I shall proceed in this chapter to make the reader acquainted with some of the customers of the British Hotel, who came there for its creature comforts as well as its hostess’s medicines when need was; and if he or she should be inclined to doubt or should hesitate at accepting my experience of Crimean life as entirely credible, I beg that individual to refer to the accounts which were given in the newspapers of the spring of 1855, and I feel sure they will acquit me of any intention to exaggerate. If I were to speak of all the nameless horrors of that spring as plainly as I could, I should really disgust you; but those I shall bring before your notice have all something of the humorous in them—and so it ever is. Time is a great restorer, and changes surely the greatest sorrow into a pleasing memory. The sun shines this spring-time upon green grass that covers the graves of the poor fellows we left behind sadly a few short months ago: bright flowers grow up upon ruins of batteries and crumbling trenches, and cover the sod that presses on many a mouldering token of the old time of battle and death. I dare say that, if I went to the Crimea now, I should see a smiling landscape, instead of the blood-stained scene which I shall ever associate with distress and death; and as it is with nature so it is with human kind. Whenever I meet those who have [Pg 136]survived that dreary spring of 1855, we seldom talk about its horrors; but remembering its transient gleams of sunshine, smile at the fun and good nature that varied its long and weary monotony. And now that I am anxious to remember all I can that will interest my readers, my memory prefers to dwell upon what was pleasing and amusing, although the time will never come when it will cease to retain most vividly the pathos and woe of those dreadful months.
I have said that the winter had not ended when we began operations at the British Hotel; and very often, after we considered we were fairly under spring’s influence, our old enemy would come back with an angry roar of wind and rain, levelling tents, unroofing huts, destroying roads, and handing over May to the command of General Fevrier. But the sun fought bravely for us, and in time always dispersed the leaden clouds and gilded the iron sky, and made us cheerful again. During the end of March, the whole of April, and a considerable portion of May, however, the army was but a little better off for the advent of spring. The military road to the camp was only in progress—the railway only carried ammunition. A few hours’ rain rendered the old road all but impassable, and scarcity often existed in the front before Sebastopol, although the frightened and anxious Commissariat toiled hard to avert such a mishap; so that very often to the British Hotel came officers starved out on the heights above us. The dandies of Rotten Row would come down riding on sorry nags, ready to carry back—their servants were on duty in the trenches—anything that would be available for dinner. A single glance at their personal appearance would suffice [Pg 137]to show the hardships of the life they were called upon to lead. Before I left London for the seat of war I had been more than once to the United Service Club, seeking to gain the interest of officers whom I had known in Jamaica; and I often thought afterwards of the difference between those I saw there trimly shaven, handsomely dressed, with spotless linen and dandy air, and these their companions, who in England would resemble them. Roughly, warmly dressed, with great fur caps, which met their beards and left nothing exposed but lips and nose, and not much of those; you would easily believe that soap and water were luxuries not readily obtainable, that shirts and socks were often comforts to dream about rather than possess, and that they were familiar with horrors you would shudder to hear named. Tell me, reader, can you fancy what the want of so simple a thing as a pocket-handkerchief is? To put a case—have you ever gone out for the day without one; sat in a draught and caught a sneezing cold in the head? You say the question is an unnecessarily unpleasant one, and yet what I am about to tell you is true, and the sufferer is, I believe, still alive.
An officer had ridden down one day to obtain refreshments (this was very early in the spring); some nice fowls had just been taken from the spit, and I offered one to him. Paper was one of the most hardly obtainable luxuries of the Crimea, and I rarely had any to waste upon my customers; so I called out, “Give me your pocket-handkerchief, my son, that I may wrap it up.” You see we could not be very particular out there; but he smiled very bitterly as he answered, “Pocket-handkerchief, mother—by Jove! I wish I had one. I tore my last shirt [Pg 138]into shreds a fortnight ago, and there’s not a bit of it left now.”
Shortly after, a hundred dozen of these useful articles came to my store, and I sold them all to officers and men very speedily.
For some time, and until I found the task beyond my strength, I kept up a capital table at the British Hotel; but at last I gave up doing so professedly, and my hungry customers had to make shift with whatever was on the premises. Fortunately they were not over-dainty, and had few antipathies. My duties increased so rapidly, that sometimes it was with difficulty that I found time to eat and sleep. Could I have obtained good servants, my daily labours would have been lightened greatly; but my staff never consisted of more than a few boys, two black cooks, some Turks—one of whom, Osman, had enough to do to kill and pluck the poultry, while the others looked after the stock and killed our goats and sheep—and as many runaway sailors or good-for-noughts in search of employment as we could from time to time lay our hands upon; but they never found my larder entirely empty. I often used to roast a score or so of fowls daily, besides boiling hams and tongues. Either these or a slice from a joint of beef or mutton you would be pretty sure of finding at your service in the larder of the British Hotel.
