotched panes she could see the line of ambulances making their way up the curved gravel driveway.
“More than usual,” Evelyn murmured as much to herself as to the sister beside her.
Sister Marcelle’s face had grown somber. For the first time, Evelyn noticed the weary lines around the older woman’s eyes. “We do what we can.” But she seemed to leave the sentence hanging at the end, like a question. The hesitation lasted only a moment, but in those few seconds, Evelyn caught a glimpse of the burden Sister Marcelle carried as director of the entire hospital.
Clearing her throat, the sister straightened to her full height, a few inches taller than Evelyn. A tight smile pulled at her mouth. “You may return to your assigned ward for today, Nurse Gray. Can you start the night shift tomorrow evening?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Unsure whether to show the religious woman deference by curtseying or not, Evelyn settled for a quick nod and let herself out the door. She hurried down the stairs to the wards. With each step, the cacophony of sound from below grew louder.
Evelyn emerged onto the second floor into a world boiling over with movement and noise. Nurses rushed in and out of the wards on the heels of the ambulance drivers, bearing mud-splattered stretchers between them, or assisted those of the wounded who could walk. The clatter of boots, the urgent commands, the scent of unwashed bodies all bounced off the stone walls and mixed together, creating a giant cauldron of sound and smell.
When she’d first come to France, the organized confusion had been overwhelming. Evelyn was used to working in a hospital where patients trickled in, not fell upon the place en masse as they often did here. Now she found the chaos almost comforting, the adrenaline a boon to her depleted energy. Her father used to say the adrenaline was the only thing that got him through those first agonizing minutes when he had to accurately and quickly assess an emergency situation and take action.
Elbowing her way through the crowded hallway, Evelyn reached her assigned ward. A quick glance told her what needed to be done in preparation for the new arrivals. Two of the empty beds had been refitted with clean sheets, but the third stood bare.
Evelyn grabbed up the remaining sheet and blanket and hurried to the bed in the far corner. The energy throbbing through her replaced any lingering sense of nausea as she heard Sister Henriette call loudly, “Bring those three in here.”
She finished with the bed and pulled back the blankets at the same moment two of the ambulance drivers approached. The man on their stretcher had his eyes shut tight, his body shivering uncontrollably. His rain-dampened hair was coffee-colored, though the lighter scruff along his jaw and chin were evidence his hair wasn’t that dark when dry. He had a nice-looking, unmarred face, but it was the dried blood on the lower half of his wool uniform and the loose bandage around his leg that drew Evelyn’s attention.
Most of the men in her assigned ward had injuries of the pelvis, thighs, or legs. At first glance, she suspected the soldier had shrapnel wounds in his right leg, while the sling on his left arm meant a fracture or break.
She moved out of the way to allow the men to place the soldier on top of the bed. Once they rushed off, she took their place at his side.
“Hey there, soldier,” she said in a soft voice. “Let’s get you warm, all right?”
She unpinned the medical card from his jacket and drew the blankets up over his shaking form. As she waited for his shivering to subside, she read through his card. Sure enough, the scrawled notes indicated a broken left arm and shrapnel in his right thigh as well as damage to his pelvic area.
“I’m going to get you some water, okay?”
Though his eyes remained closed, he dipped his chin slightly, an indication he’d heard her. She procured a glass of water from the pitcher on a nearby table and returned to the bed.
“I’ll hold the glass,” she instructed, “so all you need to do is sip.” She lifted his head gently off the pillow with one hand and brought the cup to his cracked lips with the other. He took a long swallow.
“Thanks,” he murmured, but he gritted his teeth as she carefully set his head back down.
“I know you’re hurting, soldier. But we’re going to get you into surgery as soon as we can. Most likely by tonight.” At least she hoped. There would be others with much more immediate need for a surgeon, but she wanted him to know he wouldn’t be forgotten. “In the meantime, I’m going to change that loose bandage for you.”
From the supply closet, she removed a fresh bandage, a pair of scissors, and a bottle of iodine. When she returned to the man’s bed, she pushed the blankets aside, just enough, to reach his leg. His eyelids flew open, revealing hazel eyes, and a flush of embarrassment crept up his face as she bent to cut away the old bandage.
“Tell me where you’re from, soldier.” If she could get him talking, she knew it would help ease the discomfort and pain of having his injury rebandaged.
“Did you grow up on a farm?” So many of the doughboys she’d nursed here in France were sons of farmers.
Evelyn lifted her head to shoot him a smile. “Me, too. I’m from Michigan.” Once she had the soiled bandage off, she applied some of the iodine. She’d grown used to the acute smell, though it seemed much stronger now that she was pregnant. The man flinched as the chemical met his torn flesh.
“So your name is…” She glanced at his medical card, which she’d set on the bedside table. “Corporal Joel Campbell.”
She read it through again as a snatch of conversation with Ralph repeated in her mind. He’d been talking about his squad leader and best friend whom he simply called “Campbell.”
“Which regiment are you in, Corporal?”
He murmured the number. It was the same as Ralph’s. A flicker of eagerness and concern darted through Evelyn. Campbell was a common enough last name, but what if this was the man Ralph had spoken of with respect and familiarity? The possibility sent her hope rising, until another thought jerked it down. If this was
Campbell, then Ralph would have been in the same battle.
The worry flared to fear inside her. Was Ralph safe or not? There could easily be a number of men with the name
in their regiment.
But if these two men were in the same company…
“What company are you in?” She did her best to keep the dread from her voice as she wrapped his leg with the fresh bandage.
“Company F,” Corporal Campbell replied in a tight whisper.
His answer stilled her fingers. He and Ralph belonged to the same company—this had to be his squad leader. Was Ralph here, too, or had he escaped injury? She shot a look across the room to the door. Could he be in another ward of the hospital right now? Evelyn’s heart beat faster at the notion. If only she could see his handsome face and kiss those masculine lips. Assure herself that he was alive and well.
Her gaze refocused on the man lying before her. She no longer had any doubt that Corporal Campbell knew Ralph. Which meant he alone could grant her peace or confirm her worst fears that Ralph had been injured, too.
She directed her next question toward the bed to appear as nonchalant as possible. “Do you by chance know Private First Class Ralph Kelley?”
Silence from the bed sounded louder in her ears than the continuing racket in the room and hallway. She finished with his bandage and lifted her head to find Corporal Campbell staring at her. Astonishment had replaced the weariness on his haggard face.
“Are you all right, Corporal?”
Instead of answering, he countered with a question of his own. “Are you…Evelyn?”
A soft gasp escaped her lips before she could check herself. “Yes.”
The man not only knew Ralph, but knew her name, too. She picked up the iodine and scissors and gripped them hard within her fingers. Anything to occupy her trembling hands. A maelstrom of nausea had begun churning in her stomach, making her regret what little she’d eaten at lunch.
“H-How do you know my name?”
His hazel eyes remained fixed on hers. “Because Ralph said it several times today.”
He’d spoken with the man she loved, this very day. Fresh panic and wild optimism pulsed through her veins. She searched his face for any glimpse or clue of where Ralph might be.
“And?” The single word from her lips was no more than a whisper.
Corporal Campbell broke eye contact first, releasing the turmoil inside her. The torrent of emotion engulfed her body, choking her throat and filling her ears with a dull roar. Evelyn had to lean forward to hear his softly spoken reply.
“He said your name, Evelyn, right before he died.”