Short Stories

Russian Nurse (The) by Rev. Richard Knill


The Russian Nurse

by Rev. Richard Knill.


The imperial city of St. Petersburg is one of the most magnificent in the world. Its spacious streets, and gilded spires, and numerous palaces, have a most imposing effect on strangers. The population is upwards of three hundred thousand. I lived among them thirteen years, and received nothing but kindness from every class of the community. People from the four quarters of the world come and settle there-some for pleasure, and others for trade; and it is a pleasing sight to see, on a fine day at one of the fashionable promenades, people of every color and clime dressed in the costume of their native countries.

Almost every family keeps a crowd of servants: now and then you see a Tartar coachman, or hear of a Flemish cook; but the persons employed are chiefly Russian peasants, who come to the metropolis from all parts of the empire, in hope of getting higher wages than they can earn at home. Among them was Erena, a deserving, intelligent young woman, who came to live with us in 1827.

All went on well until Ash-Wednesday. This is the first day of Lent, and then begins the long fast, which many of the Greek church observe as if it secured the salvation of their souls. Besides rigid fasting, they go to church two or three times daily, and in "Passion-week," many of them go there four times a day.

Erena was a strict observer of the Greek ceremonies, and she was determined to perform them. Her mistress spoke to her of the impropriety of going out so often, but she replied, "Do you wish me to lose my soul, ma'am?" "No," was the answer; "far from it: I wish your soul to be saved; but your fasting, praying, and going to church will not save your soul. There must be something more than all this. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Savior of sinners, and it is by faith in him alone that sinners are saved." "Ah," said she, "that is your religion, but I have been taught differently, and I must attend to my own religion."

Frequent conversations to the same effect took place, until my wife said to me, "I think we shall be obliged to part with Erena, she is so superstitious." I said, "The poor girl is ignorant. Try to throw a little light into her mind, and then the superstitions will drop off like the leaves in autumn; there will be nothing to hold them." The next day her mistress said to her, "Erena, I wish to teach you to read; would you like to learn?" "O yes, ma'am, I should be delighted to learn." So the work of education commenced; and, in the course of a few weeks, she could make out an easy lesson very well. Then she was supplied with a Russian Testament, which she studied diligently whenever she had a little leisure. She has told us since, that from the first day she came to live with us, she was very observant about our religion, and that she was much struck with our family worship. She saw the propriety of it, and often felt it deeply, though she could not then understand a word we said. These things were all new to her. She had never lived in a house where there was family prayer before; but God was thus about to prepare her mind for the great change which she was soon to experience.

That "great change" evidently took place on the Lord's day, and in the following manner: When we went to chapel, her mistress left Erena in charge of our children, and said to her, "I recommend you, Erena, to read the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles." "Very well," she replied. This excited her curiosity. "What can there be in the tenth chapter of the Acts?" and she soon began to read. As she proceeded, she found that Cornelius fasted, and prayed, and gave alms. "Ah, this is delightful," she thought. "This man was of our religion; he kept the fast." But when she found that an angel was sent to him to tell him what he must do, this staggered her. She was astonished, and seemed disappointed; and on our return home, she came to her instructress, and with an inquiring countenance said, "I wish you would explain this to me, ma'am; I don't understand it. Here is a very good man who kept the fast, and prayed to God, and gave alms; but that was not enough: now, why was it not enough? I never was taught to do any thing more. Tell me, why was the angel sent to him?" Her mistress cautiously avoided saying any thing that would appear like an attack upon her religion, but answered, "Do you think God would send an angel to you, or to us, or to any other person, unless some important end was to be answered by it?" "Ah," said she, "I did not think of that." "Very well, then; read the chapter through, and examine every verse, and you will find out why the angel was sent to him."

She returned to her room and read the chapter attentively, until she came to that beautiful verse where Peter says of Christ, "To Him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins." This was enough. "God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, shone into her heart, to give her the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." 2 Corinthians 4:6. The scales fell from her eyes, and she saw in a moment the way of salvation. She could read no more. She arose, and running to her mistress, clasped her hands, and exclaimed, "Oh, ma'am, now I see it-now I see it-now I see it! It was not by fasting that he was to be saved; not by praying that he was to be saved; not by giving alms that he was to be saved; but by believing on the Son of God. Now I see it!" and from that day the change was glorious. She became one of the most active and devoted, and perhaps useful young Christians that we had ever seen.

