During my stay in Constantinople, I was accustomed to employ, as a guide, a young Greek Jew, whose name it is no use my attempting to spell, but whom I called by the one common name there—“Johnny.” Wishing, however, to distinguish my Johnny from the legion of other Johnnies, I prefixed the term Jew to his other name, and addressed him as Jew Johnny. How he had picked up his knowledge I cannot tell, but he could talk a little broken English, besides French, which, had I been qualified to criticise it, I should have found, perhaps, as broken as his English. He attached himself very closely to me, and seemed very anxious to share my fortunes; and after he had pleaded hard, many times, to be taken to the Crimea, [Pg 93]I gave in, and formally hired him. He was the best and faithfullest servant I had in the Crimea, and, so far from regretting having picked up Jew Johnny from the streets of Pera, I should have been very badly off without him.

More letters come from Mr. Day, giving even worse accounts of the state of things at Balaclava; but it is too late for hesitation now. My plans are perfected, my purchases made, and passage secured in the “Albatross”—a transport laden with cattle and commissariat officers for Balaclava. I thought I should never have transported my things from the “Hollander” to the “Albatross.” It was a terrible day, and against the strong current and hurricane of wind Turkish and Greek arms seemed of little avail; but at last, after an hour or more of terrible anxiety and fear, the “Albatross’s” side was reached, and I clambered on deck, drenched and wretched.

My companions are cheerful, pleasant fellows, and the short, although somewhat hazardous, voyage across the Black Sea is safely made, and one morning we become excited at seeing a dark rock-bound coast, on which they tell us is Balaclava. As we steam on we see, away to the right, clouds of light smoke, which the knowing travellers tell us are not altogether natural, but show that Sebastopol is not yet taken, until the “Albatross” lays-to within sight of where the “Prince,” with her ill-fated companions, went down in that fearful November storm, four short months ago, while application is made to the harbour-master for leave to enter the port of Balaclava. It does not appear the simplest favour in the world that we are applying for—licence to escape from the hazards of the Black Sea. But at last it comes, and we slowly wind [Pg 94]through a narrow channel, and emerge into a small landlocked basin, so filled with shipping that their masts bend in the breeze like a wintry forest. Whatever might have been the case at one time, there is order in Balaclava Harbour now, and the “Albatross,” with the aid of her boats, moves along to her appointed moorings.

Such a busy scene as that small harbour presented could be rarely met with elsewhere. Crowded with shipping, of every size and variety, from the noble English steamer to the smallest long-shore craft, while between them and the shore passed and repassed innumerable boats; men-of-war’s boats, trim and stern; merchant-ship’s boats, laden to the gunwales; Greek and Maltese boats, carrying their owners everywhere on their missions of sharp dealing and roguery. Coming from the quiet gloomy sea into this little nook of life and bustle the transition is very sudden and startling, and gives one enough to think about without desiring to go on shore this afternoon.

On the following morning, Mr. Day, apprised of my arrival, came on board the “Albatross,” and our plans were laid. I must leave the “Albatross,” of course, and, until we decide upon our future, I had better take up my quarters on board the “Medora,” which is hired by the Government, at a great cost, as an ammunition ship. The proposal was not a very agreeable one, but I have no choice left me. Our stores, too, had to be landed at once. Warehouses were unheard of in Balaclava, and we had to stack them upon the shore and protect them as well as we were able.

My first task, directly I had become settled on board the “Medora,” was to send word to my friends of my arrival in the Crimea, and solicit their aid. I gave a Greek idler [Pg 95]one pound to carry a letter to the camp of the 97th, while I sent another to Captain Peel, who was hard at work battering the defences of Sebastopol about the ears of the Russians, from the batteries of the Royal Naval Brigade. I addressed others to many of the medical men who had known me in other lands; nor did I neglect to send word to my kind patron, Sir John Campbell, then commanding a division: and my old friends answered my letters most kindly. As the various officers came down on duty or business to Balaclava they did not fail to find me out, and welcome me to the Crimea, while Captain Peel and Sir J. Campbell sent the kindest messages; and when they saw me, promised me every assistance, the General adding that he is glad to see me where there is so much to do. Among others, poor H. Vicars, whose kind face had so often lighted up my old house in Kingston, came to take me by the hand in this out-of-the-way corner of the world. I never felt so sure of the success of any step as I did of this, before I had been a week in Balaclava. But I had plenty of difficulties to contend with on every side.