Would you like, gentle reader, to know what other things suggestive of home and its comforts your relatives and friends in the Crimea could obtain from the hostess of Spring Hill? I do not tell you that the following articles were all obtainable at the commencement, but many were. The time was indeed when, had you asked me for mock [Pg 139]turtle and venison, you should have had them, preserved in tins, but that was when the Crimea was flooded with plenty—too late, alas! to save many whom want had killed; but had you been doing your best to batter Sebastopol about the ears of the Russians in the spring and summer of the year before last, the firm of Seacole and Day would have been happy to have served you with (I omit ordinary things) linen and hosiery, saddlery, caps, boots and shoes, for the outer man; and for the inner man, meat and soups of every variety in tins (you can scarcely conceive how disgusted we all became at last with preserved provisions); salmon, lobsters, and oysters, also in tins, which last beaten up into fritters, with onions, butter, eggs, pepper, and salt, were very good; game, wild fowl, vegetables, also preserved, eggs, sardines, curry powder, cigars, tobacco, snuff, cigarette papers, tea, coffee, tooth powder, and currant jelly. When cargoes came in from Constantinople, we bought great supplies of potatoes, carrots, turnips, and greens. Ah! what a rush there used to be for the greens. You might sometimes get hot rolls; but, generally speaking, I bought the Turkish bread (ekmek), baked at Balaclava.
Or had you felt too ill to partake of your rough camp fare, coarsely cooked by a soldier cook, who, unlike the French, could turn his hand to few things but fighting, and had ridden down that muddy road to the Col, to see what Mother Seacole could give you for dinner, the chances were you would have found a good joint of mutton, not of the fattest, forsooth; for in such miserable condition were the poor beasts landed, that once, when there came an urgent order from head-quarters for twenty-five [Pg 140]pounds of mutton, we had to cut up one sheep and a half to provide the quantity; or you would have stumbled upon something curried, or upon a good Irish stew, nice and hot, with plenty of onions and potatoes, or upon some capital meat-pies. I found the preserved meats were better relished cooked in this fashion, and well doctored with stimulants. Before long I grew as familiar with the mysteries of seasoning as any London pieman, and could accommodate myself to the requirements of the seasons as readily. Or had there been nothing better, you might have gone further and fared on worse fare than one of my Welch rabbits, for the manufacture of which I became so famous. And had you been fortunate enough to have visited the British Hotel upon rice-pudding day, I warrant you would have ridden back to your hut with kind thoughts of Mother Seacole’s endeavours to give you a taste of home. If I had nothing else to be proud of, I think my rice puddings, made without milk, upon the high road to Sebastopol, would have gained me a reputation. What a shout there used to be when I came out of my little caboose, hot and flurried, and called out, “Rice-pudding day, my sons.” Some of them were baked in large shallow pans, for the men and the sick, who always said that it reminded them of home. You would scarcely expect to finish up your dinner with pastry, but very often you would have found a good stock of it in my larder. Whenever I had a few leisure moments, I used to wash my hands, roll up my sleeves and roll out pastry. Very often I was interrupted to dispense medicines; but if the tarts had a flavour of senna, or the puddings tasted of rhubarb, it never interfered with their consumption. [Pg 141]I declare I never heard or read of an army so partial to pastry as that British army before Sebastopol; while I had a reputation for my sponge-cakes that any pastry-cook in London, even Gunter, might have been proud of. The officers, full of fun and high spirits, used to crowd into the little kitchen, and, despite all my remonstrances, which were not always confined to words, for they made me frantic sometimes, and an iron spoon is a tempting weapon, would carry off the tarts hot from the oven, while the good-for-nothing black cooks, instead of lending me their aid, would stand by and laugh with all their teeth. And when the hot season commenced, the crowds that came to the British Hotel for my claret and cider cups, and other cooling summer drinks, were very complimentary in their expressions of appreciation of my skill.
Now, supposing that you had made a hearty dinner and were thinking of starting homeward—if I can use so pleasant a term in reference to your cheerless quarters—it was very natural that you should be anxious to carry back something to your hut. Perhaps you expected to be sent into the trenches (many a supper cooked by me has been consumed in those fearful trenches by brave men, who could eat it with keen appetites while the messengers of death were speeding around them); or perhaps you had planned a little dinner-party, and wanted to give your friends something better than their ordinary fare. Anyhow, you would in all probability have some good reason for returning laden with comforts and necessaries from Spring Hill. You would not be very particular about carrying them. You might have been a great swell at home, where you would have shuddered if Bond Street had seen [Pg 142]you carrying a parcel no larger than your card-case; but those considerations rarely troubled you here. Very likely, your servant was lying crouched in a rifle pit, having “pots” at the Russians, or keeping watch and ward in the long lines of trenches, or, stripped to his shirt, shovelling powder and shot into the great guns, whose steady roar broke the evening’s calm. So if you did not wait upon yourself, you would stand a very fair chance of being starved. But you would open your knapsack, if you had brought one, for me to fill it with potatoes, and halloo out, “Never mind, mother!” although the gravy from the fowls on your saddle before you was soaking through the little modicum of paper which was all I could afford you. So laden, you would cheerfully start up the hill of mud hutward; and well for you if you did not come to grief on that treacherous sea of mud that lay swelling between the Col and your destination. Many a mishap, ludicrous but for their consequences, happened on it. I remember a young officer coming down one day just in time to carry off my last fowl and meat pie. Before he had gone far, the horse so floundered in the mud that the saddle-girths broke, and while the pies rolled into the clayey soil in one direction, the fowl flew in another. To make matters worse, the horse, in his efforts to extricate himself, did for them entirely; and in terrible distress, the poor fellow came back for me to set him up again. I shook my head for a long time, but at last, after he had over and over again urged upon me pathetically that he had two fellows coming to dine with him at six, and nothing in the world in his hut but salt pork, I resigned a plump fowl which I had kept back for my own dinner. Off he started again, but [Pg 143]soon came back with, “Oh, mother, I forgot all about the potatoes; they’ve all rolled out upon that —— road; you must fill my bag again.” We all laughed heartily at him, but this state of things had been rather tragical.
