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Mrs. Hannah Smith, Nurse by Sargent Kayme


The red eye of the lighthouse on Corregidor Island blazed out through the darkness as a Pacific steamer felt her way cautiously into Manila harbour.

Although it was nearly midnight, a woman—one of the passengers on the steamer—was still on deck, and standing well up toward the bow of the boat was peering into the darkness before her as if she could not wait to see the strange new land to which she was coming. Surely it would be a strange land to her, who, until a few weeks before had scarcely in all her life been outside of the New England town in which she had been born.

People who had seen her on the steamer had wondered sometimes that a woman of her age—for she was not young—should have chosen to go to the Philippine Islands as a nurse, as she told them she was going. Sometimes, at first, they smiled at some of her questions, but any who happened to be ill on the voyage, or in trouble, forgot to do that, for in the touch of her hand and in her words there was shown a skill and a nobleness of nature which won respect.

The colonel of a regiment stationed near Manila was sitting in his headquarters. An orderly came to the door and saluted.

“A woman to see you, sir,” he said.

“A woman? What kind of a woman?”

“A white woman, sir. Looks about fifty years old. Talks American. Says she has only just come here. Says her name is Smith.”

“Show her in.”

The man went out. In a few minutes he came back again, and with him the woman that had stayed out on the deck of the Pacific steamer when the boat came past the light of Corregidor.

The Colonel gave his visitor a seat. “What can I do for you?” he said.

“Can I speak to you alone?”

“We are alone now.”

“Can’t that man out there hear?” motioning toward a soldier pacing back and forth before the door.

“No,” said the officer. “We are quite alone.”

The woman unfolded a sheet of paper which she had been holding, and looked at it a moment. Then she looked at the officer. “I want to see Heber Smith, of Company F, of your regiment,” she said. “Can you tell me where he is?”

In spite of himself—in spite of the self possession which he would have said his campaigning experience had given him, the Colonel started.

“Are you his—?” he began to say. But he changed the question to, “Was he a relative of yours?”

“I am his mother,” the woman said, as if she had completed the officer’s first question in her mind and answered it.

“I have a letter from him, here,” she went on. “The last one I have had. It is dated three months ago. It is not very long.” She held up a half sheet of paper, written over on one side with a lead pencil; but she did not offer to let the officer read what was written.

“He tells me in this letter,” the woman said, “that he has disgraced himself, been a coward, run away from some danger which he ought to have faced; and that he can’t stand the shame of it.” “He says,” the woman’s voice faltered for the first time, and instead of looking the Colonel in the face, as she had been doing, her eyes were fixed on the floor—“he says that he isn’t going to try to stay here any longer, and that he is going over to the enemy. Is this true? Did he do that?”

“Yes,” said the officer slowly. “It is true.”

“He says here,” the woman went on, holding up the letter again, “that I shall never hear from him again, or see him. I want you to help me to find him.”

“I would be glad to help you if I could,” the man said, “but I cannot. No one knows where the man went to, except that he disappeared from the camp and from the city. Besides I have not the right. He was a coward, and now he is a deserter. If he came back now he would have to stand trial, and he might be shot.”

“He is not a coward.” The woman’s cheeks flamed red. “Some men shut their eyes and cringe when there comes a flash of lightning. But that don’t make them cowards. He might have been frightened at the time, and not known what he was doing, but he is not a coward. I guess I know that as well as anybody can tell me. He is my boy—my only child. I’ve come out here to find him, and I’m going to do it. I don’t expect I’ll find him quick or easy, perhaps. I’ve let out our farm for a year, with the privilege of renewing the trade when the year is up; and I’m going to stay as long as need be. I’m not going to sit still and hold my hands while I’m waiting, either. I’m going to be a nurse. I know how to take care of the sick and maimed all right, and I guess from what I hear since I’ve been here you need all the help of that kind you can get. All I want of you is to get me a chance to work nursing just as close to the front as I can go, and then do all you can to help me find out where Heber is, and then let me have as many as you can of these heathen prisoners the men bring in here to take care of, so I can ask them if they have seen Heber. My boy isn’t a coward, and if he has got scared and run away, he’s got to come back and face the music. Thank goodness none of the folks at home know anything about it, and they won’t if I can help it.”

The woman folded the letter, and putting it back into its envelope sat waiting. It was evident that she did not conceive of the possibility even of her request not being granted.

The officer hesitated.

“You will have to see the General, Mrs. Smith,” he said at last, glad that it need not be his duty to tell her how hopeless her errand was. “I will arrange for you to see him. I will take you to him myself. I wish I could do more to help you.”

“How soon can I see him?”

“Tomorrow, I think. I will find out and let you know.”

