It was long after the midnight hour in the dimly lighted wards of the field hospital back of the English battle line at Ypres, and pretty, white-capped Nydia, the nurse best beloved by the wounded soldiers—Nydia, with the face of a Madonna and voice as soft and soothing as that of a mother crooning a lullaby to a sleeping babe—was flitting about among the cots, adjusting a bandage or pillow here, and giving a swallow of water or medicine there, and doing everything possible for the comfort of her charges.
There was something of a mystery about Nydia. Nobody knew her history or antecedents. She had appeared at the hospital and proffered her services at a time when they were badly needed, and the medical staff had accepted the offer and set her at work without further questioning or investigation.
From the first Nydia was very popular with the patients to whom she ministered; far more so than she was with the grim-visaged surgeon-general in charge of the field hospital. Said he one day to his assistant:
“This angel-faced nurse we’ve taken on lately may mean well, but I am afraid she is a bit careless. Altogether too many of her patients are dropping off—er—unexpectedly. I’ll have to look into the matter.”
Which he did—later on—but that, as Kipling says, is another story.
Return we now to Nydia on her nightly rounds.
She pauses at the cot of a stalwart young English captain who is suffering from a gunshot wound received a few days before, and bends over him with a look of anxious solicitude on her face.
“How is the pain to-night, my captain?” she asks, in a low, sweet voice like a caress.
“Bad, bad,” he replies slowly. “But I can stand it, dear, so long as I have you for a nurse. Just think! Only a week since you first came to my cot side, and already I love——”
“Hush! my brave captain,” she breaks in on his rhapsody. “You must not think of such things when you are suffering so from your wound. It will be time enough for that to-morrow. To-night you must sleep. I must use the needle to quiet your pain.”
“And when I wake to-morrow may I talk to you of love?”
“Yes—when you wake, my captain, you may talk to me of love—when you wake!
“Listen, dear,” she went on in a whisper so low that only he could hear. “I am going to lull you to sleep with a story—a story of myself.” She paused long enough to use the needle and then resumed whispering in his ear:
“Don’t interrupt or try to ask questions, my captain; there isn’t time for that. In three minutes you will be asleep, and I must talk fast. You, no doubt, believe me to be either French or English. I am neither. I am from beyond the Rhine, a true daughter of the Fatherland. When the war came I had an affianced lover in the German army, a young lieutenant, who had been sent to England on a secret mission. There he was arrested, tried, and executed, as a spy, in the Tower of London.
“Yes, the English shot my lover for a spy! Since that my only thoughts have been of revenge. That is why I am here acting as nurse—and why my patients die!
“The English sent my lover out into the Great Unknown—alone. I will send a thousand English to keep him company! To-day, my captain, you said you would gladly die for me, so I am taking you at your word!
“I have just given you a fatal dose of the hypodermic, and when you wake it will be in another world, with my brave Wilhelm, who was named for the great War Lord. When you meet him, tell him that I sent you—and give him my love!
“Ha! ha! Do you hear, my captain? Give him my love; and tell him that each night, Providence permitting, I will send him a new messenger bearing my greetings! That is all. Good-bye, my captain. The end is near. I am going to kiss you now so you may die happy!”
She bent lower over the cot of the dying officer. He had not spoken before during her self-revelation; but now his eyes, filled with horror and loathing, rolled upward to meet hers, and with a final effort he hissed forth the one word—“Fiend!”
Nydia smiled—a grim, mirthless smile.
“No, not fiend, my captain—only a German!”