The three weeks following the battle of the Tchernaya were, I should think, some of the busiest and most eventful [Pg 168]the world has ever seen. There was little doing at Spring Hill. Every one was either at his post, or too anxiously awaiting the issue of the last great bombardment to spend much time at the British Hotel. I think that I lost more of my patients and customers during those few weeks than during the whole previous progress of the siege. Scarce a night passed that I was not lulled to sleep with the heavy continuous roar of the artillery; scarce a morning dawned that the same sound did not usher in my day’s work. The ear grew so accustomed during those weeks to the terrible roar, that when Sebastopol fell the sudden quiet seemed unnatural, and made us dull. And during the whole of this time the most perplexing rumours flew about, some having reference to the day of assault, the majority relative to the last great effort which it was supposed the Russians would make to drive us into the sea. I confess these latter rumours now and then caused me temporary uneasiness, Spring Hill being on the direct line of route which the actors in such a tragedy must take.
I spent much of my time on Cathcart’s Hill, watching, with a curiosity and excitement which became intense, the progress of the terrible bombardment. Now and then a shell would fall among the crowd of on-lookers which covered the hill; but it never disturbed us, so keen and feverish and so deadened to danger had the excitement and expectation made us.
In the midst of the bombardment took place the important ceremony of distributing the Order of the Bath to those selected for that honour. I contrived to witness this ceremony very pleasantly; and although it cost me a day, I considered that I had fairly earned the pleasure. I was [Pg 169]anxious to have some personal share in the affair, so I made, and forwarded to head-quarters, a cake which Gunter might have been at some loss to manufacture with the materials at my command, and which I adorned gaily with banners, flags, etc. I received great kindness from the officials at the ceremony, and from the officers—some of rank—who recognised me; indeed, I held quite a little levée around my chair.
Well, a few days after this ceremony, I thought the end of the world, instead of the war, was at hand, when every battery opened and poured a perfect hail of shot and shell upon the beautiful city which I had left the night before sleeping so calm and peaceful beneath the stars. The firing began at early dawn, and was fearful. Sleep was impossible; so I arose, and set out for my old station on Cathcart’s Hill. And here, with refreshments for the anxious lookers-on, I spent most of my time, right glad of any excuse to witness the last scene of the siege. It was from this spot that I saw fire after fire break out in Sebastopol, and watched all night the beautiful yet terrible effect of a great ship blazing in the harbour, and lighting up the adjoining country for miles.
The weather changed, as it often did in the Crimea, most capriciously; and the morning of the memorable 8th of September broke cold and wintry. The same little bird which had let me into so many secrets, also gave me a hint of what this day was pregnant with; and very early in the morning I was on horseback, with my bandages and refreshments, ready to repeat the work of the 18th of June last. A line of sentries forbade all strangers passing through without orders, even to Cathcart’s Hill; but [Pg 170]once more I found that my reputation served as a permit, and the officers relaxed the rule in my favour everywhere. So, early in the day, I was in my old spot, with my old appliances for the wounded and fatigued; little expecting, however, that this day would so closely resemble the day of the last attack in its disastrous results.
It was noon before the cannonading suddenly ceased; and we saw, with a strange feeling of excitement, the French tumble out of their advanced trenches, and roll into the Malakhoff like a human flood. Onward they seemed to go into the dust and smoke, swallowed up by hundreds; but they never returned, and before long we saw workmen levelling parapets and filling up ditches, over which they drove, with headlong speed and impetuosity, artillery and ammunition-waggons, until there could be no doubt that the Malakhoff was taken, although the tide of battle still surged around it with violence, and wounded men were borne from it in large numbers. And before this, our men had made their attack, and the fearful assault of the Redan was going on, and failing. But I was soon too busy to see much, for the wounded were borne in even in greater numbers than at the last assault; whilst stragglers, slightly hurt, limped in, in fast-increasing numbers, and engrossed our attention. I now and then found time to ask them rapid questions; but they did not appear to know anything more than that everything had gone wrong. The sailors, as before, showed their gallantry, and even recklessness, conspicuously. The wounded of the ladder and sandbag parties came up even with a laugh, and joked about their hurts in the happiest conceivable manner.