“Thank you,” said the woman, as she rose to go. “I don’t want to lose any time. I want to get right to work.”

The next day the young soldier’s mother saw the General and told her story to him. In the mean time, apprised by the Colonel of the regiment of the woman’s errand, the General had had a report of the case brought to him. Heber Smith had been sent out with a small scouting party. They had been ambushed, and instead of trying to fight, he had left the men and had run back to cover.

“But that don’t necessarily make him a coward,” the young man’s mother pleaded with the General. “A coward is a man who plans to run away. He lost his head that time. Wasn’t that the first time he had been put in such a place?”

The officer admitted that it was.

“Well, then he can live it down. He has got to, for the sake of his father’s reputation as well as his own. His father was a soldier, too,” she said proudly. “He was in the Union army four years, and had a medal given to him for bravery, and every spring since he died the members of his Grand Army Post have decorated his grave. When Heber comes to think of that, I know he will come back.”

The General was not an old man;—that is he was not so old but that, back in her prairie home in a western state, there was a mother to whom he wrote letters, a mother whom he knew to value above his life itself his reputation. The thought of her came to him now.

“I will do what I can, Mrs. Smith” he said, “to help you find your boy. I fear I cannot give you any hope, though, and if he should be found I cannot promise you anything as to his future.”

“Thank you,” said the woman. “That is all I can ask.”

And so it came about that Mrs. Hannah Smith was enrolled as a nurse, and assigned to duty as near the front in the island of Luzon as any nurse could go.

Six months passed, and then another six came near to their end. Mrs. Smith renewed the lease of the farm back among the New England hills for another year, and wrote to a neighbor’s wife to see that her woolen clothes and furs were aired and then packed away with a fresh supply of camphor to keep the moths out of them.

In this year’s time Mrs. Smith had picked up a wonderful smattering of the Spanish and Tagalog languages for a woman who had lived the life she had before she came to the East. The reason for this, so her companions said, was her being “just possessed to talk with those native prisoners who are brought wounded to the hospital.” The other nurses liked her. She not only was willing to take the cases they liked least—the natives—but asked for them.

And sometime in the course of their hospital experience, all Mrs. Smith’s native patients—if they did not die before they got able to talk coherently—had to go through the same catechism:

Was there a white man among the people from whom they had come; a white man who had come there from the American army?

Was he a tall young man with light hair and a smooth face?

Did he have a three-cornered white scar on one side of his chin, where a steer had hooked him when he was a boy?

Did he look like this picture? (A photograph was shown the patient)

From no one, though, did she get the answer that her heart craved. Some of the prisoners knew white men that had come among the Tagalog natives, but no one knew a man who answered to this description.

One day a native prisoner who had been brought in more than a week before, terribly wounded, opened his eyes to consciousness for the first time, after days and nights of stupor. He was one of these who naturally fell, now, to “Mrs. Smith’s lot,” as the surgeons called them. As soon as the nurse’s watchful eyes saw the change in the man she came to him and bent over his cot.

“Water, please,” he murmured

The woman brought the water, her two natures struggling to decide what she should do after she had given it to him. As nurse, she knew the man ought not to be allowed to talk then. As mother, she was impatient to ask him where he had learned to speak English, and to inquire if he knew her boy.

The nurse conquered. The patient drank the water and was allowed to go to sleep again undisturbed.

In time, though, he was stronger, and then, one day, the mother’s questions were asked for the hundredth time; and the last.

Yes, the prisoner patient knew just such a man. He had come among the people of the tribe many months ago. He was a tall, fair young man, and he had such a scar as the “señora,” described. He was a fine young man. Once, when this man’s father had been sick, the white man had doctored him and made him well. It was this white man, the patient said, who had taught him the little English that he knew.

“Yes,” when he saw the photograph of Heber Smith, “that is the man. He has a picture, too,” the patient said, “two pictures, little ones, set in a little gold box which hangs on his watch chain.”

The hospital nurse unclasped a big cameo breast pin from the throat of her gown and held it down so that the man in bed could see a daguerreotype set in the back of the pin.

“Was one of the pictures like that?” she asked.

The Tagalog looked at the picture, a likeness of a middle-aged man wearing the coat and hat of the Grand Army of the Republic. In the picture a medal pinned on to the breast of the man’s coat showed.

“Yes,” said he, “one of the pictures is like that.”

Then he looked up curiously at the woman sitting beside his bed. “The other picture is that of a woman,” he went on, “and—yes—” still studying her face, “I think it must be you. Only,” he added, “it doesn’t look very much like you.”

“No,” said the woman, with a grim smile, “it doesn’t. It was taken a good many years ago, when I was younger than I am now, and when I hadn’t been baked for a year in this heathen climate. It’s me, though.”

