Well, the great work was accomplished—Sebastopol was taken. The Russians had retired sullenly to their stronghold on the north side of the harbour, from which, every now and then, they sent a few vain shot and shell, which sent the amateurs in the streets of Sebastopol scampering, but gave the experienced no concern. In a few days the camp could find plenty to talk about in their novel position—and what then? What was to be done? More fighting? Another equally terrible and lengthy siege of the north? That was the business of a few at head-quarters and in council at home, between whom the electric wires flashed [Pg 178]many a message. In the meanwhile, the real workers applied themselves to plan amusements, and the same energy and activity which had made Sebastopol a heap of ruins and a well-filled cemetery—which had dug the miles of trenches, and held them when made against a desperate foe—which had manned the many guns, and worked them so well, set to work as eager to kill their present enemy, Time, as they had lately been to destroy their fled enemies, the Russians.

All who were before Sebastopol will long remember the beautiful autumn which succeeded to so eventful a summer, and ushered in so pleasantly the second winter of the campaign. It was appreciated as only those who earn the right to enjoyment can enjoy relaxation. The camp was full of visitors of every rank. They thronged the streets of Sebastopol, sketching its ruins and setting up photographic apparatus, in contemptuous indifference of the shot with which the Russians generally favoured every conspicuous group.

Pleasure was hunted keenly. Cricket matches, pic-nics, dinner parties, races, theatricals, all found their admirers. My restaurant was always full, and once more merry laughter was heard, and many a dinner party was held, beneath the iron roof of the British Hotel. Several were given in compliment to our allies, and many distinguished Frenchmen have tested my powers of cooking. You might have seen at one party some of their most famous officers. At once were present a Prince of the Imperial family of France, the Duc de Rouchefoucault, and a certain corporal in the French service, who was perhaps the best known man in the whole army, the Viscount Talon. They [Pg 179]expressed themselves highly gratified at the carte, and perhaps were not a little surprised as course after course made its appearance, and to soup and fish succeeded turkeys, saddle of mutton, fowls, ham, tongue, curry, pastry of many sorts, custards, jelly, blanc-mange, and olives. I took a peculiar pride in doing my best when they were present, for I knew a little of the secrets of the French commissariat. I wonder if the world will ever know more. I wonder if the system of secresy which has so long kept veiled the sufferings of the French army before Sebastopol will ever yield to truth. I used to guess something of those sufferings when I saw, even after the fall of Sebastopol, half-starved French soldiers prowling about my store, taking eagerly even what the Turks rejected as unfit for human food; and no one could accuse them of squeamishness. I cannot but believe that in some desks or bureaux lie notes or diaries which shall one day be given to the world; and when this happens, the terrible distresses of the English army will pall before the unheard-of sufferings of the French. It is true that they carried from Sebastopol the lion’s share of glory. My belief is that they deserved it, having borne by far a larger proportion of suffering.

There were few dinners at Spring Hill at which the guests did not show their appreciation of their hostess’s labour by drinking her health; and at the dinner I have above alluded to, the toast was responded to with such enthusiasm that I felt compelled to put my acknowledgments into the form of a little speech, which Talon interpreted to his countrymen. The French Prince was, after this occasion, several times at the British Hotel. He was there once [Pg 180]when some Americans were received by me with scarcely that cordiality which I have been told distinguished my reception of guests; and upon their leaving I told him—quite forgetting his own connection with America—of my prejudice against the Yankees. He heard me for a little while, and then he interrupted me.

“Tenez! Madame Seacole, I too am American a little.”

What a pity I was not born a countess! I am sure I should have made a capital courtier. Witness my impromptu answer:—

“I should never have guessed it, Prince.”—And he seemed amused.

With the theatricals directly I had nothing to do. Had I been a little younger the companies would very likely have been glad of me, for no one liked to sacrifice their beards to become Miss Julia or plain Mary Ann; and even the beardless subalterns had voices which no coaxing could soften down. But I lent them plenty of dresses; indeed, it was the only airing which a great many gay-coloured muslins had in the Crimea. How was I to know when I brought them what camp-life was? And in addition to this, I found it necessary to convert my kitchen into a temporary green-room, where, to the wonderment, and perhaps scandal, of the black cook, the ladies of the company of the 1st Royals were taught to manage their petticoats with becoming grace, and neither to show their awkward booted ankles, nor trip themselves up over their trains. It was a difficult task in many respects. Although I laced them in until they grew blue in the face, their waists were a disgrace to the sex; while—crinoline being unknown then—my struggles to give them becoming [Pg 181]embonpoint may be imagined. It was not until a year later that Punch thought of using a clothes-basket; and I would have given much for such a hint when I was dresser to the theatrical company of the 1st Royals. The hair was another difficulty. To be sure, there was plenty in the camp, only it was in the wrong place, and many an application was made to me for a set of curls. However, I am happy to say I am not become a customer of the wigmakers yet.