About a year after her conversion, a circumstance occurred which afforded her continual opportunities for explaining God's method of saving sinners to persons whom she had never seen before. I began to be extensively employed in circulating the Scriptures, and religious books and Tracts. This brought multitudes of people about us; and there was scarcely a person who came, to whom she could speak, but she would in simple, striking language, show them how God can "be just," and yet "the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." Romans 3:26. She spoke the German, and Finnish, and Russian languages, and thus she had ample scope for gratifying the desires of her heart; nor did she ever appear so happy as when she could get the ear of a poor sinner to listen to the words of eternal life.

One striking instance of her usefulness must not be passed over; and I hope that every one who reads or hears it may be encouraged to attempt great things. A hawker called at my house to sell his wares, when she inquired, "Have you a New Testament, brother?" "No," said the man; "a Testament would be of no use to me." "Why?" "Because I cannot read." "Ah, but it might be of use to you though you cannot read." "How?" said the hawker. "Perhaps some of your family can read." "Yes, I did not think of that; my brother has two boys at school who can read." "Well, then, buy a Testament, and let the boys read to your poor old father, that he may hear something about the Lord Jesus Christ before he dies." The man bought it, and as he was going away, she said to him, "Where do you live?" "I am a thousand versts from home," he replied, "but at present I live in a lodging-house." "Are there many lodgers besides you?" "Yes, many." "Perhaps some of them can read." "I do not know. I never saw a book among them." So he departed, and we saw him no more until the winter commenced, when thousands of the laboring classes go back into the interior to their families. And now the hawker made his appearance again, and said to my wife, "Will you please to let me have a copy of every book you have in the house?" "That is a large order, friend; what are you going to do with so many books?" "You would not ask that question, ma'am, if you knew what good that New Testament has done which Erena recommended to me in the spring." "What good has it done? I should like to hear." "Before I bought that book, it was the custom with many of the lodgers to go out into the city after supper, and come home at midnight drunk, while others were playing at cards at home; but as soon as I showed them the New Testament, one said, ‘I can read;' and another said, ‘I can read;' and a third said, ‘I can read;' so they took it by turns, and read chapter after chapter. This excited a deep interest, and the drunkards forsook their glass and the gamblers their cards; and there are neither drunkards nor card-players in our lodging now, ma'am. They hear two or three chapters, and then lie down to sleep. And as these men are returning to their families, they wish to take home a copy of that book which has been so beneficial to themselves."

Who could help exclaiming, on hearing this, "Surely the Lord hath done great things, whereof we are glad." Psalms 126:3. Here were vices forsaken; sinners reformed; the Scriptures circulated; many copies of the holy book going to villages where it had never been seen before. Oh, what pleasure can be so great as that connected with doing good to souls?

But some may say, "It is not in my power to imitate such an example, for I have not the opportunity." True, it may be so; but there are several things in which you may imitate her.

1. Her endeavor to do good to those in the same condition in life. Her kind and winning manner had a happy effect on young people. It was irresistible. They appeared as if held by a charm while she spoke to them about their souls. Take the following as a specimen.

A family near us had many domestics. One of them came to my door on a Sabbath evening, when Erena was sitting in the porch reading the gospel of John. "Come in," said the devout reader. "Be seated. Would you like to hear a portion of God's holy word?" "Oh yes, by all means-proceed." The place of the Scripture which she read was the narrative of our Lord's discourse with the woman of Samaria, in which occurs the passage, "The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit; and they that worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth." John 4. "Delightful," said the visitor. "Pray stop a moment, and I will go and call my fellow-servants. I think they will rejoice to hear it, for surely they have never heard such things since they were born." She then arose, and ran and called them, and brought three of them with her, and the same chapter was read again, accompanied by many solemn remarks on the state of unconverted sinners, and the suitableness and all-sufficiency of Jesus to save all that come unto God by him. Erena also urged on them the necessity of coming to Christ immediately, as every effort to get to heaven in any other way would be of no avail. These remarks were delivered with peculiar emotion, and frequently watered with her tears, and her hearers were as much affected as she was. When the chapter was finished they departed, acknowledging with gratitude the pleasure they had enjoyed from hearing words which they had never heard before.