In time, Juan, that was the man’s name, was so far recovered of his wound that he was to be discharged from the hospital and placed with the other able-bodied prisoners. The hospital at that time occupied an old convent. The day before Juan was to be discharged, Mrs. Smith managed her cases so that for a time no one else was left in one of the rooms with her but this man.

“Juan,” she said, when she was sure they were alone, and that no one was anywhere within hearing, “do you feel that I have done anything to help you to get well?”

The man reached down, and taking one of the nurse’s hands in his own bent over and kissed it.

Señora,” he said, “I owe my life to you.”

“Will you do something for me, then? Something which I want done more than anything else in the world?”

“My life is the señora’s. I would that I had ten lives to give her.”

The woman pulled a letter from out the folds of her nurse’s dress. The envelope was not sealed, and before she fastened it she took the letter which was in it out and read it over for one last time. Then, pulling from her waist a little red, white and blue badge pin—one of those patriotic emblems which so many people wear at times—she dropped this into the letter, sealed the envelope, and handed it to the Tagalog. The envelope bore no address.

“I hav’n’t put the name of the place on it you said you came from,” she told the man, “because goodness only knows how it is spelled; I don’t. Besides that, it isn’t necessary. You know the place, and you know the man; the man who has got my picture and his father’s in a gold locket on his watch chain. I want you to give this letter into his own hands. I expect it will be rather a ticklish job for you to get away from here and get through the lines, but I guess you can do it if you try. Other men have. Don’t start until you are well enough so you will have strength to make the whole trip.”

A week or so after that, one of the surgeons making his daily visit reported that Juan had made his escape the previous night, and up to that time had not been brought back.

“What a shame!” said one of the other nurses. “After all the care you gave that man, Mrs. Smith. It does seem as if he might have had a little more gratitude.”

Mrs. Smith said nothing aloud. But to herself, when she was alone, she said: “Well, I suppose some folks would say that I wasn’t acting right, but I guess I’ve saved the lives of enough of those men since I’ve been here so that I’m entitled to one of them if I want him.”

Then she went on with her work, and waited; and the waiting was harder than the work.

An American expedition was slowly toiling across the island of Luzon to locate and occupy a post in the north. Four companies of men marched in advance, with a guard in the rear. Between them were the mule teams with the camp luggage and the ever present hospital corps. No trace of the enemy had been seen in that part of the island for weeks. Scouts who had gone on in advance had reported the way to be clear, and the force was being hurried up to get through a ravine which it was approaching, so it could go into camp for the night on high, level ground just beyond the valley.

Suddenly a man’s voice rang out upon the hot air; an English, speaking voice, strong and clear, and coming, so it seemed at first to the troops when they heard it, from the air above them:

“Halt! Halt!” the voice cried.

“Go back! There is an ambush on both sides! Save yourselves! Be—”

The warning was unfinished. Those of the Americans who had located the sound of the words and had looked in the direction from which they came, had seen a white man standing on the rocky side of the ravine above them and in front of them. They had seen him throw up his arms and fall backward out of sight, leaving his last sentence unfinished. Then there had come the report of a gun, and then an attack, with scores of shouting Tagalogs swarming down the sides of the ravine.

The skirmish was over, though, almost as soon as it had begun, and with little harm to any of the Americans except to such of the scouts as had been cut off in advance. The warning had come in time—had come before the advancing column had marched between the forces hidden on both sides of the ravine. The Tagalogs could not face the fire with which the Americans met them. They fled up the ravine, and up both sides of the gorge, into the shelter of the forest, and were gone. The Americans, satisfied at length that the way was clear, moved forward and went into camp on the ground which had previously been chosen, throwing out advance lines of pickets, and taking extra precautions to be prepared against a night attack.

Early in the evening shots were heard on the outer picket line, and a little later two men came to the commanding officers tent bringing with them a native.

“He was trying to come through our lines and get into the camp, sir,” they reported. “Two men fired at him, but missed him.”

“Think he’s a spy?” the commander asked of another officer who was with him.

“No, Señor, I am not a spy,” the prisoner said, surprising all the men by speaking in English. I have left my people, I want to be sent to Manila, to the American camp there.”

“He’s a deserter,” said one of the officers. Then to the men who held the prisoner, “Better search him.”

From out the prisoner’s blouse one of the soldiers brought a paper, a sheet torn from a note book, folded, and fastened only by a red, white and blue badge pin stuck through the paper.

The officer to whom the soldier had handed the paper pulled out the pin which had kept it folded, and started to open it, when he saw there was something written on the side through which the pin had been thrust. Bending down to where the camp light fell upon the writing, he saw that it was an address, scrawled in lead pencil:

“Mrs. Hannah Smith; Nurse.”