My recollections of hunting in the Crimea are confined to seeing troops of horsemen sweep by with shouts and yells after some wretched dog. Once I was very nearly frightened out of my wits—my first impression being that the Russians had carried into effect their old threat of driving us into the sea—by the startling appearance of a large body of horsemen tearing down the hill after, apparently, nothing. However I discovered in good time that, in default of vermin, they were chasing a brother officer with a paper bag.

My experience of Crimean races are perfect, for I was present, in the character of cantiniere, at all the more important meetings. Some of them took place before Christmas, and some after; but I shall exhaust the subject at once. I had no little difficulty to get the things on to the course; and in particular, after I had sat up the whole night making preparations for the December races, at the Monastery of St. George, I could not get my poor mules over the rough country, and found myself, in the middle of the day, some miles from the course. At last I gave it up as hopeless, and, dismounting, sat down by the roadside to consider how I could possibly dispose [Pg 182]of the piles of sandwiches, bread, cheese, pies, and tarts, which had been prepared for the hungry spectators. At last, some officers, who expected me long before, came to look after me, and by their aid we reached the course.

I was better off at the next meeting, for a kind-hearted Major of Artillery provided me with a small bell-tent that was very useful, and enabled me to keep my stores out of reach of the light-fingered gentry, who were as busy in the Crimea as at Epsom or Hampton Court. Over this tent waved the flag of the British Hotel, but, during the day, it was struck, for an accident happening to one Captain D——, he was brought to my tent insensible, where I quickly improvised a couch of some straw, covered with the Union Jack, and brought him round. I mention this trifle to show how ready of contrivance a little campaigning causes one to become. I had several patients in consequence of accidents at the races. Nor was I altogether free from accidents myself. On the occasion of the races by the Tchernaya, after the armistice, my cart, on turning a sudden bend in the steep track, upset, and the crates, containing plates and dishes, rolled over and over until their contents were completely broken up; so that I was reduced to hand about sandwiches, etc., on broken pieces of earthenware and scraps of paper. I saved some glasses, but not many, and some of the officers were obliged to drink out of stiff paper twisted into funnel-shaped glasses.

It was astonishing how well the managers of these Crimean races had contrived to imitate the old familiar scenes at home. You might well wonder where the racing saddles and boots, and silk caps and jackets had come from; but our connection with England was very different to what [Pg 183]it had been when I first came to the Crimea, and many a wife and sister’s fingers had been busy making the racing gear for the Crimea meetings. And in order that the course should still more closely resemble Ascot or Epsom, some soldiers blackened their faces and came out as Ethiopian serenaders admirably, although it would puzzle the most ingenious to guess where they got their wigs and banjoes from. I caught one of them behind my tent in the act of knocking off the neck of a bottle of champagne, and, paralysed by the wine’s hasty exit, the only excuse he offered was, that he wanted to know if the officers’ luxury was better than rum.

A few weeks before Christmas, happened that fearful explosion, in the French ammunition park, which destroyed so many lives. We had experienced nothing at all like it before. The earth beneath us, even at the distance of three miles, reeled and trembled with the shock; and so great was the force of the explosion, that a piece of stone was hurled with some violence against the door of the British Hotel. We all felt for the French very much, although I do not think that the armies agreed quite so well after the taking of the Malakhoff, and the unsuccessful assault upon the Redan, as they had done previously. I saw several instances of unpleasantness and collision, arising from allusions to sore points. One, in particular, occurred in my store.

The French, when they wanted—it was very seldom—to wound the pride of the English soldiery, used to say significantly, in that jargon by which the various nations in the Crimea endeavoured to obviate the consequences of what occurred at the Tower of Babel, some time ago, [Pg 184]“Malakhoff bono—Redan no bono.” And this, of course, usually led to recriminatory statements, and history was ransacked to find something consolatory to English pride. Once I noticed a brawny man, of the Army Works Corps, bringing a small French Zouave to my canteen, evidently with the view of standing treat. The Frenchman seemed mischievously inclined, and, probably relying upon the good humour on the countenance of his gigantic companion, began a little playful badinage, ending with the taunt of “Redan, no bono—Redan, no bono.” I never saw any man look so helplessly angry as the Englishman did. For a few minutes he seemed absolutely rooted to the ground. Of course he could have crushed his mocking friend with ease, but how could he answer his taunt. All at once, however, a happy thought struck him, and rushing up to the Zouave, he caught him round the waist and threw him down, roaring out, “Waterloo was bono—Waterloo was bono.” It was as much as the people on the premises could do to part them, so convulsed were we all with laughter.