Among the first, one of the ships, in which were many of our stores, the “Nonpareil,” was ordered out of the harbour before we could land them all, and there was more than a probability that she would carry back to Constantinople many of the things we had most pressing occasion for. It became necessary, therefore, that some one should see Admiral Boxer, and try to interest that mild-spoken and affable officer in our favour. When I mentioned it to Mr. Day, he did not seem inclined to undertake the mission, and nothing was left but for me to face the terrible Port-Admiral. Fortunately, Captain H——, of the “Diamond,” [Pg 96]was inclined to be my friend, and, not a little amused with his mission, carried me right off to the Admiral. I confess that I was as nearly frightened out of my wits as I ever have been, for the Admiral’s kind heart beat under a decidedly rough husk; and when Captain H—— told him that I wanted his permission for the “Nonpareil” to remain in the harbour for a few days, as there were stores on board, he let fly enough hard words to frighten any woman. But when I spoke up, and told him that I had known his son in the West Indies, he relented, and granted my petition. But it was not without more hard words, and much grumbling that a parcel of women should be coming out to a place where they were not wanted.

Now, the Admiral did not repeat this remark a few days afterwards, when he saw me attending the sick and wounded upon the sick wharf.

I remained six weeks in Balaclava, spending my days on shore, and my nights on board ship. Over our stores, stacked on the shore, a few sheets of rough tarpaulin were suspended; and beneath these—my sole protection against the Crimean rain and wind—I spent some portion of each day, receiving visitors and selling stores.

But my chief occupation, and one with which I never allowed any business to interfere, was helping the doctors to transfer the sick and wounded from the mules and ambulances into the transports that had to carry them to the hospitals of Scutari and Buyukdere. I did not forget the main object of my journey, to which I would have devoted myself exclusively had I been allowed; and very familiar did I become before long with the sick wharf of Balaclava. My acquaintance with it began very shortly [Pg 97]after I had reached Balaclava. The very first day that I approached the wharf, a party of sick and wounded had just arrived. Here was work for me, I felt sure. With so many patients, the doctors must be glad of all the hands they could get. Indeed, so strong was the old impulse within me, that I waited for no permission, but seeing a poor artilleryman stretched upon a pallet, groaning heavily, I ran up to him at once, and eased the stiff dressings. Lightly my practised fingers ran over the familiar work, and well was I rewarded when the poor fellow’s groans subsided into a restless uneasy mutter. God help him! He had been hit in the forehead, and I think his sight was gone. I stooped down, and raised some tea to his baked lips (here and there upon the wharf were rows of little pannikins containing this beverage). Then his hand touched mine, and rested there, and I heard him mutter indistinctly, as though the discovery had arrested his wandering senses—

“Ha! this is surely a woman’s hand.”

I couldn’t say much, but I tried to whisper something about hope and trust in God; but all the while I think his thoughts were running on this strange discovery. Perhaps I had brought to his poor mind memories of his home, and the loving ones there, who would ask no greater favour than the privilege of helping him thus; for he continued to hold my hand in his feeble grasp, and whisper “God bless you, woman—whoever you are, God bless you!”—over and over again.

I do not think that the surgeons noticed me at first, although, as this was my introduction to Balaclava, I had not neglected my personal appearance, and wore my [Pg 98]favourite yellow dress, and blue bonnet, with the red ribbons; but I noticed one coming to me, who, I think, would have laughed very merrily had it not been for the poor fellow at my feet. As it was, he came forward, and shook hands very kindly, saying, “How do you do, ma’am? Much obliged to you for looking after my poor fellow; very glad to see you here.” And glad they always were, the kind-hearted doctors, to let me help them look after the sick and wounded sufferers brought to that fearful wharf.

I wonder if I can ever forget the scenes I witnessed there? Oh! they were heartrending. I declare that I saw rough bearded men stand by and cry like the softest-hearted women at the sights of suffering they saw; while some who scorned comfort for themselves, would fidget about for hours before the long trains of mules and ambulances came in, nervous lest the most trifling thing that could minister to the sufferers’ comfort should be neglected. I have often heard men talk and preach very learnedly and conclusively about the great wickedness and selfishness of the human heart; I used to wonder whether they would have modified those opinions if they had been my companions for one day of the six weeks I spent upon that wharf, and seen but one day’s experience of the Christian sympathy and brotherly love shown by the strong to the weak. The task was a trying one, and familiarity, you might think, would have worn down their keener feelings of pity and sympathy; but it was not so.