I saw many officers of the 97th wounded; and, as far [Pg 171]as possible, I reserved my attentions for my old regiment, known so well in my native island. My poor 97th! their loss was terrible. I dressed the wound of one of its officers, seriously hit in the mouth; I attended to another wounded in the throat, and bandaged the hand of a third, terribly crushed by a rifle-bullet. In the midst of this we were often interrupted by those unwelcome and impartial Russian visitors—the shells. One fell so near that I thought my last hour was come; and, although I had sufficient firmness to throw myself upon the ground, I was so seriously frightened that I never thought of rising from my recumbent position until the hearty laugh of those around convinced me that the danger had passed by. Afterwards I picked up a piece of this huge shell, and brought it home with me.
It was on this, as on every similar occasion, that I saw the Times correspondent eagerly taking down notes and sketches of the scene, under fire—listening apparently with attention to all the busy little crowd that surrounded him, but without laying down his pencil; and yet finding time, even in his busiest moment, to lend a helping hand to the wounded. It may have been on this occasion that his keen eye noticed me, and his mind, albeit engrossed with far more important memories, found room to remember me. I may well be proud of his testimony, borne so generously only the other day, and may well be excused for transcribing it from the columns of the Times:—“I have seen her go down, under fire, with her little store of creature comforts for our wounded men; and a more tender or skilful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons. I saw her at the [Pg 172]assault on the Redan, at the Tchernaya, at the fall of Sebastopol, laden, not with plunder, good old soul! but with wine, bandages, and food for the wounded or the prisoners.”
I remained on Cathcart’s Hill far into the night, and watched the city blazing beneath us, awe-struck at the terrible sight, until the bitter wind found its way through my thin clothing, and chilled me to the bone; and not till then did I leave for Spring Hill. I had little sleep that night. The night was made a ruddy lurid day with the glare of the blazing town; while every now and then came reports which shook the earth to its centre. And yet I believe very many of the soldiers, wearied with their day’s labour, slept soundly throughout that terrible night, and awoke to find their work completed: for in the night, covered by the burning city, Sebastopol was left, a heap of ruins, to its victors; and before noon on the following day, none but dead and dying Russians were in the south side of the once famous and beautiful mistress-city of the Euxine.
The good news soon spread through the camp. It gave great pleasure; but I almost think the soldiers would have been better pleased had the Russians delayed their parting twelve hours longer, and given the Highlanders and their comrades a chance of retrieving the disasters of the previous day. Nothing else could wipe away the soreness of defeat, or compensate for the better fortune which had befallen our allies the French.
The news of the evacuation of Sebastopol soon carried away all traces of yesterday’s fatigue. For weeks past I had been offering bets to every one that I would not only [Pg 173]be the first woman to enter Sebastopol from the English lines, but that I would be the first to carry refreshments into the fallen city. And now the time I had longed for had come. I borrowed some mules from the Land Transport Corps—mine were knocked up by yesterday’s work—and loading them with good things, started off with my partner and some other friends early on that memorable Sunday morning for Cathcart’s Hill.
When I found that strict orders had been given to admit no one inside Sebastopol, I became quite excited; and making my way to General Garrett’s quarters, I made such an earnest representation of what I considered my right that I soon obtained a pass, of which the following is a copy:—
“Pass Mrs. Seacole and her attendants, with refreshments for officers and soldiers in the Redan and in Sebastopol.
“Cathcart’s Hill, Sept. 9, 1855.”
So many attached themselves to my staff, becoming for the nonce my attendants, that I had some difficulty at starting; but at last I passed all the sentries safely, much to the annoyance of many officers, who were trying every conceivable scheme to evade them, and entered the city. I can give you no very clear description of its condition on that Sunday morning, a year and a half ago. Many parts of it were still blazing furiously—explosions were taking place in all directions—every step had a score of dangers; and yet curiosity and excitement carried us on and on. I was often stopped to give refreshments to officers and men, who [Pg 174]had been fasting for hours. Some, on the other hand, had found their way to Russian cellars; and one body of men were most ingloriously drunk, and playing the wildest pranks. They were dancing, yelling, and singing—some of them with Russian women’s dresses fastened round their waists, and old bonnets stuck upon their heads.