Before I bring this chapter to a close, I should like, with the reader’s permission, to describe one day of my life in the Crimea. They were all pretty much alike, except when there was fighting upon a large scale going on, and duty called me to the field. I was generally up and busy by daybreak, sometimes earlier, for in the summer my bed had no attractions strong enough to bind me to it after four. There was plenty to do before the work of the day began. There was the poultry to pluck and prepare for cooking, which had been killed on the previous night; the joints to be cut up and got ready for the same purpose; the medicines to be mixed; the store to be swept and cleaned. Of very great importance, with all these things to see after, were the few hours of quiet before the road became alive with travellers. By seven o’clock the morning coffee would be ready, hot and refreshing, and eagerly sought for by the officers of the Army Works Corps engaged upon making the great high-road to the front, and the Commissariat and Land Transport men carrying stores from Balaclava to the heights. There was always a great demand for coffee by those who knew its refreshing and strengthening qualities, milk I could not give them (I kept it in tins for special use); but they had it hot and strong, with plenty of sugar and a slice of butter, which I recommend as a capital substitute for milk. From that time until nine, officers on duty in the neighbourhood, or passing by, would look in for breakfast, and about half-past [Pg 144]nine my sick patients began to show themselves. In the following hour they came thickly, and sometimes it was past twelve before I had got through this duty. They came with every variety of suffering and disease; the cases I most disliked were the frostbitten fingers and feet in the winter. That over, there was the hospital to visit across the way, which was sometimes overcrowded with patients. I was a good deal there, and as often as possible would take over books and papers, which I used to borrow for that purpose from my friends and the officers I knew. Once, a great packet of tracts was sent to me from Plymouth anonymously, and these I distributed in the same manner. By this time the day’s news had come from the front, and perhaps among the casualties over night there would be some one wounded or sick, who would be glad to see me ride up with the comforts he stood most in need of; and during the day, if any accident occurred in the neighbourhood or on the road near the British Hotel, the men generally brought the sufferer there, whence, if the hurt was serious, he would be transferred to the hospital of the Land Transport opposite. I used not always to stand upon too much ceremony when I heard of sick or wounded officers in the front. Sometimes their friends would ask me to go to them, though very often I waited for no hint, but took the chance of meeting with a kind reception. I used to think of their relatives at home, who would have given so much to possess my privilege; and more than one officer have I startled by appearing before him, and telling him abruptly that he must have a mother, wife, or sister at home whom he missed, and that he must therefore be glad of some woman to take their place.
[Pg 145]Until evening the store would be filled with customers wanting stores, dinners, and luncheons; loungers and idlers seeking conversation and amusement; and at eight o’clock the curtain descended on that day’s labour, and I could sit down and eat at leisure. It was no easy thing to clear the store, canteen, and yards; but we determined upon adhering to the rule that nothing should be sold after that hour, and succeeded. Any one who came after that time, came simply as a friend. There could be no necessity for any one, except on extraordinary occasions, when the rule could be relaxed, to purchase things after eight o’clock. And drunkenness or excess were discouraged at Spring Hill in every way; indeed, my few unpleasant scenes arose chiefly from my refusing to sell liquor where I saw it was wanted to be abused. I could appeal with a clear conscience to all who knew me there, to back my assertion that I neither permitted drunkenness among the men nor gambling among the officers. Whatever happened elsewhere, intoxication, cards, and dice were never to be seen, within the precincts of the British Hotel. My regulations were well known, and a kind-hearted officer of the Royals, who was much there, and who permitted me to use a familiarity towards him which I trust I never abused, undertook to be my Provost-marshal, but his duties were very light.
At first we kept our store open on Sunday from sheer necessity, but after a little while, when stores in abundance were established at Kadikoi and elsewhere, and the absolute necessity no longer existed, Sunday became a day of most grateful rest at Spring Hill. This step also met with opposition from the men; but again we were determined, and [Pg 146]again we triumphed. I am sure we needed rest. I have often wondered since how it was that I never fell ill or came home “on urgent private affairs.” I am afraid that I was not sufficiently thankful to the Providence which gave me strength to carry out the work I loved so well, and felt so happy in being engaged upon; but although I never had a week’s illness during my campaign, the labour, anxiety, and perhaps the few trials that followed it, have told upon me. I have never felt since that time the strong and hearty woman that I was when I braved with impunity the pestilence of Navy Bay and Cruces. It would kill me easily now.