I was in the midst of my sad work one day when the Admiral came up, and stood looking on. He vouchsafed no word nor look of recognition in answer to my salute, but stood silently by, his hands behind his back, watching [Pg 99]the sick being lifted into the boats. You might have thought that he had little feeling, so stern and expressionless was his face; but once, when they raised a sufferer somewhat awkwardly, and he groaned deeply, that rough man broke out all at once with an oath, that was strangely like a prayer, and bade the men, for God’s sake, take more care. And, coming up to me, he clapped me on the shoulder, saying, “I am glad to see you here, old lady, among these poor fellows;” while, I am most strangely deceived if I did not see a tear-drop gathering in his eye. It was on this same day, I think, that bending down over a poor fellow whose senses had quite gone, and, I fear me, would never return to him in this world, he took me for his wife, and calling me “Mary, Mary,” many times, asked me how it was he had got home so quickly, and why he did not see the children; and said he felt sure he should soon get better now. Poor fellow! I could not undeceive him. I think the fancy happily caused by the touch of a woman’s hand soothed his dying hour; for I do not fancy he could have lived to reach Scutari. I never knew it for certain, but I always felt sure that he would never wake from that dream of home in this world.

And here, lest the reader should consider that I am speaking too highly of my own actions, I must have recourse to a plan which I shall frequently adopt in the following pages, and let another voice speak for me in the kind letter received long after Balaclava had been left to its old masters, by one who had not forgotten his old companion on the sick-wharf. The writer, Major (then Captain) R——, had charge of the wharf while I was there.

[Pg 100]

“Glasgow, Sept. 1856.

Dear Mrs. Seacole,—I am very sorry to hear that you have been unfortunate in business; but I am glad to hear that you have found friends in Lord R—— and others, who are ready to help you. No one knows better than I do how much you did to help poor sick and wounded soldiers; and I feel sure you will find in your day of trouble that they have not forgotten it.”

Major R—— was a brave and experienced officer, but the scenes on the sick-wharf unmanned him often. I have known him nervously restless if the people were behindhand, even for a few minutes, in their preparations for the wounded. But in this feeling all shared alike. Only women could have done more than they did who attended to this melancholy duty; and they, not because their hearts could be softer, but because their hands are moulded for this work.

But it must not be supposed that we had no cheerful scenes upon the sick-wharf. Sometimes a light-hearted fellow—generally a sailor—would forget his pain, and do his best to keep the rest in good spirits. Once I heard my name eagerly pronounced, and turning round, recognised a sailor whom I remembered as one of the crew of the “Alarm,” stationed at Kingston, a few years back.

“Why, as I live, if this ain’t Aunty Seacole, of Jamaica! Shiver all that’s left of my poor timbers”—and I saw that the left leg was gone—“if this ain’t a rum go, mates!”

“Ah! my man, I’m sorry to see you in this sad plight.”

[Pg 101]“Never fear for me, Aunty Seacole; I’ll make the best of the leg the Rooshians have left me. I’ll get at them soon again, never fear. You don’t think, messmates”—he never left his wounded comrades alone—“that they’ll think less of us at home for coming back with a limb or so short?”

“You bear your troubles well, my son.”

“Eh! do I, Aunty?” and he seemed surprised. “Why, look’ye, when I’ve seen so many pretty fellows knocked off the ship’s roll altogether, don’t you think I ought to be thankful if I can answer the bo’swain’s call anyhow?”

And this was the sailors’ philosophy always. And this brave fellow, after he had sipped some lemonade, and laid down, when he heard the men groaning, raised his head and comforted them in the same strain again; and, it may seem strange, but it quieted them.

I used to make sponge-cakes on board the “Medora,” with eggs brought from Constantinople. Only the other day, Captain S——, who had charge of the “Medora,” reminded me of them. These, with some lemonade, were all the doctors would allow me to give to the wounded. They all liked the cake, poor fellows, better than anything else: perhaps because it tasted of “home.”


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Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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