“Do you know the woman to whom this letter is sent? he asked in amazement of the Tagalog from whom it had been taken.

“Yes Señor.”

“Do you know where she is now?”

“Yes, Señor. She is in a hospital not far from Manila. She is a good woman. My life is hers. I was there once for many, many days, shot through here,” he placed his hand on his side, “and she made me well again.”

“Do you know who sent this letter to her?”

“Yes, Señor.”

“Who was it?”

The man hesitated.

“Who was it? Answer. It is for her good I want to know.”

“It was her son, Señor.”

“Was he the man who gave us warning of the ambush today?”

“Yes, Señor.”

The officer folded the paper, unread, and thrust the pin back through the folds. The enamel on the badge glistened in the camp light.

“Keep the Tagalog here,” he said to the men, “until I come back;” and walked across the camp to where the hospital tents had been set up.

“Where is Mrs. Smith?” he asked of the surgeon in charge.

“Taking care of the men who were wounded this afternoon.”

“Will you tell her that I want to see her alone in your tent, here, and then see that no one else comes in?”

“Mrs. Smith,” he said, when the nurse came in, “I have something here for you—a letter. It has just been brought into camp, by a native who did not know that you were here and who wanted to be sent to Manila to find you. It is not very strongly sealed, but no one has read it since it was brought into camp.”

He gave the bit of paper to the nurse, and then turned away to stand in the door of the tent, that he might not look at her while she read it. Enough of the nurse’s story was known in the army now so that the officer could guess something of what this message might mean to her.

A sound in the tent behind the officer made him turn. The woman had sunk down on the ground beneath the surgeon’s light, and resting her arms upon a camp stool had hid her face.

A moment later she raised her head, her face wet with tears and wearing an expression of mingled grief and joy, and held out the letter to the officer.

“Read it!” she said. “Thank God!” and then, “My boy! My boy!” and hid her face again.

“Dear mother,” the scrawled note read.

“I got your letter. I’m glad you wrote it. It made things plain I hadn’t seen before. My chance has come—quicker than I had expected. I wish I might have seen you again, but I shan’t. A column of our men are coming up the valley just below here, marching straight into an ambush. I have tried to get word to them, but I can’t, because the Tagalogs watch me so close. They never have trusted me. The only way for me is to rush out when the men get near enough, and shout to them, and that will be the end of it all for me. I don’t care, only that I wish I could see you again. Juan will take this letter to you. When you get it, and the men come back, if I save them, I think perhaps they will clear my name. Then you can go home.

“The men are almost here. Mother, dear, good by.—Your Boy.”

“I wish I might have seen him,” the woman said, a little later. But I won’t complain. What I most prayed God for has been granted me.

“They’ll let the charge against him drop, now, won’t they? Don’t you think he has earned it?”

“I think he surely has. No braver deed has been done in all this war.”

“Don’t try to come, now, Mrs Smith,” as the nurse rose to her feet. “Stay here, and I will send one of the women to you.”

When he had done this the officer went back to where the men were still holding Juan between them.

“Your journey is shorter than you thought,” the officer said to the Tagalog. “Mrs. Smith is in this camp, and I have given the letter to her.”

“May I see her?” exclaimed the man.

“Not now. In the morning you may. Have you seen this man, her son, since he was shot?”

“No, Señor. He gave me the note and told me to slip into the forest as soon as the fight began, so as to get away without any one seeing me. Then I was to stay out of the way until I could get into this camp.”

“Do you know where he stood when he was shot?”

“Yes, Señor.”

“Can you take a party of men there tonight?”

“Yes, Señor; most gladly.”

Afterward, when it came to be known that Heber Smith would live, in spite of his wounds and the hours that he had lain there in the bushes unconscious and uncared for, there was the greatest diversity of opinion as to what had really saved his life.

The surgeons said it was partly their skill, and partly the superb constitution that years of work on a New England farm had given to the young man. His mother believed that he had been spared for her sake. Heber Smith himself always said it was his mother’s care that saved his life, while Juan never had the least doubt that the young soldier had been protected solely by a marvellous “anting-anting” which he himself had slipped unsuspected into the American soldier’s blouse that day, before he had left him. As soon as she knew that her son would live, Mrs. Smith started for Washington, carrying with her papers which made it possible for her to be allowed to plead her case there as she had pleaded it in Manila. A pardon was sent back, as fast as wire and steamer and wire again could convey it. Heber Smith wears the uniform of a second lieutenant, now, won for bravery in action since he went back into the service; and every one who knew her in the Philippines, cherishes the memory of Mrs. Hannah Smith; Nurse.