Maria and the Bellasis Family 14
I’ve just received the most curious letter from Florence Nightingale. I haven’t heard from her for ages, except for a beautiful Christmas card, with just her signature on it.
I wish you do so something very important for me. I cannot tell you about it in a letter, so when you get this, please come and see me as soon as you can. I am usually free from visitors between 12 and 1 each day, so I can fit you in then.
Luckily my day today was not full of teaching or visiting, so I was able to make my way to her house as requested at 12.30.
“How lovely to see you again,” she said. “You are looking well.”
“Thank you,” I replied, “and you are too.
“You must be very curious as to why I am in such a rush to get your help. Do you know of Mary Seacole?”
“Yes, in that she was in the Crimea during the War, as you were, and that she has been given support from various important sources. I even heard she was a friend and masseuse to the Princess Alexandra of Wales who suffers from white leg and rheumatism.”
“Well, the truth of it, is that she has died a few days ago from a stroke at her house in Paddington.”
“I didn’t see it in the papers,” I said.
“No, it was deliberately kept from the press, as they didn't want her funeral to be a circus.”
“Are you going to the funeral?”
“No, of course not. Can you imagine how with someone as well known as me, if I went, the attention would all be on me. But I would like you to go to the funeral on my behalf.”
“But if it’s private, they will only let in those invited. ”
“I will send you with a covering letter, saying I have sent you as my representative. That should suffice to get you in. And knowing how good you are at note taking, I want you to list for me who was there and what was said in the service. It is at the Catholic cemetery - in the Golders Green, so you should be familiar with the service and how things are ordered at a funeral.”
“I have been to many, and as you say there is a pattern. Usually the Mass is said, and before the blessing of the coffin, someone will give a eulogy about the person’s life.”
“The service is at 10 o’clock tomorrow.. Do you know where it is?”
“Yes of course. I have been there before. It is the only Catholic cemetery in London.”
“I have written two letters for you to take. One is to whomever questions your presence there, saying that you are my representative. The second contains a cheque which I would like you to present to someone from her family if you can identify any of them. Have you read her book, the Wonderful Adventures of Mother Seacole in Many Lands?”
“I will lend you my copy. It is well written and easy reading. You should be able to get through it before tomorrow, just to give you a bit of background into who she was.”
“Did you meet her in Scoutari?”
“Only once, I put her up at our hospital before she set off to Balaclava where she set up her hotel.”
“I thought she was a nurse. Did she not work for you?”
“No, she was not a trained nurse, although she had many talents in helping the injured and diseased through their problems. She did a little bit of casual caring for the injured but her main talent was in providing a place of rest and peace and good food, for the injured soldiers and especially the officers many of whom she had known in Jamaica. She made them pay of course, if they could.”
“I heard that she treated the Russians too.”
“She probably did, but that was only a very minor thing - perhaps happened only once or twice, and people have made far too much of it.
“Anyway, I must get ready for my next appointment. So are you willing to do this for me?”
“Yes, I will do my best,” I said, taking up the two letters.
“And will you come and let me know all that you can find out? I particularly want to know if my name is mentioned at all during the eulogy. Some people have spread rumours that I was unkind and unfriendly to her. That we were competitors, which was not at all true.”
“What did you say that they might hold against you?” I asked, rather brazenly.
“I criticized her for providing alcohol to the troops, and even prescribing it to the patients. She approached Harry Verney, my sister’s husband, who was closely involved in the British National Society for hte Relief of the Sick and Wounded. So I wrote to my brother in law and told him that she had kept a bad house and was responsible for much drunkenness and improper contact. Somehow this was leaked to the press. I now regret having written it.”
“I probably won’t be able to come back here tomorrow, but I will come the first opportunity I have after I have written down what I was able to find out.”
“Thank you very much ,”she said, giving me her hand to shake.
And with that I left her, and went home to prepare myself for this rather huge undertaking she had asked me to do.