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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Night Ward
By Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888)
 
From ‘Hospital Sketches’

BEING fond of the night side of nature, I was soon promoted to the post of night nurse, with every facility for indulging in my favorite pastime of “owling.” My colleague, a black-eyed widow, relieved me at dawn, we two taking care of the ward between us, like regular nurses, turn and turn about. I usually found my boys in the jolliest state of mind their condition allowed; for it was a known fact that Nurse Periwinkle objected to blue devils, and entertained a belief that he who laughed most was surest of recovery. At the beginning of my reign, dumps and dismals prevailed; the nurses looked anxious and tired, the men gloomy or sad; and a general “Hark-from-the-tombs-a-doleful-sound” style of conversation seemed to be the fashion: a state of things which caused one coming from a merry, social New England town, to feel as if she had got into an exhausted receiver; and the instinct of self-preservation, to say nothing of a philanthropic desire to serve the race, caused a speedy change in Ward No. 1.  1
  More flattering than the most gracefully turned compliment, more grateful than the most admiring glance, was the sight of those rows of faces, all strange to me a little while ago, now lighting up with smiles of welcome as I came among them, enjoying that moment heartily, with a womanly pride in their regard, a motherly affection for them all. The evenings were spent in reading aloud, writing letters, waiting on and amusing the men, going the rounds with Dr. P—— as he made his second daily survey, dressing my dozen wounds afresh, giving last doses, and making them cozy for the long hours to come, till the nine o’clock bell rang, the gas was turned down, the day nurses went off duty, the night watch came on, and my nocturnal adventures began.  2
  My ward was now divided into three rooms; and under favor of the matron, I had managed to sort out the patients in such a way that I had what I called my “duty room,” my “pleasure room,” and my “pathetic room,” and worked for each in a different way. One I visited armed with a dressing-tray full of rollers, plasters, and pins; another, with books, flowers, games, and gossip; a third, with teapots, lullabies, consolation, and sometimes a shroud.  3
  Wherever the sickest or most helpless man chanced to be, there I held my watch, often visiting the other rooms to see that the general watchman of the ward did his duty by the fires and the wounds, the latter needing constant wetting. Not only on this account did I meander, but also to get fresher air than the close rooms afforded; for owing to the stupidity of that mysterious “somebody” who does all the damage in the world, the windows had been carefully nailed down above, and the lower sashes could only be raised in the mildest weather, for the men lay just below. I had suggested a summary smashing of a few panes here and there, when frequent appeals to headquarters had proved unavailing and daily orders to lazy attendants had come to nothing. No one seconded the motion, however, and the nails were far beyond my reach; for though belonging to the sisterhood of “ministering angels,” I had no wings, and might as well have asked for a suspension bridge as a pair of steps in that charitable chaos.  4
  One of the harmless ghosts who bore me company during the haunted hours was Dan, the watchman, whom I regarded with a certain awe; for though so much together, I never fairly saw his face, and but for his legs should never have recognized him, as we seldom met by day. These legs were remarkable, as was his whole figure: for his body was short, rotund, and done up in a big jacket and muffler; his beard hid the lower part of his face, his hat-brim the upper, and all I ever discovered was a pair of sleepy eyes and a very mild voice. But the legs!—very long, very thin, very crooked and feeble, looking like gray sausages in their tight coverings, and finished off with a pair of expansive green cloth shoes, very like Chinese junks with the sails down. This figure, gliding noiselessly about the dimly lighted rooms, was strongly suggestive of the spirit of a beer-barrel mounted on corkscrews, haunting the old hotel in search of its lost mates, emptied and staved in long ago.  5
  Another goblin who frequently appeared to me was the attendant of “the pathetic room,” who, being a faithful soul, was often up to tend two or three men, weak and wandering as babies, after the fever had gone. The amiable creature beguiled the watches of the night by brewing jorums of a fearful beverage which he called coffee, and insisted on sharing with me; coming in with a great bowl of something like mud soup, scalding hot, guiltless of cream, rich in an all-pervading flavor of molasses, scorch, and tin pot.  6
  Even my constitutionals in the chilly halls possessed a certain charm, for the house was never still. Sentinels tramped round it all night long, their muskets glittering in the wintry moonlight as they walked, or stood before the doors straight and silent as figures of stone, causing one to conjure up romantic visions of guarded forts, sudden surprises, and daring deeds; for in these war times the humdrum life of Yankeedom has vanished, and the most prosaic feel some thrill of that excitement which stirs the Nation’s heart, and makes its capital a camp of hospitals. Wandering up and down these lower halls I often heard cries from above, steps hurrying to and fro, saw surgeons passing up, or men coming down carrying a stretcher, where lay a long white figure whose face was shrouded, and whose fight was done. Sometimes I stopped to watch the passers in the street, the moonlight shining on the spire opposite, or the gleam of some vessel floating, like a white-winged sea-gull, down the broad Potomac, whose fullest flow can never wash away the red stain of the land.  7
 
 
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