I was offered many trophies. All plunder was stopped by the sentries, and confiscated, so that the soldiers could afford to be liberal. By one I was offered a great velvet sofa; another pressed a huge arm-chair, which had graced some Sebastopol study, upon me; while a third begged my acceptance of a portion of a grand piano. What I did carry away was very unimportant: a gaily-decorated altar-candle, studded with gold and silver stars, which the present Commander-in-Chief condescended to accept as a Sebastopol memorial; an old cracked China teapot, which in happier times had very likely dispensed pleasure to many a small tea-party; a cracked bell, which had rung many to prayers during the siege, and which I bore away on my saddle; and a parasol, given me by a drunken soldier. He had a silk skirt on, and torn lace upon his wrists, and he came mincingly up, holding the parasol above his head, and imitating the walk of an affected lady, to the vociferous delight of his comrades. And all this, and much more, in that fearful charnel city, with death and suffering on every side.
It was very hazardous to pass along some of the streets exposed to the fire of the Russians on the north side of the harbour. We had to wait and watch our opportunity, and then gallop for it. Some of us had close shaves of being hit. More than this, fires still kept breaking out around; [Pg 175]while mines and fougasses not unfrequently exploded from unknown causes. We saw two officers emerge from a heap of ruins, covered and almost blinded with smoke and dust, from some such unlooked-for explosion. With considerable difficulty we succeeded in getting into the quarter of the town held by the French, where I was nearly getting into serious trouble.
I had loitered somewhat behind my party, watching, with pardonable curiosity, the adroitness with which a party of French were plundering a house; and by the time my curiosity had been satisfied, I found myself quite alone, my retinue having preceded me by some few hundred yards. This would have been of little consequence, had not an American sailor lad, actuated either by mischief or folly, whispered to the Frenchmen that I was a Russian spy; and had they not, instead of laughing at him, credited his assertion, and proceeded to arrest me. Now, such a charge was enough to make a lion of a lamb; so I refused positively to dismount, and made matters worse by knocking in the cap of the first soldier who laid hands upon me, with the bell that hung at my saddle. Upon this, six or seven tried to force me to the guard-house in rather a rough manner, while I resisted with all my force, screaming out for Mr. Day, and using the bell for a weapon. How I longed for a better one I need not tell the reader. In the midst of this scene came up a French officer, whom I recognised as the patient I had taken to Spring Hill after the battle of the Tchernaya, and who took my part at once, and ordered them to release me. Although I rather weakened my cause, it was most natural that, directly I was released, I should fly at the varlet who had caused me [Pg 176]this trouble; and I did so, using my bell most effectually, and aided, when my party returned, by their riding-whips.
This little adventure took up altogether so much time that, when the French soldiers had made their apologies to me, and I had returned the compliment to the one whose head had been dented by my bell, it was growing late, and we made our way back to Cathcart’s Hill. On the way, a little French soldier begged hard of me to buy a picture, which had been cut from above the altar of some church in Sebastopol. It was too dark to see much of his prize, but I ultimately became its possessor, and brought it home with me. It is some eight or ten feet in length, and represents, I should think, the Madonna. I am no judge of such things, but I think, although the painting is rather coarse, that the face of the Virgin, and the heads of Cherubim that fill the cloud from which she is descending, are soft and beautiful. There is a look of divine calmness and heavenly love in the Madonna’s face which is very striking; and, perhaps, during the long and awful siege many a knee was bent in worship before it, and many a heart found comfort in its soft loving gaze.
On the following day I again entered Sebastopol, and saw still more of its horrors. But I have refrained from describing so many scenes of woe, that I am loth to dwell much on these. The very recollection of that woeful hospital, where thousands of dead and dying had been left by the retreating Russians, is enough to unnerve the strongest and sicken the most experienced. I would give much if I had never seen that harrowing sight. I believe some Englishmen were found in it alive; but it was as [Pg 177]well that they did not live to tell their fearful experience.
I made my way into the Redan also, although every step was dangerous, and took from it some brown bread, which seemed to have been left in the oven by the baker when he fled.
Before many days were passed, some Frenchwomen opened houses in Sebastopol; but in that quarter of the town held by the English the prospect was not sufficiently tempting for me to follow their example, and so I saw out the remainder of the campaign from my old quarters at Spring Hill.