The mistress of Erena listened with great delight to a part of these proceedings, and when she saw the visitors, the tears were still glistening in their eyes. It ought to be noticed, that none of these four young women were able to read, and it is more than probable that they had lived until that day without hearing a chapter in a language which they could understand. But now the seal was loosed, and the book was opened, and the blessed Savior seemed to be speaking to them. One of these young women afterwards came to my wife for a New Testament, and "The Dairyman's Daughter," and "The Young Cottager," in the Russian language, to send to her brother, who could read, and who lived several hundred miles off. On receiving these precious treasures, her heart seemed to swell with ecstasy. She pressed them to her bosom, and kissed the hand from which she received them. Had some cold-hearted professor, some neglecter of his Bible, witnessed this scene, he would have felt it as a dagger to his conscience. And could the lovers of the Bible have witnessed it, they would have felt a joy similar to that which angels feel when a sinner is brought to repentance.

2. We had constant proofs of her fidelity, especially in the care which she took of our dear children. We could leave them without any anxiety, if Erena, was there. We had no fears that they would be neglected, or that any thing improper would be taught them in her presence. When that dreadful scourge the cholera visited St. Petersburg, it pleased God to send it to my house, and by it to remove two of our sons. My wife also was in a perilous condition, and I was attacked; and now it was that the religion of the nurse shone most brightly in her tenderness, watchfulness, prayerfulness, diligence, and untiring efforts to serve us. Indeed she was like a sister to us; and now we had a rich reward for all the pains which had been taken to lead her to the Savior. We had a man-servant, but he was frightened and ran away. We had a cook, but she was supposed to be dying. Our chief support was our nurse. Many kind friends came by turns to help us; but Erena was always there, until our children were put into the silent grave, and we began to recover. Then she was attacked also; but even then she seemed almost to forget herself in her anxiety about us. I have often thought, if masters and mistresses knew what a blessing such a young woman is in a family, much more would be done to promote the piety of their households than has yet been attempted.

3. You can imitate her love to her relatives. Amidst all her attempts to do good to strangers, she was not unmindful of her connections. They had the first claim, and she met it. We have often known her leave herself without a rouble in order to send a few comforts to her aged mother; and these were always accompanied with some good books and a pressing letter on the subject of salvation. Nor was this labor in vain. We had every reason to believe that God blessed her pious solicitude in the genuine conversion of her mother. Not long before we left Russia, she came to visit her daughter; and that she might have frequent opportunities of conversing with her, we asked the old woman to stop a few weeks at our house. While she was with us, she fell sick and died; and it was particularly gratifying to us to witness the tender solicitude of Erena, both for the body and the soul of her parent. One day, as she was supposed to be drawing near her end, my little boy said, "Erena, I think the fourteenth chapter of John would just suit your mother." The girl took the hint, and went immediately to the bedside and told what the boy had said, and then read the chapter to her mother. This seemed to rouse every energy. The old woman arose and sat up in the bed, and thanked God for putting it into the heart of the boy to send her such strong consolation, and then, while praying down blessings on her daughter, she expired.

Erena was wonderfully supported, and tried to turn the death of her mother to good account. It is customary, as soon as a Russian dies, for two or more persons, called "Readers for the dead," to be employed in reading over the corpse night and day until the funeral. This is dreary work. The reading is generally very monotonous, and, if it could be understood, would be very unprofitable. Therefore Erena gave the book of Psalms to the men, saying, "Read that;" hoping that thereby her mother's death might be blessed to them.

Not long after this excellent young woman had followed her mother to the grave, she accompanied us to the steamer; and, as she stood gazing on us to take the last farewell, she wiped away her tears with one hand and waved the other in the air, as if to say, "We shall meet again in heaven!"