And before Christmas, occurred my first and last attack of illness in the Crimea. It was not of much consequence, nor should I mention it but to show the kindness of my soldier-friends. I think it arose from the sudden commencement of winter, for which I was but poorly provided. However, I soon received much sympathy and many presents of warm clothing, etc.; but the most delicate piece of attention was shown me by one of the Sappers and Miners, who, hearing the report that I was dead, positively came down to Spring Hill to take my measure for a coffin. This may seem a questionable compliment, but I really felt flattered and touched with such a mark of thoughtful [Pg 185]attention. Very few in the Crimea had the luxury of any better coffin than a blanket-shroud, and it was very good of the grateful fellow to determine that his old friend, the mistress of Spring Hill, should have an honour conceded to so very few of the illustrious dead before Sebastopol.

So Christmas came, and with it pleasant memories of home and of home comforts. With it came also news of home—some not of the most pleasant description—and kind wishes from absent friends. “A merry Christmas to you,” writes one, “and many of them. Although you will not write to us, we see your name frequently in the newspapers, from which we judge that you are strong and hearty. All your old Jamaica friends are delighted to hear of you, and say that you are an honour to the Isle of Springs.”

I wonder if the people of other countries are as fond of carrying with them everywhere their home habits as the English. I think not. I think there was something purely and essentially English in the determination of the camp to spend the Christmas-day of 1855 after the good old “home” fashion. It showed itself weeks before the eventful day. In the dinner parties which were got up—in the orders sent to England—in the supplies which came out, and in the many applications made to the hostess of the British Hotel for plum-puddings and mince-pies. The demand for them, and the material necessary to manufacture them, was marvellous. I can fancy that if returns could be got at of the flour, plums, currants, and eggs consumed on Christmas-day in the out-of-the-way Crimean peninsula, they would astonish us. One determination appeared to have taken possession of every mind—to spend [Pg 186]the festive day with the mirth and jollity which the changed prospect of affairs warranted; and the recollection of a year ago, when death and misery were the camp’s chief guests, only served to heighten this resolve.

For three weeks previous to Christmas-day, my time was fully occupied in making preparations for it. Pages of my books are filled with orders for plum-puddings and mince-pies, besides which I sold an immense quantity of raw material to those who were too far off to send down for the manufactured article on Christmas-day, and to such purchasers I gave a plain recipe for their guidance. Will the reader take any interest in my Crimean Christmas-pudding? It was plain, but decidedly good. However, you shall judge for yourself:—“One pound of flour, three-quarters of a pound of raisins, three-quarters of a pound of fat pork, chopped fine, two tablespoonfuls of sugar, a little cinnamon or chopped lemon, half-pint of milk or water; mix these well together, and boil four hours.”

From an early hour in the morning until long after the night had set in, were I and my cooks busy endeavouring to supply the great demand for Christmas fare. We had considerable difficulty in keeping our engagements, but by substituting mince-pies for plum-puddings, in a few cases, we succeeded. The scene in the crowded store, and even in the little over-heated kitchen, with the officers’ servants, who came in for their masters’ dinners, cannot well be described. Some were impatient themselves, others dreaded their masters’ impatience as the appointed dinner hour passed by—all combined by entreaties, threats, cajolery, and fun to drive me distracted. Angry cries for the major’s [Pg 187]plum-pudding, which was to have been ready an hour ago, alternated with an entreaty that I should cook the captain’s mince-pies to a turn—“Sure, he likes them well done, ma’am. Bake ’em as brown as your own purty face, darlint.”

I did not get my dinner until eight o’clock, and then I dined in peace off a fine wild turkey or bustard, shot for me on the marshes by the Tchernaya. It weighed twenty-two pounds, and, although somewhat coarse in colour, had a capital flavour.

Upon New Year’s-day I had another large cooking of plum-puddings and mince-pies; this time upon my own account. I took them to the hospital of the Land Transport Corps, to remind the patients of the home comforts they longed so much for. It was a sad sight to see the once fine fellows, in their blue gowns, lying quiet and still, and reduced to such a level of weakness and helplessness. They all seemed glad for the little home tokens I took them.

There was one patient who had been a most industrious and honest fellow, and who did not go into the hospital until long and wearing illness compelled him. I was particularly anxious to look after him, but I found him very weak and ill. I stayed with him until evening, and before I left him, kind fancy had brought to his bedside his wife and children from his village-home in England, and I could hear him talking to them in a low and joyful tone. Poor, poor fellow! the New Year so full of hope and happiness had dawned upon him, but he did not live to see the wild flowers spring up peacefully through the war-trodden sod before Sebastopol.


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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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